Monday, May 31, 2010

Doctor Who: Series Three (BBC Wales, 2006-2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I retired into our room and I broke open the boxed set of the third season of the new Doctor Who series and ran one of the episodes, “The Runaway Bride,” about a bride who is literally beamed up, Star Trek-style, out of her wedding and into the TARDIS, where she’s confronted with the Doctor (he was never designated “Doctor Who” in either the original TV show or this one, but he was in the two 1960’s films starring Peter Cushing) in the surprisingly young and cute form of actor David Tennant, a far cry from the middle-aged British stage veterans who hammed their way through the role on the old series.

It turns out the woman, a rather shallow creature named Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), met her fiancé Lance Bennett (Don Gilet), a Black (would we have to call him “African-British”?) man who worked as the IT director for a firm at which Donna was temping, and Lance was an agent for a half-woman, half-spider called the Empress of Rachnos (her human half is played by Sarah Parish and it apparently took four hours a day in the makeup room to turn her from a normal woman to the spider-queen she plays here) who fed her coffee spiked with huons, subatomic particles (my only prior association with the word “Huon” was as the name of the male lead in Weber’s opera Oberon) that supposedly hadn’t existed since the dawn of the universe, when they were abolished because they were too inherently dangerous. The idea is that Donna has been saturated with huons so she can be pitched down a 4,000-mile long hole in the middle of the Earth, where she will impact with a batch of fellow Rachnoids who were buried there when the earth was still forming itself out of the giant dust cloud that generated the entire solar system, which will bring the Rachnoids back to life so they can colonize the earth’s surface and use humans as their principal food supply.

The show was written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Euros Lyn (I inevitably joked that his original name was “Pounds Lyn” but he changed it in the interest of European currency unification), and though the special effects are vastly improved from the really chintzy ones of the TV series (where it was all too obvious that, for example, the Daleks’ fearsome antennae were toilet plungers), the writing retains the cheeky campiness of the original show even though the action is genuinely exciting. According to, this was the show’s annual Christmas episode (on the schedule it was actually designated as “Episode 0”), though the only example of “Christmasicity” I noticed was the fact that the Empress’s robot minions were disguised in Santa Claus costumes. My favorite moment was the one in which Lance, explaining that the only reason he ever courted Donna in the first place was that she would be a suitable “key” to impregnate (asexually) with the huon particles, and that to do that he had to endure six months of boredom hearing her talk about Brad and Angelina, Posh Spice and her baby, and other bits of celebrity gossip that interested him not one whit. Lance also proclaimed his devotion to the Empress and his desire to be her lover — apparently no one bothered to tell him what female spiders generally do to their mates: have sex once and then eat them! — 3/5/09


Charles and I had a nice evening together and we ended up watching another item from the Doctor Who third-season box, “Music and Monsters,” which was put on the same disc as “The Runaway Bride” and turned out not to be a show episode at all, but a BBC documentary on a Doctor Who concert being given in Cardiff, Wales as a benefit for a fund for disabled children. The format was what’s become the standard one for concerts featuring film music — the stars of the project (including David Tennant as the Doctor) and some of the costumed villains appeared (one of the Daleks even conducted — and I noted with bemusement that while the 1960’s versions of the Daleks were undoubtedly shells with little people inside working them, the current Daleks are actually remote-controlled robots, with the voice artist working off-stage and speaking his lines into a microphone that feeds into a mixing board that filters the sound to re-create the supposedly computer-generated Dalek voice: “Exterminate!”), and a giant screen was set up in the concert hall so that clips from the show could be shown while the orchestra and (non-Dalek) conductor played the original soundtrack music “live.”

The concert took place before “The Runaway Bride” had aired on TV and therefore that sequence was new to the audience — and, quite frankly, I still haven’t decided whether I like the idea of the TARDIS being capable of flight. Oh, sure it can move backward and forward in time and teleport itself from one location to another via a different dimension, but in “The Runaway Bride” it actually lifted itself off from Earth and took off in chase to find the abducted heroine and capture her back. That looked weird! The show was interesting, notably in charting the various incarnations of Ron Grainer’s classic Doctor Who theme (though the commentator gave Delia Derbyshire as much, if not more, credit for her arrangement of the best-known version of the theme than he did Grainer for composing it) from some crude electronic keyboards to the synthesizer Derbyshire used on her version to the full-orchestra rendition used now — and some of the second-season episodes, notably the one in which the Doctor and company are transported to Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution and the villains are a band of “clockwork droids” (one interesting element of Doctor Who is that the villains always seem to be multiple — the Daleks, the Cyber-Men, the Clockwork Droids, the puppets in “The Runaway Bride” — even if a single super-villain is directing the rest of them), seem very much worth watching. — 3/6/09


