GUEST POST – All around me are familiar faces: The Return of Old Characters

by Z. P. Moo

 

There’s a lot to be said for bringing back characters from the past to Doctor Who and with rumours of major characters set to return for series eleven it seemed good to take a look at how this has been done by Doctor Who before.

Because while bringing someone back is always good for fanservice purposes and it can work wonders for promotion, this in and of itself is not a good enough reason to do it. If you’ve only got X Character back because you can and only because you can then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. General favourites in this category include but are not limited to Captain Jack Harkness, the Rani, and Jenny. Often Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor will make an appearance (even though he already came back five years ago).

The way I see it, when it comes to bringing back characters it only needs to be done if there’s a reason this character needs to be in that story or some way their presence enhances the story or themes. Otherwise it risks getting in the way of a show that really should be trying to forge ahead into new territory instead of clinging to a vision of the past that arguably never really existed.

That’s not to say bringing back old characters hasn’t worked. Let’s look at four examples of when the show’s revival has got this right.

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GUEST POST – Objectification in “Mona Lisa’s Revenge”

by Ricky Starr

 

The final worthwhile serial in the 2009 run of The Sarah Jane Adventures explores predominantly ideas about art, which is unsurprising, given that it is set almost entirely in an art gallery, and its antagonist (such as she is) is none other than the Mona Lisa, come to life. Perhaps more interestingly, it also examines objectification, primarily (though not exclusively) of women, and sexual politics more generally.

The most obvious starting point in regard to this is Lionel Harding, the curator of the International Museum and a general misogynist. His behaviour is deeply problematic, and he is called out for it at every stage in the episode, as the main perpetrator of direct objectification and sexist behaviour. Prior to the events of the episode, it is revealed that, noticed by the Mona Lisa, he would be prone to staring at her for an unduly long period of time (here quantified as twenty seconds, but the number is simply an analogue for the penetration of a gaze which is disrespectful to the point of objectification). He refused to view the Mona Lisa on her own terms (represented at this point by the rules of the Louvre, but again, it works as an analogue), instead looking at her as an object, whilst refusing to consider that she could be a person on her own terms, with thoughts of her own on the matter of the male gaze. Having been treated as an exhibit rather than a person, it is no wonder that Mona Lisa is interested in “revenge”.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Monthly Range: “The Lure of the Nomad”

Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle the latest Monthly story from Big Finish! It has tentacles, music, and the Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch. Hang tight (and avoid the spoilers after the “read more” tag!).

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: Well, that rather was an excellent surprise. Matthew J. Elliott has had a rather uneven output so far, feeling kind of restricted by the structure of the Monthly Range, but this is honestly one of the best monthly stories this year. It’s certainly not bereft of the flaws he has exposed before – but he managed to bring a real freshness to the proceedings, and to make the story about some truly original and interesting conceits. This feels like a story that has never been told before – and, on top of that, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had with the range in ages. It’s maybe better at being a quotable comedy than “Kingdom of Lies”, and that was hilarious already. No, it’s just a really good two hours of drama, that keep the hot streak of 2018 absolutely intact and make me really excited where Elliott goes from there. I feel like with this, he might have developed into a really original and compelling voice in the world of Who and I hope he makes the most of it.

SCRIBBLES: I’m not going to pretend there isn’t a lot that’s clunky about this story. The dialogue is frequently expository, on-the-nose, and far too didactic, when it isn’t playing into archetypes. But this story largely makes that into a virtue. Elliot’s stilted verbosity sounds natural when Colin Baker is the star, becoming quite infectiously fun and quotable, and the script on a conceptual level is very savvy, awash with ideas and with clever subversions to brush aside the more archetypal characters. This isn’t a masterpiece, and yet I really half want to call it one, because it’s a story I just feel fonder of as time passes. For the story so far this year I was most apprehensive about at first, I think this has rather become something of a favorite of mine already. It’s just a damn good and very witty time with an effective emotional punchline, and Colin Baker sinks his teeth into it with gusto.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Poems in Hexameters: The Recontextualization of the Sixth Doctor

(Be warned, innocent reader: this article contains a lot of spoilers about Big Finish audios. I tried to keep them to a minimum, but tread carefully!)

