Monday, September 01, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

So everyone lived happily ever after.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silly, silly us.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3b: Obviously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


"Two comics in one: double the fun."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

Normal Service Has Been Resumed

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

Thursday, August 07, 2008

4:11 "Turn Left"

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

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

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

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

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

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

But no, really. Nice story.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

4:10 "Midnight"

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

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

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

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

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

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

(*) "The Green Death"

Sunday, August 03, 2008

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


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

Let's watch that again in slow motion.

Doctor. Trapped between actually genuinely quite spooky monsters.

David Tennant. Talks really, really quickly.

Trap door. Already there.

Hero. One leap. Free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

4.8 and 4.9 "Silence in the Library" and "Forest of the Dead"

I think that may have been the most flawless piece of genre TV I have ever seen.

...was what I said to myself after watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5 episodes 16 and 17.

Buffy completely passed me by at the time. I've been working my way through the DVD boxed sets and I have to say that the Great Big Plot Development in Season 5 hit me like a bolt from the blue. Whether this would have been the case if I'd been watching them on the telly, I can't say. I know the Beeb censored the scary and violent bits: maybe they also felt the need to print "JOYCE DIES" on the front of that week's Radio Times?

It probably wouldn't have mattered very much if they had. "A surprising twist" is a twist which has the quality of being surprising – not necessarily one which you didn't know was coming. "Surprise" is a function of how well the writer wrote it, not how much the read knew in advance.

Joss Whedon handles the Great Big Plot Development like a master. Half a dozen episodes back, there'd been a soapy plot in which Buffy's mother had suffered from headaches, gone to hospital, had a brain tumour removed and been given a clean bill of health. Several episodes have been allowed to pass. We have been given time to forget that she ever had an operation. No Chinese mystics from parallel universes have popped up and said "Someone close to you is about to die, and when I say 'die' I mean 'suffer amnesia and be transferred to a parallel world with Zeppelins and Cybermen and stuff which they can't every come back from until they do.' "

In fact, Whedon sets up the tragedy with a rather a clever feint: Joyce (a divorcee) has been on a date with a new boyfriend. The last time she appeared, her daughters had been simultaneously teasing her and encouraging her about it. We probably expected that the boyfriend would turn out to be a robot, demon, vampire, or at the very least, under a gypsy curse. That's the short of thing which happens on Buffy. When she walks in (in the cliff-hanger from ep 15 and the pre-cred recap from ep 16) Buffy's attention is on the flowers that the boyfriend has sent: neither she nor the viewer initially sees that her mother is sprawled out (in plain sight, but out of focus) on the sofa. We're surprised becase Buffy is surprised. Her reaction ("Mum? Mum? Mummy?") may be the best single line of script ever to appear in anything, ever.

If one takes two steps back from "The Body", we can see that Whedon is engaged in some clever structural games. How far can you go in producing an episode in which nothing actually happens? The first "Act" (i.e up to the first advert break) pointedly contains no action : we see Buffy calling an ambulance; trying ineffectually to give her mother mouth-to-mouth; waiting for the paramedics to arrive.."Act" 2 begins with Buffy's sister Dawn crying in the girls' room at her school, which Whedon describes as a "classic misdirect": she hasn't yet heard the news and is crying because another girl has been mean to her. This is pretty much the first time we've seen Dawn as an independent character, among her peers, out of the context of Buffy: it's monumentally cruel of Whedon to show us Dawn as a normal, happy little girl at the exact moment when he's going to emotionally destroy her. The whole of Act 3 – perhaps 12 minutes of screen time - consists of Buffy's friends engaging in pointlessly inconsequential dialogue while preparing to meet her at the hospital.

The answer to the question "Can we have an episode of Buffy in which nothing happens?" turns out to be "No": but the brief intrusion of a supernatural element fits perfectly into the structure of the episode. The set-up is the episode's one weak point: it isn't really believable that an unaccompanied 14 year old could find her way into the hospital morgue. But the scene is absolutely necessary. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has always been mock-gothic. Coffins, graveyards and dead bodies are part of the paraphernalia of the setting: cool, stylish and spooky if you are a goth of a particular age, but not remotely frightening. But this time, when we see a corpse in the morgue come to life – in the background, with no scary music to signify what's happening – we perceive it as a horrible desecration. Vampirism isn't just a fashion statement but something appalling and blasphemous; a monster stealing the remains of someone's loved one. When Buffy comes along, in the nick of time, to save the day, as she always does, a much more mundane point is made (but not hammered home) about the banality of bereavement: only a few hours after her mother dies, Buffy has had to go back to work.

