The Vampires of Venice

vampiresThe Vampires of Venice is all about the Doctor trying to fix Amy and Rory’s relationship.  The reason he wants to do this is slightly troubling because it has overtones of somebody deciding the path Amy’s life is going to take, and that somebody is not Amy.  We can excuse this because it is the Doctor trying to do this, and we have seen that he has an understanding of what might be considered the correct or best future path for a person’s life to take.  He seems to have an instinct for it, particularly in The Movie, and maybe he gets an impression somehow about how happy Amy’s life with Rory is going to be and doesn’t want to be the person to destroy that, even if he can replace it with a life of adventure.  That gets to the heart of what the story of Amy and Rory will be: the choice between having a happy domestic life and going off on exciting adventures, both of which could be a source of absolute joy.  Amy chooses adventure, then chooses family, then tries to choose a bit of both, until finally she makes her ultimate choice in The Angels Take Manhattan.

We could also say that the Doctor recognises the significance of the way he originally turned up in Amy’s life, and what that means for the story their lives together are acting out.  He has been here before with Reinette in The Girl in the Fireplace, and he knows he can’t fit the Prince Charming role.  Prince Charming settles down and becomes a husband.  But the Doctor has learnt his lesson and he knows he can’t be that character in the childhood fiction that Amy’s life is emulating.  She has gone through the wardrobe and he is Aslan, or the Mad Hatter in Wonderland.  Real love and real life for Amy is not going to be about that: she already has her Prince Charming but first Rory needs to earn her respect as well as her love by showing how brilliant he is, so he can become the hero she needs to marry to complete her fairy tale.

The way the Doctor goes about fixing things is also troubling.  Could anyone really get to the age of 1000(ish) and think that the best way to deal with an engaged friend trying to sleep with him is to go to the fiance’s stag night, burst out of a cake, and announce it in front of every single male friend he has?  We can’t possible assume the Doctor is that innocent and childlike in his understanding of the dynamics of friendships and relationships, so this can only come across as showing off.  The episode just about gets away with it because Matt Smith sells the moment brilliantly, but it is still hard to wonder why any reasonable person would not have that conversation in private.  I can see what this is doing: it’s working to please the fans who always wanted the Doctor to be asexual and awkward in understanding anything to do with relationships to provide an identification figure and say “it’s ok to be like that”, but if doing that makes him look (a) heartless or (b) an idiot, then it’s not the right path to take.  And it’s a step on the road back to Doctor Who as a niche appeal show rather than Doctor Who as family viewing.

So for Rory to become Amy’s hero he needs to travel with the Doctor and have the opportunity to live up to his potential.  In order to do that he has to slot into the companion role, and this can’t be half-hearted or it won’t work.  Doctor Who has an interesting history with male companions.  Looking at the early years of the classic series we have Ian, Steven, Ben and Jamie, all of whom were successful in their own ways, although Ben got caught up in a transition that ended up with him being a bad fit for a new team.  Adric suffered an identical fate.  Leaving aside what was going on behind the scenes, his character worked with the Fourth Doctor and didn’t work with the Fifth.  Jamie and the Second Doctor were of course the ultimate example of how a male companion can work: a simple best-mates bromance, complete with a healthy dose of winding each other up.  Then we had the UNIT chaps: the Brig, Benton, Mike and Harry, the last of which transitioned into the role of full-time companion and did so brilliantly.  Finally there was Turlough, who was probably the most interesting companion character of the whole classic series.  So the hit rate of male companions was actually amazingly good, and it seems odd that from 1984 onwards Doctor Who settled into what I suppose many people assumed was the best format: the Doctor and one female companion.

There have been three attempts since 2005 before Rory comes along: Mickey, Adam and Jack.  None of these are allowed to be fully fledged companions.  Adam in clearly a mis-step, and all three of them are defined by their awkward relationships to the Doctor as (a) not quite companion material, and (b) love rivals for Rose’s affections.  The fact that Jack was successful enough to become the only new series companion to spin off into his own show demonstrated the enormous potential of a male companion, and finally somebody gets it right for the first time in 25 years with Rory.  The Vampires of Venice starts us on this path by immediately stripping away all the love rivalry nonsense.  The Doctor simply has no interest in competing in that way.  His ego clearly loves the attention, but he knows he needs to be her Dumbledore instead.

Rory starts down his road to heroism here by more than holding his own in a pretty standard Doctor Who historical invasion story.  In my article on Doctor Who Settings I was dismissive about the motivations behind filming abroad but I have to admit that applies far more to the classic series than the newer stuff, because it is a huge advantage to this story, and is no longer being done extravagantly for its own sake.  The choice of Croatia to double for Venice is a good example of this because it works perfectly.

This is the Doctor’s third (obvious) encounter with vampires, and each time it has been a different race with a different explanation.  The previous occasions (State of Decay and The Curse of Fenric) were big mythical threats that had long-standing significance in the Doctor’s life.  This time round it’s “fish from space”.  This is an approach that skews much younger in its demographic, in keeping with the childhood fiction theme of the series, rather than the out-and-out horror it could have been.  Having said that it does take much more inspiration from the brides of Dracula passage in Bram Stoker’s novel than Doctor Who has ever done before.  The Curse of Fenric made use of it as well, but this is a much more overt homage.  Francesco is our Dracula substitute and really is not terribly convincing, but that’s not the point of the story.  Like the two previous efforts, it cherry picks the bits of the vampire myth that work well within the story that is being told.  The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Buffy vs Dracula” ably demonstrated that a full-blown homage to Bram Stoker’s Dracula within a genre series is probably best avoided.  And if Buffy can’t even get that right, then it is probably very wise for Doctor Who never to try.   RP

The view from across the pond:

Vampires!  Love them or hate them, they can make for great stories.  I’d be hard pressed to believe that there is anyone who doesn’t like to sink their teeth into a good vampire story.  But therein lies the rub: good vampire stories are hard to find.  Too often we run the risk of getting ninja vampires with swords, punky west coast teen vampires, and ultra-flamboyant pretty vampires that can’t handle the truth.  There’s those that glisten in sunlight like pretty diamonds because… well because some writers think they have to do something so unique with a well-established idea that they make embarrassments of themselves and their creations.  Those sparkly vampires were as bad as the idea of taking a well-loved alien and suddenly saying he’s half human after 30 years on TV as an alien!  (Thank Gallifrey that never happens!)  That’s why when a good vampire story does come along, I drink deeply of its richness.  And there have been good ones: Nosferatu is as close to perfect as you can get.  Near Dark, Let the Right One In, Bram Stoker’s Dracula; all extremely well done movies.  So that’s where Doctor Who comes in and… suffers an identity crisis.

