Tag Archives: Human Nature

The Sleeper Awakes

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After the somewhat disappointing start to the new series of Torchwood last week, where I thought the plot somewhat took a back seat to the high profile guest star, episode two, Sleeper, was a distinct improvement.

Of course the plot – an alien sleeper cell where the sleeper agents don’t know who they really are is a plot that has been done before a number of times. However, what parent show Doctor Who has always been quite good at is taking an existing story and reworking it into it’s own format, so over the years most sci-fi staples, and numerous well known stories have appeared in a reworked form as Doctor Who episodes, and this Torchwood episode is no different.

What lifted this episode, and certainly set it apart from last week, was having a central character with whom the audience can empathise. The episode begins with a couple being awoken by a burglary taking place in their flat. The husband goes to investigate, but is knocked unconscious, leaving the wife, Beth, to face the burglars alone. We don’t see what happens, but both burglars end up dead – one stabbed by some sort of sword, and the other thrown out the window. Beth remembers nothing about what has happened, but before he dies, one of the burglars says that it was her.

Torchwood investigate, and discover that she has a hidden implant in her arm, and deeply buried in her subconscious another personality. Their attempts to stop her being a further danger inadvertently activate the remaining alien sleeper agents who start to carry out their plan.

However, what this episode is at it’s heart is a character piece, as Beth struggles to come to terms with who she really is – her husband of course knows nothing of her true identity. Essentially it explores similar concepts to Human Nature in the last season of Doctor Who where the artificial personality has real feelings and a real existence, and essentially is innocent, but has to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. In the case of Human Nature, John Smith has to choose to sacrifice his future life, in Sleeper, Beth realises that despite Gwen’s repeated promises that the team will try and find a way to save her, the only thing that can be done is to sacrifice herself to get rid of the alien agent.

Mixed in with the character story, we also got a bit of action, as the other sleeper agents start to execute their plan, and the oft mentioned new humorous elements, which on a couple of occasions during the episode raised a laugh from us – again an improvement on last week.

So all in all it seems to bode well for what is to come…

Doctor Who – Jumping the Shark?

So after a disappointing finale, and a couple of major announcements about the series, a number of fans can hear the sounds of Fonzie readying a pair of water ski’s… All of this is more amazing following on mere weeks from the triumphs that were Human Nature, Family of Blood and Blink.

So what has brought the turnaround? Firstly there was the finale of the series. As I said at the time, Utopia was about one thing, bringing back the Master, and once it got to that point it was pretty gripping. The following two episodes The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords were successively more disappointing with Last of the Time Lords being the first to poll more people being dissatisfied with the episode than liking it in the Behind the Sofa poll – looking at the table you can see Human Nature, Family of Blood and Blink polling 94%, 95% and 97% respectively.

Towards the end of this blog posting condensing the plot of the three series so far, there is a comment that sums things up well:

R. T. Davies: Hello. I am R. T. Davies and I am excellent. I apologise for the interruption, but I have run out of ideas on how to finish this storyline. Instead, I shall steal elements from Greek mythology, Superman, Douglas Adams, Batman, the Carry On films and …err… Flash Gordon and hope nobody notices the complete dog’s dinner I’ve made of what was, until I got my hands on it, a rather excellent series. Sorry. All sorted. Happy ending. I’ll be off now.

Certainly the big reset button resolution can work, although it is always seen as a bit of a disappointing cop out – the Star Trek Voyager episodes Year of Hell being a good example, however as has been pointed out numerous times on Behind the Sofa, things didn’t reset – time rolled back to the point where the billions of Toclofane appeared, but totally forgot the four that were there already. Alongside this, the whole Face of Boe/Jack thing doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of watching the previous appearances of the Face of Boe in The End of the World in particular.

Following on from this we had confirmation of the casting of Kylie Minogue in the upcoming Christmas special Voyage of the Damned. This produced some light-hearted puns in news stories based on Kylie’s hits, but nothing too negative – fans seemed to be used to a bit of celebrity casting at Christmas. However all of that was obliterated by the massive negative reaction to the news that last years bit of celebrity Christmas casting, Catherine Tate who played Donna, is to be introduced as a full time companion next year. The reaction seems to be almost universal – you only need to listen to this news item take a look through the angry comments on Have Your Say to establish that. A point raised by many of the comments is that in terms of recent guest stars there is another, much better possibility for a new companion in the form of Carey Mulligan and the character Sally Sparrow that she played in Blink.

