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6 January 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 736: Dalek

Dear diary,

Dalek has something of an unenviable position within Doctor Who history, doesn’t it? Introduce the Daleks to a whole new generation - with the added complication that they’re now inescapably tied up with the programme’s background mythology. Be the first Dalek story of the 21st century. Stand on its own as a decent story, not too overwhelmed with continuity. Introduce a new companion. And all that in 45 minutes. Looking back on it a decade on, the episode has even more importance now we’ve learnt more about the Time War, and it holds a pivotal place in the Doctor’s personal story.

And, frankly, it’s the best episode of the modern series so far. It manages to take all of the things noted above and pull them off rather well. By the time Adam steps inside the TARDIS at the end, I feel as though I know enough about him to accept him in the TARDIS (perhaps the fact that I know he won’t be around for long mans I’m expecting less of him, somehow, but I still think we’re given everything we need, even if he doesn’t get an awful lot to do here). There’s a decent enough story going on here that would be enough to keep my interest even if it wasn’t a Dalek in the Vault - though, let’s be honest, the story would lose a lot were it simply a Toclafane, as briefly considered, or some other nondescript alien, in place of the Doctor’s Arch Enemy.

Because that’s the real success of this one. It manages to take the Daleks, those funny little Pepper Pots who’ve been showing up at fairly regular intervals in the Doctor’s life since the programme’s fifth episode - which I watched two years ago yesterday - and bring them right in to the 21st century. It manages to put a Dalek on screen that is quite unlike any Dalek we’ve ever seen in the programme before… and yet perfectly capture exactly what the Daleks have always been like in our heads. This does however, bring me to the one problem I do have with this episode;

The Daleks aren’t really ever this powerful again!

Dalek presents us with a single creature - the last surviving Dalek in the universe - and goes to great lengths to make sure we know just how powerful it is. Once it’s out of its cage, the creature can download the entire internet in a matter of moments. It can crack a code with a billion combinations in two seconds. Bullets have a hard time getting at the Dalek because they melt when they get close to it. The centre of the machine swivels round, allowing the Dalek to attack in any direction. At one point, the Dalek is able to take out a room full of trained soldiers with just three blasts of the gun. When the Daleks pop up again at the end of this season, a few of them retain these special abilities, but then we don’t really see a lot of them again after that (I don’t think we’ve seen the bullet-melting at all since).

I’ve just about got a workaround in my head, but I’m not entirely convinced by it. It’s based on the idea that this really is the last surviving Dalek in the universe - the Doctor’s counterpart, from the other side of the battlefield. The only reason that this Dalek is so powerful - more powerful than any Dalek we’ve seen in the series before - is because it’s been off fighting the greatest war in Dalek history. Throughout the war, the Daleks have upgraded themselves further and further in an attempt to gain the upper-hand (The Time War-set novel Engines of War suggests that the creatures even go so far as to head back in time to alter their evolution - perhaps the failure of that experiment is what led them to simply upgrading their casings so much here?).

So. Let’s consider where this Dalek has come from:

GODDARD

The records say it came from the sky like a meteorite. It fell to Earth on the Ascension Islands. Burnt in its crater for three days before anybody could get near it and all that time it was screaming. It must have gone insane. 


DOCTOR

It must have fallen through time. The only survivor.

Using bits of lore that have been added to the series since this episode was first broadcast, I think we can paint a fairly accurate image of what might have happened. Imagine, if you will, the closing moments of the Time War. Thirteen TARDISes (Fourteen, the Seventh Doctor came twice) all spinning around Gallifrey, preparing to take it out of time and space, and keep it nice and safe in a Cuppa Soup. The Daleks know what’s happening - the War Council report an increase in firepower. Every Dalek in the universe has been summoned to Gallifrey to take part in this final assault. Among their number is this Dalek. Amidst the chaos the the battle and the whizzing blue police boxes the Dalek somehow realises what’s happening. As the planet below disappears and Dalek firepower starts to take out its own comrades, the Dalek attempts an Emergency Temporal Shift.

With so many versions of the same TARDIS whizzing around, compounded by the sheer number of time manipulations that have gone on during the war itself, there’s no wonder the Temporal Shift hurtled this poor Dalek into the Vortex, spiralling it backwards in time until it lands in the Ascension Islands. It’s also no wonder it screamed for three days - it’s just watched a lot of its comrades wiped out. It doesn’t know yet that all the other Daleks have gone, just that the large majority certainly have, and it’s not until the last surviving Time Lord shows up that it learns the truth…

…And I’m going to have to leave it, there. There’s more to my suggestion of why the Dalek we see here is so uniquely powerful, but I’ll have to wait until we reach The Parting of the Ways to explain further, as the events of that story play heavily in to my narrative, and I want to refresh my mind on everything that’s said there and make sure it all fits before I continue.

I do hope that you’ll forgive me these occasional flights of fantasy into my own personal head canon, but they tick away in the back of my mind so much that it’s sometimes nice to share them with you all. 

5 January 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 736: World War Three

Dear diary,

Oh, I love the Slitheen. That’s not a particularly popular opinion, is it? It’s true, though. I loved them when this episode was first broadcast, and I love them now. Over the last year or so, I’ve been doing lots of graphic design bits for the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff Bay. It means that I spend odd days in there while it’s closed to the public, getting the images we need and planning out what needs to be done. One of my favourite moments has to be going through a number of costumes tucked away in storage, pulling back a protective sheet and finding a Slitheen bearing down on me. They’re such a great design, managing to be exactly what you expect a Doctor Who monster to be (‘big and green’) and yet doing something fun with it. As the first real ‘monster’ of the 21st century - in the sense of being a man in a big monster outfit - I think it’s great, and I’m sort of hoping we see a return for them, however brief, this year to mark their tenth anniversary.

Something I didn’t notice as much when I first saw this one (or, at least, something that I didn’t notice enough to actively remember it a decade on) is just how poorly the costumes match up to the CGI versions of the creatures. Each, in their own right, works rather well. The costume allows our human cast to properly interact with a towering big monster in front of them (and it means that when we see, for example, one of the Slitheen pick up the secretary, it looks better than the CGI equivalent might have done), while the CGI creatures allow them to run and move in a way that the costumes simply wouldn’t have allowed. The problem comes when they try to cut between the two versions of the Slitheen - or perhaps more notably, the problem is when they’ve chosen to do so.

Take the moment that Harriet and Rose make their initial escape from one of the creatures in the Cabinet Room. We get a shot of a rubber monster chasing after Harriet, and it’s possibly the worst that they ever look. Because of the way the costume is designed (with the Actor’s head concealed in the neck of the outfit), the head bobs around as it moves, making the whole thing look like… well, making the whole thing look - again - like the kind of thing you expect when you think ‘Doctor Who Monster’. It’s not their finest moment. But we cut from this to the rather more fluid CGI version of the same Slitheen chasing them, and it’s suddenly much more polished! It actively took me out of the moment, and that’s a shame. Still, I should probably be thankful that we didn’t have to watch the bobbing head as some poor actor tried to run across the set in that outfit…

Aliens of London and World War Three were filmed alongside Rose as the first stories of 21st century Doctor Who (indeed, I think I’m right in saying that the first line spoken on recording the series came from Tosh, and Eccleston’s first shot as the Doctor involved chasing a space pig down a corridor), and I think they’ve got a style that sets them apart not only from what came before, but also everything that would come after them, too. Russell T Davies’ vision for the series is entirely present throughout all three episodes - you can see the seeds being sown for things which will be utilised over and over in the next few years - but they feel far more ‘children’s television’ than the programme would later become. I’m not sure it’s a bad thing, but it really stands out when you’ve had quite a while away from these episodes, and watch them again; especially after the likes of Series Eight last year!

