Archive for the ‘Television’ Category
We’ve come to the end of the first half of Doctor Who season six, which makes it a good time to pause and reflect on the state of the Whovian nation.
As someone who has loved and admired Steven Moffat’s work ever since the early days of the superb The Press Gang, this should be a no-brainer question and a short blog post declaring everything is just brilliant and wonderful. Should be … But I’m afraid it isn’t. There’s something nagging away at me, something making me uneasy about the future of the show we love so much.
(And this was before today’s Private Eye story suggesting there was trouble in the production team and that there might not even be a 2012 season, rumours subsequently squashed by a BBC announcement confirming 14 more episodes have been commissioned.)
This is the battle of demon’s run, the Doctor’s darkest hour, he’ll rise higher than ever before, and then fall so much further.
It’s hard not to agree that the Doctor has truly risen higher than he ever has before right now, at least as far as Doctor Who fans are concerned: we have the writer/producer we admire more than any other, who is at the top of his game and producing the most fabulous scripts, season arcs and characters. Matt Smith has made a genuinely brilliant Doctor; the threesome combination of the Tardis crew has given us something authentically different and new after too many years of the tired Doctor/female companion formula – even before we add the fantastic recurring character of River Song who we just yearn to join full-time. The production team also seem to have managed to get over the funding squeeze that compromised key moments in season 5 with below-par CGI, because season 6 has all looked fabulous (well, save for one Flesh Jen monster CGI too far…) – even before the impressive jaunt to America that added to the sense of sheer scale and substance.
But I can’t shake the feeling that this almighty high does indeed potentially come before the biggest fall and darkest hour, and that there are signs and portents that should worry all Who fans at least a little.
Some of these are external matters: the tabloids loved reporting that viewing figures for the early episodes were sharply down, and while this was not entirely accurate (the iPlayer/view on demand figures pretty much reversed that situation so it’s more a sign of an error in the scheduling of the show at 6pm or so on warm, sunny May and June evenings that’s a mistake of the network programmers rather than the show itself) it did lead the papers to gripe about how it’s no longer a family show, that it’s too dark, too scary, too bloody complicated for children now.
Actually the children are fine by all accounts, and follow it perfectly – as least as much as they need to. It’s the adults who are feeling lost, puzzled, worried or horrified. But that’s still a problem for the show, because this is the BBC’s family tent-pole offering, and if the adults are scratching their heads and shrugging before going off to do something else – or deciding it’s not suitable for the little’uns – then it’s undermining a major element of the show’s success and profile, both of which are vital to keeping the show mainstream and properly funded.
When Russell T Davies took on the task of regenerating the show in 2005, he was commendably open about how this was the most commercial, market-tested, focus-grouped project he’d ever done. Every last bit of it had to be hand-crafted to make sure it hit the market properly, delivered the whole-family audience, spun off the merchandising and won the awards. It had to, if this wasn’t to be a one-season flop. Artistic integrity be blowed: to make any expensive TV show, first you have to make the show a proven success to earn your right to experiment. It might sound cynical, but it’s survival in the modern broadcast arena and RTD knew it better than anyone. I’m sure a little piece of him died everytime he had to subjugate his artistic inclinations in favour of ensuring the commercial success, but he pulled it off: he took a revival that no one gave much of a chance of really working and delivered to the BBC’s their biggest international blockbuster property.
As a result, Steven Moffat doesn’t have the same pressures: the show is a hit right now and he doesn’t have to permanently look over his shoulder fearing cancellation. That security has given the show an undoubted confidence and swagger; and in any case, Moffat is not the kind of person to ever allow anything to override his artistic integrity. He will do the show his way no matter what, believing it’s the best for the show: focus groups and market testing be damned.
It’s admirable, and arguably is giving us a better, higher calibre show than we’ve ever seen before as least as far as hard-core fans are concerned. But it’s also markedly different from the show that was reborn under RTD that we grew to know and love in its own right. Davies might have had his problems as head writer (and not really seeming to grasp what a science fiction story really was, and continually relying on cheap deus ex machina get-outs were definitely among them) but every episode was suffused with a sense of love of the show and with a huge feeling of fun that made it accessible and enjoyable by everyone of any age or level of interest.
You don’t get that with Moffat’s seasons. I have no doubt that he loves the show every bit as much as RTD or you and I do, but he never allows that passion to override his story judgement – or to show through in the episodes themselves. Instead they’re far more coolly cerebral, intricate and complex, always eschewing the obvious even when it might end up frustrating the viewer. He is not writing for the casual fan who may dip in and out, miss a week or read a paper at the same time: this is a show for people who watch. And rewatch. And sit and think and talk about it for a week afterwards. And even if you do all that, it’s still likely to have scrambled your brain and leave you with a headache (as the end of “Day of the Moon” did for me, I confessed at the time.)
It’s asking a lot of viewers to submit themselves to this mental overload; casual fans will depart, and even die hard fans have been struggling to sustain the level of absolute concentration the show now demands. Instead of the fun, easy, family viewing under RTD, the show just got worryingly difficult, fan-ish and closed-up by comparison.
For those fans who push through and keep watching, it’s worth every minute. It comes together like the most wonderful puzzle box, and not only can you appreciate how perfectly it all comes together but you can also see how all the clues were left in plain sight all along and it only seemed complicated but actually you really did understand it all along after all, giving a lovely frisson of feeling like you’ve cracked it and are worthy of being one of the Whovian nation – and that your brain isn’t as broken as you thought after all.
But then we hit another snag: where does the show go from here? After being raised to such eye-popping heights, what’s next?
It’s hard to imagine the show going back to the nice, fun “adventure of the week” format. Indeed it tried that with “The Curse of the Black Spot” and how poor that episode felt, even though in previous RTD seasons that would have been a perfectly fine albeit average episode (no offence intended to RTD.) Not every episode can be a Silents/Flesh/Gaiman/Demons Run blockbuster every single week, but these episodes have raised the bar so high in season 6 that a merely ordinary episode is now a deep disappointment. You pity anyone who is tasked to take over from Moffat, because no one can reach the sort of heights he’s been delivering this season – and anything less is doing to be the Doctor’s darkest hour and his furthest fall (and potentially at worst, his latest cancellation.)
This problem is echoed in a development in the Doctor’s character in the show itself: he’s become so big, so epic, so unbeatable that the loveable old eccentric “mad man in a box” has never seemed so far away. These days he can wipe out entire Cyber battle fleets as a rhetorical flourish in a pre-credits teaser, or reboot the universe, or send aliens running away in fright just by reading them his CV. This started back in RTD/David Tennant’s era with “The Christmas Invasion”, was echoed in “The Eleventh Hour” at the start of the Moffat/Matt Smith era, but has now becoming a recurring problem with both “The Pandorica Opens” and “A Good Man Goes to War” both essentially focusing on it.
Quite simply, there is no one left who is more powerful than the Doctor. He is a God. Even the Daleks – who were revamped so successfully in season 1 as the ultimate nemesis of the Time Lords and the only race able to defeat them in the Time War – are now so “reliably beatable” that Moffat himself has concluded that they have no credibility left and have to be rested from the show. But if not the Daleks – who can threaten the Doctor anymore? It’s rather like the ‘scope creep’ that infected the character of Superman, in which a character who could initially simply jump high and run fast suddenly became invincible and as a result lost both empathy with the readership and also potential plots. How could Superman bear to spend his time dealing with muggings with all his powers?
So to it is with the Doctor. He’s now so powerful that nothing really seems to threaten him anymore. Some lovely dialogue in “A Good Man Goes To War” stressed how he is now more myth than regular person: how “Doctor” is becoming a galaxy-wide synonym for “great man of learning” or “warrior” depending on your point of view (apparently an idea Moffat had in 1995 according to some links on the Internet pointing to ‘proof’, but we’ll take these with a pinch of salt for now – you can fake anything on the Internet. Even Moon landings, I hear.) Did you spot the sublime way that Rory is made to see that this is happening to him, too: as he consoled Commander Strax, he realised he was talking to a warrior who had become a nurse, while he himself was a nurse who was now a centurion warrior? An uncomfortable realisation for both.
The stakes have been raised too high too many times: the show has seemingly killed off the Doctor, Amy and/or Rory too often, just so that we feel something bad really did/could happen, but it’s backfired and now they’ve all died and restored in too many ways that so we just roll our eyes, say “oh, not again” and wait for the plot to unravel and restore everyone to life.
Moffat seems acutely aware of this “Godhood” problem with the Doctor now, and it’s why the trope has been returned to in “A Good Man Goes To War” with dialogue specifically riffing on this (which in turn is an echo of dialogue that RTD’s Davros used on Tennant’s Doctor in “Journey’s End”.) I suspect Moffat’s overall intentions for the current convoluted plot arc are to do something about this “all-powerful” Doctor and restore him back to something like his old original self, the eccentric traveller.
