Survival

Ladies and gentlemen, I HAVE SEEN EVERY EPISODE OF DOCTOR WHO. Well, heard the soundtrack and seen telesnaps in some cases, but still. I’ve experienced every single televised story; every last moment of every single Doctor and every single companion. I have completed Doctor Who, until Christmas Day at least. This feels great.

And what a cracking story to end on. It felt like it was designed especially for me, not least because the Earthbound bits are set and shot within walking distance of my house. The pub where Ace empties the fruit machine is my nearest pub. Doctor Who literally went to my local. Although I’ve never seen Hale & Pace working in the shop next door. That was a bizarre piece of casting, but a successful one.

The authentic mundanity of the setting helped to sell the more surreal elements, and it made for an imaginative and exciting adventure, with the show doing what it does best by making the everyday unsettling. While the animatronic cats were the least convincing I’ve seen since Sabrina The Teenage Witch, the Cheetah People were nice and fearsome. The action sequences were fun, and the anthropomorphised cat-like behaviour was not quite as good as the stuff Danny John-Jules was doing at the time, but it was great nonetheless.

And my favourite foe The Master was back, after a very long gap by the standards of Ainley’s era. I’ve always harboured a theory that The Master’s characterisation directly matches whichever Doctor he’s up against, and the more sinister, mysterious and macabre portrayal here seems to confirm this. His single-minded pursuit of The Doctor, as a way of channeling the effects of the virus, was a joy to behold.

It was a fitting swansong in just about every regard, with Ace once more getting the chance to do things that were asked of very few previous companions. Sophie Aldred did a brilliant job when it came to flitting between normal and cat modes, and as a cat person myself – another reason this story was perfect for me – I identified with her relationship with Karra. I love my cats dearly too, despite the knowledge that they would happily hunt and kill me if they were hungry enough.

I don’t know whether it was the occasion making me emotional, but Karra’s cruel death – and Ace’s reaction to it – made me well up. She thought she’d lost The Doctor too, of course, and I’m not entirely clear on how he survived the giant motorcycle-based fireball and subsequent battle with the Master on an exploding planet. Nevertheless, his triumphant return to deliver a bittersweet yet rallying final speech was joyous, deeply satisfying and incredibly apt.

Not quite perfect, clearly the slightly botched results of unexpected circumstances, but doing the best it can and with its heart in the right place. It was an ending that expressed the ethos of the classic series perfectly. Thank goodness it was only a temporary pause in the grand scheme of things, but while it’s a crying shame that the curtain was brought down just as the show was back to its best, at least it ended on a high.

RATING: 9

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 7.75

  • Seasons/Series watched: 26 of 35
  • Stories watched: 155 of 263
  • Individual episodes watched: 695 of 826

So what now for this journey, and this blog? A little over two years ago, I decided to set about filling in all the gaps in my Doctor Who knowledge, and now that objective is complete. But like I say, thankfully, the story doesn’t end here. I’ve watched from An Unearthly Child to Survival in order, but Survival isn’t the last episode of Doctor Who. And besides, I may have seen every episode, but not every special and spin-off. The only sensible option is to keep going.

As for the blog, well it’s probably going to simultaneously become both more frequent and less regular. Running times of my viewing material will vary, so I won’t always have time to watch daily. But on the other hand, the days of stories spanning several episodes are mostly gone, so whenever I do sit down to watch, a blog entry will usually follow. Out of necessity, these may be shorter than the current format, but if you’ve enjoyed joining me on this adventure so far, I’ll do my best to make you stick around.

And to those of you that have joined me, a huge thank you. I’ve loved doing this so much that I just have to tell people about it, and I’m just as excited to revisit the new series, and of course to tackle the various delights of the wilderness years first. Come on readers, we’ve got work to do.

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The Curse of Fenric

Well, that’s more like it – a story that lives up to its reputation. I’d heard that this one contained high emotion and huge revelations, and it didn’t disappoint in the end, although at one stage I was a little bit worried that it was going the way of Ghost Light. I was enjoying the WW2 ambience and Nicholas Parsons being Nicholas Parsons, but I was growing impatient for the revelatory action to start, and frustrated that we were once again being kept in the dark about what was going on.

But then all of a sudden Ace berates The Doctor for exactly this reason, he starts to open up, and everything kicks up a gear, building up beautifully to the cliffhanger of Fenric finally showing up. The emotional stakes were already high, after the scene where we learn that Kathleen has lost her husband had nearly made me cry. Plus the bastards killed off Nicholas Parsons. Add to this the talk of The Doctor not knowing if he has a family, and suddenly you begin to view this season as a prelude to the first new series.

This is particularly true in terms of the companion’s role. It’s becoming increasingly common for Ace to drive the plot, or at least be just as central to it as The Doctor, and it’s only a few steps away from the decision to have Rose be the first character we meet when the show returned. We know far more about her than any previous companion – those with longer tenures may have had a lot of biographical material filled in, but the stuff we learn about Ace runs deep, and it really matters. In this story alone, we see her familiar danger-seeking and caring sides, but also as a petulant child screaming about hating her mum, a lovestruck teenager, and a sexually-confident woman of the world. So much internal conflict boiling up inside this extraordinary character.

Another very modern thing to do is to shed new light on specific past adventures, and it could be said that Fenric commands the original Bad Wolves. To the casual viewer, the final episode may well have been slightly baffling, but as an avid fan it was brilliant storytelling. The reveal that Fenric was the one who brought Ace and The Doctor together was one thing, but seeing The Doctor forced to assassinate her character in such a cruel and horrible way was completely gripping. The whole final episode was edge of the seat stuff.

The show is doing the same thing to us as happens to Ace – pushes us to the limits of our faith in The Doctor, but when all’s said and done we just end up with more reasons to love him. Like I say, the secrecy surrounding his motives was beginning to irritate me, but seeing him risk everything and claw victory from the jaws of defeat seemed like a cathartic climax to this thread, and it was all worth it.

With Ace’s secrets revealed too, and the bond between them stronger than ever, now’s the time to remove the shackles and really let these magnificent characters fly. What’s that? There’s only one story left? Shit. I really want there to be more Classic Who than there is.

RATING: 9

Ghost Light

This is a difficult entry to write, because I’m not sure I fully understand the story I’ve just watched. It was a mish-mash of various ideas – a ghost story, Victorian themes of empire and evolution, Neanderthal butlers, hidden spaceships and insectoid monsters, all wrapped up in a mystery with Ace’s past at the centre. I was waiting for the glorious moment where it all tied together. I waited, and I waited, and then I just got bored.

I couldn’t figure out what was going on, and it didn’t help that I couldn’t understand everything the insectoid things from Part Two were saying. The same went for Control before she was freed. There was a complete lack of clarity, and I ended up barely understanding the implications of the events that unfolded. The picture quality on the DVD was another hindrance – so fuzzy and grainy, it was like watching a story from the early 70s where the master copies had been destroyed.

I guess your reaction to this story is also partially down to what type of Who you like and dislike. I’m always slightly wary whenever there’s a supernatural or gothic element – give me a straightforward tale of UNIT blowing shit up any day of the week. I also need my Who to be grounded in science and to include thorough explanations, and Ghost Light is most certainly not one of those stories.

I liked Nimrod the Neanderthal butler, but the rest of the guest cast left me cold. I think my biggest stumbling block was not fully understanding who Josiah was, or his role in the whole thing, at least not until right at the very end. A lot of things became clearer once I’d read a synopsis afterwards, but that’s not an ideal way to experience a story.

It’s a big disappointment, as I’d heard good things about this story, and about its writer, Marc Platt, who I’m aware went on to play a big role in setting the tone of the New Adventures. Perhaps it’s a story that improves on repeated viewing, once you know more about Light, Josiah, Control and how their set-up affects what happens in the spooky old house. But that doesn’t make for satisfying episodic viewing as part of a marathon. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t actually enjoy watching this. That’s very rare indeed.

RATING: 4

Battlefield

All of a sudden it’s the seventies again, and all is right with the world. We’re pelted straight into a good old-fashioned UNIT story, and it’s so wonderfully familiar, even down to the occasional sword fights. The little continuity nods are much appreciated, although it’s best not to speculate on the off-screen fate that befell Liz Shaw if The Doctor ended up holding on to her pass for so long.

Despite the grey hair and the green jumper being stretched to the limit around the belly, it was like The Brigadier had never been away. He was just as suave and smooth as ever, but now finally at the age where you feel he’s at his most comfortable. Time has not withered his bravery or intuition, and it was a fittingly heroic farewell to one of the all-time greatest Doctor Who characters, perhaps the greatest barring The Doctor himself. I’m glad that he survived the encounter; for starters, I’d have blubbed like a tiny child, but it honestly didn’t need a heroic sacrifice in order to match the hype.

For this was a top-notch story, that easily stands alongside the majority of the original UNIT yarns. It was great to see them back at full strength, with a whole new generation of consciously multi-national recruits. They were of course led by Debs Lister, and it was a good decision to have her play it with the same officer-class mannerisms as “our” Brig. Her little barely-expressed love story with the good knight was quite touching, and it’s a shame she never got the chance to fulfill a similar recurring role to that of either century’s Lethbridge-Stewart.

My one complaint is that the Brig spent an episode hovering around in a helicopter rather than joining the action, but when he finally arrived he was straight into the thick of it. His calming presence allowed the story to explore a darker Doctor than we’ve perhaps ever seen before. There was a moment, however brief, when you thought that yes, he might well be capable of decapitating Mordred. I love the notion that The Doctor is the man behind all these ancient myths; it’s a theme that’s cropped up numerous times throughout the show’s history, but here it’s combined with some Bill & Ted style time-travel trickery that’s right up my street.

Nice to see Jean Marsh too, providing the gravitas needed to create a memorable villain. And of course Bessie’s back too, which an updated number plate but somehow less convincing super-speed effects than they managed in the 70s. One throwback I wasn’t expecting, though, was casual racism. In fact, I assumed I must have misheard Ace’s slur towards Shou Yuing, as I couldn’t believe anyone would use those terms on TV as late as 1989, especially not an otherwise utterly perfect companion. Baffling, and sad.

One more weird thing – I realised towards the end of Part Two that I’d seen this cliffhanger before. It’s one of the standard clips you see on every TV industry health and safety course, alongside a door falling on someone on The Brittas Empire, and Anthea Turner being blown up. I was slightly taken aback to see footage of the glass cracking in the episode itself, as I’d been conditioned to hear McCoy shouting for help immediately afterwards.

But yeah, an absolutely cracking story that left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling. And hey, Big Finish – where’s my spin-off series with the adventures of the Brigadier, Doris, Bambera, Ancelyn and Shou Yuing, driving around in Bessie, getting into gardening-based scrapes and having cosy suppers by the fire?

RATING: 9