Sunday, December 03, 2023

Review: Doctor Who: Wild Blue Yonder (2023)

It's the second of the sixtieth Anniversary/Christmas Doctor Who specials for 2023, and already I'm feeling sad that we only (apparently) have three episodes/stories of the 14th Doctor and Donna to enjoy ... the pairing is so good, that you know that Gatwa and Gibson have very big boots to fill come Christmas Day.

A million years ago, I wrote a spin-off Doctor Who drama for Reeltime Pictures called Daemos Rising (available to buy here: I also wrote a second which remains unproduced called Face of the Fendahl. In both cases because these were low, tiny, zero, micro budget productions, and we couldn't afford hoards of extras, or even too many main actors, we had to make do with what we had, and so I fashioned the storyline so that we could have our stars playing 'evil' doubles of themselves ... who could try and trick the lead characters into thinking they were the real deal and thus win the game. This is not a million miles distant from what happens in 'Wild Blue Yonder'.

What's interesting is that for a 'special' episode the production team chose to take this approach. To forego lots of characters, for something which is very much a two-hander for the leads. In this way it is reflective of other low-cast episodes, like the opening episodes of  'The Mind Robber', 'The Ark in Space' and 'The Space Museum', or episode 3 of 'The Deadly Assassin' where the Doctor is up against Goth in the fantasy world of the Matrix. These episodes exist to explore the environment and the psyche of the lead characters as much as to entertain and set the scene.

The episode had no prepublicity at all ... zero ... not even any pictures. Apparently no advance screener copies were given to the news outlets as well ... all of which stoked up the anticipation as to what this episode might all be about ... and rumours were rife about cameos from old Doctors, the Master, the Daleks ... you name it ...

The Doctor and Donna arrive on a vast spaceship at some indeterminate point in time, hanging at the very edge of the known universe ... This place is huge, silent and empty. And very, very creepy.

In order to up the ante, the Doctor has to put the TARDIS into repair mode, which he does by shoving the sonic screwdriver in the lock. At which point the TARDIS' HADS (Hostile Action Displacement System - first seen operating way back in 'The Krotons') kicks in, takes one look around, and promptly dematerialises the ship as it's not safe where it was. Sadly the Doctor and Donna were not in it, so they are now stranded on the vast alien ship.

They explore, and the camera seems to be watching them, perhaps stalking them ... they are being observed. but by what?

They find a vast open corridor full of sort of pistons and flashy lights. The floor extends away in both directions to darkness and the horizon. There's something way down away from them so they walk that way. A mechanical voice says 'Fenslaw' and the whole corridor shifts and moves, the panels and pistons going to a different configuration. Later it says 'Colliss' and the same thing happens.

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Farther down the corridor is a frozen human-sized but alien-looking robot. It is immobile. But then it takes a step forward and stops again.

The mystery deepens. The Doctor and Donna find a control room with a more or less human-sized chair. Empty. There is however an odd occasional clang from outside the ship. Either side of the control room are two other areas. One contains strange slime-dripping rectangular sheets, the other contains pipes full of a blue liquid. The Doctor asks Donna to move all the rectangle things to the compartment above where they are while he looks at the liquid and tries to do something with it ...

And now, after all the mystery and intrigue, the plot kicks up a gear with the arrival of a Donna who isn't Donna and a Doctor who isn't the Doctor ... they, and the viewer, slowly realise that these facsimiles are not the real thing ... but what are they? What do they want? They seem intelligent but also have the memories of the originals ... are they creatures from the void who want to use the ship to head into the universe? Or something else entirely?

So now we're into good old fashioned Doctor Who monster territory as the creatures give chase, losing all control over their forms and size in the process. The Doctor and Donna head for another exit from the corridor but the ship sounds another word, 'Brate', and the infrastructure reconfigures around them, separating them.

It's cracking good fun this one ... with more than a touch of films like Alien and Event Horizon, the ship is as much a character as the Doctor and Donna, and the threat is undefined, unknown, terrifying and utterly unimaginable. There's also a healthy dose of Russell T Davies' own television episode 'Midnight' here. In that story it was an unseen creature taking over the characters and repeating what they said until they overtook the victim and became them ... here we have physical and visible creatures which want to take over the Doctor and Donna ... but how are they doing it ... what is the secret?

I'm not going to give away the rest of the plot here as it is quite clever and benefits a viewer coming to it cold.

I loved the episode. It was riveting and nail-biting in all the right places. The Doctor and Donna cut off from the TARDIS and the Sonic Screwdriver and having to rely on the Doctor's wits to get them through ... with a new scary monster which can pretend to be you ... great stuff.

Finally, two other elements of the production: the opening, and the ending. The opening first. And it's an odd beast indeed. It reads like a sketch from some other show: the Doctor and Donna meet Isaac Newton (Nathanial Curtis), cause an apple to fall on his head and he then discovers gravity (except he calls it mavity). The writing of this sequence seems not as polished as the rest, and the tone is completely at odds with the actual episode. This leads me to surmise that it was perhaps added at the behest of some senior dignitary at Disney, who thought that the episode was not funny enough, and that it should really be about these silly skits in time where the Doctor meets historical characters and that all known history is because the Doctor interfered, either deliberately, or, as here, accidentally. It's a total mis-reading of what the show is actually all about of course, but I can't think of a better reason as to why it's here. There seems no point ... except to have a joke about gravity now being called mavity, and then Donna calling it that during the rest of the episode ... I dunno ... Maybe it's an alternate dimension version or something?

It could, as some have suggested, tie into the Toymaker episode next week ... and this is the Toymaker creating paradoxes and playing with the Doctor ... we shall find out in due time I suppose ... or this will remain perhaps the oddest and most unrelated opening to a Doctor Who episode ever.

The end of the episode sees the Doctor and Donna reunited with the TARDIS and returning to Camden Market on Earth, where Donna's grandfather, Wilf, is waiting for them. Good old Bernard Cribbins ... one of the best additions to the show back in the day ... and a legend to everyone who grew up in the sixties and seventies ... Sadly this short scene turned out to be his final work and he died shortly after. RIP Bernard ... we'll not see your like again!  

But the ending leads into next week's episode ... people are going mad, attacking each other; a plane crashes ... the world's gone insane!  What is happening!!!???

