Time Lord Tees

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9 December 2014

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

Day 708: Silver Nemesis, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Somehow - even though we’ve hit the phase of the programme where three-part stories, a format that I’ve been extolling as the best possible for ‘classic’ Doctor Who since pretty much the start of this marathon, have become common place - this story still manages to feel a bit padded out! Today opens very well, with an all out battle between the Cybermen, the Nazis, Lady Peinforte, and with the Doctor and Ace caught in the middle. There’s plenty going on, and if there’s one thing that Silver Nemesis is very good at, it’s the explosions. It’s all go for this battle, and it looks great. But then, once the fighting is at an end, everyone just sort of wanders off in their own separate directions.

The Doctor and Ace at least have a certain kind of logic to their actions - they steal the bow, take the TARDIS out of the way (as the Eleventh Doctor says in The Bells of Saint John, he doesn’t want to take the ship in to battle), and then set about tracking down the statue on foot. Fine, I’ll go along with that. The Cybermen, too, have a certain logic to their movements. They head off with the statue to take refuge in Lady Peinforte’s tomb, reasoning that she will go crazy when presented with her own death. I can sort of see their thinking there, but surely if she’s a foe powerful enough for the Cybermen to know about, then they should also be aware that she’ll not be overly bothered by the sift of the tomb. Still, I’ll nod along, because they’re at least doing something meaningful. The Nazis, on the other hand, seem to just wander off to the Safari Park. Genuinely, when the Cybermen’s ship gets blown up, we see the reaction of De Flores and he just happens to be stood around, without any purpose. They haven’t thought of using their bit of Validium to track down the rest (probably for the best, since the Doctor’s stolen it without them noticing), but have just taken a stroll. Speaking of which, you’ve then got Lady Peinforte and Richard, who wander down the high street and get caught up in a little side plot with some skinheads.

There just doesn’t seem to be any real sense of urgency to the proceedings here. The Doctor is written as though he’s desperately trying to catch up with events that have started to spiral out of his control, but then we get scenes of him laying in the grass with Ace as they listen to Jazz (it doesn’t matter that said Jazz is being used to block signals from the Cyberfleet - that could be done on the move, too), or lounging around on top of fallen trees while he has a think about what’s going on. He then seems surprised by the sudden realisation that there’s an entire fleet of Cybermen out there, when the implication up to even a few seconds before the revelation is that he knows this!

Oh, but there’s a lot to enjoy about this episode, too, when it’s actually going somewhere. I love the Doctor’s discussion with Ace about the nature of the Validium - and I’m especially keen on the way that it takes the similar conversation from Remembrance of the Daleks and manages to move it on a bit. In that story, the Doctor made a slight slip up, possibly revealing too much. Here, Ace is actively digging for the information;

DOCTOR

Validium was created as the ultimate defence for Gallifrey, back in early times.

ACE

Created by Omega?

DOCTOR

Yes.

ACE

And?

DOCTOR

Rassilon.

ACE

And?

DOCTOR

And none of it should have left Gallifrey. But, as always with these things, some of it did.

I know there’s even more padding to come in the next episode, with the arrival of Mrs Remington, so I’m hoping that the nice mythic bits of the story outweigh the filler elements that are currently threatening to dominate…

8 December 2014

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

Day 707: Silver Nemesis, Episode One

Dear diary,

Silver Nemesis is something of a black sheep in Season Twenty-Five, isn’t it? Among out-and-out classics like Remembrance of the Daleks, and stories that have gone on to be re-evaluated as the years have gone by, this one has always been seen as the eek link in this run of episodes. And yet, I’ve never been able to do anything but love it.

Oh, I mean, come on! Imagine how exciting this story sounded to me when I was first learning about it! Not only is it my favourite monsters, but it’s also the official anniversary story, there’s a witch, some Nazis, the Doctor working on another plan involving an ancient Gallifreyan relic… it just sounds really exciting! All that said, there is a lot crammed in to these first 24-or-so minutes. You’re almost left a bit confused because you go so quickly through events - there’s a comet approaching the Earth, this woman is trying to get to the future, the Forth Reich is being born, the Doctor and Ace are enjoying a jazz concert, then they’re under attack from gunmen, then they’re at Windsor castle, then they’re at the witch woman’s house, then they’re back at Windsor castle… it just never lets up!

Somehow, though, there’s quite a leisurely pace to the proceedings. We’re given a chance to watch the Doctor and Ace enjoy themselves at the concert (again, this pair just look so comfortable together doing this. It’s rare that we get to see a TARDIS team simply enjoying their travels in this way. I said during Remembrance of the Daleks that I thought maybe six months had already passed for the pair since they departed together in Dragonfire, and I think I’m willing to say that another six months could have passed before this point - we’re a far cry from the Peter Davison years, when every story very rigidly led us in to the next…). It’s perhaps because so much time is given over to savouring things like this that it all gets a bit convoluted later on. When the TARDIS is shuttling back and forth all over the place, it quickly becomes very difficult to keep track of everything that’s happening.

But there’s so many lovely little touches to this episode which perfectly sets it up as being the story to celebrate a half century of the programme, and makes it just so right for airing on November 23rd. Leslie French is perhaps the actor that I’ve been enjoying the most in this one - he was originally considered for the role of the Doctor right back when the programme started, and he’s playing his role here as very much the way I remember the First Doctor being, especially around Season Two. I can’t tell if he’s been specifically asked to play it in this way (though I imagine he has), or if it’s just a nice coincidence, but it’s lovely all the same. The only downside, perhaps, is that it makes me long to see some old black-and-white episodes again! I also didn’t realise that Fiona Walker (here as Lady Peinforte) had been in Doctor Who before - way back in The Keys of Marinus! Before starting out on this story, to try and keep up with the celebratory spirit, I re-watched the ‘making of’ documentary from the Silver Nemesis VHS, and when Fiona pointed out that she’d been in the very first series, I really had to wrack my brain to think of who she could have played (and then gave up and checked Wikipedia, instead!). You’ve also got cameo appearances from several other Who alumni, including Nicholas Courtney, John Leeson, Fiona Cumming, Andrew Morgan, and Peter Moffat.

