God Is In The Detail is taking a break this week. I’m sorry, I simply don’t have the energy. Events have worn me out. Sometimes you need to put things down, rather than going through the motions for the sake of completion. This week is one of those. Besides, I don’t think many people actually read it these days. There are so many outlandish fan theories doing the rounds that it just falls between the cracks, another victim of Poe’s law, dropping into the filter alongside all the crackpot ideas about grandparents and necklaces.
Let’s do something fun instead. We’ll have a bit of ABBA, shall we? ABBA are great. My love affair with them began in the early 1980s when we had a couple of their albums (at least one of which was a compilation) on vinyl. There was a record player in the bottom of the wardrobe, and whenever I heard the heavy, almost claustrophobic bass that opens ‘The Name of the Game’ I was convinced that they were hiding in the back somewhere behind the coats. (I was four; I think that’s a reasonable excuse.)
Fast forward – literally – a few years, to the video we bought from Smiths and which I watched nigh on every Saturday for about a year, wherein I learned about the joys of ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Eagle’ and the unremitting sobfest that is ‘The Winner Takes It All’. I tended to stop when it started talking about ‘One Of Us’. For one thing I didn’t care for Agnetha’s perm. For another it was getting uncomfortable to read, the band walking away into the sunset during the final fade for ‘Under Attack’. Was it my first brush with divorce? Probably. You could feel the pain and the hurt in those lyrics – “I don’t wanna talk,” Agnetha sang as she stood looking out at a river with the wind blowing in her face like someone researching their family tree in Who Do You Think You Are? “‘Cos it makes me feel sad.” And by the end of the record, it made me feel sad too. Every single time it came on the radio. Job done, I suppose.
Comebacks and reunions are always ripe for scrutiny – can they still pull it off, after all this time? – and it was inevitable that for every cheering Mamma Mia fan there’d be at least a couple more wondering why they’d done it. And yes, the new album is occasionally patchy and has some pretty terrible lyrics. That’s vintage ABBA. Seriously, go and listen to ‘Two For The Price Of One’. Or ‘What About Livingstone’. Or ‘Dum Dum Diddle’, if you can stomach it. Or ‘On And On And On’. I could go on (and on). They’re Swedish, for pity’s sake; give them a bit of credit for writing stuff we can at least understand, even if there is at least one moment every album that make you cringe. On Voyage it comes in the form of ‘Little Things’. “Little things,” sings Frida (or is it Agnetha? Seriously I can’t tell these days) playfully. “Like your naughty eyes / You’d consider bringing me a breakfast tray but there’s a price…”. Ouch. Still, at least she’s not too old for sex.
Anyway. I took a bunch of ABBA lyrics and stuck them into Doctor Who stills, because…well, it was fun. And because Voyage, for all its quirks and oddities, is a bundle of infectious joy, and god knows we need more joy in this crazy, broken world. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I spent years feeling sad that they ended their original run on what was both a career high and a personal low – The Visitors was great, but the (apocryphal) image of Agnetha sitting in the darkened studio creaking out the final vocals to ‘The Day Before You Came’, as the rest of them all sit not speaking to each other, is just a little too much to bear. And for years that was it. I used to have a thing: for years, whenever anyone used to post a ridiculous (and frequently problematic) pipe dream, I’d say “That’s about as likely as an ABBA reunion.”
And it’s a shame I can’t use that one anymore, but it’s a price worth paying.
I’ve just noticed something rather unfortunate. The problem with reviewing a series of single over-arching stories like this is that the reviews are rather difficult to title. You can’t do it without mentioning the ‘Flux’ thing, which leaves you with various syntax difficulties. I’m using a colon and an em dash as well as that strangely placed comma and I don’t really like it very much. And it came up in my thought process because this very week Rockstar Studios released Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition, which is nigh-on impossible to say, let alone write down. There are far too many ‘the’s, for one thing. Oh, and as it turns out the GTA remaster was dreadful, largely because they mashed up the controls, ruined the Switch port, locked up the PC launcher, turned all the character models into Roblox knock-offs and took out the fog. Hence Metacritic’s average rating is (at time of writing) a whopping 0.6, which is both unprecedented and awkward.
I suspect that there were a lot of angry people on Twitter last night, both gamers and otherwise. For example, a fair few of us are trying to work out what on earth Chris Chibnall meant when he had one of his characters mutter “No one calls them video games” during the middle of a clumsy plug-that-wasn’t-a-plug-but-kind-of-was for The Edge Of Reality. Yeah, we do. I mean not all the time; ‘games’ is a perfectly appropriate shorthand. But if we’re talking to people who aren’t gamers (which does happen, honestly), we call them video games, just like we call him ‘the Doctor’ if we’re talking to people who watch the show, and ‘Doctor Who’ if we’re talking to people who don’t. Everyone does that, right? Right? I am right about this, aren’t I?
