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Doctor Who: Real Time (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.

Real Time originally broadcast on the BBC website in 2002.

Why do you talk so much?

You never know who is listening.

– Cyberwoman Savage and the Doctor discover why he lends himself to audio

It’s remarkably how much energy went in to keeping Doctor Who alive for those years when it was off the air. There was, of course, the fiction produced outside the BBC. Virgin produced The New Adventures in book form, there were comics and various “spin-off” projects. However, these lacked the sort of gravitas that came from having an iconic performer in a classic role. So Big Finish began producing a range of audio adventures (“full cast dramas”) centred around the show. More than that, though, they actually managed to recruit some of the actors. Paul McGann, for example, has had a great run in audio despite only appearing in one televised adventure. Colin Baker has arguably reinvented his take on the Doctor, free from the dodgy writing and behind-the-scenes turmoil that rocked his two-season tenure.

At the same time, the BBC was trying to figure out what to do with the property. There had long been talk of resurrecting the Timelord, the failure of the television movie notwithstanding. BBCi had even produced an official webcast with Sylvester McCoy from writer-director Dan Freedman, named Death Comes to Time. However, while I’ll admit that Death Comes to Time has its strengths, there was something missing. When the time came to do a second webcast, BBCi teamed up with Big Finish, with Big Finish founder Gary Russell stepping up to write and direct an adventure especially for animation.

The result is Real Time. While it’s pretty far from perfect, it is intriguing, smart and fun. More than that, though, it supports the oft-heard argument that Colin Baker has been vindicated by his involvement in these projects. In fact, I didn’t want to strangle the Sixth Doctor once while listening to Real Time. It might even inspire me to check out some of the Big Finish range.

Face off...

Face off…

While the “animation” in Real Time is much better than what we saw in Death Comes to Time, it still doesn’t seem especially revolutionary. We’re not quite at the stage where this could be broadcast on television, but we’re making steps in that direction. However, the use of the illustrations aside, Real Time actually looks incredible, thanks to illustrations from the wonderful Lee Sullivan. Sullivan is a fantastic illustrator, and Real Time looks almost like the storyboards for a more tasteful (and bigger budget) Sixth Doctor adventure. I genuinely mean that as a complement.

doctorwho-realtime8

Pyramids of [unnamed planet]…

There’s not too much motion here, but director Gary Russell handles it well enough. He has a few poses for the Doctor and some nice illustrations of the Cybermen, and puts them to good use. While the visual element is effective enough and Lee Sullivan’s artwork impresses, it’s the audio component of the production that works very well. Through some fantastic sound mixing, Russell is able to craft an aesthetic that feels more in line with the classic show than Death Comes to Time, but on a much larger scale. The dialogue is crisp and clear, but the environment feels a lot more vibrant.

It’s also great to have my suspicions about Colin Baker confirmed. Baker suffered perhaps the worst tenure of any actor in the lead role. His time produced more than its fair share of clunkers (The Twin Dilemma, Timelash, Attack of the Cybermen). To be fair, it did provide us with two superb stories (Revelation of the Daleks and Vengeance on Varos), but even those didn’t tend to focus too heavily on the Doctor as a character. In a way, those stories felt like Doctor Who channeling Will Eisner’s take on The Spirit, with the lead character more as a vehicle to tell the story rather than an active participant in it.

He's been quite animated of late...

He’s been quite animated of late…

These audio plays allow Baker a chance to reinvent his Doctor. Don’t get me wrong. This is still very clearly the same character from the television show. His voice sounds like the pompous character we all know and a few of us even love, and not just because Colin Baker is providing the vocals. It’s not too hard to imagine this adventure falling somewhere during the long dark “cancellation crisis” in the middle of Baker’s tenure.

