Doctor Who 4.13 – Journey’s End

As I’ve said before, Donna is my all-time favorite Who companion. And as I mentioned last time, I have always avoided spoilers, but of course I knew that Catherine Tate would only be in the show for just one series. They were heavy with the hints that Donna would die, and I never believed them, and what Russell T. Davies came up with was a lot worse. I’ve watched this scene in the TARDIS more times than any other scene in the modern version of the show. It’s a flawless, heartbreaking masterpiece. It’s the saddest thing ever. There are times, late at night, that I just want to listen to sad songs. Once in a while I pull out this episode for the same effect.

Not many people seem to know this, but Donna gets a completely brilliant little epilogue in a one-off comic called “The Time of My Life.” It’s collected in Panini’s The Widow’s Curse book. Every page of that edition’s a treat, and “The Time of My Life” is a delightful and sweet little surprise.

Anyway, the bigger picture is that “Journey’s End” is triumphantly over the top and ridiculous and I don’t think it stands up to very much scrutiny, but this two-parter is one of the most fun rollercoasters the show has ever come up with. Everybody comes back for a team-up – if you don’t know, you can look them up – it moves at a thousand miles an hour, and billions of Daleks explode. Every new plot revelation hit our son like a truck and he could hardly contain himself either last night or tonight. He loved it all tremendously. It’s a great payoff for audiences, full of smiles and hugs and triumphs for everybody, with an ending that just plain destroys me. Who could ask for anything more?

We’ll return to Doctor Who in late July. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 3.5 – Evolution of the Daleks

This thing’s a mess, and there’s no getting around it. Freema Agyeman is pretty wonderful as she figures out what needs to be done, and I did enjoy the meeting of the minds between the Doctor and Sec. I like the way the Doctor is a couple of steps behind Sec’s realization that Daleks are not the supreme beings they thought they were. At one amusing point, Sec says that their creator was wrong. “He was what?” the Doctor says in disbelief.

Otherwise this is a story full of really, really bad science and plot holes, and it’s overdesigned like few other installments. How the heck high is the ceiling in that genetics lab of theirs? One of my pet peeves in a Doctor Who adventure is when he leaves piles and piles of alien tech and weapons just lying around the primitive, developing Earth. I always have to tell myself there’s a scene missing. See the second half of “The Mark of the Rani” for another of my favorites. I’m just going to pretend our heroes spent a few hours arranging a massive explosion and fire to destroy the genetics lab… and several hundred corpses… and three mostly indestructible Dalek shells… didn’t anybody think this story through?

But did the kid like it? Of course he did, with no quibbles or complaints. Except that Sec is gross, which he is, and which is the point.

Doctor Who 3.4 – Daleks in Manhattan

I bought a few of the Doctor Who action figures and toys that were released after the show returned – although not, sensibly, a Destroyed Cassandra – and my Dalek Thay has been keeping our son amused and quizzical for years. Our son has asked me repeatedly why my Dalek was missing part of its back. “All in good time,” I’ve said. I used to have a standard Dalek as well, in a box with several other toys, but his eyestalk snapped off in transit when we moved. I’m still a bit annoyed about that, honestly. Meanwhile, Thay lives on one of my DVD shelves, keeping the kid curious, until tonight, when he finally learned that Thay surrendered the back panels of his Dalekanium armor to the Daleks’ experiment in this adventure.

“Daleks in Manhattan” isn’t one of my favorites. It has a couple of good guest stars in Hugh Quarshie, who has appeared in more than 500 episodes of the soap Holby City, and Andrew Garfield, who was Spider-Man in two movies we never saw, but the story relies far, far too much on coincidence. It’s the nature of fiction that the protagonist needs to be in the right place at the right time, but putting the Doctor and Martha in two wildly different locations – a shanty town and what appears to be an off-off-off-Broadway theater – at precisely the right times that the story needs to move them into position to deal with the Daleks really broke my suspension of disbelief. The story makes several very clumsy mistakes like that, including a Phantom of the Opera bit that didn’t tug at my heartstrings much.

The story ends on a cliffhanger that reveals the leader of the four Daleks, named Sec, has combined itself with a human and is now a grotesque hybrid creature, walking on two legs but with tentacles sprouting from its head and with one nasty, evil eye. Our son thought that was revolting, which suggests the producers got it exactly right. Kids enjoy pretending to be grossed out.

Doctor Who 2.13 – Doomsday

Since I’ve praised Shaun Dingwall so much in his previous appearances, I really needed to give him one last shot at the blog photo, front and center where he deserves. Dingwall does not steal the story this time like he did in “Father’s Day” and the “Age of Steel” story; between the Dalek-Cybermen trash-talk scene and Billie Piper’s amazingly sad goodbye, not even this great actor could walk away with the episode. But the first meeting between “our” Jackie and “the other” Pete is nevertheless a real highlight of the story. I love how Noel Clarke, David Tennant, and Billie Piper are positioned well behind Dingwall and Camille Coduri, looking for all the world like they’re just getting out of their way.

“Doomsday” is magnificent. All three of the two-parters in the second series do an amazing job with fulfilling all the promise of the setup in their conclusions. I absolutely love this adventure. I think that in retrospect it set a bad precedent for what I call “apocalyptic” companion departures, with too many characters yet to come that the Doctor can never, ever, ever meet again, but Rose got a great sendoff that’s rarely been equaled. And that little bitchfest between our two alien menaces is one of my all-time favorite Who moments. We paused the episode for a minute there for everybody to have a chance to quit laughing.

The kid absolutely loved it, of course. The revelation that there are millions more Daleks locked in that bigger-on-the-inside Time Lord prison ship had him on his feet with his jaw on the floor. I’ve been questioning him all day whether he’s absolutely sure the Daleks and the Cybermen wouldn’t get along. I noticed that his eyebrows raised when the Cybermen proposed an alliance. Of course the Daleks shoot that idea down. They don’t make friends and they’re not afraid to ask anybody to step outside.

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 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. 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!

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.

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.

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.

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.