Thursday, November 10, 2022

Episode IV

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is more like an extended essay than a graphic novel. The text, sometimes in captions and sometimes in balloons, reads a lot like one of Sim's editorials or back-of-the-book text-pieces from the days of Cerebus. Some people will find that more off-putting than I did: I have always found Sim's prose style readable and engaging and indeed powerful. The Viktor Davies material directly prior to the explosive Tangents essay was an astonishing piece of prose by anyone's standards. (Disclaimers. Troll.)

There is some attempt to frame the essay in a narrative: a female comic-shop owner keeps finding copies of the comic in her shop. There is a very Dave moment when she herself realises that she doesn't have anything to do with the story, and also becomes physically aware of Dave's brush drawing her. This is the only part of the work that feels like a conventional graphic novel or a sequential narrative and serves to remind us just how fucking good Dave is at this sort of thing.

What do you do when you have finished the telling the six thousand page life story of a barbarian aardvark who becomes Prime Minister and Pope, founds a religion, dies alone, unmourned and unloved and then goes to hell? Obviously, you start to study fashion, and draw pictures of models in high-class outfits while learning the techniques of photorealistic artwork and researching the history of photorealistic comic strips. 
And gosh, the resultant artwork is stunning, even by Dave Sim's own high standards. He says that the picture of the lady in the diaphanous blouse on page twenty five is the best thing he's ever drawn, and he may be right. Given Dave's views on male/female relationships, the text around these pictures in the original Glamourpuss comic was pretty -- broad -- although by no means uniformly unfunny. (Disclaimers. Troll.) That hyper masculine Dave Sim was studying Vogue was superficially amusing: but he seemed to genuinely think the fashion designs were beautiful. 

QUERY: Has Dave Sim seen Mrs Harris Goes To Paris?

The comic was not a commercial success (leading to Sim, if I recall correctly, telling the world that he was going to quit illustration and become a copper miner) but the historical sections form the basis for this new work. All this is rather taken for granted in the opening sections of the Strange Death of Alex Raymond. If I had known nothing about Dave Sim, Cerebus, or Glamourpuss, I might have been a little bamboozled by it. 

This is a wider flaw in the book. Sim takes a lot for granted. I know my comic book history better than I imagine you do, and have actually read Flash Gordon, but "Terry and the Pirates" is really just a name to me. This stuff was incredibly mainstream in its day, but is now merely archival material; like old radio shows and old B movies.

Sim says that Alex Raymond, Hal Foster (Prince Valiant) and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates) are the great trinity of photo-realistic newspaper strip artists. They drew in incredible detail; their art was seen by huge numbers of readers (we're talking, like, thirty million); they were very well paid, but they had to work incredibly hard. Almost uniquely in the history of American comics, their material was read by, and directed towards, adults as well as kids.

Sim has studied Raymond's artwork very closely indeed. Raymond was famous among other artists for his very fine brushwork. Sim, by experimenting, works out that he must have been loading his brush with ink, and then painting a tiny rectangle in order to bring the the bristles to a very fine point. (The normal approach was to moisten the brush with water, bring it to a point, and then put a tiny drop on the end -- which gave you much less line for your time.) And, sure enough, he finds lots of tiny rectangles in the shading on some of the fine-lined strips.

This is fascinating stuff, assuming it is the sort of stuff you are fascinated by. Not all of us can keep the distinctions between Non Stylised Realism, Stylised Realism and Cartoon Realism clear in our heads; or quite keep track of why Jack Kirby was part of the Raymond school where Neal Adams was more a follower of Caniff but Sim is the master of his craft, and it is always exciting to hear one master craftsman talk about the work of another.

But it is clear that Sim has studied the material in such minute detail that he has started to see things which are not actually there. Do not gaze for too long into the ultra fine brush-lines or the ultra fine brush-lines will gaze into you. 

Everything turns on a photograph of Alex Raymond shaking hands with Milton Caniff, on the occassion of his appointment as president of the National Cartoonists Society. Sim becomes convinced that the body language in the picture indicates a complex tension between the two men. His minute study of the artwork makes him believe that Raymond was swiping certain techniques from Caniff, even though, as the far superior artist, he didn't need to. Caniff would have resented this, which is why the handshake in the picture looks so awkward. 

When the Death of Alex Raymond was part of Glamourpuss, I thought Sim was going for a straightforward conspiracy theory: that Caniff had somehow had Raymond murdered in revenge for artistic theft, or that Raymond had committed suicide out of remorse. 

But that would be far too simple. It seems that the universe killed Raymond to pay a kind of karmic debt.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

My extended Essay on Cerebus the Aardvark is available from Lulu press. 

Episode III

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is completely unhinged. But it is interestingly unhinged. At the very least, it is a structural wonder, and of course the artwork is beautiful.

It's one of those texts which is a monument to its own composition; and to the impossibility of its completion. The introduction, by Eddie Campbell, compares it with Tristram Shandy, the book which is so full of digressions that the main character has not been born by the final chapter. The back cover places it somewhere between Alan Moore's From Hell and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Bryan Talbot's Alice In Sunderland is another obvious comparison. Eddie Campbell collaborated with Alan Moore on From Hell. He also said that Who Sent The Sentinels was the best thing that has ever been written about Watchmen. 

It starts with an account of its own genesis, as one strand in a comic called Glamourpuss. It ends with a collaborator,  Carson Grubaugh, writing "This is as far as Dave got" and trying to add some sort of closure based on Dave's sketches and notes. Cerebus, by the end, was a comic about a comic; with the Earth-Pig consciously aware that he was being drawn by someone called Dave. The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is about how Alex Raymond, and others, made comics; but it is also about how Dave Sim made, or failed to make, the Strange Death of Alex Raymond.

I don't think I understand it. I certainly wouldn't presume to review it. I will, at least, attempt to describe it.

On September 6th 1956, Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9 and latterly Rip Kirby, was killed in a car crash. He was driving his friend Stan Drake's car over the speed limit and crashed into a tree. Stan Drake survived.

Sim makes out a decent case that accounts of the accident are inconsistent. It is said that Raymond accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the break in an unfamiliar vehicle: but how -- asks Dave -- can you mistake the accelerator when the car is already moving at speed? Sim thinks that the accounts of the death are so strange that the truth has become occluded. Not, you understand, through a conspiracy or a cover up. More a kind of mass delusion.

"Everyone -- everyone -- in a mass schizophrenic episode had ...fled... mentally from the accident and has stayed "fled" from it throughout the ensuing decades."

He thinks that Alex Raymond was such an important person and his death was of such significance that the universe -- what he calls "comic book metaphysics" have conspired to avoid confronting the truth.

“To understand why it is necessary to examine Alex Raymond’s metaphysical significance in our world’s history."

