Monday, 13 November 2017

Under the Lake / Before the Flood

Chapter The 70th, which pulls itself up by its own bootstrap paradoxes.

Plot: 
The Doctor and Clara arrive at a sub-aquatic mining facility in the twenty-second century based in a flooded Scottish village. The crew have recently found a mysterious alien artifact - which turns out to be a space hearse - and opened it up (as you don't). Since then, they've seen ghosts, and one by one they are being turned into ghosts themselves. A warrior creature called the Fisher King (but not the Fisher King presumably as this one only arrives on Earth in 1980 long after the mythology of our Fisher King has been established, so the name's just a coincidence) faked his own death and came in the hearse to the village before it flooded, and the ghosts are part of a convoluted intergalactic transmission mechanism to alert his own people of his whereabouts. The technology used is very advanced, so you'd think the Fisher Subjects or Fisher King people or Fisher Kingarians or whatever could have just invented an intergalactic transmission mechanism that ran on electricity rather than build in the risk and tedium of having to kill someone and then get their ghost to kill someone else and so on. Anyway, basically a haunted house story in space, except not in space.

Context:
Watched both episodes on the same day (with a short gap in between parts one and two) on blu-ray with middle child (boy of 8). He hadn't been allowed to watch this two years ago, as we thought it was too scary for him; but watching it this time, he could remember details, and confessed he'd sneaked down and watched a lot of the first episode through the living room door in the evening. But mine and the Better Half's original instincts were probably right, as this time he decided it was too tense for him and stopped watching about twenty minutes before the end of episode 2; it's good that the children are now generally all old enough (including the youngest, his sister, at 5 years old) to self-select, and aren't too disappointed to bail out and miss the end if they're finding it a bit too much.


First-time round: 
This is one of the few stories so far to come up randomly for coverage that was aired after the blog began. If I were organised and forward-thinking, you'd imagine I'd have started from those days in 2015 noting down the circumstances of watching any new episodes, for better completing these 'First-time round' sections in years to come. Reader, I am not that organised and forward-thinking. I know for series 9 we were watching each new episode timeshifted in the evening of its BBC1 Saturday broadcast for suitability, and then showing the kids for the first time the following day if it was deemed acceptable (unless they were sneaking a peek at it from outside the door, of course).

Reaction:
One thing I was doing around the time of the broadcast of this story was blogging about its predecessor (see here). I can't help feeling these two episodes would have been a better pair with which to lead the season. Often in its long history, Doctor Who production teams didn't kick off with an all-singing all-dancing extravaganza: a 'jumping-on point' story was all that was felt to be required - no baggage, the TARDIS team just arriving and getting on with it, as the Doctor and Clara do here. The Magician's Apprentice was nothing but baggage, with reams of Time Lord and Dalek history, and a lot of false spectacle imposed, as it was the opener, on a story which at heart was a quiet chamber piece. "How can these ghosts exist?" would surely have been a better intrigue to put into the audience's minds than "What on Skaro is going on?". It would also have made Under the Lake / Before the Flood feel less of a slog. Watched in isolation, this story zips along much quicker than it seemed back in 2015 when it followed hard on a similarly paced story. Having two double-episoders in a row was something the series had never done before since returning in 2005, and it's easy to see why.

I'm warming to this idea more and more: bringing this story up front would work better with the character development. Ephemera like the guitar and sunglasses aside, the Doctor prowling the corridors of the Drum is the previous year's version - a little callous, focused more on the end goal than individuals' feelings, and not good with people (hence requiring cue cards featured in an early  funny gag). Clara too is still grieving over Danny, though she's using her travels with the Doctor as an escape, as highlighted by some subtle performance touches that I missed first time round when I was less engaged. This has a direct input into the resolution of the romantic subplot - seize the day before your beloved gets deaded, and so forth - which works very well.

There might be evidence in places of a writer who's not Steven Moffat trying too hard to do a Steven Moffat style story (The Girl Who Waited is another earlier example of this phenomenon): there's lots of timey-wimey for one's money - not just characters popping back in time to get explanations of the mystery, but also then popping back again and crossing into their own timestream, weaving in between the earlier scenes. Writer Toby Whithouse takes it up another notch, though, with the material on the paradox that we later find has driven the plot; this is delivered as a cold opening monologue by the Doctor, before episode 2 begins. There's never been anything like it in Doctor Who before or since (even William Hartnell and Tom Baker's breaking of the fourth wall was only for  brief comic moments, and Capaldi does one of those later in this story as well - witness the shameless knowing shrug he gives at the end which cannot be aimed at anyone except the audience). The show as a whole is riddled with 'meta' gags as the Doctor and the crew are all geek-aware enough to appreciate they are in a Cabin in the Woods style horror story.

Other good stuff: a great cliffhanger; the abandoned cold-war military training village is an original and visually interesting location, but there's no explanation as to why it is abandoned in 1980 with the cold war far from over; whatever the explanation is, it's also presumably the reason why no one ever fixes the dam and reclaims the flooded area, so it might have been worth making it explicit with a line or two. There are some sublime moments of tension throughout (probably the reason why our middle child found it a bit too much), and it's great to have a deaf actor cast as a deaf character, and just have them be part of the action rather than having to make anything more of it.

Connectivity: 
Both stories mention UNIT and the Doctor's status as a representative of that organisation; they also  feature the application of conductive solutions to trap the week's nasty or nasties (the Doctor's lash-up that encircles the Keller Machine in The Mind of Evil, the Faraday cage in Under The Lake / Before the Flood).

Deeper Thoughts:
A cross word or two, or some other cryptic nonsense. Coming late to the party, as ever, I realise I've missed a scandal in the world of Doctor Who Magazine. Recently, Private Eye ran a story throwing light on the change of editorship a few months back at my favourite programme's official magazine; the last editor, Tom Spilsbury - at least according to said article - may not have left entirely of his own choosing. On a few occasions over the last year, there had been outspoken comments in interviews in the mag (about Trump and Brexit and all the other stuff that everyone is outspoken about one way or another). Seems that this made compliance teams in the BBC nervous, and the DWM editorial team at the time were taken to task, possibly leading to Tom's exit. The article then goes on to describe subsequent budget cuts, which have meant that some regular articles are being canned, including The Watcher's humorous back page of every issue. It also outs the person who writes under the Watcher nom de plume, and if correct then it's who I always suspected it was, but it's not my intention to unmask them here. Culling good regular features, though, and timidity about the irreverent approach DWM has always taken, is obviously worrying - DWM has always previously had more independence than one might expect in an official licensed product, but it has felt a bit dull of late.

(Sorry, this doesn't have much to do with Under the Lake / Before the Flood, but that story doesn't really inspire much in the way of Deeper Thoughts - what am I going to write about: Slipknot?) Anyway, the Watcher, just about to have his outlet taken away from him, decided to comment on this state of affairs (particularly galling as he was in the middle of a long running feature called A History of Doctor Who in 100 objects, which will have to stop at number 87). Reading the final entry in this series, I was none the wiser, despite a few oblique references I'd seen on social media to its being controversial, but Private Eye spelt it out. Each beginning letter of a sentence in the article formed an acrostic, which was a very very rude message aimed at BBC Worldwide and the magazines publisher, Panini. He must have been incandescent with anger to have burnt his bridges in such a public way. A bit unprofessional, perhaps, but I can't say the whole thing wasn't compelling to me in a gossipy way. Right now I'm sticking with the magazine, but I don't want a bland cheerleading fact-sheet, I want my old, funny DWM back; but, it might not be the sort of world any more where the tie-in mag for a children's show aired by a major broadcaster can afford to be sly and naughty sometimes. Drabness and conformity encroaches, alas.


