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Doctor Who 1.13 – The Parting of the Ways

For my money, Christopher Eccleston has the absolute best batting average of any of the Doctors. Just 13 episodes – 10 stories – and not a turkey among them. Even his weakest hour, “The Long Game,” is guilty of nothing worse than being a little forgettable, and even that one had Simon Pegg in it. I kind of like the idea that there was one Doctor with an incredibly short life. There’s a tendency in Who fandom, with all the spinoff novels and comics and audio adventures, to make sure that every Doctor lived for decades and decades, with far, far more stories than we ever saw on TV, but I like having one who only had a few months. Makes up for the eleventh living for all those centuries on Trenzalore. The ninth was the one who died.

So of course the kid loved it to pieces, especially when the Anne Droid disintegrated three Daleks. He really liked the Emperor, and we had to discuss whether the “immortal god” version could move anywhere or whether it’s part of the ship. We’ll never know for sure, but my vote’s for having the Emperor be completely stationary, but able to manipulate things with those arms underneath its tank. That makes for thematic similarity with the original Emperor from “The Evil of the Daleks” back in 1967, and so I showed him some pictures to see what I mean, since the only surviving episode from that serial doesn’t have the Emperor in it. He respectfully disagrees and thinks that this Emperor stomped around its ship on its three big “legs.”

Our kid might have been only the second person to ever watch “The Parting of the Ways” who didn’t know it was going to end with a regeneration. I did know one fellow who understood that the thirteen episodes were in the can and then Eccleston quit, so the ending was a huge surprise. It was a beautifully written and acted scene before the visuals took over – I really don’t like the star-volcano special effects of modern regenerations – but I’m afraid that this blog’s oldest recurring gag came roaring back. No, our son didn’t recognize David Tennant.

Not only that, but when we watched the Randall & Hopkirk adventure “Drop Dead” literally two weeks ago, I paused the show with Tennant onscreen, told our son that of course I didn’t expect him to recognize this actor as Crowley from Good Omens, but told him to remember his face because we’d be seeing a lot more of him in the future. The blasted kid doesn’t even remember that I paused the episode to tell him that.

We’ll return Doctor Who to the shelf for a break, but we’ll look at series two in mid-December. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who 1.12 – Bad Wolf

I’ve kind of gone back and forth about watching the “Next Time” trailers. The one we watched at the end of “Boom Town” convinced me not to look at them anymore, because of course our son jumped for joy when he saw that the Daleks were coming back, and of course they only show up for a few minutes at the end. It’s a terrific end, but I kind of had to temper expectations a little.

On the other hand, the trailer reminded me that I needed to take a few minutes and give our son some backstory, otherwise he would have had to catch up to what was going on. He has never heard of Big Brother, The Weakest Link, and What Not To Wear. In fairness, I hadn’t heard of that last one either prior to watching this in 2005. I just looked it up to make sure I got the name right and learned there’s an American version that ran for ten years. Amazing the irrelevant crap you miss by not watching irrelevant channels like TLC.

But more broadly, our son had almost no idea that such things as reality television or game shows even exist at all. For him, TV is either the stuff we show him, the cartoons he watches, or the animal documentaries he enjoys on the various National Geographic channels, particularly one called Monster Fish. This past weekend, we took a day trip up to the Smoky Mountains and I really enjoyed giving him a potted history of what little I know about such programs as The Real World and Survivor and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, making sure I mentioned the specific shows that tonight’s episode parodied. That way he could connect a few dots himself and he ended up really enjoying this installment.

Happily, he didn’t ask for any more details about the reality-game genre, because the only thing I know about Survivor is that a guy named Richard Hatch won one of them, and I only remember that because he has the same name as an actor who was on Battlestar Galactica.

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Doctor Who 1.6 – Dalek

In one way, Doctor Who had been violating the idea of “show, don’t tell” for almost its entire existence. It kept telling us that the Daleks were the most dangerous force in the universe, and it occasionally told some incredibly entertaining stories that used Daleks, but it never actually showed these monsters as the unstoppable killing machines that the narrative kept promoting. And so for that alone, Rob Shearman’s “Dalek” deserves a round of applause, because the scenes where the lone Dalek survivor makes its way out of the bunker, mowing down everything in its path, are pretty amazing. And I dearly love the scene where the Dalek – in a delightful, devilish throwback to the cunning Daleks of the black and white years that preyed on human greed and blindness – wins Rose’s pity just to grab a little DNA and help it regenerate.

What happens next is a little unclear. Apparently because Rose has traveled in time, her DNA – for the purpose of rebuilding time-traveling Dalek DNA – is supercharged and it begins corrupting and mutating the Dalek’s pure genetics. But even though some of the machinations are a little nebulous, it makes for a great, great story, apart from the disagreeable revelation that the Daleks were the bunch against whom the Time Lords had a big everybody-loses war.

