Monthly Archives: May 2016

Romana’s Round-up

This week at Meme Central, anticipation builds towards the latest Pixar release.

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News comes in that Kathryn Bigelow is set to remake a Doctor Who version of The Hurt Locker.

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And in the wake of new truths concerning Captain America, comic fans react angrily to the latest developments in the adventures of the Twelfth Doctor.

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Enjoy your week.

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The Great Doctor Who Party: 2016 edition (part two)

We’ll start with this.

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Well, he’s nine years old, right?

This is a simple sponge cake covered in icing. A notable exception is the head, which is made from Rice Krispie bars – we couldn’t have supported a sponge head with that neck (we couldn’t anyway, but we’ll get to that). Here’s the exoskeleton shot.

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Things went a little awry with this one. Emily had prepared (and iced) the head the night before, much the same as the one you can see in the top photo, simply to give her less to do on the day. Which was fine until we got to the next morning and discovered that the grey icing had turned dark green overnight, leaving the poor old dog looking rather like a disembodied zombie. Emily hastily constructed another layer – “but I’m not happy with it,” she said.

“No one will notice,” I replied. “And if it makes you feel any better, the original K-9 had several different models, and they were all slightly different.”

The other problem we had was the fact that the new, heavier head – consisting as it does of two layers – was now too heavy for the neck to support it, so Emily hastily constructed a glowing sculpture out of Lite Brix. You may accordingly insert your own head canon explanation of exactly what he’s choosing to rest his chin upon.

While all this was happening, Edward was watching Wallace and Gromit, having developed something of a fascination for it in recent weeks. It’s curious, of course, that the co-writer for most of the stories is none other than Bob Baker, something that would eventually become significant during their last animated film, A Matter of Loaf and Death, which opens with the murder of a local man who goes by the name of Baker Bob.

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They really should have had him baking a K-9 cake. Or at least a TARDIS. That would have worked.

Anyway, let’s get a look at the buffet.

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If you want to know what all these are, you’ll find them on the entry for the 2012 edition. We didn’t change very much – even the labels are the same – and the only addition was ‘Party Rings of Akhaten’ – it’s an episode that’s unfairly maligned, and it’s such an obvious joke. (Party rings, by the way, hold the record in our house for being the only snack food to vanish from the table faster than the barbecue Pringles.)

In the meantime, here are some close-ups. You will note that the Angel has its face covered, as a concession to Daniel, who finds them terrifying and who had to leave the room during the Lego Dimensions playthrough. (Needless to say I have yet to stick him in front of ‘Blink’.)

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We mentioned party bags in the previous installment – while the kids were eating, Emily went to fill them. We’d got lucky: the books turned up in a charity shop a matter of days before the event. Oh, and the paper bag’s full of jelly babies. Obviously.

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So it all went swimmingly, but I have a feeling that this won’t be the last Doctor Who themed party we’re asked to do. It won’t be for a year or two, but Daniel is likely to be next. I’m already half-planning the games, and Emily has probably had vague thoughts about the cake. Maybe we can persuade him to have a Weeping Angel.

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The Great Doctor Who Party: 2016 edition (part one)

“Der-DER-DER-DER-DER-DER…”

That noise? That’s Edward, singing the theme from The X-Files. He picked it up from Thomas, who picked it up from YouTube, from a bloody Minecraft video. There is an Illuminati symbol on the screen somewhere (don’t ask me how they did this; god knows everything in Minecraft is essentially cubic), accompanied by the theme from The X-Files. Since viewing this Thomas has become convinced that the adventures of Mulder and Scully are in fact a documented history of the Illuminati, which (as any fan will tell you) is only half true.  He began to ask about it with the sort of regularity that young children usually save for requesting mileage counts on six-hour car journeys. I almost throttled him several times. I thought the pictures of Glastonbury Grove would be enough, but it was like feeding a heroin addict. He absolutely refused to accept that the secrecy behind the Illuminati is precisely what makes them tick. “I can’t tell you what happens,” I said to Thomas, “or who’s involved, or what they do, because they’ve made it their life’s work to make sure we don’t find out.”

