Sunday, October 10, 2021

Thoughts On The Occassion of the Appointment of Mr Russell T Davies to an Unprecedented Second Term as Producer, Chief Writer and De Facto Showrunner of Doctor Who

There was a red-haired man who had no eyes or ears. Neither did he have any hair, so he was called red-haired theoretically. He couldn't speak, since he didn't have a mouth. Neither did he have a nose. He didn't even have any arms or legs. He had no stomach and he had no back and he had no spine and he had no innards whatsoever. He had nothing at all! Therefore there's no knowing whom we are even talking about. In fact it's better that we don't say any more about him.

Danil Ivanovich Kharms

There is no reason for Doctor Who to exist; but it is impossible for it not to.

In 1989, Doctor Who was an embarrassment to the BBC: the fossilised remains of a Reithean Saturday night edu-drama which an Imperial College student society had successfully turned into a cult. As long as it existed, there was no particular reason to cancel it; but once Michael Grade had pulled the plug, there was no particular reason to bring it back.

Superman and Spider-Man can be endlessly deconstructed and reimagined around a narrow set of tropes. Exploding planet; childless farmers; sick Auntie; radioactive spider; dead uncle; glowing rocks; teenage side-kick; Irene Adler; Sheriff of Nottingham. 

Doctor Who can hardly be said to exist at all: its premise is so fluid that all fans can do is hallucinate minutiae about a lore that was never really real. The Doctor is a guy who travels in space and time. Except for the couple of seasons when he didn't.

"Doctor Who can be anything it wants to be" was a unique selling point in 1963: but an anthology series that can go from spoof Homer to camp Dan Dare to serious sixteenth century historical fiction in consecutive stories is a harder sell in the age of Netflix than it was in the days when your choice of viewing was the channel with the adverts or the channel without them

Why is there not a vast, interconnected shared universe of Doctor Who spin-offs, as big as Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

If you stare at a blank sheet of paper for long enough you start to see patterns. We have been staring at Doctor Who for a very long time, and no very coherent pattern has yet emerged.

The Mandalorian is a Frankenstein series, fragments of lore stolen from dead movies, stitched together and reanimated: and yet it manages to be fully itself. The show knows that Sand People always ride single file to conceal their numbers, but the viewer doesn't have to. It stands on its own feet. Lone Wolf and Cub meets the Magnificent Seven with aliens.

Why isn't The Adventures of Nyssa a thing? Why can't that in-joke about Ace starting a charity for orphans when she got back from the Time War be spun out into an entire series? Why aren't Martha and Mickey saving the universe on a weekly basis? 

Because no-one outside of a very narrow fan-elite has heard of these characters. Your Mum knows that Batman has a Butler called Alfred: she doesn't know that it was kind of implied in The End of Time that the Doctor's Mother was a weeping angel.

The Mandalorian and the Marvel Multiverse Phase 6 are constructed from pre-existing lore. Doctor Who does not, in the required sense, have any lore for us to work with.

(I don't know when the word "lore" was coined to mean "back-story, canon, and continuity". Some people think it comes from the World of Warcraft computer game. It is a very useful word and I propose to carry on using it.)

There have been four spin-offs from Doctor Who, and I am pretty sure you can only remember three of them. The Sarah-Jane Adventures was a vehicle for Elisabeth Sladen. And also some very decent child actors, but mostly Elisabeth Sladen. K-9 and Company, despite the title, was a vehicle for the same actor. Torchwood was a vehicle for John Barrowman, which means that we probably never have to watch it again. The Adventures of K-9, which you haven't seen and really, really don't want to was a vehicle for a piece of hardware. Bob Baker and Dave Martin didn't own the rights to the K-9 prop, but the BBC couldn't prevent John Leeson saying "affirmative" into a ring modulator. It may, for all I know, be canon and it may not have compared unfavourably with other Australian kid-friendly soft-cyberpunk soap operas of its day, but it has very little to do with Doctor Who.

"A strange lady and some schoolkids get into scrapes with space monsters" is an obviously good pitch for CBBC and if Lis Sladen is available you might as well cast her. Some episodes of the Sarah Jane Adventures clearly had very strong connections to Doctor Who. Others, not so much. If you want to say "The Death of the Doctor is canon in the Doctor Who universe" then I certainly can't stop you. But I can't help thinking that if you were watching a quite good kids TV show mainly to find out what happened to Jo Grant after she sailed down the Amazon on her blue crystal, you may possibly need to take a long hard look at your life.

Torchwood was a piss-poor sci-fi show that had been cross-promoted -- at best seeded -- in Doctor Who. You can barely even call Army of Ghosts a backdoor pilot: all it actually had in common with Barrowman's sex-and-aliens travesty was that they both had the word Torchwood in them. "What if the Victorian science fascists in Season 2 of Doctor Who had the same name as some sexually incontinent Men in Black scavengers in a completely different series?" doesn't amount to a premise. Mentioning the word Torchwood in Doctor Who is a fair enough way of getting people to tune in to the new show -- and god knows, there was no other reason -- but it doesn't amount to an expansion of Doctor Who lore. 

The Captain Jack who appears in the One With the Gas Masks was an interesting and appealing character; but he has very little to do with the immortal camp pantomime turn on BBC 3. This was before we knew about John Barrowman's zip fastener related issues.

But when Russell T Davies talks about spin-offs and a Doctor Who Universe, this is the kind of thing he seems to have in mind. He used Doctor Who to float ideas for unrelated programmes he'd quite like to have made. The one about the  Time Travelling lady aviator; the one about the underdeveloped Doctor-clone played by Peter Davison's daughter for another; Billie Piper and, er, Noel Clarke running a parallel Torchwood on a parallel earth for a third. Poor David Tennant actually had to look into camera and pitch the title with a straight face. "Rose Tyler, Defender of the Earth and the Video Rangers".

In 1977, the BBC seem genuinely to have considered rehiring Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter to do a series of Victorian sci-fi horror yarns: not because That Corner of the Whoniverse needed development, but because Jago and Litefoot were obviously funny characters who the viewers enjoyed. 

That's what spin-off means. It occurs to someone that the snooty landlady from Man About The House, or the pretentious shrink from Cheers, could sustain a series on their own. I seem to remember that the one where Ronnie Barker's burglar from Porridge went straight, imaginatively called Going Straight, was quite funny.

Before the Great Hiatus, Doctor Who could be said to have existed as a kind of Heraclitian tradition.

William Hartnell might have been dead, but Terrence Dicks, Robert Holmes and the Doctor Who office were on hand to provide the illusion of continuity, though not, of course Continuity. Nicholas Courtney was not the only man on earth who could have played a comic English army officer. But he had been doing it for so long that he acted as a kind of golden thread from Survival back to Mission to the Unknown. There was still a torch of some kind that was capable of being passed. But once the axe fell and the dynasty dissolved what was left? A series without a lead actor, without a consistent supporting cast, without a setting or a plot; and increasingly without even a format.

But Doctor Who refused to die. When Virgin ran out of TV stories to turn into novellas it just continued to churn out novellas which had never been TV shows in the first place. The final script editor had had a vaguely interesting idea for a story arc (or as people called it in those pre Straczynski days, a masterplan) and some of that arc worked its way into some of the novellas. It didn't have much to do with the TV show, and it wasn't that original, but it was lore, and some people liked it.

