Monthly Archives: September 2014
I threw this picture last night into a Twitter conversation between two retired veterans of Doctor Who fanzine editing, Andrew-Mark Thompson and Peter Anghelides. This – Frontier Worlds 13&14 – was the first Doctor Who fanzine I ever bought, in the old Forbidden Planet 2 at 58 St Giles High Street in London in August 1982, a few months after it was published. It’s difficult to capture what a revelation this was now to my eleven-year-old self. Jeremy Bentham’s fan-informed articles in Doctor Who Monthly gained the context I’d always inferred. I knew they were a projection of a parallel universe of fan commentary into the mainstream, but now I managed to see part of that normally hidden world for the first time. I learned that there were lots of people who thought about Doctor Who in similar ways to me, and about Blake’s 7 too as Frontier Worlds covered both series. Indeed, Steve Bowkett’s post-‘Blake’ story ‘Choice’, the first of Frontier Worlds‘s Blake’s 7 ‘Series E’ series, revealed to me a more cynical interpretation of Blake’s 7 distinct from the idealistic action-adventure reading I’d given it since I was seven. Martin Wiggins’s review of K9 and Company conveyed to me just how hostile an older generation of fans than mine was to its robot dog protagonist, of which I’d always been (and remain) rather fond. The most memorable article was probably the piece by editors Peter Anghelides (aforementioned) and Peter Lovelady and former editor Anthony Murray about their set visit to ‘Blake’, unaware that they were watching studio sessions for the last episode of Blake’s 7 until they saw the regulars perform their death scenes. The article has an entertaining B-plot about the writers’ attempts to break into writing for Blake’s 7 Monthly – Marvel UK’s not-quite-sister title to Doctor Who Monthly. As with all fan productions, there’s a social history in the lithography and the Letraset, with hints of the world beyond, of ‘University work’ and personalities in the then small world of active Doctor Who fandom, and a seriousness even in the humorous articles which roots Frontier Worlds in a particular phase of post-war British self-expression and which predates both the visceral panic of the cancellation-wary late 1980s and successfully avoids, moderates or sublimates the self-criticism or worse which seemed to pervade a lot of Doctor Who fan writing later in the decade.
It’s been pointed out to me on Twitter that Clara’s love affair with Danny is odd, as all we see is negativity and argument. I don’t think this is how the depiction of the relationship is conceived by those writing and performing it; there’s enough in the performances and the dialogue to infer that between the conflicts we see there is something more enriching going on this series, much as we necessarily only see the crises in the lives of the Doctor and Clara. I do think that there is a problem in that this is meant to be a complex relationship between complicated people and we are not being given enough to properly evaluate it. Doctor Who sometimes seems desperately to want to emulate twenty-two episode runs when it doesn’t have the space to do so, and Steven Moffat’s signature style, a comedy of gender role crises which assumes men and women spend too much time talking past each other, doesn’t always rub along well with the potentials of Doctor Who and can seem to inhibit them; and the pressure works in reverse too.
This being said, I found The Caretaker a more than decent episode of Doctor Who, even from its opening scenes where I suspected I wasn’t the only viewer wishing we could see more of the adventures Clara and the Doctor have had. It’s set on familiar ground. As Doctor Who Extra reminded us with forced bonhomie and synthetic film scratches, the Doctor has gone undercover in schools before, pretended to be or been transformed into a human being, even been Craig Owens’s Lodger and been a shop assistant so he could be around at Closing Time. If there is a progression, the Doctor has been less self-aware every time, and here he denies being responsible for the arrival of the Skovox Blitzer at Coal Hill even as he comments that the school has attracted a higher than usual amount of artron energy over the years. He seems to compare Clara to Borusa at one point, but Borusa might actually have commended this Doctor for making advances in detachment. He shares and expresses the prejudices of a particular section of the Doctor Who fanbase – those with a loathing for PE teachers – and is too focussed or too driven by his working assumptions about who is worth considering and who isn’t to question himself until much later. Danny recognises the attraction the Doctor’s life has for Clara, and he recognises that he has seen that in her without knowing it, but he knows the Doctor’s type of old. However much he cloaks himself with eccentricities and a caretaker’s coat, the Doctor is Time Lord and officer class, harking back to Christopher Eccleston’s ease in commanding UNIT soldiers back in Aliens of London. I hope and expect an arc which gives the Doctor and Clara a kind of comeuppance for their self-deceptions which end up entangling other people and which can’t be erased by just saying “Shut up!” a lot.
