Things happen in that slow downtime between a reveal and a follow-up. The fandom gets cranky. There is a clamoured cry for new information, a grumbling in communities about when we’re going to get to see new footage or get plot details, tempered with a general sense of annoyance when they actually arrive because I didn’t want to know anything about the new series and why are you dropping all these spoilers in here? Whether the news dripfeeds in via convention soundbites or fan theory rendered flesh, either there’s too much information or not enough. The poor old BBC, it seems, can’t seem to do right for doing wrong.
And then last night we had fresh information. Well, a logo. It’s accompanied by an image of Jodie Whittaker standing on a hill. There is a sixteen-second audio ident going viral on YouTube. None of it is anything to write home about. But pity us poor journalists. Sometimes you have to keep the hit counters up even when there’s bugger all to actually discuss. There is a saying that no news is good news, which is true for just about everyone except the people who get paid to write it.
It didn’t take the Radio Times long to jump on the bandwagon. Not content with publicising fan-generated titles a few weeks ago (I’m not linking to that; it’s a matter of principle), they decided to apply a little creative thinking to the new logo and point out the rather obvious-looking distortion in the last two letters of the words ‘Doctor Who’ that make it look like a Venus symbol knocked on its side. So, you know, obviously it’s a woman. For my part, I am getting Prince flashbacks.
To be fair, it wouldn’t be the first time. Long-time readers of this blog may (but probably won’t) recall a thing I wrote a while back entitled The Art of Looking Sideways, in which I talked about whether or not we could really say that Theta Sigma was the Doctor’s real name and concluded that it almost certainly wasn’t, but that there was a cheeky jibe by the production team when you shift round some of the components. It’s a precursor to Peter Capaldi’s appearance in World War Z, in which I’m told he plays a scientist at the World Health Organisation. He is quite literally Doctor Who. Just don’t tell the noobs; they get really irritable when you try and tell them it’s an acceptable name.
Assuming you’ve seen the Eighth Doctor movie, you’ll be aware that there’s only one quote that regularly makes the meme lists: it’s the Doctor talking about patterns that aren’t there. And I’ll confess that it’s this that comes to mind when I consider the desperate search for hidden information that occurs every time there’s a publicity still, a title drop or (god preserve us) an actual teaser, resulting in arguments and alarums and hundred-comment Reddit threads. Except that I admit that my reaction to the Venus theory was to point and laugh. As deconstructions go, it was pathetic. A six-year-old’s comprehension exercise contains more insight. Hidden Messages? I fart in your general direction. You wouldn’t know a hidden message if it jumped out in an orange shell suit and yelled “I’M HERE, YOU NUMBSKULLS!”
I was in one of my more sensible groups and we were discussing the Venus thing and its connections with Theta Sigma – a theory one of us said he hoped wasn’t true, because “then the nerds had won”.
“That D with a line through it looks a bit like an ice lolly knocked on its side,” I said. “Any thoughts as to what it might mean?”
“Martian ice cream?” was the response I got. “Plus, look at the way the end of the H lines up with the O. It looks like a 10, so…”
Regular readers will also be aware that I run a series called God Is In The Detail, which pokes light-hearted fun at fan theory to the extent that whenever I post any links to it on Facebook, Poe’s law goes into overdrive and everyone starts telling me I have too much free time (which is probably true in any case, but still). Anyway, that’s the vibe I had in mind when I produced this. And I’d just like to point out that as soon as it was uploaded, I went outside in the garden to play with Edward, so I do get out occasionally.
There. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Radio Times.
In 2007, Doctor Who fans were gifted with the finest Master to grace the screen since Roger Delgado. He was suave, he was eloquent, he was angry and malicious, he was…well, he was British, which probably helped. Unfortunately he lasted only a minute and a half before getting shot by an insect and regenerating into John Simm.
It was such a pity. Derek Jacobi was born to play the Master, and for just a moment or two, he did it brilliantly. His replacement was a gurning, dancing clown, manic and ridiculous and – it must be acknowledged – perfectly matched opposite Tennant, but not always an easy watch. Things didn’t improve when he returned with a hoodie, an inexplicable penchant for cannibalism and a secret plan for cloning himself, leading to what is affectionately known as the show’s Being John Malkovich moment. It would be years before we saw the version of the Simm Master that I’d always wanted to see – sneering, reserved and (for a change) respectably dressed, and even if that turns out to be his last appearance, his turn in ‘The Doctor Falls’ was a cracking way to go out.
But enough of this, because we were here to discuss Jacobi – who, having turned in a memorable performance in ‘Utopia’, promptly toddled away back into the land of romantic comedy-dramas, bad sitcoms and the occasional CBeebies bedtime story. He tangoed in Halifax, helped build the Titanic and endured a love-hate relationship with Magneto. Recently we saw him lock horns with the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society in A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. But of his Master, there was nothing – until last December, when he teamed up for a Big Finish audio series entitled Only The Good, in which we got to see the reincarnated renegade in action during the Time War, before he fled to the end of the universe.