It’s not that The Vampires of Venice is bad; it’s far from bad!  In fact, it is actually a lot of fun.   It’s Rory’s first proper adventure and it takes him to Venice in 1580 for his honeymoon with Amy, but the TARDIS crew encounter those foul fanged fiends that we expected from the title.  Sadly, in a move not unlike Stephanie Meyer’s, Toby Whitehouse is not content with using vampires as we’ve known them, so he gives us bloodsuckers that are … aliens.  Of course!

Ok, fair play, do what you’re good at; Doctor Who is science fiction far more than horror so maybe I shouldn’t complain but when you watch that scene in the underside of the Church, with the “creepy girls”, it is so perfect that we want these to be actual vampires.  Their Nosferatu-like teeth, their Brides of Dracula appearance, their voices speaking in unison as if controlled by a central intelligence… I was so hopeful.  The Doctor says “this is Christmas” and I was right there with him.   Alas, it was like watching Dracula unwrapping a wooden stake from under the Christmas tree because these “vampires” are in fact Saturnyne, a race that would make Cthulhu happy if not for the fact that they use technology to maintain a human appearance.  Their tech, which is supposed to affect perception, actually works on their own kind too.   They want to convert human women into their own species to become breeding machines for the thousands of husbands beneath the waves.  Dark?  You bet!  Certainly atypical for Doctor Who but absolutely the sort of dark thing that would come from Mythos lore.

Speaking of the great old one himself, this story has more in common with Cthulhu than vampires because it’s in the water where the menace truly lies.  Under normal conditions, Vampires don’t do well with water.  And let’s be honest, the notion of something in the water is terrifying because you can’t always see what’s down there.  Was that a weed that brushed your leg?  A small fish?  Something else…  And I would love to see a good Lovecraftian tale even more than a good vampire one!  Oh, that is one place very few venture, and I would love the TARDIS to put us into the thick of one of those tales!  (And if you think Vampire stories are hard to get right, take a look at Lovecraft and see how many do his works justice.  Those numbers are infinitesimally small!)

image003But on its own merits, this story has a lot going for it.  I recently commented on the importance of character, and this episode has character!  It examines the characters of the Doctor, Amy and Rory very well.  Most importantly, Rory’s assessment of the Doctor is actually fairly unique and probably very accurate.  Of what makes the Doctor dangerous to his companions, Rory explains:  “You make them want to impress you…  You make it so they don’t want to let you down.”  Potent!  Rory and Amy are becoming a match made in the heavens too; their relationship is growing and strengthening with each episode.

As for humor, from the moment the Doctor jumps out of the cake at Rory’s bachelor party, the lines start and continue with the library card, the flashlight, and the upstairs neighbors, to name a few moments of comedy.

Matt Smith is superb in his dialog scene with Rosanna, played perfectly by Penny Dreadful alum Helen McCrory.  Appropriately, her part in Penny Dreadful was as dark as her character here.  The back and forth questioning is outstanding, even as the Doctor asks more than his share and she reminds him “my turn”.  Smith conveys in a glance that she’s right and awaits her question.  I won’t lie: I really did want them to become allies, though not at humanities expense, of course.  His reason for turning on the house of Calvierri sums up the Doctor so well: “and you know why?  Because you didn’t know Isabella’s name!”  His indignation that these creatures kill without a thought for those lives they take, infuriates him and he cannot align himself with it.

Vampires of Venice is dark, eerie, periodically funny and very Doctor Who.  It just lacks the requisite vampires to make Venice a tourist attraction for vampire hunters.

Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s play “Track the Crack”.  Rosanna says there were many cracks.  “Some were tiny, some were as big as the sky.  Through some we saw worlds and people and through others we saw silence, the end of all things.”  Now, this is where knowing hurts.  This does not make sense in the context of what we eventually find out.  But, let’s go with it for now.  For this episode, we don’t see, but we learn about it and we hear the silence that falls at the end of the episode.

(Or should that read, “we don’t hear the silence that falls…”?)   ML

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Spare Parts

spareI can’t let the month of Halloween go by without taking a close look at a Cybermen story, so I’m going to take a rare foray into a Big Finish audio play.  I’m not intending to make a habit of this because, although I listen to almost the full range that Big Finish put out, I tend not to give them sufficient attention to be able to form a strong enough opinion for a review.  That’s not meant as an insult to Big Finish: their dramas are the perfect accompaniment to work or household chores, or a car journey, because audio by its very nature doesn’t tend to invite just sitting down, concentrating on what you are listening to, and doing nothing else.  Spare Parts is different.  It transcends everything else Big Finish have ever done and grabs your attention whether you are trying to give it or not.  In fact, it transcends most television stories.

So the reason I wanted to write about at least one Cybermen story for Halloween is that they are, in my opinion, the scariest monster Doctor Who has ever come up with.  But they are only scary when they are done well, and that’s actually extraordinarily rare.  There are virtually no Cybermen stories where they are really frightening for almost a forty-year stretch between The Invasion and World Enough and Time, and that’s because they work best when the horror of the conversion process from humanoids is the focus of the story, and of course you can’t keep doing that all the time.  And even if you tried then the law of diminishing returns would come into play.

