Saturday, May 18, 2013


1: pretty good
2: does the magical realist metaphor thing to a silly extent .... What does inside my time stream even mean....and the leaf.....
3: Does it strike you that  Moff imagined this as the anniversary special, and all the little cameos of past Doctors were planned as actual guest appearances?
4: DoctorWhoBuddy says " I can't remember the last time there was an episode with that much talking in it"
5: Really liked the idea of the Doctor's grave
6: Atmosphere of whole story very fine, actually.
7: Expected the mysterious man at the end to be The Great Intelligence who has after all been the Doctor twice, nearly
8: Actual ending genuinely surprising  although arguably more structurally surprising than anything  in the sense that it is not the way Who stories generally end.
9: In a sense it was one of those fan endings -- it isn't immediately clear what follows from it.
10: Are we supposed to think that Matt Smith is going, or are we actually getting the pay off on five years of hints about the Dark Doctor and setting up mysterious man at the end as a new ongoing baddy.
11: Congratulations on keeping it secret.
 12: All told, pretty good.

Nightmare in Silver [7.12]

Obviously, to say that a story scores 100% on the Ril/Moff scale is not saying a great deal. It's only saying that what we have just watched was a competently assembled piece of drama in which I could suspend disbelief from beginning to end. "Okay, you have just told me a story: now we can talk about whether or not it was a story worth hearing."

That said I am awarding Nightmare in Silver, charitably, a perfect score of 100%. I say charitably because, if I were feeling uncharitable I would say that the two kids were such caricatures of knowing drama school brats that one could hardly take seriously a single scene they were in.

Neil Gaiman's last outing felt very much like a Neil Gaiman story into which Doctor Who had accidentally materialized. Nothing wrong with that: we have established that  Gaiman is the Second Greatest Living Writer. But I was more interested in finding out what  a Doctor Who story written by Neil Gaiman would be like and that is what this piece essentialily was. It had a lot of recognisable Gaiman themes -- fairgrounds, whimsy, victoriana, grotesques, silly costumes -- a sort of gypsy steampunk vibe. But it was recognisably a Doctor Who story in which the Cybermen get defrosted, try to take over the universe, and get defeated.

I am not sure why it is was set in a themepark, but I can't think of any particular reason why it shouldn't have been. I am pleased that the parallell worlds theory has been abandonned and we just kind of accept that there are Cybermen and they are baddies. I liked the fact that, given that this was the best theme park in the universe and the Doctor is (as has been established) somewhere between Father Christmas and WIlly Wonker, he would naturally have a golden ticket, and therefore forgot that "gold" is one of the things Cybermen are vulnerable to. I thought the idea of the Doctor playing chess against himself was clever and funny, although it went on for rather too long. Warwick Davis is always good value, and no, I didn't see that coming, although probably I should have done. 

So. To keep old Doctor Who fans happy -- to keep this old Doctor Who fan happy, at any rate -- you don't need to do a pastiche of Old Who. (I expect Neil Gaiman could have written a pastiche of Old Who if he had wanted to, and I expect that might have been fun.) There were a few odd references to the Old Days: Cybermen waking up from their tombs, and a million cyberboots stomping across the landscape -- but arguably those have stopped being references to old stories and are now just part of the vocabulary from which cyberstories are constructed. All you have to do to keep an old Doctor Who fan happy is to drop the soap opera and the post-modern bullshit and the foisted-on story arc and just tell us a bloody story.

100%, Neil. You have Made. Good. Art.


Which leaves us with the extended prologue for next week. Clara and the Doctor do a monologue to camera, in which they both say that they didn't know very much about the other before the season finale, but then they found out, and were quite surprised. (Rather well done.)

It doesn't tell us the answers, but it drops some pretty broad hints about the ball park in which the answers will be found. Clara is not mysterious merely because she keeps dying and coming back: she is mysterious because she is exactly the sort of companion that the Doctor wants and needs. Since Wonderful-Rose, every companion has been exactly the kind of companion the Doctor most needs; but granted that what the Doctor wants is a facility with wisecracks and that quality which, if possessed byba female, is always called "fiestyness" -- a sort of heroic joy -- I'm happy to accept that Rose was special and Donna was special and Amy was special and Clara is a special replacement for Amy that he acquired "on the rebound." So, fairly clearly, it is going to turn out that Clara, being The Perfect Companion, is actually part of a trap that someone has set for him. Not a person at all, but a Plot Device disguised as a person, like Buffy The Vampire Slayer's Sister. It is also pretty clear that Clara's Thing is related to the TARDIS because we keep being told that Clara and the TARDIS don't get on; and I think it will be something to do with the kids, because I can't see any reason for their being in the One With The Cybermen except as a set-up for the metaplot.

