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27 March 2015

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

Day 816: Let’s Kill Hitler

Dear diary,

In principle, I think I quite like the idea of splitting a season of Doctor Who into halves. As much as I love having an uninterrupted three month run of the programme (and, it has to be said, returning to that format for Series Eight last year felt wonderful), I can’t help but agree with the argument Steven Moffat made when the split was first announced - that you’re never more than three months away from some new episodes of Doctor Who coming on the telly! Of course, that’s not quite how it worked out in practice (we went on to have a huge break for nine months after the Christmas Special), but in theory, I’m quite keen on the idea.

That said, I still maintain that the first half would have been better had it ended with the reveal that Amy was a Flesh duplicate, and with the Doctor and Rory heading off to find her. Something just doesn’t quite sit right about the fact that A Good Man Goes to War concludes with the Doctor confidently saying that he knows where to find Melody, and then this episode opening with the admission that it’s been several months and he’s still had no luck in tracking her down. Now, I could be generous and say that he’s not actually been trying to find Melody, because he knows that they’ll all bump into her again at some point in the very near future, but that’s not really how it’s presented on screen here.

Oh, but this episode is mental, isn’t it? I mean, there’s so much being thrown at the script that I really don’t quite know where to look. We’ve got a trip to Berlin to meet Hitler, which would be enough for a fair number of stories, but on top of that there’s a shape changing alien justice machine which is operated by the Numbskulls, a half-human-half-Time-Lord hybrid who regenerates into a character we’ve known for several years, the Doctor’s ‘death’, cameos from Rose, Martha, Donna, and Amelia… and all packed into 45 minutes! There were points where I simply didn’t know what was going on, and while it was interesting enough for me to simply go along with, I have to admit that I came out of this episode feeling a little off. I think it was generally a feeling of simply not knowing what I’d just watched…

One thing I can confidently say about it, though, is just how nicely directed it all is. This is the first (and, sadly, only) outing for director Richard Senior on Doctor Who. Even more impressive, it was pointed out to me today that this was the first full television episode of anything that Senior directed! And it’s brilliant! There’s so many really clever transitions (chief among them being the change from a toy TARDIS being thrown onto a bed to the real thing crashing through the skies of Berlin), and some beautiful shots. It’s something of a crime that he’s not come back to the programme, because he’s very quickly notched up towards to top of my ‘favourite Doctor Who directors list…

It’s been a little while since I’ve given you any of my own pet theories, but today’s episode is the perfect opportunity for another one. This one has been superseded by the programme itself (in this very episode, in fact), but it’s something I was quite keen on at the time. River Song. Oh, there were so many theories flying around about her true identity. It always seemed most likely that she was the Doctor’s wife (though, as she herself says in the Angels two-parter, wit the Doctor it’s never that simple), but there were so many other theories floating about. Was she the Doctor’s mum? Susan? Susan’s mum? A future incarnation? A female Master? The Rani?

My own theory was that River Song was simply… well, River Song. Not some old character with a new face, but the Doctor’s biggest fan. She’d dedicated her life to researching the Doctor’s adventures through the history books, and that one day we’d see her younger than ever before, stood in front of a class, giving a lecture about the Doctor and the blue box he travels in. Suddenly, from the back of the room a voice would pipe up; ‘hat’s not quite how it happened…’, and it would be the Doctor himself! Leaning against a pillar, and ready to invite River aboard the TARDIS because he needs her for something.

That wasn’t my favourite bit of the thinking though. I had a theory for how she would go on to become ‘the woman who killed the Doctor’. When Smith’s final episode rolled around, they would be facing down the biggest threat that they’d ever faced. Heck, it could have even been the siege of Trenzalore in retrospect. Either way, they’re there, and the Doctor is woefully out of his depth. He simply doesn’t have what it takes to save the day. ‘I’m sorry,’ River tells him, ‘but you’re not the Doctor I need right now. Your next incarnation would have the strength…’… at which point, she shoots him! A new Doctor born in the terror of the moment, and with the personality to do whatever it was that the Eleventh Doctor couldn’t. She would kill him simply to get to his next incarnation. Okay, it sounds a bit silly when I type it all out on here, but for a few months in my head, I loved that idea. As much as I enjoy now knowing more about River’s story, and being able to piece together her timeline (my own attempt at that can be found HERE, by the way), I do miss the days when it was all still a mystery, and I was able to invent my own River story in my own head…


26 March 2015

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

Day 815: A Good Man Goes to War

Dear diary,

First thing’s first: I seem to be bringing it up over and over again at the moment, but the opening hooks to episodes this series are very strong, aren’t they? Today’s might be the crowning glory, though, with Rory turning up to question a fleet of Cybermen, while the Doctor blows them up in the background to underline the point. Brilliant!

This is a brave episode, isn’t it? In terms of being an episode of Doctor Who that’s billed as something of a ‘season finale’, there’s some very brave choices made here. Outside of the ‘previously’ clips, we don't see so much as a silhouette of the Doctor for the first tele minutes, and he doesn’t appear in person for over a quarter of an hour. That’s a third of the entire running time! That entire first act of the story is used to set everything up, move all the characters into the right places, and prepare us for the story to come. And yet, somehow, it never feels like they’ve had to rush everything else to accommodate a fifteen minute set up period - it’s all perfectly natural as a part of the narrative.

