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Adventures with the wife in space

A couple of years back we stopped off in a motorway services en route to a holiday at Butlins. I ordered coffee from Starbucks and, when the barista asked my name, requested ‘The Doctor’ and ‘Sarah Jane’.

To be honest, the absolute best thing to do in Starbucks is give your name as ‘Spartacus’, but I’ve never quite managed to be that brave. A knowing reference to the 70s, missed by the incredulous millennial who was serving me, would have to do. You take what you can get, although if it’s in Starbucks you rarely have change from a tenner. When I got outside Emily looked at the black scribble across the side of her cardboard container and raised an eyebrow.

“It was going to be ‘Romana’,” I admitted. “But I didn’t trust them to spell it properly.”

It’s a recurring theme. Emily is the voice of reason in my often hapless relationship with Doctor Who. What she lacks in experience she more than makes up for in common sense and general knowledge, and on top of this she’s usually right. I have a friend who has had to make a deal with his other half to keep their marriage intact: when they’re watching science fiction she is allowed four cynical remarks per episode “You know what it’s like,” he said to me.

“In our house, it’s the opposite,” I said. “I actively rely on Emily to beat on an episode that I was enjoying. It keeps me grounded. Besides, some of my best gags come from her.”

When I mentioned her in Facebook conversation the other week the question we received was “Which one’s the Doctor and which one’s the companion?”

“I’m the Doctor,” I said. “But she’s Romana. That should tell you all you need to know.”

It should tell you all you need to know, as well.

Anyway, it’s her birthday. Accordingly:

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The Doctor Who story game – 2017 edition

When I was ten, my year 5 teacher asked us to come up with a three sentence idea for a story we wanted to write. Then he bade us hand the idea to our desk partners, who would write the story we’d suggested, while we wrote theirs. I can see what he was doing, but as someone who’s always relished creative control over things like this, it was an uncomfortable experience for me, particularly as I was partnered with someone who hovered around the lower end of the gene pool. There’s something a little painful about reading a great idea you’ve had reduced to rack and ruin by a kid who was far more comfortable with a football than a fountain pen. I had to console myself by doing the best possible job with his idea, the bones of which I can still remember, nearly thirty years later.

I’ve grown up a fair bit since then, but the hoarding impulse remains: having a committee build a story is generally not a good idea. There are too many cooks hovering over a small pan. It’s why Snakes on a Plane was rubbish. On the other hand, as an exercise done purely for fun, it is a wonderful, almost humbling experience, a way of surrendering your ego and allowing someone else to take an idea and run with it. And so it was that a few weeks ago, while I was in the pub with an old friend putting the world to rights, a whole bunch of people were sitting at phones and laptops, eagerly adding sentences to a thread I’d started instructing them to help me build a Doctor Who story.

Did you ever play that consequences game where you tell a story one sentence at a time? Or where you write it down on pieces of concertinaed A4, the fragments forming a loose, nonsensical narrative? This was kind of like that. You lose creative control – and greet the absurd, occasionally incoherent direction that things take with a mixture of amazement and alarm. Alarm because it’s not the way you hoped it would go – but then you learn to relax and go with it. I won’t pretend that what follows makes any sense, or is even particularly good, but it was an awful lot of fun seeing it develop and grow.

Imagine, if you will, a large Facebook group – one of the largest Doctor Who groups on the entire site, if not the very largest – teeming with imagination and ideas. It was the perfect playground to try this out, although I ran the risk of being totally ignored – that’s what happens when you get so many posts. But the community came out in force. Old companions forged new alliances. Monsters were dropped in and flushed out with nary a mention. Tangents were briefly explored and then brushed aside as the story went somewhere else. The fourth wall was painstakingly demolished. And Steven Moffat wound up the subject of several wish fulfilment fantasies. Cosmetics aside, it is presented as is. The first and last lines are mine; everything else was from other people.

There weren’t many rules: any and every Doctor or companion was available, although when I read through the dialogue people had submitted I could hear Matt Smith’s voice, and thus it became a story about the Eleventh. When we were done – in other words, when things had ground to a natural halt – I locked the thread. Then I cleaned up the spelling, Anglicised the dialogue, chopped up a few bits here and there, and adjusted it so it was all in the correct tense, adding a few hastily assembled images to break up the text. It was fun, and we will probably do it again.

In the meantime, the story we wrote follows. I call it…

It was dark. Night had a habit of being like that.

Except night on Derrimilanicum, where night tends to be bright green due to the effects of a world-wide aurora. But it was dark still because it was cloudy. Derrimilanicum was a peaceful place…except for the night when the encroaching darkness known simply as the ‘Vashta Nerada’ came to invade.

The doctor sat in the TARDIS, eating a bagel. He remembered the Vashta Nerada painfully well…

He clapped his hands suddenly and stood up, as there was suddenly a knock at the Tardis door. The Doctor answered to find his old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.

He was holding a fez – always a fez – and the Doctor threw it in the air just so it landed on his head. But it missed, the fez missed the Doctor’s head landing in a puddle. He picked it up and invited the Brigadier into the Tardis.

“Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart! What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” The Doctor asked gleefully. “And upon such a cloudy day?”

