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Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who – Out Now!

I’ve been away from here for too long.  The reason (part of the reason, anyway), is that I’ve been working on a book!  Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who by D. G. Saunders looks at all of television Doctor Who from An Unearthly Child to Resolution (sadly, there wasn’t enough time to add this year’s episodes), examining the way the series has changed with the changing priorities of different production teams.

From the back cover blurb:

For over fifty years, the BBC’s Doctor Who has taken viewers on adventures across time and space.  At the same time, the programme has crossed genres and styles.  From science fiction to action, horror to comedy and back again.

Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who offers a penetrating look at the way different showrunners, producers and script editors shaped the Time Lord’s adventures.  Analysing each era in sequence, it looks at story styles, the character of the Doctor and his intrepid companions, and the nature of the villains and monsters they faced, as well as the portrayal of the Time Lords.

An essential guide both for new fans wanting a primer on the programme’s history and for long-standing enthusiasts seeking a fresh perspective on eras they thought they knew.

Available NOW from Lulu.com, Blackwell’s, BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com!

Spyfall

Spyfall is, of course, a James Bond parody.  James Bond and Doctor Who are very different and while it is amusing to see Doctor Who pastiche elements of Bond (the briefing, the casino and dinner jacket, car chases and assassinations), it feels quite different to Bond, especially in the time travelling second half.  Inasmuch as it is Bond, it’s more For Your Eyes Only than The Spy Who Loved Me, a slow-burning character piece rather than an epic action spectacular.  In fact, the most effective scene is the horror/suspense sequence of the Kasaavin attacking the Australian agents in the Outback, which is not Bond at all.

The first part is brisk and effective, but the second episode falls apart a bit.  The cross-temporal story feels bitty, not lingering in any locale long enough to build up a sense of place or tension.  Daniel Barton is sidelined when we really need to see more of him and his plan.  Once O’s true identity is revealed, Barton goes from master villain to henchman, which is disappointing, as Lenny Henry was sinister in the first half and later in the lecture scene as he plan appears to be about to work.  I’m not sure why the Kasaavin want to turn everyone into computers or what Barton thinks he’s going to get out of it.  Info dump scenes where the villain reveals his whole plan are endemic to both Doctor Who and James Bond, so it’s no wonder the Master delivers a big one here.  Sacha Dhawan does at least portray a Master malevolent enough to make his plan seem reasonable, at least to a psychopath.

To be honest, I don’t like “celebrity historicals” much.  They seem to assume the audience are ignorant and lazy, info dumping information for context instead of leaving the audience the fun of independent research (let’s not forget Doctor Who was originally educational).  It leads to very stilted dialogue and storytelling.  Ada and Noor could each have their own episodes, whereas here they are reduced to bit-players.  A more focused episode two could have reduced the time travelling and spent more time on the Fam on the run.

The ontological paradox on the plane escape is a narrative flaw of a different kind, essentially just a cheat, and one already over-used by Steven Moffat.

Sacha Dhawan is probably the highlight of the story in what are essentially two different roles.  More than any other Master, he seems to be playing a part as O, not just wearing a mask.  He says he had “fun” impersonating O and appears to have taken the role seriously enough to work for MI6 to infiltrate properly (unlike the John Simm Master who faked Harold Saxon’s background).

The result is a story which starts well and is generally good when Dhawan is on screen, but which loses its way a bit.

Resolution

I did not review this year’s Doctor Who on initial viewing.  I’ve decided that my first impressions are too emotional and subjective, far beyond the fact that all criticism is subjective on some level.  It’s too easy to get sucked into “different = heretical” (or “same = boring” for that matter).  I hope to review the 2020 season here soon, but I realised I never reviewed Resolution!  I watched it again last night.  Here we go!

Early on there’s an attempt to tap into classic Doctor Who horror tropes.  There’s some solid tunnel work early on and the scene of the possessed Lin in her bathroom was very effective, genuinely sounding like she was about to throw up in disgust at what was happening to her.

Unfortunately, this rapidly became one of those stories where a science fiction threat is married to an emotional subplot that has no plot or thematic connection to it.  I’ve never really seen the wisdom of this.  I feel the emotional core of the episode should relate more directly to the science fiction plot.  Neither of the plot lines is particularly bad here, but they do not really gel either, especially with no sign of Aaron becoming a semi-regular whose experience with a Dalek might become relevant.

