Doctor Who – The Beginning (The Companion Chronicles)

Where Can I Find It?

Big Finish

Written by

Marc Platt

Directed by

Lisa Bowerman

What’s It About?

Ad copy: When the First Doctor and his grand-daughter Susan escape through the cloisters of Gallifrey to an old Type 40 Time Travel capsule, little do they realize the adventures that lie ahead… And little do they know, as the TARDIS dematerializes and they leave their home world behind, there is someone else aboard the ship. He is Quadrigger Stoyn, and he is very unhappy…

Cover for The Beginning

I was playing with a chair which should have been housebroken

Marc Platt seems to be Big Finish’s go to writer for major revisitations of classic series stories. He wrote the origin of the Cybermen (Spare Parts), the return of the Mara (The Cradle of the Snake), the origin of Magnus Greel (The Butcher of Brisbane), and with The Beginning he visits a pre-Unearthly Child time period for the second time (the first being Quinnis). And while Big Finish has many excellent writers, Platt is one of my favorites. I enjoy the way he layers concepts in his stories, weaving together ideas that reflect one another. The Beginning is no different as the title is a clever play on words and expectations.

On one level, the most obvious one, The Beginning refers to the Doctor and Susan’s flee from Gallifrey. The audio hits the ground running, with the Doctor, Susan, and a mysterious trunk making their way through the bowels of the Citadel. They arrive at a bank of time capsules and pick one in haste. While I didn’t particularly care for The Name of the Doctor, there is a nice reference to that story, and then the adventure begins in earnest. With the stolen TARDIS, however, comes Quadrigger Stoyn (played by Terry Molloy), a TARDIS mechanic who was doing repairs on the damaged ship. Stoyn has never left Gallifrey, and he is horrified at his predicament. And so, The Beginning refers to where all this started, but graciously leaves certain details—such as the reason for the Doctor and Susan’s escape—in mystery. I appreciate this discretion.

On another level, The Beginning refers to beginnings in a more cosmological sense. The Doctor, Susan, and Stoyn arrive on Earth before the emergence of human life. It is here where Platt’s layering becomes truly fascinating to the Religious Studies side of my interests. At the beginning of human life is the ancient cosmological idea of Order and Chaos. Many ancient near eastern texts have this duality at the core of their worldview. Even passages of the Old Testament are probably best understood as Order and Chaos rather than retro-fitting Platonic or Enlightenment ideas onto the interpretation of texts. And these ancient texts are clear in the view that Order is benevolent and Chaos is malicious. Order is embodied in divine beings who keep the weather clear and the crops growing (order in nature) and society at peace (order in humans). Chaos, on the other hand, is embodied in divine beings who create storms and natural disasters (disorder in nature) and society at war or ridden with crime (disorder in humans). And at the heart of The Beginning is an alien race seeding order into the cosmos, taking the disorder of creation and bringing it into a peaceful alignment. But as this function is somewhat mechanistic (for what is more orderly than pure logic and no emotions), the ordered existence of life has no growth, no struggles and perseverance, no free will.

Into this ordering process steps our chaotic-good-aligned Doctor. The experiment by which the alien race attempts to bring order is interrupted and humanity is created. Disordered life rises on Earth. The aliens decide the experiment has failed and the only option left is to destroy the Earth. The Doctor and Susan intervene. In a way, Marc Platt upends the ancient near east duality by making our hero a god of chaos who, with the best of intentions, introduces chaos into humanity before they emerge. Put another way, he puts an aspect of himself into humanity which subsumes the aspect of Order. By doing so, the Doctor has created, in this moment, every human-involved battle he has ever fought. He has bound himself up with the destiny of humanity. He has created humanity, not in a physical sense, but in a psychological/spiritual sense. The price of free will becomes the ability to choose evil. The price of struggle and perseverance is pain and suffering. The Doctor, then, is god but also Satan. And the great irony of this act of creation is that the First Doctor, at this point in his career, is probably the most selfish, least moral of all his incarnations (until the Sixth).

