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21 October 2014

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

Day 659: The Mark of the Rani, Episode One

Dear diary,

The Mark of the Rani is, for me, another one of those 'fact' stories. What I mean is that I can rattle off plenty of information about it - it's the first Pip n' Jane story, the first appearance of the Rani, the Master's first face off against the Sixth Doctor - but I couldn't have told you just how good it is! I'm watching today's episode on a coach, making my way across the country, to visit family. I was praying that it might be an interesting enough instalment of Doctor Who to help break up the monotony… and is it ever! I've loved it!

The thing which is appealing to me the most here is the direction. It's genuinely some of the best we've ever had in the programme (it's better than The Caves of Androzani, which is the one every bangs on about direction-wise in this era, though for different reasons), and I'm gutted to know that this story represents Sarah Helling's only work on the programme, because she's got a talent that really could help improve the stock of the series.

I think it's partly helped by the fact that so much of today's episode takes place out on location (is this one of the highest film-to-videotape ratios that we've ever had?), and regular readers of the 50 Year Diary will be well aware of my feelings towards film in Doctor Who. There's lots of shots that look simply gorgeous here - beautifully framed - and I'm a little bit stunned by them. I've seen The Mark of the Rani before, but couldn't remember it being this visually gorgeous! I'm just hoping now that I won't have to pay the price tomorrow, and spend most of the episode trapped inside on video…

I've already made brief mention of the fact that this is the first appearance of the Rani in the programme. She's built up something of a reputation over the years for being a bit of a rubbish character, but I have to confess that I'm rather fond of her. I think it helps that this is the serial in which she's given less over-the-top eccentricities, and her plan is half-way decent, too. She's not here trying to impersonate the Doctor's companion, or trap him in a time loop on Albert Square, but rather because she's got her own experiments to work on.

I'm less thrilled to see the Master turning up, and surely this is the most ridiculous disguise that he ever wears? There's something quite creepy about the way the scarecrow's head moves as he watched the Doctor and Peri depart, but then when he takes off the costume (in one of the few poor areas of direction, sadly), there seems to have been no reason for the disguise at all. I can just about buy that he's ended up in the same place and time as the Rani, because he claims to have followed her here, but he seems to have been standing in the field just for something to do on a Tuesdays afternoon!

That said, when he's paired up with the Rani, I can't help but really love it. The way the pair spark off each other is hilarious, and you can't fault the Rani's description of the Master's schemes - ' It'll be something devious and over-complicated. He'd get dizzy if he tried to walk in a straight line.' The one area which does feel a bit out of place is that they seem to all subscribe to the Gallifreyan Academy's alumni newsletter. The Rani is well aware that the Master's last plan went wrong for him and seemed to finish him off, and they both know on sight exactly what this new Doctor looks like! It must be terribly awkward for him - every time he turns up to a reunion, he's got a different companion in tow, the old dog!

20 October 2014

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

Day 658: Vengeance on Varos, Episode Two

Dear diary,

When Doctor Who was first taken off the air in the mid 1980s, one of the things that was heavily discussed was the level of violence in the programme. The opinion seemed to be that it had reached new and inappropriate levels by this season, and it wasn't acceptable. This particular episode is probably a good place to bring it up, because it features the infamous 'acid bath' scene, in which the Doctor quips about the death of two guards, as they fall to their (rather gruesome) death.

It's often been cited as an example of the programme going too far with violence, but I'm not sure that it's all that bad, really. I think the most objectionable thing about the scene is the Doctor's reaction, when he jokes that he 'won't be joining' the guards in the acid. Even then, I'm not overly sure that I'm bothered by it, though. The same is true of another oft-mentioned scene from Attack of the Cybermen, where Lytton has his hands crushed by a pair of the silver giants. Further than the programme usually goes? Yes. Too far? It didn't make me bat an eyelid, but I can sort of understand not letting young children watch that. On the whole, I'm not finding this season to be any more violent than the programme usually is - some of the deaths in Resurrection of the Daleks were pretty horrific (although that's still from this period of the show's history), but it's no more out there than Harry attacking Sarah with a pitchfork in Terror of the Zygons, of Sara ageing to her death in The Daleks' Master Plan. It's a subject which may well crop up again before the season is out, so I'll make a note to watch out for it.

As for this story itself… It's a bit of an odd one. I'm enjoying it (and I think I've liked this second episode more than yesterday's), but at the same time, it's not been my favourite of all time. I think where it's excelling is still in Philip Martin's script - there's just so much skill involved in crafting this tale, and I'm impressed by it. Martin has written several scripts for big Finish over the years, some of which have been very much not to my taste (and bordering on bad taste in at least one instance), but there's certainly enough on display here to demonstrate the man's obvious talent. I'm particularly impressed with the way that we're slowly brought round to supporting the governor throughout, and it's something that's only heightened by having Martin Jarvis turn in a good performance.

Indeed, the guest cast in this story are really giving their all in every part, and that's always nice to see. Chief among them has to be Nabil Shaban as Sil. I spent some time yesterday praising him as a character, and I can't help but love him even more in today's episode. I'm somewhat surprised by how little he features in the plot - I'd sort of come to think of him as being the main baddie in this story, but he's really more of a sideline nuisance to the Doctor and Peri… and, well, to everyone in the story, really! 

20 October 2014

The BBC has today announced 'The Doctor And The Dalek', a new online game for CBBC audiences voiced by Peter Capaldi. The game sees the newly regenerated Twelfth Doctor thrown into a dangerous quest with his most devious of enemies in a new, stand-alone story from Doctor Who and Wizards vs Aliens TV writer, Phil Ford.

'The Doctor And The Dalek' - which has been specially released to be part of the BBC's Make it Digital initiative to inspire a new generation to get creative with coding, digital technology and programming - will be available freely at bbc.co.uk/cbbc from Wednesday 22nd October.

