The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot

This was, of course, the final component of our 50th anniversary party, and I remember it being somewhat of a surprise to see it appear on the red button during the evening. After everything we’d seen that day, we were all slightly delirious already, and so a surreal, fourth wall smashing mockumentary featuring pretty much every living cast member of the original series blew our minds.

It could so very easily have been awful, but it’s genuinely funny throughout, and the three main Doctors involved are all such endearing company. Everyone was more than willing to send themselves up in every way imaginable, from Colin forcing his family to watch Vengeance on Varos to Sylv gleefully boasting about being in The Hobbit at every opportunity. He’s the stand-out performer overall – the way he says “I’d like to go home now” so solemnly when he’s stuck in a TARDIS is exquisite.

The astounding amount of cameos are a joy, and are too numerous to mention them all; I loved the audacity of having about a dozen companions all appear at once, as part of a homage to Davison’s regeneration. Two of the most memorable appearances were the two showrunners – Moffat playing with his toys, and Russell “The” Davies with his “quel dommage!” catchphrase. Then there’s Frank Skinner and David Troughton turning up to be mostly-silent Dalek operators and – brilliantly – Rhys Thomas appearing as Gary Bellamy on Davison’s radio.

I make it six Doctors who make proper appearances, thanks to the tiny cameos by Smith and Tennant. Paul McGann gets a full scene, and it’s a shame that he’s not in it more, but perhaps he was busy doing his own fiftieth anniversary mini-special – I wonder if he knew that he’d be doing Night of the Doctor when they were making this. It’s also a shame that Tom couldn’t be arsed, but similarly, at least he did contribute elsewhere, and I wouldn’t swap the Curator for him turning up in this. And they dealt with it in the best possible way, with the same Shada snippet as used in the actual Five Doctors.

This was one of several wonderful meta-jokes, which culminated in the three Doctors breaking character – even though they’d been playing themselves – to make The Five(ish) Doctors itself the subject of the mockumentary, which leads to the aforementioned RTD stuff. My favourite meta bit was the music changing from 80s synths to 2010s orchestra when the guys stepped inside Roath Lock – and them noticing and going outside again.

At a full thirty minutes, it could easily have run out of steam, but it doesn’t, keeping up the pace of the gags, the cameos and the in-jokes throughout. My only criticism is that they spend slightly too long getting chased by security, but this does lead to the brilliant final reveal that they hid under the shrouds in the Under Gallery. I know it’s not real, but wouldn’t it have been wonderful if it really was them in the real episode? It would presumably have been feasible to make that happen.

Regardless, if you’re not going to feature all the classic Doctors in the anniversary special – and there are many reasons why that’s regrettably for the best, not least being that the anniversary special was perfect as it is – this is the best compromise. Something that’s officially part of the celebration, featuring as many familiar faces as possible, but that is doing its own thing, imbued with humour and love and joy. I adore it, and everyone involved.

RATING: 10

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An Adventure in Space and Time

Sorry progress has been so slow – ridiculously busy week. But as it turns out, the day that we were given our first look at David Bradley in this year’s Christmas special seems like an apt time to be watching this. I wasn’t originally intending to include this in the re-watch, but with what’s coming up, I couldn’t resist. I actually revisited it for the first time as I got to the end of the Hartnell era, and I wrote this on the old version of this blog:

I re-watched An Adventure in Space and Time last night, for the first time since it was broadcast. I adored it the first time round, but oh boy is it better once you’re more familiar with Hartnell’s tenure. It’s the condensed version of a story that I saw play out over the course of three-and-a-bit seasons. By the time Bill was called to Newman’s office, I was in tears. As a viewer, I didn’t want Hartnell to go, but I knew that the time was right. We see Bill reach the same conclusion, and David Bradley is utterly superb.

However, I feel the need to speak out about a little inaccuracy. I don’t care about events being moved around, key people being omitted or anachronistic monsters – that’s artistic license, and it’s what makes for the best possible story being told. I’m aware there are people who despise the whole production because there’s a Menoptera at Verity’s leaving party, but these people are cretins.

