...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Alex & Richard's Doctor Who 52: 06 The Abominable Snowmen


From a foe from the impossible future to an enemy from the ultimate past…


The Great Intelligence. And his cuddly toys.

Viewers of the “modern” series might only be familiar with the Great Intelligence as an avatar of Steven Moffat that menaced Matt Smith’s final year in the shape of Richard E Grant (who was also the cartoon ninth Doctor in “Scream of the Shalka” – which leads to all sorts of retcons, but that way madness lies). The original Great Intelligence, though, was much more spooky and much more Sixties.

(art by Simon Hodges)

Ten Reasons To Watch "The Abominable Snowmen" (warning: spoilers)

  1. It’s really creepy – possibly it’s a feature (rather than a bug) of the black and white era, but they had so much more time than the modern show: two hours and twenty-three minutes in this case compared with as little as just forty-two minutes these days. Done badly, of course, that can mean longueurs or the cliché of capture-escape-capture-escape, but done well – as here – it ratchets up the tension. In particular, it allows the Hitchcockian technique of letting the camera linger too long on an ordinary-seeming object until you start to get suspicious of it. You’d be surprised how disturbing a simple metal sphere and a penny whistle can become…

  2. Victoria (and Jamie) – While Jamie is the quintessential partner to the Second Doctor – staying with him from his second through to his last adventure – Victoria and Jamie are seen as the natural pair (even though he makes a much better team with Zoe). Victoria has an unusual character arc for a Doctor Who companion in that it makes a feature (rather than a bug) of the usual descent from “interesting and self-driven character” to “generic screamer” by suggesting that her time in the TARDIS, and the constant peril of adventure after adventure, takes its toll.

    That descent might be seen to start here. Previously, in “The Tomb of the Cybermen”, she demonstrated pluck, intelligence and not a little dry sarcasm. Now, at the start of this adventure when the Doctor leaves her and Jamie in the TARDIS, Victoria is the one keen to get out and go exploring (until they track a Yeti to its mountain lair when – weirdly – she and Jamie swap personalities and he’s the one for going in after it and she wants to go back to the ship); when they get to the monastery of Det-Sen, Victoria is the one determined to get into the Inner Sanctum to discover what secrets lie within; and even when it comes to the crisis point, she won’t be sent away but is determined to go into danger with the Doctor and Jamie. In fact, her most memorable moments from the adventure – her repeated cries of “Doctor! Take me away, take me away!” only happen because she is under the spell of the baddy, and in fact is a clue to the Doctor that someone’s put the ’fluence on her!

  3. Thonmi – one of the warrior monks of Det-Sen, serving as “bonus companion” for the duration, Thonmi (David Spenser) serves as a counterpart to the headstrong “Western” actions of Jamie, with a calm acceptance and obedience. (Helps that he’s quite as cute as Fraser Hines too.)

    The show never makes him look weak or stupid for his faith and philosophies, and indeed his spirituality gives him strength in some serious adversities. Though that doesn’t stop both the Doctor and Victoria running rings around him. Just like they do with Jamie.

    It would have been very easy to make this a yarn about (false) religion being defeated by the power of “science”, but that’s not the way that the show goes at all. It’s very much more about the scientific and the spiritual twining about one another, with neither being whole without the other. In a lot of ways this is a conflict between two beings that have come down from the Astral Plane – one of them, the Intelligence, seeks material existence (and pleasures) while the other (the Doctor) is wiser and knows them to be transitory and is willing to surrender himself for the greater good. And for all that it dresses it up with “Eastern mysticism”, the Intelligence is using tools of “Western science”: machines and robots (yes, just like a Scooby-Doo villain!).

  4. Travers – the gung-ho and increasingly paranoid British explorer, Edward Travers (played by Jack Watling, father of Debbie Watling who plays Victoria – though, you probably knew that) is a further contrast to the “Eastern” ways showing how selfish we are when we stick our oar in where we don’t understand and how we (meaning imperialist Britain) behave pretty badly in other people’s countries and with other people’s ideas.

    Initially presented as an antagonist, Travers judging the Doctor at a glance decides to denounce him and nearly gets him killed as the bait in a Yeti-trap. And it’s only his own selfish desire to find the Yeti’s lair – for which he needs Victoria and Jamie’s cooperation – that leads him to confess his “error”. He deceives the monks again to get out of the monastery, putting his own life in danger to go up the mountain again on his foolish quest.

    Tellingly, it’s the stiff-upper-lipped Britisher who has the nervous breakdown when the weird-shit gets, well, too weird-shit for his mind to cope with. It appears to do him the world of good.

    [See also Redvers Fenn-Cooper in “Ghost Light”]

  5. Base Under Siege – the era of the Second Doctor is characterised by his “Destroy All Monsters” attitude (typified by his famous speech in “The Moonbase” and his defence at his trial by the Time Lords in “The War Games”) and by the production format known as “base under siege”. Introduced in, arguably, “The Tenth Planet”, this means: gathering a small but diverse cast (any sort of men you like), building a single large set and throwing monsters at them.

    In “The Abominable Snowmen” the diverse cast are our warrior monks, the more spiritual lamas they are there to protect, including their abbot Songsten and the reclusive Master (no, not that one), and the intruding presence of Travers, plus our heroes; the big set is the monastery, in particular the Inner Sanctum and the gated courtyard with its impressive Buddha; and the monsters are the eponymous Abominable Snowmen.

