Showing posts with label Doctor Who. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Doctor Who. Show all posts

Sunday, May 08, 2022

I GOT IT RIGHT!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Pirate Shipping

A Lady Pirate is trying to find a sunken treasure so she can pay the ransom to free her children and crew from a Nother Pirate.

 A Young Man is chasing the Lady Pirate because he thinks she killed his Father. But his Father was really killed by a statue of a Sea Monster which came to life when the Lady Pirate stole the treasure map from it.

The reanimated Sea Monster is chasing the Young Man because he (the Young Man) has a Magic Gem which will enable it (the Sea Monster) to flood the world and kill all the humans. 

The Sea Monster has got a Giant Leviathan which it sends to chase the good guys. 

Doctor Who goes back in time to when the treasure ship sunk, and finds Pirate Captain apparently in league with the Sea Monsters. But then it turns out that he isn't. 

All the Pirate Captain's crew jump overboard. 

It turns out that one of the Crew who jumped overboard had the Magic Gem.

It turns out that the Crew Member with the Magic Gem is one of the Young Man's ancestors. 

It turns out that the Ancestor used the Magic Gem to turn the Sea Monster to stone to begin with. 

It turns out that the Young Man's Dad and now the Young Man have been guarding the Magic Gem ever since. 

Doctor Who uses the Magic Gem to defeat the Sea Monsters. 

The Pirate Captain lays down his life selflessly to save the world from the Sea Monsters. 

The Lady Pirate gets the treasure, frees her family, and the Young Man joins her crew. 

This is not a particularly bad story. The threads hang together quite well and it looks quite pretty. I don't think that it is a coincidence that it is driven by interlocking quests and McGuffins within McGuffins: that is how Pirates of the Caribbean was constructed, so it's probably how Chibnall thinks pirate stories work. I am not sure how much it gains from being set in nineteenth century China: I think it would have been more fun if it had directly used eighteenth century Caribbean piratical imagery. The costumes looked authentic to me; the cast were all Asian and spoke with RP British accents. If you want to know how racist and/or woke it was, please read every other review on the internet. The pace is so frenetic that it is relatively hard to follow on the first viewing. I had to keep pressing freeze frame and rewind to keep track of it, and I probably wouldn't have bothered if I had not been planning to write this review. No character stays on stage long enough for us to have the slightest investment in them. We have seen Ying Ki's father for perhaps 30 seconds before he is killed; and Ji-Hun (the pirate whose treasure everyone is after) has maybe six minutes of screen time before he nobly sacrifices himself to save the Doctor. It's a heap of broken images, tumbling across the screen. Many Doctor Who stories have been driven by weaker plot devices than the Sea Devil Keystone. But the story is so brief that there is no time to do anything but expound the McGuffin. It's an enabling device for a story that never gets told. 

I have a question. 

It is a question I have asked before. 

It is perhaps the only question I still have to ask about genre television. 

Does this not-particularly-bad story suddenly become an intensely interesting story once you know that the Sea Monster is not just any Sea Monster but specifically a SEA DEVIL, and that the Leviathan is not just any Leviathan but specifically a MYRKA (probably)?


(There is a subsidiary question: does this not-particularly-bad story suddenly become an insulting pile of fanwankery once you know that the Sea Devil is a piece of fan service that will be recognised by one or two sad cases who remember an obscure TV show from before they were born? This question is rarely asked abut Doctor Who, but quite frequently asked about Star Wars and the Universal Marvel Cinematic.) 

Legend of the Sea Devils has four points of interest.

1: It has got the Sea Devils in it

2: It has got the Myrka in it (probably)

3: It reveals that the Doctor and Yaz are an item 

4: Two familiar old ladies appear in the Next Episode trailer.

The Sea Devils appeared in a Jon Pertwee story half a century ago. They were said to be related to the Silurians, who had appeared in Jon Pertwee's very first season. The Silurians were lizard creatures who had lived on earth before humans, gone into suspended animation for several million years, and were  understandably miffed to find that monkeys had taken over the planet while they were asleep. They had a pet Tyranosaurus Rex, which is, as Target readers will remember, the most fierce mammal ever to walk the earth. The Doctor tried to broker peace between humans and lizards but the Brigadier cut short negotiations by nuking them. 

The Sea Devils were meant to be underwater Silurians. Their design is often said to be iconic; which isn't quite the same as actually being particularly good. They had their day on screen before I was a regular viewer, but I knew what they looked like from The Doctor Who Monster Book, the very famous Weetabix picture cards, and the cover of The Making of Doctor Who. The Making of Doctor Who was the first piece of merchandise I ever owned. I think that if you psychoanalysed me you would find that I am primarily a fan of The Making of Doctor Who and only secondarily a fan of the actual TV show. There was also one on the cover of the Radio Times Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special, come to think of it. You are almost certain to have seen the scene in which the Devils emerge from the Sea and threaten the human race with car headlights, for some reason. The story is more memorable for the silly sword fight between Jon Pertwee and Roger Delgado, and for being the only time Jon actually says "Reverse the Polarity of the Neutron Flow".

Sometimes, when New Who brings back old monsters, it sticks with the original design. A Dalek is a Dalek is a Dalek, give or take a new paradigm. Sometimes, it redesigns them from the ground up. A New Cyberman only looks slightly like an Old Cyberman, and the New Silurians don't look very much like Old Silurians at all. The New Sea Devils look as close to the Old Sea Devils as it is possible for them to look.  The actors are no longer wearing masks on their heads and looking through eye-holes in the neck piece. There is some kind of animatronic jiggery pokery in their faces: their lips move, and they can blink. CGI means we can see whole armies of Sea Devils climbing the sides of ships, but only from a distance. But the 2022 version is clearly the 1972 version with a bit of spit and polish and a respray. 

Lots of us first encountered Old Who in the form of novelisations, or Synopses in Doctor Who Monthly. Some of us heard unofficial, pirate audios of the Very Old Stories when it wasn't possible to see the actual episodes. Nearly all of us have cloudy memories ofd Doctor Who from when we were kids. The Sea Devils of our memory and imagination are more terrifying than a 1970s BBC special effect (watched in black and white) can possibly have been. The New Sea Devils are not the Sea Devils as they were: they are the Sea Devils as we remember them being. 

If you bought old VHS tapes and have the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary special and an incomplete set of Weetabix cards in a plastic bag somewhere, this will give you a certain kind of nostalgic buzz. My childhood memories, remastered. I sometimes think that that is what Doctor Who has become. A nostalgic buzz delivery system for very old people. The TV equivalent of one of those "do you remember what jam was like before the war?" magazines they used to sell on coach stations. 

In 1984, Doctor Who had already become all about Nostalgic Buzzes, or, as the jargon went, Old Monsters and Things From the Doctor's Past. The show had been running for twenty years, so it already had quite a lot of Olden Days. John Nathan-Turner and I** L***** decided it would be a wheeze to do a story with both the Sea Devils and the Silurians in it. It wasn't very good. This time, instead of a not-very-convincing Tyranosaur, the Silurians pet was a not very convincing sea-monster called the Myrka. This was after Star Wars, but the BBC budget still wouldn't stretch to much blue-screen or miniatures work. The Myrka was represented by two men in a monster suit -- literally the very same two men who played the Pantomime Horse on Rentaghost. 

The Myrka arguably destroyed Doctor Who. When the BBC cancelled the show to make way for Wogan a few years later, clips of the Myrka were repeatedly shown as proof that it wasn't worth saving. Bonnie Langford didn't help.

