Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Doctor Who: Survival

Part One

“People don’t just vanish.”

“You did.”

“That’s different.”

Blimey. Doing the Marathon has really leant this story a sense of occasion. The last proper McCoy story. The last story of the ‘80s. The last regular story for sixteen years. And for a long time threatening to be the last story ever. Fortunately, though, none of this is apparent in the story itself.

We end with another new writer, Rona Munro, now better known as a playwright, of course, and incredibly only the second woman to write for Doctor Who. It’s set in London’s suburbs in what was then the present day, and for the first time in this Marathon it’s a setting that feels pretty much like now. It’s quite shocking to get this sudden rush of normality; of streets, clothes and attitudes in Doctor Who, especially at this point.

So this is Perivale, where Ace comes from. I can identify with her even more, especially when she complains that “Nothing ever happens here”. Ace is back to see what happened to her old mates, but they’re nowhere to be found. Ace tries a phone box (ok, that’s dated a bit) while the Doctor gets bored very quickly (!) and is distracted by some feline goings-on. There’s something about this Doctor that suits such domestic ennui in a way none of his predecessors ever did.

They reach Ace’s old youth club, which is now the setting for some self-defence classes given by Sergeant Paterson, arse and windbag. I’m very strongly reminded of the Monty Python sketch where people are taught how to defend themselves against fresh fruit.

Said windbag alludes to Ace’s past (“The police let you off with a warning, didn’t they?”) and scolds Ace for not bothering to ring her mother, but fails, oddly, to query why the Doctor is hanging around with this young teenager. I suppose that’s another thing which dates this story a bit. We’re told four other young people are missing, and the Doctor removes himself from Patterson’s tiresome company by claiming he’s “going to see a man about a cat”. It’s a good scene, with Julian Holloway nailing his unlikeable part straight away.

The scene also, of course, introduces the theme of the story. While Ghost Light dealt (loosely) with natural selection, this story is more concerned with social Darwinism and the “law of the jungle”, with the carnivorous ways of our feline friends acting as the pivot. This is underlined in the following scene, in which shopkeepers Hale and Pace regale the Doctor with an obvious parable on this theme. Of course, the fact that the scene takes place in a shop makes it easy to relate the theme to Thatcherism.

And ok, Hale and Pace date the story a bit too.

Ace finally finds a mate who, in a further nod to the story’s themes, is a hunt saboteur. Apparently people are saying that Ace had “either died or gone to Birmingham”. Oi! There’s nowt wrong with Birmingham.

We then return to the topic of Ace not phoning her mother. I suppose it’s a shame the Doctor couldn’t rig some kind of device in the TARDIS, really. I’m sure such a thing will never happen. The Doctor then wanders off to find a cat for some reason, armed with some obviously fake brands of cat food (good old BBC!) while Ace wanders off to the sort of park that I used to play in as a kid but you just don’t find any more, with a roundabout and proper swings and everything.

And then suddenly a Cheetah Person on a horse appears from nowhere, chases her for a bit and then teleports her to Planet Quarry. The Doctor then discovers, firstly, that Ace has gone, and, secondly, that Patterson is still an arse. Ace soon discovers there are other people on Planet Quarry, including her mates Shreela and Midge, one of whom is slightly nicer than the other. Ace, of course, being fab, instantly takes charge. The Doctor and Patterson, meanwhile, are also transported to said planet by a cat of more conventional appearance. Well, I think it’s supposed to be. Actually it looks like some weird stuffed animatronic thing.

And so to the cliffhanger. The Doctor and his annoying companion are in a village full of tents and Cheetah People, and who should be there but the Master…

Part Two

“No dead wood!”

The Sergeant, goaded by the Master, runs, and instantly becomes the plaything of some Cheetah People, giving us our first inkling that he’s perhaps not so well equipped to survive as he thinks. The Doctor grabs a horse and saves him, and they move away from the village. The Master, apparently able to control the Cheetahs, remains unharmed in the village.

