Tag Archives: eleventh doctor

Icons, iconoclasm and Victory of the Daleks (2010)

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When Steven Moffat was first spruiking Victory of the Daleks, he was confident of a hit. Writing in DWM before it aired, he called it the “Mark Gatiss classic”, predicting that’s how everyone would describe it in future. You can see how he would have come to this conclusion from looking at this story’s component elements: Daleks – old and new, the London blitz, Churchill, spitfires in space. A sure fire winner.

As it turns out, the reception to this episode was much harsher. It came bottom, not top, of DWM’s season poll. There are lots of reasons why, covered in lots of easily located reviews, if you’re looking for a catalogue of what’s wrong with this story. I’m more interested in what happens when you mess around with the show’s iconography.

By which I mean, the big, series-defining elements which are strongly identified with the program – and by which the program is in turn identified. What the list of the show’s icons contains is arguable, but I’d say it consists of: the Doctor, the TARDIS, the Daleks and the theme music. I think those are the elements that are closest to the hearts of most viewers. Changes to these elements are contentious because they are loved so dearly by so many. Muck around with these elements and you muck around what makes Doctor Who Doctor Who.

(To illustrate further, here are some elements I don’t think make that list of icons: regeneration, companions, Time Lords, monsters other than Daleks. These are important – sometimes crucial – ingredients in the show, but you can play around with these. Alter how they appear and the role they play, discard them all together or completely redesign them. Viewers and fans accept changes to these components more readily than to those icons.)

Victory of the Daleks dares to tinker with one of those icons, when it wheels out its new paradigm Daleks, in (nearly) all the colours of a Trivial Pursuit board. The redesign of the Daleks, as bulkier, more garish but less elegant versions, was one of the most widely criticised missteps of 21st century Who. Had it been attempted in the show’s maiden season in 2005, it could have scuppered the series’ return.

The surprising thing about it is they didn’t even change that much. They followed what had gone before, copying the size and brashness of the 1960s Dalek films in an act of homage. But somehow between the oddly concertinaed neck and the humpy back, they misplaced the essence of that classic Cusick design.

It was a misstep made with staggering confidence. The multicoloured Daleks glide onto screen with triumphant arrogance, like new model Audis at an automotive fair. More tellingly, they demolish the classically formed Ironside Daleks, literally and symbolically, as if to say, “we won’t be needing these old things anymore!” Millions of viewers disagreed, perhaps sensing that an unnecessary change was being foisted upon them in attempt to reinvigorate toy sales. Even though their title, the “New Dalek Paradigm”, doesn’t sound like it would make youngsters race to the cash register. It sounds more like the subject of a textbook.

It’s not like the Daleks hadn’t been redesigned before. But no-one had ever deviated this far from Ray Cusick’s original template. It was a swift lesson in the risks of messing with one of the show’s icons. You can only go so far before you lose the essence of what people loved about them in the first place. Hearing the audience’s critique (how could they not?), the production team shifted these new paradigm Daleks into the background in future stories.

What of our other untouchable icons? The theme music has had its ups and downs, but is essentially still the dum-de-dum-ooo-ee-ooo fanfare we’ve all grown up with. An alternative scarcely bears thinking about. Similarly, the TARDIS, both inside and out, has been through many iterations, but none has looked utterly different from what has gone before. It’s hard to imagine a version of the show where the spaceship’s exterior looks like, I don’t know, a Tesla recharging station and the interior like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. See, you’re shuddering already, aren’t you? Even though the Moff likes to throw in the occasional jibe at fans who worry about the size of the Ship’s windows, he never dared make it anything other than a Police Box.

Which leaves us with the Doctor. He isn’t a design element like the TARDIS or a technical element like the theme music, but he still comes with a basic template to follow. You know it by heart: never cruel or cowardly, never gives up and never gives in. Sometimes though, he has, in the eyes of some, veered too far away from his original conception, such as when Colin Baker and Peter Capaldi presented harsher, less outwardly compassionate versions of our hero. So the Doctor’s not infinitely flexible; you can’t perform on him the character equivalent of painting him blue and giving him an awkwardly shaped hump.

