Wednesday, 29 May 2013

BFI Southbank: Peter Davison



Murder, treachery, madness... Doctor Who at its best
(Image: BBC/2 Entertain)

BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Saturday 4 May 2013
The story voted ‘best ever’ by readers of Doctor Who Magazine represents Peter Davison’s era, during the BFI Southbank’s ongoing celebration of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary.

Five months into the BFI’s Doctor Who at 50 season and their monthly events are generating groups of familiar faces who meet before and after in the bar for drinks and a chat, some of who have only become friendly since these screenings began. This happy by product of the BFI’s year-long celebration seems particularly appropriate for an event based around the most sociable Doctor of them all,
Peter Davison.

First up, courtesy of the BBC/2 Entertain, there was an unexpected treat in a clip from ‘Grim Tales’, the ‘making of’ documentary accompanying the upcoming Special Edition DVD of ‘The Visitation’. It was good to see Davison, Janet Fielding (Tegan) and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa) back together again and obviously enjoying each other’s company, accompanied by host and the following year’s companion Turlough, Mark Strickson (Davison: “Wrong story, Mark”).
Introducing the screening, current series writer Mark Gatiss amused everyone by revealing that, for some bizarre reason, he thought the Fifth Doctor was going to be comic actor Lance Percival. With some insight, Gatiss went on to recall “the sense of newness” the Fifth Doctor had for an audience whose younger members would only have known Tom Baker, that there was “nothing safe” about Davison’s casting and that his first season was equally brave, as it was “quite trippy… like something from the late ‘60s.” For Gatiss – and many enthusiasts – the best was saved until last, as Davison’s final story, ‘The Caves of Androzani’, was “like nothing else in the history of Doctor Who” and reached “the absolute pinnacle.”
Only Doctor Who could offer a story that is unremittingly bleak and cynical and, the Doctor and Peri aside, populate it with the most self serving and brutal characters you’re ever likely to see in the series, then produce it an impressionistic and theatrical style, most notably in the character of the tragic villain Sharaz Jek (Christopher Gable).

Left to right: director Graeme Harper, Mathew Waterhouse
(Adric), Sarah Sutton (Nyssa), Janet Fielding (Tegan),
Peter Davison (the Fifth Doctor) and co-host
Justin Johnson. (Courtesy BFI)
Graeme Harper’s determinedly innovative direction, using hand held cameras, odd angles, fades between scenes and slow motion, is like nothing on television now and suggests the visual vocabulary of 1980s pop videos, but this heightened, artificial quality perfectly complements the remarkable fantasy world- building of Robert Holmes’s fine script. It says a lot that the production voted ‘best Doctor Who story of all time’ by Doctor Who Magazine isn’t about any of the icons of the series like the Daleks, Time Lords or, really, the Doctor himself, and was honoured for simply being a masterpiece of television drama. I could really feel my pulse quickening with the approach of the brilliant cliff hanger to episode three – for me, the best the series has ever done – where acting, direction and the use of sound all combine brilliantly.

Regarding the story’s spectacular use of sound, between episodes 2 and 3 co-host Dick Fiddy interviewed the story’s composer Roger Limb, in a chat that revealed the jazz-loving musician possessed remarkable recall about how the 1980s stories were put together. Further indicating how seamlessly ‘Androzani’ had been assembled, Limb revealed how director Graeme Harper had gone from being initially wary of using an electronic score to “[enthusing me] with what he wanted the music to do”, producing a soundtrack that “pushed the boundaries” and, significantly, “worked brilliantly on the big screen.”

After episode 4, and the by now traditional short quiz during which audience members were able to revel in "shouting out for Dick", the Fifth Doctor panel took the stage in the persons of ‘Androzani’ director Graeme Harper, Sutton, Fielding, Davison himself and ‘The Visitation’-documentary-absent Waterhouse, completing the regular cast line-up from the Fifth regeneration’s premier season.