However. While I’m on the subject of narrative, this is the perfect time to return to my major bug-bear of Series Six - all the arcs and ‘mythology’ stuff. It simply doesn’t sit right with me, and I think it’s all to do with the format of the season. Having a three month gap between halves of the series was an interesting experiment (and one which I think worked much better with Series Seven), but it forces this episode to be a kind of finale, when things really aren’t ready for such a story. For all I’ve praised the cliffhanger to yesterday’s episode, it does come a little bit out of nowhere. The Doctor realises that there’s something wrong with Amy at the end of Day of the Moon, and we get a few glimpses of him looking at the scanner screen and her alternating pregnancy test, but until we reach the end of the Flesh two-parter, there’s no real indication that the Doctor is pricing things together and starting to track down everything that’s happening.

It feels like this would have been the perfect time for the Doctor to get those cryptic hints that people so love to drop around him, slowly putting together a picture across the entire season that there’s something wrong with Amy, hitting that two-parter right before the big finale at the end of the run. As it is, he seems to drop it for a bit and then announces that he’s worked out what’s going on, and where to find Amy. That was easy! There’s a great concept for an arc in here, but it’s just not been given the right space to develop, because the format of Series Six has forced it into an odd shape. Perhaps it would work better if the first half of the series ended with the reveal that Amy is a Ganger, before the Doctor and Rory go off looking for her during the ‘break’ in between halves?

Overall, though, I think my favourite idea in this episode has to be the way that the Doctor goes around ‘collecting’ people to build an army. It feels like a natural step for the Doctor - after Davros made him so aware of the way he uses people during The Stolen Earth - that he should decide to use these people when he needs to. I think this sequence is also home to my biggest regret from the entire Eleventh Doctor Era: I think I’m right in saying that Captain jack was originally to be among the people the Doctor called upon, but filming on the fourth series of Torchwood prevented John Barrowman from appearing. In some ways it might have felt odd to have Jack hanging around from a previous ‘era’, but equally, I’d have loved to see him with the new Doctor!

It’s also somewhat strange to think that this is the first appearance of the Paternoster Gang, and that actually they’re not even that yet, but just several different characters created for a one-off appearance in this episode. They didn’t make a reappearance in the programme for another 18 months (though it’s going to be little over a week from my point of view in this marathon), but they so quickly established themselves as simply being a part of this era, that it’s odd to see them here so far into Smith’s tenure as still only half-formed! I capped today’s episode off with the Two Days Later mini episode which explains how Strax manages to ‘die’ on Demon’s Run before accompanying Vastra and Jenny back to London, and it has to be said you can really see the difference in the personalities between this episode and the later reappearance… but I can’t help but love them all the same!


25 March 2015

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

Day 814: The Almost People

Dear diary,

Yesterday, I praised Matthew Graham’s ability to create a very ‘real’ world, and to populate it with character who felt true to life. We’re given lots of lovely little moments and comments which can feel like nothing, but all add to the overall texture of this story, and make the characters and the situation all the richer. That trend continues through into today’s episode, and you realise just how important all of that is, because it helps to strengthen the battle at the heart of the story - the dislike for the unlike, while also having the trouble of that ‘unlike’ being so incredibly close to home.

Something that I’m finding a bit distracting lately is waiting for moments that I know are coming. Because I’ve not seen any of these episodes since their initial broadcast, I can vaguely recall a few key bits and pieces, but not everything. More and more, I’m finding myself just waiting for these things, and that’s sort of distracting me from enjoying the episodes as much as I should. I spent most of yesterday and much of today, for example, waiting for Jennifer to turn into the giant Flesh monster which only turns up at the climax of today’s episode, and that’s had a detrimental effect on all of her scenes throughout the story - because I keep wondering when she’s going to turn into a monster.

It’s also been the case today with the two Doctors. I knew that they’d swapped shoes, but kept waiting for the moment when they revealed this. In my mind, it was almost as soon as they’d done it, and was presented in the form of ‘how do you know which of us is which? We could have swapped our shoes’ leaving some confusion even to the viewer as to which Doctor was the ‘real’ version and which was his Ganger duplicate? I certainly remember some speculation at the time that the real Doctor is the one who got left behind here (even though we see the Ganger version dissolve), meaning that the Ganger went off to face the death at Lake Silencio… Once again, it just proved a little distracting to me, and I’m hoping I can kick this habit before long and just get back to enjoying the episodes ‘as new’ again - it’s only something that’s started happening in the last week or two.

Still, in spite of that, knowing the ending to this episode doesn’t do anything to weaken its impact. Back in the TARDIS, safe and sound… and then it turns out that Amy is a Ganger, too! Not only that, but she’s been a Ganger for the majority of this season (the Doctor suggests that she was taken just before ‘America’, but it was terribly clear, watching that two-parter back, that she was taken during the three months between episodes). As cliff-hangers go, it’s not bad, is it? I’m not entirely sure it all feels right yet (I’m sure I’ll touch on this more tomorrow, once this line of plot has been resolved), but it certainly made for an interesting and unexpected development!


24 March 2015

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

Day 813: The Rebel Flesh

Dear diary,

The other day, I was banging on about the Eleventh Doctor, as I think of him, as finding ‘glee in the threat of the adventure. [Getting] things wrong. He quips. He twirls, and dances, and is generally quite frenetic.’ When I think back on the Eleventh Doctor’s tenure, that’s specifically the image of him I have in mind. From time to time, I find myself moving in ways that tele entirely ‘Eleventh Doctor’, without even really thinking about it. It’s always interesting, then, when we get to see a different side to the man. There’s plenty of the twirling and dancing in this episode, but we really get to see just how much of an act it all is. When the Doctor slips off on his own to investigate the Flesh and to gather the information that he’s after, he’s almost completely different. He’s cool, and collected. He’s on a mission, and he’s simply focussed on getting it done. At times, there’s something almost scary about the Eleventh Doctor we see creeping to the surface here, and it’s all because that facade we’ve been so used to has started to chip away. I’d forgotten that he came to this spot specifically to investigate the Flesh, but it adds another interesting dimension to the proceedings.

