Doctor Who 4.3 – Planet of the Ood

Back in 2008, my daughter was friendly with the family who lived behind us. They had a girl, Ruth, who was nine years old like she was. My kid asked whether Ruth could come watch Doctor Who with us. At the time – and keep reading, won’t you, as this will become a plot point in about three weeks – we watched the show five days after its UK transmission. We wouldn’t get same-day broadcast on BBC America until later on.

So that Thursday evening, Ruth’s mother asked what this program was and whether it was appropriate. I said that it was a sci-fi adventure made for a family audience, with no swearing or sex, and she okayed it. We had the usual gang of five or six friends and sat down to watch it. The mom drove her around to our house, because she didn’t want her kid walking down the hill.

Now, if you’ve seen “Planet of the Ood,” you’re probably remembering that there’s a gross-out moment toward the end when the guest star, Tim McInnerny, gets squicked and splattered and turned into one of the aliens and you are thinking to yourself “Wow, you picked a bad one to start a kid on.” But we didn’t get that far.

Several minutes earlier, about halfway through the episode, some men break out some machine guns and start shooting, and that’s when our houseguest yelled “I-I-I-I’M NOT ALLOWED TO WATCH THIIIIIIIISSS” and bolted upstairs. So I went up as well, and phoned her mom, and in the time it took the wide-eyed sprog to tell me “Those men had GUNS,” the mom had arrived and I apologized and she assured me no harm was done, and then I went downstairs to catch the gross-out special effect and said to myself that I’d dodged a bullet, because this timid child would have had nightmares for months if she’d seen that.

I never actually watched the segment I missed while I was upstairs that night before now. I don’t know why; I guess I figured I’d get around to it, and now I have. It’s a very good episode, helmed by the reliably excellent Graeme Harper, and it reminds me of the Pertwee serial “The Mutants” because it’s a world where the supposedly wonderful empire of Earth is built on the back of slavery and the oppression of native people. If the story has a flaw, it’s that it doesn’t push hard enough. It raises the point that we should question where our clothes come from, a subject we discusses with our son afterward, but it doesn’t want to make the audience too uncomfortable. I’m glad that it opened the door, but it should have broken it off its hinges.

Doctor Who 4.2 – The Fires of Pompeii

Just in case we never get a Twelve-Ten teamup, this’ll do, I guess.

So I like “The Fires of Pompeii” a lot, with the caveat that it does climax with an awful lot of people shouting “Noooooooo” and big bombastic music. But it’s so fun getting there, and I love the doom-laden scenes of the augur and the soothsayer presenting their mutual surprises about knowing a lot more about the Doctor and Donna than they should. It was delightful to see Peter Capaldi in Who; when this was first shown, I knew him from a few parts in the 1990s. The one I liked best was the adaptation of Iain Banks’ The Crow Road. I should probably pick up a new copy of that one of these days.

Karen Gillan’s here as well in a small role, making this unique as the only episode of Who to have both a future Doctor and a future companion in other parts in it. I told the kid that he’d seen Gillan in four movies already, but she was bald and blue. I was glad that he was able to figure it out!

Doctor Who 4.1 – Partners in Crime

My favorite Doctor Who season? Maybe it’s seven, maybe it’s fourteen, maybe it’s twenty-five. Might be series four though. There are about ten minutes of this series I have actually never seen before – I’ll tell you why later this week when I see them for the first time – but I love almost everything else. There are a couple of bits in “The Doctor’s Daughter” that annoy the heck out of me, but otherwise this is a program that, even when its lead was at his most smug and the plots were at their silliest, executed its plans with confidence and style, and in series four, they nailed it every time. Doctor Who has been great in many of the years that followed, and occasionally quite excellent, but it’s never been as consistently wonderful, week-to-week, since it was in this run.

Tennant’s on fire, Russell T. Davies is on fire, and Catherine Tate’s here. For years, I’d tell anybody who listened that my favorite companions were either Benny Summerfield or Roz Forrester. And then Donna Noble dropped all her luggage and her hat box in the TARDIS. I enjoy them together so much.

I mentioned earlier this month that our son had us buy him some Who toys with his birthday money. One of the sets came with two little Adipose which look like they’ll be the easiest things in the world to lose. Between the Adipose smiling and waving at everybody and the Doctor and Donna’s beautiful mimed conversation from either side of a room, he enjoyed the daylights out of this one. It’s a great kid-friendly opener with plenty for jaded grownups like me to love as well.

