Doctor Who – Battlefield

Doctor Who Story 156 – Battlefield

Cast photo for BattlefieldThere are many things I love about this story, not least of which is the way it furthers the theme of change during the Seventh Doctor era. In the case of “Battlefield,” this change is applied to the Third Doctor/UNIT dynamic of Doctor Who. Jo Grant is name dropped as the Doctor pull out his identification. The Brigadier returns as a UNIT commander, albeit in a consulting capacity. An archaeological dig reveals ancient British mythology to be real and otherworldly in origin. A nuclear convoy leads to an arms cold war. These elements could have easily fit into the old Letts/Dicks model of Doctor Who. Here, they are given a Seventh Doctor spin with chess-piece manipulation by a future version of the Doctor even as the Seventh Doctor does his best to manipulate events in the present. There are only three problems I see with this story. First, the ambition far exceeds the ability of the show to portray it, although this is a great problem to have. Second, thematically, the Brigadier should have died. It was the original plan for this story, but Cartmel changed his mind. While I have no particular wish to see the Brigadier die onscreen, it would have fit in this story with its Arthur/Merlin parallels. It would have fit with the theme of change by reinforcing the way this story upends the Third Doctor/UNIT story in much the same way the destruction of Skaro signaled change in “Remembrance of the Daleks.” And third, the DVD of “Battlefield” has gone out of print in the U.S., so I can’t buy it for a reasonable price. It was a great story and worth owning.

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Doctor Who – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Doctor Who Story 155 – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Ace is harassed by clownsThe Greatest Show in the Galaxy is undeniably a magical episode. It merges styles and approaches to sci-fi in a way that are compelling. In a way, this metaphorically exploring fandom, not just of Doctor Who, but of science fiction in general. The Gods of Ragnarok passively watch the battle of show against show, blithely looking for stimulation, wanting to see something new and exciting. Naturally, the Doctor wins in the end, establishing the show with his name on it to be the greatest.

But what is also interesting is the establishment of the Doctor against gods. In past stories where the Doctor took on religious figures, it was revealed that the religion was based on a misunderstood scientific explanation, typically aliens mistaken for gods. And while there is no specific refutation of the Gods of Ragnarok as aliens (indeed, what would a god be but an alien entity), the story takes for granted that the Gods of Ragnarok are indeed gods. Their power is not explained in terms of natural or technological phenomena. They just exist and do as they wish. And so, while Christopher Bidmead (oh so long ago) turned technology into magic, now we have Cartmel making magic a thing in itself. Doctor Who has blurred that line between science fiction and fantasy, and it seems better for it.

Doctor Who – Silver Nemesis

Doctor Who Story 154 – Silver Nemesis

The Nemesis statueSilver Nemesis is certainly a mixed bag. It was preceded by two excellent stories, one which was compelling, exciting, and challenging, another which was thought-provoking, visually striking, and socially aware. In contrast, Silver Nemesis seems the most backward-looking story of the season, one which plays around with old ideas of Cybermen and gold (to an absurd degree) and costume drama. And Nazis. Wedded to these elements, however, are further explorations of the changing paradigm in Doctor Who with the Doctor’s mysterious nature and references to ancient Gallifrey. In a way, the new style is interacting with the old style, and they don’t quite gel.

In fact, this story almost seems like a bit of kitchen-sink storytelling. Tossing Cybermen, a medieval witch and warrior, Nazis, a dumb American, an ancient Time Lord weapon, and jazz. And given that this story has the most “Doctor Who-esque” trappings of any other McCoy era story thus far, and that it doesn’t work, one is aware of how much the show has changed since the 1970s. That mold has long since shattered and we can’t put Doctor Who back in it without it being a conglomerated mess, which Silver Nemesis is.

Perhaps it is because I’m currently studying Daoism in my Religions in China and Japan class, but I’m tempted to give this story a pseudo-Daoist reading. In part because Silver Nemesis attempts to superimpose old ideas onto a show that has grown and changed in striking ways since those ideas were last used successfully. Nemesis, then, illustrated resistance to change, which is a crime in Doctor Who as well as an indication of someone who is not living in harmony with the Dao. Since the Dao is the abstract, all-encompassing force that permeates existence, and the Dao is always changing, embracing change is the greatest act a person can do. Active inaction. Not imposing your reality onto reality. And so, imposing Doctor Who on Doctor Who creates bad Doctor Who.

***

I have heard it said before that bad Doctor Who is better than no Doctor Who. I disagree with this statement, but in the case of Silver Nemesis I grant an exception. The story fails and is bad but not through lack of ambition. I would rather see Doctor Who be an ambitious failure than see it play by-the-numbers. Oddly, Silver Nemesis can’t seem to make up its mind which it wants to do as it vacillates between ambition and by-the-numbers. However, it errs on the side of the former, which redeems it significantly in my eyes.

Doctor Who – The Happiness Patrol

Doctor Who Story 153 – The Happiness Patrol

I’ve spent three weeks studying Marshall McLuhan in my Religion, Media, and Popular Culture class. As a result, my mind is floating in McLuhanesque probes, which are not full, systematic analyses but short, brief expressions of ideas. They are meant to generate ideas and to challenge perceptions. The upshot of this is that I have had difficulty sustaining longer thoughts. Thus, last post and the next few may be very short. That’s my excuse, anyway.

Anyway, The Happiness Patrol . . . .

Read enough Vertigo Comics and you can see where this story is coming from. The Happiness Patrol fits firmly into a British sub-culture that rose under Thatcher. But the cultural artefacts produced during this time became popular in the United States. While The Happiness Patrol was largely missed by anyone not devoted to watching Doctor Who, many other people discovered comics by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, Jamie Delano, and just about anything produced by Vertigo Comics. They were all writing from a similar perspective; they were all reacting against Thatcherism and Right-wing politics in England. The Happiness Patrol looks like something out of a Grant Morrison comic. Helen A and Kandyman could have been villains in Doom Patrol or The Invisibles.

 

Doctor Who – Remembrance of the Daleks

Doctor Who Story 152 – Remembrance of the Daleks

Written by

Ben Aaronovitch

What’s It About?

The Doctor and Ace have returned to Coal Hill School in 1963 to find two Dalek factions fighting over something the Doctor left in England a long time ago.

Unlimited rice pudding

A sinister-looking school girlRememberance of the Daleks is famous for re-inventing the Seventh Doctor era. Season 23 is often dismissed as silly and partially formed while season 24 is where the Cartmel Master Plan era begins in earnest. And while I think the seeds of the new expression are definitely present in season 23, I am struck by the subtle and not-so-subtle act of deconstruction in this season premier. In this story we revisit Totter’s Lane and Coal Hill School. We are given a secondary reason why the Doctor was on Earth, not just running from his people, but hiding the Hand of Omega, a powerful weapon. We see the destruction of Skaro, the Daleks’ ancestral seat. Much has been made of the deleted scene in which the Doctor tells Davros that he is more than just a Time Lord. The Doctor lets slip the possibility that he was present at the creation of Time Lord civilization in its current form. And we are given a military unit which is not-quite-UNIT but functions much the same. All these elements present in the same story mark a redefinition of the show, a grand statement of a new approach, a statement that season 23 was a test run to find our grounding, a warm-up before we open the throttle and begin the journey.