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28 February 2015

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

Day 789: The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith

Dear diary,

I’m sure I must have mentioned it at some point before now, but I really enjoyed The Sarah Jane Adventures. For a long time, I would say that the average quality across the show had a better ‘hit-rate’ than Doctor Who did - there’s no episodes of this show that I think would rate below about a 5. For a long time, I seriously considered the idea of watching all of The Sarah Jane Adventures in tandem with modern Doctor Who, slipping it into the gaps between seasons as it was originally broadcast, and watching how everything ties up (for example, there’s a story just a few episodes before the one I’ve done today which serves as a follow up to Dreamland, which I’ll be watching in a few day’s time), but then I’d feel like I’d have to include Torchwood in the marathon, too, and it all just gets a bit messy. As such, I decided to limit myself to just doing the two stories in which the Doctor himself makes an appearance in Sarah Jane’s world.

What’s impressive is that despite the sheer presence of David Tennant, he never manages to overpower or steal the show. This is very much an episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures which the Doctor happens to appear in, rather than a Doctor Who episode that’s been misplaced over to its spin off show. And yet, there’s still something that feels so right about having the Doctor pop up in this corner of his fictional universe - especially in the year where Doctor Who was so massively absent from TV screens. When the programme tried it again a year later, bringing the Eleventh Doctor into Sarah Jane’s world (and with Jo Grant, to boot), it just didn’t have the same impact that we have here, and that’s a pity. I’m sure I’ll look into that more in a few weeks, as I’ll be including Death of the Doctor after Series Five of the ‘parent’ show.

One of the things that this story does especially well is in pairing the Doctor largely with the young cast of the programme - Luke, Clyde, and Rani. It’s always a thrill to see the Doctor and Sarah Jane reunited, but there’s something extra special about seeing these new characters become a part of his world. Oh, sure, he got to speak to Luke on a screen during the last season finale, but there’s something jus that little bit extra special about seeing him trapped with the three of them in a single second of time. It also means that something different is being done with the idea of the Doctor and Sarah meeting up again, and it avoids simply becoming a rehash of their other recent reunions.

That doesn’t mean that Sarah Jane is left out of the story, though, and watching this episode back now I’m really floored by Elisabeth Sladen. When she pops up in Doctor Who during this period, she absolutely shines, but she’s really just one of many. Especially by the time we reach The Stolen Earth, she’s fighting for presence against so many other characters. This programme, though, is absolutely justified by the performance she gives here. Oh, there’s something beautiful about watching her and Peter fall in love. I remember complaining at the time that we should have seen those dates (or at least the secrecy aspect to them) played out more in the four episodes preceding these two, but watching it again now I’m happy to say that I was wrong on that. It’s written - and performed - so neatly that I completely buy the pair falling for each other. A large amount of the credit for that has to go to Sladen, because she sells it all so well, even when watching Sarah Jane fall in love isn’s perhaps something we’re used to seeing.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that they only go and get Nigel Havers in to play her hubby-to-be! Doctor Who has never been afraid of going for big names in the casting - especially at this point in its history - but I love the fact that the entire Who franchise had such stature by 2009 that you could get actors of this calibre to appear in a couple of episodes for CBBC! I’ve not really said an awful lot about these two episodes in particular - rather spent my time simply praising The Sarah Jane Adventures as a show - but I’m not sorry about that, because I’m just glad to have an opportunity to rave about it. If you’ve not indulged in this part of the Who universe before, please give it a go - some of the strongest material ever is tucked away across these five seasons…

27 February 2015

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

Day 788: Planet of the Dead

Dear diary,

The ‘gap year’ of Doctor Who in 2009 felt like the worst thing in the world at the time, didn’t it? We’d become so accustomed to having a full thirteen-week run from around Easter that the thought of only having a few episodes scattered across the year (and, really, months apart, with only this episode at Easter and then nothing more until November!) was devastating. It did mean, however, that when the weekend of this episode approached it felt all that more special. It wasn’t just the start of a new run of Who, it was the only island of Who, and it needed to be savoured. It made it, as the name suggested, a special episode.

