SJA: Death of the Doctor
Review by Neil Perryman
Watching Death of the Doctor was bloody hard work, mainly because I had to spend large portions of it shovelling backstory to my long-suffering wife. This was entirely my own fault: I couldn't stop laughing out loud whenever RTD lobbed another continuity hand grenade and I may have missed some of the more contentious revelations as a result; I was probably trying to explain to her why I thought the reference to "Dorothy Whatshername" was side-splittingly hilarious when they were clarifying whether Dodo had died of syphilis or not.
But this wasn't just fanwank. Oh no. This was full-on fansex. With tongues and everything.
Full-on fansex. With tongues and everything
Just like an old lover who's come back for one last shag, this was pretty much what I was expecting from Russell's return to the franchise: an assured and confident performance, with just a hint of extra effort to remind you of exactly what you're missing, coupled with a cockiness that occasionally bordered on the shocking. There were even moments where it felt genuinely profound and moving.
Russell's foreplay and subsequent pillow-talk certainly felt reassuringly familiar: giant talking animals for the villains; an oblique reference to the Time War; a base that's been designed by Gerry Anderson; a plot that doesn't hold any water and a throwaway reference to the Axons. The only thing missing was the kissing.
What we got instead was an extended love letter to the past with the glorious return of Jo Jones (née Grant). And wasn't it just wonderful?
I admit that I was initially sceptical when I heard that Katy Manning would be returning to the franchise after 37 years but it took only a few seconds of screen time for her to completely convince me that Jo Grant was back in the building. Her performance was delightful, believable and entirely in-keeping with the trajectory this person would have taken in life. It helps that Russell's spot-on dialogue, where his love and respect for the character is evident in each and every line, gives Katy so much good stuff to work with, but it's still a remarkable achievement; after so many years away it could have so easily turned into a parody or a pale imitation of a cherished icon. Her performance is pitched so perfectly you can't fail to be moved when Jo finally catches up with her oldest and dearest friend. On an alien planet. In a quarry.
Russell's take on the 11th Doctor felt just right, too. I can't imagine the 10th delivering a line with a hint of blackcurrant, and even if he did he wouldn't have sounded quite so charming or as naturally bonkers as Matt Smith who, once again, shines. He really seems to relish those moments where he gets to walk down memory lane with 'his' old friends and you can tell that Smith is just as invested in the history and mythos of this show as his predecessor ever was. However, this being an RTD script, the 11th Doctor has to be ever-so-slightly mawkish - and ridiculous - too.
At least JNT saved his daft publicity stunts for the press releases...
Do you remember how, after The End of Time aired, some of us cynically joked that the 10th Doctor held back death so he could visit all of his companions? Even Tegan? Well, it really did happen. That's right, the Doctor really did stagger around a remote rainforest in acute agony just so he could spy on Jo for a bit. Did he do this before or after he nipped off to a large crater in Mexico to pay his respects to Adric? We may never know. Sadly, no one felt a damn thing when the 10th Doctor eventually popped his clogs but perhaps that only happens when he reaches his final regeneration.
In approximately 1,600 years time.
Assuming the BBC is still around then; 16 years is pushing it at the moment.
Oh Russell, you always have to go too far, don't you? I had to explain to my wife who Harry Sullivan was (whilst simultaneously resisting the urge to tell her all about Ian Marter's role in history of the Target novelisations, just in case I missed an important reference to Brigadier Bambera) but she didn't need any prompting from me when the Doctor casually mentioned that he can regenerate 507 times. She knew damn well that he only has 13 lives and 12 regenerations, which is more than can be said for Paul McGann when he was actually playing the part.
Russell wonders why such an arbitrary limit should catch on with the general public when it was clearly just an expedient plot point back in 1976, conveniently forgetting the fact that the series has used this limit to drive many of its more high-profile stories, including an anniversary special (although offering the Master a new life cycle for his assistance ruins the conceit somewhat) and The 1996 TV Movie With The Pertwee Logo On It. Not to mention Mawdryn Undead, The Keeper of Traken and one whole season featuring Colin Baker, which I just did. Of course it bloody caught on.