So it’s interesting to watch the most recent episode, Twice Upon a Time, wade into these murky waters. It did so by taking liberties with the first Doctor, by giving him a line in sexist remarks, which, no matter how redolent of the original series they were, were not characteristic of the Doctor himself. Those crass clangers may have added a few laughs to the episode, but it showed an unusually cavalier attitude by the production team to bringing back an element from the show’s past. It’s hard to imagine them getting away with such retconning had they brought the fourth Doctor back, or the tenth.

It would have been tempting to think that the first Doctor was such a relic of the past that no one would mind a little character revisioning in the name of a jolly Christmas episode. But judging from the widespread online criticism of this move, I think they underestimated people’s affection for the first Doctor, much as Victory of the Daleks underestimated people’s affection for the original Dalek design. In a sense, having the first Doctor smirk about women being made of glass is the equivalent of the paradigm Daleks blowing up their previous well liked incarnations. In their negative reaction to both these moves, I think fans of the series are saying, “these are the icons you can’t mess with. Treat them with respect.”

Of course, Twice Upon a Time makes one other, far more significant, alteration to the Doctor and that’s to make him a woman. To some, this will be the destruction of one of the show’s untouchable elements. For me, it doesn’t feel like the destruction of anything, just a logical progression for the show; a new shade of blue on the Police Box, rather than changing it into a recycling station. Even so, you make these changes carefully and with respect for the past… Otherwise, it seems you’re doomed to retreat from the bold ideas, like a new paradigm Dalek gliding to the back of shot, hoping to stay unnoticed.

One last thing to note about the bold, iconoclastic but unpopular Victory of the Daleks: Master Spandrell loves it. Has for about 2 years now. Because it’s an action packed, exciting and – dare I say it – colourful adventure. If it has a resurgence in popularity in future years because the children who loved it have all grown up, it wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened. They may even refer to it as “the Gatiss classic.” The Moff may yet be proven right.

LINK TO The Pilot: both have Daleks in them. Classic, old paradigm Daleks.

NEXT TIME… it’s death by Scotland in The Eaters of Light.

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Johnny, me and The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (2011)

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ME: OK Johnny. The Rebel Flesh etc, right?

JOHNNY: Sure thing. Let’s go.

As The Verve once sang, “I’m a million different people from one day to the next.” Which version of you is reading this? The relaxing at home version? The commuting from work version? The killing time when you should be doing other things version?

The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People has something to say about the creation of different versions of ourselves. In this story, the versions are made out of a programmable goop called flesh. But anyone who’s active on social media creates digital versions of themselves all the time. What, after all, is Johnny Spandrell, if not my own digital avatar? (Hopefully he won’t take gluey white form and run amok trying to kill me with acid) (JOHNNY: Ha ha ha. No, of course not.)

What, then, of the two versions we get of the Doctor (a thoughtful Matt Smith) here? I don’t mean his Time Lord and Ganger versions, but the two very different versions we get in relation to the rights of these duplicated almost people. The Gangers are normally the plug, play and throw away copies of Morpeth-Jetsan’s crew of acid farmers, but have been brought to independent life by a Frankenstein-esque lightning bolt to a conducting rod atop a spooky old castle. For most of this story, the Doctor argues for their right to live – that they are legitimate, sentient beings. (JOHNNY: Too right!)

But at the end of the story, the Doctor reveals that companion Amy (Karen Gillan) is also a flesh avatar. This one, he can’t suffer to live, so he liquifies her with his sonic screwdriver. Why one rule for them and another for her? Perhaps in order to rescue the real Amy, he can’t allow a potential spy on board the TARDIS (JOHNNY: so drop her off somewhere safe and secure, whydonttya?). Or perhaps as the 22nd century Gangers represent the genesis of this technology, he needs to ensure the timeline which eventually leads to Ganger Amy stays intact. (JOHNNY: Pah! Timey wimey whippet shit!)

Ganger Amy’s transformation into a puddle is further bad news for Rory (Arthur Darvill), on what has already been a trying day at the office. Throughout this adventure, he was duped into a friendship with Ganger Jennifer (Sarah Smart), who turned out to be the only truly bloodthirsty one among them. He spent a long time trying to be the sympathetic voice for these synthetic people, but that girl gone done him wrong, by turning out to be a bad ‘un all along. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t speak up for Ganger Amy when the time comes, in the same way he tried to for Jen. (JOHNNY: Hey, who gets the unfortunate job of having to mop faux Amy up off the TARDIS floor? Bet the Doctor wishes there was a handy Ganger hanging around now!)

