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7 February 2015

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

Day 768: Blink

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 February 2015

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

Day 767: The Family of Blood

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

JOAN

Could you change back?

DOCTOR

Yes.

JOAN

Will you?

DOCTOR

No.

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

5 February 2015

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

Day 766: Human Nature

Dear diary,

Let’s start off with a confession, shall we? I’ve never been a big fan of the New Adventures novels. There’s some lovely ideas in there, and I love the fact that when Doctor Who finally gets taken off television (seemingly for good), it simply shifts over to another medium and continues to thrive there (am I right in saying that, taking into account the New Adventures, Missing Adventures, Eighth Doctor Adventures, Past Doctor Adventures, and the modern series tie-in novels, the Doctor Who book holds the record for most books officially published about a single character? Sure I read that somewhere…). The start of the New Adventures really is the start of Doctor Who becoming invincible - there was no way it was simply going to fade away quietly, simply because it wasn’t in active production any more. But despite that admiration, the stories themselves largely aren’t for me. It’s just not a style of Who that I can get properly invested in. But when they announced that Human Nature was to be adapted for the TV series, even I could appreciate what a big deal it was. Human Nature was probably (and still is, thanks in no small part to this adaptation) to most famous of all the New Adventures, and the central premise - the Doctor turns human - is such a good one, that it was automatically something to be excited about.

And speaking of things that you can be ‘automatically excited about’, am I alone in thinking that this episode might have the best pre-titles sequence in all of Doctor Who? Oh, it hits the ground running. Bang! There’s explosions, and laser bolts fired (inside the TARDIS, of all places - our safe haven). The Doctor and Martha are running - scrambling for their lives. There’s shouts, and screams, and pressure, and adrenalin. The Doctor is actively worried, and Martha (who’s shown herself to be so good at remaining calm and composed on the whole) is struggling to keep up with him. Then there’s a plan forming and the watch, and the statement that the watch is…

…before we wake up in a study. On Earth. In the past. The Doctor isn’t the Doctor, and Martha is his maid, and the Time Lord claims to be completely human. I come to this episode knowing that the main hook is ‘the Doctor turns himself human’, but it’s still so exciting. How must this feel to people who don’t know the basic premise? Talk about grabbing your audience’s attention!

Yet for all that madness, and rushing around, and blood pumping, Human Nature is a very measured episode. Oh, it’s slow. It’s possibly the slowest-moving episode we’ve had since the show came back. It ceases the running and panic once the titles have played out and opts instead to spend time setting up the world, introducing the characters, and evolving their relationships. We only get to find out the real nature of the watch and answer some questions about that opening scene in drips and drabs as the story progresses - only bringing things to light when the time is right and the narrative demands it. Actually, I’m not sure ‘slow’ is the way to describe this one - it’s ‘crafted’, and it’s done beautifully.

This is one of those occasions - and it’s been a little while since we last had one - where I have very little to actually say about an episode, because I’ve simply spent the time enjoying it. My notes are littered with things I’ve liked (ranging from lines of dialogue, to specific shots - mentions that the TARDIS looks beautiful here, both in the way it’s shot from the outside, and the way it’s been lit as ‘emergency power’ on the inside - and references to the Journal of Impossible Things*), but I don’t actually have much to write about them, because it would simply turn into a list of things from the episode, and I’d rather avoid that if I can. So for now I’ll just bask in the fact that we’re into a ‘golden’ period for the programme, and I’ll worry about trying to describe things like that tomorrow…

*Actually, no, I can’t not mention the Journal, can I? Doesn’t it seem strange - in a post-Night of the Doctor world - to think that there were debates as to the canonicity of the Paul McGann Doctor right up until about the point that this episode aired, and his face was front and centre among the other incarnations in the Journal? I still remember the reaction to that, with some people cheering because, of course, he’d always counted as a Doctor, while others complained that he shouldn’t really be there. Even at the time, I found the concept that he somehow ‘didn’t count’ bizarre, so it was nice to have some sort of official decree!

4 February 2015

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

Day 765: 42

Dear diary,

Although I grouped it in under the heading of ‘appalling’ during a quick summing up yesterday, I’ve never actively disliked 42. It’s just one of those stories that gets forgotten about and overlooked - possibly in light of the run of episodes that immediately follows it. In comparison to adaptations of the New Adventures, the introduction of the Weeping Angels, and the return of the Master, 42 is just left as something of a filler in the middle of the season. And, sadly, that’s almost entirely what it’s become for me today, I’m afraid. I think it’s a combination of the fact that I’m looking so forward to the next week’s worth of episodes, and the fact that I’ve never really cared for this one. It all just clusters together in my mind and makes it hard for me to really muster the enthusiasm.

