Good Doctor Who stories are all very much alike. Each bad Doctor Who story is bad in its own way.
I really don’t ask very much. I am aware that Doctor Who is a children’s TV show about a dotty old man and his little friends going to different planets and saving the world from space monsters. I am very happy to curl up with a cup of Earl Grey and a crumpet (with Marmite) and say “injecting micro clones into yourself to defeat a giant prawn, who would have thought it” or “Loch Ness monster swims up the Thames and threatens Big Ben, now there’s a thing.” Doctor Who has to work really, really hard to draw attention to its own stupidity before I stop believing in it. Very rarely have you heard me say “but that’s not what the word ‘galaxy’ even means, you bumbling old duffer.”
Spacemen and monsters, for a start. Spacemen that look a bit like Apollo spacesuits, which is what spacesuits are meant to look like. I guess there is a reason they have to be dome shaped, something to do with pressure, I shouldn’t wonder. I had a space helmet for my fourth or fifth birthday, a plastic one with a visor and a NASA sticker. I think the dome-shaped hats is probably the main reason space is exciting. A big space station, wheel shaped, that makes you think of the Blue Danube waltz and salt and vinegar crisps. There’s an aesthetic which says that space ships are all white and gleaming like a very posh kitchen owned by someone who doesn’t really like to cook; but there’s also a space aesthetic which is all bare wires and metal, like an oil rig, like the distilled essence of a machine. (The question, indeed, is about whether the doors should go shush-shush or budda-budda-budda.) And the idea of space-walking, or just being in space, with nothing between you and the stars, which is both incredibly fun and incredibly dangerous. Give us a ghoulish description of what actually happens to a person’s body in a vacuum, like watching film of surgery or seeing waxworks being tortured in the Madame Tussuad's.
Obviously, monsters, which are frightening, but not too frightening, but not trying too hard to not be too frightening. If you can come up with something that hasn’t been done before, or not recently, that’s good too. Zombies are good. Spacemen versus zombies. Dead bodies of dead astronauts still walking around in their suits after they have suffocated trying to kill the living ones. Living space men space walking around the outside of the space station in space suits and being confronted by the space walking dead. Very good.
The Doctor, of course: he’s what it’s really all about; and a grown up human lady to scream and get rescued (although this is the 21st century so she shouldn't scream and get rescued too much.) But she mustn’t have been with the Doctor too long. If she's hung around and got the hang of time and space and became the most impossible person in the universe and the Doctor’s girlfriend, that would stop being much fun. Better for her to be a bit wide eyed and surprised, partly because when she looks through the space ship window and says “wow this is a proper space ship” we can look through her eyes and be all wide-eyed and surprised as well, but mostly so we can shrug and say “oh, yes, the Doctor has shown us space ships before”, a bit like Piglet. But the Doctor being brilliant and the pretty lady being wide-eyed can get a bit much, so it’s even better if you can give the Doctor another friend, maybe say a bald alien man, who is a bit more cynical and on the Doctor’s wavelength and keeps telling everyone to go back to the TARDIS where it’s safe.
(Maybe the bald cynical alien man should be taken to one side and asked not to act quite so much? Maybe he could sometimes just read the line “Let’s go back to the TARDIS” without turning it into “Letttts… GO. Back tooooooooo ther TAR DIS”?)
Now obviously we’re not kids any more so it’s probably not good enough to just have spacemen and zombies; there probably has to be some reason for it, and there probably has to be some ideas for us to think about. Some good Doctor Who stories took something ordinary and made it frightening (what if your mobile phone turned into a plastic daffodil?), but nowadays they mostly try to be a bit more subtle. Ever one of us checks his mobile phone to see how much battery he’s got left dozens of times a day, so what if that little battery marker was counting down not just your battery-life, but your actual life. Maye the spacemen have to pay for their own oxygen? Very good. How often have you heard grown ups saying “Next they are going to charge us for the air we breath?” I feel a metaphor coming on. Doctor Who always did incorporate little moral lectures about the true nature of courage and how chess would be better if the black pawns and the white pawns fought the vampires together.
I’d leave in the joke about workers getting together to fight “the suits”, but drop the bit about how the Doctor rescuing the spacemen from the zombies accidentally precipitated the fall of capitalism. Grimy industrial futures where everything is ruled by The Company are just as much a Thing as space men and corridors and zombies.
There has to be a bit where you want to hide behind the sofa only not really. Dead bodies are bit macabre: the space zombies will need to be nasty enough to be scary, but not nasty enough to be really scary. Heads lolled on one side is a good start, and we should definitely see the grown up human lady freaking out when she first sees a dead person standing up. But the properly scary stuff needs to be a bad thing happening to one of the characters and imagining that it might be happening to you. So if you’ve told us all the icky things which happen to a human body in a vacuum, you have to follow through and show us the grown up human lady being stuck in the air lock without a helmet, with ice forming on her face, mostly from her point of view, everything going blurry and fragmented. If you are not careful, that could come out a bit too nasty and scary and gripping for Doctor Who, but that’s okay, because the best bits of Doctor Who always are.
Maybe, though, don’t go through the whole thing again and try to convince us that grown up companion lady is dead the second time, because we all know perfectly well she won’t be.
And of course, the Doctor has to save the day in the end because he’s the Doctor and saving the day in the end is what he does. Almost the most important thing in a Good Doctor Who story is that the Doctor should suddenly understand what is going on, and make a plan to defeat the baddies, and not quite tell us what it is, but when at the last minute it works we see how clever the Doctor has been being all the way through and remember why we love him so much. It could involve using scarecrows to make the evil alien robber baron think the castle is better defended than it really is, or it could involve setting up a suicide bomb so that the space zombies can’t kill the surviving humans without blowing up their own spaceship as well. It just has to be clever and a bit mad. And not, in any way, a big red button or a giant haddock that just makes the space zombies go away by magic.
Cliff hangers are good. We don’t get as many of those as we used to in the olden days because there are less serial stories. Arcs and “big bads” are all very well, but really all they do is tantalize us about the final episode, and frankly, we've all worked out why the words “Bad Wolf” are scrawled on the secret vault already. (It has the Doctor himself locked in it. Duh!) The best cliff hangers aren’t the “how will he get out of that” kind, or the “is he going to die” kind, they are the “That changes everything” kind. The Doctor sustained a permanent damage rescuing his little friend from the vacuum? But he won’t tell her about it? Provided you don’t just cop right out next week, that’s just the kind of thing we’re looking for.
All of which leaves us with not very much to talk about. It is a strange thing, but stories which are good to have watched are easily reviewed, and the reviewers are not much to read; while stories that are illogical, inconsistent and even ridiculous may make a good review, and take a deal of reviewing anyway.
For no doubt others from our recorded pasts are also likely to suffer the similar biased cultural shredding of Colston and I suspect there will be further opposition from authentic Bristolians… R L Smith The music committee's sole aim, it would appear, is to change the name of a certain Bristol building - something I supsect 90 percent of genuine Bristolians do not want. H. W White And to the rest of you people living here, born and bred: do something. Don’t less this happen. Colson Hall is Bristol’s. It’s ours, yours and mine. It’s not theirs. H.W WHite While we’re about it why don’t we get rid of everything Italian (restaurants, food shops, etc) for all the slavery the Romans brought to our shores…and whilst on the subject, all our Danish pastry shops for the raping and pillaging the Vikings did to us. Tim Lalonde My family came from France in the late 19th century…We’ve never sought an apology for Trafalgar, Waterloo, Agincourt… Tim Lalonde …if we change the name of the Colston Hall then we also have to look at Wills, Cadbury’s and Fry’s, all philanthropic dynasties but no doubt something in their past would offend some people. “A Bristolian with a voting bug.” While there are those who would clearly prefer to see the name of Edward Colston eradicated from Bristol altogether, he was and always will be a part of our great city’s history, warts and all… Adrian Courtney Smith Slavery was bad and we all say that now, but… “A Bristolian with a voting bug.”