It’s also very fitting that this story - sitting at the half-way mark in terms of the stretch of this marathon from An Unearthly Child in 1963 to The Time of the Doctor in 2013 - should have some notable firsts and lasts involved. It’s the last use of the programme’s original home, Lime Grove, which is used for some sound recording, but it’s also the first time that the programme has used on-screen captions to tell us where and when we are, and the first time that the TARDIS blows up a wind as it materialises - things which will become more frequent in the 21st century version of the series.

So once again, Happy Birthday Doctor Who. I’m glad you threw a bit of a party to celebrate turning 25!

7 December 2014

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

Day 706: The Happiness Patrol, Episode Three

Dear diary,

One of the things that comes up most about The Happiness Patrol, at least in fan circles, has to be the Kandy Man. Oh, god, the ridicule that’s been poured at that poor candy creation over the years! I can sort of see why, if I’m honest - I mean, for starters, it’s a Doctor Who villain in the shape of Bertie Bassett - but I also have to confess that I rather like him! 

There’s something so wonderful about the fact that a big pile of sweets can be made to be in any way threatening, and it’s largely down to the performance that David John Pope gives in the role. It’s played as childlike but sinister - and that’s a combination that’s always been effective. I also love the way that even the Doctor and Ace make fun of the character; a particular highlight being a scene in which the Doctor sticks his foe to the floor with Lemonade… Frees him… and then sticks him to the floor again! For all my talk of the Seventh Doctor’s scheming persona, and I’m sure there’ll be more of that to come in the next season, this is the most fun that his trickery ever comes across!

It also helps that the Kandy Man isn’t really the villain of the piece. In that time-honoured Doctor Who tradition, he’s simply a monster for the younger members of the audience to look at, while everyone else follows along with a pastiche of Thatcherism elsewhere in the story. A few years ago, this was picked up by Newsnight as though someone had just unearthed this hidden subtext in the story after all these years, but it’s fairly plain to see even if you’re not looking for it! I’ll not be delving too deeply into any of that, though, because there’s people far better suited to giving a proper in-depth look at the subject than I am - I’m more suited to discussing the Kandy Man! 

On the whole, I’ve rather liked The Happiness Patrol. It’s been the story that really solidified Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor in my mind, and that’s always a good thing. I’ve spent years knowing how much I enjoy him as a Doctor, but worried that Season Twenty-Four had proven me wrong. Here’s hoping that as we move towards the end of the ‘classic’ run, the great feeling in evidence production-wise throughout this story continues - letting us go out on a high.

6 December 2014

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

Day 705: The Happiness Patrol, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Oh, you know, I’ve been dying to type these words. I’ve been hovering over them for a couple of weeks but wanted to save it for something special - and we certainly got that in today’s episode. So…

Sylvester McCoy is bloody good, isn’t he?

Hooray! Woo! Canned audience cheers in the background. Oh, of course I knew that Sylv was great. Of course he’s great, but you know Season Twenty-Four really threw me. The performance he’s giving in those four stories just isn’t right for him, and I love that he comes back and really decides to do it the way he feels is right in this season. He’s brilliant right from the start of Remembrance of the Daleks, but it’s when you get a scene like today’s ‘gun’ exchange that you really appreciate just how brilliant he can be. I try to only quote little bits here and there in The 50 Year Diary, but this really needs to be done as a longer excerpt;

DOCTOR

You like guns, don't you.

ALEX

He'll kill you.

DOCTOR

Of course he will. That's what guns are for. Pull the trigger, end a life. Simple, isn't it.

DAVID

Yes.

DOCTOR

Makes sense, doesn't it.

DAVID

Yes.

DOCTOR

A life killing life.

ALEX

Who are you?

DOCTOR

Shut up. Why don't you do it then? Look me in the eye, pull the trigger, end my life. Why not?

DAVID

I can't.

DOCTOR

Why not?

DAVID

I don't know.

DOCTOR

No, you don't, do you. [He take’s DAVID’s gun away from him, and indicates ALEX] Throw away your gun. [ALEX does so.]

It’s not only a triumph of acting, it’s also such a beautiful scene - possibly the best writing that the programme has seen in a long time. There’s something about it which so perfectly encapsulates Doctor Who, and really sells the concept that he’s a hero who needn’t resort to violence, and although I’m starting to actually bang on about it, McCoy pitches it perfectly. Can you imagine the way he’d turn out this sequence in his Season Twenty-Four persona? No, me neither, because I’m actively trying not to. What we get here is glorious.

As is the sequence with Trevor Sigma, where he turns the questioning on its head. A lot of the dialogue here seems to be lifted from McCoy’s audition scene (as, indeed, is the idea of a villain based upon Margaret Thatcher - with Janet Fielding there filling in as ‘the Iron Woman’), but there’s a marked step-up in terms of performance. You really *do* get the impression that McCoy has had the chance to sit down, think things through, and really choose what he wants to do.

I think there’s an element of ‘cutting the apron strings’ in all of this - and I don’t just mean with McCoy. John Nathan-Turner has always been described as being very hands on and insistent on what he wanted from every bit of the programme (there are stories that the character of Mel was created simply because JN-T walked in to the office one day demanding that the next companion have red hair - though I’m not sure how true that may be). It feels often, though, that in the programme’s final years, Nathan-Turner was willing to sit back a little and let other people do their thing. Andrew Cartmel shapes the show at least as much as JN-T does in this period - and I’d argue moreso. Season Twenty-Five feels like the first opportunity of the show just ‘getting on with it’ and I think it’s working all the better for it.

5 December 2014

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

Day 704: The Happiness Patrol, Episode One

Dear diary,

For a long time, I didn’t really know what the general opinion was towards The Happiness Patrol. It’s one of those stories that never managed to sit at the very top of many people’s list of favourites, but it was rarely right down the other end of those lists, either. Five or so years ago, it was the final McCoy story that I needed to see - I watched this one immediately after The Greatest Show in the Galaxy with a friend, and these three episodes were the last bits of Seventh Doctor that he had to experience, too. Truth be told, I can’t remember a great deal of my own thoughts on the story, either. A quick look at the Doctor Who Magazine poll from earlier this year reveals that it placed in position 172 of 241 - which putting it at the lower end of ‘average’ territory.

