THE MIND PROBE - DELVING INTO THE CREVICES OF DOCTOR WHO

Have you ever wondered why all the spaceships in the future have doors made of wood? Are you irate about the lack of alien invasions of Birmingham? Has the thought ever occurred to you that the Master's plans are so ludicrously intricate it's a wonder he has time to bathe?

Well I have.

And I'm going to write about it.

(WILL PROBABLY CONTAIN SPOILERS)

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Ghostlight

I have ended up, it seems, watching Season 26 out of order with some friends who I am lending Doctor Who DVDs to.

Halfway through, and it's much better than I remembered.

The general consensus is that Season 26 is a definite and consistent upturn in quality with Ghostlight and Fenric being excellent, Survival being good and Battlefield letting the side down. Being a Battlefield sympathiser (like many McCoy stories it was simply made about twenty years too early) means that I usually like Season 26 anyway, but preferred Season 25 mainly for being a bit more fun and not quite as relentlessly (and self-consciously) dark.

I might have to change my mind on that. We'll see how Survival and Battlefield go.

Fenric is brilliant, with a level of complexity that pays off and meshes together on so many levels that any of its faults can be forgiven. Plus, I've since decided that all that crap Ace spouts in her attempts at seduction were actually planted into the show by a young Steve Moffat, and is going to have a huge pay-off sometime around 2014. It certainly deserves its classic status.

Ghostlight is thought of as 'the confusing one'. Considering you could fit the exposition from Season 26 inside a thimble, this doesn't necessarily bode well. However my friends, bright intelligent young men that they are, managed to follow Ghostlight with only a couple of questions, and not the ones you might expect ('What's going on?', 'What's he doing that for?', 'Do Ace and Gwendoline kiss at any point?' etc. etc.). While I hastily try to remember what they did actually ask, here's a brief summary of my opinion of Ghostlight.

It's really, really funny.

Like Fenric, there are so many ideas flying around, tied together using Ace as a narrative lynchpin, that it's easy to forgive the complexities when you're presented with so much richness. Like Warriors' Gate there's a strong undercurrent of black comedy (McCoy gives his funniest performance here, IMO) that ties in with Marc Platt's fondness for the gothic and fairy tale. The first few times I read the story I hadn't much idea what everything meant but I was enjoying it anyway. The cliffhanger to part one, for example, is something that freaks me out a little due to the combination of strange images and eerie noises, but I'm still not entirely sure why Control is saying 'Ratkin'. I daresay the information is online somewhere.

While Ghostlight isn't quite as complicated as Fenric its shorter running time makes it feel denser, but also benefits the story by maintaining a constant pace. It's more fun than Fenric, but is a much smaller scale of story. The relationship between Ace and the Doctor is more dubious here. He has no evil from the dawn of time to blame for manipulating Ace into these situations, and it seems to be dramatic license that he doesn't just tell her where they're going and why. There's also the much maligned 'White kids firebombed it', line, which is overplayed rather than underplayed by Sophie Aldred. I dunno, I just don't mind it that much.

Set in one house, a house that is made to look creepy by the actors and direction rather than set design (the set is a very solid period house). The supporting cast is universally excellent too, and there's a minimum of practical effects to go wrong, so they don't. Hooray.

I dunno what else there is to say about Ghostlight. It's a fun runaround, and a dark fairy tale, with a wealth of references to Victorian history, literature and science. Even if it's hard to follow at times at least it carries you along for the ride. It's different to Fenric, no epic struggle of Good versus Evil here, the focus is oddly small despite the presence of angels, evolution and nightmares from Ace's childhood. Instead, it's something fairly rare in Doctor Who:

Ghostlight is a romp with depth.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

You'll Probably Have Read This Already...

...as I posted it here a few weeks back. But still, the Den of Geek version has got more pictures and a comments thread which veers between the pleasant and the depressing.

Meanwhile I am writing a Troughton one, and I'll be reviewing Ghostlight at some point, as I appear to have ended up showing some friends all of Season 26 in entirely the wrong order.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Curse of Fenric (Part Two)

See this post for the first half of this review.