Yes, Doctor Who, you know, Doctor Who, off the television, do you get it?
Doctor Who isn’t the name of the character, it’s the name of the TV show. Also, Frankenstein is the guy who made the monster, not the actual monster
You spoil all my jokes.
Knock knock jokes were really popular in the 1930s. They are a very lazy way of generating puns. Certain first names sound a bit like the first syllables of certain words and phrases. Ha ha.
The a door wasn't open which is why I knocked.
I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue has an item called Late Arrivals at the Ball which is based on the same idea, but starts from punchline and leaves your to work out the feed. So while
...barely even qualifies as a joke
“Will you welcome to the geographer’s ball, Mr and Mrs Peligo and their son.....Archie…”
…really does. Something to do with the time it takes your brain to process what is going on, I shouldn’t wonder.
The knock knock joke was intended for children, but taken up in a big way by adults. The form is now very tired indeed, and neither children nor adults are particularly interested in it. However, you can still raise a laugh, at any rate from a small child, by using a knock knock joke to make a joke at the expense of knock knock jokes: to make the form of the joke the joke's subject. At a particular age:
No, you're a poo
is the funniest thing in the world, even though it breaks the rules of the game because Europe isn't anyone's first name.
is such a perfect example of an anti knock knock joke that it both effectively terminates the genre, and justifies its having existed in the first place. But I can't help thinking that it removes all the updock from the original idea.
This week's Doctor Who story is called Knock Knock. Its one redeeming feature is that it doesn't contain a single knock knock joke.
We are no longer in the days of benign amateurism, when Douglas Adams beat out scripts in his bedroom on a manual typewriter, so what they lacked in coherence and polish they made up for in being amazing. Knock Knock was written the same Mike Bartlett who wrote that Prince Charles thing which the Daily Mail wet its knickers over. He wins Olivier Awards and everything. Was the Beeb too nervous to tell him just how bad this script was? Or maybe he submitted something coherent and Mofffat’s editing job cut out all the improvements? Would the National Theater accept a challenging new work about students who say "awesome" and "wicked" and use mobile phones as a signifier of youth and modernity? Would any science fiction or horror magazine accept “there are these insects which turn ladies into wood and make them immortal because they just do okay” as a premise? Was it a spoof where the jokes somehow got lost in the post? Or are we in some twilight zone where this is what everyone expect light fantasy-horror to be like.
I mean, it’s a haunted house. A fucking haunted house. Has anyone treated the haunted house as anything other than a joke — as anything other than a fairground attraction, come to that — in the past hundred and fifty years?
I read the Mysteries of Udolpho during a course on English romanticism, which is the only reason to. It’s the classic gothic novel from which all other gothic novels come: with a heroine stuck in a romantic but mysterious house with a romantic but mysterious host; and lots of mysterious noises; mysterious locked rooms; and above all a mysterious black curtain that you mustn’t look behind under any circumstances.
In this or any gothic story the house itself is the main character. Mind you it doesn’t have to be a house. It could be a mansion or a castle or the Paris Opera. It translates into bricks and mortar a particular model of the human mind — all very pretty on the surface, but with locked doors and hidden tunnels and a vast cellar or labyrinth or sewer or bat-cave underneath it, full of terrible memories and forbidden desires…all of which magically go away if you pull down the veil, tear off the mask, or simply switch on the light. The Painfully Freudian Castle also pops up in Jane Eyre and Dracula and other books people actually read voluntarily. H.P Lovecraft is more gothic than the goths but he doesn’t really deal in castles. Too Euclidean, possibly.
Jane Austen lampooned Udolpho in one of her earlier, funny books, and the Haunted House now survives mostly as a comedic idea. Bats fly out of towers; unreasonable amounts of lightening forks; floorboards creak; doors and shutters slam at random; people are heard moving around in empty room; mysterious music plays. Haunted houses are scary, but no-one is scared. They represent fear without being frightening. They are the kinds of places where you might encounter a funny sheet ghost, or even a friendly baby one, but definitely not the where you’d have a disturbing encounter with a relative you thought was long dead. The original Scooby Doo cartoon opened with the image of a gothic mansion (well, a New England colonial pile) replete with bats and lightening bolts to invoke the idea, not of horror, but very specifically of spookiness.
Knock Knock is the result of a collision between two non-disastrous ideas for Doctor Who stories. They are smashed together with no regard for disguising the join or making even the vaguest amount of even fairy-tale sense.
What if a group of students rented a house and found out that it was infested with cockroaches…but it then turned out that the cockroaches were actually evil alien monsters intent on invading the earth?
What if a group of students rented a house and found out that it had a Jane Eyre style mad-woman in the attic?
Both ideas would have worked better in a bog standard semi-detached des. res. but the Olivier Award Winning playwright places them in what is obviously and explicitly a Scooby Doo mansion. (Oh god, that lightening!) This requires absolutely everyone to be far stupider than any human being could ever actually be. David Suchet appears from nowhere, shows our characters around a house with no modern wiring, heating or wi-fi and a tower that the are not allowed to look in under any circumstances, and says “Would you like to sign….the contract” and no-one sees any potential downside.
The house is populated by alien insects which hide in the woodwork but can be called to the surface by certain sounds — a tuning fork, a record, but not, oddly, a sonic screwdriver. They can emerge in huge groups and consume humans in seconds — a bit like the invisible robot piranhas in Smile, but without even the decency to leave behind some bones for the garden. In the secret tower which no-one is allowed to visit lives landlord’s beautiful daughter. She was dying of movie-lady disease but the cockroaches saved her by turning her into wood. But the cockroaches have to periodically eat other humans to keep this one alive. We are given no hint as to any mechanism which makes this work: no magical explanation which says “they feed on human emotion” or “they survive by sucking the sparkle out of David Suchet’s acting”; but no pseudo-scientific explanation about harvesting squigglon gas which can only be found in burbleon neurons of adolescents either.
The solution to the mystery is not ingenuity or bravery, but — once again — exorcism. Presumably, someone told the Olivier Award Winning Playwright was that that was what happened in Doctor Who: someone is bound to something, and some third party comes along and unbinds them by very emotionally giving them permission to depart.
Thousands of questions about the scenario pour over us like a swarm of cockroaches. The Landlord’s beautiful daughter is actually the Landlord’s beautiful mother — this is what passes for The Twist. Many years ago in the Olden Days when his Mummy was sick a little boy found magic cockroaches in the garden and they made her immortal but also turned her into wood while he carried on getting older and older and finding students to feed the cockroaches. The cockroaches also give him the power to to manifest and disappear at will but this is not explained at any level. The Olden Days do not appear to have been any further back than the 1950s. How did it come about that a Little Boy and his Beautiful Mother were all alone in a gothic mansion and what happened to all the doctors and social workers and relatives?
Oh Andrew you spoil all my jokes you aren't supposed to ask questions like that it's only a children's programe no-one but you pays that much attention to it it isn't supposed to make sense.
