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17 February 2015

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

Day 778: The Poison Sky

Dear diary,

Throughout Series Three I felt like a bit of a yo-yo when it came to the subject of Martha’s family. I remembered them as being a bit poorly conceived when compared to the likes of the Tylers or the Nobles. But then, there were hidden dimensions to them that I’d forgotten about since broadcast, and nice moments which - while not quite elevating them to the same level as those other families - certainly put them on a more even playing field. Then, come the finale, I felt that they didn’t quite work again, and the threat wasn’t sold to me via them in the way I might have expected. Ultimately, I just didn’t care about them. Thankfully, in the end, Martha did, and it’s been used to great effect in this story. I love that she makes a point of telling Donna that travelling with the Doctor caused her family so much pain, and actively urges her to speak to her own family (it also leads to that great exchange between the Doctor and Donna about going home! Hah!). It’s also a nice touch that one of the things to tip the Doctor off that Martha’s been replaced is the fact that she hasn’t thought to phone her family yet - when he knows that’s the first thing she’d do after the events of the last series.

It also shows up just how much better Donna’s family are done, though - I’ve just clicked with them instantly. There’s a moment in yesterday’s episode where Donna walks down her street - taking in the fact that she’s just gone back to normal life once more - and then she sees Wilf standing in the driveway. He waves! he dances a little! He tears up… and so did I! Watching the 21st century series thing time around is making me well up a lot more than it ever did the first time, but there’s just something about the sight of Wilf there, so pleased to see his granddaughter back safe and sound that really struck a chord with me.

And then they go inside, and discuss the life that Donna’s been leading these last few weeks, and everything about the scene absolutely rings true. The way that Wilf tells her not to tell Sylvia, and the way Sylvia reacts when she thinks something is being kept from her. If anything, this is the most real family that the Russell T Davies era gives us, and it’s really the backbone of these episodes for me. You can keep your Sontarans, your intergalactic wars, and your poison skies, I’ll settle for just these family scenes, thanks.

But the beauty of the programme at this point is that we can have all these beautiful family moments, and have all those other things, too! So; the Sontarans. I spent a fair bit of time musing yesterday about the fact that I’d not really consider them to be particularly big or important monsters in Doctor Who, but I think - after the family stuff - they’re the thing I’ve enjoyed the most about this two-parter. Not necessarily their plan, or the story involving them, but just the way that they’re portrayed as a little bit comical, but also totally warlike.

Take the battle sequence, for example, in which they go to war against UNIT; there’s something in the sheer delight they take at the situation that makes them stand out from the other Doctor Who monsters. We’ve seen Daleks taking out people en masse, but when they do it, it’s simply functional. In The Parting of the Ways, for example, I praised the fact that we got to see them going down to Level Zero to kill all the humans stranded there. It was great, but it was calculated, and there wasn’t any emotion behind it from the point-of-view of the baddies. Watching as Dan Starkey stomps into battle, though, and likens it to sport makes me almost root for the Sontarans! Bless them, they’re only playing!

As for the story… well, as I say, I can take or leave that. I’m a little saddened that we’ve yet to see Sontarans in a proper all-out war, so spending two episodes with the Doctor musing that this is so unlike the Sontaran’s usual tactics means that I’m left longing for the story I want to see. It’s also just a bit ‘been there, done that’ in places, with moments like Luke’s students deserting him and his later being betrayed by the Sontarans falling flat because they’re more than a little clichéd, and because the students have only really been seen in the background so far - which means I don’t really feel anything for them when confronted with a gun.

On the whole, I think there’s a lot of great ideas in these tow episodes - and when it latches onto something real like the depictions of Donna’s homecoming, it really sings - but it’s a draft or two away from being as tight as it could be.

16 February 2015

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

Day 777: The Sontaran Stratagem

Dear diary,

I’ve spoken before about the very clever way the 21st century version of Doctor Who slowly drip-feeds in bits from the ‘classic’ era, allowing it to organically become a part of the new mythology, rather than hitting you with it all at once (I didn’t mention it the other day, but can you imagine that speech from Voyage of the Damned cropping up in Series One? Half the audience would switch off! ‘Nice to meet you, Rose. I'm the Doctor. I'm a Time Lord. I'm from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I'm nine hundred and three years old. Run!’). There’s been a fairly natural order for things to be introduced so far - the Doctor and the TARDIS are obviously top of the list, followed by the Time Lords (who are introduced through their absence, setting up a whole new backstory), and in terms of the villains it was always going to go Daleks/Cybermen/Master. Question is, though… where do you go from there?

At the time, it seemed perfectly natural and only right that we were seeing the Sontarans back next. I can remember the promotional picture they released of David Tennant, Catherine Tate, Freema Ageyman, and Dan Starkey’s first Sontaran, and thinking ‘of course it had to be them!’ but… um… did it? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love a Sontaran as much as the next person, but they’re hardly ‘top-teir’ are they? Two two-parters (hush, pedant at the back, The Invasion of Time is a two-parter for them), a three parter (hush, pedant), and a four parter spread out over a decade or so. But then, I’m not entirely sure that Doctor Who has really got a baddie after those big three who’s immediately recognisable, has it? I often see people calling for the Ice Warriors’ as the fourth place, but that’s not true! They, too, had four adventures in the show but last appeared in the classic series in 1974! I’d not say they’re especially remembered by the nation-at-large. That said, if I’m using that criteria to judge, then the next biggest baddie is probably the Giant Maggots by technicality. Well, we are in Wales… Does anyone have a particular theory on what the ‘next big baddie’ is after the Daleks/Cybermen/Master? Is it the Sontarans, and I’m just being awkward?

