The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

All the ingredients in this are right, but somehow it didn’t quite click with me. I think it was the slightly odd atmosphere that comes as a result of the whole thing being shot in a tent in an Elstree car park. Those billowing sheets that had to act as makeshift studio walls didn’t look great, and it was understandably difficult to get the geography of the place across.

I liked the premise, but I feel they could have made more of the competing-to-be-the-most-entertaining aspect. The Doctor should have had far more opportunities to play the fool and defy the odds, as he did beautifully in the final episode. Captain Cook was a first grade shithouse, and the bits where he ruthlessly pushed others into danger were often the highlights, as were the enjoyably-irritating popcorn-munching family.

But I did also enjoy the other elements, particularly Mags. It looked like she was just a standard companion stand-in for while, so her turning out to be a big old werewolf was a nice twist, and good fun. The main clown was delightfully creepy, and brilliantly played. I could take or leave most of the other circus crew, but the script did well to include such a large guest cast and still make them all distinct and memorable.

I was amused to note that rap music has finally reached the Doctor Who production office, and while it was awfully cheesy, I enjoyed it as a nostalgic throwback to the type of godawful efforts produced by well-meaning kids’ shows of my youth. I also enjoyed the deranged bus conductor robot, and the wonderfully mean market stall woman. Both were perhaps unnecessary additions to an already packed roster, but enjoyable ones, and it helped to create a detailed and busy world.

Whizzkid was amusing, particularly as it’s Adrian Mole cosplaying as Osgood. The line about how he’d never seen the early stuff but he knew it was better than it is now was funny but particularly barbed, and the whole thing came across as a little mean-spirited overall. You got the impression that JNT would have enjoyed seeing him killed off a little too much.

Do you know what? Not for the first time, I’ve talked myself round having gone through and processed my thoughts on all the components. I can look past the odd atmosphere and remember a great sense of fun running through the story, and it’s good to see the show firing on all cylinders. When Sophie and Sylvester have half-decent material, they’re one of the all time classic pairings, and this season has confirmed that the rot has very much stopped, and that there was more life in this old dog of a show than it ended up with.

RATING: 8

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 7.75

  • Seasons/Series watched: 25 of 35
  • Stories watched: 151 of 263
  • Individual episodes watched: 681 of 826

Indeed, that’s the best average season rating since Davison’s first, although when the seasons are this short, a stand-out like Remembrance will push the average up. One more season to go, and I’ll have watched every episode of Doctor Who ever. Part of me doesn’t want it to end, but now I’m beginning to really look forward to the satisfaction of reaching the finish line.

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Silver Nemesis

Well, as an officially designated anniversary story, that was pretty underwhelming, especially considering it’s the second time this story’s been done this season. The ancient Gallifreyan weapon? Different factions fighting over it? The Doctor being all mysterious, before revealing that he’d set the whole thing up in the first place in order to destroy one of his greatest enemies? Ace’s ghetto blaster? It’s exactly the same as Remembrance, only not as good, and their proximity really emphasises this.

The Cybermen were the big baddies here, looking shinier than ever before with their big silver heads. They were pretty ineffectual here, with no real plan and absolutely no control over proceedings. They were just constantly chasing the action, making threats that they never put into action, and retreating at the first signs of trouble. I love the idea of the Cybermen, but they’ve only ever been brilliant in the 60s. These are a very pale imitation of the originals.

I was obviously aware beforehand that this is supposedly one of the worst of all time, and while I can certainly see why people think that way, I didn’t think it was completely terrible. This is mainly thanks to McCoy and Aldred, who have an incredible energy between them. Ace is quickly becoming the perfect companion – ballsy, fiercely loyal, capable of being truly exceptional and yet remaining completely identifiable. She’s much, much closer to Rose than she is to Mel.

As with Remembrance, the best bits of this one surrounded The Doctor and the newfound levels of mystery around his past. All the stuff towards the end about his secrets being unveiled was great, as was his defiance, almost willing Lady Whatserchops to just do it and fuck the consequences. McCoy is a great Doctor, and he really excels whenever he gets the opportunity to inhabit the darker side of his nature.

Aside from this and the other parts that mirrored Remembrance, the plot was pretty thin and forgettable, but there were enough neat little touches to keep me interested. Nazis are always fun – as long as they’re fictional and not part of the President’s staff – and I liked the comedy wrung out of Elizabethan pair and their chat in the back of a limo. Also a big fan of The Doctor chasing the Queen around Windsor Castle, and I’m amused to note that Cybermen hate jazz. At last we agree on something.

Add in some decent fight sequences, most of which involving seeing rubbish Cybermen being blown up by golden projectiles, and while it’s far from excellent, it’s nowhere near the worst of all time. It’s not even the worst this season, and is actually quite enjoyable in the most part, and I think being confined to three episodes helps. These serials, and indeed seasons, are just zipping by at the moment. I’m past half way on McCoy, and I’m rapidly running out of classic DVDs…

RATING: 7

The Happiness Patrol

From now until the end of the classic run, all of these stories are new to me; Remembrance was the latest I’d previously delved. There are so few left and they’re all so well-documented that I know a fair few details about most of the remaining titles, and The Happiness Patrol was certainly one that I came to with a few preconceptions.

I remember a minor controversy a few years ago when it suddenly emerged that this was a secret leftie BBC attack on the Thatcher government. The allegory is definitely there, and Sheila Hancock is very good as Helen A, but then she’s Sheila Hancock, so you expect that. She uses Thatcher’s mannerisms sparingly, usually only when she’s addressing her public or talking to Joseph C/Denis, and the language is subtly reminiscent of Thatcher, rather thanĀ  directly quoting.

