The Kasterborous Archives, #2: Eccleston is a great actor, but he never felt like the Doctor

Author’s notes:

OK, this one caused a rumpus. In its original form it garnered a fair number of comments, many of them negative and one or two calling for my head. Some of the best made it to the testimonials page. Timing was part of it; we published this on the tenth anniversary of ‘Parting of the Ways’ and Eccleston’s regeneration. It’s like holding an anti-war protest on Armistice Day. If that sounds like I’m overstating my case, you haven’t seen Doctor Who fans when they’re upset…

9th-ninth-doctor-the-parting-of-the-ways

Eccleston was a great actor, but he never felt like the Doctor

Published: 18 June 2015

I’ve loved Christopher Eccleston for years.

I loved him in Shallow Grave, where he played an unhinged Scot who drilled holes in the attic floor. I loved his brief, disconnected cameo in The Others, and his turn as sadistic Major Henry West in 28 Days Later. His performance in The Second Coming was a literal revelation. I even love him in Gone In Sixty Seconds, in which he makes the most of a dog’s breakfast as Raymond Calitri, a crime boss who gets to stick Nicholas Cage in a car crusher – which is something I think we’ve all wanted to do for years, or at least since 8MM. Calitri eventually falls to his death, but his best scene occurs earlier in the film, during an angry confrontation with Cage: “Am I an arsehole?” he asks directly. “Do I look like an arsehole?” (Cage’s response is a quiet “Yeah.”)

So let me repeat that disclaimer: I love Eccleston. He’s a talented actor and, if the rumours about his on-set conduct are to be believed, a man of great integrity. But I could never get used to him as the Doctor.

These things are always going to be relatively subjective. Everyone has their own ideas of what the Doctor ought to be, and what he isn’t, and what he… never won’t be… sort of thing. And I suppose that my Doctor is always going to be BBC English (all right David, I’ll settle for Estuary), with fashion sense that dallies between elegant and eccentric. Eccleston’s minimalist look is (purposely) as stripped back as his Doctor, and similarly direct. And it seems strange to me that I should find it as foreign as the idea of Shaggy wearing a business suit. All this is accompanied by remarks about “beans on toast” (a line I cannot hear in the mouths of any other Doctor, except perhaps the Sixth, in the same manner that he delivers the words “carrot juice?!?”). It all seems – and forgive me for this dreadful snobbery – it all seems a bit too working class. I know that’s the point, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

the-parting-of-the-ways

It’s not the accent. I don’t think accent in itself is the problem, because I have no issue with Capaldi’s Glaswegian twang, even if I occasionally have to turn on the subtitles to make out what he’s saying above Murray Gold’s frankly intrusive score. It’s no problem having a Doctor who’s not from around here, although I think I was probably one of many people who was hoping that the Twelfth Doctor would use the words “Lots of planets have a Scotland” at some point in Deep Breath. (As it stands, we had the encounter in the alley, arguably more famous for being the first example of eyebrow fetish – and that regrettable scene with Vastra, in which Capaldi almost appears to be acting in a docudrama about Alzheimer’s.)

I watched Rose again recently with my six-year-old, and it’s sometimes tempting to wonder whether we’ve been more forgiving of that opening episode – of the series in general – than we would have been if it was in the middle of a Doctor’s run. How many of the shortcomings went unnoticed simply because it was Doctor Who, and it was back? Does it matter? I’d suggest it probably doesn’t, except when you line up all the Doctors in a row, whereupon Eccleston is the one that always sticks out like a sore thumb.

A friend of mine describes Vincent and the Doctor as “a good episode of something”, and in many ways he’s right: part of its charm lies in the fact that it’s relatively atypical. Similarly, Davies rewrote the rulebook in 2005 when he resurrected the show by effectively rebooting it. But it’s a trend that he and his successor spent the next ten years gradually undoing, and what we have now is a show that glorifies in its past, revisiting and rewriting it on a whim. And I wonder if the fact that the Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors take obvious cues from previous Doctors – in a way that the first casting did not – has skewed my appraisal of the Ninth. In other words, to what extent is a failure to accept Eccleston a reflection of what’s come since, as much as what came before?

But there’s more to it than that. Not long before the 50th anniversary episode, I created (purely as a lark) a series of tables that charted the average effectiveness of each New Who Doctor when it came to dealing with the end-of-episode threats that he faced, at least when compared to any companions or supporting characters who wound up doing most of the work for him. In many ways the data is flawed, because he gets only one series in which to prove himself, but it should be no great surprise that the Ninth Doctor sits at the bottom of the list. He’s rubbish.

dr9_4

It is his incompetence, indeed, which forms much of that first arc. That first batch of episodes is to all intents and purposes about the Doctor learning to be the Doctor again. The central concept was that of empowering the companions so that they are no longer screaming girls, and it is the Time Lord himself who is forced to diminish in order for this to happen. (When Rose admonishes the Doctor after their encounter with the Nestene in the series opener, proclaiming that he was “useless in there”, it more or less sets the tone.)

A brief analysis of that first series reveals a game of two halves. It’s all building up to Dalek – a good story, although the Big Finish drama upon which it is based is better. The finale of Dalek has the Doctor actively confront the monstrosity from Skaro, wielding the sort of gun you’d normally expect to handled by the likes of Jack (you almost expect Tennant to pop his head round the corner, raise an eyebrow and remark “Compensating for something?”). It’s a powerful moment, although anyone who seriously thinks it’s dramatically out of character clearly wasn’t watching the programme in the ’80s.

After Dalek – which I’ve always described as the Emperor’s Throne Room moment, given that it’s the point at which the central character comes close to losing the plot – Eccleston’s touch noticeably lightens. There is less brooding. At the end of The Doctor Dances he is boogieing around the TARDIS to the strains of Glenn Miller. But he still seems off somehow. The finale to that episode sees the Doctor fix the zombified patients simply by waving his hands. There’s excessive arm-folding. The ‘ape’ jokes are borderline offensive. It’s partly the scripts, but he feels like someone playing the part in a pantomime.

Then there’s a moment in Parting of the Ways where it clicks. It’s a small scene, in which the Doctor is on the floor of Satellite 5, assembling things out of cables and bits of circuits and chatting quietly with Rose. I like it because all of a sudden it feels right. I like it because, for just about the first and only time that series, Eccleston ceases to be the actor trying to play the Doctor, and actually becomes the Doctor.

And then a few minutes later, he regenerates.

Seriously. What an arsehole.

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Have I Got Whos For You (part 46)

It was a little after one in the afternoon and the six of us were gathered round the dining table. The conversation had – for reasons I now can’t recall – turned to the subject of boobs.

I mean, what is it with young boys and inappropriate table talk? If it’s not boobs or bottoms it’s fecal deposit, the colour and texture of vomit or the ins and outs (quite literally) of sex. We have a set of dining rules stuck on the wall, and number ten – the one I call them out on most frequently – is “Don’t talk about anything unsuitable for mealtimes.” Perhaps that’s it. Perhaps it’s like a magnet, an invitation to see how far they can push us before we inevitably snap.

“Anyway,” I eventually said, not entirely seriously but with an attempt to restore a modicum of decorum to proceedings. “You really shouldn’t say ‘boobs’. You should say ‘bosoms’.”
“Oh,” said Josh. “I thought that was that religion.”
“That’s Buddhism.”

Honestly? It’s easy to mishear things. Particularly if there’s one word that you’re accustomed to, and another less-used word sort of sounds a bit like it.

torch_bacon

Is it a coincidence that I started to eat a lot of Brie right around the time I last saw ‘Fear Her’? I genuinely don’t think so.