As is often the case with Old Who, the Myrka itself wasn't an altogether terrible piece of design: it could have looked a lot less silly if they had time to set up lighting and camera angles. Peter Davison was a good actor and did his level best to look scared, but that really only mades things seem more ridiculous. He quit the show shortly afterwards. 

There was a quite decent Big Finish story called Blood Tide in which the Doctor and Charles Darwin met the Silurians on the Galapagos islands. Big Finish Doctor Who always feels a little like a game of  Consequences. At one point, the Doctor, on a small boat, is menaced by a terrifying sea monster. This is an audio story, so all we can hear is the monster's roaring. Asked what it is, the Doctor replies "It's a full grown Myrka". This is an in joke, but it's a good one. We can't see the creature; we imagine it is scary; we are suddenly reminded of just about the least scary monster of all time, and then we get an explanation. The silly TV monster was only a baby. 

In several scenes in Legends of the Sea Devil, a large, whale like creature with fins on its back emerges from the sea and threatens the heroes. It's called Hua-Shen, which may possibly mean "reincarnation" or "personification" but we are meant to infer that it is the Myrka. In the twenty first century, CGI can reliably conjure up fairly convincing sea monsters without arguing about who is going to play the back legs; and the scene is fairly impressive if not particularly original: arching back emerging whale-like from the sea; the TARDIS briefly trapped in its jaws.

There is nothing particularly un-fun about a pirate ship being attacked by a leviathan and firing canons at it. There is nothing not to enjoy about Sea Devil leaders addressing Sea Devil minions on the decks of sailing ship, or heroes swinging in on ropes to save the day. 

But. Why Sea Devils? Why the Myrka? 

Star Trek aliens tend to come packaged with philosophical outlooks -- the logical ones, the honourable ones, the warlike ones, the greedy ones, the hippy ones -- and each of them has some back story which tends to stay the same from season to season. If you tell me that Discovery features a human who has been fostered by Vulcans or a power-struggle in the Klingon empire, I know roughly what kind of a story I am going to get. Doctor Who monsters are mostly only Weetabix cards: fondly remembered masks and sound effects, devoid of specific narrative content. Baddies who want to take over the world. In what way would this story necessarily be different if Lady Pirate had inadvertently brought the statue of a Sontaran to life? 

Nothing follows from the baddie being a Sea Devil. And nothing follows from the Gurt Big Beastie possibly being the same species as the Very Silly Beastie from Warriors of the Deep. It's just a monster. The clever thing would have been to have brought back the original Myka and somehow made it work. Maybe the Myrka was actually a cute house pet that Peter Davison somehow mistook for a fierce monster? Or maybe it's the equivalent of a Silurian bunny that can somehow telepathically scare people? Or perhaps a malicious poltergeist has brought a figure from a Sea Devil Christmas entertainment to life and been unable to cancel the spell?

But we are meant to be pleased that Hu-Shuan is the Myrka. And some people are pleased. A not un-sensible person on-line said that the CGI creature redeemed the Myrka. 

Redeemed. Fine word, redeemed. 

We are still hurting because of Warriors of the Deep. We are still hurting because we were laughed at and mocked a great deal for our faith in Doctor Who. We are still hurting because Michael Grade used the Myrka and and the Kandyman as an excuse to cancel a show he was going to cancel in any case. And Legends of the Sea Devils kisses it all better. It inveigles itself into our memories. Next time we think of the Myrka, this is what we will think of. When we remember the Sea Devils, we will remember them blinking and lip syncing. If bad TV somehow vandalises our childhood memories then good TV fixes them. Legends of the Sea Devils is not so much a TV show as neuro-linguistic programming for recovering geeks. 

Which brings us to the Doctor and Yaz.

I think that Russell T Davies' sexualisation of the Doctor was a bad idea; I think that Tom Baker was on the right wavelength when he said that one of the things which made the Doctor interesting is that he doesn't have romantic emotions. There is much to be said for the idea that Doctor Who is a children's show and children's shows are defined, not by being simplistic and naive, but by happening not to reference particular subjects like sex, romance, and income tax.

However, continuing to carp about The Girl in the Fire Place and Doomsday is about as helpful as saying that if I was going to Newport Pagnell I wouldn't start from here. (Which I certainly wouldn't.) I take on board that courtly romance -- unrequited love -- between the Doctor and his companion is now one of the main things which Doctor Who is about.

Russell T Davies said at one point that he didn't want to cast a female Doctor because he didn't want children asking their parents if the Doctor had a willy or not: which I take to mean "Doctor Who is now sufficiently mature that it would have to take gender issues seriously, but still sufficiently immature that it would be hard to do so in an age-appropriate way."

Granted that the Ninth Doctor was romantically involved with Rose; and granted that the Thirteenth Doctor has a female body, the question about "Which way do they swing?" kind of has to come up. The answer is never going to be as interesting as the question, and to tell you the truth, I don't think that it is a very interesting question. Either Doctor Thirteen fancies boys, or else they fancy girls, or else they fancy both, or else they fancy neither. Any permutation could potentially give rise to a good story. 

In the New Year Special, Yaz told Dan that she felt romantically attracted to the Doctor; in this story, we find out that those feelings are reciprocated.

From which, so far, nothing follows.

The Doctor says, as we immediately knew they would, that they are tempted by the welcome in Yaz's smile which tells their restless heart to be still. However they think that Yaz would never understand the life of a natural born wandering person, and that if they don't go now they never will. 

Or words to that effect.

The companion loves the Doctor because the Doctor is the Doctor; the Doctor loves the companion because the companion is amazing, but the Doctor can't do anything about it because the Doctor is the Doctor. This isn't so much a revelation as a restatement of the format. But again. We are supposed to be pleased because it's there. "The Doctor is gay" (or bi- or poly) is meant to be a plot point in itself. And it just isn't.

I agree Representation. I agree that it annoys awful people. If Doctor Who has come to an end and been replaced with a mechanism for annoying awful people then we have probably made a fair exchange. It is better that awful people should be cross than that there should be fun space operas on TV. But I shall persist in reviewing space operas and telling you if they are any fun. 

If the next episode begins with a much older Doctor and a much older Yaz living together in a nice little retreat, maybe with a couple of kids, or even with Yaz coming out to her family and trying to arrange a same-sex Muslim wedding, or in fact anything at all, then I will be happy to eat my scarf and say "Oh, there was a point to it after all."

But I am not holding my breath.

Which brings us to the trailer. 

Jodie Whitaker's final story will have, stop me if you've heard this before, not only the Daleks but also the Cybermen in it and also the Master as well, along, very probably, with Abbot and Costello and the Wolf Man. And not only that, but the trailer shows us a glimpse of Janet Fielding, who is old enough to have first appeared with Tom Baker, and Sophie Aldrad, who was the last companion in the original series, paired with Sly McCoy.

Ooo, oooo, old person's nostalgic buzz delivery system set to maximum. Ooo. Ooo. 

I repeat myself. A story could be written in which a very old Tegan meets a very old Ace. A story could be written in which a very old Tegan meets a very old Ace. The question "What do companions do after the Doctor leaves them?" has been tackled before but that is no reason why it should not be tackled again. RTD's first thought was that Sarah-Jane was a rather sad individual; nothing in her life ever having quite lived up to gallivanting round the universe with Tom and Jon. But then she got her own (very good) series on CBBC and it turned out that everyone who had ever met the Doctor lived amazing lives because they had been touched by his special magic. Tegan was said to be campaigning for the rights of indigenous Australians. Ace was said to be running a charitable foundation called A Charitable Earth. Some people were cross about this because it smacked too much of White Saviourism. Some people were quite cross because it contradicted the New Adventures in which Ace became a Space Marine, or possibly a Time Vigilante, or in one version, an actual Time Lord. Everything makes someone cross. I am sure the forthcoming Canon Wars will be immensely edifying.

