The War Master in the Night Garden

In 2007, Doctor Who fans were gifted with the finest Master to grace the screen since Roger Delgado. He was suave, he was eloquent, he was angry and malicious, he was…well, he was British, which probably helped. Unfortunately he lasted only a minute and a half before getting shot by an insect and regenerating into John Simm.

It was such a pity. Derek Jacobi was born to play the Master, and for just a moment or two, he did it brilliantly. His replacement was a gurning, dancing clown, manic and ridiculous and – it must be acknowledged – perfectly matched opposite Tennant, but not always an easy watch. Things didn’t improve when he returned with a hoodie, an inexplicable penchant for cannibalism and a secret plan for cloning himself, leading to what is affectionately known as the show’s Being John Malkovich moment. It would be years before we saw the version of the Simm Master that I’d always wanted to see – sneering, reserved and (for a change) respectably dressed, and even if that turns out to be his last appearance, his turn in ‘The Doctor Falls’ was a cracking way to go out.

But enough of this, because we were here to discuss Jacobi – who, having turned in a memorable performance in ‘Utopia’, promptly toddled away back into the land of romantic comedy-dramas, bad sitcoms and the occasional CBeebies bedtime story. He tangoed in Halifax, helped build the Titanic and endured a love-hate relationship with Magneto. Recently we saw him lock horns with the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society in A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. But of his Master, there was nothing – until last December, when he teamed up for a Big Finish audio series entitled Only The Good, in which we got to see the reincarnated renegade in action during the Time War, before he fled to the end of the universe.

What to say about the War Master set? Well, it’s broadly good, although it opens with a largely inconsequential opening story with people I didn’t care about on a forgettable planet that’s being besieged by Daleks. Stories two and four are better, although in one of them the Master is at his most un-Masterlike (the title of this particular story is ‘The Good Master’, so it’s not exactly a spoiler) and it’s initially rather disconcerting to witness him behaving like the disguised human he would eventually become. Of the four, ‘Sky Man’ is far and away the best, despite – or perhaps because – it is a story in which the Master barely features, instead allowing his erstwhile companion Cole to take centre stage. Cole himself is worthy, if rather dull, but if the story’s conclusion is more or less mapped out in its opening conversation it’s still devastatingly effective when it happens.

It also definitively answers one of the questions that the fans have been arguing about for years: namely, was it really Jacobi’s Master in the Time War? The naysayers point out that he states he was ‘a naked child found on the coast of the silver devastation’; similarly John Smith remembers growing up in Ireland with his parents Sydney and Verity, but that’s fabricated, fourth wall-breaking codswallop. This is a slightly younger, sprightlier version of the man we saw in ‘Utopia’ – a man saddled with the weight of twenty years of fruitless labour and a lifetime of false memories, plus the aforementioned insect. Bringing him back was a no-brainer. If you want a resurrected Time War Master, and Jacobi is a narrative fit, why the hell wouldn’t you sign him up if he was available and willing?

It’s a pity we won’t get to see this incarnation meet up with John Hurt: that would have been a heck of a show (and yes, I know it kind of undermines the series 3 arc; don’t tell me they couldn’t have found a workaround for that). But three decent stories out of four seems to be par for the course for BF sets these days, and it’s fun to hear Jacobi casually toss aside supporting characters like sacrificial pawns, outwit the Daleks and occasionally struggle with his conscience – or at least appear to struggle. Unfortunately the story’s conclusion makes a second series rather difficult, for reasons I won’t give away (although you’ve likely figured them out already), and it seems a shame to essentially ditch this new incarnation of the Master just as we’re getting to know him.

But here’s how you terrify your kids: you get them to sit through ‘Utopia’ just before bed, and then you put the In The Night Garden soundtrack on the bedroom CD player.

My views on In The Night Garden are well-documented, if by well-documented you mean eight hundred and fifty words defending the BBC and a couple of doctored photos. I love it because it works and because I do not understand why it works. If that sounds a little odd, it’s because these days it’s mostly anomalous – fan theory is endemic in just about everything, and it is a strange phenomenon, in this enlightened age, to enjoy something because you don’t get it. Twenty-first century media is all about the How and Why, and it’s killing the industry: the rare glimpses behind the scenes that we got in the 70s and 80s are now a regular fixture; outtakes and bloopers have spread like a rash on YouTube; we know everything about a story before we see even the first trailer. One can only hope that Chibnall’s reign – taking place, as it does, behind a security net to rival a Presidential visit, or even a Blade Runner location shoot – goes some way towards reinvigorating the show and bringing back the sense of wonder it once had, and he’s only going to manage that if he slows down on the goddamn press releases.

But no, In The Night Garden is wonderful television: calm, serene and just the right side of weird. Of course grown-ups find it odd. Grown-ups aren’t the target audience. This is TV for the very young, meticulously researched and painstakingly constructed, something that seems to escape the notice of the many parents I talk to who still seem to labour under the ridiculous misapprehension that when the BBC are making TV programmes they simply turn up in a TV studio and wing it. That’s not how it’s done, and the end results look weird because to babies and toddlers the whole world looks weird. (If people really think this is a new thing, they’d be wise to hop onto YouTube and find the little surviving footage that still exists of the oft-forgotten Wizbit. If you’re going to tell me that they’re screwing up our children, it is vital to acknowledge that the process began at least thirty years ago, and probably long before that.)

A while ago, I did a mashup that fused footage from Bing Bunny with some of Mark Rylance’s Wolf Hall dialogue. It was reasonably coherent, and exploring the darker side of Flop’s affable, endless patient personality was the most fun I’d had in a good long while. It also got me into hot water with Aardman, who didn’t like the juxtaposition of ‘adult material’ with programmes meant for kids. The bottom line is that however many disclaimers you include in the description – and however many warnings you tag on the front end – parents are going to let their children watch it, and Aardman were understandably twitchy about compromising the sickeningly wholesome reputation of one of their flagship programmes. (There was the small matter of copyright infringement as well, which I’ve always thought was a little petty given that it was an unmonetised video, but that’s their prerogative.)