Spare Parts goes back to basics, back to the original ideas of Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, and it tells a compelling tale.  The story of the Cybermen’s early development is told from the point of view of one insignificant family. They are just an ordinary group of people, and this is the masterstroke of the play. They could so easily have been portrayed as cold logicians, perhaps in the mould of the human survivors in The Ark in Space, but this would have removed it from reality, and not shown what could happen to us. In the modern world this hits home, and makes us stop of think about the repercussions of our own rapid scientific development.

The Cybermen have been known to be excessively violent, such as in Attack of the Cybermen and Real Time, with their respective hand and head crushing antics. Spare Parts is more subtle, but uses that subtlety to be much more horrific and frightening, culminating in the moment when Yvonne returns home, surgically reconstructed and almost unrecognisable to her father. The horrors the Hartley family have to go through are portrayed with realism, and are absolutely terrifying.

Spare Parts is perfectly in keeping with established continuity, with the original Cybermen voices. These were often criticised, but were actually very creepy as they were recognisable as human but wrong, and they work wonderfully here.  Nicholas Briggs is simply the most talented monster voice actor to ever work on Doctor Who, and it’s not hard to see why he got the television gig on the back of his Big Finish work.

The standard is faultless throughout, and Peter Davison is the perfect choice of Doctor for this type of story, with his gentle vulnerability.  Fifteen years on this is still the finest audio drama that Big Finish has ever produced.  I can’t see it ever being surpassed.   RP

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Six Degrees of Who: Paranormal Activity

sleepnomoreIn this series of articles we look at thematic links between Doctor Who and other television series or films, and influences that often run both ways.  In this October Halloween special, let’s take a look at a highly influential film series from the psychological horror genre, Paranormal Activity.  As always, we’ll start by looking at the most superficial of links: actors who crossed over:


There, that’s done.  Seriously, though, I would have been amazed if I had found any connections between a British television series and an American film series that utilised unknown actors.  However, after a lot of research I did find one behind-the-scenes connection that I am actually quite chuffed about: Matthew Clark was a graphic designer on the two most recent series of Doctor Who, and was also the art director for the Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones trailer.  A bit tenuous, I know, but I don’t think that’s a bad effort!  If anyone knows of any other connections, please make use of the comments section.

Paranormal Activity revolutionised the horror film industry.  Every so often a film comes along that is a game-changer, and this was one of those occasions.  It made a fortune at the box office despite having a miniscule budget, and that was bound to make people take notice.  Like Doctor Who, that first film proved that you can achieve great things with very little money.  Necessity is the mother of invention.

The way it revolutionised the industry was by borrowing a technique from a previous hit, the disconcerting handheld camera work of The Blair Witch Project and then doing that a whole lot better, added to locked off camera angles which were really the key to its success.  But there is more to it than that.  It really plays on the viewer’s fears in a couple of clever ways.  Firstly it pretends to be real.  This was the reason for hiring unknown actors and using their own names.  It left the viewers unsure if they were actually watching something that had happened in real life, and that was played on in the film’s promotion.  As soon as you put a recognisable face into a film that is pretending to be found footage you spoil the illusion so the actors had to be unknowns.  So this was where the found footage genre really got started, although the trick of pretending a work of fiction is real was not a completely new invention.  In fact, the BBC had almost done a near-identical thing in 1992 with the magnificent Ghostwatch, before bottling out of it and sticking a writer’s credit at the start.  Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds tried a similar trick: this was the radio version of “found footage” with fictional news bulletins presented as reality.

The other way in which Paranormal Activity plays with our fears is to interact strongly with the camera.  Like the Doctor Who episode Blink (where the Angels can’t move if we are looking at them), the viewer feels like a part of the narrative, with the ghost in Paranormal Activity reacting to the camera by escalating the activity.  By the end of the first film it almost feels like being in the room, and the moment Micah is thrown at the camera is like an attack on the audience and a stunning way to end a film.  The first film, and most of the subsequent ones, build up the activity very slowly.  It is a long time before anything happens and then it starts very small-scale with just the movement of a door.  But before that we have locked off camera footage where nothing happens, and that’s the clever bit.  It plays with our expectations so by the time things start happening we are already on edge.

The first film in the series debuted in 2007 and in the intervening decade has been an influence on Doctor Who to a fairly limited degree.  Some of the tricks used in the film have been adopted for various episodes of Doctor Who such as The God Complex, but most notably Sleep No More is a very strong homage to Paranormal Activity, complete with the audience being drawn right into the middle of things at the conclusion.  Of course, the theme of possession is one that has always been regularly utilised in Doctor Who, in stories as wide-ranging as Terror of the Autons, Kinda and The Impossible Planet.

The Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who has often experimented with storytelling techniques beyond the point-a-camera-at-a-stage-play approach, which is what television has nearly always been.  The influence of Paranormal Activity on the psychological horror genre has played a part in that evolution, and deserves to continue to be an influence on Doctor Who in future.  I for one would welcome a few more attempts at the “found footage” approach to Doctor Who.  Because if you want Doctor Who to be really scary, then you will struggle to find a better way to achieve it than that.   RP

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The Fires of Pompeii

soothsayerThe Fires of Pompeii continues the New Who tradition of a good, solid historical story early in the series. Previous efforts have made use of historical “celebrities” (Dickens, Queen Victoria, Shakespeare) but here we have a slightly different take on the genre: a fictional historical celebrity.  In fact, it is even more bizarre than that: this is a fictional-historical-celebrity-from-a-text-book historical story. Caecilius is a famous character to anyone who has studied the Cambridge Latin Course, the standard course for learning Latin for many, many years.  I have to admit to being a bit biased in favour of this story because Latin was by far my favourite subject at school, and seeing characters from the Cambridge Latin Course in Doctor Who for me is probably akin to what the TARDIS landing in Hogwarts would be for most people.

