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Are you the gatekeeper?

Here is a public service announcement: the following piece contains some strong language, and is also a bit of a rant.

Today, folks, we’re exploring fandom. It’s something I do quite a lot, probably too much, but the mysterious duplicity of it has long interested me. It is a source of both fascination and revulsion; a complicated hotbed of passion and devotion and hatred, a twisted car crash of a thing. Because sometimes fandom gets ugly. In a world of extremes it is the best and the worst of us.

If you’ve been around social media in the past week chances are you’ve run into this story, so I won’t recount it in detail, although the screen grabs are reproduced below. It tells the tale of an unpleasant encounter at SuperCon, which is apparently in Florida, although that was new information. It was posted by someone called valeria2067; I haven’t bothered looking her up. I don’t think it would make a difference in this case. She was approached by an older man at the food court – to be specific, her eleven-year-old daughter was – not long after they’d both met Peter Capaldi. I’ll let valeria take it from here.

As a journalist I have learned to read and report between the lines. You never get the full story; there are words left off the transcript, missing dates, unrecounted deeds. It’s very easy to read a single source and assume you have the full picture, or to read something emotive and feel exactly what you are expected to feel. I have – for reasons I don’t care to unpack – experienced this at close hand these past few months, with half-stories blown out of proportion, vital information left scandalously unreported. The other side is less interesting and therefore ignored, but it is no less worthy. There is is a crack in everything: that’s where the truth gets in.

So I have been turning this story over and over in my head, trying desperately to envisage a scenario in which this conversation may be the clumsily phrased small talk of a socially inept but nonetheless well-intentioned older man. This has nothing to do with apologetics, or gender defence. I just get angry when people jump to conclusions. There is a mob mentality about the world right now: this need for clear heroes and despicable villains. Did you ever see Titanic? Do you remember how Billy Zane played a narcissistic sociopath who was utterly one-dimensional, purely so we could applaud Kate Winslet for cheating on him? That’s kind of the way things are now. It is not enough for Donald Trump to be incompetent, he has to be downright evil as well. (He may be both, of course. Actually he probably is. I’m sure this was going somewhere.)

No, the truth is not the brilliant light of clarity but the murky grey of ambivalence. Perhaps this woman is not reporting the conversation as it happened – there are missing lines of dialogue, crucial game-changing giveaways that didn’t make the transcript. We’ll be here all day if we start down that road, so for the sake of the argument (and because I instinctively want to trust her) let’s assume that what she’s written down is what was said. Perhaps she overreacted. Perhaps the guy was being genuinely friendly, and just phrased his questions with the sort of awkwardness that comes from watching too much TV and conducting the bulk of your conversations over social media, where you get time to change a sentence before anybody gets to see or hear it. Years ago a friend of mine suggested a dystopian novel in which the internet crashes and millions of people find it impossible to engage in real-world dialogue because they’ve forgotten how, leaving a bunch of Luddites to rise up and take control of everything. I’m still waiting for her to write it; if she doesn’t I may pinch the idea myself.

That’s the sort of thing I could almost envisage happening here. Someone who is nice, but who doesn’t know how to talk to kids. Could that be what’s happened, perhaps? A nice man who wasn’t gatekeeping at all, but who was just trying to talk to a younger fan because he was lonely and none of the girls were interested? So I went through this woman’s post and picked it apart and tried to find the weak spots, the moments she built up a defensive wall, perhaps because of past experience, the inconsistencies, the nuances of assumed guilt that may have spawned from reading a situation in the wrong way.

And guess what? I found nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zip.

Because there is no excuse for this man’s behaviour. None. This isn’t a nice guy engaging in an awkward conversation because he doesn’t know how to have a sensible one. This is a gatekeeping dickwad. There is no “other side” to this story, no get-out clause in the face of agenda setting. This is someone who makes the rest of us looks bad – not because he expresses his appreciation for a common interest through reprehensible behaviour, but because through our actions we have helped to create him.

Let’s start with the opening gambit: “Do you even know anything about Doctor Who?” That’s not how you start small talk. That’s a straight-up rhetorical question. That assumes lack of knowledge, based in all likelihood on age, gender and costume choice. He saw a kid meeting the Twelfth Doctor and instantly assessed her worth as a fan. It is value judgement central. It is an inappropriate way to begin a conversation with an adult; for a child it is unforgivable. This is not Alec Guinness diplomatically pleading with a child to watch something other than Star Wars, only for the conversation to be irrevocably warped by thirty years of Chinese whispers. This is just rudeness, plain and unambiguous.

I have no doubt that this man’s choices were marked by his engagement of and experience with younger members of the fanbase. There is a skewed bias towards Nu Who among the discussion groups because it is accessible and contemporary and frankly easier on the eyes than some of the old stuff. There is no point getting grumpy about it. No doubt this grizzled veteran is sick of the Best Doctor polls that routinely run in Facebook groups and online publications, in which Tennant is usually at the top. That’s what happens with polls. They’re filled out by a selective audience. Years ago there were two X-Factor finalists, and the less objectively talented one emerged victorious because he was younger, prettier and Scottish. That’s the way of things. It’s a karaoke competition; we move on.

Having assumed a lack of knowledge, he then fires off a list of questions, the sort of thing you get asked when you apply to join certain groups. When requested to stop, he attempts to justify himself, and fails simply because his cause is rooted in snobbery. How dare you, whispers the subtext behind every question, how dare you bring your daughter up as a fan without doing it the way I would? There is a sense of elitism about it: that certain Doctors are more worth your time, that if you don’t know this or you haven’t seen that then you’re not watching the show properly. The words ‘True Whovian’ are flung about by experienced and fresh and young and old alike, and they mean nothing and should be banned from usage full stop. (I don’t like the word ‘Whovian’ generally, actually, but let’s not go there just now.) Everyone sets the bar in a different place and thus the entire concept is meaningless – her idea of appropriate dedication is different to yours, so how come you get to be right and she doesn’t? It’s patently ludicrous. A fan is a fan regardless of whether they’ve seen only one series or [Googles] all thirty-seven.

