Category Archives: doctor who reviews
Notes on the Target Collection: Doctor Who – Rose, The Christmas Invasion, The Day of the Doctor and Twice Upon a Time
Amidst being ill and travelling, reading in the first half of this week has involved the four entirely new Doctor Who novelizations from BBC Books. These somewhat emptily bear the Target logo on the front, though nowhere else, with no explanation of the logo on the covers or the interior. This might be an indication that the marketing of these books has been very much to the older fan for whom the logo (here in its most dissimilated late 1970s form) bears fond associations, and less to new ones despite social media showing that there is a lot of enthusiasm for these titles among the teen and twentysomething bracket.
Brief thoughts: The Day of the Doctor is extraordinary, if occasionally smug, but indicates what Steven Moffat would really have like to have done with the anniversary story. There are more Doctors, some River Song, and portents of The Time of the Doctor… or is it The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon? (Sorry – what did I just type? Why are there tally marks on my arms?? Turn to page 232… Predictable as ever, Moffat???) If this is what a first novel looks like from an experienced television writer, then Moffat should write more, in whatever genre.
Rose, by Russell T Davies, is a tale of human beings being extraordinary even when circumstances set a low bar (traditional phrase) and when they can, like Rose, do so much more. Mickey is redeemed in print in a way he wouldn’t be on screen until later in the first series, and has a band. Clive is more noble and more pathetic at once, too; and the rising of the Autons is more violent, more bloody, and more enduring. Jenny Colgan’s The Christmas Invasion is a generally brisk treatment of RTD’s script, but Colgan does take time to add more detail and character texture; we learn more about the Guinevere One programme, and of Danny Llywellyn and his team, and there’s more sense of the human cost that sleepwalking a third of the population to precipices would bring as well. Meanwhile, it’s not just a new body the Doctor is getting used to, but unprecedented feelings in a certain direction – and I’ve never thought of the Doctor in terms of chocolate cake before.
Finally, Twice Upon a Time feels just as well marinated as the older stories, despite Paul Cornell having written most of the book before seeing the television episode on screen. He incorporates a critique of the episode’s characterization of the First Doctor, the Twelfth being its (inner) mouthpiece. Barbara Wright is namechecked, and the issues of memory and story, which I’d have mentioned in any review of the episode, are brought out into the fore in a way the television episode didn’t quite manage. Questions about Bill and Nardole and their manifestations in this story are answered, too.
While a full revival of the novelizations range is unlikely and probably undesirable in its old form, a carefully-curated release every so often would be welcome, featuring of four or five books like these, with a careful mix of original authors and novelizers sympathetic to the original material. Let’s see Doctor Who: Listen before 2195.
A review from the archives, written in November 2009 shortly after The Waters of Mars was broadcast.
When Doctor Who has managed possession, it has done so rather well. The Waters of Mars is no exception. Establishing Bowie Base One as a setting was achieved with alacrity, so we were only a few minutes in when Andy (sympathetically portrayed in his few unpossessed scenes by Alan Ruscoe) was infected and became the first representative of the Flood. The delayed transformation of Maggie was well-achieved, though I had expected her to continue to be a spokesperson for the Flood; her covetous little speech about the Caspian Sea became an odd exception to the rule that the Flood is implacable and impossible to interrogate. (As I am about to post this I’ve just learned her later speeches were cut, in one of which she would have named the infection as the Flood – it’s not just a spontaneous naming by the Doctor). Steffi’s convulsions in front of the recorded message from her children, and her possessed self’s turning impassively away from the screen to pursue the remaining humans, with the children’s voices still playing out in the background, was simple, effective and for this viewer disturbing.
The evolution of Doctor Who has depended more upon improvisation than upon planning. There has been a tension in David Tennant’s performance as the Doctor from the beginning, between his fun-loving jovialness and his sometimes coldly calculating, overburdening sense of responsibility; this has contributed towards his Doctor coming across as unbearably smug, particularly in his first season when Billie Piper’s Rose threatened to turn into a mirror for his apparent self-love. Now the smugness sank into delusion, but one which the audience have been invited to share on occasion in the last four years. I expected Adelaide to shoot the Doctor from her window, either instead of or in addition to shooting herself; when the previews spoke of Adelaide as the Doctor’s most strong-minded companion yet, it was probably her suicide which was being hyped. The Doctor is now face to face with his psychological imbalance; the survivor guilt which seemed purged at the end of The Parting of the Ways was instead repressed and has been gnawing away at this Doctor from the inside. How much of The End of Time will be in the Doctor’s reality, and how much hallucination? Or will there indeed be very much difference?