Those who complained about series one and two being Rose’s story more than the Doctor’s had not seen anything yet. This series is so far very much Clara’s. This episode sees the Doctor disappear with his soulmate and fellow disruptive influence Courtney to despatch the deactivated Skovox Blitzer and enjoy showing her the wonders of the universe (she is, appropriately for the compromises which have unspooled in the lives of the other regulars, sick) while Clara and Danny evaluate their relationship while still curling up on the sofa after the fashion of domestic harmony, because real domestic bliss isn’t something this Doctor Who has confidence in believing in. Like the Brigadier (after whose portrayer Courtney is presumably named) in an earlier era and in another context, we just do the best we can. There’s something saintly about Danny.
Cultural allusions abound as often. The invisibility watch is surely a nod to short-lived 1976 US series The Gemini Man, shown in full on BBC1 despite having been pulled from the schedules in its native land by NBC. The Doctor whistles a couple of bars or so of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ as Clara struggles to rescue the giant chess set with its vaguely Lewis Carroll and Prisoner associations, as well as with pub gardens. The Doctor tries to correct Clara about the origins of truths usually acknowledged, but even so there’s a sense of walls closing in in this story; those of us who have to deal with short life spans can’t share the Doctor’s condescensions for ever. Meanwhile the Doctor himself may be chased by the ghost of Capaldi past in the shape of Chris Addison as Seb.
The Skovox Blitzer is in a tradition of Doctor Who monsters I suspect is beloved of Gareth Roberts, a kind of more efficient and robotic space chicken than the Ergon from Arc of Infinity, with a dash of the spider-Daleks from unproduced versions of the TV Movie and a storyline in the Threshold sequence of DWM comic strips in the 1990s with a charming line in lethal problem-solving. Another pleasing nod was Clara’s flat number being ’63’, carrying forward the suggestion from her Impossible Girl days that the numbers in Clara’s life have real world significance.
Those who predicted that Doctor Who was moving from one romcom parallel to another seem to have been right. The Doctor is now a Space Dad with an adoptive space daughter, evaluating his potential earthly son-in-law while a candidate for space granddaughter looks for her space legs. He’s tried to dismiss Danny as Dave, much as Mickey was Ricky to his similarly abrasive Eccleston persona, but can’t maintain it. We’ve just got a few more weeks to see how this is going to be explored and deployed now it’s been set up. The Barbara-Ian-Susan parallels have been trailed in pre-season gossip, but they are open to question too. As the series continues to revisit its past and other genre staples, with next week’s trailer promising a touch of The Waters of Mars with a dash of the Alien franchise, I worry a bit that so many roots are showing that they might obscure the plant, fun though it all is.
Publishing and then reading the post led me to revisit it and say yes, I did like the episode. The production of the TARDIS from behind its curtain again brought out the dichotomy of this Doctor, who seeks to be unobtrusive and minimalist but can’t hide that he’s a showman, more a member of the Brotherhood of Magicians than that of Logicians. There’s a plausible innocence to the Doctor, someone who can see so much information but isn’t always adequate to the emotional impact of his actions on other people. Adrian doesn’t just remind us of the geography teacher jibes about Matt Smith’s Doctor’s costume, but that the Doctor was not so long ago much more of a teacher figure than he has now become. Capaldi’s Doctor would like a classroom audience, but would not know how to connect though instinct might see him through. His awkwardness with Danny is presumably not just Steven Moffat’s understanding of the Doctor’s need to be the “alpha male” (see Doctor Who Extra) but also because Danny might just be further ahead at sorting out comparable issues than the Doctor is. For all his insults about little human brains, the audience is reminded regularly that the Doctor has deep problems living with his own experiences, and while we may well have been here before, it’s fascinating to see how it’s restated and Capaldi plays it.
