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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 DOCTOR

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.

12 March 2015

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

Day 801: The Hungry Earth

Dear diary,

Ooh, I love the title of this episode. It’s that great line from Frontios, isn’t it, about the Earth being hungry? I bet anything that somewhere along the line either Steven Moffatt or Chris Chibnall had that in mind when it came to putting this one together. Like Day of the Moon, its one of those titles that really just chimes with me as being perfect. Speaking of which, this is the episode when I first decided that Matt Smith was a perfect casting choice for the Doctor. It wasn’t actually the episode which convinced me, but rather the production of it. I’ve mentioned before that I tried very hard to avoid spoilers for this particular series, but the one bit that I did end up seeing was a short clip (no more than a minute or two) of Matt Smith pacing up and down outside the church used in this episode, obviously trying to learn his lines. It was being shared all over Facebook, and I ended up watching it. Instantly, there’s something just so right about the way he moves. Little movements he makes with his hand, the look he gives when he’s trying to concentrate… oh, all of it. From that moment on, we were in safe hands.

And I love the way that the Doctor is written in this episode. This is perhaps the first time all series that he’s really been presented as being a madman, and that’s largely because he’s been thrown into a situation where his regular companion is taken away from him very early into the narrative, and he’s left to try and prove himself to her boyfriend and a group of strangers who quite rightly think he’s mad. The only thing which does feel like a missed opportunity is making not of just how young he is in this incarnation - it would have been interesting to see that as yet another obstacle that he has to overcome.

As for the episode itself, well this morning I couldn’t have told you a thing about it. Nothing. Nada. I knew it was ‘that Silurian two-parter’ from Series Five, but I couldn't have told you anything of the story. As the episode went on, though, I found more and more of it coming back to me, and I found myself rather liking it, on the whole. Oh, it’s not close to being a stone-cold ‘classic’ (and I’m not sure it has the atmosphere yet that prevailed the original Silurian origin story), but there’s enough in here to enjoy. The introduction of the threat is nicely dealt with, and there really is a feeling of tension as they rush to set everything up in the short amount of time they’ve got (although we’ve got the same problem here - though not on the same scale - as with Victory of the Daleks: we’re told there’s only x number of minutes remaining, 12 in this case, and they get a lot done in that time. I get that making it such a short time frame is what helps to ‘up’ the tension, but I can’t help think that it would have felt a little more believable had they had a half an hour or so…?)

11 March 2015

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

Day 800: Amy’s Choice

Dear diary,

Some days, writing this blog is easy. Within a few minutes of the episode starting, I know exactly what I want to say, and as the episode goes on I simply find more and more that chimes with what I want to say. I enjoy days like that, because it makes going from the episode to the writing all the more fun for me.

I thought today was going to be one of those days, because almost immediately, I knew what I wanted to say: this isn’t an episode that works in Series Five - it’s one that would sit better in Series Seven. Lovely, simple. I could write about that without problem… but then as the episode played out, it became more and more apparent that I was wrong, and that point was almost totally shattered. So, instead, I’m going to tell you firstly why I thought this story would work better later on, and then tell you why it also wouldn’t. If that makes any sense at all.

Largely, I didn’t feel that this story sat right here because the whole premise of trying to decide which world was real simply rings hollow for me. Obviously, as a viewer, I know that Amy and Rory are going to be travelling with the Doctor for a while yet, so it was always going to seem obvious that the TARDIS-world was the real one, but… I think that’s the problem. Had this been set during that first part of Series Seven, where there’s a running theme of the Doctor coming back to visit the Ponds while leaving longer and longer gaps between his visits… oh, this would have worked wonderfully as a concept there! Has it really been five years since his last visit, and he’s now checking in on a couple of Ponds who’ve settled down and are about to have a child, or has it only been a few months since their last adventure, and they’ve been caught in the TARDIS. Do you see what I’m trying to say? That feels so much better for me than what we’re given here, because the last scene of the previous episode was about ‘let’s go and have some adventures’, which makes suddenly coming to a situation where the Ponds have settled down feel wrong to me.

I was fairly set on this view for much of the first half of this episode (and, actually, I’ve not abandoned it completely. Despite what I’m about to go on and say, it would work better as a concept in that first half of Series Seven, where it really could be either of the two dreams, as opposed to so clearly being the one). As the episode went on, though, I finally picked up on that emotional core. The choice between the Doctor or Rory. Of course it’s an episode that needs to sit here in series five, because it’s the key moment for Amy’s character, and she even makes a point of saying that she’d never been entirely sure that she was doing the right thing until this very moment. It’s massively important that we get this character beat here so that she can go on to marry Rory at the end of the season. You can see the spanner in the works - on the one hand I really want to argue that this story is in the wrong place… but on the other hand it’s in exactly the right place!