I think that’s a placement that I’d agree with, based on this first episode. There’s certainly a lot in this episode to interest me, but it doesn’t particularly stand out from the crowd at all. I have a feeling that in another six months’ time, after this marathon is over, I’ll be back in that same position of not really knowing how I felt about this one. I think what makes it all the more frustrating, and something which I hope improves as time goes by, is that there’s some real flashes of genius on display. I’m talking largely here about the direction in this one - there are bits of the episode being shot like an old movie, with dutch camera angles and some fantastically artistic lighting. I’d love love see more of this as the story goes on, because it’s that kind of visual flare that could really help this story sing.

As I’ve said, though, there’s plenty to keep me interested, and it’s mostly to do with the ideas in the script. It would be easy to talk about Helen A’s characterisation and compare her to the then Prime Minister, or to talk about the Kandyman in the kitchen (both of which I’m sure I’ll do in the next couple of days), but it’s really the ideas of the world that are appealing to me. I simply love the whole sequence in the ‘waiting area’, where the Doctor is told that this absolutely isn’t a prison, because such a place wouldn’t at all fit with the ethos of this world… but then it’s made very sure that he - and we - understand that actually, of course it’s a prison. That whole sequence is wonderful, and it’s one that feels entirely at home here in the late-1980s era of the programme. I think we’re at a point now, past the half-way mark for another Doctor, where you can really feel Andrew Cartmel’s influence in the stories, because he’s very much the hand steering the show at this point.

I also love that, once again, the Doctor is here for his own reasons. He tells Ace that he’s heard some nasty rumours about the things happening in this colony and he’s decided to check them out. It’s not often before this season that we’ve seen a Doctor so determined to go where and when he’s needed, and I’m really enjoying it as a new approach to the character. I’m also surprised, at the end of Season Twenty-Five, just how much he’s doing things like this. I’ve always thought of the ‘manipulative’, ‘scheming’ version of the Seventh Doctor as only really being apparent in the final season of the show, with only the odd hint towards that side of his nature before then. Actually, though, it’s been a plot point in all of this season’s stories, and I’d argue that it’s easily read in to the stories of the previous season, too (indeed, I did read that in to them). We’re really seeing the way he’s using Ace now, too, in the way they emerge from the TARDIS and he probes to find out what she senses about this place. We’re about to enter a period where she’s very much his litmus paper going in to adventures, so this is a nice thing to see… 

5 December 2014

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4 December 2014

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

Day 703: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Episode Four

Dear diary,

This episode is home to not one, but two shots which I think so perfectly encapsulate the Sylvester McCoy era of the programme. The first comes when he’s in the ring, facing down the Gods of Ragnarok, and he turns on the spot, transforming his sword into the trademark umbrella. The second, of course, is the Doctor walking away from the Psychic Circus as an enormous explosion rips through the tent behind him. It’s become something of a legend within fandom that McCoy doesn’t even flinch when this explosion goes off - he does, and now I can’t unsee it - but he does look incredibly powerful regaining himself half a second later and continuing to strut. The story has been told a thousand times over the years that the explosion wasn’t supposed to be so large, but the fact that it is really helps to make this one of the most defining shots of the late 1980s.

The Doctor’s confrontation with the Gods here is somewhat wonderful, and it’s the first time in a long while that we’ve seen the Doctor square up to such a supposedly powerful being. We got hints of it a few days ago with his speech to Davros, but here we’ve got him properly face-to-face with his enemy in the same way we’ll get to see with Fenric in a couple of week’s time. The whole sequence is perfectly keyed to Sylvester McCoy, giving him a chance to clown around and do the kind of acts that he was best known for while also delivering some wonderful speeches to the ‘monsters’ as he brings their world crumbling down around them. It’s also interesting to note that he claims to have fought the Gods of Ragnarok ‘all through time’… presumably in adventures that we didn’t see? Or does he just mean that he;s fought gods like them, meaning the Animus, and the Great Intelligence? Still, it’s good to see the continuing trend of this incarnation specifically going after his enemies instead of just bumbling in on another of their evil schemes. By the time that the story is over, there’s no doubt left in my mind that the Doctor has orchestrated this whole thing.

I’m also rather keen on just how cleverly Captain Cook has been played throughout this story. He starts off as such an obvious parody of the Doctor (complete with companion), then comes back from the dead - how very like a Time Lord - and in this episode he also makes a point of announcing that he hasn’t come to this world simply by chance. He knows what’s going on here, and he’s here because of it all. I’d not noticed quite how well done this was the last time I watched the story, so I’m glad to have seen it now, because it’s a whole other layer that helps make the story all the richer.

On the whole, I’ve been left a bit mixed with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. I’ve enjoyed it, largely, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing to watch it again any time soon, in the way that some other stories are already at the top of the list for seeing again when this marathon is over. One thing I will say, though - in the special features on this DVD, lots of people complain about how the title was given to them by John Nathan-Turner, and they all say how awful it is… but I love it! 

3 December 2014

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

Day 702: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Episode Three

Dear diary,

While I’ve never been actively afraid of clowns, I can certainly see why people can be scared of them. There’s something innately un-nerving about them, isn’t there? Maybe it’s the constant fixed smiles? Truth be told, I’m not sure, but watching this episode if you’re not a clown fan must be an un-nerving experience, because the ones on display here are downright creepy. Led by Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown, our troupe of circus performers manage to walk a nice line in this story - at once being this unstoppable force which has been stalking after the other characters from the opening moments, while also being just that bit useless. Ace has escaped capture by them on more than one occasion now, for example, and they’ve killed the one man who can repair them when they break!

