Monthly Archives: April 2017

Review: Smile

I didn’t want to do a straight review this week. For some reason it felt wrong. What follows is a succession of jottings, ordered by mood, in a rough sort of chronological order. I don’t know why. It just makes me happy.

Warning: spoilers follow.

 

“Did we just jump-start a new civilisation?”

“Gaah,” said the random Facebook person. “Emojibots. Yeah, ‘cos it’s all about being down with the kids.”
“In fairness,” I said, “this is a Frank Cottrell-Boyce episode, and he’s arguably best known as a children’s writer.”
“Yeah, but they’re still doing it for the kids.”
“You make that sound like it’s a bad thing. As if the concept of a TV programme deliberately doing something that targets a significant part of its core demographic was some sort of cardinal sin. Doctor Who was always supposed to be a kids’ show – the fact that it appeals to families and bigger kids and grown-up kids on a nostalgia kick is a bonus. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional child-friendly episode and I don’t get why it has to be such a turn-off for the adults.”
“Yeah, well. It’s just trying too hard. Kids won’t like it.”
“Can we at least wait until the episode has aired before we come to conclusions like that?” I said. “Because my kids looked at the trailer and said ‘Ooh! Robots with emojis, great!'”

 

“I’m not Scottish, I’m just cross.”

It’s not so much that Bill is a mystery, it’s more that people are determined to make her so. There is an issue with the photograph of Susan: “I noticed you,” the Doctor says last week, regarding Bill with one eye and the photograph with the other. It does not follow from this that Bill is a regenerated amnesiac time-travelled version of the Doctor’s granddaughter: such a pursuit seems laughable and there is nothing in this week’s episode to indicate that this is the way she’s headed. I write such theories as satire; it is both comic and disturbing that others are prepared to take them seriously.

This week the two of them have abandoned the vault, and thus the series arc is fully established. The vault is a Rorschach (a Room of Requirement, if you’re under thirty): you see what you want to see. It has the Rani. It has the Master. It has the masters for ‘Fury From The Deep’. It will be far less interesting than it currently is in my head. The Doctor has the travel bug; Nardole is evidently taking this more seriously than he is, which is something that will have repercussions later and lead to lecturing from Matt Lucas while Bill bites her lip. In the meantime, it is a thing of intrigue, to be dissected or ignored at will. There’s an old piano and they play it hot behind the green door.

“I’m having this really childish impulse to blow it up.”

Opening with a two-hander was risky. Following it with another was riskier still. Cold open aside, only two of the supporting characters have speaking parts, and neither are particularly interesting: thankfully their roles are minimised to allow plenty of time for the Doctor to chat to Bill. They do so in Spanish wheatfields; in the deserted halls of a deserted museum; in the bowels of a buried spacecraft, nestled at the centre of the colony like the one in ‘The Face of Evil’, only without the scene where the Doctor walks inside his own mouth. Bill asks to see the future because she wants ‘to see if it’s happy’. Be careful what you wish for, Bill.

I’ve still not worked out whether the Doctor’s “I don’t interfere” maxim is an exercise in retaining an air of mystery for his companions to unpack later, or classic denial. Either way, Bill has him sussed. “You don’t call the helpline,” she says. “You are the helpline.”

“Do you know what it means when someone chases you very slowly?”

That’s the wrong emoji, really. Awkwardly, there is nothing even remotely frightening about this week’s monster, which is too small and clumsy to pose any real threat; it is like an offshoot from a Ninja Turtles episode. The Doctor faces off against one in the engine room and dispatches it with almost clinical ease: it would have been more fun, perhaps, if they’d had rotatable implements built into their hands, or perhaps a deadly groin attachment like the ones Kryten used to wear when he was vacuuming. The rabid flesh-eating particles of doom are altogether more deadly, of course, but we hardly actually see them, bar the obligatory cannon fodder scenes.

