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Merrick's Personal Journey With The Doctor + A Quick Look At DOCTOR WHO #133 ('Frontios') On This Week's Friday Docback!!



                                                                                                                               submitted by Ken Plume
Merrick here…
…at long last answering questions several of you have asked in the recent months: how did I get into DOCTOR WHO, and which episodes "sold me" on the series as a whole?  My answers to these questions are decidedly long winded and more than a bit sissified - if you don't wish to grapple with such cloying details, you'll find a more succinct list about halfway through the article. But to fully understand how meaningful WHO has become in my life, and how quickly at assumed such a lofty status?  Read on.  
It was a very dark night and I was about seven years old when I first met Gene Roddenberry.  My father, a Cultural Anthropologist at The university of Texas and a well-published Science Fiction author was introducing him at a local University function and I hadn't slept all day, despite my parent's insistence that I should take a nap.  I was too excited about my impending encounter with the man who had invented STAR TREK - a man who had changed my life, shaped my imagination, and helped forge a creativity that remains with me today.  
I didn't understand what it meant to be the "creator" of a show then, nor did I have any sense of the blood, sweat, tears, politics, alliances, betrayals, and obstacles television creators or show runners regularly face until many years later, when my own projects started making their way through the Hollywood grinder.   When I met him, Roddenberry asked me to visit the set of what was then STAR TREK: PHASE II (an abortive television series that morphed into STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE). This visit didn't happen, a crushing reality softened by a later opportunity to sit with Leonard Nimoy in his dressing room - he was in town for a stage performance. I saw him laugh, he offered me a Vulcan salute in the kindest most gently way imaginable. A magical, irreplaceable moment.   Some of this is touched in briefly in Susan Sackett's LETTER TO STAR TREK book.
The original STAR TREK remains intensely special  to me- it has been so for decades and will remain so forever.  I know every intricacy of The Original Series, every nuance, recall every behind-the-scenes story I could assimilate. I am not only interested in the show in front of me, but over the years I've begun to understand the behind-the-scenes machinations which brought it to me.  I've encountered people who worked on that show - some of them became friends.  As the years went on, I remained defensive about STAR TREK - protective of it. It was precious to me, despite its numerous missteps.  TREK was not mine, per se.  But my connection to it was rather unique and deeply personal.   I later found elements to appreciate in shows like LOST and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, but at the end of the day there was always the original STAR TREK.  For me it became an unequaled prototype - an end all and be all for Science Fiction on television.  
And then came DOCTOR WHO.
I was initially introduced to DOCTOR WHO in the mid-1980s when it aired late at night on our local PBS (public television) stations.  I don't clearly recall the matter now, but I seem to remember that I never had a chance to see any Doctors before Tom Baker and Peter Davison.   It's entirely possible more episodes were available to me, but I may have simply stopped watching the show -  I can't recall this with certainty. I tried to like DOCTOR WHO, and went in with an open mind, but I didn't feel any of it.  I lacked the maturity, clarity, and insight to see past DW's frequently lacking production values.  I was a child of STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK,  TRON, POLTERGEIST, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and THE WRATH OF KAHN. All enormous tales of heart and spectacle - why couldn't DOCTOR WHO be more like them?  Why did it always seem so…wanting?  
Paraphrasing from a Dockback I posted last week:  I could see the VAST POTENTIAL of DW, but I felt like it was far from meeting that potential. I understood it, but I didn't "get" it. AND, at that time, perhaps I was confounded by the show's varying tones, or its serialized format, or couldn't appreciate the flexibility and versatility of the series' basic premise as much as I do now. 
Whatever the case,  my visits with The Doctor proceeded aimlessly and without passion.  I watched a few Tom Baker stories on PBS, probably one or two Peter Davison episodes, saw publicity photos of both previous and subsequent Doctors in Starlog magazine, and just couldn't find my way towards caring for either the franchise or its formula.  I didn't dislike it - I just hadn't seen anything that convinced me I should.  
My very close and unerringly direct friend Ken Plume (Twitter HERE, site HERE) had picked up the show early in the Eccleston era.  This didn't surprise me - at the time he was hooked on British television and, knowing full well the extent of his Geekitude, his checking out DOCTOR WHO made perfect sense.  He pressured me to do so as well.  Holding fast to my hastily established prejudice, the show simply didn't interest me in any way.  Ken pressed…and pressed…for me to try a few WHOs, but I wouldn't - and had quite a few perfectly reasonable excuses to offer: I was busy, I was feeling increasingly disillusioned by and disappointed in the ending of LOST (a lot of time and emotional investment for not much payoff - who would've guessed the series truly was lost?), and I simply wasn't in the mood to slip into a new show at that time.  
