Monthly Archives: October 2018

Have I Got Whos For You (series 11 edition, part 2)

In between scribbling episode write-ups and wacky conspiracy theory parodies I’m still churning out the memes, and if we don’t keep on top of them we’ll probably land ourselves in hot water further down the line. So you may expect posts every fortnight or so. Hey, at least they don’t take long to read.

This week’s edition centres on deleted dialogue – first, a bit of timely social commentary from ‘Rosa’.

In addition to the Banksy reference, ‘Rosa’ was of course notorious for the moment Team TARDIS get thrown out of a restaurant after it’s revealed that certain skin colours are unwelcome. Ryan gets a great little piece of dialogue that was originally attributed to Muhammed Ali – although an early workprint of the first Star Wars film reveals that Malorie Blackman may in fact have been borrowing from George Lucas.

Finally, a couple of leaked cutting room floor moments from ‘Arachnids in the UK’. Shame they cut them, really.

While outside –

Enjoy your Halloween.

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Review: Arachnids in the UK

It’s 1988. I’m in the last year of primary school and I have a dream that gets inside my head, more or less permanently. It takes place in one of those alt-universe scenarios in which the school has been converted into a wildlife reserve, and what passed for a stationery cupboard and ICT suite thirty years ago has been designated ‘The Tarantula Room’. As the dream begins I’m walking out of that room into the main hall, which has been made over as a snow scene, where there is a tarantula the size of a park bench sitting near the piano. Back in the main enclosure, I come across two glass cases: one is filled with babies, the other is seemingly empty. As I approach, a colossal, black-and-orange arachnid is climbing into view, filling the entire cage. It’s smaller than the one in the hall, but it terrifies me, and I scream and I run for the doors – and find them locked.

That was three decades back and since then I can’t look at a tarantula without breaking into a sweat. Actually I don’t look at them at all. I leave the room during the first five minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I haven’t even bothered with Arachnophobia. Years ago I visited the cinema with a few friends; they ran the trailer for Eight Legged Freaks and I watched the whole thing from behind my hands, along with one other similarly afflicted member of our party who is now a respected children’s author. I just about made it through Return of the King, although I still haven’t quite forgiven Emily for running a hand up my arm when Shelob came out.

Still. Spiders are OK. Spiders are useful and clever and always welcome in our house. Spiders I can handle. Except. Except when…look, when I was four, my parents took me to the Cotswold Wildlife Park. It was all going well until we got to the giant tortoises. Tortoises are supposed to be something you can pick up and hold, which can have devastating consequences if you’re partially sighted and mistake them for a pasty or something. Coming face to face with one that’s as tall as you are was a bit of a shock. It’s a great shame because the Galapagos tortoises are dignified and wrinkled and command our respect. You’re not supposed to run away screaming, although the tortoise probably couldn’t do much if you did. It calls to mind the Eddie Izzard routine about the Attack of the Giant Land Snails. “They’re coming!….They’re still coming!”

This is basically the three-paragraph method of explaining that last night’s Doctor Who was, in many ways, a bit of a difficult one. But we got through it, largely because the kids came and sat on the sofa, giving my whitened knuckles a reassuring squeeze with one hand while using the other one to run their fingers up my arm. I am considering a will rewrite.

What happened in ‘Arachnids in the UK’? Well, the long-awaited “She’s in charge” scene finally reared its ugly head, although it flows nicely when it does. The Doctor is competent in a crisis and flustered by social niceties. Ryan’s into Stormzy. We get to meet Yaz’s family, who are disappointingly ordinary. Graham is seeing ghosts. And on the site of an abandoned coal mine, Donald Trump is building a hotel populated by giant spiders. These are house spiders, grown to a colossal size thanks to a combination of genetic experimentation and toxic fumes from the landfill that is sitting beneath the hotel’s foundations. It’s like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, except no one jumps on a skateboard.

There’s a scene at the beginning of the episode that is possibly its strongest moment. You’ll have seen it several times already because it’s the one the BBC used as their preview clip. It’s the bit where the Doctor lands in Sheffield, half an hour after she left, and releases her companions back into the wild, only for a guilt-stricken Yaz to ask her back for tea. It is a simple scene, with an obvious punch line, but it is absolutely endearing – not since the Duty of Care scene in ‘Under The Lake’ has the Doctor been quite so lovable – and nothing else ‘Arachnids’ throws at us quite matches it. Lesson learned? Hold back your strongest material, especially when people are going to watch you anyway.

Four stories in and the staples of Chibnall’s writing style – at least the ones he’s adopted for his tenure in charge – are starting to arrange themselves into patterns. There is the obligatory lesbian character. There is the moment Graham is refreshingly practical. There is the bit where Ryan flirts with Yaz. Some of it is good; some of it isn’t. The gay thing is, at least, dealt with with more subtlety than it was under Moffat, who insisted that it wasn’t a big deal that Bill was gay and then rammed it home just about every week, doing everything except giving her a badge to wear. Chibnall’s approach is to drop it in for a random character and then move on, and perhaps this is the best way forward. Perhaps the only way to meld this into the show’s philosophy is to do it in every episode until we stop realising it’s there. “How often does the train go past?” / “So often you won’t even notice it.”

The ending is another matter. I don’t know. I spoke last week about how this was to all intents and purposes a kid’s programme, and have written reams elsewhere explaining why this is and how we must accept it and move on – but I do wonder if kids are the audience for this. Don’t they know already that guns kill people? Wouldn’t we be better aiming something at the NRA? We can see from the outset that Robertson is an irredeemable bastard – cowardly, selfish, and ready to believe his own hype. He is Trump (or at least the left-wing media’s embodiment of Trump) in all but name – indeed, that particular elephant is dealt with halfway through the episode when it is revealed Trump is a business rival whom Robertson hates, leaving Chibnall free to poke jibes at the current President without fear of Cease and Desist notices from the White House legal team.

When you’re writing for the screen they go on and on about ‘show, don’t tell’ – but was it really necessary to have Robertson brandish his dead bodyguard’s firearm with an evil cackle like some 1990s supervillain? Even if it was, did we really need him to monologue, while the Doctor glowers about mercy, wearing a ridiculous spray gun kit on her back like some Blue Peter Ghostbuster? We were fine last week, because that was a story that was actively about social justice, but in something clearly designed to be a horror narrative (aired three days before Halloween) it feels like Chibnall’s trying to win a bet or something. I’m not adhering for stylistic unity, but moments like this just don’t fit.

