Time Can Be Rewritten 39 (Human Resources)

(46 comments)


Sorry I'm late. Was up late chasing a deadline on the Flood book and forgot to queue anything here. In any case, Human Resources. The cheekily-named Eighth Doctor Adventures line from Big Finish is an oddity. On the one hand it seems faintly ridiculous - yet another bite at the apple in terms of getting the fizzled McGann era to work right. On the other, with the exception of the TV Movie itself this is as high profile and mainstream as McGann ever got, in that the first season of these audios got their first airing on BBC Radio 7, with CD release following. Later seasons came out on CD first, but Human Resources is notable as one of only nine times Paul McGann appeared in a Doctor Who story that was designed for transmission to the general public instead of for sale to dedicated fans.

Like The Girl Who Never Was it’s doing so in the wake of the new series. Indeed, it’s almost certainly the new series that made the McGann audios on BBC Radio happen in the first place. Doctor Who was big business, so why wouldn’t Radio 7 try to get in on it? And given that there was no way the new series was going to spin off into audio unexpectedly the obvious thing to do was to use a past Doctor. And at that point since you’re basically recreating Big Finish’s schtick, you may as well just have Big Finish do it.

More significant in many ways is the fact that it was Paul McGann doing it. In many ways, he’s the only one who could have. Tom Baker might have done, but there’s a self-conscious retroness to that choice that Paul McGann doesn’t have. McGann is instead an oddly lost Doctor. He has name recognition, but his era, having mostly happened in the obscurity of fan-centric publications, for all practical purposes doesn’t exist in a larger cultural sense. As the Doctor who occupies the strange space immediately prior to 2005, he’s the one who can be reinvented for audio.

In practice, of course, it’s not a reinvention so much as a marginal refinement. By this point people finally had a sense of how to write for McGann specifically, and so we finally have audios that play to his strengths. He’s accordingly on form, and with good reason, as Human Resources basically gives him an unending flood of interesting things to react to, and so he gets to do what seems to be his favorite thing to do as the Doctor: react sardonically to various absurdities. The pace is accelerated a bit, there’s a decent amount of attention to character, and the whole thing feels refreshingly streamlined (in, oddly, a way that The Girl Who Never Was, recorded a year later, doesn’t).

Beyond that, the influence of the new series all but runs rampant. We’ve got forty-five minute episodes, with most of the season being self-contained stories. When we do a two-parter there’s a heft to it such that the story feels oversized (more about which in a minute). The companion is as far from an Edwardian Adventuress as you could get: a self-proclaimed chav somewhere between Rose Tyler and Donna Noble (the latter of whom, admittedly, hadn’t even appeared in the series yet when these audios were recorded). And everything is played so that the starting point is what the general public is likely to remember instead of based on ornate fan memory. The Time Lords revert to their Tom Baker era “we don’t interfere so we’ll have the Doctor do it for us” personalities, handing him missions. The Cybermen are straightforward monsters. Everything is finely tuned and actually aimed at a general audience in a way that Big Finish, for various and perfectly sane reasons, never really did in the Wilderness Years.

But there are also basic storytelling improvements. Let’s take a fairly simple example that mostly gets the rest to slot into place: the reveal of the Cybermen. And let’s compare with The Girl Who Never Was, recorded, as I said, only a year apart, but written for the Big Finish fan audience instead of the general public. After all, both of them have reveals of the Cybermen at the halfway point, making it a fairly straight comparison. And it’s night and day. Where The Girl Who Never Was injects Cybermen to liven up an otherwise flagging plot and tries to wring a surprise out of them when they’re on the cover, Human Resources basically does everything right. The Cybermen are, for instance, not on the cover of the first disc (and BBC Radio 7 doesn’t have covers as such).

But more to the point, the Cybermen aren’t thrown in to revitalize the plot: they’re positioned as the latest in a blizzard of developments. Human Resources starts from a cliffhanger (Lucie Miller getting kidnapped), and plows right into further revelations. The mid-episode reveal that the office building is in fact a giant battle robot is worthy of being a cliffhanger on its own, and it’s not even the only solidly big moment. So when the Cybermen appear it’s more akin to, for instance, the appearance of the Daleks in Bad Wolf: the event that finally goes off the scale. It’s not “oh, that’s what’s been going on for the past hour” or “oh, OK, that’s how this is going to manage another two episodes.” It’s “holy crap, not only all of that, but Cybermen too?” Which is, on the whole, a far better sort of cliffhanger.