Observant readers may have spotted (go me!) that the first letter of each sentence in this silliness forms an acrostic too; it spells out "Acrostics Are Hard". Oh, except for that last sentence just now where I explained my own cleverness, which spoilt the effect somewhat. Perhaps I should stop now, as the sentence that followed that sentence also spoilt the effect, and this one too. Stopping now.

In Summary:
If only this story wasn't any good, I could say "it's a bit wet' or "a damp squib" but it has to go and be competently above average: there are no watery puns for competently above average.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Mind of Evil

Chapter The 69th, which is miraculously in colour throughout.

Plot: 
Lots is happening simultaneously: a) the Doctor and Jo are visiting Stangmoor Prison for a demonstration of a new - and clearly evil - convict rehabilitation device that sucks all the criminal impulses from the inmates; b) the Brig is handling security for a London-hosted world peace conference; c) Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton are managing the convoy to take a dangerous missile off for decommissioning. Finally, d) the Master is planning to use (a) to capture (c) and use it to threaten (b). He doesn't pull it off, but along the way he does manage a prison riot and makes everyone hallucinate a pink dragon. Just an average day then for the men and women of UNIT: action, adventure, mind parasites. So, why not try out for a career in the army? Talk to a recruiter today, etc. etc.

Context:
The Mind of Evil is a rare treat in that, while it may not be spectacular (unlike the same writer's script from the previous year, Inferno, it doesn't exactly set the world alight - ho ho), it is nonetheless competently put together and entertaining throughout, and crucially - for this viewer, at least - has not been watched so regularly that it's become over-familiar. It's the equivalent of, say, Baby You're a Rich Man by The Beatles. She Loves You is more popular, and Strawberry Fields Forever is more interesting, but I've heard them each a hundred times, just as I've often seen, say, The Ark in Space or Kinda. But Baby You're a Rich man, a B-side slapped on a compilation, or The Mind of Evil - six episodes of previously black and white mid-season Pertwee - still have the quality of freshness. And this is even more so for the latter now that it has colour returned to it (more on that later). Because of this, and because it's six episodes, which the kids and the Better Half usually think is too much, I saved this for myself and watched the first few episodes from the DVD on my own. But everyone else popped in and watched later sections of it here and there, the Better Half and middle child (boy of 8) particularly enjoying what they saw.

First-time round: 
I first saw this story when it came out on VHS in May of 1998. It must have been around a bank holiday (probably Whitsun) as I remember not having anything else to do that day but watch two and a half hours of black and white seventies TV with my university mate Phil, who's been mentioned a few times before on the blog, and who by this time was living down South too a few years after we'd graduated, a short time after he'd finished his PhD. Because they were cheap, I bought a big box of Boddingtons Bitter for us to consume while watching, and because of this I always associate The Mind of Evil with the distinctive yellow cans and bloated feeling. Phil, a proud Yorkshireman, must have put aside prejudice for the sake of thirst in order to drink a Lancastrian brew for a day. This instigated a few years of our meeting up regularly for alcohol-fuelled Doctor Who and film evenings whenever a new DVD came out. Happy days. Happy bleary days.

Reaction:
The Mind of Evil is the story that seems to create single-handedly the impression that many people held and still hold that Jon Pertwee's is the James Bond influenced era of Doctor Who. Nothing of his before or after this, despite many a stunt or vehicular chase, is particularly Bondesque. Up to now, Pertwee's era has shared more ancestry with Quatermass, which I think is in many ways the antithesis of Ian Fleming's famous creation, despite them both being products of the 1950s. But the Master here, in his cigar chomping, wire-tapping saloon-car chauffeured, high-concept international scheming, is very much the Bond villain; there's also a femme fatale, and gadgets and explosions aplenty. The Chinese characters add some international mystique, but there's not much in the way of globe-trotting to glamorous locales (the furthest they get is a hanger on a deserted airfield near Stanham). But just like a Bond film, there's a lot happening to keep the audience from stopping to think how silly it is.

The Master never likes a straightforward plan, that became very obvious early on in my random shuffling adventures when I stumbled across any Master story for the blog. Here, though, he has two relatively (at least for him) sane plots, but he's clearly decided to do both at the same time to liven things up a bit. The first plan is to hijack a missile to threaten a peace conference and thereby take over the world; the second is to use a nasty alien disguised as a machine to infiltrate a prison and then, well, take over a prison. Why does he want to take over a prison as well as the whole world? It's not clear. It may be to use the prisoners as guns for hire, which he indeed does. Though, there's got to be risks there that his workforce will scarper; the Better Half kept shouting at the screen comments along the lines of "They've escaped from prison, why are they going back in to prison?!" and she has a point. Anyway, the Master has already hired a separate band of disguised mercenaries, so he doesn't need the prisoners. Pulling on this thread only leads one to the terrible conclusion that the Master doesn't need the Keller machine alien at all. He only needs the missile to achieve his goals, and he gets that using old-fashioned bugging not parasitic mind control. He seems only to have included a monster as he knows its expected.

One would want to rewrite to make sense of things better rather than get rid of the Keller machine from the story, of course - it's a wonderful creation, and shows that clever direction can get malevolence out of even the most static prop; the throbbing radiophonia that accompanies it is magnificent too. The script risks the machine's overuse, perhaps: many cliffhangers and interim climax scenes revolve around someone collapsing as it vision-mixes in their greatest fears (including a dragon for the US ambassador - sure it might be a metaphorical symbol of his fear of communism, but it does look like he's got a morbid fear of cardboard dragons, which is odd to say the least), but they just about get away with it.

Dover Castle is a good location for the prison exteriors, and the interior sets are good too; it gets noisy when all the inmates shout as they're affected by the machine, but it's very real. The cast is populated with believable characters played by believable character actors: Michael Sheard, Neil McCarthy and William Marlowe are all excellent doing their audition pieces for coming back in bigger roles in the Tom Baker era. The material's taken seriously, individual deaths are given weight, and the verisimilitude of details like the reading of rights to the inmate condemned to the machine treatment works to give it heft and import. The regulars all shine with lots of stuff to do, and there's only the smallest bits of smug Pertwee behaviour here and there. Jo is great, one story in: compassionate, solid and competent, and not doing idiot moves just to serve the plot. Like many a companion, she was only as good as whoever was writing for her that week.

Connectivity: 
Both The Mind of Evil and Robot are crash-bang-wallop UNIT extravaganzas; both feature as antagonists a group of people with a mechanical device that nonetheless has a mind of its own, who - though they have an ostensibly noble purpose - want to use it to hold the world to ransom. Plus, in both stories, one of the UNIT team does some intelligence work, but gets knocked out.

