Posts Tagged With: doctor who series 3

Have I Got Whos For You (February Made Me Shiver Edition)

This week in Whoville, there’s trouble in paradise.

This is from a film, right? They walk around wearing blindfolds for some reason. Is it like that bit in ‘Flesh and Stone’ where Amy has to navigate the Angels? Can someone enlighten me seeing as I can’t be bothered to Google this afternoon?

Elsewhere, it snowed, so obviously.

I was chatting to Christian Cawley on Twitter. “Having just finished PD’s memoirs,” he said, “Davison, Troughton and Pertwee pushing the snow onto Tom Baker might be more apt.”

“There were so many combinations,” I told him. “It was almost the Brigadier and Jo pushing the snow onto an unsuspecting Pertwee. I like the idea of Capaldi being caught out, but the real reason Baker and Pertwee are up there are simply because they’re the only ones who would balance.”

Still, you can’t keep a good Time Lord down. Not when there’s a big game on.

In case you were wondering, most of them are Falcon players. I went for the ones that were already transparent, as I couldn’t be bothered to do any cutting out. I have no idea if this makes any sort of statement on the quality of the game or the people that play it. I don’t even know what I’m looking at. I played an early John Madden game on the Sega Mega Drive but I never really got to grips with it; the whole thing seemed awfully stop-and-start. You will notice the Doctor is the only one not wearing any padding, and there’s a hint of sneering culture wars at play here: my feelings on American Football (or, as they call it, Football) aren’t exactly well-documented, except to say that over here we call it rugby. And we don’t use helmets.

But by the time you read this, of course, the Super Bowl will be a distant memory, because it’s all about Chinese New Year. Only with the Doctor, of course, it never goes to plan.

Gung hay fat choy…

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Have I Got Whos For You (World Cup Edition)

First and foremost:

I mean, it’s not, sadly. I missed a trick; I ought to have got this lot out yesterday, while we still had a chance. But that’s the way it works: if your timing is off, then things go awry, and you miss the train, get hit by the car, or land the TARDIS a year and a day after you left, instead of the morning after.

Veterans among you will remember that – at least in this country – the very first broadcast of ‘Rose’ clashed with the England vs. Northern Ireland match on ITV; a match we eventually won 4-0, after a slow start and an eventual flurry of second half goals. The following day was Sunday, and we were in church. “I don’t know if you watched any TV last night,” said the visiting preacher. “But if you did, you may have witnessed a bunch of lifeless wax figures suddenly wake up and parade menacingly around, causing terror and fear. Or you might have turned off the football and watched Doctor Who instead.”

Anyway, I made this. It took, I don’t know, an hour?

Disclaimer: there is a better version of this idea on the BBC Doctor Who Facebook page somewhere. It’s cleverly edited but sadly unwatchable now, focusing as it does on the idea that we might have actually had a chance at this thing; in the cold grey light of the morning after, the look of ecstatic joy on the face of Jodie Whittaker (who is, in reality, simply staring at her tits) is almost heartbreaking.

There’s a curious irony in some of the fan responses. It’s as if you’re allowed to be obsessed about one thing but not the other. “Ha!” says the Doctor Who fan. “Your fixation with kicking an inflated pigskin around a muddy field is preposterous, unlike my own fixation with a silly science fiction programme about a man in a flying police box.” To which the football fan grunts, or delivers a Glasgow kiss. That’s what they’re like, isn’t it? Violent and monosyllabic, the missing link alive and well and wearing an England shirt?

Look, it’s possible to like both (Gareth Roberts does, and Frank Skinner’s not doing a bad job either) and neither. The nation’s become briefly obsessed with football over the past few weeks because there was a chance there – a slim chance, mind you, but a chance nonetheless – that we might actually make it. It’s the sort of straw you clutch at until it shreds in your hand. Now it’s gone, and we’ll get back to normal. And for those of you who think it’s all pointless and silly, there was a time when we had the same sense of hopelessness about Doctor Who, during the wilderness years when it was off the air. We delude ourselves if we claim to be any different to the Chelsea mob: and no, we don’t stand on top of ambulances, but some of us have sent death threats to the writers, which isn’t so far off. Thirteen years of more or Nu Who has made us remarkably complacent, and we forget that there was a time when we were similarly despairing of the future of the thing we loved, and where the only morsel on offer at a very meagre feast (at least until Big Finish came along) were the odd little sketches, offering laughs, but also glimmers of hope for a revival. Well, except for ‘Dimensions In Time’. That was shit.

