doctor who

Dr Who S6/E3 – The Curse of the Black Spot

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Note: contains some spoilers

Well, this is embarrassing. I finished off my last review (of The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon two parter) by saying that my brain was broken and that all I wanted was a nice, simple straight-forward adventure to give my head a bit of a break, and that’s duly what this episode gives us. And … how unsatisfying does it feel? It’s as though, having feasted on full steak dinners for two weeks, we turn up this week to get a sub-sub-McDonalds burger at a motorway café.

In truth this episode was always up against it as far as I was concerned because of the subject matter. I’m just not a big pirates fan: the only film/TV show featuring pirates that’s ever worked for me to any degree was the original Pirates of the Caribbean movie (and not even, you’ll notice, the sequels) to which this week’s episode will always be inevitably (very unfairly) compared. That film succeeded because it really went for it and was as outrageous as Johnny Depp’s inspired creation of Jack Sparrow; but where Pirates was full-blooded, The Curse of the Black Spot was half-fat and semi-skimmed by comparison.

The fight sequences never had a chance of being motion picture quality of course, but even so they were peculiarly flat and sluggishly shot here. The tone of the show as a whole was also very uneven, with some of the pirate crew doing full-on pirate cliché performances while others looked like they hadn’t got the memo – and then there was Hugh Bonneville giving a serious, intelligent performance of dignity and gravitas that belonged in a far more high-minded production altogether. And considering the production team went to the trouble of decamping to Cornwall to shoot on an actual tall ship, it’s amazing how studio-bound this episode felt, with the on-deck sequences against a featureless black background feeling as artificial as the 1983 Classic Who serial Enlightenment: there’s no sense of genuine place or atmosphere, of the claustrophobia of such a ship.

There were some definite pluses to the episode: I thought the performances of the three leads delightful, with Matt Smith never embracing the weirdness and the fun of the Doctor as much as he did here in scene after scene, and in particular his moments captain-to-captain with Bonneville were a genuine delight (although his sudden cry of “urgh, alien bogies!” was very ill-advised and made him sound like the Play School version of the character); Rory continues to steal the show, not so much with dialogue or plot in this episode but with little moments of physical comedy improvisation from Arthur Darvill such as his little wave at the pirates before the titles crash in; and Karen Gillan got some lovely moments, from her fight scene to her interplay with Rory over his falling for the siren. Oh, and said siren was tremendously effectively realised – well acted (perhaps surprisingly) by Lily Cole and by turns beautiful, creepy and scary, a lovely bit of CGI work that was exactly the sort of FX that had previously looked so poor and cheap in season five but here looks the proverbial million dollars (note to media critics of the BBC: not actually spent a million dollars. Oh, no, definitely not. Heaven forbid.)

Lots of good ideas (seeing into another world through the mirror – very Lewis Carroll) and moments, then, but the whole thing just didn’t really gel together and felt very uneven. Where the script and direction needed to be light and playful, instead we could hear the gears crunching as it tried to move from one set-up to another, particularly when young Toby was introduced to impose an unnecessary and clichéd pathos onto Captain Avery’s character and then later (more understandably) as the show tried to abruptly transition from pirates, folklore and horror to science fiction on another dimension’s ship rather too late in the day to make it work, feeling tacked-on instead.

Most of all – a surprisingly large number of plot lapses to be found here, of ideas not fully worked through and a script that hasn’t been finessed nearly enough. Was Steven Moffat too wrapped up writing his own scripts to run full due diligence here? To name a few: how did Toby stay undiscovered on board such a small ship for so long? Why is the Doctor so quick to call time and abandon ship on his beloved Tardis? Why on earth should breaking a mirror destroy the possibility of reflections – arguably it just makes a thousand more reflective pieces (c.f. the aforementioned Enlightenment?) What happened to the Boatswain who apparently just disappears from the Armoury? Why are all of the pirate crew left on the space ship when at least a few of them suffered from nothing more serious than a paper cut? Toby we can understand, and an ending that saw Avery choose to stay behind with just his son would have had more impact that a group shot of pirates gathering around with nothing else to do other than look at the stars and tie up a loose end. It can’t be that once transported, everyone – no matter how serious the original injury – is unable to leave or else the Doctor and Amy would be similarly dependent on the place forever more, let alone Rory.

Talking of which, I really can’t work out exactly what the logic was behind Rory’s condition. If the alien medical technology had cleared the water from his lungs and resuscitated his heart and respiration, why should be suddenly go back to a drowned state once removed? It’s pretty useless medical technology in that case, and the alien creators of it should be ashamed of themselves for their lack of foresight. No wonder they were all wiped out by the common cold (and – a space faring race wiped out by earthly bugs? Not exactly well prepared, were they!) It would be petty of me to say that I was disappointed that the siren/Lily Cole didn’t get to have a holographic moment with a line like “Please state the nature of your medical emergency,” but I could have sworn that the alien sick bay stole a couple of sound FX cues from the original Star Trek.

Oh, and please – can they stop killing Rory (or some series regular) seemingly every week? Have we really got to the point where we can’t believe that it’s a high-stakes adventure unless and until one of the main cast are apparently offed? I’ve lost count now of how many death scenes Rory in particular has had. If ever he is written out this way, no one in the country is going to realise/get it/care until several weeks later after all these cry wolf moments.