While this is going on we get the beginnings of a power struggle between Ace and Midge for leadership of the group. But while Midge offers nothing but cynicism, Ace instantly starts making plans to “get” a Cheetah Person. Her first trap fails, her second works- on Patterson and the Doctor. Here we get an exchange of exposition between our two groups, and the Doctor leads everyone through the village, being careful not to run and attract the attention of the hunters. It’s noticeable here that Patterson, in this context, has no authority and is below not only the Doctor but arguably Ace, Shreela and Midge in the pecking order.

The Doctor explains that the animatronic cats are “Kitlings”, scavengers with the ability to teleport between worlds, while the Cheetah People are linked to the planet and slowly destroying it by fighting each other. We don’t need to look hard for the metaphor here, but I like this way of doing things- science fantasy with social subtexts instead of “hard” sci-fi.

Sadly, a milkman suddenly teleports in front of everyone and the Doctor is forced to watch as chaos ensues. Ace, ending up by a stream, finds a Cheetah Person, Karra, helpless and in need of water, and goes to her aid. This contrasts with Midge, who kills a cat and takes its claw. Does this explain their different fates? I suspect their genders matter, too, especially as one of them is nurturing while the other is hunting and killing. Still, although I’m aware that symbols of femininity are said to be important to this story, that aspect of it went right over my head.

We discover that the Master is seemingly trapped here, and slowly being turned into a Cheetah himself. We’re left unsure whether this is to be Ace’s fate. But the Doctor is surprisingly ambivalent about whether or not Ace should help Karra, leaving the choice to her. The dynamics between the others, meanwhile, are getting very interesting. The Sergeant manages to assert leadership briefly, turning again to the Darwinian (and now more explicitly Thatcherite) theme of “no shirkers and no dead wood”. Midge, interestingly, attempts to consolidate the number two position by bullying others. But he’s too far gone; turning into a Cheetah, he’s captured by the Master who uses him to return to Perivale. Meanwhile, Ace’s eyes turn green…

Part Three

“If we fight like animals, we die like animals!”

Interesting, each episode has a different setting and flavour: the first on a very normal-seeming Earth; the second on Planet Quarry; and the third back on Earth again, but this time no longer so normal-seeming.

The Master is worried that he may still be turning feral, and the juxtaposition of this scene with scenes featuring scenes with Ace and Karra does nothing to diminish our fears for Ace. But when the Doctor arrives and asks her to “come home”, she chooses her existing life. Only at the end of the episode, of course, do we find out what “home” is.

The Doctor informs Ace that she has the ability to get everyone home, as Midge did, but if she does so she risks passing the point of no return and remaining feral. But he insists the choice is her; once again this Doctor’s reputation for manipulation proves an exaggeration of the truth.

We return to Perivale. And while not everything can just return to normal, Patterson immediately switches back to straightforward arse mode. But the Master and Midge are at large, and usurping his territory. Midge, strolling into the youth club dressed like a yuppie and pronouncing on survival of the fittest, seems very much the Gordon Gecko. But of course it’s the Master who’s pulling the strings, and he has a showdown to arrange with the Doctor. This turns out to consist of the Doctor and Midge charging at one another on motorbikes, causing a bit of a bang. The Master, horribly, orders Midge to just give up and die as he’s lost the Darwinian struggle for survival. But the Doctor has survived, and in the true showdown that follows he ultimately triumphs by breaking the cycle of Darwinian struggle and refusing to fight. The Master remains on Planet Quarry, trapped there by his adherence to the empty doctrines of social Darwinism. Anthony Ainley has been a revelation here, at last getting the chance to shine as the Master without the need for any of the “heh heh heh” stuff.

The final few lines are wonderful, as is the fact that we end simply with the Doctor and Ace walking to their next adventure…

Yet another 5/5, then. A brilliant script well made, and a fitting farewell in so many ways.

As for Season 26, with 4.25/5 it gets the same strong score as its predecessor. After a wobbly start the McCoy era has proven a revelation to me.

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