Wednesday 30 April 2008

Stratagems and Self-discovery

I learnt something very insightful and rather frightening about my future at the weekend. Let me briefly explain. My parents have been watching the series of Doctor Who. On Sunday, when Luke and I went to visit them, my dad said that he didn't understand that week's episode. "It didn't make sense," he said. "Why? What was wrong with it?" He looked up and replied "It had no end - it was confusing..." Everyone turned to look at him. "Dad, you did know that it was the first part of a two-part story, didn't you?"
"Ah. Now that would explain a lot, wouldn't it..."

Let's get on. The Sontaran Stratagem. Like Andrew, I think this will be more tangent than plot let's start where we mean to go on.

When I was a teenager, I went out and bought a VHS copy of The Two Doctors. Apart from Patrick Troughton and Shockeye, oh, and Peri (with her barely-existing top), the revelation for me was the Sontarans. Humourless, ruthless, honourable, war-loving race. What an enemy! I always loved the story of why they were so short and stocky (their home planet had much higher levels of gravity). How brilliant it was to hear that they were coming back!

Now I've heard some rumours about the Sontaran plot. Mostly fan-generated rumours... But interesting ones. Rumours that suggest that the hat that Donna's grandfather was wearing in episode 1 had what looked like a UNIT badge on it... and that he was "on lookout" in London at Christmas (I guess that means when the Titanic stuff took place...)

But then I've also heard that the whole "the Doctor's song will end" stuff from the Planet of the Ood was being taken as meaning that he would be regenerating at the end of the series. Which doesn't entirely tally with the fact that David Tennant was photographed filming the Christmas Special this week... Ah well. Worthless listening to rumours I suppose!

This was wholly more satisfying than I had imagined. But what did niggle slightly before I saw it was the fact that its another two-parter written by Helen Raynor, and almost exactly like the one she wrote for the last series, in that it involved an old enemy of the doctor trying to take over the world. And Daleks In Manhattan was pretty good but not brilliant. But oh, this was different.

A camp childhood genius helping a ruthless warrior race with the only weakness being a small plug socket on the back of their neck. And just as good - Martha was back! (I'm an unashamed Martha fan - and for me, swapping Martha for Donna was really not a fair exchange.) As well as all that, Catherine Tate was pretty good in this, and the scenes with her family were funny and touching. Of course, it helps to have Bernard Cribbins there. But these scenes of the home life were excellent. And one of my childhood favourites, UNIT, was back on the kind of scale that I remembered... And plausably at last - not like in Battlefield.

On another tangent - I was always cruelly disappointed with Battlefield. I'd seen stories from the Pertwee/Baker era. I knew who Lethbridge-Stewart, Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton were. And when Lethbridge-Stewart returned for Battlefield, I couldn't wait. I was at the age that meant I was required to be bathed and ready for bed before Doctor Who came on - it was a school night, after all - and I curled up in an armchair in pajamas and dressing gown to see the return of UNIT. And it was barely recognisable. They seemed completely amateur and rather inept. The Doctor said in the Sontaran Strategem that UNIT always used to be a "little more homespun..." which is true, but there was always the feeling that they were ready for anything - just completely unprepared for the things that were thrown at them because they were only armed with puny earth weapons... Nevertheless, UNIT were great, and what I was seeing - with all the glorious late 1980s technicolour - was rubbish. And it had the female Lister from Red Dwarf in it (not that I knew it then - I just hated the character at the time). There wasn't much to love about them - except the Brigadier.

It was almost exactly like the contrast between seeing Tomb of the Cybermen for the first time, and then watching Silver Nemesis. And there were some great stories in the McCoy time, but what people tend to remember is the bits like these - not The Happiness Patrol (which made a Bertie Bassett lookalike a plausible and fairly chilling villain - which was no mean feat!), not Paradise Towers, The Curse of Fenric, Ghostlight or Rememberance of the Daleks. Which is such a shame.

Again, we're back to traditional Who stories. Which is not in any way a criticism. How could it be? Traditional Who is TV drama at its best - perfect escapism and often with a wider message that is demonstrated clearly in the way the Doctor deals with his enemy. This, depending on the conclusion next week, is traditional in the best way possible.

I just hope my dad understands that the reason it didn't make sense at the beginning is that its part 2 of a two part story. Otherwise, I don't stand much chance for a stable future!

Monday 28 April 2008

Monsters & Love and The A Team

With effects being what they are these days the results are as if the Who team have spent the last four years in negotiation with Sontar to get their finest, least camera-shy inhabitants to star in this story. I imagine their dedication, as they wangle the budget on that. This being the famous Doctor Who budget they probably did it via a low cost option, probably Skype, and paid expenses Earthside but not the interstellar travel on account of them each getting a copy of the DVD box set and personalised action figures of themselves and of anyone that they didn’t like and wanted to shoot.

I’m trying to think of things to say about the plot, but this being part one of two there wasn't a great deal revealed. It was all quite traditional, which was nice. A companion gets tied up and cloned. There’s things going on in the basement. There’s aliens taking over humans. There’s mystery and there’s UNIT!! Hoorah! All very recognisable and classic Who – what’s not to like?

Loved the Doctor’s anti gun thing, which takes me right back to the playground when me and my mates were taunted by kids who watched the A Team rather than Who. Our superiority was always palpable. (Quite frankly any series where the heroes face a hail, nay, a maelstrom of bullets each week and never ever get hit - not even a bit scratched by shrapnel - is just lame. Mary Whitehouse should have sued its ass because it portrayed a shockingly unrealistic effect of gun use.) All we had to say was ‘Adric’s death’ and they fell silent. They probably didn’t know what we meant, and our superior attitude just confirmed our geekiness. But we knew we were right and we still are. You Whovians of yesteryear; where are you now? I’m sure I’d know where to find you at 6.20 every Saturday if I knew your addresses. Actually we are still in touch, but I’m rubbish at keeping an address book.

