Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Monster Mash

And you have an earworm now, don’t you?

It’s the season for Christmas TV, which means old favourites get dusted off. In our house, at least when I was a kid, it was always The Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins – both of which I’ve written about before – along with Scrooged and at least one of the Herbie films. We’ve had quite a lot of luck with Oz, but just yesterday I was trying to show them why Albert Finney’s musical version of A Christmas Carol is actually worth watching in its entirety, and that if they just go through the scene where Scrooge goes to hell on a loop they’re missing out on the context. It fell on mostly deaf ears. I will try again next December.

Certain things do hold their attention. The other week the boys were watching a Loony Tunes Christmas special in which a cantankerous Daddy Duck was taught the error of his miserly ways by three Christmas spirits, aided by Bugs Bunny. It was top-heavy (there is way, way too much messing around in the department store before the ghosts turn up) and the ending was only vaguely satisfying, but it was enjoyable, largely because there’s a substantial supporting role for Marvin the Martian.

And then I thought – well, they’re basically from the same place, aren’t they?

Marvin_Ice

But why stop there? Why not acknowledge the design roots of the Adipose, for example, and mash one of them with the Pillsbury Doughboy?

Adipose_Dough

And well, let’s just say that Madame Vastra wasn’t always based in Victorian London.

Witch_Vastra

Happy New Year, however you spend it.

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Review: ‘Last Christmas’

LastChristmas_05

There’s an episode of Buffy that’s always got to me. It’s called ‘Normal Again’, and within it Buffy has an encounter with the Trio and is left believing that her existence in Sunnydale as a Slayer has been a delusion experienced during a stay at the psychiatric institution in which she still resides. Within the ‘delusion’, Buffy becomes increasingly confused and Willow tries to get her to drink the antidote. Back in ‘reality’, her mother is still alive and married to her father, and a kindly doctor is trying to explain that the reason the stories have become so ridiculous lately is because the delusion is breaking down, which almost feels like an apology. The episode cuts back and forth between the two until it’s established that the institution is a hallucination, and order is restored. Or is it? Tellingly, the very last scene of the episode shows a catatonic Buffy seated in her hospital room, while the doctor examines her unresponsive pupils and admits that “We lost her”.

‘Last Christmas’ was a story about layers of reality. It established the concept of false reality painted to look real in order to entrap the viewer. Having dealt with this fairly early on, the story then throws a curve ball when the Doctor reveals (and then reveals again, and then again) that what we believe is real is actually another layer of the dream. Thus characters believe themselves to have woken from a nightmare only to find that there’s another one still going on. This is, perhaps not surprisingly, all tied up with the presence of Santa. ‘Last Christmas’ also broke the mould by becoming the first episode of New Who that I’ve actively decided not to show my children, although more on that later.

Things open on what we assume is Christmas Eve, and a scene that most of you probably watched on YouTube. Clara is awoken by a noise from outside her house and finds Santa on the rooftop, arguing with two of his elves (Misfits‘ Nathan McMullen and semi-regular Dan Starkey, bereft of the Sontaran makeup but still playing the comic relief). Before we have the opportunity to examine just why Clara was almost on the naughty list at the age of nine, the TARDIS materialises and the Doctor whisks Clara away to the Arctic, although not before asserting that “No one likes the tangerines” (which, by the way, is really not true, at least in our house).

The bulk of the narrative takes place in an Arctic base that deliberately (and quite self-consciously) rips off The Thing. Indeed, the entire story is basically a homage to a number of different horror movies, Ridley Scott being the most obvious example – the awakening dream crabs are a cross between the facehugger from Alien and the adult form of the egg that it hatches, with teeth to match. As is now traditional with a new monster under Moffat’s reign, the crabs have a metaphysical twist: they are only active when they’re either observed or being thought about, leading a surrounded Doctor and Clara to frantically screw their eyes closed while Emily shouted “BLINK!”.

LastChristmas_08

If the crabs are reasonably frightening, the fantasy in which they dump Clara is positively sugar-coated, although this is presumably all for effect. The production team soften the lighting, Murray Gold’s score becomes annoyingly intrusive and Moffat gives us the farewell scene between Clara and Danny that he presumably thought we wanted to see. It wasn’t enough to have them sobbing in a graveyard before he exploded over London; we now get to see Samuel Anderson wearing a Santa outfit (which will give the fan-fiction writers something to do, I suppose). It’s all very tear-jerking, although it’s more about Clara dealing with her grief than actually saying goodbye to Danny, given that she’s effectively talking to a hallucination. The net result is really not like Ghost; it’s more like A Beautiful Mind. (That’s not a compliment, by the way.)

In more quasi-fan pacification, the nature of Jenna Coleman’s hesitancy over her contract with the BBC is handled with one of Moffat’s false endings: the Doctor arrives back at Clara’s house sixty-two years late, the sort of cock-up with repercussions that would make even the Ninth Doctor wince. This is, as it turns out, still Only A Dream, but just for a couple of minutes, we’re led to believe that it’s the end of the road. It’s really an excuse to reverse the cracker scene from last year, and that in itself works quite well – but it’s a shame that the makeup used to age Coleman is so utterly unconvincing, leading Emily to remark “Ooh, it’s Yoda!”. Well, not quite, but Yoda is arguably an improvement.

The remainder of the episode is a bunch of characters that warrant minimal emotional investment, seeing as they are mostly plot devices. Shona is by far the most interesting – clearly potential companion material, presumably in the mould of someone as delinquently troublesome as Ace or Leela. Michael Troughton is as good an actor as his father, but is given little to do except read from an instruction manual and chew up the scenery. Said scenery is admittedly impressive, the closing flyover echoing any number of Christmas classics, while the Arctic base is claustrophobically rendered in muted tones. Likewise, the dream crabs have clear action figure potential, even if – as a friend of mine pointed out – their hosts look they have Brussels sprouts on their heads.

“Oh, not sprouts. I hate sprouts.”
“Oh, will you stop whinging Eddie! Nobody likes sprouts.”
“Then why are we having them, then?”
“BECAUSE IT’S CHRISTMAS!”

