Anyone who’s followed David Tennant’s career will know that he’s done some of his best work inside a recording studio.
Doctor Who made Tennant an international superstar, but there are advantages to doing a character in Estuary English when you’re a native Scot. Tennant’s excelled in shows like Tree-Fu Tom and Twenty Twelve (in which his deadpan narration is an unexpected highlight) and been equally compelling in the likes of The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists and How To Train Your Dragon. He even manages to turn in a decent performance in Postman Pat, even though the film itself is woeful. A natural acting ability helps tremendously, but arguably the best thing about all these performances is that Tennant’s accent helps maintain that crucial sense of disbelief – you’re never expecting him to sound like the Doctor, which is not something you might say of Tom Baker, for example.
But Tennant’s made something of a career out of lending his voice to the Doctor as well as his face, both in the Big Finish productions he recorded with Catherine Tate and the animated stories that cropped up throughout his run in the TARDIS – with both actors expressing their love of audio sessions when chatting to Digital Spy. “You zip through it,” Tate says, “because you haven’t got to worry about camera angles, and lighting and makeup, and all these things – ‘am I on my mark?’. You just use the words and your voice.” Broadly, Tennant agrees, although he acquiesces that “There is no process of learning your lines to get your mouth around it. Part of the process of learning one’s lines for the TV show was attacking the inner tongue twisters of some of those speeches.”
The animated stories are something of a curiosity, existing as they did as episodic instalments in the manner of Saturday morning cartoons (with the first, The Infinite Quest, being broadcast as part of Totally Doctor Who in exactly the manner that Roland Rat used to cut to episodes of Transformers while he was rampaging up and down the corridors of Breakfast Television Centre). One utilises two-dimensional animation in a similar manner to Scream of the Shalka (something we’ll be looking at later this week); the other ventures into the realms of three-dimensional CGI. Both feel, in a strange sort of way, rather like pilots for an animated series that never happened – as if someone had taken a cue from Gene Roddenberry but without the breaks they needed to actually get the project off the ground.
That’s not to say that either story is bad – they’re actually quite reasonable. The Infinite Quest (2007) ran parallel to the original broadcast of Series 3, charting the adventures of the Doctor and Martha as they searched the universe for parts of a McGuffin. It was basically an excuse for a variety of set pieces – pirates, fish-like aliens, and a sinister prison all feature – and if the plot is somewhat inconsequential, the action is as impressive as most of Tennant’s TV run. The voice cast don’t disappoint either: Anthony Head drips menace as Baltazar, while Liza Tarbuck makes the most of her comparatively brief screentime, playing a character who really deserves another shot at redemption. Oh, and Big Finish veteran Lizzie Hopley shows up as the alien queen, while Toby Longworth plays a sentient parrot.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the story is the way it plays on Martha’s feelings for the Doctor: it’s just about the only time it doesn’t grate, given that it’s essential to the narrative. The term ‘narrative’ is used somewhat loosely, of course, given that this is a heavily condensed version of the Key To Time arc, but without the interesting bits. The episodic, cliffhanger-driven nature of Quest makes itself apparent fairly early: comparatively little time is given for character development, and we’re lucky that we were given the chance to get to know Martha on screen. That said, writer Alan Barnes does a good job at keeping up the pace, with some lovely exchanges between the leads: the Doctor’s quiet “No, no, don’t – don’t do that” when Martha attempts pirate speak is classic Tennant, and his self-righteous fury when facing down Baltazar in the final act is angry but understated. The rendered backgrounds are minimalist, but that does at least give us the chance to focus a little more on facial expressions, which are usually very good, even if the mouth movement isn’t always top-notch.
