The writer promises plenty of special effects and something very action film-y, but won't say where the action is set. "Even answering that is giving too much away", he says.
Radio Times 13-19 May, p 14
7.00 Doctor Who - Rise of the Cybermen: The Tardis is trapped on a parallel Earth.
Radio Times 13-19 May p 68.
Doctor Who continues to exhaust superlatives.
I can't quite decide whether the one with Satan and the black hole is the best Doctor Who story of all time, or merely the best since the departure Tom Baker. Certainly, it was the first since the re-launch to genuinely feel like an episode of Doctor Who. It stuck very closely to the classic formula; trapping a small group of named characters in some remote location and then having it infiltrated by monsters. And even more importantly, someone got to run down a corridor!
This story put right a lot of what I said was wrong with episodes 1 – 3. The pacing was greatly improved. We were introduced to the crew of the sanctuary base in their ordinary situation – dealing with routine emergencies, eating at their canteen. We paused for breath long enough to find out their names and jobs. So when the horror started, we were able to give a damn. When Scooti fell into the black hole, I felt sad. (When Sir Robert got eaten by the werewolf, I said "Wait a minute, which one was he again?")
The story contained some genuinely scary ideas -- and gave us time to be scared of them. I'm not primarily thinking of Satan himself. The idea of an ancient-evil imprisoned by a long-dead-race is a bit of a cliché even by Doctor Who standards, although the production team milked it for all it was worth. For once, the monster was big enough, both literally and metaphorically, to live up to the build-up. But poor Toby with the alien writing over his face was much more unnerving than the big red horned roary thing. But the psychological stuff was much more genuinely scary: lowering the Doctor into a dark, bottomless pit; making him leap into the darkness; leaving Rose at the top of the shaft, linked to him only by a crackly radio. The pacing is perfect: a five minute scene of the Doctor dangling ten miles underground in the pitch dark, idly discussing the nature of "evil" with Ida gives us time to imagine ourselves in that vertiginous darkness. Would we have had the guts to jump? Any self-respecting kid ought to be having nightmares about this for weeks to come.
The Buffyfication of the story was kept within reasonable limits. Too often, RTD's soap operatics are unrelated to the story in which they are embedded. Here, the Doctor\Rose scenes emerge naturally from the situation. With the TARDIS gone forever (yeah, right) the two of them do have to think about what they are going to do from now on.
Perhaps the ending was a little rushed; perhaps we could have done with two lines of explanation about why the lettering was appearing on people's faces, and why the Ood's communication device suddenly turned into a weapon. Perhaps there is a problem with the Doctor now having complete control over the TARDIS: where he used to be an aimless wanderer, he's now a tourist. But that means he's now sitting on a gigantic plot device: the whole story would have been undermined if he could have used the TARDIS to beam down to the bottom of the hole and then beam up again. So the first ten minutes of the episode had to involve the TARDIS being lost (forever) when only two weeks ago we had it breaking down (forever) – both plot devices shored up by over-the-top dramatic scenes in which the Doctor agonizes about spending eternity as a TARDISless Time Lord.
Oh....and just in case you think that RTD is neglecting the needs of asexual fanboys. In episode two, the Doctor refers to a number of planets where the myth of the horned beast exists. One of the planets he mentions is called Daemos – which is, of course, the home of the eponymous Daemons
But at the other extreme was the one with the Coronation, which could stand as a capsule history of how RTD has buggered up the show. The story had a certain amount of potential. The idea of an ordinary domestic appliance becoming threatening has the right mix of horror and surrealism. The idea of a TV which talks back to you is intriguingly spooky. It was smart to set the thing in the 1950s when TV was a new technology. (Black-and-white BBC accents being beamed out of Ally Pally is very much the milieu in which Doctor Who first emerged.) The pre-cred sequence was distinctly good: the man working late in his TV repair shop; the aerial being struck by lightning; the face on the TV screen coming to life and talking to him; the strange light sucking the man into the screen. It was quite cool to make "Are you sitting comfortably...then I'll begin" into a sinister line, if only because Americans won't get the reference. However nothing in the episode made sense of this prologue; and nothing interesting seemed to follow from it.
