Merlin: Swords and Sorcery Part II – For the Hate of Camlann!

Emrys

All’s well that..  Ends.  One year on, a closer look at the final three episodes of Merlin, where all the anachronistically tarmaced roads point to Camlann and a rather bleak finale is framed by the Mordred endgame.  Destiny is key… And everyone has a set role to play.

 A Review of the concluding Mordred Trilogy…

The Drawing of the Dark

THE START OF THE END, AS ITS TITLE SUGGESTS, DRAWING RATHER NEATLY SETS UP MORDRED’S ROLE BY INVERTING THE MERLIN FORMULA AND GIFTING IT TO THE ‘OTHER’ YOUNG WIZARD.  Here it is Mordred sneaking from the castle walls to aid an undesirable, breaking his, admittedly ruthless, friend from the brig and then conflicted over his use of magic.  Any or all of those plot facets could have been applied to Merlin in any other episode.  But her all off a sudden, in preparation for the final two-parter, we’re left in no uncertain terms that things have inverted.  It’s a bold move that shows how much faith the creators have in Merlin’s well-worn formula.  They’re right to, because it just about works, but it’s left to the sprawling plot strands to pose the problem.

The impending dark means that Merlin is as caught up in prophecies as ever, but the episodes conjures up plenty of red herrings as to whether it’s actually his actions that are making the prophecies come to pass, have done or will do.  Both Gaius and Mordred himself point out to Merlin that he would act the same if he was Modred’s armoured boots – but the young wizard is too wary of his visions of Camlann to listen.

It’s difficult to gauge true effect of Merlin’s actions in this episode.

It’s well sculpted, but after five years of acting just like Mordred, it’s a little hard to accept Merlin’s volte face and indeed that Mordred, the loyalist knight, would turn so quickly.  While there’s a real momentum to this episode, one that draws most of the characters from their comfort zone as the dark draws near there is that inherent problem: The Mordred story is handled a little too hastily.

It’s difficult to gauge true effect of Merlin’s actions in this episode.  On top of those familiar, strained loyalties, he’s wracked by the previous visions and prophecies that he‘s seen people die for.  Above all though, while the ambiguity seems dissipate to settle on Mordred’s hands being forced by Merlin’s actions, and thus Camlann as well, it’s the original prophecy laid out in the first series that remains the most important.

It’s a mean to an ends then, though one with some pelt.  There are some nice parallels.  Merlin’s counsel with Arthur is a nice mirror of Gaius’ poor choice the week before.  Such interventions are there to build up to Mordred’s final appeal to his king, and that’s a winner.  The scene’s key to the strength is Alexander Vlahos’ superb performance and he successfully captures the weight of confessional courage alongside sacrifice in what may be the most important in the whole series.

Merlin’s culpability in his own destiny is an interesting area in its own right.  But despite the mild flirtation with it at the end game. It’s not something that the show can get into too much.  Over reliance on it would only serve to drag this entertaining show down a peg like (as Poirot’s recent end-game decided on), but it would also damage the main focus of those last episodes: Arthur’s bane himself.

 Drawing has a necessarily has a bleak tone, but it’s particularly tortuous to watch Mordred’s struggle.  The parallel to Merlin makes for one of the most interesting conundrums in the whole series.  And so it should be.

Mordred achieving his knighthood is a most unexpected surprise…

Of all parts of Arthurian lore the show has touched on, sometimes blatantly, sometimes softly, Mordred remains the trickiest character.  Even ignoring the more fruity elements of lore, he’s the big bad – up there with Morgana, and the one who delivers the final blow.  He’s the ultimate bad.  And perhaps the loyalty to legend in having Mordred achieve his knighthood is the most unexpected surprise in the series.

Having established a strict code of magic suppression, one it never swayed from, Merlin was well placed to use it to frame Arthur’s bane.  From his first appearance, Mordred was presented as a chilling character.  The telepathy helps, as does the knowledge he possesses, but it’s particularly because he’s so much more in touch with his roots and so much more in control of his powers than Merlin.  When he aged, the character was inevitably diminished.  And unfortunately Knight Mordred came a season after  the wonderful pincer movement of Morgana and Agravaine de Bois that he could never match.

In propelling the story along, it’s interesting that the writers decided to take a step back.  Kara seems a throwback to Merlin’s early years.  But after years of the increasingly pantomime Morgana, at least Kara’s was an impassioned martyrdom.  After killing a ‘soldier of Camelot’ she’d never engender much sympathy, but it’s her duels with Arthur that are a highlight of the episode.  Interesting as Series Five had hardly showed Arthur as a persecutor of magic users – on one occasion he even saved a witch.  However, Morgana’s one-minded hatred, aligned with Mordred’s tortured loyalty ultimately prove compelling, even if their estrangement seemed a little rushed.

The following two episodes inevitably involve that certain Lady of the Lake…

When reunited however, the young lovers show that the stakes have never been higher.  With comedy episodes packed away, a later time slot, and a need for closure, the signs and portents were brought to the fore this series.  In Drawing, the raising of gallows are a remarkably dark moment, but then they needed to be ominous.  It wasn’t just Merlin bringing the prophecies to fruition.  While Mordred’s escape is the first of broad Star Wars strokes that build throughout the climax, it leads to the most dramatic execution.  It’s a shame that there isn’t the time to explore Mordred’s grief more fully.  With Uther and Morgana, Arthur and Guinevere, Merlin and the Lady of the Lake, the parallels were all there for the taking.  It really is a missed opportunity after the travails Merlin went through to free Freya in season two… Especially as the events of the following two episodes inevitably involve that certain Lady of the Lake…

And so by the end of Drawing, Mordred reaches his potential.  Even the loyalist of Arthurs’ knights couldn’t keep his secret safe for more than a fifth of the time that Merlin managed.

 The Diamond of the Day Part 1

War has never been far from characters’ lips since Morgana took a dislike to a Knight’s face…

And so we reach the final two-parter.  Tradition dictates that a Merlin two-part finale will be both good and tick a few more boxes of legend.  So firstly, what a disappointing title.  The Merlin crew are normally quite good at hitting on legend-friendly titles, but having already used Le Morte d’Arthur, The Lady of the Lake and The Darkest Hour, Camlann part 1 and 2 just wouldn’t cut it.

That said, this is no exception to the rule that Merlin two-parters get off to a nippy start.  That’s particularly notable here after the rather downbeat, doom-laden Drawing of the Dark.  Although war has never been far from characters’ lips since Morgana took a dislike to a Knight’s face, it now really is game on; Morgana has her final key.  Most importantly she also has a powerful and effective lieutenant.  Mordred, Arthur’s loyalist Knight, is a far cry from the failing miscreants she’s previously allied herself with.

It’s impressive how stealthily Morgana rose to become a real leader.  Just a year before she was hiding in a cave hut.  Now, to match her stronger resolve have come rudderless bands of Saxons and a hidden, impressive, keep.  The Saxons mounting role make an interesting touch; they’re the rogues who presumably inherit Albion…

But it isn’t an all out attack, first comes another one of Merlin’s tropes: a magical curse to take the main character out of play.  It’s a tried and tested device, from X-Men: The Last Stand to Superman 3.  Taking Merlin out of the action is simple; crude, but necessary.  It’s to the credit of the writers that it even feels mildly fresh here, focussing as it does on the unspoken elements of Arthur and Merlin’s relationship.  As this two parter will show, there’s still a lot to fit in before the series bows out.  First there’s the matter of the knights to tie up…

While Leon and Gwain had taken most of the slack the week before – mostly in Mordred’s absence – here it’s Percival’s turn.  He’s in the Rising Sun tavern when the rather out of place Arthur’s is rather oddly losing money, albeit magically, to Merlin.  While it seems strange the more you think about it, the scene is actually a neat reminder of how the king and his servant’s relationship has moved on.  All those year’s ridiculing Merlin for being in the ale house…

All the right tricks are being ramped up…

Percival’s also at Arthur’s hand when the Roundtable makes its reappearance.  On Arthur’s left is Guinevere of course, holding the place alongside Gaius that Merlin once took.  It’s noticeable that this is the first time in a while that Arthur refers to Morgana as his sister.  All the right tricks, from family to betrayal to war are at being ramped up to fuel the intensity of the finale.

Of all the knights, it’s Gwain who’s been worst served by the final season.  The fallible romance plot device in this episode brings the brash knight back into the fold and back to the character of lore.  It does well at highlighting Gwain’s standing as one of the greatest knights, but also the most reckless – it’s the latter trait that inevitably leads to his downfall.  It’s not an unexpected endgame for Gwain, but a shame for such an important figure in the show’s revised myth.  Not only is he one of the few who knows Merlin’s secret, but his knighthood also said a lot about the boy king’s reign.

