There was a reason why I didn’t do a write-up for the Easter special. It’s partly because we were in Liverpool, plaque-spotting on Mathew Street and taking ferries to Birkenhead and noting that when Dan and Diane left the museum in the first episode of Flux, they did so by the fire exit. But it’s mostly because it was incredibly dull, the tale of swashbuckling sea adventure turning out to be a bit of a damp squib. It wasn’t outrageously terrible, but it wasn’t very good, either. It was just mediocre. The inclination to write paragraphs about why this was an outrage – something I’d have done in a heartbeat back in 2015 – is more or less gone these days, and if it’s mediocre, I no longer care.
And yet here we are, some six months down the line in a tour-de-force that takes in active volcanos, dastardly schemes and more old faces than a DVD retrospective. Running just shy of ninety minutes, it serves as a swansong both for Whittaker and the departing showrunner, a target of so much internet vitriol it’s astounging he’s stuck it out this long. Perhaps the most potent criticism of Chibnall’s reign, aside from his inability to write dialogue (something that hasn’t improved) is a supposed refusal to acknowledge the past, whether it’s the absence of classic villains in Series 10 or the whole Timeless Child debacle. Thus, with the plethora of famous faces popping up during ‘The Power of the Doctor’, he seeks to answer his critics. “You want nods to the past? Fine. Have this one. And this one. And this one.”
Nostagia sells. This is an anniversary story – not the show, but the BBC – and the buildup to Whittaker’s regeneration is steeped in the desire to look back, so much so that the Doctor scarcely sees the proverbial (and, eventually, literal) cliff until she’s about to step over the edge. It reads like a love letter to times past, a sort of ‘Day of the Doctor’ lite, the style flapping over substance like one of those Top Gear supercars that look better than they drive. Against all odds, and thanks to some genuinely crowd-pleasing moments, it works. If nothing else it’s a relief to get it out of the way so that we can finally sift through the tabloid rumours – media abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of any information the press and the fan pages have had to create their own notes on speculative casting, with everyone from Bonnie Langford to Matt Smith mooted to be somehow involved.
Smith doesn’t show; neither does Capaldi – but they did manage to get most of the others. They play their cameos to a tee, perched atop the edge of a metaphysical abyss like wizened, BBC English gurus; platitudes and received pronunciation. Of the surviving Old Legends, only Tom Baker is absent, which should surprise no one who saw ‘The Five Doctors’. Crucially no obvious effort is made to de-age any of them. which is probably down to budget more than anything else, although it doesn’t stop Chibnall putting in a few lines about how their physical appearance reflects the desire of former companions to watch them growing old. It suffices, at a stretch, but it’s awkard, calling to mind that horrendous clay monkey from the end of Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’ video. “This is how I see you…”
But nostagia works like an anaesthetic – or at least a potent variety gas and air, bringing on a euphoric fit of giggles that serves to mask the frantic cutting and squeezing going on down below. This was a story about spectacle, in which we’re expected to applaud first and ask questions later, And thus the sight of McGann alone is almost enough to forgive the writer for thrusting ‘Orphan 55’ upon us a couple of years back (almost, if not quite). Who cares if they got old? We all did. Bringing back former Doctors also allows for closure with their respective companions, the holographic projections washing in and out of the screen like ghosts. It’s a touching moment, although the nod to Ace’s feud with the Doctor has a bit of posturing about it, feeling like a half-hearted attempt at rebuffing all those people who claimed Chibnall didn’t know his Who. He may have been well-intentioned, but this is likely to simply confuse people whose knowledge of Aldred stops in 1989. (And which feud, anyway? There were so many of them.)
Structurally, the whole thing holds up like a house of cards. The opening set piece (an attack on an interstellar bullet train that echoes the opening of A New Hope, including a white-gowned Princess Leia) is there purely to introduce a McGuffin and get rid of a companion – Dan, for whom a cracked space helmet is one brush with death too many. And so they drop him on Granger Street, where his house is still missing (anyone who’s actually visited Anfield will understand why this is funny), in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, and it’s back to a life of food banks, doomed romance and abject poverty. His departure is as swift and awkward as we’ve come to expect over this run, and indeed his entire involvement in the story is a cynical piece of audience-baiting, with Bishop’s general absence from the trailer giving rise to the theory that he would be granted an on-screen death that never came.
In the absence of Dan, the old guard steps up – and it’s to Chibnall’s credit that the involvement of Ace and Tegan extends to something more than a token appearance. Fielding fends off an army of Cybermen: on the other side of the world, Aldred dusts off her jacket and hits a Dalek with a baseball bat. Chibnall also elects to bring back Vinder, simply because he can. The final gambit, on a choked and dusty Cyber-planet that resembles an industrial quarry, is a straight lift from series four, with every available character holding down a different lever, but we have just seen Kate Lethbridge-Stewart saved in the nick of time from forced Cyber conversion, so you don’t notice until the dust settles.
In the midst of all this, there’s a plot of sorts, although it is largely an excuse for general silliness. The story revolves around the Master, who has come up with a convoluted scheme involving seismic drilling, reversible tissue compression (yes, honestly) and a series of Photoshopped artworks that serve no purpose except to act as a Tumblr blog in waiting. The central conceit – stolen bodies, extraneous cosplay – is half Face/Off, half ‘Logopolis’; this was almost certainly deliberate, given Fielding’s involvement, and would be outright preposterous were it not for the performance of its central antagonist. Dhawan deviates between calm, hypnotic resonance during the St. Petersburg scenes and a Joker-like mania just about everywhere else – although the episode’s narrative high point sees him cavorting around the winter palace to the melodic strains of Boney M, in a move that will please Fortnite fans everywhere, even if it perplexes everyone else.
Whittaker bows out on a cliff, having seen off the enemy before getting zapped by a planet-shearing laser, carried into the TARDIS by her doe-eyed companion. The scenes with the Doctor and Yaz are as strained as they ever were, and it’s almost a relief when that ice cream is finished – although we do get a beautiful shot of the Earth from space, as the two friends sit on the roof like Wayne and Garth. And then it’s a flash and a bang (Whittaker’s final words are, pleasingly, a reference to a playground game, emphasising that above all else this is a show for children) and in comes David Tennant, in a scene that everyone saw coming – everyone except my thirteen-year-old, whose eyes nearly popped out of their sockets.
