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Doctor Who: The Specials (Review/Retrospective)

In theory, the specials were a great idea. The BBC is in the middle of converting to high-definition broadcast. One of their best-loved and most respected dramas isn’t quite ready to make that leap, and will require extensive re-working in order to be sustainable for high-definition broadcast, which seems to be the future of home entertainment. It’ll be a year before the show can get back to churning out thirteen episodes and a Christmas Special.

However, the show runner who brought the show back from the dead and turned it into a highlight of your broadcast schedule, and the beloved lead actor who has become deeply associated with the lead role are willing to do a series of five specials that you can broadcast to fill the gap year. Producing a series of Doctor Who specials to tide over the viewing public and keep the show fresh in the public’s mind was a great idea. After all, you don’t want fans to forget about the show.

doctorwho-theendoftimepart2o

The plan has the added benefit of allowing Russell T. Davies and David Tennant a bit more freedom to stretch their wings. Davies can work on Torchwood in a way that he was never able to find time before, producing the superb Children of Earth. Tennant can work with Royal Shakespearean Company, playing the lead in Hamlet. All this, and fans get their prescription dose of Doctor Who and the BBC has the time to upgrade the show so it can broadcast in high definition. Everybody wins! Everybody stays happy!

Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a catch. It turns out that these five episodes have to do more than merely “tide” fans over. These five specials are also the last episodes that will be written by Davies and that will star Tennant. So these five specials become more than just a way to stop the public forgetting about Doctor Who. They also have to close out what has been a phenomenal era for the show, and wrap up everything in a nice big bow. And this is where the specials don’t really work.

doctorwho-thewatersofmars19

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Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned (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.

Voyage of the Damned originally aired in 2007.

I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I’m nine hundred and three years old and I’m the man who’s going to save your lives and all six billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?

No.

In that case, allons-y!

– of course, the Doctor’s boasting would be much more effective if most of the cast didn’t die

Voyage of the Damned is an ambitious piece of Doctor Who, at least in terms of scope. It’s very clearly an attempt to do The Poseidon Adventure in space, on a television budget, with a sinister corporate conspiracy layered on top. It’s all this and a big Christmas Special guest starring Kylie Minogue to boot. That’s a lot to pile into a single episode, and Voyage of the Damned strains under the pressure.

There are various flaws that chip away at Voyage of the Damned. It’s very hard to do a disaster movie with about six sets and only one big set piece. The fact that this was all planned ahead of time gives the Doctor a convenient adversary to face, but it does over-crowd the script somewhat; Max Capricorn feels like a cardboard cut-out of a baddie. And Astrid feels less like a fully-formed companion in the style of Donna and more like a generic secondary character.

And yet, despite that, Davies’ ambition is infectious. Even if Voyage of the Damned struggles to carry off everything that it attempts, it’s still a remarkable accomplishment of tea-team Christmas viewing.

Ship-shape...

Ship-shape…

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Doctor Who: The Christmas Invasion (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 Christmas Invasion originally aired in 2005.

Oh, that’s rude. That’s the sort of man I am now, am I? Rude. Rude and not ginger.

– the Doctor

Part of what’s remarkable about The Christmas Invasion is that it’s a great big important episode. Not only is it the first Doctor Who Christmas Special, the beginning of a BBC institution, it’s also the first full-length adventure to feature David Tennant in the title role, and so it comes with a lot of expectations. Whereas most of Davies’ Christmas Specials tended to be relatively light fare – enjoyable run-arounds aimed rather squarely at the kind of people who didn’t tune into the show week-in and week-out – The Christmas Invasion is a pretty big deal.

It’s a vitally important part of Davies’ Doctor Who, and one that really lays out a general blue print for where he wants to take the series over the next few years. The fact that so much of this winds up tying back into the final story of the Davies era – The End of Time – is quite striking on re-watch.

Song for Ten(nant)...

Song for Ten(nant)…

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Doctor Who: Born Again (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.

Born Again originally aired in 2005.

Can you change back?

Do you want me to?

Yeah.

Oh.

Can you?

No.

– Rose and Doctor

Davies revived Doctor Who devoted considerable time to reintroducing the core concepts of the series. Unlike The TV Movie, Davies saw no need to over-complicate Rose by featuring the regeneration from the previous Doctor to the current lead. The Ninth Doctor was introduced as-is to an entire generation of new viewers. Only a quick examination of his features in Rose seemed to hint that he was getting used to his new face.

The prospect of “regeneration” hadn’t been flagged too heavily by the time The Parting of the Ways aired. This makes sense. For one thing, there’s a sense that Eccleston’s departure was not something that the production team had accounted for – which makes it even stranger that the whole first season seems to be building towards his redemption in death. For another thing, it’s very hard to drop “by the way, I change into somebody else when I die” casually into conversation.

So the regeneration at the end of The Parting of the Ways was kind of a big deal, and a huge moment for the series. After all, the classic Doctor Who had enjoyed more than three seasons with its lead character before having to swap him out – Hartnell being the last member of the original ensemble to depart. And, given the rules of television narratives in 2005, there was no way that the show’s first regeneration wasn’t going to be a pretty significant event.

Somebody needs a Doctor...

Somebody needs a Doctor…

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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 End of Time, Part I (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 I originally aired in 2009.

The human race was always your favourite, Doctor. But now, there is no human race. There is only the Master race.

– the Master always did like a good pun

The problem with The End of Time isn’t a lack of good ideas. Indeed, there are far too many good ideas here. There are enough large concepts here to sustain an entire season of Davies’ Doctor Who, from the resurrection of the Master to the return of Gallifrey to the resurrection gate to Naismith to the Tenth Doctor’s impending mortality and quite a few more. The End of Time is bristling with so many ideas and concepts that only the truly outrageous examples really stick. Is that really the Tenth Doctor’s mother?

The End of Time is fundamentally flawed, but it remains intriguing. There’s a wealth of good ideas here that tend to get drowned out in the spectacle and fury of it all, a sense that Davies had a wealth of clever ideas but was unable to tie them into anything fully satisfying.

Ten cedes the floor...

Ten cedes the floor…

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Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars (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 Waters of Mars originally aired in 2009.

Adelaide, I’ve done this sort of thing before. In small ways, saved some little people, but never someone as important as you. Oh, I’m good.

Little people? What, like Mia and Yuri? Who decides they’re so unimportant? You?

For a long time now, I thought I was just a survivor, but I’m not. I’m the winner. That’s who I am. The Time Lord Victorious.

– the Doctor does a pretty poor job of comforting Adelaide

The Waters of Mars is the strongest of the specials that ran from the end of the fourth season of Doctor Who through to David Tennant’s regeneration into Matt Smith on New Year’s Day 2010. Despite teasing the issue in The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead, The Waters of Mars is the first time that the show really engages with the mortality of the Tenth Doctor – exploring the idea that it might be time for the Tenth Doctor to leave. As much as the Tenth Doctor might be reluctant to leave, The Waters of Mars suggests that the character’s flaws are gaining critical mass and that his ego runs the risk of collapsing in on itself.

It’s a very bold and daring piece of Doctor Who, which is quite striking given the audience-pleasing “comfort food” nature of the other specials. Reinforcing ideas that Davies has been hinting at since the very start of the relaunch, The Waters of Mars is about how the Doctor can sometimes be absolutely terrifying.

This is what happens when the Doctor goes wrong.

This is what happens when the Doctor goes wrong.

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