Posts Tagged With: chris chibnall

How to write really good Doctor Who stories

People often ask me “Where do you get your ideas…?”.

Actually, they don’t. Generally speaking they’ll say “You have too much free time”, or some variation thereof. It usually follows a video; some investment of idiocy where the spit and polish has taken hours. I will point out, as diplomatically as possible, that this is just about the most hurtful thing you can say to someone who’s taken the trouble to create something: that it implies that the time they spent on something constructive is in some way less valuable than time they might have spent scrolling through news feeds, or playing sports, or watching Love Island. We don’t do this stuff in addition to poker nights or binging Netflix box sets; we do it as a replacement. Most of us have no more or less free time than you do – it’s just we use ours differently. In many ways this quest for clarity is a fool’s errand, but it is a message that I will continue to spread because otherwise they will say it to someone who is even more bothered by it than I am.

But I often encounter people who post ideas for ideas and want help. “I’ve got this idea for a story,” they’ll begin. “The Master has kidnapped all the Doctor’s companions and he has to rescue them all.” To which I’ll say well, that’s not a story, that’s a beginning. Or possibly a midpoint. Either way it’s a scene, not a story – an action, not a motivation. Why’s he kidnapped them? What’s his game plan? In what respect might the Doctor be hindered or aided? When and where are you setting this, and why there / then? How do you expect any thoughts when I have, at this stage, nothing to actually think about? Worse still are the ones who submit two paragraphs and then want your appraisal, copy-and-pasted into the Facebook comments. They act all earnest and unworthy, but it is thinly-veiled compliment fishing, the need for an ego boost.

Perhaps that’s unfair. But listen: if you want to write, you write. There is no other way of doing it. You write and you write badly and then you get better. And you write your story, not the one that other people have concocted for you. It’s not a democracy (said Philip Pullman); if you don’t know where the plot is going, how should anyone else? It’s different if you’re stuck, if there are narrative cul-de-sacs or technical problems or holes that you’ve dug around your characters that are seemingly too deep to climb. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you’re backed into a corner, so long as you’re prepared to ignore every piece of advice you’re given and listen, instead, for that still, small voice in your head – no, not the one that says you’re crap, the other one, the one who’s got a solution and an exit strategy. But please. Don’t come to me with two hundred words and then ask me for an opinion. Give me something I can actually work with.

“Here’s one I wrote yesterday; it’s called ‘The Oncoming Storm’…”

At the same time there are things I’ve said to people that I’ve committed to memory and resolved to write down somewhere permanent, or at least semi-permanent, in case they ever come up again. And seeing as there seems to be a plethora of new written material saturating the web at the moment – not to mention a ton of would-be writers following along thinking “Ooh, I could have a go at that” I thought I’d share a few thoughts here on how I go about crafting a Doctor Who story. Notice I said stories, not fiction. Writing a book is a different matter – I’ve done that, and it requires grit and commitment and, more to the point, it’s a whole other article, one I may one day write. Let’s not run before we can walk.

Here’s a disclaimer: I’ve got hundreds of Metro articles under my belt (most of which were dreadful), but that’s largely it as far as the professional side goes. Any fiction is strictly on an amateur basis – I lack an agent, a book deal and indeed any interest from a publishing house. This makes me completely unqualified to tell you what I’m about to tell you, at least it does if all you’re interested in is a list of accreditations that will give my advice some clout (not that you should be looking for clout – there are hundreds of online guides that start with “The author has written in X and Y and has produced stories that were shortlisted for…”; these are often leaky vessels and they must be approached with caution, as many of them will prove far from seaworthy). On the other hand I have learned a thing or two over the years about how to string a sentence together, even if that last one was excessively long. It’s one of the few things I can actually do reasonably well. So please take what follows with the necessary pinch of salt – it is the opinion of one person – but if you find yourself nodding in agreement at least once or twice, then I suppose my work is done.

Allons-y!

1. Don’t expect to get published. There are thousands of you and the market is fierce. Always seek to improve but remember, as you grow, that raw talent is only part of this; an enormous amount of success is down to social media presence, timing and the ability to self-market, not to mention sheer dumb luck. There will be many published stories you read that are, you are convinced, vastly inferior to your own. That’s the way the cookie crumbles, so deal with it. Chances are you’re not going to make any money, but that needn’t be a bad thing, so long as you have both eyes open. Anyway, you’re in this to tell stories, remember?

2. You’re not better than Chibnall. Well all right, maybe you are. I mean I don’t know you. But effective scriptwriting is an entirely different kettle of fish to the ability to string a few words together in prose. And even if you’re writing scripts, storytelling is only part of the equation – there are budgets, series arcs and intended audience to consider as well. Don’t go thinking you know more than the people who get paid to write this, because chances are you don’t: I frequently encounter unpublished authors on the internet who are convinced that an online degree and a couple of anthology inclusions makes them the next Michael Ondaatje, and I tend to give them a wide berth. “You must have,” quoth Roald Dahl, “a degree of humility.”

3. Pick your Doctor carefully. There is a novel I read a while back called Ten Little Aliens. It’s standard fare: a group of marines go on what appears to be a routine training mission only to discover a terrible secret. There are angry young men (and women) and budget-swallowing explosions and a lot of people get killed. There is even, in the book’s latter third, an ambitious and not entirely successful Choose-Your-Own-Adventure section. It’s grandiose and over-ambitious and it has a suitably tense finale, so a number of boxes are ticked.

