Tuesday, 26 October 2010
Though I have misgivings about redesigns of monsters - the Silurians in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood are an unsuccessful case in point - at the same time, it's often fascinating to see variations on familiar creations. I'm not sure how I came across Niklas Jansson's site, but there's something quite compelling about its range of consistently rethought monsters. Though the style doesn't appeal to me in itself, I quite like his take on the Cyberman, the bulked-up Sontaran, and even the Slyther (it amuses me that there's a Trod on there, too). It seemed appropriate to post the Quark, though, given the name of this blog.
Next Time: THE CITY OF THE DEAD
Sunday, 24 October 2010
Review: HORROR OF FANG ROCK
Written by Terrance Dicks, directed by Paddy Russell, 1977
Though a story with a solid reputation, Horror of Fang Rock isn’t generally considered a total classic – which feels a bit of an oversight, as it’s actually quite brilliant, a tight story that’s all the more effective for its small scale. This is the sort of story I miss in the new series – ones stripped of all excess and flippancy. I suppose Midnight is the closest modern equivalent, but even that doesn’t have quite the same doomy seriousness.
Terrance Dicks is a bit of a joke because of his simplistic novelisations and novels, so it’s startling how relentlessly grim and bleak Fang Rock is. The remorselessness of its plotting is textbook-tense, with the gradually increasing body-count and destruction of the telegraph. Something like Blink might have more obvious ‘scary moments,’ but for my money it’s hard to beat this inexorably ratcheted tension.
The characters, too, are all compelling in their ways, forming a broad microcosm of society at the time – and it’s hard to miss that only the working class ones are sympathetic (Reuben, Vince, Harker). The upper class sniping though, is particularly entertaining; Palmerdale shoots Skinsale down at one point with, “Oh not one of your army stories, Jimmy – they’re even more boring than your House of Commons anecdotes,” while when Skinsale offers that Leela is “not a bad looker,” Adelaide deliciously counters, “Perfectly grotesque in my view. Were you long in India, colonel?”
I imagine Adelaide annoys a lot of people – which, obviously, to an extent is intentional, but her constant bitching is actually very funny (“Up in that room? Alone? Have you quite taken leave of your senses?!”). She is also totally vile in her unshakeable and undeserved devotion to Palmerdale; that the Doctor chooses to respond by either completely ignoring or just plain bullying her is very satisfying.
It’s taken for granted that Tom is a great Doctor, but I often find his ubiquity off-putting – not to mention his later lack of restraint. However, it’s good to be reminded how tight a performance he was capable of delivering: he’s commanding, charismatic, and steely, but leavened by an (at this point) subtle humour.
He forms an interesting counterpoint to David Tennant – perhaps the only Doctor with a comparable pop-cultural status; unlike the often emotional and apologetic Tenth Doctor, the Fourth offers little or no sympathy to the characters here. If a story ended so bleakly today (the opposite of The Doctor Dances’ “Everybody lives!”), it’d be so maudlin – all heavy-handed emoting about what a tragedy the loss of life is. Which, obviously, is true – but then, this is ‘just’ a light-entertainment TV series. Much as I do appreciate the injection of emotional awareness into the twenty-first century series, in terms of the veneer of realism it adds (if it were possible to travel the universe in a time-travelling police box, you probably would keep banging on about how amazing it all is), in some ways it can make the old series seem deficient at certain points for missing out on an acknowledgement of its characters reactions to the events they encounter. Yet, in some ways, the double-whammy lack of sympathy from Leela and the Fourth Doctor is quite refreshing.
It’s funny, actually, but as a Doctor/companion combo, the Fourth and Leela are surprisingly cold – these aren’t bleeding-heart do-gooders. We know they’re the ‘goodies’ and that they’re doing the right thing, but especially in light of the fact that not one other character survives this story – not even the sympathetic ones – and neither of them display any remorse at the end, it’s actually quite difficult to see them as out-and-out heroes. Again, given this is a story from the height of the series’ popularity, I find this hard to reconcile with its then mainstream recognition. But, I do find this slightly morally conflicted approach more interesting than the straightforward moral crusading often on display elsewhere throughout the series.
