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It’s been a bad week for Theresa May at the Gallifrey Party Conference.
Elsewhere, the Twelfth Doctor is down with the kids, innit?
And finally, here’s that photo of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage in an elevator, only…
Enjoy your weekend, kids.
This week, we take you to war-torn Skaro. I think I watched ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’ before I got round to seeing ‘Trial Of A Time Lord’ – but when I did, the connections seemed obvious.
Does anyone know who pioneered the hand-shooting-up thing, anyway? It’s been used to brilliant effect in Carrie (included in this montage I found), Gremlins turns it into a recurring gag, and presumably if League of Extraordinary Gentlemen hadn’t cut away from that grave scene when it did, the shot would have concluded with Connery’s rejuvenated arm punching through. Myself, I always think about that scene from Labyrinth. You remember. “We’re helping hands!” They should remake Labyrinth. That always ends well.
Elsewhere on the same battlefield:
My instincts tell me that Capaldi is saying “Don’t worry Matt, I’m sure we’ll find your keys over there somewhere”, but if you can think of a better caption I’m open to suggestions.
Anyway, it’s funny the sorts of people you meet while you’re out and about, isn’t it?
“BY THE POWER OF GALLIFREY!”
October, 2011. Emily and I are celebrating our anniversary in Harlech. The bedroom in our B&B is all frills, pink and a myriad fragile-looking ornaments. It is like Dolores Umbridge’s study. We go out for Indian food, wander round the castle and watch trashy TV.
Sunday morning the two of us take a hike in the drizzle over to the estuary. In the distance, Portmeirion looms: a picture postcard collection of patchwork models glued to the forest. We make it within throwing distance before the sand becomes too deep, sucking and gurgling. I suggest going back to the car and driving round to the village’s entrance, if she wants.
Emily smiles. “No,” she says. “I think I like it better this way. It’s more authentic.” And back we head, pursued by a large balloon.
The Prisoner is one of those shows that entered and left national consciousness without anyone ever really noticing. It was all going so well. Navy striped blazers? Check. The threatening, omnipresent Rover? Check. All this, and the show’s best-loved catchphrase: “I am not a number,” bellows McGoohan, running across a beach at sunset, “I AM A FREE MAN!”. It was the perfect soundbite to stick at the end of a newsgroup post, a middle finger extended eloquently against authority. Even Matthew Corbett was at it. (Sooty does The Prisoner. Wonders will never cease.)
These days everyone just uses the word ‘Sheeple’ and thinks they’re being terribly clever. These days, I’m having to explain what The Prisoner is to a whole new generation – actually two generations if you count my mother, who systematically denies repeatedly saying “I am not a number” when my brother and I were growing up despite my insistence that it was a stock part of conversation (along with “No” and “Were you born in a barn?”). Outside the family circle I’m met with a blank stare whenever I do that ‘Be seeing you’ thing. Honestly, Star Trek never had these problems.
Perhaps that’s part of it. Gene Roddenberry didn’t just create a TV show, he created an entire universe and filled it with planets and civilisations. The world of The Prisoner is comparatively small – micro, rather than macroscopic. It has to be: by its very nature the Village needs to be enclosed, and the bulk of Number 6’s adventures taking place there, while those that aren’t are usually hiding something. (‘Living In Harmony’ is about the best known example of this, predating the holodeck by a good twenty years and showing that there’s very little you can’t do with a few cardboard cut-outs, some mild hallucinogenics and a raid on the ITV props department.)
I’m not a big fan of the words ‘cult following’ – they seem to imply a kind of snobbery in one direction or another – but perhaps that’s the most appropriate terminology to explain the programme’s mass appeal among its fan base, even after all these years. Certainly there can be few programmes as impenetrable, and few endings as discussed and dissected. The Prisoner was either captivating (no pun intended), or challenging, or just plain weird, depending on the level of commitment you were willing to offer. It was uncompromising television that explained very little and then subverted what you thought you knew.
It’s the sort of programme I wish they’d make more often, but that doesn’t seem to be the way that the world works now: there is an expectation that every gap should be plugged, every flashback explained, every origin story given flesh. “Worst bit of nerd culture: the need to fill in the blanks,” tweeted Gideon Defoe on 21 September. “Ooh, the Kessel Run, sounds evocative, must see it in grindingly prosaic detail.”
