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Jun 13, 2005

That's Entertainment

Tip number one: don’t watch ‘Bad Wolf’ with your speakers set to surround sound, because you’re likely not to hear some of the most crucial dialogue this series is going to have. Most of the Dalek speeches - not to mention the whole role of the Controller - were absolutely lost on me first time round. And it was only when I caught the BBC3 repeat on mono that I actually knew what the hell was going on. We may live in the era of video and DVD, where greater insight is gained from several subsequent viewings, but surely it was never meant for situations like this?

Tip number two: stay with it, for such persistence will yield rich rewards. Because ‘Bad Wolf’ is forty-five of the most exhilarating minutes of Doctor Who that you’re likely to see. If you ever spent your childhood days imagining the pages of ‘Doctor Who Weekly’s comic - with their epic space battles and fleets of Dalek spaceships - come to life, then you’re gonna love this: and absolutely adore next week. This is Doctor Who as we once only dreamt of: bold, brash and with the budget to finally match its unflagging ambition and vision. Believe me, when you see those saucers finally de-cloaked, revealing the tide of Dalek decimation beneath, you’re likely to cry some huge, fan tears of delight.

But that’s more for next week. For this is very much an episode of two halves, much as this two-parter is likely to become a full-on action fest following the more satirical mystery of this opener. I must admit to actually hating the idea of this episode when the Daily Star splashed its more, shall we say, celebrated aspects a few weeks ago. Not because I was against a Big Brother / reality TV spoof in theory; just that the thought of having the likes of Anne Robinson and Davina McCall involved was the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. How wrong I was. This is about as perfect a parody of two of the 21st Century’s most successful television formats as you could hope to see. And the inclusion of them - not to mention make-over experts Trinny and Susannah - makes for an occasionally hilarious counterpoint to the more serious shenanigans lying beneath. Russell T Davies’ scripts this year have hardly shied away from trying - and largely failing - to stimulate our funny bones; but after the relentless slapstick of farting aliens and jokes about the north, I’m glad to report he’s finally tickled mine.

And what’s all the more remarkable, given Davies’ self-confessed adoration of the sadistic, humiliation-heavy appeal of the likes of Big Brother and The Weakest Link, is how scathing he is about the whole phenomenon. Because the postulated future of 200,100 witnesses the ultimate expression of modern TV gone mad. While The Weakest Link in our day and age may be a cautious warning of how primal our competitive streaks can be, on the Game Station it has literally become a way of getting rid of the failures in life. And the shallow attention-seekers of Big Brother have followed their natural course of evolution into cattle-like contestants whose desire for fame is forced upon them, not chosen; where the aim is survival, not short-term fame and fortune.

Each of the cameos by these modern TV big-hitters would have made for a great episode in themselves; the fact we have all three merely allows Davies to sharpen his satirical scalpel to a fine point. And it’s all just so much fun. The Anne-droid is just, well, perfect - and all credit to Anne Robinson for not just allowing, but actively taking part in, what is a fairly transparent dig at her matriarchal monstrosity of a persona. Meanwhile, Trinny and Susannah’s spot allows John Barrowman’s Captain Jack to shamelessly show-off as the show-boating stud that he is. And speaking as a self-confessed allergist to almost any type of reality TV (the Doctor‘s attitude to being trapped in this pseudo-prison would pretty much echo mine), I still have Russell T Davies to thank for what is surely the best episode of Big Brother I’m likely to see.

Of course there’s a serious message about modern TV that Davies is trying to impart here. Much as he loves it, he’s aware that a constant diet of game shows and housemates over the several hundred channels we now have access to is only going to make us into the ‘brainless sheep’ of the former Satellite Five; only some one-hundred-and-ninety-eight thousand years premature. And in a series that has already shown us on more than one occasion the future fate awaiting humanity, none can be starker than the smog-covered planet here; beneath which the human race passively submits to its fate. With television as the ultimate mass entertainment sedative.

