Doctor Who meets Life on Mars

It was probably a matter of time before I managed to sneak a David Bowie reference into the blog, and I do so by referring to the song that gave rise to one of the BBC’s most ingenious drama creations: Life of Mars.

The catalyst for this post comes from this tweet featuring the new Big Finish adventure to feature Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, reprising their roles as the Fourth Doctor and Romana.  I was struck by the incongruous appearance of the modern day actor alongside the 80s attire of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, and it gave me to pondering – what about a Doctor Who episode that specifically played up how anachronistic the past is? We know that the formula works – it was a big reason (alongside the frankly excellent John Simm and Philip Glennister) for the success of Life on Mars – arguably it contributed in part to the success of the Back to the Future movie trilogy.

What might it look like? Well, for that I will revisit a poll I put out last week on Twitter that was ultimately lost in the excitement over the missing episodes reply from the BBC. The poll showed an astonishing 80% of respondents agreeing that they would like to see someone take on the role of Roger Delgado’s Master in the event that Sean Pertwee were to portray his father’s role of the Third Doctor.

Master

I ruminated on this a little, and this is the idea I have landed on. The story would feature Capaldi’s Doctor (plus we presume a new companion) crossing over with Pertwee’s Doctor – in the Third Doctor’s timeline it would take place between The Green Death and The Time Warrior, conveniently allowing the producers to allocate a new UNIT companion as a one-off for the production. It would see the two Doctors stuck in the ‘wrong’ timelines, and the majority of entertainment would come from the clash of cultures – whether Capaldi’s companion appalled at what the 70s were like, to Pertwee’s companion astonished at the wonders of 21st Century Britain (imagine the fun of a scientist from the 1970s encountering an iPad!)

The bigger draw however would be that the villain of the piece would be Delgado’s Master – and I personally would love to see one of two Bens portraying him; either Ben Miller (who I actually really enjoyed as the Sheriff of Nottingham) or Sir Ben Kingsley. Not only would it be a fitting tribute to the Pertwee era, but it could potentially tie up one of the oldest loose threads in Doctor Who history. That is to say – that the BBC could then bring back Geoffrey Beevers, who has been having something of a renaissance in Big Finish productions as the decayed Master. It would not be hard given the make up required to make him resemble the Peter Pratt Master, or his own version from The Keeper of Traken. And thus the story could give a much more satisfying conclusion to the Delgado era than his disappointing exit in Frontier in Space.

I grant you that the idea set out above is very much a classic series’ fan’s wildest fantasy. But oh what a story it could be!

Introducing the new companion

Today’s post was inspired by the tweet below from Doctor Who Worldwide:

S10

I began to have a think – what did I want in the new companion?

And this is the crazy idea I came up with …

In episodes 1 and 2, the new companion (we will call her Susan for convenience) is on earth when the Doctor does his usual stunt of pulling an innocent by-stander into some sort of alien incursion on earth. What is different this time, is that the Doctor knows Susan, and indeed greets her with the line “How did you get here?” (which would of course give scope for the usual comedic replies … “Number 14 bus” … “I was … born?”)

Cue viewer surprise and astonishment when Susan is left behind at the end of episode 2, the Doctor saying “Don’t worry – you’re going to see me again soon.” Most crucially – the TARDIS is not seen at all during this episode, the Doctor instead using a vortex manipulator.

Episode 3 sees Susan meet the Doctor again (this time with his TARDIS), but confusingly he has no memory of her, or of the previous adventure. It becomes clear that the Doctor is on the run from something (a recurring theme in the series) – and the episode concludes with Susan joining the Doctor in the TARDIS. It is then that he drops the bombshell – because he’s running from something (and being the Doctor, he doesn’t specify what) he cannot take Susan back to earth – lest they get him.

It all comes to a crescendo in Episode 10, which ends with the cliffhanger of Susan trapped somewhere, and the Doctor trying to chase after her using a Vortex manipulator.

