Monday, September 1, 2014

Into The Dalek [Spoilers]


I found Inside The Dalek really rather entertaining.

I know you could pull it to death by focusing on all the stuff it borrowed from elsewhere. From Dalek*, from The Invisible Enemy, from Fantastic Voyage and so on but equally I'm gob-smackingly surprised it hasn't been done before. Surely this is the idea that everyone must have had. And yet it took until 2014 for someone to actually get around to doing it.

I fear 'originality' is a stick to beat many a Doctor Who writer or show runner to death with. It's as if Doctor Who was entirely original from 1963-1989 and never borrowed from other sources. Or from itself.  I mean Terry Nation wrote virtually the same Dalek story time and again, although I'm not sure ripping off yourself is entirely unfair. If you have a good idea why not hammer at it again and again. After all Robert Holmes wrote The Caves of Androzani twice. It's just the first version was called The Power of Kroll. Doctor Who has always been a magpie television series and without undertaking a proper scientific review I'd wager that genuinely original stories are few and far between. Mostly Doctor Who picks up something and metamorphoses it into something distinctly Doctor Who. So I'm not quite sure lack of originality is as bad as all that.

It's a tale of morality. The Doctor's morality. Is he a good man? Or is he a good Dalek?

It's a big question. I think we like to find a Doctor that fits our own image and the new Doctor Who has certainly been slightly less ruthless than the Classic Doctor could be. Or at least has always made more of a big deal out of his morality, which makes the scene here where he uses a soldier's impending death to find an escape route ice-cold shocking. No 'I'm so sorry's' etc. Just 'this man is going to die but I'm going to save everyone else.' It really does feel different this time.

He's still finding his way this new Doctor. He's clearly not the man he was. There's a ruthless streak of logic, sharp snark and a lack of neediness about this new Doctor. He doesn't have the time to care about whether people like him or not. He is just going to do his thing.

And I love Capaldi's take on the part. He's such a brilliant actor.

Then there's Jenna Coleman's Clara. She's developing a character, which is nice. Now she's not a puzzle for the Doctor to be solved. The Moff gets a lot of criticism for the way he writes women characters in Doctor Who and the Doctor makes one or two unnecessarily snide comments about Clara's appearance that veer dangerously too close to 'banter' for my liking (although I was reminded of the Fourth Doctor's digs at Sarah Jane in The Ark in Space whilst they were crawling through the ducts). Anyway I thought Clara / Coleman was great in this. The Doctor deserved his slap and it was nice to see Clara turn the tables on the Doctor after Deep Breath by getting him to focus on the right lesson to take from the day.

I also liked her scenes with Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson). The Clara-Danny thing is endearingly awkward, which I confess to liking. I get the impression that The Moff could quite happily write a sit-com revolving around those two. Danny Pink is another teacher at Cole Hill School. He's an ex-soldier with a secret. He's also got one of the best and brightest smiles I've ever seen. It seems the Clara-Danny thing is going to be a 'thing' for the whole season so it is early days for judgment (although when has that ever stopped me).

The soldier thing is going to be one of the threads of the season I think. Along with Missy, who makes another appearance here. Ah, Missy. The face that launched a thousand theories. I'm not going to comment here. I've got ideas. Too many ideas but being this is The Moff at work it wouldn't surprise me if Missy turns out not to be a villain at all but a friend of the Doctors. But who knows. It does seem though that The Moff's confident that the Missy pay-off is worth her regularly pop up appearances, although it does have a touch of the Madam Kovarians about it. [There's me ignoring my own earlier paragraph about the dangers of whinging about originality. I'm such a hypocrite.]

Where was I. Ah, the soldier thing. Yes, the Doctor dismisses Journey Blue (Zawa Ashton) at the end when she asks to come along with him by saying he doesn't like soldiers. I'm assuming that's just this Doctor because the Eleventh Doctor was quite upset when he found out that his soldier friend Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart had died. But it's a new Doctor. I suspect his judgmental approach will come and bite him on the arse before the season is out.

Oh and Danny Pink and Journey Blue. Is this colour thing also going to be a 'thing.' How many 'things' can the Moff get into a single season? How many of them will be - and forgive me - red herrings. Doctor Who fans: always finding patterns in things that aren't there.