To anyone unfamiliar with those text books, including the Doctor himself, Caecilius is just another resident of Pompeii. This works rather well because it is a nice little nostalgia trip for anyone who did Latin at school, but is not a problem for anyone else. Of course, one side-effect of having studied Latin (if you paid attention) is knowing exactly why Lucius Petrus Dextrus is hiding his arm, just from his name!  Either he has changed his name for a joke (and his petrified arm is no joking matter) or he was born with that name, which you would probably think is a coincidence too far.  We’ll be charitable and call it nominative determinism.   There is the usual problem with faking a missing arm for a television programme – an extra wide shoulder, etc, although the capacious robes do help to disguise Phil Davis’s real arm.

There is some further explanation of the TARDIS’s translation circuits, which are not just able to change speech but can alter writing as well: ‘two amphoras for the price of one’.  When Donna tries to speak Latin the translation circuits make her sound Celtic. This makes for a funny joke, but it doesn’t pay to think about it too much. When Caecilius replies ‘there’s lovely’, he is attempting to respond in Celtic, but wouldn’t that then sound like Latin to Donna and the Doctor?  Also the Doctor’s son/sun play on words would be meaningless in Latin, so how does the TARDIS cope with translating that?  This is nothing new: it has always been a flaw in the logic of TARDIS translation and the universal translator in Star Trek has exactly the same problem.  It’s something that probably doesn’t have a solution because translation can work for basic communication but if you want to get into things like puns then they simply won’t translate from one language to another: you need to actually learn the language and often the background culture or a bit of history to be able to understand a play on words.  This is not generally an issue with the concept of translation technology because we just don’t think about it, but if you are going to draw attention to it for the sake of a joke then the side effect is to draw attention also to the flaws in the logic.

There has been an interesting theme running through Doctor Who since its revival: the Doctor needs his companions to provide him with a moral compass. On his own, he doesn’t know when to stop, when to draw the line, or when to bend the rules. This was the Doctor who Rose met and tamed, the almost-heartless Doctor who offered Martha a couple of trips and then nearly ditched her, and now the Doctor that Donna has to battle with to save a few people from the eruption. At this early stage we can already see how valuable Donna’s friendship will be for the Doctor. She shares his burden of destroying Pompeii by pressing down the lever with him, and then brings him back from a very dark place to save Caecilius and his family. It is as if, in the times when he finds himself alone and companionless again, he dwells on the loss of his people and becomes almost defeatist, and he is allowing his helplessness to save Gallifrey to colour his judgement in not attempting to change what happens to Pompeii, at least in a small way. Writer James Moran uses this to tackle a long-standing continuity issue with Doctor Who: why the Doctor refuses to change history (‘not one line’) when from his point of view everywhere he goes is history. The explanation that ‘some things are fixed; some things are in flux’ is a neat one, and also adds to our understanding of the weight that rests on the Doctor’s shoulders: he can see what can and cannot be changed, a Time Lord gift which is now his responsibility alone. After more than 700 episodes, an important new dimension has been added to the Doctor’s character and the fundamental way in which he interacts with historical (and from our perspective, future) events, with complete credibility. When you think about that, it really is remarkable.

By the way, that actor who plays Caecilius isn’t bad, is he?  Oh, and that young actress who plays the soothsayer’s not bad either.  I wonder if we’ll see either of them in Doctor Who again one day…  RP

The view from across the pond:

When Donna Noble was introduced in The Runaway Bride, she was extremely annoying.  That was a risky start for a companion.  The thing was, she was a one-time TARDIS traveler, so it really didn’t matter that much; at worst, she’d be gone in an hour.  So when it was announced that she was coming on full time the following season, this reviewer was not happy.  Catherine Tate or not, Donna was not likable.  But Russell T. Davis is a clever chap and had something in mind for this companion for which he was willing to play a long game.  The Fires of Pompeii marks the first true sign that there was going to be a sizable payoff, because she is on fire in this story!

Taking place 15 years after his last visit in The Romans, the Doctor and Donna arrive in Pompeii the day before Vesuvius erupts.  Here, they meet Caecilius and his family.  Peter Capaldi as Caecilius is great, as always, but it’s his daughter Evelina (played by Francesca Fowler) that really deserves recognition.  She’s a ball of fire as she and Petrus commence soothsaying about the Doctor from Gallifrey, his name written in the cascade of medusa herself, and Donna who has something on her back; it’s a defining, show-stealing scene.  The hint that “she is returning” also adds that slow-burn, season-long intrigue that we had come to expect from the rebooted series.  But far sneakier was the other season-long arc: there are a lot of missing planets and Pyrovile is one of them, but reference to these misplaced orbs is so subtly shrouded behind a smokescreen of words that we may not have picked up on it by this, the second episode of season 4.

Speaking of subtlety, there are a number of little touches that greatly enhance the episode.  The comedy surrounding the Doctor and Donna looking alike is hilarious, as is the initial misunderstanding that they are husband and wife.  It doesn’t help that they both chose the name “Spartacus”, but it did add to the laughs.   And how can we not love Donna’s thinking they are in Epcot since signs appear in English?  It’s a gentle reminder that Donna is new to all this.

Phil Davis as Petrus Dextrus is a great villain but I still take issue with Doctor Who giving up so much in names.  It’s bad enough when episode titles do it and then expect us to be surprised when the titular villain shows up, but when a race is called pyrovile, you know fire will be involved.  So too do we know that to be dexterous is to have skill with ones hands.  Is it any surprise that Petrus Dextrus has a petrified arm?  Not really.  (No wonder he was so fired up!)   I think this characteristic of Doctor Who (and other science fiction series) is a bad one because those words are only relevant to humans.  Ok, Petrus can get away with it, but how come the Pyrovile are not called something else in their own tongue?

Ok, minor quibble aside, the true victory for this episode is in Catherine Tate’s acting.  She fires on all cylinders through this episode, offering far more than I ever expected.   Gone is the annoying temp from Chiswick; here she faces her challenge head-on.  She looks the Doctor in the eye and rests her hands on his in a show of support as he makes the devastating decision to cause the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  Her look conveys such horror and it can’t help but break a few hearts.  Then she goes on, begging the Doctor to just save one person.  For me, this was Donna’s turning point.  This baptism of fire truly starts her on a journey of growth and self-discovery.