Meanwhile some semi-pro fans started to hire actual ex-actors to read out pastiches of old Who scripts. Some people liked these, as well. (I did, for a while, before they overwhelmed me.) There are currently two hundred and seventy five of them, with twenty or thirty more coming out each week. For maybe six years, the Big Finish CDs and the Virgin Novels existed in more or less contented mutual contradiction. It would be a gross over simplification to say that Virgin was creating fiction and Big Finish was creating fan fiction, but I am going to say it anyway. Peter Darvill-Evans' writer's guidelines specifically prohibited writers from using lore as a jumping off point for stories. Yes, it would be possible to tell a spy story or a war story which just happened to have an old monster in it, but "What if Sgt Benton met a Draconian at Devils's End and the consequence was the Key of Time" was off limits. 

This was the view that the production team invariably took at conventions when Doctor Who was still on the telly: no, we are not planning to "bring back" the Daleks, yes, if someone comes up with an excellent story which happens to have the Daleks in it, we might well use them again. The very first Big Finish disc said "What if Colin Baker, Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy went on an adventure together" and kept being drawn into the orbit of questions like "What if Romana were President of the Time Lords?" and "What if Davros, or Omega, or some version of the Master did something that interests fans a good deal but not really anyone else?"

At the time of Trevor Baxter's death, Big Finish had published seventy Jago and Litefoot stories on CD. 

Russell T Davies went down neither path. His reboot of Doctor Who was neither fan-friendly pastiche nor a hypothetical Season 27 that followed Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann down unexpected narrative pathways. 

It would be tempting to say that he created a new thing that had little or nothing to do with Doctor Who. A cool but safe YA show about an asexual alpha male who had a succession of doomed courtly romances with impossible women. He told us that it was Doctor Who, and we believed him, because we desperately wanted it to be.

But maybe, just maybe, he chewed up forty years of Saturday evenings (and a few Tuesdays) and spat out the core concept. 

He travels in time and space. 

She's his human friend. 

Everything else is up for grabs. 

You could have sold the premise (of a time traveller and his platonic girl-friend) to the BBC even if Doctor Who had never existed. Hell, you could have sold the pitch without the premise because Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper made such beautiful sparks together. 

It all comes down to the sparks. If not for Tom Baker's personal charisma, we would not be talking about Doctor Who today.

William Hague will never not be the little boy who stood up at Tory party conference and told Mrs Thatcher off for not being right wing enough. Chris Chibnall will never not be the little boy on Points of View telling Pip and Jane Baker precisely what he thought of Terror of the Vervoids.

He wasn't wrong: it was shite. After Tom Baker departed, Doctor Who became a zombie show, continuing because it had to continue, running on the fumes of old memories. The Cybermen are back. The Daleks are back. UNIT is not back, but it has been alluded to. A tolerably decent Roger Delgado impersonator is appearing in practically every story. Earthshock was pretty good and Kinda was very good and Caves of Androzani was very good indeed. But everything after Logopolis -- everything after Talons of Weng Chiang -- was a bonus.

Chris Chibnal grew up in the declining years. Peter Davison was "his Doctor"; it is those zombie years that he now seeks to revive. Doctor Who is like the Ur-Ru, the Muppet Jedi mystics from Dark Crystal, endlessly repeating formulas and rituals which no longer give the slightest comfort. 

There is a card game called Flux in which the rules are endlessly redefined: the number of cards you draw, the number of cards you discard, the number of cards you may hold in your hand, the values of the cards and the end-game conditions: all are subject to change each time a card is played. I believe a game exists which takes this a stage further: the rules consist of nothing but a set of conditions under which the players can redefine the rules. 

Doctor Who doesn't even have a meta-rules. It is defined by the absence of a definition: the only thing which stays the same is the fact that it is always changing. The Doctor. Her companions. The format. The title sequence. The logo. The TARDIS (interior and exterior). The Sonic screwdriver. Not one thing about the show stays the same for more than three seasons. 

Chibnall has admitted this. He has rewritten the lore to make it a feature. We no longer have a periodically regenerating main character, but infinite iterations of the main character spread throughout Time and Space. The Doctor can now be anyone; so the Doctor is now no-one. But perhaps he never was. When everybody's somebody then no-one's anybody.

What does it matter? Why do we care?

People on the nastier fringes of the internet (hereafter "Twitter") have taken to saying that the fault lies not in Jodie Whitaker's genitals, nor in her DNA, nor even in her pronouns. The problem with Jodie Whitaker is that she stands outside the Great Tradition.

If she had been worthy to occupy Saint Peter Davison's throne she would first have familiarised herself with two thousand years of Whovian dogma. She would have watched old episodes of Doctor Who and built her characterisation out of that. The worst people say say, in so many words, that her refusal to study the sacred scriptures is evidence of her feminist entitlement. Peter Capaldi, a man, knew that he had to know about the old Doctors before he could take up their mantle. Jodie Whittaker thought that just being a woman was good enough.

This, it goes without saying, is deeply offensive bullshit. There are a lot of deeply offensive bullshitters on Twitter.

But like most offensive bullshit, it contains an interesting grain of truth, if you are prepared to get your hands filthy rummaging through it.

If Doctor Who can no longer be said to exist as a format, a character, or a production office -- and if it never was a body of lore -- then in one sense all it can be is a text. Doctor Who can only be defined as everything which has ever been published under the banner of Doctor Who. The only way to play the role of Doctor Who is to watch other people playing the role of Doctor Who and follow them, round and round in ever decreasing circles until you finally disappear up your own canonicity. 

William Hartnell was irascible. Patrick Troughton was eccentric. Jon Pertwee was patrician. Tom Baker was eccentric and patrician. Peter Davison was eccentric, patrician, irascible and had a stick of celery. Colin Baker was eccentric, patrician, irascible and had a pin on cat. The Fourteenth Doctor will have celery and a cat and an umbrella and rainbow braces and say "Fantastic" and "Fam" and "Jelly Baby". Jodie and Peter and Matt and Dave and Chris and Sly and Colin and Peter and Tom and Jon and Pat and Bill.... 

I am not at all sure I know what irascible means, but I am jolly sure William Hartnell was it. I suppose it means the same as crotchety. That is another word which no-one ever uses.

Colin Baker said that he watched videos of his predecessors , not with a view to copying them, but with a view to absorbing what he called their Doctor-ness. The Doctor-ness of the Doctor being, presumably "whatever the actors who have played him up to now have in common". The spot on the Venn Diagram where William Hartnell intersects with Tom Baker and Tom Baker intersects with Jon Pertwee. Theatricality, I suppose: a certain predilection for vaudeville and the wireless; a belief that you are a Legitimate Character Actor. Each time you add an actor, that intersection becomes smaller and smaller. The addition of an infinite number of Timeless Children takes us to a homeopathic level of dilution. What the Infinite Doctors have in common is a null-set; a mathematical point.

Jodie Whitaker's job is to say "Do you have any idea where those planets might be?" or "Hey Daleks! Over here!" in a convincing manner. Would she be better at this job if she had watched every single Tom Baker story before filming The Woman Who Fell To Earth? Is it clear that she would even do it differently?

Christopher Eccleston, by his own admission, didn't watch Doctor Who. Tom Baker didn't watch TV at all, even when he was in it. Matt Smith's persona clearly is influenced by that of his predecessors, particularly Hartnell and Troughton, but he is most like the Doctor when he is most like Matt Smith. Jon Pertwee was a radio star and reputedly asked Barry Letts which of his six hundred funny voices he ought to use. Barry Letts told him to play it like himself.

