Tuesday, July 27, 2010

TEENAGER (armed with MP3 phone): What do you fink of this song?

ME: Oooo, if it isn't Bob Dylan, I probably wont like it.

TEENAGER: Bob who?

ME: Oh, come on, you must have heard of Bob Dylan...

TEENAGER: Is he from the 80s?

ME: A bit before that, actually.

TEENAGER: Before the 80s....!!?? But you can't be that old!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Readers who can tolerate sustained exposure to this kind of thing may like to know that The Viewer's Tale is now available from Amazon, where it's already in the top 350, 000 best sellers. (Which suggests that it's sold more copies than Where Dawkins Went Wrong. Possibly even double figures.)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

And Now I Promise To Shut Up About It Until 2011

Season 5
Season 4
Season 3
Season 2
Season 1

Seasons 1 -5

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.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Fish Custard [18]

The real adventure in Moby Dick is the one that happens inside Ahab. The rest is a fishing trip. Salman Rushdie

So. I am watching The Big Bang.
And I realise: this is not "The Eleventh Doctor". This is "The Doctor". There have been other Doctors in the past. There will be other Doctors in the future. There will come a time when there weren't "three Doctors" or "five Doctors", but merely "Doctors". A time when Bill Hartnell and even Tom Baker will be forgotten and a series of pictures of every actor to have played the role will be as obscure and meaningless as a list of every artist to have drawn Superman.
This isn't Doctor Who. This is Doctor Who. This isn't Doctor Who. This is Doctor Who.

You know, in retrospect, the really big change that happened during this season? At the beginning of The Lodger, which I may have mentioned that I rather liked, it's mentioned that Craig has a spare room because his previous flatmate inherited a fortune from an uncle he didn't even know he had. "How convenient," says the Doctor. And at the very end, so off-hand and in passing that I missed it, the Doctor says "Must remember to go back and alter that will."
Always before, there have been stern warnings, or at the very least, payment of lip service to gobbledegook rules which say that the Doctor can't change established history. But now we have a Doctor who messes around with Time in a cavalier way. The show is about Time Travel in a way that it just never was before. Time of the Angels showed us a River Song who can step out of a space ship in the certain knowledge that one day, maybe a million years from now, the Doctor will hear of her predicament and come back and rescue her. In one sense, this is a very logical answer to the question: "What would the universe be like if it contained just one man with a Time Machine?" River's invulnerability is a logical consequence of taking Doctor Who literally: just as much as Mickey having excrement put through his letterbox by neighbours who think he's murdered Rose was a logical consequence of taking Doctor Who literally. But it's much more fun.
The audacious first scene of The Pandorica Opens kicks Doctor Who into the realms of Time Bandits. All of time and space is now just a playground across which "stuff" can happen. Time Travel is what Doctor Who is about: so why shouldn't it be happening in four or five time periods at once? Why shouldn't Van Gogh paint a message to the Doctor and know, for certain, that it will eventually come into his hands? Why shouldn't Winston Churchill have a phone which connects to 3,000 years in the future? (The idea that Churchill can just phone up the Doctor feels so right. Winston and the Queen and Mummy and Daddy and Father Christmas and Doctor Who are all in a grown ups club and you aren't a member.) But the Doctor's manipulation of Time in The Big Bang – popping from a point after he's been rescued to tell Rory how to rescue him – is pure Bill and Ted.
I loved Bill and Ted. "An amiable enough pair of cretins" Barry Norman called them. I could never take the Matrix seriously. I so wanted Neo to say "How's it hanging Morpheus dude?" I'd never seen a story in which Time Travel was used so irresponsibly. Of course it was okay to muck around with history so that a particular future that you happen to like comes into being. Of course, if you were confronted with a locked room and had a time machine, the sensible thing to do would be to tell yourself that at some point in the future you would come back in time and put the keys in a place where you would be bound to find them.
The Pandorica Opens ends on the most over-the-top cliffhanger in the history of Doctor Who. The Doctor is in an impregnable prison, the TARDIS has been destroyed, the universe is about to be destroyed. It is solved, almost literally, by the Doctor going back in time and bribing the architect to put in an escape hatch.
Waters of Mars was about the only story from the second half of the Russell T Davies regime that I had any time for. But I was disappointed that the very, very dark climax – where the Doctor realises that he is the only Time Lord in the universe and therefore free to do whatever he likes – was not followed through. I had suspected that this new, hubristic Doctor would become the much threatened Dark Doctor and that the season climax would involve his previous companions banding together to defeat him. I speculated that this Doctor-turned-evil might be the terrible thing hidden in the Pandorica.
But now we see that it was followed through. 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. This is what the Time Lord Triumphant looks like.