My father grew up in Tunbridge Wells, and while my grandparents were alive we often went back there. You spend enough time hanging around Royal Victoria Place, certain things stick. I can still remember the grubbiness of the local Our Price, the semi-organised clutter of the small independent video game shop that was – as was so often the case with such things – there and then not there, like something from Terry Pratchett. And I can remember Fenwick, the department store that my grandmother insisted we visit one Saturday morning to have lunch, planning the whole thing with military precision and presenting, perhaps for the first time, an indication that her mental faculties were not what they were.

So in years to come, when I would familiarise myself with old Doctor Who stories, it was easy to misread ‘The Curse of Fenric’ as something entirely different.

curse_fenwick

Anyway: the whole thing with Buddhism reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Daniel a year or so ago in which we’d discussed watching New Who: I was at that stage still trying to pick out random episodes I thought he’d like, before we eventually made the decision to watch them all.

“I think you’d enjoy The Fires of Pompeii, actually.”
“What’s Pompeii?” he asked.
“It’s an ancient Roman city. They had a volcano.”
“Oh. I thought it was those crisps.”
“That’s Pom-Bear.”

fires_pombear

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The Curse of the Shoehorning Titles

timelordletters

I recently finished The Time Lord Letters. One of those tie-ins (this one by Justin Richards) that do quite well for a while and then end up in The Works at £5.99, it revisits a number of stories in the form of imagined correspondence – letters, memos, the occasional post-it – usually revisiting the events of the narrative after the fact. The Tenth Doctor, for example, writes to Harriet Jones after he has a hand in deposing her. His immediate predecessor writes to Charles Dickens just after they’ve fought off ghosts in Cardiff. And the Fourth Doctor writes to the survivors of Storm Mine 4 (not that there are many) just after ‘Robots of Death’, apologising for leaving without waking them (cross-reference under hashtag #sorrynotsorry).

Sometimes the letters anticipate stories rather than reflect upon them: the Eleventh Doctor, for example, writes to a shop in Colchester asking for a job. Others dip into them in the middle of a narrative: there is a nice one from the Second Doctor to the Time Lords asking for help with the War Games. Still others skate around the lake of randomness: there’s one from a very young First Doctor to Borusa complaining about his school report (this is funnier if you’ve actually read said report, which is in another book). And the Twelfth Doctor’s reference for Clara is quite amusing, and very Twelfth Doctor. The whole thing is nicely presented, a variety of different (and usually well-chosen) fonts to illustrate the different Doctors’ handwriting styles, and it contains (a rarity in a New Who book) a pleasing mixture of Classic and Modern.

But there were bits of it that set my teeth on edge.

It’s not that Richards gets the tone wrong. For the most part I could imagine the Doctors (and other characters that occasionally contribute) speaking the words listed with utter conviction. That, in itself, is a big part of the problem. Because – well look, let me give you an example, occurring as it does in the form of the First Doctor’s farewell note to Susan.

susan

At a guess: you read that and then halfway through thought “Hang on, this is what he said inside the TARDIS! Word for word!” And indeed, it is.

Exactly the same thing happens when Martha leaves, as you’ll see when you find yourself quoting her speech.

martha

The implication behind both entries (it’s there in the note at the top) is that this is something the Doctor / Martha wrote down in case they didn’t have time to say it out loud, but it’s fine because they did. Using their exact words. As the Tenth Doctor does in his letter to Sally Sparrow, in which he says “There was a sort of a thing happening. Four things in fact. And a lizard.” Which is amusing when it happens in ‘Blink’, because it’s precisely the sort of improvised, disjointed thing you’d expect him to say in the heat of the moment, and a deliciously open-ended non-sequiteur at the end of an episode bent on being as self-contained as possible. Are we really expected to believe that in the aftermath, when he’d had time to think, the Doctor would have written those exact words? Again?

Perhaps Richards had a deadline and ran out of mojo. Or perhaps it was an authorial decision: the inclusion of great chunks of published dialogue instantly familiarises the audience. Perhaps I’m in a minority but I simply can’t get comfortable with it. Is it really necessary to have the Fifth Doctor write down his precise parting words to the Cranleighs after he leaves the house at the end of ‘Black Orchid’? Even when it’s not full text, there are needless references thrown in. The words ‘Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey’ appear far more than they should. The Twelfth Doctor goes on about tangerines in his letter to Santa (which concludes, amusingly enough, with ‘P.S. – do I really stick this up a chimney now?’). And when writing to Dickens, the Ninth Doctor mentions The Signalman. Again.

It’s a problem that doesn’t dog The Secret History of Twin Peaks – something Emily bought me for Christmas and which I’m enjoying tremendously. The town of Twin Peaks, as it turns out, has a long history stemming back to Lewis and Clark, by way of displaced Native Americans, assorted encounters with the military, and two feuding families. There is rather too much UFO stuff (indeed, the book contains references to pretty much every conspiracy theory known to man, and a few that weren’t) but perhaps this was inevitable after The X-Files, a show that arguably would not have happened without Twin Peaks. What’s interesting is that it explores the history of the town without making explicit references to anything the characters actually said, content instead to flesh it out with imagined press cuttings, meeting transcripts, and journal entries. And I think I’m just getting to the good bit.

twin-peaks

References to source material – cryptic or otherwise – are endemic in this age of digital television. It’s easier than ever to spot the small stuff (I should know; I made an entire series out of it). So when we’re told that there are Torchwood Easter Eggs in Sherlock, it’s not a great surprise. Indeed, the entire script is chock full of references to Conan Doyle’s characters, locations and other stories, whether it’s from a postcard on a fridge or the sign on a receptionist’s desk. It’s borderline saturation and is, in all likelihood, deliberately designed that way. If you spend every waking hour talking about obscure trivia, you barely have time to notice all the plot holes.

Nonetheless there’s a difference between subtle visual clues and the kind of shoehorning that happens in…look, I was going to give Lord of the Rings as an example, but that’s actually what I wanted to talk about, so let’s deal with the elephant in the room for a minute. Because while it’s one thing to have the Tenth Doctor awkwardly refer to himself as “James McCrimmon from the township of Balamory” at the beginning of ‘Tooth and Claw’, or mutter “Brave heart, Clara” as he’s leading her in the direction of a scream halfway through ‘The Crimson Horror’, these are minor transgressions compared to the stuff that happens under Peter Jackson’s watch.

Consider The Hobbit (we’re talking about the book, at least for the moment), and Bilbo’s despair when he and his Dwarvish companions are plunged into yet another bad situation. Tolkien picks up the thread:

“‘Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!’ he said, and it became a proverb, though we now say ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.”

And that, indeed, is the title of the chapter. And presumably Thorin has read the book, which is what prompts him to say “Out of the frying pan,” to which Gandalf adds “And into the fire!”. To be fair to him, Gandalf has form. He it was who languished by the fireside in Bag End, muttering “Riddles in the dark…”, although it is left to the Hobbits to awkwardly shoehorn another chapter title into an early scene (which, by the way, is nothing like it is in the book):

MERRY: That was just a detour. A shortcut.
SAM: A shortcut to what?
PIPPIN: Mushrooms!

Thankfully, that’s when the Nazgul turns up and they’re all too busy avoiding Morgul blades to think of jokes, at least until the Council of Elrond. “Nine companions?” says the sombre Elf. “So be it. You shall be…THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING!”

gandalf_fellowship

Look, calling out chapter names is OK when it’s as bland as, I don’t know, ‘Helm’s Deep’. You wouldn’t have got very far without that. Theoden would have had to say “WE GO TO MY VALLEY CLUBHOUSE!”, which would have been rubbish. Similarly (and steering the conversation back towards Doctor Who), the whole concept of ‘Listen’ revolves around the act of listening – chiefly to oneself – and although it’s never really apparent why the Doctor comes out of his meditation bellowing that single word, except that it looks creepy on a blackboard, it more or less works. Less effective is having Rita say “That’s quite a God complex you have there” while the Doctor’s being all self-important, but if anything that’s because of the title of the episode, rather than anything in it. And yet the title works because of its multiple layers. Which is the chicken here, and which the egg?

