Thursday, April 06, 2006


Introducing the Doctor…

Doctor Who’s return to our screens approaches rapidly, so I’m taking a quick look at the last year’s stories (showing over the next week at 7pm on BBC3). We don’t really know the current Doctor (David Tennant) yet; he talks a lot – so I like him – his mood changes rapidly, and he dresses in his own strange mix of ‘smart but scruffy’. But the Doctor’s had nine other bodies before him, and last year's (Christopher Eccleston) encountered ‘ghosts’ from the past and aliens from the future, and saw the day the Earth died in a ball of flame.

Intense, often angry or abrupt, the ninth Doctor was a survivor from a terrible war, struggling not to be consumed by survivor’s guilt. We saw him rediscovering his joy in life in sudden bursts of good humour with a new friend from modern London, Rose Tyler. He seemed much more hesitant to act than other Doctors, gradually encouraging other people to live their own lives to the full but seeming unsure of himself after his terrible experiences and, perhaps, actions. Perhaps that’s why he cropped his hair and dressed in a leather jacket, as if in a mid-life crisis (“I’m not over a thousand! I’m only 900!”). But his stories brought Doctor Who back to the screen with not just a far bigger budget but with a real run of quality, including scripts from the writers of Queer As Folk, Coupling and The League of Gentlemen. The more impressive stories are brilliant, the less impressive ones still stay pretty good, and with so much travel through the past, present and far future of Earth to examine the history of humanity, you hardly notice a distinct lack of alien planets so far…

On BBC3 tonight at 7pm:
Sheer verve and energy as Rose’s bored life as a London shop assistant is thrown into chaos by meeting the Doctor. I love the scene where she's introduced to the TARDIS. It has almost the punch and fun of a modern The Avengers, though Rose and a Northern Doctor ironically make it rather more down-to-Earth. There’s an alien invasion by dummies, too, but sometimes you’d hardly notice; it’s just window-dressing.
The End of the World
Rose goes five billion years in the future and says goodbye to the Earth. It’s very amusing, has astounding special effects and the immensely enjoyable villain looks fantastic, the ultimate in plastic surgery. Just don't try pitching it against Poirot as a whodunnit, that's all.

On BBC3 tomorrow night:
The Unquiet Dead
Ahh, Doctor Who’s scary again. Zombies walk in Nineteenth Century Cardiff and upset Charles Dickens. Easily one of my favourites from last year, there’s a witty script and some great culture clashes but, really, you just can’t beat a well-told Victorian ‘ghost story’.
Aliens of London
Back to modern London to see the consequences of Rose’s travelling, as aliens infiltrate the government. It’s the one where the spaceship crashes into Big Ben, which is always fun, but some of the broad humour trips over the political satire.

On BBC3 this Saturday night:
World War Three
Continuing from the previous episode, the aliens are revealed and some of the characters end up as rather more serious than you thought they’d be. The humour’s down and satire’s up as - first broadcast the week before the 2005 election - it lays into the Iraq War and ID cards (hurrah), and as for what happens to Downing Street…

On BBC3 next Monday night:
The grimmest of these stories (when even the scariest of the others have a playful tone), as the Doctor encounters the last survivor of the enemy side in the war. You know what it is. He’s not quite as loveable as usual here – but then, none of the people we meet here are particularly nice, and all of them have life-changing (or life-ending) experiences…
The Long Game
Into the far future with Rose and a new friend, who’s, well, not really up to the job. It’s quite a slim plot, but don’t write it off – bits will turn up later. Besides, I enjoy a villain who enjoys himself, and this one does (then there’s the monster in the ceiling)…

On BBC3 next Tuesday night:
Father's Day
Rose is taken back to the day her father died, and discovers the dangers of mucking about with time. A fantastic episode where almost everything comes right: awesome flying monsters to appeal to the 3-year-old-me that fell in love with the show in the first place, and great emotional scenes that got the 33-year-old me watching all misty-eyed. Beautiful music, too.
The Empty Child
Back to the Blitz, and Doctor Who continues to be the only series that visits the Second World War but never does the cliché and fights the Nazis there (you can tell it’s not an American show). A witty episode that’s probably also the scariest of the year, and all the better for it; children with gasmasks asking, “Are you my mummy…?”

On BBC3 next Wednesday night:
The Doctor Dances
Continuing from the previous episode, there are more really quite disturbing transformations, and our heroes are joined by a very handsome man called Jack. There’s even a surprisingly happy ending. I have a feeling this one won an award as the single best piece of telly last year, and it’s not bad, you know.
Boom Town
After so many special-effects-laden epics, most of the drama here takes place in a restaurant in modern Cardiff. And the face-off between the Doctor and the villain is so electrifying, the mix of drama and humour so perfectly judged, that it’s probably my favourite of the year.

