Posts Tagged With: ace

Review: The Power of the Doctor

There was a reason why I didn’t do a write-up for the Easter special. It’s partly because we were in Liverpool, plaque-spotting on Mathew Street and taking ferries to Birkenhead and noting that when Dan and Diane left the museum in the first episode of Flux, they did so by the fire exit. But it’s mostly because it was incredibly dull, the tale of swashbuckling sea adventure turning out to be a bit of a damp squib. It wasn’t outrageously terrible, but it wasn’t very good, either. It was just mediocre. The inclination to write paragraphs about why this was an outrage – something I’d have done in a heartbeat back in 2015 – is more or less gone these days, and if it’s mediocre, I no longer care.

And yet here we are, some six months down the line in a tour-de-force that takes in active volcanos, dastardly schemes and more old faces than a DVD retrospective. Running just shy of ninety minutes, it serves as a swansong both for Whittaker and the departing showrunner, a target of so much internet vitriol it’s astounging he’s stuck it out this long. Perhaps the most potent criticism of Chibnall’s reign, aside from his inability to write dialogue (something that hasn’t improved) is a supposed refusal to acknowledge the past, whether it’s the absence of classic villains in Series 10 or the whole Timeless Child debacle. Thus, with the plethora of famous faces popping up during ‘The Power of the Doctor’, he seeks to answer his critics. “You want nods to the past? Fine. Have this one. And this one. And this one.”

Nostagia sells. This is an anniversary story – not the show, but the BBC – and the buildup to Whittaker’s regeneration is steeped in the desire to look back, so much so that the Doctor scarcely sees the proverbial (and, eventually, literal) cliff until she’s about to step over the edge. It reads like a love letter to times past, a sort of ‘Day of the Doctor’ lite, the style flapping over substance like one of those Top Gear supercars that look better than they drive. Against all odds, and thanks to some genuinely crowd-pleasing moments, it works. If nothing else it’s a relief to get it out of the way so that we can finally sift through the tabloid rumours – media abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of any information the press and the fan pages have had to create their own notes on speculative casting, with everyone from Bonnie Langford to Matt Smith mooted to be somehow involved.

Smith doesn’t show; neither does Capaldi – but they did manage to get most of the others. They play their cameos to a tee, perched atop the edge of a metaphysical abyss like wizened, BBC English gurus; platitudes and received pronunciation. Of the surviving Old Legends, only Tom Baker is absent, which should surprise no one who saw ‘The Five Doctors’. Crucially no obvious effort is made to de-age any of them. which is probably down to budget more than anything else, although it doesn’t stop Chibnall putting in a few lines about how their physical appearance reflects the desire of former companions to watch them growing old. It suffices, at a stretch, but it’s awkard, calling to mind that horrendous clay monkey from the end of Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’ video. “This is how I see you…”

But nostagia works like an anaesthetic – or at least a potent variety gas and air, bringing on a euphoric fit of giggles that serves to mask the frantic cutting and squeezing going on down below. This was a story about spectacle, in which we’re expected to applaud first and ask questions later, And thus the sight of McGann alone is almost enough to forgive the writer for thrusting ‘Orphan 55’ upon us a couple of years back (almost, if not quite). Who cares if they got old? We all did. Bringing back former Doctors also allows for closure with their respective companions, the holographic projections washing in and out of the screen like ghosts. It’s a touching moment, although the nod to Ace’s feud with the Doctor has a bit of posturing about it, feeling like a half-hearted attempt at rebuffing all those people who claimed Chibnall didn’t know his Who. He may have been well-intentioned, but this is likely to simply confuse people whose knowledge of Aldred stops in 1989. (And which feud, anyway? There were so many of them.)

Structurally, the whole thing holds up like a house of cards. The opening set piece (an attack on an interstellar bullet train that echoes the opening of A New Hope, including a white-gowned Princess Leia) is there purely to introduce a McGuffin and get rid of a companion – Dan, for whom a cracked space helmet is one brush with death too many. And so they drop him on Granger Street, where his house is still missing (anyone who’s actually visited Anfield will understand why this is funny), in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, and it’s back to a life of food banks, doomed romance and abject poverty. His departure is as swift and awkward as we’ve come to expect over this run, and indeed his entire involvement in the story is a cynical piece of audience-baiting, with Bishop’s general absence from the trailer giving rise to the theory that he would be granted an on-screen death that never came.

