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4 January 2015

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

Day 735: Aliens of London

Dear diary,

It’s the first cliffhanger of the 21st century Doctor Who… and my god they botch it, don’t they? It’s possibly only because it’s the most recent thing in my mind, but it’s really sticking out as a massive error. They’ve gone all out for the first cliffhanger, placing as many people into danger as they possibly can… and then cut directly into a ‘next time’ trailer, that shows all those same people up and about and continuing the adventure next week! I don’t think you’re ever expecting any of our main characters to be in any real danger (even if you’re not coming to this episode having just sat through 700-and-something others, you know that nothing serious is about to happen), but you still want to have that suspense of waiting to see what happens! Am I right in saying that they later moved the trailers to after the credits for a two-parter? That seems a more sensible option than this!

Anyway, now that’s out of my system…

Right back during The Web of Fear, I commented on how much I liked the Doctor to have a number of friends scattered throughout the universe that he can drop in on from time to time. I don’t necessarily mean the likes of the ‘UNIT family’, where he was regularly a part of their lives, but just people who crop up now and then to share in his adventures. This episode is really where that concept is brought to the fore for the revived version of the programme, and it’ll remain a key factor through the rest of Russell T Davies’ time on the show, and to varying degrees through the Steven Moffat years, too.

And what a way to start! Not only does this one bring us back in to contact with Jackie and Micky (more on which in a moment), but it introduces both Harriet Jones (MP for Flydale North), who’ll be back again at Christmas, and once more after that to help the Doctor, and Toshiko Sato, who’ll go on to have a prominent role in the first two seasons of Torchwood. It’s that introduction that I think most interests me. I’ve not watched these episodes since Torchwood began, and it’s lovely to go back and see them now knowing more about Tosh, and the story she’ll go on to have. There’s something poignant about seeing her character now, having seen her death, and knowing that the Doctor has yet to meet and travel with her boss. It makes the fictional world of the programme feel so much larger when you’ve got all these elements playing out in the background. Aside from these ‘friends’ of the Doctor, you’ve also got the Slitheen. Margaret will be back later this season, and we’ll be following up on their scheme here when The Sarah Jane Adventures comes around. I can’t begin to tell you how tempted I am to watch them in tandem with the ‘parent’ show, just to see all the storylines weaving along!

Now. Jackie and Micky. The fact of Rose’s disappearance for a year absolutely fascinated me on first viewing. We’d been to watch the sun expand, and back to Victorian Cardiff, but it was this moment, hidden away in the pre-titles of this episode, which really hammered home to me that the TARDIS is a Time Machine. I’m not even sure why that is, but for some reason, this completely struck a chord. I think it’s the way that it’s written so beautifully, cutting from Jackie’s reaction to seeing her daughter and the Doctor suddenly realising his error. It all just works for me. What I didn’t notice at the time is just how quickly all of that blows over. There’s a few lovely scenes where they confront the reality that Rose has been missing for a whole year (and the effect it’s had on Mickey’s life is especially well played), but it all gets forgotten about so quickly. By the time that friends and neighbours are gathering in the Tyler household to watch the events on TV, it’s almost entirely ignored. In some ways, that’s completely right. Of course it gets swept away! An alien spaceship has just crashed in to the Thames! There’s a story to get on with, never mind focussing on Rose’s missing year…

…But then I started thinking; does it ever get mentioned again after this episode? Admittedly, it’s been a good few years since I’ve seen any of Rose’s travels in the TARDIS, but I can’t remember it ever actually coming up again during her time on the show. That’s really surprised me, because it felt like such a big moment at the time. I’m wondering if, having noticed it, it may stick out more for me now? I’m hoping not, because I can’t remember even giving it a second thought at the time, and it’s really niggling right now…

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).

2 January 2015

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

Day 733: The End of the World

Dear diary,

Over the years, The End of the World has become something of a magnet for ‘stories’. Little anecdotes from the production team. I’ve heard it said a hundred times that this was the programme really setting out its stock in terms of what could be achieved - combining practical effects and CGI into one of the most expensive episodes of that first season. I think I’m right in saying (or, if I’m not, I’ve heard it repeated so often that it’s become fact in my own mind) that the Face of Boe only ended up becoming so important in later stories because he’d cost too much to build only to use the once. Cassandra appears as a CGI creation for ages on screen, at a time when they were still trying to work out how much could be spent on such things. We’ve even got more aliens introduced in this episode than I think we did for the entire Sylvester McCoy years!

But for all these stories getting repeated over and over, they do all set out what this episode is. Russell T Davies has said before now that they set up the scale and the scope of this first series in such a way that the BBC couldn’t later turn around and massively slash the budgets. They needed to make a point with a story like this so early on to ensure that everyone knew what they were aiming for, and also what they can achieve. And yet, for all the scale and grandeur of this one, it really boils down to a couple of small character pieces, with Rose coming to terms with her decision to travel in the TARDIS, and the Doctor starting to come to terms with the life he’s now living.

When Rose first aired, and we saw our new companion kiss her boyfriend goodbye before running off into the TARDIS, I can clearly recall my mother saying ‘that’s how so many young girls get abducted…’. It really is a split second decision (there’s none of the building up to an almost identical scene that we had with Scream of the Shalka), but it’s no more sudden than some of the companion introductions that we got back in the classic run. Dodo, anyone? That scene needs this episode, and Rose suddenly realising what she’s done, to really carry the kind of impact that it should. Another story I’ve often heard repeated is that the plan was once to air Rose and The End of the World back-to-back, and I can’t help but think that it wouldn’t have been a bad move - the two stories are opposite sides of the same coin.

But I’m more interested here in the Doctor’s story. At the time, I was enough of a Who novice to assume that this ‘war’ they kept mentioning was something which happened in the latter days of the original run, in some of the many stories I’d not seen. It’s interesting, then, to watch this back now knowing as much as we do about the Time War, and having pieced together the history of it through all those classic adventures (yes, even the ones where I’ve shoe-horned it in). It does beg the question - how long has the Doctor had between what he thinks is the destruction of Gallifrey and now? It’s certainly been a contentious point over the years - almost akin to a 21st century UNIT Dating conundrum.

The facts are these; We see the War Doctor start to regenerate into this incarnation at the end of The Day of the Doctor. Rose then features a scene where he looks in a mirror and comments on his appearance - seeming to imply that he’s only recently taken on this new form. It’s certainly written to be the same moment that we watched the likes of Troughton, Pertwee, Davison and both Bakers have in their first stories. And yet, somehow, it doesn’t feel right to have these stories following so immediately on from the events of the Time War. For a start, the Doctor’s given the TARDIS a wash since we saw him fly off in it from the Curator’s museum, and the console room has had a relatively major overhaul.

For what it’s worth, I think the sequence of events which best fits is something like this; the War Doctor starts to regenerate. In doing so, he forgets the encounter with his future selves, and awakes from the transformation alone in his TARDIS, his last memory being the thought that he would be forced to survive pressing the button and ending the war. He’s lost and alone. His people are gone. His greatest enemies are gone. He doesn’t want to live on, but he knows he must serve out his penance. In doing so, I imagine that he exiles himself deep into the TARDIS, allowing the battered old box to go drifting right to the very edges of the universe. He explores every room of the near-infinite ship, and goes a bit Beauty and the Beast, covering up all the mirrors, and refusing to face himself. As he’s off wandering the corridors, the console room is allowed to grow over with coral, naturally reforming itself as the ages roll by.

