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.
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 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.
Doctor Who just undertook one of its sudden, jarring lurches into resolving a series arc that many won’t have realised was there, and undertook it as an almost one-hander single play placed between two episodes that perhaps didn’t strictly need it, an interior dialogue which shows off Peter Capaldi as a humane, incisive performer as no previous Doctor Who story has done. It takes diamond to cut diamond. This Doctor, seemingly so callous and indifferent for most of his first year, is of course by no means immune to despair and while it’s an invidious and even meaningless comparison, I can’t imagine Matt Smith handling the moment where the Doctor realises that he’s just one in a series of reconstituted Doctors who will make his imperceptible mark on the wall in room 12 in quite as affecting a way as Capaldi.
The evidence that this was a prison tailored for the Doctor was evident almost from the start, though it took me as long as the Doctor to realise what the skulls actually were and why the stars weren’t where the Doctor thought they should be. The postponement of the solution to the puzzle was often frustrating, perhaps because even with the CGI castle it was difficult to get a sense of scale… and I did wonder why the Doctor didn’t try attacking the Veil with the spade, though perhaps that would have opened up too many avenues of horror even for a Doctor Who which hovers on the watershed. The threat from the Veil was left undefined and it was right to leave it uncertain until the Doctor was at the diamond wall that its touch was lethal – after so much emphasis on theatre, on making the Doctor feel afraid, it was horrific that it did deal out death after all, just allowing the Doctor enough time to return in agonised defeat to the first square of the game with no conscious advantage.
Murray Gold is unfairly maligned as a composer; his score was suitably eclectic for this story, reminding me of the use of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in John Boorman’s film Zardoz and its intimations of mortality. I see from other reviews the episode made nods to the subject matter of recent films and games. The idea of a cycle of life repeating itself until it can be broken out from is an old one, though, the matter of religious truth before it was the stuff of fiction. Doctor Who commentator J.R. Southall has observed that where Russell T Davies used the trappings of religious faith, Steven Moffat draws on the substance. Here at least Moffat draws on Dantean notions of hell with the Doctor needing to move from circle to circle to receive his prize; in contrast to Sartre, Hell isn’t the presence of other people but of missing one in particular.
There were a few visual references to earlier episodes. At one point the Veil loomed over the Doctor much as the Fisher King had in Before the Flood. The watery setting was also a reminder of that story. The castle gallery recalled something of the interiors seen in The Woman Who Lived. The Veil turns out to have clockwork elements, looking back to Deep Breath and Steven Moffat’s first journey upon the Slow Road, The Girl in the Fireplace. The clockwork castle itself expanded upon the motif seen in Ashildr’s house in Face the Raven and through the current title sequence to The Invasion of Time. Where other older Doctor Who stories are concerned, the Doctor Who SFX account on Twitter has noticed the visual parallels with Warrior’s Gate and its monochrome stills of Powis Castle; but the revelation that the Doctor’s prison is within his own confession dial, a miniaturised self-renewing environment, reminded me of Carnival of Monsters – a more avowedly grim realisation of Vorg’s already obscene miniscope. This is a story to which the Doctor Who industry has returned to in the arena show Doctor Who: The Monsters Are Coming! in 2010, so Steven Moffat has form.
This episode was also definitely part of the Moffat oeuvre: journeys billions of years in the making, management of one’s own thoughts so intense that one can be cut off from time, the classroom and its attributes as both revealing of the self and as the home of narrative; intangible childhood traumas brought into the material world; and deaths which though deaths shall have no dominion. Finally, a reappropriation of dialogue from his own earlier episodes and a suggestion that nineteen years on the TV Movie will be vindicated – is the Doctor half-human on his mother’s side after all, or is Ashildr the promised hybrid? Or both of them?
Heaven Sent achieved its ends. The languidity was part of the experience – the boredom and frustration of what seems like eternity, but which is just a very, very long time. Even the terror of the Veil becomes a tedium to manage; it’s what makes its final purpose so horrific. It’s an exercise in watching the Doctor’s self-discipline and his resourcefulness with almost no tools and no allies to hand except his own knowledge and intellect. The control which Capaldi gives the Doctor as he steps out onto the soil of Gallifrey is memorable for many reasons; it’s a powerful counterpoint to the audience’s own relief. Escape, the Doctor knows, is not possible without changing fabric and structure, and he sets off it seems to do just that.
