Planet of the Dead

* I will never forget the Easter of 2009. For the first time since the revival, a brand new episode of Doctor Who was not the most exciting TV event of the week. Red Dwarf, the show I’ve been running a fansite for since I was in school, returned for a three-part special, a decade after the original run ended. A huge number of us squeezed into the house I’d just moved into, for three straight nights of blogging, podcasting and boozing. Frankly, Doctor Who was an unwelcome distraction.

* I am naturally predisposed to side against the incredibly posh and privileged, so I wasn’t thrilled to have one of them as a companion. Michelle Ryan is perfectly fine, but Lady Christina is more than a little annoying. In fact, she’s reprehensible. It’s probably as much to do with me as it is with the character, but that type of entitlement goes against everything I stand for. She doesn’t steal because she needs to, she just does it for the thrill, and gets away with it because her status.

* That’s quite the collection of recognisable telly faces on the bus. One of the Julies from Bad Girls! Tealeaf from Psychoville! Her from Teachers! And apparently (I didn’t recognise him in the show, but I read afterwards that) her husband used to be in Boney M!

* Odd to be having another bus-based story so soon after Midnight. The situation is very different, obviously, but reminiscent enough to warrant an acknowledgement in the script. I was expecting the opportunity to get to know the passengers, and to discover their secrets and fears, but it was all very superficial – we got the reassuring mundanity of them cooking chops and watching telly, but we learned little about them as individuals.

* I see UNIT are still being a shower of absolute shits. They’re *just* a bunch of blokes with guns these days – none of the various leaders we’ve met offer much in the way of a humanising presence – and now shoot-to-kill is their default policy. They do, however, have Lee Evans. If you like Lee Evans, I imagine his unmistakable brand of Norman Wisdom impersonation would have been a welcome addition to the episode. I do not like Lee Evans.

* The whole thing is incredibly lightweight for a special, but that’s sort of fine – this was obviously only one of several specials that year, not the big centrepiece that Christmas usually is, and so it can afford to do something a little less serious, with its big friendly flies, its flying bus and its salacious Doctor-companion snog. It’s not bad if you’re not expecting an epic, but it does mean that the the deeply dark foreshadowing at the end is a bit of a crunching gear change. And once again, a soothsayer acts the prick by being deliberately vague, rather than spilling the beans properly or keeping schtum altogether.

* A friend of mine once got into a dispute with one of the co-writers, via the letters page of Doctor Who Magazine, regarding the politics of the ending. Suffice to say, with UNIT in the state they’re in at the moment, I’m not particularly comfortable with the supposedly pacifist Doctor concluding that joining the army will make men of those two lads. He then compounds this by deciding that the criminal aristocrat deserves to evade justice once again. I dunno. The Doctor is kind of whatever you want him to be; he’s done so much over the years that you can pick and choose the evidence that proves he fits whichever socio-political stance you care to name. But naturally, I’m going to react negatively on the handful of occasions where he takes a stance that’s categorically incompatible with my own.

RATING: 5

The Next Doctor

* This is an episode that was perhaps a little overshadowed by the hype and speculation surrounding it. It was a precision-engineered piece of publicity, with the announcement of Tennant’s departure followed quickly by the reveal of the title, and of David Morrissey’s casting. Luckily, if you take away that hype, you still end up with a pretty good episode – rather than the mystery being whether or not Morrissey is actually a future Doctor, it’s instead about why this guy thinks he’s The Doctor, and what happened to make him this way.

* Morrissey is great, as both a potential Doctor and as Jackson Lake. It’s a very classic-series approach to The Doctor – a big, broad performance with lots of quirky turns of phrase – perhaps because he was forged in Victorian London, and so is harking back to the past in the same way The Doctor did when he was younger. The look is reminiscent of McGann, for similar reasons.

* Another landmark moment in terms of links between old and new – actual, moving footage of all the previous Doctors! Well, apart from one, but Moffat hadn’t invented him yet. So exciting at the time, and yet soon to become much more common as we hurtled towards the 50th.

* There are some very dark undertones for a Christmas Day edition of a family favourite. It’s not explicitly stated, but it’s made perfectly clear, that Jackson’s companion Rosita is/was a prostitute, and that Miss Hartigan was a victim of some sort of physical and/or sexual abuse. There’s also talk of children going missing, a massacre at a funeral, and the loveable Jackson Lake losing his wife. Merry Christmas.