Until one day, he finds it again. He’s not really been keeping track of where he’s walking, but when he steps back into the main console room, he knows exactly where it is, despite its changed appearance, and it somehow feels right that he should be there. In the back of his mind is a nagging thought that he knew it would look this way when he found it again (he saw it in The Day of the Doctor, for example, and while he can’t remember the events of that adventure properly, I’d imagine there’s little tugs at his memory - we’ll be seeing another one in a moment). He doesn’t know how long has passed since he was last here, but he knows what he has to do. He needs to atone for the Time War. If he’s the only survivor, then he can’t spend eternity hiding away. He needs to get back to his former life as the Doctor, and try to rebuild the universe he helped to knock down.

In doing so, he whizzes off to a few different places - plenty and galaxies he knows were deeply affected by the war. As he’s doing this, he still can’t bring himself to look at his own face. He carries this on for a while, until he gets wind the Nestene Consciousness trying to take control of the Earth. He knows the protein planets were destroyed in the war, but that’s no reason to shunt out a whole other civilisation. He tracks the creature down to Henricks in London… where he meets Rose Tyler in the basement. There it is! Another pang of memory. He can’t quite place it, but he knows this girl ,and he likes this girl. The next day, they bump in to each other again, and then once more at the restaurant. We’ve then got a bit of a Scream of the Shalka situation going on, where the ‘emotional island’ starts to enjoy being with this person. When she turns him down at the end of the story, he heads off again and continues to clean up after the war for a bit. Maybe he arrives in 1912 and has a Titanic-based adventure. Or heads to 1963 for the assassination of JFK. Maybe those adventures don’t come until much later. But either way, there’s a nagging voice in the back of his head - the Doctor needs a companion, and he knows it has to be her. Did he mention, it also travels in time?

It’s probably not perfect, but it’s what I like to believe in my own mind. I’ve had a version like this in my head for a while now, but watching the stories now is letting me start to really nail it down some more. Certainly, when he has his moment with Jabe in this episode, it feels as though it’s the first time anyone has ever really spoken to him about what’s happened in the war - so the wounds are still fresh, but it doesn’t feel right for him to go from those events straight to all of this. Does anyone else have their own pet theories? I’ve a friend, for example, who swears blind that the Doctor’s just had his haircut, and it’s that which he’s reacting to in the mirror! 

1 January 2015

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

Day 732: Rose

Dear diary,

Two years ago today, I sat down to watch An Unearthly Child; the very first episode of the original Doctor Who. Now, I’m setting off on another adventure - the ‘revived’ series that started in 2005.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to reaching this point of the marathon. Long-time readers of the 50 Year Diary will know that my first dabble in the world of Doctor Who was a VHS copy of Invasion of the Dinosaurs in late 2003, and while that raised my interest a little bit in the programme, it was really this first series in 2005 that turned me in to a fully-fledged ‘fan’.

I can remember sitting down to watch this episode in the living room, with my mum and stepdad, and watching it again today brings back a lot of the feelings I had about it first time around, and even a few of the comments that were made in the room during that broadcast. That’s why I’ve been so looking forward to reaching the 21st century series - for the first time in this marathon, I can recall my feelings on watching these stories for the first time. In some cases, that equates to the only time, too. I’ve never been someone who can watch Doctor Who over and over on repeat, so there’s lots of these episodes that I’ve not seen in a long time. Thinking back, the last time I watched this episode, for example, was probably when the DVD set of this season came out - which is a little over nine years ago now!

Since then, a lot has changed for me, and in ways that I’ve been assuming will impact the way I watched these stories. I used to tell myself - round about the time of The Last of the Time Lords - that I would one day live in Cardiff Bay. It was the home of Doctor Who, after all, and of Torchwood, and I’d grown so used to seeing it on screen that I’d sort of made up my mind that I’d make my home there. Fast forward to 2011, and I really did find myself moving to Cardiff. In reality, it transpired that I didn’t move to Wales simply because of the connection to my favourite Time Lord, but because that’s the way life moved. I spent a few years living just across the water from the Bay area, and now live less than a four-minute-walk from the Torchwood Water Tower. It means that watching the series now is a slightly different experience. Just on the walk between my house and Tescos, I pass a tonne of locations that have most recently turned up in Series Eight - from the Italian Restaurant and Victorian streets of Deep Breath to the run down buildings of The Caretaker, and the entrance to the Bank of Karabraxos. I seem to live my life in the Doctor Who world now, and that does change the way you look at things.

To use some examples for today, while the Doctor was making his speech about the turn of the Earth, my thoughts were split between ‘isn’t Eccleston great’ and ‘That street is less than half a mile over there…’. As Jackie found herself caught up in the terror of the Auton attack, I was musing that she’s coming out of the door leading through to the post office, and finding myself distracted by the fact that the doors don’t quite match up with the insides of the location. They’re silly things to be pre-occupied with, I know, but I’ve not seen the story since I made these places my home, and it’s going to take a few days, I think, to get over the sudden shock of seeing the episodes again now that I know the place so well.

So. Anyway. What’s my reaction to watching Rose now, after all this time? It’s more-or-less the same as it was first time around - it’s alright, but it’s never going to win an award as being the best bit of Doctor Who ever made. Something I’d completely forgotten until about three seconds before it happened here is that it wasn’t the episode itself which really hooked my interest in the series - it was the trailer for The End of the World. I can suddenly remember really thinking that was a subject which fascinated me, and making a mental note to make sure I’d be watching the following week. That’s not to say that this is a bad episode - it’s far from that, but it’s very much an episode with a function. Introduce Rose. Introduce the Doctor. Introduce the TARDIS, and the world that this series takes place in, and all the danger and excitement and fun that goes hand in hand with it. A few days ago, I commented that the TV Movie and Rose both have similar jobs - introducing Doctor Who to a brand new audience - but that they’re by no means doing the same thing. The TV Movie feels like the more complete story, whereas this episode has another twelve to come which can allow us to explore the scope of the program further.

Something I do want to draw attention to while making a direct comparison, though, is the introduction of the TARDIS. I meant to bring it up during the movie but then got distracted. In the opening titles to the TV Movie, we find the police box flying through a space/time vortex. It’s an unusual image, especially if you’re not familiar with Doctor Who on the whole. We then cut from this to some kind of gothic Jules Verne library, where a funny little man in tweed is settling down to read a book. There’s absolutely no proper indication that the large space we’re now seeing is supposed to be inside that blue police box. In this episode, though, it’s set up brilliantly - first by having the box crop up a few times in the background, then setting up the idea that it can vanish, and then the actual moment when Rose crosses the threshold for the first time is one of the best directed bits of the episode. She runs inside, and we see her enter… but we hold on her reaction. You don’t get to see what she’s looking at, only the back of the doors and the look on her face. She ten heads back outside to check that it really is a blue box, and then we follow her inside and get a proper look at the scope of the room. It’s quite possibly one of the best ‘first entrances’ to the TARDIS we’ve ever had, and it’s the ideal way to set it up for a whole new audience. I think it also serves to show how Rose introduces such elements far better than the movie does.