The brighter of you will have worked out the twist – when Susan first meets the Doctor, the Doctor has already experienced episodes 3 to 10. When the Doctor first meets Susan, he hasn’t experienced episodes 1 and 2 yet. The end of episode 10 leads into the start of episode 1, while the end of episode 2 leads into the start of episode 11.

It would look something like the infographic below:

S10order.png

I have plenty of ideas in terms of who or what the Doctor is running from (and what else could go on in Series 10) – but what do people think of this suggestion for introducing the Doctor’s newest companion?

Come Hell Bent or High Water

I’m taking one of my rare forays into blogging about contemporary series of Doctor Who – always a dangerous area given the fiercely impassionate, informed, and articulate nature of Doctor Who fandom!

Let me begin by making a confession – I have had to learn to broaden my mind (never a bad thing!) during the present series. Change is always uncomfortable, and one’s instinctive reaction is to challenge it. So for stories like Heaven Sent I have had to learn to repress my natural instinct of being disappointed that it isn’t traditional Doctor Who, and instead affirm and enjoy the creativity that Moffat and the team have brought.

There are certainly a lot of positives to draw from the last series – Peter Capaldi has been absolutely astounding in the role; three of the four double-headers were superb – Under the Lake and Before the Flood deserve particular praise as stories that would not have been at all out of place in the classic era of the show; Julian Bleacher as Davros – an astonishing and magnificent tour de force.

So Hell Bent was a disappointment beyond all belief.

I am aware through the wonderful medium of Twitter that Doctor Who, perhaps more than any other TV show, has a remarkable capacity to completely polarise its fanbase. So I want to recognise from the very start that things cannot always stay the same as they were, and it is only natural that contemporary issues will have a different feel to The Web of Fear or Pyramids of Mars.

That concession made, I do think there are five major problems with Doctor Who’s overall direction, that were highlighted and expressed most clearly in Hell Bent:

  1. As I blogged previously, Steve Moffat is still not comfortable with death (click HERE for the original post). To my mind they completely botched Clara’s death – when you need to go to the Media to say “Clara’s definitely dead. Absolutely. No coming back.” there’s a slight Shakespearean air of “Methinks the Lady doth protest too much!” The resolution of the episode, with Clara and Ashildr/Me flying off in a TARDIS isn’t Clara bravely facing the Raven; it isn’t recognising the enormity and finality of death. Not only is it cowardly, it makes the viewer disinclined to trust the writers. Why believe now that anyone is dead? The way the show is currently run, the Doctor may as well have a room in the TARDIS where Elvis Presley and John Lennon are having an eternal jam session with Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix.
  2. The story was ridiculously self-indulgent. Alongside Face the Raven (a whole episode just to kill Clara? Really?) this episode was so wasteful, and it didn’t need to be. The first 20 minutes on Gallifrey were superb – the Doctor faced down Rassilon (far too easily given that last time everyone was Rassilon’s bitch …) and looked set to bring order – then he goes tearing off after Clara. By what definition of good story telling does a character spend 40 minutes ONLY agonising over the death of someone in a previous story, especially given that that’s pretty much what Heaven Sent was? I’m a fan of the show, and I found my attention was completely lost on occasion. It wasn’t a bad idea, but it didn’t deserve a whole episode, and Gallifrey deserved so much better.
    (For a decent Gallifrey story I refer you to The Deadly Assassin – a bargain at £4.99 on the BBC store)
  3. I know I am not alone in my dislike of what Clara has become as a character. This is no discredit to Jenna Coleman, who has played the role very well – indeed up until The Time of the Doctor I thoroughly enjoyed having her in the TARDIS. But the sarcastic remarks that the show had become ‘Clara Who’ exist because there is substantial basis in fact. The Doctor is meant to be the conduit to adventure, and his companion (or companions) is meant to represent us, the viewers – the means for us to enter the adventure, understand it, and experience it. In Nu Who, Donna is perhaps the best example of this role done well – strong and independent, and full to the brim of courage … but painfully aware that the Doctor is from a civilisation far in advance of her, and has lived and experienced hundreds more years than she could ever live. Donna worked wonderfully well – it was much more difficult to have empathy with Clara – I would even dare say, to like her.
  4. Most seriously, it seems like the production team have forgotten that the whole point of Doctor Who is to simply tell a good story. Character development is good. Exploring issues is good. The Classic series has a proud history of doing this, and doing it extremely well. But spending a whole episode allowing the Doctor to have a massive public angst about Clara is just bad story telling – there was no story! Evidence that the BBC have the wrong priorities is shown by this tweet:
    Feelings
    So the priority wasn’t ‘Let’s tell a thumping good story’ – it’s getting people to tweet evidence that they’ve been sobbing. Emotional reaction is good – and it’s also good that shows with that in mind exist. But writing a story for the emotional reaction is bad writing. The complete absence of a plot was an unforgivable sin for me.
  5. Finally, I am going to revisit a complaint I made at the end of Series 8 – character continuity has broken down … again. (Initial post is HERE, with a follow up post HERE). I was forcefully reminded of this with Missy’s appearance in the first two episodes. The problem is not with the character of ‘Missy’ – the problem is asserting that she is the continuation of the person known as the Master. And now it feels like you don’t even need to regenerate (or reGENDERate) for that continuity to be broken. Think back to Doomsday in Series 2 – Tennant’s Doctor burns up a dying sun to say goodbye to Rose, a woman he loved … but that’s as far as it went. Capaldi’s Doctor risked the whole fabric of space and time for Clara … so why stop there? Why not rescue Rose from the alternative universe? Why not save River (his WIFE!) from the library? The Doctor as currently scripted to speak just doesn’t scan with his previous selves – and the script editor is entirely to blame for that.

