Remembering Doctor Who writer Terrance Dicks

British writer Terrance Dicks passed away on August 29th.  He was 84 years old.  Dicks worked on such varied projects as the spy-fi series The Avengers, the soap opera Crossroads, and the BBC’s Sunday Classics series of literary adaptations.

However it is for his lengthy association with the science fiction series Doctor Who that Dicks is best remembered.  He first became involved with Doctor Who in 1968 and worked on various incarnations of the show right up until the time of his death.

Terrance Dicks

As Dicks himself readily admitted in his humorously self-effacing style, becoming the assistant script editor on Doctor Who in 1968 was as much a case of him being in the right place at the right time as it was his abilities as a writer.  He came onboard during the show’s fifth season, Patrick Troughton’s second year as the Doctor, during the production of the serial “The Web of Fear.”  Dicks’ enduring memory of that story was the production team’s futile efforts to make the robot Yetis’ roars sound less like a flushing toilet.

The first story Dicks was actively involved in commissioning was “The Krotons” by Robert Holmes.  The sixth season of Doctor Who was beset by various commissioned stories falling apart late in the day, leaving co-producers Derrick Sherwin and Peter Bryant scrambling to find usable scripts.  “The Krotons” was one such last-minute replacement.  For years afterwards Dicks would refer to the Krotons as one of Doctor Who’s silliest monsters.  At the same time, though, the scripts by Holmes were solid, and as Dicks himself was always quick to point out, Holmes would very quickly go on to become arguably the best writer to ever work on Doctor Who.

As script editor Dicks was also the uncredited co-writer of the six-part Brian Hayles serial “The Seeds of Death.”  Due to the ongoing production problems the serial was only in a draft state, needing a significant amount of work before it could go in front of the cameras.

Doctor Who The KrotonsBut it was the final serial of the 1969 season that truly saw Dicks’ baptism of fire.  Those aforementioned production problems led to the simultaneous collapse of the four-part and six-part serials that were to end the season.  In desperation Sherwin instructed Dicks to write a single 10-part serial to close out the year, with the provisos that series regulars Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines & Wendy Padbury all be written out at the end, that the Doctor’s previously-unrevealed people the Time Lords be introduced, and that the Doctor be exiled to present-day Earth.  Oh, yes, and Sherwin needed Dicks to write those 10 scripts ASAP.

An understandably frantic Dicks corralled Malcolm Hulke, the writer who several years earlier had helped him get his foot in the television door, and with whom he had co-written several episodes of The Avengers. Working at a furious pace, the two of them somehow managed to crank out the scripts for all 10 episodes in less than a month.  Despite the absolutely insane circumstances under which “The War Games” came to be written, it went on to become a well-regarded serial.

The seventh season of Doctor Who saw even more changes and challenges for Dicks.  Sherwin and Bryant both departed, but not before making the aforementioned decision to exile the Doctor to Earth to become the scientific advisor to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stuart and the UNIT organization.  This was Sherwin’s desperate cost-saving measure for a show with declining ratings that the BBC was seriously considering canceling.

Fortunately several things took place that would guarantee Doctor Who’s future.  Jon Pertwee was cast as the new Doctor, the show switched from black & white to color, Barry Letts came onboard as the new producer, and Dicks became the full-time script editor.  Pertwee was a perfect fit for the Doctor, the color production also brought new attention to the series, and Dicks & Letts instantly clicked, becoming not just close collaborators but lifelong friends.

Doctor Who RobotIt was Dicks & Letts who devised the Doctor’s arch-nemesis the Master.  Dicks observed to Letts that the Doctor was very much like Sherlock Holmes, and the Brigadier was like Watson.  So why not introduce a Moriarty for the Doctor?  Letts immediately took to the suggestion, and right away suggested actor Roger Delgado, who he had worked with in the past, for the role.  Delgado was indeed a brilliant casting decision.  Pertwee and Delgado had immediate chemistry as the rival Time Lords, which further energized the show.

Dicks was the script editor for Pertwee’s entire five year stint on Doctor Who.  In that capacity Dicks was basically the uncredited co-writer for the entire Third Doctor era of the series.  In 1974 when Pertwee decided to depart, Dicks and Letts also made the decision to move on, but not before casting Tom Baker as the new Doctor, a decision that would eventually result in the show becoming even more popular.

Dicks also finagled the job of writing Baker’s debut story “Robot,” crafting a four part serial that was simultaneously thought-provoking and humorous.  It contains one of my all-time favorite lines of dialogue from the series, with the Doctor attempting to stop a computer from triggering the simultaneous launch of the world’s nuclear weapons while breezily observing:

“The trouble with computers, of course, is that they’re very sophisticated idiots. They do exactly what you tell them at amazing speed, even if you order them to kill you. So if you do happen to change your mind, it’s very difficult to stop them obeying the original order, but… not impossible.”

Dicks would write several more television stories for Doctor Who.  Robert Holmes became the new script editor, and commissioned Dicks to write “The Brain of Morbius.” Regrettably, due to technical issues Holmes had to do significant rewrites.  As Dicks later recounted:

 “I was furious when I read the rewritten scripts for ‘The Brain of Morbius’. I rang up Bob Holmes and shouted at him down the telephone. Eventually, I said ‘Alright. You can do it, but I’m going to take my name off it’ – the ultimate sanction! Not because it was a bad show, but because it was now more him than me. He asked ‘Well what name do you want to put on it?’ I said ‘I don’t care. You can put it out under some bland pseudonym’ and slammed the phone down. Weeks later, when I saw the Radio Times, I noticed it was ‘The Brain of Morbius’ by Robin Bland. By then, I’d cooled down and the joke disarmed me completely.”

Dicks also wrote ”The Horror of Fang Rock” for Holmes in 1977, and “State of Decay,” which was broadcast in 1980 during Tom Baker’s final season.  “State of Decay” was somewhat revised by the then-current script editor Christopher H. Bidmead.  In that case I personally feel the blending of Dicks’ and Bidmead’s very disparate approaches to the show actually resulted in a much stronger story, one where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Dicks’ final contribution to the television series was in 1983, writing the 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors.”

Doctor Who Auton InvasionAlthough he was no longer working of the TV show itself, Dicks remained a key part of the world of Doctor Who via his prose writing.  Back during his time as script editor he had been commissioned by Target Books to write novelizations of the show’s various serials.  The first one Dicks wrote was Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion, adapted from Robert Holmes’ scripts for Pertwee’s debut story “Spearhead in Space” and published in January 1974.

Dicks was the unofficial editor of the Doctor Who book line.  He would attempt to get the original writers to adapt their own scripts.  Malcolm Hulke and former script editor Gerry Davis each wrote several of the novelizations, as did actor-turned-writer Ian Marter.  However, due to the low pay, most of the time Dicks ended up to writing them himself, and eventually he would pen over 60 of them.

To truly appreciate the impact of these novelizations on Doctor Who fandom, you need to understand the time period in which they were published.  In the 1960s and 70s the BBC would typically air Doctor Who episodes once, with perhaps an occasional repeat of a serial at the end of the season or during the holidays.  If you missed seeing an episode when it first aired, chances were good that you were never going to see it.  There was no home video or DVDs or DVRs or streaming or anything like that.

On top of that, due to videotape being expensive, and film taking up a great deal of space, the BBC routinely wiped videos of older shows, and junked the film copies they made to sell their programs to foreign countries.  Doctor Who was one of many series to be affected by this policy.  By the end of the 1970s nearly all of the Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s were missing from the BBC archives.  A decent-sized chunk of Pertwee’s five year tenure was also absent.

Doctor Who Carnival of MonstersSo, if you were a fan in the early 1980s, between the paucity of reruns, the non-existence of home media, and the seeming destruction of many of the episodes from the first 12 years of the show, the novelizations by Terrance Dicks & Co were literally the only way you could experience older stories.  If you wanted to discover the show’s past, the novelizations were absolutely invaluable.

Fortunately a lot of those missing stories have since been recovered, and a handful of the still-missing episodes have been recreated via animation.  Nevertheless, there are still certain serials that are partly or completely missing where the novelization is a way in which you can experience the story.

I well remember exactly how much the novelizations affected me as a Doctor Who fan.  I started watching reruns on the PBS station WLIW in 1984, when I was eight years old.  I came in at the tail end of Tom Baker’s run, and then saw the Peter Davidson stories.  The stories sometimes referenced the show’s past, and these were tantalizing hints of an exciting history that I had no way of experiencing.

Then one evening at the Galleria shopping mall in White Plains NY, at the Waldenbooks, I came across an entire display of Doctor Who novels.  To my young, excited eyes there were dozens of them, with colorful, exciting covers, featuring aliens and giant monsters and dinosaurs and spaceships and other weird, exciting sights.  (The covers to The Auton Invasion and The Carnival of Monsters by artist Chris Achilleos seen above are good examples of the sort of covers that appeared on the Target novelizations.)  I immediately wanted to buy one… but my father wouldn’t let me.  I don’t know why, but he seemed convinced that I wasn’t going to actually read it.  But over the next week or so, I begged & pleaded.  My father finally gave in, and the next time we went to Waldenbooks he let me buy one.  I finished that book in just a few days, and was soon asking my parents to let me buy another.

Doctor Who Power of KrollNow here’s the humorous part of the story.  That first novelization I got was Doctor Who and the Power of Kroll, written by Terrance Dicks, based on Robert Holmes’ script.  I had never seen the TV story, and I bought it because it had Tom Baker’s Doctor with a really weird gigantic monster on the cover.  Reading the book by Dicks, I became convinced that “The Power of Kroll” had to be an absolutely amazing TV story. A few years later I was certainly in for a rude awakening!

This was the first, but certainly not the last, time this would happen to me with the novelizations.  The benefits of the prose format was that it allowed Dicks and others to work with an unlimited budget, to not worry about dodgy special effects and cheap sets and rubbish costumes.  Within the imagination of readers such as myself everything was real.

The prose format also allowed Dicks and the other adapters to get into characters’ thoughts, to expand certain scenes, to restore moments that had been left on the cutting room floor, and to fill in plot holes that came about during the series’ always-rushed production schedule.  There were several times when I read novelizations by Dicks before I got to see the actual episodes, and almost inevitably the book versions were better than the original television episodes.

As I discussed in my review of the 1972 serial “Day of the Daleks,” in his novelization Dicks did a superb job of expanding, and improving upon, the television episodes.  Another example that comes to mind is his adaptation of the debut story of the Master, “Terror of the Autons.”  The book improves upon the broadcast version in several ways.   Certainly the cyclopean octopus-lobster hybrid form of the Nestine Consciousness described in the book is a much more formidable menace than the blob of energy we saw on TV screens.

Doctor Who Terror of the AutonsIn the early 1990s Doctor Who had been cancelled and the majority of the serials had been novelized.  The decision was made to begin publishing original novels.  Several of the writers who have worked on the revival of Doctor Who launched in 2005 got their start on these novels.  And also present was Terrence Dicks, who wrote several novels over the next two decades.

It’s interesting to contrast the approaches of the younger writers with Dicks.  Most of the younger writers were very experimental, writing books that were part of larger arcs, and having catastrophic stuff happen to the TARDIS, and making the companions the main characters who drive the plot forward, and showing the Doctor acting as this Machiavellian cosmic chess master.  Obviously this laid the groundwork for a lot of what was subsequently done in the television revival.

