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24 February 2015

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

Day 785: The Stolen Earth

Dear diary,

John Barrowman once described The Stolen Earth and Journey's End as being 'The Five Doctors for 21st century Doctor Who', and it's hard to find a more perfect description for these two episodes. At the time, myself and the friends I discussed Doctor Who with were well aware that Rose was coming back for the finale (she'd been teased enough throughout the series even if the publicity and the previous episode hadn't been clue enough), and we were fairly certain that Martha would be putting in an appearance, and possibly Jack… oh, but then there was that 'next time' trailer from the end of Turn Left. Rose! Martha! Jack! Sarah Jane! Gwen! Luke! Ianto! Harriet bleeding Jones, former Prime Minister! Judoon! Daleks! Davros! Oh, it was the most exciting 'next time' trailer the programme had ever done (and, actually, very few have come close to the level of excitement this one generated), and all of us were immediately swapping the same excitable texts the second the credits kicked in.

Oh, and there really is something wonderfully Five Doctors-esque about the setting up in this episode. Today is really about manoeuvring all the characters to the right places ready for the ‘real’ story in the next episode, but that’s all part of the fun! Cutting from the Hub, to Sarah Jane’s attic, to New York (Martha must avoid that place like the plague these days - we’ve seen her visit the city twice, and she’s encountered Daleks on both occasions!)… it’s all very exciting when you’ve been making your way through the series in order (either on broadcast or in the form of a marathon), and getting to watch all these characters from different parts of the Doctor’s life come together is really rather special. That great big video-call is also home to the single best line in Doctor Who history;

WILF

(on the subject of a webcam) She wouldn't let me. She said they're naughty. 

I do have to wonder, though, how does this episode look to people coming to Doctor Who in the years since 2008? At the time, characters like Gwen, Ianto, and Luke made perfect sense to me, because I’d been following along with the spin-off programmes, but these days there’s plenty of people who’ve discovered the show since all those spin-offs ceased, and they don’t necessarily pick them up to watch too. Are any of my readers in that situation? Does it all make sense, simply as ‘well they must be Jack’s Torchwood team, and he must be Sarah Jane’s son?

There’s something rather brilliant, though, simply in the fact that Doctor Who at this point can do a story like this one. They can bring back assorted old companions - including Sarah Jane from the 1970s - and the audience will go along with it! The story is littered with little Easter Eggs for long-term viewers to spot (I didn’t notice the shot of Daleks attacking the Valiant for ages), and you really get the idea that several of them would actually be picked up on by the ‘casual’ viewer. There’s something a little bit special about that.

But then, of course, the big thing to make note of in this one is the regeneration. Or, specifically, the week that followed the regeneration. As soon as it became obvious what was happening, I declared that it was all slight of hand, and that there was no way David Tennant was going to regenerate and it not be announced before hand. But then… oh, it was a funny old week. All the papers were talking about it. People kept coming in the (largely Doctor Who-related) shop where I worked asking about it… and more and more it looked as though the BBC had managed to pull off a massive publicity stunt by having the Doctor regenerate half-way through the story. The more I thought about it, the more it all made sense. Of course, it was quickly brushed off when the next episode came around, but it’s worth it just for the sheer excitement of that week!

 

23 February 2015

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

Day 784: Turn Left

Dear diary,

These latter episodes of Series Four are real barnstormers, aren't they? I can almost forgive the slight dip in quality (for me, anyway) in the middle of the series, because you can see perhaps where the entire production team were saving themselves ready to really go for broke with this finale. I mused a few weeks ago, at the end of Series Three, that Turn Left didn't feel like the start of a three-parter in the same way that Utopia did, and made a note to revisit that thought when I reached this point. Watching today, I think I'd stand by that comment… and it's largely because the central story of Turn Left draws to a close before we then get a cliffhanger at the end. That cliffhanger is integral to the story we've just watched (so it's not really 'tacked on' in the same way that the Victory of the Daleks lead-in is at the end of The Beast Below, or the cliffhanger to The Poison Sky is for The Doctor's Daughter, for example), but it comes after the resolution of the immediate plot - whereas the Utopia one is bang in the middle of it! So yes, I'll be standing by that thinking!

