December 31: "The Unquiet Dead"

Present, future... and now past, in the first episode of the revived series not written by showrunner Russell T Davies.  Instead we get Mark Gatiss (a member of The League of Gentlemen and the author of four Doctor Who novels) to give us a look at Victorian Cardiff.

So in some ways, we're again looking at another calculated episode, designed to show off the programme's format.  But unlike the previous two episodes, "The Unquiet Dead" doesn't make this a focal point for the audience -- instead it chooses to place an alien element in the past and play with that.  We're not a million miles away from stories like The Time Warrior or The Visitation here.  So we get talk of time rifts and how they're responsible for ghost sightings and people with "the sight" (just like Image of the Fendahl -- and don't think Gatiss didn't know that), standing in for the unknown and the new, and on the other side we get Charles Dickens, taking the side of skepticism and rationality until he's forced to believe otherwise.

And yes, this is the first instance in the BBC Wales series of the "celebrity historical", where we travel back in time to meet a famous person.  This had happened a few times in the 20th century version (e.g., Marco Polo in, er, Marco Polo and George Stephenson in The Mark of the Rani), but now it's going to become a staple of the show.  It's nice that this first time out is so successful -- Charles Dickens is portrayed with great care by Simon Callow (who had already devoted part of his career to doing just that), and we find ourselves rooting for him even when we know he's wrong.  This also gives us some great moments, such as the Doctor enthusing to Dickens about his work, declaring himself to be Dickens' "number one fan" or Dickens' renewed joy in life at the end of the episode.

The Gelth appear through Gwyneth to ask for help. ("The Unquiet
Dead") ©BBC
This episode also succeeds in giving us an interesting look at the Doctor and how alien he actually is. The way he shuts down Dickens' skepticism ("If you're going to deny it, don't waste my time.  Just shut up") is surprisingly brusque, and his attempts to justify using bodies as temporary hosts for the Gelth are really nice too.  "It's a different morality," he finally tells Rose exasperatedly.  "Get used to it or go home."  And nice to see an episode that isn't trying to convey just how "damaged" he is -- some guilty looks when the Gelth mention they're victims of the Time War and that's about it.  Plus it takes the time to dwell on Rose's first step into the past, which is also a good move -- there's a sense of magic about this moment.

Of course, because they only have forty-five minutes to tell this story, some things get truncated.  Far and away the worst casualty is that once the Gelth activate Gwyneth to use as a gateway, they turn evil and start talking about their plans to take over the planet, because there are only about seven minutes left.  It's ludicrously perfunctory (as well as a bad move in terms of internal logic -- if you're going to trick people into helping you, why would you start gloating about that at the first sign of aid?) and, worryingly, there's a subtext present suggesting that "nice" immigrants will turn on you as soon as they can -- an awfully xenophobic position for a series that's long been about experiencing other cultures on their terms and not judging by appearances.  Gatiss has said that this subtext wasn't intentional and he simply wasn't aware of it (it turns out not paying attention to the deeper implications of his work will be something of a running theme in Doctor Who...); however, intentional or not, it's still there, with all its unpleasant implications.

But Gatiss likely wasn't aware of that because ultimately "The Unquiet Dead" is designed to be a pastiche of Victorian novels and television, and in pastiche the form is more important than the actual text.  In this regard "The Unquiet Dead" succeeds -- it does feel like a piece of Victoriana, and there's certainly enough here to keep both casual and dedicated viewers entertained.  This story demonstrates that the production team are just as comfortable in the past as they are in the present and the future.

December 30: "The End of the World"

So now that they've established the basic format of the show, it's time for the production team to flex their muscles a bit and take us to the far future -- further, perhaps, than we've ever gone before ("perhaps" because both The Ark and Frontios seem to be set after this event165, and also we have no way of knowing when some of the adventures set on other planets (like, say, The Krotons or The Armageddon Factor) took place).  And so we get to see the end of planet Earth, up close and personal, five billion years in the future.  This looks like Doctor Who setting up its stall and saying, "Look, it's not just alien invasions on modern-day Earth; we can go anywhere, anywhen."

The Doctor tries to find out who sabotaged Platform One.
("The End of the World") ©BBC
The end of the world is certainly a good hook, and the cavalcade of alien visitors on Platform One, there to watch Earth burn, is a nicely varied bunch.  (Although there's the moment where Rose, experiencing culture shock, remarks, "They're just so alien. The aliens are so alien."  Which would be fine if it weren't for the fact that they all look humanoid, with two arms, two legs, one head, etc., except for the Face of Boe and, ironically, Cassandra.)  And we get the introduction of the newest way to speed up the plot, the slightly psychic paper that lets the Doctor get in most anywhere he wants -- useful when you're regularly making stories half as long as they used to be.

But even though we're invited to gawp and stare at each alien arrival, the best parts of "The End of the World" are the character moments.  We get Rose being overwhelmed at everything she's being shown (with, entertainingly, Soft Cell's cover of "Tainted Love" playing over her growing realization of where she is) and trying to explain herself to the Doctor.  We also get the really sweet, quiet chat with the maintenance worker, Raffalo, which suggests that there are still some constants in the universe, even this far into the future.  (You might be surprised to learn that this was an extra scene included when it was discovered the episode was running under length.)  And we get the Doctor's steadfast refusal to answer questions about who he is and where he's from, which leads to the happy-go-lucky facade this Doctor's been affecting slipping for a moment.  "This is who I am, right here, right now, all right?  All that counts is here and now, and this is me," the Doctor barks angrily at Rose.  And we see that while the Doctor pretends to be fun-loving and caring, he can be cold too; he's willing to let Cassandra die, apparently in retribution for Jabe's death.  "Everything has its time, and everything dies," he says.  (Note, too, how happy he seems to be when he realizes something is going wrong on Platform One.  "That's not supposed to happen," he says with an intrigued smile.)

The actual plot itself is nothing too special -- although, pleasingly, the motivation behind sabotaging Platform One isn't about making a statement or a political act, but is instead about money.  But they sell it really well, with lots of cracking glass and scorched marble as the raw unfiltered sunlight starts breaking through.  And it's a good move to make the culprit Cassandra, rather than one of the aliens.  And while the scene with the ventilation fans is incredibly dumb (and introduces some sort of special power for the Doctor that we never see again), the moment before, where Jabe tells the Doctor that she knows who he is and she's so sorry, and a tear falls from the Doctor's eye, is excellent.

Of course, that's setup for the big reveal at the end: that the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords ("There was a war and we lost"), thus becoming that old cliché the Lone Survivor.  (Clearly something happened between the TV Movie and "Rose" that we don't know about yet.)  But to their credit they make this work; Eccleston sells it really well, this moment of letting his guard down and letting Rose in, just a bit, and so it doesn't seem as hackneyed an idea as it could have been.  Plus it gives the audience something to wonder about.

In many ways this is as calculated a piece of television as "Rose" was, only here the goal is to get the audience to accept "future" stories with strange-looking people, rather than the idea of an alien who saves the world from other alien invasions in a special machine.  And like "Rose", this is an entertaining episode -- but "The End of the World" has the advantage of also feeling like it's telling its own story, rather than jumping into the middle of a different one.  It's also nice to see a villain motivated by greed rather than a simple desire for power -- something we don't see enough of on Doctor Who.  There are a couple less-successful moments here and there, but "The End of the World" shows that the revived BBC Wales version of the show is more than just a one-trick pony.

165 A problem: the Doctor dates the events of The Ark as roughly ten million years in the future, which is a far cry from five billion.  So either there was an impending Earth death that was avoided at the last minute (er, except we see the Earth burning up on-screen in "The Plague" (The Ark 2)...), or the Doctor is just really far off on his guess.  (Which wouldn't be the first time -- see, for instance, his assertion in The Dalek Invasion of Earth that the events of The Daleks occurred "a million years ahead of us in the future", and then compare with comments in Planet of the Daleks (presumably contemporaneous with Frontier in Space -- so 2540 -- in order for the plot to have any hope of making sense) that the Doctor's journey into the Dalek city occurred "generations ago".)

December 29: "Rose"

Just to refresh your memory: in 2005 Doctor Who had been off the air for sixteen years, and while it was sort of fondly remembered by some for others it had been the brunt of a lot of criticism (it was cheap, it was silly, it wasn't very good, it was only for "sad" hardcore fans and people who already watched "cult" (aka SF/fantasy) shows and didn't have anything to offer anyone else).  In other words, incoming showrunner Russell T Davies (at that point one of Britain's hottest writing talents) had his work cut out for him, to remind people why Doctor Who had at one point been the UK's most successful family show ever, and to prove that family viewing in general wasn't dead, contrary to the prevailing wisdom.

