Monthly Archives: September 2014

Stable Influences

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People who aren’t actually fans of Doctor Who are invariably the people who tell you that Colin Baker was rubbish. It’s an assessment that is usually based on his first episode, which is admittedly one of the periods in the history of the show that we generally don’t talk about if we can possibly help it. In defence of those who would criticise the Sixth Doctor, it’s fair to say that his run of TV stories was patchy to say the least, ranging as it did from dreadful (‘The Twin Dilemma’, ‘The Two Doctors’) through to overrated (‘Revelation of the Daleks’) with the odd classic thrown in (‘Vengeance on Varos’, which even now is lamentably most famous for the controversial acid bath scene and the image of Nicola Bryant auditioning for Teen Wolf. Never mind the fact that Moffat seems to be spinning the ‘Did he fall, or was he pushed?’ mystery out for an entire series).

However, within the confines of spoken word, the Sixth Doctor has gained a new lease of life. I don’t care what Ian Levine says (although I do hope he’s feeling better) – Big Finish kept the Doctor Who fires burning long after the show was cancelled, refreshing the parts even the Past Doctor Adventures novels cannot reach, and continues to do great things today, even though they really ought to ease up on the release schedule and prioritise quality over quantity. There are dodgy narratives, a fair amount of blandness and an occasional over-reliance on gimmicks that you can only get away with in an audio drama – and Briggs, like Moffat, needs to stop hogging all the best story ideas and then phoning in the scripts – but I’d take even the interminably dull ‘Creed of the Kromon’ over another viewing of ‘Daleks in Manhattan’. As far as the (ongoing) tenure of the Sixth is concerned, there is much to be loved here. The Doctor has lost much of his arrogance, although the blustering pomp remains. The stories are interesting and varied. And the companions, with one or two exceptions, are great fun, even if it’s frankly criminal that Frobisher is so drastically under-used. Even Melanie Bush is fun these days. If there’s anything that’s going to make you love CB, it’s BF.

If you read this blog regularly you won’t be surprised to learn that it was Gareth who persuaded me that Big Finish was worth my time, and given my River Song-esque approach to experiencing these things out of order, we started with ‘Spare Parts’ and ‘Jubilee’. The former is the definitive origin story, telling of the Cybermen’s rise to prominence with a chilling brutality that deserves its own blog post, so we won’t waste time on it for now. ‘Jubilee’, on the other hand, is the story that gradually evolved into ‘Dalek’, only told better. It features the Sixth Doctor, alongside a companion I’d never heard of, Dr Evelyn Smythe.

Fans of Big Finish will know why I’m writing this today – Maggie Stables, we are sadly informed, has passed away in her sleep after a long illness. She stepped down as Evelyn some time ago, and retired from acting last year, citing ill health. Acting was, according to Big Finish, a second career, her recordings for Doctor Who following her earlier time as a French teacher. Life, it seems, will always imitate art.

And in turn, art imitates life – within the Whoniverse, Maggie played a historian who left the lecture theatre in order to go travelling with the Doctor, just for the fun of it. After an initial companion-centred story, in which the Doctor travels back to Elizabethan England to discover why she is being mysteriously erased from history (more or less what happened with Clara, but in reverse), the two set off on various journeys that see them encounter Daleks, Silurians and vampires – this last providing the backdrop for a game-changing adventure that alters the dynamic between the two characters permanently, or at least for a story or two.

The lovely thing about Evelyn is her constancy. Not for her the complicated tangling of Doctorish dependence and admiration with pangs of eros. Any sort of infatuation with the Time Lord was completely off the books – she’s a middle-aged woman who thinks of him as a young man, even though she knows that he is not. That needn’t be any sort of barrier, but the impression you get is that it was never even a consideration. Evelyn treats the Doctor as if he were a haphazard, eccentric academic with whom she shared an office and research fellowship – and in a way, that’s exactly what he is.

Character embellishments enhanced the stories, while seldom actually becoming the focal points of the narrative. Evelyn has a love of chocolate in all its forms, along with dodgy knees that slowed her down, leading the Doctor to remark “Yes, it’s usually ankles“. Terry Nation jokes aside, the heart condition that became apparent later on – and which Evelyn intentionally concealed from the Doctor under the assumption that he would no longer allow her to travel with him – led her stories into darker waters, even though she never lost her charm. Only a misguided love story, in the dark and moving ‘Arrangements For War’, failed to hit the mark, although this was partly because the scenes with Evelyn and Rossiter took place on a windswept beach accompanied by the sort of dialogue that would make even Mills & Boon readers cringe. It’s unfair to single out ‘Arrangements’ alone for this, of course – the same sort of thing marred the otherwise brilliant ‘Scherzo’, and there must come a point, surely, when we acknowledge that by and large love scenes in Doctor Who simply don’t work very well.

