Doctor Who Project: The Three Doctors

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Ah, so you’re my replacements. A dandy and a clown.

Certain Doctor Who stories stand out in the series because of their plots, others for their villains or their effects, for good or for ill. Season Ten opener “The Three Doctors” (Story Production Code RRR), by regulars Bob Baker and Dave Martin, remains remarkable due to the casting: all three Doctors to date, in the same place (mostly) at the same time. Beyond the surface conceit, however, “The Three Doctors” also occupies a special place in the series because Baker and Martin deepen the backstory of the Time Lords, giving viewers the clearest insight yet into this heretofore mysterious race of regenerating time travellers. Too, they inadvertently point out that the series requires a single strong lead figure, with companions relegated to an assistant role—too many Doctors spoil the soup.

Attack of the Blob Things

Earth is once more in danger due to the Doctor’s presence on the planet, this time from exceedingly strong cosmic ray bolts that serve as a conduit from a gigantic black hole, depositing bulbous, shambling creatures with a predilection towards explosions, all of which are programmed to seek out the Doctor. The bolts work both ways, and before long several people (not to mention laboratory equipment and, eventually, a chalet) are scooped up and sent into whatever awaits in the middle of the black hole. OK, it’s a quarry at the other end, but it’s an anti-matter quarry sustained by the will of Omega, a revered hero of the Time Lords.

Once the Time Lords uncovered the secret of time travel, they still needed an energy source to power their actual travel through time. Omega, the foremost solar engineer amongst the ancient Time Lords, provided such power but was thought lost in the resulting supernova. Unbeknownst to the Time Lords, however, Omega instead remained trapped beyond the event horizon of a black hole, and through the sheer force of his will, he harnesses the power of the singularity at the heart of the black hole to create a pocket of matter in a sea of anti-matter. And there he has waited, for countless thousands of years, alone, the desire for revenge growing constantly.

Omega, Solar Engineer Extraordinaire

To take his vengeance, Omega begins to drain the power from the Time Lords’ energy source, using the threat of their annihilation (and, coincidentally, that of the universe) as leverage to force the Doctor to take his place. Omega cannot escape unless a sufficiently powerful will remains behind to sustain the conduit. But because the Time Lords, in their desperation, violate the First Law of Time™ and cross the Doctor’s time stream not once, but twice. Omega has three Doctors with whom to contend—as does the Brigadier, who frankly thinks one is enough…

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Found in the TARDIS Closets: Thirteenth Doctor’s Costume Unveiled

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Fresh on the heels of the cast reveal for the Thirteenth Doctor’s inaugural season, the BBC has unveiled her wardrobe as well.

The bright colors and whimsical touches (socks peeking from boots, suspenders, rainbow stripe) signal a pleasant departure from some of the more somber sartorial choices that the new Doctor Who series has delivered. Fezzes might have been cool, but the new look calls to mind for me nothing more than the playfulness seen in the Third through Sixth Doctors’ ensembles: puffy cravats and velour smoking jackets, wild scarves and hats, cricket-wear (with celery!), and whatever it was that Colin Baker wore.

It’s a new look for a new era, and I’m more than pleased that the show runners are embracing change—by going back to the show’s roots. For the first time in years, I’m excited about the series to come.

A Surfeit of Companions? New Doctor Who Cast Announced

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It’s practically a parlor game amongst fans of Doctor Who: what constitutes a companion? By and large, companions are understood to travel extensively with the Doctor. In the “classic” days, the only real argument concerned Sara Kingdom and Katarina, whose single journeys on the TARDIS made them eligible (in some misguided minds) for that elevated status.

The UNIT era introduced the notion of a standing cast of characters who were demonstrably not companions, if only because the Doctor never invited the Brig and Friends into the blue box, and after that, the Doctor’s adventures tended to the stand-alone, with no fixed location to which he frequently returned and thus no real room for a recurring cast outside the companion(s) du jour.

When the series came back in 2005, however, story arcs and recurring characters became the norm; the Ninth Doctor gained not just Rose Tyler but her extended family and friends. Though I’m hesitant to call Mickey a companion— in the classic sense of a person effectively chosen by the Doctor—and even less so Jackie, the new series has stretched the definition of companion such that they probably should be considered as such.

So the BBC’s announcement of the recurring cast for the Thirteenth Doctor’s inaugural season has me wondering: does the Doctor now have three actual “classic” companions, for the first time since the Fifth Doctor, or are we looking at another friends-and-family plan of people who are in the Doctor’s orbit and enter and leave as the needs of the inevitable story arc demand?

Image via BBC America at http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2017/10/meet-the-cast-of-the-all-new-doctor-who-series-coming-to-bbc-america-fall-2018

From left to right: Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh, Jodie Whittaker, Tosin Cole. Image via BBC America.

