An empty TARDIS

Midnight-(Doctor-Who)-picIn contrast to the full TARDIS that seems to be coming up in series 8, I would love to see a bit more empty TARDIS scenarios. It’s not a common thing for the Doctor to not have companions: it only happened once during the classic series (in “The Deadly Assassin”), and once during the modern series (in “Midnight”). I’m not counting any episodes in which the Doctor didn’t have a regular companion but picked up another character that he bonded with closely enough to count as a one-off companion (such as most of the Christmas specials and “Planet of the Dead,” “The Waters of Mars,” The End of Time, “The Lodger,” and “Closing Time.”). 

If the Doctor doesn’t have a companion, the episode must focus directly on him or on the situation at hand. In “The Deadly Assassin,” this allowed us to view Time Lord society from the point of view of the Doctor, rather than any alien (to Gallifrey) companion (Sarah Jane, in this case). The script was more streamlined than usual, because the Doctor did not have to explain everything to Sarah Jane, and in the process, the audience got to experience everything, rather than being told what they were seeing. It also allowed the Doctor to get trapped for nearly two episodes in the Matrix without requiring them to keep cutting back to reality to show what Sarah Jane was doing or getting her trapped somewhere so that they could ignore her. The Master also could concentrate on the Doctor, instead of getting distracted by having to deal with her.

The lack of a companion was even more effective in “Midnight.” A story about what happens when humans are afraid of the unknown, “Midnight” would have played out very differently if Donna had been there to try to calm them down and convince them that the Doctor wasn’t the threat. Even if the humans didn’t listen to her (which they probably wouldn’t), the tension of the tight story would have been broken by Donna’s pleas; part of the strength of the final moments of Sky’s possession came from the various characters starting to doubt that the Doctor was the threat and trying to decide if they should intercede.

Both of these episodes came into being under unusual circumstances. For “The Deadly Assassin,” when Elisabeth Sladen left the show, Tom Baker asked for an episode in which the Doctor didn’t have a companion. “Midnight” was series 4’s “companion-light” episode. Back in series 2, in order to expand the series to fourteen episodes instead of thirteen, they created a “Doctor-light” episode, “Love and Monsters,” in which the Doctor and companion appeared only sparingly so that they could be filming another episode at the same time. In series 3, the “Doctor-light” episode was “Blink.” For series 4, they expanded this idea by filming a “companion-light” episode, “Midnight,” with Mr. Tennant appearing in almost every scene, while Ms. Tate was simultaneously filming a “Doctor-light” episode, “Turn Left.” Take a look at this list of episodes: they were all fantastic, with the exception of “Love and Monsters,” which was a fantastic episode until the Abzorbaloff appeared. (Think about how good that episode could have been if a reasonable monster had been the antagonist.) Doctor Who is a great show, but it excels when it steps outside of its usual boundaries.

In my opinion, empty TARDIS or companion-light episodes should be explored more often, to tighten the storytelling a bit, occasionally give the Doctor more spotlight, and take the show in different directions. It’s not difficult to set up – the companion has to go home for some reason, for example – which makes me wonder if it’s a contract thing, saying that the companion must appear in X episodes per series. It isn’t something that should happen often, though – probably not even once a series – but certainly more than twice in fifty years. Perhaps there aren’t many data points, but it seems to be a successful formula for the show, given that the actors who have played the Doctor have all been dynamic performers who could easily carry an episode on their own.

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“Destination: Nerva”

Destination_NervaDestination: Nerva, to my understanding, is the first Big Finish audio to feature the Fourth Doctor. It was in 2012, and featured Leela as the Doctor’s companion.

Spoilers ahead!

It begins just after the Doctor and Leela leave London at the end of “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” with Leela wondering if they’ll ever meet up with Jago and Litefoot again. The Doctor sends the TARDIS following a beacon, and lands only about ten years later, to find a dying alien called a Drelleran who claims that some humans stole his spaceship and have flown off. Chasing after that ship, the TARDIS takes them into the future, to a ship bearing constructions workers to a space dock called Nerva orbiting Jupiter. It’s a new station and its facilities don’t quite work right yet, but ships from intersystem flights can dock here after its passengers pass decontamination.

The Doctor discovers that something seems to be infecting the occupants of the space station, turning them into an alien lifeform that collects all of its newly-transformed individuals into itself, making one big mass of alien. The alien lifeform is led by Lord Jack Corrigan, the original person who, over two hundred years before, had stolen the spaceship from the Drelleran. The Doctor and Leela escape with the only human left uninfected, Doctor Alison Foster, back to the construction worker ship, and discover a new Drelleran ship, which they travel to, to talk to the Drelleran to figure out what’s going on.

Originally, the Drelleran ship had landed on Earth to make contact with the humans and offer them new technology, but Lord Jack, determining that the Drelleran were corrupt because they didn’t adhere to human (mostly Christian) practices, denounced them, killed them, and stole their ship in order to go into space and teach them “better” ways. When the humans reached the Drelleran homeworld, the Drelleran, disgusted with the primitive humans, infected them with the alien lifeform and indoctrinated them with the desire to absorb all humans into the alien mass. Thus, centuries in the future, the ship returned to destroy humanity, first landing at Nerva on its way to Earth.

The Doctor, Leela, and Dr. Foster pleaded with the Drelleran to reconsider the doom they had pronounced on the humans, explaining that the humans were simply not advanced enough at the time to handle the gifts or the new philosophies the Drelleran had offered and making the case that the entire race should be punished for the actions of a few. The Drellerans relented and administered an antidote to the infection, freeing all of the individuals subsumed into the alien mass.

Simply as a story, this was an adequate episode. The dialogue at the end, when the three are pleading with the Drelleran to stop, is a bit preachy. The story was nothing exciting, though it had a very classic show feel: the Doctor’s role here was to gather the evidence to figure out what had happened and to get the characters out of trouble, as opposed to taking a direct role in defeating the menace. One thing I did notice in this piece was how effective the sound effects can be for painting a picture of what’s happening. The alien lifeform that the humans were becoming was never adequately described, but the squelching noises they made as they transformed were very evocative, allowing me to paint my own picture of what it looked like in my head. And let me tell you, it wasn’t pretty. These audios really allow you to exercise your imagination while you listen to them.

It was fantastic to hear Tom Baker take up the mantle of the Doctor again, though his performance in this one was nowhere near as good as it was in The Light at the End, the most recent audio he has been in. In this one, his voice was nowhere near as strident and commanding as we are used to. I would chalk that up to this being his first time back, so he hadn’t yet hit his stride with the character he hadn’t played for over thirty years. Similarly, Louise Jameson wasn’t quite Leela, though she was better than Mr. Baker. I am looking forward to the rest of the audios in this series, as I expect that they will both just get better and better.

 

“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!