Doctor Who: Celebrity Histories – “Stepped through in either direction” (Whovember #10 Alpha)

Tenth Doctor and his future 

New Whovember continues with the first of two Tenth Doctor retrospectives. To begin, the strangely linked world of celebrity historical that prove, if nothing else, that there are few people the Tenth Doctor likes to hang around with more than Royals.

IT’S NOT EASY TO FORGET THAT THE DOCTOR’S FIRST ADVENTURE TOOK HIM BACK TO THE DAWN OF HUMANITY, BUT THERE’S BEEN A LOT OF TIME VORTEX UNDER THE BRIDGE SINCE THEN.  When it returned in 2005 the new series established a formula it’s virtually kept to of kicking off each series in the present day, then speeding forward in time before dipping back into the past for the third episode. While purely historical adventures may not have existed in the show since the early-1980s, the successful return has shown that they remain a crucial part of the show.  Indeed, few things sum up the Russell T Davies era of New Who like the celebrity history. And as the longest serving Doctor of both Davies’ tenure and New Who it seemed natural to look at the Tenth Doctor’s brushes with the celebrity shoulders of times past…

In this installment a look at:

Broadly, if you’re not royalty of the writing or properly regal kind you’ll have trouble getting in. Things have changed considerably since the Seventh Doctor couldn’t quite place Queen Elizabeth II’s face in Silver Nemesis. But are there any other patterns? “No, no, don’t do that…”

Tooth and Claw (Series Two, 2006)

A Victorian household named Torchwood

Tooth and Claw unmistakably kicks off in the Highlands. The setting for the Second Doctor adventure The Highlanders, where it was ably doubled by Surrey. Here it’s Merthyr’s turn to stand in for the timeless landscape. Timeless that is until… Slow-mo kung fu monks appear to commandeer a Victorian household named Torchwood. It’s a strange but thrilling start to the Tenth Doctor’s first historical, climaxing in a classic cage reveal pre-title cliff-hanger. The clue to cage’s the inhabitant is in the title you know…

Set loose from introducing this incarnation, Davies shows a playful and confident hand. Ian Drury makes an unexpected but welcome appearance aboard a TARDIS heading for 1970s Sheffield while Rose calls the Doctor a big old punk. But amid the fun of a vortex crash and the Doctor’s astute use of his Rhythm Stick, they end up in 1879. The Tenth Doctor’s first historical makes more than a nod to the Second Doctor’s 1966 Scottish outing – the last completely historical serial of any real length – when the Doctor introduces himself as Dr James McCrimmon. That takes in the PhD the Second Doctor once established that he’d earned and as a cover it gives David Tennant the chance to use his own accent (and then when Rose matches him, start the “Don’t do that” trope that will become very familiar). It’s fun but it’s also a sign that things are about to become a little too coincidental. The auspicious bump into Queen Victoria send the TARDIS crew into a tale of werewolves, long laid plans of revenge and assassination set mostly on the Torchwood Estate.

Wolves and Diamonds

A taste for supernatural fiction

Despite the cloying running joke around Queen Vic’s famous utterance “We are not amused”, Tooth makes for an ominous, lean tale of traps and being trapped; the real question in this mainly location-shot adventure is how quickly the Doctor can sort things out. On the way there’s a fair amount of creep thanks to the cage and its prisoner as well as the mysterious package carried by the Royal party. This isn’t classic Doctor Who, but it’s a fair stab at bringing lycanthropy back to the show for the first time since the Seventh Doctor visited The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. Later in that Doctor’s timeline, Ghostlight, with its plot to assassinate Queen Victoria, is also felt.

In hinging around Endeavour, a huge telescope and the true purpose of the Koh-i-Noor diamond that currently sits resplendent on the crown of Queen Elizabeth II in the Tower of London, it puts Queen Victoria centre stage. Pauline Collins does extremely well with the well known character. And importantly, considering how woven she is into the fabric of the plot, this well established Queen Victoria applies rationality alongside folklore and fairytale knowledge, science and the fanciful. Prince Albert’s loss has left the Queen with “more of a taste for supernatural fiction” and as may be expected she refers to the late Albert a lot. There lies the emotion of the story, until it’s echoed by the Master and Mistress of Torchwood at the end. And Victoria is as calm as you may expect from the ruler of an Empire who has survived six attempts on her life.

