The other day, Gareth was poring over an article I wrote for Metro this week in which I rather flippantly summarised the events of series 1 as follows: “The Ninth Doctor destroys the Mighty Jagrafess in Satellite 5, disabling its hold over humanity, but rather than igniting the renaissance he’d anticipated, the gap in the schedules creates a vacuum that is conveniently filled by Daleks running game shows.”
“It’s surprising how awful that makes those episodes sound,” he said, “even though I already know how awful they were. I wonder what Terry Nation would have thought. (Okay, he’d probably have thought ‘yum, lots of lovely royalties’. So maybe someone else from the 60s.)”
I imagine Hinchcliffe would have had a field day. And I’d have loved to have been in the meeting between Newman and Lambert, had she taken him this pitch (along with a set of concept art).
“Goddammit, Verity, I told you, no bug-eyed monsters!”
“That’s Ann Robinson.”
But it set me thinking – dreadful story ideas seem to be endemic in New Who. Oh, there are plenty of great ideas. ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ was an interesting (if rather derivative) concept beautifully executed, as was ‘Silence in the Library’. To have the Eleventh Doctor meet a fragile, terminally depressed Van Gogh near the end of his life, work in an invisible turkey and end the episode with the dignity of the show absolutely intact was (if you’ll forgive the pun) a masterstroke. Even ‘Love And Monsters’ tried to do something different, and actually wasn’t as bad as we remember it (although I can no longer watch Peter Kay).
But elsewhere, we’re not so lucky. In some cases, it’s apparent that a promising episode’s absolute failure lies in its direction or script (‘Asylum of the Daleks’, I’m looking at you) rather than anything that didn’t work at the concept stage. Conversely, something like ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ really shouldn’t have worked, but did because it managed to be thoroughly outlandish but with a sense of fun, which the previous episode didn’t have. Similarly ‘The God Complex’ took an age-old idea but made it thoroughly fresh, mostly through some inventive camerawork, fast and innovative cutting and several nods to The Shining.
In any case: here is a hastily compiled, hideously incomplete list of New Who episodes that most of us don’t seem to really like that much (with the notable exception of the first one, which remains a guilty pleasure, at least for me), summarised into elevator pitches that – I hope – show them for what they are.
The Rings of Akhaten:
The Doctor and Clara travel to an alien world where a small child is singing a star to sleep. Eventually Clara saves the universe by feeding the star a leaf, which gives it a tummy ache.
The Doctor and Rose meet a disturbed girl whose drawings come to life. The girl is hiding an alien who has been separated from its family, and at the end the Doctor helps it go home by lighting the Olympic torch.
The Doctor, Jack and Rose stop at Cardiff to get petrol and Mickey and Rose have an argument while the Doctor goes out for dinner with an obese farting alien. The alien wants to blow up Cardiff but in the end she looks under the bonnet of the TARDIS and turns into an egg.
The Doctor and Rose visit a school where a race of space bats are feeding the pupils special chips to make them more intelligent. In the end the school gets blown up by a tin dog.
Victory of the Daleks:
The Doctor and Amy meet Winston Churchill, who has a group of Dalek servants testing weapons and making tea. There is a group of colour-coded Daleks hiding behind the moon, but the Doctor defeats them by flying Spitfires into space.
The Doctor is hiding in Victorian London when an army of evil snowmen rises up to take control of the city. He is helped by a lesbian lizard woman, her potato-headed butler and a feisty young barmaid whose deathbed tears turn the snow into rain, melting the snowmen.
In order to maintain a sense of balance, I’ll be compiling a similar list of Classic Who stories in due course.
I have a feeling that might be shorter.