Sometimes it does seem that Doctor Who is mocking the Jackson fetish for awkward insertions (and yes, I know he’s not the only culprit, but these films have been sycophantically fawned over for years and it really is time we talked about how rubbish they are in places). Having the Doctor bellow “Dinosaurs…ON A SPACESHIP!” is both self-indulgent and brilliant, and in an episode that was less ridiculous it would have stuck out like a sore thumb – in this case, it’s all just part of the fun. Having Mels shout “OK, LET’S KILL HITLER!” is somewhat less successful, but again the story gets away with it because of sheer silliness. (You will note that every episode I’ve mentioned here was broadcast within the last seven years – if there’s one thing Russell T Davies seldom had a problem with, it was titles.)

Listen_02

There is, at least, one sin of which the Lord of the Rings films are not guilty, and that’s to end on a title. Their last words are generally fairly profound, or laced with hidden profundity as the characters gaze out at a beautiful / dismal / dazzling / foreboding skyline, wind machine optional. Ending on a title is just about the worst thing an author can do, apart from conclude a story with “…and then I woke up”. It’s the literary equivalent of concluding your drama class sketch with “That’s it”. It isn’t wrong, but we Just Don’t Do It. (Sue Townsend did, of course, and I still haven’t quite forgiven her.)

And yet authors do. It was endemic within the sort of dreadful novels my mother used to enjoy – the Domestic Sagas, light and easy to read, covers emblazoned with soft-focus pictures of impassioned romantic couples or resilient single parents. Examples that spring immediately to mind are Elizabeth Murphy’s A Nest of Singing Birds and a book called As The Crow Flies which could have been written by anyone, given the popularity of its title (and no, it was not the Damien Boyd one and it probably wasn’t the Jeffrey Archer one either). But the greats aren’t immune – Bill Bryson finished Neither Here Nor There, his great European travelling memoir, in exactly this fashion, and no, I don’t care that it’s a pun. It’s colossally lazy. If you must, just use a different title. Titles are easy. It’s endings that are hard.

Thank goodness Doctor Who never does this. Right?

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God is in the detail (10-X)

klf

It’s a good week for conspiracy theories. Nibiru is supposed to be returning. And the KLF – those enlightened Illuminati-conncted tricksters – have announced they’re planning something. Sort of. They’re not calling themselves the KLF these days, nor indeed was this anything other than a five-minute fad when viewed within the context of a thirty-year career. Still, they’re back, and thus there is much rejoicing.

But never mind that. We’re here to talk about ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’.

Christmas specials may be accessible, but that doesn’t mean they have to be simple. As is customary under Moffat’s reign, the latest episode of Doctor Who is in fact positively crammed full of IMPORTANT SIGNS AND CLUES that will be HIGHLY SIGNIFICANT later on. The problem is that most casual fans lack the time and the ability to decode them. Luckily you have me. So let’s unpack this treasure trove of layered meaning and find out what’s really going to happen in series 10, shall we?

I’ll start here.

mysterio_detail_1

There are precisely 24 columns of jars in this image – each column containing three jars, totalling 72. You’ll be aware by now if you’ve been following this series that these numbers are never just a coincidence – and in this case it all points to the Seventh Doctor.

How may we infer that from this image? The use of 24 columns is a big giveaway, given that season 24 is the Seventh Doctor’s first. Moreover, 72 refers to the 72nd story in the canon, ‘Death To The Daleks’ – which, despite being a Third Doctor story, eerily foreshadows the Seventh Doctor’s destruction of Skaro in ‘Remembrance’, some 14 years later. (Tangentially, if we substract 14 from 24 we are left with 10, and we may thus infer that this will all be connected with a returning appearance from David Tennant – but we’ll come back to that when we explore one of the other images.)

The C-shape this forms is actually a whopping great red herring, because what you actually need to do is turn it on its side.

mysterio_detail_1a

Viewed from this angle it is obviously a horseshoe. Horses were ridden by the Cheetah People in the last televised Doctor Who story of the 1980s, which (not so coincidentally) starred the Seventh Doctor.

It is also worth noting that in order to acquire this particular viewpoint it is necessary to tilt your head on one side. THIS IS NOT A COINCIDENCE. The other recent villain known to adopt this perspective is the Family of Blood. Which, by the way, featured in a Tenth Doctor story.

cheetah-family

How many jars are featured in each column in that first image? Three. And what do you get if you subtract Seven from Ten? I’ll just leave the colossal implications of that dangling there for a moment, because we must speak of them in hushed tones. THEY ARE NOT TRIVIALITIES.

We’ll come back to the Tenth Doctor later but in the meantime let’s have a look at this.

mysterio_detail_4

There’s that number again: 24. Specifically story 4 in series 2, ‘Dragonfire’, which introduced Sophie Aldred, WHO ALSO RODE A HORSE IN ‘SURVIVAL’ AND HELPED THE DALEKS BLOW UP SKARO AND WHO APPEARED IN TREE-FU TOM OPPOSITE DAVID TENNANT.

I know. Mind blown, right?

The column of green lights on the right of the screen ought to be self-explanatory, referring as they do to the twelve canonical Doctors (and omitting John Hurt) and leaving room for a further nine, making the BBC’s long term plan for Doctor Who as transparent as if they’d organised for it to be leaked by one of those ‘sources close to the show’. But what are we to make of the mysterious ‘tx’? Could it refer to the TX witnessed in the third Terminator film? The postal code for Texas, indicating a possible Doctor Who / Preacher crossover?

Now, that I’d watch. The truth, sadly, is far less spectacular, although it is still highly significant: it refers, instead, to the Tsukuba Express, the Japanese railway line linking Tokyo and Tsukuba. Launched in 2005 – the same year Doctor Who returned, which is not a coincidence – the route follows twenty stations, but it’s the name itself which causes most intrigue. Because the words ‘Akihabara and Tsukuba Station’ may also be reformed to make ‘AA! AA! AA! SKITTISH ABBOT UNDRUNK!’, which is an indication that PHILIP MORRIS HAS BEEN LYING TO US AND THEY HAVE ALREADY FOUND ‘THE MASSACRE OF ST BARTHOLOMEW’S EVE’.

sushi

We also might point out that ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’ directly foreshadows this early in the episode when we observe the Doctor eating sushi (seen above). Although we might also conclude that its sudden disappearance when he’s walking down the stairs indicates the return of the Crack In Time. But that would be silly, and as everyone who reads this column is aware, I don’t do silly.

Now, take a look at Lucy’s kitchen.

mysterio_detail_3

It’s those mugs on the counter you want to be examining. Note the striking multi-coloured design (favouring red) on the left and the plaid on the right. And you’d be forgiven, at first glance, for assuming that this was a reference to ‘The Two Doctors’. I mean, it’s obvious.

twodocs

But as is traditional with these multi-layered shots, the true meaning is hidden until you look closer. Note the proximity of that red mug to the toaster. Note also that the mug can be seen reflected in the surface of the toaster, and that THE SEVENTH DOCTOR LOATHES BURNT TOAST. Conclusion? We are going to revisit the Sixth Doctor’s regeneration story, only this time it will be televised in the form of a flashback experienced by the Twelfth. How do I know this? Consider the spoon dipped into the Sixth Doctor’s mug – the Twelfth Doctor’s weapon of choice, and the Seventh’s favoured musical instrument.

The other mug confirms this theory, given that it contains a cryptic reference to Spaceballs.

spaceballs-plaid

The Doctor Who connection ought to be transparent: it’s Bill Pullman, last seen in series four of Torchwood. And any fan will tell you that this was also the last time we saw Jack – apart from The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, in which John Barrowman drives the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors from London to Cardiff. In doing so, he evicts David Tennant’s daughter from the car. From this we may IRREVOCABLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY CONCLUDE that next year’s Christmas special will feature a cameo by the Tenth Doctor, in the company of Jack.