The trouble is that the genie is out of the box, and we can’t go home again: would we be remotely satisfied with a show of a group of friends amiably poking around investigating a deserted city or scrapping with some cavemen?
Steven Moffat’s a sharp guy with far greater writing and creative skills than I possess – maybe he’s figured all this out and has an answer for us, and that’s what we’re heading to. We should certainly hope so, for the sake of the future survival of the show hinges upon it. Far more than the side questions of identity of River Song or whether the Doctor will retrieve Rory and Amy’s baby, this is the most important and pressing question facing the Whovian Nation this morning as we head into the summer recess.
When I stumbled across the news online last night that actress Elisabeth Sladen had died last night, it was one of those moments when the effect was literally physical and left me reeling with shock for hours afterwards. How is it possibly that such a vibrant, lively, alive person is suddenly no longer with us?
Her most famous character, Sarah Jane Smith, was not the first Doctor Who companion that I remember – that would have been Jo Grant, and I remember how upset my six-year-old self was when Jo departed the series (to live in Wales! With an environmentalist nut! How can this be allowed to happen?!) Imagine how bad it was the following year when “my” Doctor, Jon Pertwee, also left – dying (to all intents and purposes) on the laboratory floor tended to by Sarah Jane and the Brigadier. When Sarah Jane cried – “A tear, Sarah Jane? No, no, don’t cry…” – I cried with her, and that’s the sort of bonding experience a child has with a character and an actress that is never broken.
After Pertwee left, I rejected the “new” Doctor on principle and stopped watching soon after (lured away to the dark side of ITV by Space: 1999). But that had never happened the previous year with the changeover of companions, and that’s because as sad as I was to see Jo depart, it was impossible not to be instantly won over by Sarah Jane. That was the sort of effect that Elisabeth Sladen seemed to have on absolutely everyone.
I wasn’t watching the show when eventually it was Sarah Jane’s time to leave (in many ways, I think my sub-conscious refuses to believe she actually ever did leave), but I watched and really liked the attempted spin-off K9 and Company in which Elisabeth Sladen was quite the best thing and totally the star – I thought at the time that it was such a shame her one shot at solo success seemed to have come to nothing … It was lovely to see her reunited with Pertwee one more time in the 20th anniversary special The Five Doctors, where she gamely threw herself down a slight incline on a Welsh hillside for old times sake in order to contribute one last “cliffhanger” to the show. Of all the companions that the Doctor ever had on those classic years, she was the one everyone remembered, and everyone liked.
If there had been no more to Sarah Jane’s story, and Elisabeth Sladen had stepped away from the limelight from then on, then Tuesday’s news would have been a surprise, and rather sad for nostalgic reasons to those of us with 35-year-old memories of her – but it wouldn’t have been as deeply shattering as it actually was. And that’s because Sarah Jane’s – and Lis Sladen’s – finest hours were yet to come.
When Doctor Who was revived in 2005 after 16 years of cancellation, showrunner Russell T Davies was careful to keep away all those accumulated years of show mythology away from the screen, lest the show choke to death on its own history and alienate the new generation of fans it needed win over to succeed. Other than the Daleks, the Tardis and the Doctor himself, this was to be a completely new show. But even Davies couldn’t resist the allure of Sarah Jane, and in the new show’s second season he brought back the character (along with K9) for an episode called School Reunion which is still one of the best stories they’ve done.
The best special effect in that episode was Lis Sladen herself, who had somehow defied time and looked not exactly the same as she had in 1974 … but instead, somehow better and more beautiful than ever. How could you not look at her, talk with her and spend time with her and not decide that what the world really needed more than anything else right now was a full-on series of Sarah Jane Adventures? And so Sarah Jane became the Doctor figure to her own group of young companions, and Elisabeth Sladen was shown to be what we the fans had known all along: a true star in her own right, the greatest of all the companions, and the rarest of them – the companion who could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Time Lord himself as an equal. She had a cool car, sonic lipstick, a great leather jacket, could outpace her young co-stars in a full-on run down the street – the woman was a marvel. Not just for her age, but for someone half her age and then some.
In many ways, The Sarah Jane Adventures (SJA) has been closer to the spirit of the original classic Who than the newly regenerated Doctor Who series that needed to be bigger, bolder, deeper, more action, more FX than ever before. I never hesitated to recommend SJA to anyone and everyone, and never saw it as “just a kids show” any more than I had the original classic Who show: with its focus on Earth-bound adventures, SJA was very like Pertwee’s UNIT era, and there was a genuine sense of fun, enjoyment and lightness to the show which, one suspects, started at the centre with the star herself. Not that it was afraid to go to deeper and darker places itself when it needed to – one of the final season stories, about Sarah Jane’s adopted son Luke leaving home, touched some very complex and disturbing emotions for children and adults alike of abandonment and the fear of moving on, growing old, no longer being needed.
The show also allowed the show to reconnect with its past in some lovely moments: Nicholas Courtney’s last screen appearance as the Brigadier before his own death earlier this year (and as one piece of small, cold comfort, at least he’s not here for this week’s news – it would have broken his heart if he had been); David Tennant’s last screen performance as the Doctor (it was filmed after he had officially regenerated in the main series); and in the final season, not only Matt Smith popping up to continue the tradition, but the return of Katy Manning as Jo Grant after nearly forty years. To see Sarah Jane and Jo finally get to meet, talk, share notes on their lives and on the Doctor was an extraordinary moment of closure for any long time fan.
And it’s also the clue that shows how and why Sarah Jane – and Lis Sladen – is so very special to the history of the show and to the hearts of all long-time fans. The Doctor Who companion is always meant to be be the point of audience identification, the one through whose eyes we see the extraordinary character of the Doctor and his adventures. Thanks to her unique association with the series and her unswerving love and cheerleading for the show throughout, Lis Sladen was the ultimate success in achieving that.
My favourite moment of SJA is a quiet side moment, when Sarah Jane is in the middle of a typical hyperactive adventure which has taken her on board an orbiting alien spaceship. She suddenly looks out of a window – we see her face from the other side, with the glass overlaying a lovely reflection of the planet Earth over her face. Lis Sladen’s look at this moment is wonderful – literally, full of wonder – and quite beautifully perfect. “I never thought I would see that again,” she says to herself, the character having felt that her space travelling days ended with the Doctor – just as fans had thought that it had all come to and end in 1989. But they hadn’t, and it was a shared moment between character, actress and fans that showed that sometimes dreams can come true and good things do happen.
Sarah Jane Smith cried with us when Pertwee left; she let rip at the Doctor years later for dropping her like a stone at the end of The Hand of Fear. She showed how being touched by travelling with the Doctor changes you, how life is never the same afterwards, and how going back to “ordinary” just isn’t an option. Not everyone gets to go on to save the world (a lot) as Sarah Jane did, but a touching coda to the Matt Smith/Katy Manning story in SJA gave name checks to the Doctor’s other Earth-bound companions going on to do extraordinary things, such as Tegan fighting for aboriginal rights, showing the profound effect of the Doctor’s influence on others in the show’s universe.
But it’s not just in fiction that Doctor Who has this power. It’s also touched and transformed the lives of many people in real life too: Russell T Davis and Steven Moffat might very well not have been inspired to be writers without the show seizing their imagination as children and showing them what was possible; David Tennant might never have been seized by the desire to act if not for having a childhood dream of being the Doctor himself one day. Countless other fans have grown up to be writers, novelists, magazine editors and even scientists because of the show. This is true for all of those of us who have been genuinely touched by the show and its characters and all the actors and production staff who have made it over the years. Once you’ve immersed yourself in the world of the Doctor, somehow reality isn’t quite the same again: ordinary just isn’t good enough, and has to be made better. It’s the sort of real life inspiration that moves mountains and changes worlds.
All this was just as true for Elisabeth Sladen: her life was forever changed by her years travelling in the Tardis, even if it had started off as just another acting job. She didn’t mind one bit how the show shaped and changed her, but instead embraced it and ran with it and was forever the show’s biggest fan, loving Doctor Who old and new – and the show loved her in return.
And so did we.
It was with more a sense of obligation than genuine expectation that I sat down to try the first episode of BBC’s new Outcasts science fiction drama.
After all, the signs and portents were not good: the last SF outing on the BBC was the embarrassing Defying Gravity, which was quickly dubbed “Gray’s Anatomy in Space” before being equally rapidly cancelled. It just seems that British TV really has a problem dealing with science fiction, and alas the dull Outcasts opener did little to dispel this impression.
