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5 December 2014

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

Day 704: The Happiness Patrol, Episode One

Dear diary,

For a long time, I didn’t really know what the general opinion was towards The Happiness Patrol. It’s one of those stories that never managed to sit at the very top of many people’s list of favourites, but it was rarely right down the other end of those lists, either. Five or so years ago, it was the final McCoy story that I needed to see - I watched this one immediately after The Greatest Show in the Galaxy with a friend, and these three episodes were the last bits of Seventh Doctor that he had to experience, too. Truth be told, I can’t remember a great deal of my own thoughts on the story, either. A quick look at the Doctor Who Magazine poll from earlier this year reveals that it placed in position 172 of 241 - which putting it at the lower end of ‘average’ territory.

I think that’s a placement that I’d agree with, based on this first episode. There’s certainly a lot in this episode to interest me, but it doesn’t particularly stand out from the crowd at all. I have a feeling that in another six months’ time, after this marathon is over, I’ll be back in that same position of not really knowing how I felt about this one. I think what makes it all the more frustrating, and something which I hope improves as time goes by, is that there’s some real flashes of genius on display. I’m talking largely here about the direction in this one - there are bits of the episode being shot like an old movie, with dutch camera angles and some fantastically artistic lighting. I’d love love see more of this as the story goes on, because it’s that kind of visual flare that could really help this story sing.

As I’ve said, though, there’s plenty to keep me interested, and it’s mostly to do with the ideas in the script. It would be easy to talk about Helen A’s characterisation and compare her to the then Prime Minister, or to talk about the Kandyman in the kitchen (both of which I’m sure I’ll do in the next couple of days), but it’s really the ideas of the world that are appealing to me. I simply love the whole sequence in the ‘waiting area’, where the Doctor is told that this absolutely isn’t a prison, because such a place wouldn’t at all fit with the ethos of this world… but then it’s made very sure that he - and we - understand that actually, of course it’s a prison. That whole sequence is wonderful, and it’s one that feels entirely at home here in the late-1980s era of the programme. I think we’re at a point now, past the half-way mark for another Doctor, where you can really feel Andrew Cartmel’s influence in the stories, because he’s very much the hand steering the show at this point.

I also love that, once again, the Doctor is here for his own reasons. He tells Ace that he’s heard some nasty rumours about the things happening in this colony and he’s decided to check them out. It’s not often before this season that we’ve seen a Doctor so determined to go where and when he’s needed, and I’m really enjoying it as a new approach to the character. I’m also surprised, at the end of Season Twenty-Five, just how much he’s doing things like this. I’ve always thought of the ‘manipulative’, ‘scheming’ version of the Seventh Doctor as only really being apparent in the final season of the show, with only the odd hint towards that side of his nature before then. Actually, though, it’s been a plot point in all of this season’s stories, and I’d argue that it’s easily read in to the stories of the previous season, too (indeed, I did read that in to them). We’re really seeing the way he’s using Ace now, too, in the way they emerge from the TARDIS and he probes to find out what she senses about this place. We’re about to enter a period where she’s very much his litmus paper going in to adventures, so this is a nice thing to see… 

4 December 2014

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

Day 703: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Episode Four

Dear diary,

This episode is home to not one, but two shots which I think so perfectly encapsulate the Sylvester McCoy era of the programme. The first comes when he’s in the ring, facing down the Gods of Ragnarok, and he turns on the spot, transforming his sword into the trademark umbrella. The second, of course, is the Doctor walking away from the Psychic Circus as an enormous explosion rips through the tent behind him. It’s become something of a legend within fandom that McCoy doesn’t even flinch when this explosion goes off - he does, and now I can’t unsee it - but he does look incredibly powerful regaining himself half a second later and continuing to strut. The story has been told a thousand times over the years that the explosion wasn’t supposed to be so large, but the fact that it is really helps to make this one of the most defining shots of the late 1980s.

The Doctor’s confrontation with the Gods here is somewhat wonderful, and it’s the first time in a long while that we’ve seen the Doctor square up to such a supposedly powerful being. We got hints of it a few days ago with his speech to Davros, but here we’ve got him properly face-to-face with his enemy in the same way we’ll get to see with Fenric in a couple of week’s time. The whole sequence is perfectly keyed to Sylvester McCoy, giving him a chance to clown around and do the kind of acts that he was best known for while also delivering some wonderful speeches to the ‘monsters’ as he brings their world crumbling down around them. It’s also interesting to note that he claims to have fought the Gods of Ragnarok ‘all through time’… presumably in adventures that we didn’t see? Or does he just mean that he;s fought gods like them, meaning the Animus, and the Great Intelligence? Still, it’s good to see the continuing trend of this incarnation specifically going after his enemies instead of just bumbling in on another of their evil schemes. By the time that the story is over, there’s no doubt left in my mind that the Doctor has orchestrated this whole thing.

I’m also rather keen on just how cleverly Captain Cook has been played throughout this story. He starts off as such an obvious parody of the Doctor (complete with companion), then comes back from the dead - how very like a Time Lord - and in this episode he also makes a point of announcing that he hasn’t come to this world simply by chance. He knows what’s going on here, and he’s here because of it all. I’d not noticed quite how well done this was the last time I watched the story, so I’m glad to have seen it now, because it’s a whole other layer that helps make the story all the richer.

On the whole, I’ve been left a bit mixed with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. I’ve enjoyed it, largely, but I don’t think I’ll be rushing to watch it again any time soon, in the way that some other stories are already at the top of the list for seeing again when this marathon is over. One thing I will say, though - in the special features on this DVD, lots of people complain about how the title was given to them by John Nathan-Turner, and they all say how awful it is… but I love it! 

3 December 2014

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

Day 702: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Episode Three

Dear diary,

While I’ve never been actively afraid of clowns, I can certainly see why people can be scared of them. There’s something innately un-nerving about them, isn’t there? Maybe it’s the constant fixed smiles? Truth be told, I’m not sure, but watching this episode if you’re not a clown fan must be an un-nerving experience, because the ones on display here are downright creepy. Led by Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown, our troupe of circus performers manage to walk a nice line in this story - at once being this unstoppable force which has been stalking after the other characters from the opening moments, while also being just that bit useless. Ace has escaped capture by them on more than one occasion now, for example, and they’ve killed the one man who can repair them when they break!