The other thing worth mentioning - apart from Michael Smiley's appearance as Colonel Morgan Blue - is Ben Wheatley's fab direction. He actually manages to make the Daleks look like warriors. And Rusty the Dalek gets a fine line in snark, which is unexpected in a Dalek.

Oh and praise for Nick Briggs whose Dalek voice work reaches pretty impressive heights in this story. The slight change in emphasis between the 'good' Rusty and his return to Dalekness is rather brilliant and subtle.

So...I enjoyed it. With quibbles.

Next week Robots of Sherwood which looks whimsical. And there's not a lot of love for whimsy in the Doctor Who fan world. Me, I'm a big fan of whimsy. Lord Peter included.


*I listened to Big Finish's The Genocide Machine today too and that's got a similarities with this story thematically too in terms of what happens when a Dalek changes.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Deep Breath [Spoilers]


If you're new to this blog then I should explain that what follows isn't a review in the traditional sense. That would involve critical faculties. What this is is a collection of immediate reactions, thoughts, ideas and bees in bonnets that pop up following the episode I've watched. This blog will contain spoilers so if you've not seen the episode then go and watch it and then come back. You. Have. Been. Warned.

So Deep Breath launches the Capaldi era of Doctor Who and it seems that the story was designed to do a few things. To introduce us to an older Doctor and deal with the New Doctor Who audiences fears of the that older Doctor. Hence a lot of the conversations Clara gets involved in with either the Doctor or Vastra are aimed at us, which makes her decision to leave the TARDIS before being reassured by the Eleventh Doctor's phone call an plea to the audience: "Don't leave. It's still Doctor Who." In that sense it is quite different to a lot of new Doctor's first stories, which just assume we'll pick up with the new Doctor and run with it. We don't normally need this much reassurance. And in a way it's insulting to both us and Capaldi but perhaps I'm being harsh.

There's also a dig at us the audience. The whole 'I'm not your boyfriend/You might as well flirt with a mountain/He wanted you to like him' stuff is a criticism of our apparent need for a younger actor. Even though it was Steven Moffat that chose Matt Smith.

Then there's re-booting Clara. Now she's no longer 'The Impossible Girl' she needs to actually have a character and this story is designed to give her one. I'm not sure I've seen enough 'control freak' in Clara so far to justify the Doctor's accusations that she is one. Jenna Coleman's clearly a good actress so it would be nice to see her given more scenes like the one when she's confronted with the Big Bad. She gets to do the whole Sarah Jane Smith brave and scared at the same time trick rather well. It's a step forward.

It also seems to me that the Big Bad guy's 're-building' of himself is a shadow of regeneration. It shows how weird regeneration actually is. I mean this is a man with a new face for heaven's sake. The Big Bad guy is regenerating the slow way round. Piece by piece. Could you apply the Doctor's broom analogy to the Doctor himself?

There's also seed sowing for other things to come. First off, where does the Doctor get his faces from? Or any Time Lord for that matter. Is there a database of faces. A Facebook perhaps. (Sorry, I'll get my coat). The Doctor's face thing - like the Doctor's name - seems to be Steven Moffat's latest bee in the bonnet as a result of casting Capaldi but I did think some of the best lines came as a result of this. I especially liked "Who frowned this face" and "It's like I'm trying to tell myself something." The face is going to be a thing. Let's see where that goes.

Secondly, who is Missy and what's she up to. This being being New Doctor Who we need an big season long arc don't we. Sigh. Do we though. Do we? Perhaps we do. Or perhaps we could just have a run of adventures that are just fun. Without the need for us to see how clever Steven Moffat is. In the end though we should judge the arc on its quality. If it turns out to be good then...good. If it turns out to be bad then can we stop and do something else instead.

Quick diversion: title sequence and theme tune. Loved the new title sequence. Hate the theme tune, which sounds like it was played on a weird combination of elastic bands, bells and kazoo. The new series has never cracked the theme tune in my opinion but perhaps one day they will.

What of Capaldi himself? I think he's great. He has an edge that Tenant and Smith didn't have. It's not darkness I don't think. It's just a sharpness. A lack of botherdness about how people see him, which I like. He's able to do both the comedy and the darker stuff. I like the fact that we're left to decide for ourselves whether the Doctor threw the Big Bad to his doom or whether it was self-destruction but this isn't the Sixth Doctor. The last scenes give us a vulnerability to this new Doctor underneath his crusty exterior. So yes, I'm happy with Capaldi.