But however admirable these structural pyrotechnics may be, they aren't what the story is about. It's about characters, a set of well drawn – not necessarily realistic, but eminently believable – people. They've been developed over around a hundred episodes, and now they're given free rein to respond emotionally to this crisis situation. The episode is happy to show us, rather than tell us, at some length, what they are felling. Willow (the nerdy gay witch) fusses about what to wear; Tara (her girlfriend) humours her; Xander (the base-line normal guy) randomly directs his anger at "fricking doctors" and ends up making a fool of himself. Anya, the reformed demon, takes her accustomed role as the group's Spock: she doesn't understand bereavement and asks inappropriate and unanswerable questions about the nature of death. When they reach the hospital she blurts out "I wish your mother didn't die, because she was nice" which is, of course, the kindest and most helpful thing that anyone could possibly have said.

The follow-up episode, "Forever", re-asserts the supernatural element of the series: Spike (an imperfectly and unwillingly reformed vampire) introduces Dawn to a demon who he thinks may be able to bring her mother back from the dead. This is a rather brave attempt to confront head on an important problem in this genre: what does the death of a loved-one mean in a world in which ghosts, vampires, demons and magic are an everyday reality? (It's a question which J.K Rowling completely and repeatedly fudges). Dawn has to steal a magic book from Giles; and there's a rather cute scene in which she and Spike have to steal the egg of a rather unconvincing dragon that just happens to live in a convenient sewer. The monster is pretty un-threatening, but the scene is played with just enough conviction to make the point that "magic is hard: Dawn has to work quite hard to cast the spell." (Had Spike said "Oh, didn't I bloody mention? I have the power to bloody resurrect people using the bloody big red button on my bloody magic screwdriver," the message would have been "resurrection is easy; death is trivial; nothing in this universe really counts for very much.")

We understand, of course, that within the rules of this magical universe, bringing people back from the dead is a very bad idea. The obvious resolution would either be for Joyce to come back as a vampire, or for Dawn and Spike to inadvertently raise some terrible demon who Buffy would defeat in the nick of time. In fact, the episode's climax is another character-piece. Dawn's spell appears to have worked. We hear footsteps coming from the graveyard to Buffy's house: a rare example of a ghost which is genuinely uncanny and therefore frightening. When Buffy realizes what Dawn has done, they have a very realistic sisterly fight – not about the misuse of demonic forces but about how Buffy is so wrapped up in her own grief and responsibilities and the practicalities of funeral arrangement that Dawn feels she's being ignored. When Dawn undoes the spell, it's a perfectly satisfactory conclusion to the Monkeys Paw storyline: but it's much more importantly and convincingly "about" the internal development of the character: a young girl accepting the permanence of death and that her mother is gone for good.

And when it happens, we feel it is precisely what Dawn would have done under those circumstances. At no point while watching these episodes did I have any perception of characters being manipulated by the writer; of events occurring because of their impact on the Buffyverse - let alone because of their capacity to generate tabloid copy or sell action figures. I felt that I was observing people who I knew quite well, not watching puppets having their strings yanked. When Buffy hangs up on the paramedics and makes another call, I did not find myself thinking "I wonder what clever point Joss Whedon is going to make here?" I thought "I wonder who Buffy is phoning?" Each event is linked to the next by a believable chain of cause and effect; by characters doing what those characters would, in fact, do, granted what we know about them. Spike liked Joyce; Dawn has a crush on Spike; Spike wants to get off with Buffy; Spike likes being evil; Dawn is slightly irresponsible, so of course Spike and Dawn are the ones who try to make a Faustian pact to raise the dead.

What does Buffy have which Doctor Who lacks? The smart answer would be "good writing". But I think the truth is that Joss Whedon is always, at all times, trying to tell a story about a set of characters. Russell T Davies is only ever seeking to manufacture a product.

Oh, and Firefly rocks. Obviously.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Silent But Deadly: Rhetorical Flatulence in "The Aliens of London"

Gavin wrote:

This was a leap too far for even the more intelligent quarters of Who fandom (aka Andrew Rilstone) who complained the programme traditionally addressed such questions through “allegory or morality play… Had I been briefed to talk about Iraq in the Doctor Who format, I would either have sent the Doctor to… some totally fictitious world on the brink of war, or else… used the real war as a backdrop to an alien-invasion story.”