All in all the threat level is low, and it’s odd that Cottrell-Boyce makes such a meal out of it. The McGuffin takes a while to find, giving time for the leads to chat, but the delays are head-scratching. The impression you get is of a Doctor who is getting back into the swing of things: it’s like series 1 all over again, which I suppose is part of the point. “I can’t stop it,” he grumbles to Bill, “because I don’t know what started it last time”. Meanwhile it is Bill herself who is poking around and discovering withering corpses and eulogy-laden iPads while the Doctor is getting himself into trouble. Tennant would have had this one licked in a couple of minutes flat, and if there’s one thing that comes across this week it’s that fifty years of lectures and formal dinners have slowed the Doctor’s mind.

 

“You don’t steer the TARDIS. You negotiate with it.”

Caress those panels all you want. Land on the head of a pin. Manoeuvre a short hop so it materialises around you. If the TARDIS doesn’t want you to go back to Bristol the moment you left, she won’t. Perhaps there was a road closure and she had to take a diversion via Chippenham; that sort of thing happens a lot when the tax year’s winding up and they still have a budget surplus.

But it’s strange that the episode concludes on a not-quite cliffhanger, almost as if they ran out of story. Certainly after half a series of the Doctor picking up and dropping off Clara it catches you off guard. It would have been very easy to turn this into several episodes of the two of them sneaking back into the Doctor’s study like errant schoolchildren, only to find Nardole looking at his watch: that would be a predictable sub-arc, although it echoes Clara’s duplicitous treatment of Danny Pink and it is to be hoped that it’s something they don’t explore further. Ultimately this is about deflating Bill’s adulation of her tutor by exploring one of his core fallibilities: the notion of a machine he can’t always fly as well as he’d like to believe. It’s not quite Tegan throwing a hissy fit over stopped clocks, but having spent most of the last decade building up the image of a skilled pilot – particularly after last week’s spot of planet hopping – it’s nice to see they can still sweep away the rug, like Patricia Arquette does in the closing scenes of Lost Highway.

Has it been easier to think of the TARDIS as a person – or at least a metaphysical presence – since The Doctor’s Wife? Or did all this start with Parting of the Ways, where we’re never entirely sure whether we’re addressing Rose or the TARDIS core, or something that somehow combines them both? Perhaps it doesn’t matter: perhaps it’s simply about the disestablishment of patriarchy. The Doctor is not exploring the universe in the TARDIS: she is exploring the universe and taking him along for the fun of it, and there’s something sweet about the fact that even after all these years, he still thinks he can control her.

“They’re the skeleton crew.”

Cottrell-Boyce has been brushing up on his Who since the last time. The emancipation of a former slave race given newfound sentience echoes both ‘Planet of the Ood’ and ‘New Earth’, while the memory wipe the Doctor implements in order to do it has echoes of the Zygon gambit in ‘Day of the Doctor’. The human compost is a throwback to Hinchcliffe-era Tom Baker, and the Vardy are to all intents and purposes the nanobots from ‘The Doctor Dances’, with the appetite of the Vashta Nerada. And look, the whole thing is basically ‘The Happiness Patrol’ without the social commentary. It’s curious that this came from a writer who produced a story which – for better or worse – was unlike just about anything else in the canon; if there’s one thing ‘Smile’ could potentially have suffered from, it’s a tendency to stick a little too closely to the deserted base formula.

But niggles aside this is brilliant. Who by numbers – and that’s what it is, truth be told – isn’t always a bad thing, particularly if you precede it with an episode that can theoretically be watched by just about anyone, whether they were a seasoned veteran or a complete novice. It is what the show does; it is comfortable, and comfortable comes packaged with its own set of dangers. It is only a few letters away from complacent. But it says something when an established writer can load his episode with so many homages without losing the essence of a story, and without producing something that feels like a shameless rip-off. This new approach works for me: this Doctor who is given room to breathe and this companion who asks the right questions. It feels like good stories told with a freshness that hasn’t been here since Matt Smith first stepped out of his TARDIS demanding an apple. The smugness is gone – and, at least for the moment, Doctor Who is fun again.

Although it is disappointing that no one says “MY GOD, THEY’RE COMING OUT OF THE WALLS!” Seriously. Not once.

 

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God is in the detail (10-01)

Greetings, fellow Whovians! Welcome to Conspiracy Theory 101. This week, we’re taking a look at ‘The Pilot’ – superficially a thoughtful, crowd-pleasing character piece that wasn’t about anything except getting a couple of people together and giving them a chance to get to know each other.