I’m not complaining, mind, because I rather like the Sontarans, and I’m especially fond of these modern ones. They really suit being properly short (after their growth spurt for The Two Doctors), and the masks look the best they have since the very first Sontaran from way back when. Also, turns out that blue is very much their colour!

What’s strange about this story is that it’s not the reintroduction of UNIT - they played parts in Aliens of London, The Christmas Invasion, and the Series Three finale - but it feels like it is. This is the first time we’ve really done a proper story set within UNIT. The Christmas Invasion is the nearest contender, but we only really see UNIT there because they have a means of tracking the spaceship, thus moving the plot on. There’s something I rather like about modern UNIT, too. As the Doctor says, it was all a bit more homespun in the old days, but I like the flashy, modern edge to the new chaps, and I’m glad they’ve made more of a prominent return in recent years, with recurring characters among their ranks.

And on the subject of returning characters… hello Martha Jones! I’ve said plenty of times across this marathon that I really like the Doctor having friends scattered across time and space that he can drop in on from time to time, and I love the idea of Martha calling him back down to Earth to help with a problem (it’s the same way I like Mickey going it in School Reunion)… but I’m not sure I like her being a part of UNIT. It just never sat right with me, in the same way that her becoming that lone warrior in Last of the Time Lords didn’t quite gel. If I’m honest, I think Martha’s entire post-Series Three story is a massive mess - she joins UNIT, gets engaged to a man she met briefly in a parallel time line, then dumps him for Mickey and becomes a gun-toting freelancer… it just doesn’t chime with the Martha we knew for most of Series Three, and that’s a shame. I'm finding it hard to take to the Doctor's distaste for her position here - especially since she points out that he's the one that got her the job in the first place!

16 February 2015

Funko - the company who hold the license to make vinyl and pop culture licensed toys, have just unveiled their new Doctor Who range.

After years of requests from fans, the company finally unveiled their new ranges at last week's New York Toy Fair, and among them were 9 figures from the Doctor Who universe.

The TARDIS, The 12th Doctor, The 11th Doctor, The 10th Doctor, The 4th Doctor, A Dalek, A Cyberman, A Weeping Angel and an Adipose all feature in the first wave of Doctor Who vinyl figures.

View a gallery of the upcoming figures, below: 

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Also unveiled were some keyring versions of the above figures, which you can view below:

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+  The Doctor Who Pop Vinyl figures will be released later in 2015, priced £9.99 each.
+  PREORDER these figures from Forbidden Planet for just £8.99!

[Source:
 Funko]

15 February 2015

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

Day 776: Planet of the Ood

Dear diary,

Oh, I’m going to sound like a right old misery here. Having complained yesterday that I wasn’t all that impressed by the exteriors for The Fires of Pompeii, for which they traveled all the way to Italy to film, I’m going to say a similar thing again today. Though this time around, I know why some of the location shooting doesn’t work for me - and it’s because it’s very much shown up by other areas.

I’ve no problem with the actual complex of Ood Operations. No, that looks good enough, and I was pleasantly surprised by it in places - early on, when characters are first moving about the industrial landscape, there’s no snow falling. I figured that it was because they simply couldn’t get the snow machines into such tight areas to use them… but then later on they do! It’s a little touch, but it makes it somehow all the better. My issue comes with the wide open spaces, specifically where the TARDIS lands right at the start. We pull back to a frankly beautiful matte painting of the Ood Sphere, with the Doctor, Donna, and the TARDIS parked up in one of the nicest alien landscapes the programme has ever shown us - with vast spires of ice, and caverns, ravines, plains in the distance… gorgeous.

…And then we cut in for tighter shots of the actors and we’re in a bit of a quarry with some fake snow peppered around (and not entirely convincingly, at that). There’s no hint of that vast landscape painted in behind the Doctor or Donna when we see them closer up, even though you’d expect to have a hint of it in there somewhere. I know that the programme doesn’t have an unlimited budget with which to constantly be painting in backgrounds to every single shot, but it just took such great work in the matte painting and let it go to waste. A real pity.

It’s hardly the end of the world, though, and there’s plenty else to enjoy about this episode. We’ve got another one here which I’ve not seen since broadcast (I’d not really noticed before just how many of these episode I’ve only watched the once), and there’s lots of nice depths to the story that I’d completely forgotten since my last viewing. Chief among them has to be the way that the Doctor and Donna act together - they’ve already slipped into being best friends, and it’s great to watch. In some ways, it’s not all that far removed from the way the Doctor and Rose were back in Series Two, but whereas that relationship could grate from time-to-time, this just feels natural, and fun, and I’m loving it. The way they rattle around in the console room at the beginning, or laugh as they cross the icy wastes of the planet, it’s all so lovely - it’s what I’d want time travel to be like.

There’s something so honest and human about Donna. The way she punctuates all of the Doctor’s pomposity simply be being real. I love that she misses the Doctor’s speech because she’s ventured inside to fetch a coat (on the subject of which, I love that she thought to even bring a coat, among other belongings!), and then the way that she reacts as the true plight of the Ood becomes more and more obvious. And then there’s that beautiful moment when she’s heard the Ood song, and it moves her to tears;

DONNA

I spent all that time looking for you, Doctor, because I thought it was so wonderful out here… …I want to go home.

That moment alone should be enough to silence anyone who dared to think that Catherine Tate wouldn’t be up to fulfilling the companion role long-term, because it’s such a wonderful performance. Truly heartbreaking.