What’s rather nice, though, is that while the clowns certainly fill the role of ‘monster’ for this story - up to now, at least - they’re not the actual threat of the piece. That comes more just in the sense that something is wrong, and the flows are really just a distraction while the Doctor puts all the pieces together. I know where this one is going, and who the true ‘villains’ of the piece are, but I’m rather impressed that we’ve managed to go three episodes with a lot of tension and worry without even revealing them properly yet. The story is absolutely packed to the rafters with elements, and there’s so much to follow that the episodes feel incredibly rich. Of course, the danger of this comes on the flip side - there’s so much going on that it can at times be tricky to actually follow everything that’s happening inside the tent. I can’t remember the last time we had a cast with this many characters each taking ownership of their own strand in the narrative.

Thankfully, all of these characters are without exception being played by rather fantastic performers. I’ve already touched on Ian Reddington’s Chief Clown, with that wonderful hand movement (I’ve been replicating it for a few days now while talking to Emma, and singing the ‘Psychic Circus’ theme tune, too), but then you’ve also got T. P. McKenna who is absolutely perfectly cast as Captain Cook (and who reminds me more and more with each episode of Mark Gatiss), and Jessica Martin making the perfect companion for him, and managing to be actually somewhat scary during her werewolf transformation in today’s cliffhanger. In the first episode, we had Peggy Mount as the stallslady (and you can see exactly why they’ve used her for the part), Daniel Peacock’s Nord, Christopher Guard as Bellboy… I could really list everyone in the cast, because they’re uniformly great in this one. All the ‘making of’ features on the DVD present us with people who’s memories of making this story - despite the troubles that the production ran in to - are only positive, and of a well-oiled team working together to make something in adversity.

I also need to touch on Gian Sammarco as Whizz Kid. It’s one of those things again that you’re just aware of as a Doctor Who fan - that Whizz Kid is meant to be a commentary on Doctor Who fans. I’ve always thought that it’s just something we’ve kind of projected on to the character over the years, but it’s pretty strong on screen, isn’t it? I think it’s more a view on fans of anything, because the same trends do seem to crop up time and time again. Still it’s hard not to listen to a line like this one;

WHIZZ KID

Although I never got to see the early days, I know it's not as good as it used to be but I'm still terribly interested.

and not compare it to the clip of John Nathan-Turner on Open Air in 1987, when he provided his famous ‘the memory cheats’ remark!

2 December 2014

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

Day 701: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Episode Two

Dear diary,

It’s long fascinated me that The Greatest Show in the Galaxy almost went the route of becoming a Shada for the late 1980s - a programme which could have been part-way through production before everything ground to a halt. Having finished all the location filming for the serial, the cast and crew returned to Television Centre to record all the interior segments… only to find that the studios had been closed to have asbestos removed. Schedule in tatters, nothing to be done. It’s this particular behind-the-scenes story which people tend to agree most represented John Nathan-Turner rising higher than ever before. He found ways to work around the BBC’s temporary rules and regulations for completing programmes during this period, had a large marquee erected in the car park at Elstree, and they finished the production in there. The behind the scenes documentary on this DVD has some great anecdotes about an almost war-time spirit that everyone had in making sure that the story could be finished. It’s also pointed out that they’re lucky that this was the story caught up in these events, because it’s the only one this season (indeed, the only one from this decade, I’d argue, if not even longer) which could actively benefit from such a move!

All the scenes inside the circus tent look fantastic - and far more real than if they’d been shot in a mocked-up ‘big top’ in the studios. The same can be said for the great corridors that our cast are asked to run up and down today - the billowing white sheets that form the sides make the shots stand out as being quite unlike any other corridor chase in Doctor Who, and they look wonderful. I think the only disappointment with all of this is that the series has switched to shooting all on video - because I’d have loved to see all these sequences shot out on film, as was the case when a somewhat similar problem struck the production of Spearhead From Space almost twenty years earlier.

Everything has combined together to make this story stand out visually as being very different to anything else around it, and that really does help. Even if this story had ended up being shot in the studio, though, how beautiful is the location filming? It’s all been shot down in a Dorset quarry, and yet it doesn’t look like any of the other quarries that the TARDIS has ever pitched up in. There’s a feeling to this of an alien world that’s far more considered and developed than I’m used to from the programme. It even takes some of the tricks they employed for stories like Mindwarp and adapt them for use here, too - specifically the planet in the sky, which is nicer here because it’s done more subtly, without trying to draw attention to it. The shots of the circus tent from the exterior are beautiful, too, and I’m always a little bit floored by the fact that it was part model, part full-size construct, and just a bit of clever camera trickery to join everything up.

As for the story itself… I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I think I’m enjoying it, and I’ve certainly been far more drawn in to this episode than I was yesterday, partly because the majority of the characters have now been introduced, and drawn well enough that I can quite happily go along with them. But then I’m not completely sure where things are going, and if I’m honest, my main concern is the running time. Because we’re in the era of three-part stories mingling quite freely with the four-parters now, I’m more acutely aware of the fact that I’m only half-way through this tale, and I’m not sure if there’s enough plot left to fill out almost another hour (I’ve seen the story before, so I know broadly where it’s going, but not the specifics). I think I’m just hoping that I’ll continue the trend of these last two days, and find each successive episode slightly better than the last!

1 December 2014

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

Day 700: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Episode One

NB: I’m watching the McCoy stories in a slightly altered sequence. See HERE for my explanation and reasoning.

Dear diary,

It’s perhaps fitting that a story titled ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ should begin on Day 700 of The 50 Year Diary, because I love it when I reach these ‘century’ days in the marathon. They’re a great opportunity to take stock of the experiment, and to see just how much the programme has evolved since the last one. It’s not even something that I really talk about in writing up these entries, just something I do for myself every hundred days. The series as it is here, for example, in Season Twenty-Five with the Seventh Doctor and Ace is a world away from the show I was watching 100 days ago (Day 600 was the first episode of Earthshock), and that iteration of the programme was just as different from the one I was watching on Day 500 (The Invasion of Time, Episode Six), and Day 400 (Planet of Spiders, Episode Six). You get the picture. It’s the perfect way of tracking just how much Doctor Who evolves and changes throughout its lifetime, because I really don’t notice it all that much when watching day-to-day - it feels like such a natural progression, that it’s only changes like Seasons Six to Seven, or Seventeen to Eighteen, which feel like real shifts.