Doctor Who fans are no better. It’s not enough for Turlough to have attended a private school while on the run from the authorities: said school now has to be established (step forward, Nick Briggs) as a school that deals especially with alien children, so we can know how he got there. It’s not enough for the Doctor to have left Gallifrey: we need to know why. And it’s not enough for the random women standing behind Rassilon to be whomever you’d most like them to be: we have to have fan fiction explaining who they are and how they got there and which of the high council they shagged along the way (because this is fan fiction, and thus Rule #34 applies in abundance).
There is an episode of Sherlock that annoys me immensely, because we get to see not one but three resolutions to the Sherlock Falls From The Roof story. One of them is (probably) the truth, although it’s told to us by a madman, which rather tests its narrative reliability. The others are fanwank – quite literally, as one of them seems to rely on a fan suggestion. It is possibly the most meta of all the Sherlock episodes, dealing as it does with the public reactions to the detective and how he interacts with his audience, allowing them to make up the history for him. There is a laziness and smugness about it that is unbecoming. Far better it would have been, surely to have the detective sweep back into Watson’s life and refuse to explain anything at all, even to the audience?
But a blank slate is maddening, and perhaps that’s the reason that The Prisoner is now called ‘obscure’ (one unnamed publication, three days ago). The planned origin story for Number Six’s arrival mercifully never materialised, and all we had to go on was that iconic opening montage, largely wordless: Patrick McGoohan drives his car, storms angrily in and out of an office and is then rendered unconscious in his London home before waking up on the Welsh coast. (In 1987, twenty years after The Prisoner, ITV launched Knightmare, in which a series of would-be adventurers ventured through an artificially generated dungeon. Every time a fresh room was entered the kid in the over-sized helmet would ask “Where am I?”, and watching years later it’s almost disappointing that the answer was never “In the village”.)
There is a rule about TV: give your programme a historical setting and you instantly sidestep the likelihood of it becoming dated (which is why Dad’s Army is frequently repeated while Bless This House is not). The Prisoner sidesteps this by giving the show’s location a timeless feel: there are elements of Connery’s Bond, and a Beatles track that plays over the final episode, but we could be watching this in any decade. Most of it works. The writing is consistently good, and the show takes risks that you generally don’t see in contemporary British TV (episode seven, ‘Many Happy Returns’, features no almost no spoken dialogue for the first twenty minutes).
If you’ve never seen The Prisoner I am about to ruin it for you, and I strongly suggest that you drop to the end of the section I’m just about to write, but we need to talk about ‘Fall Out’. Not every show is defined by its finale – The Avengers wasn’t – but when, in early 1968, Number Six was taken to meet Number One, a nation of jaws dropped. Everything about the programme’s closing instalment is baffling – the hooded rabble in the courtroom, the apparent resurrection of Leo McKern, the obfuscating speech by the judge, the song and dance, the jive dude…and fact that Number Six barely utters a word throughout, although on the few occasions that he tries the mob are quick to silence him.
Then there’s a huge gunfight and Patrick McGoohan in a gorilla mask, and then that long drive home, with Angelo Muscat closing the door. Roll credits.
There’s a legend that says that when the series finale aired, the public backlash was so ferocious that McGoohan had to flee the country to avoid the mob. I still don’t know if I believe that, but it makes for a nice story, and the sort of fitting scene that closes a docudrama – rather like Ed Wood driving away with Kathy just after the screening of Plan 9, oblivious to the reaction it presumably received. Certainly ‘Fall Out’ is one of those stories that remains impenetrable, perhaps the only episode of the series that was. It doesn’t help that Alexis Kanner is playing a completely different character to the one he played in ‘Living In Harmony’, and yes, I know this sort of thing happens in Doctor Who all the time without any explanation, but this was one occasion I really felt we deserved one.
Seriously. God knows what’s going on here. I mean, I get the rest. I don’t care why Number 6 / John Drake / whoever the hell he was resigned, or what the purpose of the Village really is, but I can at least follow the narratives – even ‘A, B and C’, which is a head trip best enjoyed under the influence of alcohol, or at least a notepad and biro. But then we get here, and all hell breaks loose. You thought the Twin Peaks finale was weird? You don’t know you’re born, kid, although right now I’m not entirely sure whether Laura Palmer was either.
