November 23, 2016

Happy 53rd Anniversary

“Doctor Who off to a great start everybody here delighted.”

- Telegram from Donald Wilson to Sydney Newman, 27 November 1963

(2) Comments

November 13, 2016

Top of the Class?

So now that we are just past the halfway mark in the first season of the Doctor Who spinoff Class, what are we all thinking about it? Where does it rank in the pantheon of Doctor Who spin-off television series? What do people think of the regular characters, and the actors who play them? Are they all too old to be in high school? Are they all too slim? Any favourites or least favourites? Would the premise of the show have been better off if there was no connection to Doctor Who? How has Patrick Ness’s writing been?

I have opinions on all of the above questions, but I’m interested in hearing what you think. Assuming that you have been watching of course…..

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October 02, 2016

Fan Myth RIP #3 - Celebrity Guest Casting is and was “bad”  for Doctor Who

Another one of the most common pet theories put forward by fans which seemed to be stated as historical fact was the theory that John Nathan-Turner casting celebrities in guest-starring roles caused the show’s reputation to suffer and ratings to decline in the UK, leading the BBC to be justified in cancelling the series. The celebrities most often cited as examples are the casting of Beryl Reid in Earthshock, Richard Briers in Paradise Towers, Ken Dodd in Delta and the Bannermen and Nicholas Parsons in The Curse of Fenric. Over the years it wasn’t just a section of fandom that would make this claim, the mainstream media did as well - particularly in historical retrospective articles released for the 30th, 35th, 40th and even the 50th Anniversaries.

Being from Canada, it’s a little more difficult to comment on the effect that seeing these “celebrities” would have on the UK audience. As a Canadian, I’d never heard of any of these people until they showed up in Doctor Who. (Similarly, note that I did not include Dolores Gray in Silver Nemesis in my list of the most-commonly cited examples, because even though she was a Tony-Award winning actress that had co-starred alongside Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall in the film Designing Woman, by 1988 nobody in the UK seemed to know who she was). Nevertheless, I find it difficult to be convinced that these so-called celebrity casting decisions were inherently a bad thing which did the show much harm.

It’s the examples of Beryl Reid and Nicholas Parsons stand out. Earthshock was so popular with casual viewers and fans alike that its difficult to argue that any part of it did the show’s fortunes any harm. As for Nicholas Parsons, it’s tough to argue that his casting did any harm given that the show had already reached its lowest regular ratings level when the final season started. There’s nothing in his performance that suggests that he was either unsuitable for the role or sent viewers to reach for their remotes (nor is there any ratings or audience research data which suggests this).

What then about the example of Richard Briers and Ken Dodd? They were both cast in the most unpopular (at least with UK viewers and fandom at the time) season of all time, Season 24- arguably the season with the highest concentration of celebrity guest casting. Both celebrities were cast in fairly silly roles, in fairly “light-weight” stories that weren’t exactly known for being dark and mysterious, or for putting kids behind the sofa. It is perhaps much easier to see why these celebrity casting examples might have caused the show’s reputation to suffer. However, when we look at the audience research report for Season 24, when viewers were asked what they didn’t enjoy about the season, it was Bonnie Langford and Sylvester McCoy who took the brunt of the blame. “Silly guest-star casting” (or variations thereof) is not listed as a common response to this question. The only answer which might hint at viewer dissatisfaction with respect to casting celebrities is large portion of respondents who complained about the light-weight tone of the show and the fact that it was, in their eyes, becoming “increasingly silly”. This might be a reference to Dodd and Briers because they were both cast in silly roles in somewhat silly stories.

But isn’t that - the silliness- at the heart of the issue? I can remember in 1989 the teeth-grinding from certain areas of fandom when Nicholas Parsons was announced to be appearing in the forthcoming season, because the assumption was that he was cast to be playing a silly role. Of course, his role was not silly at all, in a story that was not silly at all (in tone at least - let’s not quibble about how silly the scene where Ace seduces the guard turned out to be, as that wasn’t the intention). Criticism of this casting was considerably muted (in comparison to when the news was announced) once the story was broadcast. Had they broadcast The Curse of Fenric and Survival in Season 24 rather than Delta or Paradise Towers, it’s difficult to imagine that viewers would have picked on the silliness of the stories (whether it be the tone, guest casting or storylines). If the viewers still hated the show, it would presumably have been for other reasons and unlikely because Nicholas Parsons puts in a good dramatic performance in a non-silly role. In other words, it’s not the fact of celebrity casting per se which is the issue, but the kind of roles (and performances) that the celebrities are cast in.