The Doctor is particularly rude in this story (“His manners are quite insufferable!”), and spends most of the time making almost callous hooded-eyed pronouncements, or considering everyone with unconcealed boredom, with only momentary bursts of energy. He looks right at home here, in such a gloomy situation, brooding and solemn, and the fact that he takes the situation so seriously does give it a very dangerous edge. Considering seventies TV (or rather, anything not contemporary) is often seen as quaint and primitive, it’s surprising – but welcome – how difficult a character this most popular of Doctors is. Practically the only time he seems happy is when he bursts in to announce, “This lighthouse is under attack and by morning we might all be dead. Anyone interested?”
Leela is a classic companion, but I often think she’s surprisingly overlooked – however, it can’t be overstated how ace she is. All the more because, though very much not a screamer, she isn’t a straightforward example of Buffy/Xena (et al) kickass-hottie wish-fulfilment – which, it shouldn’t have to be said, would be awful: instead, she’s naïve, but clever; violent, but compassionate. She’s fantastic. Apart from anything else, she’s notably particularly proactive for a companion (for example, taking it upon herself to batter down Reuben’s door), and the moment she pulls a knife on the uppity Palmerdale is possibly the best thing any companion has ever done: “Silence! You will do as the Doctor instructs or I WILL CUT OUT YOUR HEART!”
As for the production itself, fittingly, it is as tight visually as the plot itself is; there’s a remarkably expressionistic bent to the set design (reminiscent of televised versions of theatrical productions, like the Patrick McGoohan-starring adaptation of Ibsen’s Brand) – the sets, backdrops and constant smoke are undoubtedly stagy (no bad thing), but it’s so dark and foreboding it looks great. Even the modelwork’s pretty good – yes, the ship is an Airfix model, but if that’s good enough for Werner Herzog (in Fitzcarraldo), it’s good enough for seventies Doctor Who. The model-shots of the lighthouse against a brooding skyscape are almost painterly, and the brief shot of the beam striking the mothership from the lamp room at the story’s conclusion is quite brilliant.
With the addition of its spare, dramatic music, this is one of those (all too rare) stories where all the elements come together, down to – as in Human Nature/The Family of Blood – simple effects like the use of a sickly green light to signify the Rutan’s presence. The whole thing is like a play, with its limited cast and sets, and details like the red light representing the boiler fire, but I like it – it’s conducive to the kind of taughtness the modern series has all too often eschewed in favour of big, ratings-grabbing and ultimately tawdry set pieces.
I’m always worried about being overly positive in these reviews – obviously I love probably the vast majority of Doctor Who, but what’s the point of writing a ‘review’ without being critical? Having said that, it’s tedious to give something a mauling unless it’s irredeemably dreadful (which can be quite entertaining), so I generally steer clear of writing anything about mediocre stories. I suppose the worst element of this story – apart from general production values like its film quality, which are obviously unavoidable and due to age – is the acting.
For all that this is a quite brilliant example of the base under siege template, the acting isn’t of a uniformly high standard. In fact, there’s no offensive performances – Vince is a little amateurish, and even Louise Jameson, much as I love her performance, isn’t a fantastic actor here – but I think, while perhaps perfectly acceptable to a fan audience (we’ve seen a lot worse), trying to view the story from an outside perspective, it’d all seem quite stilted – which would probably be seen as more indefensible than the production values and special effects; they are a product of their time (and budget), so okay, whereas the seventies doesn’t seem long enough ago to justify less-than-perfect performances. (Having said that, things haven’t changed that much – there are often similar weakness in the new series, which people tend to overlook – maybe it’s a genre thing.)
With the special effects, the Rutan is often derided, and, yes, in a way it’s disappointing after such a tense opening to have the alien menace revealed, but given that the production team was given the task of realising a semi-aquatic alien lifeform that feeds on electricity, I’m just pleased by the atypical choice of eschewing a man in a suit. A floaty bioluminescent jellyfish, as in the otherwise execrable straight-to-video Shakedown spin-off, might be preferable, but the gooey balloon doesn’t bother me that much, as it at least comes across as truly alien, and totally at odds with the period setting. Even its first person plural dialogue and crackle of irritation adds to a level of alienness unusual for Doctor Who. Having said that, the Rutan is about a billion times scarier in the form of Colin Douglas’ Reuben – his down-to-earth gruffness shouldn’t be creepy, but somehow it is, monumentally so.
I love the concept of the Rutan – a powerful, truly alien creation. It's a real shame they’ve never been revisited, in favour of more crowd-pleasing monsters – especially since, given their inherent changeability, there’s lots of potential for reinvention. Also, the stealthy infiltrator is a much less bombastic template for a threat than usual, and all the more effective for it. Perhaps that's representative of Fang Rock's reputation; it lacks the broadness that might have secured it a better reputation within fandom. Whatever; the streamlined plot benefits this story immensely, and it is something to be admired.
Wednesday, 20 October 2010
A while ago I posted a (frankly, inadequate) drawing I’d submitted to a site calling for designs for a hypothetical Thirteenth Doctor. You can see all the submissions here. The main reason that I actually bothered to contribute though, was this picture.
I dislike Pia Guerra’s IDW artwork, which, in the (albeit, bits and pieces of) images I’ve seen is in a pseudo-manga, cartoony fanart style. This, however, I think is a fantastic image (and one which bears more than a passing comparison to a similar pen and ink style of the Phil Bevan image I posted at the beginning of the month).
It’s not even so much the Doctor and companion (Sally Sparrow, I believe) – this Doctor's look and costume is almost supernaturally restrained compared to some of the submissions on the site – but I love the general attention to detail, and the rather gorgeous TARDIS design (which isn't too outré, and has clear links to the Davies-era design, making it easier to imagine being used for real). I particularly like what appear to be its glazed-tile walls and generally subterranean, Tube-station stylings. (Incidentally, the size above doesn’t really do it justice; click for full-size.) Really lovely.
I might post some more from that thread in future, cos some of them are genuinely surprising or exciting, so keep your eyes peeled.
Next Time: HORROR OF FANG ROCK
Next Time: HORROR OF FANG ROCK
Friday, 15 October 2010
A little while back, I did a post on the perverse, experimental and rather wonderful Man in the Velvet Mask. But don’t get too excited: by contrast, this book represents a polar-opposite approach of traditionalist, continuity-ridden, pedestrian writing. But hey, what was I expecting – this is a Gary Russell, after all!
This isn’t a bad, bad novel (I could point to many that are much worse); it’s readable, even enjoyable – it is just wholly lacking invention or inspiration. Which wouldn’t bother me so much, except, given the detestation the former novel still receives, this is apparently what people want from Doctor Who novels. I mean, really?! Are people’s expectations so low?
This feels like less a novel and more an excuse to explain various inane FAQs from the series that have been niggling our Gary: namely, C19’s role in UNIT’s affairs (from Time-Flight and Who Killed Kennedy); the Brigadier’s family life with his first wife Fiona (all set for Battlefield and Downtime); the circumstances of Mike Yates’ promotion to captain (!); the initial encounter between the Doctor and the Triad from Warriors of the Deep; and (more laudably) Liz’s final story.
It’s like, once these boxes were ticked, he then draped an uninspired plot around them. It doesn’t help that despite its ‘traditional’ feel, the whole thing is rather mean-spirited; there’s lots of drearily wannabe-graphic shootings and decapitations, which are presumably meant to be cool, in a nihilistic way, but which don’t actually mean anything and are therefore utterly pointless.
The author’s note, which amounts to a bitchy rant against the rec.arts.drwho users who had the temerity to criticise the pseudo-science of his earlier Missing Adventure, (snigger) Invasion of the Cat-People, doesn’t help, starting things off on a slightly uncomfortable note. (It’s both annoying when authors wilfully ignore even the most basic scientific principles, and also when readers pick fictional science apart, but, I can’t help thinking: they were probably just having a laugh – get over it, Gary.)
The idea of alien invasions’ leftovers being used by the government for its own devices, while not desperately original (and this was years before Torchwood!), has potential. Unfortunately, this is undermined by Russell’s lack of restraint: there’s barely a relevant TV story which isn’t unambiguously catalogued. A little subtlety would’ve gone a long way here; maybe the author doesn’t trust us to work out anything too taxing – the monstrous dog infected with green slime, for example, really didn’t need to be called ‘Stahlman’s Hound’.
There is such a cavalcade of eager, fan-pleasing ideas (look – the base of an Imperial Dalek!), that they become very irritating, very quickly. Similarly, the book is crawling with unnecessary references to everyone from Sir Charles Sudbury to Group Captain Gilmore, Ann Travers, Ruth Ingram, George Hibbert… Gahhh! Give me strength! Struggling under this torrent of fanwank, the already barely-present Doctor seems rather anodyne; he rubs his neck a lot and a few ‘old chap’s are thrown in, but there’s nothing to make this ring true as Pertwee’s Doctor.
None of this would matter if Russell’s prose wasn’t deeply underwhelming (there are lots of phrases of the ‘He felt very hot’ variety), and, tonally, it’s irritatingly pompous and moralistically preachy. There is even an annoying tendency to reuse already all too ubiquitous quotes (sleep is for tortoise – come on!). Even the title’s crap! A book featuring Silurians with the word ‘scales’ in its title. Oh dear. (And speaking of the Silurians: a few names with apostrophes in them doesn’t cut it as world building. Although, to give him his dues, at least he didn’t ditch their third eyes and give them whip-like tongues and minidresses instead.)
Writing this, I feel a lot less well-disposed to the book than I did when reading it. It’s not hateful, or unbelievably bad. In a way though, it’s worse than that for being so depressingly unoriginal. You can really see all the joins – Russell obviously thinks he’s allowing us to relate to Mike Yates or whatever, or making the story into a sizzling rollercoaster ride. He isn’t. If this were a one-off author, I’d let him off. But this is a man who has had his fingers in all the Doctor Who pies – DWM, Big Finish, and even the new series. The day this man becomes showrunner, we’re doomed.
Read Who Killed Kennedy instead.
Tuesday, 12 October 2010
I have no time for IDW’s Doctor Who comics: they seem painfully amateurish. Nevertheless, Paul Grist has contributed several covers, of which this is one - and that is very definitely a Good Thing.
It still feels unusual to see familiar characters realised in especially distinctive styles, but Grist’s ‘quirkily’ spindly style is an uncharacteristic but satisfying variation – one which, having only been used for a whole strip in DWM’s Ghosts of the Northern Line, I would relish to see being used again in the Eleventh Doctor’s era. How likely that is I don’t know, but having done a bit of research (ie, I went on Wikipedia), I’m quite curious to check out his British superhero (Jack Staff) and "hard-boiled police series," Kane.
Next Time: THE SCALES OF INJUSTICE
Next Time: THE SCALES OF INJUSTICE
Sunday, 10 October 2010
Review: THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY
Written by Stephen Wyatt, directed by Alan Wareing, 1988-89
I’m torn about this story, because much as I love seasons twenty-five and -six and the Seventh Doctor and Ace, here everything seems somewhat disjointed and amateurish. It’s hard not to compare anything Doctor Who to the current series, especially because being from the most recent part of the original run, the comparison isn’t as churlish as contrasting 1963’s season one with 2005’s series one.
The new series has a generally very conventional approach to character development and plot progression; it ticks all those Robert McKee-style narrative structure plot points, has love interests and routinely good-looking eye-candy casting, character progression, emotional ‘beats,’ etc, etc. Much as I might frown on the potential arbitrary cynicism of that approach to story, by comparison Greatest Show feels a little guileless. There are far too many characters who don’t fit into any clearly delineated role, and consequentially feel a bit pointless, and too many poorly-defined intentions muddying matters.
Greatest Show is probably the weakest story of season twenty-five; it just doesn’t gel. I have a soft spot for The Happiness Patrol, which while sharing a similarly outré sensibility, is rather more consistent, and has an easily discernable resonance and can be read as a comment on totalitarianism, or Thatcher (or whatever). You’d be hard pressed, I think, to discern even that broad a theme in this story. Compared to the new series, and even most of the rest of the surrounding (and subsequent) season, Greatest Show needs tightening up, with a bit more script editing to smooth out its lack of logical plot progression.
Despite all that, what does win me over is its wealth of great, memorable (albeit isolated) images and concepts: the hearse, with clowns dressed as undertakers, is inspired and memorably macabre (though shame about stupid details like the unnecessary sci-fi window noise). The big top with the ringed planet behind it is beautifully – and unflashily – achieved; the special effects really were looking up, weren’t they? The violence in the ring taking place off-screen is very effective, as is the disembodied applause, while the clown workshop is grotesque and disturbing – and more than a little reminiscent of JF Sebastian’s workshop/apartment in Blade Runner. The impassive fifties Family and stone Gods are great as well. The stone Dark Circus is impressively solid, especially during its collapse (no polystyrene bounce!), and the climax actually feels appropriately climactic in a way Doctor Who often doesn’t manage.
Even with BBC-basic locations, while some of the quarry stuff looks, well… exactly like a quarry, on the other hand the dunes are amazing, and even the pale blue lake looks exotic and alien. Much like in Survival, the bright sunlight helps to convince that this is some arid alien desert. Likewise, the softly lit, billowing corridors may be corridors, but they’re of a better class than usual. (The tinselly pathway that the Gods open to the Dark Circus is a bit old-school though.)
Poorly-defined and slightly self-indulgent they may be, but the story is equally packed with memorable characters: biker Nord (“Oi, Whiteface! WHITEFAAACE!”); Morgana’s hokey gypsy shtick; and Mags – an eighties goth werewolf… in space! What’s not to love?! She really goes for it during her transformation, too, while the Doctor’s tumble down the stairs in the big top is also quite impressive.
Of course, the characters’ caricature-like presentation has no baring on reality, but is instead predicated around the sort of visual shorthand used by the modern production team: in the same way that Professor Yana wears a Victorian costume in Utopia for no other reason than he’s an elderly professor, so what else would he wear?, or Brannigan wears driving goggles because he’s a driver, here Captain Cook, the famous intergalactic explorer, wears (what else?) a safari suit and pith helmet, while Whizzkid, like all nerds, is bespectacled and wears a tanktop and bowtie (…I know I do).
I’m ambivalent about this approach – doubtless it works, but it is quite a reductive concept, although I appreciate how much less alienating to a general audience this must be than trying to make up futuristic or ‘spacey’ costumes for ringmasters or explorers, which would connote nothing. It’s the same thinking behind animal-aliens like the Judoon or Sisters of Plenitude; you’re far less likely to scare off your audience or make them snigger into their coffee by introducing an alien clearly based on a familiar animal, rather than something like, say, Alpha Centauri.
Unfortunately, despite this link between the eras, this story falls down by comparison to the new series because nothing is made of the big, daft ‘circus… IN SPACE!!!’ concept. A modern story would have a field day with that, but here it’s just accepted so, disappointingly, it doesn’t feel like a big deal. Even the way it’s introduced is lost in the choppily mixed-up opening scenes; imagine some sort of Trial of a Time Lord-like swooping modelshot of the big top as the opening scene, rather than a mix of the Ringmaster rapping; Bellboy and Flowerchild being pursued; and the Doctor juggling in the TARDIS. It’d be a really striking opening and everyone would get the concept straight away.
In fact, the disjointed, choppy scene progressions do a massive disservice to the story; individual scenes that should have been longer are instead distractingly intercut. The eighties trend of having several scenes cut up into infuriatingly short little snippets, and then intercut with about five other things, is not only infuriatingly ADHD but makes everything seem entirely inconsequential. Bad editing (and music) belie its budgetary constraints too, though at least there is enough invention to shine through. (Part one’s bizarre cliffhanger – “Well, are we going in or aren’t we?” – is one of the worst culprits.) Aside from these technical constraints, at least – echoing my comments about Paradise Towers – there are no stories like this in any other period; the show is trying something new rather than mimicking a former approach.
What makes the slightly unfocused cast of characters more annoying is than, when they do work, they’re brilliant. Intriguingly, for example, the Captain, with his quintessential Britishness, young female companion, and ever-present tea, is like an amoral version of the Doctor, while the Chief Clown is brilliantly creepy, all the more so because he’s not evil, or a robot, but a ‘real’ person. In fact, he must be one of the most evocative villains at this stage of the programme. His fey/sinister breathlessness, coupled with his strangely terrifying exaggerated hand gestures and deranged laugh, makes me empathise with Ace’s phobia.
