God is in the detail (10-09)

Something a little different today.

Let’s be honest. This week’s Doctor Who was not about the visual stuff. Most of it was caves. There were shots of tea. But there was nothing you might really call substantial. Nothing that gave us the IMPORTANT CLUES AND SIGNS that we’ve become accustomed to.

But something strange and wonderful happens when you examine the script. Specifically, certain portions of the script. Even more specifically, every twelfth word (for reasons that ought to be obvious). In fact, I went through the script and wrote down every twelfth word – that’s spoken dialogue, you understand, not stage directions – and here is the final list, in handy chronological order.

Thanks, Chrissy.

So far, so bewildering. But you can rearrange those words to form…well, have a read. Note that this is not the entire collection: twelve words were kept back as a tithe to appease our Time Lord masters. It should be obvious what’s going on – but if it helps, imagine two battle-weary soldiers, in the still of the night, looking out over battlements under a strange alien sky.

“You do look busy.”
“I wasn’t asleep.”
“OK. Isn’t Alice here?”
“Yes. Sarge is receiving the Vikings.”
Sergeant. Rhino warriors?”
“Human. Trapped in a Sarcophagi under the surface of Mars.”
“Quite a game with mankind. Taking over a British company…”
“A gouged carapace.”
“Swing your board at it.”
“Your will is my command.”
“Please yourself.”
“Got to. This Friday is oh, so long.”
“This is temporary. There’s no life.”
“Isn’t that a thing? This bio-mechanical world…for all God’s riches…tired, dead. No grass.”
“Like you knew.”
“I need a woman.”
“Our little blue monarch. Didn’t you make plans together?”
“Oh, details. This…first question…”
“Don’t speak of it. You show that to be unwise.”
“My pleasure.”
“There’s a service this Friday.”
“Here?”
The execution of the War Doctor. He was here.”
“Doctor Who?”
“Go hang. He hears you. We’re obliged to that poor beggar.”
“They could have asked me for help.”
“Yet you never ask.”
“No can do. I will miss the TARDIS though. I value war but want to stop.”
“You and your patriotic manner.”
“I liked gold. Seems we jump out twice minted. Everybody who is kind gave.”
“And so they sent you down.”
“Dawn. First thing…five.”
“For you take from here.”
“These forms…well, rope is right. This way is ever just. Though we used to…”
“Up to him, son. Been getting him down. Or us.”
“One here, one going. So come.”
“Yes. Hold here.”
“Forgive me. I had forgotten the munificence of the indigenous warriors.”
“It has taken you forward. You really must board the rocket.”
“Ice came to everything…and to us.”
“And a whole new theme in ice. I’ll survive. All things considered, I will survive.”

With calculations primed, as Mars is awoken, the Doctor is going home.

Roll credits.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Election Special)

Friday morning? This was where we were.

Don’t get me wrong. A coalition of any sort isn’t a great result. It’s the one we deserve, but not the one we need right now. Prediction: four years of squabbling while the rest of the country sits in limbo, followed by a narrow victory for Labour in 2020, assuming their leader manages to hang on. And if he doesn’t, all bets are off. Economically, politically, ideologically, this is not a good place to be.

Nonetheless, I gained a certain satisfaction in watching a nasty, embittered party push itself to breaking point as it embarked on a series of personal attacks (“the last refuge,” writes Edmund Burke, “of the scoundrel who has nothing left to say”) on Jeremy Corbyn, while its leader became increasingly panic-stricken. It’s hard not to look at both the election and the decisions that were made in its immediate aftermath as the standard political gambit of retaining power, although you can’t blame Theresa May entirely. You have no frame of reference, and neither do I. There’s a scene in series 6 of 24 in which a weary, chastened Noah Daniels – thrown in, much as May was, at the deep end, inheriting a presidency that had suddenly become vacant – says “It’s easy to think you’ve got all the answers, when none of the ultimate responsibility lies with you, but sitting in this chair…until you sit in this chair, you don’t know anything.”

The irony is May is probably quite pleasant if you meet her in real life. But power corrupts. You don’t have to listen to your advisers. And hence we woke on Friday – in the small hours, as Emily and I scrolled through BBC news feeds at four in the morning, scarcely believing, in the wake of my rampant pessimism, what we were actually seeing – to discover a country that had hit back, and a voting populace who had surprised me. Alan Sugar insists that the Corbyn-advocating twenty-somethings were “not experienced in life” and “didn’t know what they voted for”, and there’s probably a ring of truth to that – but the same could surely be said of Brexit (of which Sugar was also not a fan, although his political allegiance has shifted towards the Conservatives in recent years).

Still, it was great to finally discover what DUP actually stands for, right?

I jest, but this is the sort of thing we’ve seen happen quite a lot in Doctor Who: humans who genuinely believe that they can ally themselves with dark forces and get what they want. The idea that said forces might betray them genuinely doesn’t occur to them. It’s the sort of Faustian pact that has you screaming at the TV – “DON’T TRUST THEM!” is the soundbite of choice, “THEY’RE DALEKS!” – but unlike us, none of these people watch Doctor Who. I watched the second Ninja Turtles movie with the boys the other week and we were pleasantly amused by the irony that Shredder utilised the talents of Baxter Stockman and promptly betrayed him, only to find himself receiving exactly the same treatment at the hands of Krang. It’s the kind of thing he really should have expected. (We don’t have time to unpack this properly, but I wrote a lengthy article on human-Dalek collaboration for the Doctor Who Companion, if anyone is interested.)