Sadly, all the plot threads from the opening two-parter were thoroughly parked, despite some heavy-handed attempts to reference them to make sure people didn’t forget and to establish a “through-story/season arc” feel to things. But rather than advancing the story in any way, all of these (Rory and Amy discussing the Doctor’s first episode death and how they couldn’t tell him; the Doctor re-running Amy’s pregnancy test and still not getting a clear answer; the re-appearance of Eyepatch Woman peering at Amy through a shutter) were literal restagings of what we saw in the first two episodes and consequently add nothing, except to either confuse or frustrate depending upon your personal mood.

All in all it felt like a filler episode, which in a season as short as this one is inexcusable. Or perhaps, in view of the pirate subject matter, we should just say that this episode was merely “treading water”; presumably having just walked the plank.

Doctor Who S6 E2 – Day of the Moon

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NOTE: packed full of spoilers, and possibly traces of nuts.

Oh boy. Remember how, in my review of episode 1 of the new series of Doctor Who, I suggested that we might have a better chance of understanding what was going on in the season opener after we’d seen the second of the two parts? How sweetly naive and utterly wrong that hope turned out to be.

To put it simply: at some point during the 42 minutes of “Day of the Moon”, my brain broke. Not only did the episode totally and wilfully avoid answering any of the questions that part 1 threw up, it then plunged on and upped the ante with a series of further shock twists and revelations that left you questioning just about everything you were seeing.

Was the first episode shock of the Doctor’s shooting picked up and resolved? No. It wasn’t even mentioned once this time around. Do we learn who the little girl is? No. But we do find that she has a photograph of her with Amy, upping the likelihood that she’s Amy’s daughter after Amy blurted out that she was pregnant at the end of episode 1 … except that in an oddly belated off-hand follow-up, Amy says she’s not pregnant after all and it was just a side-effect of the Silents’ mind control leaving her with nausea (something we saw affect River as well, so it’s possible.) But then why is the Doctor running a pregnancy scan on her? And why is that scan oscillating between pregnant/not pregnant? Is that just what it does while calibrating and is teasing us by withholding the actual answer from us, or is it possible that she’s genuinely both in some way? Or is this just all too obvious for someone as fiendish as Steven Moffat?

The one thing the episode did do was wrap up the immediate story about the invasion (or rather, ongoing occupation) of the Earth by the Silents, through a very neat (if hard to keep up with) twist of broadcasting the aliens’ own commands over the most watched single piece of TV footage in history, hence enabling the population of Earth to be able to see and thus fight the Silents. Some people might grumble that this was a piece of technobabble deus ex machina sleight-of-hand, but in which case they need to watch again: all the pieces are so carefully and fastidiously put in place beforehand that it’s practically a text book example of how to write this sort of thing and not cheat the audience. But while it provides an immediate end to the current story, it does nothing to answer the bigger questions. The Silents, we learn, are parasites who have been steering human history in order to get us to build things they want – such as instigating the space race in order to get spacesuits. But why do they need the suits? Why put a little girl into one? What’s the overall plan? And what’s that leftover ship from “The Lodger” doing? (And yes, it was confirmed that it was the same sort of ship by the Doctor, who comments “I’ve seen one of these before, abandoned.”)

Some of the flaws in episode 1 were addressed and improved upon by the second part. The period feel I felt missing last week was handsomely delivered this time around. And the Silents were much more effective: for long stretches of the episode we don’t see them at all, but their presence is registered by flashing implanted voice mail indicators and by pen marks the characters draw on their arms and faces to mark a “sighting”; and it’s utterly chilling and jarring, when with no warning at all these indicators suddenly appear and we don’t know why, because … Well, we’ve forgotten, too. Suddenly the power and the threat and the sheer terror of the Silents is brought right home to us in a way it never was as a CGI alien in a suit.

Those voice mail capsules were a brilliant addition to proceedings, enabling Amy to speak to the Doctor and Rory after she’s abducted. Rory’s unswerving devotion to her – insisting on talking to her despite it being receive-only – is hugely affecting, and when he starts to believe that she’s declaring her love for the Doctor over the broadcast it’s also utterly heartbreaking, because Rory is such an appealing, rounded and sympathetic character. Far more so these days than Amy, who even after she returns and assures Rory that she was talking about him all the time, you still feel that she’s pulling a fast one somewhere along the line. With the Doctor eternally unknowable, and Amy not entirely trustworthy, Rory’s importance as our main point of audience identification is crucial and shows how vastly more than the “tin dog” add-on he is to the current triumvirate.

Alex Kingston as Dr River Song was magnificent again, from showing superb gun skills through to diving off the Empire State Building … and into the Tardis’ swimming pool (a 5s scene that managed to make me laugh while being simultaneously a riff off the start of “The Time of Angels” and a throwback to the start of “The Eleventh Hour”.) Her shooting down of the Silents may raise eyebrows from fans raised on the Russell T Davies era of the Doctor for whom guns were anathema, but looking at the wider history of the character you’ll see that’s a very 21st century affectation. And besides, River cheekily comments that she hoped her “old fella” didn’t see any of that … Is that one question answered at least – confirmation that River is indeed the Doctor’s wife? Possibly. There’s a lovely coda back at River’s prison where she suddenly locks lips with the Doctor and Matt Smith performs some inspired writhing as he tries to find someway out of this latest diabolical clinch … but the comedy then quickly turns to tragedy as the scene closes out on River commenting that this is “the last time” for them.