Does my wife lie awake at night pondering the significance of this upheaval to decades of established continuity? I seriously doubt it (I"ll have to check) but at the risk of sounding both churlish and childish, it really pissed me off.
You could argue that the line simply exists to generate publicity for the episode, which is fair enough, it's certainly succeeded, but it has, intentionally or not, overshadowed everything else (including this review). The press coverage should have been about the return of Jo Grant and the 11th Doctor, not a debate about whether the show's hero is practically immortal or not. At least JNT saved his daft publicity stunts for the press releases. Assuming of course that this is a just a throwaway joke and not a stone-cold fact. The papers have taken it at face value, as have some fans (I've seen the Time War used as an excuse already). For some, whether we like it or not, the series has just overcome an obstacle that has been looming on the horizon like The Watcher with some really serious news.
Of course I don't advocate for one second that the series should end with the death of the 13th incarnation, even if it does happen to coincide with the death of the corporation that spawned him. I had just hoped that when the time came it would form part of an exciting adventure where the stakes have never been higher and where the solution is ingenious and means something. Even if the line is completely ignored down the road, and I strongly suspect that it will be, the urgency surrounding the concept has probably been diluted in the public's eye, whether they watched this episode or not. And that's sad and pointless, if you ask me..
This is a shame because as a celebration of Doctor Who this adventure beats The Five Doctors into a cocked hat.
I've been grooming a small boy...
For several months now I've been grooming a small boy. I met him at a wedding and I was introduced to him as a Doctor Who expert. The boy was impressed - he was a hardcore New Series fan who could reel off encyclopaedic facts about the Slitheen and the Judoon with the very same fervour I used to reserve for facts about Zygons and Krynoids. Throughout the wedding I would find him tugging at my shirt sleeve with questions like, "What's The Key of Marinus about?" or "How did the Time Lords exile the Doctor to Earth?" and "Is The Key to Time worth buying if I save up all my birthday money?".
This boy was acutely aware that an entire universe of ancient Who-ness existed out there but, unsurprisingly, all of his pocket money was invested in keeping up with the never-ending supply of New Series guff and he was far too young to be let loose on YouTube. And so, for him, the universe that we now call The Classic Series existed just out of his reach. When I was his age I would stare at black and white images of Daleks gliding across Westminster Bridge and I would imagine what a Dalek invasion of our planet would actually look like, and now this lad was doing the exact same thing all these years later.
So I've been lending him my DVDs and shattering his illusions.
But seriously, he's been lapping them up (even The Space Museum) and so, when we were treated to what I can only describe as a YouTube-style clip montage coupled to more references to 1970s Doctor Who than is probably healthy, I can only imagine his utter delight. He would have got the Peladon references straight away. He would have known who Jo Grant was and why she was so important. And he would have been able to tell his mates at school what Metebelis III was all about. The Karfel reference would have sailed right over his head but I'm not that cruel.
We've come a long way from mumbled, obscure references to Gallifrey and throwaway dialogue about Davros and Venom Grubs.
But if that boy was happy then that's nothing compared to the joy felt by those of us who actually lived through those years. To be reminded that we're still watching the same story, on the same channel, with the same sense of wonder provided a powerful, if slightly odd, rush.
Continuity has never been so tight and so loose
Paradoxically, continuity has never been so tight and yet so loose. We are living in a world where black and white photographs of William Hartnell can appear as plot points on prime-time BBC1 and where a sequel to The Carnival of Monsters can play to packed crowds at Wembley Stadium, but at the same time we are living in a world where remakes of arguably canonical novels are replaced wholesale by televisual remakes and where a throwaway line in a spin-off watched by less than two million people can potentially destroy - or at least problematise - years of comic book storylines, audio plays and chocolate bar wrappers. And all on the whim of a writer who was, and I quote, "hooting" when he wrote it.
I'm as happy as the next fan that Ian and Barbara got married ("teachers - the very first companions - please shut up") and I enjoyed the frankly comical notion that the couple have never aged, but even I can see that this final shag for old times sake has left the apartment in a right old state.
It's scuppered any plans for one last walk-on for William Russell for a start, and up until the last few seconds at least, it could have been on the cards.
I think it's time to send that kid a copy of The Deadly Assassin. Just in case.