Doctor Who 12.3 - Orphan 55Bookmark and Share

Monday, 13 January 2020 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
Orphan 55: The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) (Credit: BBC Studios (Ben Blackall))
Written by Ed Hime
Directed by Lee Haven Jones
Executive Producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall

Starring Jodie Whittaker 
Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Laura Fraser, James Buckley
Gia Re, Julia Foster, Amy Booth-Steel, Will Austin, Col Farrell, Lewin Lloyd, Spencer Wilding

A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Sunday 12th January 2020
Running time: 46.33 (source: BBC iplayer)

In an odd piece of publicity, BBC America suggested that viewers would need to watch this episode to the very end, prompting immediate speculation about another potential reveal (so soon after SpyFall Part One?). Would Orphan 55 somehow be related to the "timeless child"? As this story rocketed along at a breakneck pace, I started to wonder instead whether the irradiated, orphaned world of the title might even turn out to be Gallifrey, with those monstrous Dregs regenerating constantly to adapt to laser fire, and so representing the last, lethal remnants of Time Lord civilisation. Because going into this episode, one other fact had been widely trailed -- here be monsters, and really, properly scary ones (with promo photos of a Lovecraftian tentacle stretching into the TARDIS proving to be yet more solid misdirection). But I'd fallen prey to a classic fanboy category error; neither the "watch to the very end" encouragement, nor all the "these monsters are genuinely scary" stuff, were about the new story arc or Doctor Who lore -- rather, both were about this era's burgeoning relationship to the politics of the day (most certainly not without precedent, but still powerfully front and centre here, and all the better for it). And as for my in-episode speculations: right twist, wrong planet.

 

Valuing the Dregs?

 

Sure enough, the Dregs were a brilliant piece of design and realisation, intelligently shot and smartly directed by Lee Haven Jones so as to maximise their sense of threat. Often captured in tight, slavering close-ups rather than shown interacting with the main cast, the potential for generic 'men in rubber suits with masks on' was greatly reduced, and the Dregs' apparent alienness was suitably emphasised. At the same time, the slang naming of these creatures by Kane (Laura Fraser) constantly called to mind that judgemental, awful phrase "the dregs of humanity". As it turned out, of course, the linguistic prompt was more than apt, and the call to watch to the very end was one to heed the episode's environmental warnings, as the Doctor (and the show itself, by closing on an image of a roaring Dreg) effectively dematerialised the fourth wall altogether and spoke directly to its audience. Little could the production team have realised that this story's ashen-graded imagery of a ruined world would arrive hard on the heels of dystopic news images featuring red-hued skies from a dengerously, tragically burning Australia. Orphan 55's warnings about one future timeline where ruling elites had done the paperwork and cleared off, only for a new breed of terraforming disaster capitalism to creep in, could hardly have been more timely.

Comparisons to The Mysterious Planet were obvious enough, but there was also a touch of The Pyramids of Mars in the Doctor's closing speech -- surely an iconic moment for this era and Jodie Whittaker's Doctor. For this bit of time travel was seemingly different to the usual Who set-up, where we assume that future events are 'objective' (in the story universe), and so have happened/will happen in the way shown. The time, though, planetary disaster seemed to have become unfixed, and so it could be undone or avoided. This tension between 'Whoniverse' continuity and real-world resonance is probably unavoidable. Either the programme shows a ruined future, in line with its standard continuity of time travel, and risks encouraging fatalism about our real-world present (or accusations of treating a deadly serious issue as a mere backdrop to franchise entertainment), or it drops standard continuity in favour of pursuing clear, resonant lines between the here-and-now and its fictional state of affairs, using this as a potent call-to-action. And as Orphan 55 demonstrates, the latter choice is a dramatically powerful strategy. Just as it jettisons typical time-travelling norms, so too does this story forget about the whole Ravolox thing, as well as neglecting debates over "fixed points" in time etc etc -- arguably, all of this would have simply got in the way of telling the story that this team wanted to tell. And hurtling our heroes into an Inferno-style parallel reality probably would also have cued the twist too strongly for fans, again dampening its impact and lending the tale an air of 'well, it's all safely sealed off as a what-if'.    

Surely one of the Chibnall era's key themes, there's once again a full-on Enlightenment sense of science as a valuable source of facts; the Doctor is keen for viewers to pay attention to scientific warnings, and learn from the facts of our climate emergency. All of this may hark back to elements of 1970s Who, yes, but back then our hero was a 'Scientific Adviser'; now she's had to become more of a 'Scientific Proselytiser' (and given next week's scenario, I'd expect more of the same there too). 

 

Doctor Who: The Next Generation

 

So, how do you transform didactic eco-horror into family entertainment? For one thing, there's an overload of child-parent angst freighted into the Orphan 55 mix, not just via Bella (Gia Re) and Kane, but also through the mildly comedic mirroring of Nevi (James Buckley) and Sylas (Lewin Lloyd) -- a story strand which largely wasted a performer of Buckley's standing, but still. Parents needed to recognise their children rather casting them adrift, or failing to recognise their developing skills. Both in Kane's (repeated) sacrifice/redemption and in Nevi's eventual welcoming of Sylas's assistance as a "proper mechanic", cross-generational understanding was the dominant flavour of story resolution. Even the Dregs had to come to terms with their intergenerational inheritance in this rich, rapidfire episode (which really would have benefited from an extra ten minutes of runtime, so that there could have been more character-focused moments to counterpoint against the ratcheting up of story speed).