  6. The Yeti – cute, aren’t they.

  7. Siege Under Base – but, spoilers, it turns out that rather than an outside force trying to get in to the Monastery, the truth is that the Intelligence has been inside all along. Already the production team are subverting their formula. Which is handy given that they are (infamously) doing it in six out of seven stories in Pat Troughton’s second year.

    But it’s also entirely in keeping with the philosophy of this story that the real dangers are the ones that come from within: Khrisong (Norman Jones), leader of the warrior monks, and Travers are several times brought down because of their arrogance and self-belief. Travers, at least, appears to learn his lesson, that there are things bigger than his own desires, and joins the goodies after his collapse brought on by what he meets on the mountain. (Or maybe he doesn’t, as he goes off chasing another Yeti at the end!)

    And, arguably the person who has been most a victim of their own inner demons is the one who’s been in charge the whole time.

    The heart of the monastery is the Inner Sanctum, as Victoria rightly deduced – not that getting inside does her much good! And in the heart of the Inner Sanctum is a gloriously old-school board game, complete with miniature Yeti figures, that is controlling the entire siege. In fact we, the viewers, have been presented with this quite early on, so the fact that we have more information than the Doctor makes the whole show an exercise in tension – who long will it take him to find out whose hands are on the board…

  8. Padmasambhava – spoilers (again) yes, obviously it’s the Doctor’s old friend, the Master (no, really not that one) sitting like a spider at the centre of a web (and yes, the sequel is “The Web of Fear”; and “Planet of the Spiders” is another Buddhist parable. And then there’s the spider-analogue the Animus in “The Web Planet”, which is another “astral intelligence”. Yes, it’s spiders all the way down…), Master Padmasambhava played with real chill by Wolfe Morris.

    He’s quite the creepiest thing in this story. Appropriately enough, given that he’s channelling the Great Intelligence, he’s a disembodied voice for the first four episodes: an invisible presence (except for the ultra-trad creepy hands on that gameboard) pulling the strings of everyone, especially the hypnotised Abbot Songsten and the also-hypnotised Victoria (as a goad to control the Doctor – not because he thinks Victoria’s pleas to “Take me away!” will get the Doctor out of there, but rather – and cruelly – because it will break her mind if the Doctor doesn’t do as he’s told and remove her). And then his appearance at the end of episode four – a grinning ghoul to shock you.

    Padmasambhava has been alive for over two hundred years (this coming only a few weeks after the Doctor revealed his own multi-centenarian age to Victoria in “The Tomb of the Cybermen”), and Thonmi expressly compares the powers of the TARDIS to the Master’s powers of astral flight, all of which adds up to Padmasambhava as a reflection of the Doctor, just as Thonmi is a reflection of Jamie, and “Eastern” and “Western” philosophies are yin-and-yang reflections of each other too.

    Which leads us to the (unreal) real villain of the piece…

  9. H.P. Lovecraft – while future fan-authors would read and write much more into this – specifically equating the Intelligence to Lovecraft’s Yog Sothoth – there’s already something Lovecraftian about the Great Intelligence which is too much for the human mind to handle (an aspect that Steven Moffat’s Twenty-First Century version completely failed to capture, making the Intelligence, if anything, smaller on the inside). Travers is driven to the brink of sanity by it – he describes it as “a shadow on my mind” – in particular by the way its alien mass starts pouring into our World, a vast wave of matter from a tiny pyramid (yes, again reminding us of the TARDIS). It describes this as its “great experiment”, an experiment both in the scientific sense but also in the Sixties sense of “experimentation” with mind-expanding and consciousness-altering.

    Lovecraft’s idea of “elder gods” who were totally amoral, utterly disinterested in the affairs of “mere” humans, and whose very presence would destroy the minds (not to mention bodies) of any of us who actually came into contact with them, even in their sleeping or dead forms, was one that came back into vogue in the mid-Eighties comic book scene. So higher-dimensional beings – lloigor or many-angled ones – intrude into the Doctor Who Universe via Alan Moore and Grant Morrison just in time to start informing the Cartmel Era of Doctor Who (as powers from the dawn of time like Fenric and the Gods of Ragnarok) before swarming wholesale into the mythos of the New Adventures (in particular “White Darkness” and anything by Craig Hinton).
    Grant Morrison's Iok Sotot (Zenith), no relation
    They went on to “explain” these powers as Time Lords from a previous Universe – by surviving their “big crunch” and entering our Universe at the Big Bang, the different laws of physics here gave them god-like powers. Rather like Steven Moffat’s explanation of the Intelligence (as “intelligent snow”!) this rather misses Lovecraft’s point. To be fair, August Derleth, Lovecraft’s literary successor, had started this.

    Humans love to categorise things, to put names on them, because to name a thing is to understand and to control it. The point here is that we cannot bear our own insignificance.

    As Douglas Adams would put it: the very last thing you want is a sense of perspective.

  10. Snowdonia – a.k.a the Death Zone, on Gallifrey; a.k.a. BBC Wales. Doesn’t look a lot like the real Himalaya. But they were trying. Jamie asks the Doctor if he can land them somewhere warmer next time. Bad luck, it’s going to be “The Ice Warriors”.

