Posts Tagged With: love and monsters

The Kasterborous Archives, #3: How I Learned To Enjoy Love & Monsters

Author’s notes:

I’ve always been a champion for the underdog, and of all the Doctor Who episodes that had a generally unfavourable reception over the years, it was this story that struck me as being perhaps the least deserving of its unsavoury reputation. There’s a lot to unpack here: for one thing it’s billed as a kid’s episode, as if that were some unforgivable transgression, rather than a programme deliberately trying to cater for a large part of its target audience. But it is – if you look a little harder – as ruthless and poignant a deconstruction of contemporary fandom as you’re likely to find anywhere, with Elton and his friends excelling in their role of new, enthusiastic fans, worn down by the experts who know their stuff, but who’ve lost that sense of unbridled joy that drew them to the show in the first place. And Victor Kennedy? Well, we know who he’s supposed to be…

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How I learned to enjoy Love & Monsters

Published: 29 June 2015

Two of my four sons have, in the last few years, learned to play the violin. If you have ever been in the same house as a small child who has just picked up a stringed instrument, you will know what excruciating torture this is, at least in the first couple of weeks. It is how I imagine a cat sounds when it is being strangled. But I never say anything. As a parent, you don’t. You smile and nod and offer supportive words of encouragement, and part your hair so that the earplugs don’t show.

The truth is that parenting makes you lower your standards. You find yourself watching films and TV programmes that, ordinarily, would be given the sort of wide berth that you usually reserve for charity collectors outside the supermarket. If you have ever sat through Horrid Henry: The Movie you will understand what I mean. Oh, I’ll bitch about these things afterwards. But at the time you join in with your children’s enthusiasm, because your engagement clearly means a lot to them. (I make an exception for stereotypical gender-based advertising, which I’ll routinely deconstruct, in the hopes that they’ll follow suit.)

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I have a very good friend who’s forgotten more about Doctor Who than I’m ever likely to know, and whose acidic quips and insightful observations turn up regularly on my blog. By and large his attitude towards nuWho ranges from general indifference to active dislike, and he’s annoyingly right about most things. But I occasionally wonder whether his worldview might be different if he had children.

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Let me unpack this: one of the things you have to deal with as both a fan and a parent of fans is the tendency for children’s views to not only conflict with your own but actively influence them. For example, when prepping for this article I asked two of my children (age 5 and 9) to pick their favourite nuWho stories. Both chose In the Forest of the Night – an episode I disliked intensely, partly because Frank Cottrell Boyce threw in all sorts of amusing gags and Gaiaist philosophy, but forgot to add any sort of plot; and partly because for the third time in Series 8, “Do nothing” becomes the answer to the problem. At the same time, the kids (particularly Maebh) are brilliant, and it’s hard not to join in with my eldest’s riotous laughter when Ruby shouts “Oh my God! Maebh’s lost in the forest! MAEBH’S GONNA DIE!!!!”.

And the funny thing is, when you’re watching a bad story with young people who are clearly enjoying it, you occasionally find their enthusiasm infectious. I don’t think there are many out there who would rate Fear Her among their top ten episodes – unless you turn the list on its head so you can read it upside down – but even I can’t stop myself grinning from ear to ear when the Doctor mounts that podium in front of the cheering crowd to light the Olympic Torch. Would I be reacting this way if I didn’t have children? Perhaps. But sometimes I don’t think so.

I’m not saying being a parent makes you more appreciative of bad episodes of Who. I’m simply saying I’m inclined to be less fussy than perhaps I would have been otherwise. That’s a personal benchmark, not a yardstick with which to generalise. Sadly there’s no litmus test. Somewhere there’s a parallel universe (several, in all likelihood) in which my wife and I never sired any descendants, and it would have been interesting to see our reactions to everything since 2005 in that sort of circumstance. As it stands, the only thing I had to go on was the Eccleston series – which wrapped up shortly before my eldest child popped out of the womb, two weeks late – and even that’s atypical in many respects.

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But the patterns I see on forums and Facebook pages – “I hated it, but my children liked it” – and so on do suggest that having children present for both the series itself and the media storm that surrounds it makes for an entirely different viewing experience. As parents, we’re the ones who complain when the Beeb goes too far (which I’ve never done, although I did have serious gripes about the 2014 Christmas Special that I’ll save for another day). As parents, we’ll often find we relate to the weirdest things (I hold A Good Man Goes To War, for example, in higher regard than perhaps I should, because it plays on my fears of losing a child). And as parents, we’re the target market (or a part of it) for the stuff in the show that’s Obviously Geared Towards Children.

Let’s take the Slitheen. To a great many of us, the Slitheen were ridiculous; about as irritating as the Ewoks, and as popular. Let me tell you something: if you’re ten or under (and perhaps even older than that) the Slitheen are hysterical. More to the point, if you’re the parent of someone who’s ten or under, and if you squint, the Slitheen are hysterical. They’re comically bulbous aliens who fart a lot. They make jokes about nakedness. They spend entire stories acting like children, and Davies deliberately writes them that way. The idea that the grotesque, clinically obese teacher you despise might secretly be an alien is one that finds its way into most playground games, and beyond. (I have almost forgiven my now six-year-old for the time we visited the Cardiff exhibition a few years back, and he looked up from his buggy at the enormous Slitheen mounted on the podium, pointed, smiled in recognition and shouted “Daddy!”.)

