She’s a Lady

Midway through Sunday afternoon many of us in the UK were tuning into BBC One to witness the majestic Roger Federer breeze to a record eighth Wimbledon tennis crown, with a merciless dismantling of the injury-stricken Marin Cilic. It was a moment of history that would be exceeded just minutes later during the very same broadcast, though for reasons totally unrelated to what they call the ‘Sport of Kings’.

We were suddenly transported to a wooded area containing more shrubbery than the exterior of Centre Court. A hooded figure stepped carefully between the trees, holding out a hand to reveal a glowing Yale key. Then came the big reveal, as the hood was withdrawn to uncover long fair hair and the unmistakable face of Jodie Whittaker. It was official – the first female Doctor Who had arrived.

The response was as immediate and wide-ranging as it was predictable, and the issue quickly dominated the murky world of social media. Some were aghast at the casting, stubborn in their belief that the Doctor has always, and should always be played by a male actor. Meanwhile, others felt that those in charge of the show had bowed to pressure from prominent equality campaigners, dubbed the ‘PC brigade’.

These views accounted for about half of the general reaction, for the rest rejoiced in the knowledge that Doctor Who was standing up for equality and diversity, and was willing to embrace the notion of a female Doctor. It was indeed a groundbreaking moment for British television, let alone the programme itself, as a giant stride was made towards the long overdue bid for women to receive equal status alongside men in the world of television drama (even in the week when BBC salaries were disclosed, revealing a significant gender pay gap).

So, is the role of the Doctor one that can only be played by a man? The character is so unique and so shrouded in complexity, so definitely not; and for those that are still doubtful, only time will tell. You see, it is extremely easy to judge Jodie Whittaker by virtue of her gender than her ability as an actress, and even more importantly the material she is given by new show-runner Chris Chibnall and his band of writers.

Indeed, every Doctor to date from William Hartnell in 1963 to Peter Capaldi in 2017 has had *his* own unique persona. They have behaved in different ways, spoken in contrasting manners, and faced antagonists with their own unique approach – while at the same time never allowing us to forget that it’s still the same character that is being portrayed.

Jodie Whittaker’s incarnation will be no different. She will still carry that air of power and mystique; she will exhibit the sharpest of minds and the unique thrill of travelling through time and space. The dynamic of the show will change accordingly to accommodate the nuances of a female doctor, and the likely prospect of a lone male companion.

But ultimately it will still be the same show. In recent times we have seen what a massive success Missy (Michelle Gomez) has been, as the first known female incarnation of the Doctor’s fellow Time Lord, the Master. It was initially a shock to see the Master resurface as a woman, but Missy was such an intriguing and excitable character that we all seemed to herald her as a worthy successor to previous actors Roger Delgado, Anthony Ainley, Eric Roberts and John Simm.

This – along with Ken Bones’ Time Lord General regenerating into T’Nia Miller in the series nine finale Hell Bent – was solid proof that gender is not a fixed status among the natives of Gallifrey, and it showed another way in which Doctor Who has broadened its horizons to reflect modern society and stand up for what is right.

And there is a valid argument to suggest that it has done so right throughout its history, both on-screen and behind the scenes, acting as a kind of trailblazer with regards to certain issues.

Rewind back to 1963, and the thought of a woman producing a new prime time drama serial was one to be scoffed at, but Verity Lambert defiantly made her colleagues take back their snide comments of scepticism. The first episodes were also overseen by an Asian director, Waris Hussein, something perhaps even more unheard of at the time.

Over the years, companions were chosen to appeal to a particular audience or more adequately reflect contemporary society. Sarah Jane Smith was a gutsy feminist; Peri Brown was a sporty American, and Ace was the tomboy who spoke out against the issue of racism.

More recently, we’ve had Captain Jack Harkness, the man who would flirt with just about anyone or anything. We’ve had the first BAME companion in the shape of Martha Jones in 2007, and the most recent series featured Bill Potts, the companion who was not only from an ethnic minority background; she was also openly gay.

That such a big deal continues to be made of the inclusion of such a character in an influential television drama shows that we are a long way off from achieving universal acceptance. Maybe such a thing is impossible, but the unwillingness of some to accept the rightful existence of diversity undeniably combines with historical attitudes in creating such a media furore.

Returning to Jodie Whittaker, she is now in possession of the role that will define her career as an actress, and certainly has the ability to thrive upon that and shrug off the inevitable scrutiny that will come her way. It should be an engrossing watch – just a shame that some will miss it due to the belief that the Doctor is role that should played exclusively by men.

