Betty’s engagement photo. People said her marriage to the Krynoid would never last, and they were right.
Doctor Who‘s Slyther swears that he only reads The Dalek Book for the stories. But the creases in the centerfold tell a different tale.
The arrival of a new Doctor Who is cause for both celebration and trepidation. As Peter Davison once said, “You quite never know what you’re going to get.” Some days you’re greeted with the charm of a Tom Baker or David Tennant, other times Colin Baker shows up at your door in a fucking clown suit.
Obviously, showrunner Steven Moffat was feeling trepidation about his new leading man, Peter Capaldi. And well he should, because for most of the nine years since Doctor Who returned to the air, the Doctor has been young and relatively handsome. His younger fans only know him as a manic, romantic figure. Along comes Capaldi, the second oldest actor to portray the Doctor, only months younger than William Hartnell was when he was cast in the part.
As someone whose first Doctor Who was Jon Pertwee, I’m perfectly okay with an aged, cranky Time Lord. Honestly, I’m slightly relieved. For as exciting as it was when Russell T. Davies suggested that there might indeed be “hanky-panky in the TARDIS,” it’s going to be nice to have a Doctor/companion relationship that isn’t centered around flirting.
So, how was Capaldi’s debut? Well, it wasn’t an out-of-the-park homer, more of a solid triple. (Hmm, must remember to substitute culturally-appropriate cricketing metaphor.) On the other hand, you can’t always go by initial impressions. The Eleventh Hour was a cracking good kickoff for Matt Smith, but look at how all that turned out.
Deep Breath was a low-stakes adventure, more of a “getting to know you” than a proper plot. Much of it centered around Clara’s difficulty accepting the Doctor’s changed face. (Which is odd, given that her status as “the Impossible Girl” has given her more insight into the Doctor’s many incarnations than any other companion.) By the time Matt Smith phoned up–a clever cameo recorded during last year’s Christmas special–to exhort her to give the new bloke a chance, it was hard to ignore the message aimed squarely at the audience. It’ll be okay. Mr. Bow Tie is gone, but Grandpa is nice too.
There’s one matter to discuss which is far too much of a spoiler to include without fair warning. Join me below for my thoughts about the mysterious “Missy.”
The episode’s stinger was a short scene introducing a befrocked, umbrella-wielding woman named Missy. (You can see her at the far left in the above photo.) She referred to the Doctor as her “boyfriend,” and appeared to be the prime mover of recent events, down to giving Clara the TARDIS’ phone number back in The Bells of St. John.
My first thought was that Moffat was finally paying off the oft-repeated tabloid rumor that so-and-so would be playing the female renegade Time Lord known as the Rani. But in the post-show discussion that aired on BBC America, Chris Hardwick casually slipped in a theory that seems likely to be the correct one: Missy is the Doctor’s arch-foe, the Master.
It fits with recent rumors of the Master’s return. Moffat has denied the stories, but he’s got an obvious out here: he can always say “you didn’t ask me about the Mistress.” (“Missy” strikes me as exactly the sort of winking pseudonym in which the Master has frequently indulged.) It further establishes the idea of cross-gender regeneration hinted at in The Doctor’s Wife, and sets the table for a female 13th Doctor. Moffat toyed with this very thing in his charity skit The Curse of Fatal Death, in which the Doctor’s final regeneration was Joanna Lumley. (And it’s worth noting that it ended with the Doctor and Master pairing up.)
If so, this could go horribly wrong. I’m not eager for River Song Mk. 2. That said, I’m intrigued and very much hooked into the new season. As someone once said, it’s “change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon.”
Some belated thoughts on the Doctor Who Christmas special, the 50th anniversary year, and Matt Smith’s tenure in general…
Smith’s final episode, “The Time of the Doctor,” was–like much of his era–a slapdash construction, full of unsatisfying answers and ideas that appear clever until you think about them for, oh, a second.
