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

More than 30 Years in the TARDIS

This is what I meant about this blog becoming both more frequent and less regular. I’m forging my way through the wilderness years, but I had to wait until I had a spare 90 minutes set aside to watch this. Technically speaking, this is one I could have skipped, as I’m primarily concerned with fictional things, but they’re my rules and I can break them if I want to.

Plus of course there are some fictional elements to this, but we’ll come to those in a minute. The main purpose is a documentary to celebrate 30 years of Doctor Who, and it manages to pack a hell of a lot in, even considering the luxurious running time of this home video edition. It whooshes its way through the show’s history in a largely linear fashion, but with a few pauses to explore the bigger issues. It’s constructed well, with each topic dovetailing into the next, and lots of lovely archive footage to glue it together.

My favourite was the clip of a particularly pedantic Pertwee on Anne and Nick, utterly undermining their competition, to Nick Owen’s barely disguised distaste. It was their own fault for picking such an ambiguous question. The ad breaks were lovely too – I’d forgotten how much the Prime adverts conflated The Doctor and Romana with Tom and Lalla. The clips from the episodes were always well-picked, and my only complaint is that they were a little stingy with the rushes, but then we’re used to a much more generous portion in the DVD age.

As with the other, much less successful 30th anniversary celebration, it was good to see representatives from so many eras of the show as interviewees, and their family members too in some cases. With the exception of Gerry Anderson, who’s welcome on my television any time, I could have done without the random celebrities. Give me more Lambert, Dicks, Letts and Hinchcliffe, and less Mike Gatting bollocking on about cricket, or Toyah Wilcox remembering her inappropriate sexual awakenings.

I recognised the Douglas Adams interview set-up from Don’t Panic, the equivalent Hitchhikers documentary from a very similar time. That too mixed in the occasional sketch using old monster costumes and actors reprising their roles, but here they were much more ambitious. The classic scenes of Cybermen at St Paul’s and Daleks on Westminster Bridge were recreated beautifully, and Pertwee pissing about with the Whomobile was marvellous.

It all climaxed with the little boy walking through a police box prop and into the TARDIS, which is something we all take for granted these days, but was achieved for the very first time here. This is slightly overshadowed by the truly bizarre and sinister turn that the rest of the narrative takes, where Nick Courtney/The Brig (the lines are deliberately blurred) is driven off by an Auton, and Elisabeth Sladen/Sarah Jane turns into some sort of Sontaran agent and attempts to kill said little boy.

A strange ending, but a very solid documentary, which tells you everything you need to know about how Who was perceived at the time. Having been off the air for a few years, the problems of the later seasons were being forgotten about, and the nostalgia factor allowed the fond memories of yesteryear to become the thing that defined the brand. That was certainly the impression I got as a youngster who was just starting to become a TV obsessive.

RATING: 8

P.S. I’ve only tagged the people/monsters who appear in the sketches, not everyone that was interviewed, or who featured in clips. That would be pretty much all the tags.

Dimensions in Time

Technically, the 1992 VHS version of Shada should come next, but I’ve already watched that, knowing that the animated version is coming up shortly. So instead, today’s treat is a rewatch of what would have been the first Doctor Who I ever saw. I was seven, and distinctly remember sitting down with those 3D glasses from the Radio Times. The version I watched today thankfully included the Noel’s House Party links, in which Jon Pertwee accurately predicts the success of Deal Or No Deal.

We all know that this is awful, but it was slightly more coherent than I remembered (not from when I was 7 – I last watched it at a gathering for the 50th in 2013). The Rani’s plan is not dissimilar to Borusa’s in The Five Doctors, and it seemed like the special was an attempt to do similar things to that story, but in ten minutes, which would have been a tall order even without the added element of the EastEnders crossover. The problem of certain Doctors being unavailable/dead is not handled nearly as well. I could see what they were going for with trapping the first two Doctors in time, but representing Hartnell and Troughton as floating, lifeless, disembodied heads was ill-advised.

Meanwhile Tom Baker phones it in, with his eyes never breaking contact with the page of script that’s clearly just out of shot, and the worst title sequence in the show’s history is sped up and accompanied by a “updated” (read: “shit”) theme tune remix. But once it gets going, it’s actually rather lovely to see just so many familiar faces taking part. It seems harsh to criticise the endeavour when all these people gave up their time for free, purely to celebrate Doctor Who whilst raising money for charity.

However, it’s obviously not very good. It’s impossible to disguise the fact that the story is cobbled together based on who and what was available, and almost every actor is playing a generic catch-all character, with no time to display any of their own traits. They whizz by so fast it’s hard to clock them all on first viewing, although obviously the fact that they’ve all aged by up to 30 years is a hindrance to instant recognition. It’s the same problem with the menagerie of random monsters that turn up halfway through – it was just a bunch of moving costumes, and none of them got a chance to do… anything, really.

I’m not particularly familiar with EastEnders, so I can’t judge how successful it would have been for fans of the soap, but Mike Reid chewing the scenery was a highlight. Obviously there are troubling continuity questions surrounding the likes of Mel and Leela turning up in Albert Square when they look so similar to people who’d live there in the future. And wasn’t Pauline Fowler dead by 2013? I think Kathy Beale was too, but she got better…

Inevitably, the flimsy conceit completely fell apart by the end. The Rani is suddenly back in her TARDIS after she was defeated by Mandy bumping into her (should’ve been Big Ron), and an attempt to clear up the nature of the time-slips ends up making the story much more confusing. When Leela tells The Doctor that she was in the form of Romana, that implies that all of this is happening to the Seventh Doctor and Ace, but that they’re reverting to previous incarnations at times. Aside from the fact that that doesn’t really make sense for the companion, what about when there’s more than one companion on screen? Or when Romana is on her own, hiding in the Mitchells’ lock-up? They even had K-9 turn up out of nowhere seconds after the explanation!