Doctor Who Review: Aliens of London/World War Three

The first two-part story of the new era of Doctor Who is bold, ambitious, and almost totally lacking in subtlety. It all begins when Rose is brought back home to the Powell Estate a year later than intended, confronting a stunned and traumatised Jackie as a police investigation into her disappearance ends abruptly, though not before difficult questions are asked regarding her relationship with the Doctor.

The sight of the Doctor being challenged in this way, and being slapped by a companion’s mother, is unnatural and unfamiliar territory, but in creating this scene, writer Russell T Davies is providing a wider perspective of the influence that travelling with the Doctor can have on the lives of others.

Before such goings on can be dwelt upon for too long, a rooftop conversation between the Doctor and Rose is rudely interrupted by the whirring of a beautifully realised spaceship that flies erratically across London before crash-landing in the River Thames, but not before running right through Big Ben. Hats off to the special effects team for pulling this one off.

It turns out that an augmented pig was piloting the spacecraft, but the real villains cleverly use this as a distraction as they – in an uncharacteristically sophisticated manner – to infiltrate and take control of Downing Street with embarrassing ease. The Doctor and Rose watch the television news coverage, but with the help of a panicked Jackie, are eventually escorted to the centre of the action.

Aliens of London does a great job of building the tension, and again we see Eccleston as his juggling best. On the one hand, we see him unable to contain his excitement at the sight of the crash-landing spacecraft, yet in another scene we witness a brilliant depiction of compassion and disgust at the shooting of the squealing pig at Albion Hospital.

When the Slitheen are revealed – albeit still in human form – they are quite unlike any alien race seen in the history of the programme. They converse and laugh like over-excited children, they are lavatorial, rejoicing at each expulsion of wind, and the thought of removing their gruesome skin suits.

But they are also shrewd operators who are refreshingly not here to invade, but to ruthlessly extend their illegal interstellar business operation. They soon realise that General Asquith (Rupert Vansittart in his element) is a threat, so they take the opportunity to kill and impersonate him, too.

Vansittart completes the excitable main trio that also comprises of a terrifically sinister Annette Badland and a larger-than-life David Verrey, whose performance is not one you’re likely to forget in a hurry. All the same, they’re a serious threat, as curious MP Harriett Jones observes to her terror.

Penelope Wilton is perfect for this particular role. A highly accomplished actress, she personifies spirit and patriotism, proving a good foil for the scheming Doctor and becoming a handy ‘sub-companion’ in the process.

Aliens of London does a very good job of building the tension, which is admittedly lightened by some hilarious exchanges of dialogue such as this beauty:

The Doctor: Do you mind not farting while I’m saving the world
Joseph Green: Would you rather silent but deadly?!

The cliffhanger at the end of the episode would have been highly effective, only for the ‘Next Time’ section to come up almost immediately before the closing credits. So we knew that World War Three may see the end of a ‘brave new world’. We also know that Slitheen would sprint surprisingly quickly through Downing Street.

What does materialise is an interesting second part, which focuses as much on Rose’s future with the Doctor as it does on defeating the Slitheen, who continue to plod around a little too excitedly in order to be taken 100% seriously.

We see Jackie and Mickey burst a Slitheen masquerading as a police officer with a jug of condiments, we see the Doctor reciting the history of Downing Street, while there is also the understated sub-plot of whether the United States would agree to release the nuclear codes, culminating in Joseph Green (Jocrassa Fel Fotch Pasameer Day Slitheen) delivering an unforgettable speech to the assembled media.

The rhetoric contains more than a hint of satire from a crafty Davies, who also gives then BBC Political Editor Andrew Marr a memorable cameo. But ultimately, it is down to the Doctor making the decision to conduct a missile strike, with the encouragement of Rose and Harriett.

The sequence is tense, but again the special effects department earns its money with a highly convincing denouement. As Harriett moves on to the campaign trail, we see another neat emotional scene between Rose and Jackie (great acting performances), again emphasising the thrill of travelling with the Doctor.

It turned out that we hadn’t seen the last of the Slitheen, and nobody can deny that they left their mark. The two-parter as a whole makes compelling viewing, although it could have done with being a little more polished in some areas for it to have been a classic.

Doctor Who Review – The Unquiet Dead

After a trip to the distant future, it was now time for the revived series of Doctor Who to sample the past, in the first of many episodes to be written by Mark Gatiss, a noted and confessed aficionado of the show.

As Rose becomes more accustomed to life on board the TARDIS and changes into period gear to suit the setting, which is meant to be Naples in 1860. It is at this moment where we see further signs of the blooming relationship between herself and the Doctor, with the two of them developing a closeness rarely seen in the original series.

After a brief foray outside into the crunching snow, the Doctor’s errant time circuits are exposed and they are revealed to be in Cardiff in 1869, where ghostly apparitions are possessing the dead, as shown in a tremendous opening sequence where an elderly woman wails frighteningly into the stationary camera of superb director Euros Lyn.

