Doctor Who 4.12 – The Stolen Earth

Back in 2008, as I mentioned in an earlier entry, we were watching Doctor Who five days after its UK transmission. I was vaguely aware, from online friends, in the five days between “The Stolen Earth” airing and us watching it, that something wild happened.

Then, that Thursday night, we saw that cliffhanger, with the Doctor starting to regenerate. I went into complete lockdown, terrified of being spoiled. I didn’t go online for anything. This was probably easier in 2008 than it would be today, but it was still maddening. The only online place I went to for any reason at all was my email. I even closed every one of my million open tabs in Chrome.

Days crept by. I wanted to see part two so badly. Were they really going to do it? Were they going to sock us with a surprise regeneration? I had no idea and I loved it that way. I was working then for an insurance company in Dunwoody that didn’t want me playing online anyway. The day of the episode came. It had already aired in the UK five days previously. I had lunch in the building cafeteria and went back to my desk. I came back to an email from the girlchild, who was staying with my mother since school was out.

It read “Dad, I know who the new Doctor is!” And nothing else.

I almost cried. I was so miserable. I’d got so close to seeing the episode without a single frame being spoiled for me and my own damn daughter blew it. Work crawled. There didn’t seem to be a lot of point to anything anymore.

I drove to Smyrna to pick them up. I opened the door and said to the girlchild, who was, of course, on my mom’s computer playing Club Penguin, to go to my old room. I didn’t say another word. I closed the door and she immediately babbled that she knew nothing about any sort of new Doctor or what was going to happen, that her brother put her up to it.

It was, I quickly realized, a breathtaking clever and evil prank. My son knew that I’d know it was a stunt if it came from him, because he knew that I trusted him to have a brain about these things. But he also knew that his motormouth sister, who has no filter at all, would, if she were to read a story about a new Doctor, go straight to me at maximum speed and maximum volume without remembering that I wanted it a secret.

So I stayed quiet, thanked my folks for watching the kids, and drove home in the silence of the graveyard. I ignored their questions. The girl whispered “I told him it was just a joke.”

I sent those blasted kids to my room and, quietly but firmly, read them the damn riot act. I spoke softly about how I’d really been looking forward to this evening and tried so hard to keep it a secret, but I spoke with the biggest stick of all, my eyes cruel and full of fire. I kept it up for almost two minutes, as the blood drained from their faces. Finally, and I’ve no idea how I kept the quiet rant going for so long, I raised my voice.

I said, loud enough for the neighbors to hear, “I’ve only got ONE THING to say to you!!” I paused. They looked like they knew this was the end.

And I said, “Well done, children. You got me good, fair and square.” They cheered and we hugged and part two, which is much better than part one, was worth every second of it.

Doctor Who 2.12 – Army of Ghosts

In 2006, Doctor Who would air in the UK on Saturdays and a friend of mine, a dear fellow who’s since passed away, would download a copy from a file-sharing site a day or two later. We’d then get a gang together to watch the episode at our old house on Thursday nights because that was when it was most convenient. A day or two after “Fear Her” aired, I got a message from a pal in the UK on the 2000 AD forum. Knowing that I hate spoilers, he did me the favor of dropping me a line to tell me to not watch the “Next Time” trailer at the end of “Fear Her.” I did as requested. When we watched “Fear Her” that Thursday, I paused the DVD and passed the remote to somebody else while I went upstairs.

Because the BBC spoils lots of surprises – they sort of have to when they film on location and bring identifiable monster costumes or cast recognizable actors for outdoor shots – everybody knew that the Cybermen would be back. After all, director Graeme Harper had filmed all sorts of material with the Cybermen in broad daylight, as the publicity and paparazzi photos had shown, and the previous adventure with them all took place in one evening. So everybody knew that this would be a Cybermen story, but what nobody knew until that “Next Time” trailer is that the Daleks would be back as well. And the trailer doesn’t reveal it, it just half-assedly gives it away by casually including the unmistakable look and sound of a Dalek death ray in one shot as if by accident.