I ran us the next episode in the Doctor Who 2.0 series three boxed set (this is the new Doctor Who, revived in 2005, and the box features David Tennant in his second of three seasons as The Doctor — he’s much younger than the middle-aged theatre veterans who played him in the first 1962-1985 iteration of the show, and in the current fifth season, already airing in the U.K. though we won’t get it until 2010, he’s been replaced by someone even younger!) because it would be suitably short it wouldn’t keep us awake too long. This episode was called “Smith and Jones” because it introduced the Doctor in hiding in a hospital under the name “John Smith” and also gave us a whole family of Black — what else would you call them, African-British? — people named Jones, one of whom, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), is a doctor-in-training at the Royal Hope Hospital when it is suddenly beamed up to the surface of the moon by the Judoon, an interplanetary race of freelance police officers who look like rhinoceroses except they walk upright.

The Judoon are looking for a non-human who is hiding out in the hospital, and though the Doctor is non-human the one they’re actually looking for is in the guise of a charming middle-aged lady, Florence Finnegan (Anne Reid), who’s really a “plasmavore” — i.e., a vampire. (“I’ve even brought a straw!” is her line to her victims just before she, shall we say, puts the bite on them.) Florence has her own set of minions, a race of robots whose bodies are made almost entirely of leather (“that’s quite a fetish,” says the Doctor — this isn’t just a kids’ show anymore!), and the show manages over its 45-minute running time to marry state-of-the-art special effects (no more upturned barrels with toilet plungers stuck on them to represent the minions of implacable evil!) with the spirit of campiness that made the original show so entertaining and developed its cult audience. This was a real charmer with a well thought-out backstory about the Joneses (her dad has left her mom for a white-trash bimbo, he’s throwing an extravagant birthday party for his son even though the son doesn’t want one, and Martha also has a quarrelsome older sister who believes she’s wasting her time trying to become a doctor) and a lot of fun, appealing action that doesn’t take itself too seriously — a rare virtue these days now that the American studios are cranking out superhero movies that drown under the weight of their own pretension! — 3/17/09


Afterwards I dashed home and waited for Charles — he was off by 8 but we’d arranged that he’d wait for me at his place and I’d call when I got in — and also for a DVD disc change at 10:15 (in the middle of a Peter Lorre marathon on TCM) — and when Charles finally arrived I had ice cream with him and then we ran something considerably less imposing but quite fun: a Doctor Who episode from the 2007-2008 season called “The Shakespeare Code,” a title obviously inspired by The Da Vinci Code attached to an engaging story by Gareth Roberts in which The Doctor (David Tennant) and his new female companion, nurse Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) travel to 1599 (in some ways evoking the original agenda behind Doctor Who — it was originally conceived as an educational program in which the Doctor would time-travel back through human history and thereby get kids to watch dramatizations of real historical events; the idea of making it a science-fiction action series in which the Doctor would foil various alien plots to take over Earth came later) and meet William Shakespeare (Dean Lennox Kelly, considerably hotter and hunkier than the impression we have of Shakespeare’s appearance from the contemporary portraits), sit in at a production of Love’s Labours Lost at the Globe Theatre and — naturally — get enmeshed in a plot hatched by three aliens, disguised as witches, to open a portal that will let their race travel to Earth and colonize it.

First they put the architect of the Globe under a spell so he would design the theatre in the way needed to create the portal, and after driving him crazy (Our Heroes actually visit him in Bedlam and obtain a key clue before the witches dispatch him once and for all) the witches then put Shakespeare himself under a spell so that in writing Love’s Labours Won, a sequel to Love’s Labours Lost (a title that actually appears on contemporary lists of Shakespeare’s writings but has never actually turned up — though given how foreign the whole concept of “intellectual property” would have been to copyright-free Elizabethan England, it’s possible Love’s Labours Won, if it existed at all, was someone else’s sequel to Shakespeare’s play), Shakespeare inserts into the closing scene the formula needed to open the witches’ portal. We already get a glimpse of this when the actors rehearse the ending, and of course Our Heroes just barely foil the plot — there’s a charming scene at the end in which the three witches are trapped inside their own crystal ball — and Roberts’ script also had some nice gags in which the Doctor quotes lines from Shakespeare’s plays that Shakespeare himself can’t place because they’re from plays he hasn’t written yet — the Doctor says, “To be or not to be,” and Shakespeare says, “That sounds good. Mind if I use that?” — 5/5/09


