Cold WarBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 April 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Cold War
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Douglas Mackinnon
Broadcast on BBC One - 13 April 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

In the promotional build-up to this episode it seemingly became compulsory to make jokessssssss about the Ice Warrior’s sibilant speech patternssssssssss. So, now that’s out of the way, how successfully did this week's Who reimagine the Martian race? Mark Gatiss’s script was determined to depict them as a terrifying and plausible threat. As Clara says at one point, “it’s all got very... real”, and that could almost have been the mission statement of 'Cold War', where monstrous realism was the order of the day.

Instead of clunky design, the Ice Warrior’s “shellsuit” is shown to be body armour with an extremely useful line in sonic remote control. And we get the same Alien-style trick used all the way back in 'Resurrection of the Daleks' – the not-quite-seen entity out of its housing and busy stalking its prey. It’s unsurprising that ‘Dalek’ has instantly become a reference point for this adventure – the lone, reimagined creature in a lock-down situation makes comparisons too tempting to resist. But however many similarities can be drawn between ‘Dalek’ and this ‘sub-under-siege’ scenario, there is one vital difference: Rob Shearman’s much-redrafted magnum opus never punctures its sense of reality.

By contrast, ‘Cold War’ unwittingly stresses its artificiality right from the outset. The decision to depict a Russian submarine’s crew speaking English from the word go emphasizes a profound tension between narrative reality and production anxiety – clearly it was felt that Russian voices and subtitles would frighten off the early Saturday evening audience. We get a production decision which assumes the worst of its audience, rather than crediting them with curiosity and intelligence, because the English-speaking opening sadly can’t be rationalized through any TARDIS intervention. It’s a production choice, pure and simple, indicative of how weirdly mixed-up and inconsistent this episode becomes. Text is given in Russian-style lettering in the submarine, as if to remind audiences of the setting (in case they’d forgotten), yet this doesn’t clearly correspond with previously established TARDIS continuity either. It’s all a bit of a linguistic tangle, where playing-it-safe production decisions are constantly screamed out, puncturing the sense of immersive reality that a base-under-siege story absolutely calls for. Given how brilliantly TARDIS translation was handled in, say, ‘The Christmas Invasion’, where a sudden shift into English corresponds with a punch-the-air moment and a vital plot point, this episode sadly missed its chance to show us the TARDIS translation matrix kicking in, in what could have been a truly startling, stunning instance of the Doctor’s Time Lord powers. Imagine if suddenly, just as the order to launch a nuclear missile was given, we’d shifted from subtitles into spoken English. What could have been a stone-cold classic Who moment, transforming Russian characters from exotic, stereotyped others into our trustworthy protagonists, remains something that can only be imagined on Saturday night telly.

For me, the 1980’s music references were also clumsier than a 1960’s Ice Warrior costume. Despite David Warner’s strong performance, and he even made the query about Ultravox’s break-up work brilliantly, his character was lumbered with a habit designed to reinforce the eighties’ setting. I think this patronized the audience yet again – can’t we recall that it’s the eighties from an on-screen caption, talk of nukes, M.A.D. and mention of shoulder pads? Do we really need ‘relatable’ pop references to ram the time-frame home? Professor Grisenko was certainly an eccentric, but he felt too much like a designed creation rather than a flesh-and-blood character: blatantly there so that the “song” theme could get its pay-off via Clara’s Duran Duran rendition. Pop music was crow-barred into Chris Chibnall’s ‘42’ (hardly a fan favourite), but its inclusion here is no more convincing, I’d wager. Again, the reality effect worked so strongly around Skaldak is undermined by some of these surrounding decisions.

And if the Ice Warrior out of its shell is a scarifying highlight of the story, helping to ramp up the tension by playing to Gatiss’s formidable strengths as a writer, whilst also benefiting from sympathetic direction and lighting, then the choice to reveal Skaldak’s face feels a little misguided. It slavishly emulates a horror genre template: the big reveal of the bravura monster effect, after a lot of tantalizing and audience anticipation. But in this case, the effect wasn’t spectacular enough to warrant the reveal, and I think the mystique of the Ice Warriors, as well as Skaldak’s presence, would have been better served by refusing to give the audience this visual FX reverse shot. If we’d only seen the Doctor through the Martian’s eyes, without ever glimpsing what turned out to be Skaldak’s rather generic appearance, then that very absence would have been infinitely more thrilling and unsettling. By following the established plot beats of a literal face-off (even seeming to playfully reference Moffat’s “don’t blink” via a contest of wills) Skaldak and the Ice Warriors were diminished a little, when previous events had industriously set out to achieve the exact opposite.

