Saturday, July 24, 2010

Fish Custard [19]

Bob, what are you songs about?
Some of my songs are about four minutes, some are about five minutes, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve minutes.

I went for a walk.

I listened to my I-Pod.

I realized that Visions of Joanna is the best six minutes of anything ever recorded by anyone ever. In fact, I am pretty sure that the lyrics of Visions of Joanna contain everything there is to be known. 

I used to think that it was the opening bars of Parsifal, but now I'm pretty sure that it's Visions of Joanna.

And while I was walking and listening I saw what it was that I've been trying, and failing, to say about Doctor Who for the past three months.

Years ago, after Sylvester but before Paul, I read a fanzine article about growing up as a Doctor Who fan in the 1970s. Most of the people in DWAS still wrote about growing up as a Doctor Who fan in the 1960s. This one was written by someone my own age. The writer of the article told a lot of embarrassing stories against himself: about stealing another boys underwear during a swimming lesson because he desperately needed some Doctor Who knickers for his collection; about working the Doctor's dialogue into his own conversation. His fellow pupils thought he was a bit of a nerd, and he got the cane when he tried out a choice Tom Baker one-liner on the headmaster. I forget if there was a point to the article.

It would increase my confidence in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things if some forum contributor could step forward and say "I was that soldier" at this point.

This reminded me of a lad in my class in the top juniors (year six in decimal money) who was a serious Doctor Who fan long before I was, and by serious I mean "a fan of the books more than a fan of the series". He had a slightly posh accent and read real books about real science and was on Isaac Asimov when I was still on Blast Off at Woomera.

I remember being slightly perplexed that even after the One With The Spiders he continued religiously to watch Whodunnit on ITV and even wore a sort of frock coat arrangement to the end of term fancy dress party when everybody else was wearing scarves and hats that didn't fit. Whodunnit was a game show in which "celebrities" watched a dramatized murder-mystery, were allowed to interview the survivors "in character", and then had to guess who the murderer was. Hosting it was Jon Pertwee's job in between the Police Box and the Scarecrow. Watching ITV at all was pretty daring in those days.

But, of course, it made perfect sense. My friend wasn't a Doctor Who fan: he was a Third Doctor fan; a Jon Pertwee fan. He liked to spend hours pottering around with his chemistry set, just like Doctor Who liked to potter for endless hours in the TARDIS. To the extent that eleven-year-olds have mannerisms he patterned his mannerisms on Jon Pertwee's. Fortunately for him, the Third Doctor was rather polite and courteous and would never have said "You're a classic example of the inverse relationship between size of mouth and size of brain" to the headmaster.

Bob Dylan fans talk a lot of rubbish. There are 1960s interviews where people ask him what his songs mean, and he says, "Huh, hmm, I can't remember". The daftest are the Dylanologists who think there's a consistent code behind the lyrics, that the one-eye midget shouting the word "Now!" is the same character as the one-eyed undertaker who blew a futile horn, and if only Bob could be persuaded to declare unto them this parable they would thereby know all parables. I myself have been tempted to wonder if "Joanna" is "Marijuana". But anyone who thinks that a code-book, a cypher, a "turn to page 54 for solution" could elucidate see the primitive wall flowers freeze while the jelly-faced women all sneeze and the one with moustache says "Jeeze! I can't find my knees!" will never, ever know what this poem, or any poem means: because they don't understand what poetry is.

And that's what I've been trying to say about Doctor Who.

You remember when John Byrne was about twelve months into his run on the Fantastic Four, after he'd worked out what he was doing, but before he got too up himself – about the time he did an issue that was half Galactus and half Doctor Doom the F.F themselves weren't in? You'd been reading the Fantastic Four for years because it sort of reminded you of the Fantastic Four and suddenly, this new guy was writing it and drawing it and you weren't so much reading it as swimming in it?

That's what I've been trying to say about Doctor Who.

