Tag Archives: series 6

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

rebelfl

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.

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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.

Epics, epilogue and The War Games (1969)

wargames

Welcome to The War Games, Doctor Who’s longest story.

(I’ll just let that sit there and rankle for a bit.)

No, you say, what about The Trial of a Time Lord? Four separate narratives, I say.

All right, you say, but what about The Daleks’ Master Plan? You can’t deny that one! Well, I can in fact. As you’ll see if we ever get around to randoming it, I’d say Master Plan’s episodic format makes it feel like a series of mini-stories rather than one big one.

That leaves The War Games with the series’ longest contained narrative. And unlike those other contenders, it feels like one epic story, told over a record-breaking 9 episodes.

(I know, I’m being particularly annoying today.)

I say 9 episodes because that’s how long it takes to wrap up the main story. Episode Ten, is an epilogue and although it contains some bonus sneering and running around with the War Lord (Philip Madoc), it’s dealing with something else entirely. It’s a one episode story about the Doctor’s final come uppance with the Time Lords. And of course, it changes the show forever.

*****

The War Games has been mightily re-evaluated in recent years. It started with a glowing review of the DVD by Gary Gillatt in DWM. Even co-writer Terrance Dicks, who had for years proffered a line that the story began and ended well but flagged in the middle, was convinced. So its reputation has grown to the point where it’s now our favourite 60s story, according to DWM’s 50th anniversary poll.

For me, it’s too patchy to be consistently satisfying. Those early episodes set in faux World War One are terrific though. The design work is excellent, the characters are believable and well portrayed and director David Maloney brings out a pervading sense of menace. Then there’s the unsettling sight of our cozy TARDIS team of silly old Doctor (the Trought, on form), funny old Jamie (the Fraze) and fussy old Zoe (the, um, Pads) suddenly dropped into shocking danger, the threat of violent death all around them. All capped off with that brilliant cliffhanger to Episode Two, when time zones collide and Roman soldiers come charging out of nowhere at our friends.

(Quick aside: Terence Bayler plays Major Barrington, and his resemblance to Rowan Atkinson is remarkable. It made me wonder is The War Games may have been an influence on Blackadder Goes Forth. Sound a bit far fetched? Well, think about Barrington/Blackadder and Carstairs/George at the front, and Smythe/Melchett and Ransom/Darling back safe behind lines at the Chateau.)

But after those initial episodes, the action is shared between the earthly war zones and the bad guys’ HQ. Their base has some fetching op art on the walls but is otherwise so much plywood and vac formed plastic. Clearly, the budget has run out. Billowing plastic sheets replace walls. Characters hide from others behind the scantest of flats, and their pursuers must pretend not to see them. Walls are too expensive, black drapes must suffice. Spaceships are controlled by play magnets. It’s resourceful work when faced with limited dough, but it can’t help but look tacky.

The insubstantial-ness of the sets isn’t helped by the fairly basic melodrama played out within them. Mostly, it’s middle management sniping between the War Chief (Edward Brayshaw) and the Security Chief (James Bree). Both resentful and suspicious of the other, it’s the sort of thing that’s difficult to sustain over multiple episodes. Brayshaw goes for fruity, beard stroking villainy, while Bree opts for the nasal voiced bitching of a career civil servant. Both keep threatening to take their slowly escalating dispute to their team leader. It feels like we’re watching the petty irritations of a pair of office co-workers, promoted beyond their competence. “What a stupid fool you are. You’ve jammed the photocopier again!” “Well, don’t think I didn’t see you stealing Sue from Accounts’ soy milk from the fridge. What a stupid fool you are!”

Dicks and co-writer Malcolm Hulke have over four hours to fill with material, but never get around to giving these “aliens” a name or a planet of origin. We have to assume then that it’s a deliberate move to keep them non-descript. Because they don’t have individual names either. They are either named after their occupations (War Lord, Security Chief and Scientist) or after the fictional characters they take on when in the time zones (General Smythe, Von Weich). In fact, the only thing which distinguishes them is their predisposition for eyewear, either the sinister pebble glasses type or the wacky sunvisor type.

