Dennis Potter/Doctor Who

So the story goes, as was revealed some years ago now, that Dennis Potter, a television script-writer with a staggering reputation, once submitted a script, storyline, or at least an idea to Doctor Who during the early years of the show.

It makes sense. Potter had flirted with writing for TV in the years immediately before Doctor Who began, but it wasn’t until the series became established, around 1965, that Potter settled on writing television drama as a viable career. Potter did not in the event contribute to the series, instead making a name writing inventive and emotive single dramas for adults, such as Where the Buffalo Roam, and Son of Man, before going on to make several towering contributions to television drama in the seventies and eighties.

So what is the the great lost Dennis Potter Doctor Who story about? Legend has it it’s about a schizophrenic, a delusional who hallucinates or believes himself to be a time-traveller. How modern, how very Potter to take something fundamental to the series format and twist it in such an interesting way. What would happen if such a person met ‘real’ time travellers? What would happen to such a person if they ‘really’ get to travel in time? What kind of dramatic journey does that entail? What does that do to a character? What does that do to the audience? Thinking about it it undermines, in interesting ways, the very core of the programme. In Doctor Who, how can we be sure an hallucination of time travel remains just an hallucination; how can mental time travel be just a delusion in Doctor Who?

Time travel has always been possible in dreams.
Madame Vastra, The Name of the Doctor

And if that is true, how can we be sure of anything? Perhaps the Doctor himself is just a very advanced type of schizophrenic whose delusions and hallucinations have somehow become his physical milieu?

Potter’s ghost remains an influence on the series. Certainly Russell T Davies was influenced as a writer by Potter. And when considering some of Steven Moffat’s ground-breaking work on the series, I think of the brilliant conceit in his 2008 episode Forest of the Dead, in which a character begins to realise she’s trapped in a virtual reality because she notices the edits in the television drama programme she’s in. I almost can imagine Potter thinking: I wish I’d thought of that.

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Prequel Smequel.

It may not be that unusual in a Doctor Who drama for the audience to be shown reveals before the Doctor.  What does strike me as unusual in some of Moffat’s Who is that the audience finds out things that the characters will never know. The final shot of ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ reveals a crucial piece of information that makes sense of the events of the story for the audience, after the Doctor has left the story admitting he still has no idea just why Madame de Pompadour was fixated upon by the droids of a ship from the future. That the ship bears her name is revealed only to us.

Of course normally the Doctor knows more about what’s going on than anyone in the room, and in the unfolding of ‘arc’ mysteries that span seasons, we tend to experience key reveals along the way with him: in The Sound of Drums, as the Doctor, Jack and crucially Martha realise the Master is Harold Saxon, the pieces of the season-long puzzle fall into place for us at the same time. Likewise the Doctor discovers River Song’s identity as Melody Pond at pretty much the same time we do, leaving her hapless parents to represent those members of the audience who really need it spelling out.

In the Current Epoch of the show, known as Nu-Who, single episode stories strung in a loose arc has been the norm, with RTD stating his Bad Wolf scenario was only ever meant to be a bonus thread not affecting the comprehensibility of the individual episodes, not expecting it to be picked up by the Guardian and the mass audience (used, as has now become a cliche, to watching TV with an eye to ongoing arcs). Bad Wolf became a brief natIonal talking point. But again, it’s all fairly straightforward narrative exposition. We find out the solution to the Bad Wolf mystery with Rose, and subsequently, with the flabbergasted Doctor as Rose tells him ‘I am the Bad Wolf’ and promptly saves his ass which he was confidently expecting to experience extermination very shortly.

With the ongoing saga of Clara Oswin Oswald, the knowledge available to the audience comes in different ways.

In this new scene acting as a teaser for the new series, and focusing on the search for Clara, picking up from the  end of the Xmas special, again we are left knowing more than the Doctor. I won’t say too much, but suffice to say there’s a charming use of one of Moffat ‘s box of tropes – just playing with the audience, teasing them as to whether the obvious and almost inevitable pay-off. In this case, the pay off implies to me that the Doctor will never know what we find out in the second to last shot. Because he doesn’t need to. It’s not a detail he ever needs to know. The meaning of this particular unfolding of the Oswin story is left to us to decide. I suspect it always will be.

The Bells of St John: A PREQUEL

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p016r6pw

By the way, I must observe this usage of the term ‘prequel’ in more detail.

The term prequel was surely invented to capture the ambiguity of a follow-up movie (normally called a sequel) which relates prior events. The first notable example I can remember in popcorn land is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which I believe is meant to be set before Raiders of the Lost Arc. Lucas really exploited the form with his Star Wars prequels depicting the first, descending half (?) of the story of Anakin Skywalker. And of course the most obvious current ‘prequel’ would the Hobbit movies.