The First Queen

For a Lord, he may hate authority figures but this is different

Victoria’s role is fuller role than the TARDIS crew’s, with Rose mostly adding to the sense of the peril and the Doctor still working through early regeneration rudeness. A key scene is the dinner, the apex of tension before the wolf’s appearance. While Rose and other hostages lies in direct danger, Sir Robert’s relates the 300 year old legend. It seems the Doctor has indeed again wondered across a monstrous mystery over that feast; one the villains don’t want related but one that the Queen just won’t let drop.

Of course, there is an alien cause for the lycanthrope; something Rose instinctively knows even while dark dialogue abounds; about the “man who becomes an animal” and there being something of the Wolf about Rose. The reveal may be a little slow, but it certainly builds tension and that is the show’s main concern from the halfway point.  It breaks into a horror chase, taking in Werewolf horror, nods at Alien and a glorious dash into steampunk. On its first appearance the Doctor pauses to observe how beautiful the creature is. And he’s got a point. The FX work was always going to be under scrutiny, it was always going to date, but it’s on a par with the rather wonderful production design.

Following the hairy explosion, split parties and sub-missions lead to the second outstanding scene; the barricaded room where director Euros Lyn lets loose. From the Werewolf’s tense stalking of the room to Victoria’s disapproving glance at the TARDIS crew hugging. it never lets its grip slip on either historical or horror adventure. Importantly, Victoria’s portrayal shows the Doctor as out of touch and the TARDIS crew’s conduct as unhealthy like never before. “Not my world” as the Queen says. That the Doctor really misreads the situation is an important one: For a Lord, he may hate authority figures but this is different – he’s just not good around Royals.

Glasses on                                                                                                           

UNIT dating becomes all the more difficult

Of course that room is a library, where as the Doctor says the greatest weapons in the world sit. That’s the way to exposition – via a shooting star in 1540 – and the rather obvious deterrent MacGuffin of mistletoe varnished into the wood. It’s all part of the elaborate build-up that’s passed generations and will end in bloodlines thanks to a Tooth nicking the Queen; rather strangely used as an explanation for the inexplicable haemophilia that appeared in the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha line – and a satirical dig at Princess Ann. As for the wolf, it takes a joint effort and a gratuitously Christian styling to finish off the afflicted human.

There was always little doubt that Victoria would have the upper hand. And so, despite the inference of another title on Sir Doctor of TARDIS and the creation of Dame Rose, it’s unsurprising that Victoria isn’t amused. The Queen who will not allow magic, fun-terror or blasphemy banishes the Doctor from the Empire with a typical reflection on transience. And of course the real legacy is Victoria’s private pledge to continue the tradition of ingenuity and sacrifice. Thus the Torchwood Institute is established, the Doctor “should be aware” and… UNIT dating became all the more difficult.

Tenth Doctor Whovember

The Girl in the Fireplace (Series Two, 2006)

It’s all about to become very timey-wimey…

Moffat’s glorious return was always going to meet high expectations. His series one two-parter featuring gas masks, Captain Jack and nanobots, remains one of the modern series’ highlights. So, constrained to one episode, following the return of K9 and Sarah-Jane Smith… What could the future show runner rustle up?

It starts off in a grand science-fiction tradition, just as it would end. The first sequence is a surprising tilt from the night sky to a terrestrial palace full of instant chaos and non-instant words of attack… And Sophia Myles talk of a guardian. It’s all about to become very timey-wimey as she shouts into the flames of her fireplace the inevitable “Doctor? Doctor?

After the titles there’s a neatly opposite tilt up to a spaceship where Moffat shows off his liking for fuller TARDISes. It’s the 51st century and there’s rather lovely SFX which even Mickey is prompted to describe as “so realistic”. It bounds along from there, just as it should. From an instant mystery, with no crew or life signs to an instant link to 18th century France via a fireplace. It’s all incredibly spooky, even when the clockwork droids aren’t around in all their drapery. The Doctor takes the girl in 1727 in his stride, as he does the rather solid science-fiction concepts like generating the power to punch a hole in the universe. If there’s a cinematic comparator it’s the rather wasted Hellraiser:Bloodlines. Here the budget isn’t so stretched nor the vision so compromised. Euros Lyn is again on helming duties, turning in some great parts including the passing of time from night to snow.

