Category: TV

The growing power of the Idiot’s Lantern…

Doctor Who Series 9: The Knightmare of Immortality

The Woman who lived Series Nine Doctor Who

The Woman who lived Series Nine Doctor Who

The fourth of a series of essays inspired by the stories of Doctor Who Series Nine. The show kept us in the past, this time landing on the highways of the seventeenth century to pick up on the consequences of the Doctor’s actions at the end of his Viking adventure. What do the adventures of the Ashildir now the Lady Me, the latest in a long line of the undying, tell us about humanity?

It’s an immortal question. Inspired by The Woman who Lived

DID YOU FEEL ROBBED? WERE THE HOOKS OF THE GIRL WHO DIED NOT FULFILLED? Perhaps the MacGuffins and red herrings confounded expectation? But in any event, there’s no doubt that this casual two-parter was always intended to realign itself as one of Doctor Who’s occasional treatises on immortality.

The resulting 45 minutes, with its unusual structure pushing full force onto Peter Capaldi and Maisie William’s double-act, proved one of the show’s great explorations of that mighty theme. An irresistible concept that the show’s often danced around but never answered. If it ever did, there’s a good chance things would never be the same again.

Cheating Death

“People like us, we go on too long”

Immortality is built into Doctor Who, and not just in the inexhaustible fuel of the show’s format: Ideas and imagination without constraint that may outlast the Eye of Harmony. At the heart of the show is a Time Lord, almost the last one – recently given a whole new regeneration cycle when the first one might simply have allowed him to live forever. “Barring accidents” as the Fourth Doctor put it once. You can imagine the TimeWhich statistics on Gallifrey, warning year after year that most regenerations happen in the kitchen. Regeneration means every Time Lord or Lady has 12 reset buttons on his genome and mannerisms that could give them a new life as a woman, girl, Mekon, dog or sentient lamp – but has so far always landed the Doctor as a humanoid male between the Earth years of 25 and 60.

Since the show’s return, the revelation of the Great Time War has left unexplored the concept of these regenerating immortals fighting across time zones. It hasn’t touched the compelling possibility of fully piloted WAR TARDISES containing an endless domino spiral of regenerations or soaking up all the ships power just delicately juggle their dying/regenerating inhabitants in various states of temporal grace.

‘Accidents’ is the key understatement in the fourth Doctor’s unhelpful reasoning. Within two generation we saw the Doctor expire due to old age and then forcibly change (after execution we can only presume – nasty). Other times he’s been irradiated several times, poisoned, squashed and found on the wrong side of gravity. Only on occasion has the Doctor regenerated through direct selflessness (the Fifth’s self-sacrifice did more for his reputation than the Ninth’s) unless you want to argue that every regeneration is a result of the indirect selflessness of his universal intervention; a Gallifreyan who had their Type-40 TARDIS stolen would certainly disagree with that.

But as much as the Doctor and the universe combine to pit him against mortal danger, I doubt the latter will ever let him expire. Certainly, the Time Lords who’ve retreated to God-like status while their planet’s AWOL, were happy to break one of Rassilon’s directives to extend the Doctor’s life. I can’t see how that mad despot perished, but I’d be surprised if he’s calmed down.

Immortal crossings

The modern Prometheus to go with the Eyes of Hades.

In opposition to the Doctor and usually his people, Doctor Who presents a universe full of undeniable, illusionary and distorted versions of immortality. The list is a long one.

There are those not really of our time and space, who no doubt have no need word for immortality, being as it is very much in the eye of the beholder, and as a result little regard for mortals. These include the Eternals seen in 1983’s Enlightenment, elementals who live outside of time, who barely consider the transitory lives of lesser creatures. Those latter years of the Fifth Doctor’s life, coinciding with the show’s 20th anniversary, saw immortality became a focus as the Eternals were joined by returning Black and White Guardians, maintaining the balance of the universe as personifications of chaos and order. In the 21st century we’d meet a member of the Pantheon of Discord in The Sarah Jane Adventures, the immortal Trickster for one lived on the power of chaos that emerged from the Faustian pacts he dangled in front of vulnerable humans. Similar carnage was wrought by the Gods of Ragnarok in Season 25’s The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. Those rogues forced sentient beings to endlessly entertain them at point of elimination, and provided a neat tribute to an old category of the Doctor’s rogues gallery in that silver anniversary year. Those gods joined the Discord and Guardians under the title The Great Old Ones in expanded Who universe prose.

