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3 April 2015

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

Day 823: Asylum of the Daleks

Dear diary,

This episode seems to be at the eye of two storms that continue to rage within fandom. Firstly was the fact that Series Seven didn’t actually start until September, which means that all the talk about ‘never being more than three months away from new Doctor Who went right out the window, and we were actually treated to the longest gap between new episodes since the programme returned in 2005! Oh, the rage that caused at the time. Three years on, and I still see people complaining on the internet (just imagine) that we’re now effectively a series behind, and all because Asylum of the Daleks had the audacity to start late! From my point of view, I rather welcomed the fact that we had such a long break from the programme - If Series Six hadn’t exactly set my world alight, The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe put the nail in the coffin for my interest in ‘current’ Doctor Who. A nine-month gap was long enough for me to forget my apathy and find my love for the programme again, something which was largely helped by…

The second storm that this episode kicks up. It’s something that I suppose I can understand a little easier. It all started when Steven Moffat commented that “every version of the Daleks” would be appearing in Series Seven, and then Doctor Who Magazine did that wonderful wrap-around cover featuring all the different Dalek models. Now, as it happens, the episode does contain a fair few older versions of the Daleks, but they’re buried away in the back of shot somewhere. For a lot of the time it’s a bit of a fun ‘spot the Dalek’ game. The only time it actively bothers me is when the Doctor encounters the Daleks who’ve faced him in a series of name-checks to old Dalek serials… and all the Daleks in that area are the new ones. Surely if there’s any moment to bring in the older props, it would have been there? Even if they were consigned to the background, it was the one glaring omission that took me out of the drama.

That didn’t really matter, though, because it had done the trick. As soon as you drop the hint that there’s going to be some of the older Daleks popping up alongside the new ones, my interest is piqued. It instantly sounds interesting. And then they went and released a photo of Matt Smith and Karen Gillan with an Evil of the Daleks Emperor Guard Dalek (on April Fools Day, of all times!) and my interest in the programme is instantly rekindled. There’s just something so appealing about the idea!

Right from the off, this episode feels so much better than Series Six did to me first time round. It’s fresh, and new. It’s as visually different to Series Six as that one was to Series Five. There’s a shot of adrenalin. The Daleks are opening a series for the first time in almost a quarter of a century. There’s lots of them, and there’s plenty of other stuff to like, too, because…

People who were viewers in the old days, when the ‘classic’ series was first broadcast, often bang on about how great the surprise at the end of Earthshock Part One was, when we find out that the controllers of the androids are none other than the Cybermen. It’s largely impossible to get that kind of shock and awe these days because things get leaked out in advance (intentionally or otherwise), and the whole medium of television operates differently. I’ve spoken before about how great it was to see the return of the Master in Series Three because although there’d been hints and rumours, I wasn’t ever certain that it was going to happen until just before it did. Well, Asylum of the Daleks is my Earthshock Part One. Jenna Coleman had been announced as the new companion months ago. I think by this point there’d even been plenty of pictures flying around of her filming her episodes. And yet here she is! Months before I was expecting her, and without the tiniest hint (that reached me, anyway) that she might be appearing. Oh it was exciting. This episode gains a whole point extra simply because that’s still one of the best moments I’ve ever had watching Doctor Who. The sheer surprise, and bafflement. Oh, Moffat, you’re a clever one.

For all my raving here, I can’t say that Asylum of the Daleks is perfect, and there’s one thing at the heart of it which really lets the episode down - the relationship between the Ponds. They’re getting a divorce, we’re told. It transpires that it’s because Amy is no longer able to have a child, and while neither of them wants to split up, they both think that the other would. In all honesty, it’s a great bit of drama, and it’s packed with a lot of the stuff I wanted to see in the latter half of Series Six - the aftermath of the events at Demon’s Run, and the way that it affects these two normal people in their day-to-day lives. But the whole thing rings extremely hollow - it seems to come from nowhere (The 5-mini-episode Pond Life in theory sets it up, but even there it comes from absolutely nowhere in the final minute or so without the tiniest hint of build up), and it’s resolved pretty easily as soon as its served its purpose in the plot. It feels like an incredible waste of what should be some great drama for the characters, and it’s a pity - by far the weakest part of the story.

