Monthly Archives: September 2017

Doctor Who: the alternative headlines

When you work in the press, in whatever capacity, you’re surrounded by headlines. They’ve always been important, but in the digital age they’re the very lifeblood of what we do. In a world where success is monitored by the hit counter, first impressions are vital. That’s why clickbait is such big business: when a deadline is looming but you have nothing interesting to say, make it look as though you have. This revelation came to me quite recently, but what happened next will astound you.

In all seriousness: there’s nothing wrong (all right, rephrase: there’s nothing particularly new) about sexing up a headline a little bit, so long as you don’t tell any outright lies. Part of the problem stems from expectations – before the birth of the internet you could scan the body text beneath the headline and get an idea of the piece without having to actually read it in full, or at the very least ascertain its length. These days, if you’re being fed a juicy story, chances are it’ll be on social media, where the headline and covering image has been scrupulously prepared for maximum impact so as to grab your attention, with the actual text lurking on another page – and by the time you’ve worked out it wasn’t worth your time, you’ve already clicked.

People react to this with varying degrees of annoyance – personally, I’d say it’s all part of the way that online news has developed, and that the pious “There, I saved you a click” brigade really need to grow a sense of humour. But I would say that, seeing as it’s what passes for a day job. What annoys me is the tedious, over-excited headlines we draw from all those conveniently-worded soundbites that you get at the press screenings, convention appearances and Doctor Who Magazine editorials. Let me give you a few examples from the last year:

  • Jenna Coleman thinks Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who casting is “genius”
  • The next series of Doctor Who will feel like “the first episode you ever see”
  • Is this the greatest scene in modern Doctor Who history?
  • A scene in the Doctor Who Christmas special had the Doctors “almost blubbing”
  • Steven Moffat drops hints about Jodie Whittaker’s first Doctor Who scenes: “She’s given us the Doctor we’ve always known”

Don’t get me wrong. The BBC wants to sell its own product, and I’m OK with that. You need to be outwardly enthusiastic; any producer who said they thought they had a turkey on their hands would likely be given their cards, and we all know what happens when the stars dare to insult the directors. But still. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told I’ll be stunned, amazed, upset and blown away by what’s going to happen in the next series of Who, or how things were going to be truly fantastic.

Can I plead, perhaps, for a little more honesty? Or if that’s really not something we do (“The truth, Minister? You can’t expect Her Majesty’s Government to start telling the truth!”) then perhaps a little more humility, however false? And with that in mind I’ve come up with a few ideas for headlines that I’d like to see, however unlikely their appearance on the news feeds.

 

 

 

 

I am very ‘umble to the present moment, Master Copperfield…

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The Kasterborous Archive, #6: Everything has its time and everything dies

Author’s notes:

This is an interesting one.

It stems from the tail end of series 9. I was in a bad place generally, which didn’t help – but was also fed up with Doctor Who. It precedes a year-long absence for the show that reinvigorated my enthusiasm, to a certain extent; series 10 was certainly a dramatic improvement, largely thanks to Bill. Simultaneously the article (which pre-dates any announcements about the departures of Capaldi or Smith) has a lot to say about holding on to things until they crumble into dust; the fans often don’t know when they’ve had too much of a good thing, and as the Doctor wandered wearily into the TARDIS at the end of Hell Bent, there was a part of me that wished he’d just shut the door and stay there and let the show die naturally. Have I shifted my position since then? Yes. Do I stand by what I said in 2015? Also yes. There’s nothing wrong with embracing your contradictions.

Everything has its time and everything dies

Published: 29 November 2015

Coming soon to a newspaper near you: an article about ratings. Ratings or contracts. Ratings or contracts or BBC cuts. The future of Doctor Who, it seems, has never been so shaky or uncertain. Rumours abound about the prospect of the show being put on hiatus, or cancelled altogether amidst fears of falling popularity and failure to put up a fight against The X-Factor (which seems to be having troubles of its own). Those of us who browse the press and the forums will know that this is nothing new. But the most disturbing thing about the current trend, at least for me, is how little I actually care about it. For the first time in a long while, the prospect of the show’s cancellation, however unlikely (and we’ll get to that), fills me with far less dread than it ought to.