Which then made it all the more disappointing when the end credits rolled and I sort of went away thinking ‘eh’. I don’t think I’d thought it was bad, just that it hadn’t been great either, and when there’s not another episode along seven days later which might be more to your tastes, that makes it stick out even more as being a bit of a let down. I’d planned to give it another watch, once all the anticipation had died down and we were back into the longest drought of Who for several years, but I just never really found the enthusiasm for it. Over the years, this has sat in my head as just a bit of a ‘nothing’ episode - not great, but not awful either.

Today, though, I have to admit that it hasn’t captured me at all. There was a period (from about the time Christina jumped into the… um… I don’t know, ‘hole in the spaceship’ to the bus flying back through the wormhole where I completely tuned out. I was looking at the episode, and although I picked up on a few bits, it wasn’t really going in. I was going to skip back and re-watch those minutes over again, but just as with last time, I couldn’t really summon up the enthusiasm.

I’m not even entirely sure why that’s a problem here, because there’s plenty to keep you both engaged and entertained. There’s UNIT, for a start. Gorgeous locations in the desert (more on which in a moment). Plenty of threat. Some rather nice aliens in the form of the stingrays, and a nice idea behind what those creatures are and how they operate… and yet. something falls completely flat for me, and while all the right pieces are on the table, they’re just not moving in the right direction for me.

I’ll get onto the things I liked about this one in a moment, because contrary to the way I sound above I didn’t hate the episode, and there are some rather good bits, but first I’ll have to single out something which really let the episode down for me - and it’s Michelle Ryan. Something about her performance just comes across as wrong to my mind, almost like she’s focussing so hard on maintaining the right voice for the character that she’s forgetting to do more than blandly deliver some of the lines. I try to not criticise people’s acting skills if I can avoid it (and she’s a million miles away from the worst performance in Doctor Who which is still to come in a few week’s time), but she felt so out of place with the rest of the cast here that I simply couldn’t avoid it.

In contrast, you’ve got Lee Evans’ turn as UNIT’s Scientific Advisor Malcolm. I have to admit that I’ve never really been a fan of Evans’ comedy shows (I think it’s that old thing of so many people telling me how funny he is means that I simply can’t see it), so I wasn’t particularly thrilled when he was announced as one of the guest characters for the episode, but I can’t help but absolutely love him. The performance, the character… oh, everything. I’d love to see him pop up again at some point - I think he’d play nicely off Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, who would probably serve as a great counterbalance to Malcolm’s enthusiasm.

And then there’s the Dubai filming in the desert! It does look good, doesn’t it? There was a moment, when the camera pulled back from the doors of the bus to show the landscape of this world when I half pondered how beautiful it looked, and half wondered if it could have simply been done in the UK with some lovely matte painting (I've already praised the way the production team do those recently, and I think I’m right in saying that this shot has been beefed up with one?), but then later on when you get to watch the Doctor and Christina exploring the sand dunes, you really get a sense of why the programme went so far for these vistas, because they are gorgeous. 

26 February 2015

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

Day 787: The Next Doctor

Dear diary,

The speculation this caused at the time! David Tennant announced as departing the programme, followed by a story entitled The Next Doctor, and with David Morrissey - a potential Doctor candidate - cast in the part! I’m not sure if I ever thought that he could be Tennant’s replacement or not… I don’t think so, though.

The mystery of who this mysterious other Doctor is has to be the very heart of this episode for me. That first half of the story, in which the Doctor slowly pieces things together while we’re given glimpses into the strange versions of familiar objects that this Doctor uses (the hot-air balloon TARDIS is great, but I really love the joke about his screwdriver being sonic), culminating in a beautiful moment when we discover the truth about him, and why he’s been acting as a Time Lord from Gallifrey. If I’m honest, I quite liked all of that. Couldn’t put my finger on why I remembered this episode being so poor, because there were several really rather nice moments to enjoy.