As to the Doctors thing, we ae being led down a fairly tranparent garden path. The title of tomorrow's story is The Name of the Doctor and Moffat has repeatedly said that the story will reveal the Doctors greatest secret. What he has pointedly not said is that the Doctor's greatest secret is his name. The expression "Doctor who?" has been very heavily lampshaded all through this "season": the One With The Daleks ended with Him jumping up and down in the TARDIS saying "Doctor who?" over and over again, and when Wonderful Clara asks his name, he says "I love hearing her say that." At the end of last season, the Doctor removed all references to himself from history. That idea has not really been followed up on on. I liked the Cyberplanner's remark that he was still visible in the universe by the shape of the gap.

So. Predictions.

The Doctor's name used to be reasonably well known. When he turned up on planets and said "I'm Doctor Fooblenurdle" people said "Fooblenurdle -- not Fooblenurdle who has a Terrible Secret associated with something he did in before, during or after the Time War?" "Yes, that Fooblenurdle" replies the Doctor. When he removed himself from history, he also removed all knowledge of his name. As part of the season finale, we will learn what the terrible thing he did before, during or after the Time War was (which will, of course, have another even deeper and darker secret hidden inside it); but it will turn out that his name is literally unknowable. This is why he likes it when people ask him what he is called: it reminds him that he's covered his tracks successfully.

Clara is a construct, created by the TARDIS, based on the Doctor's memory of souffle girl, in order to prevent him going to the only place in the entire universe and world where his most deepest and darkest secret can be revealed. That's why she can't die: the TARDIS keeps rebooting her and reinserting her history at a different point.

Also: River Song is Amy Pond's daughter.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dinosaurs on Spaceship

When we met Amy, she was a little girl writing a letter to Santa. Well, not so much writing, as praying: a sort of farewell to the RTD era which had embarrassingly re-branded the Doctor as a Jesus figure. 

Of course, the Doctor turns up in answer to her prayer: her imaginary friend, the Raggedy Man of her dream. This becomes one of the new new show's running themes. Last Christmas, the Doctor was a gift-bringer somewhere between Santa Claus and Willy Wonka; this year he was a sort of male-Mary Poppins, living on a cloud. It's an established part of the mythos that if children wish hard enough for the Doctor, he will sometimes hear them. 

The Doctor as Santa Claus. Hold onto that concept, as we turn to Dinosaurs on a Spaceship the episode when new new new Who finally figures out what it was supposed to be about, and then hopelessly buggers it up. 

When the Doctor arrives on the space ship, we see him running across the floor and then skidding to a halt. 

Later on in the same episode, we see the Triceratops do the same thing. Run; stop suddenly; skid to a halt. 

When the Doctor hitches a ride on the back of the dinosaur he cries out "I am riding a dinosaur!" 

Later, when Rory and Ron Weasaley's Dad are, as a result of a perfunctory plot device, left flying a space ship, Mr Weasley cries out "we're flying a spaceship!" and "this is better than golf!". 

Indeed, when the spiky dinosaur shows up in the pre-cred, the Doctor cries out the name of the episode, with evident delight. 

And when The Great White Hunter is making his dramatic last stand, he announces that he's never been happier. 

(Last week, when Amy found herself in incredible danger from the most evil creatures ever invented, she exclaimed "Is it bad that I've really missed this?") 

Summary: everyone is having fun, and everyone knows that they are having fun. 

Now: even when you were a little kid, you probably knew perfectly well that real war was no fun at all, without pompous grown-ups telling you. The difference between playing "war" and having a war is obvious to everyone, except Miss Walker and certain Guardian columnists. I am quite sure that there were lots of kids in January 1964 having a great time "playing" Daleks; but you could hardly imagine Ian or Barbara saying "whoopee! This is fun!" as something scary chased them down a corridor. It was fun for us because it was scary for them, and we knew that it was scary for them because they were treating it as if it was real, not as if it was a game. 

We are asked to pretend that you can make a triceratops go where you want it to go by throwing a golf ball: the big lizard smells the grass on the ball and chases it. This is there primarily so they can do the "What have you got in my pocket?" "My balls" joke, which isn't funny. The second time they try the stunt (though not the joke) the dinosaur catches up with the ball, picks it up, and drops it at their feet. 