When it comes to strategising the information that Gwain lets slip, it is all Tolkien map – quite an anachronism compared to the curtains and bedposts of the show, but a welcome one – alongside those familiar Ronin style-ambushes.  Gwain gets his true last hurrah making Merlin’s journey to the Valley of the Fallen Kings possible.  But with knowledge that is the true counterpoint to Mordred’s, his and Merlin’s relationship is underexplored.

And then, eventually, we see Morgana versus Emris.  At this point the balance in achieving a necessary build-up becomes difficult.  Considering how ruthlessly Morgana has been developed, it’s unbelievable that she doesn’t just kill him, especially with Merlin’s cockiness when faced with certain death.

The approach to someone or other’s Rubicon…

However, that unbalance actually helps the episode step up a gear.  It soon achieves a pace seldom seen in the series, even in the chase episodes.   Merlin’s entrapment leaves chance for nice interplay between Arthur, Gaius and Guinevere while on the flip-side, Mordred and Morgana laboured co-spelling reinforces their bond and strength.

Other than that it’s all CGI marching, camp building and the approach to someone or other’s Rubicon.

I found the sudden reveal of Camlann to be a jolt.  For me, always the wide, green and fog-filled plain of Excalibur – but here a rubble-filled pass; a bigger version of what has become Merlin’s own version of the Doctor Who quarry in Surrey.

Things start to get very Star Wars indeed…

Back in the cave things look bad for Merlin, but there is just a sense of real danger lacking.  In part, that’s a side effect of the malevolent Morgana stooping to merely send a rock fall his way, but it’s also a hangover from Merlin having met so many allies in caves before.  And then, faster than the Falcon, things start to get very Star Wars indeed.  There’s always been a trace of that of course.  The Star Wars shadow hangs long on adventures of this type.

While Merlin’s father is a neat character touch, a neat reference, his presence is pure Obi-dad-Kenobi.  Their discussion of magic borders on, and I’m so sorry to say it, midi-chlorians.  While Merlin’s easy route back into magic seems somewhat inexplicable, it does suggest that his magic is innate rather than something rejuvenated by the crystals.  Certainly, his reaction to the change is emphatic.  The crystals act as hyped up versions of the palantirs in The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, facilitating communication.

With the build-up to Camlann established over several series, it’s a bit of a shock to find the battle upon the knights at the end of the first part.  It’s there, the very place in which, legend and Merlin’s prophecies themselves have told us, Arthur and Mordred will destroy each other.

The battle itself is visceral, if not anything beyond what you’d expect of Merlin’s TV budget.  Mordred sulks as he skulks, looking for Arthur as Bane would Batman on Gotham Wall Street.  And then suddenly, with an explosion of magic, old Merlin (Dragoon) explains away some earlier visions that seemed a poor fit.  How could the old Merlin have walked Camlann.  I say ‘explains away’, but it actually knocks it into perspective.  We are suddenly aware that this is THE actual Camlann: the end.  Merlin and Arthurian legend is about to emphatically end and so…  It’s a fine point for a cliff-hanger.

The Diamond of the Day Part 2

When the cavalry arrives, it is less amusing and less joyous than usual.

With a whopping extended episode of a whole 47 minutes, after 65 episodes of what might be the most roomy and luxurious fantasy story on TV, this is it: the finale.  An actual extended closer would have been too out of formula and too ostentatious for Merlin.

What is a step up is the fighting.  Full and impressive, it’s something the production team had to put some thought into.  It’s another full-pelt start, with the fighting intercut with Merlin’s chase on his magically gained a horse.  Despite galloping at full speed, the timing could be a little sharper under the weight of all they are seeking to pack in.

On the field, Mordred is still stalking, Leon is really putting his back into it and then… Morgana’s poor little dragon arrives.  It may have been lightly explained, but the year of maltreatment Morgana and her adopted dragon endured added a nasty undercurrent to this final series.  It’s hard not to feel sorry for the beast that formed the previous year’s cliff-hanger.  And of course, when Merlin arrives, the little feller can be easily dispensed with but there’s still time for some mirroring.  Morgana takes on the role of Merlin, protecting Mordred in battle just as Merlin has protected his King countless times – and that’s even after the witch mimics Merlin’s action of Dragon-forging.

When the cavalry arrives, it is less amusing and less joyous than usual.  That doesn’t mean that the Star Wars aping has finished, however.  After Obi-dad of the previous episode, now we have Old Emperor Merlin hurling his force lightening.  That we know Merlin so well, or think we do, the sight of him prowling the battlefield is impressive.  Once again, the real bane here is that the time pressure is a little lacking, but with so many nice touches, that’s easy to forgive.

And even Guinevere, her brow perpetually furrowed, get s her own wonderfully staged fight to deal with on the medicine side.  It’s little moments like that, throwbacks to earlier and simpler times, that make Merlin; the show that never really seemed to go anywhere.

That simple step-over of Mordred’s body speaks volumes.

And so the real end-game.  When Arthur and Mordred do meet, it is quick, but it’s brutal.  The only words said are Mordred’s. ‘You gave me no choice’.  It harks right back to his betrayal by Arthur, right back to Uther’s magical suppression and the heart of the series.  Arthur’s response is a classical one, but not Excalibur-bloodily so.  Mordred is dead before hitting the ground and when Merlin later finds his King, that simple step-over of Mordred’s body speaks volumes.

Camlann is over and it’s the aftermath that has drawn the most criticism.  However, Merlin was always as much about the personnel as the legend.  While the Arthur and Mordred strand was an important one to follow, it’s Merlin and Arthur’s relationship that’s most important.  This is the last chance for one of those round the camp-fire scenes, and in fact, it’s one five years in the making.  Arthur’s reaction to the truth is well constructed – all the more impressive when you accept that there will always be holes.

A specific lists of question along the lines of  ‘you killed my father’ wouldn’t work, so instead we see Arthur travel through disbelief, denial, anger and then the rekindling of understanding, all administered with a light touch.  As usual, Colin Morgan and Bradley James’ excellent chemistry carries it all – and not easy when the dynamic has changed so markedly.

But it’s not just the wizard and King’s story that is ending.  Gwain must pay the price and duly does, creating an elevated role for Percival in the process.  On her way out, a broken Morgana conjures up the most explicit Star Wars reference with her burning Sith magic eyes blazing as she force chokes a Saxon.  It is a shame that narratively Gwain can’t have a noble death.  There was always that hanging, strange link between Morgana and the one she consistently called her ‘Sir Knight’.  There was more of Uther in her than she hoped.

This strand holds truer to some tellings of the legend than most but still, with Lancelot’s story long-resolved and Bedevere non-existent in Merlin, the majority of legend is pressed into the hands of the young wizard himself.  In the structure of the show, there’s nothing wrong with that.

At the end, it’s back to basics.

The final episode’s structure also allows time to explore both sides of Guinevere back in Camelot.  While reasonable when it comes to friendship and magic, she’s still gallows happy – as Eira’s death proves.  By now there’s little to no comedy left in the series.  But in distilling the aftermath from battle to horse chases through the familiar green of Albion via betrayal, knowledge and redemption, it all fits the bill rather well.  Magic had visibly diversified in the last part of season five, with fire walls and lightening replacing the classic Merlin force push.  But at the end, it’s back to basics.

Moving on from Star Wars, Arthur’s plight is pure Iron Man.  While the enchanted metal heads inevitably to his heart, it’s the same dramatic death that Merlin grants Morgana.  When the Great Dragon arrives belatedly (as he’d previously flown to Avalon) it’s too late to avoid the fate that he’d long prophesised.  The fate that Merlin had fought so hard to achieve has arrived, and it’s the one fate that he didn’t really want.

There’s always a player who sacrifices the most and in the absence of Bedevere, despite the increased role of Percival, it’s the young wizard who is left to hurl Excalibur back to its resting place.  Without Arthur’s command, or real knowledge of its power it seems a strange, but it’s a metaphor for the dwindling role of magic and of course, it’s an action that he’s performed before…  And this time his ex-girlfriend’s hand is there to catch the sword

The fate of the young dragon may be unknown, but that of dragons in general is not.  The fate of the kingdoms of Camelot is also known, and one eased by the talk of succession and the future of the name-checked “United Kingdoms”.  It then falls to the coronation of Guinevere to be the nice thematic segue to what is the most surprising cut of all…

It’s a bleak hope, but it is there.