They’re also set apart visually by the direction of Keith Boak, who doesn’t return to Doctor Who after this production block. I can’t say that his direction has been particularly outstanding or noticeable (whereas watching the TV Movie prompted me to note the direction on about every third shot, the work in these episodes has been far more workman like), but there’s one expiation to that - I love the way that Boak shoots the TARDIS set. There’s lots of moving cameras and caring angles that I can’t remember seeing a lot of anywhere else - at least, not in this style. I could be wrong, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for it over the next few seasons, but it’s certainly something I noticed both in Rose and again in the last few days.

4 January 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 735: Aliens of London

Dear diary,

It’s the first cliffhanger of the 21st century Doctor Who… and my god they botch it, don’t they? It’s possibly only because it’s the most recent thing in my mind, but it’s really sticking out as a massive error. They’ve gone all out for the first cliffhanger, placing as many people into danger as they possibly can… and then cut directly into a ‘next time’ trailer, that shows all those same people up and about and continuing the adventure next week! I don’t think you’re ever expecting any of our main characters to be in any real danger (even if you’re not coming to this episode having just sat through 700-and-something others, you know that nothing serious is about to happen), but you still want to have that suspense of waiting to see what happens! Am I right in saying that they later moved the trailers to after the credits for a two-parter? That seems a more sensible option than this!

Anyway, now that’s out of my system…

Right back during The Web of Fear, I commented on how much I liked the Doctor to have a number of friends scattered throughout the universe that he can drop in on from time to time. I don’t necessarily mean the likes of the ‘UNIT family’, where he was regularly a part of their lives, but just people who crop up now and then to share in his adventures. This episode is really where that concept is brought to the fore for the revived version of the programme, and it’ll remain a key factor through the rest of Russell T Davies’ time on the show, and to varying degrees through the Steven Moffat years, too.

And what a way to start! Not only does this one bring us back in to contact with Jackie and Micky (more on which in a moment), but it introduces both Harriet Jones (MP for Flydale North), who’ll be back again at Christmas, and once more after that to help the Doctor, and Toshiko Sato, who’ll go on to have a prominent role in the first two seasons of Torchwood. It’s that introduction that I think most interests me. I’ve not watched these episodes since Torchwood began, and it’s lovely to go back and see them now knowing more about Tosh, and the story she’ll go on to have. There’s something poignant about seeing her character now, having seen her death, and knowing that the Doctor has yet to meet and travel with her boss. It makes the fictional world of the programme feel so much larger when you’ve got all these elements playing out in the background. Aside from these ‘friends’ of the Doctor, you’ve also got the Slitheen. Margaret will be back later this season, and we’ll be following up on their scheme here when The Sarah Jane Adventures comes around. I can’t begin to tell you how tempted I am to watch them in tandem with the ‘parent’ show, just to see all the storylines weaving along!

Now. Jackie and Micky. The fact of Rose’s disappearance for a year absolutely fascinated me on first viewing. We’d been to watch the sun expand, and back to Victorian Cardiff, but it was this moment, hidden away in the pre-titles of this episode, which really hammered home to me that the TARDIS is a Time Machine. I’m not even sure why that is, but for some reason, this completely struck a chord. I think it’s the way that it’s written so beautifully, cutting from Jackie’s reaction to seeing her daughter and the Doctor suddenly realising his error. It all just works for me. What I didn’t notice at the time is just how quickly all of that blows over. There’s a few lovely scenes where they confront the reality that Rose has been missing for a whole year (and the effect it’s had on Mickey’s life is especially well played), but it all gets forgotten about so quickly. By the time that friends and neighbours are gathering in the Tyler household to watch the events on TV, it’s almost entirely ignored. In some ways, that’s completely right. Of course it gets swept away! An alien spaceship has just crashed in to the Thames! There’s a story to get on with, never mind focussing on Rose’s missing year…

…But then I started thinking; does it ever get mentioned again after this episode? Admittedly, it’s been a good few years since I’ve seen any of Rose’s travels in the TARDIS, but I can’t remember it ever actually coming up again during her time on the show. That’s really surprised me, because it felt like such a big moment at the time. I’m wondering if, having noticed it, it may stick out more for me now? I’m hoping not, because I can’t remember even giving it a second thought at the time, and it’s really niggling right now…

3 January 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 734: The Unquiet Dead

Dear diary,

Over the last week, I’ve been musing that the revived series in 2005 had an easier job in some ways that the TV Movie did in 1996. A couple of people have messaged on Twitter to take issue with that idea, so I thought I’d better explain myself a little better. What I actually mean is that the TV Movie had a single 90-minute slot to hook your attention, get you up to speed with Doctor Who, and tell a decent story. It manages some if not all of those to varying degrees. The 2005 series has the added benefit that it’s already guaranteed thirteen weeks to cover all those bases. It doesn’t have to worry about cramming in all the set up for the programme in that first instalment - it can slowly drip feed it to you as time goes by. I said the other day that any follow up to the TV movie would be a difficult thing to judge, because we don’t really see the TARDIS go anywhere (it makes a hop at the very end of the story, but not much is made of that fact), whereas Rose shows the TARDIS transporting from place-to-place quite often, and it becomes very clear that it has abilities beyond that.

Once that first episode is over, we can then venture off and set up the time travel aspect of the TARDIS rather neatly by venturing off in to the future. We then go the opposite way, back in to the past. It’s got the freedom of a continuing story to get you used to everything you need to know, so it doesn’t have to be quite so ‘full-on’ about it. Does that make any sense? I hope so. Thinking about it, I’d never realised just how often the revived programme for the first three episodes of the season. Right up to and including Season Five, we get the past/present/future set up to open each season, though they do play around with the order. I don’t think I’ve ever considered just how well that works as a good set up for the series, and for the fresh introduction of bringing in a new companion most years. It’s almost like taking things right back to 1963, where we had a similar set up - present day in Coal Hill School, way back to 100,000BC, and then off to the far future, and the home world of the Daleks.

I’ve said it before, but the Victorian era feels so right for Doctor Who. We’ve not spent a great deal of time there in the ‘classic’ run (off the top of my head, I can only think of The Evil of the Daleks, The Talons of Weng Chiang, and Ghost Light actually taking place in that period), but it’s going to become a fairly regular setting from now on. It’s good to note, then, that the BBC haven’t lost their touch at creating historical settings in the time that the programme has been away. It really is bread-and-butter stuff for a television design department, and it’s quite nice to note just how close this serial looks to Ghost Light. I spent such a long time commenting that the McCoy years were starting to resemble the ‘new’ series, so it’s always nice to see that the same can be said of the production standards. I’ve also commented before that had more people been watching the series in the late 1980s, it could have had the kind of acclaim that stories like this one received.

It doesn’t hurt that we’ve got a fantastic guest star for this episode in the form of Simon Callow as Charles Dickins. It’s a performance that’s always stuck in the mind right the way from the first time I saw the episode, so I’m really pleased to see that it’s holding up as well as I’d remembered. The series has attracted its fair share of big names over the years (and, it has to be said, the same was true of the ‘classic’ run), and you can really see that being set out in these early episodes. Three weeks in and we’ve already had the likes of Zoe Wannamaker and the aforementioned Simon Callow, and tomorrow we’ll be adding Penelope Wilton to the list. I mused yesterday that you could see the programme really setting out what it was going to be, and that’s true of the guest casts, too. There’s a very clear attempt to cast ‘big’ names… but proper actors in doing so. They’re going for respected talent and making sure that the programme can’t be taken as a joke.

That extends right the way to the top, too. Three days in and I’ve not properly mentioned Chris Eccleston yet. To tell the truth, it’s because I’m not really sure what to say of him. I’d experienced bits (sometimes all) of every Doctor’s run before starting out on this marathon, but the Ninth Doctor is the one that I first watched right the way through on television. Although I’d seen a few others before he grabbed Rose’s hand and urged her to run, Eccleston is really, I suppose, ‘my’ Doctor. So I’m not really watching him in the same way that I’ve been watching all the others for the last two years. He simply is the Doctor. That said, I’m noticing more this time around a slight unease with the role. I mean, he’s very good - don’t get me wrong - but he’s not slipping as naturally in to the part as I remember him doing. That’s something I’m going to be making sure to keep an eye on going forward, because we’re still in very early days (and the next two episodes were filmed before these last two, so I’m wondering if we may be taking a step back).