As "The Eleventh Hour" - Matt Smith's first appearance as The Doctor and Steven Moffat's debut as DW's overlord - approached, Ken continued to turn up the heat (that's a nice way of saying he nagged me like a little bitch).  "It's essentially a soft reboot…" I remember him telling me.  "New Doctor, new Showrunner, new Companions.  This would be a great time to take a look -  you can always backtrack later."  Finally, I promised him I'd take a look at "The Eleventh Hour" (without really intending to do so, which I think he sensed).  
Concurrently, Paul-Alvarado-Dykstra (aka "Robogeek" here on AICN - Twitter HERE) was also tracking the end of the Russell T. Davies era DOCTOR WHO.  Strangely, while Robogeek and I talk often, he hadn't mentioned DW in any of our conversations.  He may have perceived me to be a hopeless cause, and decided to devote his energy to more promising battles. One day we were discussing our sense that STARGATE UNIVERSE (RIP) was finally and fully coming into its own, and sharing our mutual belief that…because of its style, tone, quality, and network... SGU wouldn't be long for this Earth (we were right - it wasn't). "So SGU will get canceled, but DOCTOR WHO will never die?" I lamented.
PAUL:  Have you seen DOCTOR WHO?
ME:  No.  Ken keeps bugging me to watch it but I refuse.
PAUL (coolly): Why?
ME: I watched it growing up.  I get what they were going for but I can't see past its clunkiness.  Those Cybermen are cool though.
PAUL: It's not like that anymore.  They've got their shit together now and it's pretty damn good.   
At this point I think I grumbled and hoped the conversation would change course.  An awkward silence ensued. Ken and Paul never talk to each other, but had they somehow formed an improbable alliance to force me to watch this damn show?  
Finally (not knowing what else to say…) 
ME: Ken says I should pick it up with those new guys.  There's a new Doctor I guess, and some dude who's in charge.  
PAUL:  Steven Moffat.  
ME:  Yeah, him.  
PAUL:  He's probably right.  But there are a few others you should see first if you want to get a sense of what the show's capable of.  
ME (having just found my way out of this!): I don't have any of the DVDs.
PAUL: They're streaming on Netflix. 
ME: Damn it. 
PAUL: Check out "Blink" and "Silence in the Library."  Not every episode is as good as these  - but others are close, and they'll help you appreciate what the series can be.
I begrudgingly agreed to find "Blink" and "Silence in the Library" on Netflix streaming.  I got Ken back on the phone, telling him that he and that bastard Dykstra had finally broken me down (I felt like Batman when he got his back snapped by Bane).  
KEN:  Yeah.  If you don't like those two episodes you're dead inside.  Which you probably are already, so I don't actually know why we're having this conversation.  And if you like them, do you promise to watch "The Eleventh Hour?"  It'll be on Zune and XBOX Live.  
I agreed once more (still not entirely sincere, Ken still sensing that I wasn't).  A few days later, on a particularly sunny afternoon late Spring 2010, my Significant Other (herein SO) took our (then three year old) son out to play at a friend's house. Having completed my daily duties at AICN, I returned to my increasingly humiliating game of RED DEAD REDEMPTION - which pretty much unfolded as poorly as it could've.  Deciding that I wasn't in a mood to get my ass kicked on this particular day, I found myself gravitating towards the scattered and dementedly eclectic Netflix cue populating my XBOX 360.  Remembering my conversations with Ken and Paul, I begrudgingly searched for DOCTOR WHO and, indeed, "Blink" and "Silence" were available for streaming.  Having nothing better to do, and trusting that…if both of my friends say it's good, there must be something there…I highlighted "Blink" and pressed PLAY.  
I was immediately captivated by "Blink" - it had me before the opening titles burst onto the screen.  I was taken by how The Doctor is used in that episode (if you see it, you'll know what I mean), that newly introduced characters became so important so smoothly and immediately and…in a matter or minutes…were more fully developed and strongly realized than many established characters in seasons worth of American television programming.  The magnificent audacity of creating villains that were FUCKING CHUNKS OF ROCK (!?) - and the effortless ease with which writer Steven Moffat and director Hettie MacDonald realized their ambitions.  It was balls-to-the-wall insanity from a North American television perspective.  It was masterful, and glorious.