The Doctor's message to the Dregs was passionately unequivocal -- "be better than what made you!" Previous generations had failed, and this time round the Dregs needed to be smarter than any of their forebears, and by implication smarter than 'our' version of humanity who, in snap-edited, mind-melded flashback, had wrecked the planet. Whilst this episode's visibly human children might have needed love and understanding, its monstrous, distorted and metaphorical children -- aka its scary monsters of the week -- needed to wise up and heed the Doctor's words. As such, and despite the episode's attempts to eliminate all subtext in a whirlwind of on-the-nose eco-literalisation, there remains a curious doubling at work here: younger generations of viewers, or those of any generation minded to heed an environmental message, are threatened with becoming the post-human monsters in the Doctor's very final word ("Or...") and at the same time are subtextually addressed through the Dregs: "be more than what made you!" Be better than the systems and elites who have brought our planet to the verge of environmental tragedy; be the humanity in the Dregs rather then becoming 'the dregs of humanity'.

And this is a strange ambivalence at the twinned hearts of Orphan 55, complicating its professed message. We are its monsters, no doubt, but we might simultaneously draw power from a fantasised, subtextual identification with these (momentarily) humanised creatures and their capacity to learn, as well as being rightly terrified of the future that they represent.

 

Where's Benni?

 

This episode's strangeness and brilliance are somewhat marred by other kinds of ambivalence, however, including in the realm of production design. It is surprising that while so much effort has clearly been expended on making the Dregs realistic and convincing, some of the other alien designs are, at best, highly artificial. Hyph3n (Amy Booth-Steel), Nevi and Sylas seem to have been crafted in a completely different tone meeting to pretty much everything else (was there a tone meeting? The campaign starts here: bring back tone meetings!). It's as if Doctor Who only has a finite amount of contemporary genre-based realism per story, and having used this up on Alien-esque not-quite-aliens, there wasn't enough left over for "hyphen with a three" et al. Or perhaps these brightly coloured, cartoonish versions of the alien are meant to reassure younger viewers, partly drawing the sting out of the really scary monster work? 

Given the proliferation of characters, not everything has a chance to land. The marriage proposal intended by Benni (Col Farrell) is interrupted when Yaz wanders over, rapidly shifting poor Benni away from existing at the centre of his own story, and towards becoming just one subplot amongst many in the lives of the Doctor and her companions. Benni's tale never quite gels -- sure, he has an oxygen supply, and the Dregs are supposedly "playing" by abducting him, but this always feels like it should pay off more, provoking some fuller plot point in the main storyline. Instead, we are treated to Vilma's (Julia Foster) many pleadings to find her Benni. This is an unexpected masterclass in how many different line readings can be offered from just two syllables, but is nonetheless in danger of becoming almost absurdist through excessive repetition.              

On the face of it, green hair and all, Orphan 55 remains less surreal than It Takes You Away -- there's nothing quite like that frog, more's the pity (full disclosure: I loved The Frog. For me, it was a superb, mad, wonderful encapsulation of Doctor Who's artful collision of the ordinary and the fantastical). But Ed Hime's skill as a writer shines in a different light here. Orphan 55 may feel overloaded -- "where's Benni?" -- and overly cranked-up at times, but on reflection, its overt, heart-on-sleeve message is embedded in a far more layered tale of generational conflict, and what we might take away from images of dystopian monstrosity.                                                                                   





Doctor Who 12.2 - Spyfall: Part TwoBookmark and Share

Thursday, 9 January 2020 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Spyfall: Noor Inayat Khan (Auror Marion) (Credit: BBC Studios (Ben Blackall))
Written by Chris Chibnall
Directed by Lee Haven Jones
Executive producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall

Starring Jodie Whittaker
Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Sacha Dhawan, Lenny Henry
Sylvie Briggs, Aurora Marion
Shobna Gulati, Ravin J Ganatra, Bavnisha Parmar
Mark Dexter, Blanche Williams, Struan Rodger

A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Sunday 5 January 2020
Running time: 61 minutes (source: BBC iPlayer)

Spyfall Part Two was comfort Doctor Who for trying times. It appealed to a folk memory of Doctor Who, and the twenty-first century series in particular, while injecting the episode with several concerns peculiar to the Jodie Whittaker era. Women's achievement is obvious, but also present is an acknowledgement of contemporary culture and the need to express ownership of it in some form, however small, in the face of corporate behemoths. The localised 'radical helplessness' (as one review dubbed it) of Kerblam! was embedded in a time-traversing tale of selective interventionism.

Timey-wimey stuff

Having distanced himself from Steven Moffat's interpretation of Doctor Who in his first year, Chris Chibnall now presents something of a homage to Moffat's Doctor Who complete with locale-leaping narratives and aliens among us for centuries. The Doctor's recorded message to her friends as they are trapped on the plunging plane is probably one of the most accessible borrowings, recalling so fondly admired an episode as Blink. It helps confirm to long-term viewers that the Doctor is still the Doctor, and anticipates the temporal origami of the remainder of the episode. There's a more direct reference to a much earlier period of the programme too, as the Paris sequence surely acknowledges City of Death as a precedent for an alien conspiracy across time periods.