When Charles and I got home we had ice cream for dessert and I ran something else, since he said he was still up for a movie: the next in the sequence of episodes from the Doctor Who third-season boxed set, “Gridlock.” After the previous ones in the run had been generally on the light, fluffy, campy side, this one was very dark; it takes place in the future city of “New New York” on the planet of “New Earth,” and the environment is so seedy it makes the dystopias of Blade Runner and The Matrix look like health spas by comparison. The entire population of New New York seems to be either a handful of junkies and their semi-legal pushers, who work out of lunch counter-style businesses and sell skin patches labeled with the emotion they’re supposed to induce: “Happy,” “Forget,” “Bliss.”

The only other sign of life is inside what’s called “The Motorway,” a giant freeway system in which there’s so much traffic (the cars of this era look like Volkswagen buses without wheels; they have magnetic pads on their undersides that are supposed to move them about, though the transportation system is so gridlocked that people only get to move a few feet per year) and such an impossible state of gridlock that unless they can get clearance from the central computer that runs everything to get into the “fast lane” — which is only open to people who are carrying three or more adult passengers — they are stuck in traffic for years. In case you’re wondering how they eat and breathe (and other science facts), their cars have air filters that keep out most of the exhaust that otherwise would kill them (get out of your car and you will be killed by the toxicity of the fumes in about 20 minutes) and the cars also contain restrooms that recycle human waste back into edible food. The reaction of the Doctor’s traveling companion, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), when she realizes the thing she’s eating (which looks like a slightly overbaked matzoh cracker) is probably recycled shit is subtle and priceless.

The Doctor gets involved in all this when Martha is kidnapped by a young(ish) couple who see her as the invaluable third person that can get them into the fast lane — only it turns out that there’s nobody who can grant anybody admission into the fast lane because everybody in the so-called “overcity,” which was supposed to be the ruling class, died from a virus that contaminated the “Bliss” drug — the virus ultimately killed itself when it ran out of potential hosts (viruses do that, actually; it’s what really happened to the notorious Spanish flu of 1918-1919), but it left the entire motorway system essentially self-governing, complete with endless-loop TV traffic reports broadcast to the monitor screens in people’s cars. What’s more, a race of beings (which, like a good deal of the rest of the elements of this Doctor Who episode, had been dramatized on the show before) that look like terrestrial crabs eat the cars — and their occupants — whenever they get too close, and the car carrying Martha and the people who kidnapped her is in severe danger of that fate.

The Doctor finds another entity from his past — the Face of Boe (Struan Rodger), a former wise man who’s been reduced to a giant head artificially kept alive in a huge bell jar — and from this entity and his caretaker he learns that he’s the last surviving Time Lord and everyone else on his home planet perished at the hands of the Daleks (you remember them). Though it has at least a mezzo-lieto fine, this episode is generally one of the darkest Doctor Whos I’ve seen — it’s not without humor (one of the things I like about the revival of Doctor Who is that they’ve upgraded the effects work to state-of-the-art but kept the campy, cheeky atmosphere of the original series intact) but it’s a grim, clenched-teeth sort of humor that keeps the tale engaging even though it’s otherwise a dark, dystopian vision of at least one set of Earth possibilities — and a quite well done dystopia at that! — 5/7/09


One of the items we watched was the second half of a two-part episode from the third-season boxed set of the current Doctor Who, “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks,” of which we’d watched the first half Wednesday night but which I hadn’t commented on in yesterday’s journal because I wanted to get the entry done in a hurry before we left for Outrage. The story (by Helen Raynor, with properly moody, atmospheric direction by James Strong and Terry Nation being given screen credit for creating the Daleks in the first place) is a wild tale set in New York in 1930, in the middle of the Great Depression. Its major locales are the Empire State Building and a Hooverville set up in Central Park within eyeshot of the under-construction skyscraper, and the dramatis personae include Solomon (Hugh Quarshie), the African-American who runs the Hooverville and maintains discipline and order by sheer charisma and force of will; Frank (Andrew Garfield), his young associate; Tallulah (Miranda Raison), a blonde showgirl with the proverbial heart of gold; Laszlo (Ryan Carnes), a stagehand at the theatre where she works and also her boyfriend; and Mr. Diagoras (Eric Loren), the construction supervisor at the Empire State Building, who’s facing a deadline from his investors to get the building (including its famous spire) finished in an insanely short period of time.