We didn’t need the Z-67, then. (‘Zee’ sixty-seven. Another small sign that this is an international series for a global market.) It was all long gone. The threat, or the temptation, of destruction was enough. The Zygons were never going to be turned inside out at a physical level, but they and human beings have to have their perceptions inverted again and again and again. The solution to the Zygon rising isn’t a happy one. People from both human and Zygon species are killed. It’s difficult to see Bonnie’s instruction to stand down having the effect on her fellow Zygon rebels which the script seems at first glance to suggest. I’d initially thought that the reference to this being the sixteenth time the Doctor has gone through the Osgood box version of Deal or No Deal was that there had been fifteen previous separate Zygon risings, but Andrew Ellard on Twitter has pointed out that this is the more problematic interpretation and the idea that this is the sixteenth version involving these participants makes more sense. Until reading this I’d thought that the point was that the ceasefire has broken down before and will break down again. It’s a striking, perhaps worrying, utilitarian line for Doctor Who to take: the Doctor will keep coming back to minimise the number of deaths and damage to self-knowledge in the hope of saving as many as possible; but changing the mind of just one, in the right place, might be enough, or the most that can be hoped for. It’s a compromise and compromises are messy; but there is a future visible where the difference between human and Zygon is no longer of importance, something perhaps difficult even for the Doctor to grasp. Assimilation is mutual and subtle even if the Zygons have been smuggled in and disguised by an organisation operating beyond the state and outside democratic control.
Social media, with the exception of a few people with reservations and perhaps deliberate contrarians, emerged from their pods in force to cheer The Zygon Inversion. Peter Capaldi’s speech in particular was loved. This was a little overlong, but was still a bravura delivery of a clever relation of the Zygon peace to the Time War (of which the Zygons, lest we forget, were victims), the bleak efficacy of mutually assured destruction scenarios, and a reminder of the place which Clara Oswald has in the Doctor’s cosmology. I don’t know how Capaldi’s drawing quite specifically on Hughie Green’s delivery and catchphrase when in his game show host persona played with those who don’t remember Green; did it work as generically as presumably hoped?
This wasn’t entirely brilliant. I found some of the journey of the Doctor and Osgood a little flat; the Union Jack parachute was an odd touch, a sideswipe at an outdated model of James Bond, perhaps, a sign that someone somewhere has anxieties about the Doctor’s mode of heroism, or perhaps to underline how awkward this ‘president of Earth’ nonsense sits with the Doctor’s traditionally less bombastic way of doing business. Who, I wondered, was flying the UNIT plane, and did they escape? They had time…[EDIT – looking at the Doctor-Osgood exchanges again, she does some nice deconstruction and remembered analysis of the Doctor’s behaviour and methodology – ‘You’re talking nonsense to distract me from being really scared’ – and is ahead of him at times because she’s got the emotional distance and focus to help him along. She’s too accomplished and too much of the fan-scholar to be a long-term companion, though, and this story gives her a firm and distinguished place in the series’ mythology.]
Amidst the failure, for me, of the Doctor-Osgood conversation to spark – despite the Doctor’s becoming, during it, a smiling figure more at peace with his existence – was the grisly and emotionally pained depiction of the Zygon forced to ‘normalise’ and go into hiding, unable to fully maintain a human shape, in the grocer’s. The make-up on Nicholas Asbury as Etoine was suggestive of a plague victim, with swollen glands and sores, as well as a reminder of the imagery of ulceration and bodies turned inside out, of overgrown malformed embryos, upon which the Zygon design draws. Both suggest the ambiguity of human beings’ (or at least western, Atlantic Anglophone culture’s) tendency to look for the unlike and unfamiliar, grouping difference with disease; Etoine’s suicide, arising from mistrust of the Doctor and Osgood but also a rejection of what Bonnie insisted he must become, was overwhelmingly sad but also helped turn around an episode which I wasn’t greatly committed to until then.