So that's probably why "Rose" sometimes looks like an incredibly calculated piece of television.  It's designed to slowly ease you into the world of Doctor Who, rather than just drop you in it.  Comparing it to the TV Movie (which is ostensibly doing the same thing) just highlights the changes: whereas the TV Movie started by dropping you into strange situations with alien names -- in effect highlighting its approach as a piece of genre television -- "Rose" instead begins with an ordinary girl working in a department store, living an ordinary life, and slowly introduces the unusual elements one at a time.  She meets Autons (never named as such onscreen, but called that in the credits), and then a strange man called the Doctor who blows them up, and slowly but surely she's sucked into this new world that she never knew existed.  This story is explicitly from Rose Tyler's point of view (the actual invasion plot -- essentially a remake of Spearhead from Space -- feels like it starts at the part three point of a 20th-century story and is generally relegated to the background, other than as motivation for the Doctor), and it's better for it.

Rose is mad at the Doctor for forgetting about Mickey. ("Rose") ©BBC
So yes, it's carefully calculated to slowly bring the general audience into a new and different world (rather than throw them into the deep end and expect they'll swim), but the thing about "Rose" is that it's also a very entertaining piece of television.  There's an energy and infectious quality to these forty-five minutes that you can't help but get wrapped up in.  Billie Piper surprises by being genuine and believable -- she's not mugging at the camera but is treating this all as being in deadly earnest.  And Christopher Eccleston is something of a revelation -- there are multiple layers in his performance, a veneer of (occasionally forced) cheerfulness masking a darker, more serious aspect that occasionally breaks through.  This makes him incredibly watchable as he veers from happy to intense in scenes, without it ever seeming like a break in character.  It's also worth noting how different he seems from his predecessors -- the hidden depths, but also the look in general (short haircut, simple leather jacket with a shirt and dark pants), which suggests that this incarnation of the Doctor is trying to blend in, rather than being deliberately eccentric.  It's also designed to not seem off-putting to a casual audience.

But this all also works in terms of Doctor Who.  As has been pointed out many times before, the basic focus of this episode (essentially, something strange mixes into a domestic setting in contemporary London) isn't a million miles away from the last story of the original run, Survival.  You can thus envision "Rose" as on the same trajectory as the series it's continuing on from without too much difficulty -- as it should be; this shouldn't seem like a sharp break with the past.  And in fact, there was a slight sense of dread for many people (myself included) before "Rose" aired -- it could have been terrible, either a self-parody or something that didn't remotely seem like the Doctor Who that had gone before.  But fortunately Russell T Davies, executive producer Julie Gardner, and producer Phil Collinson have the right sensibilities.  Davies and Collinson are old-school fans (Davies even wrote one of Virgin's New Adventures, Damaged Goods) and know what the spirit of the show should be like, while Gardner, a recent convert, knows what will still appeal to a broader audience (not to say that Davies and Collinson don't; this is putting it very broadly).  The result is impressive, and even if it's a bit too transitional to stand up on its own (once again, this is about introducing the show and its core ideas to Rose (and therefore the audience), not about telling a self-contained story in its own right), it nevertheless hits all the right notes.  There are a lot of introductions, even for the fans (a newly-regenerated Doctor (well, that's what that scene with the mirror seems to suggest), a new companion, a new completely redesigned console room, forty-five-minute episodes that are largely self-contained, a new logo163, a new video format (16:9 and frame-removed video164)...), but far and away this is an episode that is designed to make those introductions in an explosively entertaining way.  Doctor Who is back.

163 If you look at all of Doctor Who's logos over the years, a curious pattern emerges: for the first 26 years of its life (plus the 16-year interregnum), the logos, while often changing dramatically in design, all follow a basic pattern: the word "Doctor" stacked on top of the word "Who".  But from 2005 on, the words are lined up side-to-side.
164 The last "proper" serial, Survival, was shot on 625-line PAL video running at 50 fields (essentially half-frames) a second.  (The TV Movie was shot on 35mm film running at 24 frames per second -- not that you'd really know it from looking at the finished product, which looks like everything else on Fox from that time period.)  Since Survival, the visual grammar of television had changed -- film was deemed to look better than video, so video was given a "filmized" look (essentially removing frames to make it run at the same rate as film), which allowed it to look like film but still retain the advantages of video.  This is the format that Doctor Who was shot in, and the "film look" continues today even while the resolution has increased from SD to HD.  (Another reason why the modern HDTVs that interpolate extra frames to give a "smoother" look are a bad idea.)

December 28: Scream of the Shalka Episodes Three, Four, Five, & Six

It's interesting to see the parallels between what writer Paul Cornell and the rest of the production team do in Scream of the Shalka and what Russell T Davies is about to do in the revived BBC Wales version of the series.  Both teams want to shake the Doctor up, give him some dark past to brood about; the Shalka team go about it with references to some unseen story where the Doctor lost someone, BBC Wales gives him the Last Great Time War and everything that entails.

The Master and the Doctor in the TARDIS. (Scream of the
Episode Four) ©BBC
But what's curious is that both want to start the Doctor from a damaged place and then have him slowly warm up over time.  It's not quite clear why they're both starting from this point (and certainly they weren't influenced by each other) -- they must have both wanted an element of mystery to the character and come up with similar ways of achieving it.  Obviously they're not identical (there's no robot Master in the TARDIS in "Rose", for instance), but the similarities are intriguing.

One of the differences is that Richard E. Grant's Doctor comes to his epiphany quite quickly.  He's not completely there by the end of the story, but he's certainly made some progress -- the thought of losing someone else as he falls into a black hole (it makes sense in context) seems to lead him to reconsider some of his recent choices, and he's no longer completely unwilling to help humanity out.  This does help in thawing his character out over the course of the story, which is good -- even though he's still sarcastic and acerbic at times, he's recognizably the same character.  But Richard E. Grant still manages to make his mark on the character -- it's hard to imagine any of the previous Doctors resolving the story by singing showtunes and hitting the right pitch to incapacitate the villains, but Grant makes it seem like a natural part of his Doctor.

He's aided by a good cast -- Sophie Okonedo is really charming as Alison, giving us a brave and determined performance, and Sir Derek Jacobi is obviously wonderful as the robot Master, who seems to be friendly but with a suggestion of more nefarious motives.  And there's a quick cameo in episode five from David Tennant, who literally begged his way onto the production when he learned that Doctor Who was recording in the studio next to where he was.

So it's a decent script -- a tad traditional in its approach to Doctor Who, but as it's giving us a different Doctor you can see why they went this direction -- and a good cast.  In a way it's unfortunate that real-world events overshadowed Scream of the Shalka; the webcast was announced in July 2003 for November, but by the time November rolled around, the news had already been circulating for two months that live-action Doctor Who would be returning to BBC1 in 2005, and thus Shalka was doomed before it began, relegated to non-canonical status.  This is sad; as I said, there are some interesting ideas here and it would have been nice to have seen more.  But Richard E. Grant's Doctor would become little more than a footnote in the history of the show, a curious might-have-been rather than the definite article.162  Far and away the most influential thing about Scream of the Shalka is that their efforts in untangling the rights issues in the wake of the TV Movie (where ownership was shared between the BBC, Universal, and Fox -- this is one of the things that delayed a region 1 release for so long) so that they could pave the way for their webcast was key in the approval of the BBC Wales version.

So we've spent the last three days seeing some of the ways in which Doctor Who lived on (or attempted to) after its indefinite hiatus in 1989.  But (with the qualified exception of the TV Movie, which really did try to spark something even if it followed the patterns of the others), these have all either been efforts to recapture a feeling of nostalgia or targeted at a smaller, more dedicated fan audience.  Fortunately, this approach would be discarded in 2005 in favor of an all-inclusive effort to gain as wide an audience as possible...

162 One of the advantages of Russell T Davies' "no previous knowledge required" approach to Doctor Who was that owing to the lack of any definitive evidence to the contrary (even something as simple as Eccleston mentioning he's the ninth Doctor, which doesn't happen), you could wind fans up online by arguing that Richard E. Grant belonged between Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston and that Scream of the Shalka was in fact canon.  It was an entertaining argument that you could make for a surprisingly long time (it wasn't really until "The Name of the Doctor" et seq., that this door was definitively closed).