I am not excited that the Sea Devils came back.

I am not excited that the Myrka came back.

I am not excited that the Doctor dates girls, or even that she thinks that if ever she were to give her heart again, 'twould be to such a one as Yaz. RTD, in fairness, worked quite hard to convince me that Rose was so remarkable that she'd become the Doctor's Special Friend: nothing on-screen has really made me think that Yaz is anything other than Quite Nice. (If "the Doctor loves Yaz" had been a plot point from the beginning then the Thirteenth Doctor era might have been about something. But it has been plucked out of thin air.) 

I am not excited that Jodie is getting a multi-baddie cross over for her going away present.

I think that a good story could be told on any of these premises, but Doctor Who seems stunningly uninterested in telling it.

And I can list a whole series of current genre TV which appears to take interesting premises and then tell stories about them: Hawkeye, the Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Star Trek: Discovery, Picard, the Bad Bunch, the Book of Boba Fett, Foundation, and even the bloody Masters of the Universe reboot. They have strengths. They have weaknesses. They go on for much too long. But they don't say "Hey Captain America is black now" and "Hey, Prince Adam died" and think that their work is done.

Are there people for whom "Cool, Sea Devils" is the beginning and the end of being a Doctor Who fan? Bully for them. They have their reward. 

Maybe it's my problem. Maybe the overwhelming majority of viewers have just never heard of the Sea Devils; perhaps those viewers were able to perceive the Easter Special as Just A Pirate Story. Perhaps it is just me who sees Old Monsters and can't get past them? 

Or perhaps no-one is watching. Perhaps Doctor Who is just working out its contract until the show is handed hook line and sonic screwdriver to Russell T Davies and the BBC is deported to Rawanda? It's A Sin was very good indeed. 

Dalek, Dalek, Pirate, Master, Old Companion, Lesbian Kiss.

It's a Doctor Who story. You've got to make Doctor Who stories.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

12:10 The Timeless Children


The Timeless Children is not so much a story as a cop-out. 

There are fireworks. There are flags and lampshades that warn us that this is a really important story and the season climax. The space-opera gloss from last week is all present and correct. I liked the gun battle in the camp. I liked Ryan throwing the bomb as if it was a basketball. (I like the way he says “oh my days” rather than “oh my god.”) I liked the way Graham takes charge of the party of player characters on the space ship and comes up with scheme that is so crazy it might just work. I liked the huge crashed Chris Foss spaceship on Gallifrey. I liked the melodrama, the machismo, the one last cavalry charge into certain doom. Be swift, be brave, but most of all, be lucky! 

There is a great big hole in the plot. It is called the Boundary and it connects the story about the Cybermen quite arbitrarily with a story about the Master. It is guarded by an old soldier with robes and a staff played by Ian McElhinney. He speaks his lines in that understated thespian way that good stage actors used to have, managing to say minor lines under his breath but still letting us hear them. He puts one in mind of dear, dear Sir Larry playing Zeus. But most of all he puts one in mind of Sir Alec Guiness. If Doctor Who is going to do Star Wars it may as well go the whole way.

I wish we could have stuck with the gritty space opera and left the Master and the Time Lords for another week. I’ve always wanted to see Blakes 7 done with Cybermen in the Doctor Who universe. (Why do we describe a more down-beat version of an established character as “gritty” incidentally? Is there any such thing as a “smooth” reboot?) 

The Master is quite funny, but the whole “I am evil and I know I am evil” routine got old after John Simm. And Michelle Gomez. And Moriarty. And that Dracula thing. He shrinks the Lone Cyberman with his evil shrink ray and five minutes later says he wished he’d said “I’m going to cut you down to size.” He makes a fairly good evil joke at the Doctor, and then asks why she doesn’t crack a smile. He says “Are you sitting uncomfortably?” before expositing the backstory. Evil is performative; the Master is outside the script. But it removes any sense of him being a threat you need to take seriously. 

Having killed the main villain from last week, the Master gets control of the Cybermen’s floaty glowy mercurial artificial intelligence that they normally keep hidden in the brains of romantic poets. There was a decent comparison to be made between the Time Lord Matrix and the Cybermen’s Cyberium but no one makes it. I hope at some point we get a Cybermen / Sea Devil cross over so they can call it the Silurian Cyberium. It turns out that the Shrunken Cyberman had a Plot Device hidden inside of him that, if released, would wipe out all organic life. The humans already know about this Death Particle. Legends speak of it, apparently. You’d really think that Chibnall could come up with a better way of getting his plot coupon to the Doctor.

The Time Lords are all dead, but the Master is going to allow the Cybermen to convert the dead Time Lords into Cybermen. Which is a Bad Thing because Time Lords can’t die. There is, it seems to me, a tiny flaw in this reasoning, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Earlier in the episode the Lone Cyberman was waxing maniacal about how he was going to remove the last bit of organic matter from his people and turn them into pure robotic entities. The Master, speaking again from outside of the script, complains that that would be a cliche because there are already lots of evil robots in the Doctor Who universe. This plot thread gets buried when the Master zaps the Cyberman. A pity. “Emotional Cyberman who wants to be a robot versus Emotionless Cybermen who want to stay a bit human” was a plot that could have gone somewhere. 

The Cybermen and the Rebels come from a serious world we might almost believe in. They speak the same language, literally and metaphorically, as Ryan and Yaz. The Master is a clown; a trickster; a wild card in the deck; he knows he is in a story and loves the fact that he’s got cast as a baddie. So, obviously, when he incorporates the Cybermen into his plan, the Cybermen are going to become ridiculous. The bigger and more apocalyptic the plan, the more risible the Cybermen need to appear. The Master isn’t really going to destroy the universe by releasing the Particles of Death. He is going to destroy it by parodying it and making it ridiculous so no-one can believe in it any more. 

Since Season 2, everyone has been working really hard to make the Cybermen scary; and the last time we saw them they were properly dark. So obviously, when they are turned into unkillable dead Cyber Time Lords they acquire high collars, with a lace-style pattern worked into the metal. And robes. When did Cybermen ever wear clothes before? When the ultimate villains come on stage, the audience titters. The Master’s victory is complete.

Graham tells Yaz that she is amazing, strongly signalling that she is going to get killed. (She isn’t.) The Doctor decides to use the miniaturised body of the Lone Cyberman and a bomb to unleash the Particles of Fatal Death to kill the Master and all the Cyber Time Lords (who are, if you have been following this, unkillable.) 

The Master is delighted with this because it means that the Doctor is (all together now) just as bad as him. The Doctor chickens out at the last moment, reasoning presumably that if someone pointed out a child to her and told her that the child would grow up totally evil she still couldn’t kill the child. So the Jedi Knight shows up and commits hari kari while the Doctor runs away. Everyone goes home in various TARDISes. A mysterious lady in a bridal outfit [check this. Ed.] appears in the TARDIS to set things up for the holiday special and the Doctor is left going “what, what, what” like she always does. 

There is a twenty minute digression in which the Master narrates some guff about the origin of the Time Lords to the Doctor, but you can skip that part because it doesn’t affect the plot in any noticeable way.

