Posts Tagged With: seventh doctor

God is in the detail (10-X)

klf

It’s a good week for conspiracy theories. Nibiru is supposed to be returning. And the KLF – those enlightened Illuminati-conncted tricksters – have announced they’re planning something. Sort of. They’re not calling themselves the KLF these days, nor indeed was this anything other than a five-minute fad when viewed within the context of a thirty-year career. Still, they’re back, and thus there is much rejoicing.

But never mind that. We’re here to talk about ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’.

Christmas specials may be accessible, but that doesn’t mean they have to be simple. As is customary under Moffat’s reign, the latest episode of Doctor Who is in fact positively crammed full of IMPORTANT SIGNS AND CLUES that will be HIGHLY SIGNIFICANT later on. The problem is that most casual fans lack the time and the ability to decode them. Luckily you have me. So let’s unpack this treasure trove of layered meaning and find out what’s really going to happen in series 10, shall we?

I’ll start here.

mysterio_detail_1

There are precisely 24 columns of jars in this image – each column containing three jars, totalling 72. You’ll be aware by now if you’ve been following this series that these numbers are never just a coincidence – and in this case it all points to the Seventh Doctor.

How may we infer that from this image? The use of 24 columns is a big giveaway, given that season 24 is the Seventh Doctor’s first. Moreover, 72 refers to the 72nd story in the canon, ‘Death To The Daleks’ – which, despite being a Third Doctor story, eerily foreshadows the Seventh Doctor’s destruction of Skaro in ‘Remembrance’, some 14 years later. (Tangentially, if we substract 14 from 24 we are left with 10, and we may thus infer that this will all be connected with a returning appearance from David Tennant – but we’ll come back to that when we explore one of the other images.)

The C-shape this forms is actually a whopping great red herring, because what you actually need to do is turn it on its side.

mysterio_detail_1a

Viewed from this angle it is obviously a horseshoe. Horses were ridden by the Cheetah People in the last televised Doctor Who story of the 1980s, which (not so coincidentally) starred the Seventh Doctor.

It is also worth noting that in order to acquire this particular viewpoint it is necessary to tilt your head on one side. THIS IS NOT A COINCIDENCE. The other recent villain known to adopt this perspective is the Family of Blood. Which, by the way, featured in a Tenth Doctor story.

cheetah-family

How many jars are featured in each column in that first image? Three. And what do you get if you subtract Seven from Ten? I’ll just leave the colossal implications of that dangling there for a moment, because we must speak of them in hushed tones. THEY ARE NOT TRIVIALITIES.

We’ll come back to the Tenth Doctor later but in the meantime let’s have a look at this.

mysterio_detail_4

There’s that number again: 24. Specifically story 4 in series 2, ‘Dragonfire’, which introduced Sophie Aldred, WHO ALSO RODE A HORSE IN ‘SURVIVAL’ AND HELPED THE DALEKS BLOW UP SKARO AND WHO APPEARED IN TREE-FU TOM OPPOSITE DAVID TENNANT.

I know. Mind blown, right?

The column of green lights on the right of the screen ought to be self-explanatory, referring as they do to the twelve canonical Doctors (and omitting John Hurt) and leaving room for a further nine, making the BBC’s long term plan for Doctor Who as transparent as if they’d organised for it to be leaked by one of those ‘sources close to the show’. But what are we to make of the mysterious ‘tx’? Could it refer to the TX witnessed in the third Terminator film? The postal code for Texas, indicating a possible Doctor Who / Preacher crossover?

Now, that I’d watch. The truth, sadly, is far less spectacular, although it is still highly significant: it refers, instead, to the Tsukuba Express, the Japanese railway line linking Tokyo and Tsukuba. Launched in 2005 – the same year Doctor Who returned, which is not a coincidence – the route follows twenty stations, but it’s the name itself which causes most intrigue. Because the words ‘Akihabara and Tsukuba Station’ may also be reformed to make ‘AA! AA! AA! SKITTISH ABBOT UNDRUNK!’, which is an indication that PHILIP MORRIS HAS BEEN LYING TO US AND THEY HAVE ALREADY FOUND ‘THE MASSACRE OF ST BARTHOLOMEW’S EVE’.

sushi

We also might point out that ‘The Return of Doctor Mysterio’ directly foreshadows this early in the episode when we observe the Doctor eating sushi (seen above). Although we might also conclude that its sudden disappearance when he’s walking down the stairs indicates the return of the Crack In Time. But that would be silly, and as everyone who reads this column is aware, I don’t do silly.

Now, take a look at Lucy’s kitchen.

mysterio_detail_3

It’s those mugs on the counter you want to be examining. Note the striking multi-coloured design (favouring red) on the left and the plaid on the right. And you’d be forgiven, at first glance, for assuming that this was a reference to ‘The Two Doctors’. I mean, it’s obvious.

twodocs

But as is traditional with these multi-layered shots, the true meaning is hidden until you look closer. Note the proximity of that red mug to the toaster. Note also that the mug can be seen reflected in the surface of the toaster, and that THE SEVENTH DOCTOR LOATHES BURNT TOAST. Conclusion? We are going to revisit the Sixth Doctor’s regeneration story, only this time it will be televised in the form of a flashback experienced by the Twelfth. How do I know this? Consider the spoon dipped into the Sixth Doctor’s mug – the Twelfth Doctor’s weapon of choice, and the Seventh’s favoured musical instrument.

