Monthly Archives: June 2014

The End of Time

So, this is it. After three and a bit seasons and five Christmas specials, David Tennant’s turn as the tenth Time Lord reaches its dramatic conclusion. It’s Russell T Davies’ second chance to write the ultimate conclusion to end all conclusions, to wrap up the most popular incarnation of the character and to end his time on this show, and I’m pleased to say that he does a better job of it than the season 4 finale. Although a chimpanzee with a typewriter would have done a better job of that, so it’s not saying much.

The Ood elder tells the Doctor of his prophecy.

The Ood elder tells the Doctor of his prophecy.

And it’s my second chance to watch this two-and-a-quarter hour double bill, of which I have only the vaguest memories, mostly of the Master dressed like a scruffy hoodie with a glowing transparent skull and Timothy motherflipping Dalton turning up with his posse of Time Lords and spitting a lot. I had somehow erased the memories of the Master turning the entire human race into clones of himself (including a bad lookalike of President Obama) and the whole thing again with the drum rhythm, knocking four times, and the sound of a Time Lord heartbeat (ooh, nice touch, I’d almost think this was planned all along). There is a wonderful moment when, finally, after all the bluffs, the prophecy of the Doctor’s death (he will knock four times) turns out to be Wilf knocking on the glass door of the radiation chamber, asking to be let out, and a calm realisation spreads over the Doctor’s face. If I take away anything good from this episode, it will be that moment. It’s lovely.

Tap-tap-tap-tap, and it all makes sense.

Tap-tap-tap-tap, and it all makes sense.

Bernard Cribbins does a fantastic job as Wilfred, even if he does look like he’s on the verge of tears in every scene (or maybe because of that!). Wilf is essential in keeping this story grounded in human drama while insane things are happening around them. His scenes with the Doctor where they do nothing but talk to each other in a café are some of the best. The rest of the story concerns itself with big but flimsy ideas like destiny, prophecies and, yet again, the death of the entire human race and the end of the existence of time as we know it. Because, obviously, you can’t have a finale without something ridiculous happening. I don’t know why Russell T Davies has to write so many stories involving “everybody in the world”, because it immediately loses its believability if you stop to think about it for two seconds. Every single person on the planet turning into a copy of the Master would wreak absolute havoc. Planes would fall out of the sky, cars would crash in the street, people of different sizes, like children, could be crushed to death in seats and harnesses, and what about pregnant women? Are there mini-Masters inside Masters, or did all the foetuses die? I feel like I’ve said this a hundred times now, but you cannot do such big events like this without thinking about the consequences.

"Look, ma, I'm the president!"

“Look, ma, I’m the president!”

Timothy Dalton is fantastic. Having previously appeared in Hot Fuzz, he was obviously deemed a good fit for the role of the villain again. He exudes charisma and presence both as the narrator to the events of part 1 and as the president of the Time Lords. This is the first time we see Gallifrey and the high council since the 1980s and the scale of these scenes is a vast improvement, beautifully captured by the VFX team without appearing overly “greenscreen-y”. The Time Lords have always been corrupt, but the time war has sent them over the edge of evilness. I was surprised to hear the council talking about the Doctor’s search for “the Moment” that will end their existence. I hadn’t realised the events of ‘The Day of the Doctor’ had been so explicitly foreshadowed. Side note: The Doctor travels a lot before coming to see the Ood at the start of the episode, during which time he marries Queen Liz!

The Time Lords, and Gallifrey, return. Briefly.

The Time Lords, and Gallifrey, return. Briefly.

It’s a shame the Master is a little wasted here, turned into a rampaging monster that wants to eat people. This would have been a good opportunity to cast a different actor and do a whole new take on the character, rather than bringing back John Simm. There’s a good chance this will happen in the upcoming series, given his fate at the end. As for the Doctor’s fate, the radiation chamber is as contrived a setup as you can imagine, leading to the most drawn-out death scene ever. There’s literally fifteen minutes of screen time after the accident in which every major character the tenth Doctor has ever met is bid farewell. To say it’s indulgent is putting it mildly. I suppose I can’t really blame Russell T Davies for wanting to add these scenes; this is just as much a finale for him as a writer as it is for the tenth Doctor as a character, but I must say, the way the Doctor clings onto his life is like a petulant child. He’s been through at least nine regenerations by this point, he knows the drill. He should have had more dignified last words than “I don’t want to go.”