As well as being ‘un-Who’, Andrew seems to take exception to the metafictional implications – the story is simultaneously set in our ‘real’ world and yet not. Well so is every other piece of political satire ever written! I have a vision of a puzzled Andrew sitting before Spitting Image or holding a Steve Bell cartoon, wondering why Thatcher is suddenly a puppet or Dubya now has a monkey’s body.

Steve Bell's If... is a satirical cartoon strip which has appeared every day in the liberal Guardian newspaper since the 1980s. Its stock in trade is scabrously exaggerated caricatures of public figures: George Bush is a barely articulate chimp; Tony Blair is a swivel eyed lunatic. John Major, famously, was a hopeless superhero who wore Y-fronts over his grey suit.

The figures in this kind of cartoon strip are not characters, but iconographic representations of an argument. If you see a sketch of Tony Blair with a dog-collar and halo, you understand it to mean "In the opinion of this paper, the Prime Minister is trying to gain spurious moral authority from what we consider to be a rather affected religiosity" and not "Our artist happened to see the Prime Minister in an inappropriate shirt and standing in front of a bright light, and turned in a sketch" One of Bell's single-frame editorial cartoons depicted a snow-flake with Iain Duncan-Smith's face, flanked by bowler-hatted demons with tails and pitchforks. This said pretty much all that needed to be said. You would no more look at Bell cartoon and say "But surely, George Bush is a human being, not a monkey?" than you would look at the photo on the front page and say "But surely, George Bush isn't really three inches tall and monochrome?" The cartoonist is not creating another world, but looking at this one through a distorting lens.

Throughout Blair's premiership, Private Eye ran a text feature called "St Albion's News", in which a young and enthusiastic clergyman named Rev. Tony reported on the weekly goings on in his parish. (He was last seen heading off to the Holy Land to start an ecumenical mission called "Drawing All Faiths Together"[D.A.F.T]). For this kind of thing to be funny you do, I think, have to imagine that Rev. Tony Blair is a person with separate existence from Prime Minister Tony Blair. The joke works best when Rev. Tony does something which makes perfect sense for a Church of England vicar, but which ironically parallels something which has happened to the P.M that week. (An argument with parish treasurer Gordon about what to do with the collection money, say.) Of course Rev. Tony can't ever notice that his parish council have the same names as members of the Cabinet. Of course the P.M can't visit his parish. That's not how the joke works. St Albion's may look a little like a real place, but it's really just England looked at through a slightly different kind of distorting lens.

This sort of satirical roman a clef works a lot like classical allegory. It is obvious that Gloriana is Elizabeth I and Timias is Sir Walter Raleigh, at least, it is if you've read the footnotes. But it wouldn't occur to you to ask "Does Timias know he's Raliegh? What if Raliegh met Timias?" Timias isn't actually a person any more than the world of the Fairy Queen is actually a place. He's just a witty portrait of Raliegh -- made of words.

Yes Minister was also a satire on British politics, but its rules are quite different. It certainly depends on comic exaggeration: civil servants aren't really as Machiavellian as Sir Humphrey and politicians aren't really as spineless as Jim Hacker. But the programme is only funny if, while we are watching, we believe that they are. We have to pretend that what we are watching is what really does go on behind the scenes at Westminster. The show goes to some lengths to maintain this rhetorical verisimilitude. At one point, Sir Humphrey points out that civil servants can't have opinions of their own, and that, in his career, he himself has been both a supporter and an opponent of capital punishment, and a supporter and opponent of the Common Market. That places him very precisely in a specific historical time frame. But Hacker pointedly only ever refers to "The Party", "The PM" or "The Opposition": we never discover whether he's meant to be Labour or Tory. He runs such an insignificant ministry that we can mentally "slot him in" to which ever government happens to be in power when we happen to be watching. We could say that the early episodes take place on a parallel would indistinguishable from our own but for the existence of a Minister for Administrative Affairs and that the later episodes take place on one indistinguishable from our own except that James Hacker, rather than John Major, succeed Mrs. T. But only fans talk like that. Everyone else instantly recognizes it as "fiction".

Ian Hislop's short-lived children's show My Dad's The Prime Minister adopted a quite different strategy. Clearly, Michael Phillips isn't Tony Blair: his children are different ages to Leo and Euan and the little Blairs went to poncey private jesuitical establishments, where the whole joke is that Dillon has been sent to a bog standard state comp. But equally clearly, Phillips isn't any Prime Minister apart from Blair: he's obsessed with image, has a sinister spin doctor, is widely regarded as a bit phony, tries to look cool and comes across as "naff", etc. David Lodge's campus novels are set in "Rummage" – a fictional town that occupies the same place that Birmingham does in the real world. One could say the same about this version of the P.M. Again, the general public wouldn't give this kind of thing a moment's thought. It's just how stories work.