The other mug confirms this theory, given that it contains a cryptic reference to Spaceballs.

spaceballs-plaid

The Doctor Who connection ought to be transparent: it’s Bill Pullman, last seen in series four of Torchwood. And any fan will tell you that this was also the last time we saw Jack – apart from The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, in which John Barrowman drives the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Doctors from London to Cardiff. In doing so, he evicts David Tennant’s daughter from the car. From this we may IRREVOCABLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY CONCLUDE that next year’s Christmas special will feature a cameo by the Tenth Doctor, in the company of Jack.

Finally, this.

mysterio_detail_5

Oh, there’s so much to unpack in here we barely have time. The most transparent of references is the Third Doctor story that’s playing at the cinema on the left hand side. (You will note also the proximity of the American flag, sticking out of the wall like the entrance to an embassy, and that ambassadors played a crucial role in this story.)

The references to ‘The Mind of Evil’ are reflected in the pizzeria across the street – owned and presumably operated by someone named Joe, a direct reference to the Third Doctor’s companion, both in ‘Mind’ and a great many others. But it’s the club in the middle that caught my eye, given that ‘The Missing’ is a CLEAR AND DIRECT reference to ‘The Lost’, the final episode of Class. If you’ve seen that, you’ll be aware that a familiar face pops up, and we may thus conclude that even if Class doesn’t get a second series they will continue that story here, using New York (or possibly the moon, which is prominently featured) as a location.

But it’s the pink that got me. Could it refer to Danny Pink, perhaps, who played a small but important role in ‘Kill The Moon’? Is it a reference to the Pink Ladies from Grease, indicating that there will at some point be a scientology episode, with John Travolta starring? We can only hope. But the answer, when it hit me, was like a bolt from the purple. Because I suddenly remembered where I’d seen a pink TARDIS.

happiness_patrol_pink_tardis

Oh, lucky Seven. It always comes back to you.

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Laughing matters

clown

Clowns have never frightened me. Even Pennywise, the demented clown in Stephen King’s It that started this whole thing, has never frightened me, although the book’s pretty good and the Tim Curry teleplay was reasonable enough. (If that sounds like damning with faint praise, bear in mind that ‘reasonable enough’ is about as good as it gets when it comes to most Stephen King adaptations, at least the ones based on his horror stories.) The nearest any clown ever came to frightening me was the Joker, as presented in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, which I read back in 1989 just after I’d seen the first Batman film. There was something about the eyes – empty and black one minute, wide and crazed the next – that haunted my sleep that night. (I was eleven. I think that gets me off the hook.)

This whole ‘killer clown’ thing really is mindlessly silly, but that’s what happens when you have too much free time: a simple idea gets completely out of hand. There are several kids round our way, although I’ve yet to see them: it’s all good clean fun jumping out and shouting at people until your victim happens to have a heart condition. I was told the other day that it’s because we don’t have enough youth clubs, which strikes me as the worst kind of liberal bollocks: sitting in your bedroom bored out of your skull is, as far as I’m concerned, all part of growing up. It’s how you learn to be useful. Or else you get a hobby. I used to tape video game music onto C90s. I had very few friends. But I have not a jot of sympathy for these entitled millennials. Not one. Holy smokes I’m getting old.

I’ve thought for a while about doing some sort of ‘Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ montage scored to ‘Ashes To Ashes’, which seems an obvious choice, but that’s going to take me a while, so in the meantime you can have this instead.

galaxy_four

How do actual clowns, I wonder, feel about this sort of cultural appropriation? Has anyone asked them? Should we get a statement from Yuri Nikulin, only to be met with a wall of silence? (We could do the same with Marcel Marceau, but you probably wouldn’t have got much out of him even when he was still alive.) How do they feel about their identities, their whole tragedy-as-comedy persona, being hijacked in this way by idiotic teenagers posing with fake machetes? Is there a convention where they discuss these things? Does every panel end in a massive pie fight? And how many parking spaces do they need?

we're a culture not a costume this is not who i am and this is not okay

Yes, well.

 

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Return to Paradise Towers

Paradise (1)

Memory’s a funny thing. It’s literally not what it used to be. You can’t trust it. There are people in my family who will often claim the high ground in any argument with the words “I know what I saw”. To which the obvious answer is, in the words of Steven Novella, “No you don’t. You have a distorted and constructed memory of a distorted and constructed perception, both of which are subservient to whatever narrative your brain is operating under.”

For example, fellow blogger Frivolous Monsters once recounted a tale of how a slightly awkward exchange with Jon Pertwee, some two decades previously, was actually far less awkward in reality than it had been in his head. It is a good story, and worth reading. But his point – and mine – is that it’s very easy to look back at a not-so-terrible thing and make it far more terrible for the sake of dramatic emphasis, or perhaps because it somehow defines who you are. On a lesser scale, ‘Paradise Towers’ is thus what I am going to term ‘one of my Pertwee moments’, largely because when I watched it again the other week it was far less terrible than I remembered it.

Paradise (5)

1987 was a dark place in Doctor Who’s history. The new theme was plodding and tedious. The Rani – one of the most potentially interesting villains – was reduced to cosplay. The companion was all about stage school theatrics and a lot of screaming. A wig stood in for Colin Baker. Pip and Jane’s script for the series opener was a disaster, and ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ wasn’t much better. Until two weeks ago I used to tell people that ‘Dragonfire’ was the only half-decent story of the lot (and even that lost a lot in translation) but as it turns out, I rather misremembered my childhood. Because it turns out that the Doctor and Mel’s little foray into a derelict block of flats is, in fact, really rather good.