Admittedly, it’s a very hard genre to get right. If you’re trying to create a new world or a new future environment to set the drama in, then you have to pitch it perfectly and achieve the tricky balancing act of making it believable but fantastic, realistic but alien. Go too far and you’ll lose the mainstream audience who will simply roll their eyes at the daft bug-eyed monsters; but be too conservative and viewers will wonder why it’s science fiction at all, and you’ll lose the genre fans.
Perhaps the biggest problem is how to convey the details of this new world to the audience without bamboozling them with too many unfamiliar terms, acronyms and concepts; and all the while avoiding those excruciating infodump scenes where two characters have to carry out a wholly unbelievable discussion along the lines of “Well, as you know John, for the last 40 years we’ve not had fossil fuels but instead rely on …” Right, just like ordinary people in the street suddenly turn around for a conversation about how for the last 40 years we’ve no longer been restricted to black and white television – such discussion about the past and everyday furniture of life is just something that you wouldn’t have in day to day chats.
The original Star Trek series faced exactly this problem in the 60s – creating a whole new future that had to be realistic and believable. They did it by explaining nothing at all, just accepting that this was the day to day reality. Tricoders, communicators, transporters, even warp speed were just part of the scenery, throw-away mentions in the dialogue only expanded upon later on when scripts actually started to utilise them. Because the characters accepted that this was the day-to-day reality without long expositions and explanations, the audience did too.
Sadly, the first Outcasts didn’t seem to learn the lessons of how to solve this problem and had several such infodump scenes (including the ultimate lazy device of sitting in with a classroom of kids getting told everything by their teacher) and too many needless acronyms (PAS, DBV and XPs) so it managed to be both thuddingly obvious and confusingly off-putting at the same time, both too odd for ordinary viewers and too tame for SF fans. There were also too many clichés, such as the minute the colony president and the captain of a newly arrived freighter struck up a video conference friendship: you just knew the freighter was doomed and that the captain would go down with the ship. The characters and plots were all very familiar and could easily have been in any other drama, leaving the big question hanging over it as “why bother setting this on an alien planet at all?”
It could improve: it has a strong cast including Hermione Norris and Liam Cunningham, as well as Ashes to Ashes’ Daniel Mays whom I’ve rated ever since his first starring role in the BBC3 surreal drama Funland in 2005. There are enough little hints of weirder, deeper, more interesting things to come with the appearance of the mysterious “whiteouts” and the final scene arrival of Eric Mabius as the Earth administrator who planned the resettlement to the new world, which clearly implies a sinister backstory all of its own. The show will need the confidence to go with these elements and develop its own identity, and fast, if it’s to have any chance of a second series; but for the sake of the cause of British-produced science fiction, I hope that it can and does.
But why is it that British TV struggles with science fiction as a genre when US television can seemingly pump out such SF programmes right alongside the cop shows, medical and legal dramas that are its staple? Perhaps it’s because American TV doesn’t care if its high-brow or low-brow, doesn’t care whether it has a big idea, just as long as it’s entertaining. But British TV is sniffy about that: everything has to have a purpose, a message if you will, in order to be a serious drama. If it doesn’t then the TV industry just dismisses it as kid’s fare. Even a wonderful, excellent show like Being Human (which is horror genre and not science fiction) is only able to succeed because it’s positioned on the BBC’s teen-friendly BBC3 digital channel and therefore doesn’t frighten the adults over on the Beeb’s ‘proper’ channels.
Which brings us to Doctor Who, British television’s one incontrovertible science fiction success story, but which of late has been getting a backlash from the likes of Stephen Fry and Trevor Eve: “The programme is great, but it was created for kids in 1963,” Eve was quoted as saying in the Radio Times last month, adding dismissively “One doesn’t need to say more.” Basically he’s saying: if it’s science fiction, it’s for kids. That’s the British TV industry way of looking at it, and is why for Doctor Who‘s 16-year hiatus from the screen the BBC didn’t attempt to produce any science fiction shows despite the popularity of SF in US imported series and films.
With that kind of attitude prevalent in the industry, no wonder that when it comes to anyone tasked with producing an “adult science fiction drama”, they’re forced to make it overly ponderous and portentous to prove its grown-up credentials and that’s it’s not another Doctor Who, honest. Dull, in other words, because to make it fun and entertaining would be to risk having it dismissed as kid’s fare. And that’s why we end up with po-faced, boring fare such as the BBC’s recent soulless revival of the po-faced, boring 70s series Survivors.
The irony is that Doctor Who has been tackling issues of how to quickly set up a believable alien world without either losing or boring the audience for five decades, creating a whole new environment every week in a 40 minute show without the need for a single infodump. The ‘grown up’ SF shows could learn a thing or two from the kid’s show, which has been doing this sort of thing far longer and far better than anyone else. But of course, the industry wouldn’t deign to accept advice from a kid’s show – even one with such unparalleled experience and proven track record.
It’s important to make clear that just because a show is entertaining first and foremost doesn’t have to mean that it’s also childish or dumbed down. The show that changed everything in the States in the last few years was Battlestar Galactica, which started as A Really Bad Idea – remaking a kitsch and brainless 70s science fiction show full of space battles, explosions and robots. Could anything sound more childish? And yet by the start of the third season of that show, even mainstream commentators had cottoned on to how the series was tackling issues of religious fundamentalism, terrorism and society’s reaction to it – what it takes to cause even the good guys to become fanatical suicide bombers – in a way that no other drama or factual programme possibly could so soon after 9/11 without causing outrage or knee-jerk antagonism. Battlestar Galactica had us rooting for the terrorists – and then, afterwards, leaving us to realise and ruminate on what an insight it had given us into the mindset of those we rightly revile in real life. Hugely powerful, significant and affecting stuff with real impact to thinking in the here and now.
That show didn’t start off with this heavy philosophical edge, but in hindsight it was clearly part of its set-up from the very start. The writers just knew that the first duty of any TV series – and most especially a genre show – is to appeal to, entertain and win over the audience so that they feel this is a hour a week where they feel comfortable and to which they would like to keep coming back to. Once that battle is won then you can take the audience on the most extraordinary, significant and demanding journeys possible in drama; but if you think you can do that from act one, scene one without earning their emotional buy-in because they’re struggling with weird set-ups and ham-fisted infodump dialogue then you’ll fail. The science fiction fans will be put off by the heavy coating of “worthy drama”, while the rest will be put off by the “juvenile SF”.
The balance can be and has been done, but it’s something that British TV in particular just can’t seem to get the hang of. Best consult the Doctor for a prescription.
I’d rather hoped that being freed of the daily grind would give me the opportunity to watch some of the DVDs that I’ve assiduously stockpiled over the years. But it doesn’t seem to have turned out that way, with only one film watched so far this year. I’ve had slightly more success with television episodes – the 50 minute running times fit in rather easier than two hour plus long movies – and I’ve been indulging my interest in vintage TV through the boxset of series 1 and 2 of 60s classic The Avengers.
Actually when I say series 1, there are only two and a bit episodes out of 26 left of the first year – a systematic tape-wiping casualty rate that leaves the better-known deletion of early Doctor Who serials by the BBC look half-hearted by comparison. In any case, series 1 was unrecognisable from what we would come to think of as The Avengers, being initially a spin-off series for Police Surgeon star Ian Hendry.
That show’s format had proved restrictive, so instead Hendry played another doctor, David Keel, this time out to avenge the murder of his fiancée by a drug gang (hence the ‘avenging’ of the title – something you’d never learn about the show otherwise.) The story brought him into the orbit of the intelligence services for which he would go on to ‘freelance’ for them as one of their ‘talented amateurs’, a neat little plot device that allowed the writers to drop the character into any story they wanted.
Keel’s plain trenchcoated intelligence contact – initially a minor but recurring role – was given the name of John Steed, and the actor Patrick Macnee was cast. His impish and mischievous playing of the otherwise anonymous part quickly started stealing first scenes and then whole episodes out from under the star, and so it was small wonder that when production was halted because of a strike by the actor’s union Equity in late 1961, Hendry used the opportunity to depart and take up the tempting movie offers that had been piling up.
That left the producers with a pile of unmade scripts but no star. They initially tried to move forward via the path of least resistance – creating a new character imaginatively called Dr Martin King (they really weren’t trying much here, let’s be honest) to speak Hendry’s lines. But with the character lacking the Keel character’s tragic origins, and the actor (Jon Rollason) serviceable but bland – not helped by the anonymised scripts – it was clear that this was a very short term patch and King was written out after three episodes. Long term it seemed that the production team intended an expanded role for Steed and the introduction of a new female colleague, christened Venus Smith. She would be another of the pool of ‘talented amateurs’, young, enthusiastic, glamourous – and a singer, which would allow the show some musical interludes and escape the dourness of the Hendry era.