The most ridiculous thing to happen in ‘Death in Heaven’, of course (besides the Cyber-Brigadier, which still makes me angry) was the appearance of Nick Frost at the door of the TARDIS. Moffat plays on this during ‘Last Christmas’ by making the entire story one long knowing wink: Santa arrives at the Arctic base just in the St. Nick of time (or not, as it turns out) with an army of slinkies and toy robots, riding a reindeer like the Lone Ranger mounted Silver and handling a tangerine like a grenade. Meanwhile, Starkey has an orange balloon gun. It’s purposely silly, and indeed the appearances of Santa in the episode have a whiff of the absurd about them: Santa the action hero, Santa the gunslinging hero, and Santa the saviour of humanity.

Actually, that’s the problem. Because the presence of Santa in ‘Last Christmas’ becomes something of a litmus test: in other words, as the Doctor assures his companions, they know they’re dreaming because Father Christmas himself is there to put things right. We may assume, indeed, that the entire last scene of the series finale was itself a dream, presumably one that Capaldi had after watching too many Russell T Davies episodes. Somewhere between that first low-angled establishing shot and the final rescue in the snow, we’re told in no uncertain terms that Santa is – at least in this case – a group hallucination made flesh, a gestalt entity that drops out of the sky in what I have no choice but to label sleighus ex machina.

That’s fine. But at the risk of sounding like Mary Whitehouse, has anyone stopped to think about the children? Look, I’m not opposed to the idea of dramatic presentations where people don’t believe in Santa. Miracle on 34th Street constructed an entire narrative around the concept (a reference that Moffat openly admits to, when he has one of the surviving characters unfold a sheet of paper that contains her Christmas TV schedule and the writer’s apparent influences for the episode, presumably to avoid having to stick ‘The works of H.R. Giger and John Carpenter are acknowledged’ in the credits). There are plenty of grumpy people who grew up too fast and become the voice of cynicism in such festive tales, refusing to believe even the evidence of their own eyes.

LastChristmas_04

But here’s the thing: even if I manage to describe the various dream states and layers to my seven-year-old so that he knows whether the characters are asleep or awake (“This is an episode,” said Emily, “that they’re just not going to understand at all”), how the hell do I explain the deliberate fictionalisation of a character he still believes in? Santa’s existence here isn’t just something that’s contested by the stuffy grown-ups before he reads off their Christmas wishes from behind his Google glasses; his status as something we’ve dreamed up to help us is more or less concrete. And no, an ambiguous tangerine on a windowsill doesn’t count.

It’s possible, of course, that I’m going to re-read this tomorrow and decide that I’ve got the whole thing wrong. Even then, the opening scene on the rooftop makes for uncomfortable viewing, with Clara suggesting that her “Mum and Dad” were the ones who delivered presents. I don’t think that’s yet occurred to any of my children, and if the episode had stopped there, with doubts about Santa then quickly rebuffed, then that would have been fine. But then making the whole story about this seems not only unnecessarily metaphysical but also downright unpleasant somehow, with Clara’s final affirmation that yes, she believes in Father Christmas, but that “he looks a little different to me”, frankly a little insulting. I’d accept that our interpretation was perhaps skewed by a cynical take on Moffat’s writing, but an episode of a family show that questions the existence of Santa on so many levels, irrespective of their resolution, seems to be entering dodgy territory.

LastChristmas_06

Of course, the tangerine has two possible meanings, and choosing between them is obvious. Presumably we’re supposed to infer that it’s the calling card for a real-life Santa Claus, because the alternative is another layer of reality: in other words, this is still a dream. It’s far less ambiguous than the ending of ‘Normal Again’,  I’ll grant, and this is ironic given that the dream state isn’t actually as unattractive a proposition as you might think. If nothing else, it would explain why the story was so preposterous and downright confusing.

Come to think of it, can we track the beginnings of the head crabs back to the ending of ‘Kill the Moon’, when Clara telephones the entire planet? Or perhaps ‘Listen’, with its ridiculous Gallifreyan lullaby? Actually, can we just write off the entire last series as a lucid dream and start again from the moment Capaldi staggers out of the TARDIS at the beginning of ‘Deep Breath’? I know I complain about narrative tangents, but to be honest, that’s a twist I could handle.

LastChristmas_Chart

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We’re going on a bear hunt

Truthfully? I’ve never really liked London.

Oh, I know that all human life is to be found there. I know it’s a combination of stunning architecture, iconic landmarks and urban regeneration juxtaposed with crumbling hilltops and windows jammed with mesh. I know the London Underground is a masterpiece of engineering and transport logistics. It’s just that I remember being stuck in one of those tube carriages at 5:35 on a hot summer’s evening, surrounded by a mass of hot, sweaty commuters, and wondering what sort of money people had to be paid in order to actively volunteer to do this on a daily basis.

And that pretty much sums up how I feel about the place. It’s just so busy. It’s not that I mind a bit of hustle and bustle. It’s just that we tend to only visit the busy parts, because we’re inevitably doing the tourist thing. The desire to tackle Hamleys on a Saturday in December with four children in tow is perhaps a clearer sign of madness than hairs on the palm of your hand, but after our experience a couple of weeks ago I never want to walk down Regent Street again. Perhaps it’s a sign of age when you suddenly find yourself put off by crowds and traffic. Perhaps not. In either event I find myself getting slightly over-awed by the parts we visit, and in need of smaller, quieter metropolitan areas. Or perhaps this is just a colossal misjudgement on my part. Perhaps, if you live in London yourself, you’ll tell me I’m just doing it wrong, an admonishment I accept willingly.

But you find stuff. A couple of months ago I wrote a reasonably coherent piece for Metro about Doctor Who‘s London locations, cobbled together from a couple of websites and with input from Gareth. One of these days I really ought to do a decent walking tour of The Famous Bits – the steps the Cybermen descended during ‘The Invasion’ (almost but not quite at St. Paul’s), or the dockside locations for ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’, at least the part that hasn’t been rebuilt. Even ignoring Doctor Who, the boys need to see London, because photos on Google Maps don’t really cut it; so we went. There was no dinosaur hovering over Westminster – we’d arrive about 140 years too late – so I added one last night.

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Besides, Emily had a grand plan, which involved Paddington Bear. If you’ve been following movie news recently you’ll know that Paddington has been in the media quite a bit, given his transition from line drawing to stop motion model to CG character, with voice provided by Michael Hordern / almost Colin Firth / Ben Whishaw. The film itself (which I have yet to see) looks to be a combination of riotous slapstick and unnecessary meanness: certainly their re-enactment of the bathroom scene in an early trailer didn’t exactly me endear me to the thing, while Nicole Kidman’s evil taxidermist – inserted for dramatic tension – seems a little excessive. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “‘I’m going to stuff you, bear!’ Ah yes, that’s the Paddington we know and love.”

