Monthly Archives: December 2011

Review: ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’

For most of my adult life, I’ve been a regular churchgoer. This has sometimes been out of a genuine, heartfelt desire to go, and sometimes because I feel I ought to be there. I was brought up with religion, then I rejected it, and then it found me again and wouldn’t let go. Until it did. These days, it’s very, very hard: I am paying lip service, going through the motions, and clockwatching. I don’t think I’ve stopped believing in God, but beyond that nothing much is certain.

This is not the place for an account of my spiritual journey, but one thing consistent attendance has taught me is how we cater for people at different times of the year. And there’s something in particular about Christmas where Church (note the capital ‘C’) gets perhaps a little more accessible. Or at least it should. Because the fact is that some people come to church at Christmas and then that’s their fix for the year, apart from the occasional wedding / funeral / christening. These are good, ordinary people and aside from religious beliefs there is comparatively little difference between us. It would be lovely if we could see some of them at other times of the year, but that’s the way it goes.

In any event they come at Christmas, and that’s when we have to do things a little differently, and perhaps make things a little easier and a little less automatic. Things we do every week without thinking about them are explained. The story is recapped with simplicity and clarity. We reassure people that they’re welcome to do whatever makes them comfortable. We avoid rituals that might make them uncomfortable. All this is with a view to show them that the Church can be welcoming and can adapt itself to the people who are attending – that we’re not entirely stuck in our ways, cut off, exclusive, inapproachable.

It struck, me, reading some of the comments online this week, that Doctor Who is a little like this. Because the Christmas special – a staple of the seasonal calendar since the 2005 revival (and not something they did in the show’s original run) – has become, to a great extent, Doctor Who for people who don’t normally do Doctor Who. At Christmas, when you’re sitting in front of the TV and The Gruffalo’s Child has finished, and the beer is all spilled and the whiskey is flowed, it might be something you do that you don’t normally do. So the Christmas specials are a little different. And whenever you’re judging an episode like this you need to have that at the forefront of your mind.

Why am I writing about all this in particular? Well, it’s because reading some of the commentary online over this past week has frankly made me lose some of my seasonal cheer. It’s reminded me that for the most part, all we do is complain. W.H. Auden might as well have written “Bring out the coffee, let the mourners come”, which would have detracted somewhat from the sombre tone of ‘Stop all the Clocks’ (or whatever it’s called, no one I know seems to be able to make up their mind), but it’d work if you were trying to describe a post-Who Guardian Comment is Free thread. It is in the pages of the Grauniad, indeed, that such debates are at their most acerbic, acidic and downright scornful, with the left-wing intellectual neo-atheist snobbery shining through (and yes, I say this as an out-and-out Guardian reader). But the Independent was no better – although it didn’t help, in this instance, that the review of the show was once more written by Neela Debnath, who appears to have minimal knowledge of the show and absolutely no writing ability whatsoever. There is much good journalism in the Independent, but sadly none of it is by her.

(Multiple spoilers follow.)

Snow-sprayed forestry (in August).

Here’s the thing. If you’re going to judge ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’ by the standards of a normal Who episode, it will be found wanting. Structurally, it was all over the place. It opened with a plane in trouble, and Alexander Armstrong (recognisable as the voice of Mr Smith in The Sarah Jane Adventures) murmuring “I’m sorry, my love” as his plane appears bound for oblivion – an exact repetition, you may remember, of the words of River Song as the TARDIS exploded at the end of ‘The Pandorica Opens’. And that ended well, so we instantly knew – on some level, at least – that Armstrong was coming back from the dead, or would be spared death by some sort of last-minute intervention.

Because Moffat does that. He’ll give us one ending, and then tell us the rest of it later, as it transpires that what we saw earlier was an incomplete scene, designed to give us certain preconceptions before pulling out the rug from underneath. It’s by turns clever and infuriating. Sometimes, indeed, it’s infuriating simply because it’s clever – we want a simple narrative, rather than the convoluted prancing of something like ‘The Wedding of River Song’, which jumped around through history, tied up several loose ends and featured a cameo from Simon Callow while somehow delivering far less than the sum of its parts.

There was one clever-clever moment in this Christmas special, but aside from that it was a straightforward romp through a forest where the trees appear to grow baubles on demand. Claire Skinner played (very) recently widowed Madge, who had earlier helped the Doctor (whose identity was at the time unknown to her, given that he was wearing a space helmet the wrong way round, having put it on in a hurry) back to his TARDIS – except, of course, it wasn’t the TARDIS at all, but an actual police box. It was as shamelessly predictable as the TARDIS’ materialisation between two storage crates at the beginning of ‘Fear Her’, but no less amusing for it.

He put it on in a hurry, apparently.

Three years after the encounter with the impossible astronaut, Skinner and her children (neither of whom appear to have aged at all) are checking into an old house in the middle of the country, where they’re greeted by a lanky twenty-something who says he’s the ‘Caretaker’. The house is full of gimmicks and gadgets (including hammocks that drop from the ceiling, which I think I want in my space-deprived bungalow) but the ‘magic of Christmas’ scene that introduces them all goes on far too long, and Smith’s constant boyish cries of “I know!” are immensely irritating. In any event: there is, of course, a big blue box in the lounge. And of course the children open it in the middle of the night, instead of on Christmas morning, which the Doctor had intended, in order for it to be ‘a supervised trip’. And before we know it, Cyril (he with the ridiculous glasses) is lost in the woods, and the trees appear to be moving.

Cyril. Amazing glasses.