Now, I don't know much about the behaviour of triceratops, but I am pretty sure that that's not what a rhino or an elephant would do. Or a crocodile. We've forgotten for a moment why the big green chap was chasing the ball, and made him into a puppy chasing a stick. Because it's fun. Because we're only playing. 

What is John Riddell doing in the story? He's a contrast with Queen Nefatiti, I suppose: there is a certain amount of mileage to be got out of Classically Chauvinistic Male and Powerful Historical Female. And Moffat wants to give us the impression that the Doctor has a life apart from the little slice that Amy sees -- other companions that we've never heard of. A lady from ancient Egypt and a man from the Olden Days are too cool, off-the-wall semi-companions for him to have. But I rather fear that the main reason he is there is that someone start brainstorming "dinosaurs" and immediately came up with "wassisname, Muldoon, from the good Jurassic Park film."

Which is not a bad reason, actually, providing what you doing is playing at dinosaurs. 

So a playful version of Who, a cartoon Who, a bunch of adults where are quite clearly kids having a great time, being delighted by each new danger. And it really is playful and fun: like a child excitedly making up stories about his favourite characters, not like a geek joylessly putting the Jurassic Park Action Figure next to the Queen of Egypt Action Figure. The whole of the Third Doctor's era was a game, after all: the relationship between Roger and Jon makes no sense if you believe for one moment that the Master really was a psychotic mass murdering villain next to whom Hitler was basically just a bit naughty. Sword fight in a castle? Leaving the pretty lady in a death trap? They are playing at goodies and baddies, and loving every minute of it. 

And that's the problem. If you are playing at Doctor Who, you have to do it playfully. You can't drop a serious villain who had done something seriously villainous into the middle of it. You can't make him pathetic and evil at the same time. You can't make cold blooded genocide the subject of a game. 

Was there really no better way to manoeuvre the Doctor into a spiffing yarn with cartoon dinosaurs than wiping out the Silurians? We are meant to like the Silurians. The idea that they've hung around in caves for a zillion years, been nuked by the Brigadier, only to get casually wiped out by a travelling junk-dealer seems unfair. And don't say "life isn't fair": we don't want to learn harsh life lessons during a game of dinosaurs, thank you very much. The Doctor treats the whole thing oddly lightly; when he's setting up the McGuffin in which Rory and Brian fly the spaceship home, he makes a weak joke about monkeys and then laments that he didn't have a Silurian as an audience. That makes him seem callous. Under the circumstances, that's like sliding straight from the liberation of Auschwitz to the one about the the comedy Nazi and Jewish mother-in-law. 

Some people had a problem with the Doc killing the baddie at the end. That didn't worry me so much. Haven't the people who said it was out of character spotted that acting out of character is part of the Doctor's character? The question of whether the Doctor does or does not show mercy to his enemies, and the question of whether that does or doesn't make him a bad guy himself has been the main thing the show is about since Boom Town at least. Next weeks episode is called "A Town Called Mercy", for fred's sake. In the same way that Amy and Rory are endlessly trapped in the moment of falling out of love / falling in love and Amy is trapped in the moment staying with the Doctor / leaving the Doctor, the Doctor, this Doctor is trapped in the moment of becoming the dark Doctor / stepping back from brink. But it sits badly in a story in which people run around and banter with the comedy Dads while admittedly having a great time. 

Which is a shame, because it seems to me that "Doctor Who is a silly, crazy romp in which you get away with things you could never get away with in any other kind of drama" is a refreshing, fun model of what the series could be. If we can't have Moorcockian insanity like Let's Kill Hitler and The Marriage of River Song every week (and I think it would get tiring if we did) then at least let's have this kind of mad silliness. 

So. Fun romp. People playing at Doctor Who. Clash of registers between the silly and the serious. What does that have to do with dinosaurs skidding to a halt, or, indeed, Santa Claus?

Well, obviously, people are shown running like that because that's how people run in cartoons, and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is "coded" as a cartoon, in the same way that Asylum of the Daleks was "coded" as being frightening. Once the Doctor has gathered the pulp fiction characters and various Amy's and Rory's into the TARDIS, he remarks, and I do not quote: "I have a gang now. Gangs are cool." 

A gang? 

Well, we know that since 2003, Doctor Who has been modelling itself on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, without ever managing to be quite as good. Buffy was always about a group of friends, and the changing cast of gay witches, mortal demons, reformed vampires and teen werewolves which made up the supporting cast was occasionally referred to as "the Scooby gang." And of course, the non-existent companion Emma famous told the non-existent Twelfth Incarnation of the Doctor "You can't die.....You're like Father Christmas! The Wizard of Oz! Scooby Doo!" 

"Like Father Christmas and Scooby Doo."

Father Christmas.

And Scooby Doo.

We knew that Curse of Fatal Death was Moffat's personal love letter to the show and letter of application to the BBC. But we probably never realized how literally he was going to end up taking it.

Asylum of the Daleks 7.1 (cont)

Terrence Dicks used to say that the point of a Dalek was that it was pure evil with no redeeming features, but that you wished you could be a Dalek and exterminate bully or teacher or policeman or whoever was being rotten to you that week. Yeah. But that's just as true of the Cyberpeople and the Icepeople and every other damn creature ever to appear on Doctor Who and there wasn't Icewarriormania in the 1960s and there was arguably Dalekmania, which was a bit like Beatlemania. I don't remember that, but I do remember Womblemania. Then we decided we'd had enough manias. 

The point of the Daleks is that the actual physical nuts and bolts look and feel of the design is incredibly cool. I don't know why "thing which glides", "thing which has no legs", "thing with hidden wheels" is such a great idea, particularly. But when the Daleks are being well operated, gliding around in formation in Planet of the Daleks or the bits that are left of Masterplan, it never fails to make me smile. 

R.I.P, Ray Cusick. The nicest, most modest, most deserving Gold Blue Peter Badge Winner I ever saw from some distance on a panel at the National Film Theatre. 

If I told you that there was an axe murderer in the next room and you believed me, you would be scared. If I told you that there was a ghost in the next room and you believed me, you would also be scared. You would be scared of the axe murderer because he might kill you; but you would be afraid of the ghost just because he was a ghost. 

I suppose that most of who hid behind the sofa during Doctor Who were experiencing the second kind of fear. We were afraid of the idea of monsters -- strange weird funny looking things. We weren't following closely enough to know that what was actually frightening about them was that they are a metaphor for anti-Semitism or that they were going to put a neutron bomb in earth's magnetic crust. 

Sofas generally have their backs to the wall. It is more or less impossible to hide behind them.

But there is probably not much point in talking about why, or if, the Daleks are scary. Fifty years of pop cultural history says that these rather old fashioned outer space robot people are the most evil creatures ever invented. 

Nothing wrong with a baddie who is pretty much just a symbol for evil. That's what we have baddies for. 

Evil. Cool. Metaphorical. 

When we first met them, rather before my time, they were intolerant, inflexible, bigoted people in general, and the Nazis in particular, although they were also pathetic, little school bullies hitting back at the Thals because the Thals hit them first. By the time I arrived, they were a nasty fascist technological empire, which was a metaphor nasty, fascist, technological empires. This week it turns out that they are all about the-evil-that-we-carry-within-us, or part of a discourse about what-it-means-to-be-human and, in particular what-it-means-to-be-the-doctor and what-it-means-to-be-a-human-asking-what-it-means-to-be-the doctor. Which is what Doctor Who is now about, and the only thing it can be about it. And I think that it very nearly almost works. 

Daleks hate; humans love; when humans are turned into Daleks, all the love is taken out of them; which is why we have a lady who likes soufflĂ© who who has been turned into a Dalek, except she still loves, so she hasn't. 

And the Daleks admire the Doctor, because of the purity of his hate for them. Which, of course, was a big, big, clever, clever twist in 2003, when the only-Dalek-in-the-universe turns round and says to the just-turned-out-to-be-the-only-Time-Lord-in-the-Universe "You. Would. Make. A. Good. Dalek." But now it's just one of the things which is taken for granted and has to be re said in every episode. 

I preferred the model in those Big Finish Dalek Empire plays, which argued that the Daleks understand love very well: love is not that much different from hate. It's friendship they find completely impossible to understand.

If you were following the plot, then part of what made the Daleks frightening was the idea that the creature inside the machine was so terrifying and disgusting that you could hardly bare to look at it. The dying Dalek's claw coming out from under the cloak in episode 2 of Dead Planet caused more nightmares than a hundred extras going into negative and falling down. 

Season 1 of New Who gave us a single Dalek that could threaten a big military installation and wipe out a whole city of it escaped, and finished on a pretty convincing Dalekageddon; Season 2 reduced them to silly robots trading camp insults with Cybermen; by the end of Season 3 they were back to their accustomed roles as canon fodder who can't shoot straight and can be picked off by any amateur with a zap gun. I suppose this is part of the process: figures of horror in Dead Planet, mocked in Dalek Invasion of Earth, comic relief in the Chase; evil fascists in Genesis, hopeless slaves of logic who can't go upstairs in Destiny. 