First time around, this story made very little impact on me. I can recall both episodes ending, and then wandering off afterwards and more-or-less completely forgetting everything about them (well, mostly. A few months later I attended a wedding held in the main castle location for this story - several of the rooms were used for the reception - and found myself telling anyone who’d listen that the Bride was probably a flesh duplicate. It didn’t go down all that well, if I’m honest.

Actually, though, there’s quite a lot to like about this one. Very quickly, you get a sense of the world this story is set in, and I’m buying into the characters very quickly. Matthew Graham isn’t always considered the strongest Doctor Who writer ever, but he’s done a very good job here of setting up the world and the characters largely via the dialogue and leaving me with a sense that it’s all fully formed.

The real beauty of the situation is that you can see both sides of the argument. I can appreciate why it’s so troubling to the humans to have their Ganger duplicates suddenly up and running around (and trying to kill them), but at the same time I can see how the Gangers are technically just as ‘real’ as the humans that spawned them, and why they have to fight for their lives. It also ties in quite nicely to another aspect of the Eleventh Doctor - he’s the negotiator. A bringer of peace. He set up negotiations between humanity and the Silurians last season, and he’s trying to find inroads to doing a similar thing between humans and Gangers here, too. I’m not sure entirely why, but it suits this Doctor to be the man who’s trying to unite different species… 


23 March 2015

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

Day 812: The Doctor’s Wife

Dear diary,

A few years ago, in a Doctor Who Magazine poll, the Fifth Doctor’s swan-song *The Caves of Androzani was voted to be the best Doctor Who story ever made. In that same poll, The Twin Dilemma - the very next story to be broadcast, only a week after Androzani, was voted to be the very worst Doctor Who story ever made. It always fascinated me that Doctor Who was so flexible that stories right next to each other could be considered so far apart in terms of quality. Of course, The Twin Dilemma is far from being the worst Doctor Who story ever, but that’s an argument for another day.

We’re in a similar situation here. Whereas yesterday’s episode, The Curse of the Black Spot is often considered rubbish and rated rather low, The Doctor’s Wife always seems to come out near the top of polls, and often crops up in discussions regarding the best ever episodes. In the most recent poll, this story was placed number 37 - with only three Eleventh Doctor stories above it, which makes it almost the polar opposite to yesterday’s episode. And yet, I’ve never been able to get a handle on why this one is so loved.

It’s one of those occasions where I watch an episode, find that I’ve not particularly enjoyed it, then go online to find that everyone else loves it. Happens from time to time, most recently with Flatline last year, which didn’t grab me in the slightest, and received a rather luke-warm preview from me on this very site. I can’t say it particularly bothered me at the time. As I’ve said recently, at this point, my interest in all things ‘current’ Who was running at an all-time low, and the fact that I’d not enjoyed it was hardly the end of the world. There was plenty else to keep me entertained, after all! In the years that have followed, I’ve not given it a great deal of thought - it’s simply an episode that exists somewhere in the greater Doctor Who world.

But all the same, I sat down today looking quite forward to the story. After all, the first three episodes of Series Six have proved quite strong for me, and that’s always a nice sign. It opens nice enough, with the Doctor getting a message from another Time Lord, and being all excited because there’s another living Time Lord out there somewhere (‘one of the good ones,’ he says, presumably because the Master has been locked away in the final day of the War), which is a lovely contrast to his reaction to similar news in Utopia, where he simply knows who it’s going to be… On the whole, it’s very exciting! I remember the speculation, too, when it had been announced that something would be making a return that hadn’t appeared in the show for a very long time (the ‘mind cube’), and the hints of another Time Lord in a pocket universe… oh, the theories about Romana!. Everything about this hook is simply marvellous.

And then it just gets about as boring as can be. Oh, I’m sorry, I’ve really tried, but I simply cannot see what everyone loves about The Doctor’s Wife. There’s lots of great concepts in here - the TARDIS made ‘human’, the archived console room, the building of a TARDIS from the remains of a hundred others, using the temporal and spacial physics of the TARDIS as a deadly mind game - but none of them really feel like they’ve got the room to be explored properly. I think that’s the problem I’ve got with this one - so many great ideas end up being thrown away just too quickly.

The Doctor hears the other Time Lord voices: there’s lots of Time Lords close by… and oh, no, they’re just more cubes. Righto. That only lasted a few minutes. Amy and Rory are trapped like rats in a maze… but no, there we go, that’s over with, too fairly quickly (and, it has to be said, Rory ‘dying’ is starting to get old now. I remember all the jokes about it at the time, but I don’t think it really bothered me all that much on first watch). The Doctor’s got to build a new TARDIS… and he’s done it. Easy. I think this story, more than any other for me, really warrants being extended. I’m not sure it would stretch to two full episodes, but it simply needs a little bit more room to breathe.

I’m not going to carry on, because I know people won’t be keen on my reaction to this one, and I’ll just continue being a bit grumpy about it. Believe me when I say that I really want to like this one, but it’s simply not working for me.


22 March 2015

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

Day 811: The Curse of the Black Spot

Dear diary,

Oh, Curse of the Black Spot. What did you ever do to rankle fandom, so? In that Doctor Who Magazine poll last summer, you were ranked number 227 out of 241 (with only two other Eleventh Doctor tales below you), and when you were first shown on TV, I remember everyone complaining about the massive dip in quality between the opening two-parter and this story.

