Tag Archives: Clara

Landmarks, last words and Twice Upon a Time (2017)

img_5023-1I read all the Target books as a young fanboy, but some were more exciting than others. Some were landmark stories where big events happened. Like the Daleks showing up. Or old Doctors returning. Or companions leaving to get married, cure diseases or become managers of professional wrestlers.

The most exciting of all were the stories where the Doctor changed. No wonder the powers-that-be chose Twice Upon a Time as one of the quartet of stories to restart this mighty range. Regeneration stories were always the ones to snatch off the library shelf.

So when I finally got my grubby little digits on Twice Upon a Time in book form, nostalgia gripped me and I did what I used to do with Target novelisations of regeneration stories. I started at the end.

Well, of course I did! What kind of mad person wouldn’t start at the end? I wanted to read about the new Doctor. That’s the most exciting bit! If you were watching it on TV, you’d have to wade through all the actual episodes to get to that eerie golden glow. But in book form, you could cut out the guff about Ambushes and Captures and Escapes to Danger and go straight to the main event.

The back cover blurbs only fuelled this impatience. They would subtly hint at the endings with expressions like, “the last thrilling adventure of the first DOCTOR WHO”. In the case of Planet of the Spiders, it didn’t bother to even mention the actual story and jumped straight to spruiking the regeneration: “Read the last exciting adventure of DR WHO’s 3rd Incarnation!” It was a time before spoilers, I suppose.

Twice Upon a Time features no such sensational headlines. (More’s the pity. “The last thrilling adventure the first DOCTOR WHO… again! And the twelfth DOCTOR WHO, depending on how you count.”)

But, as I eventually found when I went back and read the whole thing, Paul Cornell does a bang on impression of that old Target style. He’s a prolific Doctor Who author – books, comics, audios and, oh that’s right, TV episodes – but he puts aside his own idiosyncrasies and writes in the way he remembers so well from his childhood. He senses the great responsibility of writing a Target book.

Anyway, let’s get straight to the end. I’ll admit, I was disappointed it didn’t end a la The Tenth Planet with, “Allow me to introduce myself then. I am the new Doctor!” Or the more elegiac ending of Logopolis: “Well, that’s the end of that,” said a voice they had not heard before. “But it’s probably the beginning of something completely different.” He could have gone for the wry approach of The War Games, although it would have needed some pronoun changing: “It’s a pity. She would have brightened the place up no end.”

(Of course, what I really wanted was a note on the frontispiece which said, “THE CHANGING SEX OF DOCTOR WHO: The cover illustration of this book portrays the twelfth DOCTOR WHO (We think. It could be the thirteenth or fourteenth) whose genitalia were transformed after he was mortally hugged by a Cyberman.” Can’t have everything, I guess.)

Famous last words. Target books had many of them. Cornell’s great mentor, Terrance Dicks, for instance, would often end his with variations on a theme of, “The Doctor and his companions were on their way to new adventures.” It’s as familiar a Dicksism as a young/old face, a multi-sided console or that wheezing, groaning sound.

Occasionally, though, he’d just leave you hanging for more, with an effortlessly perfect closing sentence. What about An Unearthly Child, with its “Out there on Skaro, the Daleks were waiting for him.” Or The Keeper of Traken, with its “She seemed to hear the distant echo of mocking laughter.” Or Horror of Fang Rock, designed to cheer everyone up with “No one was left alive to hear them.”

Last words are important. They linger in the mind as vivid after images. Malcolm Hulke liked to end his on wistful remarks. My favourite is The Space War, when the defeated Master simply packed up his paperwork. “Oh well,” he said to himself, “there’s always tomorrow.”  Donald Cotton’s The Gunfighters ended with Doc Holliday drinking himself to death, and the story’s narrator observing, “And I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised.” David Fisher underplayed the end of The Leisure Hive with the droll observation that, “it had after all been one of those days.”

David Whitaker’s The Crusaders was the most poetic: “And the Tardis flashed on its way… searching for a new resting-place on a fresh horizon.” As usual, Robert Holmes was the most elegant of all, ending The Two Doctors with the tantalizing. “Meanwhile, the Doctor and Peri…”

Cornell knows the importance of the punchy final sentence. He made a trademark of ending his Doctor Who novels with “Long ago, in an English [insert season here]. He closes Twice Upon a Time with “Towards her future,” as our heroine plummets to the ground. Sure, it’s no, “The trouble with the Cybermen is one can never be entirely sure.” but it’s thoughtful and rings true. I like to those words will resonate with young readers who raced to the back of the book first for many years to come.

And just think – surely this is not the end, but the beginning of a new range of Doctor Who novelisations, ready to entrance a new generation. There are loads of new famous last words to come. For a young fanboy who’s grown up, that’s unspeakably thrilling.

The Doctor and her readers are on their way to new adventures.

