Russell T Davies

Doctor Who: Ten years ago and no time at all

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It’s hard to believe that today marks the tenth anniversary of the return of Doctor Who to television. On the one hand it seems no time at all since Christopher Eccleston was bounding around the Tardis control room, grabbing Billie Piper’s hand and urging her to run from the imminent danger of plastic mannequins; but on the other, it seems almost impossible to believe now that there was ever a time when the programme wasn’t actually on television, or that during the show’s 16 long years in the wilderness a whole generation grew up without the opportunity to get to bond with ‘their’ Doctor because there hadn’t been one.

ecclestoneAs the clock counted down to that first new episode of the 21st century at 7pm on Saturday, March 26 2005, I remember that my overriding emotion wasn’t one of expectation, excitement or exhilaration but rather one of anxiety, angst and apprehension. We’d been waiting for this moment for so long, what if it arrived and it turned out to be dreadful? Or perhaps even worse, what if the show was fine but also completely different from the show we remembered and loved from our own childhoods? There’s a reason why “May you get what you wish for” is another of those spot-on ancient Chinese curses.

Before that night I remember having been buoyed by the mostly-good omens. I had confidence in showrunner and lead writer Russell T Davies, who had already established himself as a unique, innovative voice in British drama with his hit series Queer as Folk on Channel 4 which contained scenes involving Doctor Who and a guest appearance from K9 that put Davies’ genuine Whovian credentials beyond doubt. He’d also helmed the more recent BBC mini-series Casanova on BBC Three, which I remember enjoying a lot and thinking that its little known star would have made a rather good Doctor himself if only he’d turned up in time before the part had been officially cast but who had sadly now missed his chance. Still, no complaints about Eccleston being given the role instead: not the sort of casting we’d expected perhaps, but getting a serious actor of his stature and ability to play the titular Time Lord was a statement of intent that had instantly raised the standing of the show as a whole among both TV executives and prospective viewers alike, since it declared in no uncertain terms: “This is a proper high profile BBC flagship drama, not a kid’s show.” Read the rest of this entry »

All I want from the new Doctor is . . . [Doctor Who, BBC One]

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I have, perhaps for the first time, the cold certainty that the show has taken a wrong turning and found itself in a cul-de-sac from which there seems no escape, only an inevitable and fast-approaching end.

I wrote that sentence in May 2013 at the end of my review for “The Name of the Doctor”, the last episode of season 7. I’d liked the episode well enough but had nonetheless come to the conclusion that Doctor Who urgently needed a major change in direction; and coincidentally just over a week later, series star Matt Smith announced that he was quitting the show.

capaldiI’m sure he never read my review (well, pretty sure…) and in any case the sentiment wasn’t anti-Smith by any means – indeed, I’ve always considered him an excellent actor well-cast in the role and who has taken the show to new heights. I’m actually very sorry to see him go; and yet at the same time excited, because it gives showrunner Steven Moffat the chance to effect the necessary changes to reverse out of that cul-de-sac in order to set a new direction and revitalise the show – because that sort of rejuvenation of the show itself is ultimately what a Doctor’s regeneration is all about.

At the same time the old saying “be careful what you wish for, it may come true” comes to mind. A new Doctor and a new direction for the show is all well and good, but will it be one that I actually like? As of time of writing, it’s almost exactly two weeks to go before Peter Capaldi’s first proper outing in the role hits the screens – although a lucky few select fans in Cardiff and London have already seen the first feature-length 80 minute story “Deep Breath” in special preview showings. So far the response has ranged from “enthusiastically positive” to “utterly rapturous” so the signs are very encouraging – even taking into account the self-selecting supportive nature of the audience. Actually, even the hardened press corps have been joining in with the upbeat assessments.

But perhaps I need to think this through for myself and decide what I think the show really needs at this point, and nail my own colours to the mast regarding what I would like to see from the show in the Capaldi era, and what I think needs changing from the Smith incumbency. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars (2009) [DVD]

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For no particular reason, this week I had the urge to revisit a four-year-old feature episode of Doctor Who from the end of the David Tennant era – perhaps it’s spurred by the idea that we will be seeing the actor back in the role in just a few day’s time .

I haven’t rewatched “The Waters of Mars” since its original transmission in November 2009. It was one of a number of hour-long episodes broadcast that year to bridge the gap caused by the programme’s regular production taking a long hiatus before Matt Smith took over the role. Whereas the other specials had all been tied to special occasions (Christmas, New Year, Easter) “The Waters of Mars” found itself rather awkwardly dropped into a random weekend in November (charitably you could speculate that they wanted to mark the 46th anniversary of the show with something new, but really it seems they just ran out of scheduling options.) Even more oddly it clearly has several of the trappings of a Christmas outing – more than “The End of Time” did, which finally filled the December 25 spot a few weeks later – indicating how fluid and messy the whole behind-the-scenes production of the specials ended up being in 2009.

As a result it was easy at the time to overlook “The Waters of Mars” as just a warm-up act for the much-anticipated final story and regeneration which captured all the attention coming just a few weeks later, followed by the massive hype and expectation surrounding the arrival of a new lead actor in the role in the spring. All of which may explain why I never got around to rewatching “The Waters of Mars” since it aired, despite the fact that even at the time it had been “the best of the 2009 specials” – not that this was frankly a ringing endorsement, the specials proving rather a disappointing finish to Tennant’s time in the role and only proving that the ongoing serial nature of the show and a regular companion are vital ingredients to the mix without which things can easily drift. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who – The Green Death SE (1973) (DVD)

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In the most recent Doctor Who review I posted, I wrote that I wasn’t a fan of ‘double-dip’ releases. And so the very next Doctor Who DVD I purchase is yet another example of buying a special edition reissue of a title that I already have in my collection: nothing if not inconsistent, me.

In my defence, I have good cause. “The Green Death” might not have the unique selling point of “Spearhead from Space” of being the only classic-era serial that’s possible to release on genuine high-resolution Blu-ray, but it does have a more personal USP as far as I’m concerned as this is the first Doctor Who story that I actually clearly remember watching as a kid. I also vividly recall “The Sea Devils”, but I suspect that’s from a subsequent repeat airing rather than its original 1972 broadcast. I’m sure I had watched episodes before but they’re just now jumbled fragments in my brain. Not so “The Green Death” however, with its vivid imagery (the eponymous emerald-hued fatalities and of course the infamous giant maggots) searing itself into my young mind in a way that proved unforgettable for a lifetime. It’s probably a large part of the reason why Jon Pertwee will always be “my” Doctor regardless of any factual merits of the case. In many ways, the clarity and general fondness I have for this story almost made me fearful to re-watch it again in case it didn’t live up to my expectations and golden memories.

Happily it truly doesn’t disappoint even 40 years later. It’s a fantastically well-paced story that doesn’t flag for a moment and only briefly relies on time-filling runarounds and Venusian Akido fight scenes. It’s a strangely, surreal and inimitable Doctor Who mix of monsters, existential horror, conspiracies, ecology, love and friendship – and even some laugh out loud broad comedy such as the sight of Jon Pertwee in drag successfully (!) passing himself off in disguise as a char lady, or Sgt Benton (John Levene) passing out deadly poison to the giant maggots with an ad-libbed “Here, kitty kitty kitty.” Many of the classic serials – even the six-parters like this – would struggle to fill out a modern hyperkinetic 40-minute episode, but “The Green Death” is an exception that feels as though compressing it into any shorter a running time would be a criminal offence. Read the rest of this entry »