The new series has done celebrity casting - especially with cameos - to a far greater extent than the classic series ever did, and the popularity of the show has not suffered as a result. Times are different of course - we live in a more “celebrity-based” culture for one so many celebrities have been cast as themselves in cameos - but the fact that the series’ popularity was not harmed by this further supports the notion that casting celebrities is not inherently bad for the show - at most, it depends on how it is done. For the classic series, the show seemed to have other issues that were far more of a problem than celebrity casting per se (if that was a problem at all).

August 21, 2016

Animated Curiosity

In case you haven’t heard or seen, this video clip, featuring clips of a high-quality animated version of Patrick Troughton’s debut story The Power of the Daleks, has surfaced recently. Actually, it surfaced, then sunk and then re-surfaced on youtube. It is possible that by the time you are reading this the link - which I will put here - may no longer work (or at least, the link may work but to a video which is no longer on youtube - you know what I mean).

For now, enjoy it while you can. Even if nothing else comes of this and nothing further was or will be produced, it is still very well done and looks quite professional - and thus is very enjoyable to watch. At the time of writing, no-one (either in fandom or with the BBC) has come forward to claim responsibility. It’s most likely a fan effort done for fun rather than for an official DVD release, but who knows. As the Doctor once said, time will tell - it always does….....

July 17, 2016

Fan Myth RIP #2 - William Hartnell Was Playing Himself

For years, moreso from word or mouth than printed reviews, fans had heard the refrain - mainly from critics of William Hartnell - that his Doctor was basically the actor playing himself in the scripts - irascible, absent-minded professor, prone to gaffes, irritable, grand-fatherly but bad-tempered. It was even claimed that some of the scripted gaffes (where the Doctor gets Ian’s last name wrong) were not actually scripted. This view of Hartnell’s performance took somewhat of a beating when the soundtrack to The Massacre was released on CD for public purchase in 1999. At that point fans far and wide could hear for themselves the very different role that Hartnell plays in the story, that of the Abbot of Amboise. It should have proved to people Hartnell was a good actor who simply chose to perform the Doctor the way he did because it suited the character he was helping to create with his performance - however the view that he was essentially playing himself on screen persisted in certain quarters.

However, it was arguably the discovery and release in the past few years of two interviews with William Hartnell taken from the 1960’s which pretty much nailed the coffin lid shut on this fan myth. First there was the only known-to-still-exist video interview with Hartnell after (or even during) his time on Doctor Who which was released on The Tenth Planet DVD in 2013. Now, you can certainly argue that Hartnell sounded irritable in the interview, but that argument has to be countered by pointing out that just about any actor would have found those (in some cases insulting) questions posed to him (or her) as being very irritating, particularly in a dressing room. The main thing that strikes the viewer is just how different Hartnell’s mannerisms and vocal patterns are - he sounds much gruffer here when he is legitimately irritated than when he plays irritation as the Doctor. Gone is any trace of sounding or acting like a professor or a learned man of science. That’s clearly an act, as it should be given that this is required as part of the role.

Perhaps more startling is the 2nd Hartnell interview to be discovered, which dates from about a year and a half earlier, in 1965 when he is still playing the role. This interview is from an episode of Desert Island Discs, a popular radio programme where celebrities pick what records they would choose to have if they were stuck on a desert island. The first time I heard this I had to re-check the link about three times to make sure it was the correct one. It just didn’t sound like Hartnell at all - or at least, the version of Hartnell that I was familiar with, which was, for decades, the 1st Doctor. He sounds so incredibly different that it took me some time to realize it was the same man I’d been watching and listening to episodes of since the mid 1980’s.There’s no trace whatsoever of his first Doctor character in this interview, of which we hear far more of his speaking voice (and in much less-trying circumstances) than we do in the film interview that is on The Tenth Planet DVD. Even more than the other interview and his performance in other roles, this interview demonstrates that his first Doctor was a character he created and wasn’t merely an extension of himself.

