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27 December 2014

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

Day 726: The TV Movie

Dear diary,

He’s back, and it’s about time! Watching the TV Movie today has been one of the most enjoyable experiences that I’ve had while doing this marathon. It’s a story that I’ve always known I liked, but I don’t think that I’d ever appreciated just how good it is before. it’s only now, watching it after all the episodes of the ‘classic’ series, that I can fully see how good it really is - and I’m baffled by the distaste it used to have, once upon a time.

Now. There’s lots to discuss in relation to this episode, so I guess I’d better pick somewhere to start. Let’s go for the Direction, shall we? It’s stunning. There, that was simple. I’m not being facetious, though, it simply is stunning. It’s quite unlike any of the direction we’ve ever had in the programme u pt this point, and is easily up there wit the best that Douglas Canfield has to offer, though in a different style. People bang on about how good Grahame Harper’s direction was in the 1980s… why doesn’t anyone ever discuss Geoffrey Sax? It’s far more ‘filmic’ than I’m used to for the series - and largely that’s because we’ve finally broken free of the studio set up that defined the programme for its entire original run. Being taken out of that and given more time to film it as though it were all on location has really benefited, and I’m guessing I’ll see this trend continue as the marathon goes on, because the ‘new’ series is filmed in the same way.

The other benefit of breaking free of the traditional production method for Doctor Who is that we can have a new TARDIS set quite unlike anything that the programme has ever been able to manage before now. Watching it in context like this, I’m actually a little bit surprised by the change - it really is a massive departure from the version of the ship we had from 1963 onwards. In the past, I’ve seen it described as the Secondary Console Room turned up to eleven, but that’s rubbish frankly, because this is something completely on another level. I’m actually surprised that they had the balls to go for such a complete redesign of the structure, because it’s such a leap from the expected norm. Now, I’ve always had a soft spot for this console room. I think it’s beautiful, but I’ve never noticed just how lovely it is. We’re really coming back to Sax’s direction again here, because we get lots of shots which really make the most of the setting and show off lots of the intricate little details.

And then you’ve got our new Doctor himself - Paul McGann is the Doctor! It seems strange, now, in a post-Night of the Doctor world, that people ever doubted his position as a Doctor. Sure, he’s only got the one televised adventure in which to flex his muscles, but he’s certainly more the Doctor in the hour-or-so he gets here than McCoy was in Season Twenty-Four, for example! He really does hit the ground running, and I can’t help but love him from the second he strolls down an abandoned hospital corridor and starts to scream into the night (‘Who… Am… Aaaaargh!’) to the moment he dips back inside the police box as fireworks explode overhead. He’s a fantastic Doctor, and I absolutely love him. Of course, I’m slightly biased in this opinion, perhaps, because I’ve already done a marathon of the Eighth Doctor’s audio adventures and written my thoughts down in a book with my friend Nick Mellish. I’ve had travels from the R101, through a Divergent Dimension, and off to the Dalek’s second invasion of Earth to fall in love with this incarnation. But I genuinely do believe that he’s given a great start here, and you can see all the potential for a great Doctor to run and run.

Which brings me quite neatly to the big thing that I’m not so sure about with the TV Movie… does it work as a decent set up for the future? In the Seven Year Itch documentary on this DVD, Philip Segal et al discuss the way that they had this seen as a ‘backdoor pilot’ for a potential continuing series (and, I have to admit, I had no idea that it was as formal as it was). I’ve always thought of it as an awful way to introduce a new audience - and even made a note to that effect when the Doctor’s info-dump narration kicked in a few seconds into the feature - but actually watching it this time around, I’m not sure it’s as bad as I thought it was.

I mean, it sets up neatly the fact that the Doctor is an alien time traveller who can change his face upon death. We’re given an arch enemy for him to fight against. He’s paired with a resourceful companion who can assist in the adventure. All the elements are in place for things to work. I think the problem is how thick and fast they come. It doesn’t phase me, because I know about Doctor Who. He can throw in references to Gallifrey, and the Eye of Harmony, and the Daleks can make a cameo (sight unseen) at the start. We can have Jelly Babies, and Sonic Screwdrivers, and the Seal of Rassilon on every third surface. I don’t bat an eyelid, because I’m a fan. But I can’t help thinking that the new series made a better job of all this - drip feeding new elements of the Mythos as it went along. We’ll see if that opinion holds up over the next few months, but I’ve always thought of it as being more successful. I suppose the key difference is that the 2005 series was just that - a series. There were always going to be thirteen weeks to build the story across. In this instance, you’ve got 90 minutes to make your pitch… and then that could be it.

The other thing which doesn’t sit quite right with me in regards to this being any kind of pilot is that any follow-up would be a bit of a culture shock. There’s not much of an implication of the scope of the series here, because the Doctor and the Master both come crashing down at the same time, bringing their fight to Earth. In Rose, for example, her world is expanded by the introduction of first the Autons, then the Doctor, the police box, a replica boyfriend, and finally the Nestene Consciousness under the London Eye. It’s something new every few minutes, pushing her story forward, whereas once Grace is introduced to the idea that the Doctor is an alien and his arch nemesis is out to end the world… well, she’s all up to speed!

All that said, I think this is probably perfect for a British audience - and it certainly faired rather well here when it was first broadcast. It’s best for an audience with enough cultural knowledge of Doctor Who to simply sit back and enjoy a well-paced and directed film. There’s a lot to really like about the TV Movie - not perfect, but certainly a highlight in the Doctor Who narrative… 

26 December 2014

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

Day 725: Downtime

Dear diary,

I’ve been curious about Downtime for ages. Back when I was first getting in to Doctor Who it seemed like the most amazing thing in the world - the return of three former associates of the Doctor, and of the Yeti after almost 30 years. Of course, at that point there were only two Yeti episodes surviving in the BBC archives, so the thought of a complete story featuring them instantly won extra brownie points. Over the years, I must have seen this story more times than I’ve seen some real episodes of Doctor Who, and you know what? I’ve always been confused by it.

Partly, I think, that’s because I’d never experienced the two Patrick Troughton Yeti adventures. I therefore had no clue why the little wooden carving of a Yeti was so important (and, watching again here, I note that it’s never actually explained), and I was forever getting confused by the fact that Victoria is looking for her own father - who’s long dead - but finds Professor Travers, played by Deborah Watling’s real life father, who goes on to talk about his daughter; meaning Anne. Can you see where my confusion came from? Please say you can.

And yet, somehow, Downtime always remained oddly fascinating to me. I think a certain amount of that comes from the fact that it’s the ultimate example of the programme surviving in any climate. In 1995, it had been six years since the BBC had actively produced a proper new episode of Doctor Who, and through all the false starts of various film projects in the preceding half-decade, didn’t really have much interest in the property. And yet you get a group of fans clubbing together, getting a licence to use various elements that aren’t directly owned by the BBC, and making something new with them, that sits firmly - and comfortably - within the Doctor Who world. I think it’s something to be admired, and actually, it comes off rather well.

