Posts Tagged With: entertainment

The new Doctor Who logo, dissected

…I mean, it’s a typeface. A bloody typeface!

Things happen in that slow downtime between a reveal and a follow-up. The fandom gets cranky. There is a clamoured cry for new information, a grumbling in communities about when we’re going to get to see new footage or get plot details, tempered with a general sense of annoyance when they actually arrive because I didn’t want to know anything about the new series and why are you dropping all these spoilers in here? Whether the news dripfeeds in via convention soundbites or fan theory rendered flesh, either there’s too much information or not enough. The poor old BBC, it seems, can’t seem to do right for doing wrong.

And then last night we had fresh information. Well, a logo. It’s accompanied by an image of Jodie Whittaker standing on a hill. There is a sixteen-second audio ident going viral on YouTube. None of it is anything to write home about. But pity us poor journalists. Sometimes you have to keep the hit counters up even when there’s bugger all to actually discuss. There is a saying that no news is good news, which is true for just about everyone except the people who get paid to write it.

It didn’t take the Radio Times long to jump on the bandwagon. Not content with publicising fan-generated titles a few weeks ago (I’m not linking to that; it’s a matter of principle), they decided to apply a little creative thinking to the new logo and point out the rather obvious-looking distortion in the last two letters of the words ‘Doctor Who’ that make it look like a Venus symbol knocked on its side. So, you know, obviously it’s a woman. For my part, I am getting Prince flashbacks.

To be fair, it wouldn’t be the first time. Long-time readers of this blog may (but probably won’t) recall a thing I wrote a while back entitled The Art of Looking Sideways, in which I talked about whether or not we could really say that Theta Sigma was the Doctor’s real name and concluded that it almost certainly wasn’t, but that there was a cheeky jibe by the production team when you shift round some of the components. It’s a precursor to Peter Capaldi’s appearance in World War Z, in which I’m told he plays a scientist at the World Health Organisation. He is quite literally Doctor Who. Just don’t tell the noobs; they get really irritable when you try and tell them it’s an acceptable name.

Assuming you’ve seen the Eighth Doctor movie, you’ll be aware that there’s only one quote that regularly makes the meme lists: it’s the Doctor talking about patterns that aren’t there. And I’ll confess that it’s this that comes to mind when I consider the desperate search for hidden information that occurs every time there’s a publicity still, a title drop or (god preserve us) an actual teaser, resulting in arguments and alarums and hundred-comment Reddit threads. Except that I admit that my reaction to the Venus theory was to point and laugh. As deconstructions go, it was pathetic. A six-year-old’s comprehension exercise contains more insight. Hidden Messages? I fart in your general direction. You wouldn’t know a hidden message if it jumped out in an orange shell suit and yelled “I’M HERE, YOU NUMBSKULLS!”

I was in one of my more sensible groups and we were discussing the Venus thing and its connections with Theta Sigma – a theory one of us said he hoped wasn’t true, because “then the nerds had won”.

“That D with a line through it looks a bit like an ice lolly knocked on its side,” I said. “Any thoughts as to what it might mean?”
“Martian ice cream?” was the response I got. “Plus, look at the way the end of the H lines up with the O. It looks like a 10, so…”

Light bulb.

Regular readers will also be aware that I run a series called God Is In The Detail, which pokes light-hearted fun at fan theory to the extent that whenever I post any links to it on Facebook, Poe’s law goes into overdrive and everyone starts telling me I have too much free time (which is probably true in any case, but still). Anyway, that’s the vibe I had in mind when I produced this. And I’d just like to point out that as soon as it was uploaded, I went outside in the garden to play with Edward, so I do get out occasionally.

There. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Radio Times.

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The War Master in the Night Garden

In 2007, Doctor Who fans were gifted with the finest Master to grace the screen since Roger Delgado. He was suave, he was eloquent, he was angry and malicious, he was…well, he was British, which probably helped. Unfortunately he lasted only a minute and a half before getting shot by an insect and regenerating into John Simm.

It was such a pity. Derek Jacobi was born to play the Master, and for just a moment or two, he did it brilliantly. His replacement was a gurning, dancing clown, manic and ridiculous and – it must be acknowledged – perfectly matched opposite Tennant, but not always an easy watch. Things didn’t improve when he returned with a hoodie, an inexplicable penchant for cannibalism and a secret plan for cloning himself, leading to what is affectionately known as the show’s Being John Malkovich moment. It would be years before we saw the version of the Simm Master that I’d always wanted to see – sneering, reserved and (for a change) respectably dressed, and even if that turns out to be his last appearance, his turn in ‘The Doctor Falls’ was a cracking way to go out.

But enough of this, because we were here to discuss Jacobi – who, having turned in a memorable performance in ‘Utopia’, promptly toddled away back into the land of romantic comedy-dramas, bad sitcoms and the occasional CBeebies bedtime story. He tangoed in Halifax, helped build the Titanic and endured a love-hate relationship with Magneto. Recently we saw him lock horns with the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society in A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. But of his Master, there was nothing – until last December, when he teamed up for a Big Finish audio series entitled Only The Good, in which we got to see the reincarnated renegade in action during the Time War, before he fled to the end of the universe.