* I liked the Cybermen here, more so than in their previous new series appearances. They didn’t talk much, which is good – they could just concentrate on being scary and imposing, thanks to some low angles and fast cuts. I liked the Cybershades, although they’re not really that Cyber-y, they’re just attack dogs with masks on. Miss Hartigan was good too, the kind of cold-blooded, heartless mercenary that suits accomplished guest actors like Dervla Kirwan.

* Then she turned into a giant version of Preston from Wallace & Gromit’s A Close Shave, and I wasn’t so keen. It’s undoubtedly cool to see a big cyberpunk Cyberman stomping about, but it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the story. There was all this talk about the combination of the Cybermen’s logic and Hartigan’s raw anger being used to take over the world, and that’s more interesting than just flattening the place with a big stompy robot.

* Nevertheless, the best Christmas special since the first one, and a good start to Tennant and RTD’s farewell tour.

RATING: 8

Voyage of the Damned

* Firstly, apologies for the increasing infrequency of this blog. It’s been a busy few weeks, and it’s taken me a while to find enough time to watch a feature-length episode. It probably doesn’t help that I’m entering a period that I’m not particularly fond of – quite aside from the fact that I’ve got more Torchwood coming next, I don’t think much of this period of proper Who either. But I’m reassessing as I go, and this one wasn’t quite as bad as I’d remembered, although still far from great, for reasons we’ll get to.

* The Titanic crashing into the TARDIS was a hell of a cliffhanger, and how was it resolved? Oh, The Doctor presses a button and everything’s fine within seconds. Meh.

* New theme tune! It’s better than the current one, but not as good as the one it replaced. Every new iteration throughout the revived series has added new elements over the top of Ron Grainer’s composition, and it’s diluted the impact of the fundamental bassline and melody. It’s basically followed the same pattern as the original series, but over a much shorter space of time.

* Kylie Minogue! “Stunt casting” is a term that always gets bandied about with negative connotations, but you’ve got to admit that this one’s a hell of a stunt. It’s clear from the start that The Doctor wants her as a companion, and so because she’s Kylie Minogue, and therefore unlikely to commit to a full series, that means she has to die, especially after The Doctor promises he’ll get her out of there. I quite like Astrid though – having the companion view everyday Earth in the same way most companions view alien worlds was a fun new dynamic.

* The rest of the guest cast are not bad either. Geoffrey Palmer! A man so loveable, you really don’t mind him willfully killing billions for money. Russell Tovey! Thankfully only exhibiting small glimpses of the squeaky voice acting that’s dominated most of his other roles, despite spending most of the episode bleeding out from a gunshot wound. Clive Swift! Mr Copper is pretty good, but I can’t separate the performance from that shitty interview he gave to DWM. Tit.

* The disaster movie ensemble provides mixed results. It’s hard to know what to make of Foon and Morvin at first, but they emerge as the most likeable and well-intentioned characters of the bunch. There’s clearly a good socialist message in there, as you compare this ordinary working class couple to the merciless and selfish posh cunt, who is absolutely loathsome and irritating to watch. I get Mr Cooper’s point that you shouldn’t be able to choose who lives and dies, but come on – it’s Christmas, let us see him get what’s coming to him. The whole thing is deliberately unfestive at times; there’s a very high death count, and a lot of heroic sacrifices in quick succession.

* But never mind all those accomplished actors and musical icons. Get you a guest star who can do both. IT’S BERNARD CRIBBINS. This is not quite the same Wilf that we’ll soon come to know and love – he’s slightly more of a cheeky cockney, and less of a wise old man. While later developments would add more significance to his scene in retrospect, it also continues RTD’s slow-burning arc that the human race have acknowledged the existence of aliens, and are increasingly aware of the dangers. Moffat has since undone that with a few big resets, and it’s entirely at his discretion to do so, but I liked the period when Who was set in a ever-so-slightly different version of the world to our own.

* Tennant delivering that line about who The Doctor is, with the sparks firing behind him to punctuate every clause in the sentence, is cheesey as fuck, but it really works in context. The big bank holiday movie feel provides a fun and thrilling ride, and while it’s not particularly complex or intellectually stimulating, it’s a decent episode… until Max Capricorn turns up and ruins everything, with his stupid gurning face and ridiculous pronunciation of the word “metal”. He doesn’t look like he belongs in this episode; it’s like he’s been dropped in from the JNT era, and his presence completely takes you out of the drama.

* And it’s at this point that everything just gets a bit out of hand – my one criticism of RTD’s tenure was that he sometimes got a bit overexcited and chucked absolutely everything at the screen at once. This certainly felt like he lost his discipline before the end. There’s a lot of pomp to The Doctor these days, but he couldn’t just leave it at the aforementioned cheesey-but-effective speech – the Messiah metaphor gets invoked again as he’s carried to the heavens by angels, then next thing you know, The Queen shows up to thank him, then he’s snogging the ghost of Kylie Minogue. At least some of this could perhaps have been reigned in.

