Doctor Who (Classic Series): An Unearthly Child parts 2-4

Overview

These three episodes constitute the first adventure by a TARDIS crew in Doctor Who. This adventure is marked by angry, resentment, and fear. Even though they follow closely from the events of An Unearthly Child, I have chose to group them separately to evaluate this story on its own merits. These episodes were written by Anthony Coburn and directed by Waris Hussein

making-fire
Making fire. Copyright BBC.

Story

The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan awake from their struggle to find they are in a new time period. While never explicitly stated in the story, it is clear that the author intended the setting to be prehistoric humanity. This is a story of tribes learning to work together, the Tribe of Gum and what I teasingly refer to as the Tribe of TARDIS. The Doctor is still dismissive of Ian and Barbara, but he no longer fears them. He has cast them all into the same fate. In some way, it seems the Doctor no longer cares what happens to the two teachers. He is now involved in figuring out where he is. Wandering off on his own, he is captured by a Kal, a prehistoric hunter who saw the Doctor light a pipe. Seeing the fire, Kal figured he could gain influence over the Tribe because “the leader is the one who makes fire.” Having lost his matches, the Doctor is powerless to grant Kal’s wishes. The time travelers are held captive as pawns in the power struggle between the outsider Kal and Za, the son of the former leader.

Characters

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Main cast. Copyright BBC.

In general, the characters are good. There is clear characterization and growth, especially among the leads, but not limited to them. Za and Hur grow and change as a result of their experiences with the Doctor and his companions. This change is believable. They incorporate the new information into their contextual framework. Coburn doesn’t present the time travelers as enlightened figures imparting modern ideals to the past, with Za and Hur accepting them and finding similar enlightenment. Such plotting would be a strong marker for bad historical fiction. Za is intrigued by the wisdom the travelers offer, but he still filters such wisdom through his historical context. This is what I appreciate about good historical fiction: the humans do no have our perspective. They are foreign; they are alien. Great change, then, is gradual and takes time. The change that the Doctor and his companions bring to the Tribe is not a change that upsets human history.

Sadly, the only problem I have with character in this story is Susan. Having seen the unaired pilot, I know that Carole Ann Ford could play the character different. Unfortunately, that version of the character was scrapped. Instead, we are given Susan Foreman as a teenager that seems more human than alien. I think that Susan was done the greatest injustice in this early era of the show, as she was typically written and portrayed as panicky, flighty, and silly. I think they were trying to make a character the kids could identify with, but in the end, the character often doesn’t work. I look forward to revisiting these early stories to see how she fares throughout. I know that Barbara has great moments ahead, but I can’t remember if Susan does.

Presentation

Generally, the presentation here is good. There were definitely some obstacles to overcome with the technology and the filming space. The cameras were extremely heavy and hard to move. The studio was small, and the TARDIS set was a permanent fixture. So, they did the best they could. Hussein creates some great shots with depth, framing a character in the background with characters in the foreground.

Other methods used to overcome obstacles worked at the time but don’t hold up. For example, to create the impression of running, we are given close ups of characters’ faces as they run in place and stagehands brush their faces with branches and leaves. It simulates a running effect, but it now LOOKS like a simulation. It was a good solution, but the development of film and television over the decades have caused this effect to not age well.

Themes

This story has some great themes. As mentioned before the struggles of the Tribe of Gum and the time travelers work in parallel. Just as the Tribe needs to learn to work together to survive the ice age, the travelers need to work together to survive their ordeal: being lost in time. Division will tear them apart and ultimately destroy them. As Ian says, “Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe.” When unified, the tribe can stand against outsiders. This cuts both ways, sadly. If the whole tribe chooses to reject wisdom, then the wisdom can be lost. The whole tribe can choose destruction. But I am continually fascinated that Za, rather than choosing to destroy the strangers and their potentially subversive ideas, offers an alliance. Maybe “offers” is to light a term. He basically chooses to imprison them indefinitely so he can learn from them. But, the growth he shows as a character in this moment, the acknowledgment of his own weakness as a leader and his desire to learn, is still fascinating.

Another theme, intended or not, is wisdom imparted from a higher power. There are certain fringe theories that human development escalated in prehistory due to outside influences (gods, aliens, a more advanced group of humans from a lost civilization). Intended or not, this story says the outside influence was time travelers, and the greatest wisdom they imparted was not fire, but the realization that a tribe that works together can improve the tribe and possibly survive great adversity.

Personal

Each time I watch this story, I am more and more impressed with its themes. But I never look forward to watching it. I never crave watching it. My enjoyment of the story is more analytical, not emotional. As a result, this story is more of an acquired taste. Modern viewers may have difficulty with it because the presentation is dated and almost foreign. However, there are a lot of gems to unearth if you are patient and willing to dig deep.

