Posts Tagged With: an adventure in space and time

Have I Got Whos For You (series 12 edition, part one)

Halloo! There will be fresh a conspiracy theory roundup very soon – of course there will – but to tide you over until then, here’s the first bi-weekly edition of memes from this year’s Doctor Who series, along with topical stuff that simply couldn’t wait. I am tapping this while waiting for the shopping to arrive, and Tesco do have a tendency to be early, so let’s crack on, shall we?

‘Spyfall’ first: and, in a joke that is probably going to appeal to a maximum of three people, there’s a major upset when the Doctor tries to decode the Kasaavin signal.

In the year 200,000 there’s much hilarity on Twitter when Billie Piper botches an easy question.

Taking refuge during a Kansas cyclone, young Dorothy Gale gets a nasty shock when she looks out of the window.

And fresh from his appearance in a Japanese TV trailer, Baby Sonic dashes from the Green Hill Zone to the fields of Provence to give his flower to a very special painter.

In a Trenzalore cemetery, a whispered conversation reveals the truth behind the controversy around last year’s Christmas blockbuster.

And stranded on Earth and forced to live through most of the twentieth century, the Master takes a job at the BBC.

“Do you know any sci-fi?”

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Review: An Adventure in Space and Time

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Warning: contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ and don’t want to know the score, look away now!

For my father, there has only ever been one Doctor. It’s a conversation we’ve had often, along with interpretations of gospel writings, the ethics of civil service management and the relative merits of The Goon Show. (Do not – I repeat, do not ask me to start doing the characters. We’ll be here all day.) “The best Doctor, bar none,” he insists, in the face of my rebuffs about Baker and Smith, “was William Hartnell”.

I’d imagine that An Adventure in Space and Time was probably tailor-made for someone like Dad. Certainly it wasn’t the no-holds-barred, warts-and-all tour-de-force it could have been. (I tried for a record number of hyphens in that last sentence; can you tell?) This was family viewing in the same way that Doctor Who is family viewing. None of the principals got killed (or had their memories wiped, or got trapped in a parallel universe), there was no sex to speak of and the underdogs who fought against an oppressive regime for what they knew was right were ultimately rewarded. Oh, and there was a bit of time travel.

In a recent interview with Doctor Who Magazine, the looking-astonishingly-good-for-his-age Waris Hussein says (and I’m paraphrasing) that he didn’t believe Mark Gatiss could tell the whole story – “he had to tone it down a bit”. Certainly the hour and a half I sat through last night came across as the Doctor Who Confidential version of events. There was sparring and there was an old boy’s network and casual institutional racism – epitomised in an early scene where a frantic Hussein complains about the heat in the upstairs booth, only for someone on the ground to remark “You’d think he’d be used to it”. Meanwhile, Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine, in good form) is forced to defend her controversial producer’s appointment against a sneering establishment who’d prefer to see her typing letters, rather than getting TARDIS interiors delivered on time. How could this female, it is clearly felt, rise to the occasion?

Rise to the occasion she does, although it’s not without a little buoyancy from floating aid Brian Cox, who inhabits Sydney Newman with just about enough pomposity to keep from turning the Canadian hotshot into a complete caricature. Well-dressed, bombastic and with a cigar permanently glued to his lips, Newman saves Lambert from a disgruntled Hartnell early in the narrative, only to privately rebuke her with the words “Be a producer”. Verity turns from lamb to lion and marches into a previously dismissive designer’s office, taking a seat opposite him and refusing to budge until he’s started work on the TARDIS set – which he then constructs, Blue Peter style, from a cotton reel and bits of card in thirty seconds flat, in its final form.

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Herein lies one of the problems faced by Adventure – it’s got four years of narrative to condense into ninety minutes, and as a result many things are glossed over. Delia Derbyshire’s wonderful tape loops, for example, get only the briefest of mentions, in the midst of a dramatic irony-laden monologue in which Verity and Waris assure a reluctant Hartnell that everything’s going to plan, while budgets go through the roof and scripts are thrown in the bin. Or as Gareth put it, “It made me twitch a little at times at how ‘neatly’ everything happened. ‘We need to do X’, followed immediately by exactly how X famously turned out’.”

