Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting BAD WOLF - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting BAD WOLF

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf, asks Tony.

That was the most significant difference between Series 1 of the RTD1 era (the first time Russell T Davies sat in the showrunner’s chair on Doctor Who) and almost everything that had come before it. The Classic show had for the most part been all about the adventure – keeping family audiences happy from one week to the next – rather than about space-time chickens coming home to roost.

Companions traditionally had very little tying them to a time or a place in Classic Who. Contrast that with Rose Tyler, who had a mother and a boyfriend, relationships that were important to her on different levels, but which she had no particular intention of abandoning completely for a life in the big blue box of everything.

Villains were defeated, at least until the next time, when they very rarely brought up their previous defeats, but focused on their next great plan. Compare that with Blon Fel-Fotch Pasameer-Day Slitheen in Boom Town.

When the Doctor wakes up in a Big Brother house at the start of Bad Wolf, after a significant recap of the events of The Long Game, it’s the cue for what on the surface looks like a bone-basic satire on the game show culture of our own day – game shows, given a deadly twist. So far, so Vengeance On Varos, humans glued to their screens, watching their fellow citizens get disintegrated in a range of fun and exciting ways.

That’s dark enough for a Classic story, maybe – and in some of the ritualistic elements, like Big Brother housemates forming a steeple with their arms (a detail taken from reality), there’s a pathos that would sit well in the middle of some of the Seventh Doctor’s darkest satires, like Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol.

But Bad Wolf is all about consequences. As we learn, the horrendous game show culture, where people are transmatted in to play for their lives without their consent all began in the wake of the Doctor’s actions on Satellite Five in The Long Game. His breezy assertion that things would “go back to normal” after the eradication of the Mighty Jagrafess (Rupert Murdoch with sharper teeth) has been very badly misjudged. The world is dying under a cloud of smog, and human beings are conditioned to accept the possibility of their random death on any given day, on a hundred floors full of game shows, each one reducing to less than nothing the significance of every single human life that’s blasted out of existence.

And in a very real sense, it’s the Doctor’s fault for not hanging around to witness the consequences of his actions.

With the Doctor in a Big Brother house, gaining support from the delightfully sweet Lynda-with-a-Y (Jo Joyner), Rose answering questions for her life against the Ann Droid (and conniving fellow contestant Rodrick, played by Paterson Joseph) in a laser-death version of The Weakest Link, and Captain Cheesecake acting like a slathering of mid-episode filler with robot versions of self-determined stylists Trinny and Susannah, there’s potentially enough story to be a fairly light episode of New Who – escape from the machine, take down whoever’s in charge, bish, bash, bosh, home in time for chips and innuendo.

Except Series 1 is building to its climactic end – and by the time Bad Wolf went out, we already knew that Christopher Eccleston would not be continuing as the Doctor into Series 2. That we’d be getting a regeneration, and that an actor named David Tennant would be taking over the role. So even when it was broadcast, Bad Wolf was an episode that could start off as a frivolous take-down of game-show culture and the unquestioning belief of its audience, but had to go somewhere at least bigger, and probably also darker before its end.

Russell T Davies layered that storytelling need into the story itself. Satellite 5, now renamed the game station, is responsible for all the lethal game shows, and on the surface, that’s all it does.

But underneath that, it has a darker purpose – masking a giant fleet that seems to pose an imminent threat to the Earth.

When we meet the Controller of the game station, she bears an uncanny resemblance in purpose, if not in physicality, to a child that Classic fans first saw in Remembrance of the Daleks, while looking like a Doctor Who version of the Borg Queen from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

And when the hidden fleet is finally revealed, both back in 2005 and now in 2023, there’s an incredible shudder that runs up and down your spine. It’s a Dalek fleet, but it’s a Dalek fleet as rendered in comic books, or in the imaginations of novelists, or the tingly nightmares of children. A Dalek fleet the like of which there had never been the budget to put on screen before. And a Dalek fleet that brings consequences with it that this Doctor has never contemplated, having been perhaps too wound up in his memories of the Time War, and his guilt for his part in it.

The weird thing in retrospect is that this episode is largely exactly what we said it could be – a game of escape the machine, confront the people in charge, and take down the station that forces millions of human beings to endure a banal and meaningless death, while traumatising the whole species into not making plans to better themselves, because what’s the point if you can be “chosen” for the games at any point.

It’s weird to reflect on that because when the Dalek fleet is revealed, everything takes on a whole different tone. They’ve been skulking out there in the darkness much longer than anyone has known, installing the Jagrafess as a kind of caretaker dictator, and replacing him in due course with a TV game show charnel house, for reasons that make much more sense in the next episode than they ever do here.

As such, Bad Wolf is to a large extent a warm-up act for what immediately promises to be a busier, bigger, more climactic episode, The Parting of the Ways.

But in itself, Bad Wolf is an object lesson in how New Who will do multi-stranded, consequential adventuring, while seeming on the surface to be solidly effective social satire.

Of course, the episode is called Bad Wolf partially because the corporation that allegedly runs the game station carries that name, but more particularly to tell both Rose, the Doctor and we the audience that this is heading towards the culmination of that sub-strand of storytelling – and that they’re probably not in the games by accident. Who is Bad Wolf? What is Bad Wolf? Why are those words scattered throughout time (even if one of the versions of the name that Rose remembers hearing here – the one from Dalek – is not something she actually heard). What does it all mean?

Joyously, despite the episode’s name, we’re not destined to find out any of that here – it will form part of the climax of the series.

The episode ends with the Daleks acting like proper playground bullies. They’re nearly done here. Let them finish, and they won’t harm Rose Tyler, they bargain.

It’s a rare Doctor who wouldn’t, in those circumstances, negotiate or play for time. But it’s a mark of the Ninth Doctor’s personality that he meets their demands with his own outright defiance. No, he will not stand down. No, he will not give way. No, he will not allow them to harm Rose Tyler as the price for his defiance. He’s coming to get her – and then he’s going to turn his attention to them.

There are probably two stand-alone moments in Bad Wolf where Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor feels the most like the Doctor it’s ever done. The first is when he holds out a hand to Lynda-with-a-Y and offers her the chance to come with him. The Doctor – the one who makes things better – is complete in that moment.

And at the end, this very particular survivor-guilt Doctor is a Doctor that takes no questions. A Doctor who will put himself between the universe and its bullies, whatever the cost. And as the episode ends, a week feels like an interminably long time to wait before we see that Doctor go into battle against half a million Daleks, save Rose Tyler, rescue the Earth from the consequences of his previous neglect, and emerge, if not triumphant, because we know a regeneration is coming, then at least emerge more like the Doctor than he’s ever been before.

Fortunately, this is 2023, not 2005, and a week can go by with the snap of a finger. Next up – The Parting of the Ways…

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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