There’s much fan-friendly stuff to welcome here: impeccable model FX work on the sub; HADS gets a mention (though wouldn’t that have been better explained earlier in the story rather than at the very end?); and (this) Clara treats her first historical outing as a test of her own performance, in a rather touching and well-played device where she constantly seeks reassurance. ‘Cold War’ has atmosphere in abundance, and is consistently well acted by all of its cast, with Liam Cunningham deserving just as many plaudits as David Warner. It also has a cleverly integrated bit of business about Skaldak’s singing – paralleled with Ice Warrior sonic technology – and his own family relationships. He has a daughter, so in the sentimental codings of family entertainment, we know right away he can’t be an irredeemable monster. And given that Skaldak doesn’t definitively leave until immediately after Clara’s singing, I interpreted her effort as reminding him of his daughter’s songs (indeed, Clara had already emphasized the link to “daughters” in dialogue). The new romantics save “Planet Earth” (why couldn’t that have been Grisenko’s favourite? “looking at planet earth… this is planet earth”). Clara’s emotional intelligence and resourcefulness are neatly reinforced here.

But the Doctor appears to rather strangely teach Skaldak, and by implication us, that nuclear deterrence is basically A Good Thing, and that mutually assured destruction handily works to keep the peace. I can’t help but feel that these aren’t unquestionably Doctorish ideologies, and I wonder if this section of the script underwent many revisions or generated much in the way of contention across the production process. It wouldn’t have been like this in the days of the Virgin New Adventures, I suspect. Further back in time, in 1984, Doctor Who mounted a version of this story as science fiction allegory (‘Warriors of the Deep’). The intervening years mean that ‘classic’ allegory can now be safely tackled as ‘new’ popular memory, swapping one kind of distancing shell for another.

‘Cold War’ is an incessant conflict between two power blocs where neither can entirely triumph. Intended realism fights against (unintended) displays of production artifice, and what is very nearly a chilling classic finds itself marred, though not sunk, by specific production decisions. The Ice Warriors are now a more complex and convincing on-screen race than ever before, but this particular Ice Warrior hero finds himself encased by narrative techniques (especially the language issue and the pop song gimmick) that threaten to jolt audiences out of Gatiss’s finest sub-under-siege storytelling, despite all its dripping, dripping water and its damp, desperate physicality.

The Justice of Jalxar (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 13 April 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

The Justice of Jalxor
Big Finish Productions
Written by John Dorney
Directed by Ken Bentley
Released March 2013
This review is based on the MP3 download from Big Finish, and contains spoilers.

At long last, Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin) and Professor George Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) are reunited with Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor. And there are more than a few nods to ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ – that opiate of the fan masses – in John Dorney’s script, despite this otherwise being a stand-alone story rather than a definite ‘Talons’ sequel. The Doctor spends some time digging out his deerstalker and ensemble, much to Romana’s consternation; thanks to their ensuing dialogue this audio gets its visuals just right in the mind's eye. And there are even some familiar bread products available to toast a satisfactory outcome at story’s end. It’s a nostalgic wallow in 1970’s BBC Victoriana – the ideal backdrop for an adventure all about acquiring anachronistic artefacts, as Jago might say.

That the Doctor is accompanied this time by Romana rather than Leela does prevent this from being an all-round reunion, and in some senses it’s a shame that the basic story idea wasn’t held over by Big Finish, or pursued earlier, so that Louise Jameson as well as Tom Baker would’ve had the opportunity to revisit this milieu. However, the change in companion is marked by some lovely moments as Jago and Litefoot are suitably charmed by Romana, though having another character refer to her as an “ice maiden” does seem to hinge too strongly on fan knowledge and production/publicity cliché from back in the day, rather than being drawn out of actual story events and characterisations. Mary Tamm puts in another fine performance, engaging in plenty of banter with Baker, while the verbose alliterative tendencies of Jago (and Litefoot) are repeatedly pushed for their comedic value.