To be clear, I get that Yaz wasn’t playing The Edge of Reality. I also don’t think that having a Weeping Angel invade your video game like that could be seen as anything other than a nod, given the timing. Even if it wasn’t (and it almost certainly wasn’t). This is the problem when you immerse yourself too deeply in Doctor Who lore; you start seeing the patterns everywhere. For example, why does Vintner’s love interest (you know, the one who isn’t Yaz) talk about him ‘looking different’ when she’s chatting to her Tamagotchi-that’s-actually-a-foetus? Why else, unless he’s got some kind of regenerative ability? Which would presumably make him the Doctor’s father, of course. Or he isn’t and it’s simply another ridiculous fan theory, the way that people misinterpreted Dan’s “Had a mate with one of these” from episode one and turned it from a simple joke into obvious foreshadowing for a prior encounter that he’s keeping very secret, in all likelihood from the rest of us. Which is…oh, I don’t know, minimally plausible, even though it suggests to me that most of these people simply don’t understand British humour, or indeed humour full stop.
In fairness, we did find out this evening that Dan’s hung around with the Doctor before. It’s just he was a dog. And of course it’s not really him at all; there’s a projection thing going on. The Doctor figures this out just after she catches a glimpse of herself in a mirror that makes her look several thousand years younger, and perhaps a little taller. She’s in the middle of a ramraid on the planet Time, which is one of the Division’s illicit projects, and one that temporal terrorist Swarm is in the process of exposing. It leads to a standoff in which Jodie Whittaker is reading out the Fugitive Doctor’s lines in her own voice, which basically means she cranks up the intensity just a notch and shifts her body language. It does, at least, put paid to the season 6b theory, more or less. Probably less.
Still, it’s nice to see Jo Martin back for another stint – even though we mostly get snatches of her, the camera cross-fading between her and Whittaker like a crap version of Keanu Reeves’ scramble suit in A Scanner Darkly. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) the impact is lessened by the fact that the mirror scene occurs in the midst of a giddying series of time-jumping fragments, as characters dip in and out of conversations they haven’t had yet or might never have, experiencing memories of each other and stories that some of them would rather forget. Yaz gets bored in a patrol car and smashes a Nintendo Switch (these are two separate events, just in case you’re worried about where your tax money is going). Dan has a coffee with his not-quite girlfriend, reminiscing moodily about getting dumped. And Vinder is exploring a murky past and a disastrous career move when he stuck to his principles and tried to expose – we presume unsuccessfully – the slippery Grand Serpent (Line of Duty alumnus Craig Parkinson, as corrupt in an interstellar penthouse as he was in AC-12). As for the Doctor, she’s darting around between timelines, swapping identities at random and trying desperately to get the gang back together before the universe implodes around her.
You will have gathered, even if you haven’t looked at the Twitter feeds, that this is love-it-or-hate-it TV. There are compelling arguments for both. It’s nonsensical from the get-go. That’s what happens if you tease out a largely metaphysical cliffhanger resolution for an episode’s entire runtime (bar a couple of frustrating minutes at the end when Vinder lands on his home planet, which looks like Constantinople after it’s been sacked, and the only emotional reaction he can muster is a slight pout – the sort you’d do when Greggs has run out of cheese and onion bakes). This is a story that isn’t a story, framed by the meandering poetic voiceovers from a woman who spends most of her time giggling at emojis. The exploits of Bel (Thaddea Graham) may be a distraction from the main narrative, such as it is, but at least she’s fun to watch, when she’s not pushing buttons on that wretched screen.
Still, you wonder. What would Moffat have made of this? Because that’s clearly the line that Flux is taking: the multi-stranded time-hopping magnum opus that the previous showrunner knocked off almost effortlessly. It’s all there, more or less – the characters with hidden backstories, the revisited scenes that shed new light on old moments, the connections that don’t become apparent until the final reel. The Doctor floats in a vortex with three white gods and then has a conversation with someone who may or may not be a Guardian. A few minutes later we’re watching a full-fledged TARDIS invasion. Moffat, you sense, would have been a little more restrained, a little more structured, and I’d probably have been bored. Chibnall knows his number is up, and wants to go out with a bang. You can almost picture him in the BBC bar, knocking back a few drinks with Matt Strevens. “I know it’s all over the place,” he says. “And people will probably hate it. But hey, at least they’ll remember it.”
I’ll tell you why I’m thinking about Moffat. There’s a scene halfway through where Bel is fighting off Cybermen. “Love is not a mission,” says the last one as it lies motionless on the floor, having asked Bel what she’s doing in this neck of the woods. “Love is an emotion. Emotions are not missions.” Bel barely skips a beat before she puts another blast through his cranium, noting “Love is the only mission, idiot”. It’s utter garbage, and it’s exactly the sort of utter garbage Moffat would have written had he still been in charge. We ignore revelations like this at our peril: people rail against Chibnall’s dialogue, and with some justification, but let’s not forget where we were and, more importantly, what it was actually like. Doctor Who fans spend most of their waking hours looking back at the hill they just climbed or peering at the one that’s just over the horizon, and it is always assumed that the hill they’re currently occupying is the most arduous of the lot. Never does it occur to them that it’s all a matter of perspective.