Final rating: 8/10

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Doctor Who (Classic Series): An Unearthly Child

Overview

Despite having already covered the classic era of Doctor Who, I have wanted to dive back in using this new review format. I used the classic era to jumpstart a regular writing/posting habit many years ago, and I hope to do so again. The format, then, is to review complete stories. Once I finish a serial, I will post a review. My goal is one review per week until I get caught up. And yes, caught up means the new series, which will likely be well in to the Chris Chibnall era.

One more thing to clarify: I’m approaching An Unearthly Child as a stand-alone episode. While there are character conflicts that continue throughout the 4-part story, An Unearthly Child works well as its own story. It introduces all the main characters and concepts in a mere 25 minutes. The episode doesn’t wait around, and just hits the ground running. It’s a bit impressive.

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Image from Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child. Dir. Waris Hussein. BBC 1963.

Story

An Unearthly Child starts with Barbara and Ian, the history and science teachers at Coal Hill School, discussing Susan Foreman, a mysterious student. She is a gifted student, but she also has some strange gaps in her knowledge of present-day England. She doesn’t fit in. Oddly, she it sounds like she is the type of genius that just can’t be bothered with ordinary, mundane things. But she doesn’t fit in to this proper British school and Barbara wants to know more about her. Barbara follows Susan home one night. Susan, apparently, lives with her grandfather in a junk yard. Enlisting Ian’s help, Barbara sets out to confront this situation. The two teachers follow the young girl into the junk yard, and immediately lose track of her. They find an old police telephone box that seems to be connected to some sort of power source. They are discovered by an old man, who turns out to be Susan’s grandfather. Then, they hear Susan call out from inside the police box. Thinking Susan is being held against her will, Barbara forces her way in. The police box is bigger on the inside, and the inside is full of high-tech gadgetry side-by-side with antique furniture and a clock. Susan’s grandfather refuses to let the teachers go, hits a switch, and propels the police box through space and/or time. The episode leaves their destination in question.

It is no surprise that successful “reboots” of Doctor Who model themselves on this episode. The companions are introduced. We get a feel for who they are. The companions face a mystery. Through that mystery, they come to meet the Doctor and encounter the TARDIS. Each episode of the new series that introduces a new companion (a soft reboot, in a way) uses this pattern. Where this episode differs, however, is the mystery of the Doctor and Susan. They were introduced without 50+ years of lore and fan-baggage. As a result, there is no attempt to explain who the Doctor and Susan are beyond “exiles in the 4th dimension.” In a way, it’s fun to adopt this mindset and let the show provide its own answers. (Sometimes these answers are very different from what the show has become.)

This episode sets up a mystery, and as Ian and Barbara investigate the mystery, they find more questions. They are forced into a larger world, not by choice, but through kidnapping. It’s an interesting starting point.

Characters

BARBARA: I feel frightened, as if we are about to interfere in something that is best left alone. Don’t you feel it?

IAN: I take things as they come.

There is surprising depth to these characters. The quotes above give a concise encapsulation of who they are. Barbara is curious but has a sense of right and wrong. Ian is more relaxed in his approach.

Susan enjoys the world she is in, despite her struggles, but feels very close to her grandfather. She will do what he says, regardless of what she wants. In a way, she is trapped by his over-protection. The Doctor is suspicious, calm, and calculating. He seems dangerous and untrustworthy and at this point. This is especially true after he kidnaps the two teachers.

Personally, I think the episode stumbles a bit when Barbara tries to explain to Susan that the TARDIS is an illusion. She rejects what she has seen. Ian has difficulty with this as well, explaining that he doesn’t expect the mysteries of time travel to be solved in a junk yard. While I think this is a lapse of character, it does reinforce the idea that adherence to the status-quo is a strong desire. Susan’s inability to fit in started this adventure, and now the teachers must stare it directly in the face. They reject it.

Themes

Decades of stories that portray a call to adventure (Luke in Star Wars, Harry in Harry Potter, Bilbo and Frodo in Tolkien’s novels) always start with a realization that the status quo doesn’t work any longer. The characters often take a first step into adventure, but then reject it. However, the first step cannot be undone, and so they are forced out against their will. Luke wanted to leave home, met Obi Wan, started gaining knowledge, but then refused the call. He returned home to find his aunt and uncle killed. He then returned to Obi Wan. (Okay, it doesn’t quite work with Harry Potter, but his pre-called life was tangibly unpleasant as opposed to existentially unpleasant.)

There is a similar, though rearranged, call here. Barbara and Ian are firmly in the status quo, but their call comes from their observation that Susan is not of the status quo. They actually want to mold her giftedness into something that would work for the world as they see it, but Susan either can’t (because of her grandfather) or won’t (if she has any choice, which she probably doesn’t). And so, the teachers investigate. They are soon forced to stare the call directly in the face as they enter the TARDIS. But the Doctor won’t let them leave, and now they are trapped—for better or for worse.

And so, it would seem, the deeper theme of the episode is that once you take steps to investigate this mystery, this call, this place where the status-quo breaks down, you have altered your fate.