I am very sorry to say it, but I’m not looking forward to Series 10. My dad stopped watching Doctor Who when David Tennant took over (a view I sympathise with) but came back when Matt Smith took on the role. It pains me to say it, because I love Capaldi’s Doctor, and he had some absolutely fantastic stories … but I may stop watching until Steve Moffat has moved on. He’s had a good run, but he’s become so caught up in his own cleverness that he’s lost sight of just telling a good story with reasonable and believable character continuity.

And at the end of the day, it’s stopped being fun. When you reach that stage, you have to ask if it wouldn’t be better going back to the Classic catalogue until they sort themselves out. Not a sentence that I type with any particular happiness – and very much a sentence I type hoping to be proved dramatically wrong.

Omigosh! They killed them! Or did they …?

I am fairly sure those reading this article will have seen The Magician’s Apprentice so I am writing under the assumption that this is indeed the case. If not, then this is your last opportunity to avoid some serious spoilers about Series 9’s first episode.

Duty to forewarn exercised, my theme tonight is death and Doctor Who. The first episode of the new season concludes with Missy and Clara apparently exterminated, the TARDIS supposedly destroyed, and the Doctor alone. This is of course the latest episode in a recurring trend in modern day Doctor Who – a person being not quite as dead as you imagine.

Let’s consider the evidence

  • Micky supposedly dying in Rose (and to a lesser extent in The Age of Steel)
  • Captain Jack actually dying – but being resurrected
  • Rose ‘dying’ by vanishing into an alternative universe
  • The Doctor ‘dying’ in Turn Left
  • Donna’s ‘death’ being forecast, but turning out to be loss of her memories
  • The Master being resurrected from death in The End of Time
  • The repeated death and resurrection of Rory (on occasions too numerous to count)
  • The Doctor apparently ‘dying’ in The Impossible Astronaut
  • Clara (in her various forms) dying at least twice before we meet her properly
  • We know that Osgood is somehow coming back from the dead this series

The recurring theme, as you have observed, is that very few people stay dead or actually die, the one exception so far being Astrid Peth in Voyage of the Damned. And there’s rather a problem with that – it cheapens death. This was most evident when Rory was in the TARDIS – any time he appeared to have died we knew it couldn’t possibly be true. The series has in fact built up a narrative that is not companions narrowly evading death despite improbable odds – but characters not staying dead.