Fine.  Whatever. Fluke.  "I'll go ahead watch 'Silence in the Library' and be done with this…" I thought.  Wait, there's a new Companion.  Donna Noble.  What happened to that super hot Freema girl?  What kind of name is Freema, anyway?  I like Donna Noble - she's a great everywoman.  Love the LOOK of the show - wish it was HD.  River Song?  Man, THERE'S a character.  Wonder if they'll ever bring her back?  David Tennant is cool.  I like his hair - my hair sucks.  What - what happened to Donna Noble?  She's "saved" but she's gone?  Those space suit zombies are all kindsa fucked up.  What happened to Donna Noble?  It's a CLIFFHANGER?  They didn't tell me that - jerks!  Is that on Netflix, too?
And so it went.  Buy the time my SO returned from our toddler's playdate, I'd gone through five or six episodes of the show in one sitting. Dishes had remained unwashed, laundry hadn't been loaded.  I scrambled to be domestic, but secretly I was already hungering for more WHO.  That night, I sat my SO down on the couch for a solemn and urgent conversation. Her parents were British and my SO had previously lived in the U.K. for a few years - sometimes she even has one of those funny accents British people talk with.  Surely she must know something of DW, and could help me through this rapidly festering WHOmania.   "Sorry.  Never watched it.  I know what it is, but I always thought it was kind of silly…" she said.  I patiently reassured her that I understood this reaction, and asked if she'd be willing to watch a few minutes of "Blink." "I need to connect with someone about this…" I explained urgently.  "I can't let Ken and Paul know they were right.  At least not yet."  She rolled her eyes and dispassionately agreed.  Five minutes in:  "Wow.  This is REALLY different…"  Ten minutes in: "This is cool!"  Fifteen minutes in:  "That Doctor…he's cute."  
Over the course of last Summer, I backtracked to the beginning of the Davies era, and ingested as much WHO as I could at any time, on any day, in any moment. 'Twas probably something like being a sex addict - 'cept DOCTOR WHO was quite a bit cooler than much of the sex I've had, although there were a few…ah, never mind.  
Sometimes I'd take-in five or six episodes in a sitting.  Concurrently, I fully engaged with Matt Smith and Steven Moffat's run, watching every episode multiple times…taking in every DOCTOR WHO CONFIDENTIAL…living and breathing the show.  Its vastness, its dynamic richness. Relishing its heart.  Noting its blemishes, but allowing its sincerity to shine brighter than its flaws. And, more often than not, I was won over.  Wholly, completely, won over.  In the last year, I've gone from having watched only a handful of older DOCTOR WHO episodes to having seen every single episode of the 2005-present iterations of the show, and I am now backtracking to watch the whole shebang again from the very beginning.  Not the 2005 re-beginning - the 1963 beginning.  Yes, that's a long road and the journey seems daunting.  But I'm up for it, and hungry for it.  
Which brings us back to the episodes which most caught my attention early on - the ones I feel best embody the heart, spirit, and intent of post 2005 WHO.   The ones which sucked me in, and convinced me to not only move forwards, but backwards.  
Below is a list of 12 titles.  In all likelihood, many of you will disagree with elements of this list, or note omissions you may consider startling.  To each his or her own.  I've no doubt I enjoy episodes others don't, and I know that others treasure episodes I wasn't particularly knocked out by ("The Girl in the Fireplace", for example).  But this is OK - and I wouldn't want it any other way.  DOCTOR WHO is far too vast and rich in mythology and texture for everyone to be on the same page at all times.  
"The Christmas Invasion" (Season Two) - for its wonderful interaction between Rose and the newly regenerated Tennant Doctor.  For the Doctor groggily facing down a daunting alien adversary while wearing a bathrobe - an inspired way to launch Tennant's run at the role. For the twist/bitch slap at the end regarding the aliens' fate.  [HERE]
"The Runaway Bride" (Season/Series Three - [HERE]) -  for it's priceless chemistry between Catherine Tate and David Tennant.  The Empress of the Racnoss is one nasty looking, wonderfully realized character.  The TARDIS/freeway sequence is a tour-de-force of editing, score, direction, and visual effects.
"Gridlock" (Season/Series Three) - for its rambunctious, bizarre nature.  Love the number of social statements it's making (being mindlessly stuck in our cars on the way to…where, really? etc).  I love the Brannigan character.  [HERE]
"Blink" (Season/Series Three)  - see above. [HERE]
"Human Nature" [HERE] and its continuation "The Family of Blood" [HERE] (Season/Series Three) - for their ballsy demonstration of how much Hell the series is willing to put its lead character through, and for the closing moments of "Forest" in which Tennant's Time Lord exacts a personal and chilling vengeance.  

"Silence in the Library" [HERE] and its continuation "Forest of the Dead"  [HERE] (Season/Series Four) - see above.  And, of course, I'm now asking myself if that "Silence" is in library is actually the kind of silence we first thought it was...