More important, though, is what's new. The fam of four are split up for most of the episode. While the Doctor improvises short cuts through human history, Graham, Ryan and Yaz become the three investigators, running through scenarios at extremes of the comedic and the morbid. The Bondian flavour of Jamie Magnus Stone's first episode had largely evaporated, with new director Lee Haven Jones, perhaps, treating the gadgets which were part one's legacy as the source of cartoonish slapstick. That the security officers couldn't be mown down by Graham's laser shoes underlined the problem of arming the Doctor's close friends and making them aim their weapons at other people. The scene was designed to be played for a laugh, but could not deliver on the carnage these hi-tech absurd action movie gadgets would seem to promise. The call was the right one, however, as within the narrative, carnage has been established as the Master's way, and despicable; the tonal balance of the episode also demands that the three friends’ quest is largely presented as light relief to the Doctor’s, often literally given how evocatively the episode realises the dark rooms of nineteenth-century London and especially the dust and fog of wartime Paris.

Light and dark

The coding of light and dark works too as an illustration of the Doctor’s outer and inner lives. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor is cut off from the three people through whom the audience has seen her and instead we have to see her reshape her identity as the Doctor of hope. Chibnall ‘apparates’ the Doctor amidst a meeting of experimental philosophers displaying their inventions, a gathering which echoes that intended for sabotage in The Mark of the Rani written by his supposed bêtes-noirs Pip and Jane Baker, but which has at least one earlier Doctor Who precedent in 1976’s The Masque of Mandragora. In Spyfall, fetishisation of technological progress is secondary to the Doctor’s recovery of hope through human creativity. Not all the inventions are benign. Ada’s deployment against the Master of a device probably inspired by Jacob Perkins’s steam machine gun emphasises Ada's independence of character, but perhaps anticipates the devastation which she is about to visit in the Paris of 1943. This is historical Doctor Who for the internet age, which assumes that viewers will be on their phones looking up not only Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage but also the Adelaide Gallery and the inventions exhibited there. (Deeper digging and they might find that Ada was known publicly before her marriage as Miss Ada Byron or Miss Ada Noel-Byron - I’ve not found an example of her being Miss Gordon yet outside this episode’s script...) Perhaps this is intended to encourage viewers to think that the restoration of the Doctor’s hope comes with awareness of its price. The steam gun was supposedly rejected by the British army’s commander-in-chief, the duke of Wellington, for its destructiveness. The Doctor is enthused by and proud to ally with Noor Inayat Khan, but that pride would be lessened if she tried to prevent her capture and death.

These are inferences rather than a description of a cohesive argument, but there’s something about Chris Chibnall’s goals for Doctor Who here. The Doctor becoming a godlike figure who wants to walk the world with the lightest footstep, whose bonhomie conceals an unwillingness to reveal very much about her background and abilities. In this series, perhaps, rather like the Ninth Doctor in much of Series One, the Doctor will be primarily an enabler and encourager of others and will lead only in extremis. There’s more than a touch of the Tenth Doctor’s ruthless compassion in the wiping of Noor’s and Ada’s memories of the Doctor after they have been trained up to be her assistants; the Doctor talks as if she is restoring Ada’s agency and doesn’t give Ada the chance to disagree. Where the Twelfth Doctor’s liberal paternalism was put in its place by Clara and Bill, the Thirteenth has rediscovered it without awareness of irony. This seems a conservative remodelling of the twenty-first century series, but not necessarily one which has yet proved its worth.

A possible difference between the Tennant and Whittaker Doctors is that where the Tenth always had delusions of godhood, the Thirteenth instead acts on the cracks of light glimpsed even in the darkest moments of cruelty, human or otherwise. I enjoyed the double subversion of the Silver Lady, Babbage’s symbol of the beauty of natural philosophy, first as conduit for the Kasaavin and then as their nemesis. Nevertheless, I felt we didn’t see enough of the prop itself, both to underline its importance to the climax and a symbol of imagination’s defeat of uniformity, whether that uniformity is the light-forms of the Kasaavin or the erased genomes of humanity.

The Master

To many viewers, though, the most tantalising prospect for this episode would have been further exposure to Sacha Dhawan’s Master. His performance didn’t disappoint, from brooding red-lit demon restless at what should have been his moment of triumph, to screaming defeated prisoner in the Kasaavin’s universe. In-between and after were a variety of notes which suggest a clear vision for the character, someone who needs to feel dominance but is less happy that they also require pity. The sequence at the Adelaide Gallery, where the Master compels the Doctor to kneel and call him Master, only for him to end up on the floor too, set this up well. The demonstration of the Tissue Compression Eliminator and the curious reference at the Eiffel Tower to ‘Jodrell Bank’ (we presume we know the story that we are meant to think of, but of course the Doctor and the Master have never been seen to meet at Jodrell Bank…) suggest a Master who is ‘doing classic’, but despite the absence of overt references, there are through lines to the twenty-first century too. The outfit in which the Master recorded his message to the Doctor is promoted outside the narrative with photographs which suggest that this purple-jacketed look is now his definitive costume. Its colours and texture owe a lot to Missy’s wardrobe. However, the contemporary resonance is more important, the cut of the trousers is reminiscent of the Doctor’s culottes and something about the whole mirrors the Doctor’s clothes in general. Whether this larger-than-life, very emotional outfit enhances or diminishes the visual impact of the Master as a threat remains to be seen.

The Master’s appearance in the Second World War perpetuated the idea of him as a chameleon who can prosper malevolently in a range of environments, reintroduced in the previous episode. His embedding in the Nazi regime, however, raised questions of false equivalence - is it too easy and lazy a shorthand to present the Master as a Nazi? - and led to the unnecessary decision for the Doctor to use the race ideology of the Nazis against him. I am with the commentators who think that the Doctor using the Master’s appearance against him was a misjudgement, and undermines the Paris segment’s force.