Review: Doctor Who: The Star Beast (2023)

It's back! With a blaze of promotion from BBC Studios, Doctor Who is back on our telly screens ... it's the sixtieth anniversary, and while there has not been perhaps quite as much visible celebration as the fiftieth anniversary, when Matt Smith was piloting the TARDIS, and Peter Capaldi was waiting in the wings (ten years ago ... goodness ...) there has been an awful lot of celebratory fare on BBC iPlayer (including making the entire back catalogue of Doctor Who available, for free, to anyone in the UK who has a TV license) and BBC Sounds (several great archive radio presentations and a pile of new documentaries and explorations of all things Who).

But all of this takes second fiddle to the actual show itself ... and here we are ... 2023 ... and the Doctor has regenerated ... into a past face ... why?  This question is asked a couple of times in 'The Star Beast' so I assume it has some importance ... Jodie Whitaker as the 13th Doctor, has regenerated into David Tennant, previously the 10th Doctor, and also the Metacrisis Doctor, who is now the 14th Doctor. With an even more bouffant hairdo, and perhaps less manically introspective, Tennant makes a good fist of differentiating this version of the Doctor with the one that came before. It's subtle, but there are variances.

Which is just as well, as he's been teamed up again with Catherine Tate as Donna Noble (now technically Donna Temple as she married, but she still goes by the Noble name). Now poor Donna, the last time we met her, had taken the Doctor's regenerational energies inside herself and become a sort of hybrid Time Lord, the Doctor-Donna. The only way the Doctor could save her was to wipe her memory of ever having met the Doctor, and for her to live her life back on Earth as plain old Donna once more ... ah, but the Doctor also arranged for her to win the lottery so she had millions of pounds to keep her going as well ... it seems she gave all the money away ...

And that's where we sort of enter 'The Star Beast'. There's quite a lot to unpick here as the background is as interesting as the telling ... it all started back in 1979 in several issues of a newly launched Doctor Who Magazine, where a comic strip called 'The Star Beast', written by Pat Mills (and also credited to John Wagner, though Wagner didn't actually write this story) and drawn by Dave Gibbons, ran. This strip was very popular and it was later adapted as an audio by Big Finish ... and obviously Russell T Davies also remembered and liked it, as he got permission to adapt it as a television episode to launch the 14th Doctor's series of adventures.

The idea that Donna must never meet the Doctor again or she will die is laboured by the Doctor several times in the teleplay, and yet fate seems to keep bringing the Doctor into her orbit. First in Camden market where she is shopping with her daughter Rose (Yasmin Finney), 15 years old it seems but with the look and smarts of someone much older. Actress Finney does a great job with Rose though, making the character real and relatable. Then a spaceship crashes overhead and plunges to the ground at an old steelworks, but Donna is picking up her packages and misses it all (as usual).

The Doctor gets a lift in Donna's husband's (Karl Collins) cab to the crash site where Shirley Anne Bingham (Ruth Madeley) is introduced as UNIT scientific adviser number 56 and the Doctor says that the Doctor was the first ... what was Liz Shaw then? I thought she was the first Scientific Adviser engaged by UNIT ... hmmm ... is this some timey wimey thing going on ...

It seems that Rose is being bullied by the kids at school, they taunt Rose with Rose's 'deadname' of Jason, and Donna's mum, Sylvia (Jacqueline King) has trouble getting her head around the fact that Rose is now presenting as a girl - all this came over as very realistic to me ... it's the sort of thing we see and hear day after day in 2023. But back to the plot, and it seems that the spaceship didn't crash, it landed, and it's pilot had ejected, the escape pod landing close to Rose's home, where Rose and her pal Fudge (Dara Lall) - a hangover from the comic strip. In the episode he barely does anything - go to investigate.

And so we meet the Meep (performed by Cecily Fay, voiced by Miriam Margolyes) ... a cute white fluffy alien creature looking like a rather large bush-baby. The Meep seems hurt and scared and so Rose takes the Meep in.

Meanwhile some UNIT soldiers are 'infected' by something from the ship and go all blue-glowey-eyed ...

Before you can turn around, there are large insect-like things hunting the Meep (the Wrarth Warriors) and the infected soldiers are hunting the Wrarth Warriors, and they're all at Donna's house ... and so is the Doctor ... so how can Donna be kept apart from him ... OR SHE WILL DIE!!!

Of course she can't be kept apart and the group escape from the war-like carnage of the battle by use of several new sonic screwdriver functions - handy that device - and head for an underground car park where the Doctor convenes a council of war ... just what IS going on here?

Seems the Wrarth Warriors are not evil - they are using plasma and stun bolts - but the Meep is of course totally corrupt and evil and out to use Earth as the Meep's own larder. 

A word on pronouns. There's an awkward scene were Rose has a go at the Doctor for mis-gendering the Meep ... The Meep it seems is always just The Meep, rather than he, she, they or, I suppose, it ... and this just doesn't work. It gets in the way of the action, and just isn't necessary. I guess they felt it was to tie into the whole Rose is trans vibe they wanted to go with, which up to this point was subtle and well handled. The Doctor comments that the Doctor too doesn't have pronouns and is just 'The Doctor' ... hmmm (again).

Anyway ... the Meep takes everyone prisoner and they are locked up in the ship until the Meep can decide which to eat first ... and so the Doctor takes matters into the Doctor's own hands, and ushers everyone else out so the Doctor can start flicking switches and the like ...  but Donna, to whom realisation is coming, insists on staying behind to help ... so they both start flicking switches as a partition comes down between them (I'm not sure why this happens ... it seemed like a McGuffin to force Donna to full realisation before she could help the Doctor, but it also reminded me of the Doctor and Wilf when Wilf was trapped in the radiation machine and will die ...)

So the Doctor and an 'awoken' Donna flick switches and turn off the spaceship which has been causing lava-filled fissures to open up across London. The fissures close up and everything is ok again. Shades of the attack by the giant Racnoss in 'The Runaway Bride' where the Thames is completely drained of water, and is then put back right again with no ill effects!

But Donna is again full of the metacrisis regeneration energy ... and SHE WILL DIE!!

Except ...