Oh and do we really need all the hilarious Scottish stuff. The Doctor's been Scottish before and didn't seem to think it was a big deal. But then the showrunner then wasn't Scottish. RTDs gay agenda* has been replaced with a Scottish agenda.** Damn that McMoffat chap.

I'm less happy with what's happening with Vastra/Jenny and Strax. All three are brilliantly performed but Strax has become only comic relief. I'd like him to have a bit more edge. I really wish Steven Moffat would have had the courage to give Vastra and Jenny a proper kiss without having to give them a 'breath' excuse. It's just a loss of bottle. The Paternoster Gang are great when used properly but not when they're just there to provide some exotic sexual background and dumb comedy. Use them better Mr. Moffat. Use them better.

So after all that rambling I should say that I enjoyed it a lot but there's a lot of quibbles. It's lifted by the brilliance of Capaldi and it's excellent design. Doctor Who looks great these days, although Strax's disappearing bucket seemed to skip someone's attention in the edit.***

More Capaldi please.

* There was no gay agenda.
**There isn't a Scottish agenda either
***Or it'll turn out to be a key thing in the forthcoming story arc. The Bucket of Rassilon. Or something. [It won't.]

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Purely Personal Top Ten Doctor Who Stories (Classic)

I thought, whilst this blog is at a loose end, the time had come for a Patient Centurion Top Ten Doctor Who stories. This is, of course, a temporary Top Ten. Ask me again in a month and it will probably change but nevertheless here goes...

Oh and there in no particular order of Top Ten-ness. I've chosen them on the basis of...well...I'll explain...



The Web Planet: I know. I can hear all your whinging now. It's so slow. It's direction is so slipshod. But you know I don't bloody care. I love it's vaulting ambition. It's attempt to show an utterly alien world on a budget that can barely cover the cost of a single moth costume. I love this period in the Hartnell era when the Doctor Who production team kept trying everything. Some things work. Some things don't. And I still maintain that there's a couple of moments in it that are among the most horrible and heart-breaking in the series history. Honestly it's a magnificent effort. It doesn't all work but I love it anyway.

The Gunfighters: Once head of the cavalcade of the unloved in Doctor Who terms this is actually rather wonderful. Hartnell's wonderful in it. There's some comedy accents. It's tone shifts rather dramatically when Johnny Ringo arrives. It's historically inaccurate and it has a song. A chorus rising above the action. That's I suspect because the writer had recently seen Cat Ballou. It's a fine parody of television and film westerns. But really it is worth watching for Hartnell's comic timing. Just don't take it too seriously.

The War Games: Ten episodes long. Ten. It shouldn't keep us glued to our seats but it does. Yes, there's lots of escaping, getting captured and escaping again but it is done with such panache that how can you not love it. Really. It's majestic. Troughton ends his time as The Doctor on a high note. Jamie and Zoe get possibly the saddest departure of any companions ever. We finally meet the Time Lords. And the scene where the Doctor and The War Chief set eyes on each other for the first time - and in an instant recognise each other - is rather brilliant. The Troughton era suffers from a lot of missing stories, which is a shame for a lot of reasons but mostly because it deprives us of Troughton himself.

Invasion of the Dinosaurs: If you can ignore the rather dodgy T-Rex - which is the worst of the dinosaurs by miles - this is all rather brilliant, even if the whole thing seems to be a massive grandfather paradox waiting to happen. It's got a deserted London, it's got UNIT, it's got Sarah Jane, it's got Pertwee at his most majestic and it's got Captain Yates, whose story is perhaps the most complicated of any 'companion' in the series history. It's a story arc before Doctor Who was supposed to do story arcs. It manages to feel epic despite the short-comings of budgets and effects.

Horror of Fang Rock: I could pick lots of Tom Baker but this is the first one I remember with absolute clarity as a child. It's the first one that I can remember being genuinely frightened of and it is still rather wonderful now. It's claustrophobic, relentless and dark. Everyone - almost - dies. It's got Louise Jameson as Leela in a rather fetching wooly jumper*. Tom is brilliant. It has some fine lines in it and it is still rather creepy. Age has not - quite - withered it. Definitely a story for winter's evenings.