What to say about the War Master set? Well, it’s broadly good, although it opens with a largely inconsequential opening story with people I didn’t care about on a forgettable planet that’s being besieged by Daleks. Stories two and four are better, although in one of them the Master is at his most un-Masterlike (the title of this particular story is ‘The Good Master’, so it’s not exactly a spoiler) and it’s initially rather disconcerting to witness him behaving like the disguised human he would eventually become. Of the four, ‘Sky Man’ is far and away the best, despite – or perhaps because – it is a story in which the Master barely features, instead allowing his erstwhile companion Cole to take centre stage. Cole himself is worthy, if rather dull, but if the story’s conclusion is more or less mapped out in its opening conversation it’s still devastatingly effective when it happens.

It also definitively answers one of the questions that the fans have been arguing about for years: namely, was it really Jacobi’s Master in the Time War? The naysayers point out that he states he was ‘a naked child found on the coast of the silver devastation’; similarly John Smith remembers growing up in Ireland with his parents Sydney and Verity, but that’s fabricated, fourth wall-breaking codswallop. This is a slightly younger, sprightlier version of the man we saw in ‘Utopia’ – a man saddled with the weight of twenty years of fruitless labour and a lifetime of false memories, plus the aforementioned insect. Bringing him back was a no-brainer. If you want a resurrected Time War Master, and Jacobi is a narrative fit, why the hell wouldn’t you sign him up if he was available and willing?

It’s a pity we won’t get to see this incarnation meet up with John Hurt: that would have been a heck of a show (and yes, I know it kind of undermines the series 3 arc; don’t tell me they couldn’t have found a workaround for that). But three decent stories out of four seems to be par for the course for BF sets these days, and it’s fun to hear Jacobi casually toss aside supporting characters like sacrificial pawns, outwit the Daleks and occasionally struggle with his conscience – or at least appear to struggle. Unfortunately the story’s conclusion makes a second series rather difficult, for reasons I won’t give away (although you’ve likely figured them out already), and it seems a shame to essentially ditch this new incarnation of the Master just as we’re getting to know him.

But here’s how you terrify your kids: you get them to sit through ‘Utopia’ just before bed, and then you put the In The Night Garden soundtrack on the bedroom CD player.

My views on In The Night Garden are well-documented, if by well-documented you mean eight hundred and fifty words defending the BBC and a couple of doctored photos. I love it because it works and because I do not understand why it works. If that sounds a little odd, it’s because these days it’s mostly anomalous – fan theory is endemic in just about everything, and it is a strange phenomenon, in this enlightened age, to enjoy something because you don’t get it. Twenty-first century media is all about the How and Why, and it’s killing the industry: the rare glimpses behind the scenes that we got in the 70s and 80s are now a regular fixture; outtakes and bloopers have spread like a rash on YouTube; we know everything about a story before we see even the first trailer. One can only hope that Chibnall’s reign – taking place, as it does, behind a security net to rival a Presidential visit, or even a Blade Runner location shoot – goes some way towards reinvigorating the show and bringing back the sense of wonder it once had, and he’s only going to manage that if he slows down on the goddamn press releases.

But no, In The Night Garden is wonderful television: calm, serene and just the right side of weird. Of course grown-ups find it odd. Grown-ups aren’t the target audience. This is TV for the very young, meticulously researched and painstakingly constructed, something that seems to escape the notice of the many parents I talk to who still seem to labour under the ridiculous misapprehension that when the BBC are making TV programmes they simply turn up in a TV studio and wing it. That’s not how it’s done, and the end results look weird because to babies and toddlers the whole world looks weird. (If people really think this is a new thing, they’d be wise to hop onto YouTube and find the little surviving footage that still exists of the oft-forgotten Wizbit. If you’re going to tell me that they’re screwing up our children, it is vital to acknowledge that the process began at least thirty years ago, and probably long before that.)

A while ago, I did a mashup that fused footage from Bing Bunny with some of Mark Rylance’s Wolf Hall dialogue. It was reasonably coherent, and exploring the darker side of Flop’s affable, endless patient personality was the most fun I’d had in a good long while. It also got me into hot water with Aardman, who didn’t like the juxtaposition of ‘adult material’ with programmes meant for kids. The bottom line is that however many disclaimers you include in the description – and however many warnings you tag on the front end – parents are going to let their children watch it, and Aardman were understandably twitchy about compromising the sickeningly wholesome reputation of one of their flagship programmes. (There was the small matter of copyright infringement as well, which I’ve always thought was a little petty given that it was an unmonetised video, but that’s their prerogative.)

But there I was, listening to the War Master set and thinking…wouldn’t it be wonderful to fuse some of the dialogue from this and dump it into a few of the Night Garden episodes? What if the lurid, excessively safe world of Igglepiggle and his friends were bombarded by a quite different and overtly sinister narrator who sounded exactly like the one whose unreconstructed tenor warbles through each of the show’s 100-odd episodes? What if we piled on the filters, added a bit of slow motion and ran the theme song through the editing suite? What could possibly go wrong?

The results, I hope, speak for themselves – and if they’re a little freakish, that’s a good thing. This owes a lot to the black and white Teletubbies video that’s doing the rounds (you know, the one with Joy Division), although it’s less of a mood piece and more of a meditation; it even attempts to tell some sort of story. There are two bits of dialogue, by the way, lifted directly from ‘Utopia’ rather than the War Master set; bonus points to anyone who can work out what they are. And yes, the ending is a bit Blackadder. No apologies.