So, tell you what, I’m going to try extra hard, just for you lot, and find things that I like about 42. I could go all-out and try to find ’42’ things that I like about the episode, but we’d probably be here until Christmas. Anyway;

The design of the ship. I’m talking largely interior settings, here, though the exterior design is a rather nice one, and different to anything we’ve seen before in the show. No, specifically, I really like the kind of ‘run down’, ‘industrial’ look of the future that’s so prevalent in the Russell T Davies era, and it’s rarely (if ever) done better than it is in this story. The use of the steam and the very harsh lighting really ties everything together, and really gets you caught up in the setting. Lovely.

2) The ‘pub quiz’ doors. It’s a perfect example of taking something that’s a bit of a sci-fi cliche (having to get through several security doors, all coded, to reach the controls that you need to save the day) and subverting it through a Doctor Who prism. It also gives us that Beatles reference which allows me to see Series Three as a homage to The Chase, so that’s always got to count in its favour.

3) The ‘real time’ element. It’s odd to think that this had never happened before in the programme, but then I suppose that the serialised nature of the ‘classic’ series didn’t especially lend itself to introducing such a thing (and it wasn’t so much part of the television language in the 20th century in the same way it was when this episode rolled around). It’s a bit of a gimmick, but one that works nicely enough, and this is probably the best way of exploiting it for Doctor Who - ‘you’ve x minutes until this spaceship crashes into a sun’. Lovely. That said, it did start to bother me that the countdown was read out at completely random times - surely it would be set to announce the time exactly on the minute, or at least on a regular loop? Instead, we get random minutes and seconds such as ’12:55’, ’40:26’, ’34:31’… it’s a really pedantic niggle, but it bothered be more and more the longer it went on… 

4) It’s basically the same story as Planet of Evil, compressed down to a 45-minute time slot, and with a living sun as opposed to an antimatter gateway. I loved Planet of Evil

Oh, and I also rather like the red version of the Doctor’s spacesuit. But that’s a very small detail, so that really only counts as half a ‘thing I liked’. Actually, no, let’s make it count for less than a half, and dub today’s entry ‘4.2 things that I like about 42’…

4 February 2015

Doctor Who and LEGO® fans around the world received exciting news today as The LEGO Group announced that it would be producing a LEGO Doctor Who set.

The concept for a Doctor Who set came from the LEGO® IDEAS website where fans can submit ideas for a set and vote for their favourite idea to be produced.

 

The BBC launched Doctor Who in 1963 and it is the worlds longest running sci-fi drama. Starring Peter Capaldi as the Doctor and Jenna Coleman as his companion, the hit BBC One show has become a global phenomenon with a loyal and passionate fan base.

 

The Doctor Who concept from fan Andrew Clark received the 10,000 votes requisite for The LEGO Group to consider it for production.

 

A licensing agreement between BBC Worldwide and The LEGO Group will see the new set available in all of The LEGO Groups key markets before the end of the year.

 

Andrews winning design featured a range of Doctors, companions and monsters across the shows history, but fans will have to wait until later this year to discover what will be produced.

 

Marcus Arthur, MD of BBC Worldwide UK said:


“Both Doctor Who and LEGO enjoy a particularly close relationship with their fans and I cant wait to see what LEGO produce.”

 

Emma Owen, UK spokesperson for LEGO Ideas commented:


“We
re extremely excited to announce that a Doctor Who and a WALL-E set will be released as our next LEGO Ideas fan based sets, congratulations to the designers Andrew Clark and Angus MacLane! 
After receiving over 10,000 votes from the online community and having gone through rigorous toy testing from our expert panel, these awesome sets are on track to be on shelves later this year. The final set designs, pricing and availability are being worked out as we speak, so watch this space for the final details!”


[Source: BBC Worldwide]

4 February 2015

Doctor Who Magazine have sent DWO the cover and details for Issue 483 of DWM.

Paul Wilmshurst, director of the recent Doctor Who episodes Kill the MoonMummy on the Orient Express and Last Christmas, explains the challenges of working on the series, in his first major interview....

"We were all very proud of the fact that the Mummy was so scary they wouldn't put it in the series trailer," Paul tells DWM. "It's always about how far can you go? I think the old joke is true: how complicated can you make it to hold a child's attention, and how simple can you make it for adults? Can you make it scary enough for the children to be satisfied, but not too scary for the adults to be worried?"

ALSO INSIDE ISSUE 483 OF DWM...