Do I need a SPOILER TAG here?  Not sure ... so if you've not yet seen the episode ... stop reading here.

It's clever. Donna was GOING TO DIE!! from the metacrisis regeneration energy but she had a child ... and because of that, the energy could be shared with Rose ... and Rose can cope with this much better than Donna alone can do ... and so Donna and Rose ultimately don't die because they can LET IT GO ... something apparently a man cannot do ... a bit of cringe-worthy sexism thrown in because why not.

It's a good job that the episode as a whole is so enjoyable and visually rewarding. From the Meep, to the Wrarth Warriors, to the spaceship, to the battle of Donna's street, to the new TARDIS interior we see at the end (and that's interesting as the Doctor acts like the Doctor has not seen it before - the Doctor even mentions that it's changed - so what did it look like at the start of the episode - when the Doctor emerges from the TARDIS we don't see the inside ... maybe it was still like Jodie's? Ahhhh ... another mystery ...) everything looks amazing and moves at pace. You barely have a chance to take in all the detailing which is going on ...

The jeers at Rose from the lads from her school is a blink and you miss it moment - if you happened to sip your tea at that point! I also liked among many other things here, that Rose was making toys based on Doctor Who monsters that Donna had met - proving their shared metacrisis-ism ... we had a Judoon, an Ood, a Dalek, a Cyberman ... stand by for merchandise overload! Also that the little shed which Rose uses as a workshop is also a TARDIS ... subtle but the clues are there.

It's something of an exhausting episode, doing many things simultaneously ... introducing the tenth Doctor and Donna, summarising their backstory, introducing Rose as Rose is important to the outcome, introducing UNIT as seemingly fully in control of the alien spaceship incursion - even if Shirley seems a little out of place in her wheelchair. I get that UNIT's scientific adviser may well be wheelchair-bound, but in that case, should she really be physically taken to the front line ... to a warehouse full of stairs and hazards that she might not be able to navigate ...? Wouldn't she have an assistant to help with that perhaps while she stays in a mobile HQ? Even the Brigadier didn't physically attend every UNIT activity! Having said that, she seems a mean hand with her augmented chair with integrated darts and rocket launcher, so who's to say that the chair can't also hover and allow her to go wherever she pleases ...

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this episode. It told a proper story, and was exciting and thrilling at all the right places. While I also really enjoyed Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi's episodes - and some of them I love to pieces! - with Jodie's stories there was always something missing, some spark, some depth ... and now we have Russell T Davies back at the helm, the spark seems to have returned in spades.

But we only have (allegedly) three episodes of this new 14th Doctor and Donna combination before it's all change again ... and next week ... well ... there wasn't a trailer at the end for 'Wild Blue Yonder', a story they have been keeping so tightly under wraps that one wonders if anyone has actually seen it at all ... including Davies!  Only one week to wait ...

Review: Rose : Illustrated Novelisation (2023)

Following on from 2022's acclaimed illustrated novelisation of the first Dalek story, Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure With the Daleks, illustrated by artist Robert Hack, the same team have come together to present a new edition of Russell T Davies' novelisation of his script for the opening episode of the revived series in 2005.

Rose follows the same pattern: an oversized hardback edition containing the original text of Davies' novelisation, but augmented with many new illustrations from Hack which complement and augment the story wonderfully. 

Among the gems here are a selection of very creepy shop mannequins, gorgeous imagery from the show itself, and, possibly my favourite, two double page spreads showing, first, all the Doctors we know about, and second, all the ones we don't know about, or which might just be as a result of Clive misunderstanding or getting the wrong end of the stick (ie not Doctors at all).

Even the pages which don't have obvious imagery, have a colour wash to the pages, and sometimes there's a faint hidden image in the wash too ... it's all beautifully done and put together, and is a real treat on the eyes as well as the senses, with the smashing dust jacket, thick paper leaves, and general sense and feel of it being a quality item.

After the massive disappointment of the new Whotopia book, it's right that the BBC have given Rose pride of place as the 60th anniversary publication, releasing it on the anniversary day itself. This is a publication which celebrates quality: a great story bringing Doctor Who to a whole new audience, a cracking adaptation by the original writer, and a quality publication from the BBC, containing some of the best modern art created for the show.

You couldn't ask for anything else!

Friday, November 24, 2023

Review: The Daleks: In Colour (2023)

Being a Doctor Who fan can be an excitement of ups and downs ... some things sound amazing and you look forward to them ... but then others just seem strange ... and then you get some PR/Hype and they sound great ...

This colourised version of the very first Dalek story, here called 'The Daleks' but actually titled 'The Mutants' by the production team at the time of transmission, sounded interesting. There's been a 'thing' about colourising black and white productions for some time, with everything from old scifi films of the 50s to episodes of old Laurel and Hardy comedies getting the treatment. Fans have been posting coloured clips from Doctor Who on YouTube for years with varying results, of course some episodes of Doctor Who which were originally in colour but for which only black and white prints existed have been colourised via a variety of clever means, and more recently AI has been used to apply colour to clips, again with varying degrees of success.

Add to this people like Clayton Hickman who has been superbly colouring black and white photos, and you have a lot of talent out there who should be able to produce something passable - at least if the BBC is then going to show it to the public!

So a colourised version of 'The Daleks' seemed like a good idea! But then we heard that it was also an edited version ... cut from seven 25 minute episodes (175 minutes) down to around 75 minutes ... so losing 100 minutes of runtime! Moreover, it was to have new dialogue from both David Graham, one of the original Dalek voices, and now 98 years old, and Nicholas Briggs, who has provided the voices for the modern Daleks ever since 2005. But there's more ... Mark Ayres, custodian of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's material and member of that amazing group of musicians, was to provide a new score ... Hmmm ... Now it starts to sound all a bit much.

Then we have Exec Producer Russell T Davies, telling us that it's all to try and make these old black and white Doctor Whos accessible to the new generation who won't watch black and white stuff ... so it needed to be edited down, made snappier and faster, using modern techniques and so on ... which all sounded good. The edit was undertaken by Benjamin Cook, writer for probably 90% of Doctor Who Magazine's Nu-Who content, and who also collaborated with Davies on his book of script development for the show. He's also done trailers for the BluRay collections and such for the series before ...

