Posts Tagged With: science fiction

Doctor Who: The Hugh Grant Years

Well, there’s a surprise.

The list of Actors Who Were Considered For Doctor Who And Didn’t Do It is long and impressive, counting among its ranks the likes of Bill Nighy, Richard Griffiths, Rik Mayall, Alan Davies, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson – and a certain Peter Capaldi. It’s always a quick headline grabber, if only because it gives hacks like me an opportunity to imagine existing stories with new actors, knock off thinkpieces about possible directions and legacies, and crack the occasional joke. But we’re now able to add another name to this particular roster, although in order to explore a little further we must go back to the dim and distant pasts of 2003, when Russell T. Davies was still getting the band back together, but hadn’t quite got Christopher Eccleston.

The Davies / Eccleston not-exactly-feud seems to have gained new traction over the last few months, as the party with nothing left to lose becomes increasingly candid and the other is respectfully silent. But it emerged last week that Russell T. Davies had a number of other heretofore unknown A-list actors on his radar – and that he originally tried to get Hugh Grant, only to find his path blocked by Grant’s agent. It’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t happen now, but hindsight is a wonderful thing and you can’t blame said agent for chucking the script in the bin, any more than you can blame Dick Rowe for not signing the Beatles. Even as late as 2004, the resurrected Doctor Who was generally viewed with the same sceptical eye that was originally cast over the first Star Wars movie – an arguably healthier state of mind than the fanatical reverence that is now accorded to both.

Veterans will know that Grant’s been in the show anyway: he turns up at the end of ‘The Curse of Fatal Death’, in which Steven Moffat trolls the fandom by regenerating giving the Doctor a love interest and then regenerating him into a woman, although not before hinting that he’d have liked to do the same to the Master. He gets through as many regenerations as possible in the space of twenty minutes, and has one of his characters age rapidly by having them hang about in a sewer for the best part of a millennium. The cast are all marvellous (particularly Jonathan Pryce) but it is tempting, when we watch it now, to look at Moffat’s subsequent Doctor Who career as some sort of wish fulfilment bucket list.

Certainly it’s difficult to envisage Eccleston’s Doctor in the hands of Grant. It just doesn’t fit, largely because in the grand scheme of things, Eccleston doesn’t fit either. His Doctor is the only one not to be openly posh. It’s partly the accent, but partly his whole demeanour. Tennant looks as if he could sell you a flat and bung in an optional stake in the communal garden in between his third and fourth cans of Red Bull. Eccleston looks like he’s on his way to a nightclub, and not the decent sort.

I’m not saying this was a bad thing. Eccleston may have never quite convinced me, but he was the Doctor, and the phenomenal success of the revived show is largely down to the gravitas he brought with him (along with a short temper and reputation for being difficult on set). In many ways the revived Doctor Who works precisely because he is so different. There is a scene early in ‘Parting of the Ways’ in which Eccleston is observed sitting in a corridor with Billie Piper, surrounded by bits of wire and circuit boards, randomly building something – and it was that moment when, as far as I’m concerned, he actually became the Doctor for the first time. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the rest of the series, even in the company of a not-quite Doctor. He’s cheery and enthused, he spits righteous (and self-righteous) anger, and when he takes the hand of a frightened shop girl and compels her to run, there is nothing I’d rather do than follow.

Still: you could never imagine Davison suggesting beans on toast. And it’s difficult to imagine any other actor complaining about ‘stupid apes’ without sounding, frankly, a little bit racist (although we might legitimately argue that Eccleston does as well, so let’s not go there). By and large the Ninth Doctor’s dialogue, with its use of colloquialisms and affectations (‘Listen, love’) is written for Eccleston, and it shows. You can imagine the Ninth Doctor quoting dialogue from other Doctors (some fans, indeed, have already done just that) but it’s difficult to imagine the reverse. By and large it simply doesn’t work: the Ninth’s entire manner is different. Even Tennant’s use of ‘fantastic’, in the closing scenes of ‘The Christmas Invasion’, is a one-off.

So there can be little doubt that the Ninth Doctor under the baton of Hugh Grant would have been a very different kettle of fish – perhaps a little posher, a little less earnest and a little less dark. And they’d probably have to change half the dialogue.

And that, dear reader, is exactly what I’ve done.

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Have I Got Whos For You (Kenneth Horne edition)

This week, a deleted scene from The Last Jedi gives us the crossover the fandom deserves, if not the one it needs.

Elsewhere in the same film, Peter Capaldi makes another unexpected appearance in the caves below the island.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Matt Smith joins David Tennant in revealing the more unusual places fans have accosted him for attention.

And this abandoned concept sequence from the original Star Wars shows that George Lucas had plenty of controversial ideas before Peter Harness did.

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Happy Star Wars day…

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The Incredible Shrinking Time Lord

Hey, you. Yes, you! You dozen or so new followers, all from Outlook.com addresses. Don’t think I can’t recognise a spam account when I see one. I’m watching you. One foot out of line and I’m going through the list, so watch yourselves.