But there I was, listening to the War Master set and thinking…wouldn’t it be wonderful to fuse some of the dialogue from this and dump it into a few of the Night Garden episodes? What if the lurid, excessively safe world of Igglepiggle and his friends were bombarded by a quite different and overtly sinister narrator who sounded exactly like the one whose unreconstructed tenor warbles through each of the show’s 100-odd episodes? What if we piled on the filters, added a bit of slow motion and ran the theme song through the editing suite? What could possibly go wrong?

The results, I hope, speak for themselves – and if they’re a little freakish, that’s a good thing. This owes a lot to the black and white Teletubbies video that’s doing the rounds (you know, the one with Joy Division), although it’s less of a mood piece and more of a meditation; it even attempts to tell some sort of story. There are two bits of dialogue, by the way, lifted directly from ‘Utopia’ rather than the War Master set; bonus points to anyone who can work out what they are. And yes, the ending is a bit Blackadder. No apologies.

Oh, and it’s in black and white because it looks cool. Isn’t that a pip?

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Have I Got Whos For You (Season Pass Edition)

This week at Brian of Morbius, as news emerges of Elton John’s Grand Farewell Tour That’s Going To Take Three Years, an unexpected guest singalong at one of his concerts prompts concerns over cultural appropriation.

Elsewhere, proceedings at the Superbowl are interrupted by an unexpected pitch invasion.

An exclusive still emerges from a Doctor Who casting session that was mercifully denied the green light of approval.

And elsewhere, in the TARDIS…

SCORCHIO!

 

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The Thirteenth Doctor Revealed. Sort of

Ha! She’s fallen out of the TARDIS! That’s funny, innit? OBVIOUSLY the TARDIS doesn’t want a woman Doctor and OBVIOUSLY it was reacting to this BLASPHEMY and OBVIOUSLY I’m going to ignore the fact that this has happened every time the Doctor’s regenerated, at least since 2005. You may take this as a sign, my friends, a sign that the show we know and love is doomed. I’m now going to sit back and relax over the next few months and watch as Doctor Who goes completely down the pan. And when it does, I won’t say I told you so. Well, I will. Repeatedly, and as loudly as I possibly can.

I unfollowed a Who-themed group this week after it became saturated with people who have made it their life’s work to complain about Jodie Whittaker’s casting. It’s what happens when you’re hands off with moderation. It’s also what happens when you get a bunch of idiots complaining that IF YOU DO NOT LIKE THE NEW DOCTOR YOU ARE NOT A TRUE FAN”, which is confrontational, unnecessary and also complete bollocks. For one thing, the words ‘true fan’ are an absurdly reductionist maxim of a notoriously complicated subject, one that it is not possible to assess objectively simply because Doctor Who is so many things to so many people. No one gets to make that call, not even me. There are plenty of sane, sensible people who are wary about the new Doctor, and to suggest that cautious optimism or blind ambivalence is a sign of a deep-rooted misogyny and pathological fear of change is frankly laughable.

So there are two types of fans: those who shout that the new Doctor will be a disaster, and those who shout back. Those of us in the middle, pleading for moderation and constructive discussion on both sides, have found ourselves largely neutered. I have put up with it for as long as I can. I’m not someone who actively avoids toxic situations – journalists build a career out of conflict, and if you stray too far into the echo chamber it is impossible to find your way out, but even I have my limits. There are better groups run and populated by people with calmer dispositions and sensible genital size. Enough. I will stick to the ridiculous memes, and the occasional video.

Last year I figured out something. People are far more likely to engage with video content if it’s on Facebook. Never mind the number of people you reach; actual post engagement is much higher. In other words, it apparently takes less effort to click and watch a video when it is embedded directly in a timeline feed than it does to click and watch a video that is on YouTube. I refuse to accept that this is a technical issue. I think it’s just laziness, but I can live with that.

The upshot of this is that my YouTube stats are, with one or two exceptions, looking a little bit sad these days, but that’s OK. That’s a reflection of evolving viewing habits. Times must change, and so must I, as a wise man once said, before he aged twenty-five years and then turned into a woman, which is like a Greek myth or something.

So no one has watched the YouTube version of this, but on Facebook, it sort of exploded a bit.

Seriously, this took me, like, an hour. Well, a little longer. I also had to watch enough of Trust Me to find something that would work for the Doctor’s punch line; it’s not quite the ‘bollocks’ I was  hoping for but it’ll do. It’s a little weird that the TARDIS lands in a forest twice in the same series, but it did make editing a little bit easier. The ambient music in the background comes, needless to say, from Cryo Chamber, who are my new favourites.

My page likes jumped about ten per cent off the back of this one video. It’s not even very good, to be honest. I can’t think what else to write about it, except that it seemed like such an obvious joke I’m amazed I didn’t think it up months ago. A few of the dissenters used it as ammunition – “Ha! Yes, of course that’s what the Twelfth would do if he found he’d grown a pair of tits”, but that’s something I can live with. Matthew Graham didn’t expect Gene Hunt to become a poster boy for the Daily Mail, but that’s exactly what happened, so I suppose on a lesser scale I’m in good company. Brilliant.

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Adventures with the wife in space

A couple of years back we stopped off in a motorway services en route to a holiday at Butlins. I ordered coffee from Starbucks and, when the barista asked my name, requested ‘The Doctor’ and ‘Sarah Jane’.