What’s surprised me, though, is that I’ve enjoyed this episode less than the TV Movie. For years and years now, I’ve always thought of this as being the more successful of the two, and therefore, to my mind, the better of them. When I suddenly realised the other day just how much I liked the TV Movie, I decided that they’d probably end up sitting on the same level as each other… but it just hasn’t quite worked out that way. I think the fact that I’m so looking forward to the next episode, and indeed knowing that there is a next episode for these characters, has actually harmed this one in my mind, whereas I really had to savour everything about the Movie.

All this sounds like I’m being incredibly negative, but that’s not the intention at all. I think it’s more that I’ve spent so many years thinking of this first season as being absolutely perfect in my mind that it’s never going to quite live up to the image I’ve built up for it. People mock John Nathan-Turner for his comment that the memory cheats, but I think there’s a lot of truth in there. The episode has gone down in my estimations because it’s never going to be as good as I remember it being! Oh, but there I go sounding negative again. It’s such a culture shock to be at the new series - you’ll have to excuse me a few days while I adjust.

There’s lots that I do like in here, so let’s touch on them. The design of the Autons is great - by far my favourite from their various appearances over the years. I love how quickly we go from that opening montage of Rose’s everyday life into the creepy atmosphere of the basement. Her whole life changes just as that music stops playing out in the background, and it’s only about three minutes into the episode. The CGI explosions ion the Nestene lair hold up better than I was expecting them to. Eccleston and Piper are great right from the start, and you know what? I actually ‘get’ Jackie this time around, whereas it took me a while on first viewing!

31 December 2014

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

Day 730: Scream of the Shalka, Episodes Five and Six

Dear diary,

Increasingly as this story has gone on, I’ve had cause to think that it suffers by being the only adventure for this particular Doctor, and in this particular format. The special features on the DVD (some of the best in the range, I think) make it clear that the original plan was to have twelve& episodes, which would have allowed three four-part stories making up a short ‘season’ of adventures for our heroes, but as budgets were changed and interest in the project shifted, it was cut down to the one story. It really *does suffer for this, because it means that Scream of the Shalka doesn’t have enough presence to really make any kind of impact on the world of Doctor Who. It’s easily ignored as a slightly strange bit of ephemera from the early naughties, and nothing more.

It also means that we get lots of tantalising glimpses into the world that the series could be set in, without actually following through on them. The Doctor here is a loner because he’s lost someone, and the implication is that it was someone very close to him and under circumstances that were particularly distressing. You’ve also got him travelling around the universe with a robot version of the Master… and it’s simply presented as the Doctor’s way of saving his old friend’s soul. At the end, Alison ditches her dead-end relationship to go gallivanting in the TARDIS (something that’s going to be cropping up tomorrow, too!), and there’s the promise of plenty more to come for her… but we’ll not be seeing her again. In all, it means that the story doesn’t really pack much of a punch, and I can guarantee that I’ll have forgotten most of it by the time that this marathon is over.

Which is a shame, because there are a lot of interesting ideas in here, and you can sort of see what they were aiming to do with the series. It’s a different approach to it - and one that’s squarely aimed at an existing fancies hungry for new content, as opposed to the TV Movie or Rose, both of which are designed as ‘introductions’ to Doctor Who). I think I’d love for there even to be just another six episodes - one or two more stories just to flesh out this attempt at making the series, so that there’s more of a mission statement for this incarnation of the show.

What has become quite fun in the last few years is the idea that this can now be somehow shoehorned into actual Doctor Who continuity if you squint a bit. It’s all thanks to the fact that the Great Intelligence ends up taking a form very similar in style to the ‘Doctor’ we’re presented with here, and then he throws himself into the Doctor’s time stream, getting scattered throughout the Doctor’s life in the process. I don’t think you have to make too much of a mental leap to say that this incarnation is simply the Great Intelligence playing at being the Doctor, and maybe that would explain his slightly angry demeanour at the very start of the adventure. You could even use that to rationalise the whole ‘Master as a robot’ thing, if you say that the Intelligence recognises the man’s role in the Doctor’s life and so creates his own version to make it all seem more real. Hey, if the Intelligence is mad enough to lure the Doctor to his own grave and then commit suicide jumping in to the time stream, then I’m willing to bet he’s mad enough to pretend he’s an incarnation of the Doctor as a bit of fun now and then!

So, in all, Scream of the Shalka has been an interesting little diversion over the last few days. I’m glad that I didn’t cave during that first episode and skip over it straight to the ‘new’ series, because I’ve found a lot more to enjoy here than I was expecting to, but it’s never going to be a classic - only a strange sort of ‘what if’, floating around in the mists of time…

30 December 2014

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

Day 729: Scream of the Shalka, Episodes Three and Four

Dear diary,

This one definitely grows on you, doesn’t it? Having almost reached the point of turning off during yesterday’s episodes because I just couldn’t enthuse myself enough to care about Scream of the Shalka, today I’ve come away having quite enjoyed it! I think it helps that the cast seem to have woken up by this point in the recording - they must have been doing that first episode early in the morning before they’d had their coffee. Suddenly, everyone is giving a lot more to their performances - chief among them being Richard E Grant.

I mused yesterday that the character he’s being asked to play here has several ver Doctor-ish traits to him, but that it feels like they’re being read from a page, rather than coming naturally to him. Today, though, and from about the moment he slips away from the soldiers and sets out on his own to have the adventure, he suddenly comes alive and seems to realise that it’s supposed to be a fun part to play! Contrast the way he acts in the Fourth episode with the way he does in the first - very clearly the same character, but a world of difference in the way they’re being played.

Not much difference in the way they’re being written, though, because he continues to be very much ‘like the Doctor’ here. I think a highlight is probably falling through a wormhole but taking the time to leave a voicemail (that feels bot very Doctor Who and very 2003, for some reason), and the way he struts back into the TARDIS and very quickly ejects the creatures who’ve taken up residence. You could very easily imagine most of the post-2005 Doctors playing out these exact scenes, and I think that’s probably the biggest compliment I can give.

The script doesn’t only serve the Doctor, though. It seems to have joined the cast in really coming alive with these middle segments, suddenly finding the voice it wants to use. There’s several lines that I’ve noted down as making me laugh or at least raising a smile (always a sign of a good episode when I’m noting down every fourth line of dialogue), and the story itself has started to grab my attention, too.

Something I’ve not mentioned yet is the actual animation of the story… it’s not bad, is it? There’s lots of moments when you can tell they’re supposed to be buffering the next section of playback (I think I’m right in saying that Scream of the Shalka was designed just to buffer as it went with as little delay as possible), and this means we get static images just panning across the screen, or we switch to a view of our characters in silhouette against a barely-moving background, but all of this actually adds to the particular style of the adventure. It certainly looks very different to the way Doctor Who usually did - and not just because we’re now being animated, but because it’s been consciously designed to look different. I think it works, too, and there’s some areas where it stands up especially well. Considering that this was made for broadcast on the website as something of an experiment, an awful lot of love has gone in to it.