Gareth says that it’s simply a question of punctuation: when McGoohan asks (every week) about the identity of Number One, he’s told “You are Number Six”, but if you add a comma it reads “You are, Number Six”, which makes a whole lot more sense, or at least as much sense as anything in The Prisoner ever really did. Whether there’s a conspiracy, a case of mistaken identity, or whether the whole thing was simply a fugue state in the mind of a delusional man we’re never really sure.
[Spoilers more or less end here.]
Perhaps it’s better that way. Perhaps giving an answer to a story like this is the quickest way of killing it. That’s what happened in Lost – a programme that attempted to explain its own mythology and came apart at the seams as a result, to the extent that no one really talks about it now. Perhaps that’s what McGoohan learned during his time on the show: by steadfastly refusing to explain what’s going on, you give people something to talk about for the rest of their lives.
That’s a lesson that the fans, if not necessarily the writers of Doctor Who will eventually lead to learn as well: it is a children’s show, and thus deserves a degree of transparency, but a programme can become consumed by its own mythos and wind up drowning in it. As I write this I am attempting to convince a well-meaning chap in Dakota that when Timothy Dalton spoke about the two dissenters being “like the Weeping Angels”, he didn’t mean they were actually Weeping Angels, and no, we do not need to know where the Weeping Angels came from. Similarly we don’t need to know the Master’s backstory. Nor what Rory got up to in the two thousand years he was humping Amy round Europe. Nor about the adventures the Doctor and Martha had while holed up in 1969 (particularly whether or not they had sex, an inexactness which some fans seem unhealthily desperate to have resolved). We watch a show that has a question for a title: questions do not always need to be answered, and not everything needs to be connected.
Maybe that’s why I do things like this: if Doctor Who aficionados are obsessed with in-universe continuity, perhaps this is a drive to counter-balance that. It’s funny, because if there’s one thing The Prisoner really doesn’t have, it’s a sense of continuity. One clever conceit the show employs is to pit Number Six against a succession of chair-dwelling superiors – everyone has their favourites, and most of them are Leo McKern. It allows for an ever-changing dynamic: you want panicky incompetence, you cast Patrick Cargill (‘Hammer Into Anvil’); if it’s polite dignity, you cast Anton Rogers. In the background, Muscat lingers and serves tea, leading to speculation that he may be more than simply a butler. The shifting cast reminds me, for obvious reasons, of a certain Other Programme, which led to this.
Logically the only possible response is “Who is William Hartnell?”. And logically the only possible response to that is “You are Colin Baker.” Or, if you want, “You are, Colin Baker.” Which is closer to the truth than anyone might care to admit.
Meanwhile, over in the Village, the poor old War Doctor is ruminating.
Now, John Hurt as Number Two. That would have been something.
This is an interesting one.
It stems from the tail end of series 9. I was in a bad place generally, which didn’t help – but was also fed up with Doctor Who. It precedes a year-long absence for the show that reinvigorated my enthusiasm, to a certain extent; series 10 was certainly a dramatic improvement, largely thanks to Bill. Simultaneously the article (which pre-dates any announcements about the departures of Capaldi or Smith) has a lot to say about holding on to things until they crumble into dust; the fans often don’t know when they’ve had too much of a good thing, and as the Doctor wandered wearily into the TARDIS at the end of Hell Bent, there was a part of me that wished he’d just shut the door and stay there and let the show die naturally. Have I shifted my position since then? Yes. Do I stand by what I said in 2015? Also yes. There’s nothing wrong with embracing your contradictions.
Everything has its time and everything dies
Published: 29 November 2015
Coming soon to a newspaper near you: an article about ratings. Ratings or contracts. Ratings or contracts or BBC cuts. The future of Doctor Who, it seems, has never been so shaky or uncertain. Rumours abound about the prospect of the show being put on hiatus, or cancelled altogether amidst fears of falling popularity and failure to put up a fight against The X-Factor (which seems to be having troubles of its own). Those of us who browse the press and the forums will know that this is nothing new. But the most disturbing thing about the current trend, at least for me, is how little I actually care about it. For the first time in a long while, the prospect of the show’s cancellation, however unlikely (and we’ll get to that), fills me with far less dread than it ought to.
