“The Chimes of Midnight”

220px-Chimes_of_Midnight“The Chimes of Midnight”, written by Rob Shearman, is the 29th audio in Big Finish‘s main range, featuring the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard. I’ve been trying to skip ahead, up to the 180’s range, to keep up with the audios that are currently being released, but there’s so much to listen to – nearly two hundred in just the main range – and then I get recommendations from friends, like this one. My friend told me that he thinks Mr. Shearman’s work is brilliant and recommended “The Chimes of Midnight” to me; Mr. Shearman’s other audio, “Scherzo”, is, according to my friend, “f*cked up but fantastic”, and requires some previous audios, as it’s the first story in the Divergent arc. I also happened to already own “The Chimes of Midnight”, so I started there.

Some spoilers ahead (I won’t reveal the whole plot).

I’ve said earlier that one of the things that I like about the Big Finish audio plays is that, unlike the TV show, they are very willing to journey into the surreal, and “The Chimes of Midnight” doesn’t disappoint. It starts out very ordinary, with the TARDIS landing in the servant’s area of a manor house on Christmas Eve, 1906; there’s nothing strange about that. The Doctor and Charley realize pretty quickly that something is odd, and they start exploring and meeting the staff, and this is where it starts getting strange. Everyone is nice and helpful, and everyone is so excited about the cook’s plum pudding, because “Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Mrs. Baddeley’s plum pudding!” The phrase is repeated by all of the staff, and it seems to focus the surrealism, just that phrase by itself. You start to cringe when you hear it.

Of course, more strange things start to happen, starting with the scullery maid, Edith, telling Charley very matter-of-factly that she’s going to die tonight, which she does, drowned leaning over her tub with her head submerged. The rest of the staff are happy to attribute this to suicide, and when the Doctor says that it’s impossible to kill yourself that way, they claim that Edith was too stupid to know it was impossible. And then the lady’s maid, Mary, begins to realize that she’s the scullery maid, because there never was an Edith. But, an hour later, there’s Edith again, working in the scullery.

I can’t really do this storyline justice, trying to summarize it. Suffice it to say that the weird things continue to compound themselves, and they are intricately wrought to have you going in circles until the Doctor figures out what is really going on. The plot is riveting, and the performances are fantastic. I definitely would recommend this audio as a great one. It does refer back to Charley’s origin audio, “Storm Warning,” but the reference is explained well enough in the audio that I don’t feel you have to have heard it.

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“Zagreus”

zagreusWell, I ran right into listening to “Zagreus,” the 50th audio in Big Finish‘s main range, featuring the Eighth Doctor and Charley Pollard, and I am so glad I did. Now, the ratings on Time Scales varies greatly for this audio: people either love it or hate it, and I can see why. It’s a very ambitious story, attempting to force the Doctor and Charley to separately navigate their own mindscapes to figure out what’s going on without losing themselves, and a lot of people are not going to like this type of psychological drama. However, I loved it. And it cemented for me a lot more of Time Lord lore and history, which is something I really love.

Now, there is really no way for me to discuss this audio without spoilers, so you’ve been warned. Heavy, heavy spoilers ahead. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m outlining the whole story below.

“Zagreus” (pronounced “zah-GRAY-us”, by the way – I never get these pronunciations right; I still have problems remembering to pronounce “Omega” as “OH-me-ga”) follows directly upon “Neverland.” In that audio, the Doctor foils a plot by the condemned Time Lords in the ant-time universe to destroy Gallifrey by exploding it with anti-time by having the TARDIS swallow the anti-time bomb before it explodes. However, the Doctor becomes infected by the anti-time and becomes Zagreus, a previously fictional legendary destroyer of worlds. Charley is also in the TARDIS at the time and knows about the infection, but gets separated from the Doctor.