December 27: Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death Parts One, Two, Three, & Four / Scream of the Shalka Episodes One & Two

North American VHS
release (from the
Amazon product page)
So after the TV Movie came to nothing161, Doctor Who started to fade from the public consciousness -- not completely, as sales of the video versions had always been healthy and you might find some of the novels in a bookstore, but without a continuing programme the show started to become a memory.  And it was largely as a bit of nostalgia that the show returned for a comedy sketch in 1999, this time for a different charitable cause from Dimensions in Time.  That had been for Children in Need; this was for something called Comic Relief.

But unlike some of the spoofs that had gone before, with lame jokes about wobbly sets and Daleks that can't climb stairs (because no one saw Remembrance of the Daleks), Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death (to give it its original broadcast title) is an affectionate parody from a fellow fan and professional television sitcom writer named Steven Moffat.  And you can sense the love Moffat has for the show.

It's set after the TV Movie -- Rowan Atkinson is explicitly the ninth Doctor -- and in twenty minutes it both makes some pointed jokes and reminds you why the show was so popular in the first place.  Atkinson looks like he's playing out a dream role; his Doctor is played with serious intent and he comes across as a very credible choice for the Doctor -- which makes all his deadpan jokes even funnier.  Julia Sawalha is fun and charming as the Doctor's companion Emma, and Jonathan Pryce steals the screen by playing the Master incredibly OTT, trying to retain his dignity every time the Doctor punctures his self-inflated ego.

It's full of jokes (including a time travel one that in hindsight looks like Moffat flexing his muscles) and some fabulous performances -- including some wonderful cameos as the Doctor keeps regenerating.  So we get Richard E. Grant as the tenth Doctor, Jim Broadbent as the eleventh Doctor, Hugh Grant as the twelfth, and Joanna Lumley as the thirteenth (in a nod to the suggestions that the Doctor could be a woman), and each of them make their mark in only a relatively short time, establishing each as different but the same.  It's really wonderful to see.  And then we get Daleks too!  (Probably because Terry Nation's agent at the time he created the Daleks, Beryl Vertue, is Steven Moffat's mother-in-law.)

It's a cheeky but loving poke at a nostalgic favorite, pitched at just the right level, with jokes for both casual viewers and hardcore fans.  Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death is wonderful.

But obviously that wasn't meant to start a series up, and nothing seemed forthcoming for the next couple years.  There had apparently been a proposal or two in the meantime (a rising television writer named Russell T Davies pitched a low-budget version of the show around 2000 or so, and a producer named Dan Freedman had created an online audio story called Death Comes to Time in 2001-2002 and was clearly angling to start making real Who in the near future), but nothing had really come of any of it.  So, with the show continuing to fade, the BBC website (called BBCi at that time) decided to create the official ongoing adventures of the Doctor as a webcast.  Their debut story, scheduled to take advantage of the 40th anniversary in 2003, was called Scream of the Shalka.  But unlike the previous webcasts (Death Comes to Time, Real Time, and Shada with Paul McGann), which had been audio stories with still pictures, Scream of the Shalka was a fully animated story (from Cosgrove Hall, who you may remember from the animated episodes of The Invasion).

In some ways Scream of the Shalka seems to be avoiding mistakes made by the TV Movie -- we get a brand-new Doctor (this time played by Richard E. Grant -- yes, the same one as in The Curse of Fatal Death -- but sounding an awful lot like Paul McGann for some reason) but no time is wasted with regeneration sequences or anything like that; instead new elements (like the TARDIS mobile and the new look of the console room) are introduced as they come up, tantalizing the viewer rather than clubbing them over the head with it.

They're also really trying to make this Doctor seem as different as possible from any others.  He seems incredibly sarcastic and extremely unwilling to help -- he repeatedly rails at the sky about being forced to assist the humans and tries to only do the bare minimum.  It's something of an off-putting characterization, but deliberately so -- one wonders if they'll soften this at all in the subsequent episodes.

The actual storyline feels generic (alien invasion) but with interesting bits (the Shalka are a special type of "goo" that live in volcanic rock and can control people with sound -- the eponymous scream), but with two short episodes it's hard to get a good grip on it yet.  Still, there are tantalizing bits and enough unanswered questions (such as, most obviously, why are the Doctor and the Master now friends and traveling together?) to keep you intrigued.  I'm curious to see where they go from here.

161 Well, nothing in TV terms.  In the world of merchandise the TV Movie led to the establishment of the eighth Doctor as the current one, which meant that he was now the Doctor featured in Doctor Who Magazine's comic strip and was also the star of his own line of novels published by BBC Books (having taken the licence away from Virgin Publishing right around the time the McGann film came out).  But those weren't the sort of things the general public were really aware of.

December 26: Dimensions in Time Parts One & Two / Doctor Who [The TV Movie]

And so now we've moved on to 1993.  Doctor Who has been off the air for four years now, but the show's thirtieth anniversary is coming up.  An effort to make a direct-to-video episode failed (for reasons not worth going into -- but there's a nice documentary on the Inferno Special Edition DVD if you're interested), but John Nathan-Turner (still nominally in charge of the show, as he's been responsible for clearing various video releases and putting together some compilations as well) doesn't want to let this anniversary go without some sort of commemoration.  The result is Dimensions in Time: take a two-part mini-episode with as many returning Doctors, companions, and monsters as they could throw in, mix them all up with popular BBC soap EastEnders, and see what comes out -- all under the pretext of charity.  (Indeed, one of the agreements for this special was that everyone would give their time for free so long as this special wasn't exploited commercially -- which is why you'll never see an official video release (though it's not hard to find online, if you're curious).)

Dimensions in Time is notorious in fandom, and if you want to take it seriously as part of Doctor Who (though no one has ever wanted to) then it's an incredibly frustrating piece of nonsense -- one that manages to be silly and rather pointless (the resolution is particularly dumb, as it depends upon the Rani (the main villain) being stupid and grabbing the Doctor's companion (who's also switching between different companions, somehow) when she's Romana and thus another Time Lord, and then allowing some flagrant technobabble to save the day) at the same time.  To the people who were hoping for the show to come back in some form, this must have seemed like a flagrant slap in the face.

The sixth Doctor with the Brigadier. (Dimensions in Time
Part Two) ©BBC
Now, though, with Doctor Who firmly reestablished as one of the BBC's flagship shows, this looks more like a strange curiosity in hindsight.  It looks like a testbed for some new 3-D technology involving how the brain perceives movement -- which means that the camera is constantly spinning around the performers (sometimes inducing a feel of dizziness for the viewer) -- more than a serious effort to bring the show back in any form, but the basic idea (the Rani is messing up the Doctor's time-stream to stop him from interfering with her plans to put him in a time loop forever) actually isn't that bad.  And there is something rather wonderful in seeing all the old Doctors back in some form, along with some companions -- McCoy and Aldred in particular seem like they've never been away, so effortlessly do they slip into their old relationship.  And so the first four minutes or so are generally entertaining -- it only starts to go horribly wrong when the Rani introduces a bunch of enemies of the Doctor (err, including some that shouldn't be enemies -- there's an Argolin, the Dragon from Dragonfire, and a really unhappy-looking Time Lord among all the other costumes they've pulled out of storage), at which point it just turns into a stupid runaround where they just try to match up Doctors and companions in classic and/or interesting ways (perhaps most notably, the sixth Doctor finally gets to share some screen time with the Brigadier) until the episode's over and the Rani is defeated.

It's incredibly silly and it has some atrocious dialogue ("Pickled in time, like gherkins in a jar!"), but at least it's short -- and now that this isn't the BBC's final word on Doctor Who, it's less of a bitter pill to swallow.  It's awkward in many places and daft in many others, but if you can just sit back and accept that this was for charity, as a way to raise some money while seeing some old friends, then there's actually a bit to enjoy about Dimensions in Time.  Seeing Jon Pertwee back in action alone almost (almost) makes this worth it.

But that was all the Doctor Who we got...until 1996, when a brand-new made-for-TV movie graced our screens -- the final product of a long gestation period.159  And not only is this movie explicitly a continuation of the show we last saw in 1989, but it's also designed to be a pilot for a new series -- one that would be made in America.  Obviously that series never materialized, but we did get this -- technically called just Doctor Who but usually referred to by various nicknames (one of my favorites being "Grace: 1999").  I'll just be calling it the TV Movie.

It's a really strange beast though, the TV Movie.  It wants to be a brand-new, fresh start for the show -- but it also wants to acknowledge the past.  No, more than that; it explicitly wants to wallow in in-jokes, in references and little "kisses to the past" (as producer Philip Segal called them).   This is sort of fine when it's just sonic screwdrivers, jelly babies, and Seals of Rassilon (although one wonders what that fresh American audience made of those things), but whenever they want to do something a little further it seems to go wrong.  It's perhaps most obvious in the utterly bizarre opening, where high-pitched Daleks sentence the Master to death by extermination (complete with a shot of cat eyes, which might be foreshadowing his "goo snake" form but is probably intended to be a reference to Survival) and then invite the seventh Doctor to come get him (and let's set aside the problem of how Skaro can exist when it blew up in Remembrance of the Daleks, as life is too short).  And he does!  Without any problems, it seems!