It’s a great job, getting paid to write about Doctor Who. I wouldn’t swap it for all the elephants in Mumbai. Is it worth the affront you experience when you receive a critical drubbing from people who’ve missed the point, or (far worse) the heartache and disappointment that bites when a piece is routinely ignored? Yes, it is. Is it worth the long, coffee-fuelled 2am finishes every Sunday morning scribbling reviews and opinion pieces and uploading endless GIFs in order to make deadline and beat the web traffic? Of course it is. Is it worth the torture of having to endure the atrocity that was Before the Flood not once but twice so that I can explain it to my children? Yes, just about. Is it worth the sense of weariness my wife experiences when I persuade her to sit through yet another tedious episode because my reviews are always better when I can feed off her witty and acerbic remarks? Well, you’d have to ask her that, although she’d probably sigh a little bit and give you a smile that speaks volumes.
But the problem is that it’s now the writer in me that is pleading for its continued renewal, rather than the fan. Writing semi-professionally about something you love is a dangerous tightrope, and one that many of us walk. I’d hate for it to become any sort of crutch, but writing about Who – in whatever capacity – is one of the few things I know how to do reasonably well, and it’s for that reason alone that I pray that the continuous reports of the show’s imminent demise are nothing more than an exaggeration designed to shift units.
Pay particular attention to that word ‘alone’, because it’s where I’ve been going with this. Because the fan in me no longer cares about New Who. Seriously, I don’t. I’m worn out with high expectations that are constantly dashed. I’m tired of the ominous looks that plagued this series whenever Capaldi was alone with Clara, leading to a death scene that lasted seven minutes longer than it should have. I’m tired of the mysteries and arcs and things that are supposed to be important and the stupid tendency the show has now to make great, bold affirmations about why the Doctor left Gallifrey / grew up scared of his own shadow / bought a new toaster when it doesn’t actually matter. I’m tired of inconsistent writing and good ideas squandered. I’m tired of humourless gravitas and awkward, ill-fitting social commentary shoehorned into poor scripts (the Zygon stories were a notable exception). I’m tired of all the sodding electric guitar references (although I don’t dispute that Peter can play). And I’m tired of the cult of smugness that surrounds it: the press saturation and stunt casting and the feeling that this should somehow be BAFTA-standard high drama, rather than lightweight family entertainment.
Moffat sits in a different chair to the one occupied by John Nathan-Turner, but ultimately it’s the same situation: outstaying your welcome. The longer he’s here, the more we allow him to do: not content with having undermined everything Russell T Davies achieved (I’m not going to expand on this; if you can’t figure it out it’ll give you something to argue about), he’s now making his mark in other ways, too numerous and obvious to mention here. Somewhere, I’m convinced he has a list of “Things I want to do before I step down”, and presumably if he manages to tick off everything on the list then Mark Gatiss has to buy him a PlayStation 4.
Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt. There was a time, not long after the 2005 resurrection, where I’d rebuff any criticism of the show with “Yes, I agree, but it’s Doctor Who. Isn’t it better that it’s back?” There was a time when I truly believed that. There was a time when if asked to choose between episodes like Fear Her and cancellation, I’d plump for the former in a double heartbeat. The frightening thing is that if you’d asked me the same question after viewing The Woman Who Lived a few Saturdays ago, or the dirge that was Face The Raven just the other week, I genuinely don’t know what I’d have said. Are stories like this really the best we can do? Is this the height of quality for a flagship programme, for prime time Saturday night television?
The fact of the matter is that the years when Doctor Who was not on air were some of the most productive and fruitful in the history of the show. The Big Finish franchise – now a bloated and distorted mutation of its former self – was established in order to make the stories that the BBC no longer wanted, and did it brilliantly. The New Adventures, Past Doctor Adventures and the webcasts all came out of the fans’ desire to fill the vacuum that Michael Grade had created. Oh, not everything worked. (Have you read Eye of Heaven? It’s appalling.) Still, some of the most interesting stories and ideas ever featured in Doctor Who came out of that period. The Americans don’t want Paul McGann? Fine. We’ll give him a whole history. We’ve even got a companion who gets turned into a fish.
I was reiterating this to my children just the other day. “There are hundreds of old stories you’ve not watched,” I told them. “And most of them are worth a look. There are hundreds of books and hundreds of audio dramas and comics and even I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s on offer. If they stopped making new Doctor Who stories tomorrow it’d still take aeons to get through everything.”
I once met a Christian speaker who talked eloquently on the matter of dying churches. The crux of his argument ran thus: if churches filled with an ageing population are in danger of becoming empty, perhaps we shouldn’t be so desperate to refill them. If clubs and organisations are winding down, perhaps we should let them. Perhaps Doctor Who is drawing to a natural conclusion that we should allow to happen before it reaches series-too-far territory (a ship which I’m sure many people would argue has already sailed long ago). Perhaps, as the Ninth Doctor famously says to Rose at the close of The End of the World, everything has its time and everything dies. Perhaps we’ve forgotten that. Perhaps instead we’re more concerned that everybody lives, whatever the cost.
At the same time, a thought occurs: Doctor Who is probably not going to be cancelled, and in its current form it is not going to change. Moffat shows no signs of leaving; he outlasted Smith and he may well outlast Capaldi. For as long as he’s willing to believe his own hype (in the weekly cries of “Genius” and “OMG BEST EPISODE EVER I AM LITERALLY CRYING BUCKETS!” that frequent forums and Tumblr feeds) then there’s no reason why he should. The rants of old fogeys like me will not shake him, nor should they. I’ll shout into the wind for as long as I feel the need, but I seldom expect anyone to actually hear, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. And truth be told I like a man who stands by his convictions, even if we’re polar opposites in terms of how we approach things.
So I’ll keep watching – I have a vested interest in the show’s continuation, after all – and I’ll keep complaining because I’m not a sycophant, I can’t heave my heart into my mouth, and eventually after all this shouting into the wind there is at least a distant possibility that someone is going to listen (just as there is a possibility that an infinite number of monkeys given an infinite number of typewriters will eventually produce a script better than Evolution of the Daleks). At the same time, if the front page exclusive tomorrow morning read “DOCTOR WHO CANCELLED” I think I can say, for the first time in ten years, that I probably wouldn’t care that much. I mean, I’d have to find something else to fill my Saturday evening. But that’s fine. It’s been years since I watched The X-Factor.
In the news this last fortnight, National Photograph Your Child In Front Of A Door Day reaches as far as the TARDIS.
Elsewhere, in the wake of the Bradley Walsh rumour, a BBC source leaks an exclusive set of unreleased screen tests for the next Doctor Who companion.
And the Doctors celebrate International Cosplay Weekend.
You know…you’d get these a lot faster if you visit and follow my Facebook page.
First: rejected monsters from series 10.
Meanwhile, in an art gallery in an undisclosed location, fandom implodes.
And in unrelated news, the Thirteenth Doctor’s companion is finally unveiled.
(You would not believe the fallout I had from that one.)
Actually, while we’re on the subject –
You were all thinking it, weren’t you?
And while we’re combining cartoons with that series finale, have a few Peanuts.
See you next time, my Sweet Babboo.
I’ll be living it up in London when you read this. I do not plan on taking my figures for a photoshoot. No indeed. At least not this time.
In the news this week, David Tennant reacts.
Jodie Whittaker’s catchphrase is unveiled.
And there is much excitement over this leaked image from ‘Twice Upon A Time’.
(As an aside: I posted this in a variety of groups. In one of them I was met with Angry and Sad responses and the moderator had to comment with ‘This is not a scene from the Christmas special’ and then lock the thread. I know I should have seen it coming, but the rampant stupidity of the fanbase never ceases to amaze me.)
Grumpy Australasian: JOHN HURT HAS BEEN AIRBRUSHED FROM DOCTOR WHO HISTORY!
Me and several others: No he hasn’t.
GA: No one talks about him.
Me: They really do.
GA: No, check the mass media.
Me: I have. I’m afraid I just don’t see what you see.
GA: Oh, I’m sorry, Scully. This all a bit Loch Ness Monster, is it?
Third party: That episode ought to have featured McGann or Eccleston.
GA: They wouldn’t fit.
Me: McGann would have fit. They were building to that in the Dark Eyes series. They just didn’t do it. Hurt fits the War Doctor narrative, but only because it was written around him.
GA: He’s still airbrushed from the media.
Me: I still can’t understand why you think that when there’s been so much coverage.
GA: I’m finding you an example.
Me: You’re finding me an example of where someone doesn’t talk about something, when I could just as easily find you several where the reverse applies?
GA: [Hits block button]
And not long after the trailer for ‘Twice Upon A Time’ had landed:
Fan: Is that the Brigadier???
Fan: But it might be.
Me: No, because they probably wouldn’t recast like that.
Fan: But he has a moustache.
Fan: I’m just saying, it could be him.
Me: It’s completely the wrong characterisation. And the story is set during the First World War.
Fan: Yes, but…wibbly wobbly timey wimey…
Me: [smashes monitor]
I swear. Fandom.