What Else Should I Tell You About "The Abominable Snowmen"?

Ever so slightly, most of it doesn't exist anymore. (Unless it does.)

The BBC did not keep a complete archive of its pre-Eighties productions (or, in less euphemistic terms, gratuitously incinerated some of the most important pieces of television history, including a lot of the Moon landing coverage, Hancock's Half Hour, Sykes, Out of the Unknown, Z-Cars, the Wednesday Play and obviously great chunks of Doctor Who.)

Unlike Alex, who generously wants you to be able to collect the Doctor Who 52 DVD collection and is confining stories such as this to his "Extras", I'm not going to be anything like so restricted.

By great good fortune, there do exist audio-recordings (off-air) of every single missing episode. And for very many of them there are at least so-called “Telesnaps”, an archive of photographic stills from the episodes as broadcast taken by John Cura. Hugely talented and dedicated fans have used these stills, other on-set and publicity photos, surviving clips and even some computer animation to produce “reconstructions” of the missing episodes. Which might be findable on YouTube if you’re lucky.

If you need one, my score:


And I’m sure it would be higher if we could actually watch Troughton’s performance (compare with the reputation of “The Enemy of the World” before and after it was rediscovered).

If You Like "The Abominable Snowmen", Why Not Try…

"Downtime" – straight to video in the “wilderness years”, but written by Marc Platt (see Ghost Light) and staring Lis Sladen as Sarah Jane and Nick Courtney as the Brigadier, with Deborah and Jack Watling returning as Victoria and Travers respectively. The Yeti are cute again, and it captures the mystical qualities of the original in a way that the “action” adventure of “The Web of Fear” does not.

"The Name of the Doctor" – Since I’ve referred to it, you should see how Moffat’s version of the Intelligence is (quite literally) hollow and empty, but the story is interesting for other reasons (as we will see in a few weeks… spoilers!)

Next Time…

Another “whodunit” where the who is both obvious and irrelevant to the point, but from the most sinister to the most light and frothy. A spot of cricket for the Doctor, dinner for Adric and Tegan dances the Charleston…

Monday, December 21, 2015

Alex & Richard's Doctor Who 52: 05 Alien Bodies


The Doctor is the lonely god, the last highest authority in the universe, meting out justice to Weeping Angels and Prime Ministers. And there was a War…


The Time War.

It is hard to underestimate the importance of the books written in the Doctor's wilderness years between "Survival" and "Rose". Often dismissed as the rantings of angsty teenage fanboys – and there is a fair old bit of that – they were also a hothouse of ideas, taking on the Cartmel Era's impetus to try out new and daring directions. And the biggest idea was that the Doctor's homeworld Gallifrey was heading into a war that would see it destroyed.

The Virgin New Adventures saw the Doctor's seventh incarnation (the one who looked like Sylvester McCoy) taking on – and taking down – various gods and monsters from "the Dark Time" in Gallifrey's deep past. With the arrival of an official TV eighth Doctor (however short-lived that revival proved to be) BBC books took the franchise back in house and started their own line and wanted to go in a different direction. The first few books were… not a total success with a readership that had become used to Virgin's more mature angle. But then, almost by chance, Lawrence Miles delivered an idea that would shape the entire arc of the BBC books, and – to everyone's total amazement – the TV series itself.

Ten Reasons to Read "Alien Bodies" (warning: spoilers)

  1. The Time War – Actually, it's just referred to as "the war" by everyone involved. It's only referred to it as the "War in Heaven" with capital letters by the "ignorant locals" of the Planet Drornid (aka Dronid – Douglas Adams reference; not the only one: on page 134, the Doctor finds fairy cake in his ever-useful Zen-tailored pockets!). The Doctor accidentally-on-purpose crashes an auction that turns out to be between representatives of a bunch of time-travelling super-powers – including the Time Lords – from a period somewhere in his own personal future. Not wanting to transgress the laws of time (too much) the Doctor keeps shushing people every time they try to tell him about it, but it's still possible to pick up a lot of hints. E.g….

  2. The future of Time Lords – doesn't look too bright at this point. The war has been going on for five-hundred years from their point of view and everyone, including their own Celestial Intervention Agency, thinks they're losing.

    (That's retconned to just fifty years in "The Book of the War", but here Cousin Justine notes (p 256) that "half a millennium of warfare" has turned the Time Lords' preferred accommodation from opulence to military Spartan. But Five-hundred is more in keeping with a John Hurt War Doctor who ages from young Caligula-esque to his present distinguished craggles.)

    Their TARDISes have evolved into looking like, well, people (Time Lord Mr Homunculette's companion here is Marie, a Type 103, who chooses to look like a Brazilian supermodel to fit in with the locale, but defaults to the form of a 1960's policewoman. Ha ha.). But they've managed to lose all of their "big guns" in a pre-emptive strike by the enemy at the start of the war, hence their grubbing around in this unedifying auction to try and get hold of a (to begin with) unspecified weapon of great power.

  3. The enemy – are never named. But they're not the Daleks. "Alien Bodies" goes out of its way to suggest that the enemy are not the Daleks. Homunculette visits post-Dalek Invasion Earth (and not noticing that he's walking under the Thames like a Dalek!) and considers the humans lucky only to have been invaded by the Daleks. And there's the fact that the enemy and the Daleks both have invites to the auction. Except retrospectively, the enemy has to be the Daleks. And it still works.

