Sunday, October 25, 2015

8.11 Dark Water

8.12 Death in Heaven

I remember being rather horrified one summer morning long ago when a burly, cheerful labouring man, carrying a hoe and a watering pot came into our churchyard and, as he pulled the gate behind him, shouted over his shoulder to two friends, ‘See you later, I’m just going to visit Mum.’ He meant he was going to weed and water and generally tidy up her grave..... A six-by-three-foot flower-bed had become Mum. That was his symbol for her, his link with her. Caring for it was visiting her...The flower-bed is an obstinate, resistant, often intractable bit of reality, just as Mum in her lifetime doubtless was. As H. was.
                       C.S Lewis

1:  Old Monsters

In 1964, no-one was particularly calling out for a sequel to what I shall persist in calling the Dead Planet. We didn’t care how how pacifism worked out for the Thals, or if they ever managed to rebuild their civilization. All we wanted was for the BBC to “bring back the Daleks”.

Reports of Dalekmania may have been exaggerated. It was the year of Hard Days Night; the press was adding the word “mania” to everything. But there were definitely lots of Dalek toys in the shops. They only vaguely resembled the TV Daleks, but they were dome-shaped, legless, and had antennae of various shapes sticking out of them, so you could see what they were meant to be.

That’s why people liked the Daleks so much. A toy manufacture, a comic book artist, or a kid with a box of crayons could foul up the arrangement of slats and balls and discs and still end up with something Dalek-like. They are a bit like a clockwork robot, given one more twist so that the human shape is gone altogether, and then physically constructed at life size. We liked Robbie the Robot at the same time and for the same reasons, but he was too obviously a toy and too obviously silly. Yes, you know that the Daleks are not robots and I know that the Daleks are not robots but the distinction between is not one that bothers anyone else. The Daleks are the BBCs outer space robot people. The most robotty robots ever invented.

The story that, for consistency’s sake, I will have to call World’s End was all about taking the toys out of their box and playing with them. It was props, not plot, that everyone cared about.

Throughout the 60s and 70s, every alien to appear on Doctor Who was hailed as “the new Daleks” or “the BBCs answer to the Daleks.” Quarks, Chumblies, Mechanoids: only we fans remember them. The only ones who were remotely memorable were the Cybermen. But they were never as iconic as the Daleks. They men in silver suits, and the silver suits kept changing. There was only ever one Cyberman toy.

If you went to Doctor Who conventions during the classic era (as I am ashamed to say I did) you will know that the one question someone invariably asked the produce was “Are you planning to bring back any old monsters.” The answer was generally “if some writer came up with a great story that happened to feature an old monster, of course we would” which is, being interpreted, no.

The fans were like everyone else. We wanted see the old toys brought down from the attic. This was before the era of DVDs and repeats: the only way I was ever going to see a live Ice Warrior was if one attacked Peter Davison on the telly. But there was another thing as well. Graham Williams and Douglas Adams – and, indeed, Tom Baker – regarded Doctor Who mostly as a TV format. They saw their job as producing fun TV, and weren’t particularly interested in what had gone before. So a once in a blue moon appearance by the Cybermen and a twice in a blue moon appearance by the Daleks was a promise that the Guy With The Scarf still had some connection with the Guy With the Yellow Car.

New Who could perfectly well have jettisoned the history and told us that Christopher Eccleston was playing a brand new character. A re, as the young people say, boot. But it didn’t: the first story was a riff on Terror of the Autons, and the first three seasons had climaxes involving Daleks, Cybermen and the Master. That’s a big pledge of loyalty to the fans, and also a definite aesthetic decision.

But it still feels like “bringing back an old monsters” and “dusting down the old toys”. There’s no attempt to give the Daleks a coherent back-story or sketch out the history of the Cybermen. Iconic villains are reinvented every time they appear. The Next Doctor has no more connection with Age of Steel than Invasion does with Moonbase.

Daleks are evil cyborg fascists who want to rule the universe. The Cybermen are evil robot fascists who want to rule the universe. The Sontarans are evil fascists who want to rule the universe. There is no reason for the Cybermen to be in Death in Heaven, except for the fact that we are meant to be excited to see the old toys again. Moffat loves to quote himself, and he loves to quote old Who. We know we are watching Cybermen because they march down the steps of St Pauls and burst out of tombs. If they’d been Daleks they would have emerged from the Thames and trundled across Westminster bridge. You can be completely sure that if Moffat ever does a Yeti story, they will take a trip on the London Underground and need to go to the lavatory in South London.

2: Cybermen

Black clouds converge over every graveyard on earth. Magic rain falls from the sky. Dead bodies rise up out of their graves. “That’s weird. Look at that” exclaims an extra, possibly hoping for the Clumsiest Exposition of the Year award “How come it’s only raining inside the graveyards?” This is not a Cyberman story. This is some kind of gothic horror story. The creatures emerging from the grave yards shouldn't be outer space robot people but ghosts or vampires of some kind. The urge to bring back old monsters has rendered this story meaningless.

There was a 1985 story in which the Daleks took over an alien funeral home because they needed a supply of dead bodies to make new Daleks out of. Just saying.

Let's imagine that this story was called Day of the Space Zombies. Let's suppose that a previously unknown race of Space Zombies want to invade the earth. Being Zombies, they possess and animate the bodies of dead humans. But nowadays, the human race (i.e English people) mostly cremate their dead, and The Walking Small Urns Full of Grey Powder doesn’t sound as intimidating as The Walking Dead.

What would you do if you were Space Zombie? You’d create a scare story that makes cremation go out of fashion. So when the curtain goes up, we discover the humans have been taken in by a whacky new religion that says that dead bodies remain sentient. Burning your granny’s body hurts her just as much as burning her alive would have done. So the human race (i.e the English) start going to great trouble to house dead bodies in comfortable mausoleums. They can even go and visit them if they want to.

After a few years, when these new mausoleum's are full of perfectly preserved dead people, the Space Zombies Clouds come to earth and drip drip drop the dead people come to life, pour out of the mausoleums, fall an army, and set about conquering the entire universe and world.

It’s an impressively sick idea. Many people do behave as if Granny can hear them when they visit her grave; some of us talk as if a dead person is harmed if their grave is desecrated; a lot of people think that people cannot “rest in peace” without a decent burial. Far from being the one simple, horrible possibility that has never occurred to anyone throughout human history it’s a basic gut-level belief shared by the whole human race. It exists alongside traditional beliefs in Heaven, or a scientific beliefs that dead people are just dead.

In 2006 the Cybermen inveigled themselves into human homes by pretending to be ghosts. Just saying.

This Space Zombie story makes perfect sense -- the kind of story-book sense that Doctor Who is supposed to make, at any rate. It would make sense for the Doctor and Clara to go to one of the 3W mausoleum to talk to Dead Danny. It would makes sense for the dead to rise up out of conventional grave yards. Granted, some of the bodies must be in a pretty advanced state of decay -- we are specifically shown a grave stone dating from the eighteenth century. But it makes some kind of sense for the main thing that Space Zombies need to be human skeletons. More sense than for that to be the essential ingredient of a baby Cyberman, at any rate. If what you have is an army of corpses, then it makes sense that some of those corpses have residual memories of people they loved when they were alive. That happens in Zombie films, doesn't it? The scene in which Cyber-Danny asks Clara to end his suffering would have been much less ludicrous if he had been a resuscitated body begging for a silver bullet. The final reveal, in which it turns out that Someone or Something had saved the life of Kate Stewart would have had far more impact if what we had been looking at was the rotting remains of Nicholas Courtney. (Buried in a fully dress uniform, I have no doubt.) Thinking about it, I am actually quite cross at having missed my chance of seeing the Doctor saluted by Zombie Brig.

The actual script seems to think that we are talking about Zombies rather than technologically upgraded humans. Listen to Cyber-Danny:

“This is the earth’s darkest hour. We are the Fallen. But today, we shall rise. The army of the dead will save the land of the living.”

And, indeed, Missy, who we will come to later, in her Edwardian dress and black umbrella, would have made more sense at the command of an army of spooks rather than an army of sleek silver robots. (Surely if she is in league with the Cyberpeople, she ought to be a high-tech Cyber-Mistress?)