The story – such as it is – concerns a lot of back and forth between one lair and another, with groups of isolated factions locked in a stalemate that goes back decades. The building’s architect turned out to be a twisted maniac whose quest for perfection extended to murdering the people who wanted to live in his buildings, lest they should spoil them; the citizens of Paradise Towers thus banded together and left him trapped in the basement, creating a monster in the process. Meanwhile, the grown-ups have gone to fight a war (with the exception of the cowardly Pex – more on him later) leaving their children to spend adolescence roaming the complex in an extended game of capture-the-flag, while the caretakers clean up the graffiti and the elderly cower behind locked doors, eating the rats and occasionally each other.

Paradise (8)

It’s an intriguing premise, and it owes as much to the writer’s experience of council estate London as it does to J.G. Ballard. The lifts never reach the right floors. “Let me tell you,” says Stephen Wyatt in a Doctor Who Magazine interview, “about the lifts. They had no numbers for the floors on them. They were just tin boxes and you got into them. And you pressed a button and went up in them and a door opened and it may or may not have been the floor you wanted. But kids would get in the lift and press at random seven or eight buttons and get out again. So when you got into the lift it had six previous instructions to complete and in the end, in despair, I got out on a floor at random and walked up the rest of the stairs.”

Wandering the corridors are the Kangs, gangs of teenage girls (all the boys, presumably, off fighting the war) whose rivalry is based solely on what colour they do their hair. They have names like Bin Liner and Fire Escape, play games with the secret alleviators (no, that’s not a typographical error) and use the words “Ice hot” at every conceivable opportunity. The one remaining yellow Kang is killed at the start of the story, leaving only two gangs remaining: they’re much of a muchness, but one assumes that at every Doctor Who convention there is at least one argument over whether the Red Kangs or the Blue Kangs were best. (Curiously, the first series of Red Dwarf – which aired the following year – featured an episode wherein red and blue hats were the cause of a devastating religious war between two sects of a race of cat people. I would like to hope this is not a coincidence.)

Of course, when you actually go into one of the flats, you’re not necessarily any safer. The residences in Paradise Towers are occupied by British character actresses, including Elizabeth Spriggs and Brenda Bruce as the deliciously horrible Tilda and Tabby (so named, apparently, when Wyatt overcame writer’s block by glancing down at his keyboard), and Judy Cornwell (Keeping Up Appearances) as their timid-but-righteous neighbour. It is Tilda and Tabby who are the most fun to watch, particularly in the earlier scenes in which the cannibalistic undertones bubble under the surface like the bubbles in a witch’s cauldron. Pex and Mel even play Hansel and Gretel, after a fashion, although it’s Mel who almost ends up in the oven. This is, as I discovered, a wonderful way to frighten your children, if you show them the story in the evening:

MEL: You are joking, aren’t you? Tilda? Tabby?
TABBY: We don’t see this as a matter for humour, Mel dear. We mean every word.
[Tabby menaces Mel with the toasting fork while Tilda throws a shawl over Mel’s face.]
TILDA: In our experience, Mel dear, it is much better not to struggle too much. It only causes needless distress.
[Mel screams. Roll credits.]
ME: Right, bedtime.

Paradise (6)

Sadly Mel doesn’t get eaten. It might have evened up the narrative a bit: her behaviour throughout the story is so irrational it borders on the insane. The rot sets in as early as the first episode, with the irritating fitness freak sitting cosy and snug inside Tilda and Tabby’s apartment, greedily consuming cakes and crumpets by the dozen (this, lest we forget, is the woman who offered to make the Doctor carrot juice and put an exercise bike in the TARDIS). I could live with her dietary slips – although I imagine that next Weight Watchers’ meeting would be rather awkward – but not once does the odd behaviour of her hosts appear to faze her. It is like a scene from an Enid Blyton novel, with optional homicide (including a kitchen knife that would land the BBC in hot water come the following week’s Points of View).

But that’s not the worst of it. Some time later, Mel (in the company of Pex, here to put the world of Paradise Towers to rights) finally reaches her Mecca, which takes the form of the swimming pool on the top floor. It’s where she is supposed to meet the Doctor, but in spite of all that’s happened – homicidal robots, sadistic jobsworth bureaucrats and Twisted Sister’s entire fanbase – Mel’s first priority is to undress and go swimming. “Look, here it is!” she exclaims in delight. “Oh, it’s just how I imagined it.” It is, in fact, a rather run-of-the-mill swimming pool, and Mel’s exuberant enthusiasm is somewhat baffling – I appreciate that locations couldn’t be helped, but surely they could have toned it down? Five minutes later, and Mel’s in the middle of a dip – presumably she was wearing the costume under her clothes, which must have chafed a bit given all the ruffles – only to be attacked by a sinister yellow crab that’s been watching them the whole time and that nobody saw, despite it taking up half the pool. Not long afterwards, the bedraggled computer programmer is looking rather forlorn on a sunlounger. “Pex?” she says, mournfully. “I’m sorry.” So are we, Mel. So are we.