Suddenly, we’re in present day Britain.

Where Merlin still stalks the land, awaiting the return of his friend and King.  It’s a bleak finish, no matter how you look at it.  It seems unlikely that Merlin saw Camelot again after Camlann and has been left to wander Albion for centuries, watching magic slowly fade from the world.

Ultimately, Merlin’s hope rests on the shoulder of prophecies that have previously taken everything away from him.  It’s a bleak hope, but it is there.  And somewhat miserable as it is, it’s a finale fully in the spirit of Merlin.  I think the word may be “fitting”.  It could have been fuller, but the Merlin crew achieved a lot.  Merlin went out neatly and very nearly complete.  Yes, there was room for more, but it’s hard to begrudge the confident approach and skilful misdirection they pulled off again and again.  And all that from a  series that never really seemed to go anywhere…

More Merlin? Read Swords & Sorcery Part I: An overview of Five years of Merlin in For the Love of Camelot!

Doctor Who: Multiplicity – “He can wear whatever face he likes!” (Whovember #2)

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A glorious end to the classic Whovember viewings as the anniversary hat is put on for a selection of six stories.  Multi-Doctor stories are woven into the fabric of the show and when it comes to Doctors plural, there’s one common link – the Time Lord who made regeneration possible – the Second Doctor. 

#2: Six Multi-Doctor Specials… The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors and The Two Doctors (with special cameos by Dimensions in Time, The Light at the End and The Day of the Doctor.

UNTIL SOME LATER FELLOWS CAME ALONG, THIS YEAR’S 50TH ANNIVERSARY WAS ALL ABOUT THE SECOND DOCTOR.  The timely rediscovery of missing episodes put him firmly at the centre of the build-up – And why not?  He’s the man who made it possible, who introduced the Time Lords, who banished straightforward historical romps, who meant that there could be undeniably, more than one Doctor.

Beyond the “before history” of the First Doctor, he’s the Doctor who gave us the first real continuity conundrum, with the potential of a missing season dreamt up based on countless paradoxical references and continuity blips.  As the only iteration to bring his mop top to every multi-Doctor story so far he’s had had plenty of chances.

It was an accident at first of course, that tradition of the multi-Doctor story.  The Three Doctors may have started the tenth season of the show, but it was broadcast almost a year before the tin anniversary itself.  It was dreamt up as more of an attempt to out-do Day of the Daleks, the season opener a year before.  Somehow though, it set a trend that would see multi-Doctor tales and anniversary years intertwine.

The Three Doctors (Season 10, 1972/1973)

The Three Doctors was certainly one way to start a season with a bang.  An episodic serial sat within the tenth season, it’s been described as a pantomime and for all intents and purposes, yes it is.  From the bright colours, squabbling, humour and shouty pantomime dame, sorry, Omega.

Perversely, it set a number of odd patterns within multi-Doctor stories.  In barely any do viewers get the number of Doctors that they were expecting.  Here it’s far more the Two Doctors than The Three Doctors.  Due to William Hartnell’s ill health he appears briefly but memorably and only ever on a video screen having been trapped in a time eddy in the adventure.

These The Three Doctors are not only the three originals, but also the most bickering of the Doctors incarnations.  We never see that level of inter-Doctor rivalry between any other Doctors, although each of them display their various levels of disdain and dismissal.  It almost necessitated a splintering of the original three, something that would become a tradition in its own right from The Five Doctors all the way along to Big Finish’s 50th anniversary adventure The Light at the End.

Another curious tradition is the reverence the First Doctor carries from his successors.  They may grumble, but he borders on having a greater knowledge or certainly rationale than his older versions. Certainly his problem solving is carried off with great authority.  Perhaps this is a primacy rule in Time Lord society, perhaps because the First Doctor had the longest life…

It’s not made clear that previous Doctor’s forget this story, although that idea would be loosely suggested later – with the exception of the Doctor seemingly on a concurrent time stream (the latest – Fifth in The Five Doctors, Sixth in The Two Doctors and 11th in Day of the Doctor).

The Time Lords presented here are certainly an extension of those seen earlier, but not totally at odds to the over-bureaucratic race of prudes that Robert Holmes would create in The Deadly Assassin. Predating Day of the Doctor, it’s not the High Council of Time Lords that dictate play here.  Instead they’re floundering amid their strict, un-bending roles and it takes a maverick hope to get them out of a total black out.

In the story itself, the Doctor is chucked into it before the Time Lords triple his efficacy – the old coincidence meets message to the Time Lords.  While the First Doctor is picked up in some form of time capsule, the Second Doctor rather interestingly fades into the Third Doctor’s TARDIS (“I’m just a temporal anomaly).  Presumably this appearance and the capsule are equivocal with a TARDIS dematerialisation but it’s not a trick that’s seen again.  Similarly, the “Connection” head-shaking method the Doctors use for rapid telepathic conflab is never seen again – although it does have a successor in the Eleventh Doctor’s method of quick information discharge.  The method of the Second Doctor’s arrival also precludes companions, although that’s something that UNIT personnel can more than make up for.

Of course, the scale of the adventure had to be huge and warranted a huge rule to break: The First Law of Time.  That’s the rule that forbids a Time Lord from meeting his earlier self.  Of course while I say Time Lord, it’s a rule imparted by the Time Lords that applies to anything and anyone, for the very good of the universe.  It’s not linked to generations, but any temporal difference.  Robert Holmes would have some fun dismissing Doctor meets over a decade later with a casual “it’s inevitable”.  It is strange that one exact season on from Day of the Daleks the far more devastating Blinovitch Limitation Effect is over-written by a law that sounds far more legal than physical.

Special mention must also go to Omega himself.  It’s only fitting.  In a world of rather weary and staid Time Lords, he’s a breath of fresh air – just look at the poor beardy-Lord in need of a good regeneration at the control panel on Gallifrey.  The wannabe tyrant’s costume isn’t quite explained away, but leads to a neat and rather off-structure reveal.  Omega clearly is far heavier in the Time Lord mental stakes than the Doctor(s). Madness is only to be expected and his random scenery stomping shouts of “What is this!?” is later matched by the Ali Baba Rassilon of The Five Doctors.  Those Ancient Gallifreyans certainly had far more fun.

Omega has a prescience that’s rather necessary for the plot.  While he may well have developed a way to observe the Time Lords in the millennia following his disappearance, he seems all to conscious of the fact that he’s become a bit of a legend.  Perhaps most perplexing is his quick comprehension of regeneration and crucially, the First Law of Time.  It’s quite possible that regeneration and the Rassilon Imprimatur was developed concurrently with Omega’s stealer engineering, but had the Time Lords developed the Laws of Time prior to gaining time travel?  That sits uneasily with other tales, including The Five Doctors. You may have thought that alongside having a great deal of fun and spoiling Minyans, the Ancient Time Lords made quite a few mistakes first.

The Three Doctors bring big concepts that befit such an adventure.  The brilliantly bizarre transportation of UNIT HQ after the strange invasion sits alongside the subtler set-pieces like the Brigadier’s long overdue arrival in the TARDIS.  But then there’s the story itself.  Full of black-plot-holes it may be, but the concept of travel beyond the event horizon, relativity, faster than light-speed travel and anti-matter matched with a core-concept denouement make for strong sci-fi stuff.

It’s impressive that what could easily become another Frankenstein homage is left alone.  Omega’s in much more of a mood for laying out his victory feast than creating creatures he can have a chat with.  Jelly’s rather crucial here.  It’s not only the personification, rather oddly, of antimatter – but at one point the Second Doctor offers round a jelly baby!  He really was a trend-setter.

By the end, two brilliant things have happened.  The villain’s been defeated by his own hubris and the Brigadier’s gone almost the whole adventure thinking that the Doctor simply changed his face to a previous model.

A pelting little homage to 10 years, there’s even a bit of time for dream-scape Venusian Akido, and you can’t say fairer than that. (though quite what the Second Doctor was doing during that section is anybody’s guess…)  And when it comes to creating a super-deranged Time Lord villain in the show’s tenth year, omega’s not a bad stab at it.  A villain of pure will, a Time Lord myth not involving vampires – it’s just a shame that Omega never quite reached his potential.  Although there’s always the new series…

The Five Doctors (Special, 1983)

One of my first DVD purchases, how over-used that clip from The Dalek Invasion of Earth looks now… But still, it is very good.  Similar to its use on the recent An Adventure in Time and Space though, I can see the token reference but it does slightly diminish the other actor(s) playing The First Doctor.

