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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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Doctor Who: Survival (parts two and three)

For the most part, our son enjoyed Doctor Who‘s final adventure in this format, but the cliffhanger at the end of part two left him both angry and creeped out. The alien planet has a pretty nasty effect on anybody trapped there who get too savage and violent. Ace, having whacked one of the Cheetah People in the head with a rock, loses control and starts to change, and she turns to the camera with bright yellow cats’ eyes, and our son was out of the room like a rocket.

In the “really nitpicky” stakes, I think that the props department made a silly error when they were dressing Midge’s apartment. Ace flips through his records and comments that U2, of all bands, were bound for the old folks’ home when she left Earth. But the LP that sparked the comment is War, the group’s third – and the only one I can stand – which came out in 1983, around the time that her thirteen year-old self was burning the house in “Ghost Light” to the ground. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have her grumbling about a record that came out since she left Earth?

There are probably bigger things in any Who story to nitpick, but I’ve always got a kick out of that one.

Anyway, “Survival” isn’t great, but it’s a good story to end on. It’s made very well, there are lots of great directorial choices and the music’s pretty good. Anthony Ainley got to give one of his most restrained and successful performances as the Master, and McCoy and Aldred are terrific together. I wish they’d have got a few more TV stories, but I’ve got most of the novels from Virgin and really enjoyed the Doctor and Ace’s further adventures. And I enjoyed Benny and Roz and Chris, even if I choose to pretend that the business about Tobias Vaughn’s brain being downloaded into some supercomputer and thriving for centuries never happened.

We’ll look at two of the next things that happened in Doctor Who in August, and two more in September, and run away with Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor in October. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Survival (part one)

We’re very nearly to the end of the original run of the series. I had thought about watching the first two parts tonight, so we could end with the original run’s final cliffhanger, but it’s been one of those days where I think the TV’s been on enough.

“Survival” was written by Rona Munro and directed really, really well by Alan Wareing. He also did the entirely studio-bound “Ghost Light” in the same block as this all-location taping – “Light” was the final story to be made – and it’s like night and day just how much better this looks. Had Who continued for another batch of stories (in 1991, they say), I’d have hoped they employed Wareing for one of the all-location ones. Episode one sees the Doctor bringing Ace home to Perivale a few years after she left, for a dreary greased-tea, silent-but-not-gray Sunday to find that many of her old friends have moved away, but at least three of them have vanished in the last couple of months.

Julian Holloway guest stars as a neighborhood watch “sergeant” who clearly isn’t doing a particularly good job, and he reminds – slash – chastises Ace that her mum had listed her as missing, and that it only costs 10p to phone home and let someone know you’re alive. The Doctor overhears this, and I choose to believe that’s why, when he started carrying a sonic screwdriver again, he learned how to make cellphones phone home from anywhere in time and space.

Not surprisingly, our son liked this much, much more than the previous two adventures. The Cheetah People on horseback gave him a pleasant surprise, and he loved the scene where Ace uses playground equipment as obstacles to keep the one from getting her. His favorite bits were the mild comedy scenes of the Doctor trying to catch the smelly-looking black stray, only to attract first the wrong cat, and then a small dog.

He also figured the mystery villain was the Master almost immediately. I remember that being a big surprise when I first got hold of a copy!

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts thirteen and fourteen)

“There’s a lesson here,” our son opined. “If you’re a bad, bad person, don’t stand so close to your crazy, crazy high-tech machine!” Well, you said it, kid.

So at last this troubled season and absolute mess of a story comes crashing into its barely watchable end. It should have been a much more satisfying conclusion than this. The problem is that the final two parts were meant to have been written by Robert Holmes, in close collaboration with the script editor Eric Saward. But Holmes was dying, and Saward is said to have completed the final draft of part thirteen before writing the concluding half-hour himself. Then Saward elected to leave the show and took his script with him. With deadlines looming, the producer turned to Pip and Jane Baker, who’d written parts nine through twelve, to finish from the half-hour that Holmes had set up, while a grave BBC attorney ensured that not one word of Saward’s script was used.

I contend that the more sensible solution would have been to dump the script of part thirteen as well. I know that’s heretical – Holmes was the grand master of classic Who, the writer everyone loves – but the Bakers shouldn’t have been hamstrung with all that setup to bring the epic to their rushed conclusion. I can’t imagine what they would have come up with, and since I dislike very nearly all their Who writing, I wouldn’t bet that I’d have enjoyed it, but I do believe that they could have developed something much more coherent than all the guff about Victorian bureaucracy, wherever that was going. Perhaps it was considered, and perhaps they told the producer that they had barely enough time to write one half-hour, let alone two.