Paradise (3)

Most of this is not the fault of Bonnie Langford, even if she plays Mel the way she played just about everything in the 70s and 80s: as if she’s on a stage, rather than in front of a camera. Subtlety goes out of the window, down the road to the shops and then hops on a bus to Frinton. But the fact that the programme was in flux didn’t help matters: “There was a companion,” says Wyatt, “who had no definable character except she was played by Bonnie Langford, and so again the writing was very generic. This is no criticism of Bonnie at all, it’s just that Bonnie wasn’t given anything to do except what she’d always done – which was to scream.” By all accounts (all right, Gareth Robert’s account) she is currently very good in Eastenders. “Just imagine,” Roberts tweeted just the other week, “if she’d been given proper acting to do in Doctor Who“.

It’s not all Mel. Richard Briers’ performance is somewhat ham-fisted in the final episode and annoyingly twitchy in the first three. On the other hand, perhaps this is exactly what the story needs. Certainly his zombie mode is practically Shakespearian. He’s also hindered by poor characterisation: the chief architect, supposedly the mastermind behind the entire scheme, goes to his grave as an almost criminally underdeveloped villain. We know next to nothing about him save the manifestation of bloodlust; as in ‘The Satan Pit’ it’s left to the Doctor to provide all the exposition. This wouldn’t be a problem but the monster has a voice of its own – it just doesn’t say much beyond “HUNGRY!” and “DESTROY ALL HUMANS!”.

This is a shame, because other characters work very well. The Kangs are all basically nondescript clones, but Pex is an unexpected delight. I use the word ‘unexpected’ because in 1987, I absolutely hated Pex (and it’s this, I’m sure, that forms the bulk of my prior aversion towards the story). He struck me as irritating and ridiculous. With the benefit of almost three decades of hindsight, it’s far easier to see him for what he is: a lampoon of 1980s action heroes, brawny but ultimately useless. It’s partly the casting – the DVD documentary reports that several more muscular men were turned down because they looked ridiculous standing next to Bonnie Langford, but Howard Cooke has enough build to pop a seam while simultaneously managing to look (and sound) like someone who’s actually far less capable than he actually is. Pex’s character has a beginning (although that’s mostly backstory), a middle and an end – something comparatively rare in 1980s Who – and there’s something very satisfying about his final, rather uneven redemption. He dies a hero, but a suitably reluctant one, and this makes his journey all the more believable.

Paradise (7)

Other things: the Kangs’ tendency to misuse words echoes Orwell, but the mythology constructed from a lifetime of roaming derelict corridors is reasonably solid, and it’s quite fun to listen to them. Certain suspensions of disbelief are required – the adoption of ‘Build high for happiness’ as a greeting seems a little odd, given that the Kangs spend most of their time on the lower levels, and is it really likely that they would know ‘unalive’ but not ‘dead’? And my goodness, the counting. Half the script seems to be a recitation of numbers – rules, floors, Caretaker IDs. ‘Half’ is, of course, something of an exaggeration, but let’s just say we don’t go short. In fact there are so many that I took the liberty of putting them all together.

You see what I mean.

Look, some of it’s a mess. The lighting is all over the place – or rather it isn’t, taking its cue instead from the harsh studio lighting that blights much Classic Who (see ‘The Happiness Patrol’, which would have worked beautifully on film). Lines like “We’ll send the cleaners to the cleaners!” are cloying, and Mel’s spotty outfit is a train wreck. But there’s something infectiously silly about this whole setup – something that makes ‘Paradise Towers’ more, somehow, than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it’s McCoy, who makes the most of a script that could have been written for just about any Doctor, largely because the Seventh Doctor had yet to be fleshed out when Wyatt hit deadline. Perhaps it’s Howard Cooke, who steals most of the scenes he’s in. Or perhaps it’s Clive Merrison, who by turns manages to be menacing and ultimately heroic. In any event, ‘Paradise Towers’ works. You feel, somehow, that it shouldn’t. But it does. Rather like those alleviators.

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It’s a shame about Ray

Cheers, Starbucks.

Butlins_1

The barista looked a little bemused, but her colleague got the joke. “You’re showing your age, there,” said a friend of mine.

“Not at all,” I said. “Just my sense of natural taste.” Emily was going to be Romana, which is a better fit, given that Romana is smarter, prettier and a better driver. I just didn’t trust them to spell it properly.

We were en route to Minehead, where we spent the week at Butlins – a holiday camp, if you’re across the pond and have no frame of reference. Butlins has long surpassed its fifties reputation of knobbly knees competitions and compulsory ‘fun’ activities in dingy chalets, even though the dingy chalets remain. These days it’s all soft play and go-karting and indoor splash pools. In previous years we’ve seen live productions of LazyTown and Sesame Street, both of which filled me with some horror, not least at the colossal size of Elmo (six-foot Muppets dancing around a stage to disco music? It seems grotesque). It’s not the notion of a puppet having a bottom half. It’s when they look like they’ve had their faces glued on to fully-sized humans in some freakish lobotomy, which is exactly what happened to the likes of Ziggy and Stingy. You half expect Matt Smith to emerge from the pyrotechnics, bellowing “I’VE STILL GOT LEGS!”.

This year it was Mister Maker and the Scooby Doo gang – although the funniest thing we saw all week was Cirque du Hilarious, a team of magicians, acrobats and leggy dancers, interspersed with a cacophony of toilet humour, courtesy of the father and son team that is Clive Webb and Danny Adams. There were enough fat / bald jokes to make me a little uncomfortable, but also some lovely moments, particularly the scene where one of the cast emerged to sing ‘Save Your Love‘, dressed both as Renee and Renato. Most of the time, however, I couldn’t really get away from the fact that Danny was dressed rather like the Sixth Doctor.

