Posts Tagged With: entertainment

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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Five things that Doctor Who could learn from Twin Peaks (part two)

 

Population 51,201. Possibly not for much longer.

(If you missed Part One, it’s available here.)

Now, where were we…?

3. Resolutions are for wimps

It’s funny how the words “What year is this?” sound great at the beginning of a Doctor Who episode but were a notorious let-down for many fans when they dumped them at the end of the Twin Peaks finale. As Cooper and the resurrected Laura / Carrie / whoever the hell she was leave the Palmer residence and stand in the street outside, Cooper’s mute hesitancy returns: dumbstruck and unable to do anything, his final line of dialogue is an unhelpful question that addresses nothing at all. It’s left to Laura to have the last word, although said last word is a scream that could outdo Bonnie Langford. In a parallel universe where Doctor Who was made in America, she’d have made a hell of a companion.

It was frustrating as hell, but there was something glorious about it. Having spent the last few weeks gradually building up to Cooper’s triumphant return, Lynch grants us a final confrontation with BOB (who is dispatched, somewhat bizarrely, by a cockney geezer wearing a single glove who punches him to death). You could probably have left it there, and we’d have been happy, more or less. Instead Lynch retcons the last twenty-five years (the ramifications of which are glossed over in Cooper’s warning that “There are some things that will change”) and then sends Cooper and Diane off on a fool’s errand: to find Laura Palmer. They cross (we presume) to a parallel universe, have sex in a motel, whereupon Cooper wakes up somewhere else. None of it makes sense. Oh, there are fan theories. There inevitably are. Where no explanation is provided, it is human nature to find one. But when it comes to the entity formerly known as Judy, no answer is given beyond the vaguest of explanations: Lynch, it seems, is happy to leave things as they are, perhaps for good.

There is a scene at the end of episode 16 that caused collective jaws to drop. You know the one I mean. It’s the one with Audrey. There is a moment you realise something is up: it’s when the master of ceremonies announces ‘Audrey’s Dance’, whereupon Ms. Horne slides seductively across a deserted dance floor, surrounded by onlookers – until the moment we flash-cut to a scene in a white room, where she’s staring into a mirror. The implication is that Audrey is in some kind of hospital (one would assume psychiatric) and that the scenario in which she found herself – a rich, embittered woman searching for a missing family member – was taking place entirely in her head, with her pedantic, hopelessly mismatched husband quite possibly a real life doctor who’d managed to work his way into the delusion. It is then that you realise that every conversation Audrey has had – every scene, come to that – has taken place in the company of this man and this man alone, thus leading us to imagine that somewhere along the line (presumably after she slept with Cooper) she went completely off the rails, and that everything we thought she’d seen was strictly in her head.

Still, that’s as far as it goes. It’s an implication because we never visit or hear from Audrey again, her plot strand left tantalisingly dangling. As a potential framing device it’s devastatingly effective, calling to mind Buffy’s ‘Normal Again’: just how much of the story, besides the scenes we know about, took place inside Audrey’s head? That’s a question we’d perhaps be unable to ask ourselves had we been party to any sort of further glimpse into her mental state; the more abstract the resolution, the greater the scope for filling the gaps. Similarly, the frustrating / glorious thing about the finale is that it opens up a world of possibilities and leaves them there, the same way that series 2 left things on a cliffhanger back when Cooper was sat in that bathroom. There is something nice about being able to answer the question yourself. Besides, cliffhangers are eventually resolved, after a fashion, even if it takes twenty-five years. We may not yet be done with Carrie Page and whatever it was she was running from.

Curiously there’s one episode of Doctor Who that actually does this quite well, if only because the planned sequel to ‘Sleep No More’ has yet to materialise and indeed is now looking increasingly unlikely. It means there are frequent requests on social media for clarification. It sadly also means the episode sits near the bottom of people’s lists of favourite stories, simply because some people don’t like its unresolved state. Well, I guess you can’t have everything.

 

4. You don’t have to make a point

I’ve just read a Tweet from Marie Claire that incensed me. They recently published an article in which they called out Taylor Swift for, among other things, remaining apolitical in the 2016 election. “Taylor is not required to be vocal about her politics,” they said, “…but it’s also fair to side-eye and question her decision to remain silent.”

No it bloody isn’t. When you’re thrust into the public eye you’re expected, up to a point, to be a role model for the impressionable young people who idolise you, but that only works so far. It is not the responsibility of any celebrity to state political allegiances, discuss social issues or make statements on abuse and feminism. That is a matter of personal choice, irrespective of how many people follow them on Twitter. They don’t have to say anything – and when they do, we inevitably tell them to shut up and keep recording music / making films / writing Harry Potter books, as if the creative process ought to be sufficiently fulfilling in itself. You can’t have it both ways. We lambast the political actors as much as we decry the ones who stay on the fence – or who are sensible enough to stay quiet on issues they don’t want to discuss. An apolitical outlook is not a mark of cowardice; it’s a sign of integrity.

Doctor Who is equally obsessed with Talking About Important Things. Actually, that’s not fair. It’s more that the BBC are equally obsessed. 300-word soundbite articles about social commentary are endemic. If it’s not the racism in ‘Thin Ice’ (a story which foreshadowed the Punch A Nazi phenomenon with uncanny precision) it’s the capitalism in ‘Oxygen’, or the gay thing in…oh, every sodding episode. Listen. ‘Oxygen’ is a great story because it is bloody scary. That’s it. It has space zombies and and that brilliant scene where they’re exposed to the vacuum. The air-as-commodity thing may be what drives the narrative but I don’t watch Doctor Who for its political content, astute (if somewhat heavy handed) as that may sometimes be. I watch it because it has monsters and because it makes me laugh, when it’s good. There’s plenty of political content in The Spectator; all futurism aside, why on earth would you look for it in a tinpot sci-fi show?