I think it’s also probably a good thing that on the 700th day of doing this marathon, the programme is still able to flag up episodes that feel quite unlike anything that we’ve had before. Last season, I complained that Delta and the Bannermen didn’t really know what to do with its three-episode structure, but then Dragonfire fitted it perfectly. It didn’t feel as though we’d had to rush everything to fit it in to less episodes, but equally, I can’t imagine how you’d pad it out to fill another. We then moved on to Remembrance of the Daleks, back to the more familiar four-episode format, and again, it filled its running time amply, not feeling too drawn out (although, the more I think about it, the less sure I am why the Doctor herded everyone across to the Dalek shuttle with him aside from filling some screen time…). We’re sticking with four episodes today - indeed that’s the reason that the story was swapped round on original broadcast, because they were keen for Silver Nemesis to air from the anniversary date - and it’s using this first 25 minutes to simply introduce us to all the characters.

The pace is somewhat leisurely, allowing the Doctor and Ace to spend time in the TARDIS, and on the side of a road eating alien fruit, but there’s also a hell of a lot packed in here, with two killer robots, some sinister clowns, a couple on the run, and the introduction of just about every character under the bloody sun! By my count, we’ve got nine key parts introduced: The Ring Master, the Stallslady, Nord, Bellboy, Flowerchild, Captain Cook, Mags, Whizz Kid, and The Chief Clown. That’s not including other characters who appear but aren’t really given a major introduction, like other assorted circus folk. Now, this probably isn’t unusual for a first episode - Paradise Towers had lots of characters introduced in the first 25 minutes, for example - but what sets this apart is the way that every one is introduced to us with their own set piece, really making sure that you take note of who they are, and what they’re up to. It feels really very strange, and I’m not suite sure what to make of it. Coupled with the bizarre cliffhanger, this feels more like a prelude to the main story, which I’m guessing will kick off from tomorrow.

Something I did want to touch on with this episode is the way that the Doctor’s behaving. I’ve seen it suggested that this isn’t just a chance visit to the Psychic Circus spurred on by some junk-mail arriving in the TARDIS, but rather something set up by the Doctor. I’ve always thought of it as an interesting fan-theory, but actually seeing this episode again after so many years… it’s pretty hard to ignore, isn’t it? The junk-mail arrives in the TARDIS and we’re told that it’s ‘extraordinary’ (indeed, the only other things that have managed to arrive in the TARDIS like this before are Sutekh - a god of unimaginable power - the Keeper of Traken - who has the minds of the Traken Union and the power of the Source propelling him through - and arguably Veena in Timelash, though she just happens to pass through via the Vortex as opposed to actively materialising). When Ace announces that she’d rather not go along to the circus because she’s scared of clowns, and the junk mail starts to taunt her about it, just look at the Doctor’s face. He’s studying her reactions - he’s set all of this up as one of those tests he’s so keen on inflicting in Season Twenty-Six. Just like facing her fears in Gabriel Chase, this is a test for Ace that the Doctor has arranged. I’m sure later on the Doctor makes a comment about having fought the Gods of Ragnarok before, so it fits in with his style of setting up his enemies to be defeated, too, just like in the last story (and the next!)

It helps that the Doctor and Ace really are comfortable with each other here. When we join them in the TARDIS - the Doctor teaching himself to juggle, and Ace rummaging through the wardrobe - it has that same ‘lazy Sunday afternoon’ feeling that we saw with the regulars back in The Chase. This is a Doctor and companion who are comfortable with each other, and have been travelling for some time. I think I’m still willing to stick to my estimate of six months for the pair up to now, because it’s never felt as much like there’s unseen adventures for a Doctor and a companion as it does here! 

30 November 2014

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

Day 699: Remembrance of the Daleks, Episode Four

Dear diary,

Ladies and gentlemen, we are at war!

Those of you who’ve been reading along with my marathon for a while will know that I’ve been tracking the evolution of the Time War (sometimes in very spurious ways) for quite some time now. It’s largely because after 50-odd years of Doctor Who, things don’t always hang together all that neatly. Different producers, script editors, writers, and directors have all brought their own things to the programme over the years, and altered the mythos as they go. The Time Lords change on screen - from the immensely powerful god-like beings of The War Games to the asinine bureaucrats of The Deadly Assassin and beyond (though I still maintain that it’s the difference in seeing them through Jamie and Zoe’s eyes in that first story, and the Doctor’s view of them later on). The process of regeneration is made up when the need arises to allow the lead actor to leave the show. A decade later, that ability is capped at a set number of regenerations. At one point, we even see lots of the Doctor’s previous incarnations, meaning that he really should have died with Davison (‘is this death?’).

That’s why I can’t help but love the Time War. It’s big, and it’s mythic. The programme goes off the air for sixteen years - save for a one night fling with Paul McGann in the mid-1990s - and when it returns, everything has changed. The Doctor’s not been having adventures on our TV screens each Saturday night, because he’s been busy, off fighting a bigger war between his own people and his greatest enemies. It almost justifies the fact that there’s such a big gap in the broadcast of the show, and I love that idea. And yet… it’s all right here, being built up in the narrative of the ‘classic’ series for ages. When the Doctor first encounters the Daleks on Skaro, they’re just the week’s evil alien baddies to be stopped. By the time they return the following year, though, they’ve become the catalyst for the biggest change in the Doctor’s personality. Do you remember, back in those early days, how I used to track the Doctor’s evolution from the man we met in the junkyard through to the man he would then become? Fittingly, we’ve returned to that junkyard with this story, because this tale is unambiguously a major early strike in the Time War.

