Monday, 4 December 2017


Chapter The 72nd, the unfinished story that's been finished more times than any other.

The Doctor, Romana and Laryngitis K9 visit a a retired Time Lord and old friend of the Doctor's, Professor Chronotis, at his rooms in St. Cedd's College, Cambridge. Chronotis wants them to take a book he borrowed from Gallifrey back for him, as it has special powers and could be dangerous. But Chris Parsons, a young scientist, has already borrowed the book, and is examining it with his colleague Clare Keightley. Also, Skagra, a villainous clever-clogs with outrageous dress sense, armed with a mind-stealing sphere and backed up by an army of Krarg creatures, and an invisible ship with a fruity talking computer, wants to steal the book too. When he gets his hands on it, Skagra kidnaps Romana and steals the TARDIS, and uses the book as the key to take him to the Time Lord prison planet Shada. That sounds quick, but it takes ages and they seem to stop at several different spaceships in between. So many spaceships. Anyway, Skagra needs to steal the mind of an old Time Lord villain imprisoned there, Salyavin, to help him turn everyone in the universe into one connected mind, controlled by him.The Doctor stops him and saves the day, everyone has tea and biscuits, then gets arrested by a policeman.

Watched on the NFT1 big screen at the British Film Institute on the South Bank in glamorous London, accompanied by long-term fan friend and regular mentionee on the blog, David, and shorter-term but just as much friend, and just as much fan, Trevor. We had gone to the similar screening last year of Power of the Daleks (see here for more details) and when Shada was advertised, we decided it would be fun to do it again. David and Trevor booked the tickets, and it seemed from their reports that this was easier to get in to than the Power event last year. There were a lot of empty seats in the venue, despite it being advertised as sold out. Last year, Steven Moffat was in the audience and on a panel to represent the fans watching at the time, this time it was Matthew Waterhouse. As such, it was clear that there was slightly less buzz for this animated project than the last one, but that's understandable given the fully animated Power was the very first of its kind, and Shada's only ever been half missing not wholly gone like The Power of the Daleks.

First-time round: 
The first experience I ever had with this material was reading Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
Agency when in came out in 1987 (Adams reused swathes of the Shada script in that novel). Then, very early in the 1990s, I saw a pirate video which  presented some of the material of Shada with text to explain the gaps. And - if I remember correctly - it also used a scene of the model TARDIS from the story Full Circle occasionally too, but I've no idea why as it didn't really need to. It was interesting watching a scene on location with the Doctor talking to K9 but getting no replies (as they had not been recorded at that point) , and trying to work out the other half of the conversation. I don't know if this really counts as watching the story as it was impossible to follow. In July 1992, I rushed out and bought the newly released VHS. This presented the remaining footage, with some new effects and David Brierley's voiceover as K9 added, interspersed with cut-aways to a pinstripe-suited Tom Baker - it was during the Medics suit years - explaining the increasing longer gaps as the story went on. It also included a script book, but I'm not sure I ever read it. Again, does that really count as watching it? It was the only version of Shada available for over a decade, and I rewatched it many times, so it is the de facto standard version seared into my psyche; even after all that, though, I was still not 100% clear exactly what was happening in the last third - which spaceship were we on now?

In 2003, there was an audio version with pictures that I watched on dial-up from the BBC Doctor Who website; it recast the Doctor using Paul McGann, explaining it with some admittedly clever ret-con, but it is a quite different take on the story. Finally, in 2012, I read Gareth Roberts' great novelisation. But only with this 2017 version do I feel like I've seen Shada properly for the first time: original cast, moving pictures all the way through, I don't see how more could be done to make it definitive (except maybe by adding episode endings).

Shada was infamous at the point early in the 1980s when I first became a Doctor Who Monthly reading full-on fan of the show: the unfinished story that may never see the light of day. A couple of years earlier, this final story of Tom Baker's sixth season had been abandoned due to a strike impacting its studio sessions. It was the final show for the Producer Graham Williams and the script editor Douglas Adams (who also wrote it) so they were robbed of their swansong. In the years since, Adams had become more and more famous and so another new story to add to the couple he'd already penned was seen as something worth seeing. The new producer John Nathan-Turner was still considering somehow reworking it as late as Colin Baker's tenure, but - although a lot was in the can already (all the location filming and the material from studio covering the Think Tank, Chronotis's Rooms and the spacecraft cell) - there was no coverage of the climax and nothing of the eponymous Shada.

This was due to the production process at the time, which would usually front load the film sequences in the first few episodes, and would shoot in studio arranged by set rather than in story order. So, the 1979 Shada, and the 1990s VHS, starts well but peters out, misses the revelations and the big confrontation between villain and Doctor, but resumes again for the comic resolution scene (or one or two of them at least). As such, only an animated version really could work. By the end of the video, Tom Baker was summarising a hell of a lot. This works in the new version's favour, only a few animated scenes sneak in early on, gradually getting the viewer used to things, but by the end it's mostly new animated stuff which helps to convey the somewhat larger aspects of the denouement. The transitions are not jarring at all, which was surprising. The very first transition is given something of a flourish, which works well to set out the stall to the viewer before things settle down to normality: the live action footage pans up to the sky, which barely seems to change as we cross-fade to animation, then there's a pan down to the first animated scene.

The animation is a little improved on Power of the Daleks, I think - just a little. Movement of the characters is still not quite natural, but seems better this time round. The backgrounds are great, comic strip stuff, exactly in keeping with the tone of the original. The new incidental music is truly Dudley Simpson-esque in a way that Keff McCulloch never managed in 1992, taking its lead from similar cues in City of Death: it is perfect. Likenesses are pretty good, which is handy considering there is much more direct comparison with the original actors scene by scene. Lalla Ward's animated nose isn't right, though. And some of the older voices filling in the characters' gap scenes are very slightly different to their 1979 versions, but it's barely noticeable. These are my only quibbles.

The final scene of the story is interestingly presented, but I'll say no more than that. The DVD of this version has only just been released at the time of writing, so it would be a spoiler to go any further, no matter how widely it was advertised beforehand (I wish I hadn't known in advance). It took me out of proceedings much more than any of the animation did, but it's easy to indulge it despite that. Any significant issues all come from the original production, not the stuff created in 2017. Now it is whole, Adams original conception can breathe and the comedy shines through, but towards the end the plot is slowing and there's too much hopping from location to location (most of them indistinguishable spaceships or space stations or space bases) so it tests the patience. Many a six-parter flags around the episode four of five mark, though, and Adams handles this better than most around this time: it certainly feels like the best season finale of Graham Williams' era; shame it never got to screens back then. There are some fascinating ideas too, which one would expect of Adams later, but was above and beyond for a Doctor Who script editor back in the 1970s. The "One lump or two?" gag is never funny, however, no matter how many times it's spun out.  When he rewrote Shada as Dirk Gently, Adams tightened the plot, added loads more ideas, but stuck like a limpet to this running 'gag'; he must have really loved it. 

Both stories include action on spaceships with computers and recorded messages; both have a section with a character floating in a protected space extended out from the TARDIS. And both have a character appear in bedtime attire. (Amy in a dressing gown on Starship UK is very Arthur Dent; Moffat's dialogue and plotting has a very Douglas Adams vibe in many of his stories, including The Beast Below, so this is probably a conscious homage.)

