Tag: The Doctor

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

Eighth Doctor Whovember Jokertoon

8D

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)

Fourth Doctor Whovember Jokertoon

4D

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!

Doctor Who: Ace – “…I always leave these things to the last moment” (Whovember #7)

Seventh Doctor Whovember Jokertoon

7D

The 50th birthday watch reaches a sad end… Or is it a beginning? After 26 continuous years, the Seventh Doctor may have seen the classic series off, but he did it with style. In fact,  those last few serials brought the focus back to the Doctor’s companion, and in doing so it laid noticeable roots for a later regeneration… “The end – but the moment has been prepared for” indeed.

#7: The Ace Trilogy: Ghostlight, The Curse of Fenric and Survival

“SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST”. IT’S ONE OF THE BETTER THINGS TO DRAW FROM THOSE, THE LAST DARK DAYS OF DOCTOR WHO. The three final stories of the classic series, forming a loose ark around companion Ace, are preoccupied with that key Darwinian thought. That the last of the serials is Survival is only part of the irony.  It’s far more satisfactory than the theme of entropy that accompanied latter Tom Baker stories simply for being more positive. But of course, while that prophecy of entropy in the early 80s took a few years to come true, the Darwinian rule that came at the end of the 1980s was proved wrong immediately.

Ghostlight (Season 26, 1989)

While it was Survival that ended the run via a hastily recorded voice over, it was Ghostlight that was last to be filmed. A fitting end, with Darwinian Theory part of the plot and not just an analogy, it delved into some of the show’s darkest corners.

Writer Marc Platt lays on classic tropes thick and fast. The body-horror. The Victorian domestic tragedy. The big game hunter. Pygmalion. Deification of more advanced civilisations. Vampirism. Nocturnalism. The evil in the basement. A Royal assassination. An inspector Calls. Taxidermy with glowing eyes… And mixed in there is a bit of biography for Ace. It’s a doomed house, she’s already destroyed it in the future, but how do we get there?

Anyone claiming this isn’t a classic slice of classic Doctor Who – yes, classic – needs to be sent to Java. But like any classic, it has flaws.  There’s has to be a sacrifice.  It’s not immediately comprehensible and indeed, if any serial should have had the run of four episodes, it was Ghostlight.  But that said, in a tale governed by cause and effect, three parts seems oddly balanced.

Ghostlight is deliriously and wilfully surreal within its stagey, set-bound surroundings. Almost every scene carries foreboding as character switch and change from villain to victim. Devastating plot revelations are quickly revealed and then cut short by, literal petrification or reversion to primordial soup.   And by the end, the two main aliens have swapped their roles, and set out into the unknown with a Neanderthal and a big game hunter. At the speed of light.

Then there’s the game-playing Doctor. At points, his motivation is obscured, there’s a real sense he may get to any length to uncover the truth but also that he knows everything all along. As would be repeated in the next two stories, this Doctor not crippled by the myth of The Other that surfaced in Season 25, as the show teetered on the edge of revealing too much about his origin. He’s simply and darkly Time’s Champion – an alien uncovering and solving problems to get to the truth, where everything and nothing is significant. It’s a shame this Doctor is only seen for one season, four stories.

I’m deliberately excluding Battlefield to concentrate on this Ace-centered trilogy, but it was in that serial, that this Doctor was established.  The future, potential, (ginger) Merlin Doctor is more compelling than the Doctor’s ancient routes and has persisted to this day (ginger). Not for the last time, Ace is at the heart of this story, a conduit for the Doctor to solve his mysteries.

Not for the last time, there are moments when it looks like he’d go to any lengths to get the end-game. The denouement is one of the strangest in Wholore, the Doctor versus an Angel. Light can wander at a whim, and its alien nature is one of the most effective realisations seen in Doctor Who, oblivious, confused and silly. For the first time in years the Doctor captures the presence to stand up to such a being with believability, McCoy’s pratfalls used sparingly for effect. Of the serials I saw live as a kid, parts of Ghostlight have stayed the longest.