In the absence of Dan, the old guard steps up – and it’s to Chibnall’s credit that the involvement of Ace and Tegan extends to something more than a token appearance. Fielding fends off an army of Cybermen: on the other side of the world, Aldred dusts off her jacket and hits a Dalek with a baseball bat. Chibnall also elects to bring back Vinder, simply because he can. The final gambit, on a choked and dusty Cyber-planet that resembles an industrial quarry, is a straight lift from series four, with every available character holding down a different lever, but we have just seen Kate Lethbridge-Stewart saved in the nick of time from forced Cyber conversion, so you don’t notice until the dust settles.

In the midst of all this, there’s a plot of sorts, although it is largely an excuse for general silliness. The story revolves around the Master, who has come up with a convoluted scheme involving seismic drilling, reversible tissue compression (yes, honestly) and a series of Photoshopped artworks that serve no purpose except to act as a Tumblr blog in waiting. The central conceit – stolen bodies, extraneous cosplay – is half Face/Off, half ‘Logopolis’; this was almost certainly deliberate, given Fielding’s involvement, and would be outright preposterous were it not for the performance of its central antagonist. Dhawan deviates between calm, hypnotic resonance during the St. Petersburg scenes and a Joker-like mania just about everywhere else – although the episode’s narrative high point sees him cavorting around the winter palace to the melodic strains of Boney M, in a move that will please Fortnite fans everywhere, even if it perplexes everyone else.

Whittaker bows out on a cliff, having seen off the enemy before getting zapped by a planet-shearing laser, carried into the TARDIS by her doe-eyed companion. The scenes with the Doctor and Yaz are as strained as they ever were, and it’s almost a relief when that ice cream is finished – although we do get a beautiful shot of the Earth from space, as the two friends sit on the roof like Wayne and Garth. And then it’s a flash and a bang (Whittaker’s final words are, pleasingly, a reference to a playground game, emphasising that above all else this is a show for children) and in comes David Tennant, in a scene that everyone saw coming – everyone except my thirteen-year-old, whose eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.

Cue the unanswered questions. Why did the Master go to the trouble of butchering all that art when he could have made a simple phone call? Why would you ship a planet-powering energy source on a high speed train with minimal security? Does the fob watch still lurk at the bottom of the TARDIS? Why does Tennant have a five o’clock shadow? And just why is it called ‘The Power of the Doctor’, anyway?

But then Chibnall never was the show’s greatest writer. Not for him the subtlety of Moffat’s arc twists, or the urban kitchen sink drama that Davies made his own. His dialogue is still clunky, characters still lecture, characterisation is still inconsistent (the scene where Yaz is told to train a gun on the Master is bound to ruffle feathers) and it still feels like Whittaker – doing the best she can – has saved the world more by accident than by design, as if the Doctor is allowing things to happen. But against all odds, and after a rollercoaster couple of years, it was an exciting and fitting send-off for both of them. And for all its structural inadequacies, cringeworthy exchanges and narrative cu-de-sacs, I was left with a warm, fuzzy feeling, a glow that lasted the evening and is still lingering now, like the vestigial reserves of regeneration energy. I honestly can’t remember the last time I got that from Doctor Who.

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Recollections on Mothering Sunday

Normally, about this time of year, I’m prepping the memes. Here at brianofmorbius we tend to favour the inappropriate: the worst possible choice for an image, amplifying the humour. The image of Bonnie Langford in Paradise Towers when they’ve announced the opening of leisure facilities. David Tennant surrounded by the ashes of an disintegrated spacecraft. With a click, the mouse scrubs back and forth along the video timeline, looking for that perfect frame. I get a few giggles. Job done.

This year I really don’t feel like doing that. Maybe it’s Covid. Maybe it’s a heightened sensitivity built around things that are happening in my life that I am electing not to broadcast. Or maybe I’m just tired of the drama. I see a lot of opinions on the web but not a lot of kindness. Being kind is not always the same as being nice; it’s important to make the distinction. The Doctor was usually kind but he also shouted at people when they deserved it. There is a marked difference between respecting the person’s right to a view and allowing rampant negativity to flourish. ‘Be kind’ does not mean ‘keep silent when an opinion is full of horseshit’. The Doctor wouldn’t, and if we must employ him as a role model (and generally I don’t), then that’s probably the best way of going about it.