But you know what, I love you, Curse of the Black Spot. Well, no, perhaps not. ‘Love’ is a very strong word, and it implies certain attachments and commitments that I’m not sure I’m willing to make. But, still, I certainly like you a lot. As much as many other episodes of Doctor Who. You’re certainly stronger than some of the tales I’ve sat through on this marathon, and actually I’ve rather enjoyed you tonight!

What’s not to love! It’s Doctor Who meets the Pirates, and it seems somehow perfectly fitting that the Eleventh Doctor should be the one to engage in such an adventure, as his child-like glee is simply right for turning up on a pirate ship. Actually, it’s the Doctor who really makes this episode for me - I don’t think I’ve ever been more enamoured with Matt Smith’s incarnation than I have been here today. Everything seems to come together to create the perfect example of what i think of as being the Eleventh Doctor: he finds glee in the threat of the adventure. He gets things wrong. He quips. He twirls, and dances, and is generally quite frenetic. It all simply works.

The thing I really enjoy is the fact that he gets things wrong. Three times in this episode, a theory that he’s put forward is shattered, and he’s forced to tell people to ignore everything he’s suggested so far. It helps to enhance the threat of what could otherwise be a rather mundane story, and it means that when you stumble into a new situation (such as arriving on the moored alien spaceship), it genuinely takes you by surprise.

I’m also rather keen on the look of this episode. It’s become almost traditional for me in the last month or so to comment that all historical stories have been ruined for me by how good The Shakespeare Code looked, but this one manages to buck the trend, because it looks just as good as that one did! Has there ever been a Doctor Who story with more night shooting on location (off the top of my head, only perhaps the Empty Child two-parter could tie for it)? The ship looks great, and even though I know they shot it right at the side of the docks, i never for a moment was less than convinced we could be out in the middle of the ocean somewhere.

The only big downside, for me, is the disappearance of one of the pirate crew. He threatens to leave, so the captain’s son cuts him to ensure that he’s just as helpless as the rest of them. Great. Fine. Got all that. But then… he’s gone! Hah! Vanished, and never even mentioned again. I presume that the Siren came and took him at some point, but you’d think that the others might have mentioned that at some point. To be fair, on first broadcast I didn’t notice a thing. Couldn’t have told you that anyone vanished between scenes, and it wasn’t until someone pointed it out online afterwards that I was even vaguely aware. Now I know, though, it sticks out like a sore thumb, and it’s a very big letdown in an episode I’ve otherwise really enjoyed.


21 March 2015

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

Day 810: Day of the Moon

Dear diary,

Steven Moffat is very good at opening hooks, isn’t he? We had some absolute stellar ones to round out the season finale at the end of Series Five, and we’re getting them at a great quality here, too. In yesterday’s episode, the Doctor’s friends are gathered together to watch him get killed! In today’s one, we pick up three months on from the last cliffhanger to find someone we thought was an ally chasing down and eliminating our regulars… only to have them wake up in a cell with the Doctor and we discover that it was all a ruse! Say what you want about the man, but you can’t deny that he’s good at grabbing you for a story…

This is perhaps also my favourite example of something Steven Moffat is very keen on - starting the second episode of a two-parter somewhere other than where you left off the previous week. Giving the impression that while we’ve been away for seven days getting on with our lives, the Doctor and his friends have been getting on with the adventure, too. It’s great because it means we can pick up today with the characters far more informed than they were, and we’re given all the information without it feeling too much like a great big info dump.

It serves as a good way of introducing the Silence to us, as well. You get a fairly decent idea of the way they operate during The Impossible Astronaut, but everything being confirmed here during scenes set in the TARDIS is rather well done. And actually, they are quite scary, as Doctor Who monsters go, aren’t they? Last year, I did some graphic design on postcards for the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff, and part of the project involved dressing an actor up in full Silent costume so we could hold a photoshoot. Once he had the mask on over his head, and was standing there a good seven feet tall in front of you, it’s not hard to find them somewhat unnerving! The same is true of this episode: when Amy’s trapped in the orphanage, and looks up to find the ceiling filled with the creatures… I think I even felt a twinge of fear. I don’t think I’ve ever actually been scared by Doctor Who, but this particular moment, drawing on my own memories of what the costumes are like up close and coupled with the helpless situation that Amy’s found herself trapped in… yeah, it’s probably the closest the programme has come to actively scaring me… and I knew what was coming, too!

The big downside to this story, though, is that it sets up the major points of the Matt Smith era arc - and specifically the elements that are going to keep on recurring through Series Six, and there’s elements here which simply don’t square with the information I can recall from later on. Specifically, it’s said that the Silence here have been on Earth for millennia, and have been nudging the human race in the required direction all this time. Specifically, the Doctor points out that they needed a spacesuit, so they made man go to the moon*. But then later on we discover that the Silents who’re working with Madame Kovarian (which presumably these ones are, since they’re all tied in with the little girl in the spacesuit and kidnapping Amy) have travelled back in time to carry out the mission (the little girl has been brought to Earth from Demon’s Run, for example, because they want her to grow up in the ‘right’ environment)… so they’re not the ones who’ve been here since the dawn of time… Oh, it’s giving me a headache!

I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that there’s bits of this arc which already are sitting ill with me, and I worry that the more I try to make sense of it as I go along, the more the series is going to suffer as a result…


*Actually, no, sorry, I’m going to have to take issue with this while I’m thinking about it. I was always under the impression that the little girl was kept inside a modified Nasa spacesuit because it was the best thing to adapt as a life support suit on 1960s Earth, but why does it have to specifically be a spacesuit if the Silence can nudge humanity into simply creating any old thing to keep the girl safe? Am I missing something?

