Sunday, May 12, 2013

Journey to the Center of the TARDIS [7:11]

Years ago, when I didn't know any better, I wrote, in the sense of planned out in my head, a Doctor Who story which might have been called "The Pillars of Hercules".[*] The Doctor, for good and adequate reasons, has to travel further than he has ever travelled before — to the very edge of the Universe, pursued by all his worst enemies, who want to get there first. The Doctor narrowly wins the race, and discovers that the Universe does indeed have a literal, physical edge, marked by a big scary door. He steps through the big scary door (which is blue) and discovers that on the other side is...a junk yard at 76 Totters Lane. The whole of Time and Space has always been inside an old fashioned police phone box. 

I also "wrote" one in which, for equally good reasons, the Doctor has to go on a long journey through the TARDIS. The further he goes, the stranger it becomes, corridors going from white hexagons to bricks and eventually to landscapes and planets, a whole universe in its own right. As he travels, horrible monsters confront him, until he finally gets to the very centre of the TARDIS where he finds a white hotel room, an astronaut and a big blue monolith a four poster bed, asleep in which is a familiar figure in a floppy hat and scarf, endlessly dreaming.

The trouble with both these ideas — the trouble with all self-begotten, masturbatory fan fiction — is that they are not stories. They aren't even ideas for stories. They are just free-floating ideas in the mind of someone who has spent too much of their life immersed in one particular TV show. Suppose the Doctor and the Master were brothers, we exclaim! Suppose Holmes and Moriarty were the same person! Suppose it turned out that Daleks were the human race, way, way in the future! Suppose it turned out the Doctor's worst enemy was actually an evil future incarnation of himself! 

Okay, supposing they were and supposing it did. Why would that be interesting, particularly? What follows from any of it? Nothing whatsoever, so far as I can see. A long journey is a long journey, even if there is a quite a good punch line at the end of it. 

Not that all self-begotten fiction is automatically bad (and not that there is anything reprehensible about fans thinking up new stories about characters they love.) When you have a very well defined "universe", then very interesting stories can sometimes bubble up from inside it; some universes are created specifically as cooking pots in which stories can stew. Tell a writer that a cowardly, dishonest trader has been forced into a marriage of convenience with an obsessively honourable warrior woman, and he could probably develop a rom-com, a tragedy or a farce from that basic idea depending on what kind of writer he was. It doesn't become a less legitimate rom-com, tragedy or farce because you can state the premise as "The one in which a Ferengi has to marry a Klingon." It's perfectly good shorthand; a perfectly good way for viewers and actors and producers to grasp the idea behind the story without pages and pages of exposition. It may even be that if no-one had thought of Star Trek, no-one would have thought of telling that particular story; that "Ferengi" and "Klingon" are conceptual tools which faciliate "The House of Quark" and  "Spock" and "McCoy" are conceptual tools that facilitate "City on the Edge of Forever". 

But Star Trek is — to borrow an expression — a story-making machine. Doctor Who really isn't. "Mad Dalek" doesn't evoke narrative possibilities in the same way that "Klingon Civil War" does.

I am sure that we have all sometimes thought "just how big is the TARDIS; how far does it go; are there parts of it that the Doctor never shows us, parts of it that he himself doesn't know?!" But answers to those sorts of questions are, at best, components of stories, and not even the most important components. They are not stories in themselves, and they are certainly not things you can serve instead of stories. 

Tell me that the Doctor is going to show us parts of the TARDIS that we have never seen before, and my first question is not "What parts?" but "Why?". And you had better have a good answer.

I may possibly be giving out the impression that I don't really  have anything to say about "Journey to the Center of the TARDIS." This is because I don't. For anyone keeping track, it scores 8% on the Ril/Mof scale: I barely made it past the opening credits. I am honestly tempted to type the words "beneath contempt" and pass on to next weeks story. 

I suppose I had better cover the things I liked about it. I liked the title, although I am fascinated by the theory that a target audience who are assumed to be spooked out by Scooby-Doo ghosts are also wryly amused be references to Jules Verne. I liked the big spaceship; I liked the idea of a space salvage team; I liked the Aliens-out-of-Red-Dwarf imagery; I thought that the characters had a little bit of potential and wouldn't mind seeing them in a story where they actually had things to do. I quite liked the way parts of the TARDIS seemed to be quite like Hogwarts School: the idea that a Time Lord encyclopaedia is something you drink rather than something you read. I believe that the Great Big Story Arc that started in the final Sly McCoy season and was partially completed in the first few novels would have turned Gallifrey into Gormenghast. I started chucking things at the screen when the TARDIS was inside the big spaceship being manipulated by big mechanical claws. 

When Doctor Who was a 60s throwback, an embarrassment to the BBC made on a shoestring budgie and kept running only because cancellation would generate adverse reaction from people who hadn't watched it for years, aberrations like "Time and the Rani" and "Timelash" were perfectly understandable. When Doctor Who is such a major part of the BBC brand, hailed on Radio Times covers and Christmas idents and expensive exhibitions in Cardiff, you would imagine that someone would be making some kind of attempt to control quality a little bit. I can only assume that the Power That Be have a genuinely phobic reaction to science fiction — they don't understand what it is about or what it is for, can't focus their mind on it for more than a couple of minutes, and assume that The First Men in the Moon, Ben 10, and Do Andrews Dream of Electric Sleep really are all pretty much reducible to "Mr Gobbledegook was walking down the road." Since none of this stuff makes any sense, why should they care that this particular bit of stuff doesn't make any sense? 

Oh well. Very little harm was done. At least there weren't any Big Revelations. There is always a danger that a Terrible Writer will introduce a Terrible Idea that other Terrible Writers feel the need to follow, and suddenly "Time Lords Have Twelve Lives" or "The Doctor Is Half Human On His Mother's Side" is one of those things about Doctor which everybody knows. (There are still fans who seriously believe that Matt Smith's successor will be the final TV Doctor because someone once said that Time Lords can only regenerate twelve times and that can't be unsaid.) I suppose we got to see the engine room and the Eye of Harmony (which was actually kind of cool) but there is no reason to think that the Engine Room and the Eye of Harmony will look anything like that the next time we see them. When a show has been running for fifty years, we sort of accept that the sets and the costumes will not be completely consistent from decade to decade; but I think it was a shame to enshrine the idea that the TARDIS interior looks like whatever the Doctor wants it to look like quite so explicitly in the story-internal series mythology. The tension between "rickety old box of tricks" and "most advanced ship in the universe" is one that it would have been better not to have resolved. The Series 1 - 4 console room was rather nicely re-imagined as being made of coral — because TARDII are grown rather than constructed; but it had lots of random bits of anachronistic technology stuck on because as the Doctor travels, naturally he repairs it from what's available The insight that the TARDIS is like a camper van, both a vehicle and a home — was a spot on observation. Now we have to pretend that he had merely configured the desk top to look like that.