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And while we’re at it, let’s deal with a very large, Peter Kay-shaped elephant, because there’s a moment in Doctor Who Series 2 that seems tailor-made (although it frays at the edges) for the younger members of the audience, and I think it’s unfairly maligned as a result. Here’s the truth: whatever anyone says, Love & Monsters really is an episode for kids. You can say that it isn’t – you can talk about the darkness of a man losing both his mother and the memory of the occasion, or the in-jokes about fandom, or the fact that the death toll almost reaches Eric Saward proportions, but it’s clearly designed for that post-Sarah Jane Adventures audience.

Love & Monsters opens with a chase from Scooby Doo, for pity’s sake. Marc Warren monologues to camera in the manner of a Saturday morning children’s TV host (for fairly obvious reasons, he reminds me more than a little of Boogie Pete). And the Abzorbaloff is the token fat monster in the short story homework assignment of every kid under twelve – and designed by a nine-year-old to boot. This may be the reason why the love scenes feel off (although the lack of chemistry, which I suppose is part of the point, between Coduri and Warren doesn’t help). It’s light and relatable and it’s a great shame when Davies undoes much of his good work in the closing scene with a completely unnecessary oral sex gag.

But I just mentioned The Sarah Jane Adventures, and I do wonder how much of this is about expectation. Because my other half and I blanche at dreadful plot holes and ridiculous dialogue when they occur in Who, whereas when silly things happen in Sarah Jane we’re far more inclined to let it go (and you didn’t read that, you sang it). The fact that Doctor Who is billed as a family show – therefore, much like the BBC itself, both feted and cursed to be all things to all people – is the very thing that sometimes undermines its success. It has to be funny and scary and often succeeds in doing neither: it is lukewarm television, of the kind that I am inclined to spit out of my mouth. So perhaps that’s why the episodes that are clearly geared towards children work better, because they can be appreciated on a different (not better) level. It’s just a level that – irrespective of empathy – you may not be able to relate to fully unless you’re watching it in a house where you can’t hide behind the sofa, because the kids are already there.

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Don’t take the ring, Laura

We have the incomparable Vicky Rose to thank for sending me the image in todays’ entry…

I proposed to my girlfriend-then-fiancée-then-wife in the middle of London. It was an evening of explosions and lights as the 5th November firework displays lit up the Thames. We’d spent time on the London Eye and poked round a nearby gallery which had a Dali exhibition – discovering for the first time that day, exactly six months after we’d first met, that we had a mutual interest in the man who did one of the finest paintings ever produced. (There was a lobster phone. You can never go wrong with a lobster phone.)

Afterwards we wandered into Picadilly where we encountered two American couples at an Italian restaurant in the middle of the theatre district; one brash and snappy, one peaches-and-cream. Then we strolled along the embankment and perched out on a ledge next to Cleopatra’s Needle. I asked her to marry me just after she’d pulled me back across to the pavement, which I’d have been unable to manage on my own. I wasn’t on one knee, and I didn’t have a ring. Nor was it a spur of the moment decision; I’d just been dithering a bit, knowing we both wanted to do this but wondering if it was too soon to ask. I can remember her eyes, unsure as if to wonder whether I actually meant it, and then her smile, as the months of doubt as to my sincerity melted away, and then her voice, as she said yes, yes, a hundred times yes.

Anyway. We got married before the revival. But I were to do it again, I’d want to give her this:

(The original post is here. It includes an aesthetically pleasing rotating image.)

It’s weird when you find someone who enriches your life like she does. You wonder how you ever managed before; your world pre-that person seems to exist almost in a dream state, an imagined half-existence, sort of like the one John Smith encounters in ‘Human Nature’ / ‘Family of Blood’ (which Josh and I are in the middle of at the moment), before he realises he’s actually the Doctor. And it’s important not to lose sight of that former world, so that you don’t start to devalue what you have now, or take it for granted.

I began this blog with a quote from Elton Pope, and it is to him – indeed, that same quote – that I return, because my life with Emily has brought unbalance into the equation. There are emotional highs and lows. There are disagreements. There are conflicted interests. And there are wonderful, thrilled moments of passion and of goodness and of grace – far, far too many to count. And I love her to bits for making my life so much more interesting. Because I used to be quite content dashing to and fro living mostly for myself. And the two-kids-and-a-mortgage life needn’t be dull if the person you’re sharing it with is fun and adventurous and is willing to explore the pitfalls and possibilities. It’s a cliche to say that your family is your greatest adventure, but that doesn’t mean it needn’t be true, if that’s what you want. You needn’t be dragged down into monotony. Because “the world,” as Elton says, “is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better.”

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1982

We start here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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