20 March 2015

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

Day 809: The Impossible Astronaut

Dear diary,

This was the last episode of Doctor Who to air before I moved to live in the home of the TARDIS - Cardiff. Specifically, it aired the night before I made the track across the country. The next day, upon arriving in Wales and having - for the first time - no intention to return ‘home’ any time soon, I took the family out to a little diner in the Bay to celebrate and have some food… and then realised that it was the very same diner that had appeared as part of the Doctor’s adventures the night before. That’s the kind of welcome you want when coming to Wales - a bold statement that says ‘you’re in Doctor country, now…’

Before we set out on Series Six, I have to make a confession. This series has long been my real nadir of Doctor Who. For whatever reason, I simply failed to ‘click’ with the programme, to the point that I didn’t see some of these episodes until a little while after they’d debuted on TV. For whatever reason, Series Six simply didn’t connect to me in the same way that the previous five (and a whole slew of the ‘classic’ run) had. That’s not to say that I’d gone off Doctor Who in general - I still dutifully bought and enjoyed the DVD range each month, and spent every spare moment engaged in some TARDIS-based discussion (I even wrote a book with a friend, Nick Mellish, in which we made our way though all the Eighth Doctor’s fantastic adventures. And The Creed of the Kromon) - but certainly 2011-vintage Doctor Who simply wasn’t my cup of tea at all.

That’s fine, in many ways. Part of the beauty of Doctor Who is that it’s always evolving. It completely reinvents itself every few years into something that’s superficially the same programme, but for all intents and purposes might as well be something completely different. Only yesterday I was saying how A Christmas Carol felt a million miles away from The End of Time, and I love that about the show, Crucially, I tried to avoid publicly ‘rubbishing’ the series at this point, because while it wasn’t to my tastes, I knew it appealed very much to people who perhaps hadn’t been enjoying the show for the last few years while I had. The downside to all this, though, was that it coloured my opinion of the Matt Smith years as a whole. Series Six is his middle season, and it’s the one which resonates strongest with his overall arc. Bits of Series Five and Series Seven tie into it, yeah, but the majority of the stuff you need it in here. Because this wasn’t my cup of tea, it put me right off large swathes of the arc. But that’s been the charm of The 50 Year Diary! I can watch these things again and see how my opinions have changed, and in the best of times, they’ve changed for the better. Here’s hoping the same is true of this next couple of weeks…

Certainly, we’re not off to a bad start here. As season openers go, we’re a million miles away from something like New Earth, which feels almost provincial next to this one. Fifteen minutes in, the Doctor has been shot (and we’re repeatedly told that he’s dead, no coming back from this one), and then a younger version of the Doctor arrives on the scene, and the TARDIS has been parked on the rug in the Oval Office. I don’t think any other season opener in modern Doctor Who has hit the ground running in quite the way this one does. We’ve thirteen weeks to tell a story; let’s get on with it!

It’s also the first tine that we’ve had any real filming in America for the programme, and they really make the most of those locales to give us some stunning vistas here. As with Planet of the Dead a few years prior, they’re really making sure that they’re screaming at you about the fact that they’ve actually travelled all that way to tell the story. It’s impressive, and it looks gorgeous on screen. Even when we’re back in Cardiff, they still don’t let up - I’ve been enjoying comparing Doctor Who’s Oval Office set with the one from The West Wing

Something else I’m impressed with is the inclusion of Canton as a kind of ‘fourth companion’ for the story, having already established how important he was by inviting him alongside the ‘proper’ companions to witness the Doctor’s death. It’s an interesting approach (as is pushing our resident historical celebrity - Nixon - into the background to largely be set dressing), and one I really enjoy - there’s something quite fun about watching his reactions to things, and pairing him off with Rory for many of the big revelations certainly provides some needed levity to the story.

I’ll not go into any detail about the Silence or the story arc at this point - I’ll reserve judgement on all of that until tomorrow - but for now… it’s a decent start to the series, and that gives me hope for the future…

19 March 2015

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

Day 808: A Christmas Carol

Dear diary,

I remember thinking it at the time, and it’s turned out to be true of this viewing, too: it’s hard to believe that this episode came a year after The End of Time. The style of the show has evolved so massively in that time, and I think a blind ‘taste-test’ of the two episodes to an unknowing audience would have them guess that they were much farther apart in broadcast than just a year. For starters, the entire look of the series by this point is far more filmic, and while there were several elements in The End of Time that I had to single out as simply not quite working for me (out of keeping with the majority of the Russell T Davies era, it has to be said), this one fares much better in that regard.

I spent a fair bit of time during The Big Bang calling it some of the best use Steven Moffat ever made of the whole ‘time travel’ element to Doctor Who, but I might be revising that statement already, because he takes a similar concept and does something really rather elegant with it here. I think I’m right in saying that the basic idea at the heart of this episode (the Doctor alters someone’s past to make them a nicer person) was used in an earlier Moffat short story, but it’s very nicely suited to the format of A Christmas Carol

There’s something really great about the way that the video of the young Kazran starts to play, and then the Doctor pops up in it! New memories forming as the Doctor changes the time stream. It’s such a simple way of really showing the process of changing history, but really effective. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that they’ve got an actor of the calibre of Sir Michael ‘Dumbledore’ Gambon to come and play the part of the older Kazran, which really means he sells the idea that his history is being rewritten in front of our eyes. When he turns to see the painting has changed, and digs out a box of photographs that didn’t exist until the second he needed them… oh, it’s all really rather lovely, and a lot better than I think I gave it credit for at the time.