  4. The Shadow of the Daleks – because we were, when "Alien Bodies" was published, well used to the idea of the Daleks as an enemy that remains unnamed. The usual complications with licencing from the Terry Nation estate (see "Dalek"), meant that the New Adventures had not been able to feature the deadly dustbins. Sometimes this meant coming up with faux-Daleks to fill the monster slot – e.g. flying armoured spheres, the Phractons (basically the Toclafane with an even sillier name). But mostly it meant very cleverly playing up the threat of the Daleks while keeping the metal menaces off-screen (as it were). Which also makes them seem vastly more powerful.

    Not to mention all those Episode One circumlocutions where the Space Marines/Thals/Doctor refer only to "them" (until it's time for the cliffhanger reveal that the anonymous adversaries in "Guess Who of the Daleks" are… oh, you guessed.)

  5. Except it's the Krotons – The BBC books "big thing" was supposed to be that they had the proper licence to use the Daleks. Indeed, they had just made their literary debut in the book immediately preceding "Alien Bodies": John Peel's truly execrable "War of the Daleks" (which will not be making the Doctor Who 52) the big event book with the fewest new ideas in it ever published, instantly overshadowed by the "ordinary" book that followed it. Lawrence Miles teases us at length that he might have sneakily brought them straight back without fanfare…

    And then he has them "peeled and eaten" by a notoriously rubbish monster from a silly, trippy story at the dog end of Patrick Troughton's reign as the Second Doctor. Somehow he manages to take one of the most notoriously botched attempts at creating "the new Daleks" (something the BBC tried every year or so, once they'd realised the full ramifications of Nation's contractual hold) and makes them into a credible, threatening Tellurium-based lifeform… who are still hilariously rubbish.

    Single-minded and monotone, Kroton representative E-Kobalt is not taken remotely seriously by the other representatives or the Doctor, even has he blunders about spraying deadly jets of acid. And when he decides to take out a whole cohort of Raston Robot Lap Dancers… Suffice to say, Mr Miles is very funny.

  6. Lawrence Miles – ah yes, Lawrence Miles. Bête noir of the fan-author scene, because of some crushing honesty about some of his fellow writers. And yet he deserves to be recognised alongside Whitaker, Dicks, Holmes, Davies and Moffat as one of the great creative contributors to Doctor Who. The writing here is as sharp and darkly funny as anything you'll read in the "tie-in" books range, with as many ideas to the page as Douglas Adams, but in a way – like a Robert Holmes story – amounts to a sketch of a much, much wider world. In fact, so much wider that it spawned its own spin-off.

  7. Faction Paradox – a self-titled Voodoo Cult who steal TARDIS technology from the Time Lords, use it to tie their precious laws of time in paradoxical knots, and dress it up in death fetishes just to piss off the immortals. What could be a better metaphor for fan-authors who file off the serial numbers of the Doctor Who universe write to guerrilla fiction in the undergrowth? You know that bit in "Before the Flood" where Toby Whithouse has the Doctor do a to-camera to explain the Ontological ("Bootstrap") Paradox? Well, Lawrence Miles does it first with the Grandfather Paradox, only better and as a gag. The members of the Faction "family" are titled "Little Brothers" or "Little Sisters", "Cousins" and "Mothers" and "Fathers". Because the head of the whole caboose is the Grandfather, Paradox.

  8. Sam Jones, proto Clara – blonde and perky, notionally created by Terrance Dicks in the execrable "The Eight Doctors" (yes, that's two execrables in six books – the early BBC Books had real problems, that "Alien Bodies" only began to turn around and Lawrence writes several responses to The Eight Doctors in particular here, including making it tie in with Paradox), Sam was written as "bland generic companion" because Uncle Terry didn't really have much of an idea what her character was supposed to be. Troublingly, neither did several of the subsequent authors either, although Kate Orman and Jon Blum's "Vampire Science" does put some flesh on her. But Lawrence Miles ingeniously turns this annoying goody-two-shoes-ness into a plot point. Sam is given a vision of an alternative timeline, perhaps her true timeline, in which she has dark hair, drugs troubles and never left Shoreditch and most immortally never met the Doctor. The suggestion arises that something, some enormously powerful space-time event (perhaps even the Doctor himself) has done something a bit Faction Paradox on her timeline and rewired her biodata to make her the perfect travelling companion.

    Orman and Blum will come back to this in "Business Unusual", with the explanation that the Doctor's regeneration (and near TARDIS implosion) on New Year's Eve 1999 (the TV movie in case you've purged that from your memory) left a scar on the fabric of the Universe and when Sam – the "real timeline" dark haired Sam – falls into this it turns her into this impossibly perfect girl. Just sayin'.

  9. Intelligent ideas – which of course the whole book is full of. But the particular one I draw your attention to is that of "conceptual entities". Meet Mr Shift (as in a shift in your perceptions) who lives in your perceptions and communicates by altering the way you read words in any text lying around. But he's merely the beginning.

    Other examples that we meet in passing are the "anarchitects", conceptual entities that live in architecture able to make floors vanish or turn corridors into Mobius loops.