* The Doctor tells Mr Copper that the £1m in his bank account is equivalent to 50m credits. Earlier on, Foon tells Morvin that she spent 5,000 credits on entering the competition, which is therefore equivalent to £100. And that’s going to take them 20 years to pay off, is it? She must have borrowed it from Wonga. Also, if Mr Copper wants to buy a proper house with a garden with his million quid, he’ll have to move out of London.

RATING: 7

The Runaway Bride

* YAY, IT’S DOCTOR WHO. There’s nothing to make you appreciate the sight of the TARDIS and the sound of the theme tune like a solid fortnight of Torchwood. Even though it’s an episode that I don’t particularly care for, this was a timely treat, and a welcome reminder of why I’m bothering to do this in the first place.

* Why isn’t Wilfred Mott at his own granddaughter’s wedding, then? I can only assume that he dislikes Donna Noble as much as I do. As I said at the time of her initial surprise appearance, my aim is to reassess her fairly. My second first impression is that she was a bit of a hindrance to an otherwise exciting plot. Her constant negativity and aggression slowed the pace considerably; The Doctor couldn’t get anything done because she kept interrupting him to do her school girl character.

* She did get better as the episode went on – as soon as Donna began to trust The Doctor and co-operate with him, she mellowed and became much easier to empathise with. That said, I was initially quite pleased that Lance betrayed her in such a cruel way. It felt like she probably deserved it.

* I’d forgotten that the Robot Santas and Killer Christmas Trees made a second appearance. But then as soon as they appeared, I remembered the dodgy modified X Box controller that comes with them. I quite enjoyed the motorway chase with the TARDIS – nonsense, but it’s fun and it’s Christmas. Plus it resonates with me, having once been in a car that accidentally turned onto the M4 at Chiswick Roundabout. It took us an extra half an hour to get home. As for the TARDIS flying straight up into the air at the end? Nah, not for me. A bit of a step too far, after the wise-cracking giant red spider had been teetering on the edge of silliness beforehand.

* Love Don’t Roam! Excellent.

* I remember being very excited about the “Gallifrey” mention at the time, even though I was nowhere near as up on my Classic Who as I obviously am now. It was part of what seemed like a conscious effort to drip-feed the mythology into the new series bit by bit, with the flow increasing as the production gained in confidence. It’s good that we’re now at a point where New Who is creating its own legacy, but those days of speculating about who or what would come back next were happy days indeed.

* The Doctor’s subsequent victory is a little bit grim, thanks to the Racnoss’s anguished cries for her children. It’s kind of a bit genocidey, but it was the justifiable type of genocide. I remember being a little bothered by it at the time because it felt like The Doctor was acting out of character just so that Donna got the opportunity to pull him back from the brink, but I no longer agree with my foolish past self. I think Donna’s right when she says that he needs someone to look out for him, and it’s perhaps future occasions when he’s travelling alone that have changed my mind. Timey-wimey.

RATING: 7

The Christmas Invasion

* Christmas innit! Doctor Who has been the centrepiece around which the rest of my day is planned for over a decade now, and I’ll always remember how special the first time felt. I don’t think there’s been a better Christmas episode since – there have been good ones, maybe even great ones, but it’s hard to top the impact of the first time traditional Who idiosyncrasies were mixed with traditional festive ones.

I adore the killer Christmas trees and the flame-throwing tubas, but the joy is that the same show also contains 70s-flavoured spine-tinglers like the genuinely creepy blood control and the brutal murders of a UNIT major and a beardy civil servant. All on prime time BBC One in the most family-friendly slot of the entire year.

* Examining the trauma of regeneration from the companion’s perspective is yet another new avenue for the show to explore, and Billie is fantastic throughout. Mickey is still being a bit of a prick about it all, but he finally seemed to come to terms with things by the end, which tallies with my memories that he becomes a much more sympathetic character between series.

* It’s weird that “Torchwood” was subsequently used as an ominous and mysterious arc word in the same vein as “Bad Wolf”, considering that its nature and its purpose were quite categorically set up in the Christmas Special. It appears to be an all-powerful, scary, superweapon-wielding militia, and it’s odd to think of the organisation in such a way, considering the version we’re now more familiar with are nowhere near competent enough to bring down the Sycorax. They’d have accidentally hit The Moon or something, while at least two of them shagged and Captain Jack looked moody on a tall building.

