Posts Tagged With: entertainment

Inspirational Star Wars Quotes

“I have been giggling at this,” said Sara, “for ten minutes.

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I didn’t even get the reference, which supposedly comes from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, a show I’d never even heard of, let alone seen. But it works, even though it loses points for missing out a full stop in that second frame.

Star Wars spirituality is a very real concept. We’re living in a country where nearly four hundred thousand people put ‘Jedi’ as their religion on the 2001 census, for crying out loud. There’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself, provided it’s a token protest against atheism and not something you’re actually supposed to take seriously. If that sounds rather too obvious a point for me to need to actually state openly, it’s worth bearing in mind that I’ve spent a week or so reading through status updates on a Facebook group where people genuinely seem to think that the Doctor is really out there flying around in his TARDIS, simply because you’re unable to categorically prove that he isn’t.

So I’m fine with life lessons from Who, and the Everything I Ever Needed To Know I Learned From Star Trek business model, but you can get too obsessed. And when people delve into these shows as if it’s the only thing that gives their lives meaning, I am torn between the desire to feel sorry for them or openly mock them. Sometimes it’s a simple combination of both.

“Also,” said Sara’s friend Kimberley, “I think a whole series of Star Wars / spiritual memes is in order.”

And she was right. So we spent a pleasant evening doing them, as and when they came to us.

And somewhat predictably, I made a whole set. And here they are.

If Plan A didn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters

If God is all you have you have all you need

Be somebody nobody thought you could be

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience we are spiritual beings having a human experience

Courage is being yourself every day in a world that tells you to be someone else

Don’t let the behaviour of others destroy your inner peace

Until you spread your wings you will have no idea how far you can fly

The truth of human freedom lies in the love that breaks down barriers

Happiness is found when you stop comparing yourself to other people

Embrace the glorious mess that you are

May the Force be with you. “And also with you.”

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Look to your left (part 304)

The other morning, I spotted this story in The Independent, and for reasons that ought to be obvious it reminded me of David Tennant.

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I mean, you can see why, can’t you? “Don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone…”

Anyway: I posted this in several Facebook groups with the words ‘Americans and Doctor Who fans. They’re not so different’, where it received a generally favourable response, and sparked a couple of interesting conversations about Theresa May. Except in one group (which I will not name), where one user (whom I will also leave anonymous) got quite hot under the collar about the fact that he wanted to talk about Doctor Who, and that we shouldn’t be mentioning politics. When I checked back later, the post was gone: given that I’ve posted other stuff in a similar vein there before, I am assuming that it’s because he complained.

I do try and avoid talking about butthurt in this blog, but this bothered me immensely. It bothers me for the same reason that people complain about religious leaders holding political views (or, for that matter, political leaders holding religious ones) or celebrities espousing particular values. J.K. Rowling is currently mocking supposed fans on Twitter who have seen fit to hold her to account for her views on Trump, suggesting that they might have missed the point of the books. Both holding and expressing political views is a cornerstone of democracy, and you do not forfeit the right to express those views because of a position of privilege. There is a right and a wrong way to do it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s off the agenda. Nor does it mean that political conversation is irrelevant or unwanted. It’s entirely possible to enjoy Doctor Who without having any idea of the allegories therein (my children do it all the time) but this does not in itself mean that a political reading is invalid. Or, as an acquaintance pointed out on Twitter the other day, “subtext clearly goes over people’s heads, but in the case of Harry Potter and Doctor Who, it’s text. It’s explicit!”.

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Anyway: here’s my open letter to the group, which explains things a little further.

I’m scratching my head a bit this afternoon.

Earlier I posted a photo of Barack Obama – making what I felt was a salient point about Americans who wanted the impossible, and comparing them to Doctor Who fans who also want the impossible. Eventually it was removed.

I am assuming this was because of political discourse: I had one person say “we don’t want this political crap”. That’s the sort of thing I hear quite a lot when I post things that touch on politics, mainstream or otherwise. The idea, supposedly, is that politics are off the agenda, although I can’t find anything within the guidelines to support this.

But here’s the thing: Doctor Who is a political show. It has been since the first Dalek raised its sink plunger back in 1964. It’s not a show that can be interpreted in that way if you want – it is a show that has been overtly political for a long time. It has a long line of left-leaning writers who held strong political views. It is a show that asks awkward questions and we love it precisely because of this. If you want to censor political discussion because it makes you uncomfortable, that’s fine. But you can’t stop there. You also need to ban discussion about The Daleks, The Mutants, The Curse of Peladon, The Green Death, The Silurians, The Sun Makers, The Happiness Patrol, World War Three, The Zygon Invasion / Inversion, Turn Left, The Christmas Invasion, and Kinda. Among others.

I don’t want to start an argument about Trump or Brexit or the alt right, and would dissuade any outright attempts to do so. I post these things without comment: they are there only to make people think, and I am hopeful that the bulk of group members would have the good sense to stop at the thinking part if they can feel an argument brewing. The role of art is to challenge and commentate as well as entertain – it’s been that way since ancient Greece – and this is occasionally done through the use of political satire. Doctor Who is no different in this respect from Yes Minister, or even Harry Potter. It’s not about possible interpretation, it’s about the actual subject matter.

So this is not a rant against the moderators, whose right to run the group the way they see fit I fully respect. But to those of you who complain (regularly) that “This is a Doctor Who group, can’t we leave politics out of it?”, I’d suggest that you’re not watching the show properly.

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Fish Custard: Reversed

I walked into the study on Monday morning to find the boys watching a Lazy Town video. Backwards.