Harper spoke about joining the BBC as an Assistant Floor Manager in 1966, and, as was traditional in the BBC hierarchy of the time, working his way up to the point where he took the Corporation’s director’s course and was offered the director’s chair on ‘Androzani’. Some of the edge and tension of the story was likely to have come from the director being “terrified” of what he was trying to achieve, but Davison paid tribute to his approach by saying that Harper was “a hurricane of fresh air” and that his swan song was “a fantastic story to go out on”. Sutton – who had never seen the story before – concurred, praising ‘Androzani’ because “it looked so different [and] looked like it had moved on leaps and bounds” from when she had been in the series only a year before.

Peter in trouble with Janet (again). (Courtesy: BFI)
As host Justin Johnson wittily pointed out, the repartee between the four cast members was “like having Christmas Dinner with a dysfunctional family”. Nostalgically, Fielding and Davison riffed on the tendency for the Doctor and Tegan to argue, Sutton mediated and Waterhouse fended off some humorous jibes, although his moment in the spotlight did come when the death of Adric from the end of ‘Earthshock’ was shown. Waterhouse spoke of how he’d found out that his character was going to be killed off from an advance script for episode 4 that Davison had, and, in a remark typical of the on-stage banter, the leading man remarked “the idea that [we had] a script available weeks in advance is extraordinary.” Moving on by a few generations of viewers, Davison recalled emailing new series Executive Producer Russell T Davies and asking whether the companion Rose was going to be die, so he could decide whether his sons could watch or not. Davies’ priceless reply? “You killed Adric – what do you care?”

Questions from the audience brought out something I’d always suspected about ‘Androzani’, that it was a deliberate allusion to “Maggie [Thatcher’s] world”, as a corrupt capitalist secretly funded a war to keep the price of his stocks high. More controversially, one audience member believed that the screening was “the best Doctor Who I’ve seen for quite a few Saturdays.” With members of the current production team in the auditorium, the panel diplomatically suggested that the different structures of the classic and contemporary series were “formats for their time”, with Davison in particular “envious of the love and the care that’s gone into the [new] scripts.”

How does this man stay so young?!
(Courtesy BFI)
As always, the event could have gone on longer, with the guests showing no sign of losing enthusiasm for being questioned. While the Fifth Doctor’s era isn’t my favourite – a generational thing, perhaps – it was good to see the Davison years represented by a story that showed just how pioneering, stylish and dramatic a television production Doctor Who can really be. Twenty-nine years on from ‘The Caves of Androzani’, that’s why I’m still watching.

BFI Southbank: Tom Baker



All aboard the Sandminer (Image: BBC/2 Entertain)
BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Saturday 20 April 2013
A packed-out NFT 1 celebrates the era of Tom Baker, with the added thrill
of being the first Doctor Who at 50 event to feature the man who played
the Doctor.

All of these BFI events have been special, but you could tell by the amount of people queuing up for return tickets – from 10.30 in the morning, with one man bringing his own collapsible stool: serious stuff – that this one was extra special. The focus of appreciation from 2pm this afternoon was to be the still unbeaten seven-year stint of fourth Doctor Tom Baker, with the great man himself appearing on stage after a screening of ‘The Robots of Death’.
The event began with a clip from clip from the BFI panel promoting the Sarah Jane Adventures story ‘The Death of The Doctor’, showing eternally popular Sarah Jane companion actress Lis Sladen clearly enjoying herself on stage in the company of Katy Manning (Jo Grant). Rather movingly, it had been her last public event before her sad death, and was given extra poignancy by her husband Brian Miller and daughter Sadie being present in the afternoon’s audience. Sad it may have been, but it was a fitting tribute to an actress many still believe was the ultimate companion to the ultimate Doctor.
1974-77 producer Philip Hinchcliffe, Louise Jameson (Leela) and
the Fourth Doctor himself, Tom Baker. (Courtesy BFI) 
Current Executive Producer Steven Moffat was on fine form, letting his inner fan boy dribble forth as enthused about “chatting television” in the green room with Baker’s highly regarded first producer Philip Hinchcliffe. Even funnier was his account of how as a child he’d queued up to get Tom to autograph a Target Doctor Who book… which had been ‘Planet of the Spiders’, Jon Pertwee’s last story. “I’ve always been an undiplomatic arse,” Moffat said above the ensuing laughter, “it’s not recent.” He encouraged more amusement with his assessment that ‘The Robots of Death’ was a “[very] short whodunit if you’ve read the title,” and that the addition of tribal warrior Leela (Louise Jameson) as companion was an “an ambitious, extraordinary and slightly pervy decision.”