The story itself is rather predictable, and there’s little to relish in the way of Filipino armies advancing on Reykjavik. Whereas ‘Talons’ excelled at sketching in breathtakingly vast and genuinely surprising vistas in just a line or two of dialogue, The Justice of Jalxar doesn’t make such flowing use of what Piers Britton, in his book TARDISbound, refers to as the “epic vignette”. Jalxar's narrative plays out without huge surprises, featuring alien justice-serving technology that's been appropriated by a vigilante dubbed ‘the pugilist’. Although the overall narrative template isn’t earth-shattering, Dorney nevertheless has a lot of fun with its details, giving a very funny superhero gag to Romana, and rewriting one of Conan Doyle’s most famous lines from the Sherlock Holmes canon, as well as riffing on a plot point from A Study in Scarlet, not to mention 'A Study in Pink' more recently.

Jago and Litefoot are as delightful as ever, both as a double act and, separately, as foils to the Doctor and Romana. Part one builds to a precisely engineered, satisfying cliffhanger, though as this is only a two-part story we’re sadly deprived of any further cliffhanging action. If the measure of success is to leave your audience wanting more, then this is a resounding hit. Appearing right after The Sands of Life and War Against the Laan effectively formed a four-part story, I could happily have listened to another two episodes of Henry Gordon and Professor George getting lost in pea-soupers, exclaiming “lawks!” or “crumbs”, and generally offering a lot of mannered, pastiched fun. For true neatness, this could even have paralleled its TV counterpart by stretching to a box set release of three discs and six parts. But perhaps trying to directly emulate the form and reputation of its Hinchliffe-Holmes' model was deemed too high-risk, and what could have been Big Finish Baker gold is instead crafted as a less consequential two-parter. Beyond Jago and Litefoot, the guest cast are all excellent – particularly Mark Goldthorp as Bobby Stamford, who doesn’t have a tremendous amount to do, but sells key parts of the storyline very well.

There’s a startling instant where the fourth Doctor ponders his own guilty feelings, abruptly sounding more like his ninth or tenth incarnations. Baker’s performance modulates between deadly serious and gentle self-mockery, as if neither he nor director Ken Bentley are quite sure how to sell the gambit. If Jalxar technology detects the guilt people feel in their own innermost thoughts, then just how guilty would the Doctor seem to its detectors? Personally, I would’ve liked a deeper exploration of this and slightly less of the “passing wind in a built-up area” whimsy (hailing from the Doctor’s discussion of what people might feel a sense of guilt about). The story deflates any powerful focus on the Doctor’s character, but a new series-style tackling of the fourth Doctor’s woes, all that blood potentially caked on his scarf and his psyche, could have been darkly compelling in Baker’s more than capable hands, even if it might not have taken listeners comfortably back to a fabled 1970’s teatime. Whilst I like my Who to be as Proustian as the next fan, sometimes twenty-first century dramatic intensity is sadly passed over here in favour of better serving the talismanic 'Weng-Chiang'.

In essence, I simultaneously wanted this to be more like ‘Talons’ (a six-part blockbuster with greater implied scope) and less like ‘Talons’ (delving into the Doctor’s unearthly psyche). But in each case, I should confess my own guilt: it was still that rollicking great Bob Holmesian template which dominated my thoughts and responses. And therein lies the greatest injustice afflicting The Justice of Jalxar – it’ll probably always lurk in the giant rat-shaped shadow of a TV classic.

Love and War (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 11 April 2013 - Reviewed by Andrew Batty

Love and War
Big Finish Productions
Written by Paul Cornell
Adapted by Jac Rayner
Directed by: Gary Russell
Released October 2012
Adapted by Jac Rayner from Paul Cornell’s 1992 novel, this audio version of Love and War was produced to celebrate 20 years of Bernice Summerfield. Since her debut barely a month has gone by without an original novel or audio drama featuring her, quite an astonishing feat for a spin-off character. However, the New Adventures novels have greater significance to Doctor Who than simply giving us Benny. The novels fundamentally changed the types of stories Doctor Who told. Building on the foundations laid in the McCoy era the New Adventures focused on strong-character led stories and ‘adult’ themes in a way which the TV show had never really attempted (or could in its family orientated slot). As such the New Adventures are a key stepping to Russell T Davies’ resurrection of Doctor Who, which would have a far greater focus the characters emotional arcs and everyday lives than the classic series. It is no coincidence that Paul Cornell was among the first batch of writers to work on the show when it returned and that Davies himself penned a novel for the line.