But enough about the relationship between this episode and the two that follow it - there's more than enough to keep you going here! People always seem to hail Blink as the best of the 'Doctor-lite' stories from the Russell T Davies era, but surely this one has to take that crown? In some ways, Turn Left plays out a bit like a clip show, going back over events from the last couple of series, and presenting them to us in such a nightmarish way. I'd love to see a whole series set in the world we get in this story - not even necessarily a Doctor Who series, just a programme that follows what would happen in such a situation, where the world is headed to hell in a hand basket. If I'm honest, I still hold out hope that Davies might write such a series one day - I think he'd do such a good job with it. With only a few brief lines and scenes, we get a real feel for the way that this world works, and some of it is simply beautiful in a kind of nightmarish way. A real highlight has to be Rocco being carted off to a 'labour camp', while Wilf tries to hold it together - Bernard Cribbins really sells that moment, and once again, I can't help but feel emotional when the man is on screen.

Cribbins isn't the only one turning in a tour de force of a performance here - Catherine Tate has never been more on top of her game. Tate proved to people how great she could be in Doctor Who right back in her earliest episodes, but Turn Left is the moment where she really silences the naysayers. When she's finally shown the creature on her back, or realises that she's going to die… it's simply stunning. Coming after forty minutes of watching Donna struggle against the tide of hell befalling the world, it's even more emotional. I’ve praised Cribbins and Tate over and over in the last few weeks, so I’d also like to make a point of mentioning Jaqueline King here. She’s been great throughout the series whenever she’s turned up, but this episode really gives her a chance to go for it, and combining these three as the Noble Family… well, it’s no wonder they’re such a great part of the series.

I could ramble on forever about how great the performances and settings of this episode are, but instead I just want to touch on something tiny and insignificant. The matte painting used for the world of Shen Shen at the episode’s beginning is gorgeous! I’ve been meaning to bring this up for ages - having pointed out how nice the Ood Sphere was in long shot (if not in close up), and then making a note to mention it again during The Doctor’s Daughter, for the surface of the planet there. I seem to say it a lot, but you can really see the confidence of the team at this point - creating alien environments so beautifully, even when they’re only used briefly to set up the story, before we’re brought back down to reality.

22 February 2015

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

Day 783: Midnight

Dear diary,

It's a sign of just how far Doctor Who had come by this point in the revival that they feel confident in producing something as… experimental as Midnight, to air on BBC One prime time on a Saturday evening. It's about as far away from Daleks and Cybermen, or anything else you might expect from the programme at this point, as it's possible to get.

And you know what? It's great. It feels really nice to dip out of the usual pattern and do something a bit different with the Doctor, and it lets us see this particular incarnation in a new situation - the Doctor who's perhaps most reliant on his words as his only weapon (as recently exemplified by stories like The Doctor's Daughter) having his words removed, and being left defenceless.

It also serves as a nice counter-weight to Voyage of the Damned back at the start of this season. There, a group of 'humans' thrown together by circumstance pull together for the good of all, standing tall in the face of danger (even if they might not always agree), and making sure that as many people as possible can come through. Midnight on the other hand shows a different side to 'human' nature - with the group turning in on itself, and coming desperately close to committing murder. There's some beautifully observed moments in here along the lines of examining human nature, perhaps none more than Val's comment right at the end;

VAL

I said it was her.

I almost wonder if the script is partly so strong because it gives Russell T Davies the change to write about something real again, having spent the last few years having to write about Judoon on the Moon, and the last of the Daleks, and the Cybermen pushing across from a parallel universe. Taking any kind of recognisable creature out of the equation for this episode means that we have to really focus on the very true interaction between the characters, and although that's something that Davies often writes into scripts, here it feels like it's being given a whole host of extra weight.

You can't discuss Midnight without passing some comment about the sheer skill that has gone into producing it. For a story almost all filmed on a single set with a small core cast, I'd not be surprised if this was the most technically challenging episode that the production team had tackled up to this point. About halfway through, I decided to plug in a set of headphones so I could really appreciate the skill that's gone into making this one work, and I don't think I've ever really appreciated before just how good it is. Even when Sky and the creature aren't the absolute centre of attention, you can still hear the repetition going on in the background, and it's somehow eerie and beautiful at the same time… but it must have been a nightmare to get right!

