Monthly Archives: October 2015
I was again on previews duty this week for the Doctor Who News Page’s reviews site, so my review of The Woman Who Lived can be found there. I’ve enjoyed the exchanges since. For example,on Twitter, Kat W has pointed out that this episode reinforced Steven Moffat’s emphasis on an adult’s reconciliation with their childhood self as the most important part of identity, citing particularly The Eleventh Hour and the Doctor’s rejoinder to Amy’s insistence that she has ‘grown up’, ‘I’ll soon fix that’. They add that Ashildr’s regally bright red and gold dress not only flatters Leandro as an analogy with Charles II, but also presages her own restoration, to centrality of identity. On LiveJournal, philmophlegm has related Ashildr to Neil Gaiman’s Hob Gadling in the Sandman series, and the tavern setting reinforces that. Daniel Saunders has brought up the witch-hunting sequence, coding Ashildr/Me as dangerous to the peasants or admirable to the audience, a standard-bearer for viewer-friendly modernity. Elsewhere, Harry Ward has pointed out that the house was the same as that used in The Unicorn and the Wasp, and we seem to have been expected to notice. I’ve not gone through many other reviews, but liked Patrick Mulkern’s elaborate and evocative reaction for Radio Times.
As I’ve said elsewhere, on a second viewing I realised that dialogue placed the episode in 1651, and that I could have placed more emphasis on the lightness of touch with serious issues and the precision-cutting with which the lines Ashildr and the Doctor exchanged examined their actions; Leandro’s face seemed more flexible than I thought on first impressions too.
As mentioned last week, I’m on Doctor Who News Page reviews duty for this episode and next. My review – more of a commentary, really – of The Girl Who Died should appear at Doctor Who Reviews within a few minutes of the end of transmission.
Followers of the Doctor Who books range have been pleasantly surprised by listings on Amazon which indicate that seven more novelisations of Doctor Who stories first published between 1965 and 1988 are to be reissued by BBC
Books as mass market paperbacks in April 2016. The titles listed are Doctor Who and the Zarbi, Doctor Who and the Web of Fear, Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion, Doctor Who and the Genesis of the Daleks, Doctor Who and the Visitation, Doctor Who – Vengeance on Varos and Doctor Who – Battlefield. It also appears that Doctor Who and the Zarbi will appear in hardback, along with the other two novelisations published by Frederick Muller Ltd in the mid-1960s, Doctor Who and the Daleks and Doctor Who and the Crusaders, perhaps as a belated celebration of fifty years of Doctor Who books.
There is no news on whether the format followed by the reissues of 2011 and 2012 will be revived, with covers based on the design of the Target paperbacks (Target being the imprint which published Doctor Who novelisations for twenty years from 1973) and introductions by prominent writers associated either with televised Doctor Who or the contemporary books range. Given the four-year-gap between the second and third set this would seem unlikely, as the last three titles don’t come from either of the two series of covers by Chris Achilleos. Indeed, the inclusion of 1980s titles broadens the appeal of the range away from the 1970s nostalgia mined by the first two; this third set draws from the first seven Doctors and each has an obvious hook to sell the titles anew to the audience of 2016.
We have perhaps the most inhuman enviroment encountered by the Doctor; the subversion of the London Underground, a touchstone of metropolitan and perhaps English and British identity too, in a story which became part of Doctor Who‘s refoundation myths; a memorable allegory of middle-class protest turned authoritarian fantasy, with dinosaurs; the Dalek story I expected to be part of the second set; the serial which arguably moved the pseudo-historical genre from fan cr
itical theory into part of the series’ fabric, with alien monsters influencing the course of two famous historical events; a biting satire of reality television possibly even more relevant today than it was in the 1980s; and a story which promises (but doesn’t deliver in a conventional fashion) the meeting of the Doctor and his fellow British myth, King Arthur. If Amazon’s early listing is correct, this looks like a strongly commercial set.
The circumstances in which a reviewer writes a review are assumed to be invisible, but on this occasion they are not. Last night’s context included pressure placed on myself to finish a review before I went to bed, having started later than usual; seeing the episode in a group of people mostly a generation younger than myself and my being sensitive to that fact. That particular environment, too, has wave upon wave of past associations, not necessarily bad and very many good, but which remind me of the transience of the present moment and how much it can depend on earlier situations. So my tendency to read episodes in the context of past Doctor Who was magnified. Having said this, new Doctor Who doesn’t live in a vacuum and audiences can be expected to judge it against the way they remember old Doctor Who – although not exclusively. There ought to be enough to surprise, and Doctor Who is always of its present moment. Looking at the split in opinion which has emerged overnight, there seems to be a divide between those who remember the episode being tense and frightening and provokingly disturbing, and those who were too distracted by past associations. Of the group with which I viewed the episode, positive assessments seemed overwhelmingly in the majority, too.
I introduced my review on Facebook as ‘Tired thoughts on tonight’s Doctor Who’. I was aware that they were disconnected but posted them anyway. I neglected some of the more interesting things about the episode or underdeveloped them. As I’m down for the Doctor Who News Page review of the next two episodes, I thought I needed to revisit last night and reassure myself and others that I did actually enjoy the episode.
I was led back to an old and possibly misleading question: who narrates Doctor Who? It could be easy to interpret The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar as a tale narrated by Clara with interjections by Missy, the Doctor’s dialogue with Davros being how someone who knows the Doctor well might have imagined it transpired based on what the Doctor told her. The introductory lecture by the Doctor establishes that this episode, whoever narrated Under the Lake, is ‘told’ by the Doctor: he is the narrative’s engineer, whether in reverse or forward motion. I spotted neither the Magpie Electronics logo on the guitar amp nor the clockwork squirrel on first viewing, and had to have the latter pointed out. Given that the Doctor ends up frustrating a plan to turn as many people as possible into transmitters, the metaphor of the radio being made into as harmless and as cherishable as a clockwork (red) squirrel is a reminder that the programme still has its soul.
It was easy to focus on the loss of O’Donnell. The programme has its cake and eats it; killing the military ex-intelligence officer who could offer insight into and to the Doctor and who is also a youthful woman who combines a professional manner with engaging exuberance. We are meant to be frustrated by her death, which closes doors for the audience as it does within the narrative for Bennett. She’s also been presented as a capable person and her value to the plot as a potential level head grows once Clara relays the news that the Doctor has a ghost. She presents herself as a manager, who can’t be left behind and delegated to while Bennett and the Doctor have adventures. Her death isn’t the result of recklessness, but of necessary decision-making – if they split up there is a chance one of them at least will escape the Fisher King – and bad luck. She is a companion here, making decisions comparable to Clara’s in the 2119 setting. O’Donnell’s death doesn’t have the casualness of Osgood’s; it is made to matter by all concerned: the Fisher King, Bennett, the Doctor and of course O’Donnell herself, whose dying words are her own message to the future.
The deserted town is as eerie a setting as the base; it’s light, but in the desaturated palette this season seems to like, it’s a twilight settlement like a dream detached from reality, an unsettlement if one prefers. It’s full of dolls, broken and otherwise, which in the viewer’s imagination might spring to unlife and complicate this story further. The only inert figure this happens to is the Fisher King. The Arthurian parallels are being untangled by others and it’s very possible that a more nuanced parallel was lost at an earlier draft; or perhaps the undeveloped symbolism of a wounded king in a waste land is enough. In any case he fails to be a Fisher King proper; because he is tricked into thinking his hooks and his bait are useless the knights he hopes will rescue him will never come, and instead he becomes food for fish, absorbed into the ecosystem he intended to conquer. He’s the second name this series with an association with Arthurian and especially Grail myth, the Doctor’s twelfth-century warrior friend and Dalek agent from The Magician’s Apprentice being Bors, who in the series prologue seemed to want to heal the Doctor of his sorrow. Louise Dennis has suggested that the Doctor might turn out to be more a fisher king in this season than the Fisher King of this story; but what is his wound, and who can heal it? It would certainly compliment the Fisher King’s accusation that the Doctor is a man lost in time who is less potent than he pretends. It’s possible that the TARDIS was unhappy at the start of the story because the Doctor was already present in the sarcophagus; or is there something else to be revealed?
In drawing attention to the reverse engineering of storylines, the episode acknowledges the convenience of Cass, whose deafness is required by the plot. Perhaps she is also a Fisher King, but she isn’t obviously seeking a cure for her wound. (If this is a lack of love, then her Perceval is Bennett for pointing out Lunn’s feelings for her.) She is presented as differently abled rather than disabled; in one of the tensest scenes in the episode, conscious that a ghost is following her, she measures the vibrations from the floor and correctly judges the moment to dive away from the falling axe and run through Moran’s ghost – an understated but effective visual reversing the established one of the ghosts walking through doors, walls and windows – and back to Clara without the need to revisit the encounter for her benefit. Cass is heroic and behaves ethically; she’s sensitive to the manipulation of others but knows that Clara is right to send Lunn off to his possible doom. Sophie Stone plays her with a contained and furious authority.
The middle period of the episode leaves the viewer pondering how the story is going to end; time is running out and the ghosts are in control of the base. It had been implied that Lunn had never looked at the inscription inside the space hearse, but it’s confirmed in this episode; but his invulnerability is also a vulnerability because it’s so fragile. There is every expectation that the ghosts might kill him anyway in another reverse. Instead he’s used as bait by the ghosts, the weaponisation of one’s bravery and compassion for another’s purpose being one of the themes of this episode. The Fisher King and the ghosts strip and invert the aims of the individuals they subvert; Clara and the Doctor co-ordinate for the common cause, however uncompromisingly.
There was much underplaying to enjoy too: Morven Christie and Arsher Ali maintained character perfectly with little dialogue in the earlier 1980 scenes, and while a lot of attention has been given to Peter Seafinowicz and Corey Taylor as the vocal talents behind the Fisher King, his movements were provided by Neil Fingleton, whose heavy, measured tread and gestures convey both the King’s confidence in a looming triumph, and his cold, immoving fury at the simplicity of the Doctor’s victory.
I was still underwhelmed by the episode somehow, even while paying tribute to its enduring claustrophobia, its commanding visual sense – the juxtaposition of Peter Capaldi pith a mural of Lenin lingers in the memory, suggesting the confrontation between two men of yesterday that was then imminent, competing over rival tomorrows, fighting a proxy war in another place like NATO and Lenin’s successors. (Arguably Lenin is also a wounded monarch, in his mausoleum, urging his followers to resurrect him through their political deeds.) Could it have enjoyed itself more, as I and others have asked? It’s difficult, because to keep going Doctor Who needs to keep testing itself. Sometimes it needs to attempt unabashed bleakness, only to pull out its recurring themes at the end to confirm that it is still Doctor Who. This did so. Perhaps it was the choice of a cold and flat palette and the absence of spectacle in the camerawork which did it, though the verisimilitude in the fracturing of the dam, and the matter-of-fact way the onrush of water propels the Fisher King past the camera was itself visually remarkable, determinedly quiet in and about its accomplishment.
So, what did I mean when I said that I found the glowing eyepieces of the Mire warriors (presumably) a visual callback to the Captain in The Pirate Planet? Just that. Inevitably having watched Doctor Who for years I make associations between present and past and am aware that those involved in the current production can do too. Criticism of the creative decisions made wasn’t intended; it’s just that Doctor Who can never appear as fresh as it might want to be when viewed in a certain mood. I followed my review with a link to the old TV Comic Annual comic strip Woden’s Warriors to acknowledge the limits to these comparisons. As for The Pirate Planet, I’ve always defended it (see letter right). Contempt doesn’t follow from familiarity, otherwise we would all hate each other. Before the Flood might age well in the context of the unfolding series; it’s still strong but somehow pulled the punches it might have made.
Whatever next week’s Viking age Doctor Who episode is like, it won’t be Woden’s Warriors! I don’t think I’ve ever used the reblog facility on WordPress before, but it seemed the easiest way of referring readers to this post and this Doctor Who comic strip, not from Mighty TV Comic as the original post says but from the earlier TV Comic Annual 1976, published in 1975. The artist is John M. Burns. who was illustrating The Tomorrow People and then Space 1999 for Look-In at around the same time, I think. Doctor Who was not his thing, but his likenesses of Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are idiosyncratic at least, I am old enough to say that I enjoyed reading the story when it was first published, though the disparaging and sexist way the Doctor talks to Sarah goes well beyond anything she suffered in the television series. Follow the link to the original post below for links to larger images.
Before and during this episode I wondered whether this could be regarded as Toby Whithouse’s audition piece for showrunner. It’s not necessarily representative of what Whithouse’s series would look like; the series couldn’t (and can’t) sustain this grim, fatalistic tone for ever. It does offer a critique, if not a break, from Moffat’s timeywimeyism; where previous ‘paradoxes’ have been unpickable and open to interpretation as stories about evidence, this isn’t – the ‘first cause’ beginning the cycle isn’t clear. The episode is presented as the illustration to the parable of the Bootstrap Paradox as illustrated by the guitar-playing Doctor; but if Beethoven was ever there in the first place – and the Doctor says he’s met him – who (unintentionally) erased him? There’s an underlying message perhaps about the Doctor’s clumsiness; as the Fisher King says, he is ‘lost in time’ and not as powerful as he might think; but as the Doctor replies, even a ghastly future (but what has he got against cats?) is better than no future at all.
