Friday, 26 March 2010
So the actual airing of The Eleventh Hour is tantalisingly, annoyingly close: close enough, indeed, for the press release, which means we now have mostly spoiler-free reviews of the first episode. The closeness of the airdate, and my increasing, and difficult to contain, excitement has got me thinking about other regeneration stories, and what the tenth regeneration can learn from them. The BBC review, for one, said the actual story of The Eleventh Hour itself is not particularly strong, but this is hardly to be expected. The episode has a lot of stuff to fit in: introducing both a new Doctor and a new companion, and fitting in the usual alien threat/saving the world plot from a normal episode. So it hardly seems suprising that The Eleventh Hour itself will run to an amusingly contrary 65 minutes.
In terms of the other nine times that the Doctor has changed his appearance there are a couple that I can't talk about here - sadly Patrick Troughton's first adventure 'The Power of the Daleks' is missing, as are many serials from that time (incidentally, Troughton is the first Doctor so far to have faced the Daleks on his first adventure). However, the actual regeneration (even if it isn't actually referred to as such till Pertwee carks it) in 'The Tenth Planet' looks pretty darned good. I also can't comment on the fate of the short-lived (on screen anyway) Eighth Doctor, as the Ninth Doctor appears in 'Rose' fully regenerated: a pretty sensible decision, especially given the problems with the TV Movie, which I'll get onto... right now.
Paul McGann's sole visual outing as the Doctor, the 1996 part-American funded TV Movie, is certainly a regeneration story that can be learnt from. Sylvester McCoy, though he does a good job, gets what feels like the cheapest death in the series' entire run and, in a film that's just under an hour and a half, it's a full 23 minutes before the new Doctor appears. Rob Shearman, in a documentary about regeneration, says that they never even considered starting the new run with Eccleston regenerating, probably for this exact reason, and it now seems obvious that the film should have started with the new Doctor all ready to go and, if the regeneration had to be shown, have it explored through flashbacks.
There are, of course, two other regeneration stories with exceedingly poor reputations: 'The Twin Dilemma' and 'Time and the Rani', the first appearances of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, respectively. The former, indeed, has the poorest reputation of any Doctor Who serial ever, coming last in both of Doctor Who Magazine's fan-rankings of all the adventures and the latter has McCoy in a blonde wig, pretending to be Colin Baker. Now I, dear fans, have watched the first episode of both of these in an effort to get a sense of whether they deserve their poor reputations. And let me just say that unless they both have a dramatic turnaround after the first episode, they do both kinda suck. In terms of what TEH can learn 'The Twin Dilemma' suggests that having your new Doctor act like a dick and attempt to strangle his companion is probably not the best way to have the audience warm to him, whereas 'Time and the Rani' makes the same mistake as the TV Movie only worse - there was no reason why McCoy couldn't have started the serial already functional, especially as Baker understandably didn't want to return to the role he'd been fired from just so he could turn into a short Scotsman.
As I've just briefly touched on, a theme of regeneration stories is the various ill-effects that the often traumatic process of regeneration has on the Doctor. The violence of Colin in 'The Twin Dilemma' is unusual, as usually the effect goes the other way - both 'Castrovalva' (5th) and 'The Christmas Invasion' (10th) feature the Doctor in an extreme state of torpor for much of the running time. Apparently 'The Twin Dilemma' was an attempt to get away from Davison's inactivity in his first adventure. So it's successful in that respect at least.
Anyway I feel the two aforementioned stories do illustrate the differences between the old and new incarnations pretty well (though I promise not to get all partisan here). 'Castrovalva' is a pretty leisurely-paced adventure, with a typically Christopher Bidmead-esque confusion of a plot (loosely based around the theme of recursion). 'The Christmas Invasion', though the Doctor is pretty bedridden, is somewhat more lively and straightforward and is reliant on the well-established supporting cast carrying along the action for the most part. This is obviously not a luxury the new series can afford to take, so don't expect to be seeing Matt Smith sleeping on the job anytime soon. I have to admit I watched 'The Christmas Invasion' again recently and didn't enjoy it as much as the first time, but it is pretty good fun all round.
So attentive readers will have noticed that there are two regeneration stories that I haven't mentioned yet, and they are the two I'd regard as the best. Jon Pertwee's virgin outing 'Spearhead From Space' has a great story, written by the masterful Robert Holmes, a brilliantly threatening alien menace, and a great central performance from Pertwee. It also avoids the problems of 'Time and the Rani' by having the Third Doctor fall out of the TARDIS fully-regenerated, rather than sticking a Patrick Troughton wig on him for some bizarre need for completeness.
Similarly 'Robot', in which Tom Baker began his historic tenure is a great bit of fun, involving some charmingly outdated special effects and a slightly slapstick central performance. It's obviously a bit silly, and the regeneration angst doesn't really last very long at all, but it's a good central idea, executed well. Oddly enough it feels like a Third Doctor adventure starring the Fourth, as it is an earthbound UNIT story with Tom Baker driving Bessie! I suppose it shows that whoever the actor is, the Doctor is still the Doctor, and a good story goes a long way.
Bring on number eleven!