For the first time in absolutely ages, I’ve watched today’s episode twice - not because I wanted to follow the story again as such, but because I wanted to hear the commentary. Almost every episode of the Russell T Davies era has two commentaries for each episode - the one on the DVDs, and the ones still available on the BBC website as ‘clips’ for each episode. The online commentary for Midnight features Julian Howarth (Sound Recordist), Paul McFadden (Supervising Sound Editor) and Bryn Thomas (Boom Operator), and it feels only right that the sound team get to take the spotlight on this episode, and you really get a sense for how much effort everyone put in to make this episode the best it could possibly be. If anything, it makes me respect the episode even more!

21 February 2015

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

Day 782: Forest of the Dead

Dear diary,

Yesterday felt like a proper turn around for this story. Whereas I’d always thought of it as being terrible, and one of my least favourites, there were lots of elements to the proceedings that I was actually quite enjoying. It was never going to suddenly find itself sitting at the ‘top table’ among other favourite episodes, but equally it had managed to break free of the shadows (pun intended) it had been cast into for years.

But then today… Oh, I’m just a bit bored with things, if I’m honest. I think I’d normally say something about the fact that I’ve spent so many years not being fond of this story meaning that I’m simply failing to engage with it this time around, too, but that’s not really it - because I’d broken that pitfall with the first episode. I think it’s more a case that the things I found to enjoy yesterday had started to wear a bit thin by the time we reached this one.

That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing in here for me to enjoy, and it has to be said that in a complete turnaround from my reaction when this episode was first broadcast, my favourite thing about it is the presence of River Song, and watching her story with the Doctor both begin and end simultaneously. I mused yesterday that having now seen the rest of their time together makes the scenes they share here all the more poignant, and that’s certainly true in todays episode, as we hurtle ever closer to her death, and the realisation that the Doctor must have always known that this is how their life together would end. Tennant and Alex Kingston play those moments perfectly, and there’s something about the reproachful look that hangs over Tennant’s face one River is gone which really connects with me. I’m looking increasingly forward to watching their relationship play out now.

For me, the real highlight of this episode has to be the way that it ends - and no, that’s not me trying to be funny. There’s a beautiful kind of melancholy that really envelops everything from the moment we see the Doctor wake up to find himself handcuffed at a safe distance, right through to Lee teleporting away, and not quite being able to call out for Donna before he’s gone. I moaned a bit the other day about Jenny’s sudden ‘back to life’ at the end of The Doctor’s Daughter, when the Doctor and co all thought her gone for good, but this is almost that exact same idea, but done right.

That melancholy is only lifted by the Doctor suddenly realising that there’s a way he can save River. Oh, that’s a gorgeous moment. The episode is clearly over and done with. The Doctor and Donna have summed up, and started making their way off into the sunset… and then he comes charging back onto screen and we get a whole new ending that really sings, and is the perfect way of really establishing that River means the world to the Doctor at some point. Forget all that gibbons about his name (have we actually found out yet when she learns it?), this is the good bit! 

20 February 2015

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

Day 781: Silence in the Library

Dear diary,

It’s strange coming back to this two-parter now that we’ve seen the rest of the River Song story play out. The speculation that abounded at the time - was she his wife? His mum? Romana? The Rani? Susan? I think people settled pretty quickly on to the idea that she was most likely his wife, but I didn’t pay it all that much attention because I couldn’t bare River. Really, really disliked her. The colleague I mentioned yesterday, who didn’t consider The Unicorn and the Wasp to be a proper ‘favourite’ episode, on the other hand loved her, and couldn’t wait to find out more about her. Ironically, those roles reversed once we entered the Moffat era - I absolutely fell in love with River, while he began to declare that she was the worst thing to ever happen to the show, and point out that he’d ‘always’ hated the character. Ho hum.

I can’t claim that it was anything wrong with River that made me take a dislike to her - I think it was just the fact that she was in this story, and for some reason it fell completely flat for me. I know I watched it with my then-girlfriend’s parents, and sort of cringed my way through it, because they’d happened to be watching it the week it was rubbish. I also know that I felt like it was simply a ‘Greatest Hits of Steven Moffat’, with repeated catchphrases, an everyday object being turned into something sinister, and elements of plot that were ‘timey wimey’. The sour taste these two episodes left in my mouth meant that I’ve not wanted to watch them since. It didn’t help that only a week or so before broadcast, Moffat had been announced as the successor to Russell T Davies, and everyone was proclaiming him as the ‘saviour’ of Doctor Who.

