Friday, September 05, 2008

"I've witnessed cruelty. I read Darwin all the time and find it feeds my faith. Richard Dawkins makes me want to pray, the same as Homer Simpson makes me want to exercise - for fear that I, too, will end up like him, a whining pub bore with the prose style of an internet conspiracy theorist."
Frank Cottrell Boyce


(I watched Mr Boyce's play. It is jolly nice that the BBC is still up for doing serious cerebral theatrical drama from time to time; all the thesps were acting a lot; the theological points on all sides were well made and followed through; but it managed to still be about characters rather than just a debate. But I couldn't shake the sense that this was a
Christian - maybe specifically Catholic - view of the holocaust: every time someone said "It's God who should have been sent to Auschwitz" I could almost hear the Priest adding: "And do you know, in a very real sense, He was." Maybe a Christian writer can't avoid drawing a line between Cavalry and the concentration camps - it's old news that the Suffering Servant is both Jesus and the Jews. But I wonder what Jewish groups and actual holocaust survivors made of the piece?)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Nicholas Parsons: ...the subject is "science fiction". Will you tell us something about that subject, in this game, starting now:

Chris Addison: Science fiction is generally associated with the sorts of boys who generally don't find it easy to get girlfriends and also find it rather difficult to... [FX: BUZZ]

Nicholas Parsons: ...you have 53 seconds on "science fiction" starting now:

Sue Perkins: People who like science fiction want to explore brave new worlds whilst failing to understand simultaneously there's one they're living in right here and now. They never seem to be interested in what happens out side their front door instead they like to peruse comics and magazines which splik glibly... [BUZZ]

Nicholas Parsons: ...37 seconds available, "science fiction", starting now:

Julian Clary: Science fiction isn't a literary genre I've ever paid much attention to, but I can make some up on the spot for you because it really is that easy: "Mr Gobbledegook walked down the road, and sudd...[BUZZ]

Nicholas Parsons: ...you have got "science fiction", the subject, 24 seconds, starting now:

Paul Merton: ...Kurt Vonnegut wrote a wonderful book about...er.... [BUZZ]

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

And Now I Promise To Shut Up About It At Least Until 2010



Control



Season One
Season Two
Season Three
Season Four
Summary



Appendix: Answers to Readers Questions

A: I agree with you that there exists at least one pre 2005 episode of Doctor Who with something wrong with it. I entirely concur that the plot twist in episode 2 of 'Invasion of the Muppets' was rather contrived, and that the Doctor's companion Jerri sometimes fluffed his lines. I agree that the original series frequently spent 100 minutes telling 75 minute stories, although I must confess that I find this preferable to spending 45 minutes telling 90 minute stories, or spending 90 minutes telling no damn story at all. This would be a scintillating riposte to my critique if I had ever argued that the New Series should be more like the Old Series or that NooWoo is not TrooHoo. I've said repeatedly that I like what RTD has done with the setting; like what he has done with the Doctor and especially like the presence of characters like Jackie, Mickey and Wilfy who would have been inconceivable in Old Who. What I don't like is RTD's pisspoor sense of narrative.

B: No, actually, I do not think that I am over-analysing. Being in possession of a brain, I find it difficult to switch it off. You might think that I would be better off directing it Pride and Prejudice or inventing a cure for Cameron, but you're reading this page, so yar-boo-sucks. If I notice that a male character is carrying a pink handbag, wearing a tutu, and obsessively performing his own special round and round dance, I cannot dissuade my brain from saying "I wonder if they are trying to tell kids that gender non-conformist behaviour is OK?" I do, of course, agree that you have to watch a TV show on it's own level, and can't expect Torchwood to be as sophisticated in its treatment of gender issues as Tellytubbies. That's why I am much more forgiving of "The Sontaran's Slightly Convoluted Stratagem" and "The Daleks Take Manhattan" than some mosquitos. If I'm offered "cliff hangery flying saucery earth invasion stories", then I'm inclined to accept them as such. But I don't quite see the argument that says that its okay to respond to a TV series, but only if you do so in a vague, half-arsed, disengaged way. Indeed, I'm not sure if this is even possible. Is the idea that I should hear the Doctor say "We are near the Sensephere" and by some peculiar Zen process lock down that portion of my mind which notices which 1964 story is being referenced? A bit like Holmes' trick of hearing the news that the earth goes round the sun and deleting it from his memory because it isn't relevant to forensics?

C: I take your point. A purely Marxist critic would indeed say that Doctor Who is precisely the kind of thing which the market would inevitably produce at this time, and that to apply aesthetic judgements to it is a category mistake. If Doctor Who is flawed, the solution isn't intelligent criticism, but the overthrow of capitalism. And a purely capitalist account, such as used by Russell T Davies, would hold that the claim "this is badly written" is entirely refuted by the statement "this got extremely high viewing figures" :"this makes money" is synonymous with "this is good". The point isn't whether or not I regard both points of view as being value-free to the point of being sociopathic, which I do. The point is that if we accepted the equation "To be popular is to be good", then criticism of any kind would be impossible, and none of us would ever say anything at all. It is true that 10.5 million people watched "Journey's End"; but it is equally ture that several million more would have watched two hot chicks having lesbian sex on the sofa. Channel 4 have for a number of years based their entire business model on this insight.

D: Yarvelling
E: Yes, I am aware that there currently exists at least one very good cop show, and I admit that I don't watch cop shows. If I had claimed that "The Unicorn and the Wasp" was the single best piece of drama ever to appear on television, then "Have you seen Blue Remembered Hills" might be a reasonable riposte. But I haven't been comparing Doctor Who either favourably or unfavourably with other TV shows. I've merely been saying I think it would be improved better if it had an actual plot. (My specific point of comparison has been Buffy the Vampire Slayer which RTD has explicitly acknowledged as his model.) Is your claim that if I had watched The Wire I would understand that TV has moved into a post-narrative model?

