Posts Tagged With: earthshock

The Kasterborous Archives, #5: Are we worrying too much about Doctor Who spoilers?

Author’s notes:

Updated header picture aside, I did this two years ago. My opinion on spoilers generally hasn’t really changed, although my contempt for Moffat has subsided quite substantially. I still think he (and the audience) worry too much about spoilers, and I still think that says more about the way Doctor Who is written than it does about anything else. But I no longer harbour any sort of grudge about it. I’ve seen enough shouts of “SPOILERS!” on the web over the past few months – and we’re talking about episodes that are two or three years old here – to make me realise that the whole thing is taken far too seriously by much of the fandom and that no one is going to change that; certainly not me.

Perhaps the most profound thing about this piece is the one thing that wasn’t actually mine – the quote from the respected DW writer that lurks in its closing paragraphs. I could tell you who it is, but I don’t want to give away the ending.

Are we worrying too much about Doctor Who spoilers?

Published: 11 July 2015

I still remember the Sun headline. It was a Thursday, and I never could get the hang of Thursdays. The news page listed an indexed article entitled “ROSE TO BE KILLED OFF”, or words to that effect. It wasn’t even a link to a story that contained a spoiler warning – which I could have thus avoided (thus having only myself to blame if I subsequently read it). This was a feature title visible from their main news page (weeks before the story was due to air, I might add) that ostensibly gave away the ending of Doomsday without you even having to look at it.

She didn’t die, of course, but that was hardly the point. I vividly recall that sense of outrage (an appropriate post-2010 response is “I WAS NOT EXPECTING THIS!”) and it’s funny how things have changed. These days my reaction is far more ambivalent – and that’s because I wonder whether the Whoniverse as a whole (the writers, the fandom, the general approach) has cultivated an unhealthy obsession with spoilers. I wonder whether, in the quest to provide the shock of the new, we’ve wound up with a programme that’s become more about surprise than it has about story.

Spoilers do count; it would be foolish to say otherwise. I went to great lengths to keep the ending of The Stolen Earth – and its abhorrent, anti-climactic denouement – from all of my children, simply because I knew there would be a period when they’d obsess over the resolution of that cliffhanger in much the same way that their father once did. I have embarked upon a media blackout for Game of Thrones, because I anticipate watching it all one day and I’d like to know as little as possible. Sometimes the best way to squeeze the maximum amount of pleasure from something is to go into it as cold as possible: the less you know, the lower your expectations and the happier you’ll be.

But it’s not as black and white as all that. For instance, I watched the early series of 24 slightly out of order, and thus went through the very first armed with the foreknowledge that a certain person – whom we’d previously deemed more or less untouchable – would turn out to be dodgy. Conversely, when the mastermind of series five was revealed some years later, their identity came as a complete surprise. But did the knowledge that the CTU mole was <spoiler> mean that I enjoyed that first series less than the one in which I didn’t know that <spoiler> was responsible for the murder of <spoiler>? Honestly, the answer has to be no. It just makes for a different viewing experience, particularly when you don’t tell your wife. You get to grin like a satisfied idiot while she’s pacing around the room after that penultimate episode, shouting “I can’t believe it was <spoiler>!”.

Besides, the issue here isn’t about the twist itself, or even knowing about it – it’s when the twist is inserted as a substitute for anything we might ordinarily refer to as ‘substance’. For example, The Wedding of River Song is an episode that solves a puzzle. That is its function: to get the Doctor out of the desert, and to get Alex Kingston out of that spacesuit (stop sniggering at the back there, or I’ll make you stay behind). Once you have resolved that particular enigma, there’s nothing left. Aside from the two major revelations (the Doctor’s hiding in the robot / The First Question is mind-numbingly inane) it serves absolutely no purpose. It has no real story, nothing important to say, and the dialogue is shockingly poor. It is forty-five minutes of inconsequential drivel, surpassed only by Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS in the queue of Stories I Wish I Could Unsee.

This is a series finale. This is supposed to be the big finish (excuse pun). Other tales fare equally badly: see, for example, A Good Man Goes To War and Let’s Kill Hitler (both of which get away with it, by the skin of their teeth, simply by being utterly outrageous), and also Utopia (minimally redeemed by the presence of Derek Jacobi). The Name of the Doctor cocks so many things up during its run time that by the time the New Doctor shows his bearded, weathered face I’m already wondering why I still care. This is event television at its worst: plot twists stretched to three quarters of an hour, padded out by nonsense. Doctor Who is not the only contemporary show guilty of this, but it’s a shame it’s apparently had to follow the herd in order to adapt to the supposed demands of a twenty-first century audience.