The Broken Clock

The same (soon to be) classic Moffat trope as one of the Empty Child’s appearances

Smug and regal, the clockwork droids aren’t quite an instant classic. For all their Robots of Death vibe, it’s almost a shame that these droids talk. And apart from the broken clock trick of their first appearance, the clockwork element seems unnecessary. More compelling upon their recent return at the start of Series 8, here their introduction uses the same (soon to be) classic Moffat trope as one of the Empty Child’s appearances. Pushing the solution onto the Doctor the Tenth Doctor’s often at his best when talkative and methodological. He’s also not bad a reassurance;  with classics like “What do monsters have nightmares about … Me.” But later, his drunk rescuer proves a step too far, only matched in the exaggerated stakes by the oddly overpowering score.

The inherent time leaps of the plot make a nice nod to the Doctor’s tardiness. That’s one classic nod, another being Rule 1:Don’t wander off. The serial has room to play with stereotypes and create moment of pure surreality. “There could be anything on this ship” and sure enough there’s a white horse that will come in handy later. There’s even a rare use of the Doctor using telepathy (although not for the only time this retrospective). What’s not so classic is this Doctor’s flirtatious encouraging of a kiss with “Never want to listen to reason”. Davies and Moffat are not afraid of the romance. Playing with the idea of nightmare as well as chivalry, his later smashing entrance would be pure knight in shining armour on that white horse.

Body Horror

It’s more than just a secret, isn’t it?

While the direction is creepy, even taking the Labyrinth style eyes into account, parts like the barbeque scent mean the reveal is nicely measured. Repairs. That’s the reason the robots need the little girl/woman and have opened a portal to every time zone. It just so happens that she’s also “one of the most accomplished women who ever lived” – as the Doctor remarks displaying his excellent grasp of 18th Century history. But “she is incomplete” is the show’s running mantra.  And for the most part the audience lack the whole picture. With minimal screen time, Sophia Myles’ Reinette is well realised to meet that spec. especially with the odd way she can stare back to the lonely young Doctor. “Dance with me” may recall The Doctor Dances, but there’s also fantastic foreshadow not only to Series 8, but the 50th anniversary riddle of “Doctor Who?”… It’s more than just a secret, isn’t it? At least River Song would discover it one day…

While elements of classic alien abduction and slash horror creep in, it’s subversion that proves most effective. Once it’s clear that the droids are waiting for Reinette to be 37, the age of the ship, the end-game kicks in wonderfully as Rose acts as a haunting harbinger of doom. So much of Moffat’s later work is here it’s difficult not to see “The monster and the Doctor”, and indeed much of this story, as a pre-cursor to Amy Pond. As the horror grows, the score widens (or narrows based on your perspective) and the Time Windows become more like the Dantean compartments of Event Horizon. Wonderfully simple and easily conveyed tools that work well.

Royal Victim

The most crucial part is that when the solution’s found, the Doctor somehow forgets the time differential

Like Victoria, Reinette is the main target of the horror. And once again the ‘royal’ is a strong woman holding court and keeping amid the madness. And even the most ironic robot lines: “We do not require your feet”. It’s clear that the Doctor is relishing his role. “Well, I’m the Lord of Time” comes the flippant retort at one point as love, quite possibly, creates the first Time Lord Victorius. And well he might, he’s found an aristocrat he can get on with.  So, all the more tragic is the multi-partite ending. Rose has her moment of sorrow, reflecting Reinette’s, but amid the climax is an annoying mis-step. When the droids commit mass suicide in court – in what is never addressed as a fixed point of time (the only reference to time is the TARDIS’s role) – are all those droid corpses, hugely future technology, safe to leave lying around?

The idea of the Time Lord taking the slow-path is a compelling one. It helps reinforce his alien qualities, something that would be greatly explored by his successor. And while it does feel ever so slightly strange that he’s so happy to stay and catch up with his companions in so many millennia later it would prove a definitive move for this Doctor.  Imagine how that could have ended – a different Doctor being introduced there and then to Rose and Mickey. You almost expect the Tenth Doctor to try to escape, or at least pop up in Rose and Mickey’s time. But then it’s Reinette who gives him the route out. Perhaps the oddest, but most crucial part is that when the solution’s found, the Doctor somehow forgets the time differential despite his imprinted biography of Reinette.

Playing like a microcosm of the episode, we then have the dawning realisation then visual pay-off that Reinette left Versailles for the final time at the age of 43. It’s tinged with an inevitability that the show seldom reaches. Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor dismisses the emotion with his “always alright” line alongside that soon to be very familiar Moffat component – the letter. And as the fire goes out and the TARDIS disappears there’s the great reveal of the ship’s name as SS Madame de Pompadour. It’s all hauntingly sad and also utterly brilliant – quite possibly Moffat’s finest hour; sitting distinct but in the vein of the others in this retrospective.

