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.

Monday, 7 August 2017

The Celestial Toymaker

Chapter The 62nd, which is slightly racist.

Plot: 
The TARDIS crew find themselves trapped in the realm of a mysterious and powerful being called the Toymaker. To win their freedom and avoid being turned into his toys, they must all go along with the Toymaker's games: the Doctor must play Space Towers of Hanoi for ages after having been turned invisible, while his companions Steven and Dodo have to endure a succession of sinister and twisted (but not that sinister and twisted) versions of childhood favourites like blind man's buff, hopscotch, and - erm - a food fight. This climaxes in a relatively simple stalemate, which nonetheless takes ages to explain: if the Doctor makes his final move and defeats the Toymaker, the realm they are in will vanish taking the TARDIS team with it, but they can't leave until he makes the move. Is this how their travels come to an end? Will they have to stay there forever in torment or - no, no, they've outwitted the Toymaker and scarpered. As you were.


Context:
The Celestial Toymaker is one of the Sixties Doctor Who stories that are sadly incomplete in the BBC archives. Three out of its four episodes are missing, but - thanks to the forethought of young fans back then with tape recorders - the soundtracks to all four exist. Another preservation method in those pre-VCR days, but more for trade than home use, was to get offscreen stills - or 'telesnaps' - taken by an outside contractor (a very specific one, as it seems only one fellow, John Cura, ever offered the service). If engaged, Cura would take a portfolio of shots, on average once every thirty seconds or so, of a TV programme. He was employed on Doctor Who early on, but the second producer of the show, John Wiles, decided Cura's  wares weren't worth the coin, so no offscreen photos exist for his era. The Celestial Toymaker was on the cusp; incoming producer Innes Lloyd is credited as producer, but it was commissioned by Wiles, and Lloyd reinstated telesnaps coverage from the very next story after it. With insufficient visual data, any slide-show reconstruction would have to be so inventive it would be distracting to watch. As such, I stuck with the 2001 CD release with narration by companion actor Peter Purves. After listening to it all the way through, I popped the remaining final episode in the DVD player (it's on the 'Lost in Time' odds and sods compilation box-set). No one from the family was interested in joining me for any part of this.

First-time round: 
In 1991, long before they ran out of complete stories to release on VHS, the Beeb (probably at the behest of 1980s Doctor Who supremo John Nathan-Turner who had a consultant role on the range at that time) put out some special releases to include the orphaned episodes and clips that otherwise would not find a home. These were the Years tapes, and appropriately one of the first releases in June 1991 was The Hartnell Years, covering the first Doctor. Inappropriately, it was presented by Slyvester McCoy and had a 'Latin' version of the Doctor Who theme by Keff McCulloch accompanying its titles. Urggh. It is truly one of most horrible things I've ever had in my ears (and I once had olive oil poured in to dislodge some compacted ear wax). Anyway, one of the three episodes on this tape was The Final Test, episode four of The Celestial Toymaker. It's a bit odd viewed out of context (Slyv was given literally seconds to summarise the plot of episodes 1 to 3 as a lead-in), but it does at least round off a story. It was ten years later in 2001 when the audio CD was released before I found out exactly how it fit together with the rest of the piece.  One mystery was explained: why the electrocuted body of the Cyril character that appears near the end was so inadequate. I thought in 1991 that it was rubbish as it looked just like a doll. Of course, now I realise that it is supposed to look just like a doll.

Reaction:
It was hard to find story connections between this one and the last story covered for the blog (Doctor Who and the Silurians - see below), but maybe they both have one similarity in their production: the money spent has struggled to find its way onto screen. Toymaker was undoubtedly budgeted cheaper than Silurians, but it still was aiming to create a highly visual fantasy world, with colourful childhood imagery of toys and games being the main driving force. The extant episode, though, looks empty and drab, like a contemporary children's game-show rather than a wonderland where godlike beings toy with mortals and all that carry on. It could just be episode 4 that's like that - unless they find the rest it's hard to know - maybe the money had run out by the end. The photos of the costumes and scenes from the earlier episodes do look great, but they are colour stills. In black and white, shot by bulky video cameras moving around Riverside Studio 1, it might not have been so impressive.

The story's a bit 'one note' throughout. Steven and Dodo get a riddle to solve, face some grotesque nursery characters as opponents in a game, these characters end up defeating themselves by dint of one stupidity or another, Steven and Dodo move on; riddle, repeat. No sense of building to a climax, nor much urgency despite the ticking clock of the move counter being referenced regularly. Having the same small repertory company of actors playing this succession of opponents only adds to the effect. There's also a lot of tell not show: lots of speeches about how powerful the Toymaker is, but no real evidence. The obvious sign of this power is demonstrated when toys turn into beings and back again, which mostly happens in those pesky missing episodes; maybe that sells it. The only similar effect in the available episode, mind, was mistaken by me for a decade as just being a rubbish dummy (see above), which doesn't inspire one with confidence that those moments in episodes 1-3 were spectacular and chilling. The ending too, is very talky. The predicament and its resolution are both neat bits of business, but it just takes too much time, and too much rabbit, to deliver.

Michael Gough is as good as you'd expect, playing arguably the first sci-fi supervillain in Doctor Who history; you could say Mavic Chen did it first a few stories earlier, but he's just a corrupt politician and doesn't have any powers per se; anyway, whoever we give the honour, the seeds were planted and the OTT protagonist took root henceforth. Another interesting innovation is that this story acts as a sequel to an unseen backstory adventure, where the Doctor has encountered and escaped the Toymaker before; this also would prove to a useful device in the series' future, being used often in the years to come. The story's themes chime with contemporary obsessions: its exploration of the dark corners of childhood, primary-coloured psychedelic grab bag of imagery, and Lewis Carroll-esque whimsical surrealism would all infuse 1960s pop media from Sergeant Pepper through to the White Album, so Doctor Who was ahead of the curve here in 1966.

Another less happy element that's 'of its time' is the unfortunate and unnecessary racism; the use of the 'Jeremy Clarkson' version of Eeny Meeny Miny Moe is perhaps not so bad (it's not very foregrounded, to the extent that the audio version uses a bit of narration to mask it, leaving the listener hard pressed to notice anything's gone); but, once you find out that 'celestial' can also mean oriental, the depiction of the Toymaker as a Chinese mandarin, with - it's hard to tell from the surviving visual material - maybe a touch of yellowing up and eyebrow work on the actor too, all makes it less forgivable. The jury's still out on whether any of this was deliberate, and it's somewhat overshadowed by Doctor Who's much more blatant transgressions in a later story where another white actor wears a similar get-up, is similarly described using the celestial double-meaning, but this time is unmistakably and outrageously made-up. And this was ten years later, when such things were even less socially accepted. But we'll get to that when we get to it.