Cirque

(I couldn’t get a decent photo of Danny from where we were sitting, so I shamelessly pinched this one from tiredmummyoftwo. I do hope she doesn’t mind.)

The Doctor’s visited Butlins before, of course, except that it was 1959, and it was called Shangri-La. The Doctor and Mel win a holiday to Disneyland, only they have a collision with a satellite and end up in Wales. Things get worse when the sinister Gavrok turns up with his army of thugs, with the intention of wiping out the last of the Chimerons, the eponymous Delta, who is hiding out among a group of (non-terrestrial) holidaymakers.

This particular story was called ‘Delta and the Bannermen’, and to anyone with a basic knowledge of 1980s music and the NATO phonetic alphabet, it’s easy to join the dots.

Echo-Delta

I’ll confess that I originally did this as a joke, until Gareth pointed out that it was absolutely intentional. It’s hardly a surprise – just the sort of pop culture reference you’d expect from 1980s Who – but also the sort of thing that might easily be missed. I asked him if the Chimerons (pronounced Shimmerons, if you were wondering) were supposed to resemble those green army men that we all had as kids. “If so, it wasn’t mentioned,” he said, although “it might explain why they fell over so easily.”

Delta-Soldiers

Even as a nine-year-old I remember ‘Delta and the Bannerman’ being thoroughly mediocre, and in order to test the theory we re-watched it at the weekend. I was right. It’s got very little actually going for it. There are stupid soldiers (“Ooh, they’re obviously still in the farm; the radio’s on. Shoot it to smithereens”). There are tedious Americans. There’s a lot of waffle about bees, some of which is at least relevant to the plot. There is one frankly shocking (and almost incongruous) act of terrorism. There is Don Henderson, playing a nasty villain in charge of a bunch of idiots, and who eventually falls on his own sword. There is also Ken Dodd, who acquits himself well, although I will admit that with a certain reluctance (stunt casting in Who goes back to the sixties, but I always get cross when the likes of JNT sacrifice artistic value in the name of press space, even when it works).

Delta_2

Ken’s brief appearance works (just about), but any sense of plausibility is undermined by the incredibly accommodating attitude displayed by some of the characters – particularly Billy, the dashing mechanic / singer of Shangri-La. Completely unfazed by the sight of a wrinkly green baby that ages at tremendous speeds, he abandons life in Wales without a second thought, dashing off with Delta in a stolen spacecraft in order to repopulate new planets. He’s shallow and dull, and if ‘Delta’ has very little going for it, then Billy has absolutely nothing going for him – and the story’s denouement (“Let’s make this baby fly!”) is, given a surface reading, the worst kind of neatly resolved slush.

“Billy is the most annoying character, and is completely implausible,” says Gareth. “However, there are theories (according to About Time) which suggest a more sinister thing. Delta is the only female of her race that we see, and the others all die trying to protect her to get her off the planet. The suggestion is that essentially she entraps Billy with pheromones and her squelchy green goo, so that she can take him away, mate with him, then eat him.”

ray1

Billy leaves behind the far more interesting Ray, played by Sara Griffiths, a bike-riding, doe-eyed young woman with an unrequited crush on a man who abandons her in order to dye his skin green. Ray was a candidate for the next companion following Bonnie Langford’s departure, until scheduling adjustments meant that the role went to Sophie Aldred instead. The rest, as they say, is history. It’s been said that Ace set something of a precedent for future companions, particularly Rose (even though Ace is clearly middle class trying to do working class, in the same way that Ali G is a pastiche of middle class white people trying to be black). The genesis of Rose arguably owes far more to Charley Pollard, but it would be very interesting to see the direction the show would have taken if Sara, instead of Sophie, had joined the TARDIS crew.

Save one brief appearance in a non-canonical short story, that’s about all we’ve heard about Ray, which is something of a pity. I daresay she’s still out there somewhere, probably in a typing pool in a 1960s accountancy firm, before getting a job at UNIT and managing to eventually encounter the Doctor, only to not recognise him at all, and be similarly bewildered when he doesn’t recognise her. Wibbly wobbly.

Anyway, by sheer coincidence I was thinking about all this – and the post-Doctor lives of companions and not-quite companions – on our way out, as I passed the checking sheet near the funfair toilets.

Butlins_2

So now you know.

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Meanwhile in the TURDIS (part 4)

Time this series got a dusting down. Accordingly, here’s what Thomas and I have been watching over the last week.

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Bright eyes, burning like the fires of Mount Doom

A review of The Hobbitcarried in The Independent (which hasn’t been since about 1996), contains the following text.

“Thankfully, Jackson’s flair for action sequences and bold and complex production design hasn’t deserted him. Huge, snarling dogs and a chase sequence involving a wizard played by Sylvester McCoy being pulled by a sledge of super-nimble rabbits add some bite to the storytelling.”

My initial thoughts ran along the lines of “How very dare you”. Then I sighed with resignation. It doesn’t really matter any more.

When I mentioned this to Laura, she said she was finding it hard to resist the temptation to imagine the scene with the were-rabbit from Wallace and Gromit, or the rabbits from Watership Down. When I mentioned it to Gareth, he said “I wouldn’t mind seeing Sylvester McCoy being pulled by rabbits. I’d just rather see it in Doctor Who.