Deeper Thoughts:
I'm fairly sure that's Chroma. Yes, watching The Mind of Evil could be a prompt for an in-depth treatise on crime and punishment, and musings on whether justice can ever be obtained in a world of conflict. But I'm instead going to muse about Doctor Who on VHS and DVD. Again. The story's script anyway uses those lofty themes only as window dressing, it's not deep; that it, and all the Jon Pertwee stories, are available to view in colour is much more interesting. When I first became a Doctor Who obsessive and was reading Doctor Who Magazine in the early 1980s, it coincided with the news stories about the final lost Pertwee episodes turning up. Unlike his two predecessors, who still had dozens of episodes left to find at that point, and have only slightly less missing now, Pertwee was complete. Sort of. Though his era was represented with moving image from beginning to end, a lot of those images were still missing one key ingredient: colour. The majority of the Doctor Who episodes that have ever been recovered exist because copies were sold abroad, and black-and-white film was a much more portable and compatible medium to the foreign TV stations in the early 1970s, when those sales were made, than was either colour VT or colour film.

There were as such several greyscale gaps in the Third Doctor's spectrum, and that's how it stayed for a decade. These were, in transmission order, as follows: all of Doctor Who and the Silurians, most of The Ambassadors of Death, all of The Mind of Evil, most of The Daemons, and one episode each of Planet of the Daleks and Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Now, even back then there were artificial colourisation techniques that vandals inflicted on old Hollywood movies never intended to be seen in colour. These were expensive processes, though, and out of the budget of BBC Video. But, a lot of people working at the BBC or in video technology are clever nerds who like Doctor Who, so it wasn't so long before new technology and techniques were being developed. The first breakthrough occurred with The Daemons. It involved taking an inferior colour video recording and merging it with the black-and white film, to produce a broadcast standard version. This was then subsequently applied successfully to Doctor and The Silurians, and bits of The Ambassadors of Death. The colour recording of the latter story didn't cover everything, so when it was released on VHS in 2002 (late on in the range's life, as the team working on restoring on the releases were probably holding out to see if they could somehow improve things), the picture went in and out of colour like The Wizard of Oz or my consciousness after too many cans of Boddingtons.

There wasn't any significant amount of recorded colour material from the missing bits of any of the other three stories, so the process could not be applied to them. Mind of Evil, as we have seen, was released on VHS in black and white, and the other two stories as a mixture. This was also the case for Planet of the Daleks when it was repeated on BBC1 in 1993 as part of the 30th anniversary celebrations: episode 3 was broadcast in black-and-white with a brief explanation beforehand, which seems amazing now. In time for its DVD release, though, another technological marvel had come about, indistinguishable (at least to me) from magic: they could pull the colour information out of the black and white film. Shazam!

It turns out, when the original monochrome film recordings were made, if the technician didn't do it quite properly, some slight interference was introduced, and burnt into the film forever. These are 'chroma dots'. And using some serious computer data crunching, and lots of remedial picture work afterwards, the clever nerds could derive and re-add the correct colour from these patterns. Isn't that cool? Planet of the Daleks was already planned for release with an artificially colourised part 3 (the technology had got cheaper by then, but it was still only possible due to the dollar exchange rate being favourable enough at the time to employ a US firm). In the end, the results of the chroma dot process were merged with the colourised version, and the result is near indistinguishable from the real thing. Invasion of the Dinosaurs episode 1 just had the chroma dot process applied and was less successful, but perfectly watchable. And Ambassadors of Death finally had its gaps filled in with the magic crayons of applied maths.

That left The Mind of Evil, which many had assumed would never ever get a colour release. With six whole episodes, it was a mammoth undertaking. Additionally, the first episode had no chroma dots - the technician had for once done his job properly. But colourisation was by then possible for an individual with the right kit and some more clever techniques (in this case, it was the supremely talented Stuart Humphryes - check out his youtube channel, he posts as Babelcolour). This meant that colour could be added to episode 1, while the chroma dot method was used to complete the remaining episodes. The DVD finally came out in June of 2013, Doctor Who's anniversary year. I love that it exists as a celebration of the cleverness and hard work of the artists and technicians that worked on it, and the sheer dumb prosaic happenstance of a no-doubt overworked guy in the 1960s not flipping the right switch on his console when making some recordings of that kid's science fiction programme. It seems like a perfect metaphor for all the ingredients, good and not so good, that make Doctor Who special.

In Summary:
Baby, You're a Rich Man with occasional slightly bloated feeling.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Robot

Chapter The 68th, where Tom debuts in a Pertwee story.

Plot: 
The Doctor, as played by Tom Baker, dons his long scarf for the first time, and assists UNIT in investigating a series of break-ins of top secret establishments; the new medical officer Surgeon Lieutenant Harry Sullivan I.A.I. tags along to keep tabs on him in case of any post-regeneration complications. Turns out it's a robot that's doing it. Sarah Jane Smith meanwhile is actually doing her journo day job for once, interviewing for a piece on a scientific think tank where they are working on a mysterious secret project. Turns out it's a robot. What are the chances? The think tank is a front for an authoritarian group who want to hold the world to ransom, and use the robot to get access to nuclear weapons. After the Doctor sorts that out, the robot grows to giant size because science, and goes on the rampage. Also, it fancies Sarah. After defeating it, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry go off adventuring in the TARDIS, which is as it should be, and produced much rejoicing by everyone (except for Nicholas Courtney's agent perhaps).


Context:
I viewed from the DVD an episode at a time occasionally over the course of approximately a week, and was accompanied by all the children (boys of 11 and 8, girl of 5) who were surprisingly excited to watch. Either he's at a cynical age right now, or he was eager to be mentioned on the blog, but my eldest was full of commentary. A selection, just from the first episode: "Why doesn't he run away?" "Who shoots at a robot?" "The dog's run away, dogs have more common sense" "Are UNIT pretty much useless?" and a long discussion with his brother about how you can definitely see weird faces in Baker's slit-scan time tunnel effect credits sequences.

First-time round: 
( (Junior) Doctor Who and the Giant) Robot is one of those stories that always seems to have been around, at least for me. I think this is because my school - and probably every primary school in the country at the time - had the novelisation in its library. This was in the late seventies / early eighties. In fact, the school library had at least two versions of the story. I was always intrigued by the Junior Doctor Who edition of the book, but I never read it as I had read the X-rated adult version first. I josh of course, the Junior books did not exist to protect children from the extremes of sex and violence that would otherwise have been featured in Terrance Dicks' prose, but instead were easy readers aimed at a slightly younger audience than were the usual novelisations. I always wondered how much they differed, was it a page 1 rewrite job, or did they just edit out words and passages. I hope Terrance got paid twice, anyway.

The first time I saw the episodes themselves was when they came out on VHS in January 1992. This was when I was in my first year of university in Durham. It was usual in those days to watch a new release in my friend Mike's room, but for some reason we watched this one in David's room instead (David is my long-term fan friend, mentioned many times before on this blog). It got a good crowd too, maybe because Tom Baker was a nostalgic draw for everyone. There was much hilarity - and embarrassment on my part - when the Action Man tank is pushed on in the foreground at the end of episode 3; it's fooling no one. There was then equal hilarity when the same scene was repeated in the recap at the start of episode 4. 