2 January 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 733: The End of the World

Dear diary,

Over the years, The End of the World has become something of a magnet for ‘stories’. Little anecdotes from the production team. I’ve heard it said a hundred times that this was the programme really setting out its stock in terms of what could be achieved - combining practical effects and CGI into one of the most expensive episodes of that first season. I think I’m right in saying (or, if I’m not, I’ve heard it repeated so often that it’s become fact in my own mind) that the Face of Boe only ended up becoming so important in later stories because he’d cost too much to build only to use the once. Cassandra appears as a CGI creation for ages on screen, at a time when they were still trying to work out how much could be spent on such things. We’ve even got more aliens introduced in this episode than I think we did for the entire Sylvester McCoy years!

But for all these stories getting repeated over and over, they do all set out what this episode is. Russell T Davies has said before now that they set up the scale and the scope of this first series in such a way that the BBC couldn’t later turn around and massively slash the budgets. They needed to make a point with a story like this so early on to ensure that everyone knew what they were aiming for, and also what they can achieve. And yet, for all the scale and grandeur of this one, it really boils down to a couple of small character pieces, with Rose coming to terms with her decision to travel in the TARDIS, and the Doctor starting to come to terms with the life he’s now living.

When Rose first aired, and we saw our new companion kiss her boyfriend goodbye before running off into the TARDIS, I can clearly recall my mother saying ‘that’s how so many young girls get abducted…’. It really is a split second decision (there’s none of the building up to an almost identical scene that we had with Scream of the Shalka), but it’s no more sudden than some of the companion introductions that we got back in the classic run. Dodo, anyone? That scene needs this episode, and Rose suddenly realising what she’s done, to really carry the kind of impact that it should. Another story I’ve often heard repeated is that the plan was once to air Rose and The End of the World back-to-back, and I can’t help but think that it wouldn’t have been a bad move - the two stories are opposite sides of the same coin.

But I’m more interested here in the Doctor’s story. At the time, I was enough of a Who novice to assume that this ‘war’ they kept mentioning was something which happened in the latter days of the original run, in some of the many stories I’d not seen. It’s interesting, then, to watch this back now knowing as much as we do about the Time War, and having pieced together the history of it through all those classic adventures (yes, even the ones where I’ve shoe-horned it in). It does beg the question - how long has the Doctor had between what he thinks is the destruction of Gallifrey and now? It’s certainly been a contentious point over the years - almost akin to a 21st century UNIT Dating conundrum.

The facts are these; We see the War Doctor start to regenerate into this incarnation at the end of The Day of the Doctor. Rose then features a scene where he looks in a mirror and comments on his appearance - seeming to imply that he’s only recently taken on this new form. It’s certainly written to be the same moment that we watched the likes of Troughton, Pertwee, Davison and both Bakers have in their first stories. And yet, somehow, it doesn’t feel right to have these stories following so immediately on from the events of the Time War. For a start, the Doctor’s given the TARDIS a wash since we saw him fly off in it from the Curator’s museum, and the console room has had a relatively major overhaul.

For what it’s worth, I think the sequence of events which best fits is something like this; the War Doctor starts to regenerate. In doing so, he forgets the encounter with his future selves, and awakes from the transformation alone in his TARDIS, his last memory being the thought that he would be forced to survive pressing the button and ending the war. He’s lost and alone. His people are gone. His greatest enemies are gone. He doesn’t want to live on, but he knows he must serve out his penance. In doing so, I imagine that he exiles himself deep into the TARDIS, allowing the battered old box to go drifting right to the very edges of the universe. He explores every room of the near-infinite ship, and goes a bit Beauty and the Beast, covering up all the mirrors, and refusing to face himself. As he’s off wandering the corridors, the console room is allowed to grow over with coral, naturally reforming itself as the ages roll by.

Until one day, he finds it again. He’s not really been keeping track of where he’s walking, but when he steps back into the main console room, he knows exactly where it is, despite its changed appearance, and it somehow feels right that he should be there. In the back of his mind is a nagging thought that he knew it would look this way when he found it again (he saw it in The Day of the Doctor, for example, and while he can’t remember the events of that adventure properly, I’d imagine there’s little tugs at his memory - we’ll be seeing another one in a moment). He doesn’t know how long has passed since he was last here, but he knows what he has to do. He needs to atone for the Time War. If he’s the only survivor, then he can’t spend eternity hiding away. He needs to get back to his former life as the Doctor, and try to rebuild the universe he helped to knock down.

In doing so, he whizzes off to a few different places - plenty and galaxies he knows were deeply affected by the war. As he’s doing this, he still can’t bring himself to look at his own face. He carries this on for a while, until he gets wind the Nestene Consciousness trying to take control of the Earth. He knows the protein planets were destroyed in the war, but that’s no reason to shunt out a whole other civilisation. He tracks the creature down to Henricks in London… where he meets Rose Tyler in the basement. There it is! Another pang of memory. He can’t quite place it, but he knows this girl ,and he likes this girl. The next day, they bump in to each other again, and then once more at the restaurant. We’ve then got a bit of a Scream of the Shalka situation going on, where the ‘emotional island’ starts to enjoy being with this person. When she turns him down at the end of the story, he heads off again and continues to clean up after the war for a bit. Maybe he arrives in 1912 and has a Titanic-based adventure. Or heads to 1963 for the assassination of JFK. Maybe those adventures don’t come until much later. But either way, there’s a nagging voice in the back of his head - the Doctor needs a companion, and he knows it has to be her. Did he mention, it also travels in time?

It’s probably not perfect, but it’s what I like to believe in my own mind. I’ve had a version like this in my head for a while now, but watching the stories now is letting me start to really nail it down some more. Certainly, when he has his moment with Jabe in this episode, it feels as though it’s the first time anyone has ever really spoken to him about what’s happened in the war - so the wounds are still fresh, but it doesn’t feel right for him to go from those events straight to all of this. Does anyone else have their own pet theories? I’ve a friend, for example, who swears blind that the Doctor’s just had his haircut, and it’s that which he’s reacting to in the mirror! 

1 January 2015

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 732: Rose

Dear diary,

Two years ago today, I sat down to watch An Unearthly Child; the very first episode of the original Doctor Who. Now, I’m setting off on another adventure - the ‘revived’ series that started in 2005.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to reaching this point of the marathon. Long-time readers of the 50 Year Diary will know that my first dabble in the world of Doctor Who was a VHS copy of Invasion of the Dinosaurs in late 2003, and while that raised my interest a little bit in the programme, it was really this first series in 2005 that turned me in to a fully-fledged ‘fan’.

I can remember sitting down to watch this episode in the living room, with my mum and stepdad, and watching it again today brings back a lot of the feelings I had about it first time around, and even a few of the comments that were made in the room during that broadcast. That’s why I’ve been so looking forward to reaching the 21st century series - for the first time in this marathon, I can recall my feelings on watching these stories for the first time. In some cases, that equates to the only time, too. I’ve never been someone who can watch Doctor Who over and over on repeat, so there’s lots of these episodes that I’ve not seen in a long time. Thinking back, the last time I watched this episode, for example, was probably when the DVD set of this season came out - which is a little over nine years ago now!