F: Hamish Wilson







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Monday, September 01, 2008

4:12 & 4:13 "The Stolen Earth" and "Journey's End"



Once upon a time (TM) there was a very clever young composer. He'd been to music college and everything, and had written some sonatas and concertos which had been widely described as 'really not at all bad'.

One day, the very clever classical composer thought he would try his hand at writing jazz. 'After all,' he thought, 'All kinds of music are essentially the same, but where classical music has key progressions and time signatures and unresolved chords and stuff in jazz you just do what you like.'

So he dug up a lot of quite good musical themes which he had lying around, and stuck them together in no particular order, adding a few extra saxophones in the the dull bits. The kinds of people who had said that the very clever young composer's sonatas and concertos were 'really not at all bad' bought his jazz records and said that this cat was laying down some hep boogie woogie, daddy-o. But they got quite cross when jazz fans came to the concerts because they thought they were smelly and smoked too much and talked funny.

When some of the jazz fans said that jazz had it's own rules, different from the rules of classical music but just as complex and sophisticated and that what the clever young composer had produced was neither classical music, nor jazz music, but simply noise, the clever young composer said that they were asexual mosquitoes and swatted them.

So everyone lived happily ever after.

*

I thought that the Doctor would regenerate - into Dawn French or Lenny Henry or Graham Norton - but that it would turn out at the last minute that Donna still had the giant beetle on her shoulder.

Lawrence Miles thought that the Doctor would die, but that Donna would turn out to somehow have been a Time Lord - possibly the Doctor himself - and that she would regenerate into him, thus giving her life to save his.

Louise thought that the Doctor would admit his love for Rose, but that Rose would find that he had changed so much that she no longer loved him.

Jonathan regarded it as a no-brainer that the TARDIS was the Doctor's most faithful companion and that he'd therefore have to sacrifice the Ship to save the universe. During the 'gap year', he'd be stuck on earth, TARDISless.

I thought that despite their protests that they were just good mates, the Doctor and Donna would fall in lurve, precisely two seconds before Rose comes back on stage.

I also noted that there were some very pointed references to Donna's father in 'Turn Left', and that he was going to turn out to be significant in some way. Perhaps he would turn out to be descended from that family Donna saved in Pompeii, creating one of those time loop thingies. Or perhaps it would turn out that she was the Doctor's daughter, if not actually the Doctor's Daughter.

Do you see what was happening? We were all expecting a conclusion which followed on from what had gone before. We were all assuming that we were talking about characters in a drama. We had come to believe sufficiently in the Doctor, Rose and (astonishingly) Donna that we actually wanted their stories to end in a way which made sense. And we assumed that RTD did as well.

Silly, silly us.

*

"There are some sniffy people in the TV industry who have asked, archly, why I'm now writing genre, instead of drama. Obviously they've never watched a single episode of Doctor Who. It's the best drama in the world."
Russell T Davies

I have nothing against hype. If I read that mumble-mumble-mumble is going to be appearing in the new series of The Sarah Jane Adventures, then I am as excited as the next geek. It may strike me as a little bit peculiar given that The Sarah Jane Adventures is directed firmly at a congregation who weren't born the last time mumble-mumble appeared in a canonical story. But I'm still excited because mumble-mumble is a character (a pretend person) for whom I feel a certain affection. I imagine that there will be funny scenes between him and Sarah Jane. I imagine that Sarah Jane and mumble-mumble going up against the Sontarans will make a good story. I don't particularly care that mumble-mumble is 'coming back'. Any fan-fiction hack – any eight year old with some action figures – can put two characters alongside each other and say 'Look! I have put two characters alongside each other.' But I will be watching because I hope his appearance will give rise to an entertaining 50 minutes of TV. And that he'll give Clyde a clip round the ear.

7.4 million people watched 'The Stolen Earth': a pretty good audience by modern standards, but nothing like what Who got in the old days. (16 million people watched 'City of Death' part 4. 9.4 million watched the final part of the distinctly mediocre 'Four to Doomsday'.) At the end of the episode the Doctor is exterminated by a Dalek - mere seconds after having been re-united with Rose. Being the Doctor, he starts to regenerate. Considered as an event in a story, this could have been rather interesting. Rose has trekked across several universes to find the Doctor, only for him to change into someone else – someone too old, too black, too gay or or too female for her to love. This would have been interesting because interesting things would have followed from it.

The BBC pointedly refused to send preview DVDs of the next episode to the press – not even to their own house organ, Radio Times. This created unprecedented interest in the national news papers. What was the big twist that the Beeb wanted to keep the lid on? As a result, 9.8 million people tuned in to 'Journey's End' (more than have watched any episode of Doctor Who since, er, 'Time Flight'). So fully 25% of those watching part 2 had not seen part 1. It is a safe bet that those 2,400,000 people were not Doctor Who fans. They are unlikely to have been interested in Dalek Caan or to have had the faintest idea who Mickey Smith was. They turned on because the press had swallowed the hype hook, line and sinker and told them that the BBC had pulled off the biggest coup in TV history, that David Tennant - not, in any sense, a character called the Tenth Doctor but very definitely an actor called David Tennant – was going to be evicted from the Big Brother Police Box.

He wasn't of course. The whole reason for taking Doctor Who off the air until 2010 is to give David Tennant time and space to go back to the Royal Shakespeare Company and do the Dane. Three minutes into episode 13 he pressed the Big Red Reset Button and the story carries impenetrably on.

No-one particularly minds when RTD uses minor pop stars and comediennes to try to dissuade the floating viewer from switching off the TV on Christmas night. But 'the regeneration which never was' was simply a stunt. This is not a story which happened to have been a bit hyped: this is hype as an end in itself, with no story attached to it.