Perhaps the greatest of the Doctors foes belonging to that pantheon is the Great Intelligence who first battled the Second Doctor in the Himalayas and the London Underground before meeting an improbable death in the time streams of The Name of the Doctor. In particular the prose of Andy Lane and Craig Hinton equated the Great Intelligence with Yog-Sothoth, a Lovecraftian cosmic entity of Cthulhu Mythos.

Mythological

The Woman who Lived forwent Norse mythology to dwell on Hades…

The Doctor will always have eternal foes to undermine, tangle with and fight while there is a universe. Elsewhere, a special mention must go to Fenric, the time travelling ancient member of the Great Old Ones encountered by the Doctor in the in the last season of the Classic Series.

Fenric, as its name suggests, was tied up with Nordic heritage and mythology – something that’s made an appearance in almost every episode of Series Nine so far. But, The Woman who Lived forwent Norse mythology to dwell on Hades, the underworld of the ancient Greek world. Greek mythology is well stocked with tales of immortality, from the gods of Olympus to the punishments of Titans and mortals. This time the MacGuffin was the Eye of Hades, alien technology that inspired the ponderous observations: “Purple the colour of death… The light of immortality”.

In one of Doctor Who’s best regarded stories, Egyptian mythology fell under the microscope. The Osirans of Season 12’s Pyramids of Mars Could live thousands of years without sustenance and the most evil of their kind was only trapped by the Doctor thanks to a time tunnel pointed to infinity. Similarly long-lived, potentially immortal, and just as influential on humanity were was Azal in The Daemons and that other horned one, the Beast in The Satan Pit.

The Woman who Lived dragged alien intrigue into the mix like a cat dragging a mouse into a working lunch on everlasting life. Tying into those grand plans of aliens influencing the planet, it only seems natural that the immortal girl, the supernatural human, attracted them. After all, science fiction has taught us again and again that Arthur C. Clarke‘s third law is right: ”Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Deadly

Dedication to enduring existence is often shown to eliminate individuality…

Many species have survived from the dawn of time to what we can call the present day. They are easy to spot if they are recorded as scaring the ancient Time Lords or even worse, making it into Gallifreyan nursery rhymes or legends. The most famous recent example may be the Weeping Angels – along with their effective forbears the Fendahl, who even the Great Old Ones were said to flee – races almost viral in their persistent survival. Certainly not individualistic, that’s something Doctor Who often shows to be eliminated by dedication to enduring existence. Continue reading “Doctor Who Series 9: The Knightmare of Immortality”

Doctor Who Series 9: Are Historical Adventures Important again?

Doctor Who Season Nine The Girl Who Died
Doctor Who Season Nine The Girl Who Died

“Yeah, needles doesn’t it old man?”

The third of a series of essays inspired by the stories of Doctor Who Series Nine.

The Girl Who Died had an ominous name, but did its closing moments suggest that the age of the Doctor’s disposable historical romps is over?

ANYWHERE IN SPACE AND TIME, EVERY ONE THAT EVER LIVED. THE PAST IS EVERY BIT AS POTENT AS THE FUTURE WHEN YOU’RE WATCHING A MAD MAN IN A BOX HURTLE THROUGH SPACE-TIME. But while the future offers optimism (or pessimism) infinite for a writer and audience’s imagination to run wild with no constraint, the past brings a different kind of curiosity and challenge. The discovered country, where everything from mysteries to myth, fact to historical figures, form steps to where we are now. If you’re intrigued about visiting the far future or the distant past, it’s a different kind of fascination that draws you to either. Or if it isn’t when you set off, it will be once you arrive.