Having said that, lets not forget that this isn’t the first negative reaction to a casting decision, nor accusation of celebrity casting. The choice of Billie Piper raise a few eyebrows back in 2005, and more notably there was a similar outcry to what has happened this week when Bonnie Langford was cast as Melanie Bush in the series back in 1986.

So is the show about to Jump the Shark? Although the last couple of episodes were disappointing, and the casting of Catherine Tate has come as somewhat of a shock I think not. Over the past three years it has become clear that although Russell T Davies should certainly get the credit for spearheading the return of the series, he is not the best of the writers. Perhaps because he does write the majority of the episodes, and despite the fact that he has produced some relatively good episodes in the past, he does seem to have been responsible for the majority of the absolute clunkers. Other writers such as Paul Cornell and Steven Moffat are the ones who have won the awards, but it is worth remembering that they are only contributing one or two episodes compared to the four or five that Davies produces. Rumour has it that Davies (along perhaps with David Tennant) will leave the series at the end of season 4.

The thing to bear in mind is that the programme has by many peoples definition already Jumpped the Shark and recovered. Although there is debate over the later Sylvester McCoy stories most people seem to think that the programme hit a low patch during the eighties, similarly shown by the falling ratings and ultimate axing of the show. Even before that there have been points where due to falling ratings it was in danger and radical changes were made, a prime example being in 1969 when amidst falling ratings and an unhappy star, Derrick Sherwin took the decision to make the next season earth-bound and brought in the characters and massive change of style of the UNIT era. Currently ratings look strong, and it remains to be seen whether the initial opposition this week translates into falling ratings next year. Even if that happens, the BBC have certainly discovered what a massive money-spinner a well funded Doctor Who can be, so I don’t doubt that if that happens the series will transform again, and like other era’s we’ll be looking back on the Russell T Davies era and looking forward to something else…

Can You Hear the Drums?

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When Doctor Who returned two years ago, outside the basics, the team behind the programme seemed to quite deliberately avoid too many references to the old series. Wind forward to the present series and the situation is almost the reverse. Following on from the sight of images of all the previous faces of the Doctor in Human Nature, to the voices heard by Professor Yana in Utopia last week, we get a positive overdose of fan pleasing moments in the first part of the finale, The Sound of Drums.

Taking the plot first of all, it is all a relatively straightforward affair. The Doctor repairs Captain Jack’s vortex manipulator allowing them to escape. Whilst the Doctor had been unable to stop the Master escaping at the end of Utopia, he had managed to jam the TARDIS controls causing it to return to the same place it left – twenty-first century Earth. However they quickly realise that the Master has returned somewhat earlier, and that the mysterious Mr Saxon is in fact the Master – the mysterious Mr Saxon who has just been elected Prime Minister.

The Master is working with a race of aliens that he calls the Toclafane – although the Doctor believes this to be a made up name. The Master has also prepared traps for the Doctor, and has arrested Martha’s family. He has managed to win the election through the mobile phone network – the same technique that he has used to hide from the Doctor over the preceding months.

The Doctor and his companions manage to sneak onto the secret UNIT airship where the Master is to reveal the Toclafane to the world. However they fail to stop the Master’s plan, indeed the Master uses technology created by Professor Lazarus to age the Doctor, and incapacitates Jack, with only Martha managing to escape. The Master uses the TARDIS – which he has significantly modified and cannibalised, to open a rift and let in the Toclafane – ordering them to immediately destroy one tenth of the population of the world.

Alongside the main plot, there were a lot of back story and references, some very definitely for the fans. Chief among them is an explanation of how the Master comes to be alive and able to regenerate in the first place. Back in the TV Movie the Master manages to escape extermination by the Daleks but has to take over a human ambulance driver to do so. With his new human body decaying, he tries to take over the Doctor, but in the final climactic battle is sucked into the Eye of Harmony at the heart of the TARDIS. During the course of tonight’s episode we find out that during the Time War the Time Lords resurrected him in order to fight, giving him a new life-cycle much as was promised to him for helping the Time Lords in the Five Doctors. However, having been present during a key battle he fled and hid, using the Chameleon Arch to hide his identity. This explanation throws up interesting questions about what involvement the Doctor had in the Time War as he was unaware of the Master being resurrected, perhaps implying that the Doctor only becomes involved later on, after the Master has fled.