“It’s also a shame,” says Gareth, “that Evelyn’s chronologically last story isn’t her last release. There’s a really good story with ‘Older Evelyn’, which would have been a very good way to finish. But then there are some more later which aren’t so good (because of a certain terrible character). A bit like how episode 14 of Trial of a Time Lord spoils Peri’s departure earlier.”

It is a shame, but part of the joy behind Doctor Who is its tendency to do things in the wrong order. Having an incomplete, tangled chronology may be structurally inadequate but it does seem to fit the Doctor’s own universe. If the future is an undiscovered country, the past is surely not without its own joys and wonders, provided that you do not languish there too long.

Myself, I am off to listen once again to ‘Doctor Who and the Pirates‘. Maggie sings in it – not for very long, and not terribly well, but I’d be willing to accept that this is the fault of Evelyn, and that Maggie herself may well have had a lovely voice. We may never know. It is one of her sillier stories, with as much of its humour coming from the nature of storytelling as it does from the story that is being told, but like the best Big Finish narratives, it juxtaposes comedy and pathos in the most effective way. Maggie herself is on top form throughout, compassionate and cynical by turns, and the sort of voice of experience and wisdom that has been sorely lacking in the televisual TARDIS in recent years, where it’s often felt like we were watching two students backpacking.

Big Finish have lost a person of wit and warmth, by all accounts, but Maggie’s legacy lives on, both in the many recordings she made and in the hope that we may one day have an older companion back in the TARDIS, just as we now have an older Doctor. And as for us…well, we’ll always have ‘Pirates’.

Maggie

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Review: ‘The Caretaker’

Things we noticed in Doctor Who this week.

1. When Moffat wants to do the Aloof Doctor, he has her making unkind remarks about Clara’s appearance. We’ve had age (‘Into the Dalek’), lack of makeup (‘Listen’) excessive makeup (‘Time Heist’), and now she’s had a wash. YES, WE GET IT: THE DOCTOR CAN BE RUDE. And him being rude to Jenna Coleman is funny because – ha! – she’s always suitably gorgeous, even when sweaty and exhausted, and even after a five-mile run you can still see the foundation. So it’s funny, see?

Plus, Clara doesn’t have to worry about being a victim. She gets to slap the Doctor – something that didn’t happen this week, but which always makes me uncomfortable, because it’s viewed as amusing, or at least What Was Deserved. River gets to slap the Doctor because he’s going to piss her off two hundred years in the future. Francine Jones and Jackie Tyler get to slap the Doctor because they think he’s a dangerous sexual predator. But that’s OK, because most of the time He Deserves It, and he’s not even human, so that’s fine. And if you think I’m overreacting, consider how you’d feel if the scene were played in reverse, when the Doctor slapped Clara for making fun of his wrinkles.

 

2. Danny is a former soldier who is now a mathematics teacher. The Doctor gets this wrong on multiple occasions, and both Clara and Danny take it upon themselves to remind him. There’s a whole Electra thing going on this week, which actually doesn’t bother me that much because it’s an excuse to showcase this.

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(Yes, I have written more. Yes, I will post them when they’re done. Yes, she keeps her clothes on.)

The ‘soldier’ debate is tedious beyond belief and is obviously building to something, presumably when Danny’s PTSD takes hold and he flips out later in the series. We’re all about dramatic irony, then, which reaches a head when Mr Pink outs himself as Clara’s boyfriend, but the Doctor has not been this nasty to a member of the military since series four, or perhaps ‘Into the Dalek’.

By the way, according to his Twitter feed, this (which I didn’t do) has apparently not occurred to Gareth Roberts.

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I do wonder if I’m the only one to pick up on what feels almost a veiled racism on behalf of the Doctor’s assumption that Danny teaches P.E., but before all the abuse starts, I’ll accept that perhaps I’m reading too much into things. (Your fault, Steven. You encourage us.)

Author’s note: I have left this remark in for the sake of scholarly integrity, but in the cold light of day, I do now think I’m totally off base about it. It’s one of those things Guardian columnists do. Please don’t hit me.

 

3. Heaven. All ambiguities aside, it’s now revealed that this is more or less the afterlife. It’s something that Gareth (our mutual friend, not Roberts this time) says we haven’t actually dealt with in Who before now. The reception area for heaven looks like an art gallery corridor. Still, it beats the hell out of RTD’s nihilist assumption that “Oh my God, there’s nothing”.

Coincidentally, “Oh my God, there’s nothing” is what neurologists generally say when they examine the brains of those people who ACTUALLY THINK that Missy is going to be Clara, because, you know, ‘Miss C’. (If I turn out to be wrong about this, I will eat my Fedora. Not because it’s unlikely to happen, but because I will need roughage.)

On that note – stupid fanboy quote of the week:

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4. The Doctor has amazing eyebrows. This is presumably mentioned in case we’d forgotten it from last week, or the thirty second conversation we had about them in ‘Deep Breath’. Nothing is left to chance these days, and these recurring references cannot be a coincidence: the eyebrows will, at some point, develop full sentience and dance off the Doctor’s face entirely, or perhaps grow into two more Peter Capaldi heads with split personalities.

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On the other hand, as Gareth also points out, we may actually be about to visit Delphon.

We also can’t blame the unnecessary recurring gag on Roberts, because this episode is co-written; the third such example this series, as it happens. Perhaps it’s a union thing. I hope so; the alternative is that the chief writer’s being even more of a control freak than usual.

 

5. When you need to write a Doctor Who story that’s half Grange Hill, half Hollyoaks, but need to include at least some sort of McGuffin to keep the kids happy, a rubbish robot with no motivation, backstory or general point whatsoever will do nicely. (Grizzly death scene optional. Use of Jimmy Vee mandatory.)

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Incidentally, the number of people who can name the monster-of-the-week without Googling it is precisely the same number of people who voted ‘The Twin Dilemma’ as their favourite story in Doctor Who Magazine’s August poll. (I do confess to feeling a bit sorry for ‘Time-Flight’, which I actually rather enjoy. But not ‘Fear Her’. I’d rather have my fingernails peeled off.)

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6. Dull chase scenes? No problem! Enliven them with jaunty camera angles. Particularly useful if you want your audience to think they’re being pursued by a bandy-legged creature that actually walks completely straight.

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7. Not a P.E. teacher? Pah.

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If Doctor Who were Torchwood, this would be the ‘Meat‘ episode: it’s The One Where The Boyfriend Finds Out. S.J. was telling me earlier that this was the first time she actually cared about Danny, and that makes sense, because Coleman and Anderson are as watchable as ever (as is Capaldi, come to that) and everyone does the very best they can with what they have. Still, what irritates the hell out of me is that seemingly the only way Moffat and Roberts can write this storyline is to have the Doctor play grumpy father. It’s as if Capaldi’s incarnation has automatically morphed into a disapproving patriarch figure purely because of the laughter lines.

This is the sort of simplistic analysis that mars ‘Time Crash’, in which Tennant’s Doctor maintains that his spell as the Fifth Doctor was the first time he got to dash about. Never mind the fact that in ‘Kinda’, Davison’s Doctor is an almost carbon copy of Baker’s Doctor, right down to mannerisms and general flippancy – or the fact that ‘The Caretaker’, at least for its first twenty minutes, could (with a few dialogue tweaks) have been a Matt Smith story. This is (once again) an exercise in writing the characters to fit the point you’re trying to make, rather than writing the dialogue to suit the characters. Hence, the Doctor disapproves of Danny because on some level, Moffat presumably suspects that we do, and the only way to actually deal with this is to turn him into the kind of character you see on Facebook wearing those ghastly ‘RULES OF DATING MY DAUGHTER’ t-shirts. It’s the Vastra / Clara ‘Deep Breath’ conversation all over again.

And I’m sorry, gentlemen: I don’t buy the concept of a stern, disapproving father figure who spends half the episode making disparaging remarks about Mickey Danny. It simply doesn’t feel very Doctor. Historically, he doesn’t care about that sort of thing. Of course the dynamic had to change after the regeneration. Flirting was off the books because Peter didn’t want it, and also because (and here’s the elephant again) an older man / younger woman will-they-won’t-they would have seen an awful lot of executives bum-shuffling in their seats. But you were already in murky waters with the Eleventh. This isn’t Highlander, where the worst you have to worry about is an idyllic rural montage scored to Queen and a colossally low sperm count. The Doctor isn’t even human. And you honestly thought the most effective way to get out of this corner was to bring in a boyfriend so the Doctor could switch from love interest to father? Couldn’t you have just not mentioned it at all, and had them pootle along in some sort of dysfunctional carer / patient relationship? We’d have been fine with that.

The thing is, you have to either include the monster that’s worth our time and investment, or (if you must) include a decently written domestic. In the end, you did neither. There was a lot of bluster and silliness, and some lovely early scenes with Peter, but all that went completely down the pan once the cat was out of the bag and the chickens came home to roost. You wrote gags, rather than dialogue – and ideas, rather than a story. It was all snappy metaphor and unnecessary shoehorning and needlessly repeated jokes, and (some of the Clara / Danny stuff aside) comparatively little substance. I could go on about this until the cows come home, but I think I’d be flogging a dead horse.

Anyway, here’s your report card for the end of term. You’ll note that you’re below the average, although the other week you dipped distinctly below the average, so I suppose we could call this an improvement. Just not a very good one. See me after class. Now back to work.

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God is in the detail (part xv)

OK, here’s a shock to the system: there is not a SINGLE visual clue in ‘Listen’. Not one.