Historical adventures have been wired into the TARDIS console since Doctor Who’s first serial. Even in their prestigious and epic prime during those early years, some were less enthralling than others. It didn’t take long for the story length to shorten and the educational slant of those slightly loose historical ganders like The Aztecs and The Romans to give way to a science fiction influence. In fact, the last Who historical story of any weight that featured not a toot of a sci-fi conceit was 1966’s The Highlanders – notable for introducing one of the all-time great and, therefore surprisingly, male companions in Frazer Hines’ Jamie McCrimmon, primed to last the entirety of the Second Doctor’s run. The actual last was the slight Black Orchid in 1982, but as that also avoided any historical point of interest it’s easy to overlook.

Historical Intervention

The slice of sci-fi became the de facto way to judge historical adventures…

During the show’s 26 year classic run, historical stories managed to hit a higher bar and avoid derision more often than their futuristic cousins, even though the majority carried at least an edge of science fiction. And that slice of sci-fi became a de facto way to judge them. Even when the classic series got things slightly wrong, many of them proved their staying power. There was the impressive medieval introduction for the Sontarans in Robert Holmes fantastic The Time Warrior, an adventure that pitted the Third Doctor against grumpy barons and castle sieges. Famously a serial where script editor Terrance Dicks recommended that the sceptical Holmes research the period in the children’s section of a library. Not fond of historical adventures was Mr Holmes. When later script editor himself, Holmes would get suitable revenge by commissioning Dicks to craft his own historical story The Horror of Fang Rock around a lighthouse. When Dicks protested that he knew little about lighthouses, it was with a wry acceptance that he was directed to the children’s section of a library.

That was the fourth historical adventure attended by the Fourth Doctor, an incarnation who’d previously had a slam-dunk triple of trips to the past. Those stories had taken him from alien prison escape in the 1910s of Pyramids of Mars to Renaissance Italy and a confrontation with the Masque of Mandragora and then on to battle time fugitives in the Victorian classic penned by Holmes once again, The Talons of Weng-Chiang. Later, the Fifth Doctor would ignite the Great Fire of London and lose his sonic screwdriver in the attempt during The Visitation, the Sixth Doctor would see the industrial revolution backdrop the notable team-up of Academy foes the Master and the Rani in The Mark of the Rani, and the Seventh Doctor would mess around with his companion’s mind in the creepy Victorian mansion of Gabriel Chase in Ghostlight and an equally mesmerising World War II base in The Curse of Fenric. None of those ‘80s tales were the worst of their respective Doctors, in fact some are bona fide classics.

And it’s no surprise that the torch was always held high. Doctor Who after all, is produced by the BBC, and the BBC does period drama like nothing else.

New times

Recently things haven’t been so set in stone

Come the show’s return in 2005, Russell T Davies set a simple template whereby the first three episodes of each of his series would take in the present day, slingshot to the future and then venture to the past. In his four seasons, this took us to the Victorian London of Charles Dickens, the Gothic Victorian Highlands of Queen Victoria, the magickal Globe Theatre of William Shakespeare and then the doomed market bustle of Pompeii.

But recently things haven’t been so set in stone. That saves on predictability in these times of higher concept series openers, but it’s also led to some peculiar off-shoots. A few years ago you may expect the lightweight stories to fall in the present day, while now viewers are steeled for disposable romps in days of yore.

Bringing robotic moves

Robot of Sherwood was a nadir in many ways.

In the build up to this ninth series, 2014’s Robot of Sherwood found a new lease of life, having set a new template for historical adventures that was exponentially more powerful than the quality of its story. Unfortunately, Robot was a nadir in many ways. Continue reading “Doctor Who Series 9: Are Historical Adventures Important again?”

Doctor Who Series 9: A Change of Bootstraps

Doctor Who Series 9 Under the Lake and Before the Flood
Doctor Who Series 9 Under the Lake and Before the Flood

“Well on the plus side, at least he doesn’t need those sonic sunglasses any more…”

The second of a series of essays inspired by the stories of Doctor Who Series Nine, it’s time to take on the waters of time with Under the Lake and Before the Flood. Headache inducing, but reassuringly unexhaustive in this timeline.

