Posts Tagged With: chris chibnall

Review: The Power of the Doctor

There was a reason why I didn’t do a write-up for the Easter special. It’s partly because we were in Liverpool, plaque-spotting on Mathew Street and taking ferries to Birkenhead and noting that when Dan and Diane left the museum in the first episode of Flux, they did so by the fire exit. But it’s mostly because it was incredibly dull, the tale of swashbuckling sea adventure turning out to be a bit of a damp squib. It wasn’t outrageously terrible, but it wasn’t very good, either. It was just mediocre. The inclination to write paragraphs about why this was an outrage – something I’d have done in a heartbeat back in 2015 – is more or less gone these days, and if it’s mediocre, I no longer care.

And yet here we are, some six months down the line in a tour-de-force that takes in active volcanos, dastardly schemes and more old faces than a DVD retrospective. Running just shy of ninety minutes, it serves as a swansong both for Whittaker and the departing showrunner, a target of so much internet vitriol it’s astounging he’s stuck it out this long. Perhaps the most potent criticism of Chibnall’s reign, aside from his inability to write dialogue (something that hasn’t improved) is a supposed refusal to acknowledge the past, whether it’s the absence of classic villains in Series 10 or the whole Timeless Child debacle. Thus, with the plethora of famous faces popping up during ‘The Power of the Doctor’, he seeks to answer his critics. “You want nods to the past? Fine. Have this one. And this one. And this one.”

Nostagia sells. This is an anniversary story – not the show, but the BBC – and the buildup to Whittaker’s regeneration is steeped in the desire to look back, so much so that the Doctor scarcely sees the proverbial (and, eventually, literal) cliff until she’s about to step over the edge. It reads like a love letter to times past, a sort of ‘Day of the Doctor’ lite, the style flapping over substance like one of those Top Gear supercars that look better than they drive. Against all odds, and thanks to some genuinely crowd-pleasing moments, it works. If nothing else it’s a relief to get it out of the way so that we can finally sift through the tabloid rumours – media abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of any information the press and the fan pages have had to create their own notes on speculative casting, with everyone from Bonnie Langford to Matt Smith mooted to be somehow involved.

Smith doesn’t show; neither does Capaldi – but they did manage to get most of the others. They play their cameos to a tee, perched atop the edge of a metaphysical abyss like wizened, BBC English gurus; platitudes and received pronunciation. Of the surviving Old Legends, only Tom Baker is absent, which should surprise no one who saw ‘The Five Doctors’. Crucially no obvious effort is made to de-age any of them. which is probably down to budget more than anything else, although it doesn’t stop Chibnall putting in a few lines about how their physical appearance reflects the desire of former companions to watch them growing old. It suffices, at a stretch, but it’s awkard, calling to mind that horrendous clay monkey from the end of Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’ video. “This is how I see you…”

But nostagia works like an anaesthetic – or at least a potent variety gas and air, bringing on a euphoric fit of giggles that serves to mask the frantic cutting and squeezing going on down below. This was a story about spectacle, in which we’re expected to applaud first and ask questions later, And thus the sight of McGann alone is almost enough to forgive the writer for thrusting ‘Orphan 55’ upon us a couple of years back (almost, if not quite). Who cares if they got old? We all did. Bringing back former Doctors also allows for closure with their respective companions, the holographic projections washing in and out of the screen like ghosts. It’s a touching moment, although the nod to Ace’s feud with the Doctor has a bit of posturing about it, feeling like a half-hearted attempt at rebuffing all those people who claimed Chibnall didn’t know his Who. He may have been well-intentioned, but this is likely to simply confuse people whose knowledge of Aldred stops in 1989. (And which feud, anyway? There were so many of them.)

Structurally, the whole thing holds up like a house of cards. The opening set piece (an attack on an interstellar bullet train that echoes the opening of A New Hope, including a white-gowned Princess Leia) is there purely to introduce a McGuffin and get rid of a companion – Dan, for whom a cracked space helmet is one brush with death too many. And so they drop him on Granger Street, where his house is still missing (anyone who’s actually visited Anfield will understand why this is funny), in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, and it’s back to a life of food banks, doomed romance and abject poverty. His departure is as swift and awkward as we’ve come to expect over this run, and indeed his entire involvement in the story is a cynical piece of audience-baiting, with Bishop’s general absence from the trailer giving rise to the theory that he would be granted an on-screen death that never came.

In the absence of Dan, the old guard steps up – and it’s to Chibnall’s credit that the involvement of Ace and Tegan extends to something more than a token appearance. Fielding fends off an army of Cybermen: on the other side of the world, Aldred dusts off her jacket and hits a Dalek with a baseball bat. Chibnall also elects to bring back Vinder, simply because he can. The final gambit, on a choked and dusty Cyber-planet that resembles an industrial quarry, is a straight lift from series four, with every available character holding down a different lever, but we have just seen Kate Lethbridge-Stewart saved in the nick of time from forced Cyber conversion, so you don’t notice until the dust settles.

In the midst of all this, there’s a plot of sorts, although it is largely an excuse for general silliness. The story revolves around the Master, who has come up with a convoluted scheme involving seismic drilling, reversible tissue compression (yes, honestly) and a series of Photoshopped artworks that serve no purpose except to act as a Tumblr blog in waiting. The central conceit – stolen bodies, extraneous cosplay – is half Face/Off, half ‘Logopolis’; this was almost certainly deliberate, given Fielding’s involvement, and would be outright preposterous were it not for the performance of its central antagonist. Dhawan deviates between calm, hypnotic resonance during the St. Petersburg scenes and a Joker-like mania just about everywhere else – although the episode’s narrative high point sees him cavorting around the winter palace to the melodic strains of Boney M, in a move that will please Fortnite fans everywhere, even if it perplexes everyone else.

Whittaker bows out on a cliff, having seen off the enemy before getting zapped by a planet-shearing laser, carried into the TARDIS by her doe-eyed companion. The scenes with the Doctor and Yaz are as strained as they ever were, and it’s almost a relief when that ice cream is finished – although we do get a beautiful shot of the Earth from space, as the two friends sit on the roof like Wayne and Garth. And then it’s a flash and a bang (Whittaker’s final words are, pleasingly, a reference to a playground game, emphasising that above all else this is a show for children) and in comes David Tennant, in a scene that everyone saw coming – everyone except my thirteen-year-old, whose eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.

Cue the unanswered questions. Why did the Master go to the trouble of butchering all that art when he could have made a simple phone call? Why would you ship a planet-powering energy source on a high speed train with minimal security? Does the fob watch still lurk at the bottom of the TARDIS? Why does Tennant have a five o’clock shadow? And just why is it called ‘The Power of the Doctor’, anyway?

But then Chibnall never was the show’s greatest writer. Not for him the subtlety of Moffat’s arc twists, or the urban kitchen sink drama that Davies made his own. His dialogue is still clunky, characters still lecture, characterisation is still inconsistent (the scene where Yaz is told to train a gun on the Master is bound to ruffle feathers) and it still feels like Whittaker – doing the best she can – has saved the world more by accident than by design, as if the Doctor is allowing things to happen. But against all odds, and after a rollercoaster couple of years, it was an exciting and fitting send-off for both of them. And for all its structural inadequacies, cringeworthy exchanges and narrative cu-de-sacs, I was left with a warm, fuzzy feeling, a glow that lasted the evening and is still lingering now, like the vestigial reserves of regeneration energy. I honestly can’t remember the last time I got that from Doctor Who.

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We hold these truths to be not exactly self-evident

Well, that came out of the blue.

I think everyone was pegging their hopes on the 14th. It made sense for any number of reasons, not least because you’ve got that sweet spot between the FA Cup Final and Eurovision. Where was the song and dance, the flurry of trumpets, the countdown, the slow reveal? Instead we got a random Tweet that had everyone back and forth across the internet like chickens crossing a road for the five minutes we all spent trying to work out if the official Doctor Who account had been compromised. When it emerged that it hadn’t, the BBC website crashed, and the reactions began in earnest.

It wasn’t a bad decision. There is a thing that happens when you build up the anticipation to a fever pitch: the balloon instantly deflates, the disappointment palpable – “What, them?” It happened with Whittaker; it even happened with Capaldi, although no one remembers. At least this was a bit of a surprise. Dropping us on it the way they did there was no chance to feel let down.

I’ve spent the last twenty-four hours, on and off, trying to get my thoughts in order. And here they are, in a sort of order. You will not agree with all of them. That’s fine. It’s why we have comments.

1. I’d never heard of Ncuti Gatwa. I don’t watch Sex Education, although I gather it’s very well thought of. That’s fine, although it’s going to take a while to get used to writing out his name. “We say the same about you.”

2. All right, yes, he is a bit young. So was Matt Smith. I was completely wrong about him. I was also wrong about Catherine Tate. I’ve learned, over the years, that I can’t understand the inner workings of the BBC writing team any better than you all can. Sometimes things happen behind closed doors in the heady process that is auditioning and we don’t get to know what they are.

3. At least they had auditions. I think Chibnall said he did for Whittaker’s casting but I also think he’d probably made up his mind before they did the read-throughs. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with casting a mate because he impressed you at a wedding, provided you know what you’re doing, but the fandom is under this irritating misconception that Doctor Who production needs to be some sort of democracy and that they should get a say about how it’s done, so maybe this will shut them up.

