Monthly Archives: September 2015

Watch out for Daleks, Charlie Brown

You’ve seen it, right? Half of you have probably changed your Facebook profile pictures. It’s not as flexible as it might be – there are fewer outfit options than I’d like – but for a web-based bit of fun it’s really rather good. I am, of course, talking about the Peanutizeme tool that enables you to create character likenesses in the Charles Schultz vein and pop them into assorted backgrounds, just in time for the Peanuts movie that’s due in November.

The second thing you do when you get a thing like this – after doing yourself, of course – is to think of a particular passion and try and render it. There are various Doctor Who versions doing the rounds, and most of them are better than mine: still, here are mine. First, the Ninth Doctor and Jack.

The Doctor isn’t too bad, although he has a little too much hair (the other choice was entirely bald, which simply didn’t work). Jack isn’t quite right (that’s supposed to be a vortex manipulator on his wrist, by the way) but that fiendish smile speaks volumes. Still, this one got a retweet from Paul Cornell, so I’m not complaining.

Next: the Tenth Doctor, with Sarah Jane and a rather grumpy-looking Rose, in ‘School Reunion’.

It’s not very fair to Rose, because by this point she’d really outgrown the Jeremy Kyle look, but I remember her being a general pain in this episode, and I have punished her accordingly. The robot Snoopy I found on the internet, and I now want one.

Finally: the Eleventh Doctor, accompanied by Amy and Clara.

I will leave it to you to work out which one is which. (Sadly there was no mullet option for the hair, and the jacket is the wrong colour, but aside from that it’s a reasonable likeness.)

And as for me? Well, yes, I did one. Actually I did the whole family. What’s that? You want to see it? Really?

Oh, go on then.

Peanuts_Portrait

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Review: ‘The Witch’s Familiar’

9-2 Witch 9

Well, that was shit.

Warning: Contains Spoilers

Some while ago, I wrote a couple of blog entries that dealt with foolish predictions. It was an exercise in humility, and a good excuse to showcase some of the times I’d got it spectacularly wrong. Matt Smith was covered in some detail. So was Donna Noble. I maintain I was right about ‘The Name of the Doctor’.

But I got it wrong last week. I assumed that the cliffhanger was going to have universe-wide ramifications, and in a way you can’t blame me, because that’s the sort of thing the chief writer does. It was therefore something of a blessed relief when we’d dealt with two of the supposedly destroyed things within the space of a minute and a half, while the third one languished in the background, turning up precisely when it was needed. It meant – in an instant – that the story no longer became a wibbly wobbly mess (well, it did, but only in the last few minutes) and instead became far more straightforward. Straightforward isn’t necessarily good, but at least I don’t have to start drawing the flow diagrams so I can explain this one to the kids.

Those who complain (I haven’t checked, but I’m going to assume that people did) about the inadequate resolutions are entirely missing the point: Doctor Who’s cliffhanger denouements are supposed to be a bit rubbish. Sarah Jane falls three feet instead of thirty. Leela fires on the guards coming up the corridor. And the Doctor channels his regenerative energy into a convenient spare hand (we’re coming back to that later). As outcomes go, I’ve seen worse, although it features gratuitous use of slow motion. You can almost hear the score of The Matrix rising in the background.

The opening scene of this episode – in which Missy discusses said cliffhanger with a restrained, upended Clara (fifty-seven fan fiction writers just punched the air) – mirrored both the third series of Sherlock and, curiously, the opening of the second Monkey Island game; at least it did in my head. We’re going to assume that Missy’s explanation is correct, because otherwise we’ll be here all night and it is, in any case, of no real consequence. What follows is a prison break, of sorts, as the two reluctant allies navigate through the Skaro sewage system (ostensibly an excuse for lots of goo – actually a vital plot point) in search of the Doctor, who is still looking after Davros.

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‘The Witch’s Familiar’ is a story of two halves. The scenes with Missy and Clara are, for the most part, reasonably entertaining, largely because Clara is back in ‘nice’ mode and Gomez remains ambiguous and untrustworthy through to her very last encounter with the metal titans (in which, like Michael Caine, she is suddenly struck by a very good idea). The interdependence between the two is played out through a scene in which Clara hides inside the case of a Dalek – something you really feel she ought to be better at, given how her character was introduced – while Missy spouts off a bunch of stuff we didn’t know we didn’t know. “Emotion fires the gun,” she explains, when Clara comes very close to exterminating her. Speaking of ‘exterminate’, there’s a reason the Daleks say it so often: their translators have an auto-filter, and certain words are blocked, replaced with “I am a Dalek” (again, a vital plot point) and “Exterminate”. “That’s why they keep yelling ‘Exterminate’,” Missy insists. “It’s how they reload.”

This is so utterly lame I don’t even know where to begin, but if the Doctor is half human on his mother’s side, surely we can grant Missy a little headcanon. It jars, but it’s not of fundamental importance: just something to add to my list of gripes. (I don’t know how Missy managed to clear out a space designed for a mutant brain so that there was enough room for a fully-grown human, while still retaining all the essential circuitry, but no one asked that question in ‘The Space Museum’ or ‘Planet of the Daleks’ either, so this is nitpicking.) Thus, Gomez and Coleman go trundling off through walls of dead Dalek, coming to the rescue. While all this is going on, the Doctor has been messing around with dangerous electrical equipment and stealing an amputee’s wheelchair. I don’t know why they bothered.

The problem is that the scenes with Davros are supposed to be an insight into the relationship between the two of them (I was going to use the words ‘eye-opener’ but that really may be a pun too far). Unfortunately they’re built on a colossal lie: Davros intended for the Doctor to heal him, and the Doctor, in turn, seems entirely unsurprised when the regenerative energy wakes up all the organic Dalek matter in the depths of the Dalek city, leading to its apparent destruction. This is two old enemies trying to outdo each other – it’s like ‘Curse of Fatal Death’ without all the boob gags – and any profundity that might have been lurking in their little exchanges is more or less rendered moot. Instead, all we do is shout at the screen in horror that the Doctor’s been taken in so easily, only to discover not long afterwards that he hasn’t.