 

 
2 April 2015

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

Day 822: The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe

Dear Diary,

Although I’ve never been one for actively seeking out spoilers, there always used to be a little pang of excitement when a photo from filming crossed my path. Oh, it opened up a whole world of possibilities! What was that? And who was she? And why did they have that prop, or that bit of costume? I used to enjoy musing on all the different explanations, and then discovering that I was completely wrong by the time the episode actually made it to the screen. I think the fun in that has been entirely sucked out of the filming, these days, by a number of people who seem to think it’s their mission to gather as much information as possible, and share it far and wide for some kind of status, but that’s a gripe for another time and another place.

But that excitement meant that when I moved to Wales, one of the first things I was desperate to do was to go and see Doctor Who being made. How brilliant must that be? Only problem was that they weren’t filming at that point, because it was between seasons, and the schedule being shifted around meant that they wouldn’t be out and about for a while yet. I carried on, took a job designing people’s kitchens, and put Doctor Who on the back burner. And then the call came. one day, just as I was leaving off work, I had a message to say that Who was setting up for filming just round the corner, and that Matt Smith was due to be there. Oh, I ran to the location, and watched for a few hours as a seemingly drunk Doctor was helped back towards a police box which wasn’t his TARDIS. I’ve seen a few more bits of filming since then (though, it has to be said that the novelty has largely worn off now I’ve been here a few years. I wandered past filming for Deep Breath twice on my walk to Tesco last spring and didn’t pause for more than a cursory glance on either occasion), but this particular night was special, because I’d never been so close to the people making actual brand new episodes of Doctor Who.

Oh, it was a long few months to Christmas, but we settled down to watch this episode (my first Christmas away from home and my own family, spending it instead with my then-partner’s parents), filled with a huge sense of excitement… and was instead presented with this episode. Dear lord, it was just a horrible, horrible hour. I’ve barely cast this one a second thought since transmission (indeed, when I saw a clip of it recently as part of a montage, I couldn’t place what on Earth it was from until it was pointed out to me), and so I’ve not exactly been relishing the thought of watching it for this marathon. As I seem to have said a lot during Series Six, though, I’ve been re-evaluating my previous opinions on lots of stories, and this one perhaps isn’t immune to a bit of a change…

…On the other hand, perhaps it is. Oh, I tried, readers! I promise you I did. I went for my usual trick, there, of writing the opening to this entry while the blu-ray loaded up, and had it safe in my head that I’d be able to come back to this one and say how I’d been filled with festive spirit by how marvellous the episode was, and how I’d been a fool all those years ago to not enjoy such a masterpiece of Doctor Who. But no, sorry. For a pretty large chunk, I completely zoned out and wasn’t even paying attention. I could see the episode playing out on the screen, and I could even sort of hear it, but my mind was somewhere else entirely. When I came round, the mum was flying the Crystal Maze through the Time Vortex. Or something.

For the first time in almost two-and-a-half years of writing The 50 Year Diary, I turned off after the episode, and thought clearly ‘that’s a 1/10’. I’ve had emails complaining about the fact that I’ve never given a 1/10! I sat down, prepared for it and… well, I simply couldn’t do it! Yes, I’ve disliked this one. No, I doubt I’ll be attempting to watch it again at any point in the next decade. And yet… it’s still Doctor Who, and is Doctor Who ever a 1/10 programme? Really?

For all that I’ve not enjoyed the story on the whole, and actively stopped bothering to watch for a while, there’s still things in my nots that I have enjoyed! Some great lines for the Doctor about the door developing faults, and the Doctor not being who they were expecting. Some amusing asides from the crew harvesting the trees. The frankly gorgeous shot of the TARDIS stood in the attic, which might be one of the nicest frames of Doctor Who ever…

So there we have it. I’d quite happily continue to say that The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe is my least favourite episode of Doctor Who. I don’t plan to give it a whirl again if I can avoid it. And yet, still, Doctor Who always has something to redeem it. With that in mind…

 

 
1 April 2015

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

Day 821: The Wedding of River Song

Dear diary,

The Wedding of River Song is quite a bit like Let’s Kill Hitler, in that you sort of get to the end and wonder what you’ve just been watching. As episodes go, this one has something of a difficult job, really, trying to tie up strands of story that have been running for the whole season (and one or two that have been dangling a little longer than that), and to do so in 45 minutes, as opposed to the usual 90-minutes that finales have had since 2005. Does it manage it? Um…

Well, let’s start with the positives. Even if I did come away from this one with a bit of a sense of not knowing what was really happening, I can’t say that I’ve not actually enjoyed it. There’s an awful lot of great imagery in this one, from the way that the ‘all of time happening at once’ scenes are presented (I’d forgotten about the return of Simon Callow as Charles Dickens - there’s something especially magical about that!), to the Silence breaking down the doors of a pyramid and launching an attack. There’s a lot of great lines in here, too, and more than many episodes of late, I found myself quoting along as I watched, which is usually a good sign.