It’s appropriate, in its own way. The last time the Doctor dealt with spiders we had twenty minutes of Hinchcliffe-inspired jump scares, followed by twenty further minutes of tedious social commentary, along with the revelation that the moon was an egg. I’m not so cross about that, but I do object to them shoehorning an abortion debate into what was, until that moment, a satisfying and frightening story. ‘Arachnids’ doesn’t suffer from quite the same structural issues, but its climax, in which a leering Robertson declares that guns are what will make America great again – within twenty-four hours of another mass shooting – is undoubtedly hot property, but something that frankly could have done with a bit less piety and a little more subtlety. That Robertson escapes unharmed (and without so much as a by-your-leave by any character except Graham) is a sure sign that we will be coming back to him later, and if we’re counting possible story arcs in a year that we’re not supposed to be having them, I make that four for four.

This was a great episode, until its last ten minutes. It’s frightening – the spiders are convincing, and the build-up to their reveal is decently handled, thanks to Sallie Aprahamian’s competent (if not exactly imaginative) direction. The leads acquit themselves well – Graham’s soft-eyed sightings of Grace are among this week’s quieter highlights, and Whittaker excels at just about everything, whether it’s striding through hotel corridors or trying not to eat Hakim’s dodgy pakora. The supporting characters are (for a change) interesting and engaging; Tanya Fear, in particular, excels as a scientist who is there solely to provide scientific exposition, but doing so with such flair that for once all the technobabble is actually fun to watch.

Does all that make up for things? Perhaps it does; perhaps this week the whole is greater than the sum. But there’s a sanctimonious tone to the conclusion of this story that taints it: the idea that all life is sacred, however many appendages you have. Has the Doctor never heard of pest control? Is she going after Rentokill next? When Robertson pulls the gun and announces that this is a ‘mercy killing’, you almost find yourself agreeing with him – and that, I’m convinced, is not how we’re supposed to be feeling. It all climaxes in a damp squib of a finale, the Doctor and her new friends (we’re not supposed to say ‘companions’ anymore, are we?) travelling off to new adventures in a sequence that’s supposed to be heartwarming, but simply isn’t. And as much as I’d like to put these moments out of my mind and concentrate on the good stuff, it’s scenes like this that linger like a bad smell. Perhaps it’s overstating the point, but how unfortunate that ‘Arachnids’ should end its life the same way the mother spider ended hers – on its back, disorientated and confused, with all its legs wriggling in the air.

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Have I Got Whos For You (series 11 edition)

I’m currently in Yorkshire, sampling the heady delights of rolling hills, ruined abbeys and the local chips – so you’ll have to wait a bit for more serious content. And yes, if you hadn’t noticed, the video reviews have been sadly absent. The first one took far longer to do than I thought it would and frankly I think there are other things I could be doing with my time. So I’m ditching it. Maybe another year, but not this one.

Have a few images to keep you going. We start with the obvious.

And yes, in answer to your question, I am working on a video version of this, but we need to wait for the unscored upload for ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ first. Otherwise it’s going to be all over the place.

Speaking of all over the place, the DW location scouts have been all over the place in their search for exotic filming spots. They found one off the coast of South Africa that stood in for the planet known only as Desolation, but there was still something rather familiar about some of the scenery.

Not to mention this.

You draw far too much attention to yourself, Ms. Whittaker.

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Review: Rosa

First and foremost: this is missing the chart. I am writing it on a Huawei mobile in the middle of a Yorkshire hostel. The kids are playing table football and Lara Croft Go, thankfully not at the same time. Emily – who is just opening the Merlot – has offered me the loan of her tablet, but I’m sure I can cope with this.

Doctor Who was screened in the hostel lounge over hastily concocted sandwiches and a bit of fiddling with the remote (volume down working, volume up not). We were joined by a woman and her two primary school age daughters, both wearing onesies. It was a first time for both of them – “We’ve only ever seen bits of it”, one of them explained, while the other did somersaults off the back of the chair as Rosa was escorted off the bus.

How might you react if this were your first ever episode of Doctor Who? It must happen. People tune in like that all the time, and the “How should I introduce my wife / child / friend / vet to the show?” question is one that comes up an awful lot in my groups. Curiously the most popular answer is ‘Blink’, which is surely a dreadful choice, given that it’s so atypical? Wouldn’t you be better off with ‘The Pilot’? ‘Smith and Jones’? ‘Spearhead’? Preferably something that gets in, does what it needs to do and gets out again with a reasonable body count? That said I did hear about one chap who was indoctrinated with ‘Blink’: it supposedly terrified him. He owns a sculptures yard.

Rosa Parks doesn’t work with sculptures. She’s a seamstress, putting in long hours adjusting the suits of rich white people before catching the bus home. She will eventually make history by refusing to give up her seat, which ultimately sparks the civil rights movement.

Except it may not. Because history is under threat from a sneering time traveller who is so inconsequential I’ve already forgotten his name. Deciding that this was the moment it all started to go wrong for mankind, he elects to nudge the course of history by way of the butterfly effect: a shift change here, a broken window there, and before anyone realises what’s happening years of progress are out of the window and segregation and institutional racism are alive and well in 2018.

I know what you’re thinking, but we’re not going there tonight. The Doctor didn’t, exactly. There were nods to the present: Ryan and Yas, in this week’s notch on the will-they-won’t-they bedpost, find themselves unexpectedly bonding while hiding outside a seedy motel room that doesn’t welcome coloured folks. “It’s not like Rosa Parks wipes out racism from the world forever,” Ryan laments. “Otherwise how come I get stopped by police way more than my white mates?”

Has Doctor Who shifted into sledgehammer and nut territory? It wouldn’t be the first time. But how else would you do it? There is no nice way to tell this story to its intended audience without talking about the way things are now, and no way to do so with the intended audience (kids, but we’ll get to that) unless you are fairly transparent about it. Yesterday evening I watched Alfonso Ribeiro on Strictly Come Dancing. This evening I was reminded of the episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air where Will and Carlton get arrested by a few obviously racist police officers. It’s heavy handed and preachy, as the show often was, with enough Very Special episodes to rival the likes of Blossom, or even Diff’rent Strokes.