Oh, and it’s in black and white because it looks cool. Isn’t that a pip?

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Have I Got Whos For You (Season Pass Edition)

This week at Brian of Morbius, as news emerges of Elton John’s Grand Farewell Tour That’s Going To Take Three Years, an unexpected guest singalong at one of his concerts prompts concerns over cultural appropriation.

Elsewhere, proceedings at the Superbowl are interrupted by an unexpected pitch invasion.

An exclusive still emerges from a Doctor Who casting session that was mercifully denied the green light of approval.

And elsewhere, in the TARDIS…



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The Thirteenth Doctor Revealed. Sort of

Ha! She’s fallen out of the TARDIS! That’s funny, innit? OBVIOUSLY the TARDIS doesn’t want a woman Doctor and OBVIOUSLY it was reacting to this BLASPHEMY and OBVIOUSLY I’m going to ignore the fact that this has happened every time the Doctor’s regenerated, at least since 2005. You may take this as a sign, my friends, a sign that the show we know and love is doomed. I’m now going to sit back and relax over the next few months and watch as Doctor Who goes completely down the pan. And when it does, I won’t say I told you so. Well, I will. Repeatedly, and as loudly as I possibly can.

I unfollowed a Who-themed group this week after it became saturated with people who have made it their life’s work to complain about Jodie Whittaker’s casting. It’s what happens when you’re hands off with moderation. It’s also what happens when you get a bunch of idiots complaining that IF YOU DO NOT LIKE THE NEW DOCTOR YOU ARE NOT A TRUE FAN”, which is confrontational, unnecessary and also complete bollocks. For one thing, the words ‘true fan’ are an absurdly reductionist maxim of a notoriously complicated subject, one that it is not possible to assess objectively simply because Doctor Who is so many things to so many people. No one gets to make that call, not even me. There are plenty of sane, sensible people who are wary about the new Doctor, and to suggest that cautious optimism or blind ambivalence is a sign of a deep-rooted misogyny and pathological fear of change is frankly laughable.

So there are two types of fans: those who shout that the new Doctor will be a disaster, and those who shout back. Those of us in the middle, pleading for moderation and constructive discussion on both sides, have found ourselves largely neutered. I have put up with it for as long as I can. I’m not someone who actively avoids toxic situations – journalists build a career out of conflict, and if you stray too far into the echo chamber it is impossible to find your way out, but even I have my limits. There are better groups run and populated by people with calmer dispositions and sensible genital size. Enough. I will stick to the ridiculous memes, and the occasional video.

Last year I figured out something. People are far more likely to engage with video content if it’s on Facebook. Never mind the number of people you reach; actual post engagement is much higher. In other words, it apparently takes less effort to click and watch a video when it is embedded directly in a timeline feed than it does to click and watch a video that is on YouTube. I refuse to accept that this is a technical issue. I think it’s just laziness, but I can live with that.

The upshot of this is that my YouTube stats are, with one or two exceptions, looking a little bit sad these days, but that’s OK. That’s a reflection of evolving viewing habits. Times must change, and so must I, as a wise man once said, before he aged twenty-five years and then turned into a woman, which is like a Greek myth or something.

So no one has watched the YouTube version of this, but on Facebook, it sort of exploded a bit.

Seriously, this took me, like, an hour. Well, a little longer. I also had to watch enough of Trust Me to find something that would work for the Doctor’s punch line; it’s not quite the ‘bollocks’ I was  hoping for but it’ll do. It’s a little weird that the TARDIS lands in a forest twice in the same series, but it did make editing a little bit easier. The ambient music in the background comes, needless to say, from Cryo Chamber, who are my new favourites.

My page likes jumped about ten per cent off the back of this one video. It’s not even very good, to be honest. I can’t think what else to write about it, except that it seemed like such an obvious joke I’m amazed I didn’t think it up months ago. A few of the dissenters used it as ammunition – “Ha! Yes, of course that’s what the Twelfth would do if he found he’d grown a pair of tits”, but that’s something I can live with. Matthew Graham didn’t expect Gene Hunt to become a poster boy for the Daily Mail, but that’s exactly what happened, so I suppose on a lesser scale I’m in good company. Brilliant.

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Adventures with the wife in space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, it’s her birthday. Accordingly:

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The Face of Boe / Captain Jack connection

Sometimes, when you’re creating, you inadvertently open a can of worms. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it is the only way to catch fish. But sometimes you wonder why you bothered. Actually, it’s less that, and more a sense of frustration that the joke has been missed, or that people would rather concentrate on the theory than the comedy. I suppose that’s the nature of fandom, but it is a little like banging your head against a brick wall. Truthfully there is not much to be said about the comedy for this little instalment – it sort of speaks for itself – and thus we will concentrate on the theory, at least for this morning. Business as usual next time, folks.

Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way. I was toying with the idea of redubbing the Face of Boe with Jack’s voice for a while last year: it was an easy edit, it makes total sense, and it has reasonable comic potential. The Face of Boe appears (properly; ‘Utopia’ doesn’t count, nor does ‘Journey’s End’) in precisely three episodes but there isn’t enough malleable footage in ‘The End of the World’; I stuck therefore with ‘New Earth’, in which the Face of Boe is dying and then isn’t, and ‘Gridlock’, in which he isn’t but then is. Mashed-in dialogue is partly from Doctor Who, partly from Torchwood, and inevitably there’s a bit of singing. Jack is by turns kinky and unexpectedly remorseful, which wasn’t quite the vibe I’d intended, but it sort of works. I had wanted to include ‘The Doctor And I’, but it just didn’t fit somehow. I don’t think we suffer for its absence.