Anyway…

I know it’s scrappily done, but it almost works. Almost.

Then there’s this.

Oh, and this.

The image above is taken from the mother of all cliffhangers, in which the Doctor is seen hanging from a ledge by his umbrella FOR NO GOOD REASON AT ALL. (There’s a reason in the script, of course, but time constraints being what they were they never got round to shooting it.) It’s the end of episode one of ‘Dragonfire’, which also features a scene which is eerily reminiscent of Watership Down.

Bigwig-Kane

You see what I mean.

“It looks like you’re doing something with General Woundwort,” said Emily, in her best impression of Clippy, when she wandered into the kitchen. “Would you like help?”
“No, it’s fine, I was just looking at reviews of The Hobbit today and it talked about Sylvester McCoy being pulled along by rabbits. Then Gareth mentioned the possibility of it happening in Doctor Who. You know…the whole rabbits…Doctor Who connection.”

There was a pause.

“You don’t love me any more, do you?”

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Radagast the not-so-brown

Behold: courtesy of my friend in New Zealand, I give you pointless Hobbit cameo appearance #37: Sylvester McCoy, who plays Radagast, who’s not in the book. There are plenty of shots of him in costume, but here he is at the premiere.

 

Apparently Victoria asked to shake his hand and he signed it instead, which was probably a Chinese whisper, understandable when you’re trying to make yourself heard in a screeching crowd clamouring for a view of Elijah Wood (who plays a character who’s not in the book) or Cate Blanchett (who plays a character who’s not in the book) or Orlando Bloom (who – oh, forget it).

Anyway: the jacket is truly amazing, and I said so. “It did make me stop and wonder,” responded Victoria, “whether his Doctor Who outfit was provided by the BBC costume department or his own wardrobe…”

Christmas jumpers? Pah.

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Beg, borrow or steal

I can’t remember the exact circumstances under which Gareth and I were talking about Ico. Our conversations tend to take these spirally twists and turns through one thing or another, by degrees of separation. For the most part we will steer clear of politics and personal stuff, concentrating on film and TV and gaming, or a mixture of all three. We both love anything by Tolkien, although he is far less keen on the cinematic incarnations than I am. He knows a ridiculous amount about Doctor Who. I, on the other hand, can quote extensive passages from A.A. Milne, whom he has never read, so it all balances out.

If you haven’t experienced Ico, by the way, I recommend you stop reading this right now and go and find a PS2 or 3 and play through it. The whole thing is ridiculously good. On its release it was described by Official Playstation Magazine as being “the gaming equivalent of a Ken Loach film” – elegiac, slow and calm. Trapped in a windswept castle on a cliff overlooking the ocean, your only means of escape is a delicate, timid young girl who can open locked doors, but who must be protected at various points from apparitions that will attack her, while seemingly ignoring you.

As you can see at 1:30, the creatures that pounce on Yorda take the form of smoke monsters, and it was this recollection that prompted me to theorise that J.J. Abrams looked to Ico as a source of inspiration when he was writing Lost. Smoke monsters are nothing new under the sun, of course, but we might as well cite the PlayStation as a source of inspiration, seeing as they seemed to be drawing as many different ideologies and themes as they possibly could during the show’s run. So I mentioned this possibility to Gareth, and we went from there:

Gareth:
I heard about Lost, and the premise sounded interesting at first. But then I decided that it was going to be a series with no actual planned conclusion, and which was going to wander drearily along until they threw some disappointing nonsense together, so didn’t bother watching it. (Did I turn out to be right?)

[He did, of course, and I told him so.]

Gareth:
Something-doing-something-that-something-else-did reminds me. I recently listened to a Big Finish Who story from a couple of years ago. And it was one of the Lost Stories, in this case one of the Sylvester McCoy stories that would have happened in his next season, had it happened. In it, we had the Doctor being “taunted to death” by being told how he uses others to do his dirty work, doesn’t care about them, etc. Lots of phrases that were quite familiar from recent Who. And the same story had a sentient planet, and to communicate one of the humans gets taken over and acts as the mouthpiece. Only it needs to be a female, because … well, for exactly the reason in the recent Christmas Who.

Me:
I do remember reading The Writer’s Tale, in which Davies goes through the process for writing ‘Journey’s End’ (and particularly that excruciating beach scene). Nowhere at all does he mention BF as a source of inspiration. But you wonder; is he just looking at the stuff people are chatting about on the internet and writing about that? Look at it this way – at some point in our online group discussion, during the first season of Torchwood, someone (I forget who) said “What’s the betting on Jack turning out to be The Face of Boe?”. And while I know that’s not exactly concrete, a few months later – when ‘Last of the Time Lords’ was broadcast – we thought “Ooh, uncanny perception!”. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe other people were saying the same thing elsewhere and RTD and Moffat just nicked all the ideas.

Gareth:
There was some fuss with Babylon 5 and someone suggesting a plot idea that JMS was already planning, or so I vaguely recall. Being the US, he then shelved the plot for a while and went through legal wranglings with the poster so that he could use it without being sued. (Not that the poster would really have done so – but to cover themselves.)

[Later that evening….]

Gareth:
Spooky. Earlier, I was listening to a Now Show from 2007. (I have lots of News Quiz, Now Show, etc, and listen to them while falling asleep.)