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I said I was going to give up thinking about Doctor Who after the desecration of William Hartnell’s corpse in Twice Upon a Time; and nothing in series eleven made me regret the decision. Series twelve was a notable improvement. I found the holiday camp one and the America one perfectly watchable. The one with Lenny Henry, the one with the Romantic poets and the one with the rhinos I thought were positively good. Only the one with the dead birds and the one with the evil aliens who feed of negative emotions were properly unwatchable. The closing two-parter is funnish but is predicated on a cop-out and some not ultimately interesting fanwankery. 

So if anyone cares, on a scale of 1 to 5

Spyfall 1 ***

Spyfall 2 ***

Ocean 55 **

Nicolas Tesla’s Night of Terror **

Fugitive of the Judoon***

Can You hear Me *

Praxeus *

The Haunting of the Villa ***

Ascension of the Cybermen ***

An Untimely Child **

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

12.9 Ascension of the Cybermen


I remember the thrill when Earthshock first came out. Lots of science guys getting killed in a series of caves; a great big final-frame reveal that the Cybermen were behind it: new, glossy, post-Star-Wars versions of the Cybermen. Nathan-Turner reputedly refused to put the Cybermen on the cover of the Radio Times. What the story lost in ratings it won in legacy. Doctor Who fans of a certain age all remember the thrill of that final image. Chris Chibnall is a Doctor Who fan of a certain age. 

1982 was quite late to be trying to look like Star Wars: but Doctor Who was always good at riding the last wave but one. John Nathan-Turner’s new fibreglass Cybermen were glossy and violent and the video effects now ran to zap guns which zapped convincingly. Since Doctor Who had always looked shabby, glossy was a good thing to be. In retrospect, Earthshock turned the Cybermen into Stormtroopers. Into canon fodder. Into an infinite stream of extras in silver suits being bumped off by the Warrior Robot or by extras with golden crossbows. It didn't matter.  Adric died in the final episode and the theme music didn’t play. What happened in between I can barely remember.

Ascension of the Cybermen is firmly in the tradition of Earthshock. This is Doctor Who as action movie; Doctor Who with added gloss; Doctor Who with the best special effects the BBC can muster, which these days means pretty good. 

There are at least three styles. The seven-ordinary-people who are the sole survivors of the human race look like they came out of a late 70s BBC sci fi series for grown-ups. Out, indeed, of Survivors. They have grav rafts and grenades and wear wooly hats. The TARDIS team are incongruous, but only a bit incongruous, in this punky world. They have technology, rather than gadgets and plot devices. Graham has changed back into a realistic grown up human being, who has more or less grasped what the neural inhibitor system, is for, and does a good job of explaining it back to the natives, and therefore the viewers. 

The Cybermen themselves, when they come, come from Star Wars rather than Terminator, flying in formation with pretty computer game targeting computers. 

The idea of flying Cyberheads is a misstep. There is no special reason for the drones to be head-shaped: they are just there because the viewers might want to see some Whovian furniture. But the Cybermen themselves, when they show up are rusty and battlescarred and the Lone Cyberman, from last week, is still nasty and cruel and treacherous rather than cold and calculating. 

I must admit that I lap this kind of thing up. We all talk about speculative fiction and sci-fi as a respectable literary genre; but we all got into it for the big space ships and zap guns and baddie robots. 

There is some fabulous imagery: the first shot of the great big shiny Cyberman on the Cyberman troop ship made me grin; as did the scene of millions and millions of Cyber soldiers marching as to war. And I loved it when the spaceship flew through the debris of thousands of dead Cybermen. 

It is tremendous fun that ordinary people who dress like truckers and treat their spaceship like a caravan get to pass through space cyber graveyards and find themselves wandering around cyber troop carriers. It is tremendous fun that sci fi technology looks shabby and lived in and is allowed to seem almost ordinary. This is what was so riveting when Star Wars came out; a very long time ago; even before Earthshock. Doctor Who is being quite unoriginal; even quite retro. But it is being it very well indeed.

There is a separate, unrelated story. It is set in Ireland. We know it is Ireland because everything is green. Jonathan and Martha O’Kent find a foundling boy and bring him up as their own. Everything is ordinary. He goes to school and learns how to stack hay with a pitchfork and joins the police. Weirdly, he is shot and falls off a cliff but is uninjured. The story overlaps with the main plot only through Watchmenesque segues. When Brendan is poorly, and his mother sends for the Doctor, we cut straight to our Doctor fighting the Cybermen. There is no hint as to how the two stories relate: whether we are watching a dream or a flashback or a story. The characters are nice enough that it doesn’t matter all that much. The main story is relentless grim and explodey; it is quite pleasant to cut to an inset story where the land is green and the people are pleasant. At the end the boy, now an elderly cop, is strapped into an electric chair at the back of the Garda station. Which is not so nice. 

If you can fall off a cliff and get better you are probably a Time Lord, although we rather pointedly didn’t see the orange fireworks which normally come out of someone’s head in a regeneration scene. The Doctor and the Master didn’t grow up in 1950s Ireland, so far as we know. So my money is on this being the Doctor’s long lost son. The people frazzling his mind at the end must be other Time Lords, for some reason.

The Master has always been a bit of a Pantomime villain; a bit of a cartoon-strip baddies. Nothing against Pantomimes; nothing against cartoon strips; but he is the kind of baddie who is bad because he is bad; and Sacha Dhawan's characterisation is very clownish and quite meta. He falls into the quite realistically drawn space opera in the last half minute and says "Nice entrance!" for all the world like Lord Flashheart. Like Missy, he knows he's in a TV series; he knows this is all made up. 

Apparently, everything is going to change and nothing is ever going to be the same again. So we're back to the set ups and unanswered questions that have been driving this series. Why is the Lone Cyberman so important? Why is there a logically impossible extra Doctor? What news does the Master have which is going to rock the Doctor’s world quite so comprehensively. And what on earth does this have to do with an Irish cop who came to a sticky end a few decades ago?

Will the season wrap-up be able to answer all these questions to everyone’s satisfaction?


NOTE: When Ravio tells Graham that he is strange, Graham replies “Excuse me, I am the most normal bloke you are ever going to meet.” But there is a false start, and he very distinctly says “Excuse me, I am the D….” Under other circumstances, I would say that this is a set-up for a very clever twist. (Remember Matt Smith’s jacket in Time of the Angels?) But his worst enemy would never accuse Chris Chibnall of subtlety.

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Monday, April 20, 2020

The Seeds of Doom

Doctor Who was at it’s best when it was most like Doctor Who. Seeds of Doom is as much like Doctor Who as Doctor Who ever got

The set up is pure Quatermass. Scientists at an Antarctic Base discover two frozen space-eggs. The first space-egg hatches, infects one of the scientists and turns him into a monster. The first episode ends with him trying to strangle Sarah-Jane Smith. There is a lot of strangulation in this story. A lot of punching and kicking and neck-twisting as well; not to mention a Molotov cocktail and an airstrike. The Doctor himself is seen weilding a gun, a sword, and some military strength weed-killer.

There is a twist. A beautiful, bonkers twist. The space-eggs are vegetables: literally seeds. The seeds of Doom. They would have been the seeds of Death, but Patrick Troughton had already bagsied that one. They look a lot like giant horse-chestnuts.

And back in London there is an insane, camp botanist who lives in a mansion and is much concerned about cruelty to Bonsai trees. He sends two of his goons to the Antarctic. They steal the unhatched egg and take it back to England. By the end of episode three it is menacing Sarah-Jane with one of its tendrils. (Sarah-Jane spends a lot of this story being menaced.) In the event, one of the two goons gets infected and turns into a plant man; and then a giant cabbage. By the final story it is so huge that it is towering, Cthulhu-like over the the mansion, bursting out of doors and windows. (Like Camelot, it is only a model, but it is a pretty good model under the circumstances.) In the end, UNIT sends in an airstrike and destroys it. But not before the Doctor and the thugs and the botanist and some civil servants and an endearingly dotty old artist have done more running around, getting captured and escaping than is strictly decent.