But it is really really odd that Asylum of the Daleks, the nineteenth  story whose stated aim is to make the Daleks scary again, has so little confidence in the creatures that it treats them mostly as figures of fun and offers us completely different things to be scared of. 

The "fear" element comes from a space ship full of undead humans; a sort of combination of the spacesuit zombies from Silence in the Library and the Are You My Mummy zombie from the Empty Child. It's not actually scary, of course but it uses images which are "coded" a frightening. The "fear" element comes from the use of images which are "coded" as frightening. 

Children are told from an early age that ghosts are scary, which means, I think, that they play a game in which when one of their friends puts a sheets over their head they have permission to scream. (I have literally no idea what a sheet-ghost is meant to represent, by the way: a corpse in a burial shroud?) TV shows like Scooby Doo and Rentaghost are based on the idea that ghosts are frightening, but treats them as funny. If they actually thought about what a ghost represented, they might find it sad or upsetting, but they wouldn't necessarily be scared. A lot of people felt that the movie version of Caspar the Friendly Ghost-- in which Caspar is the ghost of a specific boy who has died -- took all the fun out of Caspar. My sister was inexplicably annoyed when I referred to the cartoon that my nephew and niece were enjoying as "Caspar the Dead Baby". 

The one bit which is actually "scary" in the sense of possibly catching us an making us think "that's a nasty idea" is the conceptual, mind control twist: the idea that Amy might be turning into a Dalek without realizing it, the idea that you could be losing your memory and not knowing. This is scary. But that has nothing particularly to do with Daleks. The idea of the Daleks sucking out people's emotions so they become Daleks is not really the Daleks usual schtick. It's much more a Cyberman thing. 

So maybe I'm actually misreading this. Maybe I am assuming that because there is so much talk about Amy and Rory, that the episode is about Amy and Rory. But perhaps it isn't. Perhaps Steven Moffat is one of us, and is really interested in the Daleks because they are scary-cool, and perhaps the object of the exercise is to show us as many Daleks and as many types of Daleks as he possibly can. Perhaps he is putting in the human back story to misdirect grown ups in the expectation that is target audience (eight years olds and geeks) will identify it as mushy stuff and ignore it. 

Fans always ask "Will there be any old monsters". John Nathan-Turner, in the olden days, took this to mean that fans liked the idea of old monsters and started to put lots of old monsters into Doctor Who. If the new race of snarling fibreglass fascist stormtroopers had the label "cybermen" on them, then this was fantastically exciting. Never mind that they had nothing to do with any previous version of the monster. They were Cybermen. The show was Honouring Its Past.

So: can we tune in, sit back, geek out, and love Asylum of the Daleks because there are mad Daleks, emperor Daleks, a whole parliament of Daleks, references to previous Dalek stories and a really, really silly joke about eggs. A thousand Daleks are a thousand time more exciting than one Dalek, yes? No?

Asylum of the Daleks (7.1)

But your anchor chain's a fetter, and with it you are tethered to the foam
And I wouldn't trade your life for one day of home

I've been watching Merlin. It's often funny and sometimes exciting. 

There was an episode in Season 4 where Morgana Le Baddie stole a magic cup from the druids. The magic cup made her soldiers immortal, as long as it had some of their blood in it. So Merlin had to go and upset the magic cup. There were lots of scenes of knights fighting immortal soldiers, which were quite fun, but everything depended on Merlin. (The fate of a great kingdom rests in the hands of a young boy, apparently.) 

Art is contrivance; this kind of thing is certainly contrived. It's how computer games are written: you want the hero to be rushing through the castle avoiding immortal knights, so you come up with a silly plot device to give him an excuse to do that, as opposed to working out what the baddie might plausibly try to do and then work out what Merlin might plausibly try to do to stop her. 

But throughout the episode, I was thinking: Merlin is trying to spill the blood from Morgana le Baddie's magic cup. I wonder how Merlin is going to get past all those immortal knights and spill the magic cup. 

I get Merlin.

I know what Merlin's for. Saturday tea-time fantasy for kids and big kids. The characters are well drawn enough for me to care. I've even come to terms with the way they say "And I'm like, so, "fie on thee", innit?" At first I pretended it was a way of showing that the young people spoke a mix of Latin and French, or possibly French and Vernacular. Now I think it's just the way speak on Merlin. 