I’m not saying it’s wrong to use science fiction as a medium for this. That’s the joy of it; the detached setting allows you to say the things you can’t say about your contemporaries. There’s a reason ‘The Happiness Patrol’ is one of my favourites. But note the indefinite article there – a reason, not the reason. ‘Happiness’ is also great because it looks moody (on a shoestring) and it has a freakish Bertie Bassett monster. Do we remember ‘The Zygon Inversion’ because it frightens and occasionally surprises us, or because Harness uses a sledgehammer to crack a nut in that game-changing monologue? Would it have been improved with a closing fourth wall break to camera, the sort of thing they did in Masters of the Universe? Should the Doctor tell us to take care of ourselves, and each other?

What messages do you find in Lynch’s movies? Oh, there are plenty. The Straight Story was about family. The Elephant Man examines the Victorian freak show on two levels, both upstairs and downstairs. And there’s a heap of stuff about the darkness hidden beneath the surface of suburban respectability; that’s practically his entire output, although Blue Velvet was the archetype. Twin Peaks is about a man who rapes and murders his daughter but curiously that’s where it stops. There is no heavy-handed moral. Instead there is a quirky FBI agent with a caffeine addiction who rides into town admiring the trees, and the rapist father falls on top of his daughter’s coffin at the funeral.

Series 3 is even more abstract. Things happen because they happen: Richard is an irredeemable bastard simply because he is the offspring of Bob. Dougie Jones is a gambling addict in a bad way with the loan sharks, but the programme makes no comment on this beyond showing the impact it’s had on his marriage – a situation that is resolved, paradoxically, when Cooper wins big at the casino. Twin Peaks is a show about a good many things, but it has no real message to impart – merely a Rorschach collection of fragments, from which we may derive what we will. The only thing it has to say of any real substance, as it turns out, is death.

Speaking of which…

 

5. There is a right way and a wrong way to show death

My feelings on death in Doctor Who are complicated, but there’s a decent summary of them over at The Doctor Who Companion. Here’s the Cliff Notes: Doctor Who has it all wrong when it comes to death. Characters die and then show up again next episode. They’re given miracle cures, frozen hearts, parallel existences. Often, the word ‘death’ means something else entirely. You have seen all this and you do not need me to go through it again with you. In addressing its portrayal of the hereafter (or at least the end of the herebefore), the outgoing showrunner proclaims that “Doctor Who is a big-hearted, optimistic show that believes in kindness and love and that wisdom will triumph in the end. I don’t believe it’s the kind of show that says there are bitter, twisted, nasty endings because it’s not.”

Which is not a bad way to think, but it sidesteps the question. We’re not talking about a show where people face death and then manage, against all odds, to survive. I could live with that. We’re talking about a programme which actively kills its leads and then resurrects them, or in which death is rendered meaningless because of parallel universes, or time travel, or causality – or something that happened six episodes back that we didn’t see. That’s the Marvel approach to death. That’s cheating. I’m fine with happy endings. But don’t give us a happy ending when you’ve already given us a sad one. All it does is undermine death, and at the risk of sounding all Mary Whitehouse, that’s not a healthy mindset to induce in a young and impressionable audience.

Twin Peaks was always going to be different, because it’s a show about a murder, and a number of people die. But the greatest and most profound moment in the third series occurs in part 15, where the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Office gets its final phone call from Margaret Lanterman, known to most of us as The Log Lady. Having spent the entire series housebound, her cryptic announcements rendered in a series of conversations, the Log Lady admits in these final moments of her life that “There’s some fear…some fear of letting go”. Ultimately she embraces it, but not without trepidation, and as she signs off for the final occasion, the clouds cover the moon. There is a devastating poignancy in this elegy for a fallen mystic, both in the mournful tone of Lanterman’s final words and the the dignified silence they receive from Hawk. It is conducted more or less in silence, the gaps between dialogue forming a subtext that is almost Pinteresque. The fact that Catherine Coulson was herself dying when this scene was shot – passing away, if the urban legends have it correctly, a mere four days later – is the icing on a very rich, bitter cake.

 

And there you have it. It’s not all-inclusive, nor is it definitive. And it may be wrong. I’m always happy for people to tell me I’m wrong. But it’s one way we might revive the hopes of a stagnant (if still enjoyable) programme: look at what other people are doing, and learn from them. Times change and so must I, says the Doctor. Perhaps the extent to which things need to change is greater than anyone realises. Perhaps not. But it can’t do any harm to be talking about it.

The best thing we saw on TV this year, incidentally, was Midnight Sun. But perhaps I’ll save that one for another day.

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Five things that Doctor Who could learn from Twin Peaks (part one)

It was a revival twenty-five years in coming. It was the revival we thought we’d never actually get and could scarcely believe was actually happening until the moment the first trailers dropped onto YouTube. It was confusing, horrifying, hysterical, perplexing, frustrating. It was brilliant. It was obscene. It was the second-best thing we saw on TV this year.