Annnnnyway. What to say about the Sontaran Stratagem... Like the idea of the carbon neutral devices; how very now. How very UNIT story too, the planet friendly thing was big during the Pertwee Doctor’s time so that fits. And yes SatNav is evil no matter what you say. I love outwitting their smug, demanding prompts and getting to a turning before they can announce it. They get all tutt-y and say with a very calculated sniff, ‘Recalculating’. This is a device that once got me to a field of cows in Cornwall instead of the Eden Project. Didn’t get the cliff hanger though. What was happening actually? Were all the cars gassing the world? (nice idea) Or what? Dunno. And I giggled (sorry but I did) at the Sontaran dance thing. I suppose funnier things happen before sporting fixtures but I couldn’t help it.

Martha and Donna didn’t fight. Well thank goodness. About time too. I find the ‘I’m in love with the Doctor’ thing distracting from the genius of the prog and I’m glad it’s over now. Don’t you dare do that nonsense with Rose’s return!! Actually I liked it that the only one who was put out was the Doctor, who thought that meeting the ‘ex’ (even though she so wasn’t) was going to be really difficult. Never been sure about this whole Doctor in love thing. Going back a couple of years, I think what made the Madame de Pompadour thing work so well was the Doctor’s yearning. He knows it would never have worked out, and that’s as tragic as not being able to see her again before she died. Here was someone he could relate to, someone he could spark off. She was someone who had walked among his memories and therefore, in a way, knew him intimately. I think he asks her to come with him as a spur of the moment thing and when time catches up with them it’s the realisation that he will never be able to meet anyone to share his whole life with that makes the scene at the end so powerful.

Hmmmm, I feel like digressing further....

Rose… hmmm, I don’t know. I mean, why would he love her any more than Romana, Sarah, Jo, Zoe (all of the above would be on my list of most dateable). Rose was, well, rather stroppy, rather pouty (and that’s no disrespect to Billie Piper who played her perfectly). I wonder if the reason behind him being ‘in love’ with her was that she was the one who saved him from himself after the Time War. I have always been puzzled by the end of Doomsday, and wonder if anyone else was. The Doctor sends Rose and her family over to the alternative Earth. He does it to save them and, although he seems a bit sad to do so, he does it phlegmatically and that’s that. No tears, anxieties, regrets, et al and there you go, she’s gone. She comes back, and he’s pleased but he's not dancing around like a teenager who thought he’d never see his one and only ever ever again. Then she goes again and it’s like two kids who have to say goodbye to each other at the end of summer camp. No wonder they had to film it on location, cos if they’d done it in the studio they’d have had to wear rubber shoes for fear of electrocution. Never made sense to me. Anyone else?

Oh, and that brat Rattigan. I predict the word ‘comeuppance’ will be employed in this blog by at least one of us next week.

Thursday 24 April 2008

No ordinary days

Ooo(d), welcome back Chris :) And you are right. This sure, strong, fearless, thriving, pacey, action packed, thought provoking, clever, emotional, challenging, lovely, brilliant but indescribable prog deserves more than a weekly review! Let's cast aside any barely remaining attempts at being ordinary chaps and jabber away. I love Top Gear, and have even watched football. It's just that Doctor Who is a whole lot better than any of that.

Well, Planet of the Ood proves it.

It was something special. A groundbreaker. It built on the emotional and moral edifice of The Fires of Pompeii and presented us with something huge. Undoubtedly this episode will live on in the minds of today's kids for decades like the Krynoid did for me. And it's strength was not just the superb realisation and acting of the Ood but their story. Existentialism. Concentration camps. Genetic experimentation and mutilation. Evolution. Corporate greed. The Simpsons. At 6.20pm on a Saturday! Bring it on! This ROCKS!

Towards the end I wasn't sure what I was watching. Body horror or Brothers Grimm. Either way it was fascinating and strange. I tried very hard to work out what was going on with Halpin's transformation and the secondary brains thing. I loved the idea of both, but found it immensely difficult to make them work in my head. A couple of lines of explanation here and there would have satisfied me a great deal. But it would be wrong to try and take this story as just a normal tv narrative. It's not meant to be and I should get over that. If nothing else the transformation was a perfect reflection of Abraham Lincoln's quote about a strong desire to see those who argue for slavery have it tried on them personally. I happen to know that my wide-eyed colleague has thoughts on all this that make perfect rational sense, so over to you!!

Next week: Monsters invade the Earth! Woohoo!! Can't wait!

Wednesday 23 April 2008

Oods and Ends...

So, our namesakes arrive... and this was a bit of a masterclass in sci-fi staple elements. An ice planet, a future inter-galactic human empire, a slave race in revolt, misuse of science for personal gain and a scientist with slightly mental hair. And that's not to mention the warehouse chases and planetary landscape scenes filmed in a quarry...

But that's not to do it down any. This was well done. Well written and slick, this is an interesting story that was really nicely put together.

Donna's moral side really does something good here - and really does counter the Doctor well. But, like Chris, I really am not sure about Catherine Tate. She's OK, and she's fine with me if her character remains interesting next to DT (who wouldn't?). But every time she speaks, I just hear characters from her sketch show. At the end of every episode she's been in so far, I have been expecting her to storm off to the TARDIS shouting "F***ing liberty!"... I'm waiting for the Dalek episode where she'll just look at it as if its a male model on a cold day, cock her head to one side and shout "I ain't bovvered!".

I liked this story though - it reminded me very much of a Tom Baker epic. I was wishing for all the world that the Doctor would come out with one of those lines... You know, like, "You humans... Totally clueless, but you can't help but love that..." There was an almost palpable atmosphere when the Ood were bearing down on them while they were handcuffed that somehow, the Doctor would slip the cuffs, and offer them a jelly baby (which would then, obviously, turn out to be the Ood's downfall).

As far as the story was concerned, it was a towering 70s rock supergroup of issues... Can you get much bigger than tying together battery farming and slavery? You can if you add Captain Darling from Blackadder...

But I rather liked the guilt trips that the Doctor went on - being reminded of the first time the Ood appeared, and he couldn't save them because he'd been too busy looking after everyone else. After last week's moral bitch-slapping from Donna, this was an interestingly Morrissey-kind-of-perspective. It was nice that the Ood were given a history - a place to come from and a place to go, and not just used as a plot device or as some evil git's tool of destruction. It was nice that they were a victim, is what I mean. It means that while they were just the forgotten and thrown away bunch of lads the last time round, this time, they ended the story as likeable and friendly creatures.