Because this time around, I’m actually surprised by just how much I’ve enjoyed this! Truth be told, the main reason I wanted to watch it again was to see if my half-memories of earlier viewings fitted neatly in to the Great Intelligence timeline that I was pondering back during The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear last year (more on that in a moment). But then as I watched, it suddenly became less about simply ticking this one off on the list of things I needed to see for the marathon, and more about simply enjoying it. Certainly, having experienced those earlier Intelligence stories, I’ve managed to follow the plot of this one a whole lot better than ever before, but there’s numerous other things that had troubled me in the past that all fit together perfectly well here - I guess I was too busy worrying about things I didn’t understand before that I missed some important dialogue.

It’s also great to use this story as something of a send-off to ‘classic’ Doctor Who. The TV Movie being isolated out on its own in the middle of the 1990s means that it doesn’t really feel like it belongs lumped in with those earlier Doctors, and the recent reappearance of McGann in the programme means that he feels, if anything, closer to the new series than the old. The appearance of Sylvester McCoy in the film just makes it feel a little bit like a handover between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. So this story is perfectly placed to have a reappearance for Sarah Jane Smith, the Brigadier, and Victoria Waterfield. All three were on hand to celebrate the programme for Dimensions in Time, but in regards to the actually main narrative of the show, the Brig hasn’t been seen in six years, Sarah Jane for more than ten, and our last sight of Victoria was on a beach almost thirty years ago! Bringing them all back together here for a new story alongside an old foe really does work, and introducing Kate Stewart, who’ll go on to be a recurring presence in the revived series later on, makes it feel like another vital part of the ‘Wilderness Years’.

Indeed, I’ve been somewhat struck by just how much this feels like proper Doctor Who, and I even found myself slightly mourning the fact that it’s never had a DVD release with some special features. Several key members of the cast are sadly no longer with us, but it would be nice to see if given some kind of treatment, because it comes across as so much more than ‘just another fan film’.

So. The big question - for me at least - is how this fits in with the timeline I proposed last year. Back then, I suggested that following the defeat of the Intelligence on the Underground, it retreated back onto the Astral Plane, but continued its link with the ‘many human hands’ at its disposal. I think that’s borne out here - Travers has been summoned back to Det Sen and kept alive beyond his years, and Victoria is later brought to the same location, and used to carry out the task. The plan seems to be using the fledgeling internet to carry the Great Intelligence and take over the world… which isn’t a million miles away from the plan we see in The Bells of Saint John. Yeah, I’d say that this fits in rather nicely with what I’ve assumed before - and I’m glad about that! I’ll keep reviewing the situation when we reach Season Seven in a few month’s time, but I think for now this is going in as part of my personal ‘canon’ when it comes to Doctor Who.

25 December 2014

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

Day 724: Dimensions in Time

Dear diary,

It’s Chriiiiiiiistmaaaaaassssssss! Fitting, then, that I should be watching a strange kind of ‘panto’ episode of Doctor Who to celebrate…

Oh, the hate that Dimensions in Time has received over the years. Is there a more loathed fifteen minutes of Doctor Who than this? I have to admit, though, that I rather like it - because I’ve never taken it seriously, but simply enjoyed it for what it is; a fun runaround, celebrating Doctor Who for its thirtieth birthday, and raising money for a great cause at the same time. Indeed, it’s perhaps fitting that I’m watching this one on Christmas Day, because it’s the perfect time to enjoy it on its own merits.

You’ll also have to excuse that this isn’t going to be a particularly ‘in-depth’ entry of the Diary (as though I’m able to really call any of my insights all that ‘in-depth’), because there’s not an awful lot that i can actually say about Dimensions in Time, is there? I’ve even made Emma sit and watch it with me - it helps the Christmas dinner go down - but she spent most of the time with her head cocked to one side, somewhat confused as to what the heck was actually happening. Immediately afterwards, though, we watched the out-takes and amused ourselves with how Davison spends the entire recording looking as though he’s made a huge mistake in agreeing to turn up that day.

Over the last couple of weeks, when I’ve told people that I’ll be watching this story as part of the marathon, it’s been met with a fair bit of negative reaction. I’ve been told - several times - that it’s not a proper part of Doctor Who, so I needn't bother watching it (equally, many of those same people have gone on to tell me that I ‘have’ to watch The Curse of Fatal Death, though…!), but for me it’s an important part of the entire Doctor Who mythos, and I’ve never realised it mores than now - at the very end of a two-year marathon of all the ‘classic’ episodes. It’s the capstone for ‘classic’ BBC Doctor Who, and looked at like that, I think it fills the part admirably. 

It’s a final chance to see lots of our old favourites running around, doing (and saying) things that the general public automatically think are ‘very Doctor Who’. It’s the final time we get to see Jon Pertwee don his cape and strut around like he owns the place. It’s also the last appearance in televised Doctor Who for almost the entire cast - save for Elisabeth Sladen. No, the plot doesn’t make a great deal of sense (Every time I watch, I think I’ve sussed out what’s happening, but then we cut to the Fifth Doctor with both Peri and Nyssa, and the whole plan goes out the window), and shoehorning in Eastenders doesn’t fit quite as well as they suspected it would (that said, I’d probably enjoy that element more if I could remember more than a handful of the Eastenders characters), but it’s a fun way to spend fifteen minutes - and a great celebration of Doctor Who to wrap up the ‘classic’ era before I head on in to the TV Movie and the 21st century version of the programme beyond that. 

It’s the season to be jolly, so crack open some Bucks’ Fizz and pop on Dimensions in Time. Have a laugh with it. Enjoy quoting along with the best bits (‘who was that terrible woman?!?!?’) and celebrate the magic of Doctor Who.

24 December 2014

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

Day 723: Survival, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I feel oddly… hollow at the end of today’s entry. Survival, Episode Three, is a huge milestone to reach in The 50 Year Diary - the end of Doctor Who’s original 26-year run on television - but it just sort of gets swept up as part of the ongoing marathon. The episode itself isn’t anything particularly special (that’s not to say it’s bad - I’ll come to the quality in a moment), just that it’s not been made as any kind of final ‘cap’ for the programme, and that final speech aside, it really does seem like an odd way to bring an end to such a long-running journey, that started all the way back on Totter’s Lane in 1963. I don’t know what I was expecting to feel at this point, but probably some huge sense of accomplishment? Or some sadness that a big phase of the marathon is over? I think the problem might be that there’s now so much to come that Survival doesn’t feel as poignant as it once did, and yet not so much to come that the real end of the marathon feels like a million miles off. I think my brain is just delaying all the emotions until I reach The Time of the Doctor in a few weeks…

I mentioned the other day that I’d always found Survival to be the oddest way to bring Doctor Who to a close. It sees the return of the Doctor’s arch enemy, sure, but not a great deal is made of that fact. It just happens to be A.N.Other battle between the pair, and the Doctor comments at the end that the Master will be back again, because he always is. When I first watched it, I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t done something more spectacular - if this was to be the Doctor’s final adventure, possibly ever, then why not go all-out? Do an ‘End Of Season Fourteen’ and say to hell with the budget, really pushing the boundaries as far as you could possibly take them? Of course now, several years on, I’m well aware that it wasn’t actually conceived as being the final story of the programme, and that the fact only became clear later on during production. Seen in that sense, that final speech is lovely, and it’s one I’ve known the words to off by heart for as long as I can remember. Of course I was going to have to quote it here;

DOCTOR

There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, and somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on, Ace, we've got work to do!