It beats the hell out of some of the stuff I find in the internet history. I mean, I love YouTube. It’s a wealth of fantastic, entertaining material. It has recipes, educational videos, how-to guides and interviews. It’s enabled me to see programmes I haven’t seen in years and ones I’d forgotten about completely. It’s connected me with musical artists in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible, shown me ideas and concepts I could never have imagined and, for all the idiocy and bigotry, generally broadened my horizons.

And what were my kids watching the other week? Fucking Crazy Frog. Backwards.

It’s hardly Twin Peaks, is it? It’s quite amusing to watch Sportacus climb back into his cage while Robbie and his clones skip backwards over the wall, but you wonder what the point was. And then you look at the other stuff on the channel and you notice a pattern in the titles –

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HOW THE HELL HAS THIS GUY GOT SO MANY HITS? Do people like Lazy Town that much? Or is this another artificial inflation scam like the VEVO incident? I mean, here’s me, scrabbling for social media coverage, begging and borrowing and promoting like crazy just to creep into the hundreds, and this guy’s presumably living off his monetization. It’s enough to make you weep for the future of humanity; it really is.

The definitive use of reversed footage, of course, is in Red Dwarf, in an episode that isn’t really as funny as we’d like to think (gimmicky episodes seldom are, as ‘Gunmen of the Apocalypse’ proves in abundance). There are amusing moments in ‘Backwards’ but the best of the humour stems from Lister’s reactions (“Santa Claus – what a bastard!”), as well as that single shot of Cat, springing up from the bushes. But a better episode that series is ‘Marooned’, which is almost a two-hander, but which has some of the best gags in the history of the show. ‘Backwards’ has Lister falling off a bicycle. ‘Marooned’ has Rimmer doing the funniest Richard III you’ll ever see. Case closed.

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Anyway, I started to think about whether I could take anything from Doctor Who and run it backwards. I’ve occasionally reversed small clips in isolation – the Beckett video springs to mind – but was there any merit in anything longer? The problem was picking an appropriate scene, and seeing that inspiration was lacking I decided to ask Facebook. Someone suggested Clara’s death scene. “Anything with the Weeping Angels”, said someone else. “It’s just them backing away from people.”

There’s a lot of mileage in a scene like that but one obvious example – inspired, in part, by the scene in Red Dwarf where Rimmer and Kryten observe a woman regurgitating a cream cake – was the Fish Fingers and Custard sequence. Because it’s a wonderful moment that’s been done to death and had all the life sucked out of it with subsequent references (Why, in the name of sanity, does the TARDIS interface say ‘Fish fingers and custard’ to the Doctor when he’s lying on the floor halfway through ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’?). There is absolutely nothing new I can bring to that scene apart from reverse it and witness the Doctor’s telekinetic summoning of a reassembling plate across the garden, before sucking baked beans back into his mouth.

But what’s most striking about it is how similar it sounds to Nordic noir. As I was watching it – and particularly after I’d dropped in the background ambience, which comes courtesy of the lovely people at Cryo Chamber – it felt like I was watching a scene from The Bridge, or Modus, or Wallander (I assume; that’s one I’ve not seen yet). The analogy’s far from perfect, of course. Amelia’s house isn’t nearly Nordic enough. There’s not a single glass wall. She doesn’t even have decking. Nonetheless, the vibe is there. It’s the dialogue: it all sounds like Swedish.

And that’s given me another idea, but you’re going to have to let me finish it first…

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The Kasterborous Archives, #2: Eccleston is a great actor, but he never felt like the Doctor

Author’s notes:

OK, this one caused a rumpus. In its original form it garnered a fair number of comments, many of them negative and one or two calling for my head. Some of the best made it to the testimonials page. Timing was part of it; we published this on the tenth anniversary of ‘Parting of the Ways’ and Eccleston’s regeneration. It’s like holding an anti-war protest on Armistice Day. If that sounds like I’m overstating my case, you haven’t seen Doctor Who fans when they’re upset…

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Eccleston was a great actor, but he never felt like the Doctor

Published: 18 June 2015

I’ve loved Christopher Eccleston for years.

I loved him in Shallow Grave, where he played an unhinged Scot who drilled holes in the attic floor. I loved his brief, disconnected cameo in The Others, and his turn as sadistic Major Henry West in 28 Days Later. His performance in The Second Coming was a literal revelation. I even love him in Gone In Sixty Seconds, in which he makes the most of a dog’s breakfast as Raymond Calitri, a crime boss who gets to stick Nicholas Cage in a car crusher – which is something I think we’ve all wanted to do for years, or at least since 8MM. Calitri eventually falls to his death, but his best scene occurs earlier in the film, during an angry confrontation with Cage: “Am I an arsehole?” he asks directly. “Do I look like an arsehole?” (Cage’s response is a quiet “Yeah.”)

So let me repeat that disclaimer: I love Eccleston. He’s a talented actor and, if the rumours about his on-set conduct are to be believed, a man of great integrity. But I could never get used to him as the Doctor.