There are still flaws: the Nixon character completely collapsed from any credibility or closeness to the real person, although he did make for a funny “running joke” as he was wheeled out of the Tardis all over the place to establish the Doctor’s bone fides at key moments (what, the psychic notepaper no longer doing the trick?). And his final scene with Canton Delaware, in which Canton’s choice of life partner was revealed, was a wonderfully light touch scene that shows how to be both outrageously politically correct and in service of the story.

But really it was the sheer ferocious pace of everything coming at you that left you gasping and reeling. The pre-titles sequence this time had the Doctor a prisoner in Area 51 and all the companions chased down and killed by a seemingly turncoat Canton, the time having moved on three months since the cliffhanger at the end of episode 1 which was never really picked up again. At least there was no timey-wimey bumpy-wumpy timeline jumping this time around, but Moffat was instead having a grand old time playing around with linear story structure and it had a similar implosion effect on the average human mind. At times, all you wanted was a nice quite moment, a bit of exposition and explanation, a few questions answered. A nice scene in the Tardis with everyone on the couch drinking tea for 5 minutes to catch their breath, is it too much to ask for?

Instead what we got was a haunted orphanage that was straight out of gothic horror (they should just have called it Arkham Asylum; the only remaining person there was a Doctor Renfrew which is surely a knowing wink to the insane Renfield in Dracula) – scenes that were so impressively designed and shot, and so brilliant and scary, that you wished they’d make an entire episode about this one location rather than career in and out of it in ten minutes flat.

And then there was the end. Back to the little girl. If anyone had still laughably believed that they were just about clinging on to the narrative, then surely this final scene would have broken their resolve too, because surely no one saw this coming. What does it mean? How could it be? Who could it be?

What … the **** … is going ON?!

I’m hoping for some very light-hearted, no ties, question-free swashbuckling pirating action next week, I really am.

Doctor Who S6 E1 – The Impossible Astronaut

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NOTE: contains some mild spoilers, and possibly traces of nuts.

And so “the Doctor is in” once again. This time he’s hitting the ground running with the sort of big, bold, epic adventure normally reserved for season finales – including the shock moment in the first 10 minutes that would normally be the end-of-series cliffhanger par excellence, and yet here it’s merely the kicking off point and the start of things.

It’s not an episode you’re really going to understand, unless your name happens to be Steven Moffat. It’s too devious and intricate to ever let you think for one minute that you’ve got a firm grip on where its going or how it’s going to play out. In fact the best thing is to actually stop even trying to follow the plot at this time and instead just view it as a “mood piece”, where you sit back and enjoy the overall flow of it and the specific set-pieces and hope that the plot will come to you later on – after part 2, maybe. It’s certainly not the sort of easy-access starting point to the series that we may have expected given the show’s obvious efforts leading up to this season opener to really try making it big in the USA at long last.

A big problem in ‘breaking’ America is that the show, while expensive in UK terms, is on a pauper’s budget compared to US network productions. One of the biggest criticisms that people had of the previous season was that the widely publicised across-the-board BBC budget cuts had really hurt Doctor Who, with CGI not as good as previous years (Vampires of Venice) and other shows having to make do with a boutique guest cast of 5 or 6 where really it needed crowds of people to make it live up to the script’s vision (Hungry Earth).

Well, no budget problems in evidence in this season opener (perhaps thanks to a co-production deal with BBC America?) It’s hugely impressive, stunningly cinematic throughout and looks wonderful, right up there into proper movie territory, especially with the location shooting in Monument Valley and Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona adding a genuinely epic feel to the early scenes, as does the hiring of well-known US series actors (and real-life father and son) W Morgan Sheppard and Mark Sheppard in a key role (and yes, I do mean one role, that of temporary new companion Canton Everett Delaware III.)

The ensuing 40 minutes of action are non-stop, but not the story of melodramatic running about that most shows practice – every single scene has a vital role in progressing the story and the ideas forward. So you have breath-taking, show-stopping iconic scenes following one after the other: a giddy chase across history keeping up with the Doctor’s exploits; the arrival in Monument Valley and a picnic by Lake Powell; an Apollo astronaut in the middle of the desert; a shock shooting, and the death of a regular character; a Viking funeral; the Tardis in the White House; the creepy warehouse and the underground tunnels with that strangely familiar control room, and then the return and unmasking of that astronaut again. And above all, the new villains – the Silents, who are staggeringly creepy as little grey men incongruously dressed in “men in black” suits and ties: they only lack the shades. Their scenes in the White House (and in particular, in the rest room) are among the most gripping moments of the episode. All of this is hugely captivating and arresting, even if you don’t really have a clue what’s going on: but I suspect only adults will worry about whether the show is “understandable” while kids won’t think about it for a second as they’ll be too busy hiding behind the sofa or watching with their mouths open in wonder.

And then there’s the dialogue and the character interplay: I just love how the four regulars (the Doctor, Amy, Rory and River Song) play off each other, and their scenes together top any others in the show whatever the spectacle or the scare factor on offer. The main cast (Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and the wonderful Alex Kingston) are all on terrific form and really strong in their respective characters now. The team reacting to the Doctor’s surprise reappearance in the diner; later, the trio struggling to keep a vital secret from the Doctor (and his sulking about it); Amy’s revelation toward the end; Rory having to walk Canton through basic Tardis induction protocols; and in particular, River’s opening up to Rory as they search the tunnels are all genuine character highlights. There’s also a lovely character grace note where the Doctor reassures the new crew addition with “Brave heart, Canton!” immediately reconnecting us with the Peter Davison years.

