I recently finished The Time Lord Letters. One of those tie-ins (this one by Justin Richards) that do quite well for a while and then end up in The Works at £5.99, it revisits a number of stories in the form of imagined correspondence – letters, memos, the occasional post-it – usually revisiting the events of the narrative after the fact. The Tenth Doctor, for example, writes to Harriet Jones after he has a hand in deposing her. His immediate predecessor writes to Charles Dickens just after they’ve fought off ghosts in Cardiff. And the Fourth Doctor writes to the survivors of Storm Mine 4 (not that there are many) just after ‘Robots of Death’, apologising for leaving without waking them (cross-reference under hashtag #sorrynotsorry).
Sometimes the letters anticipate stories rather than reflect upon them: the Eleventh Doctor, for example, writes to a shop in Colchester asking for a job. Others dip into them in the middle of a narrative: there is a nice one from the Second Doctor to the Time Lords asking for help with the War Games. Still others skate around the lake of randomness: there’s one from a very young First Doctor to Borusa complaining about his school report (this is funnier if you’ve actually read said report, which is in another book). And the Twelfth Doctor’s reference for Clara is quite amusing, and very Twelfth Doctor. The whole thing is nicely presented, a variety of different (and usually well-chosen) fonts to illustrate the different Doctors’ handwriting styles, and it contains (a rarity in a New Who book) a pleasing mixture of Classic and Modern.
But there were bits of it that set my teeth on edge.
It’s not that Richards gets the tone wrong. For the most part I could imagine the Doctors (and other characters that occasionally contribute) speaking the words listed with utter conviction. That, in itself, is a big part of the problem. Because – well look, let me give you an example, occurring as it does in the form of the First Doctor’s farewell note to Susan.
At a guess: you read that and then halfway through thought “Hang on, this is what he said inside the TARDIS! Word for word!” And indeed, it is.
Exactly the same thing happens when Martha leaves, as you’ll see when you find yourself quoting her speech.
The implication behind both entries (it’s there in the note at the top) is that this is something the Doctor / Martha wrote down in case they didn’t have time to say it out loud, but it’s fine because they did. Using their exact words. As the Tenth Doctor does in his letter to Sally Sparrow, in which he says “There was a sort of a thing happening. Four things in fact. And a lizard.” Which is amusing when it happens in ‘Blink’, because it’s precisely the sort of improvised, disjointed thing you’d expect him to say in the heat of the moment, and a deliciously open-ended non-sequiteur at the end of an episode bent on being as self-contained as possible. Are we really expected to believe that in the aftermath, when he’d had time to think, the Doctor would have written those exact words? Again?
Perhaps Richards had a deadline and ran out of mojo. Or perhaps it was an authorial decision: the inclusion of great chunks of published dialogue instantly familiarises the audience. Perhaps I’m in a minority but I simply can’t get comfortable with it. Is it really necessary to have the Fifth Doctor write down his precise parting words to the Cranleighs after he leaves the house at the end of ‘Black Orchid’? Even when it’s not full text, there are needless references thrown in. The words ‘Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey’ appear far more than they should. The Twelfth Doctor goes on about tangerines in his letter to Santa (which concludes, amusingly enough, with ‘P.S. – do I really stick this up a chimney now?’). And when writing to Dickens, the Ninth Doctor mentions The Signalman. Again.
It’s a problem that doesn’t dog The Secret History of Twin Peaks – something Emily bought me for Christmas and which I’m enjoying tremendously. The town of Twin Peaks, as it turns out, has a long history stemming back to Lewis and Clark, by way of displaced Native Americans, assorted encounters with the military, and two feuding families. There is rather too much UFO stuff (indeed, the book contains references to pretty much every conspiracy theory known to man, and a few that weren’t) but perhaps this was inevitable after The X-Files, a show that arguably would not have happened without Twin Peaks. What’s interesting is that it explores the history of the town without making explicit references to anything the characters actually said, content instead to flesh it out with imagined press cuttings, meeting transcripts, and journal entries. And I think I’m just getting to the good bit.
References to source material – cryptic or otherwise – are endemic in this age of digital television. It’s easier than ever to spot the small stuff (I should know; I made an entire series out of it). So when we’re told that there are Torchwood Easter Eggs in Sherlock, it’s not a great surprise. Indeed, the entire script is chock full of references to Conan Doyle’s characters, locations and other stories, whether it’s from a postcard on a fridge or the sign on a receptionist’s desk. It’s borderline saturation and is, in all likelihood, deliberately designed that way. If you spend every waking hour talking about obscure trivia, you barely have time to notice all the plot holes.