But you and I both know that’s not what’s really going on.

Because the indisputed fact is that contemporary Doctor Who is absolutely loaded with hidden signs and clues and seemingly insignificant moments that will turn out to be VERY IMPORTANT LATER ON. We know this because the chief writer has designed it this way and because the internet says so. Still, collecting all these nuggets of information and analysing them and finding the hidden truths is a soul-crushingly lengthy process. Honestly, who has the time?

Me, as it turns out. So pull up a chair, open the Kool-Aid and let’s unpack it together, baby. Just make sure you don’t knock over anything fragile because all breakages must be paid for.

First, let’s take a look at those essay scores. Here they are stacked up for ease of reference.

88 and 92 first, because they both feature Daleks: 1988 marks, as everyone knows, the inaugural broadcast of ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ – and 1992, some four years later, saw the release of Dalek Attack, the side-scrolling platform game featuring several Doctors taking on a horde of Daleks. Hence we must conclude that the contractual obligation Dalek scene in ‘The Pilot’ WILL NOT BE THE LAST TIME WE SEE THEM THIS YEAR and that the Doctor is RETURNING TO TOTTERS LANE TO RETURN HIS LIBRARY BOOK.

But what of 1997? Does it refer to Destiny of the Doctors, the first-person game released in December of that year? Yes, it does. But not just that. To understand why, we must first unpack some of the episode’s other gems – basically, I’ll explain later.

Moving on for the moment: Christmas dinner.

Oh, there’s so much in this one it practically deserves its own entry. I mean look at those bookshelves. Look carefully. You see it, don’t you? It’s a stroke of genius, and I can’t believe the Radio Times didn’t spot it.

I thought it best to annotate this, rather than pick it apart in the text, so here we are.

Exhausted? Well, tough. Come on, we’ve got so much time and so little to examine. No, strike that. Reverse it.

Right, onwards.

Yeah, you spotted that too, didn’t you? The Doctor’s history with the Mary Celeste is well-documented, of course, with various incarnations encountering the ship – whether carrying passengers or bereft as the legend suggests – at different times. There’s probably even fan fiction, and I bet it includes Jamie and Zoe having a snog up in the crow’s nest.

But that’s not what’s going on here. This is about words. Because ‘Mary Celeste’ can be rearranged to form ‘Mel Ace Tyres’. In other words, the Twelfth Doctor and Bill will shortly be encountering former companions Melanie Bush and Dorothy ‘Ace’ McShane, both of whom travelled (in succession) with the Seventh Doctor and who have now established a successful tyre company in Streatham. THIS CANNOT POSSIBLY BE ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE.

Now, here’s the girl in the puddle.

This is a 14-sided object (don’t believe me? Count for yourself), thus referring to the thirteen canonical Doctors, including the War Doctor. But who is the fourteenth? Does it refer to the Doctor’s imminent successor? As it turns out the answer is no – it refers instead to the Valeyard. We know this because the puddle is located in a yard, and ‘vale’ ought to be fairly obvious.

What do you mean it isn’t?

In order to explain this we must delve into the world of Scottish folk – in particular the song ‘Wild Mountain Thyme‘, also known as ‘Purple Heather’. The connections to Who are transparent: Heather is seen wearing a purple top encrusted with flowers in the scene where she first meets Bill, and Prince – whose T-shirt, it has oft been noted, Bill has been observed wearing – titled one of his songs ‘Purple Rain’.

But there’s more to it than that, and it all links to 1997 – a year we explored earlier without ever really explaining why.

Consider:

1. Thyme grows among the Heather.

2. Bill is given photos of her mum.

3. Comedian Tim Minchin has a daughter called Violet, a form of purple.

4. Bill meets Heather in a bar – or a pub, or an inn.

5. 1997 – a year we’ve already mentioned – saw the release of Shooting Fish, which features ‘Neighbourhood’, a song by Space, on its soundtrack.

Still not with me?

I swear; sometimes I impress even myself.

Categories: God is in the Detail | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

Have I Got Whos For You (part 400)

God Is In The Detail is returning! And it will be with you later in the week. But in the meantime, here are the headlines from across the Whoniverse.

First and foremost, the fallout from the forced removal of a doctor from an American flight has drastic repercussions.