Quadrigger Stoyn becomes the other villain of this piece. He wants to get home and he realizes the Doctor has no intention of returning him there. Thus, Stoyn is willing to use whatever methods necessary to get control of the TARDIS, to get home. Stoyn is memorably played by Terry Molloy, but I don’t think we get enough of him in this story to really understand his motivations. All we know is that he is a mechanic who is experiencing his first trip off Gallifrey, and that it is against his will. And the other threat Stoyn brings is his willingness to turn the Doctor in to the authorities, to the Fetches. Since this story is also the first in a trilogy involving Stoyn, these details may be fleshed out later.

It is probably good to go in to this story knowing that the reasons the Doctor and Susan left Gallifrey are not revealed. Apart from Stoyn, the Gallifreyan elements are minimal and The Beginning could just be another pre-series adventure. But by tying the beginning of the Doctor’s life to the origin of human life, Marc Platt has given us something we never knew we wanted (or at least I never knew that I wanted): a reason why the Doctor’s life is tied up with humanity.

5 Episode Evaluation: Almost Human

cast photo and logo for Almost Human
The Premise

The year is 2048 and the evolution of technology has sped out of control. In order to help combat the rise of technological crime, the police force has mandated that all officers be paired with an advanced-model android. Detective John Kennex risked his life and lost his leg to save a fellow officer after his previous android partner refused to assist him in the rescue. Because of his distrust of androids, Kennex has been assigned a discontinued android model, one developed to imitate human behavior and emotions–but had a tendency to malfunction and go mad. Kennex and his new partner, Dorian, must learn to work together to help stem to tide of technologically based crime.

Created by

J.H. Wyman


Karl Urban, Michael Ealy, Minka Kelly, Mackenzie Crook, Michael Irby, and Lili Taylor

Episodes Evaluated
  1. Pilot – Written by J.H. Wyman; Directed by Brad Anderson
  2. Skin – Written by Cheo Hodari Coker; Directed by Michael Offer
  3. Are You Receiving? – Written by Justin Doble; Directed by Larry Teng
  4. The Bends – Written by Daniel Grindlinger; Directed by Kenneth Fink
  5. Blood Brothers – Written by Cole Maliska; Directed by Omar Madha

Buddy-cop banter; Mackenzie Crook; Strong leads; the potential to be a techno-crime thriller. Soundtrack by the Crystal Method (is this a play out of the Tron/Daft Punk book?)


Not-quite-cop-show, not-quite-techno-crime-thriller. There are hints of a larger story arc, but it has been slow in building. Why have a character arc when you can NOT have a character arc! Secondary characters seem underdeveloped.

Two Cops From the Scrap Heap

In a way, I think Fringe had it easy. Fringe was a show about paranormal investigation in the vein of The X-Files. It had its roots in horror, displaying a few police procedural trappings. But make no mistake, there was never any expectation that Fringe wasn’t science fiction. It had a confidence in focus, theme, and genre that was almost masterful and seemed virtually effortless.

Almost Human is one of the shows that picked up remnants from Fringe. First, it retains some of the writers and behind-the-scenes personnel from Fringe. Second, there is a thematic remnant from Fringe. Early in the previous show’s run, the theme dealt with technology that was growing at such a rate that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to regulate. Corporations and private industry were pursuing their own technological agendas, utilizing science that was beyond the comprehension of any governing agency. This reflects our i-driven world, a world which is being shaped more by technological advance than by old modes of social structure and authority. It also held within it a critique of capitalism as a force which subverts governing structures. Many of the technologies we interact with on a daily basis were developed by private industry, by grassroots movements to meet a perceived need that had not been seen by other developers. Who can regulate this technology? Should this technology be regulated or supported? Are technology and government, in our current society, at odds with one another? And then, somewhat early in the game, Fringe turned everything on its head by suggesting that the society which did not understand, regulate, develop, and dialogue with its emerging technologies would be at the mercy of a society which did. And so, is it possible that our technology is developing independently, or is it being developed at the behest of some unknown agency? These are huge questions. Fringe was nothing if not about asking huge questions.

Standard android partner model
The MX-43: Surprisingly easy to destroy.

