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.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Leisure Hive

Chapter The 64th, which makes Who feel, yeah it ma-a-a-akes Who feel, shiny and new...

Plot: 
The Doctor and Romana visit Argolis, a planet of tourism where you can hear obscure scientific lectures and can't step out onto the surface because of the fall-out from a nuclear war (exactly what any right thinking person would want from a vacation). The Argolin race is dying out, having been made sterile by the war, but an Earth scientist Hardin is working on some confusing but nice experiments to save them; it turns out, though, that the youngest of the Argolin, Pangol, is also working on some confusing experiments to save them, but evil. Pangol has been cloned by the Argolin's science of tachyonics, as it can clone things as well as make things travel faster than light, reverse ageing, and make your limbs fly off in amusing directions without harming you; this is because it is a thoroughly worked out science, and definitely not made up magic nonsense at all. Also present are a faction of tubby lizard creatures who are trying to sabotage things, so they can buy up the planet, and another faction of the lizards trying to stop the first faction, and the Doctor gets aged for a while, and cloned too. It can get hectic when you have a holiday, can't it?!

Context:
Watched from the DVD on a Sunday on my own after the family got back from our own holiday (see the Deeper Thoughts section below for more details). People wandered in occasionally but nobody but me went the full distance. Middle child (boy of 8) stayed longest; he's the biggest Doctor Who fan in the family after me right now, I think. The Better Half came in during episode 4 and claimed no memory of ever watching this one with me before (she says she definitely would have remembered a young David Haig with a green face).

First-time round: 
I moved in to a flat with the Better Half during Easter weekend 1996, a studio apartment with no central heating, a black-and-white TV, and a one-bar electric fire. Bliss. This was the first time I'd lived outside the parental home or halls, and it was jolly exciting; I was taking new steps on life's road, and watching Doctor Who stories I'd never seen before, and in very real ways equating the two. The Better Half and I were sufficiently in love that she didn't mind my Doctor Who video collection. None of those tapes were inflicted on her too soon, though, as we didn't have a VCR to begin with; plus, the Beeb had suspended releases at that point, as the Paul McGann TV Movie was imminent, and its senior production people didn't want old stories to share the shelves with it, when it was released on video. Apart from one other release in the Autumn as a tribute to the recently departed Jon Pertwee, nothing except the TV Movie was released until the VHS range was relaunched in January 1997 with The Leisure Hive.

The VHS release marked the first time I'd got to see the story. I'm ashamed to say that I was watching (and loving) Buck Rogers in the Twenty-First Century on ITV rather than catching Gallifrey's finest on their trip to Argolis when it was first broadcast in 1980. But I didn't know what I was missing, as I didn't get hooked on Who until the following year, when they showed a season of repeats, see here for more on that. In 1997, I got to watch it in colour, as by then I had saved enough pennies to pay for a colour licence and get a VCR. I was temporarily alone, though, and missing my beloved who had started her university course (we'd met during her year out). This is probably why she didn't get to see it then. It probably cheered poor lonely me up a bit, but not enough.

Reaction:
Orson Welles' Touch of Evil starts with a sequence achieved in a single long shot that tracks a car, which we see at the very start has had a bomb planted on it. The camera drifts around various people and locations, following the car, introducing the main characters, setting up the world in which they operate, and all the time building suspense as the bomb ticks. The Leisure Hive also starts with a single long, long tracking shot which shows some deckchairs. One of these shots is justly celebrated, the other is from The Leisure Hive. It's baffling, particularly given the efforts all round by the incoming John Nathan-Turner to make his first story as producer a shiny and exciting new start for Doctor Who, that he let episode 1 go out starting with a ninety second sequence where nothing happens. You even hear snoring (the Doctor's) on the soundtrack.

It doesn't stop there; The Leisure Hive contains visual sequences dotted throughout that halt the action, or at least take place significantly slower than scenes either side. Probably Bickford's exemplar was not Welles but Stanley Kubrick's work in 2001 A Space Odyssey, but that film is constructed wholly of long mostly wordless sequences, so any one sequence feels part of the overall pace. And Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, as successful as he was, was still nonetheless being indulgent: life happens in our consciousness in fast cuts, only a distancing godlike perspective sees things in long fluid sequences; he had to make it absolutely perfect to justify the artifice. So, I'm basically saying Lovett Bickford, director of this story, was being more indulgent. Than Orson Welles. Or Stanley Kubrick. Dwell for a moment on exactly how much chutzpah a director working at the BBC requires for that.