Davies' penchant for over-the-top season climaxes never sat very easily with me. If there is an essence of Doctor Who, which there plainly isn't, it's little small scale stories, half a dozen scientists on a space ship being picked off by two or three Cybermen. Horror of Fang Rock and Ark in Space are the archetypal (not necessarily the best) Doctor Who stories. Doctor Who can, indeed, do "epic", but epic Who has usually been a matter of width, not volume. Dalek Masterplan and Frontier In Space felt "big" because the Doctor trekked through lots and lots of different environments in the course of the adventure: not because a hundred billion million Zulus coming over the hill.
So, yes, it is sort of fun for there to be an armada of every Doctor Who baddie converging on Stonehenge and it is certainly sort of fun when they all surround the Doctor in the catacomb. But this kind of thing always feels to me like Disneyland or, worse, like Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars. Snow White lives next to Winnie-the-Pooh, not because we've imagined a fun fairy tale world in which they might peacefully co-exist, but because they are both Trade Marks of the Disney Corporation. I suppose it is possible to picture a Doctor Who universe such that Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans might come together in an alliance. But one feels that what's really linking them together is simply that they are all "Doctor Who monsters".
But under all the noise, Moffat is actually writing very, very small. The real action in The Pandorica Opens episode 1 takes place in a series of catacombs under Stonehenge: about as old Who a setting as you could want – corridors for goodness sake. And a large chunk of the action consists of Amy being menaced not by an army of Cybermen, not by one Cybermen, but by the dismembered head of one Cyberman – a scene which plays on peoples fear of spiders and snakes and skulls and is as genuinely scary as anything I can remember in Who Old or New.
Be honest: you jumped when the mask snapped open to reveal the skull.

Charles Dickens said that people complained that Our Mutual Friend was spoiled because they guessed the true identity of Rokesmith too easily. He found this odd because he thought he had been going out of his way to make it obvious. I thought I was being terribly smart, stroking my beard and saying sagely "Ah. The most dangerous being in the universe, imprisoned in the Pandorica. Who could it be but the Doctor!" The first episode carried a punch that it arguably didn't earn because all the way through I was waiting for find out what was in the box – but the only reason I cared about what was in the box was because "what is in the box?" had been set up in advance as "something which is going to surprise you". But the twist is an absolute classic: yes, the Pandorica opens, yes, the thing in the box is the Doctor – you were meant to get that – but the box isn't opening to let him OUT, but to put him IN, you dunderhead.

Some people (for example, me) complained about the extensive use of "plot devices" in Old New Who. Some of those people haven't minded the equally shameless use of the "plot devices" in New New Who nearly as much.
There are two reasons for this.
1: We are so pleased that RTD is gone that we will forgive Moffat anything.
2: When lots of other fun stuff is happening, you can forgive the occasional, or, let's be honest, frequent, hand-wave. Yes, in the cold light of day the whole of Flesh and Stone was a sequence of arbitrary manoeuvres in which the baddy developed a new power and the hero developed a new circumstance which would counteract the new power. But the "running around getting captured and escaping" part was so clearly nothing more than a net in which to catch the relationship between the Doctor, Amy and River it really didn't matter.
3: Moffat does it so much much better than RTD.
That's three reasons.

The typical RTD plot device when something like this.
ASSISTANT: Oh my god! Cosmic bibbles!
DOCTOR: Nothing in the universe can destroy cosmic bibbles.
ASSISTANT: We are doomed.
DOCTOR: Unless...unless this Cosmic Bibble Repellent I happen to have in pocket repels cosmic Bibbles.
ASSISTANT Whew – that was close!