The Fringe remnant from Almost Human is this idea of unregulated technology. But it extrapolates the randomness and lack of intervention in our current society and posits that we are at the mercy of our own foolishness. Another society didn’t arrive, manipulate, and enslave us. We are alone and our technology is destroying us. Or, put another way, humans are humans, and we will develop new technologies for criminal activity. This is the core of Almost Human. And this is also the obstacle which stands in the way of the series being truly brilliant. The show has put itself into a difficult position of holding in tension two equally compelling ideas: technology and crime. Science fiction and detective fiction—two genres which are frequently blended, but to what degree are they being blended here? And this is where Almost Human falls apart for me. I cannot tell what this show is trying to be. I cannot hear what this show is trying to say. Is it futuristic detective fiction, an analogue to historical detective fiction, or is it a science fiction, techno-thriller? Each of these operates with slightly different rules. They can be blended, but such blending must be handled carefully and it necessitates clear vision and focus. (Indeed, the lack of such focus in these first five episodes may be reflected in the departure of Naren Shankar, who was brought in as executive producer and co-showrunner with J.H. Wyman. Shankar has extensive experience with science fiction and police drama. Wyman has experience in both as well but Shankar’s c.v. is much longer. I’m curious as to the creative differences that may have developed and where each man saw the show going.)

The problem with attempting to blend police drama and science fiction is similar to blending detective stories and historical fiction: the investigation illustrates the setting. In fact, setting is extremely important in detective fiction, from Agatha Christie’s manors and villages to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian setting, to Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. Each of these authors lived in their settings, however, and so they commented upon them in their own way. The better comparison would be shows/novels such as Cadfael, John Maddox Roberts’ SPQR, Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder, or Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The point of the comparison is that crimes are always the same, committed out of universal human tendencies which disrupt the desired order of society. The investigation in historical mysteries, then, serves to illustrate not crime per se, but the society in which the crime is committed. It comments on the attitudes, conventions, and narratives of the historical period. Even Christie, Doyle, and Chandler do this, and they were writing about their contemporary society.

Rudy Lom goes undercover in a stylish suit and fedora.
Rudy Lom Investigates!

Almost Human, being set in the future, must use crime to add to the setting. It must project a society from ours and use the mysteries and investigations to explore that society. Thus, the investigation is rooted in world building. And one problem with movies and television with regard to science fiction and world building is that they occasionally rely too heavily on special effects and not enough on writing. In the five episodes I viewed for this evaluation, only one really works to merge investigation and world building: “Skin,” which explores robot prostitution. It works within the “almost human” theme of the show, commenting that even robot prostitutes are not really human, and thus humans are abducted and killed as a future-type skin grafting trade occurs. As horrific as this sounds, it is a compelling piece of world building. But no other episode in these five really works with the strength of “Skin.” Instead, they just seem to transplant contemporary crimes into a future society and develop technologies for the story which help the criminals to commit the crimes. It is like saying that in a hypothetical historical mystery, the assassin uses a bow instead of a gun. There is nothing inherently interesting in the difference. What I want to know instead is how the bow reflects the society, how the gun reflects the society. Those are the bigger ideas which lurk behind great detective fiction. This is the area that I don’t feel Almost Human has yet mastered because it has a society which hasn’t been developed beyond generic sci-fi city. I think there is an arc lurking in the background somewhere, but they are slow in revealing it, focusing instead on character development (which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily), but the characters seem to be underdeveloped. Much as I love Mackenzie Crook’s performance in “The Bends,” I think the performance brought more to the episode than the script. He is still just tech nerd. Detective Stahl (Minka Kelly) is still just attractive love interest. Detective Paul (Michael Irby) is still just rival cop. Captain Maldonado (Lili Taylor) has had a decent character episode, but the investigation didn’t really complement it. John Kennex (Karl Urban) and Dorian (Michael Ealy), however, are very well played and fun to watch.

Maybe the lack of focus in these early episodes represents the two visions before Shankar left the show. Maybe the show will find its footing in the next few episodes and begin to reach its potential by the middle of the season. I hope it does. The show could be a lot of fun; it just needs to figure out exactly what it is about and what it is trying to say.

Forge Ahead?

I may give the show another five episodes as time permits. If you love buddy cop banter, by all means watch this show. It is a lot of fun from that perspective. At the moment, however, I think that is all the show really has working for it.

Introduction of 5 Episode Evaluations: A New Blog Series

I was super excited about having time off from class. First, school being out is always a great thing. This semester had been particularly trying for me. I started the semester with four classes, three of which were 500-level classes. It was fairly late in the semester when I realized I needed to drop one of these classes because I couldn’t keep up with the work. Better late than never, although I spent the rest of the semester trying to regain my footing and emotional energy. So I need this month off. I need to recharge and rest, to read and write.