The story made no kind of sense to me. The alien is made from radio waves, and therefore can inhabit people's TVs: fine. But were we supposed to think that she was inhabiting individual sets and jumping between them; or that she was somehow being transmitted to every TV in the country simultaneously? The ending, in which she is “trapped” on a video tape seemed to imply the former: but in which case why was it particularly significant that on coronation day, lots of people would be watching TV at the same time? And why did it suddenly become so urgent to stop her getting to the transmitter? The alien in some way feeds on people's brain energy; fine, that's the kind of thing which aliens do. So why did the faces of her victims suddenly start appearing on TVs? And why does having your brain eaten make your face go blank? And why isn't Mr Magpie the shop owner, who's eaten in the pre-cred, one of the faceless people?
If you are prepared to disengage your brain then the story does include some passable swashbuckling – the sequence where the Doctor has to climb the mast of Alexander Palace is quite exciting, although not nearly as good as the previous week's equally vertical Zeppelin sequence. But we never really find out who the alien is or what is motivating her and since we don't know how she works, we can't feel impressed or satisfied by the Doctor's scheme to defeat her. Or even understand what he's meant to have done.
The actual narrative comes in the completely inept Buffy section, which appears to have been the result of ten minutes of brainstorming. What can we remember about the 1950s? Er...Men tended to be quite sexist in those days. And everyone lived in extended families. OK, so we'll have a sub-plot about a family of stereotypes -- smart nerdy young boy, sexist overbearing dad, weak mum, granny living upstairs. This did yield one reasonably funny scene, where Rose tells off Overbearing Father for hanging the Union Flag upside down. Every week, David Tennant gets to do either an Angry speech or else an It's-little-people-who-save-the-world" speech. This week, he pretended to be very, very angry because Rose's brain had been sucked into the alien TV screen – a slight over-reaction I felt – it's not like this is the first time he's ever had to rescue a companion. So his little-people-save-the-world-speech got passed to the Smart Nerdy Young Boy. It seems that when Maureen Lipman ate Granny's face, Overbearing Dad grassed her up to the police, because having a faceless granny in the attic would damage his social position. Or something. When Smart Young Boy finds this out he explains, at some length that he (Dad) had fought the Nazis in order to prevent this kind of thing from happening. The most one can say is that I didn't physically throw up.
The Radio Times, which exists to puff BBC programmes said that episode contained "longueurs". So there you have it: even the most incredibly rushed stories are not fast moving enough for the target audience. Presumably, if you are one of the faceless people who forgot to switch off after having your brain sucked out by Graham Norton, you don't need or expect Doctor Who to make sense. All you want are monsters and chase scenes to distract you while you stare at the big flickery light in the corner. It's only nerdy, studious boys in grey jumpers who think stories ought to have some underlying logic to them. But they're asexual mummy's boys. Maybe we can beat it out of them.
The one with the Cybermen was quite the best TV Cyberman story since "Silver Nemesis". It was derivative, had no real flair, and contained possibly the worst resolution to any cliffhanger ever. On the other hand, it had a nice flamboyant climax, with the Doctor and the Cybercontroller dangling off a Zeppelin (The Doctor has been doing a lot of dangling this year.) There were some tense scenes with Rose infiltrating the Cyberman base; and some well-done suspense as the Doctor and "Mrs. Moore" sneak past the row of inert Cybermen, who are obviously about to come to life. Solid, entertaining, and well-mounted: if we could have this kind of thing every week, I'd stop moaning.
Last season's Daleks are pretty much the Daleks of old with some added chrome – a lot of the energy of the three Dalek episodes depended on the fact that the Doctor had a history with these creatures. This time around, RTD has cleared the decks and re-started from the original premise as if there had never been a Cyberman story before. These are emphatically not the Cybermen of old. Some kind of re-imagining was certainly necessary. Kit Pedler created a rather spooky story about some humans who'd replaced their whole bodies with prostheses; but decades of stories had reduced them into one more race of space faring megalomaniacs -- not something which the Doctor Who universe has ever been particularly short of. The new Cybermen are precisely, word-for-word, the creatures who we were introduced to in 1966. To quote from the novelization of the first Cyberstory:
"Mondas...isn't that one of the ancient names for Earth.”
