Wednesday, June 23, 2010


In which the show finally gets canceled after a long illness just as it was finding its way and incidentally running prototypes of the plot elements that would eventually resurface successfully when the show is revived 16 years later.

When last we trudged along this path, Doctor Who the show was in bad, bad shape. It had come back after being effectively canceled (so the BBC could mount EastEnders) in a truncated, rather shaky season that ended with most of the talent behind the scenes leaving in a huff and the Sixth Doctor being told rather unceremoniously to hit the bricks.

Not exactly the best way to start the season, but ultimately just as well. The story structure that characterised the Sixth Doctor ultimately hadn't worked, and a smug asshole Doctor constantly bickering with his companion as they wander through a succession of grimmer and grittier (yet at the same time goofily campy) adventures did nothing but rack up complaints for the violence level for the programme and generally make the whole thing seem like a dreary slog.

So it seems the plan was to go in a lighter direction, with a new Doctor with a passion for gurning, a more chipper companion who suffered from being Bonnie Langford, and a new team of writers then proceeded to drag them through a rather forgettable season wherein the Doctor was nearly killed by being dipped in sugar. Oh yes, and the intro is almost painfully 80's and features, to paraphrase TachyonTV, "Sylvester McCoy's sex wink."

It's not an auspicious start, for certain. The debut episode is as bad a start as it is possible to make without several people dying of internal hemorrhaging, a schoolbus full of children falling off a cliff, and something ending up on fire at the end of it. And yet, soon enough, things turn around in a big way. For one thing, the more clownish elements of the Seventh Doctor's character begin to fade, and the Doctor becomes a subtler, more mysterious character who seems to be constantly playing a long game (in some cases, multiple long games--he was running the Xanatos Gambit before Xanatos existed) and began expertly outmaneuvering his adversaries no matter who had had to manipulate

Which included even his newer companion, Ace. Ace is a bit different than most companions have been as she's very working-class, full of anger (one suspects she ended up the receptacle for the show's creative teams anger at Thatcher-era Britain--yes, them and everyone else, I hear you saying) and an explosives expert (as you do when you grow up in a council estate) paired up with a more enigmatic Seventh Doctor, they make an interesting pair, and there's actually a subtle story arc through their episodes together that the Doctor is subtly allowing Ace to confront her past in preparation for . . .something. But I'll get to that in a bit.

Because rather than try to cover all of the Seventh Doctor's tenure in general, I'll recount some bits from my favourite episode from the run as an exemplar of what Seventh Doctor stories were like at their height. And I'm going to spoil the hell out of it, so be warned.

"Remembrance of the Daleks" is a rather cleverly disguised anniversary episode that is rather better (and rather similar) to the actual anniversary episode. It consists of the Doctor and Ace, in early 60's London getting caught in the crossfire of a Dalek civil war. Turns out they're both here for the Hand of Omega a Time Lord device (so named because "Time Lords have an infinite capacity for pretension") the Doctor, as it turns out, knows where it is (he was the one who hid it on Earth after all) and weirdly enough seems to want the Daleks to have it, provided he can keep the well-meaning but utterly powerless human beings caught in the middle from interfering too much and getting themselves killed.

While all that's going on we get Daleks going up stairs for the first time (not that anyone was watching the programme at the time to see it, so when the revived series did it again it was treated as new) a huge (considering what period of time we're talking here and the hopelessly limited budget) and we get the brand-new, utterly cool and what I suspect is what Rob Liefeld dreamt of continually from 1988-1995, the Special Weapons Dalek:

Half Dalek, more Dakka.

Oh, and this is just a teensy thing that I add for the four--wait, five!--readers so they have a frame of reference for this. The following scene commemorates the moment when a callow 14 year old who would one day become a little-regarded comics blogger who rarely blogged about comics had his first crush on a fictional character. Yes, this is the legendary scene wherein Ace destroys a Dalek with a baseball bat. Because it called her small:

This is after she shot one in the face with a rifle grenade, I should add. Ace was no shrinking violet, that's for damn sure.

Finally, the whole scheme is laid bare--The Doctor goads the Daleks into using the Hand of Omega, and as they're bloviating about becoming the new lords of time, the Hand blows up their home planet, and then wipes out the ship that launched it. In the name of mopping up, the Doctor deals with the remaining Dalek faction rather ruthlessly, taunting him that with his entire race destroyed, he no longer serves any purpose, and the last Dalek (yeah, right) self-destructs and the Doctor is suddenly bad-ass as all hell, and kinda scary bad-ass at that.