I don't understand why Martha and Mickey are suddenly married. Wasn't she already engaged to somebody else?

I don’t understand why Martha and Mickey are suddenly married. Wasn’t she already engaged to somebody else?

While I enjoyed parts of this finale and felt it was quite cleverly wrapped up, there’s a lot that doesn’t work so well or doesn’t make sense if you think about it too much. The high stakes are implausible – why would a device capable of transforming the population of an entire planet (it’s basically a weapon of mass destruction) be so casually discarded, with only a pair of bumbling alien scientists to come and salvage it? The Doctor falling from their ship and crashing through a glass ceiling, and surviving with just a few scratches, is possibly the most ridiculous thing he’s ever done. He’s not superman!

The Doctor's explosive regeneration wrecks the Tardis.

The Doctor’s explosive regeneration wrecks the Tardis.

As this is the end of the tenth Doctor’s run, I will briefly comment on the character and David Tennant’s portrayal. I think David Tennant defined the character almost as much as Tom Baker did. Not just because he was really popular and stayed on for so long; he’s a fantastic actor, whether he’s doing his comedy thing, his angry shouty thing or his quiet solemn thing. You only have to watch episodes like The Family of Blood to see the sort of range he’s capable of. His style and characteristics became synonymous with Doctor Who. He’s a tough act to follow.

The tenth Doctor is more human-like than many of the others, excepting Paul McGann as the eighth. Like him, he’s got a romantic side but actually (more or less) falls in love, which is a first. It’s not a trait I particularly care for as I feel the Doctor should be more alien and weird (something Matt Smith nails). The Doctor has always been a caring character (that’s basically what he does) but, with Ten, this empathy is more explicit, leading to more instances of him being visibly rattled, distraught or affected by events. Like Nine, his cheerful comedy routine is just to cover up his true feelings.

Any version of the Doctor (yes, even Tom Baker) wears thin over time. As I was rewatching his first season, I found him extremely likeable, but as time goes on, the character picks up annoying little habits (“weeeelllll…”), catchphrases (“allons-y!”) or traits that begin to grate (“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”). A lot of this is down to the writing, of course. I would have liked to see more of the tenth Doctor under the new writing team (when he reappears in the 50th anniversary special, he’s actually excellent). The Tenth Doctor is merciful, even to his greatest enemies, always looking for a solution other than killing, and he is fascinated by human culture to the point of coming across like an excitable space tourist.

Anyway, I’m not going to put David Tennant in ranking order with all the others, because I haven’t bothered doing those for the new series – the style of the programme is too different to compare them fairly with the old serials – but I will say that I like him more than I liked Christopher Eccleston.

Here’s my pick of favourite episodes from the past three seasons. Thanks for reading, and here’s to the next Doctor!

The Girl in the Fireplace.
A scary, sweet and clever adventure that crosses time and space.

The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit
Excellent visual design and another scary story in an impossible situation.

Human Nature / The Family of Blood
A tragic love story and David Tennant’s best performance.

Blink
The best Doctor Who episode doesn’t star the Doctor. Ingenious and frightening.

Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead
Moffat crams more out-of-this-world ideas and scares into this two-parter.

Turn Left
A wonderful “what-if” tale where the Doctor never saved the world.

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The Waters of Mars

It’s 2059, on the day that the first ever human colony on Mars will mysteriously explode, taking all hands and explanations with it. This “autumn special” gets back to basics, providing a solid, scary, self-contained story of survival. One small group of humans, isolated and helpless; one alien virus spreading through the water supply and turning the crew into hideous monsters; and one rogue Time Lord, unbound by the rules of his people and determined to change a fixed point in history, whatever the cost.

Pretty.

Pretty.

In its quest to make everyday things scary, Doctor Who now turns to water, as precious a resource as any on the surface of Mars. One drop will turn you into one of the freakiest creatures I’ve seen on this show, brought to life by a combination of excellent make-up, zombie-like performances and great camera direction, with the transformations often happening out of focus in the background. As a horror story, The Waters of Mars is fairly typical, as its cast of international astronauts are offed one by one. They are a likable bunch this time, and the Doctor has an infectious enthusiasm for their mission – before realising that he needs to leave, quickly.