Cue the unanswered questions. Why did the Master go to the trouble of butchering all that art when he could have made a simple phone call? Why would you ship a planet-powering energy source on a high speed train with minimal security? Does the fob watch still lurk at the bottom of the TARDIS? Why does Tennant have a five o’clock shadow? And just why is it called ‘The Power of the Doctor’, anyway?
But then Chibnall never was the show’s greatest writer. Not for him the subtlety of Moffat’s arc twists, or the urban kitchen sink drama that Davies made his own. His dialogue is still clunky, characters still lecture, characterisation is still inconsistent (the scene where Yaz is told to train a gun on the Master is bound to ruffle feathers) and it still feels like Whittaker – doing the best she can – has saved the world more by accident than by design, as if the Doctor is allowing things to happen. But against all odds, and after a rollercoaster couple of years, it was an exciting and fitting send-off for both of them. And for all its structural inadequacies, cringeworthy exchanges and narrative cu-de-sacs, I was left with a warm, fuzzy feeling, a glow that lasted the evening and is still lingering now, like the vestigial reserves of regeneration energy. I honestly can’t remember the last time I got that from Doctor Who.
It was a Wednesday, they were in London, and the quiet hum of the TARDIS engines was just about to be undercut by the sound of a ringing phone.
Clara made it to the console first. It was a game they played, on those rare occasions when someone called. Her relationship with the Doctor had begun with a phone call – come to think of it, so had his relationship with her, although it was a different phone and different planet. At least she thought it was a different planet; in truth Clara only half-remembered it, and it hadn’t actually happened yet. These things were complicated. He had been younger then, a quite different man in every literal sense of the word.
Now he was old and grey and often grumpy. There were days they saved the universe, and then there were days she felt like a glorified public relations officer. All too often, the days matched.
She lifted the receiver, ignoring the Doctor’s glare. “Hello?”
Clara blinked. “One second.” Handed him the phone. “It’s you.”
Frowning, the Doctor held out his hand. “Who is it?”
“No, I mean you’re – oh, just take it.”
The Doctor lifted the receiver to his ear, and then his eyes widened to an incredulous stare. “How did you get this number? Well, yes, I mean I know it’s mine, but – no, you’re not supposed to be able to call me! It breaks every rule in the – black hole? What black – never mind, don’t tell me, it’ll come out in the wash. Her? That was Clara. You know, Clara. You really don’t remem- how long’s it been?”
He paced back and forth next to the console, free hand darting over his temples. Now it was clawing at his hair. Making a yak-yak gesture, during which he rolled his eyes at Clara. She was goggling, although mostly at the phone cord, which was in serious danger of getting twisted around his neck.
“You want me to go where? Oh, them. Right. But why?…seriously?”
Concluding the call, the Doctor dropped the receiver in its cradle, with a little more force than Clara thought was probably necessary. “God, what an insufferable idiot.”
“That was you.”
“Yes, well, I’m my own worst critic. How’s your Swedish?”
* * *
At the precise moment the door to the Stockholm studio burst open, Benny Andersson had been trying to do three things. First, he’d been trying to identify the strange vworp, vworp noise he’d just heard outside. Second, he’d been wondering whether it might be something he could sample and use as an introduction to a song he was working on (an as-yet untitled ditty about a post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by sentient snails). And third, his sense of recall was performing a desperate catfish through the rubbish bag that was his subconscious in an attempt to work out precisely where he’d heard it before.
His thought processes were interrupted by the arrival of a silver-haired man who looked to be in his mid-to-late fifties, wearing a purple blazer over a tieless white shirt buttoned to the collar, and the sort of expression that meant business. Benny wasn’t sure whether it was the hey-let’s-do-another-musical sort of business, or the accountants-with-folders sort. The second was not something he savoured. But this man didn’t look much like an accountant; he looked like the world’s dourest conjuror.
“Hello, you two,” said the newcomer. “How’s business?”
It had taken Benny two-and-a-bit paragraphs to remember he was not alone in the room. He glanced over at Bjorn, who had been in the middle of constructing a Lego model of the Big Bang Theory set. Bjorn built Lego sets whenever he was blocked. He also liked to pound a toilet brush against the rail of the balcony while singing the Lithuanian national anthem. This was a closely-guarded secret: there was always the possibility of paparazzi intrusion, but so far they’d been lucky.
Benny regarded the stranger with astonishment. “Who are you, and how did you get past security?”
The man was carrying a notebook; he opened it to a specific page and made a tally mark with a ball point pen. “And that’s…thirty-seven marks for opener number five,” he said. “That’s almost as popular as ‘Halt, you’re an enemy of the Daleks’.”
Benny was reaching for the phone on his desk when the stranger held up a single finger. Just wait. “Melbourne,” he said. “March 5th, 1977. You were trapped in your hotel room and curtain was half past eight. The incident with the mutant sponges.” The stranger leaned over the desk and offered a cheery, if slightly sinister grin. “Do you remember?”
Benny’s jaw dropped like a plummeting lift. He was too transfixed to glance over at Bjorn, but suspected he’d experienced the same reaction.
“Doctor?” said the astonished Benny, after a moment.
“In the flesh. How’ve you been?”
“My god! That must have been…forty years ago!”
“Well, your maths is still good,” the Doctor mused. “Must be all the fish.”
“You’ve aged,” said Bjorn. “In fact your face is completely different. And you’ve got more…Welsh.”
The Doctor was affronted. “Scottish!”
“Right, right,” said Bjorn, trying his best to look abashed. “I always get those two muddled.”
“I like the jacket, though,” said Benny. “I never really cared much for those pinstripes.”
“So you remember?”
“How could we forget? We still talk about that night. We even did a song about it. The title track on our last album.”
The Doctor regarded him curiously. “I thought The Visitors was about Russian dissidents?”
“Well, you know. You have to code these things,” said Bjorn. “No one would have believed the truth.”
“So what brings you here?” said Benny. “So late in the day?”
“Yeah, do you need money?” This was Bjorn. “Only most of ours is tied up in investments, and – ”
“I need you to make another album,” said the Doctor, simply.
Benny and Bjorn’s jaws dropped almost as far as they had when the Time Lord had announced his identity. The Doctor heard something click in Benny’s face, and winced; he’d feel that in the morning.
It was Bjorn who recovered first. “I’m sorry, what?”