The character is as catty as he has ever been. When another character suggests that his companion, Evelyn, might be able to stop the radio waves the Cyber Controller is using to communicate with his henchmen, the Doctor is dismissive. “She’s a remarkable lady – and not exactly petite – but even she can’t block out radio waves.” While Administrator Isherwood is trying to sell them out, and walking to certain cyber-conversion, Evelyn is keen to try to save the man’s life. “We should stop them,” she states. The Doctor replies, “Why?”

Blood and chrome...

Blood and chrome…

Each of the interpretations of the title character has their own unique approach and style, and it’s hard to deny that Real Time presents us with the Sixth Doctor. However, it uses his personality and his mannerisms in a way that suit the story and are a lot less frustrating than his arrogance or his aggressiveness often appeared on the television show. For example, his aloofness and callousness here seems perfectly in character, but it seems more logical than cold.

It’s hard to imagine any other version of the character willing to sacrifice lives for the greater good, but Baker and Russell find a way to present this side of the Sixth Doctor in a way that doesn’t make him seem disconnected from humanity. When the Cybermen threaten the hostages to get the Doctor to cooperate, most other versions would at least play along while working to undermine their rivals. In contrast, the Sixth Doctor tries to stand firm, and Real Time presents this as a rational course of action.

You are Number Six...

You are Number Six…

“Not really a contest, is it?” Sixth Doctor responds when the Cybermen offer to trade the landing party for TARDIS. “My friends mean a great deal to me, but they’re still expendable when put against to the fate of the universe.” Of course, the Cybermen eventually force the Doctor to back down – it turns out that he’s a lot more comofrtable with abstract suffering far away than he is with harm coming to somebody right in fron of him.

For all his bluster about grander schemes and the greater good, the Sixth Doctor seems quite human. In The Evil of the Daleks, we never doubted that the Second Doctor would sacrifice Jamie for the greater good, despite his affection for the kid. In contrast, the Sixth Doctor here makes such a big deal of it, only to back down when pushed. It’s a nice touch, and an illustration that – despite his abrasiveness – the Sixth Doctor is still more human than his direct successor. While the Seventh Doctor conceals his scheming behind a very affable exterior, the Sixth Doctor masks his humanity behind a confrontational facade.

Tough to pin down...

Tough to pin down…

To be entirely fair, the Sixth Doctor is a bit less abrasive here than he seemed on the show, a little bit more mellow. Even his garish costume has been toned down. The web adventure features the character wearing a blue suit, one that seems to be modelled on his “mourning shrowd” from Revelation of the Daleks. It’s not quite the black velvet suit that Colin Baker originally wanted, but it’s a marked improvement over the “explosion at a rainbow factory.”

While the Doctor remains as pompous and fond of his own voice as ever, Real Time is more careful than many of his television stories to temper those characteristics with humanism. While Sylvester McCoy’s voice and performance style arguably suit the medium even better than Baker’s delivery, the Sixth Doctor’s ability to fillibuster makes him a perfect fit for audio plays. Indeed, he gets a big “stalling for time” speech that occasionally feels a bit overblown, but at least makes some measure of sense and connects with the philosophical values of Doctor Who in a meaningful way.

Don't worry, they're mostly armless...

Don’t worry, they’re mostly armless…

When the Cybermen point out that his compassion for his companion is a weakness they can exploit, the Doctor refuses to concede. “My feelings, my love for Evelyn, will never make me inferior,” he argues. “Cybermen prove themselves to be truly alien, anathetical to my way of living and thinking. That will always put me in a superior position, because I can think and act on so many more levels than pure logic.” It’s a little over-the-top, a little awkward, a little on-the-nose and a little overly earnest, but Russell and Baker do an excellent job making it seem perfectly in-character. It helps that the Sixth Doctor’s posturing is undercut a bit by his inability to ignore the suffering happening right underneath him.

So the interpretation of the Sixth Doctor is fantastic. If it’s an indication of the character’s depiction in the Big Finish audio plays, they may well convince me to try a couple. Outside of the Sixth Doctor and the fantastic production quality, though, Real Time is a bit of a mixed bag. The most obvious problem seems to be a systemic feature of these webcasts. It’s a problem common to both Death Comes to Time and The Scream of the Shalka – the ending feels a little less than satisfying.