What about the people who write the words for her to say? Knowledge of the text clearly has more potential affect on a writer than it does on an actor. Someone who is "just a writer" asks "What if the Doctor met Van Gogh?" or "What if the Doctor went to India at the time of the petition?". Someone who is a Doctor Who writer says "What if there were a Dalek we could feel some human sympathy with?" or "What if the TARDIS were a person who the Doctor had a relationship with?" I don't think that lore-steeped scripts are necessarily better than those written in a vacuum: but the difference is there. Robert Holmes and even Douglas Adams didn't show much sign of caring what David Whitaker had said about the TARDIS and the Time Lords and the Daleks in the previous decade. They didn't particularly care what they themselves had said the previous week. Fans despaired; and yet the programmes was as good and successful as it has ever, ever, ever, ever been.

Fans, nasty and nice, have said that the Timeless Children amounts to a vandalisation of Doctor Who lore, which, in one sense, it definitely does. But only someone who cared about Doctor Who lore could have damaged it in that particular way. No-one but a fan boy would think it was fun to make the Morbius Doctors canon. No-one but a fanboy would know what "the Morbius Doctors" even meant.

Is the Archers written by an Archerphile who knows and cares who was staying at the Bull in October 1957? Or is it written by someone with a knack for coming up with soap opera storylines and then checked for consistency by someone who has listened to all 20,000 episodes? That approach makes sense to me: a writer writing stories and a consultant worrying about canon. But if Ian Levine had been breathing down Terry Nation's neck would we ever have had a Davros?

Who, in your opinion, should become show-runner when Chris Chibnall relinquishes his death grip?

Should it be the man who wrote Good Omens; who likes Doctor Who; who knows about rebooting moribund properties, has show runner experience and a track record for Making Good Art?

Should it be the man who created Babylon 5, who positively wants the job, and has a track record for making, er, Babylon 5?

Should it be the lady who created Gentleman Jack, who knows about smart historical fiction, the current UK TV scene, gender-fluid characters and who would presumably commission a stonking theme song?

No. Let's give the job to the guy who has already produced four and a half seasons and who was generally felt to have run out of steam by the midway through the third.

We agreed. We agreed that I would save Doctor Who, but that when I returned I could reclaim your first born. We agreed that I would be show-runner and you would be Chancellor of the Exchequer but after two years I would step down. Doctor Who is mine. My birthday present. My precious.

And so, Doctor Who is over. Again.

The endless, ever-regenerating chain of producers and show runners goes running back to one man: the one man who admittedly brought the show back from oblivion and defined what it is, but who it can now never grow beyond. New Who belongs to Russell T Davies. Its power is bound up in him and it will last only as long as he will last.

New Who has always, to some extent, been a metashow: always primarily interested, not in being itself but in being a commentary and a celebration of the old show.

From 1963 to 1987, the BBC's Doctor Who was multiple and polyvocal. It had been many different things and might have been many more things. From 2005 to 2010, we saw what that multifaceted show looked like from the point of view of one particular fan who happened to end up in the TV trade. From 2010 to 2017 we saw what it looked like from another point of view. 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 have given us what for want of a better word we must call Chris Chibnal's vision. And if by common consent that era has failed, then there is nothing to do but accept that RTD's vision is the only vision which matters. He will, I don't doubt, produce something entertaining and compelling and incredibly irritating. (Did I mention that It's a Sin was very good indeed?)  But it will be very hard to move on. Not in this life time. John Nathan Turner saved Doctor Who in Season 18 and killed it in Season 24. It became John Nathan Turner's show; incapable of mutation or evolution, content to lurk in it bunker and define itself as the supreme being in the universe.

So why not let it die?

Why not, at any rate give it a rest? Why not let Doctor Who go out with a bang on November 23rd 2023, and leave open the possibility of a revival, a reboot, a reimagining, a regeneration ten years down the line. Why not stop making Doctor Who until there is a good reason to start making it. Why not wait until some hot twenty something producer who watched Jodie Whitaker at the age of twelve wants to show us what Doctor Who looks like to him.

We live in an age of franchises; of cinematic universes; and reboots. Star Trek: The Next Generation followed Star Trek at a discrete interval of two decades; Deep Space Nine overlapped with it for a couple of seasons and gave way to Voyager which begat Enterprise. A simple exercise in torch passing. But since then we have had three big-screen movies, part pastiche, part parody; taking place in their own universe connected to the old one by the ghost of Leonard Nimoy. We have three season of Discovery and threats of a fourth one, spinning off into a prequel about that guy who lost out to William Shatner in the original auditions. We have a second series of a sequel predicated on the continuing youthfulness of 81 year old Patrick Stewart and a cartoon which is definitely a parody but respects the material more than the cinematic abomination. And it is all canon, unless it isn't. 

Cancel Doctor Who at sixty and there wouldn't be an absence of Doctor Who; there would be competing visions. There would be novels and comics and computer games and action figures and CDs and a Netflix series. Sit down for a moment and contemplate a world where there are two films about a Spider-Man villain, Venom, without Spider-Man. The universe itself could never bear to be without the Doctor.

So what would you have done if they had made you show-runner? 

Sunday, September 19, 2021

When Did You Stop Reading Cerebus

"Spokesperson for a generation of disappointed brit Cerebus fans..."
                  Dave Sim


80 page booklet 
20,000 word essay
plus extras
pretty layout



paperback book

Or (what would make me happiest...)

free PDF Download to everyone who joins my Patreon at the $1 tier

free hard copy to everyone who joins my Patreon at the $5 tier

Or just read the text on this blog...

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

"Together, they created Spider-Man..."

It took that Catholic Church four hundred years to admit that Galileo may have had a good point; it has only taken Marvel comics 50 to acknowledge that, er, comic books are a collaborative medium. 

(I don't know if there is a doctrine of infallibility which means that from now on, this is what they always thought...)

A Stupid Person's Idea of a Clever Person

Little extra something for my Patreons.... I thought the essay on Invisible Enemy was a bit on the short side, so here is some more of it.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Doctor Who 15.2 (iv): The Invisible Enemy

The Doctor regards the mind/brain interface as a physical location: part of the architecture of his brain. He says that he is searching for the bridge between the left and the right lobes; but when he gets there, everything goes mystical. The connection between the two brain hemispheres is an invisible bridge across a dark chasm. He says that the chasm represents "the gap between logic and imagination"; that on one side (the logical side, presumably) is the brain, and on the other side, the mind. He says that the mind and the brain are "two things entirely different but part of the same thing". When they cross the bridge, they are in "the land of dreams and fantasy."

Nothing narratively follows from any of this this. A journey through one of the Doctor's dreams could have been quite interesting: but what we actually see is a projection of lots of Greek columns floating through space. The much foreshadowed interface is a corridor exactly like all the other corridors. The virus takes the form of a large bean-bag with a claw. The Doctor and the beanbag engage in the same kind of mutual taunting as the Doctor and the Rutan did last week.

My best guess is that we are dealing with the then-fashionable but now obsolete ideas of the left and right sides of the brain; where Left Brain is linear, fact-based and logical, and the Right brain is imaginative, intuitive and artistic. Brain turns out to mean Left Brain: mind simply means Right Brain. K-9, who uses big words, knows a lot but has no emotion circuits, is a purely Left Brain entity. Leela, who is all instinct and cannot read, is a Right Brain Person. The Virus attacks the Left Brain: K-9 can be infected even though he is not organic: Leela, because she is ruled by the Right side of the brain, is invulnerable. The Mind-Brain Interface is nothing more interesting than "the bridge between the two lobes". The swarm is a physical virus that jumps into the Left Side of the brain through the optic nerve and then moves to the Right side via the bridge. It was never really neotic at all.