Paddington_station_Paddington_Bear_statue

When I was six, we went to visit a Harley Street doctor for reasons that now evade me, and I remember a huge statue of Paddington Bear at the station that towered over me like some sort of gigantic behemoth. In reality it’s only about five feet tall. A little perspective can be a wonderful thing. Remembering how big it seemed when I was small made me wonder how my children were viewing the day, and how they will remember it later. It’s the original, of course, but it was only one of a number of statues we visited the other week; about fifty of them have been scattered around London as part of the Paddington Trail, and Emily had planned out the day so that we got to see ten. Many of these were centred around Little Venice, but that was fine, because it was quiet. There were futuristic robots. There was a London Mayor. And there was one that looked a little like Sully from Monsters Inc.

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Little Venice is a hive of canal-side walkways and bars and bridges and contemporary offices, the sort of place ripe for a Who location shoot, presumably involving the Judoon. It has a barge that has its own bookstall. Outside one of the pavement cafes, I found this.

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Which has nothing to do with anything, except that anyone who actually reads God Is In The Detail (as opposed to thinking “Oh dear, he’s off again” and skipping to the next entry) will know about my banana conspiracy. In the meantime, just because I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately, here’s a picture of the War Doctor in his earlier years.

Beckett

 

I heard just yesterday that one of the statues (the one in Shoreditch) has been decapitated, which is pointless and unfortunate, although it did make me think of Omega in ‘The Three Doctors’.

The Paddington movie has somewhat tenuous connections with Doctor Who, of course. Two of the actors therein have actually played the Doctor (Capaldi, and Jim Broadbent, who played him for just under a minute). Hugh Bonneville starred alongside Matt Smith in ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ – an episode so poorly written that even the appearance of Amy Pond in a pirate costume seemed dull. Michael Gambon (‘A Christmas Carol’) pops up in a voiceover cameo, and Imelda Staunton, who plays Aunt Lucy, also voiced the computer in ‘The Girl Who Waited’. Nicole Kidman has never appeared in Doctor Who, but she was married to one of the world’s most prominent scientologists – a group who manage to make the more outspoken conspiracy theorists on Gallifrey Base seem relatively sane by comparison. (I’m grasping at straws now, but at the risk of legal action, so are the people who try and justify scientology.)

Still, just outside Greenwich Observatory, there’s this.

London_17 London_18

We have Peter Capaldi to thank for this design. “Silly,” said Gareth. “Everyone knows Daleks can’t climb bears.”

Greenwich is the home of the Cutty Sark, and the Meridian Line, which you have to pay to see, although there’s an unofficial one that intersects the path outside the observatory. There is also a spectacular twenty-four hour clock that Joshua found.

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But we’d gone to see the bear. It’s a testament to how amazing my wife is that she planned an entire chunk of the day – which included two tube journeys and a half-hour trip on the Docklands Light Railway – just to get up to the top of the hill. “But the journey’s fun,” she enthused. “I love the DLR. It’s like you’re actually driving the train!”

Indeed it is; it also took us through parts of London I’d never seen before, such as Canary Wharf, visible here from the viewing platform, and complete with added Daleks.

London_29

You get a sense of grounding up on that hill. It feels chronologically significant, as if you’re standing on the edge of the world, or perhaps on the edge of a new one. You become aware that some of the greatest minds in human history have walked that path. There is a lump of rock in the museum entrance (right next to the astronaut bear, designed by Sandra Bullock) that is “possibly the oldest thing you’ll ever touch”. The fleeting sense of your own mortality and insignificance when you think just how vast the universe actually is was both impressive and not a little humbling. You realise how every day is a gift, a blank page as new and fresh as an unwrapped notebook, the cellophane discarded carelessly on the living room floor. And then I started getting Dead Poet’s Society scenes playing in my head and I knew it was time to leave.

We trooped back down to the station, and got the tube to Waterloo, where we got to do this.

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Fan-tas-tic.

The underground is quick, but the bus is far more fun, and it was one of those glorious winter’s afternoons where the sky is just the right colour and the light is perfect. (Any photographer will tell you that taking photos at midday is asking for trouble, and that early mornings and late afternoons are usually much better if you want decent lighting.) I managed to get a few photos on that bus, in between gawping at the Santa fun run and telling the boys to sit down, but you’ve all seen the Big Ben clock tower before, so here it is with the pig spaceship from ‘World War Three’.

London_52.

 

Similarly, Trafalgar Square got invaded by forestry in series 8, so I’ve added a tree to Nelson’s Column.

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Hamleys was the last stop, and we spent two hours there. I don’t really want to talk about it. Ever. The promise of a gigantic toy shop (and spending money) was a carrot, and we had relatively good behaviour as a result, so in the end you just have to grit your teeth and bear it. Suffice to say I think we probably went during a quiet part of the day, and that was enough. But I did notice some curious model placement in the Hornby railway layout, and I’m guessing this can’t be a coincidence.

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The boys all giggled, except for Edward, who is only a year old and doesn’t get the joke. But that’s OK, because we bought him this. It makes noises and everything, and he loves it.

cyberman

Like I said, you have to find stuff.

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Merry Christmas from the Doctor

We’ve still got a few days to go before the indulgence and excess kicks in properly, but just in case any of you happened to be looking for Doctor Who Christmas-themed wallpaper, here are my seasonal offerings for this year.

(The rather splendid original for this one, bereft of Santa hats and poorly Photoshopped tinsel, is available here.)

Next, this deleted scene from ‘Day of the Doctor’.

 

(Given Peter Capaldi’s involvement in The Nativity this really ought to have featured the Twelfth Doctor somewhere, but any excuse for John Hurt.)

Finally, something that took me all of two minutes. I can’t embed it, but here’s a still.

Card

Curious? Have a look here. And Happy Holidays to you and yours.

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God is in the detail (part xxiii)

I’ve been procrastinating a bit on this final entry, largely because it’s a week until Christmas and we still have to finish tidying the house. But needs must. I don’t want to let you down; I know how hotly debated these posts are at the conventions and on Reddit threads. Oh, the sacrifices I make for you lot.