Let’s not ignore the underlying morality question the episode asks: is it better to keep ones hands clean and allow a greater evil to take place or does one accept responsibility and make an unpleasant choice for the greater good.  We can ignore it in the context of a good story, but the fact is, it’s there.  The Doctor often plays with fire, but here he’s faced with it in a very literal way.  He effectively makes a decision that kills 20,000 people in order to save humanity.  That’s a heck of a kill-count for the future.  It is not something he takes lightly having made a similar decision with his own people.   Morality questions like this are often at the heart of good storytelling.

The Fires of Pompeii is a thoroughly enjoyable visit to ancient Pompeii with a deep, engaging story.  And if I were a soothsayer, I would have predicted Peter Capaldi’s return to Doctor Who but alas, that image was probably obscured by volcanic ash.

 Alright, I’ve added enough fuel to this fire, but when the puns present themselves so well, can I be blamed?   ML

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The Romans

romansUnderstanding what we are watching when we view the Romans depends on a lot of context.  Here are the two most important factors to bear in mind:

  1. This is Vicki’s first adventure with the Doctor, and she is the first new companion since Doctor Who began.
  2. This is the middle story in a trilogy of historicals written by Dennis Spooner, which started with The Reign of Terror and will end with The Time Meddler.

Just to be timey-wimey, I’ll deal with those in reverse order.  Across his three historical stories you can see Spooner grappling with the problems of the format and trying to find a way to do them successfully.  We have already seen that the Doctor Who’s original approach to history has become unsustainable almost before it has even begun.  If the Doctor can’t change anything then the only drama can come from being captured and escaping, or a companion that doesn’t know the rules and fights against the tide.  The latter was done once in The Aztecs but isn’t really a repeatable plotline.

So in The Reign of Terror Spooner went with the get-captured-and-escape format but tried to avoid the whole issue of changing history by placing the Doctor and his companions at the fringes of the French Revolution.  He will eventually hit upon the perfect formula with The Time Meddler (which will then get bizarrely ignored for years) but before that he has a go at a couple of different things with The Romans.  Firstly he makes it a comedy, and secondly he ret-cons the Doctor into history.  These are both interesting approaches.

The comedy for the most part works well, and Nero is an ideal target as long as you can set aside concerns about a thoroughly nasty figure from history being played for laughs.  The reason I say he is an ideal target is that a lot of what we see here is based on (probably) facts: the poisoning intrigue, the egotistical self-promotion as a talented musician, the moral bankruptcy.  All the chasing around of Barbara gets a bit wearing, and it is uncomfortable viewing from a modern perspective seeing unwanted sexual advances being played for laughs, but it is sadly in keeping with the contemporary television landscape.  The idea of Barbara and the Doctor having different but connected adventures in the same location, while always missing each other, is much more effective, and a very clever way to utilise the regulars.

Most interesting of all, though, is that bit of ret-conning of history, making the Doctor responsible for the Great Fire of Rome.  This is far from being the last time this will be done, but it is very different from anything else because the Doctor actually causes a very nasty moment in history and then finds it all hilarious.  Bearing in mind that the fire was used as an excuse to massacre Christians, that’s hard to get on board with.  We could be charitable and say that he knows it was destined to happen anyway as the approach to history is still completely fatalistic at this point in Doctor Who’s history, but even so you would have thought the consequences would prick his conscience a little.  The reason it doesn’t is that he is having far too much fun impressing a girl, which brings us round in a circle to my original point #1 above.

So the Doctor takes Vicki off on her first adventure, merrily ditching his other gooseberries companions.  The next four episodes are all about him showing off and never acting his age.  We could view this in terms of the Doctor actually being very young in reality because he is in his first body, but that was obviously not Spooner’s intention – it was all about feeling and acting younger when you are in the company of youth – which is a very real thing that happens in real life.  At last we have a companion that works perfectly with the Doctor.  He thrives on youthful company and it brings out his young outlook on life.  Without knowing his origins yet, he is after all somebody who has left his own people for whatever the reason may be and gone off exploring the universe.  And now he has somebody to have a blast with, without feeling the burden of grandparental responsibility and the need to set any kind of stuffy example.  Here is a young woman who, in the Doctor’s eyes, doesn’t need to be put in her place.  She’s just a friend he can have a laugh with.  That allows us to start seeing the Doctor in a very different light…   RP

The view from across the pond:

My focus for the month of October has been those frightening stories and ideas in Doctor Who.  This week has been more conceptual than monster-filled.  Abuse of power, corporate greed, and a question of age have all been discussed.  With The Romans we should look at some other scary concepts.  Kidnapping, being sold into slavery, murderous highwaymen, madness… these are all explored to some degree.  Madness is most evident in Emperor Nero, who is a few garlic cloves short of a pasta dish.  The notion of madness is genuinely scary; to be under the rule of a madman is utterly horrifying because one never knows what will come out of that ruler’s whimsy.  Woe unto those who allow that to ever happen again!   (Um… about that…)

The Doctor is attacked in his room (although the conflict is handled extremely comically with Vicki ultimately pushing the would-be assassin from the window).  Barbara and Ian are abducted; Barbara is jailed and sold as a slave and Ian finds himself on a slave ship and eventually thrown into the gladiatorial ring for a fight to the death with his friend.   Barbara’s affections are even aggressively sought by the mad emperor leading to her being targeted for poisoning by Nero’s wife.  And an old musician, Maximus Pettulian, is brutally murdered on the road.  The Doctor even directly affects history by inadvertently giving Nero the idea to burn down Rome.  Not to burn this one to the ground, but there are a lot of heavy ideas in this story.