A surprise guest was Mathew Waterhouse, who played companion Adric in Baker’s last season, helping to bridge the transition to Peter Davison. Surprisingly nervous for an actor, he spoke endearingly of how he’s been the first regular cast member to have been a genuine Doctor Who fan, remembering discussing ‘The Robots of Death’ at school “as the mystery thickened,” and confessing to being “in love with Leela, even if [I was] gay.”

Mr Moffat was correct with his assessment that ‘Robots’ is one of the few, classic Doctor Who stories that is absolutely perfect. Much as we love the series, it used to have a charming tendency to let the side down in an otherwise immaculate production with either some appalling acting or a duff special effect (like a certain giant rat). ‘Robots’ succeeds on every level, and as was often the case in Tom Baker’s early years, presents a consistently realised fantasy-world, which for the audience is a look inside an exotic environment but which the characters believably react to as an everyday setting. Interestingly, for a Doctor known for his off-beat humour, Tom’s performance is light on laughs in this story, with Leela getting a lot of the one-liners. One thing I thought people might laugh at was mad scientist Taren Capel’s robot make-up – they didn’t, a sure sign of how much the audience was caught up in the story – and the chuckles went instead to the amusing dialogue of the dead pan robot detective, D84. 

Sir Tom Baker (Courtesy BFI)
As is by now customary, between episodes 2 and 3 co-host Dick Fiddy interviewed the first of the event’s special guests, in this case BBC Visual Effects designer Mat Irvine. A specialist at achieving visual miracles on the smallest of budgets in the Tom Baker era of the programme, Irvine spoke good-naturedly about how in the 1970s the Effects Department comprised “several odd people, some very odd” and how his favourite effect was always “the last thing that went right.” It was heartening to hear Fiddy announce that he wanted to put on an event based around the Effects Department in 2014, which Irvine typically remarked would be “the Matt and Mike [Tucker, his fellow designer] Show.”

It was perhaps inevitable that, in a smaller panel than usual, Philip Hinchcliffe and Louise Jameson would be eclipsed by the natural eccentricity of Tom Baker. Neither seemed to mind, as the leading man’s noticeable loss of weight and reliance on a walking stick aside, here was a Tom content with Doctor Who – in stark contrast to how he felt about the series in the 1980s – and in an amiable working relationship with Jameson, as opposed to the fractious association they had in the 1970s.

If ‘The Robots of Death’ showed a Fourth Doctor more serious than the one of popular memory, seeing Tom on stage on stage at the BFI on 20 April 2013 was like an audience with the zany, quipping (if slightly more bawdy) Doctor of his Graham Williams-produced seasons, when Baker’s personality began to bleed more and more into the Doctor’s character. The one-liners came one after the other: “I wanted to play Macbeth in the style of a crumpet lover”, “quite a lot of people who have anything to do with me die suddenly afterwards”, “I’ve no sense of direction, which is why I’ve never had children, I suppose” to the memorable advice he gave Jameson when she joined: “Well, I hope you’re into bondage, darling, because you’re going to spend 90% of the time tied up!” There was also an outrageous story about Tom signing the coffin of a dead fan, which he confessed was totally untrue.

By contrast, a sign of his new humility was his admission that he had treated Jameson badly, had hidden in the character of the Doctor because of his “tangled private life” and the humble disclosure that even though his marriage to companion actress Lalla Ward failed, “it was terrific while it lasted.” 
The warrior of the Sevateem,
Louise Jameson (Courtesy BFI)
Perhaps predictably, an audience member’s declaration of how much pleasure Tom’s time as the Doctor had given him was met with the quip “are you alright for money?”, but you could see how touched he was. A perfect afternoon was brought to an end with the delivery of a birthday cake to Louise Jameson, complete with models of Leela and a Robot of Death, and the first, well deserved standing ovation of these events.
With Tom now 78, it was a privilege to see him on stage (one last time?) After that, it was debriefing time in the bar, where the consensus was that although Doctor Who has been many things in its time – and you might not be a fan of all of it – the real joy of it, as these BFI screenings show, is that it is, uniquely, the most wonderfully diverse programme on television.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

BFI Southbank: Jon Pertwee



Katy Manning (Jo Grant) and The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) -
in colour at last. (Courtesy BFI)

BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Sunday 10 March 2013
The BFI plays host to the premiere of the restored 1971 Jon Pertwee story ‘The Mind of Evil’, unseen in colour anywhere in the world for 42 years.