A version of this post appears in the forthcoming charity anthology, You on Target. Find out more about it here.

LINK TO Vincent and the DoctorIn Vincent, we see the first Doctor a couple of times (on the library card and in a print out) and of course in Twice Upon a Time, he actually turns up.

NEXT TIME… We poke ‘em with a stick and make ‘em jump in Carnival of Monsters

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Davros, Missy and The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar (2015)

magwitch

Have you caught that clip from Gogglebox Australia, where the resident group of couch potatoes are invited to watch The Witch’s Familiar? (“You know who likes these sort of shows?” says one of the watching bogans. “Nerds!”). In bad news for nerds everywhere, it goes down very badly.

There’s general grumpiness about the pace, the special effects, the dialogue… and some particularly filthy humour about what the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is about to do for Davros (Julian Bleach) when he starts limbering up his regenerative wrist. It doesn’t really matter if we give a toss (ahem) about the opinions of these Who-hating boxheads. But what it shows is that a general audience found this particular episode incomprehensible.

I’ve occasionally voiced skepticism about whether too much indulgence in continuity really does alienate a general audience. In fact, I alluded to it last post when talking about Attack of the Cybermen. But that much maligned nostalgia fest is no contest for this other two-part series opener when it comes to over reliance on references to the show’s past. (Sure, I was going to say “fanwank,” but that would have been three references to masturbation in two paragraphs of a normally G rated blog, so let’s not go there.)

At times, it seems this story can’t go 30 seconds without a reference to what happened last year, what happened last regeneration or how there are three versions of Atlantis. It contains a cavalcade of Daleks from every era of the program… which only excites if you’ve actually noticed that there have been different Dalek designs over the years.

And it not just referencing past stories, it’s embedded in them. Its very premise is based on that famous line of dialogue from 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks, which posed a moral dilemma about murdering a child who would, if allowed to live, grow up to be a dictator. After visits to Karn, the Maldovarium and the Shadow Proclamation, eventually the story seems ill at ease with the extent of its own self referencing. Witness the torturous build up to the reveal of the invisible planet as Skaro, and how it forces a rare moment of over acting from Capaldi (“Skaro! You’ve brought me to Skaro!”). You sense the desperation inherent in trying to make an audience realise why they should care about a place they’ve probably never heard of.

So no wonder those Goggleboxers can’t get a grip on this story. (No, that’s not another reference to… quiet up the back, please.) But all these shoutouts to the past are just symptoms of a more fundamental affliction: the show’s deep fascination with itself and some of its long standing characters.

***

This story brings together two super villains, Missy (Michelle Gomez) and Davros, and not just for a 2 for the price of 1, season opening spectacle. It brings them together to ask, can either of these infamous badasses be redeemed?

Redemption will turn out to be the dominant theme of the Capaldi era. The Doctor spent the whole of Series 8 wondering if he was a good man. Series 10 will devote much time to rehabilitating Missy. And in between, there’s this story, where Missy is pressed into service to help the Doctor and thus be uncharacteristically altruistic and Davros appears to be having an end of life epiphany. The question this era is constantly asking is, can people change for the better?

In Davros’s case, the answer is no. It’s a ruse. But to generate any tension out of this “has he/hasn’t he turned good” scenario, there has to be a slow, gradual exploration of his apparent change of heart. Played out over the majority of The Witch’s Familiar as a discussion between Doctor and Davros, it’s a deeply portentous debate. It’s what our impatient Goggleboxers objected to the most, and on rewatching, it’s hard to disagree with them.

Missy’s situation is different. She comes to the Doctor’s aid, thinking he’s about to die. She does this under a claim to being the Doctor’s oldest friend, the Time Lord definition of which is large enough to encompass being long-term enemies as well.

On Doctor Who Extra, writer Steven Moffat claimed that a friendship between the two is more interesting than an ongoing feud. I think he’s only half right. What’s interesting about that scenario, and has been for 40 years, is the story of a friendship lost, which has mutated into hatred. The version presented here, that Time Lord friendship can exist in tandem with deadly rivalry, is just confusing.

Back when she was the Master, of course, Missy did come to the aid of four Doctors and one stuck in wavy video effect. On that occasion, his motivation was clear: the promised reward of a new regeneration cycle. It’s not at all clear what Missy’s getting out of helping the Doctor out now. Nothing, it seems. So in fact, it appears that she is indeed acting altruistically, which is a big character U-turn. It’s only her last minute decision, seemingly on impulse, to try and manipulate the Doctor into shooting a Dalek-encased Clara (Jenna Coleman), which reminds us that she is actually wanting to harm, nor help, our hero.

Again, all this requires a deep commitment to Doctor Who to give even the scantest of figs about.

***

The difference between the redemptive stories of Davros and Missy is that at least Missy’s is fun. I suspect that for an audience which has never heard of Skaro!You’veTakenMeToSkaro! it’s hard to get anything out of Davros’s story, no matter how adorable he looked as an 8 year old.