Back in 1964, in the twelfth and thirteenth ever episodes of Doctor Who, it was established that the TARDIS was intelligent, sort of, and there has always been a yummy ambiguity about whether the Doctor personifies the TARDIS in the way sailors sometimes personify their boats, or personifies it because it actually is a person. Neil Gaiman, generally accepted to be the Second Greatest Living Author [**] contributed a silly story last season in which the TARDIS accidentally becomes incarnated as a dippy goth chic with a crush on the Doctor whose one-liners aren't quite so good as Delerium's. Like a lot of things in New Who, it was a clever twist on the established mythos that we should have grinned at and then never spoken of again. Instead, it's become another of those things which everyone knows and which has to be smirked over in every subsequent episode. The Doctor would make a good Dalek, ha! The Doctor once wore a fez ha-ha. The Doctor and the TARDIS are like an old married couple, ha-ha-ha! 

You could have done something with the idea of the TARDIS being violated by salvage men. I think they probably needed to be cosmic salvage men from a higher dimension who regarded Time Lord technology as mere junk. The amount of gobbledegooks that had to be invoked to create a situation where three ordinary guys with a big spaceship could, or thought they could, steal bits of the ship made it hard to even think of the thing as a story. Turning off the TARDIS's indestructible button so Clara could learn to fly it? Setting the TARDIS for self destruct? Pretending to set the TARDIS for self destruct? Stealing bits from the special cosmic TARDIS Christmas tree room? I really wish writers would take the trouble to rub out their construction lines. Yes, in the first Alien movie there is a human who surprisingly turns out to be an android, and the look and feel of the space craft today is a little like that in Alien so of course one of the characters is an android who surprisingly turns out to be human. Possibly because his comrades have tricked him into thinking he is as a black joke, or to steal his inheritance.  

So, all that is left is two bits of information about the extremely interesting and fascinating great big story arc.

1: Clara's Thing

The Doctor asks Clara why she keeps dying and coming back. Clara doesn't know. No-one really expected Clara to know. So we can ignore that bit. (I am pretty sure that Clara's thing will turn out to have something to do with the TARDIS, because there have been so many references to the TARDIS not liking her. Perhaps she is the reincarnation of the Master's TARDIS.)

2: The Doctor's Thing

Clara reads a passage from a book which Aslan has specifically told her not to read from. The book reveals the Doctor's (oh, god) True Name. She is mildly surprised and asks him about it; he is mildly surprised that she is mildly surprised but there is a big red reset button and everyone stops being surprised and forgets. So it appears that:

a: His name isn't "Doctor" or "Who", which were my first and second bets

c: It is a name which means something to Clara: he has an identity, he is someone other than who he claims to be.

c: It isn't a name which is significant within established mythos — he isn't Rassilon or Omega or The Other because Clara would have no reason to recognise those names. 

d: It's got something to do with the something he did in the bloody Time War.

Ho hum. I admit to being intrigued as to where Moffat is going with this; he's been at it for years (since the story which introduced River Bloody Song, in fact) so he is obviously going somewhere. The "who is River Song" reveal was quite cleverly handled, sort of; I suspect he has got either a very clever answer or (more likely) a very clever twist about why we aren't going to here the answer after all. 

But the trouble is, like the episode, it's self-generated fan-fiction. "What is the Doctor's name" is the kind of thing, like "Who ws Susan Foreman" an "What happened to Peter Parker's Mum and Dad" which is only interesting to someone who is already quite interested in Doctor Who. And it's not like it's really a "secret". It's not like every produce for 50 years has known the Doctor's names and origins but not told us, and when the secret is revealed we will see all the previous stories in a different light. It's not even as if a secret sealed manuscript by Sydney Newman has been discovered and opened in the presence of twenty four bishops. No-one knows the Doctor's name because he hasn't got one. Moffat is going to make something up. If it's a very good thing, then it will become a true thing, like the Doctor being a Time Lord, and no-one will really believe that there was a time when we didn't know it. If it's a silly thing, then everyone will just ignore it and the series will carry on as before.

It's just such an amateur, sophomoric way of writing. "There's this thing called the TARDIS. No-one knows how big it is" "Then let's do a story in which we find out how big the TARDIS is!" "There is this character called the knows his name" "Then let's reveal his name! It will be the Biggest Thing Ever! And while we are at it, let's give Harpo a speaking part, and introduce us to Conan's Mummy and Daddy and take Judge Dredd's mask off, reveal the name of the second Mrs De Winter; write a prequel to Watchmen."

Why only twelve disciples? Go out and hire thousands. 

Beneath contempt. Move on.

[*] As everyone knows, the Pillars of Hercules stood at the very edge of the Ancient World. Spanish Pieces of Eight had an engraving of the two pillars with a serpent wrapped around them: that is where the US dollar sign comes from.

[**] Terry Pratchett

Friday, May 10, 2013

Hide [7.10]

"This house is exactly what you would expect in a nightmare. Yes, we're in a world of dreams. Creaking doors, thunder and lightning, monsters and all the things that go bumpety bumpety in the night. "
             The First Doctor -- The Chase

How to write your own Doctor Who story.

1: Introduce monster.

2: Introduce supporting cast.

3: Demonstrate that situation of supporting cast ironically mirrors the situation of the Doctor and Rose.

4: Demonstrate that situation of monster ironically mirrors that of supporting cast.

5: Pull solution to monster out of thin air.

6: Show that solution to monster pulled out of thing air is also solution to supporting cast.

7: Hint that solution to supporting cast would also be solution to Doctor and Rose, but can't be applied, because if it did they would live happily ever after and the series would end.

8: Rinse and repeat. 

For example:

a: Monster is time traveller, lost lonely and alone, needing contact with other humans to help it. 

b: Other monster is apparently scary alien, but actually lonely and needing lurve and a place to be happy in. 

c: Supporting cast are Repressed Scientist and Empathic Assistant 

d: Repressed Scientist is lying about his past, origins, name etc because of terrible unspecified things he did during a war; Repressed Scientist's Empathic Assistant is attracted to Repressed Scientist but can't say so.

e: Solution to monster is to take a risk, reach out to it with your feelings, bring her home, etc.

f: This is also the solution to the other monster.

g: Solution to scientists is to take a risk, reach out with their feelings, etc etc etc. 

h: Solution to the Doctor and Clara would be....

This formula was established in Season 1, and yes, I suppose I am about to say that New Who isn't as good as it used to be. The formula worked at the beginning of the Doctor Who revival because the backstory was only gradually unwinding: we didn't know which bits of the Doctor Who "universe" had been carried over into New Who, and we didn't know what this new Doctor was going to be like. So, in Episode 2, "The End of the World", Rose see the earth destroyed, which turns out to reflect the Doctor's own situation  — which we didn't know about  — of having witnessed the destruction of his own planet. Similarly, the threat in "Dalek" — one Dalek, last of its kind, not even a proper Dalek, alone in the universe — reflected the Doctor's situation, which we were only just getting the hang of, being the Last of the Time Lords. It also introduced us to the idea that this Doctor has a bad side and revealed that the Time Lord's adversaries in the Time War were the Daleks.