Dan Martin, in his review, pointed out the major plot hole: “While the Doctor berates the children for opening their present – a potentially hazardous trip to another planet in the far future – he also knows,” he says, ”that every normal child would have done the same. Really, the whole thing was his fault.” Except, of course, he doesn’t know anything of the sort. Not really. Because the Doctor’s not human. At least this one isn’t. He’s almost as alien as they come, exceeded only by Baker (i) and Troughton. Not noticing the way humans behave is part for the course. He didn’t notice Elliot wandering off in ‘The Hungry Earth’. He was oblivious to the ins and outs of Craig and Sophie’s relationship – and the former’s infatuation with the latter – throughout ‘The Lodger’, at least not until the point at which it really mattered. Leaving a mysterious parcel in the middle of the lounge and then expecting them to wait until morning before opening it is exactly the sort of thing the Eleventh Doctor would do. He’ll take things to the brink and then come up with a solution, producing all his best work under immense pressure, but he thinks very much on his feet, and consequences are not always at the forefront of his mind – as is beautifully vocalised in the closing fifteen minutes when, as the tower collapses around the protagonists, he suggests that they “hold tight and pretend it’s a plan”.

The kids are good; Skinner’s better. She basically plays Madge as a brisk 1940s version of Sue from Outnumbered. Her reaction to the three colonists in the middle of the forest, her subsequent mastery of the platform and, indeed, her ability to completely understand and accept the situation have been criticised as unbelievable by some (this, in a show about talking trees) but again that’s missing the point – which is surely to subvert the traditional inter-generational relationships that companions have endured since 2005. Traditionally (and I use that word loosely, seeing as before the revival the Doctor’s friends didn’t even seem to have tangible families of their own), it’s the companions’ willingness to be open-minded that enables them to become companions, while the reaction of their parents, when the truth is inevitably discovered, ranges from scepticism to worry to downright hostility. Madge doesn’t go into shock at discovering the world inside the blue box, nor is she fazed by the appearance of the Androzani colonists (more on them in a moment), and indeed when she is reunited with her straying children (straying child, I suppose, if you’re going to be picky) her reaction isn’t one of outrage towards the Doctor for dragging Lily and Cyril into danger, as you might have expected from Jackie Tyler. Instead she hugs them and then delivers the funniest line in the episode, when she says “Cyril, what have I told you about opening your presents early? Something like this was bound to happen…”

Wondrous Madge, with a forest in her head.

Indeed, Madge doesn’t just accept the situation into which she’s been thrust – come the final reel, she’s the one who saves the day, through an ability to improvise, keep her head and simply by virtue of being a woman. You might suggest her openness to the alien world stems from a staunch unwillingness to deal with the death of her husband, and the two are neatly (if rather glibly) tied together when Madge is forced to directly confront the fateful moments over the English Channel – available as conveniently recorded footage – in order to fly the ship home. Of course, in doing so she also nips back in time and saves Reg. It’s a sickly sweet moment, necessary perhaps because it’s Christmas, and nice things happen at Christmas, but it’s the episode’s weak spot. (There’s also the fact that the Lancaster bomber sitting on the lawn outside the mansion presumably still contains, come the end of the story, the co-pilot and injured gunner, both of whom are wondering why their commander’s taking such a bally long time to go and get directions.)

Reunions on the lawn.

Elsewhere, we have Bill Bailey, Arabella Weir and Paul Blazely, whose sole purpose in the episode is to be funny. Their enhancement of the narrative is minimal and could easily have been provided by the Doctor himself or some other underling – the establishment of such big names is there only to ensure a big draw, and it’s understandable that people might feel a bit cheated if they expected the episode to revolve around the colonists. They’re there to simply blunder about and make jokes about wool – Dan Martin’s review complains that “we don’t see nearly enough of them”, apparently missing that this was clearly supposed to be a pitbull cameo, and I suppose that you’ll either enjoy the dialogue and love them, or loathe the dialogue and find their inclusion pointless.

The comedy trio. Am I mad, in a coma or in a scene from Halo?

When I emailed Gareth to talk about the episode, he not only loathed the sequence, but also took issue with the fact that the colonists were from Androzani. “It served no purpose,” he said, “and I don’t understand the point of such references – new viewers won’t get it, and surely most fans would find it jarring and irrelevant.  (Maybe a few might go “yay!” at an old-Who shout-out, but why?) I don’t understand how it appeals to fanboys, even though I saw a ‘SQUEEEEEE’ about it earlier.  I would rather see a story involving Androzani Major (or rather ‘hear’, since I expect Big Finish would do it far, far better than Moffat) than have a random mention of its name. What’s the point?  ‘Oh, let’s mention, um, the Voord for no reason.’”

He is basically right, but Moffat does that with annoying regularity: drops in little references to Old Who for the fanboys to spot. I have a feeling that many people are far more tolerant of it than Gareth, and to be fair to Moffat, Davies was doing it years ago by (amongst others) having the Doctor introduce himself as James McCrimmon in ‘Tooth and Claw’. It is, however, symptomatic of the New Who trend of parody and self-reference that even I find annoying at times – the show has become (a la Wes Craven) deliberately self-aware, and perhaps modern audiences need that, but sometimes it just gets in the way of the narrative.

I mentioned earlier that the structure was somewhat uneven, and nowhere was this more apparent than the closing minutes, which felt rather tacked on, and the only part that would have been unfamiliar to a new audience (I had to explain who everyone was to my dinner guests, none of whom have watched the show since Tennant departed). It was sweet to see the Ponds again (and didn’t you, like me, just read that and think “No, it should be the Williamses” before correcting yourself?) but the ending served to tie up loose end that really ought to have waited for the next series. However, one thing the scene did quite well was to keep the mawkishness to a minimum by having the Doctor acknowledge his ‘happy tears’ with a single wipe of an eye, and a smile of cautious, then unbridled joy. Davies would have had Smith actually speak the line, and it would have killed it stone dead. (The same thing happened earlier in the episode with a reference to C.S. Lewis’ Digory Kirke, when Smith lamented “What do they teach you in schools these days?” – which, in the hands of Davies, would have become a repeated gag that lost all sense of worth come its second, third and fourth appearances.) The Doctor had never looked more like a little boy than when he was entering Amy and Rory’s hallway, and Moffat’s comparative restraint ensured that while it was trite, and sentimental, it somehow didn’t matter.