First, let’s follow through on something we started mid-series. You will remember some weeks ago, I talked about the precise line of dialogue that occurred at 31:59, and how these dialogue snippets formed a rough conversation if you were to stitch them together. For the first time tonight, I can reveal the entire exchange, as it occurs at these time points throughout each episode of the series.

“It says lunch, but not when and where.”
“How?”
“Such a pretty thing. What a queen she would have made.”
“Do me a favour. Take my advice. When you get home, stay away from time travel.”
“My face fits. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must take the Teller to its hibernation. You two, dispose of our guests.”
“If it comes back Thursday night, are you sure about that? ‘Cos you said the chronodyne is unstable.”
“We just need to make up our minds, that’s all. Well, you know him.”
“Am I close?”
“What’s going on? Why the red light?”
“I can save you and Danny.”
“We’ve all heard it.”
“I’m leaving.”

And backwards:

“I’m leaving.”
“We’ve all heard it.”
“I can save you and Danny.”
“What’s going on? Why the red light?”
“Am I close?”
“We just need to make up our minds, that’s all. Well, you know him.”
“If it comes back Thursday night, are you sure about that? ‘Cos you said the chronodyne is unstable.”
“My face fits. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must take the Teller to its hibernation. You two, dispose of our guests.”
“Do me a favour. Take my advice. When you get home, stay away from time travel.”
“Such a pretty thing. What a queen she would have made.”
“How?”
“It says lunch, but not when and where.”

And I think we all know what that means, don’t we?

Let’s think visual, now. Examine this image of the exterior of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Heaven Detail (1)

As you’ve probably guessed, it’s the chocolate orange-like segments that we’re looking at. Numbers are important here at God Is In The Detail Central, and we may see that there are precisely 22 spikes on display. The 22 April 2011 is the date on which the Doctor was gunned down by an astronaut at Lake Silencio in Utah – words that can be rearranged to form ‘Eek! Sil in Cola’.

Swire Coca-Cola have a prominent Utah production base. And yes, ‘Sil’ is a real word; he’s a nasty character who first turns up in ‘Vengeance in Varos’, story number two in season number 22 of Doctor Who‘s original run.

The number 22 is also known in bingo language (bingo lingo? it should really be called bingo lingo) as ‘Two little ducks’, for obvious reasons. This is a CLEAR AND UNAMBGIUOUS reference both to the use of ducks in ‘The Eleventh Hour’, in which the newly-regenerated Doctor enquires as to the lack of ducks on the duck pond, and also 1986’s Howard The Duck, which starred Lea Thompson as the young musician who forms an ethically dubious relationship with an extraterrestrial waterfowl. As if the fact that Howard the Duck’s production coincided with the original broadcast of season 22 weren’t enough of a coincidence, Lea Thompson is also famous for starring in films about astronauts and time-travelling teenagers. This isn’t just serendipity, THIS IS PLANETARY ALIGNMENT.

(Incidentally, as well as owning a cuddly panda named Amble, Gareth also has a cuddly bat named Eek!. But you can take these things too far.)

As a brief parenthesis, and jumping right to the end of the episode, here’s a sight that no one ever thought they’d see in the TARDIS.

Heaven Detail (6)

The sudden appearance of Jeff Santa Claus was both the episode’s big cliffhanger and – for those viewers who found ‘Death in Heaven’ as miserable as I did – something of a welcome relief from all the angst. But of course, there’s a chilling (quite literally, as it turns out) subtext to the appearance of a supernaturally powerful omnipresent figure in a red suit, whose name can be rearranged.

could-it-be-satan

Oh, bugger off, Church Lady.

No, I’m talking about the casting of Nick Frost. FROST! At CHRISTMAS! We can only conclude that Michael Troughton will be bringing along a huge quantity of fish, or possibly a narrow (and extremely heavy) feeding container for animals, depending on whether we’re talking about phonetics or spelling.

Meanwhile, in the morgue…

Heaven Detail (2)

What’s curious about this image? The eye wash poster on the wall. I’d make reference here to the Big Finish Dark Eyes series, except I have yet to listen to it and Gareth has warned me not to do so, because (and I quote) “[spoiler] first appears in [spoiler], where the revelation is [spoiler], and this happens before [spoiler]. I think it might be too big a spoiler to tell you much more of that, unless you’re already spoiled for it. Suffice it to say that you should listen to [spoiler] before [spoiler].”

But if we were to spell these words using the NATO phonetic alphabet, we get:

Echo
Yankee
Echo

Whiskey
Alpha
Sierra
Hotel

Which refers, in turn, to the following episodes:

‘Deep Breath’ (in which the Doctor drinks whiskey)
‘The Curse of Peladon’ (featuring Alpha Centauri)
‘Asylum of the Daleks’ (filmed in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Spain)
‘The God Complex’ (obviously)

(Coincidentally, episode four of ‘Marco Polo’ was ‘Five Hundred Eyes’, which is the equivalent of two hundred and fifty Cybermen. There are no direct links to this number of Cybermen in any of the non-fan fiction stories I could locate, but the Bad Wolf Bay farewell scene at the end of ‘Doomsday’ topped the list of top 250 sci-fi moments in issue 250 of SFX, while Dr. Harold Shipman is purported to have murdered 250 patients. Call it clinical detachment, but it’s hard to say which of these horrifies me more.)

We look now at the reforming Cybermen in their graves.

Heaven Detail (3)

You will recall that the resurrection programme was initially only patchy, and that only a handful of corpses in each cemetery were being reconstructed. It would be easy to assume that this was totally random. Except – EXCEPT! – a closer examination reveals this is not the case.

First let’s look at the Greek letters for Delta Theta Sigma, which – as we are all aware – refers to the Doctor’s college nickname and the incarnation that introduced it.

delta-sigma-theta

Now examine the patterns generated by the placement of the reanimated Cybercorpses.

Heaven Detail (4)

And finally, look again at that opening image of Saint Paul’s.

Heaven Detail (5)

 

Well now. Isn’t that special?

church_lady

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The Christmas Special, and why it matters

In the first instance, this.