It’s a great job, getting paid to write about Doctor Who. I wouldn’t swap it for all the elephants in Mumbai. Is it worth the affront you experience when you receive a critical drubbing from people who’ve missed the point, or (far worse) the heartache and disappointment that bites when a piece is routinely ignored? Yes, it is. Is it worth the long, coffee-fuelled 2am finishes every Sunday morning scribbling reviews and opinion pieces and uploading endless GIFs in order to make deadline and beat the web traffic? Of course it is. Is it worth the torture of having to endure the atrocity that was Before the Flood not once but twice so that I can explain it to my children? Yes, just about. Is it worth the sense of weariness my wife experiences when I persuade her to sit through yet another tedious episode because my reviews are always better when I can feed off her witty and acerbic remarks? Well, you’d have to ask her that, although she’d probably sigh a little bit and give you a smile that speaks volumes.

But the problem is that it’s now the writer in me that is pleading for its continued renewal, rather than the fan. Writing semi-professionally about something you love is a dangerous tightrope, and one that many of us walk. I’d hate for it to become any sort of crutch, but writing about Who – in whatever capacity – is one of the few things I know how to do reasonably well, and it’s for that reason alone that I pray that the continuous reports of the show’s imminent demise are nothing more than an exaggeration designed to shift units.

Pay particular attention to that word ‘alone’, because it’s where I’ve been going with this. Because the fan in me no longer cares about New Who. Seriously, I don’t. I’m worn out with high expectations that are constantly dashed. I’m tired of the ominous looks that plagued this series whenever Capaldi was alone with Clara, leading to a death scene that lasted seven minutes longer than it should have. I’m tired of the mysteries and arcs and things that are supposed to be important and the stupid tendency the show has now to make great, bold affirmations about why the Doctor left Gallifrey / grew up scared of his own shadow / bought a new toaster when it doesn’t actually matter. I’m tired of inconsistent writing and good ideas squandered. I’m tired of humourless gravitas and awkward, ill-fitting social commentary shoehorned into poor scripts (the Zygon stories were a notable exception). I’m tired of all the sodding electric guitar references (although I don’t dispute that Peter can play). And I’m tired of the cult of smugness that surrounds it: the press saturation and stunt casting and the feeling that this should somehow be BAFTA-standard high drama, rather than lightweight family entertainment.

Moffat sits in a different chair to the one occupied by John Nathan-Turner, but ultimately it’s the same situation: outstaying your welcome. The longer he’s here, the more we allow him to do: not content with having undermined everything Russell T Davies achieved (I’m not going to expand on this; if you can’t figure it out it’ll give you something to argue about), he’s now making his mark in other ways, too numerous and obvious to mention here. Somewhere, I’m convinced he has a list of “Things I want to do before I step down”, and presumably if he manages to tick off everything on the list then Mark Gatiss has to buy him a PlayStation 4.

Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt. There was a time, not long after the 2005 resurrection, where I’d rebuff any criticism of the show with “Yes, I agree, but it’s Doctor Who. Isn’t it better that it’s back?” There was a time when I truly believed that. There was a time when if asked to choose between episodes like Fear Her and cancellation, I’d plump for the former in a double heartbeat. The frightening thing is that if you’d asked me the same question after viewing The Woman Who Lived a few Saturdays ago, or the dirge that was Face The Raven just the other week, I genuinely don’t know what I’d have said. Are stories like this really the best we can do? Is this the height of quality for a flagship programme, for prime time Saturday night television?

The fact of the matter is that the years when Doctor Who was not on air were some of the most productive and fruitful in the history of the show. The Big Finish franchise – now a bloated and distorted mutation of its former self – was established in order to make the stories that the BBC no longer wanted, and did it brilliantly. The New Adventures, Past Doctor Adventures and the webcasts all came out of the fans’ desire to fill the vacuum that Michael Grade had created. Oh, not everything worked. (Have you read Eye of Heaven? It’s appalling.) Still, some of the most interesting stories and ideas ever featured in Doctor Who came out of that period. The Americans don’t want Paul McGann? Fine. We’ll give him a whole history. We’ve even got a companion who gets turned into a fish.