But Doctor Who? I love it to bits, but I increasingly just don't get it. 

The Doctor and Amy are climbing down the rope ladder. 

I catch myself thinking: "Why are they here?" 

I realise I have no idea. I wonder if it matters. I think probably not. 

I think they have beamed down to a planet full of mad Daleks to do something real important. 

And there sure are lots of Daleks. 

And there are little in-jokes for Doctor Who fans. (That's me! They still believe in me!) The doors in the corridors are triangular -- Dalek shaped -- not human shaped. And the surveillance cameras are shaped like Dalek eye-stalks. And the mad Daleks look like all the different Dalek designs there have been right back to the 1960s, which is kind of cool, but also kind of an admission that the recent vacuum cleaner / tellytubby design was a mistake, which is a shame, because I rather liked it. 

I do not know why there is a Dalek parliament when up to now they have always been an Empire. I just watched the footage of the two old special effects guys talking about making the big battle from Evil of the Daleks in 196something (a DVD extra on Revelation of the Daleks.) They refer to the Emperor Daleks as the Dalek Queen. That's about right, isn't? Mad insects? The Red Tellytubby Dalek was said to be the Drone. I suppose if RTD could make them religious fantastics, SM can make them democrats. Evil democrats. Evil fascist democrats. 

What are we doing here? Trying to shut down a force field, I think, because a space ship crashed through and made a big hole in it, so all the mad Daleks could get out and the sane Daleks would like to blow up the whole planet, but they can't because of the force field, which can only be shut down from the inside and Daleks are too scared to shut it down themselves so they kidnap their worst enemy and force him to do it and also his best friends because they know he needs friends and there is a lady who is going to be the next companion who keeps going on about soufflĂ©. 

So, anyway, the Doctor and Amy are on the end of a rope, and it isn't about why they are there or if it makes sense, because Doctor Who is not about scaring kids with scary monsters (the Daleks are not scary) or exciting excitable geeks with cool hardware (the hardware is undeniably cool). All that is just a mechanism to get to the big Soap Opera moment.

Watching Doctor Who because the Daleks are scary-cool? That's crazy talk. 

Thing is, I think I get soap opera. I may not listen to much Archers or any Eastenders, but I think I get what it's for and things I like like Spider-Man and X-Men and Buffy are basically soaps. 

You have a character. And they have very strong, very fixed personalities; and each character has a very strong, very fixed relationship to each other character. And something happens which disrupts the status quo, and everyone worries about it and talks about it a lot and then they come up with a solution which either creates a new status quo or returns us to the original status quo; so there is perpetual change but perpetual staying the same. Bruce is the studious, well-behaved one, but this week, he doesn't hand in his homework and skips school. And it turns out that this is because he has a crush on Sheila who's not so clever and hangs out with the wrong crowd. So there is conflict between Bruce, the tough teacher who wants to kick Bruce out of school, and Bruce, the young teacher who wants to give him another chance. So maybe in the end Sheila, Bruce's sister, goes and talks to Sheila and persuades her that she's no good for Bruce and should break up with him. So the status quo is no re-established except that Bruce is now studious but sad, which makes him vulnerable to Bruce, who wants him to experiment with marijuana. (On Radio 4, that would be six months of story; in Australia, it would all be sorted out before the first advert break.) But it always cycles back to where it started. The characters don't change: if they did it wouldn't be a soap opera it would be a novel. 

Back in Season Five the Doctor whisked Amy away to have wonderful adventures on the night before she was supposed to be marrying Rory. Her whole fictional being is defined by this moment: will she stay with the Doctor forever, or go back and marry Rory. (There was an episode helpfully entitled Amy's Choice to clarify the point.) We know what she will eventually chose -- the rules of the show say she can't stay with the Doc forever; but we know that if she actually makes up her mind, she'd be out of the series. So she has to be permanently frozen in the moment of not making the choice. 

And, as we are going to carry on seeing, the choice between "staying with the Doctor" and "leaving the Doctor" is now what Doctor Who is about and almost the only thing Doctor Who is about. 

In The One With the Cybermats, last season, we discovered that since the Doctor left them on earth, some time had passed. Amy had become a successful model. Rory was still a nurse, but was still happy being a nurse. 