In that regard, death in Doctor Who is getting dangerously close to resembling South Park. All we need is the Doctor to cry “OMG … they killed Clara! B******s!!!”

Death is not meant to be something that we can wish or magic away. It is very final, very hard, and it changes everything. In storytelling terms, it has to mean something – I remember the shock running through my system when Cedric Diggory was killed in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It meant something because it was final and irretrievable. The same was true when Adric was killed in Earthshock (though to my everlasting shame I attempted to come up with stories that had him rescued by the Master for nefarious purposes …) When characters routinely do not stay dead, death loses all meaning as a narrative, and it desensitises the viewer to the finality and enormity of that loss.

Even more frustrating is the lack of reasonable explanation for when characters evade death. Fans of BBC’s other flagship drama Sherlock will recognise the same Steven Moffat induced frustration. Just as there was no meaningful explanation for how Holmes survived leaping off the building at the end of Series 2 (and I am prepared to bet my underpants there will be no explanation how Moriarty survived shooting himself in the head) there was no effort to explain how Missy survived supposedly being shot dead by Cyber-Brig in Death in Heaven. it’s lazy storytelling of the worst kind – even if the explanation of evading death is completely implausible, we at least want to be treated with the respect of being given an explanation to judge.

I think a lot of fans have come to the same conclusion as myself – if the BBC want to kill a character, they need to stop arsing about and finally kill them off. We don’t mind the kind of ‘final ends’ that leave the possibility of survival (think of the Master in Planet of Fire; or the Daleks in Evil of the Daleks) – but if someone dies, they need to stay dead. And if they escape, we expect to know how.

Is it Missy … or is it the writing?

I’ve had my necessary 48 hour cooling period after watching a Doctor Who episode, by which time I am able to give a calmer reflection on proceedings! Rather predictably, fandom has split right down the middle on The Magician’s Apprentice – many fans euphoric after that opening bombshell and so many different references and plot twists; others despairing of what Steve Moffat has done with their show (lest we be lulled into forgetting that there is an eternal Doctor Who audience to be appeased).

I’m reserving judgement on the story until I see the 2nd part … or to be more exact, I will allow for the possibility that my initially harsh judgement might soften in light of The Witch’s Familiar. But I will briefly extemporise on fandom’s latest love-affair – the inestimable Michelle Gomez as Missy. A lot of fans love her, and she certainly carries a commanding presence. Pitched as a new character, I would probably admire her. Pitched as the Master …

Ay, there’s the rub …

Tying words that I never thought I’d find myself typing, I’m getting over the gender-change regeneration aspect (while not at all feeling happy with the socio-liberal agenda being pushed in the background … I might be in a minority on that one). I’m still not persuaded that gender changes can work and maintain character continuity, simply because gender is such a big part of character, personality and identity – but put someone like Dame Maggie Smith as the Doctor and I’d be willing to be proven wrong.

So why isn’t Missy working? I suspect it isn’t actually Gomez herself, or the way she realises the Character … I suspect it’s the material she’s been given to work with. The crazy ‘killing people for the fun of it’ psycho-lady just doesn’t work for me. There was a pertinent remark by Geoffrey Beevers (derelict of former companion Caroline John, and one of the lesser known actors to portray the Master) in the extras for the Keeper of Traken DVD. When he portrayed the decayed Master, he noticed that he and the former actor to portray this version of the Master, Peter Pratt, where much more nakedly evil and malicious in their realisation of the character. In contrast, Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley with their suave looks were able to use charm and guile, and only needed to resort to brute force where necessary.