So on the one hand Human Resources is the sixth draft of the Paul McGann era, following the TV Movie, The Dying Days, the Eighth Doctor Adventures, the comics (more about which Monday), and the Big Finish main line. But it’s the closest thing to a draft that actually works. It would be overstating the case to suggest that it’s some sort of watershed cultural moment. It’s not like BBC Radio 7 on Sunday at dinnertime is one of the great influential time slots of British media. Yes, this is Doctor Who for the general public, but it’s still Doctor Who for a small audience.

Nevertheless, the fact that McGann got a draft that worked is satisfying. It’s worth remembering that McGann’s status as canonical was potentially up in the air until Davies declared that his Doctor was “the same man who fought the Drahvins, the Macra, the Axons, the Wirrin, the Terileptils, the Borad, the Bannermen, and the Master in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1999.” (Although as phrased it suggests a far more interesting TV Movie than we got.) But this piece, in Doctor Who Magazine #344, reveals the extent to which this was a necessary quote as well: Davies also talks about how he met with Philip Segal and Segal was pleasantly surprised to see that the BBC was officially counting Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor.

Put another way, the fact of the matter is that Russell T Davies had a number of options open to him in terms of how to position the new series. He could have done a fresh reboot with a new First Doctor and gotten away with it easily enough. In fact, it would have been easier in many ways than the approach he took, getting away with introducing every classic monster for the first time and fixing any blemishes. But he also could have decided to make a new Eighth Doctor, wiping the TV Movie out of continuity. Its generally poor reception would have allowed for it, and while there would have been grumbles, there were grumbles that Eccleston usurped Richard E. Grant too. And while Davies mumbles that it’s not him who decides these things, it’s the tabloids and the culture, it’s nonsense. There were no rules in 2004. If Davies had wanted to spectacularly snub McGann on the grounds that the TV Movie was American he could have.

And while it’s a good thing that he didn’t, it’s also worth looking at the specific list of monsters he picked in order to establish Eccleston’s enneantality. I mean, the list is conspicuously not “the Zarbi, the Yeti, the Sea Devils, the Wirrin, the Mara, Sil, and the Haemovores.” It’s not that all of the monsters available are crap or from b-list stories: fair cases can be made for the iconicness of four of the seven where there was a choice. But the sheer weirdness of the Drahvin, Bannermen, and Borad skews the others. It’s a list of arcana. Part of this is surely Davies demonstrating that he’s a big enough geek to reference the Borad, but there’s a larger point to it. Davies isn’t just making Eccleston the continuation of the classic series, he’s visibly embracing the crap of the classic series. He goes out of his way to explicitly make Timelash still canon. The message isn’t just “this is a sequel to the classic series,” it’s “everything is canon, even the crap.”

McGann’s canonization, in other words, exists in context with this. It’s accepted, but the fact that it had to be accepted is highlighted as much as the acceptance itself. Even the phrasing, while made necessary by the fact that McGann’s only televised enemy was one he shared with other Doctors, suggests this, feeling like protesting too much, trying to establish beyond all doubt that yes, Davies does mean that Paul McGann. And while he canonizes the TV movie, Davies still took pot shots at it during the series, most obviously at the good old half human line.

In this regard Davies is being accurate: making Eccleston the ninth Doctor is the path of least resistance short of rebooting the series entirely. What was canonized is less the TV Movie than Paul McGann and the McGann era, because that is something that existed culturally and was known. But in this regard the defining aspect of Paul McGann’s tenure is his absence - the way in which he is a Doctor without any stories in his era save for one largely and understandably rejected TV Movie. This failure is, curiously, why McGann can be the Doctor who can co-exist with the new series in this fashion. The fact that he’s an era without content allows it to be filled in.

And so it’s similarly nice that he gets to be the main beneficiary of Big Finish learning from the new series. There’s a real freshness and abundance to the ideas here. The idea of office drudgery being essentially interchangeable with piloting a giant battle robot is at once hilarious and cutting. Throwing the Cybermen in serves to satisfyingly deepen the basic conclusions about the drudgery and dehumanization of work and war. Even the title is bleak and telling, serving as a droll commentary on the objectification implicit in the phrase “human resources,” and equating it tacitly with the Cybermen’s use of humanity.

On top of all of these bits where the story genuinely feels like it has something to say, however, there’s opportunities for lively content. The tedious meeting in which war strategy is discussed is charmingly cheeky. The expansion of the character of the Headhunter into a headhunter in the corporate sense is fantastic. The Doctor infiltrating an office sparkles. It’s a good audio - a fair case can be made that it’s the most successful McGann audio we’ve looked at, simply because it’s managing something that Doctor Who never managed during the McGann era itself: quality in a thoroughly repeatable way. This may be a “season finale,” but it’s not self-consciously structured like one. Everything this story does could work as a normal story. It’s an actual roadmap for successful Doctor Who: interesting situations that allow for a sufficient number of innovative combinations and angles to fill the time slot, and juxtapositions that could only work on Doctor Who.

