Friday, November 04, 2022

Chibnall and I (2)

2: Blossom

"Oh, the blossomiest blossom!" exclaims the Thirteenth Doctor. She is just about to regenerate. Her last will and testament, at least until Big Finish get started on the licensed spin-offs. 

What is the significance of her words? There is no blossom on screen, blossomy or otherwise, although she does appear to smell something beautiful. Why, taking in one last sunset, is blossom the thing which comes to mind?

In March, 1994, legendary TV playwright Dennis Potter was interviewed by very-nearly-as-legendary journalist and broadcaster Melvin Bragg. It would be Potter's last interview: he had advanced pancreatic cancer, and had asked his doctors to come up with a regimen which would give him the best chance of completing his last two plays (as opposed to necessarily prolonging his life). During the interview, he famously said that his awareness of mortality made ordinary things seem hyper-real.

"At this season, the blossom is out in full now … and instead of saying 'Oh that's nice blossom' … last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it."

So. The Time Lord and the Playwright both independently had the same thought. Blossom is a common enough symbol of mortality, after all. A.E Housman famously decided to go on more frequent woodland rambles when he realised he would probably be dead in only fifty years or so. But can it be coincidence that the Doctor and Dennis Potter should have expressed the same thought in nearly the same words? 

It is fairly normal in informal English to turn nouns into adjectives by adding the suffix -y. If something is catty, it has the qualities of a cat. This is a recurrent gag in the pun rounds of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue.
"Define Anti-
"A bit like an ant."

Similarly, you can generally make a superlative by adding -est to an adjective. "Good-est", "evil-est" and "Republican-est" may not be strictly grammatical, but we understand what they mean. And it is fairly common to do both together: turn a noun into an adjective and then turn the adjective into a superlative. Andrew writes a very bloggy blog; Andrew's blog is the bloggy-est blog you've ever come across. The cheesiest cheese; the creamiest cream; and the chocolateyest chocolate are fairly common advertising formulations.

But directly adding -est to a noun is relatively unusual. Dennis Potter coined "blossom-est" as a nonce-word; the Thirteenth Doctor uses the much more conventional "blossomy-est".

Now, in a 1972 story, the Time Monster, the Third Doctor told companion Jo an edifying story about his childhood on Gallifrey. (It wasn't called Gallifrey back then.) On his "blackest day", he asked a wise hermit the secret of life; and the hermit pointed to a very nondescript wild flower. But because he was looking at it properly for the first time, all the Doctor's sense perceptions were heightened; and this helped him through his despair.

"Well, the colours were deeper and richer than you could possibly imagine. Yes, that was the daisiest daisy I'd ever seen....So, later, I got up and I ran down that mountain and I found that the rocks weren't grey at all, but they were red, brown and purple and gold. And those pathetic little patches of sludgy snow, they were shining white."

Producer Barry Letts was a member of the Western Buddhist Order, and what the Doctor was experiencing was a kind of enlightenment -- what might now be described more prosaically as mindfulness. The hermit-figure reappears as a Buddhist monk in Jon Pertwee's own regeneration story, Planet of the Spiders.

As a matter of fact, the word "daisy" is a corruption of "day's eye", but the word could be understood as an adjective, referring to an object with the quality of "dais". Robert Sloman (who wrote the Time Monster) has punningly imagined that if a flower can be "daisy" it could also be "daisy-er" and "daisy-est". (It's the same kind of joke as the one which says that since there is one actor called Tom Holland and another actor called Tom Hollander, there must logically be a third actor somewhere called Tom Hollandest.) It may have originally just been a matter of convenience. It would have been easy enough for Jon Pertwee to say "the buttercuppy-est buttercup" or "tulipy-est tulip" but "daisy-ey-est daisy" would have been quite a mouthful. But we have up with is a striking image of an object which has the quality of being itself to the greatest possible degree: the idea of a state in which reality becomes more real. The idea of an object possessing its own attributes to the greatest possible degree. 