Having said that, sometimes it got a bit tiresome, and you wanted to read a novel where the TARDIS just landed somewhere randomly, depositing the Doctor and his friends in the middle of an exciting adventure.  That was the approach favored by Dicks, and he tried to utilize that more traditional story structure in his novels.  Occasionally his books could become too heavily referential to past continuity.  But on the whole they were fun reads.  Certainly I enjoyed his 1995 novel Blood Harvest, which was a sequel to his serial “State of Decay.” I think it contained a nice balance between the new direction of the novels and a more traditional story.

Doctor Who Blood HarvestAnother book by Dicks that really stood out in my mind was Players, which was published in April 1999.  Dicks did a great job writing the Sixth Doctor and Peri.  I’ve made no secret of the fact that I feel Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant were given some underwhelming material to perform when they were on the show.  Reading the novel Players led me to wish Dicks could have worked on the show during the Sixth Doctor’s all too short tenure.  As I said, Dicks loved to reference continuity in his novels, but at the same time he was usually cognizant that you absolutely needed a strong story on which to anchor all of those tie-ins to past adventures.

Dicks continued to write Doctor Who prose fiction after the 2005 revival.  He penned Made of Steel and Revenge of the Judoon, a pair of “Quick Read” novellas starring the Tenth Doctor & Martha Jones, and he did a novelization of “Invasion of the Bane,” the debut episode of Who spin-off show The Sarah Jane Adventures.  A final short story, “Save Yourself,” is scheduled to be published posthumously later this year in the anthology Doctor Who: The Target Storybook.

A gifted raconteur, Dicks was an enthusiastic participant in the Doctor Who DVD audio commentaries & behind the scenes documentaries.  He was a popular guest at conventions.  I had always wanted to meet him.  Unfortunately when he was at the Doctor Who convention on Long Island in 2014 I was unemployed & short on funds, so I was unable to go.

Everyone who knew Dicks spoke warmly of him, and the tributes that have been written over the past week have all been heartfelt.  He certainly was an important and influential figure in helping to make Doctor Who the ongoing success that it is.

Steve Dillon: 1962 to 2016

This year has been awful. Too many incredibly talented people have died much too young in 2016.  Sadly yet another name has just been added to the list of creators who left us too soon.  British comic book artist Steve Dillon passed away on October 22nd at the age of 54.

preacher-by-steve-dillon

I first encountered Steve Dillon’s work in the mid-1980s when the back-up stories he had drawn in Doctor Who Weekly for Marvel Comics UK were reprinted here in the States. Two of the strips he worked on had lasting impacts on Doctor Who fandom.  “Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman” ran in Doctor Who Weekly # 5-7 (1979) and “Abslom Daak: Dalek Killer” ran in # 17-20.  Both stories were written by Steve Moore.

“Throwback” introduced Kroton, a being who despite being converted into one of the ruthlessly logical Cybermen somehow retained his emotions. Kroton was a tragic character, neither human nor Cyberman, trapped between two worlds.  This was some of Dillon’s earliest work.  He had a tendency to draw characters crouching in overdramatic poses or gesticulating wildly.  But even at that point Dillon showed genuine potential.  He certainly possessed the skill necessary to give emotion & pathos to the physically expressionless metal form of Kroton.  The bottom three panels of that final page from Doctor Who Weekly #7 always give me an emotional punch in the gut.

doctor-who-soul-of-a-cyberman

“Dalek Killer” featured the debut of Abslom Daak, a thoroughly unpleasant career criminal. Having been found guilty on multiple counts of murder & piracy, Daak is given two choices: execution by vaporization or Exile D-K.  The sneering Daak rejects vaporization because it’s quick & painless, and instead chooses Exile D-K, which involves being teleported to a world in the heart of the Dalek Empire to wage a hopeless one-man guerilla war against the mutants from Skaro.

Armed to the teeth, Daak is beamed to the planet Mazam, newly conquered by the Daleks. Despite his fervent death wish, the ruthless & brutal Daak manages to survive, in the process liberating Mazam from the Daleks and winning the heart of its ruler Taiyin.  Tragedy strikes, however, when a lone Dalek survivor kills Taiyin.  The grief-stricken Daak’s suicide-run is now supplanted by a mission of vengeance, as he vows to “kill every stinking Dalek in the galaxy!”

Dillon’s artwork on this serial was amazing. This is only a year after “Throwback” and he had already improved tremendously.  Dillon succeeded in humanizing the thuggish, menacing Daak, making him a character both comedic and haunted.  That final page, with Daak carrying Taiyin’s lifeless body, is incredibly powerful & tragic.

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Abslom Daak proved to be tremendously popular, and he has made numerous return appearances in Doctor Who comic books, most recently in The Eleventh Doctor series courtesy of Si Spurrier, Rob Williams & Simon Fraser. Daak even made it into the Doctor Who television series itself when his mug shot was seen in the 2014 episode “Time Heist.”

In the mid-1980s Dillon was a regular artist on the weekly British anthology series 2000 AD, drawing a number of stories featuring Judge Dredd and Rogue Trooper. He also worked on the short-lived but influential anthology series Warrior.

Beginning in 1990 Dillon began working at DC Comics, illustrating Tom Veitch’s offbeat stories in Animal Man. Two years later Dillon worked with writer Garth Ennis for the first time on the DC / Vertigo series Hellblazer, chronicling the dark supernatural adventures of  chain-smoking occult detective John Constantine.

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I recall that when I was in high school reading Animal Man and Hellblazer, I found Dillon’s artwork to be rather odd.  It was so very different stylistically from the tone of the flashy, ultra-dynamic work that had become prevalent in mainstream superhero books.  I really don’t think I even realized at that time that Dillon was the same artist who had drawn those Doctor Who comic book stories.  Nevertheless his work stuck in my head because it was so distinctive from ninety percent of what was out there.  It had what I would have to characterize as a starkness to it.

After wrapping up their run on Hellblazer, Ennis & Dillon collaborated on the Vertigo series Preacher, which ran for 66 issues between 1995 and 2000. Dark, brutal, sardonically humorous, and gleefully sacrilegious, Preacher became a critically acclaimed hit.  Underneath all the cynicism and gore, the succession of freaks, degenerates and psychopaths, Preacher was at its heart the story of the relationship between Jesse Custer and Tulip O’Hare.  Dillon ably illustrated all the sick weirdness that Ennis wrote, but he also brought to life Jesse & Tulip, made us believe in their love for one another.

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After Preacher wrapped up, Ennis & Dillon went over to Marvel Comics, taking over the Punisher. The pair transformed the then-moribund series into a ultra-violent black comedy.  Ennis also worked on a number of other Marvel titles, most notably a two year run on Wolverine: Origin with writer Daniel Wray.

I have always found Steve Dillon to be an incredibly effective comic book artist. As a non-artist it is perhaps difficult for me to articulate why this is so, but I am going to attempt to do so…

Dillon had a very straightforward, unvarnished style. He did not rely on overly-complex layouts.  He did not utilize excessive amounts of detail.  Dillon’s layouts and sequential illustration were crystal-clear and highly effective.  He absolutely knew how to create drama and tension.  Dillon could illustrate a multi-page sequence featuring nothing more than two characters sitting around taking over a beer and make it the most dramatic thing you could possibly imagine.

Dillon often illustrated stories that featured extreme violence. I think that its often the case that when an artist possesses an exaggerated or hyper-detailed style, violence comes across as cartoony or unrealistic or even glamorized.  Dillon, however, had a style that was very much grounded in reality, and so his scenes of violence and gore were starkly, shockingly brutal.

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I was fortunate enough to meet Dillon on a couple of occasions. The first time was in 1999, when I was traveling around Britain.  There was a big comic book convention in Bristol, England.  Dillon was one of the guests.  That whole show seemed to revolve around the bar, and most of the guests either had drinks at their tables or were actually doing signings at the pub.  As I recall, Dillon was at one of the tables in the pub drinking a pint.  He was kind enough to autograph an issue of Preacher for me, and to chat for a couple of minutes.  I commented to him that the “Until the End of the World” storyline that ran in issues # 8-12 has seriously freaked me out.  He smiled and responded, “I drew it, and it freaked me out, too.”  I had to laugh at that.

Years later, in 2009, I met Dillon again when he did a signing at Jim Hanley’s Universe here in NYC. Once again he struck me as a nice, friendly guy, and he did a sketch for me of Herr Starr, one of the villains from Preacher.

I was genuinely sorry to find out that Dillon had passed away. He was a tremendously talented artist.  Judging from the comments on Facebook from people who were friends with him or worked with him over the years, he was much-loved by those who knew him.

Doctor Who reviews: The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar

The two-part debut of Doctor Who Series Nine, “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar” written by Steven Moffat aired a few weeks back.  I’ve been so busy with stuff that I haven’t had an opportunity to comment on them.  But, by popular demand (well, okay, one person requested it… hello, Jim O’Brien!) here are my thoughts.

Looking at my past Doctor Who reviews, they’ve run long.  So this doesn’t go on forever, I’m not recapping the plot.  If you need to have your memory jogged, you can read the synopsis on Wikipedia.

Also, to make things organized, I’m numbering my thoughts.  Other bloggers on WordPress do that, and it can be effective.  So here goes…

Doctor Who The Magicians Apprentice

1) Let’s Kill Hitler?

This story offers a variation of the question of “Would you go back in time to kill Hitler as a child?”  The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) lands on a planet embroiled in a horrific war.  He sees a young child trapped in a mine field and is ready to save him… until he learns that it is Davros, who will grow up to destroy his own people, the Kaleds, and create the Daleks, the most evil life form in the universe.

The Doctor is appalled.  At first he just departs from ancient Skaro, leaving young Davros still trapped among the mines.  Clara (Jenna Coleman) later realizes the Doctor is full of shame, but it is not specified over what.  Is he ashamed that he did not have the fortitude to kill Davros in the past, before he grew up to become a monster?  Or is the Doctor ashamed that he abandoned an innocent child like that?  Maybe it is both.  Maybe the Doctor is so torn by this that he does not know how to feel.

Of course, later the Doctor does return to Skaro thousands of years ago to rescue young Davros.  The Doctor hopes this act of mercy will remain in his subconscious so that, in the future, when Clara is trapped inside a Dalek shell, the concept of mercy will be something she can access among the Dalek programming to alert the Doctor that it is her.

2) The Third Path

Thinking over the moral dilemma faced by the Doctor, to kill young Davros or save him, a third alternative eventually occurred to me.  To a certain degree, Davros is very much the product of his upbringing.  He was raised in a fascist society obsessed with genetic purity that was locked in a centuries-long war.  What about removing him from that environment?  Why not take the young Davros aboard the TARDIS and find a peaceful world where he could be adopted by loving parents?  That would give him an opportunity to grow up in a much better place, to hopefully develop in a positive manner.  The Doctor would have changed history, averted the creation of the Daleks, without having to kill a child who had not yet committed any crimes.

Missy The Magicians Apprentice

3) Hey Missy, You So Fine

Despite her apparent demise at the end of “Death In Heaven” Missy (Michelle Gomez) is back.  Hey, the Master / Missy has always been brilliant at improbably escaping certain death.  It’s actually a neat twist that we learn Missy stole the method of her escape from the Doctor.  She is so obsessed with the Doctor that she would crib his methods for herself.

It does make a certain sense for Missy to be a recurring adversary for the Twelfth Doctor.  Capaldi was a huge fan of Doctor Who when Jon Pertwee was portraying the Third Doctor.  It’s apparent that Capaldi has incorporated some of the Third Doctor’s mannerisms and personality into his own interpretation of the role.  Back then, the Master was a regular fixture on the series, so it is appropriate for the two of them to once again have an ongoing rivalry.  As long as Missy is not overused (i.e. showing up in every story in a season) there isn’t a problem with her popping up now and again.