All things considered, I think that the Doctor and his companion walking off into the sunset, at the end of an adventure which reaffirms the TARDIS as their ‘home’ is probably the best possible way to leave things. It’s also for the best that this is a relatively simple story of the Doctor vs the Master - because it’s the heart of what the programme has always been; good vs evil. What I’d also not realised before is just how bloody good this story is, so all in all I think we’ve probably done fairly well in the whole ‘final adventure’ stakes!

It seems odd to start an entry by discussing the very end of the episode, but that needed to be gotten out of the way, really. This episode’s position in the overall narrative of Doctor Who makes it something of an elephant in the room that needs to be discussed before we can really get down to the actual content of the story.

Once again, I’ve really enjoyed this final episode, and while it’s not perfect, it’s certainly rocketed right up towards the top of my ‘favourite stories’ list. The tale is so much richer than I’d ever realised before, and I’m certainly going to be revisiting it again in the near future. There’s a very real danger here that I’m just going to end up repeating everything that I’ve been saying in the last couple of days, about the very real setting and the characters who populate it, and the fact that we get a fantastic version of the Master to see Ainley bow out on. Instead, i think it’s only fair that I think about Ace a little bit, considering that (save for Dimensions in Time tomorrow), this is her last story.

I’ve praised the character a fair bit over the time she’s been with us - and I think it’s a testament to the way that she’s developed over her time in the programme that it feels like Ace has been a part of the show for much longer than nine serials. It’s an attempt at character development and an ‘arc’ that the programme hasn’t attempted for a long time - and I’m not entirely sure that it’s ever attempted it on this scale before now. This final season in particular has been wonderful for her, with three of the stories really focussing on her, and making the adventures about her own experiences. I mused the other day that I’d love to listen to all the Big Finish Seventh Doctor plays, and I think that’s doubled for me over the last few days, because I’m sad to see Ace go.

And that, I think, is the heart of why the programme has managed to be so successful again in its final few years. I don’t feel sad to be at the end of the ‘classic’ run, and I won’t be mourning the loss of this stage of the marathon, no matter how much I’ve enjoyed it over all. Instead, I’m sadder to be moving on from our current crop of characters. Doctor Who has been many things over the years, and in these final few it’s managed to recapture some of the spirit that made it brilliant so many times before. A large part of that is entwined with Ace as a character, and I think that’s why I’ll be missing her so much.

I’ve mentioned briefly above that I’ll be watching Dimensions in Time tomorrow, so I think it’s worth filling you in on how the next week is going to play out. I’ve been wondering about the ‘Wilderness Years’ for a while now, and specifically how best to tackle them. Do I read all the New Adventure novels? Or listen to all the Audios? Do I skip them entirely and move on to the TV Movie then on to Rose?

What I’ve decided on is keeping it simple. It doesn’t feel right to go from the Seventh Doctor to the Ninth in the space of three days, but equally, I don’t want to artificially prolong the period to the point that it becomes ridiculous. So, I’ll be doing Dimensions in Time tomorrow - both episodes, but believe me, I considered doing one a day - and then Downtime after that. I spent so long trying to work out the Great Intelligence’s timeline back in Season Five, and I want to see how well it corresponds! Besides, what better way to celebrate reaching the end of the ‘classic’ run than with a return for several much loved characters?

The TV Movie will follow that one, after which I’ll be doing The Curse of Fatal Death. For so long, I’d been sure I’d not be doing that one - it doesn’t feature any of the regular cast, and it’s a parody of the programme… but Steven Moffat has gone on to incorporate so many of the ideas into Doctor Who proper, and I want to refresh my memory of the story before heading off into the 21st century series. Finally, I’ll be doing Scream of the Shalka over the course of three days - two episodes each day, since they’re only short. After that, I’ll be on to the ‘new’ series, just in time for the new year. Perfect!

23 December 2014

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

Day 722: Survival, Episode Two

Dear diary,

‘Master Reveals’ have been the subject of a fair bit of discussion in the last couple of months, largely because of that moment in Dark Water, when we were introduced to the latest incarnation. There’s certainly been enough of them over the years, but I’d guess that the most dramatic have to be the aforementioned Dark Water, plus Utopia, and probably The Deadly Assassin. I’m now thinking that this story might well classify, too. The Master had sort of become a bit of a joke by the time he turned up in The Trial of a Time Lord (you could argue, quite easily, that he’d become a joke long before that, but…). He’d taken to popping up once a year to torment the Doctor, and he’d end up being waved off with a tricky situation. Oh, he’s trapped on prehistoric Earth! Or burnt to death! Ar stuck with the Rani and a growing T-Rex! His plans never used to end well, but when he’s popping up so frequently and losing so often, it does start to become more than a little bit silly.

But we’ve not seen him since the events of The Trial of a Time Lord, and they were two whole seasons ago! It’s the longest gap between Master stories that we’ve had since before The Keeper of Traken, and when the Doctor pulls back the flap of the tent, to reveal his old foe sat there… well, it’s actually terribly exciting! It helps that we’ve not had a proper look at him up to that point, and the difference in his eyes serves to better hide him, too. And then, you’ve got Anthony Ainley playing the part in a way that’s entirely unlike the performance we’re used to receiving from him. Way back when he first played the part properly, in Logopolis, I commented that he even pressed buttons in an over-the-top, pantomime way. There’s none of that on display here, though. He’s toned everything right down, and it’s almost as though he’s giving a real performance. I’ve seen it said that this is the way he’d always wanted to play the part, but was convinced otherwise by John Nathan-Turner. I don’t know how true that statement is, but I’d love to see this version of the Master facing off against Davison or Colin Baker’s Doctors.

I think it also helps that he’s being given much better dialogue here than he has been in the past. There’s not ridiculous technobabble, no over-complicated speeches, and no swallowing of a thesaurus - he’s been written as a desperate man trapped on an alien world, and looking for an escape while he still has a chance. It’s actually making the character scary, and it’s been a long time since that was the case. While I’m at it, I’d love to mention his outfit here, too, because that’s also brilliant! I commented the other day about the programme bringing back so many of its icons before it heads off into cancellation, and it’s lovely to see that they’ve managed to do something different - and brilliant - with the Master before the end.