"Don't be funny" says the Doctor to Leela.

The Doctor has just used "Hello!" as an exclamation, in the sense of "I am surprised" or "Take a look at this!" Leela replies "Hello" as if he had just greeted her. I don't know if we are supposed to think that Leela is unfamiliar with human idioms, and the Doctor unfairly assumes she is making a weak joke; or if she is actually making a weak joke.

But "Don't be funny" pretty much sums up the story. Everyone is trying, and no-one quite manages it.

When Leela says that the dark abyss between the left and right sides of the brains is "very deep", the Doctor pretends he thinks that she means that his explanation of the mind/body problem is very profound. When an actual electrical impulse zaps past them, he says that it is "just a passing thought". Leela says "I don't know what to think" and "I have no idea", which are, like, ironic things to say inside the Doctor's head. Like a Shakespearian clown, the Doctor seems to see everything as the opportunity for a wearisome pun. I wish I could say "This is because language is breaking down in the mind/body interface" or "The Signifier is kind of like the body, and the Signified is kind of like the soul." I like wordplay. Basil Brush was not above spending a whole season setting up a bad punchline. But merely twisting meanings for its own sake is not funny. 

I have said that Tom Baker's Doctor's arrogance is what made him so hugely attractive to naughty boys in nasty schools in the 1970s. I terribly fear that this just-passing-for-comedy crosstalk between the Doctor and Leela is what my 12 year old self would have thought was smart. Repeating yourself. Deliberately taking colloquial speech literally. Using unnecessarily big words. I don't know if we picked it up from Tom Baker, or if Tom Baker channelled his inner pre-adolescent. It's what Miss Griffiths would have called back-talking. He thinks he's the class comedian. "I know this brain like the back of my hand. What do you know about brains any way? I'll get excited if I want to it's my brain. Oh you want to know something about brains? I'll tell you anyway...." One feels he needs a slap. Miss Griffiths would have given him one.

It turns out that the Bean Bag wanted the Doctor to confront him in the mind body interface. The Doctor has fallen for his stratagem. If anyone were still paying attention this would feel like a terrible cop-out. A reverse deus ex machina. The good guy has spent two episodes doing what the bad guy wanted him to do; making the last fortnight seem like a bit of a waste of time.

They let us go. It's the only explanation for the ease of our escape.

Quite what the Bean Bag's stratagem was isn't entirely clear, but the Doctor totally fell for it. I suppose it thought "What I would really like is to be a giant Prawn in the macrocosmic world. But the only thing that can possibly make small things big is the dematerialisation circuit of a TARDIS. So here's the plan. I shall hang about in space for a billion years: a TARDIS is bound to come past eventually. When that happens, I shall mind control the occupant, because then he is absolutely certain to travel to the asteroid belt, clone himself, miniaturise himself, inject himself into his own blood stream, and confront me in the corridor where the left brain neotically meets the right brain. Then I will stall him for half an episode and at the exact moment he is about to dissolve, I will emerge through the tear duct, and they will think it is the Doctor and turn the embiggening ray on me, and I will turn into a Prawn and conquer the universe!"

It's not the daftest plan a supervillain has ever come up with but it does seem a little on the optimistic side.

The microscopic Leela and Doctor melt into air, thin air, leaving not a rack behind, unless you count the Doctor's scarf and Leela's loincloth and dagger. This is one of many dozens of things which makes no sense: if the Doctor and Leela are clones then surely all their clothing and possessions should survive the time limit? But if they are 3D photos then shouldn't their clothes and personal effects also turn into pumpkins at the stroke of midnight? The camera lingers on Leela's dagger, as if this is of special significance.

Once again, the plot wriggles. For three episode, we have been told that Leela is immune to the virus because she is stupid, instinctive, a hunter -- in short a right-brained person. But when her clone dissolves inside the Doctor, she somehow transfers her immunity to him. And by taking samples of the Doctor's tissue and doing Science on it, the Doctor and Marius can create an anti-spawn-vaccine. In about five minutes. Even AstraZeneka would be impressed.

The virus was never neotic. Leela's immunity never had anything to do with her savageness. The blokes leapt to the conclusion that she was immune because she was stupid, but actually she just happened to have some Virus Repellent Leela Spray in her blood.

Except -- except -- except...

In the final episode, the Intellect / Emotion duality is played out, very unsubtly, in the macrocosmic world. The Prawn is flying back to Titan in a spaceship, where he hopes to hatch an army of giant viruses in order to conquer all of time and space. The Doctor and Marius are trying to breed antibodies from the Doctor's blood. Leela asks why they don't just blow them up. Then she points out that the Doctor is meant to be a pacifist, but he is okay with using antibodies to wipe out a whole alien race. Then she asks why they don't just blow them up. They nip back to Titan in the TARDIS with a plan to introduce the antibodies into the virus breeding tanks. Leela still says they should blow them up. The Doctor confronts the Swarm and carelessly loses the phials of anti-bodies. Leela says it is possible to kill swarm-infected humans by knifing them in the neck. The Doctor doesn't think this is a very good idea. So instead, he blows them up.

The episode has set up a conflict between intellect represented by the Doctor, and action, represented by Leela. ("Do you think that is a good idea?" asks Leela, when the Doctor tells her to use her intelligence.) But in the end, the Doctor's intelligent approach fails, and nuking the site from orbit turns out to be the best solution. Leela's instinct does indeed win the day. There is quite a nice special effect of the base blowing up, but truly, wiring the door to the breeding colony to explode doesn't feel like a very satisfactory conclusion.

Some Doctor Who stories (the Web Planet?) have primitive, even ludicrous, special effects, but succeed because of their strength of their ideas, or their characterisation. And some Doctor Who (Remembrance of the Daleks?) make little sense, but carry us along with shiny monsters, arresting cliffhangers, and fun characters. The Invisible Enemy is in neither category. Some people have tried to defend it by saying that it is simply too ambitious: BBC special effects simply couldn't run to giant virii and journeys to the centre of the cerebellum. But better special effects would not have helped a story which doesn't seem to have been thought through; which doesn't seem to be interested in it's own world or it's own plot. For almost the first time, a Doctor Who story fails on every level: and Tom Baker is not enjoying himself enough, or being given interesting enough material, to save the day.

In the final seconds, K-9 becomes a companion. It is quite obvious to even the least critical viewer that there is no way he can get through the TARDIS door, but he does so anyway. The Doctor does not yet think of K-9 as a person, although Leela does. Marius makes a weak joke about K-9 shitting on the floor. Leela says "please can we keep him, please" like a schoolgirl with a puppy.

If you want to blame someone for the demise of Doctor Who, don't blame Mary Whitehouse, Michael Grade or Colin Baker: blame K-9. K-9 may have appealed greatly to eleven-year-old-me, but he embodied the fact that Doctor Who no longer wanted to be taken seriously. He turned the Doctor into a stooge in his own series. The pacifist Doctor who thought his way out of conflict was now accompanied by a ray gun wielding tank.