From the moment the Third Doctor’s vintage yellow car Bessie drove up to the forbiddingly grey Stangmoor prison in Episode 1, it was clear that the BBC’s Restoration Team had done a fantastic job. Watching the restored colour version of ‘The Mind of Evil’ was like seeing it for the first time. Many notable visual moments, from the subtlety of the subdued night time lighting in UNIT HQ to the horror of the Doctor being burnt alive, were made apparent for the first time in decades.
The Restoration Team’s Peter Crocker, Stuart Humphries and Mark Ayres, taking some well deserved public credit, informed the audience that restoration work had only been completed recently as it was now possible to recover the colour signal in the b/w picture (apart from epiusode 1 which, amazingly, was coloured frame by frame). Ayres spoke for everyone by saying how impressed he was by ‘a bloomin’ good story… beautifully directed [with] the cast at the top of their game.’
From left to right: director Tim Combe, Script Editor Terrance Dicks,
Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin), Sergeant Benton (John Levene),
Jo Grant (Katy Manning) and co-host Justin Johnson. (Courtesy BFI)
There was no better story to choose than ‘The Mind of Evil’ to represent the Third Doctor’s era in the BFI’s Doctor Who at 50 season. In his introduction, The Sarah Jane Adventures writer Phil Ford spoke about ‘the 007 Doctor Who’, but the story revealed other contemporary influences such as The Avengers and the Cold War. The adult tone was very striking, as was seeing the most self confident of Doctors unusually vulnerable. Quite rightly, director Tim Coombe’s family led the applause every time his credit appeared on the screen.

The closing panel included Combe himself, script editor Terrance Dicks, Richard Franklin (Captain Yates), John Levene (Sergeant Benton) and the bubbly Katy Manning (the bubbly Jo Grant). While the guests spoke warmly of Pertwee, Roger Delgado (arch villain the Master) and producer Barry Letts, Dicks was notable for his particularly witty comments. When Levene revealed he had entered the entertainment business because his mother was a ventriloquist, Dicks brought the house down by interjecting, ‘Has she been working you all this time?’
If the BFI’s remaining Doctor Who events are as enjoyable, London’s Southbank is clearly the only place to be during the show’s 50th anniversary.
This review first appeared in issue 234 of SFX magazine. Thanks to Future Publishing for allowing it to be reprinted.
The original and best - Roger Delgado as
The Master. (Courtesy BFI)

Thursday, 23 May 2013

First Vintage Festival



12-15 AUGUST 2010

The welcoming committee at the entrance to the site. (Photo: Patrick Steel)

Pop culture heaven is a place where Teds, Mods, Rockers, Hippies, Soul Boys and Soul Sisters, Rastas, Punks, New Romantics and Goths dance arm in arm laughing, with their children and grandchildren at their feet. At the Vintage at Goodwood festival over three days in August 2010, pop culture heaven came to Earth.

Imagine the best party you’ve ever had, the best gig you’ve ever been to, the best pub you’ve got drunk in, the best market you’ve shopped at, the best night club you’ve danced in and you’re getting pretty close to how good Vintage was.

If there was a downside, it was the event’s instant success: the shops and exhibitions on the pop-up high street needed to be double the size, as did the fashion marquee, which the organisers could have filled twice over judging by the amount of people turned away from each catwalk show. There should have been another on-site pub, although The Festival of Britain was packed to its artificial rafters throughout the three days with people of all ages singing and dancing along to everything from 1980s power ballads to ‘Louie Louie’ by the Kingsmen. Why, I thought, isn’t every pub in England like this on a Friday and Saturday night? It was like joining in a scene from Glee.