4. I like Jodie Whittaker. I always have. I wrote ‘liked’ in the first sentence and then went back and changed it. Anybody else been doing that? It’s very easy to write her off the moment the casting is announced. At least let her finish her arc in peace. We’ve still got Ace and Tegan, remember?

5. I’ve spent years defending Chris Chibnall, and I’m tired of it. The unfortunate truth is that his dialogue stinks. I don’t have an issue with even the more controversial aspects of those story arcs, but he can’t write a believable conversation, and as far as the other week is concerned I can’t defend a turkey. We were in Liverpool when ‘Legend of the Sea Devils’ was broadcast; I managed to watch it but didn’t have a chance to review it until the following week, by which point I realised I had absolutely nothing interesting to say about it, because there was absolutely nothing interesting about the story. Doctor Who shouldn’t be dull, and I shouldn’t be bored. But here we are.

6. When you think about it, casting a male Person of Colour was the most likely and sequentially logical direction for the BBC to take, and frankly none of you should have been surprised. I wasn’t.

7. Be careful, too, of the “Oh but I wanted Idris Elba” trope. Because most of the time that’s shorthand for “He’s the only really famous black actor I can name”. Idris Elba, versatile as he is, would have been a diabolical choice. (He’s quite good in Sonic The Hedgehog, though.)

8. It doesn’t matter that Gatwa is an unknown, or famous for comedy, or younger than you. From what I can gather, the kids love him. And like it or not, they’re the future of the show. Not you. Not me.

9. Here’s the thing. A healthy degree of skepticism is absolutely fine. Honestly. If you’re examining Gatwa and saying “Hmm, wouldn’t have been my choice”, go ahead. I did the same with Smith. I was wrong – he had me within two minutes of stepping out of the TARDIS – but it’s quite natural to shrink in bafflement when you hear about a casting choice. Doesn’t mean it’s racist, except when it is, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

10. There is a famous meme that does the rounds. I include it here for posterity:

Processed all that? Good, now forget about it entirely. It’s bollocks. Well-intended, but still utter bollocks. Some people never get past that first stage (that’s the one on the top left, for those of you who were wondering). We need to allow for that. I have never been a huge fan of Eccleston, but that’s probably my southern middle class privilege talking, and I own that.

11. Speaking of ownership: the outright criticism of Gatwa’s casting on the grounds of box-ticking is bigotry, and I will defy anyone – anyone – to prove me wrong. It’s offensive. It does him a disservice as an experienced actor (and winner of several awards). It also does a disservice to Russell T Davies, who – if you remember – was billed as the Second Coming (no pun intended) when his return was announced last September. And now you’re giving him a hard time because he’s cast a gay Scot with Rwandan heritage? Piss off.

12. If you’re wondering why point number 11 was so emphatically worded, it’s because (and you’ll love this) most white people are at least a little bit racist. It’s not a nice thing to talk about, and if you bring it up they’ll be down on you like a ton of bricks, with the likes of “I DON’T HAVE A RACIST BONE IN MY BODY”. Well, yes you do. I know you do, because I do. We can’t help it. You react differently to people who look different, at least when you don’t know them. There are preconceptions about diets, about religious beliefs, about lifestyle choices. If your son or daughter brought home a girlfriend / boyfriend of a different race, your reaction wouldn’t be the same as if they’d been white. You’d hopefully get used to them, but there would be an adjustment period. It’s partly societal, partly upbringing: we take on the values our parents had. And if you’re really about to tell me I haven’t got a clue about what you believe and how you feel, think about the last time someone told you an off-colour joke. Think very, very hard.

13. The question of whether people of colour can be racist is too long and complicated to address here, but I will go so far as to say this: all people harbour prejudice. You can call it racism, or something else entirely, but I don’t care what your skin colour is – if you’re a functional member of society, you have it, in some capacity or another. About men, women, those who have children, those who don’t, the rich, the poor, the East, the West. Don’t shy away from it. It’s what makes us human.

14. Let’s assume that you’ve read 11 through 13 and are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. How do we move forward from this? Because from one perspective I’ve just said it’s OK to be racist. It isn’t – but it is OK to accept your limitations. Inherent racism is a shackle from which you will never be truly free, but (and here’s the point) it is vital that you recognise it. Recognising it is the first step in tackling it; ask any addict. Ask yourself: where does this come from? Why am I reacting this way to this bit of news? No, really? Why does supposed box-ticking irritate me so much? Why was I really angry at Whittaker giving the brush-off to Graham’s cancer fears? Is it because it was callous? Or is it because I’m socially conditioned to expect women to be caring and empathetic? How would I have felt if it were Capaldi?

Only you can answer that one. But you do have to be prepared to ask the question. And many people won’t. Because it involves getting to know yourself a little better, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned these last two years of trauma, stagnation and poor mental health, it’s that we don’t like digging in the dirt.

15. Darren Grimes can, in general, go and f**k himself. From what I hear, he’s quite good at it.

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Doctor Who: Flux – The Executive Summaries (part 1)

You remember this, don’t you? The silliness that comes between stories; those miniature reviews knocked off in cafes and spare moments that evolved, gradually, into skits and songs and random observations. Pack ’em up, parcel ’em off and lo and behold, the editor at The Doctor Who Companion rolls his eyes and pastes them into this week’s communal writeup.

It didn’t start out this way. There was a time when I was trying to do this properly, to give decent opinions that reflected how I actually felt about an episode, all neatly packaged into condensed three-paragraph summaries. Somewhere along the line, I got bored. Or just fed up. Or a combination of both. It’s not easy, being one of the few DWC writers who actually enjoys the show at the moment. You feel like you do in primary school when they ask the class to vote for an end-of-term video, and you stick your hand up for The Famous Five while everyone else votes for Labyrinth. It’s not that you’re wrong, you’re just a minority.

This time around, I elected not to actually share my opinion of the stories, at least not with any transparency. Oh, certain things slip through. You can feel the scorn, particularly when it was something I really didn’t like. But there are advantages to hiding behind a metaphor: you can just tell people that you’re having a laugh, and to take everything with a grain or two of salt. Besides, it’s far more fun being a little creative. “Are we poor?” my children sometimes ask me. “No,” I tell them. “We’re bohemian.”

These are quite long, so I’ve elected to give you the first two today and the rest in a future installment. There are links to the communal write-ups on the DWC website, if you wanted to read something more sensible, or something that affiliates with your own views. But before we do that, we need to drop in on Matt Strevens’ office.

The Halloween Apocalypse

“Right, Chris. What sort of state are we in for the new series?”

“Matt! Matt, I was thinking. Do you think you could ever make a Zygon sexy?”

“I – I don’t – “

“I mean they’re sort of very distinct, aren’t they? They have a peculiar shape. It’s a bit phallic. But I’m just remembering Coneheads, that Saturday Night Live sketch with Dan Aykroyd, and I was wondering, if you got a Zygon to lounge in just the right way – “

“Chris – “

“I’m just remembering the Katy Manning photoshoot, and – “

“Chris! Can we focus?”

“Fine, yes, sorry, yep. Series 13, then.”

“Series 13. What are we planning?”

“Right. I thought in episode one we’d blow up the universe.”

“Okay, so high stakes. Like it. I presume you mean some sort of threat that overshadows the whole series and that the Doctor deals with at the last minute?”

“No, we actually blow it up.”

“…Right, and then?”

“Don’t know. Something.”

“It’s kind of a narrative cul-de-sac, isn’t it?”

“Only a little bit. And besides, we introduce a bunch of other stories and characters first. I’ve got scenes in the Arctic, scenes in Victorian London, scenes in a desolate alien prison that looks like the edge of hell – “

“Where are we planning on filming that?”

“Swindon. Then we’ll bring in all these new people and have them dig tunnels and stuff. And there’s this woman who knows the Doctor but they haven’t met yet.”

“That’s kind of been done to death, Chris.”

“Yes, but she gets touched by an Angel. And then there’s this fella, Dan. He works as a formula one driver.”

“That sounds prohibitively expensive.”

“All right, he works in a food bank.”

“Better.”

“And he’s kidnapped by a six-foot dog. From the North.”

“Yorkshire or Lancashire?”

“Is there a difference?”

“I – never mind. Are you going to explain who all these people are and what they’re doing?”

“No! That’s the brilliant part. We just leave the audience to figure it out.”

“And then fill in the blanks later.”

“If I remember, yeah. The thing is, they’re always complaining I’m too heavy-handed and obvious. This’ll really fox ’em.”

“The thing is, Chris, you’re not exactly good with dialogue.”

“I know! That’s the joy of it! We throw enough ideas at people, they won’t even care. Give ’em the old razzle-dazzle. How can they see with sequins in their eyes?”

“Chris! Sit down. This really isn’t the time for a soft-shoe. And my office isn’t big enough.”

“Sorry.”

“Anyway. You need to have some​ dialogue. How are you going to cover for your complete inability to string a sentence together?”

“We turn up Akinola and blame it on poor post-production.”

“I’ll have to smooth things over with the sound editors, but all right.”

“Meanwhile I’ve got this big bad villain who escapes from his cell and dissolves people.”

“Please tell me he doesn’t snap his fingers.”

“No, but I had this idea about a PELVIC THRUST OF ANNIHILATION, and – “

“Chris!”