Other parallels with Sherlock play out over the course of the story. We already witnessed Missy’s return from the dead – mirroring, to an extent, that of Moriarty. This week, it’s glasses: Charles’ Magnussen’s were a colossal red herring, while the Doctor’s sunglasses turn out to be more than just decorative. It leaves Capaldi with both hands free for eyebrow-plucking, I suppose. The Daleks, meanwhile, spend most of the episode in a single room, doing not an awful lot: it would feel like a colossal waste, were it not for the fact that this is almost certainly leading to something else, on another day, and probably evoked in Power Ranger yellow.

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There was good stuff. Missy’s opening explanation was the funniest thing I’ve seen in Doctor Who since the Addams Family gag in ‘Flatline’. Clara is her old likeable self, and the scenes inside the Dalek – while protracted – were fun, and creepily reminiscent of the closing moments of ‘Asylum’. Unfortunately the concept of Daleks infused with Time Lord DNA just doesn’t seem very…Dalek, really, and the convenient reappearance of the TARDIS is poorly done (although once more we are tantalisingly spared a peek at its interior). And someone really needs to have a word with the sound mixer, particularly when Michelle Gomez is speaking. We could hardly hear a thing, and that’s a shame because some of the dialogue really was quite fun.

Still, I’ll say this in closing. Gareth is not watching these episodes, but he just emailed me saying he’d read a ‘review’ which said something like “For God’s sake, Moffat, please can we just have a story with a beginning, a middle and an end?”. For the sake of giving him an easy summary, I have written one:

“In response to the ‘review’ you read: it turned out that all the stuff we saw last week was a red herring, and the Doctor had actually managed to save them both, we just didn’t know it. He did spend half the story thinking Clara was dead. Then he stole Davros’s chair and tried to escape. Meanwhile Missy and Clara, who were not dead, made their way back through the sewers, which are actually walls of dead Dalek (although they’re still awake).

Then Clara hid inside a Dalek. Meanwhile Davros was about to die and asked to see one last sunrise, and couldn’t open his eyes. So the Doctor used some golden sparkly regenerative energy to heal him. Except that Davros is connected to all the other Daleks via some tubes that were ACTUALLY SNAKES, and when the Doctor touched the tubes, they all got Time Lord powers. Except the ones in the sewer were also affected, and they rose up through the floor like big piles of poo and killed all the other Daleks.

Then the Doctor reassembled his TARDIS, using a pair of magic sunglasses.”

Put like that, it really was shit.

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God is in the detail (9-1)

Behold! I return to sweep away the less plausible fan theories and the nonsense flooding the Doctor Who forums. Clear out the rot! Banish those stupid ideas about Missy! Yes, folks, we return once more to our regular series examining the CLUES and SIGNS from each new episode and WHAT THEY REALLY MEAN. And this time, WHAT THEY REALLY MEAN turns out to be the Tenth Doctor.

(Veteran readers of this blog will note a change in numbering style. I can’t keep on with those Roman numerals. I was having to Google them every week.)

Today, ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’. First, have a look at Davros’ hospital on Skaro.

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Still not sure why that design is familiar? Look again.

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(I really wanted one of Zippy with his mouth closed, but in all of them his hand was in the way. Oh well.)

Roy Skelton voiced the classic Daleks in many original Doctor Who stories, as well as providing the voice for both Zippy and George in ITV’s Rainbow. And any excuse, of course, to drag out this.

Back in the minefield, we have a young Davros, surrounded by Things That Lurk In The Earth.

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There are forty-five discernible hands here. The number forty-five has a deep and tangible significance in the expanded Whoniverse: the Master once owned a Type 45 TARDIS; in Torchwood the 45 Club were a group of Miracle Day survivors who embarked upon a suicide pact by jumping forty-five floors; Forty-Five was also a set of Big Finish audio stories that all linked to the number in one way or another, produced to mark Doctor Who‘s forty-fifth birthday. Tenth Doctor David Tennant will be forty-five next birthday. Oh, and story number forty-five was ‘The Mind Robber’, known for being generally fantastic, and ripe for a revisit. Such as this one.

But there’s more. Doctor Who turned forty-five in 2008. And in 2008 series four was broadcast. With the Tenth Doctor. And Peter Capaldi. And Davros. THIS IS NOT A COINCIDENCE.

Now, examine the stickers on the window of Clara’s classroom.

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The butterfly. It’s a symbol of change and renewal. The fact that both the butterfly and the snowflake are placed at opposite ends of Clara’s head is a SUREFIRE AND CONCRETE INDICATION that her face is about to change. And what sort of faces change when they renew themselves? That’s right. TIME LORD FACES.

But what of the snowflake? Could it symbolise, for example, this?

Elsa_Doc

Of course it does. The poses are identical. Moreover this particular scene takes place at Christmas, on Trenzalore, where it is usually snowing. From this we may therefore conclude that Clara will regenerate in the snow, and that her successor will be none other than Idina Menzel, who played Elsa in Frozen. How do we know? Well, her name is an anagram of ‘Inn? Lied! MAZE’, an explicit reference to Doctor Who in that it summarises ‘The God Complex’ in three words. It doesn’t get any more explicit or concrete than this. I swear.

Snowflakes also make an appearance here:

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There are twelve whole and visible snowflakes on those lower panels, which correspond to the twelve canonical Doctors. Up above, and on the left, there are a further three: the Watcher, the Valeyard and the War Doctor respectively. And the one that’s almost-but-not-quite there, just to the right? That’s Peter Cushing, obviously.

Finally, we’re back on the numbers. Take a look at the UNIT video screen.

