Tag Archives: UNIT

What If?

Doctor-light episodes seem to have become a way for the Doctor Who production team to do something a bit more experimental. This has happened right back from the early days when a lead actor needed to take a break the Doctor or his companions would find one or other of them turned invisible as in The Celesital Toymaker, transformed temporarily into a different actor as occurred in The Mind Robber or imprisoned as happened in The Time Meddler. In the new series we’ve had a couple of Doctor light episodes where the main cast gets involved in the story but the core characters are separate. This year we had a pair of stories, with Donna taking a break last week, however it is rather more difficult to sideline the Doctor in the same way.

In Turn Left the chosen route was a classic alternative history story, exploring what would have happened if Donna had not taken the job where she initially gets involved with the Doctor. As a result, she is not present to snap the Doctor out of his almost trance like state during the climax of The Runaway Bride, and in the alternative version of events the Doctor dies during the encounter. Throughout the rest of the episode we see key events in the series through the eyes of Donna as an ordinary person. So the events of Smith and Jones are seen, but Martha Jones dies, and it is Sarah Jane Smith who gets involved, and again she doesn’t make it out alive. The next big event series wise is the return of The Master, but of course since he is released by the Doctor after the events of The Runaway Bride, in this alternate reality he is still trapped in the far future. Next up without the Doctor, the replica of the Titanic does smash into London, wiping out millions and plunging the UK into chaos. Thanks to a bit of intervention from Rose Tyler, Donna is safely away in the country. Moving on to the latest stories, the Adipose don’t much affect the crippled UK, and with petrol rationed, the Sontaran Stratagem has much less of an effect, but it is Captain Jack and Torchwood who help defeat that threat, but again at the cost of their lives – the immortal Captain Jack is left stranded on Sontar.

All of this goes towards removing all the possibilities for salvation when towards the climax of the episode stars in the night sky start to disappear as part of what Rose refers to as the approaching darkness. Using the last remaining power from the TARDIS, which UNIT had salvaged, but which following the passing of it’s owner is slowly dying, Rose sends Donna back in time to stop her past self from making the fateful decision that leads her away from the Doctor, turning right rather than turning left. Ultimately Donna sacrifices herself in the alternate timeline, and as she lays dying, Rose appears once again and whispers two words to tell the Doctor.

Much as with Utopia last year, episode eleven was very much about putting things in place for the series finale. With that episode as with this, it is the last few minutes of the episode that are key. This time around the big reveal moment is when Donna repeats the whispered words which both confirms the identity of Rose, and also highlights the importance of what is happening – Bad Wolf – the words that Rose scattered through time to guide herself and the Doctor towards their fateful battle against the resurgent Daleks. In much the same way, from the glimpses in the trailer, it seems the last Dalek who escaped at the conclusion of Evolution of the Daleks may have started anew – perhaps with a little help – and once again Bad Wolf is guiding the Doctor and his companions towards another battle, and again from the clues laid down in this weeks episode, the cost is going to be high.

What made the episode, was the big conclusion, and the expectation it produced for the finale. Despite some strong performances, I thought the rest was pretty derivative. The “What Ifâ€? idea has been done in a lot of other series, and whilst it was interesting to see the alternative history, it was in some ways pretty predictable, and a lot of the episode was very much a whole series of continuity references for fans – and yet another temporal paradox. The almost messianic idea that Russell has used previously was clear as well, everything is bad without the Doctor. What might have been more experimental would be if some things had actually been better had the Doctor not been involved. The giant beetle monster and the whole concept of what it did really didn’t hang together overly well either – and the question of how a dying Donna in the alternate timeline that ceases to exist was able to give a message to the Doctor is something that really doesn’t make sense either. As the SFX preview of the finale has said cramming an episode with continuity references entertains the fans, but sometimes when you look at it rationally, peeling back the references, there isn’t much underneath – sadly my opinion this week was that it was primarily a vehicle for the fan pleasing references, and didn’t do much underneath. Hopefully things might be better next week.

Turning to next week, it looks like we’re going to get multiple trailers, the first of which is online already.

The Sontaran Stratagem

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Last night, The Sontaran Stratagem marked the return of another of the classic Doctor Who monsters brought back for the new series – this time being one of Russell T’s acknowledged favourites, the Sontarans. Much as with the other returning monsters the advances in prosthetic effects, and the much increased budget for the new show have made a big improvement, so rather than the rather scruffy costumes from the monsters last appearance back in The Two Doctor’s this time there really did seem to be a vast army of cloned warriors ready to take over the planet. The same can also be said of this episode’s other returnee – UNIT (now renamed the Unified Intelligence Taskforce to remove the United Nations references) who unlike the fairly small contingent of troops that used to be seen onscreen in the past rolled up with a much increased number of troops giving a much more convincing army unit.

