Friday, 25 September 2015

Death of the Doctor written by Russell T Davies and directed by Ashley Way

This story in a nutshell: Sarah Jane Smith. Jo Grant (nee Jones). The Doctor. Oooh!

Until Next Time…Ms Smith: We are so lucky this story was written when it was otherwise we might have been denied the meeting between Sarah Jane Smith and the eleventh Doctor and it proves to be such an event it would have been devastating if we had missed out on it. When I hear that there was a planned cameo or role for Ace in SJA I feel a twinge of regret of what might have been but it doesn’t churn me up in the same way that this would if it hadn’t made it to the screen. I can still remember when The Death of the Doctor was announced and I got butterflies in my belly! Sarah Jane, Jo Grant and the eleventh Doctor! Could anything be any more exciting for a Doctor Who fan? I phoned Simon up at work in an incoherent babble of excitement and I could literally hear him tousling my hair sweetly as I went on! I built this up as something really special in my head so how itdidn’t disappoint still baffles me to this day!

Sarah holds firm to the belief that the Doctor is alive even when all the evidence points to the contrary. She always thought that if ever the Doctor died that she would know and that she would be able to feel it. What better way to get Sarah involved in the story than to get her journalistic fervour engaged in the heart of a very personal mystery? Its when she is confronted with his coffin and is told that he suffered terrible injuries that the first flicker of doubt crosses her face. I don’t know if she ever truly believed that he was dead but the mere thought of it must have stuck in her maw. Sarah admits that they used to tell so many stories about Jo at UNIT when she joined as though there was a hint of jealousy at the time, a feeling that she couldn’t quite match up. Her reaction to the Doctor is as joyful as ever, the only person who knows that this could be the Doctor turning up out of nowhere all youthful mad professor! Her ‘oh you’ve done it again’ is a scream. Its always funny when people criticise Sarah because she laughs in the face of their insults but Karim’s assertion that she has never met anybody as staggeringly pious as Sarah does hold some weight. When it comes to the Doctor it something close to hero worship. There is an acknowledgement at the close of this story that she is only one of many of the Doctor’s assistants and Sarah seems to accept that there is nothing special about her just as Elisabeth Sladen always thought. In both cases they couldn’t have been more mistaken.

Nutty Professor: We’re talking about the death of the Doctor here. His life has been put into danger plenty of times before, he has died ad nauseum to reach his eleventh regeneration and we have also explored the possibility of his death in an alternative world where a plethora of alien incursions stack up to create hell on Earth. All this is true but there has always been some really obvious get out clauses in every case. Cliffhangers were a staple of Doctor Who and you knew that there was going to be a hidden plot trick to get him out of the noose (metaphorically speaking), regeneration might be death but it has always been treated as a rebirth and on the odd occasion his death has even been a moment of triumph (The Parting of the Ways) and Turn Left could just jump back to our universe so the series could reclaim the Doctor (with a little help from Donna). This feels different. To have somebody from UNIT turn up and inform Sarah that the Doctor is unequivocally dead has an air of dramatic finality about that made me sit up and pay attention. The very idea is antithetical to my nature I rejected it outright like Sarah but Davies pushes on with the story as if this really was the case. The Doctor really is dead for 25 minutes. There is an Alien Bodies atmosphere to the early funereal scenes that are unique in this show and Doctor Who. Bravo. What’s more I never thought they would be able to top the Doctor gatecrashing Sarah Jane’s wedding but this is just about the only way they could have gone one better. When Davies said it would have been hard to bring the Doctor back into the series again he was telling the truth – what could be more cataclysmic than dealing with his death? The Doctor has no home planet to be returned to but his love of the Earth has become legendary and so the Shansheeth return him to his adopted planet instead. To be fair to them that is shrouded in just enough truth to work. To place him in a rocket and send him into space (‘as death as in life…’) would be very touching if this wasn’t all a big con. Turns out having an impromptu funeral for the Doctor means that not many of friends could be found.

He adopts his ‘come along…’ catchphrase to incorporate ‘…Smith!’ Sarah asks if it hurt when the tenth Doctor regenerated and he admits quietly that it always hurts. The Doctor admits once more that he cannot spend his life looking to the past simply because there is so much of it and that is all he would ever do with his time. In The End of Time he looked back on all of his old companions before he died as a gift to himself and he was so proud. Given the choice between saving the world and saving the children…the Doctor goes the wrong way! When the Doctor interacts with the SJA kids it reminds me of how well Matt Smith interacts with children and how much more fun Doctor Who might be had he ran off with the younger Amy than the deathly dull (and pretty irritating) older version. His wild, mad eyed plan to encourage Sarah and Jo to give the memory weave everything that they have in their memories, encouraging them to get lost in their memories of him is one of my favourite ever eleventh Doctor moments. There’s a delicious non reaction when Jo tells the Doctor that she will get him into trouble with the Time Lords – it’s a reminder of something that brought a great deal of drama to the Davies era but is barely mentioned in the Moffatt one. The way the Doctor brushes this off without contradicting her or telling her the truth is really lovely, whether its for his benefit or hers.