I published a thing earlier this week that has caused a bit of a stir, and it looks like this:

The caption was ‘Exclusive first shot of the royal baby’.

Most people seemed amused and it went down quite well in all the Facebook groups I frequent – but there was one, in particular, where the knives came out in force.

“Disrespectful and offensive,” said one person, while an angst-ridden millennial described it as “a classless and distasteful attempt at satire”.

Satire? Satire?!? Look, it may be broad, and perhaps not terribly funny, but it’s certainly not satire. It’s just a throwback to ‘Delta and the Bannermen’. It’s not even a current photo, but rather one from a previous birth – it was up before we saw any pictures of the as-yet unnamed prince (my money’s on Edward, but we’ll see). I don’t know. There is a thing about fawning over the Royal Family, unless you’re a republican, in which case you consider them tax-dodging parasites (I used to, but it isn’t true, and it isn’t fair, and now I don’t). It’s particularly common on the other side of the pond, where there is unbridled adulation for the figurehead of a country they couldn’t wait to be rid of back in 1776; listen, she’s not your queen, and you’re pretty rude about Trump / Clinton / Obama (delete as applicable), so if you can have your fun, why can’t we? Or are some things more sacred than others?

“You’re in America,” I said. “Over here in Britain, ridiculing the Royal Family is par for the course.”

“No,” said a woman I will not name, except to say that she complains about everything, most notably the casting of Jodie Whittaker. “No, it isn’t.”

That’s not to say that all Americans are offended and all Brits are on board; we may have Spitting Image but there is a movement, particularly since the death of Diana, towards granting the monarchy a reverence it arguably does not deserve. The queen is human. So is Prince William. No human is untouchable, not even royalty. I find it ironic that in twenty years time when this no-longer-small child is out partying and Clarence House’s damage control department is working overtime to keep the press happy, it’ll be absolutely fine to take the piss, but having a little fun with a picture of a newborn in which the newborn isn’t even bloody visible is somehow out of order. Seriously, you’re offended by a Photoshopped alien? There’s not much I can do about that, but if that’s really the case, I fear you may have set the bar rather low.

It’s a busy page and a busy feed and so long as the comments continue to tail off (and I’m not locking them, out of general principle) this will happily fade into the background and be remembered as one of those things that many people laughed at and some people got upset over (one person even going so far as to leave the group, which is frankly overkill). Having said that there are occasional additions to the thread, like in those monster movies where they slaughter the entire host and then at the end the odd one keeps popping up with a “YAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!” and a whiff of fangs, only to be shot down by the one who got scared earlier in the film.

“Consider the possibility,” I was told this morning, “that since this has apparently offended a number of people, maybe it is offensive.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve considered it.”

Anyway: the other thing that happened this week was this piece I found in Metro about celebrities with shrunken heads. Some of them are really very good (the Bieber one, in particular, is wonderful) and I thought…well, why not have a go?

This. This is why not.

 

 

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My hat, it has three corners

Please excuse the radio silence in here this last couple of weeks. I’m still trying to get this book finished, and I think it will be worth it. I have set myself a self-imposed deadline (my 40th birthday, which is imminent) for a first draft. It’s manageable provided I focus, which means that certain things – like this blog – have rather fallen by the wayside of late.

We do have a few interesting posts coming your way imminently, but I’m still writing for The Doctor Who Companion, including a rather interesting piece on hats that you might want to check out. We arranged it for Wear A Hat Day, which took place at the end of March in aid of brain tumour research. The notion of the Doctor’s headgear has been a talking point for years, of course,  although lately it’s mostly a bunch of tedious memes about fezzes, which are not and have never been in any way cool. Here’s the TL:DR version – the Doctor used to wear a hat because everyone else did. It’s only later that it became a plot point, rather than a simple fashion accessory.

(I received several comments about this one on Twitter, but the best read “You talk to him.” / “No, you talk to him.”)

Still, it did give me the opportunity to wonder about the Doctors who generally didn’t wear a hat, and how they might have looked if they did.

I think the Eighth works quite well, although it’s not quite as settled on his head as I’d like it to be; it looks like he’s got a ferret bobbing underneath it. The same applies for Nine, although I do like the idea of the Doctor going to a Guns ‘n’ Roses concert (this is Guns ‘n’ Roses in their heyday, not that group of session musicians Axl Rose toured with a couple of years back) and chilling backstage with the band. And if the Twelfth was wearing a white suit, he’d look a little bit like Herr Starr from Preacher.

Twelve’s refusal to wear any sort of headgear has often vexed me, because he’d look good in a hat, particularly during his grumpy season.

Yes. Well.

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The new Doctor Who logo, dissected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Light bulb.

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

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

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The War Master in the Night Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Have I Got Whos For You (Season Pass Edition)

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

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

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

And elsewhere, in the TARDIS…

SCORCHIO!

 

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Adventures with the wife in space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, it’s her birthday. Accordingly:

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The Face of Boe / Captain Jack connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Twice Upon A Time

Warning: contains spoilers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review originally appeared in The Doctor Who Companion.

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