It’s also somewhat fitting that we’re back in a quarry for the last time in the programme’s original run! They’ve been a staple of the programme for as long as I can remember now (was The Dalek Invasion of Earth the first one? A quarry was being used here as… well, as a quarry, so I think we probably have to move through to The Savages before we hit the ‘Quarry As Alien World’ trope, but they’ve become somewhat ubiquitous in the years since then), and it’s only right, I suppose, that we get to visit one last one. They’ve done a brilliant job with that, too, though! During The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, I said that you could see the through-line from Mindwarp to there in terms of the ‘alien skies’ effects they were applying to location work, and this is yet another stage in that evolution. I think it stands up wonderfully. I suppose in many ways, it all comes back to my comments during Ghost Light that Doctor Who has a team at this point in its history who are able to pull together against the odds and create something really rather special. I’m so glad to see the programme going out on such a high.

22 December 2014

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

Day 721: Survival, Episode One

Dear diary,

I can’t quite believe that I’m actually at Survival. I’ve said plenty of times throughout the course of this marathon that I never expected to actually make it much past The Sensorites Episode Three, but now I’m staring down the final story of the programme’s original run. There’s something really rather exciting about that, and if I’m honest, I’m a little bit proud of myself for actually getting to this point!

And how brilliant that this final story should start out so well! I’ve never really cared all that much for Survival. I don’t mean that I’ve actively disliked it, but my memories of watching it before are that it was ‘okay’, but a bit of a strange way to end the programme*. Therefore, as I’ve moved closer and closer to seeing this one, I’ve been setting up its importance as a milestone for the Diary, but not especially looking forward to it on its own merits. How wrong that may have been!

The first thing to note is just how closely this resembles the 21st century series. I’ve brought that up a few times in the last week or so, but it’s never more prevalent than it is in this one episode. We’re set in ‘modern day’ London, with ordinary people whose worlds just happen to collide with the Doctor and the monsters. There’s a great central mystery in the disappearance of the locals, and there’s even the perfect ‘pre-titles’ sequence, in which the man washing his car gets chased by an un-seen ‘something’ before completely vanishing and leaving us with an empty street. Already, I’m wondering about an edit of this story compressing it down to 45 minutes…

While I’m on the subject of that opening scene, I just want to draw attention to how beautifully directed it is - and that goes for the rest of the episode, too. It was no surprise during the credits to see that this one is directed by Alan ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ Wareing, who was responsible for Ghost Light, too. That shot I’ve mentioned, as the camera pans up and then chases its prey from that height is so simply effective, and it becomes a great visual shorthand for what’s happening. Late in the story, when we watch the same camera move happen while framing Ace in shot, it’s actually scary, because we know just what it’s signifying.

And it’s not just the direction that’s standing out for me in this one - the script itself is wonderful. As I’ve said, it’s far closer in style to the modern series than it is anything else from the ‘classic’ run, and I’d love to see what Rona Munro would do with another story. It seems such a shame that we’ve only got the one story from her. There’s a way that she writes all these characters - including Ace - and makes them instantly real and relatable. Ace has always felt like a more naturalistic character than some of the previous companions did, but it’s a credit to Munro’s skill that she can be so brilliant when placed back in her natural setting. The way she interacts and speaks with people she knows from her old life is lovely, and different from the way she reacts to the Doctor. It means that Sophie Aldred is given more chances to shine, too, which is always welcome.

I’m looking forward ti seeing just how well the story holds up now that more of the action has been shifted away from the benign normality of Perivale, and out onto an alien planet, but it looks like the ‘classic’ run is going to be going out with a bang…

*Truth be told, and I only remembered this last night when talking to Emma; when I first watched Ghost Light, I thought that was the end of the ‘classic’ run. I’d obviously read somewhere that it was the final story to be recorded, and just sort of assumed from there. I think that ended up adding to my general not understanding of that story, because it seemed such an odd note to leave things on! When the time finally came to see this one, there was that lovely final speech, but it still seemed like an odd place to leave the programme - of course, I didn’t know the full behind-the-scenes story at that time, but I’m sure I’ll discuss that more in a few days.

21 December 2014

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

Day 720: Ghost Light, Episode Three

Dear diary,

Watching this episode today, I’m not sure quite how I was left confused by Ghost Light on my first viewing. It does all make sense… but you have to think about it, because there’s a few key pieces that simply aren’t actually said. I think the only thing I’m not entirely sure about is what ‘Light’ actually is. A god? A living embodiment of light? That’s the one bit left puzzling me, and I may have to do another watch of the story again with this particular question in the front of my mind to try and make a decision on it. Not that it’s any hardship to watch again - I’ve enjoyed these three episodes. I think it is a story which you need to be paying attention to, though, so that’s probably where I went wrong before.

Yesterday, I mused that this felt like the show regaining confidence again after the cancellation in the middle of the decade, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that overnight. I worry that I made it sound there like the programme has all of a sudden managed to pull itself up again suddenly, almost four whole seasons on. No, Doctor Who has been getting its confidence back again for some time now - having really lost it, I think, during Season Twenty-Four - and you only have to look at stories like Remembrance of the Daleks to see a programme every bit as good (and sometimes better than) it was in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s. I think what I mean is simply that Ghost Light is a great example of this; you can really see how well everything has been done, from the writing to the design to the direction. Show this to someone who dismisses the last few years of the programme as rubbish, and they’ll struggle to say it comes off any worse than some other areas of the show’s past. What we’re seeing here is a team working together at the height of their ability, and it’s creating a product which could rival the fabled Hinchcliffe years no trouble. It really is a shame that the seasons are so short in this period - because I’d love to see what they could do with a full twenty-six episode run, especially in regards to Ace’s character story.

The more I thought about this, the more I thought about the programme’s position in general. With Doctor Who up to about the hiatus in the mid-1980s, I can tell you when it was on - if not specifically to the minute, then generally. I know that the first eighteen seasons were on Saturday nights from about 5-ish. Then Peter Davison comes along and it switches to twice-weekly in an early evening mid-week slot, bouncing around the various days over the course of three years. Once Colin Baker takes up residence in the TARDIS, we’re back to Saturday nights, at a slightly later time than before. Fine, that’s all the detail I need to have enough context for the show at those stages. I realised, though, that I didn’t know much about how or when the McCoy era was broadcast. Obviously, I knew that it was pitted against Coronation Street at the time - the ratings giant of British TV - but I realised that I didn’t really know what this meant. A quick look at the recently digitised Radio Times archive tells me that it was a little after 7:30 on a Wednesday evening that the programme aired at this point in its life… which isn’t the slot the programme is being made for at all.

I tried explaining this to a friend this morning, and he couldn’t get his head around what I was trying to say. There’s a high likelihood that I was simply doing an appealing job of making my point, but I’ll try again here. The programme in Seasons Twenty-Five and Twenty-Six doesn’t feel like the type of show you’d sit and watch on a Wednesday evening. The tone is all wrong. Now, I don’t think it’s being made for a Saturday evening, either. To me, it feels more like the type of show you’d air on a Sunday, late afternoon. Is this me just being incredibly strange, or do people know what I mean? Please leave a comment to let me know if I’m mad. I’ve often seen it said that the programme did well to survive for three years, sustaining fairly decent ratings considering that it was up against the big ratings hitter, but I think I’m more impressed that it’s managed to survive in this time slot at all, because it doesn’t feel right for the show in general, and the show at this point isn’t right for it!