I read a comment on a neighbouring article the other day that suggested – I’m paraphrasing – that the wibbly-wobbliness is subsiding under the reign of the Twelfth Doctor. That’s all well and good, but the arcs in themselves remain, and they have not improved. The series eight antagonist only became interesting the moment we learned her identity; the rest was a tedious riddle. How would the creative team have coped if it had leaked – unambiguously and irrevocably – that Missy was the Master? Would the finale have been reshot, scenes where she talks about being the Rani hastily scribbled / reinserted?  To what extent does the integrity of the spoiler usurp the credibility of the script? Is it more important that a thing remains secret than the content of the secret itself? Perhaps not. Perhaps you’re laughing at such a notion. Or perhaps it’s the glimpse of the future, in which mobile technology improves to the extent that showrunners decide to use whatever ending hasn’t already leaked, and just make the best of that.

Rewind thirty-three years, and consider this: it is possible to watch Earthshock knowing that the Cybermen are about to turn up and still enjoy it, because their presence – while a surprise for the uninitiated – is not in itself a game-changer. Conversely, it is much harder to enjoy Army of Ghosts once you know that the silly glowing Watcher wannabes are actually Cybermen, or that the thing in the basement contains four Daleks, because the story has nothing else going for it. That’s the sort of comparison that makes me sound like a nostalgia freak, but I don’t want to turn this into an Old / NuWho thing if I can help it. There were plenty of mistakes when the sets still wobbled. By way of example, it’s difficult to enjoy Time-Flight whether or not you know the eccentric alien mystic in the cave is actually Anthony Ainley, underneath prosthetics. It’s still better than Arc of Infinity, anyway.

(One of the most catastrophically silly reveals occurs at the end of the first episode of a Pertwee story. The Doctor removes the cloak of invisibility from a thing that is obviously a Dalek, having already encountered a race who are universally associated with the Daleks, and having had a conversation in which Daleks are mentioned, in a story called Planet of the Daleks. And then he cries out “Daleks!”)

Perhaps certain things are untouchable. I’m still not speaking to Eddie Izzard, for example, over his revelation about The MousetrapThe Sixth Sense is never the same again on a repeat viewing, as once you know about The Twist, you spend the entire running time looking for clues. (I was going to suggest that perhaps M Night Shyamalan could have improved The Last Airbender by introducing a final reel twist, but having reflected, I suspect the best way to improve The Last Airbender is to erase all copies from existence.)

But Moffat himself has described his approach to writing both Who and Sherlock as (more paraphrasing from yours truly) ‘television you’re supposed to watch more than once’. We’re the generation that doesn’t watch Doctor Who live: that is why God invented iPlayer. Digital drama that can be scrutinised and analysed – frame by frame – has opened up a world of possibilities, but it’s come at a price, and that price is occasionally manifest in excruciatingly bad television. (I’m aware, throughout the process of articles like this one, that I come across as something of a Moffat-hater, but the way I approach the situation is this: the man’s getting paid a reasonable sum of money by the BBC to oversee and write one of their flagship programmes, and while I’ve never subscribed to the notion held by many that paying an annual license fee grants you the same democratic rights as a majority shareholder, if I can see an obvious way for him to be doing his job better, I’m damn well going to say so.)

I am probably risking bad karma if I quote Lawrence Miles, but he it was that suggested the most promising solution I’ve ever heard to this particular problem. “Possibly,” he says, “just possibly, the best way to deal with ‘spoilers’ is to make stories that remain watchable even if you know what’s going to happen. Rather than, say, stories that depend on relentless story-arc twists and idiotic clues as to what’s going to be at the end of the season. Y’know. Just a thought. From someone who knew the ending of Genesis of the Daleks several years before he actually saw it.”

As is customary, Miles overstates his case, but in essence he’s absolutely right. Perhaps, on some levels, that’s why Moffat gets so cross about spoilers. Divulging them exposes the vacuum, like exposing the head of Omega or peeling back the faces of the Whisper Men, and reveals absolutely nothing of any substance. And why watch then? Once you know what’s coming, what else is there?

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Conversion. It’s a Bing thing

Today, boys and girls, we’re going to ruin ‘Earthshock’.