Which is not to say that it wasn’t enjoyable, just that it was another undelivered promise of the Smith/Moffat collaboration. It seemed less the culmination of a three-season/four-year story arc, more a realization of “oh, crap, I meant to include solutions to all of these puzzle boxes I’ve been leaving lying about.”
One lingering mystery–the destruction of the Doctor’s TARDIS that resulted in the cracks in time permeating Season Five–was answered in a few lines of exposition. That the Silence was involved was, of course, pretty much assumed. But a tossed-off line about the “Kovarian faction” of the Church travelling back along the Doctor’s timeline to prevent him from reaching the planet Trenzalore in this episode was underwhelming. Besides, it didn’t answer the “how.” Blowing up the TARDIS is a big deal, how did they manage it?*
The revelation that the Silents themselves were confessional priests genetically engineered to allow the faithful to confess their sins without remembering they’d done so is one of those seemingly-clever ideas that don’t stand up to scrutiny. As Friend Dave pointed out to me, that’s not the way that confession works. And this origin doesn’t fit with their modus operandi in “The Impossible Astronaut”/”Day of the Moon,” in which we’re told that the Silents are parasites incapable of developing their own technology. They spent thousands of years secretly influencing humanity for the sole purpose of building a 1960s-era astronaut’s flight suit. That’s right, these members of a far-future, galaxy-spanning church required millennia to acquire a spacesuit.
That a televised story arc features blind alleys and obvious “making it up as we go” explanations isn’t unexpected. That’s what happens when you have a bunch of creative folks collaborating over a period of years and responding to changing production circumstances. It’s less forgivable, however, when all of the major plot points emanate from the singular vision of its showrunner, a writer (rightly) praised for the twisty constructions of his Davies-era Who scripts. How then to explain that something established in one episode (the Time Lords are frozen in time) is flatly contradicted in the very next story?**
On top of his pile of incomplete homework, Moffat decided to tackle the issue of the Doctor’s limited number of regenerations (established in 1976’s “The Deadly Assassin,” back when no one in their right mind would’ve thought we’d still be talking about this 38 years later). To be certain, this had been haunting the show as it prepared for the transition from the Eleventh to the Twelfth Doctor, and it’s understandable that an uber-fan like Moffat would want to be the one to solve it. It’s just that there was no need to do so this soon. Not only did it require the inclusion of a previously-unknown incarnation in the form of John Hurt, it hinged on a technicality–that the aborted regeneration seen in the David Tennant episode “Journey’s End” counted as one of the twelve allotted.
So, instead of having years to develop the concept of a “final” Doctor attempting to have his typical adventures knowing that he couldn’t count on regeneration to save his hash, it was shoehorned into an already overstuffed episode. Which would’ve been okay if the solution had been more interesting or unexpected than “the Time Lords did it.”***
Of course, the primary purpose of “The Time of the Doctor” was to give us an opportunity to say goodbye to Matt Smith. It was effective enough in that regard. For me, it’s just that I wasn’t all that invested in this Doctor. I’m more than ready for a clean slate.
As we move into the 51st year of Doctor Who, I have to say that on the whole I very much enjoyed the big 50. I would’ve preferred a proper inclusion of the surviving Doctors, but it’s hard for me to argue too much with a year that saw Paul McGann return as the forgotten Eighth, the effective reintroduction of fan favorite classic foes the Ice Warriors and Zygons, and shoutouts to stories ranging from “The Ark” to “Planet of the Spiders” and “The Brain of Morbius.” And, as I discussed a few weeks ago, 2013 was the year that Doctor Who stopped being that cult thing and became a legitimate worldwide phenomenon.
*Perhaps the business with the Doctor handing over his TARDIS key to Tasha Lem was meant to answer how Madame Kovarian gained access. Though it hardly seems necessary when you have minions who are forgotten the moment they are out of sight. This would’ve been a good place for a flashback to Season Five depicting the Silents sabotaging the works as the Doctor and the Ponds remain unaware.
**Similarly, Moffat conveniently forgets part of his own prophecy about the siege of Trenzalore, “when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer.” Yet the Doctor spends hundreds of years within the Truth Field, failing to answer the question posed by the Time Lords.