The Five Doctors had a rather tortured production with Robert Holmes’ initial The Six Doctors script eventually getting the better of him.  Some of those ideas would be picked up in his script for The Two Doctors a few years later, but in 1983 it was left to the inimitable Terrance Dicks to step into the breach.  Casting ‘issues’ further tortured the production – with one Doctor deceased and one declined, the team were back in The Three Doctors territory.  With the First Doctor recast (rather well), further companion shuffles mean that the Second Doctor is once again rather hard done-by in terms of assistance, although he at least gets some banter with the Brigadier.

The canon part?  Well, when are these Doctor’s from?  The Second Doctor is clearly doing slightly more than bending the First Law of Time when he visits a Brigadier clearly established to be in the Fifth Doctor’s time stream a few stories earlier.

Much has been made of the Third Doctor having some apparent pre-cognition of his future beyond his regeneration.  While some theories about regenerative memories are confusing (This is a post-regeneration Third Doctor!?) it’s far more likely that… Sarah’s hand signals are enough to prompt him.  That in itself is astonishing considering that she survived that terrible cliff fall…  The Third Doctor is wonderfully casual about his next self (surely two iterations who wouldn’t have got on).  But if he’s not a post-regenerative version (as Day of the Doctor’s Great Curator may very well be), when are these Doctors from?  They look far older than when they regenerated (pick, pick, pick – it’s the time differential you know…).  In the case of the Second Doctor, we know that there’s an adventure involving The Terrible Zodin taking place in the Brigadier’s future, likely with multiple Doctors and that’s significant – She must be the premier never seen Who villain… But maybe there are further clues to that in the Second Doctor’s next appearance…

With no Omega (he’d popped up a few stories before) it’s left to a rather sad reversal of a known character.  The idea of regeneration lying behind Borusa’s devilish turn is an interesting one, although must make for a very paranoid society (“You never know what you’re gonna get!”).  Perhaps it’s more likely in a Time Lord like Borusa, who speeds through his regenerations like fish fingers dissolving in custard (that would happen)..

Having established a new Time Lord elite just the season before, it seems a bit wasteful to squander it all.  It wouldn’t be corrected either.  When the Time Lords next returned they’d be anonymous jurors…

Another tradition is continued in this Time Lord biopic.  It’s implicit that the Death Zone was active when after the Time Lord’s mastery of time travel.  They were certainly a nasty bunch at the beginning of that, despite their care in establishing Laws… And re-establishes that the Doctor/ Time Lord’s involvement with Cybermen massively predates that of the Daleks.  Still, the Game of Rassilon (Rassy himself, settling into being a nicely ambiguous figure in Gallifreyan-lore) is a simple device to get as many companions, Doctors and monsters together as possible.

Perhaps the worst miss?  The light greeting Susan receives from the Fifth Doctor is pretty much all the acknowledgement she gets from the other Doctors!  While recognising the Dark Tower is the most overtly Time Lord (or Gallifreyan) thing she’s ever done the Doctor’s granddaughter soon settles into the role of simpering companion.  Perhaps she’s used up all her regenerative juices and there’s just none left for her ankle…

With the demands of such an endeavour and the problems that it encountered during its production, it’s rather unsurprisingly that the end result is a bit of a bloody shambles.  In many ways, it’s pretty damned awful actually.  Compared with some of the finer moments of Who – recent and soon to happen plots included – it’s frothy, plot-holed nonsense, far ropier than The Three Doctors.  But then again, it’s The Five Doctors and it’s a feature-length 20th anniversary special.  And for that reason it’s fantastic.  But the flip-side of that celebration is that such acceptance forces awkward inconsistencies into Doctor Who canon.  I won’t touch on the fact that it premiered in the United States first…

The Two Doctors (Season 22, 1985)

At last a multi-Doctor story where the Time Lords don’t appear.  Or do they?  They may just be a little more ominous about their absence than the story suggests (Holmes would pull of a similarly effective trick with Ravalox in The Trial of a Time Lord the following season all you The Deadly Assassin haters…)

For once we do get the right number of Doctors – not a Doctor more, not a Doctor less.  Not that it isn’t left until the final part for them to meet…

The broadcast structure at the time hides the fact that this is Colin Baker’s only six-part story.  While much of it is padding, it’s effective – particularly the stomping around the future space station.  While his creations, the Sontarans, may have been forced on writer Robert Holmes, he still manages to rinse out some lovely science fiction and time related points, some picked up from his aborted Six Doctors script.

In fact, in many ways, The Two Doctors feels like the jumping off point for the Virgin New Adventures and Missing Adventures ranges.

Even with the casual dismissal of the First Law of Time and similarly sketchy disposal of temporal displacement, the Second Doctor’s appearance here is one of his most interesting.  What a wonderful thing that Patrick Troughton enjoyed The Five Doctors so much that he volunteered to come back.  While his character does look noticeably greyer than he did in The Five Doctors, a timing for the adventure is almost given.  The TARDIS crew have dropped Victoria off, so in season terms it would clearly takes place during the first portion of Season Five.

The horribly confusing element comes from the fact that the Doctor has been dispatched, with companion no less, on a mission for the Time Lords. It’s this total contradiction of the The War Games that led to speculation that there was a Season 6b – a suggestion now taken to be as near as possible to canon. Of course, this builds on his presence in front of Time Lords in both The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors (The First Doctor too). It also helps explain – or doesn’t at all if you think about it – how the Second Doctor knows that Jamie’s memories were wiped when the Dark Tower tried to deceive him in The Five Doctors.  There’s also the small fact that the Second Doctor’s TARDIS looks a lot different in this adventure.  (There’s one of the oddest things – that the adventure starts off with the Second Doctor in flight, in black and white – not the greatest reflection on the Sixth Doctor).  As a recruit of the Time Lord’s Celestial Intervention Agency, it seems a fair enough explanation for the Second Doctor getting his hands on a Stattenheim remote control device that the Sixth Doctor can’t remember.

Surely the only feasible explanation is that following the War Games (or just before the end), the Second Doctor and Jamie are used as agents by the Time Lords, during which they pick up Victoria again and all the Second Doctor’s multi-Doctor stories take place.  Phew.  Presumably they knew that a sentence would be carried out at the end of this, but were happy to become agents anyway.

It does raise a few neat points – that, while part of the civil service establishment, the first Doctor undertook various diplomatic missions for the Time Lords.  There can’t have been that many.  And it’s not worth considering how that Gallifreyan timeline fits in with these advanced non-humans of the third Zone.  While it’s imperative that little is revealed about the Doctor, Holmes continues to build up Time Lord civilisation– this time bringing the Rassilon imprimatur and murky levels of observation and control to temporal intrigue.  It wouldn’t be a multi-Doctor story, nor an anniversary nod, without a little addition to the myths of Rassilon, Omega and the Ancient Gallifreyans.  As usual, and as would be picked up in his next and final script for the series, there are few Who writers who can dig out such dark aspects from the Time Lords.

Sure, the Jamie as marooned and feral beast plot may be overlooked, but Holmes doesn’t overcook it.  It makes for a mean and neat line running through the piece, accompanied by the staple computer versus intruders and simulated deaths.  The Androgums are a wonderfully sketched primitive species, mainly down to casting, but Shockeye also highlights some of the series’ faults.  The death of Oscar is all very well and Hamlet, but it’s also shockingly violent.  Unfortunately, Holmes and Saward’s agenda just fed the show’s critics.

On the whole, the Two Doctors is considered favourably in the Sixth Doctor’s short run.  It’s a solid and fascinating story, even if it could have made an easy four-parter and the Seville filming is rather unnecessary.  It’s a shame that the Doctors don’t see more of each other, but that allows for companion swapping and an easy sense of menace.  No fading out of existence here, it’s all down to Colin Baker’s performance.   And when the Doctors do meet it’s a bit of a delight.  Few Doctors lend themselves to mangling tenses and pronouns like the Sixth Doctor and in that initial “snap” meeting – just catch the quick glance that the Second Doctor flashes over his successor’s coat.  Patrick Troughton, a delight as ever.  In fact we’re rather lucky to have The Two Doctors at all – and at least it claimed a prize figure when Holmes, rarely, adapted it to be the 100th TARGET novelisation.