She soon makes her way to the nearby theatre, where a career-questioning Charles Dickens gives a reading of A Christmas Carol. Meanwhile, undertaker Gabriel Sneed (Alan David) and his mysteriously psychic maid Gwyneth (Eve Myles) seek to restore the animated corpse to the mortuary, but Rose gets caught up in the commotion and is captured by Sneed.

The ensuing scenes between the Doctor and Dickens (played magnificently by Simon Callow) are a real highlight of the episode; never has a chase between two carthorses been so entertaining.

That is one of the lighter scenes, yet the stakes are still extremely high as Rose soon finds herself locked in a room with two possessed bodies. Dickens is impressively forceful here, but soon refuses to believe the supernatural events he has witnessed, much to the chagrin of the Doctor. The resulting rebuke begins a change of outlook for the weary author, who ends the episode with renewed spirit and vigour.

That dialogue sequence is gripping and neatly builds the tension, as does the one between Rose and Gwyneth. The maid comes across as an innocent girl, but her ability to enter the the minds of others adds an extra dose of spookiness, but the scene itself expertly illustrates the difference between the two characters, their culture, and the eras in which they grew up.

As the story develops we learn of the presence of the Gelth, a psychedelic people who were allegedly decimated by the Time War. They convince the Doctor that they arrive with good intentions and successfully persuade him to open the Rift in time and space that exists over Cardiff, but in doing so reveal their true colours.

Sneed finds himself possessed and the Doctor and Rose imprisoned as the Gelth aim to invade, while Dickens reawakens his brain to come up with a solution to pacify the ghostly villains. It seems unusual for the Doctor to come across this gullible, but then again, in the aftermath of the Time War he is as vulnerable as he’s ever been.

In the end, Gwyneth is moved to sacrifice herself in order to close the rift before cheerful farewells are exchanged with Mr. Dickens. All in all, this was an episode with excellent depth, production values, and innovative ideas. Just a shame many of Gatiss’ future episodes haven’t quite hit the same mark.

Doctor Who Reviews: The End of the World

This episode begins precisely where the previous one ended, after Rose sprints into the TARDIS like an adrenaline junkie. The Doctor relishes the chance to show off and demonstrate what he and his machine are capable of, eventually deciding to disembark in the year 5 billion to witness the death of planet Earth.

The first thing that hits the viewer is the scale of the setting. Platform One is marvellously realised in both internal and external shots, while there a spellbinding visual effects to be found throughout, thanks to the sun’s expansion; the exoglass, and the many aliens that have come to enjoy the show in the utmost comfort.

And speaking of the aliens, one has to admire the ambition of writer and executive producer Russell T Davies with regards to the sheer variety of lifeforms that can be found on Platform One. First of all we see the blue-skinned steward and his uniformed assistant, but his appearance is benign when compared to many of the others.

We have the Forest of Cheem, where flirtatious Jabe makes an impression with her sharp wit and ultimate sacrifice. On that point, Yasmin Bannerman delivers a strong and charismatic performance under heavy prosthetics, as her character assists the Doctor is undercovering the ongoing siege.

Then we have the rather distinctive Moxx of Balhoon, who meets a rather sticky end. The Adherents of the Repeated Meme are creepy and eventually their purpose is revealed, while its a shame that the Doctor didn’t spend more screen time with the Face of Boe, as it would have provided greater weight and context to its future appearances.

Even those who lurk in the background are superbly realised, particularly the Ambassadors from the City State of Binding Light, and the Brothers Hop Pyleen. Along with Mr and Mrs Puckoo and Cal ‘Spark Plug’ McNannovich, these are just incidental characters and indeed mere bystanders, but their presence adds something to the overall spectacle.

Last, but not least, we have villain of the week Cassandra O’Brien Dot Delta Seventeen and her adorable – though sinister – robot spiders. Describing herself as the last human, Cassandra is not your average antagonist – she is essentially a piece of skin, moisturised frequently by two handy surgeons. Her luggage for the event includes an old gramophone, and what she claims is the last ever ostrich egg.

Menacingly voiced by Zoe Wanamaker, Cassandra entertains her fellow guests with blasts of ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell and ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears, as her shrewd sabotage gathers momentum, aided by her sinister hoard of spiders.

Meanwhile, interspersed with all this drama lies some wonderful dialogue scenes between the Doctor and Rose, with the latter determined to find out more about the mysterious man she has just decided to travel with. She ends up almost following the Steward in getting killed by a descending sun filter, while back on Earth at the end of the episode her human traits are seen again in the form of a craving for chips.