But Missy can at least be relied upon to crack a few jokes, be deliciously sneaky and mistreat Clara to comic effect. And as long as she’s being the most interesting thing in the story, I’ll bet no one’s in any hurry to find out whether or not she sorts herself out. (I’m sorry. I promise that’s the last one.)

The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar mini quiz

  1. Where did the Doctor get his cup of tea?
  2. Where did the Doctor get his tank?
  3. Where did Missy get the rope she uses to tie up Clara?
  4. Where did Davros get those clips from past Dalek stories? (Did he buy the Davros collection DVD box set?)
  5. Where did Colony Scarf get their Segway?

NEXT TIME… here’s Marco Polo. Come for it!

Credulity, morality and Kill the Moon (2014)

kill the moon

Let’s pretend I’ve sent you on a blind date with the human equivalent of Kill the Moon. (We can choose any gender that takes your fancy, but for this example, let’s say the walking, talking embodiment of this story is a he). He walks in the room, and he’s all you could ever want: handsome, fit, well dressed and with, as Steven Moffat would say, the smile of a bastard. Hoo boy, you might think. This is going to be fun.

We’ll check in later to see how it goes.

*****

One site I refer to frequently is Chrissie’s Transcript Site. It’s packed with painstaking transcripts of every Doctor Who episode and some other show called Star Trek, which I’ve never heard of.

It’s of ongoing use to me to jog my memory of the episodes I cover in this blog, and every so often, there’s a sly little comment hidden within, just to spice things up a bit. Here’s how Chrissie ends her recounting of Kill the Moon, quietly pointing out a final piece de resistance of implausibility, in this already deeply unlikely story.

Clara goes home with her shopping and pours herself a glass of red wine, then looks out of the window at the impossibly big full moon with exactly the same crater markings as the old one.

I love that sentence’s quiet disdain. It captures a widespread frustration with Kill the Moon, that its fantastical idea of the Moon being an egg housing a giant but hitherto undetected creature, is just too unbelievable to maintain credulity. But if we’re going to get anything out of this taut, nervy adventure, we have to put aside the shakiness of its premise.

Because scientific inaccuracy is a pretty weak stick with which to flog a Doctor Who story. I mean, if this is where you want to start criticising Doctor Who, where do you end? Steven Moffat, on an episode of Whovians in 2016, bemoaned people who complained that the show got “some of the science wrong.” (“Some of the science wrong!” he groaned, no doubt thinking of a certain time machine disguised as a police box, bigger on the inside.) And it’s absolutely fair enough to want a Doctor Who story to build a coherent world with some level of internal logic, but to insist too strictly on plausibility would be to rob the series of the imaginative elements that are such a part of its appeal.

And so it is with Kill the Moon, which dares to imagine a moon baby with giant spiders crawling all over it and a world which, when faced with annihilation, sends a second hand space shuttle with a third rate crew to deal with it.

It may be far-fetched, but it’s a work whose inventiveness matches its ambition. And it’s directed with energy and tension to ensure that it’s a heart thumping ride. It does so much right, that it’s hard to condemn it just because it doesn’t know the difference between mass and weight. So let’s put that aside and concentrate on three things it’s trying to do and one it’s not trying to do, but somehow utterly does.

Firstly, it’s trying to be a gloomy sci-fi thriller. This it does well, largely thanks to director Paul Wilmshurst wringing all the scares he can out of dark rooms and leaping spiders but also to writer Peter Harness, who finds new ways of heaping trouble upon trouble. It reaches an apex of unfortunate incidents when the shuttle falls down a ravine with the TARDIS and junior companion Courtney (Ellis George) on board. There’s something unnerving too about the high contrast, monochromatic lunar exterior which means you really do feel that our heroes are in a hostile environment…. Or that they’ve walked on to a more convincing version of The Moonbase.

At about the two thirds mark, the focus suddenly shifts, and the story starts on its second objective: to present a compelling moral dilemma. One of Doctor Who’s recurring images since The Day of the Doctor has been of women threatening to blow things up, and as usual, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is around to pontificate a bit. But here, he abruptly sods off, claiming that whether or not to blow up the moonchild is a decision the humans have to make for themselves. With the Doctor gone, the pace drops off, and we’re asked to buy into the debate between Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Ludvik (Hermione Norris). Debates about killing big animals being another Moffat-era motif.

The kill or let live debate helps justify the absurdity of the “big baby thing in the moon” plot. But much as the episode’s first section heaped action upon action, the next act seems to want to build on the unlikeliness of the premise. Because now, Clara wants to put this moral dilemma to an Earth bound vote, convincing people to signal their choice by turning on their lights. Not only does it seem unlikely that everyone on Earth would go for this on short notice – to listen to this random stranger who has mysteriously turned up on the moon – but it’s a vote which only counts people for whom it’s night on Earth. Truth be told, this bugs me more than the moon being an egg.  As our friend Chrissie, in another of her quiet moments of candour, says, “The only visible artificial lights are of course Europe and the Americas. Africa, Asia and Australia don’t get a vote in this.”