Finally, this.

mysterio_detail_5

Oh, there’s so much to unpack in here we barely have time. The most transparent of references is the Third Doctor story that’s playing at the cinema on the left hand side. (You will note also the proximity of the American flag, sticking out of the wall like the entrance to an embassy, and that ambassadors played a crucial role in this story.)

The references to ‘The Mind of Evil’ are reflected in the pizzeria across the street – owned and presumably operated by someone named Joe, a direct reference to the Third Doctor’s companion, both in ‘Mind’ and a great many others. But it’s the club in the middle that caught my eye, given that ‘The Missing’ is a CLEAR AND DIRECT reference to ‘The Lost’, the final episode of Class. If you’ve seen that, you’ll be aware that a familiar face pops up, and we may thus conclude that even if Class doesn’t get a second series they will continue that story here, using New York (or possibly the moon, which is prominently featured) as a location.

But it’s the pink that got me. Could it refer to Danny Pink, perhaps, who played a small but important role in ‘Kill The Moon’? Is it a reference to the Pink Ladies from Grease, indicating that there will at some point be a scientology episode, with John Travolta starring? We can only hope. But the answer, when it hit me, was like a bolt from the purple. Because I suddenly remembered where I’d seen a pink TARDIS.

happiness_patrol_pink_tardis

Oh, lucky Seven. It always comes back to you.

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Hello

Important: today’s video had particular viewing restrictions, most of them mobile / tablet related. If you’re unable to see the embed above, I’ve uploaded it to Vimeo.

Let’s get this out of the way: the Eleventh Doctor is a big fat stalker, and we all know it.

I can quite understand wanting to know more about Clara. She’s an anomaly wrapped up in a miniskirt. Her appearances in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ and ‘The Snowman’ make no sense, unless you’re prepared to attribute it to an eerily precise preservation of lineage and a genetic love of souffle. Rule one, Doctor: when someone is following you around the space-time continuum leaving cryptic messages, it’s usually a trap. This particular arc dealt with the consequences of that trap, of course, rather than the trap itself, but it still counts.

The problem is that the Doctor’s never watched his own show and is thus blissfully ignorant of all this. Everyone the other side of the fourth wall knows that this is one of Steven Moffat’s Big Ideas and that it’ll be sorted out by the time the Doctor regenerates, but there’s no telling him that. For someone who boasts a PhD in self-awareness he really is mind-numbingly obtuse. What we’re left with is a series of creepy stakeouts where the Doctor actively spies on a single family as their daughter grows up, even going so far as to watch her while she’s grieving for her dead mother. The funny thing about all this is just how quickly we’re prepared to forgive the Doctor, although our forgiveness is tied up with Clara, who’s also strikingly willing to let it go (and you didn’t read that, you sang it). Perhaps it’s because it’s so drastically out of character. I suspect that had Peter Capaldi been the one hiding behind the gravestones we’d be willing to describe it as ‘typical Twelfth Doctor’, just as Clara’s sense of hurt and betrayal would have lingered for far longer than the twenty seconds it takes to dissipate on screen.

Doc-Sherlock

I wonder if casual stalking was on the minds of the creative team behind the ‘Hello’ video. You remember ‘Hello’, don’t you? And no, I don’t mean that song by Adele, although from what I can gather, mashups of the two are endemic. No, ‘Hello’ was a 1984 number one for Lionel Richie – a sweet, piano-driven tale of seemingly unrequited love. It’s thoughtfully composed, decently structured and nicely produced. It was a surefire number one. Then Bob Giraldi (the chap set fire to Michael Jackson’s hair) got his sticky hands on it and turned it into the dark and frankly sinister tale of a college professor seeking an inappropriate relationship with one of his pupils.

It’s funny that of all the possible objections you could have to this setup, it’s the pupil / teacher thing that seems to rankle people the most. Maybe I’m just getting old, but back when I was at university (which really wasn’t so long ago) the scenario of students jumping into bed with their lecturers really wasn’t so uncommon, nor was it particularly frowned upon. It depends on the lecturer and the student – I can think of a couple of hookups that made my flesh crawl a little – but on the other hand both are consenting adults, and it seems churlish to criticise it in one breath and then, with the next, laugh at the narrative arc in Friends that explored the very same concept.

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No, what’s creepy about this is Lionel’s looks of predatory longing as he watches Laura sunning herself in the cafe, improvise drama in the lecture theatre and fall into the arms of a dance partner in a workshop. It’s the way he follows her down the corridor. The heavy breathing down the phone when he rings her up in the middle of the night (and why, Lionel, are you holding the receiver to your crotch while you’re singing to Laura?). And, of course, the infamous monkey head scene, in which Laura sculpts a bust of Lionel that looks absolutely nothing like him, prompting the befuddled lecturer to draw in his breath and exclaim “Oh, it’s…wonderful…”

It would be comparatively easy to take footage from Doctor Who and mix it up with Lionel’s ballad. Actually, it’s already been done. But can you – and this was the question I found myself asking – can you find enough footage to actually tell some sort of story? Can you recreate the beginning and the end? Can you, in effect, create some sort of love triangle? And can you effectively turn the Doctor into a sap?

It turns out you can. And if you wanted a compare-and-contrast, here’s the Lionel version.

Personally, I think I got it pretty close…

 

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Review: ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’

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There’s a thing that’s always bothered me about Superman. It’s not the disguise. Henry Cavill recently proved there was a lot of mileage in a pair of spectacles with his recent New York stunt. No, it’s the fact that Clark Kent is surrounded by a supposedly cracked team of journalists, all of whom enjoy a close working relationship with him, and none of them – at least at first – are able to work out what’s really going on. A reporter who showed up in town the same time Superman did, who disappears at the first sign of trouble but who manages to bag all the exclusives? It’s too much of a stretch to think that someone wouldn’t have put two and two together by now – whether that someone is Lois Lane, the self-absorbed A-lister who loves one man and who is loved in turn by both – or Perry White, who spends most of his time with his sleeves rolled up shouting, but who’s obviously never heard of facial recognition software.

It depends which version you’re watching. Christopher Reeve, in all four of his films – from the glorious first to the dismal fourth – is a revelation, and anyone who doubted his skills as an actor would do well to look at scenes where he’s playing first Clark Kent and then Superman and note the differences. Reeve fumbles with the thick frames, smearing the lenses and only just managing to avoid damaging them. The posture changes, the body language becomes awkward and fidgety, and the whole voice goes up half an octave. Then go and watch Dean Cain – who, in The New Adventures, plays basically the same character with and without his glasses – and marvel at the fact that he gets away with it for so long.

That Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne manage to maintain and separate their public / private personas so consistently and successfully is down to three things. First, it requires a certain suspension of disbelief – the same resource we have to tap in order to accept that neither character seems to have aged very much despite both having been around for the better part of a century. Second, at least one blind eye has been turned to the telescope – Commissioner Gordon could easily figure out Batman’s true identity, but has presumably seen enough torture scenes to have realised that it’s in his best interests not to know. Similarly, Perry White is too bold and experienced not to put two and two together, but has chosen not to. Journalistic integrity is still alive and well, even in the twenty-first century.

But fundamentally the disguise conundrum plays on Shakespearian conventions. It was a running joke that the true identity of a disguised character in a Shakespeare play should be obvious to everyone except the characters onstage – it’s bled over into pantomime, and in Doctor Who it happened every time Roger Delgado stepped onto the screen. And thus, when it happens in ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’, it’s done as a joke that’s glaringly transparent to all but the girl who’s caught in the middle of it, and on this occasion it’s the Doctor who’s rolling his eyes.