The Doctor And The Dalek

Players join the action as the TARDIS materialises amidst a deadly pursuit through space – a Dalek Saucer bearing down on a Cyber-ship. But from that Cyber-ship emanates a distress call – from a Dalek! On freeing the battered Dalek from his Cybermen captors, the Doctor finds himself taking his new unlikely ally on a mission to save all of creation from destruction at the hands of his greatest enemies.

But why would a Dalek turn to its mortal foe for help? To find out, join the 'Doctor and the Dalek' in a new adventure spanning the Sontar homeworld and its vile Clone Chambers, which have never been shown on-screen before, as well as reintroducing the icy Cyber-tombs of Telos – last seen in classic Doctor Who episodes.

The Doctor said:

"Oi! Short and not-very-old one! I need your help - I’ve got a Dalek and we’ve got a mission to save the universe. So get on over to the CBBC website, and play 'The Doctor and the Dalek' while there’s still a universe left! Come on! Chop chop! Make it Digital on the BBC."

Introducing computing skills

A range of puzzles are featured throughout the game, where players must take control of the Dalek and program it to 'power up' its ability to perform a range of tasks, such as flying. Each puzzle unlocks an achievement that helps the Doctor build the Dalek back to full strength, ensuring it can take on increasingly difficult challenges as the game progresses.

The puzzles are linked to the new computing curriculum and are designed to allow children across the UK to pick up core programming principles as they play. Several key stage 2 and 3 curriculum points – such as combining instructions to accomplish a given goal, using variables to alter behaviour, repetition and loops, and logical reasoning – are seamlessly integrated into the gameplay and, most importantly for children, are intuitive and fun.

Resources accompanying the game will be available from BBC Learning at bbc.co.uk/schoolscomputing for teachers and parents to help children get the most out of the game. These will provide links to other resources available from across the BBC and third parties, enabling children and teachers to take their learning journeys further.

Danny Cohen, BBC Director of Television, said:

“'The Doctor and the Dalek' is a brand-new Doctor Who story and a fantastic game, voiced by the wonderful Peter Capaldi. It’s an excellent example of how a hugely popular BBC show can give fans something extra, whilst also introducing wider audiences to increasingly important skills, such as coding and programming.”

Sinéad Rocks, Head of BBC Learning, said:

“We’re really excited about the launch of 'The Doctor and the Dalek' as not only is it a really entertaining platform game for kids to play but it’s also a great introduction to some key principles of computer programming. Every puzzle has a strong link to the KS2 or KS3 computing curriculum. So we think it’s going to be a really valuable tool for students, parents and teachers.”

The Doctor And The Dalek was commissioned by BBC Learning, developed and produced by BBC Wales and Somethin’ Else in association with BBC Future Media. 

Check out a sneak peek at the game, courtesy of FamilyGamerTV, in the video player, below:

 
[Source: BBC Media Centre]

19 October 2014

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

Day 657: Vengeance on Varos, Episode One

Dear diary,

Although the Baker years on the whole have something of a bad rep, there are a few stories that tend to break the pattern, and garner a fair amount of praise. Both of Philip Martin's contributions to the series (this story and The Trial of a Time Lord: Mindwarp next season), are usually considered to be some of these exceptions. I've seen this story before - it was one of the first that I picked up on DVD, but I have to admit that I can't recall it making all that much of an impact.

That said, the story's rather strong visual style did stick in the memory - I commented about the very 1980s hair on display in Terminus, but even that story has nothing on this one! Oh dear?

There's plenty to enjoy in this episode, though, and a fair amount of that needs to be put at Philip Martin's door. The script is filled with great dialogue, and possibly the best description of politics I've seen in a while;

ETTA
What would the next [Governor] do any different?

ARAK
Everything! Anything.

It's just one of many rather nice examinations of the way people in power work throughout this episode (another notable example is the difference between being allowed an opinion and a vote). It's in these moments that Martin really flies with the writing here - and it's some of the best commentary on the subject that Doctor Who has done in a long time. I'm hoping that we get plenty more of it in the next episode, too.

Elsewhere, the thing that people usually point out when discussing this story is how relevant it is to 'reality' TV these days. It has to be said that it does seem to be especially perceptive of the way that TV has moved, right down to being able to vote for what you want to happen, and it really does work as quite a nice idea for a Doctor Who story. My only concern is that I'm not really feeling the threat of the Punishment Dome yet; We've spent a lot of time in the hallucination areas, whereas I'm a vindictive sort of chap, and I'd rather see more of the other types of torture. I'm just not quite feeling the threat yet.

Also a little bit vindictive in this episode is Sil. He's often touted as a real stand-out character from this period of the programme (and he'll be back in Martin's next story for the programme, too), and I'll be honest when I say that I've never really understood the love for him. Actually, though, he's great! I can't help but like him, even when I know that he's trying to cheat the Governor (and, indeed, the whole planet). I'd imagine that I'll be discussing him more tomorrow - because he may well be one of my favourite things in the story!

18 October 2014

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

Day 656: Attack of the Cybermen, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Just how many stories is this one a sequel (or at least a follow-up) to? There’s the obvious ones - we’ve come back to Telos and the Cybercontroller from The Tomb of the Cybermen, and their planning to alter the events of The Tenth Planet - but then we’ve got Cybermen in the sewers (as in The Invasion), the TARDIS returning to Totter’s Lane (An Unearthly Child, and seemingly for no reason at all), Lytton’s story continuing from where it was left off in Resurrection of the Daleks… People talk about needing to be a fan of Doctor Who with a degree in time and space to understand this story, and mostly, that all comes down to the fact that there’s so much pointless continuity in here!