One thing these parts badly needed was a proper conclusion to the huge revelation that Peri had been killed. There’s an all-smiles moment where the Time Lords tell the Doctor that she’s alive and well and living with Yrcanos as a “warrior queen.” So how’d that work? Did they reverse time so that the mad scientist never transplanted Kiv’s brain into her body? Did Yrcanos still storm into the room shooting people? What happened to everybody else in the room, and the scientist the Time Lords were so afraid of? Even more insanely, the Doctor accepts that this is a satisfactory happy ending for Peri and leaves her to life in the 24th Century, departing with Bonnie Langford’s character Mel, presumably to transport her back to her timeline.

Naturally, this hasn’t set well with anybody. There are novels and audio dramas that pick up Peri’s story and, in different ways, resolve this properly. But to be honest, I like the first way this was resolved. In the late eighties, Philip Martin, who wrote the Yrcanos episodes of the story, novelized it for Target Books and explained that Peri and Yrcanos did not go back to his planet where she could live with him, but they returned to Earth in the 1980s and Yrcanos entered the world of professional wrestling in California, with Peri as his manager. I have never been interested in wrestling, but I can get behind Yrcanos putting Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik in choke holds. With or without the wrestling part, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant should have had a farewell scene together, and the Doctor should have gone immediately to his companion to see that she was all right rather than just taking some random woman’s word for it. Nobody thought this through.

But that’s kind of the Colin Baker era in a nutshell. Everything should have been better. Colin Baker’s a good actor and certainly seems to be a great guy. He could have been a great Doctor in better circumstances, without the lousy scripts that Saward had developed for him, and without the interference of the higher muckity-mucks at the BBC screwing with the show. Twisting the knife one last time, they accepted the producer John Nathan-Turner’s resignation on the understanding that he fire the star before he went. Then they unaccepted his resignation and told him the only show they wanted him to produce was more Who. But with Saward gone, this is the end of what I call “the swamp.” There are a couple more turkeys to come, but overall, things are about to get a lot better.

We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who to resume a couple of shows that we’d shelved for a breather, but we’ll start Sylvester McCoy’s first season in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Mark of the Rani (part two)

It’s somewhere in the second episode of this story that it really starts to feel like everybody working on this show is enjoying themselves a whole heck of a lot. Well, other than the script editor, who seems to have completely lost both heart and interest, anyway. But it’s really looking and feeling more like a bunch of television veterans and luvvies having a big showbiz party while making some run-of-the-mill, unthreatening, unchallenging television. Not one person involved with writing this script paid the slightest attention to the rule of showing and not telling. There are something like seven occasions where either the Doctor or the Master tells the viewers just how brilliant and amazing the Rani is, when the Rani steadfastly fails to actually accomplish anything brilliant or amazing. It feels like the writers are patting themselves on the back for creating a new returning character before she’s actually done anything to make her worth a return visit.

The Rani remains a massive missed opportunity who’s caught the imagination of thousands of fans, partly because she’s so unlike the Master and isn’t a revenge-crazed megalomaniac, and partly because she’s played by Kate O’Mara, who everybody loves. She was largely unknown in America in the mid-eighties, with only the flame-keepers of Hammer horror fandom really knowing who she was here, but her profile was so high in the UK that she was the obvious choice to come to Los Angeles for a year and play Joan Collins’s character’s scheming sister Caress on Dynasty for most of 1986. I hadn’t even seen “The Mark of the Rani” yet, but I’d read in Doctor Who Magazine that the new Who villain was on Dynasty, so I started watching the show for the only time, which was just about my only experience with prime-time soaps. (There was some time spent later obsessing over Knots Landing on account of some fool girl, but that’s another story.)

I’d like to think that the end of this television adventure isn’t actually the end of the Doctor’s time in 1810ish. Our heroes leave and the credits roll, but I choose to believe that they actually pop over to Redfern Dell and clean up all of the Rani’s silly mines that turn people into trees, and then return to hang out at the conference with Brunel, Stephenson, Faraday, and Davy, and to actually report the sad news that the good-looking character with the unbelievably anachronistic haircut had been killed. And with that paragraph, I can confidently say that I’ve spent more time thinking about the consequences of this story than the people who wrote it.

That’s four turkeys in a row. We are really due for something memorable and wonderful.

Photo credit: Radio Times

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Doctor Who: The Mark of the Rani (part one)

The nicest thing to say about tonight’s adventure is that it’s the only Doctor Who story directed by Sarah Hellings, and it’s an incredible shame that she never worked on the show again. The story was mostly filmed around two of the “living history” museums operated by the Ironbridge Gorge, and it looks completely fabulous. It’s a pity she wasn’t given a better script.

The second nicest thing to say about tonight’s adventure is that, like the previous one, it introduces a promising new villain badly in need of a better story. The Rani is an unethical, exiled-from-Gallifrey Time Lord scientist who is played by the awesome Kate O’Mara. It’s also a pity she wasn’t given a better script.