“Yes. Aeons ago the planets were twins. Then we drifted away from you to the very edge of space. Now we have returned... We are called Cybermen. We were exactly like you once. Then our Cybernetic scientists realised that our race was weakening....so our scientists and doctors invented spare parts for our bodies until we could be almost completely replaced.”
“But that means you're not like us. You're not people at all, you're...robots.”
“That is not so. Our brains are just like yours except that certain...weaknesses have been removed.”....
“Weaknesses? What weaknesses?”
“You call them emotions, do you not?"
The only thing which has changed is that the new Cybermen come from a parallel earth, as opposed to earth's twin planet : a distinction that would presumably be lost on the Graham Norton audience.
The, for want of a better word, genesis of the Cybermen has not been shown on screen before; although it was covered in a rather good Big Finish audio by Marc Platt. For some reason, RTD gave Platt a credit at the end, which only served to underline how pedestrian writer Tom MacRae's high-tech future earth was by comparison with Platt's claustrophobic Orwellian Telos. And making the Cyberman the creation of an hubristic nutter in a wheel chair inevitably made us think "Son, you're no Michael Wisher".
As a piece of design, the Cybermen were rather brilliant. Only the handlebars and the funny shaped eyes made them recognisable as Cybermen; but they brilliantly avoided any sense of being "actors in metal suits." I don't really believe that such a high tech world would have to make do with robots which were so literally clunky, but belief could be suspended because they looked so cool.
Do you know what's really cute? The writers of Doctor Who still sometimes try to write, like, stories, with, like, twists and surprising revelations and everything, even though they know that every single member of the audience will have been told the whole plot in advance. Anything the BBC doesn't give away in the trailer will be in Radio Times, and anything Radio Times misses out will be splashed on the tabloids. MacRae constructed his story as if there was a mystery associated with what Lumic was trying to create, even though this was given away in the actual title; and he tried to create a tense build-up to the moment when we first saw the monsters, even though there were detailed schematics in Radio Times and a close up of the face on the cover.
I can't imagine why anyone thought it was a good idea to put Pete Tyler in the story. The Mickey of Earth-2 and his rebels were a promising supporting cast, but their screen time got squeezed out by this very inferior retread of the one with Rose's father in season 1. Again, one can't help thinking that RTD put something cool into the trailer and the pre-cred, but couldn't think of anything to do with it in the actual story.
I don't want to come over all Daily Express here, but did you notice that consecutive episodes offered us
a) the President of an alternative Britain who just happened to be black
b) the only street in the whole of 1950s London where stereotyped black families are fully integrated with the stereotyped white people and
c) the captain of a spaceship in the Far Future (TM) who just happened to be black.
The BBCs diversity policy is doubtless a good thing, but I am afraid I hear the sound of boxes being ticked. Would anyone take a bet that companion number 2 will be a black girl with a white boyfriend?
Which brings us to the French one and the one with Peter Kay. These are essentially two different versions of the same story. It feels as if this weeks exercise in the Doctor Who writer's workshop was "Write a story in which the Doctor meets the same character at several different times during their lives." Stephen Moffat came up with a tragedy; Russell Davies himself came up with a comedy.
I am rather ambivalent about these stories. There is one part of me which says "These are not Doctor Who stories, but stories which happen to have Doctor Who in them. This is exactly the kind of thing which needs to be done if Doctor Who is going to have any kind of future on TV." The other part of me says "These kinds of stories are a great mistake: they indicate that the new series is on the point of vanishing up its own backside, or more precisely, up the old series' backside." But I don't think I'm nearly as ambivalent about the episodes as they are about themselves.
