Doctor Who – Ghost Light

Doctor Who story 157 – Ghost Light

The Doctor and Ace are threatened by a hunter.
Mount his head on the wall with all the other action figures in the collection.

I feel like I’m in a bit of an interpretive rut. I’m seeing virtually everything in the McCoy era as a commentary of the past, a refutation of what came before. This seems too similar to how I read the Colin Baker era, full of stories interacting with the past, trying to determine what is successful Doctor Who, and the most successful expression of that was the Saward-penned “Revelation of the Daleks,” a Doctor Who story in which the Doctor and Peri were largely sidelined. Sawardian Doctor Who rejects the Doctor.

But in the McCoy or Cartmel era, the tension is found between burning the house to the ground and constructing a phoenix from the ashes of Doctor Who. Which brings us to Marc Platt’s “Ghost Light,” a story about a supposedly haunted house that Ace burned to the ground in the 1980s. On some level, the story starts out clumsily because the Doctor is bringing Ace to this pivotal location, a place that has horrified her for much of her life. Only we have just heard about it now, in episode one. Granted, based on some small amount of passive research, I believe “Ghost Light” aired out of the originally planned order. “Curse of Fenric” was supposed to set up this story, but “Fenric” was moved to later in the season. Thus, we are unexpectedly thrust into Ace’s nightmare with no warning or set up.

But that aside, “Ghost Light” takes the haunted house trappings which would not be unfamiliar in the Hinchcliff/Holmes era, merges them with elements of Darwinism, and ultimately reveals an alien/mystic force, Light, that collects life-forms. Light was also worshipped by the Neanderthal tribe from which Nimrod the butler originated.

Okay, so these are some strange, disparate elements combined into a strange and slightly-less-than-surreal-than-Warriors-Gate-story. This story has been divisive, people loving it or hating it, and as a self-proclaimed-Marc-Platt-fan, I am determined to like it. Thus, I go to my fallback position that the story is about crafting a new vision of Doctor Who. The gothic haunted house is destroyed in the end (symbolic destruction of the Hinchcliff/Holmes vision of the show) while paying tribute to the show’s origins, which is signposted with discussions of Darwinian evolution (human origins being equated with Doctor Who’s origins) and a Light-worshipping Neanderthal (Tribe of Gum worshipping Orb aka the sun). The Darwinian evolution elements also thematically argue for the evolution of Doctor Who as a constantly changing television show. This evolution is held back by Light, a collector of life-forms, monsters and characters, who desires to preserve things in a static state, the fan who’s impressions of Doctor Who were defined once long ago and left unchanging. Everything in “Ghost Light” screams of change and evolution. In the end, the Doctor and Ace speak of destruction of the house. Burning it down isn’t good enough; it should have been blown up.

And there we have it: the only way to continue Doctor Who is to destroy it. Change requires death of the previous form, which in this case was everything built up by the JNT/Saward version of the show. Interesting that the JNT/Cartmel argument is to destroy it.

Doctor Who – Delta and the Bannermen

Doctor Who Story 150 – Delta and the Bannermen

Written by

Malcolm Kohll

What’s It About?

The last-surviving Chimeron is pursued by the Bannermen. Stowing away on a time-travelling nostalgia tour, she ends up at a holiday camp in South Wales in 1959. But the Bannermen are pursuing Delta, and they do not care who they kill to find her.

I can’t condone this foolishness.

The Doctor holds a guitar.The opening lecture of my “Religions of China and Asia” class included a distillation that seemed obvious once stated but, like all brilliant statements, could not be recognized until stated: “History is not the same thing as the past.”

History is the study of what happened in the past, but inherent in the study of the past is the interpretation of the past. The present always shapes how we view the past; the present influences how we study the past. Historians strive to hold their own biases in check, but a completely objective analysis of history is not possible. Historians studies trends, movements, and events, emphasizing some over others, in an attempt to discern the patters that gave birth to the present. The past is not objectively observable. We cannot walk into the past and see it and understand it as those living in it would see it and understand it.