And perhaps you could apply that to the episode as a whole. Because it strikes me that the people complaining about ‘The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe’ are spectacularly deluded as to what exactly the episode set out to achieve, which (and I’m second guessing the writer here, but isn’t that all we ever do?) was surely to provide fun family entertainment on Christmas Day.  It would be nice, as Gareth pointed out to me, to have a special episode of Doctor Who at Christmas, rather than something that was vaguely Who-ish, but I pointed out in turn that Davies’ idea of a special episode of Doctor Who was ‘The End of Time’, which was unparalleled shit.

Happy tears.

I opened this review talking about the Church, and it strikes me that the parallels with Who don’t end with the concessions made by the Christmas episode. The truth is that the established members of the Who fanbase – i.e. the people who watch the show regularly – spend so much time bickering and arguing about it that anyone watching from outside is going to be utterly perplexed by our behaviour. We split into factions and disagree about what’s canon and what isn’t, and what works to us and what doesn’t (and usually that’s just a matter of what we like personally, rather than what’s actually best for the show) that I honestly can’t fathom out how some of us could call ourselves fans. And I will put my hands up here and concede that this probably applies to me as much as anyone else. At the same time, I can’t help thinking that we’re so precious about what the BBC have done (or not done) to ‘our’ programme that we’re unwilling to acknowledge outside influences, different demographics or the simple fact that not every episode of Doctor Who is going to be tailored to you and you alone. So you didn’t like ‘Love and Monsters’? No, neither did I. But my six-year-old son did. I’m also one of the people who enjoyed ‘The Lodger’, even though a great many considered it the low point of series 5 (an accolade I’d much rather award to ‘Victory of the Daleks’). I love Smith, but Tennant and Eccleston both had their moments.

The bottom line is this. On Christmas night I was gathered round the TV in the lounge with five others. One of them was my wife, who is a regular viewer. The others were house guests who, as I think I mentioned earlier, don’t watch the programme. And every one of them enjoyed this episode. Even my mother-in-law, who is sceptical of its cultural value (and not entirely approving of my decision to show episodes to a six-year-old) appeared to have enjoyed it. So I had a roomful of people who’d spent an hour in unfamiliar territory and come away with their appetites sated. Now, look me in the eyes and tell me that’s a bad thing. We can complain about the episode’s narrative inconsistencies and mawkishness until we’re blue in the face, but I think in doing so we’ll miss out on the potential we have to bring it to other people and say “Yes, this was quite good, but have you seen….?”. This isn’t going to work with everyone – I have read comments from people who said “I watched it for the first time tonight and thought it was rubbish” – but the opportunities are still there. We might want it to be a gourmet platter that caters exclusively for our tastes, but Doctor Who at Christmas ought to be, perhaps, like a seasonal cheese selection: fruity, flavoursome, matured and simultaneously fresh, and preferably with something that everybody can enjoy.

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Quotable Who

One of the Eleventh Doctor’s most endearing traits is a tendency to be very, very funny. This is not the same as having a sense of humour. More often than not he doesn’t actually make jokes: instead his quirkiness is manifest in strange non-sequiturs, off-the-cuff quips and the kind of aloof (but accessible) looniness that typifies many of the Cambridge graduates with whom I associate, which may explain why I like him so much. He’s on another level, and you can have a conversation with him, but you always get the feeling he’s going to be thinking about something else throughout – but somehow you don’t mind. It’s partly Smith, of course, but largely the writing, for which Moffat is chiefly responsible: most of the Doctor’s best lines seem to come from his penmanship, and I’ve often noted that irrespective of the overall quality of the episodes he didn’t write, I often find that I like the Doctor less. (Plus many of the best lines from the series, such as River’s Stevie Wonder gag, don’t even involve Smith.

I’ll also admit that the catchphrases irritate me intensely. At first it seemed the Eleventh had eschewed them, but the use of “Come along Pond”, “Geronimo” and (most grating of all) “Bow ties / Fezs / Stetsons are cool” are something I’ve learned to tolerate rather than ever enjoy. It does, at least, beat the Tenth Doctor telling us that he’s sorry, so sorry, or the stupid arm-folding grins of Eccleston’s “Fantastic!” incarnation. The other thing the Eleventh does that I don’t mind is to repeat what he’s just said in the form of a question – “I think you noticed that, did you notice that?” – as if to reaffirm what he’s just said or check that everyone else is keeping up. By and large, though, catchphrases suck – lazy, comfortable writing – and while it may be nothing more than a personal preference, it would be lovely if we didn’t have to have them.

Anyway, enough of my whinging: some of the highlights from Matt Smith’s two-year reign are presented below. I plundered Wikiquote and IMDB to bring these together, but eliminated anything I didn’t think was actually funny, irrespective of how good it was. As such, his line about being a mad man with a box – while one of the high points of that first series, as far as dialogue is concerned – is not here. There’s also a lovely moment in ‘The Rebel Flesh’ where the Doctor walks past the TARDIS, stuck at knee-height in the ground, and complains “Oh, what are you doing down there?”. Unfortunately such moments lose something in the telling, and as such are omitted. The rest of it, though, is rather amusing. At least I hope it’s amusing. Do you think it’s amusing?


The Eleventh Hour (5.1)

 The Doctor: I love yoghurt, yoghurt’s my favourite, give me yogurt.

[Amelia runs, gets yogurt and hands it to him..

The Doctor: [Opens it, gulps it down then spits it out] I hate yogurt! Just…stuff with bits in.

Amelia: You said that it was your favorite!

The Doctor: New mouth, new rules. It’s like eating after cleaning your teeth. Everything tastes WROOOONG. Ahhh! [body jerks in different directions]

Amelia: What is that? What’s wrong with you?

The Doctor: Wrong with me? It’s not my fault. Why can’t you give me any decent food? You’re Scottish, fry something.

The Doctor: What sort of job is a kissogram?

Amy: I go to parties, and I… kiss people. With outfits. It’s a laugh!

The Doctor: You were a little girl five minutes ago!

Amy: You’re worse than my aunt!