Gareth has a similar hangup with ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, a story that we both agree is wonderful, with one notable disappointment: the Daleks that Davros designs are identical in all respects to the classic Raymond Cusick design that we know and love. Budgetary constraints probably made this unavoidable, of course, but it might have been nice to see a different, more rudimentary model. It’s the same here – with the notable exception of the botched pilot (which is transcribed to screen very well) there’s an inevitable lack of detail. Nation’s name is mentioned once – although in a clever piece of juxtaposition Newman’s verbal delivery of ‘The Survivors’ is played over the assassination of Kennedy, which occurred the day before ‘An Unearthly Child’ was broadcast – fifty years ago today, as it happens. Cusick doesn’t even get a look in. And all this is cannily dismissed in the space of one line, as delivered by Lambert to Hartnell over lunch – “So many people have been at the birth of the thing, we’d be here all day”.

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The paring down works, as it happens, because it allows the characters to live and breathe – and one thing that becomes apparent from the very beginning is that this is Hartnell’s story. Played to perfection by David Bradley, Hartnell is a grumpy bugger who is bored with typecasting and who shouts at his granddaughter. Sceptical and irascible to a fault, it is his transformation that forms the story’s principal arc. Despite a shaky first episode, Doctor Who turns out to be something of a fountain of youth for the man, as epitomised by a scene where a rejuvenated Hartnell leads a group of starry-eyed schoolchildren on an impromptu expedition through woodland, before doing a reasonable impersonation of a Dalek.

Such scenes are twee and in all likelihood apocryphal, but they grant Hartnell’s inevitable decline a keen emotional resonance that echoes long after the closing credits have rolled. There are many ways to chart an illness onscreen – Gatiss does it here with a series of Television Centre publicity shots showing an increasingly frail and confused Hartnell, and a dark and almost frightening studio breakdown where his mind seems to go totally blank. This follows an earlier scene where Hartnell’s wife implores Verity to scale back the BBC’s demands on him – emotional and overwrought dialogue that is somewhat undermined (purposely so, one expects) by the appearance of several costumed bees from ‘The Web Planet’. (It’s the sort of intervention that could have greatly improved the breakup scene in Spider-Man 3.) In either event, the outcome is clear: here is a character actor who finds that playing an old man gives him a key to connecting to and relating with the young. Russell T Davies really should take note.

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It doesn’t all work. The dialogue seldom ventures above second rate, and the expository summaries for the benefit of a young audience occasionally made me wince. Gatiss has clearly put himself on a tight leash but he still can’t resist dropping in the odd in-joke – Verity’s reassuring “Brave heart, darling” to a worried Hussein, Newman’s use of the word ‘regeneration’ years before it was used on the show proper, and the continual reference to the now famous Bug-Eyed Monsters. Even Bradley isn’t immune, weeping over his fireplace and copying David Tennant’s last words, as he confesses to his wife that “I don’t want to go”. Despite glossy production (the last programme to be filmed, as it turned out, at the now decommissioned Television Centre) and a decent score you do wonder what Aaron Sorkin would have been able to do with it.

But this is a show about nostalgia – about doing difficult things with limited resources – and while it’s all a little neat and self-congratulatory, it’s hard not to watch with a smile on your face. The final five minutes, in particular, are arresting in their depiction of Hartnell’s regeneration scene – once you’ve got over the image of Reece Shearsmith as the least convincing Patrick Troughton ever, they set up the cameras to roll, and Bradley / Hartnell looks up, and this is what he sees.