It’s less than a fortnight until the Christmas episode, and we still know bugger all about it. Here’s a quick fact check:

  • ‘Last Christmas’ (and you didn’t say that, you sang it) sees the Doctor meet Santa, who seems to have turned up in time to put wrong things right, like a sort of bearded Mr Pink-Whistle, without the cat. He’s accompanied by two elves (one of whom is Dan Starkey, usually seen surrounded by prosthetics, serving tea for the glory of the Sontaran empire).
  • In the clip above, Santa chats to Clara for a while, before the Doctor shows up, whereupon the two drop into the sort of intense, absolutely serious conversation that made Airplane! so intentionally amusing.
  • We have no idea yet what the Doctor is going to face, although it looks like the designers have taken inspiration from H.R. Giger.
  • There is a tangerine, which has already been labelled an object of Deep Significance.

It’s the first time we’ve actually seen Saint Nicholas actually appear onscreen, but on the other hand –

 

Look. I don’t want to be all Captain Grumpy again. But at the risk of pouring cold water over this roaring hearth of publicity, the episode is already in potentially murky waters based on that Children In Need clip alone. I’m alluding, of course, to the suggestion that many people believe Father Christmas is fake. Yes, there’s a lot of clever-clever winking and cries of “Of course he’s real!”. But Clara’s assertion that her annual yuletide benefactors were ‘Mum and Dad’ is going to raise awkward questions, at least from the youngest of viewers. Normally I have to stop my children from watching Doctor Who because the monsters were too frightening; only in recent years have I had the cause to worry about sexual content, but at the risk of overreacting I’ve already made the conscious decision not to show the Children in Need preview to any of them until I’ve seen what follows. The implications contained in this scene alone make ‘Last Christmas’ sound like a story that we’ll have to watch on our own first, which surely isn’t the point of a family show.

That may sound overly harsh, if not a little cantankerous (although let’s be honest, that’s more or less what you’ve come to expect from me). But just this once, there’s a reason for it. Here’s something that might not have occurred to you – and apologies if you’ve read the ‘Doctor, Widow, Wardrobe’ review, but I’m going to repeat myself – watching a Doctor Who winter special is, to a certain extent, rather like going to church on Christmas morning.

Why is this? Well, one thing consistent church 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 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 next twelve months, apart from the occasional wedding. And perhaps because of that we need to make things a little easier and more comfortable, and a little less automatic. We need to give context, explain things and show that we’re not entirely stuck in our ways: cut off, exclusive, or inapproachable.

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The Christmas Special has become, to a considerable extent, Doctor Who for people who don’t normally do Doctor Who. It’s an episode viewed by people watching with relatives or friends, dragged in because The Gruffalo’s Child has finished and the remote is buried beneath mounds of wrapping paper. Elderly aunts and uncles may watch out of pure curiosity, having not seen the TARDIS materialise since Pertwee.

That we are now in this position is a bone of contention for some, but it is what it is, and when it comes to December 25 it can go both ways. Some stories (‘Voyage of the Damned’ springs to mind) are immediately accessible, generally occurring at pivotal, transitional moments where the Doctor is between companions or arcs. Others (‘The Time of the Doctor’, ‘The End of Time’, ‘The Snowmen’) are nigh-on impenetrable for newbies or visitors, relying heavily on knowledge of previous stories. (The first example above is particularly guilty in this department, hearkening back as it does to stuff that happened in 2010, and haphazardly tying every single plot thread together in a jumbled, confusing mess.)

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. But it should. It matters because there’s an ambassadorial aspect to being a Doctor Who fan. You’ll often find yourself in the position of having to describe or even defend the show to people who haven’t watched it in years – if they’ve ever watched it at all. Christmas is a chance to do just that. They watch the Christmas special and perhaps they’ll tune in to the next season. Then they might go back and explore Tennant or Smith. Then you convince them that actually, the original series is not only worth a look, it surpasses everything they’ve done since the revival. Before you know it they’re watching recons and downloading Big Finish audios by the terabyte. But it’s hard to actually get the non-fan interested if all they’ve got to go on is an inaccessible story. And more than this, you don’t want to spend half an hour on Christmas night actually answering the rhetorical “I don’t know what you see in that…” when you’d rather be getting drunk and playing Pictionary.

Seriously, Steven. You owe us. It’s been nearly three years since the last decent Christmas episode, and goodness knows we could do with a bit of light relief after watching the stilted farewell between the Doctor and the increasingly irritating Miss Oswald (right after her dead boyfriend turned into a firework). I know I place too much value on what folks say online, but it would be nice, to be honest, if I could switch on my computer on Boxing Day and read comments from people saying “I’ve not watched Doctor Who in years, but I switched on last night and was pleasantly surprised – it was lighthearted, appropriately seasonal, and it didn’t take itself too seriously. And Peter Capaldi really was very good.”

Although presumably his initial response to the sight of Father Christmas will be “Jeff?!?”.

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Five rounds (of beer) rapid (drinking)

TARDISes I have known and loved.

TARDISes

 

I realised that it really was time to take this photo after we visited Techniquest. Located on the university campus in Wrexham, it’s one of those hands-on places with rooms full of fans, heart monitors, light-and-sound displays and other stuff. There are many such places dotted around the country, and the first time we visited one since we’ve become parents was on a cold January morning back in January 2013. I had a raging hangover, but it was worth it just to see this.

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On this particular Sunday, my head was clear, which was a good thing, because some of the optical illusions would likely induce nausea if you’d had a few. Life, as it turns out, is all about perspective.

Techniquest

Or, as Gareth said, “That’s silly!“.

The day before we visited Techniquest we’d been in Shrewsbury – a place which has very little connection with the Whoniverse outside some of the novels. It’s also not too far from Ironbridge, as the crow flies, which I’ve talked about before

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Shrewsbury itself is the hometown of Wilfred Owen, war poet of legend, who was one of several famous locals to be commemorated with a memorial set up on Smithfield Road in the summer of last year. He appears alongside the town crier and Sabrina, goddess of the River Severn (I swear I’m not making this up).

The funny thing is that when you look at it from the road, Owen’s statue really does look a bit like the Brigadier.

Shrewsbury

 

Sort of. If you squint. And that’s nothing more than wishful thinking on my part, perhaps, until you drive down to the river and reach the local park, and the Doctor Who influence on the whole town becomes strikingly clear.

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You see what I mean…

 

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How I learned to stop worrying and love Tom Bombadil

Today’s post is a stroll down memory lane; something I wrote earlier in the year for another blog that’s now offline. I put it here because to be honest, The Hobbit‘s been more in my thoughts this last week than Doctor Who has. This is respectfully dedicated to she-knows-who.