However …

There are a few things that don’t quite come off. Stuart Milligan, playing President Nixon, is a good actor but he really isn’t anywhere close to a good-enough representation of America’s most notorious leader in any way. And while the Oval Office set is perfectly fine, there’s a lack of sense of genuine West Wing ‘atmosphere’ that belies the show’s British origins which fail to quite understand the nuances (one basic example being the Secret Service overlooking River Song’s firearm and never taking it away from her.) Plus, given that the show makes a big play about being a trip to Space: 1969, there’s actually an odd lack of period feel at this point too – although that might be rectified in part two.

Oddest of all, there’s a sense that Moffat – a hugely imaginative and ambitious writer – is strangely stuck on certain themes when it comes to his Doctor Who scripts. Once again we have a show that starts with a prison breakout by River Song; a series regular’s (apparent) definite-and-final death (they all died at one point last season); followed by a lot of tricksy jumping around and complex interweaving of timelines of the sort we’ve seen in several of Moffat’s previous scripts starting with his award-winning episodes The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink through to the S5 two-part finale last year, the Christmas special and still more recently the Children in Need special in March. Even the new villains are strangely familiar riffs on an old successful theme: where Blink‘s Weeping Angels could only move when someone wasn’t looking, here the Silents are able to erase themselves from memory as soon as someone looks away. It’s still working, it’s just that really it’s starting to get a little bit familiar and needs resting. Russell T Davies, for all his faults, never stayed still and was always trying something new and different – even if sometimes his approach failed or resulted in unfocused ADHD scripts, it couldn’t be faulted for always trying new directions week in and week out. Moffat is running the risk of overthinking things and finding himself stuck in a particular furrow, where Doctor Who should always be about unlimited possibilities and infinite alternatives week in and week out.

But right now, that’s carping. The Impossible Astronaut was a hugely successful and effective epic opener and one that makes you desperate to see part two right now and not have to wait for another seven days, and that’s always quite the best compliment you can pay to the show.

Three seasons of the Fifth Doctor

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This article previously appeared in the Who fan blog Cloister Bell as a guest post. Since that blog is no longer active, I’ve reproduced it here for completeness.

peterdavison-titlesWhen Peter Davison took over the role of Doctor Who in 1981, he was following the tenure (reign might be a better word) of Tom Baker, who had starred in the series longer than anyone else before or since. By contrast, Davison stayed for just under three seasons (at a time when a season was half the length it was under William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton) and became one of the shortest tenants of the famous police box.

Davison made his decision to leave at the end of his second season, disenchanted with the quality of the scripts and increasingly at odds with the producer John Nathan-Turner (JNT to one and all.) But it’s often reported that Davison took one look at the script and production of his final story, “The Caves of Androzani”, and declared that if he’d had more stories of this calibre then he would have had no hesitation in signing up for a third season. That’s understandable: “Androzani” was indeed one of the finest classic Doctor Who stories, not just of Davison’s era but of all time. But in the Davison retrospective documentary “Come In Number Five” provided as an extra to the special edition DVD of Resurrection of the Daleks in the Revisitations 2 boxset, Davison goes further than this and suggests that as a whole, his second season was a muddled disappointment and his third season saw the show back in top form – and it was this overall trend that made him eventually disappointed to have opted to leave when he did.

This … surprised me. Or to put it another way, I fundamentally disagree with his assessments of the relative strengths of his three seasons.

Let’s start on reasonably safe ground: the 1982 season that started with “Castrovalva”, Davison’s first full story in the title role, was a very strong season, carrying on from what had proved to be an even stronger final season for Tom Baker the previous year. The show seemed to have a renewed sense of purpose and confidence, and was making efforts to take itself seriously again after several years of lampooning around (“Horns of Nimon”) and dealing with sets so shoddily constructed that they collapsed underfoot (“Nightmare of Eden”). There were strong scripts with real science fiction (and science) ideas – where else could you find a show with an entire story constructed around the concept of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics and actually have it work?

Davison’s first series started with a visit to the Big Bang and a cheeky appropriation of MC Escher’s work for “Castrovalva”, while at the same time Davison wowed us with his takes on all the Doctor’s former personalities; then there was the somewhat average but solidly turned-out and enjoyable “Four to Doomsday” before one of the season’s highlights in “Kinda” – not well understood or received at the time but now regarded as one of the finest serials the show ever did. This was followed by a crowd-pleasing historical adventure with “The Visitation” taking the crew back to 1666 Pudding Lane and some brilliantly constructed new alien monsters called Terileptils. The show’s confidence showed through in the next story, a two-parter for the first time in nearly a decade and one that landed the Tardis crew back in 1925, doing away with any science fiction or alien monsters whatsoever. It proved to be the calm before the storm, before one of the show’s most stylish and effective serials – “Earthshock”. The shock return of the Cybermen and the death of a companion: anyone who was a fan of the show back then will have the final, music-less credit roll over a background picture of a crushed and broken gold star for mathematical excellence seared into their memories. It had been a fantastic run of episodes, and if the season finale “Time Flight” was a huge disappointment then it was a shame – but a one-off exception to the rule.