The Doctor: I’m the Doctor, I’m worse than everybody’s aunt! [Turns to Mrs Angelo] And that is *not* how I’m introducing myself!


The Beast Below (5.2)

The Doctor: There’s nothing broken, there’s no sign of concussion. And yes, you are covered in sick.



The Time of Angels (5.4)

The Doctor: The writing… the graffiti: Old High Gallifreyan. [dramatically] The lost language of the Time Lords. There were days, there were many days, where these words could burn stars, raise up empires, and topple gods.

Amy: What does this one say?

The Doctor: [hesitates, then, exasperatedly] “Hello sweetie”.

River Song: OK. I’ve mapped the probability vectors, done a foldback on the temporal isometry, chartered the ship to its destination and… parked us right alongside!

The Doctor: Parked us? We haven’t landed!

River Song: Of course we’ve landed – I just landed her!

The Doctor: But… it didn’t make the noise.

River Song: What noise?

The Doctor: You know, the…

[imitates Tardis noise]

River Song: It’s not supposed to make that noise. You leave the brakes on!

The Doctor: Yeah, well, it’s a brilliant noise. I love that noise.



Flesh and Stone (5.5)

Father Octavian: [asking about the Doctor] Dr. Song, I’ve lost good Clerics today. Do you trust this man?

River Song: I absolutely trust him.

Father Octavian: He’s not some kind of madman?

River Song: [beat] I absolutely trust him.


The Vampires of Venice (5.6)

[Rory is at his stag party; music is playing; there is a paper cake in the middle of the pub. The men cheer for the “beautiful woman” to come out of the cake, however to their surprise the Doctor pops out instead. Rory shakes his head as he realises who it is.]

The Doctor: Rory! [feedback whines; music stops] That’s a relief! I thought I had burst out of the wrong cake. Again. That reminds me, there’s a girl standing outside in a bikini. Can someone let her in, give her a jumper? Lucy. Lovely girl. [whispers] Diabetic. [everyone continues staring at him] Now then, Rory, we need to talk about your fiancée. [Rory smiles] She tried to kiss me. [Crowd draws breath; Rory is visibly shocked] Tell you what though, you’re a lucky man; she’s a great kisser! [Glass smashes; Doctor realises what he just said, and looks visibly embarassed/ashamed] …Funny how you can say something in your head and it sounds fine.

The Doctor: She was frightened, I was frightened… But we survived, and the relief of it and… so, she kissed me.

Rory: And you kissed her back?

The Doctor: No. I kissed her mouth.


Amy’s Choice (5.7)

Amy: Shall I run and get the manual?

The Doctor: I threw it in a supernova.

Amy: You threw the manual in a supernova? Why?

The Doctor: Because I disagreed with it! Now stop talking to me when I’m cross!


The Lodger (5.11)

The Doctor: I’m the Doctor. Well, they call me the Doctor; I don’t know why. I call me the Doctor, too. I still don’t know why.

The Doctor: Have some rent. That’s probably quite a lot, isn’t it? Looks like a lot. Is it a lot? I can never tell. Don’t spend it all on sweets. Unless you like sweets. I like sweets.

Craig: Where did you learn to cook?

The Doctor: Paris in the 18th century. No, hang on, that’s not recent is it? 17th? No no, 20th. Sorry, I’m not used to doing it in the right order.

Craig: Has anyone ever told you that you’re a bit weird?

The Doctor: They never really stop.

Craig: Listen, Mike and I had an arrangement where if you ever need me out of your hair, just give me a shout. [winks] Okay?.

The Doctor: [winks back] Why would I want that?

Craig: Well, in case you want to bring someone round, a girlfriend or a…[looks at the Doctor up and down] boyfriend…

The Doctor: Oh, I will. I’ll shout… if that happens. Something like…I WAS NOT EXPECTING THIS!

Sean: You are so on the team! Next week we’ve got the Crown & Anchor. We’re going to annihilate them!

The Doctor: [suddenly in Sean’s face] Annihilate? No! No violence, do you understand me? Not while I’m around, not today, not ever. I’m the Doctor. The Oncoming Storm. And you basically meant beat them in a football match, didn’t you?

Sean: Yeah.

The Doctor: Lovely. What sort of time?


The Pandorica Opens (5.12)

The Doctor: There was a goblin, or a trickster, or a warrior… A nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies. The most feared being in all the cosmos. And nothing could stop it, or hold it, or reason with it. One day it would just drop out of the sky and tear down your world.

Amy: How did it end up in there?

The Doctor: You know fairy tales. A good wizard tricked it.

River: [to Amy] I hate good wizards in fairy tales; they always turn out to be him.

The Doctor: How can you be here?

Rory: Ah, I don’t know. It’s kind of fuzzy.

The Doctor: Fuzzy?

Rory: Well, I died, and turned into a Roman. It’s very distracting.


The Big Bang (5.13)

Amy: You absolutely, definitely may kiss the bride–

The Doctor: Amelia, from now on, I shall be leaving the… kissing duties to the brand new… Mr. Pond!

Rory: No! I’m not Mr. Pond. That’s not how it works.

The Doctor: Yeah it is.

Rory: [looks at Amy nervously] …Yeah, it is.


A Christmas Carol

The Doctor: Don’t worry… fat fellow will be doing the rounds later. I’m just scoping out the general chimneyness. Yes. Nice sides, good traction.

[Burns his hand on the mantle]

The Doctor: Bit tick.

Eric: Fat fellow?

The Doctor: Father Christmas, Santa Claus. Or, as I’ve always known him, Jeff.


The Doctor: Ooh, now what’s this, then? I love this! A big flashy lighty thing. That’s what brought me here! Big flashy lighty things have got me written all over them. Well, not actually, but give me time. And a crayon.

Young Kazran: Are you really a babysitter?

The Doctor: I think you’ll find that I’m universally recognized as a mature and responsible adult. [shows him the psychic paper]

Young Kazran: …It’s just a lot of wavy lines.

The Doctor: [looks at the paper] …Yeah, it shorted out. Finally, a lie too big.