Oh, there are conspiracy theories, if you know where to look, but I left them untouched. Or at least I did, until the day (back in March) that he told us he wanted an Illuminati-themed birthday party. My heart dropped fifteen fathoms and I had to send out the deep sea recovery team. I mean, I’m always up for a challenge, but what the hell do you do for something like this? Still: nothing ventured, nothing gained: if nothing else it would be an adventure. We began the first stages of research: sourced logos, symbols, looked for triangular-themed foods and crafts. My friends on Facebook were disturbingly helpful. I even did this, at Thomas’s suggestion.

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Five weeks before the event his enthusiasm waned overnight. “I don’t want an Illuminati-themed birthday party any more,” he declared one Saturday over lunch. “I want a Doctor Who party instead.”

Well. This is good. This is, for want of better terminology than the sort I despise, entirely my comfort zone. Because we did it, several years back, and I blogged it in a series of posts that made various Pinterest boards and which are, even now, the most popular result in the stats, by a significant margin. More popular than that Scrabble ranking post I did the other week. More popular, even, than ‘Why the Weeping Angels are rubbish‘. I mean, I don’t know why this is, particularly. We did a good job, but I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who did it better. Maybe it was the food, which I’ll talk about in part two, because I don’t want this to veer into TL:DR territory.

Enough rambling – let’s get on. We used the same invitations we used last time, suitably adapted, with new Doctors and a bleached background. I’d have pasted it here, but Fireworks is being weird this morning and the version I’m uploading is illegible. I really should use a better picture of the Cybermen if Daniel wants this theme in a couple of years ago. Those metal robot things are just pretenders to the throne.

Our birthday parties have become distressingly formulaic over recent years. The Troughton era practically invented the base-under-siege thing, or at least held a monopoly on it – we tend to go for the noisy game / less noisy game / craft activity / codebreaking game / noisy game approach, as this is the best way to keep them engaged and pique their interest without tiring them out. The net result of this is that all our parties are essentially the same, with as many concessions to the theme as we can include, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. At least it’s a bit more imaginative than the bouncy-castle-in-the-sports-centre thing that everyone else in the entire country seems to do these days.

Those games, then. We started with Grandmother’s Footsteps, which I turned into Weeping Angel Footsteps. I don’t think I even need to explain that. There are two default poses: Face-in-Hands Angel and Scary Angel. I am still getting over some of their scary angels. For a bunch of children who haven’t watched ‘Blink’, they’re pretty terrifying.

Next was Pin The Arm On The Cyberman. Earlier in the week I’d printed this – A4 sheets pasted onto a roll of craft paper:

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You will note that everyone is lacking in at least one appendage: Missy is missing a head, the Mire has lost its gun-toting left arm, the Angel has had its wings clipped and the Dalek is going to be in a right mess if it needs to unblock a sink. But that’s OK, because here come a bunch of primary school children, armed with the Blu-Tack. By the end of the game, it looked like this:

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I should have spun them round a bit first after I made them close their eyes. They were all just a bit too good – particularly Josh, who managed to get the Dalek plunger precisely in place with no effort at all. I do find it amusing that the Minotaur now has one of the Zygon’s legs, which – owing to the fact that it’s visible up to the hip – makes the interstellar monster look rather like it’s ballet dancing. (Missy, meanwhile, looks as if she’s in the last chapter of The Twits.)

Next was the Corners game, for which we were confined to the lounge, as the rain had made the garden inaccessible. I’d cut posters out of Thomas’s old Doctor Who Adventures magazines (with his permission – “It’s fine, because they’re all pretty old”) and stuck them on doors and walls around the room –

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– and the kids had to dance around the lounge (to ELO, which was the only appropriately jolly music I could lie my hands on with a Whovian connection), preferably without smashing anything, choosing a corner to run to when I paused the CD player. Meanwhile, Emily had printed these:

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You get a sweet if I pick your corner, and if I pick the Doctor everyone gets a sweet. As with pass-the-parcel, it is all hopelessly engineered. It’s the only way to avoid the tantrums.

Everyone was ready for a rest after that, and I needed to prepare the last game now that I knew we would be doing it inside. Emily usually arranges the craft activity, and on this occasion she did a make-your-own-party-bag thing. We’d done it with great success at the CBeebies party we held years back, but on this occasion –

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And no, they’re not bigger on the inside. This is a plain blue (TARDIS blue?) bag – you can get them off Ebay. Emily cut out lighter blue squares to simulate the panelling, and I found these:

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At full size it fits – just about – in a Word document, if you whack down the margins, which makes for easier printing.

While the kids were cutting and sticking, I was running around pinning up our last game. We usually do a Code-break of some sort – find the letter to match the symbol to unscramble the message – but on this occasion I’d managed to get hold of a 2016 Doctor Who calendar for a knock-down price (given that it’s now the middle of May, and who on earth is going to want to buy a 2016 calendar when half the months are already gone? Oh, that’s right.).

Normally for these games we just randomly paste pictures all over the place, but “on this occasion,” I told them, “I want you to do this in a specific order.” I’d cut out the dates from a spare page of the calendar and written a letter on each, like so –

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So you write down that letter, and the number in the corner of the box is the Doctor you have to find next. Starting with the War Doctor (who is unnumbered), the sequence had them darting around the house trying to find each Doctor in succession, in an entirely random order. The tricky part was finding a thirteen letter word or phrase that was semi-interesting without being inaccessible for a bunch of children who (by and large) were unfamiliar with the show pre-2005, if they were familiar with it at all, but in the end I settled for –

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(The ‘Y’, of course, is on Capaldi, the last Doctor in the sequence; I drew his directly onto the sheet.)

I’m sure you can make some sort of connection between Baker and Pertwee and Pertwee and Tennant and Tennant and McCoy and so on, but I wasn’t thinking about that. Although I’d like to see the fan fiction. Besides, going with a Weeping Angel quote fits thematically, “Because,” as Emily said, “it’s like the Doctor’s message. You know, it’s scrambled through time.”

That was when we got into a discussion about the ‘Blink’ message. IIRC it appeared on the series 3 box set, possibly even as an actual Easter Egg, but we agreed that it might have been more fun if the BBC had brokered a deal with various other distribution companies and inserted it in seventeen completely random and seemingly unrelated DVDs, just for the fun of it. “Because basically,” she said, “when it’s a Doctor Who DVD, you sort of expect it. I’d love to have seen other people react to something entirely random, with no context and no idea where it came from.”

“Thing is,” I said, “to work effectively as a marketing campaign it’d have to be completely removed in terms of association or subject matter. I mean DVDs that wouldn’t be owned by anyone who’d have watched the show. What sort of DVD would never in a million years be bought by a Doctor Who fan?”

She thought for a moment and said “Doctor Who: The Movie?”

Next time: Cake. Because cake.

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It’s a mug’s game

I have, over the past couple of years, acquired a semi-decent collection of Doctor Who themed mugs.

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The Dalek one (top centre) came first. It was used to serve Emily’s morning tea for a good couple of years until it got smashed (not, for a change, at the hands of yours truly) and I felt smug that I’d bought a spare a while back, only to find that she was thinking of switching to another mug anyway (“Because  I really like the one that Vicky gave me”). The undersized one on the far left is used for warm milkshake, while the one next to it is like no other mug in existence, and I know this because I drew (and baked) it myself. Oh, and that TARDIS one? Very pretty, but piggin’ impossible to drink out of. Or perhaps my mouth just doesn’t do corners.

The ones on the bottom shelf all come from the BBC. I’d ordered Davison first. Actually, I ordered Hartnell, because it was cheap, but they erroneously sent Davison, which I didn’t bother returning because given the choice I’d have plumped for the Fifth in any case. The others followed when the BBC shop finally closed: their loss was our kitchen’s gain, and we can now entertain a whole minyan full of visitors using Doctor Who crockery.

But it wasn’t always like this.

One of my less orthodox hobbies begin with Emily’s birthday, several years back. I’d arranged her main gift and was scouring the charity shops for last minute bargains. In this manner I’d already bought a bottle cooler and a pedometer, but while examining the racks of Cancer Research one lunchtime I found something so gut-wrenchingly awful and simultaneously perfect that I bought it immediately. Three weeks after her birthday was Valentine’s Day, and she returned the favour. It was at this point that we decided we really ought to try and get as many tacky mugs as possible. “It would be nice,” she said, “If all our mugs were dreadful. Then people would be scared when we served them tea.”