The typical SM plot device goes more like this

DOCTOR: Have you seen my Wibble? It tastes nice, but Cosmic Bibbles find it repulsive.
DOCTOR: Careful, mustn't drop my Wibble. That would really repel any Cosmic Bibbles who happened to be passing.
ASSISTANT: Oh my God! Cosmic Bibbles!
DOCTOR: We're doomed!
ASSISTANT: But didn't you mention three episodes ago that you had something called, I forget...

DOCTOR: Brilliant! We can use my Wibble. It repels Cosmic Bibbles, you know.
The notion of "rebooting the universe" is beyond ridiculous. However, we had already been told, over a number of weeks.
a: That mysterious cracks existed in every part of the universe simultaneously
b: That they were caused by the TARDIS exploding in every part of the universe simultaneously
c: That things that go into the Cracks cease to exist retrospectively
d: That light from the Pandorica brings things that have disappeared through the Crack back into existence.
Ergo – when the whole universe is destroyed, the Doctor collides the TARDIS (explodes everywhere at once) with the Pandorica (magic bringy things back light) and brings the whole universe back. I wouldn't go so far as to say "perfectly logical", but...
It really all depends on the audacity of the telling. The stuff which is going on in the foreground is such fun that we are disinclined to complain, or notice, lapses in logic. I don't think anyone actually expected Amy to be properly dead; but we did expect that the Doctor would have to do something incredibly clever to save her. So far as I can tell, the actual explanation is that she's only mostly dead, and that the inescapable prison which the Doctor has just escaped from also functions as a resurrection chamber.
But this isn't what we see. What we see is pretty much a classic bit of conjurer's misdirection. We know that the Doctor is in the box. We know that the Doctor has to get out of the box. We know that the box with the Doctor in it is in the museum. We know that a mysterious stranger is sending messages to Little Amelia telling her to go to the museum and open the box (with the Doctor in it.) Little Amelia goes to the museum and opens the box (with the Doctor in it). And out of the box (with the Doctor in it) steps...the adult, and supposedly dead, Amy.
Does it "make sense?" We're so delighted that we really don't care.

Or, at any rate, I don't. 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. Mr Lawrence Miles may be an arse, but his remark that Doctor Who is his native mythology may be the truest thing that anyone has ever said. [*]
Fantasy and fairy tales (and mythology and religion and poetry) very largely bypass the conscious, rational mind and address the emotions. That's why proper serious science fiction fans like them so little. Proper serious science fiction fans are logical and rational and love to build things with Mecanno. Ursula La Guin [**] as we know, talks about "the language of the night" as opposed to "the language of the day." Good stories, she thinks, are both descriptions of things that happened in the real world, and collections of symbols which only make sense according to dream logic. If you read the Lord of the Rings logically, then Gollum is an avaricious, greedy hobbit who's lived a long time because of a magic item. But if you read it by dream logic, then you can easily see that Frodo and Gollum are one character split into two figures. Or three if you count Sam. Some people can't, or won't understand that a story can be dream-like and conclude that the Lord of the Rings is morally simplistic. And Moby Dick is only a fishing story. Some people are revolted, actually revolted, by the whole idea of fantasy. Lewis says it's like a phobia. Le Guin thinks it's about repression. If fantasy tells the truth about the unconscious mind in dream language, then of course some people can't bear to read fantasy. Why would they want to delve into the soully unconsciousy things? Some people who were quite happy to agree to disagree with me about the Phantom Menace have got positively angry with me for liking New New Who.
But it's probably just a matter of taste, like putting sugar in coffee or spreading salty yeast extract on your crumpets. A while back, on RPG.net or somewhere, someone said that he liked almost every kind of booze but had never enjoyed whisky. Should he try a more expensive brand? Try it with ice, or without ice? With a mixer? Go to a tutored tasting? After all, everyone says that a good single malt is about the finest liquor money (and its often quite a lot of money) can buy.
"Maybe," said a sensible correspondent "You just don't like whisky."