Sylvester McCoy regenerates into Paul McGann. (Doctor Who)
©BBC Worldwide/Universal
It's also really strange how they introduce an old Scottish gentleman as the apparent hero but then only keep him around for about fifteen minutes before they kill him and turn him into Paul McGann.  It's nice to see Sylvester McCoy back (and no longer in that damn question mark pullover!), but it does give things a disjointed feel -- just as that American audience were starting to get the hang of things, they pull the rug out from under them and cast some new guy in the same role.  This is because the production team have decided that they need to have a regeneration sequence (so, a lot like Time and the Rani there), no matter what it might mean for the storyline.

To be fair, they do try to make a virtue of this.  Director Geoffrey Sax cleverly juxtaposes the changeover in Doctors with the Master-worm taking over the body of Bruce the ambulance driver, suggesting that these two are linked in some way (even beyond the "they're both Time Lords" connection).  Not only that, but the use of Frankenstein (from Universal Pictures, so they had the rights) to show what's happening to the Doctor's body is also nicely done.  It's just questionable whether this should have been there in the first place.

So we've got things included to make this more palatable for the fan audience.  But then they've also thrown in things to make this more palatable to an American audience -- or rather what network executives think will be more palatable for an American audience.  And so the Doctor is half-human, just like Spock from Star Trek (although this actually seems to be an artifact from an earlier draft, where the Doctor and the Master are brothers, their grandfather is Cardinal Barusa [sic], and their father was Ulysses, who came to Earth and married a human woman -- see, things could have been much worse160); the TARDIS is disguised with a "cloaking device"; the world's most accurate clock is located in San Francisco (with banners that proclaim the beginning of San Francisco Mean Time -- let's hope this is a slogan rather than a genuine scientific move)... and the whole thing looks a lot like any other SF or drama show on Fox in 1996, and it's scored in a straightforward orchestral style -- the works of Tristram Cary and Delia Derbyshire are a long way from John Debney's Jerry Goldsmith-esque score.

It's not all bad, though, and in fact for the first half it's frequently enjoyable.  Minus the reservations about some of the decisions at the script level, this has moments that sparkle -- having Paul McGann pull the surgical wiring out of his chest to prove he's the same person as Sylvester McCoy is a good move, the way the Master gets Chang Lee to trust him is really nicely done, and the Doctor grabbing the police officer's gun and threatening to shoot himself is an incredibly Doctor-ish moment.  It's also well-directed by Sax -- no, scratch that; it's directed surprisingly well, with lots of interesting angles and shots to make this as dynamic a production as they can.  And Sax has gotten some good performances out of people: Paul McGann is pretty much on form from the get-go, with a sense of breathless energy that serves the character well; Eric Roberts has decided to play the Master as flamboyantly OTT, which makes him incredibly watchable (and threatens to steal the show from the hero when they're both on screen together); and while Daphne Ashbrook has decided to play Grace with a slightly kooky sense, as if she knows she's on Doctor Who, Yee Jee Tso as Chang Lee surprises by being incredibly charming, even when he's aiding the Master -- and so although he's ostensibly a villain it doesn't really feel that way.

The Doctor thumps the TARDIS console. (Doctor Who) ©BBC
But ultimately this story falls well short of the mark.  The problems it faces are rooted in the script, and while writer Matthew Jacobs does his best with the material he's given (with lots of quotable lines: "I love humans.  Always seeing patterns in things that aren't there"; "These shoes!  They fit perfectly!"; "This. Is. An ambulance!"; "I always drezzz for the occasion"; and many more), when it comes to working with all the nonsense inflicted upon him from earlier drafts he simply can't come up with a reason to make this work, either for the first-time audience (who presumably were confused by the technobabble and massive infodumps -- including, infamously, the speech to Grace in the park that starts with "He's planning to take my body" and ends with "...and he will take my body!") or for long-time fans (who just wondered what had happened to the show).  It's a script that has to satisfy so many different masters that the end result frequently lacks heart -- it's full of set-pieces without any understanding as to why those set-pieces should be there.

It's a lot better than it could have been (seriously, check out the Leekley Bible in the book Doctor Who: Regeneration if you want to know about some of the horrors that could have been inflicted), and there are some good performances here -- Paul McGann was a great choice of Doctor (as anyone who's listened to his Big Finish audios can easily attest) and it's sad he didn't get another real shot at the role on-screen (other than a quick episode that manages to be better in 7 minutes than the 86 minutes they aired in 1996).  It looks really good, thanks to Sax and his crew, and there's nothing it does that's horrifically vile or offensive.  Of course, it needed to be a lot more than that, and both as a pilot and as an episode of Doctor Who it's frustrating -- you can see that many of the right pieces were there, but they can't make them cohere into something worthwhile.  More than anything, the TV Movie suffers a death by committee -- no one singular authorial vision shines through (despite Sax's best efforts), and the result is a leaden mishmash.

159 The TV Movie spent an incredibly long time in gestation -- its roots actually predate the end of the series.  Entire books have been written on the subject, but here's a brief synopsis of events (and this is putting it very crudely):
     There were a number of companies competing to make a feature film version of Doctor Who.  One of the ones that actually got some traction was Amblin Entertainment (yes, the Spielberg company), although this appears to have at various points been both a movie and a full-fledged series.  One of the biggest proponents of a deal on the American side was Philip Segal.  An agreement was reached, and while the production changed companies (Spielberg apparently gave the project to Segal when he got a new job elsewhere) the show was still a go -- only this time it would air on the American Fox network.  All of the negotiations and moves and script drafts dragged on such that it took until 1996 before they finally had something to show for it.  But in the meantime, rather than commit to a full series, Fox decided to just go with a pilot and see what the reaction was.  That reaction was strong in Britain but weak in America, and so the series was a no-go.
160 And if this had been the case, you'd think it would have come up during The Myth Makers.

December 25: Survival Parts Two & Three

The Master is feeling the effects of the planet. (Survival
Part Two) ©BBC
The pointed critique of the "might makes right" culture continues in these last two episodes.  Sgt. Paterson talks a big game about being trained and knowing how to survive, but when push comes to shove he's useless.  Midge tries to become the stronger person by trying to kill Derek on the Cheetah World but ends up essentially enslaved by the Master.  And when Midge fails to kill the Doctor outright, the Master tells him to die ("Survival of the fittest.  The weak must be eliminated so that the healthy can flourish.  You know what to do, Midge").  It's not a story that has any sympathy for testosterone-fueled displays of force.

What Survival does have time for is a more overtly female approach.  Ace gets in touch with her feminine side and feels free as she starts to turn into a Cheetah Person (and the scene in part two, with the red moon reflected in the water, makes this connection clear), rejecting male ideas about what it means to survive.  From Karra the Cheetah Person's point of view, it's not about surviving or winning -- it's about the hunt, feeling the blood, satisfying the hunger.  But go too far the other way and you run the risk of turning into a Cheetah Person, of giving in to your base urges completely, of fighting with each other even though you're linked somehow with the planet and the fighting causes the planet to disintegrate -- and this risk seems to be heightened if you then turn those Cheetah Person tendencies toward male-dominated activities like war.  "If we fight like animals, we die like animals!" the Doctor shouts, refusing to give in (although the sight of the Doctor with cat eyes, as he prepares to kill the Master before he realizes what he's doing, is striking).

All right, so maybe this is taking things a bit too far, but the subtext is clearly there, even if it tends to remain a subtext.  But writer Rona Munro (the fourth woman to write for the series, after Barbara Clegg, Paula Woolsey (maybe), and Jane Baker), like all the best writers of the last few years, is using Doctor Who to explore topics that are meaningful to her while wrapping it up in an SF context.  The critique about "survival of the fittest" is definitely there, and in fact drives the whole episode.  The references to womanhood (the moon bit, the fact that the women turn into cats -- and note how Karra turns back into a human woman when she dies) are also definitely there.  Connecting the two themes takes a bit more work on the viewers' side.