Oh, and even though I liked this one a lot, the preview of next week made my day... The Sontarans AND UNIT are back in the same week! Oh what unconfined and childish joy! Roll on the weekend!

Of Ood and Men ...

It will be pretty obvious to everyone by now that I’m the weak link in the chain. The faulty circuit, the twisted wire in a RTD-scripted deus ex machina finale where it turns out there’s a setting on the sonic screwdriver that can fix everything. My v. professional and v. insightful friends are two episodes ahead of me, seem to recall detail with startling clarity and have the intellectual kapow to back up those recollections with solid critique. All this while rooting the new series squarely in the context of the show’s mythology and (quite possibly) making stacks of fluffy pancakes with maple syrup and crispy bacon just the way I like them.

I’m not going to attempt the trick of catching up, of trying to shoehorn in an alternative perspective for each episode when they’ve been thoroughly interrogated already. That’s a lot of words and my fingers are like thick frankfurters tripping greasily across the keys, I don’t have the wpms in me. It’s a fool’s errand exacerbated by the following points:

a) I love Dr Who. Love it. Consequently any attempt on my part to go all Siskel and Egbert on its ass is doomed to failure. My utter unfeasible love for the programme renders me a dribbling moron with the analytical prowess of toast. I try to be insightful and unbiased but I’m not and it’s stupid to pretend otherwise.

b) As soon as I try to write a review, I think to myself “I’m writing a review now” and suddenly I revert to school mode and it stops being fun. I find myself clicking the word count every sentence and mewling to myself in irritation. Have you ever heard a grown man mewl? It sounds exactly like a cat. It’s uncanny, I don’t know how I do it. Make it stop. Make it stop.

c) I can’t remember the first two anymore, the third one’s getting fuzzy now too. They’ve all kind of blended together into a Rutan-alike amorphous blob entitled something like Dr Who and the Planet of Fiery Crime or Ood in Pompeii.

Anyway, here’s my review of Ood in Pompeii

Isn’t the Doctor good? He just sets the screen on fire, doesn’t he? I mean even when everything on screen is literally on fire he still lights up the place like a magnesium flare. Any plot hole, any slight wobble with the dialogue can be relied upon to be ironed out by the sheer titanic steamrollering presence of the Tenth doctor. God, it’s brilliant to have him on the show- all crackerjack energy, wisdom, wit and rage. DT, in my humble opinion, is the broadcast equivalent of MSG in Chinese food - only good for you.

And this series has raised its game to keep pace with its star. The scope, the ideas, the FX execution is really quite brilliant. From those cute little teddy bear blobs of fat through choking volcanic ash to an ICE PLANET we’ve been spoiled in a way comparable to having the ambassador unload a dump truck’s worth of Ferrero Rocher on our front porch. I love the confident referencing of the show’s history, I admire the temerity of the writers to tackle complex and morally dubious issues, I applaud the skill and joie de vivre of a crew working at the very top of its game. This is a TV show don’t forget, and a British one at that, it has a tight schedule and a budget that Hollywood would laugh at and called ‘titch’ or ‘small fry’ while making derisive snorting noises through their cocaine-decimated blow holes. Well screw you Tinsel Tossers because this little Welsh televisual engine that can has delivered ancient cities, lava-veined granite homunculi, skin-rending, tentacle -spewing species switching and an orange rocket ship with go faster stripes. All within a budget that wouldn’t even cover Teri Hatcher’s mid-morning smoothie. Hooray for you BBC.

Oh dear, now that I’ve started there’s so much I want to talk about. The theory of Whoniverse time travel that I’ve cobbled together from years of trying to make it all make sense. The difference between a show like Lost that has been worked out 4 series in advance and a show like DW that has a spaceship that looks like a Police Box because they had a spare one lying around when they started filming. A show where layer upon layer of lore has been added by different artists with no rhyme or reason other than expediency and practicality at any given moment in its history and that now stands proudly unbent beneath the accumulated mass of more than six decades of creativity.

But perhaps I’ll be contented with unburdening myself of these furious narrative flights of fancy in short bursts throughout the week. What say you chaps? Are you up for some full on geek-flavoured navel gazing to break the humdrum passage of quotidian reality? Shall we free ourselves from this rigorous prison of academic discursion and plot our own course through the vortex?

Or shall we fall back on well-worn terrain because I tell you what … I’m still not sure about Catherine Tate.

Moving the mountain (off the face of the earth)

And Partners In Crime is completely forgotten. My word this was good.

Soothsayers, volcanoes, underground monsters, stone people, ancient circuitry, moral depth for Donna (who saw that coming?! – I don’t believe you if you say you did…), fabulous actors...

Any shortcomings from the week before, forgotten and gone. This was lovely. Even the water pistol moment was good. In fact, it was far better than that – it was classic Who – it sits alongside offering Jelly Babies and cups of tea, and bamboozling enemies with insults so intelligent that they are still standing scratching their head while their plan is unraveled around them.

This is what I call Doctor Who… at least, what I did when I was little. It was one of those moments that you look for with every new Doctor, the moment where they challenge the previous incumbent’s reputation… Where they mark their path. Introduce their own little quirk to the role. The first moment that Pertwee’s furrowed brow morphed into that cheeky glint in the eye, when Tom Baker’s teeth filled the screen like an Attenborough Shark Special. When Davison adjusted the leek on his lapel and straightened his hair. When McCoy doffed his hat and swung his question-mark-handled brolly. When Colin Baker’s doctor had a break…

The Doctor of agonising choice was back, and boy it was fantastic to watch!

The thing is, this is more of a traditional Doctor Who story than any of the others I’ve seen so far in the “new series”. Until now, there’s been nothing that has created such a chasm and such a choice. Sure, in the last three series we’ve seen a succession of historical characters and settings, from Shakespeare, Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens to the Blitz, but none of them have been based on something obviously historical (albeit with the historical element given that regular, everyday alien conquest twist). And given the success of the last three years, maybe this constituted a risk. But by thunder, just see how that worked!