Second, this is an ideal opportunity to knock out quite a few Doctor Who episodes. At least, I thought it would. I’ve been cracking along at a nice pace, picking up DVDs from the library or watching episodes on Hulu or through iTunes. But I ran into a problem: I cannot find a copy of Revelation of the Daleks. The local library doesn’t have it. iTunes doesn’t have it. Hulu doesn’t have it. Since I am trying to pursue this journey through legal means all that is left is to track down a copy of the DVD and purchase it. I’m happy to do this, but a Doctor Who DVD doesn’t fit into the budget at the moment. I’m a bit disappointed because I was hoping to finish Colin Baker’s era before the end of the month. We’ll get there eventually, though.

Since I don’t want to stop writing, I’m going to debut a new series on Friday. The series is called 5 Episode Evaluation (5EE). Whenever I watch a new series (or a new-to-me series) I try to give it five episodes to win me over, ideally the first five episodes in the series. Based on these five episodes, I think I can get a feel for what the series is trying to do and whether or not I want to stick with it. If a show doesn’t survive my 5EE, that doesn’t mean it is a bad show, it just means it doesn’t appeal to me. It doesn’t provide me with enough motivation to make the time to watch it. I also feel compelled to acknowledge that not all shows hit their stride in the first five episodes. I gave up on Babylon 5 nearly 20 years ago because I couldn’t get hooked in those first five episodes. Some years later, I caught repeats of season four on the Sci-Fi channel and was hooked. Sometimes shows change, for the better or for the worse. Sometimes they had the change planned all along, as was the case with Babylon 5.

5EE is just my perspective on a show. It doesn’t say anything other than what I thought while watching it and where my thoughts lead as I analyzed it. It also gives me an opportunity to cover more than just Doctor Who, which is something I hope to do more of when I finally get to the end of this long journey I have been on. I already have a number of shows lined up for 5EE, but I am open to suggestions. What shows do you want me to evaluate? Leave your recommendations in the comments.

And tomorrow will be 5EE: Almost Human. See you then.

Doctor Who – Timelash

Doctor Who Story 142- Timelash

Written by

Glen McCoy

What’s It About

While investigating a time corridor, the Doctor and Peri arrive on Karfel, a world the Doctor has visited before. But it seems things did not improve after his interference.

I don’t know whether to be impressed or disgusted

The Doctor joyfully enters the timelashWhat can be said about “Timelash” that is worth saying or is in any way redemptive?

There are two really good ideas at the core of “Timelash”: (1) The Doctor revisiting a location he had once helped, only to find said location wasn’t helped at all by his intervention, and (2) a Doctor Who tribute to H.G. Wells. Neither of these, however, are handled well.

A story of a return, while done a couple of times in the past (“The Ark,” “The Face of Evil”) would have been most effective if it had been a return to a location we have already seen. How fascinating to see a later Doctor arrive somewhere a previous regeneration had helped, but to see unintended consequences! The Doctor might question himself. He may question his previous self and feel the need to right wrongs that he never saw at the time. This could have been so much better. Instead, we have a planet we have never seen and are given the story in exposition. This feels like a story with a returning villain or setting (and in the last few years we have seen a lot of returning villains and characters), but it never quite pays off because it is new. The trajectory of the era up to this point has been deceptive and actually hurts this story. Again, every episode has seen a reference to the past, but here, where a reference to the past is explicit in the story, there is none. Instead, we get a couple of references to Jo Grant and the Pertwee Doctor, but no actual return to a Pertwee-era story.

As for H.G. Wells, Doctor Who owes much to him. His approach to sci-fi has been extremely influential to Doctor Who. In fact, there is a good documentary on “The Ark” DVD about the influence of Wells. But in this story, the tribute to Wells is incidental. There are a few references through character names or monster names. Wells appears as a character halfway through, but his identity is left unknown until the end of the story. There doesn’t seem to be anything distinctly Wells in his portrayal. Worst of all, he is entirely forgettable, which is not what you want in a tribute. At least new Who makes their historical tributes memorable. They distill the historical figure into identifiable traits and struggles. They humanize them. In “Timelash,” Wells is just a plucky male assistant. His identity doesn’t matter. There is nothing in the story that prompts the viewer to want to pick up a Wells novel, nothing to compel the viewer to go deeper. What use is a tribute, then, if it doesn’t inspire the viewer?