“I need you to record a new album. You and the girls. Well, women. Shouldn’t really call them girls. Clara’s always lecturing me about that.”
“My friend. She’s gone out sightseeing, but she’d love to meet you both.”
“A new album?” Benny was rubbing his jaw. “Now? After all this – but why?”
“We left that behind a long time ago,” said Bjorn. “There’s a lot of water under that bridge.”
“There’s a lot of water under every bridge. That’s the purpose of bridges. They let the water move. Give you a sense of where it’s going, where it’s been. Bridges are brilliant for offering perspective.” The Doctor was walking around the room, gesticulating with his hands in the manner of an animated lecturer. “Unfortunately they only get you so far. Sometimes you just have to walk off the bridge and go down to the water.”
He was facing them now “Because it’s never too late to start again.”
“But still…why? Why now?”
“Because I’ve a feeling that in a few years, people are going to really need it. Specifically me. But also everyone else. You disbanded, what, thirty-five years ago? What have you done since?”
“We wrote an award-winning musical about chess and had cameos in Mamma Mia,” replied Bjorn, somewhat frostily.
“Yes, well. I mean apart from that. Besides, there’s another record inside you both. Well, all right, the four of you. You need the four of you, otherwise you’d just be ‘BB’.”
Benny regarded him with interest. Then he sighed. “They’ll never agree to it.”
“Then convince them. You’re good at the emotional stuff. And I refuse to believe – ” And now he was once more pacing the room, rummaging through cabinets, leafing through piles of papers, examining DATs – “that you’re not still writing.”
“We-ell…” Benny drew out the syllables like smoke rings. “We did have that one about the computer.”
“Don’t Shut Me Down?” Bjorn scoffed. “That’s going nowhere. The tune’s not bad, but the lyrics are terrible.”
“Our lyrics were always terrible. In any case, we could tweak it. Make it about something different.”
“Good. Good start.” The Doctor – who was now sitting in a chair opposite Bjorn’s desk – clapped his hands, then put his feet up on the table. “What else?”
Bjorn tried to ignore the lack of social grace. “There’s one about a cat witnessing an argument between an alcoholic woman and her husband.”
“Make it a dog. Dogs have compassion. Cats don’t care at all. Plus their claws are annoying.” The Doctor was well into his stride now. “Keep ’em coming.”
“We were playing around with Irish music; that yielded…possibilities. And there’s one called Keep An Eye On Dan – ”
“Dan? Who’s Dan?”
“We don’t know yet.”
“Well, find out.” He jumped up. “I’m not asking for a tour or anything. Just one more album. Go out smiling.”
Despite himself, Benny was smiling now. “You know what?” he said to Bjorn. “I really think we should.”
“All right,” said Bjorn, meaning it. “Let’s.”
The Doctor grinned. “Trust me, people will love it. Well, probably. The ones that matter.”
“We’d better get to work,” Benny said to Bjorn. “Find those lead sheets we did a while back.”
“Oh. There’s one more thing.” The Doctor was already on his way out, but he’d now turned back, Columbo-style, and was fishing a piece of paper out of his jacket. “When you’re done, send a copy to this chap. With a note that says this.”
Nothing about this made any sense to Benny, but that had been the pattern for this afternoon. And as the Doctor hurried out and then hurried back in again with a young, starry-eyed brunette on his arm, Benny sat down at the keyboard and began to play, wondering if this could possibly go anywhere at all.
* * *
Some time later, and in drastically different circumstances, the Doctor stood in the middle of a quaint pastoral scene on a ship where time ran at different speeds depending on where you parked.
It was appropriate, really, given that the passage of his own life was so difficult to measure. How long had it been? Chronologically, a few millennia. Maybe. He didn’t know when Mondas had started its drift. For him, it had been just over a thousand, most of it languishing outside Missy’s makeshift jail, scribbling lecture notes and occasionally assisting the Templars. That was assuming you didn’t count the several billion he had spent punching a wall. He never knew whether he should.
The Doctor stared out at the field and considered its random promises. Before him lay a pleasant rural backdrop, hedge-lined fields rolling away to pastured common land, bordered by forests thick with oak and ash and beech. Somewhere in the lower decks, aided in no uncertain terms by their convenient proximity to an event horizon, the Cybermen were evolving and rebuilding at an unprecedented rate, and it was inevitable that they would make a repeat appearance – almost certainly in a sleeker costume and carrying a far nastier gun. The Doctor had found he could do many things over the centuries, but even he couldn’t stop the passage of time – time, the enemy of us all.
It would likely be a bloodbath.
He’d worry about that later. Right now, he had a point to prove.
Nardole was still sitting outside the farmhouse, face hunched over the laptop, peering at it over the the rim of his glasses. Occasionally he would prod at one of the keys, almost with hesitancy, like a child discovering at the corpse of a woodland animal they’re not sure is dead. The Doctor wondered if he was actually dealing with the Cyber threat or playing Roblox.
He cleared his throat as he approached, and Nardole looked up. “Ah. There you are, sir.”
“How’s it going?”
“There’s still some lag on the payload delivery, but I think we can compensate. Hope we can, anyway. Otherwise it’ll be short and not very sweet.” The Doctor coughed. Nardole looked at him quizzically: the Doctor interpreted it (correctly) as his what-in-the-love-of-heaven-is-he-gonna-ask-me-now look.
“The, um. The thing. There was a thing I asked you to look after. Some time ago. Had it sent to you. Only I don’t know about it until now, which is when I’ll ask you to give it to me.”
Nardole’s eyes were momentarily blank. Then somewhere inside his head a penny dropped: if you listened carefully, you could almost hear the clang. “Oh, that!” he said. “Yeah, been carrying that around with me for months. Bit random, though. Can’t think why you’d want it.”
He fished into his jacket pocket and produced a small flat cardboard sleeve, not quite square. “Had a note attached, said ‘Keep it with you and don’t tell me.’” The Doctor took the sleeve, staring at the cover artwork: the dark brown of space, a star poking over the edge of an unidentifiable planet.
He found himself nodding in approval, which prompted Nardole to say “I take it that this is somehow important?”
“Depends on your perspective.” The Doctor was reading the back of the case. “Either way, thank you. Particularly for keeping it secret.”
“All part of the service.” Nardole resumed tapping at his laptop. “I mean it’s probably pushed something important out of my head, but never mind.”