At the very very beginning, this season functioned perfectly well according to daylight logic. It was merest coincidence that the Doctor arrived in Amy's garden when she was asking Santa to send her a helper. The Doctor is very definitely real: the vagaries of Time Travel mean he disappears for a few years. We see it from his point of view: Amy is a little girl one minute and grown woman the next. That must be what the world looks like it to him all the time. But we also see it from Amy's point of view: the Doctor is a man who turned up from nowhere and disappeared again. Her family THINK he was only ever an "imaginary friend". When he comes back, it's AS IF her imaginary friend became real.
But this isn't enough for Moffat. Oh, no, no, no, no. He can't just say "The Doctor is like an imaginary friend who came to life." He has to say "The Doctor actually is an imaginary friend who came to life." The whole season plays around with ideas about dreams and memories. Braceman the android can become a human being (and therefore not a Dalek controlled bomb) if he embraces and feels and holds onto his artificial memories. Amy must choose which of the Dream Lord's realities is real, which is to say, which one she wants to be real. And over and over and over we are told that things which fall through cracks in space cease to exist – retrospectively wiped from existence – but at some level carry on existing if people remember them.
It's popular for the more dippy kind of book about death and bereavement to assure you that death is a state of being where you "continue to exist in the memory of others." Well, yes. I have a real memory of my grandmother in my mind: it is subjective and real to me, but I can't pass the qualia of that memory on to you. The most I can do is describe her to you, in words: but what you'll then have is not a memory of my grandmother, but a memory of me describing my grandmother to you. So a "story" in the sense of a work of fiction is like the memory of a person who never lived, or an event which never happened. When the Doctor falls out of the universe he become, in Amy's world, exactly what he always has been in ours. We are all stories in the end.
I don't understand, according to the Language of the Day why the Doctor comes back into the universe simply because Amy's remembers him. But we've been told so frequently, through the series that there is a magical connection between remembering things and things returning from the Crack that it really, really, really doesn't matter. By this point, you are either in the poetical fairy tale dream logical world that Moffat has built, or you aren't. You are either laughing and crying at the same time when Amy recites "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue" or you aren't. Maybe the universe couldn't bear to be without the Doctor.

The wind back through time is stunning: the kind of thing poor Russell was completely failing to do at the end of the End of Time. I did of course, spot that the Doctor in Flesh and Stone (the one who tells Amy that she must remember what he told her when she was a little girl) was wearing a jacket, even though that jacket had been pointedly left in the hands of a Weeing Angel. Or at any rate, I noticed it once it had been pointed out to me. But I assumed that it was a mere production error, one of those little lacunae that asexual bus-spotters read far too much into. When it turned out the jacketed Doctor was indeed, a Doctor from the future travelling backwards through time, my jaw literally dropped. But the real point of the "rewind" scene was Doctor's monologue to the sleeping child. The Doctor was little Amy's imaginary friend; Amy's imaginary friend has now created, or recreated, the universe; the person who created the universe is watching over Amy while she sleeps. If you absolutely insist on turning the Doctor into God, this is the way to do it.
Is this "fetishising" the Doctor? Yes and no. The Doctor created the universe, and died to save it, and watches over little children while they sleep; but this only works if they believe in him. But he's only a story, but that doesn't matter, because stories are important. It's not a subtle message. But it is, at least, a message. If the Doctor is now God, it's because the script has presented him to us as godlike: not simply because he has stolen some of Jesus' kudos by sticking his arms out in a cruciform pose.
Davies used the Doctor simply as an iconic figure. He was important because he was wearing an "I am important" badge. In Last of the Time Lords everyone worships him; in Next Doctor, everyone applauds him; in Planet of the Dead, everyone loves him; in Fear Her...No, let's not even talk about Fear Her. They love, worship and applaud him simply because he has the title of Doctor. Nothing in the episodes have earned that love.
Amy doesn't love the Doctor because he's got Jesus symbols attached to him, or because it's the appropriate thing to do to the star of the show, or even because he's saved the universe. She loves him because he's himself. Very old and very kind. Weird. Fun. Grumpy. And for the first time since the re-launch, that's why I'm watching the programme. Not because it has a label which says "this has a sort of connection with a programme you liked when you are a kid". Not because I would be an ungrateful fan if I didn't boost the ratings. Not because any Who – CD, American, comic book, cartoon – is better than no Who. I'm watching because the Doctor is old and kind and weird and fun and grumpy. I'm watching it because the programme is itself and would be even if there had never been a programme called Doctor Who ever before.