Both stories ruthlessly break away from the series conventions, which can only be a good thing. The one with Peter Kay is practically the first story since 1963 which takes someone outside of the TARDIS crew as viewpoint character. The idea that the Doctor has left traces during his many travels, and that he could therefore be the subject of study by people who have never met him is very interesting. I almost felt that it was a cop out for the Doctor and Rose to appear in the story at all: couldn't Elton and his friends have defeated the monster all by themselves – say by using a Doctorish stratagem that they'd learned in their studies? I also felt that it was a mistake for the monster to be so obviously ludicrous: given the tongue-in-cheek storyline, it would have been better for the antagonist to have been genuinely menacing.
The French one is slightly more conventional: it has monsters, it begins with the TARDIS materialising on board a rickety old space-ship which may even contain the odd corridor. However, its central theme – of the Doctor making repeated visits to an historical person, so we see them in childhood, youth and middle-age – hasn't really been touched on before. While the story wasn't told from her point of view, we were repeatedly asked to look at the Doctor through Reinette's eyes. And of course, the idea of the Doctor having a romantic relationship with this weeks guest-star is a major breach of taboo.
So: both writers were trying pretty hard not to produce Doctor Who stories. But, with an almost Oedipal ambivalence, both of them were writing quite explicitly and deliberately about Doctor Who: how we remember Doctor Who, our nostalgia for Doctor Who; our 'love' of Doctor Who, the way in which some of us have made a hobby out of studying and analysing Doctor Who; the way in which we associate Doctor Who with our childhood dreams and our childhood nightmares.
This is, in my view, a pretty risky strategy. Yes, for many people who grew up in the 60s or 70s, Doctor Who is charged with the kind of importance we just don't give to any other TV show: more, in fact, than it ever objectively deserved. Yes Doctor Who is a magical character. But for the TV series itself to acknowledge this is tantamount to scrumping from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You lose your innocence and replace it with ironic self-awareness. I don't think Doctor Who can afford that.
The French story was about the Doctor as a character. The brilliant opening scenes, in which the clockwork man menaced the child Reinette in her bedroom was very aware fact that children traditionally watch Doctor Who from "behind the sofa"; that many people's childhood bogeymen were Dalek-shaped. There is literally a monster under Reinette 's bed which the Doctor appears and saves her from it. (Have you noticed, by the way, how few actual children there were in the original series, and how many there have been in the new one?) The Doctor's line about everyone having nightmares about monsters under the bed but the monsters having nightmares about him is a very good, but very self-conscious line. When the Doctor returns, years later Reinette specifically compares him with an imaginary childhood friend. Towards the end, she tells Rose that "the Doctor is worth the monsters". "Monster" is not a phrase which has often been used on-screen before. The Doctor talks about creatures or alien life-forms: it's children watching the programme, and journalists writing about it, who talk about Doctor-Who-Monsters. The fact that Reinette thinks of the Doctor as a childhood dream come to save her from her childhood nightmares indicates that we have, in a complicated way, stepped out of the frame and started commenting on the series itself.
(A very similar thing was done a few years ago in a spoof episode starring Rowan Atkinson, also scripted by Stephen Moffatt. The Doctor is apparently dying, and "Emma's " eulogy is perhaps the best summing up of the magic of Doctor Who that anyone has ever written -- as will as a not very thinly veiled plea to the BBC to bring the show back. "Doctor, listen to me. You can't die, you're too nice. Too brave, too kind and far, far too silly. You're like Father Christmas, the Wizard of Oz, Scooby Doo, and I love you very much. And we all need you and you simply cannot die!...He was never cruel and never cowardly, and it'll never be safe to be scared again. " You may however, think that a Comic Relief sketch is a better vehicle for this kind of thing than a canonical TV episode.)