For those that haven’t heard it (and we’ve posted a link to this before on this blog but frankly it’s worth a re-listen), you can find the clip on youtube here. 

June 12, 2016

Fan Myth RIP #1 - Continuity Kills

As we wait for the news of the next episodes to be made, it seems a good time to reflect back on the history of the now-53 year-old television phenomenon, Doctor Who. In particular, it seemed an ideal opportunity to lay to rest several fan theories which had been repeated and gained wide enough acceptance over the years that people began to accept such theories as historical fact and part of fan “received wisdom”, despite seemingly having no factual basis to support these theories. The passage of time (and in some cases, new information that has come to light about the show’s past) has helped to consign these theories into the realm of fan myths that hopefully have died once and for all. One just hopes that one isn’t resurrecting them by writing about them now. In any event, here is the first of five such fan theories that we’ll try to put to bed over the next five weeks.

The first of these I’d like to tackle is the often-cited view that the classic series was “killed” by continuity usage, a theory seems to stem from the belief that a continuing series making some reference previous episodes is an inherently bad thing which will lead audience to confusion and dis-satisfaction. Which is something that I will agree is conceivable - but something being conceivable and something actually being the case are not the same thing. Not even remotely. There has never been an shred of evidence put forward to back up this assertion, other than fans pointing to the decline in ratings which occurred after the 18-month hiatus and then coming up with their own unsupported theories as to why the ratings decline happened. The actual audience research conducted by the BBC and by BARB at the time points to other factors for audience displeasure which are far more common reasons. Of Doctor Who‘s final few seasons, the one that got the most negative response from the audience was Season 24 (ironically for those foisting the anti-continuity argument, since it is probably the least continuity-heavy season of the last four of the classic series). When asked what they disliked the most about the season, the audience research indicated that they didn’t like the performances or the characterization of the regular cast, nor did they like the stories themselves or the “increasingly silly” tone. There was not a word to be mentioned about the re-use of the Rani or Sabalom Glitz.

If there’s an argument to be made purely from the ratings, the last two times the Daleks and Cybermen were featured in the classic series, the episodes they were featured in garnered some of the highest ratings for the particular seasons in question (Season’s 22 and 25, respectively) - which doesn’t exactly fit in easily with the “continuity killed the ratings” theory.

There is the view that poorly-explained continuity could confuse the “casual viewer” and cause them to switch off. That’s an acceptable and believable theory, but one that doesn’t have much in the way of evidence to support that this was the case with Doctor Who. One might argue that one such example of poorly-explained continuity usage was the unexplained references to the Cybermen in the climactic moment of The Curse of Fenric (something that a fan would get but the casual audience who would have heard of the Cybermen would not have understood) - except the ratings were already pretty low that season by the time you got to its 4th last episode, suggesting that something else had already caused the audience to not tune in. However the bigger problem with this theory today is that the new series has arguably had the clearest examples extremely-heavy continuity-based episodes which didn’t bother to explain the continuity references properly - or at all - to the audience, and yet the lack of explanation didn’t cause the slightest dent in the ratings in the grand scheme of things. For example, Journey’s End features appearances from characters from other television series altogether (spin-offs that were seen by a fraction of the audience that Doctor Who was getting at the time) without much in the way of a proper introduction (or in the case of K9, an explanation of why he suddenly appears out of thin air to help save the day). Another good example is The Time of the Doctor, which spends a great deal of time wrapping up about a thousand continuity questions built up over the course of the Matt Smith-era, questions that the casual viewers for a Christmas Day episode would have no knowledge of in the first place. I know this one from personal experience, having watched Matt Smith’s finale with two family members who had only seen a handful of Matt Smith episodes and confessed to me as the episode went on that they hadn’t a clue as to what was happening on the screen and why. People often like to discuss what would be a good story to introduce the series to a new viewer - I would suggest those two episodes would be among the worst stories you could show as a means of introduction, unless you’d like to spend four hours explaining things ahead of time. And yet on both occasions, the ratings for the episode and the episodes which followed were extremely high, suggesting that heavy continuity-usage without explanation didn’t turn off any significant number of viewers (if it turned anybody off at all). So maybe it is possible for unexplained continuity references to kill the popularity of a sci-fi tv series, but if there’s no evidence of this happening in the classic series and the worst offenders from the new series haven’t caused the desertion of the audience either, it makes the contention difficult to take seriously.