For the final denouement, the Landlord’s beautiful mother reveals that she can control the cockroaches with her mind — for how? And can infect her father by touch — for why? And as a final going away present she can bring the dead kids back to life. How? But only the recent ones. Not the ones who died in 1997 or 1977. Why not?
Bill has acquired five friends who are looking for digs. There is the shy Asian one who Bill is kind of friends with. There is the tall Scottish one who tries to hit on Bill but is relieved when it turns out that she’s gay. There is the geeky one who retires to his room with violin music and gets eaten. And there is the geeky Northern one who hooks up with the Doctor, acting (and I use the word loosely) like an exceptionally gormless old-school companion, wide eyes, gibbering, at no point recognizing what is going on at any level. He is not un-coincidentally called Harry. I suppose Hogwarts is a kind of haunted house; he kept making me think of the very early Ron Weasley.
Apparently, in an early version of the script he was going to be the grandson of an exceptionally gormless old-school companion named Harry. (This would have been the one redeeming feature of the episode, so they cut it out.)
It appears that these students have only just started at college (the episode ends with fireworks going off for the freshers party) -- but what student only starts looking for accommodation in the first week of term? Don’t most colleges arrange for you to live “in hall” in your first year? And aren’t most university towns full of private blocks of purpose-built student housing? And why are they using an estate agents rather than a specialist short term letting agency? And why doesn’t the letting agency point out that there is no point in looking for somewhere to live in a group of six and tell them to split up into pairs and be prepared to share rooms?
Thin Ice ended up more or less working as a story, despite plot holes large enough to drive an elephant through, because Fun Stuff kept on happening. Fun is in short supply here A 1950s house isn’t as interesting a place to visit as a Georgian Frost Fair, and finding that the kitchen windows have mysteriously locked themselves isn’t as exciting as scuba diving into the mouth of a mile long haddock.
It is tempting to wonder if there is an overall story ark going on. Knock Knock has a house which is in some sense made of person-eating cockroaches; where Smile had a city which is some some sense made of person-eating robot piranhas. Thin Ice was set in a fairground, and Haunted Houses are mostly things you encounter in fairs. The Doctor excuses the inability of Frank Cottrell-Boyce to think of an ending to Smile by telling a story about a magic haddock, and Thin Ice has a giant haddock hidden under the Thames. This story is called Knock Knock, and the prisoner in the vault keeps knocking, and there was a prophecy at the end of David Tenant that the Master would knock four times.
But that implies that someone is thinking about what they are doing. On on the evidence of this story, they really, really aren’t.
In 1964, the First Doctor, on the run from the Daleks, materialized in what he believed was an alien dimension populated by the dark side of the human imagination — Dracula, the Wolf-Man, Frankenstein’s creature, Universal Pictures copyright lawyers, etc. It turned out that he is actually in a literal Haunted House: a “spooky” fairground attraction full of animatronic monsters. This is approximately five times more convincing than anything in this episode.
Shall I tell you my favourite thing about Thin Ice?
My favourite thing about Thin Ice is that when the street kids are taken to the big house for a meal, there there is milk, served in wine glasses, by their place settings.
Someone sat down and thought about this. If you are going to give a group of early nineteenth century orphans a treat, then you give them a Christmas dinner, obviously, even if it is February. (Those are Christmas puddings on the table, aren’t they?) But what would you have given them to drink? Not fruit juice; oranges and grapes are still quite exotic, and you can’t get strawberries or raspberries out of season. Not wine or small beer. Not tea or coffee. So then, milk. Someone cared that much about getting the scene right.
And no-one felt the need to say “Gee, Doc, I know this is the olden days and I don't understand time travel but couldn't anyone find some pepsi?”
So: the Doctor goes back in time to London, 1814. The Thames has frozen over, so everyone is having a festival on it, with fish pies and elephants and everything. This is a real thing: they did it on Blue Peter. (The overlap between what they did on Blue Peter and where Doctor Who goes has been insufficiently explored. Any day now I expect a story in which alien kangeroos take over the minds of the Tulpuddle Martyrs.) It was easier to obtain an elephant in those days because circuses and menageries were less squeamish about keeping wild animals in cages. Jesus was probably an elephant.
It turns out that there is a gigantic Metaphor hidden under the ice. The Metaphor has lived there for hundreds of years. What the Metaphor does is eat little orphan children (and presumably other people, but mostly orphans) and shit them out the other end. The shit is collected by an Evil Capitalist who uses it to power his mills, which are, I imagine, dark and satanic. At one point the Doctor thinks that the shit is going to be used to power a starship, but everyone gives up on this idea.
If we were talking about an animal we would ask if it only produced intensely flammable shit when it ate little boys, and how much faeces a mile long creature would be passing if all it had eaten since 1795 was a couple of small boys, and whether it wouldn't be more efficient for the Evil Capitalist to feed it cows and pigs?There are also little fish with luminous noses that swim round the Metaphor. Have they also been living in the Thames since 1788? What do they eat? Why has no-one ever caught one before? What is their relationship with the Metaphor? I suspect the true answer is “Someone had the idea of spooky green lights and came up with idea of dong-fish after the fact to retrofit the spooky lights to the Metaphor.” When someone is about to be sucked down under the ice, the green lights whizz round and round and form a vortex; which isn’t something you could remotely imagine the little fish doing.
But it isn’t fair to ask how any of this shit works. It’s metaphorical shit.
The dreadful Torchwood made extensive use of drug called “Plot Device”: when a human being saw an alien or discovered the existence of Torchwood, our heroes gave them a shot of the drug and they would instantly forget what had happened. (This idea was derived from Men in Black, as, indeed, was Torchwood.) There is a new consensus among Doctor Who writers that human beings don’t need the drug: they “have infinite capacity to forget the unusual and inexplicable”. Dalek invasions and giant metaphors in the Thames all get automatically edited out of everyone’s mind after they happen. That means Doctor Who is now taking place in a kind of invisible parallel universe, like London Below or Hogwarts. Homeless gods and wizards and fish with luminous noses are all around us all the time, but we never see them.
Which would explain a good deal.
Obviously our idea that a slow-flowing river might freeze for a few days every couple of decades is a little lie we’ve invented to cover the uncomfortable fact that there has always been a giant Metaphor living under the Thames, and that one of the Metaphor's powers is to make everything really really cold. And obviously our far-fetched idea that if a big river in a big city did freeze over, carnies and street traders would move in and hold a big party there is necessary fib to cover up the fact that an Evil Capitalist was bribing people to go onto the ice in order to feed them to the Metaphor and turn them into shit to power his mills with.
I assume that it is the same kind of ret-con drug which prevents everyone, including the audience, from understanding how the Metaphor works. Evil McEvilface makes it pretty clear that the fish represents Capitalism. That’s what Capitalism is for, isn’t it: chewing up little kids and shitting them out to power mills. But the Evil Capitalist is cunningly disguised as a one-note baddy who says racism and rehashes old Blackadder jokes, so no-one notices when he makes an extremely good point. There is no moral difference between sending little boys down mines, where they may die, in order to dig coal out of the ground, or feeding little boys to giant goldfish in order to harvest the goldfish poo. We are all, in a very real sense, Lord Sutcliff, which is why it is so satisfying when he gets punched. We have all, in a very real sense, sent orphan boys down coal mines and fed them to sea monsters.