But there is a thing about Doctor Who that has come to my notice this year, and it is this: for all its failings (and they are many, and frequent and not everything is because of Chibnall) it does a good job of giving the companions a backstory. The backstories are not always good, or even plausible, but they are there. They are there in a way that they generally weren’t during the sixties and seventies, where character histories were relegated to three or four lines of dialogue: Tegan’s aversion to ice cream; Jo’s failed science GCE. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most of us never had any expectation that Doctor Who should be grounded in reality; it’s a TV programme about a quasi-immortal shapeshifting alien with a magic box that travels in time and space. What do we care for the home lives of supporting characters? Give us an alien and a couple of explosions; that’ll do.

We started to care, I think, in the late 1980s, when Ace’s backstory became not just a tangible thing but a story arc. The other evening Emily and I were discussing Anne Reid, who’d popped up in a film we were watching. Emily pointed out – and I’d forgotten – that she appears in ‘The Curse of Fenric’. It is a wonderful story, perhaps the best of the McCoy era, but the overriding memory that I have of it consists of two things: the haemovores rising from the ocean, and Ace shouting at the Doctor. It was an archetype for everything that followed, just as Ace was the archetype for Rose and many subsequent companions who drew their shape from a similar gene pool. Here was a story in which family was not only acknowledged but pushed front and centre, at least for a few minutes.

And it strikes me now that family in Doctor Who is all too often dysfunctional. It has to be, because Doctor Who is about escape: the crew in Voyager were simply trying to get home; the TARDIS crew are generally trying to avoid it. The Doctor becomes a surrogate family man – a father, sister, older brother, love interest – to whomever is holed up in the bunk beds. That sort of relationship comes at a price, and the price is usually the relationship with one’s own family. It is a price worth paying in triplicate when that relationship is difficult or even non-existent.

There is a recurring trend on the Facebook groups: that single sentence. “If the TARDIS landed in your garden”, it says, “would you go?”. I never reply, simply because I would not, and it is both tedious and time-consuming to have to explain why. I wonder about the people (and they are many) who say they would jump at the chance. I wonder whether they are in denial, or haven’t thought through the possible consequences. Both are likely scenarios. And the whole thing is just a bit of fun and we must not take it seriously. But I also wonder whether there are people reading this posts whose own lives are so genuinely miserable that perhaps the TARDIS is a form of escape for them. There are people like this and I know there are people like this because I have spoken to them.

And how, I wonder, do these people react when they are presented with the dysfunctional families we see on screen? What do they make of feuding parents, of grief unspoken, of abuse and loss and pain? How do they react to companions who carry baggage like this through the TARDIS doors? How close to the knuckle do the stories cut?

And then I think about these parents and children. I think about Donna, saddled with a mother who could convey nothing but bitterness and disappointment. I think about Francine Jones, who made poor (if well-intentioned) choices and whose salvation lay in her daughter’s unconditional forgiveness. I think of Bill, whose relationship with her stepmother was toxic, and Clara, who – in addition to grieving her own mother – had to watch her father enter a relationship with a narcissistic sociopath. I even think of Ada Gillyflower, maimed and broken by her mother in a calamitous arrangement that foreshadowed what we learned about the Doctor in ‘The Timeless Children’.

I think of Amy, whose mother was quite literally ripped from existence, where even the memory of her was gone. What must that have been like? What sort of hole does it leave; how does it settle in the heart? And to then carry a pregnancy to term without having the first idea, no bonding and no reflecting and no preparing, only to have your child taken as if by an indifferent Catholic nun – and then to raise it again, unknowingly, in the most unorthodox of ways. “What you do,” says Rory, “isn’t all there is,” and how well we knew that by the end.

And I think of Sarah Jane, who found solace in motherhood without sacrificing her career, and Rose, whose mother – and I’ll admit I’ve sometimes being quite rude about her – was protective and honest and compassionate. And of the supporting players, the bit parts that resonate. Nancy, who saved the world by restructuring her relationship with her son. Willa Twist, determined to live out her mother’s legacy.

And I remember my own mother, and how complicated that relationship was, particularly in her last years. How a wave of maternal pride could be undone by a single barbed comment. The grudges she held and the prejudice she harboured. The difficulty of balancing my relationship with her against the one we have with my in-laws, avoiding blame, the endless juggling of calendars. Learning not to talk, under any circumstances, about Brexit. And how we skated around the edge of a lot of things we didn’t say and now never can.

And I loved her, but. There is always a but, and most days it doesn’t matter – most days you can archive it, remembering the good times. And there were many of those, and the constant edginess I felt in her presence became something I lived with, and I know that there are others who have had things much worse, and some of them are very close to me, and that is as much as I’m going to divulge on the subject. But if you are hurting today, and particularly if your pain is raw, then I think of you. Because everyone deserves love, even the worst of us. May you find yours, whatever form it takes.