To be honest, the absolute best thing to do in Starbucks is give your name as ‘Spartacus’, but I’ve never quite managed to be that brave. A knowing reference to the 70s, missed by the incredulous millennial who was serving me, would have to do. You take what you can get, although if it’s in Starbucks you rarely have change from a tenner. When I got outside Emily looked at the black scribble across the side of her cardboard container and raised an eyebrow.

“It was going to be ‘Romana’,” I admitted. “But I didn’t trust them to spell it properly.”

It’s a recurring theme. Emily is the voice of reason in my often hapless relationship with Doctor Who. What she lacks in experience she more than makes up for in common sense and general knowledge, and on top of this she’s usually right. I have a friend who has had to make a deal with his other half to keep their marriage intact: when they’re watching science fiction she is allowed four cynical remarks per episode “You know what it’s like,” he said to me.

“In our house, it’s the opposite,” I said. “I actively rely on Emily to beat on an episode that I was enjoying. It keeps me grounded. Besides, some of my best gags come from her.”

When I mentioned her in Facebook conversation the other week the question we received was “Which one’s the Doctor and which one’s the companion?”

“I’m the Doctor,” I said. “But she’s Romana. That should tell you all you need to know.”

It should tell you all you need to know, as well.

Anyway, it’s her birthday. Accordingly:

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Have I Got Whos For You (Blue Monday edition)

This week in Whovania, a deleted scene from ‘The End of Time’ sheds new light on Russell T. Davies’ inspiration.

Elsewhere, this cautionary tale in the London Apple store demonstrates why you should never try and sell an iPhone X to a Headless Monk.

And further evidence emerges that the iconic ‘Lunch Atop A Skyscraper’ photo was in fact an elaborate publicity stunt.

Film at eleven. Here’s Tom with sports.

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The Face of Boe / Captain Jack connection

Sometimes, when you’re creating, you inadvertently open a can of worms. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it is the only way to catch fish. But sometimes you wonder why you bothered. Actually, it’s less that, and more a sense of frustration that the joke has been missed, or that people would rather concentrate on the theory than the comedy. I suppose that’s the nature of fandom, but it is a little like banging your head against a brick wall. Truthfully there is not much to be said about the comedy for this little instalment – it sort of speaks for itself – and thus we will concentrate on the theory, at least for this morning. Business as usual next time, folks.

Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way. I was toying with the idea of redubbing the Face of Boe with Jack’s voice for a while last year: it was an easy edit, it makes total sense, and it has reasonable comic potential. The Face of Boe appears (properly; ‘Utopia’ doesn’t count, nor does ‘Journey’s End’) in precisely three episodes but there isn’t enough malleable footage in ‘The End of the World’; I stuck therefore with ‘New Earth’, in which the Face of Boe is dying and then isn’t, and ‘Gridlock’, in which he isn’t but then is. Mashed-in dialogue is partly from Doctor Who, partly from Torchwood, and inevitably there’s a bit of singing. Jack is by turns kinky and unexpectedly remorseful, which wasn’t quite the vibe I’d intended, but it sort of works. I had wanted to include ‘The Doctor And I’, but it just didn’t fit somehow. I don’t think we suffer for its absence.

Anyway: I uploaded the thing and it got a few laughs – but it also caused a reasonable amount of confusion in the community. “But…he – he is the Face of Boe!!” spluttered one user. “He said it in an episode! It was confirmed!” Other people were a little less spluttery but still a little put out. “He knew the Doctor,” said someone else. “Called him old friend when they’d never met. Last time he saw Jack outside of the Christmas special he told the Doctor back home they called him the Face of Boe. River Song’s vortex came from a handsome time traveller the headless monks got. It’s him.”

I won’t tell you what I said in private, because it probably breaks obscenity guidelines, but I did take it upon myself to reply to a few of those comments. The truth is – and thinking about it this, more than anything else, is what may have given me the idea to actually put this together – the Jack / Boe thing is one of the most frequently asked technical questions in any of the Doctor Who groups I visit. (The others, incidentally, are “Why did the Doctor start regenerating at Lake Silencio if he was on his final incarnation?”, and “Is the War Doctor really the Ninth Doctor?”, but seriously, let’s not go there today.)

It was the June 2007 when they first aired ‘The Last of the Time Lords’. I was twenty-nine and had just become a second-time father. Thomas wasn’t the easiest of babies and that summer was a heady mixture of sleepless nights, screaming fits and constant feeding, all accompanied by a red sling in which he had to be carried almost constantly, because it was the only way to stop the wailing. Emily would nap when she could and it was for this reason that I watched the series 3 finale without her: she would catch up later, with me standing in the doorway, hovering behind her whispering “Doctor…Doctor…” at the crucial moment. You have to have some fun.

But I remember watching that finale and then grabbing an old friend for a water cooler moment at the office the next morning. “Oh my gosh,” I said. “CAPTAIN JACK IS THE FACE OF BOE!” From what I’ve read, my reaction mirrored that of Barrowman, who allegedly jumped up and down and squealed a bit. Across the nation – the world, come to that, at least the parts of the world that got access to BBC programmes – the reaction was much the same, in all but one quarter, which would be the BBC herself. Because when the episode was repeated with a producer’s commentary, Russell T Davies was heard to mutter “Well, it’s as good an explanation for the Face of Boe as any”, only to have Julie Gardner tell him to “Stop backpedalling”.

Except…it’s watertight, isn’t it? It’s an established fact that Jack spends billions of years evolving into a giant head, isn’t it? Well, actually it isn’t. Things are never that concrete in Whovania, because if they were then we’d have no leeway for fan fiction. If the Fifth Doctor and Peri had gone straight from Sarn to Androzani, years of Big Finish releases with Peri and Erimem would be rendered obsolete. If we’d seen McGann regenerate into Eccleston at the beginning of ‘Rose’, there would be no place for the War Doctor. And if it were definitively and unambiguously established that the TARDIS had developed a fault on its journey to visit the Tribe of Gum, we’d never have had Hunters of the Burning Stone, and the world would be a much better place.