Watching the Classics nowadays is an interesting experience. It’s not just that we impose onto them our contemporary politics (as you have had ample cause to notice if you’ve ever looked at the DoWntime’s team own marathon); it’s that the very thematic and conceptual categories we employ to discuss them have been heavily influenced, if not completely redefined, by the New Series.

Regeneration, for instance. El Sandifer has shown with considerable eloquence how the events of “The Tenth Planet” have nothing to do with our modern idea of regeneration, being much closer to the hero of the show dying and another, strange weird guy taking his place (1). And you could do a whole study of how that precise event has subsequently been recontextualized by the show, be it through “Twice Upon a Time”’s retconning it, or through stories like “The Plague of Dreams” or “Falling” adding extra weight to it (2) – in fact, I will probably end up writing just that. But really, regeneration pre- and post-2005 are two entirely different beasts. In the classics, bar of course the outlier that is “The Tenth Planet”, the regeneration is a moment of symbolical and portentous importance, a key moment for the show, marking a transition. But it’s not really the culmination of a character arc, as we understand it now. The discarding of a previous incarnation is a result of the facts of the story – which, yes, might sometimes inform you about the character that we’re saying goodbye to (“The Caves of Androzani” is a prime example of that). So, of course, when there’s such a considerable output of expanded universe stories, well, you can bet writers are going to create a lot of arcs in which they will retrofit existing continuity.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – UNIT: Cyber-Reality

Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle the latest UNIT boxset, starring the Cybermen and the Master. Grab your VR goggles, we’ve got a code silver. Oh, yes, and beware of spoilers after the “read more” tag!

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: Our enjoyment of UNIT sets, in the past, has varied quite a lot. It’s a range that has had some difficulties finding its feet, I think it’s fair to say. They have nailed the more experimental and political sets, but the more traditional fares of the even-numbered sets haven’t quite been perfect. Cyber-Reality is a definite improvement – it is very much a big, fanservice-filled product, that doesn’t reach the heights of Silenced or Encounters, but it manages to make the aesthetics and themes of the range cohere and seep through the traditional Who tropes. The Master and the Cybermen are not really here for a deep, nuanced session of thematic exploration, but even then, you can see that there are strong visions beyond them. This set “gets” it. It gets what the range is about, it gets what the Cybermen, especially in their latest, and arguably best, version, are about; and it gets, perhaps better than any other story so far, what the Jacobi Master is about. It doesn’t really push any boundaries or challenge the listener, but that’s okay. I feel like the range is allowed to just be breezy fun trad every once in a while, as long as it is intelligent about it. That’s really the best way to describe this set: intelligent trad. There are worse things to be.

SCRIBBLES: Cyber-Reality, as a whole, is an enticing cocktail of ideas, themes, and continuity elements. The selling point of Kate and Osgood going up against Derek Jacobi’s exceptional Master and the Cybermen is utterly tantalizing, and writers Guy Adams and Matt Fitton waste no time assembling a heady mix of themes and concepts to construct around it. I think it’s no reach to say that there are some of the most exciting ideas the Cybermen have ever had here, as well as what is for my money the best characterization Jacobi has yet gotten on audio. Furthermore, there is some delicious satire of data mining and exploration of VR gaming. Unfortunately, there’s a but. While the elements in this set are all exceptional, the plotting doesn’t always land, and the human element is often lost in a more cerebral landscape. If you adore the concepts, and there’s every reason to, this set will be enough. But if you want to be stirred beyond that, you will have slim pickings, though there is one startlingly good character-based exploration that I will get to in the full spoiler section. The concepts also don’t quite reach an intellectual payoff, despite all being exciting elements, leading to a delightful concluding episode with an unfortunately perfunctory resolution. This is a set I would absolutely recommend, but for the sheer wealth of possibilities it suggests with rapid-fire enthusiasm, rather than for the overall product.
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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Torchwood: Believe

Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, let us pray together to our Lord from Space, for Tibère and Scribbles are talking about the first full-cast Torchwood set, “Believe”, written by Guy Adams. Grab your scalpel and your expensive books, it’s time for some religion. And some spoilers after the “read more” tag, as per usual.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: There’s loads to unpack in that one. I think that the best praise I can give it is when it comes to its structure. It’s a very polished, very well-crafted piece of fiction – Guy Adams has proven, earlier this year with Vienna: Retribution that he’s really, really good with these three-parts epics, and that holds true here. It’s not quite as good, and we’re gonna get into why soon, but it’s still a really engrossing experience: there’s something wonderful in piecing together the plot, which is told to us out-of-order, scenes taking a new, sometimes radical meaning as they are inserted into the narrative in different and sometimes contradictory ways. So, as set, it coheres. As a crossover … Well, people that want to buy to get the team interacting together might be disappointed – they spend most of their time apart, but really, I don’t mind that. Torchwood always was at its best in small, intimate interactions, and I do feel like all characters get their share of the spotlight. Sometimes in problematic ways, but it does find something to say about all its leads, which is pretty neat in a set that has to juggle five main characters! Finally, there’s considering it, well, as a piece of the rebooted Torchwood range. And then, well, there are bits that really work, and some that feel a bit odd. It’s certainly engaging, and rooted deeply into the aesthetics that have been established since 2015 while finding new angles to tackle them – but it does feel a bit too ambitious for its own good sometimes, and there are many thematic dead ends that could have been developed more. Really, a set like that is an event more like than anything – and I think it hits the mark on that front. The story itself maybe won’t enter the annals as an all-time great, but there’s still a lot to appreciate (well, appreciate – it’s a very, very uncomfortable story, and I would advise you to think about it if certain topics are triggers for you). That’s my hot take, pretty much. Believe it or not.

SCRIBBLES: I have a lot of admiration for this set. It is unafraid of controversy, which it is sure to generate, and tackles a number of phenomenal and relevant themes that are very much in connection with the ongoing pulse of the world. This is a three hour explanation of faith, transhumanism, and sexual coercion and consent. All three are also themes that are particularly important to me, two of which having deep personal connections to my life, and one being a casual academic interest. Unfortunately, I must say, I did not appreciate the way all those themes were handled. Author Guy Adams strives to say interesting things about vital, raw topics, but they do not all land where I wish they would. I was nearly unable to review this set, and briefly considered not even finishing listening to it, because it is a very triggering and dark story that plays risky games with aforementioned topics. I appreciate the boldness and vision, but I think the success of these musings varies greatly, and is in some cases fairly painful for me. It also has some odd impacts on some of the characterization, which is sure to be controversial. I only want to support the drive and ambition that leads to a writer feeling willing to engage with important issues, and I think Torchwood has often been good at that, but compared to a recent dark story, “Tagged,” I don’t think this has quite the same sympathy, understanding and deftness. “Believe” is a good attempt, but a very flawed one.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Torchwood, series 4: “The Last Beacon”