*


"Playing Doctor Who came as a complete surprise to me. I had no idea that I would enjoy it so much. All that was required of me was to be able to speak complete gobbledegook with conviction. ...Problem? For me who believed in Guardian Angels and was convinced that pigs were possessed by devils after their New Testament encounter with God's son? It was easy and I loved it."
Tom Baker

In 'The Dead Planet' the Doctor and his friends go to the Dalek city in order to obtain mercury to repair the TARDIS's fluid link.

Since we don't know how time machines work, we can't possibly know what a fluid link is, or why one would require mercury; but we do understand that the TARDIS is a mechanical apparatus and that a mechanical apparatus can't operate when one of its components is broken. So Terry Nation writes 'To fix [some component] requires [some resource] which can be found in [some location]' . This is perfectly intelligible and provides a perfectly convincing reason for our heroes to venture into the alien city. At that time the characters still needed some perfectly convincing reason to go into a threatening alien environment. 'Because they're Doctor Who characters' hadn't been thought of.

The choice of 'mercury' isn't completely arbitrary. In the days before political correctness most children would have handled mercury in their school chemistry lessons; Ian would certainly have had a jar of the stuff locked away in his prep-room at Coal Hill School. But it's also the sort of thing that Merlin or Catweazle might have used in one of their spells. So the message is 'The TARDIS is a bit scientific but also a bit magical.' ('Uranium' and 'dilithium crystals' would have sent out slightly different signals.)

Ian is suspicious when the Doctor says that the TARDIS needs [some resource] which can only be found in the city; and in the next episode, the Doctor admits that he deliberately damaged [some component] to provide a pretext for him to explore Skaro. This shows that the Doctor is driven more by scientific curiosity than personal safety; but that he has sufficient scruples that he'd rather lie and sabotage his own ship than simply force Ian to do things his way: and anyway, he rather fears that Susan would have sided with the humans over this one. But in the end, he admits what he did, and that it was wrong. The techno-babble, meaningless in itself, has brought out some reasonably complex aspects of the characters' relationships.

The idea that the Doctor can change his physical form goes back to the 'Tenth Planet'; but it took a long time for the concept of to be systematized within the show's internal mythos. When Doctor Pat changed to Doctor Jon, there was no suggestion that this was a normal part of the Doctor's life-cycle: the Time Lords announced that they were going to change the Doctor's physical appearance so that he wouldn't be recognized on earth during his exile. One gets the impression that the writers were saying 'We've already used the idea of the Doctor's old body being worn out: we'll have to think of a different excuse for to the actor change this time.' (It will be remembered that Plan A was for The Celestial Toymaker to put a spell on the First Doctor, causing his face to change.) Even when the term 'regeneration' was coined for the Pertwee-Baker change-over, writers carried on having different ideas of how it worked: Terrance Dicks still seemed to think that different Doctors were somehow different individuals; Douglas Adams imagined that Time Lords could change bodies as easily as they could change clothes. Robert Holmes introduced the idea that they could only regenerate twelve times, seemingly unaware that Philip Hinchcliffe had already decided that the Doctor was already on his twelfth regeneration. As long as 'regeneration' is simply a paper-thin device to facilitate a periodic personnel change none of this matters a great deal. In canonical Who, except in a changeover story, or in rare and ill-advised multi-Doctor anniversary stories, 'regeneration' was hardly ever brought on stage

But Davies is obsessed with the concept, referencing it quite un-necessarily and using it, like the TARDIS and the sonic-screwdriver, as a one size fits all deus ex machina. (*) There's at least a suspicion that he had always intended Tennant to play the Doctor, but used Eccleston for a single season because he felt that regeneration is such a central part of the myth that it should be laid before the audience as early as possible. He certainly cast Derek Jacobi as the Master purely in order to change him into John Sims. And he has developed an appalling habit of re-defining how it works on a moment-by-moment basis. When River Song tells the Doctor that he will die if he wires his brain into the Device For Saving The Universe When The Doctor's Brain Is Wired Into It she adds 'And don't think you'll regenerate.' (Why not?) In the ludicrous 'Last of the Time Lords', it's arbitrarily decided that regeneration is an act of will: the Master can 'choose' not to change so as to spite the Doctor. In the rather good 'Turn Left' it turns out that the Doctor has died because he didn't have time to regenerate. And in 'Journey's End', regeneration becomes an all purpose trapdoor, to be used promiscuously to save RTD the bother of actually thinking up a story.

It will be recalled that during 'The Christmas Invasion' a Klingon chopped off the Doctor's hand: but RTD discovered a brand new trap door: for a few hours after regenerating a Time Lord can grow new limbs. In the first season of the dreadful Torchwood, it turned out that Captain Jack had found and preserved the severed hand, and that it functioned as a Doctor Who Detection Device which wriggled and jiggled and wiggled when the TARDIS was nearby. In 'Journey's End' it turns out that:

1: The Doctor can transfer the energy that would have made him regenerate into the spare hand - meaning that his body is healed but that he doesn't change persona. What? One really feels that we're watching that nine-year old boy and his action figures. "Pretend the Daleks deaded the Doctor. No but pretend they didn't deaded him after all because it's Tuesday and eating Cadbuy's Cream Eggs on Tuesday smakes him not deaded."

2: This energy causes a complete new Doctor (with all his memories and personality) to grow from the hand, so now there are two Doctors. Only the second Doctor is human. Obviously.

3: In the process Catherine Tate (not a character called Donna Noble: very definitely Catherine Tate the comedienne) is turned into a Time Lord and starts doing bad impersonations of David Tennant.

3a: But only after she's been zapped by Davros.

3b: Obviously.

