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Doctor Who: Battlefield – 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.

Battlefield originally aired in 1989.

Pitiful. Can this world do no better than you as their champion?

Probably. I just do the best I can.

– the Destroyer gets to know the Brigadier

Battlefield gets a bit of a bum rap as the weakest story in the final season of the classic Doctor Who. This isn’t entirely fair. Battlefield is a well-produced and thoughtful piece of Doctor Who, it just happens to be inferior to The Curse of Fenric, Ghost Light and Survival; it’s hardly the most damning indictment possible. After all, Battlefield would arguably be treated as an unsung gem had it aired during Colin Baker’s time on the show.

In keeping with Ben Aaronovitch’s last season opener, Remembrance of the Daleks, Battlefield is preoccupied with the history of the show – of its legacy and the artifacts that it carries with it. Archeology is a key theme here, but juxtaposed against a near future setting and the clever conceit of the Doctor manipulating his own history. There’s a wealth of great material here, even if the production never quite lives up to the potential teased.

A beacon of light...

A beacon of light…

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Doctor Who: The End of Time, Part II (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 End of Time, Part II originally aired in 2010.

I don’t want to go.

– the Doctor channels David Tennant and Russell T. Davies

The End of Time, Part II is an incredibly confident piece of science-fiction. It’s also fiendishly self-indulgent. “Where are you going?” Wilf asks the Doctor after the Doctor takes a fatal dose of radiation. “To get my reward,” the Doctor responds, as if he has earned enough credit and kudos that he can cash it in for one last victory lap around the cosmos. Cue an exceptionally sentimental sequence in which the Tenth Doctor visits most of his major companions (and a few minor ones) before he departs.

It’s a nice excuse to trot out the familiar characters from the Davies era one last time. Martha is there; Jack shows up; even Jackie Tyler gets a look-in. It’s not just the Tenth Doctor’s farewell tour of the universe, it’s a reminder of how skilfully Davies has built a world around his lead character. And this was really the last chance for the show to say goodbye to all of that. It makes a great deal of sense, and it’s well earned. Davies resurrected a television show that died a joke and turned it into a success story that was strong enough to anchor the Christmas and New Year schedules. He’s earned the right to be this self-indulgent.

Worlds apart...

Worlds apart…

The problem is that the show seems more than a little entitled, more than a little brash about what is owed to it. The universe owes the Tenth Doctor one last go around; the audience owes Tennant and Davies enough to put up with this sort of ham-fisted sentimentality. There’s a moment when the Doctor seems to honestly consider leaving Wilf to die from radiation poisoning, and rants against the cruelty of the universe. How dare the universe put him in a position where he has to make this sort of moral choice!

The problem is that the episode tries to present this a sympathetic moment. We’re supposed to emphasise with the Doctor as he considers walking away from a poor old man who has been nothing but helpful and trustworthy and friendly to him. The End of Time, Part II is clearly intended as a celebratory romp in the style of Journey’s End, a reminder of how Doctor Who conquered television. The problem is that The End of Time, Part II overplays its hand a bit, and over-estimates how much the audience loves the Tenth Doctor.

Not quite a blaze of glory...

Not quite a blaze of glory…

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Doctor Who: The Two Doctors (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 Two Doctors originally aired in 1985.

That is the smell of death, Peri. Ancient musk, heavy in the air.

– welcome to the Colin Baker era

The Two Doctors is an oddity. It’s the only story of the Nathan Turner era that runs over two hours, unless you choose to count The Trial of a Time Lord as a single story. It’s also the only “multi Doctor” story that wasn’t filmed on one of the show’s significant anniversaries. (Time Crash was, after all, filmed in the show’s forty-fifth year.) It’s also notable for the fact that it completely eschews the charmingly impish portrayal of the Second Doctor that fans have come to know and love over the course of reunion stories like The Three Doctors or The Five Doctors.

Indeed, The Two Doctors is almost the exact opposite of the show that you would expect it to be. The low opinion in which fans seem to hold the serial confirms that writer Robert Holmes has delivered a story that is markedly different from what those waiting for a team-up between Colin Baker and Patrick Troughton would have been expecting. Far from a nostalgia-packed love-in, The Two Doctors is written with Holmes’ trademark cynicism. This time the writer is directing that cynicism towards the show itself.

Patrick Troughton! In colour!

Patrick Troughton! In colour!

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Doctor Who: The Five Doctors (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 Five Doctors originally aired in 1983.

There was one chap we tried to get hold of. What was his name? Used to be your scientific advisor.

Oh, the Doctor.

Yes that’s right.

Wonderful chap. All of them.