These things are always going to be relatively subjective. Everyone has their own ideas of what the Doctor ought to be, and what he isn’t, and what he… never won’t be… sort of thing. And I suppose that my Doctor is always going to be BBC English (all right David, I’ll settle for Estuary), with fashion sense that dallies between elegant and eccentric. Eccleston’s minimalist look is (purposely) as stripped back as his Doctor, and similarly direct. And it seems strange to me that I should find it as foreign as the idea of Shaggy wearing a business suit. All this is accompanied by remarks about “beans on toast” (a line I cannot hear in the mouths of any other Doctor, except perhaps the Sixth, in the same manner that he delivers the words “carrot juice?!?”). It all seems – and forgive me for this dreadful snobbery – it all seems a bit too working class. I know that’s the point, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

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It’s not the accent. I don’t think accent in itself is the problem, because I have no issue with Capaldi’s Glaswegian twang, even if I occasionally have to turn on the subtitles to make out what he’s saying above Murray Gold’s frankly intrusive score. It’s no problem having a Doctor who’s not from around here, although I think I was probably one of many people who was hoping that the Twelfth Doctor would use the words “Lots of planets have a Scotland” at some point in Deep Breath. (As it stands, we had the encounter in the alley, arguably more famous for being the first example of eyebrow fetish – and that regrettable scene with Vastra, in which Capaldi almost appears to be acting in a docudrama about Alzheimer’s.)

I watched Rose again recently with my six-year-old, and it’s sometimes tempting to wonder whether we’ve been more forgiving of that opening episode – of the series in general – than we would have been if it was in the middle of a Doctor’s run. How many of the shortcomings went unnoticed simply because it was Doctor Who, and it was back? Does it matter? I’d suggest it probably doesn’t, except when you line up all the Doctors in a row, whereupon Eccleston is the one that always sticks out like a sore thumb.

A friend of mine describes Vincent and the Doctor as “a good episode of something”, and in many ways he’s right: part of its charm lies in the fact that it’s relatively atypical. Similarly, Davies rewrote the rulebook in 2005 when he resurrected the show by effectively rebooting it. But it’s a trend that he and his successor spent the next ten years gradually undoing, and what we have now is a show that glorifies in its past, revisiting and rewriting it on a whim. And I wonder if the fact that the Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors take obvious cues from previous Doctors – in a way that the first casting did not – has skewed my appraisal of the Ninth. In other words, to what extent is a failure to accept Eccleston a reflection of what’s come since, as much as what came before?

But there’s more to it than that. Not long before the 50th anniversary episode, I created (purely as a lark) a series of tables that charted the average effectiveness of each New Who Doctor when it came to dealing with the end-of-episode threats that he faced, at least when compared to any companions or supporting characters who wound up doing most of the work for him. In many ways the data is flawed, because he gets only one series in which to prove himself, but it should be no great surprise that the Ninth Doctor sits at the bottom of the list. He’s rubbish.

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It is his incompetence, indeed, which forms much of that first arc. That first batch of episodes is to all intents and purposes about the Doctor learning to be the Doctor again. The central concept was that of empowering the companions so that they are no longer screaming girls, and it is the Time Lord himself who is forced to diminish in order for this to happen. (When Rose admonishes the Doctor after their encounter with the Nestene in the series opener, proclaiming that he was “useless in there”, it more or less sets the tone.)

A brief analysis of that first series reveals a game of two halves. It’s all building up to Dalek – a good story, although the Big Finish drama upon which it is based is better. The finale of Dalek has the Doctor actively confront the monstrosity from Skaro, wielding the sort of gun you’d normally expect to handled by the likes of Jack (you almost expect Tennant to pop his head round the corner, raise an eyebrow and remark “Compensating for something?”). It’s a powerful moment, although anyone who seriously thinks it’s dramatically out of character clearly wasn’t watching the programme in the ’80s.

After Dalek – which I’ve always described as the Emperor’s Throne Room moment, given that it’s the point at which the central character comes close to losing the plot – Eccleston’s touch noticeably lightens. There is less brooding. At the end of The Doctor Dances he is boogieing around the TARDIS to the strains of Glenn Miller. But he still seems off somehow. The finale to that episode sees the Doctor fix the zombified patients simply by waving his hands. There’s excessive arm-folding. The ‘ape’ jokes are borderline offensive. It’s partly the scripts, but he feels like someone playing the part in a pantomime.

Then there’s a moment in Parting of the Ways where it clicks. It’s a small scene, in which the Doctor is on the floor of Satellite 5, assembling things out of cables and bits of circuits and chatting quietly with Rose. I like it because all of a sudden it feels right. I like it because, for just about the first and only time that series, Eccleston ceases to be the actor trying to play the Doctor, and actually becomes the Doctor.

And then a few minutes later, he regenerates.

Seriously. What an arsehole.

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Have I Got Whos For You (part 46)

It was a little after one in the afternoon and the six of us were gathered round the dining table. The conversation had – for reasons I now can’t recall – turned to the subject of boobs.

I mean, what is it with young boys and inappropriate table talk? If it’s not boobs or bottoms it’s fecal deposit, the colour and texture of vomit or the ins and outs (quite literally) of sex. We have a set of dining rules stuck on the wall, and number ten – the one I call them out on most frequently – is “Don’t talk about anything unsuitable for mealtimes.” Perhaps that’s it. Perhaps it’s like a magnet, an invitation to see how far they can push us before we inevitably snap.

“Anyway,” I eventually said, not entirely seriously but with an attempt to restore a modicum of decorum to proceedings. “You really shouldn’t say ‘boobs’. You should say ‘bosoms’.”
“Oh,” said Josh. “I thought that was that religion.”
“That’s Buddhism.”

Honestly? It’s easy to mishear things. Particularly if there’s one word that you’re accustomed to, and another less-used word sort of sounds a bit like it.

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Is it a coincidence that I started to eat a lot of Brie right around the time I last saw ‘Fear Her’? I genuinely don’t think so.