Then the Doctor lifted a finger and said, “Unless that hasn’t happened yet. I never quite know where in the time stream I am.”

“Coming from you, Doctor, that’s a relatively normal thing to say,” the Brigadier muttered from opposite the TARDIS console. “But you say I’m to die?”

The Brigadier looked shocked. “Did I say that?” the Doctor asked. “I don’t remember saying that.”

He rubbed his hands together quickly and said, “Ah well yes, uh, spoilers…foreknowledge is no good, dangerous even!”

“OK, OK…let’s forget that for now. We have bigger problems at hand,” said the Brigadier.

The Doctor straightened his bow tie. “Yes…the fish fingers are burning. And I need a bowl of custard to dip them in.”

“Now, Doctor, I really must insist…” began the Brigadier, only to find himself interrupted by a loud yelp coming from somewhere deep inside the TARDIS.

“Doctor, what was that?”

“Probably just Rose crying again”, said the Doctor. “She likes to cry when we run out of her favourite food; silly, really.”

“Sausages.”

The Doctor turned in confusion only to see that K-9 had come into the room to report on… sausages? Then he remembered that ‘sausages’ was an old codename for something long ago…long before the TARDIS was even created and thought lost in legend for all eternity.

The Doctor pondered whether he should get a new codename. “Could my new code name be ‘Sausages’?” he wondered.

“Run!” River yelled, emerging deep from the bowels of the TARDIS, rapidly firing shots behind her.

“RIVER, what are you doing here?” asked the Doctor.

“K-9 becomes a human girl,” said River, “and we’ve got to stop her!”

“Before she steals all of Rose’s cookies! Allons-y and onward!” proclaimed the Doctor. “And to think, all of this is Moffat’s fault,” he added.

Suddenly the TARDIS came to a jarring halt – just as the toaster popped; the Doctor, grabbing the toast, flung open the door, which revealed the barren landscape of a comic-con twenty minutes before opening.

“I never could get the hang of Blurgdays,” the Doctor muttered to himself, half-ruinously.

Just then, a young 20 something worker came up to the group and asked “Hey, Moffat wants to know if you’ll be dressed and ready to go for the Q&A panel in 10 minutes.”

The Doctor looked terribly confused at all this fourth wall breaking, and decided to tune it out. But then a loud *BANG* was heard coming from within the quite and empty comic-con.

“Crikey Moses!’ the Doctor exclaimed. “What on Gallifrey was that!”

“In fact it was me, said Strax, “looking for the Adipose.”

“Adipose?” said the Doctor. “What are they doing here?”

“Shall I drown them in acid?” asked Strax. “Or offer a hand grenade?”

“No, no,” replied the Doctor. “There’s going to be a convention here soon and we can’t have any of that going on, Strax! Just find me one and bring it to me – gently!”

“You ask me, a mighty Sontaran warrior, to be gentle? How dare you insult the glory of my nation!”

The Doctor placed a hand on Strax’s shoulder and looked at him tenderly. He gently broke it to Strax. “I’m not asking you. Steven is,” before popping a Jammy Dodger into his mouth, pulled from who knows where.

“At least you’re not plastic,” said Rory.

“Or dead,” said River.

“EXTERMINATE!!!!!!!” came many a cry from down the hall.

“Ohhhhhh, who invited them?!” growled the Doctor.

“Are you my mummy?”

“Shut up! We need to think!” The Doctor snarled.

“Well, well, well…it’s you again Captain. COME in! We’ve BEEN waiting for you…” the Doctor chuckled as he grabbed the arm of Jack and brought him into the circle hurriedly as he used his sonic to lock the doors behind him, only the door to the northwest opened that led through a red-linen walled hall; the Doctor tussled Jack’s hair in enthusiasm as he fixed his bow tie while he placed his sonic screwdriver into his coat, smirking smartly as he said to Captain Jack – who appeared a little shaken as he overheard – “Now, lad…have you seen what has been occurring through the masses of people and aliens here? Jack give me details, observations, inquiries – GO! Go!”

He clapped his hands briskly, looking to the others with a concerned, but lighthearted, eccentric face.

“U-uh, D-Doctor?” Rory looked at Jack with a stern, but frazzled scowl as he asked the Doctor quietly, “who the smeg is this?”

Captain Jack looked at Rory then back to the Doctor, tilting his head sideways. “We travelling with the crew from Red Dwarf now eh, Doc?”

Just then River came through the door, looked Jack up and down and said “Well, hello Sweetie.”

After giving a smirking Jack the side-eye, the Doctor turned to River and said “No!”

“Now, honey…” River pouted.

Jack turned to River. “You know the Doc has a problem with sharing.”

River smirked slightly, then turned to the Doctor. “Sweetie, you know there is more than enough of me to go around.”

While shaking his head, the Doctor threw his hands up in the air and shouted “We’ve got Daleks, Adipose and a lost kid wearing a gas mask to deal with – hanky panky LATER!”

Just then from behind them a small voice said “Are you my mummy?”

A rasping laugh filled the convention halls as, from out of the shadows, a beast of fathomless ages crept out, exuding a terrible horror. “I have the latest script for you,” the monster rasped, as he held out a finished script entitled ‘The Gasping Death by Steven Moffat’. He laughed evilly, knowing he was protected by his lack of continuity…but the giant stamping cartoon foot from Monty Python descended suddenly, with abrupt finality, and Moffat was no more.