Reaction:
Tom Baker's debut story is an odd one, as it's resolutely a celebratory swansong for an old era (his predecessor's) rather that the start of a new one more tailored to him; the first proper Tom Baker Doctor Who story would be the next one, The Ark in Space. As has been pointed out by many commentators before, this serves for four episodes to persuade any waverers in the audience that they're watching the same show, settling people in before there are even more radical changes. Nobody would begrudge outgoing producer Barry Letts staging this send off either; the last time there was a change of producer, that person also hung around to do one for the new Doctor. But Derrick Sherwin's Spearhead from Space was more about laying the groundwork for the new - colour, UNIT, Earth, invasions - than celebrating the old, and all those aspects Derrick originated would categorise Letts' era up to and including Robot. The coincidence of the same location (Wood Norton Hall) being used for both Spearhead and Robot further cements them as 'bookends' of this period.

Robot is successful as one last walkabout in a comfy old pair of shoes before they fall apart, but it's no more than that. It's not the deepest or most expansive storyline, and has significant flaws; but it does feature a big robot shooting at stuff, and UNIT soldiers running about and throwing grenades. The all-video look, which obviously isn't as classy as Pertwee's all-film debut, nonetheless is consistent and the robot is of a spectacular, if slightly impractical, design. In the location work, the sun is always shining, which is apt for how this story feels: it's a last bright and unchallenging Summer romp before incoming producer Philip Hinchcliffe brings in some more autumnal shades. Of course, it is very slightly of a type with what's to come, in that there is a horror movie pastiche in there (King Kong), an approach that would become more prevalent in later serials, but here it's only done half-heartedly, as something of a gag in the final few sequences.

For the rest of the running time, writer (and outgoing script-editor) Terrance Dicks is seemingly giving us his take on another classic, Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Like his buddy Malcolm Hulke's story aired in the previous season, this is a tale where the environmentalists (usually the champions of the Barry Letts era) are the bad guys, and end up threatening to wipe out the human race for the planet's own good, bar only a chosen few, safe in an underground chamber. As Dicks has less natural sympathy with their cause than Hulke, though, the characters never seem believable, so any dramatic edge is lost. With lots of other moments, such as his undermining Sarah's Women's lib credentials by showing her making sexist assumptions, Dicks gives the impression, in this last script for Barry Letts, that he's finally relaxing at no longer having to pay lip service to the hippy stuff he's been producing to please his boss up to now.

None of this explains why a rationalist scientific group who've planned every detail only checks they've got enough food and water to survive after they've started the nuclear countdown, nor why a disintegrator gun for some reason doesn't disintegrate the robot but instead makes it grow, like it's got an 'exciting denoument' setting. Kettlewell's behaviour in scenes in episodes 1 and 2 is so inconsistent with him turning out to be be the (spoiler) main bad guy that it's a major cheat on the audience. But, I don't think this is Dicks' error - it's in the direction. There are scenes that feel as if the director hasn't read to the end of the script, where he's showing Kettlewell keeping up the pretence even though there's no one around to witness it.

Connectivity: 
The first few minutes of both Robot and The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon contain a scene showing the Doctor regenerating; both stories are Earth-based and deal with an internal enemy rather than an alien invasion; the companion team in both is one male, one female bolstered by at least one significant recurring character. And both stories feature many ranks of armed public servants (at least in the Matt Smith story, the bullets have some effect).

Deeper Thoughts:
Human League B-Side. The people of Doctor Who are regularly referred to as a family, and I think I would broadly agree. I don't go to events or conventions that much, and it is there especially, but even in print and online, that you see a familial atmosphere between fans, between fans and the stars of the show, and even between the stars themselves: many actors from different eras have become mates from seeing each other on the convention circuit. There are family rows and feuds too, yes, but mostly it's positive. I'll admit I did shed a tear when Jon Pertwee died in 1996; he felt like a colourful great uncle that would never not be there, rather than just some bloke off the telly. Talking of great uncles, I'm sure I have some great uncles on one side of the family or the other, but I don't know anything about them. I do, though, know a substantial amount about the life and times of, say, Ian Levine. Is this healthy? And is it something that is unique to Doctor Who? Probably Star Wars and Star Trek convention-goers feel the same too; but there's one member of the Doctor Who family, a larger-than-life funny uncle, that no other franchise has or could ever emulate, and that is Tom Baker.

I remember the first point that I realised that Tom wasn't just any old actor, and was instead a true eccentric who is incapable of saying anything straightforward or uninteresting. I was reading Doctor Who Magazine when I'd started buying it again sometime early in the Nineties, when the series wasn't long off the air. I don't think it was an interview, just an article writing up a convention where he'd spoken, and I read some of his wonderful material for the first time. This was the story, which I'm sure he's repeated often since, where he's mistaken by a cab driver for Jon Pertwee, and strings the poor guy along for ages, as the driver repeats a comic refrain "You was always the most elegant, Mister Pertwee". In the end, horror of horrors, the driver asks 'Mister Pertwee' whatever happened to his successor in the role. Without missing a beat, Baker says he thinks he died drunk in a ditch.

I have met Baker once, accompanied by the Better Half, at a signing for his magnificent autobiography in a Worthing bookshop in 1997. The Q&A that preceded getting one's book autographed wonderfully demonstrated his art (an endlessly applicable one, if you can master it) of twisting the most uninteresting questions and answering them entertainingly by talking about what he wanted to talk about all along: himself, yes, but not in arrogant way; instead he uses that theme as his own unique philosophical window on the world. If I hadn't learnt from him the approach of stringing together random anecdotes in a semblance of coherence, this blog wouldn't exist. So, you know, he's to blame, is what I'm saying. Anyway, my copy of 'Who on Earth is Tom Baker?' is signed to me and the Better Half from him, which I consider just as binding and solemn as our wedding vows. We can never split up, the book says so!

Robot, whatever its good or bad aspects, will always be important, as it ushers in the most consistently popular period of Doctor Who to that point, and perhaps ever after, embodied in Tom Baker as the front man. For only seven of its 50+ years, Doctor Who featured a Doctor who wore a long scarf, but because of the indelible impression Tom left on the show, there are still a huge number of people out there now who if asked what the Doctor wears, will say a long scarf. He is the exemplar. Baker as the raconteur is only one aspect of a complex man; he's of course a bloody good actor too. But Baker as raconteur has had a place in the Doctor Who family far longer than he was playing the role. For almost all that time, Baker has fixated on his own mortality (he's had his own gravestone ready for at least twenty years). I think a lot of us are still banking on his turning out to be immortal, though, so we don't have to shed tears at what will be a great loss to the family.


In Summary:
Whatever happened to Sarah Jane? That Seventies Summer-dress frame...

Saturday, 7 October 2017

The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon

Chapter The 67th, involves those who have - in almost the words of Sir Billiam of Idol - ties without a face.