As for wrapping everything up, though… I’m on record a few times over the last fortnight as not really caring for the Series Six arcs. They simply don’t work for me as well as I’d like them to, and while I can bleat on about the split in the series causing problems, or the way that characters react from story to story, or the format of a one-part closing episode, the simple fact is that everything has fallen apart a bit this year. The show looks beautiful - perhaps more so than at any point before now - but the substance is lacking something. At the time I recall wondering if Steven Moffat was struggling with the workload and musing that it could be part of the reason for splitting the run, and watching it again now it’s hard to wonder all that again; there’s certainly something not working.

On the upside, though, I’ve enjoyed this run of episodes far more than I was expecting to, and a whole lot more than I did at the time. Again, I’ve said a lot of late about how much I didn’t enjoy the programme in 2011, but there’s been a lot of merit in this series, and I’m glad to have taken the time to re-evaluate it. Perfect? No, but it’s a hell of a lot better than expected. If we don’t count A Christmas Carol (as it was made separately and isn’t really a part of this run, then Series Six has averaged 6.38/10 across the run - and that’s way more than I’d have guessed a month back! It does make this my lowest-rated season of the ‘revived’ Doctor Who yet, but only by a whisker - Series Two skirts ahead with 6.76/10 - but it’s not a million miles behind the front-runner which is (much to my own surprise, if I’m honest) Series Three with 7.53/10!

Next question, though… will this general feeling of goodwill be enough to save me from an episode that I’d risk calling my least favourite ever, and which I’ll be reaching tomorrow?

 

 
31 March 2015

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

Day 820: Closing Time

Dear diary,

When this episode first aired, my general ‘meh’-ness about Series Six had reached fever pitch, and I was thoroughly bored by the whole thing. More Cybermen? Yawn. The return of Craig? Unnecessary. The Setting? Rubbish. The Story itself? Didn’t go anywhere. On the whole, I think it’s fair to say that I was a trifle grumpy.

It’s rather nice, therefore, that watching it today, with a wholly more positive outlook on this run of stories has almost been like presenting me with an entirely different story to the one I remember from a few years ago. More Cybermen? Good! They’re my favourite monsters, after all, and they’re really only used as window dressing here, because… The Return of Craig is the big selling point. We’ll come back to this in a moment because for now I need to touch on… The Setting. It’s not ‘rubbish’ at all - it’s just normal, which again, is the whole bloody point. You can tell how much of a funk I must have been in first time around, because there’s lots in here that I simply failed to engage with on any level before.

As I’ve said, the real point of this episode is the return of Craig from the previous year’s The Lodger. When this return was first announced, I don’t think I had any particular reaction beyond a simple ‘oh, right’. By the time the episode aired, though, it almost annoyed me that they’d brought him back. Why? What’s the point? He was a one story character who had no right or need to make a return appearance and certainly not this soon. What I think I totally failed to grasp before now is that Craig is back because of just how brilliant he is. Also, how well James Corden pairs up with Matt Smith. Oh, they went together brilliantly in The Lodger, but that’s notched right up to eleven this time around, and the highlights of this episode - for me - are every moment the two share the screen. They’re a hoot! There’s times where you sort of forget that it’s the Doctor and a human hanging out, and just feel like you’re enjoying Matt and James having a laugh - and you’re actually laughing along with them.

It’s telling that is in total contrast to the thing I enjoyed the least about this one - the cameo appearance of Amy and Rory. I think I knew that The God Complex wasn’t to be their last appearance because they were destined to be in the finale, but it felt like a pointless exercise to have them show up here. I realise that it’s a character moment for the Doctor, but even this time around, having been carried to this point of the episode throughly enjoying it, I suddenly found myself taken right out of the narrative, and making notes about how rubbish the moment is… and it’s all then highlighted by the fact that we’re thrown immediately back into the Doctor and Craig teaming up, and it’s back to being rather fun and enjoyable again!

If anything, it makes me rather sad that we didn’t get to have one final outing for the pair of them before the Eleventh Doctor’s time came to a close. I’m not quite sure where their story needs (or indeed can) go from here, but it seems like a shame to think that there’s a whole further season-and-a-bit of adventures for the Doctor, and that Craig will be absent from them. If nothing else, can we start working out how to get Smith and Corden their own show?