The juxtaposition between the Dalek killing two police officers and Aaron trying to sell a microwave/oven was effective, if not especially challenging.  New Year’s Day viewing perhaps requires a degree of familiarity in the tropes used.  There was a danger of Aaron becoming the cliché of the black man who abandons his family, but this is rescued by Daniel Adegboyega’s thoughtful performance as a man with regrets who is realising that he has made some serious mistakes with his life.

Surprisingly, the action seemed lower down in the mix than the emotion, a feature that may be budgetary as there seemed surprisingly few soldiers while GCHQ was represented by one extra in a single room.  At least we did not have an Action Man tank this time.  And an ill-advised joke near the climax about families needing to relearn the art of conversation was (a) not funny, (b) old, and (c) distracting from the climax of the story.

There was some handwaving of plot points too, possibly to keep the two separate plot strands running at the same time.  Presumably the Dalek learnt where its gun was from its internet searching, but it was not completely clear about where it had been for the previous thousand years until it was bought by MDZ.

In the end the Dalek was defeated and Aaron and Ryan reconciled, as we knew all along would happen. The problem is that it is not at all clear whether Aaron has really changed, something reinforced by his non-appearance in 2020. Has anyone really moved on? It’s hard to tell, which makes this seem a bit like something happening on the television rather than in real life.

I don’t wish to sound too negative.  Resolution was a success overall, especially as our only new TV Doctor Who for 2019.  It was worth holding back this Doctor’s first meeting with the Daleks to make it count off-screen as well as on-screen, turning the only episode of the year into more of an event.  I just wish that Aaron could have been integrated into the plot a bit more.

I was surprised at the hate that greeted the bit about UNIT being suspended at the time of broadcast, as it seemed to me a fairly obvious way of explaining why they weren’t around so that we could focus on the Doctor in this incarnation’s first battle against the Daleks.  I doubt that they will be out of commission for long.  I am also unsure why people saw it as a Brexit joke, when it seemed to me to be more about austerity in general or, more likely, Donald Trump’s threats to pull the USA out of NATO.  The Dalek apparently accessed the Black Archive on Lin’s computer, which indicated to me that UNIT may not be as out of reach as Polly thought.

Other thoughts:

I know I’m not the only person who has wondered how Medieval knights killed a Dalek.  Was it the brother of the rubbish Dalek who blew up when shot with spears and arrows in Death to the Daleks?

I liked the matter-of-fact way Graham says “Alien psychopath.”  You can almost hear him thinking, “Another of those nutters.”

Neglected Gems Part 4

The final part of my mini-series on unfairly neglected Doctor Who stories!

Fear Her

I’ve never understood the sheer hatred Fear Her has inspired since its broadcast.  Indifference I could understand, but not hatred.  To many fans, this is the worst episode of Russell T Davies’ time as showrunner, if not one of the worst of all time.

I concede that the monsters are subpar.  The father in the wardrobe conceit doesn’t really work.  We don’t see enough to really buy it as a threat, and what we do see isn’t scary enough.  And there is a huge dollop of sentimentality, especially over the Olympics.  But excess sentimentality is, in my opinion, a problem with a lot of Davies-era stories and never stopped episodes like Doomsday and Journey’s End topping polls.  At least in this story the Doctor and Rose seem likeable and believable, compared with other stories this season, where they often radiated smugness, acting like a couple of demi-gods who deigned to descend from Olympus to patronise us mere mortals.  The bit where Rose shoots daggers at the Doctor for eating marmalade out of the jar is one of my favourite Doctor/Rose bits in this season, not least for being done non-verbally.

I suspect the problem for a lot of people with this story is that it goes further into both fantasy and children’s fiction than Doctor Who usually ventures, and low fantasy at that, thus alienating all the fans who insist that Doctor Who is Serious Adult Science Fiction.  If you’re one of those fans, then this probably isn’t for you.  But please don’t stop me from liking it.

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

This story seems to get a lot of flack just for having a TARDIS interior without roundels.  In fact, the “roundels everywhere” approach is inconsistently applied in the original series – just see Inside the Spaceship (or The Edge of Destruction if you prefer) or The Invasion of TimeJourney to the Centre of the TARDIS is hardly flawless, with some confused plot elements that took me a couple of viewings to fully understand and a strange twist that requires the Doctor to fake a threat of destruction before the story introduces a real one. I have to say this is probably one of the weaker stories on this list for me.  However, the TARDIS is presented convincingly as a living labyrinth leaking time, the Doctor is quietly manipulative and there are some nice surreal moments even if they production team’s intentions didn’t quite meet the budget with some rooms reduced to views through doorways.