Hippy Chick: There was absolutely no need to re-invent Jo Grant the same way Russell T Davies did for Sarah Jane because this was only ever going to be a one off visit and it was all right there for the taking in her three years on the show. She bumbles her way into the funeral; a cuddly, scatterbrained old woman with enough sunshine in her personality to light up the dark side of the moon. Jo is marvellously characterised here and precisely the sort of grandmother we all wished we had. The Doctor has taught her well and instead of recoiling from the Shansheeth she marvels at how beautiful they are and admits that she missed seeing such creatures. Its been such a long time since she has been called Jo Grant and Sarah makes the logical observation that she turned up just after Jo left (its such an obvious point to make but having it spelt out that these two giants of classic Who are meeting still gives me goosies). Jo’s life was one of absolute fulfilment and has lived and loved every second of her marriage to Cliff with seven children and twelve grandchildren (and number thirteen on the way). Davies always manages to find something at the heart of his characters that will break yourheart and with Jo it is her quietly devastated reaction that the Doctor and Sarah have been reacquainted several times and that he never came back to see her. It makes you love her that little bit more when she refuses to hold that against Sarah and just says happily ‘he must have really liked you.’ Watching Jo and Sarah working together so effectively, never jealous of each other but basking in their shared history with the Doctor is one of the highlights of this series. Learning that the Doctor is now travelling with a married couple makes Jo wonder how it would have worked out if Cliff had joined her and the Doctor on their travels because she only left him to get wed. Admitting that she always was a bit dumb and that she still is heartbreaking especially when she actually asks the Doctor if he thought she was stupid. She’s waited her whole silly life to see the Doctor again and wondered if one day the TARDIS might appear in the middle of the jungle and he would step out to visit. Wonderfully the Doctor turns his absence in her life into something a triumph because Jo has fulfilled so many of her dreams and then some. She’s lived a life of adventure, or politics and morality and has been to most beautiful places on the Earth. Not even the TARDIS could pin her down because she is always on the move. When she thinks she is going to die Jo tells the Doctor that it was worth it just to see him again which she has waited for her whole life. Jo doesn’t care what the TARDIS looks like it is still absolutely the same ship she travelled around time and space in but she has to force herself to leave before she wants to stay for good. Heading off to Norway by hovercraft, telling Clyde and Rani they are gorgeous and imploring Sarah Jane to get a fella…it’s a fine farewell to a much loved companion.

Journalist in Training: There’s not a great deal of time to deal with Rani but she gets to stare at Clyde’s bum for a long time so its not a complete waste of her time!

Graphic Artist: Clyde and Rani are given some fine material here and its great that Davies uses his power that was bestowed on him in The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith to suggest the Doctor’s return. I really giggled at his reaction to Rani’s insult about his height, Daniel Anthony has got these comic reactions down pat by now.

Boy Genius: Luke only gets a cameo at the beginning but his continued presence in the series is much appreciated (in any other show to writer out a character like they have would have meant closing the door on them but SJA has consequences and continuing tales to tell for Luke) and in the trusted hands of Russell T Davies his dialogue is sharper and his characterisation is better than ever.

Cute Nephew: It might be really wrong of me to say to say so but Santiago Jones is absolutely gorgeous. Honestly he could have been the dullest character on two legs because he ticks so many of my boxes. Just as the hat of fortune gets passed back and forth between Sarah and Jo (one has lived a very fulfilling life but the other has had fresh adventures with the Doctor) the same is also true of Santiago and Clani – he might have lived a far more travelled life but he barely gets to spend any time with his parents. It reminds us of how lucky Clyde and Rani are to be able to inhabit parallel realities and go back in time and then get home in time for tea with their folks.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Think of all the lives he’s touched. The whole planet should be in mourning…’
‘He can change his face!’ ‘I know but into a baby’s?’ ‘Oi! Imagine it from my point of view! The last time I saw you you were what Jo Grant? 21? 22? Its like someone baked you!’
‘Not as daft as they look for some batty old pensioners and a bunch of ASBO kids…’
‘Every planet, every face, every madman, every loss, every sunset, every scent, every terror, every joy…every Doctor. Every me.’
‘The coffin was the trap, the coffin was the solution…that’s so neat I could write a thesis!’ – Davies comments on the fact that he can write a satisfying ending!
‘Its daft though because we were both saying that we had this theory that if you ever died that we’d feel it somehow. We’d just know. But that’s just silly, isn’t it?’ ‘I don’t know because between you and me if that day ever comes…I think the whole universe might just shiver’ – this really nicely sets up series six of Doctor Who.
‘I can’t be sure but there’s a woman called Tegan in Australia fighting for Aboriginal rights. There’s Ben and Polly in India running an orphanage there. There was Harry, oh I loved Harry…he’s a Doctor, he did such good work with vaccines he saved thousands of lives. There’s a Dorothy something, she runs that company Charitable Earth and she’s raised billions. And there’s this couple in Cambridge, both professors – Ian and Barbara Chesterton. Rumour has it they’ve never aged, not since the sixties. I wonder…’ – Ian and Barbara did get it together! Bloody marvellous!