At six episodes, it doesn’t feel padded: two episodes of The Thing (this was before The Thing) followed by four episodes of Little Shop of Horrors (this was before Little Shop of Horrors). It’s a structural masterclass: the threat escalates in each episode, from a pod which might potentially hatch in episode one two a house-sized plant which is going to throw out thousands more pods in episode six. Each episode races towards a gruesome cliffhanger. Of course Chase has got a conveyer belt which runs waste material through giant rotating blades to produce fertiliser; and of course Sarah ends up tied to it. Of course the baddies leave Sarah tied up in a power-station with a time bomb rather than just shooting her.

It’s Saturday, it’s six o clock, and it’s Doctor Who. Dum-ba-da-dum, dub-ba-da-dum, wooo-weee….


Season 12 began with the Brigadier summonsing the Doctor to Earth. The Doctor wasn’t happy; but he showed up. He offered to give Sarah-Jane a lift back to London in the TARDIS, but got distracted: he eventually ended up on an alien planet where they just happened to be making evil robot doubles of Sgt Benton and Harry Sullivan. He offered to take Sarah-Jane home one last time, but they ended up in a gothic castle in a different galaxy.

But now, here is the Doctor, sitting in the office of some British government bureaucrat. The Brigadier must have called him back to earth right after he left Karn. He isn’t happy: but he’s come.

And this is pretty odd: because in Planet of Evil he was talking to demonic anti-matter beings on their own terms; and in Brain of Morbius he was dealing with Time Lord enemies and in Pyramids of Mars  he was telling Sarah-Jane forcefully that he was a Time Lord.

He’s cross when the Brigadier treats him as an errand-boy; but he’s equally cross when the Time Lords send him on a mission of utmost importance.

It’s like: the Doctor is debating with himself about who he wants to be from now on. I am a Time Lord: don’t treat me like a Time Lord. I work for UNIT: don’t treat me as if I work for UNIT.

And in retrospect, we can see that the programme is still arguing with itself about what kind of a programme it should be from now on. Are we going to carry on watching Doctor Who stories in which ladies run around quarries being menaced by monsters and rescued by an eccentrically benevolent alien? Or is it going to be about high-concept fantasy, full of horror-pastiche and the mythology of Gallifrey?

When Sarah-Jane woke up in Solon’s lab she briefly thought the last three episodes had been a terrible nightmare. Planet of Evil, Pyramids of Mars, and Brain of Morbius have been very unlike Doctor Who stories. And now the Doctor is back in some Whitehall office, with his feet on the desk, playing with a yo-yo, pretending that he is reluctant to save the earth from yet another alien invasion. It’s like the rest of the season never happened. Normal service has been resumed.


Tom Baker has changed his mind; again, about what kind of Doctor he wants to be. He gives a very straight performance: there are few grins and few Shakespearean flourishes. One feels that “What you have done could result in the total destruction of all life on this planet” should have been delivered with more menace — or perhaps with inappropriate levity. By episode six he is being actively nasty; shouting at people and telling them to shut up. Perhaps Tom himself is bored by the script. But in a funny way this seems to work in the story’s favour. The Doctor isn’t scared of the Krynoids in the way that he was scared of Sutekh. They are, in the end, only big plants. But he is perturbed and worried by them: like a Doctor who has been called in to deal with a serious life-threatening but eminently treatable illness. Only when being threatened by Scorby, the mercenary thug, does he start to grin, and to be more than usually annoying.

“Okay, start talking!”

“Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had perfect pitch…”

He comes across as a cheeky schoolboy who is about to get thumped; the childish, grinning, silly Doctor is an act to patronise and annoy baddies. (Minor baddies: the ones he has contempt for.) It is a shame that this deliberately annoying persona is going to become his entire personality as the series progresses.

From the beginning, this Doctor has mostly kept his outdoor clothes — hat, coat, scarf — on indoors. In this story he wears them when walking around the South Pole, even though everyone else is wearing specialised cold weather gear. At one point he disguises himself as a chauffeur: he puts a long black coat over his own coat. The scarf sticks out below the hem. It is ridiculous, but it is wonderfully ridiculous, the sort of ridiculous that little boys love.

Since the Christopher Eccleston reboot, the Doctor has carried a quiver of get-out-of-jail-free cards: the sonic screwdriver; the psychic paper; the TARDIS itself. The Fourth Doctor makes little use of that stuff. He doesn’t need to. He is perpetually jumping over walls; hurling himself through skylights; disarming bad-guys, even wielding weapons. His get-out-of-jail-free card is being the Doctor. If he is tied to a chair with a gun pointing at him that is only because at this moment he chooses to be so.

No TARDIS; no Brigadier; no familiar monsters. This is Doctor Who without any Doctor Who icons. Tom — floppy hat, baggy coat, long scarf — is the icon now. He defines what Doctor Who is. Doctor Who used to be bigger than any one actor. Tom Baker is already irreplaceable. He is ushering in a golden age; but he is also going to kill the programme.


A big chunk of Terror of the Zygons took place in a wood panelled library belonging to the Laird. Pyramids of Mars was mostly set in Prof Scarman’s wood-panelled stately home. And here we are in Chase, the mad botanist’s mansion. In memory, it all merges into one endless game of hide and seek through the stately homes of England, with giant vegetables and Egyptian mummies and the Loch Ness monster lurking around every corner.

There are scenes in the non-specific civil servant’s office and there were scenes in the chief astronaut’s office and there were rooms in a spaceship thirty thousand years in the future which looked very much like someone’s office.

And quarries: representing alien planets and the Antarctic and sometimes actual quarries.

The same scenes. Over and over. Nothing looks too alien. But we know: the milkman is an android and the laird is a Zygon; the plants in the greenhouse will strangle you and the oversized conker will wipe out all life on earth.

It has been said that Doctor Who is about putting the very, very strange alongside the very, very ordinary. That is certainly where it ends up: but that is not where it starts. It starts with the defamiliarization of the ordinary. These are the labs and classrooms and streets and pubs and villages that you might walk down in your everyday life. These are the sorts of stately homes that you might visit on a Sunday afternoon with a National Trust handbook in one hand and a bottle of ginger beer in the other. (Chase gives the Doctor and Sarah a guided tour of his mansion before trying to kill them.)

This is a children’s programme. This is what a child’s world is like. Ordinary things are strange and terrifying. Grown-ups may turn into monsters at any moment. They threaten to burn us at the stake and grind us down into fertiliser and we don’t understand what we did wrong. But for all we know a phone box or a wardrobe might contain something wonderful.

What was it G.K Chesterton said? Doctor Who doesn’t teach us that botanists sometimes throw pretty ladies into grinding machines. It teaches us that there is usually a way to escape from them.


I don’t have a problem with people who take Doctor Who seriously. I take it pretty seriously myself. But I am constantly amazed by people who take it literally. It is about as sensible to talk about a Doctor Who Universe as it would be to talk about a Monty Python Universe.

Look at Harrison Chase. As a human being, his almost inconceivable. As a piece of fiction he is one of the most morbidly funny ideas the series ever came up with.