The Impossible Astronaut (6.1)

The Doctor: I’m your new undercover agent on loan from Scotland Yard. Codename: The Doctor. These are my top operatives, [indicates Amy, Rory, and River in turn] The Legs, The Nose, and Mrs. Robinson.

River Song: I hate you.

The Doctor: No, you don’t.


Day of the Moon (6.2)

Canton Delaware: What about Dr. Song? She dove off a rooftop.

The Doctor: Yeah, she does that.


The Doctor’s Wife (6.4)

Amy: She’s the TARDIS?

The Doctor: And she’s a woman! She’s a woman and she’s the TARDIS.

Amy: Did you wish really hard?



The Rebel Flesh (6.5)

The Doctor: I’ve got to get to that cockerel before all hell breaks loose. [pauses] I never thought I’d have to say that again.


A Good Man Goes To War (6.7)

Commander Strax: I have gene-spliced myself for all nursing duties. I can produce magnificent quantities of lactic fluid.

River Song: It’s my birthday. The Doctor took me ice skating on the River Thames in 1814. The last of the great frost fairs. He got Stevie Wonder to sing for me under London Bridge.

Rory: Stevie Wonder sang in 1814?

River Song: Yes, he did! But you must never tell him.

The Doctor: [to Melody Pond] It’s okay, she’s still all yours. And really you should call her “Mummy”, not “Big Milk Thing”.

Amy Pond: Ok, what are you doing?

The Doctor: I speak Baby.

Amy Pond: No, you don’t.

The Doctor: I speak everything. Don’t I, Melody Pond?

[Melody makes gurgling noises]

The Doctor: [straightens his bow tie, self-assuredly] No it’s not. It’s cool.


Night Terrors (6.9)

Alex: He’s scared to death of everything.

The Doctor: Pantophobia.

Alex: What?

The Doctor: Pantophobia. Not fear of pants, though, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s the fear of everything. Including pants, I suppose, in that case.


The God Complex (6.11)

 Rory: Every time the Doctor gets pally with someone, I have this overwhelming urge to notify their next-of-kin. [Rory flinches]

Amy: What?

Rory: Sorry. Last time I said something like that, you hit me with your shoe. And you literally had to sit down and unlace it first.


The Doctor: You haven’t seen the last of me. “Bad Penny” is my middle name.- Seriously, the looks I get when I fill in a form…


Closing Time (6.12)

 The Doctor: Oh, you’ve redecorated! I don’t like it.

Craig: It’s a different house. We moved.

The Doctor: Yes, that’s it.


The Doctor: [playing with a remote controlled toy helicopter] It goes up, tiddly up! It goes down, tiddly down! For only £49.99, which I think personally is a bit steep. But then again, it’s your parents’ cash, and they’ll only waste it on boring stuff like lamps and vegetables. YAWN!


 Craig: [referring to his baby son] He’s called Alfie. And what are you doing here anyway?

The Doctor: Yes, he likes that … Alfie. Though personally, he likes to be called Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All.

Craig: I’m sorry, what?

The Doctor: That’s what he calls himself.

Craig: And how’d you know that?

The Doctor: I speak Baby.

Craig: Of course you do.

The Doctor: [to Craig’s baby] No! He’s your dad! You can’t just call him “Not Mum”.

Craig: “Not Mum”?

The Doctor: That’s you! “Also Not Mum”, that’s me! And everybody else is [gets near to hear baby] “Peasants”! That’s a bit unfortunate…

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“Incidentally, a very Happy Christmas to all of you at home”

I will only forget to do this on the 25th (I know much of my life revolves around a screen but I really don’t intend to be sitting in front of it for too long this Christmas, honestly) so these – which came courtesy of Doctor Who Adventures – can go up now. Happy Holidays!


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From the Facebook archives, #4

Sunday, June 19th 2011

Joshua, over lunch yesterday: “You know, I feel a bit sorry for these prawns we’re eating.”

Me [knowing this is probably a lie but with no wish to introduce veganism into the house just yet]: “Well, I don’t think they mind being eaten. They don’t feel anything.”

Josh: “You mean they have no feelings?”

Me: “I don’t think so.”

Josh: “Like a Dalek?”

Me: “….Yes.”

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Valeyard revisited

Today, I have been mostly wearing this:

(Cheaper, and acrylic). And this:

(Cheaper, and dark blue). And these:

(About right.) I thus resemble a portly combination of the fourth and fifth Doctors, if he got stuck mid-regeneration and took on the personalities and fashion sensibilities of each.

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“He never got out of the cockadoody car!”

Joshua and I differ in our love of Doctor Who in one respect: cliffhangers. I love them, and he can’t stand them.

Age is part of it. The problem with each successive generation is that they expect things to be done faster. There is a certain amount of raw nostalgia in my recollection of the time – only a decade ago – when it would take me fifteen minutes to burn a CD. I can remember loading software from floppy disks. I can remember tapes. I can remember sitting in front of my Spectrum for ten minutes waiting for Chase HQ to finish loading, and cursing with all the swearwords an eleven-year-old could conjure when it crashed thirty seconds from the final block. I can remember having to rewind VHS videos that I’d left cued at the end credits of Superman IV. I can remember mail order services that took weeks, rather than days.

(A friend of mine recently pointed out the semantic irony in that the universal symbol for saving is – of course – a floppy disk. When was the last time any of you actually used a floppy disk? These symbols arose because they fitted the times in which they were created, and this icon has now become so synonymous with its function that most of us, I expect, could never imagine using anything else. But paradoxically we’re raising a generation of children who need explanations of once self-explanatory visual cues like disk drives and gramophones and eight-tracks, explanations that I suspect we’re failing to provide, and – like the monkeys in the cage – many children have no idea why we use certain symbols, except for the normal explanation of “That’s just the way it’s done round here”.)

