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Doctor Who: Bad Wolf (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Bad Wolf originally aired in 2005.

The Dalek stratagem nears completion. The fleet is almost ready. You will not intervene.

Oh, really? Why’s that, then?

We have your associate. You will obey or she will be exterminated.

No.

Explain yourself.

I said no.

What is the meaning of this negative?

It means no.

But she will be destroyed.

No! Because this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to rescue her. I’m going to save Rose Tyler from the middle of the Dalek fleet and then I’m going to save the Earth, and then, just to finish off, I’m going to wipe every last stinking Dalek out of the sky!

But you have no weapons, no defences, no plan.

Yeah. And doesn’t that scare you to death. Rose?

Yes, Doctor?

I’m coming to get you.

- the Daleks, the Doctor and Rose give the Ninth Doctor perhaps his best moment

Looking back at the first season, I’d argue that it’s the most cohesive run of episodes that Russell T. Davies produced on the dhow. Now because of the whole “bad wolf” thing, as that feels a bit like a clumsy link randomly inserted. Instead, as we watch the final episode, it becomes quite clear what Davies was trying to do with his first year on the show. The patterns, the themes, the subtext, the references – it all becomes quite clear. More than any other season of Davies’ tenure, the first season is really one gigantic story – and not just because the show never leaves Earth or the finalé returns to the setting of The Long Game.

The first season is a bridge. It’s a link between the last years of the classic series into the new and revived show as written by Davies. It’s a moment to gather up the dead, tidy away the loose ends and basically manage the stage so that the show can really come into its own. One of the things I loved about Davies’ Doctor Who was how accessible it all was, but it still had all this continuity ticking away in the background.

This first season finalé feels like it isn’t only a conclusion to Christopher Eccleston’s time in the lead role, it’s also closing the last of the dangling threads from the eras of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy in the eighties. As soon as David Tennant steps into the lead role, it seems the show is entirely and utterly free of everything that came before. It’s a testament to Davies’ skill that we’re not even sure that he’s doing it.

Come with me if you want to live...

Come with me if you want to live…

Russell T. Davies had his first direct experience writing for Doctor Who during its time away from television. He wrote the novel Damaged Goods, which focused on life inside a council estate. It featured the Seventh iteration of the title character, the last to appear on television before the show went off the air. There are obvious similarities between Davies’ work on Damaged Goods and the manner in which he resurrected Doctor Who. The council estates are a significant part of that, and there’s even a character named Tyler, along with the idea of the Doctor’s existence being contrasted with mundane everyday life.

Today, the tendency is to look at these elements as all leading into Davies’ script of Rose, and it’s easy to see why. After all, in hindsight, all these ideas and themes and links become far easier to spot. However, you could make a compelling case that Damaged Goods is merely a continuation of the Seventh Doctor’s time, rather than a lead-in to the Ninth Doctor’s tenure. The last couple of years of the Seventh Doctor’s era saw him brought down to Earth a bit, anchored in problems and issues that were more grounded, with a newer and more complex sort of companion.

Holding on in there...

Holding on in there…

Of course, the new series has always respected its predecessor. It has brought back characters and concepts from across the length and breadth of the show. Headline stars like the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Master and Davros have all appeared in the series, while it found room for lesser-known aliens like the Macros to sneak in cameos. However, the aesthetic and mood of Davies’ Doctor Who is remarkably different from that of its predecessor.

This is most evident in its pacing and its structure. The new show moves fast, and favours self-contained forty-five minute stories over four-part half-hour episodes. Even the structure of the season of the revived show is different from its predecessor. Philip Hinchcliffe and Graham Williams would make an effort to close their seasons with a six-parter, but the original show had no real concept of a “season premier” or a “finalé.”

She's a droid and she's a 'noid...

She’s a droid and she’s a ‘noid…

That said, it’s hard to argue that the last few years of the classic show haven’t been a major influence on Davies’ reimagined Doctor Who, especially in its first year. Rose is arguably just a later (and more grounded) iteration of Ace. While I’ve discussed how Davies’ first season centres around Earth in the same way that Jon Pertwee’s first year did, it is also worth noting that Sylvester McCoy’s final year in the role was also tethered to the planet.

The connections and influences run a great deal deeper than that. While the first season paid its dues to other eras of the show (with The Unquiet Dead in particular owing a debt to Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes), there was a strong sense that it owed a massive debt to the later years in particular. The anti-capitalist subtext of The End of the World seemed like to recall the rather blunt political commentary that Andrew Cartmel incorporated into the show during his time as script editor.

Live broadcast...

