RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 25 15 December 2015

As always, spoilers abound. See Wikipedia for production details)

The Doctor - Sylvester McCoy
Ace - Sophie Aldred

Remembrance of the Daleks

We open with another attempt to mine the old mythos with forced references to Coal Hill School and the French Revolution book, Totters Lane, and of course Omega. All this was actually scaled back when someone pointed out Attack of the Cybermen to Aaronovitch, but there's an awful lot of spot-the-reference in the first part. Fortunately, and unlike that earlier story, it isn't of any particular importance to the plot, though the casual viewer may wonder why there's such a visual fuss made over a random book. (Indeed, if you were a fanatical continuity buff, you might expect contention between the Davros-followers and the Emperor-followers, as had been set up in Resurrection of the Daleks, rather than what we got here.)

Direction and blocking is sometimes very heavy-handed, for example when Ace goes into the café and Smith spies her ghetto blaster. (And he doesn't act like a sergeant. Much more like an orf'cer. He's basically doing the Mike Yates job, right down to the sudden but inevitable betrayal.)

Smart move to reveal the first Dalek half-way through part one - we know it's a Dalek story because of the title so you can't use it effectively as the end of part one reveal, and so you have to bring it up when they aren't expecting it.

And of course the infamous real ending to part one when the Dalek finally reveals its ability to climb stairs. But the blocking is all wrong again; the Dalek has no need to go up the stairs in order to be a threat, it could just shoot from the bottom. More seriously, sometimes Daleks can find someone who's well hidden, other times they can't spot them in nearly plain sight; that's not a script problem, it's blocking again. Andrew Morgan had directed Time and the Rani before; he hugely overspent on this story, and it shows in a good way, but he really doesn't seem to see how a scene is going to look on the screen. Even Ace can't make a Dalek look like a convincing war machine with this director: she has to throw herself under its gun in order to be threatened by the one she's attacking.

It's a bit of a narrative failure that nobody ever checks on any of the soldiers once they've been given a mission: the ones knocked out by Ratcliffe's men, and the one who was keeping watch on the transmat and was presumably exterminated, aren't missed more than a day later!

The effects are CGI naff, which to me looks worse than wonky-model naff, but I can't really blame them. When we do get some models, in particular the various Dalek spacecraft, they're very much more appealing.

The climactic Dalek vs Dalek battle in part four would have worked better if we'd had one side or the other to cheer for. But I do like the Special Weapons Dalek.

That's one solution to having a child actor who (like most of them) can't really act: write a role that just requires a dead flat expression. (Even if she does create some plotholes by wandering around.) The rest of the cast are pretty good, particularly Pamela Salem (returning from ten years earlier in The Robots of Death) as Dr Jensen and Simon Williams as the Group Captain, prefiguring the Brigadier; but it's McCoy and Aldred who really shine, their characters doing their own sorts of heroism and clashing without squabbling. This is at last a Doctor who does stuff, and a companion too, even if the romance subplot just feels a bit off and heavy-handed.

Of course nobody involved could be bothered to check what a geostationary orbit was. And there are huge gaping holes all over the plot, not least the question of just when the plan involving the Hand got started. And this is the first step along the road to the Doctor as superpowered backdrop, since rather than figuring things out as he goes along he's pulling all the strings from the start. But even so, it works.

This is basically a solid action story of the sort the show's often done before, but interestingly subverted: the soldiers' narrative role is not a desperate defence against an overwhelming force, but as the helpless victims who need to be saved from the Daleks, and the MacGuffin comes down to Brer Rabbit and the briar patch in the end. There's an awful lot of stuff going on (and all the episodes were trimmed to fit the running time limits) but this is a decent story (substantially helped by McCoy's protest against the original ending, which had the Doctor shooting the last Imperial Dalek – a distinctly wrong tone in a story that's otherwise got it right) in a series that's finally finding its feet again.

The Happiness Patrol

And then it descends into what the young people today would call "messagefic". It's hard to tell what's original to Graeme Curry and what was inserted by Cartmel or Nathan-Turner, but it's been suggested that the latter two made a grim and depressing story significantly lighter and frothier. Perhaps because of that, or the time compression (again, all the episodes overran and were cut heavily), everything comes over as terribly superficial and sketched-in.

For example, Ace's early line about the place being "Too phony. Too happy" would be rather more convincing if it weren't delivered against a grim grey and brown backdrop. The Plot Exposition Prisoner delivers an infodump and is then conveniently killed.

The Kandyman itself is just another poor joke (and how did it escape the second time?); Fifi is a bit better, though undersized for the menace it's meant to cause, but the hugely overshadowed Chekov's Gun of the collapsing sugar rather undermines the more effective pathos of its final scene. Clearly, the writers are saying, the villains are a bad joke, but still a dangerous one. Yeah, that's a decent idea, but it's all too heavy-handed and clanging to be enjoyable. In the end it's not so much a critique of Thatcher as poking fun at a sack with "Thatcher" painted on it (ooh look, a strong unpopular woman with an ineffectual husband, how edgy); take that out, and there's nothing left. (The anti-Thatcherism was mostly forced in by Cartmel over Curry's objections anyway.)