“They’d stop visiting,” I said.
“Exactly!”

Our collection of kitsch mugs was both a diverting hobby and the subject of an occasional series on a blog that I no longer administer, largely because it was full of stuff that now goes on Twitter anyway. Besides, the hobby petered out. I eventually stopped buying them because we stopped seeing them – it was as if the charity shops had somehow been informed of our mockery and had decided to take all their kitsch off the shelves so that they wouldn’t be laughed at, or (and this has only just occurred to me) perhaps they were secretly starting their own collections in the back.

Anyway, we’ll always have Paris, so here are the ones we managed to acquire. Most are either donated or smashed now, but the photos linger. Enjoy, if it’s at all possible.

#1: the Daniel O’Donnell, acquired January 2012.

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#2: The fluffy kittens, February 2012

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#3: The ballet shoes, April 2012

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#4: The Coronation Street, April 2012

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#5: The tartan bears, May 2012

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#6: The rabbit and the dalmation, May 2012

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#7: The bear wearing a doily, May 2012

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#8: The Polish folk singers, May 2012

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#9: Pope John Paul II, June 2012. (My sources tell me that everyone’s got one of these…)

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#10: The Christmas penguins, June 2012

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#11: The menstruating nurse, August 2012

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#12: The Extra Special, August 2012

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#12: The jubilee, December 2012

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#13: The impractical millennial, December 2012

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#14: The textured city, December 2012

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#15: The Royal Wedding, January 2014

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#16: The Reg, March 2013

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And I think that’s run its course, don’t you?

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The Nimon, the Witch and the Wardrobe

There’s acting, and then there’s acting. And there are sandwiches, and then there are peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

One of my favourite performances in Doctor Who is that of Peter Barkworth in ‘The Ice Warriors’. He plays Clent, the obstinate leader of the base under siege (I use those words quite deliberately), a man with an agenda, a performance target and a serious problem. Clent’s journey encompasses the usual suspicion and paranoia but, like most surviving supporting characters, he’s sensible enough to listen to those who know what they’re doing before it’s too late. In the story’s conclusion, Clent is finally reconciled with the excommunicated Penley (played to perfection by a bearded Peter Sallis). “You are,” he says, “the most insufferably irritating and infuriating person I’ve ever been privileged to work with. Can’t write a report though, can you?”

It’s a marvellous moment. There’s something joyously reassuring about it. You instinctively like these men and you are glad that they have come through unscathed. It’s a scene in which supporting characters cease to be people who bounce off the Doctor and become people in their own right. It’s understated and beautifully performed. It seems, in a way, an odd scene to rank among one’s personal highlight reel, given that it does not consist of bombastic speeches, dazzling plot twists or epic moments of self-sacrifice. But there it is nonetheless, squarely placed in mine.

‘Understated’ is not, perhaps, a word that one might apply to the character of Soldeed. Doctor Who villains are known for being twisted and a bit mad, but Soldeed is off the scale. It’s partly the eyes – Graham Crowden is a master of the unfocussed stare, taking clear lessons, perhaps, from John Laurie in Dad’s Army. It culminates in a gratuitously tortured mental collapse as Soldeed realises the extent to which he has been duped, before dying in a shower of sparks and the bitterest of cackles. It’s the sort of scene you do at parties. Or maybe that’s just our house.

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My feelings on ‘The Horns of Nimon’ are well-documented, at least on this blog. It is – for reasons that will become obvious if you read the thing – one of my favourite stories, precisely because it is so uproariously flamboyant. I have attended hog roasts with less ham. It’s very easy to be critical of this period of Who, coming as it does hot on the heels of some of the best stories in the show’s history, but there is a place for silliness. There’s nothing wrong with having a story that knows its own identity and bears no shame in it, unless that story happens to be ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’. As far as I’m concerned there’s only one person who’s allowed to hate ‘The Horns of Nimon’, and that’s Anthony Read.

I’ve spent a lot of time these past few days talking about animatronic lions and Michael Aldridge – but when we watched The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the other week, it was Barbara Kellerman who lit up the screen. I hadn’t seen it in well over twenty years but I had forgotten (no, strike that, I had never even noticed) what a thoroughly melodramatic performance it is. Her temper is as brittle as the ice. There are sentences teased out to snapping point. She does this thing with her wand. And when she gesticulates, it’s with her whole body. It’s as if Kellerman was in a drama workshop demonstrating the principles of over-acting, and her switch got stuck.