Watching tonight, though, I’m not sure what my problem was! Yes, I suppose it can be seen as a bit of a ‘Greatest Hits’ collection, but everything is being used for a reason, and I’m actually getting quite into it. As I’ve said above, knowing the rest of River’s story lends an extra weight to her appearance here (and I know it’s a subject that’s been batted back and forth over the years but the way she’s scripted here leads me to think that she definitely had at least one other meeting with the Tenth Doctor). The moment when River pleads with the Doctor to say he knows who she is actually tugs at my heartstrings a bit after watching all the merry dances she had with the Eleventh Doctor, and it makes me all the more excited to watch her story unfold over the next month or so. I think perhaps it bothered me at the time that it felt like Moffat was setting things up for his own tenure several years before we’d get any kind of pay-off, whereas now that we’ve been through it all, I can view all of this in a different way.

River’s not the only thing that’s faring better this time; the whole idea of keeping out of the shadows isn’t just taking something everyday and twisting it into something scary, it’s playing on children’s playground games, and giving them a Doctor Who connection. The repeated phrases… are still a bit rubbish, actually. Sorry. You can’t win them all. I get that the ending is supposed to feel like a bit of an onslaught with no escape for anyone but it doesn’t half go on a bit. Donna Noble has left The Library. Hey, who turned out the lights? Donna Noble has been saved.

It’s still not perfect - and certainly feels like Moffat’s weakest script for the show yet - but it’s a lot better than I’ve ever given it credit for!

19 February 2015

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

Day 780: The Unicorn and the Wasp

Dear diary,

For years and years, I always used to say that this was my absolute favourite episode of revived Doctor Who. It even became a long-running argument with a former colleague, who insisted that this ‘couldn’t’ be my favourite episode, because it’s not a ‘proper’ favourite episode. I’m still not entirely sure what they meant by that, but I think the point was that this one doesn’t have any Daleks, or Cybermen, any of The Big Four, and isn’t some big, epic, game changer of an episode. It also wasn’t Blink, which was their favourite, and thus did count as a ‘proper’ favourite episode. For some reason.

Oh, but The Unicorn and the Wasp is everything I love about Doctor Who, and everything I love about Series Four in particular. It’s light and fun, but it can still be light and fun when it’s filled with death, and darkness, and a giant alien wasp. It perfectly encapsulates the Doctor and Donna’s relationship perhaps better than any other episode they share - you’d have no idea that this was the first story Tennant and Tate shot together for this series. Once again, the pair are having exactly the type of adventures that I’d want to have with a TARDIS - inviting yourself to a 1920s party, meeting people like Agatha Christie… effectively everything up until they discover The Body in the Library. Donna of the Chiswick Nobles, and The Man in the Brown Suit, flitting through time and space, Destination Unknown, just having a laugh.

And ‘having a laugh’ really is the right turn of phrase for this one, because there’s so much in this episode that makes me laugh out loud - even now when I’ve watched it perhaps more than any other modern episode. My notes today are filled again with lots of lines of dialogue which really sets me off - but my favourite has to be Donna’s discussion with Agatha about men, when she muses that her husband-to-be went off not with another woman, but with a giant spider instead. Oh, I’d forgotten that bit and it made me hoot.

I’m also always impressed by the way that everything hangs together as an Agatha Christie episode. In ‘The Writer’s Tale’, Russell T Davies points out how tricky it is to find an alien for pairing with Christie, because it’s not as obvious as putting Charles Dickens with ghosts, or Shakespeare with Witches. Somehow, though, the whole Giant Wasp situation really holds up, and I think it’s because it manages to take a murder mystery - the one thing that is a must in the Agatha Christie tale - and mesh it nicely with the format of Doctor Who. I can’t say that I actually worked out who the murderer was first time around, but it’s always nice going back and watching it with that knowledge, because there’s a number of little hints seeded in for us to find - though I’m not sure anyone could have pieced them together properly! Did any of you lot work it out first time? Or was it guesswork, like with me?

I’m possibly biassed because I’ve spent so long thinking of this one as being among my very favourite episodes, but I really can’t fault it, and it’s a massive turn around from yesterday! The latter half of Series Four is generally considered, I think, to be some of the strongest Doctor Who ever produced, and if it can keep appealing to me as this one has, then I’m in for a real treat over the next few days.