•  Doctor Who's very first director, Waris Hussein, reveals how the classic 1964 adventure Marco Polo was made – with the help of unique documents unseen for 50 years!
•  Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat answer readers’ questions – including one from former showrunner Russell T Davies! – in his exclusive column.
•  Peter Purves, who played companion Steven Taylor in the 1960s, looks back at some of his most memorable adventures in the second part of an exclusive interview.
•  En garde! Discover fascinating new facts about the swashbuckling Fourth Doctor adventure The Androids of Tara in The Fact of Fiction.
•  DWM presents an exclusive prelude to the new series of books featuring Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart, in the form of a complete short story by Andy Frankham-Allan: The Ambush.
•  Bernard Kay, the much-loved actor who appeared in four Doctor Who stories, is remembered by his friend Toby Hadoke.
•  The Doctor and Clara tackle both Sontarans and Rutans in the concluding part of The Instruments of War, a brand-new comic strip written and illustrated by Mike Collins.
•  The Time Team watch the Tenth Doctor take a bus to alien world, as they visit the Planet of the Dead.
•  Jacqueline Rayner demonstrates the fun to be had in spotting Doctor Who actors in other roles in Relative Dimensions.
•  The DWM Review assesses the very latest Doctor Who audio and book releases.
•  The Watcher examines the changing nature of history in Doctor Who, in the latest Wotcha!
•  The DWM Crossword, prize-winning competitions, official news and much more!
   

+  Doctor Who Magazine Issue #483 is out on Thursday 5th February, priced £4.99.

+  Subscribe Worldwide to DWM from just £19.49 via Unique Magazines!

+  Check Out The DWO Guide to Doctor Who Magazine!

[Source: Doctor Who Magazine]

4 February 2015

American Doctor Who fan, Mary Nicholls got the surprise of her life last year when Christopher Eccleston (The 9th Doctor) helped play a part in her engagement. Mary's boyfriend asked Christopher if he could help out, and the result is truly heartwarming.

So all you naysayers out there who think Christopher Eccleston hates Doctor Who - think again, and enjoy the video, below:

 
[Source: Kasterborous]

3 February 2015

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

Day 764: The Lazarus Experiment

Dear diary,

Series Three has always felt like something of an odd beast in my mind. When I look back on it, there’s a really good opening episode, a few good-but-not-great episodes in The Shakespeare Code and Gridlock, a run of appalling episodes from Daleks in Manhattan to 42 (inclusive), and then one of the programme’s strongest runs of episodes with the likes of the Human Nature two parter, Blink, and Utopia. In the end, it sort of fizzles out with a finale that I can remember liking but hardly loving. It’s always felt like a bit of a mishmash of very strong stories, nestled alongside very poor ones. But as has often been the way with this marathon in the last few years, on re-watch it’s not been anywhere near as black and white as that. Smith and Jones was still the great opener I could remember, but then The Shakespeare Code was an absolute blinder - and moved right up my list of favourites. Gridlock didn’t fare half so well, but even the two Dalek episodes surprised me by being really rather good. Sadly, The Lazarus Experiment hasn’t undergone a similar transformation (even if the elements are there, untapped, in its DNA… sorry, no, I am).

It’s fair to say that I wouldn’t, upon re-watch, call this story ‘appalling’ any more. Over the last 700-odd days, there’ve been only maybe a handful of episodes which I’d slot in to that category (and even then, I’d have reservations), and this isn’t one of them. I can’t hand-on-heart say that I’ve really enjoyed this one all that much, but there’s still lots in there that I have liked, and which have made today’s 45 minutes worthwhile. For example, there’s lots of dialogue in this one which I really like, including one bit that I’ve been able to quote verbatim ever since my only previous viewing, because I thought it was so beautifully crafted;

LAZARUS

I came here before, a lifetime ago. I thought I was going to die then. In fact, I was sure of it. I sat here, just a child, the sound of planes and bombs outside… In the morning, the fires had died, and I was still alive. I swore I'd never face death like that again. So defenceless.

There’s one or two other nice moments that stand out, too (I really like the Doctor and Martha’s various conversations around the subject of her leaving here), but none quite so much as that bit. It really moved me first time around, and I’m pleased to find it’s got the same poignancy today.

What’s pleased me the most, though, is Martha’s Mum. Martha’s family has never really worked for me. They’ve always come across as being a bit of a mess - especially when they’re outshone by the likes of Jackie on one side, and Sylvia and Wilf on the other. The dynamic is a good enough one (Mum, Dad, Dad’s Girlfriend, Brother, Sister), but they never felt as cohesive as I’d have liked. Part of that problem lies in the fact that - from their point of view - Series Three only takes place over a few days (meaning things like Tish’s frequent promotions and new jobs without mention in earlier appearances stand out more than they should). Another part of the problem is the availability of various people, meaning that when Reggie Yates couldn’t make the filming of the finale, they had to quickly script in a very brief scene to explain where he was. They’ve always felt far less rounded out than the other relatives of the Russell T Davies era.