So the night owls of planet Earth are put to a test of their compassion, which they fail. Only Clara’s intervention saves little Moonpie from being blown up. The Doctor deigns to return and describe how it’s all going to work out fine because the creature’s benign. It lays another moon and in doing so re-ignites humanity’s appetite for space travel. But with this morality play over, we come to the third of the story’s big ideas: the bust up between Clara and the Doctor.

It’s this closing move which is the most plausible in the whole story. That Clara would finally get sick of the Doctor’s bullshit and call him out seems right on. Because frankly, the Doctor’s been an utter dick this episode. When Clara accuses him of being patronising and disrespectful, it’s hard not to agree with her on each count. Actually, if we’re scratching around for likeable characters in Kill the Moon, we’re in trouble. Between piggish ol’ Doctor, hard nail Ludvik and obnoxious teen Courtney, there’s a real charisma vacuum on this ersatz satellite.

Then on top of all the tall tales, switches of focus and friendships being ruined… there’s an anti-abortion message bubbling under the surface. Harness has said it’s unintentional, but you might think that between him, showrunner Steven Moffat, the script editor, the producer and the director, someone must have twigged and decided to let it go through. Once noticed, it’s hard not to see it; the Doctor, Clara and Courtney all refer to the creature as a baby (thanks again, Chrissie), it hatches from an egg and the correct moral action, as presented, is to let the creature be born. As unintentional allegories go, it’s as blatant as they come and a rare example of Doctor Who coming down strongly on one side of a contentious moral debate.

So what do we end up with? A story that doesn’t know what mass is, forgets that only half the world is dark at any one time, fails to give us a likeable hero to root for and subconsciously comes out as pro-choice. And then ends with a brand new replacement moon that looks just like the old one.

*****

So how’s that date going?

Well, it turns out after talking to that dreamboat of a date for about 45 minutes, you’ve discovered he’s a bit stupid, he’s full of tall tales and just to top things off, he’s a bit of a moraliser. But damn, he looks great. That’s your Kill the Moon, right there.

LINK TO The Hand of Fear: emotional companion farewells.

NEXT TIME… did I mention it also travels in time? We start the adventure of a lifetime with Rose.

Unanswered questions, unreliable memories and Hell Bent (2015)

hellbent

Part 1: The Barn of Mystery

In recent years, we’ve learned a little more about our mysterious, powerful Doctor (Peter Capaldi). Specifically, that when he was a young boy, he used to cry himself to sleep in a barn. Now, in big moments in his life, such as in Hell Bent, after he’s just spent four and a half billion years in an ashtray, he returns to said barn.

But here’s the thing: where’s the farm which utilises this barn? In fact, what could you farm in the desolate orange wasteland of Gallifrey? What gets stored in this barn anyway? Perigosto sticks? Shaboogan toboggans? What’s going on here?

Then, when the Doctor has returned to the barn, he’s greeted by a group of locals. Not Time Lords (no fancy robes, you see). Instead, they dress like extras from a spaghetti western. The gather in a clump to stare silently at the Doctor. Then they offer him one bowl of tomato soup. Which they insist he eats outside his barn. Well, you don’t want to risk spilling soup on your perigosto stick.

Again, just like there’s no farm, there’s no visible township from where these soup offerers have emerged. Where have they all come from? Why have they come at all? Where’s the bread roll? What’s for main?

Here’s my explanation. The Doctor’s barn is actually in a small but tightknit farming community. But the Doctor’s family farm, and all the other farms and buildings, have their chameleon circuits switched on so we can’t see them. The townsfolk have all taken a vow of silence until someone gives them all big collars. Their tradition is to offer newcomers one bowl of al fresco gazpacho. That’s my head canon and you can’t take it away from me.

Part 2: The Chamber of Dubious Utility

Having scared off an army and a despot with only his reputation and an entree, the Doctor heads off to the Capitol to kick some scarlet robed ass. There he demands access to an extraction chamber, so he can (he claims) consult dead companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) about the legendary Hybrid. In fact, he snatches Clara away from the point of her death and abducts her to freedom.

But, um, why do Time Lords need extraction chambers in order to whisk people away from death for a quick natter? Don’t they have complete mastery over time? If they wanted to talk to, well, anyone at any point of their lives, they can do so whenever they like. We might as well call it a plot advancement chamber.

Once the Doctor has successfully extracted Clara, punched a guy in the face and then shot him, he demands a “neural block, human compatible,” and a flunky grabs one from a nearby time/space cupboard. If they have “human compatible” ones on hand, how many other varieties to they have to keep in stock? And why do they keep these nifty little memory wipes in the plot advancement chamber? (Perhaps I’ve answered my own question there).