Multiple times on the DVD documentaries accompanying the story, John Nathan-Turner is praised for getting the budget onto the screen in as glossy a way as possible (he gives the show a much-needed kick up the Eighties with a spruced up theme tune and new opening credits sequence, for example) while simultaneously he's criticised for not having any narrative understanding. This possibly explains Lovett Bickford's excesses. He's been given leeway by a producer keen to make a visual splash, but that producer doesn't realise when his visuals are working against the story, and doesn't intercede. Not to say that every choice by Bickford is bad. He inspired June Hudson (Costumes) and Peter Howell (incidental music) to do great things here, and some of his work hits home - the hive's exteriors really feel like they are outside on a desolate planet, for example. It would be lovely to see a screenwriter's cut, though, with every confusing shot or reuse of the shuttle-docking model footage snipped out. Ditto the entire beginning sequence on Brighton beach - five whole minutes - as it doesn't move the plot on at all; there's a bit of exposition and a histrionic bit to write out K9, but essentially it just covers a decision by the TARDIS team to go on holiday, which could have been conveyed on the move in a scene starting on Argolis. There's one tiny moment, the first, long held-back reveal of Tom Baker's face in a big close-up (Bickford loves close-ups) which is worth keeping, but the rest can go.
Other personnel on the story are also trying a little too hard on their virgin run. Christopher Hamilton Bighead, sorry I mean Bidmead, arrives as a missionary in the land of Doctor Who, keen to spread the gospel of scientific rigour and wag a finger at any sinful silliness. But he gets bogged down immediately in unnecessary technical detail. Underneath all the trappings, this is a traditional story, written after all by the go-to writer of the previous couple of years (the 'silly' era that Bidmead and Nathan-Turner were meant to be kicking against). This story takes a long time to get going, though, as for the early episodes everyone is doing experiments. Someone dies in the tachyonic generator, but nobody investigates, and instead they hit the lab and melt egg-timers. Only towards the end of episode 3, when everyone's had their fill of showing off, do things step up a gear. Mafia lizards are unmasked, a xenophobic madman starts threatening to blow everybody up, an army of clones marches. But it's too late to make the story truly great, as it could have been.

Connectivity: 
Both stories have a subplot where the military has given way to science, and both contain a Doctor that's aged over 1000 (Tom after he's been aged by the generator, and Matt Smith is that old anyway after all that monkeying around with the astronaut in the lake and whatnot).

Deeper Thoughts:
A Tale of Two City Breaks. Last year, without really planning it, I ended up spending my summer holiday in a Doctor Who filming location, Leeds Castle, and watched the appropriate story while there. This year, I considered various destinations where it might be possible to repeat this experience, but in the end just reverted to the family default of a week renting a cottage in the Isle of Wight (as it's not too dear). I didn't think any stories had been filmed there, but a quick perusal of my Bignell (not a dodgy euphemism, but a flick through Richard Bignell's 2001 reference book 'Doctor Who on Location') revealed that it has happened once. As well as filming in Portsmouth and in the Solent, the crew of The Sea Devils took a hovercraft (it's a Jon Pertwee one, so it must have been a hovercraft, surely) to sunny Vectis for various scenes of that 1972 story.

As I'd watched and blogged Doctor Who and the Silurians recently, it felt too soon to do its sequel and publish thirteen episodes' worth of prehistoric hi-jinks in one month; plus, the Isle of Wight filming for Sea Devils was mainly of cliffs, and there'd be nothing for the kids to do if I dragged them there. Maybe next year. The ultimate Sea Devils themed holiday, of course, would be to visit No Man's Land Sea Fort, which has now been converted into a hotel. It would be great; you could sit in your room and enact the moment when the undersea creatures infiltrate, or you could pretend to be stuntman Stuart Fell pretending to be Katy Manning climbing the steps to board. The trouble is it's been converted into a luxury hotel, and at upward of 400 pounds per person per night, it seems a little steep, just so I can watch the DVD and say "I've been there". As a gesture, I took a photo from the Catamaran on the way over to the Isle of said sea fort (or likely one of the other ones, they all look the same from this distance). It is reproduced here for your pleasure.

Anyway, I let the randomiser do its thing, and packed the DVD it nominated in my suitcase, planning to watch it one evening in the cottage after we got back from the beach. It was a somewhat apt choice as The Leisure Hive is one of those stories, like The Androids of Tara from last summer, where the characters are having a holiday too. But it was geographically inappropriate, as The Leisure Hive is one of the few stories filmed in my neck of the woods. Watching it in Shanklin, I would have been significantly further away from the location depicted than I would have been at home. In the end, I did watch the story at home. In another chapter in the death of physical media, this was the first place we've booked in many years that didn't have a DVD player. I didn't even think to check, I never imagined it wouldn't be there as standard, but I suppose it's the way things are going. It had a smart TV box, so we could have watched some Doctor Who, if I could have been bothered to link to Netflix and put in my account details; but Netflix doesn't carry The Leisure Hive, or any classic series episodes. So, I watched it after the holiday. I didn't take my laptop to Brighton beach to do this, so there's no photo except for the usual one of a cold Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. It is reproduced here for your pleasure.