Sometimes newer fans make mistakes, but that’s not an excuse for beating them over the head. Listen: uber-fandom is not a fucking badge of honour. There is nothing noble, nothing venerable, about knowing more than everyone else. It makes you a handy person to have on a pub quiz team, but that’s it. Gareth – yes, we’re still in touch – has forgotten more about Doctor Who than I’m ever likely to know, but do you think I spend hours emailing him purely because he knows things? He has seen and read just about everything pre-‘Robot of Sherwood’ (which is where he lost all interest) but he doesn’t brag about it. He answers questions when I ask him for help – usually with something I’m writing – but he has never set himself up as a source of all knowledge, and has never lorded it over me, because if he did I wouldn’t be talking to him.

Let’s move down the chain. I know more than many of the people I talk to online, largely because of the kind of groups in which I’ve made a home for myself. That in itself is nothing to be proud of. I use my knowledge to help people when they need it. Usually they’re polite. When they dig their heels in or are unpleasant, that’s when I get scornful. But I remember what it was like to know nothing. I remember hanging out with a bunch of Who fans in Cambridge and asking them about stories I’d never seen. There was no arrogance in their answers, no sense of superiority. They just told me what I needed to know. They were nice. Did you ever think there’s a place for that? Maybe we’re just not very nice these days, simply because there’s no time. We use our love of the show as a defence. Who cares how you treat other people, as long as Doctor Who is left untarnished?

Do I think Davison was better than Eccleston? Undoubtedly. Do I care that other people don’t? Not in the least. If someone thinks Tennant’s final episode was moving, then that’s fine. If they proclaim him as “the greatest Doctor ever” without having seen Pertwee, or Troughton, or Baker, I’ll probably say “That’s fair enough, I’m glad you like him, but have you considered watching…?”. But I’ll do so politely and in an appropriate context. I wouldn’t say it to an eleven-year-old. Or if I did, I certainly wouldn’t start a conversation with it, particularly when it was someone I didn’t know. I don’t even do it with my own children. Daniel is nine and has seen all the new stories and a few of the old. Tennant is his favourite. I don’t care. I have known wise twelve-year-olds who have memorised entire sequences from ‘The Dominators’; I have known octogenarians who got into the show in 2005. Age is irrelevant.

There is one thing we haven’t discussed, and that’s the possibility of learning difficulties. Thomas started secondary school the other week; his transition days in July proceeded mostly without incident although there was one run-in with a senior member of staff who assumed (incorrectly) that he and another boy with similar issues were being rude, merely because they phrased something rather differently to the way you would expect from someone who was neurotypical (or allistic, or whatever I’m allowed to say now). Basically he forgot about the autism; I’m keeping an eye on things. Is there a possibility this man had Asperger’s? The way the story is recounted – particularly in terms of his body language – it’s doubtful. Do we let him off the hook if he does? Yes, we probably do. But I don’t think it’s a factor. I’ve spent over a decade dealing with autism on a daily basis, and I’m not picking up any of the signs; there are no alarm bells ringing.

I don’t get angry too much these days. My list of pet peeves is a litany of small things. “I loathe burnt toast,” says McCoy, before reminiscing about bus stations. I get angry with tailgaters. Nuisance calls and scammers targeting old people are another target. There’s not much else. People on the internet make me sad, but that’s the way people are when they can say what they like without consequences. You shake your head and hug your family, and think no more on it.

But for one reason or another, this has made my blood boil. This is not the way the world should be. As fans, we need to do better. As men, we need to do better. As so-called adults, we need to do better. I don’t believe (and have never believed) that the message of Doctor Who is kindness, but it’s a lesson we could nonetheless do with learning. I saw it this morning: a new user started a thread in a group asking about numbering, and the response from the rest of the group was to troll him with GIFs and sarcastic comments. Not one of them, it seemed, stopped to consider that perhaps he was simply confused. There are others who start conversations saying how much they love Clara. They are trolled and ridiculed. And these same people, those doing the scoffing and jeering, are the ones ranting about conversations like the one Valeria experienced at SuperCon. Even I’m doing it – taking the moral high ground when I know that my behaviour online is often less than exemplary. Perhaps we should be cleaning our own house, ere we cast a broom round the kitchens of others.

Still. To the guy who did this? I know you’ve probably read all manner of unpleasantness in the last few days, and have languished in obscurity, desperate to come out and clear your name (as you consider it) but daring not to because of the abuse you’ll undoubtedly receive. I have a funny feeling the bulk of your critics will be women, because the rebuttals and defences I’ve encountered have been from men. But I do not want to turn this into a gender-based argument, because this is as much about the culture of fandom as it is about anything else. I could envisage an identical situation where you would have approached a small boy and treated him in the same manner; I suspect that your conscious decision was to practice age-based gatekeeping, but that you saw this girl as an easy target.

Gender isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it is a factor. So as a man myself, I say this. Shame on you. Shame on you for assuming your loyalty gives you a stake, an ownership, or any say at all in how other fans engage with your pet obsession. Shame on you for thinking you can dictate terms of fandom. Shame on you, and shame on us all, men and women and fans and non-fans alike, for breeding the sort of culture where we allow this to happen.

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Doctor Who Does Mindfulness

Hurrah! It’s Mindfulness Day, folks, whatever that is. Supposedly it’s a day to promote mindfulness – the concept of being focused on the here and now and being mindful of what you’re doing, which is something that happens less these days than we’d like to hope it dows. Mindful eating, for example, is tasting every mouthful, concentrating on the food as it passes over the teeth and across the taste nerves and down the back of the throat as it is chewed and swallowed. Mindful breathing is tantamount to meditation. At my son’s school they do mindful reading, or as I call it, ‘reading’.

We’ve briefly discussed mindfulness before – last time was a nod to the Ladybird books, and I really ought to think about doing a part two for that at some point. Today we’re going to talk about genuine mindfulness, and thus I have assembled a selection of quotes and mantras and Advice For Living, from a variety of sources. And I’ve married them with images from Doctor Who. All entirely appropriate and not at all silly. Honest, guv.