Here are the facts in the case of Jack vs. Boe:

1. The Face of Boe calls the Doctor ‘old friend’ when they meet in ‘New Earth’, despite only having met him the once (according to the Doctor).

2. An abandoned sequence in ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ would allegedly have seen Jack literally lose his head at the hands of the Headless Monks, surviving – but only as a head. This was shelved because of Barrowman’s involvement in Miracle Day.

3. In ‘The Pandorica Opens’, River states that she got her vortex manipulator “fresh off the wrist of a handsome time agent”, although that’s all the information we get.

4. As Jack bids farewell to the Doctor and Martha at the end of ‘The Last of the Time Lords’, he ruminates on his fear of physical ageing – something that is apparently happening, albeit as slowly as it affects Wolverine – and wonders what he will look like at the age of a million. He then mentions in passing that this sense of vanity was partly instilled by his youth, when his good looks made him a poster boy for the Boeshane Peninsula. “The Face of Boe, they called me,” he says, before trotting off to what turns out to be a memorable entrance in ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’. (If you haven’t seen it, do so. He has a fight with Spike from Buffy. In a bar. With Blur playing in the background. It’s great.)

Let’s take them more or less one at a time. In the first instance, there’s no reason to suspect that Boe and the Doctor didn’t meet again after Platform One. It could be that the Doctor’s forgotten. Or that he’s lying. That’s something I get told a lot: whenever there is an apparent continuity error there is a chorus of comments reading “Rule one: the Doctor lies”. It’s mindlessly irritating, seeing as it’s not the Doctor’s rule, it’s actually River’s, and it’s a cheap way of explaining away an ambiguity that would probably make sense if you actually took the time to think about it, but it beats “Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey”, so I suppose I can live with it. It’s further possible that the Doctor and Boe had an adventure they agreed not to speak about with anyone, including each other. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing: perhaps that’s how the Boekind greet people they know. Or perhaps the Face of Boe has been ruminating on the fact that the Doctor saved his life a few years back, and considers him a friend as a consequence. Perhaps they’ve been messaging each other on Facebook. Pick one.

The scene with the Headless Monks is awkward simply because it was never filmed. It’s an abandoned sequence that is thus as canonical as, say, Lungbarrow – a story that effectively gave us the Doctor’s real name, but which sits rather uncomfortably within the whopping great list of Things You Can Believe If You Want To (a concept to which we’ll return, so remember it). If they didn’t show it, it didn’t happen. Actually, even if they did show it there’s a fair bit of leeway with retconning: 24 aired the death of a prominent character in season 5 but a couple of years later he was back, when it was discovered that we did not see what we thought we saw. River’s vortex manipulator may have come from Jack (with, it is implied, the hand still attached to it), but it does not follow from this that he had a run-in with the Monks – although the Monks aren’t necessary for Jack to become Boe, which I’ll explore in a moment.

The ‘Last of the Time Lords’ scene is a little more concrete, but even then it’s not exactly unambiguous. It’s connection by association – look, this is how tabloid newspapers work. They’ll tell you that there’s a new CBeebies series starring a female engineer, and then mention in passing that they no longer show Bob the Builder, and leave you to fill in the gaps. Before we know it there’s a minor frenzy about the BBC eschewing old favourites in favour of new, politically correct content, and everyone’s conveniently forgotten the fact that the Beeb washed their hands of Bob when HIT Entertainment gave him that disastrous makeover and a stupid Midlands accent.

Similarly, all this scene tells you is that Jack was called the Face of Boe by a bunch of people who might have already known about the real Face and thus applied it as a nickname. Because we’ve been wondering about the Face of Boe all series, it’s natural to assume the two are connected, but there’s no reason why they would be. As it stands, it’s clumsy shoehorning. It may have had the fans jumping out of their seats, but it’s a dreadful way to finish a scene. The dialogue is terrible. You don’t say “The Face of Boe, they called me” and then saunter away to an invisible door. It’s an unnecessary conversation dangle. No one does it. Not unless they’re deliberately baiting the Doctor and Martha, not to mention the people watching at home…oh, wait.

The funny thing about all this is that Jack could quite easily evolve into Boe without any of the kerfuffle with the Monks. We saw it in a Philip K. Dick short story, The Infinites, in which a three-man crew investigate a strange planet and find themselves undergoing rapidly accelerated evolution – millions of years pass in just a few hours. It has highly irradiated sentient hamsters made of pure energy. I swear I’m not making this up. The point is that the changes are marked by degenerating limbs and greatly swollen head size, marking an increased reliance on the cerebral cortex and, one would assume, the decrease of motor functions. From this, it’s quite feasible to imagine that Jack could turn into a giant head the older he gets. Perhaps it’s the way we’re going. It’s certainly the way it was going in WALL-E, where everyone was fat because they’d spent years puttering about in a small land. Sudden cosmic storms aside, you and I will probably never know.

Out on the convention circuit, the vibe among the cast and crew has come down in favour of Jack and Boe being one and the same. Barrowman believes it. So does Gardener. So, up to a point, does Davies, although that’s a bit more complicated. I’m not listing my sources; it’s well-documented. It has to be said that of the above, Davies is the only one who gets a vote, being largely responsible for the genesis and development of the character (yes, I know that Moffat penned those first episodes and half of Torchwood was written by Chibnall; work with me here). But even then it’s dangerous to assume that originating writers have total responsibility for the characters they create for the rest of time. There needs to be a handover point: otherwise it’s a slippery slope to the sort of petty legal wrangling we had after the Brigadier’s grandfather / great-uncle showed up in the Christmas episode. Or you get someone making an obvious joke about Jenny crashing into an asteroid and then the fans are up in arms because Big Finish have brought her back and WHAT ABOUT THE SANCTITY OF CANON? (And yes, I realise I talked earlier about the whole “If it didn’t happen on screen, it’s not canon” thing. It’s my blog; I’m allowed the occasional double standard.)