May be it sounds a little odd to say that its only now that DT’s doctor has made his mark – but I’m saying that from the point of view that everything else that has gone before has been markedly different from the kind of style that occupied the first 25 years of Who… DT made a mark immediately, but it was a complete change – its just not fair to compare some of the sweeping epics of the 1960s-70s to the swift, modern drama we get nowadays. But that doesn’t stop them being the same character, or having the same ethos. But I can’t think where this scale of sacrifice has been challenged. I’ve found something I like about Donna, if she’s going to stay like this – she’s stronger when it comes to challenging thought. But maybe that’s because she’s not distracted by the thought of what is in the Doctor’s pants.

All in all, this was a triumph!

There’s just one thing though: Donna's "TK Maximus" gag... Oh lord.

There are countless millions of suns*

Ahhh, that rare thing: really good telly.

Oh. My. Goodness. That was good. The Doctor holds off a monster with a water pistol. Donna gets mouthy with the sisterhood. There’s jokes about Latin being translated into Welsh (why? Who cares. It’s sublime). There’s history – we learn about Ancient Rome and their household gods, hypercourses and Pompeii. We glimpse monsters in the hypercourse, the sort of thing that took me back to the days when I stayed close to my parents in case I got too scared (Rutan, Stones of Blood, Kroll, Scaroth). There’s a cast including some of my favourite actors. There’s wit and genuine proper drama.

It’s wonderful isn’t it? It’s still a matter of suspending belief, just supposing for 45 minutes each week that there are aliens out there made of fire and rock, or … oh, how does that speech from the McCoy years go: ‘There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea's asleep and the rivers dream, people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice and somewhere else the tea is getting cold’. It’s still about being spun a good yarn; learning something; and being scared – just enough to go on about it on Monday morning with your mates. Even if you left school in the last century. You’re never too old for this, and it’s priceless.

This week the point was to ask what would you do if could go back and warn Pompeii. As Chris said below, the Doctor operates on a completely different level from us, and there's some superb stuff going on as he deals with Donna's protestations. He knows what can’t be changed. But suddenly, in a great twist that makes this even better it’s more than that – it’s the awful dilemma of is it ever right to kill for the greater good? Although the answer in this case is made more palatable by dint of it being human history v alien empire. The act itself is still something the Doctor almost can't bring himself to do, even though he knows it is a fixed point in time and therefore has to happen. As Chris said, 21st century effects can properly take this show further than Saturday tea time suspension of belief and into real full bodied drama – and how; the long shot of the ash cloud rushing towards the town is an image that is not easily forgotten. This is the quality we all remember thinking we saw when we were aged four to ten. Goodness knows what the kids make of it these days. Marvellous.

We don’t really know why at first the Doctor doesn’t save the family that Latin students have loved for years. And that’s fine, because it makes you think. Is it because if he saves them it’s not fair on the rest of the Pompeiians? Or does it hark back to the time he had to destroy his own world? Survivor’s guilt. Or perhaps he “shouldn’t” have saved them. That might explain the strange bright light emanating from the TARDIS as being more than just dramatic effect. Maybe it was fighting the fact that it had returned. I love temporal theory!

So now we know: Catherine Tate can really really blooming act. Goodness! There’s a chemistry between her and Tennant that is a delightful surprise, and if all goes well (and I think it will) will provide even more memorable moments in the months to come as their characters develop. Orrrr yes!! There’s months more of this!!

Congrats Who team. You are all brilliant. Just the best. And next week looks SUPERB too!!

PS: I have read in the Guardian of all places that Rose was in the cave scenes somewhere. Anyone spot her?

*Thanks to Edward Bond. If you missed his play The Sea at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, then you missed out…

Wednesday 16 April 2008

And so it begins...

At last! Andrew summed all that sentiment up perfectly, so I won't add to that, except to say that I am glad its back, if a little nervous.

I have several gripes with Catherine Tate. Not least the idea that The Guardian put out there on the same day as episode 1 was broadcast that she's "Britain's best-loved woman comic"... I don't particularly find her sketch show all that funny and there are characters on that which make me want to put my foot through the telly.

But in 2006, whether I liked it or not, she encroached on my ground... She was in Doctor Who. And she was, well, alright. It wasn't a great story, and the character was pretty unlikeable. But it was alright. It was watchable - but having David Tennant in the cast does that to a programme...

So what on earth was this going to be like with the grating Donna by DT's side, combatting what looked to be the least-threatening menace since the half-painted Myrka stumbled into the Sea Station in Warriors of the Deep? Its so much harder to get away with crap monsters these days. It was much easier when it was very clear to all that this hideous alien/creature was obviously a man in a half-painted suit - because Doctor Who fans didn't care - its about getting lost in the fantasy of it all, letting your brain compute this as real for 20 minutes a week. Now, though, CGI has added it's double-edged twopenneth in. On the one hand, they're able to create the most stunning things I've seen on UK telly. On the other hand, there isn't anything to be left to the imagination. So how were they going to pull this off?

The answer, came from the mind and keyboard of RTD. This wasn't a sparkling story by any means. It had the required numerous pointless chases (I'm not saying that's a bad thing) that it takes to be an RTD script. But there is so clearly a chemistry between Tate and Tennant that is such a winning formula that its impossible to misfire (it seems). Incidentally, I agree, Andrew - RTD's opening episodes have tended to be up and down - the first season's Rose was stunning. The second season's New Earth was a huge disappointment to me - I found it all rather boring, to be honest. Last year's Smith and Jones was just about perfect in pitch, script, acting and drama. And this year, well, it hit a nice middle ground. A concern that nagged at me was that Tim's comment about Star Trek films in the majestic series Spaced ("Sure as night follows day, sure as eggs is eggs, sure as every odd numbered Star Trek movie is s**t.") would become true for RTD's season openers. It had been so far, with season two being a real fly in the ointment. Sure it wasn't s**t, but it wasn't all that good either. If cat nurses can't save the thing, its a wonder the doctor managed to.

What saved Partners In Crime, though, was the script and the acting performances. Sarah Lancashire and Bernard Cribbins (I hope he's a regular occurance!) really added brilliant depth to it all, and the sparks between the Doctor and Donna were gloriously not romantic, but oh-so-funny! To avoid quoting the "mouthing" scene again, I'll go for the confrontation with Mrs Foster in the building - it was tense, climactic and ended with a moment of comic brilliance from Tennant ("Do you know what happens when you put two sonic devices together? [Mrs Foster: No] Neither do I - let's find out!")