But what's wonderful about Survival is that you can do this.  The pieces are there for you to interact with.  And what better way to explore these ideas of fighting and survival than with the Master?  This is probably Anthony Ainley's best performance in the role, and it's easily the best characterization of the character since his return.  Instead of giving him elaborate schemes to entrap the Doctor or take over the world, he's redesigned here to be the Doctor's opposite, with no more motivation needed than to use the Doctor to help him escape.  And if the Doctor dies or succumbs to the effects of the planet, so be it.  This is a Master operating on instinct.  The best thing about this is that the Master doesn't end up distorting the story around him; instead he enhances the themes, showing that using the Cheetah powers for selfish reasons is just as bad as giving into them completely.

Survival's an impressively layered story, and its strengths lie in challenging the audience while still providing an entertaining tale.  It confidently reasserts the basic principles of the show (as Terrance Dicks might say, "Never cruel or cowardly") and rejects the ideas of every man for himself.  It provides a new dimension for the show's ideas about the function of the companion -- no other story yet has brought the companion back to their home just to see what the old gang is up to, but that's a driving force here -- which will become a key part of the 21st-century version.  It provides us with reasons to think and reasons to cheer, all in a slick, self-assured package.  (And it manages to do this in three episodes, without the feeling that there are necessary explanations omitted in the interests of time.)  What better story is there for Doctor Who to bow out on?

The Doctor and Ace head off to new adventures. (Survival
Part Three) ©BBC
Because yes, this is the final story of Doctor Who's original run.  It's rather sad, that; this is a show that could have kept going for a good deal longer (particularly in its current incarnation, no longer slavishly deferring to the idea of "continuity" and what fandom at the time thought made a good story), and you get the sense that they could have gone anywhere from here.  Alas, it wasn't to be.

They had an inkling at the time that they weren't going to get a 27th season.  The reasons for this are a bit more complicated than you might think -- not only did BBC management not care for Doctor Who, but no one really wanted to produce it either (one of the reasons Nathan-Turner was producer as long as he was is because no one else was willing to be the producer).  Then add in the fact that a recent directive decreed that 25% of all BBC output had to be made by outside companies -- a situation which seemed to the BBC to be ideal for Doctor Who but which would take time to work out the details -- and you can see why the wind was blowing against another season of Doctor Who.   This is why Survival ends with that lovely little Cartmel-written speech from the Doctor (augmented by Dominic Glynn's gorgeously wistful little tune), because they thought it might be a while before the show was back:
There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea's asleep, and the rivers dream.  People made of smoke, and cities made of song.  Somewhere there's danger, somewhere there's injustice, somewhere else the tea's getting cold.  Come on, Ace, we've got work to do.
It's a shame that they stopped when they did, though.  Season 26 has provided us with a run of stories even more confident and ambitious than last season's -- even Battlefield (the worst story of the season, which gives you some idea of how strong this year's stories have been) is full of good ideas and lovely moments, hanging on a narrative framework that's wonderfully overambitious.  Obviously the BBC's management weren't too keen on the series (or else they wouldn't have kept scheduling it opposite Coronation Street), and the ratings had been down, but in some ways that didn't matter.  John Nathan-Turner and Andrew Cartmel especially seem to have been delighting in telling audacious stories with complicated themes -- confident in the knowledge that they can be more adventurous and outrageous because no one in charge is paying them any attention.  (Cartmel once famously said after the fact that his goal as script editor was to bring down the government -- which gives you some idea of the sorts of things he was looking for and the commitment he was willing to give.)  They knew their days were numbered, but that didn't dissuade them.  It helped that they were aided by Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, providing us with one of the best Doctors and one of the best companions (respectively) ever -- it's a shame they didn't really get to leave on their own terms.  The result was a show that was back on the top of its game and ready to take on the world.  It's hardly their fault the world wasn't that interested anymore.158

158 After Survival Part Three I watched the 1990 edition of Search Out Science -- an educational show -- that features the Doctor, Ace, and K-9 (and can be found on the Survival DVD if you're interested).  To paraphrase About Time, it's proof, if nothing else, that children still wanted the Doctor around even if no one else did.

December 24: The Curse of Fenric Part Four / Survival Part One

This might be one of the best episodes Doctor Who's ever turned out.  The first three parts of The Curse of Fenric have been leading up to this climactic episode, when Fenric is finally set free, using the body of Dr. Judson and ready to unleash his evil upon the world.  "When it comes to death, quantity is so much more satisfying than quality," Fenric remarks.  To that end Fenric wants to release Millington's toxin into the waters and pollute the entire planet, killing everyone.  He's even brought the Ancient One (who appears to be the chief Haemovore) back in time from the distant future to help him achieve his goal.

Fenric agonizes over the puzzle the Doctor has set for him.
(The Curse of Fenric Part Four) ©BBC
This is a tense episode, as the soldiers fight a desperate battle first against the other soldiers (British vs. Soviet) and then together against their common enemy.  I also really like the scene where, after the Haemovores have broken into the room where the Wrens are hiding, soldiers come in to evacuate them, only to find that they've all been turned into Haemovores -- and they all descend on one hapless soldier who's apparently paralyzed with fear.  And meanwhile Fenric can't help but be pulled into the Doctor's trap: the same one that trapped him seventeen centuries ago.

But the best part is the ending sequence, where Ace inadvertently provides Fenric with the solution to the chess puzzle and then we get a taste of how long Fenric's been trying to manipulate the Doctor, by bringing one of his "wolves" (people descended from the Vikings who brought Fenric's flask to England) into contact with him.  It's actually a really brutal sequence for Ace, as the Doctor systematically tears her down in front of Fenric:
SORIN: Kneel if you want the girl to live!
DOCTOR: (quietly) Kill her.
SORIN: (laughing) The Time Lord finally understands.
DOCTOR: Do you think I didn't know?  The chess set in Lady Peinforte's study?  I knew.
SORIN: Earlier than that, Time Lord.  Before Cybermen.  Ever since Iceworld, where you first met the girl.
DOCTOR: I knew.  I knew she carried the evil inside her.  Do you think I'd have chosen a social misfit if I hadn't known?  She couldn't even pass her chemistry exams at school, and yet she manages to create a time storm in her bedroom.  I saw your hand in it from the very beginning.
ACE: Doctor, no.
DOCTOR: She's an emotional cripple.  I wouldn't waste my time on her, unless I had to use her somehow.
Turns out the Doctor's just trying to tear down Ace's psychic barrier so that the Ancient One can attack Fenric, but it still doesn't do much for Ace's psyche -- even if he does apologize afterwards ("I'd have done anything not to hurt you, but I had to save you from Fenric's evil curse.  Your faith in me was holding the Haemovore back").  But what's really nice about this scene is how it seems to tie together a number of disparate elements, to make them seem bigger and more important than they initially appeared.  (It also explains how both Ace and Lady Peinforte were able to travel from their own times to different ones.)

But then that's the real strength of this entire story.  The Curse of Fenric manages to take a number of different elements (vampires, early computers, British and Soviet soldiers in World War II, and eeevil evilsincethedawnofTime) and put them together to create a compelling, weighty story.  And not only that; it tackles things like the nature of faith (and how it doesn't have to be religious) and the futility of war ("War, a game played by politicians," one of the Soviet troops, Vershinin, says.  "We were just pawns in the game, but the pawns are fighting together now.  Eh, comrade?"), and it does it in a wonderfully subtle manner.  All this and some fabulous acting and direction to boot (and full marks to director Nicholas Mallett for convincing John Nathan-Turner to let him film this all on location).  Really, the DVD special edition is the way to go with this story (it adds in some needed scenes, reorders things, and regrades the visuals to make it look more consistent) -- one of the few DVD special editions that is actually worthwhile (as opposed to, say, the recut versions of Enlightenment or Planet of Fire, which are both entirely dispensable).  But even the episodic version is a tremendous success.  The Curse of Fenric is deservedly known as one of the best stories of the 1980s.

And now it's on to part one of Survival -- the final story in Doctor Who's original run.  It's something of a bittersweet moment; even though we know the show will eventually return, this still feels like an ending.  But, if this episode is anything to judge by, the show will be going out on a high note.

Even in this first episode Survival makes some of its themes clear.  There's definitely a number of criticisms directed at the "dog eat dog"/"every man for himself" culture of the late '80s.  Here it's stated (repeatedly) as "survival of the fittest", with the implications that you'd better be the fittest -- a position the Doctor clearly doesn't agree with.

The other interesting thing about this episode is the juxtaposition of the normal (contemporary Perivale) with the bizarre.  It starts out with some odd shots and disappearing people, and it ends with strange cheetah-like people transporting people to another planet (which looks surprisingly alien, dry, and dusty -- they've done an excellent job of differentiating the two settings) -- and yet this combination never feels forced or unnatural.  It's a logical progression of what we've seen: the Territorial Army sergeant is trying to teach survival of the fittest, but there's a species that's mastered this and the hunt, making them formidable.