But much as with the quality of these various episodes, it had become exaggerated over the years in my mind, and there’s a lot more to enjoy about the way Francine gets written here. I’d forgotten lots of little details like the Doctor knocking a drink out of her hand and the agent of Mr Saxon drip feeding her subtle warnings throughout the evening - in my head she’d just taken a dislike to the Doctor and then been approached by the government at the very end. I’m pleased to see that there’s a bit more to it than that. I’m also pleased to see that Leo makes an appearance in this one! I’ve mentioned above that they could only get Reggie Yates in for the single scene during the finale, but I thought that was the only other time he appeared after Smith and Jones! Granted, he doesn’t get a massive roll, here, but at least there’s a bit more to him that I could recall!

2 February 2015

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

Day 763: Evolution of the Daleks

Dear diary,

Spoilers! I’ve never been able to make my mind up, really, when it comes to spoilers and Doctor Who. I’ve never been one to actively go out of my way looking for spoilers, but I’ve never really been the type to go into a complete sensory blackout, and avoid the things at any and all costs (something of a fools errand, I think. Does anyone ever manage to avoid everything? Really?). It’s funny that Doctor Who is the type of show that attracts spoilers, and it’s position and popularity over the last decade has meant that those spoilers are considered to be newsworthy. It means that occasionally, without even realising it, you’ve spotted a spoiler completely by accident, and there’s absolutely no way to avoid it. 

This story is probably the ultimate example of that - because in the week leading up to this story going out, the Radio Times cover was a nice big image of the Dalek Sec hybrid staring out at you, with the strap-line ‘Half-Human, Half-Dalek, Total Monster?’. I think this may be the only time that a Doctor Who spoiler has ever really irritated me, and it’s all down to how much I already knew. There’d been rumblings that Dalek Sec would be creating the ultimate heresy and diluting the Dalek gene pool by splicing DNA with humans (It may have even formed a part of the episode’s preview in Doctor Who Magazine), but they’d managed to keep a pretty tight lid on what the result would look like. Even if I knew that the hybrid was coming, it was to be a great reveal, and right in the closing moments of Daleks in Manhattan… and then it’s all spoiled by walking in to a shop few days before broadcast, and seeing this cover staring out at me from the magazine racks! That said, I’ve just googled the cover to check I’d written the strap-line correctly (I had - that’s how much it’s seared into my memory! hah!) and I’m impressed by just how dramatic that cover is. The photo of the hybrid is lovely, and no matter how much it annoyed me at the time, I can’t argue with the logic of using this as publicity for the story.

So I said yesterday that I’d be holding off on commenting about the actual story of this one until now, because I’d been enjoying it far more than anticipated, and wanted to see how the rest of the piece held up. If I’m being honest, I think I was expecting everything to fall apart in today’s episode and I’d find my previous dislike of this one justified, but that’s not happened - I’ve found a whole new appreciation for this two-parter!

My previous complaint was largely centred around the fact that I’d always thought of this as being a Dalek story for the sake of having a Dalek story - not because they had something interesting to actually do with them… but I’m not sure I’d agree with that any more. I’d rather forgotten the whole storyline about the humanised Dalek Sec starting to come around to the Doctor’s way of thinking, and I’ve never appreciated how well done it is across these 45 minutes. That it works its way in slowly, with the new hybrid becoming picked by the killings his ‘troops’ make is rather powerful, and I’m still surprised by Solomon’s death here (remember during Series One when I complain that Daleks later on don’t just kill people for the sake of it? I’d completely forgotten this death - and it actually shocked me on today’s viewing!). I can’t help but think that there should be some reference to the fact that the Daleks we had back in Parting of the Ways were desperate enough to start using humanity as a replenishment for their forces, though. Much is made today of the fact that this is only being considered because that’s the entire point to the Cult of Skaro - the rally dare to think outside the box - and it seems like a bit of a missed opportunity not to make a connection in there.

I’m also rather fond of the way the Doctor is written in this one. There’s something really rather fun about the way he greets the Daleks in the beginning (‘hello, surprise, boo, etc.’), and the way they interact throughout. It’s that daring to believe that there could be a spark of goodness indie a Dalek’s mind which is still plaguing the Time Lord right up to the most recent series. That line from yesterday - ‘they always survive while I lose everything’ - sums the Doctor up so well, and is perhaps the Time War summed up in seven words.

So, yes! A complete about-face from me on this story, and I’m really pleased. There’s nothing better than taking a story you previously thought very little of, and finding things to love about it. I’m in the middle of what I’ve always thought of as being a weaker batch of episodes, so I’m hoping that the trend might continue…

1 February 2015

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

Day 762: Daleks in Manhattan

Dear diary,

I’ve made much in the last couple of days about the fact that Doctor Who has suddenly exploded in scope between the Second and Third Series. Everything has gotten bigger, and louder, and more extravagant, to the point that Series One feels almost quaint in places. It’s probably more noticeable to me watching through like this (it’s only been a month since I started out on Rose, so we’re racing through the stories), because at the time, the two years between that Auton invasion and reaching this point felt like a lifetime. Several lifetimes. And yet, occasionally, something comes along that makes even this third series look all innocent compared to what we’ve still got to come. Today’s episode is a case in point. I can recall Russell T Davies really promoting the fact that this two parter features shots specially filmed in America. A small team headed over, took some plate shots of New York, and then found a near-matching wall in the south of Wales somewhere to insert the Doctor and Martha in. It sounded huge at the time, and all the publicity was really geared towards the fact that they’d managed to do this. And yet, it feels quite provincial knowing that the following year they went off to Rose to film the fall of Pompeii, and then on to Dubai the year after that, then Croatia, and Utah, and… well, you get the idea. I’m really enjoying this aspect of watching the new series back, and seeing how it evolved over the years. It’s so noticeable in this episode-a-day format.