The problem is this: the story is vaguely contemporary and American in feel; it has the ambience of something like Starship Troopers or Aliens, both of whom it closely emulates. And it just doesn’t fit with the First Doctor. This is a world of dank ventilation shafts and vast echoey temples and dismemberment and sweat and testosterone; it’s difficult to imagine Hartnell huffing and puffing along those dimly lit corridors with his cane. Stephen Cole (the book’s author) does his best to give Ben and Polly something to do, but even Ben is completely out of his depth in this world of pulse rifles and high-tech cameras. It felt as if Hartnell had somehow wandered into another Doctor’s story, and the net result is a book that is decently written, but jarring and ultimately unsatisfying. Either Cole was desperate to tell this story and use his favourite character no matter what, or he was answering a commission and got saddled with the wrong incarnation. Either way, it doesn’t work.

In many ways, the adoption of existing characters makes your job much easier – it provides a template – but that’s the sort of thing you’ll need to bear in mind as you approach any work of DW fiction, even a short story. ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ wouldn’t have worked with Capaldi, Bill and Nardole; it is impossible to imagine Troughton in ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’. Some of it is contextual (‘Dalek’, for example, was written within the frame of the Time War), but it’s not just about the setting, it’s about how you’d expect the characters to behave. And if this isn’t an issue for you – if, for example, you’re turning out a very by-the-numbers base-under-siege story that would work for any combination of TARDIS personnel – then are you really telling the best story you can?

4. Keep it PG-13. This is just a personal preference, but I have yet to encounter a DW story or novel featuring sex or bad language that didn’t feel like showing off. You could arguably level that same criticism at series one of Torchwood – at least until it grew its own personality and became something far more enjoyable – but Doctor Who is a family show and while there’s nothing wrong with a provocative outfit, a bit of mild cursing or the odd spark of innuendo, anything stronger is in danger of unbalancing your narrative. The rationale behind this is that if we have to start thinking about characters having sex, we have to start thinking about the Doctor having sex, and that’s a place most people don’t want to go, so don’t. By all means pepper your story with mindless violence, graphic descriptions of dismemberment or disfigurement and plenty of blood; just keep the language mild and the clothes on. It’s a double standard – one that the likes of South Park have lampooned on more than one occasion – but it seems to be the only way to write stories that actually work.

(Please be aware, by the way, that I am not applying any of this to the murky underbelly that is Rule 34 Fan Fiction, a sub-strand that I accept has always existed, needs to exist and will always exist, at least in some form or another. It was simpler when these things were text only and we didn’t have to have accompanying artwork; nonetheless it’s a part of the fandom and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. I don’t pretend to enjoy any of it, but I know some people devour the stuff like a Spaceball goes for canned oxygen. You do you.)

(As a brief sidetrack, do you want to know why I hold the Rule 34 material in such contempt? Really? Well, it comes from my first exposure to it – way back in the distant past that was 1996, when someone emailed an erotic story they’d found on a Usenet group. It was Sesame Street. It featured Elmo and Maria. Seriously, that’s enough to put anyone off.)

5. Read, re-read and then read once again every single last line of dialogue. I cannot stress enough just how important this is. It’s make-or-break. If you’re not voicing your Doctor or companion appropriately, people will notice. You know what stands out in Shadows of the Empire for me? That one scene I can’t get out of my head? It’s not the space battles or Luke honing his force powers or the final, climactic confrontation with Prince Xizor. It’s the bit where Darth Vader says “I’ll have my servants check it out”. That’s not something Darth Vader would say, ever. Anakin Skywalker, perhaps. But not Vader. His characterisation is in any case completely off in Shadows, but this is the nadir: in a poorly-written novel, it sticks out like a sore thumb on an already calloused hand.

Even a single word can make a difference. Let’s say, for example, that you have a scene where the Doctor says “Wonderful!”. I can hear that from Doctors One through Eight. I’m having a hard time hearing it from Eccleston (unless it’s delivered with dripping sarcasm), or indeed from anyone in the new series, with the possible exception of Smith. If you’re using existing Doctors and companions and you’re not sure whether your dialogue sounds authentic, go back and watch some episodes with the characters you’re writing, or ask for a second opinion. You can always ignore it.

6. Don’t be afraid of the word ‘said’. You know that ‘Let’s Do It’ parody? The one with Tate and Tennant with Barrowman at the piano? There’s a curious conceit between verses: Barrowman goes through an English teacher’s handout (replied, squawked, yelled, proclaimed, ejaculated) to introduce each new section, poking gentle fun at the gossipy natter-outside-the-shops feel of Victoria Wood’s original. It’s greatly amusing, but it’s not something you should copy. No one of any merit is going to chew you out for sticking a couple of ‘said’s into your work. This isn’t primary school. Equally, do not overuse it; it does get boring if that’s the only way your characters actually express anything.