What’s rather nice, though, is that while the clowns certainly fill the role of ‘monster’ for this story - up to now, at least - they’re not the actual threat of the piece. That comes more just in the sense that something is wrong, and the flows are really just a distraction while the Doctor puts all the pieces together. I know where this one is going, and who the true ‘villains’ of the piece are, but I’m rather impressed that we’ve managed to go three episodes with a lot of tension and worry without even revealing them properly yet. The story is absolutely packed to the rafters with elements, and there’s so much to follow that the episodes feel incredibly rich. Of course, the danger of this comes on the flip side - there’s so much going on that it can at times be tricky to actually follow everything that’s happening inside the tent. I can’t remember the last time we had a cast with this many characters each taking ownership of their own strand in the narrative.

Thankfully, all of these characters are without exception being played by rather fantastic performers. I’ve already touched on Ian Reddington’s Chief Clown, with that wonderful hand movement (I’ve been replicating it for a few days now while talking to Emma, and singing the ‘Psychic Circus’ theme tune, too), but then you’ve also got T. P. McKenna who is absolutely perfectly cast as Captain Cook (and who reminds me more and more with each episode of Mark Gatiss), and Jessica Martin making the perfect companion for him, and managing to be actually somewhat scary during her werewolf transformation in today’s cliffhanger. In the first episode, we had Peggy Mount as the stallslady (and you can see exactly why they’ve used her for the part), Daniel Peacock’s Nord, Christopher Guard as Bellboy… I could really list everyone in the cast, because they’re uniformly great in this one. All the ‘making of’ features on the DVD present us with people who’s memories of making this story - despite the troubles that the production ran in to - are only positive, and of a well-oiled team working together to make something in adversity.

I also need to touch on Gian Sammarco as Whizz Kid. It’s one of those things again that you’re just aware of as a Doctor Who fan - that Whizz Kid is meant to be a commentary on Doctor Who fans. I’ve always thought that it’s just something we’ve kind of projected on to the character over the years, but it’s pretty strong on screen, isn’t it? I think it’s more a view on fans of anything, because the same trends do seem to crop up time and time again. Still it’s hard not to listen to a line like this one;

WHIZZ KID

Although I never got to see the early days, I know it's not as good as it used to be but I'm still terribly interested.

and not compare it to the clip of John Nathan-Turner on Open Air in 1987, when he provided his famous ‘the memory cheats’ remark!

2 December 2014

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

Day 701: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Episode Two

Dear diary,

It’s long fascinated me that The Greatest Show in the Galaxy almost went the route of becoming a Shada for the late 1980s - a programme which could have been part-way through production before everything ground to a halt. Having finished all the location filming for the serial, the cast and crew returned to Television Centre to record all the interior segments… only to find that the studios had been closed to have asbestos removed. Schedule in tatters, nothing to be done. It’s this particular behind-the-scenes story which people tend to agree most represented John Nathan-Turner rising higher than ever before. He found ways to work around the BBC’s temporary rules and regulations for completing programmes during this period, had a large marquee erected in the car park at Elstree, and they finished the production in there. The behind the scenes documentary on this DVD has some great anecdotes about an almost war-time spirit that everyone had in making sure that the story could be finished. It’s also pointed out that they’re lucky that this was the story caught up in these events, because it’s the only one this season (indeed, the only one from this decade, I’d argue, if not even longer) which could actively benefit from such a move!

All the scenes inside the circus tent look fantastic - and far more real than if they’d been shot in a mocked-up ‘big top’ in the studios. The same can be said for the great corridors that our cast are asked to run up and down today - the billowing white sheets that form the sides make the shots stand out as being quite unlike any other corridor chase in Doctor Who, and they look wonderful. I think the only disappointment with all of this is that the series has switched to shooting all on video - because I’d have loved to see all these sequences shot out on film, as was the case when a somewhat similar problem struck the production of Spearhead From Space almost twenty years earlier.

Everything has combined together to make this story stand out visually as being very different to anything else around it, and that really does help. Even if this story had ended up being shot in the studio, though, how beautiful is the location filming? It’s all been shot down in a Dorset quarry, and yet it doesn’t look like any of the other quarries that the TARDIS has ever pitched up in. There’s a feeling to this of an alien world that’s far more considered and developed than I’m used to from the programme. It even takes some of the tricks they employed for stories like Mindwarp and adapt them for use here, too - specifically the planet in the sky, which is nicer here because it’s done more subtly, without trying to draw attention to it. The shots of the circus tent from the exterior are beautiful, too, and I’m always a little bit floored by the fact that it was part model, part full-size construct, and just a bit of clever camera trickery to join everything up.

As for the story itself… I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I think I’m enjoying it, and I’ve certainly been far more drawn in to this episode than I was yesterday, partly because the majority of the characters have now been introduced, and drawn well enough that I can quite happily go along with them. But then I’m not completely sure where things are going, and if I’m honest, my main concern is the running time. Because we’re in the era of three-part stories mingling quite freely with the four-parters now, I’m more acutely aware of the fact that I’m only half-way through this tale, and I’m not sure if there’s enough plot left to fill out almost another hour (I’ve seen the story before, so I know broadly where it’s going, but not the specifics). I think I’m just hoping that I’ll continue the trend of these last two days, and find each successive episode slightly better than the last!

1 December 2014

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

Day 700: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Episode One

NB: I’m watching the McCoy stories in a slightly altered sequence. See HERE for my explanation and reasoning.

Dear diary,

It’s perhaps fitting that a story titled ‘The Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ should begin on Day 700 of The 50 Year Diary, because I love it when I reach these ‘century’ days in the marathon. They’re a great opportunity to take stock of the experiment, and to see just how much the programme has evolved since the last one. It’s not even something that I really talk about in writing up these entries, just something I do for myself every hundred days. The series as it is here, for example, in Season Twenty-Five with the Seventh Doctor and Ace is a world away from the show I was watching 100 days ago (Day 600 was the first episode of Earthshock), and that iteration of the programme was just as different from the one I was watching on Day 500 (The Invasion of Time, Episode Six), and Day 400 (Planet of Spiders, Episode Six). You get the picture. It’s the perfect way of tracking just how much Doctor Who evolves and changes throughout its lifetime, because I really don’t notice it all that much when watching day-to-day - it feels like such a natural progression, that it’s only changes like Seasons Six to Seven, or Seventeen to Eighteen, which feel like real shifts.