The Doctor doesn’t have a solution to the Metaphor. Or at least, he does have a solution, but not a very metaphorical one. The Evil Capitalist Mill Owner is going to blow up the Fair with explosives, so that the monster gets to eat everybody at once and do a really really big poo; but the Doctor escapes from being tied up while the orphans tell everyone to get off the ice and gets into a diving suit and transfers the explosives to the Metaphor’s chains, so the Metaphor can swim off to…wherever it came from and do...something happily ever after. Which is a lot better than last week and the week before and in fact next week where the Doctor solves the problem just by being the Doctor.
It isn’t even that great as a non-metaphorical solution, really. Right back at the beginning of New Who, the Doctor was chastised for not thinking through the consequences of his actions — not worrying about where defeated slitheen go at the end of the episode. Today, he is quite happy to just let the Metaphor swim away and not give a second though to where it came from and where it is going to go and how many orphans it is going to eat along the way.
At the very end, he physically alters evil Lord Sutcliff’s evil will so that one of the un-eaten orphans inherits the evil money he made from killing orphans. But this doesn’t address the general issue of capitalism devouring children. Even metaphorically.
Thin Ice is recognizably a Doctor Who story; and even a good Doctor Who story. Not a great Doctor Who story — political sketch writers 50 years from now will not reference the story in order to poke fun at the incumbent prime minister — but a good one. The Doctor goes back to the olden days, and encounters a monster. Not merely an alien: a monster. The twist — that the giant, orphan eating fish is relatively benign (provided you don’t mourn the orphans to much) and the real monster is Capitalism — is the kind of twist that Doctor Who has done once a season since the 1960s. The Doctor defeats the monster using his ingenuity and innate goodness, and returns home literally in time for tea. What could be more like Doctor Who than that?
It is very possible to imagine Doctor William or Doctor Patrick visiting the Frost Fair. And it is a racing certainty that they would have found some sort of Monster under the ice. Well, Doctor Patrick would have done. Doctor William would have had to foil a plot to assassinate the prince regent while Ian and Barbara got involved in a separate plot about one of the wrestlers turning out to be a runaway Moorish prince. And the BBC would have done it very well: impressive painted backdrops, and six or seven extras in period costume, with historical research that would warm your teacher’s hearts. But you wouldn’t have had sweeping shots over the Thames, London skylines, scores of extras, wrestlers, jugglers, elephants, orphans, and a whole nother plot-line set in a posh Regency house. Or any black people at all.
This isn’t merely “spectacle” or, god forbid “special effects”. This is about taking us back to a particular time and place and making it live again, which is arguably the whole point of Doctor Who. Bill loves it, the Doctor loves it, we love it. We get chases across the ice. We see the Doctor and Billy in massively anachronistic diving suits, looking into the giant eye of a mile long sea creature. We see the Doctor and Bill tied up, and doing the classic heroic wriggle to free themselves from the ropes. We see the Doctor bantering with con-men and reading stories to little kids and punching fascists. The nasty capitalist who feeds orphans to sea monsters gets eaten by the sea monster in the final scene. No buckle remains unswashed; no devil is undared. This is what I watch Doctor Who for; if Doctor Who were like this every week, I would have nothing to complain about and this column would be very boring.
So here comes the "but"...
When Evil McEvilFace asks the Doctor about the relative merits of coal mines and fish poo as a means of exploiting the working class, the Doctor replies: “Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life….” This is a non-ridiculous thing for a liberal hero to say. It would work rather will in William Shatner's voice. But everyone swoons as if the Doctor has suddenly picked up Jessie Custer's knack of speaking in read typescript. The villain stops the action to tell us what a brilliant speech it was; and two scenes later Bill, who has previously misread the Doctor as being callous, wonders out loud how long it took the Doctor to make speeches like that. Which spoils the scene, the Doctor, and the perfectly harmless little speech. The Doctor is special and unique and we know he is special and unique because everyone keeps telling us how special and unique he is. Everything he does has to be triple underlined in fluorescent yellow marker pen.
“I make inspirational speeches now. Inspirational speeches are cool.”
I grant that one of the things which Old Who did very badly was character development and emotion; and I grant that the Doctor’s conversation with Bill after the first orphan has died is piece of proper writing being performed by two proper actors. I perceived it has the Doctor talking to Bill, not two actors doing a Scene. (This is really the main thing I want from Doctor Who, Star Wars or indeed Twelfth Night.) But it is still self-referential as hell. Yes, of course, obviously, it’s a massive problem in any long-running adventure serial that if you remotely pretended that the main character was a real person, you’d have to conclude that he was a complete psychopath. (How many of Peter Parker's intimate acquaintances and close family members have been murdered?) This is a worse problem if the hero is nominally a liberal nice guy and not, say, a soldier or policeman whose job it is to deal with horrible stuff. And all Bill's aria about "how many people have you seen die / how many people have you killed" does is highlight the contradiction (in fluorescent yellow ink.) The Doctor couldn't possibly remain the affable trickster we see on the screen if we really believed he'd seen that much horror. So we really don't want our attention drawing to it.
“But Andrew: that scene wasn’t about the Doctor; it was about Bill. It was Bill coming to terms with the sort of stuff she’s going to encounter as the Doctor’s new granddaughter.” OK. But here shock at the child's death and the Doctor's reaction to it last precisely 20 minutes. In the very next scene she admits that she, like the Doctor, is capable of moving on, and spends the rest of the episode doing her job as a spunky, happy go lucky Doctor Who Girl. "I was shocked when I saw a child being eaten by a monster, but that was half an hour ago. I’m over it now." This is not characterization; this is apparent characterization.
And finally, there is gigantic hand wave which comes from nowhere and goes nowhere, in which the Doctor tells Bill that she has to decide whether to release the giant orphan eating sea monster into the wild or not. He suddenly decides, for no reason, that he only interferes or helps out humans with their consent. It is never remotely in doubt that the Doctor will, in fact, free the beastie; it's just an obligatory piece of preparatory angst. Defeating monsters in New Who is supposed to involve Big Emotions, and the Doctor is actually going to free this one using explosives and the sonic screwdriver.
Bad Doctor Who I can live with. There always was a lot of Bad Doctor Who. In fact, some of the best Doctor Who was, if we are being completely honest with ourselves, pretty Bad. And there is honestly no need to feedback and tell me that Doctor Who can't and shouldn't remain exactly where it was in 1963. Nothing would please me more than for Doctor Who to mutate into a new and different thing. But episodes like this feel like clones of Old Who having the life and joy sucked out of them by the parasitic growth of the new. As if something is chewing up innocent stories with intrinsic value and turning them into shit.