– Crichton and the Brigadier get into the spirit of things

The Five Doctors is a big anniversary celebration for the franchise, reuniting all five… er, four… er, three of the actors to play the lead role and one guy in a dodgy wig. Written by Terrance Dicks, The Five Doctors is 100 minutes of pure celebration, without too much in the way of depth or drama or development. It’s a beautifully packaged “greatest hits” collection for the franchise, to the point where the generally nostalgic atmosphere of the rest of the twentieth season (pairing up the Doctor with foes from his twenty-year history) can’t help but feel a little a little shallow in comparison.

Producer John Nathan Turner and script editor Eric Saward tended to fixate a bit too heavily on the show’s history and its continuity, with stories often becoming oppressively burdened with in-jokes and references to events that took place decades ago. In contrast, Dicks is able to craft a healthy slice of nostalgia that remains accessible and enjoyable, giving everybody their moment in the sun.

Well, everybody but the Cybermen.

Terrance Dicks does not care for the Cybermen...

Terrance Dicks does not care for the Cybermen…

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Doctor Who: The Three Doctors (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 Three Doctors originally aired in 1973.

Well, Sergeant, aren’t you going to say it that it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Everybody else does.

It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?

– the Doctor and Benton

The Three Doctors never seems entirely sure what it’s supposed to be. It knows what it has to accomplish. This was the first serial of the tenth season of Doctor Who, so it has to feature the three versions of the character to date. It also wants to radically shake-up the status quo of the series and to allow Jon Pertwee’s Doctor to take to the cosmos. Those are really the two primary objectives of The Three Doctors, and writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin accomplish them quite well.

The problem is that the story itself isn’t sure what it wants to be. Pertwee-era script editor Terrance Dicks would be a lot more confident when juggling The Five Doctors, conceding that the whole thing was a gigantic nonsensical spectacle. The Three Doctors seems almost like a regular story with the tenth anniversary grafted on to it – it’s easy enough to imagine a rough outline of this story that could work with only Jon Pertwee and without the end of his exile.

As a result, the two strongest beats in The Three Doctors feel almost like afterthoughts, grafted on to the outline of a generic and somewhat bland Doctor Who adventure.

Why does the Doctor hate himself...?

Why does the Doctor hate himself…?

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Doctor Who: Carnival of Monsters (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.

Carnival of Monsters originally aired in 1973.

Roll up and see the monster show! A carnival of monsters, all living in their natural habitat, wild in this little box of mine. A miracle of intragalactic technology! Roll up! Roll up! Roll–

– Vorg welcomes us to the new world

There’s a valid argument to be made that Carnival of Monsters is the heart of the show’s tenth anniversary celebrations. Sure, it lacks the bombast of recruiting William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton to guest star in The Three Doctors, but it’s very much an affectionate love letter to the show and a bold statement of purpose going forward. With the Time Lord’s ending the Doctor’s exile in The Three Doctors, the whole universe is at his doorstep.

Carnival of Monsters, then, is really the point at which a specific era of Doctor Who can be said to begin. While the First and Second Doctors had journeyed to other worlds and times, they had done so in black-and-white. The whole point of exiling the Doctor to Earth way back in Spearhead from Space was so that the shift to colour wouldn’t destroy the suspension of disbelief. The hope was that grounding the series might make it possible to maintain suspension of disbelief in bright colour.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

While the Third Doctor has ventured to other worlds before (Colony in Space, Curse of Peladon, The Mutants), this is the point in the show where Doctor Who becomes the full-colour adventures of a man traveling through space and time in a blue box. This is the point at which cardboard sets and dodgy alien design become more than just occasional quirks – they become an expected part of the formula.

In a way, Carnival of Monsters is just as much a bold statement of purpose as Spearhead from Space was.

In the palm of his hands...

In the palm of his hands…

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Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors (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 Ice Warriors originally aired in 1967.

It’s strange that the Jon Pertwee era tends to attract so much criticism for adhering so rigidly to formula, with Barry Letts and his team rigidly working within well-defined lines and trying hard to produce television that doesn’t suck. Outside of the political criticism of the Pertwee era, there’s a train of thought that suggests the show became a little too formulaic, a little too predictable, failing to really push its own boundaries, with a few scattered exceptions.

And yet the Patrick Troughton era was arguably just as much a slave to routine and formula. The Troughton era is defined by its “base under siege” stories, so massively influential that they’ve become a Doctor Who subgenre unto themselves. Episodes like Earthshock and The Almost People arguably serve as homages to the genre that peaked during the late sixties. Indeed, allowing for some measure of flexibility, six of the seven adventures in this season could be described as “base under siege” stories.

I can’t help but wonder if the destruction of so many Troughton-era stories has led many Doctor Who fans to become blinded by nostalgia reflecting on the era. The Tomb of the Cybermen is, after all, much more exciting as the sole surviving “base under siege” story of the fifth season than it as the first of six adventures loosely adhering to the same structure and conventions.

Ice to meet you...

Ice to meet you…

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