    In the Eleventh Doctor story "The Time of Angels", it is revealed that the Angels are ideas that can think for themselves that inhabit statues. Just sayin'.

    But beyond them, there are the Celestis: god-memes that live in the fiction-hell of Mictlan. When the Celestial Intervention Agency saw which way the wind of the war was blowing, they erased themselves from history, jumping before they were retroactively putsched, but turning themselves into ideas. Because you cannot kill an idea. Obviously the whole process has driven them ferociously insane.

  10. Who the hell is Mr Quixotl? Qixotl is in charge of the auction. Or at least thinks he's charge as he sets it up and sends the invites before things spiral rapidly out of his control. "Quixotl", the Doctor tells us (p107), is the name of the god of ludicrous profit on Golobus, so probably not his real name. Time Lords aren't supposed to recognise one other after regenerating (p 81) but it happens just the same… not that the Doctor is sure Qixotl is another Time Lord. When Qixotl panics and cries out: "get me out of here" (p216), the Doctor recognises his expression of utter horror as one he's seen before on another face. He then punches Qixotl in the head, on account of what he did to him last time. And the time before. Of course, Mr Shift is mixing up everyone's perceptions at this point, so the Doctor might be remembering wrong.

    Fan theories tend to suggest that he is probably either Drax ("The Armageddon Factor", probably because of his underworld connections, not-quite-Time Lord status and generally spivvy nature), or Mortimus the Meddling Monk (which seems to me the more satisfying explanation, given how much Qixotl loves his own cleverness with technology and plans and that Drax only accidentally put the Doctor in harm's way, whereas the Monk has been betraying him with cheerful abandon ever since "The Daleks' Master Plan", and featured prominently in an early arc of the New Adventures too!)

    For that matter, though, who the hell is Captain Trask?

What Else Should I Tell You About "Alien Bodies"?

Well, it's a book not a television episode.

Doctor Who never stopped being made. It was merely that in 1989, rather like the Celestis turning themselves into Conceptual Entities, the Doctor changed from being a television character to one who existed in books.
The Eighth Doctor has appeared twice on our TV screens – once in 1996 in "Time Waits for No Man" aka "The Sensational TV Movie Starring Paul McGann" aka "Grace 1999"; and once in 2013 in "The Night of the Doctor". Suffice it to say that one of these is a work of quiet genius.

However, in between, he has had countless adventures in print as books and comics and on CD from Big Finish.

Arguably this give him three contradictory timelines (with the entirely-not-serious possibility that while the TV and audio Eighth Doctor regenerates into John Hurt, the books Eighth regenerated into Richard E Grant – see "Scream of the Shalka", foreshadowed in "The Gallifrey Chronicles" – and the comic strip Eighth regenerated into Rowan Atkinson – "Curse of the Fatal Death").

But, if you will accept a little hand-waving, and thanks to Doctor Eight's frequent bouts of amnesia, you can just about place them into some kind of an order: probably books first, Big Finish last.
(To make this difficult, in the books, the Doctor witnesses the destruction of Gallifrey. This leaves him with amnesia (again) and experiencing adventures in a Universe without Time Lords. But you can – just about – explain this as the Doctor getting trapped in his own future, thwarting Faction Paradox's attempt to overturn the events of "The Day of the Doctor", and doing something very clever to resolve the situation either in the stories "Time Zero", "Timeless" and "Sometime Never" or sometime after the last book, "The Gallifrey Chronicles", where he reveals he's worked out what's going on.)

If you need one, my score:

This changed everything.

If You Like "Alien Bodies", Why Not Try…

"Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible" – Just as "Alien Bodies" set the template for the BBC Books with a war in the future; Marc Platt, another genius author and the person who wrote "Ghost Light", sets the tone for the New Adventures with tales of Gallifrey's deep past.

"The Book of the War" – guidebook, short story collection, source material for a home-made universe, retirement home for Mr Shift? You can't really describe it; you have to experience it. The Book of the War takes all of the ideas expressed in "Alien Bodies" and adds a whole lot – including the City of the Saved at the end of the Universe more to give you a comprehensive starter in the Miles-Universe.

Next Time…

It's Christmas. What could be more spirit of the season than a proper religious retreat. With snowmen…?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Alex & Richard's Doctor Who 52: 04 Blink


Last time, the first classic monsters of the classic series; this time, the first unforgettable monsters of the new series.


The Weeping Angels, aka the Lonely Assassins, aka statues that move when you are not looking at them. So don't blink.

Ten Reasons To Watch "Blink" (warning: spoilers)

  1. It's a haunted house story – we open with a dark and stormy night as our heroine explores the creepy, abandoned house: Wester Drumlins. It's a house full of ghosts, the victims of the monstrous Angels who live here. But it's also a whole story about how time haunts us, plays tricks on us, runs away from us. People are displaced in time as a metaphor for the way life is something that happens while we are looking the other way. Blink and you literally miss it.

  2. It's definitive Moffat – it's almost a sketch of the tropes (good and bad) that writer Steven Moffat will develop as he goes on to become Doctor Who lead writer (apparently he dislikes "showrunner"): it's a plot-driven puzzle-box that juggles the more mind-bending aspects of time-travel and it takes an everyday thing and makes it totally scary. But it's also recycling his own earlier works, in this case his contribution to the first Dr Who Annual: "What I did On My Christmas Holidays by Sally Sparrow…"

  3. Sally Sparrow – well, this is a very different Sally played by soon-to-be-very-famous-indeed Carey Mulligan with star-level charm. After 2005, the creators realised they could only make 12 episodes of their 13 episode Doctor Who series without killing their leads. The solution: the "Doctor Lite" episode, with a stand-in companion intersecting only briefly with the title character: hence 2006's "Love & Monsters" had Elton Pope; thus 2007 brought us to heroine Sally.

  4. Sparrow and Nightingale, bit ITV – Sally is smart and determined, and won't take shit, even from the Doctor. She's also a bit pretentious – telling her best mate Kathy that "sad is happy for deep people" (in fairness, as an answer to why she likes exploring old buildings that are sad).

    Kathy is the first victim of the Angels (or rather the first that we see: there are plenty of recovered cars – and the TARDIS – in the police pound to show how many others there have been), aged to death in an eyeblink. She's the friend that Sally loses touch with when she goes off to get married and raise a family. And it's through her brother Larry, that Sally discovers…

  5. The DVD Easter Eggs – the particularly memorable bit of the episode is the "one-sided conversation" between Sally and the Doctor. A tour-de-force piece of writing, especially the bit where the Doctor's dialogue is used to do double duty, fitting into a conversation with Sally twice (it's his description of causality as "timey-wimey", which alas has stuck). It's all achieved by filming David Tennant doing a to-camera message that then appears as a hidden extra feature – or Easter Egg – on just seventeen seemingly entirely unconnected DVD. The connection being that they are the only DVDs that Sally owns, and it's because the message is for her. It makes the story unexpectedly uniquely of its time: this could only happen in the DVD era, between VHS tapes and streaming digital downloads.

  6. Larry works in a shop: Banto's – clearly named for Banto Zame (a name to remind you of "Panto Dame") memorably played by Christopher Biggins up against Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor in the Big Finish play "The One Doctor". This makes the shop name an Easter Egg. Larry may or may not be named in reference to Lawrence Miles. Who has NOTHING to do with the works of Stephen Moffat at all ever. (See also, almost every other Moffat or Russell era story.) Banto's main contribution to the plot is to shout "Go to the police, woman!" at the unseen heroine of a film he is watching just as Sally is passing, a piece of synchronous dialogue that prompts her next action… just like those seemingly gnomic remarks of the Doctor's in the recording seem to form a conversation with her when she speaks too. It's a clever little reminder that this could all be coincidence.

  7. Billy Shipton – is the young detective inspector in charge of the Wester Drumlins case (all those abandoned vehicles, remember). His motto/chat up technique: "Life is short and you are hot".

    Sally meets him when she goes to the police. Which, unfortunately, turns out to be bad news for him because the Angels are now following her. (The Angels are actually after the TARDIS – the Angels have the phone box; buy the tee-shirt – so it's probable that they allowed Sally to escape with the key in order to track it down; maybe they sensed something of her connection to the Doctor about her.)

  8. Billy Shipton (reprise) – young Billy is played with an infectious grin by Michael Obiora (who in fairness is as hot as Billy thinks he is); but old Billy is a deeply moving performance from Louis Mahoney (who first appeared in Doctor Who as a newsreader in "Frontier in Space" in 1973 – later that same year Trevor McDonald would become ITN's first black reporter).

    Billy is Sally's lost opportunity for a relationship, going straight from flirting (via accelerated TV drama Freudian slip she experiments with the name "Sally Shipton") to waiting at his bedside for him to die. The Bride in White contemplating the Widow in Black done at warp speed. As with Kathy earlier, the implication here is that the Angels are feeding off Sally, that the "potential" that they consume is hers not that of the people they displace. Something her determined stride from Billy's now-empty hospital bed seems to suggest she realises.

  9. The Angels – are the real meat of this story, an honest-to-god new monster that was good enough to become a recurring enemy. Never mind the hand-waving about "quantum locked" (and definitely ignore how "Flesh and Stone" messes with their USP), they are clearly a weaponised version of Grandmother's Footsteps, only able to move when you're not looking. And, like the game, they gradually gather pace over the course of the episode: unseen, someone throws a stone to attack Sally; the first one we actually see, in the garden, may have moved or may not. Slowly they uncover and recover their faces, stretch out a hand. Only by the final act do they reveal the full frightful aspect to their visage before their final assault on the TARDIS – thanks to a light blinking on and off – becomes a terrifying almost stop-motion effect.

    The fact that they are realised physically – thanks to some astonishing mime acting and prosthetic work they are also the endpoint evolution of those "living statues" you see in public places – adds to their threatening sense of presence in the room. And of course the montage at the end suggests to us that any statue could be an Angel. Don't have nightmare, kiddies…

  10. Paradox – hang on, doesn't the Doctor defeat the Angels because Sally hands him the DVD and tells him how he defeats the Angels?

What Else Should I Tell You About "Blink"?

The Doctor's (half of the) conversation with Sally is an Easter Egg on the BBC DVD release of the complete season three. Which means that the BBC DVD release of the complete season three is one of Sally's seventeen DVDs. Which is a bit meta.

If you need one, my score:

It's a perfect little closed loop ontological paradox, with a star turn from Carey Mulligan making Sally Sparrow more grounded and real than just another Moffat manic pixie dream girl, and real genius in the concept and realisation of a truly memorable monster.