20 December 2014

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

Day 719: Ghost Light, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Going in to this story, I told myself that I’d steer away from the ‘default’ thing to say about it - that the set design is lovely. It’s something that I’ve trotted out time and time again when the programme is visiting a historical location, and it’s a phrase that I’ve found to be most commonly associated with this story in particular. Indeed, on some DVD feature, somewhere (I’m tempted to say that it’s the look at the proposed Season Twenty-Seven on the DVD for Survival), Andrew Cartmel cites this story as one of the reasons that they’d have continued with lots of Earth-based adventures in the future. It’s hard to not mention the look of this story, though, because it really is beautiful. So yes - one last time for the ‘classic’ series - I’m going to point out what a fantastic job the design departments do when asked to realise a period location.

That entrance hall, for example, with the massive stairwell dominating it, is absolutely stunning - it’s by far the best example of this type of set we’ve ever seen in the programme, and we’ve seen our fair share of ‘country’-style houses over the years (largely in the 1970s…). But beyond that, the spaceship in the basement is rather beautifully realised, too, managing to be simple and somehow just as elegant as all the wood paneling and period detail ‘upstairs’. I loved the spaceship set in Battlefield, too, so I’m wondering if perhaps the programme is just really managing to find its feet again in terms of the ‘look’ for the series.

The gorgeous style in Ghost Light isn’t just confined to the sets, either. Going for the Victorian era means that we’ve got the chance for some lovely Victorian costumes, too. The costumes in Doctor Who often tend to get overlooked when I’m discussing these stories - I often praise (or otherwise) the sets, or the guest cast, or the direction, but the costumes tend to go a little bit unloved by me. This story is probably the perfect time to bring them up, and I love the gorgeous dress that Ace is put in for the remainder of the adventure. I think what works about it is not only how much it suits Sophie Aldred, but how unlike Ace it is. As with the period costume in The Curse of Fenric, it’s a completely different style for the character. At the same time, we’re not abandoning Ace’s past for the sake of a pretty costume - she gets to mess around with clothes before the dress arrives, trying to upset the regular Victorian norms in just the way you’d expect from Ace by now.

I also realised that I’ve never really mentioned the Seventh Doctor’s costume, and he’s been in it for a month or so now! I’m something of a fan of his look - though I prefer the darker jacket that we see in this final year - right down to the jumper! Yes, it’s a bit ridiculous for the Doctor to wander around with question marks all over himself, but it’s almost become enough of an icon in itself as to be quite fashionable in some ways! I think I’d wear one were it given to me (though I’m not sure I’d actually go out and buy it for myself…), and Emma has actually asked for one more than once in the past (Christmas is only a few days away, so she might well have a surprise under the tree this year…).

I’ve little else to actually add to this entry in terms of the story itself, because I’m still piecing everything together as the episode plays out. It doesn’t seem to be as complex as I remember it being, which is probably a good thing, and I’m hoping that it all hangs together in the end because I’m still rather enjoying it! There’s a sense that Ghost Light may be a story where - when you understand everything that’s going on - you can just stick on the TV and watch for the sheer brilliance of how everything gels together. This is Doctor Who being made with a confidence that we’ve rarely seen since the hiatus knocked it for six a few seasons ago, and it’s really rather nice…

19 December 2014

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

Day 718: Ghost Light, Episode One

Dear diary,

Ghost Light has something of a reputation for being the most confusing Doctor Who story ever made. I’ve only seen it the once before, and I have to confess that - yes - I was left confused by it. I think it was largely because when I saw it for the first time, I didn’t realise that there were any three-part stories, and so I wondered where the rest of it was on the DVD, and also because I was watching with a friend who really didn’t ‘get’ Doctor Who at all, so I was having to answer lots of his questions about all manner of other things, which probably distracted my attention during a few crucial moments. The sad thing is, though, that it means my memories of the story are tainted, and I’ve never had a desire to watch it again because my mind automatically associates it with being confusing and not one I particularly enjoy. I understand the concepts at the heart of the story, though, so I’m hoping that I’ll be better poised to go along with it this time around…

I’m certainly finding it easier to follow today, but then this first episode is largely about setting up the mysteries and introducing us to all the various characters for the rest of the story. All the same, I think it’s the type of tale which benefits from a second viewing, because I’m watching today largely aware of who everyone is, which means that I can focus more energy into enjoying the rest of the episode. There’s still one or two questions hovering around my head, but I’ll hold off on them for now and see if they’re dealt with in the upcoming episodes.

Something that I’m really revelling in throughout this episode is the Doctor’s Dialogue.. Three of my favourite pieces of Seventh Doctor dialogue all come from this episode (I knew they were all in this story, but didn’t realise that they came so close together); namely, the description of why someone might not like him, the list of things that he despises, and of course;

DOCTOR

We all have a universe of our own terrors to face.

In much the same way that Pertwee’s Doctor got the speech about courage, this is another one of those lines which so completely sums up the Doctor, and I’m surprised that I don’t hear it quoted in fandom more often.

I’m also surprised to find just how much this story is about the Doctor pushing Ace to confront her fears. I’ve mentioned in the past that the line between what actually gets stated (or strongly implied) on screen, and what was added to their relationship later on in the novels and within fandom, has often been a little blurry for me. In the past, I’ve always assumed that the Doctor had brought Ace to this house simply to confront her demons, and that we’d retroactively made it part of his ‘tests’ for her. Actually, though, it’s explicitly laid out as a kind of ‘initiation test’ for Ace, and I think I rather like that. It feels again - and I’m well aware that I’m saying this about once a week at the moment - like the relationship between the Doctor and Ace has moved on once more, and I really can’t help but feel that the time between adventures is much longer for this pair than perhaps any other in there programme’s history. I don’t know what kind of time frame I’d put on this one, but it doesn’t feel like the events of Battlefield were recent - something about their relationship just feels so much different here.

It’s definitely the harshest that we’ve ever seen the Doctor be towards Ace, and the discussion they share towards the end of the episode about her history with this house is a lovely chance for a great Doctor/Companion pairing to shine opposite each other. It’s an idea that’s always fascinated me - that Ace knows this house in 1983, long after its prime, and yet she’s been taken back in time now to become an intrinsic part of the building’s story a hundred years earlier, and tied in to the ‘evil’ that she felt there before. I’ve always loved the idea that building’s can have such long lives, and can experience so much over the years, and seeing images of old buildings in years gone by is the kind of thing which fascinates me. I know the lines get a little blurred later on in the story with some sirens, but it’s almost a shame that we don’t get to see this house in the dilapidated state that Ace did, because it’s exactly the kind of thing that would set my imagination on fire.

