21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Long Game

Hello. My name is John Bensalhia and I'm a freelance journalist. There, that should leave you hurling abuse and running for the hills.

Let's face it, journalists don't really have a very good press – they're a rung or two above bankers, accountants, Inland Revenue staff and parking ticket inspectors, but there's still a stench of doubt whenever you mention the word journalist, which I think is massively unfair . But then, given some of the more sensationalist members of the media, maybe those sneers aren't as misplaced as you may think.

It's the media press that forms the backbone of the halfway home of Doctor Who's brand spanking new first season of the 21st century. The Long Game offers no way out if you're trying to get away from the news, which is everywhere you look on Satellite Five, the latest madcap destination for the Doctor, Rose and useless rat gonk, Adam.

Satellite Five boasts a 600-strong TV channel service that purports to broadcast every fact to (what's apparently) the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire in the year 200,000. The Doctor, of course, smells a rat (and we're not talking about Adam's chronic BO problem), and as soon as he sees eager journalist Cathica with billions of reports and facts beaming into her head, he's on the hunt to find out what's wrong.

The new reboot of Doctor Who's proving to be particularly good at targeting modern day trends, whether they are the superficial lifestyles of the likes of Posh And Becks (The End Of The World), political manifestos (Aliens Of London/World War Three) or now media manipulation. This seems to be a particular target of Russell T. Davies – he'd touched on it in the Slitheen two-parter with the parodies of endless TV tickertape broadcasts, but here, he twists the knife even further to the point where the main monster has the nickname of Max.

In The Long Game, Davies looks at the furthest extremes of slavish reliance on the media. The Editor points out that mankind's knowledge and ambition has been controlled by broadcast news for nearly a hundred years. Does that ring any bells in today's society – in which TV programmes, newspapers, magazines and books decree how you should live your life? Any aspect of your life - from the food you eat to the clothes you wear to the music you listen to – is covered in the above media, right down to those 1000 Things You Must Do Before You Die-style guides. Some people choose clothes that are seen to be fashionable in the media. Some people choose the foods that they think are healthy, as seen on TV, adverts, and in health sections of the glossies. The Long Game takes this media domination to the limit with a monster that dominates its subjects with endless propaganda and media hype.

Another point to make about this follows on from the Slitheen two-parter, with its scrolling news reports that terrify the viewers with non-stop, over-exaggerated doom. The Editor says that “If we create a climate of fear, then it's easy to keep the borders closed” before adding that it's all a matter of emphasis. At which point he underlines the fact that the media is a terrifying weapon, since just one word in one broadcast (repeated often enough) can “destabilise an economy, invent an enemy, change a vote...” That's still hot property today, and given the shaky economic and political climates, Davies' script is still uncannily on the button. It's not particularly subtle, but the message is right there.

Just like the creepy sense that the big cheeses at the top know everything about you. Throughout the story there's this feeling of “Big Brother is watching you” with its spy cameras and detailed personality biographies. In the 21st century, it seems like all our personal details are known by faceless businesses and governments, almost to the point where it feels as if we're being kept under a microscope. Whether we're filling in over-detailed application forms or compulsory census sheets or agreeing to shifty internet cookies, it feels that 21st century life is that bit more intrusive. The Doctor and Rose fortunately manage to upset the status quo, since the Editor knows nothing about them – well, at least until Adam goes and gives the game away.

Davies also puts the staff work ethic under the microscope, and how office workers are jostling for attention to reach the highest paid position of status. Cathica in particular, is bursting a blood vessel to get to go to Floor 500, where the walls are apparently made of gold. It's interesting in that Davies portrays the future as a slightly updated version of today. There's the odd novel gizmo like the chip in the head, but by and large, people still dress in sharp power suits or everyday garb rather than high-collared, multi-coloured tunics.

More to the point, in the future, it still looks as though the least deserving folks will always reach the top somehow. There's that great line, again from the Editor: “Well, we all know what happens to non-entities! They get promoted!”

With what feels like a million and one social comments, there's also the matter of telling a good-old-fashioned monster story and getting rid of Adam to do. The story of Adam's an interesting one. For a fleeting moment, it looks like we're lumbered with the wretched scamp for a long time – in the past, companions have come on board, and they've generally stuck around for a fair while.

Davies, however, looks to the roots of the 1960s for inspiration, particularly the mid-'60s when Katarina and Sara's stints in the TARDIS were about as long as a track listing for a Very Best Of St Winifred’s School Choir compilation.

Regrettably, Adam doesn't lose his life, but there is the satisfying payoff at the end, when he's unceremoniously booted out of the TARDIS by the Doctor. Adam's previously been portrayed as a child genius, but it's in The Long Game that his greedy streak comes through. Because he's in the far future, he decides that it'd be a jolly wheeze to try and record all this advanced knowledge for himself and to broadcast his capture for back home in a time that's not yet ready for all this sophistication. When that fails, Adam finds himself seduced by the temptations of a saleswoman nurse who offers him the prospect of becoming a walking computer with access to practically every fact about the human race. Adam, of course, succumbs to this notion, but by doing so, puts both the Doctor's and Rose's lives in deadly danger at the gaping maw of the Jagrafess.

