So… pirates. Doctor Who and the pirates, eh? Filmic references, monsters drawn from mythology, more misfiring technology and more errant children.
But bugger all that for a moment. Let’s talk about Press Gang.
Press Gang was Steven Moffat’s first TV series which ran from 1989 to 1993 on ITV. Co-created with his father Bill Moffat, it’s a fascinating piece of work. Its premise was the ongoing adventures of a group of plucky teenagers running a school newspaper. It was smart, witty, engaging and utterly implausible.
This student newspaper (the Junior Gazette) was run as a faux newsroom, as regimented as any professional paper. There was a design department and sales department, and the students seemed to work on this paper with a zeal which many paid journos wouldn’t bother with. They seemed to work all hours too and the stories they chased often were real world news stories, rather than what was on the school canteen menu that week.
Despite the craziness of the premise, it was compelling viewing. The cohort of characters Moffat created to staff this teenage fantasy of a news room, were stellar. Acerbic editor Lynda Day (Julia Sawalha) had a stormy romantic relationship with leather jacket wearing bad boy Spike (Dexter Fletcher). There was sensible journalist type Sarah (Kelda Holmes), spunky designer type Julie (Lucy Benjamin – replaced midway through by the even spunkier Gabrielle Anwar), token black guy Frazz (Mmoloki Christie) and comedy capitalist Colin (Paul Reynolds). And Lee Ross, who plays the Boatswain in Black Spot was Kenny, perpetual nice guy, long suffering dogsbody to Lynda and sometimes songwriter and would be pop star. It was that kind of show.
It had the rarest of things: a cast of teenagers who were great actors. They created a terrific chemistry which each other and were engaging to watch. The plots were always just this side of believability, but the dialogue was snappy and quotable. Even in this early work, you can see that this is Moffat’s greatest strength. He was doing Sorkin before we knew who Sorkin was. Looking back on it, there’s a touch of The West Wing’s structure in Press Gang, with that small group of workers in strict hierarchy, fighting the good fight and who always manage to say the smartest, funniest thing at exactly the right time.
The Press Gang exposed dodgy businesses, abusive parents and all sorts of nogoodniks. A couple of episodes stick in the mind. There was the one where Spike was threatening to go back to his native America, and Lynda made a show of pushing him away, before slyly pickpocketing his passport in the final frame. There was the with Professor X (Michael Jayston) a deluded actor replaying his glory days as a childrens’ sci-fi hero. But the stand out episodes made up a two part story, about a masked gunman hijacking the newsroom, with all our favourite characters inside.
Press Gang often played with narrative form, and in this two-parter, we started at the funeral of one of the newsroom staff. With the gunman’s siege played in flashback, Moffat gradually allowed us to see each of the regular cast, one by one at the funeral. As each appeared, it was a signal that they must have survived the siege, thus whittling down the possibilities of which of our favourites had bitten the dust. I won’t spoil the outcome for you if you haven’t seen it, because its ingenious and worth experiencing fresh. But suffice to say, it’s got a corker of a resolution.
In those tense scenes in the newsroom, where our heroes seek to reason with, outsmart and overcome their assailant, fiery Lynda at one stage launches into one of her trademark verbal rants. Earlier in the episode, we’d learned that she’d gotten in trouble from some boring adult figure of authority for throwing an ashtray in frustration with someone. The more she shouts at the gunman, the more it seems he might crack and shoot her. Colin, who has been injured, whispers something to Kenny, and Kenny says to Lynda, ‘don’t throw the ashtray’. Lynda gets the message and calms down. What a great line. I’ve always carried that with me. Even now, there are days when I remember that sage advice, and think to myself, don’t throw the ashtray.
It’s surprising more Press Gang alumni haven’t made it onto Doctor Who (although Julia Sawalha was in that other Curse, the one of Fatal Death. And Lucy Benjamin was in Mawdryn Undead, oddly enough.) But hey, maybe there’s still time as Moff still has a series in him. My vote’s for Gabrielle Anwar. Please Moff? Please?
The other piece of Lee Ross related interest in Black Spot is that he’s at the centre of a massive continuity error. Not the sort of continuity error that Doctor Who fans care about, like when someone mispronounces Metebelis or Atlantis is destroyed three times. Instead it’s the sort of continuity error normal people care about, like when someone’s wearing an enormous coloured scarf outside the TARDIS, then walks into the control room and the scarf’s hanging on a hatstand (apologies, The Invasion of Time).
Midway through this episode, Lee Ross’s character, the swarvy Boatswain just disappears. One moment he’s barricaded in the magazine with the Ponds (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill), and has suffered a slight cut, which will be enough for the mysterious Siren (Lily Cole) to emerge from something shiny and take him. The next, he’s gone and that’s the last we see of him until the episode’s end when we find he and the rest of the crew have survived the Siren’s ministrations. This story forgets to show us what happened in between.
It’s apparently a mistake made in the editing; and it says something about the pace of making Doctor Who that even with all resources the thrown at it, inevitably booboos slip in. But it’s one of a couple of important moments which are left off screen, such as when Rory nearly drowns having fallen overboard and we don’t see any of it. Then there’s the bit near where the Siren comes for pirate Mulligan (Michael Begley) and all we see is her ethereal light shining out from under a door. I suspect these aren’t stuff ups, as much as budget easing expediencies.
So… pirates. Doctor Who and the pirates, eh? Monsters and errant children and all that. And I want to talk about trivia involving Lee Ross. This blog’s not called randomwhoness for nothin’ y’know.
LINK TO Four To Doomsday: in both, the TARDIS is absconded with mid story.
NEXT TIME: With the big sad eyes and the robot dog? It’s time for a School Reunion.