* Fave lines that I’d previously forgotten: “There’s an act of Parliament banning my autobiography.” / “Did we ask about the Royal family? Oh.” / “Blimey, it’s like This Is Your Life.”

* It’s certainly a gamble to have the new Doctor sleep through the vast majority of his introductory episode, but when he finally comes round it pays off beautifully. Rose misses him, the world misses him, and the audience misses him, until he bursts into life and is immediately brilliant. He’s rude and not ginger, he quotes The Lion King and he can sword fight like a little skinny Pertwee – that’s what kind of man he is. With hindsight, “no second chances” is such an apt motto for the incarnation who ended up as the Time Lord Victorious.

* “Oh, I haven’t seen X in years!” became a catchphrase in our friend group, thanks to this episode and Charlie Brooker’s subsequent impersonation in Screen Wipe. I loved Tennant throughout his original tenure, but given that I love Smith and Capaldi even more, I don’t remember his time quite as fondly these day. It’s therefore really nice to be able to revisit these episodes with an open mind, and be reminded of how positive I felt at the time.

* Aside from Tennant, the best thing about this episode is clearly Harriet Jones. She’s so funny, and such a strong leader to boot, that it’s almost a shame that she did what she did, as it must have been tempting to use her as a recurring Brigadier-style character. The key moment obviously parallels Thatcher and the Belgrano, but the lack of subtlety is justified by the show being bold enough to make a resolute statement that it was A Bad Thing. Which is not to say that I don’t sympathise with Jones’s decision – certainly a fuck of a lot more than I do with Thatcher’s – but I also agree with The Doctor’s retribution. No second chances.

* Fucking Song For Ten! I adore Song For Ten. All the old costumes in the TARDIS wardrobe, along with the earlier subtle callback of seeing Big Ben in scaffolding. And the orchestral theme tune! And the middle eight! Yes, the sheer joy of these moments came flooding back to me as I relived the euphoria of Christmas Day 2005 all over again, beat by beat. I love Doctor Who, especially when it’s this good.

RATING: 10

Doctor Who: The Movie

He’s back, and it’s about time. I clearly remember watching this when it first went out, and as a nine-year-old, it didn’t make me become a fan in the same way Rose did as an eighteen-year-old. Looking back on it now, it’s easy to see why, although it’s not without its charms. Now that I’m more than familiar with the show’s mythology, I can enjoy the direction and design of the opening scenes, but RTD clearly knew what Philip Segel didn’t, which is that you don’t fill the first installment of a revival with baffling back-references.

It was admittedly lovely to see Sylvester one last time, and his performance was just as good as it was seven years previously. It was a shame that the new companion had to come along and kill him. An unconventional introduction, but it was apparent from the start that Grace is a great character. She’s a high achiever like Liz Shaw, but far warmer and easier to empathise with.

The regeneration came along and the show couldn’t decide whether it wanted it to be a parallel of Frankenstein’s monster or the resurrection, until McGann tipped the balance into full on Christ territory. Either way, it was 20-odd minutes before he turned up, but when he did he was right into his stride straight away. The scenes where Grace is helping him to remember who he is were a joy, and they make a great pair.

Meanwhile, The Master has recovered from being a weird spunky snake thing, which I wasn’t keen on, and is coercing Chang Lee into doing his evil bidding, on a truly excellent TARDIS set. Everything was looking extremely promising at this stage, but as soon as the Eye of Harmony is introduced, it takes a steep nosedive into the realm of utter bollocks. Eric Roberts suddenly turned way too cartoonish, and it all became hard to take seriously.

That said, the motorcycle chase and clock theft bits were good fun, and the denouement was nice and tense even though I found the plot to be a bit confusing; I’m still not clear exactly how travelling back to before the events started helps to prevent damage that we’re told is unstoppable. Plus, a few too many liberties were taken with the mythos – I can buy the theory that it’s only this Doctor that’s half-human, but I’m still not keen on it, nor on the TARDIS containing the Eye of Harmony, and all the powers that come with it, which seemingly include eating The Master.

The thing is, whoever the current custodian of Doctor Who is, they’re allowed to pretty much do what they like with the mythology in the pursuit of telling the best story possible. But if you’re going to go as far as to bring back the incumbent Doctor, casually fling unexplained back-references around, and cover everything in Seals of Rassilon, you set the expectation that the history is to be respected. You can’t have it both ways.