The genre which attaches most importance to "reality" is soap-opera. The whole point is that we're watching the ordinary lives of ordinary people: so if we don't "believe" in it, there's no point. Eastenders takes place in real time, in the real London, but in a fictitious Square in a fictitious borough. We can believe this very easily: unless you happen to be a cabbie, there are thousands of London streets you've never heard of. The programme would, I imagine, work differently if it were said to be taking place in an entirely fictitious city in a slightly different version of modern Britain. The fact that there is no such country as Borchester allows Ambridge to continue to be the kind of village that doesn't quite exist in the 20th Century. English teachers will tell you that Christminster "is" Oxford and The Mayor of Casterbridge could just as well have been called "The Mayor of Dorchester." They are wrong.

It may not bother us very much that Walford East can't actually been found on the London Tube map, but it would bother us a great deal if the regulars at the Queen Vic sat down to watch Eastenders at 7.30 on Friday night. What do they watch? Come to that, which soap-stars do the gossip-columnists go on and on about? Presumably, in the Endersverse, the BBC didn't launch a successful twice-weekly soap in 1985. In which case they didn't need to divert cash from other projects to the new show. Ergo, Season 23 was not postponed, Trial of a Time Lord never happened, Colin Baker was never sacked, Doctor Who was never canceled and someone other than David Tennant is very probably the 17th Doctor in Season 45. And everybody in Ambridge listens to Dick Barton: Special Agent after their tea.

Fiction can't ever perfectly model reality; and all fiction follows its own rules. "Naturalistic" fiction is just as "artificial" as dramas in which people express their emotions by singing or communicate in rhyming couplets. But all fiction signifies to you, very clearly, what rules it wants to play by: what kind of reality it's meant to have. Are we to "pretend" that we are watching real people, or are we to keep it very firmly at the forefront of our minds that these are only actors playing a role? When someone dies, are we supposed to feel sad, or are we supposed to imagine that they will pop up again in the next scene​? Misunderstand the signals, and you end up looking very silly indeed. There was an episode of Spitting Image in which the very masculine Mrs. Thatcher goes to a men's hair-dresser to have her hair cut. "I want you to do something which will be universally popular" she tell the barber....who proceeds to take out his razor and slit her throat. Only the most autistically humourless Daily Telegraph reader could possibly have taken this as an endorsement of or incitement to political assassination. Every one else "gets" that it's funny precisely because it's not real.

Now: when Doctor Who was re-introduced to us in 2005, it was made, very, very clear that we were being asked to treat it as having an Eastenders kind of reality. Maybe no such place as The Powell Estate actually existed, but we were to approach it as if it did. Mickey and Rose were real young people who did or failed to do the washing up, ate hamburgers, watched football, bunked off school and conceivably had sexual intercourse or at any rate thought about it. When trying to gain the confidence of Blonwyn in Victorian Cardiff, Rose even said "bum", the rudest word that most of us had heard uttered since William Hartnell said "bottom" in 1964, obviously softening us up for the moment when the Doctor would say "fart" and the Slitheen would say "bollocks", very nearly.

This isn't the only way it could have been done. It could have been a conscious pastiche of 1970s Doctor Who. It could have been a parody. It could have set up ironic contrasts between styles and attitudes of the 70s and the styles and attitudes of the present day, like the Brady Bunch movie. It could have been a dirty post-modern gay sit-com like the dreadful Torchwood. It could very well have been set in generic sci-fi time in which ordinary people never quite came on stage so we don't find out whether they were the kinds of people who say "bum" or not. But the decision was made – real world, real people, real phones, real internet, real sexuality, real pizzas, real mothers.

The first installment of "Aliens of London" presses this strategy extremely hard. Up to this point, Doctor Who assistants had wandered into the TARDIS, traveled around the universe for a few seasons, been dropped off on alien generation ships or at the siege of Troy and never mentioned again. The opening of "Aliens of London" asks us to take Doctor Who literally: to ask what it's been like for the people that Rose left behind. Mummy Rose has been putting out pre-Madeleine posters to try to track down her missing daughter; Mickey has had "stuff" put through his letter box because people think he might have killed her; the policeman assumes there must be something sexy about the Doctor and Rose's relationship, and some brat vandalizes the TARDIS. This is carried on, mostly, through the beginning of the invasion: people's reaction is part panic, part carnival, and we see plausibly over-wrought TV reports of the events.