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Ignore the text in the middle, and glance at the encircled numbers. Applying each to story titles, we get:

08 – The Reign of Terror

23 – The Ark

98 – The Ribos Operation

64 – The Time Monster

12 – The Romans

88 – The Deadly Assassin

It’s not obvious from the start, but every single one of these is linked to the Tenth Doctor. He visited Pompeii, which was inhabited by ‘The Romans’, and destroyed the Master’s tyrannical rule, or ‘Reign of Terror’. Lurking in the Satan Pit he found a ‘Monster’ that had been there since before the beginning of ‘Time’, and encountered Daleks who were protecting their Genesis ‘Ark’. And ‘The Ribos Operation’ is of course an anagram for ‘Barhop Notorieties’, which describes his last meeting with Jack.

Moreover, in ‘Blink’ the Tenth Doctor informs Sally Sparrow that the Weeping Angels were once known as ‘The Lonely Assassins’. Tenuous? How do you find these numbers when you examine the screen? That’s right. You look to your left. I will say that again in case it wasn’t clear. You LOOK. TO. YOUR. LEFT.

I think we all know what that means, don’t you? God, I missed this.

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Pigs

Pigs. You couldn’t move for them yesterday. The revelation that Prime Minister David Cameron may (as we go to press) or may not have inserted his genitals into the mouth of a dead pig during a societal initiation set the internet on fire. The press had a ball. Twitter almost imploded. It was a good day to bury bad news, which was presumably the entire point.

Certainly it doesn’t come as a total surprise. It’s the sort of thing fraternities do. That it allegedly happened to Cameron is not in itself important – we all do stupid things when we’re young, and it has no bearing on his ability or otherwise to run the country. If nothing else it’s a good chance for the left to get its own back after all the Corbyn-baiting that’s been going on over the past few weeks (one particularly amusing image I saw yesterday features an exchange between the two at the Battle of Britain memorial service – Cameron is asking “Why weren’t you singing?”, to which Corbyn responds “I felt safer with my mouth shut”). At the same time, it’s telling when the general reaction is not one of revulsion and disgust, but a series of knowing winks. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “What does it say about you when someone says ‘that man fucked a pig’ and half of the country goes ‘Yeah. I figure he probably did…’?”

Anyway. This doesn’t translate easily into Doctor Who – the hastily concocted image at the top aside, of course. If I really wanted to I could do something with the space pig that appears halfway through ‘Aliens of London’ but I’m really more inclined to delve deeper into history – at the extended version of Peter Davison’s appearance in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for instance.

Certainly when the story broke my first instinct, bizarrely, was to recall an early sequence in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, in which this doesn’t quite happen:

Phillip: Say, Terrance, what did the Spanish priest say to the Iranian gynecologist?
Terrance: I don’t know, Phillip. What?
[Phillip farts on Terrance’s face, and both get into hysterics over it]
Terrance: You’re such a pigfucker, Phillip!
Phillip: No, Terrance, that’s the British Prime Minister!
Terrance: Oh yeah! [farts]

Still. It’s not the first time a reckless, irresponsible blue Muppet got one of his extremities caught up in a pig.

Gonzo

You see what I mean.

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Review: ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’

Magician (8)

Big spoiler alert: don’t read this if you haven’t seen the episode. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

“It’s changing. What about you, Doctor?”

I wanted to love this. Really, I did. I have had enough of being grumpy. It’s no fun watching new Doctor Who episodes that you don’t enjoy. I don’t like being one of those people who spend all their time complaining about how the old light bulb was better. I have made a resolution this year to try and find the positive side for each story, and I’ll try and stick with that, but I can’t help it if the same old mistakes are cropping up time and again – and I’m talking about mine, as well as the ones the BBC are making.

The basic problem with ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ is the same one that’s dogged New Who ever since Moffat stepped into the chief writer’s chair. In the old days – and as recently as 2009 – the girl would be strapped to the table three feet from an advancing circular saw (as Terrance Dicks would have put it) and that would be the cliffhanger. Fast forward to 2015 and the cliffhanger is the scene in which she gets sawed in half, while the hero spends the next episode – or, in some cases, an entire series – stitching her back together.

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When this happened in series six, it was at least reasonably interesting, for about five minutes. You knew – of course you did – that the Doctor would manage to walk away from the lake, and that there would be a trick of some sort (although it didn’t stop conversation among several enthusiasts I knew who genuinely believed that this would be the end of the show). This was par for the course on Classic Who as well, albeit at a lower scale (which is part of the problem, but we’ll get to that). ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ – a story referenced both directly and indirectly in ‘Magician’ – features a notorious cliffhanger in which Lis Sladen falls three feet down a rocket silo. It is one of the weakest parts of the narrative, and yet it was somehow more effective than the end of tonight’s episode, if only because a low-key ending seems somehow more manageable (and believable) than dead companions and the prospect of a huge ripple effect from the Doctor’s actions.

The problem when you drop in a wibbly-wobbly bit of trickery like this on such a regular basis, you see, is that life as we know it ceases to have any real value. The first time I witnessed the death of Jean Grey – at the end of X-Men 2, in which she allows herself to be drowned so that the others can escape in the plane – I was genuinely upset. Then I went back to the comics, and discovered that Jean Grey dies every five minutes. Deaths ceased to mean anything in Marvel long ago; Charles Xavier has been reincarnated more often than Optimus Prime, and no one cares when Scott Summers carks it. I mean seriously, the guy’s a nob.

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The other difficulty is that by killing off leads (as the Daleks do tonight, in earnest) you automatically lose your audience’s interest. We know that the TARDIS will be back soon, and that Clara will return, because we’ve seen her in the rest of the series. Moreover, we can take a reasonable stab at how the Doctor’s going to do it, although the actual resolution will be stranger and more unnecessarily complicated than we can imagine. Hence the dramatic appeal lies entirely in the how, rather than the whether. This works on a week-by week basis when the girl is strapped to the table, because it becomes part of the routine, almost a recurring motif or in-joke. It is a transient thing, a means of structuring a story, and it is excusable because it is not ultimately what the story is about. When you repeatedly kill your babies, largely for the sake of getting the Twitter feeds buzzing, the supposedly devastating impact you’re aiming for is lost faster than the top half of Captain Kirk’s uniform. Or, as Clara says in ‘Deep Breath’, “Never start with your final sanction. You’ve got nowhere to go but backwards.”