Connectivity: 
They both have a featured character that holds the rank of sergeant... I think that's about it. They don't even have the TARDIS in common, as it didn't feature in Doctor Who and the Silurians, although The Celestial Toymaker contains about twenty TARDISes to make up for it.

Deeper Thoughts:
Odd? Balls. This is one of those early episodes about which an official reputation hardened sometime in the late seventies / early eighties. It was unassailable in those days as an experimental but excellent episode. It's probably objectively only average; certainly that's the more recent consensus - it came 197th out of 241 in the last major Doctor Who Magazine poll - but, it was clearly felt to be shockingly different in feel to all the episodes around it when it was first shown, which made it stand out to the young fans watching that would later become the taste-makers of early Doctor Who fandom. The regular fanzine of the Doctor Who appreciation Society was named Celestial Toyroom rather than, say, Small Prophet, Quick Return or The Sea Beggar. In the later production period of the aforementioned John Nathan-Turner, these stories that did something a bit weird or stylised came to have a categorisation of their own; they were known as 'oddball' stories. 

Putting aside the very un-Who and somewhat playground bully tactics of categorising those different from the perceived norm, betraying a lack of imagination regarding approaches the show should and shouldn't take, this is also rather forgetful about Doctor Who's origins. When first established, the parameters of the show were that the TARDIS could take our heroes forwards, backwards and sideways. The last of these three story types always proved more challenging than the other two. I've written recently about a long gestation of the very first 'sideways' idea they had, an adventure into the dimension of dimensions, when the TARDIS crew are miniaturised. This was mentioned in the series bible and planned for the first ever story, but eventually struggled onto screens at the start of the second season. Before that, they'd managed one bottle episode early on with psychodramas happening within the TARDIS; the next truly 'sideways' efforts were The Celestial Toymaker, and then The Mind Robber, several years later. So, they were rare, but they did happen, and were encoded into the show's DNA from the off. Additionally, a house style had never established itself in those days, and even if a particular story had a fairly straightforward plot, there was still scope to use a wild variety of different styles and tones in its realisation.

By the time of Turner's tenure, the backwards stories had fallen out of favour as well, of course, and the tone was something they were more restrictive about; but, Who is never about abiding by a formula, and - to give him his due - JNT did allow a few more 'oddballs' to slip in later on: The Happiness Patrol, Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and arguably all of Slyvester McCoy's first season. The spirit has continued in the new series, and there's still room for the odd experimental show like Extremis or Listen or Heaven Sent, and out and out oddballs like Amy's Choice, which - aside from a preposterous explanation tacked on the end - takes place completely in a domain of dreams, and  - aside from a slightly more satisfying explanation tacked on the end - has an adversary every bit as enigmatic as the Toymaker.


In Summary:
Talking of riddles: I can't remember for the life of me the other Doctor Who guest role Micheal Gough played. And it's doing my Hedin.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Doctor Who and the Silurians

Chapter The 61st, is strong, long and the title's very wrong.

Plot: 
The Third Doctor and Liz are summoned (forthwith) to join the Brigadier at a research centre based in Pat Troughton's Season 5 (futuristic but plausible science base overseen by rigid boss headed for a nervous breakdown, which has been infiltrated by monsters - Bingo!). These monsters are not invaders, though, they're from prehistoric Earth - an intelligent reptile species from a completely different period than the Silurian era. They went into cryo-sleep hundreds of millennia ago in nearby caves, to avoid an impending global catastrophe that never materialised. Some members of the hibernating group were woken up by the humans' activity, and they've been tapping the centre's power since in order to revive the rest. This has caused the mysterious power losses that the Brig and his men are investigating. The Doctor persuades the creature's leader to discuss a peaceful solution to share the Earth with the humans; but, before that can happen, the leader is deposed and killed by a young pretender, who then releases a plague to wipe out the human race. The Doctor and Liz find a cure, and the Brig (against the Doctor's wishes) blows up the caves and entombs the Silurians, or whatever they're called.

Context:
Watched across the course of approximately a week from the DVD, with the whole family. The Better Half dropped in and out, depending on mood, but all the children (boys of 11 and 7, girl of 5) stuck with it, and there was lots of (frankly, unexpected) chanting of their standard "Next ep, next ep" refrain when the end credits of each episode rolled. Indeed, the last three episodes - which cover the plague subplot and pretty much act as a discrete mini-adventure in their own right - were watched in one Sunday afternoon binge. The level of engagement from the kids was high. The youngest was amused through the early episodes, where the Silurian costume is teased with the odd glimpse here and there, exclaiming "When are we going to see the Monster Man!" at regular intervals, and later admonishing the onscreen Silurians with "You're never gonna get away with this!". Best of all, she joyously commentated on the scenes of the Doctor and Liz in the lab working on the antidote: with a nod she said "They're doing science", followed up with "I love watching them do science". Producer of this show Barry Letts, as I've said before and will say again, should have had more faith in his audience: he famously ditched Liz after one series as he thought it would be alienating to have the leads be two intelligent scientists. But we love watching them do science.

First-time round:
I'm trying to remember if I ever saw this story in black and white. Unlike the made-in-monochrome 60s, the 1970s era has all its episodes present in the BBC archives, many located and returned from abroad after the original master copies were wiped (as was the practice at the time). Not all the returned episodes were in colour, though; a lot of international broadcasters could not handle colour video or film, and they instead bought black and white film copies from the BBC; in many instances, including Doctor Who and the Silurians, that was the only broadcast-quality version that was ever found. In November 1992, some very clever Doctor Who fans - who moonlighted as TV technicians - invented a clever way to restore the colour to those episodes, by merging it in from inferior quality versions that had been taped from colour repeats on US TV. The first story to get this treatment was The Daemons, and it was followed up by Doctor Who and the Silurians the following year, restored using the same process.

Before then, only back and white copies were in circulation for certain stories. I'd seen a pirate tape of The Daemons by then, so knew what I'd been missing chroma-wise, but I think I'd only seen clips of Silurians at the most, so the first time I saw it in full was in colour in July 1993; I was back in Worthing during the long Summer vac from Uni, and I rushed back from town clutching the VHS double-pack purchased from Volume One, my favoured supplier in those days. The Daemons 'Redux' was deemed so miraculous it was granted a terrestrial repeat on BBC2; Doctor Who and the Silurians had to wait until December 1999 - when it had been further restored - for a similar honour. I remember catching one episode of that run in a hotel room of an evening, when I was being put up to do a course for my day job of the time.