And since I’ve started tracking the elements falling into place for the Tenth Doctor’s impending demise, today we’ve got that set up of the Ood’s song, which will sing the Doctor to sleep before too long, and the first of many hints that his song is closer to the end than the beginning…

14 February 2015

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

Day 775: The Fires of Pompeii

Dear diary,

Way back at the very start of this marathon, I used to track a loose story arc involving the Doctor’s realisation that time isn’t as rigid as he’d always thought it was. I’m fairly certain that it wasn’t an arc consciously inserted into the programme by the production team, but rather something which evolved organically over time, ranging from The Aztecs, in which the Doctor is fairly certain that time can’t be altered (he’s very blunt about it with Barbara, but there’s a certain something in the performance that makes me suspect that it’s more techies of you can’t rewrite a single line because that’s what he’s always been told, not what he’s experienced) through to The Romans, in which he realises that the Great Fire of Rome was his fault. We’re almost seeing history repeating itself at the moment, and I’m rather liking that it happens in very similar setting - and in an episode where the Doctor actually namecheck the fire he caused!

Yes, I’m seeing patterns in things that aren’t there again. Following on from Voyage of the Damned, which had a few threads starting to appear that will become very prominent right at the end of this Doctor’s life, today we’ve got him once again realising that he’s a vital part of time - and more crucially, realising that he can bend time to his own will. Here, it’s just saving the one family from the eruption of Vesuvius, but by the time The Waters of Mars rolls around, this type of power will have gone to his head. Just like the arc in the 1960s, I’m fairly sure that this wasn’t placed here intentionally, but it’s lovely to see it starting to form in retrospect, when you look back at these stories with knowledge of where the tale goes further down the road.

It’s also fitting in some ways that The Fires of Pompeii should slot so neatly into the Doctor realising how flexible even ‘fixed’ points in time can be, because this episode is something of an important one for the programme’s timeline - with both Karen Gillan and Peter Capaldi making their Doctor Who debut here several years before they’d return to play a more prominent role in the series. I’m surprised we as a fandom don’t spend more time parsing the cast list for this one to see who else might crop up as someone major in the future (Oh, actually, Tracy Childs is in this one, too, and she’s an audio companion, so I’m not being entirely facetious).

Overall, I can’t help but quite like this one - there’a a nice enough story behind it all, and there’s several scenes that are especially well done - chief among them being the introduction of Lucius Petrus Dextrus, and the ‘seer off’ that follows - with both Lucius and Evelina revealing facts about where the Doctor and Donna are really from, become delving deeper into their personal futures to hint at someone returning, and something on Donna’s back. The whole scene is brilliantly written, perfectly performed, and directed with such a great style that it really helps to build up the tension. At the time, I remember there being a lot of discussion about exactly who might be returning - the general feeling seemed to be that ‘Rose’ was too obvious after the sight of her in the previous episode, and most people’s money seemed to be on the Rani (isn’t it always?). At the time, I thought that was ridiculous, but the way the line is delivered here, you can easily see why people might expect something more sinister than the return of a former companion.

If there’s one thing about The Fires of Pompeii which does fall a little bit flat for me, then I have to say it’s the actual setting. Save for the few plate shots taken in New York for Series Three with a skeleton crew and no lead actors, this is the first time that 21st century Doctor Who has properly travelled abroad to shoot scenes, and while they do look very nice… they simply don’t ‘wow’ me. I think, truth be told, I was spoilt last season with all the Elizabethan England scenes for The Shakespeare Code. Every single one of those floored me the other week when watching, whereas the Pompeii scenes here simply don’t have the same effect, and I’m not entirely sure what that is. 

13 February 2015

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

Day 774: Partners in Crime

Dear diary,

Oh, the fury when it was announced that Catherine Tate would be returning to the show for a full season as the regular companion. Outpost Gallifrey was so cross that a comedy actress - God forbid - would be travelling in the TARDIS for so long. And then this episode aired, and people were split! An episode with a large dollop of comedy thrown in for good measure! Some people fell over themselves to do a volte-face and proclaiming that Donna would be a great boost to the series, while others simply pointed to the moments of levity in this one as signs that she’d be taking the programme down with her.

As for me, well, I was thrilled when they announced Donna’s return - I’d enjoyed her well enough in The Runaway Bride, and it sounded like she was going to be a lot of fun. When Partners in Crime aired, I was beside myself - it’s a great way to set up the new series.

For starters, it’s nice to open in such a different way to previous years. Rose and Smith and Jones are both about someone getting caught up in the Doctor’s adventures and enjoying the thrill (though both are very different stories, even if you can group them in this lose category), while New Earth was about continuing the adventure, with pre-established characters. Partners in Crime gets to be an unusual new spin on the format, with a character who’s already been established and allowed to peak into the Doctor’s world (I really love the way the Doctor tries to impress Donna in the TARDIS at the end, only for her to stop him with a simple ‘I know all that’), while at the same time allowing the ‘getting caught up in the adventure’ strand to play out. 

I’d forgotten just how long they play the whole ‘Doctor and Donna Missing Each Other’ thing at the start, but it’s all the better for it - when they finally spot each other across the office about 20 minutes in, the moment is lifted simply because they’ve been coming so close. And if there was ever need to prove that a comedic actress in Doctor Who can be a fantastic thing, just look at this scene! I’ve not watched the episode in full for years, but I must have seen this bit ten times over - it never gets old for me.