It was Twin Peaks, and I can’t help thinking that while its very uniqueness made it special, other shows would benefit by copying at least some of its examples. Whatever your feelings on the dark, twisted return to Washington and the evil in those woods – on the questions answered and the others that sprung forth from nothingness like an emerging tulpa – there can be no arguing that it was a unique spectacle. Love or hate it, there was nothing like it on TV this year, nor is there likely to be again.

Let’s start with a disclaimer: the immediate response to a blog title like this one is that Doctor Who is a very different show and it would be risky, if not downright irresponsible, to emulate the sort of example that Twin Peaks set with its layers of enigmas and disturbing content. Doctor Who is a tinpot sci-fi show for Saturday evenings. It is enjoyed by millions precisely because it is accessible. Turning it into Twin Peaks Lite would be nothing short of monstrous. They are cut from very different cloths: it’s forming a handkerchief out of cow hide. It would kill the appeal of the original stone dead; it’s Gershwin seeking piano lessons from one of his idols, only to be told that he’d be better off serving as a first-rate Gershwin, rather than a second-rate Ravel.

Doctor Who should not try and be the new Twin Peaks, even if the new showrunner spent three years on Broadchurch attempting that very gambit (with some or no success, depending on who you ask). Simultaneously there were moments we watched it when I found myself seething in frustration. “If Doctor Who did this,” I remember saying, at least once, “it’d be a much better show.”

Today – and tomorrow, because this turned out to be longer than I’d expected – we’re going to explore just some of the things that might turn a fun show into a great one, provided they’re tackled in the right way.

Warning: this is spoiler-heavy. If you don’t want to know what happened in Twin Peaks: The Return, you would be advised not to read any further.

 

1. Not everything needs to be explained

There’s a thread on the Doctor Who Facebook group I just had to mute. It concerned ‘The Almost People’. “Why,” this person was asking, “did the Flesh solidify into real people when they walked into the TARDIS, but Amy was still a Ganger?” There is a perfectly simple explanation for this – Amy’s avatar is more advanced, thereby rendering the TARDIS technology obsolete – but it wasn’t enough to deter the usual crowd of Moffat-bashers. “Shit writing,” we were told. “Typical of this showrunner. Be glad when he leaves.”

It isn’t shit writing, nor is it quite as concrete as we’d like it to be. It is a partially resolved loophole, delivered in the same manner as Amy and Rory’s final story (which has a convenient get-out clause that’s disgracefully overlooked, in order to maximise the emotional pathos of their departure without actually killing them off). I was told a few weeks ago that there was no such thing as a plot hole – just a need to look elsewhere. If something happened that didn’t make any sense, you could usually find the answer by listening to a particular Big Finish audio, locating an obscure book, or scouring through 1800 words in a Reddit thread. “This,” I remember replying, “is just the sort of thing I find monumentally tiresome. I don’t mind the occasional mental workout, but I don’t want to go through Doctor Who with a notepad so I can write down all the things I need to research so that the episode will make sense.”

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering whether I was wrong about that, and whether there might be any mileage in having stuff that doesn’t make sense, on any level. ‘Ghost Light’ is about the best Classic example, although ‘Warriors’ Gate’ comes a decent second. It’s not that they don’t make sense, it’s just that strange things happen for no apparent reason and we basically deal with it. There is no follow-up to ‘Warriors’ Gate’ that I know of, and thus much of the weirdness is endemic to the zen themes the story drifts around, not to mention its peculiar (and gloriously effective) directorial style. It’s fun because it’s about as abstract and indefinable as Who gets. Somewhere in a parallel universe there’s a director’s cut of ‘Heaven Sent’ that’s missing Capaldi’s voiceover, and it’s hailed as a masterpiece.

In one episode of Twin Peaks, Sarah Palmer is accosted by a man in a bar. The scene concludes when she opens up her face. It is nonsensical – and, in its own way, quietly horrifying. It has absolutely no bearing on anything that’s come before – a brief supermarket meltdown aside – and it’s not mentioned again. Sarah is a bereaved woman who has suffered much and who has, for whatever reason, got a monster living inside her. It reminded me of the ‘house-heads’ storyline from the 1991 Comic Relief graphic novel spin-off, which someone has (rejoice!) written up and reproduced here so that I don’t have to. What happens to Sarah is all the more horrifying given that it has no place in the story, and seems to have sprung into existence fully formed – King Lear may have told his youngest daughter that “Nothing will come from nothing”, but try telling David Lynch.

Elsewhere, there’s episode 8. No one understood episode 8. It is one of the most bizarre and disturbing things the director has ever committed to film, and that includes Eraserhead. There’s no denying that The Return was, in many ways, more pure Lynch than the original series – it felt like the show he’d always wanted to make, but couldn’t until he could find a way to get those nasty network executives off his back. It is unpleasant, grotesque, riddled with profanity and occasionally indecipherable (this is all a good thing, by the way, let me be clear on that) and episode 8 was arguably as indecipherable as it got. Beginning with an attempted murder, the episode’s centrepiece is a lengthy black and white segment which opens with the birth of BOB, seemingly from a mushroom cloud, blooming in slow motion from the force of the atomic explosion and accompanied, appropriately enough, by Penderecki’s Threnody. Then it gets weird. For those of you reading this without having seen it, I really can’t begin to explain. For the rest of you, anyone got a light?

Over in the Whoniverse, Rory Williams dies, and then gets erased from history. Come the series 5 finale, he’s back. When asked how this could happen, the Doctor says “Sometimes, impossible things happen, and we call them miracles.” And true to form, it’s eventually revealed that both Rory and the other Romans are a construct based on Amy’s school project (and, one assumes, a photo on the mantelpiece). But I like the first explanation better. I like the idea that it might be an unexplained miracle. Perhaps, sometimes, that’s all you need.