‘Mysterio’ is, in essence, a crossover episode – the closest Doctor Who is likely to delve into the worlds of Supergirl or The Flash – and the creative team have the sense to play on this. Origin stories are revealed in flashback (tellingly, and with some degree of appropriateness, said origin story features the Doctor himself). There are numerous shots of characters hovering outside windows. And a crucial conversation between the basso-inflected superhero and his would-be girlfriend – with the Doctor listening in – is rendered with a three-way frame split. The superhero in question, a caped wonder whose body armour resembles that of Nightwing, doubles as a mild-mannered nanny when he’s not wearing the costume, zooming from house fire to traffic accident to bedroom, a baby monitor permanently attached to his waist.

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The net result of all this is that the Doctor feels rather like a supporting character in his own story. Having unwittingly created the whole situation through a simple misunderstanding, just about the only thing Capaldi is able to do this week is react as the narrative unfolds around him. Not that much unfolding actually happens – in origami terms, ‘Mysterio’ is more a twice-folded letter than a concertina. The story is the sort of conventional secret invasion fluff that wouldn’t be out of place in either a series of Doctor Who or a Superman comic, and is perhaps the episode’s weakest element: a couple of expository monologues aside, we never really get to know or understand the brain-swapping aliens behind Harmony Shoals, nor do we much care what they’re up to. (And really, didn’t we milk the unzipped head thing to death last Christmas?)

Tellingly, that’s not a criticism. Regular visitors here will know that I’m the first one to complain when I watch an episode of Who without any tangible story, but as it turns out this matters far less when people are having fun (which is not something I could say for, say, ‘The Woman Who Lived’). That the episode concludes with a colossal spacecraft falling on New York is far less exciting than it ought to be, simply because ultimately that’s not what ‘Mysterio’ is about. There’s a far greater tension in the fact that in order to save the Earth, the Ghost must reveal his true identity to a single person – and while the image of Justin Chatwin holding up the spacecraft with a single outstretched hand is uproariously funny, there is a far greater sense of narrative satisfaction in the kiss that follows it.

It helps that both Grant and Lucy are fun and likeable, even though we’re given comparably little time to get to know them. There are all sorts of questions that could be asked about the fact that he repeatedly leaves a small child unattended, although it’s made apparent at the mid-point that he’s able to race from one side of the city to the other in about the same time it takes a parent to climb a staircase, and the Doctor is only able to get there first because he cheats. Grant’s mutual, unconsumated attraction to Lucy calls to mind the tale of Craig and Sophie, and while the love story here doesn’t hold the same sort of narrative credence that was there in ‘The Lodger’, there’s something very satisfying in the fact that Lucy prefers her heroes with their spectacles on.

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Elsewhere, pathos remains. There are references to River Song (whose name would have been better left unsaid, although you can’t blame Moffat for wanting to avoid an epidemic of tedious fan speculation and Twitter theory) and a sense of melancholy loneliness that bubbles under the surface without ever really breaking through the skin. The net result is a story that is accessible and satisfying but somehow sad, as befits the best Christmas entertainment, with everyone making the most of the limited screentime that 2016 has granted them. He may not have a great deal to do besides watch and eat sushi, but Capaldi’s clearly enjoying himself this week, even though the Doctor isn’t.

I’ve got nine paragraphs in without mentioning Nardole, but that’s largely because he works so well. Comic actors in semi-serious drama is a lottery – Frank Skinner was a roaring success, Rufus Hound a dismal failure – and the fact that the reassembled Nardole is far less irritating than he ought to have been is a testament both to Moffat’s writing and Lucas’ ability to reign it in. Discounting an anomalous, cringeworthy opening sequence, Nardole is inhabited with the sort of understated, bumbling charm that’s been greatly missing in the TARDIS since Rory was trapped in New York, and he has some enlightening conversations with the Doctor. It’s too early to tell how this will play out in series 10, in which Lucas is purported to make a series of appearances, but we might currently file it under ‘Well, that was a pleasant surprise’, perhaps alongside ‘Donna Noble’.

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There’s a much-quoted and not entirely accurate cliché suggesting that absence makes the heart grow fonder. When the announcement was made, back in January, that we’d have to wait for almost a full year without the Doctor, the sense of lamentation among fandom was so great that you could hear it on Mondas. But whatever else may have happened during the past year (it’s tempting to look back at 2016 as an annus horribalis, although I suspect history may be rather more generous) there were some of us who took it as an opportunity to take stock and look at exactly what it was we enjoyed about the show, and after a long period of soul-searching I concluded that if they’d decided to rest it completely, I wouldn’t mind. Perhaps we’re at the stage where it doesn’t matter whether Doctor Who is on or not, and where we can stop complaining about the number of episodes per year, and make the most of what we have. I don’t think it’s something that comes naturally, not to me, and not to fandom generally – when writing this one up, I stayed off Twitter, stayed away from Facebook, and didn’t read a single review, because I knew what many of the comments are going to say.

I’ve often wondered whether the concept of making the most of things is a reason we’re overly charitable to ‘Rose’, although to conclude thus probably does it a disservice. It’s no secret that the last forty-five seconds of the TV broadcast of ‘Mysterio’ consisted of a glib, action-filled trailer for series 10 that introduces an already irritating companion whom most of us have seen fit to judge before she even steps into the TARDIS. As someone who’s a willing advocate of that ‘God she’s irritating’ mindset I’d nonetheless suggest that I was wrong about Donna, wrong about Smith being too young and wrong (at least this week) about Nardole. And perhaps it doesn’t matter either way. If there’s one thing that a year without Doctor Who has taught me it’s to take it far less seriously than I have been, and treat at least some of its shortcomings as a by-product of a difficult production process. Perhaps all the show has to be, in the end, is enjoyable, rather than good, but perhaps that’s partly our responsibility, rather than simply the writer’s. Perhaps this is what happens when you allow obsession to dissolve into apathy, but I wonder whether we’d enjoy the experience far more if we’re willing to occasionally put a blind eye up to the telescope.

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A Trumpmas Carol

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You know what’s great about Christmas? Ghost stories.

I had a story I’d planned to share with you – it stars the Third Doctor and a familiar-looking Santa Claus creating havoc at a Christmas party – but I haven’t had time to finish it. Still, that’s OK, because Josh has stepped into the breach. His school project this term was to produce something in the Dickens vein – a stage adaptation, a graphic novel, a contemporary retelling, or a fact file about the man himself. After a brief family discussion, he opted to retell A Christmas Carol (chiefly because it is, as you may expect of a boy of eleven, the only one he really knows well) starring you-know-who.

It’s been done before. But this is his version, and he’s proud of it, and I felt it warranted sharing. I get the feeling that this is the only year I’d get away with printing this here – while Donald Trump is, as we go to press, still President Elect instead of President. I wonder if, a year down the line, it might be something we no longer want to talk about – or perhaps the miracle will happen and there’ll be no need. In any event you will forgive the inevitably unrefined political views therein, coming as they do from a first-year secondary schoolboy (who is, nonetheless, rather wiser than his years, and I suspect wiser than many of the electorate). It was done with minimal help from us – a few creative nudges aside, the ideas and the story are by and large entirely his own. I cleaned up the grammar and punctuation a little but didn’t touch anything else, restricting myself instead to the Photoshopping (with the exception of that image at the top, which I nabbed – and you can tell, because it’s the only one that’s wholly successful).

Take it away, Josh. And incidentally, a Happy Christmas to all of you at home.

A Trumpmas Carol

The day Donald Trump was elected great cheers erupted from his supporters. He grinned and made his speech: “Fellow Americans, to celebrate my victory I will start building this great wall to stop Mexicans entering our homeland, our country, our city!” More cheers. “I will start building it on Christmas morning, 8:00 AM to be to exact, also all Mexicans who happen to live in here will be thrown out back into Mexico!” At that exact point every Mexican in America sighed dismally but the ones who sighed the most were the Gonzalez family as they sat in a house the size of a shoe box right next to the Whitehouse.

