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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Impossibly Convoluted Assassin ('Doctor Who', Season 32, 2010-11)


2011 would be a big year in British media. What seemed to be the assured full takeover of BSkyB by News Corporation (especially after the change of ministers responsible for approving it) was stopped after the full extent of the phone hacking scandal came to light in July. What had previously been a story focussed on celebrities became much wider when it was revealed that the voicemail messages of victims of crime, including murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, had been intercepted by journalists at Sunday tabloid News of the World. The advertisers raced for the exit and the paper, which had offering sex and scandal since 1843, closed down.

Among the many victims of the hacking was former Doctor Christopher Eccleson. Criminal investigations and prosecutions are still ongoing, so I will leave it there.

In terms of sci-fi, the BBC would air Outcasts,  revolving around a colony of humans on another world in 2060 escaping from nuclear war on Earth. Poorly executed, low ratings and bad reviews led to the indignity of a move to a late night Sunday slot, followed by the show's axing after one year with an unresolved cliffhanger. The BBC's science fiction output since then has been Doctor Who and stuff for CBBC.

****

2011 would also be a sad year for fans of Doctor Who. Both Nicholas Courtney and Lis Sladen died of cancer in the first few months of the year. Their deaths were acknowledged in various ways in the show; Sladen in a memorial caption at the beginning of "The Impossible Astronaut"[1] and Courtney in a key scene in "The Wedding of River Song".

This year would also see the first of two 'split' seasons; conscious that TV gets more viewers in autumn than spring, the production crew decided to have the 32nd season of the show in two parts, ultimately aiming to move the show to the former season. It is also the only season since 2005 not to feature a Dalek in anything more than a brief cameo role.

A Christmas Carol (60-minute Christmas special)
Honeymooners Amy and Rory are trapped on a crashing space liner and the only man who can save them is a grumpy old miser called Kazran Sardick... who refuses to do so. The Doctor will have to borrow from Charles Dickens to save the day.

The first Christmas special that US viewers actually got to see on Christmas Day, this guest stars renowned actor Michael Gambon[2] and opera singer Katherine Jenkins in a story that mines a well-loved plot[3]. It's good and enjoyable, but arguably one of the weaker festive episodes of the show.

Space/Time (2 4-minute and three minute mini episodes, broadcast as part of Comic Relief 2011)
While Rory and the Doctor are repairing the TARDIS, Amy accidentally causes them to make a mistake that could trap them forever.

Another canon mini-episode, this is a short, but enjoyable little bottle piece that is worth checking out if you've not seen it before... and also worth it if you have.

The first part is here and the second is here.

The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (2 episodes)
The Doctor, Amy, Rory & River Song are summoned by mysterious blue envelopes to Utah, where one of them is killed... and that's just the start of things.

Containing a lot of US location filming - the first main cast filming the show had done over the Pond (no pun intended), this two part contains the debut of the Silents proper, many a great line and sets up the on-going arc of the season very well indeed. Well one of them; this would be a complex season.

The Curse of the Black Spot
The TARDIS is stuck on a 17th century pirate ship, which is under attack from a mysterious sea creature that may lure them all to their deaths.

AKA "The Curse of the Bad Plot"; this below-par tale starts off well and then goes badly, badly wrong. Even Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) can't save this from going down and I'm really not sure what supermodel Lily Cole is doing there... especially as she doesn't even say a single word.

The Doctor's Wife
Summoned by a message from another Time Lord, the TARDIS enters a pocket dimension and the Doctor gets to meet a very old friend properly...

Renowned fantasy author Neil Gaiman contributes his first script to the show... and wins a Hugo for doing it. A wonderful (for the most part) tale where a batch of Doctor Who canon gets rewritten without changing anything in the previous stories, it features Suranne Jones channelling Helena Bonham Carter to excellent effect[4].

The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (2 episodes)
In the 22nd century, telepathically controlled clones are used for dangerous work... but a solar storm at an acid factory makes the clones self-aware. The Doctor must mediate... and figure out whether Amy is really pregnant or not.

Featuring only the second use of motion control cameras[5] in the history of the show (the shots with humans and clones could not be done with screen-splitting), this is a good story with some strong moral themes on personal identity and treatment of other sentient beings. It also features a fair few deaths... and a dramatic revelation about Amy.

This is the last "straight" two parter to date; no episode since has a direct narrative "cliffhanger-resolution" link.

A Good Man Goes to War (1st part of a 2 parter)
Imprisoned on the asteroid called Demon's Run, Amy gives birth... but her baby isn't going to be with her for long. Meanwhile the Doctor and Rory are gathering their allies for a battle and after which, the true identity of River Song will be revealed.

A story both epic and very intimate, this sees the d├ębut of the Doctor's ability to speak 'baby' (it's been found that infants worldwide speak a common language) and also the first appearance of the highly popular Paternoster Gang i.e. Strax, Jenny and Vastra[6]. It's an excellent story with even the 'goons' well fleshed out, although it sometimes loses its head... pun intended.

****
It was at this point the show took a break over the summer; "A Good Man" aired on 4 June and the series resumed on Saturday 27 August, the weekend of the August Bank Holiday and another traditional launch slot for shows. It would open in suitably dramatic manner with a title guaranteed to attract interest of the casual viewer...

Let's Kill Hitler (2nd part)

After a gunpoint hijacking, the TARDIS crashes in 1930s Berlin, where the Doctor encounters a war criminal... and Adolf Hitler.