In any case, as written by Moffat and played by Gomez, Missy is brilliantly scary.  She is terrifying because you never know what she is going to do next.  When she walks into a room, you don’t know if she is going to start murdering people or do something wacky like singing show tunes.  And if Missy does break out into song, just when you allow yourself to relax, suddenly she’ll whip out a weapon, casually murder some poor innocent, and then resume her recitation of Rodgers & Hammerstein without missing a beat.  That sort of capricious evil means that whenever she’s on the screen the viewer is on edge.  It’s sort of like having to share a room with a venomous snake.

4) Here come the Daleks… again

Yet another Dalek story already?  They feel overused at this point.  I wish we could have a season without them showing up.

That might be out of the hands of Moffat, though.  Reportedly the arrangement that the BBC has with Terry Nation’s estate is that Doctor Who is required to have the Daleks appear at least once a year in order to retain the use of them.  That would explain why in the two years that there weren’t any Dalek stories there were brief cameos made by them.

If this is the case, well, having fulfilled the Dalek quota for 2015, I hope that we will not see them again until next year.  Even seeing Skaro restored to its classic appearance, with various old incarnations of the Daleks showing up, left me a bit underwhelmed.

Davros The Magicians Apprentice

5) Davros is a bastard

Julian Bleach, who played Davros in “The Stolen Earth” / “Journey’s End” reprises the role here.  He has a very good handle on the character.  Davros is at his most effective when the screaming and ranting is kept to a minimum.  As I observed in my review of the Big Finish audio story “Davros,” the most dangerous thing about the character is that he is so incredibly manipulative & charismatic, so brilliant at getting people to underestimate him.  Davros is also very insightful, and he really knows how to get under the Doctor’s skin, point out his weaknesses and failings.

Moffat’s dialogue for the Twelfth Doctor and Davros is very dramatic.  Capaldi and Bleach play these scenes brilliantly.  It was riveting just watching these two adversaries conversing.

6) UNIT is useless

One of the problems I had with UNIT when they were regulars on the show in the 1970s was that they were often depicted as incompetent.  That trend has unfortunately repeated itself with Moffat’s use of the organization.  They show up to provide some exposition, a bunch of their personnel get killed, and then the Doctor steps in to save the day.

I’m not sure why you would get Jemma Redgrave to play Kate Stewart, and then write her as an ineffectual idiot.  In “The Magician’s Apprentice,” when every airplane on earth becomes frozen in place, what does Kate, a scientist who heads a multi-national military & intelligence group, do?  Does she consult with her staff and attempt to devise a solution on her own?  No, she calls the Doctor for help.  And when Kate cannot get hold of him, she brings in Clara.  It’s really embarrassing to see a civilian schoolteacher start suggesting possibilities that hadn’t occurred to a single person in UNIT.

Worse yet, when Clara goes to meet Missy, UNIT has no plan for dealing with her.  When Missy begins disintegrating UNIT personnel just to amuse herself, they have no idea how to react, and Kate is left shouting “Don’t shoot her!”  Yeah, that’s great, just stand there and let Missy murder you.  Brilliant plan!

More than ever, I am happy that Redgrave will be playing Kate Stewart in a series of Big Finish audios.  I really hope that when presented in stories that do not feature the Doctor hanging around to save the day, Kate and UNIT will have an opportunity to actually accomplish something.

7) What’s in a name?

I’m left wondering what the meaning is of the episode titles.  I am guessing that the Magician is the Doctor and the Witch is Missy.  Clara is probably both the Apprentice and the Familiar.  I wonder if these are just clever titles that Moffat devised, or if they have a significance that will become apparent as the season progresses.

8) Colony Sarff

Davros’ henchman, Colony Sarff, is a collective entity made up of hundreds of snakes.  He is wonderfully creepy.  He is just the sort of thing you can imagine coming out of Davros’ twisted mind.  Sarff reminded me a bit of the weird entities devised by Grant Morrison & Richard Case during their classic run on the Doom Patrol comic book.

The “hand mines” on Skaro were also reminiscent of the bizarre quality of that series.  I wonder if Moffat has read Morrison?

Peter Capaldi plays guitar

9) The Doctor plays the electric guitar

Seeing the Doctor playing an electric guitar atop a tank in Medieval England was one of my favorite parts of “The Magician’s Apprentice.”  Even more so now that I know that Capaldi himself was actually playing it.  One of the ways that Tom Baker stated he liked to portray the Doctor was to act serious in silly situations and silly in serious situations.  Capaldi also has that sort of quality about him.

That’s one of the things that I love about Doctor Who; it’s definitely not afraid to be silly from time to time.  At its best, the series has always possessed a healthy balance of the serious and the ridiculous.  Speaking of which…

10) Vampire Monkeys

Maybe it would not be something that would be enough to fill out an entire episode.  In fact, perhaps it is an idea better left as an offhand comment by Missy about an untold adventure of the Doctor.  But I really have to smile at the idea of the Doctor facing a horde of vampire monkeys.

That’s my take on this two part story.  While I didn’t think it was an overwhelming success, and there were definite weak points, for the most part I liked it.

Doctor Who: Let’s do the Time War again

“You weren’t there in the final days of the War. You never saw what was born. But if the time lock’s broken, then everything’s coming through. Not just the Daleks, but the Skaro Degradations, the Horde of Travesties, the Nightmare Child, the Could-Have-Been King with his army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres. The War turned into hell. And that’s what you’ve opened, right above the Earth. Hell is descending.” – The Tenth Doctor, “The End of Time”

When Doctor Who returned to television in 2005, viewers were informed that the Doctor was apparently the last of the Time Lords.  All the other members of his race had apparently died fighting the Daleks in a vast, apocalyptic, realty-rending conflict known as the Time War.

Truthfully, the basic function of the Time War was to sweep the decks of the mountains of continuity that had accumulated during the original run of Doctor Who on television from 1963 to 1989.  It enabled showrunner Russell T Davies to start with a clean slate.  He was able to streamline things without having to resort to rebooting the series from scratch.  It worked elegantly in that regard.

The Time War also allowed Davies and his collaborators to offer a new perspective on the character of the Doctor.  The time traveler was now a haunted, battle-scarred figure suffering from survivor’s guilt and the knowledge that in order to save existence he had been the one to finally bring an end to the carnage of the War.

Of course inevitably viewers were curious to know what exactly had taken place during this infamous Time War.  Hints and allusions to the events were peppered throughout various episodes over the next several years, but we never actually saw any part of the conflict itself.  I believe that at one point Davies joked that he’d have needed a one hundred million dollar budget to bring the Time War to television screens.

Besides, much of what the Doctor mentioned, such as his recitation of the myriad horrors of the Time War in“The End of Time,” sounded like the sort of abstract, surrealist nightmares that would probably have been impossible to convincingly depict on TV.  When we were finally granted a glimpse of the War by Steven Moffat in “The Day of the Doctor” it was presented as a more straightforward conflict, with a billion Dalek spaceships laying siege to Gallifrey.  Which, of course, was still pretty damn dramatic.

We eventually learned that a previously unrevealed incarnation of the Doctor portrayed by John Hurt, the so-called “War Doctor,” was the one who fought in the Time War.  The conflict had apparently spanned centuries, during which the War Doctor became a weary old man.  Barring the use of archival footage of Hurt as a younger man, it would be impossible to show most of the War Doctor’s experiences.

Having said all that, I’ve often thought that the Time War would be perfect to present in comic book form.  After all, the only limit on what can be shown in comic books is the imaginations of the writers & artists.  I even thought of the perfect creative team: Grant Morrison and Richard Case, the writer and penciler who crafted many bizarre, nightmarish, reality-twisting stories during their run on Doom Patrol from 1989 to 1992.  Just imagine the creators who brought us such peculiar menaces as the Brotherhood of Dada, the Painting That Ate Paris, the Scissormen and the Candlemaker depicting the freakish, horrifying events of the Time War.

Engines of War

However, it never did occur to me that prose fiction would also be another medium in which to recount the events of the Time War, at least not until I spotted the novel Engines of War by George Mann for sale at Forbidden Planet.  I immediately grabbed it off the shelf, bought it, and started reading it.

Engines of War is told from the point of view of Cinder, a 21 year old freedom fighter from the human colony of Moldox.  Her name comes from the color of her hair, and from the fact that she was found among the burning embers of her home 14 years earlier after her entire family was wiped out by the Daleks.  Moldox and the other worlds in the Tantalus Spiral have been conquered by the Daleks, the majority of the colonists either exterminated or captured to serve as slave labor or experimental subjects.  Cinder is one of the few humans to have remained free, eking out a hard-scrabble existence among the ruins, fighting a hopeless guerilla war against their conquerors.

Then, very unexpectedly, the Doctor comes into Cinder’s life, his TARDIS shot down during a space battle.  Much like Cass from “The Night of the Doctor,” Cinder is initially angry at and frightened by him, believing the Time Lords to be just as bad as the Daleks.  However, her desperation to escape the desolation of Moldox is so great that she tentatively lowers her guard when the Doctor offers to take her out of the warzone and to safety.

Mann does excellent work developing the character of Cinder, and writing her interactions with the Doctor.  Contemplating the idea of something other than the day-to-day struggle for survival against the Daleks that has consumed much of her existence, Cinder starts to recognize the possibilities that life might offer.

For the War Doctor, so long involved in the war against the Daleks, Cinder is apparently his first extended interaction with humanity since his regeneration.  At first he is hesitant to take upon himself the responsibility for her well-being.  Like Cinder, the Doctor had resigned himself to the role of a warrior in a seemingly-endless conflict.  Now, once again traveling with a companion, however reluctantly, he begins to let down his guard, to care.  Cinder offers him an opportunity to reconsider his conviction that he no longer has the right to call himself “Doctor.”

The style of Mann’s prose reminded me of Terrance Dick’s work on the numerous Doctor Who novelizations.  Mann’s writing seems directed at the teenage reader, but it is certainly sophisticated enough that adults will also appreciate it.  Early on he succinctly describes the awesome, incomprehensible scope of the conflict:

Cinder had heard that in simple, linear terms, the war had been going on for over four hundred years. This, of course, was an untruth, or at least an irrelevance; the temporal war zones had permeated so far and so deep into the very structure of the universe that the conflict had – quite literally – been raging for eternity. There was no epoch that remained unscathed, uncontested, no history that had not been rewritten.

Of course, considering that it is set amidst the Time War, the book offers up plenty of examples of what Mystery Science Theater 3000 once described as “good old fashioned nightmare fuel.”  There is some really dark stuff between these covers.

A War Doctor's Tale courtesy of Simon Hodges  / Doctor Who Sidebar Covers
A War Doctor’s Tale courtesy of Simon Hodges / Doctor Who Sidebar Covers

Before the Doctor can take Cinder to safety, he needs to learn what the Daleks are up to on Moldox and the other worlds in the Spiral.  Reluctantly the young human guides him to the nearest occupied city.  The Doctor is horrified to discover that the Daleks have harnessed the energy of the Eye of Tantalus, a vast temporal anomaly contained within the Spiral, and used it to create weapons that erase their victims from history.  Not only will an army of Daleks be equipped with the dematerialization guns, but the Eye itself is to be turned into a single massive weapon which will be used to wipe the Time Lord home world of Gallifrey from existence.