He’s a James Bond villain. He lives in a posh mansion. He is surrounded by thugs and flunkies. He says “Why am I surrounded by idiots!” and “Guards, guards!!” and “Nothing can stop me now!”. He tries to mash first the Doctor and then Sarah into fertiliser and he positively enjoys doing so. “Your death will be agonising but mercifully swift” he says. No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.

Is he motivated by power, or world domination, or wealth or ideology? No. What he is interested in his flowers. He’s a collector. He wants to have rare blooms which no-one else has. But he seems to sincerely love his flowers. He thinks that hybrid strains are unnatural and that bonsai trees are cruel. By the end of the story, he is sitting in his greenhouse in a lotus position, ranting about the green and about how animals are usurpers on the earth. He’s quite poetic in a way. At one point he is said to be insane: at another point he is said to be possessed by the krynoid (which is hard to justify in terms of anything resembling the actual plot). But he basically just marches to the beat of a different drum.

Quite often I find myself typing that a villain or some Alienses want to take over the world because they are Doctor Who monsters and that is what Doctor Who monsters do. Chase is very much better than that. He prefers plants to people. He is cold-bloodedly interested in finding out what would happen if Keeler turned into a giant vegetable and he quite likes the idea of the human race being extinctified.

There could have been a point to all of this: a moral message about preserving the rainforest or being careful with industrial insecticide or taking your crisp packets home after a picnic. But somehow “plants versus animals” takes the place of political or moral ideology. It’s just us vs them: we are the animals and they are the plants. Chase is a classical villain but instead of being a Nazi or a Communist he’s a plantist. It’s completely bloody mad but it works.

The story is surprisingly character-driven. The characters may not be deep or psychologically believable; but they are autonomous human beings, rather than neatly packaged parcels of plot device. Scorby is a thug and knows he is a thug and knows he is good at being a thug. When the Doctor points out that he is working for a loony, he replies “When it comes to money, Mr Chase and I are of the same religion”. (The Doctor misattributes the quote to Franklin Adams: it is actually one of Voltaire’s.). He talks about having been a mercenary and knowing how to take care of himself: he switches sides in the final episode. “Can I rely on you?” says the Doctor? “For the moment” Scorby replies. The civil servant Dunbar passes secrets to Chase in return for money because he has been passed over for promotion; he turns against him (and risks his life) when he realises he is a psychotic lunatic and not just a plant thief. Keeler is a scientist who likes working with Chase’s plant collection and is scared of Scorby.

Even Amelia Ducat, who is quite obviously there as space-filling comic relief, has her own little motivation: she’s an artist; precious about her paintings; cross that Chase hasn’t paid her; and thinks that it is fun to “do her bit” and play at being a spy on behalf of the government. She is sometimes said to be a tribute to Lady Bracknell, but she’s a lot more like Miss Marples: the superficially harmless old lady who everyone underestimates. The Oscar Wilde connection comes from a single line: when Sarah says that they found one of her paintings in the boot of a car — a Daimler — she replies “The car is immaterial.” But surely it is Mrs Ducat who is wittily quoting a line from a famous play?


Speaking of superficially harmless old ladies…

Mary Whitehouse complained about the violence in this story. It was the molotov cocktail she objected to. The following year she would claim her biggest scalp, and force the BBC to cut the drowning scene out of Deadly Assassin, bringing the Hinchcliffe era and Tom Baker’s original characterisation of the Doctor to a premature close.

But she does have a point: this story is very, very violent.

There is something quite morbid about the preoccupation with executions and execution-style killings in what is still ostensibly a children’s programme. In this season the Doctor has been put into a gas chamber, threatened with being burned at the stake (twice), tied to a stone cross with a bomb next to it; put into a casket and fired into space. Quite possibly BBC guidelines felt that “I will leave you tied to the railway lines and wait for the train to squash you” was less violent and more in keeping with wholesome family entertainment than “I will shoot you with my gun or stab you with my sword.” Doctor Who is meant to be scary: Jon Pertwee always said that kids liked being scared. And this sort of thing generates suspense; it allows the viewer to contemplate Sarah’s fate for a few minutes.

One feels that the villain is being sporting; giving the Doctor a fair chance to come along and spoil his plans. And, indeed, that the writers are being lazy. It is relatively hard to think of a peril which arises naturally from the story and an escape which follows logically from the peril. Much easier for a baddie to put everyone in a death trap because he’s a sadist, or just because it is the sort of thing which baddies do.

Scorby sneers “You shouldn’t have long to wait,” before leaving Sarah in the room with the time bomb; Chase smiles “I imagine they won’t mind a few minutes delay,” when an urgent appointment prevent him from having the Doctor and Sarah shot. (He says that he is having them “executed” and points out that a former owner of the estate was also executed — presumably for being a Catholic in the sixteenth century.) It makes me wonder.

It was barely a decade since the last hanging in England; one of the last Frenchmen had has head chopped off a few weeks after this story went out. Was there a kind of nostalgia for the carefree days of pre-meditated killing? Or a subtle message that hurting someone in cold blood was something only a plant worshipping psychopath would ever stoop too?

Episode 3 starts with a close up of Sarah’s unconscious face after being blown up in the antarctic. It ends with a close up of her equally helpless face as she is held down next to a hatching krynoid. Of course, the Doctor arrives in a shower of broken glass and saves her.

Villains have to be cruel and heroes have to be kind. If the hero is a boy and the hero’s best friend is a girl — and they have to be one or the other — then the boy is probably going to spend quite a lot of time rescuing the girl from peril. But in the 1970s, nearly all stories had boy heroes with girl sidekicks; so you could easily run away with the idea that girls’ main purpose in life was to be menaced by baddies. Terrance Dicks, god bless him, was only partly wrong when he said that you can’t push too hard against the genre. Sarah may have been imagined as a liberated career-woman, but she still ends up tied on a conveyer belt moving towards the revolving saw. That’s the kind of thing Doctor Who is. It helps a great deal that Elisabeth Sladen can act: and conveys to the audience that she is afraid in proportion to how scary the situation is. She is never just a damsel in distress. She hardly ever screams.

Jon Pertwee pointed out that the reason Doctor Who appeared so high up Mary Whitehouse’s list of “most violent shows on television” was that the Viewers and Listeners Association included “binding” — tying up — in its tally of acts of violence. And in Doctor Who goodies were being tied up by baddies every five minutes.

I don’t think that the BBC was providing early evening audiences with bondage scenarios at any conscious level. Although they did openly admit that some adult males watched Doctor Who in order to ogle pretty ladies, and that the writers sometimes played up to this. “Something” they would say of any new female casting “for the dads.” But the emphasis on Sarah-Jane’s helplessness is striking. The Seeds of Doom is not Fifty Shades of Grey. But it may be an example of the kind of thing which Fifty Shades of Grey is a sexualisation of.


Season 12 had run from January to May 1975; Season 13 returned at the end of August, having only been off the air for three months. There was another three-week break for Christmas, and the series continued until March. Which is as much as to say: Doctor Who was on TV for 45 of the 62 Saturdays between January 1975 and March 1976. It was part of the day-to-day texture of British TV — of British life — in a way that no modern programme could ever be. There was not yet any such thing as a Doctor Who fan: but everyone watched Doctor Who. And the role no belonged irrevocably and definitively to Tom Baker. Jon Pertwee already felt like part of a long-vanished world.

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Thursday, April 16, 2020

12.8: The Haunting of Villa Diodati


Did it have to be Shelley?

Everyone knows “my name is Ozymandias king of kings” but only English students know “bird thou never wert” or “if winter come can spring be far behind?” The Doctor does her obligatory “Ain’t poems brilliant?” speech: if Shelley dies, then the whole of future history will change and Ryan might never be born.