And in “Delta and the Bannermen,” we have nostalgia tours, the past as a profitable market. The past has become the focus of commerce and tourism. It becomes a facsimile that just happens to take place in the past. Rather than a construct of artificial space in which tourists walk (such as a theme park), the tourists go into the past itself. But make no mistake, the past is dangerous. People live and die. This is perhaps why the nostalgia tour sets its sights on Disney Land, a safe space in a bubble of past events. Going back in time to visiting Disney Land, then, is an experience of history—it has the interpretive framework of tourism, but it may not qualify as experiencing the past because the tourist is not fully present in the moment but in his or her perception of events, a perception which is defined by leisure, marketing, the present reality of the era travelled from.

How interesting, then, that the tourists in “Delta and the Bannermen” die. The people who survive are those who do not operate from the tourism interpretive framework, but are those who live fully present in the present (which happens to be, in this case, the past). The Doctor, Mel, Delta, the Bannermen, and even the named workers at the Shangri-La resort (because a recurring theme in Doctor Who is missing the target, whether in the TARDIS, a time-travelling tourist bus, or visual effects) survive because they recognize the artifice of tourism in the context of the present dangers of unfolding events. And if the past is composed of events as they unfold and history is study and analysis of the past, then “Delta and the Bannermen” makes the critique that the past is more authoritative than history. What happened shaped us and can destroy our interpretations. While history as a field can influence the present, it does not influence the past, and rediscovering events can challenge our work as historians.

And Doctor Who is now a niche field of study in the realm of media history. It is open to a variety of interpretations about perspectives, developing and evolving media, and social commentary. And it reinterprets itself. JNT let that genie out of the bottle and it can never be put back in. Even in its current form under Steven Moffat, Doctor Who is about the Doctor, which indirectly makes the show about itself as deconstructing and reinterpreting the Doctor as a character requires deconstructing and reinterpreting the show. Moffat just does this with more panache and JNT and Saward did in the 80s.

And in “Delta” we see the continuing reinterpretation of Doctor Who at the hands of Andrew Cartmel. Already the show has adopted a striking and effective visual style. Sylvester McCoy has largely emerged as the Doctor, though without some of the nuance he will soon develop. The occasional three-episode format is a nice change of pace. And in this story it is never quite clear what will happen next. Yes, we know the good guys will win (we have emerged from the Saward vision of the show), but it is not quite evident how they will win or even how all the pieces fit together. In some ways, they don’t fit together terribly well, but the tone of the story is the essence of a shrug and a wink, not in a dismissive and patronizing way but in a “yeah, we’re working on it” way.

The show is optimistic again. Yes, it is silly, but it is silly intentionally not through accident. It shows that, if nothing else, the people now running the show are in control of what they are doing from a storytelling standpoint but also from a production standpoint. “Delta and the Bannermen,” like all of this season, is an event; it is Doctor Who being reborn before our eyes. The danger is that we will miss it due our interpretations of Doctor Who. The modern era of Doctor Who is being born.

At least, that’s my interpretation.

Doctor Who – Paradise Towers

Doctor Who Story 149 – Paradise Towers

Written by

Stephen Wyatt

What’s It About?

The Doctor and Mel arrive at Paradise Towers, a high rise building which has fallen into disrepair. They are captured by the Red Kangs, a group of youths fighting for their survival against the Caretakers. As the Doctor and Mel explore more fully, they discover a dystopian society enclosed within the high rise, the vision of a mysterious figure known as the Great Architect.

Well, you never can tell.

The High Caretaker and a cleaning machine.“Paradise Towers” was inspired, according to a cursory internet search, by J.G. Ballard’s novel Highrise. I admit that I want to read this book and do a comparison, analyzing the similarities and differences, but my desire to charge on toward the completion of this project is stronger. The basic premise of Ballard’s novel is a high rise as a battleground. Check.

In this second story of the Seventh Doctor/Andrew Cartmel era we begin to see interesting things take shape. We move in to new territory (no returning villain or monsters). We have the barest hint of social commentary. And it is here where “Paradise Towers” both succeeds and fails. Good sci-fi blends imaginative world-building with social commentary. “Towers” attempts this but doesn’t fully embrace it. The first two episodes are intriguing and engaging, but things start to fall apart in episode three as revelations come, performances break down, and the commentary loses its poignancy. It is as if the story realized, halfway through, that it had silly designs and monsters, so why take any of it too seriously. The 1984 meets Clockwork Orange subtext breaks down and we no longer know if we should be thoughtful or if we should laugh. It’s a shame, really, as the greatest crime against this story is not living up to its own potential.