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There is an apocryphal story about Tolkien. It takes place in the Eagle and Child, a tavern in the middle of Oxford, just a few miles away from my home. Tolkien had gone there to meet with members of his writers’ group, which included among its ranks author and Narnia creator C.S. Lewis. The Hobbit was doing decent business, and rumour had it that Tolkien had been working on a sequel. As he read aloud his contribution to that session – an early draft of what would eventually become ‘A Long Expected Party’ – Lewis was heard to mutter “Oh, not more fucking elves”.

If you’re not a fan of fantasy novels – as I’m not – this sentiment is understandable. My father has always decried Lord of the Rings, on the grounds that “Magic seems a convenient get-out clause for whenever the characters are in an impossible situation”. That’s something of a generalisation, and not really true when applied to LOTR (although Gandalf’s deus ex machina appearances in The Hobbit do tend to grate after a while) but I can see his point. If you’re not willing to buy into the idea of magic – even a magic that has its own rules and limitations, such as that presented in Harry Potter – you’re not going to be enamoured with talking trees and wizards who can fight off a Balrog one minute and get felled by a shrouded ghost on a giant bat a couple of books later.

I first read The Hobbit when I was ten years old. It took me nine weeks and two library renewals, at which point my mother insisted I finish the thing. Lord of the Rings was a childhood non-starter – a novel (or three novels, depending on what edition you possess) that I tried only a couple of times, never going beyond chapter six. I was a mature reader, but looking back at it now I don’t think I was ready. If you’re a parent reading this, you’ll know what I mean. Sometimes the virgin experiences of great art, literature or culture are wasted if they are given to people who aren’t old enough to know what they have. It’s a trap I’ve been anxious to avoid with my own children, with some success. I do wish I’d held off on Short Circuit.

But then in 2001 Peter Jackson strode forth from New Zealand, damaging the seats of several aircraft on his way, and produced a series of films that has become notorious for the best and the worst reasons. Because the Lord of the Rings film trilogy is a heavily flawed but ultimately quite exciting version of a set of books I’d never really cared about. And it’s this layer of detachment that allowed me to be relatively objective, at least up to a point. The truth is I harbour no great love for Middle Earth. My parents never lulled me to sleep to ‘The Road Goes Ever On And On’. I don’t have maps of the Shire peeling off the study wall. There is only room for one fixation in our house, and Doctor Who is currently it. But we mustn’t get into that now because we will be here all day.

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I went back to the books. The first film had recently come out, which meant that Viggo Mortensen’s intense, earnest delivery punctuated every line of Aragorn’s dialogue, which wasn’t a bad thing. Unfortunately I could also hear Orlando Bloom every time Legolas opened his mouth, and this practically sent me to sleep. Not that some of the prose wasn’t doing that already. A friend of mine – a writer himself, and a very good one – pointed out that you could summarise Fellowship of the Ring in one paragraph: “Trees! More trees! Big trees. Old trees.” He exaggerates only mildly.

The simple truth is that it’s very easy to knock Tolkien’s prose. His structure is all over the place, with climaxes and mini-climaxes and long, first-person flashback scenes in the manner of nineteenth century classics, which is not a problem except when it gets in the way. The opening hundred pages of Return of the King, for instance, are a disaster, consisting as they do largely of Pippin standing on the walls of Minas Tirith while the air is filled with foreboding and dread – it’s almost a relief when the orcs turn up. At the end of the book, the ring is vanquished, before we’re given a further eighty pages (or thereabouts) of singing elves who drink more wine than a group of English teachers at an end-of-term gathering. He then drops in a colossal anti-climax in which the Hobbits chase away an elderly shell of a wizard, and yes I know it’s important thematically, but after the siege of the Black Gate it’s such a colossal let-down. The world that Tolkien creates is vast and wondrous, and his imagination is a thing of beauty and grandeur, but the way in which he chooses to write about this world is heavily inconsistent.

Things don’t get any better when we talk about the characters. Frodo spends most of ROTK whining about how heavy the ring has become, while Sam – arguably the book’s real hero – carries him all the way to Mount Doom. Amusing, also, is Tolkien’s tendency to have Aragorn, Gandalf or Elrond introduce the principals by their full names and genealogical history whenever another character is thrown into the mix. Or, as my friend Gareth puts it (to the tune of the Monty Python Lumberjack Song):

“D’you like my sword, it’s been reforged,
I mended it myself
With Gimli son of Gloin
And Legolas the Elf

We’re the Fellowship and we’re OK
There’s nine of us, oops, now there’s eight…”

“It’s not very good,” Gareth insists (of the song, I should emphasise, rather than the books). Well, neither was Lost, and they dragged that out for years.

But a curious thing happened: I became far more incensed with the second and third films, and the changes they’d made, than I could ever be with Fellowship. And of course, it’s because I’d read the books first, but this escaped me at the time – all I could think about in 2003 was the ownership I’d taken of the novels, and how the films were less than I’d imagined they would be. Gone was Gandalf’s subterranean battle with the Balrog, which became a ‘thing of slime’ in the depths, and who Gandalf pursued – or was it the other way round? – up an enormous flight of stairs. Gone too was the epic confrontation at the gates of Minas Tirith between Gandalf and the Witch King – my favourite passage in the entire trilogy and one that upset me greatly with its cinematic omission. (Those of you who’ve seen the extended editions will know that it did make the lengthier version of Return of the King, albeit in a greatly altered form. I hated it. It’s a classic example of why you should be careful what you wish for.)

In its place, of course, is a lot of comic relief. Gimli becomes the short, funny one, in the same way that Strax would become a comedy Sontaran in Doctor Who (but again, we won’t go into that). Pippin has apparently developed dyspraxia. Christopher Lee falls off a tower. And don’t get me started on the drinking contest – a scene with so staggeringly obvious a punch line that even my four-year-old could have seen it coming.

