Tag: Time Lords

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)”

Doctor Who Series 9: Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Skaro and the End of the Acid Reign

Doctor Who Series 9 The Magician's Apprentice
Doctor Who Series 9 The Magician's Apprentice

“Guys! Guys! I think I’ve landed a walk on part…”

The first of a series of essays inspired by the stories of Doctor Who Series Nine, starting with a trip to a mysterious planet in The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar.

HOW WILL HISTORY RECORD THE MOFFAT ERA? THAT’S NOT A QUESTION FOR NOW OF COURSE, AND ONE UNLIKELY TO BE ANSWERED FOR A LONG TIME. WHEN THE SONIC GLASSES HAVE GATHERED DUST, WHEN THE TWELFTH DOCTOR’S MYSTERIOUS, HAWKISH, STRANGELY FAMILIAR FACE IS LONG GONE. Steven Moffat has written for more Doctors than anyone else, and you can’t even say with any confidence that he’s on his final one as showrunner… Having crossed confidentially onto his second Doctor and nearing the end of his second major companion, it’s not clear Who will go down as Moffat’s ‘definitive’ Doctor. And that joyfully creative mess sets out a simple stall…

Thanks for all the fish

Douglas Adams was surely Graham Williams’ ideal ally…

Moffat’s remarked on his regard for one time script editor Douglas Adams, not just for his small but extraordinary body of personal work (who doesn’t?), but for the legendary writer’s rather more divisive tenure on Doctor Who. In the mid-1970s, Adams had made a living out from writing comedy for radio, even forming a writing partnership with Monty Python’s Graham Chapman and being only one of two people outside the troupe to gain a writing credit on a sketch for the Flying Circus. Not fully on board with the likes of deadlines and delivery, it’s still surprising that he took the script editing seat for Season 17 in 1979 alongside producer Graham Williams. It didn’t help that the laws of the universe ensured that his little radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was commissioned for broadcast at the same time. Still, for the producer unlucky to follow Philip Hinchcliffe, tasked with fencing the show off from the heavy criticism that met his predecessor while retaining the viewing figures, Adams was surely an ideal ally.

The result is one of Who’s real mixed bags. Sadly, having already contributed a mind-bogglingly budget-straining script to the show the year before, Adams generally takes the credit for the highs of that time, while the lows are rather unfairly brushed under Graham Williams’ production seat. Adam’s The Pirate Planet from Season 16 is seen as a doughty attempt push ambition onto a screen that can barely contain it, The City of Death (co-written by a strained Williams and Adams from David Fisher’s idea under the David Agnew pseudonym) is a beautiful mess of sharp scripting, superb casting, foreign location and hard science fiction that managed to claim the classic show’s highest ratings. Shada had the foresight to never complete its production and shot swiftly for mythical status.

The rest of season 17 retains a fair few detractors, although there remains a few ardent fans for that loose and difficult time before the strident science of script editor Christopher H. Bidmead swept in, while Tom Baker took an arbitrary approach to whether the material bored him of filled him with sizzling physical comedy. If you like your Who served as comedy this is the place to find it.

Don’t Blink

To paraphrase 10cc, it’s just a phase Who’s going through.

Continue reading “Doctor Who Series 9: Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Skaro and the End of the Acid Reign”

%d bloggers like this: