December is the month for 'Doctor Who' fandom to flex their democratic muscles, it seems. Fans can vote for the current series on TV.com's 'best of television' poll, as well as give their collective nod likewise to The People's Choice Awards. Former Sixth Doctor Colin Baker sadly fell short in his quest to be crowned this season's winner of the British reality TV series 'I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here', though he 'did' manage a few respectable vote tallies during some of the individual contests. While Americans were occupied last month with deciding who would be the 'most powerful man in the world', Whovians this month are busy voting in more important matters, helping to secure 'Doctor Who' in its rightful place as a pop culture institution. Besides, every card-carrying Whovian worth their TARDIS key chains already 'know' the good Doctor is 'really' the most important in the world, or even the universe.
While we celebrated the 49th anniversary of the world's greatest science fiction series in November, while we impatiently await the transmission of this year's Christmas special, and while we all continue to speculate on what (or 'who', to utilize an overused pun) will comprise the 50th anniversary specials, I decided to do my own voting this month on what the topic of this blog review would be. Would it be 'The Minister Of Chance', an audio adventure featuring spin-off Whoniverse characters, boasting not one, but two former Doctors, Paul McGann and Sylvester McCoy, in the cast (not to mention former UNIT soldier Captain Hawkins/Tekker from 'Timelash', Paul Darrow)? Or would I indulge my inner Tennant, and review the 2009 animated serial 'Dreamland', instead?
Well, the answer is pretty obvious, and easily found in the title of this blog. At the end of the day, work commitments (not to mention the 'oncoming storm' that is Christmas!), have kept me from listening to all of the available 'Minister' episodes, though I am currently about half way through, and will review the entire series on the next blog addition. For now, let us take a look at 'Dreamland', starring the voice talents of the last of the great Doctors, the sadly missed David Tennant.
The companion less Doctor arrives in 1958 Dry Springs, Nevada, and enters a local diner intending on sampling some of the era's food, not to mention the ambiance of this legendary time frame. He meets a waitress, Cassie (played by David Tennant's now-wife and Peter Davison's daughter, Georgia Moffatt), and the Native American Jimmy Stalkingwolf (played by Canadian singer Tim Howar, of Mike And The Mechanics), who fill the ad-hoc role of companions. The trio are quickly attacked by Men In Black when the Doctor discovers and activates a strange alien artifact. Extended running and chasing ensues, including being attacked by a Viperox, the first appearance of the main alien 'baddies' in the story. The trio are rescued by the United States Army, who (of course) then immediately kidnap them with the intent of wiping their minds of the alien's presence, along with everything else. The Doctor affects a break-out inspired by Houdini 'and' the 'Die Hard' films, rationalizing that since they haven't been released yet, nobody will figure out their plan to escape through the ventilator shaft!
Unfortunately, of course, the alarm sounds and the Army comes running, but not before the Doctor discovers a real, living 'grey' alien has been captured and is being held captive as well. By this point, it is revealed that the Viperox race, who had been seen to be the hidden reason for the Roswell Incident in 1947, when they fired upon the grey alien's ship as it was attempting peaceful contact with humanity, are ruthless invaders who take over planets by landing with a small force including a pregnant Queen, who then proceeds to give birth to an entire army, all the while hidden in underground lairs. What's more, because they promise to provide a special weapon to Colonel Stark, the Communist-hating commander of Area 51 in order for him to get the drop on Soviet Russia, the U.S. Army are actually in league with these monstrous beings...all they need is the DNA code from the husband of the grey alien they shot down in order to activate the alien artifact. The Doctor determines to put an end to the Viperox scheme, one way or another...
Simply put, any medium that features David Tennant in the role of The Doctor is going to produce wonderful results. While the quality of animation is akin to the worst of the old 'Reboot' series, Tennant's charm and obvious enthusiasm for the role of the Doctor distracts even the biggest detractors of the animation; once again, he capably raises a production to a higher standard simply because of his presence. The Doctor remains his hipster self, confusing his companions with endless references to a pop culture that they haven't experienced yet. Tennant's Doctor's ability to shift from whimsical and nonsensical ramblings one minute and then become deadly serious the next is one of the best elements of the character, and his performance of a good quality script here is much appreciated. As always, the best Doctor since Tom Baker delivers as only he can.
The companions get more screen time in the visual sense than would normally be the case, especially for an episode with a shade under forty-five minutes running time, but while they are represented well in that sense, neither the script nor the voice acting leaves much of an impression. It doesn't help that they simply are not that interesting; Cassie is a waitress and while she shows flashes of Tegan-like independence when she questions the Doctor and bucks his authority somewhat, overall Georgia Moffatt simply doesn't have to much to 'do' here other than voice a very generic character that could have really been anyone else. Jimmy the Native American is cringe-worthy, the delivery barely above that of a whisper, flat and monotonal. His very inclusion as a companion seems to have been purely to fulfill a minor plot point later on in the episode, and he and his fellow Native Americans suffer from what I call 'Chakotay Syndrome': the unfortunate tendency of 'anyone' who includes natives of 'any' tribe or creed in science fiction/fantasy to adopt a knee-jerk reaction to offending anyone, therefore said Native Americans will always be depicted as vaguely and generically as possible. Hence the proliferation of dialogue that sounds lifted from old 'Lone Ranger' episodes featuring Tonto! Like Moffatt, Tim Howar struggles gamely with the words he's handed and the result is lifeless and dull. Fortunately for all concerned, though, David Tennant is given the best lines and his Doctor really carries the story (I would argue that this is how it 'should' be regardless. After all, the series is called 'Doctor Who' not 'Doctor Who And His Gang Of Emo Teens' pardon me while I consume some of my anti-Steven Moffatt medication, I seem about to go off on a rant..)..
The remainder of the cast, however, are excellent. As the primary Viperox leader Lord Azlok (don't you just 'love' loud, bombastic science fiction bad guy names?), David Warner, no stranger to the Whoniverse, virtually chews the scenery. His Azlok is malevolent, intelligent, superior-minded, and xenophobic, and Warner plays every aspect admirably. I'm personally 'still' waiting for David Warner to mail in a performance, whether it's in film, TV, or animation. Hasn't happened yet, and certainly not here, he was an excellent choice. Stuart Millighan as the misguided patriot Colonel Stark skirted the edge of your basic military man, of the type the Doctor would philosophically oppose about every other week on the classic series in the 1970's. The character itself is riddled with the conventional cliché stereotyping that occurs in most 'Doctor Who' military personnel (except of course The Brigadier) historically, and his about face after the Doctor spends approximately 30 seconds convincing him the Viperox will simply crush his much-vaunted U.S Army the way they had countless other more advanced armies on countless other planets is rather convenient to the plot, but all in all, it's a serviceable performance. The remaining cast each perform their roles in equally serviceable ways.
'Dreamland' is forty five minutes of 'Doctor Who' goodness circa 2009, before the dark times of Matt Smith. It is choke full of homage material to fondly-remembered movie moments, from a mine car chase evocative of both 'Goonies' and 'Indiana Jones' to the Doctor's funny use of pop culture itself as a weapon, when he figures out that he can simply borrow elements from the 'Die Hard' films to in order to escape the mind-wipe gas that Colonel Stark unleashes on him and his companions, to the Queen Viperox, who looks and sounds like that from 'Aliens'. Of course, it also plays like a mid-1990's FOX UFO special, with the inclusion of Men In Black, (who actually warranted a live-action return appearance in the 'Sarah Jane Adventures' story 'The Vault Of Secrets'), the 'secret truth' behind both the Roswell Incident as well as uncovering the goings-on of Area 51. Far from being cautious, the Doctor is positively giddy with excitement at the prospect of 'finally getting to the bottom of that stuff', and I've said in previous blogs that 'Doctor Who' as an action-adventure science fiction series ought to make every effort to utilize well-known themes such as 'grey aliens', as well as Bigfoot, vampires, etc...the 1950's were a boom period for UFO activity and perhaps the one and only time in this planet's history that the subject was taken with something approaching serious and sober thought rather than the tabloid newspaper approach that was later adopted to discredit it, and I greatly enjoyed the depiction of the 'grey aliens' in 'Dreamland' not as mysterious and potentially malevolent abductors of sleeping humans, but as caring and compassionate beings who sought peaceful relations with humanity.
While many bemoaned the lack of quality animation of this webcast, and it 'is' true it is poor in the extreme given the advances in computer animation in the year that it was made in, died-in-the-wool original Whovians will choose to appreciate the story over the delivery method. A well-told story that succeeds despite shoe-string special effects has long been the hallmark of 'Doctor Who', and this is no more evident than in 'Dreamland'. For whatever reason, it doesn't appear that much money was spent on this story in terms of animation, and that 'could' be due to its initial release being on BBC's Red Button, a 'freeview' interactive TV service maintained by the BBC, originally designed for teletex service; perhaps the mind-set was that as the transmission method would be low-grade, what was the point of spending money on it as it wouldn't be in a high-definition format, anyway? It was also transmitted on the BBCi Player as well as the official BBC website. In terms of the latter, the animation quality is actually greater than that of its sister animated 'Doctor Who' releases for the website, the flash-animated 'Scream Of The Shalka', 'Real Time', 'Death Comes To Time', and 'The Infinite Quest'.
Taking the animation limitations aside, the story itself shines. It contains fast-paced, snappy dialogue, action sequences that would be at home in any televised 'Doctor Who' episode, a monster race that visually appear as giant cockroaches, complete with twitching mandibles for the creep factor, enough nods to the classic accoutrements of 1950's UFO stories to satisfy fans, and best of all, the greatest modern Doctor of them all, in a story that does him justice and in which David Tennant gives it his all. What more could anyone ask for? 'Dreamland' is the Ghost Of 'Doctor Who' Past, and it's a welcome ghost during this cold and dark Christmas night, and I'm grateful my vote counted! I'm Shannon Lush, wishing all those who listened and continue to listen to 'The Whostorian' podcast, my fellow traveler Mr Stylin' Steve Lake, all Whovians everywhere one and all, a Merry Christmas and a Happy and joyous New Year, and thank you all for reading my blog in 2012; if the Mayans will it, I'll be back soon into 2013 with my review of 'The Minister Of Chance'. In the meantime, go support Sylvester McCoy in 'The Hobbit', and don't forget to vote for 'Doctor Who' every chance you get in whatever poll or vote there is!
...and by the way, I 'am' partial to Christmas gifts. Just throwing it out there :-).
You can find 'Dreamland' full episode here, from Youtube: