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.
Calling in with notes on the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who (and I might add more later as well as tidying up the formatting). I did, and significant amendments and additions are identified in this colour.
Bill is a wonderful addition to the Doctor Who universe. If she’s a mystery to be solved, she’s a human one rather than a science-fictional or mythical one, a woman whose educational opportunities have been limited and who longs for more and better. There’s still a mystery girl but the Doctor and Bill seek to explain her together. The romance between Bill and Heather is tentative and shown in fragments of Bill’s viewpoint; Heather is elusive, distant and committed at once, and in make-up, some costume and performance reminiscent of some media representations of the late Diana, princess of Wales. Both in her human and watery forms Heather reminds us that love affairs demand transformation; Bill sees the university as somewhere she can broaden her knowledge and become the person she wants to be, but for Heather it’s a trap, and she feels that she should be somewhere else.
For Bill and the genre-savvy viewer, the star in Heather’s eye is an indication that she’s predestined to be the ‘space engine oil”s pilot; some have complained that the question isn’t addressed fully, but for this episode to resolve itself it would be damaging to do so, because whether the star is a mark of alien intervention or just a misleadingly exotic defect in the iris is irrelevant. Bill is left at the end wondering whether she made the right decision in turning down Heather-pilot’s invitation to join with her, and this shapes her rejection of the Doctor’s attempt to wipe her memory and her persuading the Doctor to let her join him in the TARDIS. Bill departs having preserved for now her identity, which both Heathers required she give up. One wonders if this is a theme and whether it relates to the decision awaiting the Doctor before this year is out.
For the first half of the episode the Doctor’s story and Bill’s intersect at intervals across months. The Doctor, from Bill’s point of view, is a fixed point on earth as she is. Yet to an audience with prior knowledge, this isn’t so; there are adventures which only intersect with the episode at odd moments, such as the presumably necessary introduction to the Vault, and the arresting realisation that the Doctor is responsible for presumably all those pictures of Bill’s mother. In Moffat’s Who there are numerous gaps where the Doctor has activities the viewer doesn’t share, potentially far removed from his televised adventures. We don’t know how much time the Doctor spent with Bill’s mother, but the photographs suggest he got to know Bill’s mother very well. It upsets the symmetry of the episode and the relationship outlined therein, but could Bill even be a second generation travelling companion, or perhaps, from the Doctor’s point of view, first of two taken in reverse chronological order? Given the insistence of the programme’s publicity – its metanarrative, I suppose – that the Doctor walks in death, there is an implicit question (though marginal to this episode) over whether he was involved in some way in Bill’s mother’s death, or has become so in becoming involved in her life as part of his wish to be generous to Bill. For that matter, given that the Doctor is at St Luke’s University, and St Luke is (so the official site tells us) the patron saint of doctors (albeit of medicine; see the inset illustration) perhaps the Doctor has been there much longer than fifty or seventy years, and the institution has formed around him.
So much of this episode feels like a love-letter to the storytelling possibilities in television and recalled more articulately the occasional comparisons made between the TARDIS and the television set or studio in the first two series. The Doctor’s lectures are both physics and poetry, and ideally both are united in television drama. He talks to students about the movies and as he does so we pull out from the image and see this and other scenes (from this and other productions?) as series of stills. Credit to Steven Moffat, Lawrence Gough and their colleagues for carrying off the effect. There are ostentatious tricks with speed and and angles which demand our attention – books and sonic screwdrivers, perhaps, are symbols of trust and of the Doctor. Time And Relative Dimension In Space, the Doctor says, is life; drama helps us negotiate existence.
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor seems very much at ease this year, carrying his position in the universe more lightly, while being both more penetrating in his perception, more authoritative but also more approachable. Pearl Mackie is a tremendous asset to the series as Bill; likewise approachable, humanly everyday and level in her emotional responses, generous and transcending the potential prison of her background. There are obvious echoes of Rose in the character’s context and the way the episode presents her, but this also draws attention to the differences. Bill seems more independent of social conditioning that did Rose, but perhaps having no parents and a semi-detached foster mother (which I felt at least were presented as issues in a way Bill’s sexuality was not) have forced her to find her own direction. Moira is realised as world-weary by Jennifer Hennessy; the joyful young mother of kittens of Gridlock is sidelined by Jackie Tyler’s more fatalistic and meaner counterpart, a concession perhaps to our more pessimistic age.
Updated 2130, 16 April 2017
It’s the twentieth anniversary of Terry Nation’s death today. I remember reading about it in my college computer room, where I think the news was broken over rec.arts.drwho (by veteran Doctor Who fan and writer John Peel) before I heard or read it on any more conventional source.