Here’s a forfeit: you have to share this post on social media if you, like me, have had a two-week ‘Three Lions’ earworm. I know perfectly well that shake of a head is a lie, by the way. It’s been all over the shop and unless you unplug from the internet (the TV, the radio, British society in general) you have no hopes of avoiding it. It’s even haunted my sleep – although that was probably because a few minutes earlier, Emily had suggested this one.

Sorry. We’ll stop now.

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The War Master in the Night Garden

In 2007, Doctor Who fans were gifted with the finest Master to grace the screen since Roger Delgado. He was suave, he was eloquent, he was angry and malicious, he was…well, he was British, which probably helped. Unfortunately he lasted only a minute and a half before getting shot by an insect and regenerating into John Simm.

It was such a pity. Derek Jacobi was born to play the Master, and for just a moment or two, he did it brilliantly. His replacement was a gurning, dancing clown, manic and ridiculous and – it must be acknowledged – perfectly matched opposite Tennant, but not always an easy watch. Things didn’t improve when he returned with a hoodie, an inexplicable penchant for cannibalism and a secret plan for cloning himself, leading to what is affectionately known as the show’s Being John Malkovich moment. It would be years before we saw the version of the Simm Master that I’d always wanted to see – sneering, reserved and (for a change) respectably dressed, and even if that turns out to be his last appearance, his turn in ‘The Doctor Falls’ was a cracking way to go out.

But enough of this, because we were here to discuss Jacobi – who, having turned in a memorable performance in ‘Utopia’, promptly toddled away back into the land of romantic comedy-dramas, bad sitcoms and the occasional CBeebies bedtime story. He tangoed in Halifax, helped build the Titanic and endured a love-hate relationship with Magneto. Recently we saw him lock horns with the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society in A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. But of his Master, there was nothing – until last December, when he teamed up for a Big Finish audio series entitled Only The Good, in which we got to see the reincarnated renegade in action during the Time War, before he fled to the end of the universe.

What to say about the War Master set? Well, it’s broadly good, although it opens with a largely inconsequential opening story with people I didn’t care about on a forgettable planet that’s being besieged by Daleks. Stories two and four are better, although in one of them the Master is at his most un-Masterlike (the title of this particular story is ‘The Good Master’, so it’s not exactly a spoiler) and it’s initially rather disconcerting to witness him behaving like the disguised human he would eventually become. Of the four, ‘Sky Man’ is far and away the best, despite – or perhaps because – it is a story in which the Master barely features, instead allowing his erstwhile companion Cole to take centre stage. Cole himself is worthy, if rather dull, but if the story’s conclusion is more or less mapped out in its opening conversation it’s still devastatingly effective when it happens.

It also definitively answers one of the questions that the fans have been arguing about for years: namely, was it really Jacobi’s Master in the Time War? The naysayers point out that he states he was ‘a naked child found on the coast of the silver devastation’; similarly John Smith remembers growing up in Ireland with his parents Sydney and Verity, but that’s fabricated, fourth wall-breaking codswallop. This is a slightly younger, sprightlier version of the man we saw in ‘Utopia’ – a man saddled with the weight of twenty years of fruitless labour and a lifetime of false memories, plus the aforementioned insect. Bringing him back was a no-brainer. If you want a resurrected Time War Master, and Jacobi is a narrative fit, why the hell wouldn’t you sign him up if he was available and willing?

It’s a pity we won’t get to see this incarnation meet up with John Hurt: that would have been a heck of a show (and yes, I know it kind of undermines the series 3 arc; don’t tell me they couldn’t have found a workaround for that). But three decent stories out of four seems to be par for the course for BF sets these days, and it’s fun to hear Jacobi casually toss aside supporting characters like sacrificial pawns, outwit the Daleks and occasionally struggle with his conscience – or at least appear to struggle. Unfortunately the story’s conclusion makes a second series rather difficult, for reasons I won’t give away (although you’ve likely figured them out already), and it seems a shame to essentially ditch this new incarnation of the Master just as we’re getting to know him.

But here’s how you terrify your kids: you get them to sit through ‘Utopia’ just before bed, and then you put the In The Night Garden soundtrack on the bedroom CD player.

My views on In The Night Garden are well-documented, if by well-documented you mean eight hundred and fifty words defending the BBC and a couple of doctored photos. I love it because it works and because I do not understand why it works. If that sounds a little odd, it’s because these days it’s mostly anomalous – fan theory is endemic in just about everything, and it is a strange phenomenon, in this enlightened age, to enjoy something because you don’t get it. Twenty-first century media is all about the How and Why, and it’s killing the industry: the rare glimpses behind the scenes that we got in the 70s and 80s are now a regular fixture; outtakes and bloopers have spread like a rash on YouTube; we know everything about a story before we see even the first trailer. One can only hope that Chibnall’s reign – taking place, as it does, behind a security net to rival a Presidential visit, or even a Blade Runner location shoot – goes some way towards reinvigorating the show and bringing back the sense of wonder it once had, and he’s only going to manage that if he slows down on the goddamn press releases.