Details on the roles that Mandip Gill, Bradley Walsh, and Tosin Cole will play are, understandably, under wraps, with the series not resuming until next Fall and much still to be decided on the direction of the storyline. Count me in favor of returning to the old style of companions, though, of people who basically live on the TARDIS full time and come along on the Doctor’s journeys by default rather than being whisked away from their normal lives and returned, after a month of derring-do, a second after they left.

Consider me, indeed, old school in preferring the Stevens and Vickies and Leelas who have nowhere else to go after the Doctor turns their worlds upside down. The contemporary effort of tying the Doctor so tightly to Earth (modern Britain, more precisely), much like the Third Doctor’s exile, certainly makes for more relatable characters and settings. Cybermen and Daleks on the high street are always a bit startling. But it’s past time for the Doctor to get out there again, freed from terra firma, without having to worry about getting a companion home before the kettle boils over.

(Image via BBC America.)

Doctor Who Project: The Time Monster

Doctor Who Project: The Time Monster
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And against what, precisely, am I supposed to be warning the world?

One does not begrudge an artist returning to a favored, familiar theme. So the fact that Robert Sloman’s Season Nine finale, “The Time Monster” (Story Production Code OOO) reads almost identically to his (with Barry Letts) Season Eight finale, “The Daemons,” can be forgiven, if only because of the depth of world-building that occurs in this six part story. We learn much about the Doctor, the TARDIS, and the Doctor’s relationship with the Master, enough so that we can (mostly) overlook our realization that we’ve already seen this story play out.

Come, Chronos, Come!

Where, in “The Daemons,” the Master disguised himself as a vicar in order to use the occult altar beneath the vicarage to summon the Daemon Azal, here he puts on a professor’s tweeds and uses government grants to build a time manipulation device capable of summoning an extra-dimensional being of immense power: Chronos, the Chronovore, a time-eater that lives in the interstices between moments. Instead of Morris dancers and brainwashed villagers, his allies now include a graduate student, a doctoral candidate, and an Atlantean high priest accidentally brought forward almost four thousand years from the past. A step up, all things considered.

Am I getting credits for this?

The story takes a while to get moving. Two episodes are devoted to establishing the Master’s device, the TOMTIT (Transmission of Matter through Interstitial Time), and bringing UNIT, which is inadvertently funding the Master’s research, onto the scene. Many loving close-ups of a teleporting tea saucer fill the opening scenes. Several bureaucrats are given a narrative build-up, only to be dismissed by the Brigadier with no further involvement in the story, and a window washer who looks in on the teleportation events falls from his ladder in shock, his near-death state essentially ignored.

“The Time Monster” shows all the hallmarks of a story stretched from four to six episodes to fill the schedule, and yet the slowness of pacing gets turned on its head in the final two episodes, such that when the Master’s erstwhile (and innocent) assistants try to free the Brigadier and a UNIT platoon from a time bubble and accidentally turn Sergeant Benton into a baby at the end of the fourth episode, this dramatic retrogression isn’t even brought back up until the very end of the last episode. Because the Doctor, Jo, and the Master have a date in Atlantis…

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Doctor Who Project: The Mutants

Doctor Who Project: The Mutants
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I’m not sure I like being described as a malfunction.

Though Doctor Who has always been a product of its times, seldom do contemporary events drive the story quite like in Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Mutants” (Story Production Code NNN). Here, the United Kingdom’s colonial enterprise (or, more accurately, said enterprise’s haphazard and messy unravelling) serves as the plot foundation for this tale of human meddling in cultures and ecosystems they do not understand, mirroring the UK’s real-life disengagement with colonies throughout Africa, Asia and the Pacific. But, as with Baker and Martin’s prior effort, “The Claws of Axos,” a broad commentary on the energy crisis, there’s still quite a bit of room for derring-do beyond the central parable of segregation, colonialism, and the drive for independence.

Two sets of entrances

Once more, the Time Lords send the Doctor on an errand, whisking him and Jo via remote-controlled TARDIS to Skybase, a space station in orbit around the planet Solos operated by the Earth Empire of the 30th century. He is to deliver a biometrically sealed container to someone on the station; awkwardly, it doesn’t come with an address label, leading the Doctor to try to hand it off to various people until it unlocks. With typically impeccable timing, the container whirrs open when presented to Ky, a native of Solos who has been agitating for independence from Earth—and who is running from guards, having just been implicated in the assassination of the Earth Administrator about to grant his wish.