Here We Go Down the Slippery Slope If the zealots responsible for airbrushing Colston continue, how long can the name Bristol survive? What about renaming it Utopia...? R.L Smith (If) this student level of empty gesturing previals and everywhere in our fair city is renamed Mandela Street... Rob Pearce ….just rename everything you can, change the name Bristol to Constant Guilt. F Cannon For those against capital and corporal punishment, please rename Birch Road, Hung Road and Redlynch lane. For animals liberationist, change Badgers Lane, Dolphin Street (continue for four columns) Rob Pearce
The Pyre of Denthor If people are offended by the building, maybe it should be razed to the ground C Stephens If you are serious than raze the building the ground… Colin McNamee. What next, witch hunts? F Cannon Ah well, what next? Maybe we’ll burn a few books that we don’t like in Queens Square, before they rename it. C Stephens
Dead Cat’s Society Unless Louise Mitchell, chief executive of the Bristol Music Trust can categorically prove that none of her ancestors were in any way involved with slavery, she should resign… MJ Dupont We were slaves once, the Roman Empire. I don’t see the bleeding hearts complaining about anythign with a Roman name F Cannon Ah div nae wint sugar on ma porritch Be assured that it will always be remembered by us true Bristolians as the Colston Hall Terry Pring I hope all like minded Bristolians will complain long and loud Rob Pearce I am sure that genuine Britolians are cpable of living in the shadow of whatever has gone before… A Bevington Before jumping into a decision to chane the name of the Colston Hall I think those involved, who may not even be Bristolians, ought to do more historical research… Pamela Mitchell Also is Dr Horton a Britolian? E Jones May I suggest to those in favour of changing the name of the Colston Hall, we have a very good coach, bus and train station. If you don’t like Bristolian histoy then feel free to make use of them. A Hughes
Viva la brigada de corrección política! In my opinion it is another stark example of politically correct fascism that we could well do withiout. C Stepens I would suggest that political correctness is the real reason Chris Johnson Pandering to a current political correct few after generations of use as the Colston Hall. Colin McNamee "Genocide is supposed to be reprehensible, but..." Colston may have been a slave-trader and hence anti-humanitarian, but… Francis Harvey I agree that the slave trade was a disgrace but… Tim Mahooney I do not believe these past actions of individuals or governments are acceptable however… Chris Johnson Why are we vilifying Edward Colston when he was only engaging in an accepted trade of the time? Why after nearly 400 years has this been blown out of all proportion? Pamela Mitchel Send forth the best ye breed... Europeans did not invent the slave trade. The slaves were made by their own people E Jones The real culprits in the slave trade were the black Africans… Pamela Mitchell
I feel like I need to apologize for my essay on Bristol's Colston Hall kerfuffle.
I have a habit of writing in a light, semi-ironic, affable style. And this is appropriate for writing about comic books and children's television. If "well, last weeks Doctor Who was an embarrassing piece of fifth rate horse shit, wasn't it" mutates in the editing stage into "In the future, committed Time Lord followers may not look back on last week's story with feelings of unalloyed pleasure" no harm is done. But I am afraid I sometimes allow my tones of whimsical bemusement to permeate subjects which really matter.
Ursula Le Guin berates C.S Lewis and his contemporaries for writing as if from a high-church club which treats the rest of the universe with slightly amused disdain. That's probably where I got it from.
For the avoidance of doubt: the Colston Hall Kerfuffle is not one of those subjects which really matters. Twenty years ago, my position would have been broadly "If the name changes, jolly good; if it doesn't change, never mind." Contrary to what you may read in the Guardian, the people of Bristol are not in thrall to a Colston cult, any more than the people of Charing Cross are in thrall to the worship of Eleanor of Castille. You can't move in Bath for bakeries which sell the only original Bath Bun, and the recipe for William Oliver's extremely dull biscuits is a jealously guarded secret. But I had literally never heard of Colston Buns before the Great Kerfuffle started.
But the scheme to rebrand the Hall has brought a lot of very nasty arguments out of the woodwork; and it has revealed that some people hold some very nasty beliefs -- about history, about the city of Bristol and about the world in general. And this matters very much indeed.
I feel like I need to re-write that piece with an Obama style "anger interpreter" at my side.
Unlike many of the (mainly) students who campaigned to get the name of Colston Hall changed, I am a Bristolian born and bred, and I am so incensed that the management has kowtowed to these so-called activists. I have to reluctantly agree for the first time with the former Bristol Conservative leader Richard Eddy that we cannot change history, and that place names give us a link with the past. Edward Colston gave the land on which the eponymous hall stands for the building of a school for orphaned and destitute boys. This is still thriving today, in a different part of the city. He also left money for almshouses for the poor, and with the residue of his fortune a girls’ school was founded (which, incidentally, one of the spokespeople for the anti-Colston name brigade attended, and presumably benefited from its excellent education).
Many cities and towns in Britain have monuments and buildings dedicated to people who were not 100% PC to our modern overtender sensibilities – leaders of industry in the north, who allowed children down mines, or forced them to crawl under looms. They did not all give part of their wealth to alleviate the lot of the poor of their cities as Colston did. Where does this nonsense end?
This is all about money. The management of Colston Hall is trying to attract sponsorship for its renovation and future preservation by offering corporate naming. So look out for the Tesco Hall or the McDonald’s Hall sometime soon. Silly, unnecessary, embarrassing to the city. I sincerely hope that Bristolians stop this in its tracks, keep the Colston name (while fully acknowledging the horrors of slavery) and leave history to the historians
Exegesis is what we do here, so let us exegize.
1: "I am a Bristolian born and bred"
In the first sentence, we discover what the Great Kerfuffle is really all about. It's not about one theater or one historical person of dubious reputation. It's about nativism.
No-one in real life ever uses the word "Bristolian". (If you needed an adjective, you would just say "Bristol": "Blackbeard is thought to have been a Bristol sailor" or "The Bristol dialect is dying out.") No-one ever claims to be a Portsmouthian or a South Gloucesterani either. You might possibly say that someone was a Londoner, but you would just mean that they lived in London.
I know what it means to be born in Bristol, but who ever used the word "bred" of a person? You've never heard anyone say "Tolkien was born in South Africa, but bred in Oxford" or "Although he was bred in the United States, Bob Hope was actually born in Kent." Born-and-bred is one of those portmanteau words. It means "I have lived in this city all my life". It is only ever used to contrast "us", who were born-and-bred in Bristol and therefore have some kind of special status, with "you", who do not.
The writer thinks that only people who have lived in Bristol all their lives should have a say about what happens in the city; at any rate that born-and-bred-Bristolians have some special insight into what concert halls should be called that is denied to people who were bred here but not born here, or born here but not bred here, or people like me who were neither born nor bred here.
How long do you have to have lived in a municipality before you get a say in what happens here, do you suppose? I've lived in Bristol for twenty years. Do I have to travel back to London come local election time, like Mary and Joseph, or is there some process of naturalization?
Nativism is as foul when applied to a city as it is when it is applied to a country. It is about creating an "us", who are true Bristolians, real Americans, pure Germans and a "them" who just happen to live here. Sometimes, it may even happen, quite coincidentally, that "we", the natives, are mostly of one particular race (white, for the sake of argument) and "you", the incomers, are of a different race, perhaps (in some hypothetical case) black or Asian.
You might think that a music trust would be quite capable of deciding for itself whether it wants to rebrand a building which it happens to own. You might think "We don't want to call it the Colston Hall any more because we feel the name is associated with the slave trade" was a perfectly good explanation for the rebranding, whether you agree with it or not.
But in fact there is always some conspiracy at play. It always turns out that some nebulous Other has forced its will on Us Natives. In this case it turns out that the change of name is Us Bristolians making an act of ritual submission to a group of Non Bristolian Students.
"a complete surrender to the forces of historically illiterate political correctness"
"pandering to the views of a tiny minority of non-Bristolians".
3: So-called activists.
If the Non-Bristolian Students were trying to persuade the Bristol Music Trust to change the name of their hall, then they are, by definition, activists. If the letter writer is trying to persuade the Music Trust to reverse the decision, then they are, by definition, also an activist. That is what the word means. "So-called" is doing nothing in the sentence at all. It is a zombie word. The letter would be improved if we substituted "these pooey activists".
4: We cannot change history
The green inkers say this over and over again. You can't change history. You can't change history.
What does it mean?