The incomparable Atters Attree (centre) and chums put on
the style. (Image: The Chap)
The festival promised a celebration of “five decades of British cool” – from the 1940s to the 1980s – which for once wasn’t totally dependent on music, also showcasing art, fashion, design and film. The promised balance worked: there were as many people foraging through the market, enjoying the funfair and queuing for the Wall of Death as there were watching Martha and the Vandellas ­– well, maybe not quite as many. The crucial point is that music is the magic glue that that binds the other four categories together, as well as being a soundtrack to everyone’s daily life through the years.

Appropriately, everywhere you went on the site you could hear some kind of music. And the music was brilliant and eclectic. The first live act I saw was Sandie Shaw’s ‘Reclaim the Song’ revue which featured a top-notch big band and various guest female singers, among them Mica Paris and Sophie Ellis-Bextor. It was quite something hearing the latter tackle Pulp’s ‘Common People’ and Squeeze’s ‘Up the Junction’. Sandie herself, apparently performing for the first time in 25 years, sang her best known songs as well as The Smiths’ ‘Jeane’.

Faces drummer Kenny Jones and guitarist Ronnie Wood
at the Vintage press conference. (Image: Vintage)
This diversity was part of the point of Vintage, with a lot of the musical acts not just trotting out their usual festival sets; they were contributing something one off, something special. Peter Hook performed Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures LP with a full orchestra and choir, the Pretty Things did all of their rock opera SF Sorrow with narration by Arthur Brown and The Feeling celebrated the best of British song writing with guests as varied as Viv Albertine and Tony Christie. The reformed Faces, ripping through an incendiary set, were a living and breathing cross section of musical genres: early ‘70s good time rock and roll (Wood, McLagen and Jones), late ‘70s Punk (The Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock on bass) and ‘80s Pop Soul (Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall on vocals – and yes, he was good).

As Mick Jones once said, “everything connects”, a fact borne out by his rock and roll CCA Art Bus (parked next to the Strummerville stall, touchingly) with murals by Sir Peter Blake, no less. In it you’ll find Dr Who jigsaws next to Sniffin’ Glue Punk fanzines, next to Bottom VHSes next to The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite stage gear. The Faces were there too, represented by framed record sleeves that the teenage Jones avidly collected before his own band took off. Mick’s looking for a permanent venue for his library in London, which clearly shows there’s a growing acknowledgment of popular culture as an important part of social history. Vintage is Mick’s ethos writ large.

Mick Jones and artist Peter Blake with their Art Bus.
(Image: CCA Galleries)
On a personal note, despite the presence of a cinema showing British classics like Zulu and The Lavender Hill Mob, I’d like to have seen TV through the decades represented. It was as equally as significant as film, arguably more so. If Vintage goes again next year, which seems like a safe bet, I’d really like to see some TV milestones featured. Perhaps The Avengers, Boys from the Blackstuff, Hancock…?

The great thing about this festival was that everyone there was up for it. If you paid a visit to the Soul Casino you’d find an instructor teaching enthusiastic volunteers how to dance to Northern Soul – and that’s at 11.30 on a Saturday morning. In the Let It Rock marquee they were holding jitterbug classes and over in the Torch Club you could learn how to Tea Dance. The heartening thing was that in every area there was a significant amount of the under 10s enjoying themselves as much as their parents or grandparents. One particularly noticeable and gladdening thing was that there was no one offensively drunk or kicking off. It was all good natured, family friendly and chilled out; in short, very English.

Perhaps the good atmosphere was something to do with Vintage being just the right size; there were no massive queues for anything, not even the toilets, usually a notorious festival black spot. The music stages didn’t need massive TV screens as you had a good view wherever you stood and their various PAs were the best I’ve ever heard at a festival. The logistics of it all had been meticulously worked out.

I could run on and on about the many highlights, but the main point of writing this was to get across what a great event this is for people who love all aspects of popular culture. For me, it’s as close as you can get to heaven without having to die first. Mind you, in my personal pop heaven, all the missing episodes of ‘60s Dr Who, The Avengers and Callan will be available in hi def. On a loop. In 3D.

NB: I saw a guy with a floppy fringe and shades wandering nonchalantly around the high street and saw him again nodding along to Kid Creole and the Coconuts. “That looks like Matt Smith,” I thought. “Nah, can’t be.” Looks like my celebrity radar needs an overhaul. The Doctor was, indeed, in the house.

CCA Galleries:
The Chap magazine:


Wednesday, 22 May 2013

BFI Southbank: Patrick Troughton



The Second Doctor meets his definitive enemeies. (Courtesy: BFI)

BFI Southbank, NFT 1, Saturday 9 February 2013

NFT 1 pays host to a celebration of the man who ensured Doctor Who’s longevity – the ‘cosmic hobo’ himself, Mr Patrick Troughton.

One of the many wonderful things about these BFI events celebrating Doctor Who’s half century is finding out what familiar faces are enthusiasts. If I’d been told that
uber New Lad and football fanatic Frank Skinner had been tuning in since William Hartnell’s time, I would have thought it was about as likely as Danny Dyer playing the Doctor. But there he was – Skinner, not Dyer – on Saturday 9 February, introducing ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’, Patrick Troughton’s entry in the BFI’s anniversary screenings.

Despite self deprecatingly considering himself “that lowest of all creatures, the celebrity fan”, the way Skinner conveyed his enthusiasm was endearing and often very funny. It was an ideal introduction for an event like this, opening up the series to an audience that host Justin Johnson quite rightly pointed out wasn’t just hard-core Doctor Who fans. Sitting in the seats to my right and behind me were several children – some of whom were so young they can only have been aware of the series since Matt Smith took over – and, hearteningly, they watched spellbound throughout the four black and white episodes, which were sometimes very creaky by modern standards. They even laughed in all the right places.

Frank Skinner and Executive Producer
Steven Moffat. (Courtesy: BFI)
Skinner spoke engagingly about his love for Troughton’s atypical hero of “brains, cleverness and guile”, as well as pointing out how cool a schoolboy learning to play the recorder in the 1960s was made to look by the second Doctor. Skinner handed the microphone on to current producer Steven Moffat, who delighted the audience by saying that he found ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’ so scary as a child that he didn’t watch again until Jon Pertwee took over. As an adult, though, Moffat wasn’t blind to the questionable logic of the Cybermen’s plan, which involved “invading the universe by locking yourself in a fridge.” Amusing preamble over, Skinner and Moffat settled into a row of seats with Mark Gatiss. It was nice to think that here were three fans – a writer/actor/producer, comedian/chat show host and executive producer who gave up “a perfectly good film career” to actually produce Doctor Who – watching as fans in a room full of fans. Whoever you are, once you get the magic it never leaves you.

I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’. To my taste there are better, more consistent Troughton stories, but as a production perhaps it’s an archetypal Doctor Who story of the old school. For every moment of brilliance, from the undeniably iconic scene of the silver cyborgs emerging from hibernation to a soundtrack of still contemporary sounding, ominous electronic music, there’s something risible like the silent movie-level special effect of a cuddly Cybermat attacking villainess Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin). Excellent to execrable in two scenes: classic Doctor Who in a nutshell.

With a slight technical hitch between episodes one and two (one wag was heard to comment that after the story being missing for years, he hoped that it hadn’t been lost again) the interview with Patrick Troughton’s son Michael was brought forward. It was captivating to hear his reminiscences of being a child in the ‘60s whose father was suddenly Doctor Who, a status that, predictably, brought an “increase in the number of friends I had at school.” Particularly fascinating were his memories of how seriously his father approached the role, drawing different ideas for his interpretation of the Doctor in a small notebook, and how this “very nervous”, committed actor had to grit his teeth and endure negative audience feedback for his first story. It’s had to imagine these days, but Troughton’s casting was an incredible gamble and might not have worked.