“His thoughts, his words inspire and influence thousands for centuries. If he dies now, who knows what damage that will have on future history? Words matter! One death, one ripple, and history will change in a blink.”

Is this specifically true of Percy Bysshe Shelley; or would it be equally true of Fletcher the Butler or Mrs Miggins in the kitchen? Or (rather crucially) Shelley’s soon-to-be wife Mary?

Staples, Sternes, Bysshe. If my parents had given me a silly middle name I might have been a great poet too.


In the Very Far Future the human race is at war with Alienses. The humans steal the Alienses MacGuffin, and send it back in time. The MacGuffin is hidden in the body of an innocent human. One of the Alienses travels through time to try and get it back.

The only way for the Doctor to prevent the Alienses retrieving the MacGuffin is to allow the human to die. But the Doctor won’t do this. Partly because she thinks that humans are brilliant, but mostly because allowing this particular human to die would involve changing the future to a greater extent than she feels inclined to do this week. So she allows the Alienses to have the MacGuffin and and heads back to the future (TM) to try and undo the mess she has created.

That’s the story. It’s a good story. I have no problem with this story.

Icons, whether they are icons from the history of Doctor Who or icons from the history of England, are always fun. But they also feel a little bit like cheating. Fans get excited about the reappearance of any adversary, the obscurer the better. The popular press will always sit up and take notice when they hear that the Daleks or the Cybermen are making a return to the nation’s TV screens. But a story does not magically become interesting by virtue of having Daleks or Cybermen in it.

There is nothing especially Cybermanish about a pool of psychic quicksilver which contains all the secrets of the universe; or about using “perception filters” to trap humans inside a big old house. But the moment we find out that the adversaries are not just any old Alienses, but your actual Cybermen, then we know that we are watching something big and important.

And this is not just any old Cyberman. This Cyberman is the payoff to Captain Jack’s big set-up in Fugitive of the Judoon — a story which, truthfully, consisted of nothing but set-ups. Jack said that a very bad thing would happen when the Doctor encountered the Lone Cyberman, and that she was under no circumstances to give it what it wanted. This is definitely a Cyberman, and it is definitely on its own, without so much as a faithful Indian companion. But the plot manoeuvres the Doctor into a position where she has no choice but to give it precisely what it wants. It would have been the same story without Jack’s warning: but the foreshadowing has the affect of underlining the threat, twice, in red ink, and then highlighting it with a fluorescent marker pen.

There is no particular reason for the Lone Cyberman to be looking for the Cyberium in the Olden Days — although admittedly there is no reason for him not to be. Chibnall is inclined to use historical settings to provide a bit of exotic local colour. But in this case the Victorian setting is a fake-out: a piece of misdirection. It is not what the story is about. It starts out as an episode of Horrid Histories, in which the Doctor’s moronic companions entirely fail to understand that the Olden Days are different from the present, and as a result, comedy happens. There was probably a good joke to be got out of the fact that in the nineteenth century, even a very opulent house wouldn’t have had anything a modern person would recognise as a bathroom. (Do the Doctor’s companions never notice how bad the Olden Days smell?) Graham wandering the corridors saying “That’s all right I can hold it in” is not a good joke.
For a few minutes it looks as if the plot is going to be that history has wandered off its expected pathway and it is the Doctor’s job to get things back on track. Again.

But it turns out that we are in a Haunted House story. There are lots of stories in the world in which a ghost of some kind manifests in a house of some kind; and there are lots of stories in which large, old, mysterious houses have some kind of spooky mystery attached to them. But Haunted Houses are primarily fairground attractions; and this feels a lot more like a theme park ride than a story of the supernatural. Vases throw themselves across rooms; people walk through walls; infants turn into skeletons; and the corridors and stairs fold around themselves, trapping everyone in the building. We only meet the Lone Cyberman two-thirds of the way through the story: the Haunted House is the puzzle to which he is the solution.

The comedy is a little too broad and the Haunted House is not very scary; but the puzzle is quite clever and the solution is rather ingenious. The Lone Cyberman who still experiences emotions is quite interesting, and his physical appearance — the corpse like face under the half finished mask is visually arresting. The Doctor’s vacillation at the end — “save the poet or save the universe” — cuts quite deep. This is as close to a good script as Jodie Whittaker has been given to work with, and she distinctly rises to the occasion.


Yaz discovers one of the Victorian women trying to sneak into one of the gentlemen’s bedrooms. She wants to read his letters: “If he has written about me, I can ascertain his true sentiments”, she explains. Last week, Medieval Syrians spoke the language of 21st century Sheffield. This week, ladies and gentlemen from the nineteenth century speak like ladies and gentlemen from the nineteenth century; or at any rate, like characters from BBC nineteenth century costume drama. Graham in particular tries to communicate in a moronic schoolboy “old fashioned”. “Please, excuse me, fair lady. I must poppeth to the little boys' room.”
Well, then:

When the Doctor is travelling alone, as she was last week, the TARDIS translator presented her with as literal a translation of what the locals are saying as it possibly can. The Doctor is so ancient and has travelled so much that she basically sees all cultures as equally valid, or equally strange. Come to think of it, there is no reason for her to have been talking to Tahira in modern English: presumably the actual conversation happened in Middle Gallifreyan and the BBC scriptwriters rendered it as English for our benefit. We don’t want it to be like one of those old war films vare ze Germanz spik to each ovver in ze rilly rilly bad accent.

When, on the other hand, the Doctor is travelling in a group, the TARDIS identifies nineteenth century English and twenty first century English as “the same language” and allows the visitors to hear exactly what the natives are saying. (This has the interesting effect that humans who speak poor English speak better English than aliens who speak no English at all.) Like any translator, the TARDIS must be translating cultural context as well as the exact words: so it is even possible that it translates historical characters words into the kinds of words Graham and Ryan would expect them to say.

There is no plot inconsistency so big or so serious that it cannot be sorted out with an ad hoc piece of fan fiction. But the fiction is still fictional and the inconsistency is still inconsistent.

Frankenstein is the story of the creation of a monster. (“Frankenstein” is the name of the scientist who creates the monster, not the monster itself. A lot of people don’t realise this, and if you remember to correct them you will come across as a very interesting and well-read person.)

To the endless delight of literary critics, the preface to Frankenstein describes how the novel came to be written. So this novel about the creation of a monster also contains a story about how the story was created. That creation-story is almost as famous as the novel itself: everyone knows that Mary Shelley created Frankenstein because Lord Byron had challenged her to tell him a ghost story that would really frighten him. The ghost story competition appears in a play by Howard Brenton, a rather over-the-top movie by Ken Russell and in the prologue to the camp classic Bride of Frankenstein. (Armstrong and Miller did a rather wonderful comedy sketch in which Mary delights the party with a story about a talking dog who travels around with three companions unmasking ghost-impersonators.)

In 1964, the Very First Doctor encountered animatronic versions of both Dracula and the monster-of-Frankenstein in what turned out to be a haunted house attraction at “the festival of Ghana”. More famously, the Fourth Doctor encountered a crazy gothic scientist who was in the process of creating a patchwork monster to house the brain of the dead Time Lord Morbius —a story which really only makes sense if you assume that the literary Frankenstein doesn’t exist in the Doctor Who universe. But the plot — the supposed plot — of Frankenstein crops up over and over again in Doctor Who. Science can turn round and bite you on the bottom. There are some things which man was never meant to know. The Doctor’s greatest enemy is pretty much Victor Frankenstein recast into the Doctor Who milieu; recklessly creating the monsters which rise up and destroy him. He literally thinks that the Daleks will make him more powerful than God.

