21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: Bad Wolf/The Parting Of The Ways

Bye bye Chris. It's as if we never knew you.

After just one season, Christopher Eccleston was hanging up his leather jacket to move on to pastures new. The news of his departure was leaked just a few days after Rose had transmitted to rave reviews and excellent viewing figures.

Unsurprisingly, the fans were a bit concerned about the longevity of Doctor Who – only a few more incarnations left, and that's your lot. There was also the great big cloud hanging over the season finale. Would Eccleston get his very own regeneration scene, and more to the point, would modern-day viewers be able to comprehend such a drastic change?

Luckily, the answer's yes, since Bad Wolf/The Parting Of The Ways (which will from now on be referred to as Bad Ways, just for the sake of not having to type out the whole damn thing again) ticks all the boxes, not just as a regeneration story, but as a cracking bit of Doctor Who.

What I love about this story is how it changes mood and tempo from a slightly off-kilter bit of surrealism into a full-blooded and grim fight to the death. Literally – the story's the mirror image of the upbeat Empty Child/Doctor Dances in that Everybody Dies. Well, almost – Rose and Jack make it to the bitter end, but even in Jack's case, he's brought back from the dead by a power-drunk Rose. Otherwise, it's a surprising return to the Hinchcliffe/Holmes or Saward days in that practically every character meets a brutal end before the end credits roll. From the regeneration tales gone by, Bad Ways has the most in common with The Caves Of Androzani in that virtually all of the supporting cast drop like flies, while the Doctor meets his maker by saving the life of his companion.

The story begins as a queasy trip into the world of reality TV gameshows: The Doctor's catapulted into a futuristic Big Brother house; Rose is hauled onto the set of The Weakest Link to face the wrath of the dreaded Anne Droid (see what they did there, eh?), while Jack gets a makeover from a robotic Trinny and Susannah.

I suppose in that retrospect, the naysayers of this story have a point. Is it really a good idea to feature then-trendy gameshows, since they'll date quicker than Peters And Lee advertising cheesecloth shirts. Sure as eggs are eggs, all of these gameshows have gone the way of the dodo. Trinny and Susannah are marginally more famous these days than my local pub landlord. Sneering Mr Majeka lookalike Anne Robinson's weary brand of patronising sarcasm was kicked into touch. Best news of all, the skeleton of the televisual dead horse that is Big Brother has finally limped to its end.

I suppose in 30-odd years time, the relevance of Bad Ways will be lost on new generations. It's like seeing the Third Doctor and Jo do battle with psychotic cuddly toys on The Generation Game, or seeing the Fourth setting K9 on a violent Dusty Bin on 3-2-1, or the Fifth Doctor reeling from the cheapo market stall prizes on Odd One Out.

But as an artefact of its time, the backdrop of Bad Ways works. It's an example of how much interest people have in these sorts of shows, so it's taken to its logical conclusion by forcing future generations to fight for their lives in programmes like The Weakest Link or Big Brother (and that's just a sample, given the long list that Lynda With A Y comes up with).

With that in mind, Bad Ways is also similar to the daffy Hartnell story, The Celestial Toymaker, in which the Doctor and his companions had to win twisted versions of familiar games. If possible, Bad Ways is even deadlier: the contestants on The Weakest Link are positively quaking in their boots, there's a weary resignation between Strood and Lynda in the Big Brother house, while the robotic Trinny and Susannah take their hands off to reveal chainsaws! Davies does very well in turning familiar TV shows into nightmare scenarios, and this is a strong factor in making the first part of the story so effective.

You could argue that Davies is showing these awful TV programmes for what they are. Trinny and Susannah used to start off their TV shows by being all superficially welcoming with mwah mwah air kissing and supercilious smiles – before picking their subjects to pieces with rather harsh criticism. Make of that what you will with Jack's rather unconventional makeover. Ditto, Big Brother and The Weakest Link, as contestants are both ripped apart in both this story and in the real versions – whether they're pulled apart by Robinson's sneers or by the public and the gutter press, especially when they tend to be narcissistic, arrogant bullies. I seem to remember that Davies said that he didn't set out to deliberately take the mickey out of this style of show, but I don't know. I guess that the equation between the fictional and real versions (well, as real as you can get) is there if you look for it.

All of this nonsense is a smokescreen for the real threat – a whole army of Daleks. The end of the first part is when the story switches from a freakish progression of reality TV into a big dramatic battle with high stakes at play. The tension's heightened further when you know that Eccleston's leaving, so there's very much a Will He/Won't He Be Exterminated By Daleks kind of thing going on.