The Doctor travels to Gallifrey to alert the High Council to the Daleks’ plans, bringing Cinder with him.  Through her eyes, we see just how much the conflict has affected them.  The Time Lords had always been aloof, arrogant figures.  Now, driven to desperation by their war with the Daleks, the Doctor’s people have become utterly ruthless.  When the Lord President Rassilon is informed of the danger in the Tantalus Spiral, he immediately decides to utilize a stellar engineering device known as the Tear of Isha to neutralize the Eye.  The Doctor, however, realizes that this will wipe out all life in the Spiral, including the billions of humans imprisoned by the Daleks.

Cinder felt her heart lurch in her chest. She felt suddenly nauseous. They were going to do it. They were really going to murder every single living thing on a dozen worlds.

“Rassilon,” said the Doctor, clearly exacerbated. “You’re condemning a billion souls to a terrible death. More. How can you even consider it?”

“What are a billion human lives to us, Doctor?” said Rassilon. “They are but motes of sand on the breeze. They breed like a virus, infesting every corner of the universe. Where some die, others will take their place.”

There are several scenes in the novel featuring the Doctor and Rassilon sparring verbally.  Reading them, I was left longing for an actual live-action version of Engines of War.  It would be brilliant to have John Hurt and Timothy Dalton acting opposite one another, reciting all of this wonderfully dramatic dialogue.

Doctor Who Rassilon

The Doctor and Cinder realize that not only must they stop the Daleks, but also the Time Lords.  With both sides of the conflict in opposition to them, the odds seem near-insurmountable.

There are a number of excellent moments throughout Engines of War.  Even though the hierarchy of the Time Lords has become inured to the violence, to the cataclysmic loss of life, Mann indicates that the citizens of Gallifrey are genuinely frightened by the War.  At one point, looking over the landscape of the Time Lord capital, Cinder observes hundreds of tiny lights drifting up into the night sky.

“What are they?” said Cinder. “Paper lanterns?”

The Doctor shook his head. “No, although the principle is the same. Those are memory lanterns.”

“Memory lanterns?” echoed Cinder.

The Doctor glanced at her. “They all think they’re going to die,” he said. “All those people down there think the Daleks are coming for them, and that they’re going to be exterminated.” He sighed, and the weariness in his expression spoke volumes. “So they’re recording all of their thoughts and memories into those lanterns, and scattering them through time and space. It’s the last act of a desperate people. They’re terrified that they’re going to be forgotten, so they’re seeding themselves into all the distant corners of the universe to be remembered.”

I am curious about how much knowledge Mann had of the work that Moffat and his co-writers were doing on Series Eight when he was penning this novel.  There are certain parallels.  In “The Caretaker” the Doctor expressed his disdain for soldiers.  In response, Danny Pink declared “I’m a soldier. Guilty as charged. You see him? He’s an officer!”  Indeed, when we first see the Doctor in Engines of War, he is piloting his unarmed TARDIS, leading a large assembly of heavily-armed Battle TARDISes in an engagement with a Dalek fleet, organizing strategy, calling out orders to his fellow Time Lords; he is very much an officer.

At the end of Series Eight, in “Death in Heaven” Danny bitterly commented of the Doctor, “Typical officer, got to keep those hands clean.”   That is a theme that also runs throughout Engines of War.  Despite the fact that he has ostensibly embraced the role of warrior, the Doctor carries no weapons, only his sonic screwdriver.  On both Moldox and Gallifrey he relies on Cinder to destroy Daleks and knock out Time Lord security guards.  At one point, Rassilon’s obsequious lackey Karlax subjects Cinder to brutal interrogation by the Mind Probe, as much to verify the Doctor’s story as to fulfill his own sadistic glee.  Cinder barely survives…

She gasped for air.  “He’ll kill you,” she said, between shallow breaths. “He’ll kill you for this.”

Karlax laughed. “Oh no, not the Doctor,” he said. “The Doctor and I are old playmates. He doesn’t like to get his hands dirty.”

Mann also addresses the suggestion made by Davies that “Genesis of the Daleks,” when the Time Lords dispatched the Doctor back in time to abort the creation of the Daleks and he hesitated at committing genocide, was actually the first shot fired in the Time War.  Early on, seeing the horrific loss of life on Moldox, witnessing the atrocities being committed by the Daleks, the Doctor is burdened by the knowledge that if not for his indecision on Skaro many years before he might have prevented all this from occurring.

Towards the end of the novel, the Doctor and Cinder come face to face with the Eternity Circle, the group of Daleks tasked by the Emperor with developing the temporal weapons.  The head of the Circle explicitly refers to the Doctor’s presence at the birth of the Daleks

“Ah,” said the Dalek. “The beginning of the Time War. The moment that you, Doctor, taught the Daleks their most valuable lesson of all —  that emotion is a weakness that must be eradicated. That mercy has no place in victory.”

“Not a weakness,” said the Doctor, “but a strength.”

“If it had not been for your hesitation,” said the Dalek, its tone derisory, “for your inability to do what was necessary, then the entire War could have been prevented. The Daleks would have ceased to exist.”

Engines of War is very much concerned with explaining exactly how the Doctor arrived at the point seen in “The Day of the Doctor.”  What was it that finally drove him to solemnly declare, “No more,” to decide to utilize the Moment and wipe out the whole of the Time Lords and the Daleks?  What was it that convinced him that there was no other choice?

War Doctor

Mann shows us a Doctor who, as the story opens, is already burned out, bone-weary from an unending nightmare conflict.  And then he is faced with further horrors as both the Daleks and his own people pile atrocities upon one another, and each side reigns down scorn & mockery upon him for his perceived weakness and lack of resolve.  When the novel finally comes to a close with the Doctor experiencing yet another soul-rending loss, you can fully imagine that this is a man who just wants it all to end, who will do anything to stop it, who will tell the Moment Interface “I have no desire to survive this.”

If there is a weakness to Engines of War, it is that perhaps it references the history of the series a little too heavily.  It is inevitable that any novel set during the Time War is going to require allusions to a number of past events.  Nevertheless, the nods to specific televised Doctor Who stories do come quite frequently.  While for the most part Mann is able to fit them in seamlessly, on occasion they do feel superfluous.  By the time a character starts playing the Harp of Rassilon, well, I couldn’t help but feel that Mann was overdoing it just a bit!

Well, aside from that, and from events jumping back and forth between the different settings, Engines of War is a good read.  Mann effectively delves into a previously little-explored period of the Doctor’s life.  He is successful at not just conveying the cosmic scope of events only previously hinted at on the television series, but at utilizing them to explore the character of the Doctor.  Mann also examines how a conflict that rages across myriad planes of reality would affect the average mortal person on the ground, viewing the staggering events of the Time War through Cinder’s eyes.

As I indicated earlier, for a variety of reasons it is very unlikely that we will ever be provided an in-depth look at the Time War on our television screens.  Nevertheless, that conflict provides a rich backdrop against which to tell engrossing stories in other mediums.  Engines of War by George Mann undoubtedly proves that potential.

Doctor Who reviews: Deep Breath and Into the Dalek

After months of waiting, the eighth series of Doctor Who is here, featuring the full debut of Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, with Jenna Coleman returning as Clara Oswald.  I canceled cable television several months ago, and I was concerned I’d end up missing the new episodes.  Fortunately I was able to purchase the entire season on iTunes to watch on my laptop.  Here is a quick look at the first two episodes, “Deep Breath” and “Into the Dalek.”

Doctor Who Deep Breath poster

When a tyrannosaurus shows up in Victorian London, it transpires that the newly-regenerated Doctor had landed the TARDIS in prehistoric times, where it got swallowed by a dinosaur, which then got transported to the late 19th Century along with its would-be meal.  Fortunately the t-rex coughs up the TARDIS on the banks of the Thames, where the Paternoster Gang is investigating the presence of the dinosaur.  And so Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax are reunited with Clara, and introduced to the Twelfth Doctor.

Following on from his transformation at the end of “The Time of the Doctor,” our resident Time Lord is understandably discombobulated.  He is quickly put to bed in Vastra & Jenny’s house, while Clara attempts to process what, exactly has occurred.

To be honest, of all the people in the universe, you would expect that Clara would have the easiest time accepting the Doctor regenerating.  Perhaps she doesn’t really remember her experiences as “the Impossible Girl” whose consciousness was fragmented and scattered about myriad points in the Doctor’s timeline.  However, she quite recently met both the War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor during the events of “The Day of the Doctor.”  So she knows he can regenerate, and that even though he looked young he was really a couple of thousand years old.  This makes it very surprising that Clara is seemingly in shock that the Doctor is suddenly completely different and older-looking.  Perhaps it is a case of the difference between knowing something is possible and actually seeing it occur before your eyes?

Still, Clara’s uncertainty and difficulty accepting the new incarnation of the Doctor does lead to an interesting scene between her and Vastra (Neve McIntosh).  Often the Paternoster Gang is written with a rather tongue-in-cheek manner, and they are typically depicted as moving about very comfortably within Victorian England, accepted by the authorities as experts on strange phenomenon.  Given that, it is easy to forget that Vastra is an outsider, a Silurian who was born millions of years ago, now living in a completely alien world.  Writer Steven Moffat addresses this in “Deep Breath,” showing how she copes with her new existence among humans who are often unable to accept anyone or anything that is strange or different.  It makes sense that Vastra would feel a certain kinship to the Doctor, who is also an outsider.

Truthfully, I did not fine the plot of body-snatching clockwork robots especially compelling.  I was actually wondering at what appeared to be an apparent plot hole.  These mechanical beings supposedly crashed on Earth centuries before and have been harvesting humans to rebuild themselves all this time, but their activities have only been noticed for the last few months, with the London newspapers reporting various instances of supposed spontaneous combustion (they were burning their victims to disguise the stolen body parts).  Maybe this is something that Moffat is going to address later on in the eighth series, that some outside force woke them up.  Perhaps it ties in with that enigmatic woman in black named Missy (Michelle Gomez) who popped up in both of these episodes.

Probably the best part of “Deep Breath” was Capaldi.  Early on, his post-regeneration instability gives him an opportunity to engage in some humorously odd observations.  Looking in the mirror at his new face for the first time, he wonders why he now looks this way, if for some subconscious reason he chose this appearance.  He also has a bit of criticism concerning one particular feature:

“Look at the eyebrows! These are attack eyebrows. You could take bottle caps off with these.  They’re cross. They’re crosser than the rest of my face. They’re independently cross! They probably want to cede from the rest of my face and set up their own independent state of eyebrows.”

Even in this confused state, the Doctor still wants to help return the tyrannosaur to its own time period, recognizing that it is an innocent being that was plucked into a strange place through no fault of its own.  And he is distraught when the dinosaur is killed by the clockwork robots.  We also see the Doctor is genuinely hurt and disappointed at Clara’s difficulty in accepting that he has changed.

Towards the end of “Deep Breath,” Capaldi really comes into his own.  Confronting the leader of the robots aboard its makeshift dirigible floating over London, the Doctor boldly declares:

“Those people down there, they’re never small to me. Don’t make assumptions about how far I will go to protect them, because I’ve already come a very long way. And unlike you, I do not expect to reach the Promised Land.”

In the next scene, following on from the Doctor’s warning, we discover that the robot has been destroyed, having fallen out of the blimp and become impaled upon a metal steeple.  You are left wondering if the clockwork man committed suicide once it became convinced it would never reach the mythical paradise it believed in, or if the Doctor was forced to kill it.

“Deep Breath” was a somewhat uneven episode.  There were a number of good scenes, character moments and performances that perhaps were not connected together as well as they could.  I was a bit underwhelmed, although Capaldi definitely impressed as the Twelfth Doctor.