Actually, a better way of handling dialogue is to keep usage both of ‘said’ and its myriad adjectives to an absolute minimum. This does not mean that you should write pages of back-and-forth quotes between characters you do not name. It is fine if you’re Manuel Puig, but it can be hard to follow. Instead, what you do is this: you intersperse dialogue with descriptive text to make it obvious who is speaking. Examine this:

Yates tried to give her a severe look: it didn’t quite come off. “And you know perfectly well that the contents remain top secret until the party,” he said. “All part of the magic, apparently.”

“Says our mysterious benefactor.”

Yates bent down to lift the box again; Jo dropped to a squat.

“Let me help,” she said.

“You really don’t need – I mean, it’s no job for a lady.”

She scowled. “Next time, you can pick it up yourself,” she said.

“You’re right. And I apologise,” he replied, standing and adjusting the crink in his back. “We’ll do it together.”

 

Which is so much better when you write it like this:

Yates tried to give her a severe look: it didn’t quite come off. “And you know perfectly well that the contents remain top secret until the party. All part of the magic, apparently.”

“Says our mysterious benefactor.”

Yates bent down to lift the box again; Jo dropped to a squat. “Let me help.”

“You really don’t need – I mean, it’s no job for a lady.”

She scowled. “Next time, you can pick it up yourself.”

“You’re right. And I apologise.” Yates stood, adjusting the crink in his back. “We’ll do it together.”

7. Don’t repeat gags. Catchphrases are fine, provided your story does not hinge, revolve or end upon them (there are exceptions to this rule, but you have to really know what you’re doing). But don’t ever drop in the same jokes you’ve seen on TV, unless there’s a damned good reason for it. Yes, it was funny when Tennant quipped “Are you my mummy?” when wearing that gas mask. We don’t need to hear it again, so write something new. Matt Smith’s horse dialogue? Well, that wasn’t funny the first time, so God knows we don’t need a repeat performance. This goes for variations – don’t go thinking you can a fresh laugh by tweaking the odd word. If the Doctor speaks muskrat, keep it to yourself. And please, for the love of sanity, do not use ‘Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey’. Ever. I mean it.

8. Screw the continuity. This is a showcase for you, and your abilities as a storyteller. You do not need to wade through the minefield of existing material in order to ensure that your own series of events matches up to What People Already Know. If you’re doing something that’s already happened, or wading into territory that’s already charted, it really doesn’t matter that much. I’m not saying people should behave out of character. Having Jamie rejoin the TARDIS as a prominent astrophysicist, or engineering a story where Mel suddenly starts drinking heavily before hefting a plasma rifle and joining a group of marines? It might be a laugh, but you’ll have to work incredibly hard to make it even remotely plausible.

But Doctor Who has spent years ignoring its own history – and the explanations provided are scant, when they are provided at all. There are at least two or three origin stories for the Daleks. The same applies for the Cybermen, and even then no one can work out whether the new ones are from Mondas or the Lumic factory. TV contradicts Big Finish contradicts the books, the events of ‘Turn Left’ fly in the face of the episodes it references, and there is an endless debate as to whether the UNIT stories happened in the 70s or 80s. Oh, we can pretend it all makes sense, but it doesn’t, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either pulling your leg or understands the show far less than they think they do.

During the writing process for The Child Left Behind, I became aware of a comic that clashed with the events I was talking about in the novel. In other words, there’s a story involving the Pied Piper. It’s not a particularly well-known story; I doubt many current fans have heard of it and even fewer, I suspect, have read it. But its existence jarred with me, and I thus set about establishing a side narrative that worked in the events of that particular adventure to the story that I was writing, so as not to mess up the timeline. I think I managed, just about, but whenever I look at that book now I can’t help wondering whether it really fits. It’s a whole extra subplot that squats uneasily on the fringes, like the socially awkward friend you invited to the party, standing in a corner making each glass of wine last an hour and talking to no one.

So honestly? It’s best not to worry about it. Know your subject and know your characters and try not to retread old ground, but if you do, don’t sweat the small stuff. Continuity should never get in the way of a good story, so don’t allow yourself to get bogged down by details. Leave that sort of thing to Ian Levine.

9. Resist the temptation to show how much you know. Yes, fine, you’re familiar with the history of the Tractators, the names of every Sontaran battlefleet, the specifics of the Cyber conversion process and the ins and outs of Gallifreyan sectarianism. Does it fit the story? Really? Because infodumps are fine if you’re trying to win an argument on a Reddit thread, but they’ll slow up the action and you run the risk of annoying the established fans and alienating the new or inexperienced ones. The next time you blind your audience with technobabble or historical discourse, ask yourself a single question: does it serve a narrative purpose, or are you just marking your territory?

10. If you must write in the First Person, do not make yourself the Doctor. Look, perspective can be a tricky thing. One rookie mistake made by writers is to swap between characters with wilful abandon: writing in the Third Person is going to be your undoing if you keep switching points of view. For the most part you’ll want to pick one person per scene, and stick to it. Aside from a few stray intermezzos, the Harry Potter books tell the entire story from the perspective of its title character and, with the exception of those dreadful flashback chapters (you know, the ones that read like bad Tolkien) they don’t suffer as a result.