Something else I’d not given credit to in this episode before now is the way that the visuals really help to inform the story, and add extra depth to it that might be missed on a simple post-Christmas dinner viewing (and certainly were, by me). Chief among them is the use of bow ties (the icon of choice for the Eleventh Doctor) to symbolise the way characters feel about the Doctor - appearing when they’re enamoured with him, and then being undone and taken away when he’s fallen from favour. It’s something simple - tiny - but my university professors would have spun entire essays on that subject alone.

One thing I do have to gripe about (well, I mean, I don’t have to gripe about it, but the more I dwell on the issue, the more it’s bothering me…): Abigail’s family. We see them at the start of the story (let’s say in ‘2010’, simply for the sake of ease), appealing to Kazran (who is 70-ish at this point - again, for sake of ease, I’m going off Michael Gambon’s age). Later, during the Doctor’s adventures with Abigail and the young Kazran (around, what, 18? 20?), she requests to go and see her family on ‘this’ Christmas Eve. It’s definitely contemporary to the young Kazran’s time, because Abigail’s sister makes reference to him being the son of the chap building the cloud machine… but the family is all exactly the same age that they were a good half century later! Am I missing something? It simply feels like a really big oversight in an otherwise very tightly plotted story, and the more I think about it the more it’s irritating me!

Still, that’s just me being picky, really, and this is certainly the most I’ve enjoyed a Christmas special in a while, now…

18 March 2015

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

Day 807: The Death of the Doctor

Dear diary,

Has there ever been more of a love letter to 'classic' Doctor Who in the 21st century programme than The Death of the Doctor. I mean, for starters, it's part of an entire spin off created around 1970s companion Sarah Jane Smith, features the inclusion of the current Doctor, and the return of Jo Grant, and it's filled with references and clips to pretty much every story from Terror of the Autons to The Hand of Fear. As if that wasn’t enough, the final scene gives us a wonderful glimpse into the lives of some other former companions, going right back to Ian and Barbara and thievery beginning. There’s something a little bit magical about that.

The real highlight of this story for me has to be the interaction between Sarah Jane and Jo Grant (now Jones). Oh, they’re a riot from their very first greeting to the moment Jo leaves Bannerman Road. They simply work together, and the vast majority of my notes for these episodes pertain to little moments the two of them share. Both so utterly in character, and both wonderful together. It’s such a shame we didn’t get the chance to see them share the screen again.

I’m not entirely sure, though, that Matt’s Doctor really fits here. Oh, he certainly suits the environment of a show aimed more firmly to children, and his twirly, kinetic Doctor really fits nicely in that respect, but he simply feels a little bit out of place. During the third series, when David Tennant put in an appearance, it simply felt right that the Doctor should rock up and park the TARDIS in Sarah Jane’s attic. This was the Doctor who’d met Sarah Jane during School Reunion, and inspired her to carry on the good fight after all these years. He’d cropped up again when the Earth got moved, and on that occasion he got the chance to interact with Luke, too. In all, Tennant felt like a part of this world very nicely.

Smith, on the other hand, feels out of place. We’ve never seen him interacting with these characters before, so whereas Sarah Jane can be re-introduced to the Doctor’s world by dropping her into one of the Doctor’s adventures, it simply doesn’t quite gel for the Doctor to be reintroduced to her world by dropping in on hers. Smith himself doesn’t seem all that comfortable with the appearance, either, and there are some moments - most noticeably when the other characters piece together who he is - where he simply doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing with his performance, and is left looking a little bit lost.

It also doesn’t help that in many ways, The Sarah Jane Adventures feels like a hangover from a bygone era. It made sense to see into Sarah’s adventures when she was popping up in Doctor Who from time to time, and when this show was running alongside the parent series and Torchwood, it felt like there was one big, shared universe all working together rather nicely. Now, though, with the next series of Torchwood sent off to America and being largely unrecognisable from what had come before, and with only a handful more Sarah Jane Adventures to come because of Lis Sladen’s untimely death, this series no longer feels right within the world of Doctor Who.

This is the last excursion into the world of spin-offery that I’ll be taking as a part of The 50 Year Diary, so it’s somewhat fitting that it’s something which celebrates lots of things I loved so long ago, and a bit of a shame that it also feels a little off-key.

17 March 2015

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

Day 806: The Big Bang

Dear diary,

I'd never noticed before just how small scale this episode is as a season finale. I mean, yeah, it's got the entire universe being destroyed at every moment in history and all that, but for the large majority of the running time, we're really only dealing with four characters, and they're all our regulars. Considering that the last season finale was The Stolen Earth, in which everybody under the sun came back to the programme, this feels oddly small. That doesn't mean that it's not very good though, and it's almost certainly the very best example of using time travel as a plot device that Steven Moffatt has ever given us. Forget how cleaver Blink is and all that, because this one is just brilliant.

The best part about it is watching how everything comes to pass. The Doctor arrives at Stonehenge with a fez and a mop. Then he's gone. Then he's back again, but without the mop. Then he's gone again. Things get posted through Amelia's door, and stuck to the Pandorica, and we get to see how all of that falls into place as the Doctor rushes around trying to piece it together himself. On top of all that, the reveal that it's Amy locked in the box instead of the Doctor is simply fantastic. Perhaps the best bit, though, has to be that after all of this madcap running around, the Doctor then zaps back in at the top of the stairs, burnt and dying. It's powerful stuff.

