Growing up as I did in the wilderness years there really wasn’t a lot going for a seven year old with an interest in Doctor Who. With the likes of the New Adventures being aimed at an older audience and a lot of other media catering to those with a prior knowledge of the series it was hard to find an entry to the show outside of working one’s way through the UK Gold repeats. Oh to be seven now. Fundamentally, at its heart, Doctor Who Live is a show for the kids. This is not to say that there isn’t something for everyone within it, but the structure and presentation of the show are essentially accessible to even the most casual of young fans. And frankly, quite right too.
Let’s start with the music. The Proms have previously shown the appeal of hearing the orchestral pieces played live as well as an interest from the audience and so its use here is more than justified. From a musician’s point of view it’s very interesting to see full orchestral pieces rearranged for the condensed group of musicians on stage conducted by Ben Foster. There is a far greater use of drums/percussion as well as a prominent bass and electric and acoustic guitars. The result of this is clear from the moment the theme tune kicks in with more force and gusto than I have ever previously heard attributed to Ron Grainer’s score. Murray Gold has previously compared these arrangements to seeing a rock band, and to be fair he’s not wide of the mark. With a full-blown guitar solo present in one number it did occur to me, however, that while I was enjoying the musical element immensely it may well be dragging for the younger audience. The use of the monsters is of course this is the way the production attempts to combat this – though it should be pointed out that not all numbers feature them, and consequently some degree of fidgeting becomes evident with some children. For perhaps the first quarter of the show the children behind me seemed bemused, regularly turning to their parents and saying “But it’s just music! Why is it just music? And where is the Doctor?”
Such complaints were soon dismissed however with the appearance of Matt Smith courtesy of his pre filmed inserts. It has to be said that considering his presence in the show is limited to these sequences it is a credit to the production that in hindsight his presence seems greater than was actually the case. By using brief but regular appearances the show creates suspense for the next time the screen will break into static and show Matt doing his thing; and as we have come to expect, he is on fine form here as ever. Then again, has the man actually given a bad performance so far? On equally good form is Nigel Planer. He takes to what is essentially the role of pantomime showman (and later villain) with gusto, throwing himself into the audience participation sections and giving a generally energetic performance. Nick Briggs also of course appears as Churchill in a cameo that is enjoyable both for a fine performance and a funny script that garners a good variety of laughs from the audience, especially at the character’s bewilderment at being handed a mobile phone.
The effects are the typical pyro and light flashes that one might expect from such a show. Paul McCartney’s recent tour used similar effects, but set the majority off during “Live & Let Die”. It is this sparing use that made them all the more impressive when they were used, and I am happy to say that the same principle is applied here. As well as these, the video screen ensures that there is always something to hold the attention of the youngest members of the audience; and the minimal set is used well, essentially revolving around a ‘magic door’. Special note should be made of the box on the side of the stage with its 4 video screens allowing it to double as a cage to house the Doctor and the TARDIS (with the added benefit that because it has video footage playing on it you can have Matt Smith talking to the audience through its open door).
Overall though, it is perhaps a show of set pieces. Some may criticise the plot for being fairly light but this seems a fairly harsh assessment. I would counter that it actually feels exactly right for this kind of setting and even more importantly for this kind of audience. I quite often saw some children asking their parents to explain what was going on, and while with the TV show this shouldn’t pose to much of a problem, in the live arena setting it is better to avoid this to as great an extent as possible.
“But what of these set pieces?” I fictionally pretend to hear you ask. Well each is impressive. With some monsters the presentation follows a standard procedure of walking into the audience while the music plays, interacting with the audience a bit and then returning into the “minimiser”. However, some cases are far more spectacular. The Smilers have Liz Ten burst forth from the back of the arena, running through the audience and shooting them down which makes for a nice variation. With the Cybermen there is a wonderful use of a stooge in the audience who is caught using a camera phone and promptly dragged onto stage and converted. And while the biggest audience reaction was for the Daleks (and more on them later), perhaps the second most enjoyable part of the show is the appearance of the Weeping Angels. The audience are distracted by the appearance of police bursting forth at the back of the arena seeking to investigate ‘a serious incident’, so that when they turn back they find two Weeping Angels have appeared on stage. Through tactful use of the house lights as audience blinders, and a healthy dose of screaming, they proceed to take out each one of the policemen in turn in a sequence that has a fair section of the younger audience genuinely terrified. For monsters that cannot be seen to move, their translation to the stage is perfect, and the use of the police just adds that little extra something.
And so to the Daleks. Naturally the reaction to the sight of the Drone (later followed by three other members of the new paradigm) was sensational with screams of excitement and fear issuing forth from all sides of the arena. While in some respects the stage element means that their appearance is similar to the one made in the Proms, there are things that can be done with a fully-fledged show that are absolutely taken advantage of. These are most evident in two sections. Firstly, the battle with the Cybermen which sees good use of the pyrotechnics on the stage itself but also on the Cybermen in a manner that recalls The Five Doctors. The second is saved right for the end of the show and is the most spectacular: the flying Dalek Supreme. Let’s not beat about the proverbial, this is one element that had the potential to look quite cheap and disappointing. Thankfully it’s neither of these and instead provides a sight that had my inner child jumping for joy.
To conclude? Well, look, frankly the only conclusion is to say “just go”. Wherever you are sat it is a fantastic show that should not be missed. I heard someone on the way in fearing that the show might essentially be the “Proms lite”. How wrong they proved to be. The show is far more spectacular and exciting than the Proms can be and minor similarities are instantly forgiven. What I would have given for this kind of show when I was the age of most of the audience; as, to quote Harold Macmillan, “people have never had it so good”.