Of the other factory workers, the most interesting is boss woman Miranda Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy). Cleaves is the one who starts the trouble with the Gangers when she electrocutes one on impulse. But she and her Ganger are the ones who quickly realise that any conflict between the two identical teams is useless. They stop warmongering and settle into a wry commentary on events. When the original Cleaves runs into the room with the electrocuting whatsit, her Ganger looks wearily at her and sighs: “You see, that is just so typically me.” (JOHNNY: Well. when you’re reduced this quickly to quoting Britney Spears songs, you know the game must be up.)

It’s an early indicator that Cleaves is too sensible to pursue a battle with the human originals for long. When Ganger Jen is on the warpath, Ganger Cleaves simply can’t be bothered with it anymore, particularly once she’s learned that she’s picked up her original self’s brain tumor. She realises the empty rhetoric of “us and them” as the tired refrain of those on a path to self-destruction. “I’ve had it with this,” she declares, at a late stage in the story when we’d normally be expecting tensions to escalate again. “What’s the point in this ridiculous war?” It’s particularly shrewd characterisation. Anyone who’s smart enough to rise to a leadership position isn’t going to embark on some murderous campaign. If this story is a homage to all those base under siege epics of the Troughton era, then it’s clever enough to avoid those stories’ most illogical trope. (JOHNNY: Yup. Those base commanders were nearly always batshit crazy. Who put them in charge?)

The fact that Cleaves, Jimmy (Mark Bonnar) and Dicken (Leon Vickers) all turn out to have sensible, fair-minded Gangers also helps avoid another potential plot snare. Why are so many doubles in sci-fi stories evil? Why should perfectly reasonable, pleasant people produce duplicates who are up to no good? Again, I’d like to think wee Johnny Spandrell is as decent a fella as me, and if he did turn out to be a psychopathic monster, what would that say about me? (JOHNNY: Y’know what? I bet you’d turn out to be the monster. You’d be forever getting me to run errands, clean up the place and tap out a weekly blog post, while you sat back and ate chips or something. I might murder you just because you were being an arse!)

What, for instance, does it say about Jen? Why is it that among the Morpeth-Jetsan team, she’s the only one whose Ganger goes postal? It’s a slight narrative misstep that we don’t find out why the process treats her differently to everyone else. The only hint of latent violence we get from her is when she playfully pushes Ganger Buzzer (Marshall Lancaster) into a vat of acid, so perhaps that’s meant to indicate her hidden, darker side. But what a dark side it must be, because unlike her colleagues, she turns into (as Ganger Cleaves says) the stuff of nightmares; head on a tentacle, clinging to the ceiling. She’s so broken inside she mutates into the sort of gallumphing hybrid monster we thought we’d seen the back of after The Lazarus Experiment. (JOHNNY: Oh, must you? I’d blocked that out!)

This story is not just saying that our self-created avatars are eventually going to reach the point that they’ll want equal rights. It’s also saying, be careful about creating them in the first place. This cloning stuff never works out well. But there’s also the idea that artificial intelligence is eventually going to outthink us, partially because it knows us so well. It’s a fear as old as Frankenstein; that when we start playing God by creating new versions of ourselves, we’ll create much more trouble than we bargained for.

Meanwhile, if Johnny turns on me, I’ll be sure to let you know. Why here he comes now with a *argh gurgle choke bleargh….*  (JOHNNY: Don’t worry. I was always the brains of this operation.)

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: when the Doctor answers the holocall from Jimmy’s son, he does so with a hearty “Hello Adam!”, not as the subtitles insist, “Hello Madame!” That would be weird.

LINK TO The Sun Makers: corporate behemoths.

NEXT TIME… Like a model, only with talking and thinking. We drop The Pilot.

Surprise, spin-offs and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (2012)

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Six surprising things that happen in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and the further adventures that could spring from them.

  1. The Doctor assembles a gang.

In 2012, Avengers (no, not the cool ones, the Marvel ones) were assembling to stage a loud and colourful assault on the big screen. Naturally those Avengers are all muscly, spandex-clad hotties ready to kick some bad guy ass. And this is, remember, the season where Doctor Who aimed to mimic those big popcorn films, even to the extent of this episode’s title riffing off Snakes on a Plane. So it’s kind of refreshing that when the Doctor (not so muscly, thankfully not spandex clad Matt Smith) tries to go all Hollywood and assemble a gang for his own adventure, he chooses a miscellany of misfits: an ancient Egyptian queen, a big game hunter, the Ponds and their Dad. By the time they get menaced by some dinosaurs and run down a corridor en masse, it’s time for the opening title sequence. You know from that point on, this one’s going to be a rollercoaster ride.

