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“I Deny This Reality”: On the Broken Reality of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes’ “Doctor Who”….

The fourteenth season of the classic Doctor Who was recently released on blu ray. In an unprecedented movie, there is a reissue of the blu ray box set coming in July. With the twelfth and fourteenth seasons available on blu ray, the bulk of the era overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe has been packaged on the latest home media format. As such, I thought it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on the era, and its subtext – which is eerily resonant on contemporary rewatch.

For an entire generation, Tom Baker will always be the star of Doctor Who. There is a reason, after all, why Baker was the only previous lead actor to get a major role in The Day of the Doctor, as opposed to being shunted off into specials or shorts or other supplemental material. There’s a number of reasons for this. Part of it is simple math, with Baker spending more time in the role than any other actors. Part of it is simply that Baker’s performance is iconic. Part of it is that Baker was the actor who tended to be featured on airings of the show on PBS in the United States.

However, there’s also the simple fact that Tom Baker had a pretty good run – at least at first. While there are certainly defenders of Baker’s final four seasons in the role, Baker’s first three years headlining Doctor Who count among the most consistently satisfying periods in the history of the show. From his admittedly rough around the edges introduction in Robot to his third season finale in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, there is a remarkable consistency to Doctor Who. Arguably it is the longest such period of consistency until Peter Capaldi was cast nearly four decades later.

These three seasons were overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. Hinchcliffe and Holmes were lucky to be inheriting the show from a successful pairing of producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, which gave them a solid springboard from which they might launch themselves. Hinchcliffe and Holmes immediately veered the show towards horror, with stories like The Ark in Space or The Sontaran Experiment. It was a radical departure from the action adventure that defined the previous era, but was just what the show needed.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes codified a certain aesthetic of Doctor Who. Indeed, within the revival, there’s about a fifty-fifty chance that any historical episode is going to play like an homage to their work, with examples like The Unquiet Dead or Tooth and Claw coming to mind. This was the era that attracted the ire of Mary Whitehouse, who famously described it as “teatime brutality for tots.” It codified the idea of watching Doctor Who from “behind the sofa.” When writer Peter Harness was commissioned to write Kill the Moon, he was directed to “Hinchcliffe the sh!t” out of the first half.

Rewatching these stories today, it’s interesting how much they resonate and how much the horror at their core still works. This era of Doctor Who has its fair share of iconic monsters like the Wirrn from The Ark in Space, but a lot of the horror is abstract. The Hinchcliffe era is firmly anchored in classic horror stories, with Pyramids of Mars and Brain of Morbius most overtly evoking Hammer Horror and stories like Planet of Evil drawing from stories like The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, but its horror is more existential than that.

The Hinchcliffe era is preoccupied with the notion of long-dormant threats resurfacing and threatening the established order of the universe, long-vanquished foes reviving themselves and causing existential crises. More than that, these three seasons are particularly preoccupied with the anxiety about a fracturing and warping reality, in a way that feels strangely prescient and probably resonates even more strongly these days than it did on original broadcast.

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New Escapist Column! “Doctor Who”, “Mission to the Unknown” and Resurrecting the Lost Past…

I published a new Don’t Miss It! piece at Escapist Magazine over the weekend. This one looking at one of the genuine marvels of the modern internet.

Students at the University of Central Lancaster lovingly recreated a lost episode of Doctor Who. Mission to the Unknown was purged from the BBC archives, and thought forever lost along with a host of other classic adventures, so it is amazing to see it brought to life. It is a fascinating episode in a number of respects, from its position as a prelude to the epic Daleks’ Master Plan through to the fact that it’s the rare Doctor Who story without any involvement of the Doctor whatsoever. More than that, though, the recreation is a stunning piece of work from all involved.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Doctor Who: The Witch’s Familiar (Review)

“Of course, the real question is where I got the cup of tea. Answer: I’m the Doctor, just accept it.”

– the Doctor tells it how it is

As is the norm for Moffat-era Dalek episodes, The Witch’s Familiar is a mess… but it is an interesting mess.

The Witch’s Familiar works best as a collection of intersecting character moments than a narrative in its own right. In some respects, The Witch’s Familiar feels like a season premiere in the same way that The Magician’s Apprentice did; it is light and breezy, with more energy devoted to character dynamics than to dramatic stakes. The Witch’s Familiar is quite blatantly set-up; it is all about establishing things that might possibly become more important later on. Davros is revived; the Hybrid is mentioned; Skaro is back in play.