A few years later I was a research editor at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, primarily commissioning, editing and writing articles in the eighteenth-century area, and I persuaded my colleagues in the general literature area to give me the article on Terry Nation to write. It was published in 2004 (content available for subscribers and members of most United Kingdom public libraries) and has survived online with only minor changes ever since. It was edited down heavily for publication, so there’s no mention of his Associated-Rediffusion play Uncle Selwyn which I’d wanted to include. It’s difficult in a small space to give a rounded picture of a career particularly when the Daleks threaten to overwhelm their historical context. A peer reviewer had said (if I recall correctly) ‘It’s not as if there is going to be a monograph on him, is there?’ To which I want now to point to the work of Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O’Day, and Alwyn W. Turner. There’s definitely room to revise the entry and I hope to make time for that shortly.
Obverse Books have announced today that they will be publishing my examination of the Doctor Who story The Time Warrior as the twenty-fourth book in their series The Black Archive. The Time Warrior was a four-part story broadcast between 15 December 1973 and 5 January 1974, written by Robert Holmes and directed by Alan Bromly. It was the first story of the eleventh season (Jon Pertwee’s fifth and last as the Doctor) and the first to feature Sarah Jane Smith, played of course by Elisabeth Sladen, and also introduced the Sontarans, with Kevin Lindsay as their solitary representative, Linx. The full announcement can be found below, via Facebook.
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.
“Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.”
Last week, I thought that Class might be having trouble finding where it stood in the multichannel age. On the basis of Nightvisiting this was unwarranted caution. On the basis of this episode, Class is purposeful, assured and effective in exploring the unavoidable horrors of emotional life. Nightvisiting takes Class’s urban setting and injects it with a mystic folk tradition, as a green entity breaks through from another world claiming to represent a communion of souls which can bring comfort and release to the grieving, if only they will choose to believe the manifestations of the dead which flower at the end of their tendrils.
Nightvisiting is a story of the night and how it challenges our experience, with arresting visuals as Coal Hill and its environs are entwined by glistening, sometimes pulsing, green tendrils, some displaying a concerning knotted girth, as if advertising a well-fed gut. The alien entity, Lankin, sets out to define itself in ethereal terms, but its methods and presence are viscerally organic. As Tanya defends herself by working out patiently what she knows and why, through dialogue with a devil in the shape of her father, Charlie and Mateusz confirm their relationship and by claiming control of their present from the past immunize themselves against assault, while April and Ram discover their previously unsuspected mutual attraction in the midst of apocalypse. There’s a precise balance to the two love affairs; at different stages and with different dramatic and social heritages to draw upon, contrasting textures but here of equal force for discovery and self-discovery and strengthening against the force in the dark.
For all the attention received by the lovemaking of Charlie and Mateusz, this is an episode built on the female leads and their inner conflicts. Tanya we knew about, and Vivian Oparah’s two-handers opposite the embodiment of Tanya’s father Jasper (a disarmingly natural and then unnatural Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) confirm how much of a cornerstone to the programme her performance is. Sophie Hopkins continues to shine further – how many young people convinced they are just ‘nice’ need to hear April say that being kind and polite and concerned isn’t about mere pleasantness but about not giving in to the assaults of the world? Katherine Kelly demonstrates a determination somewhere on the far side of resignation; Miss Quill’s exchange with Lankin’s impression of her sister Orla’ath (a well-matched Anastasia Hille) is a verbal dance with words as surgical blades, the only knives (as dialogue reminds us) that Miss Quill is able to use. There’s an added picquancy to Quill, too: she’s not just an embittered enslaved terrorist reduced to sniping at her situation, but a person of experience who runs alongside but can’t share the formative experiences being enjoyed by her young charges.
After a resolutely beat-heavy urban soundtrack in the first two episodes, it was good to hear a folk-influenced one on this, including Jim Moray with a new recording of his own ‘Nightvisiting’. Class has shown it can shift tone and structure of storytelling and that despite its title it’s not tied to school and classroom. It also draws from the imagery and lore of Doctor Who without being trapped by it; as the Shadow Kin recalled to some the Pyroviles of The Fires of Pompeii, Lankin’s victims and projections, enveloped by vegetable matter and in some cases with green flesh, echoed in image the Krynoids of The Seeds of Doom, while telling an unrelated story, something Class must be free to do. Next week, a story of new heads and shared hearts, it appears.
The Avengers (ABC Television, 1961-1969, starring Patrick Macnee and many others, and nothing to do with Marvel Comics) and Doctor Who had significant overlap of personnel over the years. At one of my other blogs, The St James’s Evening Post, I review three episodes from the final (1968-1969) season, starring Macnee as John Steed and Linda Thorson as Tara King. Namechecked in direct relation to the episodes concerned (The Rotters, The Interrogators and The Morning After) are Terry Nation, The Dalek Invasion of Earth and Invasion of the Dinosaurs, as well as actors with Doctor Who experience including Jerome Willis, Peter Barkworth, Patrick Newell and Brian Blessed.
The schools in Sheffield were very different.