You don’t need to do this. But at least within each individual scene you need to leave the “He thought / she thought” seesawing out of it – and what better way of doing this than writing the whole thing in First Person? Well, knock yourself out. J.D. Salinger built a career out of it. But don’t be the Doctor. Be a companion, a supporting character, a villain if you like – but the Doctor is off limits. It doesn’t work. It didn’t work in Eye of Heaven; it doesn’t really work in Scratchman. The Doctor is only ever defined by the people who are along for the ride; even in ‘Heaven Sent’ Capaldi at least had someone to talk to when he was jumping out of windows and punching a wall. You cannot inhabit that head, however well you think you know your Doctor. The whole point behind the show is that we never really do.

As an addendum, it is perfectly fine to write a third person scene (or even an entire story) from the Doctor’s point of view; narrative omniscience affords that luxury. Just remember to write ‘He thought’. Or ‘She thought’, if that’s where you are.

11. Enjoy it, or at least enjoy having done it. I’m channeling my inner Dorothy Parker with this one, but it’s an important point. We were going to open with the old Tegan maxim (“If you stop enjoying it, give it up”) but I don’t think that’s necessarily the mindset you want to be carrying. The unfortunate truth is that writing – any sort of writing – is hard work, and a lot of going back and forth over those fiddly sentences that won’t quite parse the way you want them to, and getting interrupted just as you’re in flow, and periods of blockage and despair and then that Eureka! moment when you’re in the shower or the car and nowhere near a pen, and then getting back to your laptop and feverishly tapping away, all the while having to listen to that small voice in your head – yes, that one, the one that’s constantly whispering “This is prosaic shit, really, isn’t it?”

No, here’s how it works: this will not always be easy. It will not always be fun. But you will achieve a sense of satisfaction when you have achieved something you know is good – perhaps not objectively good, because that’s a pipe dream, but at least something that’s fun and accessible and that tells a complete story.  And if you get nowhere, and your audience is sparse, and you wonder why you’re bothering, there are worse role models than Paul Sheldon at the end of Misery – specifically the end of William Goldman’s screen adaptation, where James Caan is having lunch in a New York restaurant with his agent. “I’m glad the critics like it,” he says benignly, as she gushes over the reception to his new book. “And I hope the people like it too. But I wrote it for me.”

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Review: Ascension of the Cybermen

Late 2001, and I’m coming out of a Reading multiplex with a couple of friends. (One is a programmer of some renown; the other will eventually become a highly successful children’s author.) We’ve just finished the first Lord of the Rings, which everyone agreed was very good, even if perhaps the scenery was the best thing about it. We have discussed the Balrog, and the relative brilliance of Legolas (who, it is agreed, is probably the person you’d want at your back in a barroom brawl), and now we’re onto Sean Bean. In what has become something of a career trope, he plays a character who doesn’t make it to the end credits.

Jon – who is not one for reading cast announcements, and in any case the internet is not what it will eventually become – says “The thing about the Council of Elrond was that I kind of assumed it was Boromir, because who else would it be? But they didn’t actually announce him or call him by name until Frodo dropped the ring in the snow. Everyone else gets a mention. Not him.”

I’m telling you this because it’s been two hours since I finished watching ‘Ascension of the Cybermen’ and the reverse has happened. We had five or six supporting characters and I cannot remember a single thing about any of them. Oh, there are bits. One of them was clearly hitting on Graham, which will make next week all the more traumatic when she finds herself at the wrong end of a Cyberman’s blaster. I think one of them mentioned that he was a teacher and that they were sick of running, which is a surefire indication that you should set your alarm forward by fifteen minutes and catch an earlier bus. And one of them had a brother who barely spoke, and who spoke even less when he was killed off, which happened almost immediately.

But that’s it. I couldn’t tell you the name of a single actor, or what they’d been in – not that I necessarily expect this, being generally out of touch with any TV that doesn’t come with hard-coded subtitles (it’s snobbish, but those Nordic dramas are just so pretty); still, at least I could be telling you something interesting about them. God knows there was nothing in the actual episode to give them any sense of lasting appeal. They were sounding boards for the regulars to bounce off: people to keep them company on the long, desperate pilgrimage across space, where your biggest fear is a flying head, or Graham’s infernal optimism; a cockney, cardiganed Wilkins Micawber, breezing from one disaster to another safe in the knowledge that sumfink will always turn up.

Or perhaps that’s the point – perhaps these people are supposed to be anonymous because that’s the point of the story. And perhaps we’ve got so used to Chibnall ramming the point of the story down our throats, or bashing it over the heads of the collective fandom like a TARDIS blue Mallet’s Mallet, that any engagement with subtlety is going to be a misstep. “We’re refugees,” laments one character [consults notes; it’s Steve Toussaint]. “We’ve all lost everything and everyone, and nobody cares.” “We care,” affirms the Doctor, before sending her companions off to an uncertain fate while she tries to bargain with the Lone Cyberman – who’s picked up a couple of pals along the way. Presumably we now have to call him something else? What’s that you say? He’s the Cyberium? Well I’m not calling him that; it’s silly. Cyberium is the sort of unobtanium that’s crying out to be used in a seventies comic, probably featuring the slightly effeminate Cybermen who minced. Something with the Fourth Doctor and K-9. ‘The Shadow of Cyberium’. Yes, I can see it now, in all its multi-panelled, black-and-white glory. Copyright Donna Noble.