In the meantime there was still the pile of Keel-era scripts to get through, so the team tried a middle way to ease the transition to Venus – still having to use the scripts substantially unchanged but replacing Rollason with an actress by the name of Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale to say Keel’s former lines.
The production team didn’t realise it, but this simple expediency had created something genuinely original. In a pre-Women’s Lib era when women on television were invariably playing wives, daughters, girlfriends or mistresses, the sudden appearance of a female character who was at the very heart of the story, who was as tough-talking and capable as the men, and able to outwit and even outhit the men when required had an extraordinary and immediate effect.
Venus Smith was dispatched after six episodes and Cathy Gale was here to stay, the writers keeping the Keel-esque characteristics but also quickly drawn to the new potential of sexual chemistry. Over the course of series 2 Gale and Steed’s relationship quickly moved from antagonistic (inherited from Keel/Steed’s dynamic) to a genuine warmth and fun. By 1963 the series even had a startling (for the times) scene of domestic bliss with Gale and Steed sharing breakfast, and while the dialogue sought to make clear that no sexual impropriety was involved it was still shocking for contemporary audiences. Gale was positioned as a ‘housekeeper’ of sorts but true to her original unconventional character it was quickly made clear that she did not shop and she did not cook – she was too busy conducting forensic chemical analyses.
With two such striking characters and two such strong performers, suddenly the rest of the show looked very drab by comparison and needed lifting from grim realism. That sparked stories to match the stars, such as biotoxins hidden in golden eggs and mafioso hiding out in the surreal surroundings of a circus dressed as clowns. The show still had a long way to go before becoming the wild, quintessentially 60s series that people remember – but it was on the way and this boxset shows it evolving before our very eyes, week to week.
Sadly even with the plethora of digital channels these days, this isn’t a series you’ll ever likely see repeated on air. For one thing, the technical quality of the black and white recording is poor even after digital restoration and certainly well below modern broadcasting standards. For another, its on-screen production values are lower than those of a modern local theatrical reparatory company.
In Mission to Montreal for example, the camera makes an early impact into the scenery with a loud crash and violent shaking of the picture; the boom mic makes so many appearances in shot that you almost expect it to be given lines of dialogue and a credit in the end titles. In The Golden Eggs the camera makes an ill-advised close-up of some snow on a window ledge to reveal it as little balls of polystyrene packing; whip pans spectacularly miss their intended end target and have to creep backwards, hoping no one had noticed, to find the intended actor midway through speaking their lines; the whole set goes dark at one point, unremarked by the characters, only for the plot to require the lights be cut two minutes later revealing the earlier darkness as someone suffering severely premature cue-itus. Best of all, several low-shots of actors clearly reveal the banks of studio lights clearly visible where the ceiling of the set should be behind them.
Everything was studio-bound. Along with the usual dialogue fluffs and poor staging that leaves actors blocking others who are speaking their lines, it’s astonishing to us today that such things should be left in and aired to audiences of millions. But in the early 60s, all television was shot as a “live play” – studio time was too expensive to allow reshoots, and post-filming editing and cutting was simply not an option: what they got on the day was what had to be used. Doctor Who fans love to trawl through their own contemporary serials and spot the mistakes (the giant ant head-butting a camera at full run is a particular classic) and “Billy fluffs” of the star (William Hartnell), but that was (a) a kid’s programme and (b) involved a lot of complicated special SF effects; The Avengers, by contrast, was a prime-time, highly-publicised ITV adult drama and hence more accurately demonstrates the true state of TV production at the time, which if anything is shown to be far more error-prone than Doctor Who.
To put it kindly, the standard was not good – British television looked like a deeply untalented amateur by comparison with the slickly professional television programs coming out of America like Perry Mason and Gunsmoke. But the development of The Avengers also showed how quickly things changed, for by the time the show switched to colour in 1966 – just a little over three years later, remember – the production was as glossy and high-quality as anything America could manage. It was a fascinating time in the history of broadcast media, and The Avengers allows the viewers to see things evolving before our eyes. It’s a fascinating sub-text, and of course the show itself whatever its flaws and gaffes is never less than entertaining.
Sometimes it’s the gaffes that really do add to the appeal and charm. At the end of Conspiracy Of Silence, for example, the script calls for a close-up of a caged lion that the production had brought into the studio for the day. The director understandably wanted a big finish to the episode, but the lion was bored and apathetic (it had been so immobile up till this point that it had been impossible to tell that it wasn’t just a large stuffed toy in the cage.) So as the camera pushes in closer on the lion, you can hear the voice of the animal’s handler whispering the lion’s name “Cheshire” ever-louder in the hope of making it look the right way and give an impressive roar. The animal is unmoved by the increasingly desperate and clearly audible entreaties: the lion couldn’t have spoken any more eloquently about the situation if it had been physically capable of rolling its eyes …
The end, that is, of this series of Doctor Who, which aired the first part of its season finale last night and which concludes next Saturday, bravely facing all sorts of sporting distractions (World Cup and Wimbledon) in the crowded summer schedules.
This series has had to reboot the Doctor Who franchise after the departure of its star and most of the production team, and the transition has been a slightly more tricky, problematic affair than we would have hoped. Some of these problems were external, such as the visibly reduced budget seriously affecting the on-screen effects; the notorious arrival of a cartoon Graham Norton at the worst possible moment; and the scheduling, which saw the show go out at a different time every week. Mostly it’s been pushed into the 6pm zone by various reality or sports programmes – too early for families to be back and settled to watch television, especially during May and June when it’s too too light and warm to be indoors for a TV programme that early. Alas, once again it seems that BBC are heading down the road of slowly throttling to death one of their leading franchises – history repeating itself. (Ratings are down dramatically – until you factor in all the time-shifting options such as BBC3 repeats and iPlayer views, at which point the series is just about holding its own with past years.)
But some of these problems have been internal as well. The show has been frustratingly inconsistent, the tone and style changing so drastically week on week that an educational show on Vincent van Gogh touching on suicide and depression gets followed next time around by a romantic flatshare sitcom played strictly for laughs. Of course, Doctor Who is famously the show with the series format that can “do anything”, but to try such handbrake turns every single week runs the risk of leaving the show looking confused and not sure what it’s trying to do. Russell T Davies, for all his faults, always had a very clear grip on the tone and style of the programme, so that within that consistent overarching style it was possible to accommodate wide variances; but this season has been all variance, no consistency.
Contains some mild spoilers of the first eleven episodes:
- The Eleventh Hour – covered in full in a previous blog post, and still an extremely strong debut for the new Doctor, even if you get an early sense that it feels that the groundwork its laying for the rest of the season is far more important than the episode itself. Some of the best details – the creature that can be only seen out of the corner of your eye, the chilling barking man – are far more interesting than the rather tepid Men in Black/Independence Day main plot.
- The Beast Below – some interesting themes but ultimately too much of a riff on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta to succeed in the way that it hoped. The voting booth and the Doctor’s rush to a lobotomy solution rather than fully considering the options feel like some very unsubtle points being hammered home.
- Victory of the Daleks – some great early scenes then unravel into possibly the worst story of the season. The episode seems to exist entirely to relaunch and redesign the Daleks (did they need it?), and otherwise the story just peters out and resorts to a Spitfire dogfight in space and a lame bomb defusing plot to distract from the lack of any real substance.
- The Time of Angels – the return of the fabulous Alex Kingston as River Song, the return of the wonderfully creepy Weeping Angels, and great atmospheric settings make this one of the series’ unreserved highlights.
- Flesh and Stone – some more great work (Amy having to traverse a forest full of Weeping Angels with her eyes closed; Iain Glen’s “you’ve known me at my best”) is undermined by the intrusion of the series arc’s “crack in space and time” as the main plot device and then the tonally very odd bedroom scene with the Doctor fighting off Amy’s advances.
- Vampires in Venice – vampires should have been so promising, so how do they end up being lame CGI fish monsters? Again, the details (the wonderful Countessa and her creepy son; the arrival of Rory into the team) overwhelm a lame story, and the final CG effects of the Doctor climbing a clock tower are dire.
- Amy’s Choice – something of a bottle show, with a wonderful performance by Toby Jones, a jaw-dropping redressing of the Tardis set, and a fun concept of killer zombie pensioners. Mostly successful despite a lack of real danger, but it still seems more interested in the Amy/Rory detail and the main threat proves to be some errant pollen, which is rather a letdown.