Dimensions in Time (Special, 1993)

Special or, maybe, travesty.  But, there is a lot to forgive in John Nathan Tuner’s only Doctor Who script.  Sadly, one of those is not the plasticine heads used to cover the passing of Messrs Hartnell and Troughton.  The most explicable thing is the time hole that the Rani traps the first two iterations in… But best not look at that logic too carefully.  The canon of Eastenders and Doctor Who co-existing in the same universes has been subsequently ruined by the fact that many on the Square watch Doctor Who on Christmas day.  That’s a shame – because surely the Doctor’s one of the few people who could deduce what Mitchells and Brannings watch on Christmas Day when Eastenders is on…

The Light at the End (Big Finish 50th Anniversary Special, 2013)

Big Finish’s 50th stab actually brought all the Doctors (up to their last, the Eighth) together.  As such, the polished and finely produced production extolled the best and the worst of Big Finish’s take on the Time Lord, particularly since the series returned to television.  A combination of fiction-physics and time rams, hyped far beyond the classic television series’ remit, it’s not really the most inclusive tale.  The first three Doctors are present and correct and in a surprisingly effective homage to The Three Doctors, they’re kept rather at arm’s length, boxed up and packed off to bicker and squabble between themselves.  It’s not surprising that it’s the range’s flagship Doctors Four and Eight are thrown together in the first instance, but they certainly don’t get straight down to insults, even when Five, Seven and – particularly Six – turn up.  Lovely stuff, but we had to leave a simpler take on The Five Doctors to Peter Davison and the BBC Red button after the 50th anniversary’s main event…

The Day of the Doctor (Special, 2013)

Alas, the Second Doctors only appearance in this year’s biggest special is near the end, from stock footage… But what a scene, what a ‘Moment’.  All 13 Doctors working together, wilfully allowed to dodge the Time Locked fate of Gallifrey, breaking every possible Law of time and setting their final self (until The Time of the Doctor) and his successors a pleasing  conundrum.  Day more than ever gets to grips with two inherent puzzles around multiple-Doctor stories.  It is the past Doctors who have no or muddled memory of multi-Doctor stories, while the current time stream Doctor (latest – although Capaldi’s interference muddles it slightly, who’s complaining!) retains (records) the memory.  In Day it’s more interesting as the guilt we’ve seen the Doctor carry since the Time War (John Hurt’s War Doctor clearly regenerating into Christopher Eccleston’s) was simply assumed.  He remembered the moment, but had no idea that he’d chosen not to – there’s no suggestion that Day is writing a reversal of that original decision.  It’s takes slightly too much assumption on the side of the audience, but then that’s a Moffat standard.

The appearance of the Great Curator at the end must sit squarely with the infamous Morbius flashbacks – wonderful fan fodder.  There’s every suggestion that it’s a future Doctor, although I find the idea of a alternate Fourth slightly more engrossing – that a personality could retire, rather than a far distant Doctor who’d returned to an “old favourite”.  As Russell T Davies may say, that’s he’s the 508th Doctor…

And so the Second Doctor is even further removed from the current – although, thankful for small mercies, his cameo is much better than The Five Doctors grab seen in The Name of the Doctor.

As time spirals on and over 50 years and the Doctors suddenly reach 14… There’s little chance that the Second Doctor’s future appearances will be more than those brief cameos.  So much hope must lie with the quest to rediscover his missing serials.  Still, with so many classic adventures lost and following his near-takeover of the 50th anniversary with The Web of Fear, there’s certainly life left in the Cosmic Hobo yet.  He always carried more hope than most.

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Read on for the Third Doctor’s era-ending tangle with the Daleks in Whovember #3!

Doctor Who: The 17 Year Itch – “In the fight for survival, there are no rules” (Whovember #8)

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A sad but pivotal turn in the classic Whovember viewings as it reaches the alpha, omega and nothing else in-between… Of one of the best loved Time Lords, that difficult Eighth…

#8: Doctor Who: The Movie, a 17 year break then, The Night of the Doctor.

AH, WHAT IS THERE TO SAY ABOUT THE EIGHTH DOCTOR? Sadly, he’s only there because no one really wanted him.  Had a series ensued from his American reboot pilot, we’d no doubt be raging about the canonicity.  Not only would there be strong reservations about the Eighth Doctor’s role, despite his canon regeneration, but it would certainly have changed or destroyed that 2005 revival.

In a way, Paul McGann’s barely seen but popular Doctor was a sacrificial lamb.

As it happened, we won a vibrant new series that’s more popular than ever because his stab at TARDIS control failed.  Now he’s firmly lodged in the BBC DVD range, long forgotten as a potential American property and somehow formed one of the best bits of the 50th anniversary.  Who would have thought that 17 years after first regenerating, the Eighth Doctor would improve…  Well, we should have had more faith.

The Movie (1996)

The Movie, for all its faults is still a very good looking production.  It’s probably my most watched opening, with the TARDIS vortex cut-aways that still look stunning.  The old joke about the classic seasons’ fragile sets may be unfair, but the US budget gave us scenes not come near since the opening few seconds of The Trial of a Time Lord.

The hindsight that comes with the show’s successful revival is the real problem here – incorporating regeneration into the first third.  Regeneration is an extraordinary and bizarre concept.  It’s absolute genius, but it’s also intangible.  I’ve now idea when I became aware of the concept or saw multiple Doctors and realised that they were the same person.  Somehow it just happened – and I certainly had no Ben and Polly style companions to ease the transition in the late 1980s.

But here, it’s the voice over of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor that welcomes us to the story as we see a strangely un-garrulous Seventh Doctor potter around.  The script and settings are riddled with menace.  About the Doctor’s mission, “It was a request they should never have granted?” we’re told.  Really?  Why, because the Master ended up falling into the Eye of Harmony?  Because Earth temporarily went a little off-molecule and nobody noticed?

Still, director Geoffrey Sax ramps up the atmosphere in the opening scenes.  The scenes of the x-rays, mixed with the strobe-laced pan of the ambulance, backed by the static of radio is effective, as is the rather lovely slow-motion opera escaping Grace.  Slightly clichéd, but done well.

There are strange Who aberrations littered around, including the marvellous new stellar-cartography console room – so TARDIS and yet not quite.  The Seventh Doctor uses a classic sonic screwdriver before he even speaks, for the first time.  Like the console room, he’s a bit of a composite himself.  A huge, sentimental composite.  This jazz loving Doctor is happy knocking back jelly babies, reading Well’s The Time Machine while he nips back, ridiculously or fortuitously to Rassilon-era Gallifrey.  When there’s an emergency, something that strangely disconcerts him he doesn’t even check the scanner before leaving his ship….

That prolonged set-up sets things up, rather clinically.  The TARDIS is a normal-sized police box, it is invincible, the Doctor really can be two different people.

And then, the savage cut to a dead fish eye sums up the rather uncomfortable mash of styles – uncomfortable in Who terms that is.  We’re not in child-focussed historical adventure here – we’re in action adventure.  The shoot-out that the Doctor steps into barely felt realistic at the time but it certainly felt violent.  And with one ba-ding, the Seventh was over.  Well, after a particularly long and sadistic theatre scene. We obviously absolutely have to believe that the Seventh Doctor is dead.

Strange that there’s so many historical nods and yet very little explanation.  It’s baffling to new viewers and mildly offensive to Doctor Who fans.

The emphasis is on “mildly”, but of course, there are many parts of The Movie that can get a Whovian frothing at the mouth.  The Dalek voices, the Dalek concept of trial (well, they do have a legislative arm…), the Doctor’s roots, the peculiar suggestion that the TARDIS is unique, the Eye of Harmony laying at the heart of the Autumnal Cloister room… The Master.

McGann’s mention of the regenerative limit isn’t enough to overcome the peculiar fate of the Master.  His default xenomorph setting can be explained away of course.  I mean, for over a decade he’d just sat in a humanoid body that he’d borrowed, taking a fair battering along the way.

There was initial speculation that the Master’s eyes (and black skin?) were a reference to his fate at the end of Survival.  They are however, clearly intended to be snake-like – suggesting that his slimy form is indeed, yep, a snake.  Yes, he is evil.  Biblical as ever, even when he turns into Captain Black. His plot may be hokey and confusing; especially when he pops out to get changed into fine Gallifreyan finery.  But some lines like “I’ve wasted all my lives because of you, Doctor…” is quite a compelling.

Many parts of this characterisation are a bit off, but that’s about as irrelevant as research was to Eric Roberts.  Overall, this Master is quite valid.  Robert’s master chews scenery while channelling Khan.  Anthony Ainley had a similar approach.  During the ‘Bruce you’re sick’ – ‘Thank you’ exchange, this Master looks far less ridiculous after seeing what John Simm did with the character.  This Master’s refusal to accept the Doctor’s help was something else later picked up in the New Series.