But the success is that it does, on some level, try. Doctor Who is once more trying to say something about society, if ineffectually, not merely celebrate itself or pat itself on the back. You could make the argument that Cartmel is trying to rebuild the show but hasn’t quite figured out how yet. But the indications are there: social commentary, manipulation, the Doctor being mistaken for a god-like being. It is only a matter of time before he puts all the pieces together.

For my part, I enjoyed the story. It was engaging and fun, which I needed after the struggle I had with Saward’s vision of Doctor Who. To watch in sequence, “Paradise Towers” was satisfying enough. It wasn’t great, but it genuinely tried, which gave it no small amount of charm.

My Rating

3/5

 

My Favorite and Least Favorite Televised Sixth Doctor Stories

The Sixth Doctor sitting on a bridgeAfter completing a Doctor’s era I like to go back and review my thoughts and compile a list of favorites and least favorites. In the case of some long-running Doctors, it is hard to remember or even parse nuances between what makes two great stories (or horrible stories) just a little better or a little worse. Oddly, I have a new problem with the Sixth Doctor stories, namely that there are so few of them. A typical top five and bottom five list would encompass the entire era (depending on how you counted Trial of a Time Lord. So I have limited myself to standouts on either side of the favorite/least favorite divide.

For the era as a whole, it was a disappointment. There are some instances in art where antagonism sparked creativity. One such example is the band The Police. The members of this band were in a constant struggle for artistic dominance. This led to an amazing alchemy of post-punk energy and angst. Unfortunately, Doctor Who did not capitalize on its own alchemical antagonism. The conflict between BBC oversight, Jonathan Nathan-Turner (producer), and Eric Saward (script editor) did not lead to great art; it led to inconsistency and lack of vision. This almost served to enhance Saward’s bleak vision of science fiction, causing a tone of hopelessness and oppression to flow subtly through the Sixth Doctor era.

The Sixth Doctor era was also the closest complete vision of a Sawardian interpretation of Doctor Who. (I say “closest” because, again, there was a LOT of creative conflict during this era.) Where the Fifth Doctor years were a struggle between a Bidmeadian re-creation of Doctor Who and a Sawardian reproduction of Holmesian Doctor Who, the Sixth Doctor years was firmly Sawardian. Every script was filtered through his lens, and given his singular vision for the show (and his assertion that JNT hired inexperienced writers as much as possible), his fingerprints are on every episode, his voice in every scene. If a viewer appreciates Saward’s vision, this can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I have no particular dislike of Colin Baker’s Doctor or of Peri or Mel; I have enjoyed many of the Sixth Doctor audios from Big Finish. But I do not care for Saward’s vision of Doctor Who . . . or at the very least, the vision he crafted under intense artistic conflict.

For me, the Sixth Doctor era has a few gems, but far more mediocre or outright dull stories. As a result, I find far more satisfaction reading the era as a text about Doctor Who rather than a series of entertaining stories. That said, from a pure entertainment standpoint, here are my lists of favorites and least favorites.

Favorite

  • Revelation of the Daleks. Despite being critical of Saward, I think Revelation is wonderful as his ultimate expression of Doctor Who, which is ironic since the Doctor is largely ineffective in it. The story is dark and bleak but it also manages to be funny and downright interesting. It has so many elements that should not work, and yet it does.
  • Vengeance on Varos. In addition to being a thought-provoking story on entertainment, Varos also signposts one of the recurring motifs of the Sixth Doctor era: Doctor Who as television. This is the first of many stories which show characters watching the Doctor on television screens and commenting on his actions. Thus, it provides many interesting meta moments.
  • The Two Doctors. My personal theory is that The Two Doctors is the most-complete Robert Holmes script under Saward’s script editorship. Caves of Androzani had Holmesian moments, but it felt more like a Saward script in tone. The Two Doctors is far more indicative of Robert Holmes’s style and voice. It is funny, vicious in its social commentary, and it reunites us with the Second Doctor and Jamie.

