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The Twelve Days of Doctor Who: Days 7-12

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV Acting, TV History, TV in a Word, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 26, 2013 by Tom Steward

‘We’ve been watching Doctor Who for weeks. We must be out of the 80s by now’. I don’t have the heart to tell G that we’ve been watching Doctor Who for six days and that we still have one story from the 1980s to go. Doctor Who used to be notorious for filling time with extended re-caps from the previous episode so I feel justified in doing the same for this two-part blog on my experience watching stories from each Doctor in turn with my American wife in preparation for the 50th anniversary special last Saturday. So far we’ve had cavemen with underwear, cyber-mayans, poachers from space, monsters playing Space Invaders and Dig-Dug, and a TV maths teacher. Like good time-travellers and bad time-travel writers, this time round we’re starting at the end with an episode from 1989 as Doctor Who was on the verge of cancellation and about to go stateside.

‘The Curse of Fenric’ (G’s title: ‘Mr. Bean Goes to War’):

Just a minute…isn’t that Nicholas Parsons?

‘This is much better than the shit we’ve just been watching’, says G as British national treasure Nicholas Parsons is devoured by vampires of the sea. ‘Yeah, it got good again and then they cancelled it’ I offer in the way of no explanation. ‘So many deep quotes in this…“You must take the baby. Now you are the mother of the baby. Now you must drop the baby in the water.” Incidentally, none of these quotes actually appear in the story.

‘Doctor Who: The Movie’ (G’s title: ‘Star Wars UK’)

If you look closely you can see a shark jumping over them.

As the credits roll, G sings in her best John Williams: ‘Kind of like Star Wars/But not really the same’. The TARDIS lands in San Francisco’s Chinatown. ‘People didn’t really think that was China, did they?’. ‘I don’t know. They’re your people’. I’m enjoying passing the buck on Doctor Who’s shortcomings for the first time. ‘This doesn’t feel like Doctor Who at all. It’s more like Adventures in Babysitting’. Then the shark-jumping kiss. ‘I don’t like this. I don’t this at all’. I wanted to kiss her.

‘The Unquiet Dead’/‘Father’s Day’ (G’s titles: ‘The Walking Welsh’/‘Your Parents’ Wedding’):

Walkers in Wales!

‘Why are they so sexual tensiony?’ G asks after witnessing a few seconds of the Doctor and Rose together. ‘That’s what the kiss led to’ I say. ‘It doesn’t work’ G says confidently. Apparently even nine days of Doctor Who is enough to make you realise that the Doctor and his companion being a couple is a bad idea. ‘I don’t like this Doctor. He’s too Jean-Claude van Damme’. I’m sure that’s what renowned stage and screen actor Christopher Eccleston was going for. But you know what? He is a bit Steven Seagal in the part.

‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ (G’s title ‘Poor Father Christmas’):

The decline of William Hartnell…my fault, apparently.

Ok so this is not strictly Doctor Who but it’s a ninety-minute drama about the show and that should test any non-fan’s patience. At first there’s too many real and fictional worlds colliding for G to keep up. G: ‘How old is William Hartnell now?’. Me: ‘That’s not him. That’s an actor playing him’. G: ‘This is all made up, right?’. Me: ‘No it all happened, just like this’. When she sees David Bradley as Hartnell crying into his mantelpiece, it all gets too much. ‘I can’t watch old people being upset’. Then it becomes my fault. ‘How can he not be your favourite?’ (he’s my second). ‘He’s my favourite’ G asserts. ‘He’s the only one with real mystery’.

‘The Christmas Invasion’ (G’s title: ‘The Fall of Scary Santa Face’):

‘Stop being hussys…both of you!’

‘So they went leather jacket man, quirky and then another quirky? Where’s the variety?’. I wonder how G will react tomorrow with an episode in which quirky and quirky quirk off. ‘She’s such a hussy’ G offers ambiguously. ‘Who? Rose or her mother?’ I ask. ‘Same thing’.

‘Day of the Doctor’ (G’s title: ‘Return of the TV’):

Will Ferrell interrupts Doctor Who simulcast!

Well, it all paid off. G laughs knowingly at every in-joke (especially the one about the ‘big round things’ on the wall of the TARDIS)  and loves every minute of this nostalgic wallow in the series’ past. And then Tom Baker returns to Doctor Who 32 years after leaving the show. ‘Is that Will Ferrell?’ G asks. Maybe we’re not quite there yet.

Well, there you have it. 50 years of Doctor Who in twelve days. The first ten years just flew by, a decade dragged its feet, another took a holiday and after a few wrong turns we ended up where we started. Home.


Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Review)

Posted in British Shows on American TV, Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2012 by Tom Steward

In the spirit of writing posts that have little or nothing to do with the theme of this blog we submit for your disapproval a review of a pleasingly throwaway episode of Doctor Who which despite its self-conscious tone of inconsequential fun-a take-it-or-leave-it proposition made abundantly clear by the Ronseal title ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’-has been lambasted by fans as infantile. Labelled an unfunny, tonally confused mess, the second episode of the new season of Doctor Who is in fact a refreshingly straightforward piece of storytelling with a number of fine performances from a top-notch cast and some spot-on characterisation.

It does exactly what it says on the tin!

For the record, when it comes to family entertainment I’m far fonder of efforts that package heavyweight ideas and adult themes with fun and simplicity than those which adopt a portentous and ambiguous style and tone which ignores the majority of its audience base. This is why family movies The Wizard of Oz and Babe are such enduring classics. They have profound things to say about adolescence and animal rights (respectively, although you shouldn’t glue wings to a monkey) but deliver them with a lightness of touch. It’s also why their self-consciously darkened sequels Return to Oz and Babe: Pig in the City are artistic failures. Disturbing and inappropriate for children, these movies address the serious issues of adult life head-on without regard for how young viewers react to or understand them. As an institutional mongrel straddling the BBC’s drama, children’s and light entertainment departments, Doctor Who has often struggled to know where to draw the line on adult content.

Looks fun, doesn’t it?

Doctor Who has always been the scourge of conservative parents and campaigners who claim that it broadcasts material unsuitable for children. Generally, though, the programme has been pretty responsible on this count, erring on the thrilling and exciting side of horror without any of the lingering mental scars. What’s more, when it blundered in the 1970s and 1980s with unacceptable levels of physical violence, producers had the good sense to revert to stories that played up the light-hearted and comedic side of the programme for a while. That said, the first time I’ve ever thought that the show had gone too far was last year’s ‘The Almost People’ in a scene showing Amy giving birth while imprisoned in a coffin-like capsule. The sheer visceral horror could only alarm young women about what would happen to their bodies in adulthood. It irresponsibility pursued shock value without giving children guidance on how to interpret what was happening.

Adult body horror in a children’s TV show

It’s no surprise then that an episode which makes good on Doctor Who’s commitment to its younger viewers has been added to this year’s run, or that it works so well. Chris Chibnall’s ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ opens with a time-shifting montage familiar from Steven Moffat’s episodes but while the latter writer uses this technique to convolute the storyline, the former’s intentions are to suggest whirlwind adventure. It also glosses over what is a satisfyingly linear narrative structure, an episode purposefully striding to its conclusion that makes the best of its simple story by gradually unfolding mysteries like a detective novel and maintaining the breakneck pace of the fixed timeframe. Manichean character contrasts abound: macho chauvinist/female supremacist, righteous hero/amoral villain, emotionally reserved father/compassionate son. This superficiality allow the characters to be quickly absorbed into the action-packed storyline and does a good job of orienting younger viewers in what to feel about the characters. But in working through these stark oppositions, a thoughtful message emerges that extreme viewpoints should be eschewed in favour of tolerance and compromise.

The gang

The gang

The comedy of his episode succeeds more than in previous attempts as humour derives effortlessly from character rather than being pasted in as anomalous gags and set-pieces. It lies in Brian (Mark) Williams’ passive-aggressive chastising of his son’s lack of DIY masculinity and relatable rendition of fathers’ eccentric habits. It is in the oblivious taboo-breaking misogyny of Rupert Graves’ big game hunter and our unnerving attraction to the politically incorrect male heroes of old. Even the incompetent robot double act (voiced by David Mitchell and Robert Webb) which smacks of extraneous vaudeville makes shtick out of their incongruous personalities not just their funny voices. Making characters’ actions easier to understand conversely makes them more authentic rather than one-dimensional. Rather than inject forced notes of pacifism and make him apologise for causing suffering, The Doctor here is allowed to destroy an evil enemy at the cost of life (an animal’s at that!) without the usual dismay and remorse that writers think makes him seem more complex but in fact insults viewers’ intelligence. And villain Solomon (David Bradley) oddly seems more genuinely menacing the more of a caricature of unrestrained capitalism he becomes.

Better than the Empire State Building

But there’s no doubt that what truly makes this episode excel is the performances. Mark Williams‘ deadpan yet emotionally resonant portrayal of Rory’s father is hilarious, observant and poignant, simultaneously so in the penultimate image of Brian enjoying a flask coffee and lunchbox sandwich from Earth’s orbit. David Bradley’s classically styled posturing and vocal intonations held all the gravitas of a great theatrical villain but with the nuance and naturalism to make it credible for the small screen. Solomon’s material and sexual avarice, which struck a discordant note with many viewers, gave a welcome clarity to what should constitute pure evil in the world of Doctor Who. And crucially it did so without spoiling a rollicking good time.



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