Anyway: I uploaded the thing and it got a few laughs – but it also caused a reasonable amount of confusion in the community. “But…he – he is the Face of Boe!!” spluttered one user. “He said it in an episode! It was confirmed!” Other people were a little less spluttery but still a little put out. “He knew the Doctor,” said someone else. “Called him old friend when they’d never met. Last time he saw Jack outside of the Christmas special he told the Doctor back home they called him the Face of Boe. River Song’s vortex came from a handsome time traveller the headless monks got. It’s him.”

I won’t tell you what I said in private, because it probably breaks obscenity guidelines, but I did take it upon myself to reply to a few of those comments. The truth is – and thinking about it this, more than anything else, is what may have given me the idea to actually put this together – the Jack / Boe thing is one of the most frequently asked technical questions in any of the Doctor Who groups I visit. (The others, incidentally, are “Why did the Doctor start regenerating at Lake Silencio if he was on his final incarnation?”, and “Is the War Doctor really the Ninth Doctor?”, but seriously, let’s not go there today.)

It was the June 2007 when they first aired ‘The Last of the Time Lords’. I was twenty-nine and had just become a second-time father. Thomas wasn’t the easiest of babies and that summer was a heady mixture of sleepless nights, screaming fits and constant feeding, all accompanied by a red sling in which he had to be carried almost constantly, because it was the only way to stop the wailing. Emily would nap when she could and it was for this reason that I watched the series 3 finale without her: she would catch up later, with me standing in the doorway, hovering behind her whispering “Doctor…Doctor…” at the crucial moment. You have to have some fun.

But I remember watching that finale and then grabbing an old friend for a water cooler moment at the office the next morning. “Oh my gosh,” I said. “CAPTAIN JACK IS THE FACE OF BOE!” From what I’ve read, my reaction mirrored that of Barrowman, who allegedly jumped up and down and squealed a bit. Across the nation – the world, come to that, at least the parts of the world that got access to BBC programmes – the reaction was much the same, in all but one quarter, which would be the BBC herself. Because when the episode was repeated with a producer’s commentary, Russell T Davies was heard to mutter “Well, it’s as good an explanation for the Face of Boe as any”, only to have Julie Gardner tell him to “Stop backpedalling”.

Except…it’s watertight, isn’t it? It’s an established fact that Jack spends billions of years evolving into a giant head, isn’t it? Well, actually it isn’t. Things are never that concrete in Whovania, because if they were then we’d have no leeway for fan fiction. If the Fifth Doctor and Peri had gone straight from Sarn to Androzani, years of Big Finish releases with Peri and Erimem would be rendered obsolete. If we’d seen McGann regenerate into Eccleston at the beginning of ‘Rose’, there would be no place for the War Doctor. And if it were definitively and unambiguously established that the TARDIS had developed a fault on its journey to visit the Tribe of Gum, we’d never have had Hunters of the Burning Stone, and the world would be a much better place.

Here are the facts in the case of Jack vs. Boe:

1. The Face of Boe calls the Doctor ‘old friend’ when they meet in ‘New Earth’, despite only having met him the once (according to the Doctor).

2. An abandoned sequence in ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ would allegedly have seen Jack literally lose his head at the hands of the Headless Monks, surviving – but only as a head. This was shelved because of Barrowman’s involvement in Miracle Day.

3. In ‘The Pandorica Opens’, River states that she got her vortex manipulator “fresh off the wrist of a handsome time agent”, although that’s all the information we get.

4. As Jack bids farewell to the Doctor and Martha at the end of ‘The Last of the Time Lords’, he ruminates on his fear of physical ageing – something that is apparently happening, albeit as slowly as it affects Wolverine – and wonders what he will look like at the age of a million. He then mentions in passing that this sense of vanity was partly instilled by his youth, when his good looks made him a poster boy for the Boeshane Peninsula. “The Face of Boe, they called me,” he says, before trotting off to what turns out to be a memorable entrance in ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’. (If you haven’t seen it, do so. He has a fight with Spike from Buffy. In a bar. With Blur playing in the background. It’s great.)

Let’s take them more or less one at a time. In the first instance, there’s no reason to suspect that Boe and the Doctor didn’t meet again after Platform One. It could be that the Doctor’s forgotten. Or that he’s lying. That’s something I get told a lot: whenever there is an apparent continuity error there is a chorus of comments reading “Rule one: the Doctor lies”. It’s mindlessly irritating, seeing as it’s not the Doctor’s rule, it’s actually River’s, and it’s a cheap way of explaining away an ambiguity that would probably make sense if you actually took the time to think about it, but it beats “Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey”, so I suppose I can live with it. It’s further possible that the Doctor and Boe had an adventure they agreed not to speak about with anyone, including each other. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing: perhaps that’s how the Boekind greet people they know. Or perhaps the Face of Boe has been ruminating on the fact that the Doctor saved his life a few years back, and considers him a friend as a consequence. Perhaps they’ve been messaging each other on Facebook. Pick one.