And yet we love it. I love it! Why is this? Is it because they were funny? Was the acting better? Or is it simply more effective when it doesn’t come across as white guilt virtue signalling? Was this a stone that Doctor Who ought to have left unturned? A line that shouldn’t be crossed?

Perhaps not. Make no mistake: ‘Rosa’ is a throwback that is set to alienate a part of the fanbase as much for its style as for its content. This is as close to a straight historical as we’ve had in years, and that’s going to upset people. There are no monsters in the cupboard: merely an unpleasant man who could just as easily have stepped out of the house down the road as he could have warped in from the forty-ninth century. There is not a whiff of culture shock about Krasko (see, I remembered eventually) and that makes him dangerously close to home – and it is this, I am convinced, that is likely to fuel much of the inevitable resentment that we’re going to see online from people who “aren’t racist, but”. It’s already playing out in The Daily Star (I am not linking on principle). The fact is he’s much of a muchness: greater sins are committed by the people of Montgomery, and Krasko is bland and unrecognisable because he doesn’t need to be anything else. He’s not the villain. The villain is us, and all of us.

It plays like an episode of Quantum Leap. We’re in predestination turf again, the Doctor and her companions racing against the clock to try and readjust the timeline so that history runs its course – or perhaps adjust it the way it was always meant to be, with their presence a necessity rather than a potentially dangerous intervention. The specifics don’t really matter: it is perhaps the first time we see them working as a team and it is fun in a way that Hartnell’s crew was and Davison’s crew could never manage. If Whittaker doesn’t quite convince this week – it’s unfair to keep making this comparison but these are lines, you can’t help thinking, that would have sat better with Tennant – the other characters do, whether it’s Graham parking up with a fishing rod or the sound of Ryan’s jaw hitting the carpet when he meets Dr King. If it’s a bit Scooby Doo in places that’s not a bad thing. At least they’re all out doing something.

Listen. This is a kid’s show. You may not like hearing that, but it is. When I’d finished rolling my eyes at the closing video montage, as the TARDIS sailed out of Alabama and off to wherever the Doctor is needed next (Sheffield again, by the looks of the teaser) it was left to Emily to point out the one thing I’d missed. “Kids probably enjoyed it,” she said. “It told the story and it was a good episode for them -” and she indicated the boys, who were looking at the screen thoughtfully. “And, you know, I think black children needed to hear it. Especially right now.”

This would have been a very good Sarah Jane adventure. It is a good Doctor Who. It is by turns meandering and madcap, but one thing that is working beautifully this series – for all its worthiness and lackluster writing – is the way it allows the characters to breathe. They behave as you would expect them to behave, considering what they’ve been through. And it does seem to be a lot. There are thirteen other time / space destinations sitting between last week and this one, a gap presumably filled with the books, along with an awful lot of headcanon.

Still: it works. I do wonder what those two girls made of it. Perhaps I’ll find them and ask them. But first, I need a refill. Enjoy your week, folks. I’m going to look at rocks.

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God is in the detail (11-02)

When I first watched ‘The Ghost Monument’, my heart sank a little. For all my heartfelt belief that Chibnall had inherited the mantle of Chief Puzzler and Imp that Steven Moffat cast from his bosom ere he ran forth from the Doctor Who production offices clicking his heels and shouting “I’M FREE!” while dancing a merry jig, it seemed that the second episode was as dry as the desert in which it was filmed, barren and stagnant and utterly bereft of clues. There were no monitor readouts. No intricately decorated chambers. Not even a bus to look at. Just a lot of ruins. I was lost and helpless and out of inspiration. There were tears, I tell you. Actual tears.

But that second viewing was like a light bulb going on. Because when you dig beneath the surface (shortly before lying down on your back and throwing a cigar in the air) there is a whole bunch of VERY IMPORTANT SIGNS AND WONDERS in this story, pertaining to this year’s series arc and beyond. And today we bring you just a few of the very important CLUES AND HINTS that we noticed. Just a few, mind; I’m on holiday tomorrow and I need to pack.

And while I’m doing that, constant reader, perhaps you would be good enough to examine this.

They keep telling us to count the shadows: today I’m telling you to count the spotlights. There are ten in total, of varying sizes, alluding to Doctors One through Nine, including the war Doctor. The angle from which this was shot – in which identical-sized lights suddenly take on unique and distorted sizes – is itself highly important as it enables us to ascribe values to each spot. Because (and this is the crucial point) THESE DO NOT APPEAR IN ORDER. Taking into account the relative number of episodes that each Doctor has appeared in, we may number the spots like this.

Starting with 1 and working our way clockwise, we get the number 12759346885, and Googling this leads us to a French phone number lookup site. It runs off the acronym CACS, and is part of the OVH cloud computing network. But a curious thing happens when we rearrange these letters: we get ‘Cosh Vac’, which is an UNMISTAKABLE WARNING that in a subsequent episode Bradley Walsh will be whacked on the head and then thrown out into the vacuum of space (again), and that the cryptic sight of the Doctor blowing a kiss to her companions is the moment she’s going out to rescue him.

Also note that Whittaker is angling her head into the sweet spot between one and two, which refers to the much-desired and sadly missing final episode of ‘The Tenth Planet’, in which viewers saw William Hartnell regenerate onscreen into a scruffy cosmic hobo. But is it still missing, or is this a clue that they’ve found it? Could it be that Philip Morris’s rummaging through Nairobi skips and Saudi military compounds has finally borne fruit? Are they saving this for a Christmas download? Only time will tell, but I’d start digging out your piggy bank now, if I were you.

Next let’s look at this rather splendid piece of South African architecture.

You will observe:

  • The four pyramid-style pillars at the top, symbolising the first four Doctors
  • The pillar on the dunes below, positioned directly below the fourth pillar, therefore referring CLEARLY AND EXPLICITLY to the imminent return of the Curator, as played by Tom Baker
  • The general prettiness of the whole thing.