“Right. I’ll redraft. So there’s a bit of a chase and there’s the bit where Dan discovers the TARDIS and Yaz and the Doctor have a bit of banter.”

“And then we blow up the universe.”

“Precisely, Matt. Precisely.”

“I assume we keep this a closely-guarded secret so people’s jaws drop when it happens?”

“No, not at all. I’m planning on telling everyone in all the interviews.”

“Won’t they be disappointed?”

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

“You’ve obviously never met Lance Armstrong. Fine, I think we’re done here.”

“Brilliant. Are there any Smarties left?”

“No. You ate them all.”

“Really? I hadn’t even noticed.”

“I had.”

DWC write-up

War of the Sontarans

From: First Corporal Erskib, Location Scout for 14th Noble Batallion of the Outer Southwest Fringes of the Great and Indomitable Sontaran Empire

To: Brigadier General Prazan, Central Command

Subject: Field Report

Brigadier General, 

I trust this report finds you well and in rude health, and that the war against the Rutans is going swimmingly. I am sure you have awaited this write-up of what the Sontaran Press have already dubbed ‘Wokgate’ with interest and anticipation, and I am hopeful that my thorough investigation of things will shed some light onto exactly what happened during the latest failed conquest of strategic withdrawal from the planet known as Earth.

Before we go any further, I feel I must apologise for the incident with the cat. I honestly didn’t know it would explode. Had I been aware of this, I would certainly not have inserted the probe until you yourself had moved from splattering distance. No words have actually been said about the matter, but I am of sufficiently sound mind to determine that it was this unfortunate upset that has led to my recent demotion and subsequent reassignment to this backwater hellhole. No matter: I have learned my lesson. Res fiunt, as we say on Sontar – or, as the Judoon might have put it, ‘Ko Blo Ro So Fo Jo No-No’.

Investigating incidents on Earth is, you are aware, fraught with complications. Chief amongst them is the fact that we have been here before, on multiple occasions, and that it has never ended well. There are rumours that one deserter may still be living here in a time period we have yet to identify. We do not know precisely where he is, but there is a trail of confectionary bills. However, on this occasion, the mess was not difficult to spot: Commander Riksaw, for reasons of his own choosing, opted to begin his establishment of Operation: Outpost Earth in 19th Century Europe, supposedly because he had developed an affinity for the local wildlife. We have a word for people like that on Sontar, but sadly the inbuilt censorship filter will not allow me to use it in this missive.

It was all going swimmingly until the irritating human known as the Doctor blundered onto the scene. She used to be a girl, and now she’s a boy. I simply can’t understand how it all works and why things can’t stay as they are. One woman – sorry, one man on his own should not have been able to penetrate our defences, let alone muster enough firepower to blow them up. Where on earth did they get enough dynamite? How did they move it? My investigation has revealed that there was some help at hand: two humans, one of whom has the unenviable job of performing puncture repairs to the skins of wounded humans. Surveillance footage from the black box recording has revealed she has some spunk about her: sadly the human military general that accompanied her was about as interesting as a freshly-plastered wall, and about as two-dimensional.

I have seen the footage of the battle in a Crimean field, and this at least was a glorious day for the might of Sontar. Sadly our excursions some years later seem to have gone rather awry, owing to the antics of a rogue native who managed to knock out half a platoon with a cooking implement. This is the price you get for landing in Merseyside. We should have gone to Tijuana; at least that has a beach. I would also raise questions, Brigadier General, as to how half a dozen troops can empty their magazines from ten feet away without landing a single shot on target. The onboard ship’s computer – a sentient model I have named Angela – recommended a piece of Earth culture entitled Star Wars. After watching this piece of drivel I know more and understand even less. 

My recommendations:

  • Up the border security on the secret military encampments – we’re a clone army; surely they can spare a few people to watch the perimeter
  • Mandatory shooting range exercises to be introduced daily for all troops
  • Can we please, please get the scientists to do something about the probic vent? Honestly, it’s embarrassing. I can’t even stand at a urinal without having to crane my neck every couple of seconds.

Signing off now, Brigadier General. While I wait for the dropship I am examining a little more of Earth culture, particularly its cuisine. I have learned of a local creature known as a poodle. I hear they’re delicious.

Sontar-HA!

Cordially yours,

First Corporal Erskib, Mrs.

DWC write-up

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Review: Eve of the Daleks

We spent New Year’s Day in the Usk Valley. Emily’s family try and have a seasonal get-together every year, although last December, like most of the country, we were hunched over a Zoom window, watching out-of-sync Muppet films and screwing up our eyes to see what presents people were showing off. This year the meet was back on, and there was no backing out, so at half past six I turned off my phone and made a point of avoiding social media until we’d got home the next evening.

The upshot of this little slice of family life is that this is not going to be a straight review. I really don’t have the inclination or the energy to deal with people who tell me I’ve got it wrong. And that’s how it’ll go. Because I watched yesterday evening, thought “Yeah, that was all right” and then immediately hopped onto Twitter where I was categorically informed that no, it was not all right, it was a pile of horse shit. “I would rather sell my own family into slavery,” wrote one disgruntled Twitter user, “than watch that inexorable heap of bollocks again. We should burn down the BBC with Chris Chinballs still inside it.” I may be making that up. You decide.

Instead, this is a list of notes: things I spotted, things that jumped out, musings from the rest of the family. We haven’t done one of those in a while, although BuzzFeed does them all the time. It is my vain hope that this one will be faintly interesting, or at least a little less obvious than throwing in GIFs and the words “WOOO! THE COPS CAN’T HANDLE HER!” (something they did during their recent Matrix write-up). The eldest and I spent a weekend last October at a songwriter’s workshop hosted by Martyn Joseph; the key takeaway, at least for me, was “Don’t add to the noise”. So I’m trying very hard not to.

Here we go, then…

02:33 – I used to have that edition of Monopoly. I think everybody did, but ours was just as battered as the one Adjani Salmon has plonked on the table. My mother always used it as a prop in one of the stories she’d repeat ad nauseum, one that made her look both a little smug and also borderline anti-Semitic (which is ironic, given that we’re Jewish by birth). The only mystery bigger than why Nick is dropping it off at a lock-up at ten to midnight on New Year’s Eve is how Sarah could possibly think that cardigan could work. Seriously, it’s a disaster. It’s like being in a 1970s MFI showroom.

09:42 – The opening credits roll. “Oh,” says Emily. “That was a short one.”

The realisation that this is going to be Groundhog Day territory hits my family when the TARDIS crew show up in the basement, miraculously alive. Quoth Thomas: “Oh. It’s going to be one of those episodes, is it?”

As everyone else takes this in, I’m reflecting. The last time Doctor Who did a loop story, the loop itself was the big reveal. ‘Heaven Sent’ works precisely because we didn’t know, until not long before the end, what the Doctor had rediscovered and then forgotten over and over. It strikes me that the reaction of the fandom to new stories and Doctors is its own particularly toxic loop. I’m also musing on the prospect of this particular loop going on for four billion years. Neither thought is comforting.

14:09 – It’s official. I’ve Googled, and can find absolutely no reference to a product called ‘Beef N Beans’. Either they printed thousands of labels on these tins, or they’re so low-end market the internet doesn’t want to know. I’m not sure I want to know. Maybe it’s a dark web thing. That’s somehow more appealing than the prospect that Chibnall made this up in his own head.

15:58 – Dan is arguing with the Dalek. Emily shouts “God! Where’s he been the last few years? Why doesn’t he watch Doctor Who?”

She is shifting a little bit in the armchair to get comfortable. I think the sling is chafing. Emily is wearing a sling because she fell over at Warwick Castle three days before Christmas. It’s her left arm, and it’s only a hairline fracture, so it could have been worse, but she’s in perpetual discomfort. I think she might have been put off ice skating. I tell her that the average age of people with skating limb fractures is 33, so she’s in good company.

“Sorry to hear about your fall,” said her mother, when she found out – to which Emily replied “It wasn’t a fall, IT WAS A SPORTING INJURY!”

16:30 – This time around, the clock reads 23:53. “Ah! Look at that,” I say.

“What?” says Daniel.

“When they restarted before, it was eight minutes to midnight. Now it’s only seven. I think the loops are going to get progressively shorter.”

Sure enough, Whittaker soon confirms this, everyone is faintly impressed at my insight and I nod and smile and don’t let on that I read it in Den of Geek several days ago.

21:09 – I have to say, Aisling Bea is killing this episode. I’ve never been so invested in a supporting character. I want her to come out of this intact. I don’t care about Nick, who is nice enough in a vaguely stalkerish sense but could probably make a heroic sacrifice at the end of the story in order to save everyone else. That would be very Doctor Who. But Sarah is wonderful. I want her in the TARDIS, complaining about the lack of seating in the console room and bombarding Cybermen with sarcastic banter until their heads explode.

34:56 – How many deaths is that? Three? Four? This is basically Chibnall doing a Shatner, isn’t it? Because in Generations, Kirk got to die twice, and then die again in The Return, and then come back to gallivant around the universe with Spock in the fanwank trilogy they threw out in the late 1990s. We’ve seen the Doctor get shot by Daleks before, but it’s never been fatal before now: if a thing is worth doing, it seems, it is worth doing multiple times.

As a side note, it’s curious how the Daleks have a brilliant aim when a target is still but are absolutely shit when someone’s on the move. Don’t they have tracking of some sort?