The Horns of Nimon: This is where I will lose a lot of people. I can hear the tutting from here. But I don't care a jot. This is my comfort Doctor Who. The story I reach for to cheer me up on those horrible days when nothing seems to go right. I'll admit now that I have a soft spot for all of Season Seventeen. That might be nostalgia but I love the Fourth Doctor - Romana combination, even if they are dangerous close to be too smart-arsey for their own good. I like K9. I like Graham Crowden's mad, mad Soldeed. I find it utterly joyful to watch from the first 'weakling scum' to the very end. How any Nimon have you seen today?

Kinda: Utterly unlike most other Doctor Who stories this is all a little weird. Too weird for some people but I love it. I love the fact that it has layers. I like the fact that Janet Fielding gets to be more than just a walking Aussie whinge - at least for a bit. I like Simon Rouse's performance. I love Nerys Hughes understated Todd. I love Richard Todd's appearance as a sort of representative of a England lost in the mist and is the perfect actor for the bumbling colonial chap. It's a story you can watch over and over again. A story to get lost inside. Just be careful you don't find the Mara inside.

Vengeance on Varos: The Colin Baker era gets a constant kicking. It's usually the butt of jokes. And yes, it has its problems. The Sixth Doctor's costume is ridiculous, he stays dark and unsympathetic for too long - something that must surely weigh upon Moffat as he plots a darker, less sympathetic Capaldi incarnation - and there's just not enough joy to out-weigh the death and bleakness in some of the stories. This story has moments where the Doctor isn't behaving as the Doctor should - or the version of the Doctor in our heads - but it is still rather well-written and directed. Writer Philip Martin wrote the marvellous Gangsters, which I recommend to your perusal - and plays with the fourth wall here a little too. Add Nabil Shaban's memorable Sil and you've got a winner.

Remembrance of the Daleks: Anyone who thinks Sylvester McCoy isn't a good Doctor should be strapped to a seat and made to watch this. Over and over again. This is a real tour-de-force and I remember this as the story that restored my shaken faith in Doctor Who after Season Twenty-Four (which in retrospect has more positive moments than I felt it did at the time.) It's well-acted, well-directed and well-written. This is the moment Ace and the Seventh Doctor establish themselves up there with Leela and the Fourth Doctor and Romana II and the Fourth Doctor as my favourite Doctor/Companion pairings** It really is better than it probably had any right to be at this point. If you've not seen it you really should stop reading this immediately and go and watch it. Go on.



The Happiness Patrol: I love this story. For similar reasons to why I love The Web Planet. Only Doctor Who could - or would - do this kind of thing. Only Doctor Who would make such a wonderful parable on the wonders of melancholy and what it means to be a minority in a tiny studio with pink wigs and a villain that looks not unlike a certain Bertie Bassett. People get rather sniffy about this story. It's too obviously sets. Of course it is. Terra Alpha is a Potemkin Village writ large. It looks artificial because it is artificial. Terra Alpha is an illusion. It's the creation of a woman who tried to do the right thing but couldn't understand why her people weren't happy with this right thing. It's pink and fluffy and all rather lovely.

There you go. That's my ten.

I'm sure you'll viciously disagree with some - or all - of my choices. You'd be wrong of course. My life in Doctor Who fandom has taught me that however bad a story is seen to be by fan consensus it is always someone's favourite. And however brilliant a story is there's always someone out there that hates it. Sometimes to a baffling degree of rage.

That's another of the fun bits of being a Doctor Who fan.

Be seeing you.


*I may have become obsessed with Louise Jameson in knitware since watching The Omega Factor
**Companion-Doctor favourites is a blog for another day.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Fun Stuff

Picture From Dorkly's 12 Types of Doctor Who Fan

I've been a Doctor Who fan for a long time and there has never been a better time to be a Doctor Who fan. The show is popular, possibly more popular than it has ever been, and it has a genuine global reach. There's enough merchandise out there to sink a battleship. You can watch it any time you like in a myriad of formats. There are websites and podcasts. You can interact with fellow fans on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and even in the real world. Being a Doctor Who fan is acceptable. We're fans of one of the most popular shows on British television. The Doctor is one of the few genuinely mythological characters created by television whose existence passes beyond just television.

It's great.