When you ask the wrong kind of fan to explain what Doctor Who is all about, they are apt to say "He's the reincarnation of the Other Time Lord. You see, after the Pythian curse, Rassilon created knitting machines which..." When you ask the wrong kind of American, he says "..A Time Lord has 13 lives, and the Master had already used all of his..." But when Moffat needs a line which sums up Doctor Who, he writes "A daft old man who stole a magic box." That, in a nutshell, is why Season 5 works at and Seasons 1 - 4 didn't. Because it's being produced by someone who, at a deep level, gets what Doctor Who is all about.
It's about time.

[*] "If you read, say, the work of Salman Rushdie... .there's a lot of material in there that comes from traditional Indian culture, there are lots of links to Indian mythology. Which doesn't mean he has to believe in gods with the heads of elephants, obviously. It's just part of his background, those are the symbols he grew up with. That's more or less the way I feel about Doctor Who. I've got a pretty low opinion of a lot of the original episodes, but it's still my home territory. "
[**] As proper and serious a science fiction writer as one could hope to meet, so don't pay any attention to anything I say.

to be concluded

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.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fish Custard [17]

"Maybe the universe can't bear to be without the Doctor."
When we first met him, the Doctor was a wanderer in the fourth dimension; an exile. He had a Time Machine, but there was no sense that he was, in other respects, a particularly important individual. His insignificance in the grand scheme of things was part of the Elusive Magic: an old man and a little girl cut loose and lost in the vast cosmos. We know now that the original production team had a number of different ideas about why the Doctor embarked on his Flying Dutchman like wanderings through the Time and Space: but none of them involved him being a particularly important being. He was assumed to be on some personal quest: for an ideal time and place; for scientific knowledge; for his long lost home world. There was a certain bathos when the truth was finally revealed: Patrick Troughton shamefacedly blusters that he left home, like some cosmic teenager, "because he was bored."
"Maybe the universe can't bear to be without the Doctor."
Oh, he had been to lots of strange places and met lots of interesting people, but it was his possession of a Time Machine that made him unique. "No one else in the universe can do what we're doing" he tells Victoria "That's the exciting thing." But it was always inevitable that, if the series lasted beyond the first dozen or so episodes, the "crotchety old man" would move closer and closer to the center of the stage. Not merely a doddery old fool with a Time Machine, but a gentleman adventurer with a collection of fast cars and gadgets and knowledge of a special martial art that allows him to win every fight he's in. Not merely a gentleman adventurer, but a weird charismatic figure who talks about "homo sapiens" from the outside, and takes control of every situation he's in by virtue of some innate charisma. Not merely a charismatic alien but a Dark Doctor at the center of a web of time of his own creation, endlessly tripping over plans he made centuries ago and has forgotten about.
"Maybe the universe can't bear to be without the Doctor."
We know that when Old Who was canceled, the final script editor was at the beginning of what would have been a multi-season story arc, which would have repositioned the Doctor as a more central figure in the universe which he inhabited. It doesn't matter a great deal how this "Cartmell masterplan" would have developed if the show had not been canceled; neither does it matter how writers other than Cartmell interpreted it after he wasn't involved any more. What's important is that Seasons 26 and 27 25 and 26 took for granted a universe in which the Doctor was a fantastically important and significant person: "far more than just a Time Lord." And this gave the final months of the show a new and unique atmosphere which marked it out as different from what had gone before. You may or may not think that Silver Nemesis and the Ghost Light work: but you can't imagine them as Jon Pertwee stories.
"This time there will be a reckoning with the nameless Doctor who's power is so secret. In good time I will speak it."
The novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks opens with a prologue in which three Time Lords – Rassilon, Omega and Someone Else -- discuss the future of the universe. I couldn't tell you, without looking it up, whether Someone Else turned out to be the Doctor or, er, someone else. But I like the scene. It's mysterious and dramatic and suggests that the well of the past is very deep, even on Gallifrey. The scene in Silver Nemeiss, where Lady Penfold asks the question "Doctor who?" and threatens to reveal his Dark Secret isn't quite as good. It's too in yer face: oy, the Doctor is special, right, but we aren't telling you why. Curse of Fenric did a much better job of making the Doctor's Time Lordness relatively unimportant and his Doctorness central. By virtue of being the Doctor, he has played chess with the embodiment of evil since the beginning of time.
"Maybe the universe can't bear to be without the Doctor."
Lawrence Miles complains that the modern series has fetishised the Doctor: made him "the subject, not the medium" of the series which is named after him. He has a point. But this process didn't start with The Pandorica Opens (which we will get to eventually, I promise.) It didn't start with The Girl in the Fireplace. And it really, really didn't start with Lawrence's novel Alien Bodies. It's the logical conclusion of a process which has been underway since the series started.
The Doctor is a guy who rattles round the universe in a broken down spaceship. But he's also the most important person in the Doctor Who universe, because it, the Doctor Who universe, it has got his name on it. And he's also been allowed to become the personification of the television programme he appears in. The Doctor represents Doctor Who and Doctor Who represents every good memory anyone ever had of Saturday teatimes in November, of queuing for autographs on wet Sundays in Blackpool, of watching scary monsters from behind the sofa with a sense of wonder. It's an almost Trinitarian conception, and one that hardly any fictitious character could be expected to live up to. Hamlet was never asked to personify school English lessons and Oxford scholarship and the history of the Royal Shakespeare Company; Winnie the Pooh the bear was never a metaphor for Winnie the Pooh the book.
It is sometimes said each writer only has one story to tell, particularly by writers who have only one story to tell. Season 5 of Doctor Who unashamedly revisits the themes of Girl in the Fireplace. And the season finale spends 90 minutes re-stating ideas that were first presented in a silly sketch in which Joanna Lumley tried to use the sonic screwdriver as a vibrator.
Well, wasn't it Chekov who said that if you do it slow, it's tragedy, but if you do it quick, it's farce?


