"Now it ends, Doctor. NOW it ends!"
I was really worried about series three of Doctor Who. Not the kind of worry that greeted the aftermath of fainting in the summer (long story) but after the thirteen episode general dirge that was Torchwood, by roughly the same production team, I was seriously concerned that the franchise had gone off the rails. Despite what I might have said at the end of the 2006 review, I wasn’t sure about the selection of Freema after her appearance in Army of Ghosts. I need not have worried, she was a joy and I can’t honestly see what the problem some fans and others had with her performance other than she wasn’t Billie Piper and err, that’s it. That's right this is going to be a ...
Season Three Overview
As with last year I’m going to rewatch the season to see if I can tease out anything that will only be apparent second time around. Again, it'll no doubt be long,and sprawling, laced with interesting punctuation and lacking in emphatic italics and pull quotes because it's taking up enough room on the page already. My theory is that in context, Evolution of the Daleks won’t seem quite as catastrophic as New Earth and that the episodes filling the slots inhabited by the likes of Fear Her last year have been crafted so that they’re as essential as everything else and of really great quality (I’m look at you, 42). We’ll see. Anyway, best get on because there’s a visitor in the Tardis and neither she or the Doctor know it now but the future of the series, at least for some fans, is in their hands.
The Runaway Bride
I thought it was an entertaining romp on Christmas night and tonight it’s cheered me up no end. Of course, after last week’s announcement (guess when I’m writing this bit) it’s difficult not to spend much of your time concentrating on the bride herself, trying to work out exactly what Donna Noble will be like within the context of a series. In hindsight what I wasn’t prepared for is how good David Tennant and Catherine Tate are together; to some extent this is because I’ve a feeling that if Tennant was forced to spend an episode interacting with a goal post it would still be entertaining, but there’s a magic to the bruskness between these two.
The key to Donna’s character is that she’s unremarkable. As we’ve been reminded over and over the reason the new new Doctor picks his companions is because they’re special in come way, quick witted, able to be relied upon in a scrape and brave. But Donna isn’t really any of those things; sure there’s the rather lovely moment when she bursts into the wedding reception and throws a fake crying fit to get the crowds attentions (winking at the Doctor afterwards) but as her turncoat groom lists, about the most exciting thing that can happen in her life is a new flavour of Pringle.
I like that about her. Although the climax of the episode suggests that she’s become on of the Doctor’s fixer-uppers, wanting to see the world after everything that she’s been through and heard that Christmas Eve it’d be useful if when she visits another time the first thing she’s worried about is finding a loo or somewhere to buy a sandwich, the Tardis’s trajectory about the galaxy becoming some giant coach trip. She’d also potentially be an excellent way for the Doctor to get into scrapes, a wrong word from her getting them into some serious trouble, rather like Rose in the opening season. Seriously, after watching this again I’m really quite excited to see what they do with Donna. Plus they can save themselves a few pennies anyway, since they don’t have to render a new title sequence for at least the first half of the fourth series, assuming a new theme tune isn’t in the offering …
No! One of the hallmarks of the new series has been its more simplistic approach to techno babble. One of the genius moments in Rose was the anti-plastic reveal simply because it cut through all the technical bullshit you’d find often in the JNT years where half the episode was spent actually explaining whatever bit of made up science had been dashed off by Bidmead that week to save him having to write characters with any depth placed within really dramatic situations.
Even I have to call nonsense about the way that Donna was infected and why she was required as part of the Empress’s plan, especially as she was able to infect the groom so quickly otherwise. Why would she need to use the subtle approach and why would she need to pick this particular woman as the key? She might as well have reached in, grabbed any old bag of mostly water, infused them with the mojo and release her young. The explanations don’t help even though the Doctor shoots them off with such speed as to suggest they’re not really that important.
In addition, it’s another occasion where the sonic screwdriver drifts from being a useful way of getting the Doctor through to the next bit of story and becomes his way of getting out of a scrape instead. That’s why JNT destroyed it all those years ago and this smith army knife edition that can do everything has the potential to sap drama simply because whenever our hero looks like he’s seriously fucked, he pulls out the fallus and everything’s sorted out lickety spit. Later in the season, the screwdriver would become less prominent often conking out at opportune moments. It’s somewhat like a mobile phone in the modern thriller, losing its signal in the moments when it would be really useful, but at least it means that there’s a will it/won’t it work tension for the audience, a randomness which some might like to put a bet on (‘Hello, Ladbrokes? Yes, what odds are you offering on the sonic screwdriver being able to open the deadlock on the Dalek ship? Can I have an accumulator?).
Timey-Wimey Stuff! When the Doctor returns to the creation of the Earth he tells his proto-companion “Further back - than I’ve ever been before…” which means he’s traveled to both ends of the lifecycle of his favourite planet and its inhabitants in the space of this series.
Smith & Jones
Yes! What’s striking about this episode in hindsight is how closely it fulfills the classic Doctor Who formula of the drama happening in corridors and rooms. For all the special effects of the Judoon ships landing on the Moon, most of the really exciting, funny, dramatic moments occur between characters, specifically between the Doctor and Martha. I don’t remember Rose being as instantly likeable in her eponymous episode (probably because of everything else that was being introduced at the same time), but Martha’s given the space and room for us to understand why the Doctor might be attracted to her -- she’s very much like him and it’s in sharp contrast to his attitude to Donna.
