Revisiting Doctor Who: Series 2, Episodes 1-9

So, a collective sigh of relief from me and the Lad as David Tennant shows promise as the Tenth Doctor in the Christmas Special. So without further ado, we plunge straight into Series 2…

Episode 1: New Earth

A slow start to the new series. The Doctor and Rose pay a visit to New Earth, a planet colonised after the destruction of the old one (Series 1, Episode 2, The End of the World) in a wave of revivalist nostalgia. Their attention drawn to a state-of-the-art hospital, the Doctor insists on investigating why their medical treatments appear to be significantly advanced compared to where they should be (cue a decontamination scene that set the Lad off into giggles). Unfortunately, not only does the hospital’s sterile whiteness mask a gruesome secret, but an old enemy with a grudge is lurking in the basement.

This was not one of the Lad’s favourite episodes, but for me it had its charms, including a guest appearance from the Face of Boe, and also, thanks to an amusing plot device, a chance for both David Tennant and Billie Piper to show off some camp, over-the-top theatricals. Not a brilliant episode but certainly an entertaining one. Well, the only way is up…

Episode 2: Tooth & Claw

Arriving in rural Scotland, who do the Doctor and Rose stumble across but Queen Victoria herself, travelling under guard in a horse and carriage bearing a secret cargo. As the party takes refuge in the secluded home of Sir Robert MacLeish, it becomes apparent that the household is under siege by a sinister order of monks. But these are no ordinary monks. No indeed, these are ass-kicking martial arts monks in league with an extraterrestrial entity inhabiting a human body, an entity whose true form is awfully like a werewolf, and which is scheming to use Queen Victoria to found an empire all of its own… the Empire of the Wolf.

Tennant gets to slip into his native Scottish accent, and Piper gets to indulge in a silly running gag about “not being amused”. The kung-fu monks are equally silly – sinister when not doing high kicks, but laughable when they do. This episode has its flaws, but there are solid performances, a fairly tense chase through (wait for it) Torchwood House (this episode sees the secret organisation’s foundation under royal charter), and the werewolf-alien itself looks great. No rubber suits here, thank you.

The Lad really liked this one. Well, it had a werewolf, what’s not to like?

Episode 3: School Reunion

Summoned to investigate the mysterious goings-on at a modern-day comprehensive secondary school by Mickey Smith, the Doctor and Rose go undercover as school staff. But they aren’t the only ones investigating – everyone’s favourite Doctor’s companion, Sarah Jane Smith, makes a simply delightful return along with K-9 Mark III. A wonderful blast of nostalgia, knitted together with beautifully written and acted scenes between the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Rose, serves to forge an unbreakable and deeply-satisfying link with the “classic” series. Anthony Head is wonderfully suave and threatening as the villain of the piece, with some excellent psychodramatic dialogue between him and the Doctor to balance out the “aaaahhhh”-fest of the “reunion”.

This was one for Daddy though – the Lad liked the Krillitaines in their squawking bat-forms, and enjoyed K-9, but it was a simpler, more superficial pleasure for him.

 Episode 4: The Girl in the Fireplace

This is one of those episodes which won over the critics. Penned by Steven Moffat, it won the 2007 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, and was nominated for a Nebula.

The TARDIS lands in a space craft, deserted save for its complement of droids, and soon discovers it is peppered with “time windows”, all leading to pre-Revolutionary Paris during the reign of King Louis XV. Exploring the mystery leads to recurring encounters with the King’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and with the menacing, murderous droids who want her for some unknown purpose.

The acting is nuanced and affecting, the dialogue written with some tenderness, charting in such a constrained time slot a growing emotional connection between Time Lord and courtesan. Despite touches of humour, the episode is coloured by sadness, deepening as events reach their conclusion.

As masterful as this episode is, it demonstrates the inherent tensions in a series that tries to straddle both adult and child audiences. As much as I enjoyed it, there wasn’t enough there to hold the Lad’s attention, and it made use of concepts and historical settings that were beyond this particular six year old.

The preview for the next episode during the closing credits, however, had him jumping on the bed again…

Episodes 5 & 6: The Rise of the Cybermen, The Age of Steel

The first real appearance of the Cybermen in the revived series (aside from an old-school Cyberman head in the Van Statten collection in Series 1’s Dalek) was a mixed experience. The TARDIS arrives by accident in the contemporary London of a parallel world, distinguished by the presence of Zeppelins, the ubiquitous electronic earpieces which connect the majority of citizens to a kind of alternate internet, and a “Mickey” named “Ricky” whose beloved grandmother is still alive… as is Rose’s father.  Rose herself has never been born, her name carried by the Tylers’ pet dog instead. Ha ha.

But aside from the disorienting differences from the world Rose and Mickey were born in, there is something much more worrying afoot. The crippled industrialist John Lumic (Roger Lloyd Pack) has engineered his own race of Cybermen, alternate versions of the ones from the Doctor’s own continuity, and is plotting to “upgrade” the entire human race.