The sad thing is… I think it could almost work, but not like this. Yes, that’s right, it’s time for another instalment of ‘how I would have done it’. If you’re going to insist on having so many old elements come back in this story, then it really needs to be done as a kind of nostalgia piece. You can have the Cybermen in the sewers, but make them the design from The Invasion, because by 1985 that design has already become something of a retro thing, and if you’re catering to an audience of people who remember and love those earlier stories, then it’s the perfect way to hook them in. While you’re at it, hire better actors to play them. Then, once you’re on Telos, do the tombs in the same style as the ones from the 1960s! This bit seems so bloody obvious that I can’t believe they missed it. In the making of feature on this story’s DVD, Eric Saward even mentions the fact that he saw a photograph of the original Tomb of the Cybermen set and was so impressed that it inspired this story… and then they go and build the hideous version we see on screen here. Oh dear.

As for the story itself… to a certain extent, I rather like the idea. A time machine has crash-landed on Telos, and the Cybermen plan to travel back in time and stop their home world from getting destroyed. That’s the simple plot at the heart of this story, but it doesn’t come across because it’s buried under pointless trips to Totter’s Lane, and other assorted rubbish. What I want to see is a small group of 1960s-style Cybermen who have been woken from their hibernation by a time ship crashing on the planet. They’re alone in the universe, the last desperate survivors of the Cyber-race, and they plan to go back in time to change that. There’s a fairly simple - yet, hopefully - exciting - story to tell, as the Doctor and Peri battle to save the Web of Time.

Under that circumstance, you don’t need to worry about the fact that you’re following up on Tomb of the Cybermen and The Tenth Planet, because everything you need to know can be explained away in a few lines of dialogue - the Cybermen come from the planet Mondas. They tried to invade the Earth, but their planet was destroyed. The few survivors settled here and went into hibernation. Done. There’s no need for some of the convoluted explanations given in today’s episode, which seem to be there more to make it look like the writer has seen lots of Doctor Who, and not because it needs to be said.

I think this is just one of those stories that frustrates me because it should be good. There’s a few really nice ideas in here - like the Cybermen going mad when not revived properly, and even the plan to crash a comet into the Earth, which would have been topical at the time, with Halley’s Comet coming back around. In the end, though, it’s just become a great big mess, and I can’t really forgive it that. A pity. 

17 October 2014

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

Day 655: Attack of the Cybermen, Episode One

Dear diary,

This feels as though it should be a real shot in the arm for Doctor Who. After three seasons of being shown twice-weekly in a mid-week slot, the programme has returned to its ancestral home of Saturday night. Not only that, but after the forced experiment of screening Resurrection of the Daleks as two 45-minute episodes last year, the programme has been switched permanently to that format. It’s almost like growing up, and a chance to really tell a great story with a bit more time to breathe in each part. We’ve got a new Doctor, who’s somewhat eider and less predictable than his immediate predecessor, a companion who’s also relatively recent and has been rather good so far, and in case you’re still not excited, they’ve even brought back the Cybermen, in sequels to… well, pretty much everything.

And you know what? It’s bloody rubbish.

I never set out in to any story in this marathon with a ‘mission’. Sometimes, I go in expecting to like something and I will. Sometimes, I go in expecting not to like something, and I don’t. Sometimes - and these are the best of times - I go in expecting to hate something, and end up finding loads to love, making a story a bit of an undiscovered gem in my Who knowledge, and rocketing it right up my list of favourites. But I go in to each story, and every episode, with an open mind. I rate each one on gut instinct from watching, and take it day-by-day. That said, while I don’t enter in to any story thinking “I’m join to rate this one highly no matter what”, I do go in to them looking for the best. It doesn’t always work, as the likes of The Dominators, The Curse of Peladon, or Logopolis will attest. On the whole, though, knowing that the Sixth Doctor’s era isn’t rated very well, I think I’m consciously making an extra effort to find things that I can love. I didn’t have to try all that hard with The Twin Dilemma, but today’s episode… oh dear. It’s really irritated me.

Let’s start with the biggie: the Cybermen in this story are downright s*t. I try to refrain from swearing in these entries, so knowing that I’m resorting to it hopefully helps to make my point. The Cybercontroller moves around as though he’s a stereotypical robot, while the others working around him wobble around as they speak and move, as if they’re all having a bit of a boogie. Worst of all is the over-eager Cyberintern who’s helping out with their base in the London sewers - jumping in at every opportunity to kiss the arse of his cyberboss! This particular Cyberman has *really started to annoy me, and by the time we’ve reached the end of the episode, where he’s popping up over his boss’ shoulder to enthusiastically point out that the Doctor’s presence would explain the time distortion they detected, I’d genuinely lost the will to live. I’m not going to bother going in to the whole debate over who wrote what in this story (frankly, they should all be clambering to wash their hands of it), but it’s highly likely Eric Saward had a major part in it. I’m stunned, therefore, that the man who gave us such great Cybermen in Earthshock not all that long ago has managed to make such a complete mess of the characters here!

Then you’ve got the return of Lytton. Much awaited by… well, by Eric Saward, presumably. Lytton was in last season’s Dalek story, and it’s telling that even though I watched it a little over a week ago, I’ve pretty much forgotten everything about him. My friend Nick summed it up perfectly for me;

”He Argued with the Black Dalek, killed his workmates, and never met the Doctor”

I think that’s my biggest issue with his return here - the Doctor reacts to news of the man’s involvement with ‘I should have guessed’, but I was sure that the pair hadn’t actually crossed paths before! It’s a shame, because actually, that final scene of Lytton cutting his losses and wandering off into the sunset with his two ‘policemen’ was great, and having them return here should be a great idea… but it just doesn’t work. They’ve been taken out of the wonderful gritty locations of that earlier story, and plonked down here, in a tale that I couldn’t care much less about.

Still, let’s look on the positives, shall we? Starting with the Cybermen, I do enjoy the way that they get properly beaten up on the surface of Telos. In the same way that there’s something really pleasing about watching them get massacred during the events of The Five Doctors, there’s something about seeing their heads and hands knocked off here that would really appeal to me as a child. That sounds quite sadistic, actually.