So ... a new version of the iconic first appearance of the Daleks ... was it any good?

It's always really hard to review items where friends have been involved, but as I am a reviewer/commentator on Doctor Who, and as I believe in not whitewashing things, I have to say what I think ...

Overall: I enjoyed it. I think it manages to achieve what Davies wanted: to act as a new version of the story for new fans (or ones who just won't sit through 175 minutes of black and white television). But it is definitely a new take on the story. In the same way as the animated episodes take enormous liberties with the source material to present a totally different look and feel to the episodes (even though they have the same soundtrack), this version of 'The Daleks' takes the basic storyline and removes anything which is extra to that ... But it sort of works ... it's fast and furious and moves at pace.

The colourisation is okay ... but there was always going to be conflict as to what colour things should be. Should they be the colour they were in the studio, as evidenced by colour photographs taken at the time? Or should they be the colour which perhaps they might have been otherwise?  The issue is that in the black and white days, the designers coloured things so that the shade of grey they would then appear on screen would work with all the other shades of grey in the production. This is why the TARDIS control console was actually coloured a pale green, so that it looked a silver white on screen ...

It seems that they've done a bit of a mixture ... the TARDIS console has been coloured a silvery white, so following the intention rather than the actuality ... but the TARDIS floor (and indeed the floor of the Dalek city are a blue - the colour of the actual set floors. The strangest colour decision comes with Barbara's top ... this is a bright pink ... and while the actual colour of the top she wears at the start of  the story is unknown, the one she wears at the end was actually pale blue.  

In the original story, after the Thals are killed in the Daleks' ambush, the TARDIS team return to the ship in episode 4, and Barbara then changes her outfit. The original top, which was a sort of button-up-the-back blouse, is replaced with a shirt at this point, but she still wears her skirt. In episode 5, when they are on their way to the mountains through the swamps, she has now changed her skirt for a pair of black Thal trousers. In the edited version, Barbara's outfit changes as before ... but her shirt remains a bright pink ... Ian's jumper is also the wrong shade of brown - it's too light and should be darker, as should his trousers.

Overall though the colour choices are not bad and help to enhance the story. There's some lovely elements of coloured skies and the control panels in the Dalek city are smashing.  Some of the darker shots suffer from a lack of clarity and black 'artefacts' appear around the edges of the black areas - especially noticeable in the scene immediately before the travellers meet the Daleks for the first time. At least on my big television they do!

And the Daleks. Well they look amazing. Correct colour scheme, and as in studio too. I love the new extermination effect too. The main issue with them are the voices. Nicholas Briggs' modern more strident tones stand out a mile from the original, more subtle, voices. And it grates. Especially as the very first Dalek voice we now hear is new: 'Stay where you are!' rather than the original 'You will move ahead of us and follow my directions!' Whether this new voice is a new Graham or Briggs contribution, it really doesn't work.

And this brings the next element of the production to the fore: the music. The original had a brilliantly futuristic and distinctive score by Tristram Cary, but here several key cues have been changed and new music written ... in the case of the first appearance of the Daleks, instead of a sort of long whistle as the camera pulls back, now we have more modern music added in to make it 'dramatic'. The music overall is OK, though I frowned when I heard that the opening title music had been tinkered with, but in places it is jarring - like the addition of a sort of disco beat as the travellers escape in the lift: this reminded me a little of the music in the two Dalek cinema films. There were more cues from Cary's work used also: it sounded to me like his scores for some of the other Doctor Who stories he did had been plundered (but then I have a feeling that the future scores were mostly reuses of the cues for 'The Daleks' anyway).

Either way this doesn't really matter in my ear, as they're all from the same composer and match together. It's the more modern elements with drums and guitar sounds which seemed out of place in the story ... perhaps it's what the modern viewer needs: the music to 'tell' them what to feel at each point. If so it's a shame, and, for me, detracts from the drama that is unfolding. I often feel with music that less is more ... I dislike the 'wall to wall' music landscape of modern shows, much preferring the ambient and subtle approach to scoring a film or a show. There's an adage that if you notice it, then it hasn't worked. And here I noticed it big-time.

Back to the edit, and it's inevitable that there would be some sacrifices. I understand the need for shortcutting some of the storytelling, and using the Daleks watching on their rangerscopes was a nice way to speed the plot along. It is a shame that we lost the appearance of the first ever alien monster to appear on Doctor Who: the poor Magnadon. And the food machine sequence too. I guess you can't have everything. It was also an odd, but perhaps predictable decision to show the TARDIS arriving on Skaro, scenes never in the original story (the first time we saw the TARDIS materialise was in 'The Keys of Marinus'), and the new scene here looks very strange. I suspect it was achieved through CGI, and unfortunately it looks like it. Likewise they have replaced the shot of the TARDIS dematerialising at the end with a modern equivalent ... and again it jars. Why do they have the TARDIS sort of vanishing then reappearing, then vanishing, then reappearing in time with the sound effect? At the start of 'The Keys of Marinus', the TARDIS just silently and smoothly fades into view. It also silently and smoothly vanishes at the end of 'The Keys of Marinus', and smoothly appears at the start of 'The French Revolution'. In the original shot at the end of 'The Daleks' it also smoothly vanished ... so why this up/down visual approach? It's a strange decision to have made. 

A Magnadon. Yesterday.

Other anachronistic elements include the tolling of the Cloister Bell as the TARDIS has it's little hiccup at the start: this sound was not introduced until 'Logopolis' in 1980.

Overall then, a story from Doctor Who's very beginning has been given a new life through a 2023 'makeover', with almost all elements of the production re-edited, scored, coloured and jigged to create a modern take on a certified classic. It's not perfect, but then I wonder if anything like this really could please everyone. Maybe a straight colourisation would be better ... but then you have an arguably stodgy sixties pace to try and deal with ... and there's still the question as to which colours to use - especially when some stories have little or no original colour material to work from.

Like the animations, or indeed the two Dalek cinema films, this is best viewed as an alternative take on the story, with a tweaked plot, new music, and colours occasionally so bright they make your eyes bleed ... I think there is room in the world for both/all versions. It'll be interesting to see which one(s) are attempted next!


Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Review: Whotopia: The Ultimate Guide to the Whoniverse

Sixty years!  That's a long time by any measure ... and it's how long Doctor Who has been running ... Sixty ... In that time we've had 14 Doctors, or more, depending on how you count and what you include ... many companions, monsters, villains ... lots and lots of excitement and adventure ... and merchandise too ... including books looking at every aspect of the show.

So what might be left to cover? BBC Studios/Ebury Books have released Whotopia as their offering as the 'big book' for the 60th anniversary ... and one might expect something special ... something different.

For the 20th Anniversary we had Peter Haining's Doctor Who: A Celebration ... for the 25th Anniversary it was Doctor Who: 25 Glorious Years from the same author. The 30th anniversary brought Timeframe, a glorious full colour romp through the years via the mediums of Target book cover art and ephemera, by David J Howe (yes, that's me!).

For the 40th came Doctor Who: The Legend by Justin Richards, a full colour, over-designed but slight look at all the stories. This one was firmly based in the fiction of the series, and that, sadly, is where BBC Books/Ebury seem to have been mired ever since. For the 50th Anniversary there was Marcus Hearn's superlative Doctor Who: The Vault. A magnificent look at Doctor Who through the medium of props and paperwork and other ephemera - a really original way to explore the series. But there was also The Doctor: His Lives and Times, yet another in-universe look through the series.

Pretty much everything they have published over the last twenty years has been about the fiction of Doctor Who. There have been endless books of lists, encyclopaedias of the worlds of Doctor Who, art books looking at the concepts, a dreadful atlas which documented all the fictional planets, endless picture books of monsters, aliens, planets, technology and so on ... all reusing the same in-universe information about everything that ever appeared or has been mentioned. What there haven't been are any BBC-Published books which explore the making-of or the backgrounds to the stories ... looking at the writing, the production, the artistic skills ... for some reason this sort of behind the scenes history has not been in favour.

Given that many of the books have been published by BBC Children's books may give a clue ... BBC Studios has increasingly seen its publishing aimed at young children - kids who probably have not got a clue what was happening in Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat's increasingly complex and 'Timey Wimey' television take on the show. From the annual Annual, to fan art collections, a history of the Time Lords, the companions companion and the Doctor's guide to whatever and whoever ... these books aimed at the younger market have proliferated ... and have also been augmented with novella-length fiction, again written for the younger reader ...

All of which brings us to the sixtieth anniversary ... and what could the BBC bring to the table?

Given that they potentially have unparalleled access to the show and its makers, something looking at the changing face of the show perhaps, exploring production techniques and methods through the years?  No?

Or something interviewing the producers and actors, those who make the show what it is? No?

Or something exploring how the show has touched lives and inspired people? No?

In fact, many of these elements have been explored in publications, both licenced (rather than published) by the BBC and published independently (as no license was required) ...

What the BBC have given us is Whotopia.

From a very plain cover: simple gold foil wording and circles on a dark blue background, the book is in full colour throughout, but the design is very flat and uninspiring. A flick through reveals more white space than colour and imagery ... So it's certainly not overdesigned.

What is it? Well ... it's a collection of articles, letters and other writings purportedly written by the Doctor, the companions, the monsters, the guest stars and so on. There are other smaller paragraphs written in standard third person on other more minor elements of the show. So, once again, it's an in-universe guidebook to the Doctors, monsters, companions, aliens ... and ... zzzzzzzzz

There's nothing here about any behind the scenes elements ... and stories and plots from the sixties rub shoulders with those from the recent Whittaker era ... which is nice. All the pics are in colour, with any originally black and white shots having been colourised.

But substance? Not really. It's an encyclopaedia by another name, with a handy index at the back so you can find what there is to say about Time Cabinets, Morgus, Atraxi and so on.

I can see the book being diverting perhaps for the Who-obsessed kid who, for whatever reason, hasn't managed to pick up any of the hundreds of other books published with basically the same content, and it might act as a stepping in point for said child to start exploring the worlds of Doctor Who as the episodes are all now present on iPlayer (all those that still exist anyway). Maybe this is the intention.

But what of the fans of all ages who have been diligently following and collecting the various books and DVDs over the years? A visit to any charity shop in the UK will usually turn up a variety of these publications, and eBay is chock full of them too, so they're not hard to find ... Then this book will feel very familiar and disposable.

The authors have done a good job of stepping through all the elements, and some of the writing is amusing ... Kahler-Jex explaining his back story (from 'A Town Called Mercy'), Sutekh repeating some of his utterances from the show (from 'Pyramids of Mars'), Rocco Colosanto musing on his home-share woes (from 'Turn Left') and so on. But overall, there is little substance beyond that which the source episodes contained and, as it's all in-universe, there's no context to when and where in the Doctor's travels these people and creatures appeared (aside from referencing the story titles).

As a celebration of sixty years of Doctor Who then, Whotopia sadly for this reviewer falls completely flat. It's a book which contains nothing new, and which presents no great insights into the show, or covers an area which has not been covered a thousand times before.

It's such a shame as BBC Books could and should be doing so much better. A wasted opportunity.

Published by BBC Books 16th November 2023
£30 hardback

Thursday, November 09, 2023

Review: The Evil of the Daleks Novelisation (2023)

Just when you thought there was nothing new in the novelisation arena, along comes Frazer Hines, the actor who played Jamie in the TV series, with a new book which adds a new twist to the novelisation idea ... novelising a repeat showing of a story ...

It's a nice conceit ... for the story 'The Evil of the Daleks' was repeated following transmission of 'The Wheel In Space', and before 'The Dominators', and the show even provided, at the end of 'The Wheel In Space', a little lead in to the repeat where the Doctor shows new companion Zoe the sort of thing she might face if she travels with them in the TARDIS.

Thus the book presents a straightforward and quite effective novelisation of the actual 'The Evil of the Daleks' episodes, and between each is a little piece from Jamie's perspective which shows the TARDIS trio's reactions to the events of the past story as it unfolds. It's all rather pleasant ... and a good read.