If The Infinite Quest is a series of unfortunate events, Dreamland (2009) feels far more like a coherent story, the sort of thing that might have been rejected as a TV episode (“It was too expensive to go on location”) but ripe for an animated web series. The companionless Doctor arrives in Nevada in 1958 and swiftly finds himself caught up in a UFO conspiracy plot, in the company of a girl from a diner and a young Native American (half Shoshone, half Greaser). There are grey aliens that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of The X-Files, and a race of giant cockroaches (this is presumably supposed to be a commentary on the nuclear survival myth, although we’re never sure). There are also nods to Indiana Jones, Aliens, and (somewhat improbably) Metal Gear Solid, but Dreamland wears its cultural references like a badge of honour, the Doctor even going so far as to refer to them directly when he’s hatching a plan to escape from the air force base.
The thing about CG animation is that it’s easy to do but tough to do well. For every Monsters Inc. there’s a Silver Circle or Life’s A Jungle. On TV it’s much the same: witness the opulence of, say, Kazoops (CBeebies) and then turn over to Tiny Pop; it’s enough to make you weep for the future of humanity. There is a sense of expectation that every new release should be up there with the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks, both of whom set the bar – which is something of a shame, as watching Real Madrid take on Barcelona down the pub doesn’t prevent you enjoying a Sunday league match at your local football ground. We’re willing to forgive the occasionally dodgy effects of Red Dwarf; why can we not extend a similar courtesy when evaluating Hollywood?
Nonetheless, it’s something of a shame that the general appearance of Dreamland is so sub-par. The backgrounds are reasonable – if comparatively minimalist, but it’s the animation that disappoints, with the Doctor himself somehow seeming more robotic than the androids he encounters in the Nevada desert. This is not a problem with technology (we’re talking about a production that post-dates the first Assassin’s Creed, for example) but rather finance, with Dreamland’s shortcomings most likely budget related: Littleloud presumably did the best they could with the resources available. It wouldn’t be such an issue had we not become accustomed to the sight of Tennant surrounded by vast, twinkling alien landscapes, and actually moving a little bit; had Dreamland existed in a vacuum it would probably be higher regarded. Still, it’s hard to take the Doctor seriously when he’s strolling across a vast underground chamber, technobabbling like a pro, but walking in a manner that suggests he’s wet himself.
Even if the animation is stiff as a board, the voice talent makes up for it. Tennant is on fine form, Georgia Moffett’s American accent is basically flawless, and Stuart Milligan – who would later portray a slightly clueless Richard Nixon in the Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon two-parter – excels as Colonel Stark, a grumpy military sort with a distrust of foreigners and a determination to wipe out the Russians. (In 2009 this was standard practice when writing a paranoid archetype in a period piece; in a supposedly enlightened 2016, it seems chillingly close to reality.) David Warner also appears in his first on-screen Who role (Big Finish aficionados will recall that he played an ‘alternate’ Third Doctor in the Unbound series, alongside Nicholas Courtney and – yes, David Tennant); sadly he’s barely recognisable behind the vocoder. (And yes, I know ‘on-screen’ is a stretch, but it still counts.)
And for all its flaws (and there are a number of them; the action jumps between scenes in a manner that suits an episodic format but which seems clunky and disjointed when stitched into a continuous narrative), Dreamland really isn’t the failure that many reviewers make it out to be. The Doctor’s companions are underdeveloped (this is the price you pay for shoehorning five cliffhangers into a forty-five minute story) but the pace never lets up and the climax packs a satisfying, Doctorish punch. But there’s more to it than that: the flaws in the experiment do not in themselves nullify any value gleaned from having gone into the lab. Dreamland – like The Infinite Quest before it – portrays a familiar Doctor in an unfamiliar way, and it seems churlish to write it off on the grounds that it doesn’t quite work.
When (and it is a question of when, rather than if) the show runs its course, there will be other avenues to pursue – and there’s no reason why a CG Doctor, done well, wouldn’t shine with the same brilliance as the TV show’s finest episodes. It’s telling that in the closing minutes the Doctor refuses point blank to destroy the invading Viperox because they’re ‘an evolving species’. And perhaps it’s best if we not look at Dreamland not as a genetic misstep, but rather as a rung on an evolutionary ladder that the Doctor is one day destined to climb.