When the hospital appears on the moon she less interested in the patients and visitors and whether they’ll all get out alive, like the time lord she’s looking to the bigger picture. That they’re on the Moon and how cool is that? Like him, she’s universally wise -- she’s one of a few people in humanity who accepts the presence of extra terrestrial life even name checking the Cybermen. But she’s also willfully independent and resolute -- I think the Doctor’s very aware that he has a tendency to fixate on the small things like shops and broken sonic screwdrivers and that one of the jobs of a companion is to snap him back into focusing on the job at hand. It also helps that the episode is told from Martha’s point of view, which is why the Doctor appears to her at the beginning instead of us seeing him travel back to see her at the end.
Unlike New Earth, this feels like a proper opening for the season, unlike last year when The Christmas Invasion had that function. The introduction to Martha’s family is fab. Her Dad’s floozy is a bit broad but it’s a shame she didn’t return for the closing three episodes, perhaps surprising everyone by spinning into someone far more credible and heroic. I also still love the callback to one of the scenes in New Earth that did work, the one in which the Doctor enthuses about shops in hospitals. I think I’m probably repeating myself but it seems just right that the character should enthuse about such simple pleasures and when I did visit the hospital after fainting I couldn’t help but visit the shop too on my way out, even though it was just another WH Smith.
Of course the Doctor’s aside about having a brother was included so that we’d all think it be retconned as the Master come the end of the series, only to be disregarded in The Sound of Drums. But my favourite line is probably the Plasmavore’s suggestion whilst he’s bluffing that he’s ‘Laughing on purpose at the darkness’ -- sure it’s a rewriting of the cliché - ‘If I didn’t laugh I’d cry’ -- but that also sums up the character perfectly, particularly in this incarnation and will be particularly useful when considering the final episode (oh yes).
No! Why does every threat have to be global or universal? Why does the Doctor seemingly have to save the whole world or galaxy every week? The jeopardy in this episode is already perfectly fine -- the loss of air in the hospital leading to everyone’s deaths. Then the plasmavore says that her get out clause will cause the death of everyone on planet Earth, which is fairly menacing because of the matter of fact way that it’s described but as part of an growing drip, drip effect it dilutes the horror when there really is a threat that we can see and that everything can die. The likes of 42 and Gridlock demonstrate that a more localised threat can be just as, if not more potent because you can see up close the people who it will effect.
Timey-Wimey Stuff! “Crossing into established events is forbidden - except for cheap tricks,” the Doctor comments at the climax after demonstrating the Tardis’s time travel ability by crossing into the opening scene of the episode. What’s astonishing is that for the first time, it suggests the idea that even when someone shifts about in time in this universe, they’re still following a predetermined chain of events and two instances of the same time lord can even, as on this occasion, exists in the same city at the same time (as implied in a range of spin-off fiction as most incarnations have celebrated the millennium at one time or another).
It’s something that’s returned to in most episodes of the series as time and again the Doctor finds himself trampling about on his own timeline Face of Evil-style at the end of The Shakespeare Code and Blink all quietly explaining why its possible that he could be sharing the same planet as the Master and not necessarily be aware of it. We’ll talk some more about this later.
The Shakespeare Code
Yes! I was of course slightly disappointed with this episode on transmission because my imagination had inflated the possible to such an extent that anything would have probably been inferior. Luckily, I acknowledged as much in my original review (phew) but inevitably now I think it’s a work of genius, relishing the various nuances. Well, alright perhaps that’s an exaggeration but it’s still far better than I could have hoped, containing swathes of Shakespearean verse, an attempted resurrection of Loves Labour’s Won, a wonderfully gregarious take on Bill himself and exactly the kind of culture clash dialogue which should be the series stock in trade (‘So they’re the men dressed as women?’ ‘London doesn’t change.’ etc).
At the epicentre of my new found appreciation are the Carrionites, and particularly Christina Cole’s menacing performance which also had something of the Lalla Ward about it. How interesting to have an alien race whose science is based on words and underlining that the Whoniverse is a place where there’s no such thing as magic, just science which can’t be readily explained yet. For all the grimacing that has been going on about the injection of judeo-christianism into the series recently, this flies in the face of those who would say that anything that can’t currently be explained scientifically must have the hand of God, or in this case, witchcraft in it.
One of these series though it would be good to have a pure historical in which the central issue within the story isn’t based on some unusual phenomena but the pull of history. It’s implied that the future Pompeii story is going to be that, with themes about non-interference in historical going back as far as The Aztecs being re-introduced. Steven Moffat has said that the formati isn’t quite as flexible as it would appear, but I don’t know if I agree with that. In a way, it’s a shame that there won’t probably ever be anything like Boomtown again, in which the Doctor simply takes his foe to dinner just as his companion goes on a date with her boyfriend.
No! My only niggle is to do with Love’s Labour’s Won and only because I thought too much about it. During the bard’s lifetime and afterwards, pirated versions of his plays came onto the market -- it’s why some survived and the reason we have three copies of others. Some of these were typeset from written copies but others were dashed together from the memories of the actors who appeared in the productions, from memory. Their accuracy is predictably sporadic but they’re there.
What I’m wondering is how, having lost the play to the heavens, despite its popularity, none of the actors in the company later put His words back on paper. Sure they would have been warned not to (possibly by the Doctor off screen) and their capacity to inspire witchcraft a deterrent but it’s a shame that angle hasn’t been covered. Unless it’s something that could be investigated later in the series when the Doctor is flicking through a folio and finds the play listed on a contents page for the first time.
Timey-Wimey Stuff! Then in the middle of everything, in the scene when the Doctor uses Back to the Future to explain how time works, the show contradicts what was established in the last episode by suggesting an infinite temporal flux and that if the Doctor didn’t stop the Carrionites from carrying out their plan, Martha would fade away and the future Earth should disappear therefore confirming my theory that history in the Whoniverse ebbs and flows and everything’s open to change confirming that everything is canon depending on which side you’re looking at it. Which is it then guys?