It’s also great - as I’ve said before - to go back and revisit my opinions on the episodes. This Dalek two-parter is another one of those tales I’ve not watched since the original broadcast in 2007. Even this morning, I was explaining to Emma that this story was a Dalek story for the sake of having a Dalek story, and that it hadn’t worked, and it wasn’t very good, and I wasn’t looking forward to watching it at all. And then, I’ve sat down, and found myself really engrossed for 45 minutes! With other recent episodes I’ve not seen since broadcast, bits and pieces have come back to me as I watch - usually just ahead of those same things actually happening on screen. Today, though, has been like sitting down to watch a brand new episode for the very first time.

Oh, I could remember the basics - Hooverville, Pig Slaves, Laszlo, Daleks in the Empire State Building (which, as far as my head canon is concerned, was a plan formed after they archived the building’s design during The Chase - that’s Shakespeare, now the Empire State Building… Isn’t there a question about the Beatles in 42? Series Three is shaping up to be a proper Chase-fest), but the actual story at the heart of it; the emotional beats of the tale? Not a clue. Maybe that’s worked in the episode’s favour? Having spent almost eight years thinking that it was one of the very worst stories in Doctor Who’s long history - and certainly one of the weakest from the recent past - I’d actually done the episode something of a dis-service. There was no way it would end up being as bad as I remembered (a similar thing occurred last week with Fear Her, though not quite to the same extent).

To that end… I don’t actually plan on really discussing the story here today. Sorry! I’m so surprised by the fact that I’m actually liking it, that I want to wait and watch the whole thing play out before I really make much of a comment on it!

One thing I will talk about it something that*does* still bother me a little bit about this one, and no matter how good the story turns out to be at the end of tomorrow’s episode, I doubt it’ll allay this particular complaint. It feels like there should be a sort of buffer between Gridlock and this one. It always felt a bit strange that the Doctor and Martha go straight from New New York (actually the fifteenth New York since the original, which makes it… no, actually, never mind) to good old New York, without there being more of a point about it (Martha comments ‘I've always wanted to go to New York. I mean the real New York, not the new, new, new, new, new one,’ but it doesn’t specifically make mention of the fact they’ve just come from the latter). In some ways, this feels like a similar scenario to School Reunion and The Girl in the Fireplace last season, where something has been missed in the changeover from one writer to another. There’s also something that feels slightly ‘off’, narratively, about having the Doctor first tell Martha about the Daleks and the war at the end of one episode… only to have them run into the Daleks in the very next episode. Until I’ve re-watched The Lazarus Experiment in a couple of days, I won’t really know if it might have fitted neatly in between Gridlock and this one (though I’m certainly going to be keeping it in mind), but it’s just something that’s always bothered me. Am I the only one? 

1 February 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Andrew Smith

RRP: £14.99 (CD) / £12.99 (Download)

Release Date: January 2014

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online 

“Drawn off-course, the TARDIS passes through a CVE into a closed universe – a hugely improbable event with a tragically obvious cause. In order to escape inescapable E-Space, the Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough are forced to venture in the wilds of planet Alzarius.

But they're not the only unwanted visitors to this strange world. A Starliner has landed, captained by Decider Merrion – but why would Merrion risk rousing the Planet that Slept, and the monsters in its marshes?

Mistfall is coming. The Marshmen are coming. But while Nyssa and Turlough find themselves caught in the open, in the hands of fanatics who model themselves on the legendary Outlers, the Doctor and Tegan discover that the supposedly secure Starliner affords them no protection from monsters both within and without...

***

If there was any good thing to come from AudioGO’s demise (and ‘good’ is the wrong label to lose), then it was that timing led to the audiobook of Full Circle getting a release around the same time Mistfall was released by Big Finish (and frankly a novelisation-reading getting a fortuitous new release date is no compensation for everyone who lost their livelihood due to the company’s collapse).