And I have to remind myself of this periodically because I remember being a Doctor Who fan in the dark days. When watching Doctor Who was like raging against the dying of the light. When 'it's not as good as it used to be' was regularly repeated like a mantra by Doctor Who fans and non-Doctor Who fans alike. When being a Doctor Who fan made you an acceptable target not just for ridicule but actual bullying at school. [As an example of how this worked watch the conversation between Paul Cornell and Dr Matthew Sweet in the latter's excellent Culture Show Doctor Who Special. If you can find it. That, my friends, is what it could be like at its worst]. 

Mostly, of course, it was mockery or bafflement that you were on the receiving end of, which are still quite common even today. If I had a pound for every time someone said "Yeah, but it's a kids show", I'd have £3,966. 

I was lucky. I never cared about how people felt about my Doctor Who obsessions to the point of being belligerently upfront about it. But I can understand why some Classic Doctor Who fans can come across as overly defensive and angry at new fans. The atmosphere in the tale end of Classic Doctor Who within fandom could be poisonousness. We learnt our debating styles when things were ugly (and very, very male). That doesn't excuse shitty behaviour but it does explain it a little.

Me, I always hung on to the joy that Doctor Who bought (and brings) me. It is still one of the few things that can make me deliriously and childishly happy. I watch every episode as two versions of me. The one is the now me. The bitter, cynical 43 year old git who is archly critical and capable of spotting a continuity error at a thousand yards. The other is the 11 year old me. Fresh-faced, excited and just in it for the FUN. He's the one that doesn't care about dodgy special effects, gaping plot holes, UNIT dating controversies or any of that kind of stuff. He just wants to escape. Sometimes the 43 year old me wins but mostly the 11 year old me does. 

And I try to hang on to that feeling because it is easily lost in all the criticism and cynicism and shear bloody smart-arsery of the modern 24/7 online culture.  We sometimes forget amongst all the words and noise to just have fun.

Doctor Who has never been more popular. It's never been more accessible in either Classic or New Who form (and I'm not going to rant on here about how much I hate the artificial seperation of Classic and New Who, even though I've fallen into the trap of using them myself all the bloody time).

It's fun being a Doctor Who fan now more than ever. Let's not lose that.

  

Friday, August 8, 2014

Telling Different Stories


So, I've been thinking about the 'Great White Saviour' that is the Doctor, although I usually don't think of him quite like that. There's a couple of reasons for that. Firstly Doctor Who is just a television programme so why would I think that deeply about the central character. [Yes, I know but imagine I am writing this as someone else who doesn't actually do that kind of thing.] Secondly it is embarrassing to admit that as a white, middle-class, straight man of a certain age I try to avoid thinking about the more 'old-school' aspects of the Doctor. Thirdly - and I apologise for coming over all Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition here - the Doctor's alienness seems to provide an excuse for excluding him from tedious Earth-bound questions about gender and race. He's from Gallifrey after all.

I blame the Verity Podcast for getting me thinking about this again. Having a voice outside my own head with experiences unlike my own and therefore perceptions of a different kind makes you think. And I hate questioning my own ways of privileges. 

Anyway...let's put a line of thought together. Let's assume Gallifreyans have a flexible approach to skin colour and sex. Let's assume that a Time Lord can be male in one incarnation and female in the next. Let's not get too hung up for the moment on how that affects sexual relationships.* And let us assume that your first incarnation is pretty much a lottery, although with a tendency towards the Caucasian - if stories set on Gallifrey are anything to go by.**

Tilda Swinton - Perfect for The Doctor?


So The Doctor's first incarnation is - by fluke - a white male. He ends up spending a lot of time on Earth. He likes it and it so happens that being a white man seems to be a pretty safe thing to be in most periods of Earth's history. So when he regenerates he sticks with the white male outfit. After all being white and male avoids a lot of tricky questions most of the time. (Lewis CK, the American comedian has an amusing routine along a similar line). Therefore the Doctor is a white male most of the time out of convenience.

There. I have provided a semi-logical reason for the Doctor's perpetual white maleness.

Now, let's step back into the real world - or what passes for the real world. What if we were to cast a black actor as the Doctor or a woman? I have no strong opinions on this any more. I did once. I think I might have got over it. But let's assume they do. 