The comparison to season twenty-four stands; the concept of “a friendly hippy circus … turned into a trap for killing people,” is great, and does smack of a more effective version of the kind of madcap/oddball/quirky stories from that run. Fortunately, its ‘zaniness’ is tempered by its more ominous atmosphere. You certainly couldn’t imagine any other Doctor in it, which I think is great – the series is doing brave new things! The whimsy, in fact, could have been pushed even further. It’s interesting that the surreal approach of this story, with its exaggerated archetypes, is more akin to The Celestial Toymaker or Mind Robber than more conventional sci-fi stories, yet the setting is technically ‘just’ some alien planet.
Ultimately, larger than life tone and bold imagery isn’t enough to stop the story falling apart, its grasp on narrative logic becoming increasingly tenuous. “Don’t try our patience!” What’s the eye and the medallion all about? And though the gladiator’s sword makes for a good moment… I have no idea why it’s important. Everything’s very muddled – in the words of Marge Simpson talking to John Waters, although I didn’t understand, “I loved hearing it!”, but I’m not sure that’s good enough.
Last comparison to the new series (promise): can you imagine a story where a convenient deus ex machina plot device that saves the day wasn’t even foreshadowed?! The new series is in no way without its flaws in this department, but though we’ve had our share of reset switches and all those fan-reviled bits of laziness, at least Russell T Davies’ resets are in some way prepared for. Having said that, I don’t know if that’s necessarily better – maybe that’s more cynical than the ‘guilelessness’ of a less structurally box-ticking outing like this. Hmm, I feel I may have stumbled into classic series/new series smackdown territory. And that's a fight I don't want anything to do with.
Tuesday, 5 October 2010
It’s upsettingly difficult to find any of Phil Bevan’s work kicking around on the internet - he’s unfortunately passed away, and as such there’s no portfolio of his illustrations online. It’s a crying shame because, alongside people like Adrian Salmon, he used some of the most unique and original visual language among artists working within Doctor Who.
This image is from one of the previews or preludes or whatever they were called which DWM used to run for the New Adventures – in this case, Daniel O’Mahony’s much-as-I-love-his-other-books-not-really-very-good Falls the Shadow. Using black and white pen and ink is unusually restrained for this sort of TV tie-in artwork, but it’s gorgeous, and shows off the slightly off-kilter attention to detail which made his art really distinctive (his idiosyncratic way of drawing hair in definite strands is particularly memorable).
I think he also did the illustrations for Gareth Roberts’ least-bad season seventeen Missing Adventure, The English Way of Death, but the picture I remembered recently was for a DWM article on what could have happened if the series had continued after season twenty-six. Bevan’s illustrations, rather wonderfully, depicted a be-ringed and dandified Richard Griffiths as a potential precursor to (Withnail co-star) Paul McGann’s official Eighth Doctor. If I get a chance to dig the issue out, I’ll post a scan, because it was a particularly glorious ‘Unbound’ concept.
Next Time: THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY
Next Time: THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY
Saturday, 2 October 2010
Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Colin Teague, 2007
When I reviewed The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang and said season finales generally disagreed with me, this story is a large part of the reason why.
I don’t want to be a massive bitch, but everything about The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords is either baffling, or just plain irritating. In common with all but the best of Russell T Davies’ output, this story is perversely overcomplicated, with a disjointed plot structure, while the reliance on armies of CG’d flying robots - particularly in contrast with the smaller scale of The Big Bang - feels a desperate attempt to disprove the concept that less can be more.
Series three, perhaps even more so than those preceding it, is abysmally uneven in tone, and this finale is the epitome of its inconsistency. John Simm’s Master, as I feared from his appearance in Utopia (which, incidentally, I thought was bad - before seeing this two-parter; all is now forgiven), is entirely devoid of menace – or, indeed, of pathos, when the script calls for it. Couldn’t we have been treated to an extended outing for the Jacobi version?
In fact, the handling of the Master’s return is tonally rather inexplicable: the lame conceit of a weapon directly paralleling the much-overused sonic screwdriver (which is further weakened by an unnecessary and baffling link to The Lazarus Experiment); the somewhat unpleasant implications of the sexual excesses Lucy Saxon has to endure; the thumpingly mundane conversation with the Doctor in The Sound of Drums, which verges hilariously on homoerotic Time Lord phone sex; and, more generally, the plot treading water to delay their final confrontation.