The scene with the Headless Monks is awkward simply because it was never filmed. It’s an abandoned sequence that is thus as canonical as, say, Lungbarrow – a story that effectively gave us the Doctor’s real name, but which sits rather uncomfortably within the whopping great list of Things You Can Believe If You Want To (a concept to which we’ll return, so remember it). If they didn’t show it, it didn’t happen. Actually, even if they did show it there’s a fair bit of leeway with retconning: 24 aired the death of a prominent character in season 5 but a couple of years later he was back, when it was discovered that we did not see what we thought we saw. River’s vortex manipulator may have come from Jack (with, it is implied, the hand still attached to it), but it does not follow from this that he had a run-in with the Monks – although the Monks aren’t necessary for Jack to become Boe, which I’ll explore in a moment.

The ‘Last of the Time Lords’ scene is a little more concrete, but even then it’s not exactly unambiguous. It’s connection by association – look, this is how tabloid newspapers work. They’ll tell you that there’s a new CBeebies series starring a female engineer, and then mention in passing that they no longer show Bob the Builder, and leave you to fill in the gaps. Before we know it there’s a minor frenzy about the BBC eschewing old favourites in favour of new, politically correct content, and everyone’s conveniently forgotten the fact that the Beeb washed their hands of Bob when HIT Entertainment gave him that disastrous makeover and a stupid Midlands accent.

Similarly, all this scene tells you is that Jack was called the Face of Boe by a bunch of people who might have already known about the real Face and thus applied it as a nickname. Because we’ve been wondering about the Face of Boe all series, it’s natural to assume the two are connected, but there’s no reason why they would be. As it stands, it’s clumsy shoehorning. It may have had the fans jumping out of their seats, but it’s a dreadful way to finish a scene. The dialogue is terrible. You don’t say “The Face of Boe, they called me” and then saunter away to an invisible door. It’s an unnecessary conversation dangle. No one does it. Not unless they’re deliberately baiting the Doctor and Martha, not to mention the people watching at home…oh, wait.

The funny thing about all this is that Jack could quite easily evolve into Boe without any of the kerfuffle with the Monks. We saw it in a Philip K. Dick short story, The Infinites, in which a three-man crew investigate a strange planet and find themselves undergoing rapidly accelerated evolution – millions of years pass in just a few hours. It has highly irradiated sentient hamsters made of pure energy. I swear I’m not making this up. The point is that the changes are marked by degenerating limbs and greatly swollen head size, marking an increased reliance on the cerebral cortex and, one would assume, the decrease of motor functions. From this, it’s quite feasible to imagine that Jack could turn into a giant head the older he gets. Perhaps it’s the way we’re going. It’s certainly the way it was going in WALL-E, where everyone was fat because they’d spent years puttering about in a small land. Sudden cosmic storms aside, you and I will probably never know.

Out on the convention circuit, the vibe among the cast and crew has come down in favour of Jack and Boe being one and the same. Barrowman believes it. So does Gardener. So, up to a point, does Davies, although that’s a bit more complicated. I’m not listing my sources; it’s well-documented. It has to be said that of the above, Davies is the only one who gets a vote, being largely responsible for the genesis and development of the character (yes, I know that Moffat penned those first episodes and half of Torchwood was written by Chibnall; work with me here). But even then it’s dangerous to assume that originating writers have total responsibility for the characters they create for the rest of time. There needs to be a handover point: otherwise it’s a slippery slope to the sort of petty legal wrangling we had after the Brigadier’s grandfather / great-uncle showed up in the Christmas episode. Or you get someone making an obvious joke about Jenny crashing into an asteroid and then the fans are up in arms because Big Finish have brought her back and WHAT ABOUT THE SANCTITY OF CANON? (And yes, I realise I talked earlier about the whole “If it didn’t happen on screen, it’s not canon” thing. It’s my blog; I’m allowed the occasional double standard.)

The bottom line is that this has been kept as ambiguous as possible simply because it’s better that way. It grates against the sensibilities of the modern Doctor Who fan. Unresolved plot strands do not sit comfortably with them: why not explain something if you can? But sometimes it’s better if you don’t know. The Italian Job has one of the best endings to any film ever, simply because it is left hanging, in the most literal sense of the word. We never found out if Fran and Peter survived at the end of Dawn of the Dead, but there is a fleeting sense of hope as they fly off into the sunset; the same sense of hope permeates The Shawshank Redemption (this is the novella we’re talking about – not the film, which ends on a more definitive point and which is arguably less successful as a result). No one gets the end of 2001, but drawing your own conclusions to the Rorschach that is the film’s final ten-minute sequence is, many ways, far more satisfying than anything that’s cleared up in the books.

Davies knows this. The man does have his faults, but he – like most sensible people – realised that giving Jack a designated end point essentially kills the joke. It also deflates any sense of tension in Torchwood, because you know that Jack will at some point be wheeled around in a glass case and get pregnant again, but that’s a by-product. Here’s my point: it’s actually fine if people want to believe that Jack becomes the Face of Boe. I more or less believe it myself. It’s as good an explanation for the character as we’ve come across, and the evidence for it – whilst not exactly overwhelming – is still a clear collection of hints that point towards a likely plot strand. “None of these things is any good on its own,” the boy’s grandmother tells him in The Witches. “It’s only when you put them all together that they begin to make a little sense.”

