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 (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.

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!

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!

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!

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

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!

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!