I think it’s also probably a good thing that on the 700th day of doing this marathon, the programme is still able to flag up episodes that feel quite unlike anything that we’ve had before. Last season, I complained that Delta and the Bannermen didn’t really know what to do with its three-episode structure, but then Dragonfire fitted it perfectly. It didn’t feel as though we’d had to rush everything to fit it in to less episodes, but equally, I can’t imagine how you’d pad it out to fill another. We then moved on to Remembrance of the Daleks, back to the more familiar four-episode format, and again, it filled its running time amply, not feeling too drawn out (although, the more I think about it, the less sure I am why the Doctor herded everyone across to the Dalek shuttle with him aside from filling some screen time…). We’re sticking with four episodes today - indeed that’s the reason that the story was swapped round on original broadcast, because they were keen for Silver Nemesis to air from the anniversary date - and it’s using this first 25 minutes to simply introduce us to all the characters.

The pace is somewhat leisurely, allowing the Doctor and Ace to spend time in the TARDIS, and on the side of a road eating alien fruit, but there’s also a hell of a lot packed in here, with two killer robots, some sinister clowns, a couple on the run, and the introduction of just about every character under the bloody sun! By my count, we’ve got nine key parts introduced: The Ring Master, the Stallslady, Nord, Bellboy, Flowerchild, Captain Cook, Mags, Whizz Kid, and The Chief Clown. That’s not including other characters who appear but aren’t really given a major introduction, like other assorted circus folk. Now, this probably isn’t unusual for a first episode - Paradise Towers had lots of characters introduced in the first 25 minutes, for example - but what sets this apart is the way that every one is introduced to us with their own set piece, really making sure that you take note of who they are, and what they’re up to. It feels really very strange, and I’m not suite sure what to make of it. Coupled with the bizarre cliffhanger, this feels more like a prelude to the main story, which I’m guessing will kick off from tomorrow.

Something I did want to touch on with this episode is the way that the Doctor’s behaving. I’ve seen it suggested that this isn’t just a chance visit to the Psychic Circus spurred on by some junk-mail arriving in the TARDIS, but rather something set up by the Doctor. I’ve always thought of it as an interesting fan-theory, but actually seeing this episode again after so many years… it’s pretty hard to ignore, isn’t it? The junk-mail arrives in the TARDIS and we’re told that it’s ‘extraordinary’ (indeed, the only other things that have managed to arrive in the TARDIS like this before are Sutekh - a god of unimaginable power - the Keeper of Traken - who has the minds of the Traken Union and the power of the Source propelling him through - and arguably Veena in Timelash, though she just happens to pass through via the Vortex as opposed to actively materialising). When Ace announces that she’d rather not go along to the circus because she’s scared of clowns, and the junk mail starts to taunt her about it, just look at the Doctor’s face. He’s studying her reactions - he’s set all of this up as one of those tests he’s so keen on inflicting in Season Twenty-Six. Just like facing her fears in Gabriel Chase, this is a test for Ace that the Doctor has arranged. I’m sure later on the Doctor makes a comment about having fought the Gods of Ragnarok before, so it fits in with his style of setting up his enemies to be defeated, too, just like in the last story (and the next!)

It helps that the Doctor and Ace really are comfortable with each other here. When we join them in the TARDIS - the Doctor teaching himself to juggle, and Ace rummaging through the wardrobe - it has that same ‘lazy Sunday afternoon’ feeling that we saw with the regulars back in The Chase. This is a Doctor and companion who are comfortable with each other, and have been travelling for some time. I think I’m still willing to stick to my estimate of six months for the pair up to now, because it’s never felt as much like there’s unseen adventures for a Doctor and a companion as it does here! 

30 November 2014

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

Day 699: Remembrance of the Daleks, Episode Four

Dear diary,

Ladies and gentlemen, we are at war!

Those of you who’ve been reading along with my marathon for a while will know that I’ve been tracking the evolution of the Time War (sometimes in very spurious ways) for quite some time now. It’s largely because after 50-odd years of Doctor Who, things don’t always hang together all that neatly. Different producers, script editors, writers, and directors have all brought their own things to the programme over the years, and altered the mythos as they go. The Time Lords change on screen - from the immensely powerful god-like beings of The War Games to the asinine bureaucrats of The Deadly Assassin and beyond (though I still maintain that it’s the difference in seeing them through Jamie and Zoe’s eyes in that first story, and the Doctor’s view of them later on). The process of regeneration is made up when the need arises to allow the lead actor to leave the show. A decade later, that ability is capped at a set number of regenerations. At one point, we even see lots of the Doctor’s previous incarnations, meaning that he really should have died with Davison (‘is this death?’).

That’s why I can’t help but love the Time War. It’s big, and it’s mythic. The programme goes off the air for sixteen years - save for a one night fling with Paul McGann in the mid-1990s - and when it returns, everything has changed. The Doctor’s not been having adventures on our TV screens each Saturday night, because he’s been busy, off fighting a bigger war between his own people and his greatest enemies. It almost justifies the fact that there’s such a big gap in the broadcast of the show, and I love that idea. And yet… it’s all right here, being built up in the narrative of the ‘classic’ series for ages. When the Doctor first encounters the Daleks on Skaro, they’re just the week’s evil alien baddies to be stopped. By the time they return the following year, though, they’ve become the catalyst for the biggest change in the Doctor’s personality. Do you remember, back in those early days, how I used to track the Doctor’s evolution from the man we met in the junkyard through to the man he would then become? Fittingly, we’ve returned to that junkyard with this story, because this tale is unambiguously a major early strike in the Time War.

You don’t even have to try to shoe-horn it in. This isn’t like my argument that The Invasion of Time is a part of the war (I’m still convinced that it is), but it’s absolutely a part of it. Going back half the programme’s life time from here, The Genesis of the Daleks is also 100% a part of the Time War - it’s the Time Lords taking that very first strike. All these different production teams coming in and imposing their very different wills on the programme over the years, and yet when this major upheaval comes in - the Doctor becoming the last surviving member of his race - it’s perfectly in keeping with everything we’ve seen before, and retroactively looks like a great big game. I love that, and I think that’s even gone so far as to help up this story a little in my estimations.

Not that it needs that, of course, because Remembrance of the Daleks is simply a brilliant piece of Doctor Who. I think, if anything, it’s suffered slightly from how little I enjoyed Season Twenty-Four (I know, I promised not to bring it up again, but bear with me. I’ll not mention it for at least the rest of this season, promise). Because I became so used to handing out 3/10 and 4/10, suddenly having a story like this, which is such a leap in quality, throws me a bit. Had I been bobbing along with episodes at around 7/10, then this story would likely have rated a bit higher, because it’s so head-and-shoulders above the rest. It’s almost as thug hI’ve rated it down a little bit because I’ve been expecting the worst for a while.