Over the years, I’ve often seen this two parter described as being one of - if not the best season finales that 21st century Doctor Who has produced, and it’s not hard to see why people love it so much. I’m not sure if, for me, it packs quite the same punch that we get with something like The Parting of the Ways or Journey’s End, but it certainly works as a very fitting cap to this run of adventures, and as with the little vignettes of characters in the opening to yesterday’s episode, I can’t help but love the Doctor moving backwards through his recent past to interact with adventures we’ve already seen. Chief among these moments has to be his arrival in the Weeping Angel forest, and the other half of the scene from Flesh and Stone, in which the Doctor comes back to speak to Amy. I mentioned at the time that it sparked some debate online, and this week I’ve been digging back through the forum to take a look at it. In retrospect, people very quickly hit on the idea that it could be a future version of the Doctor coming back through the time stream, but there’s lots of great discussion on the way to deciding that was the most likely scenario (and some great discussion afterwards, too, while people try to work out what the other options are.

In all, I’ve rather enjoyed Series Five this time around, and it’s great to see how nicely wrapped up the overall themes of this run are with this episode. We’ve been watching a fairy tale about the madman in a box, who comes to save a little girl from danger and simply never stops. Amy ‘remembering’ the Doctor back into the universe at the end is rather lovely, and very fitting for the style of Doctor Who that we’ve been presented with over the last thirteen episodes. I didn’t really care for this run at the time, but given five years’ distance, I can certainly see the appeal all the better… 

16 March 2015

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

Day 805: The Pandorica Opens

Dear diary,

Just before I get on to talking about the rest of the episode, I want to take a minute to point out how bloody cool the pre-tites sequence is for this one. I love the idea of all these people from across the last season interacting as they work to get the Doctor to the right place at the right time. It's also somewhat amazing that they feel like they're being drawn together from across a proper era rather than from just the one season of adventures. I think it's somewhat of a testament to how well the first of Steven Moffat's series really strikes out to be its own thing - still recognisably the same programme that we've been watching for five years previously, but also being its own unique branch of that universe.

Right. Now. Main thing: I'm confused. Largely, I'm confused about Rory. I think I know what's going on here, but I'd really like to sound out the way that I think things are happening in this episode and then either have you all comment to say 'you've completely understood it correctly, Will, you're such a clever and handsome diarist' or, failing that, 'nope, you fool, you've completely misunderstood it all. Go back and watch The Dominators on a loop for the rest of the marathon'…

So; Something (presumably the Nestenes, but either way the information worked its way back to the Nestenes) went to Amy's house in Leadworth and took a kind of psychic print of Amy's mind. Doing this meant that they had a link to her conscious mind (this bit isn't actually said, but it's the only way everything else makes sense, so…), so that they could create an accurate and up-to-date scenario at Stonehenge which would tempt the Doctor and her to the location. Because Rory was in her mind (as a suppressed memory, which is why she found herself crying for seemingly no reason in Vincent and the Doctor), he automatically becomes a part of this scenario, and is implanted with the memories taken from Amy's mind, and that brings us to what we see in this episode.

Is that right? Because I've spent most of today trying to wrap my head around it all. It seems fairly simple based on the information we're given on screen (it's presented as 'Something takes a 'snapshot' of Amy's memories from her bedroom, hence the romans and the box, and Rory is there as a Roman because of the picture tucked inside a book of him dressed as one'), but then that nice neat version hints snags when you have to account for the fact that Rory can remember 'dying' in the Silurian episode. That's why I assume they link to Amy's conscious mind, because they'd have the up-to-date information about… Oh to hell with it. It makes for a nice moment in the story where the Doctor notices that Rory is still a real living person (even if he's made of plastic), and I'm probably obsessing over it too much.

Something else about this episode that I've obsessed about in the past is the nature of The Alliance. It seems clear to me that they were formed in the skies above Trenzalore, when all these same races would gather to answer the mysterious signal emanating from Christmas (and in retrospect, I'm guessing that's where they got the idea for the stones here sending out a signal on a loop, too)… but such a thing felt like a line missed out from The Time of the Doctor! I only mention it here because I'm still trying to piece together the overarching plot of the Matt Smith era, and I know I'm going to need this note when I come to the regeneration… 

15 March 2015

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

Day 804: The Lodger

Dear diary,

For a long, long, time now, in response to this episode, I’ve always said that I preferred the original Doctor Who Magazine comic that it was based upon. Something about forcing Mickey to put up the Tenth Doctor for a few days really clicked with me, and it quickly became one of my favourites. I never really felt that it worked as well in substituting a well-known character for a complete stranger, and trying to add in a more definite threat upstairs. Oh, I never thought this one was bad, just that I’d have rather it be kept as a comic.

But actually, watching it back today, there’s loads in here that I’m really rather fond of. And of course it doesn’t harm the story to swap Mickey for Craig, because we know more-or-less everything we need to about Craig by the time he rushes to answer the door to the Doctor with a great big ‘I love you’ (the first of several times I laughed loudly during today’s viewing). If anything, that’s the real success of this story - it takes Craig and Sophie, and in the space of these 45 minutes it completely brings us into their world. I feel like they’re characters we’ve known for a while now. There’s hints of their back stories, and their wider social circle, and it really does feel like it’s the Doctor crashing into their established world, as opposed to them simply popping up for a single week in the Doctor’s universe.

It certainly helps that James Corden is so perfectly cast as Craig. He bounces off Matt Smith so well (and in a way that I don’t think he would have done with any of the other Doctors. Even though Tennant’s incarnation was very human, he simply doesn’t fell as suited to this as Smith does), and watching them together is just a delight.

As for adding in the threat of the upstairs… Actually, it’s nicely done. Looking back on it, it’s easy to simply think of it as being a ‘Silent TARDIS’, and forget the mystery that we’re presented with in the build-up to that reveal (and even then, we only get the information that it’s an attempt to build a TARDIS, no more information than that). The slow build up of the mystery, and then the fantastic reveal of the ship, with the camera pulling back from the seemingly normal doorway is all brilliant. 