The Doctor and Peri are also continuing to be something of a highlight - I love the way that their relationship has mellowed, and that the Doctor has decided that the time to fix the TARDIS up is now. In many ways, I also love that they’ve ditched the Chameleon circuit… but it feels too much like a gimmick. I know it’ll be reset by the end of the story, and it doesn’t feel as though they’ve gone to all that much trouble of thinking about what it could turn in to here. The ornamental pillar and the organ feel that bit too much like they’ve simply been hauled out of some BBC props store, and trundled along to the location. At least turn it in to a red telephone box or something, so that Peri’s joke about it being ‘much better’ now could be funny (NB: I’d find that funny. Your milage may vary!)

To be honest, it really is the rubbish Cybermen in this episode that have put me off more than anything. I’m struggling to care about anything much in the plot, because every time we cut back to them, there’s something new there to irritate me. Here’s hoping that things pick up in the next episode, because I’m struggling to find much to love here…

17 October 2014

DWO’s Spoiler-free preview of episode 8.9: Flatline:

 

Since Doctor Who was revived in 2005, most seasons have featured a cheaper episode, to free up money for more expensive sequences in the other stories of that year, and a ‘Doctor-Lite’ episode, in which the Doctor’s involvement is paired right back, allowing the regular cast to work on two episodes simultaneously, and ensure that there’s enough footage in the can for our Saturday nights. Flatline is perhaps unusual, as it feels in some ways like both a cheaper episode and a ‘Doctor-lite’ adventure… but it’s not really either.

 

The episode has clearly been designed to only require two-or-three days filming from Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, confining him largely to the TARDIS, but his presence is absolutely vital throughout. You never get the sense that this is in any way ‘Doctor-lite’, even though it fits the brief of being so. Of course, this does mean that Jenna Colemen gets a real chance to show us what she’s made of this week - leading the adventure and taking charge of the guest characters to investigate a mystery and save the day. It would, perhaps, be fairer to call this episode ‘Clara-heavy’.

 

Our ‘hook’ this week can perhaps be boiled down to just two words - ‘Killer Graffiti’. While the concept of the paintings being such a sinister presence through the episode could lead to comparisons with the 2006 episode Fear Her, the story here is different enough to stand on its own two feet, and manages to make the concept rather terrifying in places. How can you escape from something that can follow you through the walls, the furniture, and the floors?

 

But Flatline isn’t really about the Killer Graffiti at all - it’s an examination of the Doctor’s character, his true character that we’ve been seeing more and more of this season, now that he’s ‘lifted the veil’. Picking up on the themes of episodes like Kill the Moon, in which Clara gets to see what it’s like having to make a big decision on behalf of millions, or Mummy on the Orient Express, where she learns how you have to handle people to get the best from them in ‘end of the world’ situations, this story is about again letting her get inside the Doctor’s head, and have a taste of what it’s like to really be him.

 

As has become standard for the programme this year, the Direction is simply beautiful, and there’s some lovely locations on display. Filming in Bristol has allowed a slightly different feel to the Cardiff exteriors we’ve become so used to over the years, and this story does stand out from the pack in this respect. Sadly, the special effects are more of a mixed bag this time around - with some elements looking absolutely fantastic, while some other areas could do with a little more work, and seem more distracting than enjoyable.

 

A vital episode for the narrative of Series 8, a chance for the regulars to shine (as always), a simple concept twisted into interesting new directions… but perhaps an episode which is less than the sum of its parts.

 

Five things to look out for:


1)
“Are we really hiding from Killer Graffiti?”

2) “Don’t give me an ‘ish’.”
3) “I’m the Doctor. Doctor Oswald… But you can call me Clara.”
4) There’s a hint about how much the TARDIS actually weighs.
5) “Lying is a vital survival skill.”

 

[Sources: DWO; Will Brooks]

16 October 2014

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

Day 654: The Twin Dilemma, Episode Four

Dear diary,

I knew there was something that really perplexed me about The Twin Dilemma, but I couldn’t remember what it was. Today’s episode brought it all flooding back - it’s Mestor’s plan. I rather like the idea that they plan to make the sun expand, pushing the Gastropod eggs out among the galaxy (I’m sure that’s not completely scientifically accurate, of course…), but I’d lost track of why the twins were there. For ages now, I’ve assumed that they were a bit like the Logopolitans, and that they were so good at mathematics that their sums were able to physically change the universe. Indeed, in Episode One, their father tells them that they don’t understand just how powerful their maths can be. I’d figured that Mestor needed the twins to use their maths to aper the state of the sun, therefore bringing it to the point of expansion. Where this had always confused me was that I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t just have them calculate a way to send the eggs scattering anyway. But the impression I get from this episode is that the boys are simply required to do the maths and figure out where to point the Tractor beam, and for how long? Do you see where I may have gorton confused?

It also strikes me as very odd that Azemel can have overlooked the disastrous consequences of this for so long, considering how easily he realises when the Doctor points out that there’s a flaw in the plan. It’s put down to him having a lot on his mind, but wouldn’t it be so much more sensible to have simply said that Mestor was blocking off any thoughts about that? We know the king slug is in the man’s mind reading his thoughts, so it seems so silly to not then use it as a better excuse! It’s just an example, and there are several in The Twin Dilemma, it has to be said, of simply lazy writing. I think I’m right in saying that this story went through several problems at script stage, but you’d think they’d still try and pay a bit more attention at script stage!

Over the last few days, I’ve managed to avoid discussing the Gastopods themselves, but I can’t just ignore them forever! I’m sorry to say that they really don’t work. It’s a pity, because Mestor’s face design isn’t all that bad, but it’s when you see the full body, or watch his soldiers stalk around in the tunnels, that everything simply falls apart. It seems especially sad when you think about how well they did the woodlice-esque Tractators earlier in the season! Another example of the end-of-season budget deficit in action?