2. Remember what peace there may be found in silence

Regular readers will know that this is a particular bugbear of mine. Number one on my laundry list of Things Doctor Who Ought To Do is turn it down a bit. Murray Gold’s score has its moments, but the effect of them is diluted by a series of droning incidental tracks that don’t go anywhere, and merely serve to dampen the dialogue. Watch some of the scenes unscored and the sheer power of the acting shines through – and there is a goodness in Doctor Who’s acting, however much it may be drowned by an unwanted undercurrent of strings and pianos. There is a bravery in presenting your material naked and raw, allowing the audience to form its own emotional bond without the crutch of a score (used, at least in Doctor Who, in a similar manner to a laugh track) that tells you what you ought to be feeling and when.

Twin Peaks has a scene in its series 3 opener where Dr. Jacoby is spray-painting shovels. It takes place in more or less complete silence, with nothing but the wind, the ambient noise of the forest and the quiet hiss of the spray can accompanying the psychiatrist’s diligent work. The effect is calming, contemplative, meditative even. It appears at first glance to bear absolutely no relation to the plot: as was typical with The Return, many seeds that were sown earlier bore fruit many weeks later.

Even some of the musical scenes are quiet. Fairly early on in series 3 there’s a scene in which a man sweeps the floor of the Bang Bang Bar, accompanied by ‘Green Onions’. All of it, more or less. These scenes hold up as interludes, like the 1950s interludes the BBC used to show when they needed to fill an extra couple of minutes before the next broadcast. The effect – a series of seemingly unrelated sequences, built up over a number of weeks into a brightly covered but loosely strung patchwork – is startling. This is a programme that takes its time with just about everything, and that turns out to work in its favour.

When it comes to dialogue, Lynch sticks to his guns: the bulk of TP dialogue takes place with little or no soundtrack, save the occasional ambient drone. The effect this has is that when music does show up, it’s all the more memorable: there are a number of examples we could draw upon, but things perhaps reach a zenith in episode 16 when Cooper revives in the hospital. As he rises and dresses and makes phone calls, suddenly all business and more himself again than he’s been all season, the Twin Peaks theme plays quietly in the background, rising in volume as Cooper finally gets to say all the things he’s clearly been wanting to say since first being trapped in the stunted, almost catatonic state that defined much of the third series. “You’re a fine man, Bushnell Mullins,” he says, shaking the insurance mogul by the hand. “I will not soon forget your kindness and decency.”

As he turns to leave, the dumbstruck Mullins finds his voice. “What about the FBI?” Whereupon Cooper turns in the doorway, offers one of those reassuring smiles, stares directly through the fourth wall and says “I am the FBI.”

As the Man From Another Place might have said, “ELECTRICITY.”

Part Two available here.

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The Mine song – Doctor Who edition

Bump. Bump. Bump. Can you hear that? That is the sound of the bandwagon, travelling along the rickety road. I was going to say it takes its time, but actually I’d be wrong. It speeds along in a frenzy, its wheels afire with Facebook trends and retweets and Buzzfeed mentions, and jumping upon it – as I am endeavouring to do, crouched here in the bushes – is not as easy as it looks. You run the risk of wobbling, losing your footing and falling off entirely, and even if you do manage to secure a hold and climb aboard, you’ll find the wagon already crowded with other poor souls who had similar ideas. The wagon may be mighty and fast, but it is full.

I had a go nonetheless, and for this you have my children to thank. I believe I’ve written before about the lunacy of some viral videos. I never understood ‘Charlie bit my finger’, for example, and yet apparently Osama bin Laden had it on his laptop. The Duck Song (I’m not linking; you can look it up) is tedious and cloying, as are its numerous follow-ups. And Thomas developed a rapt fascination with a ten-second clip of a singing dinosaur (and its related video, in which said dinosaur is the subject of a six hour loop), and a bizarre mashup that combines footage from He-Man with a badly produced cover of 4 Non Blondes’ ‘What’s Up?’. For the sake of posterity, both are embedded here.

What’s going on? I don’t know. Do you? To be fair, this is the sort of thing I do, although I wonder how much of it is apeing things the boys have shown me in the hope of creating something that’ll get more than a few dozen hits. Wandering in and out of the study and the bedroom and frequently catching something completely random has given me a window into a corner of the internet I didn’t know existed, and which serves a purpose I do not fully understand. And when it comes to LazyTown, things get even more bizarre. I think I’ve written about LazyTown once in here before – a while back, when we were talking about reversing that Fish Custard video. You may look there for further doses of randomness, should you experience the whim.

For the uninitiated: a young girl called Stephanie arrives in a brightly coloured small town where the lethargic inhabitants are under the thumb of local supervillain, the flamboyant Robbie Rotten, who spends most of his time slumped in his underground lair. Robbie’s posture is so poor it’s a wonder he hasn’t experienced serious back problems, but he’s paradoxically the most active citizen in the entire town, spending most of his free time dashing around its streets and gardens, in a variety of Shakespearean disguises, endeavouring to find ways to keep everyone else confined to the sofa. “I feel disgustingly healthy,” he grumbles at the end of the one episode where this is actually pointed out, and indeed, it’s a hallmark of the self-loathing that seems to drive his character.

