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Doctor Who: Survival (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.

Survival originally aired in 1989.

Where to now, Ace?

Home.

Home?

The TARDIS.

Yes, the TARDIS. 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, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do!

– the Doctor and Ace turn off the lights on their way out

There was a long gap between Survival and Rose. It was filled with stuff. It was filled with lost of interesting and different Doctor Who stuff. There were books and audio plays and even a television movie to help fill the decade and a half when Doctor Who was not a regular feature of British television. A lot of that stuff was important, and a lot of it helped determine and shape what Doctor Who would become when it did return. It’s telling that the many members of the writing staff on the revived Doctor Who cut their teeth on novels and short stories and audio plays and specials in the wilderness years, while no writers returned from the classic show.

At the same time, however, the gap between Survival and Rose doesn’t feel as profound as it might. It’s misleading to suggest that Survival was a clear bridge towards the Russell T. Davies era, or even to hint that the revival could have emerged fully formed from this three-part closing serial. At the same time, Survival is really the closest that the classic series ever came to the spirit of the Davies era, hitting on quite a few familiar themes and ideas and settings, as if Cartmel’s vision of the future of Doctor Who was not too far from the version proposed by Davies.

Survival was the end of an era, but it also motioned towards the start of another.

Riding into the sunset...

Riding into the sunset…

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Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric – 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.

The Curse of Fenric originally aired in 1989. The special edition cut of the episode was released on DVD in 2003.

I’ve said it a lot over this past year, but you really have to be incredibly grateful for the wonderful team behind the classic Doctor Who DVD releases. Not only do they loving restore classic adventures that might be forgotten to the ages, and not only do they packages the episodes with buckets of in-depth and lovingly-made featurettes, but they also occasionally revisit classic serials to bring them up-to-date, or to move them more in line with the director or writer’s artistic vision. Sure, some of these “special editions” occur in the most random of places (Planet of Fire, anyone?) or simply to remove a few technical impairments holding a story back from being an entertaining romp (as in Day of the Daleks), but occasionally they do something more substantial. In this instance, they make a great adventure into something truly spectacular.

This is not a drill…

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Doctor Who: Ghost Light (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.

Ghost Light originally aired in 1989.

Sir, I think Mister Matthews is confused.

Never mind, I’ll have him completely bewildered by the time I’m finished.

– Gwendoline and the Doctor may as well be talking about the audience

Ghost Light is rather infamous as the “impossible to follow” story from the final year of Doctor Who, the episode that doesn’t quite make sense or fit together as well as it should. Although there’s an element of exaggeration here, there’s also a grain of truth. As with Silver Nemesis, there’s a sense that Andrew Cartmel’s approach to three-part adventures is simply to structure a four-part story and start whittling it down.

Of course, there’s one massive difference between Ghost Light and Silver Nemesis. While Silver Nemesis was a retread of ground that had been covered with more skill and thought in the season premiere, Ghost Light is something altogether different. As difficult as the episode is to piece together – and it’s far from impossible, even if it requires an increased level of engagement from its audience – it is quite brilliant.

Shine on, you crazy survey dude...

Shine on, you crazy survey dude…

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Doctor Who: The Beast Below (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 Beast Below originally aired in 2010.

What are you going to do?

What I always do. Stay out of trouble. Badly.

So is this how it works, Doctor? You never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets, unless there’s children crying?

Yes.

– Amy and the Doctor reiterate the way things work

Steven Moffat’s first season producing Doctor Who owes a conscious debt to the rigid structure of the seasons produced by Russell T. Davies. There’s an opening episode in contemporary Britain, followed by one episode visiting the past, one visiting the future. There are three two-parters – the season finalé, a “monster”-driven two-parter and a more atmospheric and moody piece. There’s even a brief spell in the middle of the season where Moffat spices up the TARDIS dynamic by adding in a temporary companion.

This approach worked quite well. It’s worth noting that Moffat’s first season was the only point following the departure of Russell T. Davies that Doctor Who was able to deliver thirteen episodes of the show on thirteen consecutive weeks. It struck something of a happy middle between Davies’ more episodic approach to the show that the more arc-driven storytelling favoured by Moffat. Still, there are moments when it seems like this approach isn’t quite the perfect fit, with Moffat’s voice struggling to fit into the structure established by Davies.