I mentioned on Facebook the other day that I’d just started out on this story and that I was really enjoying it. There were a fair few responses, ranging from complete bafflement at the fact that anyone could enjoy this tale, to people agreeing that it’s nowhere near as bad as everyone says it is. I think my friend Malcolm summed it up best, and managed to get in some nice examination of the Doctor’s evolution across the four episode, too;

”It's engaging, and Colin shines really well - and he is really up against it too, but he is committed, as he has been since (in fact no other actor has had his level of commitment to the show in my view). As a kid, the Gastropods made a bigger impact than anything in Androzani, and there's more than a glimmer in truth about the new Doctor not having a certain 'feckless charm’.

Even the scene where he attacks Peri is, at least, a brave, if very misguided, experiment. Horrible, though. And at the end when he says that he is the Doctor 'whether you like it or not' comes after a lot of soul searching - The Twin Dilemma for me is one moment where the Doctor knows he's strange, unlikeable, garish and hard to swallow, and that he even lacks any dress sense. In the end, despite the unsavoury moments, the Doctor's acceptance of himself, whether people externally think he's popular or not, or whether they'd laugh or deride him for his clothes/style, is a really powerful message - you can be different and you can be proud to tell the world that - whether they like it or not.”

Even though the story has slowly gotten bogged down a bit more each day, I can honestly claim that I’ve really enjoyed it. All four episodes have been completely fun and engaging to watch, and I know that it’s a story I’ll be able to throw on again and still enjoy. I dare say that it’s something I could watch over and over far more than something like The Caves of Androzani. While that story may be technically very good, with well-rounded characters, fab direction, and a real sense of doom, The Twin Dilemma is Doctor Who enjoying itself, and that’s always good fun... 

15 October 2014

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

Day 653: The Twin Dilemma, Episode Three

Dear diary,

Do you know, I’d quite forgotten that the Doctor makes a comment in this episode about his lack of dress-sense. I suppose that means that this is the right point to actively discuss the Sixth Doctor’s costume, because I’ve not really touched on it before - and I can’t ignore it forever! Recently, I’ve done some graphic design work on a range of postcards for the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff. One ‘strand’ of the postcards is images of all the Doctor’s costumes, from Hartnell onwards, even side-stepping in to ‘other’ Doctors, such as John Hurt’s War Doctor, Tom Baker’s Curator, or David Morrisey’s Jackson Lake.

The complete set looks - if it’s not immodest to say - fantastic. There’s something really nice about having all of the different costumes displayed like this, and it’s a great chance to really look at each individual one. It has to be said that Colin’s really does stand out, coming between Peter Davison’s outfit (largely beige), and Sylvester McCoy’s first costume (with - again - a beige jacket). Although I’m rather fond of both those costumes, I can’t help but like the way that the Sixth Doctor’s ‘totally tasteless’ outfit shines through in the middle of them.

The same is true when I’ve got the action figures out on a shelf - there’s something oddly pleasing about the way that the Sixth Doctor makes an instant impact. I used to have them on display in the living room of a previous flat, and this was always the one people pointed out when first seeing them. It’s a talking point, if nothing else! Where I think it perhaps went a little bit wrong was in keeping this style for Colin’s entire run on the programme. He’s often spoken in the past about how much he’d have rather Chris Eccleston’s ‘look’, and there’s lots of fan-made examples of this incarnation in various velvet jackets (indeed, when he tries on a Pertwee-style top in this story, it really suits him). I can’t help but think that we needed this outfit here to show him completely at odds with the world, before slowly pairing it back to something a little less brash as time wore on. Still, his comments on the outfit today come as part of him addressing his new persona rather beautifully:

THE DOCTOR
But look at me. I'm old, lacking in vigour. My mind's in a turmoil. I no longer know if I'm coming, have gone or have even been. I'm falling to pieces. I no longer even have any clothes sense.

It’s the Doctor being over-dramatic once again (and, as in Episode One, Peri beautifully cuts through this pomposity by telling him to stop feeling sorry for himself), but it’s possibly the best example of the plan to have this Doctor soften out as time went by. It’s the Doctor actively musing on the way his new incarnation, and it’s not the only example of it in this episode. There’s plenty of self-reflection early on, too, when he contemplates that Peri would still be worried for him, when he’s been rude, and arrogant, and has tried to kill her. I’m hoping that there’s more of this to come - not only in the rest of this story, but the rest of this era - because it’s rather wonderful.

Ah, but hark at me, focussing all of my attentions on Colin Baker again! Around him, The Twin Dilemma continues to lose me a little - but more because it’s falling back into beans simply an ‘average’ story, not because it’s a bad one. I rather like the idea that Azmeal has brought the twins here in an attempt to ‘save’ his world, and I even believe that the idea of the twins could be a good one… but this pair aren’t really the best actors the programme has ever seen, are they? There’s lots of moments in the episodes so far where they’re talking in unison, or even alternating their lines to form a complete conversation with other characters, and it should be unnerving. With a better pair of actors in the role, I think it really would work!

Sadly, they’re not the only performance I’m not completely enjoying. Kevin McNally has something of an unenviable job in the role of Hugo here, and I’m sorry to report that I’m finding him more annoying than anything else. Yesterday, I mentioned that the way he was dressed (both in uniform and then in the… thing he takes from the TARDIS wardrobe did him absolutely no favours, and it seems today that the script has stopped trying to help him either. He gets his feet caught in the Gastropods’ slime trail, with it setting like concrete. It takes ages for him to free himself from the predicament… but why doesn’t he just slip his shoes off? He can even nip back in to the TARDIS for some glittery ones if he wanted! All I can assume is that he has to pay a fine to the space police for every bit of uniform he loses, and he can’t really afford that this month…

14 October 2014

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

Day 652: The Twin Dilemma, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Well… yesterday’s entry seems to have ruffled a few feathers! Hugely pleased to see so many comments of praise for the story, too! I’m sticking by it, though, because those first 25 minutes of The Twin Dilemma are brilliant, and easily as good as some of the real ‘classics’ from over the years! That said, I’ll admit that this is the episode where the problems really start to set in. While I’ve still enjoyed today’s instalment, there’s a lot more things cropping up which are harder to see the good in. Let’s start with one of our guest characters: Lieutenant Hugo Lang.