Stephanie is aided in her efforts to revitalise the town’s energies by Sportacus – a tracksuited hyperactive sports nut who descends from his airship at the beginning of each episode, and with whom Stephanie establishes a strange, borderline inappropriate relationship. Mercifully, she also has her own peer group, all with their own foibles: Ziggy (sweets), Pixel (video games), and Trixie (no respect for authority; dresses like bad Iron Man cosplay). And then there’s Stingy, a haughty, selfish and deeply materialistic child who practically screams white male privilege; by no means irredeemable but known throughout the LazyTown cinematic universe as being an utter bastard.

It’s a curious fusion of techniques that hearkens back to Sesame Street. Stephanie, Sportacus and Robbie – being the most overtly physical people in LazyTown – are all played by live actors, while everyone else appears in puppet form. It’s the sort of thing that throws you when you’re visiting Butlins and catch the live show, in which the puppet characters appear as fully grown humans wearing character masks; the effect is rather like a freshly regenerated Matt Smith bellowing “LEGS! I’VE GOT LEGS!”. (Sesame Street Live is similarly disconcerting, although it’s partly because Elmo was so goddamned huge.)

Perhaps the saddest part about the whole thing is the news that Stefán Karl Stefánsson (extra credit: find me a more Icelandic name than that, if you can), who plays Robbie Rotten, is suffering from terminal cancer, although he’s apparently improved. Meanwhile Kim Jong-un is the picture of perfect health, and you wonder if there is a God.

LazyTown is replete with songs, most of which are downright irritating, but it’s two in particular that have made the viral rundown. There’s ‘We Are Number One’ – which you can see in the post linked above, although be aware that the version I embedded is backwards. And there’s the ‘Mine’ song – Stingy’s big solo, remixed and Photoshopped and warped beyond all measure all across the internet, whether it’s a ridiculous zooming effect or (a personal favourite) the coming of the apocalypse.

And there comes a point where you figure that joining them is better than failing to beat them, and that’s how we got here. This took about an hour and a half to put together, most of which was scouring transcripts for appropriate shouts of ‘mine’, not to mention ripping them from the Doctor Who episodes. And as a special prize, the first person to tell me every episode I used gets one of Ziggy’s sweets. And an apple. It’s what Sportacus would have wanted.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Halloween special)

Sorry about the radio silence this last week, folks: I’ve been in Cheshire, where there is not much to report.

Over in Whoville, of course, things have been getting busy with the news of an upcoming Doctor Who themed musical from the writers of Les Miserables.

Well, everyone wanted Eddie Redmayne as the Doctor, didn’t they?

Elsewhere, unreleased concept art for ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ drifts to the surface, confirming many of our suspicions about Amy and Rory.

We sure picked a creepy night to land in a pocket universe, Scooby Doo.

And on a quiet street somewhere in Basingstoke, the Doctor frankly didn’t see it coming.

Enjoy your Halloween, and don’t let the bed bugs bite.

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Have I Got Whos For You – part 321

It’s been a bad week for Theresa May at the Gallifrey Party Conference.

Elsewhere, the Twelfth Doctor is down with the kids, innit?

And finally, here’s that photo of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage in an elevator, only…

Enjoy your weekend, kids.

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The Rainbow Connection

Today, boys and girls, you have a choice. You can read this through, or you can skip to the bottom. That’s where the video is. I will not hold it against you, and I’ll never know you did it. Your time is precious. But do, at least, spare five minutes to watch the Thing At The End, because that’s the whole point.

Somewhere in the home counties – I’m thinking Surrey, although it’s never clear – in a cheerfully painted house, a fluffy gay hippo is carefully stacking blocks. To his left, there is a weird orange thing that may or may not be extraterrestrial, doing a puzzle. There is a piece missing: in his frustration, he chucks the box in the direction of the hippo, upsetting his tower. “Ooh, Zippy!” complains the hippo, rife with melodrama. “Zat’s very naughty! Now I’ve got to start again!”

“Oh, well, never mind George,” says the alien. “You can always make another one.”

Stage right, there is a large brown bear reading a comic. “Oh, Zippy,” he sighs. “You are careless.”

“Yes, well, it’s not my fault!” says the alien. “He shouldn’t have been building right next to my jigsaw!”

Their greying foster carer – all sensible shirts and white trainers – walks in, carrying a basket of washing that is inexplicably full given that he’s the only person in the house who wears any clothes. Scenes like this no longer astound or surprise him the way they once did: he’s watched every episode of The Dumping Ground and accepts most of his job is firefighting the squabbles and arguments his young charges have daily. He suspects the alien may have ADHD. He has caught the bear rewiring the electrics once or twice and has asked him not to. The hippo is constantly put upon by his would-be siblings, and the people down the road are always holding impromptu glee clubs in his front room. This, he reflects, was not how he saw his life going when he signed up for this gig.

When we were children, Rainbow was a part of the furniture. It had been around so long that no one gave its murky origins a second thought. There were all manner of questions about the setup in the house – who were these strange anthropomorphic characters and why were they living with this middle-aged storyteller? What did they do for money? And are the frequent fourth wall breaks some sort of indication that they’re in some sort of kids’ version of Big Brother, mercifully without the sex? But no one really asked. It was just something we accepted. It was, like Doctor Who, more about the situation, and the hijinks that ensued, than anything that might have led to them.