I mean it is rather grand, isn’t it? Beats a quarry in Suffolk, that’s for sure. Still, don’t let the aesthetics distract you – we’re not finished yet. You see the lines of square holes just above the sand? Examine the top layer. For this it’s necessary to resort to binary, taking the presence of a hole as a 1 and the absence of a hole as a 0.

Thus, if we read along that top layer of holes, we get the following: 10100100010001

which converts to decimal as

1051310

Or, in other words:

It’s when we examine this week’s guest cast that things get really interesting. First let’s look at Shaun Dooley, who played opposite John Simm and Olivia Coleman in Exile and David Tennant and Olivia Coleman in Broadchurch. And yes, there’s an old joke about the BBC having only a dozen actors and endlessly reusing them – but c’mon, folks. These actors? Can that really be a coincidence? I’m calling it here: The Thirteenth Doctor will meet with an alliance of Prisoner Zero and the Master in 2019, and will find herself aided and abetted by the Tenth Doctor. As if all this weren’t enough to whet your appetite, Dooley was also seen in The Woman In Black, THE COLOUR OF CHOICE FOR JODIE WHITTAKER’S THIRTEENTH DOCTOR REVEAL VIDEO. This is all building to something. Just watch.

Then there’s Art Malik, who appears in hologramatic form, sitting in a tent. But we have to rummage through his CV to get to the meat. First there’s his role in A Passage To India, A COUNTRY THAT WILL BE VISITED LATER IN THE SERIES. Then there’s his role in The Living Daylights, playing opposite Timothy Dalton – yes, him wot played Rassilon. Some years later, after fourteen months of unemployment and some nasty letters from the Inland Revenue, Malik resurfaced in what is probably his most popular role, playing a terrorist opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1994 blockbuster True Lies.

What do we make of this? The title itself is a blatant clue as to the existence of the series arc, given Chibnall’s insistence that he was speaking the truth about a non-existent series arc that now seems to be about to rear its toothy head. And, of course there were [coughs] one or two other things he may have been lying about, all the while feigning his innocence like a naughty schoolboy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Need we point out the homophonic parallels between Malik and Dalek? We need not.

However: we may also rearrange the letters of Salim Abu Aziz (Malik’s True Lies character) into ‘Lamia is abuzz’, which CLEARLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY pertains to the Greek story of Lamia, a Libyan queen who was mutated into a child-murdering monster by her own grief. I will just remind you all that in the last episode we were warned about a timeless child. And I leave it to you, dear reader, to join the dots.

Susan Lynch was in Ready Player One, which features a TARDIS. Um.

Oh, and just before I sign off, has anyone noticed the cushions? The cushions that happen to be THE SAME COLOUR AS JODIE WHITTAKER’S TROUSERS? Who else saw that one coming?

Yep. Thought so.

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Review: The Ghost Monument

A little over four years ago, we saw the Doctor get pretty close to performing actual surgery. It happened when a group of military types decided to insert him into a Dalek. As written it sounds a little kinky (which was entirely deliberate on my part) – as it stands, there was miniaturisation technology, a cast of entirely forgettable military types and a bit where the Doctor appeared inside an eighties music video, as well as a seemingly abandoned plot strand involving the likely parentage of a soldier named Journey Blue.

If it seems strange that you’ve just been regaled with the plot for ‘Into The Dalek’ it’s largely because I basically had to remind myself. It’s the sort of episode that is so staggeringly average I can barely remember anything about it. My interest level for that week is a single flat line, like a close-up of a heart monitor in a medical drama. It was about as by-the-numbers as they come, with a couple of amusingly callous remarks from the (then) new Doctor the only thing that stands out in my memory. There was absolutely nothing that would make you want to experience it again; neither was there anything that made me want to throw things at the TV. It is the Whovian equivalent of Northampton: an inconsequential place you drive through in order to get to Sherwood Forest.

I’ve devoted two paragraphs to this because it strikes me that in years to come, ‘The Ghost Monument’ will be remembered in much the same way. In the tradition of ‘The Bells of Saint John’, ‘The Lazarus Experiment’ or ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ (insert your own), it is staggeringly average. Last week’s cliffhanger is resolved quite literally at the speed of light – the Doctor and her companions rescued from the vacuum of space faster than you can say ‘Bowl of petunias’, as two ships jump out of hyperspace looking for a planet that’s no longer there. It’s been knocked out of orbit, leading to a crash landing that is arguably the only really memorable set piece in the entire story.

The planet itself is the final waypoint for an intergalactic space race – think Cannonball Run, without the jokes – hosted by none other than Art Malik, appearing like a Grand Vizier in a tent that, at least from the outside, looks rather like the one where Sylvester McCoy once fought clowns and gods. There is none of that here, of course: this is all about getting enough cash to escape from poverty and ethnic cleansing, and you can bet that somewhere in a ramshackle tenement slum on some dystopian colony there is a middle-aged couple watching the whole thing on TV. The race has been narrowed down to two final contestants: Epzo, hostile, treacherous and harbouring Freudian resentment since the day he fell out of a tree, and Angstrom – tortured, pragmatic and conveniently lesbian. Both would kill each other given the chance, but violence results in instant disqualification, so in this week’s morality play the two must learn to put aside their differences if they’re going to get out alive.

Only the Doctor smells a rat. If this was once a thriving planet, she reasons, then where are all the people? It’s not long before we find out, although having Whittaker read the confession from a scientist’s log book somewhat lessens the horror: it’s clear what they’re trying to do, but talking scarves really aren’t much of a threat, and besides the sense of isolation was already done and dusted the moment the killer robots turned up.

You know, there was a time when you could get away with a quick remark about firearms and then that would be the end of it, but ‘The Ghost Monument’ makes it clear that ship has sailed (and docked, and sailed again, and struck an iceberg). It’s not enough for the Doctor to snap “No firearms!” when Ryan suggests gunning down the robots: instead, the aversion to shooting things is contextualised with a ludicrous set piece, where the young fella shouts “CALL OF DUTY!” before displaying an uncanny level of precision while handling a gun he’s never seen before and has no idea how to use. (For the record, I have played several of the Call of Duty games, and whatever Ryan says, the only thing you really learn is that Activision wouldn’t know a decent story if it clonked them over the head with a rifle butt and then locked them in a Gulag.)