To be fair to the DUP, they’re not quite the monstrosity they’re painted as in the press. Creationist? Unfortunately. Pro-unionist? Certainly. Anti-abortionist? You bet. So is half of Ireland. This is not the same as being anti-women. Arlene Foster is a woman, for crying out loud, although I would point out that I’ve never seen her in the same room as Paul Merton. They’re also welfare-conscious: their members are right-wing Christian, but many of their supporters are on the breadline. Essentially they’re a party run by evangelicals; this may be seen as backward-thinking but they’re possibly a good deal more altruistic than many atheists. And in a best-case scenario, they’re going to be a thorn in the side of Theresa May’s benefit cuts, forcing the tempering of policy and a recognisable shift back towards the sense of compassion that all but vanished once the last coalition evaporated in the wake of 2015. Realistically this turn of events is not likely, but stranger things have happened.

Still, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that this may end up breaking the Tories: I’m no political pundit but surely they run the risk of losing the support of the moderates by getting into bed with the fundamentalists? However you look at it, this is a simple power grab, just as it was for Labour – and people seem to be waking up to that. And hence, this.

May retained her own seat, of course – although it wasn’t without stiff opposition from Pat McDonald, Tony Hill, and…well, a man with unusual headgear. This is the sort of thing that benefits from a man in Havana; luckily my brother lives in Maidenhead.

“Admit it,” I said to him, by text. “You’re one of the two hundred and fifty who voted for Lord Buckethead, aren’t you?”
“Got me,” he replied.
“I knew it.”

Anyway, I spent much of Saturday trying to work out Lord Buckethead’s cosplay lineage, and –

Sutekh. Definitely Sutekh.

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Review: The Empress of Mars

I was at primary school with a kid called Steve. We all called him Spud, presumably because his head was unfortunately potato-shaped. He didn’t mind. Steve was a polite, if academically disadvantaged young man, and we were good friends. His parents divorced before we’d finished year 6, which was a bigger deal back in 1988 than it is now. He was a latchkey kid with access to the fridge and borderline unsuitable reading material. It was a different world.

One afternoon we were in the kitchen sharing a Diet Coke when I noticed his father was watching the end of something. The two of us looked round the door of the lounge: an actor, stabbed in the chest, staggering across a platform, evidently milking his death scene for all it was worth. He raised his face to the heavens and bellowed the single line of dialogue my brain recalls from that afternoon: “ODIIIIIINNNNN!!!!”

Thirty years on, I still haven’t seen The Vikings. But Bill has – and I’d be willing to bet that Mark Gatiss has as well. And as it turns out, that isn’t a bad thing.

There are writers who strive to forge ahead – for whom the most important thing is to tell new stories, or find new ways of telling those stories. And then there are writers who take their cue from the past. Gatiss has always struck me as one of those: a man whose Who-related work is rooted in the 1970s, in a self-conscious manner that flits between mind-numbingly tedious and tremendously enjoyable, depending on the episode. The criticism he receives is somewhat mystifying, given that a great deal of it seems to come from the very same component of the fanbase who actively petition for David Tennant’s return: a stilted, insular, nostalgia-driven quadrant, for whom the only way to fix a show that’s well past its prime is to make it exactly the same as it was, which misses the point so drastically I don’t have the willpower to unpack it.

I first learned to love Mark Gatiss around the time ‘The Crimson Horror’ first hit: in a pondering, occasionally tedious series (and in the wake of an absolute clanger of an episode) it was a breath of fresh air, a story that wasn’t ashamed of its legacy and that eschewed self-importance in favour of…well, fun. It’s an underrated commodity. Stories like ‘Robot of Sherwood’ seldom make the top ten, but they’re fun. Sometimes we forget that Doctor Who is supposed to be fun, so consumed are we in telling everyone how important and groundbreaking it is. One of my favourite moments in the Harry Potter series occurs at the end of Goblet of Fire, where Harry finds a convenient use for the blood money he’s earned from the Tri-Wizard tournament, by investing in the Weasley twins’ joke shop business venture. “I don’t want it,” he says, “and I don’t need it. But I could do with a few laughs. We could all do with a few laughs. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to need them more than usual before long.”

What to say about ‘Empress’? It’s not profound. It makes no real political point, save the kind of digs at the British Empire you typically see on Horrible Histories (a show in which Gatiss has appeared, along with his League of Gentlemen co-stars). It has a lot of stuff about queen and country, including a pleasing Pauline Collins reference. It has an amusing, if fairly derivative cold open – excuse pun – that is enough to draw your interest, even if it does not quite reach the hyperbolic praise that Moffat ascribes to it (“The best pre-titles idea [he’d] ever heard”, according to Doctor Who Magazine, which rather overstates its supposed brilliance). It has a bunch of gung-ho British soldiers speaking an indecipherable language (‘rhino’ is mentioned; I honestly don’t know whether this is colloquially accurate or whether Gatiss is just making this shit up). And it has a new form of squareness gun: it literally folds people up in a sort of fatal compression, useful for packing suitcases. (Gatiss describes this as “a new way of killing people”, suggesting that he’s never read The Twits.)

More to the point, it has Ice Warriors. The throaty voices from ‘Cold War’ are back, but you don’t hear an awful lot of them: there is but one grunt, a tea-brewing local who is mostly silent, leading you to wonder at first whether we’re back in ‘Doctor’s Wife’ territory. The episode is also graced with a brand new Ice Warrior, the titular Empress, frozen in carbonite and equipped with a distinctive, Predator-style helmet that presumably comes with its own feed of 1980s action movies, beamed straight to the eyepiece. She moves a little like Eldrad and growls like Sarah Parish in ‘The Runaway Bride’, with a similar mindset. Not that Iraxxa is irrevocably genocidal, of course – like the most rounded supporting characters her mind can be swayed, although she only listens to reason when Bill pleads with her to stop the fighting. Do we take this as a feminist-tinged political commentary on current foreign policy? If so, would that make Bill Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry or Nia Griffith? Is this a conversation I really shouldn’t have started?