But then, once the ‘reveal’ is out of the way it all got really boring. I love the Cybermen, they’ve always been my favourite Doctor Who monsters, and yet I just couldn’t find the effort to care about them here. They stomp around and talk about the construction of the Cyber-King… and even when that arrives on screen - a great big Cyberman-type robot powered by coal and steam and stomping its way across London… I was still bored. By the time we get the reveal that Jackson Lake lost not only his wife the night the Cybermen attacked, but his son too, I simply didn’t care one jolt. It didn’t help that his son is left standing like an idiot while all the other children are hurried from the building. It simply felt like an excuse to have the Doctor do a big stunt at that point of the episode, to keep the action going a bit.

Somewhere along the way, this story feels like it was split in two, with the emotional, human story of Jackson Lake, and the mystery of ‘The Doctor’ being consigned to the first half (along with the one bit of Cybermen action that I can claim to have enjoyed in this one; the attack on the graveyard), while the second half was made up of a rather rubbish Cyberman story. I’d say this is the absolute definition of ‘average’ Doctor Who.

A description I fear is going to be applied to a few stories coming up this week. From this point on, there’s only two stories (The Eleventh Hour and The Day of the Doctor) which I’ve seen more than once, and on both occasions that re-watch came within a few days of the original broadcast. I can remember thinking that Planet of the Dead was rather weak, The Waters of Mars was rather brilliant, and The End of Time was rather lacking as the end to such a fine Doctor. As for my thoughts on things after that… well, we’ll get there soon enough.

So, a brief note on how I’m going to be tackling the ‘Specials’ over the next week or so. I’ll be moving - as is traditional - onto Planet of the Dead tomorrow, dipping out the day afterwards to visit Ealing for The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith (I’ll be cheating a little and doing both episodes on the same day, since the Doctor only really shows up in the second half), then The Waters of Mars, a quick trip to the US for Dreamland (which I’m particularly looking forward to, as it’s the last bit of Tennant-Who I’ve never seen), and then finishing off with two days of The End of Time. It’s almost the end, but the moment is being prepared for!

25 February 2015

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

Day 786: Journey’s End

Dear diary,

At the start of this year, during my discussions about the Daleks for Dalek, and the Bad Wolf two-parter, I made several references to the fact that the Daleks in ‘new’ Who were never again as ruthless as they are in those stories. Frankly, I was wrong! I was a bit surprised when they turned up again for Doomsday and got to do their fair share of being rather scary and powerful, but here they’re well away! Certainly, they’ve lost a few of the ‘special features’ they had in Series One (the likes of a revolving mid-section, and the whole ‘being able to stop bullets’ thing - which I almost thought they’d brought back today before it turned out to be the result of a time-lock built around the Hub.

But the Daleks here are cold. They shoot Jack without a second thought (and while we know that he’ll be springing back up again in a few minutes, we get to experience the shock of the moment through Rose, who doesn’t know that she’s made that man immortal), and then you’ve got the way that the Supreme Dalek taunts the Doctor while Donna is left to burn in the heart of their Crucible. If I’m honest, the Daleks don’t really do a whole lot else in this one - they mull around and look menacing while really acting as pets to Davros - but those few moments really make them worthwhile, and I’m pleased to see how wrong I was about them losing their touch after that first year.

