Culture Focus// Doctor Who 50: Essential Doctor Who (Part Three)

When Doctor Who debuted in 1963 it was a different creature than the current series, currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of the show with a slew of ongoing and upcoming activities taking in all media. But in some ways it was the same – the time traveller wandering in space and time in a machine named the TARDIS was there, it was almost one of the first things we saw. It’s difficult to imagine how the majority of viewers felt at the time when faced with this science fiction show totally unlike anything else on the screen but it must have worked – because many of them are still here enjoying it half a century later.

As the countdown to the worldwide simulcast of the much anticipated anniversary special gets closer to its final call we take a look at some of the highlights of fifty years of storytelling. There may be controversy, head nodding or even Dalek mugs thrown in derision – but all we know is that this list is to our minds a good indication of why, despite some scratchy patches, Doctor Who is a phenomenon well worth recognising.

 The Curse of Fenric(1989)// The final few seasons of the original run of Doctor Who are perceived by many to somewhat of a marmite tinged form. But in amongst the oft-over exaggerated death cries there are some quality moments. The Curse of Fenric is most definitely one of them. 

Featuring Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor in the beginning stages of his remodelling as more mysterious figure than the one that initially surfaced there are nice touches to be found all over this touching yet occasionally dark story.

Sophie Aldred as companion with a baseball bat sized difference Ace makes good of the script’s acting opportunities and builds her character up very well while the darker edges of Seven show most overtly in one scene as he uses the emotions of his companion to overcome the frankly creepy looking Haemovores.

It would be a lie to say that this was anywhere near the decline seen during the unsuccessful experiment of Colin Baker’s tetchy, egotistical incarnation. This is the show rising back up to a better quality of story with some dramatic writing that works even today. You can even see some parallels with New Who’s cross episode arcs as small hints lead to the resolution of the story in a very effective manner indeed.

 The Scream of the Shalka (2003)// I know what you’re saying. “No!” or “Never heard of it!” or even, if you’re that way inclined, “Uncanon! Uncanon!” and slumping off like the stereotypical Comic Book Store Guy from The Simpsons. But if you did that you’d be missing something special – the BBC’s treat, albeit released via BBCi, for the 40th anniversary way back in 2003. Presaging the new series, this web series features a different ninth Doctor in the form of Richard E Grant. It’s also animated, and features the voice of a certain David Tennant in a minor (and uncredited) role.

Until a certain Mr T Davies managed to persuade the BBC that New Who was a good idea this was set to be a continuation of the series – and surprisingly uses some of the same ideas that would come to appear in the TV series. The story itself sees the very acerbic Shalka Doctor (as he has become known) land on an Earth that is suspiciously quiet, seemingly against his will. The Tardis locks him out and soon he met the other characters of the story portrayed by Sophie Okonedo, later to be Liz 10 in The Beast Below, and later is revealed to have an android version of The Master, as portrayed by Derek Jacobi (Just like in the later-to-be-mentioned Utopia!)  in the Tardis.

Some may say this is not canon – but as a slice of unconventional Doctor Who it’s well worth a look. Go on, you know you want to!

Rose (2005)// Back in the far off days of 2004 when the BBC announced that it was reviving Doctor Who following a 16-year hiatus, the news was greeted with enthusiasm tempered by a dollop of scepticism. The 1996 Doctor Who TV movie starring Paul McGann had failed to ignite enough interest to develop into a series and a race had been on to produce a fresh, new version of the show for a 21st century audience.

The man chosen to re-launch the show was Russell T Davies, writer of shows as diverse as Children’s Ward, Queer As Folk and The Second Coming, which starred a certain Christopher Eccleston who RTD brought in as a new Doctor for a new generation.  There was general support among fandom as well as for former pop star Billie Piper who had been cast as new companion, Rose Tyler.

The first episode Rose ticked every box necessary to ensure that older fans were pleased while a whole new raft of fans were won over to the show.  RTD bridged the gap with the classic series by using the Doctor’s old enemies, the Autons and the Nestene Consciousness rather than invent a fancy new villain for the episode.

Rose shows a newly-regenerated 9th incarnation of our favourite Time Lord, battle-scarred and weary from the mysterious Time War, which had ended both the Time Lord and the Dalek races, setting the scene for a show with a tone of its own, not weighted down by its own history.

So, in Rose we have a damaged hero who meets a bright and lively Earth girl who’s full of heart. It’s hard to tell who needs who more. The girl who’s wasting her life on the Powell Estate, working in a department store, or the Time Lord in need of companionship on his 900-year-long (to date) travels.  Eccleston and Piper are superb here, as are Camille Coduri as Rose’s mother Jackie and Noel Clarke as boyfriend Mickey.

Rose was a fantastic showcase for the newly revamped Doctor Who. With wit, humour, great lines, non-rubbish effects and even a smattering of internet conspiracy theories, Rose gets everything right.  And the Doctor’s sublime “turn of the Earth” speech is screen writing at its absolute best.

Dalek// They may be the most famous and the most iconic of Doctor Who’s enemies, but for this reviewer, they’re also the most annoying. As a young Doctor Who fan, I didn’t so much hide behind the sofa in fear as run from the room in irritation at the interminable cries of “Exterminate!”  Even that great source of Doctor Who knowledge Blogtor Who derides them as “fascistic pepperpots” and “mad little bastards.”  They’re irritating, have no redeeming features and you can defeat them just by pegging it up the nearest staircase. Or can you?

And so when producer Russell T Davies brought back the whiny ones as part of the revamped series in 2005 it’s fair to say that news of the episode was greeted with the odd raised eyebrow.
And so we have writer Rob Shearman’s Dalek. Set in a then-future 2012 in an underground bunker in Utah, where squillionaire Henry van Statten has a store of alien artefacts, the Doctor and Rose (played by Christopher Ecclestone and Billie Piper) are called to the bunker by a distress signal. Separated by van Statten, Rose and the Doctor encounter a creature van Statten calls his “metaltron.”

Ecclestone is on top form as he is locked up with the last remaining Dalek in existence. The Time Lord’s horror and naked aggression towards the chained and weakened Dalek is in direct opposition to Rose’s compassionate reaction at seeing a broken creature. But then Rose has no knowledge of, or history with, the Dalek race and her touch – imbued with time energy – reanimates the Dalek, which unleashes destruction that could reach planetary levels.

The episode features a particularly difficult torture scene, which sits uncomfortably with the concept of a family show and may upset really little ‘uns watching, but the wicked van Statten ultimately gets his come-uppance in a completely pleasing manner.

Overall, Dalek is a dark tale that shows the quite terrifying power of a single Dalek and the episode single-handedly revived the race from Skaro as a significant and terrifying enemy for the Doctor.

(To be continued)

Words by Sebastian Gahan and Andrea McGuire.

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