So that is what the books is about. Not about how Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant influenced Thor and the Green Lantern. Not about Dave Sim rediscovering lost and neglected newspaper strips. Not about which kinds of brushes and pens different artists used. About the metaphysical significance the creator of Flash Gordon had in human history.

The book is notably free from Sim's directly religious speculations. In Cerebus, he developed a complicated Marcionite theory that the Bible, and indeed all of history, is a sort of allegorical debate between the primary God and a secondary demiurge called YOOHOO (i.e the YHWH of the Old Testament). But if God and Yoohoo were trading allegories over Alex Raymond's car crash, he doesn't say so in this volume.

Most Christians regard occult and magick as decidedly Bad Things, but Sim doesn't seem to see any particular conflict between his metaphysical ideas and his religious beliefs. A long, long time ago, Alan Moore told Dave Sim that converting to Christianity was like becoming fluent in Russian, where being initiated into ritual magick was more like taking a PhD in structural linguistics. There is a lot more of Alan Moore in Dave Sim and a lot more of Dave Sim in Alan Moore than either side would probably admit.

There's not that much of Sim's gender-theory in this book, either, for which we should thank our deity of choice. He talks about a 1952 science fiction comic strip called Twin Earths, in which our planet is visited by the inhabitants of a more technologically advanced twin. He notes that (astonishingly) some of the technological predictions in the strip have come true (moving side walks, movable domed covers on stadiums, GPS navigation, the internet) but that some of them have not (miniature pets, extracting minerals from sea water, teleportation). But he then suggests that, the things which have not happened have simply not happened yet: some of the strips predictions may come through in the future. 

He notices that one of the male characters in Twin Earths wears a skirt. And he notices that one of the pieces of technology is a device which can read people's thoughts, determine if a person is thinking in the wrong way, and subsequently brainwash them. 

"For all of you who believe I shouldn't be allowed to think that there's something wrong with a man wearing a skirt, definitely something to look forward to."

Remarks like this simply shift the burden of proof: a standard technique for any dull right-wing pundit. It's not that different from saying that a bakeries selling veggie sausage roles is infringing our right to eat meat. It's a smallish step from there to saying that the real evil is not racism, but people who think that racism is evil. 

Dave: no-one is saying that you shouldn't be allowed to think that only people with penises ought to wear pants: they are saying that they believe that your thoughts in that regard are wrong and mistaken.

But on the other hand, it's a good example of what Dave does so well as a writer and a rhetorician. Speaking directly to the audience: responding to a probable objection to something which he has just said before the objection has been raised. (Ironically this creates the illusion that he can read our thoughts...) It takes you aback, a little bit. And there is a deprecating wit to the self-characterisation, a little like the "evil, mad" Dave Sim riff in Glamourpuss.

Usual disclaimers about whether praise for the form of an argument implies endorsement of its content -- about whether it is inconsistent to blame a writer for saying a bad thing and simultaneously praise him for saying it very cleverly -- can be taken for granted. Please do not feed the troll.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

My extended Essay on Cerebus the Aardvark is available from Lulu press. 

Episode II

 I saw Star Wars when it first came out in 1977. It was very good.

It was generally accepted that Star Wars was pretty heavily derived from something called Flash Gordon. The BBC started to show the old movie serials on kids' Saturday morning TV. So I saw Flash Gordon and Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars, and they were very good.

The serials were based on an old comic strip by someone called Alex Raymond: and lo, the Observer Colour Supplement started to reprint Flash Gordon in the Ice Kingdom on a weekly basis, and I read Flash Gordon and the Ice Kingdom, and behold, it was very good.

Flash Gordon was quite heavily influenced by the Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Borroughs; and behold, W.H Smiths had paperback editions of the Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Borroughs in their science fiction section; and I bought a Princess of Mars and the Gods of Mars, and I read a Princess of Mars and the Gods of Mars, and behold, they were very good.

Alex Raymond is a terrific artist. If you don't know the comic book or the Buster Crabbe serial you have certainly seen the Dino De Laurentiis movie, which is not very good at all, but does have a terrific theme song.  

About the time Star Wars was coming out, a Canadian named Dave Sim was launching a comic called Cerebus. Cerebus was based on Barry Smith and Roy Thomas's Conan the Barbarian, which were based on Robert E Howard's pulps, which were based (among other things) on Edgar Rice Borroughs sagas. Roy Thomas who wrote the Conan comics also wrote a John Carter comic. So Cerebus and Star Wars, which both came out in the same year, are conceptual descendants of Flash Gordon. 

What are the chances?


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

My extended Essay on Cerebus the Aardvark is available from Lulu press. 

Episode I

There was a thing called the Bible code, wasn't there? If you take the text of one book of the Bible and print it in a single long line, and then print the same text in a long column, and then fill in all the other letters so it forms a massive grid, and then start doing word searches, all kinds of surprising phrases turn up. "President Kennedy Will Be Shot" "Eleventh September Very Bad" "Liz Truss Likes Pork." What are the chances? 

Very high, as it turns out. There are about three million letters in the Bible, and three million squared is about nine thousand billion. The chance of any particular seven letter word coming up at random is about one in eight billion, so any eight letter combination of letters ought to be in there about one thousand one hundred and twenty five times. Hebrew doesn't have vowels, and the words don't have to to be adjacent and you are allowed to skip letters. You could do the same trick with Moby Dick. 

I just came across the story on the interwebs of a skeptic who decided to see if palm-reading works. Palmistry is a fairly closed system compared with other divination techniques: there is a high chance that two analysts will interpret the same lines in the same way. To his surprise, he found that the system worked astonishingly well: his clients told him that he was reading their personality and biography with remarkable accuracy. This made him wonder if there might perhaps be something in fortune-telling after all. But to double-check he tried the experiment of telling clients the opposite of what the almanack taught. If good fortune was prophesied by a wiggly line, he warned them of hard times to come. If the health line was strong and virile, he told them they were in danger of getting sick. And -- spoiler alert -- they continued to tell him that his readings were astonishingly accurate.

Many British tabloid newspapers publish astrological columns: often superficial "sun sign" astrology, but sometimes very detailed horoscope readings by practitioners who know their celestial onions. The most famous, and therefore most investigated, celebrity of the 1980s was Diana, Princess of Wales. She famously and tragically died in a car crash, provoking a crisis for the British monarchy. Not one astrologer warned her in advance that 31 August 1997 was inauspicious: but after the event they were all able to spot the astrological data they had missed.
In the sixteenth century a French physician named Nostradamus wrote:

"Because they disapproved of his divorce,
A man who later they considered unworthy;
The People will force out the King of the islands; 
A Man will replace who never expected to be king."