So, on both counts that I have looked at, “Timelash” is a failure. But all Doctor Who stories have a fan or two somewhere. Let me know if you like “Timelash.” And even if you don’t care for it, how can we look at this story differently so as to redeem it? What interpretive lens improves this story?

Doctor Who – The Two Doctors

Doctor Who Story 141 – The Two Doctors

Written by

Robert Holmes

What’s It About?

The Second Doctor and Jamie are sent by the Time Lords to Space Station Chimera to investigate time experiments. The Doctor is captured because the masterminds behind the experiments need a Time Lord so they can unlock the secrets of TARDIS technology. Meanwhile, the Sixth Doctor develops a sensitivity to his past self’s abduction and realizes that if he is not able to save his past self, his present may be irrevocably changed.

Primitive Creatures Don’t Feel Pain in the Way We Would

Shockeye and The Doctor out on the town.It is always a joy to see Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines reprise their roles in Doctor Who. For me, however, this story is less about Troughton and Hines’ return and more about Robert Holmes. Yes, he was back a year earlier with “Caves of Androzani,” but “Caves” was somewhat atypical for Holmes. It lacked his humor and witticisms. It was Holmes as dark cynic; “The Two Doctors” is Holmes as biting, witty cynic.

Like “The Sun Makers,” “The Two Doctors” is harsh in its commentary, but instead of focusing on the British tax system, Holmes unleashes his disdain on people who eat meat. Holmes was a vegetarian, and his use of Androgums as a stand-in for carnivores leads to some wonderful dark comedy. The only problem is that by making Androgums a stand-in for a group, a viewer could choose to try other readings instead of the vegetarian reading. In such a case, statements referring to Androgum nature being savage, lesser, debased, and primitive can take a decidedly racist tone. Attempts to modify Cessini to a more civilized existence have certain Imperial overtones. But it is clear that the author’s true intent was to excoriate meat eaters. This is probably the best lens to read “The Two Doctors” through.

Some criticism has been levelled at this story due to the cruelty exhibited in the story: the Doctor delivering a one-liner after killing Shockeye, the death of Oscar, cannibalism. Some of this serves the social commentary, but with Oscar’s death I think the story veers too far toward the grim. Oscar was played as a thoroughly ridiculous character up to this point. He was absurd. His death is filmed as tragic, but I almost wonder if it was meant to be in the absurd, comic vein in which he was written. Indeed at times, as Oscar waxed of Shakespeare, I anticipated his death was being deliberately over-played, melodramatic, his injuries a mere superficial wound and revealed as such with great embarrassment. But no, he died. The bleakness of this moment threatens to distance the viewer from the story.

In spite of this, “The Two Doctors” is a very good story. There are things to be critical about, but the storytelling is quite good and the directing creates effective mood, even when I disagree with the mood chosen.

My Rating



Doctor Who – Mark of the Rani

Doctor Who Story 140 – Mark of the Rani

Written by

Pip and Jane Baker

What’s It About?

The TARDIS materializes near a coal mine in the 1800s as the Luddite rebellion is breaking out. But the Doctor and Peri soon discover that the Luddites bear an odd mark on their necks. And it is soon revealed that the Doctor isn’t the only Time Lord on the scene.

You’re unbalanced

The Rani is disgustedPip and Jane Baker are, as I understand it, a hated writing team among Doctor Who fans. This was the first story I have watched by them. While I don’t think “Mark of the Rani” is the worst Doctor Who story I’ve ever seen, I do see why some fans may not like it. I think the worst thing I can really say about the story is that the two 45 minute episode format is a huge stumbling block for this era of Doctor Who. “Mark of the Rani” would probably be fine if it was just 45 minutes and no more. There seems to be a lot of padding or at least a large amount of unevenness. But are those due to the script or the directing. I don’t really care, however. For some reason “Mark of the Rani” was fun. I really enjoyed it, and I think that was largely due to Kate O’Mara. The Rani is a fascinating concept. She is a Time Lord who rejected Time Lord society and set herself up as ruler of some other planet. But her people need chemicals to help them sleep, and humans have those chemicals, so she uses her scientific knowledge to extract what she needs from humanity. She doesn’t care about the consequences.