Before that, Cassandra meets a rather messy end at the hands of an ominously uncaring Doctor, who has just – with Jabe’s sacrificial help – negotiated a succession of spinning turbines to initiate the shields of Platform One and prevent most of the traumatised guests from burning like the Moxx of Balhoon.

Cassandra remains calculated, but doesn’t reckon on being outsmarted by the Doctor, and everything builds to a satisfying conclusion. The End of the World is a very bold entry so early in the revived series, but it pays off very nicely, with thumbs up for direction, characterisation, dialogue, music and special effects. Clearly there were promising signs in terms of what was to come.

 

Doctor Who Reviews: Rose

It was a monumental occasion when Doctor Who returned to British television on 26 March 2005, some 16 years after its original run ended under something of a cloud. Back then, BBC bosses saw the show as a burden, as tired concepts eventually made for rather trivial viewing.

Yet its status as a national treasure was undeniable, and the loyal fanbase remained hopeful over the intervening period that the long-running programme may make a comeback. Audio serials and novelisations kept the flame ignited, but it was only when Russell T Davies made his successful pitch to the BBC in 2003 that those apparently fanciful hopes became reality.

It was an incredible feat for Davies to convince the BBC to resurrect a show that was both loved and maligned in equal measure, and had such a chequered history, but his presence ensured that it was now in very safe hands. His prowess as a writer, and the budget laid down at his disposal, helped bring together a terrific and richly talented crew, and a fine cast would soon follow.

Securing Christopher Eccleston for the role of the Ninth Doctor was a masterstroke. He perfectly suited the profile of a character ridden by guilt and grief in the aftermath of the Time War; a tormented soul with the most brilliant of minds that had to carry on in the knowledge that all of his fellows had perished.

Throughout the opening episode and the series as a whole, Eccleston conveys these feelings perfectly, but also embodies the mystical spirit of the character by showcasing a softer side, helped along by companion Rose, whose gutsy nature and very human levels of empathy guide him on a journey to redemption.

Rose is portrayed magnificently by Billie Piper, who at the time had very little acting experience following her career as a teenage pop star. She takes the character of Rose and uses the material she’s been given to create someone who the audience can immediately identify with, and we’re all too happy to enjoy the ride with her.

As for the episode itself, it relaunches the programme in a highly satisfactory way. The first and most obvious change from the original series is that it’s the 21st century, and the way people live their lives has changed, and also that it’s the responsibility of television dramas to provide a fulfilling visual experience to the viewer.

The opening shot shows the Earth from space, and the camera quickly zooms in to Rose’s home, a humble flat within a friendly, if fairly run-down estate. We get a general picture of her life; we see her single mother fussing over her; we see her laughing with her boyfriend, Mickey; we see her on the bus travelling to work. It is obvious already that there will now be greater emphasis on the companion than ever before.

It doesn’t take long for danger to arise, as Autons begin to rouse in the creepy basement of the shop in which Rose works. Then comes the Doctor’s entrance, containing just one word: ‘Run!’ Their ensuing escape gives way to a massive explosion, the first of many impressive effects that The Mill would produce during the series.

The Doctor is treated as a mysterious figure, possibly even dangerous, and Eccleston wonderfully delivers on that, shifting deftly between moments of priceless comic timing to feelings of loss and hopeless vengeance.

What is particularly impressive here is that as Rose gradually comes to trust the Doctor after initial reservations – unperturbed by the eerily apocalyptic warnings of obsessive shed-dweller Clive – the audience does so too, even after he shows relish in the act of beheading Auton Mickey.

The Autons act as frightening, threatening villains, while the showdown beneath the London Eye reveals the Nestene Consciousness as a menacing presence. In its ability to animate plastic such as a wheelie bin, and create a copy of Mickey which a momentarily dim Rose cannot see to be a forgery, its power is unmistakable.

But in the final reckoning, Rose saves the day with a marvellous – and pretty daring – piece of athleticism. It begins an occasionally irritating trend of someone other than the Doctor proving to be the enemy’s downfall, but in this instance it’s handled well, as it allows the Doctor’s faith in humanity to be somewhat restored – having taken to referring to us as ‘apes’.

And then Rose decides to ditch her life and her rather useless – for now – boyfriend, in order to travel with the Doctor. The TARDIS set is dark and unearthly, yet at the same time strangely welcoming. However, what adds to the intrigue ahead of the stories to come are that we still don’t know who this particular Doctor really is, as he continues to suffer from some form of PTSD.

On the whole, Rose was a very solid first episode for a unique series that was making a comeback after so many years away. Davies’ script wound everything together nicely, providing a significant enemy threat while introducing the characters and adapting the show for the 21st century. It was the premise upon which the last 12 years of Doctor Who have become a major success.