After the remaining episodes, during I could hear Shirley Cooklin’s relations laughing good naturedly behind me at her performance (which I suspect was rather melodramatic even for 1967), it was time for the main panel of guests. Although perhaps lacking the frisson of having members of the first ever production team on stage together in January, it was still an impressive line up. The Hartnell to Troughton changeover was represented by director Michael Ferguson and companion actress Anneke Wills (Polly), while ‘Tomb’ itself was denoted by no less than four actors – Deborah “Leatherlungs” Watling (companion Victoria Waterfield), Cooklin, Bernard Holley (archaeologist Peter Haydon) and Michael Kilgarriff (the Cyber Controller himself).

As with the Hartnell panel, the chat was by turns affectionate, nostalgic and respectful. Wills declared herself “completely in love with” Troughton, Watling remembered being introduced to the drinking culture of the BBC Club at lunchtime and “never looked back”, while Ferguson believed that Troughton was “by far the best actor” of all the Doctors and, arguably, helped to make Doctor Who respectable within the acting profession. I have to say, though, that Kilgarriff’s story about how bad William Hartnell was in a pantomime after he left the series was spectacularly misjudged; in an auditorium full of people who like Doctor Who, you could almost see the tumbleweed blowing across the stage during his anecdote. 

If I have a criticism, it’s that with so many choice guests some of them didn’t get an equal share of the limelight – Watling, in particular, could have been given more time – but with the event over-running because of a technical breakdown this was understandable. Overall, the whole thing came across as a loving and joyous celebration of “the cosmic hobo”, and while I’m still not that keen on ‘Tomb’ as a story, on the big screen the brilliance of Troughton’s performance still burns brightly. If we have anyone to thank for the show still being on today, it’s him.

Kudos to the BFI for making the late 1960s live again during a very enjoyable afternoon – and on a Saturday, too.

This article first appeared in the 2013 issue of Peladon fanzine. Thanks to Steve O'Brien for permission to reprint. For more Doctor Who features and other TV coverage, check out Steve's website:

'DOCTOR WHO' Series 7 finale



Doctor Who series finale, BBC1, 7pm, 18 May 2013

Series 7 – or Series 33 – came to an end in a ground breaking, triumphant mix of gothic visuals, daring storytelling and emotive performances. But did it completely succeed as TV drama?

There’s no getting away from it. For me – and so, it seems, a lot of the viewing public, both committed fans and viewers in search of something decent to watch on a Saturday night – this year’s 50th anniversary season of Doctor Who hasn’t delivered. I don’t think I expected too much, but four out of the eight of 2013’s stories have been somehow… insubstantial. However, the standard encouragingly picked up with Mark Gatiss’s The Avengers-in-the-Victorian-era frolic ‘The Crimson Horror’ and Neil Gaiman’s Cyberman psychodrama ‘Nightmare in Silver’. By the time Saturday 18 May rolled round, my enthusiasm for my favourite old show had been restored, and, almost ritualistically, just like in the old days, my anticipation mounted as I sat through the supporting features (for the record: the end of Pointless, the evening news and yet another disappointing weather forecast).  

Whoever writes the dialogue for the BBC announcers couldn’t have come up with anything more thrilling, apocalyptic and game changing than the statement that introduced the final episode: “Everything you thought you knew about the Doctor is about to change – forever.” Happily, that declaration proved to be an accurate summary of the extraordinary, if slightly frustrating, story that followed.

It really was a bravura piece of television. I’ve always thought that Doctor Who is at its best when it shows you things that no other television drama can, and that was certainly the case here. A nightmarish fairytale version of Victorian England sat side by side with present day scenes that could have come from a daytime soap opera and, in the second act, a high gothic vision of the far future, iconic dead TARDIS and all. Director Saul Metzstein also ensured that the small cast wasn’t overwhelmed by the visuals, and, with a less frenetic pace than has sometimes been the case recently, the menace and threat came from what the characters said as much as the situations they found themselves in.

Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), Strax (Dan Starkey) 
and Jenny (Catrin Stewart). (Image: BBC)
And just look at that supporting cast. Where else would you find a lesbian humanoid lizard in love with a Victorian maid with a militaristic ‘man’ servant who was the Doctor Who equivalent of Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army? Like the story, and the series in general, all these vividly contrasting elements shouldn’t work, but somehow they do. When Steven Moffat took over Doctor Who he said his tenure wouldn’t be as commercial as the Russell T Davies era, and Vastra, Jenny and Strax are the epitome of that approach.