Part 3:  The Monsters who don’t.

Gallifrey, you would have noticed, is back. Although until recently, it was lost. Frozen in another dimension. This was a big ‘ol thing. Tom Baker came back especially to tell Matt Smith to go search for it. Consoles were punched and tears were shed when Doctor Capaldi couldn’t find it. How did it get back into our universe? “They must have unfrozen it and come back,” shrugs the Doctor. Well, that clears that up then.

While we’re talking unanswered questions, let’s slip from the fictional to the real world: why create a monster you never use? Guarding the subterranean Matrix, are the spooky Cloister Wraiths. They glide around like Georgian state dancers and their faces are transfixed in eerie static filled screams. They can best Daleks, Cybermen and the Weeping Angels. They are a worthy addition to the Doctor Who Monster Book. And they do… precisely nothing. They don’t threaten the Doctor. In fact, they don’t do anything. They might at least have offered our heroes more soup.

Part 4: The Hybrid of Obscurity

It’s Orpheus in the Underworld, isn’t it? The Doctor descends into forbidden worlds to rescue his love from death, only to lose her again on the climb out. In doing so, he realises there are some things you can’t fight. It’s a great plot, the basis for many a retread. And that’s probably all an episode like this needs.

So given that Hell Bent has a perfectly serviceable plot, why clutter it with so much else? Why, for instance, do we care about the Hybrid? The Hybrid, it transpires, is not some big bad monster, ready to wreak havoc on Gallifrey. It’s far more theoretical than that. It’s the combination of the Doctor and Clara which causes them both to go to such extremes that the universe might end up as collateral damage.

The operative word being “might”. I mean, I can see an ending where the Doctor finds himself burning up whole star systems in order to keep Clara alive and realises that he has become the thing he always feared. But what terrible consequences have come about this episode from this dangerous combination? Well, one Time Lord was forced to regenerate and one TARDIS was stolen. Hardly apocalyptic stuff.

Also, why do we need that side trip to the Universe’s end to collect Ashildr (Maisie Williams)? Other than, of course, to collect Ashildr so that she can be Clara’s new companion. And I suppose, to resolve her relationship with the Doctor post her actions in Face the Raven, which this doesn’t really do. It’s at this point in the episode you sense events and characters moving into place, not in a natural way which sets up an inevitable conclusion, but instead in a contrived way to facilitate a pre-determined conclusion.

That pre-determined conclusion is the Doctor having his memory of Clara wiped (a fate some of her fannish critics may have welcomed). As heart-rending as this is, only a couple of seconds pass before the whole conceit falls apart. The Doctor can recall his experiences with Clara but not what she looks like… so this whole Hybrid threat might be back on again, if he happened to come across a picture of her, like, oh I don’t know, the one painted on the outside of his TARDIS?  In any rate the whole problem is fixed in Twice Upon a Time and the new Doctor, I boldly predict, will resist the temptation to track down Clara and form a universe-ending partnership.

By which I mean, she’ll just forget about it. And the barn, the wraiths, the soup and the whole bewildering affair. Must have taken one hell of a neural block.

FOREHEAD SLAP MOMENT. The General has just regenerated from male to female in front of us. The Time Lords’ gender fluidity finally and incontrovertibly proven! And then in the very next scene she says, “We need to block every exit from the Cloisters. Every available man.” Ah well.

LINK TO… Midnight. Both directed by women.

NEXT TIME… Eldrad must live as we’re offered The Hand of Fear.

Cryptic, caustic and Under the Lake/Before the Flood (2015)

flood

Let’s say you’re a wounded alien warlord stranded in an ersatz Soviet training camp in Scotland in 1980. (I know. That old story, right?) You need to send a message to your homeys to come and pick you up and heal you. So you can set up a rescue beacon. Or call a space Uber or something right?

Sure, you could do that… if you’re from Planet Mundane! But the Fisher King (Neil Fingleton, and the voice of Peter Serafinowicz) is not. Nowhere near. No, he prefers a more ingenious method. He scratches some alien symbols on the wall of a spaceship. These symbols have the power to embed themselves in your subconscious without you knowing or wanting them to. Y’know, like dialogue by Eric Saward.

The symbols are actually the directions needed to find the Fisher King, but this is no simple set of galactic coordinates. Nothing so helpful. These directions are in the form of a particularly oblique brain teaser. The instructions in question are “the darkness, the sword, the foresaken, the temple,” which is a bit like giving the ambulance a cryptic crossword puzzle to solve in order to find your house so they can stop you from dying.

So anyway, the directions you so desperately need to get to your would-be rescuers are lying dormant in the minds of unsuspecting graffiti readers. To transmit those directions, the folks with the quizzical message embedded in their brains, have to die. Then they (somehow) turn into spectral beings with murderous intent, all the better to bolster their numbers and boost the signal and get His Majesty of the Fishers home and hosed.