I mean, I don’t know how to break it to you gently. It’s not that I haven’t looked. I’ve watched the episode twice (which was more than enough) and scrubbed through the whole thing looking for STUFF THAT IS SUPPOSED TO BE IMPORTANT. You could quite feasibly say that I’m losing my touch, except that ‘Time Heist’ has a whole bunch of stuff, which we’ll look at another day.

However…

The clue is in the title. ‘Listen’, says the Doctor as he sits cross-legged on top of the TARDIS. ‘Listen’, reads the word on the blackboard. The rule with scripted television drama is ‘show, don’t tell’, but this week, we’re telling.

Steven Moffat loves his poems. He must sit down with a rhyming dictionary and a pint of Theakstons every series and write them all in batches. Of course, Moffat being Moffat, they’re usually of vital importance to the plot, rather than mere ornamentation. ‘Listen’ was a prime example, with a menacing nursery rhyme that asks What’s that in the mirror, or the corner of your eye?”. (Someone really should ask Paul Cornell.) There’s the wretched ‘Tick tock goes the clock’, which broke new ground by establishing itself as a recurring motif that was actually even more tedious than ‘The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon‘. Oh, and then there’s this.

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Lousy writing, but the artwork is good. I wouldn’t mind, but Zagreus did all this years ago, to much more convincing effect.

There are, I’m quite sure, blogs / Kindle publications of Doctor Who inspired poetry. I am not going to mock these, because I spent many of my formative teenage years doing that sort of thing, although I do at least have the decency to now admit that everything I ever wrote was rubbish. Besides, even bad poetry has its novelty value, as any fan of Julia A. Moore will tell you. (Vogons? Pah. I laugh in the face of Vogons.)

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Still, it struck me: what sort of scope is there in ‘Listen’ to find a little message or two from the text? And it’s very simple, because it’s all in the numbers. Basically I took a transcript of the episode and wrote down every twelfth word of dialogue (ignoring stage directions and descriptive language.) I did this for the first twelve minutes. And then I punctuated it, and here’s what we had.

 

We’re there, no? If hide with detect. Clear want. Sorry – time to go straight.
Know…are my days twenty-three? Okay.
The people, seriously. Mention – don’t subject. Wrong. About making well: you mirrors in hide.
Aren’t your it. I free late, my, you.
Not proposition. Single.
If of perhaps have all. You I – same someone. So room you there.
Try. Time. Obvious is you…you under it.
Contact might your of turning on TARDIS should, when we remember,
No, we’re – no. West mid-nineties. Been children’s human. Is was to TARDIS.

We think – what name? No. Going.

 

Oh, it’s ambiguous. It’s about Clara controlling the TARDIS to find the Doctor’s true identity. It’s about waiting, it’s about hiding. Or it’s a load of gibberish. I’ll leave it to the reader. Nonetheless, I should stick in a plug here for Chrissie’s Transcripts Site, which I use for reviews, research and occasionally to check on the specifics of something Gareth has said, and which never gets the credit in here that it deserves. Anyone who’s ever looking for thorough, meticulously accurate Doctor Who scripts online really need look nowhere else. Oh, and she has her own Facebook page.

But the Twelfth Doctor is not actually the Twelfth, is he? He’s the Thirteenth, if we include the War Doctor (and it would be borderline blasphemous to leave out John Hurt, given his performance in Krapp’s Last Tape). So I did the same thing again, but starting at the thirteenth word of dialogue and then counting forward thirteen words each time. And –

 

Alone. Perfect as perfect, you.

Would those? Would do?

Bit – straight, straight. Dessert. Teaching, though.
Couldn’t. Could means was.
I’m full, taken. Mention you can. The is made, making.
Why do? What thought? Bit by it, can’t free.
Phone off.
Probably I yourself, talking single – 

 

I stopped at this point, because it really did seem to be about Danny and Clara, and that’s something I don’t really want to have to think about when I’m about to eat. You finish it.

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“The moment has been prepared for”

Just an observation.

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Review: ‘Time Heist’

Warning: spoilers lie herein. If you don’t want to find out what happens, don’t read any further.

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There’s a telling remark at the end of this week’s episode of Doctor Who. The titular time-travelling titan (try saying that with a memory worm in your ear) is in the TARDIS, laughing and joking with his erstwhile companions. “Cesare Borgia,” he says, “Mucho scary hombre, says to me ‘What do you think of our Leaning Tower of Pisa?’. I say – ” and here he leans to one side, eyes widening like an Adipose caught in headlights – “‘It looks OK to me!'”.

It’s one occasion when I don’t think we could accuse Moffat of fourth wall demolition, but the experience that was ‘Time Heist’ was a little like that. As a hand-crafted exercise in writing, I’ve seen better. It wasn’t particularly new, or innovative, or even very clever. But viewed from a slanted angle, with the subtitles on (because that distortion effect, whilst effective, was nonetheless impregnable) and taken with the sort of salt pinch only an Ice Warrior could manage, it was jaunty fun.