I’m still not sure how far The Waters of Mars left me numb with shock, or simply underwhelmed. The threat from the Flood seemed to lose focus; the infected humans were dismissed too easily. Luckily the Doctor’s conviction that he could and had the absolute unquestionable right to save Adelaide, Yuri and Mia was taken just far enough beyond previous limits to undermine this viewer’s confidence: the Doctor had to lose his Mother Hen qualities (as Elisabeth Sladen has termed Jon Pertwee’s performance) and become, for a few minutes, someone very dangerous. Adelaide had to die to show the Doctor the error of his ways; he is left holding on to life and sanity and the programme hopes we are holding him too. This was just about managed; but the closing two-parter will have to have been made with care indeed.
I found myself double-booked for The Doctor Falls, and so over a week after broadcast have returned with a follow-up review for Time Lines, John Connors’s blog which continues the ancient traditions of his earlier fanzines Top, Faze, This Way Up, Antenna and others. As I write, it’s not quite a review:
Steven Moffat at his best is very good at treating characters and events as symbols whose interaction as principles not only shapes but often overtakes conventional narrative. Looking back after over a week of rewatches and reviews, the success of The Doctor Falls lies largely in how this coded writing works, laying emphasis on specific aspects of character and setting which sometimes confound expectations which World Enough and Time might have encouraged. What follows isn’t quite another review but a set of reactions considering some of the opinions I’ve come across since The Doctor Falls was broadcast. In case anyone is in any doubt, I greatly enjoyed the episode; there was a tense fatalism throughout, leavened by statements of optimistic principle. I realised while watching it that kindness was probably the factor that kept me watching Doctor Who in the first place. The Doctor has not always been kind, but he tries to be kind to the greatest possible conceivable number of people, all the time. This is his virtue and periodically, in limited ways, his downfall.
Reviewed by me over at the Doctor Who News Page’s Reviews section.
Again, I’ve been remiss about reviewing the 2017 series of Doctor Who for this site. However, I have reviewed World Enough and Time for John Connors’s Doctor Who blog. It’s always a pleasure to guest review there, and to read my reactions (though managing not to say anything about the controversial and intriguing pre-credits sequence, I notice) please visit Timelines.
I’ve not written reviews of every story this season, but hope to get round to them eventually. However, I did undertake a review of Empress of Mars for the Doctor Who News Page’s reviews site. It’s best read over there…
It’s been a Doctor Who-intensive week, with one thing and another; and one cannot live by Doctor Who alone. So this review is posted somewhat later than I would have ideally liked.
Thin Ice has been widely praised and deservedly so. I enjoyed the episode’s treatment of Regency London, more black than it was in the movies and yes, perhaps more black than it would have appeared to many of those in London on 4 February 1814. This story, though, was set by the Thames, where London was at its most diverse and a large proportion of Britain’s trade came, often to be re-exported. The Frost Fair allowed the sons and daughters of Empire, the children of unions of no or doubtful legality or those made across social class and colour in the colonies and trading posts, to emerge from their protracted schooling or clerkships, their domestic service or their soldiering, or even, now and again, their unexpected but substantial wealth, and mingle with those from around the world who were just off ship, and perhaps not feel so odd and tolerated by an ambivalent society. It’s entirely likely that Bill would recognize this feeling and share it, and we see the crowd through her eyes. The companion has been explicitly identified before as the series narrator – Doomsday was the last story Rose would ever tell, and BBC America viewers in 2010 saw an introductory narration from Amy at the start of each episode which framed Doctor Who as her story – the young woman whose childhood imaginary friend turns up the night before her wedding and takes her away from everything.
Bill is a step away from the Amy model, back towards Rose – the ‘mystery’ she holds for the Doctor isn’t that she embodies a fantastical problem to be solved, but that her reactions are human and early-twentysomething and the Doctor is non-human and two thousand years old (at least). Thin Ice as we see it is Bill’s adventure – her experience, her casting, and it is right that we should see the story that way. However, there’s more to this ‘diverse’ London than boosting Bill. The London of 1814 was a few decades beyond Ignatius Sancho keeping his shop in Westminster, and of Olaudah Equiano campaigning for the rights of enslaved Africans; Dido Belle had been dead ten years, but Joseph Emidy was alive and was a celebrated musician, and Britain was eighteen years away from the election of its first known non-white MP, John Stewart. Bill’s reality needs to be our reality because it’s the memory Britain had to be prodded to remember after more than a century of it being painted out.
Pearl Mackie has a marvellous expressive face, and feet which can show off the most daintily laced boots. These are the slightest representations of her range. Her disgust at the Doctor’s apparent lack of concern for Smiler’s fate makes us feel the conflicts – how can we put our trust in the Doctor when he seems to show such little concern for human life? We are also unable to judge the Doctor ourselves because Bill is our narrator; for me, the Doctor’s calculations as he moved across the ice were based around saving the boy and the screwdriver, but circumstances meant that the screwdriver had to be saved if nothing else was. Bill as yet knows little about it nor understand what it means to the Doctor. The viewer is caught between choices made by the director, camera operator, editor, performers and writer among others and they have to make their decisions about their own impressions of a scene as it plays out before them. I thought that there was a lot of room for a more compassionate reading of Peter Capaldi’s performance than many found, but the emphasis in editing was on Bill’s interpretation of events.