You don’t even have to try to shoe-horn it in. This isn’t like my argument that The Invasion of Time is a part of the war (I’m still convinced that it is), but it’s absolutely a part of it. Going back half the programme’s life time from here, The Genesis of the Daleks is also 100% a part of the Time War - it’s the Time Lords taking that very first strike. All these different production teams coming in and imposing their very different wills on the programme over the years, and yet when this major upheaval comes in - the Doctor becoming the last surviving member of his race - it’s perfectly in keeping with everything we’ve seen before, and retroactively looks like a great big game. I love that, and I think that’s even gone so far as to help up this story a little in my estimations.

Not that it needs that, of course, because Remembrance of the Daleks is simply a brilliant piece of Doctor Who. I think, if anything, it’s suffered slightly from how little I enjoyed Season Twenty-Four (I know, I promised not to bring it up again, but bear with me. I’ll not mention it for at least the rest of this season, promise). Because I became so used to handing out 3/10 and 4/10, suddenly having a story like this, which is such a leap in quality, throws me a bit. Had I been bobbing along with episodes at around 7/10, then this story would likely have rated a bit higher, because it’s so head-and-shoulders above the rest. It’s almost as thug hI’ve rated it down a little bit because I’ve been expecting the worst for a while.

I’m not going to really discuss today’s episode in a great deal of detail, because it seriously runs the risk of just me gushing over everything again. The guest cast on top form, the sets and locations looking lovely. The special effects (that Dalek battle under the bridge!) are fab. Sylvester McCoy is finally proving that he’s the right man for the job and a brilliant Doctor… Really, I’m going to sound ridiculous if I carry on. I think I’m just pleased that this is the final Dalek story of the ‘classic’ run, because it’s such a grand way to see them out - a real return to form, and easily their best outing since Genesis of the Daleks. I think this is probably the one I’d want to show new fans looking to get in to the classic series with a Dalek tale - because it sets everything up really nicely, and all that Time War stuff I’ve been banging on about is an easy bridge from the modern stuff, too.

The one thing I do want to draw attention to, though, is the way that this story uses Davros - because it’s the only one since Genesis to really get it right. Davros here is used sparingly. Really sparingly. He doesn’t turn up until this episode (or, rather, he’s not actually revealed - we see the ‘Emperor’ in Episode Three, too), but the whole story plays on your expectation that he’ll arrive. Because Terry Nation insisted on the character being in all Dalek stories from Genesis on, you reach points like Revelation of the Daleks, which seem to have Davros there just for the sake of bringing the character back. Hello, Doctor, I’ve lured you here to taunt a bit and stop my evil plans, etc.

Here, we’re built up to believe that the creature in Ratcliffe’s office could be Davros - it looks and sounds like him, after all, before we’re shocked with the reveal of the little girl plugged in to a Dalek Battle Computer. Just when you think we could be having a Davros-free story, the Emperor’s casing flips open and there he is! It’s a great moment, and I love that he’s so completely encased in the machine. From here in the audios, he returns in Terror Firma, where he’s become even more of a ‘Dalek’, and that really does feel like a natural evolution from this point. I just think that this is such a clever way of playing with your expectations of a Dalek story, and then doing something entirely different with it.

Oh, and it gives us the ‘unlimited rice pudding’ line, which is always sure to raise a smile! 

29 November 2014

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

Day 698: Remembrance of the Daleks, Episode Three

Dear diary,

In the series of About Time books, each story gets a ‘critique’, and I often go back to catch up on what was said there to see how it tallies with my own thoughts on a serial. The critique for this story, though, has always stuck in the mind because it says something that I can’t help but feeling is exactly right: ‘Looked at now, it’s amazing that so few people saw it on first broadcast. Had the BBC got behind this series, episodes like these would have won it a whole new audience’. The more this story goes on, the more I think it’s a pity that the McCoy era of the programme is looked down upon by so many - especially within fandom. This is one of the greatest stories ever, and there’s no doubt that stuff like this would have gotten the public talking about Doctor Who again (there’s also mention in the About Time critique of Dragonfire that had more people been watching when that story went out, there would have been a flurry of complaints about Kane’s death. As it is, the whole sequence passed by under the radar).

This is really me struggling to find another way of saying ‘I’m still really enjoying Remembrance of the Daleks’. It’s almost the complete opposite of Revelation of the Daleks, in which there was absolutely no need for the Daleks to be there, because here we’ve got a story that’s about the pepper pots. We’ve got a manipulative Doctor trying to play his intergalactic game of chess, making sure that the right Daleks get hold of the right Gallifreyan super weapon at the right time, and there’s always something fun about watching so many of the creatures get blown up!

Because I didn’t really talk about the Daleks all that much during their last appearance, I’ve not had a chance properly yet to say just how much I love the white-and-gold versions of the creatures. It’s suck a lovely design, sleek and elegant, and they look so much nicer than the drab grey ones that have become so common throughout the colour years of the programme. The design of the Emperor is rather lovely, too, and their spaceship! Oh! There’s lots of photographs that show off the set here, but none of them capture quite how good it looks on screen. During our first trip aboard, there’s a lovely camera movement that pans around the room while a Dalek is busy shouting it’s… Dalek things, and it really shows the design off beautifully.

Indeed, the direction of the whole serial is rather nice, and it’s hard to believe that it’s by Andrew Morgan - the same man who gave us Time and the Rani! In that story, I complained lots about the way that the production had been put together (by all departments, from costumes through to lighting), but here we’ve been given something much stronger. I think, on reflection, that less blame should be placed at Morgan’s door for Time and the Rani than I did, because it ended up becoming an edict for the entire season, not just that story. Unshackled from that light-hearted style, which sat so at odds with the regular tone of the programme, Morgan has crafted something really rather wonderful this time around.

And then there’s the guest cast of characters. For a few years, now, Big Finish have produced a spin-off from this story, featuring Gilmore, Rachel, and Alison setting up the Countermeasures Intrusion Group in the months following this story. I’ve been listening to the series since it was first released, but at that point it had been a while since I’d last seen these four episodes. I’m glad, then, to see that the characters we get in the spin-off are very much drawn from what we’re given on screen here, and I’m looking forward to a re-listen with this story fresher in the mind. I’ve vaguely touched on it before, but these characters do feel so much more rounded than others we’ve had recently, and I can’t fail to get caught up in their world.