What makes this Master worse is that I can see what they were going for; a kind of gleeful demented, self-aware version of the archetypal villain. I’m watching the second series of Twin Peaks at the moment, the antagonist of which (in one form… Spoilers!) is portrayed in a similar way, but with a much more effective balance between an unnervingly sinister side and an almost comedic spiteful glee. That would be fine. But this Master comes across as a heavy-handed attempt at reinvention, with an approach that doesn’t seem to come naturally to John Simm. He’s not funny, he’s not scary, he doesn’t ever seem deranged; rather, ‘wacky’ at best. We don’t need a wacky Master.
Add to all this an apparently bullet-proof Corsa; an underuse of Captain Jack which negates his reappearance in the series, chained up in the inexplicably purple-lit bowels of the Valiant; plus the unfathomable inclusion of a god-awful chart song (which immediately dates the episode) – yet another example of this era misguidedly shoehorning pop cultural artefacts into the series.
Arguably one of the most effective moments among all this is entirely divorced from the main action of the story: the flashback to Gallifrey, which, while not doing anything unexpected design-wise, is a well-realised addition. It does seem slightly presumptuous of Davies to provide a perhaps unnecessary backstory for a pre-existing character, but – as I cringe at the prospect of some ill-judged revelation – at least the temptation to reveal the Master and Doctor as brothers was resisted. I have to say though that this moment only appeased me by targeting the anorak within (Deadly Assassin AND War Games-style costumes...!).
Essentially, I just wish someone had had the guts to strip this story back – a straight conspiracy thriller could have been made suitably taught and involving for a season closer, but, alas… Similarly, the idea of a global disaster actually occurring should have been admirable in televised Doctor Who – instead, in cramming an entire apocalypse into one episode, the concept feels wasted.
In fact – as a measure of quite how disheartened I am by this story – I found myself looking back on the TV Movie with affection. At least then, in the Time Lords’ last on-screen confrontation, there was a fairly even tone. I mean, here, what did we get? Oh, the Doctor’s been turned into Dobby the house-elf. Mmm. And then, we're meant to accept the saccharine "I do believe in fairies!" conclusion as being ‘uplifting’. Hang on, no; if my love for the character of the Doctor weren’t so deep-seated, he’d have lost all his credibility the moment he was turned into a computer-generated gnome.
I know it’s a slightly dangerous game to start talking about taking things seriously in Doctor Who, but come on – the gnome-Doctor is such a ludicrous idea (or, at least, so dubiously handled) that it destroys any remaining shreds of integrity the story might have otherwise retained. Oh, and then, we’re meant to care when the Master dies? Seriously? Okay, I like the emotional element the new series brought to Doctor Who, but when arbitrarily bolted on to any given situation it does loose something of its power.
And this is disregarding the fact that Martha’s plan was bobbins – the Doctor patently not having enough time to impart anything useful, and her global preaching apparently not having been especially effective, considering that everyone we meet has only heard of her, not the Doctor.
Not to mention the enormous cop-out of the ‘time turning back’ ending, which is as dishearteningly weak (and not to say, predictable) as it is hackneyed. Let's just not even go there.
I find it quite hard to pin down specifically, but much of my aversion to this story stems from something slightly off in its tone. I suppose this is most obviously apparent in the way the regulars are degraded – but it’s the apparent domestic abuse of Lucy Saxon that gets me. No real attention is drawn to her black eyes, but this still feels like a huge miscalculation. While I’m absolutely fine with the sexual content, drug use and violence in the New Adventures – an adult-oriented series – it feels wildly distasteful for a self-declared family series to include this. It can’t even be argued that it's in some way raising awareness about a real life issue, because it’s being used as shorthand to show how ‘bad’ the Master is, as if pulpy megalomania and domestic abuse are comparable. Instead, it demeans something hideous.
Even discounting this tonal misstep, this is a story where almost everything feels as if it has gone slightly awry – all the more galling by comparison to Human Nature, where the opposite is true, only a handful of episodes earlier.
PS: Captain Jack as the Face of Boe. Okay, so, by The End of the World, et al, Jack’d be quite old, to put it mildly. But why would he mutate into an (obviously alien) GIANT HEAD. With weird multiple ball things hanging off it. (Well, okay, maybe it is Jack…)