- The Hungry Earth – the Silurians will be known only to die hard Who fans, so the story opts to basically tell their origin story all over again. But by limiting this to a small Welsh village and just four humans in the guest cast it lacks the epic sense of anything really important happening. Its slow pace is good for atmospherics, but makes the story feel underdeveloped.
- Cold Blood – part 2 of the Silurians story proceeds exactly as you’d expect, right up till the final scenes which are a series of genuine shocks relating to the overall season arc. Once again, the arc developments overwhelm what was supposed to be the main story.
- Vincent and the Doctor – an extraordinary change of pace for the series, with the alien menace almost irrelevant as the focus is on Vincent Van Gogh. Presumably intentionally, Vincent becomes the Doctor figure (his costume even evokes David Tennant) and the Doctor himself gets sidelined. You’ll either love or hate the final scenes with the soft rock montage and Vincent in the modern day – it’s utter tosh, but it gets a tear in my eye every time all the same.
- The Lodger – you have to be in the right mood to enjoy this “Doctor Who Behaving Badly” sitcom pilot, but no question that it’s done very well and there are some great fun moments. But once again, the normal Doctor Who “A” story – the alien in the attic – is treated as an aside, quickly defeated in the last few minutes by a kiss. Despite invoking startling Tardis technology, the alien ship then disappears, unexplained. Frustrating.
With so much of the season to date having been affected by all the groundwork for the season arc, it places almost impossible weight on the final two-part story which began last night with The Pandorica Opens. If it works, then it re-writes your feelings about the entire season to date and justifies all those times the series seemed to be losing its focus; but if it doesn’t, then the season finale just cements the view that the series has just ever so slightly lost its way.
If you haven’t seen the episode yet, then look away now. Only spoilers lay ahead. You are warned!
A few minutes into The Pandorica Opens and your hopes are raised. The feel of the opening sequences of this episode is quite extraordinary, the closest that the series has ever achieved to producing a genuine cinema feature film. And if you’ve stuck through the series wondering whether it was all hanging together, then the cameos of characters from past episodes (Queen Liz, Winston, Vincent) make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. By the time River Song makes another brilliantly memorable entrance (on the phone to Winston Churchill!) you’re convinced that this episode could indeed be something extraordinary.
And the episode progresses, and still more stuff tumbles out: the Doctor, Amy and River on horseback, an arguably unnecessary scene – but how it adds to the movie feel. The Roman centurions. The Stonehenge setting and the fabulous conceit of the hidden passage under the stones – stuff that children’s dreams and more than a few successful film franchises like Indiana Jones and National Treasure are made of.
Then voices over the radio of just about every foe that the Doctor has ever faced. Of course, this cavalcade of monsters will never actually show up, there’s no way that they could deliver that sort of spectacle. Right? Right?! And the remains of a damaged Cyberman, proving (rather like season 1’s Dalek) that sometimes a single monster can be more chilling than legions of the things.
And all the time, in the middle of the room, the titular prison box is opening up. You see the mechanism moving, levers falling into place, connections being made. It’s a wonderful physical manifestation of what’s happening in the plot itself, as suddenly all those many details that have been seeded throughout the season suddenly start to click into place as well. By the time the Pandorica opens, so may things have been revealed and slotted into position that the effect is almost electrifying – it’s as though you’re watching history suddenly rewriting itself to make sense at last, reshaping itself and reality before your eyes. The sensory rush for the loyal fan who has stuck with it and paid attention is the nearest thing to a cocaine high that you can get from the arts.
As the episode ends, with everyone dead, stars going nova and the Earth going dark and silent, there is no question about whether this episode has worked. It’s not even enough to call it “extraordinary” – that line was crossed way earlier in the running time and then the episode still ploughed even further ahead. This has indeed been up there with the very best that the series has ever produced; and that it couldn’t have happened without the proceeding eleven episodes, even if it means they were flawed and frustrating, throws a totally different light on the whole season.
Of course, there is still the small matter of the actual season finale in six days time. The Big Bang has an almost impossible task, to try and “follow that” and if can’t then this could yet all turn to dust. And yet for the first time, you feel that that moment has been well and truly prepared for, and that the episode won’t be a case of “sorting out the mess” (as has seemed the way with some previous season finales) but is in fact the very heart of the whole purpose of the season; that even as it appeared to be resolving old plot points, The Pandorica Opens was actually urgently laying a wealth of totally new ones. What Stephen Moffat has in mind to end this season I really don’t know; but I’m now completely sold on the idea that he has a plan and that it’s falling into place with the clockwork precision of the most immaculately crafted trap there has ever been.
Since we don’t have iPads to write about this side of the Atlantic, I’ll have to make do with the other obligatory blog post topic of the day: the arrival of the Eleventh Doctor.
“You’re Scottish. Fry something.”
“I’m still cooking.”
“I’m the Doctor. I’m worse than anybody’s aunt.”
“Twenty minutes to save the world. And all I’ve got is a Post Office. And it’s closed.”
“I’m the Doctor. Basically: run.”
Some great quotes and lines in this one.
Overall a LOT to take in, especially if you’re microanalysing the new guy for the first half hour as I was. I finally realised that Doctor XI was a complete success near the end, around when he assembles his new outfit, because at that point I realised I’d totally forgotten to even study his performance for the second half of the episode. There was no need: Matt Smith just *was* the Doctor.
I’m more surprised by how much I love the new companion, something that I hadn’t even thought about beforehand. Karen Gillan was terrific; and what a complex and deep backstory this episode gave her character in the process. That scene with Amelia with her little packed suitcase sitting in the garden was just heartbreaking.
On one level this was very much the crash-bang season opener that Russell T Davies made his own, and that Steven Moffat (until now the “impact player” able to do one smash hit story a season) hasn’t had to do. Moffat pulled it off extremely well, on the surface very much in the style of RTD and indeed I wonder how much they intended the show to feel like a seamless transition from the Tennant/RTD era, with Smith even sounding like Tennant at times. The final showdown especially was very similar to Tennant’s début against the Sycorax – although these aliens were far more savvy, taking the hint and running for the hills rather than Tennant’s first adversaries’ attempt to double cross and fight.
Some great ideas that will have children’s imaginations in overdrive this week: the crack in the wall, the “out of the corner of your eye” alien, the multiform giving rise to some truly chilling images (the barking man; those teeth on the woman and children); the Doctor’s-eye view of the village green. It gave this real intelligence and depth, just a shame it got buried somewhat under the co-opting of Men in Black and Independence Day plots for its more prominent themes.
The only downsides? Well, some of the CGI was shaky, frankly. The new title sequence was also a little low rent (some nasty clichéd lightning forks). The incidental music in the episode continued to be too strident at times, and felt rather out of place, like an RTD holdover in a new Who world.
And then there’s the new theme tune. When I first heard it, I almost choked and certainly hated it immediately. Since then, I’ve heard it a few times more and I’m bizarrely already doing a complete 180 and finding I’m really loving it. I guess it’s like Marmite.
Or fish fingers and custard.
Just some quick final thoughts on Doctor Who – or more specifically, some final thoughts on the Russell T Davies era of the show.
The final chapter
Attentive readers of this blog may remember a post (from 16 months ago! Yeesh) in which I wrote about and praised a book called “The Writer’s Tale” written through a series of email and text exchanges between Davies and journalist Benjamin Cook over the course of a year, and giving an insight not only into the Doctor Who show itself (it’s sort of a “Doctor Who annual for grown-ups” in that regard) but also into the mechanics of making a 21st century television show and – best of all as far as I’m concerned – a really honest, uncensored look into the art and craft and science of writing.
It’s a brilliant book, and last week it got even better with the publication of the paperback version, “The Writer’s Tale – The Final Chapter“, which added an entire second year’s worth of material to make it as much a follow-up/sequel as just a “paperback edition”. Where the first book covered the writing of the show’s fourth series, this new edition takes us through the writing of the specials – right through to the final words Davies writes for David Tennant’s Doctor – and also how the show handled breaking the news of Tennant’s departure and the new Doctor’s unveiling. In a nice post-modern touch the book even follows the authors as they promote the first edition of the book and the reactions to it, and the effect that it has on the writing of this edition and of the show.
It really is terrific stuff, I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone interested in Doctor Who, writing, or television. If nothing else, you’ll simply enjoy the company of Davies and Cook’s often witty, searingly honest, and always insightful repartee over the course of two years.
If nothing else can persuade you, how about the following brief teasers:
- Want to share the exact moment, read the very email, where Davies worked out exactly how the Doctor would die?
- Want to know who nudged and cajoled Davies into the spectacular return of Gallifrey, even as budget concerns threatened to result in the axing of an entire special?
- Wondered who The Woman played by Claire Bloom was in “The End of Time”? There’s a definitive answer.
