Twice Upon A Time

On the 26th October 2014, I fancied watching some classic era Doctor Who. Things kind of got out of hand.

I looked at my shelf, and my eyes were drawn to a couple of boxsets that I’d bought but never watched – The Key To Time and The Trial of a Time Lord. What a novelty it would be, I thought, to watch a full season of the show, rather than just the odd serial. Then I noticed my well-worn The Beginning boxset, and I had an idea. An idea, a blank spreadsheet, the Wikipedia list of Doctor Who episodes and an Amazon wishlist. A project was born.

Three years, four months and fourteen days later, the journey is complete, and the end point couldn’t be more apt. Not only is it the end of an era for both Doctor and showrunner, but we’ve virtually come full circle, with an adventure featuring the First Doctor (along with, all too briefly, Ben and Polly), set within a serial I first watched in March 2015. I loved David Bradley in AAISAT, and so was delighted that he got the chance to do it for real, not least because it means that there’s now an official Doctor who’s an Aston Villa fan.

Former Doctors being extremely grumpy about everything to do with their future selves is a well-established staple for multi-Doctor stories, and the comedy drove the opening stages of this story. Between the complaints about windows being wrong, Bradley describing Capaldi’s TARDIS as being like “some restaurant for the French”, and him threatening to smack Bill’s bottom, Moffat was on very good form for his last hurrah.

The First Doctor’s casual sexism stirred some furious debate at Christmas time. To those who feel that it was unfair to the First Doctor’s reputation – or indeed that of Classic Who – I’d suggest they go back and actually watch some. There were all kinds of now-unsavoury attitudes on display in the black and white days, but you can see past this because the episodes are a product of their time, and there are plenty of more progressive ideas in evidence, both in front of and behind the cameras. Moffat knows this, so there’s nothing wrong with having a bit of playful fun with it fifty years later.

It was quite a bold move to end an era with no real villain and no evil plot to thwart. The reveal of Rusty in the tower was somewhat underwhelming – if I hadn’t had rewatched his episode a month earlier, I doubt I’d have remembered who he was. But it feels kind of apt that Moffat would choose to eschew so many conventions for his swansong, and the lack of blockbuster action wasn’t really an issue, as the episode is about much more than that.

It’s two stubborn old men – well, one stubborn old man, twice – having to learn something about themselves before they can come to terms with death, or at least the Time Lord equivalent of death. For the First Doctor, he has to realise how much potential he has to be a force for good in the universe, and this is what changes him from the reluctant hero of his first incarnation to the pro-active protagonist he became from Troughton onwards. It takes a demonstration of the Twelfth Doctor’s ingenuity and mercy for him to see it, during which I myself learned that the mere mention of the name “Lethbridge-Stewart” is enough to make me cry. Those Christmas Day truce scenes were truly emotional.

As for the Twelfth Doctor, it takes a combination of Bill, Nardole and Clara to convince him to carry on, with the ex-companion cameos now seemingly a tradition for regeneration stories. It’s a shame that Jenna Coleman’s availability kept her and Capaldi apart, but the one final cuddle between him, Bill and Nardole was just lovely. Then one of Doctor Who‘s greatest ever writers signs off with a beautiful speech for one of Doctor Who‘s greatest ever lead actors. I feel like neither will be truly appreciated until they’re gone, but both of them have done so much to take the show into new and original directions, which is no mean feat after such a long life.

I’ve been worried about the Moffat-less future ever since his successor was announced. But one perfect piece of casting goes a long way to improving expectations, and I have to say that the final minute of this episode was a pretty amazing teaser for what’s to come. I wasn’t expecting such a dramatic cliffhanger – normally the Doctor having a new face is enough, especially as this face is so different to the ones that came before. I am unequivocally delighted that Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor, and I absolutely can’t wait to see more. “Aw, brilliant!” indeed.


Well now. Let’s just have a quick check of the progress counter:

  • Seasons/Series watched: 36 of 36
  • Stories watched: 276 of 276
  • Individual episodes watched: 840 of 840

I’ve done it. I’ve watched every episode ever of Doctor Who – plus all the specials and spin-offs – in order, not quite a day at a time. It’s taken me longer than anticipated; it wasn’t possible to keep up the daily pace during the modern era, with its 45-minute-plus episodes and the requirement to write a blog entry after virtually every viewing, and I’ll admit that this portion has been a bit of a slog at times, just due to how long it’s taken me to get through it.