There were some lovely moments. The monster-of-the-week is a man made of snakes who glides around on Heelys. The opening – in which Thals with bows fight off Kaleds with biplanes (at least I think it was that way round) – was suitably bleak, and the hand mines are one of Moffat’s better inventions, even if (or perhaps because) they evoke the finale of Carrie. Michelle Gomez is back – with no explanation – and still splendid, whether she’s casually blasting UNIT agents outside a cafe (supposedly in Italy, although as Emily pointed out, it was “probably Devon”), or singing opera on the floor of a prison cell. In many respects Missy is no more the Master than Simm was, but in all honesty perhaps our assessment of her is more lenient for her lack of male genitalia. The personality differences and pop culture references seem forgivable, somehow, as she herself is so different – and when she talks about her age-old friendship with the Doctor, you can almost believe it.

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The supporting cast are functionally competent, rather than outstanding, but that’s largely because they have comparatively little to do. Likewise, Hettie MacDonald’s direction fails to match the exemplary job she did on ‘Blink’, but this is not entirely her fault: the story (or lack thereof) is partly to blame. The one scene that will make the YouTube playlists for years to come is the Doctor’s triumphant emergence from the smoke on the roof of a tank in a twelfth-century castle in the middle of Essex, open-necked, and doing his best Pete Townshend. It’s a standout moment that is very hard to dislike, for all its cheesiness: here, we are told, is a new, less highly-strung Doctor (excuse the guitar pun), far more like Troughton than Hartnell, with dashes of Tom Baker here and there.

Moffat’s determination to resolve the Mystery of Peter Capaldi’s Face is manifest in several oblique references to the series in which Caecilius appears. The Shadow Proclamation is revisited (they’ve redecorated; we didn’t like it), with Kelly Hunter still in residence as the Architect. The big draw, of course, is a welcome return from Julian Bleach. I’ve long insisted that Bleach’s Davros impersonation is like a wheelchair-bound Emperor Palpatine, and indeed the end-of-episode confrontation between scientist and Time Lord directly mirrored the scene in Return of the Jedi in which Luke comes face to face with the Sith Lord, right down to the cuff release.

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Ethically, this is clearly the Doctor’s Hitler moment. The dilemma from ‘Genesis’ is played out in full, with Capaldi’s Doctor apparently about to pull the trigger. It’s evoked in a way that it wasn’t in series eight, in which ethical debate was unnecessarily shoehorned: the episode here is at least about the lesson, rather than an otherwise entertaining story with a pointless message tacked on, like a 1980s American children’s show. The Doctor steps out of the fog on the battlefield, pointing a Dalek gun at the terrified Davros and bellowing the one word I really hoped he wouldn’t say; it’s a line that perhaps shouldn’t be crossed, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to at least explore the possibility. Otherwise, how do we grow?

The problem is that several corners are cut to get there. Missy seems genuinely surprised when she gets vapourised. The TARDIS – this previously impenetrable shell that kept out the assembled hordes of Genghis Khan and even put up a fight against the Z-neutrino energy at the heart of the Crucible – crumbles in a matter of seconds against a few Dalek lasers. And on the basis of this episode the Doctor himself is pushed to breaking point far too easily. This is the man who would not go back for Adric, would not spare Gallifrey, would not save Pompeii, and yet he’s apparently ready to rip apart the universe for two people: one Moffat’s creation, the other his eunuch. I don’t want to go on about ego again, but it really feels like that’s where we’re going.

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Perhaps the ethical deliberation is coming next week, or later in the series – perhaps this, rather than sorrowful introspection, will be the subject of the Doctor-fixated episode eleven. Herein lies the other difficulty with watching ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’: structurally it’s all over the place, with cameos and references that evoke a series-wide arc rather than the sort of thing that fits a single story. The frozen plane stunt feels like an afterthought, a missed opportunity. Kate Stewart is come and gone in a flash. And crucially, it takes forty-five minutes for not a great deal to happen. But that’s the way it used to be. Nothing happens in the first episode of ‘The Mind Robber’, and yet it’s a masterpiece (Derrick Sherwin’s ability to spin straw into gold helps, of course). The first episode of ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ is mostly a group of scientists staring at a monitor. ‘The Ark in Space’ is one of my favourite stories, but it opens with three people walking around empty corridors for twenty minutes before one of them opens a cupboard. Viewed as part of a composite, they work because the rest of the stories morph around them.

The problem is that this isn’t the way New Who works: we are instead given standalone episodes that will never form part of a cohesive whole because the series dynamic has changed so much. It isn’t enough to say that series four is “dark”. Series four has ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’, which is about as silly an episode of New Who as you get in Tennant’s run. The story arcs we now endure tend to play out thematically but not stylistically. The buzz around series nine has been that of a return to the multi-episodic stories of the original series – certainly the cliffhangers are back this year, with a vengeance – but the 21st century production process may be more of a hindrance than an assist. Tonal consistency is easy to maintain across a single story that spans several episodes; it’s nigh-on impossible with an entire series with a multitude of writers and directors and approaches. I can see what they’re trying to do but I wonder if we’ve gone too far down the road to ever go back to the way things were, much as I might want to. And that’s the gamble: an episode in which nothing happens may, in the grand scheme of things, be the important preamble to a larger whole. That would be great. But given the way Doctor Who is produced these days, it may simply be remembered as an episode in which nothing happens.

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Categories: New Who, Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Early in the morning

 

Series nine starts tomorrow, which means that Brian of Morbius is going to consist largely of reviews, commentary and ridiculously speculative posts, at least for the next few weeks. So let’s take a breather before we dive in, shall we?

