Doctor Who: Ninth Man Unbound

The period between the TV Movie and news of the show returning in 2003 was strange time to be a fan. In one respect, there was more Doctor Who than ever before. Taking a lead from Virgin’s New and Missing Adventures, BBC Books were publishing two original novels (one eighth and one past Doctor) per month; the Doctor Who Magazine comic strip was better than ever; BBCi were broadcasting new episodes, and from 1999 Big Finish began releasing audios with the last four Doctors. Plus, most of the series was available on videotape.

But in another respect, there was nothing tying all these strands together or providing any real forward direction for what we’ve now come to know as “the brand”. Paul McGann’s face might be all over the tie-in merchandise, but the comics, books and audios were all moving in very different and increasingly arcane directions without the kind of guiding hand Cardiff provided to licensees after 2003.

The sensible approach was to draw a line under all this stuff and start with a fresh ninth Doctor. Which is exactly what Russell T Davies did in 2005. And before that, Steven Moffat and BBCi.

The Curse of Fatal Death (12/3/1999)

FatalDeath2

‘Look after the universe, I’ve put a lot of work into it.’ Broadcast as part of 1999’s Comic Relief charity telethon, this hit the mark much better than Dimensions in Time. It’s funnier than most Doctor Who sketches while also clearly being written by someone who knows and likes the series. As such, it pokes fun at all the cliches like quarries, deferred explanations, camp performances and melodramatic dialogue without seeming to be mean spirited.

It’s easy, if a bit glib, to see it as a sort of pilot for Steven Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who. The first half contains a lot of “timey wimey” comedy with the Doctor and Master repeatedly going back in time to change the outcome of events happening in their present – the basic plot of the 2010 Christmas special (but with a lot more poo). It’s also got Moffaty ideas like the Doctor retiring and settling down with a companion he plans to marry. The second half has the Doctor and Master flirting, and Emma begging the Doctor not to die, which is pretty much what Clara does in The Time of the Doctor. Oh, and 10th Doctor has vanity issues, the 11th Doctor is shy and apparently bumbling, and the 13th Doctor is a lady. So that’s prescient.

The ninth Doctor’s look is, I guess, supposed to be evoking Tom Baker circa 1976, which means it also looks like McGann cosplay. Atkinson is playing it as written, like a softer version of Blackadder: fading sarcasm and stretched similes (‘A woman more fascinating than all my travels through time and space. A girl more exciting than an escape up a ventilation shaft. A lover more thrilling than an army of cybernetic slugs’). In his first pass at the Doctor, Richard E Grant is ok, my favourite bit is his dismissal of the Daleks, ‘I remember you lot, of course.’ Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant get about three lines apiece. Joanna Lumley has immediate charisma and rightly plays it for the laughs, but there’s something in her jolly hockey sticks meets saucy Carry On performance that’s oddly compelling. It’s great fun, and well worth watching – just bung a quid to Comic Relief when you do.

Scream of the Shalka

Shalka

Episode One (13/11/2003)
‘I know about monsters. I’m the Doctor.’ BBCi’s attempt to launch a series of ninth Doctor webcast adventures was hobbled before it began by the announcement, on 26th September 2003, that Russell T Davies would be writing a new BBC TV series. As such, when this was broadcast two months later to coincide with the 40th anniversary, Richard E Grant was already an “unbound” number nine. And probably a good thing too, as his reading is one of the least impressive things about this.

It’s a pity the leading man is so underwhelming, when everything else about this is another step forward for BBCi. The animation is, finally, actually animated – still only fairly crudely, but with motion, lip sync, and the ability to tell some of the story through visuals rather than marrying a small number of drawings to a radio soundtrack.

The script, by New Adventures and new series writer Paul Cornell, includes some sensible assumptions on how to launch a revival. Following a teaser sequence with falling meteors heralding an alien invasion, it’s set in present-day Britain – very much like Spearhead from Space. The companion is a working woman with a fairly useless and cowardly boyfriend; she wants to discover the truth of what’s happening to their town. She’s barmaid rather than a shop assistant, but broadly this is Rose Tyler.

Cornell also makes the ninth Doctor prickly and not immediately likeable. Unlike Eccleston, and despite claiming, in a slightly painful way, ‘I’m a homeless person myself. It’s the first thing I am’, he’s a posturing snob, demanding fine wine from a run-down boozer, criticising the lack of Pachelbel on the juke box, and sniggering about rats discovering ‘the delights of the D’Oyly Carte’. He also arrogantly strides into Alison’s home and exposes her to danger because he’s in a foul mood at someone (presumably the Time Lords) for dispatching him to ‘places where terrible things are going to happen’. I think Cornell’s script is implying vulnerability and hurt, which doesn’t necessarily come across in Grant’s performance.