So was Davison’s second season (more accurately, season 20 of the show) such a decline and disappointment, so bad that it resulted in Davison deciding to quit? It certainly had one major problem in hindsight – the fact that it was the twentieth anniversary of the show’s launch in 1963, which led JNT to decide that every single story must have some sort of callback to the show’s past.

It started with “Arc of Infinity” – not perhaps the greatest of stories, but far better than “Time Flight”. Fans got excited about seeing renegade Time Lord Omega back again (he’d last been seen in the tenth anniversary special, “The Three Doctors”); the overseas location shooting in Amsterdam was a first and looked rather good, making even routine runaround chase scenes something special; and Peter Davison himself put in a fantastically haunting performance as a dying “fake” version of himself. Then there was “Snakedance”, a sequel to “Kinda” and the source of all those clips of a young Martin Clunes in funny costumes that they like to embarrass him with on clip shows. It’s not as strikingly original as “Kinda” but in many ways is a better fit for the Doctor Who universe, and better written. This was followed by “Mawdryn Undead”, which certainly suffered from a director who didn’t seem to know how to dim the studio floodlighting to create atmosphere, but on the other hand did feature the return of the wonderful Nicholas Courtney in his signature role of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, and also the delicious Valentine Dyall as the most evil being in the universe (the Black Guardian, returning in a trilogy of connected stories.) It had a clever time-stream jumping script, and while it rather lost its way and fell into mediocrity it certainly had its moments. “Terminus” showed ambition both in story and in set design (finally, a dark and dirty set with an atmosphere); and, erm, the lovely Sarah Sutton suddenly wearing a very short skirt and low cut top, but that’s not important right now. Next up there was “Enlightenment”, a show of such strikingly original ideas (eternals and ephemerals) and visuals (classic cutters using the solar system planets as marker buoys in a grand sailing race!) and superb cast (Keith Barron, Tony Caunter, Lynda Baron – just don’t mention Leee John) that the spirit of this serial seems to be making a comeback in the 2011 Matt Smith season with the third story “Curse of the Black Spot”. The script may sometimes have exceeded the reach of achievable FX at the time but this was still a magical story of the type only Doctor Who could ever do.

The season once again stumbled at the end with “The King’s Demons”, and sadly lost the story that was meant to be the big finish (featuring the Daleks – more of which in a minute) due to a BBC strike, but then there was the official 20th anniversary celebration “The Five Doctors” which went ahead despite having to recast the first Doctor (Richard Hurndall surprisingly good standing in for the late Hartnell) and having to work around a sulky Tom Baker who refused to return and had to be replaced with archive footage from the abandoned season 17 story “Shada”. (“Tom Baker, you should be ashamed of yourself!” says current series runner Steven Moffat in a recent interview about Baker’s refusal to appear. “”Every day of your life, you should regret the decision you took that day!” Of course, Moffat has his own reasons for looking back – he’s already planning the 50th anniversary special for 2013.)

Despite those compromises, and trying to fit in a galaxy of former Doctors and companions (most not able to be confirmed until the last minute) into a coherent plot was a small miracle of television production, and it’s hard not to look back at that second Davison season as overall being a success, if admittedly not of the same order as the first year. Why Davison should look back upon this group of stories and conclude despairingly that it was time to move on is difficult to fathom.

Now, let’s look at the third season, the one that Davison liked so much that it would have changed his mind about departing if it had come first.

It starts with “Warriors of the Deep”. It’s another show that badly needs some dark, moody, atmospheric direction to succeed – but instead gets some of the flattest floodlighting we’ve seen in the show. As a result, the show’s ‘monster moment’ features the series’ most derided creature, the Myrka. It looks like a two-man pantomime horse painted green and with some frills sown on: it’s utterly derisible. The story angered dedicated fans by riding roughshod over established series mythologies pertaining to the Silurians and the Sea Devils, and to the casual viewer is just dull and boring. Then there’s “The Awakening”, which isn’t bad and certainly looks good, allowing the BBC to play to its traditional strength of historical drama serials: but the story is rather confused, seemingly wanting to be some mishmash of Quatermass and Sapphire and Steel. It’s not bad, but it’s not particularly good either. After this the season moves on to “Frontios”, which has some very striking ideas and visuals – the shattered Tardis remnants littered around the place are truly unsettling. It’s let down somewhat by being very artificially studio-bound, and the story of the human colonists doesn’t really gell, but this week’s monsters – gravity slugs the Tractators – are remarkably effective and creepy. It’s not a story that will appeal to everyone, but on the whole this is one of the season’s hits, albeit flawed and “difficult”.

The next story should be a slam-dunk success – it’s the “Resurrection of the Daleks” delayed from the previous season, with added Davros. How could you screw this one up? Very easily it turns out. The direction and production design are all top-notch, but the writing for this story is appalling. The violence and body count is so high that at the end, when companion Tegan declares “It isn’t fun anymore, Doctor” and leaves, you’re with her every step of the way and feel like walking out with her. (A more detailed review of this story is available on the author’s own blog.) Then there’s “Planet of Fire”, which benefits from being this year’s “let’s take the production crew on holiday” story – set in the other-worldly volcanic landscape of Lanzarote in the days before it became an overly familiar top tourist destination. It looks great, but someone forgot to pack a story in their luggage: the script has to write out two companions (Turlough and the best-forgotten Kamelion), introduce another (Peri) and have the Master return. It’s overloaded by all this and implodes into indifference under the sun.