If you follow politics you can’t have failed to notice the scandal at the Battle of Britain commemorative service this week when socialist left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, an agnostic republican, got into hot water for apparently refusing to sing a song that asks God to look after the Queen. Presumably this is entirely different hot water to the sort he’d be in if he’d actually sung it and the press had been able to run with “THE HYPOCRISY OF JEREMY CORBYN”.

In non-Who related news, I had a brief conversation on Facebook yesterday with a chap who said he constantly misheard one of the lines in the Postman Pat theme, which sounded like “Justice Day is dawning”. This in turn made him think you could reinvent Pat as some sort of muscly action hero, or at least a costumed vigilante, probably played by Bruce Willis, in the Batman vs. Superman vein.

Something like this.

 

“Great idea!” I said. “Maybe Arthur Selby could stick a huge lantern up in Greendale Crags for whenever they need to summon him. ”

And that in turn led to this, which is only funny if you know your Kevin Costner.

 

 

See you on the other side.

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Return to Paradise Towers

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Memory’s a funny thing. It’s literally not what it used to be. You can’t trust it. There are people in my family who will often claim the high ground in any argument with the words “I know what I saw”. To which the obvious answer is, in the words of Steven Novella, “No you don’t. You have a distorted and constructed memory of a distorted and constructed perception, both of which are subservient to whatever narrative your brain is operating under.”

For example, fellow blogger Frivolous Monsters once recounted a tale of how a slightly awkward exchange with Jon Pertwee, some two decades previously, was actually far less awkward in reality than it had been in his head. It is a good story, and worth reading. But his point – and mine – is that it’s very easy to look back at a not-so-terrible thing and make it far more terrible for the sake of dramatic emphasis, or perhaps because it somehow defines who you are. On a lesser scale, ‘Paradise Towers’ is thus what I am going to term ‘one of my Pertwee moments’, largely because when I watched it again the other week it was far less terrible than I remembered it.

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1987 was a dark place in Doctor Who’s history. The new theme was plodding and tedious. The Rani – one of the most potentially interesting villains – was reduced to cosplay. The companion was all about stage school theatrics and a lot of screaming. A wig stood in for Colin Baker. Pip and Jane’s script for the series opener was a disaster, and ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ wasn’t much better. Until two weeks ago I used to tell people that ‘Dragonfire’ was the only half-decent story of the lot (and even that lost a lot in translation) but as it turns out, I rather misremembered my childhood. Because it turns out that the Doctor and Mel’s little foray into a derelict block of flats is, in fact, really rather good.

The story – such as it is – concerns a lot of back and forth between one lair and another, with groups of isolated factions locked in a stalemate that goes back decades. The building’s architect turned out to be a twisted maniac whose quest for perfection extended to murdering the people who wanted to live in his buildings, lest they should spoil them; the citizens of Paradise Towers thus banded together and left him trapped in the basement, creating a monster in the process. Meanwhile, the grown-ups have gone to fight a war (with the exception of the cowardly Pex – more on him later) leaving their children to spend adolescence roaming the complex in an extended game of capture-the-flag, while the caretakers clean up the graffiti and the elderly cower behind locked doors, eating the rats and occasionally each other.

Paradise (8)

It’s an intriguing premise, and it owes as much to the writer’s experience of council estate London as it does to J.G. Ballard. The lifts never reach the right floors. “Let me tell you,” says Stephen Wyatt in a Doctor Who Magazine interview, “about the lifts. They had no numbers for the floors on them. They were just tin boxes and you got into them. And you pressed a button and went up in them and a door opened and it may or may not have been the floor you wanted. But kids would get in the lift and press at random seven or eight buttons and get out again. So when you got into the lift it had six previous instructions to complete and in the end, in despair, I got out on a floor at random and walked up the rest of the stairs.”

Wandering the corridors are the Kangs, gangs of teenage girls (all the boys, presumably, off fighting the war) whose rivalry is based solely on what colour they do their hair. They have names like Bin Liner and Fire Escape, play games with the secret alleviators (no, that’s not a typographical error) and use the words “Ice hot” at every conceivable opportunity. The one remaining yellow Kang is killed at the start of the story, leaving only two gangs remaining: they’re much of a muchness, but one assumes that at every Doctor Who convention there is at least one argument over whether the Red Kangs or the Blue Kangs were best. (Curiously, the first series of Red Dwarf – which aired the following year – featured an episode wherein red and blue hats were the cause of a devastating religious war between two sects of a race of cat people. I would like to hope this is not a coincidence.)

Of course, when you actually go into one of the flats, you’re not necessarily any safer. The residences in Paradise Towers are occupied by British character actresses, including Elizabeth Spriggs and Brenda Bruce as the deliciously horrible Tilda and Tabby (so named, apparently, when Wyatt overcame writer’s block by glancing down at his keyboard), and Judy Cornwell (Keeping Up Appearances) as their timid-but-righteous neighbour. It is Tilda and Tabby who are the most fun to watch, particularly in the earlier scenes in which the cannibalistic undertones bubble under the surface like the bubbles in a witch’s cauldron. Pex and Mel even play Hansel and Gretel, after a fashion, although it’s Mel who almost ends up in the oven. This is, as I discovered, a wonderful way to frighten your children, if you show them the story in the evening:

MEL: You are joking, aren’t you? Tilda? Tabby?
TABBY: We don’t see this as a matter for humour, Mel dear. We mean every word.
[Tabby menaces Mel with the toasting fork while Tilda throws a shawl over Mel’s face.]
TILDA: In our experience, Mel dear, it is much better not to struggle too much. It only causes needless distress.
[Mel screams. Roll credits.]
ME: Right, bedtime.

