Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Time Of The Doctor: Time Changes Everything

'And now it's time for one last bow, like all your other selves. Eleven's hour is over now, the clock is striking twelves.'
In the summer of 1966, as illness (and a variety of other problems, at least some of which may have related to what a cantankerous old man he'd become) began to affect Doctor Who's original lead actor, William Hartnell, something needed to be done. The popular long-running family SF drama's creator, the BBC's Head of Drama Sydney Newman, and its then producer, Innes Lloyd came up with one of television's most brilliantly innovative conceits to create a situation in which they could carry on the programme without Hartnell. Because, as someone very wise would note many years later 'everything has to end sometime otherwise nothing would get started.' It was called 'regeneration' and was a truly inspired way of refreshing the show by making a casting change which didn't defy logic or depend on far-fetched plotlines involving plastic surgery or previously unmentioned long-lost brothers. That they picked an actor who wasn't at all like Hartnell - either in appearance or, indeed, in the way he would subsequently attack the role - was a further piece of quiet genius. In November 1966, Patrick Troughton became The Doctor. In his first episode, The Power Of The Daleks, he alludes to the fact that The Doctor's race of people - at that stage, still three years away from actually having an identifier - have the ability to 'renew' themselves: 'I've been renewed. It's part of the TARDIS. Without it, I couldn't survive.' Though he speaks about himself (or, rather, his predecessor) in the third person ('The Doctor was a great collector, wasn't he?') there is soon no doubt that he is the same person, or, at a push, a different facet of the same person, only with a different face. Life depends on change and renewal, he notes to his young companions, Ben and Polly. 'I'd like to see a butterfly fit into a chrysalis case after it has spread its wings.'
'Is that a new body?' 'This old thing? I've been rocking it for centuries.' In 1976, the - by now massively popular - long-running family SF drama's script editor, Robert Holmes, wrote a four-part story for the then-current Doctor, Tom Baker, called The Deadly Assassin. What's often forgotten these days, when the story - Holmes's cunning homage to the movie The Manchurian Candidate - is regarded as one of the genuine cornerstones of the programme's history is that, at the time, it wasn't very popular with a large chunk of Doctor Who fandom. Many thought it rather ripped-up previously established continuity and, famously, it came bottom of that year's Doctor Who Appreciation Society poll for favourite stories of that series. Time, nevertheless, has been kind to The Deadly Assassin and it's now widely considered to be one of the most important stories in the show's canon. But, aside from putting much flesh on the bones about what we knew about the central character - and his people - in one, rather throwaway, line Bob Holmes saddled successive Doctor Who production teams thereafter with something that they would always need to have in the back of their mind from that day to this. 'After the twelfth regeneration, there is no plan that will postpone death.' In other words, a Time Lord can regenerate twelve times - have thirteen bodies - and then, he's done. (Of course, The Master overcame this annoying little hurdle ages ago. So, you know, it's not that set in stone.) Although a story a year earlier - The Brain Of Morbius - has appeared to suggest that The Doctor may have already had more than three previous lives before Baker's Doctor, it was eventually established once and for all, that Hartnell's Doctor was, indeed, the first - 'the original'. And that, therefore, the issue of the end of The Doctor's thirteenth life would have to be faced one day. Some fans even seemed to have a wonderfully quaint belief that, because of a one-liner in an episode thirty odd years ago, the BBC were contractually obligated to bring Doctor Who to an end as soon as the actor playing the thirteenth Doctor announced he had decided to leave no matter how popular or lucrative it was at that time. It became a bit of a running joke around fandom for a long time that when the day eventually came a conversation would have to take place between the show's then producer and his boss at the BBC about this tricky issue. In 2008, this blogger, for instance wrote the following potential scenario: 'I think the new series is going very well, Paul. Ratings are up, AIs are good and the reviews have been very positive. But, you seem troubled, though. For why?' 'Well, there's a slight problemette.' 'How so?' 'I don't quite know how to tell you this but ... Jimmy's decided he wants to leave at the end of this series.' 'Pity. Still, we can always recast, it's been done before. Maybe next time we'll get someone with an accent people that can actually understand.' 'Well, see, that's the problem. Back in 1976, a guy called Bob Holmes wrote a Doctor Who story called The Deadly Assassin.' 'Was it any good?' 'Tremendous. We've ripped-it-off a couple of times ourselves. Although, actually it was a rip off of The Manchurian Candidate in the first place ...' 'So, what's the problem?' 'The Deadly Assassin established that Time Lords only have twelve regenerations, a total of thirteen lives. After that, kaput. No more.' 'Oh.' 'It's a bugger, innit?' 'No way around it?' ''fraid not.' 'Could we...?' 'No chance. The fans wouldn't let us. It's established Doctor Who lore. I mean, you remember what happened that time we tried to make The Master a woman?' 'Hell, yeah. My teeth fillings are still humming from when I heard that charity record they made. "The Master is a bloke/This is no joke." So that's it then?' 'Yeah, seems so. Shall I start laying off the staff after lunch?'
Of course, the so-called 'thirteen regenerations thing' has been addressed on a couple of occasions, notably in the case of The Master who, in The Deadly Assassin, was portrayed as a horribly scarred, skeletal figure at the very end of his thirteenth regeneration, clinging to life by his fingertips. In a subsequent story, The Keeper Of Traken, The Master 'steals' (in a way never fully explained) the body of Nyssa's father, Tremas, and thus lives on for another few years in the over-the-top guise of the late Anthony Ainley - and his 'rubbish beard.' He was given hope in the 1983 twentieth anniversary episode The Five Doctors when the High Council of Gallifrey, specifically Borusa, offer him, in exchange for helping them recover The Doctor from The Death Zone and The Game Of Rassilon, 'a completely new regeneration cycle.' Quite how the Time Lords are able to do this is never, likewise, made clear (and, presumably, it's not easy otherwise they'd be doing it all the time) but, although The Master was not entirely successful in what he'd been sent to do, it all seemed to work out fine in the end and, seemingly, he was given what he'd been offered. After a few more appearances with Ainley in the role opposite Peter Davison, The Crap One and Sylvester McCoy, The Master has been seen subsequently in at least four further bodies. He appeared as the main antagonist of the 1996 Doctor Who television movie opposite Paul McGann's Doctor. In the prologue, The Master (portrayed by the Canadian actor Gordon Tipple) was executed by The Daleks as a punishment for his 'evil crimes.' And, by Hell, you have to reckon they must have been really effing evil if The Daleks consider them so. Of course, he managed to survive his execution by taking on the form of a snake-like entity which slithered inside The Doctor's TARDIS console, forcing the vessel to crash land in San Francisco and stealing another body, this time an ambulance driver played by a plank of wood in the shape of Eric Roberts. Since then, he's been seen again on several occasions portrayed - briefly - by Derek Jacobi and, then, by the excellent John Simm.
All of this shouldn't really be concerning us just yet, it has to be noted. The current Doctor, yer actual Matt Smith is, after all, merely the eleventh Doctor. Everybody knows that. At least, they did until the recent fiftieth anniversary episode, The Day Of The Doctor, when we all learned how to count again. Now, apparently, it goes something like this: 'One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, war, nine, ten, ten, eleven-which-is-really-thirteen.' Mark yer actual Keith Telly Topping's words, dear blog reader, they'll be teaching that in primary schools very soon. So, in other words, the addition of John Hurt's previously unseen 'War Doctor' sandwiched between Paul McGann and Christopher Eccleston, and the fact that David Tennant's Doctor had to use one of his regenerations up to save himself from a Dalek blast in Journey's End has, of a sudden, given us all a real, twenty four carat 'everything you know is wrong' conundrum to play with. What this has meant, of course, is that earlier this year when Matt Smith announced his decision to leave Doctor Who this gave The Lord Thy God Steven Moffat the opportunity to tackle the knotty issue of 'thirteen lives only thing' sooner rather than later. The fact that Peter Capaldi was cast in the role of 'the twelfth Doctor' in a blaze of publicity in August merely deflates the tension and reveals what we'd all suspected since Co-Ordinator Engin first mentioned the regeneration limit in The Deadly Assassin. That rules are there to be broken. Always.
