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 3.13 – Last of the Time Lords

The kid has really not enjoyed the last five episodes of this series, but he liked this. He thought it was thrilling and exciting and absolutely loved the Master’s plan falling apart. He did everything short of standing up and cheering. So I’m glad that he liked it!

I think of it this way: three of Russell T. Davies’s Doctor Who series come to absolutely splendid and satisfying conclusions, and three out of four is a pretty amazing feat. I think “Last of the Time Lords” is far too depressing, its resolution is completely ridiculous, and the reset button is completely obnoxious.

And I really can’t stand how the episode completely ignores the biggest what-the-hell moment in just about any work of ongoing fiction I can thing of: the British Prime Minister had something to do with an alien first contact that left the American president dead before dying himself, and there’s apparently no fallout from this whatsoever. Put this into the context of June 2007: imagine if the incoming PM, Gordon Brown, arranged for the assassination of George W. Bush. I would want to know what happens next. I think it’s a massive missed opportunity. I like Kylie Minogue as much as the next fellow, but I could wait to see what happens with her on the Titanic. I want an episode that explores what the hell happens when the leaders of the US and the UK both get killed in some scheme with little silver aliens that nobody ever sees again, and how in the world the Doctor managed to get the PM’s body out to some rocky beach for a Viking funeral out from under the biggest CIA / MI6 / NSA / UNIT operation in the history of either nation.

But we don’t get that. We get Kylie. And Peter. But those are stories for another day. But it’s goodbye for now to John Barrowman and to Freeman Agyeman as the Doctor leaves Earth alone again. We’ll see them both again very soon.

We’ll put Doctor Who back on the shelf to keep things fresh and pop back again for the two specials in May. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 3.12 – The Sound of Drums

Disagreeably, we watched this episode the same day that Twitter enjoyed a big tweetalong to the first episode of Life on Mars, the oddball period cop show which starred John Simm, and instead I watched him in something I don’t like. I think the world of Simm; he’s a marvelous actor, but I don’t like his Master at all, and I really don’t like this story.

It isn’t fair to judge every Master against Roger Delgado – I’ve never heard anybody grumble “Bill Hartnell wouldn’t have worn 3-D glasses and say ‘timey-wimey'” – and every Master should be every bit as different as every Doctor, but here Simm starts an affectation of INSANE and WACKY like he’s channeling Jim Carrey from any one of a dozen identical performances in the nineties that influences both of his successors, and I just find it tedious, dull, and predictable and wish like anything for somebody to play the villain as malevolently, effortlessly cool as Delgado did. A couple of the villains in Steven Moffat’s Sherlock went down the same boring path; none of it wears well with me. About the best I can say for Simm is that he’s such a tremendously good actor that at no point does he look or feel even remotely self-conscious with his antics.

For what it’s worth, I do love that the Master retains his love of British children’s television by watching Teletubbies. Sunday night, I showed our son that moment in “The Sea Devils” where Delgado’s Master whistles along to Clangers to remind him of this great little character quirk. I like the Doctor’s phone call with the Master. That’s about it. The cliffhanger landed with a thud because as soon as President-Elect Winters is killed, I started looking for the reset button. When a story’s gone so far that it’s going to need to be reset, I start looking for devices in the narrative with names like “paradox machine.”

The kid hated almost every second of this one. He allowed that he liked the Teletubbies bit, and he liked the visuals when the Toclafane spheres fall out of the big red rip in the sky. He also went to bed furious about another cliffhanger. Funny how those didn’t bother him when we watched series twelve as it was broadcast, but the two-parters in the older episodes annoy him.

Doctor Who 3.11 – Utopia

I knew this one wasn’t going to go over too well with our kid. He doesn’t like surprise cliffhangers, and he doesn’t like the Master. Tonight, he clarified that the only villain he dislikes more than the Master are the Cybermen. Making things worse, he was really enjoying this story. It’s written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Graeme Harper, and it’s one of those unfortunate stories where nobody remembers the details because they’re all overshadowed by the last six minutes. Kind of like “The War Games” if you think about it.

But for a putting-things-in-place tale, it’s not bad. I was kind of ambivalent about watching this because, with the exception of a couple of moments, I really don’t care for the next two episodes. But “Utopia” is pretty good. I like Derek Jacobi, and I love his adorable assistant Chantho. John Barrowman’s back as Captain Jack Harkness, and I love the idea that he had to live through the 20th Century waiting for the correct Doctor to come along.