And there’s lots of little bits of the design which I really like! The TARDIS Console Room is beautiful with those stairs and the harsh shadows (though I’m not so keen on the actual console itself), and the design of the Shalka is lovely, looking enough like a man in a monster costume to fit in with the rest of Doctor Who and yet unique enough to take advantage of the animated format. I’d love to see an attempt at creating a ‘live-action’ version of the creatures - surely that’s something that someone has photoshopped over the years? No? Right then. I’m off to Photoshop…

Just as an aside, I checked my notes while writing this paragraph in order to see if there was anything I wanted to quote, and I’m pleased to say that some of the lines actually caused me to laugh out loud again. Of particular highlight was the Doctor’s reaction to the Shalka’s plans being grander than invading a small portion of Lincolnshire - ‘you mean… Nottinghamshire?!’

29 December 2014

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

Day 728: Scream of the Shalka, Episodes One and Two

Dear diary,

So, for the first time since the marathon began almost two years ago, I’ve resorted to watching two episodes a day, instead of the usual one. The reasons for this are simple: Scream of the Shalka has episodes which are only 15 minutes long, and there’s no way I’d be able to find enough to discuss for six whole days on this story!

Truth be told, Scream of the Shalka was never going to be a part of this marathon. I was going to go from the TV Movie to Rose in one fell swoop. But then this story was released on DVD last year, and I started to think about maybe including it somewhere. Scream of the Shalka has always been something of an ‘also-ran’ in the worlds of Doctor Who. Released after the announcement had been made heralding the return of the show to television, its purpose quickly became somewhat redundant, which is a real shame because it’s something incredibly unique, and much like Downtime, shows how the Doctor Who format can adapt itself to survive under any circumstances.

And the idea fascinates me in its own way. Doctor Who was always a testing bed for new technologies, so it makes sense that it should become one of the BBC’s very first ventures into online video, and creating content exclusively for the web. There’s a little voice in the back of my mind which loves the idea that there may have been a whole series of these adventures made - somewhere out there is a parallel universe in which Richard E Grant was the Ninth Doctor for a decent length ofd time, and had lots of travels throughout time and space… all in animated form on the BBC website.

So what of these first two episodes themselves? Well… if I’m being entirely honest - and there’s little point in doing anything but - then it’s a slow-burner. There was a point, about five minutes in to the first episode, where I seriously considered switching off and skipping straight on to Rose. Had it not been for the fact that I’d already told you all that I’d be watching this one, then I think I might well have done. It’s also confession time: this isn’t the first attempt I’ve made to watch Scream of the Shalka. I’ve tried once before on the website itself, long before the DVD was released, and got about as far in to it that time as I did this time.

Because it’s not the most exciting of openings, is it? I mean, the actual first scenes, in which a meteorite crashes to Earth are fun enough, but then it slows right down to a snail’s pace. The TARDIS arrives, and the Doctor moves very slowly through a couple of scenes as he starts to piece the story together. The lack of any incidental music for large chinks of the tale didn’t help either, because it left the scenes feeling more than a bit empty and a struggle to pay attention to. Thankfully, as that first episode went by, I found myself getting more involved with things. By the time we’re blowing up buildings in the second episode, there’s lots more holding my attention.

It’s a pity, in a way, because the Doctor that we’re presented with in those early, slow-moving scenes is rather brilliantly in character as the Time Lord we know and love. The way that he assesses the situation in the pub, and puts all the pieces together without being given any information by the other characters is lovely, and then the extraction of information from the homeless lady in the street is a great example of the way he’ll interact with anybody. I’m hoping that we get more scenes like this now that the story seems to have picked up the pace a bit, because they probably deserve to be enjoyed more than they were!

I’ve heard lots of complaints over the years about the way that Grant ‘phones in’ his performance in this story, and I can’t help but sadly go along with that for now. There’s no real urgency to the performance he’s giving… but the same can largely be said for everyone else in the story, too. You very much get the impression that these people are standing in a booth reading their lines from a script, as opposed to really getting caught up in the story itself. It’s certainly not up to the standard of a Big Finish audio recording, for example. I think that’s contributing to the fact that I just can’t excite myself too much about these scenes that should be really working for me. If the Doctor doesn’t care enough to find the energy, then where am I supposed to get it from?

28 December 2014

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

Day 727: The Curse of Fatal Death

Dear diary,

I’ve never been all that fond of The Curse of Fatal Death. It’s the way that I often seem to encounter other fans who tell me that it’s the funniest thing in the world, and I sort of smile and nod while secretly thinking that, yes, it’s a good laugh, but no, it’s not that good of a laugh. So why the decision to take a whole day out of the marathon in order to watch it? Ah, well, that’s simple. It’s become something of a joke over the years between a friend and me to view this short story as something of a template for Steven Moffat’s time on Doctor Who proper. Every year or so, something seems to come along which can be linked back (sometimes very tenuously - we seem to try and out do each other in that area) to Fatal Death. By my count, we’ve currently got;

A humanoid augmented by Dalek technology (Asylum of the Daleks, The Time of the Doctor), The Doctor getting engaged/married (A Christmas Carol, The Wedding of River Song et al…), A plot that gets a bit wibbly-wobbly (take your pick), a get out clause of engineering your escape after you’ve made said escape (The Big Bang), A Time Lord trapped on one planet for the better part of a millennium (The Time of the Doctor), Regenerating in to the opposite sex (Dark Water), Daleks needing the Doctor’s help (Asylum of the Daleks), The Doctor retiring from his role as saviour of the universe (The Snowmen), The universe not wanting to let the Doctor die (The Wedding of River Song), “Never cruel, never cowardly” (The Day of the Doctor, although this in fairness is a crib from Terrance Dicks), The Doctor and the Master flirting openly with each other (Death in Heaven), and The Sonic Screwdriver being used for innuendo (The Day of the Doctor).

As I say, some of those are extremely tenuous links, while some are more obvious, and I’m sure that we must have missed something somewhere. Quite a lot of them tie in to several other aspects of Doctor Who, too, and can’t simply be called something Steven Moffat does with the show. But I wanted to refresh my memory of the story before heading off into the revived series, so that it’s fresh in the mind when we reach some of Moffat’s later stories. Certainly, there’s a few links in that list that I’d not thought about until today!

The other thing that I have to confess to enjoying about this one is that it gives us some glimpses - some very brief - in to ‘could-have-been’ Doctors… and some are rather good at it! Rowan Atkinson, for example, plays the part up a little as the script requires him to… but he somehow makes it work perfectly well, and I could just about imagine him taking on the roll full-time in a not-too-dissimilar manner. I think I’d list Rowan Atkinson as the one actor I’d love to have seen helm the role at some point.

But then you’ve also got the likes of Hugh Grant turning in a decent performance in the part at pretty much the height of his fame, but the difference with Grant is that while I can enjoy his performance in this story as a bit of a one-off, I don’t think I could take him seriously in the show proper if he played it the way he does here. The same could be said for Richard E. Grant - but of all these temporary Doctors, he’s the only one who will get the chance to explore the character more over the next few days. Jim Broadbent’s Doctor is completely out there for the few brief moments he’s on screen (but even then, there’s shades of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor in there!), and even Joanna Lumley makes a great Time Lord for a short time!


