Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Christmas Invasion

And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Well, I don’t know about you but in between playing with my new Remote Control Dalek, I did sit down and watch The Christmas Invasion, the Doctor Who Christmas Special. And I say that as if we’re actually used to having a Doctor Who Christmas Special – like it’s a tradition or something. Yeah, as if. But perhaps it will be.

This one was full of the Christmas buzz, like opening up an extra present in the evening. Partly down to being starved of new Doctor Who for six months, but I’m sure it was also due to the fact that we were getting a new Doctor as well. In the wake of David Tennant’s introduction, somebody commented “Christopher Who?”, which is a little mean-spirited, but he was more immediately likeable and his performance, in my eyes, more immediately established him as the Doctor. Where Eccleston was hampered was by only really coming home to me as the Doctor somewhere in Dalek, a few episodes after we knew he was going to be leaving the role. Tennant’s main disadvantage, when he was first announced in the role, was that I hadn’t seen him in anything else and he didn’t seem to have enough of a face to hang much character on – but that turned out to be more of a Christmas hamper, and he really delivered the goods. (Ha ha.) Especially as he spent half of the story asleep – something that severely undermined Davison’s debut in Castrovalva. But Tennant gets away with it, and his Doctor strikes me as having the youth of the Davison Doctor, but he backs it up with force of personality and a surprisingly substantial presence.

Don’t get me wrong, I still wanna see an older Doctor (calling Ian McDiarmid!), but I’m more than happy to see Tennant take up residence in the role for a good while. Welcome to the TARDIS. And, yay! he’s a more proactive Doctor than his predecessor, actually being instrumental in the resolution of the whole thing – even if part of it was just down to pressing one button and chucking a satsuma at another. But he gets serious points for the sword fight, the Lion King line and the nod to Arthur Dent, to name but a few golden moments.

There seemed to be a light sprinkling of Hitch Hikers throughout the whole thing, from the more obvious dressing gown to the question as to whether the Doctor might have been a diphallic terrata like Zaphod, the comical moment as the Guinevere satellite bumps into a whopping great alien spacecraft and some more comedy with the alien translation devices.

But hark at me – it’s as if he was the only good thing in it. And that’s simply not the case. Far from it. It wasn’t all roses, but it felt like the best of the Davies-scripted stories we’ve had so far. So what was right and what was wrong? Well, all of it obviously J

Billie was great as ever as Rose, giving it her all, with some potent emotional scenes and her comical appeal to the Sycorax leader. Her only downside was that her character had apparently gone a bit feeble in the face of the alien invasion, presumably a touch of Seasonal Adjustment Disorder kicking in just in time for Christmas. She was never this helpless in The Parting Of The Ways, when the Doctor packed her off while he prepared to face death etc. Can’t help feeling it would have been better if she’d had the Doctor carted into the TARDIS and tried to do something – which still would have served the plot in exactly the same way and we still could have seen her fighting to hold herself together emotionally. And she does really really labour the point as she works out why she’s suddenly hearing the Sycorax leader speak English, when the rest of us had worked it out about a year ago.

There was Mickey and Jackie too, of course. And Jackie had a few funny lines, but I still look forward to a time when the show isn’t exceeding the recommended dosage of these two. Please. Kill Mickey. Convert him into a Cyberman and let us enjoy the inevitable round of Metal Mickey jokes. Give us something.

But no. Instead the halfway decent UNIT commander gets it in the neck – with a Sycorax whip. At least Adam Garcia was more memorable in this as the PM’s aide than he was in Coyote Ugly, but then if you’re going to have lots of women dancing on bars in your movie, you really can’t expect me to notice the male lead. But none of these supporting cast types can match Penelope Wilton as Harriet Jones, Prime Minister.

Brilliantly played and with such conviction that I actually want to vote for her. Yes, even at the end when she does the ‘bad deed’. Which, to be honest, while it leads to a great scene and the Doctor’s clever use of those six words – “Don’t you think she looks tired” – I found myself thinking was the right thing to do. That is, the right thing for a PM to do in those circumstances. As much as the Doctor was getting all self-righteous and pacifistic - by no means an un-Doctorish thing to be – the fact is the Sycorax were not themselves rendered suddenly peaceful and would likely have ranged elsewhere in the Universe to try their hand at subjugating some other planet. It struck me that Harriet Jones was only taking care of unfinished business and making the really tough decision that the Doctor avoided. Hm. Food for thought, and makes a change from turkey.

The Sycorax themselves were not the greatest of aliens in terms of cultural and sociological concept and their invasion plans, let’s face it, sucked. But I loved their design. Until I discovered the mask was just a mask. That was a big disappointment, when the leader removes his mask and reveals something less than brilliant underneath. Possibly a metaphor for the bluff that formed such a part of their less than brilliant invasion plan, but from purely a design point of view, a bit of a let down. And there is no way on Earth anyone would believe they were aliens just from seeing them on the telly.

But there we reach the level of those same kinds of minor niggles that cause the whole thing to unravel like a stubborn paper chain when you’re trying to hang the Christmas decs. Why do the British government have an alien translation device that works so well with an unknown language? Why doesn’t anyone think to physically stop their loved ones from marching off – especially the kids who aren’t too old to be picked up by an anxious mum? Why do none of the hypnotized people tumble off the edge when hit by the shockwave from the arriving spaceship? Why do the Sycorax have a button on the outside of their ship that conveniently releases a bit of the material around the edge? (I mean, it’s handy for the Doctor but I can’t envisage a use in, er, normal operations.) Why, in short, oh why.

One of the two biggest whys though had to be: what was the deal with the ‘pilot fish’? Clearly this was a plot device so that we could have the Santas wreaking havoc and a manic killer Christmas tree, all in fine Doctor Who fashion – but it smacks too much of the Avengers movie, in which many admirably bizarre things happen for no good reason. First of all, I couldn’t help feeling they should have been Autons. That, or so completely unlike Autons that I wasn’t left thinking they should have been Autons. Second and chiefly of all, on first watch I was left feeling that their plan might have actually made less sense than those of the Sycorax. It didn’t help that they seemed to know all about the Doctor’s presence, while the Sycorax appeared to know nothing until the TARDIS showed up on their scanners; while at the same time, when faced with the Doctor and his dreaded sonic screwdriver, they ‘beam up’ with the same effect as the Sycorax teleport device. Do they live on the same asteroid ship, making use of the Sycorax technology, or what? Why do they leave the Christmas tree at the Tyler household door instead of just walking in and shooting everyone with their flame-throwing trombones? It’s a reasonable question, and the public have a right to know. :) At the end of the day, it’s all good fun of course, and I only wish they had been better embedded in the plot as a whole.

The second of the biggest whys has more to do with production than plot though, and why the swordfight scenes out on the exterior of the very lovely spaceship had to appear cheap compared with the impressive interior shots, with the great arena lined with its ranks of Sycorax. Clearly the outside scene was vital if the leader was to be plunged off the edge with the deft application of a satsuma in the right spot, and if they were that necessary, why weren’t they handled with greater care and attention. Cutting off the Doctor’s hand as a nod to Star Wars is one thing, cutting off the combatants’ legs so we can’t actually see anything of the setting is just unconvincing and comes across as a deliberate and transparent attempt to save money. For such a crucial part of the climax, it looked a bit rubbish.

And I lied: there’s a third big why. Why do so many scenes have to be drowned out by such intrusive music? I know it’s Christmas, but turn it down a bit, people, some of us want to listen to the dialogue.

Despite being so bung full of all these flaws, it succeeds really well because it’s delivered with such energy and enthusiasm, and the idea of scale – that it’s happening on a global level – is, bearing in mind it’s telly, as well-realised, with the simple inclusion of US news bulletins and a shot or two of people set to leap off foreign landmarks, as in Independence Day. And maybe it’s like some of those Christmas presents – even the ones you had to go and exchange – it’s the thought that counts. On a second watch, without the initial buzz, some of the appeal fades, but that’s unavoidable, and the important thing is, the shiny bits still shine.

The whole thing is tailed off with a medley of teasers for the second series, possibly giving away a bit more than I’d have liked, but whetting the appetite sufficiently. And when the Doctor at the end of The Christmas Invasion declares that there’s so much out there he’s looking forward to seeing, I’m thinking “You and me both, mate”, and part of that promise of pastures new rubs off on this Christmas special.

Let’s see this new more proactive Doctor in more challenging adventures and I think future shows can afford to set the bar higher, but in the meantime I enjoyed this particular Christmas present, thanks very much. Now pardon me, while I go and play with my Remote Control Dalek.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Previously, On Doctor Who...

"A man is the sum of his memories, even more so for a Time Lord," said the Doctor in The Five Doctors. Or something like that. It was the 20th Anniversary Special, it was ages ago and I can't be expected to remember it exactly. The point is, Doctor Who, like many a resurrected cult classic, is the sum of memories - yours and mine - and it's the impressions that stick in your mind that characterise your favourite show(s). I know I mentioned before that in the run up to the New Series there was talk of how this one wasn't going to be all wobbly sets and men in suits like the old series, and the fact is, that wasn't what I remembered about 'classic' Doctor Who at all. I don't even remember a lot of model spaceships, even though I know the series featured them as a cheaper alternative to the real thing. It's only when we get to stories like 'Underworld' that things like dodgy CSO start to leave a lasting impression. I'd have to check what year that was, but my guess is I was beginning to grow up. By the time I'd reached 'Horns of Nimon' I'd achieved such a mature level of discernment I could tell it was, frankly, rubbish.

Ah, how often have I sat down to watch an old favourite episode with a slight sense of trepidation, wondering if it will be as good as I remember. (Strangely, I never stop to wonder if ‘Nimon’ was *better* than I remember.) That was back when they were on UK Gold though and when I was collecting them avidly on VHS, when I was seeing them for the second time for the first time, as it were. These days, I'm past that and although I'm selective when it comes to which episodes I'll buy on DVD, I'm selecting those ones for a reason: and that is, whatever their deficiencies in the fx department and so on, they are, in a word, magic. They're not exactly as I remember them - of course they're not, because the wonky bits were always filled in by my childhood imagination - but they tap into that. If you’re susceptible to their charm, then the illusion holds together.

So what of this new big budget version of our old favourite, where the fx are at least (we’d hope) a foregone conclusion and the illusion is by and large all done for you? Setting that aside though, I believe good Doctor Who is born of the same rules and the same essential ingredients – whatever they are J - regardless of budget. On the one hand, this version had a lot to live up to, on the other, we all wanted to love it so it had a lot of positive karma in its bank balance to begin with.

Clealry, the show was a popular success - and an almost instant one at that. It could be argued that if you plugged anything sporting a natty Doctor Who label into the vacuum that was Saturday night TV by that stage, you were going to attract viewers, but the main trick isn't attracting viewers, it's keeping them. And the show did that, all the way through. It's a talking point of conversation amongst ordinary non-Doctor Who people. And there's a sense of anticipation and interest in the series from people who previously showed no interest whatsoever - like both of my sisters, and the BBC for instance. As to its success at being Doctor Who, well, the only way I have to measure that is by the little cold shivers I experienced when watching it, and the enduring quality of those impressions.

Obviously, I'm not a kid any more and am, sadly, far less impressionable, so it's difficult to leave me with such indelible images as the Sea Devils rising out of the ocean that will last a lifetime. But given that I’ve not yet rewatched more than one episode since the series’ first run, this is more about what has stayed with me for the intervening months.

Since I’ve already covered the episodes individually, it’s reasonably safe to say that my opinion hasn’t changed a great deal with regard to any of them. (For my initial impressions of each story, comb through the archives!) The good bits endure: the tingle when Rose enters the TARDIS for the first time, the thrill of seeing the Dalek doing all the things I already knew Daleks could do but had not yet seen on screen, the sheer creepy joy of ‘The Empty Child’. The niggles still niggle: the prolonged inaction finale of ‘Rose’, the ‘Galaxy Quest’ climax of ‘The End Of The World’, the transparent twist of ‘The Unquiet Dead’. And the sucky parts still suck: Mickey’s plastic grin in ‘Rose’, the two-part fart gag that was ‘Aliens of London’ and ‘World War Three’, and the, er, wasted opportunity of ‘Boomtown’. And in the midst of all that, the least memorable episode of the lot was ‘The Long Game’, which has the dubious privilege of being too average to stick in the mind for any special reason. A rewatch may alter some of that, but for the most part time and reflection have made little difference.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now confirm that the Doctor’s passive nature was down to his being scarred by the Time War and all that jazz, and as a thread linking the series it works. It’s a bold experiment that succeeds on that level, but still, for me, leaves the shadow of a disappointing Doctor. (Also, I got that he was something of a depressed Doctor, but did he have to be so bi-polar in his opinions: everything either "Stupid!" or "Fantastic!" - but I may well have said enough on that in previous posts!) It might have worked better had Christopher Eccleston continued in the role, allowing his Doctor to recover and reassert his own strengths, or had we been treated to a season beforehand in which we saw his Doctor being, well, more of a Doctor. Because with hindsight I appreciate more fully that he was, in fact, brilliant in the role – there are far too many moments where he shines to think otherwise: gloating over the Dalek, being gloated over by the Dalek, the ‘chips’ scene from ‘End of the World’, and his holographic farewell to Rose in ‘Parting of the Ways’, all real oh-my-god Doctor moments that will live in the memory for some time. But the unfortunate conjunction of character concept and premature regeneration mean we will never get to see him as anything but an essentially weak Doctor. And the whole of the first series is littered with ineffectual endings where we are forced to wonder about the fate of the world if it weren’t for the ‘lucky’ happenstance of the occasional deus ex machina (‘Boomtown’, ‘The Parting of the Ways’), or a plot built like a three-piece jigsaw so that it pretty much solves itself (‘The Unquiet Dead’). It’s a shame, but I hope that when I do get to rewatch some of the episodes, I get to appreciate the performance more in context than I might just be left wondering what might have been. And not wincing too much every time he says "Fantastic!".

I wonder if this idea of the Doctor was born out of some need to bring him down to the level of the companion. If so, I can only think the best way to go would have been to strengthen the companion – and as things turned out, the fact is, they wouldn’t have needed to at all. What worked far more successfully, for me, was Rose’s journey. Piper is terrific as Rose. That’s the plain and simple truth. She’ll never have the same place of affection in my heart as some of the previous companions (no, not Mel or Adric), but that’s much more a fault of my age than her performance in the role or the writing. For fear of making her seem weak next to the Doctor, they may have overcompensated. She’s wide-eyed enough to marvel at the things that need to be marveled at, conveying the sense of wonder you’d expect when whisked off in the TARDIS. She’s tough and independent in her way, and they even allow her to be helpless from time to time without undermining her strengths. I personally still don’t get that whole Bad Wolf business, and frankly the series and the character could have done perfectly well without it, but Rose in and of herself was great. In her way, she may even prove more memorable than the Doctor.

And she was of course very down to Earth. Which has its unfortunate side effects on the series, firstly in that she comes with baggage in the form of a mother and a boyfriend – both of which, I’m sorry, still irritate now that they’re just memories rather than cropping up every second episode (not helped by the knowledge that they’re set to come back). And secondly, in that the TARDIS just couldn’t get away from the place: the furthest it managed was a presumably fairly high Earth orbit. It shows a lack of adventure and a certain ‘safe’ attitude to the series that I don’t think did it any favours. Even my sisters who had been won over to Doctor Who for the first time in their lives were beginning to get really fed up with it by ‘The Empty Child’, and it’s a shame if their enjoyment of that story was only spoiled, even moderately, by the fact that it was couched between so many other Earth-based adventures. I’m all for touching base, but if you do it too often you’ll never get anywhere and as successful as ‘Aliens of London’ was (yes, it did have its very good points too) in exploring the effects of Rose having ‘been away’, I can’t help thinking that would have been helped by the still greater contrast of some truly alien worlds.