 

 
30 March 2015

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

Day 819: The God Complex

Der diary,

When Lynda-with-a-‘y’ (I know it’s pointless to type out the full name, because you can see it’s ‘with-a-‘y’’, but somehow it feels wrong not to) turned up in the Series One finale, it seemed so clear to me that she was being introduced as a replacement to Rose, or at least an additional travelling companion, and I wasn’t all that keen on the thought, because she rubbed me up the wrong way, somehow. Then, of course, it turned out that she wasn’t to be the next companion at all, and that we were supposed to fall into the trap of thinking that, because we feel it all them ore keenly when she dies. That’s the kind of trick you can only pull the once, though, so when Astrid asks to go with the Doctor while the Titanic falls from orbit around them, you just know that she;s never making it out of that ship in one piece (and quite besides the face that it’s Kylie-bleedin’-Minogue, and there’s no way they’s get her to Cardiff for a nine month shoot!).

I resolved to never fall for that trap again, and it was working pretty well, on the whole, until this episode came along, and I became convinced that Rita was to be the replacement for Amy and Rory. She had all the hallmarks, and she’s being set up pretty obviously (but not too over-the-top obviously) as perfect companion material, and it seemed to be fairly common knowledge that the Ponds would be departing in this episode (or, at least, I assume it was common knowledge, because I was aware that this was to be their last episode - barring perhaps a cameo in the finale - and I’d not been paying all that much attention). Everything seemed to fit… and then the buggers went and did it again! She loses her faith, and heads off to meet the minotaur. Oh, that stung just as much as Lynda-with-a-‘y’. Perhaps even more so, because for all I said nice things about Amy and Rory yesterday, on first transmission they could have been anyone for all I cared about them, and I rather liked Rita.

If there’s something that bothers me here, then it’s the ending. Not the ending of all the stuff in the ‘hotel', that's all fine, but the actual end of the episode with the Doctor dropping the Ponds off to live a happy life together. In many ways, it’s a great ending for them (and, if I’m honest, i think it might be the best ending for them), being given everything they need to settle down and start living a more ‘normal' life together. You can only run away with your childhood imaginary friend for so long, after all. I think the issue I have is that it’s not quite built up as well as I’d like. We had Rory snapping at the Doctor during the events of The Girl Who Waited, and announcing that he’s had enough, and there's plenty of hints throughout this episode that the time is right for the Ponds to leave, but it feels like it needed a little… more.

The most obvious thing comes from episodes like Night Terrors, where I was very vocal about the irritating way that the episode doesn’t even try to touch on the relationship that Amy and Rory have with parenthood, and so soon after it’s been such a major concern for them. I can’t help but feel that this departure needed to come after a few episodes of the Ponds 'going through the motions’ because the Doctor is there and he’s ready for adventure, but they're ready to move on and grow up. Time to stop running. I’m also slightly unsure about the way that the departure is handled, with it being pitched as though it’s the first time that Amy will have been without the Doctor since he came back for her in Leadworth - although we know they had a break between A Christmas Carol and another one in the gap during Series Six… maybe Amy simply doesn’t think he will come back this time?

That doesn’t stop this from being a rather lovely way for them to say goodbye, and it’s only right that the bulk of the emotion in the scene is pitched over the Doctor and Amy - while Rory has been a vital part of their story together, it started with the scared little girl being rescued by the madman in the box, and it ends with the scared big girl moving on the next stage of her life. First time around, I couldn’t get on board with the idea that they go on to have another half-a-season of travels with the Doctor after such a fitting goodbye, so I’m intrigued now to see how they feel over the next week… 

 

 
29 March 2015

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

Day 818: The Girl Who Waited

Dear diary,

I try not to quote long passages of dialogue in the Diary if I can avoid it, but I really feel the need to do so today;

AMY

You know when sometimes you meet someone so beautiful… And then you actually talk to them, and five minutes later they're as dull as a brick? Then there's other people, and you meet them and think, not bad, they're okay. And then you get to know them, and their face just sort of becomes them, like their personality's written all over it. And they just turn into something so beautiful. Rory's the most beautiful man I've ever met. 

This is just a wonderful moment, and the real highlight of the episode for me. Make no mistake that today’s score is a point higher than it ought to be simply because of how moving this scene was. That quote is possibly the most accurate description of love, as I’ve experienced it, ever. Oh, it’s perfect, and it’s just the absolute best way to describe Amy and Rory’s relationship.

Which is good, because make no bones about it - this is their episode. Every season tends to have a ‘Doctor-lite’ story somewhere among its ranks, and this one takes the same approach as Turn Left, in using the opportunity to focus purely on the Doctor’s current travelling companions, and to really explore who they are.