If this were a soap-opera we would have seen how Amy's glamorous lifestyle puts pressure on her relationship with Rory, and we would see this come to a crisis, and there would be a resolution. (Option 1: Rory quits nursing and becomes a model. Option 2: Amy quits modelling and becomes a nurse Option 3: They have a chat and discover that they are both in fact pretty happy with the way things are.) In fact, we skip over the whole soap opera and rejoin the story when Amy and Rory have already split up. The whole edifice of insane Daleks is only there to engineer the big scene when Amy and Rory realise they want to get back together so they can carry on failing to decide whether to stay with the Doctor or have a settled life at home. 

Because that's all they can do: that's all that ever happens to them. Their entire raison d'etre is to be perpetually separating and perpetually realising how much they love each other. They are like Itchy and Scratchy, never dead, but perpetually frozen in an infinite number of variations on the moment of killing each other. 

The Doctor talks about his life being made up of a succession of high points and interesting days -- living outside of time he can skip the boring ones. And this is increasingly SMs philosophy of narrative: straight from point A to point C without any need to pass through point B. We don't see Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall; we don't even see Humpty Dumpty having a great fall. We just see him in an endless state of having just fallen and being put back together again. 

But point B is where everything happens. Point B is what we normally mean by story. 

When Amy notices that the Doctor notices that she and Rory have fallen out, she also notices him straightening his bow tie. Straightening your bow tie is the sort of mannerism any actor might give a bow tie wearing character, like Captain Picard pulling his tunic down in ever scene of Star Trek. First the audience starts to notice it; then the characters start to notice it; then the writers start to notice it; and if you are not careful the whole character becomes Bow Tie Straightening Guy. When Amy tells the Doctor that she and Rory have actually divorced, and the Doctor is sad, she says that it isn't something he can sort out as easily as straightening his bow tie. 

But when it turns out that there are only two oxygen masks between the three of them, Rory says that he loves Amy more than Amy loves him, which causes Amy, who divorced him not an hour and a half ago, to say that in fact she loves him more than he loves her which is WHY she divorced him. She loves him so much that she thinks he'll be happier without her, because (pulled out of thin air) he wants kids and she can't have kids due to (pulled out of thin air) what eye-patch lady did to her last season. So they are both trying to give the other one the only oxygen mask, and it turns out that in fact there are two oxygen masks because the Doctor doesn't need an oxygen mask due his special Time Lords Lungs so the whole silly mess with the divorce is solved. And as Rory goes off and sells his watch to buy Amy some hair and Amy goes off and sells her hair to buy Rory a watch, we get a close up of the Doctor straightening his bow tie; from which we infer: he deliberately gave them the impression that there was only on oxygen mask, in order to force them to admit that they are still in love. He planned the whole thing. He did sort it out. All of which, you have to infer from the tie straightening motion. Which, on a first viewing, I didn't. 

They aren't oxygen masks but special time lordy bracelet thingies to counter act special turn-humans-into-daleks-pixie dust. Oxygen masks will do. 

Is there a good literary critical word for overloading things with symbolism in this way? Over-coding, perhaps, or entanglement? Is this the sort of thing which young people who are used to moving pictures find very intuitive, and us oldies struggle with? Or perhaps it is there to be spotted by people who are nearly as old as Doctor Who, and completely missed by the young people who may be visually literate but only ever half-watch anything, having a blackberry in their eye and an an Ipad in their ear? I'm not saying it isn't terribly, terribly clever. 

Or is it, like, "There never was a tie-straightening scene, Andrew, oh ghohhhd if you want Doctor Who to be like Crime and Punishment go and read Crime and Punishment and stop finding things in a kids cartoon show that are Just. Not. There." 

I do not want Doctor Who to be like Crime and Punishment. I want Doctor Who to be like Merlin. What I would like best of all would be for it to be like Doctor Who.

The Crimson Horror [7:11]

This is going to be a very boring essay.

The Crimson Horror scores a massive 95.42% on the Ril/Moff scale. It follows that I am not going to have anything particularly interesting to say about it. 

Critical analysis tends to kick in when you are thinking "Ooo...look at those people acting / singing / doing special effects very well / quite well / badly". And if the acting, singing and special effects are doing their jobs, then you shouldn't be aware that you are watching Actors, Singers or Special Effects. You should only be aware that you are watching Sherlock Holmes, Brunhilde or Archie the Inventor doing the kind of stuff that they do. This is why it is possible to love something terrible, like Flash Gordon, and hate something excellent, like Jackson's Lord of the Rings. It is also (come to think of it) why so many theatre critics seem to hate plays and so many restaurant critics seem to hate eating out. And why the True Fan sees everything from Star Trek to the Clangers as providing documentary information about "real events" which "really happened".