This two-parter has again sidelined the complicated Clara as a character while maintaining her as a symbol. Portraying the dual Clara/Bonnie felt a little like a graduation piece for Jenna Coleman, but it can be said that she passed. Clara’s dreamscape might have seemed like an old Steven Moffat trope, but it was used to illustrate how interwoven Zygon and human were and emphasise Clara’s strength of character beyond the ‘control freak’ label bandied about with freedom by Missy. Bonnie as angry adolescent motivated by an ideal of a society which would emerge from victory without any clear idea of the process by which that ideal would be built and maintained is a topical figure, recognisable to anyone who has seen a Boko Haram video. Taking Clara’s form and her memories, it’s stated, compromises her from the beginning, but also suggests that the Zygons are not otherable, but are part of us. Like Clara, she’s controlling and manipulative, but far more ruthless and far less able to see the consequences of her actions. There has been some concern expressed that Bonnie was able to escape with her crimes unpunished; but the point was surely that she is a transformed person, without and within. Kate leaves with her memory wiped because she still pressed the button [EDIT: No, she didn’t! Why did I think that?] (and Doctor Who needs her to go forward with science in her brain and gun in her hand – five rounds rapid, again). Bonnie does not because she understands and carries the burden of her crimes. Becoming a new Osgood is an extreme form of self-sentenced community service.
At the end of the day, though, it’s Capaldi’s confident handling of the Doctor as teacher-hero which lingers in the memory. He’s been around two thousand years but he’s not a messiah, just someone managing his own messiah complex by doing the best he can, and not blind to the unpleasantness which transpires along the way as a result. He can’t condemn Kate as she kills her way through the Zygons in self-defence; and she knows it. While I found the ‘Doctor Disco’ business tiresome, that’s a response the episode expects; this isn’t so much a man in mid-life crisis as a man suffering from second regeneration cycle or unexpected fourteenth life trauma, and sublimating his concern about his place in events.
[EDIT: One further note is that the Doctor is making a habit of making people like himself. Clara has been portrayed as a second Doctor with her own adventures and companions. Ashildr/Me is someone he changes into an immortal and then groups with him as ‘people like us’. Now Bonnie is praised for thinking ‘like me’. Messiah and very naughty boy at once, the Doctor recruits through words and touch, but his truth is not in charge of the consequences.]
What immortal hand or eye?
The light between the cracks, of course; the stardust of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, perhaps, crossbread with Gaian notions of a self-healing planet which humanity has to restrain itself from unbalancing. In the Forest of the Night was another exercise in non-literal storytelling, with not only London’s cityscape transformed, but its geography collapsed to suggest a ‘Zoological Museum’ existing in the vicinity of both the Natural History Museum and London Zoo and Trafalgar Square, Cromwell Gardens and the suburbs pulled closer together by tightening creeper, branch and root. The effect has annoyed some, but I found it expressive of sinister magic.
In the Forest of the Night kept us guessing. How real, how human, was Maebh? teased the tale, emphasising her as a collision of symbols, a Queen Mab in a red hood rising from a forest family. This was no Dawn from Buffy or Adam from Torchwood, but a real live girl with specialised and underappreciated talents. Stuart Manning’s Radio Times illustration (inset) shares the same girl-reaching-to-circle-in-sky iconography as the cover of M.R. Carey’s zombie novel The Girl with all the Gifts, and while Maebh does provide a way to unlock prohibited knowledge (she was able to escape the museum before anyone else could, having the key to the box) she doesn’t bring disaster but becomes the spokesperson for reconciliation between humanity and the forest. The symmetry between the disruptive children and the disruptive forest was an obvious device but effective, though if there was an appeal for understanding the needs of the educationally excluded here it was buried.
The central flaw of a lot of forty-five minute Doctor Who is that theme and narrative don’t have enough time to breathe, and In the Forest of the Night often felt like a series of set pieces with not enough connective material. The wolves and the tiger were recorded in a different location to the other participants – I had no idea that there were such wild beasts roaming the Chipping Norton area – but it would have added some unity to the whole to glimpse them later on in the episode, or even hear of zoo staff rounding them up. As in Kill the Moon, with which the audience was encouraged to make a direct connection through dialogue, the Doctor disappears with apparently no hope of finding a solution to a problem, then returns having done so. I don’t mind having to infer the process, but felt the dramatic potential in the Doctor’s reappearance after Clara’s farewell to him wasn’t brought out in the way it might have been.