I don’t like John Simm’s Master. I don’t like him at all, until he gets some really good material in “The Doctor Falls” several years later. Well, there is one moment in the next episode that I enjoy. We’ll see what that might be Wednesday evening.

Doctor Who 3.3 – Gridlock

Our son recounted the amusing revelation of this story in this way: “At first glance, I thought those were stingrays, but then I knew it had to be Macra! It’s kind of hard to forget gigantic crabs!”

I am really tickled by the difference in perspective in how some of us responded to the Macra showing up thirteen years ago and how he did this evening. In 2007, hordes of us saw the giant crabs with big, stupid grins on our faces. For us, the Macra were a one-off monster that Britain – and a couple of other countries – saw just one time almost forty years previously before vanishing forever because the BBC destroyed the serial. They were represented by a single publicity photo and a couple of seconds of footage that survived an incinerator, just part of the show’s long history that was lost and kept alive by novelizations and reconstructions. The Macra were something that – it’s fair to say – more people heard of than experienced in 1966.

But our son knows them better than we did in 2007, because the serial’s been animated. We watched it last spring and our son thought it was incredibly creepy and, it turns out, really memorable. Me, I’m pretty sure I must have watched “Gridlock” in 2007 and said “Giant crabs? Nawwww, can’t be… could it… really…?” Our kid immediately leapt out of his socks because he knew exactly what those were.

I’ve somehow spent an outsize amount of time yammering about the crabs when they really are a minor piece of the story. I’ve always liked it, and enjoyed the tips of the hat to 2000 AD (the traffic jams from Nemesis the Warlock, Swifty Frisko from Halo Jones, Max Normal the Pinstripe Freak from Judge Dredd), but I’m pretty sure our son enjoyed it tonight more than I ever did. When the Doctor saves the day and opens the motorway’s ceiling, he jumped up and applauded.

Doctor Who 3.1 – Smith and Jones

Geez, it seems like forever since we left David Tennant as Doctor Who. It’s only been two months, but since series twelve has been one of the most thunderous and controversial in the program’s history (we liked it!), it sort of feels like a lot longer. Since our kid’s been watching the show with us since Jodie Whittaker took the role, tonight he got the first-for-him experience of seeing an alien menace’s first appearance after he’d already met them. The “space rhinos” are the Judoon, an aggressively grumpy bunch of cops-for-hire with disintegrator guns that our son says “look like they turn people into molten lava,” and the Doctor has to save about a thousand suffocating humans from a Judoon platoon on the moon.

I hate to overshadow the debut of Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones, because she’s a great actress playing a fun character, but I was really thrilled – thirteen years ago! – to see Roy Marsden taking a guest role in the show. This was Marsden’s only appearance in Who and I wanted to say just how much I enjoyed seeing him as a hospital consultant who was really looking forward to retiring to Florida before the Judoon’s search for a fugitive alien criminal ruined his day. It’s not too late, BBC. Marsden seems mostly retired, but maybe he could play one of Graham’s old buddies from his bus driving job in series thriteen!

But since the character of Martha should get a little more mention in her debut story, I’ll say that I really love the way the Doctor is watching her reactions to the adventure and the chaos. He talks a big game about wanting to be alone, but he’s really looking for a new companion. He’s on the frames of the action as Martha keeps cool under pressure, uses reason and logic to deduce that something is providing them with some air to breathe, and shows compassion by closing Marsden’s characters eyes after they find his body. She’s being all the things that a companion should be. The Doctor frequently needs a clue-by-four; had he left Martha to her squabbling family, he’d need a whole lumber yard.

The Sarah Jane Adventures 1.0 – Invasion of the Bane

On January 1, 2007, one week after the Doctor Who episode “The Runaway Bride,” BBC One showed a special preview episode of the forthcoming Sarah Jane Adventures series. “Invasion of the Bane,” co-written by Russell T. Davies and Gareth Roberts, functions as a pilot episode, setting up the unusual premise. It’s set more than a year since we last saw Sarah Jane in “School Reunion.” She’s had to temporarily part company with K9, who’s on a mission in space, and she’s using an attic room full of alien tech to help stranded or lost extraterrestrials find their way home. Occasionally she has to put her foot down when some visitors from space – like this story’s Bane – have a little more malice in mind.

