New Whovember continues. The second of two Tenth Doctor retrospectives looking at the strangely linked world of his celebrity historicals. As the knocks tolled for this Doctor it was clear that he still had a thing for Royals. But would we ever find out what?
IN THE FIRST PART OF THIS RETROSPECTIVE WE VISITED THE SECOND AND THIRD SERIES OF NEW WHO – TACKLING WEREWOLVES, FIREPLACES AND BARDS. When Martha left, halfway through the Tenth’s chronological tour of duty, there was no way that trips to the celebrated past would leave with her. Series Four presented two historic adventures, both with celebrities of sorts and both landing in the top half of that year’s most viewed. While they proved to be excellent farewells to the Russell T Davies era of historical adventures but they left some plot strands… Although the Eleventh Doctor may have upped the stakes with Marilyn Monroe and River Song, the riddle of Queen Bess was asking for a conclusion. And what better time than the Doctor’s Golden anniversary?
In this installment a look at:
The Fires of Pompeii (Series Four, 2008)
Capaldi isn’t alone…
Series four still sticks out in the run of New Who. It’s resplendent, with only Series Eight matching its appearance. The fifth series would take a strange decision to mute the colour palette and it would take some time to return to this sheer variety. Companion-wise, initial disappointment that Donna reneged on her excellent choice not to join the Doctor gives way to undoubtedly the best character development seen in the show. And yet, it never quite hits the high-points of Series 3 despite serving up two celebrity histories.
Again, The Fires of Pompeii ramps up the production quality with astonishing set design thanks to BBC co-production Rome. Ancient Rome on Doctor Who once again, except it isn’t – it’s Pompeii and “it’s volcano Day”. Once again this is the first main trip for the Doctor’s companion and a rough ride of conscience and choice awaits. It may be the weakest grasp at celebrity, but its warranted. Lucius Caecilius Lucundus’s house still stands in Pompeii. And with the actor portraying him latterly rising to the rank of Time Lord it’s got to be a cert. Capaldi isn’t alone, sitting in a fine cast that also features Phil Davis, Phil Cornwall and Phil ‘The Power of Kroll’ Taylor. I might have made one of those up.
Their plot brings a classic science-fiction trope
The old Doctor Who staple of a hidden cult (unfairly reminiscent of the Sisterhood of Karn) allows for not only extra-diegetic and non-canonical stalking by future companion Amy Pond but also prophecy, tension, religion, psychic entanglement and Roman “capitalism”. Behind them stand the huge Pyrovillains; a fascinating concept although sadly lacking any sense of scale on their first appearance unless you have a great grasp of Roman aqueducts. Their fiendish plot brings a slice classic science-fiction in the mosaic of anachronistically advanced technology. But more importantly the Vesuviun timeline adds the argument on morality. And despite some complicated hints towards the series finale, mainly thanks to psychic interventions, morality is what it’s all about.
In some ways it’s slightly more muted than may be expected, etched in the far wider tablet of fixed and moveable time. It’s different to the philosophy shown one show runner later, but also a twist on the timeline sequence of classic adventure Pyramids of Mars. With 20,000 lives at stake, the outcome known to be unavoidable, this isn’t going to hit intergalactic proportions. That would be left to the season finale. Fires instead settles on the personal side of things – no less than the family of our resident celebrity.
It’s fortunate that the Villans of the piece have at least one weakness. Starved of classic invasion stories in recent years, the aliens’ take-over is defeated using the copyrighted element code that recalls World War III; there the Slitheen were undermined by vinegar, while in Fires we dodge Triffid killing salt water and a Martian crushing common cold for good old Signs dissolving water. It’s also a rather brilliant way to have the Doctor use a gun (water pistol).
It burns in the stars
Once again the Doctors identity comes up, this time thanks to Caecilius’ daughter’s blooming psychic abilities. “Your real name is hidden. It burns in the stars, in the Cascade of Medusa herself”. The Medusa Cascade was of course the First Doctor’s first off-Gallifrey excursion at the young age of 99 years old… And the destination that Davros’ new Dalek empire was filling up with rogue planets in time for the Series Four finale.