"The Eleventh Hour" (Season/Series Five [HERE]) - Wit.  Spunk.  Smarts.  Charm.  And this…
"Vincent and the Doctor" (Season/Series Five) - for its truth.  [HERE]
"The Pandorica Opens" [HERE] and its continuation "The Big Bang" [HERE} (Season/Series Five) - a huge and audacious tale told in a staggeringly intimate manner. Perhaps one of the most ingeniously conceived Season/Series finales ever brought to television.  This scene still gives me chills…
Does this list actually work?  Yes.  I assembled it from a bevy of e-mails I sent to my friend Chris when I was pushing to get him into the show.  He and his 11 year old son were subsequently converted, and ended up mainlining the 2005-present era much as I did.  Others have since followed suit.  I have become Paul and Ken, and I don't think I ever thanked them for encouraging me towards this show before now.  So..thank you gentlemen.  Very much.  
Is Ken right?  Is it feasible to jump into the Matt Smith/"Some Dude" era virginally and still be able to grasp what the hell is going on in this funky and often bewildering show?  Absolutely.  In fact, for folks considering jumping into the show I'd argue that "The Eleventh Hour" is an exceptional place to begin DOCTOR WHO - I'd personally advise pursuing the whole of Moffat/Smith's first run (DOCTOR WHO Season/Series 5), segueing into Season/Series Six, THEN backtracking to the 2005 material and working one's way up.  I know several people who have followed this pattern to hugely positive result. 
I mentioned above that STAR TREK was instrumental in forging "a creativity that remains with me today."  This is true. TREK played a large role in my becoming a writer - not just a contributor/journalist here on AICN, but as an author of scripts, teleplays, and whatnot.  Over the years, despite many glorious opportunities and more than a few shining moments of hope, I've slammed headfirst into many walls and obstacles - even when the skies ahead of me appeared to be utterly clear and inviting.  Such is the doom of many writers - writing often feels like a curse more than a talent.  
And somewhere along the way, I stopped caring.  But I didn't stop caring because of predictable political setbacks - I stopped caring because the industry around me adopted different standards and tastes.  Modes of storytelling became increasingly safe and predictable.  Characterizations have become one-note and are often not fully realized.  Concepts and conceits seem to assume that their audience's intellect is incapable of being pushed or expanded, and that viewers lack imagination.  Not only are viewers being underestimated, the stories themselves…and the potential they hold…are being muted and disrespected as well.  In many regards, it now seems dangerous to "think outside of the box," and as this cancerous darkness spread I lost my way creatively.  And lost myself in the process.  
DOCTOR WHO, admittedly a unique beast that will likely never be matched or emulated in the history of entertainment, offered me a safe harbor in my creative dark night of the soul.  At a time when I was asking myself - "What am I doing wrong?" and "Creatively, am I really that far off base here?", DW became a beacon of hope and assurance that bold and atypical storytelling was not altogether dead, and doesn't require hundreds of millions of dollars to realize.  It is proof that stayed convention and triteness are not required ingredients to win the hearts of viewers and to set their imaginations free.  In saying this, I am referring not just to the Davies/Moffat-era WHO, but to all the "early" WHO episodes I've watched so far. I can see these older stories more clearly now than ever before, understand the improbable miracle of their being on-screen at all given the economic and politic storms they faced, and appreciate them for what they are far more than I was able to as a superficial teen obsessed with high-end visual effects and Michael Mann flashiness.  I have finally found the "truth" of DOCTOR WHO, and for that I am eternally grateful.  
As dissimilar as they appear to be at at face value, I actually see DW as being remarkably akin to the original STAR TREK series.  Both adopts a baseline concept across any number of genre platforms - as comedy, as drama, as action, as a suspense piece, as a romance, or any combination thereof.  The later STAR TREK undertakings either shunned this versatility or didn't fully understand its potential, in favor of more stayed and traditional storytelling approaches - this turned out to be a critical miscalculation.   DOCTOR WHO not only embraced its flexibility, but capitalized and expanded upon the variety of options that were before it - over and over again.  That DOCTOR WHO adheres so strongly to this versatility while (more or less) remaining true to itself may well enable the show to supplant TREK as my most beloved television show ever.  Considering my past with, and investment in, STAR TREK - I didn't think such deviation was possible.  But by god, I think it's happening.  I'm still climbing my way up from the beginning, so a final verdict won't be in for some time.  But so far, so good.  