The Frankenstein of popular culture is a metaphor for hubris. Mary Shelley read the novel in that way: she subtitled it “the modern Prometheus”. The first dramatised version was even clearer, going with the title “Presumption, or, the fate of Frankenstein.” The excruciating prologue to the James Whale movie says that it is the story of a scientist who tried to create new life “without reckoning on God.” The Daily Mail very sensibly closed down all discussion about the genetic engineering of food crops by describing them as “Frankenstein Foods”.

But this isn’t the only way of reading the story. It could just as well be about the responsibilities of scientists to think through the social implications of their inventions. Victor’s offence isn’t that he presumptuously stole fire from the gods; it’s that he created a new creature and then left it to fend for itself. Which is what some people have accused God himself of doing. Brilliant but irresponsible men feature rather heavily in Mary Shelley’s own life story.

The Cybermen do have some affinities with the Frankenstein myth. They were certainly conceived as being a dire warning about science running out of control. They have sometimes been depicted as walking corpses, human flesh kept going with infinite mechanical augmentation. They have sometimes been shown harvesting dead bodies to create more Cyberpeople, and they have a definite habit of emerging from Tombs.

But the story of the Cybermen is not really about Science with a big S. It’s more about over-reliance on technology; about the fear that augmentation and transplantation could rob humanity of its essence. If I lose a hand and someone fits a prosthesis, then I am a human being with a prosthetic hand. So if my brain were transplanted into a robot, would I simply be a human being with a prosthetic body? And what if we got rid of the brain and replaced that with an artificial one as well? Would I have a prosthetic soul?


The olden-days characters are not merely Some Victorians: they are Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Doctor Polidori and Clare Claremont. The human with the Cyberium hidden inside him is Percy Byshe Shelley. And this is important because…. Because the action mirrors the imagery in Shelley’s poetry, in the way that the imagery in Ghostlight arguably mirrored ideas from William Blake? Except that it doesn’t: hardly at all. Because the Lone Cyberman gives Mary the idea for Frankenstein? Except that it doesn’t: not in any meaningful or interesting way. “I wrote a story about a monster because I encountered a monster in the cellar of my house” is much less of an explanation than “I wrote a story about a monster because I had been discussing scientific experiments about the principle of life; because I was only beginning to get over the deaths of my mother and my first child; and because I had a weird, Freudian dream about a scientist reviving a corpse”.

Mary Shelley arguably created the modern genre of science fiction. So if Frankenstein had not been written, Doctor Who would not exist. It would have made more sense if it had been Mary who had the lump of Cybermercury stuck inside her. “This is the night when Frankenstein was created; but the creator of Frankenstein is not here” is a more interesting pitch than “This is the night when Frankenstein was created but the author of the Masque of Anarchy is not here.” “Can you imagine a world without Frankenstein?” Is a more interesting question than “Can you imagine a world without Ode to a Skylark?”

The Haunting of the Villa Diodati is about three very famous writers: but it is astonishingly uninterested in literature. It didn’t have to be Shelley: it could just as well have been A.N Other Victorian.

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Monday, April 13, 2020

12:7 Can You Hear Me?

The Nightmare of Somewhere or Other

Aliens who feed on human nightmares. Well, that’s totally never been done before.

Can You Hear? me is a mechanical plod which seems to have been expressly created to demonstrate the shortcomings of Chibnall era Who.

It is technically competent: Ian Gelder is creepy enough in the role of the bald nightmare god: and the image of his fingers detaching themselves from his hands is disturbing the first half dozen times it is used. The cave-painting animation of the backstory represents something that hasn’t been done before in Doctor Who. But a cute cartoon doesn’t stop an infodump from being an infodump.

Everyone is having nightmares, and it turns out that the nightmares are being induced by a generic G.L.A to feed his lover who has been imprisoned in a space prison. The nightmare gods seem to have been specificslly created to lack motivation or interest: they find eternity boring, treat the material univeirse as a toy, challenge esch other to games using mortsl as playing pieces, and and generally do whatever the plot needs them to do. There is some fanservice about Guardians, Eternals and Toymakers but we know a plot device when we see one.

There is nothing wrong with aliens messing with characters’ minds. It used to happen in Red Dwarf on a weekly basis. But Red Dwarf was based on a set of very clearly defined comic characters: Rimmer was arrogant, Lister was lazy and the Cat was vain, so Despair Squids and alternate universes could meaningfully shake up the status quo. The current TARDIS crew have no personality tropes to play off. Graham is a cancer survivor and a widower. Yaz is a cop. And Ryan is, er, a bloke. Graham dreams that his cancer is going to come back. Ryan dreams that his mate (who he refers to throughout as “mate”) will get old in his absence. Yaz remembers an episode a few years ago when she was depressed and possibly suicidal and a nice police officer helped her out. (Things are getting quite bad when you require a caption saying “Three years earlier” to indicate that a flashback is a flashback.)

The story is full of flaws and lazy writing which I am sure we could ignore if it had managed to be any fun at all. I spent the first fifteen minutes waiting for the big reveal that Tahira is a time traveller from the modern era who got stuck in medieval Aleppo for some reason. But no: someone just decided that it would be amusing for her to talk Modern (“Creating happiness is important to my mental wellbeing.”) A lot of the time, she talks like the Doctor, because everyone talks like the Doctor, because that is how people talk. When we need to see a child being scared by the nightmare creatures, we can’t imagine anything more specific or interesting for him to be worried about than “the bogeyman”. Yaz’s episode was brought on vaguely by bullying and poor grades at school; Mate is depressed and lonely and misses human contact in self service grocery stores.

When the Doctor goes back to Aleppo without Graham, Yaz or Ryan, she can’t think of a better way of doing audience exposition than talking to herself, and then starts talking to herself about talking to herself. Matt Smith’s main character trait was self-awareness: he knew he was the Doctor and had to continually do the things which people expected the Doctor to do. This has been tediously carried over to Capaldi and Whittaker, so it now seems to be the defining characteristic of the whole show: “Doctor Who is that TV show about the character who knows they are in a TV show called Doctor Who.” The Doctor’s little speech to Graham “I should say a reassuring thing now, shouldn't I?...” would be quite funny if it wasn’t the kind of thing we get in every damn episode.

The denouement of the story is, firstly, that humans are brilliant and can defeat their irrational fears by being brilliant because they are so brilliant. “They're not pathetic, they're magnificent. They live with their fears, doubts, guilts. They face them down every day and they prevail. That's not weakness. That's strength. That's what humanity is.”

And secondly, that if you have been affected by the issues raises in this programme, you should totally talk to someone about it. Mate goes to a support group, talks about being lonely, and is told that he is not alone. Yaz talked to a nice policewoman who convinced her that things would get better. Graham has never told anyone apart from the Doctor that he is still scared of cancer, and just talking helps, even though the Doctor is too “socially awkward” to actually respond. But the Doctor is still not telling her companions about the Master foreshadowing the end-of-season cliffhanger.

I do not think that a script this lazy or inconsequential would have passed muster for Casualty or Grange Hill or the Clangers. Netflix and Amazon are paying proper writers to write proper scripts which treat Captain Picard and Daredevil and the Skeksis Chamberlain as characters in dramas which take themselves seriously. The BBC is making Doctor Who because it is Doctor Who and there has to be a TV series called Doctor Who. Can You Hear? me fills up another 45 pointless minutes.
I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order.

I have no political opinions of any kind.

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