It’s a walking metaphor where Doctor Who can run riot. In some ways a fitting end for a show that would not be filmed again in Britain for many years.  But then, this trilogy is full of different endings…

Ghostlight brought the house of Blink, Ghostlight brought the secret life of Amy Pond.

The Curse of Fenric (Season 26, 1989)

The stories that follow the set-bound Ghostlight have the distinction of being two of only three classic serials completely filmed on location. In terms of effectiveness, The Curse of Fenric steals it.

Fenric is quite possibly the greatest Doctor Who serial of the 1980s. Its scope and realisation is incredible, from the atmospheric opening with the Russian troops landing at Whitby. Like Marc Platt’s Ghostlight, the number of ideas that Ian Briggs condenses into these four parts is stupendous. But unlike Ghostlight, the plot is, ironically for much of it, relatively watertight. It not only creates a powerful Doctor figure (both time’s Champion, but also dessert – sitting, sculpting chess-player) but even fits in some time paradox.

Ace is very much at the forefront, not here because of Perivale antics seen in the serials either side, but by a genetic, pre-determined route that brought her into the Doctor’s path.  The huge personal issues brought to bear on the companion are only rendered larger by the fact she is simply a small pawn in a game of millennia.

And then there comes one of the strangest moves in Companion history, one of the boldest: the blatant sexualisation of a companion. This isn’t Leela or Romana showing off their wardrobe, this is Ace deliberately luring a soldier for distraction.  There were other ways, but neither the Doctor nor the companion discuss it.  “Professor, I’m not a little girl” – that’s not somewhere that Doctor Who goes very often, even as the current series attracts criticism for its over-sexualization …  It’s a sharp change in the TARDIS crew relationship, and one that’s a little lost in the following serial.

That scene sits against a backdrop of the unravelling relationship of Ace and her mother. There’s no Blinovitch Limitation Effect here, that would just serve to undermine what is easily a forced storyline. There is that neat idea that Ace is subliminally examining her parental issues.  But that’s soon swept over by the fact that she is a Wolf of Fenric.  She creates herself, and much of what she hates.

It’s fitting and understandable that Ace has her strongest development in the hands of Ian Briggs.  He created her in Dragonfire two seasons before, and here is a dramatic and fitting resolution.  When he first invited her, the Doctor was left with an unwritten rule: “And the third… Well, I’ll think up the third (rule) by the time we get back to Perivale.”  Somewhere along the way, it seems to have been written.

Elsewhere, the pacing is on the most part great, propelled by the location filming with only a few random edits showing that at one point it was considered as a five part serial.  One unfortunate scene includes the reference to Gabriel Chase, a dark memory of Aces that in the event of broadcast, was explained one serial earlier.  , It’s a reminder how surprisingly strong the entire final season is, considering rescheduling and reshoots, lost footage and location filming.  Briggs had significantly less time to complete the serial than he was expecting.  Perhaps most surprising in this sharp and compelling serial is the uncredited directing nod that John Nathan Turner earned for this classic.

It’s an indication of the perception that affected all of Who in the late 1990s that Nicholas Parsons is unfairly dismissed for his role here. This is no gimmicky turn and forms a large part of the exploration of faith, obsession and ideology.  A brilliantly realised character, he is just one of the strong characters who earn our sympathies. A special mention must go to the historical parenthesis that Fenric sits between.

The Viking history – ever an atavistic pull for the British – is incredibly evocative, carried through script and a montage of the underwater longboat wreck rather than flashbacks. The journey of Fenric from the East with the Ancient Haemovore in constant pursuit is also effective. That creation brings with it, the flip side. The paradox of the Ancient One creating its own future may be a little too much, but the mysterious vampires of humanity’s future are brilliantly realised in their period garb. It’s an old trope, the dead rising from the waves, but not for the first time in Doctor Who they are ghosts of the future as much as the past.

That the Great Serpent and his master forms a basis for Norse mythology while drawing Whitby and Dracula into the web is masterful. The fact that it takes the liberty of reversing some coincidences you find in Who serials is incredible. It’s far more than just another waster role for Anne Reid in Doctor Who.

For a number of reasons, Fenric is about as removed from Doctor Who as children’s programme as it can be.  And still, it manages to avoid the far more gratuitous violence of the Colin Baker years.  How it does it is brilliant: having strong motivation and scripting.