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This isn’t a bad thing. The role demands it, after all, at least it does in this particular rendition, which demands that actors chew up the scenery so that you can’t see the holes. Tilda Swinton is all the more subtle, which suits the mood (and production values) of the film. Kellerman is as subtle as a house brick through an immigrant’s window. She is clearly having tremendous fun – indeed, there are times when, rather like Hugo Weaving in The Matrix, she looks like the only one who’s having any fun. It’s hard to single out a particular scene where she is, perhaps, being even more ridiculous than in the rest of the story – her “How many Nimons?” moment – but if I had to pick one, it would be the moment Edmund arrives in her throne room. “ASLAN?!?” she bellows, in a deep, throaty voice that makes her sound rather like a furious Margaret Thatcher. “HERE??? IS THIS TRUE?!?”

You can see quite a bit of that in the video. It was Joshua who suggested that the White Witch was “A bit like Soldeed”, and I had to agree. So I put them together, and found that of the two, the Witch comes out on top. For the most part she wipes the floor with him. Only in his final scene does Crowden come anywhere near the theatrical pomp of his castle-dwelling, wand-packing rival, but it was fun finding out. There was only one musical choice for this sequence, and it was Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets – better known, perhaps, as the theme from The Apprentice – for no reason other than it fit. There is even a loose narrative of sorts, or at least a simulacrum of interaction between them. I do not pretend that it makes any sense at all. But it’s like peanut butter and banana sandwiches. You really don’t think it’s going to work. And yet somehow, it does.

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What do they teach them in these schools?

1990 was an odd year. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were everywhere. The internet was a thing you used if you were hacking into the Defence Programme. Vanilla Ice was inexplicably popular. I finally stood up to Steven McKenzie (not his real name) and broke his glasses round the back of the school courtyard. Those were dark months, and it was family that held me together. And when we sat and watched The Chronicles of Narnia, on those cold evenings in November of that year, we did it as a family.

Everyone knew the books already, of course. If you grow up in a Christian household you can’t exactly avoid them. You start with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and then you move to Prince Caspian and then you work through the chronicles from the beginning. I’ll allow you to skip The Horse and his Boy: I’ve always liked it, particularly the Shasta Among The Tombs sequence, but if Narnia were The X-Files it would be ‘Post-Modern Prometheus’ – divisive, and to be honest it lifts right out.

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We don’t have time to go through the entire Narnia TV series today: I will save that later analysis for another time, after we’ve watched The Silver Chair (for reasons which, if you know the cast, ought to be obvious). But Lion / Witch – the first and most successful of the lot – was one I had on home-recorded VHS, all three hours of it (minus the couple of minutes from the children’s conversation with the professor in episode two, missing when the TV signal went down). These were the days when my brother and I favoured familiarity over choice, and the same films and television shows were watched and rewatched until we knew them by heart and the tape had worn as thin as my mother’s patience. If I’d been the Doctor Who fan then that I am now, I’d doubtless have done the same with the McCoy era. As it was we memorised Back to the Future more or less in its entirety, which is practically the same thing.

Looking back, the decision to broadcast the first series of Narnia at Christmas spoke volumes about the BBC’s reluctance to endorse its religious themes. Christmas, after all, is done and dusted in a single scene and then we’re straight on to the great thaw. It’s like that bit in The Holy Grail where winter gave spring and summer a miss and went straight onto autumn. The book is about the end of winter, not its zenith. It’s about the coming of spring and the return of life to Narnia: an Easter / Eostre story in more than one sense of the word. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is not a Christmas tale, although that does not render a Christmas broadcast inappropriate, merely a missed opportunity. It sits sandwiched rather awkwardly between the two, the Nightmare Before Christmas of its day.

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Certainly for a dramatization that’s now a quarter of a century old, it’s weathered the storms rather well. There is a heady mixture of location work and studio, all shot on videotape – as was the practice in those days – so as to appear seamless. The cast (with some exceptions, but more on that later) are generally very good. The beavers are inexplicably huge – humans in beaver costumes that somehow resemble super evolved beavers, like the Cat in Red Dwarf, rather than mere talking beasts – but the alternative is presumably a robotic beaver in the same fashion as K-9, and I can’t process this image without simultaneously imagining Barbara Kellerman drop-kicking them across Hawkstone.