4: The human Doctor defeats the Dalek plan to wipe out the entire universe (like the cricket warriors - but they were supposed to be ridiculous) by talking really, really, quickly and pushing a Big Red Button on the TARDIS console which opens the Make Every Dalek Blow Up Trap Door.

5: Having all this Time Lord knowledge is too much for a human brain to cope with; so Donna has to have her memory wiped. If she ever hears of the Doctor again, her head will go explody explody explody.

Every one of these manoeuvres is completely arbitrary: the Doctor says 'Because she has been turned into a Time Lord, she must have her memory wiped and never hear of me again', but if he had said 'Because she has been turned into a Time Lord, she can never go back to earth or see her parents' we would have believed it just as much or just as little.

And yes, of course: every one of these things is no more or less sensible than the idea that a grumpy old man in a grey wig can turn into a smiley young man with a recorder. The whole idea of regeneration is completely silly That is why it should be mentioned only when you need to change the lead actor and at no other time. Not to get the Doctor out of a hole. Not because you can't think of a better way to signal that 'Prof. Yaffle really is the Master.' Not (for the benefit of those of you who think that I only object to crap, incoherent plotting when the new series does it, and yes, I am looking at you, Nick) when you need a completely arbitrary plot twist about the identity of the Time Lord's prosecuting attorney in order to come up with some retrospective justification for a ridiculous trial.

And yes, of course: I am quite sure that fannish explanations about what happened can be downloaded from lots of different websites. That isn't the point.

David Tennant, as they used to say over the closing credits, is currently appearing in Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford on Avon. In Hamlet the main character discovers that his father has been murdered, and becomes obsessed with revenge. As a result, he does all sorts of strange things: he pretends to be mad (or maybe he's not pretending), he abuses both his mother and his ex-lover, he kills a harmless old man. While Hamlet's behaviour is perplexing and enigmatic, we feel that it arises organically from the basic premise 'Dad's ghost says Uncle Claud killed him.'

Revenge can be a perfectly good motivation for a character. But we've all read comic books and seen movies where 'revenge' is used instead of character motivation; where 'vengeance' becomes a catch all magic word to permit the main character to do any crazy, pointless thing that a writer happens to feel like. If you ask 'why?' you are just told 'because a baddy killed his daddy.' A baddy killing your daddy justifies anything, up to and including dressing up in a batsuit.

RTD uses technobabble in much the same way. When he wants to bring all the Doctor's former companions together, he simply takes the Harriet Jones Action Figure out of the box and announces that she has a Big Red Button that can track down everyone who has ever known the Doctor. When he wants to delay the Doctor's reunion with Rose till the end of the episode, he simply says 'But 'tend that the Big Red Button doesn't work unless you've got a web cam.' Instead of coming up with a resolution to the Doctor/Rose love story he arbitrarily decides that there are now two Doctors Who but that one of them is a potential baddy and needs to be exiled to Earth-2 with Rose. Instead of coming up with a dramatically believable reason that Donna can't or won't stay with the Doctor he pulls a trapdoor out of his hat and says that if she ever sees him again, her brain will explode.

This is not pseudo-science used to provide character motivation and to drive the plot. This is pseudo-science instead of a plot.

*

"Two comics in one: double the fun."

And finally: I have nothing against cross-overs. I like cross-overs as much as the next geek. That is to say: I like the idea of cross-overs. I think that it is fun to put my

Captain Kirk action figure next to my Spider-Man action figure, and pretend that they are having a fight, or since the invention of the internet, that they are having sex. But in itself, this kind of thing doesn't make a good story.

Superman is strong, but Batman is clever; Superman is good but nice, Batman is good but nasty; Superman obeys the law, Batman does was right according to his private code. The Superman/Batman team lasted for decades because the pairing of those two characters with different points-of-view generated interesting stories. But most 'official' crossovers and all fan-fiction starts from the premise that the meeting of two established characters is intrinsically interesting: that a very run of the mill story about an experienced, adult superhero with relatively weak powers and a less experienced, younger character with potentially vast powers suddenly becomes very interesting indeed if you write 'Spider-Man vs Harry Potter' on the cover.

The idea of bringing together all the characters in the 'Doctor Who' franchise was fun enough. There a pleasant narrative dislocation during the first fifteen minutes as we shift from Sarah Jane's loft to the Torchwood hub and back to the TARDIS. It feels as if we are channel hopping but finding that all your favourite shows are talking about the same subject. Like the Olympic Games, only with sink plungers.

However, once you get over the novelty, the only possible interest is in discovering how established characters are going to interact - using 'The Sarah-Jane/Torchwood Team' to generate new stories which are worth telling. But RTD doesn't actually bother with a story. We get Jack and Sarah in the same room, but nothing follows. Lots of things could have followed. Captain Jack would come on to Sarah as a matter of general principle, I suppose. I don't know whether Sarah would have flirted back or slapped his face but I rather imagine that Luke would have said 'Mum, who is this dreadful man and why is everyone treating him as if he is somehow important?'

When the Jackie Tyler Action Figure turns up, holding the gun that came with the Mickey Smith Action Figure, any sense of narrative goes out of the window. Granted, Jackie now lives on an alternate earth; granted, she's been somewhat changed by her experiences; and granted that the Torchwood of Earth-2 is capable of improvising a getty-between-dimensions machine (which even the TARDIS had trouble with) - but why on earth would Torchwood-2 pick Rose's Mum to go on the mission to Earth-1? And granted that they did, why on either Earth should the Mickey Action Figure and the Jackie Action Figure materialise in exactly the time and place necessary to save the Sarah Jane Action Figure from the Dalek Action Figures?

This isn't a story, it's a game of Pokamon. If Richard Dawkins and Bernard Cribbens had a fight, who would win?

