Back to the future with Doctor Who

I remember Prester John. You don’t remember Prester John, or if you do you probably won’t admit it. For the uninitiated, Prester John was a maniacal would-be world conqueror from the Dark Ages who somehow got hold of a time machine and transported himself to the 1960s, where he fought the Fantastic Four and the Mighty Thor – although sadly not at the same time. He had an evil eye, or perhaps a stellar rod, depending on which edition of the Handbook you’re reading. More recently a somewhat calmer Prester John has been playing a supporting role in the wonderful Cable & Deadpool, which is fine by me as it’s allowed Nicieza to have some fun with an almost forgotten character.

Which brings me to Doctor Who. The trouble with Who is that, while it works fine as Saturday-evening entertainment, it’s been terribly inconsistent in tone. Sometimes scary, sometimes moving, sometimes magnificently thrilling, sometimes silly to the point of panto. Sometimes all of the above within minutes of each other. By the way, I’m not as bovvered as some people about Catherine Tate. Sure, her acting style is broad, but then she’s standing next to Crazy Dave, whose increasingly manic chewing of scenery makes Tate look like Lena Olin.

So Doctor Who was on retro week. UNIT are back! Ah, those far-off days of Sergeant Benton, Captain Yates, Sarah Jane and the good old Brigadier… you can almost taste the Spangles. Today’s UNIT, however, is not the two-men-and-a-dog outfit of old. It’s a Serious Organisation, although what that means beyond a nice visual of lots of red-bereted soldiers yomping around, I’m not yet sure.

Upping the retro quotient, we had the eagerly anticipated return of the Sontarans. Now, I’ll admit that the Sontarans have never really done it for me. If you must revive classic aliens, my personal faves would be the Ice Warriors, who had that whole Noble Savage thing going on, as well as actually becoming more sympathetic with time. But the Sontarans are hugely popular with the Whovian fan base, and have the kudos of being seriously badass aliens who fought Tom Baker back in the day.

Not, I have to say, the most subtle creations in the canon. Rather stoutly built aliens of slightly porcine appearance and with the demeanour of a more than usually grumpy Regimental Sergeant Major. Best known for fighting massive intergalactic wars for no better reason than that they enjoy it. Possibly an inspiration for Douglas Adams’ Vogons. And here they are, invading Earth again to no obvious end – but then, that’s what Sontarans do.

There were a couple of nice little touches in Helen Raynor’s writing that I especially liked, and it’s worth remarking that she’s done some of the best of the revived Who. One was the teenage technology tycoon, straight out of the Revenge of the Nerds supporting cast, who aids an alien invasion through a mixture of egotism (the world isn’t big enough for my genius etc) and just thinking it would be cool. It’s the sort of thing you can imagine Bill Gates doing.

And I really, really loved the idea of the Sontarans dancing a haka before going into battle. This instantly makes them 100% more fun in my book. A well above average week.

12 Comments

  1. Renegade Eye said,

    April 28, 2008 at 4:58 pm

    You can’t get enough of Dr Who. It is rough running a series, after the classic.

  2. Andy newman said,

    April 28, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    At least the aliens oin Dr Who are properly alien.

    I think the hugest failure of the imagingation in Star Trek is that the alien civilisations are less different from modern USA than Egypt or China is.

  3. ejh said,

    April 29, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    Even the silicon-based life forms?

  4. Andy Newman said,

    April 29, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    Well, OK ejh

    The original Star Trek with Spock, Kirk and McCoy did have more imagination, and the Devil in the Dark episode also included the most magnificent over-acting in the history of TV. The Pain!

    Bt i was thinking more of the Next generation, and Deep Space Nine, where not only were the alien civilisation remarkably like twentieth century USA, but also all races were subject to a lot of biologicall determinism.

  5. WorldbyStorm said,

    April 29, 2008 at 6:45 pm

    Andy, just thinking, didn’t they explain the humanoid type aliens that predominated in the Star Trek galaxy away by suggesting that ancient aliens seeded it with the same genetic stock, which caused great upset to Klingons, Romulans, etc, when they discovered they were related?

    Got to agree D in the D is a great episode. And something odd did happen in DS9…

    Re Sontarans, good, but UNIT back? Great. I loved UNIT in the early 1970s, and I wonder if it didn’t act as a sort of propaganda for the UN!