But to talk about The Romans as a scary story, even with all of these nerve-shattering ideas, would not do the story justice.  In fact, The Romans is a complete failure as a scary story.  But don’t throw this story to the lions yet because what it is instead, is an outstanding success for sheer enjoyment.  I’ll admit it: this is, hands-down, one of my favorite stories of the Hartnell Era.  William Hartnell is utterly brilliant.  From his “gentle art of fisticuffs”, his confusion over finding himself in the role of Maximus Pettulian and his “quiet” lyre playing in court; his “don’t make that funny noise” to the sound of “psst”, his assumptions about what his companions got up to at the end of the story… it all adds up to a marvelously enjoyable performance.  His affection for Vicki is lovely too.  I can’t help but think he expected too much from his granddaughter Susan and finds Vicki a surrogate that he can restart his relationship with, unencumbered by any preconceived notions or expectations.

The rest of the TARDIS crew are great as well.  Vicki redeems herself from her not-so-bright introduction by spurring the Doctor into action when she gets bored just sitting around.  In many ways, she’s the catalyst for all the action that befalls the crew.  She seems to take it all in stride.  She is a welcome addition to the crew and adds something pleasant that was stagnating during Susan’s time on board.  Ian and Barbara have a closeness that makes it easy to accept that they could eventually settle down together.   Ian promising to come back for Barbara is perfect.  What Ian and Barbara go through is harrowing.  Let’s not forget, they know the history of Rome – they know about slavery, gladiators, highwaymen, Nero.  They know that life expectancy during this period was not long.   This may be ancient history but now these school teachers are struggling to survive it.

Then there’s the supporting cast.  For me, Michael Peake as Tavius, our hissing friend, really steals the show.  “Must you hiss my name from all corners?!”  As minor as this was for the episode, I loved it.  Nero, played by Derek Francis, is not unlike Napoleon Dynamite – he’s a train wreck that we are compelled to watch.  He plays the role brilliantly.  His shenanigans are funny, even though the actions themselves are far from comical.  Without being graphic, his pursuit of Barbara would not have ended well for her should he have caught her.  It’s a brutal time told in a way that is comical; it works well offering a glimpse of life in Roman times in the mellow way that 60s TV could, but make no mistake: these events are not funny on their own merit!

The Romans also posits what happens when the Doctor and his friends become part of history.  This will happen again to much more devastating effect, also on Roman soil, in The Fires of Pompeii.

So I’ll take the advice so often quoted, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  Thus, like the emperor in the Colosseum, I give this one a solid thumbs up!   ML

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The Rescue

vickiSusan has gone and with her the problems she was creating for the series, which was constantly framing the Doctor as a selfish patriarch who cared little about his own granddaughter’s safety as long as he was getting to be the tourist in space in time.  Here she gets immediately replaced with somebody who could have been a carbon copy of her, with all the same inherent problems.  Vicki is superficially an adopted granddaughter, similar in age to Susan, a young woman from the future, with only the TARDIS crew to rely on as her family.  Cleverly the series avoids falling into the same traps by handling the relationship between the Doctor and Vicki in a very different manner to Susan, as we will see more clearly in the next story, but it starts here because bizarrely the relationship between the Doctor and Vicki seems to be a closer connection from the word go than the one between the Doctor and Susan ever was.  This allows the Doctor to do what he should always have done with Susan: try to impress her by being a good role model and an influential friend, rather than trying to be her boss.

What this does so effectively is sets him on the path to actually being the Doctor as a character we are familiar with, somebody who shows up, identifies an injustice, and fixes it.  Vicki is an outsider to the TARDIS crew at this stage, and she points out something that we have already noticed throughout the first series: the Doctor isn’t actually making things better.  In fact (as we saw in The Aztecs), he often arrives, makes things a bit worse, and goes.  That’s because he’s concerned simply with having a look around and then escaping from danger.  Vicki calls him out on that at the point in the story that the Doctor and his companions have achieved nothing other than to kill her pet.  Probably for the first time ever the Doctor rises to the challenge, goes off and sorts out the problem single-handedly.  Ian and Barbara play no part in it at all.  He is helped by the too-convenient appearance of a couple of Didonians at the end of the story, but hey, that’s Doctor Who as we still know it today.  The Doctor is lucky.

But he hasn’t quite learnt how to be the hero yet.  He has a good stab at it, but his attempt is predictably in line with the flawed character we have already seen a lot of: he arrogantly goes off on his own without confiding in the others, putting himself in a terribly dangerous position. To cap it all, he makes the first move in trying to attack Bennett, and nearly gets himself killed.  He hasn’t yet learnt that violence isn’t the best solution, even though it might be the obvious one.

The plot itself is very tightly contained and the two-episode format works brilliantly, along with the very small cast.  Doctor Who is often at its best when it plays out on a small scale.  The one big criticism that is so often thrown at the story is that the identity of the villain is obvious, but this is simply not true and is a misunderstanding of the nature of the whole story.  If this were a whodunit it would be a fair criticism, but it’s not.  The story is not asking us to work out who the culprit is because the culprit is shown to be an alien monster.  We are presented with a standard evil monster vs humans plot which has a clever twist.  If you genuinely guess who Koquillion is without any foreknowledge of the plot then your brain works in very different ways to mine, because logic won’t lead you to think “that’s a man in a monster suit”.  Koquillion is more convincing as an alien than the Voord, but nobody was thinking they were supposed to be men dressed up within the narrative of the story, rather than aliens.  So when Koquillion is shown to be just a costume it is actually an unexpected and very brave move, because the next time we see a monster are we going to be able to believe in it, or still have that image in our minds of the head being taken off to reveal a man underneath?  It’s not going to help that the next time we see aliens will be The Web Planet.  Placing an historical story between the two was a wise move.