My instinct was that I hated the aliens. But after a second watch, actually I didn't. It wasn't that I hated them - I hated what they stood for. Yes, they were a deceptively clever conception with the name and some of their reasonings for coming to earth, but I'm always uneasy at social comment in Doctor Who. And this felt clunky and not at all suited. It has happened before - the whole Slitheen saga in Season one had huge echoes of the debates surrounding the Iraq war - but that was more used for comic effect really. This seemed and felt more like comment on society. I guess its fair game, and you never know, it might convince some youngsters to shed a few pounds to avoid dissipating into a bundle of cute aliens. But it just felt wrong to me.

It was OK. I really did enjoy it, and I watched it twice without balking, but there were too many things that rankle slightly. And coming back to a point Andrew made... yes - I sat there at the end and thought that Rememberance of the Daleks was a better season opener. In fact, in the week since, I've seen some of Spearhead From Space and Robot... Both excellent openers. My goodness, I sound like a fan. When did that happen?!

And Tate? You're alright by me if things carry on like that. I can only see it getting better and it didn't start in a bad place...

Tuesday 15 April 2008

Off we go then!!

New Doctor Who! Quite simply, Doctor Who is the best and most extraordinary format ever devised for television. It can go anywhere in the Universe, at any time. It can tell almost any kind of story and cover almost any genre. Because of this it is endlessly surprising and watchable so the anticipation of any new series is in some way like looking forward to Christmas Day. The potential for it to be something really special must not be disappointed. You want surprising and unexpected presents. Some that blow you away, some that make you go, ‘Oh, that's good. Actually the more I think about it, it's just brilliant'. On the whole you want them to be things you would never have expected but what you have really really always wanted.

As ever one or two intriguiging scenes were released early - one in particular that elicited a ‘Wooooaaah’ (a woman disintegrates into a load of cute aliens. On BBC1 on Saturday. At tea time. Oi,‘Alien’! Ha! You ain’t got nothing on this!*).

So. Episode one. ‘Partners in Crime’. Any good?

Russell T Davies has consistently written some rather breezy opening stories. They’ve been episodes that I have generally quite enjoyed but been under whelmed by. Anyone else agree? They have been scene setters for the new companion (or in the case of series two the new Doctor). A chance for the Doctor and his companion to meet each other, find they work well together and like each other because they have overcome extraordinary odds. The challenges in their relationship and its subsequent development come in the following episodes as they get to know each other and work together more. This is probably a realistic way of developing each series – that’s what we should expect from Russell T Davies who above all else knows how to write character. But I do gag for something that feels like a proper kick off. Something to make you boggle. Remember the old days? Series openers like Spearhead from Space, The Masque of Mandragora, The Leisure Hive.

What we got was the usual opener. But this time I loved it. Run around and defeat a quirky threat and imbue with plenty of comedy. Thing is with Partners in Crime it has enough depth to make you think about it for a few days afterwards and go, ‘Oh, that’s clever’. Monsters called the Adipose (look it up) - tiny cute alien babies formed from fat in overweight people (‘We’ve travelled a long way to find a country as suitable as this’!). It seems to be a win win because earthlings lose wait and the Adipose family grows in number. But something goes wrong and people literally start falling apart to create these little bubbas. RTD is interesting on the moral side of things. It ends with a memorable line. The Doc is asked if he will blow the Adipose up. ‘No, they’re babies. They can’t help where they came from.’ There’s one to ponder.

But there’s more to this than a tale of human hosts and ruthless aliens. There’s Catherine Tate. Goodness, who’d have thought it. Especially as when we first met her in the Christmas special a couple of years back her character was dreadfully irritating. I liked her then though, Tate gave a great performance and did what was on the tin: irritating one-off companion to show just what a companion can’t be. Thankfully she was changed by her encounter by the Doctor, and really wants to find him again. I like that. I mean you would wouldn’t you? She devotes her herself to being in places that the Doctor might turn up. And when they finally meet we are treated to a scene that really deserves an award. Come on there must be a gong for that one! A scary interrogation scene that is also a central piece of plot exposition is cut off for a glorious comic interchange between David Tennant and Catherine Tate - mouthed through a window. A perfect example of superb writing, pitch perfect acting, direction and music. Just glorious. And then they get spotted and its back to the plot; plenty of running away, delving into complex computer systems and saving the human race through quick thinking wit. While she may be the Marmite of companions I think I’m gonna like her. The Doc needs to be challenged. Bring it on!

There’s plenty to enjoy and each character is three dimensional, (gotta love Miss ‘Health’ and the Doctor’s reaction to her pick up attempt; very Doctor Who… ‘Ah, no. That would er contravene paragraph four subsection three. Sorry…’. Actually, I rather liked her.). The running gag with the journalist getting tied to a chair is funny (but should probably be irritating, love that. Doctor Who can be all sorts of genres at once). Miss Foster (Sarah Lancashire) is great and has a nice Mary Poppins moment just before her demise – surely they could have got an umbrella in there? Sylvester McCoy’s perhaps? Then there’s Donna’s family. When I was a boy the companion was just the companion and we knew no more about them. These days it’s all so much more real; and lovingly done. And: B.e.r.n.a.r.d C.r.i.b.b.i.n.s. how about that!

But as ever with a RTD story there were things that niggled me. It’s always little things that he puts in to move the plot along or to resolve the story. There’s a moment where the Doctor (somehow, but how??) electrifies a doorway to stun the guards. Then the Adipose are prevented from turning a million humans into alien babies because the Doctor can neutralise the signal that is causing it. It so happens Donna has the gizmo that makes this possible. Let’s flick a switch and make it all ok. That’s way too simple - it’s a real let down if a big threat is just switched off. Come on, Doctor Who has a proud history of characters fighting against the odds and cobbling together a plan from little more than wit, bravery, pieces of string and a teaspoon.