A while ago I did a video that combined Wolf Hall with Bing Bunny. Mark Rylance starred in both and it seemed like a natural crossover, partly because it seemed to go against the grain of everything that Bing stood for. Because if you’ve seen it – more to the point if you’re a mother or father who’s seen it – you’ll know that there is nothing to stir feelings of parental inadequacy than that wretched bunny, or more specifically the diminutive guardian who looks after him. Bing’s an emotionally precocious child with the uncanny ability to grasp important concepts more or less at the first time of asking, but his full time carer is saintly to the point of other worldliness. Flop, you feel, is the one who has it down pat – attentive, nurturing, and impeccably responsible. Bing breaks his mobile, chucks it in the bin and then hides under a blanket. Flop doesn’t bat an eyelid. As role models go there is none finer, but there is only room for one up on that pedestal. In an age of right-on hipster parenting, he’s Jesus.

But as a dad who defends his right to shout at the kids while trying to wash up, tidy the lounge and deal with the mother of all headaches, I confess I’m a little sick of all the Facebook memes that encourage me to ‘find my inner Flop’. When I can’t get into Joshua’s room because of the mountain of yoghurt cartons and greasy spoons, when Edward’s broken my laptop again and someone’s pissed all over the toilet seat for the third time that afternoon, the inner Flop is about as far away from my thoughts as Donald Trump is from publishing his tax return. I don’t want to clear up shards of broken glass from the kitchen floor and tell them that it’s no big thing. It damn well is a big thing because we can’t eat the trifle. It will cease to be a big thing only after copious amounts of wine. I’m not a fan of the ‘look at me, I’m a shit parent’ alcohol-quaffing pyjama-wearing chicken nugget-baking slummy mummy brigade (I defend your right to raise your children that way, just stop preaching about it on Facebook) but I’m human, and it’s sometimes a little tedious to be a captive audience for parenting lessons given by a creature that is categorically not.

bunny_b

So it was fun exploring that darker side of Flop, combining the sinister machinations of Thomas Cromwell with the cute adventures of Bing and his friends. Unfortunately Aardman weren’t very amused, and had it pulled – it was partly copyright, partly the combination of child-friendly material with adult themes. They had a point. It would be nice to think that young people’s YouTube activity is monitored by their parents / guardians / anthropomorphic sack toys, but you and I both know that isn’t the case, and all the advisory warnings in the world count for nothing because people don’t read these things.

So when it came to doing this one I was a little more careful. I’d like to hope it’s harder to find and the likelihood of some unsuspecting child stumbling across it is minimised. The irony is that this is arguably far less adult-themed than The Dark Side of Flop, given that it relies on the premise of a Cyber Leader dubbed over with dialogue from Bing until he’s…well, you’ve watched it by now, you see how he is. He’s a nutcase. Trudging through thirty-five episodes of Bing to find appropriate sound clips was no fun at all, but I had a riot actually matching things up and making them work. My favourite scene is still the bit in the TARDIS, which is the only one I think really works, but everything else just about hangs together.

bing_tardis

Why ‘Earthshock’? It’s David Banks, really. Because when I look back through the history of the Doctor’s encounter with the Cybermen, he’s the one I remember. The problem with Cybermen is that by and large they lack personality, and thus the stories have to be truly frightening in order to have any real impact (which is why everything after ‘The Age of Steel’ is generally a dismal failure). The Cyber Leader in ‘Earthshock’ has personality in spades. It’s tempting to say that this is nothing more than an anomaly, but over the years I’ve been cultivating a theory: that the biggest mistake we can make about the Cybermen is to say that they have no emotions. I no longer believe that’s the case. Written within the confines of a single sentence such an idea sounds patently ludicrous, but I explain it all here. Go and have a read, then we’ll talk.

‘Earthshock’ was the first Doctor Who story I remember from my childhood, did I ever tell you that? It is quietly marvellous: the surprises, for the initiated, come thick and fast, and the ending is still gut-wrenchingly moving, loathing of Adric aside. Even if you know what’s coming, it’s still great – but it’s better still if you don’t. (I had a lovely conversation with someone recently who was watching it for the first time, having no idea at all that the Cybermen were about to show up. I didn’t think that sort of spoiler-free access was possible these days.) Put it this way: I think there’s a reason why that shattered badge and the silent credit crawl is my first memory of the show, and I do wonder if I managed to exercise a few demons this week.

In many respects this is a spiritual successor to Dalek Zippy, and is in fact the middle act in a trilogy, the climax of which is still under construction (with Willo The Silent the embarrassing spin-off that no one really talks about). It was a hard graft but worth it. It made my children laugh and it is their approval, above all others, that I seek. And it keeps me out of mischief and stops me wondering what other dreadful things I can be doing with Bing and Flop and the other inhabitants of their bright and colourful world.

bing_bed

Oh God, you really didn’t see this. Move along.