No, my only objection is this: William Hartnell was a better Doctor than An Adventure portrayed, and that era of Doctor Who was a much better show than the one we saw glimpses of here. Again, yes, there’s some artistic license, and most of the cock-ups portrayed were based on real events. But seriously, watch some Hartnell stories – particularly from the first two seasons – and he’s a world apart from the bumbling weakling that he’s remembered as.

I love An Adventure in Space and Time – but don’t let it put you off the real thing.

I stand by that, although obviously it barely impacts on how astoundingly brilliant this show is. It was a key component of the anniversary celebrations; equal parts heart-warming and heart-breaking, and a perfect distillation of everything that makes Doctor Who so special. It emphasises how the likes of Waris Hussein and Verity Lambert were complete outsiders, and how the show’s success is the ultimate underdog story.

What struck me this time round, as my industry increasingly feels the effects of so many studio facilities falling by the wayside, is that Television Centre is such a character in the story. It’s a love letter to a version of the BBC that doesn’t exist any more. There are some things best left in the past – the racism and sexism, the boys’ club mentality, the alarming amount of workplace smoking – but the sense of creativity, risk-taking and utter devotion to the cause was what TVC symbolised, and you worry that these ideals are much harder to realise these days, with the corporation constantly under attack and under pressure.

Mostly though, it’s just brilliant to see so many lovely old things lovingly recreated, my favourites being the Marco Polo set, the first annual and of course the Daleks on Westminster Bridge. So many great cameos as well, particularly William Russell as an apoplectic commissionaire. The recreations of particular scenes were all fascinating – it was the bit from the end of The Massacre that inspired that original blog post though, and it’s a shame we didn’t see Bradley do it as well as Hartnell did IRL.

It’s clever the way the story sheds its main players one by one – first Waris, then Verity, then Hartnell. Each one makes you a little more emotional, leading to the absolute heartbreak of Bill breaking down in front of the fireplace. His “I don’t want to go” is much, much sadder than Tennant’s. But then the Matt Smith cameo is lovely, and the glimpse of the real Hartnell doing the Dalek Invasion of Earth speech is a great note to end on. It gets the balance of fanwank and genuine drama absolutely spot on, and it’s a superb piece of television about television.

RATING: 10

The Night of the Doctor

I’ll never forget the sheer joy when this appeared out of nowhere one nondescript weekday lunchtime. We didn’t even know a minisode was coming, let alone who was in it. I received an email with a link and the words “HOLY FUCK”, so I sat and watched at my desk. I let out an audible high-pitched yelp when McGann appeared. “Probably not the one you were expecting”. Damn right.

It’s amazing how far things developed in the eight years between the show coming back and the 50th. From a complete fresh start with no more than fleeting references to the past, to putting together a short film starring a one-off Doctor from seventeen years ago, in a sort-of-sequel to a serial from the seventies. As if that wasn’t enough, they also reel off a list of Big Finish companions, seemingly for the sole purpose of instigating tedious arguments about canon. It’s pure fanwank, but what better time to indulge?

The aim is to fill in all the blanks ahead of the main special, but it does so much more than that, managing to fit in a surprising amount of story and character into a short running time. There’s a great economy to the storytelling. Just from subverting the normal reaction to the TARDIS, we’re told everything we need to know about the impact of the Time War. I had no idea who the Sisterhood of Karn were at the time, but the concept is easy to grasp – they’ve got magic potions that influence a regeneration, and that works even if you don’t know there’s a back-reference there.

Paul McGann is brilliant. Again, he gets a lot to do in a short space of time, with his comedy stuff about getting bored and needing knitting being the highlight. It remains a great shame that his Doctor was so short-lived, but what a wonderful thing it is for him to have had one last chance to shine, right in the heart of the fiftieth anniversary celebrations, and for us to finally see his regeneration.

The glimpse of a reflected Hurt is very well done, and it struck me at the time that they used a photo of him as a much younger man. Given how he looked by the end of the Time War, and how Matt Smith’s Doctor titted about for two hundred years without ever looking a day older, how long must the Time War have been for the War Doctor? Poor sod.