Regardless though, the two releases fit snugly together as far from being a sequel to the televised version of Full Circle (though, erm, it is), Mistfall is really a follow-up to Andrew Smith’s own novelisation of his one and only television outing.  To quote myself (because no other bugger is ever going to) from my review of the novelisation in the fanzine Whotopia, Full Circle is:

 

A really rather lovely novelisation written by the young Andrew Smith from his own scripts.  What makes it such a winner is not so much the story, which is fine, but the obvious care and delicacy which has gone into writing this novelisation, with plenty of time given to delving into the Doctor’s thoughts and giving characters […] a depth which shows us a real desire to make this story the very best it can be.  There’s an almost tangible adoration– love, even– in this book, which grabbed and enthused me, even if the story isn’t the greatest ever told.

 

I hope you’ll forgive me for being indulgent and quoting myself as these same thoughts popped into my head upon listening to Mistfall: the greatest story ever told? No.  One which Smith is clearly enjoying writing? Yes! And not only that, one which makes good use of Doctor Who lore, most specifically Adric.  He may not be around, but his presence is felt, dragging people into E-Space and leaving a solemn shadow over people once it’s clear just where the TARDIS has landed.  Even the music feels indebted to Season Eighteen and the artful dodger that almost never artfully dodged.

Mistfall cracks along at a fair pace, clocking in as one of the shortest plays Big Finish have given us as part of the monthly range for a long time now, and whilst a lot of it focuses on people being a bit cranky in a spaceship, it also moves on the mythos of Mistfall and the Marshmen nicely, showing that Smith has a really solid idea of where his creations should have gone and of the world he devised back in the 1980s.

Whether returning to E-Space will prove to be anything more than a novelty for this current arc remains to be seen, but it works well enough here and it’s true to say that without it, this story could not have happened.  The ending also suggests a tighter continuation from story to story than we’ve seen for a while, so perhaps the setting will be fully justified across the next two releases.

I’m still not 100% sure on how I feel about Nyssa’s presence here after the events of Prisoners of Fate— for someone deeply regretting what they’ve done to their son, she hopped back on board the TARDIS fairly quickly, leaving him forever abandoned if the conclusion to that play is anything to go by.  It doesn’t feel very true to the character at all, but colour me at least intrigued as to how this trilogy is going to approach this.

Overall, Mistfall is not the best play I have ever heard, but it’s fair enough and a decent start to the year’s releases, and as always, it’s lovely to hear what Andrew Smith has to offer. 

Finally, a word on the cover art.  It’s not secret that I personally know Will Brooks, diarist for this very website and co-writer of a book with me, but I did want to, from a neutral, appreciative standpoint, highlight the frankly gorgeous cover for this play which he has designed.  It’s the first since 1963: Fanfare for the Common Men to really grab my attention, and makes a very nice change in pace to the usual one-alien-and-a-handful-of-generic-headshots approach which has dogged many releases lately, promising a return to more experimental and/or arresting covers such as that for Phantoms of the Deep, and indeed many of that series of Fourth Doctor Adventures before they returned to the (in my opinion) disappointingly repetitive Photoshop affairs.  The cover for next month’s E-Space adventure, Equilibrium, is equally pretty, so touch wood for even more from Brooks in the future. (He can pay me for the good vibes later.)

1 February 2015

Manufacturer: Big Finish Productions

Writer: Nicholas Briggs

RRP: £10.99 (CD) / £8.99 (Download)

Release Date: January 2015

Reviewed by: Nick Mellish for Doctor Who Online 

“Planet E9874 supports a developing civilisation known as the Tarl. The peaceful, technologically advanced Locoyuns are helping the Tarl develop rudimentary technology. What could be more innocent than that?

When the Doctor, Leela and K9 arrive, they find the delicate balance in the relationship between the two cultures reaching an unexpected crisis point. The spears are flying and the threat of all-out war is in the air.

The Doctor must use all his guile to tread a careful path with Tarl leader Ergu, while Leela and K9 discover an ancient power of unimaginable strength which threatens to tear the minds out of its victims.” 

***

Here we go then: another series of adventures for the Fourth Doctor, another old enemy returning to face our foe.  It’s fair to say that I have not been too taken with much of the Fourth Doctor Adventures range thus far, finding it to be the wrong format for this incarnation, as I noted in my review of The Philip Hinchcliffe Box Set.  There have been some good stories and some that really stand out, but for the most part they have merely plodded along for me, doing their best to not stir things and playing things ever so safely, and a lot of them have failed to make much of an impression.

I went into The Exxilons with a certain reluctance: another story in which the Fourth Doctor uncharacteristically encounters something from his past and has to defeat it whilst tiptoeing through a peppered field of continuity references.  John Leeson, Tom Baker and Louise Jameson would all be on fine form (they forever are) but the script would probably just… plod and do little for me.  Each to their own, I realized, but there we were: my expectations were set low.

I realize that complaining about traditional formats is going to make my next declaration of “imagine my surprise, then, when I really enjoyed it!” seem all the more clichéd, predictable and a tad hypocritical, but nonetheless the two episodes of Exxilon fun wowed me in a way that hasn’t happened for quite some time in this range.