“Zagreus” then deals with what happens next. The Doctor is left to battle this alternate personality who wants to destroy the universe, and he spends much of the first half of the audio trying to avoid or escape from traps set by it. (I’m referring to Zagreus as “it” to keep it separate from the various male characters that show up.) Meanwhile, the TARDIS appears to Charley in the form of the Brigadier. He creates simulations of three different time periods to show her some important events connected with Zagreus and the anti-time universe. In each one, Charley plays the role of someone involved in the events, but mostly as an observer. The first involves an experiment run by humans during the Cold War, in which Reverend Matthew Townsend manipulates the experiment so that it shows him the creator of the universe, or so he thinks. The experiment explodes, or course, and kills everyone present, but what he sees through it is not what he expected.

The second simulation was of Gallifrey before Rassilon created the Time Lords. Tepesh, a Council investigator, made his way into Rassilon’s foundry to figure out what exactly he was doing. He finds out that Rassilon was planning to create the Web of Time to lock the universe into the timeline he preferred, and in the pursuit of this, was creating regeneration so that the Time Lords would live longer. Rassilon had also discovered that a new race, which he called the Divergence, was going to evolve to become more powerful than the Time Lords, and so he locked them into the Divergent Universe so that the Time Lords would continue to reign supreme. This is the universe that Reverend Townsend saw through his experiment. And lastly, Rassilon decided that the Gallifreyan form should be dominant in the universe, so he seeded tens of thousands of planets so that their dominant lifeforms were forced into Gallifreyan shape. Meanwhile, Tepesh reveals himself to be a Great Vampire, one of the last existent, and explains that Rassilon had waged war to genocide his race by spreading propaganda to the Gallifreyan people that the peaceful Vampire race were malicious and evil. Rassilon then incinerated Tepesh and his companions.

The third simulation was of Walton Winkle, or Uncle Winkie, a carny devoted to creating amusement parks and animatronic creatures for entertaining children. He was put into suspended animation a short time before he was about to die from a heart condition, and when he’s brought back, he finds himself in the last version of his amusement park, built on the burnt-out cinder of a planet. He discovers that he was woken up at the end of the universe, and the dead planet he’s on is Gallifrey. He’s been kept this long because he’s the one person with the mechanical skills to… Sorry, I don’t remember exactly what it was he was supposed to do, but the whole point of all three simulations is that the Divergence is trying to come back into the real universe. At the end of this simulation, Uncle Winkie is also killed.

While going through their various trials, the Doctor and Charley separately come to realize that there are sinister things going on, more than just the Doctor becoming corrupted by anti-time. They aren’t just trapped in the TARDIS: they’re in the Matrix, where Rassilon’s consciousness has existed since he died millions of years before. Everything has been orchestrated by Rassilon: he took the opportunity of the Doctor becoming infected by anti-time to bring the Zagreus persona into existence, to use it to destroy the Divergence as well as to use it to secure his hold on the Time Lords and the universe. While Rassilon forces the Doctor/Zagreus into forging a weapon that will kill the Divergence, Charley finds herself with Matrix representations of Reverend Townsend, Tepesh, and Uncle Winkie, as well as President Romana, who, when she sees them, calls them Doctor – the men that Charley saw in the simulations have the forms of the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors. Together, they confront Rassilon and (after a few more twists and turns) cast him into the Divergent Universe to be dealt with by the beings Rassilon had been trying to kill. However, the Doctor, still infected by anti-time, chooses to exile himself to the Divergent Universe, to protect the real universe from the anti-time within him.

As you can see, it’s quite a complicated plot, and there are some very cool/disturbing things that happen that I haven’t mentioned – you’ll just have to experience them yourself. They managed to create a plot that’s part adventure (how is Charley going to survive those simulations?), part history lesson, and part psychological drama, and it’s successful for some people (I thought it was riveting) but not for others.

One thing that was extremely interesting was how they presented the guest characters. Reverend Townsend, Tepesh, and Uncle Winkie were depicted in the simulations and the Matrix as looking like the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors (and indeed possessed significant character traits of those Doctors), and as such were played by Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy. But it’s also explained that the simulations presented by the TARDIS used faces that the TARDIS was familiar with, and so all of the other characters in them looked like old companions and were played by their actors (for example, Tepesh’s fellow vampire Ouida was played by Nicola Bryant). It was wonderful hearing all of these wonderful actors playing new parts, plus a few playing their regular parts (Lalla Ward as Romana, Louise Jameson as Leela, John Leeson as K9, Miles Richardson as Braxiatel). However, I can imagine that someone who bought the audio based on the cast list might be very disappointed to not hear an audio with a giant meeting of multiple Doctors and their companions and hate this audio just for that reason. Heck, the cover image up there implies this is a meeting of four Doctors.

