Base-Under-Siege: The Classic Format of Doctor Who

I love the base-under-siege stories in Doctor Who and would define the format as follows. The Doctor arrives in an enclosed area, where a small group of people (usually technically-minded scientists and/or soldiers) are under some form of attack. The Doctor helps them defeat the enemy, but with great difficulty; there are often heavy casualties. In the new series the locations (bases) have ranged from the edge of a black hole to the orbit of a sentient sun; from a church graveyard to ancient monastery; from a tourist shuttle to a submarine; from a lunar space station to space station on Mars; from a futurist space train to a town submerged under water. The stories have a claustrophobic feel to them, urgent pacing, and tight suspense.

These stories can also open up larger philosophical issues: the value of faith in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, the consequence of exploiting sentient lifeforms in 42, the question of coexistence between aliens in The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, the nature of identity in The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, the dilemma of killing one species to save another in Kill the Moon, inescapable fate in Under the Lake/Before the Flood. Other stories are Doctor-centric and explore his flaws: his powerlessness in Midnight, his megalomania in Waters of Mars, his arrogance in Mummy on the Orient Express. There is no lack of substance in the suspense-driven format. Here’s how they rate.

satan pit1. The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit (Season Two). 5 jelly babies. The first effort of the new series remains the best. The voice of Satan is terrifying, and as a godlike adversary the Devil gives both Sutekh and Fenric of the classic series a run for their money. The dread and claustrophobia never let up, the tension is relentless from start to finish. Rose and the supporting cast battle the Ood on the sanctuary base above, while the Doctor free-falls blindly into Satan’s Pit below. When Rose and the others are screamed at by the Devil in the confines of the escape hatch, it’s the kind of visceral terror of rated-R films. And yet around all the suspense, it still finds a quiet room to explore the power of faith in a sci-fic context. When I finally caught my breath at the end, I remember thinking, “Okay, it’s official: we’re in a new golden age of Doctor Who.”

midnight2. Midnight (Season Four). 5 jelly babies. This is basically an inversion of what you’d expect from both a Russell Davies script and a base-under-siege. In the first case, and by Davies’ own admission, it’s a low-budget afterthought that entertains what would happen if Voyage of the Damned were turned on its head. That garishly bombastic Christmas special was about feel-good togetherness and people bringing out the best in each other when united against an outside threat; Midnight is about the beast inside everyone bringing out the worst — and in a much smaller space, against an oppressively demonic force. In the second case, the people under attack aren’t scientists or soldiers, just ordinary tourists, and yet it’s one of these simple folk who sacrifices herself and saves the day. The Doctor is left possessed, powerless, and at the complete mercy of passengers who have gone homicidal. This is something unique in the Tennant years.

OrientExpress3. Mummy on the Orient Express (Season Eight). 5 jelly babies. The setting is a plush space-train that recreates the Orient Express, and it’s one of the most gorgeous set pieces of the new series. And fitting for a farewell episode: Clara can no longer deal with the Doctor after the way he treated her in Kill the Moon, and so this train-ride is supposed to be their last hurrah. Peter Capaldi channels both Tom and Colin Baker brilliantly, with brusque humor, jelly-baby offerings, and an astonishing callousness that demands innocent people die willingly while feeding him information in their last minute of life. Despite all this, Clara realizes she can’t let go of the Doctor after all. This is the best story of season eight, and fossilizes the vastly improved chemistry between Clara and the Doctor, which is so unlike her previous hollow relationship with Matt Smith. The mummy is like something out of the Tom Baker years, and truly terrifying.

sun4. 42 (Season Three). 4 ½ jelly babies. Yes, this is a complete rip-off of The Impossible Planet/Satan Pit, but I’m a sucker for spaceship-in-distress stories where sweating crew members fight hopeless odds, race against time, and get picked off one by one. Here the Doctor and his companion appear on a ship which is going to crash into a sun in 42 minutes. Like last time, they get cut off from the TARDIS almost as soon as they step out of it (thus preventing a convenient rescue and escape), and just as before, we get possessed crew members (this time by an angry sun), suffocating claustrophobia, and the Doctor going EVA. Because the drama unfolds in real time (Doctor Who episodes are 45 minutes long), and punctuated by a nerve-racking countdown, it keeps your blood racing. 42 may be derivative but I’ve no complaints about it at all.

mars5. Waters of Mars (Special Episode). 4 ½ jelly babies. Waters of Mars is a ripper that works on two levels, the first completely successfully, the second not as much. The straightforward level is a base-under-siege in the classic sense, as crew members on Mars are being infected by water that turns them into lethal zombies. The other level attempts to explore the Doctor’s dark side as he violates the laws of time. The problem is that his crime doesn’t seem particularly reprehensible, because there’s no convincing reason why the deaths of this particular crew on Mars are so unalterable as “fixed points” in time. If Adelaide’s death is supposed to inspire more outer-space missions, that inspiration could just as easily come from some result in a new timeline where she lives. In any case, this is an incredibly suspenseful story.

moon6. Kill the Moon (Season Eight). 4 jelly babies. Yes, this one has a preposterous premise (the moon is really an egg) and a laughable moral dilemma (no human being would hesitate to kill an unknown alien to save her own planet and species), but neither ends up mattering for two reasons. One is the insane level of suspense: the spider-creature attacks are the most terrifying sequences of the new series; these base-under-siege elements are the story’s selling point. Two is the clash between the Doctor and Clara, which is the ugliest companion spat ever. Not even the Ninth and Rose in Father’s Day, the Tenth and Donna in Fires of Pompeii; the Eleventh and Amy in The Beast Below, hold a candle to it. It takes Doctor’s asshole-imperiousness to a record high, and Clara’s rejection of him is staggering to watch. Kill the Moon works brilliantly as a moral parable with inflated drama and disturbing tensions.