Months passed as Trump got his blueprints ready for the wall and on Christmas Eve he had just arrived home to check the blueprints and as he was looking at them they shifted around to form Margaret Thatcher’s face. Donald Trump suddenly dropped the blueprints into the fire. They burst into flame but Margaret T was not done yet. From out of the smoke arose her ghost and she said in a grave, gravelly voice “Donald Trump, you will be visited by three Mexicans at midnight!” before drifting off into the night air…

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Donald Trump could not sleep, every time his eyes closed fear and anxiety twisted his insides violently, forcing him to stay awake. All was silent excluding the large grandfather, “Tick Tock Tick Tock!” it screamed. “Oh great,” he muttered. Tiredly he walked towards the door but the door slammed shut before he got to it. The clock chimed midnight. The room went cold. Very very cold. Very very very cold.

Suddenly through the (locked) window came a small Mexican girl. She grinned and took out a list of her and started reading the list, her eyes scanning down it, “T… T… T… Thomas… Thompson… whoa you Americans have some funny names, aha Trump. Oh my name’s Maria by the way” she said as she pulled him out the (still locked) window.

Whilst in flight Donald Trump spent most of his time picking glass off of his dressing gown while Maria kept apologizing, “listen Donald I’m sorry, okay. I forgot about the mortals can’t fly through windows rule.”
“Whatever, just wondering what’s that big blue light?”

Maria looked off into the distance. “Ladies and gentlemen you reached your destination, please fasten your seat-belts and hold on tight!” then… silence… nothing… they were blasted into an icy cold void.

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“Yay, let’s do that again!”
“No let’s not!” Donald Trump had nearly fainted and also dripping wet. While Maria observed the area, “Look Trumpy a fight! Who is against who? Look Trumpy you’re fighting someone!!… soon punches were being delivered by either side. Then with his last burst of strength Donald Trump pounded the other kid to the floor. Then there was a bright flash of white light and the ghost, the school field and the school where he grew up in faded away.

Somewhere in the distance a clock chimed one o’clock.

Donald Trump was back in his bedroom when a cry like thunder shook the room making him jump. “HELLO AMIGO MY NAME’S PABLO!” said a big booming voice…

Donald Trump gaped as a massive bulk of a man came crashing through the roof almost crushing the enormous four-poster bed, which moaned and groaned as he plunked his heavy backside on it. This big bulking figure made Donald Trump look like an ant. In one hand he was holding a mug the size of a barrel full to the brim of beer. In the other hand he was holding a ripped untidy list full of names in scratchy untidy handwriting. He took a sip of beer and burped loudly. Then he grabbed Donald Trump by his shirt collar and lifted him off the ground…

Donald Trump was not aware were they were going nor did he know what travelling by giant was like but he soon found out the answers to both of these questions. First off travelling by giant was absolutely preposterous. He settled down on a comfy spot (as comfy as sweaty matted hair can get) and tried to get some rest but soon discovered it was impossible to rest when head-lice the size of horses are chasing after you.

Answer two: the Gonzales family house. “Why are we here?” asked Donald Trump. “Why won’t you shut up!” shouted the giant. Then he bent over and shook Donald Trump off his head. Even though he was only a couple of metres off the ground when he landed he felt a searing pain in his left leg. Donald Trump looked at the cracked shards of glass that they called a window. The children were tying pine-cones onto some string as they were too poor to afford real baubles.

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“Santa will love these I hope I’ll get another bag of cheese crisps, they lasted for months,” said the youngest, “mummy do you think Santa will like my decorations?”
“I’ll bet he will Antonio” said Elisabeth Gonzales. “Now why don’t you get to bed and maybe…” There was the sound of church bells chiming and all was still…

There was a looming menace in the air as a ghostly hand drifted through the key hole and ushered him out of his bedroom and towards the graveyard. “Where are we going?” The streets were full of people going around shouting “HE’S DEAD YESSS HE’S REALLY DEAD”. Donald Trump stared at these strange people. “Who’s dead?” The hand said nothing…

The graveyard was an unpleasant place filled with unpleasant corpses in unpleasant and rather ugly graves while he was there he saw one gravestone that caught his eye: RIP the Gonzales family: died of hypothermia. A tear welled up inside his eye as he respected those people, those good good people but there was no time to lose the hand dragged him on to a shallow grave already with a gravestone: RIP Donald John Trump: the nightmare is over then in his own handwriting was written “No, it’s only just beginning”…

Donald Trump was falling… falling… falling… down… down… down… into a bottomless pit falling… falling… Then he landed in hell’s fiery depths. It was so hot in there that I’m rather surprised these pages weren’t scorched to a crisp. But like it said on the gravestone the nightmare was only just beginning. The devil walked up towards him, a permanent sneer was fixed on his face. Then he said two words. “You’re fired!”

Suddenly Donald Trump found himself tied to a large wooden catapult, like the ones they used in the middle ages to catapult rocks at a wall. This was going to be used for a far more grisly use. Before he knew it he was strapped on to this big lumbering beast then was in a room full of speakers. Soon the theme tune for The Apprentice filled the room. Then the wall of speakers directly ahead of him burned and was soon filled with shards of glass then he was catapulted toward them as two words came out of the speakers: his own voice said “You’re fired!” He screamed.

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Donald Trump woke up screaming with pain, surprisingly he did not wake up buried alive in a coffin but in his own bed in his own house in his own street in his own city in his own country, yes he was Donald Trump and he ruled the country. He looked over at his alarm clock, 7:30. Unless he wanted to end up in hell’s fiery depths again he would have to change quickly. Donald Trump smiled. Today was going to be a good day.

8:00 AM, that is what it said on the clock. His butler walked in “Excuse me mister president but it’s 8:00 AM,” Donald Trump looked over at the clock. “Yes yes, indeed it is, do you have the blueprints?” The butler nodded. “Here they are Mister President,”

Donald Trump looked at them then ripped them up into tiny little pieces. The butler looked astonished. “Mister President are you feeling oka…” Donald Trump laughed “Yes yes I’m feeling fine,” then he leaped out of bed and made a bolt for the door then he walked slowly back in. “Oh by the way is my car in the garage?”

Mexico was now one of the richest countries in the world now thanks to Donald Trump he told his chauffeur to drive around Mexico’s streets at 300 MPH (so it didn’t take too long). Then he attached bags of money from the wall building profit then a couple of hours later he was back and Mexico was rich as a fruitcake but Donald Trump still had one big bag full to the brim with bars of gold. He scrawled a quick invitation and stuck it on to the bag: Dear the Gonzales family you are invited for a Christmas party in the Whitehouse – Donald Trump…

Donald Trump was now poor, but he was also loved, and that’s what Christmas is all about.

The End

Epilogue

“Hank! I owe you 50$,” shouted Frank towards the vague direction of the kitchen. Hank walked in. “No you don’t.” Frank pointed at the headline. “He didn’t build the wall.” Hank shrugged. “Who cares. It’s Christmas!”

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I Believe in Father Christmas

It’s funny how, in putting this together, I had to go back and explore some of my least favourite stories.

Doctor Who at Christmas is an opportunity. Statistically, it’s the episode of the show that’s most likely to be watched by people who don’t normally watch it, existing as it does as a notch on the TV schedule at a time when most people are actually watching TV, accompanied by cheese and crackers and what’s left of the Christmas Eve gammon, and sandwiched somewhere between the BBC’s seasonal animation and a Two Ronnies compilation. Visiting family members perch awkwardly on the sofa, not quite sure what to make of this strange spectacle – a show that they might have watched in their childhood but haven’t seen since Tom Baker fell off the radio tower, or perhaps have never watched at all – as the resident enthusiast explains the basics. Or perhaps that’s just our house. Is it just our house? Please tell me it isn’t.

