Outside the Government 12: The TARDISodes
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…
July 17, 2013 @ 12:20 am
Started reading, then decided to go on youtube and watch them before carrying on (which may take some time to get around to). Grr, why didn't they put them on the DVDs?
July 17, 2013 @ 12:37 am
Despite watching all of them back in the day, I have no recollection of any bar School Reunion, and that is because it looks so terrible. Finally Doctor Who had found a new genre to play with: the corporate training video (well, "new" if you don't count the high profile fanpro videos of the wilderness years).
July 17, 2013 @ 12:46 am
… Someone needs to put together a Fry Meme.
Can't tell if TARDIS Eruditorum…
… or Review Blog.
July 17, 2013 @ 2:13 am
Here you go: http://cdn.meme.li/instances/300×300/39787501.jpg
July 17, 2013 @ 2:39 am
I think it's pretty telling that while I'm sure I watched all of these, the one for The Impossible Planet is the only one I have any recollection of whatsoever.
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
I'm still going with "Torchwood never recognized that The Doctor was anything more than some Scottish Weirdo who annoyed the Queen once, and therefore never actually bothered looking for him until he happened to turn up in their basement"
July 17, 2013 @ 3:20 am
"Were it that as much effort went into every bit of disposable ephemera connected with Doctor Who. Speaking of which…
Now, now…that's no way to speak about Torchwood :).
July 17, 2013 @ 3:26 am
Didn't bother at the time but I have now watched them all following your entertaining redemptive readings. I am still of the opinion that I was right to give them a miss the first time. The TARDISodes add nothing to the episodes as aired, nor do they work as teasers, trailers or…well anything that makes sense. They are embued with the taint of some production meeting wonk saying 'Hey there's this new gizmo called the intertron that all the kids are into. I suppose we should put something on it so that we look hip and happening, wouldn't want anyone to think this revival of a 45 year old show is old fashioned.'
Or I wonder if it was RTD himself? The whole Torchwood, SJA spin-off thing suggests he considered Doctor Who to be a concept that was desperate to expand outside of its own parameters.
The BBC finally got got its Doctor Who internet memes and virals right in the Matt Smith era. I'm looking forward to your take on 'meanwhile in the TARDIS' etc.
July 17, 2013 @ 3:31 am
I never watched them at the time – did not know about them as I was not really participating in web-fandom of Doctor Who. Having just watched them all the way through I find them interesting as an experiment in narrative, especially in such a truncated form. Yes Gareth really nails it with the Doomsday one – I especially love the moments when the news presenter is in front of the broken TV footage, and her emotional state carries a lot of the drama too.
I am reminded in a way of the construction of movie trailers, especially for some films that I would have absolutely no desire to go and see (i.e. all of the Too Fast Too Furious pics – the last and most recent was a fun movie-trailer). Often in the movie theatre it is actually a joy to see such trailers, and some in short form present the entire movie (not including teaser types) – negating the need then to really see the whole film. Makes me think of Orwell's Newspeak, but more fun.
In a way its a condensed cinema experience that can makes crap movies a helluva lot more enjoyable!
July 17, 2013 @ 3:43 am
"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."
I don't quite agree. It looks to me like the Cyberman is just as CGI as the rest of the sequence. And the fact it's obvious CGI works for me because it's diagetic CGI; this is Cybus Industries' stylised representation of the Upgrade, not an actual brain transplant.
July 17, 2013 @ 4:23 am
Torchwood strikes me as having an inherent mission conflict. As replacement Doctors, each individual agent is likely to have more in common with the Doctor than they do with the imperialist organization they work for. The guy even has an English or Scottish accent! They'd be turning themselves in to Torchwood top brass, who strike me as being about as popular with the rank and file not immediately under them as you'd expect. And the Torchwood administrators strike me as the sorts in charge of secrecy and clean-up, and thus highly unlikely to encounter the Doctor themselves unless he does something like materialize in their HQ…
July 17, 2013 @ 7:44 am
They're just early prequel-type episodes, really. I read each one here and then watched them. Fun to revisit them.
To those who don't like them: they're not meant to be taken seriously. They're just bits of fluff, harmless fun to tease the episodes.
July 17, 2013 @ 7:57 am
I also like the "series trailers" we had. Not the clipshow ones, but the new in-character scenes.
The Ninth Doctor running from his ball of flame and Rose talking in the TARDIS. The Tenth lying on the TARDIS floor and talking about "coming with me". The Tenth and Martha's split-screen which ends up coming together with them both meeting / their faces half and half. The campfire trailers with Donna. The Eleventh Doctor on the hilltop with Amy, and in the blue vortex. etc.