While all this is going on, Nardole is stuck on Earth, in a seemingly malfunctioning TARDIS, which has obviously put its brakes on for a reason, whether the forces implementing it turn out to be internal or external. There’s a certain amount of cast-thinning going on here; Mars is crowded enough and it’s no great secret that Nardole’s presence in the episode was somewhat last minute – we’re back in Nyssa and Jamie territory – so the solution Gatiss (or, come to think of it, most likely Moffat) adopts is to temporarily maroon him. The subsequent appearance by Missy is functional but unnerving, suggesting something else is going on, and the episode’s abrupt conclusion indicates another scene that might have been dropped. It doesn’t work, but one suspects that Gatiss’ hand was forced for the state of the arc.

There are film references galore – Bill’s response to strolling around the caverns of Mars is to liken it to the movies she’s seen, which some may seem as irritating but which is really just a reflection of how contemporary culture works. Relatively contemporary culture, anyway – I was going to write that it was a wonder that she didn’t try and Instagram a selfie with Friday, but the truth is that every film on Bill’s list is at over thirty years old, and it is left to the Doctor to drop in a reference to Frozen. This token nod to the millenials aside, the story is, like much of Gatiss’ best work, not so much a product of its time as much as a product of somebody else’s (or, as someone put it on Facebook last night, “Gatiss’ stuff was great when other people wrote it first in the 70s”).

That turns out to work. ‘Empress’ has ‘filler’ stamped all over it, but there is nothing wrong with a decent filler. It doesn’t do anything particularly profound, but it has enough in there to hopefully pique the curiosity of newer fans who have yet to encounter the Ice Warriors properly, without completely destroying anything that was good about the original. Indeed, the appearance of Alpha Centauri, two minutes from the end, was enough to make me jump out of my chair – it is reckless, crowd-pleasing shoehorning, there for no other reason than to appeal to the more experienced fanbase and up the hit counts in the Classic Who groups, but I can live with that, even if most newer fans were probably wondering who on Earth that squeaky-voiced bug-eyed alien was, and why their parents were getting so excited. (At least they have an excuse: the Telegraph, in a review which has subsequently been amended, genuinely thought it was Pauline Collins. I can live with the show being reviewed by non-experts – but seriously, how hard is it to read the credits?)

Some episodes of Doctor Who are destined to set the world alight. Gatiss’ latest will not, but that’s not the end of the world. If its supporting characters could do with a little more depth, that’s a by-product of the forty minute structure (and something which, when Chibnall comes to the table, could do with a serious rethink). The leads acquit themselves more than adequately, even if the Doctor has little to actually do this week except react. And it has Ice Warriors doing Ice Warrior-ish things, in a self-contained narrative that, while popping the odd seam in its bag of containment, manages to just about stay inside it. Profundity can wait: this is fun. Really, what more do you want on a Saturday evening?

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God is in the detail (10-08)

Hail, brethren! The Monks may be gone, but do not weep, even though you have full cause of weeping. We shall discard the ephemeral and the propaganda and dig through the contents of ‘The Lie of the Land’ until we find THE TRUTH THAT IS HIDDEN. Because, as you all know by now, each episode of Doctor Who is replete with VERY IMPORTANT THINGS THAT WILL COME BACK LATER ON IN THE SERIES.

First, let’s look at a map.

You will note the cross, showing us the location of the Monks’ lair. In real world terms this translates to the Guildhall, marked below.

The connections here link back to none other than the Eleventh Doctor – by way of C.S. Lewis. First, note that the Guildhall is bordered by Gresham Street – referring to C.S. Lewis’ wife, Joy Gresham. Things become even more complicated when we consider the namesake Guildhall & Barrow Surgery in Bury St. Edmunds – referring both to Edmund Pevensie, core character in Lewis’ Narnia books, and also chapter eight of Fellowship of the Ring, ‘Fog on the Barrow Downs’ – written by J.R.R. Tolkien, friend of Lewis.

(As a brief aside, namesakes also figure elsewhere: Simon and Marek, the authors of The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who, appeared at the Guildhall Arts Centre, Grantham, on 22 September 2016. There is no obvious connection here except that 22 September is Billie Piper’s birthday. Why do I mention this? Just keep reading.)

Also note brief references to the Fourth and Tenth Doctors (Little Britain, top left, just above Postman’s Park; also Noble Street, a couple of blocks to the right). But the largest green space is occupied by the Festival Gardens…just below Paternoster Row.

We’ll just let that sink in for a moment.

This is all linked with Matt Smith, then. But why? Well, you’ll find out later. But in the meantime, here’s the interior of the Doctor’s office, on board the prison hulk.

First, examine the shelves: two racks, with four separate compartments on each. The decorative bottles are thus situated on compartments 1 and 9, thus referring to both Hartnell and Eccleston. Note also the appearance of said bottles: the first is cylindrical, a CLEAR AND DIRECT reference to the shape of the undisguised Type 40 TARDIS that Hartnell’s incarnation is seen pilfering in ‘The Name of the Doctor’, and the bubble-shaped appearance of the Ninth Doctor’s bottle, referring to the time-locked, self-contained war that he can no longer access.

Just out of shot: a bottle in slot 14. Ooh, Moffat, you TEASE.

Note also the statue of the Monk, pointing directly at the black box on the wall by the doorway: itself positioned horizontally above (and apart from) the bottles, and therefore connected with them without being directly aligned. It’s almost as if we’re looking for an alternate Doctor, who favours black.

Finally: Black and White guardians – long overdue for a return, and THIS IMAGE CONFIRMS IT’S HAPPENING! The switch is black, the bottles are white: that’s your first clue. But there’s more to it than that. Consider the contents of the Doctor’s desk: the book, the pen and the telephone.