Blowing up the world (again)

The travels of Graham, Ryan and Yaz - plain-speaking, practical and a team, and worth watching as a group - serve adequately to keep the Daniel Barton half of the conspiracy in focus. Any warmth towards Barton generated by Lenny Henry’s psychopathic-millionaire-next-door performance is demolished by his callous murder of his mother; Barton is far less personally needy than the Master, and potentially the more challenging villain. More important for the episode, and the series going forward, must be the three friends’ re-evaluation of their relationship with the Doctor. How far something needs to be repaired after the Doctor’s part-explanation of where she comes from, without the Master’s revelation about Gallifrey’s destruction at his hands and his reasons for doing so, will be something for subsequent episodes. Destroying Gallifrey again can be defended in terms of restoring the essence of Doctor Who in folk memory terms; the audience who grew up watching the series this century presumably remember Gallifrey as being absent and so a familiar scenario is brought back. However, this storyline risks Doctor Who seeming to run backwards. Nevertheless, the telling of the story was well-planned with rich visuals of a ruined Capitol and depressive TARDIS interior. If this indeed sets up a Timeless Child arc for this series - and it would be strange if it didn’t, though audiences were wrongfooted last year - then the decision to destroy Gallifrey (less totally than seemed in 2005-13, admittedly, though the presumably radioactive shell of a city is a nod towards the Hiroshima which indirectly followed Paris) will be justified by how successfully this arc plays out, and by what follows it.

Spyfall Part Two works by pace and suggestion. It’s less breakneck than Part One, assembling a series of set pieces which largely impress, but they also encourage a reflective mood which the episode doesn't entirely reward. The Doctor's statements of faith in hope and humanity might convince less in dark places, though this surely wasn't the intention. However unlikely the idea of using humanity as cloud storage (leaving aside whether this notion is scientifically feasible, surely all life on Earth could have been used in this way instead, just to increase the apocalyptic stakes), the episode still calls for people to be like Ada and Noor and be more aware of how they use technology, and not to do evil when they do unlike Daniel Barton. It’s a conscience-raising homily for complicated and unhappy worlds, both ours and the fictional inner life of the troubled Doctor.

 




Doctor Who 12.1 - Spyfall: Part OneBookmark and Share

Thursday, 2 January 2020 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Spyfall (Credit: BBC)
Written by Chris Chibnall
Directed by Jamie Magnus Stone
Executive producers: Matt Strevens and Chris Chibnall

Starring Jodie Whittaker
Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill
Sacha Dhawan, Lenny Henry, Stephen Fry
Shobna Gulati, Ravin J Ganatra 
Bavnisha Parmar, Buom Tihngang
Sacharissa Claxton, William Ely, Darron Meyer
Dominique Maher, Struan Rodger

A BBC Studios production for BBC One
First broadcast on BBC One, Wednesday 1 January 2020
Running time: 59 minutes 45 seconds (source: BBC iPlayer)

So, Chibnall-Strevens-Whittaker Phase Two begins, and the initial signs suggest that those of us who wondered whether Chris Chibnall and team were playing a longer storytelling game than we were used to might have been on to something. This episode is presented as part one of a two-part story, but the change of setting and director next episode suggest an opening out rather than a wrapping-up. Spyfall: Part One ostentatiously reconnects Doctor Who with its mythology, while keeping faith with the viewers the 2018 run hoped to engage through its minimal engagement with its pastIt’s presumptuous to make such a statement, of course, but part one of Spyfall might be looked back on as a transitional episode, bridging a lighthearted, uncomplicated, even disengaged Doctor Who with a series where the stakes are apocalyptically greater. This might seem a little unfair; after all, the fate of the universe was brought into question in The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos. In that case, though, the threat to the fabric of reality was incidental to the villain’s plan; T’zim-Sha wanted revenge on Earth, while this episode’s villains - if we can take them on trust, which is questionable - want to conquer the universe. Our reality is being deliberately overwhelmed by external forces (the Kasaavin? Or is this an individual being’s name? The cast list is unclear and the episode gives us no guidance) which we can’t see unless they choose, which feels comfortingly and old-fashionedly subversive in its blend of spycraft, optical technology and magic.

It would be misleading to exaggerate the differences between Spyfall Part One and Series Eleven. Spyfall demonstrates Chris Chibnall’s commitment to presenting the Doctor as part of an ensemble of characters. If we assume the audience’s eyes to be those of her friends, then the Doctor is reintroduced as the quirkily mysterious one - the young unorthodox inspector, if we take this as a police procedural - who is responsible for odd happenings. She indulges her own affectations like repairing the TARDIS in an MOT garage as if it were a car, a saccharine note which made me wince. For old hands like (I expect) most of the readers of this review, the Doctor’s declaration that she isn’t remote-controlling the MI6 car seems superfluous - lots of entities in the universe of Doctor Who could have done so. Graham, Ryan and Yaz have by that point been reintroduced with the slightly obvious tooling of the skilled craftsman. Their backgrounds are expanded a little in a manner which was missing from the last series. However, even after several tours with the Doctor, they still seem slightly naïve travellers, as if the Doctor has played too much to the conceit that she is always in control of their environment, putting on a show as an expanded, interactive version of the illustrated lecture at the end of Rosa

In response, Spyfall returned to one of the mantras of the Russell T Davies era - the Doctor can’t necessarily keep you safe, and if you travel with them you need to look to your own resources. The Doctor sending Yaz and Ryan on an espionage mission has something of the school exercise about it.  At least one of the pair lacked confidence in their abilities, and their conversations during their nighttime raid on Daniel Barton’s office as they respond to their predicament in contrasting ways lend their characters some weight. Developments to come will tell whether they can convert loan into purchase. Both of them, and the Doctor, are out of their depths in a way not seen in this period of the series so far. Ryan performs best in the Barton raid, even though it goes badly wrong, because he is most conscious of his underpreparedness; the Doctor ends up worst in the episode because her assumptions about her role as seen in the last series don’t prepare her for this. The Australian security agent who told the Doctor to go and do her job and let the agents do theirs also anticipated the worst in a way the Doctor does not. The episode convincingly leads the Doctor of hope into a position of isolation and despair.