That’s not enough to really save it for me, though. Despite the fact that there’s a nice emotional heart in here, and it serves as such an important beat in Amy’s story, I simply could not connect with things, and it does all come back to the fact that I never really believe in the threat. I’m sorry to say that I just don’t get the love for this one…

10 March 2015

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

Day 799: The Vampires of Venice

Dear diary,

I don’t know if it’s still a lingering hang-over from just how good The Shakespeare Code looked back in Series Three, but the location work for this story never really felt… right to me. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there’s some lovely footage in here, and some great locations used to represent Venice, but something feels… I don’t know. Off about it all. Maybe it’s because everywhere is quite washed out whereas The Shakespeare Code and The Fires of Pompeii really used colour to make a point in their locations? The Vampires of Venice always seemed to be a little beige by comparison. It also flags up a problem I had with Series Five at the time that I have to admit I’ve been somewhat struggling to find this time around - the feeling of things looking a bit cheap or empty on screen. I think I was probably recalling the Dalek spaceship in some ways, but the scene when the Doctor confronts Rosanna looks really bare. They’ve simply placed a throne prop into an otherwise empty room, and it just doesn’t have the impact that the designs for those other historical I’ve mentioned did.

It’s also a little bit of a shame that having gone all the way to Croatia to get some nice locations for bits of this story, it gets let down by some of the weakest CGI the programme has seen for quite some time. There are a few shots where water has been added in to represent the canals which really doesn’t work (I still don’t know if - five years on - we’re at a point where realistic CGI water can be done on a TV budget), and the clouds during that final sequence are so laughably bad that I’m almost astounded they were actually signed off for broadcast. It’s a good job that Doctor Who has a bit of a history of dodgy effects, because this episode certainly places on the scale somewhere quite high! That said, there’s some nice moments where the human characters are morphed into their CGI counterparts rather convincingly, so perhaps it’s just a case of the money being spent in different places?

All of this somewhat marry the story for me, because I’m too busy looking at elements of bad effects, or musing on how empty some of the shots look, to really get caught up in the events of the narrative. Oh, there’s some very nice moments in here, and it feels as though the writing team have finally landed on the way to write the Eleventh Doctor (this is perhaps the first time that there have been sequences that feel tailor-made for Smith), but I’m just not able to get sucked into the tale the way I have the past week or so. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either - it’s, again, just a bit beige.

If I had to pick a highlight from this story, then it would have to be Rory. First time around, I never really got the love for Rory as a character. H was alright, I supposed, but he wasn’t anything especially special. This time, though, I can see that that’s exactly his charm - he’s the character that we’d all be if we were suddenly thrust into the Doctor’s lifestyle. The Eleventh Hour, The Best Below, and Victory of the Daleks all went out of their way to make Amy look like perfect companion material, but this story does completely the opposite for Rory - making him a bit weak, and a bit silly, and a bit bumbling. His trying to fight off a ‘vampire’ with a broom, and making a mess of trying to get Amy into the school are exactly what makes him work - and I’m looking forward to seeing if I connect better with him on this watch through.

9 March 2015

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

Day 798: Flesh and Stone

Dear diary,

Yesterday, I mentioned that the Weeping Angels were progressed quite nicely in this story from what we were given in Blink, and watching it again now makes that even more obvious. Have to admit that when this first episode went out I wasn’t overall keen about the various additions made to the ‘lore’ of the creatures, but the more I’ve thought about it over the years (and especially in re-watching this story in the last couple of days), the more I can’t help but notice how clever it all is especially when the Doctor realises what’s happening to Amy;

THE DOCTOR

A living mental image in a living human mind. But we stare at them to stop them getting closer. We don't even blink, and that is exactly what they want. Because as long as our eyes are open, they can climb inside. There's an Angel in her mind. 

I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated before just how much scarier that makes the Angels. We’ve spent three years by this point thinking of them as being so easily defeated by simply being watched, and then this story comes along and makes even that part of their danger! Brilliant! It’s no wonder they’ve caught on as being the monsters of 21st century Doctor Who with gimmicks like these.

Something else which didn’t particularly work for me first time around which I’ve loved today is the sequence in the forest where we start to see the Angels move. I’m not entirely sure why, but when this was first broadcast, something about that moment felt really off to me. I sort of felt that seeing the statues move somehow lessened the fact that they can move so rapidly when we’re not looking. Actually, though, it’s really creepy, as they all start to realise that Amy can’t really see them. The fact that they start to move so slowly really helps to enhance the terror of the moment for me. It also sort of brings back to something I read recently which I’m starting to think may have been a real missed opportunity - in the original script for The Time of the Doctor, when we get that great shot of all the spaceships gathering over Trenzalore, there was supposed to be a brief shot with the shadows of the Weeping Angels flying past one of the ships. That, for some reason, has always struck me as very scary, and this sequence certainly plays into that same area.