Big Finish pitch one: The Doctor’s Gang. On the way home from the Silurian Ark, the Doctor, Nefi, Riddell, the Ponds and their Dad, get up to all sorts of hijinks. And then River Song turns up! 4 disc box set.

  1. The future’s not all white.

The Doctor gets sent on a mission, not by UNIT or the Time Lords or River Song asking him to pick up some milk on the way home, but by people we’ve never met before: the Indian Space Agency. Suddenly, Doctor Who seems to be taking account of our shifting world order, and posits a future where India is the predominant power in space. We meet calm and pragmatic Indira (Sunetra Sarker) who, despite the dual misfortunes of lacking a rack or a surname, is the leader of the ISA and a kind of stand-in Brigadier (and we all recall how he dealt with Silurians). There’s a sense that the Doctor and Indira have a mutual respect for each other which might have been the basis for a whole other series of adventures.

Big Finish pitch two: Indian Space Agency. Indira, “ISA Worker” and the rest of the ISA staff battle new threats to Earth with their brilliant, but not entirely reliable scientific adviser. On the way, they’ll get surnames and motivations. 3 x 4 disc box set.

  1. Bad guys get the girl

Much is made of the flirty tension between old school hunter Riddell (Rupert Graves) and even older school monarch Queen Nefertiti (Riann Steele). Throughout, Riddell’s patronizing and chauvinistic remarks are effectively put down by Nefi. If there’s a spark between then, it expresses itself in threats of violence:

RIDDELL: I shall put you across my knee and spank you!

NEFERTITI: Try, and I’ll snap your neck in a heartbeat!

He’s clearly interested in her, but she thinks he’s the dinosaur on this spaceship. How then to explain how at the story’s end, she ends up emerging from his tent, hair untethered, brandishing a gun? How did this leering buffoon get to score with this smart, powerful woman, who clearly wasn’t having a bar of him? (And don’t they know what happens to characters who shag in Doctor Who?) If anything at all was going to happen between them, it should have been her taking him back to Egypt to keep him as her concubine.

And then there’s Solomon (David Bradley) and his thinly veiled threats to sexually abuse Nefi once he has her on his ship. “I will break you in with immense pleasure,” he hisses at her, having pinioned her to the floor with his space crutch. It’s unpleasant, to say the least, but it’s supplanted by the sheer bewildering wrongness of putting a smart, sexy, capable woman on screen and then a. having her threatened with rape and b. having her run off with her harasser. That really sits badly among this otherwise cheery joyride of an episode.

BBC3 Documentary pitch: “It’s stopped being fun, Doctor”. Janet Fielding, Germaine Greer and Christel Dee decode the sexual politics of Doctor Who over its long history. 250 x 30min eps.

  1. The Silurians get a confusing addition to their backstory

So the Silurians, who we previously thought of as Earthbound creatures, can build a space ark the size of Canada, complete with an ocean to power it. But it’s also one which needs two family members to pilot it and it has computer displays written in English. And still with all this technology at their disposal, they couldn’t predict that the moon wouldn’t collide with the earth. Nor could they work out how to repel an invasion by one man and two comedy robots.

BBC Books pitch: “The Discontinuity Guide – Silurian Edition.” All you ever wanted to know about this imaginary universe and how it all makes sense, really it does. Illustrated hardcover, 250 pages, full colour, RRP £100.

  1. The Doctor gets his… Unlikeliest. Companion. Ever.

When you’re updating your list of official Doctor Who companions (I do mine weekly. It currently includes Captain Yates, Courtney Woods and those bats from the TV Movie), don’t forget to include Brian Pond (Mark Williams). For at the end of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, we learn that he joins the Doctor for a series of wacky and occasionally hand illustrated adventures. Personally, it sounds like a hoot. Sign me up. I hope each episode starts with a new lightbulb being changed the TARDIS and includes a cheeky joke about his testicles. Brian’s, I mean, not the Doctor’s. After all, his (as we now know) are optional.