Deeper Thoughts:
Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies paper: BFI's Shada event, 2nd December 2017. Last time I went to a BFI event, for the Power animation screening, it was a last minute decision and there was a rail strike on; this time, getting up to London was much more calm and relaxed. I arrived and had a coffee and chat with my amigos before the programme began at 12.30pm. There were fewer cosplayers and no famous faces in the BFI bar with us, unlike last time: all part of the slightly lesser buzz I perceived about this release. I was still excited, mind. Once in the theatre, our hosts were as last year: the BFI's Justin Johnson and Missing Believed Wiped's Dick Fiddy. Again, as per last year, they interspersed the screening and panels with rounds of Doctor Who trivia questions, winning the correct replier a DVD. I had all the offered prizes already (apart from the box set of Class, which nobody seemed to want to win - poor Class) so stayed quiet; but my nerd bone was tickled when I guessed sotto voce to David the answer for one query ("What date would Shada have started broadcasting had it made it to screen?") and got closer than the person who actually won. It would have been Saturday 19th January 1980, fact fans.

As seems to be customary, someone won a rigged question: 'Matthew' in the audience who correctly answered a question about Adric, turned out to be Adric actor Matthew Waterhouse. As also seems customary, Justin repeatedly did jokes based on the false premise that the name 'Dick' is inherently funny. I made check-marks on my notepad every time this happened - there were six attempts in the first section alone. Luckily, this all ceased for the filmed intro (and there was also later an outro and filmed Q&A) by Tom Baker, in which he's still full-power Tom, even now he's passed 80 years of age; no new insights, really, just Tom being Tom - more than sufficient. Lalla Ward provided a pre-written statement that was read out, in which she chimed with Tom's comments and many others through the day: everything we saw today ultimately was down to one person, Douglas Adams, and the love he and his work inspired in others. It was a similar tale last year, when the tributes were all going to Pat Troughton. Doctor Who certainly had some talented people work on it, many of whom are sadly no longer with us.

(L to R) Fiddy, Ayres, Tucker, Norton
Next came the screening - Shada is presented as feature-length, with no episode endings, but was still almost as long as the whole of The Power of the Daleks, which made me wonder why we only got three episodes of Power at the BFI last year instead of all six. After the screening was the first panel focusing on the 2017 material, which featured - as Dick dubbed them - "the Shada Proclamation": Mark Ayres (incidental music and sound wizardry), Mike Tucker (model effects) and Charles Norton (director / producer). Norton gave nothing away about any future planned projects. But he did reveal that they had never considered presenting Shada as widescreen with cropping of the 1979 material, as that - he deadpanned - would be "the work of Satan". He also confirmed that they had started from scratch editing down the 7 hours of footage that remains of Shada's original production. As well as the animation, they also added some new cut-ins of a Krarg and K9 battling, which used the original costume and prop. The other addition was new model work, which Tucker produced as faithfully as possible. Though nothing was shot in 1979, all the models had been made, and photographed in detail for posterity. Studying these Tucker could work out the specific model kits that been used, and replicate. Similar dedication was displayed by Ayres, who arranged and recorded a live ensemble similar to those Dudley Simpson, house composer for Doctor Who in 1979, would have used, including some instrumentalists who had regularly worked with Dudley. The story is also dedicated to Simpson, who recently passed away, which was a lovely touch.

(L to R) Coombes, Dixon, Burgoyne, Waterhouse, Skinner, Johnson
The second and final panel concentrated more on the 1979 work and included three members of the original cast: James Coombes (voice of the Krargs), Shirley Dixon (voice of the Ship), and Victoria Burgoyne (Clare). This started off promisingly with James' revelation that he'd never got to do any voice work back in 1979 despite getting paid, so he'd finally made up for it by completing the job in 2017, plus Victoria expressing the cast's solidarity with the striking technicians who ultimately did for Shada. But, annoyingly, just as it was starting to get going, the organisers - presumably worried there wasn't enough star power on display - dragged the unconnected complementary ticket holders Matthew Waterhouse and Frank Skinner to the stage, to provide the perspective of the fan watching at home at the time. They were both funny (although Matthew Waterhouse's microphone technique produced deafness for anyone sitting in the first three rows - tone it down, Matthew) but it would have been much more interesting to have heard more from the people who were, you know, in it.

(L to R) Johnson, Russell, Fiddy
There was a nice, if a bit bizarre, tribute to Edward Russell to round things off, as he's leaving his role of Doctor Who cheerleader at the BBC (or whatever his specific role title is), then it was back out to the bar. People didn't stay and celebrate en masse as they had last year, but it's nearer Christmas, so this may just have been that the place was full before we emerged with not many places to sit. I was lucky enough to speak briefly to Gary Gillatt (Ex-Doctor Who Magazine editor and reviewer) and Dave Houghton (FX supremo for the first few years of new Who) as David knows them both from meeting at these sort of shindigs before - Gary was also a contemporary of mine and David's at Durham University back in the day, but he doesn't remember me, I don't think, as we didn't move in the same circles. After that, the three of us repaired to another hostelry, drank and talked happily until late. I travelled home with the included-in-the-price DVD in my bag, given out at the box office after the show - someone had clearly learnt from the mistakes of last year, when the animated Power DVDs took weeks to be mailed out to attendees.

In Summary:
It's new old Who, and new old Douglas Adams Who at that, as an early Christmas present: how can one fail to be happy? One final word, then: Shaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa-dah!!!!!

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Beast Below

Chapter The 71st, in which the UK government are corrupt robots running a horribly exploitative scheme (so, not like real life at all).

The Doctor takes Amy on her first trip in the TARDIS to Starship UK in the far future. This is a vast spaceship housing the survivors of the United Kingdom travelling to a new home after the Earth was threatened by a giant mutant space goat or solar flares or something. The Doctor uses the special deduction powers he's acquired since the showrunner started simultaneously working on Sherlock and discovers that there's something wrong with this society. Helped by a schoolgirl and the queen, Liz 10, the Doctor and Amy discover that Starship UK has no engines and instead is strapped to the back of a space whale whose brain is being regularly zapped to make it fly them ever onwards. The Doctor is faced with a dilemma: free the creature, risking millions of humans, or let it carry on in its torment. Before he does anything he might regret, Amy realises that the whale is friendly and wants to help, and everyone lives happily ever after. Of course, they will be living happily ever after in a police state which feeds kids to space creatures if they use the wrong lift, and this hasn't been fixed when the Doctor leaves, as the same government and head of state are still in place. It'll probably all work itself out for the best without bloodshed, though, as that's what usually happens with repressive regimes, isn't it? Isn't it?!

Watched from the blu-ray on my ownsome. The house is very busy at the moment, and I haven't found any time to watch Doctor Who for a good bit, so grabbed a slot late on a Friday night, when everyone else was abed, for 45 minutes of early Matt Smith. Full disclosure: I had consumed wine, and continued to do so through the performance. The blu-ray box set featuring this story uniquely removes the Next Time trailers from the end of each episode, but as this story anyway ends with a whole scene as a taster for the following Dalek story, it's not much of a loss.