Pen Name Pending
July 17, 2013 @ 8:06 am
I think it's also interesting to see how the technology has changed in such a short period of time. Computers, webpages, and cell phones were just taking off and were a bit clunky.
Pen Name Pending
July 17, 2013 @ 8:09 am
This may be a good place to ask: are there still versions of RTD's online commentaries around? It seems like the original links were taken down, and I can't get the ones on the series 4 website to play, although that's possibly because I'm in America.
July 17, 2013 @ 10:23 am
Torchwood originated with RTD's desire to write a sexy X-Files type series, with a team investigating alien incursions and using alien tech…whilst swearing lots (tentatively to be called "Excalibur"). With the success of the new Who relaunch the Been appeared to have approached him with a request for a post-watershed Sci-Fi series to capture more of the adult Who demographic. RTD realised that with Jack as a ready-made jump-off point he could finally make his series as a Who spin-off.
Bit of an unruly beast, Torchwood, and didn't quite turn out the way RTD wanted.
SJA was much the same, except I believe the Beeb wanted a Who spin-off from the get-go, and it just happened to coincide with Sarah Jane's triumphant return to the Whoniverse. We're lucky we got SJA and not the other mooted concept – "Young Doctor Who".
All in all 2006 was a fantastic year for Who fans. Two series, and Totally Doctor Who as well…then SJA at the end of the year. Who fans today don't know they're born!
July 17, 2013 @ 10:35 am
"Just taking off"? In 2006? I feel so old all of a sudden. 🙂
Anyway, I had no idea these TARDISodes even existed! I think I pretty much have to go watch them, if only because Gareth Roberts.
Archeology of the Future
July 17, 2013 @ 11:34 am
I wonder if the way to reconcile UNIT and Torchwood is to assume that Torchwood left The Doctor alone because he was actively working toward the same ends as them for most of his time on Earth. Similarly, with UNIT, it would make sense for them to know about UNIT but not work with them as Torchwood is UK where UNIT is international.
In fact, the Doctor seems to bring alien tech to Earth every time he turns up…
The seventh Doctor might have caused them some headaches as the most explicitly anti-imperialist Doctor, but they could otherwise leave alone. The third Doctor was right up their street.
By the time we get to the tenth, he is quite obviously not on the same side (ending the golden age) and thus moves from useful independent asset to asset that needs to be grasped, mined and neutralised.
I'm assuming that Torchwood as we see it in Army of Ghosts works much like a 'real' secret service organisation, or at least one that appears as 'realistic' in telly drama.
Pen Name Pending
July 17, 2013 @ 12:37 pm
Oh man I am always making everyone feel old. I sort of meant that there is a different style to the Internet in 2013 than there was in 2006. "Just taking off" was probably too extreme, but it's true of the Internet-based marketing of Doctor Who (at least).
I knew they existed but didn't know you can still watch them on YouTube. Interestingly, they were viewed as failures because the download number underperformed. This is possibly because fans didn't have mobile phones (I am really converting to British English) that were compatible with the videos, or their providers charged them for that sort of thing.
Corpus Christi Music Scene
July 17, 2013 @ 2:31 pm
I think the reason that SJA was so successful is that it took the format of 70s DW… with Sarah Jane as the Doctor , Mr Smith as the Tardis , and the kids as the companions.
Torchwood took a while to find its feet tho…. it often seemed as if they were throwing anything "adult" at the wall hoping it would stick , instead of just concentrating on telling a good story. Children of Earth is some of the best DW ever tho.
July 17, 2013 @ 3:11 pm
I can access Series 2 commentaries onwards still…
Try the above link (it'll lead you to New Earth) and then click through to others using the links on the left (for eps/series) and links on the right (find 'episode commentary').
Hope that helps.
July 17, 2013 @ 3:12 pm
[Note: I've linked to New Earth there, but the first commentary available is for The Christmas Invasion.]
July 17, 2013 @ 3:48 pm
I think the TARDISode is one of those oddities that comes from the weird position Doctor Who held in 2006: the biggest thing on television. Here was BBC1's flagship program, which had never had quite this relationship with its audience in the show's history. And with the internet being the cultural force that it is, it offered new means of promoting the show. The TARDISode was the second of these experiments in how to promote the show on the internet. The conspiracy theory website during the Eccleston year was the first, and I think very successful, such experiment.