And it is perhaps for this reason, more than any other, that I adored last night’s installment. Because it was all over the place. You couldn’t work out what was real and what wasn’t. We jumped in and out of Liverpool and in and out of time in a whirlwind of cameos and flashbacks and flash-forwards and confused half-explanations. Daleks – awful CGI Daleks – swum into view in a scene that practically screamed “Contractual obligation” (and yes, I know that’s a myth, but really, that’s the sort of cameo that gives the myth its potency). Characters and motivations vanished up the creek faster than a spinach-infused Popeye off to rescue his girlfriend. It was audacious. It was ridiculous. It didn’t make sense. And I enjoyed every mad second of it. Sometimes, madness makes for TV gold. It’s not a hard and fast rule (see ‘It Takes You Away’), but some of the best Doctor Who stories are the ones that are thinking outside the box. On that basis alone, ‘Once Upon Time’ is an outrageous masterpiece – preposterous and absurd, but captivating from slow-motion teaser to high-octane conclusion. Bravo, we say, sir. Bravo.
Now: if you’ll excuse me, I really fancy a Marmite sandwich.
Well. Since you ask me for a pile of intrigue, a meticulously curated collection of theories and rumour, I shall oblige. Pay close attention, dear reader. For this week we bring you that selfsame list of VERY IMPORTANT CLUES AND SIGNS from ‘War of the Sontarans’. Now sit up straight and pay attention. We’re in for a rough ride, and we’re not even going via Birkenhead.
We open at the beginning – to be precise, that moment they materialise (without explanation) in the Crimea and the Doctor has another one of her freak-outs. The first thing she sees is a floating house, which mysteriously isn’t being held up by balloons.
So far, so generic. There’s something a bit Harry Potter about it, isn’t there? Is this a good time to point out that we’ve got fifteen visible windows there, corresponding TRANSPARENTLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY with the fifteen canonical Doctors? The fact that the Doctor’s childhood home was alluded to in the ‘Heaven Sent’ / ‘Hell Bent’ two parter?
Yes, but why am I bringing that up? I want you to look at that layout. It’s not an accident. To a layman, the design is merely idiosyncratic. To someone prepared to look a little deeper, those splintered rafters and protruding boards hide a wealth of symbolism. All right, that’s pushing it. They hide letters. Six, to be precise.
From left to right: E-N-E-V-H-A. Which we might rearrange to form…ooh, I don’t know, ‘Heaven’? A word that features twice in Peter Capaldi’s run? Look me in the eye and tell me that’s a coincidence. Go on. And don’t blink.
Numberplates next. I love a numberplate.
The ancient Volvo dates from December 1978 (the year I was born, no less) but if we break down the content of this plate we find something very interesting. For a start, GGF is a transparent reference to the Glass and Glazing Federation (you see what I did there), and whose headquarters lie on Rushworth Street in Southwark – a district used in ‘The Shakespeare Code’, ‘The Lazarus Experiment’, and ‘The Bells of St. John’. In other words, the Carrionites are back, only this time they’re in the WiFi. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Episode 736? ‘The Fires of Pompeii’. Oh look; it’s Capaldi again. As if this weren’t enough of a clue, take a look – no, a good look – at the framing of this shot, because it’s not an accident. You have fence posts littered along the left hand side – nine of them, to be precise, before the car obscures the tenth. Note two things: the post that appears to be awkwardly slotted between the first and second, just over the back, but which actually pertains CLEARLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY to the Ruth Doctor. Also note the puddle. The reflection. You know, the mirror. In other words, the parallel universe in which this is all taking place.
Lastly, we’re taking a look at some pen marks.
I know, I know. I know what you think it means. It’s the world’s least convincing bumper sticker, isn’t it? Or t-shirt design. Or, I don’t know, something that Yaz has scribbled on a hand she presumably never washes, probably the same one she uses to pick her nose.
But think about something. Specifically, let’s think about Scrabble. Because if you translate these letters into their respective Scrabble points a curious thing happens: assuming that a W is worth four points, a D two points and a T solitary point, the number sequence you get reads 44122. Which, coincidentally, is the zip code for Beachwood, Ohio – birthplace of Samuel Glazer (Glazer!), who co-founded the legendary Mr Coffee brand. As seen here.
And also here. And here.
So here you have three films. One has an eccentric time traveller who’s also a doctor. The others both feature John Hurt losing his abdomen AND THE FIRST TIME THIS HAPPENED PETER CAPALDI’S DOCTOR SAID IT WAS REALLY OFFENSIVE. I don’t think you need a degree in rocket science to see where this is going, do you?
There’s more. Total the tiles together and you get 13. I swear; these things just jump out at me.
Smoke rises over a blood-soaked battlefield. Corpses lie scattered near spilled bayonets and broken guns, bereft of both life and dignity, gaping wounds mixed with mud and rain. Somewhere, a crow caws its lament for the dead. A lone rider emerges from the distance. The helmet is removed. It’s a Sontaran, the one we saw in the trailer last week in an episode we knew was already titled ‘War of the Sontarans’. So much for the big reveal.
Perhaps I shouldn’t grumble. One of the best cliffhangers of early seventies Who (yes, even better than the faceless policemen or the PATTERNED FLOOR OF DEATH) was Pertwee’s exclamation of “Daleks!” when the soldiers he met in the jungle spray-painted an invisible enemy into existence; the effect was marred somewhat by the fact that this occurred at the end of episode one of ‘Planet of the Daleks’. Although was the Dalek itself the reveal? Or was it the fact that they can turn invisible now, the sort of shock factor that predates ‘Remembrance’ by some fifteen years? And does it really matter anyway?