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The Doctor Who ‘Mindfulness’ Collection, part 1

Note: the following is a composite of several conversations, thrown together for the sake of coherence.

“What I don’t understand,” said Emily, “is why you’ve called it the Mindfulness Collection.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I know you were poking fun, but Mindfulness is actually a thing. It’s recognised and it’s supposed to work. It’s all about meditation and focus.”
“I know all that. That’s not really my target. I’m poking fun at this ridiculous culture we have.”
“Adult colouring?”
“Adult colouring among other things. It was fine at first but now it’s got completely out of hand. The whole unique and beautiful snowflake philosophy. I know it’s supposedly about learning the compassion but it all seems very goal-focused and selfish when it’s applied in our society.”

DWMindfulness_01

—–
“And it doesn’t mean anything .”
“It doesn’t. It’s just a bunch of idioms thrown together in the form of a composite. It’s like this whole obsession with ‘spirituality’, which is basically religion for people who don’t want all the difficult stuff.”
“Not just spirituality,” she said. “Vague Sense of Spirituality, remember?”
“What annoys me about the colouring,” she said, “is that I was doing it first and then it became a huge thing and now I just feel like I’m following a trend.”
“You set the trend,” I said.
“I am good at that.”

DWMindfulness_03

—–
“I’m not opposed to the principle of Mindfulness per se,” I said. “Just the relentless Westernisation of it. I mean they even do it in offices now. They have seminars. The tree-hugging hippy crap I found in that Ladybird book I told you about.”
“Absolutely. As long as you take into account that’s not actually Mindfulness.”
“Tell you what. If I call it the ‘Mindfulness’ collection, would that work?”
“Yes,” she said. “That’ll work.”

 

DWMindfulness_02

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Track record

Given how much the original scene is ingrained in my memory, I really shouldn’t find this funny. But I do.

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1982

We start here:

Because that’s where I started. Sort of. There’s a reason memory doesn’t begin at birth. The trauma, I’d imagine, is too much. There’s this sensation of floating, perhaps a little cramped, perhaps with the muffled thrum of the outside world poking through, but still warm, safe. Foetal. Then there’s the sense of movement, and then a wall – a wall you must pass through, somehow, against all odds. Perhaps it’s like trying to get a really tight jumper over your head. They talk about the pain of childbirth, and having seen it first hand on three occasions I’m personally rather glad it’s something I will never have to go through myself – but I suspect it’s no picnic for the baby either. Then, once the pushing and squeezing is done, there’s the sense of breathing, really breathing, great big lungfuls of something that’s no longer liquid, but gaseous, and cold, and the overwhelming instinct to draw as much air as you can into those tiny, newborn lungs before expelling it out with the loudest noise you can make.

But perhaps life’s a little like that. You begin with the safety reins and then learn to walk the tightrope. And sometimes you fall, and perhaps knowing you might is as much a reason to keep going as it is to stay on the ground. Still, perhaps we block out these early encounters because it’s easier than having to remember what they were actually like.

It must be said that the death of a companion is a hell of an introduction to a classic series, but perhaps (paradoxically, given what I’ve just written) that’s the reason I remember it. Because I’m sure that it wouldn’t have been the first story I watched; it’s just the first one I remember. Love him or hate him (and a great many did), the departure of Adric was my first real brush with death – more real, and more tangible, somehow, than the untimely death of my beloved but barely remembered grandmother just a few months earlier. Adric’s death was solidified, visible – that broken badge still haunts my sleep – and more to the point, they never tried to bring him back. (And no, ‘The Boy That Time Forgot’ doesn’t count.)

Perhaps the reason I can still remember this now, just shy of thirty years after the fact, is significant. Perhaps we latch on to one death in particular – the first time it means something – and that’s the death that stays with us. It would explain why, when reading The Hobbit to my eldest son (who figures quite a lot in this narrative), he burst into tears after I’d recounted the Battle of Five Armies. It’s not as if he’s never seen death before. I was expecting trauma after The Lion King, which he survived without a single sniffle (unlike his father, who was in tears). When he was two we took him to see our beloved cat put down – it’s not as if it was a family excursion, but we thought it was for the best, some sort of closure. For years he’s been comfortable – I thought – with death. Then I read him the account of Thorin’s passing and his grief was tangible and thus as upsetting to me as it evidently was to him. This happened to him because over the weeks we’d spent reading the book I’d had time to build up a portrait of Thorin that you seldom get in the space of an hour or so of screen time. So it was effective – but for a while there, I felt like the worst father in the world.