Least Favorite

  • Timelash. Perhaps the main crime of this story is that it is so bland and by-the-numbers as to be uninteresting. In another era, under another script editor, Timelash would not have stood out as bad. Here, it is glaring.
  • The Twin Dilemma. Another story that could have been something more than it was (the pieces are there), but I can’t overlook the implicit undertones of domestic violence in this story.

What do you think? What are your favorites of the era?

The Doctor and Peri

Doctor Who – Trial of a Time Lord

Doctor Who Story 144, 145, 146, 147 – Trial of a Time Lord

Written by

Robert Holmes, Philip Martin, Pip and Jane Baker

What’s It About?

The Doctor is pulled out of time and space by a jury of Time Lords. A Time Lord called The Valeyard is acting as prosecutor trying the Doctor for transgressing the First Law of Time: non-interference. At stake: the Doctor’s life. Citing evidence from the Doctor’s past, present, and future, the Doctor must prove his innocence, all the while determining who the Valeyard is and why he has targeted the Doctor.

Great Cosmic Protector of Grifters and Dissemblers, save me!

The courtroom as the Doctor faces the ValyardAs a story, I do not enjoy Trial of a Time Lord. As a historical document, I am fascinated by Trial of a Time Lord. During their time on the show, Jonathan Nathan Turner and Eric Saward shifted the primary focus of Doctor Who away from telling interesting, fun stories and toward telling self-referential stories about Doctor Who as a phenomenon. Or, put another way, Doctor Who became about Doctor Who. The show was about itself, about referencing the past, about exploring the question of what made Doctor Who great. But it was rarely about telling good stories. Good stories did get told during the Colin Baker era, but I think, on the whole, this era was too focused on itself as a part of Doctor Who rather than focusing on finding its own voice, its own drive, its own storytelling agenda. By focusing on itself, it did eventually find all these things, but more by accident rather than intentionally.

Oddly, one of the recurring motifs in the Colin Baker era is the image of people watching TV: Vengeance on Varos, Revelation of the Daleks, and now Trial of a Time Lord. Each of these stories features characters watching other characters in stories, watching the Doctor. Trial goes to the unfettered end of this meta-imagery by giving us a Doctor watching episodes of Doctor Who.

Now, in many ways, Trial is a brilliant piece of post-modern conceptualization. It works as a metaphor for the behind-the-scenes turmoil going on at the time. The ultimate question in this case is whether or not Doctor Who deserves to continue being made. This commentary is not so subtle. And through this commentary, the show is able to evaluate and criticize itself. The only problem is that it is handled so sloppily, almost making the critique on its own. “The Mysterious Planet” segment is so effectively by-the-numbers old-school Doctor Who that it is incredibly dull. The banter between Glitz and Dibbler are yet another example of the Robert Holmes double-act, but the story is unbearably dull at times. Thankfully, it is punctuated by Glitz and trial scenes.

“Mindwarp” gets more interesting with each episode, but I just can’t bring myself to get past Brian Blessed’s over-the-top portrayal of Yrcanos. The story never quite reaches the amount of self-parody needed to contextualize such a performance. The ideas are what save this story, but even then it is almost not enough.

Oddly, “Terror of the Vervoids” was the most watchable segment for me. I enjoyed the idea of killer plant life, and Pip and Jane Baker did a good job of subverting expectations (even when the dialogue was atrocious). And despite knowing that “The Ultimate Foe” was incomplete when Robert Holmes died, it seemed better paced than much of what we were given throughout the season.

But overall, even Trial was not spared from the inability of JNT and Saward to create good stories. All the potential in this season was wasted by not taking advantage of the 18-month hiatus to start from square one. There was no real attempt to rebuild the show; instead it seems they merely take a clever idea and did the same old thing. It is full of flaws and grossly illustrates the deficiencies of the current form of Doctor Who. Thankfully, change is coming, but it is disappointing that Colin Baker’s era would remain unredeemed until Big Finish began producing stories. And I also hate that Michael Jayston was so interesting and turned in a great performance as the Valeyard. This makes the conclusion even more unsatisfactory. I want to know more about the Valeyard. I just want other people writing it.