There is a direct opposition between the words of the High priestess and the death sentence that rather dilutes a moral core that already seems just slightly too complicated. But it proves effective in the scheme of things, particularly reinforcing the Doctor as the herald of bad luck in a series that adds more creeping dread than others. Perhaps better in the mix of the series, the Doctor’s actions in Fires require a tremendous amount of buy-in. It sets companion and Doctor in opposition and with a few emotional tugs, sees him relent to save Caecilius’ family. Elsewhere, in terms of utter devastation, it’s one of the more effective time stormers. Pompeii is there to see right now.
“History’s back in place and everyone dies”.
It’s strange finish, it almost feels like the closing of a chapter in the second episode of the series. The “Come with me” scene, the Doctor back-lit against the open TARDIS door is monumental – but it oddly bridges the family watching their town burn. For the Doctor it’s another reminder that “Sometimes I need someone” he says and in turn he, Donna and the TARDIS become household gods. Fires is solid, benefitting from such a well produced series, but it’s greatest achievement may be that it didn’t mark Capaldi’s finest hour in Doctor Who.
The Unicorn and the Wasp (Series Four, 2008)
Another figure in the pragmatic Queen Victoria mould
Five episodes on from The Unicorn and the Wasp strangely popped up to claim the best viewership since The Fires of Pompeii. There some legs in these historical adventures after all and here is another stab at the ‘genre’ by Gareth Roberts. Unsurprisingly The Unicorn and the Wasp faces some of the same challenges as his earlier The Shakespeare Code: How to ape the author’s work while building it into a reverential Doctor Who plot. And this time the central figure is another woman in the pragmatic Queen Victoria mould: Agatha Christie.
As standard, the episode takes its time to explore and play up the chosen celebrity’s history. When we meet her, Agatha Christie has six books published and, thanks to the Doctor’s glimpse of a paper, it’s just one day before her mysterious 11 day disappearance. The mystery’s right there linked to Christie, but how is it linked to a string of murders? It’s a whatdunit, whydunit and whodunit all in one. And much like the aforementioned monarch, Christie won’t easily be swayed by the TARDIS crew. While Roberts lays down some classic build up – the snippet in the fire, the locked door behind which the lady of the house was kept recluse for roughly the length of a pregnancy – it’s Agatha Christie who runs the roost. Unlike a Shakespeare too blissfully uncaring in his absolute humanity, Christie is well realised as an intelligent character – one who despises frivolity (especially after her recent personal issues) and won’t just follow the Doctor with no good reason.
Like a choice number of other decades in the Twentieth century, the 1920s is hard to mess up on screen. The Doctor deduces the period straight away, clever chap. There’s the car, the 20s swing… And the chance to play fast and loose with its trappings. The arrival of Professor Peach leaves us in no doubt that we’re in Cluedo… Especially when lead piping is raised by what appears to be a giant wasp (unfortunately revealed at the top of the tale). That may have been a much debated choice, but still…
Hard Cold Fact
Leaving the mystery of the giant vespula vulgaris
There follows a full on unravelling of Christie, via Poirot with some Pink Panther shenanigans chucked in for good measure. the class aspect is wrapped up when the Doctor tuts “no, don’t do that” to the third companion in a row.
The jewel thief Unicorn of the title is pushed back relatively early on, leaving the mystery of the giant vespula vulgaris. As may be expected from a piece dependent on a stress tested plot, there are tremendous jumps in logic – such as the size of the wasp indicating that it can easily regrow its stinger. Chuck it out and move on, wasp in pursuit.
Return of the Tooth
We are British Doctor – what else must we do?
There are many recalls of Tooth and Claw – from the characters, the classic “No, don’t do that”, the dinner scene and the Doctor’s response to the deadly creature tearing around the corridors after him: “You are wonderful”. And like The Girl in the Fire Place there’s also a classic David Tennant Marmite scene: the poisoning, complete with another wheeled out Time Lord trick. Fortunately, Catherine Tate is the perfect comic foil for Tennant – there has never been a TARDIS coupling with such natural ability for physical comedy. It’s rather a joy to watch (if you haven’t suspended your disbelief you’ll have been struggling long before) and anyway, a little slapstick doesn’t hurt in the 1920s… It’s certainly preferable to any kind regeneration in an adventure this gimmicky.