Sleep No More_17. Sleep No More (Season Nine). 4 jelly babies. An unconventional format, a nihilistic ’70s horror-film feel, and unhappy ending (the Doctor turns tail and runs)… what’s not to like? Apparently a lot, judging from fan reactions, but I love this story that wrong-foots us at every turn. There’s not even a title sequence, which aligns with the sketchy found-footage format. It’s a format I usually don’t care for, but it works surprisingly well here, and allows Doctor Who to carry an oblique unnerving edge. The setting is a dystopian future, where competitive greed has produced a means to make sleep unnecessary so people can work around the clock. The byproduct of this process are hideous creatures, who in this story terrorize the Doctor, Clara, and a rescue crew on an isolated space station orbiting Neptune. For a while it seems that the footage is from the rescue team’s helmet cams — until a more disturbing truth settles in.

lake8. Under the Lake/Before the Flood (Season Nine). 3 ½ jelly babies. This is a story about ghosts, the causes and effects of time, and whether fate can be escaped. The Doctor is caught in a Bootstrap Paradox, traveling back in time to initiate a past event which ultimately leads to a future action, thereby creating an infinite loop of cause and effect. In other words, he goes back in time to create the chain of future events that causes him to go back in time in the first place. In this light, the revelation that his ghost is really a hologram used for passing messages between his two timelines — rather than a fate for him to avoid — feels like a cop-out and missed opportunity. In any case, the ghosts are effective and scary creatures, never uttering a sound while muttering strange words, with black holes for eyes. The tension is carried on fleeing these bastards in the underwater base, baiting them to chase when necessary, and avoiding their ghastly touch.

silurian9. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (Season Five). 3 ½ jelly babies. The next two channel the classic series with a vengeance but don’t quite end up delivering as they should. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood in particular taps into how everyone remembers the Pertwee era, and also the Colin Baker period, with protracted torture scenes and luminescent underground sets. As in the Pertwee classic, the story takes a tired cliché and turns it on its head: the alien invaders aren’t really aliens but “Earthlians” who have as much claim to the planet as humanity. The problem lies in the resolution: the Doctor (rightly, by Time Lord standards) bends over backwards to put the Silurians on the same playing field with homo sapiens, but the Silurians are too diplomatic in agreeing to a negotiations table-session, which is preposterously orchestrated. It robs them of menace and somewhat kills the dramatic conflict. But on whole a good story.

monastery10. The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (Season Six). 3 ½ jelly babies. An isolated monastery is the base, used to produce clones (gangers) who resemble the humans they’re based on to a tee. The gangers know and feel everything their human originators do, which forces critical questions about the sanctity of life. The Doctor (rightly) sees the sanctity in each. The problem lies in his glaring inconsistency which drives the plot. His goal from the start is to destroy Amy, whom he suspects is a ganger. That in the process he shows himself to be concerned with fair play to both humans and their gangers doesn’t effect this conclusion; in the end he callously blasts almost-Amy to smithereens. His moral outrage over the murder of the other clones can hardly be taken seriously in this light. Like The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, this story is saturated with homage to the classic years, but it could have been much grittier, deadlier, and better.

cold war11. Cold War (Season Seven). 2 jelly babies. By season seven, Doctor Who was dying. There were virtually no good stories at all (I really mean that), and even this one, a cut above the rest, was torpedoed by the horrible dynamic between Clara and the 11th Doctor. The resolution is a farce: Skaldak decides to spare humanity, showing mercy and deactivating his missiles; the Doctor salutes the Ice Warriors as they depart in peace. If previous Matt Smith stories (like #9 and #10 above) diluted the enemy’s menace, season-seven stories like Cold War walked away from it entirely. The premise is great: the downed submarine is atmospheric, with dark corridors, flashing lights, and random bursts of steam. If Skaldak had been used properly as a bad-ass, this base-under-siege could have been properly awesome.

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2 thoughts on “Base-Under-Siege: The Classic Format of Doctor Who

  1. I realized in researching the base-under-siege format how many stories get lumped in the genre, and yes, Father’s Day is one of them. But I think that’s rather absurd. The church entrapment shares some of the artificial tropes, but only in the second half, and virtually no one thinks of Father’s Day as base-under-siege. The Reapers are incidental to the main plot of a character tragedy.

    Another critic said that Moffat’s library story and Santa Clause special fit the base-under-siege format, and I can see why to an extent, though the first is really a Matrix-story, and the second dreams within dreams.

    I thought of the God Complex too, and then realized the hotel isn’t a base under siege, but already a hostile entity on its own. If anything it fits the “haunted house” format of Ghost Light.

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