RATING: 9

Series 7 Minisodes

I’m cheating slightly today. The Complete Series 7 DVD/Bluray featured three exclusive additional scenes, each running between two and three minutes apiece. As they’re so wee, I’m going to tackle them all in one – partly because I’m going to be busy over the next few days and I want to get to the good stuff quicker, but mostly because they’re so small that I can barely muster a paragraph each.

The Inforarium

A slightly Blink-esque conversation between a recording of the Doctor and an IT guy at some sort of evil data centre. It reveals how the Doctor managed to erase himself from history – he pulled a Silence (not literally) and made it so that people forget everything they know about him three seconds after learning it. This leads to a nice reveal that the recording – and therefore the conversation – is on a loop, which is very neat.

Clara and the TARDIS

Tying in with the theme of the TARDIS hating the Clara of Series 7B as much as the fans do, we see it trolling her by moving her bedroom about, and showing her the sexiest of the Doctor’s past companions, which is something that also happens to Amy in one of the Meanwhile In The TARDIS scenes. I thought the scene was going down a similar looping route, but instead it transpired that the TARDIS had brought shitloads of Claras to the same place for a laugh. Probably the most successful of the three shorts, and certainly the most entertaining.

Rain Gods

Whereas this one is just nothing. The Doctor and River are on a date, they’re about to be sacrificed to some rain gods, but then it starts raining and the Doctor starts shouting at the sky, and then their captors are struck by lightning and they escape. That’s it. It’s insanely short, which makes you wonder why they went to the bother of getting Matt Smith and Alex Kingston together on location – I know it was undoubtedly shot alongside a proper episode, but why spend that spare time on something so inconsequential?

Scoring these seems arbitrary and meaningless, but that’s never stopped me before. I’m looking at these three scenes as a whole, so given that two of them were above average and one was below, I’d say that works out at…

RATING: 6

The Great Detective

Another little one today, with the most recent specially-filmed Children In Need special – the show has only contributed trailers or previews of forthcoming episodes since then, which is a bit of a shame. The version I watched was bookended with pieces to camera from Matt and Jenna (Louise), which were quite funny and meta.

They were probably the most entertaining part, as the scene itself was a little too dark and moody for my liking. The Doctor is just lurking grumpily in the background for the most part, having apparently retired since we last saw him. Still, Strax is always good value, and I enjoyed his declaration of war against the Moon. Otherwise, a little bit dull, and it doesn’t particularly whet the appetite for the upcoming Christmas cheer.

RATING: 6

It feels odd to do two minisodes in a row, so I’ll bulk this out and save myself some time later by also watching the other two prequels for The Snowmen

Vastra Investigates: In which the eponymous lizardwoman attempts to shock a Victorian gentleman with tales of aliens, ancient civilizations and lesbianism. Only the latter works. The Doctor is still in a grump apparently, off sulking in his box. Again, the comedy stuff is good, but it fails to get me excited for the next story – the only bit of plot is that it’s snowing but there aren’t any clouds, which is hardly the biggest headfuck the show’s ever pulled off.

The Battle of Demons Run: Two Days Later: This is a strange thing – clearly set between A Good Man Goes To War and The Snowmen, and indeed set earlier than the two other prequels, and yet it wasn’t released until the second half of Series 7 started. Anyway, this is basically Vastra as the Doctor, recruiting Strax to be her new companion. He got better after being clearly killed off in his first appearance. At the end, he seems delighted at the idea that he’ll get to wear a dress, and I’m disappointed that this thought wasn’t followed through for all his subsequent appearances.

P.S.

I find myself unexpectedly moved by a short series of storyboards. This little Pond-based coda is arguably Chibnall’s best contribution to the show to date. It’s a shame that it was never actually filmed, but it’s presented in the best way possible, with stage directions conveyed through on-screen text rather than voiceover, allowing Arthur Darvill’s final performance room to breathe.