But seven, or really eight, or actually arguably nine, seasons on, there is nothing about the Doctor left to reveal. There is a big tease going on about his True Name, but you can bet that this is going to be more or less a clever trick. So each week, we have a monster that ironically reflects the fact that the Doctor is, like, cosmically lonely, looking for love, the last of his kind, has a potential dark side, carries the weight of the universe on his shoulders, I've seen so much, I'm sorry, jammy dodgers, I'm so very sorry... Things which it is really not worth symbolizing because they are now just taken for granted facts. Huge fantasy artifices are being constructed in order to tell us things we already know and which weren't particularly interesting in the first place.  


Toilets are not, in themselves, particularly funny; but a skilled comedian like Ben Elton or Geoffrey Chaucer can make an adult laugh at a toilet joke. But if you want to make a child laugh, you don't need to bother with the joke. Just saying the word "poo" is enough. Similarly, a skilled story teller can construct a story about a  haunting in such a way as to scare an adult. But if scaring kids is your thing, you don't need to worry about the story: at a particular age, they seem to be just programmed to find ghosts scary.

See also: clowns. 

I wonder if the whole New Who project has been hog-tied from the beginning by a misunderstanding of what it means to find a TV show "scary". Being afraid of the Daleks (because they might kill you) is not the same as being afraid of a ghost (because it shouldn't exist). But that is different again from being afraid of a story with a ghost in it, or a story with a Dalek in it. Mr C.S Lewis asked us to consider how we would feel if someone told us that there was a lion in the next room; and compare it with how we would feel if someone told us that there was a ghost in the next room. He also said that growing up in Ireland, he had met people who honestly believed in both ghosts and fairies, and who were un-bothered by the former but terrified of the latter. 

If I were in an old house and heard unexplained banging noises and felt drops in temperature, I would probably think that there was a burglar in the building, or that the boiler was about to blow up. And that might "frighten" me, because being beaten up and having hot water poured over me are not things which I particularly enjoy. But that's not what we are talking about when we talk about being "scared" by ghosts, and that's why grown-up ghost stories are relatively unlikely to involve creaky floors, clanking chains, and things with sheets over their head that go woo-woo. The ghost story that actually "frightens" us is the one where we are unexpectedly visited by an old friend, have a drink with him, and find out a week later that he's been dead an buried for six months. Physical danger frightens us; ghosts creep us out. Somewhere in between is the weird yucky feeling we get in the presence of snakes, spiders, dead bodies and Nigel Farage.

Hide is heavily trailed as being a "scary" Doctor Who story. It isn't remotely creepy or uncanny, and the monster is less dangerous than the one which nearly set off a nuclear war last week. It is constructed on the the assumption that I am eight years old and will be sent into paroxysms of delighted horror every time a grown up says "!". I'm not and I wasn't and I don't, as matter of fact, believe I would have been. I had far more nightmares about nuclear war than I ever did about ghosts. Thank you, again, Mrs Thatcher.

The first quarter was pretty well done; but it was a pretty well done episode of the Sarah-Jane Adventures, rather than a pretty well done episode of Doctor Who. It seemed to be running through the standard tropes of ghost stories (it does indeed show every sign of being a dark and stormy night) and going nowhere very interesting with them. Mr Scott and Ms Raine (who my mother tells me features prominently in a popular TV show about babies) turn in good performances as the Repressed Professor and his Beautiful Empathetic assistant, always assuming that you believe that "she's- not-worth-risking-a-single-hair-on-your-head-for-not-to-me" is the sort of thing an actual human being might say. 

I liked the idea that the Professor has become Obsessed with ghost hunting because of the people he killed during the war, although this seems to rather take for granted that "inexplicable apparitions" and "post-death survival" go together like "metaphor" and "perfunctory". (Surely that's what superstitious natives think? Serious Paranormal Investigators know better.) I liked the confrontation between the Doctor and Clara in the TARDIS, shoehorned into the script though it undoubtedly was. I don't buy the idea that, because the Doctor can travel forward in time to a point where any given person has already died, every person is, from his point of view, a ghost. I'm not even sure what that means. There is a very nice episode of Sarah-Jane in which Rani is sent back in time by a man with a funny hat and meets Lady Jane Grey. There is no expectation that she should be less engaged with her new friend's tragic situation because, from a certain point of view, she's already been dead for five hundred years. I thought that the use of the TARDIS to get at the explanation for the ghost was quite fun: I like the idea that the entire history of the human race is, for the Doctor pretty much just a short detour and a minor subplot. 

The noise about pocket dimensions made no sense at all, and to be honest, I had very little idea what was supposed to be happen during the last twenty minutes. I sometimes complain that Doctor Who has offered us a reasonable "magic" solution to a situation, and overlaid it with an unconvincing scientific gloss. This one I couldn't even follow as magic. The Doctor needs some weird equipment and the Repressed Obsessed Professor's Beautiful Empathic Assistant because the TARDIS can't go into the pocket dimension except at the very last minute when Clara persuades it that it can. Oh well.

The monster that was chasing Future Lady around the blasted heath was genuinely alien, and the dreamlike quality of those sequences were about as close as we got to "scary" in this "scary" episode. Did you notice that it was credited as "the crooked man"? Would anyone like to bet folding money that the episode was going to be called "the crooked house" write up to the very last minute?

The final 30 seconds are one of those times when my jaw drops and I find it impossible to believe that I am actually watching Doctor Who. Or, indeed, anything that has been put together by a professional writer. Lots of writers, I guess, change their mind about how their story should end in the process of writing it. Most writers go back and do a second draft and put in foreshadowing and clues and stuff. But Doctor Who is the bestist and most wonderfullest and most seriousist bit of proper grown up drama on television, so there's no need to bother. "It's not a ghost story, it's a love story." You're just not trying, are you?

I pretty much stopped taking the episode seriously during the scene when the Doc and Clara were by themselves in the music room, and there was a scary cold spot and a scary banging. (The episode therefore scores a weak 33% on the Ril/Moff Scale.)

"I know I'm a teeny tiny bit terrified" says Clara "But I'm an adult. There's no need to actually hold my hand". 

"Clara" says the Doctor "I'm not holding your hand", whereupon they scream and run down the stairs.

I grant that, on the fifth viewing you find out that there is a reason for this. It seems that the genuinely horrible monster chasing Future Lady is not genuinely horrible at all, but merely looking for a lover, and presumably holds hand with Clara across the dimensions because he's lonely. But at this point in the story, it feels less like something out of a ghost story and more like something out of a pantomime. In the, er, quintessentially splendid "Ghost Light", Ace was scared of Gabriel Chase because it freaked her out when she was a little girl. ("Ace tells the Doctor about her worst nightmare" explained the Radio Time "So he takes her there.") In the also pretty good "Satan Pit", the Doctor claims to be unnerved by the devil creature but because the idea of something coming from "before the universe" doesn't fit into his world view. Here we have two people who kept their nerve on a nuclear sub when an alien was about to blow up the world screaming like two kids on a ghost train pretending because they think they are in a room with ghostie. 

So. A ghost which isn't frightening, wrapped up as a metaphor for stuff we already know, with a more than usually meaningless magical-science explanation.

And it's "MET A BEE LIS" not "MET TEB A LUS"

Friday, April 26, 2013

Cold War [7:9]

Today I unveil a new metric for the testing of New Who episodes: the Ril-Moff scale.