We could argue about this all evening. What is at least fairly obvious is that the Sontarans have had a bit of a refit. They’re still battle-hungry, they’re still a clone race (more on that in a moment), they’re presumably still at war with the Rutans and they still haven’t worked out a solution for that awkward Achilles’ heel (well, all right, neck). But the design has undergone a few changes. They’re a little taller, grubbier, wrinklier – age, as we saw last week, is a factor – and if the potato gags are still coming thick and fast on the internet, the potatoes themselves appear to be going off.
“Hey!” says Emily, watching from the armchair while I scribble notes. “That’s how you’d look if you shaved your head!”
The Sontarans are in the Crimea – where the Doctor’s just landed, in the company of Dan and Yaz – but we’ve barely recovered from the opening credits before the companions are zipped into the future, leaving the Doctor to tackle the alien menace on her own. Well, not quite. She’s joined this week by nurse Mary Seacole (a gaily frocked Sara Powell), who patches the wounds of both English and ‘foreign’ soldiers, and who keeps a Sontaran chained up in the back like a rabid dog, or perhaps the subject of some strange fetish. Well, it’s a long way from home.
Leading the fight is General Logan (Casualty’s Gerald Kyd), a man almost as well-defined as a rain-smeared street painting, and about as two-dimensional – and who sadly has nothing much to do except refuse the Doctor’s help, look deeply disappointed when his troops are mown down by Sontaran lasers and then undo a theoretically peaceful conclusion with the sort of dirty trick that would impress even Harriet Jones. It’s all done with patronising guff about knowing your place and the same awkwardness that pervades most of Chibnall’s encounters with faceless pillars of authority: they’re around to advance the plot, and nothing more. There is no sense of who this man is, where he comes from or why he’s making the decisions he has – guilt, we’re told, is the only rationale that fits, but it would have been nice to get a few notes about motivation, however brief. Instead there’s a lot of sneering, a bit of a rumble on the battlefield and then an enormous explosion, before Whittaker stomps off to her doorless TARDIS in a sulk. Powell, on the other hand, looks to be having a whale of a time – her backstory may be reduced to a brief paragraph of hurried exposition, but she throws everything into the role, whether it’s scribbling notes at the edge of a Sontaran encampment or listening to the Doctor’s plan with the rapt attention of a brown-nosing schoolgirl. “Hello dear!” she says to Dan over a monitor screen, two centuries in the future. “I don’t understand any of this.”
While all this is going on, Yaz is stuck on the planet Time, which is a silly name for a planet (“And yet,” notes the Big Bad, “here we are”). Time itself is bleeding out of the temple – a mysterious and unduly beige facility landing somewhere between a quasi-Lovecraftian TARDIS knock-up and one of the sets from Dune, guarded by robed avatars who keep phasing in and out of existence with varying degrees of intensity, according to how much the universe is currently falling apart. Yaz isn’t there long before she runs into Vinder, the outpost commander who narrowly avoided being blown into smithereens last week, and whose enigmatic CV has now been embellished with the single addition of ‘Disgraced’. There’s a whiff of chemistry between the two of them, which means he won’t make it past episode six. Come the finale, they’re part of the circle, as the gloating Swarm parades the room with the swagger of a Marvel supervillain, flanked by the rest of his gang. We still don’t know who he is, and to be honest it’s kind of difficult to really care.
For all that, there’s an impulsive silliness about this episode that actually works quite well. It’s largely thanks to Dan, who jumps straight into the messy job of saving the entire planet with a gusto that’s borderline alarming. He cracks the three fingers thing immediately, and barely even flinches when watching the execution of three unnamed intruders to the Sontarans’ dockland headquarters. Even when reunited with Karvanista, he takes every revelation in his stride with the air of a man who’s been doing this for years, presumably because Chibnall wanted him this way. Either Yaz’s sudden competence is contagious, or this is poorly-written foreshadowing for some fob watch twist. Also, I know it’s dark and the Sontarans are probably tired, but why is it they’re able to mow down an entire platoon of advancing British soldiers from the other side of a foggy marsh, but they can’t hit an unarmed Scouser from ten feet away? It’s like a scene from Star Wars, and at least that had a more interesting score.
But I wonder if perhaps it’s better this way. If perhaps we’re better off with silly: if grandiose and overblown and ridiculous is a lesser evil, an acceptable substitute for worthy-and-dull. And with that in mind, I leave you with this personal highlight: the sight of John Bishop in a clapped-out Volvo, with two people who are supposed to be his parents despite being only about ten years his senior (which is perhaps not such a stretch, given we’re in Liverpool), talking about an alien invasion. They’re telling him that the best way to knock out a Sontaran is to hit the back of the neck. “How’d you find that out?” asks an incredulous Dan.
“Fella in Birkenhead,” is the response. “He was drunk. With a mallet.”
There’s a delicious pause. And then a shrug. “Birkenhead.”
The other day, I told you I didn’t do fan theory in my reviews. There’s a simple reason: I save it for the follow-up posts. And oh, have we woven the tangliest of webs in our forays across the strange and inevitable, constant reader! We’ve seen the patterns in the readouts and the drawings in the maps. We’ve delighted upon the hidden significance of strange objects and the cryptic portents of the etchings on a bracelet. Because a lot of people think Chris Chibnall is an idiot, but you and I know better. He’s playing a long game, and everything you saw in ‘The Halloween Apocalypse’ (and I do mean absolutely everything) was placed there for a reason. There is method in madness and marvel in the mundane. And so – because there’s no other choice – I bring you the latest in this series of VERY IMPORTANT CLUES that you definitely missed when you were watching on Sunday evening.
Having examined the archives, I note that the last time I did one of these was when we’d just met the Fugitive Doctor. I don’t know what happened to the rest of that series. Perhaps I burned out. Or perhaps there just weren’t any clues. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. We’ll make up for lost time.
Starting with this…
Blink and you’ll miss it. Seen clutched by the Doctor and Yaz in the opening scene, this seemingly innocent metal bar actually holds a wealth of detail. For a start, think of it as a clock – with a black space between six and eight. Which doesn’t necessarily mean anything, of course. It’s not like there were any references to the McCoy era during that opening sequence. I mean, it’s not as if she was talking about Nitro 9 or anything. Oh, wait. She was. I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks yourself, but please don’t forget that Sophie Aldred wrote a book last year. An upcoming cameo is CLEARLY AND TRANSPARENTLY on the cards.
The other thing about this? Well, orientate it ninety degrees to the left and paint it yellow and you’ve got Pac-Man. First unveiled in 1980, the pill-popping pizza has two birthdays depending on how you count: 22 May, when he was first unveiled, and 10 October, when the game was released in America. It’s this second date that interests us the most, given that it is one day before the broadcast of ‘Meglos’ – specifically episode two, in which the cactus-like shapeshifter assumes the appearance of the Doctor, as played by Tom Baker. While he’s off getting involved in all manner of shenanigans, the real Doctor is trying to get out of a time loop with the help of Romana and K-9.
The other thing about this? Well, orientate it ninety degrees and paint it yellow and you’ve got Pac-Man. First unveiled in 1980, the pill-popping pizza has two birthdays depending on how you count: 22 May, when he was first unveiled, and 10 October, when the game was released in America. It’s this second date that interests us the most, given that it is one day before the broadcast of ‘Meglos’ – specifically episode two, in which the cactus-like shapeshifter assumes the appearance of the Doctor, as played by Tom Baker. While he’s off getting involved in all manner of shenanigans, the real Doctor is trying to get out of a time loop with the help of Romana and K-9.
Can I point out that whether you’re on this side of the pond or the other, 10 October 1980 is written as 10-10-80? Can I further point out that there are two version of the Tenth Doctor running around the multiverse and that only one of them is the genuine article? Did you know that story number 80 in the Doctor Who sequence is ‘Terror of the Zygons’, which deals with duplicates and doppelgangers? While we’re on it, has anyone failed to recall that the last time we saw David Tennant on screen he was fighting off Zygons, and that Tom Baker showed up?
Numbers next. I love numbers.
We were racking our brains in the BoM offices over this one. To what could it possibly refer? Story-and-episode? No, because ‘The Moonbase’ has but four episodes, while ‘Planet of Giants’ has only three. Doctor numbers? No, that’s just grasping at straws, and I don’t mean the useful plastic ones that you can’t get in the pub anymore, but rather those stupid paper models they have in McDonalds which are COMPLETELY USELESS WHEN YOU HAVE A MILKSHAKE. (Not that you can actually get milkshakes at the moment, thanks to bloody Brexit.)
We tried coordinates. And…bingo!
We’re in Tunisia. Tunisia! A matter of miles away from Tataouine, which stood in for its virtual namesake in the first Star Wars movie. How do you spell ‘crossover’? Is now a good time to mention the upcoming Obi-Wan TV show? Might we be seeing a cameo from Matt Smith, whose cancelled role in The Rise of Skywalker is now common knowledge? Can anyone else anticipate a Disney Doctor Who buyout within the next few years?
Also worth mentioning: this grid reference is situated on highway C211, which corresponds DIRECTLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY with episode 211 – also known as part two of ‘The Dominators’, in which the Quarks flap their arms a bit, and also story 211, ‘The Lodger’. Because I’d like to point out that Alfie is about nine years old now, which is optimum age for another appointment with the Doctor, assuming James Corden pauses for breath between musicals.
Now take a look at this picture.
It’s a ‘Liverpool’ food bank, except it was filmed in Cardiff. We know this because the sign from the building next door is for Beamrite Aerials, provider of quality cables and satellite equipment, who have their showroom on Broadway. A curious thing happens when you slide over to Street View, given that within the immediate vicinity of the shop you’ll find a Chinese called The Golden Cow, and two businesses – TWO! – that use the word ‘Angels’. You don’t need to be an idiot to see where this is going, but you do have to know your Old Testament to remember that the golden calf was an idol built for the wandering Israelites by their de facto second-in-command, Aaron. Which is where we draw a blank, because sadly there’s no one in Doctor Who by that name.
Oh wait a minute.
(In all seriousness for a moment, a couple of doors along from Beamrite you’ll find a charity called The Rainbow Of Hope, and I’ve got a sneaky suspicion that they’re the food bank in which Dan was seen loitering early in the episode. Either that or it’s just a lockup and they whacked in a few crates. But in any event, they’re probably worth a look, because these places are usually high on costs and low on donations, so you should consider giving them a few quid.)
I’m throwing you another screen now, in Vinder’s cockpit over at Outpost Rose. There was a lot to say about this one, so I stuck with simply annotating it.