Who said writer Toby Whithouse likes to over complicate his underlying concepts? Oh that’s right, it was me. Here. And here.

Now let’s say you’re a caustic old Time Lord whose accent makes him sound right at home in 1980s Scotland (Peter Capaldi). You need to find out how this whole “ghosts in the Drum” thing started, so you travel back in time to before the lake was flooded.

(The Drum being the name of the underwater base which is housing all the action. Its main feature is lots of lovely corridors to run down. The lake it’s submerged in never gets a name, but I like to think of it as Lake Siege. Then it could literally be a base under siege. Well, I’d laugh.)

Anyway, you travel back in time to before the lake was flooded.  There you discover the Fisher King and work out his nefarious, if overcomplicated, scheme. Easy enough to stop that – just blow up the dam wall and drown the sucker.

Thing is, you need to send a message to yourself from the future to spur you into action. So probably the easiest thing to do is write yourself a note. Maybe on the side of the spaceship, seeing as that’s where everyone goes for some light reading.

Doctor. The thing causing all the ghosts is a big alien nasty called the Fisher King and Clara’s next on his hit list. Go back in time and blow up the dam. Record the roar of the Fisher King as you do, so you can trap the ghosts in the Faraday cage. Also, never wear that jumper with the holes in it again, you look a right berk. Love, the Doctor.

Simple, right? But we don’t do “simple” around here, oh no. So what you do is write a piece of sentient software (in the TARDIS, I suppose) which creates a hologram (somehow. Not sure how it gets projected) that can walk and talk around everyone else. It will look like one of the ghosts and activate at a pre-determined time once you’ve left the base. You know, just to freak everyone out.

Then your Doctor Ghost will start to mouth a sequence of names, in order of who’s going to die (again, it might be simpler for him to just say what’s going on, but a silent list of names is much more complex). Including Clara in this list will be the catalyst for you to act, but if you throw in one of the crew members’ names before hers, that crew member will needlessly die, so watch out for that.

(To make matter worse, that crew member is the glorious Alice O’Donnell (Morven Christie), one half of my new favourite twin set of would-be companions, O’Donnell and Bennett (Arsher Ali). She’s full of fangirl enthusiasm, he’s all caution mixed with scientific curiosity. Plus both have practical skills from working in a military base and they have unresolved sexual tension between them. Perfect! When they board the TARDIS for our quick trip back to 1980, they look absolutely right beside Capaldi’s spiky Doctor. They could have been the Barbara and Ian of our times. Ah well.)

So your holographic ghost will be mouthing names spookily but also wandering about the place. In this way, your ghost can also pointlessly menace the remaining crew members by, say, helpfully letting all the ghosts out of the Faraday cage and letting them continue their killing spree. This isn’t strictly necessary but it extends the terrifying ordeal a bit longer for everyone and keep them on their toes.

I shouldn’t moan. I genuinely like this story with its creepy setting and its likable characters. I’d say it’s Whithouse’s best work for the show, though there’s a lot to be said for the old adage, “keep it simple.”

But why characters who want to communicate with their future selves insist on leaving cryptic messages all over the place instead of just writing a note always baffles me. I call it the Bad Wolf paradox and it’s far more prevalent than the “bootstrap paradox.” I wish the Doctor would spend a pre-credits sequence explaining that one.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: when Prentis suggests the Doctor could “oppress him” the subtitles suggest “appraise him” like he’s on Antiques Roadshow.

LINK TO The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: each feature avatars of Doctor Who fans – O’Donnell and the Whizz Kid.

NEXT TIME… You stupid butcher! It’s time to embark on The Crusade.

Towers, telephones and The Bells of Saint John (2013)

stjohn

They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-wing fighter, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help. Steven Moffat.

The little Spandrells are watching a show at the moment called Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures. In it, an odd looking man (all teeth and curls, like a young Tom Baker) who works in a museum, travels back to the time of the dinosaurs to have some mildly educative adventures. He travels in time via a grandfather clock, which sits incongruously on whichever ancient landscape it arrives in. A TARDIS rip off, if I ever saw one.

Except, it works in a different thematic way to the blue police box exterior of the TARDIS. The grandfather clock very clearly says, it’s about time, kids. But when they made Doctor Who, they didn’t give him a clock, they gave him a police box – an everyday sight, a public object, an outpost of authority and a very British innovation. It symbolised lots of things, but what it didn’t do was baldly state, this is a time machine.

So, no clock. And crucially, no telephone either. It had no communications link back to 1960s England, or indeed any of its destinations. This police box was cut off from everything. Classic Who was made in the days when to conceive of a telephone was to imagine your handset connected to every other one by a complex array of cables. No such cable stretched to Skaro or Marinus. In fact, it takes until Logopolis for the show to visually acknowledge that police boxes even had phones. The TARDIS certainly didn’t.