So, an actual honest review of the Crimson Horror would go something like this:

Woot! Woot! Funny Sontaran. 
Woot! Woot! Scary lady. 
Woot! Woot! Quite good joke about Sat Nav. 

If a Doctor Who fan from 1983 who knew nothing of Paul McGann or Big Finish could be whisked forward and told "This is a piece of TV from 30 years in your future" he would instantly recognise The Crimson Horror as Doctor Who: a mixture of silly comedy and fairly dark horror; with a recognizably crackers super-boffin in a silly costume at the centre of it all. (What a relief that for the last three weeks Matt Smith has been mostly willing to bounce around be clever and brave and out of his depth and mostly avoided going on and on about how the universe is big, so big, so lonely, lonely, I can't tell you how, big, lonely, I'm so, very very sorry)

But equally and more importantly, if it could be contrived that someone from 2013 were completely unaware of there ever having been a programme called Doctor Who but nevertheless turned their TV on at 7PM on last Saturday, I think that they would have had a very good time, and wanted to come back this week for more of the same. (The fact that "more of the same" is the one thing Moffat is congenitally unable to provide can be discussed in a different seminar.)

Whacky action; part Avengers, part Holmes; full of mad sci-fi trappings but not trying at any level to be "science fiction"; excited by the characters and situations, definitely not taking itself seriously but not exactly taking the piss either. Joyful allusions to vaguely Victorian imagery — dark satanic mills; terrible revivalist meetings; the strange factory, part prison, part health farm; the blind daughter;, the monster in the attic, sort of; the people in suspended animation, kept under class covers, like taxidermists displays. All held together by a science fiction premise that's so perfunctory it's practically not there. And at the centre, the absolutely spot-on decision to hire one of the world's most famous actresses to play — there is no other way of saying this — a pantomime dame. 

The thing it resembled most was "Talons of Weng Chiang", and it was absolutely nothing like that. The last two seasons of Who have consistently made me say "This is doing the same kind of thing that the the Moffat / Gatiss 21st century Holmes reboot does so very much better". This episode made me feel "Why would anyone now want to go back to Sherlock, which is exactly the same thing but without lesbian Silurians, pacifist Sontarans and jurassic shrimps?"

Fans notoriously like closure and completeness. They like to feel that it would be theoretically possible to read every episode of Captain America that there has ever been, and that if they did, it would all hang together as one huge epic cycle, even though it isn't and they wouldn't. New Who, when it has it's head screwed on, resists that kind of closure. Vastra first appeared in "A Good Man Goes to War"; but had no real introduction scene -- she was presented in such a way as to imply that we ought to already know who she was. She then appears as if she were a long-established character in the 2012 Christmas special. Although there is some duterocanonical material explaining where she comes from, there is no real point of origin to follow her back to. There never is. We are always in media res. (We always have been, of course. This is why telling us the Doctor's name would be a really. stupid. idea.)

I suppose you could say that the whole idea of a Silurian operating as a detective out of Victorian London, and the whole idea of a Sontaran driving a hansom cab are just as much fan-pleasing references to Doctor Who mythology as a long wander round the TARDIS with quotes from old episodes playing in the background. But it doesn't feel like that; I suppose because the idea of a soldier who has ostensibly become a pacifist but who still thinks of every problem in military terms is intrinsically funny, even if you have never seen Time Warrior. You and I know that the Silurians have appeared many times in the past but the red leech has never been mentioned before; but if the red leech were an old foe and the Silurians a new addition to the the mythos, "The Crimson Horror" would have been pretty much the same story. Fans have no advantage over casual viewers; it's a glorious silly muddle whatever your starting point. References to old stories are the icing on the cake. In fact they are the tiny little silver balls that are sprinkled on at the last minute to make it look pretty. In Journey to the Center of the the TARDIS, they were the whole cake. 

"The Crimson Horror" is clearly the kind of thing that Moffat wants to be doing; this is the kind of thing that Moffat ought to be doing. Fun, bonkers, deconstructed, non-linear narratives in which loads of clever ideas are chucked out at a pace you can't quite keep up with. Dear Mr Moffat, please make Doctor Who like this one and like the one with dinosaurs and maybe even like the one with the cowboys and never ever make one even a little bit like the one with the TARDIS ever ever again.

NOTE: The only thing which keeps the story from scoring a maximum 100% is the epilogue in which Clara's terrible kids realise that she is a time traveller because they have found pictures of her in the olden days on the Marvelous Mechanical Internet and have never heard of cosplay. And they are in it as supporting characters next week. Oh, god.

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.