But now that it’s over, I feel slightly bereft. What am I going to do with my evenings and weekends now? Bereft, but also immensely satisfied. I hardly ever finish projects like these, but this has been an absolute joy. There were times when I was working late, or when I was stressed, or rushed off my feet, when knowing that I had an episode of Who lined up before bedtime was what got me through the day. I’ve laughed a lot, I’ve cried surprisingly often, and my love for Doctor Who is stronger than ever.

Meanwhile, I’ve turned 30, stopped freelancing, got a steady job, and found myself unexpectedly moving up the career ladder. Several of my friends have moved away, got married, had babies or all three, and I feel like a slightly different person to the one that started this madness; this project has coincided with me coming to terms with not being a kid any more, and becoming more of an actual grown-up. Maybe dedicating so much of my time to what is essentially a glorified kids’ show is what I needed to help me through it.

Regardless, it definitely feels right that this should come to an end now. I’m up to date, it’s a sensible cut-off point, and I’ve no real desire to review brand new episodes – I’d rather just enjoy my first viewing of each story and leave the analysis to thousands of others. In fact, I only started this blog for my own benefit, so that I’d have a record of my reactions and opinions to refer back to. I thought that if anyone else read it, that would be a bonus, but I’ve been utterly delighted to see that a small but perfectly formed group of regulars have joined me to follow my progress over the months and years. A big thank you to you all.

What next for this place, then? Well, certainly a break. After that, I’m not sure. I’ve got a list of additional bits and bobs that I want to watch – the Cushing movies, all those semi-licensed 90s videos, that awful-looking Australian K-9 series – which I may feel like writing about. I’ve also been maintaining lists of my favourite Doctors, companions and recurring villains as I go, if anyone’s interested. I’ll see how I feel, but at the very least I’ll soon be doing a bit of admin to put this place into archive mode, making it easier for anyone who finds it in the future to read from start to finish.

Bloody hell, though. This has been three and a half years of my life. Three and a half years of watching and writing and thinking about Doctor Who on a near daily basis. 385 blog entries. Over a thousand individual pieces of television. Every episode, every special, every spin-off. It’s been an absolute blast.

It all started out as a mild curiosity in a junkyard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure. Doctor, I let you go.

The Power of the Daleks (Animated)

This was a nostalgic reminder of the first two years of this project, when I only had to squeeze in 25 minutes of viewing per day, and I didn’t have to write a blog post every time I watched something. I got the DVD soon after it was released, but as with Class, decided to hold off and slot it into this watch-through, which is now so near to the end.

Naturally, it was specifically reminiscent of having to fill in the blanks whilst watching reconstructions; the animation is decent, but limited enough to cause occasional distractions. Everyone’s painfully still whenever they’re not talking, the eyelines are very strange, and they walk like South Park characters. I feel like I needed little scrolling captions to tell me what the stage directions were.

But on the plus side, some of the 3D sets and the “camera” work were a lot more impressive. The direction seemed authentic to the time period, and the lighting was excellently atmospheric. They clearly prioritised the Daleks, and they looked great. Apart from anything else, they weren’t limited to only using three props and a bunch of cardboard cut outs – there were dozens more moving Daleks in this than actually existed in 1966.

As is often the case whenever an attempt is made to recreate something missing, I found myself disappointed that more care wasn’t taken to make the end product as accurate a facsimile of the original as possible. The biggest thing was that it was 16:9, which automatically means that the framing and shot composition can’t possible be identical to what viewers saw on broadcast. Opening with Hartnell’s regeneration as a pre-titles sequence is also new, as are credits for Delia Derbyshire and Raymond Cusick – deserved, but inauthentic. On that note, the double length credits sequence to accommodate the animation team got a little tedious six nights in a row.

Still, the effort to bring long lost episodes to life must be applauded and encouraged. This is a great story – though I still don’t think it’s the all-time classic it’s lauded as – and the animation allowed me to enjoy it a lot more than I did the first time round. I hadn’t noticed the humour before; Ben in particular is very good. I also hadn’t noticed that him and Polly both get a week off at various points. I enjoyed the machinations of the colonists a lot more too, and Lesterson stands out as a great guest character.