The Tenth Doctor was dramatic and moody and funny, particularly when he went off on one; and the Ninth Doctor was like a tough working man with the Doctor hidden inside him; and the Seventh Doctor was like a jester carrying the whole universe on his shoulders; and the Sixth Doctor was scary and nasty and mad and fascinating; and the Fifth Doctor was played by Peter Davison. And 
I liked watching all of them, even Sylvester.

And that's what's different. Since 1981 there have been a long succession of Doctors who I really, really liked to watch. Matt Smith is the first Doctor since Tom Baker who I have wanted to be.

Christopher Robin came down the forest to the bridge, feeling all sunny and careless, and just as if twice nineteen didn't matter a bit, as it didn't on such a happy afternoon, and he thought that if he stood on the bottom rail of the bridge, and leant over, and watched the river slipping slowly away beneath him, then he would suddenly know everything that there was to be known, and he would be able to tell Pooh, who wasn't quite sure about some of it.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date.

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Rosemary Cottage said...

Grew up in the eighties. Sigh. I wanted to be Ace though, not McCoy's Doctor. I don't know if that was down to him though, or because maybe it's different for girls.

Gavin Burrows said...

”I think this is why New New Who elicits such a Marmite reaction. It is visceral. It talks to our gut. It speaks to people who feel what Moffat feels about dreams and stories and childhood; who agree with him that dreams and stories and childhood and fairy tales are all inextricably bound up with a crazy little thing called Doctor Who.”

What has made this series fun to read is simultaneously what makes it hard to comment on. If someone is saying “this is my Doctor Who” it is rather like saying “I like marmite”, and “no you don’t” doesn’t seem a very pertinent response. “Me, I hate Marmite” is at least in the same ballpark, but hardly the basis of a productive discussion. It’s natural resolution is to agree that one person can spread it on their bread but the other isn’t obliged to join in.


”But now we have a Doctor who messes around with Time in a cavalier way... Up to now, the Doctor has always felt, at some level, bound by the Laws of Time. Now the Laws of Time no longer exist, he can do what he wants. But what he wants is to have fun: not an evil Doctor, but a happy, impish, joyful Doctor, a Doctor who, in the face of the total destruction of everything that ever existed or ever will exist and his own death...decides that fezzes are cool.”

...if I was to talk about my Doctor Who there would definitely have to be something crazy and cavalier about him. He ran away from Public School... sorry, I mean Gallifrey. Even when he was working for UNIT, he never particularly interpreted that as having to do what he was told in any way.

But in my Doctor Who there is simultaneously something quite bleak and questioning about it. The universe is simultaneously a playground to have adventures in and a mysterious, unknowable place where doing the right thing can come at the cost of great sacrifice. If it has a cousin in comics it isn’t the Fantastic Four but Spider-man – “with owning a time machine comes great responsibility.” It’s a genre show which is happy to question its own genre’s rules.

So the idea of the Doctor being absolutely the most special person ever, or Amy being the being who thought the universe back into existence... there’s something much closer to the egocentric, “feel your bliss” world of Hollywood there than the Doctor Who I think of. And that aspect of it at least irks me.

What’s interesting about this is that we must be roughly the same age. (I have vague and flickering memories of Pertwee, but Baker was always my Doctor.) So this isn’t a generational thing, but two people watching the same show but ending up with two different shows.

Then again I prefer ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again’ to ‘Visions of Johanna’...

Mike Taylor said...

More than any other show I know, Doctor Who seems to evoke wildly different reactions even among those who love it. Its richness is astonishing. And I think Gavin has hit the nail on the head in his idea that we have "people watching the same show but ending up with different shows".

I see this most painfully in New Who Series 1, where I saw a unique, complex and ambiguous relationship between Doctor Chris and Rose, while RTD, the fool, just saw The Doctor In Love. But it's some kind of tribute to the show that it can do this: present me with the show that's richer than the one in the mind of the man who's making it. I don't quite understand this, but it does make me wonder to what extent Shakespeare understood the plays of Shakespeare.