I’m not going to really discuss today’s episode in a great deal of detail, because it seriously runs the risk of just me gushing over everything again. The guest cast on top form, the sets and locations looking lovely. The special effects (that Dalek battle under the bridge!) are fab. Sylvester McCoy is finally proving that he’s the right man for the job and a brilliant Doctor… Really, I’m going to sound ridiculous if I carry on. I think I’m just pleased that this is the final Dalek story of the ‘classic’ run, because it’s such a grand way to see them out - a real return to form, and easily their best outing since Genesis of the Daleks. I think this is probably the one I’d want to show new fans looking to get in to the classic series with a Dalek tale - because it sets everything up really nicely, and all that Time War stuff I’ve been banging on about is an easy bridge from the modern stuff, too.

The one thing I do want to draw attention to, though, is the way that this story uses Davros - because it’s the only one since Genesis to really get it right. Davros here is used sparingly. Really sparingly. He doesn’t turn up until this episode (or, rather, he’s not actually revealed - we see the ‘Emperor’ in Episode Three, too), but the whole story plays on your expectation that he’ll arrive. Because Terry Nation insisted on the character being in all Dalek stories from Genesis on, you reach points like Revelation of the Daleks, which seem to have Davros there just for the sake of bringing the character back. Hello, Doctor, I’ve lured you here to taunt a bit and stop my evil plans, etc.

Here, we’re built up to believe that the creature in Ratcliffe’s office could be Davros - it looks and sounds like him, after all, before we’re shocked with the reveal of the little girl plugged in to a Dalek Battle Computer. Just when you think we could be having a Davros-free story, the Emperor’s casing flips open and there he is! It’s a great moment, and I love that he’s so completely encased in the machine. From here in the audios, he returns in Terror Firma, where he’s become even more of a ‘Dalek’, and that really does feel like a natural evolution from this point. I just think that this is such a clever way of playing with your expectations of a Dalek story, and then doing something entirely different with it.

Oh, and it gives us the ‘unlimited rice pudding’ line, which is always sure to raise a smile! 

29 November 2014

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

Day 698: Remembrance of the Daleks, Episode Three

Dear diary,

In the series of About Time books, each story gets a ‘critique’, and I often go back to catch up on what was said there to see how it tallies with my own thoughts on a serial. The critique for this story, though, has always stuck in the mind because it says something that I can’t help but feeling is exactly right: ‘Looked at now, it’s amazing that so few people saw it on first broadcast. Had the BBC got behind this series, episodes like these would have won it a whole new audience’. The more this story goes on, the more I think it’s a pity that the McCoy era of the programme is looked down upon by so many - especially within fandom. This is one of the greatest stories ever, and there’s no doubt that stuff like this would have gotten the public talking about Doctor Who again (there’s also mention in the About Time critique of Dragonfire that had more people been watching when that story went out, there would have been a flurry of complaints about Kane’s death. As it is, the whole sequence passed by under the radar).

This is really me struggling to find another way of saying ‘I’m still really enjoying Remembrance of the Daleks’. It’s almost the complete opposite of Revelation of the Daleks, in which there was absolutely no need for the Daleks to be there, because here we’ve got a story that’s about the pepper pots. We’ve got a manipulative Doctor trying to play his intergalactic game of chess, making sure that the right Daleks get hold of the right Gallifreyan super weapon at the right time, and there’s always something fun about watching so many of the creatures get blown up!

Because I didn’t really talk about the Daleks all that much during their last appearance, I’ve not had a chance properly yet to say just how much I love the white-and-gold versions of the creatures. It’s suck a lovely design, sleek and elegant, and they look so much nicer than the drab grey ones that have become so common throughout the colour years of the programme. The design of the Emperor is rather lovely, too, and their spaceship! Oh! There’s lots of photographs that show off the set here, but none of them capture quite how good it looks on screen. During our first trip aboard, there’s a lovely camera movement that pans around the room while a Dalek is busy shouting it’s… Dalek things, and it really shows the design off beautifully.

Indeed, the direction of the whole serial is rather nice, and it’s hard to believe that it’s by Andrew Morgan - the same man who gave us Time and the Rani! In that story, I complained lots about the way that the production had been put together (by all departments, from costumes through to lighting), but here we’ve been given something much stronger. I think, on reflection, that less blame should be placed at Morgan’s door for Time and the Rani than I did, because it ended up becoming an edict for the entire season, not just that story. Unshackled from that light-hearted style, which sat so at odds with the regular tone of the programme, Morgan has crafted something really rather wonderful this time around.

And then there’s the guest cast of characters. For a few years, now, Big Finish have produced a spin-off from this story, featuring Gilmore, Rachel, and Alison setting up the Countermeasures Intrusion Group in the months following this story. I’ve been listening to the series since it was first released, but at that point it had been a while since I’d last seen these four episodes. I’m glad, then, to see that the characters we get in the spin-off are very much drawn from what we’re given on screen here, and I’m looking forward to a re-listen with this story fresher in the mind. I’ve vaguely touched on it before, but these characters do feel so much more rounded than others we’ve had recently, and I can’t fail to get caught up in their world.

28 November 2014

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

Day 697: Remembrance of the Daleks, Episode Two

Dear diary,

Because I didn’t fully embrace my love of Doctor Who until the 21st century revival really booted me in to action, I’ve always been used to Daleks who are fairly powerful. As far as I’m concerned, they’ve been able to fly for as long as I can remember, and for a brief while they were even able to swing their mid sections around for full 360-degree action, and melt bullets as they were directed towards them. In short, they’ve always been a fairly unstoppable force. It doesn’t make the cliffhanger to yesterday’s episode any less exciting, though. It’s been almost two years since I started out on this marathon, so I’ve become very used to the ‘classic’ type of Dalek, which is usually a bit rubbish. We’ve seen them levitate before, of course (In The Chase, one rises from the sand, and in Revelation of the Daleks they’re seen to hover, but it’s done somewhat clumsily there, so you don’t really notice…), but seeing the way that this one approaches the stairs and just casually continues on the advance is great - and the Doctor’s reaction to it helps to sell the threat, too. Even he’s surprised by this development! This story also marks the first time that you see a skeleton as the Dalek bolt strikes someone - it feels like we’re moving ever closer towards the modern version of the show, and it’s interesting seeing the pieces start to fall in to place.

I’m surprised, too, just how excited I am to have the Daleks back here. Like the comings and goings of the different Doctors in this period of the programme, Dalek tales seem to come around really fast now (this is the third since September, whereas before that they’d been fairly paced out for a long time), and when they cropped up again in Revelation of the Daleks only a season on from Resurrection… I didn’t really care all that much. You might notice that I barely mention the Daleks in that story, and that’s because they were by far one of the least interesting parts of the narrative. Here, though, for some reason, I’m really pleased to have another Dalek tale. I wonder if it’s because this time, we’ve very much got the two sets of Daleks squaring up against each other (a plot thread introduced very late in to the last story), and I know that this is about to turn full-on into being the start of the Time War? It’s something I’ve been tracking for most of 2014, from the Doctor’s mission in Genesis of the Daleks and then on through various spurious links, so it’s quite exciting to have finally reached this point.