As for the story itself… Eh. I mean it’s not bad, by any stretch, but it’s just sort of ‘average’ Doctor Who. I can sort of take or leave the actual story of this episode, because it’s so much about the Doctor and Donna meeting again, and looking at the way their lives have changed since they last saw each other. I love Russell T Davies’ description in ‘The Writer’s Tale’ about the way you meet someone special and desire that your whole life is going to change, but then you get up the next day, and there’s bills, and work, and all that nonsense. It feels so very real8 that Donna should have failed to ‘walk in the dust’ after the events of *the Runaway Bride, and the sad way she admits it to the Doctor here is beautiful. As for the Doctor, it’s really nice for him to finally acknowledge just how much Martha meant to him, and to try and face the way that he treated her during their adventures. Something I’d never appreciated before is the way in which the Doctor says the Adipose here are just children and can’t help where they came from - Donna’s right, it is a real change, because he murdered the Racnoss children last time they met. I don’t think I’d ever noticed quite how nicely that parallels before, but it’s one of the highlights for me. 

12 February 2015

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

Day 773: Voyage of the Damned

Dear diary,

I’ll confess I’ve not been looking forward to reaching this one. Not that I have any bad memories of it (indeed, I’ve quite happy memories of it - at Christmas, we used to rotate every year between which family member was hosting the evening meal, so I got to watch The Christmas Invasion at home, and the same for The Runaway Bride, because while Christmas that year was at the grandparent’s, they only lived thirty seconds the other side of the farm, so I could nip home in time to see the Doctor and the Bride. Christmas 2007 was spent at the aunt’s house, but myself and another family member were outvoted on who got the TV remote, so we ended up watching Voyage of the Damned on the tiny little telly in the kitchen instead - the irony of watching what it arguably the first real ‘blockbuster’ of Doctor Who on the smallest screen ever still isn’t lost on me, but it was fun to sit and watch and laugh our way through it, while picking at the leftover turkey).

No, the thing that’s been putting me off is the sheer size of this episode. It’s over 70 minutes! I’m easily able to set aside 45 minutes a day to sit and watch the latest Doctor Who for the Diary, but having to find a slot significantly longer than that was making me dread this a little bit, and then I started to think of the episode as being a bit bloated, over-long, and rubbish. It didn’t help that over Christmas, I routinely saw this episode listed second to only The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe as the worst of the Xmas specials. In short, I was worried that I’d be setting aside a large chunk of time to watch an episode that wasn’t very good. 

But in that wonderful way that’s happened time and time again throughout this process, I sat down, hit ‘play’, and absolutely fell in love with the episode I was watching! Why on Earth are people rating this so low among the Xmas specials? There’s so much to love here! Remember last Christmas (Oh, fine, ‘remember two weeks ago’), when I said that you could suddenly see the production team stretching their wings and really showing us what they could do? That feels like nothing compared to the scale of what we’ve got in this episode. That old irony of watching this one on such a tiny TV screen suddenly hit home even harder today, because I don’t think I’ve ever realised just how grand this one is.

And as for being bloated and over-long? Not a bit of it! I didn’t once find myself checking the tine (as I’d feared I might do). The story moves at exactly the pace it needs and wants to, and then ends when it’s done. The episode is 70-odd minutes because that’s how long it takes to tell it. It also means that we get to take a step back and really enjoy the story. I said a few days ago that Human Nature was quite a slow episode, devoting real time to setting everything up so that we really felt embedded in that world by the time things kicked off in the second half of the tale. We get to see that same system at work here again - with loads of time given over to just the Doctor wandering around the crowded room, meeting various people who we’ll be spending the adventure with, and setting everything in to place. Oh, it’s glorious. Even once we’ve done that initial set up, pulled back to reveal the Titanic is a spaceship hovering over the Earth (Which, by the way, is a great image to hook in your casual audience, perhaps more so than anything since the Daleks came back), we come out of the titles and resume at that same pace. The extended running time allows us to really enjoy the story, and not have to rush through it at breakneck speed. As if to underline that point, we don’t get our first sight of Kylie Minogue until five minutes in… and even then it’s only in passing, as we cut between images of different people in the room. A major guest star like Kylie on board, and they can afford to be leisurely about it!

Oh, but then the meteorites crash, and the action kicks into gear. We don’t lose that measured pace once everything kicks off - far from it, there’s plenty of time to stop, take stock, and share real character moments - but we get action sequences like the entire scene of the cast crossing the open engines, which really show off what this programme can do. A friend the other day described Series Four as being the most confident that Doctor Who has ever been, and that starts right here in this episode. This is Who made by a team who are absolutely certain of themselves, and all the better for it.

I’m not going to list everything that I’ve enjoyed in this one, because I’d be here all night (I’ve mentioned Kylie in passing, but not said how good she is, nor praised the performance of Geoffrey Palmer, who dies fairly early on but gives perhaps the best performance in the entire episode), but I do want to draw attention to something else - there’s subtle foreshadowing of the Tenth Doctor’s demise creeping in here, and it’s not something I would have noticed before, because when this aired, we still had another few years of Tennant to go (and I’m fairly sure, from repeated readings of ‘The Writer’s Tale’ that the Tenth Doctor’s downfall hadn’t even been dreamt up by this point).

No, I’m not talking about the first appearance of Wilf, though it’s fitting that he shows up here when these threads start to draw together. It’s the end of the episode, where the Doctor suddenly realises that Astrid was wearing a teleport bracelet, and tries desperately to bring her back to life. When it’s suggested to him that this simply can’t be done, the Doctor screams, and shouts, and kicks the stand of bracelets, while proclaiming that he can do anything. It’s the kind of arrogance that we see later on from the Time Lord Victorious, and I love that it’s then thrown into focus by Mr Copper just a moment later;

MR COPPER

If you could choose, Doctor, if you decide who lives and who dies, that would make you a monster. 