***And yes, it had been established that the Time Lords were capable of granting a new cycle of regenerations. I suspect that’s the reason for the unexpected callback to “The Five Doctors,” the story in which they make this very offer to the Master.
From time to time, the Bonhams auction house offers up an assortment of Doctor Who related items. Next Wednesday another batch goes up on the block. And while it would be fun to own “Believed to be from Remembrance of the Daleks – a destroyed Dalek” (as it describes the blackened lower section of the unlucky victim of Ace’s beloved Nitro-Nine explosives), that’s not what had me desperately checking my bank balance.
No, here’s what set my twin hearts aflutter:
It’s the Taran Wood Beast! The scourge of the planet Tara! The darkness that slips between the trees! The creature that haunts my sweaty nightmares!
Sure, that may be overselling it. But my love of the Taran Wood Beast is well-documented. Okay, “love” may also be an overstatement, given that I once described it as “endearingly pathetic.” But that doesn’t matter. I wants it. My precious.
Here’s how Bonhams describes it:
Doctor Who: The Androids of Tara – A Taran Wood Beast costume, November – December 1978, comprising: a mask in the formed as scaled face (sic), protruding eyes and teeth, of synthetic fur, papier-mache, foam, latex, plastic and polystyrene, with tieing straps, with body/ jump suit, of synthetic fur effect fabric, and foam, with detachable section to reverse, with padded hands, and attached claws, house on a wicker mannequin, together with a reproduction image featuring the piece, head width approximately 20 inches (51cm)
It’s worth pointing that this is not, as they would have it, “a” Taran Wood Beast. This is the Taran Wood Beast. The original, you might say.
Let’s take a closer look at Mr. Beast:
Can you imagine the thrill of experiencing this face staring back at you from the corner of your very own living room? Can you imagine the smell of this costume after so many years? It would exude an odor recalling nostalgia and terror, or more likely, a damp, rotted badger carcass. The actual Taran Wood Beast probably has a fresher scent.
If my lovely wife Vicky bought this for me, I not only would love her for the rest of my days (which I already would, so I guess I’d doubly love her), I would wear it. For Halloween. For Arbor Day. For birthdays and bar mitzvahs, for casual Fridays and dress-up Thursdays. I would wear it so often that locals would say, “Oh look, Gladys. It’s the Taran Wood Beast again.” Followed by, “Let’s walk the other way.”
Yet, as much as the mere possibility of owning this lovely for myself excites me, it also saddens me. Saddens me because someone took in this poor beast for the past 35 years. They sheltered it. They loved it. And, whether they came on hard times or simply couldn’t stand the dead badger stench any more, they were forced to let it go.
Let’s get it out of the way: yes, “The Day of the Doctor” was a very satisfying celebration of Doctor Who. While I’ll get to a couple of caveats shortly, Steven Moffat ticked nearly all of the boxes and left me feeling very good about the future of my favorite TV series.
It’s all spoilers from this point forward, so don’t follow me into the Black Archive below unless you want to know it all.
(By the way, the above image is stitched together from several different frames to provide a better view of the Cyber-converted copy of “The Raft of the Medusa” on display in the Undergallery.)
While I was anticipating another look in at the final day of the great Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords, what I did not expect was a rewrite. The Time War was the central event of the revived series, papering over Doctor Who‘s 16-year broadcast hiatus and providing character motivation for the battle-scarred Doctor, who had presided over its end by annihilating both sides of the conflict.
Now that has been undone, and while I might be annoyed by a such a “retcon” (a portmanteau of “retroactive continuity,” referring to the revision of established history within a serial narrative), I’m actually quite happy about it. The Doctor’s post-Time War trauma pretty much had been played out, and his quest to locate and restore his homeworld of Gallifrey will provide new story ideas. Furthermore, it puts behind us the notion of the Doctor as the “Last of the Time Lords,” the final survivor of an exploded planet à la Superman.