The obvious question is where did Sarah get all this gear? I figure that as soon as she spotted Daleks in the sky above Canary Wharf, Sarah got down there just in time for the Doctor to clean up the mess, and loaded the back seat of her car with whatever space junk would fit before the government and/or UNIT figured out what was going on. From what we learn later, she picked up “Mister Smith,” the crystal alien that powers her supercomputer, around the same time. The sonic lipstick is a cheeky gift from the Doctor which he left inside the new K9 that he left her. Problem mostly solved!

In the first episode, Sarah meets a new ally in the form of 13 year-old Maria, played by Yasmin Paige, and an adopted son – an artificial human rescued from the bad guys – called Luke, played by Tommy Knight. The villains are a race of blob monsters called the Bane who take on human forms. Samantha Bond plays the nasty Mrs. Wormwood and her “mother” is a big CGI eyeball with a mass of thrashing green tentacles in the factory ceiling. Our son’s only complaint about this story is that we didn’t get to see the Bane Mother in full. “Invasion of the Bane” is centered around the aliens getting England hooked on a new soft drink, which is a pleasantly 2000s update to plastic daffodils. The baddies have even hired a big bus just like the Autons and the Master did thirty-six years previously, and darn if the Bane Mother didn’t look a lot like the original Nestene Consciousness. We never learn how these villains got their drink distributed to shops throughout the UK and afforded the massive advertising campaign, but at least their factory gets blown up real good.

I always felt that The Sarah Jane Adventures was a splendid companion to Who in its day. I love its goofy, kid-friendly tone, although, as much as I liked the character of Maria, the first run was the weakest of the five because they were trying a little too hard to come up with stories that would appeal to young teens instead of just flying by the seat of their pants and doing wild and ridiculous monster stories as they’d do later on. We’ll see whether it holds up in a few months’ time, and pencil it in for April, right after we finish series three of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who 3.0 – The Runaway Bride

And now to December 2006 and the triumphantly silly “The Runaway Bride.” It’s so silly and fun for about the first two-thirds of its running time that it’s pretty easy to overlook the far less interesting climax once the alien plot is revealed and the alien menace, a big spider-woman called the Empress of the Racnoss, starts yelling. The resolution is incredibly odd. I decided the only way this giant hole “to the center of the earth” makes any sense at all is if it really just goes down ten miles or so to some waiting nursery of spider-babies, because all the water in the Thames would not even come close to flooding a tunnel anywhere near as deep as they claim it is. However, I did appreciate Donna making a shout-out to At the Earth’s Core and figuring that there must be dinosaurs involved with this ridiculous scheme.

So this is Catherine Tate’s first appearance as Donna Noble, with Jacqueline King as her mother Sylvia. Donna suffers a remarkably awful six or seven hours on what’s meant to be one of the happiest days of her life, and she bellows hilariously through them until the bottom falls out of her world. I like everything about Donna, especially her strange friendship with a girl named Nerys when neither of them actually like each other, but it must be said that her best days are ahead of her. Donna was hungover and comatose during the events of “The Christmas Invasion” and obliviously scuba diving in Spain six months ago when the Cybermen and Daleks were shooting at each other. For anybody keeping track, this seems to be the fourth major alien attack on London, two of which spilled over to the rest of the planet, in eighteen months of Earth-time. For the Doctor, it’s very, very soon after the events of “Doomsday,” because he’s an emotional mess who needs a shave.

Of course the kid enjoyed the heck out of this, but naturally his favorite scene was the wild one where the Doctor manages to steer the TARDIS into the traffic of a London highway. If Tennant and Tate’s bickering – “Good luck, Lance” – wasn’t even more entertaining, I’d agree with him. I love it as much now as when we first saw it. All the business with Huon particles and spider-people may not hold my interest, but with the rest of the story this good, why complain?

And with that, we’ll put Doctor Who back on the shelf to keep things at least moderately fresh – we do still have six new Jodie Whittaker episodes in the Sundays to come – but we’ll be back for the third series in March. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 2.10 – Love & Monsters

“Love & Monsters” is an episode that I saw a lot of people spitting bricks about when it was first shown. There were people who absolutely hated this one. Surprisingly, to me, anyway, our son didn’t care for it, either. He did enjoy the Scooby Doo tribute with the corridor scene at the beginning of the show, and he liked the flashbacks to the three previous alien incidents in contemporary England (seen in “Rose,” “Aliens of London,” and “The Christmas Invasion“), but the scene where Jackie Tyler comes on to Elton had him cringing in embarrassment. At the end, he said that he didn’t like it because the Doctor was hardly in it, which I can understand, and because all of Elton’s video diaries have these little white “frames” around the picture, which I said was a bit silly.