Episode Two (20/11/2003)
‘I do not kill.’ The Doctor has the Secretary General on speed dial and despises the military (in the form of Major Kennet) in a way that is picked up in New Testament stuff like The Sontaran Stratagem. This continues to move swiftly along, and once you’ve got used to Grant’s blandly literal line readings (with some enthusiasm peeking through as he defeats the Shalka at the cost of Alison’s house) the ninth Doctor has hints of interest. Particularly when it’s revealed he lives with the silky-voiced Master inside the (rather TV Movie-ish) TARDIS.

Episode Three (7/11/2003)
‘Only the monsters know me, only the monsters know how weak I really am.’ This is built around the Doctor’s confrontation with the Shalka queen. Like so many New Testament villains, it sees past the Doctor’s bluster and gets to the hearts of him, manipulating him through his friends and companions. This is good, and the first time Grant’s performance really comes to life (the suggestion being last time he tried this gambit he lost someone very dear, someone he recorded a giggly answerphone message with).

The only downside is it casts Alison in the role of victim – albeit at least one who refuses the standard route of self-sacrifice. This is slightly mitigated by filling in more of her backstory: she was on the verge of leaving her boring life and boring boyfriend when the troubles began, and perhaps the Doctor is the escape she’s been looking for.

Episode Four (4/12/2003)
‘I seem to have found some form. I might not be quite so useless now.’ Grant’s performance makes more sense the longer this goes on, as the flat readings of the first episode give way to something a bit more energetic and engaging. His journey, from a survivor with a death wish to the brilliant improvisor is fun, particularly as it manifests in his ability to transform the TARDIS cell phone into back door to be reunited with Derek Jacobi’s outrageously camp, faux-treacherous Master. Later, he apologises to Kennet and takes control of the battle to defeat the Shalka.

The bit that I think doesn’t work is Alison’s side plot, where the Shalka suddenly demonstrate an ability to control minds and turn the inhabitants of Lannet into puppets. It’s not a very surprising story, and I think it was a mistake to separate the Doctor and Alison this much. Still, the cliffhanger of a miniature Shalka erupting from a scar in Alison’s head is so striking it looks like Moffat recycled it in Asylum of the Daleks.

Episode Five (11/12/2003)
‘You talk. I think that is all you can do.’ The Pertwee era ecological theme comes through strongly, with the Shalka plotting to use humankind’s own negligence to jump-start their own invasion, converting the planet’s atmosphere and rendering it unfit except for the Shalka infestation. The fact that the Shalka’s possessed victims are aware of what they’re doing and powerless to stop themselves is a peculiarly horrible touch.

I like the way this brings the story back towards the Doctor and Alison, reunited and having a heart-to-heart about Alison’s hopes for the future, and her admission that she abandoned her dream of a history degree to become Joe’s girlfriend in Lancashire. Now, Joe has to let her go to join the Doctor in a showdown with the Shalka queen.

Episode Six (18/12/2003)
‘I say I do not kill and then I exterminate thousands.’ This is consciously quirky, with the Doctor singing Cabaret to eliminate the Shalka before banishing their queen into a black hole. He also needs Alison to accept her baby Shalka back, so that she can command the remaining Shalka, before giving her a little kiss. Its instincts are right, but it’s not quite there: the Doctor’s relationship with Alison is formally at the heart of the story, but it’s hard to feel it. They share too little time together, have too little chemistry for it to be earned.

Still, there’s nothing in this that feels like it misses the point of the Russell T Davies series: they’re coming from the same place and doing many of the same things. Alison has a pleasantly cheeky relationship with the Doctor (‘Oh how needy are you’), and chooses him over her boyfriend, just like Rose is going to do in 15 months’ time. The Doctor agonises over the choices he’s made, and still has to make – just as the “real” ninth Doctor is going to. There’s no point in covering any more “wilderness years” stories: the transition from Old to New Testaments is complete. Let’s get on with it.

Next episode: Rose

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Doctor Who episode 710: Shada – Episode Six (6/6/2003) | Next Episode...
  2. frankshailes

    Curse of Fatal Death: the 12th Doctor is also one of the duo of lads facing The Lair of the White Worm in Ken Russell’s 1988 film; the other was Peter Capaldi.

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