The thing to bear in mind is that although the production team, especially Russell T Davies were making lots of press comment about the casting process during the pre-publicity for the Christmas show, the senior members of the production team were totally changing, so despite the seemingly random names RTD was throwing about, the decision was made by Steven Moffat – RTD was told once the casting had been made, but had no input. The whole Paterson Joseph story seems to have started as a name amongst many, and his name in particular, partly thanks to his skin colour rolled up with events across the pond took off such that one bookie stopped taking bets on him as the new actor.
Throughout all of this, Stephen Moffat kept quietly out of the limelight, and pretty much as expected made his own decision, casting the person that he thought really nailed the part, Matt Smith, a rising star who whilst his work has impressed, hasn’t figured large with most of the general public. He is unknown enough that BBC News has done a special â€œWho on earth is Matt Smith?â€? item.
So what are my thoughts? I’m certainly inclined to trust the judgement of Stephen Moffat – they apparently saw Matt Smith second in the process, but carried on seeing a number of other actors, always coming back to Matt. Also, let us not forget that David Tennant certainly wasn’t a big star when he took the part, and earlier still Tom Baker was working on a building site when he got the part. Although well known actors have got the part in the past it is certainly not unusual for it to go to someone relatively unknown like Matt Smith.
In talking about episode twelve of Doctor Who last week, I expressed the hope that we wouldn’t get a total cop out of a resolution to the Doctor regenerating cliff-hanger – so what did we get? A total cop out of a solution where the Doctor directs his regeneration energy into his hand in the jar. If the Doctor is able to partially heal and then stop the regeneration by redirecting remaining regeneration energy somewhere else, why hasn’t he done it before? It’s not as it it hasn’t been established that the Doctor has special healing capabilities before – the climax of Frontier in Space leading in to the beginning of Planet of the Daleks for example – however it wouldn’t have had quite such a big climax to lead into Journey’s End if they had done that. The regeneration energy is also needed as a vehicle for the creation of another Doctor from the hand in the jar, and to give Donna the abilities to save the universe, but also the reason why she must leave the Doctor.
Sadly, much as with last year, the cop outs extended to the way that the threat of the Daleks is dealt with. As the Doctor and his companions are trapped by Davros and the Daleks it becomes clear that Davros is very much not in charge – however this idea once started is just abandoned as the whole plan to destroy reality is defeated by a technobabble based solution revolving around a convenient machine in the Dalek base that allows Donna, now embrued with all of the Doctor’s knowledge having touched the hand in the jar, to remotely disable all of the Daleks, and for the half-human clone of the Doctor to destroy them all.
The previously unknown powers that might have been useful previously pop up again after this with the TARDIS hauling the planet Earth back home (although don’t thing too much about the effect of the Earth vanishing and then being hauled back into place might have on the rest of the solar system) and then in the final scenes the Doctor seems to be able to telepathically erase bits of Donna’s memory, again something that has not been seen before. This scene is equally frustrating because it is just rushed through – indeed it could be argued that Donna was mentally violated by the Doctor in that she is not given any choice about what happens – whether to die as a result of the effect of the merger with the Doctor’s mind, or to have those memories and all her memories of the Doctor removed, but to live. Certainly I think there would have been more pathos to the whole thing if Donna herself had to choose.
However, like much of the ending, it was rushed, as there were quite a lot of farewells to get in. First off, Sarah Jane heads off, then Jack heads back to Torchwood apparently taking Martha and Mickey with him. Rose and her mother are deposited back into their parallel world, along with the clone of the Doctor – when you think about it, a bit of a lousy consolation prize for the girl who has declared undying love for the Doctor, being left with his potentially unstable clone. All of this then leaves the Doctor heading off alone once again, as he has done at the end of each season aside from the first.
I think what bugs me most about this, is that much as with last year, and probably more than episode twelve, this is a reminder that Russell T Davies was a childhood fan of the show, and through his series finale episodes in particular he produces the kind of massive spectacular stories that most childhood fans produce. But having to produce a vaguely coherent story he then has to resolve all of these spectacular ideas, which is where the whole thing falls down. When you look back at episodes such as Midnight it is apparent that he can produce a good story, however all to often he goes for the big spectacle ideas that end up coming over as being not much more than fan fiction with a budget. When looking back at the last four years it is interesting to note that the well respected writers such as Steven Moffat and Paul Cornell are the ones that are producing stories that push the format with new ideas, and who generally avoid dealing with established characters or monsters. Whether Steven Moffat will continue to eschew established monsters, and especially avoid the kind of end of season spectaculars we have come to expect remains to be seen. If he doesn’t, we can only hope that Steven Moffat will realise that at the heart of the story we still need a coherent plot.