So, with a slightly more sophisticated anti-war stance than mere tub-thumping, Briggs also takes inspiration from Alan Turing (who committed suicide because of his sexuality and also was a key figure in the advent of computer technology) and the Enigma Code-Breakers of Bletchley Park, and uses them as something that helps the story along, adding depth and shading to it. If concepts as big as that can be lightly used as window dressing you know you've got an imagination going into overdrive. Then, add to that McGuffin the Arabian Nights style imprisonment of Fenric (read the novel. It's got tons of extra stuff in it including a chapter describing this off-screen event) in a flask, combining this all with Norse mythology is a concept that I can't even begin to imagine the links to. It's hard to say what order all these ideas arrived at in Ian Briggs' brain.

Viking mythology is a godsend to any writer hoping to add instant EPIC stylings to his writing. The story of the Norse gods has been used so often throughout storytelling that you'd think it'd be getting a bit tired, and then someone else arrives to put it into popular culture. Here, it's used pragmatically. To get a curse arriving through a certain select gene-pool the writer needs either an enclosed village (which is hard to believe) or an influx of outsiders. Choosing the Vikings gives you a mythology that ties in better with the end of the world than, say, the Romans, as well as covering a vast amount of geography with which to include the Oriental treasure aspect, and the origins of the Vampire myth.

Yeah, as well as all the other stuff going on Fenric also explains Vampires as a timey-wimey environmentalism-themed paradox. Doctor Who, explaining things with pseudo-science once again. Briggs had definitely been watching the Hinchcliffe era, methinks, not least because we get memorable monsters. Fenric is steeped in desire to homage the show's halcyon days, to get back to doing what made Doctor Who tick. If you think McCoy era monsters you probably get the Candyman mentioned, one of the most divisive monsters in the show's history. Oddly, you don't get mutated human bloodsuckers rising out of the sea and turning people into genuinely creepy straggle-nailed pale-faces. The Haemovores coming out of the sea is pretty good. The Haemovores standing up from behind the gravestone covered in mist is chilling. The girls turning round to reveal white faces and talons is entirely memorable. And that's before we get to the image of the Doctor mumbling to himself indecipherably while the monsters turn and flee, all the while Mark Ayres' soundtrack managing to overcome the limitations of Eighties' keyboards and make something memorable, evocative and unobtrusive.

These images, coming from the era of cheap film stock and 'Yeah, I know we thought we were winging it before, but now we're really winging it', are just as splendid as those from the show's more widely acknowledged heydays. If you were going to use just three clips of McCoy to show why he was mint, you would use that clip, the one of him sneering as he pushes a rifle aside in The Happiness Patrol, and the one of him walking cheerfully through the fighting and doffing his hat from Battlefield. They're brilliant examples of the show overcoming its limitations and making something wonderful, just as much as the Drashigs, the Zygon ship exploding, or the Cybermen emerging from London's sewers.

Oh, and the cliffhanger to part three is brilliant as well. It shouldn't be, but it is. It's just a man standing up and saying a fairly mundane sentence, with McCoy forced to do cliffhanger acting while moving only his eyes (which then DOUBLE in size), but through context, and build-up, and everything that has been moved into place (like some sort of GAME OF CHESS. Incidentally, through a typo I had initially written 'HAM OF CHESS'. I don't know what that is, but I was still tempted to keep it like that).

Fenric has enough good ideas to toss them away lightly, but amidst all of them I think the one that gets unfairly overlooked is the Ancient One. It's essentially a smaller scale version of RTD's Toclafane idea - the end of the world is brought about by environmental collapse, rather than the end of all things, and humanity has changed into something else that travels back in time to feed on earlier humans. In this case, it manages to tie it in with Ragnarok, the political climate of Europe in the mid-Twentieth Century, and the aforementioned vampire legend from Transylvania.

Now, most episodes of Doctor Who would probably love to have an idea as good as explaining Dracula as some sort of timey-wimey future human mutation, but Fenric just casually mentions it. Just, y'know, like a thing. An incidental thing. And then goes and re-affirms its commitment to Doctor Who's unofficial mission statement by having someone say 'But there's no such things as vampires,' only for Sorin to reply 'Of course not,' in an overly pithy way while sharpening a stake. That's what? Thirty seconds of screen time? Not only is it entirely creepy, moody and atmospheric watching the monsters shambling along in the mist, but it also manages to be funny, rigorously attuned to sci-fi pedantry, and tie together at least five previously unconnected strands of story.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is simply utterly brilliant writing. And this from the man who wrote Ace's seduction scene. We all have bad days.