Doppelgangers. Doubles. Clones. Omega. We’ve not seen him in a while, have we? I mean he’s scarcely seen himself since he lost his head. But here we have the biggest clue yet that this whole series is somehow about him. Makes a change from the Master, doesn’t it?
Cast your minds back a year and a half or so, to ‘Orphan 55’. No, wait, humour me. I know that people generally want to wipe ‘Orphan 55’ from their memory. I get it. Really I do. But it has some lovely moments early on, particularly when Ryan – the son of the aforementioned Aaron, don’t forget – becomes ill after buying crisps from a vending machine. And these, folks, were the crisps he bought. Now, take some deep breaths and suck your thumb. Oh, and watch out for the space bats.
If you were to Google the word ‘Kplap’ you’d throw up some interesting results. Unfortunately most of them aren’t in English, so we’re forced to use the little grey cells. Because I was toying with anagrams and I threw up something very interesting, and that’s this: ‘K’PLAPS CRISPS‘ can easily be rearranged to form ‘RIPS KPS CLASP‘. Which makes no sense at all, at least until you look up KPS and discover that they’re an established company who deliver piping systems for fossil fuels and chemicals. A transparent clue about fossil fuels? In a story about a scorched Earth? Seen here in a story about the end of the universe? Oh, we can see where this is going, sure enough. It’s the strongest sign yet that ‘Orphan 55’ wasn’t a one-off story we’d all like to consign to the list of episodes we don’t discuss. It was part one of a two-part story. And the second part is coming up soon. You heard it here first, folks.
By the way. If you add 5+5, you get Ten. Just saying.
Roll up! Roll up! Get your reviews here! Nice and fresh, straight off the rack! Only the best, mind you. None of that speculative dross about ulterior motives or disguised identities. You won’t find no wild theories ‘ere, madam. Here at BoM we like to keep it simple. Classic and timeless, that’s my way of working. Got me this far. [Sighs, looks around messy office, rubs unkempt chin] However far that is.
Look. Writing episode reviews is just no fun anymore. Either you’re doing it to get paid, in which case you find yourself forced to skirt the company line – which usually means reining in your contempt in order to stay in the BBC’s good books (and, more importantly, on their preview list) – or you’re like me, and you’re not getting paid and no one reads it. It’s a single opinion in a fandom that has never been more opinionated or vocal. And never mind what you write: because your opinion doesn’t have the weight of an established publication behind it, it is generally assumed (although seldom acknowledged) that you are a failed writer and that your opinion is bupkis, unless you happen to write something that by some miracle of literary synergy happens to tie in with what other people happen to be thinking. And how can you do that, when their thoughts are so frequently muddled?
Take this evening. I find myself this moment – this very moment – engaged in conversation with a woman I’m going to refer to as Melissa, although this is not her real name. We’re talking about the Swarm, the mysterious partial-faced man who emerges from an interstellar prison early in the episode, looking a little like Arnold Vosloo in The Mummy and sounding rather like a spiky-faced Lord Voldemort. The Swarm clearly has a history with everyone’s second-favourite Time Lord, which is more interesting (just) than the fact he can apparently disintegrate people by touching them. “But who is he?!?” Melissa wants to know. “And how does he know the Doctor?”
“I would assume that’s the overarching mystery,” I tell her, to which Melissa replies “This episode ended with a lot of unanswered questions”.
“Well, yeah,” is my answer. “At the risk of mansplaining, that’s entirely deliberate. It’s a single story and we haven’t got a clue what’s going on yet.”
“I know. It’s gonna drive me nuts.”
Perhaps the biggest mystery here is why Melissa is watching Doctor Who in the first place, but I can’t help thinking I’m being rather snide even thinking this, and so I don’t tell her. I just nod politely and duck out of the conversation. The thing is, I have a degree of sympathy with Melissa, and others like her, because I’m relatively seasoned at this – and certainly not new to the idea of overarching mystery and multiple threads – and I’m still trying to get my head around what I just watched. Was it good? Was it smoke and mirrors? Was it all spectacle and no substance? Yes, yes, and yes. And also no. In that order.
‘The Halloween Apocalypse’ is what happens when you have a brainstorming session that lasts until about three minutes before script deadline, which gives you barely enough time to get a Starbucks refill before the script has to be on the producer’s desk. It’s got that panicked eleventh hour homework vibe that comes when something was seemingly written in an awful hurry because the inbox was filling up with reminder emails. Actually coming up with something that works is out of the question: instead, you turn in the ideas sheet and plonk a little bit of filler at the beginning and the end, a sort of introductory paragraph and half-baked conclusion. There’s even a sheepish post-it attached – in the form of a Tweet on the official account – reading “Will this do?”.
This is hyperbole, but you get the idea. The general feeling is that of being overwhelmed. From the very outset we’re torpedoed with characters and monsters and more locations than your average David Attenborough documentary, usually accompanied by large white text captions (oh, it’s the Arctic Circle? Great. That’d explain the snow). There are old enemies with new faces, appearing from the woodwork without explanation, and unfamiliar figures appear to be several chapters ahead of both the Doctor and everyone who’s watching. There is a bombardment of ideas and themes and expository dialogue, all wrapped up in technobabble that’s frequently hard to hear above Segun Akinola’s thudding score, although that might just be our TV. It’s like the bit in Cat In The Hat when the cat is balancing the contents of the house’s toy chest on his paws (along with a rake and a goldfish) while bouncing up and down on a ball, and we all know how that ended. Just before the final credits roll the universe blows up, and it’s almost a relief.