Presentation

I’m grading this one on a curve. This is 1960s British television. Decades of film and television innovation have not yet happened, and most of the framing for the episode is done similar to stage productions. It’s actually fun to watch for shots that attempt to frame all the characters in a shot. It’s fun to see how director Waris Hussein works with depth.

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Image Source: Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child. Dir. Waris Hussein. BBC 1963.

And I’m particularly impressed with the shot of Ian and Barbara in the car.

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Image Source: Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child. Dir. Waris Hussein. BBC 1963.

It is difficult, however, to watch some of the camera movements. The cameras used at the time didn’t have lenses that could zoom, so the cameras had to be physically moved. This causes problems with focus and framing. We often lose sight of the characters in the shot. Sadly, these moments haven’t aged well, though they were standard at the time. But I don’t want to detract from evaluating presentation due to the technical limitations. Instead, I want to see how they used what they had, and I think that An Unearthly Child did quite well. It’s a solidly shot episode.

Personal Enjoyment

Sadly, I wasn’t really engaged with the episode on this viewing. I’ve seen it many times, so there aren’t a lot of surprises. I still enjoy it because Ian and Barbara are some of my favorite Doctor Who companions, but at this point, we are still just putting pieces into place. I know what the pieces are, and so I’m ready for the adventure. But still, An Unearthly Child is immensely watchable and, technical considerations aside, holds up well for the era.

Final Rating: 7/10

Television Review: The Magician’s Apprentice (Doctor Who)

Doctor Who Series 9.01: The Magician’s Apprentice

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Hettie MacDonald

Child from opening
Image Copyright BBC

Motivation

I have been a fan of Doctor Who off and on since I was three. At this point, I don’t think I will ever not watch it.

The Pitch

In this opener to series nine, a decision the Doctor made a long time ago has consequences that threaten to destroy his closest friend . . . and his best enemy. However, the Doctor must first be found.

The Good

Missy is probably my favorite new recurring character. I enjoy every scene she is in. Likewise, Peter Capaldi is able to take the most absurd scene and make me believe.

And that pre-credit scene . . . that’s how you hook an audience.

The Bad

There is too little plot stretched across 45 minutes. And since this is part one of two, I am a bit worried. Many of the scenes in this episode didn’t really advance the plot much, and those scenes didn’t do much for me other than make me wish they would get on with it. But again, if a scene isn’t going to advance the plot, you could do worse than putting Missy in it.

The Ugly

The “would you kill a child if you knew he would be a brutal dictator” argument moves out of the abstract.

Closing

I would characterize this as average Steven Moffat fare: not his best but certainly not his worst. The performances and direction put this at a 3/5 for me. I look forward to seeing how he resolves the story, though I doubt the resolution will make me change my mind about this episode.

Religious Authority in “An Unearthly Child”

Za emerges from the cave with a flaming torch.

This is the first in what I hope to be a semi-regular series exploring how religion is used in Doctor Who. I’m not sure how often I will update this series since the next few months will be very busy for me, but this particular one has been on my mind and I want to get it out there as soon as possible. I don’t plan on covering every episode of Doctor Who because I don’t expect every episode to have religious themes or subtext. However, quite a few stories comment on religion, explicitly and implicitly, and I think it would be fun to explore this.

Doctor Who: Year Zero

The Doctor and Susan check the year on the TARDIS console.
Image from Doctor Who: “The Cave of Skulls.” It is owned by the BBC.

In exploring the origins of this new television show, the decision was made to explore origins in a very historical way, to cast our view back to the dawn of human civilization. The Doctor kidnaps the two teachers Ian and Barbara in an act of self-defense, and the TARDIS arrives at year zero. We can quibble about the idea of “year zero,” but in terms of the new show, it is the beginning—nothing had come before. It truly is year zero for Doctor Who.

But along with that, we have prehistoric humanity. Years are arbitrary expressions of time used to categorize information. Even the term “prehistoric” has a categorical meaning: that which happened before we recorded it. It is an era of mystery and uncertainty, part of the long chain of events that led to where we currently exist, but we still don’t know what happened then.

And as far as Doctor Who at this point is concerned, it is year zero. It is a new calendar to mark a beginning. Yes, things happened before, but what matters most is what happens right now, in this story, with these characters. Maybe the TARDIS knows more about what its occupants need than they do. It recognizes this is their beginning.

The Tribe of TARDIS

I love the way Anthony Coburn and Waris Hussein set up the conflict in this story.

Za and Hur of the Tribe of Gum debate who these strangers are. Kal, the usurper who found the strangers, insists they arrived from a magical tree and they can make fire. Za believes instead that they are part of another tribe, one from the mountains. Za is more right than he realizes.

Just as Za and Kal fight for political authority, so do the Doctor and Ian struggle against each other. While the latter struggle is less political, it is still no less a fight for survival. The Tribe of Gum will die out if they do not have food or fire, for an ice age is coming. The Tribe of TARDIS, on the other hand, will die if they do not work together to escape. In his intense need for fire, Za wants to sacrifice these strangers to Orb (the Sun) so he may be given the divine flame that will keep his tribe warm to survive the cold. He who has fire is the leader. Those are the terms. Thus, fire is both practical and religious. It meets a physical need while being an authoritative sign from the divine Orb.