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Sadly Mel doesn’t get eaten. It might have evened up the narrative a bit: her behaviour throughout the story is so irrational it borders on the insane. The rot sets in as early as the first episode, with the irritating fitness freak sitting cosy and snug inside Tilda and Tabby’s apartment, greedily consuming cakes and crumpets by the dozen (this, lest we forget, is the woman who offered to make the Doctor carrot juice and put an exercise bike in the TARDIS). I could live with her dietary slips – although I imagine that next Weight Watchers’ meeting would be rather awkward – but not once does the odd behaviour of her hosts appear to faze her. It is like a scene from an Enid Blyton novel, with optional homicide (including a kitchen knife that would land the BBC in hot water come the following week’s Points of View).

But that’s not the worst of it. Some time later, Mel (in the company of Pex, here to put the world of Paradise Towers to rights) finally reaches her Mecca, which takes the form of the swimming pool on the top floor. It’s where she is supposed to meet the Doctor, but in spite of all that’s happened – homicidal robots, sadistic jobsworth bureaucrats and Twisted Sister’s entire fanbase – Mel’s first priority is to undress and go swimming. “Look, here it is!” she exclaims in delight. “Oh, it’s just how I imagined it.” It is, in fact, a rather run-of-the-mill swimming pool, and Mel’s exuberant enthusiasm is somewhat baffling – I appreciate that locations couldn’t be helped, but surely they could have toned it down? Five minutes later, and Mel’s in the middle of a dip – presumably she was wearing the costume under her clothes, which must have chafed a bit given all the ruffles – only to be attacked by a sinister yellow crab that’s been watching them the whole time and that nobody saw, despite it taking up half the pool. Not long afterwards, the bedraggled computer programmer is looking rather forlorn on a sunlounger. “Pex?” she says, mournfully. “I’m sorry.” So are we, Mel. So are we.

Paradise (3)

Most of this is not the fault of Bonnie Langford, even if she plays Mel the way she played just about everything in the 70s and 80s: as if she’s on a stage, rather than in front of a camera. Subtlety goes out of the window, down the road to the shops and then hops on a bus to Frinton. But the fact that the programme was in flux didn’t help matters: “There was a companion,” says Wyatt, “who had no definable character except she was played by Bonnie Langford, and so again the writing was very generic. This is no criticism of Bonnie at all, it’s just that Bonnie wasn’t given anything to do except what she’d always done – which was to scream.” By all accounts (all right, Gareth Robert’s account) she is currently very good in Eastenders. “Just imagine,” Roberts tweeted just the other week, “if she’d been given proper acting to do in Doctor Who“.

It’s not all Mel. Richard Briers’ performance is somewhat ham-fisted in the final episode and annoyingly twitchy in the first three. On the other hand, perhaps this is exactly what the story needs. Certainly his zombie mode is practically Shakespearian. He’s also hindered by poor characterisation: the chief architect, supposedly the mastermind behind the entire scheme, goes to his grave as an almost criminally underdeveloped villain. We know next to nothing about him save the manifestation of bloodlust; as in ‘The Satan Pit’ it’s left to the Doctor to provide all the exposition. This wouldn’t be a problem but the monster has a voice of its own – it just doesn’t say much beyond “HUNGRY!” and “DESTROY ALL HUMANS!”.

This is a shame, because other characters work very well. The Kangs are all basically nondescript clones, but Pex is an unexpected delight. I use the word ‘unexpected’ because in 1987, I absolutely hated Pex (and it’s this, I’m sure, that forms the bulk of my prior aversion towards the story). He struck me as irritating and ridiculous. With the benefit of almost three decades of hindsight, it’s far easier to see him for what he is: a lampoon of 1980s action heroes, brawny but ultimately useless. It’s partly the casting – the DVD documentary reports that several more muscular men were turned down because they looked ridiculous standing next to Bonnie Langford, but Howard Cooke has enough build to pop a seam while simultaneously managing to look (and sound) like someone who’s actually far less capable than he actually is. Pex’s character has a beginning (although that’s mostly backstory), a middle and an end – something comparatively rare in 1980s Who – and there’s something very satisfying about his final, rather uneven redemption. He dies a hero, but a suitably reluctant one, and this makes his journey all the more believable.

Paradise (7)

Other things: the Kangs’ tendency to misuse words echoes Orwell, but the mythology constructed from a lifetime of roaming derelict corridors is reasonably solid, and it’s quite fun to listen to them. Certain suspensions of disbelief are required – the adoption of ‘Build high for happiness’ as a greeting seems a little odd, given that the Kangs spend most of their time on the lower levels, and is it really likely that they would know ‘unalive’ but not ‘dead’? And my goodness, the counting. Half the script seems to be a recitation of numbers – rules, floors, Caretaker IDs. ‘Half’ is, of course, something of an exaggeration, but let’s just say we don’t go short. In fact there are so many that I took the liberty of putting them all together.

You see what I mean.

Look, some of it’s a mess. The lighting is all over the place – or rather it isn’t, taking its cue instead from the harsh studio lighting that blights much Classic Who (see ‘The Happiness Patrol’, which would have worked beautifully on film). Lines like “We’ll send the cleaners to the cleaners!” are cloying, and Mel’s spotty outfit is a train wreck. But there’s something infectiously silly about this whole setup – something that makes ‘Paradise Towers’ more, somehow, than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it’s McCoy, who makes the most of a script that could have been written for just about any Doctor, largely because the Seventh Doctor had yet to be fleshed out when Wyatt hit deadline. Perhaps it’s Howard Cooke, who steals most of the scenes he’s in. Or perhaps it’s Clive Merrison, who by turns manages to be menacing and ultimately heroic. In any event, ‘Paradise Towers’ works. You feel, somehow, that it shouldn’t. But it does. Rather like those alleviators.

Categories: Classic Who | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Holby City meets Batman

“Sorry,” say many American readers, “What meets Batman?”