Still: a little sense may be as far as we get. Because it’s more fun if we don’t know. There is a greater sense of narrative satisfaction – at least there is for me – in having a character whose fate is unresolved than one whose life cannot be changed; Ebenezer Scrooge endeavoured to sponge away the writing on his gravestone and we must believe the same of Jack, however much a definitive ending to his story might please some of the fans. Jack might be the Face of Boe, and then next week it could all be undone in a heartbeat – that is the nature of the programme we love, and while I went through a period of getting annoyed about this, in recent months I’ve kind of got used to it. Certainty is the path to arrogance, and the older I get the less certain I am about things, and I’m learning to embrace, even revel in the ambiguities. So let’s rejoice in the fact that for all the speculation and fan theory and arguments about intended meaning, when all is said and done we really don’t know Jack. Christopher Bullock said that it was “impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes”. In the Whoniverse, we don’t even have the first one, and it’s better that way.

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Have I Got Whos For You (New Year’s Edition)

Happy New Year folks! Meet David Tennant, the reluctant gardener.

Elsewhere in Whoville, one of Jackie Tyler’s leftover Christmas cracker jokes goes awry.

And finally, here’s the Twelfth Doctor’s confession.

Well, I’m glad we’ve cleared that one up.

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Review: Twice Upon A Time

Warning: contains spoilers.

This is, without doubt, the quietest regeneration story you’ll ever see. It begins and ends in the silence between gunshots. On the battlefields of war-torn France, two frightened, exhausted soldiers stare at each other down the barrel of a service revolver, locked in an awkward stalemate, a Mexican standoff that stems from a language problem. The bullet that will kill them both is never fired, because it is interrupted – as is the way of things – by a song that drifts on the air; a chorus of Silent Night, in the original German. Elsewhere, the cannons on another world are silenced by a reunion between two old foes that learned to get along. And the Doctor awaits his end in a frozen landscape – but it is a quiet end, soft and subdued, the way that snow renders things mute.

‘Twice Upon A Time’ is a story about consequences. The Doctor has faced down the Cybermen and paid the price; it’s appropriate that his younger self has reached the same stage in his journey, and thus it is here that we come in – up to a point. Nods to ‘The Tenth Planet’ are fleeting, the much-touted recasting of Ben and Polly reduced to a twenty-word exchange that is over in a matter of seconds and has no bearing on the plot other than to give the First Doctor an excuse to go outside, possibly for some time. Like every incarnation since 2005, the re-imagined First Doctor’s regenerating hand is seen to glow; it would be easy to complain about the retcon, but it serves as an appropriate visual shorthand, so perhaps we should turn a blind eye.

In a way, it’s going to be a disappointment. This is not a story in which the Twelfth Doctor weaves in and out of the scenery at the Antarctic base, endeavouring to hide from his younger self, like Marty McFly or Harry Potter or that episode of Red Dwarf where Lister steals his own kidneys. Nor is it the much-anticipated resolution of Capaldi’s very first appearance, a pair of ferocious eyebrows and the clank of a lever as the thirteen Doctors unite to save Gallifrey. The Hybrid – another plot strand that was never fully resolved – doesn’t even get a mention. Perhaps that’s something we’ll revisit further down the line. We can only hope it isn’t.

Instead, there is a tale about dying, and what happens afterwards. ‘The End Of Time’ gave us a Doctor refusing to face death; ‘Twice Upon A Time’ depicts a Doctor who is facing it with perhaps a little too readiness. Bill returns, seemingly from the afterlife, but the Doctor is mistrustful: is she all that she appears to be? The answer, of course, is yes – and also no, with this Bill comprising a composite of memories mapped onto a glass gestalt. We are given next to no information as to how this works: it is enough (or at least it ought to be enough) that it does, but there is commentary here about the nature of what is real and what isn’t, and whether we can really believe anything that anyone tells us about themselves, an analogy of constant, increasingly uncomfortable relevance in this most ambiguous of ages. “May you live in interesting times,” as the old Chinese curse goes, and the Twelfth Doctor’s concluding story, while not exactly high octane, is never less than interesting.

Having said all that, perhaps the most surprising thing about Moffat’s final episode is how little it surprises. It is no surprise at all to learn the Captain’s true identity; nor does the appearance of Clara raise any eyebrows, given that it occurs at a point in the narrative when we already know the host to be a shapeshifting intelligence capable of mimicking anyone it pleases. The moment this is finally explained to the Doctor, in the convivial hush of No Man’s Land not long after the football match, it becomes inevitable that Matt Lucas is waiting in the wings, brushing the crumbs from his duffle coat. Even the appearance of Rusty is foreshadowed by the head crabs that scour the ruins of Villengard; the resemblance to mutated Daleks is obvious, and the Doctor all but names them even before he climbs to the top of the tower.

The strange thing about the Rusty cameo is how pointless it seems. The Doctor’s requirement for a database that’s even bigger than the Matrix is tenuous at best: this is an excuse for a couple of explosions amidst a barrage of laser fire, something the episode otherwise lacks. It is, perhaps, a way for Moffat to revisit old stories he never quite resolved – something that Davies did with vigour back in 2009 – and indeed, the very presence of Villengard hearkens back twelve years to the chief writer’s very first tale for Nu Who. So too it provides an opportunity for us to see how much the Twelfth Doctor has changed; his trajectory from the manipulative apathy of ‘Into The Dalek’ to his plea for kindness in ‘The Doctor Falls’ (by way of the mid-life crisis that constitutes most of Series 9) is as wide ranging as character development gets, and if nothing else, a reappearance from the Good Dalek serves as a timely reminder of exactly how we got here.