Under those circumstances the only way to justify the Doctor’s appearance at the start of Smith and Jones is that we’re viewing the narrative in hindsight, from Martha’s point of view after the flux has settled and the appearance of an angry Liz at the end seeking revenge for a cock up in the Doctor’s future follows the model set up in that previous episode. As Doc Brown would say, ‘Great Scott’ and as Marti McFly would reply, ‘I know, this is heavy.’ Or you could become even more meta and suggest that the Doctor’s perception of time is as much in flux as the web of time itself. Either way, the Tenth Doctor can’t regenerate until he’s been in Elizabeth I’s company. Possibly.
Yes! In the rush to complain about the scripts and the odd rum performances (see the Dalek duo) I don’t think enough praised is heaped on the shoulder of the production designers and the set builders. Gridlock is a premium example of the ingenuity that goes into their work, on this occasion redressing a single set, essentially an oblong box, to look like the habitats for a whole range of different characters and filling them with enough stuff to make them all culturally distinct (my favourite is the Japanese capsule). Even though most of these flash past in quick succession, pausing the dvd results in all kinds of details being illuminated of the kind which could not be seen by a passive audience on a Saturday night.
This version of Doctor Who is fairly unique in that almost every week there is a new context with its own set of challenges and unlike Quantum Leap or Sliders (which in these terms are the closest comparison) everything has to be made up from scratch based on the writer’s suggestions (this is also true of Star Trek although a vast number of those episodes are only set on board a ship which already has an established look). In this episode I’d also include the costume and make up artists who again extrapolate a characterisation from a few glimpsed seconds of a kind which in each rewatch introduce a range of mysteries -- like exactly what goes on between the panther person and those vestal virgins.
No! Cause y’know, drug-r-bad. Like the Buffy episode Beer Bad, this takes a social problem and hits it with a sledgehammer until it screams and indeed like the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Symbiosis, there’s even room for the narrative to stop whilst one of the characters gives a speech., as in this case when its explained that they wiped out half a civilisation. There is probably a really good Doctor Who story to be written about the dangers of drugs, but here it becomes an example of the new series tendency to drop as many different themes as possible even though not all of them stick. It could for example have been used as a way to explain why the motorway inhabitants are so happy to take their predicament at face value, but the link is never clearly established, at least not in the dialogue.
Timey-Wimey Stuff! And I cried again right from the moment it became apparent the big Boe face was leaving the Whoniverse to the Doctor describing his home planet. Now the Doctor’s justification for the savagery of the new Macra becomes equally true of Captain Jack -- why shouldn’t the omnisexual take his last gasp in New New York? A lot can happen in five billion years. Except this particular retcon (Davies himself said that they went back to do some ADR for this episode to make Boe’s dialogue more familiar) confuses exactly why Boe knew about the Master which before was simply that he knew because he was old.
In simple terms, those final words, as well as being a warning of what is to come, also become Jack’s way of sympathising with the Doctor as the time lord pleads with him not to die and also that perhaps in Boe’s past and the Doctor’s future, they’ve many more adventures to come. But take a far more speculative approach you’re suddenly back into trying to work out how time works in this rendering of the Whoniverse.
If you take the Smith & Jones approach to time, and if he is indeed the older Jack, Boe effectively attempts to break a law of time, warning his comrade about what is to come (something the Doctor said is a no-no in the season opener), but fails in the end by making the reference just a bit too obscure, even for a time lord, especially this time lord so wracked with grief. Under The Shakespeare Code theory (if you like) those events haven’t happened yet because the Doctor wasn’t there to make them happen, so Boe/Jack is pulling them from the air or referring to some other time lord related issue which has nothing to do with the Master, but just happened to coincide with the name of a certain professor.
Daleks In Manhatten / Evolution of the Daleks
“What? Oh it’s you again.”
“It has been a while.”
“So go on. Have you come back to tell me again how underwritten I was?”
“No. Actually I thought in the end you were one of the best things about the whole of series three, deeply underrated and Donna’s going to have to work especially hard to replace you.”
“You’re blushing. Blushings good.”
“I’m not. It’s my mascara. I’ve just finished my exams. We’re going out tonight to celebrate.”
“I’ll try not to keep you then. It’s just I’m writing my review of the year and thought it only fitting to resurrect our fictional conversation in relation to the Dalek episodes.”
“If you say so. As I remember last time you hated them enough to pretend that I really existed.”
“True. But I have to admit -- I did enjoy these episodes a bit more the second time around.”
“Don’t get too excited. But I agree with Dave Owen from Doctor Who Magazine. Watched together they’re a hell of a lot more fun, from the mocking extermination of the Hooverville leader to the wonderfully funny performance of Miranda Raison as Tallulah (‘Three Ls and an H’). This time around too I watched the story in black and white with the contrast up and the brightness down and they had an suitably atmospheric nourish quality, ‘specially during the scenes in the sewer system -- very old Hollywood. I also spotted Bernard Hermann influences in Murray Gold’s music. I think the weight of expectation that surrounds these episodes means that any flaws are amplified in a way that simply doesn’t happen when you’re watching the old series with nostalgic eyes. It’s still not perfect though.”
“Don’t take it so personally.”