It wasn’t just the classic series that has had this claim made against it. The 1996 TV Movie starring Paul McGann also frequently has had this charge leveled at it. “Continuity….. killed Doctor Who in 1989, and it was a desperate shame to see the same infections do it again in ‘96” is a typical contemporary quote (this one from a former Doctor Who Magazine editor in a fanzine interview from 1997). It has always been mystifying to me that people put the lack of further episodes stemming from the TV movie to anything other the lack of the miraculously-high audience tuning into the US broadcast to begin with. The US ratings indicated that those who tuned in stayed tuned in for the two hours - if there was a decline in the US ratings over the gradual course of the TV Movie, then perhaps a theory could be supported - but there was no such decline. The view that the continuity references confused US viewers and caused them to switch off is not based on anything factual. And without further episodes broadcast in either the US or the UK (where the TV Movie, rather than “killing” the franchise, proved that Doctor Who could once again be a mainstream hit), it is really impossible to say either way whether the continuity references in the TV Movie would have put off anyone tuning in to future episodes. The audience research done in the UK (none is known to exist by Fox in the US) certainly suggests that the UK audience enjoyed what they saw (references to the Daleks and the Time Lords and all) - and thus would be more likely than not to tune in again. It also seems far more likely that the TV Movie could have been a complete re-boot with no past continuity references whatsoever, nor a regeneration, and still not garnered the miraculously-high ratings needed to convince FOX to continue with the expense and continued protracted-hassle of more TV movie co-productions with the BBC.

That is purely a theory on my part, but unlike those who have claimed that continuity killed the TV Movie and/or the Classic series, I am at least acknowledging it as such.

June 05, 2016

Head of the Class

It hasn’t received a lot of fanfare or buzz, but Class, written by Patrick Ness, is currently filming and will be the fourth Doctor Who live-action spin-off series to be broadcast (after K9 and Company, Torchwood, and The Sarah Jane Adventures). Perhaps some of the lack of buzz is the fact that this spin-off is not based upon popular characters from the television series, but a location that has been used on and (mostly) off over the past 53 years - Coal Hill School. Nothing much is known about the characters of Class or the regular cast that has been announced (who are pictured above), which probably also contributes to a lack of anticipation. There are rumours that Peter Capaldi will guest star in one episode - which, as a means of generating some excitement (and ratings) for the 8-part 45-minute episode series - probably seems like a wise move.

The Class cast announced is Greg Austin, Fady Elsayed, Sophie Hopkins, Vivian Oparah and Katherine Kelly, the latter of whom has been confirmed to be playing a teacher at the school. The rest of the regular cast are apparently playing students yet they all look far too old to be playing students of a school like Coal Hill School (where none of the students over the years have looked older than 16, and often much younger), so it will be interesting to find out if Coal Hill School has now changed or expanded its range of academic years offered. Or maybe they are all humanoid aliens who have emigrated to the Earth but still need to get a primary school education before they can get a job here and will be sitting in the same class as a bunch of 7 year olds. If that’s not the premise of this spin-off then so be it, but I think that would actually make for a fun premise nonetheless.

May 09, 2016

The Companion Departures Extra: Clara Oswald

So now that the countdown is complete, we have one more companion exit to deal with (no pun intended) posthumously. This countdown started so long ago that when we began Clara Oswald was still a companion in the TARDIS and thus hadn’t figured into the original numbering. So where would Clara’s departure fit in?

At the moment (and it is possible that one’s mind might change with the passing of time since this departure is still so “new’) I think Clara’s rubbing shoulders with Peri with respect to their respective departures - part of which is perhaps due to the fact that Peri’s departure is the one that Clara’s arguably contains the most similarities to (although generally speaking it is a pretty unique departure). Both companions are seemingly killed off for good in the middle of an epic adventure, only for it to be revealed during the last act of the said epic adventure that the companion’s death wasn’t quite as final as it seemed. Of course, that is supposed to be Clara’s actual death in Face the Raven (whereas it ends up not being so in the case of Peri) - but at the same time she is effectively granted ageless immortality by the stories end when the Doctor uses Time Lord equipment to extract her right before her death (which she will eventually be returned to, although that could be a billion years later). Certainly the ending does fit nicely with Clara’s increasing recklessness that is set up throughout the season - and also gives us the companion departure from the new series that is the least tragic or sad from the point of view of the companion at least, so “differential points” for Clara’s departure on that front. For that reason alone, it is probably the most satisfactory of the modern series’ companion departures (after 10 years, it seems silly to call it “new’).