Bottom line, I really liked “Zagreus.” I can certainly see why a lot of people don’t. Honestly, if nothing else, I’d recommend listening to it just to find out how corrupted Rassilon really was, because it really gives you a good sense of just how different from the other Time Lords the Doctor really is.

“Storm Warning” and “Neverland”

neverlandOver the last couple of days, I listened to “Storm Warning” and “Neverland,” two Eight Doctor/Charley Pollard audios which are connected by narrative events; the final part of this story arc is “Zagreus,” which I haven’t listened to yet (but I am eager to get to).

“Storm Warning” is Charley’s first episode. In 1930, the Doctor finds himself on the maiden voyage of a British airship, the R101, where he meets Charley, who has disguised herself as a male cabin boy, for the adventure of traveling on the airship. The Doctor realizes that the fate of the airship is to crash that evening during a storm in France, and because he’s taken a liking to Charley, he tries to save her from dying in the disaster. In “Neverland,” the Time Lords summon the Doctor to investigate some fractures in the Web of Time that are spreading and threatening to destroy the universe.

Without spoilers, I can say that “Storm Warning” was pretty average, with an uninspired story, while “Neverland” was fantastic. When “Neverland” was over, I thought to myself, “I wish the TV episodes were like this audio.” In addition to a great plot with a number of twists, it addressed a number of moral issues and challenged the Doctor’s beliefs. You don’t need to listen to “Storm Warning” to enjoy “Neverland,” and I would definitely say that if you get the chance to listen to it, grab it!

One thing I will say, though, after listening to these two audios, is that I really like the Eighth Doctor. He comes across as somewhat flighty, eccentric, and non-serious, but very personable and caring, and of course, like all of the Doctors, he has a core of steel. He also has that fascination with exploring the universe and seeing new things that I love so much in the Tenth Doctor, more so than any of the other Doctors. I am also very impressed with Paul McGann: he is a fantastic actor. I think it must be difficult to act in audios, because you can’t rely on facial expressions and movements to convey emotion and meaning, but Mr. McGann does incredibly well with just his voice: he can make you picture him, which is something most of the actors can’t do very well – they act their lines out, but Mr. McGann gives something more to the performance. I wish I could explain what I mean better.

Spoilerific discussion:

The problem I had with “Storm Warning” was that the alien race was just way out there, too weird and too improbable. I know that aliens have to be designed so that they react the way the author needs, so that the story happens the way it’s supposed to, but in this case, it was really obvious they were designed to fit the plot. It isn’t successful if the audience is thinking in such meta terms. Beyond that, though, the rest of the plot – what the humans were trying to accomplish, why they attacked the aliens, and the final outcome of the Lawgiver problem – was very predictable and not interesting. The story was mostly interesting for the introduction of Charley, and at least she was a great character to meet.

“Neverland” was enthralling all the way through, starting with the disintegration of the Web of Time from the very first seconds of the audio. We find out that Charley’s death in the R101 crash in “Storm Warning” was equivalent to what the modern series calls a “fixed point” and the Doctor saving her life there caused her to become a gateway between our universe and the universe of anti-time. (The Doctor mused about saving her life at the end of “Storm Warning” but was unable to identify any problems with her continuing to exist.) The Time Lords call the Doctor back to go on an expedition into the anti-time universe, to find out why the Web of Time is breaking down. There, they find that all of the Time Lord criminals that the Time Lords used to erase from history (a punishment they stopped using) had been sent there, and these people are angry, wanting to send anti-time into the real universe, to destroy it.