Yes, there is colossal self-borrowing. There is also an unimaginable amount of borrowing from other sources (and we’ll get to that). But in this sort of story it didn’t matter. There was also a liberal sprinkling of timey-wimey bollocks that turned out to be of integral importance to the plot (as well as the prime mover behind a colossally predictable plot twist). That Moffat and Thomson get away with it – just – is testament to the episode’s self-containment. In other words, this was not an important story, just as ‘Blink’ was (at least canonically) not an important story, even though stylistically it changed everything.

 

From the beginning, we’re duped, deluded and tricked, in much the same way that we are in Memento (which I think I’ve seen, although I now can’t remember). There are reasons for this, and while I have yet to examine the Gallifrey Base threads to see what the fans are saying, Moffat’s tracing paper approach remains: you only have to hold the intricate design up to the light to see all the holes. But there are holes in most heist movies as well – impossible hacks, unbelievably stupid security guards and stunts that defy the laws of physics (cars don’t explode when they crash, and it is impossible, under any circumstances whatsoever, to outrun a fireball.)

I’m rambling. It transpires, of course, that the bank robbery wasn’t a robbery at all: it was a time-hopping rescue. The first clue you get is the strait jacket that surrounds the colossal, Minotaur-like Teller, which is obviously there against its will. The love story at the core of this takes its cue from at least one other recent episode, and it really feels like it’s too soon to pull off this sort of trick again, but the creature itself is visually impressive and a Character Options action figure in waiting. The biceps on the thing could heft forklifts, but the Teller is designed to detect guilt. It does this by extracting memories and then hitting you over the head with an invisible iron bar.

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If the design feels a little derivative, it’s already a familiar concept even before the Monster of the Week is unveiled for the first time. The references come thick and fast right from the outset. Clara has barely had time to dress for what is supposedly a date (but which we all know is secretly a Rat Pack tribute party) when the Doctor makes the mistake of answering the phone. Before we know it the pair are sitting in a room with a supporting character from a 2000 AD strip and an X-Men reject, and no one can remember how they got there or why. This is the sort of thing that happens all the time in Eastenders stag parties, so quite why it should be a major plot device here is anyone’s guess.

The bank itself consists of airy, high-ceilinged halls (part-CG , part Cardiff location scouting, ornate lifts and power station interiors for the grungy sub-levels. It’s how you would expect a hi-tech futuristic bank to look, right down to the security doors – the sort of place where just because you can’t see the locks, it doesn’t mean they’re not there. The vault itself – and the McGuffin of the week – is surrounded by a bunch of wide subterranean corridors, which provide convenient hiding places for the Doctor and Clara when they’re being stalked by the Teller. It’s a pity that Douglas Mackinnon’s direction, exemplary in ‘Listen’, is so utterly pedestrian here, with no real sense of tension to offset Psi’s hack, and far too many lingering close-ups of Clara’s head. Regular readers of this blog will know that I love Jenna Coleman and almost everything her character has finally been allowed to become, but even I have my limits.

 

After the floor disintegration, the bonding with Rogue Saibra and the moment when you realise that the characters have genuinely been sent back in time to the moment a ferocious and unanticipated storm strikes an important place, the puzzle suddenly starts to make sense. It’s the sort of ontological paradox Moffat does to death, but it’s far more effective in single episodes than it is over an entire series, as both ‘Blink’ and the entirety of series six proved, for the best and worst reasons respectively. I have complained before that Doctor Who has basically become a programme that is about time travel, rather than a programme in which time travel is the thing that enables you to get to a time and place where you can tell an interesting story, but I can excuse the wibbly wobbliness of episodes like this when they keep you hooked. Little clues are dropped in throughout the dialogue, so even before the memory gaps are filled in, we know that something is up (and if you think I’m being unfair when I describe the reveal as ‘predictable’, bear in mind that my cognitive abilities are generally quite substandard, so when a plot twist is so lame that even I figure it out before the end, we really are in trouble).

What’s disturbing is that this is the third week in a row where we haven’t seen an obvious reference to Missy’s soul quest, which has left me wondering about the disintegration ampoules. With both supporting cast members dead halfway through, it looks like a long night for Clara, at least until two minutes later when they both show up, miraculously alive and with no real information as to how they got back down so quickly from the escape ship, never mind where / how they got the guard uniforms. Heads were scratched all round in our living room, but the more I think about it the more it really does feel like one of those ‘clues’ we’re supposed to come back to at the end of the series, when it’s revealed that Missy isn’t collecting the souls of the dead, but the not-quite-dead bodies of the about-to-die. It would feel very ‘Wedding of River Song’, somehow – although the idea of atomic disintegrators that actually turn out to be teleportation devices is hardly a new thing.