The Doctor grinned as he walked away. “Have a look down the back of the sofa. Things have a habit of turning up.”
“Back of the sofa,” Nardole muttered to himself, but there was humour in it.
* * *
The Masters – both of them – were leaning against a stile, watching a cow.
“Do you ever wonder,” the bearded one was saying, “about the Matrix?”
“The one on Gallifrey?” said Missy.
“No, that terrible science fiction film.” The Master shifted his stance; the wood was itching. “I saw it, back when I was running for Prime Minister. And it struck me that if you’re going to have some sort of rogue AI conquer the world, you really don’t want to use humans for a battery source.”
“They’re impetuous. They don’t listen. That’s the whole point of the film; people are never happy with what’s given to them. Whereas if they’d used a cow – ”
“There’d have been no rebellion.” Missy finished the thought. “The cow wakes up immersed in liquid, it’s a bit confused, they plug it back in, it’s none the wiser. It just eats grass all day, perfectly content.”
“Plus,” said the Master, “cows are big. You’d need far fewer of them, which makes administration much easier.”
“Yeah. They could call it the Mootrix.”
“Good title,” offered the Master. He turned his attention to the Doctor, whose boots made soft prints in the evening grass. “Oh, it’s you. Whatever it is, you can lift it yourself.”
“Actually, no.” The Doctor scratched the side of his nose. “I came back to check something. The conversation we had earlier.
“That?” the Master sneered. “Why are we revisiting that?”
“Something you said. I asked you about the odds of beating the Cybermen.”
“What’d you say?” The Doctor stood, arms folded, biding his time. “I mean your exact words.”
The Master eyed him contemptuously. “I said it was about as likely as an ABBA reunion.”
“Yeah.” The Doctor fished into his pocket, and then placed the CD into the Master’s outstretched hand. The Master rolled it over. “So? Some kind of bootl – wait.” He was examining the date. “Why didn’t I know about this?”
“They reformed.” The Doctor wore the merest hint of a smile. “New album. Nearly forty years after the last one. Even managed a tour, of sorts.”
“Did they do that song about the gorilla?” Missy was leaning over the Master’s left arm, reading the track list. “I always liked that one.”
The Master glowered at her. “Not helping.” And then, turning back to the Doctor: “This is fake.”
“I’ll think you’ll find it isn’t,” said the Doctor.
“Then why didn’t I know about it?”
“Oh, well, you’re a busy man. Slash woman,” the Doctor added, acknowledging Missy. “You can’t be on top of every temporal anomaly.”
The Master thought this through for a moment, internal cogs whirring in a blaze of tempestuous logic, and then he pointed at the Doctor with an angry finger. “You cheated!”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” the Doctor smirked. “Either way, I get to win this one.”
The Master threw the CD to the ground, and then stomped off. The Doctor dropped to a low squat to pick it up, brushing away the flecks of dirt. “Litterbug.”
“So what was that?” asked Missy, who’d decided that if her counterpart wanted a sulk, he was on his own. “Other than a bit of metaphorical tackle waving.”
The Doctor’s eyebrows shot up. “You can talk.”
“I can, actually,” said Missy, hand on her hip. “But in all seriousness, you did that by contacting your earlier self, right? How’d you even manage it?”
“It’s the black hole,” said the Doctor. “Bends time. Means the phone works. Kind of.”
“And you rang…you.”
“An earlier me. Got him to pop over to Stockholm. Called in a few favours.”
“Then why in God’s name didn’t you get him to help here?” Missy was incandescent with disbelief. “Bring the TARDIS over? Trigger a meltdown? Be a lifeboat? Anything?”
“Because he never did,” the Doctor explained. “Or rather, I never did. I’d have remembered. We can’t cross the timeline, Missy. You know that.”
“So what was the point, then?”
“I don’t know. Fun, maybe? It’s been sorely lacking round here these past few weeks. Maybe there’s nothing actually wrong with spreading a little joy, even if things are rubbish and we’re all about to die horribly. And besides…”
He moved just a little closer, and dropped his voice to that low, measured tone he adopted when he wanted to be serious. “I wanted to show him that even when you’re certain of the outcome, the universe has a way of surprising you. And that people change, even though they don’t always want to.”
For a moment, Missy said nothing. Then she glared at the Doctor. “You think you know me.” And with that, she turned on her heel and stomped off in the direction the Master had taken, in the futile hope that the Doctor hadn’t seen her lip trembling.
He watched her go. Wondered if he could have handled the conversation better, and decided that it didn’t matter. It isn’t about how much water you put on the seeds you plant, he realised. They grow when they’re ready. And sometimes you don’t get to see.
A snatch of remembered melody drifted into his head. Can you hear the drums, Fernando…?
The Doctor walked back across the field. Perhaps Bill was awake.
Funny what she gets up when she thinks the cameras are off, isn’t it?
How do you do, fellow teenagers? I don’t have a single meme about Harry and Meghan; if you’re anything like me I imagine you’re heartily sick of the whole thing. This is a world of heroes and villains and ne’er the twain, it seems, shall meet: depending on who you talk to, Meghan Markle is either a strong, independent and blameless woman who’s become a victim of racist bullying, despised by the establishment because she didn’t fit the mould, or an opportunistic prima donna who was awful to the palace staff, contemptuous of Kate Middleton and whose modus operandi was to drive a wedge between Harry and his brother.
The fact that the most likely reality is an awkward combination of both does not seem to have occurred to anyone, at least anyone who reads the papers, but I suppose the world is so much easier when we can view it in black and white. No one likes an ambiguous, well-crafted villain with redeeming features. They want someone they can boo and hiss at. Anyway, enough. It’s way more complicated than I have time to discuss in this silly little blog.
We seem to have missed a few things, like St. David’s Day.
Or Valentine’s Day.
Or Pancake Day.
One of the big bits of Doctor Who news, of course – something we found out on New Year’s Day, immediately after the live broadcast (which I wasn’t watching, meaning I got to find out about it on Twitter) concerned the imminent arrival of incoming companion Dan, set to make his debut in the autumn, or whenever they get round to airing series 13. Dan’s a scouser, and you have absolutely no idea how difficult it was not to make jokes about nailing down bits of the console, but as it stands I managed to keep my humour contained. More or less.