Big Finish pitch three: “A Pond? My Soul! – The Continuing Adventures of Brian Pond” Brian and the Doctor continue their sight seeing trip around the galaxy, with hilarious results! Along the way, they’ll bump into the Axons, the Mandrels and a deadly new breed of Navarinos. 5 x 4 disc box sets.

  1. It’s nice one minute, nasty the next.

The Doctor’s on a bit of rollercoaster ride himself this episode. One minute he’s cheery and childlike, boasting about his Christmas list. But once Solomon turns up to spoil his fun, he turns into a dark vengeance wreaker. In a rare display of ruthlessness, he blows up Solomon’s ship with him in it, coldly referencing the slaughter of the ship’s original inhabitants as justification.

Actually, the whole story’s cheery and childlike one minute, then dark and violent the next. It’s not just the Doctor’s retribution or Solomon’s creepy abduction of Nefi, it’s the whole tone of the thing, which is perhaps best summed up by the moment when Solomon shoots Tricey the Triceratops, which had, up until that point, been the most joyous and kid-friendly element in the story (Mrs Spandrell won’t watch the episode because of that moment).

It’s an unsettling feeling, to be led to think that you’re embarking on one of Doctor Who’s trademark “enjoyable romps” only to then be confronted by mass murder, random acts of violence and the hint of sexual sadism. Still, I’m sure it’s only a one-off.

BBC One pitch: “Doctor Who” An exciting adventure in time and space by Chris Chibnall. Early evening slot on Saturdays. 10 x 50 mins episodes.

LINK TO… World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls. Both star David Bradley.

NEXT TIME… medieval misfits! We’re beset by The King’s Demons.

BUT FIRST…. Another in the (very) occasional series of Random Extras, by way of a side trip to Shada.

Mateship, maleness and Closing Time (2011)

closing time

As a one sentence pitch, “The Lodger, but with Cybermen” is pretty good. Actually, why stop there? Let’s remake Black Orchid with Cybermen. Or The Krotons but with Weeping Angels. Or remake The Time Monster with… nah, let’s never do that.

For a light-hearted, late season cheapie episode, The Lodger looms large over Steven Moffat’s tenure on Doctor Who. He often talks of his affection for it, and Closing Time and later The Caretaker are attempts to replicate its breezy comic charm.

Both of those later stories seek to eke more mileage out of the Doctor’s clumsy but endearing attempts to fit into modern life as we know it. All three involve, to lesser or greater extents, the Doctor getting a job. In Closing Time, he’s employed (briefly) by a department store to fool around in the toy department, amusing children. This fits like a glove to Matt Smith’s Doctor, who frequently demonstrates his childlike enthusiasm for having fun, despite the growing chaos around him.

The other element repeated from The Lodger is bumbling everyman Craig (James Corden) and his natural inferiority to the Doctor, in all things. Last time we saw him, Craig was struggling to make it with a girl. This time, he’s struggling with being a new Dad (it’s The Lodger, but with a baby).

Naturally, the Doctor is better at this than him. He speaks baby and can stop a baby crying with a look (“Can you teach me to do that?” Craig says, echoing new parents everywhere). He can project a starscape onto a ceiling, proving that his sonic screwdriver comes with After Effects installed.

So the Doctor is presented as this contradictory mix; hopeless at some mundane everyday tasks, but brilliant at others. Crucially, he’s brilliant at the things Craig is not. For instance, Craig can’t emulate the Doctor’s effortless ability to get people to like him and share information with him. “I bet you excrete some sort of gas that makes people love you,” grumbles Craig. Everything about their relationship is about how one of them is better than the other.

This imbalance is interesting, because the Doctor and Craig’s relationship is about mateship. The Doctor being involved in male friendship is surprisingly rare in Doctor Who. When I talked about The Lodger, I drew the comparison between the eleventh Doctor and Craig combo, and the second Doctor and Jamie. It still holds true, because these are the only instances of the Doctor having a genuine male friendship. Yes, he has had other male companions, but in every case they have been adjuncts to the Doctor’s relationship with a female companion.

(An honourable exception here may be the first Doctor and Steven, but they were not buddies in the way 11/Craig and 2/Jamie were. I suppose we might also consider the third Doctor’s friendship with the Brigadier, but that feels more like a professional relationship than two mates hanging out together for laughs.)