Some characters in The Caves of Androzani - I’m thinking especially of Morgus and the upper ranks of the army - are forced to wear 1980s ‘futuristic’ BBC costumes. They’re not great looks, and they could become quite distracting. What helps is that the people inside those costumes are well rounded, and therefore we spend more time focussing on who they are, and what they’re doing, rather than the clothes they wear. Here, Lang isn’t given a whole lot of character so far, and the frankly awful costume they’ve stuck him in really doesn’t help. He’s not even a tenth as rounded as the characters in Androzani, and that really does count against him. When we first see Lang in the police office, he comes across as - effectively - a junior office boy. He answers the call about the Zanium, and passes the memo on to his superior. He’s then the one tasked with leading the fleet in pursuit, and suddenly he’s supposed to be a somewhat powerful person! We then see him as the only survivor of Mestor’s attack, where he takes it upon himself to apprehend the Doctor and Peri.

In some ways, I’d be able to buy this with only a few minor tweaks here and there. It’s really in this episode that things start to fall apart for him. Passing out, he’s then left alone in the TARDIS, though Peri has taken the precaution of hiding the power pack to his gun. Fine, not a problem. That she chooses to hide it in the wardrobe isn’t all that perplexing, either, considering that they’ve just spent a fair amount of time in there while choosing the Doctor’s new togs. But then, as Lang goes searching for his ‘prisoners’, he happens to stumble into the wardrobe purely by chance. Is it near the console room? It didn’t take long to collect the Fourth Doctor’s coat during Mawdryn Undead, so again, I can just about buy it.

But then! Lang seems to decide that since his clothes are a bit dirty, he’ll try on some of the ones he’s just found in the wardrobe room! Why the heck not? He ends up picking something ridiculous and garish - even more so than the Doctor’s clothes - and it just happens to be the outfit that Peri has stashed the power pack in. It’s all just a bit too much of a coincidence for me to go along with.

To bring this back around to my initial point, the fact that Lang comes across as pretty incompetent as a character isn’t helped by the design that they’ve created for this intergalactic police force. They look like they’re wearing ‘futuristic’ BBC costumes, and not particularly good ones at that. The character already starts off at a disadvantage because he’s been designed to look a bit silly. It’s things like this which harm The Twin Dilemma more than anything.

Thankfully, though, Colin Baker is still electrifying in the role. I enjoy the way that he strides up the hills of Titan 3 performing to Peri, and then has another turn in the tunnels, where he begs the aliens not to harm him, and instead offers up Peri in his place. It’s still quite unlike anything we’ve become used to for the Doctor, and Baker is really going for it! I have a feeling that even when other ares of the stories are letting themselves down, he could well be a saving element! 

13 October 2014

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

Day 651: The Twin Dilemma, Episode One

Dear diary,

I feel the need to open today’s post with a confession. I love The Twin Dilemma. I really do. When it first came out on DVD about five years ago, I dutifully picked it up on day of release, took it home and tried to prepare myself for what has consistently been voted the worst Doctor Who story of all time. It’s just a fact that we all know is true. They don’t come any worse than this. But then, the story played out, and I really enjoyed it! It’s bright, and bold, and colourful. It’s bombastic, and loud. Colin Baker hits the ground running just as well as Tom Baker did in Robot, and watching these four episode the first time round is one of the most enjoyable Doctor Who viewing experiences that I’ve ever had. That said, I’m not blind to the story’s faults (and there are many), but I think it’s probably key, in the ‘worst story of all time’, to look on the positive.

In today’s episode, the positive is almost certainly Colin Baker. I’ve already said how well he hits the ground running, and it’s worth repeating, because he’s fantastic in this one! Over the years, a reputation has built up to suggest that he was a rubbish actor, and thus the series went downhill when he appeared. No, sorry, that’s simply not true! He’s great, and I love the way that he’s playing the part here! There’s one moment in the episode where his performance does get incredibly hammy, but then it’s instantly cut through by Peri, and it’s supposed to have been so awful! It’s this exchange;

DOCTOR
Titan Three. Thou craggy knob, which swims upon the oceans of the firmament. Receive this weary penitent.

PERI
I think I'm going to be sick.

That’s just one of the moments that left me hooting loudly in front of the screen today. Having the Doctor and Peri trapped alone in the TARDIS for most of the episode means that we get plenty of time to watch them scope each other out post-regenration. Which brings me to the defining moment from today… the strangling incident. On the one hand, it’s probably not the best idea to show your new Doctor trying to strangle his companion in their first episode together. It’s not exactly the best way to endear the man to the audience. On the other hand, though, it does make a kind of narrative sense!

The Doctor’s fairly stable here, but he occasionally lapses into moments of insanity. During one of these, presumably, he remembers that of his last two companions, one was put aboard the TARDIS by the Black Guardian with a plan to kill the Doctor, and the other was in constant contact with his arch nemesis all along! No wonder the Doctor suddenly suspects that Peri could well be an alien spy - and with the Master’s penchant for disguises, anagrams, and games at this point, calling the spy ‘Peri’ as a nod to Persian mythology is just the kind of thing he would do!

I think where this starts to fall apart is that it’s over with almost instantly. The Doctor snaps, and tries to strangle his companion. She manages to repel him with his own reflection. The berates him briefly for trying to kill her… and then things just carry on as normal! Oh, sure, she’s not really very happy with him, but it’s as though we’re suddenly supposed to just think that they’re past that little misdemeanour. I think it’s something lacking in the scripting department - in the same way that it bothers me how quickly the Doctor decides to go and get changed. That could be fixed so easily, too: He asks Peri about his appearance, and then adds that the clothes are easily changed. All we need then is a line of the effect of ‘in fact, I’ll do so now!’