In fact, the hosing down of Mickey Smith's character is the saddest thing about this whole appalling mess. Because Noel Clarke played an ordinary character in an ordinary way and because the role didn't require any big thespian histrionics it was easy not to notice what a damn fine actor he is. The job of a Doctor Who companion, as everybody knows, is to be the ordinary person through whose eyes we see the Doctor. As Rose changed from 'ordinary person' to 'remarkable person' we increasingly needed Mickey to ground us: to be the person through whose eyes we saw Rose seeing the Doctor. For the first season-and-a-half, Mickey grew quite organically: from a positively simian hopeless boyfriend to a very useful and heroic member of the team, but one who is smart enough to recognise that he can only ever be the tin dog. His final appearances in Season 2 tended to become a series of plot devices: his decision to stay on Earth-2 to replace the Heroic Mickey and take care of his Gran was pulled out of thin air - but it was largely carried off because Noel is a good enough actor to deliver contrived lines and make them seem natural and logical. (See also: Sladen, Elizabeth.) So it is really, really, sad for the Mickey Action Figure to wind up all this back story in a single aside. Granny-2 is dead, and Rose is obviously going off with the anti-Doctor, so he may as well come back to Earth-1 and become the token heterosexual in Season 3 of the dreadful Torchwood. Unforgivably, he and Rose don't even get a goodbye scene. He's supposed to love her, for Tom's sake!

When companions were simply bimbos in skirts at whom the Doctor recited gobbledegook, this kind of thing was excusable. Peri may have been cute, but you could hardly mistake her for a human being. (Dodo disappears from the series half way though 'The War Machines' without so much as a 'goodbye': Liz just evaporates between seasons.) But Russell, how dare you allow me to like Mickey and then treat him like this.

It's the face of Boe all over again, I tell you.



There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conception, just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishery with the all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its 'quintaness' and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives. They have their reward. I have no quarrel with people who approach the past in that spirit. I hope they will pick none with me. But I am writing for the other sort
C.S Lewis


A cretin writing in the Guardian watched the first part of the fourth and final series of Battlestar Galactica and concluded that the programme was impenetrable:

'I do realise that after one episode I'm not really qualified to judge. And that I don't understand half the complexities. That, incidentally is another problem: it's so bloody complicated. Why is sci-fi like that - a competition for boys to see who's best at working out what the hell is going on?'

A lot of us might think that this was an odd approach. Would you start reading Moby Dick on page 450, notice that you have no idea who 'Starbuck' is or what he means by 'a fast whale' and conclude therefore that 'books' are impossible to understand? On the other hand, when a different cretin in the same paper writes of 'Journey's End' -

'I think we can safely say there was something for everyone in that, can't we?...I can't, to be brutally honest with you, work out exactly what happened. The jargon-heavy mid-section rather did for my chances of keeping a grip on the minutiae, but that's nothing that three days on the internet forums won't sort out.'
- you might wonder why the straights are prepared to cut Doctor Who so much slack. If you watched any other TV drama and found that you couldn't work out exactly what happened, you'd simply decide that it was terribly badly written and give up on it.

I think we asexuals often underestimate how strange 'science fiction' looks to the gendered community. 'How was I supposed to know that that character is an honourable warrior while this one is an emotionally repressed scientist?' they ask. 'It was obvious,' we reply 'The first one had nobbly bits on his forehead, and the second one had pointy ears.' This problem rarely crops up in mainstream fiction. If I accidentally hear half an episode of The Archers, I may not know exactly what's happening: but I know the kinds of things that could be happening. 'The young man with the yokel accent is clearly the former lover of the girl' I say 'She obviously wants him back and he's obviously afraid of being emotionally hurt.' I am unlikely to say 'Wait a minute; what is this 'marriage' which you keep talking about? What is a 'pub'? Are 'farmers' goodies or baddies?' But even fairly basic scientific terms are off-putting if you've spent more time in Borchester than on Betelgeuse. An intelligent mundane is told that something is 'in a different solar system' and asks 'Is that very far?' But then, when I am told that Bertie Wooster is 'three over par' I say 'Wait a minute...is that good or bad?' (There are whole episodes of Deep Space Nine which I can't follow at all because I don't know the rules or vocabulary of baseball.)

When a straight watches science fiction, she doesn't expect it to make sense. All of this whacky sci-fi stuff is meaningless to her. 'Eee equals em see squared' and 'reverse the polarity or the neutron flow' are equally arcane incantations. If you told her that one was a part of real physics and the other is made up, she'd reply 'You have an anorak and no girlfriend and dress up as a wizard in an anorak wobbly sets wobbly sets wobbly sets.'

I suspect that she even quite likes that sense of strangeness and distance that watching something that you don't understand gives rise to. There's a certain joy in looking at Japanese videos without the sub-titles. I recall looking at an issue of New Teen Titans after 15 years of reading nothing but Marvel Comics. The very fact that I didn't recognize the characters and couldn't tell who were the goodies and who were the baddies made the superheroes seem much more, well, superheroey.

A letter appeared in the Radio Times to the effect that the scene in 'Journeys End' where the TARDIS appears to tow the planet Earth through space (and the population get buffeted about, and have to hold onto the furniture to avoid falling off) was the silliest thing ever to appear on Doctor Who. (It probably wouldn't even make the the Top 5. (**) The following week, a cretin responded that it wasn't very reasonable to complain about 'silliness' when you are talking about a man with two hearts who travels through time in a phone box. The message is clear: once you've admitted a fantasy element into your story, all bets are off. Many years ago, I slagged of a film called Photographing Fairies on the grounds that it was philosophically and logically incoherent – it couldn't make up it's mind what 'fairies' were, or what they meant. 'And this from a film about fairies!' exclaimed a link site – as if expecting coherence in a film about a fantastic subject was wildly eccentric of me. The gendered community thinks that admitting the supernatural is like opening the doors of perception and reducing reality to a set of discordant images which aren't supposed to connect together logically.