That said, the descriptions we’re getting of the place so far are lovely, and a great chance for Sophie Aldred to show us her acting skills. Ace has been with us for a while now, and while I’ve praised the way that the character works with the Doctor, I don’t think I’ve ever really made mention of Aldred herself. I think it’s to her testament that I was so able to buy her as a sixteen-year-old in Dragonfire, and yet feel as though I’ve watched her grow up as the stories have rolled by. She’s giving a lot of thought to the way that Ace works, and I think she’s largely been well-served by a production team who are paying more attention to the way the companion’s story is told than at any point in the last decade. It’s so nice (and also a massive shame) to see the programme going out with such a strong team, both in front of and behind the cameras, and Aldred is a massive part of that. 

18 December 2014

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

Day 717: Battlefield, Episode Four

Dear diary,

I’ve decided that in my own ‘head canon’, it’s the Eleventh Doctor who gets caught up in all the events over in Morgaine’s dimension, and has the adventures as ‘Merlin’. This episode, with the note left to the earlier Doctor, managed to feel again like a Steven Moffat idea, so it seems quite fitting that one of his Doctor’s should be worked in somewhere. Plus, there’s a sense of fun about this story which I think the Eleventh Doctor could fit in to quite well!

I’ve continued to enjoy this one, and it really is much to my surprise. I wasn’t expecting to outright hate Battlefield, but I certainly thought that it would come out as the weakest part of this season. I’m really pleased that one final time before the ‘classic’ series is out, it can manage to surprise me in this way, because it’s times like this that doing the marathon of every episode in order really comes in to its own. I’ll be looking back on Battlefield as one of my favourites, which isn’t a title that I’d have given it even a few days ago!

You can’t talk about this story without mentioning the fact that it was to originally feature the Brigadier’s death - giving his life to defeat the Destroyer. I’ve never been sure if I like the idea or not. On the one hand, I’m keen on the Brigadier being given a final send off in that way, but on the other, I like that he can return home again at the end of the adventure, and that he can go on to have a few more adventures before he finally does meet his demise. There’s something really wonderful about the way that he takes charge of the situation here, by knocking out the Doctor and putting his own life on the line. It’s just so perfectly true to their relationship that we’ve watched grow over the years, and its one of the Brigadier’s finest hours.

On the subject of which, I think that the Destroyer may be the ‘classic’ run’s finest hour when it comes to prosthetic monster costumes. Let’s be honest - it’s a gorgeous design (in a sort of hideous way…), and it’s been realised so well. Certainly, it makes some of the other creatures we’ve had over the years look especially poor! I touched on this subject briefly during The Curse of Fenric while heaping some praise on to the Haemovores, too, but even then I’d forgotten just how well done this creature was. I’d never even noticed the way that he drools while breaking free of his chains, and it’s a pity that the creature isn’t on display anywhere - does anyone know if it still survives somewhere?

I’ve got so many other notes about things I could say in regards to this story, but I don’t want to bring up every little thing that I’ve written down and not mentioned in the last few days, so I’ll just focus quickly on the big one that I’ve been writing down over and over without finding a chance to bring it up in one of these entries. The design of the spaceship - both in terms of the model exterior, and the full-scale interior - is fantastic, and it look rather good whenever we get a good look at it. I don’t really have anything else to add on that point, but I wanted to mention it somewhere before I move on to the next tale!

17 December 2014

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

Day 716: Battlefield, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I really do love it when a story comes along that I’m not really expecting a great deal from, and then I end up absolutely loving it. Battlefield is one of those stories. As the closing credits kicked in on today’s episode, I declared to the empty room that this is brilliant, and that I’m really - really - liking it. Oh, I’ve still not really forgiven that nonsense in the first episode about no one having the faintest clue about the Doctor, and opening the season with a shot of a garden centre is unforgivable (even if that wasn’t the original plan), but there’s an awful lot to enjoy about this one.

And I keep coming back to the fact that I know I’d have loved this as a kid. The more the story goes on, the more I’m watching it with the mind of an excited child as opposed to a ‘grown up’ fan. During the first episode, I thought that Bambera was rubbish - with far too much comedy for the character she’s supposed to be. Now, though, I’m actively embracing the comedy, and it’s a shame that we only ever get to see her this once! I’ve often mourned the lack of a consistent ‘UNIT family’ outside of the Pertwee years (which is why occasional returns for characters such as Magambo between Turn Left and Planet of the Dead, or the team headed up by Kate Stewart in the more recent episodes really appeal to me), and I’d quite like to see how one would have been handled in the early 1990s, with Bambera as the head of the organisation, and our faithful Lethbridge-Stewart cropping up from time-to-time to lend a hand.

Oh, and I have to mention him here, don’t I? There’s something quite bold about not having the Doctor and the Brigadier meet until this third episode, but the actual greeting is rather well handled when it does arrive; ‘who else would it be’ is absolutely perfect for the Brig we know and love. He settles in with the Seventh Doctor pretty much instantly, and they continued to amuse me as a pairing throughout the rest of the episode. I commented the other day about the programme bringing back as many of its icons as possible before the end, but I’m terribly glad that they got the Brig back for this one - his final appearance in Doctor Who proper (he’ll be cropping up for Dimensions in Time in a couple of weeks, and then for a Sarah Jane Adventures story later on, which I’ll certainly be watching, even if I don’t write about it in the Diary).

While we’re on the subject of bringing back old companions, I’d better make mention of Jean Marsh, too. In the special features on this DVD, Jean goes into quite a lot of depth about the way that she saw her character, and how she chose to play it based on the material she was given… you sort of get the impression that she’s giving it quite a lot more thought than perhaps anyone else. That said, I’m glad I listened to her opinions on the part last night, because it means I’ve been watching her performance in today’s episode with a slightly different view. She really is giving all she can to the character, and it’s coming off the better for it. Marsh talks at some length about the way that she thinks nothing of killing someone, but then restores the sight of a blind woman, and it’s really beautifully done in this episode; I’d sort of forgotten just how close together the two acts are, as part of the same scene.

Not all the credit can be given over to Ms Marsh, though, because a lot needs to be laid at the door of Ben Aaronovitch, who’s back on writing duties this time around. I was very impressed with his script for Remembrance of the Daleks last season, and he’s managed to bring the same skill in to this story. He’s managed to balance the comedy and the drama particularly well, and once again slipped in several continuity references to the past without them feeling overbearing or shoehorned in. It’s a pity that this is the last script we’ll be seeing from him in the programme - I’d have loved to see what he’d do in the early days of the 21st century series.

One final thing to bring up - Sylvester McCoy. During The Happiness Patrol last week, I seemed almost surprised by the fact that he was rather good in the part - having been so unsure about him during those first few stories. The one thing that’s always troubled me about McCoy’s performance, though, is when he’s asked to do something big, and angry. There’s a few sequences that stand out in my mind (notably from Survival), which I recall as not being very good, because he simply couldn’t handle such ‘big’ moments. But then you’ve got this episode, in which he runs in to the middle of a battlefield and bellows at the combatants… and it’s wonderful. It’s one of his greatest moments as the Doctor, and it’s really won me round on his ‘angry’ acting. I’m just hoping now that I’m mis-remembering the scenes from Survival, and they they won’t be tainting this one in the near future… 

16 December 2014

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

Day 715: Battlefield, Episode Two

Dear diary,

I’m almost surprising myself when I say that this one is really good! Yesterday, I mentioned that Battlefield didn’t have the strongest reputation behind it, and I’d sort of resigned myself to thinking that it would probably be the weak link in Season Twenty-Six, but actually, I’m really caught up in things, and I’m really enjoying it!