These days, I get grumpy when my download speed drops below 100K a second. I fire up a dual layer dub and look at the estimated time left and despair. I become frustrated when I place an Ebay order at eight in the morning and it doesn’t ship the same day, even though the terms and conditions said it would go within three. I drum impatient fingers when emails I’m telling people I’m sending while I speak to them over the phone fail to materialise instantly. I glance anxiously at the dashboard clock at every red light my Zafira encounters, and stare at my watch at every raised signal. I know that if you’re reading this you will be nodding in recognition at having done at least some of the above. We live in a society that enables us to do more than ever, if we want it, and somehow it’s never fast enough. What hope for us, and what hope for our children?

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Joshua wants instant resolution. When you’re a child the world moves slowly. I have an iPod app that counts off the sleeps until Christmas. Joshua starts asking me for the numbers in June, right after his birthday. When December 25th has been and gone, I am asked for the time that has to elapse until his birthday. We are trying to teach him the value of patience by making him wait for certain things. It is not working. And actually that isn’t true. I should say, rather, that it works inconsistently, depending on mood.

I don’t tell him that the cliffhangers are coming, because when I do he spends the entire episode whinging “But Daddy, why does this one have to be a cliffhanger?”. And I’ve run out of patience because I always give him the same answer: “Because it just is. The writers found it necessary. And they thought it would make it more exciting.”

“Oh, but I want to find out what happens next.”
“Well, then, you’ll have to wait.”
“Can you tell me?”
“Just give me one clue.”
“Certainly not. It’ll spoil it.”
“Come on, just one.”

And so on, all the way down to the bathroom and beyond.

Here’s the thing.  I grew up with Old Who. That’s important, because it explains my current position, which is not altogether impartial. There are several hallmarks of Old Who that didn’t fully survive the transition: wobbly sets, frantic over-acting and the multi-episode cliffhangers. These days we have CGI, and ‘worthy’ performances that are usually relatively low-key, even if they’re less fun to watch (you may imagine that I found Phil Davis, in ‘The Fires of Pompeii’, an absolute breath of fresh air). As for the cliffhangers, that’s a problem with the episode structure in general: forty-two minutes, now, being the operative time to introduce everyone, tell your story and wrap it up.

Most weeks it works, but there’s something missing. The pace is up, up, up: tight cuts, shouted explanations while Tennant or Smith is running down a corridor, and fairly bog-standard character development. It was notable that for Children of Earth, the third series of Torchwood, Russell T. Davies’ writing improved immeasurably: he elected to tell a single story over the course of five hours, a story that (crucially) could probably have been told in two or three with a bit of trimming. Free of the shackles of the standard runtime there was room for more reflection, more space, and pauses – the scene in which John Frobisher first engages with the 456, through a glass darkly, is the unquestionable series highlight, if only because it’s so – oh, just have a look, you’ll see what I mean:

You see? It’s jarringly slow (jarringly in the best of ways, because there are no lingering close-ups of Barrowman with tortured eyes and an obvious lump in his throat, under soft piano and strings). I wish I could have shown you the whole sequence, which consists of protracted introductions between Frobisher and the 456, with the sort of pacing that a bog-standard hour-long episode couldn’t accommodate.

When it came to Who, though, something had to change come the revival: gone were the cliffhangers and multi-episode storylines, and instead you simply got in and got out. Because, according to the powers that be, audiences were fickle and couldn’t commit to the same thing week after week. (Anyone at the BBC who truly believes that has obviously never watched 24, The Wire, or Murder One.) As a token gesture we are given the series arc: a series of linked references to the finale, where cards are held close to Davies’ manly chest, and lots of rambling about the Bad Wolf or Harold Saxon.

Then Davies jumped ship, and in strides Moffatt, who writes an entire season the way he used to construct episodes: the ontological paradoxes of ‘Blink’ are sustained for an entire season, with mixed results, and you really do have to watch every episode to figure out what the hell’s going on. In a way that’s an improvement, but it’s also needlessly convoluted. Everything is potentially significant, which means that nothing occurs at face value – there are all sorts of hidden meanings and codes and layers, and sometimes I just want to watch something entertaining without constantly rewinding to pick up on the significance of this or that. I’m difficult to please, I appreciate that. It’s more substantial than Davies’ soap opera, and yet unnecessarily so. There has to be a middle ground.

But there was a middle ground. It was called Old Who, and it worked quite well, thank you very much. In the series as it was once structured you’d have separate stories of between three and six episodes, with an obligatory cliffhanger every twenty-five minutes or so. Said cliffhangers were, to be honest, usually quite silly. Let’s be honest. Either the Doctor or a companion would be forced into some sort of life-or-death situation, cornered perhaps by a grisly monster, or about to fall a great distance (as Sarah Jane memorably did in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, only for us to discover, the following week, that she’d only dropped about ten feet). The most effective cliffhangers usually involved the Time Lord himself, preferably in the presence of a female companion who could bellow “DOCTOOOOR!” at full blast just before the end credits rolled.

Then they’d have a week’s grace period, and the resolution of said cliffhanger would typically be fairly naff. ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ is a prime example: the sheer joy / abject horror of seeing a Dalek levitate, as its eye stalk zooms in on a terrified Doctor, trapped at the top of a staircase, makes it all the more tedious when an unconscious Ace manages to wake up and get the door open just in the nick of time. That’s the best they could have done? Really? A few years previously, ‘Mark of the Rani’ saw Colin Baker zooming down the Blists Hill incline towards certain death in a mine cart only to be rescued, rather incredibly, by George Stephenson (whose presence in the story is foreshadowed, but still, yawn).

But all that’s forgivable, really, because the whole point behind getting the Doctor into a sticky situation would be so that you’d worry about him, and worrying about the Doctor was what keeps the show going. It was something to talk about in the playground or over the water cooler, in the days when people actually did that instead of just discussing everything on Facebook. It’s not so much that you were worrying about whether he would escape, because you knew he would, but rather that you were trying to figure out exactly how he (or, typically, someone else) would manage it. The protagonists of shows like Doctor Who are granted a sort of unofficial immortality (in the case of Doctor Who, said immortality is even given its own name, context and rulebook) and there’s an unwritten law that states that their death must be given its own gravitas and significance, and cannot be shoehorned into a backed-against-the-wall-while-the-monster-approaches situation. Consequently, central characters would seldom die in cliffhangers, and the Doctor himself never really did (regeneration usually occurred at the end of an episode, but typically as the climax of a story, rather than as an ooh-what-will-happen-next type of thing).