Bad Wolf Ray

 

As an aside – and conveniently ignoring the fact that ‘Bad Wolf’ also opens with the Doctor and his companions waking up in a strange place with no idea how they got there – when you think about it, a teleportation device is exactly the same thing as an atomic disintegrator; it’s just that it has a mirror device at the other end that works in reverse. It destroys the body, saves the pattern and then re-establishes an exact physical copy at the other end. Star Trek has touched on the ethical ramifications of this – particularly the consideration of the soul – more than once, and it’s surprising that Doctor Who never has. Perhaps we’re about to, but I suspect the truth may be depressingly pedestrian. And will probably involve River Song.

But ignore all of that, because the story in itself works fine, with nods to crime flicks and sci-fi and beyond (Mackinnon says that he has “watched virtually every heist movie there’s ever been”, and boy does it show). Not everything works, of course. If Ocean’s Eleven was (at least in its remake form) a film about robbing a casino chiefly because its owner was an arsehole, ‘Time Heist’ should, at least, have a decent antagonist watching the CCTV screens – and this is sadly the episode’s biggest disappointment. Keeley Hawes, so dazzling to watch in the likes of Ashes To Ashes, is reduced to a power-dressing dominatrix type with Deirdre Barlow spectacles and no real trace of personality. While it turns out there is a reason for this, even the glammed-up, ‘alternate’ Keeley we meet in the final reel is no more engaging, leaving the under-developed Ms Delphox looking rather like a clone (pun intended) of Miss Foster from ‘Partners in Crime’, only rather less interesting.

Time Heist Deirdre

But Hawes is the weak link in an otherwise rigorous chain. ‘Time Heist’ is a story of a gang of misfits who break into a bank and get away with it, and just as Psi and Saibra escape not only intact but renewed, so too does the series feel fresher and funnier after this week. There are problems, and some truly shocking dialogue, but whereas ‘Listen’ failed because it tried to be inappropriately profound, ‘Time Heist’ is smart enough to recognise its own limitations. We needed a light-hearted episode of Doctor Who that wasn’t written by Mark Gatiss, and on that level, at least, Moffat and Thompson have come up with the goods. Just remember to keep your head slanted.

Time Heist (2)

 

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Conversations with Thomas (part two)

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Me: Guess what.

Thomas: What?

Me: The other day, Edward picked up this Silence figure and started caressing its head. It was very sweet.

Thomas: Cool.

Me: I’ll put it back down here now, so we don’t lose it. Ooh, guess what? Edward picked up this figure the other day and started stroking its head. We laughed a lot. I’d better put it back down again, so we don’t lose it.

Thomas: You already told me that?

Me: Told you what?

Thomas: About the figure.

Me: What figure? Oh, look, where’d that come from? I’ll tell you something interesting – the other day Edward picked this up and started stroking it. Mummy and I laughed a lot.

Thomas [giggling]: Daddy, you’ve told me that three times now.

Me: Sorry, what have I told you?

Thomas: About the Silence.

Me: The what? Oh, look, what’s this doing here. Now I’ll tell you something about this –

Thomas: Daddy, you already told me that.

Me: What, about Edward stroking it? Did I tell you that already?

Thomas: Yes, you did.

Me: Oh, right.

Thomas: I don’t get it, by the way.

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Conversations with Thomas (part one)

It’s a Tuesday evening, and I have just put ‘City of Death’ into the DVD player.

 

Me: Apparently, this is supposed to be one of the best stories ever.

Thomas: Have you not seen it before?

Me: Not this one, no.

Thomas: Not even in the future?

Me: …I really don’t know how to answer that.

Thomas: Guess what. I ate some food and it tasted like triangles.

Me:

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Independent State of Eyebrows

It took a while for Gatiss and Moffat to wade in on the Scottish Independence debate, but it had to happen eventually.

 

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Riddles and sheds

So what have I been doing when I’m not either writing reviews, refining satirical conspiracy-laden theories about the arc or convincing the Metro readership that Classic Doctor Who was better?

Well, reading the news. Doing any sort of journalism, however low-key, requires a finger on the pulse. But even if I’d gone dark, it was hard to miss the Apple iPhone 6 Songs of Innocence debacle.

I also spend a lot of time answering email, and summarising plot threads to Gareth, who has yet to watch any of the new series on the grounds that “You aren’t exactly selling it to me, you know”. It’s true that the quality level has been variable: patches of good and patches of appalling, with one entire episode (‘Into the Dalek’) that lies squarely in between. Capaldi is great, but the scripts are not. I more or less accept this as par for the course these days; I can’t help feeling we’re all marking time until Moffat steps down and Gatiss takes over as chief writer – a prospect which, thanks to his recent output, actually no longer appalls me as much as it once did.

When New Who is proving to be a less-than-fulfilling experience, I go back to the old stuff, which isn’t always a good thing. The other week, for example, we watched ‘The Two Doctors’, which is (as Gareth says) “a tremendous waste of Patrick Troughton”. The basic problem is that there is no story: it takes two and a half hours for the Doctor to have two or three one-minute conversations with his past self, visit Seville and tussle with some comically tall Sontarans. The Androgum thing is a good idea that never convinces, because they’re so downright irritating. On the plus side, Colin Baker does manage to take Nicola Bryant on an early tour of the Google server farms.