And so far as I can see, this is how R.T.D thinks, too. He doesn't particularly like 'science fiction' or 'fantasy'. He certainly doesn't like science fiction fans. He thinks that the sci-fi label is an excuse to write discordant, meaningless, un-connected non-narrative; because that's what he thinks other sci-fi is like.

I mean, I am assuming that's the reason. I am assuming that the writer of Queer as Folk and Cassanova and The Second Coming can write. He must have consciously decided not to. 'Midnight' and 'Turn Left' are really not at all bad. But 'Journey's End' is not Doctor Who. It is not 'drama' either. It is not narrative. It is not a story. It is simply noise.




(*) The various proposals for what became the Paul McGann telemovie, and the script which was actually filmed, were similarly obsessed with regeneration. The filmed version decided that "a Time Lord has 12 lives" was the very first thing that US viewers needed to know about the character, and introduced Sylvester McCoy simply in order to kill him off. Rejected scripts wanted to start out with several different Doctors specifically so they could meet up and turn into each other. One can understand an American, charged with adapting a foreign TV show that he has never watched, thinking that "a show where the main character keeps changing his face" is the Unique Selling Proposition of Doctor Who. But you would think that Russell Davies, a Brit who has (I assume) actually watched the show would know better.

(**)
1: The Olympic Torch
2: The Adipose
3: Floaty Glowy Jesus Doctor
4: The Kandyman
5: The Pantomime Horse
6: Bonny Langford




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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Normal Service Has Been Resumed

5th -- Madeleine: Police lied to parents over "clues in car boot."
6th -- Madeleine: I saw her in my shop
7th -- Madeleine: She could be alive
8th -- Madeleine: I saw her on a tram
9th -- Madeleine: I saw her on Monday
10th --Is this who took Maddy?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

4:11 "Turn Left"


The dreadful Torchwood keeps telling us that the 21st Century is when everything changes. But the dreadful Torchwood makes it quite clear that, in fact, nothing changes. Ever. The earth gets invaded by cybermen, demons manifest in the center of Cardiff, and the average citizen just sits in the bar saying "Don't be silly, there's no such thing as aliens look you rugger boyo blonwyn isn't it?" Torchwood even have a magic plot device in the form of a drug called "Ret Con" (ho ho) which ensures that nothing changes. The main character is so immortal that even if you drop a thermonuclear plot device on his head, he'll still bounce back for the next episode. Totally unchanged.

The nice thing about "Turn Left" is that everything really does change. It's a quite convincing snapshot of what it would actually be like to live on an Earth which was invaded by aliens ever other Saturday. It's an everyday story of folk whose world has become a permanent warzone. I'd like to see the series take this direction in non-parallel earth stories. I'd like Donna's mum and Donna's Grandpa to be living in a world that had been scarily changed by all the alien stuff. If there is ever an "adult" version of Doctor Who, I'd like it to take this approach: a darkish, humans' eye view of last weeks rip-roaring space yarn.

It's all bollocks, but that hardly matters. If the Doctor died in "Runaway Bride" then he never went to depression-era New York, and if he never went to depression-era New York, he never defeated the Daleks; and if he never defeated the Daleks, Caan never went back in time; and if Caan never went back in time, Davros was never rescued and there was never a second Dalek empire. Ergo: no, the stars aren't going out.

And I don't think that, even if Buckingham Palace had been struck by a full size replica of the Titanic, England would have relapsed to the 1950s quite so quickly. I mean, why is the office clerk rubber stamping papers rather than using one of those newfangled laptop thingys? And isn't it cute that the refugee is the sort of fellow whose a-mother is a-lika the spaghetti, and not, say, a Pole? Most seriously, the Damn Fine Climax (where every piece of text the Doctor can see changes to "Bad Wolf") which had me punching the air and going "Whoo!" turns out to have nothing whatsoever to do with this story or next story or any other story or anything else. It's one more example of R.T.D thinking up a scene and dropping it in whether it belong there or not.

Not knowing, at this point, that parts 12 and 13 are going to be the most gratuitously pointless guest star fest ever exhibited on a public stage, it was terrific fun and actually quite moving to hear, second hand and in passing, that Sarah Jane and Martha and Torchwood had given their lives to save the earth. And the angsty stuff, like Donna's Mum looking at the mushroom cloud and realising that everyone she knows is dead, is nicely done. And Catherine Tate continues to be not nearly as shit as we'd expected. Seeing her development from incredibly annoying Donna to not quite so annoying Donna telescoped down to a single episode was really quite impressive.

Every TV show falls back on some version of It's a Wonderful Life sooner or later. Dallas did it. Holby City did it, for goodness sake. And usually, they did it for some reason. In Star Trek , Captain Picard has always been very ashamed of a reckless decision he made as a young man: but he discovers that if he could go back and correct that mistake, he'd prevent himself from becoming a famous starship captain. In Red Dwarf we're led to believe that Rimmer is a loser because he was kicked out school when he was a kid; but the twist is that it was actually the heroic, alternate-world Rimmer who was expelled: our Rimmer had the good fortune, but still became a failure. Lois and Clerk combined with It's a Wonderful Life with Groundhog Day so we can watch the World WIthout A Superman becomign mroe and more depressing. In Star Trek the point is that we should accept who we are, the bad along with the good. In Red Dwarf the point is that we make our own choices and shouldn't blame out shortcomings on others. In Lois and Clerk the point is to tell a cute little seasonal parable about Hope. In Doctor Who the point is..er...well, I'll get back to you.

But no, really. Nice story.






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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

4:10 "Midnight"


And then, just before Doctor Who finally disappeared up its own arse, we got this tantalizing glimpse of what might have been.