Every Doctor Who story gets a rating based on how many minutes I was able to accept and enjoy the story on its own terms for, before giving up and yelling "Oi! Moffat! Stop!" compared with the overall length of the episode.

Cold War scores an impressive 84%.

From time to time, someone sends me an e-mail saying something along the lines of "Oh, writing a critical assessment of Lord of the Rings, are we; well, until you have written a thousand page fantasy novel with made up dialects and really boring descriptions of forests and changed the course of twentieth century Beowulf scholarship, you should just shut up about it." I regard them as being on about the same level as the ones who can't tell the difference between comparisons and analogies.

But on the other paw.

I have over the last few months occasionally idled away the odd minute by strumming on a ukulele, and no, that is not a euphemism for anything at all. This has greatly increased my tolerance for musical support acts. The fellow singing the not terribly good songs about American ladies, trains and whisky before the act that I paid money to hear may not be all that good, but he generally shows signs of knowing more than three chords, and being able to do one thing with his left hand while doing an entirely different thing with his right hand, and often singing at the same time. 

"Well" I often find myself saying "I certainly couldn't do that."

I came around some time ago to the idea that while I was quite clever at doing things with words, I didn't have the knack for arranging them into stories or scripts. And this makes me slightly nervous about accusing someone who can clearly construct a script, write dialogue and get it commissioned and filmed of being a rank amateur who I could do better than.

He clearly isn't and I clearly couldn't. I even quite like Sherlock.

But for goodness crying out loud sake!

Yeah, I get the idea of doing Alien with an Ice Warrior, and I get the idea of it doing it on a nuclear sub so you can turn the jeopardy up to 11 and I get that it has to be a Russian sub because a Brit or American sub would be too obvious and I get (obviously) that if that's what you are doing then it has to be in the 1980s when T.B.W was trying terribly hard to help Reagan (who believed in the literal truth of the book of Revelation) to start a nuclear war.

But couldn't think of a better way of reminding the young people that this is the olden days than by having the elderly, Russian scientist obsessed by young English people's music? 

At least Clara resisted the temptation to say "What was a 'tape' Doctor".

I wish I'd been a giant maggot on the wall during the script read through. I don't have to read this rubbish. I was King Lear and the Cardasian in that episode of Next Gen.

Is this the story where a monster gets loose on the Russian nuclear submarine? Or is it the one in which an Ice Warrior gets loose on a Russian nuclear sub-marine? Or is it the one where an ICE WARRIOR does some stuff somewhere or other, it doesn't really matter, a nuclear sub will do?

How exciting, basically, do you find the arrival of an Old Monster?

Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors. Daleks and Cybermen and Ice Warriors go together like lions and tigers and bears. The Daleks appeared, what, fifteen times? The Cybermen appeared seven or eight times. The Ice Warriors appeared twice, in a very good story imaginatively called The Ice Warriors, which the BBC have lost, and in a rather weak one officially called the Seeds of Doom, but usually known as Invasion of the Bubble Bath (by me, at any rate.)

They also had a supporting role as one of a number of alien races attending a parish council meeting in The Monster and Curse of Peladon. Their function in that story is to be Old Monsters; former enemies of the Doctor who the Doctor naturally suspects of murdering the Lord Chancellor, even though the Hound of the Baskervilles dunnit.

It's almost as if the Ice Warriors whole job is to be Old Monsters. Iconic monsters. (I wonder if this is really because the kinds of people who drew the Doctor Who Monster Book and the Weetabix Picture Cards grew up during the Troughton era?)

There is no reason why, when the Ice Warrior comes on stage ten minutes the Doctor shouldn't say "Ice Warriors...Ice Warriors...who the hell are they?" as we presumably did when the Macra appeared at the end of the one with Father Dougal. But he doesn't. He says "We go way, way back" and it's one of those old fan validation moments. 

"So do we" we all cry out "So do we!"

I think that what Cold War wants to be is THE ONE WHERE AN ICE WARRIOR TAKES OFF ITS ARMOUR. If you are in the fan party, then you have been waiting to know what a naked Ice Warrior looks for forty years. At least, the episode seems to have been constructed on the assumption that you have. I am not sure I ever even realized that the Ice Warriors were wearing armour. I think I thought it was shell. I think I thought they were ancient warlike Martian turtles. Still, I thought the final scene where the Warrior takes off his armour so he could look the Doctor in the eye was rather nice, and the creature was both alien and sinister and pathetic.

I think that maybe the original brief was "Do Alien, but set on a Soviet Nuclear Sub." The problem with that brief is that the Aliens in Alien are slithery lizard-like spider-like vagina-like penis-like things you can hardly see whereas Ice Warriors are great big clunking space vikings who talk like Worf. 

No problem, says Gatiss, we'll detach the Ice Warrior from his armour, and have him slithering along corridors like a green slithery thing. He can have big long scary fingers which can hug people's faces like an Alien Face Hugger. And we can do that scene where someone says everything's all right, and then a big alien hand comes down and grabs them from above. And then we can do it again.  And then we can do it again.

On the other hand, maybe Moffat looked at the first draft, in which an Alien Soldier was trapped on a sub with Human Soldiers (and was eventually beaten by the Doctor holding his nerve and threatening to blow everybody up) and said "This is great Mark, really really great: it's just that in Doctor Who, everyone including evil green space vikings has to have a sensitive side. And I really, really like the idea of reintroducing an Iconic Alien Race by just showing how threatening one single individual who thinks he is the last of his kind can be. But we did that once before. Could you go and dig up the first season story with the Dalek in it and make this one more like that?" 

Which would explain why Ice Warriors have become scary pathetic creatures in a big metal suits; and why "what does the Ice Warrior look like?" was done as a big reveal, and why the situation was finally resolved through dialogue, and why we had the wholly gratuitous and nonsensical scene in which the companion is locked in a dark room with a chained up monster just before it gets loose.

If you were going to do the Naked Ice Warrior plot, wouldn't it have been cleverer to have a green slimy thing running loose around the sub for 30 minutes, and then finished Act III by revealing as a total out of the blue surprise that actually it's an Ice Warrior? But that, I suppose would have risked the mainstream audience crying out "An Ice what?

Mostly, I really liked it. It was an old fashioned, traditional Doctor Who story, made in a modern style with modern special effects and modern sensibilities. Put this Ice Warrior alongside a Troughton-era Ice Warrior, and it would be very clear that we were looking at a new version of the original creature: jazzed up a bit, more animatronics, and, of course, in colour, but definitely the same beast. The New Silurians and the New Cybermen really only had a coincidental similarity to the original versions. (This is also true of the Daleks, except insofar as anything with a dome and a sink plunger is unmistakably Dalekoid.)

The look and feel of the story — the individual shots, the pictures we see on our magic screens — were far prettier and far more atmospheric than anything that ever happened in the original series. I felt this was how the original series would have looked if it had had the time and the money. Doctor Who not as it was but as it should have been. Doctor Who as we remember it being if we are the sort of people who embellish old TV in our heads or only know Fury From the Deep from the novelisation. The Doctor and the Ice Warrior facing off in extreme close up; the Russian commander's finger, and the the Warrior's claw, hovering over the big red button; the sheer smallness and wetness of the sub — I kept thinking that it looked like and exceptionally high quality 1980s fanzine, when fans with pen and ink could pull off special effects that the BBC couldn't.