Is The Curse of Fatal Death the funniest Doctor Who comedy ever? Well… no. I don’t think so. Is there a lot in here to like? Very much so. I’ll be keeping it toward the front of my mind as I move on in to the 21st century series…

27 December 2014

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

Day 726: The TV Movie

Dear diary,

He’s back, and it’s about time! Watching the TV Movie today has been one of the most enjoyable experiences that I’ve had while doing this marathon. It’s a story that I’ve always known I liked, but I don’t think that I’d ever appreciated just how good it is before. it’s only now, watching it after all the episodes of the ‘classic’ series, that I can fully see how good it really is - and I’m baffled by the distaste it used to have, once upon a time.

Now. There’s lots to discuss in relation to this episode, so I guess I’d better pick somewhere to start. Let’s go for the Direction, shall we? It’s stunning. There, that was simple. I’m not being facetious, though, it simply is stunning. It’s quite unlike any of the direction we’ve ever had in the programme u pt this point, and is easily up there wit the best that Douglas Canfield has to offer, though in a different style. People bang on about how good Grahame Harper’s direction was in the 1980s… why doesn’t anyone ever discuss Geoffrey Sax? It’s far more ‘filmic’ than I’m used to for the series - and largely that’s because we’ve finally broken free of the studio set up that defined the programme for its entire original run. Being taken out of that and given more time to film it as though it were all on location has really benefited, and I’m guessing I’ll see this trend continue as the marathon goes on, because the ‘new’ series is filmed in the same way.

The other benefit of breaking free of the traditional production method for Doctor Who is that we can have a new TARDIS set quite unlike anything that the programme has ever been able to manage before now. Watching it in context like this, I’m actually a little bit surprised by the change - it really is a massive departure from the version of the ship we had from 1963 onwards. In the past, I’ve seen it described as the Secondary Console Room turned up to eleven, but that’s rubbish frankly, because this is something completely on another level. I’m actually surprised that they had the balls to go for such a complete redesign of the structure, because it’s such a leap from the expected norm. Now, I’ve always had a soft spot for this console room. I think it’s beautiful, but I’ve never noticed just how lovely it is. We’re really coming back to Sax’s direction again here, because we get lots of shots which really make the most of the setting and show off lots of the intricate little details.

And then you’ve got our new Doctor himself - Paul McGann is the Doctor! It seems strange, now, in a post-Night of the Doctor world, that people ever doubted his position as a Doctor. Sure, he’s only got the one televised adventure in which to flex his muscles, but he’s certainly more the Doctor in the hour-or-so he gets here than McCoy was in Season Twenty-Four, for example! He really does hit the ground running, and I can’t help but love him from the second he strolls down an abandoned hospital corridor and starts to scream into the night (‘Who… Am… Aaaaargh!’) to the moment he dips back inside the police box as fireworks explode overhead. He’s a fantastic Doctor, and I absolutely love him. Of course, I’m slightly biased in this opinion, perhaps, because I’ve already done a marathon of the Eighth Doctor’s audio adventures and written my thoughts down in a book with my friend Nick Mellish. I’ve had travels from the R101, through a Divergent Dimension, and off to the Dalek’s second invasion of Earth to fall in love with this incarnation. But I genuinely do believe that he’s given a great start here, and you can see all the potential for a great Doctor to run and run.

Which brings me quite neatly to the big thing that I’m not so sure about with the TV Movie… does it work as a decent set up for the future? In the Seven Year Itch documentary on this DVD, Philip Segal et al discuss the way that they had this seen as a ‘backdoor pilot’ for a potential continuing series (and, I have to admit, I had no idea that it was as formal as it was). I’ve always thought of it as an awful way to introduce a new audience - and even made a note to that effect when the Doctor’s info-dump narration kicked in a few seconds into the feature - but actually watching it this time around, I’m not sure it’s as bad as I thought it was.

I mean, it sets up neatly the fact that the Doctor is an alien time traveller who can change his face upon death. We’re given an arch enemy for him to fight against. He’s paired with a resourceful companion who can assist in the adventure. All the elements are in place for things to work. I think the problem is how thick and fast they come. It doesn’t phase me, because I know about Doctor Who. He can throw in references to Gallifrey, and the Eye of Harmony, and the Daleks can make a cameo (sight unseen) at the start. We can have Jelly Babies, and Sonic Screwdrivers, and the Seal of Rassilon on every third surface. I don’t bat an eyelid, because I’m a fan. But I can’t help thinking that the new series made a better job of all this - drip feeding new elements of the Mythos as it went along. We’ll see if that opinion holds up over the next few months, but I’ve always thought of it as being more successful. I suppose the key difference is that the 2005 series was just that - a series. There were always going to be thirteen weeks to build the story across. In this instance, you’ve got 90 minutes to make your pitch… and then that could be it.

The other thing which doesn’t sit quite right with me in regards to this being any kind of pilot is that any follow-up would be a bit of a culture shock. There’s not much of an implication of the scope of the series here, because the Doctor and the Master both come crashing down at the same time, bringing their fight to Earth. In Rose, for example, her world is expanded by the introduction of first the Autons, then the Doctor, the police box, a replica boyfriend, and finally the Nestene Consciousness under the London Eye. It’s something new every few minutes, pushing her story forward, whereas once Grace is introduced to the idea that the Doctor is an alien and his arch nemesis is out to end the world… well, she’s all up to speed!

All that said, I think this is probably perfect for a British audience - and it certainly faired rather well here when it was first broadcast. It’s best for an audience with enough cultural knowledge of Doctor Who to simply sit back and enjoy a well-paced and directed film. There’s a lot to really like about the TV Movie - not perfect, but certainly a highlight in the Doctor Who narrative… 

26 December 2014

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

Day 725: Downtime

Dear diary,

I’ve been curious about Downtime for ages. Back when I was first getting in to Doctor Who it seemed like the most amazing thing in the world - the return of three former associates of the Doctor, and of the Yeti after almost 30 years. Of course, at that point there were only two Yeti episodes surviving in the BBC archives, so the thought of a complete story featuring them instantly won extra brownie points. Over the years, I must have seen this story more times than I’ve seen some real episodes of Doctor Who, and you know what? I’ve always been confused by it.

Partly, I think, that’s because I’d never experienced the two Patrick Troughton Yeti adventures. I therefore had no clue why the little wooden carving of a Yeti was so important (and, watching again here, I note that it’s never actually explained), and I was forever getting confused by the fact that Victoria is looking for her own father - who’s long dead - but finds Professor Travers, played by Deborah Watling’s real life father, who goes on to talk about his daughter; meaning Anne. Can you see where my confusion came from? Please say you can.