In many ways, this feels a lot like a Matt Smith episode. There’s strange goings on with time, with the suggestion that a large chunk of the guest cast have encountered the Doctor at a point later in his time stream than he is currently, a lot of bluster on the part of the Doctor as he tries to remain in charge while piecing everything together, and lots of little moments that wouldn’t feel at all out of place in a more recent Steven Moffat episode. The Doctor looking down at the mysterious inscription in the ground and commenting that it says ‘dig hole here’ in his own handwriting elicited a huge laugh from me, and I love him working out how to open a door inside the space ship simply by barking ‘open up, it’s me’. It’s giving McCoy a chance to flex his more ‘entertainment’ muscles again, too, which is always fun.

Even the mythologising of the Doctor that we get in this story seems to fit better with the depiction of the Doctor in the 21st century version of the programme. Oh, sure, there’s been elements of it right the way through the programme, going right back to almost the very beginning, but there’s some lovely descriptions of the Doctor here - that he ‘rides the ship of time’ and that he has ‘worn many faces’ - which would sit right at home in the modern programme, and are really rather lovely. It often gets said that the McCoy years are very much a basis that the 2005 rival picks up from, and I’m seeing that more and more as the episodes roll by. Add in the on-going character arcs for Ace and the Doctor, the relationships with the companions’ family (this was perhaps more prevalent with Tegan, but there a new relative just popped up when they needed to put someone in danger), and the fact that the programme has become far more Earth-centric in this final season - there’s a solitary alien world in Survival, but even that’s tied to Perivale - I can really see where the comparisons come from.

Aside from all of that, there’s also the sheer fun of the idea at the heart of this one. It’s Doctor Who does the Arthurian legends… and being Doctor Who, they can’t just go for setting it in a time of myths and magic, but they instead make the knights dimension-hopping soldiers who’ve been caught up in a time-travel based plot with a future version of the Doctor, and they pit them against UNIT. I mean, come on, that’s a brilliant Idea, and it really is something I’d have loved as a kid. I was so completely in to castles and knights, and wizards… give them laser guns and point them towards a nuclear convoy, and it only gets better!

15 December 2014

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

Day 714: Battlefield, Episode One

Dear diary,

I’ve never noticed before just how neatly the final two seasons of the ‘classic’ run bring back all of the programme’s icons for one last outing before the end. Of course, the Daleks and the Cybermen turn up in Season Twenty-Five (they had to, somewhere in this era), but then you’ve got the return of the Brigadier here for the first time since The Five Doctors, UNIT back for the first time - really - since The Seeds of Doom, even Bessie is back out of mothballs, and the Master will put in an appearance before the year is out, having become such a regular part of the show for a few seasons before taking some time out.

Sadly, the appearance of Nicholas Courtney here as the Brigadier doesn’t quite have the same impact it did when he turned up in Mawdryn Undead, and it may all be down to the way that he’s introduced to us. In that story, we’ve watched two boys crash an antique car, and witnessed deals with the ‘devil’ before a figure turns around and it’s the Brigadier that we’ve not seen for ages. This time around we meet him - indeed, we join the entire story - in a garden centre. Where we then get some quite forced in dialogue to remind us who he is. Oh dear. I think the fact that the seasons have been so short lately means that even though it’s been six years since we last saw him (in The Five Doctors), it’s not been all that long for me. Between Terror of the Zygons and Mawdryn Undead, there were loads of adventures for the Doctor and his companions. This time around, it just doesn’t feel like that long since the Brig was last in the show (it’s not that long - he was in Silver Nemesis last season!)

I’ve also got major issues with the way that the Doctor is being dealt with here, which I’ve never actually noticed before. When he arrives at UNIT early on, Brigadier Bambara doesn’t have a clue who he is (even allowing for the change of face), and has to be told by one of her officers who served under Lethbridge-Stewart (when he was about eight years old, by the look of him!) that there was a man called the Doctor, who had occasionally changed his face. He goes on to say that the rumour was that he changed everything about himself, as if he’s not entirely sure. I can almost buy that the Doctor’s involvement with UNIT is so top secret that he’s effectively been struck from the official records, and the cases that relate to him have been conveniently ‘lost’, perhaps, so Bambera - even as head of UNIT in the UK - may not know all the precise details about him… but if there’s people still serving with UNIT at this point who were around when the Doctor was, then surely she’d have at least heard of him? A scientific adviser who used to work for them, was friends (sometimes) with their head of operations, and changed appearance from time to time? Even if the official story is that different people took over the role under the codename of ‘the Doctor’, there’s clearly rumours about this shape-shifting scientific advisor - because Zbrigniev knows about it! Can you tell, this wound me up a little while watching…

Oh, but it’s nothing compared to a few scenes later, when Geneva phones for the Brigadier. There’s something quite lovely about the idea that the Brig doesn’t care who it is on the phone, he’s retired and he’s doing his gardening. There’s also something really lovely about the fact that as soon as the Doctor is mentioned, he’ll drop everything to be there. It’s a beautiful kind of loyalty to the man, and it works really nicely. But then the Brigadier’s wife has to ask who the Doctor is?!?! I’ll accept that they’ve possibly not been married for long - although Doris was mentioned back in the day, she certainly didn’t seem to be on the scene when we last caught up with the Brigadier in 1983 (and I’m sure I’ll need to touch on the dating of this story at some point in the next couple of days…) - but good grief! She knows about his soldier days to some extent, because she brings it up at the garden centre, and the Brig can make a joke about Sergeant Benton, and yet he’s never told her about the Doctor? Really?

I’m willing to suspend my belief pretty far when watching Doctor Who - it’s a programme about an alien who travels through time in a phone box, after all - but this pushes me just that bit too far. It doesn’t feel consistent within the show’s own continuity that the Brigadier wouldn’t have brought this man up at all over the years, considering how close they were during lots of the Pertwee era, and it feels wrong that UNIT don’t even remember who he is, either. It’s convenient for story reasons, to build up a little bit of mystery around the character, which fits in well with the themes of the programme at the moment, but it took me right out of the narrative on more than one occasion.