But in book form, The Hobbit was written and published before the Lord of the Rings’s three volumes. To call it a ‘prequel’ would be to apply a new word to something it doesn’t even describe. Nor can the Dr Who episodes ‘Utopia’ or even ‘Mission to the Unknown’ adequately be called prequels to what they introduce.

This latest addition to Doctor Who shouldn’t be called a prequel’. In my view it is both wrong, draining  the meaning of the word of any of its delicious irony, and for that reason, looks silly. A marketing term used to market something it was originally not intended to market. Namely, a Prologue.

Oh well. Thank the goddess they didn’t call it a Minisode this time.

The Bells of St John: A Prologue

>http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p016r6pw

Here’s Gary Gillatt’s review of the curious Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story The Ambassadors of Death, newly restored on DVD.

Great review which immediately impressed me by telling me something I didn’t know I knew about Season Seven. Confined to Earth, each seven-parter has the Doctor explore ” all three dimensions still available to him.” Almost shamanic dimensions – first down into the underworld to meet the Silurians, and now the Ambassadors lead him “straight up into the sky”.

I’m not sure Gary is correct that Episode 5 would be pulled today in the light of Apollo 13 – it had splashed down the previous day. Wife in Space commented on this during their watch of the story

And while the emotions of the finale are understated, I used to feel them especially in the aftermath of the emotive end of the Silurians, in which the Doctor fails to prevent his human associates from ‘wiping out’ their intelligent reptilian forebears. His success in saving the aliens of this story acts as a reflective counter-point to his earlier failure, and as a building of tension in the arc towards the season’s explosive, tense conclusion in the Inferno.

That’s my recall anyway. It’s a while since I saw the story, but look forward to watching the new DVD with friends some time this year. Gary’s review has certainly made me even more keen to make that soon.

Squabbling Rubber

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012

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dvd-ambasadors‘Exile’ is too grand a description for the sentence handed down to the Doctor at the end of his original trial. Aside from changing his face – which admittedly could be argued to be a form of capital punishment – all the Time Lords really do is wheelclamp the Doctor’s ship and so deny him access to his favourite of his usual four dimensions. However, while our hero can no longer trip through time, his new incarnation still thrusts out unceasingly in every remaining direction. The first thing he does is to take a vehicle without the owner’s consent – a crime for which he has form, to say the least – after which he barely sits still for a moment. And in the seven-episode adventures that dominate his first year on Earth, we see him explore, in…

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Christmas Countdown

In review: Doctor Who 2012 Christmas Prequels

Ah, the Doctor Who Christmas Special, instant tradition invented in 2005 with The brilliant Christmas Invasion, followed each year with variations on traditional Christmas film styles: a midwinter’s journey, from screw-ball comedy via blockbuster disaster and mock epic, to the current mode of romantic and literate sf-fantasy with hints of steam-punk and paganism.

This year, the Doctor Who team revisit Victorian values, in The Snowmen, due for broadcast on Christmas Day at 5.15pm. If two years ago the Doctor played ghost to Scrooge, it seems this time the Doctor himself is cast as an uncommon Scrooge.

Back in November Cardiff revived an aspect of the tradition going back to 2005: the Children in Need prequel to the Christmas special.

The Great Detective.

TX: 16 November 2012

My main problem with this was the arch, knowing humour which plays incongruities for laughs. How Mark Gatiss plays the narrator’s line about the Victorian detective! Inter-textually, this refers to Sherlock of course, thus setting up the punchline: ‘I refer of course – to Madame Vaastraa’. A moderately clever gag lampshaded and rendered excruciating by Gatiss’s unfortunate delivery. A rocky start led to another over egged gag about the henchman Strax

‘whose countenance was too horrible to be photo-graphed’,

which when revealed as a not particularly horrible Sontaran accompanies one of Murray Gold’s musical exclamation marks.

Fortunately this air of beautifully produced but rather forced humour is punctured by the arrival of the ‘fourth member’, the ‘shadowy figure’ of Matt Smith.

Tom Baker in Shada
Cool

I have to say I adore his new Xmas costume, I feel the Doctor looks genuinely ‘cool’, perhaps for the first time since 1979. So I was pleased to read recently Moffat’s comments on costuming the Doctor, signalling a move towards varying the actual clothes while retaining some ineffable essence of this Doctor’s look or style, a reading of the 1970s ‘version of it’.