But no, In The Night Garden is wonderful television: calm, serene and just the right side of weird. Of course grown-ups find it odd. Grown-ups aren’t the target audience. This is TV for the very young, meticulously researched and painstakingly constructed, something that seems to escape the notice of the many parents I talk to who still seem to labour under the ridiculous misapprehension that when the BBC are making TV programmes they simply turn up in a TV studio and wing it. That’s not how it’s done, and the end results look weird because to babies and toddlers the whole world looks weird. (If people really think this is a new thing, they’d be wise to hop onto YouTube and find the little surviving footage that still exists of the oft-forgotten Wizbit. If you’re going to tell me that they’re screwing up our children, it is vital to acknowledge that the process began at least thirty years ago, and probably long before that.)

A while ago, I did a mashup that fused footage from Bing Bunny with some of Mark Rylance’s Wolf Hall dialogue. It was reasonably coherent, and exploring the darker side of Flop’s affable, endless patient personality was the most fun I’d had in a good long while. It also got me into hot water with Aardman, who didn’t like the juxtaposition of ‘adult material’ with programmes meant for kids. The bottom line is that however many disclaimers you include in the description – and however many warnings you tag on the front end – parents are going to let their children watch it, and Aardman were understandably twitchy about compromising the sickeningly wholesome reputation of one of their flagship programmes. (There was the small matter of copyright infringement as well, which I’ve always thought was a little petty given that it was an unmonetised video, but that’s their prerogative.)

But there I was, listening to the War Master set and thinking…wouldn’t it be wonderful to fuse some of the dialogue from this and dump it into a few of the Night Garden episodes? What if the lurid, excessively safe world of Igglepiggle and his friends were bombarded by a quite different and overtly sinister narrator who sounded exactly like the one whose unreconstructed tenor warbles through each of the show’s 100-odd episodes? What if we piled on the filters, added a bit of slow motion and ran the theme song through the editing suite? What could possibly go wrong?

The results, I hope, speak for themselves – and if they’re a little freakish, that’s a good thing. This owes a lot to the black and white Teletubbies video that’s doing the rounds (you know, the one with Joy Division), although it’s less of a mood piece and more of a meditation; it even attempts to tell some sort of story. There are two bits of dialogue, by the way, lifted directly from ‘Utopia’ rather than the War Master set; bonus points to anyone who can work out what they are. And yes, the ending is a bit Blackadder. No apologies.

Oh, and it’s in black and white because it looks cool. Isn’t that a pip?

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The New Who Top Ten: #5

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Number Five: ‘Blink’ (2007)

Should this be higher?

A few years ago, it would have been an indisputable top slot. Even now I maintain it’s (mostly) impeccably structured, beautifully acted and immaculately presented. Few stories were as universally praised, or as talked about in weeks to come. Next to this, even the return of the Master seemed a relatively muted affair.

There are two problems with ‘Blink’. In the first instance, it launched a creature that swiftly became a Doctor Who sensation. Like many of Moffat’s creations, it is largely silent. Deaths, such as they are, occur offscreen. They even had their own catchphrase. But the Angels’ appeal lies in their instant familiarity, the everyday made sinister, epitomised in a final montage that’s there purely to scare the kids. If any statue can be an Angel – indeed, if any picture of a statue can be an Angel – then nowhere is safe, and I can’t help thinking that the prospect of being touched by an Angel was enough to keep many a primary school child wide awake for a night or two back in 2007.

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The big problem, of course, is that once you’ve done that, there’s nowhere for you to go. So Moffat branched in a new direction by having the next batch of Angels move, speak and even snap necks. It’s the sort of departure that has the Ninja Turtle fans up in arms, and the fact that comparatively few people seem to have complained about ‘Flesh and Stone’ is down to the fact that at time of broadcast, they were relatively new. The Tenth Doctor introduces them as “the only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely”, but once you’ve done that initial time travel story – and have them try and nick the TARDIS into the bargain – what do you do with them? The fact is that the Angels were one-story monsters, in the same way that the Silence were one-story monsters, the Spoonheads should have been no-story monsters and the Whispermen will probably be the subject of an out-of-court settlement with Joss Whedon.