News broke quite recently of the dissolution of Daft Punk, the dance hall stalwarts who’ve been making music together for nearly thirty years, and who’ve produced a shedload of songs that I’d forgotten they did. I do remember, some years ago, an appearance at a festival by Wurzel-esque comedy band Folk On, who were on fine form as ever but who managed to have everyone jigging along in the mud when they sang “We’re up all night to get some (milk!) / We’re up all night for good fun / We’re up all night to get folky…”. It’s a sad day for music, as while they were never really my thing I can’t deny that they’ve completely changed the scene and that ‘One More Time’ is a bangin’ masterpiece. Luckily the two of them seem to have already found another job.
We’re still in lockdown, whereby all but essential travel is banned – although that doesn’t seem to have stopped Banksy, who ventured from his native Bristol to my home town of Reading to scribble his latest drawing on the wall of the heritage masterpiece / public eyesore (delete as applicable) that is Reading Gaol. It’s Oscar Wilde, escaping with a typewriter, sheets tied together like in Colditz, something that never happened in real life. As far as we know, anyway.
“That’s it, nearly there. Just a little further. You know what, Yaz, I think I’m getting an idea.”
Elsewhere, in a forest in Hampshire, someone else is breaking lockdown:
My children have been watching a lot of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. The eldest two spent New Year’s Eve watching a few back to back with the horror movie Us; I’d say I don’t know what was the most terrifying part of the whole thing but earlier in the evening we’d all been watching Cats, so I think you have your answer. In any case, Ramsay is a good deal more sprightly than he was in Gordon Ramsay’s Bank Balance, a show that seems to have been almost universally panned, although it’s good to know that they’re managing to make the most of the old TARDIS sets.
“Our first contestants tonight are Amy and Rory, from Leadworth in Gloucestershire…”
I read an interesting thing in the press the other week about a scientific dig that yielded unexpected results, and the instant thing I thought of was Lovecraft and shoggoths and albino penguins. But I also did this. You couldn’t not, really.
Politics, and the news that the Prime Minister has designs on a colossal subterranean junction is met with the mirth and condescension it undoubtedly deserves.
We giggle at these fancies, but is it such a terrible idea? It’s certainly a more practical solution than teleportation, which (and why does nobody discuss this?) effectively kills you and reconstructs an identical copy at the other end, unless you’re in The Fly or something. And yet when we’re watching TV we’ll readily accept teleportation, and faster-than-light travel, and the existence of wormholes, or a police box that can fly and open its doors to a completely different place a few seconds later.
“Just through there, sir.”
And I would rather be anywhere else than here today. Still. This week – 9th March as I write this – marks the week the schools officially reopen (they never actually closed, of course, and teachers never stopped working), meaning a return to something awkwardly like normality. Well, kind of.
“It’s lovely to see you everyone back, and I’m pleased you’ve all remembered your masks…”
Ah, Papa Louie Pals. How do I love thee, and thy sandbox of delights? Let me count the ways. There are twenty-eight of them in this particular edition, mostly taking the form of Classic (pre-2005) companions. The list is extensive but not necessarily exhaustive (Grace, for example, isn’t featured, but I may save her for an odds and ends feature somewhere down the line). Some of these are better than others; a few of them are so generic they could probably be anyone, but if I tell you who they’re supposed to be, and if you squint, then perhaps you might just about manage to make out the superficial resemblances. Others will be fairly obvious from the get-go. None of them is perfect, but some are quite good. And, of course, if you missed the first part of the companion run, or even the Doctors I did a couple of years back, you’re welcome to go and check out both.
Right! Onwards. First, here are two that didn’t make the cut from the previous batch – Doctor Ruth, as I like to call her, and Sacha Dhawan’s Master. One of them looks just a little happier.
In keeping with the ‘newer characters I haven’t done before now’ theme, here’s Wilf. He’s standing next to Susan, who is wearing her classic stripy ensemble, as seen in ‘An Unearthly Child’ (that’s the final broadcast edition, as opposed to the pilot). Fun fact: she also wore stripes in her final story, when her grandfather threatened to smack her on the arse before abandoning her in a toxic wasteland with a man she scarcely knew.
Ian and Barbara next. Barbara’s hair is, I think, not quite right. But Ian’s quiff is right on the money, and the outfits are a reasonable match.
Here’s Victoria Waterfield, in a crudely rendered edition of the explorer’s outfit she wore while hiking around Wales the Himalayas in ‘The Abominable Snowmen’. She’s accompanied by Steven Taylor, who looks like he’s off to a Where’s Wally? convention.
Vicki and Katarina. For some reason I really struggled with these two. They’re both so…I don’t know, nondescript when it comes to outfit choices. I’m still not convinced I really nailed it. (Katarina’s dress is purple because I found an interesting piece of fan art where she was wearing purple, and besides, it’s my wife’s favourite colour…)
Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge Stewart. That moustache is a little too Air Force for my liking, and the hat is completely wrong, but at least it’s military. For Peri, I went with the pink outfit she wore in ‘Attack of the Cybermen’.
Dodo and Zoe. Dodo’s singlet is so near, and yet so far – what I’d have given for one with a donut! – but other than that it’s a reasonable likeness. Zoe is wearing the silver jumpsuit she wore when splayed over the TARDIS in ‘The Mind Robber’, where the camera lingers over her buttocks for far longer than is necessary. That may be why I picked it.
You couldn’t not put these two together, could you? I wanted a sailor outfit for Ben, but they didn’t have one. As a result he’s a bit nondescript – but stick him next to Polly, and they’re peas and carrots.
You’re spoilt for choice with Jo Grant – so many cracking outfits! – but in the end I plumped for the cowgirl ensemble she wore in ‘Day of the Daleks’, although mercifully you are unable to see up her skirt. I feel like Sarah Jane rather drew the short straw – she was the epitome of working chic for most of her run, right until that last story. But honestly, how could you not use it?!?
It’s a kilt, not a skirt, and I think I got the colours more or less right. Jamie is joined by Liz, who is in her Silurian outfit, and probably just about to run across a weir.
This was an easy one. All you need is the hair and it’s instantly Bonnie Langford, even without the deckchair polo shirt. Next to that, Ace looks positively Goth-like.
Tegan’s top is a little more strappy and a little less abstract than I’d have liked, but it’s a reasonable approximation and it does at least have that 1980s vibe about it. Inevitably, Turlough looks miserable. Well you would too if you went travelling in space and the only clothing you brought was your school uniform.