I am so glad that I skipped it that Thursday in 2006, because apart from one bit where David Tennant, forgetting how he’d reprimanded himself for “correctamundo,” acts like a goofball saying that he ain’t afraid of no ghosts, this episode is completely wonderful and ends with one of the all-time great cliffhangers, which I totally did not see coming. The kid loved it as well and said that it was even better than “the one with Queen Victoria and the werewolf!” He didn’t even pretend that the Cybermen annoyed him this time around. Then when the Daleks showed up in the final seconds, he was on his feet, roaring, and saying pretty much everything you can imagine an eight year-old would say about having the two big baddies finally showing up in the same story. I asked whether he thinks that they’ll get along. “No! Absolutely not! They’re going to HATE each other!”

Well, Cybermen don’t understand how to hate, but I take his point. I’m resisting the temptation to jump ahead and watch that brilliant bit of trash-talking in the second episode. I can wait ’til tonight. I think.

Doctor Who 2.8 – The Impossible Planet

Among all the reasons I enjoy “The Impossible Planet” is that it has a brilliant sense of scale. This is a story about Earth during the time of its Empire – so it’s perhaps contemporary with season nine’s “The Mutants” – but it talks about a vastness of space and the passing of billions of years. I just like it when Doctor Who imagines something far, far bigger in scope than just “this story takes place exactly one hundred years from the date of transmission.”

And I also love the scene where the Doctor and Rose – who are back to being insufferably smug right after they land – discuss what the world might have in store for them without the TARDIS. The Doctor feigns horror at having to worry about a house and a mortgage, deflecting a genuine worry. David Tennant sensibly doesn’t let him be vulnerable here, but it’s a big situation that the Doctor hasn’t run into in a really long time. I also like it when our hero can’t rely on the ship to get himself out of trouble.

Elsewhere in the audience, our son positively exploded at the cliffhanger ending. “Come on! Come on! Why does this have to be a two-parter?!” he grumbled. We answered that there was too much story for just one episode, and reminded him that one of his pals has asked the same question about the occasional two-part episodes of Thunderbirds are Go. It seems he was just enjoying this one a lot and really wants to know what’s at the bottom of the mysterious hole on the impossible planet Krop Tor right now.

He also suggested that there’s an error in the story. He observed that the possessed archaeologist, shown above, has all these symbols on his skin when the mysterious villain is speaking through him, but once the possession leaves him and takes over the Ood, they don’t get the symbols. I suggested that perhaps each of the base’s Ood gets a single symbol, and since they’re wearing suits, the symbol could be on their backsides for all we know. I don’t think this mystery will be solved in part two…

Doctor Who: Battlefield (parts one and two)

And now we travel to 1989 – possibly – as Morgaine Le Fay invades our dimension from whatever realm she came from. Jean Marsh had previously played a witch queen in the films Return to Oz and Willow, and decided to make it a hat trick here. It’s also her third appearance in Doctor Who. Uniquely, Marsh played a guest star and a companion and a villain in the show.

I’ve never thought Ben Aaronovitch’s “Battlefield” was all that well realized, but behind its many poor line readings and stagings and a couple of diabolically bad performances – stop laughing, Mordred – there’s a good story here that comes across much better in Marc Platt’s novelization for Target Books. Later on down the line, David Tennant’s Doctor was completely baffled and stumped to meet River Song for the first time when she knew him already. That’s precisely what happens here – all these knights of old know a future Doctor and call him Merlin – and Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor understands it immediately. Maybe McCoy’s Doctor read the book The Time Traveller’s Wife and then erased his own memory.

It’s set a few years in Ace’s future, but we never learn exactly when Ace’s present is – there’s no reason to think it’s 1987 – and yet here we are in 2019, still without a king on England’s throne and without five pound coins. We were just talking today about old TV and books getting their future predictions wrong. And of course, Nicholas Courtney is back as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and this story is so set up to be his grand finale with a valiant death in episode four that when it doesn’t happen, it ends up feeling like they forgot to tape something important.

Incidentally, both Marc Platt’s novel and a subsequent title in Virgin’s New Adventure range establish that the future Doctor, the one who regularly had scraps with Morgaine and Mordred at King Arthur’s side, is a Doctor with red hair. If we ever do meet a red-haired Doctor on television, about nineteen of us are going to call him Merlin.

So what did our kid think? We gave him a crash course in King Arthur today to make sure he knew what was going on. He mainly reported that he thinks that Lancelot might have been like Tony Stark and Gawain like the Hulk. He was enjoying things just fine until episode two’s cliffhanger, where the Doctor and Ace set off a trap and a very 1980s computer effect hisses around the room and attacks them. I would never, ever have thought this moment would have been anywhere near Who‘s most frightening cliffhangers, but it scared him so badly that he left the room and ran to the top of the stairs. I’m always amazed by how he reacts to something I took for granted.