The Doctor’s melancholy rejection of the gang is well played, and mysteriously finished off by the Doctor disappearing into thin air as he walks off, as if walking through dimensions. Disregarding that, the format and hook of the special is set up in Jenny’s final ‘Merry Christmas’ to him, reminding us that, as has been noted by the Tenth Doctor in 2007, Christmas always seems to be a busy time for the Doctor these days. Something is bound to come up.

Ending on a repeat of the joke about Strax threatening the moon is I presume the rebel in Moffat producing an anti-cliffhanger to rival Barry Lett’s finest.

Pleasingly, there’s a part two.

Vastra Investigates

TX online: 17 December http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p012q4yl

I loved this sketch’s combination of info-dump and comedy, giving us useful back story, reminding the audience who exactly Jenny, Vastra and Strax are. I watched this with a mate the other day and he loved all the jokes, as did I. TBH the trailer shown an hour or so after the first ‘minisode’ in November didn’t excite me, but I remain intrigued. The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe has had an airing to general like this year. Two very different friends of mine watched it recently and both reassessed their formerly low opinion. It’s a grower. Maybe they’ll pull off something even better this year.

But, evil snowmen? Maybe this one’s best watched with child-like eyes. Leave your cynicism at the door, but please don’t forget Strax’s grenade!

Merry Pagan Feast Day everyone.

Loving Angels Instead

In review: Doctor Who The Angels Take Manhattan

TX: 29 September 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n70f3

Some died. Not them, Brian. Never them – the Doctor, The Power Of Three

I wasn’t thinking of anything quite so…long term – Amy, Flesh and Stone

SO the big news this week, as covered by the Guardian, was the release of a deleted scene in storyboard and audio form, from this episode. The Chibnall written scene gave Rory a chance to let his Dad know what happened to them, by letter delivered by an adopted son, resolving rather prosaically the thread of Amy’s infertility, in a scene clearly inspired by a similar event in Blink. The scene picks up on certain fan desires for resolutions somewhat underwhelmed by elements of this episode. I think there was an intense fan reading generated for this episode, but it seems to talk about alternatives. A desire for more resolution to the River Song/Amy aspect of the story, for instance, has people assuming Amy and Rory somehow meet up with young Melody in New York, filling in the gap between her 1969 New York regeneration and arrival in 90’s Leadworth.

This companion departure was always going to be strained, deriving narratively from the Doctor’s feelings for Amy, and Rory, feelings whose motivations were made explicit for the first time last week, but have always been there. In review I mentioned The Power of Three‘s play with the format of the show, an experimentation enabled now the characters have been positioned to this point. The set up of Rory and Amy as, dare I say it, lame duck companions, by the coda of The God Complex proved both logical and potentially format-busting, raising the question of the whole status of a ‘companion’ in modern Dr Who. In some ways a consequence of the Doctor’s more perfect control over the Tardis, as much as any subtext that the Doctor must grow up, if you have a Doctor who is able to visit ‘companions’ at will, it disrupts the tradition of the companion role, into something more akin to another meaning of the word – an occasional traveller.

As far back as the departures of both Captain Jack (The Parting of the Ways) and more especially Martha (Last of the Time Lords), the possibility has been raised of a companion leaving the Tardis, but not necessarily leaving the show. I always thought this was a great idea, and the use of the Ponds since The God Complex has satisfied this viewer’s desire for a more realistic and involved treatment of the format implied, but never realised, by how RTD re-imagined the Doctor-companion relationship in terms of an attachment to home and hearth.

It lays possible groundwork I think for a more extended run of stories with occasional companions, perhaps those the Doctor has less of an emotional attachment to, so you don’t need to ‘write them out’ so artificially. Maintaining their base, these nu-companions can grab some agency in the series. With Amy however he has made his feelings clear, finally: Pond will be there till ‘the end of me – or vice versa’. A constant companion. So a combination of that emotional thread, and the realities of life in TV land, mean an ending which ensures that somehow the Doctor cannot visit these people again is required. Some reviews have suggested this episode plays out like a series of plot devices to get us to that point, both emotionally and mechanically, with Moffat exercising his plotting muscles and interest in exploring time travel within Dr Who, rather than telling a story. Yet Moffat said  the ending of this story – ‘the most important part of any story’ – was written and rewritten many times, to get it right. In public, this has been a mutable story with many possible paths not taken, a story with a public face of having multiple versions in the culture around it.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the episode. I wasn’t expecting any further resolution to the Amy/Melody story, and I enjoyed appreciating it on its own terms. Pacing this year has been interesting.  I loved the opening sequence. Much as I disliked A Town Called Mercy, I admired the pacing, a sense of the story slowing down at key points, for character to unfold. Here to me, the pre-credits sequence felt pleasingly like the beginning of a play. Some found the sequence wasted on a scene-setting mini-story whose characters proved entirely incidental after the credits, but I admire the unusual pacing going on here.