Then there was Rose. Well that was unexpected! The surprise was completely ruined by a friend who texted me after the program aired (but while I was hastening back home to watch it on video) going ‘Woah, Rose!’. So wot’s going on there then? The web forums are no doubt bursting with theories, all of which I am refusing to read. All I know is that while I get frustrated by some of RTD’s plot resolutions I do trust and admire what he does with the series overall, and especially with the characters. Let’s wait and see. Let’s have no idea whatsoever and be so stunned that we have to spend ages going on about it. Hooray!

All in all this was bright, inventive, thoughtful tv with two leads at the top of their game, a splendid supporting cast, lovingly and fearlessly put together. We know from previous years that the best is still to come and my goodness next week looks GOOD!!

* Some have wondered if Alien was inspired by the 1970s Doctor Who story The Ark in Space.

In these stones horizons sing ...

For interests sake, here is a blog I wrote a year or two ago about a trip to Cardiff, it contains some more interesting nuggets about who and me (me and who, there's so much for us to do) ...

Let me put this bluntly. There’s no way to sugar coat it, I’m a geek. A card carrying, statistic spouting, pedant spluttering member of the cultural elite. In fact I’m not just one kind of geek, I’m legion. I’m a computer geek and a theatre geek and a movie buff geek and a comics geek but more than anything else, oh so very much more, I’m a Doctor Who geek. Yes, from 1989 onwards I’ve been in the thrall of the timelord and I can’t think of a programme that’s had a more positive effect on my life. While other young boys had heroes who kicked balls into far off nets or slaughtered hundreds of enemy soldiers with a belt-fed machine gun, my hero defeated evil with little more than a bag of jelly babies and an off the wall sense of humour.

This may sound silly but I can actually remember making the decision to be more like the Doctor, to clown around and let people underestimate me, to attack any new situation with a mixture of childish enthusiasm and deep thought. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say that the man I am today owes a lot to the values instilled in me then. I still abhor violence, I still love traveling and meeting people, I even sometimes still walk with my hands clasped behind my back (although admittedly this did look very odd when I was 9 years old, I kept overbalancing and falling on my head).

Anyway, all of this is preamble to the fact that today saw myself and the Bannerman rocketing down the M5 toward Cardiff, the current home of the Dr Who production team. The sun was blazing, the windows were open and the conversation was lively and interesting. It was the perfect Bank Holiday weekend activity, a spontaneous road trip to a new city on a sparkling spring day.

Cardiff Bay is a truly amazing place, a real patchwork of architectural styles and eras, all crowding around the oval of the bay itself. Some of the buildings are simply beautiful, all cool grays and burnished bronze in the afternoon sun. I couldn’t quite escape the feeling I’d walked onto a set, what with so many of them having featured in the good Doctor’s adventures over the past two years. In an act of almost breathtaking geekiness, I even got my picture taken where the TARDIS was last seen landing.

There I am, all pleased with myself. What a content little wally I am.

Ha, but what a day. I’ve even written about it verbatim on the blog. And I almost never do that. It’s just that today I’ve seen Cybermen and Daleks, jumped over benches and laughed a lot about nothing in particular. It was such a liberating, surprising day and I didn’t even know it was going to happen.

I’ve stood where one of my heroes has stood and it made me smile.

Sunday 6 April 2008

Beginnings (3)

I had three beginnings.

Of course I didn't but wouldn't it have been ever so elegant if I had? In actual fact I had five beginnings, one after the other in the space of an hour. Yes, my first experience of Dr Who was Terrence Dick's "The Five Doctors" which is by any measure a crazy ass episode for anyone to enter the Whoniverse.

For one thing it follows none of the rules of the series as a whole, imagine watching that thing if you had no idea about the history of the show. Right, so this guy's the Doctor and he travels to different planets in a blue box. Wait a minute, that guy's also a Doctor, I wonder what his deal is? Oh, it's exactly the same as the first guy's, they haven't even bothered to invent another back story. More questions followed: Why do those two seem to be acting in an entirely different show? Why does she keep spraining her ankle? Couldn't she have just walked up that slope?

And yet ... and yet ... I was enthralled. Which meant that when in 1989 Dr Who burst (then limped) back into regular programming, I was beside myself. No behind the sofa for me, I had my face pressed up against the screen. It was 'Ace give me one of those Nitro-9s you're not carrying' BOOM! and I was in love.

Favourite Doctor:

Will always be Sylvester McCoy. Not because he was all I knew, not because I didn't know any better. He was just MY Doctor - dark, strange, clownish and complex. His Doctor was like nothing else on TV, not just the good guy but multi-faceted, a master-manipulator, so alien, so other when he wanted to be. I think I just instinctively knew that I wasn't being pandered to with this one - 9 years old and something was speaking to me in all the glorious greys and half-tones of the real world. So yes, I firmly believe Dr Who had it's own little renaissance at the fag-end of the century with stories like Remembrance, Ghostlight, and Fenric earning their place as really top-flight Who. Then came the New Adventures which went that one step further into territory I'd certainly never been before. I still remember the gist of the blurb on the back cover of one of the first novels (Timewyrm? Cat's Cradle?) 'Only the Doctor can save them. But the Doctor was destroyed years ago. Before time began ...' I couldn't keep it in my head, couldn't contain the worlds conjured up to dance before me, the ideas, the scale, the complexity of the continuum and through it all the rich seam of the McCoy Doctor - impish and strange, clever and comical - the grinning, winking tip of a cold, alien intelligence that spread out like a glacier beneath the surface.

Of course, all that said, David Tennant is beyond fantastic and the only other Doctor that convinces me the guy is operating on a completely different level to everyone else. The Doctor is not human, lest me forget, he's not just really, really ridiculously clever - he perceives things differently to us, he can see time in the same way we can see length, width, height, volume - all that possibility, all those choices slowly solidifying around him, fixing future history in place just by his presence (and brilliantly realised and articulated in 'Fires of Pompeii' might I say [YES - first mention of Series 4 - and all because my colleagues have been gracious enough to wait for me to catch up, what a rotter!]). Tennant sells the hell out of the character and it is his obvious, joyous, infectious love for the role that ultimately lifts the current iteration of the show to a level that precious few programmes can match.