And Orb has withheld its favor. Za does not have fire. But neither does the usurper Kal.

With Orb’s silence, the conflict unfolds politically. Kal’s best political weapon is to attack Za’s authorizing agent. If Orb grants authority and that authority is seen in the creation of fire, then Za is obviously not a leader. Where is his fire? Does Orb truly speak to him? On the other hand, Kal brings food to the tribe. Surely fire is not necessary to survival, but food is! So, with Za sitting around waiting for Orb to give something that he doesn’t seem willing to give, Kal is feeding the tribe.

This opposition becomes ideological very quickly, as the immediate need—food—is put against the impending need—heat. In reality, both are needed, but the easiest way to for Kal to usurp power is to make the conflict an either/or, to simplify the solution to the problems the tribe faces.

Politics has changed very little, it seems.

Dichotomies

“Old men see only as far as tomorrow’s meat,” Hur says. But the old men have earthly authority. Without Orb’s divine approval, the old men become the council that grants leadership. Za, however, brings vision and innovation, both through fire and in the wisdom he gets from the Doctor and Ian.

Ian advises Za on tribal strength.
Image from Doctor Who: “The Firemaker.” It is owned by the BBC.

“Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe.” It is a lesson that was imparted by both the Doctor and Ian.

And yet, up to that point, the Doctor and Ian were in a similar conflict. The Doctor could only see as far as potential discovery and capture—an immediate need, an immediate fear. He kidnapped Ian and Barbara. He was willing to kill Za to guarantee their escape. Ian interfered in this latter action. While Ian also valued escape, he wanted to do so ethically. He did not want to violate his principles.

So, once more, concrete versus abstract, meat versus fire, Machiavellian tactics versus ethical tactics, immediate need of escape versus impending need of unity.

Both the Tribe of Gum and the Tribe of TARDIS must learn the same lesson:

Struggle is not stronger than the whole tribe.

Divine Authority?

It is after Ian and the Doctor learn to work together that Ian succeeds in starting a fire with sticks and leaves. He even has a moment where he defers to the Doctor’s leadership. They have learned their lesson, and now they can impart their gift of knowledge, their gift of fire.

But who grants the authority of fire and leadership? The terms were clear in the beginning: Fire is the sign of leadership, Orb gives fire, but Orb won’t give fire without a sacrifice.

Ian made fire, but only Za saw it. And as Orb rises above the tribe, Za must make a decision about the Tribe of TARDIS. The turning point comes in the cave when Kal returns in secret and tries to kill Za. Instead, Za kills Kal. He then emerges from the cave with a flaming branch.

Kal is killed, Ian gives Za fire, and now the tribe acknowledges Za’s authority.

Za emerges from the cave with a flaming torch.
Image from Doctor Who: “The Firemaker.” It is owned by the BBC.

Sacrifice, fire, authority.

The terms were fulfilled. The divine right of leadership was upheld because events unfolded according to the prescribed terms. The religion wasn’t subverted; it was upheld. And so the question becomes, was this a humanistic unfolding of events, where Kal’s death coincidentally occurred before Za was given the fire created by Ian? Or was Kal’s death a necessary sacrifice in order for Za to be given the fire?

Regardless of your interpretation, the fire became an authorizing object for Za’s leadership. But, in an interesting turn, Za gives fire to the tribe, an act that will, with time, remove the divine authorization of fire. Is Orb still divine? The story doesn’t really address this, but it is telling that Orb is the ruler of day and that night is feared. Za’s last statement in the story is that with fire, night becomes day. Has Orb entered the world as fire, bringing light to the darkness? Or has the fire removed the need for Orb as an authority, leaving the tribe to make their own way without fear?

For an exploration of the relationship between the construction of authority and the role myth and religion play in that dynamic, I recommend Bruce Lincoln’s Authority: Construction and Corrosion. His ideas lurk beneath the surface of this post, so the very least I can do is give him a shout-out. Not that he needs that from me.

New Year Forecast

I’ve been extremely busy for, what my blog archives indicate, are seven months or so. Indeed. I took an internship that led to full-time employment in technical writing. Balancing the remaining classes with this new work schedule forced me to narrow my focus. And while I can’t guarantee I will be posting frequently in the next few months (due to my final semester of college), I hope to get a post up from time to time. I have some ideas for evaluating classic Doctor Who episodes (and new Who, as I come to them) that will enable me to apply some things I learned this past semester.

And I doubt that every episode of Doctor Who will fit what I want to do, so I’ll be picking and choosing. We’ll see how it goes.