Oh, and the whole temporal paradox thing is resolved by the Doctor interfering and changing history on a huge scale. Presumably his actions in Fenric change the course of Earth history, to avoid the fate the Ancient One describes. That's quite a big thing, and there isn't really a way of showing it. The end of the story focuses on teenage angst and Ace's character arc instead, which is pretty brave. I'd probably have preferred an ending that talked about huge, seismic changes to the web of time to the one we got, but then I hate emotions. Especially the ones girls have. Urgh.

But yeah, there's a fair amount of teenage angst in this. At least this is acknowledged by Ace's bitter 'Full marks for teenage psychology' line, but it's probably the weak point of the story for me. It's not that it isn't a good idea to focus on the companion, it's just that arguably the writers weren't ready for it. They could tell a good yarn, create cool monsters, write all dark stuff that made fandom go 'Oooooooh I see what you did there' but they could not, really, at that point, write an entirely convincing teenager. It's partly due to the fact that she wasn't allowed to swear properly. It's partly due to the fact that, no matter what your opinions of her as an actress, Sophie Aldred did not look sixteen, seventeen or eighteen when she was on Doctor Who. And it's partly due to the fact that young comic book enthusiasts maybe aren't the best people to be writing roles for women. Rona Munro writes three episodes and Sophie Aldred is superb in all of them. I don't think that's a coincidence that it's her best performance. Ace is likeable, if a bit annoying sometimes, but you do get the impression of a wannabe tomboy who is trying too hard to be accepted. She's more streetwise than the Doctor, but then that's not hard. The initial concept was, I think, changed to reflect the reality of Ace on screen. She's not what the meant her to be, but that the production team adjusted her character as they went along is more than can be said for previous companions, who generally got stuck with their initial character sheet for their first story and were then fairly generic afterwards. Ace is always Ace. She changes, she moves on in the right direction from her starting point. It's not like Leela, who sadly petered out after an initially brilliant debut season. Yeah, Ace is a bit naff and dated compared with Leela in her prime (now there's a fan poll: 'You will do as the Doctor says or I will cut out your heart!' versus 'Beating up a Dalek with a baseball bat'), but she was definitely a step forward in terms of consistent characterisation. Compared with Rose, obviously, she's barely developed, but it's unfair to say anything other than Cartmel's team were heading in the right direction with regards to settings, monsters and characterisation. That Ace still does well in Best Companion Polls is a testament to what everyone involved with her did right, rather than what they didn't get the chance to do. Certainly, it is possible that the companion who followed Ace might well have had a parent as a recurring character. That's what's happening in Big Finish's Season 27, but we don't really know if that's how the 1990 version would have turned out.

Tying in with Ace's teenage angst and character development is the sexual undercurrents of the story. Judson and Millington are confirmed in the Target novel to have been a couple. In a deleted scene (available on the extended cut on the DVD) Phyllis and Jean say they have had sex and are presented as objects of lust for Prozokov, complete with symbolic dialogue that is Briggs' attempt to write 'THE WATER IS A SEX!' for an audience of children. Because of this, it's not entirely clear until you listen to the interview with him on the DVD, because most of this had to go over a lot of peoples' heads in order to be accepted for broadcast. But, y'know, fair play to him for using the whole 'vampires are sexy' thing in a show aimed at a young audience. He could have been rich, if only he'd made them glitter and turned Ace into a pointless whining character-vacuum. It's hard to say what the whole sexual awakening thing adds to the story. Ace gets a love interest (very quickly. Cossacks must've been easily swayed by combative women in garters) and it ends really terribly badly, and the two people who have had sex at a young age are turned into monsters. Ace is fine at the end of the story, the teenage angst thing having resolved itself by the use of metaphor. Presumably, Maiden's Bay being a representation of temptation and so on, Ace diving into the water at the end is her embracing her sexual freedoms and abandoning her guilt and worry. So, essentially, Freud was spot on. It's all to do with mothers.