It was only afterwards, discussing this with a friend, that it was pointed out this theme really runs from now right up to the regeneration, and it’s certainly something that I’m going to be keeping an eye out for in the next few weeks… 

12 February 2015

Filming has begun for Block 2 of Series 9 of Doctor Who, the BBC confirmed today.

An image [pictured-right] featuring a clapperboard for the next block, with Hettie MacDonald (Blink) directing, was posted to the BBC Picture Publicity website.

More news as we get it...

+  Series 9 of Doctor Who airs Autumn 2015 on BBC One

[Source: BBC]

11 February 2015

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

Day 772: Last of the Time Lords

Dear diary,

When you're in fandom for long enough, you start to get used to the same old complains about stories cropping up time and time again. This story is one of the ones that tends to rear its head on a fairly regular basis, and it's largely down to the ending. People complain that the 'reset button' way this story is closed - with the world being reset so that the events of the last year never happened weaken the story, but I'm not sure that's quite the problem. Certainly, something didn't sit quite right with me in today's episode - but it wasn't the fact that things got re-set at the end.

It took a discussion with my friend Nick to really hammer out what the big issue with this story was - it's all a bit too easy. I spent a fair bit of time yesterday praising the way that the stakes had been raised possibly higher than ever before - certainly things hadn't felt more desperate for the Doctor and his companions yet in the revived series. Cut off from any sort of support, and with the world in thrall to the Master… it really felt like there was no way out. By the time the episode ended, the Toclafane had begun the destruction of the Earth's population, the Doctor had been aged radically, and Martha had teleported away from the Valiant, stuck on her own, with only a quick whisper from the Doctor to tell her what needed to be done.

All of that, in theory, sets us up beautifully for today's episode, and certainly when we open in the world of 'One Year Later', it does feel desperate still. The Master is in control. Humanity is enslaved. He's built an army of warships ready to wage war across the stars. So far, so good (well, you know what I mean). But then, Martha arrives on a little boat and tells us about the struggles she's had to face in the last twelve months and it all just feels… I don't know. False? 

I think the fact that we don't get to see any of the hell the planet has faced in any great detail (the episode does its best to fill us in here) means that rejoining the story just in time for the downfall was always going to feel a bit off. Watching it through at this pace of an episode each day makes it feel like Martha laves the Valiant, then returns again and brings an end to it all. The threat is just dissipated too quickly. It doesn't help that the Doctor, Jack, and Martha's family are all still stuck aboard the Valiant in more-or-less the same state as when we last saw them. It doesn't feel like the 'Year of Hell' has actually occurred.

This is where we come back to that issue of the re-set ending. It shouldn't be a problem. So, the Year of Hell never actually happened for the people of the Earth, it all got undone. Well… so flippin' what? Because the preceding half hour has failed to really engage me with this so-called 'Hell', it doesn't feel like undoing it all makes that much of an impact. That's not the issue.

Realistically, resetting the time line and leaving those aboard the Valiant as the only people who can remember all those events should be a great opportunity for dramatic potential - almost all of Martha's family have been through it, and it forms the basis of her departure at the very end of he episode. But, as I've said, it doesn't feel like they've had much of a struggle. Yeah, the Joneses have been forced to act as the Master's 'staff' for twelve months, and I'm sure he's made them watch some of the horrors supposedly happening down on the surface, but… we don't see any of that. It's not even hinted at. Add into that the fact that we then don't get to see much of the fallout from the situation (we watch the family through the window when Martha heads out to say goodbye to the Doctor, but that's it), and that I've never connected to them in the same way I did with Jackie and Mickey… and we're just left with a bit of a damp squib.

Yesterday, I debated wether this finale was a three-part story (including Utopia), or a two-parter. I can't help but thinking that three parts might have been better pent by giving over 45 minutes to the 'Year That Never Was', actively showing us Martha as she walks the Earth, and the struggles that those aboard the Valliant were forced to endure, because as it is, this finale is certainly a three-parter, but the final third is far weaker than the two that precede it.

11 February 2015

Big Finish have announced a brand new UNIT audio series, featuring New Series actress Jemma Redgrave (Kate Stewart).

Synopsis:

In this four-story box set, Kate Stewart and her UNIT team confront an alien invasion by the Nestene Consciousness and its army of plastic Autons...

Written By: Andrew Smith, Matt Fitton
Directed By: Ken Bentley

Cast:
Jemma Redgrave (Kate Stewart), more details to follow...

Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: Ken Bentley

Executive Producers: Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs 

+  Released November 2015, priced £20.00 (CD & Digital).

[Source: Big Finish Audio]

<mce:script

10 February 2015

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

Day 771: The Sound of Drums

Dear diary,

I’ve seen a lot of debate over the years about the Series Three finale. Specifically, is it a two-parter, or a three-parter? Certainly, the BBC officially class it as a three-parter, and watching here it’s hard to disagree with that statement. Utopia doesn’t end with a tease into the next episode, and the next adventure, it ends on a proper cliffhanger, with the Doctor and his companions trapped at the end of the universe while the Master regenerates and escapes in the TARDIS. We pick up in today’s episode with our trio escaping those events, and following the Master’s trail back to 21st century Earth… in my mind this is clearly the next episode in a trilogy. I think the issue comes in Series Four, when Turn Left isn’t classed as the start of a three-parter with that finale, but I’ll reserve judgement for a couple of weeks until I’ve watched it again. How about you lot? Where do you stand on the great Utopia/Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords debate? Two parts or three? Answers on a postcard (or just in the comments).