18 February 2015

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

Day 779: The Doctor’s Daughter

Dear diary,

I can’t help but feel, watching this episode, that Martha’s involvement is little more than the programme trying to both have its cake and eat it. They need someone to pair off with the Hath, so that we can see them from a point of view other than that given by the humans. Equally, they want Donna to stay with the Doctor to help him come to terms with the sudden arrival of a new daughter. Solution? Have Martha kidnapped in the TARDIS at the end of the two-parter, and shove her off with the Hath so that we’ve got someone to cut to.

In theory, this shouldn’t be a problem, but it just comes across as so obvious, because Martha has nothing to do for the episode. Her entire storyline, really, is ‘get back to the Doctor in time to leave’. There’s a nice character moment when she uses her skills as a Doctor (and makes a point of saying that it doesn’t matter who her patient is, he needs treating), but after that it’s simply a case of getting to the right place before the episode ends. Even her trek across the surface of the planet feels devoid of any real jeopardy, because she feels so superfluous to the plot. I’m not entirely sure how I’d fix that issue, but maybe make the reason that the TARDIS shuttles off to this time and place related to Martha in some way? Just something to make it feel like there’s a reason for her presence.

The situation isn’t helped by the fact that Martha’s side of the narrative is all a bit… sloppy. I made a note early on that the Hath not speaking a recognisable language was a really nice touch because it gave them something unique, and made a point of checking if I was right in thinking that they originally did have a translation that we could understand… but then the episode answered that for me, because there’s several moments where Martha calls back to something her Hath friend has said, and by the time he reaches his sticky end, she knows his name. It just feels like less attention has been paid than usual, and it’s a pity.

Especially so because the other half of the episode, with the Doctor, Donna, and Jenny is rather nice in its own way. The idea of having the Doctor confront the idea that there’s another Time Lord (of sorts) around, having lost them all once, and then so recently lost the Master again, is great, but it never quite feels like it really gets there. We have moments - the Doctor describing a Time Lord as being more than just where you come from, as though he’s desperately trying to find a way to not face what’s happening is lovely, as is his confession to Donna that the part of him that can look after and nurture a child of his own died with Gallifrey - but they flicker into life and then burn out in the blink of an eye. As with the Sontaran episodes we’ve just been through, it feels like we’re another draft away from really cracking the interesting points of the story.

Actually, maybe that’s what needs to be done? Sorry, I’m working this all out in my head as I go. Maybe I you could solve my two big issues with this episode simply by swapping the roles of Donna and Martha? Donna gels wonderfully with the Doctor in this one (but then you can pretty much take that as read), but Martha was actually there when the Doctor cradled the dying Master. She has a connection to him as ‘the Last of the Time Lords’ that Donna simply doesn’t? It would make it feel - narratively - as though there was a better point to having Martha involved with this story, and I can’t help thinking that I’d have loved to watch an episode of Donna struggling to get back to the Doctor while getting increasingly irritated by the fact that she can’t understand the Hath.

Before long I’m going to just start sounding bitter about this one, but I have to bring it up before I sign off for today - Jenny’s survival at the end. It just, again, feels like the episode having its cake and eating it. They want a big emotional moment where the Doctor has grown to like this person and then had to watch her die, but it also wants to pay off the suggestion that she might be capable of some form of regeneration. Also, it’s been said for years that Steven Moffat suggested Jenny be kept alive at the end, so we’ve had to endure countless questions of when she’s coming back!

Sadly, for me, The Doctor’s Daughter has been the low point of Series Four, and if I’m honest, the low point of the 21st century run so far…

17 February 2015

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

Day 778: The Poison Sky

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 February 2015

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

Day 777: The Sontaran Stratagem

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

15 February 2015

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

Day 776: Planet of the Ood

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

DONNA

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

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

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

14 February 2015

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

Day 775: The Fires of Pompeii

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

13 February 2015

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

Day 774: Partners in Crime

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

12 February 2015

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

Day 773: Voyage of the Damned

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MR COPPER

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

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

11 February 2015

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

Day 772: Last of the Time Lords

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 February 2015

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

Day 771: The Sound of Drums

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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