'You will die in silence, Doctor.' The Time Of The Doctor is the third part in an extremely loose trilogy of episodes, following The Name Of The Doctor and The Day Of The Doctor, which together serve as Matt Smith's swan song from the role. The episode addresses numerous plot threads developed over the course of Smudger's tenure, including the prophecy of The Silence and The Doctor's ultimate fate on the planet Trenzalore. The Time Of The Doctor is also, by a coincidence, the eight hundredth individual episode of Doctor Who to be broadcast since it began, in 1963. As well as the ninth Christmas special since the show's 2005 revival. A synopsis released on the BBC website read: 'Orbiting a quiet backwater planet, the massed forces of the universe's deadliest species gather, drawn to a mysterious message that echoes out to the stars. Among them, The Doctor. Rescuing Clara from a family Christmas dinner, the Time Lord and his companion must learn what this enigmatic signal means for his own fate and that of the universe.' Which, as usual, didn't tell us anything that we didn't already know, or suspect (or, had heard rumoured on The Interweb). As revealed in the first trailer, Tasha Lem, someone from The Doctor's past, proclaims 'The Siege of Trenzalore is now begun!' This, of course, as you all know, refers to the prophecy, spoken by Dorium Maldovar in The Wedding Of River Song, that 'On the fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of The Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a Question will be asked, a question that must never, ever be answered. The First Question, the oldest question in the Universe, hidden in plain sight. Doctor who?'
'Everything ends, Clara. And, sooner than you think.' Matt Smith said that filming would commence on the episode when he had finished work on the movie How To Catch A Monster which he spent the summer of 2013 filming in the US. The read-through from the Christmas special took place on 4 September 2013 shortly after he had returned to Britain following shooting. In August, Moffat (Thou Shalt Worship No Other Gods Before He) stated in an interview that the Christmas episode would tie together the remaining story strands from Smudger's era, some of which were introduced as far back as The Eleventh Hour, his first episode in 2010. Production on The Time Of The Doctor was scheduled to start on 8 September. Owing to his work on How To Catch A Monster, which required him to sport an alarmingly severe skinheed crop of his barnet which made him look like a member of some early-80s Oi! band, Smudger had to wear a syrup to mimic The Doctor's usual hairstyle. In August, it was revealed that The Cybermen would feature in the Christmas episode, when one of the show's regular stunt artists - rather plankishly - tweeted that they would be playing one of the cyborgs in the episode. This marks it the second time that The Cybermen have appeared in a regeneration story, following The Tenth Planet in 1966. Soon after it was revealed that The Daleks (of course), The Silence and The Weeping Angels would also appear. On 1 June, the BBC announced that Smudger would be departing the series after almost four years. The announcement sparked spectacularly frenzied media and fan speculation as to whom the next Doctor might be - most of it ill-informed and rather hysterical (in every sense of the word). Seriously, dear blog reader, if you missed it, it was quite a sight. It was announced on 4 August 2013, during Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor that the next regeneration of The Doctor would be played by fifty five year old Peter Capaldi. Although it was originally announced that Peter would make his debut as the new Doctor at some point during the Christmas special, he actually made a - fleeting - cameo appearance in The Day Of The Doctor in November. Filming for The Name Of The Doctor began on 8 September 2013. Two days later, yer actual Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman her very self were seen filming in Cardiff. The location used was Lydstep Flats, which have been previously seen in series one and two as the Powell Estate where Rose Tyler lived. On 19 September 2013, scenes were being filmed in the evening at Puzzlewood with much fake snow (because, hey, it always snows at Christmas in Doctor Who). On 5 October 2013, producer Marcus Wilson revealed via Twitter that filming had been completed.