This is kind of how it works in real life. Imbalance is an essential by-product of mateship. Or to put it another way, no two mates are born equal. Blokes, don’t we all have that friend who’s smarter, better looking, altogether more impressive than us? And yet we still like to hang out together. We’re all Craig to someone else’s Doctor.

So that imbalance between Craig and the Doctor rings true. But Craig gets his own back. He might stuff up his attempt to rescue the Doctor from the Cybermen with a barcode scanner and thus end up encased in a Cyber carapace, but he saves the day when his paternal instincts kick in at the sound of his baby’s cries. “He blows up the Cybermen with love,” writer Gareth Roberts said on Doctor Who Confidential. Human relationships being a mystery to the Doctor, he couldn’t have pulled off that trick.

(We’re back to parenthood again, by the way, that particular obsession of Series Six. So many stories this season of fathers and the lengths they’ll go to for their kids. And interestingly in all of them – Captain Avery, Jimmy, Alex and Craig – are all worried about their adequacy as Dads. Craig’s at least is a little less angsty – just the familiar haplessness of a new Dad. I’ve been through it twice, Craig, so here’s my advice: buy a tumble dryer, a pair of ear plugs, a bottle of whisky and try to keep up.)

It’s not just mateship which is on display in Closing Time but also maleness. The Doctor has his eccentricities dialled up a little for this story, emphasising his awkwardness in social situations (he can’t, for instance, work out how to make a social call on someone). But he’s no Time Lord version of Sheldon Cooper. He makes friends easily with everyone in the shop for instance. Craig is your typical bumbling father, but he’s also a bit clueless at basic domestic duties like shopping and cleaning. But they’re both brave, protective and heroic and they both clearly adore each other.

In the pair of them, we see lots of ways to be men, most of them viewed next to the passionless Cybermen and through the lens of madcap comedy. And inevitably, where two men are running about with a baby, heads start to turn. It’s The Lodger, but with poof jokes. The jokes about them being a couple are fun, but in a way they also undermine what is nice about their relationship. They indicate that any close relationship between two men is indistinguishable from a romance between them, which is a bit old fashioned. Hard to imagine that joke working between two female characters.

Still, maybe we’ll find out. We’re only months away from our first female Doctor, which is great, but it does mean it will be some time before we get to see how the Doctor deals with mateship again. Which given how rarely the series explores it, is a shame… but given that the series has never explored a female Doctor, one I’m prepared to live without for a while.

But don’t the Cybermen seem a little out of place here, like they’re treading on another monster’s property? Surely a department store is where we’d expect to find mannequins coming to life? C’mon Chibbers, old mate, let’s remake Closing Time, but with Autons.

FORGOTTEN DEATH: Let’s spare a moment for poor dead Shona (Seroca Davis). Because none of her co-workers do. It’s all jokes and gossip and when’s my next tea break. As heartless as a Cyberman.

LINK TO The Invasion of Time: both have scenes with clothes racks in them!

NEXT TIME… I’m happy, I hope you’re happy too. C’mon, crack a Smile.

Afterwards, afterwords and The Angels Take Manhattan (2012)

Doctor Who - Series 7

Hello, old friend. And here we are, you and me, on the last page. Well, not so much you. Because I’m the one who’s been abandoned in New York 1938. I’m on the last page, you’re stlll… well, who knows how many pages into your book. Probably somewhere in the middle.

Talking of books, how did you not realise that book you were suddenly so into was by River? It was written by someone called Melody, and if that wasn’t a big enough tip off, it had a picture of River on the cover. I mean, come on.

By the time you read these words, Rory and I will be long gone. But we’re not worried, because you can just come back and get us. I know you said all that stuff about not being able to change history, but that’s got to be a load of tosh, because you do that all the time, right? It’s all you ever talk about, with your “time can be rewritten” guff.

There is that problem about the TARDIS being unable to land in New York in 1938. Fair enough, so let’s do this. We’ll wait a year, then you can come and get us. Or we’ll go to Toronto, and you can pick us up from there. Or travel back to New York in 1937, park the TARDIS and come wait it out with us for a couple of years. Or travel back in time and mail us a vortex manipulator (because Rory tells me it’s like a motorbike through traffic). Or actually, just ask River to come back and get us. Anyway, point is, there are about a hundred ways to get us out of here, so just do it OK?