If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment live in the breath

Drama does not just walk into our lives either we create it invite it or associate with it

the present moment is full of joy and happiness if you are attentive you will see it

the things that matter most in our lives are not fantastic or grand they are moments when we touch one another

do not dwell in the past do not dream of the future concentrate the mind on the present moment

to think in terms of either pessimism or optimism oversimplifies the truth the problem is to see reality as it is

open the window of your mind allow the fresh air new lights and new truths to enter

many people are alive but don't touch the miracle of being alive

you can't stop the waves but you can learn to surf

wherever you are be there totally

nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know

you only lose what you cling to

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Out and about in Haworth

By the time this little missive turns up on the feeds, I will be in Swansea. I trust your week is going well. I will probably be shouting at the kids. One of these days I really must take them down to Cardiff and do a proper location tour, rather than simply strolling along Roald Dahl Plass and giggling at the Ianto shrine. I need to go and check out that cemetery, for example, and re-enact bits from ‘The Girl Who Waited’ in Dyffryn Gardens. So many power stations, so little time.

As I write this it’s late July, we’re still in the middle of a heatwave and it’s almost impossible to think remember a time when it wasn’t insufferably humid. But the last holiday we had – and one I’ve unfortunately neglected to write about until now – was back in February, when we visited Haworth in Yorkshire, under a couple of feet of snow. Home of the Brontë sisters (and their wayward black sheep), Haworth is hilly, picturesque and overly tourist-driven, particularly in the old village, but it’s not a bad place to spend a week, and the moors are right on your doorstep – providing you can cope with the mud.

Still, you don’t want to see my holiday slides. Well, you do; just not all of them. What possible interest could the BoM audience have with seven shots of us rolling an enormous head up a 1:3 slope? (I knew I didn’t think that one through.) Or panoramic views of the Peaks? You can go to Shutterstock for that sort of thing and you’ll probably find the lighting is better. Still, we did go to Cliffe Castle Museum, in the heart of Keighley (pronounced Keith Lee, for some unknown reason, although I live in a country where Godmanchester is pronounced ‘Gumster’ by the locals, so clearly it’s not worth turning over that particular stone). And this was on the top floor.

Cliffe Castle is home to a dazzling array of…stuff, from ancient Egyptian artifacts to nineteenth century tea bricks (Google it). There are ornate chandeliers in the Victorian parlour, contemporary paintings around the balcony, and there’s an impressive taxidermy collection near the geology exhibition. You walk through one room that deals with farming traditions into an ornate summary of the formation of the Earth, from magma through to Cretaceous, in an impressive inner sanctum with black walls that make the colours stand out. Sod local history: I’m going to look at rocks.

Speaking of stuffed animals, we did find this during our wanderings.

It’s hard to miss it, really, isn’t it? Apparently this really was a genuine sheep, born of ewe and graced with two heads; by the looks of it the poor thing didn’t live very long. It is in here because we think it resembles a Smiler.

My family and I visited an awful lot of museums on this trip – one of my favourites was the Bradford Industrial Museum, which has an impressive array of classic cars, printing presses and just about every loom that rolled off the production line, and if you’re not well versed in the history of weaving when you go in, it’s a dead cert by the time you leave. There are live demonstrations and workshops and a temporary exhibit near the gift shop – and that was where we found this.

I mean. it’s Peter Cushing, isn’t it? He’s changed his hair but I’m sure I can spot Roy Castle in the back somewhere.

One thing this neighbourhood is famous for is its art – or one artist in particular. David Hockney (you know, the swimming pool guy) was born in Bradford, and don’t they know it. Nowhere is this more prevalent, perhaps, than Saltaire – a model village (in the aspirational, as opposed to physical sense) that’s now a World Heritage Site since the mill closed its doors, before re-opening them to reveal a bookshop and hipster cafe. The mill’s enormous ground level is now a spacious, almost cathedral-like exhibit dedicated to Hockney (and a number of other artists): vast murals dominate the walls and ethereal music is piped through the speakers. It’s an almost religious experience, and I say that as a lifelong churchgoer.

We went to Saltaire, but just down the road from the Industrial Museum there’s a smallish gallery called Cartwright Hall, which doesn’t have any incense, but which does have a prototype for Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor costume in the Hockney exhibition upstairs.

Hockney’s a permanent fixture at Cartwright Hall, but the stuff downstairs is shaken up every couple of months. When we went there was a room dedicated to old circus posters, which was far more interesting than it sounds, and an entire wall of Abzorbaloff victims.

Meanwhile, spotted in a Bradford underpass: the DWSR team that never made it back from the ‘Flatline’ shoot.

Admit it, you’re secretly pleased.

What were we doing in Bradford? Amazingly, we weren’t there for Indian food (which Bradford does very well). We were visiting the National Science and Media Museum: five floors of old cameras, magic lanterns and a nice little exhibition about the history of the internet. (There’s also an IMAX cinema, for those who can afford that sort of thing.) If you troop past the walls displaying old cartoons (which are frankly a little unsettling) you will find the penguin jewel heist from The Wrong Trousers – the only set that Aardman didn’t lose in the fire that hit their studios several years back. There’s also an old arcade full of slot machines and consoles from the 70s, 80s and 90s, where we spent a happy half hour revisiting Asteroids, Gauntlet and Sonic The Hedgehog, and where I swiftly remembered that I was never any good at Street Fighter II.

No idea what this is, though. Apologies.

PUT-HER-IN-THE-CURRY.

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How to recognise different types of Doctor Who fans from quite a long way away

All right. I have my beret fixed and my raincoat buttoned. Lean in a little and pay attention. I implore you, just for a few minutes, to listen carefully – because, like Michelle from ‘Allo ‘Allo, I will say this only once.

Seriously, folks, this is getting silly. There is a sense of outrage: over change, and over casting decisions. At the other end of the spectrum there is a sense of outrage over people’s failure to embrace both. Doctor Who is either dead in the water or (delivered swiftly, all in one breath) thebestthingintheworldandifyoudon’tthinksoyou’reNOTAREALFAN. Meanwhile those of us occupying a sensible middle ground are shouted down by people who really need to learn to stop shouting. None of this deserves outrage. This is a TV programme, for heaven’s sake. Is this really where we are? Of all the things about the world that could upset us, this makes the top of the list?