A brief Google finds instructions on a craft website titled Chicaandjo for an upcycling activity that enables you to recycle a phone book into a pen organizer. I’ll say that again: recycle a PHONE BOOK into a PEN organizer.

So what? I hear you ask. Well, note the date on this entry: 24 February 2009. Ostensibly an unimportant day in the Whovian calendar, except that it happens to be the thirtieth anniversary of the Black Guardian’s first appearance, at the end of ‘The Armageddon Factor’ – part six of which was broadcast on 24 February 1979. Get ready, folks. An epic cosmic clash is coming.

Let’s move on and look at that radar.

This is, as you’d probably gathered, about the First Doctor. The position of the blip on the radar – at one o’clock – is testament enough, as is the fact that north is angled in the same direction on the compass. But that compass deserves special attention, chiefly because of the numbers that surround it – increments of 30, rising from 0 to 360.

But that’s surely just degrees, isn’t it? Well, not if you translate them into episode numbers:

30 The Aztecs: The Day of Darkness (Part 4)
60 The Web Planet: Escape to Danger (Part 3)
90 The Daleks’ Master Plan: The Nightmare Begins (Part 1)
120 The Savages: Part 3
150 The Moonbase: Part 3
180 The Ice Warriors: Part 2
210 The Dominators: Part 2
240 The Space Pirates: Part 4
270 The Ambassadors of Death: Part 7
300 The Daemons: Part 3
330 The Three Doctors: Part 2

Now: watch what happens when we notate the FIRST line of dialogue from each episode.

“Open this, Ixta. Ixta, please. Please open it.”
“The Doctor’s speaking to someone. Why can’t we hear what he’s saying?”
“He has a very strange sickness. Can you not help him?”
“Five point one. Zero. Five point six. Zero. Six point one. Zero. Six point seven. Zero. Seven point one. Zero.”
“Stand back. Stand back from that door.”
“Jamie!”
“Bring them inside.”
“Oh, Doctor, are you all right?”
“What are you doing?”
“Hold this!”
“Steady now, Sergeant. He knows what he’s doing. At least I hope he does.”

Which should tell you all you need to know, shouldn’t it?

Incidentally we did a little non-destructive testing on the numbers referenced in the Savages episode, but there is no significance in them. Even I have my limits.

Finally, here’s Nardole’s hand, resting on that map.

First and foremost, we need to examine the hulk’s equidistance between Orkney and Shetland, and the fact that Northlink Ferries runs a service between them operating out of Aberdeen, WHICH IS WHERE THE FOURTH DOCTOR DROPPED SARAH JANE AT THE END OF THE HAND OF FEAR. However, things get even more interesting when we examine two of the other marked places on Nardole’s map, notably Bergen and Stavanger: two cities approximately 124 miles apart.

This relates – as you’ve probably twigged – to the end of ‘Doomsday’, specifically the scene in which Rose explains that Dårlig Ulv-Stranden – or Bad Wolf Bay, as we call it – is located “about fifty miles out of Bergen”, ROUGHLY EQUIDISTANT BETWEEN THESE TWO POINTS. In other words (and you may find it helpful to look at the image again) if you head due east from here, you’ll bump into it.

Can I also point out that we heard this courtesy of Rose, and that I’VE ALREADY TALKED ABOUT BILLIE PIPER?

Now watch what happens when we add a line from the approximate position of Bad Wolf Bay to Aberdeen, connecting it to the ones that Nardole has already drawn. And tell me if a particular item of neckwear doesn’t instantly jump out at you.

We knew they were cool. We just didn’t know they were so important.

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Review: The Lie of the Land

I was sixteen when I first read 1984. It was one of those books that stays with you: a fable of hellish bleakness, in which there are no real winners, and where there are far worse things than death. In late summer 1994 (ten years after Orwell’s narrative had failed to come to pass) such a dystopian nightmare still seemed like a distant reality. It was only a few short years later that we found ourselves looking at echo chambers, fake news and always-on technology that monitored our every move, and wondered how reality had caught up with fiction without any of us actually noticing.

Nearly six decades after the publication of Orwell’s magnum opus, Ben Elton had a go. His version was called Blind Faith, and was similarly bleak, although it ended at the gallows, rather than a cafe. It was clunky, shallow, zeitgeisty and overstated its themes, but it was oddly prophetic, and I wonder if Elton still thinks of it fondly, or perhaps regards it with the same casual dismissal that John Lennon had when it came to his early Beatles songs. And I wonder, too, if time will judge Toby Whithouse’s series 10 offering with kindness or with cynicism – something that foreshadows a likely reality, or one of those right-on attempts at being topical without actually saying anything.

‘The Lie of the Land’ picks up some time after ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’ left off, with a withdrawn, isolated Bill going through teabags far faster than any person living alone actually should do, given that she spends most of her free time having imaginary conversations with a woman she can scarcely remember. It sounds like the plot of a Talking Heads narrative, and indeed that’s almost how the episode starts, although it isn’t long before we abandon melancholy for intrigue. There is an element of humanity in this week’s story, but it is first and foremost a conspiratorial thriller, and Whithouse wears it like a badge of honour. This is a story in which you can trust no one, Mr Mulder.

Certain stylistic things grate. It’s largely down to the fact that dystopian narratives are generally aimed at an older audience – but this is Doctor Who, and consequently there is a need to explain everything. ‘The Lie of the Land’ is, to all intents and purposes, the Blade Runner of New Who, its voiceover cloying and unnecessary (it should be obvious that spot checks are frequent and dangerous in a totalitarian police state, without Bill having to give us the details). It is only in the final reel that its purpose becomes apparent, Bill’s mother becoming not just a convenient expository sounding board but also a crucial plot device: the whole thing is very Rings of Akhaten with the same wind machine they used in ‘The Pilot’ but you can, at least, understand why we’ve had to put up with half an hour of interior monologue.