In short: a quite good if a little bit sick for 8pm on a Saturday night idea for a story has been hijacked by the voice of a young boy in the back row of a Doctor Who convention.

“Are you going to be bringing back any old monsters?”

"Why yes." says Steven "Yes, we definitely are." And the whole thing unravels.

The simple, macabre idea that “the dead are sentient” morphs into the confused idea that “the minds of the dead, in the afterlife, somehow continue to feel what their physical bodies feel”. Spirit-Danny feels cold because his remains are in a mortuary; Spirit-Danny would feel that he was being burned alive if his dead body were cremated. But, apparently, he wouldn’t mind too much if his his physical body were allowed to slowly decompose. Surely, if you really thought that the dead experienced what their bodies experienced, you’d be looking either to arrest decomposition altogether or else to disintegrate or incinerate bodies in the shortest possible time?

We've been being teased with the "necrosphere" since the beginning of the season. In itself, the bureaucratic afterlife with patchy wi-fi and unctuous staff is quite funny. It is initially said to be a kind of Gallifreyan hard drive on which the memories of the dead are stored. This is vaguely consistent with the idea that the memories of dead Time Lords are stored on the Matrix. This hard drive contains the memories of everyone who has ever died; not just the ones who have been embalmed by the 3W organisation. In fact, it appears to contain the memories of everyone who has ever died in the universe. The half-faced man, an alien robot who was destroyed some time in the 19th century; and Gretchen, a soldier who was killed millions of miles from earth and thousands of years in the future end up in Missy's "heaven".

What Missy intended to do with this vast resource is, er, copy the minds back into the actual bodies they were originally taken from, with their annoying emotions removed. (Based on Danny's experiences, it appears that subjects have to somehow agree or consent to have their emotions taken away.) It appears that what is needed to make new Cybermen is not human bodies, but human minds. It all seems very complicated, compared with cutting someone brain out with a buzz saw, putting it into Cyberman, and then fitting an "emotional inhibitor", which was the procedure as recently as Closing Time.

What has happened, quite obviously, is that the science fictional idea that human "minds", being complex pieces of software, could in principal be copies onto computers; and the magical-religious idea that "the soul" is the animating principal that makes your body be alive have been conflated. In a magical-fantasy story about Zombies, it makes perfect sense to say that a body in a grave yard would come to live if it's soul returned to earth from the afterlife. It makes no sense whatsoever to say that outer space robot people can download stored memories into skeletons.

Oh yes. In the last five minutes it turns out that the minds that have been copied onto the Matrix can return to earth through a star gate, with flesh, bones and all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature. If you can do that kind of thing without even pretending to explain it, you aren't telling anything that I am prepared to recognize as "a story" any more.

What turns the bodies in the grave yards into Cybermen is not magic fairy dust or magic lightening, but very specifically magic rain. Magic water. There are some dramatic sequences in which magic water flows down drains, floods a mortuary and magics Cyber Armour around Danny. The bodies in the mausoleum are also suspended in magic water: the Dark Water of the title. One can only suppose that this Dark Water was much more significant in the original zombie version of the script. (This couldn't possibly have been originally a sequel to Waters of Mars, could it?) The Doctor's speech -- about every atom of every Cyberman containing the plans to build a new Cyberman so that when Cybermen explode they produce, er, Cyberpollen, spoken as if this was a well-known and long-established fact about Cyberman -- is clearly a last minute handwave to re-postion Magic Zombie rain as Cyber Pollen.

The story appears to be taking place in the present day, from Clara's point of view. The Cybermen emerge from St Pauls only a few hours after Danny's car accident. (His funeral hasn't taken place; his body is in a mortuary rather than undertaker's chapel of rest.) But Clara is completely unaware of the “three words”; unaware that people are now paranoid about cremation, unaware that people spending money on preserving their loved one’s remains. But is 3W is a comparatively recent and comparatively secret phenomenon, what is the point of it? It appears that the Cybermen have gone to a very great deal of trouble to obtain 91 well preserved human bodies. Not even well preserved ones: we are very specifically shown that they have decomposed. It looks very much as if the one component that Cybermen need to steal from humans is, er, their skeleton. Is there something specific about a human skeleton with a human mind downloaded into it that enables Cybermen to turn into pollen. I give up.

Every single element in this story seems to be a magical doohickey. How does the TARDIS find Danny? Magic. How does Missy turn all the dead people in the world into Cybermen? Magic. Why does Danny, alone of all the people on earth, retain his emotions and memories? Magic.

But the purpose of all this magic is to engineer the final scene between the Doctor, Clara, Missy and Danny in the graveyard. And this scene is, I concede, very good indeed.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

8.10 In the Forests of the Night

Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign”:

The word within a word, unable to speak a word,

Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year

Came Christ the tiger
         T.S Eliot

The whole wide world has been covered by a great big forest. A great big flame proof forest. Which grew up overnight. A little girl in a red anorak is lost in it. Some wolves and tigers have got out of London Zoo. Nelson’s Column falls over. It turns out that this is okay. They are friendly fire proof trees. Earth was about to be destroyed by a solar flare, so the fire proof trees grew up to protect it. A bit like in Edge of Darkness, only that time it was tulips. The grown ups are going to burn down the fire proof trees; so the children of Clara’s school phone up everyone in the whole wide world and ask them not to. So they don’t. The girl in the red anorak's sister comes home. The end.

It’s never been exactly clear to me what William Blake meant by “the forests of the night”. That sentence is also true if you leave out the last six words. The red striped tiger is like fire; so I suppose it is lighting up a dark forest. “The tiger is so bright it makes everything else seem dark" is the take-away idea. Of course, the poem isn’t about the tiger, or indeed the tyger, but about God. Blake wrote a companion piece about a Lamb. The Lamb represents God. The Tiger doesn’t represent anything. Blake's message is more “woooooo what must God be like if he can think up a creature like that?”. 

When the stars threw down their spears
And watered heaven with their tears
Did He smile his work to see?
Did He that made the Lamb make thee?

Bob Dylan wrote a fabulous lyric about his friend John Lennon, who he also sees as illuminating the world around him. 

Shine your light
move it on
you burned so bright
roll on John. 

As everyone knows, C.S Lewis wrote a book in which a Lion represented Jesus. His friend Roger Green wrote one in which He was represented by Tiger. Lewis graciously said that Green's book came first. 

For the third week running, the explanation of what is going on in this story is inaudible. I take it from the pictures that fairies or glowworms magicked the forest big. I am sure this is deliberate. I keep moaning that Doctor Who “doesn’t make sense”, so Moffat is placing explanation shaped holes in the narratives to indicate that it doesn’t need to. There is some sense in this. I would much rather that the answer to “How exactly does the Doctor change from one body into another” were “He just does, okay?” than “Because there are special Time Lord midichlorians in his blood stream”. Old Who was good at bamboozling us with totally meaningless pseudoscience. The story works perfectly well without knowing what the glowbuzzers said.

I honestly do wonder if this is a rejected Sarah-Jane script re-purposed for Doctor Who. It’s about a school. The Doctor is in it, but he really doesn’t do much. The jiggory pokery could have been handled by Luke and several of the perky streetwise kids lines could have done better by Clyde. The final summation, spoken by Danny, is pure S.J. What have we learned today? That the universe is brilliant, that staying where you are is also brilliant; that family is the most important thing; that there's no place like home.

“I don't want to see more things. I want to see the things in front of me more clearly. There are wonders here, Clara Oswald. Bradley saying please, that's a wonder. One person is more amazing, harder to understand, but more amazing than universes.”

Sarah-Jane episodes were mostly about something. An alien doohickey makes Clyde invisible to his closest friends: that's a scary kid-sci-fi idea, but it also into a gentle metaphor about how we choose not to see the beggars and homeless people on our streets. There is no sign that this story is about anything.

It’s quite nice to see Danny and Clara with some kids. As expected, Danny is entirely believable as a teacher and Clara is entirely not. The kids have been kept in suspended animation since Grange Hill finished. The kids say things like “When I get stressed, I forget my anger management.” Danny says things like “Is the Doctor CRB checked?” There is some incredibly patronizing stuff about how being scared and being angry and being allergic to nuts are not problems but superpowers; and how we shouldn’t give schizophrenics medication but listen to what the voices are telling them, and hey, aren’t I lucky that I have the special ability to see everything more blurry than everyone else, certainly not going anywhere near Specsavers. The problem class pulls together quite well during the crisis, so there is sort of a message about adversity bringing out the best in people.