Liking Doctor Who, for all of its continuity and decades-long stories, means more than just swallowing the occasional dumb episode or serial. It means that you have to deal with the fact that every few years, there’s a big and often deeply stupid change to the narrative. Telling us that the Time Lords couldn’t win an intergalactic, universe-spanning, history-altering war against the most unimaginative, one-note loudmouths in the cosmos, when by himself, the Doctor had, armed with no more than a yo-yo and some celery, been running rings around them for twenty-five years, was taking the easy way out.

It’s just using the Daleks as the enemy because they were the most popular, when they certainly never deserved that kind of stage, and there’s never been a television adventure that provides any evidence to the contrary. It also belittles and diminishes the Time Lords, remarkably so when we get to “The Day of the Doctor” and this big war is nothing more than zap guns and pew-pew lasers. To be fair, the show had also done a good job of diminishing the Time Lords. Honestly, the boring old men of “Arc of Infinity” wouldn’t have won a Time War against a triple-A hockey team, never mind the Daleks.

But when we talked about this episode, which had our son hiding behind the sofa in terror when it looked like Rose’s number is up, and tried to help our son understand what a Time War might mean, and how it probably didn’t happen in linear order, I reminded him of something. We tried to describe how this war must have been fought across different times, with history being rewritten, and I reminded him of “The War Games,” and how the Time Lords had walled off their enemies’ – the “Aliens” – home planet behind a time barrier, and “dematerialized” their leader from time and space entirely, as though he never existed.

(This detoured into a discussion about what those “Aliens” were called, and why they didn’t have a name, and how certainly if I looked them up in a Doctor Who Dictionary, then I must find their name. Discouraged but unbowed, he decided that they came from “Planet Question Mark.”)

For my money, the Time War is one of Who‘s greatest failings. That’s in part because it’s been undone and rewritten to the point that it was never necessary, but mainly because it should have been an epic struggle against an unimaginable foe, something unseen, eternal, extradimensional, and hardly understandable, and not pew-pew lasers.

On the other hand, at least we got this good hour of TV out of the deal. For the Daleks, the law of diminishing returns would set in, but this episode remains pretty darn fun to watch.

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Doctor Who: Mission to the Unknown

Among Doctor Who‘s many missing episodes, there is a one-off oddity made and shown 54 years ago this week, in 1965. Who was then made as a series of serials, and they were planning a mammoth twelve-episode storyline featuring the Daleks. The producers decided to take advantage of some budget and calendar hiccups and made a one-off adventure as a prologue to the Dalek epic. It didn’t feature the Doctor or his companions. It starred Edward de Souza as an outer space spy – it was 1965 after all – on a desperate mission to let the galaxy know that, after hundreds of years on the frontiers of space, the Daleks had formed an alliance with six strange alien races and were preparing an invasion of our solar system.

Edward de Souza is still with us, and a few months ago, he and Peter Purves, who had played one of the Doctor’s companions at the time, were invited to the University of Central Lancashire to see what the Culture and Creative Industries school has been doing. Each year, the staff and students collaborate on an incredibly intensive project, and this year, they recreated “Mission to the Unknown.”

Earlier today – well, yesterday, if, like this blog’s calendar, you’re in Europe – the recreation of “Mission to the Unknown” premiered on the Doctor Who YouTube channel. Click the image above and check it out! I won’t swear that it completely met our son’s expectations. We watched the trailer a few days ago and he was bellowing how badly he wanted to see that. Unfortunately, “Mission” is, like a lot of Who from its day, very slow and imaginative. It isn’t action-packed; the original production seems to have been cramped even by the low-budget standards of the William Hartnell years. It’s practically silent for long stretches, with only a few library music cues and actors projecting fear and intensity. More creepy than thrilling, the design may be dated in the way a lot of sixties sci-fi is – our hero’s tape recorder is about the size of a VHS double-pack – but you can see what kids in 1965 were wowed by.

I think the UCLAN team did a terrific job. It’s both a labor of love and, hopefully, valuable work experience for people looking to work in the film and television industry. I’m glad that the BBC and the Terry Nation Estate allowed them the privilege to recreate this.

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Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks (parts three and four)

Why yes, as a matter of fact, our son really did love the Special Weapons Dalek. It’s a Dalek “tank” that can blow up two or three renegade Daleks at a time.

“Remembrance” may be a case of style over substance, but it’s an incredibly fun story. I kind of wish the music was a bit less eighties and a little more sixties, but it’s a fine production of a good script. I definitely wish the show had been this confident and this much fun every week between 1982 and 1986.

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Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks (parts one and two)

We’re in 1988 now, and the Doctor and Ace are back at Coal Hill School and I.M. Foreman’s junkyard in 1963 with Daleks, because it’s the 25th anniversary of Doctor Who and that’s what you do for anniversaries on television: go and revisit the past. But in the case of Ben Aaronovitch’s debut serial for the show, “Remembrance of the Daleks,” reveling in nostalgia works just fine. This is a splendid story with lots of location filming, some recognizable guest stars including Simon Williams and Pamela Salem as sort of the early sixties version of UNIT, and George Sewell as a fascist who’s allied himself with one of two rival factions of Daleks. They even found small roles for Peter Halliday and Michael Sheard, who’d appeared in something like a combined nine prior Who stories.