What to say about the War Master set? Well, it’s broadly good, although it opens with a largely inconsequential opening story with people I didn’t care about on a forgettable planet that’s being besieged by Daleks. Stories two and four are better, although in one of them the Master is at his most un-Masterlike (the title of this particular story is ‘The Good Master’, so it’s not exactly a spoiler) and it’s initially rather disconcerting to witness him behaving like the disguised human he would eventually become. Of the four, ‘Sky Man’ is far and away the best, despite – or perhaps because – it is a story in which the Master barely features, instead allowing his erstwhile companion Cole to take centre stage. Cole himself is worthy, if rather dull, but if the story’s conclusion is more or less mapped out in its opening conversation it’s still devastatingly effective when it happens.
It also definitively answers one of the questions that the fans have been arguing about for years: namely, was it really Jacobi’s Master in the Time War? The naysayers point out that he states he was ‘a naked child found on the coast of the silver devastation’; similarly John Smith remembers growing up in Ireland with his parents Sydney and Verity, but that’s fabricated, fourth wall-breaking codswallop. This is a slightly younger, sprightlier version of the man we saw in ‘Utopia’ – a man saddled with the weight of twenty years of fruitless labour and a lifetime of false memories, plus the aforementioned insect. Bringing him back was a no-brainer. If you want a resurrected Time War Master, and Jacobi is a narrative fit, why the hell wouldn’t you sign him up if he was available and willing?
It’s a pity we won’t get to see this incarnation meet up with John Hurt: that would have been a heck of a show (and yes, I know it kind of undermines the series 3 arc; don’t tell me they couldn’t have found a workaround for that). But three decent stories out of four seems to be par for the course for BF sets these days, and it’s fun to hear Jacobi casually toss aside supporting characters like sacrificial pawns, outwit the Daleks and occasionally struggle with his conscience – or at least appear to struggle. Unfortunately the story’s conclusion makes a second series rather difficult, for reasons I won’t give away (although you’ve likely figured them out already), and it seems a shame to essentially ditch this new incarnation of the Master just as we’re getting to know him.
But here’s how you terrify your kids: you get them to sit through ‘Utopia’ just before bed, and then you put the In The Night Garden soundtrack on the bedroom CD player.
My views on In The Night Garden are well-documented, if by well-documented you mean eight hundred and fifty words defending the BBC and a couple of doctored photos. I love it because it works and because I do not understand why it works. If that sounds a little odd, it’s because these days it’s mostly anomalous – fan theory is endemic in just about everything, and it is a strange phenomenon, in this enlightened age, to enjoy something because you don’t get it. Twenty-first century media is all about the How and Why, and it’s killing the industry: the rare glimpses behind the scenes that we got in the 70s and 80s are now a regular fixture; outtakes and bloopers have spread like a rash on YouTube; we know everything about a story before we see even the first trailer. One can only hope that Chibnall’s reign – taking place, as it does, behind a security net to rival a Presidential visit, or even a Blade Runner location shoot – goes some way towards reinvigorating the show and bringing back the sense of wonder it once had, and he’s only going to manage that if he slows down on the goddamn press releases.
But no, In The Night Garden is wonderful television: calm, serene and just the right side of weird. Of course grown-ups find it odd. Grown-ups aren’t the target audience. This is TV for the very young, meticulously researched and painstakingly constructed, something that seems to escape the notice of the many parents I talk to who still seem to labour under the ridiculous misapprehension that when the BBC are making TV programmes they simply turn up in a TV studio and wing it. That’s not how it’s done, and the end results look weird because to babies and toddlers the whole world looks weird. (If people really think this is a new thing, they’d be wise to hop onto YouTube and find the little surviving footage that still exists of the oft-forgotten Wizbit. If you’re going to tell me that they’re screwing up our children, it is vital to acknowledge that the process began at least thirty years ago, and probably long before that.)
A while ago, I did a mashup that fused footage from Bing Bunny with some of Mark Rylance’s Wolf Hall dialogue. It was reasonably coherent, and exploring the darker side of Flop’s affable, endless patient personality was the most fun I’d had in a good long while. It also got me into hot water with Aardman, who didn’t like the juxtaposition of ‘adult material’ with programmes meant for kids. The bottom line is that however many disclaimers you include in the description – and however many warnings you tag on the front end – parents are going to let their children watch it, and Aardman were understandably twitchy about compromising the sickeningly wholesome reputation of one of their flagship programmes. (There was the small matter of copyright infringement as well, which I’ve always thought was a little petty given that it was an unmonetised video, but that’s their prerogative.)