There are also several moments that hark back to well remembered Master scenes – for example at one point the Master is seen watching the Teletubbies, harking back to a scene in the Sea Devils when the Master is seen watching The Clangers.

Perhaps the biggest moment from a fan point of view is the first appearance of Gallifrey and of the Time Lord’s themselves as the Doctor describes the origin of the Master. Thanks to modern CGI, we see a panning shot from snowy mountains towards the gleaming Time Lord citadel covered by it’s protective dome. We also see a young Master surrounded by Time Lords, staring into the abyss of the time vortex. There is a definite effort to ramp up the Time Lord mythology, with the sequence reminding me very much of the epic style of movies such as the Lord of the Rings. From comments made by Russell T in the subsequent Doctor Who Confidential the return of the Master was on his list to do, and he implies that there are other things still to do – a return for Gallifrey and the Time Lord’s? Next weeks episode is called The Last of the Time Lords – whether this is because the Doctor has to destroy the Master, or is ironic due to the Doctor rediscovering his people remains to be seen.

It wasn’t only Time Lord references. After the Master has announced to the world that he is going to make first contact, the President of the United States arrives to take over control with UNIT citing that thanks to an agreement in 1968 – a reference to the episode The Web of Fear. Amusingly, considering that the real United Nations has asked that it’s name not be used in reference to UNIT, there were a number of points in the episode where the two organisations were referred to closely together, without ever explicitly stating what the acronym stood for! Having said that, the big budget has also extended to UNIT, with their base of operations this time being The Valiant, a vast airborne aircraft carrier, designed in part by the Master.

However, I’m suspecting that maybe not all the changes will be so welcome. Probably chief amongst the complaints will be the character of the Master, who is even more insane than he has been on previous appearances. Whilst at times there are elements of the dark and brooding character of before, at others he is cracking jokes, and being almost comic, showing many of the traits of David Tennant’s interpretation of the Doctor that so infuriate elements of fandom. John Simm mentions in his Doctor Who Confidential interview that he played the part exactly as written, perhaps passing the buck somewhat in advance of criticisms from the long term fans. Having said that, whose to say that being resurrected and then being long term disguised as a human didn’t unhinge him significantly?

So what is coming up next week? The trailer implies that there is a resistance movement to the Toclafane – but really I’m expecting that that is only going to be a small part of what is going to happen. Return of the Time Lords? We’ll have to wait and see…

The Family of Blood

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Quite often with two part stories, the second part is by far the weakest, almost as if the writers had put everything into a spectacular cliff-hanger, and then don’t know what to do with part two. With Human Nature being such a great first part, coming to part two there was a definite question mark over whether The Family of Blood would live up to it. I’m glad to say therefore that part two more than lived up to it, indeed in ways it possibly even surpassed it giving a fantastic conclusion.

Ultimately, the episode turned into a character piece. The cliff-hanger was resolved not by a flash of the Doctor through the Doctor John Smith persona, but purely by Martha. Indeed at one point Nurse Redfern has to encourage a shocked and confused Doctor John Smith to even escape. In the course of the escape Martha even comments how hopeless he is as a human.

They return to the school where Doctor John Smith mobilises the boys, all of whom have been training to protect King and Country, and they mount a defence of the castle. However faced with the Family of Blood and the scarecrows they have little chance, and with the headmaster and another teacher vaporised the boys run. John Smith, Martha and Nurse Redfern end up hiding in an abandoned cottage, whilst the Family of Blood start bombarding the village. Reunited with the pocket watch that holds the essence of the Doctor, we have the heart of the episode, where Doctor John Smith has to choose between a normal life as a human, or to sacrifice himself to become the Doctor again and save humanity.

Essentially, the episode boils down to very much a character piece. When ultimately Doctor John Smith chooses to open the watch, and to return to being the Doctor, the actual defeat of the Family of Blood is very brief. You see almost snapshots of how the Doctor despatches each member of the family – giving them the eternal life they crave, but trapped for eternity in various ways.