Live broadcast…

Of course, it would be 2010 before the mainstream media would pick up that there be an anti-Thatcher message behind The Happiness Patrol, so perhaps I’m being unfair when I argue that Cartmel’s political influence was heavy-handed. That said, the show has never been apolitical. The Lenny Henry Show even had a nice dig at the show as early as 1985, when the Doctor (played by Henry) found himself facing the leader of the Cybermen – “the most ruthless woman in the universe”“Thatchos”, complete with wig and handbag.

Still, there’s something very much in the spirit of Sylvester McCoy about the first season, as the Ninth Doctor takes Rose on a journey that helps her develop, much like the Seventh Doctor would do the same with Ace. It’s not too difficult to image Father’s Day taking place with Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Alred rather than Christopher Eccleston and Billy Piper. Of course, the Doctor would probably be a bit more emotionally mature about the whole thing, but it does seem like there’s a sizeable overlap.

Dead air...

Dead air…

Like The End of the World, Davies also includes some measure of social commentary that wouldn’t feel out-of-place in a script edited by Andrew Cartmel. The future of Bad Wolf finds ordinary people made complicit in mass murder, simply because the social structures have been altered and the “rules” have been changed. When Rose points out the inhumanity of it, Rodrick advises her, “Just shut up and play the game.” Not aware of the implications of her vote against Finch, Rose tries to comfort the crying woman, “I’m sorry, that’s the game. That’s how it works.”

It’s not too heavy-handed, but there’s an obvious political subtext to those sorts of scenes that speaks to the more overtly socially conscious Doctor Who of the late eighties. What can human beings rationalise according to these “rules”? If you pervert the social norms in the same way that the Daleks do, are people capable of turning on each other like that? Is our morality defined by the system in which we find ourselves placed, and can we justify murder to ourselves if it is part of some carefully structured system?

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

The points of comparison between the new season and the last few years of the classic series becomes a great deal more explicit in Bad Wolf. What is particularly remarkable about Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways is the fact that the climactic two-parter doesn’t draw that heavily from the more popular and iconic eras of the show like the Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker years. Instead, the story owes a sizeable debt to the much-maligned Colin Baker era and Sylvester McCoy’s adventures.

For example, the Dalek Controller (and the fact that she was installed as a child) seems like a shout-out to the use of a child in a similar capacity in Remembrance of the Daleks. The notion of the Doctor’s mortal enemies “producing an army of Daleks out of the dead” seems like a clear shout-out to Davros’ plan in Revelation of the Daleks. It’s clear that Davies is building on those later stories, rather than feeding into earlier Dalek lore. (Although I’m glad he postponed the arrival of Davros.)

Big Brother is watching...

Big Brother is watching…

Bad Wolf is constructed around a futuristic television broadcast where the public watch the losing contestants die on-screen. It seems to owe a considerable debt to Vengeance on Varos, one of the better stories of the Colin Baker period, which was based around a similar premise. In a way, it acknowledges how far ahead of its time that adventure was. While Vengeance on Varos had to invent reality television, Bad Wolf can borrow liberally from BBC and Channel 4 programming.

Sadly, though, ITV probably wouldn’t have be happy with Ant and Dec popping up on Bad Wolf as a pair of deranged psychopathic robots, so we’ll just have to imagine they were somewhere on the station. Still, it was very cool of Channel 4 and of all the talent involved to parody themselves in a light that is… less than flattering. It has been argued that Bad Wolf isn’t as vicious as it should be when it comes to criticising reality television, and it doesn’t condemn the audience or producers as much as Vengeance on Varos did. That is a fair point, but I’m not sure that is what Bad Wolf is trying to do.

Sitting it out...

Sitting it out…

The first season of the revived Doctor Who (and indeed every other season of the show produced by Davies) has been inordinately obsessed with media. Aliens of London and World War Three had a great deal of fun with the concept of an alien invasion in the era of 24-hour media coverage. The Long Game was a blunt (but no less effective) criticism of mainstream media journalism. The trend would continue. The Master would control Britain through its media, for example. The Adipose would lull in humanity through a flashy media campaign.

However, what’s interesting about Bad Wolf is that it uses real shows. The episode features The Weakest Link, Big Brother and What Not to Wear. It’s quite pointed – these are variations of shows that were airing on British television at the time. Davies’ science-fiction scripts in the first season don’t go “too alien”, and there’s a conscious effort to ground the future and to make it recognisable, rather than just a strange world populated by funny-looking aliens and humans in jump suits.

The naked turth...

The naked turth…

In Bad Wolf, for example, the human characters all wear recognisable outfits. The contestants wear casual clothes we’d recognise, while the armed guards look like a modern day security firm. Davies isn’t really trying to convince us that this is what the distant future might look like. Instead, it’s just extrapolated from today, and used as a vehicle to commentate on today’s popular culture. The fact that Davies does this in the penultimate episode of the first season is quite important, because this is the market that Doctor Who is returning to.