First-time round: 
On its first broadcast on BBC1 in Spring 2010, possibly live, probably timeshifted a few hours so  the Better Half and I could watch when the kids (at the time, there were only two) were safely asleep. No particularly strong memories. I was cautiously optimistic with the series and the new Doctor at this point (but I hadn't see the following Dalek story yet, of course).

I may be wrong, but that quite long scene at the end of The Beast Below teasing the next story suggests to me an episode that was running short. Even if it was as always scripted, it betrays a lack of confidence in the material of The Beast Below, doesn't it? It's a trifle undignified to end practically begging the audience "Yeah, okay, this was a bit nothingy, but next week there's Daleks and WW2, so come back, come back - please!". The writer Steven Moffat has subsequently expressed disappointment with this story, so he clearly has issues with it. But in and of itself it's perfectly serviceable. It may be that its position in the overall series was no longer working for Moffat, as he would from this point onwards start to tinker with series structure.

The previous showrunner had a very rigid template for the start of a season: three relatively lightweight single-episode stories, one in the past, one in the future, one contemporary, then hit them with a bigger story - two parts, big cliffhanger, develop the themes of the season, then carry on. Moffat follows this for his first series in charge, but generally dispenses with those first three lightweight stories thereafter (with some echoes of it in his final year, when he's to a certain extent trying to reboot things). Instead, he moves his episode(s) slightly more to the middle, usually, and has a second big launch point (Let's Kill Hitler, The Bells of St. John) or in later years explores a more left-field idea for a Doctor Who story (Listen, Extremis). Steven Moffat, unlike Russell T Davies, didn't want to write any simple, small stories. Which is fair enough. The Beast Below is probably his only one, I'd say: it doesn't kick off or conclude a series, has no tinsel, and it isn't trying to push at the boundaries of what Who can be. It just sets up the Doctor and Amy, how they operate on an away mission, as it were, and restates the Doctor's mission through Amy's eyes.

It's probably a little too simple. Take out the faffing about in the TARDIS at the beginning and end, and the story has been and gone in not more than 35 minutes. Still, Moffat crams in lots of ideas and reversals in this short duration. But the dramatic question of how to defeat the bad guy and solve the dilemma is that it isn't a bad guy and you don't have to solve the dilemma. It's a little too easy. The real bad guys don't really get any comeuppance either, which is not satisfying as they are quite bad. The Smilers on a conceptual and visual level - a representation of oppressive authority as cheap, old arcade automata - are very strong. One of my earliest memories is of a terrifying laughing clown in a similar booth in Weston Super Mare, and having shared this memory with people over the years and found similar devices - or in one case possibly even the same device - frightened them too, I attest that Moffat is again being successful at harnessing the power of childhood creep-outs for dramatic value.

Smith is great, absolutely hitting the ground running; the art direction excels too, with its tourist shop meets Terry Gilliam's Brazil approach. There's some great lines, like the Doctor's description of what he does "Stay out of trouble... badly" and many others. But how the little girl reading the poem at the beginning is supposed to fit into things is not clear, and those black scorpion-like prongs that spring out all over the starship are out of scale for the beast as we eventually discover it, and don't look anything like any bit of a whale.

Both stories are Steven Moffat showrunner era future-set stories where innocents are snared into exploitation on an intergalactic scale. At the beginning of both there is a focus on water (although it's in drinking glasses in The Beast Below). And both have a proposition meaning 'lower than' in their titles.

Deeper Thoughts:
I can't not write about Brexit again, really, can I?.  As well as a joke about Scottish independence, The Beast Below gives us another  prescient metaphor: the UK breaks away from other nations, thinking it can go it alone, but fumbles it: essential parts of its infrastructure can't be funded, and things risk coming to a standstill. The government becomes increasingly authoritative while the head of state turns a blind eye; they just about keep things running but only with a fearful populace in utter denial, and an underlying, barely visible exploitation at the base of everything (of an immigrant creature, it should be noted, but I won't get into that today). This is all supported by referenda made pointless because heavy-handed propaganda (dubious in its veracity) persuades a majority of the voters that they have no choice. Anyone with an opinion against the will of this majority is dismissed.

Does this remind one of anything? Obviously, Remainers aren't fed to ravenous space beasties, but that's only because there are no ravenous space beasties to hand: if there were, the Daily Mail would be regularly calling for 'traitors' to be fed to them on their front page, you can bet. How did Steven Moffat know?! The story was written and aired during the fag end of the New Labour years, shortly before the hung parliament and the formation of a coalition which unseated Gordon Brown. No one, literally no one, predicted the events of Brexit on the night before the referendum (Nigel Farage was as shocked as anyone the next morning), so how does this look like a satire of the impacts of Brexit six years before that vote?

The terrible truth that might explain this is that the UK's bumbling, fumbling approach, often also corrupt and costly to human life and happiness, my country's way of ploughing on regardless and not accepting reality, is hard-wired into us. It doesn't matter which party or figurehead is in place, the impact will still be the same, and the satire will still resonate. The Beast Below tells the story of the UK as a faded power, long past its glory, wallowing in nostalgic imagery that's chipped and worn. I can't with honest heart say that isn't an accurate picture. Is there an answer? Is Brexit a no-win situation, like the 'which button to press' dilemma presented in The Beast Below? How long can we keep going before we have to realise there's no engine and we need to eject? Time will tell. It usually does.

In Summary:
Starship OK (but only OK).

Monday, 13 November 2017

Under the Lake / Before the Flood

Chapter The 70th, which pulls itself up by its own bootstrap paradoxes.

The Doctor and Clara arrive at a sub-aquatic mining facility in the twenty-second century based in a flooded Scottish village. The crew have recently found a mysterious alien artifact - which turns out to be a space hearse - and opened it up (as you don't). Since then, they've seen ghosts, and one by one they are being turned into ghosts themselves. A warrior creature called the Fisher King (but not the Fisher King presumably as this one only arrives on Earth in 1980 long after the mythology of our Fisher King has been established, so the name's just a coincidence) faked his own death and came in the hearse to the village before it flooded, and the ghosts are part of a convoluted intergalactic transmission mechanism to alert his own people of his whereabouts. The technology used is very advanced, so you'd think the Fisher Subjects or Fisher King people or Fisher Kingarians or whatever could have just invented an intergalactic transmission mechanism that ran on electricity rather than build in the risk and tedium of having to kill someone and then get their ghost to kill someone else and so on. Anyway, basically a haunted house story in space, except not in space.

Watched both episodes on the same day (with a short gap in between parts one and two) on blu-ray with middle child (boy of 8). He hadn't been allowed to watch this two years ago, as we thought it was too scary for him; but watching it this time, he could remember details, and confessed he'd sneaked down and watched a lot of the first episode through the living room door in the evening. But mine and the Better Half's original instincts were probably right, as this time he decided it was too tense for him and stopped watching about twenty minutes before the end of episode 2; it's good that the children are now generally all old enough (including the youngest, his sister, at 5 years old) to self-select, and aren't too disappointed to bail out and miss the end if they're finding it a bit too much.

First-time round: 
This is one of the few stories so far to come up randomly for coverage that was aired after the blog began. If I were organised and forward-thinking, you'd imagine I'd have started from those days in 2015 noting down the circumstances of watching any new episodes, for better completing these 'First-time round' sections in years to come. Reader, I am not that organised and forward-thinking. I know for series 9 we were watching each new episode timeshifted in the evening of its BBC1 Saturday broadcast for suitability, and then showing the kids for the first time the following day if it was deemed acceptable (unless they were sneaking a peek at it from outside the door, of course).