Doctor Who Into The Dalek poster

I was definitely much more impressed with this week’s episode, “Into the Dalek” co-written by Phil Ford & Steven Moffat.  Sometime in the far future when humanity is engaged in a massive space war with the Daleks, the Doctor rescues Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton) when her fighter ship is destroyed.  Returning her to her home spaceship, the Aristotle, the Doctor discovers that the humans have taken a Dalek prisoner.

Strangely, this captured Dalek seems to have “turned good” and is expressing a desire to fight against its own kind.  Although suspicious and extremely skeptical that Daleks are capable of any sort of change from the conformity that is genetically programmed into them, the Doctor nevertheless reluctantly agrees to help the humans repair it, in the hopes it will aid them in their fight, and show a way in which to grant empathy and creative thinking to the rest of its species.

The Doctor pops back to 2014 to collect Clara from Coal Hill School, where she is still teaching, and returns with her to the future.  Together with Journey Blue and two other human soldiers, the Doctor and Clara are shrunk down and inserted into the Dalek, which the Doctor has nicknamed “Rusty,” to locate & repair its internal damage, as well as determine the source of its personality change.  Yes, it’s Fantastic Voyage with a Dalek, something that the Doctor sardonically lampshades when he comments “Fantastic idea for a movie. Terrible idea for a proctologist.”

This episode really showed us the unsettling, darker side of the Doctor.  He wonders aloud if he is a good man or not, a question he asks Clara.  Once miniaturized inside Rusty’s form, when attacked by Dalek antibodies, the Doctor more or less sacrifices one of the human soldiers, harshly justifying his action by stating “He was dead already! I was saving us!”

The Doctor locates a radiation leak inside Rusty and seals it.  This saves the Dalek, but it also causes its internal computer to begin functioning normally, and it’s conditioning to be restored.  Rusty breaks loose on the Aristotle and begins attacking the humans, as well as summoning the Dalek mothership.  Soon the Daleks are assaulting the Aristotle in force.

Still shrunk inside Rusty, the Doctor is ready to give up, convinced that Daleks really can never change.  But Clara forces him to reconsider, and the two of them, with Journey Blue’s assistance, manage to reboot Rusty’s computers, once again giving the Dalek access to its full memories.  The Doctor mentally taps into Rusty, hoping that what the Dalek sees in his own memories & experiences will convince it to once again reject its programmed ideology…

Rusty: I see into your soul, Doctor. I see beauty. I see divinity. I… see… hatred!
The Doctor: Hatred?
Rusty: I see your hatred of the Daleks and it is good!
The Doctor: No no no no. You must see more than that. There must be more than that!

Unfortunately Rusty is unable or unwilling to listen to the Doctor’s pleas.  Rusty ambushes the Dalek boarding party, wiping them out.  Afterwards, the Doctor, Clara and Blue have returned to normal size.  Even though they have won, the Doctor is disappointed, and Rusty is unable to understand why.

Rusty: Victory is yours, but it does not please you?
The Doctor: You looked inside me and you saw hatred. That’s no victory. Victory would’ve been a good Dalek.

The Doctor really had hoped to change the Daleks, to get them to grow, to put aside hatred, enable them to appreciate the beauty of the universe, to understand that other beings had a right to existence.  Instead, all he was able to do was to cause Rusty to embrace a different form of hate, to turn its destructive abilities upon a different target, namely its own species.  And, worse yet, this experience has once more reminded the Doctor of his own hatred, his own capacity for violence and destruction.

Throughout the episode, it is shown that the Doctor has a great dislike for soldiers and war.  At the end, when Journey Blue asks to join him and Clara on the TARDIS, the Doctor refuses.  “I think you’re probably nice. Underneath it all, I think you’re kind and definitely brave. I just wish you hadn’t been a soldier.”

The Doctor is undoubtedly reminded of his own experiences during the Time War, when he was the War Doctor, fighting against the Daleks.  The dislike for the military he shows here is at least partially due to his own self-loathing for the person he once was.  As much as he likes Blue, the Doctor will not take her with him.  Humans such as Clara have helped to awaken the best qualities in him, often serving as his conscience.  And so he is undoubtedly afraid that someone like Blue will bring out his worst aspects.

Ford & Moffat did an excellent job writing “Into the Dalek.”  The script really is top-notch, the ideas it touches upon complicated and thought-provoking.  The direction by Ben Wheatley is fantastic.  The sets, costumes, and special effects look great.  Capaldi does a superb job working with this material, giving a very compelling performance.  Regular Dalek voice artist Nicholas Briggs turned in a nuanced performance as Rusty, really bringing to life the creature’s emotional turmoil.

Doctor Who Peter Capaldi close up

While not perfect, series eight of Doctor Who is off to a good start.  Peter Capaldi has definitely hit the ground running as the Twelfth Doctor.  I am very much looking forward to seeing more from him in the coming weeks.

Oh, yes, one other thing… I love the new opening title sequence.  As I understand it, it was inspired by a sequence created by series fan Billy Hanshaw that was posted online.  It looks very cool, with a rather steampunk style to it.  Definitely suits the new Doctor.

Steve Moore: 1949 to 2014

I was sorry to learn about the recent death of British comic book writer Steve Moore, who passed away at the age of 64 earlier this month.  Steve Moore was a longtime friend & associate of Alan Moore, so much so that they constantly had to remind people that they were not, in fact, related to each other.

Steve Moore was involved in the early days of the weekly sci-fi anthology series 2000 AD, penning several installments of “Tharg’s Future Shocks” in the late 1970s and early 80s.  In late 1979, he became one of the first writers for Doctor Who Weekly / Monthly for Marvel UK, penning a variety of back-up stories spotlighting the aliens & monsters of the television series.

With then up-and-coming artist Steve Dillon, Moore co-created two recurring characters in the comic book back-ups.  The first was Junior Cyberleader Kroton, introduced in “Throwback: The Soul of a Cyberman,” published in Doctor Who Weekly #s 5-7 (1980).  Unlike the rest of the Cybermen, when he was converted into a cyborg Kroton somehow retained his human emotions, his capacity for empathy.  Struggling with his unexpected feelings, Kroton eventually sided with the human resistance on the Cyberman-occupied world of Mondaran, helping them to escape to the unoccupied jungles of their planet.  However, realizing he was neither fully Cyberman nor human, Kroton elected to blast off into outer space, where he shut himself down.

Doctor Who 3 pg 19

The other character conceived by Moore and Dillon was Abslom Daak, the Dalek-Killer, originally featured in Doctor Who Weekly #s 17-20 (1980).  Although they shared a common enemy in the Daleks, Daak was the polar opposite of the Doctor.  Whereas the wandering Time Lord was eccentric, cultured, and sought to resolve conflicts with his intellect, Daak was a brutal career criminal, a cynic with a dark sense of humor and a death wish whose solution to any problem was violence.

On the opening page his debut Daak has been convicted of “23 charges of murder, pillage, piracy, massacre and other crimes too horrible to bring to the public attention.”  Given a capital sentence, Daak is offered a choice, “death by vaporization or Exile D-K.”  Dryly commenting that “vaporization doesn’t hurt,” Daak takes the second alternative.  Exile D-K involves sending an individual by matter transmitter into the heart of the Dalek Empire to wage a hopeless one-man guerilla war against the fascist mutants from Skaro.  This suits Daak just fine.  Armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons, including his beloved chain-sword, he is teleported a thousand light years across the galaxy to the planet Mazam, newly invaded by the Daleks.  There Daak plans to go out in a blaze of glory, violently taking as many Daleks with him as possible in an orgy of destruction.

Upon his arrival, however, Daak ends up saving the life of the stunningly beautiful Princess Taiyin.  Daak is all ready to do a reenactment of the ending to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but Taiyin realizes this brutish warrior might just be able to help her escape.  Knocking the Dalek-Killer out, she transports the two of them away from her palace via sky-sled.  Once again attacked by the Daleks, Daak reiterates his hopes of achieving a spectacularly violent demise.  Taiyin reluctantly points him in the direction of the Daleks’ command ship and, against impossible odds, the two manage to destroy it.  Taiyin, who has begun to fall for Daak, asks him to stay on and help rebuild Mazam.  Before Daak can answer, Taiyin is shot from behind by one of the surviving Daleks, and dies in the Dalek-Killer’s arms.

Doctor Who 8 pg 28

Moore did an interesting job of developing Daak.  He starts out as a thoroughly unpleasant individual who is looking to cash his chips in.  Along the course of the story, Daak reluctantly comes to realize that he likes Taiyin, and perhaps he could have a future with her, a reason to go on living.  And then all that is cruelly yanked away from him in an instant with Taiyin’s death.  From that point on, Daak vows to “kill every damned stinking Dalek in the galaxy.”  Revenge and the almost impossible hope of somehow finding a way to revive Taiyin are Daak’s only reasons to go on living.  That final page is powerfully illustrated by Dillon.

Moore continued Abslom Daak’s story in “Star Tigers,” which ran in Doctor Who Weekly #s 27-30 and 44-46.  The Dalek-Killer gains a battleship, the Kill Wagon, and a crew made up of exiled Draconian prince Salander, the Ice Warrior mercenary Harma, and the human criminal strategist Vol Mercurious.  The first few installments were again drawn by Dillon, with a young David Lloyd assuming art duties on the later chapters.

(There is an excellent interview with Steve Moore concerning his Dalek-Killer stories online at Altered Vistas.  Check it out.)

Moore intended to write additional installments of“Star Tigers.”  But he was then switched over to the main feature in Doctor Who Weekly / Monthly, scripting the adventures of the Fourth Doctor.  Here he was paired with regular artist Dave Gibbons.  In the mid-1980s, Moore’s Doctor Who work was reprinted in color in the American comic book series, which is where I first had the opportunity to read his various stories.

2000 AD 1194 pg 12

Moore also contributed numerous stories to the short-lived anthology series Warrior in the mid-1980s.  Among these were the adventures of the psychotic cyborg Axel Pressbutton and his sometimes-partner, the beautiful & deadly Laser Eraser.

Throughout the 1990s Moore worked as a writer and editor at Fortean Times, the British magazine of strange & esoteric phenomena.  He returned to the comic book field in the late 1990s, when he began writing “Tales of Telguth,” a  horror / fantasy anthology feature in 2000 AD with dark twist endings.  This allowed Moore to collaborate with a number of very talented artists such as Simon Davis, Greg Staples, Carl Critchlow, Dean Ormston, and Siku.

In the mid-2000s, Moore once again became associated with Alan Moore, working on several stories for Tom Strong, Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales and Tomorrow Stories from the America’s Best Comics imprint.  These were illustrated by an all-star line up that included Paul Gulacy, Jimmy Palmiotti, Alan Weiss, Arthur Adams and Eric Shanower.  In 2008, Steve Moore wrote Hercules: The Thracian Wars and Hercules: The Knives of Kush for Radical Comics.

Tom Strong 34 pg 15

At the time of his death, Steve Moore was working with Alan Moore once again, this time on The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic, to be released by Top Shelf.  Hopefully Alan will be able to complete the tome and it will see publication.

Steve Moore leaves behind a very impressive, offbeat, original body of work.  His two original characters from the Doctor Who comics, Abslom Daak and Kroton, became fan favorites.  Daak later encountered the Seventh Doctor, both in the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip and in prose fiction.  Kroton, after many years absence from print, reappeared to travel for a time with the Eighth Doctor.  So please raise a glass (or a chainsword) in his memory.

Christopher Barry: 1925 – 2014

Veteran British television director Christopher Barry passed away on February 7th at the age of 88.  Among his numerous credits was a long association with Doctor Who which began in 1963 and continued on and off until 1979.  This made him one of only three people to have directed William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker on the show.  Barry was interviewed at length in 2002 in Doctor Who Magazine #s 314 to 316, wherein he admitted “I didn’t like being stereotyped as a Doctor Who director.”  Nevertheless, he did very good work on the series, and is fondly remembered for his important contributions.