Look, I don’t mind the social commentary. And I know this is for kids. But I was watching it with several kids, and at least two of them thought it was ridiculous, particularly when the Doctor then clarifies her remarks by systematically frying all the robots with a conveniently placed EMP, not long before she then blows up several pieces of fabric with this week’s Chekov’s Gun, which happens to be cigar-shaped. The lesson we learn from all this is that mindless violence is fine as long as it doesn’t involve shooting anything, because that’s something the Doctor left behind in the eighties. This in itself isn’t a problem – the concept of absurd double standards has been going on for years, and it’s pointless to complain about it now – it’s just the heavy-handed approach that has the audience rolling its collective eyes. It’s for the kids, but kids are smart, and they know when they’re being patronised. Maybe we could have a monologue to camera next week?

It should come as no great surprise that the titular Monument turns out to be the TARDIS. Chibnall sensibly gets it out of the way at the beginning, and the scene in which the Doctor is eventually reunited with her craft is understated and genuinely touching, although the gag about redecorating – with its obvious punch line – is a misfire. Indeed, some of the best things about this week involve character, from Yaz’s frank conversation with Angstrom about her family to Graham’s tentative sparring with Ryan. Perhaps it’s an age thing, but Graham is swiftly becoming my favourite character this year, with Bradley Walsh throwing himself into the role of reluctant adventurer with dignity and aplomb: Graham hasn’t got a clue what’s going on most of the time but he’s always willing to have a go, and that makes him great fun to watch.

It’s now apparent that Chibnall’s promise that these would be no series arc this year may have been a misdirection, as indicated by both the re-emergence of the Tenza and Whittaker’s apparent shock at being told about ‘the timeless child’, which may or may not have been the Doctor but probably is, in the same manner that Series 9’s Hybrid may or may not have been the Doctor but probably was. It’s too soon to know where we’re going with this but it keeps the press hot and the fan theories bubbling, so everybody wins. There was a brief window when the comparative novelty of an overarching narrative was just about enough for the show to escape with its dignity intact: such an approach had worn out its welcome by the end of Series 5 and by the time the Doctor was stomping across Gallifrey I was just about ready to throw in the towel and get on board that shuttle with Rassilon. Things may improve this year but there’s no point in shoehorning character development and sacrificing narrative for the sake of fulfilling a grand design, and if that’s really what’s about to happen again then the audience may be in for a long and tedious few weeks.

Still, at least they’ve got the TARDIS back. Now can we please talk about something else?

 

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God is in the detail (11-01)

Ah, Steven Moffat. Now there was a man who loved teasing his audience. It was never enough just to put a twist in; his goal, played out with nigh-on obsessive abandon, was the trail of breadcrumbs. Whether it’s Sherlock surviving his fall from the roof, the true identity of Ms Utterson from Jekyll, or what was really in the Doctor’s room in that creepy hotel, it wasn’t genuine Moffat without a puzzle for everyone to solve. It’s a far cry from the days when Doctor Who was aired once and then had to be revisited via Target novels because no one had a video recorder and in any case the BBC had already wiped the tapes. Repeat viewing is not only encouraged, it’s practically mandatory, along with all the bells and whistles of online discussion, dissection and deconstruction.

Still, Moffat’s gone now, so we can’t do that anymore, right? Wrong!

If you’re new here, you won’t know that I spend much of my time during series broadcasts going back through last week’s episodes searching them for things that will come back to haunt us later. Because as everyone in the Doctor Who production offices knows, there is NO SUCH THING as an accident. Every sign, every prop, every seemingly inconsequential bit of detail – from the shape of buildings to the seemingly random use of filming locations – is a potentially VITAL CLUE that gives us CLEAR AND SIGNIFICANT FORESHADOWING for events later in the series.

And guess what? Chibnall has apparently inherited Moffat’s clue fixation. Because when I went back through ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ I found a whole bunch of stuff – and today, dearest reader, I bring it to you, served up with a salad garnish and a complimentary Americano. Come with us now as we explore a world of signs and wonders that will LITERALLY make your head explode.

We start on a train.

Observe the two numbers by the wall panel – one directly above Jodie Whittaker’s head, one at the upper left of the screen. We’ll get to that one in a moment, but let’s look at 68509 first. It is – as if you hadn’t guessed – a reference to the zip code for Lincoln, Nebraska, where the TARDIS crew are set to land in an episode from Series 12. The Nebraska DHHS is here, which will presumably be a plot point as the Doctor refuses to go anywhere that’s just initials.

Do acronyms count? Because there’s a very prominent one just above – UNIT. And the numbers that follow – 9110, for ease of reference – refer EXPLICITLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY to UNIT. Why is this? Well, the first two allude to Marc Platt’s novelisation of ‘Battlefield’, released in print form in July 1991, while the 10 refers to 2010, the year in which The Sarah Jane Adventures broadcast their 2010 crossover episode ‘The Death of the Doctor’, which saw Sarah Jane team up both with the Eleventh Doctor and former member of UNIT staff Jo Grant, as played by Katy Manning. We’ve been asking for another appearance from Jo for years, and it looks like we might finally be about to get our wish.

(As an aside, this is a good time to mention that I finally met Katy Manning last December. She was absolutely lovely, despite me squealing like a fanboy. I have it on good authority that she is like that with everyone.)

But was it a nod to Jo Grant, or was it actually about Matt Smith? Consider this screen grab from Ryan’s YouTube monologue.

There are a number of things going on here, in a quite literal sense. Ryan’s thumbs up rating sits at Eleven (capitalisation intentional) while his thumbs down is sitting at two. Leaving aside the question of exactly what sort of callous bastard would rank down a video where you were talking about your dead grandmother, we also need to consider what number you get when you add eleven and two.

I will leave it to you, dear reader, to do the math(s).

Ryan’s view count is nineteen, which is a CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS reference to Paul Hardcastle’s iconic song about the Vietnam War, indicating a likely story arc for Series 12. And his subscriber count is sitting pretty at thirty-seven, which is not a random number and certainly NOT A COINCIDENCE. Thirty-seven, you will recall, is the age of Dennis the political peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – a film that introduced us to the delightful Tim the Enchanter. You see? There was a whopping great clue about the identity of this episode’s villain smack bang in the middle of the opening scene, and not ONE of you noticed. Not one. I’m not angry, folks, I’m just disappointed.