One thing I was doing around the time of the broadcast of this story was blogging about its predecessor (see here). I can't help feeling these two episodes would have been a better pair with which to lead the season. Often in its long history, Doctor Who production teams didn't kick off with an all-singing all-dancing extravaganza: a 'jumping-on point' story was all that was felt to be required - no baggage, the TARDIS team just arriving and getting on with it, as the Doctor and Clara do here. The Magician's Apprentice was nothing but baggage, with reams of Time Lord and Dalek history, and a lot of false spectacle imposed, as it was the opener, on a story which at heart was a quiet chamber piece. "How can these ghosts exist?" would surely have been a better intrigue to put into the audience's minds than "What on Skaro is going on?". It would also have made Under the Lake / Before the Flood feel less of a slog. Watched in isolation, this story zips along much quicker than it seemed back in 2015 when it followed hard on a similarly paced story. Having two double-episoders in a row was something the series had never done before since returning in 2005, and it's easy to see why.

I'm warming to this idea more and more: bringing this story up front would work better with the character development. Ephemera like the guitar and sunglasses aside, the Doctor prowling the corridors of the Drum is the previous year's version - a little callous, focused more on the end goal than individuals' feelings, and not good with people (hence requiring cue cards featured in an early  funny gag). Clara too is still grieving over Danny, though she's using her travels with the Doctor as an escape, as highlighted by some subtle performance touches that I missed first time round when I was less engaged. This has a direct input into the resolution of the romantic subplot - seize the day before your beloved gets deaded, and so forth - which works very well.

There might be evidence in places of a writer who's not Steven Moffat trying too hard to do a Steven Moffat style story (The Girl Who Waited is another earlier example of this phenomenon): there's lots of timey-wimey for one's money - not just characters popping back in time to get explanations of the mystery, but also then popping back again and crossing into their own timestream, weaving in between the earlier scenes. Writer Toby Whithouse takes it up another notch, though, with the material on the paradox that we later find has driven the plot; this is delivered as a cold opening monologue by the Doctor, before episode 2 begins. There's never been anything like it in Doctor Who before or since (even William Hartnell and Tom Baker's breaking of the fourth wall was only for  brief comic moments, and Capaldi does one of those later in this story as well - witness the shameless knowing shrug he gives at the end which cannot be aimed at anyone except the audience). The show as a whole is riddled with 'meta' gags as the Doctor and the crew are all geek-aware enough to appreciate they are in a Cabin in the Woods style horror story.

Other good stuff: a great cliffhanger; the abandoned cold-war military training village is an original and visually interesting location, but there's no explanation as to why it is abandoned in 1980 with the cold war far from over; whatever the explanation is, it's also presumably the reason why no one ever fixes the dam and reclaims the flooded area, so it might have been worth making it explicit with a line or two. There are some sublime moments of tension throughout (probably the reason why our middle child found it a bit too much), and it's great to have a deaf actor cast as a deaf character, and just have them be part of the action rather than having to make anything more of it.

Both stories mention UNIT and the Doctor's status as a representative of that organisation; they also  feature the application of conductive solutions to trap the week's nasty or nasties (the Doctor's lash-up that encircles the Keller Machine in The Mind of Evil, the Faraday cage in Under The Lake / Before the Flood).

Deeper Thoughts:
A cross word or two, or some other cryptic nonsense. Coming late to the party, as ever, I realise I've missed a scandal in the world of Doctor Who Magazine. Recently, Private Eye ran a story throwing light on the change of editorship a few months back at my favourite programme's official magazine; the last editor, Tom Spilsbury - at least according to said article - may not have left entirely of his own choosing. On a few occasions over the last year, there had been outspoken comments in interviews in the mag (about Trump and Brexit and all the other stuff that everyone is outspoken about one way or another). Seems that this made compliance teams in the BBC nervous, and the DWM editorial team at the time were taken to task, possibly leading to Tom's exit. The article then goes on to describe subsequent budget cuts, which have meant that some regular articles are being canned, including The Watcher's humorous back page of every issue. It also outs the person who writes under the Watcher nom de plume, and if correct then it's who I always suspected it was, but it's not my intention to unmask them here. Culling good regular features, though, and timidity about the irreverent approach DWM has always taken, is obviously worrying - DWM has always previously had more independence than one might expect in an official licensed product, but it has felt a bit dull of late.

(Sorry, this doesn't have much to do with Under the Lake / Before the Flood, but that story doesn't really inspire much in the way of Deeper Thoughts - what am I going to write about: Slipknot?) Anyway, the Watcher, just about to have his outlet taken away from him, decided to comment on this state of affairs (particularly galling as he was in the middle of a long running feature called A History of Doctor Who in 100 objects, which will have to stop at number 87). Reading the final entry in this series, I was none the wiser, despite a few oblique references I'd seen on social media to its being controversial, but Private Eye spelt it out. Each beginning letter of a sentence in the article formed an acrostic, which was a very very rude message aimed at BBC Worldwide and the magazines publisher, Panini. He must have been incandescent with anger to have burnt his bridges in such a public way. A bit unprofessional, perhaps, but I can't say the whole thing wasn't compelling to me in a gossipy way. Right now I'm sticking with the magazine, but I don't want a bland cheerleading fact-sheet, I want my old, funny DWM back; but, it might not be the sort of world any more where the tie-in mag for a children's show aired by a major broadcaster can afford to be sly and naughty sometimes. Drabness and conformity encroaches, alas.

Observant readers may have spotted (go me!) that the first letter of each sentence in this silliness forms an acrostic too; it spells out "Acrostics Are Hard". Oh, except for that last sentence just now where I explained my own cleverness, which spoilt the effect somewhat. Perhaps I should stop now, as the sentence that followed that sentence also spoilt the effect, and this one too. Stopping now.

In Summary:
If only this story wasn't any good, I could say "it's a bit wet' or "a damp squib" but it has to go and be competently above average: there are no watery puns for competently above average.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Mind of Evil

Chapter The 69th, which is miraculously in colour throughout.

Lots is happening simultaneously: a) the Doctor and Jo are visiting Stangmoor Prison for a demonstration of a new - and clearly evil - convict rehabilitation device that sucks all the criminal impulses from the inmates; b) the Brig is handling security for a London-hosted world peace conference; c) Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton are managing the convoy to take a dangerous missile off for decommissioning. Finally, d) the Master is planning to use (a) to capture (c) and use it to threaten (b). He doesn't pull it off, but along the way he does manage a prison riot and makes everyone hallucinate a pink dragon. Just an average day then for the men and women of UNIT: action, adventure, mind parasites. So, why not try out for a career in the army? Talk to a recruiter today, etc. etc.