Doctor Who 4.0 – Voyage of the Damned

Right at the end, “Voyage of the Damned” gets a whole lot more mawkish and sentimental than I like. It’s a fine disaster movie for a good while there, with a few top-flight names in small parts like Geoffrey Palmer and Bernard Cribbins. Clive Swift’s here for the duration. He effortlessly stole every scene he was in some 22 years previously, in “Revelation of the Daleks”, and he honestly does it here as well. Unfortunately, one day on the set, Swift managed to make Who fandom infamy by granting an interview to Doctor Who Magazine and, in the worst mood of any entertainer this side of Lou Reed, tolerated the experience with a mix of boredom and condescension. It’s probably around online somewhere; you should look it up to see what happens when actors wake up on the wrong side of the bed.

I think it’s interesting that this story shows the Doctor just flat out losing a lot more than he’s used to. He promises six survivors that he’ll get them out of this mess and loses four of them. And one is really surprising from a narrative perspective, although not a production one. Pop star Kylie Minogue is here as a waitress from the planet Sto called Astrid Peth. I like Kylie. I’m not a huge fan, but I like some of her stuff. I completely adore “On a Night Like This,” which is also a whole lot more mawkish and sentimental than I (usually) like, but I occasionally make allowances for silly love songs. So while it’s a sure bet that Astrid is a one-off guest star rather than a continuing companion, because Kylie has a big career and couldn’t have afforded nine months to make thirteen episodes in 2007-08, it really wasn’t until everybody started dying that I wondered whether she’d be killed as well.

I think the real surprise is that the Doctor asks her to come with him, and she accepts, and then she chooses to end her life by killing the villain and saving the day. That doesn’t happen often, although the Doctor did agree that Lynda-With-a-Y could come with him in “The Parting of the Ways” and she didn’t make it out alive either. The atoms-turning-to-starlight bit is sad, but the falling into the engines bit and the angry hero staring remorselessly while things explode silently behind him bit looks like a very, very bad Hollywood action film. Fortunately, just two minutes later, the Queen gets evacuated from Buckingham Palace in her robe while an assistant carries one of her little dogs in his arms. That’s better.

We’ll start series four of Doctor Who later this month. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 4.x – Time Crash

Our son does a remarkably good job saving money, and for his birthday last week, he received cash from several relatives and had no idea what to do with any of it. Shopping around online, he liked the idea of buying a giant robot or ten, and looked longingly at the top of my bookshelf, where a vintage and dusty Fighting General Daimos from the late ’70s Shogun Warriors line keeps watch over all our stuff. “Is there a Daitetsujin 17 as big as that?” he asked. I said that I had no idea, but if there is, it probably costs about $300. (And I was wrong. People are asking $600-800 for Daimos these days, and at least he was released in the US, when a Daitetsujin 17 of the same size, assuming one was ever made that big, wasn’t.)

So how about a Dalek or two, I suggested, and he lit up and we visited a popular site that sells the 5-inch Character Options line for a reasonable-ish price and he excitedly settled on a few choices, including two Doctors which came packaged with some enemies that he wants. “Time Crash” was on the agenda for this evening already; as he immediately started making up a story which will bring Doctors Two and Ten together, I was so tempted to say something, anything, to hint that Ten was about to spend about eight minutes in the company of Five.

“Time Crash” is Steven Moffat’s little love letter to the 1980s. It’s an eight minute special that aired as part of Children in Need in 2007 and takes place right at the end of the last adventure. There’s nothing to it; it’s just a witty two-hander with Peter Davison and David Tennant insulting each other for a bit, as Doctors do. I think Davison plays it too thick for too long, but it’s otherwise a delightful and silly little treat and the kid liked it a lot… but he’s really, really looking forward to this Titanic business.

And he’s looking forward to his toys. I said he can even play with my Dalek Thay and Slitheen which sit on my DVD shelves. I let him take Daimos upstairs to destroy his Lego worlds with his flying fist, so of course he can play with my little toys as well.

So when’s Jodie going to meet a previous self? One we already know, I mean.

Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (parts five and six)

It’s kind of the nature of action-adventure television that the hero needs to have a really good challenge in each story, against villains as resourceful as the protagonist. So in a weird way, it’s kind of refreshing to see the Doctor pitted against some adversaries who are way, way out of their league. The Chameleons did not think this thing through. The Doctor’s able to exploit a massive, massive flaw in their science and technology, and hold all but two of them hostage because these bad guys’ tech is flatly not up to the challenge of interstellar invasion. A more polished script would show these villains as desperate and pitiful rather than malevolent. It’s a missed opportunity, but I did enjoy the tables turning in parts five and six.

In fact, “The Faceless Ones” belongs to a very rare group of original Who stories – “Mawdryn Undead” and “Time and the Rani” are others – that end much more satisfactorily than they began. It’s still very unhurried, but the end of this adventure sees all the humans acting decisively and intelligently, and I like the way the Chameleons know when the jig is up. The fellow that they capture spills the beans on the operation with very little pressure, and Donald Pickering’s character, who’s been playing his main villain part as a posh airline pilot calmly ordering his subordinates around, is intelligent enough to see this is not going to end well for him, and immediately begins negotiating. It’s a shame part six is missing; Pickering and Patrick Troughton have a very interesting face-off toward the end. The animation’s as good as we can hope for, but I’d love to see those actors playing that scene.

Incidentally, while I wish that I could be only positive about the animation, I do think they missed a huge opportunity. When all two dozen of the humans who are connected to their duplicates are located, I’d love to have seen an overhead shot, from an angle much higher than the original director could actually have managed, of all twenty-five bodies laid out in the parking lot. I wish the camera moved around more in general. Why limit themselves to just what the BBC could have done in 1967?

“The Faceless Ones” is a little infamous because of the poor way that they wrote out the Doctor’s companions Ben and Polly. The producer at the time didn’t want to continue with the actors Michael Craze and Anneke Wills, so they only appear in parts one, two, and six, and only on location in the last episode, so the BBC could dispense with them as quickly as possible. The story is set literally the day after the previous season’s “The War Machines,” which means that Ben and Polly could pick back up with their old lives as though they’d never been away. It also means that WOTAN, the Chameleons, and the Daleks in the next story were all operating in London in the third week of July, 1966. The World Cup was happening in London at the same time, and Gemini X returned to Earth. Wish I could read a Who-universe newspaper from that week. The Swinging Sixties, man.

We’ll return to the David Tennant days of Doctor Who in May. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (parts three and four)

Some of the animation in this reconstruction is really quite nice. The team does a really terrific job with airplanes, and so while I’m not completely sold on the movement of figures, I could watch what they do with jets for forty-five minutes without complaint. I do think the production as a whole is limited by the glacial pacing of the original story, and not helped by the lack of music. Black-and-white Doctor Who was occasionally like that; when they overspent in one area, like a day or two on location at Gatwick Airport, they had to cut back in another.

Our son’s enjoying it more than I am, honestly, but that’s by no means a fault with the current presentation, which is definitely a case of the best they can do with what they had to work with. I enjoyed seeing a little modern day Easter egg thrown in: the newspapers have headline stories that a menace that the first Doctor had battled the year before, the War Machines, had been defeated. That’s actually going to be an important plot point in part six. Heck, the original production crew should have dropped those newspapers in when they made this in 1967. That’d be some great foreshadowing! Otherwise, the mandate to be as accurate a presentation of the original production kind of keeps them hamstrung. There’s a bit where the RAF sends a fighter to follow the Chameleon Tours’ jet. As I say, it looks great, but if we suddenly had some Thunderbirds music as the fighter spirals out of control, it’d be even better.

Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (parts one and two)

The latest animated reconstruction of a lost Doctor Who story is 1967’s “The Faceless Ones,” although in this case the original production wasn’t completely destroyed. Episodes one and three of the serial, written by Malcolm Hulke and David Ellis, were mostly recovered – part three is missing several dozen frames toward the end – and now with animation, we can enjoy the whole thing in this very comprehensive set. It contains the original episodes, telesnap reconstructions of the four missing parts, and both black and white and color animations of all six. It was released in the UK last month; a region one edition is available for pre-order but it has not been scheduled.

“The Faceless Ones” feels kind of long at six parts. It would probably feel long at four. It’s one of those stories where the Doctor and his companions, Jamie, Ben and Polly, make a dumb decision to hide and scatter in a secure area, find something unpleasant, and have to spend an eternity getting people to listen and believe them. It’s Gatwick Airport, 1966, and Polly sees a man murdered by an alien weapon. Meanwhile, the police are becoming suspicious about reports of young people going missing on budget tours to Europe operated by a strange company called Chameleon Tours.