And yet, somehow, Downtime always remained oddly fascinating to me. I think a certain amount of that comes from the fact that it’s the ultimate example of the programme surviving in any climate. In 1995, it had been six years since the BBC had actively produced a proper new episode of Doctor Who, and through all the false starts of various film projects in the preceding half-decade, didn’t really have much interest in the property. And yet you get a group of fans clubbing together, getting a licence to use various elements that aren’t directly owned by the BBC, and making something new with them, that sits firmly - and comfortably - within the Doctor Who world. I think it’s something to be admired, and actually, it comes off rather well.

Because this time around, I’m actually surprised by just how much I’ve enjoyed this! Truth be told, the main reason I wanted to watch it again was to see if my half-memories of earlier viewings fitted neatly in to the Great Intelligence timeline that I was pondering back during The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear last year (more on that in a moment). But then as I watched, it suddenly became less about simply ticking this one off on the list of things I needed to see for the marathon, and more about simply enjoying it. Certainly, having experienced those earlier Intelligence stories, I’ve managed to follow the plot of this one a whole lot better than ever before, but there’s numerous other things that had troubled me in the past that all fit together perfectly well here - I guess I was too busy worrying about things I didn’t understand before that I missed some important dialogue.

It’s also great to use this story as something of a send-off to ‘classic’ Doctor Who. The TV Movie being isolated out on its own in the middle of the 1990s means that it doesn’t really feel like it belongs lumped in with those earlier Doctors, and the recent reappearance of McGann in the programme means that he feels, if anything, closer to the new series than the old. The appearance of Sylvester McCoy in the film just makes it feel a little bit like a handover between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. So this story is perfectly placed to have a reappearance for Sarah Jane Smith, the Brigadier, and Victoria Waterfield. All three were on hand to celebrate the programme for Dimensions in Time, but in regards to the actually main narrative of the show, the Brig hasn’t been seen in six years, Sarah Jane for more than ten, and our last sight of Victoria was on a beach almost thirty years ago! Bringing them all back together here for a new story alongside an old foe really does work, and introducing Kate Stewart, who’ll go on to be a recurring presence in the revived series later on, makes it feel like another vital part of the ‘Wilderness Years’.

Indeed, I’ve been somewhat struck by just how much this feels like proper Doctor Who, and I even found myself slightly mourning the fact that it’s never had a DVD release with some special features. Several key members of the cast are sadly no longer with us, but it would be nice to see if given some kind of treatment, because it comes across as so much more than ‘just another fan film’.

So. The big question - for me at least - is how this fits in with the timeline I proposed last year. Back then, I suggested that following the defeat of the Intelligence on the Underground, it retreated back onto the Astral Plane, but continued its link with the ‘many human hands’ at its disposal. I think that’s borne out here - Travers has been summoned back to Det Sen and kept alive beyond his years, and Victoria is later brought to the same location, and used to carry out the task. The plan seems to be using the fledgeling internet to carry the Great Intelligence and take over the world… which isn’t a million miles away from the plan we see in The Bells of Saint John. Yeah, I’d say that this fits in rather nicely with what I’ve assumed before - and I’m glad about that! I’ll keep reviewing the situation when we reach Season Seven in a few month’s time, but I think for now this is going in as part of my personal ‘canon’ when it comes to Doctor Who.

25 December 2014

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

Day 724: Dimensions in Time

Dear diary,

It’s Chriiiiiiiistmaaaaaassssssss! Fitting, then, that I should be watching a strange kind of ‘panto’ episode of Doctor Who to celebrate…

Oh, the hate that Dimensions in Time has received over the years. Is there a more loathed fifteen minutes of Doctor Who than this? I have to admit, though, that I rather like it - because I’ve never taken it seriously, but simply enjoyed it for what it is; a fun runaround, celebrating Doctor Who for its thirtieth birthday, and raising money for a great cause at the same time. Indeed, it’s perhaps fitting that I’m watching this one on Christmas Day, because it’s the perfect time to enjoy it on its own merits.

You’ll also have to excuse that this isn’t going to be a particularly ‘in-depth’ entry of the Diary (as though I’m able to really call any of my insights all that ‘in-depth’), because there’s not an awful lot that i can actually say about Dimensions in Time, is there? I’ve even made Emma sit and watch it with me - it helps the Christmas dinner go down - but she spent most of the time with her head cocked to one side, somewhat confused as to what the heck was actually happening. Immediately afterwards, though, we watched the out-takes and amused ourselves with how Davison spends the entire recording looking as though he’s made a huge mistake in agreeing to turn up that day.

Over the last couple of weeks, when I’ve told people that I’ll be watching this story as part of the marathon, it’s been met with a fair bit of negative reaction. I’ve been told - several times - that it’s not a proper part of Doctor Who, so I needn't bother watching it (equally, many of those same people have gone on to tell me that I ‘have’ to watch The Curse of Fatal Death, though…!), but for me it’s an important part of the entire Doctor Who mythos, and I’ve never realised it mores than now - at the very end of a two-year marathon of all the ‘classic’ episodes. It’s the capstone for ‘classic’ BBC Doctor Who, and looked at like that, I think it fills the part admirably. 

It’s a final chance to see lots of our old favourites running around, doing (and saying) things that the general public automatically think are ‘very Doctor Who’. It’s the final time we get to see Jon Pertwee don his cape and strut around like he owns the place. It’s also the last appearance in televised Doctor Who for almost the entire cast - save for Elisabeth Sladen. No, the plot doesn’t make a great deal of sense (Every time I watch, I think I’ve sussed out what’s happening, but then we cut to the Fifth Doctor with both Peri and Nyssa, and the whole plan goes out the window), and shoehorning in Eastenders doesn’t fit quite as well as they suspected it would (that said, I’d probably enjoy that element more if I could remember more than a handful of the Eastenders characters), but it’s a fun way to spend fifteen minutes - and a great celebration of Doctor Who to wrap up the ‘classic’ era before I head on in to the TV Movie and the 21st century version of the programme beyond that. 

It’s the season to be jolly, so crack open some Bucks’ Fizz and pop on Dimensions in Time. Have a laugh with it. Enjoy quoting along with the best bits (‘who was that terrible woman?!?!?’) and celebrate the magic of Doctor Who.

24 December 2014

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

Day 723: Survival, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I feel oddly… hollow at the end of today’s entry. Survival, Episode Three, is a huge milestone to reach in The 50 Year Diary - the end of Doctor Who’s original 26-year run on television - but it just sort of gets swept up as part of the ongoing marathon. The episode itself isn’t anything particularly special (that’s not to say it’s bad - I’ll come to the quality in a moment), just that it’s not been made as any kind of final ‘cap’ for the programme, and that final speech aside, it really does seem like an odd way to bring an end to such a long-running journey, that started all the way back on Totter’s Lane in 1963. I don’t know what I was expecting to feel at this point, but probably some huge sense of accomplishment? Or some sadness that a big phase of the marathon is over? I think the problem might be that there’s now so much to come that Survival doesn’t feel as poignant as it once did, and yet not so much to come that the real end of the marathon feels like a million miles off. I think my brain is just delaying all the emotions until I reach The Time of the Doctor in a few weeks…

I mentioned the other day that I’d always found Survival to be the oddest way to bring Doctor Who to a close. It sees the return of the Doctor’s arch enemy, sure, but not a great deal is made of that fact. It just happens to be A.N.Other battle between the pair, and the Doctor comments at the end that the Master will be back again, because he always is. When I first watched it, I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t done something more spectacular - if this was to be the Doctor’s final adventure, possibly ever, then why not go all-out? Do an ‘End Of Season Fourteen’ and say to hell with the budget, really pushing the boundaries as far as you could possibly take them? Of course now, several years on, I’m well aware that it wasn’t actually conceived as being the final story of the programme, and that the fact only became clear later on during production. Seen in that sense, that final speech is lovely, and it’s one I’ve known the words to off by heart for as long as I can remember. Of course I was going to have to quote it here;


There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, and somewhere else the tea's getting cold. Come on, Ace, we've got work to do!