But thematically, K-9 had to be in this story. It's a story in which Left Brain Doctor wins the day by giving way to Right Brain Leela; in which the Doctor's brain turns out to be much less exciting than it should have been. So of course there is an artificial intelligence as well. K-9 is there to be the third point in the triangle. K-9 has no brain, but clearly thinks. Leela has a brain, but usually doesn't. The Doctor has a Mind full of fantasy and imagination; K-9 has no Right Brain at all.

Think I am reading too much into the story. Consider this. In the final seconds, K-9 shows that whatever the Doctor thinks, he/it is capable of acting under his/its own agency. He/it decide for himself/itself what he/it is going to do.

He has, says Marius, made up his own mind.


Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Doctor Who 15:2 (iii): The Invisible Enemy

The idea of cloning the Doctor and injecting him into his own bloodstream is not, in itself, terrible. Of course, it is ripped off from Fantastic Voyage; but everything in Doctor Who is ripped off from something. You might think that the idea is a bit too whacky and oddball for Saturday night; you might on the other hand think that it was about time Doctor Who had a stab at the more fantastic, surreal end of science fiction.

But it doesn't work. It doesn't work on any level. As with the Prawn, we are left wondering if someone has deliberately decided to make it not work in order to prove some kind of a point.

It is introduced into the story in a painfully perfunctory way. No attempt is made to persuade us that it is plausible: if anything, the script seems to be saying "We know this is silly and we don't remotely expect you to believe in it."

How are we going to defeat the thought-like-virus that exists in the space between the physical and the spiritual?
By making a very small copy of the Doctor.

How are we going to make a copy of the Doctor?
Oh, Prof Marius just happens to have a fully functioning cloning machine lying around his lab.

Why are we going to make a copy of Leela as well?
Because the Doctor needs her tracking abilities. (The ability to hunt game and pursue enemies in a forest obviously translates into tracking a virus through the inside of someone's brain.)

How are we going to make them very small?
Oh, The Doctor just happens to have a fully functioning shrinking machine; or at any rate a part of the TARDIS that can be reconfigured as one.

How are we going to get the clones inside the Doctor's head?
Marius points a hypodermic needle vaguely at the floor of the cupboard which is serving as a shrinking chamber, scoops them up and injects them into the Doctor's neck. This is almost the most ridiculous thing in the whole ridiculous story: they are supposed to be so small that they can see individual nuerons firing, yet Marius simply picks them up off the floor. It's the 50th century and they still use needles: Dr McCoy was already using high-tech needle substitutes in the 23rd. But then all the doors in the installation have MFI chrome handles, and there are Greek pillars scattered around the medical centre, so maybe they have a thing about retro hardware.

I don't know how being injected into a bloodstream would present itself to human senses. And even if I did, I don't know how I would represent it with 1970s technology and a BBC budget. But I am pretty sure I could have come up with something better than the Doctor and Leela, superimposed over a swirly whirlpool, linking hands and spinning around like kids in a playground. If I was being nice, I would say that it looks as if they are in a washing machine. If I was being less nice, I would say that it looks as if they are being flushed down a toilet. Along with the credibility of the series.

Last season the Doctor's mind was projected into a universe created by the Master. It was still low-budget TV: two or three actors running around a quarry, intercut with stock footage. But Deadly Assassin Episode Three looks like grown-up TV: it almost looks Art House. Invisible Enemy Episode Three looks cheap. It looks silly. There is a weird white climbing frame, I suppose intended to represent brain cells; and there are a lot of redd- orange tunnels that put us somewhat in mind of the organic Zygon space ship. The anti-bodies (phagocytes) which attempt to destroy Leela look very much like furry white balloons.

There used to be a Jonah and the Whale attraction in the fun-fair at Blackpool. You entered through some fibreglass jaws; you walked around a dark maze, you had to squeeze through narrow foam apertures, you had to navigate wobbly floors and rope bridges; and you could hear a recorded heart beat that was meant to guide you to the centre of the maze. 

That's what Invisible Enemy Episode Three feels like: a giant brain-themed fun-house. My friend in the playground was right: whatever my brain would look like from the inside, it wouldn't be this. 

If we are going to spend twenty five minutes inside the Doctor's head -- inside the actual Doctor's actual head -- one feels something interesting ought to follow. All that Time Lord knowledge; all the terrible things he has seen; all those past and future selves. But only once in the episode is there the faintest attempt to show us that the Doctor's brain is a surprising and wondrous thing: he points out the "reflex link" through which he can "tune himself in" to the "Time Lord intelligentsia"; but adds that it doesn't work because he was thrown out. You might think that this would be foreshadowing or setting up some plot development -- maybe the Prawn is going to somehow infect all the Time Lords or hijack the super-mind? -- but the line is instantly forgotten and never mentioned again.

I always thought that the Doctor ran away from Gallifrey. Because he was bored. Now it is "revealed" -- in passing -- that he did not leave voluntarily: he was thrown out. 

What am I supposed to do with this kind of remark?

"Aha! So this is a very daring attempt to reintroduce some mystery into the character of the Doctor."

"Aha! So for some reason the Doctor is lying to Leela."

"Aha! So the clone Doctor has defective memories of his past."

No. Let it pass. Step away from the canon. Bob Baker and Dave Martin -- and, for that matter, Robert Holmes -- don't know or care about the Matrix. Deadly Assassin was long, long ago, last year, and everyone has forgotten it. It's just a line. Tune himself in to the Time Lord Intelligentsia. Doesn't work since I was thrown out. The TARDIS exists in a state of temporal grace, except when it doesn't. The TARDIS controls are isomorphic, except when they aren't. Someone left a cake out in the rain. The only way of viewing Doctor Who is to assume that the entire continuity is rebooted at the end of every episode.

K-9 says that cloning means taking a single cell from a person's body and growing a copy of them. This is what cloning usually means in science fiction. (This was before Dolly the Sheep.) It would probably have occurred to any thoughtful viewer that "growing" an adult clone would take decades; and that the clone would not have the memories or personality of the original. (A small girl wrote to the Radio Times and asked where the Doctor and Leela got their clothes from.) So the script backtracks: this is "not, in any real sense, a clone" but instead "a short lived, carbon based imprint" and "a sort of three dimensional photo" and finally, in so many words "a photocopy."

An entity which is both a clone and a photograph makes about as much sense as a creature which is both a viral infection in the brain and an incorporeal thought in the mind. (As much sense as a phenomenon which is both a wave and a particle.) Throughout the episode, the micro-Doctor talks as if he and the macro-Doctor are the same being. Things which happen to the original Doctor affect the clone. Micro-Leela feels a pain in her head when macro-Leela is hit; the Doctor says that if macro-Leela dies, micro-Leela will expire as well. And it works in reverse: when the antibodies are attacking Leela, micro-Doctor deliberately gives himself an electric shock, causing them to think that a different part of macro-Doctor's body is under attack.

If they are clones this makes no sense at all. If you punched my brother (even my twin brother) in the face you would not expect me to develop a black eye. It hardly makes any more sense if they are photographs or holograms. You can't make me bleed by stabbing a photo of me; and if I get a nosebleed the photo of me doesn't get one too. But if we pretended that the idea of the Doctor were trying to remove the idea of the virus from the Doctor's mind it kind of works. When the Doctor talks about "inside Leela" (as opposed to "outside Leela") he seems to be thinking of the clone / imprint / photocopy as a kind of dream-self or avatar. There is a strong tradition in fantasy mysticism that if your ethereal or dream-self is harmed then your physical or conscious self suffers.