Then out of nowhere… A PLOT TWIST!!! Steven Moffat was still alive to continue his evil plan. No one was safe, even us.

“How did you do that?” the Doctor asked, interested to learn about the apparent regeneration of humans.

“It’s in the script!” he cried.

“I shall melt him with acid,” Strax gleefully volunteered.

“No Strax! You can’t just kill people, even if they are evil!” said the Doctor.

“Wait, Moffat’s human?” asked Captain Jack suddenly confuzzled.

“Well technically yes,” said the Doctor, “but it’s relative, you see – and shut up, River!”

“I’ll shut up when you all hear what I’ve been trying to tell you!” insisted River. “There’s only two kinds of bathrooms at the comic-con conference, not seven! What shall we do?”

“Accept that humans have two genders?” Rory asked with a shrug half expecting to get punched by his more manly counterpart Amy.

The Doctor rolled his eyes a tiny-bit smugly, regaining his spunk as he led the way towards a glass observatory with various costumed people in it, smirking uncomfortably.

Then the Doctor, trying to be meta, jumped into the TARDIS, went back and made out with his father in law, Henry the VIII.

When he arrived, he found out that his father was actually none other than…THE MASTER!

“My father is the Master…MOFFAT!” the Doctor thought with a groan in his throat, as a vision of his next-two incarnations appeared next to him in his TARDIS; 12 looked a little…testy at 11, as did 13 – though she was shocked at her previous selves and Jack. Rory smirked.

“Who turned out the lights?”

“This,” sighed the Doctor, “is going to be a very long evening.”

 

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Five things that Doctor Who could learn from Twin Peaks (part two)

 

Population 51,201. Possibly not for much longer.

(If you missed Part One, it’s available here.)

Now, where were we…?

3. Resolutions are for wimps

It’s funny how the words “What year is this?” sound great at the beginning of a Doctor Who episode but were a notorious let-down for many fans when they dumped them at the end of the Twin Peaks finale. As Cooper and the resurrected Laura / Carrie / whoever the hell she was leave the Palmer residence and stand in the street outside, Cooper’s mute hesitancy returns: dumbstruck and unable to do anything, his final line of dialogue is an unhelpful question that addresses nothing at all. It’s left to Laura to have the last word, although said last word is a scream that could outdo Bonnie Langford. In a parallel universe where Doctor Who was made in America, she’d have made a hell of a companion.

It was frustrating as hell, but there was something glorious about it. Having spent the last few weeks gradually building up to Cooper’s triumphant return, Lynch grants us a final confrontation with BOB (who is dispatched, somewhat bizarrely, by a cockney geezer wearing a single glove who punches him to death). You could probably have left it there, and we’d have been happy, more or less. Instead Lynch retcons the last twenty-five years (the ramifications of which are glossed over in Cooper’s warning that “There are some things that will change”) and then sends Cooper and Diane off on a fool’s errand: to find Laura Palmer. They cross (we presume) to a parallel universe, have sex in a motel, whereupon Cooper wakes up somewhere else. None of it makes sense. Oh, there are fan theories. There inevitably are. Where no explanation is provided, it is human nature to find one. But when it comes to the entity formerly known as Judy, no answer is given beyond the vaguest of explanations: Lynch, it seems, is happy to leave things as they are, perhaps for good.

There is a scene at the end of episode 16 that caused collective jaws to drop. You know the one I mean. It’s the one with Audrey. There is a moment you realise something is up: it’s when the master of ceremonies announces ‘Audrey’s Dance’, whereupon Ms. Horne slides seductively across a deserted dance floor, surrounded by onlookers – until the moment we flash-cut to a scene in a white room, where she’s staring into a mirror. The implication is that Audrey is in some kind of hospital (one would assume psychiatric) and that the scenario in which she found herself – a rich, embittered woman searching for a missing family member – was taking place entirely in her head, with her pedantic, hopelessly mismatched husband quite possibly a real life doctor who’d managed to work his way into the delusion. It is then that you realise that every conversation Audrey has had – every scene, come to that – has taken place in the company of this man and this man alone, thus leading us to imagine that somewhere along the line (presumably after she slept with Cooper) she went completely off the rails, and that everything we thought she’d seen was strictly in her head.

Still, that’s as far as it goes. It’s an implication because we never visit or hear from Audrey again, her plot strand left tantalisingly dangling. As a potential framing device it’s devastatingly effective, calling to mind Buffy’s ‘Normal Again’: just how much of the story, besides the scenes we know about, took place inside Audrey’s head? That’s a question we’d perhaps be unable to ask ourselves had we been party to any sort of further glimpse into her mental state; the more abstract the resolution, the greater the scope for filling the gaps. Similarly, the frustrating / glorious thing about the finale is that it opens up a world of possibilities and leaves them there, the same way that series 2 left things on a cliffhanger back when Cooper was sat in that bathroom. There is something nice about being able to answer the question yourself. Besides, cliffhangers are eventually resolved, after a fashion, even if it takes twenty-five years. We may not yet be done with Carrie Page and whatever it was she was running from.