A few minor thoughts that have occurred over the last few months:

  • I love Peter Capaldi’s take on the Doctor, and thought that series eight was a breath of fresh air. Steven Moffat impressed me with the change in tone and style. I didn’t expect him to pull it off. Series eight may be my favorite series of the revived show.
  • For the critics who say Missy is yet another appearance of Moffat’s sassy/sexy/smarmy Amy-River-Adler-etc. trope, I disagree. Missy is Moriarty from Sherlock. (These links have spoilers.)
  • I am not happy that Doctor Who DVDs are going out of print in the U.S. I refuse to pay $100 for “Battlefield,” and “The Curse of Fenric.”

Happy 2015.

Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible Part 3

Cover for Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible

In my continuing read through of Doctor Who: The New Adventures: Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, I hit chapter, which has some significant throwbacks to the early days of Doctor Who.

Chapter 4: Inside Information

Synopsis

The Doctor and Ace are questioned by the police. The police are concerned about the Doctor’s well-being. Is he ill, drunk, having an emotional breakdown? Ace is aware of the surreal landscape morphing around them, and realizes that the police officers cannot see it. The Doctor insists that he just wants to get in his TARDIS, to get in the police box. Unfortunately, neither of the time travelers can enter the ship because the door keeps moving. The TARDIS has gone into self-defense mode as it attempts to keep something dangerous from entering. That includes the Doctor and Ace, unfortunately. Ace tries to get the police to find the door to the TARDIS, but that fails as well. She then tries to get the police to call UNIT to confirm the Doctor’s identity (and thus, sanity), but that fails as well since the police have never heard of UNIT. The Doctor theorizes the only way to find the TARDIS door with this particular defense mechanism is to happen upon it by accident, with no deliberate attempt or thought.

Then the TARDIS phone rings.

The Doctor answers it, confirms his identity, grabs Ace’s arm, and they are yanked into the TARDIS. From inside the TARDIS, they can hear a “scrabbling” sound. Something is just outside the door and it is trying to get in. The TARDIS scanner shows a normal Earth landscape, further reinforcing that the surreal images were put in their heads by the TARDIS as a warning. The fault locator registers everything as normal, which is good.

“Unless there’s a fault in the fault locator,” says the Doctor.

But the next clue they notice is that the door controls are gone, an empty space on the console. All the while, the scraping of claws on the door continues.

The Doctor decides to flush the creature out of the space between the TARDIS door and the dematerialized world. The Doctor searches through a trunk in the console room and pulls out the TARDIS manual. Pages have been consumed. The effects of the TARDIS’s defenses have caused time to echo. Basically, the creature hasn’t yet entered the TARDIS, but at the same time, it already has entered the TARDIS. As a result, the creature is both inside and outside the TARDIS at the same time. The Doctor fears it could be a datavore, a creature that consumes information and knowledge.

Then Ace notices that all the TARDIS coordinates are set for zero. The Doctor checks the console circuitry and sees the fluid links are malfunctioning. All power is being slowly drained away. The Doctor needs to find the secondary control room. Unfortunately, with the TARDIS malfunctioning like it is, the interior dimensions of the ship are uncertain. He gives Ace the TARDIS key and tells her to “trust us. Don’t leave home, Ace.” He then grabs a bicycle and rides off into the dark corridors of the TARDIS.

Commentary

This chapter had a strong vibe of “Edge of Destruction” to it. In that story, the TARDIS was malfunctioning because of a broken spring. The defense mechanism gave surreal clues to the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara. It even altered their perceptions. At one point the crew theorized that something had entered the ship and was influencing them. Platt seems to have taken that red herring and applied it as the actual threat here. He gives us some throwbacks to the First Doctor’s first season in this chapter: the fault locator, fluid link. Ace even mentions that the Doctor built the TARDIS, which echoes Susan from those early days of Doctor Who. It is a bit of an odd statement considering we know that the TARDIS is a piece of Gallifreyan technology. Does Ace not realize this? Is it a continuity error? Is it a result of the defense mechanism?

So, full confession: I’m not a big fan of “Edge of Destruction.” While David Whitaker is one of my favorite of Doctor Who’s early writers, EoD is probably my least favorite of his stories. Combine that with 1960s art-house surrealism, which I also don’t much care for, and you are left with a story that I am glad is mercifully short (two episodes). I love the ideas in it, I just don’t care for the journey.

And since this chapter draws so heavily from that story, I am just a bit ambivalent to it. Too much attempt to obscure, too slow at revealing things. It is odd that I’m engaging more with the chapters that don’t include the Doctor and Ace.

Cybermen Vs. Daleks

I have a guest post up on the Popgun Chaos site. I argue that the Cybermen are better villains than the Daleks. Let the controversy resound!

And be sure to check out Big Finish today. In celebration of this year’s anniversary they are having a sale of The Sirens of Time, Jubilee, and The Harvest for $1.00 as a download or just over $5 for CDs. The Sirens of Time is a multi-Doctor story (5, 6, and 7), Jubilee is a 6th Doctor and Daleks story, and The Harvest is a 7th Doctor and Cybermen story. So in a way, this sale goes along with my post, although I’m sure it is just a coincidence.

Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible Part 2

Cover for Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible

In my continuing read through of Doctor Who: The New Adventures: Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible (that’s a mouthful), I hit chapters 2 and 3, and learn to hate Vael.

Chapter 2: Cat’s Eyes

Synopsis

We are back with Vael, only moments after his encounter with the Pythia and his vision of the TARDIS. He heads out on to the streets, where people are still celebrating the hero Prydonius. He is confronted with Loie, a young woman who insists on trying to be his friend. He rebuffs her. She insists that despite his attitude and scores, the Academy needs him as a temporal physicist for the Time Scaphe project. As Vael tries to get away from her, he meets the gaze of the dead Sphinx and hears a riddle: Who are you?

He insists he wants nothing. He wants to be a nobody. He doesn’t want a future.

He can’t get the visions of the TARDIS, the Sphinx’s eye, and the Pythia’s eye out of his head.

Back in Ealing, reality continues to do its Dali impression. Being a time traveler, Ace is able to see timelines streaming through the streets. People move slowly. She realizes the TARDIS is warning her and the Doctor about something dangerous. She encounters her mother, but since they are currently inhabiting different flows of time, her mother does not notice her. The time streams are yet another obstacle keeping them apart. Not that Ace cares.

The sky cracks, slowly ripping apart. Ace finds the Doctor kneeling beside the TARDIS. He can’t get in; the machine rebuffs him each time he tries. The Doctor tells Ace that something has made its way into the TARDIS. He doesn’t know what it is, when it got there, or where it came from. The TARDIS, in an attempt to protect itself, has removed its door. All the while, the Doctor and Ace hear a scrabbling sound from inside the TARDIS.

Commentary

Psychic advertising! I love this concept, not because I particularly want it to be implemented in our world, but because it seems like a plausible detail about a telepathic society. In this case, it compels people to buy junk food from vendors.

Reading Marc Platt is a bit like reading Grant Morrison. Sometimes I can’t quite make out what is happening. There’s quite a bit of surreal, abstract things going on which I sometimes gloss over. Vael’s characterization works, though, and I am starting to dislike him. I’m pretty sure that is the point. He insists on being nobody, which probably means he won’t get his wish.

Ace encounters her mother, who she continues to hate. This is a character detail that I wish would resolve itself. Honestly, I’m surprised it has come up again. I got the impression that season 26 was about deconstructing then reconstructing Ace. Granted, the show was cancelled and any further development was dropped. Maybe the character change was all in my head, but I liked what I saw, even if it was imaginary.

Chapter 3: Bootstrapping

Synopsis

The Time Scaphe has its Chronaut crew and Pilot. The Pilot is a child who plays with toys as the ship moves through time. The Chronauts propel the ship with their minds. Captain Pekkary holds everything together, but he is extremely concerned because he was assigned a last-minute replacement for his quantum theorist/Pilot guardian. The previous quantum theorist had been killed in a freak accident, and Vael replaced him. Unfortunately, Vael didn’t like the Pilot, and the feeling was mutual. Also irritating was that Vael could shield his thoughts from the rest of the crew. With the sensitivity and danger of the Time Scaphe experiments, Pekkary is uneasy having this unproven addition to his crew, an addition who had not trained and bonded with the rest of the crew.

Vael takes joy in scaring the Pilot, which is extremely dangerous as the stability of the Pilot keeps the ship from going wild in the vortex. Unfortunately, Vael steals one of the Pilot’s toys, and the crew loses concentration.

Commentary

Okay, when you start stealing toys from a child you start signaling that we are supposed to hate you. But the circumstances surrounding your arrival on the ship are quite suspicious. Is it mere coincidence that the previous quantum theorist was killed and Vael reassigned? The Pythia thought Vael was important but also thought he was wasting his life. The Pythia and Rassilon are at odds with one another. A genius who can shield his thoughts from others in a telepathic society would be very dangerous. He would be a perfect spy and saboteur. And here he is, tormenting the Pilot of a time machine and, presumably, knocking them off course.

The concept of a time machine piloted by a child is interesting. The implication is that only children have the imaginative capacity to adapt to the psychological changes that accompany time travel. As such, they are perfect pilots because their minds haven’t been conditioned against such things. Similarly, time travel is technically instantaneous, but artificial passage of time is necessary to keep the mind from stress. In this case, the crew stays in the Scaphe for 90 minutes but will be travelling 90 days into the future. Those 90 minutes are yet another illusion, another alteration of reality. Things are not what they seem, although there is logic to their unreality. This is a challenging book, but it has some great ideas beneath the surface.

Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible Part 1

Cover for Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible

Series Introduction

I have decided to try something a little different, something I thought about trying with Timewyrm: Genesys, but couldn’t due to time and general mental fogginess. Since I may be working on Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible a bit longer, I am going to experiment with doing a read through. Basically, this means I will summarize a couple chapters at a time and give my thoughts on those chapters. This will enable me to get my thoughts organized and out there quicker (i.e. – more blog posts), and it will also enable readers who do not have the book to follow along or get a more detailed synopsis. If you are like me, you haven’t read very many of the Doctor Who books (NAs, MAs, EDAs, PDAs, and so on). Most of these books are out of print anyway, and while there are many sites out there that do a good job of offering detailed synopses, sometimes it is fun to tackle things in a bite-sized post.