Microscopic and macroscopic mean "very small" and "very big". Microcosm and macrocosm refer to the mystical idea that there is a connection or analogy between each individual and the universe as a whole. But Baker and Martin seem to be treating "microscopic" and "microcosmic" as synonyms. If Doctor Two is a microcosm of Doctor One -- if Doctor Two is the protrusion of Doctor One into a different reality -- it is possible to salvage some sense from the story. The Prawn is not merely a tiny little organism turned into a very big one; but an analogy for a neotic being projected into the physical world from the world of thought. Baker and Martin have come up with a story about a psychopomp reflection of the Doctor engaging in a spiritual journey through his own soul; and put a paper-thin scientific gloss on it. The science is deliberately silly to indicate that we are supposed to look the other way. "Shrinking" is a metaphor for being transformed into thought. "Small" is code for "spiritual, conceptual, imaginary".

Or perhaps the story just simply doesn't make any sense, and the writers, like the costume department, no longer give a damn.

Descartes said "I think therefore I am". He said it in Latin and French. Clever people call it the cogito. He meant that the fact that he had thoughts proved that he existed: the one thing that it is is impossible to doubt is the fact that you are having a thought. Sloppy minded people have often imagined that he meant "Thinking is great!" or "If I wasn't thinking about stuff, I don't know what I would be doing" or even "I am much better than all you plebs who don't do philosophy."

The Virus is all about thinking. It has chosen the Doctor as host because he is a lovely little thinker. Not just because he is the cleverest person in the room: thinking is a deliberate act and the Doctor does it more than anyone else. "The harder I think, the more of a grip it gets" he explains: it couldn't attack him in the TARDIS because his brain was idling; he is able to resist it by ceasing to think -- putting himself into a trance -- meditating. Cogito ergo sum infecta.

Leela doesn't need to go into a trance, or leave her brain idling. Leela is immune to the virus because, at some level, Leela does not think.

The Doctor thinks she is immune "because she is all instinct and intuition". Marius quite specifically frames the question in terms of a mind/body duality

"It could be a psychological factor."

"You mean not physical at all?"

"Yes, something in her mind, her way of looking at things."

"Aggression. Determination. Stamina. The predator's instinct."

Leela clearly does not have limited cognitive function: she isn't in any sense mentally retarded. Her problem-solving ability is quite good: when the Doctor explains a new concept she can quickly grasp it. But Marius writes her off as "stupid" because she doesn't know what the word "inoculation" means. She asks K-9 to restate "Efficacy of individuation not completely guaranteed" in simpler language. K-9 refuses. Leela is "stupid" in so far as she is ignorant and uneducated: because she lacks a scientific background and doesn't know the right buzzwords. K-9 is clever because he uses three syllables where one would do. The Doctor is vulnerable to the virus because he thinks a lot and knows long words. Leela is immune to the virus because she perceives the world around her without putting it into words, and because she often reacts to problems without intellectualising them first.

We might say that she is prone to let go of her conscious self and act on instinct. This was, as we may have mentioned, before Star Wars.

And this brings us to two of the oddest things about the whole mess. Small things, in the margin, which we probably overlook: and therefore very probably the key to the whole mystery.

In Episode One, Leela is shown writing her name on a blackboard. The TARDIS is infinitely large, so there is no reason that there wouldn't be an old bit of classroom equipment in one of the cupboards. The TARDIS is infinitely configurable, so there is no reason why it wouldn't produce a chalk board as the most user-friendly interface to a literacy programme. God knows, the interior of the TARDIS is going to do some stranger things before this season is out. But it's an odd moment. It isn't there for any particular reason. It's a bit of business, unreferenced in the script.

Most commentators have noticed the weird preponderance of phonetic, mis-spelt signage on Titan and the medical base: IMURJINSEE EGSIT and ISOLAYSHUN WARD. Our attention is never drawn to it; no-one in the story ever comments on it. It's a little like the penny farthing bicycle in the Prisoner: obviously important, yet never addressed.

I distinctly remember a moment in my childhood when I looked at a sign which said "GO" and realised that I was reading it whether I wanted to or not. "GO" is just what the shape said. Literate adults do not need to decode writing: the letters D O G, the sound "dog" and the smelly furry waggy thing are a single unity. The name "K-9" is funny (very slightly) because sound and meaning are separated: it takes us a fraction of a second to see that "K-9" could be understood as "canine". (After a few viewings of Star Wars, Threepio stops being a facetious spelling of 3PO and just becomes what he is called.) Similarly, it takes us a fraction of a second to see that "IMURJINSEE" means "Emergency". Leela, coming from a non-literate culture and still writing her name on the blackboard as "Lulu" must perceive all words like that. What if that difference in perception -- that inability to go from "EGSIT" to the concept of the way out, or to know that "inoculate" means "medicine-that-stops-you-getting-sick" were the very thing which makes her immune?

If you were to ask a philosopher "what is the interface between the mind and the brain" -- between the realm of concepts and the shared physical word, then he might reply, like Hamlet -- "words, words, words". Language is the mind-brain interface. So if the Virus exists in the place where mind intersects with the brain, it exists in words. The very thing that Leela does not fully understand.

Only a year before this story came out, a little known Cambridge biologist published a book on evolution in which he proposed that ideas -- especially ideas which he personally disliked -- spread and reproduced themselves like a virus, using human minds as a host. Meme's he called them: viruses of the mind.

Six or seven years before, William S Burroughs informed us that language was a virus from outer space.


Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Doctor Who 15.2 (ii): The Invisible Enemy

The Invisible Enemy is based on a huge equivocation. 

Episode One is explicitly about possession. The Swarm inhabits and controls people's minds, passing from host to host by zapping them in the eyes with Force Lightening. It jumps into the TARDIS memory banks (because they are so advanced and clever) and then into the Doctor's Mind (because he is the cleverest person in the room). Later in the story, it possesses K-9, a robot, who is arguably capable of thinking but who certainly does not have an organic brain. But by Episode Four, the mind-virus has become a physical, prawn-like entity which infects the actual grey matter inside the Doctor's cranium, and which can (in principle) be resisted by antibodies in the blood-stream.

There is a kind of ghost story in which the ghost is real: the hero is a priest or mystic who knows how to exorcise it or lay it to rest. But there is a more secular kind of ghost story in which Harry Houdini, or the Rev. Tilney, or indeed Fred and Velma exorcise the ghost by explaining it away. It is still defeated; but it is defeated by the power of rationalism rather than the power of God. The demonic hound is turned into a perfectly ordinary german shepherd smeared with phosphorescent paint; the Mummy turns out to be an unscrupulous archeologist who wanted to steal a gem from the museum. And he would have gotten away with it too, if not for...

The Invisible Enemy may make slightly more sense if we try to read it in that way. The spiritual force which has possessed the minds of the astronauts, the station manager, and the Doctor is drawn out of the realm of ideas into the real world. It escapes from the surreal mindscape of the Doctor's brain and manifests in a mainstream science fiction world of corridors and airlocks. It is transformed from a force which might have made the Doctor murder Leela into one more megalomaniac alien who wants to rule the universe. ("For no adequately explored reason" as the next script editor but one would have put it.)

So perhaps the inadequacy of the Prawn Special Effect is not unintentional. The Nucleus is supposed to be ridiculous: Science! has rendered it non-threatening. The Doctor calls it "a pathetic crustacean". (Tom Baker reportedly sang the theme song from "Prawn Free" whenever it came on set.) Drawn out of the realm of thought into the realm of bodies, it can be defeated.

Not, in the end, with an antidote; but with a very large bomb.

We start with three men in space suits. They would not have looked out of place in any Patrick Troughton story. We have a space ship that looks distinctly like a space shuttle. The Space Shuttle was much in people's minds: the first testing flights, off the back of a Jumbo Jet, had taken place the previous August. They have the kind of conversation that these kinds of space-men always have in this kind of story, gently telling the viewer that space travel is not glamorous and heroic but a routine slog. ("Look, I qualified for exploration eight years ago, and what am I? Glorified garage attendant on some planetary filling station.")

And then a Thing happens. 

The spacemen get possessed by an alien force. They start talking in monotones about how "contact has been made" and "this planet will be suitable for our purpose". We can tell they have been possessed because they have sinister white fur on their skins, like out of date blackberries.

This is standard issue Doctor Who, and it is not badly done. The music is extreme and melodramatic and the acting is completely over the top. Innocent lines like: "I will stay with them to guard the nucleus and destroy the reject" become "to GUARD the nucleus, and to...des TROY...... the reject", jabbing one finger in the air and then making a fist. Alarms go off, maydays are issued; we see extreme close ups of trigger fingers on ray-guns. 

We know how this plays out. The Doctor arrives on the base, finds it besieged by the possessed astronauts; and begins a race against time to find the cure while more and more of the humans succumb to the infection.

But Bob Baker and Dave Martin, to their credit, throw away the rule book. The Invisible Enemy does not proceed according to formula. In Scene One, the space shuttle gets zapped by the alien force, and the three space men get possessed. In Scene Two, the TARDIS itself gets zapped, and the mysterious alien force takes over the Doctor. He resists it by putting himself into a trance.

This is not merely quite a good twist: it's a mild subversion of the whole idea behind Doctor Who. Or, if you are certain kind of 1970s Whovian, a terrible debunking of its magic. The Doctor is meant to function as a deus ex machina who comes along and sorts everything out. This time he's directly threatened. Indeed, he himself is the threat.

The question is not "Can the Doctor save the space-men?" but "Who can save the Doctor?"

The answer, being "The Doctor", obviously enough.

Horror of Fang Rock felt like the continuation of the Hinchcliffe era by other means. Invisible Enemy feels like a dissonant change of tone. The old silver TARDIS control room is back, and Leela feels incongruous in it: not merely a savage on a space ship, but an imposter on a set created in a different era. She is not the same character she was even a week ago. She is back in her leather bikini, but she spends a good chunk of the first episode wearing the Doctor's hat: at one point she appears to be chewing on his scarf. (We hardly notice the oddness of the Doctor's costume any more. They are on a spaceship. He is in outdoor clothes; Leela is dressed for the beach.) In Fang Rock, the Doctor and Leela were two grown up, mutually respecting characters who had conversations with each other. Invisible Enemy is full of this kind of thing:

"Saint Elmo's fire. It happens at sea."

"Saint Elmo's?"

"Yes, it causes a sort of halo effect round the masts of ships."


"Why do you keep repeating everything I say? You're not a parrot, are you?"


"Yes. A parrot's a bird that repeats things. Move over."

"Move over".

This hardly qualifies as dialogue: it is a bit of panto, a cross-talk routine of this kind Basil Brush had with Mr Roy on a weekly basis. Leela is the comedy primitive; the Doctor is the comedy smart-alec. No longer characters: more like Doctor and Leela off the back of a box of Weetabix. 

In order to cure the Doctor of his possession, it is necessary to get from Titan to a Centre for Alien Biomorphology in the asteroid belt. Leela suggests that they "take the TARDIS". Lowe, the supervisor of the crew of the Titan Base, himself possessed by the virus, tells them where Biomorphology Centre is; and the Doctor comes out of his trance to tell them the coordinates. Leela, who can't reliably write her own name, programmes them in.

In the past, the TARDIS was de facto and sometimes canonically involatile. You are safe once you are inside it: but you can't go back to it until you have finished this month's adventure. Now the Doctor can be zapped in his own control room by what is, frankly, a distinctly second division bad guy. And the TARDIS can be used to give people a lift from one part of the story to another, and a not particularly clever companion can operate it. Lowe's TARDIS trip takes place off-stage. We don't find out if he was surprised by the TARDIS' internal dimensions. And in a way, why should we? We take the TARDIS -- and the Doctor -- for granted; so why shouldn't the non-player characters?

But a TV show where the Doctor is a clever alien with an impressive vehicle is a lot different from one in which the Doctor is a mysterious wanderer with a wondrous Ship. Horror of Fang Rock would have been over very quickly if it had occurred to the Doctor to use the TARDIS as a taxi to ferry everyone back to the main land.

Once they arrive on the Centre For Alien Morphology (which turns out to be a space hospital) the story, and indeed the series, pretty much turns into a cartoon. Was I the only person who saw the hollowed out asteroid, with a Red Cross emblazoned on the surface, and thought we'd moved to the Clanger's moon Oliver Postgate could have supplied a better class of prawn.

We meet some nurses in strange green uniforms and eye make up. We notice some mis-spelt notices. And we encounter a scientist with a beard and a silly accent, who keep taking ticker tape out of the mouth of a robot dog.

Leela was, we are often told "something for the dads": K-9 was arguably something for the kids. We have shifted from a world where astronauts talk like truckers and drink liquor in the mess to a world where scientists with beards and tweed jackets talk pseudo science in Dr Zarkov accents. Nerdy kids like big words: I can remember driving my parents mad saying "deactivate it" instead of "turn it off". But we have had Hal and we are weeks away from Threepio and Zen and Marvin: a robot who says "affirmative" and "negative" instead of yes and no feels retro. It is never quite clear if K-9 is mainly a toy, a pet, or if Doctor Zarkov actually needs a portable computer with a death ray in its nose and has made it dog shaped on a whim. I felt, and still feel, that a group of Daleks sliding around the studio floor in formation look cool and alien; but K-9 just comes across as a shopping trolly or a motorised wheel chair.

Basil Brush had a battery operated toy dog called Ticker that would interrupt Mr Roy's stories by doing back-flips and barking. ("Quiet Ticker. Shut your little bone-shoot.")

According to K-9, what the Doctor has been possessed by is an "unidentified viral type infection with noetic characteristics" which is "at present seated in the mind-brain interface and therefore having no ascertainable mass or structure".

Nous is "mind"; noetikos is "intellectual"; "noetics" means the philosophy of mind. So, "a virus with noetic characteristics" might simply mean "a micro-organism which can think for itself". But this micro-organism exists in the place where the material universe (the brain) interfaces with the immaterial (the mind) and therefore has no weight or form. So I think that by "virus with noetic characteristics" the comic relief robot means "a microscopic pathogen which shares some features in common with thoughts". Thoughts, after all, have no mass or structure. Arguably.

The idea that the mind and the brain are different things is called Cartesian Dualism, after Descartes, who is also to blame for Calculas. Arguably. The question Cartesian Dualism can't answer (arguably) is how the supposedly perfect, incorporeal "mind" interacts with that lump of matter we call the brain. Descartes' answer was "through the pineal gland" which presumably went down better in the seventeenth century that it does today.

If the brain and the mind are separate, then the idea of a mind/brain interface is pretty much inconceivable. If the mind is simply the word we use for some of the things the brain does, then the idea of a mind/brain interface is pretty much without meaning. And it is in this inconceivable, meaningless place that the virus-with-thought-like-qualities resides. The Doctor is being controlled from a place which does not exist by a thing which does not exist.

What did Bob Baker and Dave Martin think they were doing? Were they making a serious attempt to use a children's TV show to talk about the mind/body problem. Tea-time philosophy for tots, as it were? Are they dimly trying to draw an analogy between the virus and quantum mechanics? A photon is in some sense a wave and a particle simultaneously: and the Nucleus is in some sense both an organism and an idea?

Or were they just filling the air with meaningless gibberish?



Doctor Who 15.2 (i): The Invisible Enemy

It is funny how the mind works.

I remember talking about Hand of Fear at lunch time in primary school; but the person in the memory is not me. In my mind's eye I see a little child with his two little friends, sitting around a blue formica table. I see one of the dinner ladies, The Fat Miss, or as it might be The Grumpy Miss, watching closely to see if a flicked baked bean or some spilled water would give her a pretext to send one of them to stand outside the headmaster's office.

It is the olden days: those happy golden years when willies and bums and farts were the highest form of wit.

But I also remember talking about the Invisible Enemy at lunch time in secondary school: and the person I remember is a younger version of me. Eleven years old now, a sophisticated chap talking to another sophisticated chap about that show we happened to have watched on the television at the weekend.

The child regenerates into the man. I sometimes think Eleven is the real me and everything since has been a digression. All children but one grow up. Eleven is the beginning of the end.

Mum and Dad took me to watch the cricket. Mum was secretary of the village team and sometimes kept score for them. I realise that going to the park and watching village cricket and drinking tea and eating cucumber sandwiches and looking for conkers sounds like a parody of an english childhood, but it is very nearly true. (The sandwiches were more likely to be cheese and pickle.) I remember not particularly paying attention to the cricket one Sunday afternoon and idley looking through the Sunday Mirror, or possibly the Observer. My parents were figuratively and literally Guardian readers, but the Guardian doesn't come out on a Sunday. July or August, it must have been, a month or so before Doctor Who and therefore school started up again after the summer break. The BBC must have been promoting the new season.

There, in the paper, innocently sitting on a particular page for anyone to see, was a picture of Doctor Who.

And Leela.

And...a robot.

A robot in the shape of a dog.

A robot in the shape of a dog called K-9.

I think he was photographed by a lamppost. The copy editor couldn't resist spelling out the joke: K-9 Ps 2.

Doctor Who was going to have a pet robot dog.

It was one of those things which you become obsessed with for no reason. It became a mantra, a thing to chant when I was happy or when I wanted to annoy my sister (which was nearly always). Doctor Who's going to have a pet dog. Doctor Who's going to have a pet dog. Doctor Who's going to have a pet dog. And his name's gonna be K-9.

Singing ay ay ippy ippy ay...

This was before Star Wars, just barely. October, November, December, January: four whole months when I knew K-9 but didn't know Artoo Deetoo.

When I saw Invisible Enemy, I had not seen Star Wars.

When I saw Sun Makers I had not seen Star Wars.

When I saw Underworld, I had not seen Star Wars.

Divide time in two. Before John Lennon died; after John Lennon died. Before Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister; after Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister. Before Star Wars, after Star Wars.

Ante Bella Sidrum. 

K-9 came first.

The golden era of Doctor Who was over. It used to be the thing the cool kids watched. Then it was the thing which everyone watched. But it was becoming a thing which I watched. A thing which I could see was second rate, but for which I still felt a deep love. A love of Tom Baker. A love of Daleks. A love of silliness for silliness' sake. I had watched every story since Carnival of Monsters, an inconceivable amount of time ago and I was not going to give up.

"Do you really imagine for one second that that is what the inside of your brain would look like?" asked Kevin in morning break on Monday 17 October 1977. (Morning break. We were eleven. We did not talk about play-time any more.)

"Of course not" I said "But I am not a Time Lord."

I thought it was a clever answer.

Insufferable little geek.

What does it mean to be an embodied consciousness?

What is the difference between the brain and the mind?

Am I reducible to the lump of grey matter in my head, or is there some essence-of-me that exists apart from the atoms I am composed of?

Should we think in terms of body and soul or hardware and software -- or is trying to think of the mind as distinct from the brain on a level with trying to think of 23 miles per hour as distinct from the car?

Can things other than brains have minds?

Would an artificial brain have a mind?

What are the limits of artificial intelligence?

Could a machine have a personality -- even a sense of humour?

Could a human befriend a computer?

Or is the idea of "befriending" a robot on the same level as befriending a teapot?

Should I think of my mind as the rational, logical part of me; and my emotions and gut-feelings as by-products of the meat-sack my mind is housed in?

Or should I rather see my reasoning ability as simply an on-board calculator and data-base, and my instincts and feelings as constituting the real me?

If you made an exact physical copy of my brain would you have made a copy of my mind?

Is making an exact physical copy of me more like giving birth to a child who happens to look a lot like his father?

Or is it more like taking a photograph?

How does the mind work?

These are the kinds of philosophical question which The Invisible Enemy shows absolutely no interest in answering.

We all remember the Giant Shrimp.

It isn't the first silly monster to appear in Doctor Who. But in the past, we were mostly able to see what the production team was trying for and explain why it didn't come off. The Giant Rat looks silly because we are cutting between real rats in realistic location shots and an obvious puppet in an obvious model. There is nothing actually very wrong with the puppet per se. The Loch Ness Monster is not irredeemably ridiculous; but the primitive green-screen effects make it look absurdly out of sync with the Scottish Moors and Big Ben.

But the only possible response to the Giant Shrimp is "What on earth were they thinking?"

Yes, Doctor Who didn't have much money to throw around, and they had already blown the budget on K-9. But that's no excuse: these are skilled model makers and costume designers. The sequences of space shuttles flying through asteroid fields and landing in moon bases at the beginning of Episode One may not have troubled Industrial Light and Magic (or even Gerry Anderson) but they are decent models. They might not have won an Oscar but they would comfortably have won second prize in the Hornby Model Train Club Awards. Briefed to take £10 worth of crepe paper and tin foil and make a fancy dress costume that suggests a virus, they could surely have done better than this?

A Prawn for goodness sake.

Perhaps they were doing it deliberately. Perhaps Robert Holmes, still smarting from the way the BBC blue-pencilled Deadly Assassin, started consciously or unconsciously undermining the stories on which he is working out his notice. Perhaps the costume people have noticed that, however much they knock themselves out making a scary costume, Tom is going to undercut it with some ad lib about Jelly Babies, so they might as well meet him halfway and give him something ridiculous out of which to take the piss.

Graham Williams and Derrick Goodwin were new to Doctor Who: it is possible that there are tricks you can do with camera angles and lighting to make shit monsters look less shit, and they simply hadn't learned them yet.

For god's sake, it's on casters, and no-one tries to disguise the fact that it's on casters

But the Giant Prawn On Wheels skews our perception of The Invisible Enemy. It is literally the only thing we remember about the story. And the problem with the Prawn is not that it is a monumentally unconvincing representation of a virus. The problem with the Prawn is that it should never have looked like a Prawn to begin with.

I have been thinking about the Invisible Enemy for nearly half a century. Something very, very obvious just occurred to me.

The monster is officially called The Nucleus of the Swarm. The costume department must have been asked to make a costume representing The Nucleus of the Swarm, and misheard the word.

"The nucleus of the prawn".

Now I've thought it I will never be able to unthink it, and neither will you.

That's how the mind works.