The other day I stumbled upon a comment written by a sock puppet I have encountered more than once in a group I no longer follow simply because the people in there are bloody awful; I’d popped in to drop off a thing I’d posted. He was talking about something in Digital Spy. “At least this author acknowledges there’s a split,” he said, “unlike Baldock, who just writes fluff pieces for the Metro.”

Normally when people miss out half my CV my reaction is to bristle, but I did the polite thing and said hello. He said “Your name is considered a joke in other groups, you sad little man.” It really is the sort of thing that ought to be delivered by a suited, cut-price military bureaucrat in a Marvel movie. To emphasise the point: I do acknowledge there’s a split, of sorts. I just think the rationale behind it is absurd. I’m not saying we all have to agree, but we all have to get along, or learn to ignore each other a bit.

Here’s a summary.

1. There are Doctor Who fans who wholeheartedly embrace the new Doctor and the direction the show has taken. This is fine.

2. There are fans who wholeheartedly embrace the new Doctor and the direction the show has taken, to the point of conviction that Whittaker will be the best Doctor ever and the show is about to enter a new golden age. This is naive but ultimately harmless, so long as such opinions are publicly tempered.

3. There are fans who believe that the act of not instantly falling for the new Doctor is tantamount to an act of betrayal. This is unacceptable. Many of us need time to warm up to these things and not everyone is on the same page as you; this does not make them wrong, nor does it mean you are empirically correct.

4. There are fans who believe that ‘true fans’ back the Doctor irrespective of who is playing him or her. This is poisonous gatekeeping and should be actively discouraged. The words ‘true fan’ should not be uttered at any point by any person, irrespective of their age, gender, rank, or connection with or adulation for the show.

5. There are fans who believe that any opposition to a female Doctor must stem from an inherent bigotry, and that it is impossible to oppose Whittaker’s casting without being on some level sexist. This demonstrates an astounding level of psychoanalysis, and if they’re truly on the ball these people deserve their own talk shows. What’s more likely is that they’re simply toxic; they are best avoided, particularly when they start to gloat.

6. There are fans who are worried about how the show will fare under a female Doctor. Believe it or not, this is fine. We’re in uncharted waters and filling in the blanks is the most human reaction in the world.

7. There are fans who are inclined to be sceptical of what they consider the BBC’s ‘stunt casting’. This is also perfectly valid, so long as such fans maintain an open mind and are willing to at least consider the possibility that Chibnall made this choice because he thought it might be fun, rather than because certain people were leaning on him.

8. There are fans who do not rate Chibnall’s skills as a writer, nor Whittaker’s skills as an actress. This is also acceptable. These things are always going to be subjective. (Personally I think she’s rather lovely, but I am probably not the best judge of these things.)

9. There are fans who refuse to give the new Doctor even the briefest chance, purely out of principle. This is sad, but it’s their loss, and not ours.

10. There are fans who have already abandoned the show and don’t talk about it anymore. This is all right. Leave them be.

11. There are fans who know that the new series will be dreadful before it has aired. The government would like to talk to them about whatever time travel technology they happen to have down in the basement.

12. There are fans who are angry that a ‘traditionally male’ role has become female, and complain of ruined childhoods. This is a human reaction but it is patently absurd. No one has overwritten the old episodes or told you that you can no longer watch them. You are still welcome to enjoy the likes of ‘Fear Her’, ‘Timelash’ and ‘The Twin Dilemma’, just as you can still enjoy Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, and Frank Sinatra in Ocean’s Eleven.

13. There are fans who approach the whole saga from the perspective of bigotry and intolerance. These are unpleasant, obnoxious people who will post links to lengthy YouTube rants and skewed survey data in an attempt to back up their own ideology. The best thing you can do is hit the block button without even talking to them, but be wary that you do not wind up ensconced in the echo chamber without an exit.

14. There are fans who are simply out to troll you. Do not feed them. Seriously, it’s not worth your while.

15. Lastly, there are fans who think they know fandom, and will consider it their life’s mission to tell other fans what to think, as often as possible. These people are usually quite full of themselves. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they’re not. Don’t dismiss them out of hand, but be wary of quoting them verbatim. Stopped clocks twice a day and all that.

I will let that last one sink in for a moment.

There is a nasty air about the internet this week. A single trailer and a couple of interviews and it’s the apocalypse. Everyone knows how it’s coming out, it seems, except me. There are days when I wonder whether it really was the internet who turned us into opinionated idiots, or whether we were like this all along. There are days when I weep because people are so fricking stupid. There are people who watch the panel discussion and genuinely think that Chibnall’s comments about a soft reboot and all-new monsters are a sign that he’s chucking out the continuity. These are the same people who presumably believed that John Barrowman had signed the ink on the deal, not because of any evidence, but because it suited them. Of course it’ll still be Doctor Who. It just won’t have Daleks. You can live without Daleks; they haven’t been interesting since 2005.

Listen: this is an old, old analogy, but opinions are like arseholes. Everyone has one, but there are times when it is not appropriate to air it. In the bath or shower is fine. Or in the presence of a trusted loved one. On other occasions…seriously, why would you put controversial views on display and then complain about the reaction? That’s like poking a wasp’s nest with a stick and then standing there, agape and open-mouthed, when they come out stinging. What’s the point? How many times do we have to read the words “Unpopular opinion I know, but…” before people cotton on to the fact that it is a terrible way to begin a sentence?

Without naming names, there are people in my extended family who need to learn a valuable lesson: just because you can say a thing, it doesn’t automatically follow that you should. It applies equally to fandom: as my father puts it, “Always speak the truth, but remember that the truth need not always be spoken”. Your views are your own, but they are probably less important to everyone else than you think they are, so be wary of what you share. Quality over quantity: consider whether you’re adding anything to the discussion, and consider whether you can say more with silence. And don’t give me that gubbins about free speech or your right to an opinion or how you’re sick of all the pro-Thirteen propaganda from the BBC and SJWs. You can easily avoid this stuff if you try. Get off Twitter. Unsubscribe from the Facebook feeds. But for god’s sake, just be a bloody grown-up about it.