Let's be honest; the cliffhanger's not that surprising, given that they've been showing us Anthony Ainley's distinctive eyes for much of the episode.  The surprise isn't that the Master's back (and it has been a couple years, at least, so there's not the sense of inevitability about this appearance that there might have been a few seasons earlier) -- the surprise is that he appears to have cat eyes and some form of limited control over the Cheetah People (as the Doctor will call them in part two).  And in a story with the theme of survival of the fittest, one wonders if the Master has become like the Cheetah People to become the fittest...

December 23: The Curse of Fenric Parts Two & Three

In many ways part two is just as much of a set-up episode as part one was -- it's just setting up different things.  Millington is willing to use a truly horrendous poison to kill the Russians once the war is over and they're no longer allies, but he also seems to see things in terms of Norse mythology -- it's a mention of Hvergelmir in relation to the poison that convinces Millington that the Doctor can be trusted.  Judson is obsessed with translating the runes in the church crypt (but somehow doesn't seem to have noticed that a new batch has sprung up overnight), and Reverend Wainwright is having a crisis of faith at the thought of the British bombing German cities and causing innocents to die.

The two main things to happen story-wise are that Phyllis and Jean, the two teenage girls who've been evacuated from London, head into the sea and are turned into vampires (excuse me, Haemovores) that start terrorizing the locals, and that Ace tells Dr. Judson that the runes are actually a sort of logic diagram -- which leads to Ultima spewing out tons and tons of names, despite the efforts of the Doctor to stop it.

So there's not much in the way of action in part two, but what it's very effective at is creating an atmosphere of tension and dread.  (Much like part one in that regard.)  So although no one's really being attacked yet (other than Miss Hardaker, who's not exactly a sympathetic character, and Rev. Wainwright -- but he's saved by the Doctor), there's a sense of a gathering storm that's soon going to be unleashed.

The Doctor creates a psychic barrier to drive away the Haemovores.
(The Curse of Fenric Part Three) ©BBC
That storm looks like it begins in part three, as Ultima runs out of control, processing the runic logic diagram, while the Haemovores rise out of the sea (and, it seems, out of the cemetery) and begin to attack.157  Faith can repel them so long as that faith is absolute -- otherwise you'll be killed.  Close examination reveals that the Doctor's unshakable faith is in his companions (though you can't really make it out in the broadcast version -- Steven is the only name that's somewhat audible), while the Russian leader Captain Sorin has unshakable faith in the Russian Revolution.  Rev. Wainwright, sadly, doesn't have enough faith in the Bible, and thus the Haemovores are able to kill him.

So there's a storm being unleashed as the Haemovores (which are really nicely designed, by the way; the blue skin and barnacle-like deposits all over are strikingly memorable) attack, and while the Doctor seems to know what's going on (he wasn't surprised by the Viking runes, and he understood the translations enough to know that they'd be looking for an Oriental treasure -- a flask -- that the Vikings brought), he doesn't want to explain until Ace forces him to, in what's a rather wonderful scene:
ACE: You know what's going on, don't you?
ACE: You always know.  You just can't be bothered to tell anyone.  It's like it's some kind of game, and only you know the rules.  You knew all about that inscription being a computer programme, but you didn't tell me.  You know all about that old bottle, and you're not telling me.  Am I so stupid?
DOCTOR: No, that's not it.
ACE: Why then?  I want to know.
DOCTOR: Evil, evil since the dawn of time.
ACE: What do you mean?
DOCTOR: Will you stop asking me these questions?
ACE: Tell me!
DOCTOR: The dawn of time.  The beginning of all beginnings.  Two forces only, good and evil.  Then chaos.  Time is born, matter, space. The universe cries out like a newborn.  The forces shatter as the universe explodes outwards.  Only echoes remain, and yet somehow, somehow the evil force survives.  An intelligence.  Pure evil!
ACE: That's Fenric?
DOCTOR: No, that's just Millington's name for it.  Evil has no name.  Trapped inside a flask like a genie in a bottle.
Of course, that leads to the rather bizarre scene where Ace tries to distract a soldier by seducing him so that the Doctor can free Captain Sorin.  It's trying to be all mysterious and clever, and while it sort of works the conversation does sometimes feel strange and ungainly.

But really, that's the only duff moment so far in three compelling episodes.  They're tense, gripping, and engaging -- and that third cliffhanger, as the paralyzed Dr. Judson stands up, his eyes glowing green, and says, "We play the contest again, Time Lord," is really impressive, promising good things from the conclusion of this serial.

157 Actually there seems to be some slight confusion regarding the Haemovores (or perhaps it's better characterized as insufficiently explained).  The Doctor describes them as "what Homo sapiens evolve into thousands of years in the future.  Creatures with an insatiable hunger for blood", but it's not clear why they're around now and have been for centuries (judging from some of the period clothing they're wearing) if they're from the future.  Is this because of Fenric's baleful influence, possibly related to the natural toxin that Millington is collecting?  Or did he bring them forward from the future and they've been waiting for the right moment to strike, converting others into Haemovores along the way?

December 22: Ghost Light Part Three / The Curse of Fenric Part One

It is rather unfortunate that you have to assume that Light is some sort of simpleton in order for his reactions to make sense; they could have run with the fact that he's been asleep so long that his catalog of Earth is completely out of date and therefore useless, and while this does seem to be in there somewhere it looks more as if he's completely shocked that things changed, as if this thought had never occurred to him -- although if this is the case then why would Josiah be around at all?  What use would a survey creature be if you never expected him to change?

Redvers Fenn-Cooper, Josiah Samuel Smith, and Ace at dinner.
(Ghost Light Part Three) ©BBC
Speaking of Josiah, his plan to rule the British Empire by assassinating Queen Victoria is rather daft, isn't it?  It makes sense from an internal plot point of view (Josiah needs to evolve into the dominant species, and what's more dominant than being a king?), but there's no clue at all as to how he would actually achieve this goal, as the stated explanation is ludicrous.

So those are the clumsy bits.  Fortunately everything else in part three (all right, with the exception of McCoy's clenched hand acting early in part three) is just as outstanding as the first two parts were.  The Victorian theme continues (particularly with Light in the role of cataloger, trying to pin everything down into neat little categories -- rather like all the insects on display in Gabriel Chase), and it's interesting to see how the evolution theme plays out and is then inverted with Josiah and Control.  Ace gets to let out some more angst ("No, Control, don't do it!  Please don't [burn the house down]!  That's what I did!"  "In 1983?  Ace, you didn't tell me that."  "You're not my probation officer.  You don't have to know everything"), and the ways the Doctor both arranges the downfall of Josiah's plans -- just by turning Control into a "lady-like" -- and convinces Light to destroy himself are quite masterful.  And that layer of allusions is still present too, just to make everything seem even better than it already is.

As it turned out, Ghost Light was the last story ever filmed in the original run (though obviously not the last screened -- that seems to have always been intended to have been Survival).  It's a fascinating story, one that rewards repeated viewings that allow for more character moments and allusions to be noticed each time.  It has interesting things to say about evolution and Victorian values, and it's fabulously written, acted, designed, and directed.  Not a bad story to finish up on then, eh?

But obviously we're not done with the season yet.  Now it's on to The Curse of Fenric and Doctor Who's first foray, after 26 seasons, into the second World War.  The Curse of Fenric also bears the distinction of being the only Doctor Who story that genuinely scared me as a child (something about the idea of vampires that would kill you if your faith wasn't strong enough).

Not quite at the scary bits in the first episode though, which is mainly a setting-up one.  Even though this is a story about the war, the actual fighting seems distantly removed from this setting.  No, here we have the efforts of a codebreaker named Dr. Judson at an isolated base in the north of England while Russian soldiers land on the beach nearby, apparently with the intent of kidnapping Judson.  All this and some stuff about ancient Viking runes and something Base Commander Millington calls "the curse of Fenric".

It's certainly an entertaining episode, with some intriguing moments (such as how something's in the water that's apparently killing Russian troops) and some amusing ones as well (the way the Doctor forges official paperwork for both him and Ace).  But at this point, all we know is that something sinister is going on -- what that sinister thing actually is will be for later episodes to reveal.  But this is certainly a good start.

December 21: Ghost Light Parts One & Two

Somehow I've gotten this far without really talking about Ace.  That's a gross oversight on my part; Sophie Aldred has been one of the best things about these last few stories, as she makes Ace seem like a real person and a genuinely likable companion.  The character herself also works by being flawed -- she's not a perfect person the way Mel often seemed to be, but rather a teenager, prone to bouts of surliness and with a predilection for explosives.

