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This is such a strange and unusual episode, but when Steven Moffat writes something strange and unusual, it’s often a belter. That’s definitely the case here, in what’s more of an anthology than a single story, in which it’s deliberately not clear whether there’s even a villain or a monster. It’s an exploration of a philosophical musing, as detailed in a brilliant opening soliloquy by Capaldi – I love it when The Doctor talks to us.

There are three distinct acts, each telling their own mini-story, linked by the Doctor’s curiosity and Clara’s clearly awful relationship with Danny. It’s a little odd to make him so pivotal to the episode when it’s only the second time we’ve met him, and the first thing they do here is argue because he loses his temper. When we next return to the date, it’s his turn to storm out because he clearly has issues with women he can’t control. I don’t see the motivation for either of them to pursue this relationship past this double-fucked date, as they’ve both clearly demonstrated that they’re unsuitable for each other.

But luckily, my many qualms about the relationship don’t alter how brilliantly Moffat uses it here, as the spine around which the mini-stories are built. Danny is much more likeable when he’s a tiny child called Rupert, and this segment is Moffat continuing his mission to make people scared of literally everything, from electrical faults, to the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end, to misplacing a cup of coffee.

A lot is made of the ambiguity as to whether the monster is real, but you do see a brief glimpse of whatever was under Rupert’s blanket, and it certainly doesn’t look like a human child. Then again, in the Orson Pink segment, I don’t think there was anything outside, it makes sense to me that it was just the ship creaking. It’s entirely possible that there’s a monster in one bit and not the other, but either way it doesn’t really matter – the entire point is that you can believe what you want to believe, and the moral is that it’s ok to be scared, even if it turns out to be of nothing.

We only know what’s under the bed for sure in the final segment – it’s Clara, grabbing herself a tiny Time Lord. The ambiguity here is around the identity of said Time Child, and I choose to believe that it’s the Doctor, mainly because of the barn thing, but also because otherwise it wouldn’t be as good. Although it does mean that Clara repeating the Doctor’s earlier “fear is a superpower” speech back to him is the exact kind of bootstrap paradox the Doctor discusses in the next series.

It’s great to see Moffat tackling a standalone mid-series episode – doing something that’s not connected to a wider arc allows him to flex the same muscles he did when RTD was running the show, and it’s this type of writing the show’s going to miss most when he’s gone.

RATING: 9

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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 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

The Three Doctors

It’s the start of season ten, and nobody in the production has seemed to notice that if you do one season each year, the start of the tenth season is actually much closer to the *ninth* anniversary than the tenth. But their lack of knowledge of how calendars work is a small price to pay for the joy of having our first multi-Doctor story a year early.

It’s such a pleasure to have Patrick Troughton in the TARDIS once more. He’s still my favourite ever Doctor (at the time of writing), and he slots back in effortlessly. The return of the old irreverence and obfuscating behaviour brings the contrast with his successor in to sharp focus, and it’s this clash of characters that provides some of the funniest scenes of all time. It’s great that Troughton’s presence ups Pertwee’s game, rather than overshadowing him – there’s a danger that bringing back long-gone elements from the past could make you pine for the old days, but Pertwee’s performance here reminds you that the role is still in safe hands.

It’s a shame that Hartnell couldn’t be more involved, and it’s probably best not to approach his performance with a critical eye. But the vacuum created provides great opportunities for the other regulars to play their part. The Brig is on fine form, playing it for laughs by becoming increasingly pissed off at everything he can’t understand, culminating in the brilliant “Cromer” line. Elsewhere, Jo’s utter devotion to the Doctor is further evolving into a fear of being separated, to such an extent that I’m blatantly going to be a blubbering mess come the end of this season.

It’s also a strong showing from Benton, who gets to have a go at being a proper companion for the Second Doctor, and takes it all in his stride. One thing, though – where’s Captain Yates? Were the injuries sustained in the doodlebug incident worse than we thought? I’m trying to work out how I’ll feel if he’s been quietly written out between seasons (I genuinely don’t know, so no spoilers please). I don’t think I’ll be too bothered – unlike Benton, he’s never really had much of a distinct character, and has always just been the spare army guy if the Brig is doing something else.

As well as being the first multi-Doctor story, this is also the first time we’ve really had a good look at Time Lord mythology. Having only seen bits and bobs of it during the classic series, I’ve always been a bit confused by this element of the show, so it’s great to see it all play out without having to worry about half-remembered bits from other stories. Omega himself is hammy as all hell, but entertaining with it. The reveal of his empty armour and his subsequent breakdown was compelling, and the earlier battle between the Third Doctor and Omega’s dark side was completely mental.

There were undoubtedly a few less successful elements, such as the fantastical world of anti-matter Omega creates looking just like an English quarry, the pan-dimensional monsters and wibbly video effect not being the most convincing, or the convenient way that the Second Doctor’s recorder fell into the forcefield generator and landed upright. But when there’s so much joy sprinkled throughout, and so many brilliant actors at the top of their game, this serial is nothing short of an absolute classic.

RATING: 10

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…

RATING: 9

The Smugglers

It’s a shame to admit it, but I’m finding the missing episodes much more of a chore these days. I think it’s because there’s so many of them – it’s daunting when I look at my spreadsheet and see a big block of red, and Season 4 is going to be particularly tough:

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I found The Smugglers took quite a while to capture my interest, but I’m not sure whether that’s the fault of the serial or the medium. After all, I really enjoyed The Myth Makers and The Savages despite their missing statusmore so than The Gunfighters and The Web Planet, for example. It did pick up in the last couple of episodes, after The Doctor escaped and everything started to converge on the church. However, the plot was rather slight with very few surprises, and it progressed at a snail’s pace.

Ben and Polly were on good form – I like them as a double act, and the dynamic between them is reminiscent of the as-yet-unsurpassed Ian and Barbara. However, this is another serial that feels extremely Doctor-lite, and not in a Blink way. It didn’t feel like he really affected the outcome of the plot, and you get the sense that the production felt his mere presence was a bit of a pain of the arse.

For the first time, my conclusion matches that of the team – this is the right time for Hartnell to go. The companion team has been chopped and changed and there’s still something not quite right. We clearly need a new lead actor. I’ve loved everything I’ve previously seen of Troughton, so obviously I can’t wait to see him take over. But I’m also hoping that Hartnell’s final serial gives him a suitably good send off, because up until now he’s been way better than his reputation would suggest.

RATING: 5

The War Machines

Much like The Time Meddler closing the second season, Doctor Who’s third season ends with another significant step forward in the show’s evolution. For the first time, the setting is neither futuristic, alien or historical – we’re in contemporary London, and The Doctor is working with the military and the government to fight off an invasion. The Pertwee era has arrived already!

And despite the obvious fact that it was made twenty years before I was born, that sense of freshness and relevance that a contemporary setting provides still translates today. The threat seems real to me, even though it’s in my past. It also gives us the first ever celebrity cameo – Kenneth Kendall beating Huw “it’s hope and it’s love” Edwards to the punch by some forty years. One cultural reference has been rendered somewhat inappropriate by the ravages of time – a group of youngsters in a night club look at The Doctor’s long white hair and say “he looks like that disc jockey”.

This is all part of an overarching attempt to make the programme feel more trendy and relevant, hence the recruitment of swinging sixties types Ben and Polly to the TARDIS crew. They both make promising starts, although I could have done without Ben victim-blaming Polly when she was harrassed by some bloke in the nightclub. I would say “sixties attitude”, but that would imply that it’s not also a 21st century attitude. Still, not really his fault, and his character improved throughout the story.

On the downside of all these fresh changes – what the fuck kind of exit was that for poor old Dodo? She gets sent off to the countryside at the end of episode two, and that’s the last we see of her. She decides she’d rather just go home than travel with the Doctor, and this is only relayed via a message. She doesn’t even say goodbye – she “sends The Doctor her love”. In dramatic terms, this is bullshit. As a production decision, it’s also bullshit. I can see why they wanted rid of her – she’d hardly set the world alight in her handful of serials, and she seemed to be a completely different character from one week to the next. But come on – at least pay her for a complete serial so she can have a proper goodbye.

That aside, this was a great serial, full of imaginative and memorable details. I loved the special animated sequence for the episode title/writer credits, and the fact that WOTAN was credited as a guest star. I also liked that the War Machines’ test procedure was effectively a deadlier version of the Gauntlet round from early series of Robot Wars. Plus, the concept of computers communicating with each other via telephone lines is, you know, fairly prophetic. The only negative I could find in the finer details was that I found myself shouting “stop calling him ‘Doctor Who’” at one point.