Terrifying!

Terrifying!

Water wins eventually.

Water wins eventually.

This is another example of seemingly arbitrary rules governing what the Doctor can and can’t change. In The Fires of Pompeii, he simply says that some points are fixed and some are in flux, but doesn’t say why. Here, it’s strongly implied that the rules are laid down by the Time Lords, presumably because they can scan the effects of every action in spacetime and determine which ones are favourable. Earth’s future of space exploration would fall under “very important”. It’s not that the Doctor physically cannot help, it’s that he isn’t allowed to. When he finally decides he’s going to save some of the colonists anyway, he oversteps his authority. For a moment, the power he has over time corrupts him and he nearly becomes a monster. It’s a good bit of development for the character, and it reinforces his need for a travelling companion, someone to keep him grounded. There will be consequences.

Captain Brooke and her team of implausibly attractive astronauts aboard Bowie Base One.

Captain Brooke and her team of implausibly attractive astronauts aboard Bowie Base One.

All of that makes some lovely drama but there’s a problem. The captain, Brooke, is too willing to go along with the rules, too quick to judge the Doctor on something that she shouldn’t even understand. It’s not believable that she would choose to take her own life because someone has told her what her fate is. It’s not a human response to accept the inevitability of fate – we prefer the future to be unwritten. It almost seemed like her decision to take her own life was being controlled by time itself, as a (admittedly nonsensical) course correction process, but I don’t like that idea.

The Doctor returns for a dramatic rescue.

The Doctor returns for a dramatic rescue.

Still, otherwise, The Waters of Mars is pretty good. Had this been the year’s Christmas special, as originally conceived (see the snow at the end), it would be comfortably the best Christmas special so far. Mars is a good setting, significantly nicer looking than the last time it was shown in Doctor Who, and the habitat interiors have a pleasing aesthetic, futuristic but believable. The short time the characters appear is long enough to like them. The rocket-propelled robot racer was silly and there’s still too much sonic screwdrivering, but on the whole this was enjoyable, creepy and dramatic. The Doctor even name-drops the Ice Warriors at one point – now there’s a blast from the past!

Planet of the Dead

The Doctor, now a lonely wanderer, winds up back in London on the trail of a wormhole, hops on a number 200 bus (this is the 200th serial, sort of) with an assortment of characters, including a cat burglar on the run, and accidentally gets transported to an alien planet. I guess they just wanted a reason to show a London bus in the middle of a desert, and to be fair, it is a strikingly memorable image.

Last stop, San Helios. Or is it Tatooine?

Last stop, San Helios. Or is it Tatooine?

What I find partially refreshing about this episode is the simplicity of the characters’ predicament. There’s no contrived reason for being trapped on the alien planet – they simply can’t pass back through the wormhole alive unless they’re protected by a metal container, and the bus is stuck in the sand, mere metres away from it. It takes a bit of good old-fashioned ingenuity to get them back rather than a wave of the magic screwdriver or a neutron polarity reversal or whatever. I like that.

#Stingraaaaay... stingray! Da-da-daa-daa-daa-daa!#

#Stingraaaaay… stingray! Da-da-daa-daa-daa-daa!#

There’s also no “bad guys” in this episode. The threat they face is a biological force of nature, a swarm of metal-coated stingray aliens, flying from planet to planet, consuming it as part of their natural life cycle. There’s no menace, just survival instinct. The marooned fly-like aliens, the Tritovores, are friendly as well, despite their appearances (animals as aliens again, really?). With no villain, then, this becomes a simple story of survival, but one with a more jovial tone than perhaps it ought to. The music is more whimsical than usual and the presence of Lee Evans as the scientist bloke is for comic relief, but I quite like his character (more than his stand-up routines, anyway).

UNIT's latest scientific advisor, Malcolm Taylor, speaks to his hero.

UNIT’s latest scientific advisor, Malcolm Taylor, speaks to his hero.