Doctor Who: Earthshock (part one)

“Oh, come on! Come on!”

Was that a cool cliffhanger, Little Dude?

“No! It was NOT a cool cliffhanger!”

Really? Don’t you want to see what happens next?

“Duh, yeah!”

Well, a cool cliffhanger makes you want to see what happens next. So…

“But it’s the Cybermen! And they’re TOO MEAN!”

They’re too mean?

“The Cybermen are mean! They are TOTALLY mean! Even their thumbs are mean! They’re even meaner than the Daleks! The Daleks are only HALF-mean and the Cybermen are all mean. They want to take over EVERYTHING!”

Millions of opinions about Doctor Who have been voiced in fifty-five years. I think I like this one best of all.

Doctor Who: State of Decay (parts three and four)

It’s a “be quiet and don’t wake up the monsters” cliffhanger at the end of part three, meaning, of course, that Romana isn’t quiet enough and she wakes up the monsters. And it gave our son one of the biggest frights he’s ever had. He was under his blanket like a shot and when the end credits started, he bolted off the sofa and ran for the front door. He’s never hid all that way before. He didn’t come back to the den until he could hear that the third vampire had come into the “inner sanctum” and told the other two to knock it off, because he has important plans for them.

This is a terrific story. There’s a great bit where K9 warns the Doctor that using the “indigenous dissident population” to start his riot doesn’t have a high probability of success, which means that K9 hasn’t been watching the same show the rest of us have. Another great bit has Emrys James, who, to be fair, is indulging in a little overacting, as people playing vampires often do, telling one of his guards that dying is what guards are for.

For his final verdict, our son gave it a thumbs-sideways. He explained that it was totally awesome, but it was also “totally too scary!” This may be the last time he says that for a while. I honestly don’t think Doctor Who was this deliberately scary again for a long time. I’m sure something will give him an unexpected shock or two, but eighties Who rarely went in for real horror. I think he’ll be eight when we get to “The Curse of Fenric,” which is the story I’m thinking of, but if anything else sends him behind the sofa – or to the front door – I’ll be sure to write about it!

Doctor Who: State of Decay (parts one and two)

I’d like to think that I was too old to be frightened by Doctor Who when I first started watching it around age 13, but I’ll admit that Emrys James’s portrayal of this vampiric villain called Aukon might have come closer than anything else. This is a stunningly effective cliffhanger at the end of part two, where our heroes have deduced that their opponents are vampires and that there’s some gigantic creature living underneath the gothic tower of the Three Who Rule. Then Aukon shows up behind them and offers them greetings, that they’re in his domain now.

The whole production is much, much creepier and more frightening than Doctor Who had been in many years, and our son definitely felt it. He told us this one is so scary, and as our heroes discovered blood-filled feeding tubes and quietly, urgently, discuss what could be happening, he huddled behind his security blanket. Good thing Mommy had some brownies ready for dessert tonight!

“State of Decay” was the second story to be produced in season eighteen, and because the producer and script editor had to hit the ground running and needed scripts fast, they phoned up writer Terrance Dicks. He had submitted a story three years previously which had been cancelled at the last minute by some high muckity-muck at the BBC (“Horror of Fang Rock” was an eleventh-hour substitution), and they asked whether he’d like to do a quick rewrite of it – and therefore get paid for the same story twice.

Somehow in all the turmoil, and with another new-to-the-series director, Peter Moffatt stepping in, nobody actually told Tom Baker and Lalla Ward that they were getting a new co-star. I like the way that they chose to introduce Matthew Waterhouse as Adric. We didn’t actually see him stow away in the previous story, and so when he turns up in the TARDIS after the Doctor and Romana have left to go explore the planet, there’s a surprising “What is he doing here?” moment. Apparently, that’s what Baker and Ward wanted to know as well.

One note on casting: an actor named Clinton Greyn plays the role of the head villager. He’s a tall guy, and about twelve years previously, he had starred as the lead in the obscure, oddball series Virgin of the Secret Service. (John of the Cult TV Blog wrote about this weird show last month and you should check it out.) I always like noting how directors will come back to some of the same actors, and so it doesn’t surprise me to note that Peter Moffatt gave Greyn a call five years later when he was booked to do a serial in season twenty-two.