“Most of what I said first time around is true. The pig henchmen aren’t explained very well as all and undermine your appreciation of the Dalek plan, as does Dalek Sec’s ridiculous prosthetic head which just looks like a weirdly shaped penis. It just looks like the script and production got to a certain point were the producers realised that it wasn’t working but tried to make do, but there’s too much technobabble and bad science in the finale, all of the scenes in which the Doctor’s being heroic fall a bit flat and in the end you’re left with a story that kids might love (which is the point I suppose) but leaves adults a bit grumpy. You can’t help thinking that it might have been better just to have a story set within Depression era New York since in the end all of my favourite moments are related to that -- the Dalek material simply doesn’t integrate properly.”
“And you invaded my life again for that little tirade? You need to get out more.”
“I know. Which is why I’m not even going into the Timey-Wimey Stuff!”
“Oh right. Well good.”
“Except to say that these ‘Emergency Temporal Shift’ systems are taking the magic out of time travel, and that it’s a shame that Dalek Khan won’t be established as the Dalek from Dalek creating a nice bit of circular logic.”
“Are you done?”
“Is that it now?”
“See you then.”
The Lazarus Experiment
Yes! There’s no denying that Mark Gatiss’s Lazarus is genuinely creepy. From the moment when he asks Trish what perfume she’s wearing to two way with the Doctor before the final showdown, he’s a slimy devil and in fact after seeing Alistair Campbell being interviewed on telly earlier, it’s remarkable how similar the fictional professor and Campbell are -- the nose is even the same. He‘s one of the best things about the episode along with Tish (played by the beautifully named Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who I think would have made an excellent addition to the Tardis team -- the realistic antidote to our heroes with perhaps more of a traditional companion role. But the production team are right to concentrate on the single central relationship and again Dave and Freems are really, really good -- by this time the character of Martha has bedded in (so to speak) and you understand why she would run back into the building after the Doctor. The scene in the tube is a classic.
Although the extra length close of season trailer added because of the gap in the series creates a sense of occasion, this still feels like an end of mid-seasoner, what with all of the Saxon foreshadowing and the fact it’s the first time Martha’s returned to Earth since the opening episode and the next evening. But one of the clever developments in this series has been the much more rigid approach to making the stand alone episode part of the fabric of the ongoing story, something which would really pay dividends in SOD U LOTT. It’s not an ‘umbrella’ (as The Key To Time is often referred to), the final goal isn’t that explicit. About the only problem is that the Lazarus experiment is apparently something which works towards the device in the closing episode which ages the Doctor -- but that episode is set mere days after this -- and how did the technology get miniaturised and perfect in the mean time?
No! The Lazarus Scorpion still looks like a bit of a failure. It’s the CG equivalent of a man in a rubber suit -- you know that it’s a CG monster and there isn’t anything to help you suspend your disbelief. But unlike the man in a rubber suit in both The Rescue and The Power of Kroll it can’t be anything else. It appears on screen far too long which means that its problems -- the placidity of the face, the messy body, are all too apparent and fundamentally it’s not scary, just repulsive, and it never actually quite fits in the backgrounds, no matter how much artificial camera shake is applied. How much more scary would a superhuman Lazarus have been, looking entirely human except for certain mannerisms and the ability to dislocate his jaw when needed? Plus the justification its existence -- that the Professor untapped some ancient evolutionary carbunkle didn’t work in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘Genesis’ and it doesn’t here. It’s a writer having to work around the special effects blokes which cannot be a source of good drama.
Timey-Wimey Stuff! Is a bit of a headache to be honest. I’ve always been of the opinion that the reason that some things in the chronology of the Whoniverse aren’t consistent is because they’re being knocked about by the Doctor’s travels, a time travel version of chaos theory meaning that if he changes time in one part of the galaxy it has a knock on effect somewhere else. There’s a line in the EDA Interference I think which jokes that sometimes the Doctor’s exiled on Earth in the seventies or the eighties and it has a certain amount of slippage.
In which case, the Master should not already be in the past messing about because Martha hasn’t been to the far future and sprung him yet. When they return to the past and find he’s already been bedded in for eighteen months it should come as a complete surprise, even to Martha who was out of time and in the Tardis when it all happened. Except since there is the Saxon material here, then the Doctor’s stomping around in a past that‘s yet to be created confirming what I said in the notes to Smith & Jones and to some extent The Shakespeare Code theory.
But what is confusing is the whispering campaign which begins here against the Doctor with Mrs. Jones. The Master obviously understands that he can’t pull the Doctor in because it could potentially effect his own origin and create a paradox, but telling Martha’s Mum the lies about the time lord could equally have a destablising effect -- he’s taking a big risk. Only the needs of ongoing story and the duration of the episode means that Martha doesn’t find out whose been saying nasty things about her friend leading to that friend pitching up at Saxon’s campaign headquarters looking for a fight and creating a ruckus -- I’m sure he’d know who Saxon was just by looking at him -- it’s a time lord thing. Unless the paradox machine is already taking some of the strain …
Yes! Gosh, I’ve been writing this review for so long I’ve just watched this episode on the newly released box set and I’m going to talk about the new Big Finish audio to begin with. If you haven’t heard it please skip to the fourth paragraph of this bit where I say some nice things about Chris Chibnall because it’s nearly Christmas.. Right. Barmy but brilliant (except for that rather shaky scene between Conrad and India at the top in which they don’t sound like they’ve ever acted together or played those characters before) there’s a rather chilling moment right at the end of Absolution, after C’Rizz finally leaves the series in which becomes apparent that the Doctor doesn’t seem to be caring either way, he says ‘Back to the way it was’. It’s not that he’s putting his feelings aside Adric-style, he’s simply at a place where his companions come and go and whether it’s because they’ve been left in London, on a space cruiser in the far future or died it’s becoming much the same.