Both Romanas. Mary Tamm is a little..what’s the word…dull, and I’d have liked to do that rather splendid mauve thing she wore in ‘The Androids of Tara’, but there was nothing that matched, so the white gown won the day. Her later counterpart is dressed for running from Daleks.
Last but not least: Nyssa, wearing something that looks a little bit like a New Romantic cosplay on her ‘Keeper of Traken’ outfit. She’s in the company of Adric, who even has his badge for mathematical excellence, even if it has been placed rather awkwardly around his neck like an Olympic medal. He’s still a dick, anyway.
And that’s your lot. I’d love to do a monsters edition, but I don’t think they do sink plungers…
Well. We’ve got a bumper crop of memes for you today. This is because I have spent much of September writing other things, and also because my WordPress account is playing up and I can only, for whatever reason, access this from Firefox. It has taken me all of a week to figure this out; clearly the technology is moving on without me. Cripes I feel old.
Not as old as this lot, who were discovered waiting for the new Bond movie.
What else has been going on? Well, the anti-lockdown demonstrations have continued in earnest, although an overheard conversation between two unmasked protesters indicates they’re not all as unified as we might have thought.
Elsewhere in London, the Doctor and Clara run out of corridor at the most inopportune moment.
And some of the other Doctors react to that recent Radio Times poll.
There are tensions on the alien mothership during the Sycorax leader’s re-election campaign.
In UK politics, on a publicity drive to highlight the Government retraining scheme, MPs take it upon themselves to visit a number of people from the arts sector trying out new careers.
“No. Absolutely not. Go away.”
Still, all the spin in the world can’t hide the fact that the NHS is sorely under-funded.
Of course, it happens on the other side of the pond as well.
“Hang on, Mike. Hold still. I think there’s something on you.”
“Don’t look at me like that. There’s more than six of them, and we’re supposed to call it in.”
And over in Downing Street, there’s an angry reaction when the powers that be discover that curfew laws apply to them as well.
It’s a good discipline, writing for other sites besides your own. It gives you an awareness of different audiences. Blogs make for a tendency towards self-indulgence; it’s easy to embark on bouts of madcap silliness, unnecessary sidetracking anecdotes that could easily be trimmed; or excessive waffle. None of this is particularly harmful, but when you’re working for someone else – whether paid or unpaid – you generally have to rein it in.
I’ve been writing for The Doctor Who Companionfor the last four years, and its predecessor, Kasterborous, for some time before that. It is an eclectic mix of features and analysis, run by a team of writers with diverse views and opinions, united by their love of Doctor Who. My pieces for them tend to be features, exploring particular aspects: for example, what do TARDIS reveals tell us about the companions witnessing them? Is there a case to be made for headcanon? And if the Doctor were a biscuit, what sort would she be? The editor is a thoroughly nice chap, willing to indulge my occasionally ridiculous prose and lengthy discourses, (“I don’t care that it’s long,” he tells me. “The readers can take it. We’re not BuzzFeed.”)
Series reviews work like this: episodes are assigned to individual writers (or we volunteer for them) and published soon after initial broadcast. A few days later, we’ll publish collective reviews from the other writers, three-hundred word summaries of their thoughts and feelings on the story of the week. And it’s a tradition at BoM that I’ll eventually gather them up and reproduce all my contributions in here.
This year’s assembly took a little longer than originally anticipated – the DWC was offline for quite some time in early spring as we rebuilt it, and then all this happened. So it’s been a good few months since ‘The Timeless Children’, which may not be a bad thing because we were all thoroughly sick of the shouting, weren’t we? For some of you, this collection of rambling thoughts will be a chance to revisit and reappraise episodes you haven’t seen in a while; you may find that your opinions have changed. For others, it’ll be a reminder of pointless cameos and tedious plot twists. If that’s the case, I’d advise you to keep your head down over the next week or so, because I’m doing these in batches.
Links to the full write-ups have been provided where they exist, but unfortunately a few articles got lost in the migration process and we’re still trying to get them back. At least you’ll be able to read my contributions, if nothing else. Oh, and as you go through these, you may eventually come to the conclusion that I wasn’t taking this brief entirely seriously. You’d be right. I no longer take Doctor Who seriously; as a consequence, I now find it tremendously fun to watch.
Spyfall, Part One
Somewhat awkwardly for an opener, I reviewed this one, so there is no summary. But here’s a paragraph that’s as good a precis as I can provide:
‘I’m not sure I can say with a clear conscience that this was any sort of classic, but neither was it a car crash (although it features one or two). Spyfall strides the awkward middle line between haphazard fun and mediocre buffoonery, equal parts cringe to crowdpleasing, and there is a sense, as its closing credits roll, of having watched something that was basically candy floss: enjoyable while it lasts but flimsily and loosely constructed, and prone to falling apart the second you poke at it. That’s probably okay: some people like candy floss.’
‘There’s something slightly amateurish about the sight of an ashened, ruined Gallifrey some 10 or 15 minutes after we’ve heard the Master talking about its destruction. It gives the Doctor a reason to pop over there (something she can apparently do at will now, even though the Time Lords are seemingly unable or unwilling to reciprocate) – still, how much better might it have been for us to first glimpse the torched citadel completely unwarned? ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a maxim that gets thrown about far too much, but it still feels as if this was the perfect opportunity to use it – as it stands, there is no shock value to the scene because we know it is coming, and the BBC presents only the most cursory of vistas, prompting only the mildest of reactions from the person looking at it. Would it have been too much to see the Doctor cry, or at least show some visible signs of upset besides sitting against a TARDIS wall, looking blank and forlorn?
Or perhaps that’s the point – perhaps this, too, is the calm before the storm, a storm the Doctor can only weather with the help of friends she is currently content to leave in the dark, thus setting the stage for six or seven episodes of skirting around the question of who she really is before a final, explosive confrontation. And perhaps that’s the only way to reinvent Gallifreyan history – something, it seems, Chibnall is about to do – without it becoming tedious. And it is destined to be tedious, this game of gods and monsters and prophecy. It is an awkward fact that stories about Time Lords – the anomaly of Deadly Assassin aside – tend towards dullness, and it is difficult to see how the current regime could reinvent them. But it does, at least, give us something to ponder as the weeks unfold and the awkwardness in the console room builds towards an inevitable crescendo. Like it or not, we’re going back to Gallifrey, and all that remains now is to see how much of the fandom Chibnall can poke with a stick without losing the casual viewers. It’s a dangerous game, but so is getting out of bed.