  6. Starkadder said,

    April 30, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    I gave up watching “Doctor Who” after the awful episode with the little
    marshmallow men and the actress from Corrie playing Supernanny.
    When I told my family I’d stopped watching Doctor Who-a show
    I’d watched since I was about 5 years old-they were amazed-my
    brother said “Next Mum will stop watching Coronation Street, and
    Dad will pack in the rugby matches!”.

    As for Star Trek,I always found the Klingons boring-a bog standard
    warrior civilization. I thought the Borg were fascinating-a personification
    of collective power, something that individualistic American
    viewers must have found terrifying. From the few episodes I
    saw of DS9, I considering the Dominion were a interesting enemy
    too-several alien species engineered to serve a hierarchical
    function in an empire.

    These days I fill my sci-fi quota by watching “Heroes”, which I think
    is a brilliantly scripted and executed program-it pushes all the
    buttons that “Doctor Who” used to.

  7. prianikoff said,

    April 30, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    The quality of Dr Who rather depends on the writer. To be fair, the Pompeii episode was pretty good. But the Sontarans always remind me of talking turds. Which reminds me of Robert Crumb’s brilliant philosophical exposition, “Pete the Plumber”.

  8. Starkadder said,

    April 30, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    What annoys me about the new version of “Doctor Who” is its
    claim that it sends its characters on “emotional journeys”. We were
    promised a new emphasis on characterization, but in reality Rose and
    Martha were bad-written, daytime soap characters saved only by being played by good actresses. The casting of non-actresses like Minogue
    and Catherine Tate thus made the companions completely unwatchable.

    The old series of Who, for all its faults, took a wide perspective-
    indeed, part of the original vision for the show was to encourage
    children to be interested in science and history. Hence William
    Hartnell visited the Aztecs, Tom Baker went to Renaissance Italy
    and Peter Davison to 1920s Britain. Aliens in the original
    show like the Sontarans (locked in an endless war) Daleks
    (racists) and the Cybermen (dehumanised by technology)
    were allegorical representations of world problems.
    Doctor Who once encouraged its viewers to look at
    the bigger picture.

    Replace that with the “emotional journey” and it hits a dead end. It becomes trite and repetitive , covering the same redundant emotional ground again and again. Now all the female companions fancy the Doctor and
    want a romantic relationship with him,we get to see their boring
    families in sub-Eastenders-plots and all the big issues the
    old series addressed are shoved into the background.

    Its interesting that Russell T. Davies, the show’s producer, is a
    huge fan of reality shows, “Heat” magazine, and other forms
    of trashy celebrity culture. The problem with celebrity
    culture, as academics have pointed out, is the prioritisation of
    the intimate relationships of a special elite-light
    Entertainers or Reality show winners-at the
    expense of important national & international events.

    Hence in “Doctor Who”, whose hero can theoretically
    go anywhere and anywhen, now spends most of his
    time blubbing with his companions (the special elite) even in the
    middle of alien invasions. It’s not an emotional
    journey, it’s an emotional roundabout.

  9. Andy Newman said,

    April 30, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    WbS #5

    Andy, just thinking, didn’t they explain the humanoid type aliens that predominated in the Star Trek galaxy away by suggesting that ancient aliens seeded it with the same genetic stock, which caused great upset to Klingons, Romulans, etc, when they discovered they were related?

    Are you sure?

    That was certainly the unifying device between the different humanoid life forms in Ursula le Guins science fiction, but I don’t recall it in Star trek; and it wouldn’t explain the humanoid life forms in Voyager, where they are supposed to be at the other end of the universe.

  10. WorldbyStorm said,

    May 1, 2008 at 8:56 am

    Andy, I’ll have to check it out, I”m fairly certain it was late on in STNG, possibly one of those episodes where Picard’s love interest, the archaeologist was involved. Re Voyager, how far did they go, was it across the galaxy or out of it?

    Ah, le Guin! A whole different kettle of fish. Great stuff.

  11. Freshly Squeezed Cynic said,

    May 1, 2008 at 10:04 am

    The other side of the galaxy, as far as I remember.

  12. Starkadder said,

    May 1, 2008 at 6:47 pm

    I think the ST episode WBS is talking about is “the Chase” here:
    http://www.startrek.com/startrek/view/library/episodes/TNG/detail/68598.html

    There’s a new Star Trek film coming out soon, with Zachery Quinto
    (Sylar in Heroes) playing a re-cast Mr. Spock. Sounds promising…


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