Clara’s departure might also be said to share similarities with Romana’s (which I placed just ahead of Peri’s) because they are the two companions who’s departure most signify that the companion has become so much like the Doctor that they end up leaving the TARDIS to travel time and space on their own, and with their own companion for that matter. Romana’s companion of K9 (or even Biroc) I do think works better than Clara’s companion of Ashildr in terms of being a logical choice. I don’t have an issue, as some have had, that Clara is now traveling time and space with the girl that is responsible for her eventual death - Clara’s recklessness and the President of the Time Lords who forced the situation have to take the real blame here since Ashildr genuinely didn’t intend for Clara or anyone to get hurt and they wouldn’t have done so if Clara hadn’t intervened behind the Doctor’s back. No, the bigger issue is that traveling for the rest of eternity with someone you’ve not had much chance to develop any chemistry with or a genuine friendship with doesn’t quite work as well as it does in Warriors’ Gate. Having said that, Ashildr also happens to be an immortal, ageless girl, so Clara does have that in common and there is plenty of time for chemistry to build post-series. Given that Big Finish do not yet have a license to do 12th Doctor stories, those hoping for a Big Finish spin-off audio series about two pretty, forever-young-looking girls traveling time and space together may have to wait a while to hear it…...

April 24, 2016

The Companion Departures - #1: Adric

In the end Adric’s departure was the most dramatic companion departure in the show’s history, and for that reason it is number one on our list. But it is not simply the fact that the character is killed off (permanently by the way - which needs mentioning given the companion “resurrections” which have occurred since then) which makes this such an effective departure, it is also because of how well-written the character is in his final story, effectively and convincingly completing a character arc that had begun the previous season. Adric starts off as an impulsive, well-meaning character who often makes mistakes in his youth and inexperience (e.g. his plan to save Romana in State of Decay or his idea to go after the Master in Logopolis) -  but he also was influenced and inspired by the Doctor to try and do the right thing for the good of all, even at his own personal risk and even if it meant trying to do too much (such as in the examples I’ve quoted). Which of course is how the character ultimately meets his demise, albeit after he has saved the lives of billions on Earth. It is quite notable that Adric is the only alien left on board the freighter in Earthshock, and he stays behind to try save it at the very end while all the humans leave their own planet to its fate. An alien interfering in the affairs of Earth on behalf of the Earthlings while the Earthlings themselves are apparently unable to help themselves…......where else in Doctor Who have we seen that before? With the show’s title character of course.

Clearly Adric looked up to the Doctor who was very much a father-figure for the now-orphaned Adric in this 4th incarnation. The 5th Doctor and Adric often squabbled and didn’t get along so well, with the view often stated that the Doctor was now physically too close in “physical age” to act or seem like a mentor to Adric - a view that I’m inclined to agree with. There’s something else at play though - Adric get irritated the moment in Four to Doomsday that the 5th Doctor prefers to take Tegan with him to explore the ship rather than Adric. This was never a problem in the brief period when he traveled with Romana and K9 in the TARDIS or when he traveled alone with the Doctor. Now the Doctor has regenerated and has other companions that he prefers to spend time with when he can. Adric is no longer the favourite and his surrogate father is effectively preferring his other siblings who have more recently come on board. The Doctor probably does this because Adric is much more like the Doctor than Tegan or Nyssa are, and Adric is more like a younger brother than a son to him - and so often older brothers don’t want to hang around with their kid brothers. The Doctor is harsher on Adric for his mistakes in Kinda than he is on Tegan for her idiocy of trying and succeeding in moving the TARDIS in Four to Doomsday and is annoyed when Adric is so much like the Doctor that he’s even able to pilot the TARDIS on his own to rescue the Doctor and Tegan in The Visitation. He is, as he claims at the beginning of Earthshock, regularly teased by his fellow travelers - something quite prevalent in Black Orchid for example. All this to say, when Adric complains at the beginning of Earthshock that he is “fed up” of life on the TARDIS, it is very believable. It certainly doesn’t have the “where did this come from?” feel to it that Sarah Jane’s attempt at a tantrum in The Hand of Fear did.