The worst part about all this is that I opened this post with the words “I will say this only once”. But you and I both know that’s not true. Of course I’ll have to say it again, and again, until we’re all sick of it. You never listen.

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The Incredible Shrinking Time Lord

Hey, you. Yes, you! You dozen or so new followers, all from Outlook.com addresses. Don’t think I can’t recognise a spam account when I see one. I’m watching you. One foot out of line and I’m going through the list, so watch yourselves.

I published a thing earlier this week that has caused a bit of a stir, and it looks like this:

The caption was ‘Exclusive first shot of the royal baby’.

Most people seemed amused and it went down quite well in all the Facebook groups I frequent – but there was one, in particular, where the knives came out in force.

“Disrespectful and offensive,” said one person, while an angst-ridden millennial described it as “a classless and distasteful attempt at satire”.

Satire? Satire?!? Look, it may be broad, and perhaps not terribly funny, but it’s certainly not satire. It’s just a throwback to ‘Delta and the Bannermen’. It’s not even a current photo, but rather one from a previous birth – it was up before we saw any pictures of the as-yet unnamed prince (my money’s on Edward, but we’ll see). I don’t know. There is a thing about fawning over the Royal Family, unless you’re a republican, in which case you consider them tax-dodging parasites (I used to, but it isn’t true, and it isn’t fair, and now I don’t). It’s particularly common on the other side of the pond, where there is unbridled adulation for the figurehead of a country they couldn’t wait to be rid of back in 1776; listen, she’s not your queen, and you’re pretty rude about Trump / Clinton / Obama (delete as applicable), so if you can have your fun, why can’t we? Or are some things more sacred than others?

“You’re in America,” I said. “Over here in Britain, ridiculing the Royal Family is par for the course.”

“No,” said a woman I will not name, except to say that she complains about everything, most notably the casting of Jodie Whittaker. “No, it isn’t.”

That’s not to say that all Americans are offended and all Brits are on board; we may have Spitting Image but there is a movement, particularly since the death of Diana, towards granting the monarchy a reverence it arguably does not deserve. The queen is human. So is Prince William. No human is untouchable, not even royalty. I find it ironic that in twenty years time when this no-longer-small child is out partying and Clarence House’s damage control department is working overtime to keep the press happy, it’ll be absolutely fine to take the piss, but having a little fun with a picture of a newborn in which the newborn isn’t even bloody visible is somehow out of order. Seriously, you’re offended by a Photoshopped alien? There’s not much I can do about that, but if that’s really the case, I fear you may have set the bar rather low.

It’s a busy page and a busy feed and so long as the comments continue to tail off (and I’m not locking them, out of general principle) this will happily fade into the background and be remembered as one of those things that many people laughed at and some people got upset over (one person even going so far as to leave the group, which is frankly overkill). Having said that there are occasional additions to the thread, like in those monster movies where they slaughter the entire host and then at the end the odd one keeps popping up with a “YAAAAAAAAAHHH!!!” and a whiff of fangs, only to be shot down by the one who got scared earlier in the film.

“Consider the possibility,” I was told this morning, “that since this has apparently offended a number of people, maybe it is offensive.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’ve considered it.”

Anyway: the other thing that happened this week was this piece I found in Metro about celebrities with shrunken heads. Some of them are really very good (the Bieber one, in particular, is wonderful) and I thought…well, why not have a go?

This. This is why not.

 

 

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My hat, it has three corners

Please excuse the radio silence in here this last couple of weeks. I’m still trying to get this book finished, and I think it will be worth it. I have set myself a self-imposed deadline (my 40th birthday, which is imminent) for a first draft. It’s manageable provided I focus, which means that certain things – like this blog – have rather fallen by the wayside of late.

We do have a few interesting posts coming your way imminently, but I’m still writing for The Doctor Who Companion, including a rather interesting piece on hats that you might want to check out. We arranged it for Wear A Hat Day, which took place at the end of March in aid of brain tumour research. The notion of the Doctor’s headgear has been a talking point for years, of course,  although lately it’s mostly a bunch of tedious memes about fezzes, which are not and have never been in any way cool. Here’s the TL:DR version – the Doctor used to wear a hat because everyone else did. It’s only later that it became a plot point, rather than a simple fashion accessory.

(I received several comments about this one on Twitter, but the best read “You talk to him.” / “No, you talk to him.”)

Still, it did give me the opportunity to wonder about the Doctors who generally didn’t wear a hat, and how they might have looked if they did.

I think the Eighth works quite well, although it’s not quite as settled on his head as I’d like it to be; it looks like he’s got a ferret bobbing underneath it. The same applies for Nine, although I do like the idea of the Doctor going to a Guns ‘n’ Roses concert (this is Guns ‘n’ Roses in their heyday, not that group of session musicians Axl Rose toured with a couple of years back) and chilling backstage with the band. And if the Twelfth was wearing a white suit, he’d look a little bit like Herr Starr from Preacher.

Twelve’s refusal to wear any sort of headgear has often vexed me, because he’d look good in a hat, particularly during his grumpy season.

Yes. Well.

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Doctor Who and the Collaborative Poem

It’s International Poetry Day
And thus I just popped in to say
That I used to write a lot of it
Before realising it was mostly shit.

Sometimes when you write for an audience you learn a few things about yourself. When I was doing my A-levels I wrote poetry as a way of expressing the angst of a lovesick teenager. Odes to girl-of-the-week (that’s a little harsh; there were only three or four) flowed off the tongue with all the usual mixed metaphors and ill-advised cliches; next week it would be someone else. It was like that Stevie Wonder album where each song is dedicated to a different girl, something The Beautiful South parodied in ‘Song For Whoever’. Rosalind? I have forgot that name, and that name’s woe.