The Mind of Evil is a rare treat in that, while it may not be spectacular (unlike the same writer's script from the previous year, Inferno, it doesn't exactly set the world alight - ho ho), it is nonetheless competently put together and entertaining throughout, and crucially - for this viewer, at least - has not been watched so regularly that it's become over-familiar. It's the equivalent of, say, Baby You're a Rich Man by The Beatles. She Loves You is more popular, and Strawberry Fields Forever is more interesting, but I've heard them each a hundred times, just as I've often seen, say, The Ark in Space or Kinda. But Baby You're a Rich man, a B-side slapped on a compilation, or The Mind of Evil - six episodes of previously black and white mid-season Pertwee - still have the quality of freshness. And this is even more so for the latter now that it has colour returned to it (more on that later). Because of this, and because it's six episodes, which the kids and the Better Half usually think is too much, I saved this for myself and watched the first few episodes from the DVD on my own. But everyone else popped in and watched later sections of it here and there, the Better Half and middle child (boy of 8) particularly enjoying what they saw.

First-time round: 
I first saw this story when it came out on VHS in May of 1998. It must have been around a bank holiday (probably Whitsun) as I remember not having anything else to do that day but watch two and a half hours of black and white seventies TV with my university mate Phil, who's been mentioned a few times before on the blog, and who by this time was living down South too a few years after we'd graduated, a short time after he'd finished his PhD. Because they were cheap, I bought a big box of Boddingtons Bitter for us to consume while watching, and because of this I always associate The Mind of Evil with the distinctive yellow cans and bloated feeling. Phil, a proud Yorkshireman, must have put aside prejudice for the sake of thirst in order to drink a Lancastrian brew for a day. This instigated a few years of our meeting up regularly for alcohol-fuelled Doctor Who and film evenings whenever a new DVD came out. Happy days. Happy bleary days.

The Mind of Evil is the story that seems to create single-handedly the impression that many people held and still hold that Jon Pertwee's is the James Bond influenced era of Doctor Who. Nothing of his before or after this, despite many a stunt or vehicular chase, is particularly Bondesque. Up to now, Pertwee's era has shared more ancestry with Quatermass, which I think is in many ways the antithesis of Ian Fleming's famous creation, despite them both being products of the 1950s. But the Master here, in his cigar chomping, wire-tapping saloon-car chauffeured, high-concept international scheming, is very much the Bond villain; there's also a femme fatale, and gadgets and explosions aplenty. The Chinese characters add some international mystique, but there's not much in the way of globe-trotting to glamorous locales (the furthest they get is a hanger on a deserted airfield near Stanham). But just like a Bond film, there's a lot happening to keep the audience from stopping to think how silly it is.

The Master never likes a straightforward plan, that became very obvious early on in my random shuffling adventures when I stumbled across any Master story for the blog. Here, though, he has two relatively (at least for him) sane plots, but he's clearly decided to do both at the same time to liven things up a bit. The first plan is to hijack a missile to threaten a peace conference and thereby take over the world; the second is to use a nasty alien disguised as a machine to infiltrate a prison and then, well, take over a prison. Why does he want to take over a prison as well as the whole world? It's not clear. It may be to use the prisoners as guns for hire, which he indeed does. Though, there's got to be risks there that his workforce will scarper; the Better Half kept shouting at the screen comments along the lines of "They've escaped from prison, why are they going back in to prison?!" and she has a point. Anyway, the Master has already hired a separate band of disguised mercenaries, so he doesn't need the prisoners. Pulling on this thread only leads one to the terrible conclusion that the Master doesn't need the Keller machine alien at all. He only needs the missile to achieve his goals, and he gets that using old-fashioned bugging not parasitic mind control. He seems only to have included a monster as he knows its expected.

One would want to rewrite to make sense of things better rather than get rid of the Keller machine from the story, of course - it's a wonderful creation, and shows that clever direction can get malevolence out of even the most static prop; the throbbing radiophonia that accompanies it is magnificent too. The script risks the machine's overuse, perhaps: many cliffhangers and interim climax scenes revolve around someone collapsing as it vision-mixes in their greatest fears (including a dragon for the US ambassador - sure it might be a metaphorical symbol of his fear of communism, but it does look like he's got a morbid fear of cardboard dragons, which is odd to say the least), but they just about get away with it.

Dover Castle is a good location for the prison exteriors, and the interior sets are good too; it gets noisy when all the inmates shout as they're affected by the machine, but it's very real. The cast is populated with believable characters played by believable character actors: Michael Sheard, Neil McCarthy and William Marlowe are all excellent doing their audition pieces for coming back in bigger roles in the Tom Baker era. The material's taken seriously, individual deaths are given weight, and the verisimilitude of details like the reading of rights to the inmate condemned to the machine treatment works to give it heft and import. The regulars all shine with lots of stuff to do, and there's only the smallest bits of smug Pertwee behaviour here and there. Jo is great, one story in: compassionate, solid and competent, and not doing idiot moves just to serve the plot. Like many a companion, she was only as good as whoever was writing for her that week.

Both The Mind of Evil and Robot are crash-bang-wallop UNIT extravaganzas; both feature as antagonists a group of people with a mechanical device that nonetheless has a mind of its own, who - though they have an ostensibly noble purpose - want to use it to hold the world to ransom. Plus, in both stories, one of the UNIT team does some intelligence work, but gets knocked out.

Deeper Thoughts:
I'm fairly sure that's Chroma. Yes, watching The Mind of Evil could be a prompt for an in-depth treatise on crime and punishment, and musings on whether justice can ever be obtained in a world of conflict. But I'm instead going to muse about Doctor Who on VHS and DVD. Again. The story's script anyway uses those lofty themes only as window dressing, it's not deep; that it, and all the Jon Pertwee stories, are available to view in colour is much more interesting. When I first became a Doctor Who obsessive and was reading Doctor Who Magazine in the early 1980s, it coincided with the news stories about the final lost Pertwee episodes turning up. Unlike his two predecessors, who still had dozens of episodes left to find at that point, and have only slightly less missing now, Pertwee was complete. Sort of. Though his era was represented with moving image from beginning to end, a lot of those images were still missing one key ingredient: colour. The majority of the Doctor Who episodes that have ever been recovered exist because copies were sold abroad, and black-and-white film was a much more portable and compatible medium to the foreign TV stations in the early 1970s, when those sales were made, than was either colour VT or colour film.

There were as such several greyscale gaps in the Third Doctor's spectrum, and that's how it stayed for a decade. These were, in transmission order, as follows: all of Doctor Who and the Silurians, most of The Ambassadors of Death, all of The Mind of Evil, most of The Daemons, and one episode each of Planet of the Daleks and Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Now, even back then there were artificial colourisation techniques that vandals inflicted on old Hollywood movies never intended to be seen in colour. These were expensive processes, though, and out of the budget of BBC Video. But, a lot of people working at the BBC or in video technology are clever nerds who like Doctor Who, so it wasn't so long before new technology and techniques were being developed. The first breakthrough occurred with The Daemons. It involved taking an inferior colour video recording and merging it with the black-and white film, to produce a broadcast standard version. This was then subsequently applied successfully to Doctor and The Silurians, and bits of The Ambassadors of Death. The colour recording of the latter story didn't cover everything, so when it was released on VHS in 2002 (late on in the range's life, as the team working on restoring on the releases were probably holding out to see if they could somehow improve things), the picture went in and out of colour like The Wizard of Oz or my consciousness after too many cans of Boddingtons.