Since then, a lot has changed for me, and in ways that I’ve been assuming will impact the way I watched these stories. I used to tell myself - round about the time of The Last of the Time Lords - that I would one day live in Cardiff Bay. It was the home of Doctor Who, after all, and of Torchwood, and I’d grown so used to seeing it on screen that I’d sort of made up my mind that I’d make my home there. Fast forward to 2011, and I really did find myself moving to Cardiff. In reality, it transpired that I didn’t move to Wales simply because of the connection to my favourite Time Lord, but because that’s the way life moved. I spent a few years living just across the water from the Bay area, and now live less than a four-minute-walk from the Torchwood Water Tower. It means that watching the series now is a slightly different experience. Just on the walk between my house and Tescos, I pass a tonne of locations that have most recently turned up in Series Eight - from the Italian Restaurant and Victorian streets of Deep Breath to the run down buildings of The Caretaker, and the entrance to the Bank of Karabraxos. I seem to live my life in the Doctor Who world now, and that does change the way you look at things.

To use some examples for today, while the Doctor was making his speech about the turn of the Earth, my thoughts were split between ‘isn’t Eccleston great’ and ‘That street is less than half a mile over there…’. As Jackie found herself caught up in the terror of the Auton attack, I was musing that she’s coming out of the door leading through to the post office, and finding myself distracted by the fact that the doors don’t quite match up with the insides of the location. They’re silly things to be pre-occupied with, I know, but I’ve not seen the story since I made these places my home, and it’s going to take a few days, I think, to get over the sudden shock of seeing the episodes again now that I know the place so well.

So. Anyway. What’s my reaction to watching Rose now, after all this time? It’s more-or-less the same as it was first time around - it’s alright, but it’s never going to win an award as being the best bit of Doctor Who ever made. Something I’d completely forgotten until about three seconds before it happened here is that it wasn’t the episode itself which really hooked my interest in the series - it was the trailer for The End of the World. I can suddenly remember really thinking that was a subject which fascinated me, and making a mental note to make sure I’d be watching the following week. That’s not to say that this is a bad episode - it’s far from that, but it’s very much an episode with a function. Introduce Rose. Introduce the Doctor. Introduce the TARDIS, and the world that this series takes place in, and all the danger and excitement and fun that goes hand in hand with it. A few days ago, I commented that the TV Movie and Rose both have similar jobs - introducing Doctor Who to a brand new audience - but that they’re by no means doing the same thing. The TV Movie feels like the more complete story, whereas this episode has another twelve to come which can allow us to explore the scope of the program further.

Something I do want to draw attention to while making a direct comparison, though, is the introduction of the TARDIS. I meant to bring it up during the movie but then got distracted. In the opening titles to the TV Movie, we find the police box flying through a space/time vortex. It’s an unusual image, especially if you’re not familiar with Doctor Who on the whole. We then cut from this to some kind of gothic Jules Verne library, where a funny little man in tweed is settling down to read a book. There’s absolutely no proper indication that the large space we’re now seeing is supposed to be inside that blue police box. In this episode, though, it’s set up brilliantly - first by having the box crop up a few times in the background, then setting up the idea that it can vanish, and then the actual moment when Rose crosses the threshold for the first time is one of the best directed bits of the episode. She runs inside, and we see her enter… but we hold on her reaction. You don’t get to see what she’s looking at, only the back of the doors and the look on her face. She ten heads back outside to check that it really is a blue box, and then we follow her inside and get a proper look at the scope of the room. It’s quite possibly one of the best ‘first entrances’ to the TARDIS we’ve ever had, and it’s the ideal way to set it up for a whole new audience. I think it also serves to show how Rose introduces such elements far better than the movie does.

What’s surprised me, though, is that I’ve enjoyed this episode less than the TV Movie. For years and years now, I’ve always thought of this as being the more successful of the two, and therefore, to my mind, the better of them. When I suddenly realised the other day just how much I liked the TV Movie, I decided that they’d probably end up sitting on the same level as each other… but it just hasn’t quite worked out that way. I think the fact that I’m so looking forward to the next episode, and indeed knowing that there is a next episode for these characters, has actually harmed this one in my mind, whereas I really had to savour everything about the Movie.

All this sounds like I’m being incredibly negative, but that’s not the intention at all. I think it’s more that I’ve spent so many years thinking of this first season as being absolutely perfect in my mind that it’s never going to quite live up to the image I’ve built up for it. People mock John Nathan-Turner for his comment that the memory cheats, but I think there’s a lot of truth in there. The episode has gone down in my estimations because it’s never going to be as good as I remember it being! Oh, but there I go sounding negative again. It’s such a culture shock to be at the new series - you’ll have to excuse me a few days while I adjust.

There’s lots that I do like in here, so let’s touch on them. The design of the Autons is great - by far my favourite from their various appearances over the years. I love how quickly we go from that opening montage of Rose’s everyday life into the creepy atmosphere of the basement. Her whole life changes just as that music stops playing out in the background, and it’s only about three minutes into the episode. The CGI explosions ion the Nestene lair hold up better than I was expecting them to. Eccleston and Piper are great right from the start, and you know what? I actually ‘get’ Jackie this time around, whereas it took me a while on first viewing!

1 January 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Justin Richards

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: December 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

“The TARDIS arrives in the CAGE – not a trap, but the College of Advanced Galactic Education, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in colonised space.

Not a trap. Or is it?

The Doctor’s here to receive an honorary degree in Moral Philosophy. But there’s something rotten at the heart of the Medical Facility. Someone is operating on the students. Someone without a conscience. Someone with access to a Sidelian Brain Scanner – a technology that hasn’t been invented yet.

That someone is the ruthless Time Lord scientist known as the Rani – in her new incarnation. But will the Doctor and Peri recognise the Rani’s hand before her trap is sprung?

***

Ah, the Rani.  Until her triumphant lack of reappearance on TV post-2005, no-one really seemed to give two hoots about her, which is a pity as Kate O’Mara always gave it her best, and The Mark of the Rani is, for my money, one of the Sixth Doctor’s strongest televised adventures.

Suddenly though, things had changed.  Doctor Who was back, and fandom got it into its head that the Rani should be involved for… well, for whatever reason fandom had at the time.  It’s never been entirely clear, but maybe the ‘Bring Back McGann!’ brigade were on holiday.

Whilst BBV and Pudsey Bear had both tried and failed to kill her reputation for good, Russell T Davies’s stubborn refusal to include Mistress Rani in the revived series was the last straw, and then— and then! —he only went and truly rained on everyone’s parade by teasing us all, naming a character Rani who, crucially, wasn’t the Rani in The Sarah Jane Adventures, and if that wasn’t enough, the Master came back and then went and regenerated into a woman.  By then though fandom seemed to have forgotten about it altogether and were busy attacking Philip Morris for having the sheer audacity to return nine missing episodes to us all.  The bastard.

Step forward Big Finish, professional fanboys who had undertaken the steady resurrection of the Voord, the Mechonoids, the Rutans, the Nimon, the Nucleus of the Swarm and even some of their own characters such as Hex and Hex and… erm, Hex.

It was time to bring out the big guns; it was time to bring out the Rani.

The Rani Elite is the first Big Finish outing for the character, pitting her once again against the Sixth Doctor and Peri, albeit in regenerated form this time around due to the sad death of Kate O’Mara.  You can feel its shadow looming over much of this production, largely due to the dialogue being very clearly written for O’Mara and her portrayal of the role.  In much the same way that the Doctor is the Doctor but just swapping, say, mentions of Bessie for mentions of Jelly Babies won’t paper over all the cracks (yes, BBC Books, I’m still looking at Drift all these years later), so it is here.  Siobhan Redmond is wearing the tyrannical Time Lady’s shoes now, and she clearly has a lot of fun with it, but I felt throughout that I wasn’t hearing her interpretation of the role, just her reading someone else’s lines.  I would love to hear Redmond do her own thing with it in later appearances, as what we get here is fine, but not a whole new Rani.  More a Rani 1.5 affair.

As for the story itself, it’s not bad at all.  Justin Richards is always a very safe pair of hands in which to place a slot in the schedule, and there are enough twists and turns along the way here to keep you guessing and feel very true to the era, arguably far more so than any other story in these past few Sixth Doctor/Peri releases (though references to Time and the Rani make this very firmly Big Finish territory).