So were there any redeeming features? Once again, Julian Bleach delivered a fantastic performance as Davros, and certainly I hope he gets the opportunity to reprise the role, perhaps with a bit better plot to work with. Bernard Cribbins again gave a good performance in the closing scenes as the Doctor returns his granddaughter. Certainly you can’t help wishing that perhaps the character would have got at least one journey in the TARDIS during his time on the show. There were a few laughs during the programme too, with a running joke between Donna and Jack, and the return of characters such as Jackie and Mickey giving the opportunity for some reminders of previous relationships.
All in all, with the departures of Phil Collinson, Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner, this was very much a swan song episode for the three of them, tying up a load of loose ends and finishing up the stories for characters created during their era in charge of the show. Much as in the past, when the next full series returns in 2010, I’m expecting that it will feel rather different, as Steven Moffat makes his mark. Whilst there may be elements that will be carried over, certainly other things will be rather different – getting rid of fanfic style finales for a start we hope.
Anyway, what about the rest of the episode? I’d mentioned last week my fear that it would be a return to a traditional Russell T Davies episode in that all the numerous guest stars would crowd out elements such as the plot. Certainly from the blink-and-you-miss-it nature of the opening titles, plus a further list of names captioned over the opening scenes, it was clear that there were a lot of big names to fit in. But to some extent, looking back at the episode as a whole although there were a lot of strands there wasn’t really that much of a coherent plot, indeed although we establish that it is the Daleks who have Stolen Earth, by the end of the episode we really have no idea of why the planet has been taken, it having taken most of the running time of the episode for the Doctor to even find where the planet has been taken.
To do this he first heads off to visit the Shadow Proclamation. After being mentioned throughout the series over a number of years, their appearance was frankly rather a disappointment, after a great looking external shot the actual location looked like an office foyer. From an action point of view the Doctor and Donna effectively explain the back story that has been building up, so we get a list of missing planets which alongside several from the new series includes Calufrax Minor, the name being familiar to people who remember the Douglas Adams story The Pirate Planet. Ultimately it is the missing bees, which have been mentioned in throwaway lines that leads the Doctor to a way to locate the missing planets, and takes the TARDIS to the Medusa Cascade, referred to in Last of the Time Lords as the location of a time rift sealed by the Doctor during the Time War. However when the TARDIS arrives, there is no sign of the missing planets and the trail goes cold, leaving a despondent Doctor.
Most of the action is occurring on the Earth, with Torchwood, Sarah Jane and Martha ultimately being brought together through a secret communications network by Harriet Jones in an attempt to contact the Doctor. (It’s worth noting at this point that in a surprising lapse the BBC have missed a trick by not having the phone number used linked to something – 24 for example linked up a special surprise for people who phoned Jack Bauer’s number after it had appeared on screen.)
Once the signal is boosted enough to break through to the TARDIS and Harriet Jones is discovered by the Daleks and apparently exterminated – although note that we don’t see her die. Torchwood again are discovered by the same means, and Sarah Jane ends up face to face with two Daleks too. However it seems that the Daleks are well aware of the Doctor’s allies. Davros it is revealed has been saved from his death during the Time War by Dalek Caan who having escaped at the end of Evolution of the Daleks has broken the time lock around the Time War to save his creator, albeit at the cost of his sanity. Davros however has kept him alive as he now seems to be able to predict the future – making vague predictions about the arrival of the Doctor, the death of his most loyal companion, and the arrival of the Dark Lord.
The one factor that doesn’t seem to have figured in the plans – and indeed is someone never seen by the Daleks is Rose, who despite the Earth being shifted is still quite able to transfer in and out of the stolen Earth at will. She and the Doctor finally meet again at the climax of the episode, shortly before the Doctor is floored by a glancing hit from a Dalek gun, and the apparent regeneration process begins.
So what is going on? There are lots of strands to connect, and quite a few throw-away lines that I’m sure will come back to be significant – in particular the mysterious Osterhagen Key that Martha is given as she escapes New York, but later told never to use by Harriet Jones. The fact that Dalek Caan has broken the time lock around the Time War may yet prove to be significant, along with the stolen worlds being hidden outside the normal flow of time. I’m sure that there will be some more significance to some of the things that Dalek Caan has said too.