Thematically there is a lot going on here.  There is a troubling air of domestic abuse about the whole thing.  More significantly we are shown the pitfalls of xenophobia.  The villain is shown to be a twisted human as opposed to the aliens, which are benign; this also taps in neatly to the human tendency to blame aliens for our own failings (i.e. conspiracy theories).  Then we have Barbara’s xenophobia, when she assumes an alien creature is a monster and guns it down.  It’s Sandy, Vicki’s pet.  This shows Barbara in a very poor light, and it is remarkable that Vicki agrees to have anything to do with her, let alone travel with her.  Barbara is not nearly as apologetic as she should be (she should be completely crushed by the guilt of what she has just done), failing to empathise sufficiently with Vicki’s trauma at losing a pet (which anyone who has been through that will know is horrendous) and also losing the one good thing in her life.   Some tension between them going forward into future adventures would have been useful, but at least Vicki is shown to replace Barbara in the Doctor’s affections after this point to a large extent.  Look at how he behaves towards Barbara in Planet of Giants, and how he behaves towards Vicki in The Romans.  So we can interpret this as the Doctor finding a companion with greater potential and less of the 60s British establishment superiority nonsense.  He doesn’t need a best friend who assumes anything that looks different is a threat to be exterminated, or he might as well travel around with a Dalek.

The Rescue is one of the most significant Doctor Who stories because it features the first ever change of regular cast.  Maureen O’Brien’s task is not of the magnitude of Patrick Troughton’s in Power of the Daleks, but it is not a million miles away from it because the viewers had to accept a change of line-up, and she deserves more recognition than she gets for being one of the key figures who kept Doctor Who afloat when it could so easily have floundered.  She is immediately the most interesting and enthusiastically acted companion we have seen so far.

The story ends with a perfect template of what companion debuts will become.  Although she is from the far future from our perspective, Vicki is still amazed by the TARDIS, as she is shown taking her first tentative steps into a new life of adventure.  It doesn’t matter when or where you are from, the TARDIS is still an amazing place to be.  Doctor Who won’t always get this right (hello Tegan), but when it does it always owes a debt to The Rescue.   RP

The view from across the pond:

While understanding may be a three-edged sword, aging is only a double edged one, but what a sword it is!  Praise it or curse it, aging is part of life; the alternative is worse, at any rate.  But it may be the universe’s price for giving us physical agility, looks, strength… until that fades.  But the other side of that sword is that while we may become slower and greyer, our minds become sharper and a bit wiser.  (Well, that is until even that goes and you start calling your grandkids “Woolley”…. Yes, this happened with my own grandfather, bless him!  I guess it’s no different than being called “Chesterfield”.)   But wisdom is a gift that comes with age.  I look back on many of the choices I made as a younger man and think “how did I think that was a good idea?”  Even Ambassador Sarek couldn’t convince me that those mistakes “seemed like a good idea at the time”.  So sure, aging can be both predator and teacher.  I see it as a good thing that I’ve learned enough to avoid repeating some of those youthful blunders.

 So while I have been talking about scary things this week, from Robespierre’s Reign of Terror to the everyday greed of Planet of Giants, today we’ll look at another scary thing: youth.  (“Don’t you mean old age?”  Nope, I mean youth.)  See, one hopes that by the time one is in his or her 20s, they are not fooled by Santa Claus.  Sadly, this is not the case for new companion, Vicki.  Youthful and unmarried-for-now, she lives with her friend Bennett on the planet Dido (which one Doctor Who book gave a totally different and far more shocking name by adding a single letter).  Bennett is injured and bedridden; Vicki takes care of him.  And there’s Koquillion.  Koquillion is the evil monster that comes to see Bennett and Vicki from time to time.  He’s the big baddie for the episode.   Ian says he’d rather face Daleks than Koquillion.  The problem is, Koquillion might as well wear a big red costume and white beard while “ho-ho-ho”-ing his way into the crashed spaceship that serves as home because Vicki is oblivious to the fact that Bennett and Koquillion are the same person.  I wish Bennett would have told Vicki that Koquillion left through the chimney, just to see if she would piece it together then!  It takes the Doctor and his wisdom to piece it together.  He doesn’t even turn to face Koquillion in the cave when he addresses the “creature” as Bennett.  This is clearly a commentary on youthful blindness versus age-driven wisdom.

In many ways, this story really does drive home the contrast between the old and young.  The Doctor starts the story off very much an old man.  He’s tired and forgets that his granddaughter recently left.  There is a touching poignancy to that forgetfulness, made easier by the wonderful Ian and Barbara.  But it’s there.  Vicki also mentions that Ian and Barbara, from her point of view, are 500 years old.  Vicki, by contrast is a bubbly, innocent girl not unlike the Doctor’s granddaughter.  It’s no wonder the Doctor invites her to travel with him (making her the first companion he ever invites into the TARDIS).  Of course there was the danger that if he left her there by herself, she’d probably either starve to death or hunt and kill the Easter Bunny to stay alive.

The story serves as an introduction for Vicki and little else.  It’s not a particularly great story, and it does not paint Vicki in a particularly flattering light, at least intellectually!  But here she is, traveling with the TARDIS crew and on her way to her first adventure.  Hopefully, she’ll be a little wiser in her future stories.

And let’s all be grateful that with age comes wisdom.  It would be even scarier if aging hadn’t any perks.  That truly would be terrifying…   ML

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Planet of Giants

planetofgiantsImagine for a moment you are involved in the creative side of making Doctor Who in the 1960s, and you have made Planet of Giants.  It has been transmitted and well received by the viewers.  The ratings are a couple of million up on where the previous series finished, and the story has increased its viewers by half a million by the last episode.  The end results of your efforts are stunning and this has to be judged one of Doctor Who’s greatest successes so far.  What lessons do you take from this as to the way forward for Doctor Who?

Well, you can’t shrink the TARDIS every week or you’ll end up making Land of the Giants instead of Doctor Who, but there are maybe three things you could try to repeat.  One of those is impossible, one of those is a blind alley, and one of those has endless untapped potential.