Welcome to DoWntime’s new, not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles look at the newest Torchwood monthly story, the writing debut of Ianto actor Gareth David-Lloyd! Grab your trekking equipment, we’re going on a trip. A spoiler-filled trip, of course, at least after the “read more” tag, so mind your steps, and your heads.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: It’s always kind of a gamble when Big Finish lets an actor write for them. I haven’t liked all the previous stories of that sub-genre, that’s all I can say, and I’ll admit I was skeptical when I heard that Gareth David-Lloyd would be penning one of the fourth series’ episodes. But honestly, I was wrong. This is really good – it really feels like a new voice in the world of Who, and a compelling one with that. It has some flaws, like all first works tend to have, but it always feels like something new, original and fresh, and David-Lloyd could prove himself to be one of the most interesting writers of the range, with some time. It’s promising – while being a thoroughly fun time, which is never a bad thing in the world of Torchwood. Having these characters in isolation, just having a mostly carefree and fun ride, really does wonders for them – it’s the kind of episodes I really wish the televised Torchwood had more often. Not only does it make these characters more likeable and fun, but it also adds a lot of layers to them, in ways that never seem artificial or shoehorned in. Ianto never got that much of a backstory in the show, outside of his Canary Wharf trauma – and this does the job really quite well, making him into someone more interesting, more fully-realized. It touches something really lovely and emotional, really – it kind of reminded me of these summers I spent in the country at my grandfather’s, and I think that’s largely the point of the script. Turning the lovely landscapes of the past into one of Torchwood’s transitory, fantastical spaces. I’m all for that.

SCRIBBLES: This is sweet. Surprisingly so. Gareth David-Lloyd writes a love letter to the Welsh nature of Torchwood, and unlike Torchwood generally does, it really goes for showing that love. It’s something lovable as a result. Burn Gorman gets to play light comedy for a change, which goes a long way to making Owen a more bearable character, and serves as a nice contrast to his deeply disturbing and uncomfortable, though fitting, other two audios. And Ianto gets to be lovely and upbeat, which is welcome. It’s not especially deep, and the plot meanders here and there, but it wins you over with charm and warmth, uncharacteristically for Torchwood but entirely welcome. The meandering is the point, really, with a solidly assembled plot rattling away underneath that allows the sprawling comic set-pieces to land and manages to build to a lovely emotional moment in the end. Lovely, that’s the word for this.

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LOOKING FOR TELOS – The Daleks’ Master Plan (part 2/2: episodes 7 to 12)

The Whoniverse is wide, and rich, and crazy.

And sometimes, bits of it go overlooked. There’s no way around it, we, at DoWntime, are children of the New Series. Our cultural sensibilities and our tastes in Who have been shaped by it. And of course, when we’re embarking in the big task of producing Discourse, we naturally tend to tackle recent events, controversies and stories. But that doesn’t mean the twenty-six seasons of Classic Who are undeserving of some in-depth coverage – and what better way to deliver said coverage than to watch it.

ALL of it. In order. Without skipping anything.

We’re looking for our telos, and it starts now.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – “Knock Knock”: Visual Storytelling and Politics of the Haunted House

I don’t like “Knock Knock” much.

I think it’s obvious if you’ve followed the coverage of last series on this blog – it was my least favourite episode of 2018, and I might go as far as calling it the nadir of the Capaldi era (it’s that or the Whithouse Lake two-parter, really). The general reasons for that dislike are pretty simple: it’s a boring piece of work that conceptually does nothing that hasn’t been done much better before, and sells itself on scares while utterly forgetting to be scary. But, the more I think back on it, the more I’m convinced there is actually more to it – or rather, something lacking at a deeper level. So, let’s investigate.

A good place to start this search, as often with Who, is with El Sandifer, and her review of the episode.

“ …because the culprit in Knock Knock’s abject blandness is pretty obvious: this is 100% down to the malign influence of Blink. And not just in the sense that it’s literally the same house, but in the fact that it’s a house in the first place. Once upon a time, when Doctor Who wanted to be scary it would, you know, do some scary stuff. Monsters stalking the Blitz. Weird Satanic horror on an alien world. Evil tourist busses. Or, frankly, any number of scary ideas from the classic series, only a handful of which were ever “haunted house.” (1)

She is right in identifying Knock Knock as a part of this recent trend in Who history – which then asks the question of why exactly it fails. Why does “Blink”, with what is essentially the same base ingredients, or “Hide”, succeed, while this fails? It all comes down, in the end, to how exactly you define a haunted house, as a storytelling construct and a sub-genre of fiction.

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