So we switch regularly from the relatively realistic settings of historical wars to this b-grade world of flimsy sets, generically named people and unlikely spectacles. But it’s in the latter that we find the Doctor’s greatest secret hiding. Because the War Chief is not actually one of this colourless race. (You can tell by the way he’s wearing a hood ornament on a big chain around his neck). In fact, he’s a Time Lord, one of the Doctor’s kith. “You may have changed your appearance, but I know who you are,” he purrs, when the two finally get some time alone in Episode Eight. And so Dicks and Hulke set about dismantling the framework the show has been built on over the last six years.

*****

We know in hindsight that The War Games was designed to kick the show into a new format. But it feels like it could also have been the end of the show, if that’s what was required. It doesn’t feel definitive. It’s having a bet each way. That last shot of a decapitated Doctor spinning helplessly through to oblivion – quite disturbing, really – is basically saying, we don’t know if there’s a future for this show.

Patrick Troughton picks up on this uncertainty. He plays his Doctor not with the restless energy of an eternal runaway, but with the resignation of a fugitive who knows the game is up. It’s his companions who have to spur him on to try to evade his Time Lord judges. Throughout these ten episodes, Troughton never stops looking for the lighter moment amongst all the gloom. He never stops trying to energise a flagging moment. But still, he’s a Time Lord at the end of his time.

Episode Ten – that little recognised one parter – gives him some excellent material to work with though. In a scene destined for clip show after clip show, he rails against the inactivity of his fellow Time Lords. While some old monster costumes are wheeled out to wobble in front of black curtains, the Doctor stakes his claim. There are some corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things. They must be fought, not merely observed. There’s still a need for him to be a funny, brave, compassionate hero. It might be doubtful about the future, but this story is very clearly saying, there’s still a need for Doctor Who.

LINK to The Girl Who DiedAliens disguised as earthly warriors.

NEXT TIME… The fat just walks away. We take on some Partners in Crime.

Complexity, comprehension and The God Complex (2011)

There’s a hotel somewhere and in each of the rooms is someone’s worst nightmare. How about that for a central premise, eh? That is pure Doctor Who. Really, as a starting point, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Then you’ve got to justify it in some way that makes it sound reasonably feasible in an outlandish sci-fi kind of way. So the hotel is not a hotel, it’s a disguised spaceship. The spaceship is home to a creature which feeds off fear, and so it kidnaps people, confronts them with their worst nightmare and consumes all that tasty fear. So far, so Doctor Who.

But then it all gets a bit complicated.

It turns out it’s not actually fear that the creature wants to feast on. What happens is that when confronted with their deadliest fear, the victims fall back on their most deeply held faith, and that’s the food for the creature. It’s a faith eater, not a fear eater.

The moment this revelation is revealed is where The God Complex pivots on expectations. Problem is, it’s just a little too tricksy. I think that’s the moment where the audience is meant to go, “oh, of course! It all makes sense now!” In fact, it’s the moment where I suspect they go, “um, come again?”

And that’s a shame because when that happens, it’s stops being a quintessential Doctor Who idea. It suddenly got too complicated. It went a step too far. Before then – you’re trapped in a labyrinthine hotel with a creature that feeds off your terror! – it was easy-to-grasp, creepy stuff. Then it gained an unnecessarily complicated add on.

Perhaps that’s what makes an utterly Who-ish idea. Bizarre and compelling but able to be summed up in a sentence.

*****

Some people’s faiths are easier to comprehend than others. Clever clogs Rita (Amara Karan) is a Muslim, so we get that. Hipster nerd Howie (Dimitri Leonidas) is a conspiracy theorist. Well, I suppose it’s belief system of sorts, if you squint. Tivolian moleman Gibbis (David Walliams) comes from a species with an almost fetishistic desire to be invaded. That’s an amusing character trait, sure, but do we get to call that a faith?

Companion Amy (Karen Gillan) has faith in the Doctor (Matt Smith), to such an extent that a climax will need to be borrowed from The Curse of Fenric to help her break it and defeat the monster of the week. Oddly enough, the Doctor – or rather waiting for him to turn up – is also her greatest fear. Which gives us some insight into how obsessed she’s become with him. Luckily this seems to be something husband Rory (Arthur Darvill) has grown accustomed to, so isn’t too bothered by.

Rory doesn’t get a scary room of his own. As the Doctor points out, this is because he isn’t particularly religious. Which is all well and good, but are we saying Rory doesn’t believe in anything? If we can pass Gibbis’ love for domination off as faith, surely there must be something inside Rory which he might fall back on in a moment of great crisis. One would have thought perhaps his faith in Amy, although after we’ve seen how Doctor obsessed her subconscious is, maybe it’s just as well he doesn’t seem to have any deeply held connection to her. Poor faithless Rory. For such a caring, passionate guy, it just doesn’t seem right that he’s an empty, soulless shell.