We talked beforehand about how today’s episode might be an example of an unreliable narrator. I gave him a few examples of how most television and film is made without a narrator, with the events presented as true. He offered up Kolchak: The Night Stalker as having a narrator, and I said that we can probably trust Carl, because he’s determined to get the truth out at whatever the cost. I’m not certain we can completely trust Elton’s account of these events. The Scooby Doo hallway bit at the beginning is evidence that Elton might be making some of these things up. I read an interesting theory that Victor Kennedy and the Absorbaloff never existed at all, but Elton’s relationship with Ursula didn’t work out and he told this story to make the breakup hurt less, because she got the friends and LINDA continued without him. (Why else, in “Time Crash,” would the Fifth Doctor even know about “that LINDA lot” if they were only around for about three months in 2006?)

There’s one part of me that pretends to think that the fade to black right after the shot pictured above, after Elton’s last memory of his mother, is where the truth actually ends. The continuation, with the Doctor calling to him to fetch a spade and the revelation that Ursula is still alive as a pavement slab, is not true. That revelation had a lot of fans completely furious in 2006, that Doctor Who had a cheap joke that implied oral sex with a chunk of granite.

As for me, I’ve always liked the story despite the dopey and tasteless ending. I wish that it had gone differently: it would have been a million times better if the Absorbaloff melted and freed all four of its victims. I’m not saying that Doctor Who needed to keep revisiting these five funny little humans, but I liked them, and I like to believe that they spent the second half of the 2000s watching the skies. Now that I think about it, I like that fan theory more and more, whether or not Elton was part of the gang. I also like a tremendously neat thing that I read at Wikipedia when going over the production of this story. One of the earlier script drafts had explained that Elton’s mother, who died in the 1970s, was not a victim of some kind of elemental shade that this Doctor had recently tracked, but was instead a victim of the plastic flowers that the Master distributed way back in “Terror of the Autons.” I really wish they’d have done that.

“Love & Monsters” lends itself to so much more analysis and discussion than I typically indulge here at our blog. There’s the whole business about LINDA being a parable for fandom that has to deal with superfans storming in and making everything not fun for everybody, and you can certainly read a lot about that elsewhere, if you’re inclined. I think it’s a fine piece of television with a terrific lead performance by Marc Warren as Elton, with some fine support by Shirley Henderson as Ursula. Maybe it’s not for everybody, and LINDA’s love and happiness and exuberant performances of ELO songs shouldn’t have been interrupted by either Kennedy or death, but I think it’s still charming and huggable. Plus, the way that the villain explains that Raxacoricofallapatorius has a twin planet called Clom is the funniest thing ever.

Doctor Who 2.2 – Tooth and Claw

I read somebody once complaining that there’s a real smugness between the Tenth Doctor and Rose. There’s no denying it with this episode. They’re amusing to watch from afar, but can you imagine having to put up with them in the thick of it? This time, Rose bets that she can get Queen Victoria to say “we are not amused.” From the safety of our sofa, it’s actually a pretty funny recurring gag, but she really is insufferable in the attempts. And the Doctor, who at least has the decency to tell Rose to knock off her equally painful attempt at a “Hoots, mon!” accent, isn’t much better. However, I do like the consistency of Rose’s characterization. Her casual familiarity with everybody she meets will come back to snap her in the rear three episodes from now.

Anyway, I chose to experiment with showing our son the “Next time” trailer, thinking, correctly, that the combination of kung fu monks, Queen Victoria, and a werewolf would get him excited for this story. The side effect was that since he knew a werewolf was involved, it made him about as insufferable as Rose Tyler as he shook and quivered and hissed “it’s a werewolf!” He enjoyed this one very much, but we’re finished with the “Next times.”

I pointed out that Pauline Collins, who plays Victoria in this adventure, had been offered the role of a companion thirty-nine years previously. She had played a character called Samantha in 1967’s “The Faceless Ones,” taking over from Ben and Polly after their characters went missing in the second part of that adventure, but declined the chance to continue. “The Faceless Ones” is the next story scheduled to be animated, and we’ll certainly look forward to checking that out sometime in early 2020.