Posts Tagged With: the big bang theory

Here’s who’s really in the vault (part two)

More deleted scenes. This time from ‘Knock Knock’.

This was really, really fiddly, so excuse the rough edges. When I get an unscored version I may be able to remaster it. Until then, you get the idea.

(If you missed the first one, it’s here.)

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Here’s who’s really in the vault

Legend says that close to the end of things, the reassembled humanoid known as Nardole shall speak to the inhabitant of a heavily secured vault located beneath a British university. And lo, the dialogue shall be hidden from the audience, until the other half of the conversation is leaked, and the occupant of the vault is finally revealed.

Would you like to know who it is?

Are you sure?

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An Adventure in Space, Time and Cliche

If you watch The Big Bang Theory, you may be familiar with a third season episode entitled ‘The Staircase Implementation’. Told principally in flashback, it has Leonard recount to Penny the time he moved into the apartment, his first encounters with Sheldon, and the tentative formation of the dysfunctional friendship group as it existed before the cute girl moved in across the hall – and, at long last, we find out why the elevator doesn’t work.

The episode’s humour exists on two main levels. On the one hand, we get to see how Sheldon has changed under the influence of his peer group. It’s a classic exploitation of the sitcom cliché whereby an unpleasant / inept character is temporarily replaced by someone who is so gut-wrenchingly awful, the other characters realise that the misery they’d previously experienced actually wasn’t so bad after all. (I’m sure this technique has a name, but I can’t find it on TV Tropes.) It’s been used in Father Ted, Black Books and Red Dwarf, with varying degrees of success, and here it’s an excuse for Jim Parsons to turn the crankiness up to eleven.

THE BIG BANG THEORY

The other thing the episode does – rather less effectively – is rely on a series of dramatic irony-laden gags, most frequently at Sheldon’s expense, about cultural references. In the same way that The Wedding Singer had the sweet little florist announce that the couple-in-denial that she’d mistaken for an actual couple were destined to be as happy as “Donald and Ivana…and Woody and Mia…and Burt and Lori”, so here does Sheldon proclaim his love of Firefly, assuring Leonard that “It’s going to be on for years,” before later declaring that “You’ll be sorry you wasted your money on an iPod when Microsoft comes out with theirs”. I’m sure the writers came up with a whole string of stuff like this, plumbed from the archives of ‘stupid things people said that are actually only stupid in hindsight’. It’s designed to make Sheldon look foolish, as if to take him down a peg or two from the general omniscience that is his usual personality in an episode where he’s being even more irritating than usual.

I normally love The Big Bang Theory, but writing like this is lazy and sloppy. It relies on the ability to sneer at the past, and laugh at decisions that were made years ago in earnest and with the best intentions. Dick Rowe refuses to sign the Beatles? Of course he did: they were rubbish back then. Closer to home, I was convinced that MP3 was a fad and that minidiscs would be the future, because the Internet – while it was taking off – was nowhere near what it was today, and even if you had ADSL the sound quality of some of those early MP3s was rather like dragging a Walkman through a bathtub, inserting a chewed C90 and then playing it back through the cheapest headphones the local discount store has to offer. (I may be exaggerating a little, but not much.)

Anyway. My point (and I do have one) is that if you’re going to write a show about the past, you don’t need to pepper it with stuff like this. Life on Mars did it only sparingly, despite ample opportunity, and it is all the richer for it. It is very easy to drop in jokes about how stupid we all were back in the day, but we do so at our peril, because in a couple of decades’ time our children will be doing exactly the same. Gareth describes the cliché of sneering at the past as “the sort of ‘knowing wink at the audience’ lines that work because we have fifty years of knowledge that the characters don’t. [They] make me wince, but bizarrely make certain people whoop with delight. (Like New Who randomly referring to a planet/race/event in Old Who – to me it just goes clunk painfully.)”