One of the Hooverville residents wonders who on earth has the money to build such a huge, lavish building in the middle of the Depression, and it turns out it isn’t anybody on earth; it’s a cadre of four Daleks (from, to use the nomenclature common these days among Native Americans, the Skaro Tribe of the Dalek Nation), the only members of the race that have survived (just as Our Hero is supposed to be the last of his race, the Time Lords — the writers of this iteration of Doctor Who seem considerably more apocalyptic than their predecessors in the 1960’s and 1970’s!). The entire building is an energy collector designed to take advantage of a massive solar flare to entrap gamma radiation and thereby power a transformation process that will turn deceased humans — the Daleks have kidnapped them, killed them but left their bodies intact, emptied their brains and now plan to splice Dalek DNA into them — into Daleks in human form.

What’s more, the leader of the tribe, Dalek Sec, plans to turn himself into a human-Dalek hybrid, with tentacles sticking out of his extended scalp instead of hair and an ill-fitting mask designed to raise his forehead and make him look suitably “alien.” To do this, he needs a human body, so he requisitions Mr. Diagoras’s, thinking that the guy is already heartless and mean enough to be a suitable living host for a Dalek — only the combined organism starts getting those dangerous human tendencies towards compassion and a heart, and the other Daleks ultimately get rid of him. Solomon gets zapped by the Daleks in the second episode, Laszlo gets turned into one of the Daleks’ “pig slaves” (guys with pig faces, albeit in Laszlo’s case the transformation is not quite complete) and ultimately dies because part of that transformation is it speeds up your metabolism and you age far more quickly than normal, and the show ends with the Doctor’s frantic attempt to disarm the spire on the Empire State Building so it won’t conduct the gamma energy the Daleks need — only he drops his laser screwdriver and doesn’t get one of the three collector panels off in time, so the Dalek transformation goes ahead on schedule, only it turns out that since the energy was filtered through the Doctor’s body some of his Time Lord DNA also ends up in the mix, so the Dalek/human hybrids turn on their makers and kill two of the three remaining Daleks, while the one left over beams off earth to heaven knows where. In this episode the innards of the Daleks — what they really look like inside their metal suits — is a sort of land-based jellyfish instead of the mutant mini-humans (played by little people) in the original series — but the whole thing was fun, genuinely frightening but also appealingly campy. — 5/15/09


Charles and I eventually ran a couple of movies last night, a TV episode from the third season of the new Dr. Who and a feature film. The Dr. Who episode was an engaging one called “The Lazarus Experiment,” in which The Doctor (David Tennant) gets involved when he delivers his traveling companion, African-British nurse Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) inside her apartment via the TARDIS and thinks he’s going to leave her behind and never see her again. Then a message from Martha’s mother Francine (Adjoa Andoh) comes in announcing that Martha’s sister Tish (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is about to be on TV — and the Doctor switches on the set and sees that Tish is working as the assistant to an elderly scientist called Dr. Lazarus (Mark Gatiss) who claims to have come up with a discovery “that will change what it means to be human.” The Doctor disappears in the TARDIS and then moments later reappears, pops out of the device and says, “Did he said it would change what it means to be human?”

The Doctor scores invitations for himself and Martha to the black-tie event at which Lazarus is going to reveal his secret invention, which is a giant blue cage mounted on electronic devices that will beam ultrasonic rays to the person inside and rework their DNA to make them younger immediately. Lazarus steps into his machine and it threatens to go out of control — the Doctor, who as a scientifically advanced alien is the only person there besides Lazarus with any idea of how the thing works, pulls the plug on it and then announces that if he’d let it alone it would have blown up the building — and then Lazarus emerges from the machine, blond and looking about 35 years old instead of his former decrepitude (artificially created, according to, from a life casting of Vincent Price!). The Doctor is sure that there’s something Lazarus has neglected in his experiment, and sure enough there is; thanks to an uncontrolled variable Lazarus’s newly remodeled DNA goes through periodic transformations that occasionally turn him into a giant spider-like monster with the compulsion to kill people, then abruptly change him back to a human.