The voiceover isn’t the only thing that jars: the structure is off, somehow, as if this were a very good two-part story crammed into forty-two minutes, because the Monks had taken up two episodes already and they couldn’t stretch to another. The society Whithouse creates is frightening and oppressive and reasonably convincing, and there frankly isn’t enough of it: fascist police states are encapsulated in single, cliche-driven boot-in-the-door scenes (first they came for the communists, and I did not speak out), where non-conformists are dragged away in full view of disapproving neighbours. How much more might we have benefited from a more comprehensive overview of those who rejected the Monks’ programming? The resistance movement, and the laughing men behind the guns that served under the Doctor? The figureheads in charge, kowtowing to the will of the Monks, struggling to remember a time when they succeeded or failed purely on the whims of political ambition? Even the Monks themselves, who linger in the background this week, motives untapped, barely uttering a word? How much better, indeed, might the story have been had it begun with the planet under a state of siege, with flashbacks to key moments from the Pyramid episode and all the ephemeral dialogue from last week scattered to the ashes and replaced with something a little more substantial?

Perhaps that’s too much to ask for, and places too much demand on an audience that already struggles with the narratives that are thrown its way. If there is one recurring sin that New Who commits it is that of needless exposition, but a glance through the questions that come up on social media show that the audience is often not as smart as it likes to think it is. And we’re not talking about the kids here; we’re talking about grownups who should know better or who at least ought to read more. Just the briefest of glances through any DW forum in the days that follow an episode is enough to make a grown man weep. At one extreme you have the conspiracy theorists who notice everything and analyse everything – something I outwardly parody on this site – and at the other extreme the people who genuinely cannot understand why the Eleventh Doctor was able to regenerate. I don’t for a moment believe that Who writers have the time to actually read any of this, but if there are accusations that New Who occasionally dumbs down, we might say that this occurs simply because on many levels its audience actively demands it.

Even the supposedly smart people have a go. “It’s horribly misjudged to show Bill turning a gun on the Doctor,” writes Patrick Mulkern in the Radio Times, “and firing not once but four times. We’ve seen nothing that would push her to such an extreme act. It cannot be rationalised or condoned.” Actually, it can. That we do not get to see her suffering does not mean that said suffering has not taken place. The very fact that this is not something Bill would typically do does not, in itself, mean that it cannot be condoned, or that indeed that it would never happen: it simply means that there is a narrative gap that the audience must fill on its own. Is that such a dreadful ask? Or are we now at the stage where even professional reviewers need to be drip-fed?

There is an awful lot of decent material this week, even if it isn’t always used as effectively as it might be. The opening montage, which openly parodies Forrest Gump, is nothing short of marvellous, particularly with the addition of Capaldi’s soothing voiceover, bookended by the most sinister of grins. Capaldi, indeed, is absolutely the best thing about this week, whether he’s comforting a suddenly remorseful Missy or – in the episode’s high point – explaining his apparent change of heart to an incredulous Bill with such fortitude that for a second you’re almost prepared to believe it. Unfortunately it’s a that scene concludes with a mildly ridiculous denouement, and a quite unnecessary regeneration from the Doctor – “A bit much?” he quips, mostly through the fourth wall, and thus confirming that the whole thing was more about deceiving the audience than it was about winding up Bill.

(As an aside, the version of the episode that Emily and I watched this week was really very different. We usually get something that’s close to final – although it sometimes has a time stamp, a watermark or the odd bit of dialogue that gets polished or removed entirely before the final broadcast. The preview version of ‘Lie of the Land’ was, we were informed, not quite finished, and was still awaiting a few key effects, notably during the regeneration, which was missing its trademark sparkly dust. We knew what was supposed to be there because we’d seen it in the trailer, but having a CGI-free Capaldi stand in that chamber, stretch out his arms to look at effects that hadn’t yet been added and then shout “YAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!” really was quite disconcerting, in an amusing sort of way.)

On the upside, the Doctor can see again, which makes certain things much easier for Nardole – although he’s largely reduced to hesitant glances and screaming like a girl when Bill threatens him with a dining chair. Mackie is typically marvellous, but we knew she would be, because she always is. The supporting characters are (sadly) once more ephemeral, consisting largely of Martyred Woman, Police State Nazi and Brainwashed Soldier: it is left to Gomez to provide what remains of the episode’s substance, which consists of sitting on a piano and crying over her victims. “You didn’t tell me about this bit,” she accuses the Doctor, in what appears to be a moment of genuine regret. It is most likely a ruse, because (as we have learned) we can no more trust Missy than we can the man who created her.

And perhaps that’s the lesson we take from this week’s story. As the Doctor and Bill share a coffee by an abandoned plinth – in a scene that smacks of the Moral Messages that would suffix every single episode of Masters of the Universe – we’re no closer to really knowing the truth about what we’ve seen, or why it’s happened, or why the Doctor had to put Bill through the wringer with quite so much vehemence. What’s left is a sea of fragments knitted into an enjoyable, if not entirely coherent whole. There is a monster who gives up too easily, and a story that raises more questions than it answers, but not in an open-ended, satisfying sort of way – rather (as I’ve already said) a brilliant two-part story shoehorned into a decent single installment. Still. ‘Decent’ is fine, even if we’re back in highs and lows territory this week – and even if, as we watch the Doctor stroll back to the Vault, we’re still not entirely sure what’s going on or who we can trust. The shortest distance between two points is usually a straight line, but that’s not the route that Moffat tends to take, and it’s hard to take anything at face value. Instead I’m reminded of Commissioner Gordon, watching Batman and Robin swoop off into the distance on the final page of the Knightsend saga, with its tales of false identity and duplicity and eventual redemption – as the Commissioner’s deputy assures him that, if nothing else, at least they can be sure that Batman is back.