Book Introduction

Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible is the 5th book in the Virgin New Adventures series. It was written by Marc Platt, which marks (heh) the first time a writer for McCoy’s Doctor has penned an original novel for the Seventh Doctor. Essentially this means that the writers for the show are having a hand in the formation of the book series, which is a big deal. Platt, who wrote Ghost Light, wrote this book. Andrew Cartmel, who was script editor for seasons 24 – 26, wrote the next book. So while they may not have been directing the direction of the book line, at least they had a say in things and were able to develop themes and ideas from their approach to Doctor Who.

Prologue

Synopsis

The Doctor frets over some of the TARDIS’s quirks and noises, particularly that a noise he had grown accustomed to has stopped. He casts his mind back to the Time Lords and the frustration he feels for their imbalance of power and potential. He disagrees with their fundamental belief of sitting and observing, not interfering. Lost in thought, the Doctor burns his toast, and then he remembers a nursery rhyme:

For Tweedledum said Tweedledee

Had spoiled his nice new rattle.

Commentary

On the one hand, this prologue seems to exist to introduce the casual reader to a few of the general concepts of Doctor Who: time travel, the Doctor’s disagreements with his people, his headspace—where thoughts take precedence over food—and so on. But on the other hand (since I have read ahead a bit), I know that this prologue also serves as a type of thematic thesis. Platt draws our attention to the TARDIS’s operation and to the Time Lords. In particular is this gem: “The most powerful civilization in the cosmos would have been better off staying in the Dark Time; the time of Chaos and superstition.”

And so we have the introduction of Chaos and superstition as Dark. The implied inverse is, naturally, Order and reason as Light.

The nursery rhyme is an interesting addition for its connection to children and play. Connect to that the book’s title (or the mini-series title), Cat’s Cradle, and there is a type of frivolity and playfulness implied. A cat’s cradle is a type of game which refers to making figures through a complex web of string. A cat’s cradle is the perfect way to describe how this Doctor constructs his adventures. He has been characterized as a chess player, but he may more accurately be described as playing a game which weaves complex webs of events, players, and time. And given the dark ending to the couplet above (spoiled his nice new rattle), I expect something will be broken. (The TARDIS, obviously, but will it only be the TARDIS that is broken?)

Chapter 1: Moussaka and Chips

Synopsis

On ancient Gallifrey, Vael is a special young man who has the ability to become a Young Hero. He studies time theory and generally prefers to be alone, something that was difficult after the Pythia, Gallifrey’s ruling matriarch, proclaimed that his red hair marked him as an Individual.

Vael can block his mind from the thoughts of others, something that is uncommon among Gallifreyans. In general he is a troubled youth. He can see the conflict brewing between Rassilon and the Reason revolution and the Pythia. He doesn’t want to be a Hero like Lord Prydonius, who had recently returned with the head of the Sphinx, but he has no choice as he can see that the future rests on him. His choices and actions will tip the balance one way or another.

And he has visions of a blue police box.

The Doctor and Ace, meanwhile, are eating at a café. The Doctor contemplates baked Alaska: “frozen in the middle, but hot on the outside.” A tom cat enters the café and stares at Ace, unnerving her. The Doctor entertains a young girl by playing spoons. Then the clock drips to the floor. The geometry of the café begins to shift and alter. Another cat appears, this one silver. The Doctor is suddenly racked with pain. He and Ace notice the rapidly disintegrating reality, but the other people in the café do not. The Doctor says they need to get back to the TARDIS.

Commentary

Talk about plunging in to the deep end. Jumping right in to ancient Gallifrey takes some chutzpa. We had been given myths and references to it on the show—stories of Rassilon and Omega, the Death Zone, the Great Vampire—but we have never seen it. In fact, the mystic/science divide is a development of the conflict between the Time Lords and the Sisterhood of Karn (“The Brain of Morbius,” “Night of the Doctor,” “Sisters of the Flame/The Vengeance of Morbius”). On some level Platt isn’t portraying anything too far removed from what has been mentioned on the show. Seeing it, however, is sometimes a different thing altogether. But I’ve listened to enough of Platt’s Big Finish stories to feel safe with him, even if this story preceded those by a few years.

There was an idea in Paul Cornel’s Timewyrm: Revelation about the battle between the Doctor and the Timewyrm being an event that reverberated throughout history, that all stories of ancient evil and ancient good were derived from this battle. A monomyth, essentially, the real event of which all myths are mere shadows. In Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible, Platt gives us epic, Gallifreyan heroes who slay mythical beasts. He is deliberately placing this story in mythic time which may be the real time from which myths are shadows.