As in most of the other good Doctor Who stories, the characters are not black and white: the different characters have motivations other than what they’re saying out loud, and the Doctor finds that, in order to get everyone back to the real universe and keep the anti-time inhabitants from succeeding in their revenge plot, he has to figure out who’s trustworthy and who’s not. He does finally come to the conclusion that the only way to succeed is to sacrifice himself (in a very interesting way), and that doesn’t go unnoticed, as Rassilon himself appears and expresses his appreciation of the  Doctor’s efforts throughout his life. And then there’s the twist at the end, making me want to run off and listen to “Zagreus” right now (as if I needed any more prodding – I’ve seen the cast list for “Zagreus” and I’m surprised I took the time to sit down and write this instead of popping it in).

“Neverland” was absolutely wonderful, and there are a number of scenes that I plan to go back and listen to again, because they were so wonderful and meaningful. One other thing: this isn’t a fair reaction, because it only came about because I’ve seen the modern show before listening to “Neverland,” but the Rassilon scene brought tears to my eyes. It was beautiful in the first place, because the Time Lords have rarely appreciated the Doctor but Rassilon himself displayed his approval of the Doctor’s beliefs and his constant fight to uphold them. But Rassilon’s depiction here, as a wise and benevolent figure, only underscores the corruption of the Time Lords during the Last Great Time War, as you compare him here to his character in The End of Time. It was heartbreaking.

 

Favorite Scenes: Eleventh Doctor

Matt Smith as the Doctor

Matt Smith as the Doctor

First, I should note that I’m less familiar with the Eleventh Doctor than I am with the Ninth and Tenth Doctor, so this list is probably not comprehensive. I’m spending some time rewatching series 5-7, and I bet this list will change at the end of that. Second, it seems that my choices are very different from other people’s choices, as I had a hard time finding videos of the scenes I like. Ah well.

“The Eleventh Hour” – The Doctor vs. the Atraxi: In the modern series, each new Doctor’s introductory episode does a great job of establishing the character of the Doctor, and this one is no exception. From this scene, we see exactly who the Doctor is: his bombastic nature, his courage, and his disdain for his enemies, and he completes his costume.

 

“The Big Bang” – Timey-wimey: What I mean here is how the Doctor escapes from the Pandorica, saves Amy, and then saves the universe through the creative use of time travel. The “scene” is something like twenty minutes long, so it’s probably a good thing I didn’t find a video for it. When you first watch this episode, this sequence of events (actually, it’s more like a big ball of events) breaks your brain, but when you think about it, it all works out and it’s brilliant.

“A Christmas Carol” – The Doctor goes back to young Kazran: This episode was fantastic, and there are tons of scenes that I’m sure others would point to as better, but my favorite is when the Doctor gets old Kazran Sardick to start watching the movie, then walks out of the room and appears in the window in the movie. It’s another scene that highlights the non-linear nature of the Doctor’s thinking.

“The Doctor’s Wife” – The Doctor realizes who Idris is: I prefer this scene to any of the other emotional Doctor/Idris scenes. The Doctor is still figuring out how to relate to Idris, and Idris is still figuring out how to be a living creature. Gorgeous.

“The Almost People” – The Ganger Doctor appears: I love it when the current Doctor’s actor is given the opportunity to do their own interpretation of previous Doctors. It doesn’t happen often – the Fifth Doctor just after regeneration comes to mind – but it’s always cool when it happens.

“Nightmare in Silver” – The Doctor vs. the Cybercontroller: I couldn’t find a good video for this, so I had to take what I got. Mr. Smith’s performance as the two very different characters is just amazing.

“The Night of the Doctor”: Ok, I’m sorry, this isn’t the Eleventh Doctor, but this minisode was published during his tenure, so I counted it. This minisode is fantastic. It answers so many questions about how the Doctor got involved in the Time War, and in only a few minutes, establishes for a whole generation of viewers the personality of the Eighth Doctor. It also gives the Eighth Doctor a beautiful end (sacrificing himself, yet again, for the greater good) and fills in the lacking regeneration.