There’s also the elderly Lady Thaw (Thelma Barlow), who bankrolled the Lazarus experiment in hopes that he’d turn her young, too, so they could be together — instead he jilts her and makes a pass at Tish. The derivation of this story out of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is almost too obvious (though a new wrinkle Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t think of is the profit motive — Lazarus himself and his financiers are all convinced they’re going to become super-rich selling scientific rejuvenation to the other super-rich, and it’s typical of a British writer that scripter Stephen Greenhorn actually seems bothered by the idea of a future in which the rich can live virtually forever while the poor die quickly; an American writer wouldn’t be bothered by that at all!), but it’s still a fun, entertaining episode — and as I’ve pointed out before, what’s best about the new Dr. Who series is they’re doing state-of-the-art special effects but have kept the engagingly campy tone of the original show. — 6/14/09


I ran him the next episode in sequence from the third-season boxed set of the new Doctor Who. This one was called “42” (one commentator suggested this was a play on the hit U.S. series 24) and features the Doctor (David Tennant) and his African-British girlfriend Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) beaming the TARDIS into the middle of a spaceship that’s being sucked into the sun of the planet it was supposed to be visiting and has 42 minutes remaining before they get burned to a crisp. I joked, “Hey, it’s a Star Trek episode disguised as a Doctor Who episode!”

The ship’s captain is a woman, Kath McDonnell (Michelle Collins), and her husband Hal Korwin (Matthew Chambers) is just adding to her troubles — he’s been possessed by a mysterious alien entity that has turned him into a murderous monster (though, fortunately, it hasn’t changed his human appearance — though he spends much of the episode going about in a helmet with a visor that enables him to focus the lethal rays from his eyes and burn people to a crisp, a trick he plays on two women in the crew while turning one of the males, vampire-style, into a creature like himself) — and also the ship is booby-trapped: all the doors needed to get them to their auxiliary power supply are locked and can only be opened by a series of passwords based on trivia questions: an even more dire rescension of the gimmick of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? than the one in the recent film Slumdog Millionaire. (Martha, using a cell phone the Doctor has modified so she can literally call anywhere in the universe, calls her mom for the answer to one of the questions — who had more pre-download number one hits, Elvis or the Beatles? — thereby parodying the show’s “Phone-a-Friend” gimmick.)

While I spent much of the episode wondering why in hell the Doctor didn’t just rescue all the crew members by ushering them into the TARDIS and taking it somewhere (or somewhen) else, this was a taut, suspenseful show, well written by Chris Chibnall (virtually all the Doctor Who episodes have only one writer, a refreshing change from the committees that write most American series TV!) and tautly directed by Graeme Harper — with an interesting tag scene back at the home of Martha’s mother in the earth of our own time, with three sinister-looking people (we presume they’re government agents) recalling the cell-phone call and attempting to trace it … — 6/16/09


When Charles and I were finally ready to watch something ourselves I had the idea of digging out the third-season boxed set of the new Doctor Who and running the next episode in sequence — which turned out to be disappointing. It was called “Human Nature” and offered itself as the first of a two-part story based on a Doctor Who novel published in 1996 (while the series was between its two iterations) in which, in order to avoid being caught by a malevolent team of interstellar bad guys called “The Family” (a.k.a. “The Family of Blood,” which is the title of the second part) who can take the form of humans (or presumably the life forms of any planet they happen to end up on), who in the opening scene are chasing the Doctor (David Tennant) and his African-British nurse companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) through interstellar space. Realizing that drastic measures are called for, the Doctor puts on a helmet and uses it to undergo a painful transformation that will change his entire genetic coding to that of a human being, so he can hide out on earth and the Family members won’t be able to sniff him out. So he ends up as a teacher at a British boys’ school in 1913, and Martha ends up as a servant at the place and has to watch helplessly while the Doctor, using the generic name “John Smith,” falls in love with the school nurse, Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes), a widow since her husband was killed in the Boer War.

The best parts of the story are Martha’s increasing jealousy of Jones and her inability to do anything about it. Alas, the rest is pretty lame; in general the Doctor Who stories taking place in earth’s past are less interesting than the ones from the future, and the pattern holds true here even though writer Paul Cornell is adept at the quirks that consistently make this series interesting. When “The Family” finally arrive on earth — in a translucent green spaceship — they rather eccentrically pick the humans they’re going to take over: Father appropriately possesses a local landowner, Mr. Clark (Gerald Horan); Son takes over a Flashman-like student bully, Jeremy Baines (Harry Lloyd, a quite good actor and a name to watch for future stardom); Daughter seizes the corpus of a little girl, Lucy Cartwright (Lauren Wilson), carrying a balloon (I almost expected to hear Peter Lorre whistle “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as she got stalked!); and Mother takes over Jenny (Rebekah Staton), the maid who’s Martha’s co-worker at the school.