Set on a school with the Rani pretending to be one Professor Baxton, Richards’s script treads territory walked on by The Unquiet Dead previously, but with enough flair and difference to hold its own.  The questions posed are big ones: at what point does living become a privilege and not something one simply does? Is there a hierarchy over who should live and who should die?

Being Doctor Who, I think you can answer those questions without hearing the play, but all the same the script, and characters within it, handle them well and it helps the four episodes to move along nicely.  As a play in its own right, it’s not bad at all.

As a conclusion to this latest set of Sixth Doctor and Peri plays? Well, it hints at things to come briefly with regards to Peri and her health, but is mostly a standalone play, which is a blessing, really.  The trilogy format has grown increasingly stale as of late, with arcs being imposed on them rather than feeling like natural states of affair, and it’s nice to have heard three mostly standalone plays that just happen to feature a particular Doctor and Companion(s) pairing.  I’d love to see a return to the days of alternate Doctors and no big arcs month on month, but maybe that’s just me.  As it is, I’d like to see fewer arcs with no real cause to be there, and more individual releases such as this has been.

Lastly though, as a reintroduction to the Rani, I think it only half works.  It gives us her amorality writ large and some nice scenes to play with alongside Colin Baker’s Doctor, but as I have already said, it’s a story for O’Mara and not Redmond.  As such, we’ll have to wait a while longer to see what her incarnation brings to the table.

Whatever else though, it’s nice to have the Rani back with us, whatever face she decides to wear.

Now, let’s start moaning about Philip Morris again.  How DARE he only return nine episodes! Who does he think he is…? 

1 January 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Matt Fitton

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £10.99 (Download)

Release Date: December 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

 

“1950s London: newcomers arrive daily on British shores seeking a fresh start, new opportunities, or simply the chance of a different life. However, some are from much further afield than India or Jamaica...

After an emergency landing, the TARDIS crew must make the best of it, and look to their new neighbours for help. But the Newman family has more than the prejudices of the time to contend with. A sinister force grows in strength amid the pubs, docks and backstreets of London...

And without the Doctor, marooned in a time and place as alien as anything they've ever encountered, Steven and Sara may well face their greatest challenge yet. To live an ordinary life.”

***

This one, according to the CD Extras and David Richardson’s notes, has been in the pipeline for a long, long time now.  Richardson hit upon the central ideas of this play a while back but it’s only now, in the form of An Ordinary Life and with Matt Fitton in the writer’s seat, that we can hear it in all its glory.

You can see why Richardson kept persisting with this idea and holding back until he had found the perfect writer and team: the notion of the Doctor’s companions being forced to live life day by day in a past as alien to them as the far-flung future aboard a starship would be to us (well, me anyway: I cannot speak for the rest of you all) is a good one, and Steven Taylor and Sara Kingdom prove themselves to be the ideal subjects for such a story, as Fitton’s very strong script goes out of its way to show you time and again.  Indeed, such is the strength of the drama and scenery, that it’s acutely disappointing when aliens pop up and turn the tale away from the domestic. (I am certain that this will not be an original observation by any stretch, but all the same, I mean it.)

Perhaps the smartest thing about this play is the time in which it is all set.  It puts us in England in the 1950s with a family of first-wave immigrants, a time of quite some social unrest and upheaval, and Fitton neatly draws parallels between the family with whom Steven and Sara stay, and the companions themselves: both learning, both cautious, both more frightened than they let on.  It could be done in a very clunky manner or grow patronizing, but Fitton never lets that be the case.  He continues with the slight will-they-won’t-they take on Steven and Sara’s relationship as put forward in The Anachronauts (still one of my favourite Companion Chronicles) and develops it slightly, but, again, not enough to rock the boat too much, nor to cause any continuity errors further down the line.  Whether it necessarily needs to happen is a matter of personal taste, really: I’m sure their personal relationship/story could have been as strong without this take on it, but it is far from the worst thing in the world.

Of course, a script is only as strong as its execution, and never more so is that the case when it’s so people-orientated as this one is.  Thankfully, everyone is great.  As Who fans, we practically expect that from both Jean Marsh and Peter Purves, but it really is worth stressing here just how incredibly good they are: this play would crumble without them.  It would also be nothing without its guest cast, and here we have Ram John Holder and Sara Powell in particular delivering about as good a set of performances as Big Finish gives us.  One thing definitely worth saying at this juncture is how good the guest cast has been across this first series of Early Adventures, which bodes very well for the future.

As noted earlier though, things falter when the story shifts from domestic to alien, and sadly it is that which stops this from reaching the dizzy heights that it rightly deserves to scale.  It is a crying shame really, but fewer bodysnatchers and more scenes of Sara kicking policemen to the ground would have given this the 10 out of 10 it probably deserves.

By the time the TARDIS departs and the story ends with that oh-so-familiar theme tune, we feel like we have really grown to know everyone involved, regular- and guest-cast alike, and Fitton has every right to hold his head up high, as does David Richardson, whose dogged persistence has paid off in spades here.  Hearty congratulations to all involved.

And with that, we reach the end of the first series of The Early Adventures.  I’ve noted before flaws I perceive to be present in this series, so it’s not worth retreading old ground here, though I will note that the issue of authenticity chimes again, sadly.  An Ordinary Life is great in that it very cleverly puts 1960s companions into the 1950s, the recent past for contemporary viewers of Hartnell’s adventures, but most of that impact, especially with regards to political and social repercussions, only works now, decades later.  As with some of the very best Companion Chronicles, it makes use of both the present and past simultaneously and plays with them to create something wonderful, but the one thing it is definitely not is period-authentic.  A smart use of 1960s settings and characters? Yes, but not a story that would (or perhaps even could) have been tackled back during the relevant period of Doctor Who.

This recurring issue doesn’t stop the stories from being any good (indeed, you’ll note that three out of four of these reviews have been positively glowing) but it does make Big Finish look a bit silly, or to be more kind naïve perhaps, to keep screaming on about how these accurately recreate 1960s soundtracks.

They do not; they do not come even close, but they’re bloody good fun all the same.  Stop being ashamed of letting them be what they are; drop the slogans and taglines and just admit that these are the new Lost Stories, which in themselves were fuller-cast Companion Chronicles at times.  There’s no shame in that at all.

 

31 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 730: Scream of the Shalka, Episodes Five and Six

Dear diary,

Increasingly as this story has gone on, I’ve had cause to think that it suffers by being the only adventure for this particular Doctor, and in this particular format. The special features on the DVD (some of the best in the range, I think) make it clear that the original plan was to have twelve& episodes, which would have allowed three four-part stories making up a short ‘season’ of adventures for our heroes, but as budgets were changed and interest in the project shifted, it was cut down to the one story. It really *does suffer for this, because it means that Scream of the Shalka doesn’t have enough presence to really make any kind of impact on the world of Doctor Who. It’s easily ignored as a slightly strange bit of ephemera from the early naughties, and nothing more.

It also means that we get lots of tantalising glimpses into the world that the series could be set in, without actually following through on them. The Doctor here is a loner because he’s lost someone, and the implication is that it was someone very close to him and under circumstances that were particularly distressing. You’ve also got him travelling around the universe with a robot version of the Master… and it’s simply presented as the Doctor’s way of saving his old friend’s soul. At the end, Alison ditches her dead-end relationship to go gallivanting in the TARDIS (something that’s going to be cropping up tomorrow, too!), and there’s the promise of plenty more to come for her… but we’ll not be seeing her again. In all, it means that the story doesn’t really pack much of a punch, and I can guarantee that I’ll have forgotten most of it by the time that this marathon is over.

Which is a shame, because there are a lot of interesting ideas in here, and you can sort of see what they were aiming to do with the series. It’s a different approach to it - and one that’s squarely aimed at an existing fancies hungry for new content, as opposed to the TV Movie or Rose, both of which are designed as ‘introductions’ to Doctor Who). I think I’d love for there even to be just another six episodes - one or two more stories just to flesh out this attempt at making the series, so that there’s more of a mission statement for this incarnation of the show.