Back when the Eighth Doctor era was collapsing into its nadir with The Ancestor Cell we suggested that the real survivor of the War arc was the Ninth Doctor. Here we get the reverse: the Doctor who most benefited from the new series. Ironically it’s the one who had the least actual impact on it - the entirely forgettable, erasable Doctor. The blankness of the McGann era allowed for the new series. But in turn, the clarity of the new series allowed McGann to finally, at long last, have an era, and thus to demonstrate that he’d deserved one all along.

Comments

Seeing_I 4 years ago

Great comments on RTD's weird list of monsters - I remember thinking at the time what a wonderfully skewed and quirky little list it was.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years ago

**Spoiler Warning**

I love the Lucie Miller Audios. There are a couple that are...not good. But overall they benefit from the development of Doctor Who after the revival exactly as you say.

Sheridan Smith brings so much life and energy to the part of Lucie, she just might be my favorite companion in any medium. She's clever, plucky and while she gets herself into trouble she also has moments of genuine competence and skill.

I also LOVE the way they do the bait and switch in this season, playing up the fact that Lucie has this great terrible future ahead of her, and that she'll turn into some warlord or other...and then it turns out to be a different blonde girl going to work at the same office on the same day. Brilliant.

Paul McGann was the first Doctor I encountered, and I enjoyed his other audios a great deal. However when I heard the first series of EDA's...his place was cemented. Head and shoulders above almost anyone else. Smith is good, fantastic even. I do enjoy McCoy a great deal. But the Sardonic, almost byronic hero that McGann becomes over the course of his audio adventures is my Doctor.

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drfgsdgsdf 4 years ago

I being stupid here but what were the other 8 times Paul McGann appeared in a Doctor Who story that was designed for transmission to the general public?

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

Interesting. I note that Davies's canonizing of "even the crap" is reflected in Grant Morrison expressly pulling some of the silliest Batman stories into canon in The Black Casebook.

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Daibhid C 4 years ago

The TVM, the other five BBC 7 stories, and ... um ... the animated Shada remake?

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Daibhid C 4 years ago

...Which I've just realises comes to seven, so I don't know.

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sorrywehurtyourfield 4 years ago

I think it's genuinely impressive how self-assured and coherent this line is, and how well Big Finish and BBC 7 rise up to the task of addressing the semi-mainstream audience. (Robson in particular seems like an instant breakout writer on the basis of his contributions to this season, although I've not heard anything he's done since.) Especially considering that the webcasts, arguably the biggest precedent in terms of a primarily-audio medium pitched at least somewhat beyond fandom, had flapped around so aimlessly between different eras and visions of the series.

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David Anderson 4 years ago

Since we've passed over the rest of Eighth Doctor Season One, it has to be observed that Horror of Glam Rock is a serious contender for best Doctor Who story title ever.

The front cover of the CD does credit Nicholas Briggs as Cybermen. I don't mind the surprise being spoiled because the cybermen aren't playing the obvious role in the story (although there's a heavy hint dropped half way through part one). So the cliffhanger isn't, 'and cybermen as well!' as 'how will that role being played by cybermen change things'. (The story wouldn't work if they were generic monsters.)

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Philip Sandifer 4 years ago

Actually, the problem is that Human Resources is two of the nine times, not one of them.

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Dan Abel 4 years ago

Robson has recently had a comedy series on BBC Radio 2: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01k9hmd

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Bennett 4 years ago

Excellent essay Phil, as always. You've really put your finger on most of the reasons why I feel that Big Finish's 8DAs have given Paul McGann the right space to perform his Doctor at last.

As it isn't in the Eighth Doctor Schedule, I'd be curious to see if you touch on Dark Eyes in your 'To the Death' entry (assuming you've heard it). I found that, while enjoyable, it unlearned many of the New Series tricks you've outlined here. Namely that the episodes are more like 50 minute short-story omnibuses that bleed together, and most alarmingly that the plot culminates to a load of technobabble centred around a character we're not invested in - with the Doctor and Molly (and the relationship between them) making no meaningful contribution to its resolution.

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Josiah Rowe 4 years ago

Dark Eyes, presumably, would then be the seventh draft of the Eighth Doctor. Eighth Man Bound, anybody?

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Josiah Rowe 4 years ago

Oh, and Phil — don't forget to put the links to the Pertwee book in the sidebar! My copy arrived yesterday and I'm enjoying it thoroughly.