Fan reaction to the imminent return of John Simm continues to ignite the internet.

In fact this is Steven Moffat’s week, generally.

And an artist’s rendition of Kris Marshall in the TARDIS goes somewhat awry.

He’s just on the wrong planet, that’s all.

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Review: The Pilot

Warning: spoilers.

If you took ‘Terror of the Autons’, stirred in elements of ‘Shada’ and then sprinkled it with bits of Educating Rita, the gumbo you produced would probably be nothing like ‘The Pilot’.

But it’s a decent beginning. Because the keyword for this week is…well, not the much-anticipated ‘reboot’ that we’ve been going on about for months. You can see quite clearly what they were trying to do, but that oversells it. Have the BBC produced an episode that can be watched by someone experiencing the show for the first time? Perhaps, and by the skin of their teeth. Still, that’s not the vibe you take from it. This may be the most accessible companion-breaking story for some time, but it’s not ‘Rose’. Doctor Who has too much history – even within its last twelve years – to be able to pull a stunt like that.

No, the word you may be looking for is ‘grounded’. Because this is an episode that roots itself (to use Peter Capaldi’s own words) before you’re allowed to go anywhere. This is not a Doctor who turns up and comically integrates himself (or rather fails to) into a community, as we saw in ‘The Caretaker’ or ‘The Lodger’. This is a Doctor who’s already been on the scene a long time, who cannot possibly be as young as he looks, and who is visibly offended when people fail to point this out. But there’s more to it than that: this is not another ‘Snowmen’, in which the arriving companion breaks the Time Lord out of a funk overnight. It takes time. The Doctor’s tenure may be well-established but it still takes a good few months (read: minutes) for his new companion to discover what’s really going on.

It may interest you to know that they used to run teacher training courses in the same way. You would sit in the lecture theatre for six months of theory, and then at the halfway point they’d drop you into a classroom and leave you to get on with it. These days the process is far more integrated: practical experience begins on day one (all right, day thirteen) and is woven in with the theory as the year passes. But what happens in ‘The Pilot’ is that Bill spends a lot of time on the theory and finds her experience of the practical limited to the occasional tantalising glimpse, until the moment (a little over halfway through) that she peeks behind her shower curtain, whereupon the whole thing explodes. (That’s the plot, not the shower curtain.)

Not that this is in any way a bad thing. I was going to say that this was the most leisurely-paced episode of Doctor Who in years, but I was forgetting about ‘Face The Raven’ – a story in which nothing much happened for ages and which was horrifically boring as a result. In this instance what happens is a delicate dance between its two central characters – close and simultaneously at arm’s length – to the extent that by the time Bill finally sets foot in the TARDIS she knows the Doctor quite well, without actually knowing him at all. ‘You talk all the time,’ said Donna, one of the most perceptive of the NuWho companions, ‘but you don’t say anything’ – and while Capaldi’s Doctor is considerably less prone to the bouts of verbal diarrhoea for which Tennant’s incarnation was renowned, it’s not a bad comparison.

The first half of ‘The Pilot’ sees Bill Potts – a canteen worker with an apparent interest in quantum mechanics – becoming the Doctor’s private student, working under his tutelage while she fends off her stepmother’s casual acidity and inadvertently afflicts an unnamed crush with a heart condition. There are awkward conversations over Christmas dinner – a scene which is both touching and, in its own way, desperately sad – and Bill wanders the campus of the university until we know it almost as well as she does. The Doctor’s office features heavily: the plush, distinguished opulence of established academics, right down to the TARDIS in the corner and the collection of screwdrivers on the desk. Through it all, Bill approaches the broadening of her mind with a sense of wonder. “When most people don’t understand something, they frown,” the Doctor says to her early on. “But you smile.”

What is to all intents and purposes a two-hander turns into a three-hander the minute Nardole arrives on the scene properly (he appears briefly at the beginning merely to establish that he has a screw loose, in a quite literal sense). We’re told that he has a reason for hanging around but that’s clearly a card that Moffat is playing close to his chest for the moment, presumably having decided to throw it on the table just before he reveals the three aces he’s got stashed in his underwear. At least it’s fun to watch. Matt Lucas may have spent half of his first episode stuck on top of a Power Rangers Megazord and half his second running around in search of a lavatory, but it is here – despite the reduced screen time engineered to favour Mackie – that he more or less shows his true colours, as a cowardly but largely competent valet, deviating between dry sarcasm and quivering cowardice; half Jeeves, half Penfold.