Then finally Peter Davison’s time is over, and we’re finishing up with “The Caves of Androzani” – a truly brilliant serial, one of the very best, no question. If Davison was still saying ‘I’d have stayed if they were all like “Androzani”‘ then we’d have no absolutely argument. But ‘if it had been like the third season’ – really? The dreadful “Warriors”, the confused “Awakening”, the difficult “Frontios”, the awful writing of “Resurrection”, the damp squib of “Planet of Fire” make this for me the start of another major slump in Doctor Who’s long history. Here the exception to the rule is “Androzani”, the jewel in the season’s crown, where before the exceptions have been the duds. The next season would see script writer Eric Saward get a Doctor more to his liking – the abrasive Sixth Doctor as played by Colin Baker – and we all know how disastrous that turned out to be.

I’ll take the second Davison season over the third any day: it might not have been as good as the first, it might have been self-indulgent with all those love notes to the series’ past, and it might have faltered and clung on by its fingertips at times, but it just about pulled it off and maintained the quality. By contrast, the third Davison season dropped the ball on multiple occasions (and Baker’s first season couldn’t even find the ball to start playing the game in the first place.)

It’s to Davison’s immense credit that despite being one of the shorter-serving actors in the title role – and at a time when the series was, to put it diplomatically, “struggling creatively” – both he and his portrayal of the Doctor are still very fondly regarded and seen as one of the best periods of the show. Indeed, in the DVD extra “Come In Number Five”, when documentary presenter David Tennant (who knows a thing or two about being a popular Time Lord) reiterates that for him, Peter Davison “was my Doctor” – not only is it heartfelt, he speaks for many of us when he does.

And as accolades and tributes go, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Doctor Who S21 E11/12 – Resurrection of the Daleks

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I was recently knocked offline for a week by a problem with my broadband: one of the upsides about not being distracted by any number of online or social media diversions was that it allowed me to spend some time with my ridiculously oversized DVD collection. After having watched the Doctor Who serial Kinda last month (and reviewed it), I followed it up with another Peter Davison adventure – his sole encounter the infamous Daleks.

Davison has a high opinion of this story and seems to regard it as one of the best of his tenure in the lead role. I honestly can’t understand why. If I was to pick out a script that is an example of an utterly dreadful piece of writing and which fails on just about every level required of it, it would be this story. The writer, Eric Saward (who was also the show’s script editor at the time) seems to have gathered together a few disparite threads – creepy policemen in industrial wastelands; a plot to kill, duplicate and replace key people; lots of deaths; Daleks; and, of course, Davros – and thrown them into the same episode in the presumption that this makes for a coherent story. It doesn’t. What we have is about four totally different storylines that individually barely hold together, but en masse don’t connect with each other and force totally unworkable overlaps and coincidences upon events. It doesn’t so much leave believability and credibility behind, as take them out round the back and shoot them point blank in the face. And then shoot them again ten times over for good measure.

Actually the amount of violence is often used as the main criticism of this story – more people die on screen (and brutally) than in any other Classic Who, and by the end the survivors are struggling to find space on the studio floor to walk on without tripping over all the killed-off extras. It even adds the “duplicates” thread so that the same actors can get killed once, cloned, and then promptly shot again just to add to the numbers. And even the Doctor gets in on the act, picking up guns and shooting things with a bloodlust that these days would never be permitted of the noble hero in NuWho. Personally I don’t actually have a problem with this aspect of the script: a story about the real cost and impact of bloody violence is a valid approach, and Tegan’s final speech about how she’s so sickened by the events – especially when an innocent bystander is killed because of her calling out to him for help – that “it isn’t fun any more” and understandably she wants to leave as a result makes this strand of the show actually effective and coherent.

It’s everything else that fails. Basically, things happen in this show because the script requires them to, not because of any internal logic. Where to start? Once a character has finished their purpose in the plot, someone just shoots them for no reason (why then and not half an hour earlier if they were so disposable?) Another character manages to activate a space station’s self-destruct mechanism despite having no idea how and no level of security access, just by poking at buttons at random for five minutes – because anything can be made to work by stabbing buttons long enough, right? The Daleks risk all to retrieve Davros, only to then decide an hour later than it’s rather troublesome and so they’d rather kill him. There’s a time tunnel between the space station and a warehouse in Earth because … because … Well, I couldn’t tell you. There’s some cylinders of a virus lethal to Daleks lying around in the warehouse for some reason, which you’d expect the Daleks to be wary about but instead they seem oblivious and happy to leave them with their enemies. One companion character (Turlough) is allowed to wonder the Dalek base at will: why? Even the Deputy Dalek asks the question, and all his Dalek Supreme can say is “leave him, he’s bait to reel in the Doctor”. Really? At least stick him in a cell if you want him to “act baity” rather than risk him running round and causing problems, surely? Oh – look at what he did. Caused problems and undermined your plans. Davros has some sort of secret weapon that brainwashes humans and Daleks alike to his cause … How? Where did it come from? When the Daleks finally trap the Doctor and take him to be duplicated, they leave him with a single human guard because all the other troopers and Daleks suddenly develop pressing business elsewhere and pile out of the room. Well, it’s not like the Doctor is going to be able to escape LIKE EVERY OTHER TIME THE DALEKS HAVE HAD HIM IN THIS POSITION now is it?!?

Arrrrghhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!

Seriously, this is plotting of the laziest and worst kind. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and ought to be truly ashamed of itself. And Saward can certainly do much better when he tries – he wrote Earthshock which is regarded as one of Classic Who’s all time best episodes (it’s also criticised by being all surface superficial ‘wow’ and nothing underneath; I disagree and find it eminently rewatchable and well written.) In fact, Resurrection was supposed to be the show that relaunched the Daleks in the same way that Earthshock rebooted the Cybermen – but here it really is all surface action bling and absolutely nothing underneath.

But let’s give the serial its due and admit where it gets things right: that surface bling is really very well done. There’s a high technical level of quality of production that is really hugely impressive, and while they’re rather over-used the scenes of exploding Daleks (and especially one Dalek pushed out of a high warehouse window) give a real thrill. One scene (shamelessly ripped off from the opening of Star Wars where the stormtroopers board the rebel freighter) includes a slight miscalculation in the pyrotechnics that resulted in the biggest explosion ever staged within BBC TV Centre – and a severe reprimand to the production team as a result never, ever to do that again. Looks great on screen, though.

The sets and costumes all look great and are well-lit and well-designed, save for an over-prevalence of ‘Dalek bumps’ everywhere and some lamentably designed trooper helmets with stubby protuberances at the front that can’t help but make it look like they and the Daleks are in some sort of phallic “mine is bigger than yours” contest. The dilapidated locations (in the Shad Thames area next to Tower Bridge that is now fully renovated and the home of the Design Museum) are wonderfully chosen and suitably atmospheric. The guest cast includes some top talent (Maurice Colbourne, Del Henney, Rula Lenska, Philip McGough, Terry Molloy taking over as Davros, a first big role for Leslie Grantham pre-EastEnders stardom, and … err, Rodney Bewes) and is also impressively multi-ethnic for a production of this vintage, something Doctor Who had been very bad about in its recent past. And all that cast is putting in reliable, top-notch performances and believing in what they’re doing, in a way that so many other Doctor Who stories that followed never managed, which is amazing considering what the script gives them to work with (which is nothing.)

And a special word for the direction of Matthew Robinson (who moved on to EastEnders and remembered Grantham from this production.) He provides a kinetic, fast moving style to the show which at times comes close to being confusing and irritating, until you realise that he’s (a) having to chop around so much because that’s what’s in the script, and (b) the style is papering over the gaping cracks in the story by keeping it hustling along and that consequently slowing down simply isn’t an option. I suspect it’s the energy and visual flair of Robinson that so appealed to Davison and made this one of his favourite serials – he also highly rates The Caves of Androzani which was the product of the show’s other auteur director of the 80s, the delightful Graeme Harper.

But really, if you want to see how important and fundamental the script is to a show, then watch this for an example of how it can go catastrophically wrong. That this should be the work of the same person who wrote Earthshock is bad enough, but that he should be the show’s script editor as well for Heaven’s sake explains why the show went so disastrously off the rails soon after, when Saward finally got a Sixth Doctor more to his liking than ‘wet vet’ Davison but found that absolutely no one else liked his vision of the character or stories that he lumbered Colin Baker with. It really wasn’t Colin’s fault: he could only ever play the part and say the words that Saward put in front of him.

As for the DVD: wonderfully restored as ever and with the usual great selection of extras. There’s a great commentary track featuring Davison, Robinson and Janet Fielding (Tegan) well worth a listen, and the ever-interesting information subtitles. A new Special Edition has also just been released as part of the Revisitions 2 boxset which includes a second commentary from Saward, Molloy and FX man Peter Wragg, moderated by NuWho Dalek operator Nicholas Pegg; there’s also an hour-long documentary retrospective on the Davison years presented by David Tennant which heaps a lot of blame for the series’ problems at this time at the door of producer John-Nathan Turner. The documentary ends with a clip from the Children in Need Time Crash special in which Doctors Five and Ten meet, and then back to presenter Tennant donning the distinctive coat of the Fifth Doctor. It’s an odd moment: Who cognoscenti will be wondering whether Davison knew that his successor and de facto son-in-law and father of his granddaughter Olive had been rifling through his wardrobe at home that morning after breakfast before heading out … ! The extras, as ever, make even the weakest classic Doctor Who serials a must-buy on DVD for any reasonably dedicated fan.

The aforementioned documentary also inspired the writing of a related blog post for Doctor Who blog Cloister Bell comparing and contrasting Peter Davison’s time in the Tardis. Since that blog no longer exists, the “Three seasons of the Fifth Doctor” has now been reproduced here on Taking The Short View.

Doctor Who S19 E9-12 – Kinda

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Kinda is one of the original Doctor Who serials to be very well regarded – indeed, its stock has risen considerably in the intervening years since its first airing in 1982. Coming at a point of a major renaissance of the show following the departure of Tom Baker and the arrival of Peter Davison in the title role, it mixes themes of colonialism with some very deep Buddhist teachings and is very unlike most Doctor Who serials of its age – although in another sense it was following on from a pattern laid down in the previous season of the series with Warrior’s Gate in having one surreal, abstract story in among the more normal alien invasion/science fiction/pseudo-historical fare.