Certainly – and this school in the displaced location of Shoreditch-on-Taff is very different from anywhere else. Coal Hill has been translated from its late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century redbrick incarnation in the Moffatverse into the gleaming antiseptic of an early twenty-first century academy, creaming off its brightest and the best while under the pressure to improve its results in science. The greenish hue of the walls suggests somewhere which needs to be wiped clean. There’s a lot of gore at Coal Hill Academy – people explode, Shadow Kin ooze across walls, members of staff are skinned alive and consumed. It’s not just the walls which are wiped clean, but memories too; the only way for students and staff to function is to block out the body count. At Coal Hill, we are told by a certain passing Time Lord, time has worn thin, and various unpleasant visitors are being drawn to its as to a beacon in space-time.
So far, so Sunnydale, and so Torchwood too. However, Class is its own entity. It has no Buffy nor a Captain Jack figure to act as the leader of action and centre of mystery. Greg Austin’s Charlie is carefully positioned to be neither surrogate-Doctor nor quasi-Buffy; he’s neither knowledgeable enough nor sufficiently open to fill either role. The other youthful leads are flawed too: Sophie Hopkins’s isolated, fragile-seeming but steely April knows she is seen as ‘nice’, her mother thinks she is ‘kind’, and she thinks she needs to be overtly ambitious. The mismatch between her and decorating (organising?) the Prom is evident to all – as she lets slip, it’s going to look great on her university application. One of the highlights of the first episode was April’s visualization of the home planet of Charlie and Miss Quill – this imagined kind and well-ordered world showed Charlie’s people dressed in old-style Coal Hill School uniforms, both a symbol of reassuring certainty for April but also a suggestion that, like school, this society was full of arbitrary self-justifying cruelties and that Miss Quill’s description of Rodea injustice and her resentment at her own ‘slavery’ is well-grounded.
Writer Patrick Ness and director Ed Bazalgette enjoy combining trauma with gags without diminishing the tragedy. The playing and filming of the murder of the cleaner in The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo, complete with synchronized cigarette-falling, teases the idea that Ram will get covered in blood every single episode, but this isn’t South Park and Ram isn’t wearing an orange cagoule. A dominant theme in Class is dealing with grief – Ram (a braggartish and vulnerable performance by turns from Fady Elsayed) sees his girlfriend murdered and is only allowed to say that she has ‘disappeared’, at the same time as he mourns the death of his own confident social- and sporting-player self; Tanya’s father is dead; all of Charlie’s and Miss Quill’s people have been slaughtered. April’s mother, who has adjusted to a life beyond a point when she was expected to have died, directs us to the need to adjust in a world of dislocation. Finding meaning in a world of change is the message of Class from the theme song onwards – Coal Hill’s autumn prom is recognised in the script as something transposed from and trying to imitate American custom, April wondering aloud what ‘prom’ actually means as she prepares decorations for the hall. These are teenagers searching for identity in an environment with no deep-fixed cultural anchors and which deliberately deprioritizes kindness.
Thematically, Class involves, but there are problems with exposition. I wasn’t quite sure, though could infer, why Miss Quill’s gun seems to have killed Kevin and (it’s implied) almost killed April. Likewise, in The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo I wasn’t quite sure who or what was doing the cleaning up after the flaying so quickly and easily. Presumably the dragons were very good at rapidly absorbing almost all a victim’s blood. The moral of the episode was laid on with too heavy a trowel too, with dialogue heavy in self-realization from Ram, though in part redeemed by canny juxtaposition with April playing the violin and ignoring the phone call from her absent, not-yet-discussed father.
After only two episodes, and aimed at a teleliterate audience, Class is playing with expectations. Mention of the governors by Mr Armitage and then in a different context by Miss Quill reminded me of the introduction of the Mayor through dialogue in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and poor Mr Armitage has gone the way of Buffy‘s original school principal in an even shorter space of time. There are worlds beyond Coal Hill Academy yet to explore – how great a role will the Cabinet of Souls play in the ongoing narrative? What is Mateusz’s fate – included in the Doctor’s injunction but ‘grounded’ by his religious and presumably homophobic father, is he to be the Suzi Costello or Jesse of the series, and his inevitable disposal is merely delayed?
Doctor Who fans, of course, were propitiated by the appearance of legendary costume designer June Hudson as a glamorous elderly woman in a shop complaining about the behaviour of her husband on the stairs… (I knew I should know who she was, but had to question the cast list…) and by the materialisation of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor during For Tonight We Must Die. Capaldi gave a less abrasive Doctor here than he has done so far in his own series, more at home with contemporary references (this is I think the first time the Doctor has shown he is aware of IKEA – does the sonic screwdriver dispense with the need for Allen keys?) and warmer towards other people without needing to hide behind dark glasses. This might augur well for the 2017 series of Doctor Who for those of us who appreciate Capaldi as an actor but think his version of the Doctor has been either too much of a Malcolm Tucker in the TARDIS (series 8) or archly working out his mid-life or new life crisis (series 9).
Class, though, is its own entity – and the third episode promises to develop the already self-possessed presence of Vivian Oparah’s Tanya as something gets its tentacles into the material and remembered worlds. For the moment, though, Class shows promise but still needs to find a stronger sense of its own place in the displaced world of streaming television.