This 1999 showing was the second story in an ill-fated run of repeats, intending to run through everything from Jon Pertwee's debut onwards; but it was a hiding to nothing - the following story, The Ambassadors of Death, had only been restored in patches, due to lack of available colour bits. There was no way the Beeb was going to show a partly or wholly black and white story in the 1990s, even on BBC2; so, the repeats fizzled out. Those clever fans didn't stop there, though. It was just the start of a 20+ year mission, for them and other clever people who joined them along the way, to bring back colour to all stories that had lost it, and now - by many different means - they have achieved this, closed up those grey gaps in the colourful Jon Pertwee era, and released them all on DVD. More evidence that Doctor Who has the most creative fans ever.

Reaction:
Let's get the title out of the way first: he's not called Doctor Who (I don't care what Steven Moffat may have recently said in an interview) and they're not called Silurians. The 'and' and the 'the' are the only bits that are approaching correct. Title aside, though, I rather like this one. I knew it was worthy, but this time I was surprised by how watchable it also is. Since the show had settled in to being the Doctor versus the Monsters, Good versus Evil, which developed as the theme during Hartnell's time and became set as the template with Patrick Troughton, Doctor Who hadn't done much in the way of moral ambiguity, and hadn't bothered to differentiate too much between the attitudes of individual members of the alien species it included. All that is brought back with a vengeance here.

It's also played straight, like all of season 7. The Brig is not written as an idiot, as he would later be, but as a professional that conflicts with the Doctor, but still retains an underlying warmth that neither man will perhaps admit is friendship, but is nonetheless. As an example, there's a tiny but wonderful moment where the Brigadier calls our hero "Doctor Watson", which is - it probably barely needs saying - expertly played by both actors, as every moment is here. The Doctor is affable though sometimes brusque, and doesn't edge into the off-putting peeved acting that he sometimes did in future series. Then, there's Caroline John as Liz Shaw, slightly softened from her debut appearance, but still nobody's fool. The Doctor gets to act paternally about her occasionally, but it doesn't cloy, as she gives as good as she gets, and both are written as adults if not quite equals. Every moment with the Three-Liz-Brig team is magic, and a year is not long enough in their company; it's very similar, in fact, to the triumvirate of regulars whose run has just ended too soon in 2017; we're left wanting more.

The plot is slick and intriguing. Writer Malcolm Hulke manages to sustain the mystery for over three episodes without the pace dragging at all; part of the reason for this is that the action is driven forward by character subplots. Fulton Mackay, who's in particularly fine form as the smarmy Dr. Quinn, lying through his smiling teeth all the time while hiding a deadly secret, is the engine of that beginning section. What is Quinn hiding? As the story enters another phase, the baton is passed to another flawed three-dimensional character, then another, and they're all excellently drawn and filled out: Baker, Masters, Lawrence; and then there's Captain Hawkins, played by a young Paul Darrow, the regular who alas never was. All men, though. Aside from Liz, the only significant female role is Thomasine Heiner as Miss Dawson, who does some subtle work expressing her unrequited love for Quinn, which after his death turns her into perhaps the most dangerous exponent of war with the Silurians. But she is wholly defined in relation to a male character, and once Quinn is gone, she's abruptly pushed off stage too. It's a shame, and not just for the obvious reason of equal representation. As every other guest cast member has been offed once their dramatic crisis point was reached, and the research centre is sparsely populated by the end, it might have been better to have Miss Dawson still operating the controls. Otherwise, it's just extras and people we know aren't going to die being put through the ultimate threat. It damages our emotional engagement at the climax.

If anything lets the side down in this story, it's the visuals. Some of this is probably as a result of the restoration work creating some unwanted artifacts but, even without that, the cave sets and the Silurian base are a bit tatty looking and lacking in detailing. The Cyclotron room, which is big and presumably had a bit of money spent on it, doesn't really look all that. The musical score too is disproportionately unimpressive to some compared to the investment. It's intellectually very satisfying that composer Carey Blyton arranged the music to underscore the Silurians' appearances using archaic instruments to indicate their prehistoric nature; but, if that means it sounds like the key motifs are being played on a kazoo, I can see how it would be unsettling to some people (me, I love it, but I'm a sucker for Carey Blyton's Doctor Who work). One last thought: did I miss it, or do they never fully explain the headaches and high levels of absenteeism that are uncovered as part of UNIT's investigation, which are highlighted as significant early on, but then forgotten about? Is it something the Silurians are doing, or something to do with the Cyclotron, or just a coincidence? We may never know.

Connectivity: 
Like Into The Dalek, this story features disagreements with soldiers, and negotiations with a friendlier individual member of a race while the rest of its kind are hostile.

Deeper Thoughts:
It's what you do with it that counts. At seven episodes duration, Doctor Who and the Silurians is the longest story yet tackled for the blog. One of the advantages that random jumping through the back catalogue has over watching in order is that the stories seem to be longer in the early years of Who, and it can feel like a slog. On closer examination, though, I find that may be something of a false impression: in the first twenty odd years of the series, the vast majority of stories are 4 or 6 parters, with a rare 2 or 3 parter here and there. A mere nine oversized outliers, three apiece for the first three Doctors, exist; Pertwee's three are all in his first year, so from 1971 onwards there is nothing longer than 6 episodes again (Trial of a Timelord, nominally a 14 episode epic, is being treated as four separate stories for the purposes of this blog, chiefly because it is not a 14 episode epic and is four separate stories, so there!). Specific circumstances dictated some of the nine's extra length: a couple of scripts fell through in Troughton's final year, so many stories, including his swansong The War Games, were stretched to fill the gaps, and a 12 episode Dalek story was deliberately commissioned for William Hartnell's era, as it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

The remainder of the nine are all seven episodes long, like the Silurians story. Though it doesn't seem like much - only an episode more than the standard 6-parters - the addition of that one extra part does something significant to the structure, forcing the author to find more incident to sustain the running time. In this story, it necessitates the need for the plague subplot; my eldest picked up on this, and said he thought it might have been better to have two separate stories (lizard men, plague) rather than lump them together. That's the issue in a nutshell; seven eps is long, but not quite long enough to be special, and if it forces you to bring in strong subplots, why not just do two stories and give yourself the extra marketing potential of more 'opening nights'. Barry Letts took over the producer role for Doctor Who during Jon Pertwee's first season, and he inherited a season structure where there were three - three! - seven-episode stories in a row. This was dictated not by story but by cost (making the most out of the sets created for each new tale), but it was a straitjacket, and it was understandably changed as quickly as possible. More by luck than judgement they all turned out to be very strong stories, but I'd still recommend not often watching them back to back.