The Peter Kay story, on the other hand, was primarily interested in the ways in which people are affected by Doctor Who the TV show. The social inadequates who made a hobby out of studying the actually-existing "Doctor" represented Doctor Who fandom. The characters were very likeable; and the plot gently amusing despite the extreme unsubtlesness of the symbolism. It's true that fandom often goes off at strange tangents, so that a member of a Sherlock Holmes society might well be more interested in recreating Victorian menus than re-reading the works of Conan Doyle. However, the idea of a Doctor Who club suddenly listening to member's unrelated amateur fiction or forming an unrelated pop-group isn't really plausible: that's not how hobby based societies tend to work. (Read Dork Tower for an accurate portrayal of the foibles of geek culture.) Still, we get the point: a group of nerdy people get together to talk about the Doctor (bad); but as a result of this common interest they make friends and start having sex (good); but then a bad person comes along and tries to make them study the Doctor more seriously (bad); but as a result, our hero learns that life apart from Doctor Who can still be fun, and ends up with a disembodied girlfriend who gives him blowjobs and lives happily ever after. "I used to be a Doctor Who fan, but I'm all right now": the most extreme example so far as RTDs need to very affectionately stab his core constituency in the back. If I am right in drawing an analogy between RTD's approach to Doctor Who and Blair's approach to the labour party, then this was the Clause 4 moment.
There is a long-standing legend among asexual fans that certain very bad aliens from the black and white era – the Krotons are popular candidates, as are the Quarks – were the results of a Blue Peter Design-a-Monster competition. Blue Peter did indeed run such a competition; and the lucky winner did indeed see his monster brought to "life" by the BBC special effects department; but the monster never appeared in Doctor Who itself. RTD obviously thought that it would be a wheeze to make this fan-legend come true, so the absorbatron really was designed by an artistically inclined kiddie. There is something deeply ironic about having embedded a fan in-joke in a story which is a rather cruel satire about Doctor Who fandom.
Going back to France for a moment: listen very carefully, I shall say this only once. I think that the relationship between the Doctor and Madame De Pompadour was believable and well-handled. However, the point at which romantic encounters between the Doctor and his supporting cast become a regular fixture of the programme is the point at which I will lose all interest in it. Stephen Moffat appears to think that Doctor\Companion relationships have always been based on eros rather than philia, and that I somehow invented the idea that the Doctor and Sarah were mates rather than lovers out of my own asexual head. He is, of course, free to tell whatever revisionists fibs he wants to. He obviously has a bit of thing about the Doctor's sex-life: the aforementioned very good Moffat scripted Rowan Atkinson spoof began with the premise that the Doctor was going to retire and get married, and ended up with the revelation that the sonic screwdriver had a vibrator attachment. But even the highly oversexed Mr Moffat ought to have spotted that, from 1963-2006, the Doctor has been mysterious, distant, alien, elevated, unattainable, awesome, numinous, mercurial and above all, other. This mystique would disperse if he were to transform into a Captain Kirkalike with a girl in every time-port. Once you have removed the Doctor's mystique, what you are left with is a lot of sci-fi cliches and bit part actors in rubber costumes. Note that Moffat doesn't even ask why the Doctor shouldn't fall in love; he asks why, he shouldn't date. For the same reason that Gandalf can't "date".
So, over all, I am quite a happy asexual fanboy. Taken as a whole, episodes 4-10 have been pretty good: four excellent episodes; two interestingly experimental ones; and only one stinker. But still – I can't get rid of the sense that there is something missing.
Series 1, whatever its faults, kept on surprising me. Davies kept wrong-footing us about where he was going. We didn't expect Rose to keep going home and visiting her Mum; we didn't expect Mickey to become an ongoing character; and we didn't expect the series to end on a regeneration – or at any rate, we wouldn't have done if the Sun hadn't told us. We only gradually realized that there was a plot arc going on, and that the drip-drip-drip revelations about Gallifrey and the Time War were much more important than any individuall story. We started out complaining that people other than the Doctor kept on saving the day – and gradually realized that the Doctor's loss of self-confidence is one of the things the season was about.