There’s also some stuff about how forests and wolves appear in fairy tales as symbols of fear; but that’s gestured towards rather than explored. I am not sure that “every few thousand years the whole earth gets turned into a giant forest” is needed as an explanation for why fairy tales have forests in them. I think “they were made up by German peasants who lived near, er, forests” does the job very well. 

The tiger doesn't represent anything, and has nothing to do with William Blake. The poor beast just escaped from London Zoo, along with some big bad wolves. Danny scares it away with a torch. 

There used to be wolves in London Zoo. You could see them from Regents Park. There is a film in which the Great Intelligence is living with the Seventh Doctor in Camden Town. It finishes with the Great Intelligence shouting lines from Shakespeare at the wolves. The wolves were removed to Whipsnade in the 1990s. In the Sarah-Jane Adventures, the International Gallery appears to occupy the space that the National Gallery does in the real world; and while the kids are obviously having their sleepover in the Natural History Museum, it’s referred to as the London Zoological museum, which does not exist. So maybe the wolves escaped from a fictitious London Zoo.

Last week the Doctor and Clara decided to lie to Danny. This week, Danny finds out that the Doctor and Clara have been lying to him. This will lead to one of three outcomes:

1: Clara dumps Danny;
2: Clara dumps the Doctor;
3: The Doctor invites Danny to join them on the TARDIS and they all live happily ever after at least until part 6 of Season 9.

Since Danny spent this week being so absolutely clear that he didn’t want to see the universe and was perfectly happy seeing the earth in a grain of sand, I would place my money on 3.

When Blake said “forest” he presumably meant “jungle”. Which makes me think that the “forest of the night” is probably a bit racist. Dark continent and all that.

My mother bore me in the southern wilds
And I am black, but oh my soul is white
White as an angel is the English child
But I am black, as if bereft of light

Auguries of Innocence I quite like. Jeremy Bentham used it as the epigram to one of his Doctor Who fan books.  

To see a world in a grain of sand
Heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour 

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

8.9 Flatline

"You mean you could've taken your hand out of that cuff at any time?"
"No, not at any time. Only when it was funny."
         Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Stories sometimes mean things which their writers didn’t intend. They sometimes grow in meaning after their writers stop working on them. I don’t buy the notion that the whole of Doctor Who — books and comics and CDs and TV and all — has an independent and an evolving sentience. But this story is a genuine example of a TV programme leaping up and saying something that no-one intended it to say. 


About a decade ago, the National Society for the Prevention of Children had a TV advert in which a human actor kicked, thumped, beat and generally mistreated a cartoon child (who popped up, Tom & Jerry style, after each indignity) until the final slogan “real children don’t bounce back” appeared on the screen. This made the point that cruelty to children was a bad thing, for the benefit of anyone who didn’t already think so. A decade before that, the same National Society for the Prevention of Children had appeared on the news complaining about the glorification of bullying and corporal punishment in comics like the Beano. And a decade before that One of Those MPs had tried to stop the BBC showing Tom & Jerry because he didn’t think that you would like it very much if someone put your tail in a food blender or dropped an anvil on your paw. I can't remember his name but he was on John Craven's Newsround. 

There is a continuum between what is realistic and what is not realistic and anyone can tell where we are on that continuum at any given moment. The answer to “This would be wicked if it were real” is always “Yes, but it isn’t”, or indeed “You are clearly not old enough to consume fiction.” No baby is killed, no wife is beaten, no-one is hung, and no-one’s soul suffers an eternity of conscious torment separate from the love of God in a Punch and Judy show. At worst, it indulges children’s slightly morbid fascination with violence and executions and the devil and other stuff they’ve been told by adults not to be fascinated by. At best, it’s a bit of slapstick in which a doll with an ugly face thumps a doll with a pretty face with a shillelagh.

This isn’t to say that Punch and Judy shows and Dennis the Menace and Tom & Jerry don’t have subtexts. Everything has a subtext.

Tom & Jerry is at one end of the continuum. It isn’t a real cat, it isn’t a real mouse, and nothing either party does can possibly harm the other. Kick-Ass is at the other: it wouldn’t be funny if it wasn’t happening in a world where violence is really violent, pain really hurts and gangsters really might take a blow torch to your embarrassing bits. The Simpsons is somewhere in the middle. If Homer tries to strangle Bart we are quite clear that no real boy is being strangled; there is no residual sense that someone ought to call Springfield social services. If we thought it through, we’d probably say “what we are seeing on the screen is a visual representation of a father saying ‘I’m so cross I could strangled you’”. But when Bart’s dog is going to be put to sleep we are supposed to feel at some level “sad”. Or think that Bart is feeling sad. Even though it’s a cartoon and we know the outcome will be happy and probably funny. This sets limits on the kinds of stories that can be told. “How would Homer cope if Marge died?” would involve emotions that a cartoon just can’t deal with.

It’s possible to set up jarring clashes between the two extremes. The three minute anti-cruelty advert was one example. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was another. Oddly enough, I can’t think of an example of campy, silver-age superheroes being made to solve crimes in bleak, modern, drug-soaked America. Your Dark Knight Returns and your Watchmen always involve bleak, modern, drug soaked superheroes in the bleak modern world. Imagine what Roger Rabbit would have been like in a film noir world populated by realistic, three dimensional, furry animals with dark, existential emotions who just happened to able to walk and talk.

Where, on the continuum, is Doctor Who? Is it a cartoon, or is it live action? Is it Punch and Judy, or is it Kick-Ass?

“Oh, Andrew, it can be anywhere and nowhere; a comic strip at one moment and a tragedy at another. That’s the whole joy of it.”

Okay. But where are we, in this episode (or in any particular moment of this episode)? How are the writer’s controlling the movement along the line? To what purpose and effect?


Flatline appears to be a Sarah Jane story about creatures from literally another dimension, who appear (from our point of view) to be pictures and patterns on flat surfaces. However, they have found a way to interact with our world by leaching dimensional energy from the TARDIS.

This makes perfect sense. The problem with saying “The Moon is an egg; the Moon hatched; the shell went away by magic and another Moon appeared by magic and chicken flew away” isn’t that it is obviously scientific rubbish; it’s that it doesn’t follow any kind of logic or pseudo logic. “There were these creatures that appeared to us to be merely pictures, so they sucked the dimensions out of the TARDIS, and became living breathing monsters, but the more energy they sucked, the smaller the TARDIS got” follows perfectly good storybook logic. The final solution follows on nicely from the logic we have just established. The dimensional monsters can suck energy out of objects, turning them into pictures; and they can blow energy back into those pictures, turning them into objects again. So our hero gets a young man who is very carefully not called Banksy to draw a convincing picture of a door. The dimensional monsters squirt energy at it, to try to turn it into a door. But since it was never a real door, this doesn’t work. The energy instead goes into the TARDIS; the TARDIS grows back to its proper size; and Peter Capaldi steps out and does an impersonation of Matt Smith in the very first episode. 

It’s not sciencey science fiction, but it’s an awful lot better than the Doctor magicking the bad thing away with a doohickey.

We are told at various points that the dimension monsters are planning on eating or conquering or destroying the world. The whole world. 890 times as bad as the Holocaust. 900 thousand Hiroshimas. No one seems to care very much.

At one point, the dimensional creature is about to kill Wonderful Clara. Kill her: funerals and embalming and graveyards and nasty smells and flowers and people crying. Death. But no-one seems very bothered by this. Clara is mostly interested in deflecting an embarrassing phone-call from her awful boyfriend. Death is an occasion for romantic comedy.

I mean, I get that Doctor Who is not very serious, but if everyone — the annoying girl from the Moon one, the two other annoying kids from the Cyberman one, the cute English teacher from the perfunctory robot one, the granny who quite likes it when the Doctor comes to Christmas dinner in the nude in the last Matt Smith one — are in danger of being killed or eaten or conquered shouldn’t someone at least try to say something dramatic? You know the kind of thing. “Meh..! They dare Chesterfield, they dare! And, meh, we must dare to stop them!”