I was reiterating this to my children just the other day. “There are hundreds of old stories you’ve not watched,” I told them. “And most of them are worth a look. There are hundreds of books and hundreds of audio dramas and comics and even I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer. If they stopped making new Doctor Who stories tomorrow it’d still take aeons to get through everything.”

I once met a Christian speaker who talked eloquently on the matter of dying churches. The crux of his argument ran thus: if churches filled with an ageing population are in danger of becoming empty, perhaps we shouldn’t be so desperate to refill them. If clubs and organisations are winding down, perhaps we should let them. Perhaps Doctor Who is drawing to a natural conclusion that we should allow to happen before it reaches series-too-far territory (a ship which I’m sure many people would argue has already sailed long ago). Perhaps, as the Ninth Doctor famously says to Rose at the close of The End of the World, everything has its time and everything dies. Perhaps we’ve forgotten that. Perhaps instead we’re more concerned that everybody lives, whatever the cost.

At the same time, a thought occurs: Doctor Who is probably not going to be cancelled, and in its current form it is not going to change. Moffat shows no signs of leaving; he outlasted Smith and he may well outlast Capaldi. For as long as he’s willing to believe his own hype (in the weekly cries of “Genius” and “OMG BEST EPISODE EVER I AM LITERALLY CRYING BUCKETS!” that frequent forums and Tumblr feeds) then there’s no reason why he should. The rants of old fogeys like me will not shake him, nor should they. I’ll shout into the wind for as long as I feel the need, but I seldom expect anyone to actually hear, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. And truth be told I like a man who stands by his convictions, even if we’re polar opposites in terms of how we approach things.

So I’ll keep watching – I have a vested interest in the show’s continuation, after all – and I’ll keep complaining because I’m not a sycophant, I can’t heave my heart into my mouth, and eventually after all this shouting into the wind there is at least a distant possibility that someone is going to listen (just as there is a possibility that an infinite number of monkeys given an infinite number of typewriters will eventually produce a script better than Evolution of the Daleks). At the same time, if the front page exclusive tomorrow morning read “DOCTOR WHO CANCELLED” I think I can say, for the first time in ten years, that I probably wouldn’t care that much. I mean, I’d have to find something else to fill my Saturday evening. But that’s fine. It’s been years since I watched The X-Factor.

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Have I Got Whos For You (part 8.5 or 9, depending on how you count)

In the news this last fortnight, National Photograph Your Child In Front Of A Door Day reaches as far as the TARDIS.

Elsewhere, in the wake of the Bradley Walsh rumour, a BBC source leaks an exclusive set of unreleased screen tests for the next Doctor Who companion.

And the Doctors celebrate International Cosplay Weekend.

 

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Rogue One: Kind of a Star Wars story

It’s not exactly cheery, is it?

I mean, it was never going to be. If you want to visit the first paragraph of that iconic title crawl and turn it into a movie, you immediately run into a problem. If the Rebels striking from a hidden base have managed to steal the plans for the Death Star, how come we never hear from them again? Why does the the entire revolution lie in the hands of a drippy farm boy, a cynical mercenary and a sexually frustrated royal? Tangentially, why is everyone so goddamned happy at the end of Episode IV when they’ve lost about thirty-six pilots on that trench run?

The solution is simple. You give the job to someone who takes it upon themselves to disappear from the limelight for a good while (which is what they did in Dark Forces) or you kill off everyone involved, which is exactly what happens in Rogue One. Specifically, you give it to a young woman with a ‘troubled’ past and family connections, stick her with a bunch of misfits and ‘a droid with more personality than any of the human characters’ (quoth Honest Trailers) and then you send them marching off to their deaths. Give them a few headline-generating filming locations to take in on the way. Night raid on craggy Imperial outpost? Check. Forests? Check. Desert world? Flights to Jordan already booked. And somewhere, in a bar on Mos Eisley, a retconned-out-of-existence Kyle Katarn is weeping into his Jawa Juice.