I’ve also seen a lot of debate as to the various merits or otherwise of this finale. I think it’s fair to say that it’s not overly loved by fandom, is it? In last year’s big story poll by Doctor Who Magazine, it was ranked as the 55th best story - meaning that only Season Six’s finale, The Wedding of River Song, placed lower (at number 129 - ouch), while all the other season finales of the modern era were ahead of it - some by considerable margins (The Name of the Doctor comes in at 15, with Parting of the Ways pulling the lead at number 13).

My memory of this one is that the story was all right, I suppose, but it was hardly Earth-shattering, and if anything it all felt like a bit of a mess by the end, so I’ve never really thought of it in a particularly positive light, truth be told.

That said, I’ve found a fair bit to like in today’s episode, and it largely starts with the scale of the threat. It really reels very desperate, doesn’t it? The Parting of the Ways faces us with an army of Daleks, and little hope of escape. That’s bad enough. Doomsday posits an Earth invaded by Daleks and Cybermen, ready to wage war over the planet. Also, fairly high stakes, though two weeks on from that one, it all feels a bit artificial. This episode, though, hits home by being so very real. Oh, yes, fine, there’s an alien as Prime Minister and he’s working in league with floating silver balls, but they only make up a very small part of today’s episode - and don’t really come in to play in a major way until the end. 

Instead, the majority of this one is given over to the Doctor, Martha, and Jack on the run. They’re ‘most wanted’ and on the news, so it’s not like the last couple of finales, where the Doctor can swan in and take command. They have to lie low. On top of that, Martha’s flat is blown up, and we have to watch as her family is dragged (literally kicking and screaming) into custody. Because we’re watching events that could very easily happen on any of our streets at any time (and, indeed, in some parts of the world aren’t all that unusual occurrences), it hits home in a way that the other finales simply don’t.

While I’m on the subject of Martha’s family… I said during The Lazarus Experiment that they never really worked for me, but I’ve been surprised on this watch through just how much they have. Oh, they’re certainly still the weakest of the RTD-era families, but they’re also a lot better than I’ve been giving them credit for all these years. One of my bugbears was the fact that they couldn’t get Reggie Yates in for filming more than a day’s work on these finale episodes, so he’s largely sidelined in the plot. For ages, that’s always been something that serves as a minor irritant, and the perfect example of why the family never really felt as strong as the others. Actually, though, it’s handled quite well! If I didn’t know he’d simply been unavailable, I don’t think I’d have batted an eyelid. Perhaps one of those times where knowing too much about the behind the scenes going-ons actively harms the programme itself?

So… cautiously, we’re not looking too bad at this middle stage. I’ll be interested to see if tomorrow’s episode continues this trend of things holding up better second time around… 

9 February 2015

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

Day 770: Utopia

Dear diary,

A couple of days ago, I mentioned planning a holiday around the end of the series, and making sure I didn’t miss this episode by being away. It seemed like the most exciting thing in the entire world at the time. Not only was it the return of Captain Jack - who, of course, we’d spent thirteen episodes with the previous year in Torchwood, but hadn’t been part of the main series for a couple of years - but there were very strong rumours that the Master was going to show up in this one. Oh, that was the kind of spoiler that I love. You see, everywhere online fans were speculating about the return of the Master, and how likely it was that John Simm was playing him, and that he might make a surprise cameo in this episode… 

…and yet, as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t actually confirmed to be the case. not yet, anyway. Oh, sure, there were lots of things pointing towards it (though some of them felt ridiculous - someone had worked out that ‘Mister Saxon’ was an anagram of ‘Master No. Six’, and Simm would be the sixth actor to play the character, for example, but only if you didn’t count Gordon Tipple’s brief appearance, or you amalgamated the two versions of ‘decaying Master’ from the 70s into one, despite their being played by two different people. You see what I mean? It sounded silly!) But certainly I had managed to avoid any speculation about Jacobi also playing the Master, and regenerating on screen!

Oh, it was the most exciting thing in the world settling down to watch this episode, and slowly piecing it together in time with the professor as the adventure went on. I can distinctly remember watching all these words overwhelming the character and assuming that he was going to reveal that he knew another man who claimed to be a time traveller with a TARDIS, and here he comes now! I can’t remember when it dawned on me that Jacobi was the Master, though. I think the realisation kicked in the second that he produced the watch - even before he turns it over, you just know what it means.

And you know what, I can admit right now that this episode gets a slightly higher score simply because watching it brings back all those emotions of seeing it the first time around. Was the Master coming back? Even if he was, would he be putting in an appearance during this week’s episode? Where is all of this leading? Does the Professor know something? Some*one*? Even now, it’s watching that story unfold that really works for me. It’s watching Jacobi’s performance (just like bringing in Eccleston to fill the role of the Doctor before Tennant could take over and do it his way, it was such brilliant casting to get someone like Jacobi in to play the part of the Master here - he really steals the scene at every turn) that I enjoy the most about Utopia, because the story itself I can sort of take-or-leave. It’s all window-dressing for the real tale, and set up for the finale to come.