My encounters with Doctor Who began round about here. I cut my teeth on Davison. When he eventually regenerated, my parents were less likely to have it on in the evenings, as neither of them were keen on Colin Baker – despite his possession of the same sort of blustering arrogance that my father so admired in Hartnell, his own favourite. When Baker became McCoy I jumped back into the swing of things and devoured every story, despite the fact that many of the early ones were dreadful. Then it was cancelled. A few years later they brought it back, in the form of a television movie that we don’t talk about in the circles I inhabit. There was much to admire about McGann, but the rest of it merely sullied fond memories.

By the time Doctor Who was resurrected some six years ago, I was married and about to become a father. Watching the show now has taken on a curious duality, as I’m able to view it from the perspective of the critical adult viewer who laments that its occasional childishness is symptomatic of a show that’s past its best, and simultaneously the child who is entering the Whoniverse for the first time and experiencing the wonders of the groaning TARDIS with fresh eyes. Joshua grew up knowing the characters from infancy (at the age of three he could pick out Dalek Sec in a lineup) but it wasn’t until Easter this year that I first introduced him to the television series. We started with Eccleston, which is as good an introduction to the show as I can think of for someone his age (at least until I get round to buying the Beginning box set) and as I write this we’re working our way through Tennant’s run with Piper (two episodes away from ‘Doomsday’).

I hadn’t intended to turn this into an autobiography, so this might be a wise place to stop: I simply wanted to give you some context for this blog, which is something I really should have started a while ago. I’m not – and have never been – an obsessive fan of the show; my experiences are confined to the TV series and the occasional comic story, and I do not own a single novel or Big Finish production. (A friend of mine has been trying to get me to listen to ‘Spare Parts’ for the past couple of years, and one of these days I swear I’ll get around to it.)

I tend to view Doctor Who from a writer’s perspective – I look at the structure, I look at the narrative, I look at the characterisation. I blanched in horror when the Doctor abandoned the TARDIS in ‘Curse of the Black Spot’ – it seemed such a pointless, out-of-character thing to do for the sake of confining him to the ship (even though it could have been justified with one simple change to the narrative). At the other end of the spectrum, I thought ‘Blink’ was the best forty-three minutes of television I saw in 2007, and some four years later I’ve yet to see the show do anything that surpasses it.

Away from the new episodes, my other half and I have been trawling through the archives and discovering Tom Baker, of whom I was always aware without really knowing him. We may therefore divide this blog into three main categories – thoughts on the classic series; retrospectives on the post-2005 episodes as I watch them with Josh; and anything else, including all the new stuff. It won’t be this clean-cut; the ambiguities and crossovers are as big a part of my writing style and approach as they are to the show in general. But that’s sort of how it’s going to work. My guess is that you’ve Googled for something else and just stumbled in here – in which case, welcome, and pull up a chair. Sorry I’ve eaten all the biscuits.

This will be part information dump, part pretentious meandering – inconsistent, schizophrenic, perhaps with an inflated sense of its own importance, much like Doctor Who itself. That isn’t intentional; it’s just me. The simple truth is that it’s been a big part of my life, on and off, for some thirty years – and if I spend much of my time (like many fans) simultaneously loving and hating it, it’s taught me a lot about a lot of things, and it’s rich with analogy and goodness, even within the confines of a prime time family show. It is when it is at its darkest and most unpleasant that the beauty of the show is at its most luminous: we spend our lives behind the sofa but we cannot resist peeping out because that’s when the best, most interesting stuff is happening. You have to pass through the darkness to reach the sun coming up, and sometimes bathing in the darkness is the only way to grow. And it’s curious, perhaps, that as a closing thought I should turn to the words of Elton Pope – protagonist of ‘Love and Monsters’, one of the worst New Who stories in the canon – who nonetheless, in this oft-quoted monologue, had one interesting thing to say:

“I’ve had the most terrible things happen, and the most brilliant. Sometimes, well, I can’t tell the difference. They’re all the same thing. Stephen King, he once said, ‘Salvation and damnation are the same thing.’ And I never knew what he meant. But I do now. ‘Cause the Doctor might be wonderful, but thinking back, I had this great thing going that was destroyed. And that’s not his fault. But maybe…that’s what happens when you touch the Doctor. Even for a second. When you’re a kid, they tell you it’s all…grow up. Get a job. Get married. Get a house. Have a kid, and that’s it. But the truth is the world is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better.

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