The last word should be left to Sylvester though in probably my favourite Dr Who quote of all time - 'I can't stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations - terrible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls. And then there's unrequited love, and tyranny, and cruelty. We all have a world of our own terrors to face.'


Favourite story:

I have loads. Apart from the McCoy classics mentioned above I would also like to give massive shout outs to City of Death, The Time Meddler, Caves of Androzani, The Green Death, Genesis of the Daleks, The Empty Child, Girl in the Fireplace and most of the latter half of Season 3. It really is a stellar time to be a Dr Who fan, isn't it?

Oh and Dimensions in Time.


Monster/ enemy:

Not to be the contrarian of the group (which I am unfortunately) but I love the Daleks. They work and it's crazy because it's like Terry Nation just threw a load of concepts at a wall (like they were spaghetti that he wasn't sure was quite done) and the bits that stuck he went with. The stupid wheeled design, the one eye, the plunger, the spots, the car grill, the weedy laser, the voice - it's like the worse designed monster ever both in practicality and menace and yet when you put it together it's a dalek and it's ultimately cool. I was bouncing off the walls in the Ecelston episode - when the eyes flashed in the darkness. Awesome.

Also the Rassilon Assassin Robot thing. Take that you rubbish Cybermen idiots. You don't like that cold steel up you, do you? Thought you were only vulnerable to gold? Well prepare to be retconned you motherf***ers coz it looks like you'll also go down like a bitch when faced with the might of normal metal arrows. Hahahahahaha!

Which companion did you either want to be or fancy:

Peri ... in the regeneration scene. No one was looking at you, Peter.

No one.

What are you looking forward to?:

I'm going to be honest here - absolutely everything. I can't wait. But especially Moffet shenanigans.


Catherine Tate. She's alright but I'm not a fan and she doesn't make my heart go pitter patter like Rose did.

I should now go on and talk about episode 1 and 2 but I think I'll leave the honour of commencing the geekathon to one of my esteemed colleagues that deserve it oh so very much more than me.

Go for your life, guys.

Thursday 3 April 2008

Beginnings (2)

I had two beginnings. One false start that sent me scurrying for cover, and then the reunion…

My first happened when I was plainly not ready to see Dr Who. It’s actually one of my first memories (other than falling asleep in front of Live Aid and waking up to see that now-famous video to the Cars song…)

I clearly remember seeing a scene from Earthshock – where Cybermen march up a metal staircase. It genuinely frightened me, and I then remember running and wrapping myself in nearby full-length curtain to hide... 15 or so years later, watching it back again while at university, the same feelings flooded back and I felt a chill down my spine.

The second beginning was a trip to a video shop with my dad. I’d begun watching the TV series properly by then (starting with Sylvester McCoy), and I was playing all the requisite playground versions – everyone wanted to be Ace. Boy or girl, it didn’t matter. Ace was clearly cooler. And so I, being smaller than most of my peers, became the Doctor. On the upside, quite clearly, I was better - after all, I had my own Tardis. And everyone else was a girl. Technically. But anyway, I’d become obsessed with the Doctor, and I wanted more.

Somehow (memory is hazy on the exact details of how I managed it), I got my dad to buy me Spearhead From Space. I took it home and devoured it. Again and again. This was a Doctor I didn’t know, I had never seen before, and was totally different to the one I’d met. But this one was dashing, erudite, and was basically a scientist dressed like Adam Adamant. But I took that in my stride. And their special effects were better than the ones on telly (because they didn't have to go over the top). I loved the story, and was very wary of shop window mannequins for a VERY long time afterwards.

There was something different about all this, though. I immersed myself, but all the while I was picking up the rudimentaries of right and wrong, of the value of life. Of love for others. And after all, while my friends were totally obsessed with football, I couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for them. They watched 22 men in shorts kick a ball around while I loved cricket and watched an eccentric, clever and funny man help up scantily-clad women while he was saving the earth. Sigh.

Favourite Doctor:

Patrick Troughton. While my first was both McCoy and Pertwee, I suppose, and I always thought Paul McGann was brilliant but never got a fair go... my second (dad-bought) video was The Seeds of Death. And I’ve always had a sweet spot for the "Cosmic Hobo", so I’ll go with him. Maybe it’s the daft trousers and the blatant darts at comedy. Maybe it was because he died of a heart attack after (allegedly) attempting to seduce another actor’s wife at a Sci-Fi convention. I don’t know. But the Seeds of Death is one of the finest things I’d ever seen, and I’ve always loved the way his doctor dealt with some terrifying monsters (Cybermen, Yeti, Daleks, the Ice Warriors, the Great Intelligence) with fantastic grace and panache (for the time) and still found time to get everyone else’s back up by practicing the Recorder…

Favourite Story:

This is tough! There are a few that really and truly drew me in until I was completely hooked. The Ambassadors of Death, Robots of Death, The Pyramids of Mars, Talons of Weng Chiang, Ghostlight, The Android Invasion, The Daemons.
I’ll plump for The Web of Fear though. Pulsating thriller set in the tunnels of the London Underground, with Yeti stalking, looking for prey. Oh, and green stuff on walls. Always good. Really threatening, close thriller which is captivating just from the soundtrack (only episode 1 still exists on film).


This used to be the easiest answer for me. It was always the Cybermen. Daleks, like Andrew, I thought were dull. Really, really not scary and not too hard to run away from. Cybermen were virtually unbeatable (except of course if you happened to have a wrinkly old woman from the Sixteenth Century who came with her own gold arrows… ahem), and they were determined. And Colin Baker’s brush with them (The Attack of The Cybermen), is an overlooked gem.
But for me, it’s the Master.
There’s a series of encounters with Pertwee’s doctor that are absolutely riveting – The Mind of Evil and the Claws of Axos in particular are brilliantly simple but complex thrillers… but the master always has the advantage over the Doctor that gives way to a fascinating story while the Doctor fights to reel him in. And his return last year with Derek Jacobi and John Simm was just, well, perfect. It was classic Master and bang up to date all at once.

Which companion did you either want to be or fancy:

The years watching old videos made a huge impression on me… Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen)…

I always wanted to be in UNIT. I suppose they count as companions...