This part ties in with the other plot elements less well. Ace's troubled family life does combine with the curse aspect, and of course she is meant to be a teenager and therefore all angsty and that. There isn't really anything to do with her sexuality on screen until this point. I mean, sure there's the distracting the guard scene, but that's just bewildering. It consists entirely of combinations of words that no-one would ever say. Unless Ian Briggs had personal experience of a girl coming up to him and saying exactly those words, culminating in a bitter last-minute re-write on location. The sexual awakening stuff is the least successful aspect of Fenric, because it doesn't integrate well enough with the rest of the ideas.

Finally (Yeah, sorry, I've gone on a bit longer than I thought I would), there's Fenric itself.

The fact that it has an almost Lovecraftian origin story is pretty much just geek bait. 'Evil since the dawn of time' is sufficiently vague, while also hinting at a battle between gods and monsters. It's a good villain. It gets some brilliant lines and is built up as a massive threat. It's a good villain, is Fenric. If we think of The Master as reflecting the Doctor (true of Simm and Delgado, certainly), then Fenric would really be Seven's Master equivalent - another manipulator, someone who plays a long game, and who is basically the Doctor's intellectual equal.

Plus: 'Don't interrupt me when I'm eulogising' is a fantastic villain line. I'd like to see more of Fenric if the character was written this well. It's tailor made for a season finale. Fenric even sees an ad hoc arc played out with with events over the previous two seasons. Yeah, it's a retcon, and they only did it late in the day, but it's still a nice touch that rewards future viewings. Yes, that's right. Even of Silver Nemesis.

Fenric is a story that deserved more attention given to it. Everyone who worked on it, I'm sure, worked hard and made it to the best of their abilities. It looks good, it works, and by and large it's well-acted. However, it was made when the BBC didn't like making Doctor Who, and as with the rest of the era suffers as a result. It's such a shame that the BBC couldn't get behind a show crammed with as many ideas as this one, giving it time to breath, to iron out the few faults it had. Everything was made in such a rush that it's a miracle that it works as well as it does.

I know that some people don't like Fenric because it seems garbled, but it's worth persevering with because once you make sense of it there's a feast for the senses here, a steady supply of iconic images and an amazingly good series of ideas interwoven seamlessly with each other. Obviously the ideal would be to keep the impact of part four but have it edited so that it was easier to follow, but fortunately for the story VHS and DVD arrived, so it was able to be watched more than once. Personally, I'd rather it be initially confusing and ultimately brilliant than coherent but with a lessened impact.

I mean, if we wanted Doctor Who to make sense, we'd be in a lot of trouble.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Curse of Fenric (Part One)

There are different ways of watching Doctor Who.

Generally you are surrounded by family, friends or flatmates and get swept up in the story. People laugh and cry, occasionally punctuated by a burst of 'WHAT?' and delighted/irate indignation.

If you are watching with friends who aren't huge fans you will be asked, from time to time, what something means in the context of the entire show. There are three standard answers in this scenario:

1. 'Err, that's a new thing. They've never done it before.'

2. 'Oh, that's a sly fan-pleasing reference that you'll only really know about if you read the entirety of the Missing Adventures range.'

3. 'Yes, that's a monster that hasn't been seen since 1976 now SHUT UP AND LET ME GOGGLE.'

Then of course, there's watching it with fellow fans, armed with abundant knowledge and the potential for scorn. Here fandom will divide itself into the following categories:

1. 'This is shit! Doctor Who is shit! Thus, I am superior!'

2. 'This is fun! Doctor Who is fun! But I will still mock it in an affectionate way! Thus, I am superior!'

3. 'Gay, gay, gay, gay, racist, gay, superior.'

4. 'Shut up, I'm trying to enjoy this.'

Then of course, there's watching it with people who haven't seen it before but really want to watch it.

This is a pretty good one. Essentially, if you're going to watch really good episodes you should watch it with people who haven't seen it before. Their enjoyment enhances yours and everyone is happy. If you are going to watch, say, Attack of the Cybermen, it might be worth getting some alcohol in and watching it in the company of fellow fans who already know its reputation.

