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Doctor Who 1.5 – World War Three

There’s a long tradition in sci-fi and horror of the truth being covered up and a false story given to the public. I’ve always been completely fascinated by what these stories might be, which is why just about my favorite special feature ever made for DVD is a 45-minute documentary added to The Blair Witch Project, a film that I almost certainly love more than you do, that incorporates fake local news reports about the missing students and some 16mm clips from a cheesy 1971 TV series called Mystic Occurrences. I just eat up this kind of stuff.

So when Doctor Who came back in 2005, the BBC went to town and created “in-universe” websites to support the show. You could visit Conspiracy Clyde’s site shown in episode one, and a site that Mickey created that took up the flame, and even UNIT’s site, with the all-access password the Doctor used in this episode: buffalo. At the end of the episode, Mickey is reading the Evening Standard with its big headline, “ALIEN HOAX.” I want to read that article.

(As an aside, if you enjoy Doctor Who and also eat up this kind of stuff, I highly recommend the novel Who Killed Kennedy by David Bishop, which is presented as an “in-universe” expose of UNIT, written during the days when the Third Doctor was fighting Silurians and Axons. The original novel is long out-of-print, but you can dig through a delightful e-book re-presentation of it at TSV.)

Our son approached this as he often does: recovering from a super-frightening cliffhanger by enjoying the pants off of the rest of the story. People grumbled at the time about the farting and the Nickelodeon gak and slime when one Slitheen explodes, just as they grumbled about the burping Auton in episode one, but these were of course splendid additions to the show for its younger viewers.

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Doctor Who 1.4 – Aliens of London

Here’s a story that our son was enjoying quite a lot until its cliffhanger ending, which I always thought went on a bit longer than it should have, but succeeded in delivering shock after shock for him. He was entertained by the aliens tremendously when they were in their human disguises, farting and shaking their booties, because he’s eight and greatly enjoys people farting and shaking their booties. However, they then unzip their faces and reveal themselves as the series’ first new recurring alien menace: the Slitheen. And our son was frozen, wincing, and not a little freaked out. Afterward, he asked “Who knows what those crazy baby-faced aliens do with the human bodies once they’ve made a skin? Maybe they’ve had lunch!”

I also enjoyed connecting the dots to the previous two adventures and their mentions of a bad wolf. Our son suspects that the bad wolf is the Doctor, and that somebody has given him that name because he wolves down bad things. Seems a bit unlikely, but that was all he had.

A couple of new recurring faces are introduced this time. Annette Badland plays one of the Slitheen, the only one who’ll make a return appearance. Penelope Wilton is here for the first time as Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North. Naoki Mori is introduced as Dr. Tosh Sato, and this character would later be a regular in Torchwood, which we won’t be watching for the blog. Mori co-starred with Christopher Eccleston in the biopic Lennon Naked in 2010, which I really enjoyed.

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Doctor Who 1.3 – The Unquiet Dead

“The Unquiet Dead” is the first TV Who episode written by Mark Gatiss, who’d contribute several episodes, as a writer and, twice, as an actor, over the course of the next ten series. I like most of them a good deal. Gatiss had written a pair of Who novels for Virgin in the 1990s. I remain very surprised that Gatiss has never scripted a TV adaptation of his absolutely splendid book Nightshade, which I imagine could work perfectly as an hour-long episode.

There would be occasions in Who where I looked forward to an episode based on the strength of the writer’s previous work and be badly let down, but I’ve always thought “The Unquiet Dead” was a very clever and strong story. It’s about Charles Dickens’ world getting turned upside down on Christmas Eve, 1869, when he helps the Doctor and Rose deal with some gaseous aliens who are a lot more malevolent than they let on. Dickens is played, naturally, by Simon Callow, in much the same way that if the Doctor ever ran into Oscar Wilde, they’d offer the part to Stephen Fry. Eve Myles, who would later play Gwen in Torchwood, plays a servant girl with second sight.

Our son was excited and a little frightened, but mostly – happily – he wanted to know more about Charles Dickens, thanks to the Doctor telling Dickens that his books would last forever, and me snarking afterward about how that probably wouldn’t include The Pickwick Papers, because that one went on too darn long. So he asked about Dickens and his work and we talked a little about A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and, of course, both Oliver Twist and its 1968 film adaptation. Hopefully he’ll be as interested in Agatha Christie when the Doctor and Donna meet her in series four. I’m on surer footing when talking about Christie.

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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 1.2 – The End of the World

I don’t like the sonic screwdriver and I’m ambivalent about the psychic paper, but I just can’t help myself and I like the stupidest of the gadgets, the time-travelling cell phone. I even like that it’s slightly unreliable, just like the TARDIS itself, and when Rose phones her mother, she’s speaking to her the day before the department store blew up in the previous episode.

Zoë Wanamaker plays the villain in tonight’s episode. She provides the voice of a remarkably grotesque “bitchy trampoline” called the Lady Cassandra, who’s like the future Siouxsie and the Banshees warned us about in “Paradise Place.” (“Do you notice my eyes, are they in the right place?”) Wanamaker gets the dual trophy of being the show’s first big name guest star as well as its first villain. Plus she gets the absolute booby prize of being represented by the most pathetic piece of merchandise they ever came up with, among a huge pile of nominees. You could buy the Lady Cassandra action figure, or you could buy the “Destroyed Cassandra” action figure, which was just the empty frame left behind after she died. It’s the sort of toy you’d expect from Obvious Plant.