"Midnight" has absolutely nothing to do with Doctor Who. It doesn't begin with the TARDIS arriving on an alien planet. It doesn't end it with it dematerializing. The Doctor goes off and has an adventure without a companion in tow. We're always being told that the Doctor wants to go and see this or that wonder of the universe; but I can't remember the last time we actually saw him behaving like a tourist (*); booking a trip on a tour bus, chatting away with ordinary people -- or, at rate, RTD placeholders for ordinary people. It suggests to us what the Doctor's life might be like on the days when he isn't saving the cosmos. It suggests that the there might actually be such days.


When the tourist bus gets stuck, an invisible alien wossissname gets on board and starts possessing people, causing everybody else to act in increasingly paranoid ways. We never find out what the wossissname is, or how it works, or what it wants, or what it's called. Of course we don't. Russell T Davies the writer isn't remotely interested in wossissnames. But he finds that wossissnames are very useful for setting up a weird, one-room exercises in dialogue in which one character starts repeating everything the other characters say; and then starts repeating it before they do.There's something genuinely Pinteresque about these scenes. You could imagine something a lot like "Midnight" being done as an afternoon play on Radio 4; or a rather decent entry in a university drama soc experimental one act play competition.


This is surely the kind of thing which Doctor Who ought to be doing. Providing an umbrella under which to erect good little dramas which would still be worth seeing even if the umbrella wasn't there. Forget, for the minute, about venerable traditions and sink plungers and the huge weight of history. There's this guy who travels in time and space. So tell us some stories about him, using the same kinds of dramatic rules you'd use in any other format.


It is very sensible for a writer of drama to be uninterested in wossissnames. His whole attention, and ours too, should be directed at the reactions and interactions of the characters on the tour bus. It is, however, quite a serious handicap when you try to turn your hand towards "science fiction".


Next week, Russell T Davies the writer is going to let Russell T Davies the Doctor Who fan out of the closet, and everything will go to hell. But it's nice to be reminded of what might have been. Of what should have been.



(*) "The Green Death"

Sunday, August 03, 2008

4:8 and 4:9 "Silence in the Library" and "Forest of the Dead"


So.



The Doctor confronts a space-suit which contains the skeleton of "Proper Dave" but which also contains a swarm of invisible alien piranhas which ate him but because space suits use telepathic transporter technology in their intercoms there's a sort of print of his mind in the space suit which means that it's still talking with his voice which means that the doctor can theoretically communicate with the swarm of invisible alien piranhas through the suit because did I mention that they're telepathic invisible alien piranhas? We know that Proper Dave is dead because his suit keeps saying "Hey, who turned out the lights?" over and over again. (A completely cynical Doctor Who fan might point out that Steven Moffat has already used the idea of repeating an innocuous phrase over and over until it becomes scary in "The Empty Child.") We gradually realise that "Other Dave", who's also in a space-suit, is repeating "Doctor, I think we should go now" over and over again, which means he's also been eaten by the swarm of invisible alien telepathic piranhas as well. So the Doctor is trapped. Between TWO telepathic alien zombie space suits. So, he starts to talk really, really quickly and then he whips out his magic screwdriver and escapes by dropping through a concealed trap door which had been there all along.


Let's watch that again in slow motion.


Doctor. Trapped between actually genuinely quite spooky monsters.


David Tennant. Talks really, really quickly.


Trap door. Already there.


Hero. One leap. Free.


History will record that this was the exact moment at which Doctor Who jumped the metaphorical shark. The exact point at which the normal rules of narrative - of cause and effect, of simple logic, were abandoned, and everyone sensible switched off and started watching old episodes of Buffy instead. Or The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. Or Bagpuss, come to that.


It was, I suppose, inevitable that this should happen while RTDs anointed heir was officiating.


Steven Moffat has penned two very good Doctor Who stories ("Blink" and "The Girl in the Fireplace") and one very, very good Doctor Who story ("The Empty Child" / "The Doctor Dances"). The pity of it is that "Silence in the Library" is a very, very good first episode, introducing an unusual environment, an interesting situation, spookily different monsters and a non-obvious mystery to which "Forest of the Dead" palpably fails to provide any interesting resolution. Not that the two episodes aren't still a jolly enough way to pass 90 minutes on a Saturday evening; but it really does surprise me that anyone could call them flawless. "About as good as we can reasonably expect something jammed into the ludicrous formula that RTD has established for Doctor Who to be," is as far as I would go.


"Silence in the Library" consists of 5 disparate plots, any two of which would have been slightly too many for a 90 minute story.


1: The biggest library in the universe which has been left deserted for a century.


2: Invisible telepathic alien piranhas who live in the darkness and indicate who they are about to kill by causing him to grow a second shadow.


3: A little girl who believes that the library is only in her mind; and who can see what is going on inside it on her TV.


4: A mysterious woman who claims that she will be very, very important to the Doctor at some point in his future and her past.


5: Donna experiencing an alternate life in which she is happily married.


None of these plots goes anywhere: there is no sense of forward motion or development in the episode. The narrative is the process by which we gradually work out how the five plots connect up. There is nothing wrong with this. Many good stories present us with a situation and then work backwards to reveal how that situation came about. (One could mention High Noon, Oedipus Rex, Citizen Kane and every detective story ever written.) But the five stories turn out to be connected by, well, by trap doors. Since Doctor Who no longer functions according to any discernible kind of narrative logic, anything can be connected to anything else. So it's very hard to care.


The library, for example. There are any number of stories which might have been told about a library which contains every book that has ever or will ever be written. I mean, if you went to the biggest library in creation, which book would you go looking for? The book that contained the cure for cancer? The book that contained the story of your life? The book that you really loved when you were seven and have never seen a copy of since? And are there closed off sections which contain secrets that man was never meant to know? Vigilante groups that try to stop people going to the corridors that contain dangerous heresies? An erotica section that would make your body explode with pleasures too powerful for the human mind?