To be honest I feel put in a difficult position by my inability to resist spoilers. Off the top of my head, I was aware in advance of the following elements:

  • the statue of liberty as weeping angel
  • Rory sent back in time by the angels
  • to a 30s/40s setting
  • they filmed in a Welsh cemetery

And so, when considering if these elements were well used, I’m finding it hard to know if my judgement is clouded by knowing in advance, lacking the surprise necessary to judge them on their own dramatic terms. I shouldn’t read spoilers. I think I’ll stop now. I can’t help however in joining the chorus of disappointment towards the use of the Liberty Angel for pure ‘marquee’ effect. the statute of liberty angelThe appeal of the idea I think lies already in it’s audacious popular appeal, but to plonk it into the story without any visible means of support at all? Reminiscent of RTD’s Cyberking in London incident, which Moffat himself took the opportunity of his ‘crack in time’, swallowing both things and the memories of things, storyline to cover for. How is it not quantum locked?

The episode proper presents a classic Moffat time puzzler  The drama’s initial gambit, the kidnapping of Rory and his instant appearance in the book the Doctor is reading to Amy, certainly arrests and intrigues, but, as people are beginning to argue, Moffat’s distinctive use of time travel in Dr Who has a price when the basic rules in the show are so slapdash. The drama’s credibility suffers. While the incident in which Amy reads ahead succeeded for me in heightening the drama of the time paradox the Doctor and Amy had to negotiate. The drama of River’s wrist however, played out as a key emotional  moment in that negotiation, played out poorly because of how poorly it fitted what Amy did read in the book.

How did the Angels fare as a Dr Who monster here? Certainly creepy in a story which returns to their time-active abilities, it took me some time to realise there was no particular plan at work here, just an unfolding of Weeping Angel culture. There was no plot involving the Mike McShane character, no mystery behind who he was or his connection with the Angels and somehow I feel this was a weakness. Once we understand that, we can focus on the angels, the Doctor and co happening to cross paths with them in a city they frequent, and the tension of knowing Rory and Amy will not survive the story, according to contract, serving as the foregrounded plot. This took time to play out unlikely possibilities: Rory being the locus.

So, an angel people farm. Again, great idea but the specifics didn’t bear examination. In an alternative story called The Angels Take Manhatten posited by some fans, the same ideas are rejuggled.  The Statue as a permanently imprisoned Angel, always gazed at by someone in the insomniac city, with the angels out to free her was a Chinese whisper of a ‘spoiler’ trailed before the episode. The only sensible way to bring this about would be blinding everyone, Day of the Triffids style. Another alternative constructed after the episode prefers the Ponds final farewell to occur back in time, say 1969, with the Doctor (from earlier in his timestream, for timey-wimey fans), or perhaps River Song herself, guiding them to toddler Melody, to raise her before sending her on her way to Leadworth.

Yes, there are still people who don’t get it. Melody survived New York because she was programmed to do so. She sought out the young Rory and Amy to be raised by them (in a way), because she was programmed to kill the Doctor, and to give at least some resolution to the whole storyline of Amy having her new born baby kidnapped. That timey-wimey sort of resolution was all we were ever meant to to get. That, along with Amy’s sub-Eastenders declaration to Madame Kovarian in The Wedding of River Song that “Melody’s all grown up now and she’s fine – but I’ll never see my baby again,” resolves the issue as far as the screen is concerned.

The ending came down once more to the theme of Amy’s choice. It’s simplicity and suddenness appealed, her choice inevitable the moment Rory disappeared. She chose the angel, the route to live with Rory, over life with the Doctor. The Doctor was predictably gutted by this, and unfortunately River, who apparently is free to go sort out a publishing contract with Amy, isn’t much consolation. I really don’t understand why she says ‘one psychopath per TARDIS’ as a reason for not joining up with him full time: if it is a joke I don’t get it. Interpersonal relations in Moffat’s Who are…unusual.

Of course, the ending is beautiful, and clever, rewriting the past and resolving a loosethread fans haven’t generally paid attention to: an emotional thread connected with young Amy’s audition of yer classic Brian Hodgson Tardis, all the way back in the Eleventh Hour, on the first night she waited.

This post’s featured image is a detail from a photo in Greenwood, NYC by Tor Johansson