It also marks the starting point of the thing I’m perhaps most looking forward to throughout the Eleventh Doctor’s era - the on-going arc. In 2013, The Time of the Doctor wrapped up threads that had been dangling as far back as this season, but I’ve not been through all of these episodes since then to watch as things slowly draw together. We’ve already had the mystery of the cracks and the Pandora - one of which will be over and down with in the next couple of days while the other will go quiet for a bit before rearing its head again at the end of this run - but this is our first step towards the Silence, and the recurring elements of Series Six.

Which brings me to my next point. There’s a moment in this episode, with Amy in the TARDIS, where she seems to see something, get very scared, and then forget about it. It could be her reacting to the bad news she’s just received from the Doctor, but she very much seems to be looking at something just off camera… was this intended to be a ‘Silent’-esque plot thread which wasn’t later picked up, or am I simply reading too much into things?

14 March 2015

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

Day 803: Vincent and the Doctor

Dear diary,

Watching this series on original broadcast, my interest had dropped off a little bit by this point. It was nice weather out, I had a lot going on… making sure I was home on a Saturday night ready for Doctor Who felt like more of a chore than it ever had before. It didn’t help that when I was catching up with stories like The Vampires of Venice and Amy’s Choice, they simply weren’t grabbing me in the way I hoped they would. Eventually, I’d stopped even trying to be home on time, and I’d simply catch up with the new episodes a day or two later on the iPlayer. The night this one aired, I happened to catch the first ten minutes while I was getting ready to go out, and couldn’t help thinking that of everything for a good month or so, this was an episode I’d rather like to stay home and see as it went out.

Vincent and the Doctor is a very different kind of Doctor Who story, isn’t it? When the series manages to pull in a writer like Richard Curtis, you very much think you know what kind of story you’re going to be getting, but then this script goes out of its way to present you with something that completely goes against all your expectations, and really leaves you with a lot to think about, even when it’s finished. It’s a bold move, and one that I think is pulled off very well - managing to create something that’s both deep and thought-provoking, while also having enough action and drama to keep you riveted throughout.

In many ways, this story takes lots of things that I’d enjoyed with the Unicorn and the Wasp, and filters them differently. Whereas the likes of Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, and Shakespeare were very sure of themselves during encounters with the Doctor (even if they tend to get that knocked during the course of the adventure, both Christie and Vincent are presented as being flawed. As being human, in fact. I also like that this tale doesn’t shy away from showing what that can mean. There’s no pussyfooting around the fact that Vincent’s troubles and depression led to his suicide, and the story makes sure to portray that in a sensitive, yet hard-hitting way. Any’s reaction upon reaching the gallery to find that Vincent still took his own life at a tragically young age is absolutely heart-breaking, and the Doctor’s response is one of my favourite lines from Doctor Who. I could quote it verbatim at the drop of a hat, because it’s so beautiful, and poignant, and very true; 


The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. Hey. The good things don't always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant.

I don’t want to dwell on the sombre tones of the story too much, though, because there’s an awful lot of humour and levity sprinkled throughout the script which is far more what I was expecting to find from Curtis, and really helps to make the whole thing. For starters, I love the adaptation of the Unicorn and the Wasp gag, in which the titles of Christie’s books being inserted into the script is substituted for visual gags based upon Vincent’s work. The interactions between Vincent and Amy are wonderful, too.

I’ve very little else to say about this story, really, and there’s so much to like that I don’t really want to dwell on the few let downs (once again, the CGI seems to falter a bit in this one), so I’m going to leave it there for now. Not the kind of story that Doctor Who could tell very often, but one which works perfectly as a nice one-off.

13 March 2015

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

Day 802: Cold Blood

Dear diary,

I’ve never quite known what to make of the ‘new series’ Silurian design. On the one hand, there’s that image of a concept sculpt for this story in which the creatures look like an updated version of the ones we had back in Doctor Who and the Silurians, and I half think that I’d love to have seen that design on screen, but on the other hand, I do like the way these ones look - especially when the soldiers have their masks on, which is a lovely bit of design. I suppose my issue is that these are such a departure from what went before - a more drastic change stylistically than we’ve had for any other monster making the transition from the ‘classic’ era to the new stuff. I think I know what the answer will be, but what does everyone else think? Do you like the modern Silurians, or would you prefer something more ‘traditional’?

If nothing else, I can’t imagine Madame Vastra with the face of a ‘classic’ Silurian…

If there’s one thing I really like about this story, it’s that you’re left not really liking lots of different characters. Right the way through, and especially in today’s episode, I’ve found myself really irritated by the way that Ambrose has behaved. And yet, I think part of the brilliance in that is that she’s behaved the way that most of us would do - out of fear, and selfishness, and sheer ignorance. There’s something really nice about the idea of her failing to be ‘the best Humanity can be’, because I think many of us would fall into similar traps. And yet, on the other side of the fence, we’ve got Silurians that aren’t the best that they can be, either. That said, I have to take issue with the Doctor pointing out that when he met Silurians before, the humans attacked and killed them… while conveniently neglecting to mention that said Silurians had just tried to wipe out Humanity with a big old plague…

Something else that I just wanted to touch on - how much I’d like some kind of follow-on to this one. The Doctor rigs the Silurian alarms to wake them again in a millennium, and we’ve even got a couple of guest characters readily built in for the revival. I’d be keen to see the two sides trying again in a futuristic setting, and perhaps seeing what kinds of struggles might crop up that time. In this story the talk is largely about making room on an already crowded planet, but in a thousand year’s time, with humanity moving out among the stars… well, I reckon there’s a story in there somewhere, and I’d be keen so see it.

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