Since I am at the end of the semester (which is why this post is later than I have usually been scheduling them), I want to briefly reflect on actors who brought to life poorly written or otherwise uninteresting roles.

  • Kate O’Mara as the Rani. For some reason, this performance me. She is a Time Lord villain with a decently plausible motive for her nefarious deeds. O’Mara’s performance is wonderful and really stands out against Ainley’s Master and Colin Baker’s Doctor. She’s caught in the middle, but just wants to be left alone.
  • Roger Delgado as the Master. With as much reverence as Delgado is held in by fandom, I expected his Master to be amazing and brilliant. Unfortunately, he had incomprehensible plans, made all sorts of unusual decisions, and had no consistently discernable motive. But Delgado’s Master is still fascinating to watch because Roger Delgado brought class and villainy to this role. It could have been played camp (and by Ainley it was), but you would never know it because of Delgado.
  • Philip Madoc as anything, really. Madoc was brilliant because he managed to balance absurdity with believability. His masterwork in this regard is Dr. Solon in “The Brain of Morbius.” This character was extremely strange and morbid and could have failed miserably. Philip Madoc turned this role into something you couldn’t stop watching, and he threatened to upstage even Tom Baker.

I’m sure

I’m sure I could name many more. What are some of your favorite roles? What actors really made something memorable when they could have easily not bothered?

My Rating



Doctor Who – Day of the Doctor as Seen Through the Lens of Vengeance on Varos

Doctor Who Story 139 – Vengeance on Varos

Written by

Philip Martin

What’s It About?

The Doctor needs Zeiton-7 to repair the TARDIS and the only planet where it is mined is Varos, a planet under strict corporate control. The Doctor and Peri suddenly find themselves running for their lives in a torture dome which broadcasts death and dismemberment as entertainment.

When did they last show something worth watching?

vengeanceonvarosLawrence Miles has said that Steven Moffat has the best job in the world, by which he means show runner for Doctor Who. At the same time, I sometimes wonder if Steven Moffat has the most thankless job in Doctor Who, by which I also mean show runner.

The current position of show runner embodies a role that was divided between two people in the classic series: producer and script editor. The former oversaw the production aspect and acted as a liaison to the BBC, the latter commissioned stories and set the path for each season. In modern Who, the show runner does both by varying degrees. Thus, when Doctor Who is a success, one individual gets a good amount of credit; when it is not successful, one individual gets the blame. And since 2009 that individual has been Steven Moffat.

But Steven Moffat is not alone in the history of Doctor Who production. He is the latest in a long line of men (and one woman) who oversaw the show. He knows that there were people before him and there will very likely be people after him. Fans of the show are also quite aware of this, each having his or her own preferred production team: Lambert/Whitaker, Hinchcliffe/Holmes, Russell T. Davies, JNT/Saward, and so on and so on. But increasingly in this show that has a large fan following, a show that gave a strong voice to fans in the 1980s and still depends on the devotion and evangelism of fans, balancing the needs of show production, market viability, and fan service has to be a thankless job. I’ll put my cards on the table (as a preview of sorts to when I finally get to the New Who era): I loved Moffat stories from RTD’s run, I enjoyed series five, but everything since then has been inconsistent for me. I think Steven Moffat has certain personal tropes he relies upon, some which work very well and some which are annoying and don’t. And so in his current position as a show runner, I sometimes wonder if these tropes become his way of staying on schedule while dealing with the myriad other duties his job requires. Sometimes his stories annoy me greatly (every appearance of River Song since season six), but I love it when I can give him full credit for stories that stretch him beyond his tendencies, in this case, Day of the Doctor. The 50th Anniversary special out-and-out worked for me. I loved 98% of the thing and I can’t wait to watch it again. But Day of the Doctor aired after a year of hype and expectation, after a season which has seen the greatest criticism of Steven Moffat and his approach to Doctor Who, storytelling, and gender. And while there is genuine criticism to be had, there is also hatred for the sake of hatred. For some segments of fandom, Steven Moffat can do no good. Make no mistake, there is an opposite segment of fandom for whom Steven Moffat can do no wrong. And, as with all things, many people fall in the middle, acknowledging highs and lows and just hoping for a good story week after week.