And the Doctor has now gone completely into his manipulative mode! Throughout the last season, I was tracking the little moments that seemed to point towards the character becoming manipulative and scheming, but I’d really forgotten just how blatant it becomes from this story onwards. I’d long thought of it as being something that was somewhat underlying in the show, and only really brought to the fore later on in the books, but here we’ve got the Doctor expecting the Daleks to turn up, and being somewhat unsettled when it’s the wrong faction that arrive on the scene (at least initially). By today’s episode, he’s already thinking that he may have made an error (it’s a lovely continuation of that great cliffhanger in Delta and the Bannermen, where he realises he may have bitten off more than he can chew), and I’m really enjoying that. There’s also the mystery of just when he started setting all of this up. At the undertakers, the ‘Doctor’ who left the casket with them in 1963 is described as being an older chap with long white hair - a pretty good description of the First Doctor, which would make sense given the trappings of Coal Hill School, Totter’s Lane, and November 1963 in the story - but this opens up a whole can of worms about the way the Doctor acts in The Daleks. There, it seems to be his first meeting with the creatures, but is there perhaps more to it than we ever realised? It’s not something I’ve ever really considered in a great deal of depth before, but I’m quite keen to watch that story again now and see exactly how he actually reacts to them…

I can’t let this episode pass by without bringing up the Doctor’s speech about making a difference. It’s lovely, and very fitting for this incarnation who’ll be plotting his way through the next eight stories. Another example of Sylvester McCoy simply getting the Doctor this season. You can really sense that both he and Andrew Cartmel have taken some time to sit down and really work out what they want to do with both the character and the series. I’ve said it before (and I’ll try to make this the last time, I promise), but there’s such a shift in quality between Season Twenty-Four and this story, that you can really sense just how much work has gone in to getting it right. I’ve often defended this period of the programme to people who claim it’s rubbish by saying how much the show found its feet again in the final two years, and this is the perfect story to demonstrate that.

27 November 2014

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

Day 696: Remembrance of the Daleks, Episode One

Dear diary,

For the last fortnight, while I’ve not been enjoying Season Twenty-Four, Remembrance of the Daleks has been the light at the end of the tunnel. I could remember liking it from previous viewings (it’s one of the few stories I’d actually watched a few times before replacing it with the special edition), and the more I thought about little elements of the story, the more it seemed to be the absolute antithesis of everything that I perceived as being ‘wrong’ with Doctor Who as broadcast in 1987.

It’s nice, then, that this episode is pretty much everything that I wanted it to be. Let’s start with the thing that most relates to my complaints about areas of the last season - this story is set in the real world. When we join the Doctor and Ace in the adventure, they’re walking away from the TARDIS, which is parked down a side street. They’re out in real London streets, or in playgrounds, or junkyards. A large proportion of this serial is shot out on location - which helps - and everything feels much more solid than it did in Season Twenty-Four. These locations (and even the sets) don’t feels as ‘plastic’ or ‘comic book’, and it really does make a massive difference to things. By that same token, the fact that we see Ace go to get food in a regular cafe - as opposed to the version we saw in Dragonfire - grounds everything in reality much more. You can see where Russell T Davies was coming from when he chose to ground the 2005 revival in a council estate, with shops, and flats, and real people, because it has the same effect there that it does here, of making everything feel just that bit more natural.

Speaking of which, McCoy’s performance has jumped up tenfold from where it was last season, and he feels very natural here, too. He’s playing everything a little bit quieter, and even largely underplaying his lines, in a way that we didn’t really get to see a lot of in his first four adventures. I was trying yesterday to find a way of describing the differences in his performance, but it struck me almost instantly when he papered today - it simply is that everything is much calmer here - more calculated, and yet it comes across as less of a performance.

Take, for example, the moment when he stands with Ace, looking out over the scorch marks on the playground. He makes reference to both Terror of the Zygons and The Web of Fear, and plays the line beautifully. It’s the ultimate example of him underplaying a scene, when I know that his Season Twenty-Four performance would have gone to great lengths to really over-do the point. Having just come from two weeks of that style, I can picture exactly how that would have gone. I’m so glad, because I came to this period of the marathon knowing how much I like McCoy’s Doctor, but by the end of Dragonfire, I was almost beginning to doubt myself!

I discussed this with my friend Nick this evening. He acts as a nice counterbalance to me at this stage, because while he admits that Season Twenty-Four has its faults, he doesn’t dislike it to quite the extent that I do. He’s a bit more willing to accept that it’s the programme trying something different that doesn’t really work, but then it comes back this year and tries another direction. He’s right when he says that McCoy was pitching his performance last season to fit the ‘comic book’ style that they were going for - try to play the Doctor in Time and the Rani the way he does here and it would fall absolutely flat on its face.

That said, everything is pulling together here to help this new performance. Remember during Delta and the Bannermen, I complained that all the supporting characters just went along with the Doctor because the plot required them to do so, and it came across as rushed and false. Here, characters effectively do the same thing… but you get the sense that the Doctor has given them reason to go along with him. I think it’s in Silver Nemesis where he describes his usual tactic as simply acting like he owns the place, and it’s absolutely true of what happens here. When he climbs in to the van and Rachel questions his presence, he simply goes on with the rest of the conversation. Similarly, when they reach Totters’ Yard, he takes charge of the situation, and ends up being the one who takes out the Dalek, while the myriad of soldiers are largely ineffective against it. Here, even after one episode, I completely buy that everyone will go along with what he says, because he’s given me every reason to believe it. That’s much stronger scripting and performance than we’ve had before in this period.

While I’m on the subject, what’s the general thinking in terms of how long he’s been travelling with Ace at this point? There’s lots of little hints in this episode that seem to suggest they’ve spent a while together since Dragonfire (and I’d say that Sophie Aldred has been made up to look older than she was in that story), and that this pair are fairly comfortable together. Certainly, this isn’t the first place they’ve been to since Ice World. Equally, they’ve not been anywhere where Ace has needed to drive, because the Doctor has to ask if she can. I think I’m plumping for a period of maybe six months for them by now - long enough to go around and have several adventures, and to get comfortable together before they touch down here to sort out the Daleks (the Doctor is clearly here specifically for the Daleks, and I’d imagine he’d want to make sure Ace is up to the challenge before setting the coordinates). Does anyone else have a theory on how long they’ve been together already? 