At least the social commentary is done and dusted fairly quickly and we can get onto the real meat of the episode, which is mostly about flying heads. Yes, the heads come off and fly now, did we mention that? Hence in an early scene we witness the Doctor, her pals and the aforementioned people I don’t care about running away from a barrage of drone fire and a fresh batch of budget-gobbling CGI explosions, as half a dozen heads pursue them across the burning ruins of what looks curiously like urban Glasgow. It’s like that scene with the model plane in Short Circuit 2, only marginally less exciting. The whole thing is very silly, but it’s not really any sillier than anything in ‘Nightmare in Silver’, and for some reason people seem to really like that one. Chibnall constructs two branching narratives, containing less story combined than Maxine Alderton managed in a single episode last week, and while Ryan and Yas explore gloomy starships and pull off reckless (if effective) manouevres in deep space, the Doctor is snapping at Ryan and –

[consults notes again]

Matt Carver. You see what I mean.

No, the problem isn’t what’s happening, it’s that I don’t care about it. These people are the last remnants of humanity and it’s all the Doctor’s fault, but we’re not given any real opportunity to reflect on that, or the fact that it’s her that got them into this mess: it’s all conveniently brushed aside so Chibnall can lay a trail of breadcrumb-shaped set pieces, leading to whatever ghastly wooden structure he’s spent the last few months hammering. Ashad revives the Cybermen, seemingly giving them back their emotions (there’s a point to it, I’m sure, and undoubtedly we’ll be told next week) and as the episode closes Graham and Yas are holding the door against an onslaught of newly awakened Cybertroops, while the Doctor is gazing into this week’s McGuffin – a portal that leads to salvation – and discovering that the answers she’s seeking are quite close to home, in an absolutely literal sense. Oh look, it’s Sacha Dhawan. Because when you haven’t got a clue how to shoehorn a cliffhanger, a surprise reveal usually does the trick. Not even the presence of Ian McElhinney, robed, wizened and strolling up and down a windswept beach like a genial Luke Skywalker (acting everyone else off the screen in the process), is enough to alleviate the tedium.

About the most interesting thing that happens this week is interesting only because it’s left unexplained. It’s the tale of Brendan, a foundling left in the road in what appears to be Ireland; raised to adulthood by his adoptive parents; who takes a slow motion fall from a cliff and wakes, Highlander-style, completely unharmed; and who is greeted upon his retirement by two father figures who inexplicably look two or three decades younger than he does. This is all clearly connected somehow – whether it’s some sort of Cyber experiment, an origin story to explain Ashad, a CIA trick or whether the Time Lords are somehow involved has yet to be cleared up, although the only certainty is that the discussion will almost certainly be more interesting than the resolution.  “We have to get rid of everything, I’m afraid,” Brendan is told, seconds before his mind is seemingly wiped. “Thank you for your service. We’re only sorry you won’t remember it.”

I can’t help thinking that as far as ‘Ascension’ is concerned, those words might be oddly prophetic.

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Review: Can You Hear Me?

Doctor Who ventures into dangerous waters when it tackles the surreal. Sometimes (‘Warrior’s Gate’, ‘Heaven Sent’) it works beautifully. Other times it’s like those all-you-can-eat buffets that serve pizza and chips alongside the curry and prawn crackers: an enjambment of elements that don’t quite come together, but which you’ll happily ingest anyway because at least it’s calories. Is it a good idea to venture into the domain of the unorthodox when the show is already struggling? Charlene James (this week’s co-writer, arguably most famous for a play about FGM) might not have realised quite what she was getting herself into, but given that Doctor Who has spent this year utterly confused as to its own identity, what she’s managed to produce is an uncannily appropriate precis of where we’ve got to, which is no mean feat.

To all intents and purposes, ‘Can You Hear Me?’ is this year’s ‘It Takes You Away’: abstract, meandering and often confusing, a world where you’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s imagined. Hopping from fourteenth century Syria to the orbit of a distant star – Sheffield, as per usual, acts as an intermediate waypoint – the Doctor is investigating monsters in the dark and anomalous biological wave patterns, along with the strange wrinkled fellow dressed as the owner of a London bookshop sneaking in and out of people’s bedrooms. No one knows who he is (spoiler: he’s not the Black Guardian) or why he’s feeding off the nightmares of unsuspecting children like some sort of dark and twisted BFG – still, Graham’s getting headaches and can’t deal his cards properly. Something’s got to give.

The evidence all points to a curious planetary alignment, and thus – with a sense of aplomb that that’s becoming quite alarming – Whittaker puts on her Resolved Face and fires up the Quattro. But no sooner has the TARDIS gang arrived at their destination (a roomy, predictably metallic spacecraft, or a beacon, or something; I wasn’t really paying attention) than they’re all plunged into a series of nightmares: Graham is haunted by the spectre of Grace, who informs him that his cancer has returned; Yas is abandoned on the hills over Sheffield; Ryan is given a vision of the apocalyptic future teased in ‘Orphan 55’. The Doctor herself gets a brief glimpse of the Timeless Child (although I can’t be the only one who was hoping that her initial confrontation with Zellin would turn out to be a dream), wandering outside the Gallifreyan citadel in the manner of something in a Japanese horror film. These nightmares are rendered flesh thanks to a parasite that buries itself in the ear canal; it’s like a slightly less unpleasant version of The Wrath of Khan. “It may be,” said one online acquaintance, “the first time in history that a main DW villain has given the Doctor the finger.”