We immediately have a potentially very different television series. Not just because we've got a different Doctor but because we now have a political issue to deal with. Does the production team ignore the change - except to make one or two jokes about it - or do we confront a genuine issues: power and who has it. In any Earth based story set in either the present or past does the production team behave as people are colour or gender blind to the Doctor's appearance (as they kind of did with Martha in the Shakespeare Code) or do we confront this head on?

What if a Black Doctor found himself in the US during the Civil War? How would the powerful of - most - eras of Earth history react to female Doctor? Would the silencing of the non-white and the non-male be reflected in the stories? The Doctor's opinions dismissed because of his colour or her sex? Does every story require the new Doctor to do something impressive to emphasise his or her credentials in order to get over this problem or does it become a running issue? Does Doctor Who confront these things or gloss over them?

It's a big question. 

The 13th Doctor?

Personally I'd love Doctor Who to get its teeth into these issues if we still have time for tea-time adventure. These issues can be tackled without being tediously politically correct or dull. The key is always the power of the story. And I'd prefer that to ignoring it all together.

I don't know whether these things will ever happen. It does seem more likely we'll get a black or asian Doctor before we get a female Doctor. But even that step - as I hope I've outlined - brings with it political decisions. It's wouldn't - couldn't? - be business as usual. The world doesn't give an equal hearing to people of colour or women (without a fight) and to pretend otherwise might be a grievous fault.  

It would though be an interesting choice. And a chance perhaps to tell some different stories. 



*For theories on the sex lives of Gallifreyans I think another blog would be required. Well, not required as such. 

**Although perhaps this all white male thing is a phase Gallifreyans are going through at the time, like a fashion. Even it does appear to have lasted a bloody long time.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

An Earthly Child


An Earthly Child is one of Big Finish's special releases. It's set on Earth. Thirty years have past since the Dalek Invasion and Susan Campbell is calling out to the Universe for help to re-build the Earth. An Earth that is suffering from a global post-traumatic stress disorder. They - we - are afraid of more aliens. Afraid of technology. Earth seems to be marching backwards into the future.

Susan's actions draw the attention of the Guldresi and another mysterious traveller in time and space: The Doctor.

I enjoyed it. It's an interesting postscript to The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It's surprisingly realistic. This feels like how Earth might react post-invasion.

That's certainly the case for Alex Campbell. He's Susan and David Campbell's son. He's half-Gallifreyan. On his mother's side. On heart. And he hates aliens. He's caught between the machinations of his mother and of Faisal Jensen of Earth Unity but eventually he tries to find his own way, despite Susan's intentions to send him off to Gallifrey for a proper education. He's played by Jake McGann, who is Paul McGann's son, which is interesting. It's a good performance as Alex struggles to come to terms with what is happening and who it is. We don't know - at this point - how things will end but it seems a fairly realistic take on what might happen.

Susan is played by Carole Ann Ford. Obviously. It's nice to have a Susan story forty years later that gives her something useful to do. This isn't the Susan of the television series. Obviously. She's older. She's a mother. She's stuck on a backwards planet with nowhere to go. It's almost like the Third Doctor's exile but with the additional burden of a family. She's very good. I particularly like the scene when she's first re-united with the Doctor in a police cell in Bristol. It's rather sweetly done.

The Doctor's on his own this time. So I've slotted this review in here assuming he's just left Lucie Miller at the end of Death in Blackpool. I'm not sure if this is correct or not. But it's my blog, my rules etc.

Paul McGann's brilliant as usual and there's something about his performance now that makes it seem like he's more comfortable with it. Happier being the Big Finish Eighth Doctor. Occasionally - back in some of the Divergent Universe stories for example - he did sound a bit like his heart wasn't in it as much. Perhaps I'm wrong.

Also worthy of applause is Leslie Ash as Marion Fleming. Fleming is a teacher at Bristol University. She's teaching Alex Campbell and ends up assisting the Doctor. It's a nice performance.

The story is written by Marc Platt, who seems to have an interest in the Doctor's family life going all the way back to Lungbarrow, and I like the story, which I think is about fitting in under all its science-fiction pretensions. It's not the most action packed of tales. It's about politics and families so there's a lot of talking* but it's all rather enjoyable.

And it is nice for the Doctor to finally pop back to see Susan, even if it has taken him a long time to do so.