*****

David Walliams is some late season stunt casting which is interesting in and of itself. Firstly, it’s a brave decision to cover the story’s major guest star in a mole mask, even if his distinctive profile is recognisable under all that latex. Still, it’s kind of apt given Walliams’ Little Britain pedigree for inhabiting outlandish categories. And since Tom Baker added his cheeky baritone to that series and outed Walliams and co-conspirator Matt Lucas as Who-heads (as if The Web of Caves wasn’t enough), it was probably inevitable that they’d end up on the show. And now Lucas is a regular on the show. Is Walliams envious? Surely a Whoside reunion is inevitable.  Little Gallifrey, perhaps.

Another name which jumps off the cast list is Spencer Wilding. It’s a name tailor made for an actor, so it’s just as well this 6’ 7” man mountain gave up kick boxing. Wilding plays the Minotaur, and is such a giant that when the series employs him, they can do enormous brutish creatures without resorting to CGI. The God Complex is the first of three big badasses he plays for the series (he’s also the Wooden King and Ice Warrior Skaldak) over a short period of time, so that oversize aliens briefly become a series motif. It’s the Spencer Wilding era, as I think we should call it. (Also fact fans, he’s the second actor to play both a minotaur in Doctor Who and be the body of Darth Vader.)

We’re also at the beginning of another mini-tenure, the Nick Hurran era. Hurran’s directorial style – full of inventive, suspenseful shots and rapid cutting between shots – marks him out as a standout talent in this and his other episode this season, The Girl Who Waited. He quickly becomes the go to guy for the series’ showcase episodes and gets the prime gig of directing the 50th anniversary special. This is a director the show’s invested in. Where’s he gone, I wonder? Some shrewd and handsome fellow once asked Steven Moffat in DWM why directors seem not to linger on the show for longer than a few episodes. “Bloody good question,” Moffat replied, so we might surmise that even the Boss doesn’t know where he’s hiding.

*****

There are so many minotaurs already in Doctor Who and so it doesn’t entirely surprise when The God Complex feels obliged to shout out to one them. “Distant cousin of the Nimon,” the Doctor name drops. “They descend on planets and set themselves up as gods to be worshipped.” Despite the fact that The Horns of Nimon is a story the series is rarely in a rush to remember, that does sound like a classic Doctor Who idea.

“Which is fine, until the inhabitants get all secular and advanced enough to build bonkers prisons,” the Doctor goes on. And once again that crystal clear idea gets muddied by over complication. This episode. It just doesn’t know when to stop.

LINK TO Deep Breath: The God Complex  has pictures of Silurians and Sontarans, and Deep Breath  has Vastra and Strax.

NEXT TIME: Anyone for tennis? Failing that, how about The Stones of Blood?

Press Gang, continuity errors and The Curse of the Black Spot (2011)

curseblack

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.

Anything, everything and The Wedding of River Song (2011)

wedding

“All of history is happening at once,” says Caesar Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice) at the top of this season finale, and in a short space of time, the viewers know exactly how he feels. The Wedding of River Song (hereafter referred to by its pleasing acronym TWORS) throws everything it’s got at us. And it throws it all at once. To bamboozling effect.

It starts with a lengthy recap from other adventures in this narratively complex season, retelling how the Doctor (a foreboding Matt Smith) is trying to evade his forthcoming death on the shore of Lake Silencio in Utah. Once the viewer has this under their belt, it’s on to the pre-credit sequence, showing a London with all of history combined into a mix-and-match selection of ancient Rome, World War 2, Silurian pre-history and modern day. The viewer is expected to keep up as Caesar Churchill notices that the date and time never changes, and calls for his imprisoned Soothsayer. Who turns out to be the Doctor, recently returned from a visit to Whiskeron.

Then post-credits, there’s another pre-credits sequence. In short shrift, the Doctor robs a dying Dalek of information about the Silence. Which leads him to a bar to meet Gideon Vanderleur (Niall Grieg Fulton), an envoy of the Silence. Except it’s not Gideon, it’s the time travelling, shapeshifting robot the Teselecta, seen previously in Let’s Kill Hitler. The Teselecta’s Captain Carter (Richard Dillane) leads the Doctor to another bloke, Gantok (Rondo Haxton) and a deadly game of chess. This leads him to the Seventh Transept, and the talking head of Dorium Maldovar (Simon Fisher-Becker) who at last can give the Doctor the information he needs to start the story.