“Really?” the Commissioner replies. “After all that’s happened, how can we be sure of anything?”

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God is in the detail (10-07)

It’s half term, folks, and by the time you read this I’ll probably be on a beach in Swanage. It may be a perfectly pleasant experience, but more than likely I will be running away from an enormous bubble and insisting that I am not a number, I am a free man. Who can say? This is the price you pay for knowing too much. I pay it willingly, but sometimes things are hard. Oh, so hard.

But I’ve managed to prep a a slightly shortened version of this week’s conspiracy roundup and leave it here for you because THESE THINGS ARE IMPORTANT. So here are the clues and signs we managed to spot in ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’, and some explanation as to what they might mean. I do not promise an easy ride. But then it was never about that, was it?

Here’s the Doctor outside the pyramid.

There are 16 visible or partially visible rows of bricks in this image. THIS IS NOT AN ACCIDENT. Firstly, 16 is 4 squared – 4 x 4, in other words – and the notion of two fours is something to which we shall return later in this missive. But it’s the Monk’s entry point into the scene that’s really fascinating: the missing bricks it currently occupied are located, if we utilise the coordinates of a typical X / Y axis, at 1:15 and 2:16, referring respectively to ‘The Space Museum’ and ‘The Dominators’.

So what? I hear you ask. Well, consider the alien species the Doctor encounters – the Dominators and the Moroks – and then reflect upon the fact that ‘Dominators and Moroks’ may be rearranged to form ‘INDOORS TO MONKS DRAMA’, and also ‘MONKS AIRMAN ODD TORSO’ – both of which describe key points in the episode – and also ‘MONKS ORDAIN DOORMATS’, which seems to be an apt description of what we know of next week.

But we should also take a moment to reflect upon the pyramid itself. Consider the episode title – itself one of comparatively few Doctor Who episode titles that also contain other titles. Removing ‘The End Of The World’, we’re thus left with ‘The Pyramid At’.

Now consider the alphanumeric values of letters, assuming that A is 1, B is 2 and so on. Removing ‘Pyramid’ from the equation, we have:

T – 20
H – 8
E – 5
A – 1
T – 20

Total: 54

Now, exchange these leftover letters with ones from another pyramid story, and we get:

S – 19
O – 15
F – 6
M – 13
A – 1
R – 18
S – 19

Total: 91

So what? I hear you asking. Subtract 54 from 91 and you get 37. So what? I hear you asking again, while you scrape against the ropes holding you to that chair and see if you can fray them a little (don’t trouble yourself, they’re elvish and they’d restrain an Oliphaunt). Can I just refer you here?

You know, Subway 37? As featured in this Fourth Doctor story? Which, by the way, ALSO STARRED LEELA, WHO GOT A MENTION LAST WEEK?

Phone displays figured quite prominently in this week’s episode, but there’s one in particular that warrants a closer look.

To do this, we have to go back through the earlier episodes.

Those of you who have endured this column for years will remember that Moffat employed a similar stunt in series 9. The trick here is to examine the lines of dialogue that occur at THIS PRECISE MOMENT in each episode of the series up to this point, including (for reasons which will become apparent) ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’. Because when you do that, something amazing happens.

“Lucy.”
“Hello.”
“Good old universally compatible incorruptible maps.”
“Mud is one word for it.”
“He’s released. Mercy at last. Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“They’re fixing the lock.”
“Cardinal Angelo? I could do with your help here.”
“I felt it. If you can help us, I consent.”

MIND. BLOWN.

Next we’ll take a look at Douglas’s computer screen, moments before it blurs.

We may break this down like this.

I need say no more.

Finally, let’s look at the numbers on that combination dial.

There are two things going on here. In the first instance, the choice of 3614 as the designated escape code is deliberate, given that it is a reference to Cher’s 1969 commercial failure 3614 Jackson Highway. Given that it was released in the year to which the Doctor and Martha were banished by the Weeping Angels there are at least a couple of references to ‘Blink’, notably in track 4, a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You’, as well as track 12 on the 2001 bonus edition, ‘Easy To Be Hard’. You know, as in “You can’t kill a stone”. What did you think I meant?

However, we also need to look at the number above it: 4725, referring specifically to galaxy 4725, known as Comae Berenices, which can be rearranged to form ‘See Beacon Crime’, a CLEAR AND DIRECT reference to ‘The Ark In Space’. Note also the presence of two separate ‘4’s, which refers to the closing episode of ‘The Android Invasion’. Which you basically watched last week, only it was called ‘Extremis’ and it had the Pope in it. In other words, THE CURATOR IS SET TO MAKE A RETURN IN SERIES 11.

Finally, note that the third tumbler is in a state of transition – shifting between the 1 and the 2, and thus making a subtle reference to ‘The Tenth Planet’, the story that is set to be referenced in this year’s Cybermen-infested finale. And how many dots can you now see on those two digit markers? Sorry, how many was that? FOUR, did you say?

Anyway: my Yanni CDs are beckoning. I need to be somewhere quiet after all this excitement. Be seeing you.

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Have I Got Whos For You (part 65536)

In this week’s edition: the Bank Holiday celebrations continue inside the Pyramid, although not everyone is keen.

The influence of Game of Thrones on the current series of Doctor Who becomes more and more apparent.

And elsewhere, the Bride catches up with her final target.

Toodle-pipski!

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Review: The Pyramid at the End of the World

It’s Friday, and I’m in the park with Edward. It is a weekly ritual: this odyssey of library books and shopping and sausage rolls and then going on a bear hunt on the back of a Wicksteed rocking horse. Later I will drop him at nursery and then go to the cafe and write. I am half thinking about the details, in between chanted verses about swamps and coal mines and radioactive wastelands, when the messenger app pings.