It’s strange when you reflect upon how much things have changed. I often read comments on the CBeebies Facebook page about The Tweenies, usually complaining about something obnoxious that Bella is doing. It is inconceivable that a show like that would be made today. Everyone spends all their time arguing. The characters are real, but they’re not a good influence, and even though their behaviour usually results in consequences and discipline, that’s lost on today’s thou-shalt-parent-my-children-for-me audience. While it’s hard to pinpoint precisely where it happened, somewhere along the line we lost the concept of dramatic irony.

There was – I swear I’m not making this up – an episode of Rainbow where Rod, Jane and Freddy sang a song that went “A flying saucer / In our garden / It must have come from outer space…”. Whereupon Zippy poked his head out of the window and offered them a trip to the stars, which they gleefully accepted, finishing the song along the way. It was, to my mind, the best origin story for Zippy that we’ve ever had. There is no other explanation for a creature with a zip sewn into its mouth, other than one that evolved on a planet where it’s an essential survival feature. Perhaps he was expelled from his home world for being thoroughly obnoxious – it would explain why ‘cousin’ Zippo is so mind-numbingly placid, at least until that later episode where he develops a bad American accent and starts talking about crisps.

Little moments like this are integral to our understanding of Rainbow. There are episodes where Geoffrey randomly ‘has to go out’. We never know where he goes (unless he returns with something plot-related) or why. Sessions at the dole office immediately spring to mind. So too do images of Geoffrey attending a drug deal or hiring himself out as a gigolo. It all depends on the mood I’m in. So you can understand why I’d latch onto the image of Zippy emerging from a wrecked spacecraft and setting up home with a bear and a hippo, which is to all intents and purposes what the song implies. (It also implies, of course, that Rod, Jane and Freddy were actually housed together in some sort of communal living situation, which corroborates many 1980s tabloid rumours.)

Then there’s…um. Rainbow cosplay.

I mean, seriously. What the hell is that? It’s like Zippy ate him. At least he can still breathe, which is presumably a situation that can be quickly altered with the swipe of a zip at the top. Come to think of it why does this have a working zip anyway, given that its sudden closure by an external party is likely to render the occupant airless and blind in an instant? Is this some sort of gimp outfit you use for fetish games? Does Christian Grey have one? It is only marginally less disturbing than the Rainbow comics which hit the stands back in the 1990s, in which every character looks basically normal except for George, who bears the haunted, blank-eyed stare of a hippo possessed.

(If you enjoy exploring the seedy underbelly of the animals in the house, you would be well-advised to check out World of Crap, who have devoted pages and pages to rewritten Rainbow comics with amusing captions.)

I’ve dabbled with Rainbow before, of course, in a video that I still quite like, some six years after its creation (not to mention Roy Skelton’s death, which upped the hit count considerably). But Zippy’s only one part of the trio – and while he’s the obvious candidate for voice transposition, that doesn’t mean the others don’t have potential. Except that George is timid and often stumbles over his words, of course, which makes placing him difficult. That left Bungle, who is usually well-spoken, as well as prone to bouts of pomposity. When it came to finding a Doctor Who character for him to replace, there really was only one choice, and that was Omega.

It’s not that I don’t like ‘The Three Doctors’. I think it’s overrated, not to mention structurally problematic – one of those stories that is beloved because it was the first multi-Doctor fusion (and even then, it fails to deliver on its title’s promise). The bickering between Pertwee and Troughton is about the best part of the story – although an unexpected highlight occurs when Benton walks into the TARDIS for the first time, and refuses to state the obvious. The Gel guards are quite fun, but this one is perhaps the epitome of the ‘Stupid Brigadier’ phase, in which U.N.I.T.’s finest devolves into a reactionary simpleton who refuses to accept the evidence of his own eyes.

Then there’s Omega, a villain so melodramatic it’s impossible to see him as a serious threat. Omega’s role in ‘The Three Doctors’ is to shout. In ‘Arc of Infinity’, it’s to shout some more, and then decompose at the edge of a river, just after bonding with a small child over the sight of an organ grinder. In ‘Omega’, the 2003 Big Finish audio drama, his role is to convince you that he’s the Doctor, which he manages with aplomb. But for the most part it’s just a lot of shouting. There must be a reason for all that anger. You almost want Tennant to lean round the door of his chamber, survey Omega’s colossally oversized mask and mutter “Compensating for something?”

Still, masks are handy. I use masks a lot, simply because it makes the dubbing much easier. And there’s something fun about having a supposedly sinister character rendered ridiculous. In the case of Omega, it only half works. You can make him ridiculous all right; he just isn’t very sinister.

When it came to putting this together, I wanted it to feel as close to an actual episode of Rainbow as possible, so I started with the animations. There are two of them, built up in that slow, frame-by-frame style (the sound effects, by the way, are all ripped directly from the show). Originally it was just going to be K-9, but I put the other one in just for the heck of it – the same might be said for the Rod, Jane and Freddy song that shows up later, although that’s partly the silliness of Pertwee’s slow motion fight with Omega.

The biggest problem was Bungle’s voice, which is less consistent than you imagine (unlike Zippy, who always sounds like Zippy). It’s perhaps most obvious in the opening scene, in which the changes are obvious. This being a Classic episode, I didn’t have the luxury of score-free dialogue, which meant dealing with ambience and the occasional sting from Dudley Simpson (who recently turned 95, if you want another entry to your list of Entertainment Veterans You Hadn’t Realised Weren’t Dead Yet). As a result it’s rather rough around the edges, and I almost like it that way.