The relationship between the Doctor and Rose was one of the really good things about Series 1. We had a companion who appeared to be a living human being who was growing and changing as a result of her experiences on the TARDIS. (One of the worst results of RTD's prejudice against the asexual community is that we never got to see Rose's reaction the first time she visited an alien planet.) The Rose who almost stayed behind with Mickey in the one with the autons is a very different woman from the one who decides that "someone has to be the Doctor" in the Christmas episode. The Rose who the Doctor kisses at the end of the one with the Daleks has grown up a great deal compared with the Rose who bought the Doctor a bag of chips on their first "date". But sadly, the first series now looks like a completed story-arc, which resolved Rose's story as far as it can be resolved; leaving series 2 feeling awfully like an un-necessary sequel. Rose is a character out of a soap opera, not a novel. She fancies the Doctor, she is breaking up with Mickey, she misses her Mum, she never knew her Dad. Having used up all her plot hooks in season 1, she seems to spend season 2 flailing around looking for something to do. The only sense of forward motion came in the one with Sarah Jane, where the Doctor appeared to acknowledge that he was having a romantic relationship with Rose, but admitted that it couldn't go any further. The one with Queen Victoria hinted that they might settle into the role of two students, romping through space being vaguely naughty but nothing further came of this.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see how Christopher Eccleston was squirming every time an interviewer asked him how long he hoped to play the Doctor for. He gave evasive answers like "We'll have to see" and "Well, I've already made the equivalent of two seasons", which we now realize meant "I've already turned into David Tennant, but I'm not allowed to tell you because Russell is still innocent enough to think that he might take you by surprise." In the Season 2 Radio Times special, Billie Piper is asked whether she is going to do Season 3. She responds:
"If I tell you about my future than I'll completely ruin the ending of Episode 13. It's so brilliant, so worth waiting for. Watch and see."
and David Tennant says
"We've just about finished this series and I'm fairly certain I'll do the next one...Although we've yet to record the closing seconds of Episode 13 – literally anything could happen. Who knows who's coming back."
Ah. Well that's pretty clear then; particularly with Satan prophesying that Rose will fall in battle and the tabloids telling us that Billie has quit the show. I have some slight hope that RTD is engaged in a complex double bluff, and he's telling us that Rose is going to be killed off so we'll all be really surprised when she survives. But despite the fact that he can write very funny dialogue, I somehow doubt if he's that clever.
Mickey has suffered rather worse. There was was less to him to begin with so his growth, from pure comic relief to actual subordinate hero was more dramatic. In truth all his plot threads were neatly tied up during the one where Downing Street explodes. The Doctor no longer thought he was an idiot; but Mickey himself knew he wasn't hero material. All of his subsequent appearances put him though the same process of "realising" that he could never compete with the Doctor, and that whatever he and Rose had had was basically over. Somewhere between Season 1 and Season 2, someone pressed the "reset" button; and the Doctor – who had wanted him on the TARDIS in Season 1 – started going over the same "Mickey the Idiot" material again. The promising notion of giving him a stint as a TARDIS companion was basically wasted: his only function in the French story was to give Rose someone to talk to while the Doctor was off flirting with Madame De Pompadour. He had more to do the one with the Cybermen, but it turns out that he was only there in order to be written out. It would have been more interesting to have killed off Earth-1 Mickey and taken on Earth-2 Mickey as a companion. But in narrative terms, we have to remain basically sympathetic to the Doctor; and the motr often we saw him flirting with Rose in front of Mickey, the more likely we were to see him as a cad.
The most surprising thing in Season 1 – the thing which makes even the weakest stories worth repeated viewings – was the ninth Doctor. Resolutely un-Doctorish, he kept on surprising us about how much like the Doctor he really was. The tenth Doctor is a perfectly adequate characterization: mixing the zaniness of Tom Baker with the occasional callousness of, er, Tom Baker. He has a very nice line in comic asides; and I really like the way his joie de vivre seems to have been restored. "Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, two Mickeys" is probably the best one liner of the series so far. It would be nice if he could master more than three different emotions; and it would be nice if he could deliver his "big speeches" without making a funny face with his upper lip and shouting. I like him; I believe in him; I could imagine him running down a 1970s wobbly corridor. But he doesn't appear to have any surprising secrets left to reveal. He never does anything unexpected. There is nothing dangerous about his characterization.
When all is said and done, the thing which is missing from Series 2 is, in fact, Christopher Eccleston.