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!!!???

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