“The Day of the Doctor” – Firing the Moment: While there are plenty of other scenes in this episode that I love, this is the absolute best. After the centuries of self-recrimination of their actions in the Time War and denying the existence of the War Doctor, and then after meeting him again, the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors return to the Time War and support him. They have realized that he made the hardest decision in the universe, and, by joining him at the Moment, show him that they no longer deny him, that they believe in him and are willing to make that decision again, right alongside him.

“The Light at the End”

the light at the endMy current project at work is something purely visual, requiring no verbal or critical thought, which is unusual for me, because my previous projects all involved writing, usually documentation. While I’m working, I’m usually listening to music because it’s something that isn’t intrusive; I can continue to work and write with music in the background. However, I realized yesterday that while I’m working on something purely visual, I could be listening to something with actual narrative. I had purchased some Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays a week or so ago, so I downloaded one (luckily, work has a high-speed connection) and played The Light at the End while I worked, as an experiment to see if I could be productive while listening. (The result, by the way, is that I think I was more productive than before, because while my visual mind was working, my narrative mind, which is usually wandering far away and often distracting me with thoughts of “you should go look that up on the Internet!” was absorbed in listening to the story. I finished more work than I normally do in an afternoon.)

I had never listened to any audio plays of any type before this. Well, ok, when I was a kid, the morning radio program my mother used to play every day had two short humorous bits called Chicken Man and The Story Lady, which were about five minutes apiece and were short skits. But as far as I know, the U.S. doesn’t have a tradition of radio plays that lasted into the era of television, while the UK does. If you look on the BBC iPlayer website, there are radio dramas playing every day. Is there radio drama at all in the U.S.? I don’t really know, and I wouldn’t even know where to look.

So, I went into The Light at the End without any clue as to what to expect. I knew that it wasn’t an audiobook (another thing I’ve never experienced, but that will change soon), and that the original actors for Doctors Four through Eight were in it, as well as some companions, but beyond that, it was a fresh new experience for me. And it was a great one!

I had been afraid that I wouldn’t be able to follow what was going on without any visual cues. Who was talking? What were they doing? Can you really see what people are doing? I found that the writers and actors paint a very complete picture of what’s going on. First, the Doctors are all very distinct. Tom Baker and Colin Baker have very unique voices. Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor has a different accent from everyone else and rolls his Rs magnificently. Peter Davison and Paul McGann sometimes sound a bit similar, but you can usually tell from the words that are put in their mouth which is which; the Doctors all have different personalities and this extends to the way they speak and the words they choose. The companions were harder to distinguish simply by voice (except Leela; no one sounds like Leela), but again, their dialogue was very in-character. Second, the audio plays have sound effects that explain what’s going on, from explosions, to footsteps moving around in stereo, to fogged dialogue to denote dream sequences or characters being spirited away. Third, if something’s not clear, it was made clear in the dialogue, e.g. “Oh, look, here comes Ace.” Thus, I can definitely see that the script was written with its medium in mind, and I found that it was just as enjoyable as a TV episode.

I also very much enjoyed the story itself. (No real spoilers here, other than what you can glean from the episode’s summary and list of actors.) Something’s going wrong in an English town on November 23, 1963, something that will end in catastrophe, and the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Doctors, along with their companions, are trying to figure it out and fix it. Of course, part of the charm of this story is that you have five classic Doctors interacting with each other, but the story is robust and a lot of fun, compelling you to stick around to see just how it all comes out. All of the actors do a great job of bringing their characters to life, and you can really picture them swaggering around (for the Doctors, at least). Ace’s and Peri’s youthful enthusiasm were especially delightful, and, for me anyway, it was nice to meet Charley Pollard for the first time. I would also like to note that the play also provides some very sweet surprises for fans.

Since I was working at the time, I didn’t really get to pay too much attention to the technobabble details of the plot, so I plan to relisten to this sometime, and I’m really looking forward to it. I think this is a great audio play and was a terrific choice for a first-time listener. And, as the classic Doctors’ complement to “The Day of the Doctor” 50th anniversary special for the modern show, it was a great tribute to the old show.

Nine more hours, clever boys and girls, and the Fish Doctor!