Thrown into this maelstrom is the saintly and unsuspecting Dan Lewis (John Bishop), who doesn’t like soup – although he’s right, no one does – and who is first seen leading a tour party through a Liverpool museum, just before he’s thrown out by a one-handed love interest. I don’t know if we were supposed to notice the arm. Something about the camera angle seemed to make it just a little more obvious than it needed to be. Perhaps I’m just jumpy about these things. Dan works in a food bank, although his own cupboards are empty – we are mercifully spared a ponderous lecture about poverty, although there’s presumably time for that in a future episode. Besides, he’s only been in his kitchen five minutes when a six-foot dog busts through the wall and introduces himself as Barf and drops the unsuspecting Scouser into a booby-trapped cage, legging it halfway across the galaxy before you can say ‘down the banks’. Cue the Doctor and Yaz, who only succeed in shrinking his house.
It’s nice to see Yaz again. She’s almost experienced what we might call character development, having cultivated a snippy co-dependence on the Doctor, as well as a competent grasp of technology. I’m still not sure they spark, quite, but the early scenes in which they banter back and forth are at least an improvement on the stilted final moments of ‘Revolution of the Daleks’, although we don’t have long before the two of them are on an alien spacecraft unlocking doors and dodging lasers. As it turns out the supposed abduction wasn’t an abduction at all, but a rather heavy-handed rescue attempt. Earth – nay, the entire universe – is at risk from a cosmic obliteration that is wiping out stars and planets with all the ferocity of a drugged-up Thanos. We’re supposed to be horrified, but the team either didn’t know or didn’t care that Flux is another name for diarrhea. It’s difficult not to snigger when Karvanista describes it as “a hurricane, ripping through the structure of this universe”.
The problem isn’t that Chibnall can’t write. It’s that he can’t really write dialogue. There’s no real feel for the ebb and flow of a conversation, something Davies – for all his flaws – grasped very well. When Davros confronted the Tenth Doctor on board the Crucible, you could feel the electricity, even behind the ham. Chibnall has his lead antagonist stomp across a floodlit quarry towards a terrified soldier. “I waited,” he says, when she asks him what he’s been doing. “I planned. And now…I’m going to execute”, as if it were some ghastly payoff, instead of something you’d read in bad fan fiction. Elsewhere, Dan has an awkward encounter with a man on his doorstep clutching a beer can and a box of eggs. “You’re not even dressed up!” he exclaims, to which the visitor responds “Neither are you”. It simply doesn’t work. Moffat could be similarly pointless at times, but at least he was able to be funny about it.
And ultimately that’s how ‘The Halloween Apocalypse’ plays out: an explosion of ideas and concepts purposely designed to masquerade some absolutely terrible scriptwriting. And I don’t mean ‘terrible’ in terms of story structure; it’s clear that this is carrying on the Timeless Child arc, a narrative I didn’t personally object to, despite the fact that people have been arguing about it for a year and a half. Just as the Doctor isn’t afraid to use a mallet to fix the TARDIS, Chibnall isn’t afraid to use a sledgehammer to crack a gigantic misogynistic nut, and I don’t hold that against him, even if I’ve had to spend eighteen months explaining time and again that no, he didn’t screw with the continuity, the continuity has spent fifty-five years screwing with itself. Things are more interesting and less defined, and I like it that way. There is a long game being played out with these threads and characters and mini-stories, and while I don’t hold out much hope that the rest of Flux is going to tie them up the way the BBC have promised, a few loopholes never hurt anyone. They didn’t ruin Revenge of the Sith; they probably won’t ruin Doctor Who either.
But I can’t help thinking that we can do better than this – less clumsy, less prosaic, less…well, dull, for want of a better word. Can’t we have this story, but with a better, slightly more sophisticated use of Whittaker’s talent? Because this is a kid’s show, but that doesn’t mean it has to be clunky and obvious. We get enough of that on Nova Jones. Would it be too much to ask for the BBC’s flagship programme to display a little more panache? Take the long way round, spice up the banter, give the social commentary a little more window dressing? I’ve been saying for years that Doctor Who has always been basically rubbish, and that once you acknowledge this – even if you choose not to air such views publicly – then you enjoy it a lot more. I made my peace with that a long time ago. I just wish it didn’t have to be so transparently rubbish. If this is the bar they’ve set, then roll on armageddon.
There is a book on my shelf that makes the list of Brilliant Charity Shop Finds of 2017. Entitled Figure Fantasy, it celebrates the work of Daniel Picard, who has turned the careful posing of costumed action figures into what is quite literally an art form. Here’s the Man of Steel etching “BRUCE WAYNE IS BATMAN” onto a wall with his heat vision. Here’s the Hulk bending a tree. Here’s Darth Vader propped up at a urinal, the toilet walls lined by stormtroopers anxiously trying to incline their heads in the opposited direction. Look him up; the guy’s a genius.