The TARDISodes: interesting, but perhaps not really achieving all the creators wanted to. They're important to note as a part of how Doctor Who was growing during this period, trying to work out what its public profile was, how to engage viewers with the episodes while not yet actually watching the episodes. They work best when they expand the story somehow: New Earth, Rise of the Cybermen, The Impossible Planet especially, did that. The one for Fear Her reminded me of Gatiss' investigative news sketch for the Green Death DVD (best part of the whole DVD), which may have coloured my objectivity. But I can also see why they didn't do these again. In terms of promoting the episodes, they aren't always that great, either spoiling parts of the main plot, or just being a generic monster reveal.
But it was an interesting experiment.
Pen Name Pending
July 17, 2013 @ 3:58 pm
I click "play" and it does nothing. Oh well.
July 17, 2013 @ 4:02 pm
Sadly those BBC site players do not work for Americans and Antipodeans (unless you do something naughty and try to convince their server you are actually in the UK).
The only time I recall them being available internationally was in the week after their release, when they were made available as MP3 downloads here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/doctorwho . Because of this, I still have the vast majority of podcast commentaries from Series 2, 3, 4 and the Specials in MP3 format. So if you have anything specific in mind (and don't mind publishing an email address here), I'd be happy to email you some on the sly.
July 17, 2013 @ 4:51 pm
There was a definite retro feel to SJA. As someone whose television intake is primarily American, for all I know this is the status quo for kids shows on that side of the pond, but the Sarah Jane Adventures seems almost sublimely uninformed by the kids-show-specific trends that evolved through the 1990s. They got the benefit of the modern advances in how TV is made, but they seem largely untainted by the Nicktoons revolution that said that any entertainment aimed at children must, whatever its other merits, depict no one past puberty as anything other than a total cartoon oaf, and must be packed full of bright lights, obnoxious characters, and a sort of general high-energy, loud-noise frenetic chaos. The Sarah Jane Adventures are, on the whole, cohesive, believable, and, in its way, straightforward.
July 17, 2013 @ 6:02 pm
This post makes me realize I wish you'd done a post about the tie-in websites used in Series One and Two. Unless that's next… ? (While many of the Series Two sites are gone, they can still be found via the Internet Wayback Machine.) I thought they did a much better job than the TARDISodes at providing supplemental material – particularly during Series One, when there was a bit of an ongoing narrative about somebody taking over Clive's site and obsessively searching the history books for mentions of the Doctor and Rose (a somebody who, of course, turned out to be Mickey).
July 17, 2013 @ 11:58 pm
First experience working with computers: c. 1979.
First computer owned: c. 1985
First online w/ email etc.: 1994.
First writing for a website: 1996.
First website: 1999.
First blog: 2002.
First cellphone: 2004.
And I'm not even an early adopter; I'm a second-wave adopter.
July 17, 2013 @ 11:59 pm
try to convince their server you are actually in the UK
Try "I never signed the Declaration of Independence, so …"
July 18, 2013 @ 12:01 am
I really hated the TARDISodes. I grump about them here.
July 18, 2013 @ 3:29 am
@Pen Name Pending: I think you're right; it was about 2006-2007 that Youtube, Facebook, Wikipedia, social networking, smart phones and Web 2.0 in generally really began to boom.
July 18, 2013 @ 6:52 am
Isn't it though?
July 18, 2013 @ 7:09 am
Obviously, the Internet had been a vital active place for a while, but full streaming video only took off around then. (Flash animations, OTOH…)
July 20, 2013 @ 8:08 am
@Corpus Christi Music Scene:
I think the problem with Torchwood is in several ways a similar problem to Totally Doctor Who, just in a different direction; if memory serves, early Torchwood especially is just desperate to prove that it's basically the adult version of Doctor Who, but it's more 'adult' in the way that 1990s superhero comics tried to be adult by throwing in loads of references to sex and gritty things rather than treating its intended audience as actual adults.
A lot of the time, it seems to come off more as an adolescent's idea of being 'adult' more than anything else. Ironically, it was supposed to be the adult Doctor Who, and yet if you wanted an adult and mature version of Doctor Who for the most part you might as well have just watched Doctor Who.
(The fact that it was also desperately trying to be 'Angel' to Doctor Who's 'Buffy' didn't help either. Sorry, Cardiff residents, I'm sure your city is lovely but it's never gonna be Los Angeles no matter how many shots of Captain Jack brooding on the top of the Wales Millennium Centre you throw in there.)