Two-Google

Google actually figures – in a manner of speaking – in ‘The Ice Warriors’, which I finished this morning, and in which a group of isolated humans have become so reliant on technology that they are incapable of rationalisation or even thinking for themselves, relying exclusively on technology. When it’s suggested that Director Clent forego the I.T. consultation process and actually make a decision, he freezes and panics. In the 1960s the idea of a supercomputer that could answer any question and suggest a course of action for any situation was still buried deep within the realms of science fiction – but as time passes, and dependency on the internet and the cloud increases, I can’t help wondering if we’re breeding a generation who’d rather use a search engine than cultivate a thought process. Why bother finding out what happens when you drop Mentos in Diet Coke when you can just see it on YouTube?

It needn’t go this way, of course. It’s just a question of encouraging independent thought, which is what I try to do when I tell my children not to believe everything they read. We try and bring a little philosophy into the dinner table conversation. Occasionally this backfires. At Beaver camp earlier this year I spent half an hour in a forest clearing trying to explain the door riddle to Thomas, after he’d seen it in ‘Pyramids of Mars’. In the end I found three trees in a line, and took it in turns to be the guards in front of imaginary doorways. The conversation lasted most of the evening, on and off, in between the games of snap and the s’more session round the camp fire. What I should have done, of course, was this.

Anyway.

My parents have just got back from a holiday in Norfolk – a place that forms what may just about be my first memory, besides the one that I wrote about way back in 2011 when I started this blog.

“This,” said my father, “was in a garden just up the road from us.”

DSC04830

(The TARDIS in question is, I’m told, in Stiffkey, near Wells-on-sea.)

“We knocked,” said my father, “but the Doctor was out”. So they didn’t see inside, although if they had, it might have looked like this:

TARDIS_Int

Edward, meanwhile, has developed the annoying habit of pulling any DVDs he can reach off their shelves, spilling them on the floor. This means that the carpet of my study is at this very moment covered with plastic boxes. Unfortunately the only ones he can reach are the Doctor Who discs, because I like to keep them close to hand, and THEY HAVE TO BE IN THE CORRECT ORDER. Thus, in the process of returning them to their rightful places these last weeks I have become highly prolific at the story sequence for Baker through to McCoy, and could probably tell you them by heart.

But here he is, embroiled in our now daily ritual that is the Touching of Peter Capaldi’s Head.

Capaldi

The other day I put on the recon of ‘The Wheel in Space’, and as soon as he heard the theme music, he clapped. I have trained him well.

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Review: ‘Listen’

Warning: spoilers below.

Try and picture the perfect episode of Doctor Who. An episode that manages to thrill, astound, frighten and amuse in equal measure. A story that encompasses the length, breadth, depth and emotional core of time and space. A story that chills us to the bone with the most terrifying monsters that we could imagine. Most importantly, a story that reaffirms what we knew about the Doctor while opening up new windows of enlightenment and sending us off into the most wonderful, unexpected and exciting directions.

‘Listen’ is not that episode.

I feel like a broken record sometimes. The main problem is that I don’t write Doctor Who. I suspect the only way I’d be actually happy with the show is if I were the one emailing scripts to Brian Minchin every week. It’s not about keeping the quality levels up. I’m not saying the scripts are bad, necessarily – by and large, this one wasn’t. It was decently paced, occasionally funny and clever in its execution. It revisited old territory but explored it from a fresh perspective. And then it screwed with the mythology, again.

It’s not that I mind explorations of the Doctor’s past. It would be churlish to criticise Moffat for trying to fill in the backstory – heaven knows Davies did enough of that when he brought back the Master. Not only were we given a reason for the Master’s madness, it transpired that most of it wasn’t actually his fault. Davies rewrote the Time Lords as despicable warmongers whom the Doctor reluctantly destroyed for the greater good, but this isn’t really such a leap from their actions in Trial of a Time Lord, or even ‘Arc of Infinity’.

But what got to me about ‘Listen’ – and the episodes before it – wasn’t the revisionism. It’s the companion-centric worldview. Listen: relatable companions have always been sewed into the mantra of the show. I’m aware that a charismatic hero accompanied by a bumbling sidekick puts us into Harry Sullivan territory. You need a companion with a little pizzazz and presence and who isn’t going to spend ninety per cent of her time onscreen trying to shatter glass.

Clara has pizzazz in spades. One of her best episodes is ‘Hide‘, one of the first to be shot and one in which we spent most of the time watching her just be, rather than have the universe revolve around her. It’s one of the few times the Doctor is (for the most part) more preoccupied with solving the mystery-of-the-week than he is with solving the-mystery-of-the-series. Given breathing room and the right script, Clara is wonderful to watch; very different with each Doctor she’s encountered, but that’s a strength. She’s sassy and funny and Coleman plays her extremely well.