In Summary:
The visuals are good. The story is good. But not ever at the same time, and they sort of cancel each other out. If only their phases could have been locked with a divider circuit on the wafer wave inducer.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Power of Three

Chapter The 63rd, the last one done by that nice Chris Chibnall - whatever happened to him?

Plot: 
Amy and Rory are considering ending their travels with the Doctor, as their real life of work and friends is not getting a look in, they're getting older (though, to be fair, they don't look it), and regularly run out of milk and washing tablets. One day, all across the globe, millions of little black cubes appear everywhere, as if they've fallen from the sky. UNIT think it's an invasion of some kind, but the cubes don't do anything. The Doctor stays with his two friends to observe the cubes, but they still don't do anything; after four days, the domestic life drives the Doctor mad, and he goes back on his travels. Rory's Dad, Brian Williams, continues to monitor the cubes as the Doctor instructed, but everyone else forgets about them; people take them into their homes, use them as paperweights, construct tasks in The Apprentice around selling them (which is a bit stupid given they don't do anything and are in plentiful supply, but it wouldn't be the stupidest task they've ever had on The Apprentice).

Nearly a year on from when the cubes first appeared, the Doctor is making an effort to stay with the Ponds again after being guilt-tripped by Brian, and finally the cubes start doing stuff. After some experimentation, they give people heart attacks, as playing the Birdy Song at them failed to kill. The Doctor gets aboard the bad guys' spaceship via the hospital Rory works at, which is involved (somehow), and meets a hologram thespian who explains the plot to him: the bad guys are intergalactic pest exterminators who see human beings as an infestation, and the cubes are like slug pellets (except for all the myriad ways they're not like slug pellets). With his sonic screwdriver, the Doctor turns off the plot. Brian persuades Amy and Rory to continue to save the world, as that's what makes them happy.

Context:
Watched from the Series 7 Blu-ray box-set while snuggled up on the sofa with the Better Half one wet and windy evening in this so-called English Summer. It's close enough to a 'date movie' Doctor Who story what with the focus on a relationship, and the complete lack of any real jeopardy.

First-time round: 
On the evening of BBC1 broadcast, slightly timeshifted, in September 2012. No special memories of this one, but I do remember I was happy with the general direction of the series, and I enjoyed all the episodes in the short run that is series 7 part 1. Mind you, I'd felt the same, since it was broadcast, of the first half of Peter Capaldi's debut series, but when rewatching Into the Dalek for the blog recently, it wasn't quite as good as I thought. I hope this is a one-off, but tastes do change  (sometimes for the better). Luckily, the quality of The Power of Three was exactly as I remembered.

Reaction:
Let's start by addressing the elephant in the room: Russell T Davies. Chris Chibnall has produced one of those Doctor Who scripts that act as a love letter to another author's work, putting all that author's favourite tropes into a Doctor Who context. Somewhat surprisingly, in this instance he's channelling not Dickens or Agatha Christie but RTD's Doctor Who work, and this only a couple of years after the regime change. Consider the evidence: globe-spanning scenario represented by cut-in excerpts from fake or real news channel programmes, comic cameos from popular figures commenting on events, the invasion not being the main plot but just a backdrop to tell an emotional story about the regular characters, and swathes of online fandom having a problem with the ending. It's textbook Davies, and - given I'm keen on that kind of thing - it was rather marvellous to see it all again. I wonder what Moffat felt about it, though; he'd similarly paid homage to this story template in The Eleventh Hour, his first episode as showrunner, but things had moved on since then. And it does seem from everything I've read that this story was mostly Chibnall bringing ideas to Moffat, rather than Moffat supplying them. Will Chibnall's period in charge see a move back to this kind of story, or was it just a fun one-off experiment?