What I liked especially was that it allowed the Doctor to once again be the Doctor, the man who seeks a better way to save the day. We saw it in his peaceful handling of the Zygon invasion sub-plot, and again when he changed his mind about pushing the big, red, planet-shattering button.
I was very happy to see the long-absent Zygons get so much screen time; I’d assumed that they’d make little more than a cameo. While I was mildly disappointed by the non-appearance of their pet–the Loch Ness Monster–perhaps Moffat is saving that for a follow-up.
There were a few others who were sorely missed. Would it have killed Christopher Eccleston to put aside whatever resentment he feels toward Doctor Who long enough to shoot a regeneration scene? Not cool. And as punch-the-air wonderful it was to have all of the Doctor’s former selves arrive like the Cavalry, it’s really too bad that the present-day Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy weren’t allowed to participate.*
That said, I can’t complain too much. I hooted when the upcoming 12th Doctor (or is he the 13th?) Peter Capaldi put in a split-second appearance, and again when Tom Baker showed up as “The Curator,” hinted to be a future incarnation of the Time Lord revisiting one of his old faces.
Multi-Doctor stories are always fun, if for no other reason than to provide an excuse for his various incarnations to poke fun at and attempt to one-up each other. Matt Smith and the returning David Tennant clearly had a good time, and “War Doctor” John Hurt surprisingly fit right in as their younger/older self.
Although I would have been perfectly content with a mpb of former Doctors and companions having a runaround in the style of the 20th anniversary special, “The Five Doctors,” I have to admit that “The Day of the Doctor” was a far better story, and a fitting tribute to the world’s longest-running science-fiction TV series. While I don’t expect that I’ll be around for the 100th anniversary, for today at least I feel that a centenary celebration isn’t such a long shot.
*Yes, I’ve seen The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, the comedy short about the neglected Doctors’ attempt to crash the production of the 50th anniversary special. It’s cute, but perhaps not quite so funny the day after watching the docudrama An Adventure in Space and Time, which ended the story of the early years of the production of Doctor Who with 1st Doctor William Hartnell being shoved aside to make way for a newer model. That said, I would love to think that it really was Davison, Baker and McCoy under those tarps in the televised episode.
Here, in no particular order, are 50 of my favorite Doctor Who stories.
“Bad Wolf”/”The Parting of the Ways” — This is what I’m watching as I begin to type this list. The first season finale of the revived show is a brilliant fake-out. What seems to be a goofy tale about deadly game shows turns into a showdown with a half-million Daleks and the final moments of the 9th Doctor. Plus, it has one of my all-time favorite scenes: “But you have no weapons, no defenses, no plan!”
“Terror of the Zygons” — With one significant exception, this 4th Doctor classic is a triumph of 1975 production values: convincing rubber-suited aliens, gloopy organic technology and a spectacular spaceship explosion. It all falls down a bit with the puppet Loch Ness Monster. The Zygons themselves will make their long-awaited return in tomorrow’s anniversary special.
“Castrovalva” — The 5th Doctor’s introduction is special to me for being the first episode I saw with an audience of fans. The resurrected Master doggedly pursues his ailing nemesis back to the Big Bang and forward into a Escher-inspired dimensional trap.
“Smith and Jones” — NuWho at its lunatic best, with a mercenary police force of space rhinos teleporting a London hospital to the moon in their search for a vampire granny with a bendy straw.
“Hide” — From the most recent season comes this 1970s haunted house story starring Call the Midwife‘s Jessica Raine as a psychic paranormal investigator. It’s both creepy and surprisingly touching.
“Genesis of the Daleks” — It was twelve years before we learned the true story of the birth of the Doctor’s most persistent enemies. For my money, their perverse creator Davros is Doctor Who‘s all-time greatest villain.
“Inferno” — Admittedly, this 3rd Doctor story runs a bit long at seven episodes. It’s most notable for a side-trip to a fascist parallel Earth that the Doctor utterly fails to save from flaming death. “And they were all wearing eyepatches!”