There wasn't any significant amount of recorded colour material from the missing bits of any of the other three stories, so the process could not be applied to them. Mind of Evil, as we have seen, was released on VHS in black and white, and the other two stories as a mixture. This was also the case for Planet of the Daleks when it was repeated on BBC1 in 1993 as part of the 30th anniversary celebrations: episode 3 was broadcast in black-and-white with a brief explanation beforehand, which seems amazing now. In time for its DVD release, though, another technological marvel had come about, indistinguishable (at least to me) from magic: they could pull the colour information out of the black and white film. Shazam!

It turns out, when the original monochrome film recordings were made, if the technician didn't do it quite properly, some slight interference was introduced, and burnt into the film forever. These are 'chroma dots'. And using some serious computer data crunching, and lots of remedial picture work afterwards, the clever nerds could derive and re-add the correct colour from these patterns. Isn't that cool? Planet of the Daleks was already planned for release with an artificially colourised part 3 (the technology had got cheaper by then, but it was still only possible due to the dollar exchange rate being favourable enough at the time to employ a US firm). In the end, the results of the chroma dot process were merged with the colourised version, and the result is near indistinguishable from the real thing. Invasion of the Dinosaurs episode 1 just had the chroma dot process applied and was less successful, but perfectly watchable. And Ambassadors of Death finally had its gaps filled in with the magic crayons of applied maths.

That left The Mind of Evil, which many had assumed would never ever get a colour release. With six whole episodes, it was a mammoth undertaking. Additionally, the first episode had no chroma dots - the technician had for once done his job properly. But colourisation was by then possible for an individual with the right kit and some more clever techniques (in this case, it was the supremely talented Stuart Humphryes - check out his youtube channel, he posts as Babelcolour). This meant that colour could be added to episode 1, while the chroma dot method was used to complete the remaining episodes. The DVD finally came out in June of 2013, Doctor Who's anniversary year. I love that it exists as a celebration of the cleverness and hard work of the artists and technicians that worked on it, and the sheer dumb prosaic happenstance of a no-doubt overworked guy in the 1960s not flipping the right switch on his console when making some recordings of that kid's science fiction programme. It seems like a perfect metaphor for all the ingredients, good and not so good, that make Doctor Who special.

In Summary:
Baby, You're a Rich Man with occasional slightly bloated feeling.

Sunday, 15 October 2017


Chapter The 68th, where Tom debuts in a Pertwee story.

The Doctor, as played by Tom Baker, dons his long scarf for the first time, and assists UNIT in investigating a series of break-ins of top secret establishments; the new medical officer Surgeon Lieutenant Harry Sullivan I.A.I. tags along to keep tabs on him in case of any post-regeneration complications. Turns out it's a robot that's doing it. Sarah Jane Smith meanwhile is actually doing her journo day job for once, interviewing for a piece on a scientific think tank where they are working on a mysterious secret project. Turns out it's a robot. What are the chances? The think tank is a front for an authoritarian group who want to hold the world to ransom, and use the robot to get access to nuclear weapons. After the Doctor sorts that out, the robot grows to giant size because science, and goes on the rampage. Also, it fancies Sarah. After defeating it, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry go off adventuring in the TARDIS, which is as it should be, and produced much rejoicing by everyone (except for Nicholas Courtney's agent perhaps).

I viewed from the DVD an episode at a time occasionally over the course of approximately a week, and was accompanied by all the children (boys of 11 and 8, girl of 5) who were surprisingly excited to watch. Either he's at a cynical age right now, or he was eager to be mentioned on the blog, but my eldest was full of commentary. A selection, just from the first episode: "Why doesn't he run away?" "Who shoots at a robot?" "The dog's run away, dogs have more common sense" "Are UNIT pretty much useless?" and a long discussion with his brother about how you can definitely see weird faces in Baker's slit-scan time tunnel effect credits sequences.

First-time round: 
( (Junior) Doctor Who and the Giant) Robot is one of those stories that always seems to have been around, at least for me. I think this is because my school - and probably every primary school in the country at the time - had the novelisation in its library. This was in the late seventies / early eighties. In fact, the school library had at least two versions of the story. I was always intrigued by the Junior Doctor Who edition of the book, but I never read it as I had read the X-rated adult version first. I josh of course, the Junior books did not exist to protect children from the extremes of sex and violence that would otherwise have been featured in Terrance Dicks' prose, but instead were easy readers aimed at a slightly younger audience than were the usual novelisations. I always wondered how much they differed, was it a page 1 rewrite job, or did they just edit out words and passages. I hope Terrance got paid twice, anyway.

The first time I saw the episodes themselves was when they came out on VHS in January 1992. This was when I was in my first year of university in Durham. It was usual in those days to watch a new release in my friend Mike's room, but for some reason we watched this one in David's room instead (David is my long-term fan friend, mentioned many times before on this blog). It got a good crowd too, maybe because Tom Baker was a nostalgic draw for everyone. There was much hilarity - and embarrassment on my part - when the Action Man tank is pushed on in the foreground at the end of episode 3; it's fooling no one. There was then equal hilarity when the same scene was repeated in the recap at the start of episode 4. 

Tom Baker's debut story is an odd one, as it's resolutely a celebratory swansong for an old era (his predecessor's) rather that the start of a new one more tailored to him; the first proper Tom Baker Doctor Who story would be the next one, The Ark in Space. As has been pointed out by many commentators before, this serves for four episodes to persuade any waverers in the audience that they're watching the same show, settling people in before there are even more radical changes. Nobody would begrudge outgoing producer Barry Letts staging this send off either; the last time there was a change of producer, that person also hung around to do one for the new Doctor. But Derrick Sherwin's Spearhead from Space was more about laying the groundwork for the new - colour, UNIT, Earth, invasions - than celebrating the old, and all those aspects Derrick originated would categorise Letts' era up to and including Robot. The coincidence of the same location (Wood Norton Hall) being used for both Spearhead and Robot further cements them as 'bookends' of this period.

Robot is successful as one last walkabout in a comfy old pair of shoes before they fall apart, but it's no more than that. It's not the deepest or most expansive storyline, and has significant flaws; but it does feature a big robot shooting at stuff, and UNIT soldiers running about and throwing grenades. The all-video look, which obviously isn't as classy as Pertwee's all-film debut, nonetheless is consistent and the robot is of a spectacular, if slightly impractical, design. In the location work, the sun is always shining, which is apt for how this story feels: it's a last bright and unchallenging Summer romp before incoming producer Philip Hinchcliffe brings in some more autumnal shades. Of course, it is very slightly of a type with what's to come, in that there is a horror movie pastiche in there (King Kong), an approach that would become more prevalent in later serials, but here it's only done half-heartedly, as something of a gag in the final few sequences.

For the rest of the running time, writer (and outgoing script-editor) Terrance Dicks is seemingly giving us his take on another classic, Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Like his buddy Malcolm Hulke's story aired in the previous season, this is a tale where the environmentalists (usually the champions of the Barry Letts era) are the bad guys, and end up threatening to wipe out the human race for the planet's own good, bar only a chosen few, safe in an underground chamber. As Dicks has less natural sympathy with their cause than Hulke, though, the characters never seem believable, so any dramatic edge is lost. With lots of other moments, such as his undermining Sarah's Women's lib credentials by showing her making sexist assumptions, Dicks gives the impression, in this last script for Barry Letts, that he's finally relaxing at no longer having to pay lip service to the hippy stuff he's been producing to please his boss up to now.