Love and War is one of the New Adventures’ key texts. Along with introducing Bernice it also (temporarily) writes out Ace and takes the concept of the ‘dark, manipulative’ Seventh Doctor to its absolute limit. Despite being Benny’s first adventure the focus of Love and War is squarely on Ace. Her past, her relationship with the Doctor and her new lover Jan are all fundamentally important to the story. This version marks the first time that Sophie Aldred has been able to perform Ace’s departure, an opportunity she clearly relishes and she puts in a very strong performance. Aldred very noticeably ‘ages down’ her vocal performance and mannerisms making this a very different Ace to the one we’re used to hearing in her ongoing Big Finish adventures. It’s great to see Big Finish’s regular actors stretched like this, and it would be good to see more of it in future.

Sylvester McCoy and Lisa Bowerman (as the Doctor and Bernice) also put in very good performances, and have excellent chemistry together. Over the years McCoy has perfected a quiet, contemplative version of his Doctor and puts it to good use here. It’s a shame that Bernice doesn’t have more to do in the first half of the play, but her scenes with to Doctor at the end of the play go some way to addressing this, establishing a relationship very different to the one between him and Ace. These scenes also put forward the idea that the Doctor needs a companion to give him something to fight for, and keep him grounded, a concept which has been hugely influential on the new series, most recently in The Snowmen where Clara lures the Doctor out of retirement.

On the whole Rayner does an excellent job of condensing the action but at times things can feel rushed and confusing. It’s a play that rewards multiple listens, with some of the details becoming clearer the second time around.

Wisely, Jac Rayner’s script doesn’t attempt to update the source material, meaning the early 90s feel of the story remains intact (for example the cyberpunk influenced ‘Puterspace’ scenes and the way that the villains, the Hoothi could be read as a metaphor for AIDS). Consequently the adaptation does an excellent job at giving the listener an insight into this period of Doctor Who’s development.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that it is an attempt to recreate a past era of Doctor Who, this adaptation is reminiscent of Big Finish’s Lost Stories series. However, while the Lost Stories focus on recreating scripts which are interesting as historical curios but of little importance to Doctor Who as a whole, Love and War is representative of a significant time in the series’ history. With the TV show dead writers like Cornell were working out new and interesting ways to take the show forward. Now that Doctor Who is back on our screens and in excellent health, this audio gives an excellent insight into the transition it took to get there.

Summer FallsBookmark and Share

Thursday, 11 April 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Summer Falls
Written by Amelia Williams
BBC Books
UK release: 4 April 2013
This review is based on the BBC Books' ebook and contains some spoilers  

Summer Falls is a curious novella, more ‘Doctor fic’ than ‘Doctor lite’, since it’s supposedly written by Amelia Williams (formerly Pond) and involves a lightly fictionalized version of her Doctor. The ‘Curator’ has a mysterious “shed” in place of a Police Box, says very Doctorish things like “magic is cool” and “I love a little shoppe”, and is highly knowledgeable about all sorts of unusual entities and events. Oh, and the Curator also has a sort-of companion: one of the most brilliant, amusing companions that we’ll never get to see on-screen. No, it's not a shape-shifting talking penguin, but rather a grey talking cat, which enables real-world writer James Goss to explore all manner of great cat jokes. Essentially, what we learn is that cats do not fit at all well into the template of a Doctor Who companion, particularly given their tendency to get comfy and warm and have a doze mid-adventure, or their need to start cleaning rather than answering a question.

Returning to thoughts of Amy Pond strikes me as a faintly curious thing to do just as a new companion and a new mystery are launched in the TV series. Having Clara Oswald refer to an Amelia Williams’ story could be read as a passing of the baton; a way to honour and remember what’s come before as the franchise moves remorselessly on (and where everyone’s replaceable – not just companions, but even executive producers and showrunners). Perhaps this particular tie-in offers a kind of reassurance to fans of the Ponds. Amy hasn’t been erased from Who, after all, and the show is allowed to remember her in its passing details. Either that, or there’s method to the reminiscence, and Steven Moffat doesn’t want audiences to forget Amelia for a specific, yet-to-be-revealed reason. Given that ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’ was so insistently book-ended, circling back to ‘The Eleventh Hour', for this story/character thread to be picked up again so soon feels strange at the very least.