Holby City is my one concession to soapdom. I can’t commit to Eastenders. If I want to be depressed for hours at a time I can listen to Joy Division. I don’t need Phil Mitchell and his nails-down-a-blackboard gruffness, or tales of abortion or domestic abuse. Coronation Street isn’t any better these days, particularly since the Duckworths left. Soap operas and me don’t really go together. It’s like an allergic reaction. I had a friend who watched Eldorado (one of Verity Lambert’s rare failures) in the 1990s. I endured fifteen minutes of it on his bedroom TV, and I had a nosebleed.

But Em and I can spare an hour a week, and besides, Holby isn’t miserable. It’s usually downright hysterical, sometimes on purpose. Neither of us have any extensive knowledge of medicine but even I know that accuracy takes a firm second place to dramatic impact. Patients are wheeled into the hospital and receive their operations within hours. There are no major problems with sanitation, apart from the write-the-headlines MRSA scandal that saw the downfall of Michael Beecham in 2005. Most of the orderlies and nurses appear to be English. God, even the food looks reasonable.

Crucially, patients very seldom die. There are near misses on the operating table, of course, usually caused by arrogance or staff who are sleeping together. I would be willing to bet that the unorthodox solutions that invariably save the day would only work on a human body that was wired up completely differently, but this is television, and thus it matters only if you happen to know that. I was at an author’s session in Cholsey last week and got talking to a heart specialist. “You must watch medical soaps and point and laugh,” I said. She broadly agreed.

If you’re a regular viewer, you’ll be aware of the Holby Staples – the things that happen in every episode. In no particular order:

  • A senior doctor will finish an opening conversation with a patient by bombarding a nurse with jargon: “FBCs, U&Es, LFTs and an MRI” (BTW, BBC, this really is all a bit OTT)
  • Character-with-emotional-crisis is paired with patient-with-similar-emotional-crisis; at some point one of them will advise the other and the Holby regular will emerge from the experience a wiser person
  • Problems occur during surgery. The heart monitor (or something) makes a melodic ringing sound to indicate irregular pulse, flatlining or brain death. The maverick surgeon will do something brilliant.
  • There will be a heart-to-heart either on the bench or outside the front door (or, if they’re feeling brave, on the roof)
  • Elliot Hope will be seen shoving a pastry in his mouth.

Oh, and a while ago I made this.

Holby_City_map

Anyway. This week’s episode featured a hostage crisis that grew out of a botched operation (arrogance, this time): an antiques expert spent half the story handcuffed to the chief neurosurgeon, who had his fingers wrapped round a live grenade. An already implausible story was stretched to breaking point when the armed response unit showed up and decided that their first priority was to shoot the unfortunate widower in the head (an action that breaks every rule of hostage negotiation and which would in any case have set off the grenade). In the end, plucky nurse Adrian Fletcher – guilty of several recent mistakes and looking for redemption – managed to get the grenade out of the building in an improbably long seven-second dash up the corridor.

So, Batman. Obviously. I mean, take a look.

(Parenthesis: If you’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises you will recall that precisely the same thing – minus the ducklings – happens in its final act, and that the Caped Crusader once more manages to save the day through an act of apparent self-sacrifice. It is monumentally stupid, but so is the film. And don’t get me started on that cafe scene. Really. Don’t.)

Assembling this was a challenge. I had about four or five seconds of usable footage that had to suffice for four different cycles, and there is thus a lot of mirroring and reversing. The interspersing clips were all found on YouTube, and the final explosion – if you hadn’t worked it out – is from The Dark Knight, which is coincidentally a much better film than its immediate successor. But the 1966 Batman movie is better than both of them.

And Katie Hopkins? Well, doctors and medical staff are supposed to preserve life, where they possibly can. But I think we can probably make an exception here, can’t we?

Categories: Crossovers, Videos | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I’m going to look at rocks!

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Stonehenge. Where the demons dwell. Where the banshees live, apparently in some comfort. It’s mythical, it’s iconic, it’s an overpriced tourist attraction. It is a hippy’s Mecca (Avebury /  Glastonbury Tor aside). And it has spawned a wealth of tacky merchandise, including some amazing snow globes. We know, because we’ve got one.

I first visited Stonehenge in the summer of 1992. I know this because we were on the way down to Cornwall (it only rained twice; once for three days and once for four) and I was reading The Shining. The site itself was about a hundred yards from a road that ran right past it. The sensation I had was not unlike the sensation I had the first time I watched ‘Time and the Rani’: a lot of hype that preceded a colossal disappointment in fifty shades of grey. “It’s just fucking boulders,” said my brother, when we reminisced about it some years later. “Standing in the middle of a field. Seen it once. Not impressed. Have no wish to see it again.” (Again, if you switch ‘field’ for ‘quarry’ this is a perfect description of ‘Time and the Rani’.)

It is just a pile of rocks in the middle of a field, but the fact that it’s there at all is a feat of technological wizardry (or, at least, advanced neolithic civil engineering). It is about the oldest thing in the country, and there is nothing like it in the world (no, really, the football goal-like horizontal slabs that sit astride the vertical ones make it unique). Here’s another interesting fact: the reason it’s stayed up so long is at least in part down to the interlocking ‘studs’ that are on top of the vertical posts, which slot neatly into holes in the horizontal ones – which you can see below, at least in part. Lego, thousands of years before time.

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Even though the access road is now a track, you can still see Stonehenge from the A303; it looms over the crest of a hill on the road to Salisbury and MY GOD THE RUBBERNECKING. How there are not more fatalities along that stretch I have no idea. On this occasion, we’d taken the boys (because culture is important, and getting them out of the house over the long stretch of the summer holidays is always a good idea). The new visitor’s centre drops back in at least some of the air of mystery that had been lost when they originally intersected the site with tarmac; you park next to a peculiar structure, almost bamboo-like from a distance (it’s nothing of the kind, of course) and then it’s a ten minute stroll up the same trail the druids allegedly used all those thousands of years ago. Shuttle buses are available if you don’t fancy the walk, or if it’s raining.