There’s a fine guest cast in the adventure, at least. There’s Bernard Kay as a detective, and Pauline Collins as a furious girl from Liverpool who’s looking for her missing brother. Donald Pickering and Wanda Ventham, who, in a really weird coincidence, both appeared again in a Who serial twenty years later, also have key parts. But the story feels long and is driven by foolish choices, and suffers from that tedious trope where our heroes go find somebody in authority to report a dead body, only to have the body not be there when they return. We’ve all seen that one too many times.

The kid wasn’t especially taken with it either. We watched the original part one and the black and white animation for part two, and his favorite moment was the creepy reveal of a hideous alien. They totally blew part one’s cliffhanger, by the way. The big reveal is the back of the alien’s head. I don’t know what they were thinking; the creature definitely should have turned to look at the camera and given the audience a big shock moment. But that’s this serial all over. It’s very pedestrian and slow, even by the standards of Who at the time. The kid asked to switch to the second DVD and watch the remainder of the story in color, which we’ll do tomorrow night. Hopefully it picks up!

The Sarah Jane Adventures 1.9-10 – The Lost Boy (parts one and two)

I just adore watching the way our son responds when friends or foes from the past resurface. Toward the end of part one of Phil Ford’s “The Lost Boy,” the baddies start unzipping their foreheads, revealing themselves to be Slitheen, and the kid bellowed “You have GOT to be kidding!” Then at the end of the adventure, K9 gets to come out of hiding for a contractually-obligated cameo and he shouted “Yay!” He also joined in with my laughter when he absolutely no idea why I was laughing. Maria explains to her dad that Slitheen are not a race, but a family of chancers, like Only Fools and Horses, but green. So I got a very good giggle and he fake-laughed atop me despite clearly not getting the joke.

Should I tell him that Only Fools and Horses is the same program that Jackie Tyler was referencing when she called Pete a “Del Boy” back in “Father’s Day”, and that it starred David Jason, who he knows as the wonderful Captain Fantastic in Do Not Adjust Your Set, which we watch together every couple of weeks? Probably not.

Anyway, “The Lost Boy” is a fine season finale. It does what the Who world typically does in a finale: bring back an old baddie, pull the rug out from under us, threaten the unity of the heroes, threaten the planet, that sort of thing. It’s incredibly fun watching it all unfold, and realizing that the Slitheen cannot trust their mysterious, unseen ally. I especially like how Clyde proves that he’s more essential than anybody credits him, believably using his wits in a couple of key scenes. And while nobody’s heart is broken by the Slitheen returning to the shelf for a couple of years, I just can’t help myself. I really enjoy the big green farting chancers!

The Sarah Jane Adventures will return to our lineup in the summer, after we have watched series four of Doctor Who. Stay tuned!

The Sarah Jane Adventures 1.7-8 – Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? (parts one and two)

Blindingly brilliant. Gareth Roberts’ “Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?” introduces us to a fabulous villain called the Trickster. The entity fades in and out of history, causing chaos and creating alternate timelines. In his first gambit, he causes thirteen year-old Sarah Jane to switch places with a friend who died in 1964. It was Andrea Yates, played by Jane Asher, who gets forty more years of life, and the house across from Maria. One day, Sarah is just gone, Luke never existed, Clyde has no idea why Maria has his number, and Maria is the only person on Earth who knows that this party-loving artist across the road is in the wrong time.

Graeme Harper directed this one. I’ve praised him several times in this blog and this is among his finest hours. The tension is unbelievable and everybody’s performances are just amazing. I’ve never said much about Joseph Millson, who plays Alan, Maria’s dad, because there’s not always room in this little blog, but he’s on fire this time. He spends part one afraid that something’s wrong with his daughter because she insists in this story about Sarah Jane, and then once Maria vanishes and only he can remember her, he’s cold fury. And I love how the soundtrack plays with our emotions with snatches of the Kinks and Sandie Shaw. There is not a better choice in all of music for this story’s tale of memory and inspiration than “Always Something There to Remind Me,” so somebody thank Bachrach and David for writing it, would you?

The kid loved it, and was about to explode with excitement in the end, although he was quick to qualify that the Slitheen story is his favorite. I correctly guessed that he would really hate the Trickster, which is a shame, because he’s going to have to put up with him a few more times. I can’t wait.