The former method of viewing, however, has convinced me of the brilliance of The Curse of Fenric.

This story is generally considered to be very good, with a few dissenting voices. The Doctor and Ace walk about from location to location seemingly at random, happening upon the next vital clue that won't make any sense until episode 4. Even with the Seventh Doctor at his most scheming it's hard to believe that he constantly ends up in the right place. Unless of course, in the middle of the night when he turns up to deliver enigmatically obvious statements to hapless Marines, he goes on an advance recce.

It depends on what you like. There are some excellent Who stories with one central idea propelling the narrative, which links together seamlessly. There are also some Who stories with unusual or flawed narratives, which can alienate some viewers. Christopher H. Bidmead's first two stories have slow starts set mainly aboard the TARDIS, for example, and this can put people off as they want to go out exploring somewhere new.

Fenric's narrative structure is essentially to spend the first three episodes laying foundations for all out chaos in episode four. The viewer is kept in the dark about what is happening for a lot longer than usual, while all around pieces of the story fall into place. This story is driven almost entirely by tying themes and ideas together in unusual combinations and manages to be suitably epic within a small, localised setting. It also maintains an atmosphere that builds up steadily as the plot is steadily revealed.

Personally, I love huge collisions of ideas. Not the 'What if TV could kill? Yeah? Yeah' kind of idea, but the huge ones that are just like play-sets for aspiring writers. In Fenric's case, Ian Briggs has taken one of Doctor Who's core concepts - turn the unexplained into the explained using plausible sounding nonsense - and managed to combine all the following ideas, situations and concepts into one story:

Norse Mythology

The Dracula Legend

Arabian Nights

Environmentalism

War

Teenage Angst

Chess as a game between deities

Socialism

Faith

Code-Breaking Machines

Lovecraftian Ancient Beings

Sexual Awakening

Which, let's be honest here, is astoundingly impressive. That's a nigh-on ridiculous collision of ideas, and the fact that it seems to hang together without beating you over the head with its own cleverness is another plus. Listening to Briggs on the DVD extras he strikes you as quite a quiet man, carrying around a small universe in his head.

So, in keeping with the general ethos of the Cartmel era, the story's view on war is not simply 'It's a terrible thing'. It is bad, yes, but there is at least a couple of examples as to why. The obvious sign of this is when Vershinin says to Sgt. Leigh that war is a game played by politicians. This, oddly, comes in a moment when the homosexual subtext between Millington and Judson, almost completely removed from the TV version, is suddenly right there in the held-slightly-too-long-gaze between the two soldiers. I'm not sure Briggs' intention was to tie in socialism with homosexuality, but if it was a deliberate play on the part of the production team then it's a frankly brilliant drop-in. Now, politically this is more than a bit subjective. But the politics of the writers is obviously left-leaning, and it is in no way implausible that a British soldier could have socialist sympathies that would be exacerbated in the situation. And, if you think that this political leaning promotes sexual freedom and liberalism, then why not make him gay? Especially when you've been told not to make some other characters obviously gay. That's kinda brilliant. And I don't even like socialism that much.

This ties in with the faith aspect. You surely feel sorry for Reverend Wainwright, a Vicar with no faith who is still essentially a good man despite his fondness for overusing the phrase 'They're inHUMANN!' Especially when he's contrasted with Captain Sorin, whose faith in the Russian Revolution is still absolute even by the time of the Second World War. I've read some people accuse this of being in bad taste to have an otherwise positive character have faith in such a regime, although this doesn't take into account the fact that at no point is there an explicit criticism of religion.

Oh sure, you can interpret it that way (many ways, in fact) but all that is presented is a flawed figurehead for religion who lacks faith. He's still a good man. All this states is the hardly controversial belief that faith is very important to Theism. A belief in God, or good, or anything really is no easier to nail down than a belief in the Russian Revolution though. Does Sorin believe in Stalin? Or Lenin? Or Trotsky? Or just the core tenets of socialism? We don't know exactly what his interpretation of it is. As with religion, there are some that are flawed and harmful to others, and some that cause no harm and often involve extreme selflessness. And it's not as if Christianity hasn't been used as an excuse for barbarism either (although, in fairness, that's over a much longer time period and less concentrated than Soviet Russia). Essentially it's a very murky, morally dubious concept that raises a lot of questions without answering them. It makes you think, in other words, about the nature of faith and provides extra layers to sympathetic characters that makes you question their immediate appearances.