It seems slightly out of character – especially when you consider what he was prepared to at the end of Neverland to save Charley’s life – and perhaps it’ll be explained in the next story – but I’d hoped her final story would be a return to the kind of stuff we enjoyed between them when it was just the two of them in the first two series but this being the BF, it’s instead going to be all about the pain, pain, pain. What they seem to be doing is putting us fans who never thought the Eutermesan gelled and only ever seemed to get in the way on the Doctor’s side of the conversation and the reality of the death of a character with Charley. It’s a very curious cliffhanger which you just know isn’t going to end well in the final release of this iteration of the series (which I really do think is going to explain the change in demeanor for the Eighth in the BBC7 stories).
Contrast all of that then with the Tenth Doctor in 42, where he risks life and limb to save Martha, a companion whom chronologically he’s only apparently taken on four or five trips in the Tardis. You could conjecture – assuming you’re the kind of fan who thinks of all this as one big story no matter were they chapters are coming from – you could say that during the time war and subsequent events with Rose, the Doctor regained his sense of what is important and what it means to have a companion, elements which became less important to him during the travels in the Divergent Universe. But notice that his attitude to the deaths of the crew on the ship are markedly different – once the adventure is over – he shrugs his shoulders and suggests they go ice skating which is actually pretty much what Eighth is doing to C’Rizz’s memory in the chronologically earlier story. In other words, the Doctor continues to be a very complex alien character who seems to choose to morn and consider who matters in his life as the mood takes him.
I said some not very nice things about Chibnall’s magnum opus last year but I will hold my hands up and say that he doesn’t drop the ball when faced with writing proper Doctor Who. It’s doing everything the new series has been relatively good at – feeding on some recognizable sci-fi traits and elements of the old show (in this case Planet of Evil) and giving them a contemporary populist spin; plus he capture’s the time traveler’s relationship perfectly. It’s not perfect though. It doesn’t have the feel of a new classic such as The Family of Blood but as these all important filler stories go it’s as good as you could expect. Despite the Doctor’s fear, it just lacks the philosophical undercurrent of The Satan Pit, for example, and despite the best efforts of the actors most of the characters are all rather generic in that way that crews in these types of stories tend to be unless you’ve got a Robert Holmes or a Nick Briggs writing them. As a spectacle it really works though – the shots of the sun are amazing considering the budget and there’s no denying that the moment when Martha and chum drift towards it is wrenching.
No! Murray Gold’s soundtrack is in full Heinz 57 mode with a range of musical styles from orchestral stuff, a bizarre synthesizer moment during the first call into the past which sounds like a Paddy Kingsland homage and an electric bass guitar solo accompanying a running sequence that must have been borrowed from a Swedish rock album from the mid-Eighties. The series seems to take pride in each story to provide a coherent visual style and yet Gold often runs roughshod over that with a random sound pallet that can jar if he’s not too careful. The reason that his work on the likes of the Christmas episodes and finales is so memorable is because there’s a very well thought out soundtrack. In 42 he sounds rushed.
Timey-Wimey Stuff! I would refer the right honourable gentlemen and ladies to the comments I made at the close of the last episode retrospective. I do love the calls back to Martha’s mum which recall Rose’s similar calls way back when which were benign in comparison to this and had little to do with the ongoing story arc set as they were before Miss Tyler even met the Doctor. But they’re supposed to be set on Election Day which can only be a few days after the Martha and Doctor first met and the day before The Sound of Drums. There’s a compression of time going on here although I’m not sure how Martha’s phone knows when to call he Mum based on relative space-time. Perhaps it’s simply following the time and date which are set into her phone that will still be clicking on even as it sits in her pocket. As far as it’s concerned it probably is the next day. I can’t wait for the second edition of Ahistory to see what Lance Parkin makes of all this.
Human Nature / The Family of Blood
Yes! With due respect to Blink this could well be the best story of this series and potentially since the show returned. It’s about the Doctor, even though he’s not in it. It’s about Martha and what she means to him. It’s scary and funny and philosophical and addresses the time period its in teaching kids something of what their great grandparents went through way before they were born. It’s a story which the original series would never have told and in that way it distills everything we loved about the new multi-media spin-off stories which filled the extended hiatus which were predominantly of the kind which wouldn’t have been told from Studio B. It’s the first to really acknowledge the Doctor’s history, his past selves (paving the way for Time Crash), and what his existence means to the universe. In the spin-offs its implied, I think, that the Doctor existed before Gallifrey and on the basis of this story I wonder if the reason he survived is that he really is far more than just a time lord, whether the Doctor is like John Smith, a mask for some other even more powerful being, something which he’s well aware of (which would certainly explain the speech from The End of the World, were the Ninth Doctor says something like ‘This is me, who I am, right now’).
It deals with one of the issues I had last series with the extent to which everything that happens is to do with the presence of the Doctor. The TARDIS could have chosen to drop him in the middle of nowhere and let him live as Space Robinson Crusoe on deserted planet somewhere for the duration with Martha as his Girl Friday and a crash landing as their backstory, no local population to scupper the plan or to be hurt should they be found. Instead it ‘randomly’ drops him into a school at the edge of the civil war, leading to death and destruction on a massive scale (and someone somewhere is sure to have written some fan fiction in which the amnesiatic Eighth Doctor bumps into the equally unaware Tenth). It’s good that Joan brings this up with him and offer it as her reason for not traveling with him. The series throughout its many years has often portrayed the peoples of the past as being less complex in their outlook but the new series with Renette last year, Shakespeare and now Joan is suggesting that without the mess of technology that distracts us, people probably had surprisingly good insight.