All that said, I’ve still somehow managed to rather enjoy this one. Battlefield is a story I first watched on VHS years ago, and I don’t really have any strong feelings one way or the other about it. Over the years, it’s managed to build up a bit of a poor reputation, but I don’t particularly recall not liking it. I’m sure I’ll be going in to more detail over the next few days about where things work for me, but I’m hoping that now everyone’s up to speed with who the Doctor is, I can stop worrying a bit, and just enjoy the action… 

14 December 2014

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

Day 713: The Curse of Fenric, Episode Four

Dear diary,

The cliffhanger to yesterday’s episode, leading in to this one, must surely rank among the very best that the programme has ever done? It’s so firmly embedded on to my mind that I can’t help but quote along as it plays out - right down the the intonation of each word. It’s also quite telling that the use of the words ‘Time Lord’ here carry real impact. We’re in a period of the show where there’ve been several references to the Time Lords and Gallifrey quite vital to the stories (Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis both go so far as to namecheck Rassilon and Omega, while inventing new parts of the Gallifreyan mythos), and yet somehow, the whole concept of the Time lords feels more distant than at any time since - quite possibly - the 1960s.

By the time Pertwee’s Doctor arrives on the scene, the Time Lords are always sending him off on missions, and they begin to lose some of their grandeur. Once you’re into the late 1970s, you’ve got the likes of The Deadly Assassin letting us actively in to their world, and then The Invasion of Time littering it with cheap plastic furniture. I’ve mentioned enough times in the last six months how much I dislike the 1980s version of the society, with its marble effect and pastel colours, but suddenly here it’s become something rather special again.

Our last actual contact with another Time Lord was the Rani at the start of Season Twenty-Four (and it’s strange how long ago that feels now - the programme really does evolve in to a different beast in these final two years), and then the season before that was littered with Time Lords, but we never get to visit Gallifrey because it’s in political turmoil. Suddenly, the idea that this entity knows that the Doctor is a Time Lord and can make the word sound so sinister - in a story where you’re so not expecting to hear it - is wonderful, and it might just be my favourite part of the entire story. I can wholeheartedly guarantee that I’ll have watched the closing moments of Episode Three several times over before I next watch The Curse of Fenric in its entirety.

Add to all this the fact that Fenric is really rather good, thank you very much. I love it when villains in Doctor Who are given a vein of comedy, and Dinsdale Landen plays the possessed Judson so perfectly. He manages to make the performance camp, but without pushing it too far. I love the way he reacts to the Ancient One not being around ready for his revival, and I’ve more than once used the line ‘don’t interrupt me when I’m eulogising’. Frankly, I find excuses to slip it in to my day-to-day life. I think the only issue that I have with Fenric is that he’s defeated very easily, isn’t he? We’ve had three episodes building up to his release, with the stakes (and the stress) growing steadily across those episodes. We then find out that he’s been manipulating other recent events in the Doctor’s life - citing the chess set in Lady Peinforte’s study and Ace’s arrival on Ice World as examples. He’s supposedly this great cosmic force, evil since the dawn of time… and yet he struggles very much with a chess problem until Ace gives him the answer, then he grandstands for a bit before being wiped out with a deadly poison. It feels as though he should be a bit more of a problem to dispose of…

Which brings up a point that I’ve been musing a bit in the last couple of weeks. As I’m making my way through the McCoy years, I’m becoming ever more determined to listen to all of the Seventh Doctor’s audio adventures. Don’t worry - I’m not suddenly going to be dropping them in to this marathon and extending it out by another year, but I’m certainly more eager than ever before to hear them all. I’ve dipped in and out of them from time to time, but I’d love to follow the continuing story, because it very much builds on what we see on screen in this period of the programme. I know, for example, that Fenric shows up again at one stage, and I’ve head an episode in which the Doctor and Ace manage to check in on little Audrey; there’s something very appealing about the idea of hearing this story continue to play out, and I think it’s probably going to be my next ‘marathon’ undertaking once this whole watch-through is over in a few months.

13 December 2014

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

Day 712: The Curse of Fenric, Episode Three

Dear diary,

Once upon a time, when I was living in my flat in Norwich, I used to have a shelf of Doctor Who action figures up in the living room. Each Doctor - from Hartnell to Smith at the time - was accompanied by an enemy from their era. Hartnell had a Dalek, Troughton had an *Invasion*-style Cyberman, Pertwee had a Sea Devil (and/or the Master, depending on my mood), Tom Baker had the K1 Robot, Davison had the Ainley Master (or, as Nick likes to point out, Kameleon), Colin Baker had an Earthshock-era Cyberman, and McCoy had two Haemovores. Now, Character Options have never produced any Haemovore figures, but I had a friend who made some really great custom models to suit the range, and when I saw that he was selling off a few of the vampiric creatures, I leapt at the chance to own them. Specifically, it was the couple that we see peering round the tombstone here - presumably the Sundviks? 

I love the design of the Haemovores, and I really think that they’re a great example of just how brilliant the monster design is in this season. In the next story we’ve got the Destroyer coming up - which is another fab design that I’m surprised hasn’t yet been immortalised in action figure form - but the Haemovores really made an impact on me early into my journey to becoming a *Doctor Who* fan. Regular readers will no doubt be surprised that they were etched on the my mind while reading Doctor Who: The Legend, and every time I come back to this story, I’m a little bit delighted to find that I’m loving the look all over again. That we get to see them besieging the church is just a bonus, really!

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been complaining that even though I knew where The Curse of Fenric was heading, it had completely lost me along the way. There’s been so much going on in this story, and it was all happening so quickly, that I’d completely failed to keep up with everything. Suddenly, today, I’ve realised why I’ve struggled so much - you’re not really supposed to understand what’s happening here. All the stuff with the Russians, and the vampires, and the evil fog… that’s all just to keep you interested and watching for two-and-a-half episodes, before you’re suddenly given some information about what’s happening at the same time as Ace. Quite how I’d managed to forget this beautiful exchange is beyond me;

ACE

You know what's going on, don't you? 

DOCTOR

Yes. 

ACE

You always know. You just can't be bothered to tell anyone. It's like it's some kind of game, and only you know the rules. You knew all about that inscription being a computer programme, but you didn't tell me. You know all about that old bottle, and you're not telling me. Am I so stupid? 

DOCTOR

No, that's not it. 

ACE

Why then? I want to know. 

DOCTOR

Evil. Evil since the dawn of time. 

ACE

What do you mean? 

DOCTOR

Will you stop asking me these questions? 

ACE

Tell me!

It’s the kind of scene that we’ve been needing to build towards for some time now with this pair - Ace has been caught up in the Doctor’s schemes since her second story, and while that’s not all that long ago at a time when the seasons are so short, it’s felt like a real through-arc building up to this. It’s taking that final scene from Silver Nemesis, and building on it before we move on to Ghost Light and seeing the Doctor push his companion into ever darker places.

And it’s something I’ve mentioned before, but you really do get the sense that Ace is growing up during her adventures. I’ve said elsewhere that I’d happily believe the pair of them have spent around two years beetling around the galaxies by this point, and I think all of Ace’s comments here in regards to not being a little girl any more and starting to change her mind about marriage and her future would certainly fit her at about eighteen years old. Yes, we all cringe a little bit during that flirting scene (‘faster than the second hands on a watch?’), but it’s another part of Ace’s evolution that feels right to be shown.

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