There are some nice touches in there, such as his adopting the Doctor’s ‘English’ accent.  Also, his pathetic response to a fire extinguisher, odd literalism and Time Lord correction of Grace’s grammar and Freud knowledge is fantastic.  But then… He spits poison gunk.  Well, presumably so.  It burns Grace, but then later both stupefies (kills) and allows the Master a route to possession.

Perhaps most significant is the master’s ability to just appear in the TARDIS.  Twice.  Surely an editing issue, that could have been or perhaps was overcome in the original script.

The Master’s hypnotic control is as great as the Delgado version.  And then with the unnecessary “I’ve always hated this planet” he proves he really is a right bastard by sacrificing both Grace and Change Lee dead.  He may have stepped up his homicidal tendencies, but it’s easy to see why.

In the end, the Master doesn’t help himself, but it looks a lot like the TARDIS rejects him.  And not just because he lacks, ahem, some human DNA.  After that, rather strangely, it eats him.  The Eye of the Harmony is now not just a route to the original black hole, it’s an engine and the TARDIS’ mouth!

In the slightly Superman: The Movie type way, the healing of Grace and Lee again looks far better in the regenerative-energy soaked years of Davies and Moffat.  “What a sentimental old thing this TARDIS is” the Doctor says.  He should wait until he meets her…

On the flipside of that eternal struggle of good and evil, the producers clearly needed to match the class of their production with a Doctor of class.  With Paul McGann they lucked out.

Unlike the generic, pointless garble that McCoy has to contend with McGann really gets to wrap his new tongue around a lot.  It’s not a promising start. Despite the Frankenstein juxtaposition, he undergoes a rather unspectacular regeneration (so much more quickening than New Series impressive after 17 years) and wakes with amnesia.

It’s funny how strange it is that this Doctor regenerated in America as opposed to, well, Androzani or even Hertfordshire. And those first words are not classics…  But still, it may be an obvious analogy, but that juxtaposition with the 1931 Frankenstein makes the regeneration make sense.  What else is Frankenstein but a regeneration story, but still it doesn’t quite capture the idea of a hero… Like much of the film, the idea of the hero and villain is strangely garbled.

But when de-shackled of amnesia, McGann’s is an immediately attractive Doctor.  Bewildered, hopeful, high pitched, squeaky, insightful – he’s a bundle of vitality and energy.  He relishes life, but isn’t a Doctor who’s afraid of making noise to get his point across.  Before reminiscing about Puccini in a heartfelt way – “It was so sad…” – the Doctor finds his costume in the hospital just like Spearhead from Space and The Eleventh Hour, but this time aided by New Year’s Eve… And in doing so, he’s hoisted straight back to the Edwardian era.  Amid some Gallifreyan reminiscences, moments like the shoe scene are brilliant.  He has the same the mercurial and transient interest, ignoring the big things but over-interested in the seemingly banal.  It’s the same as it’s ever been – stretching right back to the First Doctor.

And all the time he says, putting himself at the polar extreme of the Master “I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there.”  Perhaps the biggest change is his belief in coincidence – far removed from his fourth incarnation – although he shows the same predilection to being knocked unconscious.

This Doctor also seems supernaturally aware of space and time.  Not exactly the Time Lord walking in eternity, but it pre-figures aspects of the New Series.  Perhaps however, judging by the Master’s abilities, he’s using his telepathy.  Many of these strands would have no doubt become clear if a series had been commissioned.

Perhaps of most interest is the balance brought by the Movie’s companions.  Both Time Lords gain an assistant by half way through, but these are not typical human accessories.  The Master’s need for Chang Lee is highly debatable – unfortunately both he and Grace hinge around that daft human eye plot necessity…

Of the two, it is unsurprisngly Grace Holloway that’s of most interest. It is Amazing Grace, the surgeon, who effectively killed the Doctor on their first meeting during the extended ‘he’s an alien’ section.  It could have been fatal – as he says, it’s the anaesthetic that almost destroyed the regeneration.  The process is taken to the height of life and death, so it’s fitting, as well as comedic, that his companion is a Doctor in her own right.  Of course, that would be returned to in Series 3 of the New Series, though in an arguably less compelling way.

And then… Then she turns him down.  A rare, and thanks to the lack of commission, brilliant way to leave it.

Let’s just gloss over the kiss that looks so innocuous these days.  He remembers and in doing so he remembers that he loves life.

The big problem of the TV Movie is of course not a problem at all.  The Doctor isn’t half human, no matter how many times it’s said here.  The Doctor lies and that is it.  In no way canon.

The film brings Americanisms to the Doctor Who universerse, many of them unavoidable in an advanced-science-fiction conscious network – tellingly the description of the Chameleon circuit as a cloaking device – while the higher budget brings other inevitabilities like the motorbike chase and the Batman Forever style atomic clock.  But some things shine through, like the glass-bending (though, think of what was happening to other parts of the world, to champagne glasses – it’s early morning in the UK by then after all) – the “Yeah, they say that on my planet too” lines and the way that the Doctor threatens himself with a policeman’s gun.

And so The Movie ends with a vibrant new Doctor but no new companion.  Grace would have no doubt returned, but there seems to be one slip in the strange, slightly corny ending.  The new, vibrant, refreshed Doctor keeps the Console Room desktop, listens to the same song and resumes the same reading as his predecessor.  “Oh no, not again..” – that’s something that we’re not used to a new Doctor doing…

But certainly, there were many things right with The Movie.  It may have been judged a failure in the United States, but the ratings in the UK – equivalent to the best of the New Series – meant that the BBC couldn’t ignore it…  it’s really  where modern Who started,…

But when it came to the new series, the Eighth Doctor was nowhere to be seen…

The Night of the Doctor (50th Anniversary Special, 2013)

When that title was passed along to the BBFC, I thought it could only be one thing.  that didn’t stop me being delightfully surprised when ‘that’ reveal happened.  Eight years into that new series, when show runner Steven Moffat was faced with the daunting task of managing the 50th anniversary, he wanted to make the show’s absence mean something.  How twisted that he used the one rogue, budgeted moment of hope in those 17 years to push it home.

For a list of surprises (delights), basically a mini-review whoop –  to be found in the mini-episode I rustled up when it was surreptitiously released read here.

What a great surprise, and so much more than a fan-pandering one.  They may have clamoured for the Eighth Doctor’s regeneration for years, but when it came, it still left the same number of regenerations unresolved…  There was an extra Doctor who would take the story on, but this was a fitting send off for the most missed Doctor.

It was clear that time had moved on, with the Eighth Doctor wandering the universe for some years.

McGann works perfectly with Moffat’s dialogue.  The enthusiasm is modified, the wit sharper, the confidence a little more suave than bouncing spaniel.  Still able to shout with exactly the same tone as when he came in, but this Doctor is more universe-weary.  Quite some time of his life spent resisting against the Time War and helping where he can…

His costume isn’t as dramatically different as it first appears.  The waistcoat and cravat are there.  It’s more faithful than the revised Big Finish (and BBC sanctioned) costume – though it’s difficult to tell if his sonic screwdriver is the new Weta-designed one…

But of course what’s most important is the crucial context that he adds to his incarnation in a few short minutes.  Astonishingly he enhances the character while making canon much of his off-screen life.  By name-checking companions, he pushes his Big Finish adventures into the Whoniverse, all the way up to the rather good Dark Eye.  The long years of Radio times and Doctor Who magazine comic strips remain ambiguous, as do the far more canon-opposing range of BBC (and a couple of Virgin) books.  It’s not surprising that there have been calls for more live action adventures of this Time Lord.  But with the insertion of the Big Finish audios into the canon, it means that there will be new Eighth Doctor stories for years to come and no need to disrupt the incoming Twelfth…

It started with a companion killing and then rejecting him, it ended pretty much the same way. “Physician heal thyself” are fine last words for this Doctor, far better than his opening… But it does sum up that this is all far less than this rather brilliant Doctor deserved.  Barely over an hour of screen time.

He’s not the only Doctor who could have done with more time.  Most, if not all of them actually.  There are those who should have stayed longer – Troughton, Davison and now Smith.  Then there are those who didn’t have the chance.  It’s a shame for McCoy and Colin Baker but with McGann, it’s a tragedy.

Still, all the 50th Anniversary needed – as New Series focussed as it had to be – was a bridge to the classic series.  The Eighth Doctor – far from the Lazenby of the Time Lords – was that bridge.  And it worked wonderfully.  Physician, consider thyself healed.

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Go back to read about the First Doctor’s legacy in Whovember #1!