Both outside the narrative and within it, Spyfall was an episode of homages, and this made perfect sense. Revisiting old plot devices and images drew both on Chibnall’s precedent for revisiting old Doctor Who ideas in new contexts - such as the shrunken planets held in status in The Battle of Ranskoor av Kolos, which didn’t hide its debt to The Pirate Planet - but in hindsight might have suggested to the audience that there was an author of a story within the story who wanted their genius to be recognized. O seemed to be a calmer version of the in-universe security service Doctor fan, but one who sublimated his obsession behind professional cool. Once the plot was revealed as a set-up, I enjoyed explaining the episode to myself as an elaborate piece of fan fiction, with its nods to The Invasion and Tobias Vaughn, the gradual materialization of the Vardans in The Invasion of Time and the Cybermen in Army of Ghosts, with Barton’s backstory perhaps being a comparable fiction to the successful creation of a history for Harold Saxon in The Sound of Drums. As a creation of the Doctor’s greatest admirer, O himself is a studied hybrid of several people we’ve met before. As well as fitting into a tradition of UNIT operatives like Malcolm and Osgood, he offered to give Graham a tour of his files on the Doctor much as Clive gave Rose. James Bond exists in the Doctor's universe (cited, to my immediate recollection, in Robot) and the Master has surely been reading Ian Fleming or watching the films, as the Doctor and friends are led into the Bondian locale of the casino - or, appropriately for the story’s artificiality, a house party pretending to be a casino - before a chase scene across an exotic locale. (Yes, I think I’d assume I was playing Snap too, and the Doctor would deliberately do so out of sheer love of the childlike frame of mind.) I’m told there are nods to John Le Carré too, and X-Files fans were charmed and alerted by O’s borrowings from Fox Mulder. 

As I’ve mentioned the character now, O of course turned out to be a persona performed by the Master, and playing the Master was Sacha Dhawan - carefully edited from prepublicity pictures and missing from cast lists. I suspect that on further viewing, I’ll enjoy Dhawan playing the Master as an actor within his own scenario in this episode, as much as I enjoyed Dhawan’s O. Dhawan has a very expressive face and he moved from starry-eyed innocence to hellish malevolence with shocking ease, while filling all the levels of ambivalence in-between as we saw both the Doctor’s prize correspondence course pupil whom she wanted to indulge, and hints of unsavouriness and narcissism within - “Oh, God,” indeed. Dhawan was in those final moments a huge contrast with Lenny Henry's compelling but laid-back everyman millionaire villain Barton. I was reminded somehow of this era’s most vindictive and possessive fan critics too, rejecting this version of the series as false Doctor Who just as the Master insists everything the Doctor knows is a lie.

Cinematography seems to have lifted again this series, with some stunning composition throughout, not only on Earthly locations but in the studio-based unplace to which first Yaz and then the Doctor are transported. The imagery helps tease an expansion of Doctor Who’s cosmology. With the audience familiarized with multiple realities by His Dark Materials, it might be time to explore parallel worlds again and find new stories to tell. The Master is an unreliable narrator, but at the end of the episode he’s the nearest to an authority we have, and he is telling the Doctor that everything she - and we - know is a lie. How deep do the foundations go, and what use are they if built on shifting sands? Just how many narratives has the Master built up over time, so that there are always several traps sprung for successive versions of the Doctor? For previous Doctors, a helpful shop assistant working through Clara (The Bells of Saint John, Death in Heaven); for this, a best WhatsApp friend. This Tissue Compression Eliminator-using Master harks back to elements of the twentieth-century Masters not seen before in the twenty-first century, and while Jodie Whittaker’s delivery of “You can’t be” can be heard as someone struggling to accept that the work of their previous life was for nothing, I’m not surprised that many speculate that the Dhawan Master is from an earlier point in the Master’s personal history than any Master we have seen so far since 2005. 

At the cliffhanger, the Doctor is presented as trapped in an alien environment which is at once brain, computer, engine, forest, metafictional Stranger Things-like Upside Down and C.S. Lewis’s Wood Between the Worlds from The Magician’s Nephew, with something of Doctor Who’s own Matrix. The question is, of course, not whether she will escape, but how quickly and how interestingly. Both the questions the Master poses and the many possible meanings of this otherworld offer a host of avenues for the inevitable escape. Spyfall Part One repeated many familiar devices and routes, but reliability is not to be scorned. As the episode’s dedicatee (and how fitting was the use of Futura in the captions) once told an audience, clichés are clichés because they work. It’s how you use them that matters, and the episode acquitted itself capably.

 




The Ark in Space SEBookmark and Share

Sunday, 24 February 2013 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

The Ark In Space
Written by Robert Holmes
Directed by Rodney Bennett
Broadcast on BBC1: 25 Jan - 15 Feb 1975
DVD release: 25 Feb(R2), 12 Mar(R1)
This review is based on the UK Region 2 DVD release.