Also, I’ve just realised that Capaldi’s ring falling off Whittaker’s finger is a direct reference to the first ever regeneration, which of course makes perfect sense considering how significant a part it plays in the story. The choice to animate this particular serial ended up being surprisingly apt.


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.


The Faceless Ones

Oh, for goodness sake. What is it with companions barely featuring in their last serials? I knew Ben and Polly’s days were numbered, but having them disappear in episode two of a six parter, then just having a quick goodbye scene at the end, robs us of the emotional impact that a good companion’s exit should have. It’s bad for the viewers, and it’s plain disrespected for the actors.

But I won’t let that sour taste overshadow what was a brilliantly enjoyable serial. I love a good body swap story, and the slow reveal of the Chameleons’ evil plan was superbly done. There’s also a strong guest cast, particularly Shirley Valentine and Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum. The former even gets a couple of snogs with Jamie, which probably seem raunchier in telesnap form than they did on video, somehow.

Speaking of Jamie, the plus side of Ben and Polly’s sidelining was that he was given his first chance to really shine. His confusion over modern things is still funny, but he’s now a much more competent time traveller, and a legitimate deputy to The Doctor. This serial also showcases the Second Doctor and Jamie as a proper double act for the first time, and all of a sudden everything falls in to place.

What’s remarkable at this stage is just how different the show is now compared to the start of this season, and it’s all down to Patrick Troughton. The Doctor occupies a vastly different role in these stories, and is much more energetic and proactive. His plans are more complicated and his risks are more calculated, and both of these things lead to extra danger. He’s just so compelling to watch, and the show is much better as a result.

One last thing… why the fuck does Polly have long hair again now, when she had it cropped during the last serial? I’ve Googled, and nobody seems to know…


The Macra Terror

First of all – NEW TITLE SEQUENCE. And very nice it is too. I think I prefer the new serif version of the logo, just about, but the main improvement is the inclusion of Patrick Troughton’s cheeky little face. My rewatch so far has told the tale of the slow transformation from an unfamiliar early iteration to the format I’m more familiar with, and – cosmetically speaking – this is one of the final pieces in the puzzle.

The serial itself is a lot of fun. In a bizarre precursor to Gridlock, The Macra occupy the same sort of narrative space here as they did when they made their unexpected return. In both stories, they’re a good visceral threat, but they play second fiddle to the real menace: the society that exists around them. This serial works so well because the world it builds is so intriguingly creepy, and easy to get lost in. It’s like a more menacing version of The Land of Oz, with its singing, dancing and ominous off-screen voices.

The Doctor continues to develop into everything I want him to be with each passing story. Here, he shows off his raw genius, solving problems with mental dexterity and sneakily tinkering around to manipulate the situation. There’s some great character stuff with the companions too – Jamie’s loyalty to The Doctor and the value he places in his friendship with Ben and Polly make it easy to see why he went on to be such and enduring and popular companion.

Ben steals the show, though – a great choice as the one to be brainwashed, as he’s always given the impression of someone who’s somewhat suggestible, and one who often obfuscates his intentions. Considering I’d not seen a single frame of him before this rewatch, he’s now become one of my favourite supporting characters, obtaining the status of “classic companion” that Vicki, Steven and Dodo never quite made.

As for Polly, well… erm, she got a new haircut at one point. It’s very nice. Other than that, she might as well not have been there. I hope when they ditch her (which surely must happen soon) they keep Ben, although I’m not getting my hopes up…


The Moonbase

This is a story all about this base, right, that’s under siege. This seems like a promising format – I wonder if they’ll return to it at any point?

I mean, it’s essentially exactly the same as The Tenth Planet, except a bit more claustrophobic. But hey, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it – that was a great story, and so is this. The redesign of the Cybermen works well, and the new voice is even more creepy than the original, albeit at the cost of being a little hard to understand at times. The mystery virus and the mind control are nice little touches to keep the story that little bit fresher.

It works well to have a baddie return so quickly after their first appearance. There’s no messing around establishing things, as the events of the original are still fresh in the minds of both the audience and (75% of) the TARDIS crew. In-universe it works well too – nearly a hundred years have passed, and so for the crew of the base, the Cybermen are a combination of modern history and urban legend. There’s a much improved sense of cohesion and consistency within the fictional universe these days.