A funeral next, because we need to talk about the balloons.

There are sixteen balloons, which allude to the thirteen canonical Doctors, plus John Hurt, Richard Hurndall and David Bradley: in short, sixteen actors who have played the Doctor onscreen in official BBC stories. (There are probably more; don’t tell me about them because it’ll spoil the pattern.) Note that the Eighth Doctor is directly over Bradley Walsh’s head. Also note that Paul McGann’s Holby City storyline seems to be drawing to a natural close – it may have wrapped up by the time you read this and it may even have wrapped already, as I’m writing it. We’re two episodes behind so please don’t spoil it for me.

Additionally, notice the colour scheme. There are three:

Never mind the subtle but CLEAR-CUT indication that Lalla Ward will soon be back as Romana – has anyone else noticed that there’s one missing? The short, scooter-riding one? The one who shares her name with a famous author?

There are a number of episode titles we could mash here, such as The Tell-Tale Hearts, or The Satan Pit and the Pendulum, or simply The Oblong Box, which doesn’t need any modification. But could the imminent appearance of the great writer himself – a man whom the Doctor has encountered several times before – be any more clear cut? To borrow one of Gareth’s jokes, quoth the raven: “Again again!”

We’ll conclude at the end of the episode, in this scene in the charity shop where the Doctor picks out her outfit.

“But how can you tell it was a charity shop?” some people on Facebook have been whining, to which the answer is “Of course it’s a bloody charity shop”. I mean, look at it. There are books on the shelves and there’s a pile of bric-a-brac near the clothes racks. Yes, the changing room is unusually big. Maybe Cardiff has an obesity problem. Besides, where else are you going to find that sort of mismatched ensemble, other than in the dressing up box at a local children’s centre?

I mentioned this to Emily, who said “Well, of course it’s a charity shop. I can just picture her going through those t-shirts. ‘Ooh, look, this one says Sarah-Jane Smith. That rings a bell’.”

I laughed, and then said “Listen, if Sarah-Jane was still stitching name labels in her clothes in her her mid-twenties, I’m glad the Doctor left her in Aberdeen.”

But I’m sidetracking. Because there’s a reason they went to this particular charity shop (or thrift store, if you’re reading this in the other side of the Atlantic). Where is it? If you’re in Cardiff  you could probably have told me without having to look it up, but I had to do a bit of legwork – a word which in this context means ‘look at Google Maps’. There are plenty of charity shops in Cardiff, but we may narrow it down by using the Domino Pizza emporium on the other side of the street as an anchor.

To cut a long story short, it is this one:

“KIDNEYS!”

This is loaded with detail. Never mind the fact that there is a phone box RIGHT THERE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STREET, indicating that not only is the much-anticipated Bill & Ted 3 movie finally out of production hell, but that IT WILL BE A DOCTOR WHO CROSSOVER – never mind all that, have you seen the sign just above the housing association window? You know, the one about landlords? Are we heading back to Bristol? Could David Suchet’s Series 10 character be about to make a sudden, unanticipated return? Well, it’s no longer anticipated, is it? We called it, right here. Watch this space.

But wait! There’s more. The address for this particular map reference is 202 Cowbridge Road, and in production history we find that story 202 was ‘The End of Time’, a CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS nod to the IMMINENT RETURN of Rassilon, presumably in the Christmas special. Sadly there’s no word on whether he’ll be played by Donald Sumpter, so we may need to look further afield. Anyone got Jeremy Irons’ phone number?

But wait! There’s STILL more. Look across the street.

Let’s ignore the near miss on that sign, shall we? I suspect the owners are very grateful that it’s the U that’s missing, rather than the O. Besides, we’re now in Series 6 territory: Canton referring, of course, to Canton Everett Delaware III, the Doctor’s erstwhile companion during his battle with the Silence, and who has by the present day moved into local radio, producing a couple of hours of disco-themed music on a weekly basis for online radio station NTS, broadcasting from London, Los Angeles, Shanghai and Manchester. Who else saw that coming? I know I didn’t.

But as if this weren’t enough, scroll back up to that first picture again and note the Registered Charity Number on the sign above the Kidney Research window. It’s 252892 – seemingly innocuous, right? Wrong again. Because a curious thing happens if you stick this into the hex box for an RGB colour converter. I know because I did it, and I could scarcely believe the shade that appeared on the display:

Mind. LITERALLY. BLOWN.

Categories: God is in the Detail | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Video Review: The Woman Who Fell To Earth

I’ve been putting it off for years, but you’re only young once, right?

Well, unless you’re a Time Lord. Then it’s open season. This morning I met a woman in remission who said that learning the piano was on her bucket list. This is a completely different scenario and I actually don’t know why I even brought it up. But still: it seems silly to continually procrastinate when I now have more time on my hands than I’ve had since before Edward was born.

So today, to celebrate the launch of our newly designated brianofmorbius.com URL (paid for, and AD FREE) I’m launch a new feature: I’m going to do video reviews for Series 11. I will include links for these in the text version (the first one has been done for you) but I’ll also post them separately, simply because you’re more likely to find it.

It is early days so I ask you to please bear with me. I am new at this, just as I was once new at written reviews (which hopefully explains why the early ones were rubbish). It could probably do with a little less self-indulgence – some of the silliness from this week’s session has already landed on the cutting room floor, and I’m still playing with the format. I’ll get better.

In the meantime, here’s what we came up with for the series opener. I throw myself open to the mercy of the court.

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Review: The Woman Who Fell To Earth

“We don’t get aliens in Sheffield!”

In the middle of a bustling northern city, people are disappearing. There are lights where there shouldn’t be lights. A ruined kebab lies in the middle of a deserted street, surrounded by salad which was recently used as an offensive weapon. And a sparky woman who looks to be in her mid thirties is bustling about a train carriage in a suit that really shouldn’t fit her but somehow does, giving orders and occasionally screaming

Maybe it’s because I work in the media these days, but I can’t recall a time a series opener was surrounded by quite so much anticipation. It’s partly the way the entertainment press works, with three hundred word articles carefully shaped around quotes, speculative guesswork and social media reaction, but partly the fact that this feels, just for once, like something different. Doctor Who has always been about change, but this has been the closest thing we’ve had to an outright revolution since 2005, with just about everything changing at once. And while it’s fair to say that the show will always survive – in some form or another – and that the worst case scenario would be cancellation and then the 1990s playing on repeat, there is nonetheless a very real sense that the BBC are taking a big gamble this year, one that could either rejuvenate a tired franchise or kill it stone dead. And the biggest question on the lips of eighty per cent of the fandom this weekend was roughly the same: would the opening episode of series 11 live up to its colossal hype?