Some of the criticism of Day of the Doctor is baffling to me as it seems Steven Moffat played to his strengths, stretched himself as a writer, and turned in a story that, pacing issues near the beginning aside, worked as a celebration of old and new and managed to fit quite well in the trajectory of all Doctor Who, from Lambert to Davies. I was seriously impressed.

Which brings me to Vengeance on Varos, which I can only read (during this viewing) as a metaphor for Doctor Who production. The Governor is the show runner, whether JNT from the era in which this show was produced, or Steven Moffat in our current era. The citizens are the two extremes of fandom, the critic for whom the show runner can do no good and the optimistic fan for whom the show runner can do no bad. (Statements such as “I like the one in the funny costume” elevate this reading as the superficial becomes substance.) I think it is telling that the two citizens spend all their time watching television, watching the Doctor and his companion go from one danger to another, enjoying different aspects and cringing at the ones they don’t. Sil and the Chief Officer represent the business concerns of Doctor Who (production cost, overseas marketing), recognizing the value of what they have but not wanting to give credit to it. Quillam, as the program manager who oversees the tortures, is the script editor from the classic Who model, and his love of the gruesome and violent leads me to see him primarily as an avatar for Eric Saward.

And so, Vengeance on Varos becomes a meta-textual criticism of Doctor Who itself in which the Doctor materializes inside his own show and attempts to redeem it. The Sixth Doctor is not as harsh as he was in the previous two stories; he is actually Doctor-like—unique but still of the traditional mold. In this story more than The Twin Dilemma and Attack of the Cybermen we see what the Sixth Doctor can be, rather than how he was written at the time. And the final moments of the story are a strong critique of the blind-fan mentality, emphasizing that while Doctor Who as an entity will not cease to exist (as Zeiton-7 is still in production, but more valuable than ever), it must go away for a while and redefine itself. (A prescient observation if ever there was one. What more compelling image in this era of the show than two fans sitting in disbelief as the screen goes blank?)

JNT and Steven Moffat are, in many ways, in the same struggle. Both must balance business and production interests with storytelling and fan criticism. Both were also fans of the show, and each has his own view of what Doctor Who should be. And both enjoy baiting the fans. But Vengeance on Varos as with The Day of the Doctor is Doctor Who at its most self-aware. It recognizes its place not just as a story, but as a production. And where Day of the Doctor celebrates the show, Vengeance on Varos criticizes it. It proposes a different attitude and approach. It asks fans to find a middle ground.

And, bottom line, Vengeance on Varos is a great story with a lot of depth and the story in which Colin Baker finally became the Doctor.

My Rating



Doctor Who – Attack of the Cybermen

Doctor Who Story 137 – Attack of the Cybermen

Written by

Paula Moore

What’s It About?

Cybermen and Telos and Litton and a lot of walking around.

Attack of the Cybermen DVD cover
It’s all there, but in a pile of unrelated bits and pieces

My wife has been reading this blog off and on since I started it. But about a year ago she got behind. A month ago, she committed to get caught up. (And no, I didn’t pressure her in to this; it was her own decision.) Despite not being caught up on the blog, she still gets to hear my occasional comments about whatever episode I am watching or theoretic lenses I want to try out on a story. I’ve been complaining about Eric Saward to her quite a bit. This past week, she said it was interesting and sad that she was currently reading my posts on season 18 and the vision of Christopher H. Bidmead. These posts are hopeful and filled with excitement about what is to come. But when I talk to her, it has been from a late/post-Peter Davison perspective, and that hope and excitement have been dashed against the Sawardian approach to Doctor Who.