40:47 – Oh God. The Doctor’s doing her big speech. I can feel the rest of the family inwardly cringing. The problem with moments like this is that Chibnall can’t write them and Whittaker can’t deliver them. She’s a perfectly good actress and a good Doctor, and I like her a lot, but she can’t pull this off simply because the confines of the character she’s created don’t allow for it. It’s like watching an awkward supply teacher reading out a task description left by a far more capable teacher. Please don’t use the word ‘humans’, Jodie. Please don’t – ah, shit.

44:30 – A tear rolls down Mandip Gill’s cheek as John Bishop points out the thing that everyone else has already figured out. We kind of saw this coming but I imagine all the people who shipped her and the Doctor are feeling somewhat vindicated. Apparently they dropped in that term during an interview with Jodie Whittaker recently and she had to admit she didn’t know what it means. I didn’t either. I only put it in here so it’ll show up in the search results.

50:03 – I read on the internet, after the fact, that people were bothered by the ‘fact’ that Dan and Nick get to do the heroic self-sacrifice thing this week while the women stand around being selfish and / or useless. Is that what was happening? Because I honestly don’t know how I feel about that reading, and get the feeling that as a man I probably have an unconscious bias, so I’m not sure I should weigh in. I’d be interested in what female viewers think.

55:00 – This is almost done and we have yet to see the mysterious cameo they mentioned. Somehow I’m wondering whether the elusive Jeff will turn out to be Jeff from ‘The Eleventh Hour’. That’d be a random thing to do. No, wait, there’s a guy filming the fireworks on his mobile. He’s – hang on, who is that? Is that the chap from ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’? The one on the crane who was being targeted because Tim Shaw drew his name out of a hat? And what was his name, anyway? I squint during the credits and find out it was Karl, which I’d completely forgotten. I’d say it’s nice to see him, except there seems to be absolutely no reason for him to be here except to generate a bit of SEO interest. Which is a cynical outlook, but I don’t think I’m wrong.

55:15 – The TARDIS has had a refit! It’s…I literally can’t tell the difference.

57:50 – And we’re done. Nick and Sarah cop off in a taxi while the TARDIS flies overhead. The credits roll and then there are pirates, and oh look, it’s the Sea Devils. Well, there’s a bit of excitement. Although we really need Jon Pertwee, opening his eyes wide and muttering about galactic yo-yos. That wouldn’t have been a bad way to finish.

Still. It strikes me that we’ve just watched a compromise episode, on just about all fronts. When you’re filming in a pandemic, there need to be concessions, and for a one-set, one-gimmick self-contained oddity this one just about clung together. It felt like they could have done more with the story, but perhaps as a bit of lighthearted silliness, it wasn’t quite the trainwreck it could have been. Plus the Jodie-haters got to see her blasted multiple times, and her supporters got to see her cheat death. Just this once, Rose, everybody wins.

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Doctor Who and the Misplacement of Criticism

A curiously serendipitous thing happened the morning I got up to write this post. I was reading about Tom Ellis (he of Lucifer and ‘Last of the Time Lords’), and his secret and not-terribly-surprising hope that they’d ask him to play Doctor Who. The piece’s only comment came from a person I shall not name, in words I shall subtly paraphrase rather than quote directly, but it read “That would have been great. Somewhere there’s a parallel universe where this happened. And better yet, we wouldn’t have Chibnall.”

There’s something head-scratching about all this. It’s not the criticism, which is a democratic right, and perhaps not entirely baseless. It’s the context – or specifically the lack thereof. Here we have a press snippet about an actor who appeared in the show thirteen years back, playing a relatively minor role, and who – while he features heavily on the fans’ Most Wanted list – has had absolutely bugger all to do with it since his brief, one-episode foray. And yet here was Marcus (yes, that’s a pseudonym) using it as a sounding board to tell anyone who would listen about the current state of Doctor Who and just how rubbish it has become.

Why does it happen? Because it’s everywhere. I’m not talking about threads that ask for your favourite episodes from Chibnall’s run to date, or listicles that detail our Hopes For Series 13. I’m not talking about pictures of Jodie Whittaker in a dress and makeup in front of a grey background accompanied by the words “Love her”. I can understand why fans vent their frustrations about current story arcs when it comes up naturally in conversation, although the frequency and ferocity of these vents is something we may come back to.

But on a post about ‘Snakedance’? Or the War Doctor? Or, I don’t know, fruit? “I hate apples,” reads the Tumblr post. “Apples are rubbish.” In the next panel, an image of the Doctor throwing a plate through the open door of Amelia Pond’s house, accompanied by the words “AND STAY OUT!”. “That’s what we should be saying to Chibnall,” says someone further down. Or it’ll be a post announcing that it’s been thirty-two years since ‘The Happiness Patrol’, upon which it’s a cast iron guarantee that at least one smart-alec will quip “Still better than anything from the last two years.”

In all fairness, a remark such as this is only marginally less interesting than the revelation that we’re celebrating the thirty-second anniversary of ‘The Happiness Patrol’ (something I never really want to know about, as much as I enjoy it), but this is hardly the point. What’s to be gained here? Do these fans really feel so marginalised and helpless and believe in Doctor Who so passionately that they see it as essential to state their case at every conceivable opportunity? Is it a form of addiction, where you have to do it every so often or else you’ll get the shakes? Because I sometimes feel it’s like walking into a McDonalds and shouting “Wow, THIS IS SO MUCH BETTER THAN THE ONE IN HEADINGTON”. There’s nothing illegal about it, but it’s idiotic behaviour.

I can’t help feeling that at the heart of this is a deep-rooted personal insecurity, whereupon the value of your life is measured not in afternoons and coffee spoons but in how much noise you can make. These people need the attention that comes from speaking their mind, and the anonymity and remoteness of the internet makes it all the easier. Why bother to account for yourself when the worst that happens is a ban or a block? Why learn social graces when Facebook and Twitter are the very hub for misanthropic discourse – disguised, with a most delicious sense of irony, under the false moniker of Social Media? You can hardly move for posts wishing death or castration on the man at the top. Did it happen under Moffat? It certainly did, although I think it was far less prevalent. Is that because we have a woman in the TARDIS? I’m not saying.

“Yes,” we’re told, “but THE WRITING SUCKS”. And all right, yes. Sometimes it does. There is a place for adhering to certain standards: we must acknowledge that ‘It Takes You Away’, for all its quirkiness, is not a good episode; that the dialogue is sometimes clunky and awkward; that there is a shoehorning of Positive Values that occasionally grates. I’ve written about all this elsewhere and it does not need rehashing. Doctor Who is not always very good; it may be that it is currently not as good as it has been in previous years. Those of us who lived through Sylvester McCoy have been here before, but that’s not necessarily an excuse: there are periods where it’s really very good and quite popular, and periods where it isn’t. We’re in one now, or we’re not, depending on whom you ask.

But I do not think that it needs the spitting of feathers. I do not think that repeated comments in decontextualised conversations achieve anything. They only wind up the rest of us. The BBC do not care about the grumblings of a few white men (and they are almost always white men, these gatekeepers; make of that what you will). They have a new demographic in mind. There is a core audience who feels marginalised and abandoned but who is ultimately unwilling to accept, as perhaps we must accept, that Doctor Who has moved on without us: that it is not the show we knew when we were growing up, and that it is this sense of abandonment that has allowed it to survive this long. And yet here you are, Marcus, with your comments about how disappointed you were with the supposed destruction of a continuity that actually never existed in the first place. You’re losing your rag over a children’s show. And here I am, losing my rag with someone losing their rag over a children’s show. Sometimes I wonder which of us is the bigger idiot.

Criticism is fine, when it’s in the right place, and when it’s invited. Everything else is by turns toxic, unhelpful, and unpleasant. Mansplaining is endemic: so is the tendency to back up your beliefs with comments about audience views. From your perspective, it is apparently not enough that you do not enjoy Doctor Who; it’s far more important that no else does either. And all this was in response to a question about Susan. Congratulations, Marcus, you win this week’s award for the most pointless non-sequitur. The mind boggles.

But seeing as you and others like you are determined to make unhelpful and unrelated rants about Chibnall a daily activity, I’ve made it easy. I took the liberty of finding some choice quotes from New Who and sexing them up a bit, so they’re nicely twisted to reflect your views. And the next time you want to hijack a Donna Noble appreciation thread, you can simply paste one in, just in time for me to show up and link to this piece to show everyone else what an idiot you’re being. Because I’m still watching you, you know. I’ve learned to intervene a little less, these days, because it seldom goes anywhere, but just occasionally, when you’re being particularly rancid, I’ll swoop. And I probably won’t win – the best we can hope for is a block-induced stalemate – but it’s quite fun watching you harrumph. Remember that, before you post.

Or, you know, you could simply find a new and less aggressive pastime. But we both know that’s not going to happen, don’t we?

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How to write really good Doctor Who stories

People often ask me “Where do you get your ideas…?”.

Actually, they don’t. Generally speaking they’ll say “You have too much free time”, or some variation thereof. It usually follows a video; some investment of idiocy where the spit and polish has taken hours. I will point out, as diplomatically as possible, that this is just about the most hurtful thing you can say to someone who’s taken the trouble to create something: that it implies that the time they spent on something constructive is in some way less valuable than time they might have spent scrolling through news feeds, or playing sports, or watching Love Island. We don’t do this stuff in addition to poker nights or binging Netflix box sets; we do it as a replacement. Most of us have no more or less free time than you do – it’s just we use ours differently. In many ways this quest for clarity is a fool’s errand, but it is a message that I will continue to spread because otherwise they will say it to someone who is even more bothered by it than I am.

