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3 January 2015

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

Day 734: The Unquiet Dead

Dear diary,

Over the last week, I’ve been musing that the revived series in 2005 had an easier job in some ways that the TV Movie did in 1996. A couple of people have messaged on Twitter to take issue with that idea, so I thought I’d better explain myself a little better. What I actually mean is that the TV Movie had a single 90-minute slot to hook your attention, get you up to speed with Doctor Who, and tell a decent story. It manages some if not all of those to varying degrees. The 2005 series has the added benefit that it’s already guaranteed thirteen weeks to cover all those bases. It doesn’t have to worry about cramming in all the set up for the programme in that first instalment - it can slowly drip feed it to you as time goes by. I said the other day that any follow up to the TV movie would be a difficult thing to judge, because we don’t really see the TARDIS go anywhere (it makes a hop at the very end of the story, but not much is made of that fact), whereas Rose shows the TARDIS transporting from place-to-place quite often, and it becomes very clear that it has abilities beyond that.

Once that first episode is over, we can then venture off and set up the time travel aspect of the TARDIS rather neatly by venturing off in to the future. We then go the opposite way, back in to the past. It’s got the freedom of a continuing story to get you used to everything you need to know, so it doesn’t have to be quite so ‘full-on’ about it. Does that make any sense? I hope so. Thinking about it, I’d never realised just how often the revived programme for the first three episodes of the season. Right up to and including Season Five, we get the past/present/future set up to open each season, though they do play around with the order. I don’t think I’ve ever considered just how well that works as a good set up for the series, and for the fresh introduction of bringing in a new companion most years. It’s almost like taking things right back to 1963, where we had a similar set up - present day in Coal Hill School, way back to 100,000BC, and then off to the far future, and the home world of the Daleks.

I’ve said it before, but the Victorian era feels so right for Doctor Who. We’ve not spent a great deal of time there in the ‘classic’ run (off the top of my head, I can only think of The Evil of the Daleks, The Talons of Weng Chiang, and Ghost Light actually taking place in that period), but it’s going to become a fairly regular setting from now on. It’s good to note, then, that the BBC haven’t lost their touch at creating historical settings in the time that the programme has been away. It really is bread-and-butter stuff for a television design department, and it’s quite nice to note just how close this serial looks to Ghost Light. I spent such a long time commenting that the McCoy years were starting to resemble the ‘new’ series, so it’s always nice to see that the same can be said of the production standards. I’ve also commented before that had more people been watching the series in the late 1980s, it could have had the kind of acclaim that stories like this one received.

It doesn’t hurt that we’ve got a fantastic guest star for this episode in the form of Simon Callow as Charles Dickins. It’s a performance that’s always stuck in the mind right the way from the first time I saw the episode, so I’m really pleased to see that it’s holding up as well as I’d remembered. The series has attracted its fair share of big names over the years (and, it has to be said, the same was true of the ‘classic’ run), and you can really see that being set out in these early episodes. Three weeks in and we’ve already had the likes of Zoe Wannamaker and the aforementioned Simon Callow, and tomorrow we’ll be adding Penelope Wilton to the list. I mused yesterday that you could see the programme really setting out what it was going to be, and that’s true of the guest casts, too. There’s a very clear attempt to cast ‘big’ names… but proper actors in doing so. They’re going for respected talent and making sure that the programme can’t be taken as a joke.

That extends right the way to the top, too. Three days in and I’ve not properly mentioned Chris Eccleston yet. To tell the truth, it’s because I’m not really sure what to say of him. I’d experienced bits (sometimes all) of every Doctor’s run before starting out on this marathon, but the Ninth Doctor is the one that I first watched right the way through on television. Although I’d seen a few others before he grabbed Rose’s hand and urged her to run, Eccleston is really, I suppose, ‘my’ Doctor. So I’m not really watching him in the same way that I’ve been watching all the others for the last two years. He simply is the Doctor. That said, I’m noticing more this time around a slight unease with the role. I mean, he’s very good - don’t get me wrong - but he’s not slipping as naturally in to the part as I remember him doing. That’s something I’m going to be making sure to keep an eye on going forward, because we’re still in very early days (and the next two episodes were filmed before these last two, so I’m wondering if we may be taking a step back).

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