Nicholas Briggs is a self-confessed big fan of Death to the Daleks, as his praise for it on the official BBC DVD and in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine will attest to, and quite right he is, too: it’s a marvellous story with a lot to recommend, plus a cliffhanger so utterly absurd that I never fail to burst into laughter when the end of Part Three approaches and the camera dramatically zooms in on some rather incongruous patterned tiling.  I mention Briggs’s love of that story as he has clearly given the Exxilons and their culture a lot of thought before writing this script: it shows in every playful nod to our first encounter with this alien race, every continuity-enhancing titbit concerning the Exxilon City, and oozes through in the Carey Blyton-esque musical score and original sound effects which enrich the atmosphere.  Briggs has managed to skilfully take points from Death which I never considered worthy of addressing, and has given them importance and development, in a way which actually enhances things rather than feel spurious or done for the sake of it.  This is a good case of actually using past stories to a purposeful and good effect, and for once the two-episode format of it really fits the story well and suits the team of K-9, Leela and the Fourth Doctor like a glove.

The story is simple enough but well told: our heroes land on a planet where the Exxilons are present and up to things disturbing the local natives who are unsettled by their presence.  Throw in some murder, maniacal dedication to The Cause, and subtle parallels between the Exxilon presence here and the Daleks’ in Death, and you’ve got enough meat to chew upon for the next hour.

The only minor niggle here is the presence of Hugh Ross in the guest cast: he is brilliant in the role and does it well, but is so associated now with Counter-Measures that it is hard to shake off Sir Toby from the mind’s eye whenever he speaks.  It’s unfair for me to criticize that aspect of the play, really, but here I am.

By the time the play ended, I was won over by it all and smiling at how much I had enjoyed it.  The CD extras show us Tom in a rather reflective and almost sad mood at times, which is notable all the more after such a joyful listen, but it had me rushing over to my DVD collection and grabbing Death to watch afterwards, which is about as good a sign for a play of this ilk as you can get, really.

Do I want more returning to the past time and again as has been the case more often than not with this range? No.  Done well as it is here and you get something good, but it’s all too easy to do it cack-handedly and the range could do with fewer nods and more of an individual identity (as well as a move away from two-episode stories, but that’s a moan for another day).  The trouble with these continual callbacks is that it slowly— slowly but oh-so-surely— squeezes the Universe(s) in which the Doctor travels, making it feel smaller and less spontaneous, which is a pity.  The magic of Doctor Who is its boundlessness, and the moment every third story involves meeting people or enemies or creatures from the past, the moment boundaries appear and that magic starts to ebb away.

Still, it doesn’t stop The Exxilons from being a lot of fun, from proving my fears wrong, and from being a strong start to this series of Fourth Doctor Adventures. 

31 January 2015

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

Day 761: Gridlock

Dear diary,

Macra! Hahaha! Oh, I love the fact that after almost 40 years, the bloody Macra can show up again in Doctor Who, and completely unexpectedly. Oh, true, they’re not really the same creatures that I loved so much back during The Macra Terror, but it’s still something truly wonderful and bizarre, and a nice way of linking the 21st century show right the way back to the early days of the Second Doctor. Mind you, we’re into 2015 now, and I’m still*waiting for the return of Zaroff and his Fish People…
Looking back at this story, it’s a bit of an odd one. I recall being really excited at the time because we knew the Face of Boe would be dying and passing on his final secret… but then everyone had sort of worked it out. As soon as I joined online fandom in the summer of 2006, it had already been taken as established fact that Boe’s final words would be ‘You Are Not Alone’, because they were the words used in Russell T Davies’ write up of the Time War for the 2006 annual. I can’t remember *how
people had made the leap (did Russell make a comment that Boe’s secret was a four-word-phrase? That rings a vague bell in the back of my mind…), but when the moment came, and Boe breathed his last… it was a bit of an anti-climax, really.

I can’t help feeling that the same is sort of true for Gridlock as a whole. There is a certain amount to like in here - the different peoples on the motorway have been nicely sketched in with just a few brief seconds on screen for some, and the re-dressing of the ‘car’ set is very well executed, for example - and I’ve found on this watch that I’ve really enjoyed moments like the singing of the hymn, but I spent far too long thinking about elements that just don’t add up. Something’s never sat right with me about the whole idea of the people trapped on the motorway, and while this time around I connected strongly with the idea that they know it’s not right, but they just don’t talk about the fact, it still just didn’t really feel… I don’t know. Believable? Is that what I mean? It feels rich to be talking about the believability of a motorway in the year five billion, where giant crabs snap at your bumpers, but something just never really worked about the idea for me.