A romp, but a very lightweight one; Matt Smith spends a lot of his time gurning (this is a job requirement for any Doctor, but still) and is upstaged by Alex Kingston throughout; in addition, Hitler's appearance is nothing more than interesting gimmick. One of the weaker Moffat episodes.

This episode also sees the Doctor acquiring a new green coat that he would wear for the rest of this season; the Eleventh Doctor's clothes change a fair amount, although he pretty much always wears a bow tie.

Night Terrors
A young boy called George is being terrorised by the monsters in his cupboard... the time travellers visit and decide to find out the truth.

An excellent and genuinely creepy episode; this one has a great guest turn from Daniel Mays and the fact it's nearly all in darkness really helps - Doctor Who knows how to light a set. Well, most of the time (Myrka).

The Girl Who Waited
Amy gets left behind on a planet in the middle of a plague - and when the Doctor and Rory return, she is a much older woman.

A very interesting story, although it lacks enough to make it a classic, this is notable for Karen Gillan getting the aging make-up to add 36 years to her age (the initial plan was to cast another woman as an older Amy). Her portrayal of an older Amy is one of the best elements of the episode and the make-up job is far more convincing than ones applied to David Tennant previously and Matt Smith later.

The God Complex
The Doctor, Amy and Rory visit a hotel where the checkouts are a good deal deadlier than normal and each room possesses the guest's biggest fear.

A highly freaky episode that is at times more confusing than Inception, this is a good old-fashioned romp, albeit a hugely disturbing one. It is also noteworthy for Rita, the first explictly Muslim character on the show since "The Crusades"... and in this case, not some white bloke blacked up.

This is the last episode featuring Amy and Rory as "regular" companions; while they engage in further TARDIS journeys, those involve the Doctor picking them up and returning them home instead of a continuous trip.

Closing Time
Nearing his apparent fate, the Doctor checks in with the man he previously lodged with, Craig Owens and his baby... as they face a Cyberman invasion.

A companion-lite story that features the return appearance of James Corden as Craig Owens, this is a clear case of an inferior sequel; the plot is tacked onto the humour and frankly a bit silly. An average episode saved from being a clunker only by Matt Smith's great rapport with kids.

The Wedding of River Song

As the Doctor goes to Lake Silencio and after someone doesn't do what they're supposed to, all history starts happening at once.

An episode that made me wonder what precisely Steven Moffat was smoking when he wrote this ("In an episode that brought us cannibal skulls, people being killed by eye patches and Winston Churchill as the Holy Roman Emperor, disembodied talking heads was actually pretty sane, if only because I've seen it in Futurama. Even by the Moff's trippy standards, this was far out"), this season finale answers a lot of questions and asks a good deal more, most notably laying the seeds for the final story of the Eleventh Doctor with the first mention of Trenzalore. It's a good conclusion to this run, but a lot is thrown at this story and it doesn't always stick.

Death is the Only Answer (4 minute mini-episode, aired as part of, "When Time Froze", the Doctor Who Confidential covering "The Wedding of River Song")

Einstein suddenly pops up in the TARDIS.

Written by the children of Oakley Church of England Junior School, this was the winning script in a school writing competition organised by BBC Learning and Doctor Who Confidential. It has not been released on home video and I don't really remember much about it; it was OK from what I recall.

****
Season 32 averaged 8.0 million; while this was bolstered by a Christmas special that hit 12.3 million and a Comic Relief special watched by 10.3 million. Even knocking those out, the average was still 7.5 million and the show broke the million barrier on iPlayer for nearly every episode.

The budget cuts would mean that "When Time Froze" would be the final episode of Doctor Who Confidential; shorter behind the scenes features would continue on the official website, but a show rated in one poll as the best in BBC3's history was done. As I was writing this post, Director General Tony Hall announced plans to move BBC3, a network whose best shows have arguably all now ended[7], to an entirely iPlayer service from 2015, as a means to help the corporation save £100m. There have been protests and this decision may yet be reversed - plans to close Radio 6 and the BBC Asian Network previously were.

The main show would be hit as well... crew members would have to take reductions in salary and overall rank to stay on the show. As the 50th anniversary approached, there would an emphasis on effects over big casts; the latter could be done without, but the former were needed when other channels were just a couple of clicks away.

[1]Albeit with a typo from the start of her career giving her year of birth as 1948 instead of 1946.
[2]Best known for playing Albus Dumbledore in six of the Harry Potter films after Richard Harris died, his taking a Suzuki Liana onto two wheels during his appearance in the Top Gear "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car" segment led to the last corner of their test track being named Gambon in his honour.
[3]To give you an idea of how common it is, I've actually been a character in one of these... long story.
[4]Coming to prominence for her role in Coronation Street, she has comprehensively buried Karen McDonald with a string of highly regarded dramatic roles, including this one.
[5]A technology where a camera on a robotic arm is programmed to move precisely the same way multiple times, so the shots can be composited. Pioneered by Industrial Light and Magic for Star Wars, its other Doctor Who use was all the way back in 1986 for the opening model shot of "Trial of a Time Lord".
[6]"I'm a lizard woman from the dawn of time and this is my wife" is one of the Moff's personal favourite lines - in this episode, he also included one of the two dirtiest jokes in the show's history.
[7]The highly enjoyable (and Hugo-nominated) Orphan Black is a BBC America production.

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