Then the final few minutes finish off the story of Tim, the boy who has been hiding the pocket watch, and also continue the First World War theme. The Doctor gives him the watch for good luck, and thanks to his vision of the future seen in episode one he survives the war. The episode finishes with Tim, now an old man, sitting in a wheelchair at a Remembrance Day service, holding the pocket watch. As the priest says the familiar words of the service, the camera pans from a tearful Tim holding the watch across to the figures of the Doctor and Martha on the other side of the green.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

This in some ways very much pointed back at the often forgotten parallel aspect of the show to educate the children watching about history. In the early years this was through purely historical stories, but here the end of the episode is devoted to connecting the characters shown in the rest of the programme through the horrors of the First World War through to the reasons why we wear poppies, and the services at war memorials. Whilst I’m sure there will be some who will bemoan the time spent on these sequences against seeing The Doctor despatch the baddies, ultimately this was the heart of the story, the tragedy of many of the boys in the school being trained for war, a war from which they will never return and also the personal tragedy of Doctor John Smith and Nurse Redfern who thanks to the watch get shown a vision of their future, if
the Doctor is never brought back.

In both cases – Tim, and Doctor John Smith they realise that it is something that has to be done. As Nurse Redfern says to the Doctor when she refuses to come with him, Doctor John Smith was by far the braver man choosing to sacrifice himself, whereas all the Doctor did was hide, and in doing so caused the unnecessary deaths of the villagers who the Family of Blood had killed.

The two episodes had complex themes, themes that I’m sure will take time to explore. However they also turned in some fantastic performances.

Freema Agyeman again had a chance to shine as Martha, with David Tennant giving a great performance in the dual roles of Doctor John Smith and the Doctor. This was especially highlighted in moments when he first held the pocket watch where the two characters switched back and forth with a moment when he was clearly the Doctor, and then returning to an increasingly scared Doctor John Smith, having to choose what to do.

Perhaps the episode was so good because of it’s genesis as a book, although a number of elements of the book were changed for the TV story, however you can now see for yourself, as the BBC have replaced the eBook of the original novel so if you want to compare the two you can. To help you along, you’ve also got extensive authors notes about the original book, plus Paul Cornell’s own notes about adapting it for the screen.

Suddenly Human

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One of the favourite techniques used by regular weekly shows is to have an episode that plays with the underlying concept, so for example we have the Mirror Universe stories in Star Trek, or stories such as Superman II where the hero either looses or gives up his powers. Doctor Who has done similar concept breaking episodes at times in it’s history, and this week was one of those times, where we had a story where the Doctor wasn’t himself – indeed he wasn’t even the same race – as in order to hide from a group of aliens referred to initially only as ‘the Family’ he uses a device in the TARDIS called the Chameleon Arch that creates a new character and biology for him, allowing him to hide. His Timelord persona is safely stored away in a device disguised as a pocket watch ready for when he is able to come out of hiding.

The episode, Human Nature is based on the 1995 book of the same name, however whilst a number of plot elements and character names are reused, the plot is somewhat changed. The basic concept of the Doctor becoming human, and the main location as an English public school in the winter before the Great War are retained, but characters are changed. For example the widow Joan Redfern who falls in love with Doctor John Smith becomes a nurse in the TV episode, whilst in the book she is a science teacher. The reason for the Doctor becoming human is different than in the book too.

The episode operated on many levels. On the surface you have the story of the Doctor hiding from aliens who need the last of the Timelords, however as Beth pointed out in many ways it is a tragic story. Alongside the simple surface story one of the boys, Tim, appears to have telepathic powers and can see the future. Whilst these are partly in the main plot to allow him to see visions of Martha’s real life, he also at times gets premonitions of the impending war, including his death alongside a fellow boy from the school in an attack. There is also an element of tragedy surrounding Joan Redfern, who having lost her first husband is attracted to Doctor John Smith, but who you ultimately know will loose him as the personality and life are artificially generated and will disappear when the Doctor regains his previous character.

The episode is also a great opportunity for Freema Agyeman to shine as Martha Jones. Doctor John Smith obviously doesn’t remember who she really is, and believes she is just his maid. Whilst the Doctor is blissfully unaware, except through strange dreams, of his true identity, she is tasked with keeping him safe, and if something goes wrong bringing him back, her only guide being a list of instructions that the Doctor has left behind in the TARDIS, also hidden away so as not to attract attention.