There’s something in this story that surprised me first time around, and it’s done it all over again here - the Doctor starting to work out the mystery of the crack so early on into the season. When I got to see the scripts in the build-up to broadcast, I was only able to read as far as this one (and just outlines of everything to follow), and it struck me as being strange then. Throughout the Russell T Davies years, I’d become so used to the underlying mystery being teased across the series and picked up again when the finale rolls around. Now, suddenly, we’ve had a few weeks of the crack being very heavily used in the final shots of stories, and suddenly the characters are given the chance to use it! The crack - the running theme for the series - is integral to the whole plot of the episode! The Doctor even gets to work out what it is and start describing it.

There’s also that wonderful moment of the Doctor coming back to speak to Amy (who can’t open her eyes) and having his jacket on. The script specified that this was the Doctor from the finale (and the other scripts all featured bonus scenes with various characters who’d be integral for the opening sequence to The Pandora Opens), but I have to say I did enjoy the sheer fury that this moment caused on the forums at the time! People were so convinced that it was a massive production error, and a sign that the new team weren’t paying enough attention… oh, the fun when all was revealed a few weeks later and the humble cake had to be passed around at quite some speed…

8 March 2015

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

Day 797: The Time of Angels

Dear diary,

When it was first announced (In Doctor Who Magazine, possibly?) that the Weeping Angels were to be making a return for Series Five, I can distinctly recall in-depth discussions with a friend about the ways they could be reintroduced. In the end, we decided that the story ‘had’ to revolve around Wester Drumlins - from Blink - being renovated. The new owners, or possibly the workmen on site, would move one of the four statues in the basement out of position and the Angels would be free to roam once more. If I’m honest, I think this discussion mainly stemmed from the fact that we genuinely wondered what the Doctor’s back-up-plan would be if such an event happened. I don’t think either of us expected what we actually got from this story - an adventure which takes what we know about the Angels from their first outing, and goes on to develop that, and add new facets to them. I’m sure I’ll come back to this more in-depth with tomorrow’s episode.

I can also distinctly recall being a bit non-plussed that River Song would be making a comeback. As I said a few weeks ago, I’d simply not taken to her during Silence in the Library, and the prospect of having her come back to the programme didn’t particularly excite me. Somehow, though, I completely bought into her from the second she appears in the story - which is right at the start, before the opening titles have even kicked in. Watching it again today, I can’t help but think that it’s because she’s just so much fun in that scene. Flirty, dangerous, packing weapons, and using that very Steven Moffat trope of playing with the format of a Time Travel programme to summon the Doctor. The way she catches his attention here is so much better than simply sending a message over the psychic paper, and I love watching both halves of this little narrative play out in tandem. Hello, sweetie!

It also doesn’t hurt that Alex Kingston and Matt Smith have such a great chemistry together from the off. Oh, sure, David Tennant played opposite Kingston very well, and when I watched their two episodes recently I was completely won over in a way that I simply wasn’t in 2008, but there’s something about the way that matt behaves when they share the screen together. I’m wondering if it’s simply because I know that it’s these two who’ll go on to play out the rest of the Doctor/River relationship, or because something just works between them, but it’s already a great dynamic that I can’t wait to watch evolve over the next month.

On the subject of which… we’re four episodes in, now, and i’ve not really mentioned Matt Smith’s performance as the Doctor. I’d love to say that I’ve been waiting for today as this episode contains the first scenes he filmed and thus made a fitting point to bring it up, but if I’m honest it’s simply because he’s so recent in my mind as the Doctor that I sort of forget that I’ve not mentioned it! Frankly, he hits the ground running, doesn’t he? He’s fabulous in this episode, and by the time he gets around to stories like Victory of the Daleks he’d really nailed down the way he wanted to play the part. There’s something about his energy that really resonates with me, and simply makes him feel like ‘the Doctor’. As his era originally played out, I couldn’t help thinking that his performance lost something from Series Six onwards, when writers stop writing simply ‘the Doctor’ - which Matt then filters in his own unique way - and start writing ‘the Doctor as played by Matt Smith’.

Everything started to feel a little bit more forced as his tenure went on, whereas here he’s fresh, playing it the way he thinks is best, and perhaps mores than any Doctor since Tom Baker, you get the impression that he’s simply opening his mouth and surprising even himself with the way he’s choosing to do certain scenes. I can’t say that I was against casting someone so young as the Doctor (but, equally, I can’t say I was overjoyed by the choice - I just sort of felt nothing), but when you watch him even in his earliest episodes, you completely understand how he changed Steven Moffat’s stance on wanting to cast an older Doctor - Smith is just so right for this part. I’m actively anticipating the chance to watch him develop the character now, and see if I was wrong first time around about it feeling more forced as time went by. I really hope I was wrong, because he’s won me round all over again, now…

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