On BBC3 next Thursday night:
Bad Wolf
Into the far future again for a nightmarish take on reality TV; funny and shocking, and with the most impressive cliffhanger ending to any of the episodes this year. Plus, you get to see a robot Anne Robinson who fires deathrays. What’s not to like?
The Parting of the Ways
Continuing from the previous episode and concluding a lot that’s been going on in the year, if you want an action-packed space epic, this is for you. There are some fantastic scenes but it's less than the sum of its parts, with set pieces stronger than the story stringing them together. Looks impressive, though.

…And then there’s less than 48 hours to go until New Earth starts the new run. Don’t read about it in the Radio Times; they spoil things. And most of the newspapers’ll be worse. As with much of TV today, it’s such big news that the best thing to do if you want to enjoy it as it happens is to stop reading anything in a paper that says ‘Doctor Who’, and politely decline if people say “Hey! Guess what I’ve heard!”

Of course, you can get the 2005 season of Doctor Who on DVD, too. They’re well worth it, and I’d recommend getting the somewhat impractically built box set of all of them rather than buying the ‘individual’ releases – the price adds up to about the same, and you get plenty of extras (instead of, er, none). The commentaries are all enjoyable, you get a complete set of mini-documentaries, and the ‘deleted scenes’ they talk about and meant to include are, er, not there. They forget to put them in. Whoops. Maybe in the '2006' box. So there you go. The first year of ‘new’ Doctor Who, in a nutshell, and awfully good it is too, with one more from right at the end of the year…

There’s also the first story for the new Doctor:

On BBC3 this Sunday night at 8pm, just to be different:
The Christmas Invasion
You can probably guess when this one’s set, but though it starts on a modern London council estate with more than a few laughs, it’s a dark Christmas fable of aliens coming to harvest humanity and us ending up scarier than they are. The Doctor’s still recovering from the explosive effect of changing bodies, but when he finally gets going, wow, he makes an impact…

It's really not remotely necessary to know the 'old' series of Doctor Who before you see the new ones (you don't even need to see last year's ones before New Earth, though it helps a little). But they're still obviously related, and it'll hardly be a shock if you get interested in the original series, too. I’m going to be doing shorter pieces on the ‘old’ Doctors, but if you’re vaguely interested but don’t think you can wade through another article, I’ll close with the mini-version. There are so many novels, CDs, websites and the like out there that they can be very off-putting, and while many of them are good, none of them are vital. The best thing to do is pick up some DVDs – easy to get hold of (often reduced in price), and showing the stories as they were meant to be seen, including the best ‘extras’ and picture and sound restoration work on any DVDs you’ll find aside from blockbuster movies.

If you want to dip into the Doctor Who DVDs, these are probably the best of the old series that's available:

Doctor Who – The Beginning
Way back to 1963 for the first three stories in a box together, including the first appearance of the Daleks, and some terrific documentaries about how it all started.
Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng-Chiang
A hugely enjoyable story of Victorian murders starring Tom Baker as the Doctor, which despite the subject matter is one of the wittiest, most quotable pieces of television going. Another great documentary as an extra.
Doctor Who – Earthshock
The Cybermen attack in a futuristic macho action thriller which is good dumb fun, but among some impressive extras the one that stands out is when the actors are reunited for the bitchiest commentary going.
Doctor Who – The Curse of Fenric
Doctor Who’s always been good at horror stories, and this is a particularly intelligent one. The outstanding feature of the DVD is a wholesale new edit of the story, with new scenes, effects, music and a movie format.

And Doctor Who – The Complete First Series (2005), of course.

If you want to make a start on Doctor Who novels instead, that’s much more tricky. With so many to choose from, it’s difficult to sort out the best of them, and most of them are sadly out of print. None of them are as good a start as a DVD (many throw you in at the deep end), and while I have many of the published guides and handbooks to the series and find some of them addictive, none of them are authoritative and enthusiastic enough to recommend as gospel. None of them agree enough with me, either ;-) However, if you feel suddenly enthused by Doctor Who and, like me, you love to read, before you spend all your savings getting all the novels you can find on eBay, see if you can track down a few of these. The books come in many different ranges, but they divide mainly into the novelisations from Target Books – based on the TV stories – and original novels (from many different publishers).