Barry was, with Richard Martin, the co-director of the second Doctor Who serial “The Daleks” in December 1963, which featured the debut of the Doctor’s instantly iconic arch foes.  Barry and Martin worked together closely in the planning of the seven-episode production, with Barry himself directing parts 1, 2, 4 and 5.  He conceived the famous first episode cliffhanger, shot from a Dalek’s viewpoint, with a plunger-like appendage gliding towards Barbara Wright, who screamed in terror, leaving audiences to wait an entire week to find out exactly what was menacing the schoolteacher.  Barry’s thinking was “Good thriller directors suggest terror rather than explicitly showing it.”  In episode two, Barry was responsible for the first full-shot reveal of the Daleks, as the camera rapidly pulled back from the Doctor, Ian Chesterton, and Susan to show them surrounded by Skaro’s strange, fearsome mutants.

Daleks episode two reveal
A historic reveal: the Daleks make their debut.

Barry directed three other Hartnell stories, “The Rescue,” “The Romans” and “The Savages.” His last contribution to the show’s first decade was directing “The Power of the Daleks” in 1966, which featured Patrick Trougton’s debut as the second incarnation of the Doctor.  Unfortunately this entire six part serial is currently missing from the BBC archives, bar a few short clips that give a tantalizing glimpse of the production.

Five years later Barry returned to Doctor Who.  Jon Pertwee was now playing the lead role, and Barry directed two of his stories, “The Daemons” (1971) and “The Mutants” (1972).  I have unfortunately not had an opportunity to view either of those stories in a number of years, and I have rather foggy memories.  Nevertheless, I do vaguely recall that “The Daemons” was a good story.  Many other fans of the series have cited it as one of their all time favorite stories.  I’ll have to pick it up on DVD one of these days.

In late 1974 Barry was brought in to direct Tom Baker’s debut as the Doctor in “Robot,” written by Terrance Dicks.  This one I have seen a number of times, and the direction is definitely dramatic and suspenseful.  Barry certainly used the eponymous Robot very effectively.  In real life it was probably a cumbersome prop / costume, but Barry makes it appear a menacing figure.  Aside from a few poorly realized special effects in the final episode, it’s a good, solid introduction for Baker.

Brain of Morbius Philip Madoc
Philip Madoc as Solon in “The Brain of Morbius.”

Barry would direct two more of Baker’s serials.  “The Brain of Morbius” (1976) is another of those stories considered a classic by many long-time fans.  It is an interesting, moody, Grand Guignol pastiche of Frankenstein, once again written by Terrance Dicks, albeit with heavy revisions by script editor Robert Holmes.  Barry once again did great work on this story.  He was responsible for the brilliant casting of actor Philip Madoc as the fanatical mad scientist Mehendri Solon.  As Barry explained, “I knew he had a strong presence, and was capable of almost manic intensity, which he indeed conveyed brilliantly.”

It is unfortunate that Barry’s final contribution to Doctor Who was the 1979 serial “The Creature from the Pit.”  This one is often regarded as a rather mediocre affair.  Aside from a somewhat shaky plot, the main point of contention is the alien Erato, a giant green glowing blob-like entity that was inexplicably given a phallic-looking appendage.  Tom Baker, never one to resist an opportunity for humor, infamously had the Doctor attempt to communicate with Erato by blowing into said appendage!  Quite understandably, this caused quite a commotion behind the cameras.

Creature from the Pit Erato
Move along now, nothing to see here.

Barry only accepted the job of directing “The Creature from the Pit” due to having an unexpected hole in his schedule right when it was offered to him, and needing the work.  He acknowledges that, in hindsight, it was not the best note on which to depart from the series, and he found the whole production, as well as the uproar over the poor conception of the Creature, to have been a trying experience.

Despite the fact that Barry would have preferred to have been recognized for the diverse range of productions that he directed on British television, in the end he acknowledged that he was satisfied with most of the work that he did on Doctor Who.  Certainly he was a talented, thoughtful director who played a key role in some of the series’ most significant moments, and who helped bring to life several of its most revered stories.

Doctor Who reviews: The Time of the Doctor

Matt Smith’s four year tenure as the Eleventh Doctor has come to an end with “The Time of the Doctor.”  Not only that, but Steven Moffat has pretty satisfactorily wrapped up the plotlines and answered the major questions set out during that period.  I think this year’s Christmas Special was, all in all, quite good.  Not nearly as impressive as the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special last month, but that was a hell of an act to follow up.

The Doctor, accompanied by Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrives on the spaceship headquarters of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, one of innumerable craft now orbiting a planet from which a mysterious signal is transmitting.  The Doctor and Clara travel down to the planet to investigate it on behalf of the Church.  It is a world of almost eternal night with just one small human settlement, a village named Christmas.  The Doctor discovers the source of the signal in the basement of a house: a mysterious crack in reality, exactly like the ones that he encountered many years before.  Using a scavenged Cyberman head he’s nicknamed “Handles,” the Doctor translates the message: “Doctor Who?”  Suddenly the Doctor realizes exactly where he is.  The planet is Trenzalore, where he is fated to die.

Time of the Doctor

And here all the answers come out.  It transpires that the source of the cracks in time is the Time Lord home world of Gallifrey, which as we saw in “The Day of the Doctor” was saved at the end of the Time War, frozen in a single moment of time and sent off to another reality.  The reason why the question is being broadcast is because if the Doctor answers, the Time Lords will know that they have once again located their home dimension and return.  The Church of the Papal Mainframe and the various other alien races assembled over Trenzalore desperately want to prevent that.  No doubt this is due to the fact that, as seen in “The End of Time,” at the conclusion of the war, faced with defeat at the hands of the Daleks, Rassilon and the High Council of the Time Lords were planning to enact the Final Sanction, wiping out all reality and ascending to a higher plane of existence.

In earlier stories, I’d been really confused about the fact that the religious order known as the Silence had created River Song in order to assassinate the Doctor, but later on she was imprisoned by the Church for apparently succeeding in that task (as we saw in “The Wedding of River Song,” the Doctor faked his death).  In “The Time of the Doctor,” it’s revealed that the Silence were a breakaway faction of the Church of the Papal Mainframe.  The Silence was so fearful of the Doctor ever going to Trenzalore that they were the ones who blew up his TARDIS in “The Big Bang” in an attempt to kill him.  However, not only did that temporarily cause reality to be destroyed, but it also retroactively created the cracks in time in the first place.  And by creating River Song, the Silence inadvertently gave him a friend & ally who helped him stay alive through numerous crises.  As the Doctor explains, the Silence was caught up in a whopping big predestination paradox, causing the very problems they were attempting to prevent.  Yowsa, what a bunch of bunglers!

So now that the Doctor has arrived at Trenzalore, the main chapter of the Church decides that the only way to fix the mess their rogue members created and prevent the Time Lords’ return is to destroy the Christmas settlement and the crack in reality.  Allied with the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, and numerous other alien powers, the Church launches an all-out offensive.  The Doctor decides that it is his responsibility to protect the people of Christmas, and so spends the next several centuries repelling the invading forces.  In the process, after all his long wanderings through time & space, the Doctor finally settles down and adopts a new home. We see him growing older and older, eventually becoming an elderly figure.

The Daleks, not unexpectedly, eventually turn on the Church, transforming nearly all the members aboard their ship into brainwashed Dalek / human hybrids like those seen in “Asylum of the Daleks” (as the First Doctor keenly observed in the novelization of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” written by John Peel, “The Daleks don’t take allies – only victims”).  The Doctor manages to get through to Tasha Lem (Orla Brady), the Mother Superious of the Church, and she is able to overcome her Dalek conditioning.  (Tasha is an interesting, enigmatic character, well played by Bradley, and I would certainly enjoy seeing her return in the future.)  This leads to the Doctor fighting side-by-side with the Church and the Silence against the Dalek onslaught.

Time of the Doctor Tasha Lem

We also find out that the Doctor really has reached the end of his life; he has used up his allotted twelve regenerations.  He may call himself the Eleventh Doctor, but between the existence of the War Doctor, and the Tenth Doctor’s non-regeneration at the beginning of “Journey’s End,” he is actually in his thirteenth and final incarnation.  He fully expects to die on Trenzalore, that the planet will be his final resting place, as seen in the future in “The Name of the Doctor.”  He is only trying to stay alive to keep the town of Christmas safe for as long as he possibly can, before what he believes to be the inevitable happens.  He tells Clara, “Every life that I save is a victory.”

If there is one obvious weakness to “The Time of the Doctor,” it is that the Doctor’s centuries-long stay on Trenzalore requires Clara to bounce back and forth between there and Earth.  Otherwise she would have grown old & died long before the end of the episode.  So first the Doctor tricks her into going back to Earth, but by leaping onto the vanishing TARDIS she is returned to Trenzalore three hundred years later.  Then the Doctor pulls the same trick a second time, but on this occasion she is brought back a few centuries later by Tasha, who does not want the Doctor to die alone.  Clara, with all this coming and going (to quote a line from “The Claws of Axos”) comes across like “a galactic yo-yo.”

Nevertheless, Clara is vital to the final outcome.  Just as she was the one who encouraged the Doctor to find a non-destructive resolution to the Time War, so too does she appeal to the Time Lords’ better nature here, speaking to them through the crack in time, asking them to help him because of all the good he has done.  In response, the crack vanishes from the house and reappears in the sky just long enough to send out the energy needed to grant the Doctor a brand new cycle of regenerations.  The Doctor focuses this energy and uses it to obliterate the Daleks, and then returns to the TARDIS, waiting for the change to complete.

Yeah, perhaps it is a bit sappy, Clara’s appeal for the Time Lords’ sympathy.  But is has been shown over and over that one of the things that makes the Doctor a better person, that helps to prevent him from becoming some kind of lonely, angry god, is humanity.  So it makes sense that where the Doctor failed in his efforts to convince his own people to be a better species, it is a decent, kind human such as Clara who succeeds in guiding them towards the correct decision.

Clara is, I think, one of those characters who, if not played by the right actress, might come across as unbearably witty and sweet and clever.  Indeed, that was my first impression of her a year ago.  Fortunately Coleman quickly slipped into the role, making her an appealing, likable, fun character.  She certainly does good work in this episode.

I really appreciated that the Eleventh Doctor accepted his impending regeneration much better than his previous incarnation.  The Tenth Doctor’s final words were “I don’t want to go,” which I never liked.  In contrast, we have a lovely final scene for the Eleventh Doctor written by Moffat that Smith plays extremely well.  The Eleventh Doctor, while he is sad that he will soon be a very different person, acknowledges:

“We all change. When you think about it, we are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s ok, that’s good, you gotta keep moving. So long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day, I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”

And then… exit Matt Smith, enter Peter Capaldi!  The Twelfth Doctor is, of course, quite confused and, after complaining that he doesn’t like the color of his new kidneys, looks at Clara and asks “One question: do you happen to know how to fly this thing?”  My girlfriend laughed, declaring that was a very Doctor-ish question.

Time of the Doctor Twelfth Doctor

So, yes, the pacing of “The Time of the Doctor” was rather uneven, what with the episode taking place over a period of several hundred years.  In spots it did feel drawn out.  And, as I said, the whole back and forth between Earth and Trenzalore with Clara might have been handled in a somewhat smoother manner.

