He’s back and at Sunday tea time. After a twenty-month hiatus the Eighth Doctor and Lucie return to BBC Radio 7 in a blizzard of publicity, with the already infamous Radio Times cover, previews in all of the major newspapers, those fantastic billboard ads in which it looked like the TARDIS was coming out at you, radio and cinema advertising, the red tops filled with spoilers, and a week of interviews on BBC Breakfast, not to mention the press launch with Paul, Sheriden and Briggsy on top form and the leaked camera phone footage on You Tube of Who’s glitterati sitting in Abbey Road Studios listening to tonight’s episode Dead London.
Well, alright, not really, but given that this is a new series of Doctor Who, you’d think at least the Radio Times could have managed a preview on the day page. Instead it’s Robinson Crusoe and Desert Island Discs (do you see what they did there) and unless you happened to glance across to the actual channel listing or picked up last Week’s Doctor Who Adventures or this month’s Doctor Who Magazine you’d have no idea this was even happening (troublingly said listing says that this is the first of six even though there are eight in the series but we’ll cross that bridge etc).
Perhaps these episodes, because they’re not really new, having been released on cd by Big Finish itself in the first half of this year. I’ve been through what seems like an eight month long Whovian version of The Likely Lads episode in which Terry and Bob tried to avoid the football scores, glancing away from the synopsis of each cd release, reading around the reviews in the party newsletter. It makes understandable business sense for the company to keep them back like this (they must have lost some sales last year when it was the other way around), but when a near agnostic like me is thinking about not just hiding in a church but joining a monastery something’s gone a bit shock-eyed.
I’ve been through what seems like an eight month long Whovian version of The Likely Lads episode in which Terry and Bob tried to avoid the football scores
Either way, Dead London’s an odd story to begin what’s supposed to be a series with. Unlike last year’s Blood of the Daleks it lacks the in-built dramatic hook of a new companion and ongoing adventures afoot, preferring instead to provide a perfectly serviceable romp of the kind which wouldn’t look out of place in one of those anthology annuals put out by Marvel in the 90s. As fans we’re used to sampling the franchise like a wine festival (or in my case and ice cream parlour) sampling the various flavours with some appreciation of the vintage (or dairy). But you have to wonder what a casual would have thought of this, so unlike the new television series as to seem like a completely different series.
Writer Pat Mills central idea is a good one (which is probably why it was already used somewhat in The War Games and that Virgin Missing Adventure Managra), even if it wasn’t quite employed to its fullest potential. Splitting London into various time zones and then making the inhabitants somewhat aware of the mingling could have made for some interesting contrasts, the different characters swapping notes on how they survive as the walls come tumbling down. Despite all the mention of place names and odd bits of trivia, with so much going on, neither of the supporting characters gives much of an indication of what it is like to live there. That could be as a result of the slender running time and also because, barr some atmospheric sound design, this doesn’t ever stop sounding like a ‘play’ unlike some of the more epic episodes from last season.
Mills is more interested in building towards his turning point twist at minute twenty, with initial impression that the Doctor and Lucie were in different eras in our universe quickly being washed away by the appearance of the river. The episode is at its best in the first half, with the business with the Doctor in court and Lucie avoiding a bombing raid, with their respective guides, the spin-off friendly outlaw Spring-Heeled Sophie (played by the best regular companion we never had Clare Buckfield) and Yellow Beryl (the every present Katarina Olsson, who, however flexible and good, must have something on Nick Briggs considering she’s also in every episode this season as well). This romp is built on a number of set pieces, with the chase in the boat and the rather wonderful moment when they realise they’re standing in a wicker man; is this the first time that Eighth has actually used his cravat to save the day?
the every present Katarina Olsson, who, however flexible and good, must have something on Nick Briggs considering she’s in very episode this season as well
Dead London then is still entertaining if undemanding stuff, largely because this marks the return of the lighter Eighth Doctor after last season’s experiment with the ‘cantankerous’ version. Since script editor Alan Barnes (who helped to define what the character is about in the audios and original comic strips) won’t be submitting his version of a year long email conversation with David Darlington any time soon we’ll not know how much of that has to do with his influence, but what is clear is that Paul seemed to relish the return to an Eighth with a ready quip to hand, inquisitive and brave, and fundamentally without a chip on his shoulder about something or other. If he’s just a bit too knowledgeable – he knows instinctively what the box is and what it’s for deadening the mystery, it’s just a change to have the man in full control of his faculties.
It’s also good to see that Lucie might be a companion with more than one series in her. Early days but even though she was fairly well tied into the story arc last season and spends most of this episode talking to herself and describing her surroundings like a talking book version of an Infocom adventure, the clips of future adventures from Beyond The Vortex show promise and it's a contrast to have a northern lass in the TARDIS after decades of RPs and cockerneys. The writers just have to be careful to play to her wisecracking strengths without making a poor-man's Donna Noble; as we hear here she's more adaptable to her surroundings but something like "I wasn't really paying attention" when the Doctor is explaining the plot seems unworthy.
“A man, who metaphorically has the appearance of a reptile, feeds off his environment and people within it”
The play is just not really about anything; drama doesn't always need to be of course, but there's no message, which registers as a disappointment from man whose 2000 AD output was all about messages; there's also nothing here to match the invention of The Iron Legion or anything from Doctor Who Weekly. So unless Mills is dramatising some obscure bit of Freudian arcania (“A man, who metaphorically has the appearance of a reptile, feeds off his environment and people within it”) there’s no big theme to be found here and neither of the main characters learn anything about themselves or their environment. Perhaps we’re (or I'm) spoilt and been conditioned to expect more from the franchise, but with the exception of the Doctor’s conviction that the tightrope walker can do anything she wants now, this is essentially just another story of the timelord trapped in a strange dimension fighting to get to the centre so that he can out wit the enemy.
Where once it was the inaccurately named Master in the Land of Fiction, here we’ve Rupert Vansittart’s asthmatic alien crocodile with a Second Life account using avatars to assert his status on a virtual world. He’s this guy. Which is probably why the play ends on such an anti-climax. Though the main surprise – that it’s all happening inside the lizard’s head -- is startling – the resolution is worthy of a TV21 story. We’ve railed against the use of the sonic screwdriver as a magic do-it-all fix me up before, but this was just shameless and sounded for a moment like one of those false endings that sometimes crop up when the villain seems beaten, but then everything goes to crap anyway. Nope. I actually re-listened to that section again afterwards to check I hadn't lost consciousness and missed a big explosion or dramatic girgle from the vanquished. But still no. The man might as well carry a carpet bag around with him.
But some redemption comes in the closing moments as the time friends re-enter the Tardis and in a quite poetic moment listen to the sounds of this amalgam London as the various time zones bounce against and echo one another, and you finally got a sense of this place as a memento mori of our nation’s capital in times past, an Edward Rutherfurd doorstep novel with all the pages stuck together. Perhaps if there had been more of a sense of that in the rest of the story, if Mills had built on his obviously detailed research into what the various parts of London were like during the various time periods, it might have expanded upon its limits as a romp into something deeper and more affecting.
Next Week: We find out what might have happened if Satellite Five had featured Top Gear ...