The answer, of course, is yes. And also no.

‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ is a Schrodinger’s Doctor Who. It is both brilliant and dreadful, depending on whom you ask. Most of the people who were determined not to enjoy it will have hated it, or at least the parts they managed to watch before switching off the TV in disgust and voicing their discontent on the official Facebook page. Meanwhile, those who have treated the Thirteenth Doctor with the same sort of reverence religious fanatics typically reserve for the second coming (which, in a way, is exactly what’s going on) are shouting “TOLD YOU SO! TOLD YOU SO!” from the rooftops, which is coincidentally exactly what all the haters are shouting as well. As such, the truth (subjectively speaking) is a murky middle ground where this was at once a revelation and a distortion, a triumph and a disappointment, all things either good or ungood.

Before we move on, let’s get the elephant out of the TARDIS and back into his paddock. Whittaker is fine. If it takes her a while to warm up that’s typical post-regeneration, and by the time she announces both to a sneering extraterrestrial and the world in general that she’s the Doctor (from the top of a windswept crane, no less), we’re ready to believe her. There are few surprises. She plays the role in exactly the manner you might expect her to, based on the available trailer footage and the recently unveiled preview clip that no one watched when it was leaked, honest. There is an intense, Tennant-like quality to her manic gesticulations and babbling monologues: enthused and distracted and simultaneously comfortable around people in a way that Smith’s and Baker’s Doctors never were. Whittaker herself has deliberately not done her research (her performance is arguably the better for it), and any connections we make are simply going to fulfil the Eighth Doctor’s observation about seeing patterns that aren’t there – nonetheless it is Tennant’s Doctor that Whittaker seems to be channelling, and while she will undoubtedly make the role her own sooner or later it is the Tenth Doctor that currently provides our best frame of reference. It is deeply symbolic, in a way, that the first time we encounter her she has just fallen through a roof.

If the last series opener was a character piece, and ‘The Eleventh Hour’ was a stylistic overhaul dressed up in a rural, almost Pertwee-esque caper (‘The Daemons’ on steroids), this tries to deliver a gripping narrative as well as establishing a raft of new travellers, and doesn’t quite succeed. The plot – such as it is – concerns an alien warrior who has come to Earth in order to ascend the career ladder by picking off a randomly designated human; it’s a microcosmic Predator, in Sheffield. Said alien is dressed in one of Iron Man’s cast-offs and has the distinct advantage of being able to kill anyone he touches thanks to an extremely low body temperature. He has a hundred facial piercings, all made with human teeth, and has an unorthodox mode of transport, given that the first time we see him he’s emerging from a giant Hershey’s Kiss that’s sitting in the middle of a warehouse.

If I’m not exactly selling this to you it’s because the monster of the week, or at least this week, is perhaps the least engaging aspect of the story, and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. It’s certainly not atypical when you view it in the context of the show: Prisoner Zero wasn’t much to look at either, at least until he turned into Olivia Coleman, and the Sycorax were mind-numbingly dull. So it is here: Tzim-Sha (or Tim Shaw, to quote the Doctor’s phonetic teasing) is the same old run-of-the-mill warrior type we’ve seen a hundred times before, a one-dimensional nonentity with few redeeming features and a face that quite literally sets your teeth on edge. A slight Machiavellian streak is about the only thing he’s got working in his favour, and it would have been interesting to find out exactly why this dark suited Goliath feels the urge to cheat in a competition where his physiology already gives him a strong tactical advantage. As it stands, Tzim-Sha’s underhand tactics merely provide a convenient wall for the Doctor to use when she’s bouncing off a few quips about morality.

 

Still. The absence of a memorable, or even interesting villain gives us room to concentrate on the characters, and it’s here that the new series shows its greatest promise. As much as I’ve come to defend the outgoing showrunner over the past year – having realised that ninety per cent of the hatred directed towards him, including my own, was simple jealousy – one thing that is still irritating about Moffat’s work is his tendency to use characters as production lines for jokes. This didn’t simply extend to special guests (sit down, Sally Sparrow, and have a Scooby Snack) but also series regulars. Clara was fun, sparky and usually fun to watch, but she also had a brain like a library, and this was before she started work as an English teacher. The same is true of Amy and to a lesser extent Bill, and while the doe-eyed hand-wringing got a bit much during the Davies years, it’s a blessed relief to find a rendering of Doctor Who that isn’t full of characters who sound like they ought to be in something by Tom Stoppard.

One thing that strikes you about ‘The Woman Who Fell To Earth’ is that up to a point it’s grounded in authenticity. Chibnall has spoken about the idea of family and in the opening story this idea manifests in a literal, semi-blended sense, with Bradley Walsh and Holby stalwart Sharon D. Clarke providing surrogate parenting roles for the bumbling-but-promising Ryan. Ryan is curious, sincere and can’t ride a bike, but inexplicably masters the controls of a building site crane in three minutes flat. Joining him is probationary police constable Yasmine, who is first seen resolving a parking dispute and who seems to spend half the episode behind the wheel of a car, which is what happens when you don’t have a working TARDIS. Walsh is great fun, as we knew he would be – Brian Williams in Grouch Mode, although there’s room for development. It’s a shame, really, that Clarke’s role is little more than a plot point: the adventurous, gung ho instinct that Graham will presumably inherit once he’s trailed round a few quarries, assimilated from a woman whose cards are marked from the moment she steps onscreen. It’s like ‘Face The Raven’ all over again, although at least this time there’s a story.