For my money, James Goss has consistently been one of the best recent writers of original, off-screen Doctor Who and Torchwood, and there's a tendency towards playful pastiche evident across his work. He’s a strong choice for this sort of material, given that Summer Falls was supposedly first published in 1954, and so is tailored to resemble a quaint, mildly jolly-hockey-sticks children’s fantasy adventure. Not only does it not feature the Doctor (by name), it’s also strongly fantastical rather than science-fictional, a genre shift which Who itself occasionally indulges in, but which seems to have dismayed some audiences of late with regards to ‘The Rings of Akhaten’. Although Summer Falls has the Doctor-type character muttering about “psycho-temporal” factors, it doesn’t really make very much effort to pin matters down into a science fiction template, instead preferring the broader poetic license of talking cats, frozen seas, and strange, powerful objects which have to be collected.

Goss repeatedly toys with readerly expectations. Summer Falls features the Lord of Winter, which in a novella released shortly before ‘Cold War’, and not long after ‘The Snowmen’, one might guess would implicate either the Ice Warriors or the chilly Great Intelligence. What we get remains tantalizingly vague, and I’m not at all convinced that this tale ties into ongoing series 7 events in any unexpected way. Of course, the big gimmick is that Summer Falls appeared on screen in ‘The Bells of Saint John’, meaning that we’ve already seen its heroine Kate depicted as a Spoonhead, as well as knowing that Chapter 11 is a tear-jerker (something it strives to live up to). This creates a complex layering of fiction-upon-fiction: the real book that you can buy and enjoy is itself part of the Doctor Who universe, as well as featuring a fictionalized version of the Doctor. When will Clara ask the Time Lord if he’s really the Curator? Will this fiction-within-a-fiction be played with in the TV show itself, I wonder, even perhaps in its anniversary special? I’d hazard not, however: the reference-spotting of Summer Falls suits fandom all too well – it’s a sort of roman à clef revolving around a key which has to be found, while readers can use the master key of Doctor Who to interpret what’s going on. But I’m not convinced that such "meta" would necessarily translate well to the broader mass audience of Christmas and Anniverary Specials, so perhaps ‘Doctor fic’ will remain a little-known tie-in subgenre for now.

Having said that, I’d like to see a series of Amelia Williams’ tales, perhaps written at different times across her life, each giving a different refraction and revision of her adventures. Re-fictionalized alt-Daleks or Screaming Cherubs could get an outing. Pursued as a series of reimagined slants on the Moffat era, this sort of playful Who manqué could start to build up into far more than the sum of its parts. But as things stand, and as a one-shot, Summer Falls is a clever, cool experiment in meta that doesn’t always feel like it really matters to ongoing arcs and questions.

The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-TurnerBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 9 April 2013 - Reviewed by Anthony Weight

The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner
Written by Richard Marson
Published by Miwk Publishing
Released April 2013
When I was a teenager, in the late 1990s, for a while I had an after-school paper round, delivering copies of the Brighton-based Evening Argus around my village in Sussex. It was never a paper of choice in our family, but while I had the round we used to buy a copy, which I would often peruse after I’d finished delivering the others.

I can distinctly remember noticing the features by John Nathan-Turner, an instantly recognisable name to any Doctor Who fan. He was a familiar figure from documentaries such as More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS, and I’d read his memoirs serialised in DWM not long before. With a name like that it couldn’t be anybody else, and he even had his own byline photo to confirm it.

His features in the Argus were interviews with minor local celebrities, usually actors. I don’t remember how many of them he did – Richard Franklin is the only one that I specifically recall – but I do very clearly remember thinking, and even saying to my dad, “That’s a bit sad, he used to produce Doctor Who – how come he’s ended up writing cheap showbiz features for a local paper?”

As JNT: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner reveals, the whole of Nathan-Turner’s post-Doctor Who career, which has perhaps been something of a mystery to fandom, could be described as being “a bit sad”. His name had become mud at the BBC, and despite a series of increasingly desperate and bizarre pitches, he was never able to persuade any broadcaster to work with him again, or to take up any of his programme ideas.