No! The problem with giving yourself a format to write within is that you’re faced with a story like this and making up flaws. I just wish, I suppose, there was more of it. That trapped on Earth-arc from the EDAs still seems like a great idea for a television series, a man whose not quite the one we know using his latent resources to face down foes and this would have been the perfect mechanism for that with a far greater threat than The Family of Blood as the cause. The problem is that it wouldn’t be the adventures of the Doctor, it’d be the adventures of John Smith and I’m not sure that a general audience and particularly kids would be willing to tune in each week to see that, no matter how well it would be written.
Timey-Wimey Stuff! Not much this time although much has been made of the year 2007 as the future they’ve traveled back from even though following the logical timeline of the ‘contemporary’ episodes of the series, Martha’s still actually from 2008. Given that the Doctor has a TIME MACHINE there’s nothing to say they didn’t turn up a year into Martha’s past for some reason and initially meet The Family there. The whole story bounces all about time and space narratively speaking anyway with Son of Mine and The Doctor as our non-diagetic guide. We don’t really know which year Tenth and Martha see Tim as an old man either not that it’s important. As I said in my original reviews it’s just another example of the brilliance of this story that the producers have were willing to experiment with the kind of storytelling which hasn’t been seen before in the series.
Yes! I’ve been writing for this blog since Mar 02, 2005 and my first proper review fittingly was for Rose and over the past couple of years I’ve written about 195,000 words, which is longer than a Phd. The quality has been just as variable as the show itself. There is something a bit bizarre about forcing yourself to write a review of something you’re a fan of week in and out without being paid with anything other than the pleasure of being there. If you’re a conscientious objectifier you’re not content to throw a couple of odd comments at the screen and want to craft something which is worthy of what you’ve just seen and sometimes that can be really difficult and it’s never apparent when you’re going contract this temporary writer’s block.
Sometimes my reaction to that has been to become wildly experimental, bringing in a character from the series for a kind of Socratic discourse and subsequently getting shit for it in the comments (Evolution of the Daleks, see above). Sometimes my reaction to that is to be self reflexive and actually not try to produce a proto-professional review and instead treat this like a blog and bring something of myself to it (Love & Monsters were the format mirrored the marking sheet for a university dissertation).
My review for Blink mixed the two. It was my own personal version of Gary Gillat’s infamous Fan Gene articles from the party newsletter as I dealt with some of the issues of being a fan of anything and what that meant and whether sometimes you need to take a step back and have some perspective as to what you’re becoming so serious about (see my Torchwood reviews, particularly the last one, written into the wee small hours of New Years Day evening). In there though I was also following the pattern of the story, only really reviewing the episode of the week in bursts towards the end, just as the Doctor began to make a real impression on screen. It’s tighter than you’d think considering the length and I somehow manage to gush without sounding too much like a wanker and I think it’s one of the reviews I’m most proud of.
No! The episode just isn’t long enough frankly. It’s amusing that this episode which only notionally features the Doctor should be voted first in the Doctor Who Magazine readers poll and that its writer should be first too (and did you see how low Chris Chibnall’s score was by comparison – that’s got to hurt – more Torchwood backlash?). I think it’s probably the most literate, intelligent and funny episode of the series, accomplishing that without being outrageous and dayglo and loud and arrogant about it. Too often the series drifts off into empty spectacle whereas this was brimming with heart and poetry. Even the movement of the angels at the climax – the light flashing on and off – is beautiful and exactly the kind of thing you might expect from some silent film by Lang or Murneau.
On the dvd commentary, Murray, aha, erm, Gold was right to point out the line ‘I have until the end of the rain…’ which is just about one of the best bits of exposition the series has ever produced, because it tells you everything you need to know about the character. But there are others. The Doctor’s description of The Weeping Angels as letting you live to death is marvelous and unlike pretty much every episode of the series which are content to let its supports die violent deaths, here the writer is keen to emphasize that everyone whose blasted into the past goes on to live a good life, albeit outside of their own time. They deal with it and cope, or at least those touched by Sally or the Doctor do.
My favourite moment of the episode now is when Sally making beverages in a kitchen you think is hers until she speaks to Kathy. It plays a trick on the audience and the narrative expectations they’ve developed because of the way programmes are edited together now. Plus everyone has an easy likeability – you love all of the characters here, even if they’re only on screen for a few minutes. I love that Carey Mulligan was voted best support actress too; she’s got a natural charisma but there’s a decency and integrity to her performance as Sally, and also an authority. I think, like the rest of the episode, she offers a tone which can’t be seen anywhere else in this series, where everything else seems very big and pantomime.
Timey-Wimey Stuff! Well the whole episode is about the time-wimey stuff of course; some have said they were quite disappointed that of all the episodes this wasn’t worked into the final episode like the fob watch or The Face of Boe’s warning. But actually, it’s the key to the whole series; it demonstrates to an audience that might not be used to seeing this kind of thing on a Saturday night, advertently or not, what a pre-destination paradox looks like and how it works, so that later on when it’s revealed that the Master appeared on Earth apparently eighteen months before this series began even though we hadn’t yet seen the events that would put him there it makes some kind of sense (that the Doctor etc are experiencing events which they’ve already set in motion). I’ll talk about that a bit more later.
We also get some idea of the Doctor’s awareness of how time works; as Moffat notes in the dvd commentary, he could probably come up with a whole vast range of better ideas than the one he uses to communicate with Sally, but the folder limits those because everything he’s doing leads its formation and he has to do exactly what he’s being told otherwise it’s curtains for half the galaxy or whatever. It’s a causality loop, and it’s impossible to pinpoint how it began, unless the Faction Paradox survived the time war. There’s certainly room sometime for someone to write a version of this story, a graphic novel perhaps, from the Doctor and Martha’s POV and it would certainly be as exciting as they’re pulled into the past, then have to pitch up in the 60s and then the Doctor and his current plus one realise that the slightly odd girl they met in that street is the key to their survival. “Sally Sparrow.” He’d say. “You’re kiddin’ me.” She’d note.