Even though they were never perhaps so long early on as one would think, the average length of a story has reduced as Doctor Who has endured. Nowadays, multi-episode stories and cliffhangers are mostly for special occasions, and the norm is a single 45 minute-long story, the rough equivalent of the old 2-parter. This can mean that new Who loses out on depth, but it makes up for that with sparing use of the longer tale (a story like Human Nature, for example, could not have been told effectively in one episode) and weaving in elements to tell a longer story arc over the course of a series. The quality of results have differed over the years, as one would expect them to; experimentation doesn't and shouldn't stop. In 2015, an attempt to do more longer stories ended up being a bit plodding, but this latest year was better for doing more one-offs.

In fact, the only slightly bum note for me of a generally successful 2017 run came in the final one of the sequence of three linked 'Monks' stories. I loved Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World, and I wanted to love The Lie of the Land. In the end, though, it suffered too much from inflated expectations in being the end of a trilogy. It would have been stronger if the aliens in control were completely new to the audience at the beginning of the episode, and it also wouldn't have felt so easy at the end when they were banished if we'd only seen them around for 45 minutes instead of three whole weeks. The earlier two shows would have had to have been rewritten, obviously, but they'd have withstood that. We'd also have had eleven precious stories to treasure from the Twelve-Bill-Nardole era, instead of what feels like only nine.

In Summary:
The Doctor and the Reptile Earthmen.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Into the Dalek

Chapter The 60th, where a new Doctor is still proving to be surprising.

Plot: 
The Doctor is suffering from a not previously mentioned or suspected crisis of conscience and hatred of soldiers, the sort of obsessions he has sometimes that only last for exactly one year. He arrives at Coal Hill School and drags Clara off into a Dalek/Human battle in some unspecified corner of Space-Time so they can both be miniaturised and injected into a rusty Dalek that has malfunctioned and is now good. The Doctor fixes the Dalek and it becomes bad again, and he seems unduly surprised by this fairly obvious turn of events. Outside, the Dalek calls in all its mates and everyone starts getting exterminated; on the inside, the Doctor and Clara try to make the Dalek good again, by reawakening its suppressed memories, and connecting its brain to the Doctor's. This works, but only because the Dalek is convinced by the Doctor's overwhelming hatred that all Daleks should be destroyed. In other news, a teacher called Danny Pink starts at Coal Hill, and agrees to go on a date with Clara. He'll likely last exactly a year too.

Context:
Watched on my own one evening on Blu-ray, then I watched it again the following night just to familiarise myself with the details, as it was one of those odd episodes that I hadn't rewatched very often, and it had maybe not touched the sides of my mind when it first went out. I don't know why this might be, it should have been a big one: first regular episode after the post-regeneration feature-length special the week before, big name director, and a new Doctor getting his first face-off with the Daleks.

First-time round:
So, why when I watched this on its first BBC1 broadcast in 2014 did it not make much of an impression on me? It's a different angle on a Dalek story. Trouble is, this different angle is utterly hackneyed. Shrinking the heroes had been done at least three times before in Doctor Who, as well as in countless other shows and films. The very first Doctor Who story was originally intended to be the same 'minscules' idea, and it eventually got made (as Planet of Giants) in the first recording block. 

Another reason might have been my mood at the time of watching, a little down at having to imminently go back to work after a couple of weeks of Summer leave. We'd had friends round and drinks for Deep Breath, then the family had spent some time away, in a Doctor Who themed holiday cottage no less, the Pet Shop Boys had cameoed in The Archers and all had been alright in the world; now it was time to get back to the everyday. I think Doctor Who itself was going through something similar. The 50th anniversary hoopla was still fresh in our minds, Capaldi's debut had been shown in cinemas across the globe, and had been preceded by the show's stars going on a world tour for flip's sake. This wasn't sustainable, and perhaps - just a little bit - everything from Into the Dalek onwards feels like the hangover after a big party.

Reaction:
As they do with US presidents in their second term, people often see the outgoing holder of the role, once a successor has been named, as something of a lame duck Doctor. This might be why lately there seem to be more and more rumblings of discontent in that arena of truth and fairness that is the internet about Capaldi's era as a whole. Unscientific analysis time: most people seem to be frustrated wanting more as they enjoyed his final year, but only enjoyed one out of his two years before that. Interestingly, these people seem to break evenly into two camps - one camp loved the stories of the abrasive short-haired Doctor of Capaldi's first series, but hated the offerings featuring the Sonic Sunglasses Kid the year after; the other camp, of course, vice versa. I am in the first camp; I loved the run from Deep Breath to Last Christmas, and was underwhelmed by 2015's stories (Heaven Sent excepted). Maybe the stories were better in 2014 (they were certainly shorter); but, it could be more because of people's expectations of how much darkness they want from the lead. I have a lot of tolerance for a Doctor that can be caustic, particularly if he has a companion to act as his conscience (or - as it's put, in Into The Dalek's best line, "[She's] my carer, she cares so I don't have to.")

That's not to say the darkness of series 8 doesn't sometimes overstep the mark. When the blog gets to it, there's scope for reams of arguments back and forth as to whether Dark Water / Death In Heaven is an unflinching look at mortality or a ghoulishly insensitive mess; but nothing in 2014 to my mind comes close to being as wrong as, say, Sleep No More from 2015. Into the Dalek edges toward that mark with the Doctor's callousness around Ross's death, giving him - and the audience - false hope; but he does that to save everyone else, so you sort of forgive him, until they find themselves in the Dalek's internal equivalent of a charnel house, and the Doctor explains that Ross is also here, liquefied, as the "top layer, if you want to say a few words".

The Doctor is being painted in a negative light both in the Ross section, and at the end where the resolution is dependent on his levels of internal hate. This would make more story sense if he weren't already questioning himself at the beginning of the story, before any of this has happened. It's a very odd structural mistake: Doctor has crisis of conscience before he goes on punishing adventure that highlights his flaws? All it needs is to swap the "Be a pal, am I a good man?" bit to the end, and it makes everything so much better.  Otherwise, it makes his soul-searching seem so hollow when he's being cold about characters' deaths and prejudiced about the possibility of Rusty's redemption. It's not the only flaw too: the characters are a bit nothingy, and the narrative steers too close to quite a few previous adventures of the soldiers of Skaro, particularly 2005's Dalek. It is brave, perhaps, to be pretty much quoting the "You would make a good Dalek" line from that earlier show here, in a not nearly as well told tale.