The rest of it is average: Graham is enjoying his laser shoes, while Yaz has apparently forgotten how to be a police officer, having decided that her role this week is to sit in the corner and look helpless while the men get to have all the fun. But the biggest problem with Skyfall Part 2 is that the pacing is off. Having the Doctor travel 200 years into the past to pick up Ada Lovelace is absolutely fine – the pages of exposition seemingly necessary to explain her importance, however, are downright tedious. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in 1830s London with Charles Babbage or war torn Paris with the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo; Whittaker paces and monologues and gushes about the admirable pioneering qualities of the people whose memories she will eventually wipe, reeling out the history, seemingly unaware that the only people who tend to listen are stranded in 21st century Essex. It’s like watching a BBC Schools presenter on crack. There is a reason why the Doctor is not allowed to travel alone; occasionally she needs someone to tell her to shut up.’
[On an unimpressive CRT television, the Rainbow personnel – GEORGE, ZIPPY, BUNGLE and GEOFFREY – are watching the closing credits of Orphan 55.]
GEORGE: Ooh, that was wonderful, Geoffrey! So exciting!
GEOFFREY: Yes, it was, George, wasn’t it?
BUNGLE: Yes! All those aliens and things blowing up! Ka-BOOOOM!!! But I did wonder, Geoffrey –
GEOFFREY: What did you wonder, Bungle?
BUNGLE: Why did the Doctor take everyone with her to go and rescue Benni? Wasn’t it dangerous for them all?
GEOFFREY: Well, I expect it would have been quite dangerous for them to have stayed, wouldn’t it? All those creatures running around trying to gobble them up. I know what you mean, though. I thought they might have put something in about that.
GEORGE: Perhaps we just couldn’t hear it, Geoffrey. They do talk awfully fast, don’t they?
BUNGLE: Yes. Still, at least there weren’t any frogs this time.
ZIPPY: Huh. Well, I thought it was rubbish. All those stupid monsters!
GEOFFREY: Didn’t you find them scary, Zippy? I know George did. [George is clutching at his blanket and whimpering softly.]
ZIPPY: Why would I find them scary when I share a bed with this lot? And the ending was boring.
BUNGLE: It was supposed to be warning us about climate change, Zippy!
ZIPPY: I already know that, Bungle Bonce. I still thought it was silly. Why did they have to go on and on about saving the planet?
GEOFFREY: Well, because it’s important, Zippy! We’ve only got one planet, haven’t we? We’ve all got to work together to take care of it.
ZIPPY: I do take care of it!
GEORGE: Is that why you always throw your crisp packets over the garden wall?
ZIPPY: I don’t!
GEOFFREY [brandishing a selection of cellophane wrappers]: Oh, yes you do. I found three of them there this morning!
ZIPPY: Yes but – well… [He harrumphs and rests his head on a floppy hand.]
BUNGLE: It’s funny, though. I don’t remember seeing Yas this week. What was she doing?
[There is a thoughtful silence, with gratuitous head scratching and chin-rubbing, as the four of them consider this.]
GEOFFREY: Oh well, never mind. I expect she was there somewhere. The Doctor needs to have someone standing around looking gormless.
ZIPPY: Yeah. You’d know about that, Geoffrey.
GEORGE: Oh, Zippy. You’re such a tw*t.
BUNGLE: Well, I do know one thing. I don’t think I’d want to go on holiday to a place like Tranquility Spa.
GEOFFREY: Oh? Why not, Bungle? Are you worried about furry things that look even less realistic than you do?
BUNGLE: No! I haven’t got any swimming shorts that fit me!
ZIPPY: You walk around the house stark naked!
BUNGLE: Well, yes, but I put my pyjamas on at bedtime, don’t I?
GEORGE: That engineer was funny, wasn’t he? His little boy knew much more than him. I felt like that was trying to tell us something, but I can’t really work it out.
BUNGLE: Ooh, Geoffrey! Rod, Jane and Freddie know a song about dysfunctional family relationships, don’t they?
GEOFFREY: Yes, you’re right, Bungle. Do you know, I think I’ve got a cassette somewhere. I’ll see if I can fish it out. But before we listen to it, I think we’d better say goodbye, don’t you? [Through the fourth wall] We’ll see you again soon. Take care of yourselves. Goodbye!
‘I have a question for the floor. Why is it that, whenever Number Thirteen meets anyone famous, it takes half the episode for the penny to drop? Mistaken identity often enhances a narrative, but it jars when the pudding is overegged. Are we really supposed to believe that there isn’t a visual dictionary in the library, or that no one checks the readouts to see when and where they’ve actually landed? It’s happened twice this year, once with Ada Lovelace and once with the pioneering inventor who graced last night’s episode, and on both occasions the audience has been quicker on the uptake than the Doctor – who manages to wander into and escape from the Niagara Falls power station without having a clue that she’s in the presence of the man responsible for building it.
I’m not going to say that’s my only hang-up with this episode – we could also talk about the historical revisionism, the TARDIS crew’s apparent apathy to new wonders and situations and the sub-par villains (honestly, when did Doctor Who monsters get so dull?) but this was, perhaps, the first time this year it’s felt like we were actually watching the show as it used to be, for better or worse. Here’s a litmus test: you remove Whittaker from the equation and you substitute another Doctor and it still works. In this case, it’s quite easy to imagine Tesla happening with Tennant at the helm, perhaps in the company of the perenially clueless Martha. Certainly the story has that vibe to it: a world on the brink of destruction, the tortured nature of misunderstood genius and the hungry prejudice of a placard-carrying mob.
We might question why the Skithra opted for Tesla, rather than someone who’s actually going to understand the technology they’re throwing at him, but this was never really about them: it’s about Tesla and Edison and the rivalry between them. That Tesla is whitewashed while Edison is made something of a pariah should come as no great surprise to anyone, but it’s to Nina Metivier’s credit that she avoids turning the light bulb pioneer into an out-and-out villain: Edison gloats and generally behaves rather selfishly, but he also expresses remorse over the loss of his staff (“These were men with families!”), he doesn’t cut and run, he doesn’t try and sell out Tesla to the villain of the week, and at the end he extends a hand of friendship, even if he’s only following the money. A well-rounded supporting character. In Doctor Who. And there was me thinking we’d left those days behind.’