RATING: 7

So, that’s another milestone reached…

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 6.8

  • Seasons/Series watched: 3 of 34
  • Stories watched: 27 of 253
  • Individual episodes watched: 126 of 813

And I’m a little over a week away from completing one out of twelve/thirteen Doctors…

 

The Savages

So long then, Steven. After a promising start, his development had kind of faltered for a while, and he was rarely as rugged or good-humoured as he had been at the start. Nevertheless, I liked him, and this episode at least gave him a chance to be the action hero once more, finally reaching Chesterton levels of ass-kicking for his last hurrah. His impromptu election as supreme leader of the planet he’d been on for about a day was a little sudden, but Dodo’s reaction and Steven’s hesitant exit gave it a good emotional punch.

Elsewhere, I enjoyed this serial a lot. It was a high-concept plot about a supposedly utopian society with a dirty secret, and while it was never too surprising, there were some good moments. The sight of The Doctor having his life force removed was a fairly stark image. (Well, I assume it was. Bloody missing episodes.)

It kicked up a gear when the leader of the baddies absorbed The Doctor’s knowledge, conscience and mannerisms, making for a bizarre early incarnation of The Doctor-Donna. The Doctor has very much moved on from the dubious junkyard-dweller we first met, to become the great moral compass of the universe that we know today.

It’s also notable that the elders recognise The Doctor when he arrives on the planet; his reputation as a notorious time traveller now preceding him. But for all the hype surrounding The Doctor’s character, you can really tell at this point that the production wanted rid of Hartnell. He spends an episode and a half either unconscious or catatonic, and it seems like a deliberate attempt to give him as little to do as possible. It’s not nice.

RATING: 8

The Gunfighters

At this stage in Who history (Whostory, if you will), there seems to be a willingness to play around with the format wherever possible, and to keep everything as different as possible from serial to serial. This sometimes works well, such as the big time hop in the middle of The Ark, and sometimes not so well, like the episodic riddles of The Celestial Toymaker.

To this end, The Gunfighters is interwoven with Nurse Gladys Emmanuel singing a hugely repetitive song about what’s just happened on screen. I quite like it in places, especially when it’s used to give important scenes a bit of breathing space. But it would have been far more effective if it had been used more sparingly – it did begin to grate by the end of the first episode.

And really, the story doesn’t need a gimmick – it’s nothing special, but it’s solid enough, and it really improves with the introduction of Johnny Ringo. His senseless murder of Charlie the barman caused me to utter an expletive that may have caused me to be arrested in 1966.

The main thing you take from The Gunfighters, though, is utter disbelief at how terrible all those American accents were. Those stuck-up sixties actors simply couldn’t be anything but plummy in front of a microphone. They tried to fight it, but to no avail. A shame, as it does overshadow the whole production somewhat.

According to the “next time” caption, it’s Dr. Who and the Savages up next. I’m going to miss having individual titles for each episode – presumably cliffhangers will go straight into the credits, rather than having a “next time” slate from now on. This is just the kind of exciting development that makes this project worthwhile.

RATING: 6

The Celestial Toymaker

That was… unusual. Doctor Who as an adventure game show. A really, really cheap adventure game show. Michael Gough is entertaining as the eponymous Toymaker, but there’s a really odd atmosphere in this story. The Doctor states that he’s met the Toymaker before and knows all about him, but doesn’t choose to share any pertinent information with either his companions or the audience. It feels like you’re watching a sequel to a story that was never made.

I’m usually a fan of these anthology type serials, but this one was just too repetitive. Steven and Dodo have to do exactly the same thing for four weeks in a row, namely playing giant-sized board games in order to get to the TARDIS, which is then revealed to be a fake (except in the last episode). Meanwhile, The Doctor has to beat a logic game, despite having been made invisible and mute. This just struck me as a convenient way to give Hartnell another holiday, so I was startled to discover afterwards that the original intention was to use the invisibility as a means of recasting the lead. I mean, I know it’s going to happen soonish anyway, but imagine how different the following 50 years would be if this had have been how.

The games themselves are a mixture of The Adventure Game and 3-2-1. It was a nice touch to have the riddles appear as captions just before the credits each week, but let’s face it, they were largely rubbish. The last one was basically just “you have to win the game”.

Elsewhere, the small supporting cast, each playing a series of ever changing comedy grotesques, were good value. However, the main thing I’ll remember from this story is the moment in episode two where The King of Hearts does an “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo”, and I had to rewind to check that he’d just said what I thought he’d said. He had. He did the full Clarkson version. Wasn’t expecting that from any era of Doctor Who.

RATING: 5