If You Like "Blink", Why Not Try…

"Mission to the Unknown" – This little gem, essentially a trailer for the then forthcoming epic "The Daleks' Master Plan" with none of the regular cast, shows off the Daleks to maximum effect: in the absence of the Doctor, they can win.

"The Empty Child" – a child's game of tag turned into a deadly infection amidst the falling bombs of the London Blitz in a plot that comes together at the end in almost the most perfect way possible to create Moffat's (deserved) reputation.

Meanwhile on the other side…

Alex is watching "Ghost Light".

The most intense lecture on the Victorian evolution debate you'll ever sit through. And another angel that can't move.

Next Time…

Once upon a time Doctor Who was a TV series. And then for a while it wasn't. And then it was again. But in between, came some of the greatest Doctor Who stories every told. Tales of gods and monsters and time-travelling archaeologists. Tales of the Dark Times. Tales of the Future. And among them, the origins of the Time War…

Monday, December 07, 2015

Alex & Richard's Doctor Who 52: 03. Dalek


The Doctor… The Companions… the third angle to this triumvirate is the Monsters. And the first monsters of Doctor Who will always be…


The Doctor's Arch Enemies (Monster Edition) – see also "Terror of the Autons".

This is set in the space year 2012: the future when it was first broadcast, now the past – which is almost as weird as "The Tenth Planet" being set in 1980.

Henry Van Statten, the man who "owns the internet" and so almost by definition the biggest monster on the planet, has a secret bunker in the Nevada desert where he keeps his museum of things that have fallen to Earth. And right at the bottom is the pride of his collection, the only living exhibit, and an example of just how far it is possible to fall. Let's just say he's not as smart as he thinks he is…

Ten Reasons To Watch "Dalek" (warning: spoilers!)

  1. The Dalek – "One Dalek is capable of exterminating aaaaalllll!!!!" shrieks one of the metal meanies in 1965's all-time Dalek extravaganza "The Dalek's Master Plan (du jour)", and here writer Rob Shearman sets out to prove it, taking the Dalek through its murderous paces examining and reinventing every part – gunstick, manipulator-arm, body, shields (they've got shields!), heads-up-display and zoom-in eyestalk, and the bubbling ball of hate and genius inside; even the "dalek bumps" – and all the while inverting every joke ever made about them, death by sink plunger being perhaps the most gruesomely memorable.

  2. The Power of the Dalek – the Dalek though is far more than just a monster; it is an icon of Doctor Who; in many ways the Daleks made the Doctor, in both Watsonian (in Universe) and Doylist (from the perspective of the series creators) senses. Confronted by their pure evil, the Doctor begins to evolve a counter morality; and with the coming of Dalekmania a series that might have been cancelled after thirteen weeks became a hit that would go on to celebrate a golden anniversary.

    And, quite rightly, the idea that the Great Time War could ultimately turn out to be against anybody else is unthinkable. Yet there was a period where it looked like the Daleks would not be returning to Doctor Who in 2005…

  3. The Genesis of the Daleks… is credited not to Davros (the evil genius) and not to "laughing" Ray Cusak (the designer, who came up with the classic sixties pop-icon pepperpot shape and got paid all of £100 for his trouble) but to writer Terry Nation. And the estate of Terry Nation is (or more accurately, Hancock's their lawyers are)… uniquely sensitive to its rights as far as the deadly dustbins are concerned. Which means there can be some very tough negotiating to use them. Thankfully for history the dispute with the Nation Estate was resolved.

    (In the period when he didn't have Daleks, though, writer Rob and showrunner Russell had to come up with an alternative. Apropos of nothing, Russell, never one to leave an idea unused, for "Last of the Time Lords" introduced the Toclafane – bodiless children's heads flying around in armoured spheres… Just saying.)

  4. The Evil of the Dalek – the new series starts with an unusually bloodless Auton invasion. Clive (who is a not-very coded analogue Doctor Who fan) gets his head blown off by an Auton hand-gun at close range… but we don't see it. Along with a burping wheelie-bin, it made us wonder whether Russell had pitched his Doctor Who down to a child-friendly level, and would be keeping the deaths safely off-screen. Ho ho, how wrong we were. If anything, it's more that they want to build us up gently to this week. The Dalek slaughters about 200 people, in a variety of sadistically inventive ways, all on screen for your and your children's viewing pleasure. Try not to think that it's just "misunderstood" when it starts getting snuffly with Rose late on.

  5. You Would Make a Good Dalek: Christopher Eccleston – the success of reintroducing the Dalek, which let's face it is a faintly ridiculous looking thing, relies in large part on the reaction of the Doctor, and once again Chris Eccleston is stunning. Peter Capalid is (rightly) praised for the expressiveness of his acting chops, but Eccleston is capable of so much more with so much less. A shuffle of the feet and a glance down and he conveys heatbreak when it seems Rose is rejecting his offer to take her away in the TARDIS as the end of "Rose". In these early episodes he plays the Doctor as a man playing the part of a man playing a part – the Doctor putting on a front to cover something too deep to express. So when he loses it here – his veneer cracks and he goes full on berserk – it sells both his take on the Doctor, stricken by survivor guilt, and the Dalek as not a slightly ludicrous relic but absolutely the face of the enemy.