“There’s nothing more ironic than an unfinished requiem”

AFTER THE LEGACY-SERVING ROMP OF STEVEN MOFFAT’S TWO-PART DALEK PREMIERE THE RELIABLE HANDS OF TOBY WHITHOUSE BROUGHT US A CLASSIC STORY THAT MANAGED TO MARRY CLAUSTROPHOBIA WITH THE EXPANSE OF TIME. It was almost a story of two parts, but not quite. Below the Lake and Before the Flood were linked by an internal logic in almost as distinctive in New Who as the episodes’ striking locations. Depending on how you looked at it, Before the Flood could be set in the past with flash-forwards or the other way round. But while cause and effect was at the forefront of the episode, and crucial to the resolution, the mystery of the first part was only pushed a little further back rather than pushed out he way.

As is always the risk, the least surprising part of this story was that things weren’t quite what they seemed. But how could it be when the Doctor had been so certain that he was dealing with ghosts? His previous younger and more excitable selves hadn’t been blown away in Army of Ghosts or Hide.

It was a jam packed story. The Jörmungandr Norse mural was writing on the wall in its true sense. A portent as the affectionately Star Trek uniformed characters set sea against a storm of a big dragon like, red faced monster. Norse mythology will continue its running theme throughout this series next week… And while there were franchise scrambling references to Star Wars as well as Star Trek on the way, the real paradox was classical and physical.

Yes, In this case the bootstraps were pulled from the feet of the Doctor, Clara, us, and poor old Ludwig Van Beethoven. We weren’t expecting that at the end of Under the Lake. Nor maybe a talking to…

Physics lesson

Of course those bootstraps belong to a paradox, as we were immediately informed in the second part’s opening lecture… I suppose it started with Listen. The Doctor popping up ambiguously address the audience directly, like good old Bob Ballard showing up at the end of an episode of SeaQuest DSV. If only Tom Baker had thought of that instead of a talking cabbage for a companion in the mid-1970s. Then again, while it’s effective it’s a horrible short-cut of an expository plot device that can’t help undermine what’s otherwise a clever little story. We may not have to worry about over indulgent catchphrases at the moment, but that will hopefully be kept on a short leash. Or we’ll find that all this time there’s been someone else aboard the TARDIS…

The collective noun for paradoxes

Familiar to Doctor Who fans…

So what was the Doctor explaining? One among a number of different posited temporal paradoxes. A familiar one is the grandfather paradox, postulated by writer Nathaniel Schachner in Ancestral Voices in 1933. There the easy logic is that a time traveller cannot venture back in time and kill his grandfather at a point before the time traveller’s existence is guaranteed. To do so would eliminate the possibility of the time traveller existing in the first place, so would eliminate his actions in the past… Only to ensure the grandfather existed so the time traveller could in fact attempt it. And so that spirals on. It can’t help but appear a rather banally biological and very human approach to temporal physics.  It also conjures up other issues. Even if the time traveller attempted the same after his bloodline was secure, he wouldn’t be able to alter anything that would prevent his travelling back in the future. For instance a badly injured grandfather with years of in-built aggression against a homicidal grandson – or one who withdraws his science funding. All grandfathers should be prepared to do that. See Ray Bradbury’s marvellous Sound of Thunder for an alteration that leaves a time traveller acutely aware of the horrifically minor changes resulting from his mistakes in the past. Continue reading “Doctor Who Series 9: A Change of Bootstraps”

Doctor Who: The Master in the 2000s – “Dear me, how tiresome” (A Tale of Two Jacobis)

The Master in Scream of the Shalka and Utopia

The Master in Scream of the Shalka and Utopia

You will still continue to obey me! The Marchester takeover reaches a new century with a typically contrary attitude. The Master had made the most of the Doctor’s enforced hiatus by getting himself exterminated by the Daleks. But when he returned things would be different. Not only did he have to overcome death, again, he also had to confront parallel realities while retaining an eerily similar appearance… Unlike his best frenemy.