Obviously I'm bringing this all up here because in many ways Ghost Light is Ace's show.  The Doctor brings her to the site of one of her more traumatic memories, a hundred years before she burned the place down, because he's intrigued by the feelings she felt while in the abandoned building.  There's definitely something alien at work here, even if it's not immediately clear what's happening -- and Ace is justifiably angry at the Doctor for bringing her here without telling her ahead of time (in fact, he sets things up as a puzzle for Ace to solve, which probably didn't make her feel any better when she learned the truth).  And while the Doctor might be running things, instigating events to see what happens, it's Ace that we tend to follow through this story -- note how we experience almost nothing while she's asleep in part two, but instead hear some of the things that the Doctor's been up to after the fact.

And look, I've gotten this far without discussing Ghost Light's (in)famous reputation regarding its story.  This story is well known as one that requires repeated viewings to fully comprehend (David J Howe described it as "Doctor Who for the video generation" in The Handbook: The Seventh Doctor) -- although to be perfectly honest I've never found the basic plot that difficult to grasp.  No, what repeated viewings do is give a greater insight into what's happening, as additional pieces fall into place to give a more complete picture of events.  Then the whole thing is wrapped in a dense layer of allusions, which both give a sense of pleasure when you catch them (so even if everything else is escaping you there's that at least) and contribute to the feeling that there's a lot going on here.

Like I said, the basic plot isn't too hard to follow: someone/something is running an experiment on evolution on Earth.  Josiah Samuel Smith is the experimental subject, who seems to be continually evolving into a version of the dominant lifeform on the planet (let's just set aside the human-centric idea that we're the most advanced species on the planet).  Control is (presumably) the control subject, but it's fed up with being locked away for such a long time, and it's ready to be released.  Meanwhile the story has a lot to say about arguments between evolution and creationism (for lack of a better word).  Or as Reverend Matthews puts it, "Mr Smith disputes man's rightful dominion over the forces of nature. ... Instead he maintains that mankind itself should adapt to serve nature or become extinct."  The whole story wants to be an examination of evolution in some form -- although at this stage there are still anomalous details (such as why all the insects start moving around -- this will explained (sort of) in part three).

Really, though, these two episodes are filled with enough to charm and entertain the viewers that even if you can't follow the story, there's still plenty to enjoy (anything with Nimrod or Redvers Fenn-Cooper, the way the TARDIS has materialized with the door against a wall -- a gag they'd somehow never done before, the intensely creepy way Gwendoline is ready and willing to send the Reverend Matthews to Java (aka do something horrible to him)...).  That said, it feels like there's still a lot to get through, and only one episode left to do it -- how will they manage?

December 20: Battlefield Parts Three & Four

All right, so these concluding installments aren't quite as good as the first two.  There's a bit of a muddled feeling about them, as if writer Ben Aaronovitch doesn't quite know how to tie all the disparate elements he's introduced together, and the ending is notably flawed as a result.

But there's so much that this story gets right (even if you have to look past a superficiality or two) that it's hard to be too upset about this.  The scene where Morgaine156 empties Flight Lieutenant Lavel's mind of information and then burns her body to ash is disturbing, and then when she immediately pays Mordred's bar tab by restoring the sight of the landlord's wife Elizabeth is rather magical -- thus providing us with an unusual juxtaposition for a villain and thus a more complex characterization for Morgaine.  Ace's emerging from the lake with Excalibur is well done (and look, you can see the cracks on the glass in the chamber she's in that almost led to a nasty accident -- they pulled her out just before the glass shattered and dumped hundreds of gallons of water onto a floor covered with electrical cables), and the Brigadier's first encounter with the Doctor is charming ("I just can't let you out of my sight, can I, Doctor?"  "Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart.  So you recognise me, then?"  "Yes. Who else would it be?").

The Brigadier threatens Mordred's life. (Battlefield Part Four) ©BBC
And that's just in part three.  Part four has just as many good moments -- the Brigadier's defeat of the Destroyer ("Pitiful," the Destroyer tells him.  "Can this world do no better than you as their champion?"  "Probably.  I just do the best I can," the Brigadier replies, before killing the Destroyer with silver bullets), Mordred's taunting of the Doctor as the Doctor threatens to kill him (one senses the hand of script editor Andrew Cartmel here, as Mordred's taunt -- "Look me in the eye.  End my life" -- directly echoes the challenge the Doctor issued to the snipers in The Happiness Patrol), the way the Doctor walks between Mordred and Ancelyn as they fight (daft but charming)... there's so much right that it's difficult to be upset about what's wrong.

Battlefield is probably the least successful story this season, much how Silver Nemesis was the weakest last season -- although frankly that says more about how strong the rest of season 26 is than anything else.  And unlike Silver Nemesis, there does seem to be a larger point behind Battlefield's story; the problem is that that point (which appears to be equating unleashing the Destroyer to unleashing nuclear missiles) is somewhat confused -- there's no clear direct parallel, and while the Doctor is able to convince Morgaine that the use of nuclear weapons is horrifying and without honor ("Not a war between armies nor a war between nations, but just death, death gone mad.  The child looks up in the sky, his eyes turn to cinders.  No more tears, only ashes.  Is this honour?  Is this war?  Are these the weapons you would use?"), she seems to have no qualms about unleashing the Destroyer upon this world.  This argument seems to be at the heart of the story (else why bother having a nuclear missile convoy in this serial in the first place?), but it just doesn't come off.

Still, at least the argument's sort of there (even if it's rather jumbled), and once again, this story scores by presenting future events for the Doctor as something he has to deal with in his past -- most overtly in the note he leaves his past self (aka our Doctor) with Arthur: "Dear Doctor, King died in final battle.  Everything else propaganda. ...[signed] The Doctor.  P.S. Morgaine has just seized control of the nuclear missile."  And by bringing in elements of the past, in the form of the Brigadier, we get a feeling of a continuity between past, present, and future, and thus a sense of history (if you know what I mean).  In addition, the idea that the Doctor is Merlin feels inherently right somehow, and the way Morgaine speaks to him suggests a long-running conflict that other shows would have taken and run with for ages -- but here it's a background detail that adds to the feeling of some unknown history linking these two characters.  The whole idea is a fabulous conceit, and one that really makes this story work.  The failure of the nuclear analogy to click at the end is thus forgivable, because it's not the focus of the piece: this story is about the Doctor's future, in a way we haven't seen before, and that's what makes Battlefield succeed.

It's actually probably Ben Aaronovitch himself who's one of Battlefield's harshest critics, and while you can see how the suggestions he makes with hindsight as how the script could have been better would have improved things, the fact remains is that for three-quarters of the story Battlefield is a charming and imaginative piece.  It's only in the final resolutions that things start to fall apart, and it's hardly the first Doctor Who story to suffer from a problematic dénouement.  There's so much about this story that works, and so much that's clever and ingenious, that the final result is, on the whole, a success.  It may not be perfect, but it's definitely entertaining.

156 I mentioned under Meglos that that story was the only time John Nathan-Turner had ever brought back someone who had played a companion in another role, but I'd forgotten about Jean Marsh, who'd previously been Sara Kingdom in The Daleks' Master Plan, playing Morgaine here.  Although let's sidestep the rather tedious "but does Sara really count as a companion?" debate and note that at this stage in the programme, she's on the official list.  (That said, if you do want to have said debate, you should start by noting that she shows up on UNIT's Black Archive companion bulletin board in "The Day of the Doctor", in a photo with Mike Yates of all people.)

December 19: Battlefield Parts One & Two

Battlefield marks the start of Doctor Who's 26th season -- and, it would turn out, its last until 2005.  (Not that anyone really knew that at the time, for reasons we'll get into when we reach Survival).  Battlefield Part One also bears the unfortunate distinction of having the lowest audience ratings ever for a debut broadcast of a Doctor Who episode, at 3.1 million viewers.  (This was a combination of three factors, it seems: the continued scheduling of the series opposite Coronation Street, the airing of a World Cup qualifier for England on BBC2, and the fact that John Nathan-Turner has decided to hold back publicity spending until The Curse of Fenric -- which means the public aren't really aware that the show is back on the air.)

