The Long Game is a rare instance of Series 1 of the Revived Series fumbling the ball
Starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper
In any other series, “The Long Game” might not suffer just as much as it does here. Unfortunately, sandwiched as it is between two exceptional episodes, “Dalek” and “Father’s Day”, “The Long Game” pales in comparison. Despite its surprisingly prescient plot that taps into the theme of media control, it feels largely throwaway and lacking in tension and incident and any character moments that it possesses are merely rehashes of already established facts.
“The Long Game” starts where “Dalek” finished off, with the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (Billie Piper) taking new recruit Adam (Bruno Langley) on their first trip in the TARDIS. They land on Satellite 5, a space station responsible for broadcasting the news to the planet below, in the year 200,000, but the Doctor quickly identifies something incredibly wrong: firstly, the lack of species diversity on board the space station, seemingly harbouring only humans and human technology that seems stunted from where it should be. As the trio investigate, they discover a conspiracy over who is actually controlling the human race via Satellite 5’s media output.
The news that Russell T Davies originally wrote this episode and submitted it to the Doctor Who offices in the 1987 may initially be surprising. However, one can see that the echoes of this story almost certainly would have fit in amongst the similarly dystopian “Paradise Towers” or “The Happiness Patrol”. Though Andrew Cartmel would ultimately reject this script and give Davies vaguely harsh feedback which ultimately could have deprived the world from a resurgence in the very show that Cartmel was in charge of, the political undercurrents of media controlling the minds of the public certainly would have fit in well with the deeper, more thoughtful, commentary-driven science fiction that Cartmel was crafting with his writers room during the Seventh Doctor’s era.
Where “The Long Game” goes wrong is that it feels too insular. The stakes are never really made clear to the audience. Even though the Doctor says that this is a universe that is technologically stunted, it is still one which is able to complete brain surgery in a matter of minutes, in virtually painless fashion, allowing any individual to take in the whole sum of information in the known universe at a snap of their fingers. It is tricky to see the Doctor’s concerns as that pressing a problem, and with no concept of what is happening on Earth that is being concealed from them by the Editor (Simon Pegg) and the Jagrafess, there is little for the audience to root for in being resolved.
However, there are elements of this episode which are captivating. The initial mystery as to what happens on floor 500 is diverting enough, with the script throwing in a few misdirections to hold the audience’s interest, such as the Editor finding out that somebody isn’t who they say they are, only for it to turn out that Suki (Anna Maxwell-Martin), the seemingly demure worker aboard Satellite 5 is, in fact, a freedom fighter determined to discover all the secrets that the news station has to offer.
There are also a fair few watchable performances, too. Bruno Langley is endearing enough as the only failed companion to date and, even though his actions are horrendously self centred when contrasted with the Doctor and Rose’s crusade to liberate the human race, his quest for knowledge is understandable, even though the script removed any of his initial motivation, principally being trying to find a cure for an incurable disease his father struggled from in the present day.
Simon Pegg is captivating, holding the Editor with tremendous self-assured swagger and Tamsin Greig makes her cameo appearance as the Nurse highly memorable. At turns no-nonsense and business-minded, she soon transforms into a hypnotising seductress, as she dogmatically persuades and upsells Adam into a complete upgrade that makes his own skull open with the snap of a finger.
In terms of the series as a whole, this episode seems fairly unmemorable. Obviously it sews the seeds of the finale and ultimately feeds into the conception that the Doctor, regardless of how well intentioned, does not always leave situations better than how he found it, but other elements merely tell the audience what they already know. Adam as a failed companion further shows us how capable and worthy Rose is, though she has already been contrasted to Mickey to illustrate this.
Despite the tremendous promise of the conspiracy-driven plot, “The Long Game” is strangely devoid of any real sense of threat or danger as the treatment of the human race is never really expanded upon. The idea of technology being put back just shy of a century, in the grand scheme of things, is never really contextualised for the audience as to why this is drastically important. There are no atrocities that the Jagrafess or the Editor seem to be hiding from the public that the Doctor and Rose are unable to unearth. Ultimately, their motivations as a whole seem ropey and never come across as sinister as the set up would suggest.
What’s more, the ultimate resolution to the plot is remarkably simple, which is to just alter the temperature of Floor 500. Once again, it isn’t the Doctor who actually saves the day – a recurring theme in this series so far, in that it isn’t the Doctor who saves the day, but rather inspires seemingly ordinary people to demonstrate extraordinary courage and make a huge difference. The impact of the Doctor is certainly something that Russell T Davies explores throughout this series, not just through Rose, and Martha, and Donna, but also on the way that he shapes even the guest cast within each episode.
Were “The Long Game” to be broadcast as part of Series 2, it might have been lauded as deep, nuanced and introspective. However, when presented as part of one of the most cohesive and focused collections of Doctor Who episodes to date, it appears lacking in comparison, despite its ample potential.