Doctor Who

Saturday, June 4, 2005 by

A pause for breath this week, and a chance for all concerned to show us a bit more about how they live their life.

It was the closest we’ve come this year to what became an amusingly insufferable trademark of Doctor Who in the 1980s: endless scenes of characters standing about inside the TARDIS bickering. Some of the Peter Davison adventures seemed to major almost exclusively in these set-piece squabbles, thanks in part to there being no less than three companions having to trade lines and airtime with the Doctor inside that same never-changing over-lit console room, and also because the plots were so jargon-heavy that protracted sequences of static nattering were necessary for anything to make sense. That was also the point, of course, when the programme switched from being an all-inclusive family show to a fan-only zone, and therefore the beginning of the end.

The new series hasn’t had much truck with such earnest exposition hokum, chiefly because there’s never been that much exposition to get through. With neither the time nor the scope for sprawling storylines requiring reams of dialogue laced with gobbledegook, expediency has delivered episodes high on pace and volume but mercifully low on dour speeches to camera. In addition, there haven’t been that many characters around to permit freewheeling, multi-sided banter. Christopher Eccelston’s fortunately never had a full trio of associates tripping behind him, struggling to keep up with his youthful exuberance and mental flights of fancy. Until this week, that is.

Piling not just Rose and the newly-conscripted Jack but also Rose’s dopey boyfriend Mickey into the TARDIS all at once occasionally made for scenes with just as much chatter as incoherency. But it was a change from what we’ve had before, a dramatic change, and one that was worth doing. There wasn’t really any plot to this episode, more a sequence of alternately wry and emotionally-charged conversations. Nobody had that much of a good time either, the talking merely uncovering people’s respective fancies and foibles. This went for the week’s resident villain as well: a return visit from one of the Slitheen, poised to wreak havoc on a present-day Cardiff city centre.

Yet it all added up to an absorbing 45 minutes, albeit one that probably made precious little sense and boasted less appeal to the casual viewer than any in the series so far. This won’t have pulled in much by way of a new audience. Indeed, the episode must certainly rank as one of the most eccentric pieces of primetime Saturday night TV for many a year. With the Doctor chomping on steak and chips with a sassy alien, gags about Welsh devolution, numerous teary exchanges on a murky balustrade, giant cracks in the Earth’s crust, a peek into the TARDIS’s “soul” and several rounds of seaside postcard bawdiness, this was Doctor Who as far removed from its clumsy, counter-productive canonical past as it’s rarely dared go. There were elements here that wouldn’t have been out of place in the kind of Who pastiche essayed by a vintage Des O’Connor, Spike Milligan or Dick Emery.

Which was assuredly no bad thing. For while the episode could be categorised by any number of descriptions – a filler, an album track, an interlude, a talking shop – one charge that most certainly couldn’t be levelled is that it was something for the fans. There was plenty of everyday universal frippery and nonsense and heartache to, if not hook in anybody new, then hopefully hold onto those who’ve been looking in regularly these last few months. For those taking notes, the “bad wolf” business that’s turned up virtually every week was finally writ large (literally, by way of a giant mural inside Cardiff City Hall), as were the conflicting demands on Rose and Mickey’s relationship. For those hoping the Doctor would square circles, defy the odds and generally play the hero, there was dinner table jousting with Mrs Slitheen and some technological jiggery-pokery to stop the TARDIS blowing up. For those wanting more comical running about and shouting – well, everyone was at it after just five minutes.

The change of pace allowed one other element to come more to the foreground: the incidental music, supplied throughout the series by producer Russell T Davies’s composer-in-residence, Murray Gold. This has really been one of the most impressive aspects of every story to date, and a world away from the wretched electronic noodling that used to smother the old series like ugly wallpaper. With Doctor Who trading in emotion as well as excitement nowadays, it was only right that a soundtrack was commissioned which dealt as much with feeling and mood as statements of physical drama. As such the bulk of the truly memorable moments have come when the action has been closely coupled with music, be it the grand antics of last week’s Blitz-spirited derring-do, or this week’s sentimental heart-to-hearts between Rose and Mickey. The music has deepened the programme’s expressive resonance and broadened its emotional range. It’s also blessed the show with the best version of the Doctor Who theme for decades.

Anyway, next week things are back to normal with, by the looks of it, uninterrupted escapades and frantic confrontations from the off. Which in truth is just as well, as this kind of series should only pause for breath the once. Especially when Daleks are coming.


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