The world has changed a great deal since the eighties. Popular culture has changed too. The sample of programmes selected in Bad Wolf would suggest that the changes are not necessarily for the better. Yes, the shows are pushed to the extreme here – evicting failed house mates “from life” – but increasing the stakes on the shows just illustrates how unpleasant they are. The lure of Big Brother is watching people being mean to one another as they try to stay in spotlight. The Weakest Link is practically predatory, as the contests “cull” their team mates one at a time. I really dislike reality television and – based on Bad Wolf – it seems like Davies shares at least some of my misgivings.

Worlds apart...

Worlds apart…

However, reality television isn’t really the point here. Bad Wolf puts our heroes in a situation where the other popular television shows of the day conspire to kill them. I can’t help but imagine that Davies had a few sleepless nights imagining a world where Big Brother slaughtered Doctor Who in the ratings, and Bad Wolf is a way of literalising that. Davies has brought Doctor Who back, but a necessary step on that journey is confronting modern television.

In a way, this is a massive cathartic moment for the series. You could make a convincing argument that part of the reason that Doctor Who died in the eighties was because it was because it couldn’t keep up with rapidly-evolving television. It was killed by the success of shows like Eastenders, with the BBC scheduling serving to undermine it as well. Looking at those last few years, Andrew Cartmel had managed to pull Doctor Who back together after the show had been staring into the abyss, only for the recovery to come too late. Killed by the BBC and the demands of television, the show was cancelled.

Cold and darkness...

Cold and darkness…

Bad Wolf is positioned at the end of the first the season. The Ninth Doctor has had a year to up his game. The show has been revived. It has found its feet. Now the Ninth Doctor and his companions can go in and face modern television. They can challenge it, they can stand up to it, they can defeat it. I would argue that Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways are the best season finalé of the new show. There are lots of reasons, but part of it is the way that Davies uses the episodes to actually probe the limits of the show, and to really attack it on multiple levels after spending a year building it up.

More than any other season finalé, Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways represent a trial by fire for the show. Not only must the Doctor survive in a conflict with modern television, he must also face legitimate criticism. Bad Wolf represents perhaps the most effective and scathing criticism the show has ever made of the Doctor, as he discovers that sometimes his style of adventure can have devastating consequences.

Captive audience...

Captive audience…

I’m not talking about the death of Rose, although her faked death does raise questions about the Doctor’s sense of responsibility. I’m talking about the fact that this is the same world that the Doctor saw in The Long Game. Indeed, the “previously” is sure to include his parting promise to the inhabitants of that world, “All back to normal.” They seem deliciously ironic, as the Doctor’s assumption that history will automatically right itself is blown away.

When the Doctor reveals to Lynda-with-a-y that he was there a century ago, she drops the bomb. “No, but that’s when it first went wrong. A hundred years ago, like you said. All the news channels, they just shut down overnight.” Immediately seeing where this is going, the Doctor responds, “But that was me. I did that.” He seemed to just assume things would go back to the way that they should be. He never thought through the consequences of his actions.

They'll cut it together well...

They’ll cut it together well…

“There was nothing left in their place,” Lynda explains. “No information. The whole planet just froze. The government, the economy, they collapsed. That was the start of it. One hundred years of hell.” None of this is illogical. None of this is unpredictable. There is nothing there that the Doctor should not have seen coming. However, what makes this so effective is that there was nothing apparently special about The Long Game.

The Long Game seemed, at the time, like a typical Doctor Who story. The Doctor arrives, destroys the system and then leaves. And people should live happily ever after, we assume. Because it has been over forty years, and we have no evidence otherwise. And that is how Bad Wolf brilliantly twists the knife. It makes a logical and clever criticism of the way that the Doctor operates, a devastating attack on the very roots of the show.

The Daleks see right through her...

The Daleks see right through her…

It’s a weakness, and it’s a weakness that the Daleks exploit. I honestly think that the Daleks have never been presented more effectively or more thoughtfully than they are here. Their plan is ingenious, and it hinges on the Doctor behaving exactly like we think he should. They exploit the format of the show to defeat him, and they even harness the very power of his on-air competition against him. It’s a technique that Davies uses again in The Sound of Drums, but it works better here for reasons we’ll discuss in The Parting of the Ways.

There’s something quite clever about the Daleks here. Indeed, the title of The Long Game is shown to refer to their stratagem, and they seem to have learned that the best way to avoid defeat at the hands of the Doctor is to avoid appearing in the same episode as him. (After all, The Long Game is a more significant victory than we saw in Victory of the Daleks.) More than that, though, there’s a sense that they were able to outmanoeuvre him by exploiting his weakness: patience.