Of course, the end-game is a classic Poirot moment, with every suspect gathered in the “crooked house” for the Doctor to hand over to Agatha to pack it with a slew of references. There’s plenty of time for comedy before the Doctor takes over for a rather tragic reveal. Intriguingly, when the killer is revealed Murray Gold includes the slight swirl of the score that had heralded the Master the previous series. Certainly that foe wasn’t averse to donning the cloth as a disguise in the classic series, but here it’s a red herring of a gold and black wasp.
The murder mystery left back in the house…
With many crucial components sitting in that house-bound murder mystery, any climactic car chase would prove a letdown. Contrary to Fires, this time it is Donna who is brutal in dispatching the Vespiform that “couldn’t help itself”. Her arc of development is really quite outstanding and at this point she was still to go through the trauma of The Silence in the Library. As it happens, it’s the traumatised Agatha who takes the brunt of the Vespiform’s demise – a rather convenient and sudden resolution after a well constructed episode but that said, they had left the conventions of murder mystery back in the house.
If anything Unicorn’s conclusion reaches back to the end of The Unquiet Dead, with the slightly dampened power of familiarity. Perhaps not the neatest cycle as, aristocracy ripped apart, the Tenth Doctor ended his final proper Celebrity Historical. It was then away to that library and a date with his future. It’s funny how often books appear and reappear over time…
The Day of the Doctor (Anniversary Special, 2013)
Leaping forward, the anniversary posed a neat resolution to the Tenth Doctor’s exploits, one publicity was quick to jump on. It’s difficult to argue against Day of the Doctor, a special episode that does many things well. And one of those is to leave the Eleventh Doctor’s companion in the midst of a classic Moffat story while he is sent back to meet his predecessor in the middle of a classic Davies celebrity history adventure. It’s not only drenched in nostalgia, but one that could solve the riddle of Queen Bess that has dogged this retrospective. There’s a kiss and everything! Could we really, finally learn why Queen Elizabeth I had such a legendary anger for this gangly incarnation of the Doctor?
Return of the Queen
I have appointed you as curator of the under-gallery
It’s a letter from Elizabeth I that causes the Eleventh Doctor to be picked up and forcibly brought to the UNIT Undergallery – under the National Portrait Gallery. Having overcome Trenzalore with his Fez intact in the previous adventure, the arrival of biker Clara finds a James Joyce-styled Doctor without the previous two series’ sense of impending doom. Aye aye. Something was bound to happen.
Queen Elizabeth I hadn’t appeared in the show since The Shakespeare Code. However, Series Five saw both the Dream Lord and Elizabeth X refer to her relationship with the Doctor. And both had a Carry On twinkle in their eye when they mentioned it. Much had changed in the Whoniverse since The Shakespeare Code of course. Torchwood had finally fallen, again. UNIT had been remodelled into a scientifically led – and distinctly Anglo-centric – operation.
And that letter? “My dearest love, I hope the painting known as Gallifrey Falls will serve as proof that it is your Elizabeth who writes to you now. You will recall that you pledged yourself to the safety of my kingdom. In this capacity I have appointed you as curator of the under-gallery. Where deadly danger to England is locked away. Should any disturbance occur within its walls, it is my wish that you be summoned. God speed, gentle husband.”
Coming from Elizabeth R, that letter is rather strange in hindsight. She reveals how to find ‘No More. Gallifrey Falls’ – The Fall of Arcadia. It’s a piece of Time Lord art, a slice of real time frozen. And now a calling card. But she must have been in a radically better mood than she appeared in The Shakespeare Code to have not burnt it there and then. Either that or she forgot about it? Quite how it got past Torchwood is inexplicable… Though many things seemed to. The best part of it may be that it’s the Eleventh Doctor who receives it. Of all his incarnations, he’s surely the one who finds it more inexplicable and embarrassing than everyone else.
“I’m going to be king”
And that’s not all. Dragging the Time Lords back causes several problems in the New Series, especially after the Doctor’s spent the best part of 10 years describing them as greatly changed. The Last Day – an account of the start of the Fall of Arcadia, alongside flashbacks to war torn Gallifrey in Day show that this wasn’t necessarily true. Even accounting for the soldiers and civilians being ‘mere Gallifreyans’ there is much familiar from these flashbacks, and bar Rassilon the Time Lords themselves seem conversational. Breaking the Time Lock it’s the War Doctor’s forays on Gallifrey, and some militant graffiti that prompts him to jump forward to the Tenth Doctor thanks to a rather familiar incarnation of The Moment. On Gallifrey it’s the end of the Time War. As a choice piece of dialogue explains, the same time period as The End of Time.