There is a plot, of sorts, but you know that by now. It concerns a girl named Heather, who finds herself trapped in her own reflection, reforming to become the monster of the week: a dripping, frightening thing capable of clearing small pockets of the universe in a single bound. ‘Water always wins’, as the Tenth Doctor might have said, and while Heather lacks the cracked, jagged appearance of the Flood she is still reasonably sinister, if only by being so quick on the draw. It calls to mind the first Droopy cartoon, ‘Dumb-Hounded‘, in which the titular dog is sent in pursuit of a deadly criminal, who races from Chicago to Hollywood to the North Pole only to find Droopy waiting for him everywhere he goes.

It takes a Dalek to bring down the reconstructed Heather, and it’s the episode’s dullest moment (although it follows a blink-and-you’ll-miss it shot of the Movellans, fumbling with laser guns in one hand and trying to play rock-paper-scissors with the other). It’s all very well surrounding Bill by images of the cosmos so that her mind is almost literally blown; it’s just a shame it had to be the story’s climax. Bringing up the pace only to immediately drop it to play mind games is seldom interesting, even when it’s closely linked to the idea of escape, and it makes for a tedious, lacklustre finale.

But that almost feels like a minor quibble. This is an episode that works, largely because by and large it doesn’t try to do too much. The cast are a big help – Capaldi is comfortable and self-assured as the Doctor, and his support make the most of what they have – but the strength of ‘The Pilot’ lies in its concept of space, in a strictly terrestrial sense. It introduces new characters and gives them breathing room – hence the Doctor and Bill are flung together not by impossible forces, but by a sense of mutual loneliness and the driving need to explore. By the time the Doctor has temporarily abandoned his plans to guard whatever it is he’s guarding in that vault and whisk Bill away to the stars (tellingly with a line that echoes Christopher Lloyd’s reckless abandonment of responsibility at the end of Back to the Future), it feels like an inevitability – and we cheer with her.

Cast your minds back a year, and it’s no great secret that I was one of Bill’s fiercest critics. To be fair, all I had to go on was that the introductory scene they used to showcase her arrival. You remember, the one where she’s rude about the Daleks. To call it slightly asinine is like saying that The X-Factor occasionally plays with the truth. Within the context of ‘The Pilot’, we might think of it as her ‘Runaway Bride’ moment: a few people will laugh, while many more will simply roll their eyes.

But it took seeing her in action to change my mind. Because it’s early days, but Bill really seems to fit. After the build-up, the preliminary interviews and a bunch of trailers that didn’t exactly do her any favours, I approached ‘The Pilot’ with a certain amount of dread, but it seems that I worried over nothing. She takes longer to get the hang of the TARDIS (“Is this a knock-through?”) than many companions, but I’m now convinced she’s absolutely the right person to be in it – and I can’t wait to see where it takes her, both geographically and emotionally, as the series plays out.

And if I can manage that, so can you.

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The Child Left Behind – now available!

OK, I think it’s done.

 

If you want to skip the pre-amble, here’s the download link, but I’ll paste it again after the FAQ to save you having to scroll back up.

The Child Left Behind zip

(Contains PDF, EPUB and MOBI files. The link will take you to a new window where you should be able to right-click and save.)

 

So what’s all this, then?

The Child Left Behind is an original, entirely unsanctioned full length Doctor Who novel. By me.

So it’s basically fan fiction.

If you like. It’s not some episodic thing I churned out for A Teaspoon and an Open Mind and then cobbled together. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. I prefer to think of it as Fan Fiction, rather than fan fiction.

With the Eleventh Doctor? And Amy?

You noticed. It’s a series 5 story, taking place between ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ and ‘The Lodger’, although that much will become obvious when you read it.

How come you’re publishing it here?

As far as I’m aware, Doctor Who doesn’t accept unsolicited fiction. I’d dearly love to get it published one day, but in the meantime – and on the advice of another writer I met last year – I thought the best thing to do was just get it out there.