I liked the extra happy ending for the Ponds, and this scene skilfully balanced the melancholy of their departure and the joy of the fact that they lived long lives. By the end, I felt a lump in my throat when Brian greeted his newly-discovered grandson with a big hug; it was such a well-realised moment, the hug only revealed through the storyboard, with no caption spelling it out. A really lovely piece of work.

RATING: 8

Pond Life

I was looking forward to this; Amy and Rory are perhaps my two favourite companions of the revival, so the promise of a little series of shorts with them at the centre was a previously-unseen bonus for me. But it was really little, and they were really short. I was going to do my usual thing of covering them bit-by-bit, but they don’t feel like substantial enough bits; the whole thing was only about five and a half minutes, and each individual part seemed to zip by in an instant.

Despite this, the tone and style varied wildly each time, which was a little jarring when watching this omnibus edition, but would perhaps have worked better when they were originally released in daily doses. The first one was very similar to the most recent prequel, with the Doctor leaving a message for the Ponds whilst mid-adventure, while the second was more like a trailer for the upcoming series, with tiny clips from future stories.

The following two were the most successful, focussing on comedy to tell the tale of Rory finding an Ood in the bathroom and it becoming their slave. Then the mood becomes considerably darker for the last one, as we witness the Ponds suddenly and very angrily splitting up. I absolutely hate what happens to their relationship between series, but I hoped this would fill in the gaps and make me understand why it happened. It did nothing of the sort; all we know is that everything was absolutely fine for the the four months leading up to the split, with not even the smallest hint that it was on the cards.

And Amy was very clearly wearing a wig throughout. Rubbish. As I head into Series 7, it stands in my memory as by far the worst run since the show came back. I sincerely hope that the rewatch challenges my preconceptions, as has been the case fairly often so far, but this doesn’t bode well.

RATING: 5

Good as Gold

It’s another one of them mini-episodes written by kids, this time for Blue Peter, but nevertheless following all the same basic rules: set on the TARDIS, one pre-existing monster and a basic cast. In this case, it’s the Doctor and Amy; god knows where Rory is, or where this fits into the timeline considering she’s not travelling in the TARDIS at this point.

It’s a topical tale, set at London 2012, which was only a couple of months away when this was broadcast. The Doctor interrupts the opening ceremony, with very little regard for how exactly this fits in with established events from Fear Her. The featured monster is a Weeping Angel, and it’s a little weird how quickly and easily The Doctor kills it. If all it took was a ten second blast with the sonic, I don’t think they’d be nearly as successful.

But then there’s a twist and a cliffhanger that reveals that it wasn’t so easy to get rid of after all, and fair play, that raised a smile. That was my one and only noticeable reaction to a sketch that, in all honesty, isn’t very good, but that’s not really the point. It’s fine.

RATING: 5

Night and the Doctor

And so I reach a point where there are no more spin-offs to be spun, at least not until one very brief attempt much further down the line. From here on in there are far fewer deviations from Doctor Who, but there are still a fair amount of specials and extras squeezed in between each series, and here’s the latest. These five mini-scenes are set in the middle of Series 6, so it’s a little odd to be visiting them at this stage, even though it’s chronologically correct.

Let’s take the five scenes in turn…

Bad Night: Prince Charles is on the phone because The Queen has turned into a goldfish and Amy has accidentally murdered an alien ambassador because he was disguised as a fly. Sufficed to say, this seems like it’s right up my street. It’s revealed that the Doctor secretly goes and meets River Song at night, and is therefore joining in fun in a way that excludes his companions.

Good Night: As the title would suggest, the first pair are thematically linked, as Amy vocalises my concerns that her and Rory aren’t big enough parts of the Doctor’s life. It’s mainly concerned, however, with explaining away any inconsistent memories people may have as being the effects of causality being altered. He illustrates this by making Amy cross her own timeline. I’m sure that’s supposed to be dangerous.

First Night: It’s River’s first night in prison, and they both know about the Ponds being her parents by this point, which certainly helps to place it in the continuity. We see the introduction of the famous diary, which is part of the Doctor establishing a set of rules for their new (to him, at least) relationship. Rules which River then instantly breaks when her future self bursts through the door.