Three weeks ago, the Doctor found out about Danny and Danny found out about the Doctor.

Two weeks ago, Clara dumped the Doctor (for no reason).

One week ago, Clara went back to the Doctor (for no reason), telling him that Danny was fine about their relationship. (*)

This week, Danny and the Doctor find out that Clara is lying to them about the Doctor and Danny. And Clara has to be the Doctor while the Doctor is trapped in the miniaturized TARDIS, which forces us all to wonder about what “being the Doctor” means.

In the old days, I think we knew what being the Doctor meant. If you wanted to “be” the Doctor you would try to always do what was right; side with the underdog; hate tyranny; be the sort of person who is often in battles but hates war. You would take an interest in science; construct complicated machines with your meccanno; cause fires with your chemistry set. You would consciously wear unfashionable clothes, respond to meaningful questions with wisecracks, and get thumped. But you would still not be an immortal Time Lord with a vast amount of scientific knowledge and a box that could take you anywhere in time and space. Which is kinda like the whole point of being the Doctor.

Since then, at least two things have happened. The Doctor has been literally defined as the most important person in the universe. Trying to emulate the Doctor is less like trying emulate St Francis, and more like trying to emulate the Holy Ghost. The idea that the Doctor is a role rather than an individual has gained ground — Doctor Matt can talk about “not being the Doctor any more” and say that Doctor John lost his right to use the name. But simultaneously, we’ve been asked to believe that it’s not the Doctor’s advanced knowledge that makes him the Doctor, but some facet of his personality. The fact that a guardian angel popped up and told him not to be scared of ghosties when he was a little boy, for example.

This week, the idea seems is that “being the Doctor” means acting as if you are in charge; mouthing military clichés in an authoritative voice ("I am the one chance you've got of staying alive" while professing to hate soldiers; pretending to have a plan, even when you don’t; claiming that whatever happened is what you planned all along; being callously prepared to sacrifice lives along the way.

Granted, Clara saves the day in the final act by doing the kind of thing that I have been complaining that the Doctor doesn’t do nearly enough: solving a problem by spotting a thing that no-one else has spotted. But the bulk of the episode seems to be about debunking the Doctor. Most important person in the universe? Actually he’s a bit of a fraud; he’s just convinced everyone he’s great.

It seems to be the deceit that the final scene is asking us to focus on.

“I was a good Doctor, wasn’t I?”
“You were an exceptional Doctor. Goodness had nothing to do with it.”

We’re back in episode 2. There is an ambiguity in the word “good”. A very bad man might be a very good assassin. Only a very good journalist can get a job on the Daily Mail but only a very bad person would want one. Once you are a good Dalek you are no longer a good Dalek. Clara wants the Doctor to tell him that she was a good Doctor. At the beginning of the series, he wanted her reassurance that he was a good man.

I sometimes ask a representative sample of non-fan Doctor Who viewers (or “Mum” as I usually call her) what they think of the show.

Their most frequent comments are

1: That they don’t understand it and

2: That I over analyze it, and that I should just accept it for what it is.

Yes, I cry. Just tell me what it is and I will accept it for that it.

“It can be many things, Andrew, at many different times”

Then tell me which thing it was this week, and how that relates to the thing it was last week, or I swear I will go insane.

If I watched one episode of a Soap Opera I might very well not understand it; but I would understand what I didn’t understand.

Why, I might ask, was Mrs Lady, who had walked out on her husband in Tuesday’s episode, back with him on Friday?

“Aha” the soap viewer would reply “That old man who visited her at the end of the episode was her old parish priest, who is the one person she really trusts. We were supposed to understand that he was going to give her a little talk about the sanctity of marriage.”

Or they might say “Well, it’s been a standing joke since 1986 that Mrs Lady periodically leaves her husband, but always goes back to him. They don’t even bother to show the going back any more.”

Why, I might ask, did Mr Man, who is always so sweet and kind to everybody, being so horrible to his new neighbours?

“Aha” my soap fan would say “That’s because his baby sister died in the blitz, and he still can’t forgive anyone for having a German name.”

That is: things happen in a Soap which only make sense in terms of other things which happen in that Soap; so if you don’t watch the Soap regularly, then you might not know enough to make sense of a particular scene. But the information is out there, and someone can give it to you, and then you do. Unless the information not being there is the point. “Who was the mysterious one-armed man who visited Mrs Landlord during the quiz night?” “That’s a mystery. He’s been in every story since Christmas, but no-one knows who he is.”

In Doctor Who there is an infinitely vast amount of stuff which the die hard Whovian knows about but the casual viewer does not. If you need to know it for the story to make sense, it is invariably explained on screen. No one would say “Let’s jettison the TARDIS’ swimming pool, first mentioned in the 1981 story  Logopolis”. But someone certainly would say “The Cloister Bell is Ringing which means that the TARDIS is about to be destroyed.”

How am I supposed to watch Doctor Who? Is it This Is England or the Bash Street Kids? Is Danny a human being who is going to be hurt? Am I meant to care about his getting hurt? Does it matter that the Doctor and Clara are both behaving like the most colossal shits, or his his emotional pain only pretend pain, like Bart being strangled? Is the question about whether the Doctor is a good man one which potentially has an answer or is just a bit of Yoda philosophy which everyone but me knows is not meant to mean anything.


I hope all this explains why I find the idea that Doctor Who sometimes generates meanings quite apart from what any one writer might have in mind so very appealing right now.

This season began with a halfway decent attempt at Victorian period drama, pulled the rug away with Tom Riley playing Cary Elwes playing Erol Flynn, and then gave up altogether and offered us a magic moon chicken.

And here we are, near the end of it. Watching a story about two dimensional creatures, who are suddenly turned into three dimensional creatures, and who then collapse back into being flat cartoon drawings again.

Surely someone is trying to tell us something? (**)

* Clara is willing to deceive Danny. Danny is stupid enough to be taken in by Clara’s deceit. Clara is willing to deceive the Doctor. The Doctor is stupid enough to be taken in by Clara’s deceit. Or, Clara is stupid enough to believe that the Doctor has been taken in by her deceit. Or, Clara is stupid enough to be taken in by the Doctor pretending that he is been taken in by her deceit. Or both of them know the other is lying and knows they know the other is lying but care so little about each other and about Danny that they don’t care.

** Before going to press, I noticed that I had typed "Amy" for "Clara" throughout. Never at any time have I said "Jo Grant" when I meant "Sarah Jane" or "Turlough" when I meant "Adric. Just saying. 



A very wise man once said that there is nowhere you can be which isn’t where you’re meant to be. 

It’s easy.

Like Socrates, I don’t believe that this is true; but I believe that we’ll be better and happier if we behave as if it’s true. 

Clearly, the sequence of events that brought me to Bristol were entirely arbitrary and I could very well have ended up somewhere else. Equally clearly, Bristol in general and Stokes Croft in particular is the only place in England suitable for an Andrew to live. You may think that I would think that if I had ended up in Golders Green or Bollington or Aberdeen. I am sure you are right, but will continue to behave as if you were wrong.

It was very nearly the end of the century. James Wallis had laid off both the staff of his games company and I was out of work in Tooting Bec, living, both literally and metaphorically in a one room bedsit without a wash basin. John Major was Prime Minister, so there were still things like housing benefit and "the dole". Attempts to make money selling articles to games magazines and offering myself as an English tutor (unqualified) came to naught. I put my CV in the hands of various agencies, emphasizing that I was the Extremely Famous and Important Original Designer of Once Upon a Time, and indeed, that I had once been the Editor of the Extremely Important and Influential Games Man Magazine. They put me in touch with several companies that wanted (or as I can now see, believed that they wanted) non-technical games designers to spec computer games. A company in Bristol offered me a job working on a war-game about pirates ten years before pirates became popular. (The game when it eventually came out, was described by the Daily Telegraph as “adequate”.) Company and game are long gone, but here I am, in Bristol, putting books on the shelf in a snazzy library and singing The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round to small children on Monday afternoons. 