I’ve held out. “The Day of the Doctor” came and went two days ago, and even though I have been able to download the episode (on BBC iPlayer using a VPN spoofing my IP address as one from the UK), I have stoically refused to watch it. I will be watching it for the first time tonight, at the local theater, in my Fifth Doctor costume. I’ve stayed off the internet, not even visiting my own Facebook page, to avoid spoilers. I’ve rewatched the original trailer (but not the second one) and The Night of the Doctor but otherwise stayed away from the teaser clips and other material. I just have to survive for nine more hours.

It’s actually been pretty easy. We re-watched “Nightmare in Silver” and “The Name of the Doctor” to get back into the right timestream (ha, see what I did there?). But otherwise, it’s pretty much been a stress-free weekend. I’ve spent my time reading a music theory textbook (it’s actually really good, if you’re into that kind of stuff on a beginner level), fixed up bits of my Fifth Doctor costume, including coming up with a way of getting my fake decorative vegetable to lie flat instead of flopping around on my lapel, and worked a little on a fanfic that I’m trying to write and will probably scrap because it’s not coming together.

I also rewatched “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead” for the first time since finishing all of the Eleventh Doctor’s episodes, and it was very cool to see how well they seeded River Song’s story in that episode. Beyond the obvious line of the Doctor and River meeting each other in backwards order to each other, River mentions the crash of the Byzantium. They also make sure that you know that Ten sees her one more time before he regenerates, which explains why she recognizes him.

There was one other very interesting parallel to this episode, one that I am absolutely amazed was planned out this far in advance (this episode was aired in 2008, and its parallel did not appear until 2013). We all know that Clara Oswald is “the Impossible Girl,” and that her tagline is, “Run, you clever boy, and remember.” At the end of “Forest of the Dead,” when River arrives in CAL’s world, the following exchange takes place.

CAL: It’s okay, you’re safe. You’ll always be safe here. The Doctor fixed the data core. This is a good place now. But I was worried you might be lonely, so I brought you some friends. Aren’t I a clever girl?
EVANGELISTA: Aren’t we all?
RIVER: Oh, for heaven’s sake. He just can’t do it, can he? That man. That impossible man. He just can’t give in.

The clever girl.

The clever girl.

The roles are switched. The Doctor is “impossible” and CAL, the computer who has saved River to her memory banks, is the “clever girl” who must continue running and continue to remember. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but look at the dialogue. The mention of the clever girl and the impossible man don’t need to be there, and the first really doesn’t fit with what we know of CAL’s personality – she was never self-referential. I choose to believe that Mr. Moffat put this in intentionally, a seed that germinated into the storyline of the Doctor and Clara.

One thing about the 50th anniversary that I did find, watch, and highly enjoy was The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot. Apparently for about two weeks before “The Day of the Doctor,” Peter Davison was tweeting hints about this mini-episode from the account dayoftheFishDr, and it was released on Saturday. I’ve watched it three times in the last day, and I hope that “The Day of the Doctor” is anywhere near as good. I also hope that it will be included on “The Day of the Doctor” blu-ray release (but I highly doubt it).

The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, hereafter referred to as FDR (which is what the Fish Doctor calls it) was written and directed by Peter Davison (and produced by Georgia Moffett under her married name, Georgia Tennant), and is a tale of Mr. Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy trying to become part of the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special. The title refers back to the 20th anniversary episode, “The Five Doctors” (which I wrote about here), in which the First Doctor (played by Richard Hurndall), the Second Doctor, and the Third Doctor join the Fifth Doctor in an adventure. This episode is “Five(ish)” because Tom Baker got stuck in a time eddy again and Paul McGann wanted to go with the other three to get onto the show, but he had too many scripts to read and shows to shoot.

(There’s an awesome symmetry between “The Five Doctors” and FDR, in that the first has the Doctors up through Mr. Davison, and the second has (almost) all the actors from Mr. Davison forward. Still sadly no appearance from Mr. Eccleston.)

The Doctor surrounded by Cybermen.