26 November 2014

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

Day 695: Dragonfire, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I was surprised, watching the ‘making of’ documentary on this DVD today, to hear that Andrew Cartmel and Ian Briggs weren’t all that keen on the final scene with Mel in this episode. It seems to be the case that it’s adapted from part of McCoy’s audition scene, which he’d been repeatedly trying to get in to the series for a while, and ended up just putting in almost without actually telling anyone! It surprised me because it’s such a beautiful goodbye, and for me it’s the highlight of the story (and, if I’m honest, of the season!)

DOCTOR

That's right, yes, you're going. Been gone for ages. Already gone, still here, just arrived, haven't even met you yet. It all depends on who you are and how you look at it. Strange business, time.

MEL

Goodbye, Doctor.

DOCTOR

I'm sorry, Mel. Think about me when you're living your life one day after another, all in a neat pattern. Think about the homeless traveller and his old police box, with his days like crazy paving.

MEL

Who said anything about home? I've got much more crazy things to do yet…

I think it’s fair to say that this is by far the best performance that we’ve seen Sylvester McCoy give all season - and it’s much closer to the way that he’ll be handling the part from now on - and there’s something rather beautifully melancholic about the whole scene. It fits quite nicely with the fact that he ended up meeting Mel out of order (even if we didn’t see this so much on screen, but it’s been explored in audios like The Wrong Doctors), and serves as a rather nice cap to their time together. It then moves on to be a brilliant introduction to Ace aboard the TARDIS. Thinking back to the Fourth Doctor’s words in Logopolis, when he claims to have never chosen his own company aboard the TARDIS, This may be the first time, really, since Vicki* that we’ve seen the Doctor actively ask someone to come with him because he wants them to.

I’ve never noticed before just how well it melds with the story arc that’s still to come surrounding Ace’s character. By the time we reach The Curse of Fenric - more on which in a moment - the Doctor is claiming to have sensed the deliberate alteration to Ace’s life even at this stage, thus choosing to take her along with him. It becomes a bit vague, I teem to recall, just how much he’s saying to break her confidence, and how much is the truth, but I think it’s very easy to read all of that into this final scene. It would especially explain why he’s so distracted as Mel tries to make her goodbyes, and even why she so suddenly decides that this is the end of the road for her time in the TARDIS (she clearly hasn’t even mentioned to Glitz that she’s planning to go with him). I think I’m right in saying that the New Adventures novels in the 1990s revealed that the Doctor mentally forced her to leave here, because he knew of the role Ace would go on to play, and needed Mel out of the way and back to safety while he concentrated on the new girl. I don’t think that’s a leap from what we’re given on screen at all, and indeed, I really prefer to think of it like that. It also works as a nice capstone to the building up of this Doctor’s ‘meddling’ personality that I’ve been spuriously tracking over the last two weeks…

As we move in to the final two seasons of the programme’s original run, a brief word on the order in which I’ll be watching the stories. For the first time in The 50 Year Diary, I’m completely breaking with broadcast order and doing it my own way. The reasons are simple: a few stories in the next few years were swapped around between production and broadcast, and work better if watched in the order they were intended for. Thus, I’ll be watching Season Twenty-Five as Remembrance of the Daleks - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy - The Happiness Patrol - Silver Nemesis, and then Season Twenty-Six as The Curse of Fenric - Battlefield - Ghost Light - Survival. I’ve never been overboard with trying to remain 100% accurate with this marathon, hence side-steps in to things like Farewell, Great Macedon, and Doctor Who and the Pescatons, and I think I’ll get more from the next eight stories in this order!

*Yes, I know, Harry, but he’s really only asking him aboard the ship so that he can show off a bit.

25 November 2014

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

Day 694: Dragonfire, Episode Two

Dear diary,

During Time and the Rani, I said that the McCoy era was home to some of the best monster designs and costumes that the programme has ever seen - and yes, I did mean the Tetraps! Oh hush, I like them. Today’s episode is another great example with the dragon itself - there’s something really nice about the whole creature, and I even think the fact that the body is so spindly and hymn works, which is the one thing that I’d always been put off by. The actual head design is absolutely gorgeous, and I’d completely forgotten that it opened up to reveal the Dragonfire inside - I think I’d convinced myself that we simply saw it overlaid or something. I’m also fond of the fact that it’s a nice ‘monster’ - it feels like a while since we had one of those (yeah, yeah, the Navarinos in Delta and the Bannermen were friendly, but they were presented as aliens rather than monsters - the same can be said of the Lakertians at the start of the season).

Indeed, I’m rather liking the design on this story as a whole, I think. There are some seasons which seem to have their own very distinct ‘visual identity’ - Season Twenty-One is the most recent that comes to mind before this one - whereby you could show assorted screen captures of the episodes to people who don’t know which seasons they’re from, and they’d likely be able to group them together just by style. That’s been very true of Season Twenty-Four, which I’ve continually referred to as being a bit ‘comic book’. I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way, it’s just the dest description I can find for the look of this season - very bright, and artificial.

Because I’ve not been enjoying Season Twenty-Four all that much on the whole, I’ve been thinking of Remembrance of the Daleks as something of a light at the end of the tunnel. As strange as it may sound, it’s the thought of grimy brick walls, and roads, and playgrounds that makes it feel better- something real and tangible. I know Delta and the Bannermen was set in Earth’s recent history, but the holiday camp setting and the way the whole piece came together still gave it more of that ‘Season Twenty-Four’ artifice than I’d have liked!

All that said, Ice World manages to fit the visual style of this year’s stories perfectly, but also look rather good on its own merits. I recently had to put together a kind of ‘ice world’ for a design commission, and found myself automatically trying to replicate the style of the walls seen in this story - though I didn’t immediately realise that this was where the inspiration was drawn from! The various corridors look lovely, and Kane’s lair works simply because of the size of the set, and the various levels and platforms (long-term readers will know that I’m a sucker for a set with levels!) The only slight let down is that McCoy is really trying to sell the ‘ice’ factor of these sets, slipping and sliding around on the floor as though it’s near impossible to remain upright… while no one else really bothers to do the same. Sophie Aldred has some nice moments of watching her feet and carefully choosing her steps, but then slips back into the way that Tony Selby and Bonnie Langford are playing it - as if there’s no ice at all!