I liked Bristol within a week of arriving. There was a coffee shop on the main street with big sofas and huge mugs of coffee and cheese cake and a writers group. There was a choice of three art house cinemas. I don’t much like art-house movies but it’s nice to know they are there if I ever need them. Some actors had taken over a disused tobacco factory at the South end of town, and a writer in the Guardian spotted that it was staging the most exciting Shakepeare productions in the country. There was a sticky, run down pub called the Croft - now the Crofters Rights — virtually opposite my first flat. It had music nights. One night in 2007 they had Martin Carthy in the back room. He came onto the stage unannounced and burst into “Come listen to my story, lads, and hear my tell my tale…”. I have never really recovered. I have watched the street I live on progressively fill up with vegetarian restaurants with folk bands in the basement, cider bars with punk bands in the back room, and combined launderettes internet cafes. Whenever a shop falls empty, someone opens a coffee shop. Some people use bad words like gentrification and hipsterism, but I really like coffee. 

There are piles of rubbish on the streets and nowhere to park and cyclists cycle like maniacs on the pavement and I have been mugged twice (once seriously and once pathetically) but my third favourite nu-folk singer sometimes serves coffee in the vegan cafe, and when she isn’t there staff argue with me about Doctor Who. It’s a twenty minute walk to the Folkhouse and and a thirty minute walk to the Old Vic and an hour to Glastonbury and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory is now an annual event. The man who invented it is now the mayor.   

When I arrived people were already starting to have Opinions about graffiti. I remember smiling, if not actually laughing, that someone had drawn yellow and black warning stripes by the troll gate of Brunel’s mighty Suspension Bridge, alongside the words “BEWARE: Concealed Trap Doors.” It was signed “banksy”. The graffiti on the inside of the penguin enclosure at the Zoo (”Not bloody fish again!”) was similarly signed, as was the Mural that appeared of a teddy bear throwing a Molotov at some police officers with the slogan “The mild, mild west”. Banksy was an obvious play on “chopper” from 2000AD, a nice example of life plagiarizing art. Some people quite liked him and others though he was not as good as he used to be. 

Maybe there is something to the idea that banksy is a rich kid appropriating graffiti and selling it to the art markets for real money. Even at the beginning there was a suspicion that he say in a studio making stencils and paid poor kids to actually spray them onto walls. In a way, I’m more of a fan of beret-wearing ceramicist Chris Chalkley whose organized campaign of mural painting honestly gave Stokes Croft the confidence to reinvent itself as an artists’s quarter.

In 2009, Banksy “took over” Bristol museum. The lower floor was given over to canvass versions of his graffiti and 3D installations; while the upper floors were full of “interventions” on supposedly other works of art. (I recall that he had apparently pained an Easy Jet logo onto a Victorian oil painting of the Flight Into Egypt.) The exhibition was unannounced. Some of it was quite funny. Some of it not so much. By the end of the week, you had to queue for five hours to get in. 

Doctor Who 8.9, Flatline, was set in Bristol. Apparently, the main thing about Bristol is that it is really run-down and the council officers are fascists. Oh, and everyone hates graffiti. 

Friday, October 02, 2015

8.8 Mummy on the Orient Express

And now you're back
From outer space
And I find you here with that sad look upon your face
I should have changed that stupid lock
Oh made you leave your key
If I've known for a second you'd be back to bother me
         Gloria Gaynor

Little is left to tell.

The broken muddle that is Doctor Who staggered on for a few more weeks, mimicking what it half remembered Doctor Who being. Then someone put it out of its misery. 

I said last week that some of the plot devices in Kill the Moon were so transparent that you might as well have had the voice of God telling the Doctor and Clara what the Writer wanted them to do. This week, that’s almost literally what happens. Mummy on the Orient Express sounds like the title of a Doctor Who strip in TV Comic. 

It isn’t actually a Mummy but a plot device that looks a bit like a Mummy. And it isn’t the Orient Express, but a plot device done up to look like the Orient Express. A mad all powerful computer has created a simulation of a space ship in the shape of the Orient Express as pretext for assembling a group of characters and challenging them to defeat the Space Mummy. You could have called the story Goblin on S.S. Great Britain or Werewolf on Concord and it would have come out much the same. You could have shown us Borusa picking chess pieces out of time and space with his little time scoop and it would have been only marginally more contrived.

Although its only a computer simulation of a space ship in the shape of Orient Express, everyone talks and acts as if they are Agatha Christie characters. I don’t know if we are supposed to think that they are playing a sort of role-playing game murder-mystery party and not breaking character. I don’t know if we are supposed to think at all.

The story bit felt like an episode of the Sarah Jane Adventures — one of the bad ones, like the Mona Lisa coming to life, not one of the good ones, like everyone forgetting that Clyde exists. There is, as the title suggests, a Mummy on the Orient Express. The Mummy is actually a kind of revenant: it can only be seen by people who are about to die; or, to be accurate, by people who it is about to kill. From the point of view of the crew of the Space-Train, passengers are just dropping dead randomly. The Doctor has to convince them that they are actually being killed by an Invisible Space Mummy. There’s some fairly grim stuff with people wondering who the next victim will be, and a tiny slither of characterization around how people face Certain Death. To everyone’s total surprise and astonishment, the shell-shocked ex-serviceman faces his death bravely, with his gun in his hand. Frank Skinner does an amusing turn playing Frank Skinner

In the end the Doctor magics the Space Mummy away with his doohickey. I think there may have been an explanation, but it was so perfunctory and spoken so quickly over such loud background music that I have literally no idea what happened; but not having any idea what happened doesn’t make much difference.

The characterization bit follows straight on from the one with the Space Chicken. Clara was so angry about the Doctor lying to her that she had ended their relationship. The trip on the Orient Express is meant to be a going away present or a “last hurrah” because they don’t want everything to end with a slammed door. I don't think that's how people behave when they've been badly hurt. Naturally, the Doctor is lying to her again — he knows perfectly well that there is going to be a Space Mummy on the Space Train. In fact, he behaves horribly throughout the episode: he doesn't give Clara the slightest reason to reconsider her decision to leave.

Since Mr Spock — heck, since Professor Challenger, very possibly since Socrates — there has been an idea that thoughts and feelings don’t really go together — that the cleverer someone is the more likely they are to be callous, or shy, or emotionally illiterate. Then we all read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and decided that the best way of signifying that someone was clever was to code them very broadly as having aspergers syndrome. It worked quite well in the first season of Sherlock, and I believe the Yanks got a whole sit-com out of it. I have an awful terrible feeling that when the Doctor says things like “You are probably next to die, which is good to know” we are supposed to find it amusing and endearing. In fact, it just makes him come across as a prick. Doctor Sylvester got away with his dark callous moments because you could absolutely tell that he really genuinely loved Ace. Doctor Peter seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. This certainly isn’t a Doctor I could love; and the question I have about Clara is not “will she, won’t she?” but “why is she wasting her time with this idiot?” And if you don’t love the Doctor, there's no point in watching not-that-brilliantly made TV shows about Space Mummies and Giant Chickens. We quite happily watched drivel about gun tooting Mona Lisas with mancunian accents because we loved Elisabeth Sladen, and to a lessor extent, Luke and Clyde and whoever the other one was that week.

Tom Baker said that he never did any acting. The Doctor was simply Tom being alien and benevolent. There is much in that

Clara is cross with the Doctor for lying to her and being generally horrible. He explains that he was in a situation where he had to be horrible: he did sacrifice some lives, but he saved some others. "Yes, but you didn't have to be so gleeful about" screams what remains of the TV audience. Then, for no reason I could spot, Clara changes her mind and decides she wants to stay with the Doctor for ever and ever after all. Nothing which has just happened has in any way overwritten or excused the shitty way the Doctor treated her last week. It was never in doubt that, in Doctor-world, lying about the Giant Chicken was the right thing to do, for the greater good; and we can all see that allowing the Space Mummy to kill some people might have enabled the Doctor to discover its weakness and magic it away with a doohickey. If Clara couldn’t deal with the Doctor’s lies last week, why is she suddenly so cool about them this week? 

So. Last week, the Doctor and Clara split up, for no particular reason. This week, they get back together again, for no particular reason. Next week and the week after we’ll go through the same process again, until Jenna Coleman decides to get a proper job like maybe dressing up as a robot in a superhero movie.