My Rating

2.5/5

 

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

4/5

 

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

1.5/5

Doctor Who – The Twin Dilemma

Doctor Who Story 136 – The Twin Dilemma

Written by

Anthony Stevens

What’s It About?

The Doctor has regenerated. And a couple of kids have been kidnapped. And a mollusk wants to take over the universe or something.

I Am The Doctor Whether You Like It Or Not.
The Doctor lounges. Peri looks on in confusion.
This Doctor doesn’t give a tinker’s damn what you think. And neither does Eric Saward.

In my writing class this semester we were told that it is best to not antagonize your readers from the outset. Essentially, do not tell your readers “This is what it is and just deal with it if you don’t like it.” Or something along those lines. While there may be instances where this is used to establish tone, it must be used very strategically and wisely or else it will turn readers off to your work.

It seems that Anthony Stevens or Eric Saward or JNT should have followed this advice. While I understand the desire to create a darker Doctor to contrast with the previous Doctor, while I understand the desire to get back to a Hartnell-esque Doctor, “The Twin Dilemma” does not present such a Doctor. There does not seem to be any consistency in the opening episodes to convey a Doctor who truly has an alien outlook and morality (as the Doctor claims in episode four). To enact egregious violence against a female companion is troubling and claiming that the regeneration-went-wrong-and-anyway-I’m-an-alien-and-I-do-my-own-thing is no way to truly explain this. In order to convey an alien worldview and morality there needs to be deliberate planning and consistent portrayal. What we have in “The Twin Dilemma” is shock as pseudo-character contrast. Five would never assault a companion, therefore Six will. And given that most of this story (and subsequent stories) portrays Peri and the Doctor bickering like a hateful married couple (lacking the charm and humor of Basil and Sybil Fawlty), the assault feels more like domestic abuse than bad regeneration. To cap the story with “I am an alien” and “I am the Doctor whether you like it or not” is truly disturbing and antithetical to what the show has developed as its core outlook. Even the Hartnell era never put the Doctor in position of domestic abuser. Quite the contrary, he was overprotective to a fault.

This is a shocking and horrifying first step in the Colin Baker era.

My Rating

0/5

 

Doctor Who – Caves of Androzani

Doctor Who Story 135 – Caves of Androzani

Written by

Robert Holmes

What’s It About?

The Doctor and Peri materialize on Androzani minor, a planet with an intricate network of caves where the immensely valuable Spectrox is mined. But they soon get trapped in a power struggle between the rebel Sharaz Jek, gunrunners, military soldiers, and corporate interests.

Is This Death?

Sharaz Jek, The Doctor, and PeriWhat makes this story work so well?

Is it Robert Holmes? This is the first Robert Holmes script for Doctor Who since “The Power of Kroll,” an admittedly uninspired story. But some elements of “Kroll” reappear here, namely gunrunners. But “Caves of Androzani” is in a whole other league when compared to “Kroll.” This is a tragedy. Some of the Holmes tropes are there. Sharaz Jek is a play on Phantom of the Opera, referring back to the horror stories which inspired Hinchcliffe and Holmes when they ran Doctor Who. Many of Holmes’s scripts would target sectors of society that Holmes had little patience for: stuffy bureaucrats (The Deadly Assassin), tax codes and tax collectors (The Sun Makers). Here, the target is aimed at corporations who play two sides against one another for profit, immoral economics. And, of course, there is the lava monster. Holmes was from the era when Doctor Who had to have monsters. Excise this monster from the story, and you don’t lose much. But as I watched the story, I began to question how much of this was by Robert Holmes and how much was by Eric Saward. This is a tragic story. It is bleak. Once more, we have no survivors. More than any story so far, the Doctor is virtually useless here. He is in way over his head and the only thing he manages to accomplish is to save Peri’s life. Apart from this, he does not solve the problems in the story. He does not call people to a higher calling or morality. This is another story where everyone kills each other, and the Doctor and companion get away—only this time, the Doctor is killed as well.

But most striking is the lack of humor. Humor is a Robert Holmes staple, and there is none here. Now, it isn’t unheard of for writers to try different things or to occasionally break type, but the lack of humor stands out in this story. It is dark, ominous, and tragic. So I return to my question, what makes this story work so well? Is it Saward’s script editing?