Children who watched it at the time would have been fairly lost by the highly philosophical concepts and disappointed by the lack of any action, fights, guns or even a clear bad guy. The dominant figure is that of security officer Hindle, played by subsequent The Bill regular Simon Rouse, and I remember as a child being perplexed and rather put off by his erratic, hysterical behaviour. In fact, if truth be told, I found the way he was reduced to an infantile state as the serial progressed to be profoundly unsettling without really understanding why; instead, I dismissed it as “I don’t like it.” Being older and marginally wiser now, watching Rouse’s performance as the mentally disintegrating Hindle left me gob-smacked and deeply in awe as one of the more honest, accurate and raw portrayals of a man having a complete nervous breakdown that I can remember seeing on television – which makes it still as profoundly unsettling as it was when I was a kid, although at least now I understand why. How Rouse then ended up stuck in a police soap for 20 years is a mystery and a waste.

The strength of this serial is in the stunningly big name supporting cast: as well as Rouse, there’s also Richard Todd – yes, the star of Hollywood films and The Dam Busters; Nerys Hughes, who was one of the biggest TV stars around at the time; and also the brilliant Mary Morris as an old, blind wise woman. All of them are excellent and well suited to the characters, and by no means evidence of the “stunt casting” which became tiresomely routine in later years. The DVD also reveals another future star is in the show: one of the child extras brought in during the third episode is a seven-year-old Jonny Lee Miller.

Watching the story with the optional information subtitles, it was fascinating to read just how much at odds the writer (Christopher Bailey) and director (series stalwart Peter Grimwade) were in their vision for the story – Grimwade was trying to wrestle it into a more ‘normal’ Who structure while Bailey found this to be undermining and dumbing down the story’s point. Bailey shouldn’t take it personally, as Grimwade was apparently falling out with everyone – Davison describes the on-set atmosphere as somewhere between mutinous and homicidal toward the end. In fact this is one of the occasions when the friction probably proved a creative advantage and the eventual balance achieved is for the best, because in its ‘pure’ state Bailey’s script had some big problems, not least the fact that no one seemed to have told him that Tom Baker was no longer the Doctor, or that there were three companions to write for. One has to be parked back “asleep” in the Tardis for the whole story, another hardly appears for one episode, and only the oft-derided Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) has a constant presence. Instead, the Doctor takes up with colonial scientist Todd (Hughes’ character) as his main companion figure, seemingly to allow for the chance of a spark of romantic interest. As a whole, it all feels very unlike a Who story with the Doctor almost shoe-horned in as an observer into a stand-alone tale, which may be a weakness for some viewers but it allows the story and the guest characters to really blossom into a full-realised, realistic and fascinating environment.

It’s not a perfect story: Adrian Mills (yes, him off of That’s Life) is weak in a key role; instead, series regular Janet Fielding is only allowed a couple of scenes as the “possessed” Tegan when her evil persona could and should have been the outright star of the show (her scenes in the surreal black “wherever” with another The Bill longtime regular Jeffrey Stewart are eerie and brilliant). The show is also totally studio-bound despite being set in a forest paradise with all the problems that implies; although actually I have a weakness for a good studio artificial forest set no matter how fake it looks, as I find the “unreality” works better for an alien world than going on location in a familiar English countryside, garden or the inevitable quarry setting.

But the biggest problem with the original serial was the FX of a giant snake at the climax, which looked like an inflatable bouncy castle and totally shattered any suspension of disbelief even for kids of the day. On the commentary track (which features Davison, Fielding, Waterhouse and Hughes) all four actors deride the bouncy snake and petition for the DVD creators to create new CGI FX for the sequence, which has subsequently been done. It’s one of the most effective bits of retro-FX work I’ve seen, and almost certainly the new CGI snake would have been too realistic and traumatic for the target audience at the time: it’s really quite startlingly chilling and a world away from bouncy castles. The commentary track as a whole is a delight and is the closest thing you’ll get to sitting down to watch a programme with a bunch of well-informed friends as you could hope to get, with all four participants getting on really well – even Matthew Waterhouse, who still sometimes comes over as being as potentially weird and sulky as his on-screen character Adric from 30 years ago. He takes the inevitable ribbing from the others good-naturedly when the old anecdote is trotted out about how he offered to ‘tutor” movie legend Richard Todd in the art of TV acting with all the benefit of his two years experience on the small screen.

But let’s finish off with some words of praise: first for Peter Howell, who despite working with very dated synthesiser sounds for much of the background music, does come up with some stunning sound design for windchimes, the “shriek” of the Mara, and the disturbing soundscape of the black “wherever” which Howell himself feared could be too much for children to handle. (Naturally, we loved it). And the story contains one of the most iconic visual shots I remember from the show – a zoom into the eye of Fielding’s character Tegan and into her black subconscious in one ‘take’ thanks to the loan to the show of then-revolutionary Quantel video effects equipment. It’s still a brilliant moment, augmented with another great bit of sound design from Howell as well.

Kinda has just been released on DVD as part of the Mara Tales boxset with Snakedance, the sequel to this story which is not quite as good and has less originality, but the two make a perfect pairing and one of the series’ stronger boxset offerings and well worth purchasing, with some excellent-as-ever special features. The video restoration for Kinda is once again outstanding, with the first two episodes given a depth and vibrancy of colour and contrast that makes it look far better than I remember it from the original broadcast (although for some reason the picture goes softer and flater in episode three.)