Time of the Cybermen...

Time of the Cybermen…

To be fair, this is easier to excuse with Death Comes to Time and The Scream of the Shalka. After all, both were intended to serve as the launchpad for a new line. Neither worked, but there was a significant amount of world-building involved. Death Comes to Time might have been a very strange starting point for a new iteration of Doctor Who, it seems quite clear that a lot of it is set-up. In contrast, Real Time seems to be set up as a relatively stand-alone adventure. Indeed, up until the final five minutes, it seems like it will be a nice little story that stands quite well on its own terms.

However, it ends with all these questions that are never really resolved. Fascinating twists are developed in the last few minutes and the end hints in a very particular direction, but none of these are followed through. It seems like Real Time is really setting itself up for a sequel story – and not one set in the distant future, but one picking up minutes after the final credits sting sounds. As a result, that dependency on a story that never came weakens Real Time, and weakens it significantly more than similar problems weakened Death Comes to Time or Scream of the Shalka.

They sure know how to crush rebellion...

They sure know how to crush rebellion…

There’s also the relaince on classic clichés. To some, it really wouldn’t be Doctor Who if it didn’t fall back on the various tropes and clichés of the series. Being honest, I don’t mind most of them. After all, the temporal element of the plot and the characterisation serve to distinguish Real Time from what appears to be its major influence, The Tomb of the Cybermen. The problem is when the story plays these classic elements with very little depth, relying on the odd wink or nod to make them more pallatable.

Consider, for example, the character of Administrater Isherwood. He’s the kind of idiotic avarist that was already grating by the time we reached the Patrick Troughton era. He seems to spend most of the adventure believing that he can reason with the Cybermen and make a tidy profit. “I wonder how that portal works,” he muses. “The commercial opportunities are endless.” When he discovers the chamber of the Cybermen, he observes, “Its technology could be worth billions!”

I am Locutus of Cybermen...

I am Locutus of Cybermen…

There’s absolutely no depth or sophistication. He’s a tired archetype, and he seems to exist purely to pad out the supporting ensemble. He’s the Doctor Who equivalent of the character in horror movies that exists to up the bodycount. While the clichés are tired to us – based on decades of exposure to villains like the Cybermen or the Daleks – it’s expalined that Real Time is set in the wake of a massive Cyberman war. So there’s no human alive who should be dumb enough to utter the words “if we could reason with the Cyber Contoller…”

The script tries to address this in a witty manner. To be fair to Russell, he concedes that Isherwood is a tired cliché. “His obsession with money will be our undoing, if we’re not careful,” the Doctor comments, offering the understatement of the century.  When the Cybermen demand the TARDIS, Isherwood suggests, “Maybe if you gave it to them, they’d go away.” Even Goddard recognises what a stupid idea this is. “C’mon Adminstrator, that’s just dumb.”

... intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us...

… intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us…

However, while acknowledging the use of a cliché like this might mitigate the frustration it causes, it can’t entirely forgive it. The lines at Isherwood’s expense aren’t funny enough to make the character’s complete idiocy any less frustrating, and his complete inability to comprehend the situation strains the adventure’s suspension of disbelief more than any of the actual fantastical elements. I can accept the organo-techno virus, the time-travelling the Cybermen and the wave far easier than I can accept that a character as stupid as Isherwood exists.

Similarly, the script is sometimes a little overblown, especially towards the climax. As mentioned above, the Doctor’s pontificating is a little on the nose, but Goddard’s physical and verbal smackdown to the Cyber Controller seems a little bit much. “You think you’re God, Controller? Well I’m your child. I’m Adam… chucking you out of Eden!” It’s clunky, it’s clumsy and it feels a little too direct, a little too awkward.

Carrying the torch...