Richard Marson has done excellent work with this book, delving into the life and career of a man who seems utterly familiar on the one hand to Doctor Who fans, but who really it seems we only ever knew a certain side of, in a certain way. It’s the tragedy of many who are associated with Doctor Who that they are remembered only by us, and only for their Doctor Who careers – but Nathan-Turner’s association with the show became a burden even while it was ongoing.

Marson, a former producer and then editor of Blue Peter, himself points out the parallels between himself and his subject – both producers of long-standing, iconic BBC television series, who ended up having somewhat bitter partings from the programmes they had loved. But just because Marson has some empathy for Nathan-Turner, don’t make the mistake of thinking this book ever strays into the territory of being a hagiography – indeed, as you may have noticed from some of the press attention it has garnered, it’s anything but.

The fact that Marson is unafraid to tackle head-on some of the less pleasant aspects of Nathan-Turner’s character – and, to a greater extent, those of his partner Gary Downie – caused argument and debate in fandom in the weeks before the book was even released. There are some who are appalled by the revelations in the book. Some who are appalled that accusations have been made against men who are no longer alive and unable to defend themselves. Some simply embarrassed that Doctor Who has become associated with such squalor in its anniversary year, and particularly in the wake of the wider scandals that have engulfed the BBC in recent months.

It’s true that this book would almost certainly not have been written, at least not in this way, while Nathan-Turner and Downie were still alive. But that’s probably true of almost any honest biography, and time and distance can help to lend a vital objectivity. While it’s also true that the book contains details some Doctor Who fans may find unpleasant reading, in the same way that the book is not a hagiography, it’s never a hatchet job either. Marson is scrupulous in reproducing as many points of view and versions of events as possible, putting quotes from various interviewees one after the other to offer all the different sides of an argument, or versions of events.

The reader is left to make up his or her own mind about Nathan-Turner. Myself, I was chiefly left with the impression of a man I personally wouldn’t have ever wanted to know, but at the same time also a man rather sadly crushed by circumstances, and by a changing world at the BBC.

‘The BBC’ – dangerous as it always is to regard it as a single-minded monolith – almost comes across as a personality and a character in its own right in the narrative, and how interesting you find the book may depend on how much of an interest you have in the internal workings of the drama department, in the days of multi-camera videotape drama being made at Television Centre. I personally find such things fascinating, and it’s a real treat to get an insight into the labyrinthine workings of the Corporation and its drama department in the 1970s and 80s. It’s fair to say, however, that others may find such things less involving, and if you’re not really enthused by the structures and workings of the BBC drama department then this is possibly not the book for you.

Doctor Who fans generally, however, do tend to be interested in the behind-the-scenes workings of the show they love, perhaps more so than fans of any other television series. It’s why Doctor Who is quite possibly the most well-documented television programme ever made and why, as Russell T Davies once pointed out, in generations to come it will be the case study for how British television drama was made.

You sometimes have to remind yourself when reading this book that the fans do actually love the show, however. There are times when fandom comes across as being utterly repulsive and full of unpleasant people. I realise this isn’t entirely representative of how fandom was in the 1980s any more than the worst bitchers and moaners of Gallifrey Base or Roobarb's Forum represent it now, but I have to say I am rather glad I wasn’t old enough to be anywhere near fandom at the time. We perhaps don’t always appreciate how lucky we are in the 21st century, when fandom is so much larger, and online. If there’s a particular website or group of people you can’t get on with, you can easily find another place to share your love of the show, with people and things that make you laugh. No longer do you simply have to put up with whoever happens to attend your local group meeting.

Doctor Who and fandom recovered from the – at times – dark days portrayed in this book. But the shame of it is that Nathan-Turner never got the chance to. But on the other hand, I think he would have been pleased that he’ll be remembered, and that’s where the curse of Doctor Who is at least paying him something back. Jonathan Powell – refreshingly honest as an interviewee here – may well have been a far superior drama producer to Nathan-Turner, with a track record the latter couldn’t hope to match. He’s produced several BAFTA-winning productions of high quality. But he’ll never have a biography written about him. Nobody will ever research his life in detail, track down and speak to his teachers and schoolfriends. Trace the progress of his career in television, from the studio floor to the producer’s chair. When he dies, it will be little-noted outside of his friends and family.

Doctor Who can destroy careers. But Doctor Who fans remember. And because Doctor Who fans tend to be creative and industrious, we end up with superb books like this one. It’s not always an easy read, but I would recommend The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner to anyone with even a casual interest in television history in general, and Doctor Who’s history in particular.