But I often encounter people who post ideas for ideas and want help. “I’ve got this idea for a story,” they’ll begin. “The Master has kidnapped all the Doctor’s companions and he has to rescue them all.” To which I’ll say well, that’s not a story, that’s a beginning. Or possibly a midpoint. Either way it’s a scene, not a story – an action, not a motivation. Why’s he kidnapped them? What’s his game plan? In what respect might the Doctor be hindered or aided? When and where are you setting this, and why there / then? How do you expect any thoughts when I have, at this stage, nothing to actually think about? Worse still are the ones who submit two paragraphs and then want your appraisal, copy-and-pasted into the Facebook comments. They act all earnest and unworthy, but it is thinly-veiled compliment fishing, the need for an ego boost.

Perhaps that’s unfair. But listen: if you want to write, you write. There is no other way of doing it. You write and you write badly and then you get better. And you write your story, not the one that other people have concocted for you. It’s not a democracy (said Philip Pullman); if you don’t know where the plot is going, how should anyone else? It’s different if you’re stuck, if there are narrative cul-de-sacs or technical problems or holes that you’ve dug around your characters that are seemingly too deep to climb. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you’re backed into a corner, so long as you’re prepared to ignore every piece of advice you’re given and listen, instead, for that still, small voice in your head – no, not the one that says you’re crap, the other one, the one who’s got a solution and an exit strategy. But please. Don’t come to me with two hundred words and then ask me for an opinion. Give me something I can actually work with.

“Here’s one I wrote yesterday; it’s called ‘The Oncoming Storm’…”

At the same time there are things I’ve said to people that I’ve committed to memory and resolved to write down somewhere permanent, or at least semi-permanent, in case they ever come up again. And seeing as there seems to be a plethora of new written material saturating the web at the moment – not to mention a ton of would-be writers following along thinking “Ooh, I could have a go at that” I thought I’d share a few thoughts here on how I go about crafting a Doctor Who story. Notice I said stories, not fiction. Writing a book is a different matter – I’ve done that, and it requires grit and commitment and, more to the point, it’s a whole other article, one I may one day write. Let’s not run before we can walk.

Here’s a disclaimer: I’ve got hundreds of Metro articles under my belt (most of which were dreadful), but that’s largely it as far as the professional side goes. Any fiction is strictly on an amateur basis – I lack an agent, a book deal and indeed any interest from a publishing house. This makes me completely unqualified to tell you what I’m about to tell you, at least it does if all you’re interested in is a list of accreditations that will give my advice some clout (not that you should be looking for clout – there are hundreds of online guides that start with “The author has written in X and Y and has produced stories that were shortlisted for…”; these are often leaky vessels and they must be approached with caution, as many of them will prove far from seaworthy). On the other hand I have learned a thing or two over the years about how to string a sentence together, even if that last one was excessively long. It’s one of the few things I can actually do reasonably well. So please take what follows with the necessary pinch of salt – it is the opinion of one person – but if you find yourself nodding in agreement at least once or twice, then I suppose my work is done.

Allons-y!

1. Don’t expect to get published. There are thousands of you and the market is fierce. Always seek to improve but remember, as you grow, that raw talent is only part of this; an enormous amount of success is down to social media presence, timing and the ability to self-market, not to mention sheer dumb luck. There will be many published stories you read that are, you are convinced, vastly inferior to your own. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, so deal with it. Chances are you’re not going to make any money, but that needn’t be a bad thing, so long as you have both eyes open. Anyway, you’re in this to tell stories, remember?

2. You’re not better than Chibnall. Well all right, maybe you are. I mean I don’t know you. But effective scriptwriting is an entirely different kettle of fish to the ability to string a few words together in prose. And even if you’re writing scripts, storytelling is only part of the equation – there are budgets, series arcs and intended audience to consider as well. Don’t go thinking you know more than the people who get paid to write this, because chances are you don’t: I frequently encounter unpublished authors on the internet who are convinced that an online degree and a couple of anthology inclusions makes them the next Michael Ondaatje, and I tend to give them a wide berth. “You must have,” quoth Roald Dahl, “a degree of humility.”

3. Pick your Doctor carefully. There is a novel I read a while back called Ten Little Aliens. It’s standard fare: a group of marines go on what appears to be a routine training mission only to discover a terrible secret. There are angry young men (and women) and budget-swallowing explosions and a lot of people get killed. There is even, in the book’s latter third, an ambitious and not entirely successful Choose-Your-Own-Adventure section. It’s grandiose and over-ambitious and it has a suitably tense finale, so a number of boxes are ticked.

The problem is this: the story is vaguely contemporary and American in feel; it has the ambience of something like Starship Troopers or Aliens, both of whom it closely emulates. And it just doesn’t fit with the First Doctor. This is a world of dank ventilation shafts and vast echoey temples and dismemberment and sweat and testosterone; it’s difficult to imagine Hartnell huffing and puffing along those dimly lit corridors with his cane. Stephen Cole (the book’s author) does his best to give Ben and Polly something to do, but even Ben is completely out of his depth in this world of pulse rifles and high-tech cameras. It felt as if Hartnell had somehow wandered into another Doctor’s story, and the net result is a book that is decently written, but jarring and ultimately unsatisfying. Either Cole was desperate to tell this story and use his favourite character no matter what, or he was answering a commission and got saddled with the wrong incarnation. Either way, it doesn’t work.

In many ways, the adoption of existing characters makes your job much easier – it provides a template – but that’s the sort of thing you’ll need to bear in mind as you approach any work of DW fiction, even a short story. ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ wouldn’t have worked with Capaldi, Bill and Nardole; it is impossible to imagine Troughton in ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’. Some of it is contextual (‘Dalek’, for example, was written within the frame of the Time War), but it’s not just about the setting, it’s about how you’d expect the characters to behave. And if this isn’t an issue for you – if, for example, you’re turning out a very by-the-numbers base-under-siege story that would work for any combination of TARDIS personnel – then are you really telling the best story you can?

4. Keep it PG-13. This is just a personal preference, but I have yet to encounter a DW story or novel featuring sex or bad language that didn’t feel like showing off. You could arguably level that same criticism at series one of Torchwood – at least until it grew its own personality and became something far more enjoyable – but Doctor Who is a family show and while there’s nothing wrong with a provocative outfit, a bit of mild cursing or the odd spark of innuendo, anything stronger is in danger of unbalancing your narrative. The rationale behind this is that if we have to start thinking about characters having sex, we have to start thinking about the Doctor having sex, and that’s a place most people don’t want to go, so don’t. By all means pepper your story with mindless violence, graphic descriptions of dismemberment or disfigurement and plenty of blood; just keep the language mild and the clothes on. It’s a double standard – one that the likes of South Park have lampooned on more than one occasion – but it seems to be the only way to write stories that actually work.

(Please be aware, by the way, that I am not applying any of this to the murky underbelly that is Rule 34 Fan Fiction, a sub-strand that I accept has always existed, needs to exist and will always exist, at least in some form or another. It was simpler when these things were text only and we didn’t have to have accompanying artwork; nonetheless it’s a part of the fandom and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. I don’t pretend to enjoy any of it, but I know some people devour the stuff like a Spaceball goes for canned oxygen. You do you.)

(As a brief sidetrack, do you want to know why I hold the Rule 34 material in such contempt? Really? Well, it comes from my first exposure to it – way back in the distant past that was 1996, when someone emailed an erotic story they’d found on a Usenet group. It was Sesame Street. It featured Elmo and Maria. Seriously, that’s enough to put anyone off.)

5. Read, re-read and then read once again every single last line of dialogue. I cannot stress enough just how important this is. It’s make-or-break. If you’re not voicing your Doctor or companion appropriately, people will notice. You know what stands out in Shadows of the Empire for me? That one scene I can’t get out of my head? It’s not the space battles or Luke honing his force powers or the final, climactic confrontation with Prince Xizor. It’s the bit where Darth Vader says “I’ll have my servants check it out”. That’s not something Darth Vader would say, ever. Anakin Skywalker, perhaps. But not Vader. His characterisation is in any case completely off in Shadows, but this is the nadir: in a poorly-written novel, it sticks out like a sore thumb on an already calloused hand.

Even a single word can make a difference. Let’s say, for example, that you have a scene where the Doctor says “Wonderful!”. I can hear that from Doctors One through Eight. I’m having a hard time hearing it from Eccleston (unless it’s delivered with dripping sarcasm), or indeed from anyone in the new series, with the possible exception of Smith. If you’re using existing Doctors and companions and you’re not sure whether your dialogue sounds authentic, go back and watch some episodes with the characters you’re writing, or ask for a second opinion. You can always ignore it.

6. Don’t be afraid of the word ‘said’. You know that ‘Let’s Do It’ parody? The one with Tate and Tennant with Barrowman at the piano? There’s a curious conceit between verses: Barrowman goes through an English teacher’s handout (replied, squawked, yelled, proclaimed, ejaculated) to introduce each new section, poking gentle fun at the gossipy natter-outside-the-shops feel of Victoria Wood’s original. It’s greatly amusing, but it’s not something you should copy. No one of any merit is going to chew you out for sticking a couple of ‘said’s into your work. This isn’t primary school. Equally, do not overuse it; it does get boring if that’s the only way your characters actually express anything.