Meanwhile, a student named Tim Latimer (Thomas Sangster — any relation to Jimmy Sangster, Hammer’s principal screenwriter in the 1960’s?) who’s been bullied by Jeremy and criticized by Mr. Smith for not working up to his potential, steals the pocket watch that conceals all the information about himself Smith needs to turn back to the Doctor. The premise is full of possibilities but the execution rather creaks along, and maybe stretching this story out to two episodes was a mistake because it does seem padded. Oh, well — maybe I’ll like it better when we watch the rest … — 10/30/09


Charles and I eventually watched the second half of the Doctor Who episode whose first half, “Human Nature,” we’d screened the night before — partly because it was short and neither of us wanted to stay up too late, partly because we both wanted to see part two while our memories of part one were still fresh. The denouement made the whole conception seem even closer to that of “The City on the Edge of Forever,” the famous Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock went back in time to get the universe back to what it was supposed to be after Dr. McCoy had done a previous time jump and changed some aspect of Earth history — and the principals ended up in San Francisco in 1930, where Kirk fell in love with pacifist activist Edith Keeler (a marvelously understated performance by the usually awful Joan Collins), only to find that the event in Earth history that had been reversed and needed to be changed back was Edith Keeler’s death, since if she lived she’d have started a nationwide pacifist movement that would have enabled the Nazis to win World War II.

It was clear from “Human Nature” and even more from the follow-up episode, “The Family of Blood,” that writer Paul Collins was ripping off Harlan Ellison’s script from “The City on the Edge of Forever” (well, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best!) — this show is also about a superhero from the future who travels back in time to Earth on the eve of one of the World Wars, falls in love (with the additional gimmick of not knowing who he is — he thinks he’s a normal human being from the time period he’s gone to) and then has to abandon his romance in order to save the world — even though Collins didn’t twist the knife in as much as Ellison did when he decreed that the girlfriend of the space traveler had not only to lose him but to die. This time around I got more of the pathos people who celebrated the episode on liked about it — even though the Family of Blood themselves are disposed of 12 minutes before the episode is over and the rest is wrapping up the human story, the attraction between the Doctor (David Tennant), his 1913 Earth girlfriend Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes) and his previous traveling companion (the one he picked up from 2006-2007 Earth in the opening episodes of this season) Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), who’s clearly in love with the Doctor herself and is jealous of Joan — which doesn’t stop the Doctor from asking Joan to accompany him on the TARDIS when he departs (just how he’s going to handle both the women who love him in such close proximity is a mystery to just about everyone, including Paul Collins I suspect!).

The combined episode strikes me as better than it seemed when we’d just watched part one, but Doctor Who still seems a stronger show when it deals exclusively with menaces from the future than when it goes back into Earth’s past (even though the latter was the original intent; the series was actually intended as an educational program in which the Doctor would just be a plot device, sort of like Mr. Peabody and Sherman, to depict past eras for the edification and education of Britain’s schoolchildren — though, predictably, it turned out they would rather watch the Daleks and the other futuristic menaces for which this show became famous than slog through British history), and of the episodes of this season I think “Gridlock” was the best in its combination of imagination, education and social comment. — 10/31/09


Charles and I took it easy for the rest of the night but we eventually got it together long enough to watch the next 2007 Doctor Who episode in sequence: a marvelous horror tale called “Blink” that I think ranks along with “Gridlock” as the best item in the box so far. The Doctor (David Tennant) and his traveling companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) stay pretty much in the background in this one, which involves them projecting a message to a young woman named Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan) in 2007 via “Easter eggs” — unadvertised special features — on 17 DVD’s (coincidentally the only ones Sally owns). Sally starts getting the messages when she and her friend Kathy Nightingale (Lucy Gaskell) explore a haunted house and discover that the statues on the property are changing position and actually moving — but only when they’re not being looked at. Kathy eventually gets zapped back in time to 1920 and lives the rest of her life in that time frame — and a young Black police detective who cruises Sally also gets zapped backwards, this time to 1969; Sally actually visits him in hospital as a much older man, just before he dies.

