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 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…

RATING: 7

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…

RATING: 8

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.

RATING: 8

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.

RATING: 7

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…

RATING: 7

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.

RATING: 7

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