Except when it comes to Polly – they just can’t seem to settle on who she is. She was on the up again this time, despite a few screamy moments and the fact that her main job whenever Cybermen are around is to make coffee. But she showed intelligence and worked pro-actively, especially when coming up with the plan to melt the Cybermen’s chest plates. Elsewhere, Ben was suspiciously smart all of a sudden, and Jamie had very little to do – he was knocked out early in the first part and didn’t get out of bed again until episode three. Maybe the three companion thing isn’t working out after all, but I don’t want rid of any of them at this stage. It’s an embarrassment of riches.


The Underwater Menace

Throughout this serial, it’s hard to shake the nagging realisation that what you’re watching isn’t very good… but I found it brilliantly entertaining anyway. Take the big baddy, Professor Zaroff, for example. He looks like Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, and he provides possibly the hammiest performance in the entire show to date. But he’s great fun to watch, and I always admire a villain whose only motivation for his actions is “because fuck you all, that’s why”.

Then there’s the plot, which goes round in circles and largely consists of inconsequential running around. But you don’t really notice that, because it’s all so pacey and frenetic. There’s a particularly large guest cast for this serial, and that helps – it continues the new story-telling trend of spending a scene at a time with each of several concurrent plot threads. Not enjoying this bit? Don’t worry, a completely different bit will be along in a minute.

The bigger cast also gives us an even more expanded core ensemble than I anticipated – the team up with Ara, Ramo, Sean and Jacko brings us up to eight protagonists at one point. This works surprisingly well, especially the sequence in episode three where The Doctor hatches a plan that involves all of them doing particular things in particular places in order to lure and capture Zaroff. The Second Doctor is becoming somewhat of a chess master, and it’s brilliant for the character.

On the downside, Polly seems to be suffering a little from the addition of Jamie – I thought it would be Ben, but he seems fine. Instead, having two action heroes means that Polly has reverted to the wimpy type that Susan was towards the end. She’s just written so inconsistently – a brave, no-nonsense feminist last time, but all “oh no, I can’t do this, I’m not as good as you men” here.

Oh, and it was so good to actually watch a bit of Troughton at last! I’ve become increasingly angry at whichever pricks decided that the cost of video tape was worth more than preserving works of art, but I can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m through the worst of it – The Tenth Planet episode four to The Underwater Menace episode one is the longest run of consecutive missing episodes. The rest of this season is still tricky, but after that the missing ones are in the minority once more. I can’t wait – currently, the fact that I’ve got animation instead of telesnaps for the missing portions of the next serial seems like a luxury. At this rate, I’ll be weeping tears of joy in a few months time when everything’s in colour.


The Highlanders

Ah, now this is the Second-Doctor-announcing-himself story I was after! We now know what to expect of him: unpredictability. He bounces around and always stays one step ahead of the audience, but two steps ahead of the other characters. His character will veer wildly from one extreme to another, just to keep everyone on their toes, and he breezes through the plot with the viewer in his slipstream. He’s brilliant, and he’s everything I believe The Doctor *should* be.

That said, he does seems to have a penchant for guns all of a sudden, which I’m going to chalk up to an attempt to make him as different from Hartnell’s incarnation as possible. On the plus side, he also suddenly loves a good disguise, popping up throughout the story as a German doctor, an old maid and an English soldier. Sometimes it’s for important plot reasons, sometimes it’s just for the lols. Either way, I approve.

And the great thing about this era of the show is that all the characters are pretty well defined. Ben has always been great, but Polly seems to take a level in badass during this story – getting her hands dirty, blackmailing some poncey soldier, and bemoaning the role of women in a patriarchal society. She’s great.

This, combined with Ben’s quick wit and military skills, means that all three characters are capable of sustaining plot threads by themselves, which in turns allows more intricate and compelling stories to be told. They can all split off and enact individual parts of a plan, and none of them feel like they’re in the B team. As such, The Highlanders zips along with such gusto that it almost feels like they wrote off historical stories a bit too hastily – this is the last of its ilk.