All things considered, I think that the Doctor and his companion walking off into the sunset, at the end of an adventure which reaffirms the TARDIS as their ‘home’ is probably the best possible way to leave things. It’s also for the best that this is a relatively simple story of the Doctor vs the Master - because it’s the heart of what the programme has always been; good vs evil. What I’d also not realised before is just how bloody good this story is, so all in all I think we’ve probably done fairly well in the whole ‘final adventure’ stakes!

It seems odd to start an entry by discussing the very end of the episode, but that needed to be gotten out of the way, really. This episode’s position in the overall narrative of Doctor Who makes it something of an elephant in the room that needs to be discussed before we can really get down to the actual content of the story.

Once again, I’ve really enjoyed this final episode, and while it’s not perfect, it’s certainly rocketed right up towards the top of my ‘favourite stories’ list. The tale is so much richer than I’d ever realised before, and I’m certainly going to be revisiting it again in the near future. There’s a very real danger here that I’m just going to end up repeating everything that I’ve been saying in the last couple of days, about the very real setting and the characters who populate it, and the fact that we get a fantastic version of the Master to see Ainley bow out on. Instead, i think it’s only fair that I think about Ace a little bit, considering that (save for Dimensions in Time tomorrow), this is her last story.

I’ve praised the character a fair bit over the time she’s been with us - and I think it’s a testament to the way that she’s developed over her time in the programme that it feels like Ace has been a part of the show for much longer than nine serials. It’s an attempt at character development and an ‘arc’ that the programme hasn’t attempted for a long time - and I’m not entirely sure that it’s ever attempted it on this scale before now. This final season in particular has been wonderful for her, with three of the stories really focussing on her, and making the adventures about her own experiences. I mused the other day that I’d love to listen to all the Big Finish Seventh Doctor plays, and I think that’s doubled for me over the last few days, because I’m sad to see Ace go.

And that, I think, is the heart of why the programme has managed to be so successful again in its final few years. I don’t feel sad to be at the end of the ‘classic’ run, and I won’t be mourning the loss of this stage of the marathon, no matter how much I’ve enjoyed it over all. Instead, I’m sadder to be moving on from our current crop of characters. Doctor Who has been many things over the years, and in these final few it’s managed to recapture some of the spirit that made it brilliant so many times before. A large part of that is entwined with Ace as a character, and I think that’s why I’ll be missing her so much.

I’ve mentioned briefly above that I’ll be watching Dimensions in Time tomorrow, so I think it’s worth filling you in on how the next week is going to play out. I’ve been wondering about the ‘Wilderness Years’ for a while now, and specifically how best to tackle them. Do I read all the New Adventure novels? Or listen to all the Audios? Do I skip them entirely and move on to the TV Movie then on to Rose?

What I’ve decided on is keeping it simple. It doesn’t feel right to go from the Seventh Doctor to the Ninth in the space of three days, but equally, I don’t want to artificially prolong the period to the point that it becomes ridiculous. So, I’ll be doing Dimensions in Time tomorrow - both episodes, but believe me, I considered doing one a day - and then Downtime after that. I spent so long trying to work out the Great Intelligence’s timeline back in Season Five, and I want to see how well it corresponds! Besides, what better way to celebrate reaching the end of the ‘classic’ run than with a return for several much loved characters?

The TV Movie will follow that one, after which I’ll be doing The Curse of Fatal Death. For so long, I’d been sure I’d not be doing that one - it doesn’t feature any of the regular cast, and it’s a parody of the programme… but Steven Moffat has gone on to incorporate so many of the ideas into Doctor Who proper, and I want to refresh my memory of the story before heading off into the 21st century series. Finally, I’ll be doing Scream of the Shalka over the course of three days - two episodes each day, since they’re only short. After that, I’ll be on to the ‘new’ series, just in time for the new year. Perfect!

23 December 2014

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

Day 722: Survival, Episode Two

Dear diary,

‘Master Reveals’ have been the subject of a fair bit of discussion in the last couple of months, largely because of that moment in Dark Water, when we were introduced to the latest incarnation. There’s certainly been enough of them over the years, but I’d guess that the most dramatic have to be the aforementioned Dark Water, plus Utopia, and probably The Deadly Assassin. I’m now thinking that this story might well classify, too. The Master had sort of become a bit of a joke by the time he turned up in The Trial of a Time Lord (you could argue, quite easily, that he’d become a joke long before that, but…). He’d taken to popping up once a year to torment the Doctor, and he’d end up being waved off with a tricky situation. Oh, he’s trapped on prehistoric Earth! Or burnt to death! Ar stuck with the Rani and a growing T-Rex! His plans never used to end well, but when he’s popping up so frequently and losing so often, it does start to become more than a little bit silly.

But we’ve not seen him since the events of The Trial of a Time Lord, and they were two whole seasons ago! It’s the longest gap between Master stories that we’ve had since before The Keeper of Traken, and when the Doctor pulls back the flap of the tent, to reveal his old foe sat there… well, it’s actually terribly exciting! It helps that we’ve not had a proper look at him up to that point, and the difference in his eyes serves to better hide him, too. And then, you’ve got Anthony Ainley playing the part in a way that’s entirely unlike the performance we’re used to receiving from him. Way back when he first played the part properly, in Logopolis, I commented that he even pressed buttons in an over-the-top, pantomime way. There’s none of that on display here, though. He’s toned everything right down, and it’s almost as though he’s giving a real performance. I’ve seen it said that this is the way he’d always wanted to play the part, but was convinced otherwise by John Nathan-Turner. I don’t know how true that statement is, but I’d love to see this version of the Master facing off against Davison or Colin Baker’s Doctors.

I think it also helps that he’s being given much better dialogue here than he has been in the past. There’s not ridiculous technobabble, no over-complicated speeches, and no swallowing of a thesaurus - he’s been written as a desperate man trapped on an alien world, and looking for an escape while he still has a chance. It’s actually making the character scary, and it’s been a long time since that was the case. While I’m at it, I’d love to mention his outfit here, too, because that’s also brilliant! I commented the other day about the programme bringing back so many of its icons before it heads off into cancellation, and it’s lovely to see that they’ve managed to do something different - and brilliant - with the Master before the end.