  1. The three episode format.  This unfortunately is the impossible one.  It is quite clear that Doctor Who benefits from the faster pacing of a smaller episode count, and the editing down of Planet of Giants from four episodes to three benefits the story hugely.  You only have to look at the reconstruction of the missing bits on the DVD to understand what a yawn-fest this could have turned out to be.  But the reason it was impossible to emulate at the time was that the budget just wasn’t going to stretch.  There was one more attempt with The Rescue (two episodes), but by and large the costs of building sets had to be spread across at least four episodes and often six or more.
  2. Giant sized creatures are exciting.  This is the blind alley, but unfortunately it was the lesson that was most learnt from this story, and learnt incorrectly.  In theory it’s a great idea, but in practice Doctor Who was never going to be able to achieve that kind of thing successfully on a regular or even occasional basis.  The budget and technology just wasn’t there in the 1960s, and it still wasn’t there in the 1980s.  But look what happened: four stories later (and into the second run of stories in production terms – this is still the first year behind the scenes) we have giant ants.  This would be tried again and again over the course of the classic series: crabs, maggots, flies, spiders, slugs, bats… there are plenty more.  And I think it is fair to say the success rate is fairly hit and miss.
  3. Making ordinary domestic things scary is really, really effective.  Just look at the cliffhanger at the end of Dangerous Journey.  Yes, that is a Doctor Who cliffhanger ending which is water going down a sink, and it’s one of the most exciting and unconventional cliffhangers imaginable.  But where are the subsequent examples of everyday things being made scary in Doctor Who?  Nothing comes to mind until the magnificent Troughton era has a bit of a go with foam, web, seaweed and toy soldiers.  It’s hard to argue that any of that has anything to do with being inspired by the success of this story.  Then we have shop window dummies, dolls, chairs, cables, plastic flowers – but those can all be found in the one story, and apart from a few tenuous ones (I suppose you could say the Tom Baker era does a similar thing with shrubbery and stones) that’s about it.  Even the last two years of the classic series, which really have a lot more in common with the 2005 flavour of Doctor Who than even the 1985 flavour, didn’t spot the potential of that trick, beyond a couple of half-hearted attempts with sweets and cats.

So the story of Planet of Giants is one of a brave experiment that should have been used to inspire more stories and possibly was, but in the wrong way.  Maybe somebody took this success and decided they could repeat it with The Web Planet.  Perhaps if Raymond P. Cusick had designed that as well they might just have got away with it.  Seriously, the man was a genius.  First the Daleks, and now this.  There is some fantastic set and prop design for the oversized objects and creatures, including: a worm, ant, burnt match, match box, briefcase, drain pipe, wheat, pad of paper, cork, phone cable and gas tap. That’s quite a challenge to give a designer!  One scene that works particularly well is the shot of the drainpipe in Dangerous Journey, which then cuts to the Doctor and Susan emerging from it. Everything about this sequence is perfectly executed. The plug and plug hole are fantastic, although the chain looks a bit two-dimensional. There is a nice echo effect when the Doctor and Susan are in the sink to make it all more believable.

The predicament the TARDIS crew find themselves in here is much more interesting and better executed than the story of Forester, Smithers and the insecticide, and to be honest the guest actors sadly don’t really acquit themselves too well.  It is a shame that the regulars never get to interact with the humans, or are even seen by them, as this would really have added an extra dimension to the story.  But you can’t have everything.

Just a side note to finish.  This was the first Doctor Who story to be released in VidFIREd form, replacing the original fluid look of the video.  I can remember being astonished by what this achieved.  We might take it for granted nowadays, with virtually every 60s story receiving the same treatment for DVD, but at the time it seemed like magic.  How fitting that this, one of the most pioneering of Doctor Who stories, should have been chosen to be a groundbreaker all over again in another era.   RP

The view from across the pond:

I commented on something just one review back: Doctor Who should not have been the target of jokes about special effects when the show was going out on a limb time and again to bring good, thought provoking ideas to television.  In Planet of Giants, the TARDIS doors open while landing creating a freak effect.  And here’s where Doctor Who once again exceeds expectation…

It doesn’t matter if the story is a minor one.  What matters is the execution and thought that went into it.  When the TARDIS crew encounter giant bugs, their first thought is about what sort of planet could have created such monstrosities (Vortis and Metebelis III have yet to be encountered).  It’s actually Susan who first makes the realization (I know, right?  Susan!!!) that they are in fact on Earth but that they have been reduced in size.  So we see a very typical British garden from a very atypical perspective: that of beings so small that they can fit into the cracks in the walkway.

Most likely influenced by other sources such as the 1957 Richard Matheson classic, The Incredible Shrinking Man (and possibly sparking interest for Irwin Allen’s The Land of the Giants in 1968), Doctor Who tells a brief tale of corporate greed and murder in a way we have never seen it depicted before.  In a nutshell, a greedy corporate villain, Forester, wants to get a pesticide approved, but runs into some opposition.  The miniature crew has to think outside the (match)box to get someone to notice how dangerous the chemical is and then get out of a room they are trapped in.  (Talk about a whole new Escape Room experience!)  Using the echo from a sink as a voice amplifier, paper clips to form a ladder and a drainpipe to exit the room, even to the point of hiding in an overflow spout, are just some of the things the crew has to piece together to survive.  There’s even the “giant cat” reminiscent of Matheson’s classic prowling after our intrepid explorers.   Meanwhile DN6, the aforementioned chemical, is the real problem.  It kills insect and animal life nearly on contact so when Barbara touches a peanut of unusual size (no relation to ROUS’s), she is in a race against time to get back to her proper size where the pesticide will have diminished effect.

Some observations: this story works for the 60s since part of the resolution hinges on a nosy switchboard operator.  If this were to happen today, where switchboard operators no longer exist, Smithers would have taken the gun from Forester, but without the local constabulary arriving just in time, there’s no telling how things would have ended up.  DN6 might be everywhere.  More importantly, Smithers might have been killed and this is important because I’m fairly certain his son would move to the United States and get a job working with a Mr. Burns in a place called Springfield.  Had Smithers died, this might never have happened!  Doh!

All joking aside, the thought involved, regardless of this being a blip in the science fiction aspect of Doctor Who, again illustrates the creativity and bravery that made the show the classic that it is.  It could be said that their budget was small, but their ideas and execution were far from minuscule.  That small budget still managed to create a giant, and that’s something we fans should be very proud of.   ML

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