The ending is obviously flawed; the Doctor literally waves his sonic screwdriver and the machinations of the villains instantly cease. This was a major criticism of many stories produced by Russell T Davies as showrunner, but that was always overblown, and endings rarely happened so easily in any of his stories, certainly not as easily as it happens in The Power of Three. Was this a homage taken too far? Probably not; I remember from Andrew Pixley articles read at the time that there were issues with the narrative and a lot of material was moved around, shaped or lost in the edit. There was for example lots more material about what exactly the two mask-faced guys are up to at Rory's hospital, a thread left loose in the final product. Perhaps defeating the enemy as written was not so easy. Another reason why the ending doesn't work may be where The Power of Three becomes a victim of its own success. The cube plotline, which isn't really the point of proceedings, is really strong; much more so than anything in the RTD era. Davies didn't do much in the way of intrigue: game shows have gone sadistic in the future, there are ghosts walking the Earth, the planet's moved across space; what's the reason? Probably Daleks, isn't it? Or, if not, Cybermen. And that's okay. But the cube set-up is so intriguing and different, probably any explanation and solution offered was going to seem like a let down.

Certainly, the mystery of the cubes is more interesting than the penultimate outing for Amy and Rory, but it runs close. Up until Chibnall got a grip on the characters in 2012, I'd never believed too much in them as a couple. Darvill is excellent and has chemistry with (the excellent here, as he always is) Matt Smith; but, though it is seen as sacrilegious in some quarters to say it, Karen Gillan is limited as an actor, and never works with Smith as well as do Darvill, James Corden, Jenna Coleman or Caitlin Blackwood. But then Chibnall, ably supported by Moffat as commissioning showrunner, makes me care about them, by introducing a character that should arguably have been there from their day one: the person who misses them when they disappear off. Brian turns Rory from being a 2000-year old plastic Roman Centurion into being a son, and turns Amy from being The Girl Who Waited, to being a normal human being. Mark Williams helps things by being excellent, but it's all there on the page. It's not 100% successful, the couple are still slightly less charismatic than a bunch of matt-black cubes, but that only makes one frustrated that this wasn't all set up properly from the beginning.

Other points of note: Kate Stewart is a fantastic addition to the rich tapestry of Doctor Who and UNIT, the music is wonderful, and there are a few cracking gags in there as well as a magic quiet  scene between Gillan and Smith towards the end, possibly their best work together.

Connectivity: 
Both stories have no real monster, just a villain played by an eminent actor; both feature a three person TARDIS crew with one male and one female companion, and both see the Doctor playing a game.


Deeper Thoughts:
Enormous End. Faithful readers of the blog (hello mum!) will have noted me often joking in a blog post that Big Finish will or have covered this or that outrageously nerdy story idea. For those that don't know, Big Finish are a company that make audiobook dramas on CD and download; Doctor Who is their flagship range, but they do lots of others, both spin-offs connected to the wider world of Who (they've had ranges for Torchwood, Sarah Jane, Bernice Summerfield, UNIT, Gallifrey), and other cult telefantasy stuff (Blake's Seven, Terrahawks, Dark Shadows...). The phrase 'less is more' was tailor-made for Big Finish to ignore: they must have been more prodigious and comprehensive than any other Doctor Who merchandise, and that's a big thing in such a crowded market. If there was ever talk in Doctor Who's history that any group of guest characters could have had their own series - even if it was just an idle two-minute conversation in the BBC bar after recording - Big Finish have made it a reality; every corner of Who has been covered, new companions created to extend a Doctor's reign, each era's stars coaxed out of retirement, or recast if mortality prevents such coaxing, abandoned scripts or story ideas finally made, thousands of shiny discs.produced containing hundreds of stories.

I've listened to four of them. This is not because of indifference, but simply available time. I was tempted to spend some of that precious time on their output in the heady days of the early Noughties  when Big Finish persuaded Paul McGann to reprise his role of the Doctor, and it really seemed like this would be the only chance fans would have of a progressing new series of adventures. But, they were only okay, and I stopped after the first four story 'season'. It's odd to think that it was only a couple of years after that a new series of Doctor Who for real on the TV was announced, and any enthusiasm I had for audio-only new stories waned.


As the new series has been going on so long now, Big Finish have obtained the rights to cover elements from the latest twelve years, as well as the twenty-six and a bit before that.  They've started to release some mash-ups of old and new elements, and one I recently read about is almost tempting: new UNIT with old; Kate Stewart and Osgood teamed up with a New Tricks style posse of oldies: Yates, Benton and Jo. Almost tempting, but I'd need to find another 24 hours a day first. Maybe I'll wait until I retire, and then listen to the lot, but how many will have built up by then? I may have to admit it, even as a full-time obsessive, there are so so many more bits of Doctor Who that I could experience, had I but world enough and time, but probably I never will.
 
In Summary:
A victory lap for Amy and Rory, just when I finally didn't want them to leave.