No-one is traveling back in time and making it so that the sign outside Colston Hall already said Wilberforce Hall in the 19th century, although that would be an interesting premise for a Doctor Who story. No-one is denying, or trying to suppress the fact that some Victorian slavery apologists named a building after a slave trader, any more than anyone is denying that at one time Saddam Hussein was the ruler of Iraq, or that Jimmy Savile once worked for the BBC. We're just taking down some statues and some nameplates.
In 1867 the name plate was put up; in 2020 it was taken down. That's as much a part of history as anything else.
5: Edward Colston gave the land on which the eponymous hall stands for the building of a school for orphaned and destitute boys.
Robinson Crusoe is the eponymous character in Daniel Defoe's novel (the book his named after him); although she is the eponymous character, Abigail does not actually appear in the play Abigail's Party. It is just possible that if you said that Colston Hall was the eponymous building in a novel called "Murder at the Hall", we would know what you meant. But in no possible sense can you call Colston Hall "the eponymous hall". Dropping four syllable jurisdiction words into the middle of phenomenon sentences doesn't improve an incorporeal argument.
It is true that in 1708 Colston's school was intended to educate 100 poor boys, provided they were not Methodists. The school which now bears his name educates anyone of any gender or religion provided their parents have £13,000 a year to spend on school fees.
Green inkers always see everyone else as forming brigades. One wonders why it is never the "political correctness squadron" or the "health and safety corps"
7: ...Presumably benefited from its excellent education.
People sometimes complain when a person who has been to grammar school argues that grammar schools are a bad idea; or when a person who went to private school says that private schools are unfair. "You have benefited from a grammar school education, now you want to deny it to others" they say. (The correct answer to this is "No, you mugwump, I want to ban second class carriages".)
The writer seems to be creating a new argument based on the same template and ending up with word salad: "You have attended a school which was named after a slave trader and now you want to deny the right of a music venue to be named after a slave trader." What?
8: ....not 100% PC to our modern overtender sensibilities
And now it comes.
"PC" -- political correctness -- is a pejorative term for "politeness".
More specifically, it is what green inkers call the belief that you should avoid words like "wog", "cripple", "spastic" and "nigger" because they upset people.
Even more specifically, it represents the belief that a group of so-called activists, very probably from out of town, and very probably organized into brigades, are actively preventing everyone else from using these words, as part of a plot to destroy western civilization. (So you should jolly well go out of your way to use bad words, otherwise you'll be kowtowing to the PC brigade!)
I suppose that if I called someone "black" when the preferred term was "person of colour", or if I said "blind" to someone who thought of themselves as "visually impaired" you might say that I wasn't being 100% politically correct -- in other words, that I had inadvertently and unintentionally used a word which might possibly have given a small amount of offence.
Buying and selling black people as if they were livestock is, in the mind of the person who wrote this letter, roughly comparable to inadvertently using a bad word.
"Not 100% PC."
In fact, it is not even quite that bad. Buying and selling black people as if they were livestock is not, in itself, less than 100% PC; it is less than 100% PC only from the point of view of our "modern, over-tender sensibilities."
We disprove of slavery because we are a little bit too gentle, too kind, too affectionate.
How politically incorrect would buying and selling black people be if we were exactly the right amount tender?
Oh, and it's only from the modern point of view that buying and selling black people like livestock is a bit like accidentally using a slightly bad word. From the olden days point of view it was even less bad than that.
I keep hearing this kind of thing. You can't judge the past by the standards of the present. People back then didn't realize that slavery was wrong.
Yes you can and yes they did.
Well, Mrs Miggins from the pie-shop who had never traveled outside her own village might, I suppose, just possibly, have honestly believed that negroes were a special kind of monkey and cruelty to them wasn't the same as cruelty to people, in the same way that she might have honestly thought that the world was flat and there were unicorns in India. But Bristol was a port town. Edward Colston lived in London. He had met black people, he had talked to black people. He had traded with black people. He knew that they were human beings, just like him. And he bought and sold them anyway.
Yes, free agricultural labourers worked longer hours than we would put up with today.
Yes, it wasn't only slaves who were flogged, it was soldiers and sailors and kids and horse thieves too.
Yes, there was a Star Trek story about a planet where the slave caste was treated quite well all things considered.
Yes, if you honestly believed in witches then you might honestly believe in killing witches.
Be as culturally relativistic as you like.
Slavery. Was. Never. Okay.
9: – leaders of industry in the north, who allowed children down mines, or forced them to crawl under looms --
This form of not actually saying anything at all is known as "what-about-ery". If I say "here is a bad thing" you reply "here is another bad thing". If I say "let's do a sensible thing" then you reply "then you must do a stupid thing as well."
The logic of the position is "you cannot fix anything unless you can fix everything; you cannot fix big injustices unless you also fix small ones, you cannot fix small injustices unless you also fix big ones." If you think that it is in rather bad taste to open a pub in Whitechapel called "The Jack the Ripper" then you must logically want every pub and every building named for Henry VIII, who after all also killed two of his wives, to be taken down. If you allow women to vote, you'll have to allow farm animals to vote as well. If you allow gay people to get married, soon you'll have to allow hamsters and deckchairs to get married.
Yes, it would be a good thing if there were no memorial to anyone who had ever made his fortune from human trafficking. Yes, it would be a good thing if there were no memorial to anyone who had ever profited from child labour. (*) This is where we happen to be starting.
A different green inker in the Guardian said that if we removed Colston's name from the theater, we would also have to tear the words of Amazing Grace out of every hymn book in the world, because John Newton was also a slave trader. This is a moronic comment at two levels. Firstly, and I don't know how many different ways it is possible to say this WE. ARE. NOT. PULLING. THE. BUILDING. DOWN. WE. ARE. JUST. CHANGING. THE. NAME. OVER. THE. DOOR. And secondly because John Newton, famously, was ashamed of being a slave trader. (*) John Newton thought that being a slave trader was wicked. John Newton thought that it was amazing that God still loved him even though he was a former slave trader. The clue's in the title.
10: They did not all give part of their wealth to alleviate the lot of the poor of their cities as Colston did.
We've covered this. Using money to set up schools for poor white children (provided they are not Methodists) in England does NOT make it okay to have made the money by kidnapping black children in Africa. If anything, it makes it worse.
11: Where does this nonsense end?
It ends when there is no-one left in the world who thinks that being a slave trader was, all things considered, not really too bad.
12: This is all about money.
You have changed your entire argument mid-letter, you complete and utter dunderhead.
Your whole argument was that the management of Colston Hall were ritually abasing themselves before the non-Bristolian forces of Political Correctness. Suddenly it has nothing to do with incomers or activists or PC gone mad -- it's just a business decision.
Quite a sensible business decision, if you ask me. If the government is cutting spending on the arts, then the arts are going to have to seek private sponsorship. I wouldn't worry about Tescos Hall or McDonalds hall. Halls don't get named after supermarkets or burger bars: McDonalds wouldn't sponsor a hall that's already selling posh burgers and coffee, and their name is too famous already for it to be a good investment. But concert halls do get named after individual donors. By all means, take down the name of the nasty person who had nothing whatsoever to do with the founding of the hall in the 19th century, and replace it with the name of someone who has contributed some money to keep it going in the 21st.
13: I sincerely hope that Bristolians...
Real Bristolians? True Bristolians? People who were born in the city? Or people like me who just happen to live here?
14: while fully acknowledging the horrors of slavery...
Now there's an idea.
I have been fortunate enough to have attended the Wagner festival in Bayreuth on two occasions. Bayreuth is another place which has to come to terms with its past. Richard Wagner's opinions about Jewish people were not 100% politically correct, and the place was frequently attended by Adolf Hitler, whose policy of gassing Jews would be unacceptable to our perhaps over tender modern sensibilities.