For the best of the Target novelisations, try:

Doctor Who and the Daleks (David Whitaker)
Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion (Terrance Dicks)
Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters (Malcolm Hulke)
Doctor Who and the Ark In Space (Ian Marter)
Doctor Who – Remembrance of the Daleks (Ben Aaronovitch)

And if you fancy the original novels, look for:

Doctor Who – The New Adventures: Lucifer Rising (Andy Lane and Jim Mortimore)
Doctor Who – The New Adventures: The Also People (Ben Aaronovitch)
Doctor Who – The Missing Adventures: Venusian Lullaby (Paul Leonard)
Doctor Who (BBC Books) – Alien Bodies (Lawrence Miles)
Doctor Who (BBC Books) – The Shadows of Avalon (Paul Cornell)

…But do try watching some of Doctor Who on the telly (or shiny silver disc) first.

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Boom Town was your favourite? Gosh. I guess it had to be someone's?
You can pick up most of the target novelisations and most of the BBc books on ebay dirt cheap.
What part of the phrase "deleted scene" did you have difficulty with? If they were there, they'd be described as "undeleted scenes" wouldn't they? :)
GRIN Well, Will, I know I'm quite rare in favouring Boom Town, and it's the story that one of those guidebooks I mentioned - Mark Campbell's Dimensions in Time & Space - gave just 15% to. But I'm sure you must have some stories you love that no-one else does (and which did you prefer from last year?).

I suspect it may have been the cheapest, fastest-written and talkiest so far too, which probably means I'm irredeemably a fan of the old show, but it was also unexpected, funny and dramatic, with great characters, and it was the villain that did it. I love a good villain to get my teeth into, and Annette Badland was terrific, the perfect balance of comic (ahh, climbing out the window…), sinister and tragic, even if the politics was mad as cheese. But wobbly politics has always been much more Who than wobbly sets.

And, yup, Neil, you can find Doctor Who novels for anything from about 10p to £100, which is handy, but I just wanted to suggest some of the better ones (and better authors). Someone might pick up - no, I won't be bitchy, but it's easy to think of a book I wouldn't want someone to dip into at a first attempt, so I thought a few tips the other way might be useful.
And James, how sweet you always are ;-)

The reason the absence of the 'deleted scenes' on the DVD is noticeable is that, should you listen to the commentaries, you'll hear several comments along the lines of 'There was a scene here that we didn't have room for / spoilt the flow, but you'll be able to take a look at it now in this DVD set'.

The production team has subsequently admitted that all of them assumed someone else was going to give the scenes to the DVD people, and as a result they were missed out by accident. There's a possibility they might be on the boxed set of the new series, but that won't be along until the end of the year.
I wasn't arguing with your choice of recommendations Alex. There are , indeed, some below par offerings;-)

Just pointing out a possible cheap source!

(I pretty much learnt to read via Target Dr Who books and Asterix!)
Sorry, Neil, that was a helpful tip and I was ungracious. I was just wary of encouraging people to pick up books when, while there are tons of terrific books out there, in at least one of the ranges (spot which) most of them are pretty poor and might put people off.

At least the new Harry Potter-format hardbacks with the latest Doctors are competent, if uninspired. Richard's just bought me the three new ones with the current Doctor and Rose, and I'm half-way through one which is... competent but uninspired (points deducted for having to fit so slavishly to a pagecount of 250 that there's a blatant 30-page diversion dropped in to fill space when the manuscript ran under length).

Charity shops are also a good place to find Who books cheap, though the books are less common there than they used to be.

I pretty much learnt to read via Target books, too, but that might be another blog one day...
Probably not the most useful tip for your good self, but the new hardback range do make good bedtime reading for the children.

One or two chapters a night go down very well.

Winner Takes All went down particularly well.

The kids are also quite taken with the Hartnell era videos too.
I'm glad to see you've got the good taste to like Boom Town - it was one of my big favourites too and how it did so badly in the polls I'll never know. Then again, I should have known you'd like this story, what with your favouring of the B&W Emma Peels and Tara King Avengers episodes! Me too! :-) Shy Yeti...
Sounds good, Neil. I wonder which one I’d have chosen first? Perhaps The Clockwise Man, so I could do some really bad Russian accents, or Only Human, for the grunting, though The Stealers of Dreams might be a good one to scare them before they go to sleep.

I remember reading a small person Doctor Who stories some years ago - as well as showing him episodes on video. I realised the uselessness of attempting to gauge which stories were more suitable than others when he didn’t bat an eyelid at the ones that frightened me as a boy, but was absolutely terrified by creaky old black-and-white, slow as anything The Seeds of Death, so I’m not surprised your ones like Hartnell (as do I!). Add to that that the similarly-titled but differently scary The Seeds of Doom was fantastic when I was a boy because it’s more violent and nasty than any other Who story, and I find it a bit unpleasant these days, for exactly the same reasons (but then, one of the two books rewritten to make ‘Junior Doctor Who’ was the nearest the series has ever got to Frankenstein, so people realise children like to be scared).

And thank you, Paul! You’re a man of excellent taste and nice fur ;-)
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