The Good:
  • How could they ever top this pre titles sequence? UNIT troops converging on Sarah’s house as she storms out and gives them their marching orders. For anybody who has watched Sarah’s three and a bit seasons on Doctor Who and seen her dally with UNIT or for anybody who has watched the first three seasons of SJA and her uneasy current alliance with UNIT or for anybody who just likes an exciting opening…this is magnificent. It gave me goosebumps when I first watched it and it just gave me goosebumps now (it might have something to do with the awesome Murray Gold UNIT theme too). As if that wasn’t enough the bombshell that the Doctor is dead is enough to kick start this story with one hell of a dramatic shock. That Russell T Davies, he knows how to make an impact!
  • Some people have to walk into children’s TV show and take hold of a part and make it broad but not ridiculous and others use it as an excuse to sink into melodramatic farce. Stand up Laila Rouass who does a remarkable job with what could have been an easy role to screw up as Colonel Karim. What’s especially impressive is that she shows no signs of duplicity in the first half and hour and could be our new liaison with UNIT for the Sarah Jane Adventures. In fact she better played and more interesting than most of the UNIT characters we met in The Sontaran Stratagem and Planet of the Dead! When she admits that there is nothing here for her on Earth anymore it hints at a dark backstory that we never get to find out. Karim dies in a massive explosion which is a much rougher ending than most villains get on this show but again marks this story out as something a bit different. We get to see her screaming in the flames just before she is taken out by the blast.
  • Intergalactic undertakers – what a great idea! The Shansheeth have a very logical reason for turning up in the story as the carers of the dead, trawling the battlefields of outer space and looking for heroes to bring home. It’s a very noble cause and a completely different kind of alien than anything we have ever met before so massive kudos on the score. When they turn up as Farscape style puppets I was clapping with delight…in a story that wants to bring together some of the best elements of the classic series (Jo, Sarah and UNIT) this is the most classic series looking monster we have ever seen. Farscape was a show with a hundred times the budget and resources of this show and they used to flaunt aliens like this all the time. I consider it a statement of their absolute confidence that they would happily place something this gloriously ridiculous in the heart of the story and (surprise surprise) get away with it.  Sarah’s incredulous reaction at their appearance is a nice wink at the audience. The Shansheeth plan to nab the TARDIS and prevent death in the universe and halt the endless weeping of millions is actually quite a noble cause but absolutely untenable. Its even understandable if they have devoted their lives dealing with the grief of the universe but death is necessary to keep the universe ticking over. Its great to see SJA making this statement, a similar one to that touted in School Reunion. Death defines us as much as living and it cannot be interfered with.
  • As much as I love the Attic it looks pretty shabby and domestic compared to the most impressive UNIT base than even Doctor Who has ever offered us. Hollowed into the side of Mount Snowden with nightmarish turrets sticking from the mountains stomach and a very Stargate style tunnel leading inside.
  • Continuity ahoy! Well Gary Russell is script editing! Some people might not like so much continuity being injected into a story but SJA has developed enough originality of its own to indulge from time to time and the very purpose of Death of the Doctor is to celebrate what has been and how we have ended up here. The Brigadier is stranded in Peru (The Sontaran Stratagem) and Miss Shaw is on the Earth’s Moonbase (nice to see that Liz wound up in an important position…plus the first confirmation of the base that the Cybermen attack in 2020 when the second Doctor and friends visit!). Sarah remembers the last time she saw the Doctor (The End of Time) and the way he looked at her as if he was heading off to die. She doesn’t even know if the man in the coffin has a face she would recognise. We get to see clips from a myriad of adventures – The End of Time, The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith (which helpfully reminds us of Clyde’s artron abilities), Pyramids of Mars (the fourth Doctor brooding in the console room), Death to the Daleks (the third Doctor on Exillon wandering off with an oil lamp into the gloom), The Masque of Mandragora (the Doctor in the secondary control room, Hieronymous), Carnival of Monsters (the TARDIS in the hold of the SS Bernice, Drashigs), The Time Monster (the TARDIS in a ditch, Chronovore, the Master), The Three Doctors (the first, second and third Doctors together), Death to the Daleks (the City of the Exxilons), The Time Warrior (Linx the Sontaran), The