What has become quite fun in the last few years is the idea that this can now be somehow shoehorned into actual Doctor Who continuity if you squint a bit. It’s all thanks to the fact that the Great Intelligence ends up taking a form very similar in style to the ‘Doctor’ we’re presented with here, and then he throws himself into the Doctor’s time stream, getting scattered throughout the Doctor’s life in the process. I don’t think you have to make too much of a mental leap to say that this incarnation is simply the Great Intelligence playing at being the Doctor, and maybe that would explain his slightly angry demeanour at the very start of the adventure. You could even use that to rationalise the whole ‘Master as a robot’ thing, if you say that the Intelligence recognises the man’s role in the Doctor’s life and so creates his own version to make it all seem more real. Hey, if the Intelligence is mad enough to lure the Doctor to his own grave and then commit suicide jumping in to the time stream, then I’m willing to bet he’s mad enough to pretend he’s an incarnation of the Doctor as a bit of fun now and then!

So, in all, Scream of the Shalka has been an interesting little diversion over the last few days. I’m glad that I didn’t cave during that first episode and skip over it straight to the ‘new’ series, because I’ve found a lot more to enjoy here than I was expecting to, but it’s never going to be a classic - only a strange sort of ‘what if’, floating around in the mists of time…

30 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 729: Scream of the Shalka, Episodes Three and Four

Dear diary,

This one definitely grows on you, doesn’t it? Having almost reached the point of turning off during yesterday’s episodes because I just couldn’t enthuse myself enough to care about Scream of the Shalka, today I’ve come away having quite enjoyed it! I think it helps that the cast seem to have woken up by this point in the recording - they must have been doing that first episode early in the morning before they’d had their coffee. Suddenly, everyone is giving a lot more to their performances - chief among them being Richard E Grant.

I mused yesterday that the character he’s being asked to play here has several ver Doctor-ish traits to him, but that it feels like they’re being read from a page, rather than coming naturally to him. Today, though, and from about the moment he slips away from the soldiers and sets out on his own to have the adventure, he suddenly comes alive and seems to realise that it’s supposed to be a fun part to play! Contrast the way he acts in the Fourth episode with the way he does in the first - very clearly the same character, but a world of difference in the way they’re being played.

Not much difference in the way they’re being written, though, because he continues to be very much ‘like the Doctor’ here. I think a highlight is probably falling through a wormhole but taking the time to leave a voicemail (that feels bot very Doctor Who and very 2003, for some reason), and the way he struts back into the TARDIS and very quickly ejects the creatures who’ve taken up residence. You could very easily imagine most of the post-2005 Doctors playing out these exact scenes, and I think that’s probably the biggest compliment I can give.

The script doesn’t only serve the Doctor, though. It seems to have joined the cast in really coming alive with these middle segments, suddenly finding the voice it wants to use. There’s several lines that I’ve noted down as making me laugh or at least raising a smile (always a sign of a good episode when I’m noting down every fourth line of dialogue), and the story itself has started to grab my attention, too.

Something I’ve not mentioned yet is the actual animation of the story… it’s not bad, is it? There’s lots of moments when you can tell they’re supposed to be buffering the next section of playback (I think I’m right in saying that Scream of the Shalka was designed just to buffer as it went with as little delay as possible), and this means we get static images just panning across the screen, or we switch to a view of our characters in silhouette against a barely-moving background, but all of this actually adds to the particular style of the adventure. It certainly looks very different to the way Doctor Who usually did - and not just because we’re now being animated, but because it’s been consciously designed to look different. I think it works, too, and there’s some areas where it stands up especially well. Considering that this was made for broadcast on the website as something of an experiment, an awful lot of love has gone in to it.

And there’s lots of little bits of the design which I really like! The TARDIS Console Room is beautiful with those stairs and the harsh shadows (though I’m not so keen on the actual console itself), and the design of the Shalka is lovely, looking enough like a man in a monster costume to fit in with the rest of Doctor Who and yet unique enough to take advantage of the animated format. I’d love to see an attempt at creating a ‘live-action’ version of the creatures - surely that’s something that someone has photoshopped over the years? No? Right then. I’m off to Photoshop…

Just as an aside, I checked my notes while writing this paragraph in order to see if there was anything I wanted to quote, and I’m pleased to say that some of the lines actually caused me to laugh out loud again. Of particular highlight was the Doctor’s reaction to the Shalka’s plans being grander than invading a small portion of Lincolnshire - ‘you mean… Nottinghamshire?!’

29 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 728: Scream of the Shalka, Episodes One and Two

Dear diary,

So, for the first time since the marathon began almost two years ago, I’ve resorted to watching two episodes a day, instead of the usual one. The reasons for this are simple: Scream of the Shalka has episodes which are only 15 minutes long, and there’s no way I’d be able to find enough to discuss for six whole days on this story!

Truth be told, Scream of the Shalka was never going to be a part of this marathon. I was going to go from the TV Movie to Rose in one fell swoop. But then this story was released on DVD last year, and I started to think about maybe including it somewhere. Scream of the Shalka has always been something of an ‘also-ran’ in the worlds of Doctor Who. Released after the announcement had been made heralding the return of the show to television, its purpose quickly became somewhat redundant, which is a real shame because it’s something incredibly unique, and much like Downtime, shows how the Doctor Who format can adapt itself to survive under any circumstances.

And the idea fascinates me in its own way. Doctor Who was always a testing bed for new technologies, so it makes sense that it should become one of the BBC’s very first ventures into online video, and creating content exclusively for the web. There’s a little voice in the back of my mind which loves the idea that there may have been a whole series of these adventures made - somewhere out there is a parallel universe in which Richard E Grant was the Ninth Doctor for a decent length ofd time, and had lots of travels throughout time and space… all in animated form on the BBC website.

So what of these first two episodes themselves? Well… if I’m being entirely honest - and there’s little point in doing anything but - then it’s a slow-burner. There was a point, about five minutes in to the first episode, where I seriously considered switching off and skipping straight on to Rose. Had it not been for the fact that I’d already told you all that I’d be watching this one, then I think I might well have done. It’s also confession time: this isn’t the first attempt I’ve made to watch Scream of the Shalka. I’ve tried once before on the website itself, long before the DVD was released, and got about as far in to it that time as I did this time.

Because it’s not the most exciting of openings, is it? I mean, the actual first scenes, in which a meteorite crashes to Earth are fun enough, but then it slows right down to a snail’s pace. The TARDIS arrives, and the Doctor moves very slowly through a couple of scenes as he starts to piece the story together. The lack of any incidental music for large chinks of the tale didn’t help either, because it left the scenes feeling more than a bit empty and a struggle to pay attention to. Thankfully, as that first episode went by, I found myself getting more involved with things. By the time we’re blowing up buildings in the second episode, there’s lots more holding my attention.

It’s a pity, in a way, because the Doctor that we’re presented with in those early, slow-moving scenes is rather brilliantly in character as the Time Lord we know and love. The way that he assesses the situation in the pub, and puts all the pieces together without being given any information by the other characters is lovely, and then the extraction of information from the homeless lady in the street is a great example of the way he’ll interact with anybody. I’m hoping that we get more scenes like this now that the story seems to have picked up the pace a bit, because they probably deserve to be enjoyed more than they were!

I’ve heard lots of complaints over the years about the way that Grant ‘phones in’ his performance in this story, and I can’t help but sadly go along with that for now. There’s no real urgency to the performance he’s giving… but the same can largely be said for everyone else in the story, too. You very much get the impression that these people are standing in a booth reading their lines from a script, as opposed to really getting caught up in the story itself. It’s certainly not up to the standard of a Big Finish audio recording, for example. I think that’s contributing to the fact that I just can’t excite myself too much about these scenes that should be really working for me. If the Doctor doesn’t care enough to find the energy, then where am I supposed to get it from?