None of this explains why a rationalist scientific group who've planned every detail only checks they've got enough food and water to survive after they've started the nuclear countdown, nor why a disintegrator gun for some reason doesn't disintegrate the robot but instead makes it grow, like it's got an 'exciting denoument' setting. Kettlewell's behaviour in scenes in episodes 1 and 2 is so inconsistent with him turning out to be be the (spoiler) main bad guy that it's a major cheat on the audience. But, I don't think this is Dicks' error - it's in the direction. There are scenes that feel as if the director hasn't read to the end of the script, where he's showing Kettlewell keeping up the pretence even though there's no one around to witness it.

The first few minutes of both Robot and The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon contain a scene showing the Doctor regenerating; both stories are Earth-based and deal with an internal enemy rather than an alien invasion; the companion team in both is one male, one female bolstered by at least one significant recurring character. And both stories feature many ranks of armed public servants (at least in the Matt Smith story, the bullets have some effect).

Deeper Thoughts:
Human League B-Side. The people of Doctor Who are regularly referred to as a family, and I think I would broadly agree. I don't go to events or conventions that much, and it is there especially, but even in print and online, that you see a familial atmosphere between fans, between fans and the stars of the show, and even between the stars themselves: many actors from different eras have become mates from seeing each other on the convention circuit. There are family rows and feuds too, yes, but mostly it's positive. I'll admit I did shed a tear when Jon Pertwee died in 1996; he felt like a colourful great uncle that would never not be there, rather than just some bloke off the telly. Talking of great uncles, I'm sure I have some great uncles on one side of the family or the other, but I don't know anything about them. I do, though, know a substantial amount about the life and times of, say, Ian Levine. Is this healthy? And is it something that is unique to Doctor Who? Probably Star Wars and Star Trek convention-goers feel the same too; but there's one member of the Doctor Who family, a larger-than-life funny uncle, that no other franchise has or could ever emulate, and that is Tom Baker.

I remember the first point that I realised that Tom wasn't just any old actor, and was instead a true eccentric who is incapable of saying anything straightforward or uninteresting. I was reading Doctor Who Magazine when I'd started buying it again sometime early in the Nineties, when the series wasn't long off the air. I don't think it was an interview, just an article writing up a convention where he'd spoken, and I read some of his wonderful material for the first time. This was the story, which I'm sure he's repeated often since, where he's mistaken by a cab driver for Jon Pertwee, and strings the poor guy along for ages, as the driver repeats a comic refrain "You was always the most elegant, Mister Pertwee". In the end, horror of horrors, the driver asks 'Mister Pertwee' whatever happened to his successor in the role. Without missing a beat, Baker says he thinks he died drunk in a ditch.

I have met Baker once, accompanied by the Better Half, at a signing for his magnificent autobiography in a Worthing bookshop in 1997. The Q&A that preceded getting one's book autographed wonderfully demonstrated his art (an endlessly applicable one, if you can master it) of twisting the most uninteresting questions and answering them entertainingly by talking about what he wanted to talk about all along: himself, yes, but not in arrogant way; instead he uses that theme as his own unique philosophical window on the world. If I hadn't learnt from him the approach of stringing together random anecdotes in a semblance of coherence, this blog wouldn't exist. So, you know, he's to blame, is what I'm saying. Anyway, my copy of 'Who on Earth is Tom Baker?' is signed to me and the Better Half from him, which I consider just as binding and solemn as our wedding vows. We can never split up, the book says so!

Robot, whatever its good or bad aspects, will always be important, as it ushers in the most consistently popular period of Doctor Who to that point, and perhaps ever after, embodied in Tom Baker as the front man. For only seven of its 50+ years, Doctor Who featured a Doctor who wore a long scarf, but because of the indelible impression Tom left on the show, there are still a huge number of people out there now who if asked what the Doctor wears, will say a long scarf. He is the exemplar. Baker as the raconteur is only one aspect of a complex man; he's of course a bloody good actor too. But Baker as raconteur has had a place in the Doctor Who family far longer than he was playing the role. For almost all that time, Baker has fixated on his own mortality (he's had his own gravestone ready for at least twenty years). I think a lot of us are still banking on his turning out to be immortal, though, so we don't have to shed tears at what will be a great loss to the family.

In Summary:
Whatever happened to Sarah Jane? That Seventies Summer-dress frame...

Saturday, 7 October 2017

The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon

Chapter The 67th, involves those who have - in almost the words of Sir Billiam of Idol - ties without a face.

A future version of the Matt Smith Doctor invites Amy, Rory, River Song and an old American guy to watch him get shot and killed by someone in an astronaut suit standing in a lake in Utah. The Doctor also invites his own younger self who turns up late and misses it all, but following up on some hints he takes Amy, Rory and River Song to meet the younger version of the American guy in the White House in 1969, where he's investigating a mysterious little girl who keeps contacting President Richard Nixon. The TARDIS team help him find the girl, which leads them to discover that a group of aliens, the Silence, are in control of the Earth, but no one realises this as they have the power to make you forget them as soon as you look away. This large, global organised group, who have access to advanced technology and mental powers, have secretly been manipulating humans for thousands of years as it is somehow easier than just building their own spacesuit. They have also been raising the girl as a child assassin who will eventually be the one in the suit in Utah that kills the Doctor, as this is somehow easier than just shooting him themselves during any of the dozen or so opportunities they have to do just that in these two episodes alone. They could at least have a crack; if he survived, he wouldn't remember who shot him, would he?!

Three months pass during which everyone goes to elaborate lengths to do, erm, something important, probably. Anyway, that means it's time for the moon landing; the Doctor cleverly uses the footage of Neil Armstrong stepping out onto the surface as a way to incite mass murder of the Silence for all eternity, which is just what you imagine Neil would have wanted. (The Silence killed one person and helped humans go to the Moon, the sentence for which is genocide apparently.) Despite many unanswered questions, and a possibly vulnerable possibly dangerous child on the loose, the Doctor decides not to investigate any more and goes off to have some unconnected adventures, like he knows he's just been in episodes 1 and 2 of the season rather than 11 and 12.

The whole family bar the eldest child (boy of 11) sat down to watch this one from the Blu-ray; we watched one episode per day over a weekend, and it must have sounded like fun as it attracted the final member of the family halfway through, who joined us to watch the second part on the Sunday. The Better Half got (justifiably) apoplectic at times with Moffat's plotting. 'What's the point of this? was said more than once.

First-time round: 
I can't remember whether I sat down to watch these episodes live in 2011, or - more likely - timeshifted them and watched them later in the evening. One thing that does stay with me, though, is a feeling I got watching the first episode, and the Doctor Who Confidential documentary that was shown alongside it, a feeling invoked by seeing the three leads - all played by thin beautiful people ten or more years younger than me - making a big deal about hitting America. The feeling was this: Doctor Who isn't mine anymore. Sure, the show had had blockbuster appeal at times before, and it had had a huge American following in earlier years too; but, one never thought those periods would last (and they didn't really). It's a silly feeling to indulge, like the reluctance as a fan you feel for your favourite indie band making it big; one knows deep down it doesn't matter, but it did feel like a loss. Forever after, the faithful would have to share their show with the viewers of BBC America, and an even wider international audience across the globe.