I expanded on all the reasons the Weeping Angels are basically rubbish in a post called, appropriately, ‘Why the Weeping Angels are Rubbish‘ – written before ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, a story that did nothing to enhance my opinion of them. But it seems churlish to pick on ‘Blink’ because of a less-than-impressive legacy. Better, instead, if we could point out that it’s actually a lot of razzle-dazzle, the problems hiding (for a change) not behind a sea of special effects but instead a whirling dervish of storytelling tricks, pretentiousness dressed up as paradox.

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The difficulty with many of Moffat’s episodes is that you’re encouraged to think, but not too much. He’s great with throwing in the clues and the mysteries and the wibbly-wobbly resolutions, but once you’re actively concentrating, as we are supposed to, the holes are as transparent as bullet-riddled tracing paper. With ‘Blink’, there are noticably fewer holes, principally because Moffat is trying to stretch an idea across a single episode, rather than an entire series. Hence ‘Blink’ hangs together with a greater coherence than, say, ‘The Wedding of River Song’. (Actually, my son’s first year art project hangs together with a greater coherence than ‘The Wedding of River Song’, so it’s perhaps not the best example.)

Nonetheless, there are traces of the misogyny for which we would know him later. Sally Sparrow is perhaps the strongest and most likeable female guest character in the last ten years. There have been petitions and campaigns to get her instilled as a regular character, one that the producers have denied on the grounds that she’s arguably too strong, and that the Doctor wouldn’t work well with such a resourceful, intelligent character. To which I say yes, of course, and ‘City of Death’ was a walking disaster. Nevertheless, the type of show they seem determined to make nowadays – where characters begin weak and feeble before developing an inner strength under the careful tutelage of the Doctor – doesn’t seem to work well with Sally’s mindset. (Somewhere in the creative ether there’s a story arc waiting to be written about a companion who travels with the Doctor and only leaves him once they’ve been well and truly messed up.)

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And yet the episode only concludes when Sally is able to deal with her obsession with the Doctor and gain narrative closure – a development that enables her, in turn, to gain romantic happiness with Larry. The Doctor is that most metaphorical of ex-boyfriends, or at the very least an internet romance – and while Sally saves the day, her brief narrative arc is ultimately defined by love. Curiously, in 2007 this didn’t bother me. Years later, having Clara flirt with the Eleventh Doctor and then get embroiled in a tedious love story, it does.

If I’m being a little harsh today, it’s largely because I’m tired of people talking about the bloody Angels as paragons of brilliance and ‘Blink’ as the ultimate example of clever storytelling. ‘Colony in Space’ is clever storytelling. So is ‘The Face of Evil’. And ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’, come to that. Clever doesn’t mean you tie your audience up in knots. It means you tell a story effectively and with sufficient emotional resonance, and you do not sacrifice narrative trickery for character development. Beware the man who says he can offer you both. More often than not, you’ll end up with neither.

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At the same time – and I think this might be the reason I continue to hold ‘Blink’ in high regard (despite having spent six paragraphs basically slagging it off) is because in 2007 – after eight episodes of Martha’s fawning and so much kitchen sink at the hands of Rose and the wretched Tylers – it was a bit of a novelty. It is loaded with amusing, memorable dialogue: witness, for example, the incredulous reaction of Larry when he learns about Sally’s miniscule DVD collection, or Sally’s realisation that Kathy lied about her age. Moffat’s never been one for naturalism, and even when his characters are in a locked room with a ticking bomb they still sound like they’re in an Oscar Wilde play, but it’s hard not to be amused, for example, at Larry’s first impression of Wester Drumlins (“You live in Scooby Doo’s house”) or Sally’s ruminations on feeling sad (“It’s happy for deep people”). Larry is, indeed, an early prototype for Rory, right down to the slightly gormless expression, but that’s not a bad thing.

Moffat also manages to tug at the heartstrings during the hospital scene, which remains almost the finest thing he ever wrote (with the exception of Miss Evangelista’s ghosting, in an episode that didn’t make the top ten). If you can live with the ludicrous final line, it’s both moving and comparatively understated, thanks in no small part to some fine performances, particularly Michael Obiora as the elderly Billy. Indeed, one of the best things about the story is the absence of its key players: we do not suffer for the general lack of Doctor, and the fact that Martha turns up only briefly is frankly a welcome bonus.

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Plus, at its heart, ‘Blink’ is simply terrifying. The moment when the Angels eventually swoop on Sally and Larry, stalking them through the seemingly deserted house, is a fine example of how to do an effective set piece, with appropriate jump cuts and some great use of lighting. It’s hard not to feel unnerved when the Angels rock the TARDIS back and forth in their attempts to get in, and the moment when it then fades away, leaving them eternally quantum-locked (at least until someone buys up Wester Drumlins and decides to clear out the cellar), is one of initial horror followed by tremendous relief. It works. It works beautifully. It’s about the only time it ever really did, and while that’s not the only reason to single out ‘Blink’ as a miniature masterpiece, it’s certainly a good start.