Essentially Steven Moffat’s impression of Russell T. Davies’ update of Andrew Cartmel’s social allegory stories, The Beast Below is an interesting – if slightly unsuccessful – experiment. Moffat’s second season would feature much more effective attempts to evoke the Cartmel era of the classic show, without the sense that Moffat was trying a little too hard to emulate his predecessor.

The space in-between...

The space in-between…

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Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol (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 Happiness Patrol originally aired in 1988.

Think I’ll hang out here for a while, Doc. See if I can teach this planet the blues again.

Yes, thank you for giving them back to us, Doctor.

– Earl and Susan shouldn’t be so surprised that the Doctor is fond of blue

The Happiness Patrol is an absolutely fascinating piece of Doctor Who. On the surface, it’s another example of the series’ rapidly falling budget and the production values point towards the show’s impending cancellation. While nowhere near as dodgy as Warriors of the Deep, The Happiness Patrol looks like a very cheap piece of television, struggling to realise a futuristic colony on a tiny budget. On a purely superficial level, The Happiness Patrol is really the kind of show that Michael Grade could point to and argue that Doctor Who was a show that desperately needed to be put out of its misery.

However, if the viewer is willing to pull back the layers a bit, and to peer beneath the somewhat rough trappings of The Happiness Patrol, the adventure is really everything that eighties Doctor Who could ever want to be. There is a reason that the serial has, somewhat improbably, endured. In 2010, The Happiness Patrol became headline news in Great Britain, with national newspapers astounded by the audacity of Andrew Cartmel’s vision for the show. The following year, the Archbishop of Canterbury casually name-dropped it in an Easter Sermon.

These references aren’t derogatory. These are proof that The Happiness Patrol, despite its dodgy special effects and the limitations of its production design, is one of the most important Doctor Who adventures of the eighties.

He's perfectly sweet!

He’s perfectly sweet!

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Doctor Who: Time Crash (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.

Time Crash originally aired in 2007.

To days to come.

All my love to long ago.

– the Fifth and Tenth Doctors look backwards and forwards

There is a strange school of thought about the revived Doctor Who, populated by a very vocal minority of fans, who insist that the new series hasn’t been paying nearly enough attention to what came before – that it’s really the show “in name only” or whatever extremist rhetoric you want to use. These are the fans who refuse to be satisfied with The Day of the Doctor because it’s not “The Eleven Doctors”, without having actually seen the anniversary special.

These are fans who are heartbroken that the show hasn’t found time to show Paul McGann regenerating into Christopher Eccleston, or who object to the destruction of Gallifrey or the re-working of monsters with messy back stories like the Cybermen in order to make them more accessible to modern audiences. It’s worth stressing that this viewpoint is very much in the minority, but it exists. Any journey into on-line forums or discussions about the show will inevitably trip across this particular viewpoint.

Of course, that’s complete nonsense. Even if it was ambiguous beforehand, Time Crash exists as nothing short a love letter to a very particular past era of the show.

More than just a tip of the hat...

More than just a tip of the hat…

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (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 Green Death originally aired in 1973.

Where are you off to?

To pack a suitcase.

Oh, good. Give me a couple of minutes and we’ll be off.

Off? Off where?

Well, Metebelis III, of course.

I’m not going to Metebelis III.

Why? Where are you thinking of going to?

Well, South Wales, of course. Llanfairfach.

– the Doctor and Jo discuss travel plans… why would you want to go to Metebels III when you can visit South Wales?

The Green Death is a great example of the Jon Pertwee era. It offers a pretty solid showcase of the best of the era, along with the glaring structural and thematic weaknesses that the show never really tackled head-on. It’s a great yarn, an affectionate run-around. There is a reason, after all, that the overgrown maggots have managed to wedge themselves in British popular consciousness. There’s a conscious sense that The Green Death is a season finalé, in the biggest and boldest terms possible.

In an era where television wasn’t really structured in that way, you can trace a pretty clear line between The Green Death and the big epic series finalés of the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who.

And the Beatz go on...

And the Beatz go on…

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