At no cost?

Of course not. That’s blatant copyright infringement. All I ask is that if you enjoy the book, you’ll tell your friends. And that if you don’t, you’ll tell me.

Fair enough. So what’s the story in Balamory?

Well, you’ll have to read it to find out.

Aww, come on. Not even a hint?

Oh, if you insist. Here’s the blurb from the back cover.

Hamelin was still reeling from an immeasurable tragedy. And then the murders began.

The TARDIS brings the Doctor and Amy to thirteenth century Germany, and a community that is grieving for its lost children. The Doctor senses something is amiss, but how can he investigate in a town already suspicious of strangers? What really happened here six weeks ago? Is the forest on the hill really haunted? And what’s that glinting at the bottom of the river?

As the Doctor and Amy watch their lives become entwined with a dysfunctional family, a world-weary bartender and a watchful Constable, they must race to find the answers – before something unspeakable happens to the people of Hamelin…

Cryptic. So the title doesn’t refer to Amy?

No, it doesn’t, but now that you mention it, that’s something that had honestly never occurred to me until it was pointed out.

Cool cover art, by the way.

It’s great, isn’t it? It’s the work of Yvain Bon, an artist I met in a Facebook group who specialises in alternative covers for stories. I asked him if he’d do something for this, and he turned my vague ideas into the image you see above – quickly and brilliantly. In return I promised I’d interview him for The Doctor Who Companion – which reminds me, I really should email him.

This is about the Pied Piper, isn’t it? I seem to remember that’s been done before. 

It has, yes – in various places (although not on TV). Doctor Who has been around for a long time and there is nothing new under the sun. But to the best of my knowledge it’s never been done quite like this.

So who’s the monster?

Not saying.

Not even a hint?

Oh, you are WORSE THAN MY CHILDREN.

I want a biscuit.

Dinner’s in half an hour. If you’re hungry, have an apple.

So what’s in the zip?

Right, yes: there’s a PDF. There are also EPUB and MOBI files for Kindles and Kobos or whatever else you use. E-Readers have hundreds of different calibrations and settings and I’m not entirely sure what you’ll need, but there should be something in there you can use. I’m not, I’m afraid, an expert on how to transfer files to your device – I’d suggest Googling that if you find you have any difficulties.

One thing – I know that the cover for the MOBI files is a little on the small side. I’m working on it.

How much knowledge of the show should I have before reading?

It’s tricky. The story’s chronology gives context to the way certain characters are behaving (it’s set after ‘Cold Blood’ but before ‘The Pandorica Opens’, if you catch my drift). Basic knowledge is therefore enough. Of course, the more you know about the show’s history, the more you’ll appreciate certain gags and so on. But I aimed for this to be accessible on a number of levels, and if there are certain things that go over your head a little bit, that’s all the more reason to delve into the archives.

Anything else I should know?

Just that it’s never going to be perfect. I’ve proofread and proofread and have got rid of as many mistakes as I can but you can bet I’ve missed something. Please do let me know and I’ll amend it for a future edition. The same goes for technical problems with the EPUB and MOBI files – I’ve sanity checked as much as I can but if anyone has any feedback let me know and I’ll try and improve them.

Oh, and one more thing: if you’re surprised by anything, please don’t spoil it for others!

Can I have that download link again?

Yep –

The Child Left Behind zip

(Contains PDF, EPUB and MOBI files. The link will take you to a new window where you should be able to right-click and save.)

Happy reading!

EDIT: It’s been brought to my attention that the public link I posted yesterday didn’t work unless you had a Dropbox account, a change apparently made recently but which had escaped my notice. I’ve therefore re-uploaded the file to OneDrive and updated the link. Hope it’s now OK!

Categories: The Child Left Behind | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Have I got Whos for you (part 468)

This week in Whoverville: Peter Capaldi’s magazine collection.

A new deleted scene emerges from The BFG.

Speculation mounts as a new trailer for the upcoming series 10 appears to show footage from an upcoming regeneration.

And there’s a lot of fuss over the identity of that woman in the photo the Doctor keeps on his desk.

Enjoy your day. I’m off to London: I could tell you why, but I’d have to exterminate you.

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