This is something of a shame: I quite like Battlefield, and these first two episodes have a lot going for them.  On the one hand, it opens with a decent chunk of continuity, as we see Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (ret.) pottering around a garden center with his wife, reminiscing about his days in UNIT; on the other hand, this sequence doesn't really required a detailed fan knowledge to enjoy -- it acknowledges the links and moves on (as opposed to, say, Attack of the Cybermen, which does require prior knowledge and goes through a lengthy and tedious sequence providing the information for anyone who's not up-to-date).  All you need to know is that this guy used to be in UNIT, and now he's not -- and you don't even need to worry about what UNIT is, as we (sort of) get an explanation in the next scene with the modern version.  And like the '70s UNIT stories, Battlefield is set in the near future, so we get some futuristic details as well -- a lot like The Invasion in that regard (although no one seems to want to tackle the off-hand mention by the Brigadier of a King, despite seeing Queen Elizabeth II in both Silver Nemesis and "Voyage of the Damned").

Now, there are some awkward moments in these episodes, to be sure; the initial knight battle near the TARDIS is a bit weak, and Brigadier Bambera's use of the euphemism "shame" seems a bit forced.  And some of the special effects shots aren't quite up to par (such as the knight rising out of the crater, or the establishing shot of the castle that Mordred is in that I'm never quite sure where it's supposed to be in relation to everything else).  But these duff bits are overshadowed by all the good stuff: Ace's explosion at the dig site ("Ace?" the Doctor says quietly, after the nitro-9 goes off prematurely.  "I think the timer needs work," she replies lamely.  "One of these days we're going to have a nice long talk about acceptable safety standards," the Doctor responds), the embedding of the scabbard into the woodwork (even if the actual flight is a bit ropey), Ace and Shou Yuing's conversation about how Ace destroyed the art room (which is both entertaining on its own and fills in some backstory we heard about in Dragonfire), the Brigadier's encounter with Morgaine and her troops... there's quite a bit to enjoy about this story.

Ace and the Doctor discover King Arthur in an ancient spaceship
beneath Lake Vortigern. (Battlefield Part Two) ©BBC
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Battlefield is its use of the Doctor himself.  Now wearing a dark brown jacket, we're presented with a Doctor who has to deal with the aftereffects of events he hasn't experienced yet -- it seems that in his future he'll be known as Merlin, adviser to King Arthur and his knights and enemy of Morgaine and her soldiers.  It's a surprisingly original idea for a show that's been about time travel for 26 years, but although we've seen the Doctor deal with the effects of events he's previously caused in unseen adventures (The Face of Evil and Timelash, to name but two), this is the first time where his future catches up with him.  It's a really lovely idea that trickles down into the Wales version -- in particular stories by Steven Moffat (which have Battlefield in their DNA more than anyone seems prepared to admit), but it's used very well here.  Not only do we get fun scenes like the ancient inscription at the archaeological dig site ("No one's been able to decipher the carving."  "It says, 'Dig Hole Here.'" "Extraordinary.  What does it say that in?"  "My handwriting"), but we also get the sense of the Doctor wrong-footed as he works out what's going on -- which is something of a nice change for a Doctor who's recently seemed completely in control of events around him.

So far these two episodes have been very entertaining.  I can't wait to see how this wraps up.

December 18: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy Parts Three & Four

The Captain and Mags. (The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
Part Three) ©BBC
One of the impressive things about this story that I didn't mention last time is how good the characterization is.  You really get a sense of who these people are -- Bellboy, who's upset that it's stopped being fun; Morgana, who wants to leave but can't; Deadbeat, whose mind has been fractured by whatever he saw in that well; the Chief Clown, who is a willing partner in the Psychic Circus's killings... everyone is clearly defined, and wonderfully, everyone is well acted. Even characters like the Captain, who's designed to be rather stuffy and tedious, come through better on the other side.  (Incidentally, one of the best bits was something I'd never noticed before: when the Captain begins to launch into another one of his anecdotes while he, the Doctor, and Mags are in the ring, the Doctor interrupts with, "Captain Cook! ... You're not only a scoundrel and a meddling fool, but you're also a crushing bore."  A comment to which one of the robot clowns behind the Captain reacts by placing a shocked hand over its mouth, which genuinely made me laugh.)

It's been suggested that you can read this story as a comment on Doctor Who (so Captain Cook is Star Trek, as someone else who's been all over the galaxy, the Whizzkid is a parody of more obsessive fans ("Although I never got to see the early days, I know it's not as good as it used to be, but I'm still terribly interested"), the Gods of Rrrrrrrrragnarrrrrrrrok are the BBC...), and while that's true -- and some of the dialogue points in that direction -- there's a more interesting way of reading The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.  It's a story about the fading of '60s idealism, and how compromises had to be made as the hippies grew up and settled down.  But whereas The Happiness Patrol was angry in its exploration of its themes, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is more melancholy; it's not (necessarily) saying that it's a bad thing that the counterculture movement moved on, but that it's sad how that innocence was often exploited by less scrupulous people.  "It was to have been my masterpiece," Bellboy tells Ace about a robot he made, "but like everything else, it was... it was abused and went wrong.  We had such high ideals when we started.  We shared everything and we enjoyed making people happy."  And then later: "They took everything that was bright and good about what we had, and buried it where it will never be found again."

The Chief Clown and his robot minions bid farewell to the Ringmaster
and Morgana. (The Greatest Show in the Galaxy Part Four) ©BBC
In this sense The Greatest Show in the Galaxy succeeds by presenting its theme in a slightly askew way and then exploring it -- making it allegorical rather than a straightforward analysis.  And because it's allegorical, it can have its cake and eat it too: the Doctor might not be able to defeat the capitalist usurping of counterculture imagery in real life, but here he can confront the Gods of Ragnarok (who, fittingly, aren't "interested in beginnings; you're only interested in endings").  They represent the audience, always wanting more -- and note how they're dressed like a typical family in the Psychic Circus -- and becoming angry when their continual quest for entertainment is arrested in some way.  (Representing, perhaps, the public's desire for '60s innocence and psychedelia, repackaged in safe, consumable bundles.  Well, maybe; if we take seriously the suggestion about the theme as being loss of innocence, then the Gods are somewhat difficult to fit into the pattern.  Unless you want to see them as the system that takes everything in, uses it up, and then demands more, but even that's a bit of a stretch, and it doesn't quite match up with the craving for entertainment.  Proof, if nothing else, that this story is operating on multiple levels.)  And since the Gods lack imagination, they can't entertain themselves.  The final confrontation between the Doctor and the Gods is interesting because all the Gods care about is entertainment, and while the Doctor gives them what they want for a while, he decides to leave while he's on top.  "I have fed you enough, Gods of Ragnarok," the Doctor declares, "and you found what I have to offer indigestible.  So I have taken myself off the menu.  La commedia è finita!"154  And when they turn their ire against him (in the form of lightning bolts), he reflects them back at them, causing them to destroy themselves (in what's a rather nice scene of collapsing masonry and such), while he casually walks away from the exploding circus.155

The thing that really makes this story work is all the levels it's operating on.  It can be viewed as a simple tale about the Doctor saving a circus from the evil they unleashed.  It can also be viewed allegorically, as I've just described.  But the thing is, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy works from all these viewpoints -- there's something for everyone; even if you're just looking to be scared, there are lots of creepy clowns to fit the bill.  And it's a tribute to everyone involved that this is as successful as it is -- there's hardly a wrong line or move in the entire piece.  Considering the pressures the production was under (the relocation of the studio scenes mentioned last time), the fact that this comes out as well as it does is impressive.  As season 25 began a strong note, so it ends on one as well: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is a triumph of script, direction, acting, and design.

This means that season 25 gives us a show that's finally back firmly on its feet again.  There were moves in this direction last season, but they were often marred by uncertain presentation and delivery -- there's none of that here.  Season 25 is brimming with energy and self-confidence, and it's also willing to take risks, comfortable in the knowledge that the audience that's still left will come along with them.  It's somewhat difficult to imagine another season with stories as widely different from each other as these four -- but the thing that binds them together, other than the superficial qualities, is that they're almost all about something.  The writers (all new, with the exception of Greatest Show's Stephen Wyatt, who wrote Paradise Towers last season -- but that's still pretty new) have decided to use Doctor Who as a platform for ideas that they can explore, rather than just to write something to fill the time slot.  (In fact, it's worth nothing that the only story that doesn't seem to be also working on a separate level is also the least successful story of the season.)  This gives these stories an added impetus, and happily, the people working on these scripts are on the same page, contributing to the highly successful realization of it all on screen.  Season 25 has Doctor Who back on form again -- now, whether anyone's still watching is a separate problem...

154 In case you're unaware, this is the final line of Pagliacci.
155 The story goes that they told McCoy that there would be a small explosion as he walked away.  He apparently wasn't expecting the much larger explosion that actually happened, but to his credit gave no reaction until the take was complete.