Plot: 
A future version of the Matt Smith Doctor invites Amy, Rory, River Song and an old American guy to watch him get shot and killed by someone in an astronaut suit standing in a lake in Utah. The Doctor also invites his own younger self who turns up late and misses it all, but following up on some hints he takes Amy, Rory and River Song to meet the younger version of the American guy in the White House in 1969, where he's investigating a mysterious little girl who keeps contacting President Richard Nixon. The TARDIS team help him find the girl, which leads them to discover that a group of aliens, the Silence, are in control of the Earth, but no one realises this as they have the power to make you forget them as soon as you look away. This large, global organised group, who have access to advanced technology and mental powers, have secretly been manipulating humans for thousands of years as it is somehow easier than just building their own spacesuit. They have also been raising the girl as a child assassin who will eventually be the one in the suit in Utah that kills the Doctor, as this is somehow easier than just shooting him themselves during any of the dozen or so opportunities they have to do just that in these two episodes alone. They could at least have a crack; if he survived, he wouldn't remember who shot him, would he?!

Three months pass during which everyone goes to elaborate lengths to do, erm, something important, probably. Anyway, that means it's time for the moon landing; the Doctor cleverly uses the footage of Neil Armstrong stepping out onto the surface as a way to incite mass murder of the Silence for all eternity, which is just what you imagine Neil would have wanted. (The Silence killed one person and helped humans go to the Moon, the sentence for which is genocide apparently.) Despite many unanswered questions, and a possibly vulnerable possibly dangerous child on the loose, the Doctor decides not to investigate any more and goes off to have some unconnected adventures, like he knows he's just been in episodes 1 and 2 of the season rather than 11 and 12.

Context:
The whole family bar the eldest child (boy of 11) sat down to watch this one from the Blu-ray; we watched one episode per day over a weekend, and it must have sounded like fun as it attracted the final member of the family halfway through, who joined us to watch the second part on the Sunday. The Better Half got (justifiably) apoplectic at times with Moffat's plotting. 'What's the point of this? was said more than once.

First-time round: 
I can't remember whether I sat down to watch these episodes live in 2011, or - more likely - timeshifted them and watched them later in the evening. One thing that does stay with me, though, is a feeling I got watching the first episode, and the Doctor Who Confidential documentary that was shown alongside it, a feeling invoked by seeing the three leads - all played by thin beautiful people ten or more years younger than me - making a big deal about hitting America. The feeling was this: Doctor Who isn't mine anymore. Sure, the show had had blockbuster appeal at times before, and it had had a huge American following in earlier years too; but, one never thought those periods would last (and they didn't really). It's a silly feeling to indulge, like the reluctance as a fan you feel for your favourite indie band making it big; one knows deep down it doesn't matter, but it did feel like a loss. Forever after, the faithful would have to share their show with the viewers of BBC America, and an even wider international audience across the globe.

Reaction:
Steven Moffat's idea to launch his second year with a bang was to do a season finale style story - an expensive, expansive plot-heavy blockbuster two-parter - right up front. I mean, why wait, huh? Hmm. This approach could be summarised as "Skip the foreplay", which is never a good idea (so I've been told), except it's worse than that; it's more like "Do the foreplay afterwards" which is an easy way to achieve an, ahem, anti-climax. The story after this, just when we're engaged as to who River is, how the Doctor will avoid his fate, what exactly are the Silence's plans, and whether Amy is or isn't pregnant, doesn't talk about any of that; it's just larking about with rubbish pirates. An implicit promise has been made to the audience, and then broken. It doesn't help that the plotting of the arc - even just the bits in these two episodes alone - is crazy ape-shit bonkers. A finale engenders more forgiveness, as that's when all the Bad Wolves, Torchwoods or Pandoricas are finally explained, and the slate is wiped clean; there's no such luxury here - the slate is splattered in muck that's going to stay there for months; so, by The Wedding of River Song, the series is going to require infinite forgiveness, and no possible explanations are going to satisfy.

Moffat does get something in exchange for squandering this advantage, and that's spectacle and originality in the story and the season's shape. So, kudos to him for trying something new, it's just a shame it didn't really work. The positives then: there are some great jokes, Stuart Milligan is fun as Nixon. Canton is a great character as played by both the young and old Sheppards. The opening comedy sequences are nice enough, the American landscapes are vibrant and interestingly used (an astronaut emerging from a lake in the middle of a desert, for example, is an arresting image despite not making any sense in the real or story worlds). The early beats of the story pleasantly confound audience expectations, as suddenly the Doctor is older and has shared lots of adventures with River Song, and then - blam - he's dead. As a beginning it's hard to top unless you're the sort of cynical viewer who's automatically thinking "there's no way they can write their way out of that without it being a cop out". Okay, you got me, that was exactly what I was thinking; but a showrunner shouldn't be jumping through hoops to cater for any audience as cynical as me.

The Silence are a great design, and their affect on memory is a great concept. But, alas, the idea that they're scavengers that can only influence people to create technology and never create their own just stretches credulity beyond snapping point. And, worst of all because it was easily fixable in a rewrite, they just aren't shown to be evil enough. The Silence have just as much right to be treated as legal cohabitants of the Earth as the Silurians, say, and they haven't unleashed any plagues to wipe out mankind, but they get brutally offed. It just appears totally disproportionate, and that's just because all the horrors are presumably offscreen in the unnecessary three month gap between episode 1 and episode 2. Even if the TARDIS crew were shown some horrors though, they wouldn't remember them, so the mass killing ending would never feel justified.


Connectivity: 
As mentioned above, both stories feature villains in smart attire who haven't got much in the old boat race department. Also, both are set in the sixties and feature a space rocket.

Deeper Thoughts:
Simple enough for adults but complicated enough for children. It was around the time of The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon's broadcast that articles became prevalent complaining of how the show's plots had become too convoluted. If this was not the case for the youngsters watching, it certainly was true for the adults; my commentary above, now I've read it back, shows me in this case at least to be quite surprisingly grown-up. These stories don't make a whole lot of sense, true. The criticism was probably overstated, though. It was easy enough with a modicum of concentration to keep up with what was happening, it just didn't - couldn't - add up. Watching Doctor Who in random order highlights things just as watching in the transmission order does. Some stories work much better with the weight of the preceding episodes as build up. But, some stories are undermined by revelations that you know are to be made in their future, and that is really what weighs the Astronaut episodes down. Taken on their own terms they form a nonsensical but visually stunning adventure romp. Once you know how it fits together with the future narrative, though, it can do your head in.

Some spoilers may ensue (but only if you haven't watched Doctor Who in five years) as I've got to get my head round this. So, the creatures that we see at work in Florida, are a violent breakaway group from a semi-religious order that wants to neutralise the Doctor to stop him from bringing the Time Lords and the Time War back to the universe on Trenzalore. They have foreseen that he will do this, and that will be bad, so they try to stop it by killing him at Lake Silencio. It's a matter of historical record that he dies at Lake Silencio, which might explain why nobody tries to kill him before that despite numerous opportunities. Except when they try to kill him at Demon's Run. Are they trying to kill him at Demon's Run, though, or is it just a diversion to get the baby River away? But, that would be a rubbish diversion as it would be one that involved leading him to the very place where the baby is for ages before they get it away, a bit of a risky manoeuvre. But anyway, they do get the baby away, and they train it to kill then put it in a spacesuit in a lake. They must know this is the foretold spot where the Doctor dies, not just because it's supposed to be a fabled fixed point, but also, why bloody submerge the suit in a lake otherwise; it would be a lot easier for it to arrive in a car. BUT if they know the Doctor historically, fixedly dies at Lake Silencio, which - as far as the Universe is concerned - he does, why did they ever think he was going to get as far as Trenzalore to become a threat in the first place? Their plan seems to involve them knowing for sure that he's going to die and that he's going to escape his fate. Simultaneously.