When it was first shown, “The End of the World” was overshadowed by the news that Christopher Eccleston had already left the part, spoiling what should have been an amazing surprise eleven weeks down the road. As I’m writing this, the actor has been doing the publicity rounds for his memoir about his father, and has been open that in 2004-05, he was fighting a losing fight with anorexia and other health issues. Having the BBC up and lie about his departure with a story about “typecasting” didn’t help.

I was completely thrilled when they announced Eccleston’s casting – I only knew him from one role, DCI Bilborough in Cracker, but enjoyed him very much – and disappointed that he left so soon. Eccleston’s opened up a lot in the last year or so, making peace with what was a much tougher situation than any of us knew, even doing conventions for the first time, though I’m sure the garbage bags full of $20s help, too. I watched a recent panel on YouTube and he seems really happy, which makes me feel good.

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Doctor Who 1.1 – Rose

“Breaking news!” announced our son. “There is a headless Auton with paddle hands destroying a restaurant! His paddle hands can be used to smash tables and also as cutting boards!” But that was after the episode. He was really amusing to watch as the episode played out. For those of you who have never seen Doctor Who‘s re-debut episode from 2005, the story starts out with mannequins coming to life, and plastic trash cans swallowing people with belches, and duplicating hapless twentysomethings and giving them weird plastic smiles. And while our son enjoyed everything that went on – especially, of course, the belch – he wasn’t quite willing to definitively declare these strange monsters to be Autons.

But toward the end of the adventure, a whole shopping mall full of mannequins comes to life. And then one raises its hand in a vintage 1970-71 gesture and its fingers fall away, and, magically, because the new showrunner, Russell T. Davies, is enough of a fanboy to get this right, we hear the classic sound effect of an Auton handgun. And our kid shouted “I knew it! They’re Autons!” I mean, a living plastic mannequin could be anybody. Only an Auton makes that kind of noise when it shoots somebody.

So I was intending to watch this tomorrow night, but when I put The Hardy Boys back on the shelf and pulled out Christopher Eccleston’s run of Who, the kid bounced off the ceiling and he’s been waiting very, very impatiently. And, ah, heck, I wanted to see it again too. Eccleston is joined by Billie Piper, Noel Clarke, and Camille Coduri for his first adventure, and it’s a great reintroduction to the show.

A few weeks ago, we talked about the 1996 movie and how it worked under the assumption that anybody who tuned in already knew Doctor Who inside and out. I told him tonight to watch how this story works as though nobody in the audience had ever seen the program. I like it a lot. I like its speed and its pace, and I really like Eccleston. I’m a little less on Rose’s side, but she’ll have a moment or two.

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Doctor Who: The Curse of Fatal Death

I wasn’t actually planning to write a blog post about 1999’s comedy special “The Curse of Fatal Death” – Steven Moffat’s TV Who debut – because last night, we watched, we laughed, and we went to bed and I didn’t think it lended itself to much of a blog post. But then this morning, Marie woke our son, and he protested that he was having some kind of dream about Joanna Lumley’s Doctor and she was about to tell him something important. That still doesn’t lend itself to much of a blog post, but it has amused the heck out of me.

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Doctor Who (1996)

The most important thing, for the moment, is that our son enjoyed tonight’s movie a whole lot more than I did, or you did, probably. “I liked every micro-second of that,” he announced. His mother and I did not believe him, because this Doctor did what seven previous television Doctors never, ever did, and that’s smooch some icky girl. “Even the kissy bits?” Marie prompted. “I even liked those because I couldn’t see them. I had my blanket,” he said.

The kissy bits drove some people nuts in 1996. The half-human on his mother’s side bits drove other people nuts then, too. The big orchestral music. The car chase. It wasn’t four twenty-five minute episodes taped on video. It was made in Canada. Paul McGann was the wrong actor from Withnail & I. The interior of the TARDIS looked like a Meat Loaf video. It was all blue and orange like lots of other shows filmed in Vancouver. You name it, there was a moan. Fandom loves to hate.

I’ve always been kind of glad this didn’t result in a series, honestly, just because I was watching television at that time, as Fox flailed around looking for a good Friday 8 pm companion to The X Files and fumbled and bumbled and didn’t know what the heck they were doing. Strange Luck was pretty good, but Fox just gave up on it. What other series and movies did they try in those three years? I remember MANTIS, Nick Fury, VR 5, Sliders, Generation X, and White Dwarf, not that I watched more than two installments of any of them. Based on the evidence, I just can’t see how this film would have turned into a series better than anything else Fox was doing.

Like everything else that Fox developed at that time, Doctor Who was a mediocre movie with a good cast, including Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook, and Eric Roberts, and a dud of a script by Matthew Jacobs, who I thought would be a great choice because I recognized him from Young Indiana Jones. The story doesn’t make any sense and it’s a completely wretched introduction to the program for anybody who didn’t know it already. You can imagine Russell T. Davies watching this and taking notes, because nine years later, the list of things that “Rose” gets right that this gets wrong is as long as your arm.

The best thing about Doctor Who is that it brought Paul McGann to the franchise, and the second best thing is that his Doctor starred in an often brilliant run of comics for Doctor Who Magazine. They’re collected in four big volumes entitled Endgame, The Glorious Dead, Oblivion and The Flood. This run has more surprises and stunning plot twists than any other run of Who comics, some terrific characters, and one of the all-time greatest Dalek stories ever told. McGann’s Doctor also stars in Lawrence Miles’ masterpiece novel Alien Bodies, which left my jaw on the floor about three times.

A Fox TV series with McGann would have been thirteen hours of blue and orange lighting in Canadian warehouses, probably with flashlights. Alien Bodies and all those comics, though, that’s a run of downright terrific adventures.

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