Under the Lake/Before the Flood

I was going to write about In the Forest of the Night, but much of what I said about Fear Her applies to it.  So I’ll go for Under the Lake/Before the Flood, which surprised me by appearing near the bottom of the poll for series nine.

I feel it has a lot going for it: the enclosed atmosphere of the first half (ghost story/base under siege hybrid) broadening out to the surreal abandoned mock-Soviet village of the second.  The time travel paradox is handled well (I like time-travel stories, but they’re rare outside of Moffat’s time on the show, except for Dennis Spooner’s tenure  as story editor*).  It’s very creepy even if the pseudoscientific explanations don’t entirely hold water (again, not unusual for Doctor Who).  There’s a decent monster too who towers over Peter Capaldi, although he isn’t seen much.  The story even gets away with breaking the fourth wall, just don’t ask me how (well, as we would find out a few episodes later, the Doctor always needs an audience).

Arachnids in the UK

I admit that I don’t know which Jodie Whittaker stories are considered good, beyond knowing that I’m in a minority in preferring her first season to her second.  Arachnids in the UK is a rather silly story, but a lot of fun, even if the not-Trump is a bit of a stock “evil American businessman.”  Giant creepy crawlies is something Doctor Who has done quite a bit, with varying degrees of efficiency.  It’s no surprise this feels like a bit of a throwback to the Pertwee era, with giant spiders, a corrupt businessman and an ecological theme.  Leaving all the spiders to die is a bit of a brutal ending though.

That said, my favourite bit only happened in my head: when the Doctor asks “Are all your hotels built on repurposed sites?” Robertson responds, “Some of them are built on Native American graveyards.”

*For more on the appearance of time travel stories under Dennis Spooner and Steven Moffat, see my book, Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who, by D. G. Saunders, available from Lulu.com and also Amazon US, Amazon UK, Blackwells and Barnes and Noble!

Neglected Gems Part 3

More neglected gems from Doctor Who, one per Doctor picking up with the seventh.

Delta and the Bannermen

To a certain type of fan, Doctor Who doesn’t get much worse (read: sillier) than this.  A story that dares to feature Ken Dodd.  A story where the villains get covered in honey and stung by bees.  A story that dares to ask if we can have “space buns and tea.”

Actually, beneath a few surface gags, this is a fairly serious story that dares to kill off a likeable guest character (Murray) and a bus full of innocent alien tourists to make the villain look nasty.  It’s a story about alien Fascists who want to wipe out another race – not exactly new territory for Doctor Who (*cough* Daleks *cough), but a sadly believable motivation for a three-part runaround.  What hadn’t really been seen since the seventies is the tone of the piece, poised between drama and pastiche, with music that drifts into the Dick Barton theme in a lightly meta way without becoming an outright postmodern fourth-wall-breaker like Gangsters.

The main attraction of this tone is that it feels fun in a way that Doctor Who hadn’t for a while, perhaps not really since The Five DoctorsParadise Towers was a step in this direction, but suffered from actors sending it up; here everyone is playing it straight, which is what makes it funny.  At its heart, it’s a story about a bunch of oddball eccentrics fighting against Fascist conformity, and that’s a story that Doctor Who always tells well.  There’s no denying that the next two seasons would see Sylvester McCoy star in much better stories than this, but somehow there aren’t many that are this much fun.

The Oblivion Arc

I don’t think the TV Movie is exactly a neglected gem, and The Night of the Doctor, while a gem,is hardly neglected, so I’m going to step outside the confines of the television for this one and look at the Oblivion arc from Doctor Who Magazine (collected in the graphic novel Oblivion).  The DWM comic doesn’t seem to have the dedicated fan bases that the Virgin novels and Big Finish have and I’ve always felt that’s a terrible shame, as it has produced a lot of quality stories over the years, every bit as daring and moving its TV, prose and audio counterparts.  (I’d like to write more about the comic here.)

This arc is a case in point.  Ophidius is a slightly ho-hum story about aliens on a giant spaceship that suddenly gets kicked up a gear when the Doctor’s companion Izzy is “body swapped” with the alien Destrii, and her real body is destroyed before she can get swapped back.  Izzy stays an alien for some time, with the character-based Beautiful Freak dealing with her trauma.  Later stories would see her trying to adjust before she is abducted and the Doctor and 1930s secret agent/Time Lord agent Fey Truscott-Sade/Shayde search for her, eventually catching up with her on Oblivion.  Along the way there’s a horrific historical with Freda Kahlo and Diego Rivera (The Way of All Flesh), a moving and thought-provoking story with the humanised Daleks from The Evil of the Daleks (Children of the Revolution), neo-conservative alien warmongers (Uroboros)plus a brutal Doctor-less World War Two vignette with Fey (Me and My Shadow).