My father grew up in Tunbridge Wells, and while my grandparents were alive we often went back there. You spend enough time hanging around Royal Victoria Place, certain things stick. I can still remember the grubbiness of the local Our Price, the semi-organised clutter of the small independent video game shop that was – as was so often the case with such things – there and then not there, like something from Terry Pratchett. And I can remember Fenwick, the department store that my grandmother insisted we visit one Saturday morning to have lunch, planning the whole thing with military precision and presenting, perhaps for the first time, an indication that her mental faculties were not what they were.

So in years to come, when I would familiarise myself with old Doctor Who stories, it was easy to misread ‘The Curse of Fenric’ as something entirely different.

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Anyway: the whole thing with Buddhism reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Daniel a year or so ago in which we’d discussed watching New Who: I was at that stage still trying to pick out random episodes I thought he’d like, before we eventually made the decision to watch them all.

“I think you’d enjoy The Fires of Pompeii, actually.”
“What’s Pompeii?” he asked.
“It’s an ancient Roman city. They had a volcano.”
“Oh. I thought it was those crisps.”
“That’s Pom-Bear.”

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Hello

Important: today’s video had particular viewing restrictions, most of them mobile / tablet related. If you’re unable to see the embed above, I’ve uploaded it to Vimeo.

Let’s get this out of the way: the Eleventh Doctor is a big fat stalker, and we all know it.

I can quite understand wanting to know more about Clara. She’s an anomaly wrapped up in a miniskirt. Her appearances in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ and ‘The Snowman’ make no sense, unless you’re prepared to attribute it to an eerily precise preservation of lineage and a genetic love of souffle. Rule one, Doctor: when someone is following you around the space-time continuum leaving cryptic messages, it’s usually a trap. This particular arc dealt with the consequences of that trap, of course, rather than the trap itself, but it still counts.

The problem is that the Doctor’s never watched his own show and is thus blissfully ignorant of all this. Everyone the other side of the fourth wall knows that this is one of Steven Moffat’s Big Ideas and that it’ll be sorted out by the time the Doctor regenerates, but there’s no telling him that. For someone who boasts a PhD in self-awareness he really is mind-numbingly obtuse. What we’re left with is a series of creepy stakeouts where the Doctor actively spies on a single family as their daughter grows up, even going so far as to watch her while she’s grieving for her dead mother. The funny thing about all this is just how quickly we’re prepared to forgive the Doctor, although our forgiveness is tied up with Clara, who’s also strikingly willing to let it go (and you didn’t read that, you sang it). Perhaps it’s because it’s so drastically out of character. I suspect that had Peter Capaldi been the one hiding behind the gravestones we’d be willing to describe it as ‘typical Twelfth Doctor’, just as Clara’s sense of hurt and betrayal would have lingered for far longer than the twenty seconds it takes to dissipate on screen.

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I wonder if casual stalking was on the minds of the creative team behind the ‘Hello’ video. You remember ‘Hello’, don’t you? And no, I don’t mean that song by Adele, although from what I can gather, mashups of the two are endemic. No, ‘Hello’ was a 1984 number one for Lionel Richie – a sweet, piano-driven tale of seemingly unrequited love. It’s thoughtfully composed, decently structured and nicely produced. It was a surefire number one. Then Bob Giraldi (the chap set fire to Michael Jackson’s hair) got his sticky hands on it and turned it into the dark and frankly sinister tale of a college professor seeking an inappropriate relationship with one of his pupils.

It’s funny that of all the possible objections you could have to this setup, it’s the pupil / teacher thing that seems to rankle people the most. Maybe I’m just getting old, but back when I was at university (which really wasn’t so long ago) the scenario of students jumping into bed with their lecturers really wasn’t so uncommon, nor was it particularly frowned upon. It depends on the lecturer and the student – I can think of a couple of hookups that made my flesh crawl a little – but on the other hand both are consenting adults, and it seems churlish to criticise it in one breath and then, with the next, laugh at the narrative arc in Friends that explored the very same concept.

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No, what’s creepy about this is Lionel’s looks of predatory longing as he watches Laura sunning herself in the cafe, improvise drama in the lecture theatre and fall into the arms of a dance partner in a workshop. It’s the way he follows her down the corridor. The heavy breathing down the phone when he rings her up in the middle of the night (and why, Lionel, are you holding the receiver to your crotch while you’re singing to Laura?). And, of course, the infamous monkey head scene, in which Laura sculpts a bust of Lionel that looks absolutely nothing like him, prompting the befuddled lecturer to draw in his breath and exclaim “Oh, it’s…wonderful…”

It would be comparatively easy to take footage from Doctor Who and mix it up with Lionel’s ballad. Actually, it’s already been done. But can you – and this was the question I found myself asking – can you find enough footage to actually tell some sort of story? Can you recreate the beginning and the end? Can you, in effect, create some sort of love triangle? And can you effectively turn the Doctor into a sap?

It turns out you can. And if you wanted a compare-and-contrast, here’s the Lionel version.

Personally, I think I got it pretty close…

 

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Review: ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’

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There’s a thing that’s always bothered me about Superman. It’s not the disguise. Henry Cavill recently proved there was a lot of mileage in a pair of spectacles with his recent New York stunt. No, it’s the fact that Clark Kent is surrounded by a supposedly cracked team of journalists, all of whom enjoy a close working relationship with him, and none of them – at least at first – are able to work out what’s really going on. A reporter who showed up in town the same time Superman did, who disappears at the first sign of trouble but who manages to bag all the exclusives? It’s too much of a stretch to think that someone wouldn’t have put two and two together by now – whether that someone is Lois Lane, the self-absorbed A-lister who loves one man and who is loved in turn by both – or Perry White, who spends most of his time with his sleeves rolled up shouting, but who’s obviously never heard of facial recognition software.

It depends which version you’re watching. Christopher Reeve, in all four of his films – from the glorious first to the dismal fourth – is a revelation, and anyone who doubted his skills as an actor would do well to look at scenes where he’s playing first Clark Kent and then Superman and note the differences. Reeve fumbles with the thick frames, smearing the lenses and only just managing to avoid damaging them. The posture changes, the body language becomes awkward and fidgety, and the whole voice goes up half an octave. Then go and watch Dean Cain – who, in The New Adventures, plays basically the same character with and without his glasses – and marvel at the fact that he gets away with it for so long.

That Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne manage to maintain and separate their public / private personas so consistently and successfully is down to three things. First, it requires a certain suspension of disbelief – the same resource we have to tap in order to accept that neither character seems to have aged very much despite both having been around for the better part of a century. Second, at least one blind eye has been turned to the telescope – Commissioner Gordon could easily figure out Batman’s true identity, but has presumably seen enough torture scenes to have realised that it’s in his best interests not to know. Similarly, Perry White is too bold and experienced not to put two and two together, but has chosen not to. Journalistic integrity is still alive and well, even in the twenty-first century.

But fundamentally the disguise conundrum plays on Shakespearian conventions. It was a running joke that the true identity of a disguised character in a Shakespeare play should be obvious to everyone except the characters onstage – it’s bled over into pantomime, and in Doctor Who it happened every time Roger Delgado stepped onto the screen. And thus, when it happens in ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’, it’s done as a joke that’s glaringly transparent to all but the girl who’s caught in the middle of it, and on this occasion it’s the Doctor who’s rolling his eyes.

‘Mysterio’ is, in essence, a crossover episode – the closest Doctor Who is likely to delve into the worlds of Supergirl or The Flash – and the creative team have the sense to play on this. Origin stories are revealed in flashback (tellingly, and with some degree of appropriateness, said origin story features the Doctor himself). There are numerous shots of characters hovering outside windows. And a crucial conversation between the basso-inflected superhero and his would-be girlfriend – with the Doctor listening in – is rendered with a three-way frame split. The superhero in question, a caped wonder whose body armour resembles that of Nightwing, doubles as a mild-mannered nanny when he’s not wearing the costume, zooming from house fire to traffic accident to bedroom, a baby monitor permanently attached to his waist.

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The net result of all this is that the Doctor feels rather like a supporting character in his own story. Having unwittingly created the whole situation through a simple misunderstanding, just about the only thing Capaldi is able to do this week is react as the narrative unfolds around him. Not that much unfolding actually happens – in origami terms, ‘Mysterio’ is more a twice-folded letter than a concertina. The story is the sort of conventional secret invasion fluff that wouldn’t be out of place in either a series of Doctor Who or a Superman comic, and is perhaps the episode’s weakest element: a couple of expository monologues aside, we never really get to know or understand the brain-swapping aliens behind Harmony Shoals, nor do we much care what they’re up to. (And really, didn’t we milk the unzipped head thing to death last Christmas?)

Tellingly, that’s not a criticism. Regular visitors here will know that I’m the first one to complain when I watch an episode of Who without any tangible story, but as it turns out this matters far less when people are having fun (which is not something I could say for, say, ‘The Woman Who Lived’). That the episode concludes with a colossal spacecraft falling on New York is far less exciting than it ought to be, simply because ultimately that’s not what ‘Mysterio’ is about. There’s a far greater tension in the fact that in order to save the Earth, the Ghost must reveal his true identity to a single person – and while the image of Justin Chatwin holding up the spacecraft with a single outstretched hand is uproariously funny, there is a far greater sense of narrative satisfaction in the kiss that follows it.

It helps that both Grant and Lucy are fun and likeable, even though we’re given comparably little time to get to know them. There are all sorts of questions that could be asked about the fact that he repeatedly leaves a small child unattended, although it’s made apparent at the mid-point that he’s able to race from one side of the city to the other in about the same time it takes a parent to climb a staircase, and the Doctor is only able to get there first because he cheats. Grant’s mutual, unconsumated attraction to Lucy calls to mind the tale of Craig and Sophie, and while the love story here doesn’t hold the same sort of narrative credence that was there in ‘The Lodger’, there’s something very satisfying in the fact that Lucy prefers her heroes with their spectacles on.

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Elsewhere, pathos remains. There are references to River Song (whose name would have been better left unsaid, although you can’t blame Moffat for wanting to avoid an epidemic of tedious fan speculation and Twitter theory) and a sense of melancholy loneliness that bubbles under the surface without ever really breaking through the skin. The net result is a story that is accessible and satisfying but somehow sad, as befits the best Christmas entertainment, with everyone making the most of the limited screentime that 2016 has granted them. He may not have a great deal to do besides watch and eat sushi, but Capaldi’s clearly enjoying himself this week, even though the Doctor isn’t.

I’ve got nine paragraphs in without mentioning Nardole, but that’s largely because he works so well. Comic actors in semi-serious drama is a lottery – Frank Skinner was a roaring success, Rufus Hound a dismal failure – and the fact that the reassembled Nardole is far less irritating than he ought to have been is a testament both to Moffat’s writing and Lucas’ ability to reign it in. Discounting an anomalous, cringeworthy opening sequence, Nardole is inhabited with the sort of understated, bumbling charm that’s been greatly missing in the TARDIS since Rory was trapped in New York, and he has some enlightening conversations with the Doctor. It’s too early to tell how this will play out in series 10, in which Lucas is purported to make a series of appearances, but we might currently file it under ‘Well, that was a pleasant surprise’, perhaps alongside ‘Donna Noble’.