The bottom line is that this has been kept as ambiguous as possible simply because it’s better that way. It grates against the sensibilities of the modern Doctor Who fan. Unresolved plot strands do not sit comfortably with them: why not explain something if you can? But sometimes it’s better if you don’t know. The Italian Job has one of the best endings to any film ever, simply because it is left hanging, in the most literal sense of the word. We never found out if Fran and Peter survived at the end of Dawn of the Dead, but there is a fleeting sense of hope as they fly off into the sunset; the same sense of hope permeates The Shawshank Redemption (this is the novella we’re talking about – not the film, which ends on a more definitive point and which is arguably less successful as a result). No one gets the end of 2001, but drawing your own conclusions to the Rorschach that is the film’s final ten-minute sequence is, many ways, far more satisfying than anything that’s cleared up in the books.

Davies knows this. The man does have his faults, but he – like most sensible people – realised that giving Jack a designated end point essentially kills the joke. It also deflates any sense of tension in Torchwood, because you know that Jack will at some point be wheeled around in a glass case and get pregnant again, but that’s a by-product. Here’s my point: it’s actually fine if people want to believe that Jack becomes the Face of Boe. I more or less believe it myself. It’s as good an explanation for the character as we’ve come across, and the evidence for it – whilst not exactly overwhelming – is still a clear collection of hints that point towards a likely plot strand. “None of these things is any good on its own,” the boy’s grandmother tells him in The Witches. “It’s only when you put them all together that they begin to make a little sense.”

Still: a little sense may be as far as we get. Because it’s more fun if we don’t know. There is a greater sense of narrative satisfaction – at least there is for me – in having a character whose fate is unresolved than one whose life cannot be changed; Ebenezer Scrooge endeavoured to sponge away the writing on his gravestone and we must believe the same of Jack, however much a definitive ending to his story might please some of the fans. Jack might be the Face of Boe, and then next week it could all be undone in a heartbeat – that is the nature of the programme we love, and while I went through a period of getting annoyed about this, in recent months I’ve kind of got used to it. Certainty is the path to arrogance, and the older I get the less certain I am about things, and I’m learning to embrace, even revel in the ambiguities. So let’s rejoice in the fact that for all the speculation and fan theory and arguments about intended meaning, when all is said and done we really don’t know Jack. Christopher Bullock said that it was “impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes”. In the Whoniverse, we don’t even have the first one, and it’s better that way.

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Have I Got Whos For You (New Year’s Edition)

Happy New Year folks! Meet David Tennant, the reluctant gardener.

Elsewhere in Whoville, one of Jackie Tyler’s leftover Christmas cracker jokes goes awry.

And finally, here’s the Twelfth Doctor’s confession.

Well, I’m glad we’ve cleared that one up.

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Review: Twice Upon A Time

Warning: contains spoilers.

This is, without doubt, the quietest regeneration story you’ll ever see. It begins and ends in the silence between gunshots. On the battlefields of war-torn France, two frightened, exhausted soldiers stare at each other down the barrel of a service revolver, locked in an awkward stalemate, a Mexican standoff that stems from a language problem. The bullet that will kill them both is never fired, because it is interrupted – as is the way of things – by a song that drifts on the air; a chorus of Silent Night, in the original German. Elsewhere, the cannons on another world are silenced by a reunion between two old foes that learned to get along. And the Doctor awaits his end in a frozen landscape – but it is a quiet end, soft and subdued, the way that snow renders things mute.

‘Twice Upon A Time’ is a story about consequences. The Doctor has faced down the Cybermen and paid the price; it’s appropriate that his younger self has reached the same stage in his journey, and thus it is here that we come in – up to a point. Nods to ‘The Tenth Planet’ are fleeting, the much-touted recasting of Ben and Polly reduced to a twenty-word exchange that is over in a matter of seconds and has no bearing on the plot other than to give the First Doctor an excuse to go outside, possibly for some time. Like every incarnation since 2005, the re-imagined First Doctor’s regenerating hand is seen to glow; it would be easy to complain about the retcon, but it serves as an appropriate visual shorthand, so perhaps we should turn a blind eye.

In a way, it’s going to be a disappointment. This is not a story in which the Twelfth Doctor weaves in and out of the scenery at the Antarctic base, endeavouring to hide from his younger self, like Marty McFly or Harry Potter or that episode of Red Dwarf where Lister steals his own kidneys. Nor is it the much-anticipated resolution of Capaldi’s very first appearance, a pair of ferocious eyebrows and the clank of a lever as the thirteen Doctors unite to save Gallifrey. The Hybrid – another plot strand that was never fully resolved – doesn’t even get a mention. Perhaps that’s something we’ll revisit further down the line. We can only hope it isn’t.

Instead, there is a tale about dying, and what happens afterwards. ‘The End Of Time’ gave us a Doctor refusing to face death; ‘Twice Upon A Time’ depicts a Doctor who is facing it with perhaps a little too readiness. Bill returns, seemingly from the afterlife, but the Doctor is mistrustful: is she all that she appears to be? The answer, of course, is yes – and also no, with this Bill comprising a composite of memories mapped onto a glass gestalt. We are given next to no information as to how this works: it is enough (or at least it ought to be enough) that it does, but there is commentary here about the nature of what is real and what isn’t, and whether we can really believe anything that anyone tells us about themselves, an analogy of constant, increasingly uncomfortable relevance in this most ambiguous of ages. “May you live in interesting times,” as the old Chinese curse goes, and the Twelfth Doctor’s concluding story, while not exactly high octane, is never less than interesting.