28 November 2014

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

Day 697: Remembrance of the Daleks, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Because I didn’t fully embrace my love of Doctor Who until the 21st century revival really booted me in to action, I’ve always been used to Daleks who are fairly powerful. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve been able to fly for as long as I can remember, and for a brief while they were even able to swing their mid sections around for full 360-degree action, and melt bullets as they were directed towards them. In short, they’ve always been a fairly unstoppable force. It doesn’t make the cliffhanger to yesterday’s episode any less exciting, though. It’s been almost two years since I started out on this marathon, so I’ve become very used to the ‘classic’ type of Dalek, which is usually a bit rubbish. We’ve seen them levitate before, of course (In The Chase, one rises from the sand, and in Revelation of the Daleks they’re seen to hover, but it’s done somewhat clumsily there, so you don’t really notice…), but seeing the way that this one approaches the stairs and just casually continues on the advance is great - and the Doctor’s reaction to it helps to sell the threat, too. Even he’s surprised by this development! This story also marks the first time that you see a skeleton as the Dalek bolt strikes someone - it feels like we’re moving ever closer towards the modern version of the show, and it’s interesting seeing the pieces start to fall in to place.

I’m surprised, too, just how excited I am to have the Daleks back here. Like the comings and goings of the different Doctors in this period of the programme, Dalek tales seem to come around really fast now (this is the third since September, whereas before that they’d been fairly paced out for a long time), and when they cropped up again in Revelation of the Daleks only a season on from Resurrection… I didn’t really care all that much. You might notice that I barely mention the Daleks in that story, and that’s because they were by far one of the least interesting parts of the narrative. Here, though, for some reason, I’m really pleased to have another Dalek tale. I wonder if it’s because this time, we’ve very much got the two sets of Daleks squaring up against each other (a plot thread introduced very late in to the last story), and I know that this is about to turn full-on into being the start of the Time War? It’s something I’ve been tracking for most of 2014, from the Doctor’s mission in Genesis of the Daleks and then on through various spurious links, so it’s quite exciting to have finally reached this point.

And the Doctor has now gone completely into his manipulative mode! Throughout the last season, I was tracking the little moments that seemed to point towards the character becoming manipulative and scheming, but I’d really forgotten just how blatant it becomes from this story onwards. I’d long thought of it as being something that was somewhat underlying in the show, and only really brought to the fore later on in the books, but here we’ve got the Doctor expecting the Daleks to turn up, and being somewhat unsettled when it’s the wrong faction that arrive on the scene (at least initially). By today’s episode, he’s already thinking that he may have made an error (it’s a lovely continuation of that great cliffhanger in Delta and the Bannermen, where he realises he may have bitten off more than he can chew), and I’m really enjoying that. There’s also the mystery of just when he started setting all of this up. At the undertakers, the ‘Doctor’ who left the casket with them in 1963 is described as being an older chap with long white hair - a pretty good description of the First Doctor, which would make sense given the trappings of Coal Hill School, Totter’s Lane, and November 1963 in the story - but this opens up a whole can of worms about the way the Doctor acts in The Daleks. There, it seems to be his first meeting with the creatures, but is there perhaps more to it than we ever realised? It’s not something I’ve ever really considered in a great deal of depth before, but I’m quite keen to watch that story again now and see exactly how he actually reacts to them…

I can’t let this episode pass by without bringing up the Doctor’s speech about making a difference. It’s lovely, and very fitting for this incarnation who’ll be plotting his way through the next eight stories. Another example of Sylvester McCoy simply getting the Doctor this season. You can really sense that both he and Andrew Cartmel have taken some time to sit down and really work out what they want to do with both the character and the series. I’ve said it before (and I’ll try to make this the last time, I promise), but there’s such a shift in quality between Season Twenty-Four and this story, that you can really sense just how much work has gone in to getting it right. I’ve often defended this period of the programme to people who claim it’s rubbish by saying how much the show found its feet again in the final two years, and this is the perfect story to demonstrate that.

27 November 2014

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

Day 696: Remembrance of the Daleks, Episode One

Dear diary,

For the last fortnight, while I’ve not been enjoying Season Twenty-Four, Remembrance of the Daleks has been the light at the end of the tunnel. I could remember liking it from previous viewings (it’s one of the few stories I’d actually watched a few times before replacing it with the special edition), and the more I thought about little elements of the story, the more it seemed to be the absolute antithesis of everything that I perceived as being ‘wrong’ with Doctor Who as broadcast in 1987.

It’s nice, then, that this episode is pretty much everything that I wanted it to be. Let’s start with the thing that most relates to my complaints about areas of the last season - this story is set in the real world. When we join the Doctor and Ace in the adventure, they’re walking away from the TARDIS, which is parked down a side street. They’re out in real London streets, or in playgrounds, or junkyards. A large proportion of this serial is shot out on location - which helps - and everything feels much more solid than it did in Season Twenty-Four. These locations (and even the sets) don’t feels as ‘plastic’ or ‘comic book’, and it really does make a massive difference to things. By that same token, the fact that we see Ace go to get food in a regular cafe - as opposed to the version we saw in Dragonfire - grounds everything in reality much more. You can see where Russell T Davies was coming from when he chose to ground the 2005 revival in a council estate, with shops, and flats, and real people, because it has the same effect there that it does here, of making everything feel just that bit more natural.

Speaking of which, McCoy’s performance has jumped up tenfold from where it was last season, and he feels very natural here, too. He’s playing everything a little bit quieter, and even largely underplaying his lines, in a way that we didn’t really get to see a lot of in his first four adventures. I was trying yesterday to find a way of describing the differences in his performance, but it struck me almost instantly when he papered today - it simply is that everything is much calmer here - more calculated, and yet it comes across as less of a performance.