You see, the Marshal, head of security on Skybase, is an old colonial hand facing the loss of his job. “We can’t afford an empire any more,” proclaims the Administrator shortly before his death. After centuries of expansion, the Earth Empire has begun its decline, explicitly linked by the Doctor to the fall of the Roman Empire. Unwilling to give up the only life he knows—and, to a great extent, unquestioningly believing in the superiority of Earth over its colonial subjects—the Marshal orchestrates the Administrator’s murder as a pretext to declare martial law, which will allow him to complete the transformation of Solos’ atmosphere into an Earth-normal state, a process coincidentally fatal to the native humanoid Solonians, who have toiled for five hundred years in the planet’s thesium mines.

The titular mutant

But if that weren’t enough, the Solonians have been turning into “mutts,” the titular mutants. Their skin begins to coarsen into a thick green carapace, and they eventually turn into bipedal insects. The Marshal hunts them down with glee to prevent their “sickness” from spreading, despite the fact that no Earthers are ever affected by whatever is causing the mutations and that the mutants all gather in a single cave on the planet, waiting for something. He sees their otherness as evil, to be destroyed.

Humans are the monsters again in this story; as with many stories in the Third Doctor’s era, the monsters serve as victims, misunderstood at best and exterminated at worst. In “The Mutants,” colonialism and its attendant prejudices drive the oppression against the Solonians in both their humanoid forms and their insectoid forms. It’s up to the Doctor to realize that there’s a third form…

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Doctor Who Project: The Sea Devils

Doctor Who Project: The Sea Devils
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Ships vanishing. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

As nice as it is to see Roger Delgado return as the Master, this renegade Time Lord’s appearance in Malcolm Hulke’s “The Sea Devils” (Story Production Code LLL) adds about as much to the story as the Daleks did for “Day of the Daleks” earlier this season—which is to say, narrative padding at best. But where the Daleks were shoehorned into an otherwise tight four episode story, here the Master occupies prime plot real estate for much of six episodes, leaving the titular aquatic Silurians with little room to hiss their sibilant demands.

The Master and Friends

Hulke’s original foray with his Silurians, in the somewhat unoriginally titled “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” provided ample dimension to the prehistoric rulers of Earth, with clearly defined personalities (and conflicts) within their ranks that drove much of the story. Here, their waterborne cousins have no names and even less nuance, seeming dimwitted and easily manipulated by the Master, as well as in need of a tailor to spruce up those blue net coveralls.

Perhaps it’s better, then, to see this as a Master story that draws upon an established series creature, like “Terror of the Autons,” rather than a story about the Sea Devils, awakened from their eons-long slumber by Royal Navy sonar tests. The incessant need to pair the Master with another monster/alien/villain, though, points out that this rightly beloved character lacks any actual depth beyond a desire to further his pet project, namely the destruction of the Doctor’s favorite planet, Earth. Only once, in “The Mind of Evil,” has the Master actually tried to carry out a plot of world domination and/or destruction without piggybacking on another attempt at the same, and even then he used an alien mental parasite to conduct most of his dirty work. The Master needs monsters like the Doctor needs companions.

Behold the Sea Devil in the Surf

What’s more disappointing, though, is that the initial Silurian story helped define the Third Doctor’s fundamental character arc: the Brigadier’s destruction of the Silurian cave complex devastated the Doctor more than any other event we had, to that point, see him live through, a trauma made all the more compelling by the development of the Silurians as a multifaceted culture. The Third Doctor trusts humans only warily as a result, seeing them as well-armed children, casting him as more alien than the prior two Doctors.

The Silurians/Sea Devils represent an important civilization in the world of Doctor Who. Coming on the heels of Brian Hayles’ volte-face with the Ice Warriors as diplomats in “The Curse of Peladon,” the Sea Devils’ downgrade to one-dimensional bit players becomes even harder to take. But, on the plus side, we do learn that Jo knows how to pilot a hovercraft…

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Thirteenth Doctor Announced: Jodie Whittaker Takes the TARDIS Key

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The BBC announced the identity of the Thirteenth Doctor today, unveiling English actor Jodie Whittaker as the latest regeneration of our favorite time traveller.

Jodie Whittaker is the Thirteenth Doctor; screencap via http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p058vj2q

As the first woman to inhabit the title role in Doctor Who, Whittaker will undoubtedly come in for much scrutiny, but such retrograde hemming and hawing is par for the well-travelled course. Every change of actor has come with doomsayers, and yet these changes are at the heart(s) of the show.

The Doctor’s only real constant should be an old soul; all else remains quite mutable. Sometimes lost in discourses about the Doctor’s identity is the simple fact of his/her alienness. The Doctor is not human, not familiar, not normal, and every change of actor in the role should cause a bit of discomfort when compared to the prior actors. Certainly moving from an irascible male Scottish actor with significant eyebrows to a female English actor with blond hair provides that vital hint of dissonance that makes the show work.

I’m looking forward to seeing how Whittaker performs in the role, and I hope that the scripts for the forthcoming season treat the transformation with wit and verve and use the enormity of the change to drive the series forward.

(Image via BBC.)