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There’s a much-quoted and not entirely accurate cliché suggesting that absence makes the heart grow fonder. When the announcement was made, back in January, that we’d have to wait for almost a full year without the Doctor, the sense of lamentation among fandom was so great that you could hear it on Mondas. But whatever else may have happened during the past year (it’s tempting to look back at 2016 as an annus horribalis, although I suspect history may be rather more generous) there were some of us who took it as an opportunity to take stock and look at exactly what it was we enjoyed about the show, and after a long period of soul-searching I concluded that if they’d decided to rest it completely, I wouldn’t mind. Perhaps we’re at the stage where it doesn’t matter whether Doctor Who is on or not, and where we can stop complaining about the number of episodes per year, and make the most of what we have. I don’t think it’s something that comes naturally, not to me, and not to fandom generally – when writing this one up, I stayed off Twitter, stayed away from Facebook, and didn’t read a single review, because I knew what many of the comments are going to say.

I’ve often wondered whether the concept of making the most of things is a reason we’re overly charitable to ‘Rose’, although to conclude thus probably does it a disservice. It’s no secret that the last forty-five seconds of the TV broadcast of ‘Mysterio’ consisted of a glib, action-filled trailer for series 10 that introduces an already irritating companion whom most of us have seen fit to judge before she even steps into the TARDIS. As someone who’s a willing advocate of that ‘God she’s irritating’ mindset I’d nonetheless suggest that I was wrong about Donna, wrong about Smith being too young and wrong (at least this week) about Nardole. And perhaps it doesn’t matter either way. If there’s one thing that a year without Doctor Who has taught me it’s to take it far less seriously than I have been, and treat at least some of its shortcomings as a by-product of a difficult production process. Perhaps all the show has to be, in the end, is enjoyable, rather than good, but perhaps that’s partly our responsibility, rather than simply the writer’s. Perhaps this is what happens when you allow obsession to dissolve into apathy, but I wonder whether we’d enjoy the experience far more if we’re willing to occasionally put a blind eye up to the telescope.

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I Believe in Father Christmas

It’s funny how, in putting this together, I had to go back and explore some of my least favourite stories.

Doctor Who at Christmas is an opportunity. Statistically, it’s the episode of the show that’s most likely to be watched by people who don’t normally watch it, existing as it does as a notch on the TV schedule at a time when most people are actually watching TV, accompanied by cheese and crackers and what’s left of the Christmas Eve gammon, and sandwiched somewhere between the BBC’s seasonal animation and a Two Ronnies compilation. Visiting family members perch awkwardly on the sofa, not quite sure what to make of this strange spectacle – a show that they might have watched in their childhood but haven’t seen since Tom Baker fell off the radio tower, or perhaps have never watched at all – as the resident enthusiast explains the basics. Or perhaps that’s just our house. Is it just our house? Please tell me it isn’t.

It’s therefore a crushing disappointment when they get it wrong. I suppose the sporting analogy would be taking your partner along to his or her inaugural game and have your team play an absolute damp squib instead of a blinder. They’ll wonder what on earth you see in this sort of recreational activity and you’ll find yourself prone to similar sudden introspection. The DW Christmas episode is, above all else, all about potential conversion and creating a story that’s accessible for the new or casual viewer (and it’s not just me, Peter Capaldi agrees). It’s not a time for endless continuity references and the resolution of complicated, series-long plot points: that sort of thing isn’t easy to stomach after a hard day’s feasting, unwrapping and shouting at the kids. I’d rather have something I can just watch and enjoy. (Judging the show’s seasonal installments in this manner, ‘The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe’ is a roaring success, while ‘The Time of the Doctor’ is a dismal failure.)

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My feelings on Christmas episodes are, at least within the context of this blog, well-documented (I’ll get a ‘Christmas’ tag done at some point, but if you’re really curious, check out some of the reviews or hover around the December point for each year of the archives). Externally, I wrote a little something for Metro a couple of years back that had earned the wrath of a few people who thought I’d got it totally wrong. Such is the cost of ranked lists, occurring as they do not within an objective vacuum but tainted by the personal views of whoever’s writing it, even if said personal views actually belong to a committee. In my case, I approached a recent Red Dwarf task by canvassing the opinions of various other people on Facebook, and coming up with a definitive order that reflected their views as much as my own. “Dude clearly wasn’t a red dwarf fan who made this post,” wrote one reader. “How can you not include quarantine. Rimmer in a gingham dress and MR flibbles!” To which my (unposted) answer is obviously “Because it’s my list, and not yours. Now bugger off.”

All the same. There’s something magical about even the worst of New Who when you view it out of context. The sleigh ride in ‘Last Christmas’. The lethal tree in ‘The Christmas Invasion’. Even those ridiculous snowmen. Taken as parts of lackluster episodes they’re tedious, but sandwiching them together seems to work. And there are many golden moments. Last year’s River Song episode was occasionally patchy, but the chemistry between Kingston and Capaldi far outweighed anything she’d achieved with his predecessor, and the moment when they’re standing on the balcony overlooking the Singing Towers is one of my favourite scenes in the Twelfth Doctor’s run.

I’d been toying with the idea of a Christmas montage for some weeks; it was just a question of picking the right song (copyright, as much as any artistic consideration, is a potential barrier). I’d just about chosen a track that I felt was appropriate (I’m not telling you what it is; I may use it in a year or two). Then Greg Lake – one third of the much-overrated prog rock tour de force that was Emerson, Lake and Palmer – died, and while his death was distressingly premature (2016, the year that just keeps on taking) it did at least make the song selection easier. Actually I think the end result is better than the video I would have made otherwise, which is about the only good thing I’m able to snatch from his death.

