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.
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.
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.
John Connors has continued to publish my articles on Doctor Who, the Doctor and British identities at his Time Lines blog. Looking at them now, I’d give myself some notes. There are a lot of ideas there which I might get round to untangling at some point, and others where my thoughts ran ahead of my writing. One sentence in part three cries out for a mention of Love for Lydia (LWT for ITV, 1977; in which Peter Davison appeared) and how its content anticipates in a middle-class register the upper-class concerns of the more lavish literary adaptation that was Brideshead Revisited (Granada for ITV, 1981; which did not feature Peter Davison). The Pallisers (BBC, 1974), though predating both, offers a connection through the cricketing obsession grafted by screenwriter Simon Raven onto Anthony Andrews’s Lord Silverbridge, arguably a forebear both of Andrews’s Sebastian Flyte and Peter Davison’s Doctor. The Pallisers was a formative influence on 1980s Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner, who was given a field promotion to production unit manager during its dispute-stricken production and played a significant role in ensuring it reached screens.
Don’t Shoot – He’s British! part two looks at the tensions in the layering of identities which shaped the personas of the third and fourth Doctors. Don’t Shoot – He’s British! part three moves on to examine the development of the fifth and sixth Doctors and their universe, as represented by decisions on story, casting and costume and the channelling of long-current but overplayed cultural anxieties. There will be more.
Doctor Who commentator, editor and blogger John Connors has begun to reissue a series of articles which I originally wrote for the fanzine Plaything of Sutekh, which John co-edited with Richard Farrell. The series concerns the Doctor’s ‘British’ identity as defined and explored by Doctor Who since 1963. The first article looks at the first ten years of the programme.
S0me of the material in this series has not been published before and we intend to follow this ‘archive’ unpublished commentary with more. Please find the first of these articles here.
Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition number 44, On Location, is still on sale for £4.99. If you want to read me writing about quarries in Doctor Who, and about the use of locations in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Curse of Fenric and Planet of the Dead, this is the publication to buy. If that’s not your thing, there is much more, including Simon Guerrier’s location visit to The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, Tim Worthington’s look at locations in the 1996 TV Movie, Paul Hayes’s interview with Dalek Invasion of Earth designer Spencer Chapman, and John J Johnston’s look at London locations in Doctor Who, plus lots more work from other great Whoish folk. Marcus Hearn has edited this one between toils on The Essential Doctor Who (issues of which are also worth picking up) for Panini Magazines.