Jacobi isn’t the only one who lights up the screen here, though. I know I spent an entire entry the other day praising David Tennant’s performance, but I need to signal him out once more here. That scene, where he watches Jack through the window of the radiation chamber… oh, there’s something chilling about the Doctor here. There’s a look he gives Jack, and you can see the character’s darker side just for a flash. At the time, I recall it being something of a mystery as to why the Doctor had rushed off and left Jack behind at the end of Parting of the Ways - for ages, I speculated that he simply didn’t realise that Rose had brought him back (and that him telling her he had ‘plenty to do’ in rebuilding Earth’s Empire during the 2005 Children in Need episode was him trying to spare her the knowledge that he’d died, since she’d forgotten all the events of her ‘Bad Wolf’ moment), but I still like the idea that he simply ran away from the man, because he knew what had happened, and it made his skin crawl. Still, it’s great to have the character back, and I’m glad that he works so well with the Tenth Doctor - they gel so effortlessly in a way that he didn’t quite with the previous incarnation, and I can’t help but love him a little bit. 

8 February 2015

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

Day 769: The Infinite Quest

Dear diary,

Oh, I debated over including this one in The 50 Year Diary. The debates that raged inside my head! Largely, those debates were centred on the fact that it was broadcast in three minute chunks weekly alongside the series, so would be an awkward format to sit through (though I briefly considered doing one part a day, to write about alongside the episodes proper). It wasn’t like Dreamland, which I’ll be coming to during the 2009 specials, which was one nice, complete episode…

…until about three weeks ago, when I happened to be browsing the shelves in a DVD store and spotted The Infinite Quest among the other titles. I couldn’t have told you that this ever made it to DVD, and it transpires that it’s a compilation version that makes it a complete episode! I’ve since been reliably informed that this version was shown on TV at the time, but it must have completely passed me by. Suddenly, this changed everything. I’ve said several times in the last month that some of these episodes feel like new ones because I’ve not seen them for so long… but this really is an entirely new-to-me episode of the Tenth Doctor era! Exciting! Plus, the DVD was only a pound, so who am I to say no to that?

Truth be told, I wasn’t really expecting all that much from this one. After all, it was produced to go out in those little bites alongside a children’s show to accompany the main series. This was never going to beat out the episodes I’ve been watching over the last few days. Actually, though, it does a pretty decent job of standing on its own as a kind of ‘bonus’ episode for Series Three. Certainly, the Doctor and Martha are well written, and fit in with their characterisations throughout the rest of the run (Though I’d say it’s fair to suggest that both Tennant and Ageyman ease into it as the story progresses and they get more comfortable with playing these parts to a different medium).

As for the story itself… well, it’s good enough if a little on the slight side. It can’t ever get too involved, presumably because of the original broadcast format (and having to build to a king of ‘mini-cliffhanger’ every three minutes or so does become a little wearing as the episode goes on - even in this omnibus form, it’s very clear where the breaks were originally), but it means that this Hartnell-esque chase across space is perfectly suited. That also gives me yet more ammunition in my continuing (and not entirely serious) suggestion that Series Three is one big homage to the Hartnell story The Chase. Some of the locations we get here feel uniquely suited to those kinds of Hartnell stories, too, with worlds of ‘twin suns’ (hence, very hot), and worlds of pure ice (hence, very cold). There’s even a jungle thrown in for good measure, on a world populated by insects!

The main thing to mention, I suppose, in an animated episode of Doctor Who is the actual animation itself. It’s… well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, if I’m honest. On the one hand, there’s some really lovely bits of design going on. The look of the Infinite as a marooned shipwreck caught in an asteroid belt is lovely (oh, one of my favourite images from all of Doctor Who, I’d dare to say - it’s very nicely done). Then there’s odd hints of that pseudo ‘3D’ style that Futurama is so well known for dotted about here and there - most obviously in the character of Caw - which works very well, too. But then there’s the animated versions of our heroes, and they’re not the greatest. Occasionally (and, again, it’s something that happens more and more the further into the episode we go) there’s a hint of a movement or expression which feels very in keeping with the performances I’m used to seeing on screen throughout the rest of Series Three, but largely they simply don’t work for me. It’s even more of a shame when you watch some of the behind-the-scenes footage on the DVD and Ageyman and Tennant are doing odd little things here and there which end up totally lost in the translation. A pity! 

I also can’t help but wonder if they missed a trick by making our lead villain look like a man with a bandage wrapped around his head. In an animated episode, you’re not bound by the kind of restrictions the live action programme has, so it seems like a bit of a missed opportunity to not have a villain which we’d struggle to see in a regular episode. I suppose that Caw fulfils that role to some extent, but having seen the kinds of creatures we’ve had in the show more recently (I’m thinking specifically of the huge robots from Dinosaurs on a Spaceship), I’d love to see how the production team might build a working version of him!

7 February 2015

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

Day 768: Blink

Dear diary,

Oh, Blink. Blink, Blink, Blink. D’you know, in 2007, I was planning a holiday. I knew it would mean missing an episode from the end of the series, and so it was simply down to the brief previews there’d been in Doctor Who Magazine to help me pick which week to be away. This week seemed like the obvious choice. There was no way I’d miss Utopia, for reasons I’m sure I’ll mention in a couple of days, and this was the season’s ‘Doctor-lite’ instalment. If there was to be an episode I didn’t get to see straight away, it could probably be this one (Blink is the only Russell T Davies era episode I didn’t get to watch on day of transmission. Some were delayed until later in the evening, but actually having to wait until another day to see the new episode? That was almost unthinkable to me at this point. You can tell how desperately I wanted a holiday!).