And by now, we’re about five minutes in.

That’s indicative of both the pace and the general feel of TWORS. This is a story which makes few concessions for the casual or inattentive viewer.  From here it’s a rapid fire trip (via steam train) from strange London to strange Cairo, taking in the Silence, altered versions of Amy and Rory (Gillan and Darvill), Madam Kovarian (Frances Barber) and terminating in the wedding of River Song (Alex Kingston) itself, and the history rewriting impact it has. Plus a sidetrip to mourn the death of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. It’s full on, and there’s a lot to get through.

We’ve been here before, when talking about AGMGTW (acronym mad, I am). This is a season of  Doctor Who which expects a lot of its viewers. And it doesn’t let up; TWORS is artillery barrage Doctor Who.

*****

I suspect that how much you enjoy an episode like TWORS  or AGMGTW  or even TNOTD depends on how satisfied you are with an episode which is less a distinct Doctor Who story and more a string of explanations, wrapping up storylines from a season’s overarching story arc. Which in turn, I think, depends on how interested you are in that story arc.

Assuming you are interested in this arc, I think your enjoyment then depends on how satisfied you are with those explanations. If you’re pleasantly surprised at the answers, and don’t feel cheated or that the producers have copped out, then I think these sort of loose-end-tying-up episodes are just fine. And TWORS does an admirable job of just that, plus dropping plenty of intriguing hints for next season’s big story arc.

Personally, I find these sort of episodes enjoyable, but less than the sum of their parts. I enjoy having a few mysteries resolved, but I rarely revisit them after an initial viewing. In fact, I sometimes struggle to recall what the story’s about. And I think that’s because it’s not about anything. Instead, it’s about everything, all at once.

*****

But if any of this bothers you, don’t let it. Thing is, this story never really happened. Nor did TNOTD. Nor did all of Series 5, as far as I can work out. Because in these narratives, things can go to all levels of doolally, and then be reversed by some timey wimey conceit.

Luckily though, our heroes retain their memories of these adventures that never were. It’s a peculiarly Moffaty piece of logic. And it creates an odd effect for the viewer where two sorts of realities exist simultaneously; we always seem to be in a permanent state where events did/didn’t happen. Some people have wondered if because River married a giant robotic replica of the Doctor and not the man himself, are the two actually married? Never mind that, surely because history was changed, the wedding never actually took place (and least this wedding. They could have tried again some other time)?

But it also leads to the feeling that you can never actually trust a Moffat storyline. When Clara recently bought the farm in FTR, I don’t think there was any regular viewer who thought there was no ‘get out of death free card’. We’re so used to time being rewritten and people coming back from the dead that the series has lost some of its ability to shock. Nothing’s a matter of life and death any more, just a matter of time.

*****

So… A bewildering, unlikely set of events. A strange melange of imagery. A bit of romance, a bit of a punch up, old friends and old enemies popping up everywhere. And at the end of it all, no-one can quite remember what exactly happened.

All in all, just like any other wedding.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: at one point ‘timey wimey’ becomes ‘tiny winy’. Clearly a subtitler not versed in Moffatese.

LINK TO TCH. Both are Matt Smith stories of course, but also Mark Gatiss wrote one and pseudonymously appears in the other.

NEXT TIME: You had juan chanze, mah frend, juan chanze! Direct from a relay station in Nigeria, it’s TEOTW.

Fans, fiction and A Good Man Goes to War (2011)

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Imagine if you pitched this story to any publisher of Who fiction, such as Big Finish or BBC Books or DWM‘s comic strip: The Doctor’s companions have had time vortex-exposed sex and conceived a baby. The baby is kidnapped by a squadron of religious soldiers, so the Doctor gathers an army of allies including Silurians, Sontarans and Judoon to help him rescue her. The Cybermen also make an appearance, as do Captain Avery and Danny Boy, and there are continuity references to nearly every story in the last year and a half. As it turns out, the baby is actually another of the Doctor’s companions who’ll grow up to be his a. assassin and b. wife. (Actually, the whole thing’s beginning to sound like a Virgin New Adventure. Let’s travel back to 1991 and pitch it to them.)