But Legolas, of course – who takes centre stage in the battle of wines – is the master of the obvious. His role on screen, it seems, is to abandon the eloquence and intensity of his literary counterpart, and provide a sort of descriptive audio commentary for the deaf, preferably without making anything that we might label a facial expression. When Aragorn and his friends approach the Passage of the Dead, Legolas is heard to mutter “The horses are restless”. Well, we can see that. The whinnying and snorting gave it away. In the video game he’s no better, crying “The mists swirl here also!” when you’re knee deep in the stuff. When my other half and I emerged from the cinema we decided that Legolas was the equivalent of the Microsoft paperclip – another one-dimensional creation whose role was to state the obvious at the most inconvenient moment. “It looks like you’re being attacked by orcs. Would you like help?”.

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On the other hand, there was no Tom Bombadil.

Bear with me. This has a happy ending But in my early twenties, I despised Bombadil and his incessant prancing and stupid Enid Blyton way of talking. “Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow / Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.” Fine. Don’t have him on your paintball team. Bombadil seemed to be a source of constant annoyance, a child in a world inhabited by men. I wanted to find out what would happen to Frodo and Sam and whether they would reach Mordor in one piece, and the interludes with Tom and his radiant wife were getting in the way. It came as a huge relief to discover that they’d dropped him from the films, although if he had been cast, I suspect Owen Wilson would have been an inspired choice.

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When I went back to the books a couple of years ago, I re-read the passages with Tom, and found myself chuckling. And then laughing. Tom didn’t just fit this time; the whole book somehow seemed to be about him. I lingered over the chapters he inhabits with a curious sense of belonging, reluctant – as I’m sure Frodo must have been – to leave the confines of Tom and Goldberry’s home and venture out into the great beyond. I still don’t miss his presence in the films: structurally he doesn’t fit, at least not so early in an already truncated narrative, and the tone is off. But I found him charming and mysterious and fascinating instead of a source of irritation, and when Emily found me a book of Tolkien’s The Adventures of Tom Bombadil at a book amnesty last year, I was thrilled.

I’m sure that fatherhood has something to do with this. Tom represents security and solace in a dangerous world, and who would not wish this upon their children? By the time I re-read Lord of the Rings I had already introduced my eldest to The Hobbit, having read it to him over a number of evenings. It was the longest book we’d attempted and I managed by cheating, skimming over the geographical descriptions in the manner of William Goldman in The Princess Bride. But he was fascinated by Mirkwood, and the dragon that slept in his cave, and even before we’d finished the book he’d been busy with the crayons and Lego.

 

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Clockwise from left: wood elves feasting; a hobbit and his hole; Smaug’s cave (complete with spade so that he can bury the treasure he steals).

 

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“Daddy,” he’d said one afternoon, “What are ents?”

“Ents are basically trees that can walk and talk. They’re very very wise, and they’re very, very old.”
“Are they even older than you?”
“Yes, yes, all right, very funny.”
“And are they even fatter?”
“Don’t push your luck, kid.”

It took me years to realise that part of the appeal of The Hobbit is being able to experience it through the eyes of a child. I said earlier that as a child I wasn’t ready. Paradoxically I don’t think I was ready as a young adult either, having reached the age when you’re far too grown up for your own good – a sort of artificially mature Susan Pevensie, without the tits. I had to become a father myself before entering the second childhood that I now proudly inhabit, and my world is so much better for it.

But there are times when you have to stop empathising and start comforting, and I came unstuck one night towards the end. With The Hobbit, you see, it was the ending that stayed. Largely because my first exposure to it hadn’t been the book; it had been a staged adaptation in the school hall by a travelling theatre company. Fellow pupils were plucked from the classroom hours beforehand to take on supporting roles as accompanying dwarves or goblins. The dumbed-down approach the theatre group took was to dispense with the final quarter of the book and have Bilbo steal the treasure and dispatch the dragon with nary so much as a whisper of protest. Gone was the destruction of Esgaroth, the siege of Erebor and the Battle of Five Armies – and, crucially, the death of Thorin. Instead, the impetuous dwarf lives to shake Bilbo’s hand and then head off back to his home under the mountain. Reading the story some time later, and being unfamiliar with literary conceits, I was struck by the decision to dispense with such a major character, and it lingered for some time.

So when Joshua and I read the book, I became overtly theatrical. When it came to ‘Riddles in the Dark’ I adopted my best Andy Serkis impression and leaned in closer with each enunciated phrase, until he started to look uncomfortable. When it got to the spiders in Mirkwood, I would run my fingers up and down his arm in between paragraphs, in much the same way that Emily once did to me during the Shelob’s Lair sequence in Return of the King. You have to have some fun.

But I remember that penultimate chapter. I remember the night we sat in the lounge, before all the official Lego licensing and commercial hype about the new trilogy, and the controversy over frame rates and the treatment of horses. I remember how he felt when Bilbo was ushered into the tent to reconcile with a dying dwarf king. I remember, because we took ownership of this ourselves, and I laid my own stamp upon this before showing him what others were achieved – I would much rather he built his own artistic vision rather than relying on that of someone else, as I now wish I had done with Lord of the Rings. And I remember because I’d wondered how he would react to the departure of Thorin, given that he sat through The Lion King without batting an eyelid.

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So when the time came, I over-egged the pudding. In sombre tones, I showed him Michael Hague’s accompanying illustration, remarking “Look, there’s Thorin. He doesn’t look well, does he?”
“Yes,” came the response, “but maybe he’ll get better.”
“I don’t think so, Josh. I think this might be it for him.”
“Well,” he said, unsure, “he doesn’t look too ill.”
“Let’s find out.”

Alarm bells should have been ringing at this point. You could pick things up from his tone, and I don’t know why I didn’t. Perhaps it’s because I wanted this death to mean something to him, to show him that it was important, to emphasise the death as a part of the story, to avoid desensitisation. I put on my best dying-on-a-slab voice and delivered Thorin’s ‘farewell, good thief’ monologue. Then I recounted the deaths of Fili and Kili, who had died defending their uncle. Then we reached the end and I said “That was kind of a sad one, wasn’t it?”

He burst into tears.

I felt like the worst father in the world, and I told Emily so, as she cuddled Joshua in the study, while giving me over-the-glasses looks that said You got yourself into this, now you can get yourself out of it. I reminded Josh that it was just a story.

“It’s still sad, though! Thorin’s dead!”
“Look, it’s fine. You’re very tired and I think that’s partly what’s making you so upset, and if you get some sleep you might not be quite so upset in the morning. It’s all right to be sad, but in a while I don’t think you’ll feel quite so sad. Honestly. Now, look, would you like to have Gandalf in with you tonight?”
“Is that Gandalf?”
“Yes,” I said, lifting down the figurine. “He normally sits on the piano, but how about we put him in your room next to your bed? Then he can cast some magic spells to make sure you have nice dreams.”
“Yes, but Daddy, he’s made of plastic.”