In many ways this episode was a classic Doctor Who/UNIT set-up, with a less than enthusiastic Doctor placed against Colonel Mace filling the familiar place in proceedings that in times gone by would have been occupied by Nick Courtney as the Brigadier. In much the same way Mace and the Doctor frustrate each other as the one tries to run his military organisation remaining sceptical to what is going on whilst the Doctor in familiar fashion appears like a whirlwind through a well organised plan. As at the end of this first episode of the two-parter the bulk of UNIT have yet to come face to face with the Sontarans, but I’m sure amongst the raft of other in-jokes that we can expect Mace to be ordering his troops to fire “Five rounds, rapidâ€? at the small chaps in the blue armour!

At this point in the proceedings, the actual the Sontaran plan is still unclear. The episode opened with an undercover reporter being thrown out of a school for the gifted, run by Luke Rattigan, a gifted child prodigy and millionaire. Amongst other things, his organisation has developed the ATMOS system, that cleans all carbon from car exhaust fumes, and also provides satellite navigation. The reporter, driving away tries to turn off the system, but can’t, discovering too late that it can also take over full control of her car as it plunges her into a river. The the Sontarans are providing Rattigan with assistance to produce these new devices – as we discover at the climax of the episode the ATMOS system also is the key to the Sontaran invasion plan, producing poisonous gas from installations in millions of cars across the globe. They also have the ability to clone humans – at one point cloning Martha Jones who also makes a return appearance in this episode. Previous Sontaran episodes have highlighted the strategic importance of the Earth in the ongoing war with the Rutans, so perhaps this will become more clear next week.

Unlike the new Cybermen for example, the Sontarans are very much an updating of the creature, rather than a reboot, so there are still the humorous elements of the creatures that go right back to Robert Holmes original ideas where we get a great build up of military bluster from General Staal, before the Doctor briefly incapacitates him using a squash ball to injure the probic vent on the back of the General’s neck. Much as before the creatures singular military focus is actually shown to be a weakness at times, perhaps paralleled by the same limitations with regards to UNIT operating through a military view.

The next episode preview of course doesn’t give much away. Certainly it looks as though UNIT and the Sontarans are going to meet face to face. It’s probably fairly certain who will ultimately win – but at what cost? New Doctor Who has always shown the personal impacts of life with the Doctor on those left behind, and with the comments that Martha makes at one point I can’t help thinking that some of that may be coming the way of Donna and her family.

New Series Countdown

After weeks of only having shaky in-cinema recordings of the preview trailer, the BBC have posted a copy of the Doctor Who Season 4 trailer to YouTube – less than two weeks to go now, April 5th is the date for the diary.

There is a brief glimpse of the Sontarans fighting UNIT soldiers, giant wasps for all the insect-phobic, a nice shot of what looks like an ice planet, lots of running, explosions, a very wet looking Martha, and Rose appearing right at the end.

The Daleks don’t appear in the main trailer, but instead they get their own teaser trailer, alongside similar trailers for the Sontarans and the Ood – the three big recurring monsters for the season.

Expect more gratuitous Doctor Who postings to come over the next couple of weeks. 😀

Calling Doctor Jones

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It’s funny, however many times I see Alan Dale playing the bad guy, as he has done in a number of shows, and does again in the second of this weeks Torchwood episodes, I still think of him as nice old Jim Robinson from Neighbours

Anyway, in Reset, the episode of Torchwood that went out on BBC3 straight after Adam, he was anything but nice old Jim Robinson. Dale plays Aaron Copley, an ambitious research scientist who heads up the Pharm, a medical research company that have developed a drug called the Reset, that can cure any known disease instantly. Torchwood start investigating Copley and the Pharm after a random selection of people start turning up dead – with their medical records wiped. After some investigation they discover that one victim has been cured of his diabetes, and another person having survived her attacker claims to have been cured of HIV.

By this point, Torchwood have already called in the cavalry, in the form of Martha Jones, who has now completed her medical degree, and thanks to the Doctor it seems, is now a medical specialist for UNIT.

Working with resident medic Owen, Martha and he discover that the miracle cure is thanks to an alien parasite that hosts it’s larval form within the human body – a larval form that cleanses the body of anything harmful in order to protect itself. Unfortunately, the larval form eventually develops into a giant insect – hence the Pharm is going around assassinating the former test subjects and wiping their medical records before the insect aliens hatch.

The Torchwood team pay a visit to the Pharm, detecting vast numbers of alien creatures on the site – and opt to send Martha in undercover to obtain more information.

After the relatively character and concept driven Adam, Reset was very much back to the action with needle wielding assassins, giant mayflies, contact lenses worthy of James Bond, and with the arrival of Martha, lots of Doctor Who references for the fans to spot. There was even a big shock at the end, certainly one I wasn’t expecting…

In some ways the episode explored a similar theme to Meat in that it was showing humans exploiting aliens for their own gain – this time for medical and scientific advancement. What is interesting to note though is the change in Jack’s attitude this time around. Whereas in Meat he was very much for saving the giant alien whale, and seemed genuinely upset when Owen kills it out of mercy, this time Jack’s plan when faced with a research lab filled with exploited and in Jack’s words tortured aliens, he instead opts to destroy the whole facility, killing all the aliens in the process.