Having said all of that, the issues are not so pervasive as to detract a great deal from the overall mood, and it was a perfectly enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half. You can see the similarities to the new series; for one thing the theme tune and title sequence aren’t a million miles away, and the dynamic between Doctor and companion is much more akin to Ten and Rose than the more student-mentor vibe of Seven and Ace. I don’t give a shite if The Doctor wants to snog his companion, and it seems daft from a post-2005 perspective that it was such a huge deal here.

I would have definitely have liked to see more from the Eighth Doctor and Grace. I was surprised and disappointed when she stayed behind at the end – the whole thing needed rounding off with that key moment of her making the decision to join him, in order to really whet the appetite for adventures new. As it stands, I can totally see why it didn’t go any further, but I kind of wish it had.

RATING: 8

The Five Doctors

That was a load of silly nonsense that barely held together to form any kind of coherent plot. It was just an excuse to line up as many old faces as possible, for little to no reason other than to create a cheap thrill for hardcore fans. Basically, it was absolutely perfect.

I’ve probably seen it more times than any other classic story; I’d often turn to it as a way to get a quick fix of virtually all of Doctor Who‘s best bits. Placing it into context made the Borusa stuff work better; when you know that he’s one of The Doctor’s oldest friends, it means a lot more, plus his descent into full-on villainy makes sense when you see how he’s become a bit of a shit since becoming Lord President. I could buy it a lot more here than in Arc of Infinity.

It’s interesting that Borusa’s plan essentially has him doing the same thing as JNT, Saward and Terrence Dicks (surely the ideal candidate for this particular job) – creating a narrative by picking up a bunch of characters from the toybox and chucking them together in various combinations. Maybe the whole thing was an elaborate marketing ploy for a range of action figures.

It’s undeniably a shame that it’s actually only really three Doctors at best, with one refusing to play ball and another refusing to remain alive. In the end, they got around these unavoidable obstacles well; the Shada footage works fine alongside the specially-shot abductions, and Hurndall does a passable impression of Hartnell. I mean, it’s definitely jarring to have someone pretending to be the First Doctor, but there’s not much they could have done differently.

It was arguably even weirder to see Susan as an adult; her character was almost entirely based on being a childish liability, so she couldn’t really do the same thing here. Instead, it was interesting to see some unusual pairings of Doctor and companion; obviously you have the First going off with Tegan, but also the Second and Third are not the Doctors you’d most associate with the Brig and Sarah Jane respectively.

I could have done with more scenes of the various Doctors together, but what we had was so much fun. I loved that the Second still thinks the Third is a bit of a dick, after last time. It was also interesting to see the Fifth Doctor acknowledge the First’s attitude towards women, it the same way people react awkwardly to a racist grandparent. It was apt and pleasing that the Fifth should remain the protagonist; all the others were resolutely guests in his story, and he outshines them all.

There were so many returning companions and villains that it’s hard for any of them to stand out; I just enjoyed them as players in a series of vignettes. It was a celebration of all things Who, and not of any particular character or era over any other. My only gripe would be that Sarah Jane was written as fairly slow-witted, which she just isn’t. The Brig was reliably excellent and I enjoyed seeing glimpses of some less obvious returnees, such as Yates, Liz and Zoe.

As for the villains, the little Dalek cameo was more than welcome, and The Master was on pretty good form. It’s the first time since perhaps Logopolis that he’s been written with any particularly grey shades; he’s always much more effective when you’re not quite sure of his motives. The new addition – the Raston Robot – threatened to steal the show, with a great design and a formidable style. The way it dispatched all those Cybermen was like a version of Robot Wars where it’s men in costumes fighting with explosives. Weird that platoons of Cybermen got their asses kicked on two separate occasions, but to be fair it’s probably the best way to use 80s Cybermen.

Elsewhere, the Hartnell clip at the start was a lovely touch, as was the slightly modified opening theme. The amalgamated closing theme was less successful to my ears, but their heart was in the right place. Also exciting to see a glimpse of a brand new TARDIS console. I was mightily impressed by how new and different it looked in the opening shots, but I went off it a bit the more I saw it. I’ll reserve judgement for now.

All these touches combine to make this feel like a real special occasion. Me and a big group of friends watched it as part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, and even tonight, my girlfriend and her brother couldn’t help watching along with me. It feels like a film, with its extensive and sumptuous location work, and the picture quality is superb.

I loved it so much that it took me until half an hour after it finish to notice that Kamelion wasn’t even referenced, despite having watched his introduction just yesterday. I’m aware that I’m about to delve into a very difficult period in Who‘s history, and I’m hurtling ever closer to the end of the original run. But whatever happens next, this stands out as a near perfect celebration of the first twenty years, and indeed the journey I’ve been on for nearly two years. I love Doctor Who so much.

RATING: 10