Doctor Who: A Fresh Scarf – “Harry Sullivan is an imbecile” (Whovember #4)

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The Whovember arc-athon moves onto one of its finest hours.  A new Doctor, an incredible set of stories and no fear of taking big decisions.  It was the first big arc, filtered through several stories that would change Who as we knew it.  It was Season 12.

#6: Season 12: Robot, The Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment, Genesis of the Daleks and Revenge of the Cybermen.

LEST WE FORGET IN THE HAZE OF THE GREAT CURATOR, THAT WHEN THE FOURTH DOCTOR EXPLODED ONTO SCREENS IN 1974, EACH PREVIOUS DOCTOR HAD PLAYED A MASSIVE PART IN ENSURING THE SHOW’S LEGACY. William Hartnell had not only founded the character, but also oversaw the show’s steady and assured shift from education and family adventure to constant hero in the country’s sitting rooms.

Following him, Patrick Troughton is rightly thought of as the most important casting decision in the franchise (possibly history), picking up the reigns reluctantly dropped by Hartnell and showing that this ridiculously risky regeneration business could work, while banishing any historical story that didn’t have a science-fiction angle. After his three years – an unfortunately short time – Jon Pertwee brought not only a new face but also format change to his colourful tenure, with no continuation of companion but the promise of an expanded cast and permanent Earth-bound setting.  He may have set up the 1970s, but…

Tom Baker though… Tom Baker did something different.

If the advent of his namesake a decade later was a text book example of getting regenerations wrong, Tom Baker’s arrival got everything right. Though cast by outgoing producer Barry Letts – his head already held high – the new Doctor couldn’t have hoped for a better incoming producer than Philip Hinchcliffe. And alongside Hinchcliffe sat the solid rock of Robert Holmes, newly installed script editor and fast-rising Who legend. While the onscreen Doctor may have been losing a UNIT family (one that in truth had been slowly ebbing away for a season) he had a stroke of luck in the companion stakes: inheriting feminist journalist Sarah Jane Smith. He also quickly met her and his perfect foil, public school (lovable) idiot Harry Sullivan. Never has Doctor Who come together so perfectly, and it’s just as well. The TARDIS crew’s first season saw them undertake a full season story arc for the first time in the show’s history. For 20 weeks they were quickly propelled across five adventures with very little TARDIS, food or sleep.

The Arc in… Season 12

The bold, format change that season 12 represented can’t be ignored. Once again Doctor Who was changing, and as always there were things to consider.  I was recently lucky enough ask current show runner Steven Moffat about those days when the Doctor had an office.  He quite rightly pointed out that the production team who found themselves saddled with UNIT exile in the early 1970s took many opportunities to break the format and take the Third Doctor back to space-time.

“ I mean “No, less space travel and less time travel and he works in an office. You know, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks who inherited that format were immediately taking it apart and saying “He can repair his TARDIS sometimes… By the time you get into the second or third year of it he’s spending as much time in space as any other Doctor.”

While Moffat found the juxtaposition of the ‘professed’ hippy and soldiers interesting, he particularly praised the relationships that grew in the fixed format – particularly a great friendship with the Brigadier (that always seemed greater with other Doctors, other than the Third).  In fact, it’s Season 12 that has the luxury of being able to explore both.  Like the new, enthusiastic Doctor himself they couldn’t wait to break the mould – but they still managed to produce two classic UNIT serials amid the vision and new direction that he season laid down.  That classic season.

There, the secret’s blown. Season 12 is a classic.  The fresh producer found himself saddled with two six part stories and opted to split one of them into a two and four-parter.  A wise choice, and one that adds emphasis to each side of the season.

Ostensibly, the changes are simple. This brash Doctor establishes a speedy line in falling unconscious (much hair, thin skull – hardly dissimilar to earlier Doctors who’d happily disappeared for a whole episode, but a trope in the making) while Sarah-Jane fights the good fight as a believable female companion who can generally resist screaming and the worst excesses of her new Doctor…  And Harry who is, of course, frankly, an idiot.

There must have been something incredibly appealing about knocking out or gassing this garrulous Doctor, having the able bodied companion fall down any crevasse that’s going and letting the female companion bring the conscience.  It’s not only necessary to these stories, but it also works very well.

Coincidence riddles the season, but to no greater degree than any other classic Who run. While there’s Sarah initial spur of the moment decision to investigate Think Tank in Robot or the TARDIS crew’s timely arrival on the Ark, there is also the Time Lord’s intervention at the start of Genesis of the Daleks as well as the distancing of the TARDIS itself. Most importantly there’s the steady, growing arc of Harry Sullivan being just, well, an imbecile. It had become a firm cliché in the series before, but now it was a strength.  Season 12 It’s an incredible year in Doctor Who’s life. It may be full of contradictions but that’s always in style and never coherence.

And it starts with a regeneration…

Robot (Season 12, 1974-5)

Robot is a blast. A good old Terminator-vision, blast of freshness.

Baker arrives in a story that’s very Pertwee, but thanks to his performances makes it undeniably Baker.  It has stand out moments of comedy, often between the Doctor and Harry Sullivan. “No Doctor, I’m the Doctor” and the Brigadier. Such humour would soon develop when Harry was removed from his comfort zone. There’s also the odd aside – see the speed typewriting scene. Elsewhere Sarah’s flirting with a noticeably more laid back Brigadier.

Behind the scenes, Terrance Dicks and Holmes had inverted their roles with Holmes now the Script Editor. And what a remarkable stroke of luck that was.  In writing of Robot, Terrance Dicks ‘homaged’ Asimov’s Rules of Robotics, but as has been said – what else can you do when you’re writing a story about a robot.  Behind the scenes, Holmes was a rare occurrence – someone who could bring his considerable writing ability to enhance scripts as well as originate them.  These were incredible safe hands with which to open up the format again.

Immediately, Baker’s Doctor isn’t as attached to UNIT as Pertwee’s had been, even in his last season. He can’t wait to escape and as he says, “I hate goodbyes”. Watching it, I can’t help but think what any other Doctor would have done. Had it been the Sixth, he may well have buckled down a lot sooner. Still, the Fourth had his own slightly too silly costume selection. Overlong and reaching, fortunately once chooses, it’s the speed and comfort that’s the punch line. Years of familiarity have enhanced the joke.  And then the more telling phrase for this Doctor: “There’s no such word as can’t”. Hanging between that and “No point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes” the Fourth Doctor comes straight out of a Gallifreyan can. One that’s bigger on the inside obviously. They are words to live by, and live he does. Lounging around Bessie in a way Pertwee would have tutted at, losing his hat where Pertwee would pick up his cape – but still carrying off  the role of the scientist when he needs to.

Robot’s plot may be simple, but contains may familiar and surprising scenes that work in its safe familiarity.  The female villain is a great idea, the cadre of rather apathetic fascist super scientists Who-bizarre.

As well as its simplicity, long recaps at the beginning of episodes show that this is one of the slighter stories in the season.  But the references are all packed in.  Aside from the robotic shadow of Asimov (but one that increasingly and oddly dwells on emotional shock in the robot), there’s the classic Kaiju element of the giant Robot (Living metal sneaking into the script fairly late in episode three) and then giant handfuls of King Kong (a suppressed Oedipal complex as the Doctor puts it). The Robot is defeated not by bi-planes but by the Doctor jousting in Bessie. Just one question before he disappears in the TARDIS – when does he get the time to fill his pockets?

The Ark in Space (Season 12, 1975)

Thanks to Harry’s first major ‘accident’ the Fourth Doctor’s is propelled immediately into a classic: The Ark in Space. The Brigadier’s already embraced the inevitable at the end of Robot (“I’ll tell them you’ll be a little late”) although we’ll later learn he has the equivalent of a pager to summon the Doctor back. Ark’s not immediately promising, starting as it does with another POV alien.  But it soon pulls off its masterstroke: the TARDIS crew hold the first episode on their own – something not seen in Who for years.

Holmes’ marvellous script and clever production design helps immeasurably. Two serials in and the Fourth Doctor already has a list of classic quotes. Booby traps and science-fiction ingenuity are built in effortlessly as a fine foil. The Transmat is established as the most common mode of transport and Sarah Jane’s endangerment shows a care taken in crafting alien concepts.

The alien Wirrn, giant rubber insects that they are, are a familiar concept in Who, but here their motivation and MO is simple and effective. There is a poignancy added by those other humans that mentioned in the story, but not seen until the next serial.  The dialect and syntax element may not quite fit with TARDIS translation, but helps evoke a story of natural selection that affects the whole of humanity.  The Harry and the Doctor are regressives, and we’ll see the other side of that when the crew reach Earth.  Ark is clearly of interest to new series writers. That Starship UK is one of the other colony ships is one of the few interesting things in Series 5’s The Beast Below. Before Toclafane, gas creatures, potential Haemovores, the humans of the 30th century are essentially compartmentalised in an idea that dates back at least to Wells.