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You still can’t go up to the thing, the way that Chevy Chase did in National Lampoon’s European Vacation, but you can get within a respectable distance. There were plenty of tourists the day we visited. I came across an American family trying desperately to capture a family portrait: a young couple with their infant son, posing with fixed smiles while a middle-aged woman – someone’s mother,apparently – got snap happy. “Yep,” said the dad, in an ostensibly good-humoured but, you felt, ultimately long-suffering tone. “Mom loves takin’ her photos. Usually to the detriment of the actual thing.” Meanwhile, grandma was busy with the camera. “Jimbo! Where are ya, Jimbo? Wheeeeeeere’s Jimbo? There he is! You gonna smile, fella? Smile, Jimbo! Wheeeeeeeere’s that smile?”

This went on for about a minute and a half; all the while Jimbo had his head buried in his mother’s chest, apparently because it was more fun to play a game than it was to actually pose for something. We left them to it, and walked past a busload of Germans carrying matching raincoats and selfie sticks. Oh and if you’ve ever seen Touch, and wondered what happened to Miyoko and Izumi, I’d be willing to bet that at least one of them was here.

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Actually, Joshua and I had a conversation about selfie sticks at a festival just last week. The beatboxer on stage said “Now, I’m told that if you use a selfie stick you look like a dickhead.” As everyone laughed, Joshua said “What does he mean?”

“Oh, I just think they’re ridiculous,” I said. “It’s this stick, right, and you put your mobile on it, so you can hold it further away from you to get in more of the background. Which I understand in principle, but they just look completely stupid.”

“Yeah,” said the chap sitting next to us. “Sort of like this.” And he pulled one out of his bag.

Stonehenge features prominently in one particular Doctor Who story, ‘The Pandorica Opens’, #4 on the mother-of-all-cliffhangers list. Part of the story concerns the Underhenge, a mythical network of tunnels underneath the main structure, containing a large metal box and a barely-conscious Cyberman. The Doctor and Amy play around with the locks – this is like The Crystal Maze, with Alex Kingston playing a slightly hairier Richard O’Brien – while Arthur Darvill announces that he’s not dead, disappointingly without using the words “I think I’ll go for a walk“. Meanwhile, the Doctor muses about the legend of the Pandorica, in which a force of unspeakable evil is imprisoned within the cube, because “a good wizard tricked it”. “I hate good wizards,” muses River, glancing in the Doctor’s direction. “They always turn out to be him.”

It’s all building to The Big Scene, of course, in which a colossal band of CG-generated villains gather in the skies above the Earth, and in an oft-quoted and frequently-shared moment, the Doctor tells them – in no uncertain terms – to come and have a go if they think they’re ‘ard enough.

It’s ridiculous, but Smith’s overblown pomposity – particularly, knowing as we do, that the Doctor is headed for a massive fall – is just about enough to carry it. (Somewhere in a parallel universe, he never went into acting; he became a biology teacher instead, and his classroom catchphrase was “I. AM. TALKING!”.) This is, one would assume, shot on a sound stage or at least somewhere that isn’t Salisbury Plain, given that the Doctor is actively clambering on the rocks. Truth be told I’ve never been sure precisely which scenes were shot at Stonehenge and which at the hastily-constructed replica, not being sufficiently versed in the making of stuff for New Who (I don’t know, it just all seems a bit self-congratulatory) but it is, at least, a far cry from the jarring effect you’d get in the 70s or 80s when the Doctor and his companion walked away from a filmed location and into the harsh lights of a studio set.

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The how has been explored in quite a lot of detail; it’s just the why that remains curiously elusive. We may never really know, although the ‘recently-discovered’ presence of another circle a couple of miles away (at Durrington Walls, to be precise) may grant further illumination, if anyone ever digs them up. And yes, I know the tag ‘Superhenge’ relates to size, but surely ‘Subhenge’ would be more appropriate, if they’re still buried? In the meantime, we’re left with the speculation of historians as to Stonehenge’s actual purpose. A calendar is most likely. A sacrificial altar is another theory. Even Doctor Who‘s had a go: see ‘The Secret of the Stones’, a short story contained within volume twelve of the Doctor Who Files, in which the Doctor and Martha visit the site throughout various stages of its construction over the course of a century or two – and inadvertently cause its very design, purely by parking the TARDIS near enough for the stonemasons to copy its shape. “I just hope,” says the Doctor as they leave, “that we haven’t done anything, you know – silly.” Well, it wouldn’t be the first time.

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We took the bus back to the visitors’ centre. Emily and I discussed the possibility of wooden rollers with the boys. We talked about the burial mounds and who might be underneath. And I tried not to get freaked when the bus rolled down a slope and turned into a Hitchcock film.

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“Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free…”

And yet for all the scientific waffle about the evolution of humanity and the transition for hunter-gatherers to farmers, I have a far more interesting explanation: what if it was a group of visiting Martians? Enormous Martian teenagers who visited our planet on a brief intergalactic sightseeing tour, found no signs of intelligent life except for the cows (“Why did you turn some of us inside out?”) and then, being bored at having no one to talk to or look at, decided to etch a brief message in the grass? We’ll probably never know, but it would be a delicious irony if one of the most studied, examined, admired, over hyped and hotly debated landmarks in the world turned out to be nothing more than a hastily scribbled “MARVIN WOZ HERE”.

Categories: On Location | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t Panic

This started with the image at the bottom – a joke for which Gareth is responsible, stemming as it does from a conversation we had a while back as to whether the First Question was, in fact, the same as the Ultimate Question of life, the universe and everything, and whether or not the answer was thus ’42’. And one thing led to another and so here are a group of badly-produced Photoshop memes, most of them Doctor Who / HitchHiker’s Guide To The Galaxy mashups, along with one that isn’t.

I made two images for the Marvin one which had different connotations, but went with the one I preferred. I’m fun like that…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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