Some of it hasn’t improved over time. The flight sequences are dreadful: the children gaze in wonder at imaginary landscapes while being blasted with a wind machine, perched on the back of an animatronic lion that is making some thoroughly odd noises. The fight with the wolf is, for some reason, shot in front of a painting. Most disappointing of all is the final battle, which is going rather well until the resurrected Aslan shows up. In the book (and the 2005 film, which handles things rather better despite its obvious nods to Pelennor Fields) his confrontation with the witch is begins when “with a roar that shook all Narnia from the western lamp-post to the shores of the eastern sea the great beast flung himself upon the White Witch”. The BBC’s version shows the extent of their limited budget, consisting as it does of an unconvincing mew from the lion, just before they shake the cameras and the witch does a stage dive into a chalk pit.

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We also need to talk about Sophie Wilcox, who (I’m sorry) is a victim of the worst kind of stage school: as Lucy she emits a kind of radial earnestness that is irritating to the point of nausea. “You know I don’t lie,” she pleads with Susan in an early scene. “I never lie! It would be the easiest thing in the world to say that I made it all up, but I didn’t!” She’s like the girl in your year five class who knew every skipping rhyme in existence and who used to cry if she didn’t get a merit on her work. It’s a shame, because Lucy is a pivotal character in the book: the innocent who is first to discover Narnia and its secrets, and through whose eyes we largely see the action unfold. She contrasts quite starkly with Georgie Henley, who is a little sweetheart.

The other children aren’t bad at all, particularly Jonathan R. Scott, who is clearly having a blast as Edmund – most effective in his ‘nasty’ scenes, in which he’s obnoxious with just about everyone, only to experience pangs of regret once it becomes apparent that he backed the wrong horse, and come the final battle he’s the hero of the hour, at least until Aslan shows up. Aslan himself is a curiosity, often mentioned but seen only in the closing two episodes, saying little (presumably it was a job getting that mouth to work) and seeming in many ways more like a distracted headmaster than the saviour of Narnia. It’s left to the beavers (Lesley Nichol, better known these days as The Scarf Lady, and Kerry Shale, who turned up in ‘Day of the Moon’) to fill the gaps. Jeffrey Perry is a superb Mr Tumnus, and Michael Aldridge is a far more convincing Professor Kirk than Jim Broadbent.

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A word about the professor. It’s obvious, come the final scenes, that he has been to Narnia – the knowing glance in the direction of the receding children suggests as much, even if you’re not familiar with the plot of The Magician’s Nephew. But it’s never clear whether Lewis had always intended this (the way that Rowling or Lucas always insisted they knew how Star Wars or Harry Potter would conclude), or whether he simply felt the need to tell an origin story and saw a youthful version of the professor as an obvious protagonist. Assuming the latter, the professor’s logical deduction that Narnia is real (mirroring Lewis’s own deductions about Christ’s divinity quite closely) is based purely on reasoning, rather than past experience, and the subsequent revelation that he’s clearly been to Narnia rather undermines the point.

But it was enough for the kids to work their way through the Christ allegory-that-isn’t-really-allegory. I judge the success of these things by how my children react, and it’s a testament to the programme that the three elder ones were riveted – even more than they had been during Day of the Triffids. (That one made Daniel very uneasy about going to bed. So I waved a plastic flower in his face, and we all had a good laugh about it, once the screaming had stopped.) They chuckled at the beavers and they absolutely loved Barbara Kellerman, who brings an uproarious slice of theatrical ham to the picnic. It’s a deep contrast with Tilda Swinton, who is how I imagine the White Witch to be if Galadriel had kept the ring (I’m assuming this is deliberate).