With that, we’re sort of back to the age-old problem that used to crop up from time to time during the ‘classic’ run of this marathon - once the story had lost my interest, it was something of a fight to get it back again, and I’m not sure it really managed it. There’s a lovely upswing at the end where the Doctor sits and tells Martha about Gallifrey, but I couldn’t tell you much, a few hours on, about other things which happened throughout the story. A pity, perhaps, but after the highs of the last few days, this one simply hasn’t found favour with me.

31 January 2015

Every once in a while a genuine surprise turns up to treat Doctor Who fans. This week came the news that a long lost episode of Desert Island Discs featuring William Hartnell (The 1st Doctor) had resurfaced.

The programme which was first broadcast on the BBC Home Service Radio channel on Monday 23rd August 1965, is now available to listen to on the BBC Radio 4 website.

[Source: BBC Radio 4]

30 January 2015

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

Day 760: The Shakespeare Code

Dear diary,

Let’s start today with a confession, shall we? I can’t bloody stand Shakespeare. His work bored me in school. It bored me at A Level. I’ve recently had a lodger staying while she took a part in Richard the Third, and it bored me when she tries to discuss the play with me (and seemed to take offence when I asked if they’d updated the plot to end in the car park). I know he’s considered the greatest English writer in history, and that his plays are heralded as works of genius, and talent the likes of which is rarely seen… but I just can’t get in to them. Nothing doing for me, I’m afraid. Maybe if he threw in a Dalek or two? 

Where I’m going with this is; I wasn’t all that excited when it was announced that the Doctor would be meeting the Bard in Series Three. I vaguely thought that it’d be inevitable at some stage (following a brief earlier appearance in The Chase some 40 years previous, and numerous mentions down the decades), but I wasn’t exactly hyped up for it. But then the genius of what’s been done with the man here is painting him in a way that you simply don’t expect. I was all prepared for something a bit stuffy and literate, but he’s written and played as some sort of rock star (I’m sure I’ve read an interview with Gareth Roberts where this was the stated intention, too). As soon as you realise that they’re doing something different and interesting with the man, it’s much easier to get on board. 

Quite apart from the way that Shakespeare is portrayed in this one, I’m rather fond of the Doctor and Martha, too. There’s the one moment of him pining for Rose, but really they’ve slotted very well into this whole ‘best friends in time and space’ thing, haven't they? There’s something so fresh about bringing in a new companion, and as much as I’d taken to the Tenth Doctor last series, it’s like he leaps up a whole lot more in my estimations across these last few episodes. I love the way he wanders around in Elizabethan London (the moment where he runs hand-in-hand with Martha to see the Globe is lovely), and I love they way they spark off each other. Humour is rife in this episode, and they get to share lots of it (my favourite moment - and it’s one I’ve always loved - is when the Doctor comments that Martha can tell people back home that she’s met Shakespeare, and she retorts ‘yeah, and then I can get sectioned…’).

I also have to confess that I love the confrontation between the Doctor and Lilith. I think I’m right in saying that it was originally a sword fight, right up to the point where the scene was being filmed, and a stuntman was injured (I might go even further and say I think he might have taken a blow to the eye, or something… it was nasty, nonetheless!), but the craft of the rewrite is such that I genuinely couldn’t tell. Until it was pointed out in a commentary, I’d have always assumed it was meant to play out thew way we see on screen.

Oh, but I can’t heap all the praise on to the writing. During The Runaway Bride, I said that you could really see the programme (and the production team) stretching their wings out and seeing just how far they could push this programme. How big they could make it. That’s carried on to this point, because The Shakespeare Code is possibly my favourite episode of Doctor Who from a visual standpoint. It just looks so good! Taking a week out from Wales and effectively touring the country to take in so many locations - including the Globe Theatre itself - really does pay off, because it gives this story a visual identity that really stands apart from anything else. I’ve been saying for two years now that the BBC are always very good at doing historical stories, but I don’t think we’ve ever had it done as well as we do here. From the outdoor locations to the sets, everything feels so perfectly right. 

That extends to the computer effects, too. The digital matte paintings for this story have always stuck in my mind - especially the shots looking out across the Thames, with the Doctor and Martha running around somewhere in the back of the shot. I can also recall Russell T Davies raving about the fact that you’ve got tiny little people running away from the Globe in those final shots of the theatre being consumed by the Carrionites, and can’t help but look out for them every time I watch.

And yet, despite all the praise I’m heaping on this one today, I don’t think I’d ever realised how much I liked it. It’s certainly been a good few years since I last saw it, and while I knew it was one I’d enjoyed, I’d always just thought of it as being a good story, if not a particularly great one. Yesterday, when I said Smith and Jones wasn’t ‘going to be the only high point in this run of episodes’, I was thinking more specifically of the latter half of the series, when we reach the obvious stories like Human Nature, Blink, and Utopia, so I’m delighted to see that I’m having to bring out the higher ratings sooner than anticipated - Series Three really is something a bit special!

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