It’s also somewhat fitting that we’re back in a quarry for the last time in the programme’s original run! They’ve been a staple of the programme for as long as I can remember now (was The Dalek Invasion of Earth the first one? A quarry was being used here as… well, as a quarry, so I think we probably have to move through to The Savages before we hit the ‘Quarry As Alien World’ trope, but they’ve become somewhat ubiquitous in the years since then), and it’s only right, I suppose, that we get to visit one last one. They’ve done a brilliant job with that, too, though! During The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, I said that you could see the through-line from Mindwarp to there in terms of the ‘alien skies’ effects they were applying to location work, and this is yet another stage in that evolution. I think it stands up wonderfully. I suppose in many ways, it all comes back to my comments during Ghost Light that Doctor Who has a team at this point in its history who are able to pull together against the odds and create something really rather special. I’m so glad to see the programme going out on such a high.

22 December 2014

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

Day 721: Survival, Episode One

Dear diary,

I can’t quite believe that I’m actually at Survival. I’ve said plenty of times throughout the course of this marathon that I never expected to actually make it much past The Sensorites Episode Three, but now I’m staring down the final story of the programme’s original run. There’s something really rather exciting about that, and if I’m honest, I’m a little bit proud of myself for actually getting to this point!

And how brilliant that this final story should start out so well! I’ve never really cared all that much for Survival. I don’t mean that I’ve actively disliked it, but my memories of watching it before are that it was ‘okay’, but a bit of a strange way to end the programme*. Therefore, as I’ve moved closer and closer to seeing this one, I’ve been setting up its importance as a milestone for the Diary, but not especially looking forward to it on its own merits. How wrong that may have been!

The first thing to note is just how closely this resembles the 21st century series. I’ve brought that up a few times in the last week or so, but it’s never more prevalent than it is in this one episode. We’re set in ‘modern day’ London, with ordinary people whose worlds just happen to collide with the Doctor and the monsters. There’s a great central mystery in the disappearance of the locals, and there’s even the perfect ‘pre-titles’ sequence, in which the man washing his car gets chased by an un-seen ‘something’ before completely vanishing and leaving us with an empty street. Already, I’m wondering about an edit of this story compressing it down to 45 minutes…

While I’m on the subject of that opening scene, I just want to draw attention to how beautifully directed it is - and that goes for the rest of the episode, too. It was no surprise during the credits to see that this one is directed by Alan ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ Wareing, who was responsible for Ghost Light, too. That shot I’ve mentioned, as the camera pans up and then chases its prey from that height is so simply effective, and it becomes a great visual shorthand for what’s happening. Late in the story, when we watch the same camera move happen while framing Ace in shot, it’s actually scary, because we know just what it’s signifying.

And it’s not just the direction that’s standing out for me in this one - the script itself is wonderful. As I’ve said, it’s far closer in style to the modern series than it is anything else from the ‘classic’ run, and I’d love to see what Rona Munro would do with another story. It seems such a shame that we’ve only got the one story from her. There’s a way that she writes all these characters - including Ace - and makes them instantly real and relatable. Ace has always felt like a more naturalistic character than some of the previous companions did, but it’s a credit to Munro’s skill that she can be so brilliant when placed back in her natural setting. The way she interacts and speaks with people she knows from her old life is lovely, and different from the way she reacts to the Doctor. It means that Sophie Aldred is given more chances to shine, too, which is always welcome.

I’m looking forward ti seeing just how well the story holds up now that more of the action has been shifted away from the benign normality of Perivale, and out onto an alien planet, but it looks like the ‘classic’ run is going to be going out with a bang…

*Truth be told, and I only remembered this last night when talking to Emma; when I first watched Ghost Light, I thought that was the end of the ‘classic’ run. I’d obviously read somewhere that it was the final story to be recorded, and just sort of assumed from there. I think that ended up adding to my general not understanding of that story, because it seemed such an odd note to leave things on! When the time finally came to see this one, there was that lovely final speech, but it still seemed like an odd place to leave the programme - of course, I didn’t know the full behind-the-scenes story at that time, but I’m sure I’ll discuss that more in a few days.

21 December 2014

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

Day 720: Ghost Light, Episode Three

Dear diary,

Watching this episode today, I’m not sure quite how I was left confused by Ghost Light on my first viewing. It does all make sense… but you have to think about it, because there’s a few key pieces that simply aren’t actually said. I think the only thing I’m not entirely sure about is what ‘Light’ actually is. A god? A living embodiment of light? That’s the one bit left puzzling me, and I may have to do another watch of the story again with this particular question in the front of my mind to try and make a decision on it. Not that it’s any hardship to watch again - I’ve enjoyed these three episodes. I think it is a story which you need to be paying attention to, though, so that’s probably where I went wrong before.

Yesterday, I mused that this felt like the show regaining confidence again after the cancellation in the middle of the decade, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that overnight. I worry that I made it sound there like the programme has all of a sudden managed to pull itself up again suddenly, almost four whole seasons on. No, Doctor Who has been getting its confidence back again for some time now - having really lost it, I think, during Season Twenty-Four - and you only have to look at stories like Remembrance of the Daleks to see a programme every bit as good (and sometimes better than) it was in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s. I think what I mean is simply that Ghost Light is a great example of this; you can really see how well everything has been done, from the writing to the design to the direction. Show this to someone who dismisses the last few years of the programme as rubbish, and they’ll struggle to say it comes off any worse than some other areas of the show’s past. What we’re seeing here is a team working together at the height of their ability, and it’s creating a product which could rival the fabled Hinchcliffe years no trouble. It really is a shame that the seasons are so short in this period - because I’d love to see what they could do with a full twenty-six episode run, especially in regards to Ace’s character story.

The more I thought about this, the more I thought about the programme’s position in general. With Doctor Who up to about the hiatus in the mid-1980s, I can tell you when it was on - if not specifically to the minute, then generally. I know that the first eighteen seasons were on Saturday nights from about 5-ish. Then Peter Davison comes along and it switches to twice-weekly in an early evening mid-week slot, bouncing around the various days over the course of three years. Once Colin Baker takes up residence in the TARDIS, we’re back to Saturday nights, at a slightly later time than before. Fine, that’s all the detail I need to have enough context for the show at those stages. I realised, though, that I didn’t know much about how or when the McCoy era was broadcast. Obviously, I knew that it was pitted against Coronation Street at the time - the ratings giant of British TV - but I realised that I didn’t really know what this meant. A quick look at the recently digitised Radio Times archive tells me that it was a little after 7:30 on a Wednesday evening that the programme aired at this point in its life… which isn’t the slot the programme is being made for at all.

I tried explaining this to a friend this morning, and he couldn’t get his head around what I was trying to say. There’s a high likelihood that I was simply doing an appealing job of making my point, but I’ll try again here. The programme in Seasons Twenty-Five and Twenty-Six doesn’t feel like the type of show you’d sit and watch on a Wednesday evening. The tone is all wrong. Now, I don’t think it’s being made for a Saturday evening, either. To me, it feels more like the type of show you’d air on a Sunday, late afternoon. Is this me just being incredibly strange, or do people know what I mean? Please leave a comment to let me know if I’m mad. I’ve often seen it said that the programme did well to survive for three years, sustaining fairly decent ratings considering that it was up against the big ratings hitter, but I think I’m more impressed that it’s managed to survive in this time slot at all, because it doesn’t feel right for the show in general, and the show at this point isn’t right for it!

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