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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! 

1 December 2014

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Mark Wright and Cavan Scott

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: November 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online

 

“The year is 2163. Ten years since the Daleks invaded the Earth. One year until the Doctor, in his first incarnation, will help bring the occupation to an end. But for now, their reign of terror goes on.

The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Peri to Scotland – enslaved, like everywhere else on the planet. But there are rumours of Dalek-free islands off its coast. Places where resistors and refuseniks are coming together, gathering arms and armour, preparing to strike back against the enemy.

When the Doctor falls in with an unlikely group of freedom fighters making that dangerous journey to Orkney, he finds himself trapped – but not only by the Daleks, their robotised henchmen and their human collaborators.

By history.

Because history shows that for another year, resistance is useless...

The rebellion must fail – and as a Time Lord, the Doctor can do nothing to help.

***

There are certain things that Big Finish do which could be seen as fingerprints across the main range: the return of characters from the past, the use of actors more recently seen in Doctor Who on TV, and sequels to stories from the original 1963-1989 run.

There are more, but these three often stand out, and it is the latter which is present and correct here in Masters of Earth.  Coming straight on the heels of a story that was simultaneously a sequel to Peri and the Piscon Paradox and Mindwarp (or The Trial of a Time Lord if you prefer), we get another sequel, this time to The Dalek Invasion of Earth.  We’ll be ticking the ‘return of characters’ box with the Rani next month, but there is at least a few weeks’ pause between them both.  This time, it feels rather… brave to have sequels so close together.

Written by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright, this play starts with a light recap on the last story, though not so much that no newcomers couldn’t jump right in, before we’re plunged into Dalek-invaded Earth and all the horror that entails.  The Doctor wants out, having been here before and ended up integral to the Daleks’ defeat: the web of time has to be maintained, and the usual get-out-of-jail-free clauses which so pepper the series, but of course, things don’t end up like that and before he can stop it, both the Doctor and Peri are involved.  But of course they are.

Before I go any further though: The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

I must confess that my love affair with that tale started rather late in the day, with its DVD release.  I had always liked the Peter Cushing take on the tale, but the TV version had left me cold on VHS… and then we got the DVD, with its incredibly clear sound and remarkably clear picture, and I could suddenly appreciate the drama in a way I had never quite grasped before.  Years later, we got the audiobook recording of the Target novelisation, and the combination of good sound design and CD production, great narration from William Russell, and a stellar adaptation by Terrance Dicks made me fall in love with it all over again… and then! Then we got Big Finish’s own take on the tale’s mythos with An Earthly Child, Relative Dimensions, Lucie Miller and To The Death, all of which were stunning.

It’s fair to say then that I was both hopeful and fearful of this story: Big Finish have previous for doing good things with this setting, but Invasion of Earth is particularly good, so I didn’t want them to mess up.

Scott and Wright are old hands at Big Finish though, and whilst their Project plays concerning the Forge may not have been my cup of tea, I could always recognize that they were well-crafted plays, just not in a genre I especially went for.  Scott has since helmed Iris Wildthyme and I must admit that I was heartened to see their names linked to this play months before: they’re good writers and, as Scott as proven, a safe pair of hands, and perhaps their slightly grittier take on Who would suit the era in which this was set.

I’m going to spoil this review now by revealing my rating now: it’s a nine out of ten.  I don’t want to keep you all in suspense for no good reason.  The truth is, it’s damn close to getting the full ten, but something in particular let it down for me.  Let’s get to that in good time, though.

Despite my preconceptions about this being potentially gritty, Scott and Wright don’t really go down that route, instead telling a good adventure yarn instead, but with an air of hopelessness due to the struggle which the guest cast are undertaking.  The Daleks are brutal, the resistance weaker than they realize, the tension high, and the setting surrounded by familiar Dalek tropes: Varga plants, Robomen, saucers, traitors ready to betray their fellow human… it’s all here.

It doesn’t feel like a slog or box-ticking exercise though, but something that flows nicely and uses the 1960s Dalek trappings well.  It almost should feel tokenistic and cluttered, but no, Scott and Wright prove their worth yet again, with Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Nicholas Briggs all giving their all as well, elevating an already good script to higher places still.

What about that one point, though? Why only nine of out ten?

