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Doctor Who Review

Hop To

by Chris McEneany Jul 22, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    It's quite curious, and a little bit unfortunate, to go back and review these earlier shows now that I've seen the full second series of Doctor Who. After the disappointing Christmas Invasions and New Earth episodes, the only thing about the show that I could root for was David Tennant's thoroughly excellent Doctor, with the overall writing and the plotting of the first two stories jumbled, juvenile and just plain ridiculous. But, of course, Tennant made the show, packing in more depth and range, zaniness and rage than all the other Time Lords combined (well, Tom Baker is still the definitive Doctor, in my opinion, but even he seems positively sedate when compared to David Tennant's brand of lunacy), allowing us to see some real magic shining through the mire of inspired high-brow ideas suffocated by kid-pleasing scripts that pander to Attention Deficiency Disorder sufferers. He did enough in just the rushed climax aboard the Sycorath mothership to convince me that we had a powerful new Doctor on our hands, and one that would lift the show out of the camp smarm that Russell T. Davies has a tendency to dunk it into. And, without a doubt, this next set of three episodes would showcase his riotous talent to the full, making me truly believe that he could eventually assume the mantle of the best Doctor yet.

    But, as I say, it is unfortunate that I've now witnessed the full evolution of the character over this series ... because, and I can't believe I'm saying this, I feel he has just grown into one the most annoying instead. Don't get me wrong, he's still dynamic, exciting and funny to watch, and brilliantly able to portray a man saddled with the paradox of so much freedom, yet so much self-imposed responsibility. But why does he have to do so much gurning while he's going about the business of saving the world, the universe ... or, more predictably, just Rose? He chews and spits his words out with a perpetual, eye-popping intensity that borders on the spasmodic mannerisms of either the opinionated drunk, or the un-medicated psychotic.

    But, hold on a moment ... I'm getting ahead of myself, aren't I? Let's just look at the three stories that comprise volume 2, when Tennant totally took the role by storm ... and the writing almost kept up with him.

    “This is not merely a wolf. This is a man who becomes a wolf.”

    “Ahh ... a werewolf!”

    I make no bones about it, Tooth And Claw is absolutely one of my favourite Doctor Who shows ever and, as a consequence, I'll naturally go more in depth over it. Featuring my creature of choice - an extremely impressive werewolf - a great action-packed storyline that successfully entwines the golden age of the Doctor's historical horror adventures with the genre-busting element of martial arts (come on, admit it ... that mad monk melee in the prologue floored you all with its sheer audacity) and you've got an economically scripted rollercoaster that plummets the new Doctor and Rose into much darker territory than the face-value monster-mash would have you believe. Landing by miscalculation a hundred years earlier than a sell-out Ian Drury gig that Rose wants to see, the Tardis crew end up, alongside a severely “un-amused” Queen Victoria (Pauline Collins), as unwitting guests at a lonely Scottish estate that becomes the hunting ground for a ferocious, eight-foot tall werewolf and his shaven-headed occult devotees. Nearly everything works in this story with blinding gusto and confidence. All the more remarkable considering that it is actually written by the show's scribing pariah, himself, Russell T. Davies. Is it law that we have to put that bloody “T” into his name every time? He's never referenced as Russell Davies, or just Davies, is he?Guilty of penning the worst episodes in season one - and surprisingly happy to admit it, too - the avuncular Welshman nevertheless plays a blinder here, folks. The cheekiness of the Brethren's bizarre plan to overthrow the monarchy is succinct, mean-spirited and delivered without any needless exposition. The background to the Host (a memorably disquieting portrayal from Tom Smith) is left beautifully bathed in mystery, and the re-fashioning of the werewolf myth is neither a sci-fi hijacking, nor a sacrilege upon established lore ... as I'd initially feared. The way he brings in the famous Koh-i-noor diamond and wraps a satisfying motive for its use is quite inspired, and the many royal references, from in-character gags to far-reaching lycanthropic connections, are nicely done and often truly intriguing. I especially love the mystery surrounding the apparently true blood disorder that Queen Victoria “suddenly” develops.

    The savagery is pretty ripe, too. Okay, we don't actually see the wolf shredding its victims, but we can certainly hear it happening. Having Rose chained up in the cellar with most of the staff of the estate as a smorgasbord for the eerie, black-eyed and foul-toothed stranger locked in a cage is a nasty and suspenseful touch. And Father Angelo (a lean and frightening turn from Ian Hanmore) displays a wonderfully calm arrogance as he looks down the barrel of Queen Victoria's pistol. “Oh, I don't think so, woman ...” he growls with sweet venom. Together with kinetic and involving camerawork, dynamic direction from Euros Lyn and atmospheric, shadow-draped lighting, this is one of the most visually exciting and gothic episodes in Doctor Who's estimable canon, with a very agreeable streak of violence running proudly through its core.

    It even stands up well to repeat viewing and utilises humour and horror very successfully (not unlike that other hairy howler, An American Werewolf In London, in fact) and makes astute jibes at authority and, more specifically, historically real authority, whilst quite nicely laying some more foundations for what will follow in this series and the off-shoot, Torchwood. And that wolf! The transformation itself is an FX delight and, although brief, delivers some time-honoured and iconic imagery of bone-snapping,elongating snouts and hands that become huge paws. Surely when the Doctor sees the beast for the first time and mutters in awe, “Oh ... that's beautiful!”, he speaks for fang-fans everywhere. And check out the bit when the Host's veins glow beneath his rippling skin. Whether bounding up flights of stairs, barrelling through doorways into rifle-fire or going mano-et-lupo against a gutsy, For Queen and Country redcoat, this wolf has oodles of malevolence and just looks so ... well ... cool. Best of all, though, is the classic shot of it sniffing disdainfully on one side of a wall as the Doctor listens on the other. A smart visual highlight. And the lycanthropic homages are seamlessly enmeshed in this cleverly written and well-paced story. We have Wolfen-eye vision, a terrific bipedal beast in the Van Helsing style - though, to be honest, this one knocks the whiskers off the cartoonic werewolves in Stephen Sommers' overlong clagfest - the skylight assault from The Beast Must Die and the quintessential silhouette of the monster howling at the full moon. The show even plays a neat spin on the legend by not attempting to re-invent it, but rather having the alien threat use the spooky old Highland tales as a front for its own evil purposes. Either way, the story is played out in a classic fashion, a gothic chiller with sci-fi trappings. The only fly in the ointment is Pauline Collins as the starched Queen Victoria. There's too much of a knowing wink in her eye to fully pull the role off, and her visual similarity to a dithering cow that I work with in “real life” is extremely off-putting. That's obviously just a personal thing, though, and shouldn't bother anyone else.

    “You act like a radical ... yet all you want to do is preserve the old order.”

    The second story in this volume, School Reunion is, of course, a major landmark in the show. Bringing back Sarah Jane Smith, if even for only one more episode, was always going to mix some pretty powerful nostalgia into the formula. And rekindle many a dormant pining, to boot. Elisabeth Sladen, who has kept her character alive in the Big Finish audio dramas, was a schoolboy crush for an entire generation. Spunky, confident and a fully-rounded character, she always held her own against the Doctor. Although she did start out with John Pertwee, her tenure was mainly in the company of the great Tom Baker, and it this era that I hold most dearly. There was always something mischievous about Sarah Jane, and defiant. She was sexy in tomboy sort of way, never glamorous yet always radiant. And, coming back now, after all these years of wandering Earth with a defunct K-9, she still exudes exactly the same self-assured charisma that melted hearts so long ago. In fact, barring a few small wrinkles here and there, she has hardly changed - perhaps essaying the truest time traveller of all.

    “Sarah ... Jane ... Smith. My Sarah Jane Smith.

    When Mickey summons them back to present-day Earth to investigate the record results obtained at a local school after an influx of new teachers and a spate of UFO sightings, the Doctor and Rose go undercover to find out what is boosting the intelligence of the pupils. Posing as, respectively, a relief teacher and a dinner lady, the investigation soon reveals the true intentions of the new shape-shifting headmaster Hector Finch, Buffy's Anthony Head with viciously slicked-back hair. And with investigative journalist Sarah Jane Smith on the case as well, the scene is set for schoolroom skirmish with a gruesome race of gargoyle-like Krillatanes who are out to crack the universe's answer to the Da Vinci Code and, thus, gain complete control of time and space. Or something like that. Yep, plot-wise, School Reunion is little more juvenile than the two stories that bookend it on this disc. Its sci-fi adventure is strictly by-the-numbers, but never less than enjoyable. However, the real point of this episode is to cut the Doctor down to the bone, laying his relationships with his companions open to the cold light of day. How can he sweep a young woman off her feet, whisk her around the universe and place her in constant danger, and then just ditch her before repeating the process with another, fresher model? Toby Whithouse's script throbs with a yearning for the past, for a sense of reconciliation and for a mortal understanding of the pain that engulfs someone who is, to all intents and purposes, immortal. Cleverly, we see the emotional dilemma from all angles. We obviously feel for Sarah, jilted and ditched back on Earth (the classic story The Hand Of Fear) and still coming to terms with reality. We feel for Rose too, suddenly confronting what will possibly be the outcome of her adventures with the Doctor. She also has to deal with what amounts to her feller meeting up with an old flame as well, making some deliciously catty sparks fly as the two women vie for his affections. But it is the Doctor who is crippled most from this reunion. Forced to face the consequences of his wayward attachments, Tennant strips layers from his Doctor, taking us tantalisingly close to his vulnerable soul. Besides his trademark wildness, Tennant has now ensured that it will be the Doctor's emotional plight that he will be best remembered for. He gives such depth to the character that watching this series unfold week by week, in the presence of a fantasy-loathing wife and an agog five-year-old, can often be a terrifying prospect. “Dad, are you crying?” is the embarrassing question that I now run the risk of facing at the outcome of one of these new shows. Of course it was the next episode on this disc that would open those particular floodgates. But more on that in a minute.