Last Night: This continues straight on from the last one, and it’s pure Moffatian  as yet another River bursts through the door, followed by another Doctor. There’s a sad twist though, as it turns out the other Doctor is taking the other other River to the Singing Towers of Darillium. We all know what that’s supposed to mean, but I guess they must have got waylaid, given that it’s Smith and not Capaldi that bursts in. That would have been some amazing foreshadowing.

Up All Night: Annoyingly, this one’s on a different disc to the others, as it turns out it’s a prequel to Closing Time, in which basically nothing happens. No Doctor, Amy, Rory or River, it’s just Craig and Sophie talking about how shit a father he is, for less than two minutes. It took longer to wait for the menus to play than it did to watch the thing itself.

So the last one was a disappointing climax, but the other four are great little sketches. As well as it just being nice to have some extra Matt Smith stuff that I’d not previously seen, it feels like quite an important missing link in the story of the Doctor and River’s relationship. It’s sometimes felt like the Doctor has been coerced into this romance by the forces of pre-destiny, so it’s important to see him making the decision to seek her out, and for them to meet up for something other than saving the world. It suddenly feels more like a genuine relationship.

RATING: 7

SJA: The Man Who Never Was

This was obviously never designed to be a series finale, and so naturally it’s not going to be as epic or climactic as you’d ideally want the last ever episode to be. It was fortunate that this supposedly mid-season story was chosen for an in-the-flesh appearance by Luke, with his meeting and bonding with his new little sister providing a full stop to that storyline, even if it was only originally intended to be a semi-colon. It’s also nice that someone other than Sarah Jane was in both the first and last episodes; people have come and gone over the years, but the show has always been, at its heart, the story of a mother and her son.

It’s only a shame that Rani’s mum wasn’t in this one, just so that Constable Habib could be reunited with Constable Goody. James Dreyfus was the main baddy in a story that did its originally intended purpose – a run-of-the-mill but entertaining mid-series romp – very well indeed. There was also a hologram who was basically Steve Jobs, right down to the assessment of his products as being “bog standard, they just look cool”.

While by no means a complicated plot, it did have a couple of nice little twists. You think it’s about someone trying to take over the world with evil technology, but it’s in fact just about someone trying to make money by selling the world shit technology. And the reveal that the hologram is being puppeteered by bumbling little aliens is brilliant – it’s even more like The Numbskulls than the Teselecter was.

Other than those guys, my highlight was a very rude joke for a kids’ show, when Clyde says he’s never been so relieved to see a full stop after receiving the message “grab Harrison’s pen”. Another theme of the episode that works serendipitously well for a finale is the shipping of “Clani”. Unlike Luke and Sky becoming friends, their story doesn’t remotely feel like its reached its conclusion yet, but it’s not hard to extrapolate what their future holds, even if Clyde and Ellie from the last story would have been my OTP.

It was a good story, but it was always leading to the sad inevitability of it coming to an end, taking the show with it. There were shades of Survival in the requirement of a voice-over to add a sense of finality, and no matter how clearly cobbled together than voice-over was, it really tugs at the heartstrings, as does the montage of clips from right across Sarah Jane’s 21st Century adventures. Inevitably, I cried, for the loss of Sarah Jane, for the loss of the show, but mostly – almost entirely – for the loss of Elisabeth Sladen, a woman who I never met but I somehow felt I knew.

The final caption allowed me a brief smile through the tears. “And the story goes on… forever”. Sarah Jane will never die. She’s still out there, saving the world and making it a better place in the process. It’s just that we won’t be able to witness it any more. I’m just so grateful that Russell decided she was the one to bring back in Series 2, and that he saw the potential for this wonderful spin-off. One of Doctor Who‘s greatest ever companions got a second lease of life, and Elisabeth Sladen took the opportunity to show us even more of what she could do. The Sarah Jane Adventures is a very special, very precious thing. But for now…

Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith.

RATING: 8

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 8

  • SJA series watched: 5 of 5
  • SJA stories watched: 27 of 27
  • Individual SJA episodes watched: 53 of 53