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“Doctor Who?” The Deconstructed Davison Doctor…

This week, I had the privilege of stopping by The Galactic Yo-Yo to talk a little bit about Doctor Who with the wonderful Molly Marsh. In preparation for the episode, I rewatched the bulk of the Peter Davison era for the first time in years. I talked about it on the podcast, which is worth your time. But I also thought it was worth jotting some of the thoughts down in more detail.

Rewatching the Peter Davison era of Doctor Who is a strange experience for a number of reasons, not all of which are good.

The Davison era arguably served as a point of transition. It existed in the negative space between two particularly memorable incarnations of the Time Lord. Tom Baker is justifiably considered the most important and influential actor to play the role. Notably, he was the only lead from the classic series to get a showcase scene in The Day of the Doctor. Despite Colin Baker’s protestations, this made a great deal of sense. For an entire generation of television viewers – not just Doctor Who fans – Tom Baker is the Doctor.

On the other extreme, Peter Davison was succeeded by Colin Baker. Whether rightly or wrongly, Colin Baker occupies a similarly important place in the mythos. With his garish costume and his string of terrible stories, Colin Baker was long the public face of the decline and decay of Doctor Who as a cultural institution. This isn’t entirely fair. The rot had set in considerably earlier than Baker’s arrival, and there’s a sense in which he suffered from terrible timing. Still, Colin Baker wound up serving as the face of the show’s hiatus and the embarrassing Doctor in Distress.

This puts Peter Davison in a strange position. He is caught between these two hugely important moments in the show’s history. However, he also arguably lacks a strong cohesive identity like other iconic iterations of the character. The Fifth Doctor is a markedly different character from the iterations around him, and Davison was subject to criticisms from fans that his interpretation of the title character was “bland” or “boring.” It’s arguable that the Sixth Doctor’s abrasive personality was a direct response to this perceived blandness.

However, in just under three full seasons in the role, Peter Davison left quite a mark on the Time Lord. His final story, The Caves of Androzani, is rightly regarded as one of the finest Doctor Who stories ever made. (Indeed, it is one of the rare stories to have topped polls of fandom.) More to the point, it’s notable that Davison would become a surprisingly strong influence on the revival series. Tom Baker got to occupy centre stage in The Day of the Doctor, but Davison returned first in Time Crash. The short served primarily as a love letter to Davison’s influence on the role.

There’s a lot of very fascinating stuff happening during Davison’s time in the role, most of seemingly happening by accident. The most striking thing about Davison’s tenure in the role is the recurring sense that he doesn’t quite fit. The Fifth Doctor often seems to struggle with the basic narrative conventions of Doctor Who, wrestling with the series’ core concepts and underlying assumptions. Over the course of Davison’s three seasons in the role, Doctor Who seems to ask what might happen if there were an iteration of the Doctor who wasn’t up to the task.

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New Escapist Column! On Sixties Throwback Qualities of Chris Chibnall’s “Doctor Who”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine this evening, looking at Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who, which kicked off its second season with Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II last week.

Cosmetically, Chibnall has done a lot to modernise the show – the way it looks, the way it sounds, the way it’s structured. However, one of the most striking aspects of Chibnall’s era has been the way that it has drawn so heavily and so consciously from the show’s earliest days. Certain vocal segments of Chibnall’s Doctor Who complain that it is too modern and too disconnected from the show’s roots. This has always seemed a strange criticism to level at a showrunner who arguably owes as much to Terry Nation as he does to Russell T. Davies.

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

Doctor Who: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos (Review)

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos ends the eleventh season on something of a damp squib.

To be fair, there were a lot of hurdles facing The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos from the outset. Most obviously, the expectations of a season finale. Unlike when Doctor Who was first broadcast, season finales are a big deal. They are part of the structure and rhythm of a season of television in a highly competitive market place. Indeed, one of the big innovations of the Davies era was understanding this, with Russell T. Davies building all of his season to bombastic blockbuster season finales.

Hunting their quarry.

There are a lot of expectations heading into a season finale. The episode has to at once exist in the context of what came before and gesture towards the future, satisfy the audience who watched every episode leading into it and offer a compelling reason to stick with the show through a long hiatus. That reason to stick around does not have to be a hook or a plot point, it can simply be, “this show does stuff that nothing else on television is doing.”

However, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos faces a number of problems in this regard. Most obviously, it is only a single episode long, which means it is formally indistinct from the nine episodes before it. More than that, it has to cram a host of plot and character work into that space, which needs to be “bigger” (or even just “more”) than the rest of the season. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos has to be a blockbuster episode despite being indistinguishable from Kerblam! or The Witchfinders or It Takes You Away.

Actually, more like Paltraking down their quarry…

There is a reason that Moffat’s two single-episode season finales are among his most divisive, and those were consciously designed to defy the formal expectations of the season finale. Although The Wedding of River Song did not quite work, it was structured more as a fun run-around season opener than an epic season finale, most of its questions long answered. The Name of the Doctor was less of a season finale and more a springboard to The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor. Even then, Moffat returned to two-part finales in the Capaldi era.

To be fair, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos might be able to get away with this if the show had been seeding momentum leading into the finale in earlier episodes so that story begins with a sense of stakes. Think about the way that The Long Game set up Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways, or the way that Tooth and Claw or Rise of the Cybermen and Age of Steel built to Army of Ghosts and Doomsday. More applicable to The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, consider the repeated references to missing planets in the lead-in to The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End.

“Orange-a glad it isn’t the stinkin’ Daleks?”

There are undoubtedly aspects of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos that were seeded earlier in the season. Tim Shaw from The Woman Who Fell to Earth, the Stenza weapons testing in The Ghost Monument, the lost world in The Demons of the Punjab. However, none of these were developed with any sense of urgency, nor maintained across the length the season. None of them make any lasting impression. It is a minor miracle that any of the characters remember Tim Shaw, as he was never a compelling villain in the first place.

The result is a season finale that aspires towards a sense of scale that never feels earned, that never pays off, that never engages. It is a good thing that Resolutions will arrive in a little over three weeks, as it’s very hard to imagine The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos sustaining audience interest until the series returns in 2020.

“Battlefield: Ranskoor Av Kolos.”

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Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (Review)

It Takes You Away is a strong contender, along with Demons of the Punjab, for the strongest story of the eleventh season of Doctor Who.

It Takes You Away plays as an allegory. It is something of a fairy tale. It is perhaps the closest that the eleventh season of Doctor Who has come to feeling like a fairy tale, particularly given the conscious choice to root The Woman Who Fell to Earth in a more gritty and grounded universe. It Takes You Away seems like it could have been commissioned during the Moffat era, a lyrical meditation on the idea of loss and mourning. It Takes You Away is a story about needing to let go of trauma, rather than holding on it or carrying it inside.

Reflections and symbols.

To be fair, It Takes You Away is not perfect. There are still some minor pacing issues, particularly with how long the episode takes to get to the meat of the story; there is a sense in which It Takes You Away is three stories stitched together, with the middle segment particularly inessential. There is also the same over-reliance on weirdly specific and overly detailed nonsense techno-babble and mythology that stood out in episodes like The Ghost Monument or The Tsuranga Conundrum.

Still, It Takes You Away has some big ideas, a clever execution, and a strong central theme upon which both might be placed.

Mind the gap.

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Doctor Who: The Ghost Monument (Review)

The Ghost Monument feels almost worryingly safe.

To be fair, it is almost churlish to complain about this. The Woman Who Fell to Earth seemed designed to assure audiences that the Chibnall Era would be a safe pair of hands, a stylishly produced piece of televisual science-fiction that visually upped the ante in terms of how Doctor Who looked and felt on the small screen. It was consciously designed to be safe and accessible to new viewers, to avoid anything that could be considered weird or strange.

Artful appearance.

By all accounts, this approach paid off. Reviews for the episode were largely positive. The ratings were spectacular, with Jodie Whittaker premiering to a larger audience than any Doctor since Christopher Eccleston and earning the series its highest ratings since the end of the Davies Era. There is a lot to recommend this relatively safe approach to Doctor Who, particularly following the ambition and experimentation of the Moffat Era.