It’s therefore a crushing disappointment when they get it wrong. I suppose the sporting analogy would be taking your partner along to his or her inaugural game and have your team play an absolute damp squib instead of a blinder. They’ll wonder what on earth you see in this sort of recreational activity and you’ll find yourself prone to similar sudden introspection. The DW Christmas episode is, above all else, all about potential conversion and creating a story that’s accessible for the new or casual viewer (and it’s not just me, Peter Capaldi agrees). It’s not a time for endless continuity references and the resolution of complicated, series-long plot points: that sort of thing isn’t easy to stomach after a hard day’s feasting, unwrapping and shouting at the kids. I’d rather have something I can just watch and enjoy. (Judging the show’s seasonal installments in this manner, ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’ is a roaring success, while ‘The Time of the Doctor’ is a dismal failure.)

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My feelings on Christmas episodes are, at least within the context of this blog, well-documented (I’ll get a ‘Christmas’ tag done at some point, but if you’re really curious, check out some of the reviews or hover around the December point for each year of the archives). Externally, I wrote a little something for Metro a couple of years back that had earned the wrath of a few people who thought I’d got it totally wrong. Such is the cost of ranked lists, occurring as they do not within an objective vacuum but tainted by the personal views of whoever’s writing it, even if said personal views actually belong to a committee. In my case, I approached a recent Red Dwarf task by canvassing the opinions of various other people on Facebook, and coming up with a definitive order that reflected their views as much as my own. “Dude clearly wasn’t a red dwarf fan who made this post,” wrote one reader. “How can you not include quarantine. Rimmer in a gingham dress and MR flibbles!” To which my (unposted) answer is obviously “Because it’s my list, and not yours. Now bugger off.”

All the same. There’s something magical about even the worst of New Who when you view it out of context. The sleigh ride in ‘Last Christmas’. The lethal tree in ‘The Christmas Invasion’. Even those ridiculous snowmen. Taken as parts of lackluster episodes they’re tedious, but sandwiching them together seems to work. And there are many golden moments. Last year’s River Song episode was occasionally patchy, but the chemistry between Kingston and Capaldi far outweighed anything she’d achieved with his predecessor, and the moment when they’re standing on the balcony overlooking the Singing Towers is one of my favourite scenes in the Twelfth Doctor’s run.

I’d been toying with the idea of a Christmas montage for some weeks; it was just a question of picking the right song (copyright, as much as any artistic consideration, is a potential barrier). I’d just about chosen a track that I felt was appropriate (I’m not telling you what it is; I may use it in a year or two). Then Greg Lake – one third of the much-overrated prog rock tour de force that was Emerson, Lake and Palmer – died, and while his death was distressingly premature (2016, the year that just keeps on taking) it did at least make the song selection easier. Actually I think the end result is better than the video I would have made otherwise, which is about the only good thing I’m able to snatch from his death.

This probably won’t be my last post before the 25th – you’ll have to wait a few days for that – but it’s arguably the most Christmassy, and if we don’t speak again until the reindeer have eaten the mince pies, I hope your holiday season is peaceful and joyous, however you choose to spend it. And with that I’m off to watch ‘A Christmas Carol’ with Daniel, who’s been pleading for it since Saturday morning. If we’d waited until tomorrow it would have been the shortest day of the year, but real life, it seems, is never quite so neat and tidy. Still, that’s what makes it interesting.

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The Kasterborous Archives, #1: Should Doctor Who Abandon Continuity?

Author’s notes:

This was my first article for Kasterborous. You can tell, because it’s a respectable length: I was still trying to adhere to suggested word counts. It’s a little green around the edges, but it works. Have I changed my view on things? Actually, no…

 

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Should Doctor Who abandon continuity?

Published: 26 April 2015

There’s a documentary on the Day of the Daleks Special Edition that you really ought to see. It’s Toby Hadoke explaining the inconsistencies of UNIT dating. In a nutshell, it’s all going fine – just about – until Mawdryn Undead, which establishes the UNIT stories as taking place before the 1980 that Sarah Jane talks about so frequently. “The real question,” Toby suggests, “is does it matter?” before adding “OF COURSE IT DOES!”

He’s joking. But he’s onto something. Ultimately if you take this stuff too seriously it destroys you. Continuity never used to exist in Doctor Who (Terrance Dicks has said on more than one occasion that “History is what you can remember”). And then it did, and it’s impossible to really maintain it properly – but it still seems to matter, and as a result many fans are obsessive about seeing patterns in things that aren’t there. That’s why there are arguments about whether Clara’s grandmother is actually an elderly Amy (despite being too short, the wrong nationality, and about twenty years too young) or whether the Curator is actually a future Doctor or simply a gap in the fourth wall. Perhaps it’s all about making sense of an increasingly senseless world. Or perhaps we’re just bored these days. The internet has made the information available; why not use it? What else is it for, if not uploading videos of your cat?

There’s the question of age. Two Pertwee stories (The Silurians and Mind of Evil) both establish that the Doctor has lived for “several thousand years” – although that’s generally interpreted, I’m informed, to mean that he has seen things in several different millennia of times on Earth. But the retconning of the Doctor’s age in 2005 has nothing to do with his actual age (are we really going to ignore the six hundred years he spent on Orbis?) and is simply Russell T Davies picking a number out of the air. That’s his prerogative. I’m all for trying to make some sort of sense out of these things, but the people who try and produce accurate timelines of the Doctor’s lifespan – and then state that X couldn’t possibly have happened because it contradicts Y – are like the fundamentalists who try and date the world based on a literal reading of the Biblical timeline. It’s quite fun to watch, as long as you keep your head down during the ensuing fireworks.

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The truth is that Doctor Who can be whatever the chief writer wants it to be, because it’s transcended continuity. There are certain fundamental ground rules – no true love, no kissing, no beards – but that’s it. We’ve spent years shoehorning and explaining and reconciling continuity, and I sometimes wonder why. For example, Tegan’s appearance in A Fix With Sontarans is “non-canon”, because the story is “non-canon” – and the subsequent fan fiction attempts to reconcile Tegan with the Sixth Doctor, while undoubtedly well-meant, were frankly silly.

That’s all fine when we’re talking about fan fiction. It’s when it bleeds into the show that we all start to suffer. Attack of the Cybermen is a good story, but it suffers from needless references to previous adventures that are there purely to maintain continuity. I could put that down as anomalous, but it doesn’t stop with the eighties. Everything that Moffat’s done in the past couple of years has, it seems, been about maintaining continuity under the guise of revising it. He’s shoehorned in as many Important Changes as he can. We’ve seen the Doctor grow into the character we recognised through stories that are new to us. Origins have been rewritten (twice) at the hands of a companion that Moffat created. We’re even told that the Twelfth Doctor’s face matters; that it’s somehow significant (because casting a previously used actor in the title role is something that’s never been done before, honest). It’s been labelled as genius; personally I call it territory marking.

So I have a proposal. I’d like to suggest that Doctor Who more or less abandons the concept of continuity completely. I’d like to suggest that we don’t need it. I’d like to suggest that we ditch the idea of canonicity. It opens the door to a multitude of possibilities. It works for James Bond – where certain recurring themes, motifs and characters are just about the only thing connecting a group of completely different stories populated by completely different people, rendered in completely different styles. It works in the DC universe, whereupon the one constant throughout the myriad different versions of Batman that we’ve seen over the years is that he doesn’t kill (and even that’s occasionally up for grabs). We accept that Batman never ages because he’s Batman and because it’s a comic, but the Doctor’s ability to regenerate has saddled him with a millstone of continuity that I don’t think serves any particular purpose.

So why not abandon it? Why not have the Doctor fall readily in and out of love, go through periods of murderous rage, or even die? Why not have Dalek stories that contradict each other without having to retcon or justify your creative decisions? Why not have alternative origin stories, where the Doctor meets companions in different places, and says goodbye to them under different circumstances – and have them take place not in ‘parallel universes’, but in this one? Why not have writers who are allowed to place their own stamp on the show with more or less complete creative control, on the understanding that it doesn’t matter, because the next writer will also do their own thing? Why not start each series from scratch, and see where we go?