This probably won’t be my last post before the 25th – you’ll have to wait a few days for that – but it’s arguably the most Christmassy, and if we don’t speak again until the reindeer have eaten the mince pies, I hope your holiday season is peaceful and joyous, however you choose to spend it. And with that I’m off to watch ‘A Christmas Carol’ with Daniel, who’s been pleading for it since Saturday morning. If we’d waited until tomorrow it would have been the shortest day of the year, but real life, it seems, is never quite so neat and tidy. Still, that’s what makes it interesting.

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The Kasterborous Archives, #1: Should Doctor Who Abandon Continuity?

Author’s notes:

This was my first article for Kasterborous. You can tell, because it’s a respectable length: I was still trying to adhere to suggested word counts. It’s a little green around the edges, but it works. Have I changed my view on things? Actually, no…

 

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Should Doctor Who abandon continuity?

Published: 26 April 2015

There’s a documentary on the Day of the Daleks Special Edition that you really ought to see. It’s Toby Hadoke explaining the inconsistencies of UNIT dating. In a nutshell, it’s all going fine – just about – until Mawdryn Undead, which establishes the UNIT stories as taking place before the 1980 that Sarah Jane talks about so frequently. “The real question,” Toby suggests, “is does it matter?” before adding “OF COURSE IT DOES!”

He’s joking. But he’s onto something. Ultimately if you take this stuff too seriously it destroys you. Continuity never used to exist in Doctor Who (Terrance Dicks has said on more than one occasion that “History is what you can remember”). And then it did, and it’s impossible to really maintain it properly – but it still seems to matter, and as a result many fans are obsessive about seeing patterns in things that aren’t there. That’s why there are arguments about whether Clara’s grandmother is actually an elderly Amy (despite being too short, the wrong nationality, and about twenty years too young) or whether the Curator is actually a future Doctor or simply a gap in the fourth wall. Perhaps it’s all about making sense of an increasingly senseless world. Or perhaps we’re just bored these days. The internet has made the information available; why not use it? What else is it for, if not uploading videos of your cat?

There’s the question of age. Two Pertwee stories (The Silurians and Mind of Evil) both establish that the Doctor has lived for “several thousand years” – although that’s generally interpreted, I’m informed, to mean that he has seen things in several different millennia of times on Earth. But the retconning of the Doctor’s age in 2005 has nothing to do with his actual age (are we really going to ignore the six hundred years he spent on Orbis?) and is simply Russell T Davies picking a number out of the air. That’s his prerogative. I’m all for trying to make some sort of sense out of these things, but the people who try and produce accurate timelines of the Doctor’s lifespan – and then state that X couldn’t possibly have happened because it contradicts Y – are like the fundamentalists who try and date the world based on a literal reading of the Biblical timeline. It’s quite fun to watch, as long as you keep your head down during the ensuing fireworks.

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The truth is that Doctor Who can be whatever the chief writer wants it to be, because it’s transcended continuity. There are certain fundamental ground rules – no true love, no kissing, no beards – but that’s it. We’ve spent years shoehorning and explaining and reconciling continuity, and I sometimes wonder why. For example, Tegan’s appearance in A Fix With Sontarans is “non-canon”, because the story is “non-canon” – and the subsequent fan fiction attempts to reconcile Tegan with the Sixth Doctor, while undoubtedly well-meant, were frankly silly.

That’s all fine when we’re talking about fan fiction. It’s when it bleeds into the show that we all start to suffer. Attack of the Cybermen is a good story, but it suffers from needless references to previous adventures that are there purely to maintain continuity. I could put that down as anomalous, but it doesn’t stop with the eighties. Everything that Moffat’s done in the past couple of years has, it seems, been about maintaining continuity under the guise of revising it. He’s shoehorned in as many Important Changes as he can. We’ve seen the Doctor grow into the character we recognised through stories that are new to us. Origins have been rewritten (twice) at the hands of a companion that Moffat created. We’re even told that the Twelfth Doctor’s face matters; that it’s somehow significant (because casting a previously used actor in the title role is something that’s never been done before, honest). It’s been labelled as genius; personally I call it territory marking.

So I have a proposal. I’d like to suggest that Doctor Who more or less abandons the concept of continuity completely. I’d like to suggest that we don’t need it. I’d like to suggest that we ditch the idea of canonicity. It opens the door to a multitude of possibilities. It works for James Bond – where certain recurring themes, motifs and characters are just about the only thing connecting a group of completely different stories populated by completely different people, rendered in completely different styles. It works in the DC universe, whereupon the one constant throughout the myriad different versions of Batman that we’ve seen over the years is that he doesn’t kill (and even that’s occasionally up for grabs). We accept that Batman never ages because he’s Batman and because it’s a comic, but the Doctor’s ability to regenerate has saddled him with a millstone of continuity that I don’t think serves any particular purpose.

So why not abandon it? Why not have the Doctor fall readily in and out of love, go through periods of murderous rage, or even die? Why not have Dalek stories that contradict each other without having to retcon or justify your creative decisions? Why not have alternative origin stories, where the Doctor meets companions in different places, and says goodbye to them under different circumstances – and have them take place not in ‘parallel universes’, but in this one? Why not have writers who are allowed to place their own stamp on the show with more or less complete creative control, on the understanding that it doesn’t matter, because the next writer will also do their own thing? Why not start each series from scratch, and see where we go?