*I KNOW it is audio so it is bound to be wordy but there's wordy and there's wordy. Pfft. I know what I mean. Even if you don't.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Script Doctor: The Inside Story of Doctor Who 1986-1989 by Andrew Cartmel


Andrew Cartmel's book Script Doctor: The Inside Story of Doctor Who 1986-1989 is a niftily written account of his time as Script Editor of Doctor Who as the series came stuttering to the end of what is now pointlessly called 'Classic Who'. It wasn't the best time to be working on the series as those in charge of the BBC had gradually come to find the whole existence of Doctor Who something of a tedious embarrassment. Having tried and failed to kill it off once during the Colin Baker era they wisely decided that instead of going through the hassle that resulted from that debacle they'd kill off Doctor Who by a thousand cuts: moving it to go head-to-head with Coronation Street for example.

However that didn't stop the production team from doing their best to turn things around. This is Andrew Cartmel's account of those events and his - and other writer's attempts - to freshen up Doctor Who with new writing blood and a restoration of mystery. In some ways the template they laid in Season 25 and 26, which carried on through to the Virgin New Adventures, is the template for New Doctor Who. After all, as I've said elsewhere in this blog, who is Rose but Ace without explosives and Survival could very easily have slid into New Who with hardly a word changed.

There's a set of people who claim that the Sylvester McCoy era of Doctor Who is rubbish. That Sylvester isn't properly Doctor Who-ish. I think these people are wrong. Now I'll admit Season 24 isn't the series finest hour - and Andrew Cartmel looks far more fondly upon Delta and the Bannermen than I do for example - but Seasons 25 and 26 contain some of the series all time great stories: Remembrance of the Daleks, The Happiness Patrol, Curse of Fenric and Ghost Light.

It's good to get an insight into some of the ups and downs of that period. To hear about how each story was nursed through production to the screen. It's definitely a book about writing and writer's. Naturally. But Cartmel comes across as much more hands on as a Script Editor than usual: visiting sets, organising meetings between actors and writer's, looking for new writing blood etc.

This book is also, mainly, a positive look at the period. It's certainly a nice contrast to the much more depressing JNT : The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner* by Richard Marson. Indeed it makes an interesting companion piece to that book (or vica versa) as John Nathan-Turner is a key figure in Cartmel's book too. Obviously. There are battles fought here between JNT and Cartmel but the book handles them without bitterness, which I like. Even Cartmel's dislike of Pip and Jane Baker's Time and the Rani script (and their attempts to undermine Cartmel) isn't reflected in anything over-acerbic. It's rather refreshing.

It also makes an interesting companion to RTD and Benjamin Cook's The Writer's Tale. The Classic Who v New Who story. Although personal this doesn't feel as personal as RTD's book. That's probably for a couple of reasons: partly because RTD is showrunner, which gives him broader responsibilities and stresses than Cartmel and partly because RTD's book is written in the heat of battle whereas there is some distance between the events in Cartmel's book and the present. The interesting thing is the amount of common problems the two  books highlight. Even with its increased budgets some of the problems with producing Doctor Who never seem to change.

The book covers each story of the Seventh Doctor's era and has insights into the whole production process: from casting through to broadcast but with a clear focus on the writing side. I was also mildly amused by Cartmel's wistful fondness for attractive ladies, which occasionally pops up.

I also like the fact that whilst this is Cartmel's story he doesn't get too egotistical. Indeed one of the other heroes of this book might be Ben Aaronovitch whose two stories Remembrance of the Daleks and Battlefield meet interestingly different fates. This is definitely a story of how what the writer wants to do and what eventually gets delivered is often a very different thing. Battlefield is the classic example of a potentially great story let down massively by its production values - especially sound design.

This was first published - I think - in 2005 but is out in a new edition now via Miwk Publishing**. My copy comes with autograph and some rather natty freebies : including a Silas P Business Card (which I adore).
If you like Doctor Who this is a great introduction to the series final three seasons. It's surprisingly positive, well-written and a fine insight into the process of turning ideas into scripts into programmes.

Recommended.





*Miwk also published the JNT book, which I also recommend but which can be a horribly depressing slog at times. Not because the writing is bad but because there is behaviour and events in there that can only be described as a bit sad and pathetic. A lot of people don't come out of the story well. If you don't want your illusions shattered I'd stay away but