An-Adventure-in-Space-and-Time-hartnell-tardis-int-zoom

And what does all this have to do with Doctor Who? Well, those of you who know your TV will be aware that later in the autumn we’re going to see a brand new drama about the show’s creation, with an impressive cast (Brian Cox, Jessica Raine and David Bradley as William Hartnell) and cameos by Carole Ann Ford and William Russell which have annoyed Gareth, as “now I’ll probably feel I have to watch it”. An Adventure In Space And Time will chart the story of Doctor Who from its inception through to…well, I have no idea when they’re planning on finishing the narrative, but the casting of Reece Shearsmith as Patrick Troughton would suggest that they will go at least as far as 1966. In fact, that’d be a good place to stop, because Hartnell’s deterioration will be the dramatic focus for the latter third of the show, with the programme’s future in doubt until Lambert decides to recast the Doctor. The stage is set for a thrilling whistlestop tour of the early 1960s, and a candid insight into the mechanics and politics of the BBC as it was back then.

Except it’s written by Mark Gatiss.

You remember Mark Gatiss. He’s the man who managed to defy the laws of physics and engineering by producing experimental Spitfires from nothing but a theoretical blueprint before getting them to the dark side of the moon in under twenty minutes. The one who had a Victorian crowd singing ‘Jerusalem’ years before it was written. The one who built an entire episode around a character fainting every time he saw something unusual. It’s not that Gatiss is necessarily a bad writer, he’s just lazy, apparently figuring that if he doesn’t care about a repeated gag or logical inconsistency, neither should the rest of us. This is Doctor Who, of course, and not Godel, Escher, Bach, but even children’s TV has its limits.

Gatiss is capable of surprising us all. For all his inadequacies he did produce the best two episodes of this year’s run, and I will admit to enjoying ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’, despite its writer’s conviction that blustery shouting matches in a London terrace actually have any place outside Eastenders. But he’s not the man to be given a job like this. For one thing it will involve some restraint, which is something that does not seem to come easily. For another, I do not trust him to tell the story accurately. I’m not opposed to a bit of dramatic license, but I can see huge liberties being taken in the name of cheap entertainment, and much ruffling of feathers.

Of course, it may be Gatiss’ way of atoning for the last time he wrote anything about the making of Doctor Who, some fourteen years ago when he contributed three sketches for a BBC theme night. Gatiss is capable of good comedy writing, but this isn’t it. The last sketch, in particular, is excruciating in its structure and execution, consisting of a potted history of the show and a series of ‘jokes’ about Doctor Who’s idioms, climaxing in some rather mean-spirited remarks directed towards Davison, Baker (II) and McCoy. (Legend has it that McCoy, ostensibly described in the sketch as “any old fucker with an Equity card”, was approached by Gatiss in an art gallery, but when Gatiss said hello, McCoy’s response was to shout “Bollocks!” before storming off.)

Gatiss

It would be nice to hope that Gatiss has learned his lesson, and certainly he’s expressed remorse, but I still have my doubts. I’m convinced that despite best intentions, An Adventure In Space And Time is going to consist largely of the sort of knowing winks that I was criticising a few paragraphs back. You know, the sort of thing that we laugh about now, or the idiosyncrasies that have become part of the show but which were once very big production decisions. Given his past form, odds are that Gatiss is going to skim over the substance and go for the irony-laden punch line. I know that I’m often wrong about these things (to the extent that I even blogged about it) but I suspect the temptation to avoid stuff like this is just too great. So here, gentle reader, is a list of the sort of thing you can probably expect to hear in November, or whenever the programme is aired.

“These Daleks will never catch on. What’s scary about a dustbin carrying a sink plunger?”

“Oh, wipe them. It’s not as if anyone’s going to want to watch it again in fifty years.”

“Change the lead actor? It’s suicide. The show will never survive this. It would be like trying to re-cast James Bond.”

“Fine, you bring in the bug-eyed monsters if you want. But mark my words: in years to come, people will look back and decide that Doctor Who was a fine educational programme that lost its way once they started dabbling in science fiction.”

“Yes, but it’s a children’s show. It’s hard to imagine kids wanting to watch it once they’ve grown up.”

“There’s no tune. It’s just a bunch of tape glued together. Sure, it suits the mood, but it’s not as if they’ll ever play it at the Proms.”

“You want the hemline shorter? Listen, I don’t think we’re in the business of casting young ladies specifically so the men in the audience can ogle them, are we?”

“I know it was called ‘Fury From The Deep’, and I know it was an accident, but you didn’t need to actually drop it in the river.”

Have any more? Let me know below!

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Penny. Bernard. Dan.

OK, something a little silly.