Cameron’s Episode: ‘Blink (curiously enough)

Categories: New Who, Top 10 | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The New Who Top Ten: #7

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Number Seven: ‘Human Nature’ / ‘The Family of Blood’ (2007)

Welcome to screenwriting 101. Today’s tip: don’t be afraid to screw with your protagonist once in a while. They’re supposed to be dependable and consistent (up to a point, anyway) but history shows that if you want to spice up a dull TV show, an easy way to do it is to give your lead character a beard and have him kill people. It gets the fanzines / office conversation / internet buzzing. Anyone can do a parallel universe story; that’s easy. But stories where protagonists are playing against type are award magnets, for writers and actors alike.

‘Human Nature’ takes its cue from the Paul Cornell novel of the same name, in which the Seventh Doctor becomes human in order to forge an emotional connection with a grieving Bernice Summerfield. He takes up residence in a boys’ school shortly before the Great War. Fagging and flogging are abundant. A group of shapeshifting aliens (possessed humans in the TV adaptation) arrive in order to wreak havoc, but complicating things is the fact that the humanised Doctor has fallen in love.

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Crucially, the TV version sees the Doctor actively retreating from the Family of Blood in its opening moments, establishing a symbiotic relationship between the two parties that plays out rather like a surreal witness protection programme. The central tenet of the Doctor’s amnesia and parallel life echoes both Total Recall and, indeed, a storyline in a later series of Miami Vice in which Sonny Crockett genuinely believed himself to be his drug-dealing alter ego; similarly here, John Smith is registered as a separate entity who experiences death when he opens the fob watch. His past is murky (when Joan asks him if Gallifrey is in Ireland, he says “Yes, it must be”) but his consciousness makes him real, and makes his ultimate sacrifice all the more poignant.

This story is basically an opportunity for Tennant to do a Mr. Chips, except Smith doesn’t live long enough to collapse on his classroom floor. Indeed, we’re given hints that the marriage would have ended after many long and happy years, in the form of a fleeting set of images that show Smith and Joan tying the knot and raising a family. It borders on mawkish, but the fact that this is a facet of the Doctor himself lends the moment a degree of pathos it would otherwise be denied. Indeed, Tennant is astonishing throughout the entire two-parter, adopting an entirely new body language when under the guise of Smith, and managing a genuine chemistry with the equally compelling Jessica Hynes.

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But while it’s Smith’s story, it’s the Doctor who pronounces judgement, in a closing montage – wordless, save Harry Lloyd’s voiceover – in which the fury of the Time Lord is finally unleashed. Some people hate it. I don’t. There is something awful about the sight of a Doctor pushed beyond the limits of his patience; something grand and terrible and infinitely more believable, in the final analysis, than what we would see two years later in ‘Waters of Mars’. The idea that you should be careful what you wish for is borne out in a series of dreadful, fate-worse-than-death punishments, plus a nice little aside from Cornell about mirrors – “If ever you look at your reflection and see something move behind you, just for a second, that’s her. That’s always her”. For an episode that has had a real world grounding for over eighty minutes of its runtime, it’s a startling contrast, but it works.

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Elsewhere: the period detail is decently realised, Murray Gold’s score is (for a change) warm and moving, and the supporting cast – particularly Lloyd – are uniformly excellent. Basically, this is a story that gets more or less everything right – that it isn’t placed higher probably isn’t fair, but I’m constructing this list partly on a whim, and I suspect that in a different week the order might have been quite different (put another way, the closer you get to the top, the smaller the gaps between episodes become). It’s a story that exposes the futility of war without ever really pronouncing judgement upon it: when Martha assures Timothy Latimer that “you don’t have to fight”, his response is simply “I think we do”. At the same time it is a bittersweet love story that works precisely because of its anachronisms. About the only off thing in it is the ever-irritating Martha, but you can’t have everything.

I wonder if, looking back, Davies ever wished he’d resequenced stories when the pacing was clearly off. It seems to matter far less in Classic Who, when we’d get twenty-four weeks of four-part stories that had (with certain rare exceptions) little or no connection between them. For better or worse it gathers new significance when you’re dealing with story arcs, and I’ve always found it interesting that three of the worst episodes in the New Who canon (the Dalek Manhatten two-parter, and ‘The Lazarus Experiment’) are immediately followed by three of the very best – these two, and a certain other one. But we’ll deal with that another day…

The Family of Blood

Cameron’s Episode: ‘The Eleventh Hour

Categories: New Who, Top 10 | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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