Tenth Doctor Whovember

The Shakespeare Code (Series Three, 2007)

How would this play out..?

Guest stars don’t come much bigger than the Bard. But Shakespeare also brings inevitable challenges. For one, he appeared in the show in 1965’s The Chase (albeit via Time-Space Visualiser) and the Doctor’s referred to meeting him in three others. So, ahem, how would this play out..?

To begin with, it’s 1599. In London a Romeo and Juliet scene unfolds with some appropriate prose. Unfortunately he’s not put off by her ominous name, Lilith, and sure enough three haggish witches are checked off. And rather marvellously the sting comes after a threat to camera, yes an aside at the time of “woven words”, which shows that writer Gareth Roberts is going to wring the concept for all its worth.

The Shakespeare Code episode marks Martha’s only visit to the past, freshly primed for the classic “one and only trip” line. And once they land in Southwark, it’s a feast. With everyone seizing the BBC rep, the production design is exemplar, wonderfully recreating the late 16th century streets and theatre, even if the clientele may not be quite right. Certainly it’s far in advance of what Vampires of Venice would achieve three years later. Including Shakespeare does allow room to tell the story as one wants, while playing with some of the best knowing that all’s well that ends well. As the Doctor says, he’s “the most human human” there’s ever been. On the flip-side, as Martha says, you should never meet your heroes. He’s more Shakespeare in Love and the Bard and companion’s characters dominate much of the proceedings. Here Loves Labour’s Won is both the prize and the plot. While Martha adds a modern slant, her position is set by simply not being Rose as his damning “Rose would know” retort would show.  That aspect would hang over the entire season, but this early on the Time Lord has a canvas he can rise to, quoting at will and feeding Shakespeare some of his own lines when he’s not giving him some Dylan Thomas. There’s even time for him to use a spot of telepathy once again.

Hexed

The enemy of your enemy is not your friend

Shakespeare is the anachronism alongside the mystery (concealed by his sheer human humanness – and interestingly immune to psychic paper) while the witches barely rise above Voodoo. And like a timely Red Grant the witches use that to dispatch Lynley, the Master of the Revels who’s declared that “Loves Labour’s Won will never been played”. Proving that the enemy of your enemy is clearly not your friend… Lynley’s death by drowning is surprisingly graphic and perhaps shows intent to riff on the show’s past, particularly the Whitehouse-taunting drowning that ended episode three of The Deadly Assassin. Elsewhere in the world of references, there’s time for Harry Potter and infinite temporal flux. Not only an explanation for the paradox but makes Back to the Future canonical as a film and accurate as a theory.

The central crux is quite neat as the Doctor quickly finds himself embroiled in witchcraft: The witches need to be released with a rhyming couplet of their own creation, playing on 14 line sonnets and the tetradecagon of the Globe theatre. For a show that during its classic run stayed broadly within cave man to Ravalox, the new series isn’t afraid to go to bonkers levels of exaggeration. Once again we meet a monster, the Carrionites (as the witches are revealed) who disappeared at the dawn of the universe. Helpfully that explains their lack of familiarity with Time Lords and makes for one of the programme’s best heart jokes. Interestingly, the Doctor’s name comes up once again, a good six years before it became a central tenet in the anniversary year. Stands to reason in a show where words have power, but quite chilling that Shakespeare asks “why would a man hide his title in such despair?”.

Catch the conscience of the Queen

“Doctor, my sworn enemy…”

The Play really is the thing – a weapon. And amid the climax, in the Globe just as it should be, the idea of names takes centre stage alongside Harry Potter (JK Rowling was touted as a potential writer of the series at the time). A running joke in The Shakespeare Code is the possible arrival of a Queen who never turns up. And so, when she inevitably does, a riddle is set for quite some time to come. “Doctor, my sworn enemy. Off with his head”. The Doctor’s shown as pernicious once again. Another season, another falling out with a Queen of England. And it would take a big date (for the two of them) to find out why.

To be continued tomorrow… A trip to Pompeii, a 1920’s Whodunit and the 50th Anniversary Special..

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6 thoughts on “Doctor Who: Celebrity Histories – “Stepped through in either direction” (Whovember #10 Alpha)”

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