In fact, so over-the-top is Kellerman’s performance that it gave me an idea – but we’ll deal with that next time…

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The inevitable Narnia / Doctor Who / Tolkien thing

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It’s May the Fourth, and I was going to try very hard today to not write about You Know What. I mean eeesh. I remember when Star Wars Day was a joke, a reasonably amusing pun. Now it’s gained mass and substance and turned into an excuse for memes and toy sales and huge events. It’s complete overkill. Experiencing it these days is like reading through a dozen of Moffat’s press releases in advance of a ‘heart-rending’ episode: you’re sick of it before it even airs.

I did have an amusing conversation the other week with an American who was convinced that “British people can’t do sci-fi”, citing Star Wars and Star Trek as America’s shining examples of the genre, ably supported by Asimov and Philip K Dick. We were good at fantasy, he conceded, but science fiction was not one of our strong points (you may have gathered that he was not a Doctor Who fan). In holding this assertion he entirely ignored the works of Iain M. Banks, Douglas Adams, Alistair Reynolds, Aldous Huxley, John Wyndham, C.S. Lewis, J.G. Ballard, Nigel Kneale, H.G. Wells and Arthur C. Clarke, and we told him so. “C.S. Lewis wasn’t sci-fi, dumbass,” he said, at which point I directed him towards Out of the Silent Planet.

But when you’re being trolled, the second-best response is to troll back. “You don’t have Star Wars,” I told him. “It was written and produced by an American and some of the leads are American, but a significant chunk of the cast are British (the ones who can act, anyway) and an awful lot of it was filmed here with British crews.” When he whined that “the creator was American, bitch”, I told him about the obvious plot connections with Lord of the Rings. “Dumb ass,” he said. “Lord of the Rings is ripped off Wagner’s Ring Cycle”. To which my response was “Those connections are arbitrary and coincidental (and unproved). Storywise, LOTR has its roots in King Arthur. Even if you’re right, the roots for LOTR – and, by association, Star Wars – originated here in Europe. You know, the people with the history? Come back in six hundred years, then we’ll talk.” At this point the troll realised he was being played, and disappeared back below the bridge, although I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him.

I said I wasn’t going to write about Star Wars, but it does lead rather neatly into Narnia (via the wardrobe in the corner of my attic room). I had cause to revisit Narnia again recently – we’re talking figuratively, of course – when my house group did a Lent course that explored the supposed Christian allegories in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, tying it in with the nature of suffering as explored in ShadowlandsShadowlands, of course, tells the story of C.S. Lewis’s romance with Joy Gresham, who turns his comfortable world upside-down before dying of bone cancer. Various liberties are taken – the film moves Joy’s death to a snowy winter’s evening, rather than summer, and gives you the impression that far less time elapsed than it actually did (in reality, the couple had several years together). I’m also not sure what David Gresham made of it, given that he’s airbrushed from the film entirely. Nonetheless it remains compelling drama, and Anthony Hopkins is magnificent.

Shadowlands

Lewis, of course, argued that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was not actually an allegory at all. It’s a parallel universe existing concurrently alongside this one. Can we just use the word parallel and be done with it? As Lewis explains, “If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair (Pilgrim’s Progress) represents despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality, however, he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not allegory at all.”

But it’s interesting tracing the history of Narnia – a country with its own time stream, where time is compressed and the entire country is formed and destroyed in a span of fifty earth years. The land is breathed into existence by a singing lion and destroyed in much the same way, after an apocalyptic battle and a kerfuffle involving a false prophet (a naive, well-meaning donkey who is duped into wearing a lion skin by a devious and untrustworthy ape). There are stories of arranged marriage and cats (The Horse and His Boy, which owes an awful lot to The Prince and the Pauper), tales of dragons and fallen stars (Voyage of the Dawn Treader) and an enchanted prince strapped to a chair. Some books are better than others, and Lewis’s attitude to women, the working classes and progressive education has raised eyebrows over the years, but that’s not something we have time to unpack. Suffice it to say that I get uncomfortable at the end of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. These children go through puberty twice. Is that something we’re supposed to just gloss over?

What’s also interesting is that while Lewis was writing about satyrs, nymphs and old unmarried men who own wardrobes full of fir coats, one of the other Inklings was polishing off a magnum opus of his own. It’s no secret that Tolkien wrote the first line of The Hobbit on an exam paper during a bored marking session. Middle Earth sprang (supposedly) out of Oxfordshire (Shropshire / Birmingham / Switzerland / France). I don’t know what Lewis and Tolkien discussed on those smoky, ale-soaked afternoons in the Eagle and Child, but I find it inconceivable that one didn’t somehow influence the other. (There is an old story, of course, that when Tolkien got up during one such session to read what would become A Long-Expected Party, Lewis was heard to mutter “Oh, not more fucking elves”.)