What are you looking forward to:

The return of the Sontarans - OK, they look a bit like rubber-moulded humpy-dumpty models in shiny suits, but they're another one of the old-school monsters who were genuinely interesting to watch. Oh, and UNIT returns in the same episode too!
I'm also looking forward to stories by two particular writers - Gareth Roberts and Stephen Moffat...


I am thoroughly dreading what they’re going to do with the return of Rose…
I'm really beginning to hate the whole romance element of the series. Rose was far enough for me. But then Martha, and now Donna too - falling in love with him. Maybe its naiive to expect that love could be kept out of this, but its making David Tennant's doctor look like a ladies' man, when traditionally, I suppose, he's always been a bit above that.

Wednesday 2 April 2008


One of my very first memories is a recurring nightmare about a scary green man with tentacles running into a hut in the snow. The hut blows up and I wake up terrified. Years and years later a friend lent me the video (remember them?) of The Seeds of Doom and there was my nightmare, on screen at the end of part two. Yikes. That was quite a surprise. It seems therefore that I have been watching Doctor Who since before I can remember, but perhaps that is how it should be. Kids love a good story and that is what Doctor Who is.

Doctor Who challenged my imagination and the way I think about the world. It was a big influence for me. Tom Baker grinning at an adversary and offering them a jelly baby was such a unique way of dealing with trouble that you couldn't help but love it. The series inspired me to become an actor, work in telly, the media, anything really that would get me making programmes like Who. If I may be deep for a moment it fed into my ideas of what is right and wrong and the challenges of the bits between the two.

Favourite Doctor:

Well this is so hard these days. A few years back that was such an easy question. The answer was Tom Baker. But these days how do you choose between Tom and David Tennant? Tennant has really got it nailed now. He's angry, he's lonely, he's an old, old man in a young man's body. He can be brilliantly funny too. Full of compassion, never allowing the end justify the means but making the means fit the end (is that an oo-er?). And, I'm told by countless women who watch it becasue he's in it, rather hot… Doctor Who? Hot? Who’d have thought it.

I grew up with Tom's Doctor so choosing David would be like disowning an uncle or something. Tom was sooo alien. Dangerous and surprising. Wildly funny;‘You know, you’re the classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain!’. Deadly serious; 'When I say I'm afraid, Sarah, I'm not making jokes'. (Actually are there any really good quotes like that in the new series?) Amazing company, the best friend you could want and the worst enemy.

Hmmm, you can't compare the two. But David may have the edge at the mo. Never before has there been a Doctor you can feel for, and that dimension is something the new series does really well. We felt his loss at the end of The Girl in the Fireplace and when the Master died. Goodness I had something in my eye on both occasions. Tennant is such a good actor that those big character pieces can really hit you between the eyes. But to be fair to Tom that happened in his time too. That bit in Logopolis where he spots the Watcher for the first time is surprisingly disarming and likewise when Sarah Jane leaves at the end of The Hand of Fear (my first Who memory). He draws his coat up around his shoulders and looks sooo alone.

Favourite Story:

That's an impossible question! Come on this is Doctor Who! Oh, all right. If you must! Hmmmmm. No. Well. I guess. At a push, if I really must.

It would be City of Death. I suppose it has something to do with being on at the time when I was just getting into Doc Who, but it is brilliant. It's all there really. An audacious and fascinating plot which is all to do with the Jagoroth wanting to survive (can't blame him for that) but at the cost of humanity never having existed. A great monster/villain. Tom Baker at the height of his performance and one of the greatest Doctor / companion relationships with Romana (my first TV crush!). A sparkling script by Douglas Adams that gives Steven Moffat a run for his money. Some really scary bits (end of parts one and three - they were really scary to a kid). Julian Glover, Catherine Schell and Tom Chadbon amongst others. And John Cleese!! And Paris!!


Well again there are so many. The Daleks though I have always found rather dull. Creepy yes and unquestionably a design classic. But they are just a bit slow. For me it is the Cybermen. When I was a boy you couldn't put a scratch on them, not like today (what WAS Russell T Davies thinking of?). They were impassive, invulnerable, totally remorseless and really chilling. Somehow they are really tragic, but of course they'd not understand the word. Watch Earthshock, it still holds up!

But the monster that had the biggest impact on me was Kroll. Terrifying. Yeah, I know the story is dull, but this thing was a mile across. And that wasn't including it's tentacles. It could cut through marsh land like a hot knife through butter and pick off anyone at will. Watch those scenes where it attacks the refinery and you will see what I mean. I had nightmares for weeks and wouldn't go anywhere near the deep end of a swimming pool. It was my one truly behind the sofa moment, and I found to my horror that it was too close to the wall. So I hung onto my dad for dear life.

Which companion did you either want to be or fancy:

Lalla Ward!! Yum!

If I'd been born a few years earlier I suspect it would have been Elisabeth Sladen or, indeed, Katy Manning. Then of course Nicola Bryant. How DID they get away with Planet of Fire part one?? Billie Piper too. I saw her play in the West End last year and got her autograph, she's really nice :)

I sort of wanted to be Adric. Looking back he's not the greatest of the bunch, but because he was a kid it was like wow, he's getting to travel with the Doctor. His moral dilemmas made me think a bit and he was often getting it wrong and I identified with that - I just knew that I would mess things up in such extraordinary circumstances. Nothing prepared us for when he stays on the freighter to stop it hitting the Earth. Then the escape pod detaches, and the cyberleader blows up the console in the TARDIS, and the cyberman blows up the computer on the freighter, and it's getting closer and closer to the Earth. Just stop a moment and consider how all that looked to a nine year old who had no idea whatsoever which way it was going to go. This was really, really jaw dropping. Then the muffled bang as the freighter blows up. I think there was a national stunned silence. Yeah it's only a tv show but that was extraordinary. A needless death among so many made even more tragic by the fact that it was poor hapless Adric. We sat there and turned the volume up to full on the tv cos we couldn't work out why there was no end music. Then it dawned on us. He was really dead. Goodness.

What are you looking forward to:

18.20, Saturday, BBC1. And Catherine Tate. I think she's gonna be rather good.


I'm rather worried about episode six. I won't spoil it if you don't know the title... but as the Doc said in series one ‘I don’t do domestic’.