After a spate of stories of which I have no real memory, this month finally returns to a period that I can firmly recall from a more youthful time of life. Having become an an avid viewer (translation: my parents were allowing me to watch now), the coming months were to bring great excitement: Sontarans! (remember those last year), Daleks! (remember those last year, too!), and Cybermen! (parents remember those with a Doctor that wasn't Jon Pertwee and assure me they'd be scary too ...). But, after a fun romp with a giant Robot and Sarah being stuck on a roof, this week we were off to a strange Space Station orbiting the Earth ...

The Ark In Space is the adventure that heralds what many of my age think of as the "golden age" of Doctor Who, a period when Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes ruled the show and brought us some of the greatest adventures encountered by the Doctor, accompanied by his best friend (and our favourite companion) Sarah Jane Smith. Though Hinchcliffe and Holmes had inherited the initial set of scripts from their predecessors Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, the falling through of the original storyline by John Lucarotti enabled them to launch their tenure with the kind of story they'd like to tell. And boy were they to do so ...

After a teaser of a strange glowing green thingy apparently attacking its sleeping victim, our heroes arrive some time later to discover an apparently lifeless station. First they have to deal with the lack of air, then a door sealing Sarah off from the others, then a re-activated security system intent on wiping about anything organic it can set its sights on; after that, Sarah has been transmatted off somewhere and the Doctor and Harry have to track her down, whereupon they finally find her amidst a huge "Ark" containing the survivors of the human race.

That, in essence, is episode one, which by description alone might not sound too exciting, but what really brings it to life is the already apparent familiarity and comfortable rapport that the lead actors have together. It isn't often that an episode has just the principal cast performing (computer voices excepted) and be able to pull it off over some twenty-five minutes, but this episode manages just that. It sparkles with clever and witty dialogue, from the repartee between the Doctor and Harry as they undertake each challenge through to the Doctor's soliloquy on homo sapiens. And then there's the surprise cliffhanger as Harry opens a cupboard and a huge monster leaps upon him ...

... okay, so actually it's a dead wirrn and it's simply falling on him, but that wasn't quite so important to this infant!

Putting my adult fan head back on again, if anything with hindsight it is the realisation of the "monster of the week" that lets the story down slightly. The slight glimpse of the larva in the corridor is okay, but its more prominent appearance in later episodes shows just how reliant on bubblewrap it is. The adult wirrn also looks too much like fibreglass in the harsh studio light (something Hinchcliffe laments in the commentary) - plus, the initial stages of Noah's transformation does look a lot like he's simply put a glove on. However, it is the characters' reactions that help sell the threat, and Kenton Moore's rivetting performance as the tormented leader desperately trying to hold onto his own humanity is totally compelling and means his 'appendage' does not cause a distraction, nor do his subsequent appearances as the physical transformation continues apace throughout episode three - it's testament to this on how shocking it is for this episode's finale that we see Noah's tortured visage finally subsumed into the full wirrn form. Of course, the deficiencies apparent now meant nothing back then, and I can still recall how frightening these giant grasshoppers (as my mum called them) were. And, some 35 years later, the single staring eye out of the solar stack at the Doctor in episode two still sends a shiver up my spine!

Besides Noah, we have Vira, the Ark's First Medtech. On the documentary Wendy Williams explains how tricky it was to approach playing a really intelligent person, and on screen this comes across as a seeming aloofness much of the time - meaning that at the moments she does crack are really telling. However, I did think that perhaps the character should have been a little more emotional at the ultimate death of Noah (her bond partner). Out of the other characters that are brought out of cryogenic suspension, there is poor Libri (Christopher Masters) who barely gets to take his breath before he becomes the "possessed" Noah's first victim, Lycett (John Gregg) who gets smothered in bubblewrap - sorry a victim of a larva - but at least Rogin (Richardson Morgan) gets to nobly sacrifice his life to save the Doctor as the transport ship lifts off. To be honest, none of them really engaged me as much as the principal five stars, but Holmes still ensured that none of them were neglected, dialogue-wise.

There are some superb sets on display from designer Roger Murray-Leach (some of which to be seen again when the Doctor, Sarah and Harry return to the space station some time before in Revenge of the Cybermen) - the cryogenic chambers themselves look fantastic (a special mention should be made for Jan Goram, Tina Roach, Barry Summerford, Peter Duke, Richard Archer, Sean Cooney, Roy Brent, Rick Carroll, Lyn Summer and Geoffrey Brighty, all of whom had to stand patiently in the pallets pretending to be frozen through long recording sessions!).

The DVD

The special edition sees a new documentary covering the production of the story; A New Frontier delves into the making of The Ark in Space and the move into a whole new era of Doctor Who, with then-incoming producer Philip Hinchcliffe reflecting on the issues he had with the inherited scripts, as mentioned earlier. Director Rodney Bennett and designer Roger Murray-Leach discuss the production itself, with contributions from Wendy Williams and Kenton Moore - the latter explaining the fun of portraying a character disappearing under progressive layers of bubble wrap! Oh, and there's an appearance by an unexpected fan to look out for, too ...

The new production notes written by Martin Wiggins provide the usual in-depth analysis of the story's development; if you want to know which recording of Handel's Concerto Grosso in B Flat Major was used during Sarah's preparation, the original badge colour of the decontamination chamber, which extra ended up in which pallet, what John Lucarotti's original episodic titles are, and how Douglas Adams fits into the grand scheme of things, here's the place to find out!