Well… sadly, because another Big Finish cliché, and frankly a Doctor Who cliché through and through, is someone getting irreversibly possessed by an alien creature or parasite, but being able to beat it by thinking really, really hard about it. (“No! No, I won’t become possessed because my mind is too strong!”)

It’s probably just a personal taste thing, but it’s a plot device that irks me a lot.  It makes me wonder how dull a story such as Inferno would have been if to stop becoming a Primoid, all they had to do was believe in themselves.

The trouble here is that it’s a big deal and a major part of the final act, and so, to my mind at least, it cheapens the tension and drama by giving us a fairly lazy plot device to wriggle out of a blind alley.

It’s not a minor quibble but a big one, and yet there is enough good elsewhere for me to still be giving this a firm nine.  It’s a far stronger play than this trilogy’s opener, and once again, the reputation of The Dalek Invasion of Earth remains pure.  Good on Scott and Wright, and good on Big Finish.

 

1 December 2014

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Ian Potter

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £10.99 (Download)

Release Date: November 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online


“Ceres. A tiny, unforgiving ball of ice and rock hanging between Mars and Jupiter.  It’s no place to live, and it takes a special kind of person to work there.

The crew of the Cobalt Corporation mining base know exactly how deadly the world outside their complex is, but the danger isn’t just outside anymore. The systems they rely on to keep them safe are failing and the planet is breaking in.

When the TARDIS strands Steven, Vicki and the Doctor on the base, they have to fight a foe they can barely comprehend to survive.”

***

There comes a point in life when someone appears to be protesting too much.

“I don’t hate Steven Moffat, I just hate this, this, this, this, this and of course this…” is one you often find on Twitter (you can swap ‘Steven Moffat’ for any showrunner or writer and you’ll find the same vitriolic results; he’s just flavour of the month online as I write this), and similar include, “I do like the Daleks, they’re just…”, or “Yes, sure, Red Kangs are best, but have you considered…”

With the extras on this CD, we have a slightly different game.  It’s the “Let’s tell everyone how great this Early Adventures range is, and how different it is to anything that came before it!” game.

It’s slightly unfair of me to focus on the extras for this play, as they may well have been recorded completely out of order, but three releases in and we can almost hear the sweat pouring off of Big Finish’s collective brows as the guest cast are interviewed: was cancelling the Companion Chronicles a smart move? Are these plays going to prove themselves to be the next big thing?

There are ways around this, but I’m not sure that getting assembled cast members to compare Chronicles and Adventures is the way forward.  We have lots of talk about how much better this range is because it’s so much more expansive with a near-full cast; how authentic the scripts are to the eras in which they intend to be from; how different they are.

Now, the first point is a subjective one, so far be it from me to say anything definitive there: for the record, I think both formats have strong points and drawbacks.  The third (to skip ahead) is not exactly true now, is it? Because what this range is, ostensibly, is The Lost Stories but with original scripts (and given some of the Lost Stories scripts were expanded from a handful of words scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet somewhen in the 1960s when half-cut on ale, it’s pushing it to say ‘lost’, really).  In all fairness, they do name-check Lords of the Red Planet as a springboard for this sort of production, but saying it’s a whole new range feels like it is pushing it somewhat.  As for the authenticity issue… well, back in the first release, we had Carol Anne Ford happily remarking that they’d never have done that script back in their day, and this story is all well and good, but most definitely not a 1960s script, but one you can picture being executed with excruciatingly bad CSO and above-average models in the late seventies.

It tries to do what some of the best Companion Chronicles did, and use the fact that Steven Taylor was a space pilot to aid and enhance the script and justify the setting, but everything feels far too… un-1960s-ish, for lack of a better term, to get even close to this supposed authenticity which they aim to hit.  Added to this, the story isn’t anything special as a whole, and when you haven’t got a strong enough story to cover the cracks…

I’m sorry, I’ve mostly gone on about format so far, but sadly the play itself did very little to inspire or indeed excite me across its four parts: by far the weakest of the Early Adventures range so far by quite some distance, and easily the least 1960s-esque release to boot.  It’s just a bit… dull.

Whilst the final series of Companion Chronicles ended on a bit of a damp note due to scripts not feeling quite as polished or exciting as normal (possibly due to focus being more on this range?), I’d still take them regularly rather than get what we’ve had here so far.  Perhaps I am just being jaded and the quality of release will suddenly come on in leaps and bounds? I don’t know.