Oh, and make sure you watch to the end…

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Doctor Who: the alternative headlines

When you work in the press, in whatever capacity, you’re surrounded by headlines. They’ve always been important, but in the digital age they’re the very lifeblood of what we do. In a world where success is monitored by the hit counter, first impressions are vital. That’s why clickbait is such big business: when a deadline is looming but you have nothing interesting to say, make it look as though you have. This revelation came to me quite recently, but what happened next will astound you.

In all seriousness: there’s nothing wrong (all right, rephrase: there’s nothing particularly new) about sexing up a headline a little bit, so long as you don’t tell any outright lies. Part of the problem stems from expectations – before the birth of the internet you could scan the body text beneath the headline and get an idea of the piece without having to actually read it in full, or at the very least ascertain its length. These days, if you’re being fed a juicy story, chances are it’ll be on social media, where the headline and covering image has been scrupulously prepared for maximum impact so as to grab your attention, with the actual text lurking on another page – and by the time you’ve worked out it wasn’t worth your time, you’ve already clicked.

People react to this with varying degrees of annoyance – personally, I’d say it’s all part of the way that online news has developed, and that the pious “There, I saved you a click” brigade really need to grow a sense of humour. But I would say that, seeing as it’s what passes for a day job. What annoys me is the tedious, over-excited headlines we draw from all those conveniently-worded soundbites that you get at the press screenings, convention appearances and Doctor Who Magazine editorials. Let me give you a few examples from the last year:

  • Jenna Coleman thinks Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who casting is “genius”
  • The next series of Doctor Who will feel like “the first episode you ever see”
  • Is this the greatest scene in modern Doctor Who history?
  • A scene in the Doctor Who Christmas special had the Doctors “almost blubbing”
  • Steven Moffat drops hints about Jodie Whittaker’s first Doctor Who scenes: “She’s given us the Doctor we’ve always known”

Don’t get me wrong. The BBC wants to sell its own product, and I’m OK with that. You need to be outwardly enthusiastic; any producer who said they thought they had a turkey on their hands would likely be given their cards, and we all know what happens when the stars dare to insult the directors. But still. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told I’ll be stunned, amazed, upset and blown away by what’s going to happen in the next series of Who, or how things were going to be truly fantastic.

Can I plead, perhaps, for a little more honesty? Or if that’s really not something we do (“The truth, Minister? You can’t expect Her Majesty’s Government to start telling the truth!”) then perhaps a little more humility, however false? And with that in mind I’ve come up with a few ideas for headlines that I’d like to see, however unlikely their appearance on the news feeds.

 

 

 

 

I am very ‘umble to the present moment, Master Copperfield…

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The Kasterborous Archive, #6: Everything has its time and everything dies

Author’s notes:

This is an interesting one.

It stems from the tail end of series 9. I was in a bad place generally, which didn’t help – but was also fed up with Doctor Who. It precedes a year-long absence for the show that reinvigorated my enthusiasm, to a certain extent; series 10 was certainly a dramatic improvement, largely thanks to Bill. Simultaneously the article (which pre-dates any announcements about the departures of Capaldi or Smith) has a lot to say about holding on to things until they crumble into dust; the fans often don’t know when they’ve had too much of a good thing, and as the Doctor wandered wearily into the TARDIS at the end of Hell Bent, there was a part of me that wished he’d just shut the door and stay there and let the show die naturally. Have I shifted my position since then? Yes. Do I stand by what I said in 2015? Also yes. There’s nothing wrong with embracing your contradictions.

Everything has its time and everything dies

Published: 29 November 2015

Coming soon to a newspaper near you: an article about ratings. Ratings or contracts. Ratings or contracts or BBC cuts. The future of Doctor Who, it seems, has never been so shaky or uncertain. Rumours abound about the prospect of the show being put on hiatus, or cancelled altogether amidst fears of falling popularity and failure to put up a fight against The X-Factor (which seems to be having troubles of its own). Those of us who browse the press and the forums will know that this is nothing new. But the most disturbing thing about the current trend, at least for me, is how little I actually care about it. For the first time in a long while, the prospect of the show’s cancellation, however unlikely (and we’ll get to that), fills me with far less dread than it ought to.

It’s a great job, getting paid to write about Doctor Who. I wouldn’t swap it for all the elephants in Mumbai. Is it worth the affront you experience when you receive a critical drubbing from people who’ve missed the point, or (far worse) the heartache and disappointment that bites when a piece is routinely ignored? Yes, it is. Is it worth the long, coffee-fuelled 2am finishes every Sunday morning scribbling reviews and opinion pieces and uploading endless GIFs in order to make deadline and beat the web traffic? Of course it is. Is it worth the torture of having to endure the atrocity that was Before the Flood not once but twice so that I can explain it to my children? Yes, just about. Is it worth the sense of weariness my wife experiences when I persuade her to sit through yet another tedious episode because my reviews are always better when I can feed off her witty and acerbic remarks? Well, you’d have to ask her that, although she’d probably sigh a little bit and give you a smile that speaks volumes.

But the problem is that it’s now the writer in me that is pleading for its continued renewal, rather than the fan. Writing semi-professionally about something you love is a dangerous tightrope, and one that many of us walk. I’d hate for it to become any sort of crutch, but writing about Who – in whatever capacity – is one of the few things I know how to do reasonably well, and it’s for that reason alone that I pray that the continuous reports of the show’s imminent demise are nothing more than an exaggeration designed to shift units.