  6. The Human Factor: Billie Piper – people mocked the idea of former pop-princess as the Dcotor's companion, but this series simply would not have worked without her giving Rose Tyler her unique mix of working-class cheek and drive to experience everything the Universe can throw at her. Dalek, in particular, hinges on Rose treating the Doctor and Dalek as essentially the same, and essentially the same as her i.e. a person. And Rose succeeds in introducing some human factor to both the Dalek and the Doctor.

    This liberal attitude, leaned from the Doctor, but that now has to be taught back to him, might at first seem like naiveté, but in fact it's the solution to the situation. The Dalek after all isn't safe; it's a ticking timebomb in the basement of Van Statten's museum! Rose's kindness might be what "sets it off" but is also in the end is what disarms it.

  7. The New Dalek Paradigm: Nick Briggs. Briggsy trained himself for this role by playing a version of the Doctor for home-made audio adventures that would one day evolve into Big Finish. His take on Sherlock Holmes is also rather good but (I hope he'll forgive me) Holmes is a pretty good fit for Brigg's own character anyway. But it's as the Daleks that he's found his definitive persona. Here his acting completes the reinvention of the, basically doing here for voice work what Andy Serkis did for motion capture with Gollum – yes, I do think that the Dalek in "Dalek" is that level of achievement.

    To give character and alien emotion to rubber prop with an electronically distorted voicebox… and more than that to make us actually care about this monster, even after it's slaughtered the rest of the cast… is genius.

  8. The interconnectedness of things. This season of Doctor Who – Season Twenty-Seven, "The Trip of a Lifetime" – is the most thematically unified since Season Eighteen "Change and Decay". The first three stories are a starter course in what Doctor Who can do – invasion of Earth, aliens from the future, ghosts from the past – with touches of continuity from the old series, and establishing the Doctor as survivor of a war, the Great Time War in fact. "Aliens of London" then brings us back to where we started… Rose's home and another alien invasion… except it's all gone a bit wrong and we start to mix things up. Then we do "Dalek": six weeks in and a second chance to jump on board the trip of a lifetime (and another Radio Time cover to prompt you). The revelations in "Dalek" (who actually fought the Time War) simultaneously wrap up the narrative of the first half of the season (the Doctor's mysteries stand largely revealed by now), reboot the classic monsters and make it "ok" for the series to keep bringing back the ghosts of its own past, and set up the arc of the second half of the series. And as a bluff, links to the next episode by way of Adam's story as "the companion who failed" (which cunningly disguises the fact that the Doctor actually goes from one Dalek story straight to another… if you think about it). The second half of the season features story after story about people abusing Time Travel – Adam, Rose and Jack – before "Boom Town" makes the point completely clear that this is all about consequences, the one thing the classic series never seemed to have. But we also see that these stories are about redemption: Adam doesn't get it; Rose is sorry; Jack earns his; Margaret Slitheen gets her second chance. And then the conclusion shows us how the Doctor's casual attitude to the places he leaves behind is also an abuse of Time Travel and that there are some pretty big consequences of that too… but that through what he's been through with Rose, he too can earn his redemption.

  9. Bad Wolf – the "DVD easter egg" running through the 2005 season, which caught the imagination of press and public was the repeated meme of "Bad Wolf", words running through the episodes like "Blackpool" through Rock.

    This week it's the call sign of Van Statten's helicopter. It was clever because it was so inexplicable; even once you know the answer(!) The words are loaded with threat, redolent of the "big bad" concept from Joss Wheadon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer of a season "level boss" bad guy. They are invisible string, tying together disparate times and places, and (not coincidentally) the disparate episodes of the season for those who don't want to be bothered with developing themes like Rose's character growth or the Doctor's post conflict PTSD. And the solution is an ontological (bootstrap) paradox before Steven Moffat even thought he'd invented them.

  10. "Elevate!" The Dalek conquers the stairs – which everyone knows the Daleks first did on screen in "Remembrance of the Daleks". (Or, by implication, as early as "The Chase", where they are able to reach the upper deck of the Marie Celeste; although toppling off into the water suggests a lack of sophistication to their powers of flight.)

What Else Should I Tell You About "Dalek"?

Rob Shearman, who wrote "Dalek" is the only writer from the 2005 "Eccelston Year" who has not returned to write another episode. Which is a shame, because he's also written some cracking Doctor Who for Big Finish (the adventures on CD people – you'll hear more about them as we go along).

If you need one, my score:

Almost perfect, demolishing every argument against the Daleks as ruthlessly as the Dalek itself wipes out the inhabitants of Van Statten's concrete museum.

Plus there's a Cyberhead among the exhibits.

If You Like "Dalek", Why Not Try…

"Earthshock" – Classic monster reinvented as bigger big bad than ever before and goes on a rampage slaughtering most of the cast. With dinosaurs. Also features boy genius.

"Asylum of the Daleks" – One Dalek, alone in the most secure cell at the bottom of a bunker-institution, and the one – impossible– girl who has put a little bit of humanity inside it. Sort of.

Meanwhile on the other side…

Alex is watching "Rose".

Russell Davies does absolutely everything right and a phenomenon (do-do do-do-do) is born.

Next Time…

Grandmother's Footsteps…