Thursday, October 01, 2015

8.7 Kill the Moon

This being the state of human affairs, what is Eliza fairly sure to do when she is placed between Freddy and Higgins? Will she look forward to a lifetime of fetching Higgins's slippers or to a lifetime of Freddy fetching hers? There can be no doubt about the answer. Unless Freddy is biologically repulsive to her, and Higgins biologically attractive to a degree that overwhelms all her other instincts, she will, if she marries either of them, marry Freddy.
                                George Bernard Shaw.

Kill the Moon is not merely a bad episode of Doctor Who. It is the final and clinching proof that Doctor Who is broken beyond repair.

This is my second attempt to write a review of this story.

You can imagine how the first one panned out: ludicrous Giant Space Chicken; ludicrous physics; manipulative pro-life sub text; sympathetic magic; unconvincing school girl; did I mention the Giant Space Chicken? You have probably read several similar ones. You have very possibly written one.

But after giving the episode some more thought – more thought than it probably deserved – I realized that the problem lay somewhere else entirely.

The idea that the Moon is a gigantic egg is rather a good one. The idea that the egg is going to hatch and destroy all life on earth is no sillier than many that have cropped up on Doctor Who over the years. If it had been approached in a spirit of half-logical surrealism it could have been a great deal of silly fun. It would have all depended on how cool and ludicrous and scary and wise and funny the Giant Space Chicken managed to be.

But the story was not about the Giant Space Chicken. We see it for a only a few seconds, from a distance, at the very end of the story. It is a perfunctory Giant Space Chicken. A plot, that is to say, device.

Kill the Moon is an arc story -- a continuation of the soap opera about Clara, Danny and the Doctor. This week, we have the One Where Clara Leaves the Doctor. Last week, we had the One Where the Doctor Finds Out About Danny. Next week we will have the One Where Clara and the Doctor Get Back Together. But this week, this week is the One Where Clara Leaves the Doctor.

The Doctor has been patronizing, insulting, manipulating, and shouting at Clara for the last five weeks. We have spent the last five weeks wishing that she would stand up to him. This week she does stand up to him, and the standing up to him bit is done very well indeed.

“Do you know what?” says Clara “It was cheap, it was pathetic. It was patronising. That was you patting us on the back, saying, you're big enough to go to the shops by yourself now. Go on, toddle along….Oh, don't you ever tell me to mind my language. Don't you ever tell me to take the stabilisers off my bike.”

Bravo, Clara. The last companion who spoke to the Doctor like that was…er…also a teacher at Coal Hill School, come to think of it.

Given that Clara has put up with so much from the Doctor; given that Doctor Matt was “her Doctor” and Doctor Matt has specifically told her to be nice to Doctor Peter, we need some really compelling reason for her to turn on him right now. It isn’t enough that Jenna Coleman can act. She certainly can; but it’s the kind of acting that makes me wonder whether she’s the kind of actress who thinks about her puppy dying when she was six or the kind of actress who sniffs an onion before doing the scene. Or maybe the BBC can do CGI tears nowadays? Tears aren't enough, is my point. There has to be a reason reason for them. 

What reason do you think Moffat comes up with? Is it

A: An organic development in the Doctor and Clara’s relationship of which a break-up is the natural consequence?

B: An far-fetched plot device which has been contrived purely in order to precipitate the break-up and for not other reason?

Before the break-up, our heroes are faced with a Massive Moral Dilemma. The Doctor reaction to the Massive Moral Dilemma is to, er, bugger off and let Clara solve it by herself. This is why she is so cross with him.

So, why did the Doctor bugger off? Was there something about this particular Dilemma which means that, in this particular case, the Doctor being the Doctor, “buggering off” was the only thing he could possibly do?

Er…no. This is the sort of Moral Dilemma he’s been solving on a weekly basis since 1963. But he gives several Special Reasons for buggering off during this one in particular. He says that he respects Clara and trusts her to make the right decision by herself. He says that the decision is so important for the future of the human race that a human, not a Time Lord, has to make it. And he says that this particular dilemma is a Special Case because it’s one of a number of special little moments in time that he doesn’t know anything about. (“They’re not clear. They’re fuzzy. They’re grey”).

Capaldi acts terribly hard through all three explanations. If he had been David Tennant, he would have put on his Serious face and talked very quickly. We all know what this means. It means that he knows that the words he’s being asked to read out make no possible sense. Fuzzy grey moments in time have never been mentioned before and will never be mentioned again. They’ve been invented as a one off plot excuse. You might as well have a giant cartoon hand pointing to a sign saying “Clara must solve this moral dilemma by herself, signed God”. That would have fitted in quite well with the story of the Perfunctory Egg.

So, what is the huge moral dilemma that the Doctor leaves Clara to solve? Again, it seems to change each time it is articulated. At first, the issue is simply that if the Giant Space Chicken hatches and flies away, there would be tsunamis and earthquakes and bad stuff would happen to the climate and everyone on Earth would be wiped out. It’s like one of those philosophy exercises where a train full of old ladies is about to career of a cliff, but the signalman has the option to divert it onto a different stretch of track which an innocent child has wandered onto. Do you squash the kid to save the old ladies? Do you destroy one Giant Space Chicken in order to save the lives of every man, woman and child on earth?

Kill one thing in order to save billions of things doesn’t seem like a very difficult dilemma to me. I have a sense that Moffat think that it is significant that we are being asked to kill one really big thing in order to save millions of small things, but that ought not to make a difference.

At one point, Courtney (the annoying school girl who asked the Doctor to take her to the moon) says “It’s a little baby…it’s not even been born”, as if this makes the question harder. That is why some people think that the story has an anti-abortion sub-text. But if it does, it’s not really a very interesting one. There is a legitimate argument to be had between people who think that an un-born Giant Space Chicken is not yet a Chicken, but only a potential Chicken – so killing it is either a neutral act, or not so wicked an act as killing an actual Chicken would be; and people who think that an un-born Giant Chicken is still a Chicken and killing it is still pullucide. But no-one argues that killing an unhatched Chicken is worse than killing a hatched one. Some people say that because an un-hatched Chicken looks very much like a hatched one; and because all our biological and social programming tells us to protect small things, the act of killing an unhatched Chicken violates all our feelings of empathy and, in the long run, makes us into bad people. That was the question that the Doctor asked on Skaro, all those years ago. Not “if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to become a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives could you then kill that child.” Not “would it be morally right to kill that child” or “would killing that child arguably secure the greatest good to the greatest number, but “could you, yourself, if the child were there in front of you, physically bring yourself to do it.” And if you say “yes” would you make a good Dalek? 

We digress.

The dilemma is also framed in a third way. The moon exploding, and a Giant Chicken emerging from the rubble and flying away would probably destroy all life on earth; but we can't say it definitely will. so the choice is really between the certainty of one creature dying and the possibility (or even probability) of millions of creatures dying.

The Astronaut says that when a gigantic creature forces it’s way out of the moon “there are going to be huge chunks of the moon heading right for us, like whatever killed the dinosaurs, only ten thousand times bigger.”

“But the moon isn't make of rock and stone, is it? It's made of eggshell” says Clara. This is possibly the least helpful remark anyone has ever made about anything.

The best one can say here is that we are talking about faith position. The choice is actually between killing the Giant Space Chicken and saving the world; and not killing the Giant Space Chicken had hoping that the world will be saved by a miracle of some kind. If the Doctor had said “Please don’t kill the Chicken. It’s a Magic Space Chicken. When the Moon explodes, the Chicken will magic all the debris away before it can hurt the earth; and then magic a new moon so hardly anyone will notice the difference” that would have set up quite an interesting dilemma: common sense vs blind faith in the Doctor. But he didn’t.

This is Doctor Who. Characters sacrifice themselves and are sacrificed every week. No-one would regard killing the Giant Space Chicken as a difficult moral dilemma if there wasn’t a big Monty Python hand of God saying “This is a difficult moral dilemma.”