Having said all that, perhaps the most surprising thing about Moffat’s final episode is how little it surprises. It is no surprise at all to learn the Captain’s true identity; nor does the appearance of Clara raise any eyebrows, given that it occurs at a point in the narrative when we already know the host to be a shapeshifting intelligence capable of mimicking anyone it pleases. The moment this is finally explained to the Doctor, in the convivial hush of No Man’s Land not long after the football match, it becomes inevitable that Matt Lucas is waiting in the wings, brushing the crumbs from his duffle coat. Even the appearance of Rusty is foreshadowed by the head crabs that scour the ruins of Villengard; the resemblance to mutated Daleks is obvious, and the Doctor all but names them even before he climbs to the top of the tower.

The strange thing about the Rusty cameo is how pointless it seems. The Doctor’s requirement for a database that’s even bigger than the Matrix is tenuous at best: this is an excuse for a couple of explosions amidst a barrage of laser fire, something the episode otherwise lacks. It is, perhaps, a way for Moffat to revisit old stories he never quite resolved – something that Davies did with vigour back in 2009 – and indeed, the very presence of Villengard hearkens back twelve years to the chief writer’s very first tale for Nu Who. So too it provides an opportunity for us to see how much the Twelfth Doctor has changed; his trajectory from the manipulative apathy of ‘Into The Dalek’ to his plea for kindness in ‘The Doctor Falls’ (by way of the mid-life crisis that constitutes most of Series 9) is as wide ranging as character development gets, and if nothing else, a reappearance from the Good Dalek serves as a timely reminder of exactly how we got here.

Several things grate. The First Doctor was curmudgeonly and brusque, but no more bigoted than anyone else of his generation, or at least the generation he represented: it is not necessary to have quite so many nods to ‘casual chauvinism’, and while Capaldi does a good line in embarrassed outrage, it’s a joke that’s cracked at least five or six times more frequently than the episode needed. There are needless references to the notorious ‘smacked bottom’ scene from ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’; teamed with more conversations about Bill’s sexuality, it feels like political point-scoring, an exercise in ticking the diversity box juxtaposed with a desperate plea from the writers and actors not to turn this into a big deal. We’ve been trying, honestly, but you keep giving us ammunition: it was a recurring theme during Series 10, and perhaps the requests for press restraint would have been better served if the stable door hadn’t been closed when the horse was already halfway to Guildford.

Bradley himself is a curiosity, a visitation wrapped in an evening suit. Practically the first thing he does is grab his lapels, but that’s where the resemblance stops. Bradley does not take it upon himself to try and be Hartnell portraying the Doctor, nor does it follow that he should. The man’s twenty years older. He doesn’t even fluff his lines, for pity’s sake. But a curious thing happens: it more or less works. Bradley was a good Hartnell, and a less effective Doctor-played-by-Hartnell, but unshackled from the confines of scripts and scenes we know all too well, and given room to breathe as opposed to simply mimic, the suspension of disbelief suddenly becomes that much easier to maintain. There is a certain poetic license in his performance – this is an older, less assured First Doctor, perhaps closer to the character we saw in ‘The Three Doctors’ than anything that appeared on TV during the 1960s – but if you squint, you can almost imagine that this ageing Yorkshireman could inhabit the role that Hartnell made his own.

It ends, as one might expect, in fire and torment and the mother of all monologues: one that is disappointing if only because we’ve heard so much of it before. Capaldi paces the TARDIS with similar restlessness to his manner at the end of ‘The Doctor Falls’ – raging, it seems, against the old girl herself, as if her mechanisms were somehow guiding his transformation. (It’s really not so much of a stretch, given that so many of them have happened on the console room floor.) There are jokes about pears. Meanwhile, the more astute among us will no doubt be wondering why the soldiers were singing in German when there was a TARDIS parked just up the road. Is it because of the religious content? Is this another nod to ‘Extremis’? Or do two TARDISes cancel out the translation effect? And why am I even bringing this up, unless it’s to pick up on social media trends?

Finally – in the moment we were denied at the press screening – Whittaker emerges, staring at her reflection with a look of wide-eyed amazement, like someone who’s experiencing every birthday and Christmas in one go. It’s obviously not a controlled regeneration – it never is – but it’s clearly hoped that we’re as enamoured of her appearance as she is herself, even if you half expect Amy to pop her head out from the bedroom and ask if she wished really, really hard. Within seconds, the new Doctor is failing to fly the TARDIS in the most spectacular manner possible, plummeting to what we assume is Earth in the sort of slow motion you normally reserve for Hollywood action movies, and we’ve already forgotten about Mark Gatiss – who, it must be pointed out (because I haven’t yet) was actually not too bad at all.

Still, there is something good about all this. There is something right about a tale that does not need to rely on visual spectacle or the fate of the universe to make its point. There is something good about a Doctor who has already died in battle, and who is living on borrowed time: two Doctors, if you like. Stories that occur in frozen moments (hello, Key 2 Time, have a celery stick) are a big part of spinoff lore; rarely do they translate to the small screen, but the fact that ‘Twice Upon A Time’ works when it really shouldn’t is largely down to the chief writer’s decision to turn the narrative into an elegy that is actively about that moment, rather than an excuse to tell an unrelated story. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of unabashed escapism – god knows that’s what we had in ‘Voyage of the Damned’ – but a protracted, reluctant farewell seems a better fit, even though it won’t be to everyone’s tastes.