It's gratifying when the Doctor practically grabs the wailing turncoat by the scruff of the neck and shoves him into the TARDIS at the end. This only highlights how this Doctor takes no prisoners. It's possible that the Fifth Doctor may have given him a second shot, but the Ninth doesn't do second chances. Eccleston's great in these scenes, portraying a sad, betrayed Doctor rather than one that just furiously flies off the handle. “You were helping yourself,” he says wearily before adding that he only takes the best – Rose, at least, does her best to help others rather than put herself first. Although this does strain credibility in the next season when she adopts a sarky, cliquey relationship with the new Doctor.

Does Adam deserve sympathy? After all, he's consigned to living a life of anonymity. If he goes to a pub and the jukebox starts playing 'Killer Queen' by Queen or 'Frankie' by Sister Sledge, his head will probably start to rotate of its own accord. Apparently, Adam's father was dying of some incurable disease, which would at least been a good motivation – and this might make the audience understand where he's coming from. This is never touched on however, and so Adam just comes across as a greedy little oik who's quick to double cross Rose by using her phone for selfish gains.

The other key aim of being a scary monster story for kids gets a bit lost in translation. The emphasis is more on providing a modern day parable for the kiddies, to the point where you almost expect He-Man to clamber onto the screen and deliver a long sermon about the dangers of greed and not thinking for yourself. That said, the Jagrafess is suitably revolting, and there's also that perfectly executed long scene in which Suki explores the desolate freezing wastes of Floor 500. Director Brian Grant goes for the jugular here with atmospheric lighting, quick cuts of decaying corpses, and – get this – a fantastically haunting score from Murray Gold, which sums up the eerie set-piece.

The Editor's a good, creepy villain, and one of the most effective characters of the Ninth Doctor's short run. He's played by Simon Pegg, who's best known for Spaced and Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz and Paul. What I like about Pegg's performance is that he throws his all into what's quite a generic baddie type of part, and produces something far more memorable as a result. He underplays it rather than opting for a shouty pantomime caricature. There's a nice balance of wry humour and understated menace in Pegg's performance, so one minute we get a bit of sulky whining (“Yeah, well, being human doesn't pay very well”), the next a bit of comedy (“I call him Max”) and the next, threatening menace (the whole “Liar!” sequence). Surely we can't have seen the last of this character, given that he was only splattered with overcooked Max meat at the end?

In fact, The Long Game boasts a very well chosen guest cast, and this is one of the key elements of its appeal. Apart from Pegg, we also have two well-known faces from TV. Anna Maxwell Martin (appearing here as Suki) would go on to greater things with the likes of Becoming Jane, Bleak House, Poppy Shakespeare and South Riding, while Tamsin Greig, better known for Green Wing, Love Soup and Episodes, crops up as the nurse who tempts Adam. Again, this looks like quite an undemanding part on paper, but Greig adds her own brand of understated quirky humour to the part, again, creating a character that readily sticks in the mind. I especially like her delivery of “I know one man who triggers it (the chip) with 'Oh Danny Boy'” or her horrified reaction to Adam's frozen waste. Christine Adams is also good as Cathica, another example of how the Doctor inspires other people to better themselves. She finally finds the courage to think for herself and use her knowledge to destroy the Jagrafess.

It's a shame that The Long Game isn't so well known or as well regarded as some of its season stablemates. It's possible that some fans see it as an entertaining prelude to the big finale. As it is, there are still some unanswered questions – most importantly, who installed the Jagrafess. And as we'll see, the Doctor's actions will come back to haunt him in the Bad Wolf two-parter, as he creates a brand new world that takes a turn for the worse.

The Long Game feels like it's part of a bigger picture rather than a story in its own right. But it's still a well-written and well-made story though. Brian Grant's direction is snappy and fast paced when required, but he can also create moody, atmospheric scenes, like the aforementioned prowl around Floor 500. His casting choices are generally inspired, and the big name actors add a lot of credibility, while proving that Doctor Who could still attract some of the best acting talent around. Russell T Davies' script, while a bit heavy handed in places, still delivers, providing a well-observed take on media distortion, office politics and the chance to get rid of “The Companion That Never Was”.

Although it doesn't quite attain classic status and is pretty small in scale, The Long Game is still an entertaining little gem which manages to touch several nerves in relation to our everyday lives.

* Max-imum value in my three Doctor Who ebook guides to the 1970s and early 1980s!


UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B071P3CQ9M

US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B071P3CQ9M


UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0746NQZ4J

US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0746NQZ4J


UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B077K8MN2P

US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B077K8MN2P


UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07DBBSSW9

US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07DBBSSW9