As a regeneration story, The Time Of The Doctor ticked pretty much all of the boxes that it needed to. It had continuity. Necessary continuity. Jesus, did it have continuity? Let's see - the first reference to the Slitheen since The Runaway Bride and first to The Terileptils since, what, The Awakening thirty years ago? There was also The Five Doctors (the Seal of Rassilon which The Doctor 'nicked off The Master in The Death Zone'), The War Machines ('The Doctor is required'), The Sea Devils ('I've revered the polarity'), The Christmas Invasion ('this planet is protected'), Utopia (Clara, like Cap'n Jack, surviving by clinging to the side of the TARDIS through the vortex), Blink ('don't even blink!') and The Stolen Earth/Journey's End meta-regeneration crisis ('I had vanity issues at the time!') And, as for the current Doctor's era, how long have you got? Loose ends from The Eleventh Hour - many of them - were all tied up; an explanation for the cracks in the universe (and, a bloody good one, at that!), 'silence will fall', fish fingers and custard, the (symbolic and literal) discarding of the bow tie, little Amelia as 'the first face this face saw' and the vision of Amy being just about the last thing he sees. Then, there was a flashback to Flesh and StoneThe Hungry Earth and The Big Bang ('so that's who blew up my TARDIS. I thought I'd left that bath running!', the apocalyptic events of June 2010, plus 'no one wants to go first!'), Asylum Of The Daleks (the Dalek slaves), A Good Man Goes To War and the entire 'Kavorian Chapter' story-arc, The God Complex (so, now we know what The Doctor saw in his hotel room), A Town Called Mercy ('Christmas has a new sheriff'), The Snowmen (the Punch and Judy sequence), The Wedding Of River Song ('Doctor who?' of course but, also, one of the best lines of the episode: 'They engineered a psychopath to kill you.' 'Totally married her!'), The Name Of The Doctor ('we saw this planet in the future, remember. All those graves. One of them, mine') and The Day Of The Doctor (the Time War, 'are we forgetting Captain Grumpy?' and the fate of Gallifrey). There were loads of cool bits: the wooden Cyberman; Clara 'accidentally' inventing a boyfriend; 'I'm cooking Christmas dinner.' 'I'm being shot at by Cybermen.' 'Can't we do both?'; the series first direct reference - I think - to BBC iPlayer; 'Confess!'; the utterly terrifying Weeping Angels sequence in the forest; the beautiful 'Dawn over Christmas' scene between Smudger and Jenna; a touch of hardcore nudity and an unwelcome spot of Kojak-style slapheed baldness (the things that poor auld Smudger does for his art). Who loves ya, baby?
There was also a repeat of Matt's properly tragic dancing previously seen at Amy and Rory's wedding, 'shhh, they'll all want one!', 'nothing does turkey!', a gloriously dismissive 'the trouble with Daleks is they take so long to say anything. I'll probably die of boredom before they shoot me!' and the entire 'gone in a moment, like breath on a mirror' speech - '... and I always will be ... But times change and so must I ... I will not forget one line of this, not one day, I swear.  I will always remember when The Doctor was me.' Many of us won't forget it, or you, either, Matt. This blogger loved Handles. He loved the bit where The Doctor smacked Clara's bum (hell, I'm a man of remarkably simple tastes, I've never denied it). He loved 'boss of the psycho-space-nun? So you!' He loved: 'Is that what happened to your eyebrows?' 'No, they're just delicate!' He loved the fact that the 'truth shield' around Christmas fulfilled an important part of the Trenzalore prophecy ('when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked'). He loved 'Speak your name, and the world will burn', the comedy Sontaran sequence and 'there will be an unscheduled faith-change.' He loved: '... Next!' And, he loved: 'I've got new kidneys. I don't like the colour!'
Once again, The Lord Thy God The Moffinator came up with the good in terms of dialogue. There was the funny stuff: 'Every ship I go on, they shoot at me!' And: 'I'm OCD, what's their excuse.' And: Sorry, he's Swedish!' And: 'You can't go to church with your clothes on!' And: 'Your ears are like rocket fins!' There was the dramatic: 'You've been trying to kill me for centuries and here I am, dying of old age. If you want something doing, do it yourself!' And: 'Sweet little town, covered in snow, half the universe in terror. Why?' And: 'Hell. All Hell. That's what happens if the Time Lords come back.' And: 'The Destiny Trip; you can't change history if you're part of it.' And: 'I died in this room screaming your name.' And: 'I'm not afraid. I leave that to you.' There was also the touching: 'My Doctor. Fixing toys and fighting monsters.' And: 'After all these years I've finally found somewhere that wants me to stick around.' And: 'Everything ends.' 'Except you.' And: 'One last victory, allow me that. Give me that, my impossible girl.' And: 'If you love him - and you should - help him.' There was even time for a moment of - hilarious - religious debate: 'Never trust a nun to do a Doctor's work!' And:' Welcome to The Church Of The Papal Mainframe. Your nudity is appreciated.'