The very long game...

The very long game…

“My masters hiding in the dark space, watching and shaping the Earth so, so, so many years,” the Controller explains. “Always been there, guiding humanity, hundreds and hundred of years.” The Doctor, on the other hand, doesn’t stick around. He doesn’t “do domestic”, as once stated. Here, Davies demonstrates that is a weakness – and perhaps he’s talking about a weakness inherent in the structure of the show.

The format of the classic series – a chain of relatively independent serialised dramas that could be aired and consumed in pretty much any order – simply can’t work on modern television. Television has changed in the years since Doctor Who ended, and it’s not enough to have the Doctor randomly land on alien worlds, change their society and do it all again next week. Television has developed to the point where viewers expect structure and arcs.

A steely look...

A steely look…

It’s telling that the Daleks exploit the episodic nature of the Doctor’s adventures – the fact that he just shows up and then leaves – only to be caught off-guard by Rose. Rose has a character arc that can be clearly plotted over the year’s thirteen episodes. The Long Game might just have been one episode in the middle of the season, but Rose has been growing ever since she first met the Doctor. The Doctor’s one-and-done trips leave him open to attack, but Rose’s arc allows her to defeat the Dalek threat.

In a way, it feels like Davies is justifying the format shift between the classic series and the revived Doctor Who. Here, the Doctor’s traditional approach is shown as a weakness. In contrast, Rose’s journey is something more modern. It’s an evolution of the journey that Ace began (but never quite completed) all those years ago. Davies makes a compelling argument in favour of the way he has restructured and reorganised the show, and the climax of the first season really exists to finally and completely draw a line in the sand.

Mirroring his feelings...

Mirroring his feelings…

From here on out, there won’t be any questioning of the change in format or structure. Doctor Who has successfully transitioned. It feels appropriate that this two-parter will see David Tennant take over, as the second season really is an even newer beginning for the show. I’d argue that the first season of the modern Doctor Who was an exceptionally well-executed update to the series, but that it was also about tidying away what needed to be tidied away. Davies just did so in a manner that was accessible to fans old and new. With the second season, it’s an even fresher start than Rose was.

However, even on its terms, I’d argue Bad Wolf is a fine penultimate episode for Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor. There are some wonderful moments here that are very distinctively Ninth Doctor moments. I love, for example, the way that he sulks on the couch in the Big Brother house, hugging the cushion. His description of Lynda as “dead sweet” is a moment that no other Doctor could pull off. And the form of his outrage over the system (“it’s a charnel house!”) is perfectly in keeping with this iteration of the character.

Ship shape...

Ship shape…

We really get the extremes of Eccleston’s Doctor here, which I really like. I’ve argued before that Eccleston’s Doctor is the most human interpretation of the character, and Bad Wolf gives us a sense that the Ninth Doctor has mellowed significantly in his travels. He has come a long way since the end of the Time War, which makes the climax of The Parting of the Ways so gut-wrenchingly effective. He recruits a new companion here without being bullied into it by Rose.

More than that, though, he’s surprisingly affectionate towards Lynda. He doesn’t utter the phrase “stupid ape” once. “I wouldn’t get in the way,” she promises, which may have drawn a sarcastic reply from him a little while earlier. Instead, his response is surprisingly cute. “I wouldn’t mind if you did.” Naturally, of course, Lynda is doomed from the moment he promises to take her with him, but it’s the thought that counts.

Dalek Deco...

Dalek Deco…

We also get a sense of Eccleson’s Doctor as one of the more introverted and potentially dangerous versions of the character. He seems to go into something like a silent trance after he loses Rose, and there’s no messing around. He and Jack break out of prison, with the Doctor even helping to incapacitate a guard before brandishing a large weapon. It’s a powerful sequence if only because it’s not really something we’re used to seeing the Doctor do.

Of course, he doesn’t fire it (“oh, don’t be so thick – like I was ever going to shoot”), but the image is still quite unnerving. It’s also an effective way of setting up the issue that will drive the Doctor’s conflict in the second part, the question of whether the Doctor is a “killer or coward.” One of the things I genuinely admire about Eccleston’s portrayal is that there is that sort of ambiguity to it. The Tenth Doctor carrying a pistol is a massive moment in The End of Time, but the Ninth Doctor can haul a gigantic hand cannon in the middle of an episode without anybody batting an eye.

Red lights...

Red lights…

Joe Aherne does an excellent job directing both parts, earning a well-deserved BAFTA nomination for his work on the show. It’s a shame he was never invited back. Bad Wolf is a superb first part to this two-part season finalé, and I’d argue that it is easily the best two-parter that Russell T. Davies wrote during his time on the series.

 

 

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