It’s not as if I haven’t enjoyed them up until now, really, as my previous reviews will attest to.  It just still feels like a sad move to kill the Chronicles off in their monthly form to make way for adventures in a format that isn’t anywhere near as original, clever or authentic as Big Finish would like us to believe, no matter how much the extras try to tell us otherwise.

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.

25 November 2014

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

Day 694: Dragonfire, Episode Two

Dear diary,

During Time and the Rani, I said that the McCoy era was home to some of the best monster designs and costumes that the programme has ever seen - and yes, I did mean the Tetraps! Oh hush, I like them. Today’s episode is another great example with the dragon itself - there’s something really nice about the whole creature, and I even think the fact that the body is so spindly and hymn works, which is the one thing that I’d always been put off by. The actual head design is absolutely gorgeous, and I’d completely forgotten that it opened up to reveal the Dragonfire inside - I think I’d convinced myself that we simply saw it overlaid or something. I’m also fond of the fact that it’s a nice ‘monster’ - it feels like a while since we had one of those (yeah, yeah, the Navarinos in Delta and the Bannermen were friendly, but they were presented as aliens rather than monsters - the same can be said of the Lakertians at the start of the season).

Indeed, I’m rather liking the design on this story as a whole, I think. There are some seasons which seem to have their own very distinct ‘visual identity’ - Season Twenty-One is the most recent that comes to mind before this one - whereby you could show assorted screen captures of the episodes to people who don’t know which seasons they’re from, and they’d likely be able to group them together just by style. That’s been very true of Season Twenty-Four, which I’ve continually referred to as being a bit ‘comic book’. I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way, it’s just the dest description I can find for the look of this season - very bright, and artificial.

Because I’ve not been enjoying Season Twenty-Four all that much on the whole, I’ve been thinking of Remembrance of the Daleks as something of a light at the end of the tunnel. As strange as it may sound, it’s the thought of grimy brick walls, and roads, and playgrounds that makes it feel better- something real and tangible. I know Delta and the Bannermen was set in Earth’s recent history, but the holiday camp setting and the way the whole piece came together still gave it more of that ‘Season Twenty-Four’ artifice than I’d have liked!

All that said, Ice World manages to fit the visual style of this year’s stories perfectly, but also look rather good on its own merits. I recently had to put together a kind of ‘ice world’ for a design commission, and found myself automatically trying to replicate the style of the walls seen in this story - though I didn’t immediately realise that this was where the inspiration was drawn from! The various corridors look lovely, and Kane’s lair works simply because of the size of the set, and the various levels and platforms (long-term readers will know that I’m a sucker for a set with levels!) The only slight let down is that McCoy is really trying to sell the ‘ice’ factor of these sets, slipping and sliding around on the floor as though it’s near impossible to remain upright… while no one else really bothers to do the same. Sophie Aldred has some nice moments of watching her feet and carefully choosing her steps, but then slips back into the way that Tony Selby and Bonnie Langford are playing it - as if there’s no ice at all!

25 November 2014

The BBC have announced the title of the 2014 Doctor Who Christmas Special; Last Christmas.

The special is rumoured to be at least an hour in length and is written by Steven Moffat and directed by Paul Wilmhurst.

Along with the announcement, two new promo pictures were released (pictured-right), which depict The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) and two Elves; Wolf (Nathan McMullen) and Ian (Dan Starkey).

During the BBC's Children In Need television appeal, a special clip from Last Christmas was aired, which you can watch in the player below:


Check out the teaser trailer in the player, below:

+  Last Christmas will air on Christmas Day, Time TBC, on BBC One.
+  Donate to Children In Need, here

[Source: BBC]

24 November 2014

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

Day 693: Dragonfire, Episode One

Dear diary,

It’s funny, isn’t it, how some Doctors just have that one companion that ‘defines’ them. For some, like the Second Doctor and Jamie, or the Fifth Doctor and Tegan, it’s because they travel together for such a long period of time (there’s only a single Second Doctor adventure without Jamie in, and only two Fifth Doctor stories missing Tegan). For others, it’s just because they work together so well. I think that’s the case for the Seventh Doctor and Ace (a pairing who do travel together for much of this era, but I think the shortened seasons means that there’s less of an impact to it). I’ve been waiting for this story to come along, because having struggled to find my feet with the Seventh Doctor so far, the arrival of Sophie Aldred and Ace to the series really feels like the missing piece of the puzzle being slotted in to place.