- And how about the postscript casually mentioning that new boy Matt Smith had just done to dinner at Steven Moffat’s (Davies’ replacement) house with Peter Davison and David Tennant? How Dr Who fandom didn’t implode at that moment is still a mystery.
A brilliant book, please do buy it.
A final review
The problem with reading a book like “The Writer’s Take – The Final Chapter” is that you find out, understand and empathise with what the writer went through creating something like “The End of Time.” It then becomes very hard to critique the finished work without feeling harsh, that you’re wounding someone who has sweated blood producing the script that you’re casually throwing barbs at. I wasn’t exactly kind to Part 1 of “The End of Time” in my review and I now feel bad about it, even if I meant every word of it and was honestly trying not to be harsh. At least I can be happy that I was positive about Part 2.
The trouble is, after reading in the book how the script evolved and how it ended up the way it did, it’s impossible not to think better of it. You get sucked in, you take a swig of the Kool-Aid, and objectivity gets kicked into touch. You can see how successful writers (and CEOs and politicians) quickly get surrounded by yes-men – not because everyone’s sucking up to the boss, but because once you’re on the inside and see what’s gone into this sort of endeavour it’s hard to stay one step removed and say “No! That’s a bad idea. Cut that!” You get swept along and everything in the garden is rose-tinted.
But even before I read the new parts of the paperback edition of the book, I’d started to realise that Russell T Davies scripts need more than one viewing – especially Doctor Who ones. The first viewing comes with all sorts of expectations, packed with “oh, he shouldn’t have done it that way” moments. Doctor Who fans are too involved with the show just to sit back and be uncritical so it’s hard to just enjoy the episode without judging it and wanting it to be better.
The thing is, when you can go back some time afterwards and just watch an episode without all the hype and expectations, you suddenly realise just how good it was. Case in point was “Partners in Crime”, the first episode of season 4, which was burdened at the time by being the first of a new season and the start of Catherine Tate’s stint as a companion (a controversial move at the time, now universally lauded as a masterstroke and Tate as Best! Companion! Ever!) Against that the alien threat was a daft, throw-away CGI collection of “fat monsters”.
We watched this episode as a way of coming down from “The End of Time”, just a bit of light relief that we could talk through. Except we didn’t: we ended up really watching and enjoying it. I’d remembered certain bits I’d liked: the early ‘farce’ scenes where the Doctor and Donna keep missing each other; their first meeting done in superb mime through office windows; the stunt sequences hanging from a window cleaner’s platform off a tall office block. But the odd thing was that all the things I thought I hadn’t liked so much suddenly seemed so much better, from Sarah Lancaster’s deliciously performed Supernanny villain to the cheerful little CGI Adipose blobs. Dammit, I was even moved to wave at the little critters by the end. I was totally sold on it.
And then mid-week I caught most of the reshowing of “The End of Time” Part 1 on BBC3 one evening. I hadn’t intended to watch, but I did, mesmerised by how well the show had been put together, the terrific John Simm doing a Heath Ledger Joker-inspired villain, and of course David Tennant being generally magnificent, dammit. Somehow the problems with the episode seemed far less important than the triumphs.
I suspect that Russell T Davies’ episodes of Doctor Who are the kind of productions that get better with age and repeated viewings. Maybe that’s just a different way of drinking the Kool-Aid, but it’s suddenly made me think how wonderful it is to have the DVDs of a show that does get better each time you watch, rather than some of the flashy US shows (like CSI for example) which are fantastic when you watch them but which have exactly zero re-watch value.
All at once I’m suddenly thinking that it’s not the end of the Tennant era at all: just the start of the opportunity to go back and watch the Tenth Doctor properly as a completed piece of work at last.
Oh, and for some reason, having been unconvinced and a little anxious about the show post-Tennant, I suddenly find that I’m also completely optimistic about the new series coming up in the Spring, and about Matt Smith. Whether it’s seeing him at “The End of Time”, or the new season trailer shown on BBC TV, or the publicity shots, or reading the first interviews and articles about the new era I’m not sure: all I know is, I’m suddenly convinced that the 2010 Doctor is going to be every bit as good as his predecessor. (Even – whisper it gently – better?) I’m genuinely excited about it.
How fickle am I? The minute Tennant and Davies walk out and I’m lauding Smith and Moffat. That’s showbiz.
So the Doctor is dead, long live the Doctor. A million fanboys and girls will be inflicting their review of David Tennant’s last outing in the title role of Doctor Who onto the Internet – and I see no reason why I shouldn’t throw out my own two cents’ worth into the mix as well, having been a fan since the days of Jon Pertwee.
I’m not making this a gushing fountain of fan praise, nor am I going to go all out to pick faults and be scathing and cynical just for the sake of it. Hopefully this will be reasonably well balanced somewhere between the two, but you’ll have your own views all the same – feel free to comment. And if you’ve had Doctor/Tennant overkill over the Christmas and New Year period, then look away now.
Oh – and this contains spoilers, so enter at your own peril.
The End of Time – Part One
Russell T Davies (henceforth referred to in this blog post as RTD – it’s quicker to type) has always been better at set-ups to the big set-piece two-parters than the actual climax/pay-off. So it was deeply disturbing just how badly the set-up in Part One was done.
Let’s be honest: it was a mess. A storytelling car crash. Even the harshest critics of RTD over the years generally concede he can tell a story like few other TV writers, but in Part One his craft seem to desert him, leaving the episode as a choppy, incoherent, confusing mess. Even worse, the episode managed to commit the seemingly impossible twin failings of being too busy and packed … and yet not having nearly enough plot to fill out an hour’s running time. I wouldn’t have thought that combination was possible, but there it was.
Some examples: in the behind-the-scenes Confidential programme, RTD stated that he had known all along how he would bring back the Master. And from the sound of it, it would have made for an excellent, exciting 40 minute episode. Unfortunately they didn’t have 40 minutes – and RTD couldn’t bear to throw away the story he’d outlined in his head. So he crammed it into a confusing, wasteful 5 minutes instead, rather than “killing his darlings” (as writers are always advised to do) and reimagine a simpler, more fitting plot device that fitted this episode instead of one that would never be made.
Similarly, the characters of Joshua Naismith and his daughter were the weakest, most anonymous we’ve ever seen from RTD. They served no purpose in Part One, and so we held on to the hope that there would be a reason for them revealed in Part Two – but no, they never even got a single line of dialogue. A pointless distraction, much as the alien cactii Vinvocci duo proved to be: they were really only there to provide the Doctor with a spaceship to pilot at the critical moment and to throw in a bit of light comedy relief. Similarly Wilf’s (Bernard Cribbens’) army of pensioners was also purely around to enable the (admittedly ever-delightful) June Whitfield a comedy moment groping Tennant’s bottom.
If you took away all of these poorly developed, confusing distractions from the plot you ended up with a streamlined story that really only needed 20 minutes to tell. For all its cramming in of material, then, the episode actually felt sluggish and overpadded. But that’s not to say that this core 20 minutes didn’t have yet some fine stuff lurking within.
The pure gold single scene has to be the one between Tennant and Cribbens, sitting in a greasy spoon, with Catherine Tate outside seen through the window having a comedy turn with a traffic warden. It’s a wonderful moment, Tate’s mouthy Donna contrasting with some achingly beautiful acting in the foreground. Cribbens has always been used as a mainly comedic actor, and to see him come in and deliver a powerhouse performance of such power, drama and sadness is genuinely astounding. And Tennant of course raises his game too and matches him – and then some. When Wilf’s “She’s just marking time” gets the response “Aren’t we all?” from the Doctor, it’s one of the most affecting moments in the series. If your heart doesn’t break just a little as they continue to watch Donna without, then there’s no hope for you.
The rest of the episode depends heavily on your reaction to John Simm’s psychotic emo-Master. If you hated it, then the episode was going to be a complete failure for you; if you loved it, then Simm alone almost made up for the myriad failings in the rest of the episode.
Fortunately, I’m in the latter category: I thought he was tremendous, even saddled with a few too many “laughing manically” shots in the edit. He was compulsively watchable, operating on multiple levels, the character light years better than the thin, obvious satire of politicians in general and Tony Blair in particular that it had been in Simm’s first outing in the role in 2007. When Simm and Tennant finally got a face-to-face scene in the wastelands, it was electric and worth waiting for – it was what the episode was really all about when the rest of it was stripped away.