But there I was, listening to the War Master set and thinking…wouldn’t it be wonderful to fuse some of the dialogue from this and dump it into a few of the Night Garden episodes? What if the lurid, excessively safe world of Igglepiggle and his friends were bombarded by a quite different and overtly sinister narrator who sounded exactly like the one whose unreconstructed tenor warbles through each of the show’s 100-odd episodes? What if we piled on the filters, added a bit of slow motion and ran the theme song through the editing suite? What could possibly go wrong?
The results, I hope, speak for themselves – and if they’re a little freakish, that’s a good thing. This owes a lot to the black and white Teletubbies video that’s doing the rounds (you know, the one with Joy Division), although it’s less of a mood piece and more of a meditation; it even attempts to tell some sort of story. There are two bits of dialogue, by the way, lifted directly from ‘Utopia’ rather than the War Master set; bonus points to anyone who can work out what they are. And yes, the ending is a bit Blackadder. No apologies.
Oh, and it’s in black and white because it looks cool. Isn’t that a pip?
This week at Brian of Morbius, as news emerges of Elton John’s Grand Farewell Tour That’s Going To Take Three Years, an unexpected guest singalong at one of his concerts prompts concerns over cultural appropriation.
Elsewhere, proceedings at the Superbowl are interrupted by an unexpected pitch invasion.
An exclusive still emerges from a Doctor Who casting session that was mercifully denied the green light of approval.
Ha! She’s fallen out of the TARDIS! That’s funny, innit? OBVIOUSLY the TARDIS doesn’t want a woman Doctor and OBVIOUSLY it was reacting to this BLASPHEMY and OBVIOUSLY I’m going to ignore the fact that this has happened every time the Doctor’s regenerated, at least since 2005. You may take this as a sign, my friends, a sign that the show we know and love is doomed. I’m now going to sit back and relax over the next few months and watch as Doctor Who goes completely down the pan. And when it does, I won’t say I told you so. Well, I will. Repeatedly, and as loudly as I possibly can.
I unfollowed a Who-themed group this week after it became saturated with people who have made it their life’s work to complain about Jodie Whittaker’s casting. It’s what happens when you’re hands off with moderation. It’s also what happens when you get a bunch of idiots complaining that IF YOU DO NOT LIKE THE NEW DOCTOR YOU ARE NOT A TRUE FAN”, which is confrontational, unnecessary and also complete bollocks. For one thing, the words ‘true fan’ are an absurdly reductionist maxim of a notoriously complicated subject, one that it is not possible to assess objectively simply because Doctor Who is so many things to so many people. No one gets to make that call, not even me. There are plenty of sane, sensible people who are wary about the new Doctor, and to suggest that cautious optimism or blind ambivalence is a sign of a deep-rooted misogyny and pathological fear of change is frankly laughable.
So there are two types of fans: those who shout that the new Doctor will be a disaster, and those who shout back. Those of us in the middle, pleading for moderation and constructive discussion on both sides, have found ourselves largely neutered. I have put up with it for as long as I can. I’m not someone who actively avoids toxic situations – journalists build a career out of conflict, and if you stray too far into the echo chamber it is impossible to find your way out, but even I have my limits. There are better groups run and populated by people with calmer dispositions and sensible genital size. Enough. I will stick to the ridiculous memes, and the occasional video.
Last year I figured out something. People are far more likely to engage with video content if it’s on Facebook. Never mind the number of people you reach; actual post engagement is much higher. In other words, it apparently takes less effort to click and watch a video when it is embedded directly in a timeline feed than it does to click and watch a video that is on YouTube. I refuse to accept that this is a technical issue. I think it’s just laziness, but I can live with that.
The upshot of this is that my YouTube stats are, with one or two exceptions, looking a little bit sad these days, but that’s OK. That’s a reflection of evolving viewing habits. Times must change, and so must I, as a wise man once said, before he aged twenty-five years and then turned into a woman, which is like a Greek myth or something.
So no one has watched the YouTube version of this, but on Facebook, it sort of exploded a bit.
Seriously, this took me, like, an hour. Well, a little longer. I also had to watch enough of Trust Me to find something that would work for the Doctor’s punch line; it’s not quite the ‘bollocks’ I was hoping for but it’ll do. It’s a little weird that the TARDIS lands in a forest twice in the same series, but it did make editing a little bit easier. The ambient music in the background comes, needless to say, from Cryo Chamber, who are my new favourites.
My page likes jumped about ten per cent off the back of this one video. It’s not even very good, to be honest. I can’t think what else to write about it, except that it seemed like such an obvious joke I’m amazed I didn’t think it up months ago. A few of the dissenters used it as ammunition – “Ha! Yes, of course that’s what the Twelfth would do if he found he’d grown a pair of tits”, but that’s something I can live with. Matthew Graham didn’t expect Gene Hunt to become a poster boy for the Daily Mail, but that’s exactly what happened, so I suppose on a lesser scale I’m in good company. Brilliant.