In the positive column, the visuals are very good (creating tiny worlds blown up large always seems to bring the best out of any designer), and the piece is directed with the quality you'd expect of feature film man Ben Wheatley. The music is excellent too, and the fun scenes between Clara and Danny zip along with considerable verve. By grounding her character, it finally provides Jenna Coleman decent material with which to work: there's really nothing in her stories from the previous year and a bit that's as good as those Coal Hill scenes. Also, there's the refreshing air of promise one gets from the beginning of these story arcs. 'Will time-travelling get in the way of Clara and Danny falling in love?' is so much more immediate and interesting a dramatic question than 'What's the secret of the impossible girl?'. And - as clumsily as it's handled - the Doctor's quest for a sense of self has more meaning than cracks in walls, or astronaut suits, or any other timey-wimey nonsense. 

Connectivity: 
Grumpy Doctor - check. Callous quips after someone gets killed - check. The Doctor and female companion teamed up with three local rebel characters, rapidly reduced to two, who make their way through an enclosed environment full of dangers, while other characters watch their progress on screens - check...

Deeper Thoughts:
Tales of the Expected. Doctor Who fans - not Whovians, never Whovians - have to brave some hostile territory occasionally. On Sunday 16th July 2017, my people - my poor suffering people - had to watch the post Wimbledon Men's Singles final commentators blather on for, like, minutes before BBC1 showed us who the new Doctor was, and excitingly it was... the person whose odds had narrowed in the couple of days before the announcement, and whose name therefore had been all over the corners of the internet where nerds congregate. It's not really a spoiler if you're tipped off by an accumulation of strong indicators rather than a deliberate confirmation from someone in the know, but it still feels just like a spoiler. You may be thinking to yourself that if I'd wanted the full surprise I should have stayed clear of any forums or feeds; but, it was only through the forums and feeds that I knew there was going to be an announcement in the first place; I'd never have been watching post-match analysis of tennis for pleasure. Anyway, I'd still have been speculation-spoilered by the front page of a national newspaper peeking out at me on Sunday while I queued for groceries (is there any mileage, do you think, in legislation to force English tabloids to be in plain wrapping, like cigarettes, so I don't need to see their ghastly bile and hypocrisy?)

It was the same for Peter Capaldi's announcement; I knew the right name a day before it was official, from internet gossip and reports of bets being placed; in 2013, it was a shiny floor BBC1 entertainment show to wade through rather than sport, but it didn't make it much better. The bad thing this time was that it deflated what should have been a magical moment. My reaction was 'oh it is Jodie Whittaker' instead of 'OMG it's Jodie Whittaker'. Instead, my excitement gradually built through that Sunday afternoon and evening at this excellent bit of casting. Firstly, obviously, they have cast a woman to play the Doctor. I predicted this, of course (see the Deeper Thoughts section of The Crimson Horror post for full details, fact fans). It was an idea whose time had come, oooh, at least two regenerations ago, probably earlier, so it is no surprise it's happening now, but that shouldn't take anything away from how marvellous it is. My post in February this year was a little pessimistic, worrying that the writing would get too bogged down in the biological details of this change; I hope I'm wrong. The Doctor's the hero and should just get on with saving the universe, there's no need to dwell on the chromosome that's disappeared, or Y.

It's a great actor that's been cast. I realise, if imdb.com is correct, that I've followed her since her very first on screen role, a memorable turn in an Alan Plater TV play in 2006 ("The Last Will and Testament of Billy Two-Sheds") and she's been in loads of great stuff since. I've never seen her play anything remotely like the Doctor, but - hell - that's part of why this is such a revolutionary move: women don't get to play characters like the Doctor enough, but she will hopefully change all that. It was at first disconcerting, but gradually more and more intriguing, not to have the slightest inkling of how an actor is going to approach the role. The closest analogue I can think of is when Christopher Eccleston was cast, not because of Northern accents, or that they've worked together in the past: this is an actor known for grounded performances within mainly realist settings, but now being thrillingly asked for something more, something new. But Eccleston had done The Second Coming, at least, Whittaker's take on far out science-fantasy is a completely unknown quantity. So, the lack of surprise I felt at the announcement is more than compensated for. It will be sad to say goodbye to Capaldi, but I can't wait for Christmas, or the New Year.

Finally, one other point to note, one I'm not proud of or anything but it happens to be the truth, and I may as well get it off my chest now, as I'm sure I'm not alone: I love Jodie Whittaker. I love her. I luurvve her. A massive teenage-boy crush. I will have to learn to reconcile these strange stirrings I'm feeling suddenly for my sexless childhood hero. The Better Half can hopefully help me get through it; after all, she just about navigated a similar reaction on her part during the David Tennant years. Just about. Get behind me, unworthy feelings - I need to be better that that, I need a role model. Luckily, I have one, and she's called the Doctor.

In Summary:
Into the Dalek, betrothed and divine... Ahoy! Ahoy! Land, sea and sky, Ahoy! Ahoy! Boy, man and soldier... 

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Vengeance on Varos

Chapter The 59th, which is a bit clever and a bit meta.

Plot: 
The TARDIS runs out of a fuel element, Zeiton-7, that's never been mentioned before and never is mentioned again, but apparently is crucial. The Doctor finds just about enough energy to land on the planet Varos, the only place Zeiton-7 ore is found. At this stage in its history, Varos has moved on from its beginnings as a prison planet, but is still run by a brutal and repressive civil service / aristocracy descended from the original guards. The populace is kept in check with the televised brutality of rebellions being quashed. The planet's exports are ruthlessly exploited for a fraction of their true worth by free marketeers, represented by the reptilian lifeform, Sil. Varos's nominal leader, the Governor, is randomly selected, and forced through regular votes with physical punishment for those that go against him, and eventual death. The Doctor and Peri leave the TARDIS and rescue the most dull and earnest people on the planet (a couple of rebels) then proceed to get chased, escape, get captured, escape again, get past many tortures and booby traps, and finally liberate everyone. A couple of the Varosian viewers, Arak and Etta, who've been watching and enjoying all this, wonder bleakly at the end whether liberation will be all that good, really.

Context:
Watched on special edition DVD on a Saturday afternoon with all three of the little 'uns (boys of 11 and 7, girl of 5). I had my feet - well, foot - up, as I'd strained or possible sprained my Achilles tendon a couple of days before. Colin Baker stories are always a good choice when one's under the weather, I always find; no idea why. Afterwards, I asked the assembled council of youth to vote - somewhat appropriate given the subject matter - on whether what they'd seen was too violent or scary, they voted 2 to 1 against. The youngest was the one who said it was, but she hadn't needed so much as a hug during it, so take that with a pinch of salt.