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Tom Dickinson 4 years ago

Blogtor Who had a post today about the upcoming special edition of The Visitation, and specifically the "Doctor Forever" featurette for which Davies was interviewed. I mention it because Blogtor quotes a comment Davies made about Big Finish, and it makes for an interesting side note to your point about his decision to canonize Paul McGann.

http://blogtorwho.blogspot.com/2013/04/rtd-regrets-not-askng-nick-briggs-to.html

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Cleofis 4 years ago

I had the exact same thought upon reading that statement too, though I tend to think Morrison pulled it off better in the end (albeit in a characteristically overcomplicated-but-not-really Morrisonian way).

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years ago

...so, as it turns out, McGann is the one who keeps wanting to come back, and Eccleston is the one who won't even show up for the 50th, eight yeara after he quit playing the role. Ouch.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

I'm probably with RTD on the whole "Multi-Doctor" thing - why do it? I saw "The Three Doctors" on broadcast and my 9-year old self enjoyed it immensely. But "The Five Doctors" left me cold as it seemed to be just a case of shoe-horning Doctors into the story for the sake of it. For me, "Three" wasn't the "First" multi-Doctor story, it was just "The multi-Doctor story" (in the same way as during William Hartnell's tenure he played "the Doctor", not "the First Doctor").

Personally I kind of think the endless fan expectation for multi-Doctor outings for the slightest excuse (50th anniversary, 39th anniversary, month with a "y" in it anniversary) has cheapened the memory of that golden winter in 1972 when for 4 weeks we had a bit of magic in Doctor Who.

I can well understand Eccleston's refusal to be involved in a cameo. He knows he'd only be invited for the sake of "ticking his number", and not for any real desire to see him act.

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Ross 4 years ago

The Three Doctors is really much more like a normal Pertwee-era story that just happens to have an extra Doctor and a half in it (not entirely, but much moreso than, say, The Five Doctors is a normal fifth doctor story with some extra doctors in it), and I think that makes it work a lot better (If you're the sort of person for whom Pertwee-era stories work in the first place.) The others all tend to basically just be less forthright versions of 'Dimensions in Time' -- just the actors wandering around doing their individual schticks to please the fanboys while we run out the clock on the episode.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

Plus I don't think Eccleston would work in a story with another Doctor in it. His Doctor is a very selfish individual, who would have no interest in (and would probably be jealous of) sharing the stage with another Doctor. Anyone prior to him would remind him of his "War damage", while anyone after him would remind him of his mortality. Having said that, watching Hartnell's Doctor you'd think he'd have no time for a future replacement, and you'd probably be right...if he wasn't almost completely rewritten for "Three" and "Five". As I think Phil pointed out in the entries for these two stories, so I think I'd better shut up now.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years ago

But, you know... it's supposed to be the 50th. Not the 7th. Having only one Doctor and one companion return (in what is often considered to be the most obnoxious Doctor/companion formulation in the new series) is just... it doesn't quite seem fair.

Someone on another site put it this way: "Imagine it is 1983. Doctor Who's 20th anniversary special is coming up. They've invited Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen. And no one else.

I mean, we know what would happen, right? The current Doctor would be railroaded by their immediate predecessor who remained hugely popular, even after two full series."

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David Anderson 4 years ago

I wouldn't bring back multiple Doctors to see them working together. You'd bring back Eccleston's Doctor so that he could heckle with remarks about bow ties and long swooshy coats. In fact, you could probably get away with some variant on the dandy and a clown line.
There's also a serious multiple Doctor story to be written about what someone met themselves at different stages in their life. Eccleston's Doctor would work in that too.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

Oh yeah, I know. It's the 50th, make it special.

Like the 10th was special, with the current Doctor meeting the previous Doctors! I mean how incredible was that? It was unique, ingenious, unexpected, and yet such an obvious thing to have done in a programme about Time Travel!

So let's do something equally special, and unique, and ingenious, and unexpected for the 50th. I'd put "The Next Doctor" as on a par with "Three Doctors", at least concept-wise, as something totally original and unexpected. I'd like to see something equally once-in-a-lifetime, original, celebratory, for the 50th.

...Or we could just trot out some other Doctors.

You see what I mean?

Nar, don't get me wrong, it'll be nice to see Tennant again, although continuity-wise, considering his panicked attitude towards Regeneration in "End of Time", I wouldn't expect the 10th Doctor him to treat any meeting with the 11th with anything other than horror and denial.

Hmmm...come to think of it, much like he didn't treat his faux replacement in "The Next Doctor". Continuity, it's such a flexible thing.