Doctor Who has been a lot of things in its time. It has been costume drama and nerdy sci-fi and action adventure and whacky and unpindownable surreal stuff with Douglas Adams and a robot dog. But if we say "This is a Doctor Who story" I think we know the kind of story we are talking about. Aliens invading London; plucky soldier boys trying to help, boffins saving the day. Big galactic empire at war; broken down freighter ship caught in the middle; Doctor mistaken for a spy. Moonbase full of scientists besieged by nasty robots. Polar base full of scientists besieged by nasty robots. Oil rig full of scientists besieged by nasty sea-weed. Lighthouse full of Victorians besieged by nasty balloon.

I do not think that the return of the Ice Warriors is a Good Thing In Itself. But once I spotted that Cold War was going to follow the good old Base Under Siege format, I certainly stood up and cheered "Hooray! Proper Doctor Who! At last!"

The attempt to do a very traditional Doctor Who story shows how wrong New Who has been allowed to go  at any rate, how far it as departed from its original format. I myself would be happy for the Doctor to be trapped in some interesting environment — submarine, temple, space ship — full of interesting non-player characters  threatened by interesting monsters on an almost weekly basis. I think that would be much better than running through five different styles in five episodes. But the Base Under Siege is no longer Doctor Who's natural storyline; Horror of Fang Rock and the Web of Fear are simply not tell-able in Moffat-style. Moffat has killed the thing he loved.

And that's OK, change is good and only the dead don't change and  a stopped clock gather no moss and so on;  but we should all accept that this is what has happened and move on. We shouldn't keep harkening back to forty year old stories in a style we've decided to jettison. Old Who was about a boffin with a magic box that he couldn't steer, who was stuck wherever it put him with nothing but his wit and his companions to help him. New Who is about a god-brat with a magic wand and an infinite supply of fairy dust. The New Doctor could have taken Skaldac back in time 5,000 years, dropped him off on Mars, fixed the submarine (or nipped back in time to a point before it was broken) and been on his way before the opening credits rolled. To set up the trapped claustrophobic scenarios that used to be the Doctor Who hallmark, there had to be a silly plot device to put the TARDIS our of action and a silly plot device to separate the Doctor from the sonic screwdriver to say nothing of a really silly plot device (and what the TV Tropes People would call a Gilligan Cut) to engineer a scene in which Clara gets to be heroic and important and the equal of the Doctor in every respect.

The B.U.S format emerged in a world of four and six part serials, long on atmosphere and suspense, punctuated by cliffhangers. There is, I grant you, some good dialogue between Clara and the Prof. I get the impression that we are meant to think that there is a sub-plot about the young Russian Officer who thinks that triggering nuclear Armageddon would be a good career move, but it gets too little screen time for us to really notice. It's structured and paced far more like a trailer for an episode than an actual story.

This is okay, too: the manic pacing works really well for mad stories like Let's Kill Hitler and silly stories like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. But it completely prevents this kind of suspense / horror story from being either suspenseful or horrific.

Unless, of course, I missed the point again and it wasn't meant to be a suspense / horror story but a serious human drama about the futility of war which happened to borrow part of its form from the suspense / horror genre?

You may remember that Patrick Troughton never appeared in a story entitled The Slightly Different But Probably Equally Valid World View of the Daleks. During the golden age of Doctor Who monsters were evil and that was that. Some corners of the galaxy have bred the most terrible things; they had to be fought. But that doesn't work in the touchy feely 21st century emotionally literate version of Doctor Who. The Ice Warrior can't be defeated and obliterated. It has to be shown the error of its ways; and we have to have a go at seeing things form his point of view. 

I have spent the last eight years complaining that the Doctor too often defeats enemies by having a special Enemy Defeating Device in his back pocket. So I am hardly going to complain that this week the Doctor defeats his enemy by talking to it and persuading it that it doesn't really want to be quite so evil after all. 

As a matter of fact, I really liked this scene. It made sense on its own terms and in terms of the metaphor about the "ice warrior" and the "cold warriors" (and the fellow from the Red planet being trapped with the Red soviets). The idea of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction has been spelled out to those of us who haven't got that far in our history lesson yet. The Ice Warrior has spotted that by firing a single nuke, it can trigger a war that will wipe out the whole of the human race. Declaring war on a whole planet because one human prodded you seems a bit harsh, but he is the baddie. So when the Doctor announces (once he gets his sonic screwdriver back) that he would rather blow up the submarine himself, it makes perfect sense. It's the only way he can think of (deprived of his magic box but reunited with his magic wand) to save the earth. It's his own version of mutually assured destruction. The Ice Warrior takes off his mask, looks the Doctor in the eye and asks who will blink first. It was a really good ending. It really pleased me.

Thirty eight minutes. I'd been on board up to this point. Thirty eight minutes.

First, bloody Clara intervenes, and instead of appealing to the Ice Warrior's military honour, or facing him down tactically, she appeals to his sense of mercy and family ties. You aren't really a soldier, deep down, she says, you are really a cuddly fluffy bunny who wants to skip through the dead Martian meadows singing Ultravox songs.

I suppose that this is the only, and I used the term advisedly, politically correct ending available. If the Doctor's plot had worked it would have meant that in the end M.A.D was right and T.B.W won the cold war by outfacing Communists with nukes, but because in the end everyone decided that they'd just rather be nice. 

"Okay" says the Ice Warrior "Fair point. I won't blow up your planet after all" and is instantly beamed up by a passing Ice Warrior mothership. This is almost exactly as believable as a frozen Alexander the Great being discovered at the North Pole, and the first thing he does after he's been defrosted is send out a carrier pigeon and 40 minutes later a Greek Aircraft Carrier arrives at the North Pole to take him home. 

Yes, I know it's not meant to be real.

Third, we find out why the TARDIS vanished. This is so appalling it's actually brilliant. The Doctor has been fiddling with the TARDIS and has accidentally switched on a plot device which makes the TARDIS fly away whenever there is danger. He calls this the Hostile Action Displacement System. What is utterly wonderful is that the HADS were alluded to in once before, forty four years ago, in a story called the Krotons. (The Krotons was the only extant four part Patrick Troughton story until another one was discovered, so it was the one shown in 1981 as part of a repeat season to commemorate the departure of Tom Baker. So fans of a certain age know about the HADS.) The genius of this is that older fans, who are the only ones still paying attention, are so busy jumping up and down in excitement that they don't actually have time to notice that this was the Worst Plot Device Ever. Why did the TARDIS vanish? Because it did. But never mind. He referenced the Krotons!

Good concept, good execution, tolerable script, terrible ending, shows that classic Old Who Stories don't really fit into the New Who Format any more and the Clara's natural accent is Northern. But that's okay. Lots of planets have a North. Move on.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

If you have not read the comments after my last Doctor Who review, the following will probably not make much sense to you

Furthermore, if you have read the comments after my last Doctor Who review, the following will probably still not make very much sense to you.