However, while the parallels with the miners strike were handled well, I feel like they could have gone further to stick the boot in a little more. I was expecting a slightly toothier satire, but you could tell that it had been toned down between first and final drafts. It was only towards the end that they really started to portray the heartless, unfeeling, amoral side of Thatcher, and then it sort of descended in to wish fulfillment by having her empire collapse so emphatically. On the plus side, it successfully predicted some of the betrayal and backstabbing that led to the real Thatcher’s eventual ousting, but the side-effect is that it looks like The Doctor killed Helen A’s pet dog in order to make a point.

Fifi was reminiscent of a Jim Henson creature, and quite a nifty piece of design, which is more than can be said for the other infamous thing about this story. Regardless of the fact that it is clearly a rip-off of Bertie Bassett, no matter what anyone may say, The Kandy Man is just ridiculous and rubbish. It’s the voice, and the spinny little eyes, and the giant metal moustache. There are times when you can almost look past the design and start to see him as a threat, but then he says stuff like “I am a Kandy Man of my word” or “you’ll feel the back of my Kandy Hand”, and you’re reminded of how preposterous he is.

Elsewhere, like many other stories of this era, it’s an interesting premise that’s let down by the execution. The sets weren’t great, and you could tell that this was the cheap one of the season. Not for the first time in Doctor Who, the decision to put all the extras in identical wigs, costumes and make-up made it difficult for me to follow the story, or it could just be that the plot wasn’t particularly cohesive. The revolution seemed to come out of nowhere, and the stand-out scenes – such as The Doctor talking the snipers out of killing him, or taking to the stage to initiate the uprising – were few and far between.

It might have been interesting to go further down the film noir route, as a more consistent and distinctive style would have helped disguise the shortcomings. The candy-themed death factory, indigenous pipe midgets and happiness-enforcing death squads all felt like they came from different stories, and the only attempt to tie them together was through a wandering freelance harmonica player. This added a certain amount of atmosphere, but it ended up being a bit annoying, and that pretty much sums it up for the serial in general.

RATING: 6

Remembrance of the Daleks

Oh, wow. The last season showed improvement at a steady and somewhat slow pace, but this is something else. The show has spent three seasons in a state were the highlights are only as good as the more average episodes of any other era, and now all of a sudden they deliver one of the finest serials of all time.

The pre-credits sequence suggests we’re in for something special, and the scale is impressive right from the start, with massive explosions left right and centre, and no delay whatsoever in wheeling out some heavy Dalek action. It’s the first time since the early 70s that they’ve been allowed to take centre stage, and the culmination of the civil war arc gave us some amazing Dalek-on-Dalek violence, along with the sheer brilliance that is the Special Weapons Dalek. The spaceship landing in the school playground was beautiful too – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, late 80s BBC practical effects are so very special.

The stair-climbing cliffhanger to Part One is also amazing – one of the best ever – and it’s one of many moments that make this feel, in retrospect, like the new series came early, and not just with the idea of The Doctor being caretaker at Coal Hill School. Taking elements from the Doctor’s past and adding new meaning is the big one, and instantly the Seventh Doctor is a vastly improved character thanks to the huge dollop of mystery that’s just been layered on top of him. I love not knowing what The Doctor’s up to, and it allows the story to be all about him, rather than the usual trick of him stumbling upon something and getting in the way. His scheming is a joy to behold, and I’m totally on board with The Doctor being this powerful and manipulative.

McCoy is really bringing something unique to the role now; a serious side that allows for a deep discussion about slavery with Geoffrey from the Fresh Prince, but without losing the humourous side that allows him to mock Davros with shouts of “unlimited rice pudding”. (Hey, that’d make a good name for a website, that.) It feels like a lot of time has passed between seasons, and that he and Ace have been travelling together for a while – no need for a gentle getting-to-know-you adventure, they’re already firm friends.

And yes, in only her second appearance, and her first as a full companion, I can already see why all my Whovian friends adore Ace. She outs a traitor, expresses horror at racism, and beats the shit out of several Daleks with a super charged baseball bat. What’s not to like? She’s already a much more rounded character than in her debut, and her vulnerabilities seem much more real this time, along with her mannerisms. I think I’m in love.

There was so much going on here that it’s easy to forget that it’s also an anniversary story. Unlike Attack of the Cybermen returning to Totters Lane seemingly arbitrarily, Remembrance uses links to the show’s past as a way of enhancing its own story, by posing the question of what the First Doctor was doing there in the first place. This is where other recent nostalgia trips have gone wrong – you have to build on what’s gone before, otherwise you’re just repeating yourself. No danger of that here.

Other miscellaneous notes include: The creepy nursery rhyme music cues are equal parts disturbing and silly. Michael Sheard playing an evil teacher is wonderful for obvious reasons. And hey, there’s the great George Sewell, playing an actual Nazi sympathiser. Between those two and the aforementioned soon-to-be-Will-Smith’s-butler, that’s three really recognisable faces playing relatively minor parts, with the more major guest characters being played by actors that I’m less familiar with.

Actually, it’s a shame this story is set before the UNIT era, as it could quite easily have been them instead of this Counter Measures outfit. Mike Smith is easily as slimy and turncoaty as his UNIT namesake. But really, I wouldn’t change a thing. This is the kind of story that reaffirms my love for Doctor Who all over again, and while it’s unreasonable to expect this to be the standard for the next two seasons, the fact that a story like this can pop up out of nowhere means that it was such a pity when they pulled the plug so soon afterwards.

RATING: 10