Several things grate. The First Doctor was curmudgeonly and brusque, but no more bigoted than anyone else of his generation, or at least the generation he represented: it is not necessary to have quite so many nods to ‘casual chauvinism’, and while Capaldi does a good line in embarrassed outrage, it’s a joke that’s cracked at least five or six times more frequently than the episode needed. There are needless references to the notorious ‘smacked bottom’ scene from ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’; teamed with more conversations about Bill’s sexuality, it feels like political point-scoring, an exercise in ticking the diversity box juxtaposed with a desperate plea from the writers and actors not to turn this into a big deal. We’ve been trying, honestly, but you keep giving us ammunition: it was a recurring theme during Series 10, and perhaps the requests for press restraint would have been better served if the stable door hadn’t been closed when the horse was already halfway to Guildford.

Bradley himself is a curiosity, a visitation wrapped in an evening suit. Practically the first thing he does is grab his lapels, but that’s where the resemblance stops. Bradley does not take it upon himself to try and be Hartnell portraying the Doctor, nor does it follow that he should. The man’s twenty years older. He doesn’t even fluff his lines, for pity’s sake. But a curious thing happens: it more or less works. Bradley was a good Hartnell, and a less effective Doctor-played-by-Hartnell, but unshackled from the confines of scripts and scenes we know all too well, and given room to breathe as opposed to simply mimic, the suspension of disbelief suddenly becomes that much easier to maintain. There is a certain poetic license in his performance – this is an older, less assured First Doctor, perhaps closer to the character we saw in ‘The Three Doctors’ than anything that appeared on TV during the 1960s – but if you squint, you can almost imagine that this ageing Yorkshireman could inhabit the role that Hartnell made his own.

It ends, as one might expect, in fire and torment and the mother of all monologues: one that is disappointing if only because we’ve heard so much of it before. Capaldi paces the TARDIS with similar restlessness to his manner at the end of ‘The Doctor Falls’ – raging, it seems, against the old girl herself, as if her mechanisms were somehow guiding his transformation. (It’s really not so much of a stretch, given that so many of them have happened on the console room floor.) There are jokes about pears. Meanwhile, the more astute among us will no doubt be wondering why the soldiers were singing in German when there was a TARDIS parked just up the road. Is it because of the religious content? Is this another nod to ‘Extremis’? Or do two TARDISes cancel out the translation effect? And why am I even bringing this up, unless it’s to pick up on social media trends?

Finally – in the moment we were denied at the press screening – Whittaker emerges, staring at her reflection with a look of wide-eyed amazement, like someone who’s experiencing every birthday and Christmas in one go. It’s obviously not a controlled regeneration – it never is – but it’s clearly hoped that we’re as enamoured of her appearance as she is herself, even if you half expect Amy to pop her head out from the bedroom and ask if she wished really, really hard. Within seconds, the new Doctor is failing to fly the TARDIS in the most spectacular manner possible, plummeting to what we assume is Earth in the sort of slow motion you normally reserve for Hollywood action movies, and we’ve already forgotten about Mark Gatiss – who, it must be pointed out (because I haven’t yet) was actually not too bad at all.

Still, there is something good about all this. There is something right about a tale that does not need to rely on visual spectacle or the fate of the universe to make its point. There is something good about a Doctor who has already died in battle, and who is living on borrowed time: two Doctors, if you like. Stories that occur in frozen moments (hello, Key 2 Time, have a celery stick) are a big part of spinoff lore; rarely do they translate to the small screen, but the fact that ‘Twice Upon A Time’ works when it really shouldn’t is largely down to the chief writer’s decision to turn the narrative into an elegy that is actively about that moment, rather than an excuse to tell an unrelated story. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of unabashed escapism – god knows that’s what we had in ‘Voyage of the Damned’ – but a protracted, reluctant farewell seems a better fit, even though it won’t be to everyone’s tastes.

But it’s more than that. There’s a sense of cautious joy here, a bittersweet lament for the things we leave behind coupled with a willingness to look forward with hope, even in the face of the unknown. It’s not a call for unity. This isn’t Brexit. It’s a request to understand each other. “Sometimes,” Moffat seems to be telling us, “things don’t go wrong. Some motivations are sound. Some purposes are good. Sometimes even if something is seemingly too good to be true, it still happens. Things change, and no one likes it. And yes, people die, but sometimes opposing sides can reach a fragile, uneasy peace.” And perhaps that, more than anything else, is the message we need to hear this Christmas.

This review originally appeared in The Doctor Who Companion.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Seasonal Edition)

This week: Doctor Who meets The League of Gentlemen, or rather doesn’t.

Elsewhere, here’s River Song, enjoying an afternoon on the beach with her grandfather.

As Hey Duggee launches a new space-themed episode, the inspiration for the titular dog’s costume is obvious.

And yes, I know the tweed-coated academic look precedes 2011. But there must have been a point in the animation studios where someone said “Hey, he looks like the Eleventh Doctor!”

Finally, Brianofmorbius duly launches its own version of Elf on the Shelf:

Well, it’s sort of Christmassy.