Doctor Forever! is a new feature to appear on successive(ish) DVDs, looking at how Doctor Who survived in its 'wilderness years'. The first here, Love and War, explores the literary adventures of the Seventh and then Eighth Doctor through Virgin Books (under Peter Darvill-Evans) and then BBC Books (under Steve Cole and Justin Richards). Narrated by Ayesha Antoine, there are contributions from a host of authors including Russell T Davies (who also talked about his novel Damaged Goods contained elements he'd then recycle for the television series), Paul Cornell (whose the only author to date to have a book translated to screen with Human Nature), and the An Adventure in Space and Time writer Mark Gatiss. An interesting summary of how these ranges kept Doctor Who alive until the series return in 2005, and some candid observations over the BBC's abrupt 'seizure' of the book franchise from Virgin in 1997 as well as how they eventually reached their own demise (and the (ahem) novel way the spares went to use in Eastern Europe orphanages ...).

As with Planet of the Spiders in 2011, the omnibus repeat of the story is included on the second disc, which at seventy minutes means pretty much an episode is lost in the condensed version. I must admit I skimmed this a bit (at 1.5x too), being I'd watched the full version recently, but it is interesting to see how some sections get excised along the way - I noticed the Doctor's speech about humanity in episode one had been lost, and little things like Noah initially shooting the Doctor in episode two and the High Minister's speech in episode three disappeared too.

Other new DVD features include the raw footage of Tom Baker's visits to Northern Ireland in Scene Around Six, the clips of which were rediscovered back in 2011, plus 8mm film of location filming for Robot and the PDF files of Radio Times listings and - for those of us who didn't buy every single tie-in merchandise in the mid-eighties - The Doctor Who Technical Manual (so I can finally build my own TARDIS!). Most of the original 2002 features have been carried across to the special edition, with the notable exception of the Wookey Hole interview with Tom Baker that was released again in its 'proper' place on Revenge of The Cybermen in 2010.

Random Observations

  • The "pink" title sequence present for this story is a fun anomaly (as are the other title sequence variants that are included as an extra)
  • Unlike some of the commentaries to come, Tom Baker is quite serious on this one, though he still has time for his own style of random observations with comments such as "four jaunty buttocks"!
  • It's interesting how the role of a women is played around with during the story, with Harry's blissfully ignorant inappropriate comment to Sarah about "the fairer sex being the top of the totem pole" contrasting against the Doctor's deliberate goading of Sarah's deficiencies to get her to move through the pipeline.
  • I wonder if Begonia Pope ever heard that her alias was Madame Nostrodamus ...
  • The Doctor's introduction of Harry's credentials as being "only qualified to work on sailors" is still amusing, though being it is also on the main menu loops of both discs perhaps it has worn out its welcome now...
  • What with the sailor joke earlier in the script and Philip Hinchcliffe's observation of Robert Holmes having fun with the script, Harry then exclaiming "I found the Queen in the cupboard" caused an outbreak of uproarious laughter from both the commentary crew and myself!
  • There's a strong theme of the fear of possession and loss of identity running through the story, with Noah's struggle against his physical transformation, the Doctor's mental struggle with the hive mind, and the lingering thought about what actually happened to the hapless Dune (Brian Jacobs) under the Queen's ministrations ...
  • The way in which the wirrn propogate through 'contagion' is a theme that rears its head again a year later with the Krynoid's reproductive cycle in The Seeds of Doom.
  • It's a shame that the cut scene of Noah's plea for Vira to kill him no longer exists - it might have been a step too far for the audience in 1975 but it would have made a great deleted scene in 2013!
  • The autobiography "All Friends Betrayed" by Judas Baker is something to look forward to (grin)
  • And for those who always turn off before the end titles have finished ... well, you've missed out on a treat!

Conclusion

All-in-all, the story is quite minimal in its presentation but very effective in its execution. Great acting, stunning sets and scintillating dialogue all competently meld together to create a compelling story, and though the creature realisation was perhaps not as effective as some past and future efforts, in combination with the other elements they form a memorable adversary.

And as for the TARDIS team of Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and Ian Marter, they are on fine form, and between them triumphantly launch this "golden age" of Doctor Who!

Coming Soon ...

The Doctor learns the intricacies of cocoa-making and Barbara find out being a god is not all it's cut out to be as the TARDIS travellers touch down in the murky tomb atop a pyramid of The Aztecs ...




Genesis of the DaleksBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 21 September 2011 - Reviewed by Darren Allen

The latest batch of BBC Vintage Beeb releases (the third), wherein BBC LPs/tapes of the 1970s are reissued on CD, in some cases for the first time, includes another outing for Genesis of the Daleks. This is its fourth release; following the original LP/cassette release in 1979, the BBC Radio Collection double cassette pairing with Slipback in 1988 and the expanded CD release of 2001 paired with Exploration Earth.

I have two problems with the Vintage Beeb range. The first concerns the very concept of a 'Vinyl replica'. Now to me, like a lot of people, this means a faithful replica of the original album sleeve in cardboard. This is something that the Japanese have been doing with albums for nearly twenty years; releasing faithful reproductions of many albums in exact detail with gatefold sleeves, embossed sleeves, cut outs, inserts etc. Even with some EMI albums of the early 1980s they have exactly replicated the paper inner bag complete with the "home taping is killing music" logo and slogan! (Apologies for those readers under forty for which this will mean nothing. But believe me it shows attention to detail!)

Unfortunately to BBC Audio/AudioGo, 'Vinyl replica' just means a reissue of a title onto CD in a standard jewel case but now with the original sleeve artwork/photo used on the booklet and a black CD. The latter is a nice gimmick, but it hardly makes the release a replica!