The Time Of The Doctor was, therefore, a fitting end to Matt Smith's fine four years in the role. In places it was achingly sad (I mean, proper, 'end of episode four of Logopolis-sad'), in others furiously manic and packed with action sequences and lots of running around and shouting. An era in microcosm, in fact. Matt was, as he has been since his first deliciously over-the-top appearance at the climax of The End Of Time on New Year's Day 2010, brilliant. Honest to God, twenty four carat, he's a star, brilliant. The plot was complex - which is not a fault, not matter what any waste-of-space flaccid and limp chebends with shat for brains will whinge at you to the contrary - but, ultimately, beautifully simple doing the job it set out to do with a smart criteria; specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. And even the, quite literal and deliberate, deus ex machina ending worked really well in taking both the episode and, indeed, the series forward. Some stuff was less successful - this blogger could've probably done without quite so much of Clara's Christmas Day domestics (although the scene with her Grandmother was touchingly realised). But that's a minor issue compared to the big picture. As Dalek author Rob Shearman noted: 'The most fairy tale Doctor of all plays out his lifetime in a touching Christmas fable - the man who had thought he'd committed genocide spends hundreds of years ageing to death making toys and protecting innocents to stop a war.' What he said. 'I haven't got a plan but people love it when I say that!'
So, there we have it. The Time Of The Doctor was about time. About the passage of time leaving empty lives waiting to be filled. It was about change. About hope and faith and redemption. It was about all of the things that Doctor Who is usually about. Plus, it was about sorting out a throwaway line in an episode thirty odd years ago that, thanks to this episode is now, no longer 'a thing' - at least, not for another thirty odd years, hopefully. 'Never, ever, tell me the rules,' The Doctor notes and, in one subsequent line, just before he changes for the thirteenth time (ish), we have a confirmation of something many of us have waited for ever since that throwaway line back in 1976. 'A whole new regeneration cycle.' There you go. Sorted. Easy. That's another many years worth of adventures for the BBC, should they want them, before that issue ever has to rearits ugly mush again. Well done, Steven for getting it out of the way with such a minimum of fuss. Game over. Let's start a new one.
And, indeed, we already have. With another Scotsman in the TARDIS, with mad, crazy eyes asking Clara, in a post-regeneration spurt of lucid clarity amid the madness 'one question: do you happen to know how to fly this thing?' Thanks Matt, thanks for everything. You were great. And hi to Peter, who is now getting to do the job he's wanted to since he was nought but a wee lad. Ultimately, therefore, as with all regeneration stories in Doctor Who, there are only two things left to say after The Time Of The Doctor. Goodbye. And hello.
So, anyway, from that, to this.
I love the round things.

Next ...
A mini-episode of yer actual Sherlock has been released by the BBC ahead of the show's return on New Year's Day. The seven-minute episode - titled Many Happy Returns - serves as an, if you will, prequel to the upcoming series. The episode's synopsis reveals: 'Sherlock Holmes has been gone for two years. But someone isn't quite convinced that he's dead ...' Written by yer actual Mark Gatiss and and The Lord Thy God Steven Moffat, it stars yer actual Benny Cumberbatch, Marty Freeman his very self, Rupert Graves and Jonathan Aris. And, it's a good a Christmas present as anyone could wish for.

2 comments:

Maurice19 said...

Good on yer for your positive (and correct) points. I've just been reading some screeching rubbish elsewhere. (I would reference it but I cannot be bothered.) The main aim seems to be clickbait.. ie. slag off extra hard with no reason just to get eyeballs... I'm just off to watch ep800 for the 3rd time today..... :-)

John said...

All well said as usual sir. a fountain of great factoids.