Until then, DOCTOR WHO remains a manifesto to a simple but often forgotten truth in both television and film - that any number of stories can be told in any number of ways.  When broadly considered, the show is a validation competent, confident storytelling...not only can anything be possible - anything should be possible.
Anything can be possible, and anything should be possible.  Excellent qualities for any form of entertainment to embrace, and empowering conceits we should carry into our everyday lives as well...
 "FRONTIOS"  - aka Story #133
Availabe HERE in the U.S., and HERE in U.K. 
That trailer is brilliant, and far more energized than the episode itself.  
PLOT:   On planet Frontios, the last survivors of planet Earth are struggling under bombardment by hostile and unknown forces.  The arrival of The Doctor and companions Tegan and Turlough prompts suspicion from the world's human inhabitants - have mankind's anonymous aggressors finally made themselves known?
A few weeks ago Mark Gatiss Tweeted that this was one of his favorite DOCTOR WHO episodes - I'm honestly not seeing why this would be the case.  
There's nothing wrong conceptually with "Frontios," although the notion of humans haplessly inhabiting a planet that is already occupied by unwelcoming alien forces as an oft-used conceit in SF  (THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, FORBIDDEN PLANET, and many others titles I won't list at the moment).  The main problem with this story lies in its interpretation.  It's dour, and distinctive only for its remarkable lack of distinctiveness.  
We ultimately learn that the human survivors are being beaten down by Tractators - a race of intergalactic Rollie Pollies who are more or less infesting the cosmos. 
                                                                                                                       image via
They're a cross between big, ugly beetles and the Mondoshawans from THE FIFTH ELEMENT.  This is a fun notion, and I'm a sucker for living entities somehow making their way through space (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS), but the shoddy actualization of the Tractators pulls the rug out from underr any effectiveness the creatures may've had (see blow for the scripter's thoughts on this).  I am NOT attempting to be snarky about production values here.  In this particular case, the characters were too important and pivotal not to work effectively.  
This was my first introduction to Tegan Jovanka (Janet Fielding) and I found her to be an infinitely preferable companion than, say, Bonnie Langford's "Mel."  Fielding looks awesome in that black leather mini, and is rather hot in general despite an abundance of rouge.  This is also the first time I encountered Turlough - on the DVD's extras, the actor playing him (Mark Strickson) indicates he was happy to be given something of substance for once (a clumsy paraphrase). From the fleeting references I've seen to Turlough in previous Docbacks, I gather that he's not a particular popular character?  I couldn't get a read on him here.  
All in all, everything about "Frontios" seemed dull.  Peter Davison didn't look like he was having a particularly good time in this episode, although seeing The Doctor act like a Doctor (of medicine, in this instance) was both surprising and interesting.  Even if The Doctor isn't supposed to be a "medicine Doctor" kind of Doctor, it makes sense that someone of his age and experience would pick up a few tricks along the way.  Well played.
Performances by many supporting players seemed forced or undirected, and the choice to give so many human survivors such abrasive personalities undercuts the pathos of their being, well, the last of the human race.  Maybe this was an effort to illustrate their desperation and fatigue?  I don't know, but it didn't play effectively and…as is…many of these people didn't seem like they were worth saving, and come across as a bunch of distrusting, overacting goons in space Nazi uniforms. Perhaps THIS was the point?
In the end, the essence of what "Frontios" is trying to accomplish is fundamentally interesting and sound, and there are many fine moments to like here.  But as developed, Story #133  feels like too little material spread over too much time.
Extras include…
--- Insights from Eric Saward, script editor…
--- Insights from Christopher H. Bidmead, writer.  Says the Tractators inspired by woodlice creatures he found in his bathroom.  Admits to writing a show that was "outside the budget."  Which is presumably why the Tractators don't pay off, as mentioned above.  
--- Insights from David Buckingham, designer…
--- Insights from Mark Strickson (Turlough)…
--- Insights from Peter Davison (who seems not at all bored in the extras)…
--- A discussion of the brutal murder of  Peter Arne, who was originally supposed to play Range in this story. William Lucas took over…
--- Insights from Jeff Rawle (who played Plantagenet)
--- Discussions of production issues with the excavation machine that appears in this story.  It was  originally designed to cut with human bone (an awesome idea)...
--- Discussions of the motion-limiting Tractator costumes (originally intended to roll up in balls and unfurl dramatically - man did that not happen…
--- Insights from John Gillett (Tractator Gravis), who says the Tractator costumes were a piece latex/rubber bell that fit over top of actors…
--- A look into production missteps (explosions that didn't go off - an actor who fell through a step, visible on camera - neither were reshot)…
--- Approximately 15 mins...

coming next week
"An Unearthly Child," and more!!
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