(On the other hand, I just can't get myself to like Bob Dylan. I've tried; really tried, like listening through Blood on the Tracks seven times waiting for the lightning to hit, but it just doesn't happen.)

Gavin Burrows said...

it does make me wonder to what extent Shakespeare understood the plays of Shakespeare.


NB 'Blood On The Tracks' is over-rated. Try anything in the sequence between 'Highway 61 Revisited' and 'John Wesley Harding'

SK said...

Yerwhat? I don't think I can believe that Davies's idea of the Doctor/Rose relationship was ever simplistic. There were always layers upon layers: Rose's selfishness, which Davies goes on about in interviews, and the Doctor's strange skewed perception where he sees things that everyone else misses but misses what is obvious to all ordinary people.

How on Earth do you think that Davies -- for all his faults, and they are legion -- could have constructed something that complex and ambiguous by accident? No, he clearly knew what he was doing, at least back then; it's only later that he really started just throwing in big emotional moments without bothering to connect them to any kind of story.

The Doctor and Rose's relationship was never simple, was never intended to be simple.

The Doctor and Amy's relationship, actually, is simpler than the Doctor's and Rose's: we know what each of them wants, and they know what they want (or at least what they desire); whereas Rose and the Doctor were deliberately painted as being people who are often mistaken or deluded about their own motivations.

Johanna said...

I know it's nitpicky, but I can't resist pointing out that the song is in fact "Visions of Johanna." As you may have surmised, my name is Johanna also; while I'm not a frequent Dylan listener, I'm always pleased to remember that he has a song with my name in it. (I was not named after the song, although I'm occasionally asked that -- I was named after a very German great-great-grandmother who of course pronounced her name "Yo-hahn-na" and would have been appalled at the Anglicization "Jo-hannah", but that's beside the point...)

I'm afraid I can't contribute anything particularly on-topic to this discussion, as I just haven't had the heart for any more Doctor Who since I watched the painfully bad "Journey's End," but your commentary (along with other favorable reviews I've seen elsewhere) has inspired me to give Series 5 a try eventually.

I also want to take this opportunity to say that, although I've never commented before, I have been reading and enjoying your blog for years, and I sincerely thank you for sharing your insights with the world.

Mike Taylor said...

"Yerwhat? I don't think I can believe that Davies's idea of the Doctor/Rose relationship was ever simplistic. There were always layers upon layers: Rose's selfishness, which Davies goes on about in interviews, and the Doctor's strange skewed perception where he sees things that everyone else misses but misses what is obvious to all ordinary people.

How on Earth do you think that Davies -- for all his faults, and they are legion -- could have constructed something that complex and ambiguous by accident?!"

How? I don't know. But the evidence is all there in his own words, in The Writer's Tale, which as it happens I've written about a couple of times on my own blog -- see

In writing about the Season 4 proto-companion "Penny" (who was discarded when Catherine Tate became available to reprise Donna), he said something like "I've been itching to do 'The Doctor In Love' again -- head-over-heels, bells-ringing-in-the-head, utterly in love." (I'm paraphrasing but that's the gist.) For more on this, see the first of my two Writer's Tale articles, linked above.

Tommy said...


I ordered both your Viewer's Tale books before Christmas and read them on Christmas Day. Really enjoyed reading them both. A fine read indeed.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Thank you very much: that means a lot, actually. (Hope you did something more interesting on Christmas Day as well! I hear there was a Two Ronnies tribute show...)

J. Robinson Wheeler said...

Been reading your Doctor Who blog commentaries for the past few years; there's nobody's take I like better (even if I disagree at times with your take). Finally realized I could return the favor this morning by sharing URLs to my bloggy reviews (and one large-scale PDF), so I decided to do so. Cheers.

TV Review: Doctor Who Series 5 (+26)

TV Review - Dr Who (1996 TV Movie)

Notes on "Coupling"