By the 21st Century, things have changed, and the TARDIS is as connected as any other aspect of our modern lives by telephony. By the phone in the police box’s little exterior cupboard, by the one on the console, by various companions’ mobiles and even by the Doctor’s. The Bells of Saint John takes its title from the TARDIS’s phone (the little cupboardy one) and from the life-changing call which comes through on it, from impossible girl Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) to the Doctor in medieval seclusion (Matt Smith).

This seems like a particularly Steven Moffaty trait. After all, he first used this conceit of the exterior phone unexpectedly ringing in The Empty Childand returned to it inThe Time of the Doctor. But it was his predecessor Russell T Davies who first put a phone in the TARDIS in World War Three. And his supercharging of Rose’s Nokia 3801 in The End of the World confirmed that in this new version of Who, our heroes were not as cut off from their homes and loved ones as their 20th century counterparts were. They could call across space and even time. Like E.T., they could phone home.

This makes sense. The Doctor has a machine which can traverse the universe and its entire history. Technology way beyond our grasp. Of course, he’d have a phone. It would be kind of weird if he didn’t.

But that’s not why the TARDIS is a phone box; it’s not a symbol of communication. It’s not a lifeline between us and the Doctor. It wasn’t, in its original conception, a place you could call to or from for help. In fact, because it was explicitly disconnected from everything else in the universe, the fact that the police box had a useless phone reinforced how isolated our heroes were. The one thing they couldn’t do was call for help.

It may seem like a small detail, but giving the TARDIS telecommunications changes the show. Once you can, ahem, call the Doctor, he becomes the hero you can summon when needed. Winston Churchill, for instance, calls directly through to the console. Clara calls when she needs help cooking a turkey. It’s the show’s equivalent of Batman’s bat signal. Phone him up and our hero comes running. Add this to our modern Doctors’ ability to steer the TARDIS with pinpoint accuracy, and we really are a long way from the show’s beginnings, where the police box was a cosmic lifeboat, tossed on the waves of time and space, directionless, contactless and utterly isolated.

****

Telephones and computers, and what they might do to us, was the source of much concern in 1966’s The War Machinesand it’s nice to see how little has changed by The Bells of Saint John. There’s always mileage for Doctor Who in technophobia, it’s just that by 2013, that fear is centred on wifi. There’s still a big tower though, from which the bad guys can broadcast their evil, brain harvesting scheme.

The Shard, like the Post Office Tower back in ‘66, represents another concern of modernity. In The War Machines, it was technology itself which grew a mind of its own and got ideas above its base station. Here, it’s technology wielded by a corporation, from within a monolith celebrating capitalism. It’s the stuff of conspiracy theories; shadowy suits manipulating us with a casual swipe up or down on an iPad. They can even make aeroplanes fall from the sky. This is playing on very contemporary fears.

It makes sense that here is where the Great Intelligence should make its return. Being a formless yet sentient spirit, it seems right that it now should lurk within the Cloud, like some particularly malignant piece of code. Certainly, it seems more fitting than in The Snowmen, where it represented the Victorian fascination with the paranormal (if you squint). Funnily enough, though, that’s what the Intelligence was in its 60s conception – a mystic supernatural presence from beyond the astral plane, not a ghost hiding in the machine. But – spoiler alert – we’ll get there is a couple of posts’ time.

For now, let’s just reflect on another of this episode’s big flashy statements. Never mind a telephone, this Doctor’s got serious technology and a motorbike! He rides up the side of the Shard with only a perfunctory line about anti-gravs to cover the implausibly of it all, running straight over the shiny surface of capitalism with those big rubber tyres. “Can he actually do that?” asks an astonished supporting character. Dude, this guy’s an ancient alien superhero with a time machine, a magic wand and a direct line through to his snog box. What can’t he actually do?

Yup, times have really changed.

LINK TO Amy’s Choice. Both Matt Smith stories, and hooray for an easy link.

NEXT TIME…God save the Queen, it’s Empress of Mars.

Friendly buttons, family dramas and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (2013)

jttcott

I once said to a fellow fan that I disliked stories which end too conveniently. I think I used Terror of the Autons as an example. Towards the end of that story, there are Autons everywhere. The Nestene is descending. All’s going to hell in a handbasket. Then the Doctor (or the Master, to be precise) flicks a switch, the Nestene’s repelled and all the Autons topple over. All too handy, I complained. The other fan looked at me beadily and said, “you must dislike a lot of Doctor Who stories then.”

He had a point. But ever since the show returned in 2005, the use of a narrative shortcut to drive us to the climax has become more prominent. It happens at about the 35 minute mark. Usually, it’s a near-miraculous catch all development that saves the day in about 5 minutes, no matter how widespread the problem, how many monsters there are or how desperate the situation has become. Usually, it come courtesy of a gadget, or a magical substance or a reversal of the bad guy’s own powers.