Oh, and otters! A joke about the Benedict Cumberbatch internet meme, surely…
Alison Graham in Radio Times had told us not to expect much, but she was wrong to imply that this was Doctor Who off the boil. Time Heist showed what can be done with a small cast of speaking characters, a series of confined settings and lots of thoughtful lighting, as well as pulling off more successfully the misunderstood monster trope last seen in Hide. I’m at my parents’ at the moment, and they came in just as the unsuccessful criminal was having his brain liquefied by the Teller; my father exclaimed that this was post-watershed stuff (appropriate, I said, that Doctor Who will be straddling 9pm from next week) and my mother (at the sight of the concave skull) exclaimed that this was horrible. They returned for the last ten minutes, however, and my mother expressed sympathy for the imprisoned female Teller. While some concern was expressed for children watching, I think this episode’s horror had as much if not more resonance for adults as it would for the younger audience.
Capaldi is demonstrating his versatility and the mercurial nature of this Doctor; the way he hugged his arm after Saibra embraced him was expressive of a deeper awkwardness than non-tactility. Keeley Hawes was quietly magnificent with a few well-chosen performance notes. The Teller was the most expressive new alien creature seen in years, though where spacesuits are concerned BBC Cymru Wales clearly have a long-term agreement with makers of orange fabric.
I’ve not mentioned The Essential Doctor Who: The TARDIS here. This bookazine has been out since June and I have an essay in it entitled ‘Puzzle Box’ looking at the dramatic function performed by the TARDIS across Doctor Who‘s first five decades. (Optimistic promotional copy, I can write you.) It’s edited by Marcus Hearn and published by Panini Magazines, who have more information at the Doctor Who Magazine website.
I love Doctor Who and tend to concentrate on the positive in my reviews, or more accurately the intellectually or creatively interesting or amusing things about each episode. However, I’ve read some negative comments about Into the Dalek and they trouble me because they point to wider problems.
Firstly there’s the issue of narrative compression within the forty-five minute episode. I’d not thought of it myself, but some writers I’ve come across have a point when they suggest that too many ideas are being set up for dramatic effect and then lost. The Doctor is sentenced to death by Colonel Blue – the Pinks and Blues must be an allusion to co-writer Phil Ford’s time with Spectrum as lead writer on the reimagined 2000s version of Captain Scarlet – but is then allowed to leave the rebel base in the TARDIS to collect Clara, when the rebels have no guarantee that he isn’t a Dalek duplicate (a pleasing enough nod to Resurrection of the Daleks) or that he will return to help them. He could at least have had a Revenge of the Cybermen-like bomb strapped to his back, a further incentive to a somewhat annoyed Clara to come with him.
I wasn’t greatly impressed by the Doctor having abandoned Clara in Glasgow, either – it damaged the effect of their walking off together in their final scene in Deep Breath. Alternatively, this shows how patient Clara is with the new Doctor, a man far more overtly conscious of and worried by his lack of self-knowledge than his previous self.
Clara has to be patient given that the Doctor seems to like insulting her. It’s not true that he hardly notices that she’s a girl, as the publicity says; instead he plays on anxieties such as age and body shape. Clara seems at least able to put these down, but I was reminded of the defenders of the portrayal of the Danes in one of the Beowulf films of the last decade after I’d reviewed their bar-room lascivious aggression negatively, who told me that men are the same the world and time over. Perhaps, but not like that. Clara’s struggle through the channel was reminiscent of Sarah Jane Smith’s through the service duct in part four of The Ark in Space, but the fourth Doctor’s goading was a more general jibe at ‘girls like you’ rather than the ‘built like a man’ line. Perhaps it was meant to suggest that after the lusty and sometimes lustful eleventh Doctor, the twelfth sees Clara as androgynous, but I can feel the offensiveness of the line given that it draws attention to the very femininity (thankfully less decorative this year so far) that has been part of the presentation of Clara in the series.