Anyway, this one was talking about Tony Blair’s departure. They talked about his conversion to Catholicism, and explained it as him believing he would become a saint, describing various miracles he had performed. And they also mocked his “legacy” world tour, dragging his departure out for months as he went to visit everyone famous he’d ever known.

Then I thought, hang on – his replacement (not counting Gordon Brown) was someone disturbingly young, with a strangely spongy face and not enough eyebrows.

So, hmm, we were talking about where RTD gets his ideas from…

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“He never got out of the cockadoody car!”

Joshua and I differ in our love of Doctor Who in one respect: cliffhangers. I love them, and he can’t stand them.

Age is part of it. The problem with each successive generation is that they expect things to be done faster. There is a certain amount of raw nostalgia in my recollection of the time – only a decade ago – when it would take me fifteen minutes to burn a CD. I can remember loading software from floppy disks. I can remember tapes. I can remember sitting in front of my Spectrum for ten minutes waiting for Chase HQ to finish loading, and cursing with all the swearwords an eleven-year-old could conjure when it crashed thirty seconds from the final block. I can remember having to rewind VHS videos that I’d left cued at the end credits of Superman IV. I can remember mail order services that took weeks, rather than days.

(A friend of mine recently pointed out the semantic irony in that the universal symbol for saving is – of course – a floppy disk. When was the last time any of you actually used a floppy disk? These symbols arose because they fitted the times in which they were created, and this icon has now become so synonymous with its function that most of us, I expect, could never imagine using anything else. But paradoxically we’re raising a generation of children who need explanations of once self-explanatory visual cues like disk drives and gramophones and eight-tracks, explanations that I suspect we’re failing to provide, and – like the monkeys in the cage – many children have no idea why we use certain symbols, except for the normal explanation of “That’s just the way it’s done round here”.)

These days, I get grumpy when my download speed drops below 100K a second. I fire up a dual layer dub and look at the estimated time left and despair. I become frustrated when I place an Ebay order at eight in the morning and it doesn’t ship the same day, even though the terms and conditions said it would go within three. I drum impatient fingers when emails I’m telling people I’m sending while I speak to them over the phone fail to materialise instantly. I glance anxiously at the dashboard clock at every red light my Zafira encounters, and stare at my watch at every raised signal. I know that if you’re reading this you will be nodding in recognition at having done at least some of the above. We live in a society that enables us to do more than ever, if we want it, and somehow it’s never fast enough. What hope for us, and what hope for our children?

So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Joshua wants instant resolution. When you’re a child the world moves slowly. I have an iPod app that counts off the sleeps until Christmas. Joshua starts asking me for the numbers in June, right after his birthday. When December 25th has been and gone, I am asked for the time that has to elapse until his birthday. We are trying to teach him the value of patience by making him wait for certain things. It is not working. And actually that isn’t true. I should say, rather, that it works inconsistently, depending on mood.

I don’t tell him that the cliffhangers are coming, because when I do he spends the entire episode whinging “But Daddy, why does this one have to be a cliffhanger?”. And I’ve run out of patience because I always give him the same answer: “Because it just is. The writers found it necessary. And they thought it would make it more exciting.”

“Oh, but I want to find out what happens next.”
“Well, then, you’ll have to wait.”
“Can you tell me?”
“No.”
“Just give me one clue.”
“Certainly not. It’ll spoil it.”
“Come on, just one.”

And so on, all the way down to the bathroom and beyond.

Here’s the thing.  I grew up with Old Who. That’s important, because it explains my current position, which is not altogether impartial. There are several hallmarks of Old Who that didn’t fully survive the transition: wobbly sets, frantic over-acting and the multi-episode cliffhangers. These days we have CGI, and ‘worthy’ performances that are usually relatively low-key, even if they’re less fun to watch (you may imagine that I found Phil Davis, in ‘The Fires of Pompeii’, an absolute breath of fresh air). As for the cliffhangers, that’s a problem with the episode structure in general: forty-two minutes, now, being the operative time to introduce everyone, tell your story and wrap it up.

Most weeks it works, but there’s something missing. The pace is up, up, up: tight cuts, shouted explanations while Tennant or Smith is running down a corridor, and fairly bog-standard character development. It was notable that for Children of Earth, the third series of Torchwood, Russell T. Davies’ writing improved immeasurably: he elected to tell a single story over the course of five hours, a story that (crucially) could probably have been told in two or three with a bit of trimming. Free of the shackles of the standard runtime there was room for more reflection, more space, and pauses – the scene in which John Frobisher first engages with the 456, through a glass darkly, is the unquestionable series highlight, if only because it’s so – oh, just have a look, you’ll see what I mean:

You see? It’s jarringly slow (jarringly in the best of ways, because there are no lingering close-ups of Barrowman with tortured eyes and an obvious lump in his throat, under soft piano and strings). I wish I could have shown you the whole sequence, which consists of protracted introductions between Frobisher and the 456, with the sort of pacing that a bog-standard hour-long episode couldn’t accommodate.

When it came to Who, though, something had to change come the revival: gone were the cliffhangers and multi-episode storylines, and instead you simply got in and got out. Because, according to the powers that be, audiences were fickle and couldn’t commit to the same thing week after week. (Anyone at the BBC who truly believes that has obviously never watched 24, The Wire, or Murder One.) As a token gesture we are given the series arc: a series of linked references to the finale, where cards are held close to Davies’ manly chest, and lots of rambling about the Bad Wolf or Harold Saxon.