And, even though the Doctor is not dead, and is just pretending, the aged Canton says "That most certainly is the Doctor, and he is most certainly dead" and adds that the Doctor says they would need a can of gasoline. How does Canton know any of this? No one is in a position to tell him this in 1969. Maybe it's written on his invitation? Everyone else just gets a date and time and a map reference, but maybe his invite says a bit more. But how would the Doctor have known to write any of this to him? At the point, just after the story Closing Time, when he writes those invitations, he doesn't even know for sure that Canton was invited. He's only met the guy once, and his earlier self only gets told that the name.is relevant. Is there any way he could know for sure to invite him, let alone to add a note to the gist of "I'm really dead, make sure they burn the corpse". Also, given that he's inside a robot suit, it was a bit lucky the Doctor's friends decided to go the whole viking ceremony. If they'd burnt him on the shore, it would have been immediately obvious that he wasn't even getting singed, and his whole faking his own death would have been blown immediately.

Amy gains memories from the aborted timeline which is created and uncreated by spacesuited River's resistance to her mission, sometime between two moments by that lake in Utah; Amy mentions later that she can remember these events in The Wedding of River Song. So, when does this come to her exactly? The logical point would be right there at Lake Silencio. So, she's aware of Madame Kovarian and so on throughout the three months in America, and the pirate one and The Doctor's Wife, but just not mentioning it? Okay, maybe there's some kind of block because she's really a ganger at that point. So, she would remember first during the action at Demon's Run, and all through the Hitler one, and Night Terrors... but again would just not bother to mention it? Obviously, the time it must have occurred to her is post The God Complex, when the Doctors gone, and she can no longer make any use of the knowledge; but there's no logical reason for it to come to her then, except that it's more convenient for the overall confused jigsaw plot.

I have barely scratched the surface (why does River, knowing exactly who is in the Spacesuit, still shoot at it as it disappears under the lake? Who took the photo of Amy and her baby that is in the orphanage, when, and why? How does Amy make tally marks on her face so neatly without looking at her reflection?); but, I've got a nerd headache already. Undoubtedly, Steven Moffat was planning ahead more than any other Who writer of any previous era, but he was still almost certainly making it up as he was going along a hell of a lot too.

In Summary:
At the time I did Enjoy The Silence. But looking back, it was definitely a narrative rule Violator.

Friday, 22 September 2017

The Faceless Ones

Chapter The 66th, involves those who have - in the words of Sir Billiam of Idol - eyes without a face. (But without the eyes either.)

Plot: 
The Doctor and Jamie (and Polly and Ben are involved too, but blink and you'd miss it) investigate at Gatwick Airport in 1966 the convoluted plot by a Club 18-30 style package holiday company, secretly run by aliens called the Chameleons, to kidnap the youngsters on their flights in order to take over each one's identity and body print for a pod-person of their own race. They've been doing this for some time, with the plan nearing completion, but are only now transforming key people in the airport authorities; as such, some suspicion has been aroused. This lack of organisation is probably because their leader, The Director, has a lethal combination of incompetence and arrogance: typical upper management. Anyway, the Doctor investigates, pretends to have been converted himself, and hitches a ride with the rest on the last flight back to the Chameleon base, a satellite in space, where he plays them off against each other, and negotiates the release of all the humans. Jamie has a holiday romance that doesn't get further than the airport with Samantha Briggs (they snog loads!) but she decides not to join him travelling in the TARDIS (and Polly and Ben leave, but blink and you'd miss it).

Context:
After two in a row stories that nobody else in the family was interested in watching with me, I was hoping for a crowd pleaser this time round. The randomiser came up, though, with a story that's two-thirds missing and would need to be supplemented by audio and slide shows. It seemed unlikely to snare any additional interest, so I got underway on my own. The Better Half dropped in a few times, though, for similar visual attraction reasons as last time when I was watching a David Tennant episode; she may not want me sharing this with the internet, but she appreciates the look of Fraser Hines in 1967 in a similar way to how she appreciates Tennant in 2006 and now. She's not the only one: Joe Orton was similarly impressed; he'd mentioned Fraser appreciatively before, and then noted in his diary at the time of The Faceless Ones episode 2's original broadcast "Watched Dr Who on television. Rubbish, but there's a young boy in it who is worth looking at... I mentally undress him. I'm sure the BBC would be horrified if they realised that even a science fiction series can be used erotically."

First-time round: 
The Faceless Ones exists in different bits and pieces discovered over many years, and aptly that's how I first experienced it too. I seem to remember having a pirate VHS in the early 1990s which had episode 3 on it, not very long after it had been found and returned to the BBC archives in 1987. I can't remember how I got the tape, and don't know how the episode would have become available on the fan circuit, but it wasn't of a very watchable quality (the recovered film was badly damaged in places). Much later, I heard the audio of all six episodes when it came out on CD in 2002. And finally, the following year, I saw episode 1 and a somewhat restored episode 3 on the final Doctor Who VHS release ever, a boxed set that mopped up the few remaining episodes that hadn't been released before then. It was a limited edition that also included an incomplete Hartnell story, another (at the time) orphaned Troughton episode, The Web of Fear 1, and an enamel pin badge.


Reaction:
When the producer of The Faceless Ones, Innes Lloyd, first moved into the role, he unceremoniously replaced the actors then playing the Doctor Who companions to freshen up the show. For Jackie Lane, who played Dodo, this meant being written out abruptly two episodes into a longer story, with a horribly brief explanation tagged on at the end, when she wasn't even in the studio, that she wouldn't be coming back: no heroic send-off at all. Innes must have thought this was for the greater good, as it allowed him to introduce a pair of more contemporary regular characters, Ben and Polly. It's a bit rubbish therefore that, when Ben and Polly come to leave in The Faceless Ones, they are again abruptly written out two episodes into a longer story, with a horribly brief explanation tagged on at the end, when they aren't even in the studio, that that they aren't coming back. Worse things happen to actors, of course, but what about rewarding the audience's emotional investment?

Perhaps learning from previous mistakes, this production integrates Ben and Polly's departure a little better into The Faceless Ones than Dodo's exit in The War Machines. The Chameleon Tours story is about young people of around their age going missing, which gives credence to their dropping out of view all of a sudden; there is also a brief pre-filmed goodbye scene in episode 6 (Dodo's goodbye is passed on by another character as a telephone message - the Doctor Who equivalent of being dumped by text). If anything it's integrated too well: as the story becomes about finding Ben and Polly, it raises expectations about their eventually being reunited with the Doctor and Jamie. By necessity, though, this reuniting happens off-screen, and then as soon as they're found and back with the Doctor and Jamie, and the plot is resolved, they decide to bugger off again. It's unsatisfying, and that's a shame, as it undermines an otherwise very good story.