This serial was finished three or four years before Alien, but explores many similar themes. Here, rather than individual xenomorphic qualities, the concept of race memory is explored alongside body horror and the idea of using an alien race’s  knowledge against them. Special mention has to go to the direction, which elevates Holmes’ already impressive script. The juxtaposition of the Earth High Minister ancient transcript to Noah’s conflicted transformation is brilliant. Ark gets to the core of Who (“it may be irrational, but humans are quite my favourite species”) but there’s one main thing that it gets right. Cliff-hangers. Classic cliff-hangers are the thing you need in a strong Doctor Who serial. Although the last one is slightly cheated, the strength of the race-against-time-plan final part soon makes you forget. And it even finds time for a joke about unions.

Ark in Space is a great serial that grows on me like bubble-wrap with every viewing.  And If you don’t like bubble wrap, you won’t like potatoes.

Because, with the offer of a jelly baby to the saved Homo Sapiens the Doctor simply pops down to Earth to check the Transmat…

The Sontaran Experiment (Season 12, 1975)

This mid-season two-parter is and constantly and understandably overlooked. As it sits sandwiched between two classics, The Sontaran Experiment has a lot of things against it. But this is Season 12, and Season 12 has momentum. Here we see a typical fledgling group of humans (presumably they’re ultimate survivors of Starship South Africa!) and a Sontaran in its screen second appearance again running the show on its own. That’s the funny thing about Sontarans. Arrogant and brave enough to attack on their own, but very much designed as a group animal. Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin were hardly running loose here, with the creatures’ creator Robert Holmes on script editing duties.

As a brief and sadistic piece where the Fourth Doctor makes the most of being knocked out, Harry’s clumsiness is established as a running joke. He’s the original Rory, just fortunately without the constant death.

Hollywood science-fiction is predated once again here.  The serial’s villain uses the probes of The Empire Strikes Back six years early, making the most of its location – and Dartmoor is a great asset when the serial is governed by budget concerns.  Dartmoor makes for a phenomenally alien location considering.  Add in the myths of Nerva, where we’ve just spent the previous four episodes, and the distant future context and it’s chilling. Sontaran is a bit of a directorial triumph on that score, entirely filmed on location after the set constraints of Ark.  Some of the physical effects, although sparse, just look, well, solid. Only Styre’s step back make-up is unfortunate – but that would become a running theme, and it’s certainly better than The Invasion of Time’s clones. Talking of costumes, you wouldn’t even guess that Tom Baker broke his collar-bone during filming, covered as he is in his sprawling coat.

Perhaps Sontaran’s main legacy is to that ravaged, damaged, forgotten Earth of the future.  It would again reappear as an idea in Ravalox, and the New Series.  The Sword fighting conclusion and the Doctor’s casual and rather arrogant, and sudden, dismissal of the Sontaran fleet conjures up the image of the post-2005 revival as well.  But in terms of sadism and running outdoors frolics, it’s a precursor and a warm-up for the other classic to follow.

Genesis of the Daleks and Revenge of the Cybermen (Season 12, 1975)

Two huge tales with two huge enemies, so I’ll consider them together.

Genesis was Terry Nation’s third Dalek tale in three years and he couldn’t have picked a better time to mix it up. Gerry Davis, co-creator of the Cybermen also decided to add something his classic creations. But what’s interesting when watching Genesis and Revenge back to back is how opposite their approaches were. Genesis, with its many 60s throwbacks and reinforced World War II analogy still shines as tale that would set the future for the Doctor and Daleks. Revenge on the other hand, for all its futuristic sensibilities, is a very backward-looking tale.

How strange it is to meet Davros two stories after the bumbling Professor Kettlewell of Robot. Davros is a marvellous creation of course, so good he would go on to bestride this new Dalek chronology until the series revival.  Although sadly Michael Wisher wouldn’t.

But the revelation of the Dalek’s creator is not the only master-stroke. The links between Daleks and National Socialism had been there since Nation introduced this new self-proclaimed master race in 1963.  But here he had a larger, more academic canvas to spell it out. What’s brilliant is the strong science-fiction conceits that lie under it. There’s the thousand year war with the de-technology that has come from prolonged conflict. There’s the Kaled perception of the universe with the belief that Skaro is alone in the seven galaxies as a life supporting galaxy. There’s the scale of a tale that’s essentially a first contact story and inevitably, the Doctor is almost the first Dalek victim.  The Kaleds discover that aliens exist just as their transformation is ensured, allowing Nation to tie in concepts of nature versus nature as well retaining some science-fiction shtick. There are the domes and the retro rocket straight from 1950s B-movies or Steam punk Victoriana.

Then there’s the debate between the Doctor and Davros, where the crippled scientist really steals the show. And then there’s that really fascinating debate: How big a role does the Doctor play in their development. Does he actually name them rather than predict that infamous moniker? He delays them a thousand years, but is his role woven into their history already? That ties into the Looperesque moral quandaries of the final cliff-hanger, but flows through all six episodes. Of course, it was also the first act of the Time War.

Time Lord first blood.

And all the while, intrigue packs out the plot twists, with both sides as mottled as the other – light and dark abounds on the devastated planet. Most of all however, alongside the Nation-esque giant mutant clams there’s the return of the big Nation cliff-hangers. Again, all you need for good Doctor Who… Even the silly tearing around for the Time Ring and the not so silly tearing around to destroy the tape, both timely padding, don’t get in the way of that.

Following all that, it’s not unexpected that things go a little awry on the trippy (Mind Robber-esque) return to Nerva.

I’m a big fan of the idea of cyber wars and the rich depth they add to Who’s scattered history. While I think of Daleks attacking, invading and exterminating, I think of Cybermen locked in massive, attritional wars with space empires. It’s a notion that only Neil Gaiman’s Nightmare in Silver has recently picked up recently, although sadly it wasn’t very well received (actually, it’s very good. It’s Neil Gaiman).

In Revenge, there isn’t a strong fleet or troupe of Cybers plotting the invasion of Earth. Instead, there’s a rag tag gang in a rickety underwhelming ship and a hokey plan. Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that it’s here that emotion begins to creep into the Cyber language. Much charm is added by the reuse of the Nerva sets and the chilling early scenes of scattered corpses and threat of plague.

But while Kellman’s early reveal and subsequent counter-betrayal (and rather shocking death) are novel in structure, the rag tag support characters are very perfunctory. On Voga, the structure is neat and the make-up ambitious, but incomprehensible. Wookey Hole may make a great location, but there’s an inherent ridiculousness to the Vogans.  And that’s not simply the make-up and Seals of Rassilon.

Surrounded by gold, the dust of which can incapacitate a Cyberman alone (unless they brush it aside of course), why would the Cybermen attempt to set foot on the planet and why would the Vogans be remotely scared?

I wouldn’t attempt a global-scale Reggie Perrin – I’d buy some glitter guns – with gold – and stick up some neon signs saying ‘Come get us’.

Still, the peak of the running Harry joke makes the planet fall worthwhile.  Almost simultaneously causing a rock fall and destroying the planet is comedy ‘gold’. It’s a shame the young Doctor would soon be considered surplus to requirements alongside the new athletic Doctor.

Plot wise, Revenge gives The Sontaran Experiment a run for its money and even manages to unravel at the end.  Still, despite the remote control rocket (complete with stock NASA footage!) and Flash Gordon-style space station orienteering, it’s not too shabby.  It makes for a satisfactory conclusion, even if it’s not a stunning one.  Ah, if only Terror of the Zygons had made it in as a season closer… You can almost see the glam appeal that led it to march proudly on the VHS market some seven or so years later.

Still, all things considered, it’s amazing that there was no follow-up to Genesis until the rather underwhelming Destiny of the Daleks. But it’s no surprise that Revenge saw off the Cybermen until the rather fabulous Earthshock in 1982.

The concept of the arc itself would have a dramatic effect.  In terms of scope, it I don’t think the prolonged serials of the 60s or Pertwee can count against this five part web.  Season 12 was the bold, new beginning that Doctor Who needed to move on to even greater success. That’s exactly what you need within a few years of an anniversary and hopefully that lesson’s now been learnt.  Season 12 is probably the greatest and most cohesive season in Doctor Who and guess what?

Things would only get better.

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Read on for the Fifth Doctor and his companion’s snake issues in Whovember #5!

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