Then Davies jumped ship, and in strides Moffatt, who writes an entire season the way he used to construct episodes: the ontological paradoxes of ‘Blink’ are sustained for an entire season, with mixed results, and you really do have to watch every episode to figure out what the hell’s going on. In a way that’s an improvement, but it’s also needlessly convoluted. Everything is potentially significant, which means that nothing occurs at face value – there are all sorts of hidden meanings and codes and layers, and sometimes I just want to watch something entertaining without constantly rewinding to pick up on the significance of this or that. I’m difficult to please, I appreciate that. It’s more substantial than Davies’ soap opera, and yet unnecessarily so. There has to be a middle ground.

But there was a middle ground. It was called Old Who, and it worked quite well, thank you very much. In the series as it was once structured you’d have separate stories of between three and six episodes, with an obligatory cliffhanger every twenty-five minutes or so. Said cliffhangers were, to be honest, usually quite silly. Let’s be honest. Either the Doctor or a companion would be forced into some sort of life-or-death situation, cornered perhaps by a grisly monster, or about to fall a great distance (as Sarah Jane memorably did in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, only for us to discover, the following week, that she’d only dropped about ten feet). The most effective cliffhangers usually involved the Time Lord himself, preferably in the presence of a female companion who could bellow “DOCTOOOOR!” at full blast just before the end credits rolled.

Then they’d have a week’s grace period, and the resolution of said cliffhanger would typically be fairly naff. ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ is a prime example: the sheer joy / abject horror of seeing a Dalek levitate, as its eye stalk zooms in on a terrified Doctor, trapped at the top of a staircase, makes it all the more tedious when an unconscious Ace manages to wake up and get the door open just in the nick of time. That’s the best they could have done? Really? A few years previously, ‘Mark of the Rani’ saw Colin Baker zooming down the Blists Hill incline towards certain death in a mine cart only to be rescued, rather incredibly, by George Stephenson (whose presence in the story is foreshadowed, but still, yawn).

But all that’s forgivable, really, because the whole point behind getting the Doctor into a sticky situation would be so that you’d worry about him, and worrying about the Doctor was what keeps the show going. It was something to talk about in the playground or over the water cooler, in the days when people actually did that instead of just discussing everything on Facebook. It’s not so much that you were worrying about whether he would escape, because you knew he would, but rather that you were trying to figure out exactly how he (or, typically, someone else) would manage it. The protagonists of shows like Doctor Who are granted a sort of unofficial immortality (in the case of Doctor Who, said immortality is even given its own name, context and rulebook) and there’s an unwritten law that states that their death must be given its own gravitas and significance, and cannot be shoehorned into a backed-against-the-wall-while-the-monster-approaches situation. Consequently, central characters would seldom die in cliffhangers, and the Doctor himself never really did (regeneration usually occurred at the end of an episode, but typically as the climax of a story, rather than as an ooh-what-will-happen-next type of thing).

Perhaps that’s why I felt so let down by the end of season four, because it really felt like they were going to do something different for once, and actually regenerate the Doctor with no warning. And it’s not just the fact that it’s a crappy resolution, it’s the fact that it’s dealt with so rapidly (and yes, I know that it comes back to haunt us later with the Human Doctor, but THAT’S NOT THE POINT) and the fact that Tennant is so smug in the way that the Tenth Doctor always was when he was at his most irritating (which is right about now). And oh look, as if we needed any more shots of fawning Rose, here’s her looking upset. With teeth you could use to open beer bottles.

In contrast, New Who has thrown up a couple of spectacular two-parters, with cliffhangers that work by varying degrees of success – but this is my favourite:

I mean, it’s bloody brilliant. Aren’t you getting goose bumps just seeing it again? The story as a whole is second-rate, but having the Doctor stand up to the Daleks (and comment pithily on his own resourcefulness with a single line of dialogue) is an extraordinary moment and almost worth waiting a whole series to see. It was the first time I truly believed in Eccleston as the Doctor, and he bowed out in the next episode, which is a shame.

Anyway, here’s a quick summary. The traditional cliffhangers were usually fairly inconsequential. The resolutions were predictable or silly, in equal measure. All the same, it was a part of the show, as central and integral to its structure as the cliffhanger in a two-part Batman story. Again, those would see the dynamic duo tossed into a ludicrous situation that usually relied on Batman’s possession of an obscure gadget in his utility belt that would do the job quite nicely, thank you, and there was never any real doubt of their escape and subsequent victory at the end of the story, but altering the structure would have felt somehow cheap.

I therefore miss the multi-part Who stories, and could frankly live without Moffat’s season-length meandering, with ‘clues’ that only a mindreader could spot. I’d just like to have him – the Doctor, I mean, not Moffat, although if he throws up another episode like ‘The Wedding of River Song’ I may reconsider – strapped to a table as a mad scientist tries to cut him open, or about to be fed into a compost machine, or dangling precariously from a wire by his umbrella (no, on second thoughts, let’s never go there again). It doesn’t matter how silly it is, because silliness is part of what made Classic Who so much fun. These days it’s far slicker, far more evenly structured, and almost doomed to implode from gorging on its own worthiness, but the change in format has, I think, made it lose a part of itself. Still, Josh is happy, so I suppose that has to count for something.

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