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I suspect this will have some fans applauding in their seats, and others up in arms. By this point the fourth wall is reduced to rubble, and certainly the presence of Matt Smith undermines the dramatic narrative. But it also doesn’t. It’s a chance for Hartnell to see the effects of his legacy – something the Doctor’s done before, and something you feel the actor deserves, however supernaturally ridiculous the premise. You may be gone, Gatiss seems to be saying, but the show has lasted this long because of the seeds you’ve sown and the sweat and the tears. There will never be another Doctor like Hartnell, simply because no actor will have the opportunity to make his mark on the character the way Hartnell did. As a tribute, there may be none finer – and on this matter, at least, I have a feeling my father would agree.

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An Adventure in Space, Time and Cliche

If you watch The Big Bang Theory, you may be familiar with a third season episode entitled ‘The Staircase Implementation’. Told principally in flashback, it has Leonard recount to Penny the time he moved into the apartment, his first encounters with Sheldon, and the tentative formation of the dysfunctional friendship group as it existed before the cute girl moved in across the hall – and, at long last, we find out why the elevator doesn’t work.

The episode’s humour exists on two main levels. On the one hand, we get to see how Sheldon has changed under the influence of his peer group. It’s a classic exploitation of the sitcom cliché whereby an unpleasant / inept character is temporarily replaced by someone who is so gut-wrenchingly awful, the other characters realise that the misery they’d previously experienced actually wasn’t so bad after all. (I’m sure this technique has a name, but I can’t find it on TV Tropes.) It’s been used in Father Ted, Black Books and Red Dwarf, with varying degrees of success, and here it’s an excuse for Jim Parsons to turn the crankiness up to eleven.


The other thing the episode does – rather less effectively – is rely on a series of dramatic irony-laden gags, most frequently at Sheldon’s expense, about cultural references. In the same way that The Wedding Singer had the sweet little florist announce that the couple-in-denial that she’d mistaken for an actual couple were destined to be as happy as “Donald and Ivana…and Woody and Mia…and Burt and Lori”, so here does Sheldon proclaim his love of Firefly, assuring Leonard that “It’s going to be on for years,” before later declaring that “You’ll be sorry you wasted your money on an iPod when Microsoft comes out with theirs”. I’m sure the writers came up with a whole string of stuff like this, plumbed from the archives of ‘stupid things people said that are actually only stupid in hindsight’. It’s designed to make Sheldon look foolish, as if to take him down a peg or two from the general omniscience that is his usual personality in an episode where he’s being even more irritating than usual.

I normally love The Big Bang Theory, but writing like this is lazy and sloppy. It relies on the ability to sneer at the past, and laugh at decisions that were made years ago in earnest and with the best intentions. Dick Rowe refuses to sign the Beatles? Of course he did: they were rubbish back then. Closer to home, I was convinced that MP3 was a fad and that minidiscs would be the future, because the Internet – while it was taking off – was nowhere near what it was today, and even if you had ADSL the sound quality of some of those early MP3s was rather like dragging a Walkman through a bathtub, inserting a chewed C90 and then playing it back through the cheapest headphones the local discount store has to offer. (I may be exaggerating a little, but not much.)

Anyway. My point (and I do have one) is that if you’re going to write a show about the past, you don’t need to pepper it with stuff like this. Life on Mars did it only sparingly, despite ample opportunity, and it is all the richer for it. It is very easy to drop in jokes about how stupid we all were back in the day, but we do so at our peril, because in a couple of decades’ time our children will be doing exactly the same. Gareth describes the cliché of sneering at the past as “the sort of ‘knowing wink at the audience’ lines that work because we have fifty years of knowledge that the characters don’t. [They] make me wince, but bizarrely make certain people whoop with delight. (Like New Who randomly referring to a planet/race/event in Old Who – to me it just goes clunk painfully.)”


And what does all this have to do with Doctor Who? Well, those of you who know your TV will be aware that later in the autumn we’re going to see a brand new drama about the show’s creation, with an impressive cast (Brian Cox, Jessica Raine and David Bradley as William Hartnell) and cameos by Carole Ann Ford and William Russell which have annoyed Gareth, as “now I’ll probably feel I have to watch it”. An Adventure In Space And Time will chart the story of Doctor Who from its inception through to…well, I have no idea when they’re planning on finishing the narrative, but the casting of Reece Shearsmith as Patrick Troughton would suggest that they will go at least as far as 1966. In fact, that’d be a good place to stop, because Hartnell’s deterioration will be the dramatic focus for the latter third of the show, with the programme’s future in doubt until Lambert decides to recast the Doctor. The stage is set for a thrilling whistlestop tour of the early 1960s, and a candid insight into the mechanics and politics of the BBC as it was back then.