Fenric brought the horrors of war and the art of paradox back to Doctor Who, Fenric brought Time Lord walking in eternity to the New Series, Fenric brought the consequence of Sex to the TARDIS that would one day threaten the Doctor’s life.

Survival (Season 26, 1989)

Survival returns Ace and her Professor to Perivale, but not the stage show of Ghostlight. The weakest of the final three, it still contains moments of mystery and a strong and alien story that even rather patchy video effects can’t destroy Writer Rona Munro has bemoaned the Cheetah people costumes – a decision that robbed the script of its lesbian subtext.

True, they look a tad too costumey for what are a wonderfully literal race, robbing the actors of everything except very broad moves.  Still, they aren’t completely ineffective.  Three in a row, Survival dishes up yet another form of tension.  The horse mounted cheetahs and the vulture-like kitlings with their vast teleportation abilities.  Of course, one kitling spends most of its time as an animatronics puppet.  It’s obvious, but adds an unsettling element to the Master’s stalking.

It’s no worse than some Hollywood effects of the 1990s, that’s for sure. But the real joy comes from the blunt nature over nurture sci-fi trope.  The idea of the civilisation destroyed by their planet is riveting.  It would always be ambitious to realise that on screen, but provides.  The rhythm of transformation may be off kilter, but at last brings us a Holmes and Moriarty like clash to the Doctor and his main Time Lord nemesis.  And it must be said, the Seventh iteration of the Doctor really can’t stand the Master.  In turn, the goateed Time Lord is more than happy to acknowledge the Doctor’s superiority in escape, before lapsing back into pure malice.

There are little moments of joy here.  The bored Doctor, the Master darker than he had been for some time.  But overall, it really shows how close the series was to getting it right.  Within two decades, a future Doctor would be similarly stalking an estate in London while tackling humanoid cats.

Yes, Survival brought the cement of the Powell Estate, Ghostlight brought the soap opera family of the Tylers.

Endgame…

The final three serials of Doctor Who’s classic years offer up moments that can sit happily next to the best in the show’s history.  True, McCoy never fully loses his clown, and he never reaches the same balance as Patrick Troughton but this was the year that secured him a place in Doctor Who history.  Not only that, McCoy’s Doctor seems far more alien than the character had been for years.  Actually, he wouldn’t be beaten until matt Smith.  As such, it was also the year that had the grace to make Virgin’s New Adventures an inevitability.

While there are pratfalls at the wrong time, but not all of them are. The Haemovores, a vampiric, amphibious – and crucially – potential evolutionary dead-end of humanity in the chemical wasteland of the far future. The alien, control-based survey team overwhelmed by evolution. The ultimate vision of nature over nurture.

In each of these serials, the writers aren’t shy of chucking in the kitchen sink.  But somehow it remains more effective than that modern version.

Unfortunately, the rot had set in long before and the scripts of Ian Briggs, Marc Platt and Rona Munro among others, under the editorship of Andrew Cartmel could never shout loud enough. After a far too prolonged period of entropy, Doctor Who wasn’t the fittest anymore. Those who wielded the axe were those who ripped the rug from the console room floor. Inevitable in a show with such a long shelf life, those in charge had increasingly been separated from it and its glory days.

One thing is clear though. Turning the show back to a focus on the companions was crucial.  On one hand it enables the Doctor to remain an enigma, enhances the mystery when done well.  On the other hand, it draws the audience in.  The Doctor’s story stays the same, it is the run of companions that bring change to the show and new stories to tell.  The greatest storytelling use the companions to investigate the Doctor and his universe…

But just when the show remembered its strength, it was put on hold.  But with its time trickery, biographical redemption and even skulking around after the puppet cats of Perivale, the Doctor had already laid in a timey-wimey way, the roots of its return when the TARDIS doors closed on 6th December 1989. Rose wasn’t such a leap. Doctor Who remained Ace. Doctor Who remained fantastic.

TIMEY-WIMEY:  Read on for the, mope, complete Eighth Doctor in Whovember #8!

%d bloggers like this: