Friday, 25 April 2014

Back to my Dr Who marathon and 2006...

New Earth / Tooth and Claw

Can the best Doctor Who stories be summed up in a question?
Can you guess the thing and the other thing mentioned during the episode that will need to be united at the end in order to defeat the monsters?

Best moment for Old School Who?
I’m combining reviews of two episodes here – the first two of the second season. And here we were: with a new Doctor and a sense that this was a series that was set to run for a long time. The thing we had dreamed about for all those years! Through years of Next Gen, X-Files, Voyager, Babylon 5, Buffy, Farscape and goodness knows how many other genre TV shows that were here, week after week, season after season, boxset after boxset. We longed for a Dr Who TV show that we could rely on just being there. And here it was.

And by season two it’s providing us with episodes which, on the face of it, are not cornerstone ones. They’re not essential, nor contributing to the mythos in an earth-shattering way. They’re kind of like The Sun Makers and The Horror of Fang Rock (in fact, they’re almost remakes of those two.) They’re diversions. Burger and chips on a Saturday teatime. The pressure almost feels like it’s off now and we can just enjoy the trip.

For long-term viewers there are immense incidental pleasures in seeing a) a far-flung future that looks like it belongs in the Graham Williams era and b) a gothic monster romp that looks like it belongs in the Philip Hinchcliffe era.

Best new thing?
The fact that – in this brave new world – the inconsequential romp doesn’t last four whole Saturdays. These are one-night stands with the bitchy trampoline and the CGI werewolf.

They’d never have got away with that in the 20th century…
These are two quite old fashioned stories, in so many ways. If they had a lot more padding they wouldn’t look out of place in the Seventies. Perhaps the body horror of all those pustules on the cloned humans and the gnashing of the hungry werewolf would have been a little tamer in the past. Also, in the past, the werewolf would have been a man in a furry suit. I wish it was now.

Also, I can’t see Tom Baker giving the Face of Boe the time of day. None of this, ‘Hello, my old and gnomic friend! What cryptic hints can you give me about my future, eh?’ Tom would have been like, ‘Oho! An awful giant face! Not today, thank you!’

Hurray for Jackie Tyler – best guest moment?
In both of these nothing tops Pauline Collins’ mischevious and surprisingly spry Queen Victoria. She’s not given a massive amount to do – but she’s lovely in this. One minute she’s having a right old laugh, then all of a sudden she turns nastily on the Doctor at the very end and punishes him (and us all) by inventing ‘Torchwood’ off the top of her head.

The ‘I love me Nan…’ moment
All of a sudden I’m having trouble with Rose’s naturalistic acting. She’s giggling and gurning and the running gag about getting Victoria to say ‘We are not amused’ is just boring. Her casual, slangy, Eastendery acting (Sharon Beale! That’s who reminds me of. Just realized, after nine years) worked brilliantly in season one because we hadn’t seen it in Dr Who before. Not to that extent. The 2005 season was more or less through Rose’s eyes and the monsters and situations seemed all the more outlandish for that. Now, in 2006, things have flipped round. The audience is au fait with the year 5 billion and fanged hairy beasties. The worlds of Doctor who are familiar to us again, and Rose is the one who seems odd and out of place. When she does her final lines in ‘Tooth and Claw’ about the Royal Family it really sounds like she’s a bit pissed.

We get to see how Torchwood came about – as a much more paranoid, jingoistic version of UNIT. It’s one of those moments that tell us we have to listen to every bit of the new show for the clues and hints that point us to the way the overall story is heading (when the incidental music allows to hear the nuances of the dialogue, that is.) The things that the writers of the New Adventure novels used to string together retrospectively through twentieth century Who, are now being seeded carefully by RTD. It’s kind of pre-emptive fanwank.

Also, we get the promise of more mysterious hints from the Face of Boe. It’s a brilliant way of getting money’s worth out of old cossies, masks and sets.

I don’t think the little bags of coloured water spraying about everywhere would be enough to cure every known disease in the cosmos. That scene looks a bit like the water-carrying challenges that they always used to do on ‘It’s a Knockout.’

These two episodes ‘rhyme’ in my head. They have very different settings and atmospheres. It’s a cliché in Dr Who fandom to say that Dr Who can tell a million different stories because the TARDIS can go anywhere. I think that’s actually wrong – because it most often limits itself to telling fairly straightforward adventure stories. These two episodes rhyme in my head because they both have the characters fighting against creatures infected by a nasty disease and unleashed within the close confines of a sealed building. The Doctor has to take an element mentioned early in the episode (the showers in the elevators / the giant telescope) with another he finds a little later on (the bags of medicine / the giant diamond) and when he cleverly combines them at the climax he solves everyone’s problems in a flash. The job of a good story is to hide this easy arithmetic.

In 2005 the stories were very traditionally-shaped Dr Who’s – and then we had the novelty of naturalistic characters and modern world grounding to spice things up. RTD did clever things, such as inverting ‘Spearhead from Space’ and having it happen in the background of a human story. Or he took the big, splashy Dalek epic and told it through the medium of pastiche. He wrote real characters and how they’d react if they were caught up in the middle of silly old Doctor Who stories. By the start of season 2 he’s already chafing at this. The Doctor and Rose don’t seem so radical and new in these two very trad stories, and the stories are a little formulaic. These shortcomings will be dressed up for a while through the rest of the season with a host of flashy things to hold our attention – reunions; a fully-fledged outer space story; a long-awaited clash between two monster races of old. But underneath all of that, something is going to have to happen with the shapes of these stories if the show isn’t going to become repetitive too quickly.

Where was I?
I think in both cases we had friends visiting, and watching Who with us. This was how sure I was that the Show was back and here to stay. I could even watch it with other people around. I wasn’t watching it like watching someone being given heart massage and the kiss of life. I could watch it in quite a sociable atmosphere, with people even talking during the transmission. I could pretend – almost – that it was like sitting round, casually watching episodes of any old show. I do remember groaning out loud at the comedy stuff to do with Cassandra swapping bodies, and I remember loving the fact we had a Hinchcliffe-type episode. (It was like the new show was making a run of homages through the old series…)

I did start to wonder for the first time, however, whether the new series was going to produce episodes that were ones that I would watch repeatedly and gradually come to know off by heart. In a sense I was coming to see these new shows as too good, too slick, and not (ineluctably) camp enough. These were the first seeds of ‘IS THIS SHOW REALLY FOR ME..?’

Ideally, what I needed next was for there to be an episode that would reassure me that this show and the show in my heart were one and the same. Perhaps if there was the return of an old, dear friend in the offing…

Singlemost fabulous thing
It has to be Tennant’s Doctor facing a werewolf for the first time and saying: ‘You’re beautiful!’ It’s this Doctor’s zestiness that keep these episodes bowling merrily along.

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