Anyway, “The Mark of the Rani” is also the first contribution to Doctor Who by the writers Pip and Jane Baker, and the nicest thing that I have to say about their work is that part one of this adventure is as close to entertaining as they ever get on the show. It’s a bland, boring hour with a guest appearance by Terence Alexander and the return of Anthony Ainley as the Master, who actually kills a dog this time out, just to remind you there’s no depths to which this criminal won’t sink. Our son said the only thing he liked about this story was the cliffhanger, in which the Doctor is strapped to a runaway cart. Hellings and her team truly did make the climax look great. Wonder how the Doctor will get out of this mess!

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Doctor Who: Planet of Fire (parts three and four)

You may not believe this, but for me, the most memorable moments in “Planet of Fire” aren’t actually Nicola Bryant’s scenes in her bikini, delightful though those all-too-short scenes are. It’s not even the surprising – and surprisingly sad – farewell to Kamelion, as the robot begs for death and the Doctor obliges him. It’s not even anything to do with the terrific Peter Wyngarde, because he is so amazingly wasted in a role that just about anybody his age could have played.

No, the best part of “Planet of Fire” is the cliffhanger to part three and the great little bitchfest between the Master and Peri. After a third episode that’s even more boring than I remembered, it ends with the terrific surprise that the Master has accidentally shrunk himself and has been controlling Kamelion from a little control room about the size of a shoeshine boy’s box. This shocked our son so much that he fumbled his exclamation, shouting “What the world – wide – world?!” as the credits rolled. In part four, Peri gets a great moment when the Master, having scurried to his ship’s console and hidden inside, continues threatening her and she’s not having it. “You come out here and say that,” she shouts, and we all laughed. The scene honestly isn’t very well staged, but Anthony Ainley and Nicola Bryant sure did play it well.

But there’s another interesting thing about “Planet of Fire,” and that’s the departure of Turlough. All along, he’s felt like the producer and writers had no idea what they wanted to do with this character, and some of what’s revealed here seems very, very contradictory to what they were saying about him just months previously. Turlough was apparently a junior military officer on the losing side of a civil war on the planet Trion. So he’s presumably older than I thought, which makes his apparent “incarceration” in a boarding school even more ridiculous.

This is what they do with military prisoners on Trion: sentence them to go to school on less developed planets, where they will steal cars and pester the unpopular kids, under the watchful eye of a “strange solicitor” in London? Honestly, even knowing already about Turlough’s nonsensical past, it makes even less sense watched cohesively. It’s an early example of what would later exasperate me about The X Files or Lost. If you come up with the story in the first place, instead of inventing something later on to link all the jigsaw pieces together, it stands a much better chance of making sense!

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Doctor Who: Planet of Fire (parts one and two)

Peter Grimwade’s “Planet of Fire” is the third Doctor Who story in a row to elicit just a shrug, but man alive, this one should have been better. There’s location filming in Lanzarote helmed by Fiona Cumming, a great guest star, errrm, the Master and Kamelion but never mind, and the debut of a new companion. It’s Peri, who becomes the first American to travel in the TARDIS.

I won’t hear a bad word about the actress who plays Peri. Her name is Nicola Bryant, and not only is she a perfectly good actress – and Peri gets a few really great scenes in later stories – she’s a fabulous ambassador for Doctor Who. Nobody’s paying her to be a positive force in fandom. This is a show she left thirty-plus years ago, and she’s still singing its praises and welcoming new actors to the family. (Plus, if you like dogs, she’s a great advocate for animal welfare and is always sharing pictures of her family pets on Twitter!)

But because I contradict myself and contain multitudes, I can call myself a fan of Nicola Bryant and also think that casting a British actress while claiming the new character was meant to appeal to the show’s new American audience was an unusual decision. (See the comments for more on that topic.) Peri’s always divided opinions. I bet that for every person I’ve ever met who liked Peri, I’ve met five who just spit nails at the mention of her name. That said, I have always wondered how the character would have gone over had the BBC found a way to get a known American actress, such as, say, Lisa Whelchel, who was Blair on The Facts of Life, to play Peri?

I was keen to get more input from my son into this critical situation, but he had a very long day, was very over-tired, and his initially pleasant surprise that Kamelion was actually present in this story eventually turned sour when the Master turned up as well. He didn’t have an opinion about Peri and I don’t think he paid very much attention to part two of this story at all.

Joining the regular cast in Lanzarote, there are a few fellows in old-fashioned robes, chief among them the great Peter Wyngarde. Unfortunately, Wyngarde is playing another dreary religious lunatic. You don’t suppose all these prophecies about a strange being called Logar are going to have a scientific explanation in the final episode, do you? Stopping Nicola Bryant from being the only woman with a speaking part, Barbara Shelley is here as well, but she doesn’t have very much to do. She’s so irrelevant to the plot that she just gets to appear in the studio material back in London, having missed out on the trip to Lanzarote.

Well, hopefully our son will wake up for part three, and it won’t be as much of a snooze fest as I remember. Fingers crossed!

Photo credit (Lisa Whelchel): https://www.pinterest.com/mercyjacobs/

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