Perhaps that’s why I felt so let down by the end of season four, because it really felt like they were going to do something different for once, and actually regenerate the Doctor with no warning. And it’s not just the fact that it’s a crappy resolution, it’s the fact that it’s dealt with so rapidly (and yes, I know that it comes back to haunt us later with the Human Doctor, but THAT’S NOT THE POINT) and the fact that Tennant is so smug in the way that the Tenth Doctor always was when he was at his most irritating (which is right about now). And oh look, as if we needed any more shots of fawning Rose, here’s her looking upset. With teeth you could use to open beer bottles.

In contrast, New Who has thrown up a couple of spectacular two-parters, with cliffhangers that work by varying degrees of success – but this is my favourite:

I mean, it’s bloody brilliant. Aren’t you getting goose bumps just seeing it again? The story as a whole is second-rate, but having the Doctor stand up to the Daleks (and comment pithily on his own resourcefulness with a single line of dialogue) is an extraordinary moment and almost worth waiting a whole series to see. It was the first time I truly believed in Eccleston as the Doctor, and he bowed out in the next episode, which is a shame.

Anyway, here’s a quick summary. The traditional cliffhangers were usually fairly inconsequential. The resolutions were predictable or silly, in equal measure. All the same, it was a part of the show, as central and integral to its structure as the cliffhanger in a two-part Batman story. Again, those would see the dynamic duo tossed into a ludicrous situation that usually relied on Batman’s possession of an obscure gadget in his utility belt that would do the job quite nicely, thank you, and there was never any real doubt of their escape and subsequent victory at the end of the story, but altering the structure would have felt somehow cheap.

I therefore miss the multi-part Who stories, and could frankly live without Moffat’s season-length meandering, with ‘clues’ that only a mindreader could spot. I’d just like to have him – the Doctor, I mean, not Moffat, although if he throws up another episode like ‘The Wedding of River Song’ I may reconsider – strapped to a table as a mad scientist tries to cut him open, or about to be fed into a compost machine, or dangling precariously from a wire by his umbrella (no, on second thoughts, let’s never go there again). It doesn’t matter how silly it is, because silliness is part of what made Classic Who so much fun. These days it’s far slicker, far more evenly structured, and almost doomed to implode from gorging on its own worthiness, but the change in format has, I think, made it lose a part of itself. Still, Josh is happy, so I suppose that has to count for something.

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If it’s not broken, for heaven’s sake don’t fix it

“Daddy, who’s that on the end there, next to Yoda?”
“That’s Anakin Skywalker.”
“Why does he look like that?”
“Well, that’s when he was a young man.”
“But why is he a young man?”
“Because that’s sort of when he died. He became Darth Vader when he turned to the dark side.”
“But why does he look like that?”
“…I don’t know, son. I really don’t.”

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“Don’t look away, and whatever you do, don’t blink”

Made this with the help of Joshua, courtesy of Doctor Who Adventures. Emily and I are currently in discussions as to whether or not it is a suitable adornment for the top of the Christmas tree. I think it is. Emily is not so keen.

I have a feeling she will win.

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From the Facebook archives, #3

Thursday, June 9th 2011

Watching ‘The Long Game’ and trying to explain the concept of the media stunting the human race’s progress to an almost-six-year-old:

“If I told you that you couldn’t ride your bike outside because bad men would come and take you away, it wouldn’t be true, would it?”
“But you’d never learn to ride your bike.”

It worked. Now how do I explain predestination and the grandfather paradox…?

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Pond Life

The best way to prevent spoiler leakage? Pre-empt it by doing it yourself. You dictate your own terms, control the information that you want given out and gain tactical advantage. It’s like the conclusion of 8-Mile, which sees Jimmy Rabbit obliterate his opponent by listing his own failings before said opponent gets the chance. When the time comes to swap the microphone, the hard-as-nails, puffer-jacket-wearing Clarence (who goes to public school and whose parents are still together) is absolutely lost for words.

I don’t know if Steven Moffat’s an Eminem fan, but I wonder if something like this was going through his mind when he announced the imminent departure of the Ponds. The timing – a week in advance of the Christmas special – cannot be ignored. Nor indeed can Moffat’s rant about spoilers earlier this year, a moment in which he completely lost his rag, and a fair bit of my respect for him. The problem, of course, is that you can’t court the press and then expect them to play ball; nor can you tease the fans with shoot access and stills and then expect them to keep quiet. These are the days of instant file transfer, of photos being passed round the world faster than Polaroid development speeds, of tweeting and blogging and –

Sorry, where was I? The point is it’s easier to share information than ever, and as much as Moffat may rail against the people who choose to do such, to create and promote a culture when such controlled leaking is standard practice in your own institution hardly gives you the moral high ground. And what’s more, as various people have pointed out, if you cultivate a show whose success depends crucially on the retention of certain information – in other words, if spoilers are your be-all and end-all – then you’re in serious danger of writing yourself into a corner.

But that’s neither here nor there. I’ve touched upon it before and others have done so with more eloquence and attention to detail than I have the time or energy to commit to screen. For all our ranting about spoilers, the news of Amy’s departure is neither particularly surprising, nor (as such) is it particularly newsworthy: it was going to happen sooner or later, because no one wants to travel with the Doctor forever, unless they happen to be Rose Tyler, who couldn’t have been more irritating in her final episodes if she’d donned an orange fright wig, raised her voice a couple of octaves, lost the Danny Baker sheen and impersonated Mel. (Yes, I know she was better in Big Finish. But I still remember her for ‘Time and the Rani’, and that’s simply no fun.) Characters who never want to leave are in serious danger of wearing out their welcome, and it’s a good thing, in a way, that Amy lacked the see-the-stars wide-eyed schoolgirl wonder that her previous companions seemed to possess in abundance. When it came to dealing with time, and the consequences of time (perhaps that should be the Doctor’s campaign slogan: “Tough on time, tough on the causes of time”) I always got the feeling she learned to cope remarkably quickly.