So arguably the problem isn’t Missy – the radical change with Master becoming Mistress has highlighted a change that had already occured with John Simm – the conscious choice to portray the Master as an insane psychopath. While this may be true of his character, I think it misses the fundamental point that his psychotic insanity was very much an iron fist in a velvet glove – witness Delgado’s Master in Terror of the Autons ALMOST allowing his temper to snap when Farrell Sr resists his hypnosis – you see in that instant the supressed fury that is now displayed open, but it is hidden at once beneath the iron self-control of the Master.

So my plea … please give Michelle Gomez a chance! Allow her to be the cold, calculating, controlling Master that Derek Jakobi surely would have been, and that John Simm never got the chance to be.

The Madness of Missy

The BBC has confirmed that Michelle Gomez is returning to play the character I am stubbornly continuing to refer to as ‘The Master.’

Leaving the issue of cross-gender regeneration to one side, my main gripe with Gomez’ portrayal of the Master was the utter insanity she brought to the role, leaving one struggling to see any continuity from the late great Roger Delgado. This view has softened somewhat with the grudging admission that John Simm played the character with an equal insanity, albeit somewhat dulled down in The End of Time.

But that led me to ponder something as I grumped about today’s news story on the bus to work. In my other life I’m politically active, and one of the themes that most interests me is the difference between how the two traditional wings of politics view human nature. The left, on the whole, believe in the fundamental goodness of humanity, and that the ills we face in this life are principally due to corrupt systems – if a person is bad, it is not by their choice. The right, on the whole, take a Hobbesian view that humanity is corrupt by its very nature, and systems only ever reflect that fundamental corruption – if a person is bad, it is by their own choice.

We’re all very aware that the creative types at the BBC are not shy of working their personal convictions into their works (which is questionable for a publicly funded broadcaster …) – and I was struck by the great efforts made to emphasise the Master’s insanity – and moreover that his (or now, her) actions are because of this insanity rather than some personal choice – hence the shock when the Tenth Doctor realises the drumbeat in the Master’s head is physically real. As if to ram home the point, Simm’s Master’s (almost) final words, were to roar at the Time Lord High Council: “You did this to me!”

Except, let’s be honest, that’s wholly unsatisfying.

Patrick Troughton is universally and deservedly recognised for his deep portrayal of the Doctor – and his famous speech from The Moonbase shows us why:

“There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.”

There is something within us as the viewer that resonates with the idea that there is such a thing as evil, and a choice. Delgado’s Master was palpably frightening because it gave a glimpse into what the Doctor we know and love would be like if he lost his moral compass. The Cybermen (in their truest form) are frightening because we see us in them, not like Cyber-Danny or Cyber-Brig (basically humanity in mech-suits) but rather humanity removing all fundamental goodness. And of course the Daleks were a vivid reminder of humanity’s flirtation with fascism – viewers growing up who remembered the war had no difficulty believing in the concept of evil.

As I pondered on this, I have now reached the point of wondering whether the famously left-liberal leaning BBC have allowed their philosophy to inform their writing. If we examine our own hearts, we quite like the idea of the Master not being responsible for his own actions – that the responsibility lies with the Time Lords, he cannot help being bad, and somehow if he were ‘fixed’ he’d be just as good as the Doctor. All of us prefer the idea that someone or something else is to blame for when we get it wrong. Except this philosophy is very much the philosophical equivalent of a security blanket – far from empowering humanity, it dehumanises us by taking away the one thing within our power – the power to choose.

What resonates with the viewer? It was when the Doctor threw the command of the Cyber-army to Danny, not because he was a good man, but because he made the choice. It was when the War Doctor decided to end the Time War because it had to be done; when the Doctor put his own life at risk to save Peri in The Caves of Androzani; the countless times the Doctor and his companions have resisted evil against overwhelming odds, because it was the right thing to do. What resonates with the viewer? It was Tom Baker holding two wires in Genesis of the Daleks and pondering ‘Have I the right?’ He recognised it was his choice, and therefore his responsibility to live with the actions.

I may yet overcome my reservations about a female Master, but end this madness! Allow the Master to be evil because she has chosen to be, as Delgado once did, rather evil from compunction as the new producers have been so determined to do.