The Rings of AkhatenBookmark and Share

Sunday, 7 April 2013 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn

Doctor Who - The Rings of Akhaten
Written by Neil Cross
Directed by Farren Blackburn
Broadcast on BBC One - 6 April 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

Doctor Who isn’t specially made for those of us who go online and watch multiple trailers multiple times or devour previews, but it is concerned with those who catch trailers between other programmes or might occasionally view online previews. The audience for The Rings of Akhaten was carefully primed to expect a story set in space with multiple alien species and a child-threatening monster. This is of course what they received, but to get there they took the public footpath rather than the motorway. There the themes of the season were restated and the moral of the episode prepared for, and the background of our new heroine explored further.

The Rings of Akhaten unexpectedly proved to be the first of this series’ visits to the recent past, with the central narrative being framed by the Doctor’s research expedition to establish Clara’s personal history. That history so far appears unencumbered by otherworldly or extradimensional intervention beyond the Doctor’s periodic sampling of her life, but the episode does raise the puzzle of the TARDIS’s unwillingness to open its doors to her, and provoke expectations surrounding the early death of Clara’s mother. On the one hand the loss of Ellie and the refusal of the TARDIS doors to open are both perfectly regular occurrences. People die, sometimes early; and Clara does not have the TARDIS key. Still, the idea that the TARDIS doesn’t like Clara is expressed in the shadow of the personalisation of the ship in The Doctor’s Wife and the affinity it displays with Melody/River in Let’s Kill Hitler. We are given many reasons to admire Clara in this episode, but there are unsettling notes in the background.

Those unsettling notes are not provided by Murray Gold, whose music moves back into being part of the narrative rather than a commentary upon it. His soundtrack to this story recalls his earlier choral works, especially those in Journey’s End and The End of Time, both in implying doomsday and in offering salvation from it. There were moments where one felt one was listening to a bland contribution to a fashionable modern hymnal, but there had to be contrast with the ritual hymn and subtlety of mood is difficult when a composer has so few minutes to work within, and so many other elements within the episode to underwrite. Overall, Gold continues to recognise and project the tone of the series: peril is interpreted in a less self-indulgently sinister manner than Dudley Simpson might have managed in the mid-1970s, but Gold’s scoring is intelligent and poignant, working with the emotions of the characters rather than trying to impose a mood on the viewer.

Doctor Who makes selective use of popular music, but a willingness to use it at all was one of the refreshing points of the revived series in 2005. ‘Ghost Town’ by the Specials is used to signify 1981, juxtaposed with the Doctor reading The Beano Summer Special of that year, but the use of the song has further implications. It plays over the first meeting of Ellie and Dave, Clara’s parents; does this somehow prefigure apocalypse? More specifically for the episode’s plot, ‘Ghost Town’ concerns collective memory and experience. In terms of The Rings of Akhaten this is the history taught in song to Merry so she can feed her people’s god, and also Clara’s remembrance of her dead mother and the stories she passed on to her. ‘Ghost Town’ also echoes the Doctor’s long life and the memories which he rarely discusses but which he is willing to offer to the god to be devoured. If these ghosts are reflections of the past they can be confronted and digested. It’s the reflections on what might have been which can’t be faced, because they were never realised in the first place. As such, their form is unfixed and insubstantial and it’s appropriate that they give the Old God of Akhaten indigestion.