Is the problem that we are using "empirical" and "rational" as if they were the same when actually they are very nearly opposites? 

(Rational: Only what a man in dark room with no knowledge of the world could work out from first principles is really real; Empirical: Only what you can see and touch and weigh and measure is really real.) 


I think that the existence of this question is more interesting than which side is right. 

Remember C.S Lewis's use of Haldane’s paradox. (My reason tells me that my brain is composed of atoms; if my brain is composed of atoms than my thoughts are the result of non rational chemical atomic and subatomic processes, if my thoughts are the product of non rational processes then I have no reason to believe what they tell me, therefore I have no reason to think my brain is composed of atoms.) One side thought that the problem was unresolvable, the other side couldn't see what the problem was. 

(We all know the story about how the philosophix pulled this argument apart when Lewis tried to use it to disprove the non-existence of miracles; what's often missed is that she thought that it was a proper grown up philosophical argument and that his second version was a great improvement. A.N Wilson delivers an impressive punch to Lewis when he points out that Lewis only became convinced by this argument after he became a Christian.) 


Some people say that there is nothing apart from what can be weighed and measure and expressed to four significant figures, or proved logically from first principles. 

Those people often say that beliefs about how you should live and how you should act (in particular the ones they don’t agree with) are superstitious or literally meaningless...something we should all have grown out of, like the belief that bears will eat you if you stand on the cracks in the pavement. 

So if I say that it should not be permissible for a physician to kill a patient (even if that patient is very sick and wants to be killed) (which I wouldn’t necessarily say, i incidentally) they say that i only think this because I believe in various entities who’s existence cannot be proved from first principles or weighed and measured and expressed to for significant figures -- the soul, angels, god, morals. The nice ones say that its quite okay for me to believe in such things in the privacy of my own homes, laws should only be based on things which you can weigh and measure and prove. What some of us sometimes find confusing is that it often turns out that those very same people have very strong beliefs that are very important to who they are -- that hurting people is wrong even when it is useful; that men and women should be treated the same; that you shouldn't eat horses or show your willy to strangers; that Wagner and Dylan and Picasso have a sort of floaty goldy magic regeneration stuff in them that One Direction basically don’t. When you say “but hang on a minute, you didn't find those things out by weighing and measuring or by working it out from first principles “ they often literally don’t understand the question and say “Oh, i suppose you think that only people who believe in the tooth fairy can be good, do you?”

When Mr Spock talks about logic, he is sometimes actually talking about logic, in the sense of deriving conclusions from premises. He would have no problem with saying that if I believe in such and such a thing, I would also have to believe in such and such another thing and behave in such and such a way, without committing himself on whether it was right of me to believe in the original thing or not. Vulcans are often portrayed as having very strong mystical beliefs and a very strong sense or personal honour (they are, after all, mutant Romulans, or possibly vice versa.) But they follow through on the implications of those beliefs, like an orthodox Rabbi who regards the Torah as non-negotiable but will take on all-comers in a rational debate on what it means and how you apply it. Nimoy was Jewish. 

But very often, "Logical" just means "sensible", or "scientific" or simply alien. (If Spock describes some aspect of human behaviour as illogical, he often just means "I don't understand this" or "I don't approve of this". Nimoy recorded a song, god help us, in which he argued that it was highly illogical that 

a: if a lot of people own cars and use them for short trips, they sometimes find it hard to find a place to park them and 

b: however much two people love each other, when they have lived together for a long time, each of them can start to find the other irritating. 

Terry Nation (or was it Terrence Dicks, or even Douglas Adams) thought that being logical meant being stupid. Davros, like a very primitive computer, could draw conclusions from premises but could not conceive that those premises were false. Which is true as far as it goes: I can't find out from a maths book how much money is left in my current account. But I imagine that a brilliant scientist, however mad, might have spotted that you need accurate data to work from. 

The Doctor's collywobbles about wiping out the Daleks is a bit mixed up, of course. Partly, he's worried about interfering in history at all: he doesn't really know what a history of the universe rewritten without the Daleks in it would be better or worse. Partly, it's based on the idea of absolute values -- you don't kill children or commit genocide no matter what. Partly, I suppose, it is about empathy: Sarah thinks of the Daleks as being like a deadly virus; the Doctor at some level thinks of them as people. At the beginning he accepts the Time Lord's judgement that the Daleks will eventually wipe out everything else in the universe and that this would be a bad thing. But how is that any more than an aesthetic judgement? -- it would be bad because variety is more pleasing than uniformity, it would be bad because humming birds are prettier than Daleks. If Darwinian logic says that eventually the race most perfectly adapted to survive is the only race which survives, how is that different from Newtonian logic telling us that eventually the the universe will run out of energy and there will be nothing at all? 

Forty years of fandom has inscribed Genesis of the Daleks with a meaning that Terry Nation never really intended it to have. It's all about Time Lord self interest. A Dalek dominated universe would be bad for the Time Lords so they used the Doctor as their pawn to strike the first blow in the great time war. 

When I said that I might have been happier if Clara's leaf had been defined as a "magic" leaf I think I was thinking of Tolkien and or Lewis's definition of magic as "objective efficacy which cannot be further analysed". The Key to Time is clearly magical: rules established early on state that "if you put these six bits of crystal together and make a cube, time will stop. It just will." I don't think anything would have been gained by expanding on that and saying that its made of Timestopanium which will cause the the higgs boson wifi quantum to atrophy... 

I think that the difference here is between those of us who think that if you believe in morals at all, you must believe that morals are magical, like the Key to Time: things which are there because they are there and can't be further analysed; and those who think that people worked them out or divided them or constructed them based on something else. Do you say that you should follow the Golden Rule because you should follow the Golden Rule because it is a good rule and you should follow good rules because it is good to follow good rules; or do you say that the Golden Rule is a sort of approximation, based on trial and error, of the kind of behaviour which will, all things being equal, make you and those around you fairly happy, most of the time, probably. As a matter of fact following traditional morality probably will make you and those around you fairly happy, most of the time; but if a moral rule is a moral rule and not a sort of actuarial utilitarian estimate then you have to apply it even on days of the week when it is going to make you and those around you miserable. That's why magistrates always asked pacifists whether they would stand aside if a German officer was about to kill their children: they were prepared to excuse him from military service if he really believed "Thou Shalt Not Kill" was a rule -- not if he turned out to actually think it was more of a guideline. 

The great theologian Johnny Cash said that he hoped that his preference for dark coloured clothes would draw attention to those people who didn't know about Jesus "path to happiness through love and charity". The idea that Jesus offered agape as a sort of self help system, on the lines of "a path to weight loss through yoga and cabbages" is completely off the wall: only one step up from the fellow who says "become a Christian so that your business will prosper." (Terrific song, though.) 

So the problem is not that there is an opposition between "rationality" and "morality." The problem is with people who say. "There are no magical things. Everything can either be worked out from empirical observation or derived from first principles -- oh, apart from that thing over there. That's a magical thing, obviously." 

Sadists and racists often tell the following story. 