Of the substantial block I wrote over the next four or five years there is only one that I still like; everything else is garbage. The moment I realised this was the moment I started doing performance poetry, and adapting my writing style to suit the ageing beatniks who hung out in the local arts centre; they were a good crowd and one of them is a very talented published writer whom we always knew was destined for greatness. I got on with them, but found the poetry was suffering. It seemed a little more egocentric, more applause-orientated, than the other stuff I’d written – carefully laid-out free verse that was designed to be looked at, rather than heard. So I stopped. Years later I went back and realised the free verse was similarly dreadful. I make no apologies. Sometimes these things are like a bad curry; it’s simply a matter of getting it out of your system.

So I have no idea what’s new in poetry or what people are listening to; I just go back to the old favourites: Duffy, Heaney, Hughes, Hart Crane, and e.e. cummings (a few feet away, on my pine bookshelf, sits his collected poems, the title scandalously capitalised). These days I stick to the prose. I don’t even write songs anymore. A little streamlining never hurt anyone. “You should stick to what you’re good at, and I’m good at being a priest.”

My regular readers (both of you) will recall that a while back I did a crowd-sourced short story that involved people adding a sentence at a time until we had something tangible; I then added a couple of pictures and Brigadier’s your uncle. Today’s exercise is even more bizarre: I had the group submit random numbers. Any number they liked, as long as it came between 1 and 300. The thread swiftly exploded and I managed to get all the data I needed in a matter of minutes.

And then, using a bizarre and convoluted system that only I understand (and will not explain) I mined the transcripts (thanks, Chrissy) and pulled out the corresponding dialogue. And here, for the benefit of the general public, is what may be the world’s first crowd-sourced Doctor Who poem. Also possibly the last.

Here we go…

Wilson’s dead. Inform the Emperor Dalek
it slipped my memory. You see, I’m going for a little trip myself.
Oh, yes, yes, indeed, yes.
Is that you, Yates? Where are you?
So they’re abandoning us. They’re not even going to try

and seal the shaft. Deja Vu.
You’re sure he’s still in bed?
You are interrupting me. There’s nothing to forgive
No doubt, I shall join them.
Just get down here. Come to me.
Where am I? Let me out!

Of course I’m real. Do you know
what I did for a job when they threw me out of school?
Go along and see. Go along and see.

– Well, possibly she’s taking a stroll in the garden.
– What do you mean?
– I mean, I suppose it’s time I should be going.
– Yes, I know, but he was trying to help you.

Hey hey! Mama mia! Bellissima.
All right, I’ll take it. Greyhound
to Trap One. We will survive. We will survive. Now you will help us.

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The new Doctor Who logo, dissected

…I mean, it’s a typeface. A bloody typeface!

Things happen in that slow downtime between a reveal and a follow-up. The fandom gets cranky. There is a clamoured cry for new information, a grumbling in communities about when we’re going to get to see new footage or get plot details, tempered with a general sense of annoyance when they actually arrive because I didn’t want to know anything about the new series and why are you dropping all these spoilers in here? Whether the news dripfeeds in via convention soundbites or fan theory rendered flesh, either there’s too much information or not enough. The poor old BBC, it seems, can’t seem to do right for doing wrong.

And then last night we had fresh information. Well, a logo. It’s accompanied by an image of Jodie Whittaker standing on a hill. There is a sixteen-second audio ident going viral on YouTube. None of it is anything to write home about. But pity us poor journalists. Sometimes you have to keep the hit counters up even when there’s bugger all to actually discuss. There is a saying that no news is good news, which is true for just about everyone except the people who get paid to write it.

It didn’t take the Radio Times long to jump on the bandwagon. Not content with publicising fan-generated titles a few weeks ago (I’m not linking to that; it’s a matter of principle), they decided to apply a little creative thinking to the new logo and point out the rather obvious-looking distortion in the last two letters of the words ‘Doctor Who’ that make it look like a Venus symbol knocked on its side. So, you know, obviously it’s a woman. For my part, I am getting Prince flashbacks.

To be fair, it wouldn’t be the first time. Long-time readers of this blog may (but probably won’t) recall a thing I wrote a while back entitled The Art of Looking Sideways, in which I talked about whether or not we could really say that Theta Sigma was the Doctor’s real name and concluded that it almost certainly wasn’t, but that there was a cheeky jibe by the production team when you shift round some of the components. It’s a precursor to Peter Capaldi’s appearance in World War Z, in which I’m told he plays a scientist at the World Health Organisation. He is quite literally Doctor Who. Just don’t tell the noobs; they get really irritable when you try and tell them it’s an acceptable name.

Assuming you’ve seen the Eighth Doctor movie, you’ll be aware that there’s only one quote that regularly makes the meme lists: it’s the Doctor talking about patterns that aren’t there. And I’ll confess that it’s this that comes to mind when I consider the desperate search for hidden information that occurs every time there’s a publicity still, a title drop or (god preserve us) an actual teaser, resulting in arguments and alarums and hundred-comment Reddit threads. Except that I admit that my reaction to the Venus theory was to point and laugh. As deconstructions go, it was pathetic. A six-year-old’s comprehension exercise contains more insight. Hidden Messages? I fart in your general direction. You wouldn’t know a hidden message if it jumped out in an orange shell suit and yelled “I’M HERE, YOU NUMBSKULLS!”

I was in one of my more sensible groups and we were discussing the Venus thing and its connections with Theta Sigma – a theory one of us said he hoped wasn’t true, because “then the nerds had won”.

“That D with a line through it looks a bit like an ice lolly knocked on its side,” I said. “Any thoughts as to what it might mean?”
“Martian ice cream?” was the response I got. “Plus, look at the way the end of the H lines up with the O. It looks like a 10, so…”

Light bulb.

Regular readers will also be aware that I run a series called God Is In The Detail, which pokes light-hearted fun at fan theory to the extent that whenever I post any links to it on Facebook, Poe’s law goes into overdrive and everyone starts telling me I have too much free time (which is probably true in any case, but still). Anyway, that’s the vibe I had in mind when I produced this. And I’d just like to point out that as soon as it was uploaded, I went outside in the garden to play with Edward, so I do get out occasionally.

There. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Radio Times.

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Adventures with the wife in space

A couple of years back we stopped off in a motorway services en route to a holiday at Butlins. I ordered coffee from Starbucks and, when the barista asked my name, requested ‘The Doctor’ and ‘Sarah Jane’.

To be honest, the absolute best thing to do in Starbucks is give your name as ‘Spartacus’, but I’ve never quite managed to be that brave. A knowing reference to the 70s, missed by the incredulous millennial who was serving me, would have to do. You take what you can get, although if it’s in Starbucks you rarely have change from a tenner. When I got outside Emily looked at the black scribble across the side of her cardboard container and raised an eyebrow.

“It was going to be ‘Romana’,” I admitted. “But I didn’t trust them to spell it properly.”

It’s a recurring theme. Emily is the voice of reason in my often hapless relationship with Doctor Who. What she lacks in experience she more than makes up for in common sense and general knowledge, and on top of this she’s usually right. I have a friend who has had to make a deal with his other half to keep their marriage intact: when they’re watching science fiction she is allowed four cynical remarks per episode “You know what it’s like,” he said to me.

“In our house, it’s the opposite,” I said. “I actively rely on Emily to beat on an episode that I was enjoying. It keeps me grounded. Besides, some of my best gags come from her.”

When I mentioned her in Facebook conversation the other week the question we received was “Which one’s the Doctor and which one’s the companion?”

“I’m the Doctor,” I said. “But she’s Romana. That should tell you all you need to know.”

It should tell you all you need to know, as well.

Anyway, it’s her birthday. Accordingly:

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The Doctor Who story game – 2017 edition

When I was ten, my year 5 teacher asked us to come up with a three sentence idea for a story we wanted to write. Then he bade us hand the idea to our desk partners, who would write the story we’d suggested, while we wrote theirs. I can see what he was doing, but as someone who’s always relished creative control over things like this, it was an uncomfortable experience for me, particularly as I was partnered with someone who hovered around the lower end of the gene pool. There’s something a little painful about reading a great idea you’ve had reduced to rack and ruin by a kid who was far more comfortable with a football than a fountain pen. I had to console myself by doing the best possible job with his idea, the bones of which I can still remember, nearly thirty years later.

I’ve grown up a fair bit since then, but the hoarding impulse remains: having a committee build a story is generally not a good idea. There are too many cooks hovering over a small pan. It’s why Snakes on a Plane was rubbish. On the other hand, as an exercise done purely for fun, it is a wonderful, almost humbling experience, a way of surrendering your ego and allowing someone else to take an idea and run with it. And so it was that a few weeks ago, while I was in the pub with an old friend putting the world to rights, a whole bunch of people were sitting at phones and laptops, eagerly adding sentences to a thread I’d started instructing them to help me build a Doctor Who story.

Did you ever play that consequences game where you tell a story one sentence at a time? Or where you write it down on pieces of concertinaed A4, the fragments forming a loose, nonsensical narrative? This was kind of like that. You lose creative control – and greet the absurd, occasionally incoherent direction that things take with a mixture of amazement and alarm. Alarm because it’s not the way you hoped it would go – but then you learn to relax and go with it. I won’t pretend that what follows makes any sense, or is even particularly good, but it was an awful lot of fun seeing it develop and grow.

Imagine, if you will, a large Facebook group – one of the largest Doctor Who groups on the entire site, if not the very largest – teeming with imagination and ideas. It was the perfect playground to try this out, although I ran the risk of being totally ignored – that’s what happens when you get so many posts. But the community came out in force. Old companions forged new alliances. Monsters were dropped in and flushed out with nary a mention. Tangents were briefly explored and then brushed aside as the story went somewhere else. The fourth wall was painstakingly demolished. And Steven Moffat wound up the subject of several wish fulfilment fantasies. Cosmetics aside, it is presented as is. The first and last lines are mine; everything else was from other people.

There weren’t many rules: any and every Doctor or companion was available, although when I read through the dialogue people had submitted I could hear Matt Smith’s voice, and thus it became a story about the Eleventh. When we were done – in other words, when things had ground to a natural halt – I locked the thread. Then I cleaned up the spelling, Anglicised the dialogue, chopped up a few bits here and there, and adjusted it so it was all in the correct tense, adding a few hastily assembled images to break up the text. It was fun, and we will probably do it again.

In the meantime, the story we wrote follows. I call it…

It was dark. Night had a habit of being like that.

Except night on Derrimilanicum, where night tends to be bright green due to the effects of a world-wide aurora. But it was dark still because it was cloudy. Derrimilanicum was a peaceful place…except for the night when the encroaching darkness known simply as the ‘Vashta Nerada’ came to invade.

The doctor sat in the TARDIS, eating a bagel. He remembered the Vashta Nerada painfully well…

He clapped his hands suddenly and stood up, as there was suddenly a knock at the Tardis door. The Doctor answered to find his old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.

He was holding a fez – always a fez – and the Doctor threw it in the air just so it landed on his head. But it missed, the fez missed the Doctor’s head landing in a puddle. He picked it up and invited the Brigadier into the Tardis.

“Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart! What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” The Doctor asked gleefully. “And upon such a cloudy day?”

Then the Doctor lifted a finger and said, “Unless that hasn’t happened yet. I never quite know where in the time stream I am.”

“Coming from you, Doctor, that’s a relatively normal thing to say,” the Brigadier muttered from opposite the TARDIS console. “But you say I’m to die?”

The Brigadier looked shocked. “Did I say that?” the Doctor asked. “I don’t remember saying that.”

He rubbed his hands together quickly and said, “Ah well yes, uh, spoilers…foreknowledge is no good, dangerous even!”

“OK, OK…let’s forget that for now. We have bigger problems at hand,” said the Brigadier.

The Doctor straightened his bow tie. “Yes…the fish fingers are burning. And I need a bowl of custard to dip them in.”

“Now, Doctor, I really must insist…” began the Brigadier, only to find himself interrupted by a loud yelp coming from somewhere deep inside the TARDIS.

