The “TARDISodes” were a set of online shorts promoting individual episodes of Series Two, written by Gareth Roberts. They were among the early experiments with “Internet versions of television” that were going on in the mid-aughts, which is to say done cheaply and mostly as an experiment. As befits mini-episodes, then, mini-entries, written in sequence, each one done without watching any of the subsequent TARDISodes so as to provide a micro-blog of the season.
New Earth: It’s a particularly big challenge to kick these off – how do you establish what a mini-episode should be like? How do you make them differ from the trailer? Roberts picks a savvy approach here – where the trailer is mainly about the visual concepts, here he lays out in thirty seconds the basic mystery of the story: how can this hospital cure any disease, and what’s its dirty secret? Notably, the mini-episode does not attempt to explain the premise of the story. It throws in cat nurses with no real context, clearly marking this as something for a more dedicated flavor of fan. Note also that the specific mystery teased is one of the first ones encountered – though only in one plot thread (this being one of the most traditional “split the Doctor and the companion up when they get to the planet and keep them apart until the end” episodes ever), thus being a significant tease but not a major spoiler.
Tooth and Claw: There’s a real challenge in keeping these from all being basically the same structure: here’s a world, oh no, there’s a monster. The decision to start with a meteor crash is thus a reasonably clever strategy to keep things lively. Also clever is the actual use of the werewolf in the final shot, especially given that Davies had to carefully count his werewolf shots and allowed for one to be used over here. The chase from the werewolf’s point of view suggests that we’re not going to actually see the monster, so the “money shot,” as it were, is cheeky. Try, on the other hand, to ignore the fact that the random Scottish werewolf bait looks for all the world like he tripped and fell out of Monty Python’s Holy Grail, unless it really happens to amuse you, in which case, don’t worry about it.
School Reunion: Again there’s a pleasant bit of focus here. The decision to hold Mickey back until the third one of these makes it a bit of a thing – it wasn’t clear prior to this that “real” cast members would be appearing in the TARDISodes. But equally, Mickey is a particularly interesting choice for this episode given that to anyone obsessive enough to watch the TARDISodes the real story was obviously Sarah Jane Smith and K-9, who aren’t even hinted at here. The teasing of Torchwood immediately after Tooth and Claw is similarly savvy, showing that there was real effort taken with these to make them tie in with the overall public narrative of the series. However the less said about the shot of the Krillitane at the end, which suddenly crashes it right down to the “oh no monsters” structure, the better, particularly as it’s not even a particularly good monster.
The Girl in the Fireplace: A really interesting choice, in that it comes terribly close to spoiling the end of the story by explaining what happened to the ship. Anyone who’s seen the TARDISode is going to solve the mystery way ahead of what the episode structures as the big reveal. But this really just establishes how little the episode is actually about that mystery. It’s an open question why the screaming crewmember means that we cut to a clockface that suddenly shatters of its own accord, especially since within the story it’s the robots who break the clocks, but frankly, the idea that even the TARDISodes have ludicrous plot holes is kind of charming in its own right. Also, note how the first shot is once again the winding key of the magic box spaceship, keeping the episode’s basic aesthetic and logic. Still, it’s not yet clear that there’s any way to do a mini-episode of Doctor Who that does not consist of a buildup to someone screaming at a monster.
Rise of the Cybermen: On several of the commentary tracks Russell T Davies praises the BBC graphics department, which does all the stuff that appears on computer monitors within the show. This TARDISode is the exception, offering a ghastly set of computer graphics. But beyond that the structure is quite solid. It’s refreshing that the Cybermen story, the one where building to a monster reveal is the most obvious choice imaginable, is the one where Roberts finally ditches the structure, showing the Cybermen early in the short, and in deliberately low-fi video. But what’s really interesting here is the decision to focus the TARDISode on Rickey, which quietly clues the viewer in to the fact that, underneath everything else, this two-parter is about Mickey. It also manages to give the story a global sweep that the actual episodes never quite muster up, which is on the whole a good thing.
The Age of Steel: The question of how to do a TARDISode for the second part of a two-parter is admittedly tricky, especially here where there’s no more mysteries or hidden revelations to tease. That said, this is clearly not the answer. In essence this is what got trimmed off of the end of Rise of the Cybermen’s TARDISode – an extended “oh no monsters” shot. There’s a kind of lovely moment when a lengthy obviously CGI shot suddenly turns into a non-CGI Cyberman, but then a giant CGI stamp comes in to mark the chest plate and the entire sequence crumbles. In essence, this is the objection Moffat has raised to two-parters – that you really have to change the premise for the second part – in miniature. With no new ideas to build on, Roberts doesn’t really have anything to work with. The failure of “delete” as a catchphrase is also immediately obvious.