I was also led towards the ‘audition piece’ idea by the presence of two temporary companions, Bennett and O’Donnell, aboard the TARDIS. O’Donnell offered a potential alternative take on the fan-as-character, hinting at a more structured and detached knowledge of the Doctor’s adventures than Osgood; rather than being a comedic performance O’Donnell seems more naturalistic, a managed professional person with suppressed childlike buoyancy to help build a bridge to the audience. It’s difficult to tell whether this is just decisions made relating to performance and O’Donnell ends up quickly suffering a similar fate to Osgood. I wasn’t sure why the appearance of the ghosts was tied to the Doctor’s timeline; shouldn’t O’Donnell always have been present among the ghosts, or present as soon as she left 2119 in the TARDIS? Bennett inherited the role of critic which Clara, too much the Doctor’s prize pupil, no longer has. Like him, I’m not sure that O’Donnell’s death was necessary.
The episode went over familiar ground to genre fans too. This is the first episode of the new series which I’ve watched in fannish company, and beforehand it was pointed out to me that the Doctor had to be in the sarcophagus, which he was. A similar method of ‘travel’, without the benefit of suspended animation, was taken by Captain Jack Harkness in Torchwood‘s Exit Wounds. I’d forgotten until reminded by comments on Facebook of Tim Powers’s work; the avatars and life-extending trickery of The Anubis Gates, and the Fisher King of his Las Vegas mythology where a dam is a stage and a symbol.
Another point which wasn’t mine but which is worth mentioning is that the music cues depended on ‘the Twelfth Doctor’s theme’ like no other this season. It’s certainly appropriate for an episode which was more Doctor-centred than usual, but is there more to it? Still, Clara’s development was addressed and she was shown to be forced by circumstances to reflect on her time with the Doctor; angry with him for seemingly losing himself to her, but later counselling Bennett for his loss, drawing on her experience with Danny, who was left unmentioned, more than with the Doctor.
I found this episode clever and well-written but underwhelming. There’s a brutality to the methods of the Doctor and Clara now which isn’t hidden by the joie de vivre of the Tennant and Smith Doctors. Rose Tyler thought that the Doctor showed her a better life; Clara, that he showed her to do what was necessary. I’m not certain that the programme really knows how to use all the elements it deploys right now. Sometimes one misses the wit and pace of Doctor Who when it was the cornerstone of BBC One’s Saturday nights in spring. Still, next week, despite its visual callback to The Pirate Planet‘s Captain, promises more energy, Vikings enjoying being Vikings and Maisie Williams giving a much-heralded performance.
Oh, my place on a certain rota is coming up… See you next week from Another Place.
For a change this week, I thought I’d make notes during the episode and then transcribe them with minimal tidying-up or comment below. It’s not quite a liveblog:
Corporate interest: Silence in the Library, The Almost People
Army incompetence [an old Doctor Who trope from the third Doctor’s day] (and the Faslane security/safety leak?)
Loch Ness Monster [in mural] – Zygon foreshadowing?
When is the last time we just saw Clara being adventurous and exploring things? Ever?
Great when [illegible] set. TARDIS translation issue.
Doctor’s adventure running at a different trajectory [to the humans he is with]?
Mythical oil reserves…
Swipe at [human] culture
Why is this man still talking? = You just lost the right…. [The Long Game – no, sorry, The Parting of the Ways – thanks, Mel]
Clara’s human reponses cards are still needed in this age of a more excited [outgoing] humane Capaldi. She’s there to signal message [not just of the Doctor’s alienness] but of the crew as emotional beings [who have lost their friend].
TARDIS trauma (roundels! roundels!)
‘Where the action is’ – Dr and Clara as visitors to plot [and can choose to be audience to events – immersive live theatre]
Doctor as visitor [but an involved one] to humanity.
Doctor as a vector coursing through future of humanity. UNIT of future know who he is [and it’s practically a vote of confidence in the future of Doctor Who]
Virtual reality as an everyday tool – contemporary [cutting-edge 2015 ‘dressed’ as 2119]
Tomb is a plain sarcophagus – fitting for something found in a church – showing off the architectural affinities of Michael Pickwoad.
Words as magnets – electromagnetic field – power of words [The Shakespeare Code – theory of ideas as replicating memes]
Peter Andre – Strictly Come Dancing cross-promotion! [except this was recorded back in January – but still, when did they know?]
Can’t the Doctor bring the TARDIS to them using his ‘sonic’ glasses?
Two new temporary companions!
Great final anticipated image of the Doctor as ghost [eyes hollowed out and view through eyes recalls The Empty Child]
Most of the episode takes place on my 149th birthday, too. I doubt this is of any significance beyond personal amusement.