But Moffat isn't telling a story in that sense. The library's function is simply to exist: to be a big dumb environment which the Doctor can land in. The story wouldn't have been a whole lot different if the Doctor had landed in the Biggest Public Toilet In The Universe.


Or the piranhas. Why are millions of invisible piranhas haunting a library? Just before dropping through the trapdoor, the Doctor pulls a solution out of thin air. Vashta Nerada live in forests; books are made of paper; you make paper by cutting down trees; so the Vashta Nerada spores were brought to the library in the paper of the books. Q.E.D. But if Moffat had gone with my idea, he could just as well have said that Vashta Nerada are microorganisms that grow in the disgusting sewers of Tersurus and that would have made just as much, or just as little sense. (And loos are spookier than libraries.) This isn't story telling: it's just drawing a wobbly line between two arbitrary points.


Or, indeed, the little girl. (A completely cynical Doctor Who fan might say that the idea that the Doctor is a figment of a child's imagination has already been used in "The Girl in the Fireplace"; and the idea of the Doctor talking to someone through a TV set has already been used in "Blink.") The idea of a dying child's mind being transferred to a computer which also contains every book in the universe (because she loved reading) is cut-price Phillip K Dick, which is fine: Doctor Who has always been omnivorous about the material it rips off. But the idea of a "a disembodied mind in a virtual world" is not interesting in itself; it's a thing which you may or may not be able to do interesting things with. You can do philosophical things with it. That's what Dick does: what does it mean to be a mind without a body? Can you detach "the mind" from "the brain" any more than you can detach "90 miles per hour" from the car? If your loved-one is dead, does the fact that someone kept a back-up make you feel less bereaved? Or else, you can just do fun things with it. You can say "What would happen in a virtual world made of books? Maybe the Doctor could meet up with famous fictional characters, like, say, Gulliver, Rapunzel and, I don't know, maybe some superhero."


Moffat chooses instead to do nothing with the idea. We see Donna slowly working out that she is in a virtual world; and the Doctor opens a trap door which reveals that the virtual world was created for the dying child and that the missing library users have been saved onto the disc by the teleport, and we move on to the next idea.


And don't anyone dare say "You can't possibly deal with philosophical questions about the mind/body problem on 7PM on BBC 1. The mainstream viewers are too thick to understand that kind of thing." The sub-plot about Dawn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was pure P.K.D. If reality takes shape only in our memories, then what happens if someone messes with those memories? If Buffy's memories of her sister are real, then is her sister real, even though in the empirical world, she hasn't actually got a sister? And what's it like to be the non-existent person? This is assimilated so seamlessly into the structure of a high-school soap opera that we don't even notice that it's happening.


Then, of course, there's all the over-wrought nonsense about Mrs. Who. A perfectly good story could be written about two lovers who encounter each other non-sequentially. (A completely cynical Doctor Who fan might point out that Moffat has already touched on the theme in both "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "Blink.") But this isn't a story. This is, as so often, an idea for a story. All sorts of interesting things could have happened. I mean, what if you married your boyfriend when he was 35, and then suddenly met him when he was 15, and he turned out to be just the sort of nasty teenager you least liked - could your marriage survive that? But no: we're supposed to think that the discovery that Bernice Summerfield sorry, River Song is the Doctor's future wife is interesting in itself, not because of its consequences. This is Doctor Who. Nothing has consequences. The only interesting question is whether the Doctor will trust River, or whether, in fact, she is misleading him in some way. This could have been explored by the use of Character and Motivation, but Moffat prefers to give River a Big Red Button which opens a Trapdoor. She knows the Doctor 's name. So that settles it.

The Doctor's true name has never been revealed. Unless you count The Making of Doctor Who. And The Armageddon Factor. And The War Machines. But anyway... Time Lords are known by titles, rather than names, apart from Morbius, obviously. And Rassilon and Omega. Oh, and Romana. But anyway... It's reasonable to assume that there is something quite special and secret about Time Lord names. But nothing in the previous half-century has remotely implied that Time Lord names are like True Names in Earthsea or Soul Names in Elfquest. Moffat's just made it up. On the spur of the moment. Out of his head. To save him the bother of actually telling a story.


The conclusion of the story, of course, involves David Tennant talking really, really quickly. All the people who disappeared from the library have been backed up to the hard drive, along with the little girl. The computer is failing, and all the people will be lost. But there's a trapdoor: the Doctor can save them all by incorporating his own brain into the machine, only this will kill him. ("And don't think you'll regenerate!" exclaims River Phoenix. Why not? Who cares? Change the rules on the hop, why don't you?) But it's okay because River has a trapdoor of her own: she knocks the Doctor out, ties him up, and incorporates her brain into the machine, killing herself. But that's okay, because the Doctor has yet another trapdoor: in the future, he will/has arranged for River's mind to be backed up onto the sonic screwdriver, so by talking really, really, really quickly and running he can save her to the hard drive where she'll live happily ever after with the little girl and various other people who've been killed and copied during the episode. So this time, everybody lives. Even the least cynical Doctor Who fan knows that "everybody lives" is a direct quote from "The Doctor Dances". The cynical ones are sitting in the corner chewing of their own legs with embarrassment.


The man who saved Doctor Who after the disastrous 17th season – and then managed to kill it all over again during seasons 22, 23 and 24 -- was universally known as "J.N.T". The man who resurrected Doctor Who in 2005 and dealt it a mortal wound in 2008 is known, by me at any rate, as R.T.D. Doctor Who is now becoming painful to watch, but many of us have a strange compulsion to put ourselves through this pain. I therefore insist that the incoming producer be referred to from now on as "S-M".