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.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Fish Custard [16]

They were the worst of times, they were the best of times.
They didn't even tell us Doctor Who had been cancelled; just took it away and banged it on the head in the middle of the night. The first we knew was a clip show in 1992 which talked about it in the past tense.
And they lied and lied and lied. Oh how they lied! It is only off air for an extra six months, they said, we want to rest it to make sure the next season is even better they said, we are all sure it has a great future on the BBC they said, maybe some third party will work with the BBC to make the new series.
And then they tantalized us. There's going to be a 30th anniversary story starring Tom Baker and all the surviving Doctors. There will be an American TV series. There will be a movie. There will be a cartoon. (We were prepared to clutch at straws.) We kidded ourself that fan creations like The Stranger or the Virgin novels or the Big Finish CDs or the comic books were the "real" 28th 27th Season. The medium might have changed, but the sacred bloodline had been preserved.
What we actually got in November 1993 was Dimensions in Time a weird skit in which actual monsters and actual Doctors ran around the set of Eastenders. It was possibly intended as a parody, but there weren't any actual jokes. But it finally showed Colin Baker in a scene with the Brigadier, so it must, surely, be canonical? Clutching at straws. Clutching at straws.
But there were bright spots. Well, there was a bright spot. Two years after the abortive Paul McGann pilot, a short sketch called Curse of Fatal Death went out as part of the BBC's annual Comic Relief telethon. There were a lot of toilet jokes so joyless and anatomically mechanistic that they could only have been dreamed up by an eight year old; but there were also some surprisingly involved fan in-jokes. (Jonathan Pryce's pantomime Master falls repeatedly into the disgusting sewers of Terserus: fans with long memories remembered that this was where the hideously deformed Master was discovered in Deadly Assassin.) Rowan Atkinson, being a comedian, played the Doctor entirely straight. He was actually rather good. As we have said before: there is no such thing as a parody of Doctor Who. Curse of Fatal Death is a good deal less stupid than, say, Time and the Rani. And it worked not because the idea of using the Sonic Screwdriver as a sex toy hadn't occurred to absolutely everyone before, but because it was all coming out of the head of someone who loved and cared about Doctor Who: namely, Mr Steven Moffat.
Dimensions in Time had "celebrated" Doctor Who by parading a lot of props and actors in front of us and giving them the opportunity to repeat well-loved catch phrases. Fatal Death didn't contain a single actor or prop from the original series (the Dalek and TARDIS props were DIY efforts borrowed from fans) but it played around with the idea, the essence, of Doctor Who. Lovingly. Reverently. The kind of offensive blasphemy that only the most devout believer can produce. The idea that the Doctor is bored with his travels and wants to settle down and get married is comically incongruous: but it makes a certain amount of logical sense.
"How could I forget the only time travelling companion I've ever had."
"You've had lots of companions."
"The only time travelling companion I've ever had." [*]
The first episode is based almost entirely around the "joke" that the Doctor can escape from any trap, however deadly, by using Time Travel. If he's in an impregnable prison cell, he can, at some point in the future, go back in time and bribe the architect to add an escape tunnel. Literal minded fans complained that, once you have allowed the Doctor to do this, he ceases to be a hero, because any situation, however dangerous, can always be escaped from retrospectively. In fact, it forces the Doctor and the Master to engage in a comic duel of wits:
"When you told me to meet you at Castle Terserus, I simply travelled back in time and bribed the architect. Say hello to the spikes of doom!"
"Say hello to the sofa of reasonable comfort. Naturally I anticipated your journey back in time, and so travelled slightly further back and bribed the architect first."