Another reason that the battle works so well is because Davies gets it spot-on with the characterisation. Surprisingly, the majority of Game Station/Satellite Five inhabitants aren't nightmarish parodies of selfish reality TV contestants, but ordinary, decent people just trying to do their best. The most obvious example is Lynda With A Y, the sweet Big Brother girl, who's a potential shoo-in for the next companion. She's got the right companion credentials – she's inquisitive, brainy, but also brave and feisty, a sort of Rose: The Second Coming. Lynda chooses to go with the Doctor rather than stay in the Big Brother house, and furthermore, elects to stay behind and help to fight the invading Daleks. Lynda is played by Jo Joyner, who's a familiar face on EastEnders and Ackley Bridge. I felt it was a shame that Joyner didn't stay with Doctor Who, since her acting talents were wasted making cow eyes at Max Branning. But at least here, Joyner's pitch-perfect as Lynda, and it's an inevitable shame that her character's brought to a sticky end.

The characters of the male and female programmers are two prime examples of how the Doctor inspires others to do good. Initially, they're just nodding jobsworths, wilfully ignoring the wholesale 'executions' and just plodding on with their jobs (“And with that sentence, you've just lost the right to even talk to me – now back off!” bellows the Doctor). But we do get to see the hearts underneath the cold faces. Davitch is clearly in lurve with his co-worker, even to the point where he asks her out for a drink in the event that they survive the battle. Inevitably, they're both toast before you can say “Cheers!” but Jo Stone-Fewings and Nisha Nayar bring a lot of everyday charm to their parts – the subtle wink that the Female Programmer gives Davitch is a nice touch.

Even the minor characters of the Controller and the Floor Manager are sketched well. The Floor Manager is an insignificant drone, just following orders – but when it comes down to it, she has a conscience, electing to join the meagre ranks of Jack's fighting squad. That's economical but clever writing, showing her nod her head briefly, since it tells you all you need to know about her personality. The Controller's also an interesting role reversal – initially, we think that she's the eerie baddie of the piece, all mad glares and gibbering mutters (to the sound of squeaky yodelling from the female recruits of Murray's Pompous Choir). In fact, she's on the side of the Doctor, since she brought him here to break out of the games and help defeat her 'masters'. Martha Cope does well with what's a tricky role – standing there and babbling like an idiot isn't quite the role of dreams I'll bet, but Cope plays the part with both creepy detachment and pathos, especially when she bravely faces off against her masters and a lethal killer bolt.

Another good character (not on the side of good, though) is Rodrick, the greedy Weakest Link competitor. Rodrick's your quintessential Reality TV baddie, the sort of manipulative sneak who goes around telling tales and starting scandalous rumours. Plus, as is the way in real life, he's the winner, cackling at Rose's impending doom and jumping up and down at joy at the thought of a great big cash stash. Underneath all of this though is a crybaby wimp, a man who would probably jump on a chair and scream like a girl at a lone mouse. Tellingly, he's strongly in denial at the prospect of invading Daleks and rallies most of the other contestants in one big cowardly huddle. When the stuff of his nightmares invade their hidey hole, it's Rodrick that gives the most terrified reaction of the victims, babbling uselessly and widening his eyes in sheer horror. A great, great performance from Paterson Joseph – hey, he could still be a great Doctor, future producers.

Such good supporting characters makes the second part so hard hitting. The last half of The Parting Of The Ways is like witnessing one long bloodbath, as characters are exterminated en masse by the Daleks – top marks for Lynda's death by explosive decompression, which thankfully isn't seen on screen (her last agonised shriek does the job). What's particularly grim about these deaths is that virtually all of the characters have some sort of misplaced faith in the Doctor. This is one of the stories that shows the Doctor at his most fallible, since he fails to save the likes of the Floor Manager or Lynda. “You lied to me!” shrieks the Floor Manager at Jack on the communicator. “The bullets don't work!” Similarly, the Doctor doesn't make good on his promise to keep Lynda alive, despite his protests to the otherwise. He doesn't reckon on a patrol of floating Daleks shattering the window from the outside of the satellite, and it's this recklessness that costs so many lives.

All of this follows on from the chat that the Doctor had with Margaret Blaine in Boom Town. Effectively, she called him a killer, with bodies lying in his wake – and appropriately, Bad Ways takes that idea to the limit. Oddly, the Doctor doesn't really achieve much with his plan to use the station equipment for a delta wave that will fry any living brain into charcoal. It's a return to the dilemma that the Doctor faced in stories like Genesis Of The Daleks and Resurrection Of The Daleks in which he was goaded for his cowardice. The same thing happens here, since when it comes to the crunch, the Doctor wimps out of using the Delta Wave – which kind of makes you wonder why he bothered in the first place. More lives would have been saved, surely?