Carrying the torch…

Still, for all these problems, there’s a lot to enjoy. There are great ideas here. I love the concept of half-constructed Cybermen. I think that Real Time does an excellent job continuing the trend of stories exploring a weakened Cyberman race very much on the back foot. More than any other Doctor Who adversary, the Cybermen seem more likely to be introduced in a position of weakness. Sometimes this works (as in Tomb of the Cybermen) and sometimes it doesn’t (as in Revenge of the Cybermen). Here, thankfully, it works.

I also like the character of Evelyn Smythe, but I’ve always had a soft spot for companions who don’t exactly fit the established mold. Steven Moffat has argued that there are reasons the show favours young women as companions, but I’m not convinced. It’s nice to see a companion who isn’t intended as something “for the dads”, so to speak. It proves that there are other more vital characteristics for a perspective companion than the ability to run fast. “No,” the Cyber Controller explains to Evelyn. “Your body has no purpose. But your mind, that will become like us.”

A steely gaze...

A steely gaze…

Evelyn’s mind is more important than her body to both the Cybermen and the Doctor. It’s a nice concession as to what is important in a companion. Sure, Evelyn’s age and her lack of physical stamina are arguably more suited to radio than television (although Donna was hardly the most physically fit of companions), but it’s great to see that the Doctor’s ability to broaden one’s horizons is not strictly confined to eye candy.

There are some other nice ideas here. It’s nice to see the Cybermen using time travel as a weapon, demonstrating the potential of the technology that the classic series rarely explored outside stories like Genesis of the Daleks and City of Death. It demonstrates how truly dangerous the ability to bend time could be in the wrong hands, and it arguably even casts the Timelords in an interesting light. Given their willingness to tamper with Dalek history in Genesis of the Daleks, how is their use of the technology that much different from the Cybermen? Sure, they’re subjectively “good”, but they’re still conspiring to distort history to conform to their morality.

Testing their metal...

Testing their metal…

Indeed, Real Time even plays with the implications of time travel, as Goddard threatens to construct a stable time paradox, creating the very circumstances that he is trying to prevent. It’s a neat twist on the concept the show hinted at in Day of the Daleks, but Russell gets points for making it all a bit more elastic and a bit more high-concept. It isn’t an alternate future at stake, it’s an alternate past, and the whole thing seems like it could go round in an infinite and disturbing moebius loop. It’s a great concept, and I’m surprised that the revived series has never gotten quite that “timey wimey.”

Outside of that, the notion of two sides in the same war using literally the same weapon against each other (just reversed) is a fascinating commentary on the moral quagmire of war. The serial doesn’t stress it too heavily, but there’s a wonderful co-dependence between both sides of the conflict, where it’s clear that neither could exist independently. In order for there to be one, there must be the other. The linear chain of events – who did what, who started it – is irrelevant. Real Time exists in perpetual, infinite, stable conflict – a cycle of violence with no end, and to which there’s no discernable beginning. There’s no “aggressor” and no “victim”, because the two are so interrelated.

The Doctor's feeling blue today...

The Doctor’s feeling blue today…

There’s also a nice character beat, and one that wonderfully foreshadows the revived series by touching on the idea of the Doctor committing genocide against his enemies. The new series hasn’t been afraid to play the morality of such conduct, and it’s great to see it raised here in a story produced years before the revival aired. “We are the last of the Cyber race,” they advise the Doctor. “To destroy us would mean you were committing genocide.” It’s also great to see the Cybermen are smart enough to know what buttons to push when facing the Doctor. They are, it appears, very slowly learning.

Real Time isn’t perfect, but it’s good solid fun. Running at sixty minutes, it’s noticeably a lot pacier than Death Comes to Time, perhaps acknowledging how media has changed since the show was on the air. It’s a little too reliant on cliché for its own good, and it suffers from the lack of a conclusion, but there’s a lot to like here. Including, strangely enough to me, the Sixth Doctor.

 

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