Chibnall is very much adopting a back-to-basics approach. The Woman Who Fell to Earth demonstrated the way such an approach could work. This is the function of premiere episodes, particularly following a regeneration or a significant change behind the scenes. The goal is to comfort audiences still curious whether Doctor Who is the show that they love and to welcome those viewers who might be dipping their toes into the water. Rose and The Eleventh Hour did this as well, constructing tightly-wound accessible thrill rides.

Piecing it together.

However, the question then becomes “what about the second episode?” What happens after the premiere? Having welcomed both old and new audiences into the fold, what does a showrunner do next? In the case of both Davies and Moffat, the answer was to produce something ambitious and messy, something that showcased just how weird and strange the series could be. If the premieres lured viewers in, the following episodes suggested what that audience might be in for; consider the gonzo weirdness of The End of the World or The Beast Below.

The Ghost Monument is a much cleaner and much more streamlined episode than either of those two. It is an efficient action adventure that carries over a lot of the more effective elements of The Woman Who Fell to Earth. However, The End of the World and The Beast Below also suggested just how bizarre and wonderful Doctor Who could be, underneath their messiness. The Ghost Monument is simply effective.

Things went South (Africa) very quickly.

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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: Series Eight (or Thirty-Four) (Review/Retrospective)

You asked me if you’re a good man and the answer is, I don’t know. But I think you try to be and I think that’s probably the point.

Peter Capaldi’s first season of Doctor Who is astonishingly linear.

That feels like a very weird thing to type, but it’s true. Executive producer Steven Moffat backed away from the ambitious structural experiments that defined the two previous seasons, pushing the show back towards a fairly conventional and logical structure. Between Deep Breath and Death in Heaven, there was a clear logical progression. The season did not begin at the end like The Impossible Astronaut did, or end at the beginning like The Name of the Doctor.

doctorwho-deepbreath2

Instead, things progressed cleanly and logically. Character arcs evolved in a very clear and structured way; themes built organically; the season’s central mysteries had little to do with the intricacies of time travel and more to do with guessing the nature of the returning threat. The result was perhaps the most accessible and linear season of Doctor Who since Steven Moffat’s first year as executive producer. In fact, it was the first season not to be split since Steven Moffat’s first season as executive producer.

To be fair, it is easy to see why such an approach was taken. While Peter Capaldi might be one of the most high profile and most successful actors to ever take on the lead role, changing the lead actor on successful television show is always a risky proposition; it is impossible to be too careful in managing the transition. The actor’s first season in the role is an endearing effort; a rather safe first half of the season giving way to a more adventurous and playful second half. While the season has a few flaws, it is hard to consider it anything but a massive success.

doctorwho-intothedalek17

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Doctor Who: Death in Heaven (Review)

Welcome to the only planet in the universe where we get to say this. “He’s on the payroll.”

Am I?

Well, technically.

How much?

Shush.

Death in Heaven doesn’t work quite as well as Dark Water. Then again, it has a lot more to do.

After all, Dark Water was a sublimely extended joke – a forty-five minute gag. It is easier to affectionately parody the excess of the Davies-era finalés in the first part than it is to offer a straight-up imitation of those same finalés in the second. This simply isn’t the sort of season finalé to which Moffat’s style lends itself. This is very much a return to the scale and mood of The Parting of the Ways, Doomsday, The Last of the Time Lords or Journey’s End – the type of big emotive farewell season-ender that the show hasn’t done in quite a while.

"Hm. It used to be a lot easier to inspire terror. Time was five Cybermen marching around St. Paul's Cathedral..."

“Hm. It used to be a lot easier to inspire terror. Time was five Cybermen marching around St. Paul’s Cathedral…”

This is a different beast than The Name of the Doctor, The Wedding of River Song or even The Big Bang. After all, although The Big Bang was the second part of a season finalé with the entire universe at stake, the bulk of the story featured familiar characters in a relatively confined space. In contrast, Death in Heaven is very much structured as an “event” story built around an iconic adversary and teasing the departure of a long-term companion. It is full of big emotional beats and stunning set-pieces, placing the entire Earth at the mercy of a massive extraterrestrial threat.