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The Next Step does Thomas The Tank Engine

I once saw a film called Billy Elliot. It was a grim and slightly edgy drama about an impoverished family in 1980s County Durham, in the heart of the miner’s strike. It was a story about the sacrifices we make to help the people we love, and a father and son discovering what was most important to them. Most of all it was about an eleven-year-old boy defying all the stereotypes to become a ballet dancer in a time when this was considered effeminate, sissy; something Boys Didn’t Do.

If the millennials reading this are having a hard time comprehending this state of affairs, here’s a confession: I have an aunt who got her son to do ballet when he was a child and the wider family generally disapproved. We never said so, at least openly, but there were fears that she was suppressing his masculinity by banning the footballs in favour of the pumps. This was not considered a particularly toxic viewpoint; my aunt, instead, was considered the odd one. She’s also a practising naturist, something else the family never quite squared, although Emily and I followed in her footsteps this summer on a beach near Swanage, where all six of us thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Essentially my opinion of her has softened quite a bit with the passing of several decades, which is kind of what happens when you get out from the echo chamber of your closest relatives.

Back in the present day, there’s a programme on CBBC that Daniel loves but pretends he doesn’t. It’s called The Next Step and it tracks the activities of a fictional dance studio in Toronto – one of those fake fly-on-the-wall documentaries, only not done terribly well. Characters fall in and out of love and creepy princes set up intense first dates wearing the sort of tuxedo that should have stayed in 1979 where it belonged. There are rivalries and egos and comical misunderstandings. There are girls crying in darkened rooms because they can’t go to Regionals and it’s, like, THE END OF MY CAREER. Most of all, there is dancing. Oh, so much dancing. It’s a shame they never dance to anything good. There’s no Prodigy. Not a whiff of Irene Cara. They don’t even have Walk The Moon, for the love of sanity. There’s a lot of generic stuff that leaves you utterly cold, which is kind of what –

– but hang on, I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you’ve seen it, you’ll know the tropes only too well. There’s the couple whose relationship Gets In The Way Of Things. There’s the squabbling over who gets to do the solo. Meanwhile, girl X has an injury but really needs to dance in this video, dammit, so continues to push herself and lie to everyone else that she’s fine when we all know she’s going to collapse in the middle of that crucial, placement-determining solo. And then there is the bitter rivalry between Michelle and Emily that escalated into a kind of Civil War scenario (which would effectively make Ozzy Peter Parker, right down to the spectacles). Previously, on The Next Step: Riley is tortured by the kiss that she shared with Alfie, but she can’t actually tell us how she’s feeling, so she’s going to express her emotional state using the medium of interpretive dance. You’re a tree, Riley. A single tree, billowing in the wind. Oh, you beautiful snowflake, you.

Most bizarre of all is their penchant for talking heads monologues conducted in the present tense about things that are actually happening at that moment. “I can’t believe Jacqui’s actually doing this,” says Noah, shaking his head. “There’s me, trying to get this segment together, and I asked her for contemporary, and she’s given me hip hop. This is not what I wanted.” This is during the scene, the monologue interspersed in between awkward pauses and some pretty intense staring. Or there’s Kingston, waxing lyrical about a particular routine, while he’s still in the middle of the routine. “The choreography’s tight and I’m enjoying myself,” he says to camera, between pirouettes. “This whole thing seems to be going pretty well”.

There are two conclusions we’ve drawn. Either this is all taking place later and for some unfathomable reason they’re describing it in the first person, or it’s all happening in their heads. I like that explanation – it’s a crummy studio with an inflated sense of self-importance, imagining its own documentary – and this tech-savvy daydreaming doesn’t detract from the authenticity of the experience (or, as Albus Dumbledore would have said, “Of course it’s happening in your head, Riley, but why on earth should that mean that it isn’t real, girlfriend?”). But perhaps there’s more to it than that, and perhaps there’s a bunch of cutting room floor stuff we’ll never get to see.

West [talking head]: I’m feeling pretty confident about this piece now, and getting into it. I like the way Eldon’s working with this piece, and I know I was sceptical about Emily’s choreo, but I’ve gotta say that –

James [off-camera]: West! For fuck’s sake, GET BACK HERE, IT’S NATIONALS!

Still, the great thing about The Next Step is that it features male and female dancers alike, doing all kinds of styles, and the whole idea of boys doing ballet is seemingly never mentioned. Everyone just gets on with it. The Next Step is thus absolutely geared towards both genders (yes, yes, and everything in between, don’t start on that), even if the bulk of the feedback I hear on TV appears to be from young girls. Daniel is now in the latter stages of fandom, having stopped denying that he enjoys it. And irrespective of the rather cynical tone I’ve taken today, I find it pretty compulsive viewing myself. The actors acquit themselves well and there are some beautifully executed moments, like when Elliot the duplicitous bastard (to give him his full rank and title) was exposed for the nob-end that he really was. No one likes you, Elliot. Go back to Broadway.

Elsewhere on the internet, some bright spark decides to take the theme from Thomas The Tank Engine and stick it underneath the ‘Single Ladies’ video, where it turns out to be the perfect accompaniment. So I thought I’d do the same thing, just for the hell of it. There are multiple episodes therein, and the sync isn’t quite as tight as I’d like it to be (thank you, YouTube upload process) but the whole thing just about hangs together. And god knows it’s better than some of the crap they dance to on the show. I just hope there’s no confusion and delay at TNS East. That’d be a disaster

Incidentally, my cousin’s turned out fine.

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