I suspect there are few hard and fast rules when it comes to sitcom writing. There are so many different ways of doing it. The establishment of conflict is perhaps the most important thing, provided that the laughs come first. There are, instead, a huge number of Things That Work: the recurring gag, the catchphrase, or the unusually named pitbull cameo (the establishment of a particularly funny, frequently gimmick-laden character who appears for only a short space of time in each episode, steals whatever scene they’re in, and promptly disappears – cf. Inspector Crabtree in ‘Allo ‘Allo). Indeed, unusual names for such idioms is the order of the day, frequently deriving their origin from the shows that were known to pioneer them. The Very Special Episode is one such example. Hey, even the terminology for a show that’s gone down the pan is named after a specific incident in one specific instalment of an otherwise much-loved institution.

I dearly, dearly wanted to come up with something special for the trope I demonstrate in this video, but I couldn’t come up with one. Instead, you will have to cope with the utter banality that is ‘the joy of repetition’. I make no apologies. It was getting late and I wanted to get the thing finished; it had taken far too long as it is.

When I was in my late teens / early twenties everyone was crazy for a man named Alan Partridge. He’s still very popular. Partridge’s appeal lies in his incredible lack of tact and generally disgraceful conduct with people he knows intimately and the complete strangers with whom he interacts. He is sneaky and uncannily self-aware, but is very good at getting himself off the hook, or so he thinks. He is the master of the awkward moment (he interrupts a grieving widow at a funeral so he can take a call from an electrical store) and the politically incorrect retort (when talking about the Irish potato famine, he reflects that “at the end of the day, you will pay the price for being a fussy eater”).

But one of the most famous scenes in the history of the show comes when Partridge greets a new-found friend (who turns out to be a lecherous swinger) by shouting his name across a car park. For thirty seconds. It’s not clever, or well-written, but by God is it funny, for no reason other than that it is utterly absurd.

A few years after Partridge swept across our screens for the first time, comedian Dylan Moran teamed with Bill Bailey and Tamsin Greig (with the writing skills of Father Ted creator Graham Lineham) to bring us Black Books, the tale of a sociopathic alcoholic bookshop owner, his hippyish assistant and the dysfunctional girl next door. Black Books started well and then swiftly jumped the shark once Lineham departed, but the early episodes are awash with absurd dialogue and ludicrous situations – Manny hides inside a piano, playing it with spoons so that the tone-deaf Bernard can impress his girlfriend; Fran masturbates to The Shipping Forecast only to have it interrupted by a book reading from Joe Pasquale; Bernard turns the bookshop into a restaurant, drinks as much red wine as he can so that they can use the empty bottles as candle holders, and shoves pieces of the oven into a pie that poisons his guests. And that’s before we get to the tower of soup.

But one of the funniest – and most memorable – scenes in the show was in an early episode that features Manny wearing a head massager and shouting ‘Bernard!’. For thirty-four seconds. It’s not clever, or well-written, but again it’s funny, even without the punch line.

And then there’s The Big Bang Theory.

I blogged about this just the other day – chiefly concerning Thomas’s uncanny resemblance to Sheldon – but certainly TBBT is built on recurring gags. If you produce twenty-four episodes a year, you have to repeat yourself a little, so Raj’s inability to talk in a room while Penny is around (at least for the first two and a half series, which is how far we’ve got) is almost as common a theme as Sheldon and Leonard’s verbal tennis over the contents of the evening’s takeaway, or Sheldon’s bewildered astonishment whenever anyone takes ‘his’ seat.

But the most common recurring gag in TBBT is the door-knocking: it’s always three groups of three, and it’s always funny – particularly so when they subvert it, as you can see in a couple of the examples here. It encapsulates Sheldon and his relationship with the characters around him – and, in turn, their own relationship with him. It has its own poster. It’s something I do whenever I want to lightly annoy Emily without making her cross. She even laughed the first time.

But let me confess something. If I’m honest, I put this together for my brother, who loves all three shows. I’ve gone on about characterisation and pacing and repeated gags, but that’s just commentary. I have no real point to make – the ‘sitcom tropes’ I spoke of are really just an afterthought. In my head, the segue from Bill Bailey into Jim Parsons into Steve Coogan worked rather nicely – and it even worked on screen, once I’d tightened up the editing. So this is a moment of unabashed silliness from yours truly; a deeply personal dip into nostalgia and shared nights over a couple of beers with my younger sibling. Still, I may do a part two.