Surprising, then, is the fact that the Doctor and Ace really don’t get to spend that much time together in this episode! They talk for a little while in the cafe, while the Doctor muses on wasting to go and see the dragons, but then it’s really Mel who gets paired off with the newbie, so that we can find out all about her. Within these first 25 minutes, I already feel like I know Ace better than I ever have with Mel - and I think it’s helped by the fact that the information is being fed to us naturally, with Ace telling us her life story. When Mel was introduced in the latter stages of The Trial of a Time Lord, we were given occasional info dumps about her (‘this is nothing like Pease Pottage, Mell, you know, where you lived before we travelled together? And you worked there as a computer programmer? And you’re a health and fitness fanatic? Eh? Eh? EH?’), but with Ace, you get a real sense that everything we’re told - blowing up the art classroom, and whipping up a time storm - can have really happened for this character. It bodes well for her at this early stage!

The Doctor is instead paired off with Sabalom Glitz, another character I’ve been waiting to see. He was such good fun last season, and the chance for one more story with him here has been a little light at the end of the tunnel while not enjoying Season Twenty-Four. I’m enjoying him here - his interactions with the Doctor and Mel in the cafe are particularly fun - but you really can tell that he’s not being written by Robert Holmes any more. He’s still funny, but a lot of the wit and charm that made him so enjoyable in The Mysterious Planet just isn’t there anymore.

I’d also like to use today as another example of the Doctor’s ‘planning’ personality starting to shine through. He tells Mel early on that he’s been picking up a signal from Ice World ‘for some time’, and has now decided to check it out. We’ve had plenty of occasions in the past where the TARDIS has received a distress call, and the Doctor has hurried off to investigate, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a situation before where he’s been actively monitoring a signal for some time before choosing to follow up on it and find out what’s going on. Later on, Mel realises that the Doctor has brought them here because he wanted to see the dragons - though he omitted to tell her that fact! This is probably a clearer sign of the Seventh Doctor’s evolution than any of the little hints I’ve pointed out before, and I like it, especially when balanced with the Doctor’s sadness when he thinks he may not get the chance to go and see dragons after all!

What do you mean you were expecting me to mention the cliffhanger? There’s nothing to say, is there? It’s just your average, Doctor Who cliffhanger… 

…oh, all right. This episode is home to perhaps the programme’s most pointless cliffhanger, in which the Doctor gets to a fork in the road, with a path leading off to the left and the right… but instead he chooses to climb over the railings and dangle over an ice chasm via his umbrella. I’ve been a Doctor Who fan long enough to know that the intention is that he needs to go down to the next level, and misjudges the diastase he’ll need to drop (I think the novelisation restores this version of events), but the way it’s been staged on screen is awful. Here, he seems to climb the railings for no good reason whatsoever! I think, though, that this might be one of those times where the programme has done something so bad, that I can’t help but love it!

23 November 2014

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

Day 692: Delta and the Bannermen, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I’ve been looking forward to this one, because it’s the first ‘real’ three-part Doctor Who adventure. Planet of Giants in Season Two was recorded as four parts, but later cut down, and The Two Doctors was shown in three parts, but was the length of six, but Delta and the Bannermen is three episodes of regular-length, planned from the start as a three-part story. This thought has been exciting me, because I’ve said several times across this marathon that three episodes is really the perfect length for the programme, cutting out all of that running around and getting captured in the third quarter, and helping to tighten everything up, which should in theory help the stories.

It’s a pity, then, that the format is used to badly in this story! The pacing is all over the place, and I’m not really sure that they’ve gotten the hang of it yet. I’d say that the first episode was more or less spot on, introducing the story, the characters, and the location, before ending with a cliffhanger that moves the narrative along. Episode Two then does up the stakes, before this final episode is just a bit of a mess. There’s so many characters, and everything’s been escalating so quickly - it’s another way of looking at the point I made yesterday, about the way that everyone just goes along with the Doctor, even though he’s given no one any real reason to do so, and Billy instantly accepts Delta’s situation, even going as far as to try and change his biology and fly away with her in a spaceship at the end, completely unfazed by events!