FDR spoofs Doctor Who while also underlining the difficulties actors have in getting parts they want. It’s filled with Doctors and companions, behind-the-scenes people (including both Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies), actors we know and love and their families, and references, both overt and subtle, to this wonderful show. Sylvester McCoy carries with him a umbrella at all times. Mr. Moffat has a dream very much like the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration hallucination (and it ends with a hilarious line from Matthew Waterhouse). Also, when he erases all of the voicemail from Five, Six, and Seven, his phone says, in a Cyberman voice, “The Doctors have been deleted.” My favorite is a quiet reference to “The Five Doctors”: Mr. Davison, just before running away from someone, says, “Sorry, must dash.”

Perhaps one of the coolest touches in the script was from the two classic Doctors who don’t chase after the 50th anniversary special: Mr. McGann, who wants to join the chase but can’t because he’s got a show to shoot, and Tom Baker, who only appears in footage from “Shada.” And now we know why they didn’t: The Eighth Doctor was shooting his own mini-episode, and Mr. Baker didn’t have to search for a part in the special. (Yes, I got slightly spoiled on that. Oh well.)

I’m not much of a film buff and couldn’t tell you if Mr. Davison’s directing was any good, but the script was marvelous. It’s a treat for fans and I laughed aloud a number of times. I have a very soft spot in my heart for Mr. Davison – Five is my second favorite Doctor, “Time Crash” is one of the best episodes ever, and I am currently highly enjoying All Creatures Great and Small – and FDR is just raising him in my estimation. Thanks for the wonderful tribute to Doctor Who, Mr. Davison!

The eighth Doctor

With the mini-episode “The Night of the Doctor,” the spotlight was turned on to the Eighth Doctor, portrayed by Paul McGann. I remember watching Eight’s movie back when it was first broadcast in 1996: it was about four months after I met the man who is now my husband, and since he was a huge Doctor Who fan from his days of living in England and the PBS broadcasts in the U.S. (at the time, he was still a member of the local fan club, Time Travelers Anonymous), we had to watch this new movie. And it was terrible. I don’t remember the movie at all, but I remember that he was very disappointed and unhappy about it. It’s very possible that his experience with this movie directly affected his decision not to watch the new series in 2005. He didn’t want to watch it because he was afraid it would ruin his memories of the classic series, possibly because the 1996 movie had the same effect.

We saw “The Night of the Doctor” when it was released five days ago, and though we don’t know much about the Eighth Doctor, we felt it was a fantastic tribute to him, and he was given a very noble and meaningful death. We then decided to get the movie from Netflix and give it a second chance. After all, we heard that the Americans hated the movie but the British liked it, so maybe we wouldn’t find it so bad this time. We watched it last night.

And it was terrible.

At least he got his own very cool steampunk console.

At least he got his own very cool steampunk console.

Now, it’s very easy to compare the movie to the show (new or classic) and say that it’s terrible because it doesn’t have all of the things we love in the show, but I think objectively, this TV movie was terrible in and of itself. It would have been terrible if they had given it another name and renamed the characters so it didn’t have anything to do with Doctor Who. Why was it so bad?

First, the overall conflict – the Master trying to steal the Doctor’s remaining regenerations – was incomprehensible. The Master starts out dead, but possesses a human so that he can enact his nefarious plan. This involved opening the Eye of Harmony in the TARDIS, which apparently only a human can do; luckily, the Master found a human he could bribe to do it for him and filled him with stories about how the Doctor was evil and stole his body. In order to stop the Master, the Doctor had to close the Eye of Harmony, but the TARDIS’s timing circuit was off, so he had to find and steal a timing circuit from an atomic clock. He gets to the TARDIS with his companion, Dr. Grace Holloway, but the Master hypnotizes her and they truss up the Doctor to steal his regenerations. He tells the other human that no, it’s the Master that’s evil, and he believes him and refuses to act, and the Master kills him. At this point, I can’t really remember what happened, because it was really confusing. I know the Master lets Grace out of the hypnotism, and she fixes the TARDIS (honestly) before the Master can steal the regenerations. The Master kills her, but gets sucked into the Eye of Harmony. They also have to go back in time a little bit to redo something that went wrong earlier. Then the TARDIS resurrects both humans.