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Papa Louie Pals Presents: The Companions (Part 2)

Ah, Papa Louie Pals. How do I love thee, and thy sandbox of delights? Let me count the ways. There are twenty-eight of them in this particular edition, mostly taking the form of Classic (pre-2005) companions. The list is extensive but not necessarily exhaustive (Grace, for example, isn’t featured, but I may save her for an odds and ends feature somewhere down the line). Some of these are better than others; a few of them are so generic they could probably be anyone, but if I tell you who they’re supposed to be, and if you squint, then perhaps you might just about manage to make out the superficial resemblances. Others will be fairly obvious from the get-go. None of them is perfect, but some are quite good. And, of course, if you missed the first part of the companion run, or even the Doctors I did a couple of years back, you’re welcome to go and check out both.

Right! Onwards. First, here are two that didn’t make the cut from the previous batch – Doctor Ruth, as I like to call her, and Sacha Dhawan’s Master. One of them looks just a little happier.


In keeping with the ‘newer characters I haven’t done before now’ theme, here’s Wilf. He’s standing next to Susan, who is wearing her classic stripy ensemble, as seen in ‘An Unearthly Child’ (that’s the final broadcast edition, as opposed to the pilot). Fun fact: she also wore stripes in her final story, when her grandfather threatened to smack her on the arse before abandoning her in a toxic wasteland with a man she scarcely knew.


Ian and Barbara next. Barbara’s hair is, I think, not quite right. But Ian’s quiff is right on the money, and the outfits are a reasonable match.


Here’s Victoria Waterfield, in a crudely rendered edition of the explorer’s outfit she wore while hiking around Wales the Himalayas in ‘The Abominable Snowmen’. She’s accompanied by Steven Taylor, who looks like he’s off to a Where’s Wally? convention.


Vicki and Katarina. For some reason I really struggled with these two. They’re both so…I don’t know, nondescript when it comes to outfit choices. I’m still not convinced I really nailed it. (Katarina’s dress is purple because I found an interesting piece of fan art where she was wearing purple, and besides, it’s my wife’s favourite colour…)


Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart. That moustache is a little too Air Force for my liking, and the hat is completely wrong, but at least it’s military. For Peri, I went with the pink outfit she wore in ‘Attack of the Cybermen’.


Dodo and Zoe. Dodo’s singlet is so near, and yet so far – what I’d have given for one with a donut! – but other than that it’s a reasonable likeness. Zoe is wearing the silver jumpsuit she wore when splayed over the TARDIS in ‘The Mind Robber’, where the camera lingers over her buttocks for far longer than is necessary. That may be why I picked it.


You couldn’t not put these two together, could you? I wanted a sailor outfit for Ben, but they didn’t have one. As a result he’s a bit nondescript – but stick him next to Polly, and they’re peas and carrots.


You’re spoilt for choice with Jo Grant – so many cracking outfits! – but in the end I plumped for the cowgirl ensemble she wore in ‘Day of the Daleks’, although mercifully you are unable to see up her skirt. I feel like Sarah Jane rather drew the short straw – she was the epitome of working chic for most of her run, right until that last story. But honestly, how could you not use it?!?


It’s a kilt, not a skirt, and I think I got the colours more or less right. Jamie is joined by Liz, who is in her Silurian outfit, and probably just about to run across a weir.


This was an easy one. All you need is the hair and it’s instantly Bonnie Langford, even without the deckchair polo shirt. Next to that, Ace looks positively Goth-like.


Tegan’s top is a little more strappy and a little less abstract than I’d have liked, but it’s a reasonable approximation and it does at least have that 1980s vibe about it. Inevitably, Turlough looks miserable. Well you would too if you went travelling in space and the only clothing you brought was your school uniform.


Both Romanas. Mary Tamm is a little..what’s the word…dull, and I’d have liked to do that rather splendid mauve thing she wore in ‘The Androids of Tara’, but there was nothing that matched, so the white gown won the day. Her later counterpart is dressed for running from Daleks.


Last but not least: Nyssa, wearing something that looks a little bit like a New Romantic cosplay on her ‘Keeper of Traken’ outfit. She’s in the company of Adric, who even has his badge for mathematical excellence, even if it has been placed rather awkwardly around his neck like an Olympic medal. He’s still a dick, anyway.

And that’s your lot. I’d love to do a monsters edition, but I don’t think they do sink plungers…

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