Also, the ending was perhaps something of a deus ex machina, with the Doctor receiving twelve new regenerations and conveniently using the energy from the process to wipe out the Daleks.  However, it has been stated more than once in the past that the Time Lords have the ability to artificially create a new regeneration cycle.  They dangled that promise in front of the Master in “The Five Doctors,” and subsequently did exactly that when they resurrected him to fight in the Time War.  And the victory over the Daleks seen here did seem more believable & natural than the one back in “The Parting of Ways,” with Rose using the heart of the TARDIS to destroy them.

(Truthfully, though, if you look at the history of Doctor Who, going all the way back to the 1960s, in many of their appearances the Daleks have been written as invincible enemies right up until the final episode of each story, at which point some convenient plot device is used to defeat them.)

Anyway, while not a perfect episode, “The Time of the Doctor” was nevertheless a solid, enjoyable farewell for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor.  And it left me anticipating Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor.  I’m looking forward to seeing how he plays the role, and how the Doctor’s relationship with Clara will evolve.

Doctor Who reviews: The Day of the Doctor

Whew!!!  After six long months of waiting, “The Day of the Doctor,” the 50th Anniversary Special of Doctor Who, aired today, November 23rd.  It was so very cool that it was broadcast here in the States on BBC America at the exact time it was showing on the telly on the other side of the pond.

Ever since “The Name of the Doctor” back in May, there has been a ton of speculation about who, exactly, the mysterious previously-unseen incarnation of the Doctor, played by John Hurt, really was, and why he was the Doctor’s “secret.”  Indeed, “The Day of the Doctor” dealt with exactly that.

I’m really relieved that I managed to view the mini episode that the BBC debuted online a week ago.  Every time they had one of those in the past, I’ve somehow missed them, and didn’t catch them until months later.  Which was a shame, because those short segments had some nice character material, such as the development of the Eleventh Doctor and River Song’s relationship.  But as soon as I started seeing that a bunch of people were posting links to “The Night of the Doctor” on Facebook, I decided to check it out.  And, wow, was I genuinely surprised.

Night of the Doctor McGann

“I’m a Doctor. But probably not the one you were expecting.”  Oh my god, it’s Paul McGann!  Seventeen years after his sole television outing, the Eighth Doctor returned.  I’m glad the BBC managed to keep the lid on this, because it was such a shock.  I thought McGann was brilliant in the 1996 television movie, and he’s done great work continuing as the Doctor in the Big Finish audio plays.  I’m thrilled he was given the opportunity to bring closure to the Eighth Doctor, to show how that incarnation ended.

“The Night of the Doctor” is such a brilliant inversion by Steven Moffat on the typical Doctor Who formula.  You have a set-up where the Doctor arrives to rescue Cass from her crashing spaceship.  At first it seems very similar to many other times when the Doctor gained a new companion.  But the instant she finds out that the Doctor is a Time Lord, she pulls back in horror & anger.  She literally would rather die than be saved by one of them, because of the horrific carnage that has been wrecked all across the universe in the war between the Time Lords and the Daleks.  After the ship crashes on the planet Karn (first seen in “The Brain of Morbius”) the mysterious Sisterhood is able to revive the Doctor for four minutes, and offer him a chance to select the shape & personality of his next regeneration.  And the dying Doctor, who previously refused to fight in the Time War, now believes that his inaction has prolonged the conflict and led to Cass’ death, as well as countless others.  He chooses the path of a warrior, and regenerates into John Hurt’s “War Doctor.”

As we see via his reflection at the end of “The Night of the Doctor,” the War Doctor actually started out with a young body.  By the time “The Day of the Doctor” opens, on the final day of the Time War, he is now a haggard, weary old man.  The implication is that he has been fighting for decades, perhaps centuries.  Having witnessed carnage & destruction on an inconceivable scale, the War Doctor finally vows “No more.”  He seizes the sentient Time Lord doomsday device known as the Moment.  He intends to use it to totally destroy Gallifrey and the Daleks, finally ending the Time War before all of reality is consumed by it.

Day of the Doctor promo

Arriving in a barren desert with the Moment, the War Doctor reluctantly prepares to commit genocide.  However, the Moment peers into the Doctor’s future time stream and projects an Interface in the form of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) to communicate with him.  The Interface asks the War Doctor if he is truly certain he wants to take such an apocalyptic action and wipe out billions of lives in an instant.

Elsewhere / when, in present day London, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is now a school teacher at Coal Hill School, a call back to the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child,” and the characters of Ian Chesterton & Barbara Wright (when “The Day of the Doctor” opened with the original 1963 series credits, I think I made a “squee” noise or something).  Receiving a message from the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), she zooms off on her motorcycle to meet him.  Before the two can start off on their latest trip, UNIT snatches the TARDIS by helicopter grappling hook and whisks it away to the National Gallery.  Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) needs the Doctor to investigate a mystery involving strange artwork hidden in the museum’s basement, paintings dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I (Joanna Page), specifically events in 1562, when the Queen was romantically involved with none other than the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant).  There’s a complicated plot afoot involving the shape-shifting Zygons, who plan to use stolen Time Lord technology to conquer the Earth.

(Tennant once commented that his favorite Doctor Who monsters from when he watched the series as a child were the Zygons, and he would have liked for his Doctor to meet them.  I’m glad he finally had that opportunity.  Besides, they were just too cool not to eventually bring back to television.)

The Moment Interface generates time fissures, bringing together the War Doctor with his two later incarnations.  The Interface wishes to show the War Doctor what sort of man he will become if he chooses to destroy the Time Lords, a man who hundreds of years later is at first constantly haunted by the death toll, and who even later is furiously struggling to forget all that, to blot out who he once was, and the terrible action he took.

I absolutely loved the interaction between Matt Smith, David Tennant, and John Hurt.  Steven Moffat scripted some superb material for them, with each version of the Doctor alternating between trying to outdo his other selves and congratulating them on their (and therefore his) brilliance.  It led to a lot of genuinely funny moments, as well as some very heartfelt ones.  Smith was his usual great self, and Tennant slipped effortlessly back into the role.  As for Hurt, he was absolutely brilliant.  As the War Doctor, he had the quality of an eccentric, rather mischievous grandfather figure, shades of the Doctor of old.  At the same time he so effectively projected this sorrowful, almost physical burden weighing him down from the long years of fighting.

Day of the Doctor Smith Tennant Hurt

Even after seeing the man (men?) he will become, the War Doctor is still ready to activate the Moment, and with a heavy heart prepares to press down on the Big Red Button… yep, it literally is a Big Red Button.  Previously, when futilely attempting to figure out how the Moment worked, he had wished for one of those, and finally the Interface provided him with just that.  The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, having come to accept the necessity of what he / they did, are ready to activate the Moment with him, and shoulder the burden & guilt.

Clara, however, begs them to find another way.  She reminds the Eleventh Doctor of what he told her in “The Name of the Doctor,” that when he chose his name he made a promise to himself.  Now she urges him to find some way to keep that promise.  The trio of Doctors realizes that, on their own, none of them would be able to figure out how to alter time and save Gallifrey while still defeating the Daleks and ending the Time War.  But pooling all of their knowledge together, and the power of their TARDISes, they can use the aforementioned technology pilfered by the Zygons to freeze the entire planet in an instant of time and transport that into another reality (or something) leaving the billions of Dalek spaceships to obliterate themselves in their own crossfire.

Next thing you know, you have a dozen TARDISes circling the besieged Gallifrey, as every one of the past incarnations of the Doctor end up working together to enact this plan.  Did I say a dozen?  Actually it’s thirteen, as Peter Capaldi appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it surprise cameo as the future Twelfth Doctor.

Later on, back in 2013 at the National Gallery, the War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor both say their farewells.  They each know that when they return to their own point in the time stream, they’ll forget what happened, that they chose to try to save Gallifrey rather than destroy it, at least until they reach this moment in time as the Eleventh Doctor.  Finally on his own, the Eleventh Doctor sits, looking at a painting of the final day of the Time War, a painting alternatively known by two names, “No More” and “Gallifrey Falls.”  He wonders if he really did succeed in saving his people.  And then the museum’s eccentric curator approaches him and, referring to the painting, states that it actually has one title: “Gallifrey Falls No More.”  The Eleventh Doctor realizes that the plan worked, that somewhere his home world once more exists.  Oh, yes, and the fellow playing that odd curator is a certain Tom Baker.

All in all, I think that “The Day of the Doctor” was an excellent anniversary story, especially given time & budgetary constraints, the availability of actors (Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee have all passed on, Eccleston was very likely not interested in participating, and everyone else  who has played the Doctor looks much older than they did back in the day), and the simple fact that if Moffat had tossed in too many elements of the past, the story might have been incoherent and collapsed under its own weight.  If you want a really great 50th anniversary story with appearances by all eleven Doctors, numerous companions, and a whole bunch of monsters, pick up the twelve issue comic book series Prisoners of Time, which I’ve blogged about a couple of times.  And if you want an anniversary story starring all of the surviving actors who played the Doctor in the classic series (Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann) there is the audio adventure “The Light at the End” out now from Big Finish.  But as far as the television format goes, I think that “The Day of the Doctor” was probably almost as good as it gets.

Day of the Doctor Zygon

Really, my only major criticism is that the plotline of the Zygon invasion is sort of left unresolved.  The Doctors force Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and the Zygons to sit down and negotiate a peaceful settlement, but we never find out the outcome of that.  I really hope that at some point in a future episode that gets addressed.  It would be interesting to see the Zygons again as, despite their typically belligerent actions, they probably aren’t truly evil (or at least not as evil as, say, the Daleks or the Master) and the only reason why they want to invade Earth is because their own planet was destroyed.

So, was it worth the wait?  Yeah, it was.  “The Day of the Doctor” was great because it demonstrated just why the Doctor is such a great hero.  Despite his many flaws, he tries to use intelligence instead of violence to solve problems, and he genuinely wants to preserve life instead of destroying it.  He’s seen the worst that the universe has to offer, and he still does his best to remain true to his principals.  And, yes, unfortunately sometimes the Doctor fails.  Sometimes he ends up in a no-win situation where he either cannot save the day or he has to compromise his morals in order to save the most lives.  But afterwards he always resolves to try harder next time, to be a better person in the future.

Here’s to the next fifty years of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who reviews: Day of the Daleks

Recently I’ve been enjoying fellow WordPress blogger Chance November’s ongoing look at the entirety of Jon Pertwee’s five year run as the Third Doctor on Doctor Who.  She’s been doing an excellent job at it.  After Chance penned a write-up on “Day of the Daleks” I was inspired to take my own look at it, since it is one of my favorite Pertwee serials.

“Day of the Daleks” was one of the earliest Doctor Who stories to be released on VHS, back in 1989.  In a turnaround, it became one of the last DVDs, coming out in 2011, ten years after the BBC began re-releasing the series on disk.  However, it was worth that decade-long wait.  The two disk set of “Day of the Daleks,” in addition to the original broadcast show, has a Special Edition with new visual & sound effects, as well as an assortment of extras.

Day of the Daleks DVD

Examinations of the complications and paradoxes inherent in time travel are rather common in the revived Doctor Who series.  “Father’s Day,” “Blink,” “The Big Bang,” “The Girl Who Waited,” and practically every episode to feature the character River Song have all touched upon the notion of just how strange, convoluted, and dangerous time travel can be.  The excellent 1998 novel Vanderdeken’s Children by Christopher Bulis also dealt with time paradoxes in a very eerie manner.  But back during the show’s original run from 1963 to 1989 this was very seldom addressed.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, time travel was simply a device to get the Doctor and his companions to the particular place in the past or future where they needed to be for the story.