Curiously there’s one episode of Doctor Who that actually does this quite well, if only because the planned sequel to ‘Sleep No More’ has yet to materialise and indeed is now looking increasingly unlikely. It means there are frequent requests on social media for clarification. It sadly also means the episode sits near the bottom of people’s lists of favourite stories, simply because some people don’t like its unresolved state. Well, I guess you can’t have everything.

 

4. You don’t have to make a point

I’ve just read a Tweet from Marie Claire that incensed me. They recently published an article in which they called out Taylor Swift for, among other things, remaining apolitical in the 2016 election. “Taylor is not required to be vocal about her politics,” they said, “…but it’s also fair to side-eye and question her decision to remain silent.”

No it bloody isn’t. When you’re thrust into the public eye you’re expected, up to a point, to be a role model for the impressionable young people who idolise you, but that only works so far. It is not the responsibility of any celebrity to state political allegiances, discuss social issues or make statements on abuse and feminism. That is a matter of personal choice, irrespective of how many people follow them on Twitter. They don’t have to say anything – and when they do, we inevitably tell them to shut up and keep recording music / making films / writing Harry Potter books, as if the creative process ought to be sufficiently fulfilling in itself. You can’t have it both ways. We lambast the political actors as much as we decry the ones who stay on the fence – or who are sensible enough to stay quiet on issues they don’t want to discuss. An apolitical outlook is not a mark of cowardice; it’s a sign of integrity.

Doctor Who is equally obsessed with Talking About Important Things. Actually, that’s not fair. It’s more that the BBC are equally obsessed. 300-word soundbite articles about social commentary are endemic. If it’s not the racism in ‘Thin Ice’ (a story which foreshadowed the Punch A Nazi phenomenon with uncanny precision) it’s the capitalism in ‘Oxygen’, or the gay thing in…oh, every sodding episode. Listen. ‘Oxygen’ is a great story because it is bloody scary. That’s it. It has space zombies and and that brilliant scene where they’re exposed to the vacuum. The air-as-commodity thing may be what drives the narrative but I don’t watch Doctor Who for its political content, astute (if somewhat heavy handed) as that may sometimes be. I watch it because it has monsters and because it makes me laugh, when it’s good. There’s plenty of political content in The Spectator; all futurism aside, why on earth would you look for it in a tinpot sci-fi show?

I’m not saying it’s wrong to use science fiction as a medium for this. That’s the joy of it; the detached setting allows you to say the things you can’t say about your contemporaries. There’s a reason ‘The Happiness Patrol’ is one of my favourites. But note the indefinite article there – a reason, not the reason. ‘Happiness’ is also great because it looks moody (on a shoestring) and it has a freakish Bertie Bassett monster. Do we remember ‘The Zygon Inversion’ because it frightens and occasionally surprises us, or because Harness uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut in that game-changing monologue? Would it have been improved with a closing fourth wall break to camera, the sort of thing they did in Masters of the Universe? Should the Doctor tell us to take care of ourselves, and each other?

What messages do you find in Lynch’s movies? Oh, there are plenty. The Straight Story was about family. The Elephant Man examines the Victorian freak show on two levels, both upstairs and downstairs. And there’s a heap of stuff about the darkness hidden beneath the surface of suburban respectability; that’s practically his entire output, although Blue Velvet was the archetype. Twin Peaks is about a man who rapes and murders his daughter but curiously that’s where it stops. There is no heavy-handed moral. Instead there is a quirky FBI agent with a caffeine addiction who rides into town admiring the trees, and the rapist father falls on top of his daughter’s coffin at the funeral.

Series 3 is even more abstract. Things happen because they happen: Richard is an irredeemable bastard simply because he is the offspring of Bob. Dougie Jones is a gambling addict in a bad way with the loan sharks, but the programme makes no comment on this beyond showing the impact it’s had on his marriage – a situation that is resolved, paradoxically, when Cooper wins big at the casino. Twin Peaks is a show about a good many things, but it has no real message to impart – merely a Rorschach collection of fragments, from which we may derive what we will. The only thing it has to say of any real substance, as it turns out, is death.

Speaking of which…

 

5. There is a right way and a wrong way to show death

My feelings on death in Doctor Who are complicated, but there’s a decent summary of them over at The Doctor Who Companion. Here’s the Cliff Notes: Doctor Who has it all wrong when it comes to death. Characters die and then show up again next episode. They’re given miracle cures, frozen hearts, parallel existences. Often, the word ‘death’ means something else entirely. You have seen all this and you do not need me to go through it again with you. In addressing its portrayal of the hereafter (or at least the end of the herebefore), the outgoing showrunner proclaims that “Doctor Who is a big-hearted, optimistic show that believes in kindness and love and that wisdom will triumph in the end. I don’t believe it’s the kind of show that says there are bitter, twisted, nasty endings because it’s not.”

Which is not a bad way to think, but it sidesteps the question. We’re not talking about a show where people face death and then manage, against all odds, to survive. I could live with that. We’re talking about a programme which actively kills its leads and then resurrects them, or in which death is rendered meaningless because of parallel universes, or time travel, or causality – or something that happened six episodes back that we didn’t see. That’s the Marvel approach to death. That’s cheating. I’m fine with happy endings. But don’t give us a happy ending when you’ve already given us a sad one. All it does is undermine death, and at the risk of sounding all Mary Whitehouse, that’s not a healthy mindset to induce in a young and impressionable audience.

Twin Peaks was always going to be different, because it’s a show about a murder, and a number of people die. But the greatest and most profound moment in the third series occurs in part 15, where the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Office gets its final phone call from Margaret Lanterman, known to most of us as The Log Lady. Having spent the entire series housebound, her cryptic announcements rendered in a series of conversations, the Log Lady admits in these final moments of her life that “There’s some fear…some fear of letting go”. Ultimately she embraces it, but not without trepidation, and as she signs off for the final occasion, the clouds cover the moon. There is a devastating poignancy in this elegy for a fallen mystic, both in the mournful tone of Lanterman’s final words and the the dignified silence they receive from Hawk. It is conducted more or less in silence, the gaps between dialogue forming a subtext that is almost Pinteresque. The fact that Catherine Coulson was herself dying when this scene was shot – passing away, if the urban legends have it correctly, a mere four days later – is the icing on a very rich, bitter cake.

 

And there you have it. It’s not all-inclusive, nor is it definitive. And it may be wrong. I’m always happy for people to tell me I’m wrong. But it’s one way we might revive the hopes of a stagnant (if still enjoyable) programme: look at what other people are doing, and learn from them. Times change and so must I, says the Doctor. Perhaps the extent to which things need to change is greater than anyone realises. Perhaps not. But it can’t do any harm to be talking about it.

The best thing we saw on TV this year, incidentally, was Midnight Sun. But perhaps I’ll save that one for another day.

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Five things that Doctor Who could learn from Twin Peaks (part one)

It was a revival twenty-five years in coming. It was the revival we thought we’d never actually get and could scarcely believe was actually happening until the moment the first trailers dropped onto YouTube. It was confusing, horrifying, hysterical, perplexing, frustrating. It was brilliant. It was obscene. It was the second-best thing we saw on TV this year.

It was Twin Peaks, and I can’t help thinking that while its very uniqueness made it special, other shows would benefit by copying at least some of its examples. Whatever your feelings on the dark, twisted return to Washington and the evil in those woods – on the questions answered and the others that sprung forth from nothingness like an emerging tulpa – there can be no arguing that it was a unique spectacle. Love or hate it, there was nothing like it on TV this year, nor is there likely to be again.

Let’s start with a disclaimer: the immediate response to a blog title like this one is that Doctor Who is a very different show and it would be risky, if not downright irresponsible, to emulate the sort of example that Twin Peaks set with its layers of enigmas and disturbing content. Doctor Who is a tinpot sci-fi show for Saturday evenings. It is enjoyed by millions precisely because it is accessible. Turning it into Twin Peaks Lite would be nothing short of monstrous. They are cut from very different cloths: it’s forming a handkerchief out of cow hide. It would kill the appeal of the original stone dead; it’s Gershwin seeking piano lessons from one of his idols, only to be told that he’d be better off serving as a first-rate Gershwin, rather than a second-rate Ravel.

Doctor Who should not try and be the new Twin Peaks, even if the new showrunner spent three years on Broadchurch attempting that very gambit (with some or no success, depending on who you ask). Simultaneously there were moments we watched it when I found myself seething in frustration. “If Doctor Who did this,” I remember saying, at least once, “it’d be a much better show.”

Today – and tomorrow, because this turned out to be longer than I’d expected – we’re going to explore just some of the things that might turn a fun show into a great one, provided they’re tackled in the right way.

Warning: this is spoiler-heavy. If you don’t want to know what happened in Twin Peaks: The Return, you would be advised not to read any further.

 

1. Not everything needs to be explained

There’s a thread on the Doctor Who Facebook group I just had to mute. It concerned ‘The Almost People’. “Why,” this person was asking, “did the Flesh solidify into real people when they walked into the TARDIS, but Amy was still a Ganger?” There is a perfectly simple explanation for this – Amy’s avatar is more advanced, thereby rendering the TARDIS technology obsolete – but it wasn’t enough to deter the usual crowd of Moffat-bashers. “Shit writing,” we were told. “Typical of this showrunner. Be glad when he leaves.”

It isn’t shit writing, nor is it quite as concrete as we’d like it to be. It is a partially resolved loophole, delivered in the same manner as Amy and Rory’s final story (which has a convenient get-out clause that’s disgracefully overlooked, in order to maximise the emotional pathos of their departure without actually killing them off). I was told a few weeks ago that there was no such thing as a plot hole – just a need to look elsewhere. If something happened that didn’t make any sense, you could usually find the answer by listening to a particular Big Finish audio, locating an obscure book, or scouring through 1800 words in a Reddit thread. “This,” I remember replying, “is just the sort of thing I find monumentally tiresome. I don’t mind the occasional mental workout, but I don’t want to go through Doctor Who with a notepad so I can write down all the things I need to research so that the episode will make sense.”