There are a couple of wrinkles, but they only make matters worse. Clara asks the population of the Earth whether they’d be prepared to sacrifice themselves in order to save the Giant Space Chicken; the population of the Earth say “no thank you”; but Clara decides to sacrifice them anyway. Then it turns out that no-one was ever in any danger — the human race would have survived whether Clara killed the Chicken or not, because we were, after all, talking about a Chicken which could Magic away the moon rubble and then Magic a new moon into existence. The important thing was that everyone on Earth said “Oh look! A Giant Chicken. We’d better restart the space program colonize the universe”. So because Clara made the correct (anti-utilitarian) decision the human race will survive until the end of time. If she had killed the Chicken, that would never have happened. 

Everyone takes it for granted that space colonialism is an unqualified good.

But this takes us straight back to the original point. Either the Doctor knew that the Chicken wasn’t going to destroy the world; or he didn’t. Either he knew that “saving the Chicken” would prove that the human race was worthy to colonize the universe, or he didn’t. Either way, he didn’t tell Clara what he knew, and that pisses her off (”language!”) and makes her leave him. But there is no coherent reason for him not to have told her what he knew. The story is a machine for making Clara cross with the Doctor. But the story is ultimately pointless, so Clara’s anger is ultimately pointless. She’s not cross about anything: merely an action figure striking an “angry” pose which doubtless she will have got over in a three weeks time.

Doctor Who is broken. Not because it is written by people who think that eggs get heavier before they hatch; or because they believe that adding a billion tonnes to the weight of the Moon would seriously effect the tides on earth. That stuff doesn’t, in the end, matter. What matters is that Doctor Who wants to be a show about characters, a show in which Clara and Danny have real emotions. But at the same time, it wants to be a show about monsters and aliens and giant space chickens. And the writers believe that the only purpose of giant space chickens is to force Clara and the Doctor’s relationship into to place which it has no reason to go. It’s not so much that the slushy stuff is a distraction from the monsters. The existence of the monsters is spoiling the slushy stuff.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

8.6 The Caretaker

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might. 

Back in 2010, I compared The Lodger with a certain brand of yeasty salty spreadable toast accompaniment. It will, I said, divide Who fans, even as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats. On the left will be the people who are in tune with with what the Matt Smith era is about; on the right will be the ones who are simply not.

The Caretaker is a similar pitch to The Lodger. I suspect it will divide fans for similar reasons.

The Lodger took the Doctor out of his TARDIS comfort zone and dumped him in an ordinary environment – as James Cordon’s flat mate. There was an alien, but we could all see that it was a Perfunctory Alien. The actual alien was Matt Smith. If you liked watching Matt Smith being alien — if you think everything that Doctor Matt did lit up the room, even when it wasn't a particularly interesting room — then the Lodger was the Bestest Ever Story about the Bestest Ever Doctor. If you found Matty Smith irritating, or if you were basically still sore that Jon Pertwee quit, then this was the episode that turned you off Doctor Who for good. Everyone knows which side I’m on. 

So: this week the Doctor announces that he is going into deep cover and pretending to be a normal human for a while. (Two weeks ago he was trying to imagine what a critter that could hide perfectly would be like, and spooking himself out over it.) He gets a job as a Caretaker in Wonderful Clara’s school. He pretends to be human, which he is very bad at, and therefore oddly fits in as the Grumpy Caretaker. The Grumpy Caretaker is one of the stock clichés of school stories, along with the sexy English teacher (played here by Wonderful Clara) and the sadistic P.E teacher. Back in Remembrance of the Daleks, Doctor Sylvester pretended to go for a caretaking job at this very school and was told he was overqualified for it. There is a Harold Pinter play called the Caretaker. Harold Pinter almost certainly never played a Yeti. There is a Perfunctory Robot, but like the Lodger, this is mainly a character piece. 

But it isn’t a character piece about us getting to know the Doctor. It isn’t a character piece about what would happen if the Doctor came to your school. (Imagine Doctor Matt as Caretaker! Rewiring the slide projector so that it showed 3D pictures; making champagne spew out of the soft drinks machine without quite intending to...) It’s a character piece about Wonderful Clara and Pink Danny. Clara has been keeping Danny a secret from the Doctor for no very good reason. This is a kind of obligatory episode which tells us how the Doctor finds out about Danny and how Danny finds out about the Doctor. Maybe you see it as a bit of a filler that we need to move the sub-plot forward. Or you may think this kind of rom-com scenario is what the series is really interested in, and it’s stuff like “the Doctor and Clara meet Robin Hood” and “the Doctor and Clara rob a bank for good and adequate reasons” that are the fillers. 

For better or worse, I think that the latter is probably the case. Deep Breath, Listen and Caretaker feel as if they are part of one TV series, telling one story, filmed and acted in a mostly similar style. Robot of Sherwood and Time Heist feel completely different – both to this, and to each other. Yes, I know that Horror of Fang Rock isn’t exactly the same as Talons of Weng Chiang and Talons of Weng Chiang isn’t exactly the same as the Invisible Enemy but my point stands.

There are some good gags and some less good gags. 

I thought it was quite funny that Doctor Peter takes it for granted that Clara is dating the Other English Teacher who looks exactly like Doctor Matt, and is perfectly okay with it. (I shouldn’t think that there is a single English teacher in England who talks or dresses like that and studying the Tempest is about knowing the key points which are likely to come up in an exam, not what Mr Chips feels about the “fascinating enigma of it’s fundamental non-finishedness.”) I quite like the long-suffering headteacher, the disastrous parents evening and the problem child’s awful parents. I actually even quite liked the problem child, although I don’t buy the Doctor giving her a ride in the TARDIS and sincerely hope that’s the last we see of her.

And in fact the mutual revelations about Danny, the Doctor and Clara are pretty well handled. I felt embarrassed for Clara and sad for Danny when it came out that she’d been deceiving him and pleased for both of them that he took it fairly well, and cross with the Doctor for being pointlessly jealous. Particularly him arbitrarily deciding that Danny must be a PE Teacher. Does anybody want to make the case that that was Ever-So-Slightly Racist? Does anyone else want to explain that PE teachers haven’t been like that for years? But the programme has gone off in a pretty weird direction when “I was cross with the Doctor” is a point in its favour. 

I could have done without Danny doing a Matrix-style slow-motion leap over the Perfunctory Robot to save Clara. Not because I don’t think he should have saved Clara. As yet undiscovered tribes in New Guinea could see from the set-up that it was going to finish with Danny saving the day. But we probably don’t need to equate “soldier” quite so clearly with “action figure.” 

So. Which side are you on?

There are going to be people who are going to say that Doctor Who has no right to be doing stories about the relationship between the Companion and the Doctor and the Companion’s Boyfriend because Doctor Who is about monsters and saving the world and relationship-stories are not allowed. On this view, the whole idea of Companions is deeply suspect. When Old Who was still New people openly complained that Rose had no right to exist because the title of the show was Doctor Who as opposed to The Amazing Adventures of Chav Woman. (They really, really did.) A friend of mine recently said that he had attempted to re-frame season 5 - 8 as The Adventures of Amy and Her Time Travelling Friend to see if that made him like it any better. 

This seems to be the same kind of thinking (though not, obviously, to anything like the same degree) as that of J.C Wright and his canine buddies, who see the intrusion of a lady or a black person — any lady or any black person — into any story as evidence that no one is allowed to be white or male any more. It is obviously true that Rose and Clara have more agency than companions did in the olden days. I myself have complained that there is a tendency for New Who to over-sell companions, starting with Rose’s transformation into Dark Phoenix and ending with Clara accidentally creating the entire franchise. But it’s not a zero-sum game. Presenting the companions as people doesn’t mean that the Doctor is now less of a person. 

If you are on this side of the divide, then presumably you hate the whole idea of the Caretaker and are not reading this. 

On the other hand, there are always going to be people who say that Doctor Who always was about the relationship between the Doctor and his lady friends, that fans had sexual hangups that prevented them from seeing this, that memory plays tricks and that the Caretaker is not really that different from tons of stuff in the Old Series. If you are on that side of the divide, then presumably you think that the Caretaker is what Doctor Who was always like and are not quite sure why I am making all this fuss about it. 

I guess my position is this.