Pay particular attention to that word ‘alone’, because it’s where I’ve been going with this. Because the fan in me no longer cares about New Who. Seriously, I don’t. I’m worn out with high expectations that are constantly dashed. I’m tired of the ominous looks that plagued this series whenever Capaldi was alone with Clara, leading to a death scene that lasted seven minutes longer than it should have. I’m tired of the mysteries and arcs and things that are supposed to be important and the stupid tendency the show has now to make great, bold affirmations about why the Doctor left Gallifrey / grew up scared of his own shadow / bought a new toaster when it doesn’t actually matter. I’m tired of inconsistent writing and good ideas squandered. I’m tired of humourless gravitas and awkward, ill-fitting social commentary shoehorned into poor scripts (the Zygon stories were a notable exception). I’m tired of all the sodding electric guitar references (although I don’t dispute that Peter can play). And I’m tired of the cult of smugness that surrounds it: the press saturation and stunt casting and the feeling that this should somehow be BAFTA-standard high drama, rather than lightweight family entertainment.

Moffat sits in a different chair to the one occupied by John Nathan-Turner, but ultimately it’s the same situation: outstaying your welcome. The longer he’s here, the more we allow him to do: not content with having undermined everything Russell T Davies achieved (I’m not going to expand on this; if you can’t figure it out it’ll give you something to argue about), he’s now making his mark in other ways, too numerous and obvious to mention here. Somewhere, I’m convinced he has a list of “Things I want to do before I step down”, and presumably if he manages to tick off everything on the list then Mark Gatiss has to buy him a PlayStation 4.

Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt. There was a time, not long after the 2005 resurrection, where I’d rebuff any criticism of the show with “Yes, I agree, but it’s Doctor Who. Isn’t it better that it’s back?” There was a time when I truly believed that. There was a time when if asked to choose between episodes like Fear Her and cancellation, I’d plump for the former in a double heartbeat. The frightening thing is that if you’d asked me the same question after viewing The Woman Who Lived a few Saturdays ago, or the dirge that was Face The Raven just the other week, I genuinely don’t know what I’d have said. Are stories like this really the best we can do? Is this the height of quality for a flagship programme, for prime time Saturday night television?

The fact of the matter is that the years when Doctor Who was not on air were some of the most productive and fruitful in the history of the show. The Big Finish franchise – now a bloated and distorted mutation of its former self – was established in order to make the stories that the BBC no longer wanted, and did it brilliantly. The New Adventures, Past Doctor Adventures and the webcasts all came out of the fans’ desire to fill the vacuum that Michael Grade had created. Oh, not everything worked. (Have you read Eye of Heaven? It’s appalling.) Still, some of the most interesting stories and ideas ever featured in Doctor Who came out of that period. The Americans don’t want Paul McGann? Fine. We’ll give him a whole history. We’ve even got a companion who gets turned into a fish.

I was reiterating this to my children just the other day. “There are hundreds of old stories you’ve not watched,” I told them. “And most of them are worth a look. There are hundreds of books and hundreds of audio dramas and comics and even I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer. If they stopped making new Doctor Who stories tomorrow it’d still take aeons to get through everything.”

I once met a Christian speaker who talked eloquently on the matter of dying churches. The crux of his argument ran thus: if churches filled with an ageing population are in danger of becoming empty, perhaps we shouldn’t be so desperate to refill them. If clubs and organisations are winding down, perhaps we should let them. Perhaps Doctor Who is drawing to a natural conclusion that we should allow to happen before it reaches series-too-far territory (a ship which I’m sure many people would argue has already sailed long ago). Perhaps, as the Ninth Doctor famously says to Rose at the close of The End of the World, everything has its time and everything dies. Perhaps we’ve forgotten that. Perhaps instead we’re more concerned that everybody lives, whatever the cost.

At the same time, a thought occurs: Doctor Who is probably not going to be cancelled, and in its current form it is not going to change. Moffat shows no signs of leaving; he outlasted Smith and he may well outlast Capaldi. For as long as he’s willing to believe his own hype (in the weekly cries of “Genius” and “OMG BEST EPISODE EVER I AM LITERALLY CRYING BUCKETS!” that frequent forums and Tumblr feeds) then there’s no reason why he should. The rants of old fogeys like me will not shake him, nor should they. I’ll shout into the wind for as long as I feel the need, but I seldom expect anyone to actually hear, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. And truth be told I like a man who stands by his convictions, even if we’re polar opposites in terms of how we approach things.

So I’ll keep watching – I have a vested interest in the show’s continuation, after all – and I’ll keep complaining because I’m not a sycophant, I can’t heave my heart into my mouth, and eventually after all this shouting into the wind there is at least a distant possibility that someone is going to listen (just as there is a possibility that an infinite number of monkeys given an infinite number of typewriters will eventually produce a script better than Evolution of the Daleks). At the same time, if the front page exclusive tomorrow morning read “DOCTOR WHO CANCELLED” I think I can say, for the first time in ten years, that I probably wouldn’t care that much. I mean, I’d have to find something else to fill my Saturday evening. But that’s fine. It’s been years since I watched The X-Factor.

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Have I Got Whos For You (part 8.5 or 9, depending on how you count)

In the news this last fortnight, National Photograph Your Child In Front Of A Door Day reaches as far as the TARDIS.

Elsewhere, in the wake of the Bradley Walsh rumour, a BBC source leaks an exclusive set of unreleased screen tests for the next Doctor Who companion.

And the Doctors celebrate International Cosplay Weekend.

 

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