Then there’s Jack, of course. Or Cap’n Jack as he seems to have become known. Personally, I thought he was great, livening up the screen when he was on, always entertaining – except in ‘Boomtown’ when he was shoved into the scenery – and a good ‘action man’ time traveller to contrast with the Doctor. But as fond as I was of the character, I do wonder now if he will prove all that memorable, especially in the light of his woeful resurrection. Of course he’s being brought back in the BBC’s Torchwood spin-off, but in the context of Doctor Who, he may have proven more long-lived if he’d been allowed to stay dead.

Then there was, um... Adam. Yes. Well. What was that about? I really hope he is revealed as the new father of the Cybermen or something, because otherwise I will always be left wondering whether there was any point to him at all.

But here I’ve been banging on about this and that and I’ve not even touched on the memorable monsters. Um… well, there were the Daleks. Honestly, now that I turn my mind to the subject, it’s the Daleks that stand out in the memory, heads and, er, shoulders above the rest. That’s down to the imagery we were treated to, the way they were allowed to show off for us, as much as the fact that it’s the Daleks. And the credit is shared surprisingly equally between ‘Dalek’ and the less satisfactory overall ‘The Parting of the Ways’. Probably because we got to see billions of the things streaming out of their spaceships – and thankfully that truly awe-inspiring scene does much to gloss over the less fortunate way in which they pootled around the space station, waiting to get shot at. The ones that rise into view to take care of Lynda with a ‘y’ or ‘i’ – I can’t remember which! – are responsible for one of the great moments, almost – almost – up there with the Sea Devils surfacing through the waves and wading ashore.

But if I trawl through my recollections for other memorable monsters, unfortunately I keep coming up with the Slitheen – and for all the wrong reasons. They are too much like the Tetraps of the new series or, dare I say, the Nimon. They just don’t – work, for me. Maybe it’s the big baby eyes, maybe it’s the all too visible contrast between the lumbering man in the suit version and the CGI counterpart, maybe it’s the farcical or just plain lacking nature of the stories that featured them. They’re just poor, and like Jackie and Mickey, all the worse for the fact that you just know they’re engineered to be a returning, er, menace.

As for the rest, Cassandra will probably stick in the minds of most kids, and perhaps the eructating wheelie bin, but my money is not on the Nestene or the thing stuck to the ceiling in The Long Game. For sheer creepiness and exquisite simplicity, the best vote goes to the kid in a gas mask in ‘The Empty Child’. Not really a monster, but definitely the stuff of nightmares. And that really does equate with the Sea Devils, Giant Maggots, the Wirrn grub and Uncle Tom Cobley and all that Doctor Who has managed to throw at us nervous, impressionable types in the past.

Overall then, like the original ‘classic’ series, the end result is better than the sum of its parts. We forgive its flaws and embrace it warts and all, because the good bits are really so good and there is still nothing else like it on TV. As is evidenced even in individual episodes, in that ‘The Unquiet Dead’, for all its 45-minute flimsiness, remains one of my favourites. But you see, where it may share some of the flaws of other episodes, it has all the character, atmosphere and just general Doctor Who-ness anyone could wish for and was the first episode in which I knew for a hundred percent certainty that I was watching Doctor Who. For every cloud, there’s a silver lining and in the case of Doctor Who probably several. One of the measures of the series’ success, ironically, is that it leaves far too much to actually discuss than I could ever cite here with any hope of anyone reading through it all.

So I’ll stop soon.

In short, I loved it. It’s a qualified love and will have to go some considerable way to promote that to the same unconditional love with which I embraced the show as a child. But from what I hear, many a kid has embraced this new series with just that same kind of affection, and really I suppose that was the main aim.

Old fans like us are secondary, but we’re glad that this young whipper snapper still has something to offer us. And there are plenty of memories that will stay with me, for all the right reasons, at least until I get a chance to watch the episodes again.

Meanwhile, I look forward to the Christmas Invasion with huge amounts of anticipation. In part because the design of monster for that one really looks the business. And in part because, in my days of running the Doctor Who roleplaying game, I came up with scary Santas yonks ago. Of course they were Autons and one of my player characters had great fun running one over repeatedly in a stolen police car, but that really is another story and almost certainly couldn’t compare with anything the new series can come up with.

And if the Queen mentions Doctor Who in her Christmas speech this year, we'll finally know the full extent of its popular success.

Merry Christmas.