Despite dropping the ball with Ben and Polly, a lot of what's successful in The Faceless Ones is about character dynamics. This is the first time that Patrick Troughton and Fraser Hines, one of Doctor Who's most wonderful and most natural pairings, work together properly in Doctor Who. They'd featured together in previous TV work, and no doubt clicked behind the scenes when Fraser first joined the cast - it seems likely that's why he was kept on as a regular, as in Jamie's debut story and the others between it and The Faceless Ones, he and the Doctor don't share much story time; this changes from this point on, though: they are instantly, and forever after, the double-act on screen that they were off. Try-out companion Samantha Briggs also achieves instant chemistry: when the three of them are lying down waiting to be zapped by a Goldfinger homage, they really feel like a team, despite only having been brought together minutes before. It's a great loss for the show (though not perhaps for her career) that Pauline Collins wasn't tempted to stay on.

The setting is well constructed and populated with good characters, all well cast and played. A mark of a good tale is that it creates a world one wants to visit, and that's definitely true of this version of Gatwick Airport with its exasperated commandants, campy vicious captains and arch customs officers. This is the debut outing for Malcolm Hulke (here co-writing with David Ellis) who would write regularly for the show in the 1970s and deliver this standard of world and characters again and again on TV, and then later (and even better) when he novelised his episodes. Apart from being the debut of a significant Who writer, The Faceless Ones is significant in other quiet ways: it fuses the contemporary Earth story that had been tried out before in The War Machines with the 'base under siege' template (replete with a distrustful CO that has to unwillingly put his faith in the Doctor) which would be applied increasingly in Doctor Who stories from this point onward, and even finds time for some space flight action too. It is a bit silly in places, though: the villain's plan - particularly the idea of throwing off suspicion by sending unnecessarily suspicious postcards -  seems built to fail.

Connectivity: 
More alien infiltration of a South-East England institution that arouses the suspicion of investigators, including the TARDIS team. As in School Reunion, the aliens' plan depends upon a large group of youngsters. Both involve companions the producers classify somewhat as has-beens who decide not to travel on in the TARDIS at the end (of course, this was a little more unfair in regard to Ben than it was to Sarah Jane and K9).

Deeper Thoughts:
List-o-mania. One stereotypical aspect of Doctor Who fans highlighted by commentators, sometimes somewhat cruelly, is our preponderance for making lists. It is certainly something of which I am guilty, and the volume of anecdotal evidence I have about other fans overwhelmingly tells me I'm not alone. Is it that the programme is one that attracts enthusiasts of a certain psychology, or is it something that's inherent in the programme itself? Is Doctor Who particularly list-worthy? There's certainly a lot of it. Unless one was lucky enough to start watching in November 1963, there will be a wealth of earlier episodes you haven't seen when you start, many from different Doctors and eras, many potentially containing plot points of interest in the ongoing tangled continuity of the show. Is it intimidating to navigate that new world without the 'map' of a list one has found or compiled? Casting my mind back, I can't remember ever not knowing the weight of Who's pre-history, probably because I first discovered the show during a season of repeats designed to highlight its heritage. Even so, I wanted to find out even more in more detail very quickly. Maybe some folks can just jump in, not knowing where they are in the overall story, but I'm not one of them.

Once you have such a list, then there's an obvious metric you can measure: "which of these have I seen?" or the variant for the collector fan (if that isn't all of us) "which of these do I own?". Before you know it, the list has become two lists, but one mission: to turn the shorter list into the longer list by slowly finding (and buying) and watching them all. For the Doctor Who fan (unlike, say, the Star Trek fan) there's a third list that needs to be factored in too, "which of these doesn't exist any more?". Throughout the 1990s and early twenty-first century, I would integrate all three into a slowly dwindling checklist of VHS and audio releases yet to be watched/listened to. I would, at the beginning of every year and often several times during the year, write it out longhand, ticking off all those I'd got already, putting a dot next to those that had been announced for future release in Doctor Who Magazine, speculating about which ones would be ticked off before the end of the year. I realise this makes me sound like a basket case; it's not that I needed to flip the light switch on and off 17 times or else my family would die, it was just a pleasant enough displacement activity.

The Faceless Ones episode 1 was one of the last few I ever saw, as noted above, but the very final Doctor Who story I ever caught up with (on audio) was The Underwater Menace in February 2005; and at that point I'd watched or listened to every one of 26 years worth of broadcast Who, just in time for the new series to start the following month. As long as new stories are being transmitted, the mission will never complete. Even then, there's still the chance that some of those missing stories will be found. Even if they're not, they may one day all be animated at least. For any completist, there's a love/hate relationship with completion. Finally finishing stuff off can leave one bereft, and whatever one may claim to others or even oneself, that one is eager to get to the end, it's easy to find oneself pushing the finishing line into the future, to enjoy the mission a bit more. This is presumably why, I suddenly realise, I've set up a situation where I once again am slowly whittling away all the Doctor Who stories, one by one, in a random order; I've recreated my old displacement activities in this blog.


In Summary:
Takes off nicely, hits a high and keeps going, then comes down with a bit of a bump as Ben and Polly are ejected. Overall, though, top flight.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

School Reunion

Chapter The 65th, it's September, which means it's back to school.

Plot: 
The Doctor and Rose are contacted by Mickey to investigate intriguing developments at a school in London, Wales. The school turns out to have been taken over by noisy bat-people aliens called the Krillitane. They want to use the schoolchildren as a gestalt supercomputer to crack the mathematical equation that controls the universe; to help them they use a special (magic) oil which has many and contradictory properties like making children clever and obedient, blowing up Krillitanes, moving the plot along, and making chips taste nice when they're fried in it. None of that matters, though, as the key event for the Doctor is bumping into his old friends Sarah Jane Smith and K9, who are also investigating the school, which allows him to enjoy a good old whinge about his extended mortality, and the shortness of human lives, and all that stuff that makes him look deep.

Context:
In the last week, all the children (boy of 11, boy of 8, girl of 5) went back to school, so I thought one afternoon they might like to watch this, as - although it was randomly chosen - it would have some thematic resonance. No dice, though: there was not a single flicker of interest. I waited until the evening when they were abed instead, and watched alone as the Better Half was busy (though she did wander in at one point, and have to tear herself away from the nice close-ups of the scrummy and very fresh-faced Tennant on screen - this story was part of his first recording block, so he looks awfully young).

First-time round: 
I watched this live on its debut transmission on BBC1 in 2006. The Better Half and I had got married at around the time they started filming the Christopher Eccleston series, and for the year following that we lived in Kent where she was teaching at the time. Late in 2005, we moved back to the Sussex coast, where we'd both spent our childhoods; by that time, we were expecting our first baby. We didn't sell and empty the flat in Kent straight away, though, and did many trips back in the spring of 2006. I remember buying the Radio Times with Doctor Who on the cover in Gillingham before the season started,and sitting on a box in an almost empty room looking at the fold-out cover that (for some reason) showed the Doctor, Rose, Sarah Jane and lots of monsters all holding hands in a chain. I likely got shouted at a minute later for sitting on my arse and letting my pregnant wife do all the work. Anyway, I associate the stories of David Tennant's first season with this transition, and it was indeed a period of transition for the show too.