What’s going on is that the “statues” are actually a life form, the Weeping Angels, who live by sucking off the present-day energy of the victims they’ve dispatched into the past — and once she gets the message and figures it all out (helped by the Doctor and the existence of a transcript that anticipates their entire conversation!), Sally and Kathy’s brother Larry (Finlay Robertson) confront the Weeping Angels under the Doctor’s solemn instruction to them to keep their eyes on the creatures (since they’re helpless when they’re being seen by someone else, even each other) and above all not to blink. (Even the people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers didn’t have to worry about not blinking — all they had to do is keep from nodding off or falling asleep.)

What made this show interesting was the quirky writing by Steven Moffat and especially the tight, suspenseful direction of Hettie Macdonald — whose quick cuts actually create a legitimately frightening illusion that the statues are indeed moving when the story says they are — and also the winsomeness of Carey Mulligan, who really carries this whole episode since the Doctor has merely an important bit role. The resolution involves the Doctor giving Sally and Larry instructions and a key so they can enter his TARDIS time machine and, with the Weeping Angels trying to break in or destroy it from outside, they finally get the thing started and beam themselves back in time to 1969, where the Doctor had got stranded — while the Weeping Angels who had circled the TARDIS, once it’s gone and they can see each other, suddenly turn into normal, utterly immobile statues. While the campy approach of Doctor Who is part of its charm (and there are camp elements in this one, including David Tennant actually having to utter the phrase “timey-wimey” as if he’s serious about it), for the most part “Blink” is a nice little piece of vest-pocket cinematic terror and well worth watching for the sheer thrills as well as the cleverness of the conceit. — 11/6/09


Over the last two nights Charles and I watched the three final episodes of the third season of Doctor Who 2.0 — the ones that originally aired in 2006-2007 and which I’d got him from Columbia House as a present ages ago. They were an interconnected story which began with an episode called “Utopia,” in which the Doctor (David Tennant) and his traveling companion for series three, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), end up taking his time-travel machine, the TARDIS (Time And Relativity Dimensions in Space), literally to the end of the universe: to a planet referred to in some sources on the show as “Malcassairo” but which comes off pretty much as Earth to us, with mutant humanoids with bared fangs going after the few surviving humans with either cannibalistic or vampiristic intent.

The (apparent) good guy in all of this is a rather dotty old professor, Yana (Derek Jacobi), and his alien sidekick Chantho (Chipo Chung) — her face is green and covered not only with scales but at least two snake-like appendanges that writhe as part of her expressions — who have worked out a plan to save the few remaining non-mutated humans by building a spaceship and transporting them to an unnamed destination called “Utopia.” At first it seems like the dramatic issues are going to be whether the spaceship will launch in time and whether the people on board will be able to find and neutralize the mutant who’s somehow sneaked on board — but the script by Russell Davies takes a quick turn towards the end when it’s revealed that Yana is actually the principal villain of the piece: he steals the Doctor’s TARDIS and regenerates himself into a much younger person, a fellow Time Lord called “The Master,” a renegade, psychopathic Time Lord whom the Doctor encountered in several episodes towards the end of the original series but hadn’t yet had to deal with in this one yet.

The only good thing that happens is the Doctor meets up with an old friend, Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who apparently is a “Time Master,” a secondary being from the Time Lords but one who shares at least a few of their powers, including wearing a wristband that, like the TARDIS, can transport its wearer (and anyone else who happens to be holding on to him) through time and space — though without an enclosure the trip is a good deal rougher than it is within the comforting confines of the TARDIS. Fortunately, before losing it the Doctor had locked the controls of the TARDIS so it could only go between two places — where it was several trillion years into the future, or where it had been on its last trip — which was early 21st century Earth.

In the second episode, “The Sound of Drums” (after an aural hallucination of drumming the Master has had to live with all his life), the Doctor, Martha and Jack use Jack’s wristband to go to 21st century London, where they find that the Master has arrived a year and a half before, constructed a false background and is passing himself off as Harold Saxon (John Simm), independent candidate for Prime Minister of Great Britain, who wins the election easily through platitudinous speeches and, more importantly, mass hypnosis through broadcasting the drumbeat he hears in his head subliminally to everyone in the country (in the world, in fact) through their cell phones — since he’s launched the Archangel cell-phone network of 15 satellites, all of which are broadcasting that rhythm and thereby subconsciously conditioning virtually everyone to believe in “Harold Saxon” and trust everything he does and says. He purges his cabinet at their first meeting — literally — by filling the meeting room with poison gas (he has a gas mask but nobody else does) and then announces that there is going to be a first contact between humans and aliens from outer space: he has made contact with an interstellar species called the “Toclafane” and will be greeting them and broadcasting their first contact with the human race.