The second time I went to the festspielhaus, there was an exhibition outside the building, memorializing every Jewish person known to have performed at the theater, from the time of Wagner down to the Nazi era. (Wagner himself was quite prepared to hire Jewish musicians, it seems: only after he died was it discovered that only people born and bred in Germany could understand the master's music.) As you walked through the exhibition, you found that more and more of the performers had ended up in the concentration camps. This seems to be a positive way of dealing with the place's Nazi associations. You admit to the bad thing, you deplore the bad thing, you actively tell people about the badness of the bad thing. But under no circumstances do you say that the bad thing wasn't too bad, or was only bad by today's standards and that we shouldn't judge the past by the standards of the present.
It helps that the good thing which Wagner did (compose the Ring Cycle) and the bad thing which Wagner did (hate Jewish people) are different and unrelated. (*) It is possible to say "We condemn Richard Wagner for promoting anti-semitism; but we continue to celebrate him for composing Siegfried's funeral music." It would be harder to say "We condemn Jimmy Savile for molesting thousands of children, but we will continue to celebrate him for giving money to children's hospitals in order to gain access to children to molest."
Some Jewish people would say that you can't ever denazify Bayreuth: Wagner's music is irrevocably tainted by its connection with Hitler. I respect that point of view.
Instead of tearing down the kitsch Victorian statue of Colston in the center of Bristol, maybe we could have an exhibition along the lines of the one in Bayreuth? Perhaps we could commission a second statue, say of a slave, or of an anti-slavery campaigner, and put it right next to him... Maybe the slave statue could be positioned so that it was staring at Colston, accusing him in some way? Maybe there could be a permanent display about the Royal African Company? Maybe there could be some kind of memorial to the something like 100,000 people trafficked in Colston's lifetime, like the 127,000 shrouds that were put outside Bristol Cathedral to mark the Battle of the Somme. I bet that we even know the names of the some of the individual slaves. Their names could go on the memorial as well.
Would the green inkers agree to that?
Or would they say that it was another example politically correct out-of-towners interfering with life in "our" city?
1721 -- Death of Edward Colston
1807 -- Abolition of the Slave Trade
1833 -- Abolition of Slavery in British colonies
1863 -- American Emancipation proclamation
1865 -- End of American Civil War
1867 -- First theater named Colston Hall opened
1890 -- Colston Window installed in Bristol Cathedral
1891 -- Colston Girls school opened
1895 -- Statue of Colston erected
1898 -- Second theater named Colston Hall opened
1951 -- Present theater named Colston Hall opened
1973 -- Colston Tower opened
The Bristol Colston cult largely comes from the years after the end of slavery; very conspicuously, Colston Hall opened two years after the end of the American Civil War. The Victorians putting up the statues, the windows and the schools absolutely knew that slavery was not okay; but chose, for some reason, to retrospectively create a myth of the saintly slave trader. Why?
When a series has been running for more than half a century, it is inevitably going to acquire a lot of baggage. Some franchises expand outwards: it turns out that Klingons and Romulans are not enough to keep life interesting, so we discover there are also Cardasians and Ferengi and Borg and Gamma Quadrants. This makes a universe which is more fun for the dedicated geek, but less accessible to the casual viewer. DC Comics shakes up the cosmic Etch-a-Sketch and starts again every couple of decades, and even Marvel has come to terms with the fact that some of the narrative crimes which have been committed against Spider-Man can be unwritten.
Doctor Who has never really acquired a complicated back-story in quite that way. The history of the Daleks and the Cybermen is more or less re-invented from scratch every time they pop up. Last season's unforgivable Hell Bent made no more sense to those of us who are up to speed on Gallifreyan lore than it did to people who were completely ignorant about it.
What Doctor Who does is expand inwards. The iconography stays much the same as it was in 1970 but each icon is progressively overlaid with more and more layers of symbolism.
The TARDIS is a fantastically sophisticated apparatus constructed by an inconceivably advanced civilization which the Doctor alone understands. It is at the same time a broken down obsolete cobbled together piece of junk that hardly ever goes where the Doctor wants it to. This reflects the dual naturae of the Doctor himself. He is both an omniscient benevolent star-man and a wandering hobo in broken down jalopy. (Compare this, incidentally, with Star Wars: the Millennium Falcon is both an incredibly cool turbo charged flying saucer and an embarrassingly unreliable hunk of junk.)
One of the amazing and wonderful things about the TARDIS is that it merges seamlessly into its surroundings wherever it lands. One of the way we know it is a broken down pile of junk is that this feature doesn’t work: it always and only looks like an obsolete English phone box. Which is part and parcel of another obvious duality: the Doctor is an ancient alien who has traveled all round the universe but at the same time he is parochially and archaically British.
It really doesn’t do to think about this stuff too much. If it turned out that tea and jelly babies were simply an alien fare which the Doctor has acquired a taste for, then some of the point of them would be lost. Tea means to the Doctor what it does to the average stereotypical Brit. If it turned out that the Doctor drank tea on Earth but blogwart bloodjuice on the planet Zog then we would lose our sense that the Doctor is British. Last week, Bill wanted to know why the T.A.R.D.I.S acronym works in English if the Doctor is an alien. This week she wanted to know why the Doctor was Scottish. And of course Rose wondered why the Doctor sounded as if he came from the North. Speculate, if you must, that tea and crumpets and cricket are actually the protrusion into our dimension of an ancient Time Lord custom; say that that the Doctor comes to England because England reminds him of Gallifrey. The truth is that the Doctor is a British alien. (The Time Lords are British aliens; the Daleks are British fascists; the Cybermen are British borg.) The whole point of Doctor Who is that everywhere in time and space is forever England, just as the whole point of Star Trek is that everyone in the whole galaxy believes in the great American dream. But don't draw our attention to this, or we might stop believing it.
In the very olden days, the Doctor couldn’t control the TARDIS at all, either because it was broken, or because he had somehow forgotten how it worked. Tom Baker claimed to have fitted a randomizer so that neither he nor the Time Lords knew where he was going to land next. Script Editor Robert Holmes was having none of it: according to him the Time Lords controlled the movement of the TARDIS, and always have done, even before the Time Lords had been thought of.
Last week, the TARDIS was something to do with memory: Time and Relative Dimension in Space meant being like God and perceiving every moment as a present moment. This week, the TARDIS is back to being a character. “You don’t steer the TARDIS; you negotiate with her” says the Doctor. This is what any mucker might say about his jalopy ("Aaar, she be wilful until ye knows her manner!”). But it is also the literal truth: in the Doctor's Wife the incarnate TARDIS says that she didn't always take the Doctor where he wanted to go, but always took him where he needed to go. Taking the idea and running with it, Doctor Peter says this week that the TARDIS “finds the still point between where you want to be and where you need to be.”
How is this different from saying that “this old ship of mine is an aimless thing”? Both are blatantly admitting that the TARDIS is driven by the power of The Plot: the Doctor will always land where The Plot says he should land. But the old wanderer in the aimless Ship resonates differently from the lonely god in the semi-sentient vessel that knows where he needs to go. Robert Holmes retro-conceit was an admission that the TARDIS is not aimless, and never has been: it always ends up on an earth colony just before the downtrodden underclass rebel against their tyrannical insect overlords. “The still point between wanting and needing” is equally an admission that the show now less about the adventures and more about the Doctor. He will always end up in a situation where Character Development can happen.