First-time round:
I watched episode 1 on its first BBC1 broadcast, a Saturday night in January 1985. For some reason, I missed episode 2. I thought it may have been one of the couple of Saturdays that year when a friend, whose name I've now sadly forgotten, invited me to use his Dad's available season ticket, and we went together to a home match of Brighton and Hove Albion at the old Goldstone ground. After the matches, I couldn't make it home quite in time to catch Who (this was what the pre-video years were like, you lucky young things). Minimal internet research, though, tells me there was no home match that day - it also told me that watching the Seagulls beat Cardiff City 1-0 was what made me miss episode 2 of the following story The Mark of the Rani. So, whatever I was doing as a 12-year old on a Saturday in early 1985 that was more interesting than Doctor Who is now lost in the mists of memory; perhaps I was out enjoying my youth, but... that doesn't seem too likely, does it?!

Episode 2 was on one of many tapes lent to me by my university fan friend David during the first Christmas break from studying at Durham; so, I would have finally caught up with the ending some time in December 1991; curiously, I don't remember having an incomplete picture of it from all those years of only having seen the first half. You do get what's being said from the first episode alone, and the rest is just running around and a couple of old blokes in nappies. (I just saw David at a college reunion this last weekend gone, by the by, along with Phil, who I've also mentioned here, and a number of other old chums of various levels of Doctor Who interest: Tim, Kev, Rich and Mark - hello fellahs!)

Reaction:
Watching BBC4's continuing run of Top of the Pops repeats, which has now reached 1984 (thereby covering the period of Vengeance on Varos's writing and production), gives some indication of the cultural forces in play at the time. There was emphasis throughout the early 1980s on the glossy and commercial, but with a big strain of overtly left-wing political new wave underneath, and also avant garde inflected electronica and jazz pop starting off on the fringes, but gradually merging into the mainstream. Philip Martin's script is a product of this time of transition. It riffs with and subverts the televisual form, but not as wildly as much of his earlier work; it satirises Thatcherism, but does not go all out with the agitprop; and, above all, it manages to be a slick and smooth commercial product. The script is - hardly surprisingly given the calibre of its author, and the somewhat patchy nature of the rest of what was offered that year - far and away the best thing written for the 1985 season. It's a shame that it wasn't the script given to the envelope-pushing Graeme Harper to direct, and instead got the rather more quotidian Ron Jones assigned.

Jones's work is not all bad; there are some points towards the end of episode 2 where the required tension and energy is sadly lacking, but it mostly gets by; balanced against that, great casting decisions result in some excellent performances. I'll go out on a limb and say Martin Jarvis's work here is not just one of the best turns in the history of Who, but also some of the best work he's ever done, and he's never given anything less than an excellent performance in anything ever. The Governor is a complex character with lots going on under the surface, and Jarvis never looks like he's acting once. Effortless. Nabil Shaban gives everything he's got to make Sil memorable and effective (Russell T Davies subconsciously must have stored away the idea of a static profit-obsessed villain flanked by two attendants who regularly have to moisturise their employer), and lots of other characters are very well performed. The main issues with acting are with the two goodie guests, Jason Connery and Geraldine Alexander, who are stilted, but even that may be a choice. These are over earnest speechifier Trots; perhaps the aim was to make them satirically a little wooden (Connery inappropriately tries to engage his 'fellow men' in political discourse at a moment of peril when they're just about to eat him). If that was the idea then it backfired a bit, as they tend to suck some of the life out of their scenes.

Nicola Bryant doesn't get to do much, but Colin Baker plays a blinder after a shaky start; once he's emerged from the TARDIS, he's at his most Doctorish, offbeat and disarming, offering quickfire explanations, rushing off down corridors, being brave. The only exceptions to this are the early scenes set in the TARDIS where he sits and sulks because his ship won't work. This is no criticism of Baker, he's just playing what's on the page; but, why, at the start of things when the audience is supposed to be drawn in to the story, is the main character being written as static and apathetic. It's screenwriting 101: do not do this. Throughout the initial few minutes, every time it cuts back to the console room, a little part of one's enjoyment dies. I expect that these scenes were written as filler by Saward, but I don't want to check just in case Martin was responsible for such dross.

The dialogue crackles with some lovely dark comic zingers, far too many to single out. Design-wise, it mostly rises above its set-bound cheap production status, though it does sadly usher in the era of rubbish vehicles in the studio that are supposed to add verisimilitude but which any character can escape at a walking pace. I don't know if these particular ones were provided by Bootsy and Ferret who became ubiquitous for this later. The music by Jonathan Gibbs is a cut above (I hope it was a deliberate joke in a script where the natives worship "The Great Video" that the fanfare accompanying the Governor's broadcast bears a strong similarity to the BBC Video ident music which started to appear on sell-through Doctor Who tapes at around this time). The writing covers a lot, managing to touch on hysteria about video nasties, the moral vacuum of neo-liberal economics, the undemocratic nature of referenda, as well as doing some familiar Orwell / Stasi informer-next-door stuff, and having characters escape into ventilation ducts. Like all good writing it is endlessly applicable: the material about elected representatives being just as much prisoners as those they represent could have been written for Theresa May's incumbency. Quillam and his implausible body transmogrification antics is probably a villain and a concept too far, but it isn't too badly integrated.

Talking of not being integrated, Varos is unique for the presence of Arak and Etta, a (probably) married couple acting as Greek chorus, voting and watching the events of the story unfold on their vid-screen. They get most of the best lines in the piece, and add a nice ironic complexity with their final scene, the last moment of episode 2, and one of the best endings of a Doctor Who story. I think, though, that there is an implicit promise made during the action, given Who's usual structure, that the Doctor will run into their quarters at some point in the action. I'm not sure whether it's a strength or a weakness that he never does, and they maintain their disconnected presence throughout.

Connectivity: 
Both Vengeance on Varos and The Runaway Bride include politicians (or at least the mention of them in the latter's case), dodgy corporate entities, slow novelty vehicles being driven indoors, and mini-beasts that are not so mini- (although the fly beastie's size in Varos is just a hallucination).