The first Doctor Who serial to address the possible complexities of time travel was the underrated, thought-provoking 1965 story “The Space Museum” written by Glyn Jones.  It would not be for another seven years, in 1972, that the series would dive headlong into the same waters, when Louis Marks penned “Day of the Daleks.”

Most long-time fans of the series will already know the plot of “Day of the Daleks.”  The premise revolves around a group of guerilla resistance fighters traveling back in time 200 years to the late 20th Century in order to alter history.  By assassinating the politician Sir Reginald Styles, they hope to prevent the outbreak of World War III and, in its aftermath, the total subjugation of the Earth by the alien Daleks.  The dramatic twist of the story is the revelation that the guerillas are caught in a predestination paradox: by attempting to alter history they have actually caused those events to take place.  The first time I saw “Day of the Daleks” this curveball blew my mind.  It was both clever and frightening.

It’s worth noting that the Daleks are implied to be the original instigators of history being altered.  They inform the Doctor “We have changed the pattern of history,” and later on explicitly travel back to the 20th Century to destroy Styles’ peace conference, thereby causing nuclear war to occur, ensuring their future domination of Earth.  It appears that the guerillas, unaware of the Daleks’ own manipulations of time, then went back in time themselves to alter history, but instead became trapped in a paradox.

If “Day of the Daleks” was made today by the Doctor Who production team, I wouldn’t be surprised if they removed the Daleks as the initial cause of Earth’s apocalyptic future.  In keeping with the notion of history as “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff” (to quote “Blink”), the guerillas’ actions would probably be part of what is commonly referred to in sci-fi as a stable time loop with no actual involvement by the Daleks in the initial alteration of the time stream.  That said, for a Doctor Who serial filmed four decades ago, the time travel concepts Louis Marks introduced in “Day of the Daleks” were very though provoking and revolutionary at that time in the show’s history.

There are a number of fine actors on hand who do a superb job of bringing to life Marks’ brilliant script.  Foremost among them is Pertwee himself, turning in one of his best performances as the Doctor.  The moment when he deduces the cause of history being altered, he gravely proclaims to the guerillas:

“You’re trapped in a temporal paradox. Styles didn’t cause that explosion and start the wars. You did it yourselves!”

It’s a powerful scene made even more so by Pertwee’s forceful delivery, one that all of these years later gives me chills.

Another instance where Pertwee shines is in the Doctor’s verbal fencing with the Controller, the Daleks chief human lackey in the 22nd Century.  Pertwee delivers stinging condemnations raining down on the Controller.  And on a lighter note I’ve always enjoyed the scenes where the Doctor is, to quote Jo Grant, “carrying on rather like a one man food and wine society.”

The Controller is effectively portrayed by Aubrey Woods (fans of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory will remember him as Bill the candy shop owner).  Although at times Woods’ performance is, to quote producer Barry Letts, “far too theatrical,” it is nevertheless very compelling.  At first the Controller appears to be a willing agent of the Daleks.  However, as the story progresses, we see he is not genuinely evil, but rather weak.  He is terrified of the Daleks, believing them unbeatable.  The Controller rationalizes his collaboration by regarding himself as someone who can reason with the Daleks, gain concessions, and make the occupation of Earth slightly less brutal.  His interactions with the Doctor, who labels him a traitor and a quisling, slowly begin to reawaken his buried conscience.

In the fourth episode, Woods delivers a haunting recitation of the Earth’s nightmarish future to the Doctor and Jo, relating how after decades of war decimated the globe, the planet was crushed by alien invasion, humanity’s survivors turned into a slave labor force to mine resources for the expanding Dalek Empire.  Woods’ monologue vividly illustrates what would have been impossible for Doctor Who to actually visualize on-screen with a shoestring budget and early 1970s special effects, painting a grim picture of a shattered world under the domination of the Daleks.

Day of the Daleks Aubrey Woods

The actors portraying the guerillas are also very good.  Just as the Controller is nowhere near as clear-cut as he first appears, neither is the anti-Dalek underground.  The guerillas straddle the fine line that can exist between freedom fighter and terrorist.  Though their goal is a noble one, to free Earth from Dalek rule, they are seen utilizing such morally ambiguous tactics as assassinations and suicide bombings to achieve their aims.  The actors really bring across the desperation and fanaticism that the guerillas have become gripped by as a result of their gargantuan struggle against the Daleks.

Dudley Simpson composed the incidental music for nearly all of the Doctor Who serials produced between 1970 and 1979, including this one.  His work on the series has a definite consistency and, in retrospect, there is this “sameness” to a lot of his scores.  I think certain serials might have benefitted from another composer to shake things up.  The music for “Day of the Daleks” falls within the earlier period of Simpson’s work, before his signature became quite so uniform.  He was more experimental at this time.  In other words, he goes a bit crazy with the synthesizer from time to time on this serial, although it’s not as insane as what he did for “The Claws of Axos” the previous season!  The music on “Day of the Daleks” may be quite odd in places, but mostly it is effective.

While the writing and acting is almost consistently top-notch, the serial does have a couple of striking deficiencies.  Much has been made over the years of the fact that the Daleks actually have very little screen time.  This is probably at least partially due to the fact that Marks’ initial story did not even contain the Daleks!  His original conception was to have a fascist human government ruling the 22nd Century.  However, both Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks felt the story would make a stronger season opener if the Daleks were in it, and so instructed Marks to insert them into his scripts.

In Marks’ defense, he did this in a rather seamless fashion.  True, the Daleks aren’t actually seen very much.  But the other characters talk about them throughout the story, making them a sort of unseen menace looming above the proceedings.  In a way, this is more effective than having scene after scene of them crashing onto the screen, guns blazing, shouting “Exterminate” over and over.

However, a much more tangible reason for the Daleks’ limited appearances is that there were only had three Dalek props on hand.  True, with some creative editing, a director could make a trio of Daleks appear to be a much bigger force (something David Maloney would achieve in “Genesis of the Daleks” a few years later).  Unfortunately, someone had the none-too-bright idea to have the lead Dalek in “Day of the Daleks” painted gold.  This made it much more difficult for director Paul Bernard to have it appear there was an entire army of Daleks, especially at the end of the fourth episode.

Day of the Daleks trio

Due to the story’s less-than-spectacular final battle, some have faulted Bernard’s direction.  However, throughout the majority of the serial, he does strong work.  He frames his shots in a dramatic fashion.  I like how he filmed the Daleks’ apelike henchmen, the Ogrons, often shooting them from a low angle, so that they appeared as towering monstrosities. And the editing, the cutting from one scene to the next, is very good, heightening the drama.

Really, one cannot place too much blame on Bernard for the final sequence.  In addition to only having three Dalek props, he had to film them on location.  It wasn’t even easy to get the Daleks to maneuver around the studio back in those days, so I can only imagine the difficulties in the Dalek prop operators had in trying to move about outside on an uneven field.  It’s no wonder that final battle was underwhelming.

Much more of a sticking point for me were the Daleks’ voices.  The two actors who spoke the dialogue in “Day of the Daleks” had not done any other Dalek stories before or since, so the tones sound unfamiliar.  Additionally, a lot of the dialogue is spoken in a drawn out, stilted monotone, with each syllable pronounced almost as if it is a separate word.  These are probably the least effective Dalek voices ever heard on the series.

Since “Day of the Daleks” was an otherwise well done story, in the past it was easy to overlook these few problems.  Nevertheless, many Doctor Who DVDs have featured updated effects, so I thought it would be cool if, when “Day of the Daleks” came out, the producers could change the Dalek voices.  Specifically, I was hoping they’d bring in Nicholas Briggs, who has very effectively voiced the Daleks on both the revived television series and on numerous audio adventures produced by Big Finish.  And if they could also add some extra Daleks to the battle sequence, that would be the icing on the cake.

It turned out the DVD producer Steve Broster felt exactly the same way. With the help of a small group of talented individuals, he created the Special Edition of “Day of the Daleks,” adding new visual effects, extra Daleks, and having the Dalek voices re-recorded by Nicholas Briggs.  As the DVD extra on the making of the Special Edition explains, these were not simple tasks.  I really have to compliment Broster and his crew on creating a new, more visually exciting version of the serial with effects that nevertheless manage to mostly remain in synch with the original 1972 footage.

As for the new vocals by Briggs, well, until I heard them in this story, I don’t think I truly appreciated just how much of the Daleks’ effectiveness as monsters is due to their voices.  Yes, Raymond Cusick’s iconic design is a crucial aspect of their appeal, but their vocalization is equally important.  Re-doing the Dalek voices makes them so much more menacing.  At the same time, Briggs knows when to inject arrogance, panic, and incredulity into his delivery of their dialogue, so that they are not just screaming non-stop, instead possessing a certain amount of nuance.

Of course, if Special Editions are not your cup of tea, the original 1972 broadcast version is still available for viewing on the first disk of this set.  So you can choose which you prefer.

There are a number of other excellent extras included.  One of these, “The UNIT Dating Conundrum,” humorously addresses one of those contentious issues that keep hardcore fans arguing endlessly among themselves, namely when did the UNIT stories take place.  Were they set in the years they were broadcast, or a decade in the future?  The quick answer is that there is no answer, because there’s just too much contradictory information in the stories.  Or, as they say on Mystery Science Theater 3000, repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, I should really just relax!”

Another interesting extra was “The Cheating Memory,” which examines how the brains of children process information, and how our memories from when we were young are often not reliable.  This is looked at in the oft-common context of very young fans who watched the stories in the 1960s and 70s when they were first broadcast, and remembered them as being incredible.  This being before the era of television repeats on the BBC, video recorders, or DVDs, it might often be years, even decades until fans might have an opportunity to re-watch those same shows.

I remember that when I first began watching Doctor Who in the 1980s, I would always hear fans complaining that the current stories were nowhere near as good as the old ones.  In response, then-producer John Nathan-Turner would often respond “the memory cheats.”  A good example of this is when the long-missing 1967 story “Tomb of the Cybermen” was re-discovered in 1992 and a number of fans had to admit that, while still very good, it was nevertheless not nearly as brilliant as what they remembered seeing when they were little kids.

Even I’ve experienced a bit of this myself with several stories when I watched them on PBS in the mid-1980s and then didn’t have an opportunity to see them again until they came out on VHS or DVD a decade or more later.  So I certainly identify with “The Cheating Memory.”

Day of the Daleks novelization

By the way, if you want an alternative to the DVD Special Edition, there is always the novelization written in 1974 by Terrance Dicks.  Unrestrained by a limited budget or primitive special effects, Dicks gives an expanded view of the post-apocalyptic dystopian future via a prologue entitled “Terror in the Twenty-Second Century.”  Dicks also includes scenes featuring dozens of Daleks, gives background information on the guerillas, and he even makes the rather goofy motorized tricycle chase from episode three seem exciting & suspenseful.  Dicks concludes his adaptation with an introspective final chapter, “All Kinds of Futures,” that bookends an earlier scene from the televised story where the Doctor and Jo briefly encounter versions of themselves from elsewhere in the timeline.

Dicks wrote several dozen Doctor Who novelizations over the years.  Some of the later ones he penned were rather by-the-numbers, and it almost seemed that Target / W.H. Allen had the poor guy chained to a typewriter with orders to churn out a book a month.  But if you look back on the earlier books he penned in the 1970s, Dicks did an excellent job developing many of the serials beyond the confines of the television screen.  In the 1980s, before the VHS and DVD releases, those books were often the best way to experience the early stories.

*Whew!* That was a long post. I certainly had a lot to say. Thanks for reading.