If this was an attempt at a full-on revival of Doctor Who for the 30th anniversary, then it was a fucking disgrace. But it wasn’t – it was a daft little comedy sketch for charity, and seeing such a huge number of characters from throughout the show’s long history all at once is obviously a joy. It’s just indicative of the show’s standing at the time – in an ideal world, a big anniversary would be marked by a blockbuster episode of a current series, but that simply wasn’t the case for the 30th or 40th. Sadly, Dimensions in Time suffers simply because it’s an emblem of the darkest time in the show’s history.

RATING: 3

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

Dalek Invasion of Earth

I’d seen this one before a couple of times, but watching it in sequence made me appreciate just what a huge step up from the previous ten stories it represents. The whole world of Doctor Who just seems to open up all of a sudden, thanks to the scale and production value provided by the addition of location filming.

The story is similarly huge and ambitious, establishing an enthralling and believable future dystopia very quickly indeed. The Robomen are great, and clearly inspired the rather more enduring Cybermen a few years later. The little satellite dish on the Dalek’s backs are the first in a long line of contrivances to get around established continuity in order to tell a better story, and the Daleks are much better for their increased mobility. The sight of one rising from the lake at the end of episode one is extraordinarily good.

Plus, of course, this story concludes with the departure of Susan. The Doctor’s goodbye speech is so iconic that I feel like it’s been lodged in my memory from birth, but it managed to bring a lump to my throat when placed in the context that sequential viewing gives. That said, I was kind of glad to see the back of Susan. I love Carol Ann Ford’s performance, but the character herself is kind of an annoying wuss at times. It wasn’t always the case – she was great when she was all mysterious in An Unearthly Child and The Sensorites, but for the last few serials she’s been screaming, crying and generally being pathetic far too often. When you’ve got an older female role model that kicks as much arse as Barbara, it’s a shame to also have such a stereotypical girly girl with such little backbone.

RATING: 9

Planet of Giants

This is a strange one, to say the least, but the miniaturised crew navigating their way through a garden and a laboratory is great fun – very Honey I Shrunk The Kids. The B-plot, concerning a dangerous new pesticide and a bunch of resultant murder and intrigue, is a little bit jarring, but entertaining enough in itself.

It was only after I finished the story, and embarked on my usual tour of fansites and wikis for contextual information, that I learned of the production difficulties – it was shot as a four parter, and then re-edited into just three episodes. Personally, I felt it could have sustained its full length – the last episode did feel a little rushed in a way I couldn’t put my finger on until I knew the backstory.

RATING: 6

The Reign of Terror

The opening episode is one of the most exciting and gripping in the whole of this first season, culminating in a truly scary cliffhanger where the Doctor is trapped in a burning building, with little to no chance of escape. It feels so real – even though I knew the First Doctor didn’t die in a barn during the French Revolution, I felt a genuine sense of peril.

Sadly, the other five parts don’t come anywhere close to the promise of the first. It’s pleasant enough, but nowhere near as memorable as many other stories from season one, which this serial closes. It really suffers from Ian being missing for a couple of episodes, as at this stage, he was pretty much the main character, not The Doctor.

(By the way, from a modern perspective, it seems truly bizarre that a series would go on for so long that the regulars got a statutory holiday allowance, and more so that you’d just carry on without them for a couple of weeks!)

Oh, and this is the earliest serial whereby some episodes exist and some are missing. The DVD fills in the gaps with animation – I got The Invasion when it first came out and loved the animation there, but this one felt a little off. There were a hell of a lot of fast cuts, extreme close ups and dramatic shading – no doubt done with the intention of feeling slick and modern, but it just didn’t fit alongside a 1964 studio drama. I’d much rather have a plain old reconstruction of the best guess as to what the originals would have looked like.

RATING: 6

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 7.75

  • Seasons/Series watched: 1 of 34
  • Stories watched: 8 of 253
  • Individual episodes watched: 42 of 813

The Sensorites

Absolutely loved this one – the first couple of episodes, on board the trapped spaceship, are wonderfully creepy, especially the first appearance of a Sensorite, floating menacingly outside the window. I also like the way it suddenly turned into a Machiavellian political drama half way through, with the power struggle between the the Elders and the City Administrator.

However, this was the earliest serial that I could sense was dragging on a little bit. They hadn’t yet figured out the optimum length for a serial – there was a lot less faffing around in years to come, once they settled on “four parts as default, six for special occasions”.

That said, I can’t find much to fault this story on. It’s an early example of The Doctor (and the audience) assuming that alien = enemy, only to find that it’s much more complicated than that. Oh, and RTD is clearly a fan of this serial too – not only are The Ood the natural successor to The Sensorites, but this story also features Susan giving a description of (the yet-to-be-named) Gallifrey that matches The 10th Doctor’s account in Gridlock almost word for word.

RATING: 8

The Aztecs

I knew in advance that this was supposedly a good one, but the first episode really disappointed me. Barbara was behaving completely out of character, Ian was being a bit useless, and the cliffhanger involved the baddy turning *directly to camera* to outline all his evil plans.

Luckily, it picked right up from episode two onwards, with Barbara and The Doctor getting into some proper debates about the nature of time travel, the story becoming a lot more intriguing, and Ian taking a level in badass that would (though I didn’t know so at the time) remain in place for the rest of his journey.

The best thing, though, was The Doctor’s bit of comedy business with the randy old woman in the garden. The hot chocolate thing made me laugh for ages.

RATING: 8