The conceit of a parallel world sustains some nice plot points (Lumic’s similarity to a a low-tech Davros is a nice touch) and provides a device that will be used in future episodes (spoilers!), but I failed to see why it was really necessary or whether it warranted the complexity it introduced. Not to give the game away, but the Cybermen do of course return in future episodes throughout the revived run and I remember being somewhat confused at times as to whether we were encountering Cybus Industries parallel Earth Cybermen or classic Mondasian Cybermen. I just don’t see that the parallel world was needed to reintroduce the Cybermen – all of the plot elements could have easily been reworked to apply in normal continuity. I know, I’m being a geek pedant. Maybe the role the parallel earth plays in future episodes is enough to justify its use, but it seemed like over-egging to me, and the Lad didn’t get it (I tried to explain it using an episode from Ben 10 where Ben wakes up to find himself in a timeline where his cousin Gwen has the Omnitrix instead… not sure if the reference translated).

Though it was nice to see Lloyd Pack, his robotic portrayal of Lumic suggested he had been “upgraded” already (was that the point?). I did like the cyber-conversion factories and the implied ghoulishness of the upgrade process though. And even though the parallel world stuff went over his head initially, the Lad seemed to understand the concept a little better as time went on. And what the heck, he loved the Cybermen, and Mickey gets a nice opportunity to bathe in the spotlight.

The weakness which the Doctor capitalises on as the two-parter hits its climax drew mixed reactions. I found it effective at reminding us what the Cybermen really were, and eliciting a necessary sympathy. The Lad seemed perplexed. I drew comparisons to what happens to Mummy when she gets really, really annoyed. He got that.

Episode 7: The Idiot’s Lantern

London, 1953, the eve of Elizabeth II’s coronation. But there’s something weird on the television sets (of which there are rather more than Rose thinks there should be, according to what her gran told her) and the police are bundling people off in the back of a van… people who have been horribly transformed into creepy, faceless zombies.

Maureen Lipman, in twinset and pearls and sporting a classic clipped RP accent, adds a wonderful touch as the face on the TV broadcasts, and the events unfold against a touching and believable family breakdown involving an authoritarian father and husband, an oppressed wife and mother and their perceptive, intelligent son. A nice free-standing story, albeit one resolved by some technobabble that ranks with the best.

The Lad liked the faceless zombies, they were cool.

Episodes 8 & 9: The Impossible Planet, The Satan Pit

The TARDIS materialises on a planetary base in orbit around a black hole, an “impossible” situation made possible by some pretty awesome ancient technology lying somewhere deep beneath the planet’s surface. That, along with some ancient alien script which defies even the TARDIS’ powers of translation, draws the Doctor in like a moth to a flame.

But events take a sinister turn when the crew’s archaeologist begins to hear voices, and both the base’s computer system and its complement of Ood (a slave race beautifully conceived and designed) begin to utter sinister, doom-laden pronouncements that sound like lines from a biblical apocalyptic horror movie. Oh, and the TARDIS falls down a crevasse and is lost.

I found this two-parter to be well-paced, its action blisteringly tense and balanced with well-crafted scenes of reflection, exposition and dialogue. The especially threatening atmosphere even forces some of the Doctor’s own doubts and existential questions out into the open, exposing gaps in his knowledge and experience that he seemed to find both disturbing and fascinating by turns. He displays an all-too-human capability to deny what doesn’t fit with his own world view. It is, overall, among the best of the revived series. The presence of pure evil, the air of malice, is palpable, and some of the special effects are outstanding. Listen out for Gabriel Woolf’s sinister vocals (last heard as the voice of Sutekh in 1975’s The Pyramids of Mars), being used to great effect.

Minor niggles (which should almost be ignored as fanboy waffle, to be honest) – the adversary here begs comparison with Sutekh, the Daemons, the Great Vampires and other primal “Dark Times” enemies from both the classic series and the new, and also from the spin-off Torchwood which was in production at this time (if they knew enough to script one Torchwood episode as a sequel to an upcoming episode of Doctor Who, they should have been able to make some of the other connections a little more explicit). The expedition turns out to be sent by the Torchwood Archive – in which case they should have been aware not only of the Doctor’s identity, but also that the entity imprisoned deep within the planet was not unique and had been encountered by their organisation in the distant past. But as I say, fanboy niggles, I’m embarrassed to raise them.

This two-parter ranks as one of my all-time favourites and it did not disappoint on re-watching. But it is scary, and some of its themes lean towards more adult fare. I had to distract the Lad at times, interjecting with a running commentary to dilute some of it for his benefit – it was all a bit “Omen” for a six-year-old and I was worried he would be genuinely scared. On the other hand, some bits of it were too talky for his liking. But the Ood were “cool”, the Beast was “awesome”, and the Lad enjoyed it overall.

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About Mark Winter

Dark Fantasy novelist (INFERNAL PREY). Blogging on politics and current affairs (GibberLog), science and history (BlatherLog), sci-fi, fantasy & horror (WittlerLog), business, product development & start-ups (MutterLog). View all posts by Mark Winter

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