There’s not been enough time spent introducing us to these people as a group, so we’ve simply got bland ciphers doing whatever the story requires of them. Right up to the goodbye scene at the end, it doesn’t feel like anyone is a believable person here. When Ray says goodbye to the Doctor and rides off on the bike, it feels completely wrong - she got to see inside his spaceship, remember, the boy she loves has just flown off with another woman, and she’s filled the role of the Doctor’s companion for the entire story… she should at least ask to see another planet, before swanning off. This kind of thing also means that the tone is still wrong right across this episode - there’s not a single mention of the tourists who got blown up in their bus yesterday, because the plot was finished with them, and doesn’t even think to bring it up again. I’d at least expect the doctor to say something a little bit poignant about the situation.

I’m a little bit gutted about all this to be honest, because that first episode really did show an awful lot of promise, and I was looking so forward to seeing the programme attempt this type of format. We’ve got another three part story coming up next, so I’m keen to see if they’ll be any better at managing the pacing issues in that one, or if - like the rest of Season Twenty-Four - it’s all something of a failed experiment. 

22 November 2014

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

Day 691: Delta and the Bannermen, Episode Two

Dear diary,

I really can’t make up my mind with the Seventh Doctor so far. In Time and the Rani and Paradise Towers, I veered from thinking ‘he’s not got this at all’ to ‘ah, now he feels like the Doctor’ and back again (sometimes within the same scene), but I’m starting to think that by the time Delta and the Bannermen went in to production, he’s sort of picked a direction that I’m liking. Put simply: while I’m not sure he’s quite the Doctor that I’m waiting for (I’m becoming ever more convinced that I’ll have to wait for next season for that), there’s a version of the character shining through in this story that I’m really warming to. It’s present in the way that he takes instantly to Ray, and goes to comfort her after the dance, asking for her life to be spared, and generally ditching Mel for this story to hang out with someone cooler! I’m not sure if I like how quickly everyone is taking to the Doctor here, though, with people following his every whim and order without much question - at least the camp Major has to have a look inside the TARDIS before he’ll start to believe in what he’s being told!

It’s been a while since I had the chance to track any kind of story arc in the programme, and I think I may have found another (very) tenuous one forming here in regards to the Seventh Doctor’s persona. He’s often thought of as the arch manipulator, the one who goes in to his adventures with a plan in mind, and is working to a greater scheme that we can’t really see. It’s most prevalent in the books, but will start to come to the fore with Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis in Season Twenty-Five, and then even stronger through Season Twenty-Six, in regards to Ace. I’m wondering if we might be seeing the very beginnings of that character starting to develop here.

I’m thinking specifically of the last story, in which the Doctor initially claimed to know very little about the Great Architect and Paradise Towers in General, but when things started heating up, he was suddenly all-knowing, and keen to make sure that the Architect really had been destroyed. In the cliffhanger to today’s episode, we get to see McCoy deliver the first of his big speeches - the kind of thing that he’ll face off against the likes of Davros and Fenric with later in his life - and then muse that he may have gone too far. It feels as though, early in to his new body, he’s flexing his muscles, and trying to see how he can handle events. What better way to test it than with a war over the final two members of a species? Go big or go home, I guess!

The one other thing that I’m struggling with in this story, and it’s related in a way to the fact that everyone just goes along with the Doctor and accepts everything he says, is the fact that Billy is so accepting of Delta’s situation! He spots her at a dance, takes a bit of a shine to her, pops round with some flowers, and then is told that she’s in fact an alien queen, and this is her child, and it’ll grow up incredibly fast, and there’s an army on the way to kill them all. His reaction to all of this? He takes her out on a date! With child in tow! Doesn’t bat an eyelid. I know he’s grown up in South Wales, with the Cardiff Rift nearby (I did wonder when Goronwy mentioned all the weird lights in the sky, if it could retroactively be thought of as the result of the Rift), but surely he shouldn’t be quite this accepting of the situation?