Consider something for me. The Elves sail into the West, to the undying lands. The Narnians sail East, toward’s Aslan’s country. Is there no reason why they can’t meet in the middle?

Narnia_MiddleEarth

(If you have to ask why Aslan’s country is banana-shaped, you’ll never know.)

I’ve written about my complex relationship with Lord of the Rings before, and I’m really not the type to draw connections between universes the way that some people insist the Disney films are all interlinked. (Don’t visit that Disney hyperlink. It’s borderline clickbait. I’m just proving a point.) Ultimately, this is all about bridge-building. I mentioned my house group: last Thursday, over an impromptu cheese and wine evening, we got into a discussion about Doctor Who versus Star Wars and Star Trek and the rivalry between them. “It’s all so stupid,” I remember saying. “I like pizza. But I also like lasagne. If I had to pick a favourite it would be pizza, because I’m always in the mood for pizza, but that doesn’t mean I’d ever turn down lasagne. Never would I say ‘I refuse to eat this lasagne because it’s not pizza’.”

Seriously, the people who insist that this is some sort of rivalry, that one is ‘better’ than the other and that you can’t like both? They do exist, and they can shampoo my crotch. If I choose to hold Babylon 5 in contempt (I don’t, I’m just thinking about that scene in Spaced) it’s not because I think Deep Space 9 is better. There’s a difference between picking on something because it’s bad TV and picking on it because it’s lasagne, rather than pizza. That’s the sort of mentality that rival football fans have, and that’s the sort of thing I thought we were above.

So I’ve always liked the idea that Narnia and Middle Earth are like different ways to the same country. It’s a bit multi-cultural, but when you’re exposed to as much intolerant religious hatred as I’ve gone out of my way to see, you find another way to fight it. And somehow I can picture the elderly Gandalf, having hopped off into the West, strolling along the beach by those white shores, chilling with Aslan.

Gandalf_Aslan

(Yes, yes, wrong Gandalf. Best I could do.)

And where, you may be asking, does Doctor Who fit into this? Well, the closest the series actively came to talking about Narnia was the 2011 Christmas special – still the one I hold up as the only one they really got right, ‘Husbands of River Song’ aside). It has sentient tree people, a moonlit wood dripping with snow, and a pointless but amusing cameo from Bill Bailey. What’s lovely about the whole episode is the way it subverts the traditional behaviour in stories like this: the children are hesitant and afraid, while it’s their mother who strides purposefully into the magic wood, accepting everything the Doctor tells her and happily carrying a forest in her head. Moffat isn’t always good at writing women, but on this occasion he got it spot on.

Narnia_Doctor

I haven’t even touched fan fiction, and wasn’t going to, but a quick perusal threw up these, among others:

The Lion, the Doctor and the Cybermen (TARDIS1039) – “The Doctor lands the TARDIS in Narnia and meets Aslan, then he summons Peter,Edmund,Susan and Lucy from England. But the Cybermen begin to invade. So it’s up to The Doctor, The Pevensies, Aslan and the Narnians to stop them.”

The Time lady and the King (TorchwoodFallenAngel) – “They’re the last of their kinds, both lost and stranded on Earth. There, Edmund and Romana wait.”

Songs in the Dark (secooper87) – “The White Witch rules Narnia with an iron fist, fearing only the prophecy which foretells her downfall. But then a Time Lord appears in Narnia. He could be the answer to all her prayers, or he could be the cause of her destruction. Now whumpy!”

The Annual Fantastic Characters Meeting (wholockgoddess97) – “Every year, the Doctor hosts a party in the TARDIS with all his favourite characters. As usual, something has to go wrong – but nothing’s really out of the ordinary, considering the guests. Super mega ultimate crossover!”

Yes. Well.

Aslan

And what about me? This isn’t exactly a part one of two. Still, there are other dots you can join, and I’ve joined them, although not in ways that you might expect. But we’ll deal with that next time…

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