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering whether I was wrong about that, and whether there might be any mileage in having stuff that doesn’t make sense, on any level. ‘Ghost Light’ is about the best Classic example, although ‘Warriors’ Gate’ comes a decent second. It’s not that they don’t make sense, it’s just that strange things happen for no apparent reason and we basically deal with it. There is no follow-up to ‘Warriors’ Gate’ that I know of, and thus much of the weirdness is endemic to the zen themes the story drifts around, not to mention its peculiar (and gloriously effective) directorial style. It’s fun because it’s about as abstract and indefinable as Who gets. Somewhere in a parallel universe there’s a director’s cut of ‘Heaven Sent’ that’s missing Capaldi’s voiceover, and it’s hailed as a masterpiece.

In one episode of Twin Peaks, Sarah Palmer is accosted by a man in a bar. The scene concludes when she opens up her face. It is nonsensical – and, in its own way, quietly horrifying. It has absolutely no bearing on anything that’s come before – a brief supermarket meltdown aside – and it’s not mentioned again. Sarah is a bereaved woman who has suffered much and who has, for whatever reason, got a monster living inside her. It reminded me of the ‘house-heads’ storyline from the 1991 Comic Relief graphic novel spin-off, which someone has (rejoice!) written up and reproduced here so that I don’t have to. What happens to Sarah is all the more horrifying given that it has no place in the story, and seems to have sprung into existence fully formed – King Lear may have told his youngest daughter that “Nothing will come from nothing”, but try telling David Lynch.

Elsewhere, there’s episode 8. No one understood episode 8. It is one of the most bizarre and disturbing things the director has ever committed to film, and that includes Eraserhead. There’s no denying that The Return was, in many ways, more pure Lynch than the original series – it felt like the show he’d always wanted to make, but couldn’t until he could find a way to get those nasty network executives off his back. It is unpleasant, grotesque, riddled with profanity and occasionally indecipherable (this is all a good thing, by the way, let me be clear on that) and episode 8 was arguably as indecipherable as it got. Beginning with an attempted murder, the episode’s centrepiece is a lengthy black and white segment which opens with the birth of BOB, seemingly from a mushroom cloud, blooming in slow motion from the force of the atomic explosion and accompanied, appropriately enough, by Penderecki’s Threnody. Then it gets weird. For those of you reading this without having seen it, I really can’t begin to explain. For the rest of you, anyone got a light?

Over in the Whoniverse, Rory Williams dies, and then gets erased from history. Come the series 5 finale, he’s back. When asked how this could happen, the Doctor says “Sometimes, impossible things happen, and we call them miracles.” And true to form, it’s eventually revealed that both Rory and the other Romans are a construct based on Amy’s school project (and, one assumes, a photo on the mantelpiece). But I like the first explanation better. I like the idea that it might be an unexplained miracle. Perhaps, sometimes, that’s all you need.

2. Remember what peace there may be found in silence

Regular readers will know that this is a particular bugbear of mine. Number one on my laundry list of Things Doctor Who Ought To Do is turn it down a bit. Murray Gold’s score has its moments, but the effect of them is diluted by a series of droning incidental tracks that don’t go anywhere, and merely serve to dampen the dialogue. Watch some of the scenes unscored and the sheer power of the acting shines through – and there is a goodness in Doctor Who’s acting, however much it may be drowned by an unwanted undercurrent of strings and pianos. There is a bravery in presenting your material naked and raw, allowing the audience to form its own emotional bond without the crutch of a score (used, at least in Doctor Who, in a similar manner to a laugh track) that tells you what you ought to be feeling and when.

Twin Peaks has a scene in its series 3 opener where Dr. Jacoby is spray-painting shovels. It takes place in more or less complete silence, with nothing but the wind, the ambient noise of the forest and the quiet hiss of the spray can accompanying the psychiatrist’s diligent work. The effect is calming, contemplative, meditative even. It appears at first glance to bear absolutely no relation to the plot: as was typical with The Return, many seeds that were sown earlier bore fruit many weeks later.

Even some of the musical scenes are quiet. Fairly early on in series 3 there’s a scene in which a man sweeps the floor of the Bang Bang Bar, accompanied by ‘Green Onions’. All of it, more or less. These scenes hold up as interludes, like the 1950s interludes the BBC used to show when they needed to fill an extra couple of minutes before the next broadcast. The effect – a series of seemingly unrelated sequences, built up over a number of weeks into a brightly covered but loosely strung patchwork – is startling. This is a programme that takes its time with just about everything, and that turns out to work in its favour.

When it comes to dialogue, Lynch sticks to his guns: the bulk of TP dialogue takes place with little or no soundtrack, save the occasional ambient drone. The effect this has is that when music does show up, it’s all the more memorable: there are a number of examples we could draw upon, but things perhaps reach a zenith in episode 16 when Cooper revives in the hospital. As he rises and dresses and makes phone calls, suddenly all business and more himself again than he’s been all season, the Twin Peaks theme plays quietly in the background, rising in volume as Cooper finally gets to say all the things he’s clearly been wanting to say since first being trapped in the stunted, almost catatonic state that defined much of the third series. “You’re a fine man, Bushnell Mullins,” he says, shaking the insurance mogul by the hand. “I will not soon forget your kindness and decency.”

As he turns to leave, the dumbstruck Mullins finds his voice. “What about the FBI?” Whereupon Cooper turns in the doorway, offers one of those reassuring smiles, stares directly through the fourth wall and says “I am the FBI.”

As the Man From Another Place might have said, “ELECTRICITY.”

Part Two available here.

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Interlude

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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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Conversations I’ve had on Facebook this week

 

Grumpy Australasian: JOHN HURT HAS BEEN AIRBRUSHED FROM DOCTOR WHO HISTORY!

Me and several others: No he hasn’t.

GA: No one talks about him.

Me: They really do.

GA: No, check the mass media.

Me: I have. I’m afraid I just don’t see what you see.

GA: Oh, I’m sorry, Scully. This all a bit Loch Ness Monster, is it?

Me: Um.

Third party: That episode ought to have featured McGann or Eccleston.

GA: They wouldn’t fit.

Me: McGann would have fit. They were building to that in the Dark Eyes series. They just didn’t do it. Hurt fits the War Doctor narrative, but only because it was written around him.

GA: He’s still airbrushed from the media.

Me: I still can’t understand why you think that when there’s been so much coverage.

GA: I’m finding you an example.

Me: You’re finding me an example of where someone doesn’t talk about something, when I could just as easily find you several where the reverse applies?

GA: [Hits block button]

And not long after the trailer for ‘Twice Upon A Time’ had landed:

Fan: Is that the Brigadier???

Me: No.

Fan: But it might be.

Me: No, because they probably wouldn’t recast like that.

Fan: But he has a moustache.

Me:

Fan: I’m just saying, it could be him.

Me: It’s completely the wrong characterisation. And the story is set during the First World War.

Fan: Yes, but…wibbly wobbly timey wimey…

Me: [smashes monitor]

I swear. Fandom.

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They may be drinkers, Robin, but they’re also human beings

In the first instance, this.

We watched the 2010 version of Green Lantern one Friday a few weeks ago when we had nothing much else to do. I think Emily and I may be among the few people who actually like it. Oh, it’s hokum. It’s poorly acted and thoroughly ridiculous and over-reliant on CGI. On the other hand you’re talking about a flying superhero who can summon up things purely by thinking about them: CGI kind of goes with the territory. Besides, Greeen Lantern has one of the best disguise-penetrating scenes in any superhero film ever. “I’ve known you my whole life!” splutters Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). “I’ve seen you naked! You don’t think I would recognise you because I can’t see your cheekbones?!?”

It’s fun, but we seem to be in a minority. That’s fine. From general consensus, I think we’re also among only a handful of people who loved the 2004 / 2007 Fantastic Four movies. with Ben Grimm and his “Stupid buttons” scene in the phone booth. Both films are ridiculous, but they’re also about superheroes who actually enjoy it, rather than superheroes who are burdened with all that responsibility. That sort of thing doesn’t happen too much these days, presumably out of fear that a less-than-melodramatic script will push you into Batman & Robin territory (more on them in a moment). I’m happy for the Richards family to be given a lighter touch. But I think that’s what happens when you’re not overly attached to the source material – nothing else, I suspect, could explain my love of the Lord of the Rings movies. I’m not a cheerleader for Tolkien: he writes about amazing worlds but his prose is often plodding. And I enjoy the films, as stupid as they are. Sometimes stupid is OK.

The thing with Green Lantern – as I’m sure I’ve written before – is that he’s actually a pretty dreadful superhero, and for this I hand over to my longtime friend, Jonathan Oliver, who was once quizzed about the galactic defender in a panel discussion at a festival I attended some years ago. “He’s basically rubbish,” he said. “You have this incredible ring that can do anything you want, and because they needed a flaw, it has no effect on the colour yellow.”

The panel’s moderator nodded in agreement. “It’s funny when you think that in a straight fight, Laa Laa could have him.”

Too much power is a dangerous thing: that’s why, over in the Whoniverse, they ditched both K-9 (or found ways of keeping him in the TARDIS) and the sonic screwdriver. Not that I lament its return. It is, like the psychic paper, that most convenient of plot devices when you’re trying to tell a story in 45 minutes instead of 96. It’s easy to complain about quick fixes but let’s be honest: having the Doctor and his companions accused of murder or espionage and constantly locked up really was tedious, at least in the 1970s when it happened every week – sometimes you don’t have enough story without a bit of enforced captivity, and the narrative was certainly padded, even if the cells weren’t.

Finding a workable Kryptonite is the sort of thing that doesn’t happen in Batman, because you’re dealing with a costumed character whose only superpower is a seemingly limitless piggy bank. It’s always quite fun to see Batman crack ribs, tear ligaments and generally get the crap beaten out of him. It makes it all the more satisfying when he inevitably triumphs and it serves as a reminder that any of us could theoretically put on the cape and fight crime, given the right investors and a couple of dead parents. I mentioned money as his superpower: perhaps, in all honesty, it’s actually an unquenchable thirst for justice.

Not that we had much brooding back in the sixties, when Batman was a happy-go-lucky caped crusader whose history of orphandom (that’s supposedly not a word, but I’m inventing it) was barely mentioned – if ever – when he was gallivanting round Gotham City in the company of Burt Ward. The Batman TV show was splendid until you got to its third series, when it swiftly jumped the shark (immediately before Adam West sprayed the rubber prop with his Bat Shark Repellant). But as a child I loved it: the cliffhangers were ridiculous and the whole thing was as gay as a daffodil but that’s all part of the charm. It’s why I was absolutely thrilled to find a set of TV show figures on sale in our local branch of TK Maxx some months ago – Batman and Robin and three of the Big Four (Catwoman, Joker, Penguin). Curiously the Riddler is absent; I assume he’s off planting clues in Arkham City.

It’s a far cry from the renaissance the character experienced back in the 80s when Frank Miller did The Dark Knight Returns and everything changed. It’s a horrible (if brilliant) story but even its most grotesque scenes have nothing on All Star Batman and Robin, which is an insult both to the character and the fans, for reasons I can’t be bothered to unpack here. Miller’s one of those writers whom you initially like before realising that not only has his quality of work gone down the tubes, he’s actually keen to live out his worldview: reading Sin City, for example, it swiftly becomes apparent that this is not a nightmarish dystopia, this is actually the way Frank Miller would like the world to be. Oh look, Vicki Vale’s got her tits out. Didn’t see that coming.

Far better, instead, that we should concentrate on the good stuff – and The Dark Knight Returns, whatever its flaws and uncomfortable legacy, is a masterpiece, answering empirically the question of who’d win in a fight between Batman and Superman years before Affleck and Cavill squared off in Dawn of Justice. More to the point, it’s actually interesting and fun, in a way that the much-anticipated Dalek / Cybermen face-off in ‘Doomsday’  – the Who equivalent of such a contest – really wasn’t. I’ve always contested that you should be wary of giving the fans what they want, but perhaps if you get Miller to write it, you can make it work.

In any event, here’s what I’ve always thought would happen if he wrote Doctor Who.

“I’m glad,” said someone in a group I frequent, “that you left out the word ‘retarded’.”

“I confess part of me didn’t want to,” I replied. “You know, the puritanical artist part. But that’s the sort of thing that gets you banned.”

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No, I’ve met cat people

It was a Wednesday, and I was giving Edward a bath, when Emily popped her head round the door and announced she was going to work.

“What time will you be back?” I asked.

“No idea,” she said. “I’ll probably get drawn into something.”

So I have drawn her into this picture of the Tenth Doctor. I rock.

 

In our ongoing Nu Who marathon, we passed ‘Fear Her’ months ago, and the Tenth Doctor has long since regenerated. Indeed, the Eleventh is currently into his ‘new lease of life after Amy and Rory phase’, cavorting around the rings of Akhaten with Clara. (I seem to be the only one who actually likes this episode, or at least I thought I was until a recent reappraisal saw its other fans emerging from the woodwork, like the slaves at the end of Spartacus.) What’s annoying is that he has yet to shed a single tear over any of the deaths, or any of the departures. I know I didn’t either, but it’s hardly the point.

That doesn’t stop Daniel having an appreciation for Classic Who, of course, judging by the scene he played out with the Character Creations set last week: not content with building a wall and casting Peter Davison’s incarnation in the role of Donald Trump, I came in the other day to find the Sixth and the First Doctors emerging in what looked an awful lot like cosplay.

I only wish I could find the Seventh Doctor. Can somebody (hello Gareth) come up with an amusing, series-related suggestion?

Also this week: Daniel told us he had a dream where the Eleventh Doctor was having an adventure with Rose, “only she had an emoji face and she threw Captain Jack from the roof of a building”.

It took me all morning to find the right building, but eventually –

 

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Inspirational Star Wars Quotes

“I have been giggling at this,” said Sara, “for ten minutes.

impossible-possible

I didn’t even get the reference, which supposedly comes from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, a show I’d never even heard of, let alone seen. But it works, even though it loses points for missing out a full stop in that second frame.

Star Wars spirituality is a very real concept. We’re living in a country where nearly four hundred thousand people put ‘Jedi’ as their religion on the 2001 census, for crying out loud. There’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself, provided it’s a token protest against atheism and not something you’re actually supposed to take seriously. If that sounds rather too obvious a point for me to need to actually state openly, it’s worth bearing in mind that I’ve spent a week or so reading through status updates on a Facebook group where people genuinely seem to think that the Doctor is really out there flying around in his TARDIS, simply because you’re unable to categorically prove that he isn’t.

So I’m fine with life lessons from Who, and the Everything I Ever Needed To Know I Learned From Star Trek business model, but you can get too obsessed. And when people delve into these shows as if it’s the only thing that gives their lives meaning, I am torn between the desire to feel sorry for them or openly mock them. Sometimes it’s a simple combination of both.

“Also,” said Sara’s friend Kimberley, “I think a whole series of Star Wars / spiritual memes is in order.”

And she was right. So we spent a pleasant evening doing them, as and when they came to us.

And somewhat predictably, I made a whole set. And here they are.

If Plan A didn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters

If God is all you have you have all you need

Be somebody nobody thought you could be

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience we are spiritual beings having a human experience

Courage is being yourself every day in a world that tells you to be someone else

Don’t let the behaviour of others destroy your inner peace

Until you spread your wings you will have no idea how far you can fly

The truth of human freedom lies in the love that breaks down barriers

Happiness is found when you stop comparing yourself to other people

Embrace the glorious mess that you are

May the Force be with you. “And also with you.”

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