Utopia / The Sound of Drums / The Last of the Time Lords
It’s interesting that judging by the various commentaries, none of the production team can agree on whether this is a three parter, particularly since it clear is, all of the different parts locked together functioning in just the same way as an old fashioned six parter with story points and themes established in the opening episode being brought through a central runaround to be called back and almost concluded in the finale which I still contend is as good a season conclusion as you could hope for. On reflection there are a few problems (see below) but I certainly don’t think it deserved the vitriol that was thrown at it in from some areas of the internet and on here. One of the aftershocks will of course be in relation to Torchwood – will we have a scene in which Captain Jack reveals the same information we saw here to his team so that everyone’s on the same page, or will it just be expected that viewers of that episode will be up to speed as to why the small Boe face is back in such a good mood. Certainly, John Barrowman seems to do the bouncy fun stuff better than the brooding so I’m hoping his Doctor Who version of the character will be pitching up in the hub, if only to see how the rest of the characters bounce off that.
This time around I did notice that each episode uses a kind of narrative slight of hand, playing with the assumptions the audience has about how drama works and in particular how a Doctor Who story works. Up until that revelation, Utopia works as a kind of futuristic story about the time travelers visiting the future and saving mankind again with the help of the star of the week. On that level it mirrors something like The Unquiet Dead, as the Doctor shows Yana that there is more to life than whatever he’s doing. That things seem to be nicely resolving half an hour would though have been an indication of something being awry even if the surprise hadn’t been blown once again ahead of schedule. Similarly, The Sound of Drums begins with the Master having already won, his scheme merely being icing – anything the Doctor and friends do can only be an empty gesture since their nemesis is in complete control of the situation. But The Last of the Time Lords is the best – the four bits of formula from across the world is precisely the kind of bizarre scheme you’d find in Doctor Who and the audience totally buys it because of that.
I do love that there are people out there who didn’t know about the Master’s return in Utopia and it’s good that the production team were able to surprise them. I was excited simply the method of his return and how it tied together, however coincidentally strands from throughout the season, the presentation of the fob watch in particular. But there are of course clues throughout: Yana’s companion Chantho, his console room shaped laboratory, his costume. Plus Derek Jacobi’s performance is so brilliant, possibly his best television work in ages. On the one hand we had Yana which was possibly how Jacobi might have played the Doctor in an older version of the series (and actually what the Iain Richardson version so beloved of author Lance Parkin might have been like), on the other his version of the Master, which I do wish we’d had more time with. His is the old school version, stunningly sinister, his first gesture being the murder of Chantho and symbolically the throwing off of Yana’s life. It’s worth comparing that with the newly re-emerged Doctor in The Family of Blood, who was willing to take Joan around the galaxy to try and spare her feelings. He doesn’t kill the The Family either, merely imprisons them across time.
But the emergence of the John Simm model was perfectly handled and actually a bit of a departure for the portrayal of the Master. Most of the other versions have been iterations of the Delgado to some extent, Ainley merely being slightly camper and with less gravitas – Roger Moore to the earlier Sean Connery if you like. Whereas Simm is totally different, a whole other whacked out personality, as though the madness that usually greets the regenerative process is the status quo for this incarnation (cf Colin Baker). It’s fascinating how we don’t think of the Master in the same terms as the Doctor or Romana for that matter. This isn’t the Sixth Master or Master VI (or whatever number he is). He’s simply The Master. This iteration has certainly grown on me; initially he seemed so different from what’s gone before, the dignity of the character lost in a flesh coloured version of Robin William’s Genie from Disney’s Aladdin. But really, he’s what you want, an evil version of the current Doctor, showing how the aspects that we love of our hero could go so horribly wrong. I think that’s probably what seemed so wrong about the Ainley Master all those years – he didn’t ever seem like he could have been a pier of the Doctor and the Cain and Abel aspect of the relationship floundered in a mess of moustache twirling and rubber masks.
The rest of The Sound of Drums, as with most of Russell’s scripts, is built on moments, set pieces actually, although there is a fair amount of intercutting and contrasts. On the commentary for Utopia he talks about how stupid it is that some producers in television say that scenes have to be a certain length, whereas his philosophy is that they need to be as long as they need to be. He’s right and they’re wrong. I can’t imagine there are many other dramas who’d even think about that scene in the warehouse where they sit around eating chips, have the Gallifrey flashback and talk about the rest of the plot. It goes on forever (with the exception of some cutaways) but it doesn’t matter because it’s all good character stuff, very well performed. It’s probably one of my favourite scenes since the series returned and again it plays on the fans expectations with the joke about the Master not being the Doctor’s brother. If only the writers of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier had been as reserved. I’d also like to add some cheer for the much maligned performance from Alexandra Moen as Lucy Saxon, which is perfectly pitched – I mean have you seen the wives of high ranking politicians lately – the ones that are allowed out in public? Much of the time they're home spun. stand by their man types who're exactly like blonde Lucy (who does look amazing if vacant in that red dress). You’re never quite sure if she’s there of her own free will or because he is The Master and she will obey him.