It looks spectacular, as one would expect. But perhaps the best thing we could say about it is that for the most part it doesn’t really feel like a Star Wars story – and that’s a compliment. The tropes are all present and correct, of course. K-2SO even says “I have a bad feeling about this” when he’s entering an elevator, although it’s almost disappointing when said elevator doesn’t subsequently cut him in half. But that’s where it stops. If the biggest crime committed by The Force Awakens was its scene-by-scene homage to Episode IV – a film that mirrors its predecessor so closely can never be a total success – Rogue One manages to take the Star Wars universe into different territory without ever quite abandoning the galaxy far, far away. This is a darker, grittier piece with a greater degree of moral ambiguity. Characters face death and find there is no last-minute reprieve or conveniently placed Wookiee. Instead there is a lot of self-sacrifice and that scene on a beach that basically rips off Deep Impact. I hear whispers of an alternative ending, perhaps never shot, in which Jyn and Cassian survived: perhaps a better homage would have been a dramatic freeze frame, fading to sepia, the almost-lovers locked in time, somehow cheating death.

It might have been a decent way to conclude the movie, because then we wouldn’t have had to put up with this.

I don’t necessarily have a problem with the uncanny valley, but I can’t help feeling that this particular traversal was a colossal waste of time. Essentially it still looks fake. It’s like particularly good botox – wrinkle-free, but you can still tell. It’s not as bad as Jeff Daniels in Tron Legacy, but it’s close. And the moment it happens is worse than looking at a photo. It’s like that bit in Spaceballs where the effeminate commander yells “You’ve captured their stunt doubles!”. Would it have killed Ingvild Deila to keep her back to the camera? “And when I turned round…”

More successful – somewhat – is the resurrected Grand Moff Tarkin, played this time by Guy Henry, who (Rosie Marcel aside) is just about the best thing in Holby City, whether he’s being fatherly with Arthur Digby or getting punched in the face by Ric Griffin. He still looks fake, but it’s a believable kind of fake, somehow. What does this say about my preoccupation with women’s looks? Put another way, why can I accept a CG Peter Cushing, but not a Carrie Fisher? And at the opposite end of the spectrum I’m still annoyed that in the process of revisiting the First Doctor for the Christmas special they’ve cast an actor who is absolutely nothing like him, so perhaps it’s impossible to make me happy.

The film ends – you will know this, and if you haven’t I’m about to ruin it – literally minutes before A New Hope begins, with Princess Leia making a run for it with the stolen plans, the Empire in hot pursuit. Or perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps there’s room for a whole slew of adventures in between, in which Leia picks up the two droids, meets Han Solo, bears his child and then has her memory wiped. If this were Doctor Who, that’d be what happens. There is a school of thought that suggests, for example, that the Ninth Doctor went off and travelled on his own for years in the five seconds that it takes Mickey and Rose to cross the car park before the TARDIS rematerialises and the Doctor asks “By the way, did I mention that it also travels in time?”. It is a silly theory, but you could shoehorn it if you really wanted.

All headcanon aside, the sense of familiarity that hits you in those final minutes is a blatant attempt at crowd-pleasing, just the same as the seeds for Episode IV were sown in the montage that closed Revenge Of The Sith. That one had twin suns on Tattoine, brooding stares from Darth Vader, and a partially constructed Death Star. Rogue One tries so hard to outdo this it comes across as posturing. It’s not necessarily bad posturing, particularly as it’s so much fun to watch Vader striding through the Alliance command ship, mercilessly throwing Rebel troops against the ceiling like someone playing Boom Blox on the Wii. But it’s really not very cheery, K-2SO’s quibbling aside. It’s jolly good, all told, but there must be a way to make it a little more fun.

And then it hit me. You add the Red Dwarf theme.

There, that’s much better.

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