Also, these two tie in to the aspect of war, with Wainwright personifying an anti-war and pro-war message. I have no idea if this is deliberate, but by stating that no-one is on the right side in war and being unable to bring himself to fight he makes the points that war is terrible due to the loss of innocent lives, those of people who had no wish for war or even an inclination to take part in it, while also showing that if you are in a war situation then you need to believe in something to survive. Wainwright is even offered a hint that the war will end, and that the future is better by Ace. Considering Ace's character coming from a rabidly anti-fascist point of view, it's probably best she didn't mention the other problems of the future, but still a glint of hope is offered to him and even that is not enough to give Wainwright faith in something. Possibly the conflict has crushed any hope from him, but there's a harsh truth that he dies because he has no hope left, his nihilism finally consuming him by the sight of two schoolgirls turned into vampires, telling him that 'everyone is lost', and that this was always their fate.

Which is really, really fucking depressing. Completely fatalistic. It'd be enough to shatter most people's world-view really. But Wainwright is a good man turned hollow. He cannot shoot or attack the creatures. He cannot turn to his faith to save him. He cannot fight back. For a ruthlessly pragmatic instant, a story with a strong pacifistic message says 'If you are in a way, you will have to fight at some point,' while simultaneously saying 'War does this to people, it crushes them so that they can't fight back.'

At the same time of course, it's got Nicholas Parsons fighting vampires. God I love this programme.


The rest of this review will be posted later. I kinda wrote too much. Blame Ian Brigggs.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Passing the Time

Well, of course we'll have to find other ways to pass the time now Doctor Who isn't on telly.

Torchwood will probably be on in July (that's when it starts in America), and has Radio 4 audioplays to come featuring mysteriously popular Ianto Jones (he's alright) and there'll be three new books to tie in with the new series. There's also going to be web content featuring Eliza Dushku. If you don't know who she is, all you need to know is that she insulted Piers Morgan on Twitter.

There's also, and I'm personally more excited about this, re-releases of several old Doctor Who books. These vary from Target Novelisations to the BBC Books from between 1996 - 2005.

The Cave Monsters, for example. There's a forward by Terrance Dicks, but mainly it's just the fact that a new generation has access to some of these books. Hopefully children will pick them up as well as adults.

And, for hardcore fans rather than kids, there's a smattering of Print on Demand BBC Books titles. It's mainly Lance Parkin and Kate Orman, but there are some pretty good titles in there. Personally I'll be most interested in The Infinity Doctors, Lance Parkin's 35th anniversary tale.

So, all in all, there's plenty of scope to not have withdrawal symptoms.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A Good Man Goes to War

Looking at the ratings for Doctor Who at the moment it seems that absolutely nothing has changed. The show has been consistently popular since 2005 with very little fluctuation in audience figures, and this doesn't look set to change any time soon.

But how is this possible, I hear myself cry rhetorically, for surely all the Tennant fangirls must have left? (They are not true fans by the way, I was reliably informed of this by people on a fan forum who were all incredibly grumpy. It is well known that grumpiness is roughly equivalent to intelligence).

If all the Tennant fangirls left, someone else must've replaced them and done so immediately so that the ratings barely changed. Who could this mystery group be? People so disappointed with the RTD/Tennant era that they jumped ship, waiting for a Production team change? Maybe, but I bet that the numbers of people who make up both these groups are very small indeed. I daresay many a Tennant fangirl is now a Smith fangirl. Or boy. And for every person who refused to watch the RTD era any longer there'll be one who thinks the Moffat version of the show is pants and is pining for the halcyon days of 2006.

There'll have been a bit of to-ing and fro-ing with the viewship but I suspect the bulk of it has been maintained. If, as suggested, casual viewers are switching off in their droves and children are too scared to watch then where on earth are all their replacements coming from?