However, when Andrew Marr starts talking about and MP with special responsibility for sugar quality in imported confectionery and Harriet Bloody Jones continues to obsess about her cottage hospital, we start to get sinking feelings. Rose and Jackie and Mickey and the Doctor are apparently real people, but the characters inside Downing Street seem to be turning into cartoons. I think that it is funny to think of a back-bencher worrying about local hospitals in the face of an alien invasion on condition that we don't believe she is a real person. If we tried to take her seriously as a person, we'd ask if she was suffering from some kind of mental disorder. It also strikes us as odd that Blue Peter should be making cakes in the shape of alien spaceships: this is a good joke, but about as believable as them making cakes in the shape of jumbo jets on September 13th. I think that this is all quite intentional. I think that Davies is consciously looking out from behind the screen and saying "It's all right kids; we're just play acting; it's only pretend."

Then the aliens start farting, and making jokes about farting, and talking about farting using 1970s playground slang; and removing their human disguises using what appear to be zip fasteners. And then we are listening to slightly caricatured American newscasters telling us that there has to be a special U.N resolution to allow Britain to use nuclear weapons and that the farting green babies have "massive weapons of destruction capable of being deployed in 45 seconds." And we think: this is a cartoon strip; this is a portrait of the world through a distorted lens; this is a custard pie routine taking place on a vaudeville stage, quite a funny custard pie routine, possibly, but not something that you actually believe is happening. So we expect Relatively Realistic Girl Who Bunks Off School And Says Bum and Relatively Realistic Boy Who Likes Football And Never Does The Washing Up to say "Hang on. We seem to be in some kind of scatological version of the Muppet Show, written by a sixth former who wants to make very obvious points about the Iraq war. Has someone put something in the water? Have we been knocked down by David Bowie's car and gone into a coma like that guy whose going to become the Master in the series after next?"

I mean, it was crap when Donna and the Doctor found themselves participating in an Agatha Christie mystery at which Agatha Christie was physically present, but at least they had the decency to say "Gosh, isn't it crap that we are appearing in an Agatha Christie story at which Agatha Christie is present: all the fault of the giant shape shifting telepathic wasp, I'll be bound." When Jackie was attacked by a Christmas tree she has the decency to say "Gosh, how ironic, I'm being attacked by a Christmas tree" which isn't great, but at least someone was trying.

But Rosey and Jim actually appear not to notice that the farting green babies have deliberately orchestrated their invasion in such a way as to make an ironic point about the Iraq War. My best guess is that, in the same way Donna didn't know about the Cybermen invasion because she was on holiday, so Rose missed the invasion of Iraq because she was dying her hair that night. After all, the population of Cardiff don't know that the earth was invaded by aliens, and the people in London don't notice that a malfunctioning nuclear power station is being built in the middle of Cardiff, so why should an ordinary person know about a war?

To me, this feels as if I've been watching an episode of...I don't know... 24 in which Steve Bell's monkey version of George Bush is having high level discussions with David Palmer. I'm not saying that something like that couldn't conceivably be done in a cleverly surreal post-modern way, like when Buffy turned into a musical for one week. I suppose we'd all be waiting for the revelation that Bauer was having a trauma-induced dream sequence or was hallucinating. But if it turned out that the writers thought that a cartoon chimpanzee fitted in perfectly well with 24 – which isn't realistic, but has exactly the right degree of realism for a thriller, at least during Season 1, or at any rate the first few episodes of Season 1 – then you'd probably stop watching. Particularly if the director said: "Oh, what does it matter if one character is realistic and the other is a cartoon monkey. It makes for a fun scene. No-one expects this kind of thing to make sense, and the ratings are good. Go away, you mosquito, or I shall swat you from my superior vantage point."

The presence of Rose, Jackie and Mickey doesn't prevent the Slitheen satire from being funny. What stops the Slitheen satire from being funny is that it isn't. But the presence of the Slitheen satire makes it impossible for us to continue to take Rose seriously as a real-world character. It fatally undermines the rhetorical strategies that had been set up over the previous three episodes, and opens up a crack in the programme's foundation which will bring the whole thing crashing down in Season 4. Rose doesn't spoil the Slitheen, but the Slitheen spoil Rose.

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