I thought about that tonight as I noted Greyn towering over Matthew Waterhouse. Moffatt cast Greyn as a Sontaran. I understand loyalty to actors who can get the job done, but clearly nobody told Moffatt that Sontarans are supposed to be short…

Doctor Who: Full Circle (parts one and two)

I really enjoy it when our son reacts with such enthusiasm over Doctor Who‘s cliffhangers. Part one of “Full Circle” ends with the beasts-of-the-month, some Black Lagoon creatures called Marshmen, waking up and rising out of a mist-covered lake. Our son spent the recap behind the sofa. Then the second episode ends with some whacking huge spiders – some hilariously unconvincing tourist trap haunted house spiders with light bulb eyes and giant teeth, but spiders nonetheless – hatching from a pile of what everybody thought were ordinary watermelons that the locals call riverfruit. The kid was shocked. “That nutritious fruit is eggs for spiders!”

“Full Circle” is an entertaining adventure that’s aged extremely well. It was the first professional story by a young writer named Andrew Smith, and it’s the first Who serial to be directed by Peter Grimwade, who is by leagues the most interesting and influential director of the early eighties. It also features the first appearance of Adric, a new character who seems to be about fourteen years old, played by nineteen year-old Matthew Waterhouse. The casting of actors who are unmistakably older than their young characters is going to be a hallmark of eighties Who, unfortunately.

As for the older actors, there’s George Baker as a father torn between devotion and his new duties. We’ve seen Baker as the Beefeater in the first episode of The Goodies. He may have been best known at the time for his regular role in the BBC’s celebrated I, Claudius, though he was also the screen’s first Inspector Alleyn, in a series of Ngaio Marsh adaptations made for New Zealand television. Later, he’d play Wexford in The Ruth Rendell Mysteries for years. Plus there’s James “No, what a stooopid fool YOU ARE” Bree as the leader of this strange community.

Our son has definitely twigged that something weird is going on in this community. Every fifty or so years, a large settlement around a non-functioning “Starliner” retreats inside and seals the ship because the air outside is said to become toxic during “Mistfall.” The citizens make repairs and talk about a great embarkation to return them to their ancestors’ home planet. But the Doctor and K9 know the air is perfectly breathable, and after he breaks into the Starliner, with a young, grunting Marshman scurrying behind him, he starts people questioning why the society’s rulers are so keen to keep everybody locked indoors for years.

I think the combination of scary monsters, scary spiders, and lying bureaucrats has him especially interested to see what will happen next. I asked whether this story is better than “Meglos,” and he happily agreed. There’s certainly a lot to like here.

Doctor Who: The Leisure Hive (parts one and two)

Unless you are Indiana Jones, R.E.M. or Echo & the Bunnymen, the eighties were not your best decade. So it is with Doctor Who, whose final nine seasons were overseen by one producer, the late John Nathan-Turner. As we’ll see, in time the producer would become the most divisive figure in the program’s history, but I’m in the school that believes that he certainly started out very well.

The 1980-81 season really was a visual shakeup and it sounded incredibly different, too. Nathan-Turner let the show’s longtime main composer Dudley Simpson know that he was going to pass on his services and use new musicians. He and his first script editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, accomplished what Douglas Adams couldn’t and found a pile of new writers. Only one person who had ever directed a Who serial before 1980 was invited back, and only three writers returned. Better still, the directors and designers seemed to be working from the same page at last, and they regularly created alien worlds that felt like they had a space and a believable existence beyond the locations where the plot sends our heroes.

The pantomime-style villains who’d dominated the Graham Williams run were mostly gone, and the Doctor stopped being an all-powerful know-it-all. Tom Baker’s overacting was toned down, and even K9 sounds less smug about everything. So seasons 18 and 19 did look and sound like a new and refreshed program, with some good stories and some that didn’t work so well. I think there are a couple of serials that should have been dumped at the script stage, but until we get to the tail end of Peter Davison’s first year (specifically a story called “Time-Flight” where practically every decision anybody made was the wrong one), even the misfires at least looked and sounded interesting. There’s a real sense that everyone working on the show wants to create engaging television that doesn’t follow a very obvious path.