Reaction:
I've described the 2006 series of stories before as New Who's Difficult Second Album; losing the leading man, despite getting a very good replacement, has altered the mix, and something's not quite right. They'd fix it; the following years are much slicker, and a few stories of Tennant's first run are excellent. But many, including School Reunion, seem - for want of a better word - fake. There's something hollow and unrealistic about the world of this story. From the very first scene, the background feels like a superficial and shiny representation of a school rather than a real establishment. This is a shame, as it's quite an original setting for Doctor Who (in fact it was the original setting) - it's the first full story to take place inside a working school full of pupils, though a few early scenes of the very first episode in 1963 have a similar setting. With the reintroduction of Coal Hill (the fictional place of education from that first ever episode) when Clara later worked there, it would become a much more common playground, but in 2006 this was new.

Anthony Head, who's mostly very good in the rest of the story at being a traditional yet uniquely alien villain, is twirling a moustache in the opening scene, where he believes that because a pupil is from a children's home, and has no parents, he can eat her. Notwithstanding his need for all the children intact to further his mad plan, are we to understand the institutions of this story universe really aren't going to notice one of their charges disappearing. Are we in a realistic environment or a heightened fairy tale one? I don't think the writing or production has quite made up its mind, and this uncertainty infects the rest, with the story veering scene by scene from wonderful to cringe-a-mundo (a word I have never used before and hopefully never will again). One negative, and apologies for being a bit controversial and having to speak ill of the dead, is that Liz Sladen is a very limited actress; she was generally fine as Sarah Jane first time round, when nothing too demanding was required and her face still had some movement. But to make the story centre on her loss and abandonment issues was a risky move.

To be fair, it's mostly a perfectly serviceable performance, although not very in keeping with the character - she was one of the original series companions that had the fullest life away from the Doctor; it stretches credibility to think this independent woman has been living in his shadow for thirty odd years. There's one moment where it all comes together, the scene where Sarah Jane finds the TARDIS hidden in the school and turns to see Tennant in the shadows, in heroic pose, and they exchange some cracking dialogue. Elsewhere, though, it's dragged down by someone's bright idea of adding the very male humour about the Doctor's old and new companions acting like "the Missus and the Ex" which then means the two female actors involved have to do lots of demeaning bitchy acting, which isn't very apt or very funny. Worse, there's then a scene where in a short space of time they have to both go from sniping at one another, to competing to outdo the other's experiences, to bonding, to uncontrollable laughing. This writing is un-actable for even the very best performer, so isn't very convincing here (though obviously some of the references were fun for us long-term obsessives, but fan service is not a good enough reason to keep it in). It should have been possible to have covered the intriguing aspects about loss and adventure and mortality without sexisim, and without any actor or character having to throw away their integrity.

Mickey and K9 fair a bit better, probably as the lesser focus on them entails more subtlety. Mickey realising he's the 'tin dog' is a wonderful moment for the character, as is his solution to pulling the plug on the nefarious Krillitane scheme. K9's self sacrifice at the end has fans of a certain vintage punching the air too. Other characters get short shrift from an already busy 45 minutes that appears to have had some vicious cuts. There's a focus on the character of Milo, who then completely disappears from the narrative bar a cryptic message later that screams out "missing scene". But it's doubly damaging, as it sets up that it's only Milo being made clever, when all the children are later shown to have similarly been got at, without much story time having elapsed between. It also means that Kenny, the hero of the guest cast, gets even less screen time to be established.

Connectivity: 
Both stories feature K9, and in both he's damaged and in need of mending. Both feature infiltrating alien creatures implausibly disguised as humans.

Deeper Thoughts:
Driving and Schools. The story under consideration this time features a high school and some dangerous driving; both of these remind me of my own youth and adolescence (ask the few people who've been driven by me), and have - apologies in advance - opened the car door to a bit of a reminisce. I was an out and proud Doctor Who fanboy at school from early on, often to be found sketching out Daleks or copies of Target novelisation covers, writing my own Doctor Who comic strips, or wandering round the playing field reading the Doctor Who Magazine Summer Special 1983. I made friendships through Doctor Who; I first bonded with one of my oldest friends, Alex, who's been mentioned a few times in the blog, over a shared love for the show and dislike of P.E. But occasionally, other schoolchildren would confuse my enthusiasm with my being a member of the production team and having responsibility for what aired. Any time anyone had a problem with the show they'd come to tell me, as if I could do anything about it. This was worst after the broadcast of Colin Baker's debut, The Twin Dilemma episode 1. I had a number of kids aggressively telling me they'd never watch the programme ever again; John Nathan-Turner owed me some therapy sessions.

I must have stood out at school a bit, in a certain way, because of this or maybe other factors. I have a few times over the many years since bumped into people from school whom I didn't recognise but who remembered me. On a couple of different occasions, separate people have voiced a variation on the comment "Of course I knew it was you, because of your glasses." Now, this is interesting as I never had glasses at school; I got my first pair of specs in my fresher year at university. I must have just looked like the sort of (computer and Doctor Who loving) person who ought to have glasses back then, and that made an indelible psychological impression on some. Not that I didn't need glasses at school necessarily, my myopia was probably quite a while undiagnosed. On the (only a few!) times I took my driving test, the bit that terrified me most was not being allowed to drive at all if I failed the very first task, reading a number plate in the car park., If they were too far away, I just couldn't see them, which may have explained a thing or two about the quality of my driving.

I never really wanted to learn to drive; but thanks to the persistence and passive-aggressive generosity of a well-meaning parent, I had no choice. If you're bought a second-hand car as a birthday present, you don't have much room for manoeuvre. To misquote Ferris Bueller: I asked for a computer, I got a car: how's that for being born under a bad sign? It seemed a waste of money to me, all the insurance and petrol; plus, I was just beginning to understand the environmental implications too. I eventually passed my test, but when I then drove my car, I kept damaging it by hitting thankfully inanimate things. The car patched up for the beginning of my second year of Uni, I drove myself and Zahir (another Doctor Who fan, and recurring character in the blog) up to Durham without incident. But, days later, before term had even started, I rendered it an insurance write-off. I have not driven since. But this week, I was reading an article. Apparently, millennials - that wonderful rare hothouse breed that jaded Gen-Xers like me love to read about - are choosing not to drive in greater numbers; the number of 20-somethings with a licence has declined by more than 20% since 1994, with rising fuel and insurance costs cited as a reason, and probably technology changing leisure habits a factor too, I would think: social media becoming increasingly a supplement to real world meets. In other words, they'd rather have a computer than a car. So, it wasn't that I was rubbish at driving, you see - I was merely ahead of my time! 

In Summary:
Final report: the exploration of the Doctor and companion's relationship, their lives, and their mortality - A+; the Krillitane plot - B; the Missus and the Ex idea, and the silly bitchy scenes to which it gives rise: D. Overall: Could do better.