Deeper Thoughts:
Violence on Varos? This is one of a handful of Doctor Who stories notorious for overstepping the mark with regards to violence in some people's opinion. And, with the announcement of the actor to play the 13th Doctor still a few hours away at the time of writing, I have time to muse upon this, and I think the story is fine. I've never had a problem with violence, horror, brutality or gore in anything I've ever watched at any age. I don't believe there is anything morally wrong with any level of violence in a piece of drama; it might be aesthetically wrong, or wrong for a particular character, but never wrong in and of itself, and I very much reject the idea that violence in dramatic or written form can influence the consumer to perform acts of violence. There are many and complex reasons why any person commits violence, and it's always been a gross oversimplification, often motivated by a hidden political agenda, whenever a public individual or group gets into a self-righteous tizzy about TV, horror films, Tarantino flicks, video games, Marilyn Manson songs, etc. etc. Tipper Gore was no friend of mine, neither Mary Whitehouse.

Recently, though, I read a quote which challenged me; it was by Irving Kristol and went thus: "If you believe that no one was ever corrupted by a book, you have also to believe that no one was ever improved by a book.” Now, I happened across this as just a quote, out of context of a particular work or body of work, and I'd never heard of Kristol, so I looked him up. He is held by some commentators to be 'the father of Neo-Conservatism'; okay, so it's unlikely we were going to agree given our polar political persuasions. That shouldn't, though, prevent me from giving his point of view a chance. Is what he states in the quote self-evidently true? No. Isn't it possible for an activity to be wholly improving? Good book or bad book, it is I think wholly possible for the act of reading to not allow any possibility of corruption. Reading is training for the mind, and like exercise it can be seen to have a wholly improving effect. Sure, you might have a heart attack while jogging, but that's a risk not a corruption caused by the act; and, in reading like in jogging, the risks are contingent upon one's state - mental or physical - when one embarks on the activity, they aren't created by the activity itself.

Someone can be trained to be violent, of course; but that's going to take more than a TV programme or a film or a book, or even constant exposure to such material. If that wasn't the case, then the armed forces would just be plonking recruits in front of a home theatre for a few weeks, as that's got to be cheaper than boot camp. Violence takes effort, it is not going to be the path of least resistance in a civilised environment like what we live in. So, what then of children? Does this mean I advocate letting children watch whatever they like? Well, no, but that's because there are other factors at play with kids. I don't believe they can be corrupted, but there is the risk of innocent imitation of what's seen on screen, so that always has to be a concern. Beyond that, though, children have different levels of sensitivity, and there's a chance they might be upset (but probably not ever traumatised) by what they see.

The issue with a child getting upset is not that you're going to give them nightmares: kids need nightmares as well as dreams for their development, and a parent has to deal compassionately with both; that's the definition of being a parent. No, it's more that upset and sensitivity will impede their understanding: best to wait a few years and try again. Stories are the medicine balls and dumbbells of understanding, and one needs to try all kinds to get a full work-out. Stories that show pain (which is usually the reason why violence exists in a narrative) are vital. Vengeance on Varos shows pain and torture as the symptoms of a society that's gone wrong, and that's a useful lesson; but, more controversially, it shows that brutality can be attractive; that's just as important a lesson, and just as much true. Stories exist in Who and elsewhere that show that pain can be unjust, shocking, endurable, destructive, pacifying, galvanising, sad and even funny. They have to, because all of that is true.

In Summary:
A video export that entertains as well as instructs.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Runaway Bride

Chapter The 58th, you wait ages for a Christmas special and then two come along in succession.

Plot: 
Just after his final ever pan-dimensional encounter (for a bit) with Rose, the Doctor is shocked to see a woman called Donna, in a bride's dress for her Christmas Eve wedding, appear in the TARDIS. She'd been halfway up the aisle and went all glowing and disappeared. The Doctor tries to get her back to the church on time, but due to confrontations with Santa robots and a high-speed cab chase, she misses the appointed hour. The robots turn up at the reception venue after our heroes, and unleash all sorts of festive paraphernalia that turns nasty (well, if something works one Christmas, it quickly can turn into a tradition).

The Doctor's investigations into why such an ordinary person as Donna is being pursued by this Santa squad lead him, accompanied by Donna and her fiancee Lance, to the HQ of H. C. Clements, the London company where Donna temps and Lance is the head of Human Resources. They find a secret entrance which leads to a vast chamber under the Thames flood barrier, where a giant Spider-woman called the Empress of the Racnoss has been plotting with Lance, to bring her child spiders back to life and rescue them from the centre of the Earth where they've been trapped since the formation of the planet. The Doctor goes all bad ass, flooding the tunnel containing the child spiders; Donna manages to persuade him to leave just before he gets drowned (but imagine if she hadn't?). The Empress transports up to her star-shaped starship, but a nice politician called Mister Saxon (whatever happened to him?) orders it to be blown up before she can escape. The Doctor asks Donna to join him on his travels, but she turns him down (she'll likely regret that decision after a while).

Context:
I thought it might be nice to sit down to view this with my eldest (boy of 11) as it was the first episode of Doctor Who he ever saw (see below); but, he couldn't be enticed. He still loves watching new Doctor Who episodes, but is a bit cool on old Who at the moment, even if it's old New Who, if you see what I mean. Instead, I watched with the Better Half and a glass or two of wine on the Saturday evening after the broadcast of The Doctor Falls. Following an hour of Who already that night, and with it getting late, I expected only to get partway through, but before we knew it we'd watched the lot. Maybe this means it is more watchable that I've given it credit for. Though it's certainly packed full of incomprehensible gobbledygook (see below), it had to cover a lot less detail than the story we'd watched earlier. One other difference between Ten and Twelve was that the Better Half commented on average once every ten minutes during the Runaway Bride about how handsome the actor playing the Doctor was; this has not yet happened during any Peter Capaldi stories.

First-time round:
My first-born arrived a few days after Fear Her, in June 2006. I had speculated in the run up to the event how that title may prove to be wise advice related to the Better Half if I'd even thought about bringing a TV into the delivery room to avoid missing Doctor Who. Luckily, Junior avoided arriving on the Saturday. Mother and child were back home from the hospital on the following Saturday, though, just in time to catch the BBC1 montage of England getting kicked out of the World Cup, set to 'Numb' by the Pet Shop Boys, immediately before Army of Ghosts. But the little one was slumbering by the time that episode came on, and similarly slept through Doomsday the following week. Six months later, Christmas Day 2006, marked the first time we ever watched Doctor Who together, with him sitting up in a Bumbo alongside his Daddy. A photo of this event should appear beside this paragraph, assuming the Better Half has permitted me use it. The boy is dressed as Superman, I'm dressed as John Nathan-Turner.

From the photo, I can see that  - as per this rewatch - I was drinking red wine. First time round, it being Christmas, I'd had a larger volume of red, and - for the first time in my history as a Doctor Who fan - I could not follow what was going on. I'm usually the one that has to explain it to others, but everything here from the reception scenes onwards was going over my booze-fogged head. Something about particles of something dragging Donna into the TARDIS? Maybe Sarah Parish's dialogue was explaining everything, but I couldn't understand a word she was saying. Get some new false teeth, Empress, and it would be easier to understand your evil plots .