The go-kart that goes at a slow walking pace, and breaks down more than it moves, is perhaps an intrinsic problem of using vehicles in a studio-bound story, but the vehicles didn't need to be in there at all.

The scene with the snipers is one that many people seem to like, but it just doesn't work for me. Yeah, yeah, all people who like guns are inadequate losers, har har har, but actually there are plenty of people who like guns who are happy to kill. And they often end up in jobs where they can. This is like a Christian™-brand book showing person-to-person evangelism actually working; the message is more important than the plausibility of the story that delivers the message. (But clearly it was very inspirational to the writers of the new series.)

Production design is clearly limited by budget, but where the money is spent it seems to have been spent badly: the Kandyman costume of course that manages to be both over-simple and over-complex at the same time, but also the over-designed Kandy Kitchen, the hairstyles of the Happiness Patrol (why use the tired old "brutal female police force" cliché anyway, as it has nothing to do with any of the points the story's trying to make and their actions would be about the same if they were male), and the sewer-goblin "native inhabitants of the planet" who could have been completely cut without impairing the story in the slightest.

The Sun Makers did this basic plot rather better. The more recent Paradise Towers managed to be non-naturalistic but still enjoyable. This one mostly dragged for me.

The Silver Nemesis

But this one makes The Happiness Patrol look good.

Kevin Clarke was another new writer, though not an SF fan. This story mostly came out of back-and-forth between him and Nathan-Turner, with Cartmel only just getting a look in. Nathan-Turner tried to get extra funding for this 25th anniversary story, but failed; he was also unable to get permission to film at Windsor Castle, or to cast Prince Edward.

Production, by Chris Clough again, is shaky. An early example: somebody was told "make a computer screen that shows a landing location at Windsor". Did they look at a map of England and find the lat and long? Or make up some alien coordinate system? No, they pulled some numbers out of their arses and got a location a few hundred miles off the coast of South Carolina. But who cares? This is the sort of slapdash work that nearly killed the programme in the run up to series 23.

Much more forgivably, I'm not convinced by the comet's orbit. Multiple 25-year Earth-grazing orbits? Why would you do that, if you wanted to keep it off Earth? For the same delta-V budget you'd need to push it out that far, you could nearly cancel its Earth-orbital speed and drop it into the sun in less than a year, though I really don't expect writers either to work this stuff out for themselves or to take a few minute to talk to someone who can; they probably don't know anyone like that. The 25-year "cycle of disasters" is just ghastly.

It's much harder to stop and fall off a bridge than it is to keep running for the cover on the other side.

Black Magic here is not presented as misunderstood science, as it was in The Daemons, but actual procedure. (I know that got covered up later.)

How did the Doctor and Ace get away from the castle guards? You can have them locked up and then escape by sonic screwdriver, or you can just say "look over there, it doesn't matter". And they said the screwdriver was lazy story-telling.

The cyber-ship in flight is a bit too blatantly composited; I know, budget, and they couldn't afford more crane shots like the lovely Dalek shuttle in Remembrance, but that looked so much better that it's a shame they stuck with the old Paintbox here rather than just not showing the thing at all. It does look much better on the ground.

Gold has changed from a thing that has to be scraped into a cybermen's ventilator into a vampire's stake: an arrowhead is no more penetrating than a bullet, after all, and a gold coin fired from a catapult even less so! And the point at which a Cyberman extracts the coin from its throat… yeah, someone's been watching Hammer films.

The sudden failure of the jamming device is frankly bathetic. But there are deliberately comic tones here, as with the business with the skinheads and Lady Peinforte's hitch-hiking, so maybe it's meant to be one of them. (How did the Cybermen find out about Nemesis and Lady Peinforte? You can only carry me so far with "the Doctor has deep and cunning plans that he isn't telling you about".)

It's a lovely setting for the final battle of Ace versus the Cybermen. Never much sense of place, until the last moments on the gantry, but that makes up for it.

It's all a bit Remembrance of the Daleks in the end (and that's even explicitly called out by Ace in the closing scene), with slightly more varied factions (Nazis, Cybermen, and Lady Peinforte, rather than Daleks A and Daleks B with incidental humans). With so many villains, they each end up being a bit under-used, which doesn't help.

It's not a bad plot, but it's a bit too soon to be re-using a trick, even one that worked quite well, and there's just too much content for any of it to get the time it deserves. This was meant to be the fourth story of the series, but filming problems had delayed the initial broadcast date for Remembrance, and it had to go out on 23 November for the anniversary.

As a story it's sort of all right-ish in a series that didn't include Remembrance. As a 25th anniversary special it's a flop. Remembrance would have been a more worthy contender.

And Fiona Walker should have played the Master.

The Greatest Show In the Galaxy

Another story from the author of Paradise Towers, but one that for me works rather less well. Yeah, it's the one with the rapping ringmaster.