Destiny of the Davros...

Destiny of the Davros…

The plot is all over the place, with Moffat’s script avoiding retreading old thematic ground about “the Oncoming Storm” and justifiable genocide by barely alluding to the moral quandaries that The Magician’s Apprentice set-up. When Davros alludes to the idea of the Doctor wiping out the Daleks through a single act of murder, or harnessing all that power for his own ends, it feels like Davros is just barreling through a check list of cheap shots that any major adversary is expected to land when facing the Doctor. The Dalek Emperor did it more convincingly in The Parting of the Ways.

Still, this familiarity does allow The Witch’s Familiar to lock the Doctor and Davros in a room together for an extended period of time. It affords the pair the chance to trade barbs and to understand one another in a way that no previous story has attempted. One of the more interesting aspects of a season of ninety-minute stories told across multiple episodes in 2015 is that the format is remarkably different than a season of ninety-minute stories told across multiple episodes in 1989. This is a season of serialised stories, but it is not a return to the classic model.

Exterma- wait a minute!

Exterma- wait a minute!

The classic series would never have been able to pull off this sort of quiet and understated interaction between the Doctor and Davros. The nature of a classic Dalek story was to build to a climax of the Doctor and Davros screaming at each other across the room; the pleasure of The Witch’s Familiar is the space that it affords both characters to move past the shouting and to something towards mutual comprehension. It helps that The Witch’s Familiar has two fantastic central performers in Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach.

The Witch’s Familiar might be yet another example of the Moffat era trying and failing to construct an entirely functional Dalek story, but it is quite possibly the single best Davros story ever told. (Give or take a Revelation of the Daleks.)

Shades of grey...

Shades of grey…

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Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice (Review)

“The TARDIS will not be entered. The TARDIS will be destroyed.

“Good luck with that. She’s indestructible.”

“Did the Doctor tell you that? Because you should never believe a man about a vehicle.”

 – The Daleks, Clara and Missy share some truths

The ninth season is certainly ambitious.

The idea of building an entire season around a series of interconnected two-parters is a departure from the show’s traditional format. It certainly makes it a lot harder to review the show on a week-by-week basis, if only because it means that reviewers are talking about each episode having only seen around half the story. That is not the way that people typically consume Doctor Who. Even modern DVD releases of the classic series package whole series together so it is not so much a four- (or six-) part episode as a single story.

Battlefield.

Battlefield.

Since it returned to television in 2005, Doctor Who has adopted an approach to narrative driven by the single episode as the default narrative unit. Sure, there were multi-part stories; but they were the exception rather than the rule. Sure, there were season long arcs; but they were largely driven by arc words and core themes as much as plot. This was, after all, the big controversy over Moffat’s “Impossible Girl” arc, which was presented as a plot mystery only to be revealed as a clever thematic point.

During the Davies era, the two-parters were typically allocated for big “event” episodes. There were roughly three in a season, and they allowed the show to adopt a bigger sense of scale and spectacle. The first two-parter was typically lighter and little bit toyetic (the “toy monster” two-parter) and the second was a lot darker and ominous (the “highlight of the season” two-parter). Davies would then use a two-parter to provide a suitably bombastic conclusion to the season, offering “blockbuster” family entertainment at the height of summer.

An axe to grind...

An axe to grind…

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Doctor Who: Into the Dalek (Review)

Fantastic idea for a movie. Terrible idea for a proctologist.

– the Doctor’s ten-word review of Fantastic Voyage

If you’re looking for a writer to collaborate with on a “dark Doctor” story, it would seem that Phil Ford is your man. Phil Ford collaborated with showrunner Russell T. Davies on Waters of Mars, the penultimate story of David Tennant’s tenure. Here, he finds himself writing with showrunner Stephen Moffat on the second story of Peter Capaldi’s tenure. So he also does symmetry where Scottish Doctors are involved. That’s a pretty solid niche, as far as Doctor Who script-writing goes.

Both Waters of Mars and Into the Dalek are stories that serve to problematise the Doctor; but each does it to a different purpose. Waters of Mars was positioned as the second-to-last story of the Davies era. It serves as the point where the Tenth Doctor’s hubris reaches massive proportions and explodes. It serves, in a way, as the justification for his departure in The End of Time. In contrast, Into the Dalek serves to solidify a character arc that was hinted at in Deep Breath, the Twelfth Doctor’s existential crisis.

doctorwho-intothedalek3

Into the Dalek is the source of the much-hyped exchange between Clara and the Doctor about the latter’s nature as a Steven Moffat protagonist. “Clara, be my pal and tell me: am I good man?” the Doctor asks. The best that Clara can manage is, “I don’t know.” The Doctor responds, “Neither do I.” This isn’t the first time that the show has dared to present a morally ambiguous lead character. Colin Baker’s infamous Sixth Doctor comes to mind, but Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor was arguably a more successful attempt to give the audience an ambiguous Doctor.