“Midnight” — The 10th Doctor discovers that not having a companion to humanize him leads to distrust by a group of tourists beset by an invisible, impossible demon. Doctor Who does The Twilight Zone, and it’s just plain terrifying.
“The Five Doctors” — Tomorrow it will have been 30 years since Chicago enjoyed the worldwide broadcast premiere of this anniversary special. (Brits didn’t see it until two days later!) It’s a messy piece of fan service, with three Doctors–plus a replacement 1st Doctor and some stock footage of Tom Baker–teamed with old friends in a quest to the Dark Tower of Rassilon.
“Vengeance on Varos” — Granted, being the 6th Doctor’s best story is clearing a rather low bar. But I love this post-modern piss take on violent television, with its Greek chorus of passive viewers offering running commentary on the Doctor and Peri’s struggle against the money-hungry slug Sil.
“The End of the World” — While “Rose” was a very-nearly perfect reintroduction of Doctor Who to a modern audience, it was the second episode that said “look at what we can do now!” A party of bizarre aliens ranging from a giant head to a stretched piece of skin gather to witness the Earth melt away.
“Partners in Crime” — Donna Noble makes her first appearance as a series regular in a comedy romp about a relatively low-stakes alien invasion. A popular diet supplement promises that the fat will just walk away, and so it does…in the form of the adorable, dough-boy Adipose.
“The Robots of Death” — One of Who‘s most successful attempts at world-building is this Agatha Christie mystery set aboard a sand-mining ship serviced by ornate robots programmed never to go worng.
“The Eleventh Hour” — Matt Smith isn’t my favorite Doctor, but he’s terrific in his debut episode, particularly when interacting with seven-year-old Amelia Pond.
“Earthshock” — The Doctor’s second-most famous foes, the Cybermen, are mostly crap. But this is their finest hour, bringing inevitable doom down upon the Doctor’s closest friends. “Ex-cellent!”
“The Fires of Pompeii” — An episode which answers one of the nagging questions about the Doctor’s adventures: why is it that he can interfere in some historical events, but not others? There’s also a fun running gag regarding the TARDIS’ built-in language translator and Donna’s attempt to speak Latin to the ancient Romans.
“Blink” — Cause and effect loop around each other as the Doctor uses DVD Easter Eggs to communicate across the decades with a young woman menaced by living statues.
“The Time Monster” — This 3rd Doctor adventure isn’t well-regarded by most fans, but it’s the first Doctor Who episode I ever saw and therefore gets a pass. Atlantis, a Minotaur, the Master and a pair of Russian-nested TARDISes make for a hallucinogenic first exposure.
“Remembrance of the Daleks” — The notion of a manipulative 7th Doctor starts here, but I won’t hold that against it. The Doctor’s trap for the Daleks goes pear-shaped when two opposing forces of evil pepper-pots arrive in 1963.
“Night of the Doctor” — The mini-prequel to tomorrow’s anniversary episode is a wonderful, seven-minute slice of Who, with a surprise appearance by the neglected 8th Doctor and a callback to fan favorite story “The Brain of Morbius.”
And here are the other thirty!
“The Brain of Morbius” (I said it was a fan favorite.)
“The Time Warrior” (Welcome, Sarah Jane!)
“Gridlock” (A tribute to 2,000 AD comics with a cameo from a forgotten Who monster.)
“The Seeds of Doom” (A Bond villain nurtures a world-eating plant.)
“The God Complex” (Take The Shining, add another Minotaur.)
“City of Death” (Douglas Adams wrote this comedy about an alien’s heist of the Mona Lisa.)
“The Caves of Androzani” (The 5th Doctor goes out in a blaze.)
“The Aztecs” (The series’ first challenge to established history.)
“The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (A marvelous Victorian adventure pastiche.)
“The Christmas Invasion” (The 10th Doctor proves what kind of a man he is.)
“Horror of Fang Rock” (A shape-shifting alien stalks a storm-tossed lighthouse.)
“The Green Death” (aka “The One with the Maggots.”)