Actually, a better way of handling dialogue is to keep usage both of ‘said’ and its myriad adjectives to an absolute minimum. This does not mean that you should write pages of back-and-forth quotes between characters you do not name. It is fine if you’re Manuel Puig, but it can be hard to follow. Instead, what you do is this: you intersperse dialogue with descriptive text to make it obvious who is speaking. Examine this:

Yates tried to give her a severe look: it didn’t quite come off. “And you know perfectly well that the contents remain top secret until the party,” he said. “All part of the magic, apparently.”

“Says our mysterious benefactor.”

Yates bent down to lift the box again; Jo dropped to a squat.

“Let me help,” she said.

“You really don’t need – I mean, it’s no job for a lady.”

She scowled. “Next time, you can pick it up yourself,” she said.

“You’re right. And I apologise,” he replied, standing and adjusting the crink in his back. “We’ll do it together.”

 

Which is so much better when you write it like this:

Yates tried to give her a severe look: it didn’t quite come off. “And you know perfectly well that the contents remain top secret until the party. All part of the magic, apparently.”

“Says our mysterious benefactor.”

Yates bent down to lift the box again; Jo dropped to a squat. “Let me help.”

“You really don’t need – I mean, it’s no job for a lady.”

She scowled. “Next time, you can pick it up yourself.”

“You’re right. And I apologise.” Yates stood, adjusting the crink in his back. “We’ll do it together.”

7. Don’t repeat gags. Catchphrases are fine, provided your story does not hinge, revolve or end upon them (there are exceptions to this rule, but you have to really know what you’re doing). But don’t ever drop in the same jokes you’ve seen on TV, unless there’s a damned good reason for it. Yes, it was funny when Tennant quipped “Are you my mummy?” when wearing that gas mask. We don’t need to hear it again, so write something new. Matt Smith’s horse dialogue? Well, that wasn’t funny the first time, so God knows we don’t need a repeat performance. This goes for variations – don’t go thinking you can a fresh laugh by tweaking the odd word. If the Doctor speaks muskrat, keep it to yourself. And please, for the love of sanity, do not use ‘Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey’. Ever. I mean it.

8. Screw the continuity. This is a showcase for you, and your abilities as a storyteller. You do not need to wade through the minefield of existing material in order to ensure that your own series of events matches up to What People Already Know. If you’re doing something that’s already happened, or wading into territory that’s already charted, it really doesn’t matter that much. I’m not saying people should behave out of character. Having Jamie rejoin the TARDIS as a prominent astrophysicist, or engineering a story where Mel suddenly starts drinking heavily before hefting a plasma rifle and joining a group of marines? It might be a laugh, but you’ll have to work incredibly hard to make it even remotely plausible.

But Doctor Who has spent years ignoring its own history – and the explanations provided are scant, when they are provided at all. There are at least two or three origin stories for the Daleks. The same applies for the Cybermen, and even then no one can work out whether the new ones are from Mondas or the Lumic factory. TV contradicts Big Finish contradicts the books, the events of ‘Turn Left’ fly in the face of the episodes it references, and there is an endless debate as to whether the UNIT stories happened in the 70s or 80s. Oh, we can pretend it all makes sense, but it doesn’t, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either pulling your leg or understands the show far less than they think they do.

During the writing process for The Child Left Behind, I became aware of a comic that clashed with the events I was talking about in the novel. In other words, there’s a story involving the Pied Piper. It’s not a particularly well-known story; I doubt many current fans have heard of it and even fewer, I suspect, have read it. But its existence jarred with me, and I thus set about establishing a side narrative that worked in the events of that particular adventure to the story that I was writing, so as not to mess up the timeline. I think I managed, just about, but whenever I look at that book now I can’t help wondering whether it really fits. It’s a whole extra subplot that squats uneasily on the fringes, like the socially awkward friend you invited to the party, standing in a corner making each glass of wine last an hour and talking to no one.

So honestly? It’s best not to worry about it. Know your subject and know your characters and try not to retread old ground, but if you do, don’t sweat the small stuff. Continuity should never get in the way of a good story, so don’t allow yourself to get bogged down by details. Leave that sort of thing to Ian Levine.

9. Resist the temptation to show how much you know. Yes, fine, you’re familiar with the history of the Tractators, the names of every Sontaran battlefleet, the specifics of the Cyber conversion process and the ins and outs of Gallifreyan sectarianism. Does it fit the story? Really? Because infodumps are fine if you’re trying to win an argument on a Reddit thread, but they’ll slow up the action and you run the risk of annoying the established fans and alienating the new or inexperienced ones. The next time you blind your audience with technobabble or historical discourse, ask yourself a single question: does it serve a narrative purpose, or are you just marking your territory?

10. If you must write in the First Person, do not make yourself the Doctor. Look, perspective can be a tricky thing. One rookie mistake made by writers is to swap between characters with wilful abandon: writing in the Third Person is going to be your undoing if you keep switching points of view. For the most part you’ll want to pick one person per scene, and stick to it. Aside from a few stray intermezzos, the Harry Potter books tell the entire story from the perspective of its title character and, with the exception of those dreadful flashback chapters (you know, the ones that read like bad Tolkien) they don’t suffer as a result.

You don’t need to do this. But at least within each individual scene you need to leave the “He thought / she thought” seesawing out of it – and what better way of doing this than writing the whole thing in First Person? Well, knock yourself out. J.D. Salinger built a career out of it. But don’t be the Doctor. Be a companion, a supporting character, a villain if you like – but the Doctor is off limits. It doesn’t work. It didn’t work in Eye of Heaven; it doesn’t really work in Scratchman. The Doctor is only ever defined by the people who are along for the ride; even in ‘Heaven Sent’ Capaldi at least had someone to talk to when he was jumping out of windows and punching a wall. You cannot inhabit that head, however well you think you know your Doctor. The whole point behind the show is that we never really do.

As an addendum, it is perfectly fine to write a third person scene (or even an entire story) from the Doctor’s point of view; narrative omniscience affords that luxury. Just remember to write ‘He thought’. Or ‘She thought’, if that’s where you are.

11. Enjoy it, or at least enjoy having done it. I’m channeling my inner Dorothy Parker with this one, but it’s an important point. We were going to open with the old Tegan maxim (“If you stop enjoying it, give it up”) but I don’t think that’s necessarily the mindset you want to be carrying. The unfortunate truth is that writing – any sort of writing – is hard work, and a lot of going back and forth over those fiddly sentences that won’t quite parse the way you want them to, and getting interrupted just as you’re in flow, and periods of blockage and despair and then that Eureka! moment when you’re in the shower or the car and nowhere near a pen, and then getting back to your laptop and feverishly tapping away, all the while having to listen to that small voice in your head – yes, that one, the one that’s constantly whispering “This is prosaic shit, really, isn’t it?”

No, here’s how it works: this will not always be easy. It will not always be fun. But you will achieve a sense of satisfaction when you have achieved something you know is good – perhaps not objectively good, because that’s a pipe dream, but at least something that’s fun and accessible and that tells a complete story.  And if you get nowhere, and your audience is sparse, and you wonder why you’re bothering, there are worse role models than Paul Sheldon at the end of Misery – specifically the end of William Goldman’s screen adaptation, where James Caan is having lunch in a New York restaurant with his agent. “I’m glad the critics like it,” he says benignly, as she gushes over the reception to his new book. “And I hope the people like it too. But I wrote it for me.”

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Review: Ascension of the Cybermen

Late 2001, and I’m coming out of a Reading multiplex with a couple of friends. (One is a programmer of some renown; the other will eventually become a highly successful children’s author.) We’ve just finished the first Lord of the Rings, which everyone agreed was very good, even if perhaps the scenery was the best thing about it. We have discussed the Balrog, and the relative brilliance of Legolas (who, it is agreed, is probably the person you’d want at your back in a barroom brawl), and now we’re onto Sean Bean. In what has become something of a career trope, he plays a character who doesn’t make it to the end credits.

Jon – who is not one for reading cast announcements, and in any case the internet is not what it will eventually become – says “The thing about the Council of Elrond was that I kind of assumed it was Boromir, because who else would it be? But they didn’t actually announce him or call him by name until Frodo dropped the ring in the snow. Everyone else gets a mention. Not him.”

I’m telling you this because it’s been two hours since I finished watching ‘Ascension of the Cybermen’ and the reverse has happened. We had five or six supporting characters and I cannot remember a single thing about any of them. Oh, there are bits. One of them was clearly hitting on Graham, which will make next week all the more traumatic when she finds herself at the wrong end of a Cyberman’s blaster. I think one of them mentioned that he was a teacher and that they were sick of running, which is a surefire indication that you should set your alarm forward by fifteen minutes and catch an earlier bus. And one of them had a brother who barely spoke, and who spoke even less when he was killed off, which happened almost immediately.

But that’s it. I couldn’t tell you the name of a single actor, or what they’d been in – not that I necessarily expect this, being generally out of touch with any TV that doesn’t come with hard-coded subtitles (it’s snobbish, but those Nordic dramas are just so pretty); still, at least I could be telling you something interesting about them. God knows there was nothing in the actual episode to give them any sense of lasting appeal. They were sounding boards for the regulars to bounce off: people to keep them company on the long, desperate pilgrimage across space, where your biggest fear is a flying head, or Graham’s infernal optimism; a cockney, cardiganed Wilkins Micawber, breezing from one disaster to another safe in the knowledge that sumfink will always turn up.