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Arguably, you do need what we’ll refer to as ‘local continuity’ (not my phrase, but I’m pinching it). A story probably shouldn’t contradict everything that happened last week. If you’re going to have a Doctor that’s thoroughly unpredictable every episode – that’s unpredictable in an unpredictable kind of sense, rather than an ‘abandon everyone on the moon and leave them to solve their own problems’ kind of sense – you stand to lose half your audience. If your companion is has a split personality people are going to become alienated unless you make it clear where you’re going. There’s a stark difference between development and plain inconsistency. Even the multi-faceted Claras that populated series seven weren’t so different from each other.

Still, even local continuity needn’t be a barrier. A competent writer might easily create an entire series full of stories that expressly contradict one another, as part of a wider mystery. By ‘wider mystery’ I don’t mean that the Doctor erroneously left his jacket on because of a production cock-up and the writers decided to turn it into a moment of great importance. I mean stories in which everything is purposely different, only for this to mean something – something that’s important, without actually overshadowing the narrative and merit of each individual story.

In the absence of that, I’d like to propose that even if the writers haven’t and are unlikely to abandon the concept of continuity, we need to stop being quite so precious about it. The word ‘we’ in this instance does not mean all of us. There are plenty of people I’ve spoken to who don’t give a damn about the contradictions. But lots of people do, both inside the business and out of it, and I wonder if perhaps the Whoniverse is suffering from people desperate to tie up every loose end, however much the picture is obscured as a result. And when that happens – when writers and fans alike are more concerned with what’s come before than what’s in front – we have a show and a fanbase that are knowledgeable and watertight, but ultimately full of nothing but hot air.

I don’t think that’s my kind of show. Is it yours?

Categories: The Kasterborous Archives | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Introducing The Kasterborous Archives

Those of you who visit this page regularly will be familiar with the banner menu at the top, which leads to the external content I stick on the internet – YouTube material, paid journalism and the random things (most of which also appear here) that I post on Tumblr. Well, you’ve got to have something for the kids, right?

If you look today you’ll notice that one of the links is missing – specifically this one.

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The story of the decline of Kasterborous.com is a sad one, and I think enough water has passed under the bridge for me to be able to tell you some of what happened. It breaks down like this: for a number of years Kasterborous was a lively, entertaining Doctor Who website with a reasonably prolific output. It had a relatively small but very dedicated user base, a decent variety of content and a successful spin-off, The Podkast with a K, which is still going. The team of writers – led by Christian Cawley, the site’s editor – was focussed and dedicated but never took themselves too seriously. We were never going to be Den of Geek, but that was fine.

I started writing for Kasterborous in its twilight years, and it wasn’t long after I joined that Christian jumped ship. (There were a number of reasons for this, which I won’t go into, although it was down to external factors and I’m reasonably confident it had absolutely nothing to do with me.) Administration passed to Phil Bates, and the business of writing carried on as usual, but trouble was brewing below deck: we’d become increasingly concerned about the way in which content was displayed, with articles frequently saturated with adware links in the body text (I’m told this is called Text Enhance). None of us were stupid. We understood the need for advertising revenue to keep a site running. But it was borderline illegible in places – and it made for an uncomfortable, treacherous reading experience, finger hovering precariously over the mouse wheel, terrified of veering just a little too far to the left in case you accidentally pressed the button and navigated to a travel site. Even the picture ads that topped and tailed (and generally surrounded) articles seemed to be advertising porn or clickbait, or a combination of the two.

Eventually, Phil and the others decided they’d had enough. The only response from the site’s owner – whom they’d contacted repeatedly – was a perennial wall of silence. It was like talking to Chief Bromden in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Even their announcement that everyone was leaving was met with unresponsive indifference. We upped sticks and set up a new website, The Doctor Who Companion (more on that in a moment) and left Kasterborous as an online Mary Celeste.

I was going to say “…and we never looked back”, but that simply wouldn’t be true, because I’d left a lot of content on that site and I was curious as to what was going to happen to it. Under Phil’s advice I copied and pasted everything – this turned out to be a good move, for reasons that will become apparent – but while the site didn’t exactly grow, it didn’t suddenly vanish either. Our guess was that it was going to stay there until the owner (whom you’ll note I’ve neglected to name; this is quite deliberate) remembered about it and decided to let the domain renewal elapse. The last I’d heard, he’d sold it to a media outlet.

Then we woke up one morning and saw this.

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As if it weren’t bad enough that the article (which was badly written hack journalism of the lowest order) delved into an area we’d never even have considered exploring when the site was fully functioning, it was in its original form attributed to none other than Christian Cawley. Christian immediately jumped on it and demanded the removal of his name – this eventually happened, although not before a second piece a week later (also supposedly by him) which discussed a multi-Doctor poker game. It was clear where this was going, and Christian was plunged into a writer’s second-worst nightmare, with various theories abounding as to why the owners would want to sully him in this way – spite? Revenge? Or was this some sinister media conglomerate trumping over decent writers, simply because they could?

The truth, as is customary for these things, turned out to be far less sinister. Whether it was the threats of legal action or someone just actually taking a look at what they’d posted, both articles were suddenly attributed to the mysterious ‘Max’. Unfortunately, so was just about everything Christian had ever written. It was clear what had happened: the new writers had taken over the admin account, which presumably had Christian’s name on it, and weren’t clever enough to do a decent retrospective backdate. In short, Kasterborous was now being run by people with no clue as to what they were doing, or no real desire to do it properly. You pick.

It gets worse. Fast forward: some time later, this happens.

 

 

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If you can’t spot what’s going on here, it’s there in that bottom article: this is an old piece (from October 2015) republished as is. There were ten of them, all appearing simultaneously, all referring to long-aired episodes and long-finished conventions. It was like the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind where all the missing pilots suddenly turn up in the mountain as if nothing has happened. The general reaction was one of bemusement or casual anger, but we’d come to expect it. Was this some kind of ploy to keep the site in the search rankings and the revenue coming in when you had nothing to publish – this year’s contractual obligation Dalek story? We’d never know, because no one there was actually willing to talk about it; they just randomly deleted the negative comments.

Last week, the Podkast people visited the site, and this is what their browser said.

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Curiously the warning appears to have gone now – it pops up again intermittently, although I don’t intend to visit the site again to find out. Certainly it’s still active, although many of the pages appear to be defunct and many links are no-longer functioning. Even if you’re able to navigate through all the sludge the chances are you won’t be able to see what you’d like to see, and there’s a decent chance you’re going to be infected with malware.

So today’s little missive has two purposes. The first is to give another plug to The Doctor Who Companion. You may have visited it not long after its inception but suffice it to say the site has blossomed these last few months: we have themed weeks, regular reviews, and I write for them whenever I can. The formatting does take a little bit of getting used to but there is a wealth of goodness to be found in there. If your sense of devotion is particularly strong you could also head over to our Facebook page – all new visitors and page likes welcome.

DW_Companion_Ad

 

The second is to introduce a new feature here at Brian of Morbius: The Kasterborous archives, in which I’ll be publishing a selection of the stuff I wrote for them – by no means all of it, because some was effectively reblogged from here in the first place, and some has been republished over at the DWC. But it’ll be a way of getting the rest of it back online in a safe, legible format, away from link-saturated web pages bordered by ads for things that will absolutely astound you. (And for the record, I’ve been using the web for over twenty years and I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything that’s genuinely astounded me. Surprised, amused and occasionally amazed, but astounded? Still waiting.)

I had intended to start today, but we’re out of time. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow. As compensation, here’s a sad-looking Cyber Kettle.

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You literally won’t believe what happens next.

Categories: The Kasterborous Archives | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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