Having Hines also narrate the audio version is also effective, especially as the story presents Jamie in an excellent light - he even has an episode (5) pretty much to himself as he explores Maxtible's Victorian mansion in search of Victoria, meeting and befriending the Turk, Kemel, and avoiding the Daleks along the way ... all in the Daleks' pursuit of trying to discover what 'the Human Factor' is: what makes a human a human ... and Jamie presents all the right traits along the way.

Hines worked on the book with authors Mike Tucker and Steve Cole, and it's got a cracking cover from Lee Binding ...

If you want a signed copy, with a special bookplate from artist Adrian Salmon, then head to Frazer's own online store: ... otherwise the book is available from all the usual stockists.

Sunday, October 08, 2023

Review: The Daily Doctor

Part of the BBC's book offerings for the sixtieth anniversary of Doctor Who comes The Daily Doctor: 365¼ Whoniversal Meditations on Life and How to Live It by Simon Guerrier and Peter Anghelides.

It's a tough book to review and I am friends with both the authors, and what I can say from the outset is that they set themselves a challenge and a half in doing this book ... and perhaps that is why Steve Tribe, originally announced as the author, dropped out ...

But that challenge is a double edged sword ... as while it is impressive to draw and spin life lessons off the slightest of mentions, dialogue, or happenings in the show ... some of them are a little too tenuous and seem clutching at straws to make up the numbers.

We have a lesson for every day of the year, and if there is a plan at foot here to match events/stories with dates then I can't see it ... it seems pretty random. At least Valentines day has a love-based one, even if it is about Susan leaving and 'letting love go' ... so not very happy.

I was considering how one might approach creating such a book ... probably thinking through each episode initially to find what 'lessons' there might be therein, but also searching through the transcript archive looking for keywords which might prompt a 'lesson' too ...

On the plus side, I enjoyed reading and dipping through it ... but on the negative, it's slight, and the text tends to tell you the plot of whichever story they have chosen the quote from (which of course I already know), with a skew towards whatever the 'lesson' is, and then give you the 'lesson' in the last sentence ... It's also all very serious, a step away from the flippant '365¼' in the title (I'm not sure what the ¼ lesson is to be honest - we don't have one for 29th Feb, but there is an extra 'Saying Goodbye' one at the end - which, rather oddly, given the number of great 'goodbyes' there are in the show itself, comes from the audio story The Pescatons!)

The design is nice, the layout loose and friendly ... but it feels very much like a filler book. Why does this book exist? Did it need to be written/compiled? The answer is tricky ...

Perhaps for the fan who might like to read and be enlightened each day with some words of wisdom from the show ... a good stocking filler for the year ahead ...

Sunday, October 01, 2023

Review: Red 11 (2018)

We stumbled across Red 11 on Prime ... at the time it had one 5 star review and we smiled and said, yeah, like that's from the director's mum!  But then we looked closer and saw the director was one Robert Rodriguez, the man behind one of the greatest zombie films, Planet Terror ... and also the man who brought us From Dusk Till Dawn and Machete!  So we thought ... nothing to lose!

It turns out that Red 11 is something rather good. It's a sort of sci fi thriller set in a hospital where a chap volunteers to be part of a medical trial - earning $7k at the end for his trouble. The issue is that the trial seems very suspicious, with the various people taking part in different trials being given different coloured t-shirts - his is red, and he is number 11 in his trial, hence the title.

As we progress, so it starts to get wierd with some of the people starting to display telekenetic powers ... and what is it all about, who is running it ... and why ... and will Red 11 get out alive!

Red 11 is an accomplished and enjoyable thriller, well made and directed and with some great moments. I loved the subverting of the 'wall' by the inclusion of a character called Score, who has a small keyboard and who actually provides the music for the film as it progresses ... with themes for the characters and action and so on ...

But there's more ... in a short intro to the film Rodriguez explains that he made the film himself, with only his son, for $7k ... all the actors, crew and so on presumably all worked for nothing, and he also wrote, directed, produced, edited, and did the music himself. There are no other credits, so presumably he also graded it and did the titles and ... and ... basically EVERYTHING.

Now that's impressive. Very impressive.

So if you're interested in the genre, and want to see how a low budget film could be put together for next to nothing ... give it a look!

There's also a series on Prime called Rebel Without a Crew which breaks down his production process and shows just how the film was made ... again, excellent stuff for any would be film maker ...

Friday, September 29, 2023

Review: Doom's Day: Extraction Point

I'm really not a great fan of these Doctor Who multi-part multi-platform 'event' fiction things ... there's too much baggage to try and explain in a review ... and at the end of the day, I'm not sure who is engaged enough in the idea to want to try and seek out the various online, comic strip, graphic novel, CD, vinyl record, novel and, for all I know, Give A Show Projector slide and cardset given away with packets of tea bags ... it's all too much!

But this novel, Doom's Day: Extraction Point caught my eye, and so I thought I'd give it a whirl, and I'm actually glad I did as it's not bad as a novel.

It's not exactly stand-alone of course, and you need to have some understanding of what is happening beyond the events in the novel itself, which is a shame.

So there's this character called Doom, and she's apparently an assassin ... the Beeb released a video of her before this range started and, to be brutally honest, it was awful:

So I wasn't filled with confidence ...

The book covers four hours in Doom's life (fourteen through eleven). And each hour she has to kill someone. It's not clear at all why this is, or what would happen if she fails ... but there's a lot of agonising about it. She also seems to be looking for the Doctor ... but then, when she finds him - several times - she doesn't find out or ask why or how the Doctor is supposed to help her ...

Instead we're plunged into action as she tries to kill a chap on a snowy planet: it's all chair lifts and skis and fast moving action ... and then we discover that the planet isn't what it seems and the race behind it are an old enemy of the Doctor (who don't then appear again in the book!)  

It's hard to review with no spoilers at all as, to be honest, the book is FULL of old enemies and old Doctors and most of them are pictured on the cover! But from a snowy wasteland we're taken to Satellite 5 from the 9th Doctor adventure 'The Long Game' where Doom has to kill a ghost and the whole plot riffs around the Jagrafess, Cathica, and game shows, just the same as the TV episodes did ...

Then we're off to an asteroid which seems infested with insects which aren't quite what they seem ... and then finally we're back to the real planet the fake one in the first adventure was based on, and Doom has to kill two of the people there ... except that the Family Slitheen are also in attendance ...