Perhaps that was part of the problem some people had with her. Amy seemed to divide the viewers like no other companion before or since. Some people loved her. I did. Amy’s a character who’s been messed up by the Doctor and it shows. She’s crazy and that’s understandable, and the complex she gained after the fish custard incident has given her a wonderful zaniness that is consistently fun to watch (Amy is arguably at her least interesting, I’d suggest, when she’s being normal). Many have expressed a view to the contrary, but I don’t think her innate goofiness lessens our ability to relate to her, unless it means that those who can are in some way quietly crazy (“Oh yes, sir. Every time sir!”). Gillan has a wondrous gaze about her, and Amy speaks to the Doctor in a manner that no other companion has chosen to adopt since the revival, and whatever she’s doing, she always lights up the screen.

But there’s a flipside to this, and while many people found her a breath of fresh air, others found her irritating, kooky, with skirts of inappropriate length for a family show (hello? Leela? Peri?) and her treatment of Rory in rather poor taste. They may have a point about that – certainly the young Mr Williams (whom, I have to say, Arthur Darvill plays brilliantly) has the patience of a saint to have put up with Amy’s treatment of him over the past few years; it’s clear that he and Amy love each other, but he seems to alternate with the Doctor when it comes to playing gooseberry, and that’s no way for a marriage to survive. It was, finally, the Doctor who realised this come the end of ‘The God Complex’, and Rory and Amy’s subsequent exit was refreshing in its brevity and (relative) understatement; I remember wishing at the time that that could be it for them, but of course it was not to be.

Because, you see, companions don’t just leave in New Who. They have the most ridiculous, protracted departures imaginable. It’s strung out over three or four episodes (in the case of Donna, almost an entire series) and when it happens, you’re so anxious for it to happen that you can’t wait. This in itself is nothing new. I can recall, some fourteen years ago now, sitting in a darkened cinema on the outskirts of Reading – where I was living at the time – watching Leonardo Dicaprio clinging to an iceberg and muttering something incoherent and rambly through chattering teeth. James Horner’s music was building to a swirl, Kate Winslet was all doe-eyed and the girl behind me was sniffling through an entire box of Kleenex, and my only thought at the time, I can well remember, was “Will you please hurry up and fucking DIE???”. This was not, I’m sure, what James Cameron had in his mind when he filmed it, and concordantly this makes the scene, and indeed the film at large, a spectacular failure – although it is a visual spectacle, even now, with the sinking of the boat rendered effectively and with appropriate emotional pathos for many of the passengers. Take out the wraparound love story, and clean up the historical detail, and you’ve got yourself something with serious potential.

What irritates me most about New Who, though, is the way that death is trivialised. This has become particularly prominent under the obsession with ontological paradoxes that has epitomised Moffat’s two-season reign. One of the most beautiful moments in ‘Blink’ was the death of Billy Shipton, the police officer who dies in the hospital in the company of Sally Sparrow, because such a death has since become so rare. It’s terminal in a literary as well as literal sense: the character is never mentioned again, despite the fact that ‘Blink’ is a story that essentially eats itself. Conversely, the death of Miss Evangelista in ‘Silence in the Library’, and the subsequent ghosting scene that follows – one of the most glorious moments in the post-2005 canon – is seriously undermined when she re-appears in ‘Forest of the Dead’ dressed as a Photoshopped Woman in Black – before being magically restored, in the episode’s closing scenes, presumably no longer thick, and in the company of the ever-irritating River Song.

I remember my first entry to this blog was a brief discussion on the Classic Who episode I recall with most clarity – that of Adric’s death – and as I may have said then, I loved the fact that it’s final, at least in the official continuity. So when Moffat says that the exit of Amy and Rory will be “heartbreaking”, I am resolutely sceptical about what he actually means, but personally I would dearly love to see the death of a companion. And ideally I would like it to be Amy, and for Rory to blame the Doctor. Because that would be the right way to get rid of her. Take the inappropriate relationship to its logical conclusion: have her choose him, in that she’d die to defend him. Elton Pope, way back in ‘Love and Monsters’, talked of what happens when you touch the Doctor, and while the self-congratulatory Doctor Who Confidential has always spoken of taking the show “to dark places” (oh, thank the love of God it’s been canned), what I really want is for them to do something truly dark, and just have someone die. And when I say “die”, I don’t mean

  • Die in the sense of getting trapped in a parallel universe, separated from the man you love, with your records expunged so you’re legally dead
  • Die in the sense that you’ve had your memory wiped
  • Die, with subsequent erasure from existence, only to find yourself resurrected as plastic
  • Die, only to be resuscitated
  • Die, only to be resurrected inside a computer mainframe
  • Die, only to take astral form and drift out among the stars
  • Die, only to find out it’s a hallucination by your other half
  • Die, only it turns out to be an act of fakery to get you into Area 51
  • Die, only to later reveal that you were hiding inside a robotic head
  • …I don’t think we need any more

This would be grown-up. The audience can handle it. Transformers and the X-Men are constantly killing people (and later bringing them back, but that’s another bugbear of mine for another day). But at least they die and stay dead. You don’t see them again a few episodes later as a disembodied head, in a scene of pointless comic relief that provided no relief nor any sort of comedy.

Gareth has alerted me to a suggestion on the Big Finish forum that goes like this:

What could happen that would give the pair a “heartbreaking” end to their story?

DOCTOR: Ah, here we are on the planet Fixedpointintime. Oh no, Rory, look out for that falling piano!

AMY: Sigh. How long till he comes back to life this time?

DOCTOR: Ah. Well. You know what I said the planet was called….

It could work. It really could.

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