At least he inspires his companions to do the best that they can. This story is one of the best for both Rose and Jack. Jack, in particular, grows up from a serial double-entendre machine through to a brave hero, rallying the troops and facing his own extermination with a resolved “Bring it on” expression. “I was better off a coward,” he muses at one point, wryly, but the Doctor has shown him that looking after Number One never works. Excellent performance from John Barrowman throughout this story.

Rose too, appreciates how valuable travelling with the Doctor is. This is seen in the scenes on Earth, when she's mooching uselessly about takeaway shops and in the dead TARDIS. Some fans have said that these scenes intrude unnecessarily on the main action, which is certainly true. But on the other hand, they do convey the sheer despair of Rose, who's desperate to find a way back to help save the Doctor. All of the series' themes are nicely tied together here: Mickey's irrelevance. Jackie's compassion. Rose's farewell to her dad. They all come together to form a satisfying resolution to the season's themes of how one apparently insignificant person can make all the difference. Great acting from Camille Coduri, Noel Clarke, and especially Billie Piper, who throws her all into this story.

On to the Bad Wolf resolution. Hmmmm, well, it's a fairly logical payoff, and one that's quite a surprise in that it isn't a warning, but a message spread through time and space by – gusp! Rose herself! The scenes in which she absorbs the Time Vortex and then wipes out the Daleks like a glowing Tommy Cooper are maybe a bit too Deus Ex Machina for some people's likings, and perhaps a bit too easy. But then the scenes of the Doctor saving her life by inhaling the burning vortex just show that there's not going to be a happy clappy ending.

More on that in a mo, but first, the production of Bad Ways, which is awesome. After the low-key Boom Town, Joe Ahearne gets a real meaty blockbuster film epic to get his teeth into, and he produces some spectacular results. The Daleks are given a lot of menace, thanks to some cool computer effects that multiply them by millions, and also to Nicholas Briggs' good work as the insane pepperpots and a welcome return of the Emperor Dalek. And just on a side note, the thought of the reality TV contestants used as pulped and sifted meat is an effectively icky one.

The Daleks are at their best here, with the idea that they have been driven insane by their own existence and self-hatred (and getting some twisted religion in the process). That makes them more deadly than ever, and both Davies and Ahearne convey the sheer despair of the Doctor with that close-up shot of him leaning against the TARDIS door in beaten fear. Ahearne pulls no punches with his execution of the Dalek battles. He uses quick camera cuts, subjective POV shots and, as in Dalek, Matrix-style bullet deflection effects to add weight to their apparently unstoppable power.

Elsewhere, there's some outstanding camerawork, such as the opening spinning shot of the Doctor, the tense Weakest Link face-off close-ups and the silent shot of the rising Daleks sent to kill Lynda. He brings all of the notable set-pieces to life, such as the scene in which Rose is apparently killed by the Anne Droid. That's a fantastic scene, as all of the outside events become a blur – instead, we get a close-up of the Doctor's devastated face at the thought of losing his friend.

Mind you, if only the sound guys had managed to drown out Murray's Pompous Choir – such things are not possible, as these intrusive warblers are doing their level best to reduce the drama to a laughing stock with their OTT huffing and puffing.

That's about the only problem with this story (and even then, Murray's choir-free cues are by turns, dramatic and haunting). It just nudges ahead of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances as my favourite of the season, and in fact, it's probably one of my favourites of the whole show. It's the most effective of the much-touted season finales. There's no sense of resorting to desperate measures to tie up all the loose ends and resolve the story. Instead, Davies achieves the perfect combination of human drama and intense melodrama, with equal helpings of humour and behind-the-sofa scares for kids.

It also provides the kiddies with their first taste of regeneration (well, unless the under-10's had shelled out on old videos or DVDs). The Ninth Doctor's regeneration marks a couple of firsts. For one thing, it's the only time so far that the Doctor tries to reassure his companion, by effectively telling her what's going to happen. Also – and in stark comparison to his successor – you get the feeling that even though he's doubled over in a lot of pain, he's somewhat happy with his lot. Having started out as a battle-scarred miseryguts, he's finally found his place in the world, and so dies a happy man – “I just wanna tell you Rose that you were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And do you know what? So was I!” It's a sweet parting shot from Eccleston, who managed to make his Doctor a memorable incarnation in his brief stint.

Oh, and he also regenerates while standing up. Now that's pretty cool.

Welcome new boy David Tennant, who's apparently too bothered with his new teeth and the prospect of a trip to Barcelona. Whether or not the TARDIS is in safe hands, well, that's another story for another time – but as final chapters go, then Bad Wolf/The Parting Of The Ways is one hell of a way to sign off this incarnation of the Doctor.

As the man himself would say, it's “Fantastic!”

* Read up on more regeneration stories of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Doctors in my excellent value ebook guides which are packed with reviews and profiles of everything from books to cliffhangers!


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