Nonetheless there’s a difference between subtle visual clues and the kind of shoehorning that happens in…look, I was going to give Lord of the Rings as an example, but that’s actually what I wanted to talk about, so let’s deal with the elephant in the room for a minute. Because while it’s one thing to have the Tenth Doctor awkwardly refer to himself as “James McCrimmon from the township of Balamory” at the beginning of ‘Tooth and Claw’, or mutter “Brave heart, Clara” as he’s leading her in the direction of a scream halfway through ‘The Crimson Horror’, these are minor transgressions compared to the stuff that happens under Peter Jackson’s watch.
Consider The Hobbit (we’re talking about the book, at least for the moment), and Bilbo’s despair when he and his Dwarvish companions are plunged into yet another bad situation. Tolkien picks up the thread:
“‘Escaping goblins to be caught by wolves!’ he said, and it became a proverb, though we now say ‘out of the frying-pan into the fire’ in the same sort of uncomfortable situations.”
And that, indeed, is the title of the chapter. And presumably Thorin has read the book, which is what prompts him to say “Out of the frying pan,” to which Gandalf adds “And into the fire!”. To be fair to him, Gandalf has form. He it was who languished by the fireside in Bag End, muttering “Riddles in the dark…”, although it is left to the Hobbits to awkwardly shoehorn another chapter title into an early scene (which, by the way, is nothing like it is in the book):
MERRY: That was just a detour. A shortcut.
SAM: A shortcut to what?
Thankfully, that’s when the Nazgul turns up and they’re all too busy avoiding Morgul blades to think of jokes, at least until the Council of Elrond. “Nine companions?” says the sombre Elf. “So be it. You shall be…THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING!”
Look, calling out chapter names is OK when it’s as bland as, I don’t know, ‘Helm’s Deep’. You wouldn’t have got very far without that. Theoden would have had to say “WE GO TO MY VALLEY CLUBHOUSE!”, which would have been rubbish. Similarly (and steering the conversation back towards Doctor Who), the whole concept of ‘Listen’ revolves around the act of listening – chiefly to oneself – and although it’s never really apparent why the Doctor comes out of his meditation bellowing that single word, except that it looks creepy on a blackboard, it more or less works. Less effective is having Rita say “That’s quite a God complex you have there” while the Doctor’s being all self-important, but if anything that’s because of the title of the episode, rather than anything in it. And yet the title works because of its multiple layers. Which is the chicken here, and which the egg?
Sometimes it does seem that Doctor Who is mocking the Jackson fetish for awkward insertions (and yes, I know he’s not the only culprit, but these films have been sycophantically fawned over for years and it really is time we talked about how rubbish they are in places). Having the Doctor bellow “Dinosaurs…ON A SPACESHIP!” is both self-indulgent and brilliant, and in an episode that was less ridiculous it would have stuck out like a sore thumb – in this case, it’s all just part of the fun. Having Mels shout “OK, LET’S KILL HITLER!” is somewhat less successful, but again the story gets away with it because of sheer silliness. (You will note that every episode I’ve mentioned here was broadcast within the last seven years – if there’s one thing Russell T Davies seldom had a problem with, it was titles.)
There is, at least, one sin of which the Lord of the Rings films are not guilty, and that’s to end on a title. Their last words are generally fairly profound, or laced with hidden profundity as the characters gaze out at a beautiful / dismal / dazzling / foreboding skyline, wind machine optional. Ending on a title is just about the worst thing an author can do, apart from conclude a story with “…and then I woke up”. It’s the literary equivalent of concluding your drama class sketch with “That’s it”. It isn’t wrong, but we Just Don’t Do It. (Sue Townsend did, of course, and I still haven’t quite forgiven her.)
And yet authors do. It was endemic within the sort of dreadful novels my mother used to enjoy – the Domestic Sagas, light and easy to read, covers emblazoned with soft-focus pictures of impassioned romantic couples or resilient single parents. Examples that spring immediately to mind are Elizabeth Murphy’s A Nest of Singing Birds and a book called As The Crow Flies which could have been written by anyone, given the popularity of its title (and no, it was not the Damien Boyd one and it probably wasn’t the Jeffrey Archer one either). But the greats aren’t immune – Bill Bryson finished Neither Here Nor There, his great European travelling memoir, in exactly this fashion, and no, I don’t care that it’s a pun. It’s colossally lazy. If you must, just use a different title. Titles are easy. It’s endings that are hard.
Thank goodness Doctor Who never does this. Right?