No twenty-first century English person can possibly read these lines and not make a connection with King Charles III, Princess Diana, Queen Camilla and Prince Harry. They simply can't. But if Charles lives to be as old as his Mum and William V succeeds without any problems, people a hundred years from now will connect it with some other king and some other island. That's why Nostradamus was such a good fortune teller. 

Douglas Adams was a skeptic even before he was drawn into the orbit of Richard Dawkins. But in his book So Long And Thanks For All The Fish he puts a very clever argument into the mouth of an astrologer. Of course astrology doesn't work, they say: it isn't supposed to. It's an arbitrary set of rules that you play around with. But the process of playing with the rules leads to insights. It's a technique for thinking about yourself.

I am sure that some fortune tellers are charlatans or just entertainers. But some are undoubtedly gifted and intuitive counsellors for whom the Tarot is a tool or a prop. Very good books have been written under the influence of I-Ching. And also LSD.

Adams later says something similar about Feng Shui, and as a matter of fact and presumably to Richard Dawkins' consternation, God. Of course there aren't invisible dragons or mysterious flows of energy in your office: but pretending that there are may be a very good way of thinking about pleasant, relaxing spaces. So maybe the idea of a supernatural creator is a good way of thinking about how to live as an embodied consciousness in a world full of other embodied consciousnesses. Terry Pratchett had the same thought. So, come to think of it, did the Right Reverend John Robinson.

I think it was A.A Milne who said that his problem with Spiritualism was that it couldn't decide if it was science or religion. If it claimed to have scientific proof of the survival of the soul, then the mediums need to subject themselves to objective tests by skeptical scientists. But if it claimed to be a religion, then it needed to be judged by the results: were the "spirits" dictating profound wisdom that could be put alongside the Sermon on the Mount or the Fire Sermon or the Bhagavad Gita?

Alan Moore tells the story of the man who set out to prove that there was nothing to the occult. You could prove anything you liked, he said: you could prove that Noddy was the Creator of the Universe if you wanted to. Krishna is depicted as a dancing child, isn't he? After the first murder, Cain went to live in the Land of Nod, doesn't he? A few days later the man happened to be in the British Museum, and saw an Aztec carving of a deity in the form of a small boy with a pointy hat with what appeared to be a bell on it. Then he happened to be listening to the radio, and heard an interview with Enid Blyton in which she said that, while being given a dental anaesthetic, she felt as if her mind left her body and was being driven towards some divine light.

He gave the experiment up. Either it is true that Noddy is the Son of God; or else the skeptic had worked a spell and made it true; or else you can find patterns and proofs in everything if you stare at them for long enough.

I myself have told the story of listening to my Beatles collection just after reading The Walrus Was Paul. I kept finding obvious clues in the lyrics which had not been spotted by the writer of the book. Once you know that every Beatles lyric is really about the death of Paul McCartney, then every Beatles lyric really is about the death of Paul McCartney. And every line of the Jewish scriptures is really about the life of Jesus. And if you play a record backwards you can hear it saying whatever someone has told you that it says.

Which is what makes this stuff so dangerous. Start looking for conspiracy theories and you find them. Believe in one conspiracy and you believe them all. Crashed space ships in New Mexico are an entry drug to alien democratic lizards eating babies in underground Pizza Huts. Jewish alien lizards, almost invariably.

When Alan Moore decided to initiate himself into Aleister Crowley ritual magic, he asked his friends to tell him if he seemed to be going mad. "Alan" he says that they said "How could we tell?"

His answer was "Tell me if my writing changes."


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

My extended Essay on Cerebus the Aardvark is available from Lulu press. 

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond

A meta review in six episodes

This essay is intended for people who do not intend to read The Strange Death of Alex Raymond, but are interested in what it contains and how it strikes me. It will probably also be useful to people who have not read it but think that they might, although it does contain what I can only describe as "spoilers". 

The usual preambles about how some people don't think you ought to read Dave Sim at all because his gender politics is so nasty and cancel culture doesn't exist can be taken for granted. Please do not feed the troll.


Andrew Reviews of Glamourpuss

General talk about shock and offence in art. 
(NOTE: Contains several usages of a very strong racial slur, in the context of a discussion of a work by H.P Lovecraft. If I were writing the piece today I might write this differently.)

General discussion of Dave Sim, in response to a correpondent.

Substantive review of Glamourpuss.

Substantive review of Judenhaas, which came out at about the same time. 

Oral review of Glamourpuss by friend who is not a regular Cerebus reader. 

Monday, November 07, 2022

Chibnall and I [6]

 6: Review

After Twice Upon a Time I said I was giving up on Doctor Who: it was no longer worth my headspace. (The discourse about the First Doctor threatening to slap Bill recently broke out again on Twitter: it's actually worse than I thought.)

I did, in fact, watch every Chibnall episodes and even jotted down some of my opinions, although I have dedicated considerably more time and effort to thinking about Tom Baker. I may try to publish The Viewer's Second Tale in time for Ncuti. 

But nothing in the last three years have particularly changed my mind. This is #NotMyDoctorWho; and what is worse, it never was. I am quite pleased that a woman got cast as the Doctor, party because it was a new thing which shook the format up a little bit; and partly because it was a symbol of which side we were on and because it annoyed the fascists. But I hold out some hope that the Fourteenth, or as we may have to say, Fifteenth Doctor will be more than just a semaphore flag to wave at the kind of people who call that kind of thing "woke". If it isn't: if its only redeeming feature is the symbolism of casting a monoped in a part for which two legs seems to be the minimum requirement -- well, that's exactly what the kinds of people who call these kinds of things woke accuse the kind of people they accuse of being woke of doing. I don't think the main purpose of TV is to offend neo-nazis; but I don't think it's there to make people like me go "squee" either.

I thought Power of the Doctor was quite fun. I was amused by several of the scenes. I enjoyed the cameos. I didn't think the Doctor-Master hybrid made sense even within the narrow definitions of sense that regeneration stories usually make: I didn't really understand what was meant to have happened (Regeneration somehow pictured as a kind of possession? I suppose the decrepit Master steals Tremas's body in Keeper of Traken.) I thought the idea of the Dalek which has studied The Abolition of Man could have been a jumping off point for something interesting, but it wasn't. The story had a sort of large scale glitz and unearned sentimentality which doesn't seem to me to have very much to do with Doctor Who. The Aquadiabolical one simply bored me. Flux made me want to smash my television into little tiny pieces, or, if they are slightly more clear headed, that the Vogon had never been born. This one diverted me amiably as it was going on.

I remember someone once said that they felt about Bob Dylan as they do about Test Match cricket: they can listen to it; its not unpleasant; but they look around and find that everyone else in the room is deriving great significance from it. There are some Doctor Who fans who really really like the Power of the Doctor and jolly good luck to them. I** L***** gave ten out of ten, said that it made him cry, and that it would be impossible for anyone to do anything better. Given that he vowed never to watch the show again after the casting of a gurl in the main role, this is quite impressive. I truthfully don't know whether gloss and untethered sentiment and drive-by story fragments are honestly what some people like (in the way that some people honestly like jazz or prog rock or dogs) which is fine -- or if "this is the greatest thing ever and if you can't see that you are no true fan" is a defence mechanism, loyalty to a beloved franchise, a kind of anti-critic vice-signalling. (It wouldn't be very bad if it was.)

I don't know what else to say. Seeing Jo and Mel and Tegan and Ace and Colin and Peter and Paul and Old Uncle Tom Cobley and All was nice, in the way that eating a chocolate souffle with two much cream was nice. Seventeen years ago seeing a Dalek would have been nice but now there is nothing special about seeing a Dalek because we see them all the time. I didn't hate it; and I suppose after three years of Chibnall that's kind of a win.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Pledge £1 for each essay.

Chibnall and I (5)

 5: On My Mother's Side

Star Wars and Star Trek and every single Marvel Comic cohere into one single story. Or, at any rate, if you squint very hard and say "I do believe in fairies" then you can pretend that they do. Picard is clearly trying to be a sequel to Star Trek: The Next Generation; and with a bit of effort, The Original Series and Star Trek: Discovery can be persuaded to share a setting. 

Doctor Who does not work like that. So it is more than usually important for fans to pretend that does; and more than usually exciting when the series itself affirms it. 

Paul McGann played Doctor Who for precisely 89 minutes. (He was unconscious for a lot of it.) His single episode was not a success: the whole point of it was to facilitate an American revival of Doctor Who, and no American revival of Doctor Who was forthcoming. The series remained in limbo for another nine years. (I have no beef with the episode itself. Some people liked it, others not so much.) It would have been perfectly possible to have ignored it and started Doctor Who up again in 2005 as if nothing had happened. 

But the TV film made a very big deal out of being a continuation of Original Doctor Who, where several of the rejected pitches would have presented themselves as reboots. Although he only gets a few seconds of screen time and no lines, we see the Seventh Doctor turn into the Eighth. And that's important. It tells us that the thread has not been cut. There just happened to be a longer than usual gap between Survival and the Backdoor Pilot With No Name.

Of course, the McGann Doctor has since appeared in -- dear god -- seventy novels and a hundred and fifty audio adventures. The canonicity of these stories is questioned. They contradict each other to death, so they can't all be true, unless they are. But those 89 minutes are the only definite for sure on screen canonical Eighth Doctor texts. 

And that's another reason why we are pleased when Peter Davison morphs into Paul McGann. Paul McGann doesn't do anything in the story, any more than Ian does anything in the story. He is just there. But him being there is kind of important. Because the Eighth Doctor has now appeared in definitely official New Who. (His face appeared in Human Nature; and he appeared in a Minisode during the the Fiftieth Anniversary, and I think he was in that weird sequence where Wonderful Clara turns out to have been in charge of Doctor Who continuity from the before the beginning.) But this is unequivocally part of the unfolding text. There are no gaps in the passing of the baton. All stories are one story, but that story is very big. Who said that fans talk about continuity, but what they really desire is linearity? 

It would be strange if this principle, this principle that cameos are good in themselves because they tie the canon together, became a core narrative principle. But we keep hearing that Russell T Davies, with the distribution network of Walt Disney behind him, wants to do spin-offs. Wants Doctor Who to became a Vast Franchise like Marvel and Star Wars. And fans (some fans) instantly latch on. Wouldn't it be cool if Romana were recruited by UNIT to track down all three surviving incarnations of the Master and had to recruit K9 to help her find Jenny in order to...

No. No it wouldn't be.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Pledge £1 for each essay.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Chibnall and I (4)

4: Squee

All fictional characters are constructs: David Copperfield and Dorothea Brooke just as much as Charlie Brown and Buzz Lightyear. Some of them seem to be real, but they never are. Karl Ove Knausgaard uses a writer's box of tricks to create the impression that he's telling us every detail of his life. But it's really only a tiny, stylised fragment. If he'd written everything down I suppose the world itself could not contain all the books that would be written.

But some characters are more constructed than others. Darth Vader is a two dimensional villain; but he does have a life story. He's defined by it. Little pod-racer slave; cynical Clone Wars apprentice; secret marriage; protégé of Palpatine; dead mother; younglings; Sith apprentice; Death Star; Alderaan; Cloud City; Endor; Redemption. Secondary canon sometimes adds to the story arc."Anakin had an apprentice named Asoka" is now a true fact across all media. But if a secondary source significantly contradicts that story arc, we reject it out of hand. Darth Vader can't be an ally of Count Dooku in the Clone Wars.

This means that new and interesting stories can arise inside the plot-arc, and be generated by it. The current Darth Vader comic book has a plot thread in which a post-Empire Strikes Back Vader makes contact with Sabe, the hand-maiden decoy of Amidala from Phantom Menace. She has worked out that the Dark Lord must be Anakin, but doesn't yet know that he was the one who killed Amidala. Things follow from this premise: our knowledge of Vader's plot arc makes us wonder how he will react, and what will follow. If we had no knowledge of Anakin Skywalker or Amidala, it is much harder to get worked up about the storyline.

You may think this is a lazy way of writing. You may think that it is cheating for one text to borrow significance from another. You may think that it amounts to a weaker writer stealing from a stronger one; to give his story an emotional impact it hasn't really earned. You might even think that this is why some people use "fan fiction" as a pejorative. I can't stop you from thinking any of those things.

But the Doctor doesn't have that kind of story arc. They don't really even have a biography. Or if they do, it remains pretty much exactly where it was in 1963. "The Doctor ran away from their home planet a long time ago and has been wandering ever since." That's pretty much the whole pitch. You can add "They used to be friends with the Master, but now they are bitter enemies" if you want to. If you are a fan, you can reel off sequences of events: "exiled to earth", "temporarily elected President of Gallifrey"; "changed their name during the Time War": but these aren't part of who the Doctor is. Incremental changes work their way into the story and become things which everybody knows: Sonic Screwdriver, Time Lords, Two Hearts, Gallifrey, Twelve Lives. But those are facts about the Doctor, not events in their story. 

Perhaps that's the difference: Darth Vader is a sequence of fictional events; Doctor Who is a bundle of fictional facts. Der Doktor ist alles, was der Fall ist.

Chris Chibnall would very much like "used to work for the Division" to become part of the Doctor's story. My guess is that it won't take. Doctor Who always regresses to the narrative mean. The story can't grow beyond "they ran away from home to wander in time and space".  If it did, it would no longer be Doctor Who. 

When Ian Chesterton was introduced into Doctor Who in 1963, we knew two things about him: he was a thirty-something male, and he taught chemistry at a London school. When he departed in 1966, we had not learned very much more. He was still a thirty-something man; he was still a chemistry teacher, but now he was a thirty-something chemistry teacher who had spent two or three years travelling with the Doctor.

I am sure we could assemble a list of trivial facts about him. He and Barbara had divergent opinions about the Beatles. His chemistry classes included Boyle's law. He like cricket more than he likes football. And we could deduce facts based on his age and profession. Evacuated from London in 1939; National Service in the army in 1950; retired from teaching around the end of the twentieth century.

His life after leaving the Doctor is not a completely blank sheet. There was a plan for him to appear in the 1983 story Mawdryn Undead (which was set in a boys boarding school) but the actor was unavailable, so the part was rewritten for the Brigadier. His name appears on a sign outside Coal Hill School in the 50th Anniversary story Day of the Doctor. (He's the chairman of the governors.) The School is only Coal Hill School in a manner of speaking: a kind of joke, or hyperlink, a chance for fans to stroke their beards and say, yes, well, of course, that was the name of the school that appeared in the very first episode in 1963. (And again, in Remembrance of the Daleks, for the twenty-fifth anniversary season, in 1988.) He talks to a camera about his adventures in a framing sequence for the VHS release of a partially wiped black and white story called the Crusaders. And in the children's TV spin-off, Sarah-Jane mentions in passing that there are two Oxford Professors, Ian and Barbara Chesterton, "who haven't aged, not since the sixties."

And for those who care about such things, he appeared in a dozen novels and fifty audio adventures. (Fifty!) Probably some comic books too. 

But none of this makes any difference. The appearance of Ian in Power of the Doctor is not a new chapter in a fictional character's life-story like the Return of Sherlock Holmes. It isn't a retrospective addition to a story arc like the Book of Boba Fett. The Ian who is surprised that Graham refers to the Doctor as "she" is a ninety something man who taught chemistry in a London school in the 60s and travelled with the Doctor for a couple of years. He is Ian. That's all he can ever be.

If you think about it as a story, it breaks. The serious man in the suit and the punkette who calls everything wicked don't fit into one story. You might as well show Big Bird, Frankenstein and the Mayor of Casterbridge at a support group meeting. Graham says that if he told anyone about his adventures in the TARDIS he would be thought insane, which is more or less word-for-word what Ian told the camera in the Crusade framing sequence. But hang on: aren't Jo Grant and Kate Stewart at the meeting too? Isn't this a world where there are government and extra-government organisations specifically to deal with alien threats? Where dinosaurs have been sighted in London (more than once) and the government has used Daleks to suppress public disorder? 

Well, no, it isn't. And it can't be. Doctor Who is about alien worlds invading and intersecting with the ordinary present day. So the ordinary present day world must always be the starting point. It's not like a Marvel movie where everyone remembers New York being flattened by aliens, and treat superheroes as a kind of ultra-celebrity. Every meeting with the Doctor is the first meeting with the Doctor; every alien invasion is the first alien invasion. A support group meeting -- even a Tegan/Ace team up -- is very close to being a contradiction in terms.

So why is it such great fun? Why we fans lap it up?

Fan fiction is not just a niche hobby: it is a state of mind. If I say "Tellytubbies and Edge of Darkness take place in completely different universes" then your fan-brain starts to picture nuclear waste pouring into Tellytubbyland and Tinky-Winky testifying before a House of Commons inquiry. You can't stop yourself. I do it too. It's what being a fan means. 

Sarah-Jane said that Ian married Barbara, and that they both became dons at a prestigious university, and appeared to be the same ages that they were when they left the Doctor in 1966. So why is the Ian in Power of the Doctor well into his ninth decade? Well, the story of the Immortal Academics can't be true. Sarah said it was only a rumour, after all. But that's interesting in itself. The rumour must have come from somewhere. Ian and Barbara must have done something in order for the story to attach itself to those particular names. (Sarah hadn't heard of them from the Doctor: the Doctor doesn't talk about previous companions.) Maybe Ian and Barbara took a life-prolonging drug in an un-transmitted William Hartnell adventure; and maybe the drug had a finite duration, and poor Ian has done all his ageing in one go, like Steve Rogers. (That must have happened a couple of decades ago: he looked about 70 when he was talking to his un-named visitor about Richard the Lionheart.) 

But that's quite boring. So, then after years of living together as ageless academics, Barbara is called, let me see, Thal Space aid reconstruction.... But Ian cannot go with her for...reasons....and bereft, he chooses not to take the drug any more. 

Weak? Okay. Some years after leaving the Doctor and going their separate ways Ian and Barbara discover that clones -- robots? androids -- with their faces have been installed in Oxford University. But to what purpose? Well, in one of the quads they discover...

If you have ever asked a word-of-God Christian about an obvious contradiction in the Bible, you will know how the game works. 

I think some people like these kinds of teeny tiny cameos because they give them raw material to create fan fiction from. I think this is why fans cluster around franchises with uncertain or contradictory canons. And I think this may be why some people are perfectly okay with perfunctory and fragmentary story-telling. If you are a certain sort of person, the merest hint of mutual attraction between the Thirteenth Doctor and Yasmin generates a whole archive of "Thasmin" romances. A resolution, one way or the other, would spoil the game. Some fans were very cross with J.K Rowling and Rian Johnson for giving their stories the wrong sort of closure. Once Harry has married Ginny and Luke has retired to Ach-To, the sacred texts lose their exegetical potential.

Nostalgia isn't as good as it used to be. It's okay to look back, provided you don't stare. When I was a teenager, some of the stars of the golden age of radio and the last days of Music Hall were still alive. It was just barely possible to get Chesney Allen into a TV studio and stagger out a few lines of Underneath the Arches. And if you were a certain age, that was a wonderful thing to see, even if his performance left a little to be desired. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney still give pretty good performances: but we'd probably turn up and applaud them even if they didn't. Being Bob Dylan is quite an achievement in itself. So perhaps Chibnall is just providing us with a curtain call. Literally his last bow. It's giving us a chance to affirm how important the early days of Doctor Who were to us and how important William Russell was to the early days of Doctor Who. To say thank you, in a way. Perhaps they could have arranged for him to have tea with Paddington Bear. 

Doctor Who has never just been about Doctor Who. It has always partly been about the making of Doctor Who. I suppose any movie buff might be quite interested in knowing how his favourite film was put together; but Who fans are more interested than most in peeping behind the curtain. There were books like The Making of Doctor Who and the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special before there was organised fandom, and before that, there was Blue Peter. The process of creation is baked into the narrative itself. We knew from an early age that the nice one with the white hair turned into the silly one with the scarf because an actor name Jon Pertwee wanted to move on and the BBC tracked down an actor named Tom Baker playing Rasputin on a building site. And of course, in Old Who you could very often see the wires and the construction lines. 

Fandom created the idea of the Doctor Who family: that having worked on Doctor Who, even as a caterer or a hair-dresser, obliged you to appear at conventions, answer obscure questions, and be greeted with rapturous applause. If Christopher Eccleston doesn't want to do conventions or come-backs, there is a sense that he isn't quite playing by the rules. 

When that scene broke on our TV sets, I don't think my first thought was necessarily: squee, squee Ian Chesterton. I think my first thought was squee, squee William Russell. (Good god, is he still alive?)

I** L***** posted a back-stage picture of all the actors together and said that this was what made the episode so special. William and Bonnie and Sophie in a room together. Squee, squee. 

There's nothing wrong with it, particularly. But it rather confirms Doctor Who as an exercise in mummification. An endless memorial to a series that can never move forward.

William Russell appeared alongside Marlon Brando as one of the Kryptonian elders in the first Superman movie. He also did a scene with Brian Blessed in Blackadder. He remarried fairly late in life, and his son Alfred is also an actor. This information will be useful to you if you are ever called on to play Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

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Saturday, November 05, 2022

Chibnall and I (3)

 2: Spoilers

There were relatively few trailers or pre-publicity materials prior to the transmission of Power of the Doctor. This led to some fan conspiracy theories. (Everything leads to conspiracy theories.) Perhaps the BBC hated Chris Chibnall and positively wanted the show to fail; perhaps they didn't quite regard Jodie as a proper Doctor because she was a woman. Perhaps they just accepted that the era had been a failure and were now focussed on the 2024 relaunch under the steady hand of Russel T Davies.  Or perhaps they hated the fans and wanted to deprive them of the fun of speculating about new the story in advance of transmission. 

Or perhaps there were so few Doctor Who trailers because the BBC was woke.

It is perfectly true that we already know more about Ncuti Gatwa's debut, which is still a year away, than we did about Jodie Whittaker's swan-song the day before it was transmitted. But the explanation is probably boringly simple. Russell T Davies is good at publicity. One of my main complaints about his era was that he introduced "NEXT WEEK" trailers which tended to give away major plot twists, and advertised "surprise" villains on the cover of Radio Times. Chris Chibnall, who is probably more fannish, is also a lot more spoiler-averse.

Some people hate spoilers. Other people think that anything which can be spoiled with spoilers wasn't worth not spoiling to begin with. The Sixth Sense is exactly the same movie if you already knew that Janet Leigh takes her sledge into the shower as it would have been if you didn't.

My view is that "surprise" is one of a number of techniques that a writer can use to extract emotions from an audience. Gag-writing may not be the highest form of art, but that's no reason to give away the punch-line. Twists and stings in the tales can be good fun when they work. Serious writers sometimes make use of surprise as well: the very first time I saw King Lear, I was truthfully expecting it to have a happy ending.

I suppose there could be a moral point at stake here. Reading serious literature is good and improving. Reading lowbrow literature is wicked and degrading. Good literature is the kind of literature that is worth re-reading. Twist-ending stories only work once. If I tell you how a Tale of the Unexpected or one of Tharg's Future Shocks ends, all the enjoyment drains out of it. Which serves you righyt: you jolly well ought to have your fun spoiled as a punishment for liking such low-brow rubbish. 

Citizen Kane, which famously ends on a surprise revelation, is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made.

There was a short trailer after The One With The Sea Devils that alerted us to the fact that Tegan and Ace, were going to guest-star in Jodie's reincarnation story.

Tegan is a former companion. She arrived in Tom Baker's last story, and stuck around for most of the Davison incumbency. Ace is also a former companion. She appeared alongside Sylvester McCoy in the final two seasons. The Seventh Doctor and Ace have a special place in the hearts of Doctor Who fans of a certain age. After the show was mercy-killed in 1989, they appeared in some thirty-five full length novels (and then a ludicrously large number of audio-CDs.) With Doctor Who off air, those novels -- the Virgin New Adventures -- were all there was. They worked very hard to present themselves as the continuation of Doctor Who by other means. Just as there are fans for whom the "real" Doctor will only ever be Matt Smith or Patrick Troughton, so there are some who think of those novels -- the so called Wilderness Years -- as "their" era. So the return of Ace is a pretty big deal.

Tegan appeared in the twentieth anniversary special, the Five Doctors, with Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. She appeared with Colin Baker in the thirtieth anniversary skit, Dimensions in Time. She also appeared with Colin in a sketch about a little boy who wanted to be in Doctor Who, part of a TV show presented by a disc-jockey whose name can no longer be spoken. She has a fair claim to have appeared with more Doctors than any other actor.

After leaving the Doctor, Ace turns into a Time Lord. Or else she becomes a space-marine. Or possibly she goes respectable and runs a philanthropic organisation called A Charitable Earth. Tegan has a less established off-screen life, but a slightly mawkish epilogue to the Sarah Jane Adventures implied that she was gay and ended up in a relationship with Nyssa, who was last seen volunteering at a leper colony on a distant planet in a parallel universe.

So, of course, the trailer sent some sectors of fandom into overdrive. Ace and Tegan are coming back. We are going to find out what happens to them. Perhaps the New Adventures would be canonised; perhaps Tegan and Ace would become, er, canonically queer. Perhaps the A.C.E idea would be overwritten. It was really only a one-line gag in the Sarah-Jane adventures, although it was given a kind of canonicity in a minisode filmed to promote a Seventh Doctor box-set, but it never quite fitted in with anything we knew about TV Ace. At any rate: there was some hope that the destinies and futures of these characters would be explored, fan-fiction style.

But some of us boring old fans smiled wryly. Because Doctor Who just doesn't work like that.

What we actually got was two extended cameos. Sophie Aldred and Jan Fielding turn out to look a lot older than they did forty years ago. Actors who had supporting roles in the 1980s and haven't done much since turn out to look quite old fashioned and stagey alongside contemporary TV casts. They get brief meetings with the current Doctor. They each get a three minute scene with a holographic representation of "their" Doctor. Sixty year old Ace gets to wear the jacket she wore when she was a teenager; and biff some Daleks with a baseball bat, like she did in Remembrance of the Daleks. Ace mentions that she saw the Master turn into a cat. (Ooo, ooo, Survival! say fans) and the Master mentions Tegan's Auntie Vanessa (ooo, ooo, Logopolis!) and that's pretty much it. Quite good fun. But not a continuation of the story of Tegan and Ace. Because there really isn't one. 

There is, in fact, a story to be told about what it would be like to be an ex-Doctor Who companion: to have travelled all round the universe with God, and then been dropped off in Croydon and forced to pick up the threads of your life. School Reunion (a David Tennant tale) gestures towards a story of that kind, without actually telling it. Sarah Jane seemed to have led a slightly sad, unfulfilled life: everything after the Doctor had been a complete anti-climax. Russell T Davies always tended to use 'The Doctor' as a metaphor for Doctor Who and Doctor Who fandom, and Sarah-Jane was to some extent a metaphor for the sad fan-boy who enjoyed a particular TV show so much that he wasted the rest of his life writing incredibly bloggy essays about it, very probably in his underpants. But this was clearly too much of a downer, and when Elisabeth Sladen fronted her own, (very good) children's TV show, it turned out that having travelled with the Doctor always results in your leading the most brilliant, wonderful, amazing, fantastic, life it is possible to imagine. Sarah-Jane acquired teenaged prodigies who were guaranteed brilliant, wonderful, amazing lives at one remove. Doctor Who is good for kids, it seems, but nostalgia is harmful for grown ups.

It's a story which can probably only be told once, and an actual episode of Doctor Who is probably not the right place to tell it. It probably needs to be tackled in a grown up novel by a grown up writer with the serial numbers filed off.  I could imagine a serious novel about a middle aged man in therapy because a psychotic vigilante dressed as a flying mammal trained him as a ninja a few hours after his parents died in a freak trapeze accident.. But it probably wouldn't make a great Batman cartoon. The alternative is to just keep doing School Reunion over and over again, with Liz Shaw and Dodo Chaplet rather than Sara-Jane. 

But where would be the point? They had miserable lives or they had fantastic lives; they had a secret they never shared with anyone else; or else they told everyone but weren't believed. They are ever-so-much older than twenty and have forgotten how to fly; but to live has been an awfully big adventure. They think their experiences with the Doctor were a delusion. Everyone else thinks their experiences with the Doctor were a delusion. They are interested in nothing but nylons, lipsticks and invitations.

To Chibnall's relative merit, he kept the other celebrity cameos in the Power of the Doctor a pretty perfectly guarded secret. And they were carried off with a certain amount of panache. When the Thirteenth Doctor encounters David Bradley playing William Hartnell playing the Doctor, I think that many an Old Fan went "mmmm" in the manner of one who has just been reminded of a brand of confectionary that they don't make anymore. And when he turned into Colin Baker and Peter Davison, the "mmm" may have developed into the sound that audiences make after an impressive instrumental interlude, kind of like "nice!" or even "¡Ole!": Paul McGann was more an occasion for punching the air and saying "Yes!" when your team has won an important match.

Jo Martin's cameo was less of a surprise. She's pretty much a character who only exists to appear in cameos. Some people really like her: but I think that what they really like is the principle of there being a black lady Doctor. Which I like too. But there's not enough to The Fugitive Doctor for me to feel enthusiastic about.

But the final moments before the Regeneration can only be said to have brought on a fully fledged fangasm. Yaz has been perfunctorily sent away from the TARDIS; but immediately encounters Graham (along with Dan, who perfunctorily left of his own accord at the beginning of the episode.) Together they go to some sort of hall or community center where a kind of support group for former companions of the Doctor is having its first meeting. We can see the characters who have appeared in this story: Yaz, Graham, Dan, Teagan, Ace, and Kate Stewart -- along with three much older people. Bonnie Langford. Katy Manning. And good lord can it actually be, William Russell. Mel, Jo and Ian. Ian who last appeared in Doctor Who some 58 years ago.

The idea of "support groups" has turned up in the The Boys and in several Marvel Universe films; where the point is that, in those worlds, having been injured by passing superheroes or abolished from existence by a glove-wielding alien demi-god is a relatively normal experience -- as normal as a PTSD group for Gulf War veterans or grief counselling for 11/9 survivors. The "support group" metaphor is a less good fit to the Doctor Who situation: meeting the Doctor is regarded as an exceptional and unique occurrence. There's no particular reason for the meeting to be happening in a community hall: if you took the Doctor Who universe seriously, you would expect UNIT or Torchwood to have provided an ultra-high-security venue for it. But the burden of this essay, and indeed this blog, is that the Doctor Who universe is impossible to take seriously. So let's just sit back and enjoy the irony of a companion support group being run like an Alcoholics Anonymous cell.

Chibnall is a fan, and he knows what he is doing. Characters who everyone loves, and also Bonnie Langford, appear on the screen for only a couple of seconds, and get barely half a line each. And that makes the sequence more special. By the time we've registered what's happening, it's over. It's really the equivalent of a Regeneration Flashback Montage, which happened twice in the original series but was retrospectively declared a Tradition.

If we had known in advance that Jo Jones (nee Grant) would be appearing in the Big Centenary Special we would have spent a year speculating about it, in which case the brief glimpse would have felt like a punch in the gut. The scene works because we didn't know it was coming. Now I have told you about it, I have ruined it. 

We know that Bernard Cribbins is appearing in the November 2023 special; and we think we know that the Celestial Toymaker and/or Beep the Meep are in it as well. I hope our guts remain collectively unpunched.

There could be a story about a lot of the Doctor's companions having a meet up. There could be a story about anything. I imagine that at this very moment official fan-fiction is slipping into place in which each of the Doctor's exes sit round and tell a story illustrating some aspect of their Doctor's character and showing how it changed them. And then they probably all go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. But this isn't that story. It's more like a Play School presenter reassuring the children that Humpty Dumpty wasn't hurt and the ten green bottles weren't broken after all. Don't be too sad. Jo Grant is okay. Yaz and Graham will do just fine. And there's a spare chair for Barbara and Sarah, just in case. 

We love these characters; we love Doctor who. A love that asks no questions. The point of the scene is to see Ian, and to be delighted that we are seeing Ian. And this jaded cynical blogger was as delighted as anyone. 



I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

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Friday, November 04, 2022

Chibnall and I (2)

2: Blossom

"Oh, the blossomiest blossom!" exclaims the Thirteenth Doctor. She is just about to regenerate. Her last will and testament, at least until Big Finish get started on the licensed spin-offs. 

What is the significance of her words? There is no blossom on screen, blossomy or otherwise, although she does appear to smell something beautiful. Why, taking in one last sunset, is blossom the thing which comes to mind?

In March, 1994, legendary TV playwright Dennis Potter was interviewed by very-nearly-as-legendary journalist and broadcaster Melvin Bragg. It would be Potter's last interview: he had advanced pancreatic cancer, and had asked his doctors to come up with a regimen which would give him the best chance of completing his last two plays (as opposed to necessarily prolonging his life). During the interview, he famously said that his awareness of mortality made ordinary things seem hyper-real.

"At this season, the blossom is out in full now … and instead of saying 'Oh that's nice blossom' … last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it."

So. The Time Lord and the Playwright both independently had the same thought. Blossom is a common enough symbol of mortality, after all. A.E Housman famously decided to go on more frequent woodland rambles when he realised he would probably be dead in only fifty years or so. But can it be coincidence that the Doctor and Dennis Potter should have expressed the same thought in nearly the same words? 

It is fairly normal in informal English to turn nouns into adjectives by adding the suffix -y. If something is catty, it has the qualities of a cat. This is a recurrent gag in the pun rounds of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue.
"Define Anti-
"A bit like an ant."

Similarly, you can generally make a superlative by adding -est to an adjective. "Good-est", "evil-est" and "Republican-est" may not be strictly grammatical, but we understand what they mean. And it is fairly common to do both together: turn a noun into an adjective and then turn the adjective into a superlative. Andrew writes a very bloggy blog; Andrew's blog is the bloggy-est blog you've ever come across. The cheesiest cheese; the creamiest cream; and the chocolateyest chocolate are fairly common advertising formulations.

But directly adding -est to a noun is relatively unusual. Dennis Potter coined "blossom-est" as a nonce-word; the Thirteenth Doctor uses the much more conventional "blossomy-est".

Now, in a 1972 story, the Time Monster, the Third Doctor told companion Jo an edifying story about his childhood on Gallifrey. (It wasn't called Gallifrey back then.) On his "blackest day", he asked a wise hermit the secret of life; and the hermit pointed to a very nondescript wild flower. But because he was looking at it properly for the first time, all the Doctor's sense perceptions were heightened; and this helped him through his despair.

"Well, the colours were deeper and richer than you could possibly imagine. Yes, that was the daisiest daisy I'd ever seen....So, later, I got up and I ran down that mountain and I found that the rocks weren't grey at all, but they were red, brown and purple and gold. And those pathetic little patches of sludgy snow, they were shining white."

Producer Barry Letts was a member of the Western Buddhist Order, and what the Doctor was experiencing was a kind of enlightenment -- what might now be described more prosaically as mindfulness. The hermit-figure reappears as a Buddhist monk in Jon Pertwee's own regeneration story, Planet of the Spiders.

As a matter of fact, the word "daisy" is a corruption of "day's eye", but the word could be understood as an adjective, referring to an object with the quality of "dais". Robert Sloman (who wrote the Time Monster) has punningly imagined that if a flower can be "daisy" it could also be "daisy-er" and "daisy-est". (It's the same kind of joke as the one which says that since there is one actor called Tom Holland and another actor called Tom Hollander, there must logically be a third actor somewhere called Tom Hollandest.) It may have originally just been a matter of convenience. It would have been easy enough for Jon Pertwee to say "the buttercuppy-est buttercup" or "tulipy-est tulip" but "daisy-ey-est daisy" would have been quite a mouthful. But we have up with is a striking image of an object which has the quality of being itself to the greatest possible degree: the idea of a state in which reality becomes more real. The idea of an object possessing its own attributes to the greatest possible degree. 

There a very many different daisies in the universe with an infinite number of minute differences. One very wise man thought that it followed that there must somewhere be one dasiest daisy of which all the other daisies are reflections or copies. Another very wise man thought that you could define God as the thingest thing: the being who had all conceivable positive attributes to the greatest possible degree. A third wise man reminded us that it is all in Plato. 

There is no reason on earth that Dennis Potter and Robert Sloman  could not independently have observed that intense emotional states make the world seem more vivid; and no particular reason that they might not both have chosen to describe that experience in terms of flowers. But it is quite a coincidence that Potter chose to say "blossom-est" when he could quite easily have said "blossomey-est"

I doubt that Dennis Potter was particularly a Doctor Who fan, but he probably watched it from time to time. He liked TV and there were't many channels in those days. He found Blake's Seven mildly diverting and used a lot of science fiction tropes in his final, posthumous play, Cold Lazarus. There is a persistent oral tradition that he submitted a Doctor Who script to Verity Lambert in 1964 or 1965. And he was thinking about time travel, in a way: he had just told Melvin Bragg that you have to live in the present because you can't call back yesterday. So it is perfectly possible that he had seen episode six of the Time Monster and been struck by the line.

So. Perhaps the Thirteenth Doctor is simply quoting Dennis Potter: and it hasn't occurred to Chris Chibnall that the line from the interview resembles a line from Doctor Who. This seems a little unlikely.

Perhaps the Thirteenth Doctor is quoting Dennis Potter quoting the Third Doctor. Perhaps Chibnall intends to convey "Doctor Who is so important that serious writers are influenced by it; but even serious writers' words get changed and refreshed over time." This seems rather convoluted. 

So we have to say that the Thirteenth Doctor is quoting the Third Doctor directly. The world becomes super-intense to Doctor Jodie in the seconds before she regenerates; just as it had to Doctor Jon on that "blackest day". Although she is very sad to be parting from her companions and getting a new face, a new TARDIS console and a new title sequence, Doctor Jodie remembers the little wild flower that Cho-Je pointed out to her when she was a little boy, and gains courage from the memory -- just as Jo did.

But Chibnall has remembered the scene incorrectly. I think that he thinks that the Third Doctor told Jo that what Cho-Je showed him was "the blossom-est blossom". He thinks he is quoting Jon Pertwee, but he is actually quoting Dennis Potter -- and he hasn't even remembered Potter's quite correctly.

So. Power of the Doctor. A story made up of memories. Quotations. Motifs. References. Fan fiction. Fan service. Celebration. Reunion. One last bow before the final curtain. One half of fandom is cross because Tom Baker (88) didn't show up. The other half is cross because William Russell (98) did.

A long dead TV series, as remembered by a middle-aged man; vague actors vaguely repeating decades old catch phrases, ending with a confused centenarian expressing surprise about what the series has become.

Doctor Who is inseparable from our memory of Doctor Who. If everyone remembers that The First Doctor was grumpy then The First Doctor was grumpy. If everyone remembers that the sets wobbled, then the sets wobbled. If the first thing you think of when someone mentions Gregor Rasputin is that Boney M song, then that Boney M Song is the most important thing about Gregor Rasputin. 

History is the parts that you can remember. Sellar and Yateman invented memes half a century before that other fellow. 

Live in the moment, because you can't call back yesterday. Sense perceptions are the most real thing. What lives in your memory is more important than what actually happened. We can go anywhere in Time and Space: that's the exciting thing. 



I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Please do not feed the troll. 

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Chibnall and I (1)

 1: Review

The Power of the Doctor was a load of Rubbish. I enjoyed it very much indeed.