28 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 727: The Curse of Fatal Death

Dear diary,

I’ve never been all that fond of The Curse of Fatal Death. It’s the way that I often seem to encounter other fans who tell me that it’s the funniest thing in the world, and I sort of smile and nod while secretly thinking that, yes, it’s a good laugh, but no, it’s not that good of a laugh. So why the decision to take a whole day out of the marathon in order to watch it? Ah, well, that’s simple. It’s become something of a joke over the years between a friend and me to view this short story as something of a template for Steven Moffat’s time on Doctor Who proper. Every year or so, something seems to come along which can be linked back (sometimes very tenuously - we seem to try and out do each other in that area) to Fatal Death. By my count, we’ve currently got;

A humanoid augmented by Dalek technology (Asylum of the Daleks, The Time of the Doctor), The Doctor getting engaged/married (A Christmas Carol, The Wedding of River Song et al…), A plot that gets a bit wibbly-wobbly (take your pick), a get out clause of engineering your escape after you’ve made said escape (The Big Bang), A Time Lord trapped on one planet for the better part of a millennium (The Time of the Doctor), Regenerating in to the opposite sex (Dark Water), Daleks needing the Doctor’s help (Asylum of the Daleks), The Doctor retiring from his role as saviour of the universe (The Snowmen), The universe not wanting to let the Doctor die (The Wedding of River Song), “Never cruel, never cowardly” (The Day of the Doctor, although this in fairness is a crib from Terrance Dicks), The Doctor and the Master flirting openly with each other (Death in Heaven), and The Sonic Screwdriver being used for innuendo (The Day of the Doctor).

As I say, some of those are extremely tenuous links, while some are more obvious, and I’m sure that we must have missed something somewhere. Quite a lot of them tie in to several other aspects of Doctor Who, too, and can’t simply be called something Steven Moffat does with the show. But I wanted to refresh my memory of the story before heading off into the revived series, so that it’s fresh in the mind when we reach some of Moffat’s later stories. Certainly, there’s a few links in that list that I’d not thought about until today!

The other thing that I have to confess to enjoying about this one is that it gives us some glimpses - some very brief - in to ‘could-have-been’ Doctors… and some are rather good at it! Rowan Atkinson, for example, plays the part up a little as the script requires him to… but he somehow makes it work perfectly well, and I could just about imagine him taking on the roll full-time in a not-too-dissimilar manner. I think I’d list Rowan Atkinson as the one actor I’d love to have seen helm the role at some point.

But then you’ve also got the likes of Hugh Grant turning in a decent performance in the part at pretty much the height of his fame, but the difference with Grant is that while I can enjoy his performance in this story as a bit of a one-off, I don’t think I could take him seriously in the show proper if he played it the way he does here. The same could be said for Richard E. Grant - but of all these temporary Doctors, he’s the only one who will get the chance to explore the character more over the next few days. Jim Broadbent’s Doctor is completely out there for the few brief moments he’s on screen (but even then, there’s shades of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor in there!), and even Joanna Lumley makes a great Time Lord for a short time!

 

Is The Curse of Fatal Death the funniest Doctor Who comedy ever? Well… no. I don’t think so. Is there a lot in here to like? Very much so. I’ll be keeping it toward the front of my mind as I move on in to the 21st century series…

27 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 726: The TV Movie

Dear diary,

He’s back, and it’s about time! Watching the TV Movie today has been one of the most enjoyable experiences that I’ve had while doing this marathon. It’s a story that I’ve always known I liked, but I don’t think that I’d ever appreciated just how good it is before. it’s only now, watching it after all the episodes of the ‘classic’ series, that I can fully see how good it really is - and I’m baffled by the distaste it used to have, once upon a time.

Now. There’s lots to discuss in relation to this episode, so I guess I’d better pick somewhere to start. Let’s go for the Direction, shall we? It’s stunning. There, that was simple. I’m not being facetious, though, it simply is stunning. It’s quite unlike any of the direction we’ve ever had in the programme u pt this point, and is easily up there wit the best that Douglas Canfield has to offer, though in a different style. People bang on about how good Grahame Harper’s direction was in the 1980s… why doesn’t anyone ever discuss Geoffrey Sax? It’s far more ‘filmic’ than I’m used to for the series - and largely that’s because we’ve finally broken free of the studio set up that defined the programme for its entire original run. Being taken out of that and given more time to film it as though it were all on location has really benefited, and I’m guessing I’ll see this trend continue as the marathon goes on, because the ‘new’ series is filmed in the same way.

The other benefit of breaking free of the traditional production method for Doctor Who is that we can have a new TARDIS set quite unlike anything that the programme has ever been able to manage before now. Watching it in context like this, I’m actually a little bit surprised by the change - it really is a massive departure from the version of the ship we had from 1963 onwards. In the past, I’ve seen it described as the Secondary Console Room turned up to eleven, but that’s rubbish frankly, because this is something completely on another level. I’m actually surprised that they had the balls to go for such a complete redesign of the structure, because it’s such a leap from the expected norm. Now, I’ve always had a soft spot for this console room. I think it’s beautiful, but I’ve never noticed just how lovely it is. We’re really coming back to Sax’s direction again here, because we get lots of shots which really make the most of the setting and show off lots of the intricate little details.

And then you’ve got our new Doctor himself - Paul McGann is the Doctor! It seems strange, now, in a post-Night of the Doctor world, that people ever doubted his position as a Doctor. Sure, he’s only got the one televised adventure in which to flex his muscles, but he’s certainly more the Doctor in the hour-or-so he gets here than McCoy was in Season Twenty-Four, for example! He really does hit the ground running, and I can’t help but love him from the second he strolls down an abandoned hospital corridor and starts to scream into the night (‘Who… Am… Aaaaargh!’) to the moment he dips back inside the police box as fireworks explode overhead. He’s a fantastic Doctor, and I absolutely love him. Of course, I’m slightly biased in this opinion, perhaps, because I’ve already done a marathon of the Eighth Doctor’s audio adventures and written my thoughts down in a book with my friend Nick Mellish. I’ve had travels from the R101, through a Divergent Dimension, and off to the Dalek’s second invasion of Earth to fall in love with this incarnation. But I genuinely do believe that he’s given a great start here, and you can see all the potential for a great Doctor to run and run.

Which brings me quite neatly to the big thing that I’m not so sure about with the TV Movie… does it work as a decent set up for the future? In the Seven Year Itch documentary on this DVD, Philip Segal et al discuss the way that they had this seen as a ‘backdoor pilot’ for a potential continuing series (and, I have to admit, I had no idea that it was as formal as it was). I’ve always thought of it as an awful way to introduce a new audience - and even made a note to that effect when the Doctor’s info-dump narration kicked in a few seconds into the feature - but actually watching it this time around, I’m not sure it’s as bad as I thought it was.

I mean, it sets up neatly the fact that the Doctor is an alien time traveller who can change his face upon death. We’re given an arch enemy for him to fight against. He’s paired with a resourceful companion who can assist in the adventure. All the elements are in place for things to work. I think the problem is how thick and fast they come. It doesn’t phase me, because I know about Doctor Who. He can throw in references to Gallifrey, and the Eye of Harmony, and the Daleks can make a cameo (sight unseen) at the start. We can have Jelly Babies, and Sonic Screwdrivers, and the Seal of Rassilon on every third surface. I don’t bat an eyelid, because I’m a fan. But I can’t help thinking that the new series made a better job of all this - drip feeding new elements of the Mythos as it went along. We’ll see if that opinion holds up over the next few months, but I’ve always thought of it as being more successful. I suppose the key difference is that the 2005 series was just that - a series. There were always going to be thirteen weeks to build the story across. In this instance, you’ve got 90 minutes to make your pitch… and then that could be it.