They’re not gimmicks, either. The love affair between the two women says more about humanity being reconciled with the original inhabitants of the Earth than any moral allegory, while the military humourlessness of Strax is both really funny – this episode’s killer Straxism: “surrender your women and your intellectuals” – and oddly touching. The disgraced Sontaran refused to give up defending his friends in the face of overwhelming odds – this episode’s other killer Straxism: “I think I’ve got them on the run, sir” – so that you find yourself laughing and worried for the little potato head at the same time. All these engaging traits, carefully worked into the characters, suggest that the “Victorian Avengers” are far more deserving of their own spin-off series than a certain Captain.      

And the man himself? In common with the darkness that metaphorically and visually surrounded the story, Matt Smith was given the opportunity to underplay and show what a sensitive and subtle actor he is – and I do wish the production team would let him do that more often. The Doctor crying seemed rather out of character, but, thinking about it, faced with having to visit my own grave, I’d be blubbing too. Smith’s scene with River, where the Doctor effectively said his last goodbye to her, was one of his finest moments in the role, full of pathos and restrained emotion (although I bet a lot of fans were saying, “Not another bleeding snog!”)

The Great Intelligence (Richard E Grant). (Image: BBC)
So far, so brilliantly done character drama. What I’m in two minds about, and this is true of a lot of recent stories, is the logic (or otherwise) of the fantasy elements. For example, the River the Doctor kisses is a projection, but he’s able touch her – how?  Likewise Clara’s epic protection of the Doctor at all points on his timeline. What exactly did she do? Save him in every incarnation, presumably. In every story? So it would seem. Doesn’t that make him a bit, well… rubbish as a hero? Does it mean his entire history is different/the same because of Clara? If she was meant to be on the look out for the Great Intelligence (an icily hateful performance by Richard E Grant) how could she know about it, because all the Claras we’ve seen didn’t remember anything about the Doctor… And if the First Doctor met a Clara on Gallifrey – where the word “knackered” is, apparently, part of the Time Lord vocabulary – how come the Eleventh didn’t remember her? And how did the Doctor rescue Clara from inside his own head (or somewhere)? And, and…

The intention seems to be to accept what you’re shown at face value and don’t think about the details, but it’s a long way from the watertight plotting of ‘Blink’. Does that matter? Well, one wag on a recent edition of 8 Out of 10 Cats significantly said that what really annoyed him about Doctor Who was that you’d invest in the drama between the characters, then come the finale of the story the Doctor would wave his Sonic Screwdriver around and magically solve the problem, something that wouldn’t happen in a conventional drama like Vera Drake. He has a point; just because a story is fantasy it shouldn’t give you a licence to cheat or not think things through properly. Don’t forget Doctor Who is made by the same people who produce Sherlock, the most tightly plotted drama on television.

That criticism aside, ‘The Name of the Doctor’ pressed all the right buttons for this fan who is so old he can (vaguely) remember The Power of the Daleks. Using clips of the old Doctors, as well as carefully shot stand-ins, was an inspired way of doing a multi-Doctor story, neatly getting round the drawbacks of ageing or departed actors. It was also satisfying to see the series in its 50th anniversary year acknowledging the novels that kept the spirit of the series going when the show was off the air, with the idea of the Doctor’s death, and the notion that all his regenerations exist together somewhere, riffing on similar ideas in the BBC Books and Virgin New Adventures ranges.    

And that cliff hanger? It summed up the whole episode as it was wonderful and vaguely irritating at the same time. Wonderful because we’re face to face with the Doctor’s darkest secret, irritating because it depended entirely for its impact on this Doctor being played by a world famous movie actor, a point reinforced by the on-screen ‘Introducing John Hurt as…’ caption. A failure of the storytelling, or a wildly audacious and self aware piece of direction?

Whatever the case, there was enough in ‘The Name of the Doctor’ that was stylish, moving, funny, innovative and dramatic to have me on tenterhooks for the anniversary story. On the eve of his 50th birthday, the Doctor is in rude health.

(Image: BBC)