Curse of Peladon (Hepesh, Alpha Centuri, Ice Warriors), Pyramids of Mars (Sutekh invading the TARDIS, mummies), The Seeds of Doom (Harrison Chase), Planet of Evil (the Anti Matter monster), Invasion of the Dinosaurs (big man T-Rex, the Brig), Robot (UNIT surrounding Bessie), The Hand of Fear (the hand, Eldrad), Terror of the Zygons (Zygons), Genesis of the Daleks (Davros, Daleks), The Android Invasion (androids, Styggron), Planet of the Daleks (Spiridons, Daleks, spaceship descending, the Dalek army, the Supreme Dalek), The Sea Devils (coming out of the sea), The Daemons (Bok, the Master, Azal), The Mutants (Skybase, the Mutts, the Marshall), Frontier in Space (Ogrons, Draconians, the Master and the Daleks),     Jo mentions visiting Karfel (Timelash), Drashigs (Carnival of Monsters), Axons (The Claws of Axos), Ogrons (Day of the Daleks, Frontier in Space), the Daleks (Planet of the Daleks), Azal (The Daemons), Sarah mentions Italy (The Masque of Mandragora), Cybermen (Revenge of the Cybermen), Zygons (Terror of the Zygons). The way that exquisite harp music stirs up these memories really makes my heart sing because we can close our eyes and see all the excitement and memorable dangers that Sarah and Jo got into during the classic series’ peak. Its one reference after another that breaks down any resistance I might have to fanwank and forces me to surrender to the past. The smell of lapacho reminds Jo of the royal palace of Peladon and Sarah admits that she has been there too (but there’s none of that ‘rebound’ nonsense that we had when the Doctor took Martha to New Earth, merely a sense of them loving the fact that they both visited somewhere that special). Whilst we’re basking in the warm glow of classic Who its rather fitting that there should be some exciting ventilation shaft scenes but given a contemporary spin (‘shuffle for your lives!’). If all this wasn’t enough to get your fanboy heart beating faster then there is also a spanking new quarry bleached crimson with planets filling the sky! It’s the first time that either Sarah or Jo have stepped foot on another planet since they left the Doctor and if that isn’t worth celebrating then I don’t know what is. Isn’t it wonderful that a throwaway line that the Doctor can regenerate 507 times in this story was taking so seriously by both the press and the shows fans? It shows that you are allowed to blow kisses to the past but don’t you dare meddle with it! During the nostalgia infused climax we get to walk through a whole plethora of Sarah Jane Adventures too and realise that she has built up her own mythology too which is a fine statement for this story to make.
Result: ‘Echoes of the Doctor all over the world. With friends like us he’s never going to die, is he?’ Death of the Doctor is on the cusp of being my favourite Sarah Jane Adventure and there are so many treasures to be unearthed that during its first screening I sat there with a massive grin throughout. Most of those treasures are kisses to the past and as a celebration of everything that made classic Doctor Who great I can’t imagine this being bettered. The flashiest claim is that it brings the eleventh Doctor into orbit with Sarah Jane but astonishingly Davies manages to make the return of Jo as special and her interaction with Sarah just as important. Beyond that there are so many wonderful moments that will whip you up into a nostalgic frenzy including a quarry posing as a planet, chases through ventilation shafts, imaginative but daft looking aliens and enough mentions of the past (and glorious clips) to keep even the most ardent Doctor Who fan sated. You can also look forward to a continuation of the story that began in The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, the astonishing notion of dealing with the Doctor’s death and a marvelously insane plot that forces our heroines to look backwards to give the villains the secret of time travel. Its absolutely packed with substance and so massive kudos to Russell T Davies for managing to make this so deliriously entertaining and not feel hurried and filling it to bursting with witty lines and glorious character moments. Its an astonishing achievement and for the chance to see him write for Matt Smith it is practically unmissable. The chemistry between Elisabeth Sladen and Katy Manning is so good you’ll wish Jo stuck around and Matt Smith’s gleeful interaction with the kids kicks ass and with both being juggled in the last episode you’ve got a story which keeps giving until its delightful final scene. Given the tragedy of recent years the moment when Jo cups Sarah’s face and tells her she is beautiful always brings a tear to my eye, its such a stunning statement about both characters and a fine tribute to Elisabeth Sladen. When so much of the Sarah Jane Adventures is about looking forward this is a gorgeous pause to look over its shoulder at everything that came before and acknowledge the weight of history that these characters share. Magnificent:10/10

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