It's fast and frantic stuff and M G Harris has an engaging style which drags the reader through with little time to ponder on continuity or plot holes ... or just how Doom manages to keep going through hour after hour of frenetic running, climbing, falling, death defying escapes while working out who to kill and how as she goes ... I'm not sure she even stops to drink, eat or to attend to ... personal stuff ... in the course of her adventures.

What's interesting though that all the Doctor Who continuity gubbins sort of makes this feel like a Doctor Who adventure, even though the Doctor is largely absent ... and when he does appear, it doesn't feel much more like Doctor Who at all ...

A final word on the title ... Extraction Point ... I can't really see what this has to do with the story ... it just seems to be a nice title that the publisher decided to hang on it ...

And of course, at the end, Doom is off to the tenth hour that she is counting down ... with no conclusion or answers to why she sees 'Death', all black cowl and scythe, in a cafe toilet on Earth in 2006 ... seems she might have seen it before ... but I've no idea.

There are, presumably, 24 of these 'hours' scattered throughout the various media and written, with various degrees of success, by different authors ... Here's a handy chart ...

It's a bold idea to be sure ... but I do feel that the overall execution is shaky ... and as to whether any fans will stay the distance and experience all the adventures is anyone's guess, especially as some are in limited-time form like a separate comic supplement given away with Doctor Who Magazine, or two of the adventures as part of a computer game called Lost In Time.

But as a rollicking adventure novel, full of action and adventure in the Doctor Who Universe ... it's not at all bad!

Friday, September 08, 2023

Review: More new Target Novelisations!

 Here's some thoughts on the final two Target novelisations released by BBC Books in the 2023 batch!


This book was delayed from the last batch as the author was hard at work on a new TV series. It combines two episodes into one book: 'The Zygon Invasion' and 'The Zygon Inversion' with a nod to 'The Day of the Doctor' as well ... and it's complicated stuff, as Steven Moffat's Who was wont to be.

Here we have the Doctor, Clara, and a Zygon calling herself 'Bonnie' pretending to be Clara, the UNIT Doctor Who fan Osgood, and a Zygon pretending to be Osgood ... Kate Lethbridge-Stuart running all over the world, planes being shot down, Zygons going underground, no-one being quite sure who anyone is ... and there's some real world allusions to terrorism and race hate and so on running through it all as well. It's strong and important and has lessons for humanity to impart!

But sadly the confusion extends to the book, wherein Harness really seems to have just adapted the scripts, with only cursory additions and deviations. However maybe there are more changes than I think as I've not compared them directly to the transmitted episodes.  A similar sense of confusion came over me in watching the show ... struggling to keep up with who was who and who wasn't ...

I was surprised that Harness adopts the pronoun 'they' when talking about Osgood, as there wasn't, as far as I can tell, anything in the series to suggest this - indeed a quick scan of the Doctor Who Wiki article on the character never mentions or uses that pronoun. However the story arc of The Zygon Invasion is Osgood's, with 'the Osgood Box' being the ultimate deterrent to war between the races, and a cracking speech from the Doctor at the end - some of the very best writing that the show has presented.

Overall I was slightly disappointed with the novelisation. I think perhaps it is a story which doesn't really lend itself to prose form, being so rich in imagery and idea which was presented and realised so well on television. These days I think the novelisations have to work so much harder as the source material is easy to find and revisit.

KERBLAM! by Pete McTighe

The final title released in this batch was a novelisation of a story which received a fair amount of comment when transmitted. The issue was that it's looking at an Amazon-like retail giant called Kerb!am, a company which exploits the human workers and brings in AI-style robots to monitor them - all very pertinent stuff for our time, and the sort of exploration of real world issues which Doctor Who has always done well.

Sadly here, in the endgame of the story on television, innocent people are killed, and the Doctor does nothing to try and change the status quo, leaving the retail giant free to carry on doing what they're doing with nary a word of reprimand from the Doctor.

In the novelisation, McTighe manages to rectify this slightly, and we have an ending where things have been changed for the better - humans are put in charge of the robots rather than vice versa. But we still have the rather horrible death of a sympathetic character to deal with, and we also lose the little cameo from Lee Mack - or rather the character is there, but devoid of Mack's appearance and performance, is very forgettable.

What's good here is the interplay between the Doctor, Yas, Ryan and Graham - more than enough characters to try and get a grip on - but McTighe manages it, and makes them all likable and the dynamic between them works on the page.

Overall a decent adaptation which adds some additional nuances and thought to the episode as seen on screen ... one wonders if some of this was in McTighe's original scripts and ideas but got lost along the way.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Review: new 2023 Target DOCTOR WHO Editions

July 2023 and Ebury/BBC Books have issued five more novelisations under the Target banner ... Here's a review of three of them!!

WARRIORS' GATE AND BEYOND by Stephen Gallagher

Stephen is an old pal of mine, and it's great to see one of his classic series stories getting a new novelisation. The history of this one is interesting:  Stephen originally submitted the scripts to the Doctor Who Production Office, and then John Nathan-Turner, the producer at the time, wanted a hefty rewrite, so Stephen apparently took his scripts and cut them up, putting them back together again to create the story as transmitted. He then 'lost' the original version for many years until it turned up again, granting the opportunity for Stephen to return to the source material and to novelise that ...

And so 'Warriors' Gate' gets a new outing. To be honest, it's not that much different from the story as on television, and it reads well. It's very like one of those novelisations by the original author where they have taken the opportunity to expand and develop the scenario and characters to a degree that the television version could not. We still have the Privateer exploiting Time Sensitive Tharils as navigators; there's still the Gateway; and the idea that the Tharils were once the enslavers, and the Gundan robots were created to battle them ... Romana still wants to leave ... K9 is still damaged and needs to stay with Romana, and Adric is still ... well ... Adric. Of all the cast he has the least to do! Not really surprising as he would most likely have been a late addition to the cast/scripts, joining the show just two stories earlier.

What is good is that in this novelisation, the focus is shifted more from Rorvic and his Privateer chums to the Tharils and their predicament. It's a good move. I also liked how one of the great shots from the TV episodes, of the coin spinning in the air and stopping, is used here with a greater explanation and development on how the randomness of tossing a coin can help navigate through the Gateway portals. 