It doesn’t matter what Doctor Who “ought” to be. It is unfair to continually compare a new programme with an old programme; and definitely unfair to compare a real programme with an imaginary programme you’ve made up in your head. The true definition of Doctor Who is whatever happened in Doctor Who last week, and always has been.

On the other hand; you have to play to your strengths. A cop show probably should mostly be about a cop solving crimes. The cop is allowed to be cleverer and more observant than any one real policeman could ever be, and “forensics” are probably allowed to produce plot devices that no real forensics team could possibly produce; but if a fairy pops up and tells Frost whodunnit; or if Morse discovers the murder was committed by a ghost, well, that’s cheating. It’s also cheating to sell us a fairy story and then have a cop turn up and fob us off with a perfectly rational explanation on the last page. Unless the whole point is a big twist about what genre we are in mumble mumble Sixth Sense mumble mumble. But you have to do that sort of thing awfully well for the audience not to feel cheated. 

So it is probably not a good idea to sell us a series about explosions and robots — to show us trailers involving explosions and robots — and then reveal that really, it’s not an exploding robot story, it's a kissing story. 

On the other hand, and this being science fiction I am quite entitled to have three hands, by now, everyone knows that Doctor Who is, or partly is, or sometimes is, a romantic comedy about the Doctor, Clara and Danny (or the Doctor, Amy and Rory; or the Doctor, Rose and Mickey, and no, until I started typing this sentence I hadn’t realised that human boyfriends all have names ending in a Y.) 

I don’t really buy the premise. I never have done. I don’t accept that someone would be exploring the universe with the Doctor and at the same time worrying about whether or not she made a date with a colleague who she only met a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think that the kinds of people who worry about keeping appointments become explorers and adventurers. 

There are people who, offered the chance to spend two years living among the aforementioned previously undiscovered tribes in New Guinea would reply “No, I don’t want to do that, I would miss my kids’ birthday party.” And there are ones who would say “Yes: I will sacrifice everything, even family and friendship, for the sake of Adventure. I would walk naked into a live volcano if it meant I could learn something that no other man knew.”  Me, I don’t specially care if I die without seeing the Taj Mahal. I’d like to go to New York some day. But as Sam Gamgee spotted; the people who stay at home don’t get stories written about them. 

But I am happy to accept the premise. The big question is: is Steven Moffat? Is this definitely the story he wants to tell? Are Clara and Danny real grown up people who are in love? Is their relationship going to proceed to a plausible ending, happy or tragic, and are we going to properly deal with the consequences of that ending? If this answer is "yes" then this was an installment of a very good unfolding story. The problem kicks in if next week, they stop being grown up characters and become action figures again.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

This is a song. It is one of the nicest songs by one my favorite bands. It is not about politics: it is about football. But it sort of sums up my feelings at the end of a week in which I have joined a political party for the first time in my life; and for the first time in my life do not feel entirely cynical about politics.

Perhaps Jeremy could adopt it as his campaign anthem.

8.5 Time Heist

In 1926, mystery surrounded Agatha Christie, who was discovered staying at a Harrogate hotel eleven days after disappearing from her home. She had become distressed after learning her husband had got a young woman pregnant, although in his defense, he claimed that the policeman did it.
I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue

In this week's episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor and his companions are in terrible danger. Does he have a plan to get them out of it?  "My personal plan is that a thing will probably happen quite soon”. 

Last week, at the crucial moment, Wonderful Clara realized how the TARDIS telepathic circuits worked, she said that she thought the could "do a thing". When asked to explain her plan, she replied "it's not a plan, it's a thing." 

Two weeks before that, when they were trapped inside a Dalek, the Doctor and Clara both separately said that they were going to do "a clever thing".

Four years ago when Doctor Who was good, Matt Smith delivered what, at the time, seemed like a funny line. River Bloody Song had asked him how he was going to save Amy, and he replied “I'll do a thing.” What thing, asks River. “I don't know. It's a thing in progress. Respect the thing.” 

It was a nice hint about the Doctor Matt's emerging persona. Smith’s Doctor admitted that he rarely knew what he was doing -- that he winged it, and then let people think that whatever happened was his plan after all. He himself was on some level pretending to be the Doctor and not quite sure he could pull it off. He said that he wouldn't know what he intended to do until he had finished talking about it or that he was going to do something incredibly clever that he hadn't even thought of yet.

But as soon as the Doctor says anything at all, that thing becomes a catchphrase, a cliche. One of those things which the Doctor says. Any scene in any episode can be given instant gravitas if the Doctor says something a bit like something he once said before. 

I wear a Scottish accent now. Scottish accents are cool. 


Having rebooted itself three times already this season, and deconstructed itself to death last week the only thing left for Doctor Who is to play about in the wreckage. If the character we knew as the Doctor basically doesn't exist then why not drop the bit that's left into a "high concept" action movie and see what happens. 

Nothing wrong with this story. Didn't need to be a Doctor Who story; but nothing wrong with it. Didn't see the twists coming. Didn't throw anything at the TV. 

The Doctor, Wonderful Clara, and two nondescript NPCs have been told by an unknown third party to rob a bank for an unknown purpose. They have amnesia, so they don't know why they agreed to it, or how they came to be there there. This is the sort of plot summary Douglas Adams came up with when he had writer's block, which was always. He hoped that if he just started writing, the blank bits would fill themselves in.

In fact, it turns out not to be so much a Hollywood Heist movie as a computer game based on a Hollywood Heist movie. The Doctor actually asks the supporting characters what their special powers are. The person who hired them as left helpful technological artifacts hidden all round the bank he wants them to rob.

It turns out that there is more to the person-who-hired them than meets the eye. The "robbery" is not all that it seems, either. Both twists are quite clever, but they seem to come out of Big Book of Quite Clever Twists. They are not twists which arise organically from the story -- twists which make sense but have been cunningly hidden with red herrings and false trails. They are ha-ha fooled you twists which muck about with the expected structure of the story. Not that there is anything wrong with that, necessarily. I once played a big computer RPG where you are a semi-amnesiac hero hunting down a dark lord who had vanished some years early and about halfway through it turns out, quite unexpectedly... Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. You can probably imagine how it turned out. I quite enjoy being quite surprised.

Old Old Who was a perfect TV format. The hero had a Time Machine that didn’t work and some companions who didn’t want to be there, and it would plonk both of them into a random location each week. The Time Travelers would get involved with whatever was happening in their randomly chosen destination. The TARDIS is a big blue answer to the question “what excuse is there for a hero to be in tenth century England one week and a far future super-bank the next week?” 

Once you have changed the set up (and I understand why the set up had to be changed) and allowed the Doctor to chose his destination each week, then you have to come up with more and more contrived pretexts for the Doctor to get involved in a plot. This week, the contrived pretext is a mysterious shadowy figure who turns out to be...oh, come on, surely you can guess? It's quite fun, of course. But each episode feels like a bigger, more horribly overwritten contrivance than the one before.

In the old days, last Autumn, what would have kept me watching the Doctor and some one-note supporting characters robbing the Biggest Bank In the Universe (a bit like the Biggest Library in the Universe) would have been Matt Smith. In the Old Old Days, it would have been Tom Baker or Sylvester McCoy. These were Doctors who fascinated us, and more importantly, Doctors who it was impossible not to like.

Steven Moffat has cleverly come up with a Doctor who it is impossible to like. Colin Baker was meant to be an un-likable Doctor but after an interestingly deranged debut story he settled for being nice but sarcastic. Peter Capaldi is a Doctor who says things like “She is dead and we are alive. Prioritize if you want it to stay that way.” A Doctor who two weeks ago had “Doesn’t like soldiers” on his character sheet but is now talking like a sergeant major. Or a Dalek. Or, indeed, a P.E Teacher. Doctor Tom could occasionally be harsh, but he had a big grin and a bag of jelly babies and a twinkle in his eye. Doctor Capaldi couldn’t twinkle if he tried. 

Wonderful Clara is, I suppose, meant to be a counterpoint to the Nasty Doctor, just as Ace counterbalanced Sylvester McCoy and Evelyn counterbalanced Colin Baker. But all she actually does is walk around with a big arrow over her head saying "I AM WONDERFUL" and banter with him. 

Capaldi is a fine actor, of course. But he is beginning to look like a series wrecking piece of miscasting. 


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