The episode may be full of real people doing real things but there is a tedious amount of fourth wall breaking. We were promised that gender wouldn’t be a factor, and to a great extent it isn’t – but we do get a couple of worthy-but-dull monologues from the Doctor about moving on. “Right now,” she laments,  “I’m a stranger to myself. There’s echoes of who I was, and a sort of call towards who I am. And I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts.” The nods to fandom couldn’t have been more obvious if she’d been sitting in an interviewer’s armchair reading out Tweets. Not long after, having assembled her new sonic screwdriver in thirty seconds flat – courtesy of a hammer-and-tongs montage that couldn’t be more A-Team if you stuck Mike Post underneath it – Whittaker announces that she’s basically made a Swiss Army knife, only without the knife, because “Only idiots carry knives”.

Is this sort of thing any worse than Tennant’s aversion to guns, or the moralising we got during the Pertwee era? Perhaps it isn’t, and if anything the problem we have these days is that it’s far more likely to generate a headline or a meme, rather than being one of those lines you could simply roll your eyes at and conveniently forget. It’s appropriate that in a world suddenly and drastically aware of just how much waste it’s generating, a show like Doctor Who is no longer is allowed to be disposable trash: the days of file-and-forget are long gone. So perhaps it’s a little unfair to single out Chibnall for doing things that have been a part of the Who rhetoric since 1964: perhaps it’s the culture, more than anything, that deserves a second look.

Still, that can wait. There is much to like in here, even if it’s somehow less the sum of its parts. The new filters lend the show a grand, film-like quality that quite becomes it: Sheffield has seldom looked quite so impressive, even if we mostly see it at night. Likewise, incumbent composer Segun Akinola has learned the lesson Murray Gold never did – namely that less is more. Ambience soaks through the episode without ever overstating its point, and I can’t be the only one grateful that the stirring, overwritten melodic themes and piano-and-string driven moments of overwrought pathos are finally done and dusted, with Grace’s funeral and Ryan’s emotional YouTube monologue delivered in calm, dignified silence.

We end on a cliffhanger, although there are no cliffs in sight: merely the cold vacuum of space, with the Doctor and her new companions adrift, sans TARDIS and seemingly without hope. It’s rather like being in limbo, which is perhaps where Doctor Who has been for some time – and where it remains, even with this new approach. But that’s fine. We can wait. A slow burner is better than a disastrous beginning – that’s what we had with Capaldi, whose first episode is wobbly and uneven and only occasionally marvellous. Far better to warm up slowly than be graced with a work of brilliance that ultimately takes us nowhere. We’ve got ten weeks. Let’s enjoy the ride.

 

If you have time, check out this week’s video review.

Categories: Reviews | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Smallerpictures video dump (part two)

Hello again. The catch-up session showcasing the most average Doctor Who material on the internet continues in earnest this morning – with four videos, all done over the course of a single month. This is unprecedented but they’re all fairly short and I was on a roll. And if you missed part one, you can find it here.

Right, where were we?

 

5. The Badger Song

The Badger Song is older than YouTube. I will let that sink in for a moment.

It hails from the days when Flash was cheap and easy to stream (and this is the moment some smart alec shows up in the comments and tell me it was animated with a different package). There’s something lovably silly about it; this fusion of badgers and fungi and SNAAAAAKES, a novelty record that is so thoroughly pointless that its lack of purpose itself becomes the point. The song turned fifteen at the beginning of September, so for obvious reasons I married it with footage from ‘The Sontaran Experiment’, ‘The Green Death’, ‘Kinda’ and ‘Snakedance’ – but first and foremost from ‘The Monster of Peladon’. MUSHROOM! MUSHROOM!

 

6. Day of the Doctor, Bonus Edition

Oh, Steven. What a can of worms you opened with this scene. It was a delicious, genuinely crowd-pleasing moment, but it makes no sense. I can accept that Capaldi turns up because the calculations weren’t quite done yet – but if that’s the case, how come Smith remembers the whole thing? Surely the persistence of memory is a luxury reserved solely for the oldest Doctor in residence? Or does it not count because there are several TARDIS doors and a few miles of space between them? And come to think of it, why is the First Doctor – whose control of his craft was so poor he could have shot for the moon from six feet away and missed – suddenly able to expertly pilot his TARDIS to precisely the right location at the exact moment he’s needed?

I wrote a little vignette over the summer that comes to explain – via extreme headcanon – precisely how the Twelfth Doctor came to be present in the skies over Gallifrey, but why on earth would you stop there? Because even if he’s the last, there are still a bunch of other Doctors you could use. Peter Cushing, for example, now that he’s supposedly canon. Or Rowan Atkinson. Or…well, I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice to say there were other incarnations I’d like to have shoehorned, but the lack of decent quality footage made it rather difficult. Needless to say I got some flak from this, largely from people who complained that it was anti-Whittaker. It categorically isn’t. But paranoia runs deep within the Whovian fandom; we live with it.

 

7. Ceiling Drop

Ha ha. Yes, we get it. It’s a glass ceiling and she’s broken it. Or somebody did. Either way it shatters, the fragments whirling and swirling around the new Doctor in a visually impressive, Matrix-style swoop. It’s not exactly subtle, and it does smack of troll-baiting, which may not be a bad thing (and certainly not something I’m about to condemn, seeing as it’s a hobby of mine). Whittaker glances through the fourth wall and mutters “Whoops”, which apparently gave her opponents all the ammunition they needed – “LOOK AT HER! SHE’S NOT A CARING DOCTOR!”. The rest of us rolled our eyes.

Several people pointed out that the ceiling is not unlike the one that Tennant fell through at the close of ‘The End of Time’ (supposedly Tredegar House in Newport, although having never watched Doctor Who Confidential I have no idea how they did that spaceship jump). I decided to splice them into a single sequence, kept deliberately short for the sake of not milking the joke. It just about hangs together, which is more than you can say for the ceiling.

 

8. There’s No Noddy

Believe it or not there is fan fiction about this scene. It features a flashback to the Eighth Doctor hanging out with Noddy and the other Toytown inhabitants. I think they were in a cave somewhere. Sadly there aren’t enough pictures of McGann’s Doctor on the internet and in any case no one does the deer-in-headlights look quite like Tennant, with the exception of Capaldi, and that doesn’t even make sense. I have thus pushed poor old Gareth Roberts’ amusing aside to breaking point, but the Photoshops were fun to do. You may be interested to learn that this little montage was playing in my head for years before I actually got round to making it, and it was always scored to ‘Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard’. So that’s what you can hear.

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