I even loved the final moments, as everyone in the world was turned into Master-clones. (For fan boys who dismiss this as a mere retread of The Matrix Reloaded‘s Burly Brawl – puhleese, if you’re that cynical and dismissive, you need help. Seriously.) Yes, sorry, I got a childish delight of seeing Simm in various attires (including drag) pulling out all the stops to make up dozens of different characters for one CGI’d scene. I hope he got extra pay for all the extra performances he pulled off in this one. The only downside to the Master’s return was his sudden new superpowers, which felt unnecessary and just plain wrong; you hoped that there would be a big plot pay-off for the powers in Part Two, but in fact they ended up downplayed and almost forgotten about, another shiny new toy that RTD didn’t have time to develop and play with properly.
The overall rating for this episode was perhaps two-and-a-half or charitably three stars if you really stretched it, but those stars come almost entirely from one café scene and a whole lot of Simm, who towered above the wreckage of the rest of the episode. It certainly was no triumphant send-off for the tenth Doctor and gave rise to considerable nerves that RTD was about to blow his final swan song outing after six years at the helm.
The End of Time – Part Two
And so, the final curtain …
Fortunately, a considerably better episode than Part One: it had a storyline, for one thing. And that story was delivered in a coherent fashion: it (mostly) didn’t pull out any sudden plot devices to explain everything away, and it didn’t blow the Big Moment. Which is not to say that it was perfect, by any means.
There was, for example, a bizarre plot device revolving around an Elizabeth Duke diamond thrown by Timothy Dalton at a hologram that ends up as a meteorite on Earth. Neat trick considering the story has established that the Time Lords couldn’t send anything into the ‘real’ world. Not only was it nonsensical, it also wasn’t needed for plot reasons except to unnecessarily eat up a couple of minutes of running time.
I suspect grown-up fans will also hate the flight of the Vinvocci spacecraft as a ridiculous piece of cartoon escapades for the kids (complete with a speed-whoosh sound effect straight from Loony Tunes that set my teeth on edge); Wilf climbing into a laser canon that was so clearly out of Star Wars that you expected the Doctor to admonish him with a “Don’t get cocky, kid!” But you know what, this is a kid’s show, and they deserve some thrills in this too, and it was perfectly fine fun and spectacle even if the CGI work probably left incoming producer Steven Moffat with about ten quid in the bank account for the entire fifth season.
More effective was the early stand-off scene between the Doctor (tied Hannibal Lector-like to a trolley) and the Master, and the funny escape scene as Tennant is literally rolled around the scenery still strapped down, his “Worst. Rescue. EVAHH!” line the best comedy line of the day.
It was also nice to see Catherine Tate’s cameo neatly resolved, with her impending “brainstorm” tripping a safety switch the Doctor had left her with that not only protected her from the Master but also put her to sleep for the remainder of the episode, so that it didn’t detract from/alter the devastatingly brilliant and heartbreaking climax for Donna from the end of season 4.
The episode’s high water point was the final tense and well-written scene with the Doctor, Master and Time Lords facing off. The Time Lord’s easy dismissal of all the Master’s schemes to that point could be accurately described as the ultimate deus ex machina, but in fact it worked since the Time Lords really had been invested in advance with godlike powers. And then it came to the Reservoir Dogs-esque showdown, where it looked horribly as though the tenth Doctor’s final action was going to be to have to shoot someone (The Master? The Time Lord President?) with Wilf’s incongruous old army revolver – or even shoot himself, it seemed at one terrible moment. But all of those options would have been completely out of character for RTD and sure enough it was instead a good old traditional temporary alliance between Doctor and Master that saved the day, and quite right too.
In this episode we learnt much of the backstory to RTD’s Doctor Who era: how insane the Time Lords had finally gone in the last days of the Time War, and why the Master is as evil as he is. Yet it’s nice that not all was revealed – some mysteries were preserved. RTD kept one last little secret to himself with the identity of The Woman (Claire Bloom): fan speculation has suggested that this might have been the Doctor’s mother, or perhaps a future ‘cured’ Donna, or – my own personal theory – that it was former companion Romana. Whatever, it’s nice to have a detail to discuss and theorise; and it’s not just an untidy loose end RTD forgot to deal with, as the Doctor is even asked “Who was that woman?” near the end and he still pointedly refuses to reply.
The cleverest writing in the episode was that it then dispatched the threat of the Master and the Time Lords mid-episode, long before the moment for Tennant’s departure and regeneration scenes. The bad guys were beaten and seen off and had nothing to do with it in the end, and it came down to a quiet, simple moment where the Doctor knowingly and calmly sacrificed himself for his companion, as indeed the Doctor has done in the past.
Initially the Doctor had been able to believe that he had dodged the bullet and avoided fate – and we briefly wondered whether Tennant’s departure hadn’t been some sort of giant hoax. But then the sound of someone tapping gently four times on a glass door echoed as powerfully and as chillingly as the tolling of the Kloister Bell that had proclaimed the end for Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor thirty years ago. It was a wonderfully effective moment as the realisation hit home to the Doctor, Wilf, and to us: and the Doctor was given a moment to rage against the injustice, wishing he could walk away and yet knowing that he could never leave WIlf – the companion he’s uniquely and deeply touchingly started to think of as a father figure – to die in his place. It was time, and an oddly low key red light in a glass booth did the deed without any CGI histrionics.
Unfortunately, at this point, RTD staged an indulgence of Lord of the Rings: Return of the Kings-esque proportion, with its extended multiple endings over the course of almost 20 minutes. Individually these scenes are quite lovely – the look between Tennant and Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith for example, who alone knows what is about to happen, is worth the air time alone. Tennant’s haunted dead man walking is compelling. There’s a lovely nod to the late Howard Attfield, the actor who played Donna’s father but who died before season 4 and who was replaced in plot terms at the last minute by Bernard Cribbens. And there’s a nice bit of plot development for two old companions that underlines the fact that while RTD and Tennant are moving on, and likely as not we’ll never see these companions again, that life for them continues somewhere out there all the same.
It’s good that the entire storyline wasn’t twisted to allow the companions to return in a more integral way, but the problem with this 15 minute indulgence (called the “Doctor’s Reward”, more accurately one final bouquet to the viewers) is partly that we’ve had this moment already at the climax of season 4, Journey’s End; and mostly that it disconnects the wonderful showdown/sacrifice scene from the actual regeneration. By the time that the Doctor finally falls into the TARDIS you’ve almost forgotten that he’s dying, and why. It interrupts the flow of the drama and emotion, and that’s a big problem.
But for all that, and for all the overblown, painfully manipulative yet hugely effective music score welling up, it’s Tennant’s final line as the Doctor that is an undoubted triumph: a simple, yet multi-layered “I don’t want to go” that surely brings a little tear to the eye. (Although the real choker is actually from the behind-the-scenes footage of Tennant attempting and failing to do a farewell speech to the production team after his last scenes. Definitely not a dry eye in the house there.)
At last the moment comes, and the regeneration is bigger and more spectacular than we’ve ever seen before (and shows how far the series’ FX expertise has developed since last we saw a full Doctor regeneration back in 2005.) The production team in one final “clearing of the decks” moment takes the opportunity to blow up the TARDIS itself, and Moffat is handed a genuinely clean slate for 2010 as Matt Smith takes centre stage.
Smith’s first moments – well, more like 30 seconds – are slightly disappointing: too like Tennant, with a reference to ginger hair a callback to Tennant’s first moments in the role. Smith acts as every bit as manic and energised as Tennant at his most hyper, when really it would have been nice to have had something … Different. But time enough for that in the Spring when the new team and the new Doctor get their feet properly under the TARDIS console and start to set their own course. One thing is for sure though: the RTD/Tennant era had gone as far as it could go, and it really is time for a change. The series needs a new direction, new blood, and that’s what it will get in a few months time. It’s the true strength of the series, that it can reboot and find new energy when it needs it most – the regeneration of the programme and the title role is the show’s strongest trump card, which consistently raises it above all other science fiction rivals.
At least we now know Tennant got a decent if by no means perfect send-off. If you’re in the spirit of the moment and being generous, you might give this a four star rating – largely thanks to Tennant’s excellent performance throughout, and for the wonderful support performances of Cribbens, Simm and Dalton.
And what the hell – for all that Russell T Davies, David Tennant, Julie Gardner, Phil Collinson and the rest of the production team have done in restoring this venerable show to far greater heights than it ever enjoyed in its original heyday, a little final touch of generosity is the least we can offer to say thank you as they head off to pastures new.
About five years ago, Steve Jobs memorably dismissed the idea of adding video to iPods, pointing out that while you can listen to music in the background, movies require that you actually watch them. “You can’t watch a video and drive a car,” he said. “We’re focused on music.”
This little blip in Jobs’ future-gazing capabilities is often used by detractors to show that even Apple’s great leader can and does get it wrong. Of course, they’re less quick to mention that – regardless of what Steve Jobs’ personal opinion on the matter might have been in 2004 – it didn’t stop the company from quickly adapting and making a truck load of money out of video-capable iPods and especially out of streaming video sales through the Apple Store. The last laugh is with Jobs and his bank account on this one.