Surely, no one would touch it with a barge pole. Because it reads like fan fiction. A fan writing a story for other fans. And as fan lore tells us, that’s bad. That’s about the worst thing you can do if you’re writing Doctor Who. Apart from question marks on collars or not taking things seriously enough.

(A quick recap on how we got to the idea that writing for a fan-based audience is bad. 1980s Who saw some liberal reuse of old monsters, characters and costumes from stock. Internal references to previous eras peppered the stories. Initially a popular approach, it was overused and the production team were criticised for trying to please fans rather than entertain a general audience. And since then Doctor Who fans have taken a dim view of writers trying to please them. Don’t try to please us!, they say. Think of the general public!’)

But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that A Good Man Goes to War is written for folk with an advanced level of knowledge of Doctor Who since the beginning of series 5, some 18 months previous. In short, it’s written for fans. But who are fans nowadays?

Steven Moffat has argued that everyone’s a Doctor Who fan these days; that the general audience do tend to watch most episodes of the show so you can tell detailed narratives without worrying that they’ll be alienated and switch channels. If he’s right, then Joe Public would have been completely comfortable with the complicated story arc of Series Six, in which A Good Man etc is thoroughly embedded.

But if he’s wrong, then I think A Good Man would be greatly perplexing to less dedicated viewers. To offer an episode as dense with references to previous storylines as this must be very offputting at least and bewildering at best. How else can we imagine a casual viewer reacting to dialogue like this?

DOCTOR: It’s all running about, sexy fish vampires and blowing up stuff. And Rory wasn’t even there at the beginning. Then he was dead, then he didn’t exist, then he was plastic. Then I had to reboot the whole universe. Long story. So, technically the first time they were on the TARDIS together in this version of reality, was on their…
VASTRA: On their what?
DOCTOR: On their wedding night.

Get your head around that, casual viewers! Even the pay off to this story – the revelation that River is Amy and Rory’s daughter – only works if you’re invested in the series long story arc, and you care about such things. Otherwise, what does it matter who’s daughter River is? Why would anyone but a fan care?

*****

Old Who had its share of continuity heavy storylines, allegedly written with fans in mind. The granddaddy of them all was Attack of the Cybermen, so let’s pick on it as an example.

Broadcast in 1985, it contained various plot threads from stories as distant as 1966’s The Tenth Planet, 1967’s The Tomb of the Cybermen and 1968’s The Invasion. It has since been roundly criticised for expecting casual viewers to know detailed plot points from stories broadcast almost 20 years previously. Although I suspect that for a casual viewer, it can be enjoyed on a simple Doctor vs the Monsters level, in a way that A Good Man cannot because the very purpose of the Doctor’s actions in the latter story needs to be seen in context.

But we should remember that Attack of the Cybermen and its nostalgic 1980s stablemates existed in a very different space than modern day Doctor Who. With no repeat screenings, few home video releases and VCRs an expensive luxury, it was rare even in the mid 80s to see a story more than once. Under those circumstances, the less you distracted your audience with needless continuity the better. Modern Doctor Who is designed for multiple viewings – indeed, it rewards them – and its audience is better equipped to follow long, complex narratives. And if Moffat pulls Sontarans, Judoon and Danny Boy’s spitfire out of his toybox, it could well be that they cut down the costs of creating new prosthetics and CGI assets.

My point is not that A Good Man is this century’s Attack of the Cybermen, although they are both, to my mind, equally obsessed with fannish continuity. It’s more that fandom’s go-to criticism of writing for fans is outdated, because as new Who continually shows, you can write Doctor Who for fans and still make compelling TV. And if we accept that, perhaps we can look at some of those 80s continuity fests in a new light. Perhaps, we can learn to stop worrying and love the fanwank.

Anyway, enough of this. I’ve got another story to pitch to the powers that be. It’s going to be a match up between the Master and the Cybermen. They’ll walk down the steps of St Paul’s like in The Invasion! And UNIT will be in it. And the Brigadier will come back from the dead… Not too much continuity, do you think?

What do you mean it’s been done?

LINK to: Terror of the Vervoids: in both we meet friends of the Doctor from unseen adventures (Travers in Vervoids and all sorts of people in A Good Man).

NEXT TIME… When you’ve quite finished grinning like a Cheshire Cat, we’ll delve into The Mind of Evil.