I’ll talk about the actual story of The Twin Dilemma, and the guest cast, over the next few days, because I fear I’ll not be able to be as glowing with praise as I am about other things in this episode, but I’d like to point out two things in this episode that are very well done, and might not crop up later in the tale. For a start, the model shots of the Freighter and the Police… vehicle, are fantastic. They’re some of the best models that we’ve had in the show. The surface of Titan 3 doesn’t look too shabby in model form, either! Then you’ve got the wreckage of the crashed spaceship, and it’s brilliant. I mean, really brilliant. By far, it’s the best thing they’ve created for this episode - it’s huge, and set in that landscape, I’m really impressed with it. I think it’s great that even a story which gets consistently voted the worst the programme has ever produced can have so many things to love about it - there’s something about Doctor Who that truly is special. 

12 October 2014

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

Day 650 Extra: Fifth Doctor Overview

Dear diary,

We’ve reached a turning point for the marathon with the Fifth Doctor. Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee all have a similar number of episodes, so they each take about the same amount of time to complete at the pace of an episode each day. Tom Baker comes along and really up the ante by having around 50 episodes more to sit through, so he ends up taking even longer to watch. Then you reach Peter Davison, and things drop right off. He’s been around less than three months for me, and that’s simply unheard of. Worse still, from here on out, things don’t get much better! Colin Baker’s only going to be with us for the next month or so, and Sylvester McCoy for a month after that… McGann’s only here for one night, and even when we reach the new series, there’s only a fortnight of Eccleston! In short: it feels really strange to be writing a Doctor Overview post so soon after writing the last one - it feels like I’ve hardly gotten to know the Fifth Doctor.

That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed having him around, though. If anything, the last three seasons have chimed with my inner child more than anything else that I’ve watched for this marathon so far. That’s not to say that they were always perfect (they weren’t, as some of my scores will attest), but they covered topics and locations that I know I would have lapped up at the ages of eight or nine. This particular incarnation, the people who travelled with him, everything about this period of the programme just feels so right for me.

We kicked off with Season Nineteen - which has come out with the highest average rating of Davison’s three seasons for me, at 6.96. I think it’s fair to say that the season was helped massively by the fact that Kinda received a full-on ’10/10’ for one episode, the first score that high I’ve given out since Genesis of the Daleks right back at the start of Tom’s time in the TARDIS. That said, Earthshock fared rather well with me, and even stories like Four to Doomsday, which I’d never given a second thought to, were right up my street.

Season Twenty was the one I was looking lest forward to, and I think that comes across in the scores. It averaged just 6.18, which puts it in last place for the Fifth Doctor. I don’t think there was any real stand out classic for that season, even though Mawdryn Undead fared well with me, and that’s a shame. General reaction seems to be that Enlightenment is the great one from that year, but it simply didn’t really work for me - certainly one to try again in the future, I think. The weight of the Black Guardian trilogy bearing down on it just took away from the story I wanted to enjoy. Just as an aside, I’ve not included The Five Doctors as part of Season Twenty - that one sits out on its own, just as it did on broadcast.

Then we get to Season Twenty-One, and what feels like a real shot in the arm for the programme. This is the first time since the 1960s that I’ve been looking at a season average while I’m still working through that run of stories - with The Twin Dilemma finishing up the year from tomorrow. We’re back up to an average of 6.7 so far, but that could obviously change after the next few days. I’ve really been enjoying Season Twenty-One, especially stories like Frontios, which really grabbed my attention. I have a feeling that there may be some grumbles about the fact that The Caves of Androzani hasn’t come out on top for me - I enjoyed it a lot, but I just liked a couple of other Davison stories better! 

The Sixth Doctor is likely to fly by - it’s only another month or so until I’ll be writing another one of these ‘overview’ posts! He comes in for a lot of stick in Doctor Who fandom, but I have to say that I’ve been really looking forward to reaching this period. I’ve seen all of his stories before, and I’ve always enjoyed them, but I’m excited to see how they fare in the context of all the other stories I’ve been watching. Here’s hoping they still stay strong in my mind!

12 October 2014

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

Day 650: The Caves of Androzani, Episode Four

Dear diary,

I’ve been banging on for the last couple of days about the way the Doctor is being put through the wringer in this story, and this final episode doesn’t disappoint in holding that tradition up! I love that we spend the full episode with him in a state so unlike we’re used to seeing - with a cut on his head, and his costume caked in mud and blood. The Doctor has never looked so out of his depth and lost before, but by the same token, he’s never looked this determined, either. This really has to be Peter Davison’s finest hour in the role - do you remember through Season Nineteen, when I used to track the way his performance was evolving while he worked out how to play the part? He’s been on good form for ages now, but this episode is probably where it really clicks for him… just in time for him to die!

I’ve not really mentioned the direction of this story all that much so far, because I’ve been waiting to bring it up at the end here. Grahame Harper remains the only director who worked on the ‘classic’ series who came back to do work on the 21st century version, too. It’s not hard to see why when you’re watching something like The Caves of Androzani, and you can really see the skill that he’s putting into everything. There’s no end of little moments that I could pick out - like the scene in Episode One where Morgus has a conversation with Chellak on a kind of video screen. It’s almost become the bread-and-butter of futuristic Doctor Who stories, and we’ve seen characters video-conferencing like this since the Hartnell days of the programme, but Harper has managed to find a new and unique way of shooting it - including the back of Chellak’s head for reverse-shots! As I say, a simple thing, but something which really does stand out as being different.

Then there’s today’s episode, and particularly the chase of the Doctor across the barren landscape. It’s possibly the finest moment of the story, and I have to admit that I was gripped throughout. Thankfully, Harper manages to then take this interest and hold it in place for the rest of the episode. When the Doctor’s journeying through the tunnels to find the bat’s milk, it feels tense. In the back of my mind, I know there’s not long left in the episode, and we’ve still got to fit the regeneration in there somewhere… there’s a real energy to it and it almost makes you feel a bit sick, just knowing how much the Doctor is up against the clock. Truly, masterfully done.