It’s not entirely without context. The early parts of the episode deal with domestic drudgery and the fact that the Doctor’s companions all have worlds they’ve left behind – a concept not explored properly since Davies was in charge (Moffat, while fond of dipping in and out of his characters’ Earth-bound existences, nonetheless gave them a curious sort of dependence on the TARDIS, a succession of well-heeled addicts constantly looking for their next fix). Here, for the first time in Chibnall’s run, we learn what happens when your nearest and dearest have to manage without you: Yas’s sister Sonya can’t hold down a job, while Ryan’s friend Tibo (Buom Tihngang, seen out on the basketball court in the first part of ‘Spyfall’) has lapsed into depression. The timings with Time To Talk Day are deliberate and it’s hard not to shake the notion that both James and Chibnall were writing from a spec sheet, but it’s not totally incongruous, just a little rushed. (Curiously, Tibo’s venture into support group territory includes a grump about supermarket self checkouts, something the BBC seems to dislike in general.)

‘Rushed’ might be a decent word for it, actually. ‘Fugitive of the Judoon’ suffered from having almost no story: ‘Can You Hear Me?’ suffers from having rather too much. The net result is an episode that wants to push the envelope for the companions, leading up to an inevitable departure for at least one of them (visualised on screen by a wordless exchange of nervous glances across the TARDIS console at the story’s conclusion), but it does so within the context of establishing a separate mythos and by introducing supporting characters who show promise but who barely have room to breathe. This is one of those stories that would have benefited from two parts – more insight into the nightmares, more time with Tibo and Sonya and a better, more character-driven expansion of the false gods’ motives would all have been welcome, and the lesson to be learned here is that you can’t always have your cake and eat it, particularly if you only have fifty-odd minutes before the cafe shuts. It is an onslaught of ideas and concepts and themes, as confused about its own identity as Ryan apparently is about his own.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the crucial expository scenes with Zellin (Ian Gelder, rather less sinister than he was in Torchwood), who appears on the spacecraft in a literal puff of smoke and then proceeds to namedrop half a dozen Classic Who characters for no reason other than the bet that Chibnall was presumably trying to win. I’m sure it must have sounded splendid as pure concept: in practice it is an atrocious melange of ephemeral garbage, there purely to keep the Gallifrey Base threads ticking over. Things improve marginally when Rakaya turns up, strutting around like an intergalactic supermodel with her own portable wind machine, and the animation that explains her imprisonment is decent enough, but it’s too little, too late. You can almost picture Chibnall at his writing desk, knocking back that third whiskey and poring over James’ script while browsing his Twitter feed, seething “Fine. You want references? SNACK ON MY WRATH, FINK RATS!”

This is a great shame, because there’s actually quite a lot in here to enjoy, if you can extract it from what is a structural car crash. The set design and cinematography are both imaginative: Graham, shot from above, as if observed by some unseen phantom, foreshadowing both the arrival of Zellin and the cameo from Grace; the wide-angled shots of Mandip Gill, alone and isolated in the countryside; the neon, Tron-like sparsity of the ship / beacon / outpost. There’s even a stab at fleshing out Yas, something Doctor Who has needed for quite some time. While James’ dialogue fails to ascend the lofty heights of the show’s heyday, she does, at least, have a flair for reasonable conversation – Whittaker’s closing dalliance with Graham, awkward for all the right reasons, is quintessential Doctor, and if it makes you angry and uncomfortable, it should.

A brief foray online confirms that the angry voices are invariably the loudest, but one thing I’m struggling with this week is the recurring accusation that this was “more preachy PC bullshit” – the meat of which seems to have escaped me, at least during a first watch. Perhaps it was the ethnically diverse casting, a by-product of the fact that Ryan and Yas both hung out with people of their own skin colour. Perhaps it was the notion of a crinkly white god who was to all intents and purposes subservient to a hot-looking black god. Perhaps it was the inclusion of mental health issues, which – while awkwardly shoehorned – stayed just the right side of condescending, largely because the Doctor wasn’t in the room. None of this is a problem, and the insistence the fandom has of labelling everything that jars “PC bullshit” serves no purpose – it’s the same reason I can’t get on with “bad writing”, which serves as a euphemism for “this episode was not to my taste and I can’t really explain why”. Forgive me if I’m preaching to the choir, but at the risk of sounding like a shill, one reason it’s called political correctness is that sometimes, believe it or not, it’s actually correct.

It still doesn’t work, though. This is two good episodes crammed into a single, mediocre instalment: a heady concoction of ideas and concepts that unleashes a series of frivolous monsters and has them tackle big issues. There is no sense of real menace about Zellin or Rakaya, which is part of the point – the real monster is man’s inhumanity, not to man, but to himself. But it takes time to adequately convey a message like that, and somewhere along the line, between all the curries and the FIFA games and the hospital drips, the message gets rather lost. The central question the story poses, at least ostensibly, is ‘Can You Hear Me?’: an appropriate answer might be “Yes, but we have no idea what you’re trying to say.”