Most of Death in Heaven feels like Moffat is writing in a strange language; he knows the words, but the grammar does not entirely fit. And yet, despite that, Death in Heaven mostly works. It doesn’t work as well as it might; it isn’t the strongest script of the season by any stretch; it is a little disjointed, a little all over the place, a little too giddy with itself in places. However, it is as clever as viewers have come to expect from the show and the writer, remaining in tune with the season’s core themes and putting an impressive capstone in Peter Capaldi’s first season as the Doctor.

Psycho selfie!

Psycho selfie!

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Doctor Who: In the Forest of the Night (Review)

There are some things I have not seen. That’s usually because I’ve chosen not to see them. Even my incredibly long life is too short for Les Misérables.

On paper, In the Forest of the Night should be a highlight of the season. Frank Cottrell-Boyce is quite a sizeable “get” for the show, one of the most significant guest writers to work on Doctor Who in quite some time. Cottrell-Boyce is on the same level as Richard Curtis or Neil Gaiman, as far as “special guest writers” go. Coupled with the fact that this is the first time that the Twelfth Doctor has wandered into the “fairy tale” aesthetic that defined his predecessor, In the Forest of the Night should be a classic waiting to happen.

However, In the Forest of the Night never quite comes together as well as it should. At its best, it riffs on concepts already very thoroughly and thoughtfully explored in Kill the Moon. At its worst, it feels ill-judged and an awkward fit for the characters in the show. In the Forest of the Night comes at the end of a highly successful stretch of late-season episodes all credited to writers working on Doctor Who for the first time; it is quite endearing that In the Forest of the Night is the only stumbling block; ironically arriving at the latest possible moment.

Tyger, Tyger...

Tyger, Tyger…

Still, there is some interesting material here. It is also a sly and affectionate homage to the work of William Blake. Blake was famed author, illustrator and poet. In the Forest of the Night takes its title from a line in Blake’s most famous poem Fearful Symmetry. There are points where the episode goes out of its way to reference that work. The Doctor makes a reference to the year of its most popular publication, assuring the assembled audience that “a tiny little bit of 1795 still alive inside of it.” There is a tiger; there is burning bright.

However, these allusions towards Blake ultimately lead In the Forest of the Night into some very questionable ideas. William Blake was haunted throughout his life by visions and hallucinations. He saw things that were not real, but which informed and inspired his work. In the Forest of the Night tries to borrow from this aspect of Blake’s life in its characterisation of Maebh, a young girl with visions. It is a story that falls right back on the rather clichéd narrative about how medicating people suffering with mental illness is in effect destroying what makes them special or unique.

... burning bright.

… burning bright.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Heroes and Demons (Review)

This September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

In many ways, Heroes and Demons is a watershed moment for Star Trek: Voyager. The two previous episodes, Prime Factors and State of Flux, may have been far from perfect, but they did at least hint at a direction for the show. They suggested that maybe Voyager might be interested in engaging in some of the big philosophical questions raised by the crew’s unique situation. Stranded seventy thousand light-years from home, the ship was cut off from the Federation. It was isolated and alone. That meant that tough choices at least had to be debated.

While neither Prime Factors nor State of Flux made for particularly exciting television, they were episodes that felt specific to Voyager in a way that a lot of the first season really doesn’t. Unfortunately, Heroes and Demons represents a step backwards. Far from telling a story specific to Star Trek: Voyager, this feels like a script that could easily have been recycled from Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Can the Doctor hack it?

Can the Doctor hack it?

It’s written by veteran Next Generation writer Naren Shankar, who had also served on the staff of Deep Space Nine. He wrote Heroes and Demons as a freelancer, pitching the idea very early in the development cycle. Perhaps what is most remarkable is how little of Shankar’s script was adapted or edited from that first draft. In fact he described it to The Official Star Trek: Voyager Magazine as “the best experience I’ve ever had as a writer, in terms of writing something as a first draft and then seeing those exact words on screen.”

There’s a sense that Heroes and Demons is a fun story that could have really worked in any context, and doesn’t fit particularly well into the mould of Voyager‘s first season. This should be the year where Voyager is trying to find its own voice, rather than simply imitating that of its older siblings.

Only mostly armless...

Only mostly armless…

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