“Doctor, what was that?”

“Probably just Rose crying again”, said the Doctor. “She likes to cry when we run out of her favourite food; silly, really.”

“Sausages.”

The Doctor turned in confusion only to see that K-9 had come into the room to report on… sausages? Then he remembered that ‘sausages’ was an old codename for something long ago…long before the TARDIS was even created and thought lost in legend for all eternity.

The Doctor pondered whether he should get a new codename. “Could my new code name be ‘Sausages’?” he wondered.

“Run!” River yelled, emerging deep from the bowels of the TARDIS, rapidly firing shots behind her.

“RIVER, what are you doing here?” asked the Doctor.

“K-9 becomes a human girl,” said River, “and we’ve got to stop her!”

“Before she steals all of Rose’s cookies! Allons-y and onward!” proclaimed the Doctor. “And to think, all of this is Moffat’s fault,” he added.

Suddenly the TARDIS came to a jarring halt – just as the toaster popped; the Doctor, grabbing the toast, flung open the door, which revealed the barren landscape of a comic-con twenty minutes before opening.

“I never could get the hang of Blurgdays,” the Doctor muttered to himself, half-ruinously.

Just then, a young 20 something worker came up to the group and asked “Hey, Moffat wants to know if you’ll be dressed and ready to go for the Q&A panel in 10 minutes.”

The Doctor looked terribly confused at all this fourth wall breaking, and decided to tune it out. But then a loud *BANG* was heard coming from within the quite and empty comic-con.

“Crikey Moses!’ the Doctor exclaimed. “What on Gallifrey was that!”

“In fact it was me, said Strax, “looking for the Adipose.”

“Adipose?” said the Doctor. “What are they doing here?”

“Shall I drown them in acid?” asked Strax. “Or offer a hand grenade?”

“No, no,” replied the Doctor. “There’s going to be a convention here soon and we can’t have any of that going on, Strax! Just find me one and bring it to me – gently!”

“You ask me, a mighty Sontaran warrior, to be gentle? How dare you insult the glory of my nation!”

The Doctor placed a hand on Strax’s shoulder and looked at him tenderly. He gently broke it to Strax. “I’m not asking you. Steven is,” before popping a Jammy Dodger into his mouth, pulled from who knows where.

“At least you’re not plastic,” said Rory.

“Or dead,” said River.

“EXTERMINATE!!!!!!!” came many a cry from down the hall.

“Ohhhhhh, who invited them?!” growled the Doctor.

“Are you my mummy?”

“Shut up! We need to think!” The Doctor snarled.

“Well, well, well…it’s you again Captain. COME in! We’ve BEEN waiting for you…” the Doctor chuckled as he grabbed the arm of Jack and brought him into the circle hurriedly as he used his sonic to lock the doors behind him, only the door to the northwest opened that led through a red-linen walled hall; the Doctor tussled Jack’s hair in enthusiasm as he fixed his bow tie while he placed his sonic screwdriver into his coat, smirking smartly as he said to Captain Jack – who appeared a little shaken as he overheard – “Now, lad…have you seen what has been occurring through the masses of people and aliens here? Jack give me details, observations, inquiries – GO! Go!”

He clapped his hands briskly, looking to the others with a concerned, but lighthearted, eccentric face.

“U-uh, D-Doctor?” Rory looked at Jack with a stern, but frazzled scowl as he asked the Doctor quietly, “who the smeg is this?”

Captain Jack looked at Rory then back to the Doctor, tilting his head sideways. “We travelling with the crew from Red Dwarf now eh, Doc?”

Just then River came through the door, looked Jack up and down and said “Well, hello Sweetie.”

After giving a smirking Jack the side-eye, the Doctor turned to River and said “No!”

“Now, honey…” River pouted.

Jack turned to River. “You know the Doc has a problem with sharing.”

River smirked slightly, then turned to the Doctor. “Sweetie, you know there is more than enough of me to go around.”

While shaking his head, the Doctor threw his hands up in the air and shouted “We’ve got Daleks, Adipose and a lost kid wearing a gas mask to deal with – hanky panky LATER!”

Just then from behind them a small voice said “Are you my mummy?”

A rasping laugh filled the convention halls as, from out of the shadows, a beast of fathomless ages crept out, exuding a terrible horror. “I have the latest script for you,” the monster rasped, as he held out a finished script entitled ‘The Gasping Death by Steven Moffat’. He laughed evilly, knowing he was protected by his lack of continuity…but the giant stamping cartoon foot from Monty Python descended suddenly, with abrupt finality, and Moffat was no more.

Then out of nowhere… A PLOT TWIST!!! Steven Moffat was still alive to continue his evil plan. No one was safe, even us.

“How did you do that?” the Doctor asked, interested to learn about the apparent regeneration of humans.

“It’s in the script!” he cried.

“I shall melt him with acid,” Strax gleefully volunteered.

“No Strax! You can’t just kill people, even if they are evil!” said the Doctor.

“Wait, Moffat’s human?” asked Captain Jack suddenly confuzzled.

“Well technically yes,” said the Doctor, “but it’s relative, you see – and shut up, River!”

“I’ll shut up when you all hear what I’ve been trying to tell you!” insisted River. “There’s only two kinds of bathrooms at the comic-con conference, not seven! What shall we do?”

“Accept that humans have two genders?” Rory asked with a shrug half expecting to get punched by his more manly counterpart Amy.

The Doctor rolled his eyes a tiny-bit smugly, regaining his spunk as he led the way towards a glass observatory with various costumed people in it, smirking uncomfortably.

Then the Doctor, trying to be meta, jumped into the TARDIS, went back and made out with his father in law, Henry the VIII.

When he arrived, he found out that his father was actually none other than…THE MASTER!

“My father is the Master…MOFFAT!” the Doctor thought with a groan in his throat, as a vision of his next-two incarnations appeared next to him in his TARDIS; 12 looked a little…testy at 11, as did 13 – though she was shocked at her previous selves and Jack. Rory smirked.

“Who turned out the lights?”

“This,” sighed the Doctor, “is going to be a very long evening.”

 

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