Is it Graeme Harper? Hands down, this is one of the best-directed stories in classic Who, and most-certainly the best of the Davison era, which is quite a statement because Peter Grimwade and Fiona Cumming set the bar pretty high. That Harper was able to surpass them speaks volumes to his talent and to why he was invited to direct for new Who. This is a visceral story. It is an emotional story. The scene where Jek is first unmasked (and the viewer doesn’t see it) is probably the most emotionally and viscerally intense scene in Doctor Who since Vasor threatened to prey upon Barbara in The Keys of Marinus (the subtext in that story was rape but it was never actually stated). Even the power struggle between the gun runners is framed perfectly with the positioning of the actors conveying strength and authority. “Caves of Androzani” is a masterpiece of direction.

Is it Peter Davison? I had never warmed to Davison’s era before, but this time through (my first time through in sequence) I got it. He was always a great Doctor, but he was a different Doctor. He was more down-to-earth, more polite and sweet. He was a human Doctor. And because of that portrayal, this story kills him. This story breaks him. From the moment the Doctor gets involved, he is in a position of weakness and he never recovers. And yet he struggles on in an attempt to save Peri. Even Sharaz Jek helps him in the end, showing his humanity rather than playing the villain completely.

Honestly, no one person is responsible for the success of this story. Everything came together to send Peter Davison off. For me, this was the most emotional regeneration story since The Tenth Planet. I’m rather sad to see him go because for the next couple seasons I will be witnessing more Saward bleakness, but now with a Doctor who isn’t afraid to do the hard things to stay in control. I don’t have a problem with a Machiavellian Doctor, but I’m a little concerned about the darkness of Saward’s vision of the show.

My Rating

5/5

Doctor Who – Planet of Fire

Doctor Who Story 134 – Planet of Fire

Written by

Peter Grimwade

What’s It About?

A strange artifact discovered on Earth has ties to Turlough’s past.

Would You Show No Mercy to Your Own

The Master accuses the Doctor of being dangerous to the people of SarnOf the four companions to get a send-off during the Davison era, I think Turlough comes off the best. Peter Grimwade, more than Saward (who was responsible for writing two of these send-offs) is able to handle the character drama better than most. Even though we had been toyed with where Turlough’s past is concerned, Grimwade provides a moderately satisfying conclusion and a believable exit to the character. This makes me happy since Turlough was probably the best-realized companion of the era.

But there is a contrast here with Peri, who I’m tempted to see as a scathing portrayal as an American but in reality just see as a poorly developed character. This isn’t down to Nicola Bryant, per se. It is hard to judge her acting chops with this character because the character seems so ill-conceived. From episode one it seems clear that Peri’s main role is titillation. The blocking of certain shots make this painfully clear. Once more, I’m grateful for Big Finish’s redemption of certain characters in Doctor Who.

But impressive is Grimwade’s handling of a checklist of ideas. No, “Planet of Fire” isn’t a bona fide classic, but Grimwade does seem adept at taking the checklist and doing his best with it. Much like Terrance Dicks with “The Five Doctors,” although I think “Planet of Fire” has more satisfying character moments. Grimwade’s challenge here is to reveal Turlough’s past and subsequently write him out of the show, introduce the Peri, and resolve the Kamelion (non)arc. It isn’t a long list, but each item on its own would be enough emotional and plot drama for an entire story. That Grimwade is able to put all of these in while at the same time scripting a passable main plot is admirable. And that this script actually feels more like an end of an era is fascinating, especially as Davison has one more story left. “Planet of Fire” shakes off everything that had been a part of Doctor Who since “Castrovalva.” On some level, you can make a case that the Davison era ended here because “Caves of Androzani” (the final Fifth Doctor story) is a different beast entirely. This is the final story where the Fifth Doctor can be the Fifth Doctor. This is the final story where the Fifth Doctor faces the Master. This is the final story with a Fifth Doctor companion. And while Davison is still there in the end, you can tell that the Doctor is not quite sure where things are going to go from here. He almost seems to sense that the end is around the corner, and Peri is an indication that his time is over.

And given its tone, “Planet of Fire” is a wonderful break from the darkness that Saward has been spreading over his vision of Doctor Who.

My Rating

3/5