The tragedy of course is that Adric dies just after he and the 5th Doctor start to come to an understanding and work together well, something they hadn’t really done for much of the preceding adventures. On the positive side, Adric’s death is quite noble and heroic - as mentioned above, he is responsible for saving the lives of billions of humans in the 26th century as his actions inadvertently send the freighter back in time. And his actions also help to save the lives of the Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa - Adric is intelligent enough to grasp that with his gold star on his badge could be used as a weapon against the Cybermen which not only causes a distraction to overcome Ringway but allows the Doctor to take possession of the gold star.  Lots of people have of course noticed that Adric’s mathematical excellence saves the billions of humans in the 26th century, but it’s often not credited for saving the lives of the rest of his companions in the TARDIS. If Adric didn’t get an award for being great at maths, there is no gold star that the Doctor can use to overcome the Cyberleader in the TARDIS. It’s also a good thing that Adric’s pride (some would say arrogance) in achieving the award meant that he always wore the gold star. But then it was long established that Adric believed in badges of honour - the belt that he’s holding in the picture above, during his final moments, was his brother Varsh’s originally and a symbol of belonging to Varsh’s gang, given to him by another member of the gang on Varsh’s death (where he also heroically died saving others).

Revenge of the Cybermen established gold as a weakness to the Cybermen, and Full Circle established Adric’s gold star (along with the Outler’s belt and Adric’s musical “motif” which also makes a return appearance in his final moments despite the musical score being done by a different composer than the person one who originally composed it). Neither story was written with Earthshock in mind, but the continuity elements from those former stories were blended beautifully in the powerful, dramatic conclusion of the latter, resulting in the most memorable and dramatic exit for a companion to date, and one which worked perfectly for the character’s two-season arc during the show.

April 10, 2016

The Companion Departures - #2: Jo Grant

To be fair, one could make a convincing argument that this companion departure could easily be number one. Jo has a three-year character arc that probably surpasses any companion from the classic series in terms of the character’s consistent character development. From a kooky, well-meaning but inexperienced kid that is eager but out of her depth (getting easily taken over by the Master in her first episode of her first story), to a more experienced, wiser version which is still recognizably the same character, Jo Grant has a fairly consistent character arc. In her last season there are some nice touches that allows us to see how far the character has come (for example, the Master is unable to hypnotize her in Frontier in Space - Jo herself points out that she’s come a long way since he first did so in Terror of the Autons) while still remaining the same character. For example in her first trip in the TARDIS in Colony in Space, she is quite freaked out by the fact that they are on another planet - in her final season, she is, frankly, eager to get back home after traveling time and space with the Doctor for a few stories. She gets homesick fairly quickly, which is consistent with her initial horror when she realizes in Colony in Space that she isn’t on Earth any more.

This leads neatly into the final story, where at the start of the story she decides to stay on earth to fight the home-grown threat of pollution rather than to accompany the Doctor on another trip through time and space. That in itself signals that Jo’s time as the Doctor’s “assistant” is soon to come to an end. The fact that she meets a younger, human version of the Doctor is also a nice logical touch. Compare the romance between Jo and Professor Jones to the polar opposite one of Leela and Andred, which comes out of nowhere. Frankly, there is no comparison.

But as with Jamie’s reaction to Victoria’s departure, what helps to make this departure one of the most logical, memorable and emotional is the Doctor’s reaction to Jo’s departure. I’m more inclined to take Jon Pertwee’s view that it was a paternal love, rather than a romantic one, but nevertheless the Doctor really shows his affection for Jo in this story like no other companion departure we’d seen before (or arguably ever again in the classic series). The shot of the Doctor driving off across the skyline after he walks lonely through a group of farm animals (now running free after the threat of pollution/industrialization has been defeated) brilliantly ties the emotional character arc in the story with the thematic, conceptual plot of The Green Death. It’s arguable that no other story has combined both the character and conceptual arcs so well in its conclusion.

It’s number two on the list, but it could easily be considered joint top first.

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