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The Titles of Repetition

If you’ve watched enough Doctor Who, you’ll spot patterns in everything. There’s the way stories are constructed. There’s the spacing between the in jokes. There’s the catchphrases-that-aren’t-quite-catchphrases. There’s the repetitive companion behaviour traits and obvious characters who won’t make it past the second reel. This is how drinking games are formed. Then, of course, there’s the episode titles.

Formulaic titles are the norm in many TV shows. In the late 1980s there was a sitcom over here called Watching, in which every episode title contained a present participle – ‘Pairing’, ‘Moving’, ‘Wrestling’, ‘Hiding’, ‘Shagging’ (OK, I made that last one up). The mercifully short-lived Ardl O’Hanlon vehicle Blessed featured song titles. And it seemed that about half the episodes of Bottom (‘Gas’, ‘Accident’, ”s Out’ were designed to be dropped in as a suffix to the show’s title, presumably before the writers got bored.

Across the pond, The Big Bang Theory melds scientific / mathematical terminology with something that’s discussed (however briefly) in that week’s episode: ‘The Jerusalem Duality’, ‘The Vengeance Formulation’ and ‘The Middle Earth Paradigm’ are but three of over a hundred. This sort of thing was also very popular in the 1990s with Friends, which spent years starting every episode with ‘The One With / Where / When’, or occasional variations thereon – the first two words were abbreviated, so all over the internet you can find lists of titles like ‘TOW Ross is increasingly whiny’, ‘TOW you can see Matthew Perry’s eating disorder’, ‘TOW the inappropriate product placement’ , or my personal favourite, ‘TOW Joey’s rampant stupidity devolves into an even bigger parody of itself’.

Other shows aren’t so lucky. 24, for example, has nothing but the hour as an identification marker, meaning episodes are titled ‘Day 7, 12:00-13:00’ and so on. This is fine if you possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of the show, or a smartphone with the Wiki page bookmarked, but unless you’re as obsessed as I was you’d have no way of knowing purely from the title that this was the episode where [CHRONIC SPOILER], [SPOILER] gets [SPOILER] by [SPOILER] just before revealing the location of the [SPOILER], or [SPOILER] suddenly reveals that they’ve really been [SPOILER].

But what about Doctor Who? Well, there are ways and means. A surefire way to get a Doctor Who title that sounds like a Doctor Who title is to call it ‘The adjective of villain’, or ‘The object of planet’. Or, if that sounds too much like hard work, you could start with ‘The object’, although that sounds a little less Who. But that’s how it’s done, or at least more often than not, and particularly during the Tom Baker run, where almost every story seemed to fit that criteria.

Some numbers will help here, and so I’ll reveal that I did a little counting. There have been 229 titled Doctor Who stories since 1963 (a healthy mixture of pre-2005 serials and post-2005 one-shots), including the five that are currently being broadcast. Of all these, 93 were prefixed with a ‘The’, and 75 used the ‘X of Y’ format. (I haven’t touched the BF stuff or the spin-off media; there’s just too much of it. In the meantime, I do the stats so you don’t have to. You may thank me later.)

Parodies of Who exist, of course – The Curse of Fatal Death’ is one of the more famous ones, although Big Finish have done some of their own – and they tend to stick to the formula. And a few years ago, a BBS bulletin board of which I am still a member hosted a user-generated discussion where members were invited to submit their own Doctor Who titles, the sillier the better, using words from existing Who titles as a starting point. Gareth kindly dragged out the file from the archives, and we can confirm the submissions ran as follows:

  • The Of of the Of
  • An Unearthly Earth
  • The Daleks of the Daleks
  • The Green Polo
  • Mission to Time
  • The Five Four Three Two Ones
  • Revenge of Vengeance
  • The Faceless Face
  • The Tenth Greatest Seeds Meddler
  • The Green Mutants Within the Daleks
  • Happiness in Paradise
  • Doom, Death and Destruction
  • The Evil Face Operation
  • Survival of the Monsters
  • The Galaxy Galaxy
  • Four of the Daleks
  • The Horns of Smugglers
  • Marco Trial
  • The Evil Abominable Curse of Horror Death and Terror Doom
  • The Greatest Snowman in Paradise
  • From Genesis in Eden, to the Ark in the Sea, to Revelation in Armageddon

And then, only yesterday, the BBC added a new one:

Cheers Gareth.

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