The Doctor: Things are getting out of control – even I can’t play this many games at once!
Story Code: C26.2.
Production Code: 7Q.
Story Number: 153.
Countdown week: 3…
The final season of Classic Doctor Who and like the previous story with “the final TARDIS interior scene”, another “final” thing – the final Classic Doctor Who serial in production (however, broadcast being a different sequence from production there were still two more on the telly after this.)
Unlike the previous story Battlefield, this is an exquisite McCoy DW serial, one of the best really. A big reason why is a big reason why-not for the previous story – the script for McCoy of each serial. The previous script featured cumbersome “angry” dialogue for McCoy’s Doctor, this features nimble “mischievous” dialogue with lots of wordplay, which allows the McCoy-Doctor to play to his strengths. The assured production design is a great improvement too.
This story also seems more aware than the previous story (with its magic and so on) of DW’s traditions and history (the Doctor asking Fenn Cooper about a “Chinese fowling piece” a signal to DW fans the production team know the “Victorian Gothic” tradition with this The Talons of Weng-Chiang reference). This is no retread of DW tropes though, it is something new and strange.
It’s not just the Doctor’s dialogue that shines from the script, every character has great dialogue, dialogue which at the start may be mysterious and opaque, but this is part of the intricacy and atmosphere of the story. For a three-part story, this has a lot of prominent characters and plotlines, (more than a lot of six-parters) – I don’t agree though with the oft-said theory that it would have more space to “make sense” as a regular-length DW four-parter. (It makes sense just as it is, though a more ambiguous kind of sense than the DW norm.)
“Things are getting out of control – even I can’t play this many games at once!” protests the Doctor. The script does control the characters and plotlines though so by the end of the 3 eps, the “games” are all “explained” – even if the “explanations” are oblique, ambiguous, this is in keeping with the rest of the story. The two characters in this satisfying puzzlebox of a story which seem to prompt most puzzlement (from some viewers) in this story: Josiah and Control.
Josiah and Control; or rather “Survey” and Control; a third unspoken name could be “Experiment” and Control (in that Josiah seems to expect the Control to be unchanging, while he experiments with his freedom). The central theme of Darwin’s theory of evolution is represented fairly abstractly through the story, with various transformations linking to the central idea – Josiah’s progression of forms (casting off “husks” in the process) seem to symbolise “the ascent of man” but a wider range, from reptile-oids to the dark-haired Victorian “man of property” via Josiah’s transitory light-averse form.
Control goes through similar stages of transformation though this is more about the strata of Victorian society than anything more biological – from Eliza Doolittle-esque to a “ladylike”. The final transformations of both Josiah and Control (“the Survey is now under Control”) is more wordplay than a clear explanation of the dynamic of the “stone spaceship” team of Light, Survey and Control but again ambiguity and wordplay is what this story is about.
As well as those three intriguing characters, (the spaceship’s original occupants), the whole guest cast – Mrs Pritchard, Gwendoline, Nimrod, Fenn-Cooper, Reverend Matthews, Mrs Grose, Inspector Mackenzie – they are all intriguing with their own plotlines or vignettes woven into the story. Among many great performances Katharine Schlesinger as Gwendoline in particular stand outs as an especially great performance, the character going through her own series of transformations – for a three-parter it’s notable the amount of costume changes she (and Ace) go through, but this is part of the the fabric of the story of changes and transmutation.
Also packed into these dense three episodes is the extraordinary sequence of the Doctor guiding his companion through some sort of cathartic experience, this “haunted house” trip an intended TARDIS travel, the “chess player” Seventh Doctor allowing his companion to advance across the board – even more extraordinarily this being the intial story in a trio of stories about the transformation of Ace. A superb story (one of Doctor Who‘s greatest) and a marvelous start to the trilogy that would be the final serial-spanning storyline of Classic Doctor Who.