But it’s more than that. There’s a sense of cautious joy here, a bittersweet lament for the things we leave behind coupled with a willingness to look forward with hope, even in the face of the unknown. It’s not a call for unity. This isn’t Brexit. It’s a request to understand each other. “Sometimes,” Moffat seems to be telling us, “things don’t go wrong. Some motivations are sound. Some purposes are good. Sometimes even if something is seemingly too good to be true, it still happens. Things change, and no one likes it. And yes, people die, but sometimes opposing sides can reach a fragile, uneasy peace.” And perhaps that, more than anything else, is the message we need to hear this Christmas.

This review originally appeared in The Doctor Who Companion.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Seasonal Edition)

This week: Doctor Who meets The League of Gentlemen, or rather doesn’t.

Elsewhere, here’s River Song, enjoying an afternoon on the beach with her grandfather.

As Hey Duggee launches a new space-themed episode, the inspiration for the titular dog’s costume is obvious.

And yes, I know the tweed-coated academic look precedes 2011. But there must have been a point in the animation studios where someone said “Hey, he looks like the Eleventh Doctor!”

Finally, Brianofmorbius duly launches its own version of Elf on the Shelf:

Well, it’s sort of Christmassy.

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The Doctor Who story game – 2017 edition

When I was ten, my year 5 teacher asked us to come up with a three sentence idea for a story we wanted to write. Then he bade us hand the idea to our desk partners, who would write the story we’d suggested, while we wrote theirs. I can see what he was doing, but as someone who’s always relished creative control over things like this, it was an uncomfortable experience for me, particularly as I was partnered with someone who hovered around the lower end of the gene pool. There’s something a little painful about reading a great idea you’ve had reduced to rack and ruin by a kid who was far more comfortable with a football than a fountain pen. I had to console myself by doing the best possible job with his idea, the bones of which I can still remember, nearly thirty years later.

I’ve grown up a fair bit since then, but the hoarding impulse remains: having a committee build a story is generally not a good idea. There are too many cooks hovering over a small pan. It’s why Snakes on a Plane was rubbish. On the other hand, as an exercise done purely for fun, it is a wonderful, almost humbling experience, a way of surrendering your ego and allowing someone else to take an idea and run with it. And so it was that a few weeks ago, while I was in the pub with an old friend putting the world to rights, a whole bunch of people were sitting at phones and laptops, eagerly adding sentences to a thread I’d started instructing them to help me build a Doctor Who story.

Did you ever play that consequences game where you tell a story one sentence at a time? Or where you write it down on pieces of concertinaed A4, the fragments forming a loose, nonsensical narrative? This was kind of like that. You lose creative control – and greet the absurd, occasionally incoherent direction that things take with a mixture of amazement and alarm. Alarm because it’s not the way you hoped it would go – but then you learn to relax and go with it. I won’t pretend that what follows makes any sense, or is even particularly good, but it was an awful lot of fun seeing it develop and grow.

Imagine, if you will, a large Facebook group – one of the largest Doctor Who groups on the entire site, if not the very largest – teeming with imagination and ideas. It was the perfect playground to try this out, although I ran the risk of being totally ignored – that’s what happens when you get so many posts. But the community came out in force. Old companions forged new alliances. Monsters were dropped in and flushed out with nary a mention. Tangents were briefly explored and then brushed aside as the story went somewhere else. The fourth wall was painstakingly demolished. And Steven Moffat wound up the subject of several wish fulfilment fantasies. Cosmetics aside, it is presented as is. The first and last lines are mine; everything else was from other people.

There weren’t many rules: any and every Doctor or companion was available, although when I read through the dialogue people had submitted I could hear Matt Smith’s voice, and thus it became a story about the Eleventh. When we were done – in other words, when things had ground to a natural halt – I locked the thread. Then I cleaned up the spelling, Anglicised the dialogue, chopped up a few bits here and there, and adjusted it so it was all in the correct tense, adding a few hastily assembled images to break up the text. It was fun, and we will probably do it again.

In the meantime, the story we wrote follows. I call it…

It was dark. Night had a habit of being like that.

Except night on Derrimilanicum, where night tends to be bright green due to the effects of a world-wide aurora. But it was dark still because it was cloudy. Derrimilanicum was a peaceful place…except for the night when the encroaching darkness known simply as the ‘Vashta Nerada’ came to invade.

The doctor sat in the TARDIS, eating a bagel. He remembered the Vashta Nerada painfully well…

He clapped his hands suddenly and stood up, as there was suddenly a knock at the Tardis door. The Doctor answered to find his old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.

He was holding a fez – always a fez – and the Doctor threw it in the air just so it landed on his head. But it missed, the fez missed the Doctor’s head landing in a puddle. He picked it up and invited the Brigadier into the Tardis.

“Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart! What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” The Doctor asked gleefully. “And upon such a cloudy day?”

Then the Doctor lifted a finger and said, “Unless that hasn’t happened yet. I never quite know where in the time stream I am.”

“Coming from you, Doctor, that’s a relatively normal thing to say,” the Brigadier muttered from opposite the TARDIS console. “But you say I’m to die?”

The Brigadier looked shocked. “Did I say that?” the Doctor asked. “I don’t remember saying that.”

He rubbed his hands together quickly and said, “Ah well yes, uh, spoilers…foreknowledge is no good, dangerous even!”

“OK, OK…let’s forget that for now. We have bigger problems at hand,” said the Brigadier.

The Doctor straightened his bow tie. “Yes…the fish fingers are burning. And I need a bowl of custard to dip them in.”

“Now, Doctor, I really must insist…” began the Brigadier, only to find himself interrupted by a loud yelp coming from somewhere deep inside the TARDIS.

“Doctor, what was that?”

“Probably just Rose crying again”, said the Doctor. “She likes to cry when we run out of her favourite food; silly, really.”

“Sausages.”

The Doctor turned in confusion only to see that K-9 had come into the room to report on… sausages? Then he remembered that ‘sausages’ was an old codename for something long ago…long before the TARDIS was even created and thought lost in legend for all eternity.