Michelle Ryan plays the Lady Christina, a rich thrill-seeker who just robbed a museum of a very valuable gold chalice, just for fun. Goodness knows, Doctor Who needs better female characters, but is this the answer? Christina is, much like the Doctor, overly-confident, authoritative and clever, but she’s barely passable as a human being and seems to be having far too much fun in every scene. She’s easy on the eyes, for sure, but what is her drive, her motivation? Who is she, other than “sassy, smart-talking, sexy thief”? The other bus passengers aren’t exactly three-dimensional either, which is unusual for a Russell T Davies story, and the Doctor doesn’t seem to care very much when the bus driver gets himself fried. The prophetic old woman is pulled from the Big Book of Clichés, teasingly informing the Doctor that his time is coming to an end. Apparently, psychic power in humans is nothing to worry about.

Formal request: Could everybody please stop kissing the Doctor? Thanks.

Formal request: Could everybody please stop kissing the Doctor? Thanks.

On the whole, I found enough to enjoy here. The big concept science fiction premise is appealingly simple and the imagery is excellent. There are, however, a few too many silly moments that take me right out of it. The incompetent security guards who stand with their backs to the chalice that they’re supposedly guarding, with no protection on top, is one thing, but then the police later are similarly dumb, keeping their police car door unlocked on the inside! It’s farcical!

With no Tardis to translate, the Doctor talks to the Tritovores with clicks and squeaks, until they use their own device.

With no Tardis to translate, the Doctor talks to the Tritovores with clicks and squeaks, until they use their own device.

Planet of the Dead is the first ever episode of Doctor Who to be made and shown in high definition. The location shooting in Dubai looks great. Some of the special effects do look a bit iffy, particularly the stingrays and some shots of the flying bus, but on the whole it’s a good looking production.

The Next Doctor

With rumours of David Tennant’s departure from Doctor Who back in 2008/’09, Russell T Davies seemed to enjoy teasing the audience with things like fake regenerations and misleading episode titles… at least, that’s how I remember it. The Next Doctor ostensibly depicts a future incarnation of the travelling Time Lord, who is trying to solve a series of murders and kidnappings in Victorian London. It plays up to this ruse for the first half of the episode before finally admitting that, actually, he’s not the Doctor at all, he’s just a man named Jackson Lake (played by David Morrissey), who’s been infused with the Doctor’s memories in an accident that took his family.

The next Doctor shows off his "sonic" screwdriver by banging it against the wall.

The next Doctor shows off his “sonic” screwdriver by banging it against the wall.

On the basis of this performance, he would have made a pretty good Doctor had they decided to go that way – somewhat like Peter Davison’s fifth, grounded and human but brilliant and inventive. The scenes where the “two Doctors” team up and work together are fun, and the reveal of the new Doctor’s “TARDIS” raised a smile as well. The rest of the episode is, well… the usual routine.

Miss Hartigan is shown no "Mercy" as the Cybermen predictably betray her.

Miss Hartigan is shown no “Mercy” as the Cybermen predictably betray her.

Cybermen in a Dickensian setting at Christmas should be far better than this, but they’re just not very interesting villains anymore. They’re deadly and threatening when they need to be (zapping people with a touch) but useless when they’re fighting the Doctor (with a sword – why not zap him through it?), and their leader, Miss Hartigan, has only vague motives to support her pantomime villain routine. The “Cybershades” are supposed to look retro or something, but they’re just too fluffy and adorable and make little sense. The Cyberking looks amazing and has a great steampunk vibe to it, but it’s similarly implausible. How did something that big hide under the Thames? It’s just another “big threat” for the sake of, with a poor resolution – more magic weapons and silly save-the-day devices.

The Cyberking flattens London. Nobody ever mentions it again.

The Cyberking flattens London. Nobody ever mentions it again.

Still, it’s not too bad. Before it gets boring, the mystery of the Jackson Lake character gives the episode an intriguing focus (he should have had more to do in the final act – put him in the balloon instead, for instance!). It was nice to see the old footage of all ten Doctors projected from the infostamp (that’s the first time that’s happened, isn’t it?). It’s Christmassy, but the Christmassiness isn’t overdone – there’s no embarrassing scene like the Queen waving in last year’s special. But, it is still just a big budget special and these rarely rise above “okay”. Unfortunately, without a regular season and a regular companion, 2009 was all about one-off specials, and the Doctor getting increasingly whiny to the point where I was glad to see him go.