Sometimes I do worry about you, though. I think once we’re gone, you won’t be coming back here for a while, and you might be alone, which you should never be. Because somehow, solitude has come to mean that you start to go bad and you get grumpy. It used to mean you just mucked around for a bit by yourself, but now it’s the end of the freakin’ cosmos.

Don’t be alone, Doctor. Maybe what you should do is go and find yourself a new companion. Make sure she’s a pretty girl (what am I saying? You’re the last person I need to remind of that.) Find one who embodies some enigma you need to solve. Find one who is feisty and flirtatious and keeps changing careers… oh hang on, that’s me. Just come back and get me. That’s the simplest thing to do.

And do one more thing for me. There’s a little girl waiting in a garden. She’s going to wait a long while, so she’s going to need a lot of hope. Go to her. But maybe on second thoughts don’t, because that will completely screw up my timeline, won’t it? Because if you go and talk to her, while she’s waiting in that garden, I’ll never become the girl who waited. And besides that, it’s just a bit insensitive. Because she’s actually waiting for you to come and take her away, so if you just come to chat with her for a bit, that will be deeply disappointing to her. Well, whatever. You can sort all that bit out. Time can be rewritten, etc.

Tell her a story. Tell her that if she’s patient, the days are coming that she’ll never forget. Tell her she’ll go to sea and fight pirates. Actually, don’t tell her that one. It was the fake gooey me who did that. And anyway, it’s rubbish.

She’ll fall in love with a man who’ll wait two thousand years to keep her safe. Though actually, he doesn’t really, does he? Because time gets rewritten and it never happens. Hint hint. Hurry up.

Tell her she’ll give hope to the greatest whale who ever lived and save a painter in outer space. Wait, hang on a bit. Tell her she’ll give hope to the greatest painter who ever lived and save a whale in outer space. Maybe don’t tell her she’ll be forced to give birth to a hitherto unknown baby in space hospital and then forced to give that baby up and be unable to conceive any more children. That might put her off the whole thing.

Tell her this is the story of Amelia Pond. And this how it ends. Except it can’t, can it? Because this ending’s nonsense and makes a mockery of everything you’ve said for the last few years for the sake of a contrived tearjerker of a farewell. I think she’ll feel really cheated by that. So just come back and rescue us and we’ll think of another way for it to end.

More fittingly, Rory and I would probably have just decided that our last encounter with the angels was just one close shave too many, and decided to stay at home, hanging up our travelling shoes forever. And that would be great, right? Because isn’t just utterly fairy tale? Don’t all the characters in fairy tales grow up eventually and live happily ever after? It can still be dramatic, a big gut-wrenching decision. Hey, you could even still have your tearjerker ending; you can watch us grow old together through the years, and feel the slow aching despair of watching your best friends take the slow path.

Or if we really are trapped in some temporal life sentence, tell you what… pilot the TARDIS back to somewhere (or somewhen) nearby, catch the train into New York and spend the rest of our lives with us here. We’ll get into all sorts of hijinks. I’m sure there are plenty of alien incursions into New York which need repelling. Think of it as a kind of spin-off from our regular adventures.

Plus Rory says that if he has to sit out a lifetime in the 20th century, he sees no reason why you shouldn’t as well. You floppy haired dingus.

LINK to Time-Flight: one mentions New York and the other’s set in it.

NEXT TIME… A party in the nineteen twenties, that’s more like it. We solve the puzzling case of The Unicorn and the Wasp.

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.

Sliding Doors, Family Feud and Amy’s Choice (2010)

amy choice

Way back in Four to Doomsday, someone – Persuasion, I think – described love as the exchange of two fantasies. As it happens, it’s also an apt description of Amy’s Choice, a beguiling little story which imagines a scenario whereby the underlying tension within its TARDIS crew, now consisting of three spunky 20 somethings, can be exploited.

That crew and the faultline that runs through it centres on Amy (willowy Karen Gillan). Amy’s natural desire to have her cake and eat it too means she’s travelling with both her fiancé Rory (boy next door Arthur Darvill) and her new crush, the Doctor (boy next century Matt Smith). It’s a bizarre love triangle for sure and her choice between the two is symbolised by the two dream worlds she’s asked to choose between by sinister genie, the Dream Lord (Toby Jones).