Except it’s written by Mark Gatiss.

You remember Mark Gatiss. He’s the man who managed to defy the laws of physics and engineering by producing experimental Spitfires from nothing but a theoretical blueprint before getting them to the dark side of the moon in under twenty minutes. The one who had a Victorian crowd singing ‘Jerusalem’ years before it was written. The one who built an entire episode around a character fainting every time he saw something unusual. It’s not that Gatiss is necessarily a bad writer, he’s just lazy, apparently figuring that if he doesn’t care about a repeated gag or logical inconsistency, neither should the rest of us. This is Doctor Who, of course, and not Godel, Escher, Bach, but even children’s TV has its limits.

Gatiss is capable of surprising us all. For all his inadequacies he did produce the best two episodes of this year’s run, and I will admit to enjoying ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’, despite its writer’s conviction that blustery shouting matches in a London terrace actually have any place outside Eastenders. But he’s not the man to be given a job like this. For one thing it will involve some restraint, which is something that does not seem to come easily. For another, I do not trust him to tell the story accurately. I’m not opposed to a bit of dramatic license, but I can see huge liberties being taken in the name of cheap entertainment, and much ruffling of feathers.

Of course, it may be Gatiss’ way of atoning for the last time he wrote anything about the making of Doctor Who, some fourteen years ago when he contributed three sketches for a BBC theme night. Gatiss is capable of good comedy writing, but this isn’t it. The last sketch, in particular, is excruciating in its structure and execution, consisting of a potted history of the show and a series of ‘jokes’ about Doctor Who’s idioms, climaxing in some rather mean-spirited remarks directed towards Davison, Baker (II) and McCoy. (Legend has it that McCoy, ostensibly described in the sketch as “any old fucker with an Equity card”, was approached by Gatiss in an art gallery, but when Gatiss said hello, McCoy’s response was to shout “Bollocks!” before storming off.)


It would be nice to hope that Gatiss has learned his lesson, and certainly he’s expressed remorse, but I still have my doubts. I’m convinced that despite best intentions, An Adventure In Space And Time is going to consist largely of the sort of knowing winks that I was criticising a few paragraphs back. You know, the sort of thing that we laugh about now, or the idiosyncrasies that have become part of the show but which were once very big production decisions. Given his past form, odds are that Gatiss is going to skim over the substance and go for the irony-laden punch line. I know that I’m often wrong about these things (to the extent that I even blogged about it) but I suspect the temptation to avoid stuff like this is just too great. So here, gentle reader, is a list of the sort of thing you can probably expect to hear in November, or whenever the programme is aired.

“These Daleks will never catch on. What’s scary about a dustbin carrying a sink plunger?”

“Oh, wipe them. It’s not as if anyone’s going to want to watch it again in fifty years.”

“Change the lead actor? It’s suicide. The show will never survive this. It would be like trying to re-cast James Bond.”

“Fine, you bring in the bug-eyed monsters if you want. But mark my words: in years to come, people will look back and decide that Doctor Who was a fine educational programme that lost its way once they started dabbling in science fiction.”

“Yes, but it’s a children’s show. It’s hard to imagine kids wanting to watch it once they’ve grown up.”

“There’s no tune. It’s just a bunch of tape glued together. Sure, it suits the mood, but it’s not as if they’ll ever play it at the Proms.”

“You want the hemline shorter? Listen, I don’t think we’re in the business of casting young ladies specifically so the men in the audience can ogle them, are we?”

“I know it was called ‘Fury From The Deep’, and I know it was an accident, but you didn’t need to actually drop it in the river.”

Have any more? Let me know below!

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