This arc perhaps lacks the scale of the previous Glorious Dead epic, which had seen the Master threaten all the multiverses, but it is a strong character-based tale that confronts Izzy’s sense of alienation and loneliness as well as her homosexuality along with raising issues about trust, grief and revenge.  Definitely worth checking out.

The Long Game

It was hard to find a neglected gem for the ninth Doctor as most of his stories were very good, (although I’ve never much liked Boom Town).  The Long Game came bottom of the 2005 story poll, but I have always liked it.

It’s the story most like a classic Who story in the first year of the new series, unsurprising given that Russell T Davies first submitted it in the late eighties.  It would have fitted with Andrew Cartmel’s vision for the show just as well as it fits with the unique feel of Christopher Eccleston’s sole year in the title role, a solid story built around a bit of science fictional world-building of the kind that was fairly thin on the ground during Davies’ time in the showrunner’s chair.

It’s been criticised for sidelining the Doctor and Rose (this was the equivalent of the Doctor-lite episode for that year), but this is really another instance of the Doctor as “catalyst hero,” encouraging others to ask questions and take control of their lives, a common theme that year.  Along the way, we get failed companion Adam who wants to profit financially from his travels with the Doctor, a big no-no.  Given the way that the companions would become the focus for much of the emotional side of the programme in coming years, it is good that we got to see that not all humans would be a Rose, Martha or Amy; some would need to be sent home with a flea in their ear (or hole in their head).

Neglected Gems Part 2

Continuing my “one under-rated story per Doctor” list.

The Invasion of Time

There are tons of Williams-era stories that I could argue are neglected, and I was tempted by The Armageddon Factor in particular, but I’m going with The Invasion of Time because it has a lot of nice bits, even if it doesn’t completely cohere.  There is some padding and the ending (the Doctor gets a Space Gun and shoots the Sontarans) is awful, but the journey to get there is interesting.

Many Doctor Who stories have suggested that the Doctor’s morality isn’t entirely clear-cut and on several occasions he has cooperated with an enemy as part of a plan to defeat them, but here we spend over two episodes with a Doctor apparently gone completely to the bad.  The scene when he admits his ploy to Borusa is one of the most touching in the series, their relationship being completely believable in a way that it failed to be with later Borusas while providing a rationale for Tom Baker’s increasingly eccentric performance.  A similar scene two episodes later has the Doctor round on his mentor, searching for the Great Key and asserting that he wants to care about the deaths of innocent Time Lords, not to practise detachment like Borusa.

Rodan is an excellent character, really a prototype Romana, and while I like Mary Tamm’s performance, it is hard to see why Hilary Ryan was not asked back.  The Outsiders are fairly uninteresting, but at least they give Leela something to do.  Castellan Kelner makes for a more interesting villain than the Vardans or Sontarans and I like the surreal TARDIS interiors in the final episode.

Terminus

Terminus is an odd, subdued story and not particular good for list posts like this; it’s not full of “Do you remember the one where… ?” moments or memorable jokes or monsters.  It’s a curiously low-key story about character and mood, rooted in the memory of the programme’s earliest years, but more constructive about revisiting the past than stories like Arc of Infinity or Warriors of Deep, mirroring story style rather than continuity points and old monsters.

It’s bleak in places, a story of people stigmatised by society and the drug-addicted criminals tasked with helping them in a form of slavery.  Yet it ends on a note of optimism, with Nyssa staying behind to build a new future for the Vanir and the Lazars and the Garm being granted his freedom.  The sets are cheap, but the skull motif works and Turlough’s character continues to develop in a unique way.  Sadly he would be largely neglected after the next story.

The Trial of a Time Lord Parts 9-12 aka Terror of the Vervoids

In many ways Terror of the Vervoids is the most traditional Colin Baker era story, despite being one of the few not to feature an old villain or monster.  It’s not a million miles from The Robots of Death, a cross between a murder mystery and a base under siege.  It’s easy to mock some less than realistic dialogue, but the story itself is fairly strong and the Doctor is recognisably Doctorish, after the bullying of season twenty-two and the confusion of the previous Trial instalment.  Mel has never been a popular companion, but I appreciate the way that she actually wants to travel in time and space with the Doctor after Peri and Tegan always seemed to want to be elsewhere.

Part three coming soon…