Of course, this excellent dynamic within the TARDIS team makes it a curious decision to add a third companion, for the first time since Ian and Barbara’s double exit. I love Jamie, obvs, but I fear that he’ll cross over with Ben a little too much – with the Doctor no longer a frail old man, you don’t really need two strapping young lads to do the legwork. I’ve no idea how long Ben and Polly will be around for, but I hope they’re not gone too soon. Here’s hoping they can make the sausage fest work…


The Power of the Daleks

I’m surprised to admit that I wasn’t instantly blown away by Troughton, having expected an immediate shot to the show’s arm after the slow deterioration of Hartnell’s effectiveness. Instead, we get the kind of post-regeneration weirdness and aloofness that you’d expect from later incarnations, but without the crowning moment of awesome where the new guy really announces himself. It was certainly a bold move to have the first ever “new” Doctor spend much of his first adventure communicating primarily through the medium of the recorder.

That said, you can already sense the new dynamic that the production team were so desperate for. The Doctor is now the one running around and sorting shit out, and he’s already getting into as many tricky scrapes as his companions. It just felt like he needed a little bit of breathing space to establish his character, which there wasn’t time for during any of the six episodes.

It was a very smart move to bring the Daleks back for the first story without Hartnell, and they’re written much better here than they have been since they invaded Earth. For the first time, we see them really use their intelligence and capacity for deception, which makes them a much scarier threat all of a sudden. There’s room for humour too – more subtle than was on display in The Chase – with the Daleks pretending to be the colonists’ serrrr-vants, foreshadowing Victory of the Daleks some 44 years in advance.

Unfortunately, the Daleks don’t get much of a look-in until late on in the serial – it’s not until episode six that they start exterminating people. There’s two stories happening here – the Daleks and the power struggle within the colony, and the balance is tipped a bit too heavily towards the latter. I don’t really give a shit whether or not the rebels overthrow the governor, when I assume they’re all going to be annihilated anyway.

Other notes:

– Even with a series of telesnaps and limited amounts of moving footage, you can still tell that the majority of the Daleks are cardboard cut-outs.

– Nice try with the “make sure that no more than three of us are seen together” line, though.

– Interesting that the Daleks’ reliance on static electricity is brought up again, having previously been discarded because it was too limiting. I assume it’ll be dropped again the next time it’s too limiting.

The Highlanders next. Good – it seemed odd to watch a Troughton story without him shouting “Jamieeeee” in various ways at various points.


The Tenth Planet

That was a bit special. I was excited by the prospect of two very famous firsts in one serial, but it was just a great show in its own right. Creepy, tense and pacey, with some brilliant cliffhangers, which meant I was more tempted than ever to just blast through all four episodes in one go. Each part made me desperate for more – it’s just brilliant, compelling story-telling at its best.

I loved the Cybermen instantly. While The Daleks was notable for how much has remained unchanged, what makes the Cybermen so great here is that they’re so different from what was to come. The sheer creepiness of their movement and voices, and the balance between their lack of human emotion and susceptibility to human logic, makes them a completely different prospect to the “excellent”-merchants of the ‘80s and the featureless automatons of today. Zippy is on fine form.

I loved the use of 1986 – the year I was born – as “the future”. This, along with Ben asking if we’d landed on the moon yet, is a great way to appreciate just how long this wonderful show has been going. Speaking of Ben, I really like him – he did well as a Doctor substitute throughout most of the story, and his guilt over killing a Cyberman was a lovely moment. Polly, on the other hand, is a bit too much of a screamy girly one at the moment, but it’s early days.

Other things I liked: turning into a Cold War parable halfway through, the funky computer read-out style titles, the hilariously stereotypical Italian. The few things I didn’t like: having the bleepy bloopy noise over the theme tune during the closing credits, and the fact that the resolution of the Cyberman plot is a bit bloody convenient.

The regeneration, then. It’s a huge shame that Hartnell was too ill to be in episode three, but I suppose it does make his need for a regeneration more logical. It’s also unfortunate – but completely unavoidable – that the First Doctor kind of slowly fizzled out over the course of a season or so, rather than getting one last crowning moment of glory like the majority of his successors.

While it’s kind of sad that I don’t have any more Hartnell to enjoy, the main thing I’m left with is incredible excitement about all this untapped Troughton coming my way. I can’t wait to see how both he and the show deal with the aftermath of this momentous headfuck, and if that wasn’t exciting enough, the Daleks are back. It’s been a while…