If I’m entirely honest, I never really understood the love for Amy and Rory. I think a lot of that came down to the fact that I’d largely been indifferent to Series Six, and that seemed to coincide with the programme suddenly becoming huge in America, and what seemed to be endless floods of American fans proclaiming that this duo were simply the best companions ever. ‘Sure,’ I thought, assuming that it was simply people who’d not seen any other companions. Actually, though, that wasn’t really fair of me. We’re almost three whole years on, now, from their departure and yet the legacy lives on - somehow, this pair struck a chord.

Watching through over the last three-or-so weeks, I can certainly see a lot of merits to the characters (Rory especially makes me laugh), and despite a bit of a wobble with Amy right at the start of Series Five (where it felt as though she was being set up as some kind of ‘super companion’ by being the only one who could save the day on several consecutive occasions and to a greater extent than usual, to the ultimate effect that the programme seem to be over-selling her to us; ‘no, really, she is a great companion’), I’ve grown to really like her, too. It’s an interesting relationship that she shares with this incarnation of the Doctor, and I like that there’s a love between them, but it’s quite different to the love we had with Rose, Martha, or Donna. It’s a unique way of examining the Doctor-Companion relationship, and I’ve appreciated that all the more this time around.

This episode focussing largely on Amy and Rory doesn’t mean that the Doctor gets sidelined, though: we also get to see another glimpse of this incarnation’s ‘dark side’, which I banged on about so much during the Gangers two-parter last week. Oh, there’s something wonderful about the look he gives the older Amy as he shuts her out of the TARDIS and condemns her to death. Much has been written in the last six months about the way that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor can be so much ‘darker’ and ‘colder’ than many of the other Doctors, but frankly that’s rubbish - here’s that exact same ruthlessness, but we’re seeing it though a momentary lapse in the ‘cover’ the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors try to project. When the real Time Lord breaks through in scenes like this, it’s really wonderful to watch.

28 March 2015

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

Day 817: Night Terrors

Dear diary,

So. The arrival of the TARDIS is nicely shot, innit?

Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve been sort of dreading this one, because I simply have nothing to say about it. When this episode first went out, I can remember thinking that it was a bit of a rehash of Fear Her (which in my memory had been rubbish in itself), and that I’d not be rushing to revisit it any time soon. In fairness, watching it today I can safely say that it’s not in any way a rehash of Fear Her, but that hasn’t made me love it any more.

This is actually the second entry I’ve written for this episode, because putting together the first version earlier on, I found myself simply typing as I mulled over the episode, and slowly realised exactly what my problem was with it. The closer I came to the conclusion, the more I found myself getting annoyed by it, and consequently the score today is probably lower than it should have been, as marks dropped off it (not many marks, to be fair, but all the same). Does it deserve such a low score? Well, no, probably not. For one thing, the direction really is rather nice in this one, and there’s some especially nice transitions from shot to shot, but even those can’t save it from the big issue at its heart.

Specifically, the last two stories have been about Amy and Rory suddenly discovering that - shock horror - they’ve got a baby. It’s one that they weren’t really expecting, since Amy hadn’t broached the subject with her husband before being kidnapped and replaced with a living Flesh duplicate. As you do. Just when they think that everything is back to normal and that they can actually come to terms with the sudden arrival of a child in their lives, the kid gets snatched away again, and they have to head back home to await news for their baby’s well being.

Mixed in with all this is the discovery that a woman they’ve shared several adventures with and who their time-travelling best friend has a bit of a thing for has actually been their daughter - albeit grown up - all along. As if all that wasn’t enough, it then turns out that the same woman was also their childhood best friend but in a different body, so they’ve actually been growing up alongside their daughter all this time. I’m sure you’ll admit that it’s quite the roller coaster of emotions for a couple to experience, and it’s probably rather clever that the next story to be broadcast after this little mini-arc is one all about how difficult it can be to act as a parent. There’s so much that you can explore here with Amy and Rory coming to terms with everything that’s just happened.

But that’s not really what happens. In fact, the events of the last couple of episodes don’t even warrant a mention, while Amy and Rory only appear in the same scene as the child of the story briefly towards the end (and Amy’s made of wood by that point). It felt like an odd decision on first glance, but is actively annoying me the more I think about it - why waste such an obvious opportunity to explore the depth of the situation they’ve just been through? Over the next couple of stories, we’re going to be building towards Amy and Rory’s first exit from the TARDIS, and it just feels like this should have been an important step on that journey. A real shame.

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…

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