The DWC writeup is currently missing. We are checking behind the sofa.
It’s been a week of (self) righteous anger. The ‘self’ is optional; you can put it on if you like. The world we live in is one in which no sin goes unpunished, no tweet unmocked; a world in which armchair judgement has become second nature. No one is safe: it doesn’t matter if it’s angry protesters throwing statues in the river or multi-millionaire authors throwing their weight around.
It’s dull, and I’m tired of writing about it, so let’s look at this week’s news roundup. There are troublesome scenes in central London when Missy can’t remember where she parked her TARDIS.
And on a routine visit to a parallel Earth, the Doctor and Rose are unsettled when they run into a queue for the re-opening of Primark.
Meanwhile, as fury reigns over the expungement of classic episodes and series from on-demand services, a trawl through the Gallifreyan Matrix reveals that even the Time Lords have grown concerned over sensitive content.
In Surrey, Thorpe Park opens after lockdown as a flurry of punters rush to make the most of the good weather.
And an abandoned concept still from the new Bill and Ted trailer reveals that studio execs were suggesting a very different look for the phone box.
One good thing about a lockdown: I’ve had a chance to amalagamate all the leftover copy I’d not got round to filing these last few months. Which means we’re in for a busy few weeks here at BoM, as we go through series retrospectives, how-to guides, and even a bit of myth debunking along with all the meme roundups and general idiocy. But we’ve also got a few videos to get through, so let’s rewind to the beginning of the year, when we were all still allowed out.
1. The Name of the Master (January 2020)
Don’t get me wrong. ‘Spyfall Part 2’ was quite fun, but this whole thing really was a bit dom / sub, wasn’t it? Never mind that the relationship between the Master and the Doctor is already tapping a wealth of unresolved sexual tension, long before either of them swapped genders: a scene like the Master’s ‘Kneel before Zodd’ moment took it to the next level, and it really is like handing a silver platter to the fan fiction writers along with a note reading “Go on then, you win”.
It was Pip Madeley who turned this into a Fifty Shades of Gallifrey type thing – he may even have called it that; the Tweet is proving elusive so we may never know. My own version is a good deal less suggestive and not terribly funny, relying as it does on the conceit of the Doctor forgetting (either deliberately or through sheer scattiness; you pick) exactly whom she’s supposed to be addressing. The tricky part was dropping in names that weren’t saturated in background noise (something I’m not particularly adept at removing), which meant several otherwise viable candidates had to be removed. Still, there were enough left, and the end result hangs together. Just.
2. Twice Upon A Time: The Deleted Scene (January 2020)
This seemed like an obvious joke, so I ran with it. It was a crazy week: everyone was busy arguing whether Jo Martin’s Doctor was pre-Hartnell or pre-Pertwee (the consensus: it had to be the latter, because she had a police box and otherwise EVERYTHING HARTNELL DID IS RUINED). Then ‘The Timeless Children’ came out and all hell broke loose, given that it essentially validated just about every tinpot headcanon theory in existence. In the meantime, I’d been making this: having promised the others he’ll be quite some time David Bradley takes a walk into the snow, and then pops back to his TARDIS, only it’s not his TARDIS. Nor is it Capaldi’s. You see where we’re going, don’t you?
3. The Angels Take Manhatten, Rescored (March 2020)
Wrestling. That was it. There was content to show and plot lines to advance (and, one suspects, a series of expensive contracts to fulfil) and so the WWE, in their infinite wisdom, elected to broadcast Wrestlemania 36 within the confines of a studio instead of an arena. There were no queues, no gigantic foam fingers or homemade banners, no jubilant teenagers fired up on coffee and Red Bull giving their predictions. Just a lot of thirty-year-old men, pumped with steroids and rehearsing their lines in a mirror. Yes, I know you could hear the trash talk. I don’t want to hear the trash talk; I just want them to work the crowd. If there’s no crowd, it’s all rather flat.
The fans seemed to know this as well, which is why a Twitter user who goes by the name of SideEye elected to overdub a heartfelt confrontation between Brad Wyatt and John Cena with, of all things, the Laura Palmer theme from Twin Peaks. It was mad, but it worked (and it was, as you’ll see in the article I’ve referenced, not the first time someone had paired professional wrestling with Angelo Badalamenti). There is something about that music that is both emotionally overwrought and just a little bit artificial, which is the entire point of Twin Peaks and one reason why it’s so brilliantly unsettling. And while I concede they’re very different shows, it really ought to work with Doctor Who as well, surely?
It does. If you can time it so that final, climactic change from minor to major happens at the precise moment Amy vanishes, everything else just sort of slots into place. Who knew?
Yes, well, I think two weeks of radio silence is long enough. I spent quite a lot of it building a TARDIS-themed virtual art gallery (coming soon to a WordPress feed near you!) and rolling my eyes at people on Facebook who still have no idea who Brendan actually was, or are convinced that Chibnall’s shat all over the legacy of Doctor Who, or who think the Master is lying, or any combination of the above. That’s until we all started talking about getting coughs instead; I’m frightened for my elderly father and the schools are about to shut, but at least the moral outrage over Series 12 is dying down.
Anyway: there are quite a few unrealised blog posts lying around in my drafts folder, and seeing as we’re all going to be stuck at home for the forseeable future you might as well have something to read. But before we get to any of them, we really ought to do a news update.
First, there’s the fallout from Rishi Sunak’s publicity phot, as a certain other high-ranking politician with dodgy scruples asks if you would like the good tea or the bad tea.
Over on the Naismith Estate, Max Von Sydow is upset that he and Timothy Dalton have both turned up at the Time Lords’ New Year’s Eve party wearing the same dress.
And it turns out some members of the public have an unorthodox approach towards celebrating No Smoking day.
Secret recordings reveal the real culprit behind Prince Harry’s prank call from Greta Thunberg.
At the BBC, there are internal complaints that the new sanitisation procedure is borderline excessive.
Donna Noble regrets not packing her own bog roll.
Sometimes washing your hands isn’t quite enough.
And on the streets of Cardiff it seems that not everyone is taking government guidelines seriously.