On the upside, at least there were no bloody frogs.

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Review: Praxeus

Greetings, fellow foodies! This week’s recipe is an exotic one, submitted by Pete and Chris; a calorific concoction of intriguing flavours wrapped in a flash casing, guaranteed to bring sparkle to even the drabbest Sunday evening. Some caution is needed: Pete tells me the last time he and Chris made one they briefly set fire to the internet, so make sure you don’t do the same!

Ingredients:

  • Three continents (if you don’t have these lying around you can re-use the same footage from the recipe we made three weeks ago; neon signs are usually available in all good home & garden stores)
  • Two grizzled sidekicks, gay for preference (I always like to season their backstory in advance)
  • Two tonnes of plastic
  • One obviously robotic bird (make sure you change the batteries first)
  • More plastic references
  • Three hazmat suits and a couple of gas masks
  • Seven tablespoons of BBC interference
  • Did we mention plastic?

Time: 50 minutes

Difficulty: Amiable to infuriating

Method: 

1. First, grease a large baking sheet with marketing hype. I find it helps to do this in layers, but you’ll need to include a really good press release talking about the environmental themes.

2. Pre-heat the oven to Gas Mark 6. This won’t take long as it should still be fairly hot from our last bake.

3. Separate your characters into three piles. Then, in three separate bowls, mix them until they start to combine. This is a lengthy process but they’ll eventually form a loose sort of dough. Be careful not to prod it, though, or it’ll break apart.

4. Place one Doctor in each bowl. Leave to stew.

5. Over a low heat, boil up three technobabble dumplings. Start this early, so they have time to boil dry – the drier the better.

6. While the technobabble is simmering, blend up three McGuffins – I tend to use human-shaped McGuffins – into thousands of pieces. This will be your layer of unpleasant death.

7. Combine all three bowls until the mixture just about clumps together. Crimp the edges with a pathogen reference.

8. Now it’s time to add our flavouring. Dip the hazmat suits very briefly into the mixture and then pull them out straight away; you want only the mildest hint of them. Sprinkle the layer of unpleasant death over the top.

9. When this is done, drizzle with social commentary. I find it helps to do this slowly and laboriously, really allowing the juices to soak in: you’ll probably find it gets concentrated in one area, and will almost certainly drift to the bottom, but your dinner guests will expect this so it doesn’t matter too much. They’ll eat it anyway.

10. The pudding is now ready to be over-egged. You know what to do, right?

11. Place in the oven. While it’s baking, you could catch up on Twitter.

12. It’s vital that you remove your Praxeus from the oven midway through the cooking time. This will ensure it’s half-baked and collapsing in the middle.

13. Garnish with a twist of half-expected villain and, if you have one, a sprig of noble self-sacrifice.

14. If prepared to perfection, the Praxeus should be stodgy and sweet, but leave a mildly unpleasant aftertaste.

 

And that’s it. In two weeks: Dry Roasted Cybermen, guaranteed nut (and bolt) free.

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God Is In The Detail (12-03)

Greetings, fair traveller. Welcome to Tranquility Spa, a place to relax and unwind and escape from the hubbub and stress of everyday life. We invite you to sit down, take the weight of your feet and catch up with this week’s list of VERY IMPORTANT CLUES AND SIGNS that you might have missed while watching the Doctor and her fam run around the scorched Earth. Luckily, I’ve written them all down. You may thank me later.

You’ll recall, fairly early during the episode’s running time, that the intrepid foursome ran out of the main building on Tranquility Spa and found themselves up against a brick wall – or at least a reasonably disguised barrier. To those of us who’d seen The Truman Show, it was familiar territory – and like everything else in the story it erupted at breakneck speed, which meant it was easy to miss what was going on when the Doctor examined that energy wall. Let’s slow down the action and take a closer look.

Believe it or not, this relates to Turlough. Notice the chequered pattern that makes up the slab’s exterior? We may, if we squint, count the Doctors in squares – the top line is Doctors 1-3, while 4-6 and 7-9 appear beneath. This means that the red square right in the middle of the board corresponds with Davison’s Doctor, and thus the portal we can see behind his square is themed around the idea of centres – the Doctor, of course, having visited the centre of the universe during the events of ‘Terminus’. (While we’re talking about red squares, we should also point out that the Eighth Doctor – represented directly beneath the Fifth – visited Red Square in Revolution Man. But of course you all knew that.)

“Yes, that’s all very well,” I can hear you all ask, “but why Turlough?” Well, have a look at this.

Notice the five illuminated markings round the edge? And the 20.5% in the middle? That wasn’t an accident. It stands, unless I’m very much mistaken (and I’m not) for Fifth Doctor, season 20, story 5 – also known as ‘Enlightenment’, in which Turlough faced up to the Black Guardian and redeemed himself, even though Tegan never fully trusted him. This probably all sounds a bit tunous, but lest we forget, the name Turlough comes from the Irish turlach, meaning ‘dry place’ – it’s a village in County Mayo and, more interestingly, a city in California with the zip codes 9538095381 and 95382 – corresponding DIRECTLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY with the years that Davison (represented by 5) signed the contract, first appeared on screen and then made his debut properly (80, 81 and 82 respectively). Oh, and the 3? The number of stories in the Black Guardian trilogy, of course. Need I point out that Mark Strickson was born in ’59, the reverse of 95? I need not.