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Arguably, you do need what we’ll refer to as ‘local continuity’ (not my phrase, but I’m pinching it). A story probably shouldn’t contradict everything that happened last week. If you’re going to have a Doctor that’s thoroughly unpredictable every episode – that’s unpredictable in an unpredictable kind of sense, rather than an ‘abandon everyone on the moon and leave them to solve their own problems’ kind of sense – you stand to lose half your audience. If your companion is has a split personality people are going to become alienated unless you make it clear where you’re going. There’s a stark difference between development and plain inconsistency. Even the multi-faceted Claras that populated series seven weren’t so different from each other.

Still, even local continuity needn’t be a barrier. A competent writer might easily create an entire series full of stories that expressly contradict one another, as part of a wider mystery. By ‘wider mystery’ I don’t mean that the Doctor erroneously left his jacket on because of a production cock-up and the writers decided to turn it into a moment of great importance. I mean stories in which everything is purposely different, only for this to mean something – something that’s important, without actually overshadowing the narrative and merit of each individual story.

In the absence of that, I’d like to propose that even if the writers haven’t and are unlikely to abandon the concept of continuity, we need to stop being quite so precious about it. The word ‘we’ in this instance does not mean all of us. There are plenty of people I’ve spoken to who don’t give a damn about the contradictions. But lots of people do, both inside the business and out of it, and I wonder if perhaps the Whoniverse is suffering from people desperate to tie up every loose end, however much the picture is obscured as a result. And when that happens – when writers and fans alike are more concerned with what’s come before than what’s in front – we have a show and a fanbase that are knowledgeable and watertight, but ultimately full of nothing but hot air.

I don’t think that’s my kind of show. Is it yours?

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A trip to the moon

“No cheese, Gromit. Not a bit in the house!”

That? That was Edward. Specifically Edward back in May or June. He’s walking in and out of the lounge with a Jacob’s cream cracker in one hand and a cuddly tiger in the other. I am standing at the side of the room, grinding my teeth.

Let me explain. Edward’s obsessions tend to go in phases. For a while it was Hey Duggee!. Then it was Bing. The earliest memory I have, in fact, of his engagement with the TV is of him sitting on the floor rocking back and forth to the Twirlywoos theme. We are just now coming out of the Kazoops era, for which I am profoundly grateful: if I have to hear that wretched song about the Big Red Button one more time I’m going to kill a pig and dump the blood all over Jeanie’s head at the senior prom.

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Sandwiched somewhere in between all the CBeebies stuff was Wallace & Gromit. He watched them daily. Sometimes more often than that. I got thoroughly sick of brass band music. He took to quoting them liberally at every turn, and we’d join in. I have yet to road-test the flawed masterpiece that is The Curse of the Were Rabbit – a little too long and a little too scary is my current rationale for holding it in reserve – but the others he devoured. He sings along with the theme without the slightest provocation. He refers to Gromit as ‘Gromit lad’. We haven’t the heart to correct him.

Gromit, of course, is one of the world’s greatest silent film stars – the most soulful of creatures who manages to express a myriad different moods simply through eyes and body language. He’s broken out of prison, is a whizz with electronics and bakes a decent loaf of bread to boot. He’s intelligent, sensible and steadfastly loyal. We enjoy all of their adventures, although I think there are probably few moments as great as the scene when, towards the end of The Wrong Trousers, Gromit picks up the spare model railway pieces and starts building the track on the fly.

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Still, A Grand Day Out was Edward’s favourite. And I think it may have been Joshua who suggested “Ooh, you know what? You could do something with that John Lewis advert.”

You remember. It was last Christmas and everyone was crying buckets at the sight of a little girl sending a telescope up to the moon so the old man who lived up there wouldn’t be so lonely. It required a suspension of disbelief that rivals the prerequisite for Armageddon, but it made a serious point about loneliness and ageing, and for that I am willing to forgive all manner of structural flaws. After the idiocy that was Monty the Penguin I thought I’d become too cynical to be moved by these things, but that finale had me crying in my office chair.

John Lewis responded to the near-unanimous praise for this heartfelt story by following it with a ridiculous, selfishly materialistic piece of rubbish about a dog on a trampoline. It is bollocks. I am not getting into it here, but you can read my not-entirely-serious rebuttal in Metro, if you like. It was basically a bit of fun but I do seem to have earned the wrath of the Facebook community. There have been calls for my head. “The person who wrote this,” said one person, “probably voted out and supports Trump”. That’s gone on the testimonials page. I’m keeping that one.

Anyway: if you look at the man on the moon video it lends itself to some sort of tribute, and I found it in A Grand Day Out. It’s a strange tale that takes in Méliès and adds a walking oven. The apparent presence of oxygen is never explained, but then again John Lewis didn’t explain it either. The character designs are a bit rough and ready but Peter Sallis is clearly having fun, and the story – though inconsequential – is engaging.

Putting this together was relatively simple; it was just a question of restructuring the episode and making it look as if the two of them had gone there specifically to drop off a present for a lonely robot, rather than having said robot try and kill Wallace with a truncheon. The song you can hear is Aurora’s cover of ‘Half The World Away’ – I used the sound from the TV ad, as this had a pleasant instrumental section that isn’t in her recording. Unfortunately this meant having to find something to accompany the sound of playing children, but the chattering mice in the basement provided that. And it ends, much like A Grand Day Out, with the oven skiing across the surface of the moon. It’s not quite telescopes and smiling pensioners. But it works. Merry Christmas. Goodwill to all men, women and dogs.

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