Actually, though, I’ve always rather agreed with Jobs’ old opinion on this one. I use my iPod when I’m walking to work, or working at my desk, because music is something that doesn’t interfere with walking around and concentrating on other tasks. But add video and it’s quite different: it becomes an all-demanding immersive experience. You can’t walk along the street let alone drive a car while trying to watch a video.
But the biggest obstacle of all when it comes to mobile video seems to me to be: where do you get the videos to watch in the first place?
When I got my iPhone, I decided that I had to at least try the whole video thing once before deciding it was a waste of time. So I bought a couple of TV episodes from the Apple Store, put them on, used them for ‘demo’ purposes when talking to people about the iPhone, and … Never watched the episodes themselves. They’re still sitting on there, unwatched, a year later: I’ve never felt I’ve had the opportunity to sit and give my undivided attention to the episodes that my psyche tells me that ‘proper’ programmes must have to be appropriately watched. I’ve just never found a time when I’ve thought, “oh, perfect time to watch that” – yet the amount of music and podcasts and audiobooks I’ve listened to in that time is legion.
That little test run “proved”, to me at least, that video-on-the-go had very little appeal. Moreover it highlighted the problem that the content had to come from the Apple Store at a price (almost two pounds for an hour-long episodes), or … Where else? You could download BitTorrent TV programs, or find an illegal and nefarious way of ripping a DVD, but when it came to legal sources of video to watch on your iPod, then the alternatives were limited. And costly.
I did find one way of getting video content to the iPhone: I have a DVD Recorder that saves on-air recordings to a hard disc, which I could then burn onto a DVD, take the disc across the room to the Mac, and rip and convert this non-copy protected disc to iPhone format (H.264 since you ask) and then copy it into iTunes for syncing. Of course, this burning/ripping two stage process took as long if not longer than watching the source material in the first place, so you can imaging how many times I actually did this: once. A proof of concept run. But clearly this didn’t work in practice and I was still stymied.
I’ve always figured that the Apple TV product would be the eventual answer to this problem. When it first came out it seemed to me to be a rather pointless piece of hardware that added a hard disc to your TV to store downloads from the Apple Store, and not much else. I can see why Apple hobbled the product in this way – as it stands, Apple TV must drive a lot of sales form the Apple Store, after all. But I’ve always been mystified at why anyone would spend over two hundred pounds for something that is, essentially, doing exactly what your Mac or PC already does.
Surely Apple TV should let you watch and record TV as well? And allows you to watch the recorded programmes on your TV, Mac/PC or mobile device seamlessly, whichever you wanted? In other words, make it a PVR (personal video recorder) that bridges your TV, your Mac/PC and your mobile devices? As a way of making Apple TV relevant and worthwhile this had always seemed to me to be the obvious way forward; I could understand it not being in the 1.0 launch product, but surely it would be in the 2.0? But no – I’ve waited and watched and Apple TV is still about as dumb and pointless (to my mind) as when it first started. I guess it’s either legal copyright issues, or more likely that the sales it drives to the Apple Store that are worth protecting more than trying to boost sales of the product itself by making it, you know, useful.
Finally I decided to try to DIY it. I got a TV Tuner from Elgato, a company that specialises in video products for the Mac. I was a little wary of this since I’d be primarily using Freeview, and the reception in my area is patchy to say the least, so I could have spent a lot of money to get a product that didn’t really work. But I was lucky and with a bit of juggling with aerials I found that I could get a better signal for the Mac tuner than I can for my main TV set. I had finally added a capability that I’d wanted ever since my first computer back in the 80s – the ability to watch TV on my Mac.
At a stroke, what I got is the ability to schedule recordings of any Freeview channel, have it formatted for an iPod/iPhone and automatically sent to iTunes for the next sync to the mobile device. So at last, I have a purpose for video on an iPod – watching programmes that I’d recorded that I just didn’t have time to watch at home. Yay! But now the question becomes, “Was it the lack of source material after all – or just the fact that Steve Jobs was right all along and watching TV on a mobile device is just not that appealing?”
The first programme I recorded for mobile viewing was the practice sessions for the most recent Formula 1 Grand Prix (anyone who doesn’t know about my motorsport obsession clearly hasn’t checked out my companion motorsportind blog!) Since this was being held in Japan, the practice sessions started at an eye-watering 2am on Friday morning; and since I had work the next day and needed to show up reasonably sentient, watching live just wasn’t an option. Fitting in 90 minutes of viewing on the Friday evening wasn’t viable either, and on Saturday things would have moved on to the official qualifying session and Friday practice would no longer be relevant viewing. In the past that’s meant simply not watching it, but maybe now with video-on-the-go it would prove possible?
This first “proper” recording through the Mac tuner worked as advertised – the converted file was waiting, ready for synching in the morning and was duly put on the iPod nano (smaller screen, but perfectly fine for this type of thing – and I wanted to protect my iPhone battery life for other things such as calls, texts and tweets) to take into work. And sure enough, I watched it – on the train (only 15-20 minute stints on my commute, but good for catching snatches of something like this – not so good for narrative drama), over lunch in the COI café, and a couple of other opportunities throughout the day. There was still some left by the time I got home, but easy enough to finish off at this point. I was impressed by the quality and watchability on the iPod screen and I had a real childish glee of “Ooooh, look – I can watch TV on the iPod!” as I viewed.
Enduring success or one-hit wonder? The next thing to be recorded was – predictably – the Saturday practice session the next night at the same time from Japan, but by the time I was up and about the next morning it was already time for the proper qualification session, and that was such a breathless and exciting event that it rather eclipsed the earlier practice session, which now seemed rather … missable, frankly. So that’s still sitting on the iPod nano awaiting a viewing, several days after the Grand Prix weekend concluded. I suspect its chances are not good this long after the event.
I guess that makes the score currently one-all in terms of “will I watch video on the iPod with this new arrangement?” and it seems to come down to timing. It worked on the Friday because watching on-the-go was the only way of getting the programme watched in time; it failed on the Saturday because there was simply no such opportunity to watch it in time, mobile or otherwise. It also clearly depends on the source material, with just-aired sporting events having just the right sort of balance between timeliness and not having to watch too closely, as dipping in and out, stopping and starting is fine with this sort of sporting material but would kill a good drama or comedy. We shall have to await a tie-breaker and some longer-term data.
But regardless of whether the “watching on iPhone/iPod” experiment proves successful, the thing I’m really enjoying is simply having live TV on the Mac. It’s lovely being able to watch a programme as I work in a little box on the desktop; it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s totally different from trying to keep on eye on the actual TV while working on the computer; it’s particularly useful for having something like BBC News 24 on in the background as I work, which has been what has accompanied the writing of this blog post.
And if you’ll excuse me, I have to turn over the channel now and listen to In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 …
Whoops. It really has been too long, hasn’t it? I’ve just been tidying up the blog which had got a little overrun of late with Delicious links, and had to face the reality that it’s been over a month since my last blog post proper.
No big excuses, I’ve just been very busy of late and not had the energy or inspiration to come up with a decent post in the last few weeks.
It’s different over on the motorsport version of this blog where I’ve been happily producing two or three posts a week, because the source material – the race – is whatever is schedule for that week and all I have to do is turn up and write what happened. Also, the nature of the deadline helps – with a motorsports news blog, if you don’t write the piece within 24 hours you may as well not bother. Whereas with an ordinary blog … Well, what difference does an extra day make? Or two? Or – before you know it – 33.
Well anyway, I’ll try and do better and come up with a post or two for this, my “proper” blog over the next week or so. Although my current excuse is that I’ve got a headcold (no, it’s definitely not swine-related!) and am probably going to prevaricate and delay a while longer yet before doing a proper post.
So in the meantime, a couple of bullet points for you to keep things ticking over:
- If you haven’t found it already, check out COI’s Digigov blog, by the team behind the Transformational Government guidance for public sector websites. It’s incredibly well done, looks wonderful, and I reckon the whole team deserve a huge round of applause for breaking new ground for COI in social media.
- In the ‘entertainment news’ category – if you haven’t been able to catch “True Blood” so far on FX then keep an eye out for it on Channel 4 in the coming weeks. I’ve found this to be the most startlingly original show on TV this year – but word of warning, don’t watch if you’re offended by incredibly strong language and even stronger sex scenes. Or vampires. But if you’re okay with that then this is the most deliciously laugh-out-loud black comedy-drama I think I’ve ever seen. Recommended.
And now I have to go – a training day awaits.