The big difference though is that in Meat the alien creature is being exploited purely for the financial gain of the humans involved. Here, Aaron Copley argues for the higher purpose – that the ends justify the means – as he is exploiting the aliens to provide cures for incurable diseases, to help humanity.

Torchwood certainly seems to have come a long way since the Welsh cannibals of last season…

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…

Invasion

One of the many treats for Doctor Who fans this Christmas, particularly those who appreciate the original series is the release on DVD of The Invasion an eight part adventure for Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor featuring the Cybermen.

As the story opens, the Doctor is having problems with the TARDIS, which materialises above the dark side of the moon. Unfortunately it’s presence is not welcome, and a missile is launched at the time machine, with the the Doctor evading it just in time. The TARDIS comes to rest in a cow filled field, and with the Doctor needing parts to fix the fault, the TARDIS crew have to go off to find someone to help. The Doctor and his friends head for London to look up an old friend, but find that he has gone away, leaving his home in the care of a Professor Watkins and his niece – but Professor Watkins has disappeared whilst working for International Electromatics. The Doctor goes to investigate, and discovers that Tobias Vaughn, the sinister head of International Electromatics is working with the Cybermen to conquer the world. Vaughn believes that he can use the Cybermen, who he believes want only the natural resources of the Earth in order to gain power, and has been using Cyberman technology to infiltrate key government roles in order to keep his plan secret. Over a number of months he has been bringing the Cyberman army to Earth and hiding them in the London sewers. However the Cybermen have other plans, and want to convert the entire human race to Cybermen, and tell Vaughn that he can only lead the Earth once he has been converted. Ultimately Vaughn realises that he cannot control the Cybermen and joins with the Doctor to defeat them.

If that plot seems somewhat familiar, it should, as it is remarkably similar to the plot of Rise of the Cybermen, a similarity I commented on at the time that episode was first shown. Aside from the difference that John Lumic the sinister head of Cybus Industries creates the Cybermen in the later story, a significant number of plot elements are the same. The take-over in both stories is by means of secret circuits in electronic devices, in both stories the wealthy industrialist believes he can control the Cybermen but ultimately can’t, there are even quite subtle similarities, for example in both stories the industrialists have a loyal assistant who doesn’t want to be taken over, and in both the industrialists whilst having been augmented by cyber-technology, ultimately do not want to be fully converted. The production team for Rise of the Cybermen acknowledged the similarities between the two stories by naming the transport company that move the Cybermen International Electromatics after the company in the original story.

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The major selling point of this DVD though is that this is the first release of the complete story. Whilst The Invasion was released on video in 1993, the missing first and fourth episodes were replaced with Nicholas Courtney explaining the missing plot, this time, as I mentioned a few months back the missing episodes have been recreated using the original soundtracks of the episode which have been preserved, and animation produced by the team at Cosgrove Hall.

I have to say that the new animated episodes look great. Ironically in certain respects I think they look better than the original episodes. For example the strange alien machine that Vaughn uses to communicate with the Cybermen first appears at the climax of the first episode, so appears animated, and looks decidedly better than the shot of the actual prop that appears in episode two. Having said that, the big disappointment for the animators I bet was that they didn’t get much opportunity to animate Cybermen, as their first appearance in the story is in the final scene of episode four. Certainly you can understand why the animators chose the scenes they did for the initial trailer now.

That actually serves to highlight one of the big differences between The Invasion and modern Doctor Who – this is very slow burn. The presence of the Cybermen is not revealed until the very end of episode four, with the first four episodes being the Doctor investigating International Electromatics, and whilst you subsequently discover that he gets pretty close, the monsters don’t actually appear. Episodes four to eight are the Doctor dealing with the actual invasion, complete with creepy encounters with Cybermen in the sewers, and the iconic images from the story with Cybermen on the steps of St Pauls. Strangely enough though for such a long story, elements of these episodes seem decidedly rushed – on several occasions you get key moments in the defeat of the invasion which are referred to but not seen, and even the final scene where the Doctor and his friends leave to a new adventure seems very quick. Maybe I’m just getting rather used to the longer character moments we have in the new series.

Having said that, it is an excellent story, and it is great to be able to see the whole thing once again. The story came at a key moment in time for the series. Patrick Troughton had decided to leave, and with the advent of colour TV, the producers had decided to make the series more Earth based, because they believed (rather as the team does today) that they didn’t have the budget to do alien worlds justice. As such The Invasion can be seen as a pilot for the UNIT stories that followed during the third Doctor era. So as both a key point in the development of Doctor Who, and a great story in it’s own right, it is a definite must own purchase for a Doctor Who fan.