    Anthony Head is a nice genre acknowledgment and cuts a comically sinister dash as the chief Krillitane. He even tries to outdo Donald Sutherland in the open-mouthed alien scream department. But the CG critters swooping all around the screen are something of a letdown, and this is especially noticeable after the TV boundary-pushing precedent set by the previous Tooth And Claw. The Krillitanes in their winged-demon form are decidedly cartoonish, although never less than fun to look at. Reminiscent of the flying monstrosities that plagued the church in the season one episode Father's Day, they never really appear very threatening, despite a cool shot of one of them squatting beside Finch as they spy on our heroes from a rooftop, haloed by a glorious full moon. Elisabeth Sladen is, naturally, magnificent. You can quite clearly see the pangs of longing, of incredulous loss and of the overwhelming desire to find closure to a huge part of her life, in those big, wistful eyes. And to see K-9 back in action with a laser that can actually point at objects that aren't merely placed on the floor a foot on front of him, is actually quite exciting too. And I was never a fan of his.

    School Reunion fizzes along with pathos, nostalgia, exciting creatures and a marvellous, and surprisingly deep, insight into the emotional mindset of a centuries-old time traveller who fears losing those he becomes close to, simply because he knows he will ultimately outlive them. Even K-9 kicks ass in this one ... and I never thought I'd say anything like that about the daft little robo-mutt.

    Of course, it is precisely this quasi-love dilemma that the Doctor faces with regards to his companions and any prospect of romance, that is addressed in the final episode of this disc, The Girl In The Fireplace. The problem with this one, though, is that it followed much too closely after the revelations of seeing Sarah Jane Smith again. Some breathing space between the two stories would have benefited this clumsy tale of a decade-spanning love affair that the Doctor conducts with Madame De Pompadour, time inevitably ticking away from her as galactic forces conspire to pay her a nasty visit at a crucial juncture in her life. Stuck in eighteenth century France, whilst the Doctor, Rose and Mickey find themselves trapped on a bizarre spacecraft that is rather insipidly linked to her, she finds the mysterious, and timely, visitations from this stranger with a hairdo like a ship's prow - minute by minute to the Doctor but years apart to her - the stuff of intellectual, philosophical and, somewhat cloyingly, amorous fantasy. The threat posed to her by a group of, admittedly, fabulously-realised clockwork entities is hardly gripping though, a final visual twist not quite enough to satisfy in what is, in fact, a rather laboriously written fable. The Doctor plunging through a huge mirror on a white stallion is overstating the heroic romance just a little bit. Yet, having said that, the final moments are truly heartbreaking. In fact, I cannot recall a more emotional climax to a Doctor Who story throughout the entire series, David Tennant proving that he can save a show just by looking forlorn and melancholic. I must also mention the marvellously tragic music that Murray Gold invests this episode with. Even when the script repeatedly fails to engage, or move, the score - coupled with haunting shots of a quiet, broken Doctor - swells and swoons, effortlessly bringing a tear to the eye and a lump to the throat. To be honest, this story would have worked better, and would certainly have been more convincing, if it had been a two-parter. It is simply asking too much to have us believe that the Doctor would fall so heavily for a woman he has only met fleetingly throughout time. I know many devout Who-purists that ranted about the infamous snogging scene and the complete turning-on-the-head of the Doctor's hitherto asexual nature. I said Who-purists, so the Paul McGann kinky business doesn't count as his stint as the movie-Doctor is largely relegated to the sidelines. Mickey and Rose lose out in this tale as well, as they, too, are sidelined to naff, Red Dwarf-like wandering throughout the stock-filler corridors of the mysterious spacecraft.

    Overall, this volume is very highly recommended. Not only does it feature two terrifically fast-paced and exciting stories in Tooth And Claw and School Reunion, but makes some incredibly deep observations about the Doctor and his relationship to his companions. When Doctor Who works, it does so with a depth and resonance that is difficult to beat. It can't be easy, especially in today's hard-to-please, megabuck-media environment, to produce forty-five minute stories featuring such a uniquely British eccentric as the Doctor, a time travelling police box - and even the return of his metal dog (which could have been a complete embarrassment all-round) - and nostalgic villains like the Daleks and the Cybermen that, being honest, just aren't going to scare modern audiences weaned on videogames and countless CG aggressors, and make them enthralling and relevant. Yet, kudos where it is deserved, Russell T. Davies and writers such as Toby Whithouse and Steven Moffat, have proved that our home-grown hero can adapt to the changing times, assimilate today's aesthetics and actually become a leading force in challenging TV science fiction. Sadly, as I mentioned at the start of this review, this rare intelligence would go on to prove just as hit-and-miss as in the previous season with later episodes such as The Wire and the plain awful Fear Her - God, that image of the Doctor carrying the Olympic Torch is, by far, the worst thing I have witnessed on a TV screen this year. And that includes anything aired from Love Island. Individual ratings for the episodes are as follows - Tooth And Claw gets a 9, School Reunion gets an 8 and The Girl in The Fireplace gets a 6.

    Next time, we'll cover the cool return of the Cybermen. Bring those buffed-up metal-heads on, I say!