Or perhaps that’s the point – perhaps these people are supposed to be anonymous because that’s the point of the story. And perhaps we’ve got so used to Chibnall ramming the point of the story down our throats, or bashing it over the heads of the collective fandom like a TARDIS blue Mallet’s Mallet, that any engagement with subtlety is going to be a misstep. “We’re refugees,” laments one character [consults notes; it’s Steve Toussaint]. “We’ve all lost everything and everyone, and nobody cares.” “We care,” affirms the Doctor, before sending her companions off to an uncertain fate while she tries to bargain with the Lone Cyberman – who’s picked up a couple of pals along the way. Presumably we now have to call him something else? What’s that you say? He’s the Cyberium? Well I’m not calling him that; it’s silly. Cyberium is the sort of unobtanium that’s crying out to be used in a seventies comic, probably featuring the slightly effeminate Cybermen who minced. Something with the Fourth Doctor and K-9. ‘The Shadow of Cyberium’. Yes, I can see it now, in all its multi-panelled, black-and-white glory. Copyright Donna Noble.

At least the social commentary is done and dusted fairly quickly and we can get onto the real meat of the episode, which is mostly about flying heads. Yes, the heads come off and fly now, did we mention that? Hence in an early scene we witness the Doctor, her pals and the aforementioned people I don’t care about running away from a barrage of drone fire and a fresh batch of budget-gobbling CGI explosions, as half a dozen heads pursue them across the burning ruins of what looks curiously like urban Glasgow. It’s like that scene with the model plane in Short Circuit 2, only marginally less exciting. The whole thing is very silly, but it’s not really any sillier than anything in ‘Nightmare in Silver’, and for some reason people seem to really like that one. Chibnall constructs two branching narratives, containing less story combined than Maxine Alderton managed in a single episode last week, and while Ryan and Yas explore gloomy starships and pull off reckless (if effective) manouevres in deep space, the Doctor is snapping at Ryan and –

[consults notes again]

Matt Carver. You see what I mean.

No, the problem isn’t what’s happening, it’s that I don’t care about it. These people are the last remnants of humanity and it’s all the Doctor’s fault, but we’re not given any real opportunity to reflect on that, or the fact that it’s her that got them into this mess: it’s all conveniently brushed aside so Chibnall can lay a trail of breadcrumb-shaped set pieces, leading to whatever ghastly wooden structure he’s spent the last few months hammering. Ashad revives the Cybermen, seemingly giving them back their emotions (there’s a point to it, I’m sure, and undoubtedly we’ll be told next week) and as the episode closes Graham and Yas are holding the door against an onslaught of newly awakened Cybertroops, while the Doctor is gazing into this week’s McGuffin – a portal that leads to salvation – and discovering that the answers she’s seeking are quite close to home, in an absolutely literal sense. Oh look, it’s Sacha Dhawan. Because when you haven’t got a clue how to shoehorn a cliffhanger, a surprise reveal usually does the trick. Not even the presence of Ian McElhinney, robed, wizened and strolling up and down a windswept beach like a genial Luke Skywalker (acting everyone else off the screen in the process), is enough to alleviate the tedium.

About the most interesting thing that happens this week is interesting only because it’s left unexplained. It’s the tale of Brendan, a foundling left in the road in what appears to be Ireland; raised to adulthood by his adoptive parents; who takes a slow motion fall from a cliff and wakes, Highlander-style, completely unharmed; and who is greeted upon his retirement by two father figures who inexplicably look two or three decades younger than he does. This is all clearly connected somehow – whether it’s some sort of Cyber experiment, an origin story to explain Ashad, a CIA trick or whether the Time Lords are somehow involved has yet to be cleared up, although the only certainty is that the discussion will almost certainly be more interesting than the resolution.  “We have to get rid of everything, I’m afraid,” Brendan is told, seconds before his mind is seemingly wiped. “Thank you for your service. We’re only sorry you won’t remember it.”

I can’t help thinking that as far as ‘Ascension’ is concerned, those words might be oddly prophetic.

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Review: Can You Hear Me?

Doctor Who ventures into dangerous waters when it tackles the surreal. Sometimes (‘Warrior’s Gate’, ‘Heaven Sent’) it works beautifully. Other times it’s like those all-you-can-eat buffets that serve pizza and chips alongside the curry and prawn crackers: an enjambment of elements that don’t quite come together, but which you’ll happily ingest anyway because at least it’s calories. Is it a good idea to venture into the domain of the unorthodox when the show is already struggling? Charlene James (this week’s co-writer, arguably most famous for a play about FGM) might not have realised quite what she was getting herself into, but given that Doctor Who has spent this year utterly confused as to its own identity, what she’s managed to produce is an uncannily appropriate precis of where we’ve got to, which is no mean feat.

To all intents and purposes, ‘Can You Hear Me?’ is this year’s ‘It Takes You Away’: abstract, meandering and often confusing, a world where you’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s imagined. Hopping from fourteenth century Syria to the orbit of a distant star – Sheffield, as per usual, acts as an intermediate waypoint – the Doctor is investigating monsters in the dark and anomalous biological wave patterns, along with the strange wrinkled fellow dressed as the owner of a London bookshop sneaking in and out of people’s bedrooms. No one knows who he is (spoiler: he’s not the Black Guardian) or why he’s feeding off the nightmares of unsuspecting children like some sort of dark and twisted BFG – still, Graham’s getting headaches and can’t deal his cards properly. Something’s got to give.

The evidence all points to a curious planetary alignment, and thus – with a sense of aplomb that that’s becoming quite alarming – Whittaker puts on her Resolved Face and fires up the Quattro. But no sooner has the TARDIS gang arrived at their destination (a roomy, predictably metallic spacecraft, or a beacon, or something; I wasn’t really paying attention) than they’re all plunged into a series of nightmares: Graham is haunted by the spectre of Grace, who informs him that his cancer has returned; Yas is abandoned on the hills over Sheffield; Ryan is given a vision of the apocalyptic future teased in ‘Orphan 55’. The Doctor herself gets a brief glimpse of the Timeless Child (although I can’t be the only one who was hoping that her initial confrontation with Zellin would turn out to be a dream), wandering outside the Gallifreyan citadel in the manner of something in a Japanese horror film. These nightmares are rendered flesh thanks to a parasite that buries itself in the ear canal; it’s like a slightly less unpleasant version of The Wrath of Khan. “It may be,” said one online acquaintance, “the first time in history that a main DW villain has given the Doctor the finger.”

It’s not entirely without context. The early parts of the episode deal with domestic drudgery and the fact that the Doctor’s companions all have worlds they’ve left behind – a concept not explored properly since Davies was in charge (Moffat, while fond of dipping in and out of his characters’ Earth-bound existences, nonetheless gave them a curious sort of dependence on the TARDIS, a succession of well-heeled addicts constantly looking for their next fix). Here, for the first time in Chibnall’s run, we learn what happens when your nearest and dearest have to manage without you: Yas’s sister Sonya can’t hold down a job, while Ryan’s friend Tibo (Buom Tihngang, seen out on the basketball court in the first part of ‘Spyfall’) has lapsed into depression. The timings with Time To Talk Day are deliberate and it’s hard not to shake the notion that both James and Chibnall were writing from a spec sheet, but it’s not totally incongruous, just a little rushed. (Curiously, Tibo’s venture into support group territory includes a grump about supermarket self checkouts, something the BBC seems to dislike in general.)

‘Rushed’ might be a decent word for it, actually. ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ suffered from having almost no story: ‘Can You Hear Me?’ suffers from having rather too much. The net result is an episode that wants to push the envelope for the companions, leading up to an inevitable departure for at least one of them (visualised on screen by a wordless exchange of nervous glances across the TARDIS console at the story’s conclusion), but it does so within the context of establishing a separate mythos and by introducing supporting characters who show promise but who barely have room to breathe. This is one of those stories that would have benefited from two parts – more insight into the nightmares, more time with Tibo and Sonya and a better, more character-driven expansion of the false gods’ motives would all have been welcome, and the lesson to be learned here is that you can’t always have your cake and eat it, particularly if you only have fifty-odd minutes before the cafe shuts. It is an onslaught of ideas and concepts and themes, as confused about its own identity as Ryan apparently is about his own.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the crucial expository scenes with Zellin (Ian Gelder, rather less sinister than he was in Torchwood), who appears on the spacecraft in a literal puff of smoke and then proceeds to namedrop half a dozen Classic Who characters for no reason other than the bet that Chibnall was presumably trying to win. I’m sure it must have sounded splendid as pure concept: in practice it is an atrocious melange of ephemeral garbage, there purely to keep the Gallifrey Base threads ticking over. Things improve marginally when Rakaya turns up, strutting around like an intergalactic supermodel with her own portable wind machine, and the animation that explains her imprisonment is decent enough, but it’s too little, too late. You can almost picture Chibnall at his writing desk, knocking back that third whiskey and poring over James’ script while browsing his Twitter feed, seething “Fine. You want references? SNACK ON MY WRATH, FINK RATS!”