Steven Moffat's idea to launch his second year with a bang was to do a season finale style story - an expensive, expansive plot-heavy blockbuster two-parter - right up front. I mean, why wait, huh? Hmm. This approach could be summarised as "Skip the foreplay", which is never a good idea (so I've been told), except it's worse than that; it's more like "Do the foreplay afterwards" which is an easy way to achieve an, ahem, anti-climax. The story after this, just when we're engaged as to who River is, how the Doctor will avoid his fate, what exactly are the Silence's plans, and whether Amy is or isn't pregnant, doesn't talk about any of that; it's just larking about with rubbish pirates. An implicit promise has been made to the audience, and then broken. It doesn't help that the plotting of the arc - even just the bits in these two episodes alone - is crazy ape-shit bonkers. A finale engenders more forgiveness, as that's when all the Bad Wolves, Torchwoods or Pandoricas are finally explained, and the slate is wiped clean; there's no such luxury here - the slate is splattered in muck that's going to stay there for months; so, by The Wedding of River Song, the series is going to require infinite forgiveness, and no possible explanations are going to satisfy.

Moffat does get something in exchange for squandering this advantage, and that's spectacle and originality in the story and the season's shape. So, kudos to him for trying something new, it's just a shame it didn't really work. The positives then: there are some great jokes, Stuart Milligan is fun as Nixon. Canton is a great character as played by both the young and old Sheppards. The opening comedy sequences are nice enough, the American landscapes are vibrant and interestingly used (an astronaut emerging from a lake in the middle of a desert, for example, is an arresting image despite not making any sense in the real or story worlds). The early beats of the story pleasantly confound audience expectations, as suddenly the Doctor is older and has shared lots of adventures with River Song, and then - blam - he's dead. As a beginning it's hard to top unless you're the sort of cynical viewer who's automatically thinking "there's no way they can write their way out of that without it being a cop out". Okay, you got me, that was exactly what I was thinking; but a showrunner shouldn't be jumping through hoops to cater for any audience as cynical as me.

The Silence are a great design, and their affect on memory is a great concept. But, alas, the idea that they're scavengers that can only influence people to create technology and never create their own just stretches credulity beyond snapping point. And, worst of all because it was easily fixable in a rewrite, they just aren't shown to be evil enough. The Silence have just as much right to be treated as legal cohabitants of the Earth as the Silurians, say, and they haven't unleashed any plagues to wipe out mankind, but they get brutally offed. It just appears totally disproportionate, and that's just because all the horrors are presumably offscreen in the unnecessary three month gap between episode 1 and episode 2. Even if the TARDIS crew were shown some horrors though, they wouldn't remember them, so the mass killing ending would never feel justified.

As mentioned above, both stories feature villains in smart attire who haven't got much in the old boat race department. Also, both are set in the sixties and feature a space rocket.

Deeper Thoughts:
Simple enough for adults but complicated enough for children. It was around the time of The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon's broadcast that articles became prevalent complaining of how the show's plots had become too convoluted. If this was not the case for the youngsters watching, it certainly was true for the adults; my commentary above, now I've read it back, shows me in this case at least to be quite surprisingly grown-up. These stories don't make a whole lot of sense, true. The criticism was probably overstated, though. It was easy enough with a modicum of concentration to keep up with what was happening, it just didn't - couldn't - add up. Watching Doctor Who in random order highlights things just as watching in the transmission order does. Some stories work much better with the weight of the preceding episodes as build up. But, some stories are undermined by revelations that you know are to be made in their future, and that is really what weighs the Astronaut episodes down. Taken on their own terms they form a nonsensical but visually stunning adventure romp. Once you know how it fits together with the future narrative, though, it can do your head in.

Some spoilers may ensue (but only if you haven't watched Doctor Who in five years) as I've got to get my head round this. So, the creatures that we see at work in Florida, are a violent breakaway group from a semi-religious order that wants to neutralise the Doctor to stop him from bringing the Time Lords and the Time War back to the universe on Trenzalore. They have foreseen that he will do this, and that will be bad, so they try to stop it by killing him at Lake Silencio. It's a matter of historical record that he dies at Lake Silencio, which might explain why nobody tries to kill him before that despite numerous opportunities. Except when they try to kill him at Demon's Run. Are they trying to kill him at Demon's Run, though, or is it just a diversion to get the baby River away? But, that would be a rubbish diversion as it would be one that involved leading him to the very place where the baby is for ages before they get it away, a bit of a risky manoeuvre. But anyway, they do get the baby away, and they train it to kill then put it in a spacesuit in a lake. They must know this is the foretold spot where the Doctor dies, not just because it's supposed to be a fabled fixed point, but also, why bloody submerge the suit in a lake otherwise; it would be a lot easier for it to arrive in a car. BUT if they know the Doctor historically, fixedly dies at Lake Silencio, which - as far as the Universe is concerned - he does, why did they ever think he was going to get as far as Trenzalore to become a threat in the first place? Their plan seems to involve them knowing for sure that he's going to die and that he's going to escape his fate. Simultaneously.

And, even though the Doctor is not dead, and is just pretending, the aged Canton says "That most certainly is the Doctor, and he is most certainly dead" and adds that the Doctor says they would need a can of gasoline. How does Canton know any of this? No one is in a position to tell him this in 1969. Maybe it's written on his invitation? Everyone else just gets a date and time and a map reference, but maybe his invite says a bit more. But how would the Doctor have known to write any of this to him? At the point, just after the story Closing Time, when he writes those invitations, he doesn't even know for sure that Canton was invited. He's only met the guy once, and his earlier self only gets told that the relevant. Is there any way he could know for sure to invite him, let alone to add a note to the gist of "I'm really dead, make sure they burn the corpse". Also, given that he's inside a robot suit, it was a bit lucky the Doctor's friends decided to go the whole viking ceremony. If they'd burnt him on the shore, it would have been immediately obvious that he wasn't even getting singed, and his whole faking his own death would have been blown immediately.

Amy gains memories from the aborted timeline which is created and uncreated by spacesuited River's resistance to her mission, sometime between two moments by that lake in Utah; Amy mentions later that she can remember these events in The Wedding of River Song. So, when does this come to her exactly? The logical point would be right there at Lake Silencio. So, she's aware of Madame Kovarian and so on throughout the three months in America, and the pirate one and The Doctor's Wife, but just not mentioning it? Okay, maybe there's some kind of block because she's really a ganger at that point. So, she would remember first during the action at Demon's Run, and all through the Hitler one, and Night Terrors... but again would just not bother to mention it? Obviously, the time it must have occurred to her is post The God Complex, when the Doctors gone, and she can no longer make any use of the knowledge; but there's no logical reason for it to come to her then, except that it's more convenient for the overall confused jigsaw plot.

I have barely scratched the surface (why does River, knowing exactly who is in the Spacesuit, still shoot at it as it disappears under the lake? Who took the photo of Amy and her baby that is in the orphanage, when, and why? How does Amy make tally marks on her face so neatly without looking at her reflection?); but, I've got a nerd headache already. Undoubtedly, Steven Moffat was planning ahead more than any other Who writer of any previous era, but he was still almost certainly making it up as he was going along a hell of a lot too.

In Summary:
At the time I did Enjoy The Silence. But looking back, it was definitely a narrative rule Violator.