Overall it's a grand story, and as you would expect from a writer of Gallagher's calibre, very well written.

The book also contains a short story: 'The Kairos Ring', which was written as an audio for the BBC to release, and also an even shorter story 'The Little Book of Fate' in which the Doctor meets Romana again ... 

Overall it's a smashing package and well worth a look. If you're wondering, then the original Target novelisation of 'Warriors' Gate' was as by John Lydecker, which was Stephen Gallagher under a pseudonym...

PLANET OF THE OOD by Keith Temple

This novelisation is a revalaton! The TV story 'Planet of the Ood' was not one of the best ... hampered by a somewhat ridiculous CGI chase in the middle between the Doctor and a claw machine in a factory, and reintroducing the Ood from previous adventures, the story seemed a little disposable.

Here though, Temple writes with panache and delivers an excellent book that both expands on and explains much of what happens in the television story. Motivations are developed for all the characters, and Halperin comes over as just horrible and truly deserving of his fate!  Though I have to say that the explanation for just how what happens to him happens to him is not forthcoming. It was a bit of a leap of believability  on television, and remains so here.

But I really enjoyed revisiting the story through the lens of Temple's prose. It's excellently done, and I hope he gets to write some more!


In contrast to Temple's novelisation, Phil Ford's adaptation of his scripts for the story seems perfunctory. However there is still a great deal to enjoy about this story of a Mars mission which falls foul of an alien entity trapped under the ice beneath the planet's surface, and which seems to be formed of the water itself.

I found myself not really engaging with the Doctor - Temple manages to capture him nicely, but here he seems distant. Maybe it's because there's no companion character for him to bounce off ... but also in the televised story, we also have Graham Harper's assured direction to propel us along, the superb action and direction stopping us from thinking too hard about the story.

Also, in terms of the series, this is the Doctor starting to go off the rails somewhat and to believe that he can do anything, anywhere, anytime and nothing can stop him ... it's the beginning of the end of the tenth Doctor in all honesty. These elements are all nicely explored, and the parallels between all the characters are well drawn. Even the annoying robot 'Gadget' seems to redeem itself.

It's a good, functional novelisation, but perhaps a little too 'by the numbers' in an age where readers are perhaps expecting more from their written-word Who ... I rattled through it quite quickly, and I found myself nodding along to the beats of the original ... it's very much an effective novelisation of what was seen on screen in that regard.


As well as these three, also published are KERBLAM! by Pete McTighe and THE ZYGON INVASION by Peter Harness ... Well worth checking out!

Friday, July 28, 2023

Review: What Lies Below (2020)

As an adjunct to my review of The Commuter, here's a film which pretty much delivers nothing of what is promised ...

What Lies Below is touted as a cross between Species and A Quiet Place and is written and directed by Braden R Duemmle (remember my Red Flag that seeing the same name in both those roles tends to point to a lack lustre end result).

The plot follows a mother, Michelle (Mena Suvari), and her teenaged daughter Liberty (Ema Horvath). Liberty returns home to find that her mum has a new boyfriend, the seemingly perfect John Smith (Trey Tucker) ... but as the film unfolds, so John is seen to be creepy as heck, and possibly not even human!

The only nod to Species here is that John is looking to procreate (and in a couple of scenes he has freaky alien feet), and A Quiet Place? No idea where they got that one from. The film drags its length as it's fairly apparent that they had no budget for any effects, CGI or otherwise, and so you're waiting for things to happen, to be revealed and they never are ...

It's also a Red Flag when the various websites which offer 'explanations' of plot points and endings are all over a film, as it simply tends to mean that the film has done a poor job of explaining them in the narrative they are presenting. And sure enough, there are lots of sites explaining 'the boat scene' and the ending of this film.

The film looks nice, and the performances are okay, though everyone seems to be the wrong ages, and the scenes of John watching Liberty shower, and then later on the attempted impregnations are a little too far on the side of the voyeuristic and inappropriate.  So watch it if you like a slow burn film ... some interesting ideas ... but don't expect it all to make total sense ...

And the title?  What exactly does lie below?  Are we talking about under the lake here, or is this a euphemism for what John keeps in his shorts ... we shall never know!

Review: The Commuter (2018)

There's so much substandard fare on Prime, that to come across a film which is actually exciting and interesting is worth shouting about ... The Commuter is one such film.

Over lockdown we have become used to seeing films with very limited casts and set in isolate locations. They're usually possession-type plots, or ghosts, as these are easiest to create on a budget, and many simply have no followable plot and disappointing endings - if you can even get there. You can usually tell this sort of film by the Red Flag that the writer, director, producer is all the same person (and sometimes they also do the make-up, costumes and probably make the tea as well!)

The Commuter however is just pre-lockdown and is written by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle, and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who you might remember helmed the superb Blake Lively vehicle The Shallows. The film stars Liam Neeson and Vera Farmiga and has a simple premise. A cop, Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), travels the same route to work every day, taking the same train. And so he recognises the same people on the train every day. Now hitting sixty, he is abruptly fired from his job, and travels home in some despair. But. On the train he meets a women, Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who asks him to locate 'Prynne', the alias of an unknown passenger on the train whom Joanna claims has a stolen item. Joanna tells Michael that he will find $25,000 in the bathroom and be paid a further $75,000 when his task is done. She leaves the train, and Michael finds the money in the bathroom ... it all seems genuine. But when he tries to leave the train he realises that his family is in danger, and that whoever Joanna works for is watching his every move.

The film then slowly escalates into a nightmare for Michael as he tries to track down the mysterious Prynne, with deaths and intrigue and a whole 'you cannot trust anyone' vibe. Very enjoyable indeed ... and the ending pays off what has come before.

My main concern with the film was why, if they had all the resources and money to pay Michael, terrorise his family, cause people to be killed, and to watch his every move, why didn't they know who this Phrynn was, what they were carrying, and do their dirty work themselves?  It all seemed a little contrived to set all this up just, it seemed, to torment Michael.

However Neeson gives a powerful performance of a man on the brink, and the acting from all the supporting characters is great (including Shazad Latif who you might recognise as Clem Fandango from the series Toast).

Well worth 105 minutes of your time!