Not that I’m complaining about Davros, though! Oh, certainly, he means that the Daleks don’t really get an awful lot to do here because he’s the focal point for much of the episodes’ villainy, but let’s be honest, Julian Bleech is simply perfect in the part, isn’t he? My God he’s good. There’s something so wonderful about the way he slips from being the calm, collected, in control version of the character to the crazed, half-mad, ready-to-end-the-universe version. I think, on reflection, Bleech is my favourite of all the Davros incarnations (Davroses? Davrii?). And if the Daleks’ presence is justified by the few moments in which they’re ruthless and hurtful, then Davros’ presence is brought into the light by the moment he sees Sarah Jane after so long. ‘You were there on Skaro,’ he muses, and suddenly it’s never felt more right that Sarah should have stumbled back into the Doctor’s life. Oh, there’s something just magical about the fact that after all these years, Sarah Jane (and Elisabeth Sladen) is back in the Doctor’s life again, fighting the good fight alongside her best friend.

I can’t discuss Journey’s End without bringing up the… um… well, the ‘journey’s end’. In The Writer’s Tale, Russell T Davies wonders about the departure he’s given Donna here, and wether children will be able to connect with it in the same way they can the other companion departures. Rose gets sealed off in another universe and can’t get back. Fine. Martha chooses to stay behind and care for her family. Also fine. Donna has her world taken away from her, and simply forgets. It’s perhaps not quite as relatable as the other two departures, but it is wonderful.

And I think that it’s the right ending for Donna - it was this or death for her, I think, because not a lot else would have stopped this woman from standing at the Doctor’s side. The sense of loss through the whole situation is easy to feel, if not from Donna, then from the characters all around her. The Doctor is heartbroken, and Wilf, who I’ve said has made me want to cry every time he pops up on screen, is absolutely broken. It’s terrible, and beautiful, and such a moving way for Donna to go.

There’s one thing that’s always bothered me about it, though, and watching through the series again this last couple of weeks has really flared it up as a bugbear in my mind. Once Donna has ‘activated’, the Doctor comments;

THE DOCTOR

The Doctor Donna. Just like the Ood said, remember? They saw it coming. The Doctor Donna. 

But surely, in Planet of the Ood, the Ood call the pair ‘DoctorDonna’ because that’s how the Doctor introduced themselves? Frantically, then they thought they were going to be attacked, repeated over and over again;

THE DOCTOR

Doctor, Donna, friends. 

I always took it to be that the Ood went on to call them ‘Doctor Donna’ because that’s the name they’d been given. Yeah, yeah, I know that you could argue that the Ood were seeing more than that, and that they were seeing the Metacrisis, but it’s always sat ill with me…

We also need to make another stop today on my journey of ‘foreshadowing the regeneration’, because a lot of the dialogue here would go on to have greater significance once The End of Time came along. The Doctor muses that the timelines were all drawing together - getting Donna, then her granddad, then meeting Donna again… - because they were closing in on the moment that Donna and the Doctor became one. But actually, you can take Caan’s comment that ‘one will still die’ to mean not Donna in the sense of losing her memories, but to mean The Doctor, because we know now that the Doctor meeting Donna wasn’t simply fate - he claims that Wilf was ‘always’ going to be the way he dies. I’m really enjoying uncovering these extra little things buried in scripts where they were almost certainly never meant to be signposts of what was to come, but work beautifully as such in retrospect…

24 February 2015

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

Day 785: The Stolen Earth

Dear diary,

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

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

WILF

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

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

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

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

23 February 2015

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

Day 784: Turn Left

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

22 February 2015

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

Day 783: Midnight

Dear diary,

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

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

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

VAL

I said it was her.

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

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

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

21 February 2015

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

Day 782: Forest of the Dead

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

20 February 2015

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

Day 781: Silence in the Library

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

19 February 2015

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

Day 780: The Unicorn and the Wasp

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

18 February 2015

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

Day 779: The Doctor’s Daughter

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17 February 2015

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

Day 778: The Poison Sky

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 February 2015

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

Day 777: The Sontaran Stratagem

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

15 February 2015

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

Day 776: Planet of the Ood

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

DONNA

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

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

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

14 February 2015

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

Day 775: The Fires of Pompeii

Dear diary,

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

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

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

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

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

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