The other thing which doesn’t sit quite right with me in regards to this being any kind of pilot is that any follow-up would be a bit of a culture shock. There’s not much of an implication of the scope of the series here, because the Doctor and the Master both come crashing down at the same time, bringing their fight to Earth. In Rose, for example, her world is expanded by the introduction of first the Autons, then the Doctor, the police box, a replica boyfriend, and finally the Nestene Consciousness under the London Eye. It’s something new every few minutes, pushing her story forward, whereas once Grace is introduced to the idea that the Doctor is an alien and his arch nemesis is out to end the world… well, she’s all up to speed!

All that said, I think this is probably perfect for a British audience - and it certainly faired rather well here when it was first broadcast. It’s best for an audience with enough cultural knowledge of Doctor Who to simply sit back and enjoy a well-paced and directed film. There’s a lot to really like about the TV Movie - not perfect, but certainly a highlight in the Doctor Who narrative… 

26 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 725: Downtime

Dear diary,

I’ve been curious about Downtime for ages. Back when I was first getting in to Doctor Who it seemed like the most amazing thing in the world - the return of three former associates of the Doctor, and of the Yeti after almost 30 years. Of course, at that point there were only two Yeti episodes surviving in the BBC archives, so the thought of a complete story featuring them instantly won extra brownie points. Over the years, I must have seen this story more times than I’ve seen some real episodes of Doctor Who, and you know what? I’ve always been confused by it.

Partly, I think, that’s because I’d never experienced the two Patrick Troughton Yeti adventures. I therefore had no clue why the little wooden carving of a Yeti was so important (and, watching again here, I note that it’s never actually explained), and I was forever getting confused by the fact that Victoria is looking for her own father - who’s long dead - but finds Professor Travers, played by Deborah Watling’s real life father, who goes on to talk about his daughter; meaning Anne. Can you see where my confusion came from? Please say you can.

And yet, somehow, Downtime always remained oddly fascinating to me. I think a certain amount of that comes from the fact that it’s the ultimate example of the programme surviving in any climate. In 1995, it had been six years since the BBC had actively produced a proper new episode of Doctor Who, and through all the false starts of various film projects in the preceding half-decade, didn’t really have much interest in the property. And yet you get a group of fans clubbing together, getting a licence to use various elements that aren’t directly owned by the BBC, and making something new with them, that sits firmly - and comfortably - within the Doctor Who world. I think it’s something to be admired, and actually, it comes off rather well.

Because this time around, I’m actually surprised by just how much I’ve enjoyed this! Truth be told, the main reason I wanted to watch it again was to see if my half-memories of earlier viewings fitted neatly in to the Great Intelligence timeline that I was pondering back during The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear last year (more on that in a moment). But then as I watched, it suddenly became less about simply ticking this one off on the list of things I needed to see for the marathon, and more about simply enjoying it. Certainly, having experienced those earlier Intelligence stories, I’ve managed to follow the plot of this one a whole lot better than ever before, but there’s numerous other things that had troubled me in the past that all fit together perfectly well here - I guess I was too busy worrying about things I didn’t understand before that I missed some important dialogue.

It’s also great to use this story as something of a send-off to ‘classic’ Doctor Who. The TV Movie being isolated out on its own in the middle of the 1990s means that it doesn’t really feel like it belongs lumped in with those earlier Doctors, and the recent reappearance of McGann in the programme means that he feels, if anything, closer to the new series than the old. The appearance of Sylvester McCoy in the film just makes it feel a little bit like a handover between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. So this story is perfectly placed to have a reappearance for Sarah Jane Smith, the Brigadier, and Victoria Waterfield. All three were on hand to celebrate the programme for Dimensions in Time, but in regards to the actually main narrative of the show, the Brig hasn’t been seen in six years, Sarah Jane for more than ten, and our last sight of Victoria was on a beach almost thirty years ago! Bringing them all back together here for a new story alongside an old foe really does work, and introducing Kate Stewart, who’ll go on to be a recurring presence in the revived series later on, makes it feel like another vital part of the ‘Wilderness Years’.

Indeed, I’ve been somewhat struck by just how much this feels like proper Doctor Who, and I even found myself slightly mourning the fact that it’s never had a DVD release with some special features. Several key members of the cast are sadly no longer with us, but it would be nice to see if given some kind of treatment, because it comes across as so much more than ‘just another fan film’.

So. The big question - for me at least - is how this fits in with the timeline I proposed last year. Back then, I suggested that following the defeat of the Intelligence on the Underground, it retreated back onto the Astral Plane, but continued its link with the ‘many human hands’ at its disposal. I think that’s borne out here - Travers has been summoned back to Det Sen and kept alive beyond his years, and Victoria is later brought to the same location, and used to carry out the task. The plan seems to be using the fledgeling internet to carry the Great Intelligence and take over the world… which isn’t a million miles away from the plan we see in The Bells of Saint John. Yeah, I’d say that this fits in rather nicely with what I’ve assumed before - and I’m glad about that! I’ll keep reviewing the situation when we reach Season Seven in a few month’s time, but I think for now this is going in as part of my personal ‘canon’ when it comes to Doctor Who.

25 December 2014

Will Brooks’ 50 Year Diary - watching Doctor Who one episode a day from the very start...

Day 724: Dimensions in Time

Dear diary,

It’s Chriiiiiiiistmaaaaaassssssss! Fitting, then, that I should be watching a strange kind of ‘panto’ episode of Doctor Who to celebrate…

Oh, the hate that Dimensions in Time has received over the years. Is there a more loathed fifteen minutes of Doctor Who than this? I have to admit, though, that I rather like it - because I’ve never taken it seriously, but simply enjoyed it for what it is; a fun runaround, celebrating Doctor Who for its thirtieth birthday, and raising money for a great cause at the same time. Indeed, it’s perhaps fitting that I’m watching this one on Christmas Day, because it’s the perfect time to enjoy it on its own merits.

You’ll also have to excuse that this isn’t going to be a particularly ‘in-depth’ entry of the Diary (as though I’m able to really call any of my insights all that ‘in-depth’), because there’s not an awful lot that i can actually say about Dimensions in Time, is there? I’ve even made Emma sit and watch it with me - it helps the Christmas dinner go down - but she spent most of the time with her head cocked to one side, somewhat confused as to what the heck was actually happening. Immediately afterwards, though, we watched the out-takes and amused ourselves with how Davison spends the entire recording looking as though he’s made a huge mistake in agreeing to turn up that day.

Over the last couple of weeks, when I’ve told people that I’ll be watching this story as part of the marathon, it’s been met with a fair bit of negative reaction. I’ve been told - several times - that it’s not a proper part of Doctor Who, so I needn't bother watching it (equally, many of those same people have gone on to tell me that I ‘have’ to watch The Curse of Fatal Death, though…!), but for me it’s an important part of the entire Doctor Who mythos, and I’ve never realised it mores than now - at the very end of a two-year marathon of all the ‘classic’ episodes. It’s the capstone for ‘classic’ BBC Doctor Who, and looked at like that, I think it fills the part admirably. 

It’s a final chance to see lots of our old favourites running around, doing (and saying) things that the general public automatically think are ‘very Doctor Who’. It’s the final time we get to see Jon Pertwee don his cape and strut around like he owns the place. It’s also the last appearance in televised Doctor Who for almost the entire cast - save for Elisabeth Sladen. No, the plot doesn’t make a great deal of sense (Every time I watch, I think I’ve sussed out what’s happening, but then we cut to the Fifth Doctor with both Peri and Nyssa, and the whole plan goes out the window), and shoehorning in Eastenders doesn’t fit quite as well as they suspected it would (that said, I’d probably enjoy that element more if I could remember more than a handful of the Eastenders characters), but it’s a fun way to spend fifteen minutes - and a great celebration of Doctor Who to wrap up the ‘classic’ era before I head on in to the TV Movie and the 21st century version of the programme beyond that. 

It’s the season to be jolly, so crack open some Bucks’ Fizz and pop on Dimensions in Time. Have a laugh with it. Enjoy quoting along with the best bits (‘who was that terrible woman?!?!?’) and celebrate the magic of Doctor Who.

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