I don’t have a problem with complicated plots or plots that take a while to figure out. There are a number of classic and new episodes that have complex plots and are good. “Blink” is a great example of that. The plot of this movie was just stupid. It felt to me that someone wrote a plot summary for the script and then the American executives told them to do the following to make it appeal to Americans.

  • Add a car chase scene: Getting to the atomic clock involved the Doctor and Grace on a motorcycle being chased by the Master and his bribed human in an ambulance.
  • Have the Doctor kiss the companion romantically: The first kiss was an “I just remembered who I am, thanks, Grace!” kiss, which was just fine, but it was followed by two more obviously romantic kisses.
  • Make sure you use time travel to fix something
  • Make the Doctor predict future events so that we know he can see the future – none of that wibbly-wobbly, I can see the turn of the universe crap.
  • Make him half-human, so that he isn’t so damn alien.
  • Add a physical ghost-like snake to represent the dead Master’s spirit, so that people “get” what he’s doing, and that he’s evil.
  • Amnesia. Yes, give the Doctor amnesia so that the audience can discover him as he discovers himself.

To be completely honest, the movie had a lot to accomplish. It had to introduce all the things the fans already know about the Doctor – he’s an alien with alien physiology, he can regenerate, he has a time machine, he can see beyond our narrow concept of time, he’s got a deadly enemy – while making it understandable to an audience that had never seen the show before, telling a story within a 1.5-hour time limit, and making it appealing to a different country. I think it bit off more than it could chew. It wasted so much of the time it had adding useless action scenes and filler scenes (in trying to create tension in the “is Grace going to figure it out in the last 30 seconds” scene, it kept cutting to scenes of the people in San Francisco celebrating Y2K). It would have done a lot better if it had gone with a generic monster-of-the-day and spent more of its screen time establishing who the Doctor was and what he was all about.

Basically, the writers of this movie lost sight of what makes Doctor Who so good: the characters and the terror. Go look at the lists of “favorite scenes” from the classic and new shows which are all over the place right now. What do they show? Almost always dialogue: very often scenes between the companions and the Doctor (e.g. Three’s regneration into Four, Four leaving Sarah Jane in what he thinks is Croydon, One’s leaving Susan, Five’s regeneration into Six, Seven’s final scene with Ace, Nine telling Rose he can feel the turn of the earth, Eleven’s fish fingers and custard) or scenes of the Doctor being the Doctor (e.g. Four’s refusal to prevent the genesis of the Daleks, One’s calling Two and Three to task in “The Three Doctors,” Six discovering the identity of the Valeyard, the fury of the time lord against the Family of Blood, the Pandorica speech). Then there are the scenes that demonstrate the terror of the show (e.g. the first time we see a Dalek, the emergence of the Cyber Controller, the first time you understand what the Weeping Angels do). What’s missing from this list? Action. The show isn’t about the action – it isn’t even about time travel and paradoxes – and that’s what the movie writers missed.

The Doctor himself was great. Mr. McGann did a great job with what he was given to work with. The Eighth Doctor retained his enthusiasm for life and exploration, and his optimism, but had a much more placid nature, somewhat like the Fifth Doctor. His dialogue tried to not make him too alien, but Mr. McGann gave him a touch of wildness in his expression, so that he felt alien enough.

There was one weird scene which I have not yet figured out how to interpret. Eight and Grace come up to a cop with the intention of hijacking his motorcycle. Distracting him with an offer of a jelly baby, Eight steals his gun, then points it at himself and says, “Now, would you stand aside before I shoot myself.” I’m not sure if this was meant to make him seem more alien or to demonstrate that he won’t use a gun against another creature. It’s probably the most interesting line in the entire movie, if only because it’s so strange.

I am glad that I re-watched this movie. I feel very bad that the Eighth Doctor didn’t get to tell his own story on television like all of the other Doctors did, but I am very glad they gave him a great legacy in “The Night of the Doctor.”