U.S. President Walters (Colin Stinton) insists that under United Nations protocols he has the right to make first contact with an interstellar visitor, and he insists on relocating the contact to the deck of the ship Valiant — which turns out to be, not an ocean-going vessel at all, but a space station in earth orbit. The Toclafane turn out to be metal spheres with wicked built-in weaponry — “Saxon” came to earth in the first place with an advance guard of four of them and we’ve already seen them kill at least one person, a woman reporter who was threatening to expose “Saxon” — and in a war cry subtler than the legendary one of the Daleks, “Exterminate!,” but just as frightening, the four Toclafane in the Master’s advance guard surround President Walters, whine, “We don’t like you!,” and dispatch him to the great beyond. The Master then summons six billion Toclafane to colonize Earth and turn the indigenous inhabitants into slave laborers, commandeering land and resources to build spaceships with which to launch an interstellar war which will re-establish Gallifrey, the original home planet of the Time Lords, on Earth and put the whole universe under Time Lord dominion whether it wants to be or not.

The third episode, “Last of the Time Lords,” takes place a year later; Martha Jones got beamed back to Earth and has been traveling the world searching for resources with which to kill the Master and undo the transformation he put the Doctor through, artificially aging him several hundred years — in episode two he’s turned into an old man and in episode three he’s given yet another dose of artificial age which makes him a large, wrinkled head stuck on a gnarled, Gollum-like body whom the Master keeps in a giant bird cage (in episode two he’d had him in a doghouse). We’re led to believe that she’s been collecting four drugs and a special gun that are supposedly the only way to kill a Time Lord, but in the end it turns out that what she’s really been doing is organizing the survivors of Earth to believe in the Doctor (she comes off as a sort of sci-fi John the Baptist heralding the coming of the Jesus Doctor) and all to think about him at 3 p.m. on a particular day — and it works, eliminating the Master’s power and giving the Doctor back his youth and vigor.

Martha is about to shoot the Master (with a conventional gun? I thought Time Lords were harder to kill than that!) when she draws back — and Mrs. Saxon (Alexandra Moen), the ordinary earth woman the Master lured to his side with the promise of being able to rule the universe with him, shoots him instead. The Doctor pleads with the Master to regenerate himself — the power that gives the Time Lords immortality (and has allowed the producers of the series to recast the role of the Doctor many times, since the premise is that after the “regeneration” he has a different appearance and can therefore be played by a different actor) — but the Master decides he doesn’t want to become the Doctor’s pet, and therefore he wills himself not to regenerate but to die instead, thereby literally leaving the Doctor as “the last of the Time Lords.” Russell Davies’ script — directed by Graeme Harper (episode one and, uncredited, co-directing episode three) and Colin Teague — artfully combines elements from a lot of recent fantasy stories, including the Roland Emmerich apocalypses, The Lord of the Rings, They Live, V for Vendetta, Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slapstick and the Underworld films, while maintaining a cheekily campy attitude towards them that indicates he’s not really taking all this seriously; as I noted on some of the previous episodes in this boxed set, one of the most entertaining aspects of Doctor Who 2.0 is that while the producers are giving us state-of-the-art special effects instead of the incredibly tacky ones of the original series (like the toilet plungers which were the Daleks’ antennae and sense organs), they’ve retained the cheeky, campy approach of the original and so the pieces work as both action sci-fi and an hilarious send-up of the genre.

At the same time Davies is good at coming up with fantastic (in both senses) ideas to make his plot work; it turns out the Toclafane were actually the humans from that mysterious end-of-the-universe world depicted in episode one (when humans managed to bring down one of the spheres and open it, they find a wizened little human face inside directing it), and their trip to Earth to conquer it under the Master’s direction was the voyage to Utopia they were promised in episode one — and the Master had reworked the TARDIS into a “paradox machine” so the Toclafane could be in two places at the same time. The ending reunites Martha Jones with her family — and pairs her with a hot-looking white doctor she met in her journey — while the Doctor runs his time machine so that the last year and a half of Earth history is reversed, most of the Master’s victims come back to life and the planet continues with no one, aside from Martha and her relatives and boyfriend-to-be, aware of what happened. (There’s also a tag scene that sets up the premiere of the next season, in which the Doctor ends up on board the Titanic.) All told, the third-season Doctor Who was an entertaining program that went out with the proverbial “bang” — the televisual equivalent of the big burst of fireworks that ends a display — though I still think the chilling “Gridlock” and “Blink” were the best episodes. — 5/31/10