Sadly, things have not gotten much better. But I want to turn away from nursing the annoyance at Saward and focus instead on what is now called “fan service.” There has been a lot of criticism leveled at Steven Moffat for inserting things into Doctor Who just for the sake of exciting the old fans of the show. Russell T. Davies got similar complaints. But in a way, what these two men have done is quite different from what was done in “Attack of the Cybermen,” which isn’t merely make reference to the past, but try to comment upon it and continue it. Under Jonathan Nathan Turner and Eric Saward, Doctor Who became self-aware in a very different way. It developed an in-universe continuity across the spectrum of Doctors rather than just with the current Doctor. And this continuity wasn’t based only around the Doctor’s character, but around other races and plotlines. This was developing in the Davison era and is revealed most obviously in “Resurrection of the Daleks,” but in the Sixth Doctor era it hits the ground running with “Attack of the Cybermen” in which numerous plot elements from other stories and eras are revisited. Litton from “Resurrection of the Daleks” has returned. The tomb of the Cybermen from Telos is revisited. The incident with the Doctor and Mondas is implied to have a major impact on why the Cybermen are on Telos to begin with. It is quite possible that “Attack of the Cybermen” is the most continuity-heavy episode of Doctor Who thus far, and it refers to stories that hardly anyone watching the show would have seen or remembered since this was an era before DVD.

Although, I must point out that Doctor Who started to be released on VHS in 1983. “Attack of the Cybermen” aired in 1985. And, according to a bit of research, the fan-favorite desired release for the first story on VHS was “Tomb of the Cybermen,” which was not in the archives at that point. Is it possible that “Attack of the Cybermen is so continuity heavy and so referent to “Tomb” because of the perception that fans wanted more of that story? It would go a long way toward explaining aspects of this story. But it also illustrates something that must always be held in tension with Doctor Who: the tension between long-term fans and newer fans, and the impact these segments of fandom have on the final product. Or, to put it another way, how much do you appeal to your audience and how much do you try to tell a compelling story. Naturally, the latter is always the first goal, but with any long-running storyline there is a pressure to pay attention/tribute to people who have been following you for a very long time. Add to that the sci-fi stereotype of detail-oriented continuity analysis, and there is a huge amount of pressure on the writer. In general, Doctor Who seems to do best when it ignores the continuity adherence, in large part because most of the show’s history never bothered with it to begin with. But sci-fi television has evolved since then, and in-universe continuity is the name of the game at the moment. How does Doctor Who navigate this?

(And it isn’t just Doctor Who that is dealing with this. Both Marvel and DC have been taking this challenge on in recent years. Star Trek has been rebooted for a new audience. Even James Bond has been reconfigured for a new era.)

The answer given by “Attack of the Cybermen” is to embrace the perceived past. (“The memory cheats,” as JNT is quoted as saying, meaning we never remember things as accurately as we think we do.) The problem, however, is that “Attack of the Cybermen” quickly becomes evidence that embracing the past is the wrong way to go. A story which embraces the continuity is then required to get it right, else it undermines its case. And given the lack of a primary source at the time (“Tomb of the Cybermen”), this was probably a bad idea. On top of that “Attack” is a fairly dull story. It is the first of the 45-minute stories of the Colin Baker era, and the pacing was still being worked out. Part one is uninteresting and more of a runaround with occasional moments of Cybermen pontificating. Part two develops an interesting plot with the Cryons, but by this point it is too late. This type of pacing may have worked with the old 25-minut format, but it fails here. Granted, they were trying something new, but there were plenty of examples of 45-minute sci-fi drama that worked by this point. Rather than using Star Wars as the model, JNT should have been watching Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, or The Outer Limits. At its core, classic Doctor Who is much closer to an anthology series. Rather than a linking narration, though, it has a linking main cast.

The Doctor showing his library card.

In many ways, the new series by RTD and Moffat improve upon what “Attack of the Cybermen” was trying to do. It jettisons far more plot-continuity in favor of character-continuity. But it is unfair to say that RTD and Moffat and JNT and Saward are working from a level playing field. They aren’t. RTD and Moffat have decades of sci-fi television examples to draw from. RTD is very Buffy inspired. Moffat is a little more Lost/continuity-heavy American sci-fi inspired. (Although, in fairness, Moffat’s influences are a little harder to pin down than RTD. Moffat has a little bit of Lost and a little bit of RTD Who. I’m still trying to get a good reading of his basic approach. Feel free to chime in in the comments.) But I believe both were/are doing the best with the pieces they had. But where “Attack of the Cybermen” attempted to concretely engage with and continue the stories of the past, RTD/Moffat Who tends to reference them with a wink and a nod. Is this wink and nod enough? Or should Doctor Who even bother?

My Rating