Capaldi’s Doctor, though, remains much more approachable than in previous series, but without losing his edge. In reading from Struwwelpeter to the children, he’s refusing to conform to twenty-first century ideas of responsible guardianship while at the same time showing his appreciation of children’s attraction to the gruesome. He’s reading Hoffman thirty years before publication, which suits the Doctor’s philosophy of not worrying too much about the consequences of intervention in the human past. The scene nevertheless might point towards the Doctor’s irresponsibility at breaking his oath by travelling in space and time away from twenty-first century Earth. He thrives on crisis, and wants to promote it.
The realisation of the frozen Thames was striking, with enough shadow of Canaletto’s riverside views from sixty or seventy years before in them to convince me, while depicting an altogether more rumbustious river scene than he did. The design of the handbills and posters was believable too, resembling real survivors or images seen on early photographs from twenty or thirty years later, though a street nameplate seen looked distressingly modern and digital. Costuming was astute with the Doctor and Bill firmly in the middle or upper middle of a society otherwise seen at its extremes.
For an episode about a trapped marine creature and a frozen river, it’s not perhaps surprising that the episode felt it needed more buoyancy. I’d have enquired about the colour grading too. We need more warmth against the cold on a Saturday night. It’s a pity we couldn’t have seen more of the river serpent or of Lord Sutcliffe, the monsters below and above the water. Sutcliffe was credibly petty, his vision hobbled by greed, but we saw less of him than we might have done. His villainy was based in the cruelty of his time, but there was room for the viewer to have seen more of his schemes and how they might have played out in practice. I’m sure the residents of Fairford – a Gloucestershire village associated with one of the major political families of the period, the Hills, marquesses of Downshire, and latterly with a forthcoming open-minded literary festival – are happy that Sutcliffe is not wanted in the Fairford Club.
Thin Ice, though, was a very good Doctor Who story indeed, not only for its muscular liberalism as the Doctor referenced Captain America number one’s cover in a scene recorded several months before someone punched American ultra right-wing leader Richard Spencer, but also for its sense of design and its vivid sketching of a historical place and time through costume, setting and modelwork as well as through dialogue and performance. The Doctor doesn’t overthrow the established order in this story, but in endowing the children, though Perry, with the Sutcliffe inheritance, he does shift it a little towards the society we hope we know or would like to see, an optimistic note in troubled times.
I’ve written this story up for Doctor Who Reviews, the Doctor Who News site’s reviews section. The review was based on an advance viewing copy. I didn’t find
room for the line of continuity between Invasion of the Dinosaurs, The Beast Below and Robot of Sherwood (compilations of images and sound on a screen depicting unpalatable depictions of the truth) and might read Samuel Butler’s Erewhon tonight, as Frank Cottrell Boyce has Tweeted that it was an influence – but I’m not displeased with this review, nor with the story.
I’ve reviewed The Return of Doctor Mysterio as the additional reviewer for the Doctor Who News Page, and you can find the review here. Look at Matt Hills’s lead review for the site too – it makes lots of excellent points, including recognising the breakthrough in Bill’s line about using the toilet on the TARDIS.
Time has been limited the past few weeks, so I’m behind on Class reviews. However, John Connors asked me to review The Power of the Daleks, animated version, for his site Timelines, and my look at that story was published a few hours ago. However, reading the review back, I’ve realised that apart from having committed some very cumbersome phraseology indeed at times, I have managed to write a review of Patrick Troughton’s first Doctor Who story, without mentioning Troughton himself.
Troughton’s performance in The Power of the Daleks remains enigmatic even after the valiant and effective reconstruction by the animation team led by Charles Norton. There’s a sense from the telesnaps and from recollections by those who worked on or watched the serial that there was a lot of physical comedy of which we see very little – only the leapfrog in episode one, I think, is achieved, the point of which is to subvert the viewers’ expectations of the Doctor, as it appears that he isn’t measuring the rock for the purposes of geological, petrological or mineralogical study, but as a precursor to testing his new body’s physical capabilities. There’s a great diffidence about this Doctor, which often makes him irritating rather than charming, his recorder-playing a puzzle as it leaves so few cues for Ben, Polly and the viewer to draw conclusions. Even his destruction of the Daleks is left ambiguous by the script, as it’s not clear what the Doctor had anticipated from his attack on the power supply.
As for Troughton’s playing of the Doctor, it’s difficult to draw conclusions from the evidence we have. I remember, many years ago, going through one particularly frantic scene on the first VHS release of The Seeds of Death, where it appeared that Troughton changed his facial expression completely on each frame. With such flexibility and control, the animators can’t be expected to keep up with Troughton within the parameters of this project, though they have a good try. The New Doctor Who of 1966 is still a mystery to the 2016 audience, but we can at least now see with more definition the space the acted performance would fill.