Bill wonders why the Doctor, given that he has fixed so many things about the TARDIS, doesn’t just fix its fading-into-the-background mechanism. This question was first raised as far back as the American telemovie: Doctor Paul's answer was "I like it like this". Doctor Peter's answers are equally evasive, but Bill catches him out and reveals that the shape of the TARDIS is a symbol. It is a Police Box, and the Doctor goes around fixing people’s problems, like a policeman. And on the door it says “Advice and assistance obtainable immediately”, which is what the Doctor does -- go around the universe giving people advice and assistance.
Which is quite a neat observation.
But it is the sort of neat observation that a fan ought to be making on a blog, not the sort of neat observation that a companion should be making in the TV series. The one thing the Prince of Denmark can never do is notice that he's speaking in iambic pentameters — and English iambic pentameters, at that.
In the end, this stuff feels like pouring purple food dye in the Atlantic Ocean. If the new explanation were accepted — the Doctor chose a Police Box because it symbolized who he wanted to be; the TARDIS is a mystical being who takes the Doctor to places where she thinks he needs to go — then you've redefined Doctor Who. And there is only so far you can go from the cantankerous wanderer with the bust time machine without breaking the show. But the new explanation won't be accepted. There will be another one a long in a minute. It's like the preacher who gives a brilliantly clever allegorical interpretation of his text this week, and next week, gives and equally brilliant but entirely different allegorical interpretation of the same text. After a few weeks, you start to wonder why he bothers.
Sydney Newman said that any writer who revealed the secret of Doctor Who should undercut the explanation by the end of the episode, to give other writers a chance. It seems to me that any attempt to pluck out the heart of the Doctor's mystery is now automatically undercut by the show itself.
Nothing dates as fast as the future. Remember Four To Doomsday, where everyone spoke in hushed tones about something called a “silicon chip”, or even The War Machines where someone had developed a computer so powerful that it could do four figure square roots in mere seconds? Even that moment in End of the World where Cassandra mistakes a wurlitzer for an I-pod is starting to look distinctly of its time.
This week's story is based heavily around the emoji fad: and it was looking out of date before it had even been transmitted.
The idea of putting tiny little pictures into you emails may turn out to this month’s craze; or it may turn out to be a whole new form of media that will swing the result of the 2024 elections. Back in the days of Usenet, there were people who thought that typing ":)" after a joke presaged the end of human literacy, if not human civilization; but most of us could see that there was a need for some new punctuation marks to indicate expression and tone of voice. But for a long time I could see no purpose at all in text messages. Why on earth would I send a telegram when I had my own personal walkie-talkie in my pocket at all times? Nowadays my phone, like everyone else's is primarily an SMS device, and I am quite taken aback when someone wants to speak words to me in their voice. Everything from Thunderbirds to Cold Comfort Farm predicted that, in the Future, everyone would talk to everyone else on videophones. Now I really have a perfectly functional videophone in my pocket, I mostly talk in teeny tiny telegrams. All the great historical events of our lives present themselves to us, not as solemn announcements on Radio 4, but as 140 character tweets. "Trump starts nuclear war. Bye! #bunker" “Queen Dead. Charles King. #sad”.
So it's quite possible that eighteen months from now I won't know how I ever managed without emojis.
There is probably a good story to be told about the emoji phenomenon. What would the world be like if picture language — hieroglyphics — replaced ordinary text or indeed ordinary speech as the primary form of communication, and therefore as the primary form of thought? Presumably, the young people's picture language would develop its own grammar and its own poetry -- just like British and American sign language -- and presumably that would be very different from the old people's written language. I am very nearly 35 and even I can see that half the fun of emojis is cleverly putting two or three symbols together in a way that your friend will understand but other people might not. The digital natives are probably doing much cleverer things which haven't filtered down to me yet. Could we eventually end up with two generations -- even two species -- who simply cannot talk to reach other? Remember that episode of Star Trek The Next Generation where the aliens communicated only in allegory?
But Smile is not that story. I am not even sure if the writer quite understands what an emoji is.
The Doctor and Bill have to explore a Big Dumb Object, an empty white city populated by little chumblies with TV screens for heads. They communicate by showing different smiley faces on their screens. They give the Doctor and Bill little badges which also display happy and sad faces depending on their mood. They have to wear the badges on their backs, so they can’t ever know what mood is being displayed. If one of the badges ever turns "sad", the person wearing it will be eaten by a school of microscopic robot piranhas and used as fertilizer by the chumblies.
What has happened, as usual, is that the robots have interpreted their orders to keep humans happy too literally, and simply killed everyone who wasn’t. This has created an epidemic, because whenever a human being was killed, the human beings around him became even sadder and had to be killed as well.
So not, in fact, a story about emojis at all, even if we keep referring to the chumblies as Emojibots. Emojis are little pictures of cups of tea and hearts and bunnies and turds which young people use in text messages. What this story is about is emoticons -- little representations of happy and sad faces which everyone has been using for decades. Possible, like me, Cottrell-Boyce thought that emoji meant "picture representing an emotion" where actually it is simply Japanese for picture-character.
If this isn't about emojis then what is it about? Nothing very much at all, so far as I can tell. Some of the banter is quite fun, and I was amused by the blue jelly food substitute. But there is nothing to it. The writer knows that he wants a scene in which our heroes are cornered by robots with smiley faces, knowing that if they themselves stop smiling, they will be instantly reduced to a skeleton. But he really can't think of any plausible reason for this scenario to have come about. The Doctor goes through three progressively less convincing theories about how the Big Dumb Object works. “The robots have built the city and are waiting for the colonists” works. “The robots have built the city and then wiped out all the colonists” also works. “The robots built the city and then wiped out some of the colonists but there are some spares in cold storage” feels like multiplying hypothesis.
Still, it leaves us with a decent riddle: “The invisible robot piranhas will kill anyone who is sad; once the new batch of humans discover that the old batch have been killed, they will be sad, How do you stop the robots from killing them?" One would imagine that the solution to this problem would involve some combination of
a: Explaining to the piranhas that it’s okay to be sad. Dammit, Jim, it’s part of what makes us human...
b; Persuading the humans that they don’t need to be sad about their families having been eaten by piranhas (a tougher call, admittedly.)
In fact, the solution turns out to be, “The Doctor does a thing and the bad thing goes away.” He is actually said, on screen, to have “switched the robots off and switched them on again.” (Since we aren't talking about a software glitch, but robots following their programming too literally, it's hard to see how this would help.) The presence of the Doctor makes everything all right; there is no need for any story-internal explanation.
Douglas Adams famously got round the improbability of some of the events in the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy by giving his heroes a space ship which caused improbable things to happen wherever they went. Cottrell-Boyce gets round the problem of not being able to think of an ending for his story by having the Doctor recite a version of the “three wishes” fairy tale. You know, the one where the silly farmer has to use his third wish to undo the results of the first two? In the Doctor’s version, the third wish is “I wish I had never made the first two wishes”. The solution to all life's problems is for the Doctor to press the re-set button.
In case we miss the point, the Doctor's version of the fairy tale is called "the magic haddock". This is as clear and deliberate a signal as I can imagine that the writer is perfectly aware he is writing but really can't think of anything better.
Still, that's the one thing I will take away from the story. From now on, when the Doctor or anyone else solves a problem by just happening to have a can of anti-plastic spray in his pocket, I will turn around and say “Magic haddock! Magic haddock”