The guiding principle seems to be that Circuses Are Creepy, and you shouldn't ask silly questions like "why doesn't it make sense" because that's such a terribly old-fashioned way of looking at things. What matters is the impressions you get. Bellboy and Flowerchild! Spy kites! Clowns in a hearse! Pompous colonialist explorer as a dingy reflection of Doctor and companion! Murderous robot bus conductor with a deadly ticket machine! Generic grey suburban family! Cute werewolf in fishnets! Magic!

If you like that sort of spectacle, this is clearly a story for you. If you look past the spectacle, it's just a runaround with endless repetitions of capture and escape, and offstage deaths thrown in to try to maintain the viewer's flagging interest until the "Gods of Ragnarok" are finally revealed. (At which point it devolves to a variety show.) Worse of all, if you go asking silly questions like "why did a bunch of hippies in a space bus own a lethal conductorbot", you're trying to view the story as a story rather than an experience, and you must be one of those fans.

The combination of the overdone fanboy parody ("Although I never got to see the early days, I know it's not as good as it used to be but I'm still terribly interested") with the Gods constantly clamouring for "entertainment" can safely be regarded as the show's production team showing contempt for the viewers. Terribly clever, but it's still contempt for the few people who were still enthusiastic about the show.

Direction, to be fair, is pretty good, with excellent framing that can even make Ace's walking down corridors seem interesting for a while, and the incidental music is several steps up in quality. Ace is a bit shaky at times (with the tired old "not scared are you" device used twice in the opening episode), and McCoy's Doctor is rough too (ignoring Ace much as if he were still being played by Colin Baker). The Chief Clown does a decent line in menace, but is awfully chatty and petty with it, which diminishes him.

This story nearly went the way of Shada; after the location filming was done, asbestos was found in the BBC studios, so they couldn't be used. In the end, the "studio" filming was done in a tent in the BBC Elstree parking lot, which makes for some more realistic-feeling scenes (especially those tent corridors) than usual.

This story ended up being swapped with The Happiness Patrol in broadcast order, so that Silver Nemesis could go out on schedule, which made for a very weak end to the series. Not that I found The Happiness Patrol particularly great, but at least there was some meat to it; this is lots of visual interest but naff-all story. All terribly postmodern if you like that sort of thing.

Overall impressions

This is where the Doctor starts to become the most important person in the universe. The Daleks are on Earth because they're following him. The Doctor and Ace go to Terra Alpha because of "disturbing rumours" and throw themselves into the hands of the Happiness Patrol because they have meta-knowledge that there's an adventure to be solved. All of Silver Nemesis was set up by the Doctor. Even The Greatest Show in the Galaxy was "[his] show all along", though you wouldn't know it except for that line in the coda.

Some people like this (and they tend to be more likely to be fans of the revived series). It does at least get away from the rut the series has been in, but it seems to me that there are rather fewer stories you can tell about Doctor-as-benevolent-trickster-God than there are about Doctor-as-random-interference. The basic plot is the same in three out of four of these stories: inexplicable stuff happens, the bad guys seem to win, they get blown up, and the Doctor says "a-ha that's what they were meant to do".

And then there's That Scene in Silver Nemesis, where it's made clear that enslaving sapient beings is just dandy if he's doing it. There's probably a term for this sort of morality, where an act is Good because it's done by a Good Person and the same act would be Bad if done by a Bad Person, but I don't know what it should be.

I'll talk more about the Cartmel Masterplan next time. But I note that this is the first time for three years that I haven't had a "departed companions" ranking.

Favourite story of this series: Remembrance of the Daleks.

  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 12:01pm on 15 December 2015

    There was a romantic subplot in REMEMBRANCE OF THE DALEKS?

    I will admit that I liked the idea that you used some of the depth of the Doctor's history to provide the spark for a new adventure which is why REMEMBRANCE is still one of my favourite memories.

    I will also admit that the new series goes a lot too far in the direction of 'it's all about the Doctor, all of the time'.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:18pm on 15 December 2015

    Ace and Mike Smith. I am not surprised that it hasn't stuck in your memory.

    I think Remembrance gets the continuity-mining mostly right: it builds off old stuff without requiring the viewer to know all about it to enjoy the rest of the story.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 03:46pm on 15 December 2015

    That is the way to do it.

    And I don't think it got as far as 'romance'. Romance in my mind goes a bit further than 'she fancied him a bit'. If that's romance I've got a romantic subplot with half the women I meet.

  4. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 07:02pm on 15 December 2015

    Enjoyed this season, and the Happiness Patrol made me laugh. Daleks was the best story but the Cybermen were OK too.

  5. Posted by Owen Smith at 10:36pm on 15 December 2015

    Remembrance I clearly remember watching, and cheering that the Dalek could fly. At last, no more defeats due to stairs! And the Special Weapons Dalek was indeed cool, and was seen in a couple of New Who stories in recent series.

    My view on the McCoy era is that the show nearly rescued itself, and then went down a different wrong turning into everything being about the Doctor. Such a shame, I wonder who's fault it was?

    At least McCoy had the sense to object to the Doctor shooting someone. Compare that to the most recent New Who episode where the Doctor did shoot someone, which felt really wrong to me.

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