You live and learn.

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The inevitable Hobbit / Doctor Who thing

Ta-dah!

I do – I promise – have something more substantial than random meme generation in the works, but that’ll have to wait until next week. Right now much of my time is taken up moving furniture, because we’re having the place redecorated. (I don’t like it.)

At the moment (as the euphoria from the Star Wars trailer fades and everyone realises that it was just a collection of the sort of stuff you’d hope to see in the trailer for a new Star Wars film) our attention turns east, to the fires of Mount Doom: a place not visited, as far as I’m aware, in the new Peter Jackson movie, although given the other liberties he’s taken with the story, I wouldn’t put it past him. The basic problem Jackson had when he came to do The Hobbit is similar to the one that Lucas experienced – when it came to actually telling the stories, they both started in the middle. Jackson therefore found it impossible to produce The Hobbit as the standalone tale it was originally meant to be: it was always going to become a prequel to Lord of the Rings, and the first part at least suffers for it.

Sometimes, telling a story out of order works wonders. Pulp Fiction does it – the impact of the film would be lessened considerably were it not for its out-of-sequence narrative, which leaves a character who dies in the middle very much alive come the relatively upbeat end credits. And, of course, some of the best Doctor Who stories work in the same way; the ballad of River Song may have suffered in its execution (not to mention a complete lack of chemistry between the two leads), but it was at least an interesting story for about…ooh, an episode or two. Similarly, some of the best Big Finish productions start in the middle – ‘Creatures of Beauty‘ is an obvious example, as is ‘The Natural History of Fear’, which keeps you guessing and ultimately saves its crucial reveal for (literally) the last two minutes.

The idea of Doctor Who and out-of-sequence narratives makes for a rather tenuous connection to The Hobbit, of course. But I’ve written – more than once – about Tolkien’s mystical realm, and its tentative links with everyone’s second-favourite Time Lord (after the Corsair). A quick Google for fanfiction throws up a large variety of stories, none of which I intend to read, although some of the more interesting summaries are included herewith –

Timeless Wings (TimeLordHowl) – “Izzy is a Time Lord who has suffered more than most – she’s lived through genetic fusion, which is how she got her wings. Not only that, but she is stranded in Middle Earth during one of the most important times in its history.”

Everything is going to be fine (Nadarhem) – “When the Doctor crash lands with Clara on an unknown planet in an unknown dimension het thought he was just having a bad day. When he finds out it wasn’t the Tardis that brought them there. He realises that this bad day may turn in a horrible day. When on an Patrol near Dol-Guldur Legolas finds two odd people who claim to be timetravelers he knows it’s going to be a long walk home.”

Akin (Pie In The Face) – “The Doctor, while tracking down an interesting bit of Void matter, runs into Legolas, who is now living in present-day London. During journeys through time and space the two learn that Time Lords and Elven Princes are more akin then they thought.”

Out of Middle Earth: A Journey Through Time and Space (13GaladrielofLorien) – “Teenage Galadriel and her two best friends Celeborn and Melion are teleported to the modern world where they meet five modern day teenagers: Aralynn, Jacen, Bethany, Dae, and Diana. Elsewhere, the 10th Doctor along with companion Rose are accidentally aged down so that they are both teenagers. The twelve of them end up meeting and must unite to save the universe as we know it.”

Then, of course –

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As opposed to, say…

Smeagol-Gollum

“I saw a ‘webisode’ or ‘minisode’ or something a while ago,” said Gareth the other morning, “in which the Tardis filled up with multiple copies of Clara. They started talking and complaining – and, of course, two stood near enough said ‘you think that’s bad, we have to share a bed!’ (with knowing look at each other). While I’m certainly not objecting to such thoughts, or similar comments from Amy when she met herself in the two-five-minute sketch thing, you really couldn’t imagine two Rorys saying such things, could you?”

“In Who, definitely not,” I said. “In Torchwood, almost certainly…”

All of which led to the image you saw at the top of this post. I asked Gareth if he could think of any more. “Not many off the top of my head,” was the response. “I suppose you could show a picture of Enemy Of The World and call it ‘The Two Troughers’. Or the bit from The Five-Ish Doctors with David Troughton and call it ‘The Return Of King Peladon’.”
“I’ll give it some thought. It could always be a series.”
“Many things are.”

In the meantime – and also thanks to Gareth – there’s this.

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The inevitable Star Wars / Doctor Who thing

I had to watch the trailer three times in succession. It’s been dissected, discussed and cross-examined to death by people who have forgotten more about Star Wars than I’ll ever know. It’s been parodied and reconstructed in Lego. I got reasonably excited when the Falcon appeared, but I think I’ll wait until 2015 before I decide whether or not I’m going to hate this. I’m just not that passionate about Star Wars. Don’t get me wrong; they’re a big part of my childhood. I get cross with the special edition revisions, and I think the prequels are soulless (if occasionally exciting) pap. (There’s a lot of blame cast at the likes of Jar Jar and Hayden Christensen, most notably his complete lack of chemistry with Portman, but really the problems with episodes I to III are all connected with the absence of Han Solo, who was the only character in the original set of films who wasn’t taking it seriously. Without him, Star Wars disappears up its own arsehole, which is exactly what happened,)

But cheerful enthusiasm is far as it goes with me – I don’t hold a grudge against Lucas for ‘ruining’ the franchise, because you’ve always got the originals to fall back on, and it would be churlish to get cross with him for making new stuff that didn’t live up to the orig-

[Lightbulb] My goodness. Is this what Doctor Who is like for everyone else?

Anyway, mashups between the Whoniverse and Lucas’ space opera are all over the internet. So here are mine. The obvious…

 

The marginally less obvious…

The what-do-you-mean-you’ve-never-seen-Terror-of-the-Zygons-nod to Classic Who

And going off at a final tangent, here’s my middle finger to all those idiots who seriously believe you can’t have black stormtroopers.

Remember, you may talk about Jango Fett all you want, but you’re going to have to work pretty damned hard to convince me it’s not thinly veiled racism.

Anyway, roll on 2015. But please, for the love of God, no more Gungans.

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