It’s therefore insulting when, once again, Clara gets to rewrite the backstory: it implies that being a twenty-seven-year-old teacher is somehow not enough. The crucial scene this week comes in the closing act, where a small boy – who turns out to be the Doctor, of course – is huddled under the covers in what looks like a set from The Village. Faced with imminent discovery from two Gallifreyans wearing Crimson Field costumes Clara’s response is to do the one thing she knows for sure will terrify the small child: she hides under the bed. The soothing monologue that follows is textbook Moffat: reassuring mawkishness from Clara, intercut with slow motion hugging and brooding shots of the Doctor, all accompanied by Murray Gold at his sweetest. You remember that scene at the end of The Two Towers where Sam monologues to Frodo, while Jackson cuts between Osgiliath and Helm’s Deep? Basically that, only the music’s rubbish.

Listen_Chart

 

If I’m cross about this, it’s because Clara’s already had more input over the Doctor’s life than any other companion really should. Writing a control freak doesn’t give you license to control all of time and space, and Moffat must surely know this. Spinning out the impossible girl thing over a single arc was irritating enough, but its inclusion here is frankly deplorable. Sentiment abounds. Clearly the intention here is that we leave the room older and wiser and more fulfilled. And oh, look: they’ve dropped in a nod to ‘Day of the Doctor’ while they’re at it, as an audience reminder that Moffat’s revisionism extends beyond the people who get to come along for the ride.

I wouldn’t mind if all these little companion-based tweaks and bumps actually added anything to the Doctor’s character, but they don’t. It’s egotism in action, and while it’s supposed to be clever and enlightening and have us evaluate the Doctor in a whole new way, it just feels like the Minecraft skin effect: cosmetic changes that are fundamentally pointless because ultimately they don’t make us think of the person we’re watching any differently. It’s a change that Moffat’s made simply because he can, and while I daresay the tumblr feeds will be buzzing this morning, all I’m reminded of is that scene in Friends where Rachel complains to an increasingly possessive Ross “It was like you were marking your territory. You might just as well have come in and peed all around my desk!”.

It’s a shame, because there are elements of ‘Listen’ that were actually very good indeed. The episode opens with another disastrous encounter between Danny and Clara, this one from Clara’s perspective, as we are shown in flashback the reason she’s come home early, and alone. Then the Doctor arrives, and we’re off to an orphanage, where a young boy is frightened of the Thing on top of the bed. The Thing is under a pile of covers. We never see it, although the Doctor does. He reassures the young Rupert Pink that “Fear is your superpower”, even though he’s apparently as frightened as anyone else. The camera cuts back and forth with vigour, allowing us glimpses of the Thing but teasing us all the while. It is an electrifying scene, superbly directed with impeccable performances from everyone, including the heap on the bed.

Similarly, the planet at the end of the universe is impressive, even if this is where the story starts to tail. It isn’t enough that this nameless lump of rock is just a colossal McGuffin. There is something outside that door, and the fact that we never get to see it wouldn’t be so frustrating if it weren’t established that it wasn’t actually important. Because rather than actually discuss what happened when the airlock blew, Clara and Orson watch the Doctor have a catnap and then she launches the TARDIS. And they didn’t even visit the restaurant.

 

Ultimately, it emerges, we’re watching a story about Clara: her relationships past and present and the hold she has over the Doctor, and over Danny. This is partly what makes the episode so unsatisfying, because it starts out as something else completely, with strong performances from everyone, particularly the Doctor. If, in ‘Robot of Sherwood’, Capaldi was basically forced to be Shrek on his way to lunch at The Ivy, in ‘Listen’ he takes centre stage – at least until the locks on the ship blow. He’s controlled and cynical but also calm and reassuring, and it’s therefore frustrating to see him sidelined during the last fifteen minutes in favour of Moffat’s emotional fanwank.

And ultimately, it’s the uneven structure of ‘Listen’ that proves its undoing. If the point, as Clara muses at the end of the final act, is that there really is nothing under the bed – presumably so that the BBC have a standard press quote for when the OFCOM letters start to arrive – then why establish this in such a confusing manner? It’s suggested that the pile of blankets on Rupert’s bed was another orphanage resident having a joke, but it’s a point that is ultimately lost amidst all the time-hopping and revisionism. The other week, I described ‘Into the Dalek’ as an episode that did nothing particularly well and nothing particularly badly. ‘Listen’ was up and down like a rollercoaster, its highs more than eclipsed by its lows. Like Clara and Danny’s first date, it was a good idea, ultimately squandered by stubbornness and ego. In the end, there is nothing beneath the bed but old territory revisited, and you can’t help thinking there are better ways to spend an hour of your life.

Listen_05

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