This is a great shame, because there’s actually quite a lot in here to enjoy, if you can extract it from what is a structural car crash. The set design and cinematography are both imaginative: Graham, shot from above, as if observed by some unseen phantom, foreshadowing both the arrival of Zellin and the cameo from Grace; the wide-angled shots of Mandip Gill, alone and isolated in the countryside; the neon, Tron-like sparsity of the ship / beacon / outpost. There’s even a stab at fleshing out Yas, something Doctor Who has needed for quite some time. While James’ dialogue fails to ascend the lofty heights of the show’s heyday, she does, at least, have a flair for reasonable conversation – Whittaker’s closing dalliance with Graham, awkward for all the right reasons, is quintessential Doctor, and if it makes you angry and uncomfortable, it should.

A brief foray online confirms that the angry voices are invariably the loudest, but one thing I’m struggling with this week is the recurring accusation that this was “more preachy PC bullshit” – the meat of which seems to have escaped me, at least during a first watch. Perhaps it was the ethnically diverse casting, a by-product of the fact that Ryan and Yas both hung out with people of their own skin colour. Perhaps it was the notion of a crinkly white god who was to all intents and purposes subservient to a hot-looking black god. Perhaps it was the inclusion of mental health issues, which – while awkwardly shoehorned – stayed just the right side of condescending, largely because the Doctor wasn’t in the room. None of this is a problem, and the insistence the fandom has of labelling everything that jars “PC bullshit” serves no purpose – it’s the same reason I can’t get on with “bad writing”, which serves as a euphemism for “this episode was not to my taste and I can’t really explain why”. Forgive me if I’m preaching to the choir, but at the risk of sounding like a shill, one reason it’s called political correctness is that sometimes, believe it or not, it’s actually correct.

It still doesn’t work, though. This is two good episodes crammed into a single, mediocre instalment: a heady concoction of ideas and concepts that unleashes a series of frivolous monsters and has them tackle big issues. There is no sense of real menace about Zellin or Rakaya, which is part of the point – the real monster is man’s inhumanity, not to man, but to himself. But it takes time to adequately convey a message like that, and somewhere along the line, between all the curries and the FIFA games and the hospital drips, the message gets rather lost. The central question the story poses, at least ostensibly, is ‘Can You Hear Me?’: an appropriate answer might be “Yes, but we have no idea what you’re trying to say.”

On the upside, at least there were no bloody frogs.

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Review: Praxeus

Greetings, fellow foodies! This week’s recipe is an exotic one, submitted by Pete and Chris; a calorific concoction of intriguing flavours wrapped in a flash casing, guaranteed to bring sparkle to even the drabbest Sunday evening. Some caution is needed: Pete tells me the last time he and Chris made one they briefly set fire to the internet, so make sure you don’t do the same!

Ingredients:

  • Three continents (if you don’t have these lying around you can re-use the same footage from the recipe we made three weeks ago; neon signs are usually available in all good home & garden stores)
  • Two grizzled sidekicks, gay for preference (I always like to season their backstory in advance)
  • Two tonnes of plastic
  • One obviously robotic bird (make sure you change the batteries first)
  • More plastic references
  • Three hazmat suits and a couple of gas masks
  • Seven tablespoons of BBC interference
  • Did we mention plastic?

Time: 50 minutes

Difficulty: Amiable to infuriating

Method: 

1. First, grease a large baking sheet with marketing hype. I find it helps to do this in layers, but you’ll need to include a really good press release talking about the environmental themes.

2. Pre-heat the oven to Gas Mark 6. This won’t take long as it should still be fairly hot from our last bake.

3. Separate your characters into three piles. Then, in three separate bowls, mix them until they start to combine. This is a lengthy process but they’ll eventually form a loose sort of dough. Be careful not to prod it, though, or it’ll break apart.

4. Place one Doctor in each bowl. Leave to stew.

5. Over a low heat, boil up three technobabble dumplings. Start this early, so they have time to boil dry – the drier the better.

6. While the technobabble is simmering, blend up three McGuffins – I tend to use human-shaped McGuffins – into thousands of pieces. This will be your layer of unpleasant death.

7. Combine all three bowls until the mixture just about clumps together. Crimp the edges with a pathogen reference.

8. Now it’s time to add our flavouring. Dip the hazmat suits very briefly into the mixture and then pull them out straight away; you want only the mildest hint of them. Sprinkle the layer of unpleasant death over the top.

9. When this is done, drizzle with social commentary. I find it helps to do this slowly and laboriously, really allowing the juices to soak in: you’ll probably find it gets concentrated in one area, and will almost certainly drift to the bottom, but your dinner guests will expect this so it doesn’t matter too much. They’ll eat it anyway.

10. The pudding is now ready to be over-egged. You know what to do, right?

11. Place in the oven. While it’s baking, you could catch up on Twitter.

12. It’s vital that you remove your Praxeus from the oven midway through the cooking time. This will ensure it’s half-baked and collapsing in the middle.

13. Garnish with a twist of half-expected villain and, if you have one, a sprig of noble self-sacrifice.

14. If prepared to perfection, the Praxeus should be stodgy and sweet, but leave a mildly unpleasant aftertaste.

 

And that’s it. In two weeks: Dry Roasted Cybermen, guaranteed nut (and bolt) free.

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God Is In The Detail (12-03)

Greetings, fair traveller. Welcome to Tranquility Spa, a place to relax and unwind and escape from the hubbub and stress of everyday life. We invite you to sit down, take the weight of your feet and catch up with this week’s list of VERY IMPORTANT CLUES AND SIGNS that you might have missed while watching the Doctor and her fam run around the scorched Earth. Luckily, I’ve written them all down. You may thank me later.

You’ll recall, fairly early during the episode’s running time, that the intrepid foursome ran out of the main building on Tranquility Spa and found themselves up against a brick wall – or at least a reasonably disguised barrier. To those of us who’d seen The Truman Show, it was familiar territory – and like everything else in the story it erupted at breakneck speed, which meant it was easy to miss what was going on when the Doctor examined that energy wall. Let’s slow down the action and take a closer look.

Believe it or not, this relates to Turlough. Notice the chequered pattern that makes up the slab’s exterior? We may, if we squint, count the Doctors in squares – the top line is Doctors 1-3, while 4-6 and 7-9 appear beneath. This means that the red square right in the middle of the board corresponds with Davison’s Doctor, and thus the portal we can see behind his square is themed around the idea of centres – the Doctor, of course, having visited the centre of the universe during the events of ‘Terminus’. (While we’re talking about red squares, we should also point out that the Eighth Doctor – represented directly beneath the Fifth – visited Red Square in Revolution Man. But of course you all knew that.)

“Yes, that’s all very well,” I can hear you all ask, “but why Turlough?” Well, have a look at this.

Notice the five illuminated markings round the edge? And the 20.5% in the middle? That wasn’t an accident. It stands, unless I’m very much mistaken (and I’m not) for Fifth Doctor, season 20, story 5 – also known as ‘Enlightenment’, in which Turlough faced up to the Black Guardian and redeemed himself, even though Tegan never fully trusted him. This probably all sounds a bit tunous, but lest we forget, the name Turlough comes from the Irish turlach, meaning ‘dry place’ – it’s a village in County Mayo and, more interestingly, a city in California with the zip codes 9538095381 and 95382 – corresponding DIRECTLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY with the years that Davison (represented by 5) signed the contract, first appeared on screen and then made his debut properly (80, 81 and 82 respectively). Oh, and the 3? The number of stories in the Black Guardian trilogy, of course. Need I point out that Mark Strickson was born in ’59, the reverse of 95? I need not.

The next image may be a little difficult to see close up, but suffice it to say that the cameras that make up its four separate sections are all numbered. Assuming that we can ascribe each number to a separate Doctor – and factoring in that Whittaker is technically the Fourteenth incarnation, if one factors in John Hurt – we can make connections as follows:

Let’s split it up and look for clues. As you can see, the top half of this is to do with zip codes: the numbers at the bottom of each video display each correspond to separate zip codes, creating a CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS link to some unannounced (but long-rumoured) content from Big Finish. First up is an untitled Short Trip, narrated by Katie Manning, in which the Third Doctor and Jo visit Maine in 1984 and fall foul of a mysterious alien race wanting to invade Earth via the phone lines. There then follows an upcoming Sixth Doctor adventure in which the TARDIS materialises in nineteenth century Hartford, where they discover the inspiration for Injun Joe was a stranded Sontaran. According to the grapevine it features a sequence where the travellers keep missing Twain by a matter of minutes, prompting the Doctor to quip “And ne’er the Twain shall meet”, to which Peri rolls her eyes.

The bottom half is all about words: you’ll see that these two cameras are focused on the Tropical Vista Zone and the Peaceful Paradise Zone, both of which sound like levels from an abandoned Sonic The Hedgehog title. However, if we are to combine the words ‘Tropical Vista’ and ‘Peaceful Paradise’ and then rearrange the letters, you can see that we get ‘AFAR PLURAL APPOSITE VISIT’, which is a blatant reference to the recently released Thirteenth Doctor comic strip, in which Whittaker’s Doctor has a close enounter with Tennant’s Doctor during the events of ‘Blink’. Am I saying that the Scorched Earth we saw in ‘Orphan 55’ is linked to the unresolved cliffhanger from Class? No, I am not. I leave the dot-joining to you.

Next time: Melanie Brown…

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