“So you’ve seen it, then?” said Phil. “What’s it like?”
“It’s shit,” I said.
“Oh dear.”
“Well, it’s not ‘Kill The Moon’ shit,” I added. “More ‘Into The Dalek’ shit. It’s not that it’s a bad episode, more that it’s just interminably dull.”

Peter Harness has never been one to shy away from a good moral argument. His Who writing speaks volumes (at least the bits Steven Moffat didn’t do himself). ‘Kill The Moon’ turned from a Hinchliffe-esque horror story into an abortion debate that immediately went south faster than Ronnie Biggs in 1966. The Zygon episodes were better, if also rather worthy in places – a reputation they’ve largely gained retrospectively, being perhaps the last Doctor Who stories to hold a strong political subtext until…well, this one. Harness is not afraid to tackle the big themes, even if (as it turns out this week) he appears to have not a great deal to actually say about them.

If anything, ‘The Pyramid at the End of the World’ suffers from Difficult Second Album Syndrome, or at least second act fatigue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, except to say that nothing very much happens. That’s something we’ve got used to this series, but that it’s suddenly a problem is less a hallmark of collective boredom and more the fact that a ponderous narrative like this does not sit well with the alien invasion badge the episode wears at its heart. This is the middle part of a trilogy, a fact that we’re never really allowed to forget.

The Doctor’s blindness is part of it. Reduced to a shell of the man he once was, he’s left stumbling both figuratively and literally, relying solely on Nardole to supply descriptive narrative of the details the sunglasses miss: as a way of instilling dramatic tension between the Doctor and Bill it works, but it was already tiresome last week and another dip in the pool doesn’t do the writing any favours. It doesn’t help that it now takes the Doctor twice as long to do anything, given both his visual impairment and a newfound despondency that places Capaldi at the episode’s dramatic centre – making the story more about him than it usually is.

This sort of personal journey approach works fine when you’re watching a character piece – as we did with, say, ‘The Pilot’ – but it’s less successful when large chunks of the story revolve around the Doctor travelling from one place to another, interacting with supporting characters who are presumably baffled as to why they’re having to contend with a cantankerous retired prog rock guitarist, and wondering when the real hero’s going to show up. “Coordinate your attacks,” the Doctor says with stunning nonchalance when the military commanders suggest a show of force (although it’s enough to wipe the smug expression from Nardole’s face; too bad we’re the only ones who got to see it). “If you demonstrate strength and unity, they might choose to step away.”

This is deliberate. The whole thing is less an act of purposeful deception (as it was when he opened the door to the space zombies, for example) and more a Doctor who’s feeling his way in the dark literally as well as metaphorically – something that makes sense given that this is the first time we’ve actually seen him in action properly since the events of ‘Oxygen’. Capaldi comes to the part with a new sense of weariness this week – perhaps even more overt than the melancholy figure who wandered into the camouflaged TARDIS at the beginning of ‘Hell Bent’ – staring through a glass darkly, brooding on the end of the world to the extent that he inadvertently causes it. As self-fulfilling prophecies go, this is as nihilistic and bleak as we’ve seen for some time, a clear forerunner to the next episode, in which the decrepit have inherited the earth.

But things get cluttered when the characters don’t really have time to breathe. The Monks appear, and then reappear, and then there’s a scene in the pyramid that looks like a modern art exhibition and then an imagined apocalypse, and then a bit more talking and then, finally, a bit of tension, and the problem is that none of it is very interesting. I said earlier that nothing happens: this is, perhaps, not entirely true. It is more accurate to say that it feels like nothing happens. The potentially interesting military leaders (at last, supporting characters I could almost get behind) are reduced to a series of military cliches and, in one scene, an excruciatingly tepid display of artificial comradeship, before being zapped into the ether.

Certainly casting has rarely seemed as diverse at it is this week. The international flavour is part of that, but it feels like the middle of ‘Four To Doomsday’, with a dwarf thrown in for good measure. That’s not to do Rachel Denning a disservice – of all the supporting cast she’s easily the most likeable, and it’s a shame that her appearance within the context of the story consists largely of babysitting a hungover colleague. (And for the record, Steven, we know that the world ends with the slamming of a door. We got it the first time. There’s no need to show it to us on multiple occasions. That’s the sort of thing your predecessor did, and we didn’t like it then either.)

If anything, it is the Doctor’s obstinacy that causes his (and the world’s) eventual undoing, something that was foreshadowed last week in a now-defunct conversation with Nardole (of course it is happening in your head, Doctor, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?). Nardole – at his best when he makes sudden, astute observations that crystallise the thoughts we’ve been having for years – is the one who tells the Doctor that “The moment you tell Bill, it becomes real. And then you might actually have to deal with it.” Far from the dashing, tedious hero we’ve encountered, this is a man who tactically misjudges an elementary problem and is doomed as a result. It’s the sort of character flaw you expect to see in superhero movies – we saw it in Iron Man, we saw it in Spider-Man, we saw it in The Avengers. Heck, we even saw it in Lego Batman.

And in itself, that’s not a bad thing. It’s worked before. ‘The Caves of Androzani’ employed a similar conceit: it is the one that tops the polls, and yet it is the one where the Doctor loses. ‘Midnight’ saw the Doctor snatched from the jaws of death by the grace of a nameless, unbelievably unselfish airline stewardess, and showed why it’s always a bad idea for a socially dysfunctional genius to travel without an entourage of middlemen to smooth over the bruised egos. This sort of thing goes right back to ‘The Daleks’, by way of ‘Warriors of the Deep’. Stories in which the Doctor blunders into a bad situation and makes it worse can be marvellous. Unfortunately, this week’s wasn’t one of them.