“Rose” (A shop girl meets a stranger with a blue box and learns to run for her life.)
“The Curse of Peladon” (Royal intrigue at a conference of alien ambassadors.)
“School Reunion” (The hearts of a million fanboys flutter as Sarah Jane returns. And K-9 too!)
“The Happiness Patrol” (Mandatory happiness is enforced by a candy-covered robot.)
“The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” (The introduction of the roguish Captain Jack Harkness.)
“The Pirate Planet” (Another Douglas Adams script, this one about a planet-devouring planet.)
“The Curse of Fenric” (Vikings, vampires, Russians and an ancient evil converge in WWII Britain.)
“The Face of Evil” (The Doctor meets the savage Leela!)
“Planet of Evil” (A magnificent alien jungle set enlivens this spin on Forbidden Planet.)
“Pyramids of Mars” (If there’s a villain more frightening than Sutekh, I don’t want to meet him.)
“The Girl in the Fireplace” (The Doctor has a time-crossed romance with Madame de Pompadour.)
“Terror of the Autons” (The Master kicks off his decades-long vendetta.)
“The Ark in Space” (Proof, if any be needed, that bubble wrap is scary.)
“The Mind Robber” (The Doctor faces the surreal threat of becoming a fictional character.)
“Enlightenment” (Bored immortals stage a sailing race through the Solar System.)
“Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday” (The Daleks and Cybermen talk smack to each other. And there’s something about Rose.)
“The Deadly Assassin” (Political conspiracy, Time Lord mythology and the Matrix 23 years before The Matrix.)
“Dalek” (After decades of being the butt of the joke, a lone Dalek proves that one is more than enough.)
I have to say that I have mixed emotions about this Saturday’s 50th Anniversary Doctor Who episode. Do I want to see it? Oh, very much so. But I know that no matter how much I enjoy it, I’m going to be a little sad afterwards. The anticipation; the flood of interviews, articles and retrospectives; I’ve loved every moment of the build-up to the 50th. By Sunday, it’ll all be over but the endless kvetching of Internet forums.
These past few weeks have felt like sweet vindication. As a kid, being into Doctor Who made me a weirdo. These days, it’s utterly mainstream. Okay, the majority of Americans still wouldn’t know a TARDIS from a teapot, but when I can walk into Walmart, or Barnes & Noble, or Gordman’s, and see Doctor Who merchandise right out in the open; when other pop-culture shows make reference to it without further explanation; when moms and kids and tweens and seniors all openly proclaim their love for it; I know that my time has arrived.
I’m just shy of 50 myself; I was most likely a blastocyst in my mother’s uterus when Doctor Who premiered in the U.K. Being an ocean away, my initial introduction to the Doctor came via television airings of Peter Cushing’s pair of Dalek feature films. A couple of years later I had my first chance to watch the real thing.
As I approach my own big five-oh, one of the things that I appreciate about Doctor Who is that it’s older than I am. For me, it’s always been there. It very well may outlast me. That’s a comforting thought.
I had hoped to embark on another one of my month-long blog-a-thons in commemoration of next Saturday’s 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, but it was not to be.
This past month much of my free time has been consumed by a board game design competition run by the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization. My team’s entry is a horror-themed game loosely based on the movie Cabin in the Woods. “Cabin Full of Monsters” is a tongue-in-cheek contest in which the players recruit and equip teams of monsters and set them loose in the eponymous building. It’s coming along nicely, but it certainly has been a time suck.
So, here we are, six days out from what is not only the most significant moment in the long history of one of the BBC’s signature dramas, but perhaps the biggest event in all of televised science-fiction: a worldwide simulcast of the 50th anniversary episode to be seen in 75 countries, with 3D theatrical screenings in many of them. And I haven’t had much to say about it.
I’m sure that I’ll have more about the anniversary programming later in the week, but for now I will direct you to some of my previous postings: 31 Classic Doctor Who Monsters, The Doctor Who Experience (including a complete photo gallery) and Sixty Things I Like About Who.