Back in present day Trafalgar Square, it’s a rather fetching painting of the Tenth Doctor and his regal wife that acts as a segue to the return of the Davies historical! And as it’s written by Moffat, there’s a an immediate reference to The Girl in the Fireplace. Riding in on a white horse, there’s the romance of a picnic… Until the Doctor marriage trick backfires and the white horse out to be one of Classic Who’s classic monsters. While the mistake of marriage may be a running joke, centering on the Tenth Doctor, it always seems a little mean on the jilted ‘Virgin Queen’. A fact willingly compounded by the Zygon who would shortly punch through her face on that portrait.
“There’s a precedent for that”
This Elizabeth isn’t played for a fool. No real Royal who’s appeared in Who really has been. They’re not religion after all. A short chase, and a great joke involving a rabbit later and we’re in the duplicate stand-off that will be repeated for the next half of the show. Despite the in interruption by a time fissure and a Fez. As is to be expected, this is far more skilfully bled together than previous multi-Doctors adventures.
Of course the fez is a paradox, there to be thrown into 1562. There had to be a point to it after all that time. There are nice links abounding, from sonic screwdriver proof/ rivalry to The Three Doctors references and the confrontation between younger New Who and the Classic Who that the War Doctor evidently has both boots firmly sunk in.
It’s a slight but well realised flashback that feels an inherently good fit for the Tenth Doctor, the tying up of hanging Elizabethan threads notwithstanding. That’s impressive as, befitting the anniversary show, history is a major character in this story. Although that segment of celeb-historical bows to the history of the Doctor by the end and the Elizabethan sequences are mainly there to provide the Zygons with a route to the Undergallery and Black Archive (something else to escape Torchwood) of the future.
End of the Time War
It adds a nice historical link-up by revealing that the Zygon home world was destroyed in the early days of the Time War. And in return their use of Time Lord stasis cube technology as a means to escape makes a nice piece of revenge. Like her noble descendant Victoria, Elizabeth proves able to deal with any situation, even impersonating a Zygon Commander with ease. And surprisingly the War Doctor makes for a witness at his own wedding. It’s a tribute to the enthusiasm of the show that this is just one part of the adventure he needs to observe to reach his decision. Unfortunately it’s at the altar that the Doctor chooses to leaves Elizabeth, starting the spiral of events that makes her call for his death in The Shakespeare Code. It’s scant consolation that the innuendo of Elizabeth X and the Dream Lord don’t bear fruit on screen. She’s a Zygon for some of it…
When reaching the Black Archive via a frozen Gallifrey and a trademarked Moffat phone call, the Doctors face the same dilemma as Pompeii: Kate Stewart is prepared to destroy London to save the world from the Zygons, but this time there are three of him to interrupt. It’s also makes a neat dramatic counterpoint to the Doctor’s own predicament on Gallifrey.
And so, having dealt with the past and solved the problem it is to Gallifrey and the end of the Time War. Unlike the doom of Pompeii, this is no fixed point – although thanks to Time Lord’s fragile memories when crossing their own time streams it’s well forgotten before the Eleventh incarnation gets to remember it (his being the current, or latest, time stream).
“Never cruel of Cowardly”
The Day of the Doctor does a marvellous job of proving that facet across every one of the Doctor’s incarnations – except perhaps when it comes to his treatment of Elizabeth I…
“Never give up, never give in”
She certainly doesn’t.
With the next adventure showing the resolution of the Trenzalore story arc, it’s impressive how many seeds to that resolution are hidden not only in The Day of the Doctor but throughout his brushes with celebrity. In the anniversary special, for all its references and clear delineation of eras, the strength of the historical adventure remains. Moffat even takes time to return to one of his brilliant early additions to the ‘genre’. In the Girl in the Fireplace the Doctor happily chose the long way round. And in Day, after a past/future visit from the Great Curator and the reveal that Gallifrey Falls No More (a painting acquired in remarkable circumstances) he finds solace in it once again.
It’s an answer hidden in plain sight all over again. He knows where he’s heading:
“Where I’ve always been going. Home, the long way round”.
Coming Next in New Whovember: Silence Falls on the Eleventh Doctor…