Of course, though, the crowning moment comes in the form of the regeneration. As with all of them throughout the programme’s run, I’ve seen this scene more times than I’ve seen any individual episode of Doctor Who. Every line, and ever beat of every line, is burnt onto my memory. That said, it really is no substitute for watching the action in context - not only with the rest of the story, but the 649 days that have led me to this moment. I’ve already praised Davison’s performance today, but it really does bear repeating - because his absolute finest moment comes as he lay dying on the floor here.

There’s been debates for years about how the Big Finish audios giving Peri more adventures with the Fifth Doctor between Planet of Fire and this story can lessen the impact that he’s given his life to save this girl he’s only just met. I have to admit that I prefer the idea that they’ve not spent much time together, but it’s because I think the Doctor is feeling incredibly bitter here. There’s one exchange in particular which has always felt a little bit scary to me:

PERI
Where is it?

DOCTOR
What?

PERI
The bat's milk!

DOCTOR
Finished. Only enough for you.

There’s a hint - just the tiniest hint - of resentment in the way that Davison delivers that final line. There’s almost shades of the Tenth Doctor’s rage at having to give his life to save Wilf, having already survived saving the entire world. It’s not explicit, and I think that works to its advantage - the Fifth Doctor isn’t a man who would outwardly resent having to give his life for another person. Indeed, of all the Doctors to date, I think he’s the one who would most willingly do so to save another (just take Mawdryn Undead as an example, where he refuses to give up his remaining regenerations, until he knows that Nyssa and Tegan are in danger), but still, I like that in his final seconds, he’s allowed to have just that tiny bit of anger, just tucked away under the surface.

Speaking of Nyssa and Tegan… here they are! And Turlough, Kameleon, and Adric, too! This is my favourite example of the classic companions coming back to hall will the Doctor on into his new life, and there’s something really rather poignant about Adric being there, and being the Doctor’s final word. It’s great to see them all again - albeit briefly - and I love the way that they all pop up out of his mouth! The Master puts in an appearance, also, and he’s possibly never been more terrifying than he is here! willing the Doctor to his death… yeah, that’s rather smart.

And that’s it! The Fifth Doctor has taken his final bow, and we’re off on some more colourful adventures with the Sixth Doctor from tomorrow. It’s all change, again, and it’s… well, it’s come around rather quickly! You’ll find my ‘Fifth Doctor Overview’ post further up the news page here on Doctor Who Online. 

11 October 2014

As a Doctor Who fan, Mark Speed always wondered about the Doctor’s family. Did he have siblings or cousins? Having grown up with the series since he was a toddler (hiding behind the sofa from Patrick Troughton's enemies), he has struggled with the inconsistencies caused by fifty years of different scriptwriters. 

Once he started asking questions Mark realised there might be an interesting explanation: an alternative or parallel Whoniverse. How is Who’s younger twin, and he’s been struggling since his brother’s TV debut in 1963.

Doctor How And The Illegal Aliens is one fan’s loving and light-hearted tribute to the greatest series in TV history, and is free on Kindle from October 10-12.

This video explains more:

 
+  UK Ordering: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00IWC40JK
+  USA Ordering: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00IWC40JK

[Source: Mark Speed]

11 October 2014

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

Day 649: The Caves of Androzani, Episode Three

Dear diary,

There’s a special feature on the DVD for The War Games all about regeneration in Doctor Who. It’s one of those features that you’d watch once and that’s it - I’ve been a fan of the programme long enough, and I know all there is to know about a topic like regeneration. Except, I’m not all that familiar with The Caves of Androzani, I’d never watched it properly before, and thus I’d never noticed that the Doctor doesn’t start his regeneration by laying on the floor of the TARDIS console room, with Peri leaning over him… he starts it here. It’s Clayton Hickman who points it out in the documentary:

”You get a fore-shadowing of his regeneration at the end of Part Three. Just when he’s trying to steal that spaceship, he starts looking at the stars, and you get the sort of Quantel-y regeneration thing coming towards him and he fights it off! So you’ve got a whole episode of Peter Davison surviving just so he can save Peri. It’s not flagged up - there’s no fan fare - it’s just him refusing to die until he’s saved his friend. That’s Davison all over.”

I have to admit that I really love this. Once it’s been pointed out, you can’t un-see it, and it does add a whole new layer to the Fifth Doctor’s departure. I’m also loving just how much this Doctor is being put through the wringer before he’s allowed to bow out. I’ve already touched on it in the last couple of days, but here we’ve got the Doctor being smacked by Sharaz Jek, abused by the gun runners, still in a lot of pain from the slow death of his infection, and now he’s crashing in to a planet! It’s fair to say that he’s really going out in style!

On the whole, I’m finding a lot to really love in The Caves of Androzani (and much of that does continue to come down to Robert Holmes’ way with scripts), but I can’t let it go by without mentioning the Magma Beast that provided the cliffhanger from yesterday’s episode in to today’s. I’ve seen it pointed out as the one flaw in an otherwise perfect story, and it has to be said that it really isn’t good, is it? Even Grahame Harper’s direction isn’t able to save it. I’m sort of surprised that it doesn’t get picked up on more ‘worst monster’ lists, with things like the Myrka, the Nimon, and the Gastropods.

And while it’s not a fault of the story, I feel the need to make note of how awful the subtitles on this DVD are. Not the ‘Information Text’ ones, but just the regular programme subtitles. I’ve taken to keeping them on while watching episodes, because they come in handy when working out how to spell a character’s name, or hearing some of the less audible parts of the dialogue. On the whole they never bear talking about because they simply do a good job of transcribing what’s happening on screen… but they’re appalling on this story, and have been since Episode One. There’s several lines that have been missed out completely or altered (changing the meaning in at least one case!), and in today’s episode they twice manage to get the planets ‘Major’ and ‘Minor’ the wrong way round! A shame, because the quality is usually rather higher!

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