There a very many different daisies in the universe with an infinite number of minute differences. One very wise man thought that it followed that there must somewhere be one dasiest daisy of which all the other daisies are reflections or copies. Another very wise man thought that you could define God as the thingest thing: the being who had all conceivable positive attributes to the greatest possible degree. A third wise man reminded us that it is all in Plato. 

There is no reason on earth that Dennis Potter and Robert Sloman  could not independently have observed that intense emotional states make the world seem more vivid; and no particular reason that they might not both have chosen to describe that experience in terms of flowers. But it is quite a coincidence that Potter chose to say "blossom-est" when he could quite easily have said "blossomey-est"

I doubt that Dennis Potter was particularly a Doctor Who fan, but he probably watched it from time to time. He liked TV and there were't many channels in those days. He found Blake's Seven mildly diverting and used a lot of science fiction tropes in his final, posthumous play, Cold Lazarus. There is a persistent oral tradition that he submitted a Doctor Who script to Verity Lambert in 1964 or 1965. And he was thinking about time travel, in a way: he had just told Melvin Bragg that you have to live in the present because you can't call back yesterday. So it is perfectly possible that he had seen episode six of the Time Monster and been struck by the line.

So. Perhaps the Thirteenth Doctor is simply quoting Dennis Potter: and it hasn't occurred to Chris Chibnall that the line from the interview resembles a line from Doctor Who. This seems a little unlikely.

Perhaps the Thirteenth Doctor is quoting Dennis Potter quoting the Third Doctor. Perhaps Chibnall intends to convey "Doctor Who is so important that serious writers are influenced by it; but even serious writers' words get changed and refreshed over time." This seems rather convoluted. 

So we have to say that the Thirteenth Doctor is quoting the Third Doctor directly. The world becomes super-intense to Doctor Jodie in the seconds before she regenerates; just as it had to Doctor Jon on that "blackest day". Although she is very sad to be parting from her companions and getting a new face, a new TARDIS console and a new title sequence, Doctor Jodie remembers the little wild flower that Cho-Je pointed out to her when she was a little boy, and gains courage from the memory -- just as Jo did.

But Chibnall has remembered the scene incorrectly. I think that he thinks that the Third Doctor told Jo that what Cho-Je showed him was "the blossom-est blossom". He thinks he is quoting Jon Pertwee, but he is actually quoting Dennis Potter -- and he hasn't even remembered Potter's quite correctly.

So. Power of the Doctor. A story made up of memories. Quotations. Motifs. References. Fan fiction. Fan service. Celebration. Reunion. One last bow before the final curtain. One half of fandom is cross because Tom Baker (88) didn't show up. The other half is cross because William Russell (98) did.

A long dead TV series, as remembered by a middle-aged man; vague actors vaguely repeating decades old catch phrases, ending with a confused centenarian expressing surprise about what the series has become.

Doctor Who is inseparable from our memory of Doctor Who. If everyone remembers that The First Doctor was grumpy then The First Doctor was grumpy. If everyone remembers that the sets wobbled, then the sets wobbled. If the first thing you think of when someone mentions Gregor Rasputin is that Boney M song, then that Boney M Song is the most important thing about Gregor Rasputin. 

History is the parts that you can remember. Sellar and Yateman invented memes half a century before that other fellow. 

Live in the moment, because you can't call back yesterday. Sense perceptions are the most real thing. What lives in your memory is more important than what actually happened. We can go anywhere in Time and Space: that's the exciting thing. 



I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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1 comment:

taiey said...

Here's a column of Potter's from 30 November 1963 - - in which he appears to be enough of a Doctor Who fan to be a fan of the Macra several years in advance!

(The book has sharply limited previews, but searching "Doctor Who" reveals snippets of it citing Dennis Potter "during an interview to promote Secret Friends" saying that he pitched an idea to Verity Lambert, which is rather short of 'script' and I can't tell if it's supposed to be a Dr Who episode or an original production.)