With that in mind, David Fisher’s “The Leisure Hive,” which was the last serial that he’d contribute to the show, is incredibly interesting. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to call it compelling. The story suffers – at the script level – from some of the same old problems that plague all of television, especially when the speaking parts are so rationed that a lawyer from Earth suddenly becomes a prosecutor on an alien planet. But it looks and sounds so radically different from anything that Doctor Who had ever done, with surprising camera angles, closeups, and especially the lighting choices, that it’s more engaging on a visual level than the show almost ever was. Add a very modern synthesizer score by Peter Howell and it all adds up to something that is admittedly dated, but in 1980, it must have seemed incredibly refreshing.

It’s the only serial that was directed by Lovett Bickford, who passed away just a couple of months ago. Apparently he overspent so badly that he was never invited back, which is a shame. The main guest star is actress Adrienne Corri, who had done the usual run of guest parts in the fun ITC shows of the sixties and seventies but is best known for her small but memorable role in A Clockwork Orange. Laurence Payne, who had played Sexton Blake in a long-running late sixties show for Thames that is almost entirely missing from the archives, has a small part in episode one.

“The Leisure Hive” is famous for its first two cliffhangers, which first show an image of the Doctor being torn, bloodlessly, limb from limb, and secondly see him aged into an old man. I’m pleased to report that both of these moments succeeded in startling our son, and in fact he chose to hide behind the sofa instead of seeing the freaky sight of the Doctor’s arms and head popping away from his body. In the cold light of adulthood, it’s a dopey effect, but boy, was it ever effective!

Doctor Who: The Sun Makers (parts three and four)

The most important thing to note this morning is that our son really, really enjoyed this adventure. It’s easily one of his favorites from this Doctor. He didn’t get frightened or scared, but he got into things hugely. When the workers begin their uprising, he was cheering them on. He also had a blast with the cliffhanger to part three. It’s a very well done moment, with the pressure rising and only seconds to go before Leela is steamed to death in a public execution, and one sadly undermined by the total lack of urgency in part four as the Doctor rescues her, but wow, his eyes were as wide as they get and his feet kicking furiously as the credits rolled.

Our son says he had two favorite moments: he loved that buggy in part three, and he loved the Doctor’s confrontation with Henry Woolf’s vulgar Collector. This great scene ends with the Collector reverting to his true alien form and shrinking down into his survival chair, and he was imitating the villain with shouts of “Liquidate, liquidate!”

I’ve always thought this was a pretty good story, but I enjoyed it even more this time around. Woolf and Richard Leech are a great double-act, and they get all the best dialogue. I loved it when the Collector gets a scent of the Doctor’s moral outrage and sneers about it being the “vicious doctrine of egalitarianism.” I was also intrigued by the Collector researching the Time Lords and the Doctor, finding them a commercially non-viable target, and the Doctor himself a very well-documented thorn in the side of countless oppressors and tyrants over the centuries. If you remember that scene in 2008’s “Forest of the Dead” where the Doctor tells the Vashta Nerada “Look me up,” I think its spiritual ancestor is this little bit.

I think “The Sun Makers” is sometimes overlooked because it doesn’t have a monster, and because the black limbo sets are unconvincing, and because all the location filming in the basement of some building succeeds in making this look nothing like Pluto in the year six million and exactly like the basement of some building. But the script and the acting are so fantastic! I enjoyed seeing this one again almost as much as our kid enjoyed seeing it for the first time.

Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part three)

Part three of this story ends with a delicious cliffhanger, with the Doctor and Jo trapped on a beach with a minefield on one side, four men with rifles on another, and a Sea Devil rising from the ocean. It’s a really effective scene that had our son utterly stumped how they’ll get out of this. Helicopters and International Rescue’s Mole were considered.

Speaking of effective, I love how the titular Sea Devils have completely dominated the narrative despite only appearing onscreen for maybe two minutes totally throughout the first three parts. We wondered whether our son would pick up the subtleties in how the Master has convinced Colonel Trenchard to let him take over the prison, and he didn’t. The Master has given him some song and dance about enemy agents operating in British waters, and how only he can stop them, and Trenchard will soon have the thanks of a grateful nation. I think he treated this as new, additional information, like the enemy saboteurs were real, and yet another obstacle and headache.

I think the problem with six year-old viewers is that they will take everything at face value, and not quite understand when characters are being dishonest yet. I realized this when I had to pause the first couple of Avengers episodes we watched because he didn’t really get that Steed and Mrs. Peel will lie about their undercover activities. Television that’s really designed exclusively for younger viewers will wink at the kids a little more obviously.