This sets the tone for the rest of the series rather well, and sets up a very interesting dynamic. The Doctor becomes more secretive, which usually means he's hatching some great plot, but this also causes tension between the Doctor and Ace, who resents that he's keeping things from her, and is very likely (OK, OK, is) manipulating her as well by making her confront her past, both her hatred for her mother, and her lingering fear of a certain building in her neighborhood.

This all comes to a head in "The Curse of Fenric," wherein long game #23 which has been running for a few shows now, reveals his opponent as an ancient evil known as Fenric (It's right there in the title) Worse yet, Ace has a genetic connection to Fenric and has inadvertently been on his side the whole time, and the only way to set things right is for the Doctor to destroy her faith in him by tearing her down in front of Fenric himself.

It's a very effective scene--heck, the whole story's pretty good. That Ace ends up being manipulated into saving the mother she so despised as an infant and ends up by the end of the episode and fundamentally changed character (having suffered through the Doctor's abuse and learning that most all the misery in her life had been due to Fenric's manipulations) makes for a very effective moment and some actual drama in a show that hadn't really attempted that kind of honestly-felt moment for a long time.

Pity no one was watching the damn show during this time, huh?

So, after one last perfunctory battle with the Master and some people in rubbish fursuits, Doctor Who ends after 25 years. And again, probably just as well--plans were afoot to enact some kind of Masterplan that was supposed to make the Doctor a much more mysterious character . . .by revealing a lot of rubbish that Geoff Johns would toss in the bin that did little but tie up little fiddly bits of continuity.

It's a shame that the show dies so ignominiously--despite being starved for money and time and being watched almost exclusively by anoraks like me by now, it was actually clawing its way out of the mid-80s doldrums and getting better. But even with things ending on such a thwarted feeling, the seeds have been planted for a successful revival.

Because making the Doctor more mysterious and maybe a little scary worked. Framing an extended series of stories into a story arc worked. Centering the story on the companion and developing their character in a way that defines role of companion again as an identifying figure for the audience worked very well.

Theoretically, you could build a much stronger series around those points--all they needed was a chance to try again.

And that's what we get next time. In which we run the clock ahead to 1996, and we attempt to resurrect Doctor Who with a Doctor who makes a very successful impression, even if the movie he's in is absolutely rubbish, and nothing ultimately comes of it, which is a slight shame. Join us next time for what is sure to the the shortest entry in this series as the Eighth Doctor makes the scene and sadly, not much else.


Igadevil said...

The Cartmel Masterplan (I love writing that) always struck me as a bit strange in concept- we'll make the Doctor more powerful and mysterious... by revealing his past! That he might be some guy named the Other, the Time Lords are created by looms, etc.

In execution though, I think it actually worked out almost because the show ended before they could get beyond the hints and suggestions, leaving him truly more mysterious and alien. Sylvester's really good at selling it in those later episodes.

I know they basically did get to all that back story stuff in the books... but I'm happy just sticking to the TV series.

Kazekage said...

It sounds quite like something that some villain would pull in the show, doesn't it? And it was rather peculiar that one could make the Doctor more mysterious by giving away the game as far as his origins go, but the whole notion of the Doctor being a big wheel in Time Lord society (after frequently being portrayed as a minor renegade) and the whole "being created by looms" stuff . . .nahh, wasn't buying it.

And yes, I think it worked far better in terms of the fact that it got nipped in the bud before they could explore it further. We got a few episodes where the Doctor was mysterious chessmaster guy, and avoided the inevitable getting stupid that might have resulted (see also: David Tennant being Lonely God too much)

C. Elam said...

Oh my God. The sex wink. I had forgotten about that until you reminded me. Thanks. (I think)

I saw a little bit of the McCoy years, so it's the last era I have any kind of opinion regarding. That said, I didn't see much. Hence my foggy memory on them. Hell, I was confusing Ace and...Mel, was it?

However, I *did* see the Dalek stairs thing! They made a big deal about that all over again? Awesome. "It's new to you!"

I rather suspect the single biggest problem with this era is that it was too little, too late to undo the immediate damage. You need to make people miss the property, and forget the things that pissed them off about it in the first place. They didn't really have that luxury.

Kazekage said...

Yeah, I'm glad that whole "face with smile/wink" ended up being short-lived. :)

Well, that's a consequence of how little-seen it was, eh? Really you have to revisit them on DVD to get any real sense of things, as it seemed like they ran through these super-fast and it was back to Tom Baker re-runs.

You're right in that respect--they were trying mightily to pull things out, but after the whole Colin Baker debacle, they lacked the torque to get it done. That, and putting it up against Coronation Street was basically a death sentence.