The Idiot’s Lantern: The bit of creepy domestic horror that the actual episode lacked. There are a bunch of really lovely things here – the fast cut from getting the television to the elderly lady sitting down alone to watch it, the use of shots from the television’s perspective, and, most notably, a gorgeous tracking shot that starts from the television’s perspective and then moves outside (with an accompanying change to color) as the grandmother is snatched. Roberts also subverts the now-standard “oh no monster” structure by cutting from there to watching an announcement of the coronation on the television, which is, of course, far more deliciously creepy than just lingering on a monster. Monsters in a domestic setting are standard fare, but reasserting the domestic after it’s been shattered by otherworldly violence is exceedingly clever. This one really stands out as something that materially improves the actual episode, which, bizarrely for a Gatiss script, never really lingers on its horror aspects sufficiently.
The Impossible Planet: There’s a really interesting decision here to contrast the TARDISode with the episode. The TARDISode is all clean, corporate white, and features the captain who dies before The Impossible Planet actually begins. As with Rise of the Cybermen, Roberts increases the scope of the episode, establishing legends of Krop Tor from the other side of the galaxy, making the entire thing feel less like a weird mystery on a single tiny world and more like something vast and scary. The fact that the Ood is influenced by the Beast here in the boardroom also changes the sense of scale, giving the rising Beast a grander sweep. Beyond that, the laconic delivery of “and the Beast shall rise from the pit” contrasts marvelously with the creepy reveal of the Ood itself. As with The Idiot’s Lantern, Roberts has moved from just teasing the episode to finding interesting images and concepts that didn’t fit in the episode itself.
The Satan Pit: On his second attempt at doing a TARDISode for the second part of a story, Roberts at least manages to make new mistakes. As with The Age of Steel, the basic problem here is that the story has now gotten ahead of the TARDISodes, and introducing another character who’s dead before the episode starts isn’t really helpful. On the other hand, there are some great individual moments here, particularly when the book in Curt’s hands bursts into flames. But the basic problem is that this is telling us things we already learned from the preceding episode, making this largely redundant. The question of how a gibbering wreck of a man with bizarre demonic tattoos doesn’t really impact the start conditions of the previous episode is also a bit of a problem. Unlike The Age of Steel’s TARDISode, however, this fails merely as an introduction to the episode – as a teaser to the overall concept of the two-parter it’s quite effective.
Love and Monsters: This was, to be fair, probably the hardest story of the season to write a mini-episode for. The fact that Peter Kay wasn’t available for it further hinders us, leaving us with an episode that consists of animal noises and computer screens followed by the most generic “oh no monster” since Tooth and Claw, is by any measure unfortunate. On the other hand, Roberts gets a bit cheeky with some of the actual computer bits. The fact that LINDA’s webpage has a “Join LINDA” button that declines to tell you how to join LINDA is quite funny, as is the Abzorbaloff’s gadget that causes his laptop to declare the webpage a “primitive computer page” and begin hacking it. In the end, it’s difficult to come up with an aesthetic whereby managing two grin-worthy moments in under a minute while working with unpromising material is not a clear victory.
Fear Her: This is actually a solid parody of the hysterical tone of crime paranoia television, and has great comic timing and silly camera movements. “An ordinary London Street… OR IS IT?” is delivered exquisitely, as is the decision to contrast the excitable host suggesting the missing kids have joined a gang with a shot of a Barbie doll lying in the street. None of this has a damned thing to do with Fear Her, of course, but there are worse things than having nothing to do with Fear Her. As with the Love and Monsters TARDISode, there’s a particularly crap monster reveal in the last five seconds, but the same basic principle that justified the Love and Monsters TARDISode works here – it’s got two solid moments of entertainment and is over in under a minute. If YouTube could manage that consistently then we’d live in a more joyful world than we do.
Army of Ghosts: A recap of the concept of Torchwood is a sensible decision here. It’s possible Roberts inflates Torchwood a bit too much – if the organization is so vast and powerful that it has major papers completely bought off then the existing problem of how the hell it takes them until the early 21st century to ever find the Doctor becomes even larger. But it’s probably all worth it for the moment when the Torchwood operative helpfully provides the newspaper with its new front page: “pretty girls get exam results.” It’s one of the most deliciously sick jokes Gareth Roberts ever lands. Also, a debate for viewers at home: is the editor deliberately made to look like Rebekah Brooks, or is it a wonderful coincidence? The way in which the ghosts are threaded quietly in the background of the TARDISode is also quite deft and impressive. “There’s been a complication” is possibly the most entertainingly understated way to describe “I’ve had my secret masters tipped off and they’re coming to drag you away to an asylum” imaginable.
Doomsday: At last, Roberts gets “part two” right, adapting Davies’s signature “and now let’s look at the television coverage of this television episode” move into something that hints at the scale of the horror these two episodes unleash on the world in ways that are arguably more unnerving than the episodes themselves ever manage. The move from “beware of the Cybermen” to a Dalek bursting into the studio is a nice, quiet mirroring of the way in which the stakes are raised in the two-parter, and further demonstrate that thought, if not actually money, really went into these. As with all of the TARDISodes it is, of course, a thoroughly dispensable curiosity, but there’s a real effort to make these as good as they can be, which is impressive for minute-long web teasers. Were it that as much effort went into every bit of disposable ephemera connected with Doctor Who. Speaking of which…