One scenario is set in sleepy old Leadworth, where the Ponds have settled into domestic stultification. Rory has an unconvincing ponytail, Amy an unconvincing baby bump but in this rustic little village, they have made a home. (Incidentally, there’s a funny upwardly mobile progression in companion’s homes in 21st century Who. Rose lived in a council estate, Martha in a city flat, Donna in a suburban house and now, Amy, in a big house in the country) Leadworth represents everything Rory is: stable, reliable and a bit dull. The quiet life.

Then, of course, the quiet life is disturbed by a group of deadly aliens hiding inside a bunch of retirement home residents. Turns out the Rory option is an actually a Doctor Who story by Douglas Adams.

The other scenario is set inside the TARDIS and is an analogue for the Doctor. In this scenario, there’s travel, adventure and technology. As Leadworth is Rory’s home, so is the TARDIS the Doctor’s. It speaks of excitement and thrills. The danger in this story is external, pseudo-scientific and oblique: a cold star threatening to freeze the TARDIS solid, with our heroes trapped inside. A cold, high place above the universe. So this scenario is a Doctor Who story by Christopher H Bidmead.

As much as Amy’s Choice is about showing us two types of suitor Amy’s attracted to and the internal conflict she’s grappling with, it’s also showing us two different ways of Doctor Who. Like flicking channels between a madcap alien invasion in an English village or a race against time in a doomed ship.

It’s Sliding Doors, isn’t it? But with Gwyneth Paltrow pursuing one lifetime living on The Pirate Planet and another in Castrovalva. Actually, that sounds immeasurably better than Sliding Doors. I need a parallel universe where Sliding Doors was like that! Then you could skip between two universes, one with the original Sliding Doors and one with my new Whoish version… and so it goes on until the whole thing has disappeared up its own causal nexus.

***

The third story being told here, is that of the Dream Lord. He’s a mysterious supernatural being with power over the TARDIS who wants to inflict mayhem on the lives of the Doctor and his companions by submitting them to a series of playful but deadly games of make believe. I suppose that viewed from that standpoint, the success of Amy’s Choice depends on how eager you were to see an updated, less racist version of The Celestial Toymaker.

The Dream Lord turns out to be one of Doctor Who’s favourite villainous archetypes; the twisted version of the Doctor himself. There’s enough to form Family Feud team – the Monk, the Master, the Valeyard, and now little old Dreamy. (“We asked 100 people what’s the most commonly used template for a Doctor Who villain! Survey says…”) It’s the most obvious kind of villain you can do, so it has to be wheeled out carefully and sparingly. Luckily, the Dream Lord’s a bit different from the rest of that dark clothed, maniacally cackling lot.

The Dream Lord’s point of difference from all these other dark Doctors is taunting. He spends the whole episode verbally tormenting the Doctor and his Ponds, needling away at every insecurity. The way he suddenly pops into being, just when our heroes are busy trying to do something, to hector and undermine them, is very unnerving; almost a visual representation of schizophrenia.

He also has a line in quotable, biting wit, particularly aimed at the Doctor. “The madcap vehicle, the cockamamie hair, the clothes designed by a first-year fashion student…”, the impish snide says, “I’m surprised you haven’t got a little purple space dog just to ram home what an intergalactic wag you are.” We’ve never heard anyone talk to the Doctor like that. And it hurts because it’s so very, very true.

But it’s also the trait which tips the Doctor off as to his tormentor’s true identity. As the Doctor, says “there’s only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do.” So the Dream Lord is a personification of the Doctor’s self-loathing, and that’s something really new. Self-doubt, we’ve seen. But never the very human insecurity of criticising everything about yourself. It’s a novel twist on that conga line of wannabe Doctors.

So it’s a shame when he turns out to be nothing more than a speck of cosmic pollen with ideas above its station. He could have been a great returning villain, but instead he’s a figment of everyone’s imagination. Wasn’t too long ago we were randoming Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which has a similar, “it was all a dream” ending, and in both cases, the risk taken is that audience might think the whole affair inconsequential.

How Amy’s Choice manages to avoids the trap of seeming like a diverting but ultimately pointless fantasy, is that it has a real impact on our three heroes. The love triangle is resolved when Amy loses Rory thanks to the first of his many faux deaths. She decides she’ll do anything to have him back. She chooses home, not adventure. One fantasy has been exchanged for another.

LINK TO New Earth: nurses who would be doctors!

NEXT TIME… The Bells of Saint John are ringing.