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God is in the detail (10-06)

Sorry I’m a bit late on my rounds this week, folks. I’ve not been at all well and it’s too hot to really focus. But the truth must out, and thus I have struggled through sickness to bring you this important list of VITAL CLUES AND SIGNS from last week’s episode, ‘Extremis’. Let us make haste. Enlightenment lies within.

We start in Bill’s flat.

Look on the table, next to the open book. You see the multi-coloured thing? Now look over to the work surface and look at the blue pot.

Now look at this.

The hen alludes to Peri – specifically her fear of birds, as explored in ‘Vengeance on Varos’. But things get more complicated when we examine Bill’s jacket, and the patterns on its arms: a deliberate allusion to American rock duo The White Stripes, specifically their sixth album. Actually, their sixth track on their sixth album, ‘Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn’, an allusion to Leela, and therefore a CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS HINT that Leela is due to star in a series of adventures alongside Colin Baker: just not on television. If you need any more clues, consider: Bill has a BIG essay due, and she is endeavouring to FINISH it.

I’ll just leave that there for a moment. Take your time. You’ll get there.

Note also that the right-hand cupboard – above which the chicken is located – is slightly ajar, and that the right-hand socket on the wall is empty. In other words, we’re talking about empty jars, specifically this sort of Empty Jar. To those of you who’ve been campaigning for a Yu-Gi-Oh / Who crossover (and I know you are many and vocal, dear friends), rejoice: your prayers have been answered.

Next have a look at that open laptop in the Vatican’s library.

For ease of reference, the names on that list are:

Stefan Anchorage
Michael Finch
Nicia Russo
Peter Dukes
Bill Pullman
Albertina Ricci
Keven Paters
Christina Tom
Francis Esposito
Phil Bond
Daryn Mcloughlan
Abramo Tognaccini

Bill Pullman? BILL PULLMAN???

But there’s more. Pullman isn’t just on that list, he’s the focus – or rather one of former his co-stars is. Observe the sixth and eighth names on the list (highlighted) and take the surname from one and the forename from the other: Christina Ricci, you will observe, co-starred in Casper with Pullman, along with Eric Idle, WHOSE NAME CAN BE FORMED BY REARRANGING THE OTHER HIGHLIGHTED LETTERS IN THIS LIST.

Eric Idle’s never done Doctor Who, has he? Well, that’s all gonna change, folks. Just saying.

Now, to the cafeteria.

You remember this scene. It’s the one with the numbers. There’s something about large groups speaking in perfect synchronisation that’s a little creepy, as both Greek theatre and Children of Earth proved in abundance. Needless to say that’s not all that’s going on here. We’re actually going to count the wine glasses, but we’ll get to that.

It’s the specific numbers we need to look at first, though, and here they are:

36
17
9
48
103
1000000
7000007
67
905
20
460
12
4
87
702

(I am, as ever, indebted to Chrissy’s Transcripts.)

Added together this makes 8002477 – coincidentally the EXACT SAME NUMBER as the Yakima Road Trip 80002477 RV Trailer bike rack, available from RackWarehouse, Vermont. And Rackwarehouse Vermont is an anagram of ‘A charmer’s even workout’, a CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS reference to this particular scene from ‘Terror of the Vervoids’, in which THE SIXTH DOCTOR CAN BE SEEN ON AN EXERCISE BIKE.

However! It’s not just about the Sixth Doctor, even though the six visible wine bottles give this clue an even greater sense of gravitas. We also need to look at the clock – reading 5:11, or in other words the IMPENDING CROSSOVER between the Fifth Doctor and the Eleventh. This works on two levels: Fifth and Eleventh Doctors and also the Eleventh Doctor’s fifth episde, ‘Flesh and Stone’, in which the Doctor and Amy encounter the Weeping Angels. Remember that, because we’re coming back to it.

Finally, look at where the scientist is positioned: deliberately in front of the N, partially blocking its view so that ‘CERN’ effectively becomes ‘CERI’. And ‘CERI’ is, as you’re fully aware, a village in Powys, on the A489 – SPECIFICALLY, THE YEAR DOCTOR WHO WAS CANCELLED AND THE NUMBER OF STORIES IN ITS FINAL SERIES.

It’s clear what this is leading to, and that’s another multi-Doctor story, starring Davison and Colin Baker with a cameo from Sylvester McCoy – and we get a clearer picture of this when we examine the Pentagon.

There’s a reason why Moffat chose this particular building – and, indeed, this particular shot of this particular building, in the first instance, look at the complex itself. It may be pentagonal in shape, but there are ten interlocking sections making up the five sides, each section comprising three separate buildings, implying the presence of three Doctors (i.e. Five, Six and Seven) in a single, Weeping Angel-themed story.

Note also the single red car down in the bottom left segment of the screen, a CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS reference to the Angels. Why, do you ask? Because it’s on the left, and one must look to one’s left, and red is predominantly associated with the colour red, which can only mean that JEREMY CORBYN IS SLATED TO BE THE NEXT DOCTOR following his inevitable defeat in the General Election in just a few weeks’ time.

But that’s misdirection, dear reader. Also note the three sets of tall windows making up the sides: they look like Roman numerals, and you will see four sets of three visible in the shot, placed equidistantly around the edge of the building. Assuming that each ‘window’ corresponds to a single canonical Doctor, and disregards John Hurt, that’s 12 canonical Doctors. What’s more, the closest as the crow flies to the red car is the fifth one in the sequence – in other words, the Fifth Doctor.

Gee. It’s a shame the Fifth Doctor’s never met the Weeping Angels, isn’t it?

Mind. Blown. Here’s the mop. Make sure you clean up after yourself.

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Have I Got Whos For You (part 90001)

Today’s Who roundup: first, an exclusive BBC production still of the contents of the Vault.

Meanwhile there is chaos over at Bagpuss & Co when Emily brings in her latest Lost Thing for repair.

In fact, just, you know, this in general.

Sorry.

 

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