Reaction:
A scene from The Runaway Bride was shown in advance of the story's broadcast debut, at the Children in Need Doctor Who concert at the Millennium Centre, Cardiff in November 2006. This was the black cab chase, which was projected to live orchestral accompaniment of Murray Gold's fabulous cue. Writer and exec producer Russell T Davies was quoted explaining that this scene, exciting as it may seem, was within the first 15 minutes of the episode and there was 45 minutes packed in after it. This is the problem of The Runaway Bride in a nutshell - it peaks too soon; the cab chase scene is the most exciting thing in it, and it's spunked away far too early, leaving 45 minutes to drag on after that, never to reach such heights again.

The chase itself has nothing to do with weddings or Christmas, and is clearly one of those set pieces that had occurred to the writer independent of a specific plot, and was found a home here. A lot of the structural problems seem to be down to certain scenes or visual moments in isolation were too attractive to resist, but couldn't easily be integrated. Donna's sudden materialisation in the TARDIS made for a great shock ending to the previous season, and an exciting opening to this special. But the hoops jumped through to shape it into some sort of post-rationalised sense make huge swathes of The Runaway Bride unwatchable: Huon particles that need to be fed to someone over the course of six months so their organic body catalyses their reaction with something or other, and traces of these same particles are found in the heart of the TARDIS and create a magnetising effect when the host gets anxious or excited. None of this makes scientific or real-world logical sense; that's never bothered Davies much, but it doesn't make emotional sense, either, and nor does it chime with the emotional theme of the story. Without the feels, Davies has failed on his own terms.

Donna's journey, her gradual realisation that she's missing the big picture by having too narrow and trivial view of the world, feels like it emerged from a second draft, but that there wasn't time for another go or two after that to bolt it down. Luckily, when Catherine Tate decided to return, Davies gets to do this theme properly, evidence of how key it was to the character, and to how underdeveloped it is here. Tate probably proved the most controversial new Who casting choice since Billie Piper in advance of airing, and - to my mind at least - she confounded expectations just as well as Piper did. There is the odd overblown mannerism to remind one of her sketch show grotesques, but generally it's a solid take on what's in the script. Again, she got to peel the onion more on Donna's inner vulnerability when she returned for a longer run.

Aside from Tate, the cast is the wedding party - who are essentially all giving extended cameos, even Don Gilet, though he is suitably nasty in the scene where he rips into Donna's lifestyle - plus Sarah Parish as the Empress. Oh dear. It's not her fault: there's no other way to play a role but large when your head's encased, your mouth's stuffed full of fake teeth, and and your body's strapped to a costume with the size and manoeuvrability of a children's climbing frame. The script overeggs things even more, though, rather than reining it in. I'd say it was the most panto villain the series has ever produced, but you'd never fit that costume on the stage of the Birmingham Hippodrome and have room left for John Barrowman's ego, let alone both the Krankies. As Sarah was unrecognisable, and as she has worked with Chris Chibnall recently, it might be nice to have her back to Who again in future for a part where she doesn't have to suffer quite so much. 

Connectivity: 
They're both set at Christmas time of course (the randomiser is a useful device but it lacks true discrimination), both contain baubles that are not what they seem, flying machines that get shot at, and a flashback to a 'meet cute' between the central female guest character and the man she's going to have a wedding with (although Donna's ceremony doesn't reach completion).

Deeper Thoughts:
Becoming The Establishment. It was during The Runaway Bride publicity drive, if I remember rightly, that Russell T Davies mentioned that contemporary listings and press releases were talking already about the 'traditional Doctor Who Christmas episode', even though they'd only done one before that point. Ten more have followed since his comments, and there are no signs that the multi-Doctor team-up currently being shot won't be broadcast on the 25th of December this year. So, the feeling expressed back then may have been premature, but it turned out to be correct. The non-special runs of the series arguably have taken longer to reach the same well-worn comfort level: there have been many years without any standard run of episodes, when nobody has yet dreamt of skipping a Christmas one. But, the signs are that the day's arrived where all aspects of current Doctor Who are unarguably a part of the televisual furniture. The ratings for the latest run - including the big season finale - have been in the same ballpark as those of another Saturday night stalwart Casualty, instead of the usual (but gradually diminishing over the years) cut above.

There's no shame in this size of audience, and no one's talking about Casualty being cancelled any time soon. But old school Doctor Who fans, including my good self, can't help but live under the long shadow of the 1980s cancellation crises, panicking that any dip might mean the show is taken off air. New series aficionados meanwhile, including my good self, feel a pang or two that the show isn't any more putting national mass bums-on-seats for its big tent offerings, or taking up a whole wall of Toys R Us with action figures and other merchandise. That popularity level couldn't last forever, and the decline to this point (if it can be categorised as such) would no doubt have happened earlier under young, floppy haired Matt Smith if it weren't for a coincident 50th anniversary boost. It is by some commentators however all being laid at the door of the actor playing the current TARDIS owner-occupier, Peter Capaldi, and the set of stories in which he has appeared.


With a key final episode yet to air, it seems too early for the retrospectives of the Capaldi era, but that hasn't stopped them. I was surprised by the reasonably consistent negative points being made: main actor too old and not good-looking enough, his first year had too may duff episodes like Robot of Sherwood, overall the character of the Doctor was never consistent, Clara stayed too long, and the great dynamic created by putting Capaldi's doctor with a fresh team came too late. I agreed with some points, and disagreed with others (I loved Robot of Sherwood - when did that become this century's Fear Her whipping boy? (I also love Fear Her, by the by)). But do I think any of this would have made a difference to the ratings, audience share or positions in the top 100 programmes? No. The programme's been going now for 12 years, there's only so much one can do to reboot. Maybe casting a non-white non-male Doctor might do it, but I doubt it. Mind you, I'm rubbish at predicting anything. I've only made two predictions about this current run, both wrong. The first was that the villains of 2016's Christmas special - brains transplanted into hinged heads, if you remember - would undoubtedly return: they're still awaited. The second was that the emotional theme of the season would be the friction of Bill's home life and studies against her travels with the Doctor: turns out it was instead a fight for Missy's soul. Still, as someone wise said recently, with one episode left it's too early for retrospectives. They still have 60 minutes to prove me right about either, or both.

In Summary:
Lots of different bits roughly stitched together: the Runaway Bride of Frankenstein.