The second problem is that whilst we are seeing some long unavailable albums such as I’m Sorry I’ll read that Again released onto CD, this range still contains a number of titles previously released on CD as part of the BBC Radio Collection. Monty Python’s Flying CircusThe Magic Roundabout and Genesis of the Daleksto name but three. The question on a lot of peoples’ lips is "When are we going to see a CD release for the themes albums that were a mainstay of the BBC Records and Tapes range of the 1970s?" I would dearly love a re-mastered copy of 1979’s BBC Space Themes as my original tape is showing its age... but then it is thirty years old! I suppose the problem here is that is easier to clear the rights for BBC shows, rather than music collections.

I remember buying the original release of Genesis of the Daleks back in 1979, when it was timed to coincide with the screening of Destiny of the Daleks. At the time it was hoped that it would be the start of a series, but despite being a consistent seller it was sometime before we got a range of Doctor Who audio releases!

Even now, Tom Baker’s opening line "I stepped from the TARDIS onto a bleak planet..." is as great a hook as ever, drawing the listener in to a breakneck version of the original TV story. Although the ensuing argument with the Time Lord about interrupting a transmat beam jars somewhat! The linking narration fits very well, filling in the gaps of story inherent in condensing a six-part TV story down to under an hour’s worth of LP. And Tom’s reading is superb, as we move from one memorable scene to the next. Only being an hour long, such a short version should not work; but it does and all credit to Derek Groom who produced it back in 1979.

There is one difference to the original audio release though. That annoying jump cut at the end of side two of the original LP, wherein the theme cuts in halfway through the Dalek’s closing line resulting in "we will take our rightful place as the supreme power of the univer", has been rectified in line with the previous CD release, so you now get "universe" in all its glory. Whether this is a good thing or bad, I leave to individual choice!

Despite problems with presentation, to quote Destiny of the Daleks, "Its what’s on the inside that matters." This is still a very valid release and heartily recommended for two reasons. Firstly, it does reproduce the original 1979 release complete with end of side one cliff-hanger. And secondly, it can be ordered online for not much over £4, making it very good value!





Genesis of the Daleks (CD)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 10 February 2011 - Reviewed by Darren Allen

Genesis of the Daleks
Vintage Beeb,
AudioGo (CD)
RRP £6.10
Purchase from our Amazon Shop
The latest batch of BBC Vintage Beeb releases (the third), wherein BBC LPs/tapes of the 1970s are reissued on CD, in some cases for the first time, includes another outing for Genesis of the Daleks. This is its fourth release; following the original LP/cassette release in 1979, the BBC Radio Collection double cassette pairing with Slipback in 1988 and the expanded CD release of 2001 paired with Exploration Earth.

I have two problems with the Vintage Beeb range. The first concerns the very concept of a 'Vinyl replica'. Now to me, like a lot of people, this means a faithful replica of the original album sleeve in cardboard. This is something that the Japanese have been doing with albums for nearly twenty years; releasing faithful reproductions of many albums in exact detail with gatefold sleeves, embossed sleeves, cut outs, inserts etc. Even with some EMI albums of the early 1980s they have exactly replicated the paper inner bag complete with the "home taping is killing music" logo and slogan! (Apologies for those readers under forty for which this will mean nothing. But believe me it shows attention to detail!)

Unfortunately to BBC Audio/AudioGo, 'Vinyl replica' just means a reissue of a title onto CD in a standard jewel case but now with the original sleeve artwork/photo used on the booklet and a black CD. The latter is a nice gimmick, but it hardly makes the release a replica!

The second problem is that whilst we are seeing some long unavailable albums such as I’m Sorry I’ll read that Again released onto CD, this range still contains a number of titles previously released on CD as part of the BBC Radio Collection. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Magic Roundabout and Genesis of the Daleks to name but three. The question on a lot of peoples’ lips is "When are we going to see a CD release for the themes albums that were a mainstay of the BBC Records and Tapes range of the 1970s?" I would dearly love a re-mastered copy of 1979’s BBC Space Themes as my original tape is showing its age... but then it is thirty years old! I suppose the problem here is that is easier to clear the rights for BBC shows, rather than music collections.

I remember buying the original release of Genesis of the Daleks back in 1979, when it was timed to coincide with the screening of Destiny of the Daleks. At the time it was hoped that it would be the start of a series, but despite being a consistent seller it was sometime before we got a range of Doctor Who audio releases!

Even now, Tom Baker’s opening line "I stepped from the TARDIS onto a bleak planet..." is as great a hook as ever, drawing the listener in to a breakneck version of the original TV story. Although the ensuing argument with the Time Lord about interrupting a transmat beam jars somewhat! The linking narration fits very well, filling in the gaps of story inherent in condensing a six-part TV story down to under an hour’s worth of LP. And Tom’s reading is superb, as we move from one memorable scene to the next. Only being an hour long, such a short version should not work; but it does and all credit to Derek Groom who produced it back in 1979.

There is one difference to the original audio release though. That annoying jump cut at the end of side two of the original LP, wherein the theme cuts in halfway through the Dalek’s closing line resulting in "we will take our rightful place as the supreme power of the univer", has been rectified in line with the previous CD release, so you now get "universe" in all its glory. Whether this is a good thing or bad, I leave to individual choice!

Despite problems with presentation, to quote Destiny of the Daleks, "Its what’s on the inside that matters." This is still a very valid release and heartily recommended for two reasons. Firstly, it does reproduce the original 1979 release complete with end of side one cliff-hanger. And secondly, it can be ordered online for not much over £4, making it very good value!