As such, Into the Dalek cannot help but invite comparisons to Eccleston’s morally charged confrontation a broken Dalek in Dalek. Sadly, it’s not a comparison that does Into the Dalek any favours.

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Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (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.

Genesis of the Daleks originally aired in 1975.

Genesis of the Daleks is a great little story, and a strong contender for the title of “best Dalek story ever.” It works because Terry Nation takes his creations “back to basics” – not only in terms of time period, but also in terms of basic principles. If the Daleks are the embodiment of total warfare, it makes perfect sense to return to the war that spawned them, giving us an insight into their creation, and the philosophy that launched these deadly xenophobes into the wider universe.

Face of evil...

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Doctor Who: Day of the Daleks – Special Edition (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.

Day of the Daleks originally aired in 1972.

Day of the Daleks is a rather wonderful little story that’s been tucked away and forgotten about due its fairly lousy execution. After all, it’s hard to take a story particularly seriously when it suggests that the fate of the world will be decided by an assault on an old country house by three Daleks and a handful of extras. The wonderful people on the Doctor Who Restoration Team have done a wonderful job putting together a special edition of the adventure, using enhanced CGI effects and new footage to give the story the scale that it really deserves. After all, Day of the Daleksrepresents a bold attempt to do something new with the time travel at the very heart of the series.

Dawn of the Daleks...

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Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks (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.

Remembrance of the Daleks originally aired in 1988.

You can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies.

– the Doctor explains why the Daleks needed to be badass again

I think Sylvester McCoy’s tenure in the lead role has been vindicated by history. While he may have been the title character as the show slid quietly into cancellation, there’s no denying the massive impact that the show has had on the hugely popular revival. It’s quite something that the McCoy era managed not only inspire both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, but in two radically different ways. Although it kicks off his second year in the role, you could make the argument that all of that really kicks off with Remembrance of the Daleks, which was also a hell of a way to celebrate the show’s twenty-fifth birthday.

They’ll never keep them clean…

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Doctor Who: The Daleks (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.

The Daleks originally aired in 1963-4.

Make! no! attempt! to! capture! them! they! are! to! be! exterminated! you! understand! exterminated!

– four episodes in, the Daleks have a catchphrase

Because of the somewhat confusing naming conventions for the Hartnell era, where each individual episode had its own title, this one goes by a variety of names: The Mutants, The Dead Planet, or The Daleks. Still, if you’re reading this, you probably know the serial I’m talking about. It’s the one that introduced everyone’s favourite psychotic little pepper pots.

Taking the plunger…

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A Matter of Time – Doctor Who: Season 5

Sorry… Sorry! Dropped it!

Hello, Stonehenge! Who takes the Pandorica, takes the universe. But bad news everyone… cause guess who! Listenw you lot, cause you’re all whizzing about – it’s really could distracting. Could you all just stay still for a minute? Because I. am. talking!

Now, question of the hour: who’s got the Pandorica? Answer: I do. Next question: who’s coming to take it from me?

C’mon!

Look at me: no plan, no backup, no weapons worth a damn – oh, and something else I don’t have? Anything to lose! So if you’re sitting up there in all your silly little spaceships with your silly little guns and you’ve got any plans on taking the Pandorica tonight, just remember who’s standing in your way; remember every black day I ever stopped you; and then – and then! – do the smart thing: let somebody else try first.

– The Doctor, The Pandorica Opens

Well, the first season of Stephen Moffat’s run of Doctor Who is over. And what a ride it was. On one hand, you had budget cuts at the BBC, putting an even great financial strain on the show’s transition to high definition, the first wholsecale chance of the entire cast between seasons since the show’s transition to colour in 1970 (and, fittingly, this was the show’s transition to high definition), and you had the World Cup skewing ratings towards the backend of the season. On the other hand, you had the writer of some of the show’s best episodes directing the entire run behind the scenes, the exploration of the time travelling nature of the central protagonist, and a blatant admission that the show is more a fairytale than a science fiction epic. And along the way, there was barely enough time to catch your breath.

No time to lose...

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