Quite aside from having a great multi-layered plot, we also have some nice moments for the fans. Doctor John Smith has been keeping a journal of his strange dreams, and as he shows Joan the notebook, we see pictures he has drawn of creatures from the new series, but then for the first time an on screen acknowledgement of the previous series with the journal including images of many of the previous Doctor’s. Later on when Doctor John Smith is talking about his family he mentions that his parents are called Sydney and Verity, acknowledgement of Sydney Newman the Canadian TV producer who created Doctor Who, and Verity Lambert it’s first producer.

All in all I thought it was one of the best episodes of the new series, nicely evoking the atmosphere of the period, along with some scary badies whose traits were more unnerving compared to the cringe-making give-away of the Slitheen. Amongst all of that you also had a noticeably different character in Doctor John Smith at the centre, who even when he is confronted by the badies in the cliff-hanger, still can’t remember who he is. Great stuff, and I’m now really looking forward to the conclusion next week. Hints about that episode seem to imply that ‘the Family’ are part of a bigger plan. Part of the Mr Saxon story arc? We’ll have to wait and see.

Burn In Me

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So after a break for last week for Eurovision, Doctor Who was back this week with their take on a real-time episode, 42, where the Doctor has a mere 42 minutes to save a spaceship from crashing into a star.

Behind the Sofa, the Doctor Who review blog site posted an item last week entitled 42 seconds, pointing out that thanks to the TARDIS the plot should really be very simple, so as always, they need a plot device early on to take the TARDIS out of play. Indeed when the time travellers first meet the spaceship crew the Doctor heads for the TARDIS before discovering that he cannot re-enter the area where the ship has landed due to the heat – heat which will only increase as the spaceship heads closer to the star. Whatever happens, they have to get the ship away from the star.

To add to the crisis, the main engines have been sabotaged, and the ship has been put into lockdown, closing and sealing all the thirty odd doors along the length of the ship to the controls that might save them. The doors all have deadlock seals rendering the sonic screwdriver unable to help, and alongside this the ship has a security system that asks security questions worthy of a pub quiz in order to open each door.

Just to cap it all off, some strange creature is infecting the crew and killing other crew members.

Although the ship in crisis plot has been done before, the episode was generally entertaining, and maintained the tension well. This was definitely from the grungy industrial school of spaceship design too. You knew the crew were dodgy right from the first moment you meet them when they ask whether the Doctor and Martha are police. It transpires later on that they have been illegally scooping fuel from the star, without realising that the star is actually alive – which is now protecting itself, trying to regain the part of itself that has been scooped in to the ship to use as fuel.

The episode marks a return to the directors chair for longtime Doctor Who director Graeme Harper, who keeps the episode ticking along at quite a pace. Perhaps the only point where it seems forced is the moment where the Doctor, who is fighting being taken over by the sun creature, asks Martha to use a stasis machine to save him by freezing him to -200 for ten seconds. Once he’s explained this there is a moment where rather than getting on and saving him, Martha has a speech, which gives the bad guys just enough time to turn off the power, and leave the Doctor with seemingly no hope.

Alongside all of this, we also saw some more development of the Mr Saxon story. In the Lazarus Experiment we saw Martha’s Mum being warned about the Doctor by a strange man, who we find out at the end of the episode is working for Mr Saxon. During the course of 42, Martha uses her newly enhanced mobile phone to phone home three times, and we see more strange people in the background apparently trying to trace the call. At the end of the episode it is again revealed that they work for Mr Saxon, and in a follow on from the Vote Saxon posters that have been around, it is election day too. Whether we’ll see more of this plot-line building over the next few weeks I don’t know, but somehow from what I know of the plot of the much anticipated Human Nature next week, I’m not sure it will quite fit in.

Although there have been episodes I haven’t liked, so far this season there haven’t been any I’ve really loathed. I had question marks over 42 in my mind, party because of the absolutely dreadful Chris Chibnall Torchwood episode Countrycide. However, I’m glad to say I was pleasantly surprised. Hopefully the enjoyment and appreciation will continue with the later episodes as we have some pretty eagerly anticipated episodes coming up, particularly Human Nature next week. Quite how the story will work putting the tenth Doctor into a story originally built around the scheming seventh Doctor of the New Adventures – hopefully Paul Cornell will have managed to retain the elements of the story that make it so popular with long time fans, whilst making it accessible and believable as a tenth Doctor TV story. Interestingly, the eBook version of Human Nature on the BBC website is currently disabled, hopefully it will be back following the showing of the episode, as it will certainly be an interesting exercise to compare the two stories and see where things have changed.