Take, for example, the moment when he stands with Ace, looking out over the scorch marks on the playground. He makes reference to both Terror of the Zygons and The Web of Fear, and plays the line beautifully. It’s the ultimate example of him underplaying a scene, when I know that his Season Twenty-Four performance would have gone to great lengths to really over-do the point. Having just come from two weeks of that style, I can picture exactly how that would have gone. I’m so glad, because I came to this period of the marathon knowing how much I like McCoy’s Doctor, but by the end of Dragonfire, I was almost beginning to doubt myself!

I discussed this with my friend Nick this evening. He acts as a nice counterbalance to me at this stage, because while he admits that Season Twenty-Four has its faults, he doesn’t dislike it to quite the extent that I do. He’s a bit more willing to accept that it’s the programme trying something different that doesn’t really work, but then it comes back this year and tries another direction. He’s right when he says that McCoy was pitching his performance last season to fit the ‘comic book’ style that they were going for - try to play the Doctor in Time and the Rani the way he does here and it would fall absolutely flat on its face.

That said, everything is pulling together here to help this new performance. Remember during Delta and the Bannermen, I complained that all the supporting characters just went along with the Doctor because the plot required them to do so, and it came across as rushed and false. Here, characters effectively do the same thing… but you get the sense that the Doctor has given them reason to go along with him. I think it’s in Silver Nemesis where he describes his usual tactic as simply acting like he owns the place, and it’s absolutely true of what happens here. When he climbs in to the van and Rachel questions his presence, he simply goes on with the rest of the conversation. Similarly, when they reach Totters’ Yard, he takes charge of the situation, and ends up being the one who takes out the Dalek, while the myriad of soldiers are largely ineffective against it. Here, even after one episode, I completely buy that everyone will go along with what he says, because he’s given me every reason to believe it. That’s much stronger scripting and performance than we’ve had before in this period.

While I’m on the subject, what’s the general thinking in terms of how long he’s been travelling with Ace at this point? There’s lots of little hints in this episode that seem to suggest they’ve spent a while together since Dragonfire (and I’d say that Sophie Aldred has been made up to look older than she was in that story), and that this pair are fairly comfortable together. Certainly, this isn’t the first place they’ve been to since Ice World. Equally, they’ve not been anywhere where Ace has needed to drive, because the Doctor has to ask if she can. I think I’m plumping for a period of maybe six months for them by now - long enough to go around and have several adventures, and to get comfortable together before they touch down here to sort out the Daleks (the Doctor is clearly here specifically for the Daleks, and I’d imagine he’d want to make sure Ace is up to the challenge before setting the coordinates). Does anyone else have a theory on how long they’ve been together already? 

26 November 2014

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

Day 695: Dragonfire, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I was surprised, watching the ‘making of’ documentary on this DVD today, to hear that Andrew Cartmel and Ian Briggs weren’t all that keen on the final scene with Mel in this episode. It seems to be the case that it’s adapted from part of McCoy’s audition scene, which he’d been repeatedly trying to get in to the series for a while, and ended up just putting in almost without actually telling anyone! It surprised me because it’s such a beautiful goodbye, and for me it’s the highlight of the story (and, if I’m honest, of the season!)

DOCTOR

That's right, yes, you're going. Been gone for ages. Already gone, still here, just arrived, haven't even met you yet. It all depends on who you are and how you look at it. Strange business, time.

MEL

Goodbye, Doctor.

DOCTOR

I'm sorry, Mel. Think about me when you're living your life one day after another, all in a neat pattern. Think about the homeless traveller and his old police box, with his days like crazy paving.

MEL

Who said anything about home? I've got much more crazy things to do yet…

I think it’s fair to say that this is by far the best performance that we’ve seen Sylvester McCoy give all season - and it’s much closer to the way that he’ll be handling the part from now on - and there’s something rather beautifully melancholic about the whole scene. It fits quite nicely with the fact that he ended up meeting Mel out of order (even if we didn’t see this so much on screen, but it’s been explored in audios like The Wrong Doctors), and serves as a rather nice cap to their time together. It then moves on to be a brilliant introduction to Ace aboard the TARDIS. Thinking back to the Fourth Doctor’s words in Logopolis, when he claims to have never chosen his own company aboard the TARDIS, This may be the first time, really, since Vicki* that we’ve seen the Doctor actively ask someone to come with him because he wants them to.

I’ve never noticed before just how well it melds with the story arc that’s still to come surrounding Ace’s character. By the time we reach The Curse of Fenric - more on which in a moment - the Doctor is claiming to have sensed the deliberate alteration to Ace’s life even at this stage, thus choosing to take her along with him. It becomes a bit vague, I teem to recall, just how much he’s saying to break her confidence, and how much is the truth, but I think it’s very easy to read all of that into this final scene. It would especially explain why he’s so distracted as Mel tries to make her goodbyes, and even why she so suddenly decides that this is the end of the road for her time in the TARDIS (she clearly hasn’t even mentioned to Glitz that she’s planning to go with him). I think I’m right in saying that the New Adventures novels in the 1990s revealed that the Doctor mentally forced her to leave here, because he knew of the role Ace would go on to play, and needed Mel out of the way and back to safety while he concentrated on the new girl. I don’t think that’s a leap from what we’re given on screen at all, and indeed, I really prefer to think of it like that. It also works as a nice capstone to the building up of this Doctor’s ‘meddling’ personality that I’ve been spuriously tracking over the last two weeks…

As we move in to the final two seasons of the programme’s original run, a brief word on the order in which I’ll be watching the stories. For the first time in The 50 Year Diary, I’m completely breaking with broadcast order and doing it my own way. The reasons are simple: a few stories in the next few years were swapped around between production and broadcast, and work better if watched in the order they were intended for. Thus, I’ll be watching Season Twenty-Five as Remembrance of the Daleks - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy - The Happiness Patrol - Silver Nemesis, and then Season Twenty-Six as The Curse of Fenric - Battlefield - Ghost Light - Survival. I’ve never been overboard with trying to remain 100% accurate with this marathon, hence side-steps in to things like Farewell, Great Macedon, and Doctor Who and the Pescatons, and I think I’ll get more from the next eight stories in this order!

*Yes, I know, Harry, but he’s really only asking him aboard the ship so that he can show off a bit.

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