Still, after the schism created not by the Great Time War, but the Great Managerial Decisions of the BBC, neither reality found him as quite the man he used to be. The Third Marchster… A select tale of two Jacobis…

IN SHOW BUSINESS DEATH HAS OFTEN PROVED GOOD FOR A CAREER, AND THAT’S CERTAINLY TRUE FOR ONE DISPICABLE CHILD OF GALLIFREY. After seeing out the Doctor with a roaring role in the Classic series 1989 finale, not only did the Master take main villain duties for the 1996 TV Movie, but also assumed an unprecedented spot in BBCi’s 40th anniversary webcast.

‘Sadly’, this retrospective jumps that erratic, vermicular and fatal holiday of the summer of ‘96 and heads straight to the 21st century he was so anxious to stop, when he wasn’t chewing the scenery. Jokerside glanced at that film for the show’s 2013 anniversary, with all the oddities that arose from the Master’s ‘final days’. However, his demise at the film’s close, an inescapable ‘curse of fatal’ type death, was subsequently picked up by two very different returns that resolved in two parallel universes. And of course, thanks to the ever-eccentric machinery of the BBC, they’re as co-dependent as they are incompatible. Yeah, and people wonder why fans are pre-occupied with canonicity… To make matters even more confusing, across the two realities there are some notable similarities to mull.

Scream of the Shalka (40th anniversary special, 2003)

“No, it’s not where we’re supposed to be”

Scream of the Shalka is a quite extraordinary sub-note in the Who pantheon. A brilliant gap-in-the‑market notion in the early years of the century from the ambitious and expanding Interactive side of the BBC. RIP. There’s lots to thank that ambition and vision for. This well documented production may even have been a significant catalyst in the 2005 reboot, helpfully allowing the BBC to realise that they did indeed have a full set of rights to revive the show. Light bulbs were quick to blink on.

But in acting so chivalrously, Shalka did itself out of a job and risked banished itself as a footnote. Fortunately, it’s the story’s quality rather than its oddity that’s earned it longevity – even a novelisation and home media release. Yes, the most difficult thing about this uneasy relation is that it really is very good.

Masterful set-up

“I seem to attract the military”

Producer James Goss drove the passion of the project, over some challenging landscape. And he got an awful lot right, especially in hiring the ever-reliable and inspired Paul Cornell. Goss also packed the production out with a high punching cast. Over the years, Richard E. Grant’s performance has come in for some stick, but it’s really not as phoned in or lazy as has been suggested. His arch Doctor sits nicely in the centre of a fine cast that included Diane Quick and Sophie Okonedo. Cornell crafted a classic and creepy tale in the Quatermass-mould, an innovative invasion that was in many ways a lighter precursor of the process Russell T Davies would undertake for the television reboot. It’s no surprise they came up with some similar solutions in the changed media landscape of the new century. Rightly ignoring regeneration, as Rose would, Shalka introduced a new Doctor with a notably sharper and fluctuating personality, coping with in-built angst as he struggled to shake off the grief of losing an unseen and un-named female companion. In this continuity, much to his chagrin and resentment he’s continually dispatched to problem areas by those unseen and unnamed… We can only assume that the Time Lords had a new PR team in.

On the ground, some familiarity is dismissed. There’s no Brigadier here, but a hotline to the Secretary General (of the UN) and a new set of military ‘allies’. It’s a clear and successful attempt to nod to the past and set the agenda for a potential future, as befitted the first BBC commissioned Doctor Who since 1989. And amid the changes, an intriguing skeleton in the closet was the greatest nod of all. A mysterious presence lurking around the dark console of the TARDIS. An affable ally of a Master. Or so it seemed…
Continue reading “Doctor Who: The Master in the 2000s – “Dear me, how tiresome” (A Tale of Two Jacobis)”

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