The Doctor pondered whether he should get a new codename. “Could my new code name be ‘Sausages’?” he wondered.

“Run!” River yelled, emerging deep from the bowels of the TARDIS, rapidly firing shots behind her.

“RIVER, what are you doing here?” asked the Doctor.

“K-9 becomes a human girl,” said River, “and we’ve got to stop her!”

“Before she steals all of Rose’s cookies! Allons-y and onward!” proclaimed the Doctor. “And to think, all of this is Moffat’s fault,” he added.

Suddenly the TARDIS came to a jarring halt – just as the toaster popped; the Doctor, grabbing the toast, flung open the door, which revealed the barren landscape of a comic-con twenty minutes before opening.

“I never could get the hang of Blurgdays,” the Doctor muttered to himself, half-ruinously.

Just then, a young 20 something worker came up to the group and asked “Hey, Moffat wants to know if you’ll be dressed and ready to go for the Q&A panel in 10 minutes.”

The Doctor looked terribly confused at all this fourth wall breaking, and decided to tune it out. But then a loud *BANG* was heard coming from within the quite and empty comic-con.

“Crikey Moses!’ the Doctor exclaimed. “What on Gallifrey was that!”

“In fact it was me, said Strax, “looking for the Adipose.”

“Adipose?” said the Doctor. “What are they doing here?”

“Shall I drown them in acid?” asked Strax. “Or offer a hand grenade?”

“No, no,” replied the Doctor. “There’s going to be a convention here soon and we can’t have any of that going on, Strax! Just find me one and bring it to me – gently!”

“You ask me, a mighty Sontaran warrior, to be gentle? How dare you insult the glory of my nation!”

The Doctor placed a hand on Strax’s shoulder and looked at him tenderly. He gently broke it to Strax. “I’m not asking you. Steven is,” before popping a Jammy Dodger into his mouth, pulled from who knows where.

“At least you’re not plastic,” said Rory.

“Or dead,” said River.

“EXTERMINATE!!!!!!!” came many a cry from down the hall.

“Ohhhhhh, who invited them?!” growled the Doctor.

“Are you my mummy?”

“Shut up! We need to think!” The Doctor snarled.

“Well, well, well…it’s you again Captain. COME in! We’ve BEEN waiting for you…” the Doctor chuckled as he grabbed the arm of Jack and brought him into the circle hurriedly as he used his sonic to lock the doors behind him, only the door to the northwest opened that led through a red-linen walled hall; the Doctor tussled Jack’s hair in enthusiasm as he fixed his bow tie while he placed his sonic screwdriver into his coat, smirking smartly as he said to Captain Jack – who appeared a little shaken as he overheard – “Now, lad…have you seen what has been occurring through the masses of people and aliens here? Jack give me details, observations, inquiries – GO! Go!”

He clapped his hands briskly, looking to the others with a concerned, but lighthearted, eccentric face.

“U-uh, D-Doctor?” Rory looked at Jack with a stern, but frazzled scowl as he asked the Doctor quietly, “who the smeg is this?”

Captain Jack looked at Rory then back to the Doctor, tilting his head sideways. “We travelling with the crew from Red Dwarf now eh, Doc?”

Just then River came through the door, looked Jack up and down and said “Well, hello Sweetie.”

After giving a smirking Jack the side-eye, the Doctor turned to River and said “No!”

“Now, honey…” River pouted.

Jack turned to River. “You know the Doc has a problem with sharing.”

River smirked slightly, then turned to the Doctor. “Sweetie, you know there is more than enough of me to go around.”

While shaking his head, the Doctor threw his hands up in the air and shouted “We’ve got Daleks, Adipose and a lost kid wearing a gas mask to deal with – hanky panky LATER!”

Just then from behind them a small voice said “Are you my mummy?”

A rasping laugh filled the convention halls as, from out of the shadows, a beast of fathomless ages crept out, exuding a terrible horror. “I have the latest script for you,” the monster rasped, as he held out a finished script entitled ‘The Gasping Death by Steven Moffat’. He laughed evilly, knowing he was protected by his lack of continuity…but the giant stamping cartoon foot from Monty Python descended suddenly, with abrupt finality, and Moffat was no more.

Then out of nowhere… A PLOT TWIST!!! Steven Moffat was still alive to continue his evil plan. No one was safe, even us.

“How did you do that?” the Doctor asked, interested to learn about the apparent regeneration of humans.

“It’s in the script!” he cried.

“I shall melt him with acid,” Strax gleefully volunteered.

“No Strax! You can’t just kill people, even if they are evil!” said the Doctor.

“Wait, Moffat’s human?” asked Captain Jack suddenly confuzzled.

“Well technically yes,” said the Doctor, “but it’s relative, you see – and shut up, River!”

“I’ll shut up when you all hear what I’ve been trying to tell you!” insisted River. “There’s only two kinds of bathrooms at the comic-con conference, not seven! What shall we do?”

“Accept that humans have two genders?” Rory asked with a shrug half expecting to get punched by his more manly counterpart Amy.

The Doctor rolled his eyes a tiny-bit smugly, regaining his spunk as he led the way towards a glass observatory with various costumed people in it, smirking uncomfortably.

Then the Doctor, trying to be meta, jumped into the TARDIS, went back and made out with his father in law, Henry the VIII.

When he arrived, he found out that his father was actually none other than…THE MASTER!

“My father is the Master…MOFFAT!” the Doctor thought with a groan in his throat, as a vision of his next-two incarnations appeared next to him in his TARDIS; 12 looked a little…testy at 11, as did 13 – though she was shocked at her previous selves and Jack. Rory smirked.

“Who turned out the lights?”

“This,” sighed the Doctor, “is going to be a very long evening.”

 

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