24 November 2014

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

Day 693: Dragonfire, Episode One

Dear diary,

It’s funny, isn’t it, how some Doctors just have that one companion that ‘defines’ them. For some, like the Second Doctor and Jamie, or the Fifth Doctor and Tegan, it’s because they travel together for such a long period of time (there’s only a single Second Doctor adventure without Jamie in, and only two Fifth Doctor stories missing Tegan). For others, it’s just because they work together so well. I think that’s the case for the Seventh Doctor and Ace (a pairing who do travel together for much of this era, but I think the shortened seasons means that there’s less of an impact to it). I’ve been waiting for this story to come along, because having struggled to find my feet with the Seventh Doctor so far, the arrival of Sophie Aldred and Ace to the series really feels like the missing piece of the puzzle being slotted in to place.

Surprising, then, is the fact that the Doctor and Ace really don’t get to spend that much time together in this episode! They talk for a little while in the cafe, while the Doctor muses on wasting to go and see the dragons, but then it’s really Mel who gets paired off with the newbie, so that we can find out all about her. Within these first 25 minutes, I already feel like I know Ace better than I ever have with Mel - and I think it’s helped by the fact that the information is being fed to us naturally, with Ace telling us her life story. When Mel was introduced in the latter stages of The Trial of a Time Lord, we were given occasional info dumps about her (‘this is nothing like Pease Pottage, Mell, you know, where you lived before we travelled together? And you worked there as a computer programmer? And you’re a health and fitness fanatic? Eh? Eh? EH?’), but with Ace, you get a real sense that everything we’re told - blowing up the art classroom, and whipping up a time storm - can have really happened for this character. It bodes well for her at this early stage!

The Doctor is instead paired off with Sabalom Glitz, another character I’ve been waiting to see. He was such good fun last season, and the chance for one more story with him here has been a little light at the end of the tunnel while not enjoying Season Twenty-Four. I’m enjoying him here - his interactions with the Doctor and Mel in the cafe are particularly fun - but you really can tell that he’s not being written by Robert Holmes any more. He’s still funny, but a lot of the wit and charm that made him so enjoyable in The Mysterious Planet just isn’t there anymore.

I’d also like to use today as another example of the Doctor’s ‘planning’ personality starting to shine through. He tells Mel early on that he’s been picking up a signal from Ice World ‘for some time’, and has now decided to check it out. We’ve had plenty of occasions in the past where the TARDIS has received a distress call, and the Doctor has hurried off to investigate, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a situation before where he’s been actively monitoring a signal for some time before choosing to follow up on it and find out what’s going on. Later on, Mel realises that the Doctor has brought them here because he wanted to see the dragons - though he omitted to tell her that fact! This is probably a clearer sign of the Seventh Doctor’s evolution than any of the little hints I’ve pointed out before, and I like it, especially when balanced with the Doctor’s sadness when he thinks he may not get the chance to go and see dragons after all!

What do you mean you were expecting me to mention the cliffhanger? There’s nothing to say, is there? It’s just your average, Doctor Who cliffhanger… 

…oh, all right. This episode is home to perhaps the programme’s most pointless cliffhanger, in which the Doctor gets to a fork in the road, with a path leading off to the left and the right… but instead he chooses to climb over the railings and dangle over an ice chasm via his umbrella. I’ve been a Doctor Who fan long enough to know that the intention is that he needs to go down to the next level, and misjudges the diastase he’ll need to drop (I think the novelisation restores this version of events), but the way it’s been staged on screen is awful. Here, he seems to climb the railings for no good reason whatsoever! I think, though, that this might be one of those times where the programme has done something so bad, that I can’t help but love it!

23 November 2014

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

Day 692: Delta and the Bannermen, Episode Three

Dear diary,

I’ve been looking forward to this one, because it’s the first ‘real’ three-part Doctor Who adventure. Planet of Giants in Season Two was recorded as four parts, but later cut down, and The Two Doctors was shown in three parts, but was the length of six, but Delta and the Bannermen is three episodes of regular-length, planned from the start as a three-part story. This thought has been exciting me, because I’ve said several times across this marathon that three episodes is really the perfect length for the programme, cutting out all of that running around and getting captured in the third quarter, and helping to tighten everything up, which should in theory help the stories.

It’s a pity, then, that the format is used to badly in this story! The pacing is all over the place, and I’m not really sure that they’ve gotten the hang of it yet. I’d say that the first episode was more or less spot on, introducing the story, the characters, and the location, before ending with a cliffhanger that moves the narrative along. Episode Two then does up the stakes, before this final episode is just a bit of a mess. There’s so many characters, and everything’s been escalating so quickly - it’s another way of looking at the point I made yesterday, about the way that everyone just goes along with the Doctor, even though he’s given no one any real reason to do so, and Billy instantly accepts Delta’s situation, even going as far as to try and change his biology and fly away with her in a spaceship at the end, completely unfazed by events!

There’s not been enough time spent introducing us to these people as a group, so we’ve simply got bland ciphers doing whatever the story requires of them. Right up to the goodbye scene at the end, it doesn’t feel like anyone is a believable person here. When Ray says goodbye to the Doctor and rides off on the bike, it feels completely wrong - she got to see inside his spaceship, remember, the boy she loves has just flown off with another woman, and she’s filled the role of the Doctor’s companion for the entire story… she should at least ask to see another planet, before swanning off. This kind of thing also means that the tone is still wrong right across this episode - there’s not a single mention of the tourists who got blown up in their bus yesterday, because the plot was finished with them, and doesn’t even think to bring it up again. I’d at least expect the doctor to say something a little bit poignant about the situation.

I’m a little bit gutted about all this to be honest, because that first episode really did show an awful lot of promise, and I was looking so forward to seeing the programme attempt this type of format. We’ve got another three part story coming up next, so I’m keen to see if they’ll be any better at managing the pacing issues in that one, or if - like the rest of Season Twenty-Four - it’s all something of a failed experiment. 

22 November 2014

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

Day 691: Delta and the Bannermen, Episode Two

Dear diary,

I really can’t make up my mind with the Seventh Doctor so far. In Time and the Rani and Paradise Towers, I veered from thinking ‘he’s not got this at all’ to ‘ah, now he feels like the Doctor’ and back again (sometimes within the same scene), but I’m starting to think that by the time Delta and the Bannermen went in to production, he’s sort of picked a direction that I’m liking. Put simply: while I’m not sure he’s quite the Doctor that I’m waiting for (I’m becoming ever more convinced that I’ll have to wait for next season for that), there’s a version of the character shining through in this story that I’m really warming to. It’s present in the way that he takes instantly to Ray, and goes to comfort her after the dance, asking for her life to be spared, and generally ditching Mel for this story to hang out with someone cooler! I’m not sure if I like how quickly everyone is taking to the Doctor here, though, with people following his every whim and order without much question - at least the camp Major has to have a look inside the TARDIS before he’ll start to believe in what he’s being told!