If the past is another country, then 2007 was a place where I didn’t have easy access to the internet while I was away. That seems almost as unthinkable now as missing an episode was then, but that’s a discussion for another time. I went and sunned myself on a beach for the week, read the Tenth Doctor and Martha novel in which they fought the Zygons, watched Robot for the first time… I had a nice break, completely unaware that back home, people were absolutely raving about an episode that still routinely get’s listed as among the very best that Doctor Who has ever done (in last year’s Doctor Who Magazine poll, it ranked second out of almost 250 stories, placing it higher than everything in Doctor Who history but The Day of the Doctor). What a one to miss! I landed back on British soil, turned on my phone, and was inundated with messages from friends - some who weren’t even regular viewers - praising the episode. Naturally, the first thing I did upon arriving home was to sit down, boot up Sky Plus, and hit ‘play’.

Of course, I loved it. I thought it was all very well done, and when I sat a few days later in an interview for a university course (completely unprepared, having intended to take a gap year before just sort of… wandering into university), asked who my favourite director was, I simply started to babble about this episode, and the way that it was shot - especially the gorgeous direction of Larry trying not to blink as the angel approaches. How many times must I have seen that scene over the years, and yet it still made me jump tonight. Thankfully, at the time, the person interviewing me had seen the episode, too - another non-fan sucked in by such positive reviews - and I think it helped to sway his decision…

And yet, in the years that have passed since, I’ve become a bit jaded. Blink has sort of gone down in my mind as being ‘rather good, but largely over-rated’, in the same way stories like The Evil of the Daleks or The Caves of Androzani have garnered these ‘untouchable’ reputations that they certainly make a stake at deserving, but don’t entirely make it. But tonight, I’ve sat and watched and been really blown away by it! There’s so much of this episode that’s done so well, and it really takes the ‘Doctor-lite’ brief and runs with it. If anything, I felt the episode suffered a bit when the Doctor and Martha arrive to greet Billy in 1969 - the previous few minutes have done such a great job of building up the atmosphere and the tension, and then this pair sort of undermine it a little.

The real success of Blink, though, has to be the Angels themselves. They’ve sort of lost their appeal a bit for me now, following several return appearances to the programme, but it’s stunning just how effectively they work here. They were set up just right to tell the story at hand, and not everything that’s followed with them has strengthened the creatures (but I’m sure we’ll get round to more on that when the time comes). Everything about the Angels here - in a world where we’ve not encountered them before - is set up wonderfully. ‘The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely’, the Doctor says, and that’s exactly how they’re presented. Their introduction, largely through showing us the effect of their touch on Kathy, really works - you couldn’t ask for a much better interaction to them than this.

As far as I can think of, the Weeping Angels are the only 21st century Doctor Who monster to do the Dalek thing of being invented for a one-off appearance opposite the Doctor (or not opposite the Doctor, in this case - does he actually appear in the same shot as the angels at any point?), and being so popular that they simply had to come back again. Oh, sure, other aliens have made return appearances - the Ood, the Silence (though their returns were scripted), the Slitheen (though that was more popularity with the writer that ensured the return, and even then it’s the return more of the character than the monster), heck even the Hoix from Love & Monsters showed up in Torchwood - but I can’t think of any which have made their return after striking such a chord with the audience… and it’s not hard to see why these were the ones that made it.

6 February 2015

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

Day 767: The Family of Blood

Dear diary,

I’ve not really spent much time discussing David Tennant’s performance in the last couple of weeks, but it’s only right that I bring it up today, because I think The Family of Blood features not only his best performance in the series to date, but also some of the best we’ve had of any Doctor throughout the programme. It’s perhaps typically Doctor Who that this should come during scenes where he’s not even playing the Doctor, but rather John Smith.

I think he’s absolutely at the top of his game from the moment he sees the TARDIS outside the school, right through to the moment he sits alone with Joan and tries to decide what he has to do. It’s simply pitch-perfect on every line, every action… the whole thing really holds together and just works for me. The scene where he sits with the woman he loves and sees flashes of their potential future is beautifully done, but I’d somehow forgotten just how wonderful that earlier bit was. And yet, as soon as we cut to that shot of the Family around the TARDIS, I could remember posting a clip of that scene on Facebook the night this episode aired, and proclaiming it to be the finest three minutes of Doctor Who I’d ever seen. I don’t think - even after watching for 700-something days - I’m far out with that declaration.

Not only in those scenes does Tennant get to shine, though; it’s almost as though this episode is specifically crafted to showcase his range as an actor - and as a Doctor. We’ve had flashes of this incarnation’s darker side since right back at the beginning, where he set up Harriet Jones’ downfall during The Christmas Invasion, but it’s here where we perhaps see it most clearly for the first time. We watch as he traps the family for all eternity - in black holes, and mirrors, ensuring that they receive the immortality they so desperately courted. Remember back in The Five Doctors, when the Doctors were all slightly stunned and fearful of Rassilon’s gift of immortality? This is taking that same idea and stretching it to the very extremes.

But those brief scenes aren’t the cruellest that we get to see the Doctor in this episode - that comes afterwards, when he goes back to visit Joan, and insensitively asks her to travel with him. Specifically, it’s this moment;

JOAN

Could you change back?

DOCTOR

Yes.

JOAN

Will you?

DOCTOR

No.

It’s a really cruel inversion of the decision John Smith has spent the last fifteen minutes wrestling with - and yet the Doctor doesn’t even have to consider it for a second. It serves to really highlight how different the two men are (and I’d never noticed it before, but it’s a play on the Doctor and Rose’s little conversation about changing back in the 2005 Children in Need episode - only here it’s far more assured and definite). 

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