I call it the “magic switch”, meaning there’s often a big switch to throw to solve the story’s problem. But it’d be equally valid to call it a “big friendly button”.

What then to make of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which blatantly uses a big friendly button to conclude its story? Openly acknowledges it. Puts it on screen and gives it a name. Rarely has the series so boldly referenced its own narrative limitations. Why on earth draw attention to it? Unless writer Steve Thompson and showrunner Steven Moffat were looking for a wry in-joke. “We’ve now reached the point in the episode for the magic switch, so here it is!”

I think it’s more than self-knowing commentary. I think the big friendly button is a cry of defiance. “We know!” our authors seem to be saying. “Of course, we know. But you find a way to build up a big, bold adventure story, throw everything under the sun in it, and then wrap it up neatly in 5 mins. So sometimes we use a big friendly button. Get over it! We do that sometimes.”

*****

Ages ago, before he made 7 years of Doctor Who, the Moff once made comment on the classic show’s occasional over concentration on the TARDIS as a setting for stories. “We kids want Narnia, not the wardrobe,” he confidently declared.

But then, of course, there’s this episode, where we explore the wardrobe extensively. In the pre-publicity, the Moff declared how he’d loved and now wanted to emulate the TARDIS tour section of The Invasion of Time, indicating a change of tune about the whole Narnia/wardrobe divide. I can understand the appeal. With an extensive world within the TARDIS, there’s a world of potential adventure in their too.

Stories which use the labyrinthine TARDIS corridors as a location apply slightly different emphases each time. The Invasion of Time uses it as the setting for a hunt/chase sequence. Castrovalva uses it as a confounding maze which ensnares unwary travelers. Way back in Inside the Spaceship it was not so much vast as claustrophobic, a place which played tricks on the mind. The same all the years later in The Doctor’s Wife, where it also became a mental torture chamber for Amy and Rory.

It’s all of these things in JTTCOTT. But what it never feels like is the slow perilous climb down into the heart of the ship which the title suggests. It feels a bit like bait and switch, because the suggestion is that it’ll be a Jules Verne-style descent into the core of the beast, facing peril as our heroes break through each stratum.

Instead, it feels much more random and disjointed; not a descent deep into the craft as The Invasion of Time and Castrovalva felt like, but a journey twisting and turning in all sorts of directions. And maybe that’s appropriate, because can a multi-dimensional time ship be said to have a centre at all? Still, it doesn’t feel like a journey to anywhere in particular, but with a lot of interesting sightseeing along the way.

****

Our companions on this meandering expedition are the Van Baalen brothers: Gregor (Ashley Walters), Bram (Mark Oliver) and Tricky (Jahvel Hall). Roughead salvage collectors, this story is the backdrop to a family drama which unfolds. It turns out that following an industrial accident, Tricky has been fooled into believing that he’s an android by Gregor. As an example of a commitment to gullibility in the face of easily accessible evidence, it’s right up there with Guy Crawford’s needless eyepatch and Countess Scarlioni’s alien marriage.

Gregor initially tries to pass it off as a joke that got a little out of hand, but later confesses he did it out of jealousy for their father’s respect. There are a couple of problems with this besides the simple straining of credulity. Firstly, the Van Baalen boys are sadly not interesting enough for us to care about their, admittedly unusual, inter-family dramas. Secondly, said dramas have nothing to do with the predicament at hand. When Gregor eventually fesses up to Tricky in a spare moment between set pieces, it should be a major revelation. But Clara (Jenna Louise Coleman) who is a silent observer to this exchange, is leaning against a wall with a look that says, “and this effects me exactly how?”

****

But then, if any of this, or anything else about JTTCOTT bothers you, worry not – because none of it ever happened. Our big friendly button not only brought this story to a close, it also reset the whole affair. This kind of ending worries me more than the magic switch. If the story’s events were so inconsequential they can be erased at a moment’s notice – why were they worth watching in the first place?

All that’s left is a couple of Wizard of Oz style moments where characters kind of remember something happening to them, but can’t recall why. The Van Baalen brothers might even, if you squint, be stand-ins for the Tin Man (Tricky), the brainless scarecrow (Bram) and the cowardly lion (Gregor).  The Doctor, I suppose, has been our Wizard and Clara our Dorothy, although as I recall, Dorothy never got chased by time burnt zombie creatures and Clara doesn’t even have a little dog. And The Wizard of Oz didn’t hang around in the vehicle that transports its heroes to the site of the story. We kids want Oz, not the cyclone-borne farmhouse.

Or something like that. *Presses big friendly button*

LINK TO Planet of Fire: Companions with things burnt into their skin!

NEXT TIME: Goodbye trampoline, hello blondie! We’re checking in for treatment on New Earth.