We can debate whether The Last of the Timelords deserved its extra five minutes until the Skrull-cows come home and if the invasion of the Scissor Sisters was a great idea but like the preceding episode its built on moments and if it hadn’t been filmed before, almost as a repost to that idiotic article which said Freema had been dropped because she can’t act which is clearly untrue. In this, as with the rest of the series, she absolutely disproves the rule about casting around a track record. Her most famous role beforehand was on Crossroads, which in some quarters would absolutely disqualify her from appearing in this prestige series let alone have to do scenes opposite a figure like John Simm and hold her own. This just goes to confirm that their approach to casting, which is based on acting ability, is probably the best. Actually, it’s a great thing that Reggie Yates wasn’t available for filming since could have drawn some of the limelight away from her, although actually given her on-screen presence, perhaps not. On an unrelated note, I really didn’t see anything wrong in Russell being inspired by Battlestar Galactica in providing the context to the episode, since it’s not really that new an idea and it’s certainly not something series has really attempted before. Well, alright, there was The Ark, but I don’t think that counts does it?
No! I think the epicenter of the disappointment is that Simm and Tennant don’t get longer scenes together, at least with the latter as an active presence in the room. I was expecting them to provide a verbal equivalent of the dueling banjos scene from Deliverance, but they don’t really get to have a good shout and struggle with each other until their appearance on the hill (which was bizarrely a late edition, which reminds me of The Runaway Jury where a scene hadn’t been written for Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman to argue about something, even though they’d never acted in a film together before). Despite the surprising work of the Mill, I don’t think you transfer your emotional involvement over to the CG Doctor, especially since you spend much of the time wondering how he’s wearing a mini-version of his suit which them somehow expands when he does in the rather strange conclusion, which on reflection is a bit ludicrous as he flies through the air like some giant sonic screwdriver.
Timey-Wimey Stuff! That bloody paradox machine. On the one hand, it’s hilarious that Russell’s written in a Tardis sized version of an old sci-fi stand-by so as not to give Whoniverse chronologists apoplexy about Earth’s timeline, but it still feels like a cheat. In addition, it’s fairly ambiguous as to what effect it has on the future of the human race. Do they stay as Troclofane or are events there turned backwards so that they reach their destination safe and sound – as it stands it looks as though the Doctor et al saved the current human race only to fuck them (with the help of the Master) billions of years in the future. We have to look to the indomitable speech redux from Utopia and its expression that no matter what evolutionary changes occur, the human race survives somehow. Besides, the universe is close to crunch then anyway and there’s not much that can be done about that.
Here’s a good a time as any too to note that although for her parents Martha’s been buzzing in and out for a week their time, she must have spent at least six months with the Doctor. A couple of weeks if you assume everything up until the end of 42 is consecutive and then three months stuck in 1913 with John Smith and then still yet more months in the 60s with The Doctor. Then if you want to factor in all of the spin-offs and The Infinite Quest and the fact that they’re having an adventure when they meet Sally which occurs some time before they get dragged into the 60s it could be at up to a year (and if you include the cartoon another year and a half for the timelord which he apparently spent rebuilding the prison). Then with the extra year traveling and telling the world about her saviour friend (which she doesn’t get back since because she’s on the Valiant), Martha’s aged up to two years from the start of the series to the finish but only a week in 2008 (or whatever) time. So how old is she? If I was her, I’d stick to whatever’s printed on her birth certificate and it must be the effects of the Tardis which are keeping looking the same age.
So finally, where are we on how the new series is treating time? On the basis of overwhelming evidence, the season is locked in a pre-destination paradox; I think that when the Doctor uses Back to the Future to explain the effects of time travel it’s to simplify things for his new companion who’d doubtless have a skeen of more questions if he told her that in reality she didn’t have free will and whatever happens, happens. Yes, I know that The Pyramids of Mars etc. suggest otherwise, that tinkering with the past does effect the future to an apocalyptic degree, but I’d wager on that occasion the Doctor already knows he’s beaten the Carrionites otherwise Martha wouldn’t exist and that he’s simply trying to work out how to do it. It’s much the same fun that went on in The City of Death in which the Mona Lisa’s with his felt tip pen marks are already bricked up at the chateau when he gets there; they’re already part of history.
But it really is to the good that the series is even attempting to deal with such things with this level of complexity, looking at the issues surrounding time travel and as I wrote much earlier it would be good to see it explored even more next series. One of the excellent moments in Lawrence Miles’ novel Interference is when the Doctor is harangued about the fact that it’s apparently ok for him to drop into some planet on the outer rim and help the locals defeat the present dictator but he’ll not intervene in somewhere like Iraq. The difference is of course that in the former locations he’s not going there and changing time because of some previous awareness, he’s stumbling into the situation and doing the business; whereas if he purposefully went somewhere to improve their quality of life he would be manipulating time for his own philosophical purposes (which I think is what many of the Virgin New Adventures is about). It would still be interesting to see that debate being covered in the main series in some way, particularly since The Sarah Jane Adventures have already established the Iraq war as not being out of bounds.
Last time I was all about wanting a multi-Doctor story and an episode filmed abroad both of which have happened recently. I still don’t think they’re going to tell us more about the time war than odd hints and ideas which is as it should be. I do think it’s going to be the year of Davros which is a shame since I don’t think there’s much more you can do with him other than have Dalek Khan looking for his originator to help recreate the Dalek race. I think a much more exciting idea would be some kind of quest for the Doctor to attempt to bring back Gallifrey. I know he’s the last of them, but I really miss the time lords and there would be real mileage in having this rendering of the Doctor coming up against them. Perhaps he goes to the trouble of bringing them back, only for them to turn on him for destroying them in the first place and having him turn renegade, a randomizer fitted to the TARDIS. Actually, it’d be good just to have the randomizer back. How fun would it be if the Doctor knew as much about their destination as his companion?