This looks and sounds a million times zippier than Who did just three years previously. We’ll hit a couple of places in the show’s last two years where the emphasis on speed will derail the program’s ability to tell a coherent story, but “Remembrance” gets it incredibly right. The action scenes are staged and directed far better than Who could typically manage, leading to the beautiful cliffhanger to part two, in which Sophie Aldred and her stunt double beat the daylights out of a Dalek using a supercharged baseball bat and then jump from table to table and out a glass window. I really love that scene!

Our son was in heaven, of course. There are Daleks and death rays and lots of explosions. In fairness, though, the two of us did see Godzilla: King of the Monsters this morning and he’s been dancing on air ever since. (I didn’t post about it because I didn’t want to sound like too much of a fuddy-duddy, but when we picked up Marie for lunch, she said “The movie was longer than I expected” and I replied “I checked its running time first and it was longer than I expected, too.”) So yes, he liked these two installments quite a lot, but I thought to remind Marie of Quatermass and the Pit between episodes so she’d catch the Easter egg in part three. She said “Yeah, the one with the buried alien monsters, right?” and our son said “That reminds me of Godzilla somehow!”

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Doctor Who: Revelation of the Daleks (part two)

You know, that hung together better than I remembered it. Alexei Sayle’s still the best thing about it, and it would have been a whole lot more wonderful with more of him blowing up Daleks with his concentrated beam of rock and roll, but I think it gelled for me a bit more this time, for some reason. Sayle’s sonic cannon was, of course, our son’s favorite part of the story. His eyes lit up and he had the biggest smile you can imagine on his face when that first Dalek exploded.

Actually, one reason I enjoyed this more than I have previously is that I used to really, really loathe a character played by Jenny Tomasin, and thought the actress did a rotten job. I was wrong. Her character is a really tough one for an actor to play; she’s meant to be much more pathetic than endearing, and foolishly duped by everybody around her. But apart from one snickeringly bad line reading in part one when she bellows “Find the intruders!” I think Tomasin played this role extremely well, which can’t have been easy when you’ve got an amazing actor like Clive Swift literally brushing you aside. I may have mentioned before that my time talking with and observing the actors at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta gave me a newfound understanding of what actors have to do to make their characters work at all. I’m always glad of the opportunity to reconsider the opinions I held when I was even more stupid than I am now.

But right behind Sayle, there’s William Gaunt underplaying his role of a disgraced assassin from a noble order, and Eleanor Bron, who’s magical in anything. I love how Gaunt’s character acts like he is in complete control of the situation in Davros’s lab, and responds to any obstacle without taking an extra breath, just communicating with his eyes and piercing stares. And Colin Baker and Terry Molloy get one of the better Doctor-Davros arguments – easily the first good one since “Genesis,” honestly – as they debate Davros’s latest sick scheme.

We won’t wait fifteen months until starting the next season of Doctor Who like us poor folk had to do in the eighties… in fact, we’ll be back for more adventures in time and space in about eleven days. But first, something else, like the other two shows that we’re watching, that I’ve never seen before… stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Revelation of the Daleks (part one)

I’ve never really enjoyed “Revelation of the Daleks,” which brings this disappointing season to an end, but I do enjoy just how weird it is. I mean, this is an extraordinarily weird 45 minutes. It barely has the Doctor or the Daleks in it. It’s mainly a bunch of Eric Saward characters alternately yelling at each other or mumbling underneath the incidental music, having their own adventure that doesn’t concern the Doctor at all. Parts of the story are sort of narrated by the wonderful comedian Alexei Sayle, playing an oddball DJ piping music and long-distance dedications to a city full of stiffs in suspended animation. I could have done with a whole lot more Alexei Sayle and a whole lot less of desperate double-acts arguing with each other.

Sayle’s role prompted me to pause, because it occurred to me that once again our son has no frame of reference for something I took for granted. We never listen to radio, so the world of Wolfman Jack or Casey Kasem is another planet he’s never heard of. They still have DJs on some stations, I think, but I’m at work when the local NPR / college radio hybrid gets to play music – Chattanooga is woefully short a WUOG or WSBF or WREK – so he doesn’t even get to hear college kids, never mind celebrities.

And of course, he didn’t recognize William Gaunt from The Champions as an assassin called Orcini. Say what you will about this weird story, it’s got a terrific cast that also includes Eleanor Bron and Clive Swift, who underplays the role of the funeral director amazingly well and is so entertaining. Terry Molloy is back as Davros, making him the first actor to play the role twice, and the story is directed by Graeme Harper, who had made the previous year’s “Caves of Androzani” look so good. He can’t save this one, but he fills it full of moments that are at least interesting. Next time, the Doctor will actually have something to do and I recall it becomes considerably more ordinary.

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