Several times over the last few days, I’ve mused that Season Twenty-Four has amore lightweight, ‘comic book’ feel to it than other Doctor Who seasons. It’s still in evidence here, with the bright colours of the camp and many of the supporting characters, but sometimes the tone does veer off the path somewhat, and leave you with an uncomfortable clash of styles. It worked very well yesterday when the Tollmaster was shot in the back, but here we see the entire tour bus of characters blown up! Mel then points out that all those innocent people have died! It should be a massive shock to the system because it really shows off the might of the Bannermen, and makes them unpredictable cold killers, but it just completely jars with everything else in the episode.

Instead, it shocks you because it’s not played quite right, and you’re left with a bit of a sour taste. If I’m honest, I had to skip back a minute or two to make sure that it had really happened, and that they didn’t manage to escape in the final seconds! I’m somewhat resigned to the programme having such an ‘off’ tone this year, and I can’t quite decide if it’s the result of there being a new script editor finding his feet in the show, or John Nathan-Turner coming to the season late (having assumed that he’d be allowed to move on), or simply that they’ve over-reacted to the criticisms of the programme a season late. A pity, because there’s still lots of ideas that I’m loving - as I say, the death of the passengers could be great - but it’s just not coming together for me! 

21 November 2014

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

Day 690: Delta and the Bannermen, Episode One

Dear diary,

Today feels like an appropriate time to return to the subject of ‘stunt casting’ in Doctor Who. Ken Dodd’s appearance as the Toll Master in Delta and the Bannermen is often singled out as an example of John Nathan-Turner completely missing the point and casting light entertainment figures in the programme, but it’s an example that I think proves he knew what he was doing! Quite apart from the fact that Dodd fits the ‘comic book’ version of Doctor Who that we’re being given with Season Twenty-Four, he’s actually really good in the part, and his slightly zany antics (and very zany costume) work wonderfully in context, offset nicely against the run-down backdrop of the toll port.

Dodd’s character doesn’t make it out of the episode alive, and there’s something that really works in watching him die - throughout the scene I continually flip-flopped between thinking he was going to snuff it and thinking that he’d be spared, but I’m so glad they killed him off. It’s the perfect way to highlight Gavrok’s character, and having him shot in the back as he tries to get to freedom is just delicious. It always hurts that little bit more when a character dies who you rather like ,and who hasn’t done anything wrong.

You may have noticed from that opening paragraph that I’ve been a bit finder of today’s episode than either of the last two stories fared. There’s just so much to like here. Right from the off, we’re set down in to the middle of an alien battlefield, with a distinctive blue hue which really sets off the explosions. There’s little green army men (what a fantastic idea for a design - I’m almost surprised that the programme has taken this long to do it - one of those ideas that just feels perfectly ‘Doctor Who’), and alien princess, an evil villain and his army on the attack… it’s more action that the programme has seen in a while, and it’s rather nicely done! Even the shot of the space ship taking off to flee from the battle is something different- even though I’m sure it was achieved simply.

And then the whole idea of the story, well that’s another thing that’s pure Doctor Who! A spaceship, disguised as a bus, taking a tour group of aliens to visit Disneyland in the 1950s. It’s a great concept, and again I think it’s perfectly suited to this particular season of the programme. I can’t imagine it working at any point prior to this (and not really any point afterwards, either, though I think the Eleventh Doctor could just about fit in to this adventure), but it’s just so right for this season, and especially for Mel.

She looks so right sat on the bus, singing along with all the other passengers. It’s just a shame that she reverts to being a bit wet afterwards, though. There’s some nice character moments in her room with Delta - sympathising with the poor woman and trying to help where she can - but then as soon as she sees the alien egg, she bursts into a scream… before anything has even happened! Delta shows her a christmas decoration, and Mel screams at it! I’m surprised that she didn’t simply pass out when the little green creature emerged from inside!

The actual effect of the baby… thing coming out of the egg is lovely, and one of the best we’ve had in a long time. It looks genuinely creepy, and it’s enough to leave an impact for the week until the next episode. It’s not the only decent effects shot in here, either, and I was rather impressed by the TARDIS model as it followed the bus through space. The programme has been doing TARDIS models for ages by this point - decades! - but it’s always nice when they do it well, and having not seen many of them recently!

One last thing, though. Weismuller, one of the Americans pulls up to a police box and puts in a call to the States. He claims to be calling from ‘Wales in England’. I’ve lived in Cardiff long enough by now to know that they really don’t like it when you say things like that (we’re also not allowed to question the dual language on all the signs)!

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