In all it was an enjoyable episode, but with some classic Russell T Daviestechno-babble to hurry the plot along. I’m more inclined to credit the crisp direction from the highly experienced Graeme Harper that rose above the script for the final result. It wasn’t only the good director that made it enjoyable, there were also some fabulous performances from the extensive guest cast – Julian Bleach being a particularly creepy Davros, and some great moments from Bernard Cribbins reliving his earlier encounter with the Daleks with some well aimed paint gun pellets. The crossover elements relied somewhat on knowing the other programmes, and certainly there were lines in those scenes that would be totally lost on people who hadn’t watched them, however nothing that really required that you had watched. As you can no doubt gather from my comments further back, the ending was a real surprise, and certainly if David Tennant isn’t leaving I hope we don’t get a total cop-out of a resolution.
They have now released a trailer for next week – needless to say it doesn’t really give that much more away:
It’s good to be surprised from time to time, and a surprise was exactly what we got when we watched Doctor Who last night. The episode that went out was the first of the last block of four, all written by current lead writer Russell T Davies, and it has to be said that there are a good few people who don’t look forward to his contributions, indeed some people actively avoid watching now. Therefore it was a rather pleasant surprise when Midnight turned out to be probably one of his best scripts, taking a small cast, limited sets, and a simple idea and turning it into a very creepy episode.
As with previous seasons, by this point of the filming schedule they have to make two episodes simultaneously. In previous years episodes such as Blink and Love and Monsters have had minimal contributions from the main cast, this year the programme is doing something slightly different so this week Midnight was the first story since the Deadly Assassin to feature a main narrative where the Doctor has no companion, and also the first since Genesis of the Daleks where the TARDIS does not appear at all. Next week the Doctor will have only a minimal contribution, with companions Donna and Rose carrying the main story.
Perhaps the reason why Midnight is so creepy is because there isn’t a monster as such. The Doctor and Donna are relaxing on the planet Midnight, a place which is bathed in deadly radiation that would vaporise any living thing that walked on the surface. A leisure corporation placed a holiday resort on the surface, and runs tours to see some of the amazing sites on the planet. The Doctor decides to join one such tour to see the amazing Sapphire Waterfall, leaving Donna behind. Thanks to the deadly radiation, the tour shuttle is totally enclosed, leaving the passengers unable to see outside for the four hour trip, however part way through, the transport mysteriously stops, and the driver reports seeing a shadow moving outside. Then the passengers hear something hitting the outside of the metal transport – at first they think it might be rocks – but they are rocks that repeat the knocks they make on the inside. The transport is then violently shaken, and the power fails, at which point one of the passengers starts acting very strangely and repeating everybody else, getting to the point where she is simultaneously speaking with everybody else. The Doctor attempts to take charge, arguing that this is a new lifeform that should be understood, whilst his frightened fellow passengers demand that the possessed passenger be thrown outside. As the Doctor rapidly loses control, he too is possessed, and the passengers decide that he too should be thrown outside.
During the whole course of the episode you neither truly find out exactly what the creature is, nor do you actually see it – all the time it is merely possessing other characters. It doesn’t actually do anything particularly threatening either except repeat the words of other characters, but it is this repeating that builds the tension and adds to the fear. Compared to many Russell T Davies scripts it is a much more adult story, very psychological, and relying on characters rather than special effects – as guest star (and son of former DoctorPatrick Troughton) David Troughton said on Confidential, it was much more of an old style episode that we’re used to now. As such I’m not quite sure how it would have been received by some of the younger fans of the programme, however I suspect it will be a nice counterpoint to the Dalek/ex-companion-fest that we’re expecting over the last three weeks of the season.
One aspect of the discussion about Russell leaving, was always a discussion about who would replace him in the job of executive producer and lead writer. The hope amongst fans was always that Steven Moffat, as the writer who has produced the most consistently good stories throughout the new series, would be persuaded to take the job, but many thought it unlikely that he would. I’m pleased to say that he has been persuaded, and has been typically humorous in his quote on getting the job:
â€œMy entire career has been a Secret Plan to get this job, I applied before but I got knocked back cos the BBC wanted someone else. Also I was seven. Anyway, I’m glad the BBC has finally seen the light, and it’s a huge honour to be following Russell into the best – and the toughest – job in television.
The arrival of a new producer in the past often sees a change in direction or focus, and I suspect this changeover will be no different. Quite what will happen I don’t know, but certainly if his previous contributions to the series, and his other work on series like Jekyll, I, and I expect most of the fans have pretty high expectations – as he has said, one of the toughest jobs in television, with probably one of the most vocal fanbases too. Good luck Steven!
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 â€œFive 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.
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.
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…
Thoughts from, and the lives of a Canadian and a Brit living in Southern England.