Slightly older children, maybe? Say, twenty or thirty years older? There's more than a hint of the Dicks/Letts handover to Holmes/Hinchcliffe at the moment, something I'd suspected might happen for a while but didn't really materialise last series. It's been written about on the SFX website now about two years or so after I wrote about it. Not that I'm bitter. Or annoyed at SFX shortlisting Life, Doctor Who & Combom as best fan blog when it puts "Any and all posts related to Doctor Who and the Whoniverse may contain spoilers at varying degrees. If you don't want to read spoilers, this blog is just NOT for you! We are not responsible for any spoilers you did not wish to read." AT THE BOTTOM OF THE FUCKING PAGE so that to see this Disclaimer you have to scroll through ANY AND ALL OF THE SPOILERS.

Anyway. I came over all Tenth Doctor 'Oh woe is me' there. Sorry about that.

Hands up who else is imagining Matt Smith clapping his hands together in a manner that suggests he only just managed not to miss, smiling nervously and then exclaiming 'Let's Kill Hitler!'?

The preceding fifty minutes weren't bad either.

The episode has been charged by The Internet of 'Grievously Disappointing Reveal, to whit, it'd had been online for months and we all knew what was going to happen.'

Well now Internet, that's your own fucking fault isn't it? If you go looking for spoilers you'll probably find them. They're called that for a reason. However, many of the viewers will have worked out the ending early on when a character's name is revealed. I didn't. I worked it out at another point in the episode, I forget when, but it didn't really seem to matter for me. I'm not watching Doctor Who trying to work out whodunnit, what whodunnit is and why. I'm watching it and letting it happen, because that's how I watch telly. Then I think about it afterwards. So I didn't pick up on the most obvious clue because I wasn't looking for it.

Much has been made (mainly crude abuse) of the phrase 'Game changing cliffhanger'. There have been several idiotic assumptions that because either A. They saw it coming or B. They didn't like it that the cliffhanger wasn't game changing at all.

Frankly, it was oversold, but it has huge great ramifications. Massive ones. Blotting out the sun. That kind. Let's lay it out as simply as Moffat's plotting will allow:

Rory + Amy's daughter is the girl in the spacesuit (How does she get there? Why does she kill the Doctor? If she can regenerate who else could she have been?).

Rory + Amy's daughter is River Song (How old is she? How many Time Lord powers does she have? Does this make everything she and the Doctor may or may not do to each other kinda creepy and wrong?)

There are many more questions. This cliffhanger merely gives us a framework on which to hang yet more questions about River Song. We know who her parents are. We know she may be able to regenerate. But we don't actually know who she is. Not really. We know of her birth and her death, but there's still huge gaps to be filled in. I don't know if it was game changing, but it's certainly got me hooked to find out how the dots are joined.

For all that Moffat has turned Doctor Who into a serial rather than a series, we're hardly in Lost territory here. First of all, Doctor Who is fun, fast-paced and involving. Secondly there are still standalone episodes to enjoy. It's not as gosh-darn complicated as made out, although it does assume long-term viewership. The fact is that this seems to be working, so the approach is being vindicated. I think people will put up with more complexity if they're being entertained along the way, and Doctor Who still does that brilliantly, to the extent that it throws away ideas that other shows would spend whole stories on.

In the forward to Ubik by Philip K. Dick it is said that Dick would often throw away as background detail concepts and inventions that a whole novel could be based on, as window dressing and incidental content. Steve Moffat does that too. The pre-credits sequence, for example, would probably have lasted an entire episode of Classic Who. The idea that Jack the Ripper was never found because a Lesbian Silurian Investigator ate him is tossed away as a one-liner. This is then followed up with, let's not beat about the bush, the best clitoral stimulation gag in Doctor Who's history. Colonel Runaway manages to build up the Doctor's myth by trying to dismantle it. A baby is disintegrated into goo in the arms of its mother, and peoples' necks are twisted and tied taught while they still walk, wield flaming swords and inexplicably keep their headgear on.

And there are pirates. And spitfires in space. This is not jumping the shark. This is jumping the shark, twatting it across the face with an ironing board and then turning into the Moon with the face of the Pope. And don't tell me you wouldn't applaud someone doing that on a motorbike.