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Froborr 4 years ago

See, I think the only way to make Yet Another Multi-Doctor Story work is to have the Tenth through Twelfth show up (and any others you can get), and then have it not be a regeneration story. 11 is still the main Doctor, and you pay the actor who played Twelve a retainer so you can bring him on whenever Matt Smith quits.

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Froborr 4 years ago

Of course now that I've said that, it occurs to me that this anniversary isn't really for us. The vast majority of its viewers, just like the vast majority of viewers for any New Who episode, have seen little to no Classic Who, and therefore the only multi-doctor story they've seen is probably Time Crash.

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jane 4 years ago

"the plot culminates to a load of technobabble centred around a character we're not invested in - with the Doctor and Molly (and the relationship between them) making no meaningful contribution to its resolution"

That's too bad. On the other hand, I can get something else for my birthday.

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jane 4 years ago

Yet Eccleston will do a one-off Big Finish production. So, has he done anything else at all for the BBC since walking away?

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jane 4 years ago

@Matthew: Eccleston *was* invited. He turned them down.

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David Anderson 4 years ago

A fair bit, though mostly one-offs. Most obviously The Shadow Line.

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Abigail Brady 4 years ago

Eccleston will do a one-off Big Finish production.

???

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Philip Sandifer 4 years ago

I suspect an old rumor based on the Destiny of the Doctor productions, which people initially thought would feature Doctors and not be Companion Chronicles.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

It's a kind of sliding scale isn't it? Viewers in their 30s probably grew up with McCoy and possibly a bit of Colin, those in their 40s mostly Davison with a bit of Tom, while those now in their 50s (like me) spanned Pertwee and Baker, with a bit of late Troughton. Even someone in their mid-20s may have just scraped the TV Movie. I'd say that a lot of viewers nowadays were at least aware of Classic Who while growing up, even if they didn't watch it. But yes you'd have to be at least 35 to have seen "The Two Doctors" and at least 37 to have see "Five" (assuming an earliest age of 7).

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Steven Clubb 4 years ago

Dark Eyes is written by Nick Briggs, who seems to enjoy making his box sets into one big story instead of four independent stories with a linking sub-plot. He did the same thing with UNIT: Dominion which is the spin-off series featuring the now non-Nazi Klein. And that's pretty much what he's done with all the Dalek Empire and Cybermen stories.

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

Frankly, I think it's something in the zeitgeist. Having passed through the Irony Age, we're now in the Even The Crap Age. (Though note that Morrison used it first; that was basically the point of Animal Man.)

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

Oh, damn. My respect for the guy has shot up further.

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Archeology of the Future 4 years ago

Surely it's going to be Rose and the not-quite Doctor from that other universe?

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

It probably is, but he prefers "Metacrisis Ten" to "Shirley".

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jane 4 years ago

Oh.

Rats.

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Pen Name Pending 4 years ago

See, I haven't bothered with the 50th stuff because a) I'm watching the current series and enjoying it immensely and b) we still have no idea what the plot is and don't know what else it would include. I would have preferred to have just about every Doctor back except Tennant, and a classic companion or something rather than Rose, but oh well. We still don't know much else, aside from Zygons, Kate Stewart, and Strax (who I all like). It's hard to write a multi-Doctor story without problems or continuity and overcrowding (see: The Five Doctors) and I'm sure they have something planned about the show's past.

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Ununnilium 4 years ago

Pretty much what PNP said.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years ago

It isn't. Handy had the blue suit; pics show Tennant wearing the brown pinstripe ensemble, which means it's 10, original flavor.

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Spacewarp 4 years ago

Tennant absolutely loved the role and will always be up for return cameos. An unashamed fanboy.

(Oh and any US readers, he's damn good in "Broadchurch" at the mo, so grab a copy from the usual outlets if you can!)

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Ross 4 years ago

It isn't. Handy had the blue suit; pics show Tennant wearing the brown pinstripe ensemble, which means it's 10, original flavor.

While I agree with your interpretation, my instinctive reaction is "Because how could ONE man own TWO suits? That's unpossible!"

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ferret 4 years ago

They're Zygon Duplicates, for my money.

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Josiah Rowe 4 years ago

Although the MO could be changed, the original Zygons could only duplicate people they held the originals of. So even if we get Zygon copies for most of the story, we'll probably see the real ones too.

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Daru 4 years ago

Great stuff - sums up a lot of my feelings as to why I love the McGann audios. Superb as they developed - as proved by this story. I did do a couple of "what, What, WHAT's!" as I listened the fisrt time. Shows how to throw many elements together and how to make them gell.

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Daru 4 years ago

Generally I don't much mind what happens for the 50th. Enjoying the stories now and I am sure until the time I will just take pleasure from the anticipation of the event as much as anything...

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