I do not have Picard’s photographic skills, swanky lighting or creativity. I also don’t have the time or the patience. I have trouble enough getting the ruddy things to stand upright on concrete without wobbling in a summer breeze. However, I do have a decent-sized garden and the occasional good idea. Which has meant that as the children have got older, and the tendency to re-enact the finale of ‘Blink’ recedes somewhat, our playtime sessions have been replaced by impromptu photos in the garden. “Give me a Capaldi,” I’ll say in the manner of a concentrating surgeon or experienced mechanic, not taking my eyes from the scene I’m semi-meticulously assembling. “Dalek. Cybermen. Damn, we’ve got a wobble. Blu-tac, quick! CAN I GET SOME HELP IN HERE PLEASE?!”
Look, Doctor Who toys deserve to come out of their plastic packaging, all right? I can’t understand – truly I can’t – the mentality of people who buy them simply to have them, in order to build up a collection that does nothing except gather dust, a factory line of plastic David Tennants that sit permanently bubbled in cellophane, their tiny arms and legs bound with those irritating little cable things. Oh, they’re worth more, are they? What’s worth? How do you measure that?
So one of my Angels is missing a wing and Morbius’s leg has a tendency to drop out of its socket unannounced, but at least they get used. And such is the extent to which I have neglected this blog this year that we have a whole stack of unposted pictures, enough for a small exhibition, all hastily composed and all equally ludicrous. So this week and next, while you’re all drumming your fingers waiting for ‘The Halloween Apocalypse’, I’ll stick them all out here.
We’ll start with this one.
“Oh great. We’re back on Trenzalore.”
Unused Fourth Doctor stories.
“Right. I don’t want to panic anyone, but there’s a leek in the boat.”
“Interesting look, Frobisher.”
Now showing on Britbox: Doctor Who and the Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes.
“Hello, old friend. And here we are, you and me, on the last page.”
“Seriously. You’ve been out for like a month and a half. Don’t you think you can stop doing that now?”
“When this baby hits eighty-eight miles an hour, you’re – GREAT SCOTT!”
“I’m sure you’ll get the…point, Doctor. He. He he he he.”
The Doctor and Graham get caught up in a game of Tetris.
“Hey, anybody seen a – you know what, never mind.”
Been a little quiet in here of late, hasn’t it? There will come a day when I get back to posting regular content, but it is not this day. It’s likely to be the beginning of November, when we’re in the thick of Series 13. I used to post memes here regularly, and I may get back to doing that again, but a lot of the time the media interest has come and gone and it feels a bit more like lip service, or obsessive archiving for the simple reason of having done it, and for one reason or another that doesn’t sit right with me any more.
In the meantime I’m doing a little administration for a database website I run, and working on the book, and still creating regularly. As you’ll see…
1. Closing Time: Alternate Ending (August 2021)
My children tell me that my contempt for James Corden is rooted in the observation that he’s fat and successful, whereas I am fat and unsuccessful. There is probably some truth to this. At the same time I can’t help but wonder at the enduring appeal of the man, just as I can’t help but wonder at the enduring appeal of tailgating, or Bette Midler. He’s just so…there, and not in a good way. Rumours of unpleasant offscreen behaviour abound, and I probably wouldn’t mind so much were the man not so omnipresent, propping up musicals, chat shows and reunion specials with an overly familiar sycophancy that borders on excitable mawkishness. Even when he’s acting Corden is seemingly only able to play himself, and when said self is an outright dickhead, it doesn’t make for comfortable viewing.
I mean, he’s all right in Doctor Who. There’s a chemistry of sorts with Smith, who – thanks to Gareth Roberts’ flair for dialogue – bounces off him nicely. But I can’t be the only one who watched the end of ‘Closing Time’ with my teeth gritted. And so I changed it. And I can’t help thinking this new take, juvenile as it may be, is nonetheless slightly more believable than blowing up Cybermen with love. But then I’m fat and unsuccessful. What do I know?
2. Doctor Who, Alan Partridge Style (August 2021)
Confession time: I’ve had this one on the back burner for years. I mean it. At least three. The idea of redubbing K-9 with Steve Coogan’s Presenter From Hell wasn’t entirely mine, but once someone had suggested it I realised that it would need to centre, quite obviously, around him being rude to Adric. So that was a starting point, and what followed was years of procrastination, until This Time came back for a second series and I realised that it was best to just get on and do it before the character falls completely out of favour. So what you’ve got here is material from the first series of I’m Alan Partridge – I’m a stickler for a laugh track – with a promise that there will be a sequel somewhere down the line. He does manage to be summarily rude to Adric: turning the tin dog into a lecherous creep was a side effect, but I largely think it works.
3. Flux Trailer (October 2021)
So everyone was complaining that there was no proper trailer for Series 13, and that we just had the odd few seconds of out-of-context material, looped for about a minute, along with a bit of mugging for the camera. A closed set is seldom a good sign – sure, everyone knows about the Angels and Sontarans but I can’t help thinking that this is going to be six weeks of heavily dissected silliness, and in a way I can’t wait for it to be over so we can all get back to our normal, casual bitching, instead of the high intensity catfights that take place while a series is on.
Still. Flux. That’s…dysentery, surely? Well, we opened with a fart; why not close with one? And a bit of follow-through? Anyway, you lot wanted a proper trailer, so now you’ve got one. Make sure you watch to the end.