Putting Vael, an angry and thoroughly unpleasant character, as the pivot for the future of Gallifrey is horrifying. But then, how often is the future determined by unpleasant people? For better or worse, such is history.

With the Doctor and Ace hanging out in Ealing (and I looked this up, Perivale is a suburb of Ealing), I can’t help but wonder when this story was envisioned in Platt’s mind. Was it to immediately follow “Survival,” or was it always conceived as the follow-up to Timewyrm: Revelation? It isn’t an important question, but there are certain thematic ideas which come up in the next few chapters that make me question when Platt thought this story was placed. Or maybe things were played fast and loose back then. I have no idea.

I Know Who I Am and That’s Enough

The TV Movie

The Doctor, Lee, and Grace stand by the TARDIS console.

Where to Find It

The DVD can be purchased through Amazon.com.

A detailed synopsis can be found on the Doctor Who Reference Guide.

Story By

Matthew Jacobs

DVD Copy

The Doctor is taking the remains of his arch-nemesis, the Master, back home to Gallifrey.

Forced off-course, the TARDIS arrives in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1999, where the Doctor is critically wounded in a gangland gun battle. At the local hospital Dr. Grace Holloway fights – and fails – to save his life.

Later, in the morgue, the Doctor wakes up a new man. But he is not the only one—the Master has found a new body too. As the clock counts down to midnight and the new millennium, can the Doctor stop his old enemy destroying all life on earth?


 

I can’t make your dream come true forever, but I can make it come true today.

I think it is safe to say that I came to a type of media awakening in the 1990s. Prior to the 90s, television was something I watched because it existed. During the 90s it became something I watched because of shows. And while I missed the TV movie when it first aired, I watched many of the shows it would be invariably compared to because they were all part of the science fiction mosaic of 90s television: Sliders, The X-Files, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek Voyager, Babylon 5, The Outer Limits, and The Adventures of Lois & Clark. Science fiction on 90s American television was a period of evolution away from the Star Trek mold. Arguably the two most successful shows in breaking the dominance of Star Trek were Babylon 5 (which took a while for its influence to sink in) and The X-Files. The X-Files and Sliders would have been Doctor Who’s companion shows if Who had gone to series. The X-Files is distinctly American in tone and approach; Sliders is a similar premise to Doctor Who (all of the multiverse rather than all of time and space, which ends up being essentially the same thing). And so Doctor Who needed to stand out. It needed to define itself as something different, something unique.

He’s British.

Intentional or not, identity is a theme which runs haphazardly through the TV movie. It has the trappings of 90s cult television, but it has an established mythology which sets it apart from other premieres. It has a continuity-heavy info-dump before the main title, but it wants to appeal to new viewers. It is a British property reimagined by American network television. The Doctor has amnesia, possibly as a hackneyed plot device, possibly to have his rediscovery of identity a way to provide character information to the audience. The Doctor is cast as a Christ figure via resurrection and tomb imagery and a crown of thorns; the Master is cast as the devil, being a serpent in the opening minutes of the movie as well as a liar and tempter where Lee is concerned. Oddly, the crucifixion comes after the resurrection in this telling. The writers seem to recognize this, and so Grace and Lee are inexplicably resurrected, more to leave us with a happy ending than due to any demands of the plot. (Although, I suppose her name is Grace.)

And that seems to be a common problem: symbolism trumps plot. Eye imagery is heavy handed throughout. The religious imagery is used to bring a type of thematic characterization to the Doctor and the Master, but not provide them with any identity other than hero and villain. It seems almost telling that, when the Doctor’s authority is questioned (as it often is in this story), the justification is that he’s British. Why should this derivative story go to series when Sliders does pretty much the same thing? Well, he’s British.

Despite the callback to the classic series—the scarf, the Eye of Harmony (in name more than function), the Daleks, Jelly Babies—the general approach is forecast in how the regeneration is handled. The Seventh Doctor, a Time Lord who played chess and gambled with gods, is shot by gang members and dies on an operating table. He is summarily swept away without any particular insight into his character, gunned down by American culture and buried in a medical drama.

This can’t be how it ends.

The TV Movie isn’t terrible. In fact, I would say it is pretty much on par with anything put out by Sliders at the time. For cult sci-fi, its biggest crime is being made in the 90s and that it is far too formulaic. Whether this is the result of writing, multiple drafts, directing, network interference, or some combination of these, I don’t know. But for as for making a case for the return of Doctor Who, it did a poor job. If not for Paul McGann’s charisma in the part and the fact that this was pretty much it for his Doctor’s outing (along with the inclusion of the Seventh Doctor for regeneration purposes), I could easily see this one going ignored and fading into apocryphal status. Instead, it has been endlessly retconned.

But imagine if it had gained an audience. Imagine if audiences had embraced it. What would have spun out of this story? It would have constituted a different approach to Doctor Who. The TV Movie wasn’t the resurrection we hoped for. But for one day, we had Doctor Who back.

Thankfully, it wasn’t the last time.