After several weeks where the programme seemed to be working hard to alienate viewers from the Doctor, the last few episodes have worked to reconcile followers to the Time Lord, and Peter Capaldi fascinated in this episode. The Doctor’s dualities were very apparent here – both introvert and empath in his initial responses to Maebh, keeper of forbidden knowledge but traditional and natural schoolteacher, an alien whose ‘terrestrial navigation’ seems to be incompatible with time-space functionality. Of Earth, and not of it.
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
Clara can twist the sinews of this tyger’s heart, but hers, too, is a double inheritance. Danny and Clara continue to be shakily presented as a couple who are either complementary opposites or fundamentally incompatible and driven by physical attraction and denial. Samuel Anderson and Danny have not had a lot of screen time apart from in The Caretaker and much depends again on what the viewer infers; he’s remarkably understanding of Clara here and obviously remarkably calm where one can imagine other boyfriend characters being written to be visibly and angrily jealous. There’s a character arc developed off-screen, one must oresume, of which we have not seen enough; no doubt the finale will put everything into a fuller context.
In the Forest of the Night was softly photographed and its low angles suggested both the overhanging trees and the short size of many of the participants. Director Sheree Folkson extracted believable performances from her young cast and seems to have co-ordinated her team well; I’d like to see her return to another Doctor Who engagement. The juxtaposition of the soothing and the displaced throughout the visuals helped add a lyrical quality which overcame the discontinuities in the narrative and strengthened the sense that while this series of Doctor Who has been the most consistent in quality since Matt Smith’s first if not David Tennant’s last, it’s the second half of the run, where the Doctor has learned enough about himself to be a less divisive figure, which has provided the more memorable episodes. For all Steven Moffat’s protestations, Doctor Who has not left the world of fairytales yet; and there are consequences in those too.
Busy with other things so again can’t manage a full review… but this was rather good. On one of the panels in which I partook at the last Nine Worlds, Laurie Penny said something along the lines that Steven Moffat writes both Sherlock and Doctor Who as addiction dramas. Mummy on the Orient Express made this explicit and provided another gloss on the Doctor’s reluctance to go back and see his old companions as expressed in The Sarah Jane Adventures: Death of the Doctor. The Doctor can’t go round for dinner because he would be returning to his drug; Clara can’t yet face this. Our travellers go off in varying levels of denial; Perkins (a deliberate echo of The Railway Children‘s Perks, surely, with Frank Skinner giving a performance with some echoes of Cribbins, and Perks was a man who knew more than he could explain to the young protagonists) can see what the Doctor’s life can do because he himself is someone with the maturity to know what life experience can do and someone who is comfortable with his identity in a way which the Doctor never can be. There was a lovely casting joke: anyone watching British television over the last fifty years could easily believe that Janet Henfrey must be well over a hundred by now. Lance Parkin observed at Facebook that Foxes’ rendition of ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, as released in advance on YouTube, was a spoiler of sorts, and he certainly had more than a point.
ETA: The motifs of the season were there too – soldiers, robots who are not quite robots but not yet/no longer quite people, deaths which are not perhaps deaths. Danny is left waiting and out of phase with Clara, rather like the mummy; and Doctor Who emphasises further its scepticism about the lifestyle of the Doctor and Clara. Once the companions wanted to go home, whereas nowadays at some level the viewer is encouraged to think that they should want to.
I’ve also been considering names. Seb, Chris Addison’s character, may be named after St Sebastian, one of the patron saints of soldiers; is Gus named after St Augustine of Hippo? I know little of him bar that most of his thought I’ve come across seems commonsensical in a way which suggests how far his theology is deeply embedded in western thought whether consciously religious or not; but I see from Wikipedia that he was deeply interested in the relationship of the body and the soul, and that the soul must respect the body. There have been a number of destroyed or refashioned bodies in this series of Doctor Who, no more than usual perhaps, but attention has been drawn to the Half-Face Man, the Sheriff, and all those people who have been killed only to turn up in Missy’s realm.
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.