It’s been a while since I had the chance to track any kind of story arc in the programme, and I think I may have found another (very) tenuous one forming here in regards to the Seventh Doctor’s persona. He’s often thought of as the arch manipulator, the one who goes in to his adventures with a plan in mind, and is working to a greater scheme that we can’t really see. It’s most prevalent in the books, but will start to come to the fore with Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis in Season Twenty-Five, and then even stronger through Season Twenty-Six, in regards to Ace. I’m wondering if we might be seeing the very beginnings of that character starting to develop here.

I’m thinking specifically of the last story, in which the Doctor initially claimed to know very little about the Great Architect and Paradise Towers in General, but when things started heating up, he was suddenly all-knowing, and keen to make sure that the Architect really had been destroyed. In the cliffhanger to today’s episode, we get to see McCoy deliver the first of his big speeches - the kind of thing that he’ll face off against the likes of Davros and Fenric with later in his life - and then muse that he may have gone too far. It feels as though, early in to his new body, he’s flexing his muscles, and trying to see how he can handle events. What better way to test it than with a war over the final two members of a species? Go big or go home, I guess!

The one other thing that I’m struggling with in this story, and it’s related in a way to the fact that everyone just goes along with the Doctor and accepts everything he says, is the fact that Billy is so accepting of Delta’s situation! He spots her at a dance, takes a bit of a shine to her, pops round with some flowers, and then is told that she’s in fact an alien queen, and this is her child, and it’ll grow up incredibly fast, and there’s an army on the way to kill them all. His reaction to all of this? He takes her out on a date! With child in tow! Doesn’t bat an eyelid. I know he’s grown up in South Wales, with the Cardiff Rift nearby (I did wonder when Goronwy mentioned all the weird lights in the sky, if it could retroactively be thought of as the result of the Rift), but surely he shouldn’t be quite this accepting of the situation?

Several times over the last few days, I’ve mused that Season Twenty-Four has amore lightweight, ‘comic book’ feel to it than other Doctor Who seasons. It’s still in evidence here, with the bright colours of the camp and many of the supporting characters, but sometimes the tone does veer off the path somewhat, and leave you with an uncomfortable clash of styles. It worked very well yesterday when the Tollmaster was shot in the back, but here we see the entire tour bus of characters blown up! Mel then points out that all those innocent people have died! It should be a massive shock to the system because it really shows off the might of the Bannermen, and makes them unpredictable cold killers, but it just completely jars with everything else in the episode.

Instead, it shocks you because it’s not played quite right, and you’re left with a bit of a sour taste. If I’m honest, I had to skip back a minute or two to make sure that it had really happened, and that they didn’t manage to escape in the final seconds! I’m somewhat resigned to the programme having such an ‘off’ tone this year, and I can’t quite decide if it’s the result of there being a new script editor finding his feet in the show, or John Nathan-Turner coming to the season late (having assumed that he’d be allowed to move on), or simply that they’ve over-reacted to the criticisms of the programme a season late. A pity, because there’s still lots of ideas that I’m loving - as I say, the death of the passengers could be great - but it’s just not coming together for me! 

21 November 2014

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

Day 690: Delta and the Bannermen, Episode One

Dear diary,

Today feels like an appropriate time to return to the subject of ‘stunt casting’ in Doctor Who. Ken Dodd’s appearance as the Toll Master in Delta and the Bannermen is often singled out as an example of John Nathan-Turner completely missing the point and casting light entertainment figures in the programme, but it’s an example that I think proves he knew what he was doing! Quite apart from the fact that Dodd fits the ‘comic book’ version of Doctor Who that we’re being given with Season Twenty-Four, he’s actually really good in the part, and his slightly zany antics (and very zany costume) work wonderfully in context, offset nicely against the run-down backdrop of the toll port.

Dodd’s character doesn’t make it out of the episode alive, and there’s something that really works in watching him die - throughout the scene I continually flip-flopped between thinking he was going to snuff it and thinking that he’d be spared, but I’m so glad they killed him off. It’s the perfect way to highlight Gavrok’s character, and having him shot in the back as he tries to get to freedom is just delicious. It always hurts that little bit more when a character dies who you rather like ,and who hasn’t done anything wrong.

You may have noticed from that opening paragraph that I’ve been a bit finder of today’s episode than either of the last two stories fared. There’s just so much to like here. Right from the off, we’re set down in to the middle of an alien battlefield, with a distinctive blue hue which really sets off the explosions. There’s little green army men (what a fantastic idea for a design - I’m almost surprised that the programme has taken this long to do it - one of those ideas that just feels perfectly ‘Doctor Who’), and alien princess, an evil villain and his army on the attack… it’s more action that the programme has seen in a while, and it’s rather nicely done! Even the shot of the space ship taking off to flee from the battle is something different- even though I’m sure it was achieved simply.

And then the whole idea of the story, well that’s another thing that’s pure Doctor Who! A spaceship, disguised as a bus, taking a tour group of aliens to visit Disneyland in the 1950s. It’s a great concept, and again I think it’s perfectly suited to this particular season of the programme. I can’t imagine it working at any point prior to this (and not really any point afterwards, either, though I think the Eleventh Doctor could just about fit in to this adventure), but it’s just so right for this season, and especially for Mel.

She looks so right sat on the bus, singing along with all the other passengers. It’s just a shame that she reverts to being a bit wet afterwards, though. There’s some nice character moments in her room with Delta - sympathising with the poor woman and trying to help where she can - but then as soon as she sees the alien egg, she bursts into a scream… before anything has even happened! Delta shows her a christmas decoration, and Mel screams at it! I’m surprised that she didn’t simply pass out when the little green creature emerged from inside!

The actual effect of the baby… thing coming out of the egg is lovely, and one of the best we’ve had in a long time. It looks genuinely creepy, and it’s enough to leave an impact for the week until the next episode. It’s not the only decent effects shot in here, either, and I was rather impressed by the TARDIS model as it followed the bus through space. The programme has been doing TARDIS models for ages by this point - decades! - but it’s always nice when they do it well, and having not seen many of them recently!

One last thing, though. Weismuller, one of the Americans pulls up to a police box and puts in a call to the States. He claims to be calling from ‘Wales in England’. I’ve lived in Cardiff long enough by now to know that they really don’t like it when you say things like that (we’re also not allowed to question the dual language on all the signs)!

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