The Rings of Akhaten has been promoted as another instalment of cinematic Doctor Who, but it seems more at home within the confines of the small screen than many of its predecessors. The bazaar set is crowded and claustrophobic, and while this was set up in Roath Lock, one can imagine something similar being realised in Television Centre or with ingenuity and still narrower camera angles in Lime Grove or Riverside. The CGI is limited and relatively static compared with recent episodes and there is one space exterior very visibly realised using that age-old standby, the black cloth with lights shining through it. The great exception is the sense of distance suggested by the cuts between the Mummy’s temple and the open theatre where Merry sings her lullaby before her audience. Nevertheless, the concentration on a series of undynamic images mostly works to the episode’s advantage. The episode is substantially the story of Clara and Merry and the sets and effects function largely as background to a series of portrait shots rather than as features in their own right. They do register as a series of references to a cinematic heritage. The Rings of Akhaten suggests Ancient Egypt in its title (though misleading some fans, and journalists, to expect a connection to the natives of Phaester Osiris and Pyramids of Mars). The design of the sets is placed in the broad western tradition of Orientalism (and ‘Ghost Town’ too contains musical references to middle-eastern music or at least a twentieth-century Euramerican theatrical idea of what middle-eastern music was). Set designs which recall depictions of Egypt, Arabia or India in film are joined with a script inspired by Chinese or Japanese orthography. The plot, too, has echoes of various generations of The Mummy, and the Indiana Jones series. The episode could be construed as cinematic in its referencing rather than in its execution; though it’s also been seen as a literary episode, one more familiar with literary SF than me having noted links with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books. It’s the influence of cinema, and the depiction of Islamic, south and east Asian societies in adventure films, which lingers the most; perhaps it is appropriate then that the Old God is depicted both as Ancient Egyptian sun god and American Halloween pumpkin.

In performance, the episode demands most of Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman, with special mentions for Michael Dixon and Nicola Sian as Clara’s parents, who had to carry much of the pre-credits sequence, and for Emilia Jones as Merry. The latter’s role at first seems to have clear analogies with a schoolchild wanting to avoid embarrassment before peers and parents when faced with a solo song or reading. Emilia Jones conveys Merry’s predicament as the Queen of Years as if it is nothing extraordinary, the better for Jenna-Louise Coleman to reinforce Clara’s affinity with children, and later displays a fierce determination to fulfil her destiny. In contrast to the Clara of The Snowmen, this Clara seems more like the folk image of a Blue Peter presenter than Mary Poppins; she is compassionate, brave, willing to take risks as extreme as driving a space vehicle she’s only known briefly as a passenger, and able to think laterally at times of crisis. Matt Smith’s Doctor continues to evolve, becoming yet more attached to Amy’s glasses (does looking through them, perhaps, remind him of the human perspective?) and in doing so coming more to resemble Harold Lloyd than Norman Wisdom or Michael Crawford-as-Frank Spencer; this comparison seems also fitting for his Doctor’s greater physical self-control and proactivity.

The Rings of Akhaten furthers Doctor Who’s attitude to religion. The Doctor won’t disassociate himself from the beliefs of the inhabitants of the Akhaten system completely. His description of their faith as a ‘story’ is not a dismissal in a series so self-aware of its own storytelling. He gives a rationalist, empirical, cosmologist’s account of the making of the universe and what individuals are made of in order to convince Merry of her worth in her own right, not as the Queen of Years. Souls, the Doctor says, are stories; the roots and merits of this idea in the context of various religions should be left to those with more skill in comparative theology, but it’s an appropriate foundation for a belief system in Doctor Who. More frivolously, red is still the colour for religious orders in Doctor Who, five years from The Fires of Pompeii, but just over three from The End of Time.

Though the Old God is defeated and extinguished at the end of the episode, the return of the ring which Clara gave to Dor’een indicates that the best of the faith, a respect for lived experience and giving of oneself, survives. The Doctor gives that ring to Clara in a gesture which recalls the way in which he gave her Victorian counterpart the TARDIS key. For Clara this restores what she surrendered to the Old God with the leaf from 101 Places to See and confirms her integrity, which the Doctor’s mention of “someone who died” then seems to undermine. A viewer remembering The Snowmen might see the ring as a provisional commitment, short of the TARDIS key which marks the Doctor’s whole trust and performs a quasi-sacramental role within what The Myth Makers would remind us is the Doctor’s own ‘temple’. The Doctor is still no closer to finding out who or what Clara is at the end of the story; together with his mistaken identification of the Mummy as the Old God, this episode places unusual emphasis on his fallibility.

The Rings of Akhaten is a change in setting and tone from the expansive ebullience of The Bells of Saint John. The jumps in character progression which enable the telling of this story in forty-four minutes place a little strain on credibility but they are sustained by convincing performance and assertive editing. It’s an intimate story which could do with a little more breathing space in order to develop its themes of learning to explore and appreciate lives lived as a basis for future actions and discoveries. The fact that Clara has lived the life which enables her to understand and deploy her own story and the stories of others which influenced her against the Old God becomes not just a character strength and crisis resolution, but for Doctor and viewer, a frustrating and engaging narrative problem.