Safe to say, the regular cast all rise manfully to the occasion, once more blessed with some sharp direction by the now veteran Joe Ahearne. Eccleston in particular showcases all the diverse mannerisms he’s established in this most quixotic of incarnations: one minute flirting like a bloke down the pub with fellow reality refugee Lynda; the next stunned into silence by Rose’s apparent disintegration. The thought of the show no longer being blessed by his, admittedly slow-burning, interpretation of the Doctor grows more regrettable by the week. But at least there seems no doubt, following this episode’s clarion call to resistance, that the Ninth Doctor is going to go out all guns metaphorically blazing. And that this most visceral of incarnations will indeed meet a very bloody end.

But what lifts ‘Bad Wolf’ out of the very good to the truly extraordinary for us fan-boys are the little bits of detail. Take the Controller, for example: a mix of ‘Evil of the Daleks’ Emperor and Minority Report’s Agatha. Or how the old tradition of using the show’s current title sequence as a backdrop to some flashback-type sequence is still in force (though how Rose is supposed to remember that Van Statten’s chopper was monikered ‘Bad Wolf One’ is anybody’s guess). Then there’s the unmistakable, circa-1963 throb of the Daleks’ spaceship interior and the sublime moment when we only see the reflection of one of their number before the Controller’s extermination. ‘Bad Wolf’ is an episode that absolutely fetishises the show’s most notorious creations, giving them a threat and a scale that the old show could only dream of. And the thought of next week’s gloves-off smack-down between the series’ two biggest icons is enough to make the collective body of Doctor Who fans drool incessantly for the next seven days.

Because this is it, people. The culmination of thirteen weeks - and sixteen years - of hope, fear, love and anticipation. Doctor Who is now, without doubt, absolute must-see TV. For the newcomers, it’s been a hell of ride; for the hardcore, this really has been a trip of a lifetime. With the prospect of one seriously wild party yet to come; not to mention the final twist of a less-than-welcome gate-crasher.

So buckle up, because next Saturday’s likely to leave us all breathless…


Right, that does it. I'm going to have to watch it again. It must just be me.

However, I've got to take issue with just one point in your excellent review, Sean (by the way are you the same Sean who keeps popping up in SFX?). You credit Anne Robinson for taking part in a "dig" against her monstrously matriarchial persona. Eh? This is what she trades on! It's her "thing". How can she send up what is already there on the normal show? She not a good sport, she just fancies another chance to ram that persona home to us yet again. Nice exposure for her. When she fades into nothingness she might even do the DW convention circuit.

And the satire of reality TV isn't exactly subtle, is it? The only difference is that the contestents die. Biting satire or blatantly obvious extrapolation?

The only surprise is that it takes 200,100 years to happen! I'm thinking more like 30.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why everyone in the normal world loves it. Because they don't notice that date. They don't get hung up on it. The just see it as "the future".

Must... stop... dwelling... on... this... element...

I don't think the fact that people 'die' rather than just getting evicted is the whole of the point here. Surely it's just as significant that contestants don't actually have a choice in participating any more. The shows are so successful that the majority of the population are happy that a minority of them get wiped out just for entertainment. A sort of oppression carried out by the people against themselves, because if they didn't watch the shows, they wouldn't get made.

Have to agree with Neil on the above - Anne Robinson will have grasped the opportunity to both play up her regeneration into the baddest woman on TV and at the same time attained the kudos factor of appearing on Doctor Who - like she was going to say 'no'!

As regards Ian's point above, is it just me or is this oh-so Logan's Run where people are killed off to keep a track on the population and also at the same time getting entertainment for the public out of it! A new phenomenon for the future? Nah...just think back to the Roman gladiators or the sports events of yestercentury known as public executions.

Amidst your typically excellent and passionate review, a couple of points stood out. As I watched the Weakest Link bit in particular, the thought occured how Darwin would have knowingly smiled that his survival of the fittest theory was still intact.

Also, totally agree that RTD has finally succeeded in getting the humour element just right. Better late than never!

Hi Neil

Modesty of course prevents me from admitting that I've had the odd one or two scribble printed in the hallowed pages of SFX.

Actually, sod modesty - yes it's me.

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