The production keeps up with this. The episode looks stunning, and not just in terms of spectacle (the blowing up of the Cyber-War ships, housing thousands of Cyber-Red-Herrings, and looking incredibly familiar from somewhere, possibly the Sixties) but in terms of everything. You barely notice the reality of filming in a warehouse, or consider where they filmed the Victorian London scenes. They all segue into each other effortlessly.

We're treated to so many brilliant ideas, done brilliant by brilliant people sparkling with brilliance that by the time the River Song reveal comes you almost don't care. Such a shame that it apparently has the emotional content of a dead wall.

Which is bollocks. Anyone who didn't feel deliriously happy or incredibly sad while watching that isn't doing it right. Moffat has been accused of writing from the head rather than the heart, which is probably for the best because all the cool stuff is in the head. Writing from the heart would probably just be something like 'Badoom...bloodbloodbloodyblood...badoom...moreblood...badoom' and that's only marginally better than Outcasts.

And anyway, he just made a Sontaran's death noble and moving. Not content with giving him the funniest lines any Sontaran is ever going to get he gives him a character based send off that's entirely fitting and sad and we've only seen the guy on screen for about fifteen minutes. The Doctor's transformed him into something better than a Sontaran. Naturally, he has to die. This is the start of an incredibly painful aftermath where the dichotomy between the Doctor's aims and the Doctor's means is laid out. It's like the bit of Journey's End where Davros rants at him, only really good. A fairly simple message, done before, but done well again.

Then there's the cliffhanger. And there's the Doctor's cot. Which exists as yet another means for Moffat to make you momentarily think that the baby might be the Doctor's. He's done it at least four times this series, and each time you feel delighted when Rory wins. I feel that anyone who wondered why Rory went bad-ass and dressed up in his Centurion outfit for this story appears to have forgotten the whole TWO THOUSAND YEARS AS A ROMAN thing he did last series. Rory is more than capable of doing extraordinary things for his wife. Curse you Rory Williams, curse you for yet again raising the bar for all men.

Amy Pond, meanwhile, is maybe lacking the limelight she had last series, but her character is less sure of herself and more likeable. And Karen Gillan has managed to subtly carry the series while the two guys steal the big moments, like the ravenous attention whores men are.

Then there's the Doctor.

I don't really have anything to say about Matt Smith. I mean, what advice would you give him other than 'Carry on'? Character wise every new beat they give him he carries out flawlessly.

So, in conclusion, I really don't get all the stuff that's flying around saying it was underwhelming. I was actually pleased to see the blog on the SFX website, because their reviews haven't been entirely complimentary so to have someone come out and say that they thought we were in a potential golden age was great. Likewise, Empire have written a similar article even though Doctor Who is largely outside their remit. We won't really know if the mid-season split has worked until the next half of the series, but so far we've had only one mediocre story and a momentum has been built.

And for everyone who didn't like it, there's RTD's oncoming Torchwood to fill the gap.




Thursday, 2 June 2011

Fan Theories

Nothing like a bit of idle, join-the-continuity-dots speculation to pass the time. You may already be familiar with my theory that the Eighth Doctor died in the Time War, meaning that from the 2005 series onwards we're back to the First, Second and Third incarnations. What we think of as the Ninth Doctor is actually a new version of the Doctor resurrected for the Time War in the same way as The Master.

It's a big thing to drop into the series now though, you'd have thought he'd have mentioned it by now. I was just trying to think of ways around the 12 regenerations limit.

But, extrapolating from that and combining it with something from Neil Gaiman's episode - where it is heavily hinted that Time Lords can change sex during regenerations - I have come up with another theory.

What is the character Timothy Dalton plays in The End of Time is actually Romana?

A Romana who is so utterly insane that she calls herself Rassilon, wears evil gauntlets (she totally would wear gauntlets, lets be honest) and spits all over the place?

Again, it's kinda unlikely based on the fact that the Doctor calls him Rassilon, but Romana going insane is no less likely than the Time Lords resurrecting one of their Godlike figures. And if she was insane, she'd probably not take to being called 'Romana' again. Mind you, if anyone had the nerve to put that gag into a story at that point it was RTD.