"Or so you think! Naturally I anticipated your travelling back in time, so I travelled back to an even further point. And I bribed the architect first."
This feels a lot like a comic take on the duel of wits between Dream and Lucifer Choronzon in Sandman ("I am snake, spider-devouring, poison toothed" "I am ox, snake crushing heavy footed.") The Doctor's ability to escape depends purely on his wit an ingenuity. Which means, of course the wit and ingenuity of the writer. But then, it always has. If the Doctor is thrown into a den of lions, he has always been able suddenly to remember that he once spent six months with a circus and learned the art of lion taming. "I went back in time and bribed the architect" only writes this larger, louder, and funnier.
But we had to wait until the end of Season 5 to see Time Travel used like this in the, er, canonical TV series. It is astonishing how much of New Who and New New Who had their dry runs in this silly skit about an alien race that communicates by farting. It was here that we first saw that the Doctor could "fall in love" and still be the Doctor; it was here that it was first suggested that the Doctor and his greatest foe were, in some kinky way, lovers.
"Why do they call you the Master?"
"I'll explain later..."
And it was here that Doctor Who and the Doctor merged, and the Doctor ascended to his role as the most important being in the universe. The sketch really only exists as a pretext for the final scene. For no reason at all, the "twelfth" Doctor gets zapped and killed by special "can't ever regenerate" radiation. This is the final end, the Death of Doctor Who. Someone once said that his final words, "Look after the universe, I've put a lot of work into it" say more about Doctor Who than the entirety of the Paul McGann pilot. They are, of course, quoted by Matt Smith in the Eleventh Hour. The whole cast goes into a eulogy for the Doctor. The Master declares that he will repent and henceforth live a blameless life in memory of his greatest enemy. The Daleks announce that THEY-TOO-WILL-HONOUR-THEIR-MORTAL-FOE. Emma goes into a full blown speech about a Doctorless universe, concluding that "It will never be safe to be scared again." There is no pretence whatsoever that this anything other than a direct appeal to the BBC to bring the series back, that every time Emma says something about "the Doctor", what she is really talking about is Doctor Who. It would not be going to far to say that from this moment Doctor Who re-emerges as a potential BBC television show, as opposed to an intellectual property for BBC Worldwide to flog merchandise. If you felt that way inclined, you could also say that it was the precise moment at which Old Who died.
The resolution, of course, is that the Doctor regenerates in defiance of all physical laws, because "The universe couldn't bear to be without the Doctor." Bus-spotters, bless them, grasping their little canons to their little hearts, protested that this meant that the Doctor could never again be in any real danger – because however bad things got "the universe" would save him. Some also ruled the series dead because the Doctor had, in five minutes, burned off all his un-used regenerations. (It is an object of faith among those kinds of fans that the rule that says that the Doctor can only have thirteen lives is the one part of Who mythos which can never be gainsaid.) And indeed, the scene really only worked at a meta-textual level. In the story, the Doctor may be kind, brave and heroic, but he's only one kind, brave, heroic person in a vast universe – one member of one particular race, however advanced and venerable. Only from the point of view of those of us "reading" the story can the the Doctor be the most important thing in the universe. The series has his name on it, and without him, there is no Doctor Who.
But only a hopelessly sad case would use words like meta-textuality in discussing an extended poo-joke. Which may have been part of the point.

[*] Whatever he may later have claimed, at this point Moffat still thought that the classic Doctor had been, how shall we put it, asexual.


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