A dusky skinned foreigner from a non-specific middle-eastern country has planted an atomic bomb under a skyscraper. He is now in the custody of a special agent who has only (for the sake of argument) twenty four hours to find the bomb. The dastardly terrorists, while brilliant in many ways, were not clever enough to train their guy hold out under torture for a short period of time, or to move the bomb to a new location should their operative be captured. So: is our special agent (lets call him "Jack" to simplify things) entitled -- indeed, morally obligated -- to horribly torture the dusky skinned foreigner in order to force him to disclose the location of the bomb? Is he, entitled -- indeed, morally obligated -- to horribly torture the dusky skinned foreigner's five year old son (who is conveniently also in his custody) in order to force him to disclose the location of the bomb. And if the suspect were to say "Actually, I can deal with torture, but like all dusky skinned followers of queer native religions I am a colossal paedophile, so if you will allow me to brutally molest your five year old son for an hour or two, I will happily tell you the location of the bomb" is Jack morally obliged to hand the little boy over. (The third example, you will note, is exactly the same as the first two, unless you have smuggled in the idea that the terrorist suspect deserves to be hurt for being a terrorist suspect and the terrorist subjects son deserves to be hurt for being the son of a terrorist suspect -- or, indeed, that white kids matter more than dusky skinned foriegn kids.) Logically, one screaming child is preferable to six thousand screaming children. But when people talk about "morals" they generally mean "I don't care if it useful or not. Torturing children is off the agenda."

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Rings of Akhaten (7.8)

Here's the problem. If the Rings of Akhaten had been a Tom Baker four-parter, we would have quite liked it at the time and now think that it was about due for a thorough critical reappraisal. It would have been the weird, sentimental month of the six months of Doctor Who we were allowed each year — in between the funny month, the gothic month, the UNIT month and the genuinely not very good month. Some of the subordinate characters would have been better developed, and some of the more obvious wrinkles in the plot would have been straightened out. This would have militated against doing such a heavily symbolic story to begin with. 

But nowadays, when we are only allowed nine episodes of Doctor Who a year, every one of them has got to be sensational, particularly when Steve Moffat spends quite so much time telling us that every one of them is going to be sensational. And it's all over and done with too quickly to be sensational. It feels...there is no other way of saying this...slight. If you are doing a story about some Victorians on a lighthouse, you can afford to feel slight. If you are doing a big epic about gods and time and religion and the nature of memory and the soul and grief, you probably can't.

Yes, I know that we are all supposed to close our eyes and pretend very hard that we are still watching Season 7. You can say that the six stories we got in 2012 and the nine stories we're getting in 2013 are all part of the same season all you like, and it will remain true that the BBC is making less Who than it used to. It will also remain true that this block of stories, while not, definitely not, being a new season, does have a new theme tune, a new title sequence, a new TARDIS design, a new costume for the Doctor and introduce a new plot "arc.". (When Hislopp printed the story about the BBC cutting back on Who, Moffat went all flouncy. It turned out to be largely true.)

And here's the problem. There is the character Matt Smith is actually actually playing, the young old schoolboy, owing almost as much to Peter Davison as William Hartnell, thrilled by the universe, but out of his depth in it, who knows he is the Doctor and knows that he can't ever quite live up to being the Doctor, always thinking that the next threat is the one he can't actually cope with. Of course he can never really be out of his depth: it will always turn out that he has a thing and that thing is the exact thing he needs to save the day. In fairness, this was also true in the olden days when the world was black and white, but the writers used to take slightly more trouble to cover their tracks. Increasingly, the Doctor has not even needed to produce a canister of Antiplastic from his Doctor Utility Belt when he is fighting the Plastic Monster. Increasingly, what he pulls out of his pocket is himself: the very fact of his Doctorness defeats the enemy. (Like everything else in New Who, this can be traced back to Curse of Fatal Death: the Doctor is finally and irrevocably dead, but rises again because the universe itself can't bear to be without him.) The Doctor doesn't have a deus ex machina: the Doctor is a deus ex machina. But Matt Smith is so much more luminous and entertaining when he's being the bumbling uberboffin than when he's trying to be the messianic god-brat. 

And that's a shame, because otherwise I rather liked the story. 


Last week we had the the silly one where the Doctor tries on new clothes, meets a new companion and defeats an alien invasion by typing really, really quickly. This week we had the sensible one set in the not very well lit metaphor, where there is a huge monster-shaped plot device intended to reveal the Doctorness of the Doctor. (It all turns on compassion, especially compassion to children.) I wouldn't be surprised if next week we had the one that put an iconic monster in the middle of an historical war.

I think that this kind of metaphorical fantasy is very much the thing that Doctor Who should be doing because it is very much the kind of thing that only Doctor Who does. 

I think that Doctor Who started out as a costume drama and should go back to being a costume drama from time to time. 

I think that its nice that the Doctor is actually going to wondrous alien planets instead of just talking about them. 

I liked the final cut from the defeat of the big alien monster thing to Clara's front door, without any wrap up or exposition. 

I quite liked the use of music, although honestly an alien lullaby that's been going on for a million years ought to sound more like Gregorian chant or the Muslim call to prayer and less like something that that Andrew Lloyd Weber put in the shredder in 1986. 

I even quite liked the metaphysics although I do think that allowing someone called Cross to write about the Magical Power of Stories when the week after next you've got Neil Gaiman is a little like buying a humanoid alien dog creature called Doreen and then barking yourself. 

I did not like the pre-cred about the Leaf. The idea that this leaf is the most important leaf in the universe because it caused Clara's parents to meet is quite a nice one, and sort of kind of made sense at the denouement of the story, but the idea that Clara's father should actually say "This is the most important leaf in the universe" to Clara's Mum seemed a little bit completely impossible to swallow and not at all the kind of thing people actually say, ever. I wasn't completely convinced by the "every individual human being is unique and therefore miraculous and this refutes the idea that a purely materialistic world view is ultimately value-free" when it was put forward by a giant with a big blue willy; I wasn't any more convinced when we reprised it twice in one episode of Who.

I liked the idea that the soul is made of stories, but this only works if you equivocate shamefully about what you means by "soul" and, indeed, "story". "Soul" is a sort of a metaphor — a tool of thought — for whatever makes you "you". [*] When we talk about "souls" we mostly mean "how we think about human beings when we think of them holistically, rather than as collections of atoms and organs". So when the Doctor says that the soul is made of stories he is saying that what makes you you is the sum total of your memories and experiences. But the episode only makes sense because the word "soul" can also do service as meaning "a sort of invisible ghost that hides in your body somewhere but is separate from it". Golden glowy regeneratey stuff that vampire monsters can suck out of you and feed on, in other words. 

Nothing wrong with having a religious view of the soul hanging around in scientific universe. Nothing wrong with the Doctor respecting both ways of looking at things. But no-one had thought it through. At the start, he seems to be respectful of the aliens' religious beliefs: when Clara asks him whether all life in the universe really originated on Akhaten he replies "Well, it's a nice story." But five minutes later he is proposing wobbly scientific rationalism to the girl as a better story. Which it isn't. We don't value scientific rationalism because it's a more aesthetically pleasing narrative (which is what "good story" means) but because it is truer and more useful, for certain values of truth and usefulness. People without no imagination might say that the very quality of being true make it a better story by definition, but only because they don't understand what "story" means. And that doesn't fit in with the Doctor liking alien religions because of their aesthetic beauty and any way, I don't see how Merry being unique in a Dr Manhattan sense (unrepeatable specific arrangement of atoms and chemicals) confers on her the sort of glowy floaty soul that  aliens can eat. 

It's the same cop out as in Daemons where the Doctor debunks all kinds of faith — Jo's Aquarianism, Mrs Hawthorn's wiccanism, both the Satanism and the Anglicanism of the villagers — and then says at the end, when everyone starts Morris Dancing and drinking beer, that it's okay, there is still magic in the world after all. To which the answer is "only because you've decided to use 'magic' in two different senses, you over-dressed old phony". 

I think that this contradiction in the Doctor's personality — how the ultra-scientific, ultra-rationalist is combined with the ultra-romantic and ultra-moralistic is worth thinking about. But I am not sure that "each individual leaf, each individual little girl, each individual stereotyped welsh coal miner, each individual snow flake and presumably each individual cancer cell and each individual turd is unique, unrepeatable and infinitely valuable" actually gets us very far. 

The twists are clever, but they are arbitrarily clever. They sit there being clever twists. Clara meets a little girl who is afraid: we assume that she is afraid of baddies who want to hurt her but she is actually afraid of officials who want her to give a public performance. The Doctor says "we never walk away from trouble" but it turns out that he means that sometimes they have to run. We are led to believe that the alien mummy is the god; but it's actually the whole planet that they are in orbit around. I am told that anyone with a basic knowledge of musical theory can be taught how to write a catchy tune; I suspect that if you went to a creative writing course to learn how to write a TV script, this the kind of TV script they could teach you to write. 

The solution was rather clever, sort of, a little like one of those folk tales where the only thing bigger than the very big thing turns out to be the very small thing. (Like the one about the two cafes in the bidding war: the first one puts up a notice saying "Best coffee on this street" and the second one says "Best coffee in this town" and it escalates ... the best in the state, the best in the USA, the best on earth, the best in the galaxy, the best in the Universe. The first one thinks for a bit and realise he can still win by going back to "The best coffee on this street.") It was playing off our expectations of how Doctor Who stories work nowadays. The Doctor goes from being out of his depth, having no idea how to solve the problem, but thinking he'd better have a go because he's the Doctor, to suddenly going into one of his "I am the oncoming storm, I killed the time Lords, I have a big pointy hat and I'm not afraid to use it" speeches. I cannot help feeling we have seen this once too often. In the one with the weeing angels, and the one with the big metal cube and in the one where he first met Amy. More problematically, we've seen it parodied in the Lodger. ("No violence, not while I'm around, not today, not ever. I'm the Doctor, the oncoming storm... and you just meant beat them in a football match, didn't you?") When a series starts parodying its own cliches, it needs to find another set of cliches. Unless it can come out the other side and be post-modern about it, which it appears that it can't. 

Structurally, I liked it: the soul-eating monster wakes up and wants to feed; the little girl, who knows all the stories and histories of the planet, wants to sacrifice herself, but the Doctor won't let her; he tries to sacrifice himself (with all his infinite knowledge of the whole universe) but this doesn't satiate the Monster, so instead Clara offers her mother's pressed leaf, which we have already established is the most important leaf in the universe. The trouble is that the leaf is only the most important leaf in the universe because he father once said so; and this being Doctor Who and at least nominally science fiction, we have to at least have a stab at a better explanation than that. So we claim that while the Doctor may have memories of practically everything which ever happened in the universe, which is vast, the leaf contains all the things which were lost when Clara's mother died, which is infinite. 

I get the idea that when people invest an object with significance, they somehow invest them with Psychic Energy. I get that people have Psychic Energy inside them, and people with more memories (the Doctor, the little girl) have more of the stuff than people who have led sheltered lived. I get that the leaf could be exceptionally potent because it is exceptionally important to Clara. But I don't buy that because it is of infinite importance to Clara it actually contains an infinite amount of energy. Obviously Clara's parents are the more important to her than the whole universe but only is so far as everybody's loved ones are more important to everybody than the whole universe, in which case there is so much psychic energy available that the big monster thing would have died of indigestion a long time ago. 

"But Andrew: if, as you say, the story is based on a metaphor, isn't it unfair to be complaining that it didn't make logical sense."

Well, yes and no. I would have been relatively happy if we had said that it was a magic leaf and left it at that. But the Matt Smith has to talk for several minutes on why the leaf is more powerful than his memories, or indeed the memories of an entire civilisation, and the more he talks, the more obvious it is that he is talking rubbish and the whole episode is predicated on a metaphysical cheat. 


Clara brings nothing to the table which Amy didn't also bring. She has a thing. You may remember that Captain Jack also had a thing. Captain Jack's thing was that he had been kicked out of the time police and lost his memory. We never found out the solution to this thing. But then he got a new thing. His new thing was being immortal. The solution to that thing was that he was immortal because he had been made immortal by an immortal-making-you-thing. Amy's thing was that she had a crack in wall. I don't think we ever heard the solution to that one, either. Clara's thing is that the Doctor keeps meeting people who look like her and have similar names. He wants very badly to find out why. It isn't quite clear whether this is a cosmic thing, because he thinks that she's important to the universe, or a personal thing, because he feels bad for not saving souffle lady and is looking for a stand-in. The solution will be plucked out of the air in the final episode of the season. That solution will be the plot of the big fiftieth anniversary story. There is no point in trying to guess it because it will be made up on the spot.

As well as a thing, Clara has a personality. Clara's personality is that she wants to see the universe but also feels that she has responsibilities on earth. This was also Amy's personality. She is spunky and wise-cracky and can do one-liners and stand up to the Doctor and give him silly nick names. This was also also Amy's personality. Clara has a book called 101 Things To See. I have a horrible terrible feeling that the solution to the book will be that a malicious fairy put a curse on it so that she cannot die before she sees all the things in her book, so the Doctor, by showing her the universe, is actually killing her, but that's okay because better is one day in the TARDIS than a thousand years elsewhere. 

In the olden days, when the companion was basically a confident for the Doctor, this would not have been that big a deal. There was the one who asked the Doctor questions and said "groovy" a lot, and the one who asked the Doctor questions and went on and on about women's lib, and the one who asked the Doctor questions and stabbed people. Now the programme is a proper serious human drama about the relationship between two equally important characters it would help if you could tell the difference between this season's supporting cast and next season's supporting cast. (Sorry,   between the first half of this season and the second half of this season.) Or maybe the format is now about the Doctor and the wisecracking spunky girl and we are intended to forget that Clara is not Amy in the same way that we were meant to forget that the second lady policemen in Juliet Bravo wasn't technically the same person as the first lady policemen in Juliet Bravo. 


The Doctor last visited Akhaten with his grand-daughter. The aliens call their soul sucking alien god-planet "Grandfather". Just saying.

[*] Some people don't think that there is anything which makes you "you" and pretend that when anyone says "soul" they always really mean "glowy ghosty thing that lives invisibly in you brain" even when they don't