The next image may be a little difficult to see close up, but suffice it to say that the cameras that make up its four separate sections are all numbered. Assuming that we can ascribe each number to a separate Doctor – and factoring in that Whittaker is technically the Fourteenth incarnation, if one factors in John Hurt – we can make connections as follows:

Let’s split it up and look for clues. As you can see, the top half of this is to do with zip codes: the numbers at the bottom of each video display each correspond to separate zip codes, creating a CLEAR AND UNAMBIGUOUS link to some unannounced (but long-rumoured) content from Big Finish. First up is an untitled Short Trip, narrated by Katie Manning, in which the Third Doctor and Jo visit Maine in 1984 and fall foul of a mysterious alien race wanting to invade Earth via the phone lines. There then follows an upcoming Sixth Doctor adventure in which the TARDIS materialises in nineteenth century Hartford, where they discover the inspiration for Injun Joe was a stranded Sontaran. According to the grapevine it features a sequence where the travellers keep missing Twain by a matter of minutes, prompting the Doctor to quip “And ne’er the Twain shall meet”, to which Peri rolls her eyes.

The bottom half is all about words: you’ll see that these two cameras are focused on the Tropical Vista Zone and the Peaceful Paradise Zone, both of which sound like levels from an abandoned Sonic The Hedgehog title. However, if we are to combine the words ‘Tropical Vista’ and ‘Peaceful Paradise’ and then rearrange the letters, you can see that we get ‘AFAR PLURAL APPOSITE VISIT’, which is a blatant reference to the recently released Thirteenth Doctor comic strip, in which Whittaker’s Doctor has a close enounter with Tennant’s Doctor during the events of ‘Blink’. Am I saying that the Scorched Earth we saw in ‘Orphan 55’ is linked to the unresolved cliffhanger from Class? No, I am not. I leave the dot-joining to you.

Next time: Melanie Brown…

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God Is In The Detail (12-01)

Rejoice, Doctor Who fans! After a year-long break – and then some – we’re back with another round of unearthed conspiracies, wild fan theory and VERY IMPORTAND AND SECRET INFORMATION, as we dissect and discuss the episodes in this year’s series.

For the uninitiated – and there may be a few of you – this aspect of Brian of Morbius all stems from a single episode of Sherlock – or, specifically, the interviews that followed it. Questioned, after the events of ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, as to how Benedict Cumberbatch could possibly have survived his topple from that roof, Steven Moffat replied that there was “a clue that everybody missed”. It prompted a flurry of speculation and enough wild goose chases to fill an Anna Paquin movie. But there was a truth to it, because Moffat did this sort of thing all the time, particularly when he was running Doctor Who, loading his stories with clues and signs as to the fantastical directions they were destined to take.

And so I set about finding them. Seven years later, we’re still going strong – it’s a mantle Chibnall seems to have inherited – and that’s why whenever a series comes out, you’ll find this blog filled with discussion about the SIGNIFICANT AND CLEARLY SIGNPOSTED CLUES AND HINTS as to where the series arc is going. Today we’re looking at part one of ‘Spyfall’, so I advise you not to read any further if it’s a story you have yet to see – but if you have, you may not have realised that it was full of hidden references, some of which took some considerable time and effort to dig up. Join us now, constant reader, as we take a tumble down the rabbit hole. Be warned that this way lies temporary madness, but also blissful enlightenment. And did you bring a tin opener?

We will start, as we almost invariably do, with a control panel.

“BE ALERT!” the monitor readout doesn’t quite say. “THE WORLD NEEDS LERTS!” I nearly compiled an annotated version of this, but there’s not an awful lot to do: note, however, a couple of things that may not be immediately obvious, particularly the 1959 in the top centre. 1959 was, of course, the year that the Seventh Doctor and Mel landed in Shangri-La, the Welsh holiday camp hiding a dark secret (no, not Michael Barrymore) – a CLEAR AND TRANSPARENT indication that Sylvester McCoy is set to make a return appearance, presumably alongside Belinda Mayne. There are a number of reasons why I’ve reached this conclusion, but one thing at a time.

Of significantly more interest is ‘G-BGUX’ on the right hand side, below the display. ‘Gux’, according to the Urban Dictionary, is a Swiss German colloquialism both for ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’. GB – referring, of course, to Great Britain – thus exists in a quantum state of both unification and division (did we mention Sylvester McCoy was Scottish and that parts of the show are still filmed in Wales?). Time is in flux, and our actions over the next twelve months could be crucial. And you thought Chris Chibnall was done with Brexit jokes.

The GR-AH reference, of course, should be self-explanatory, so I won’t waste my time unpacking that one. Now, have a look at this.

There are two key themes to this week’s collection of signs and portents: the Seventh Doctor (more of him in a bit) and the Master, whose sudden appearance at the end of the series 12 opener shocked and stunned the fandom. At least, it shocked and stunned those of us who didn’t know it was coming – something that was obvious in hindsight, or if you were simply paying attention. For instance, the computer monitor above contains three eye-shaped maps, corresponding DIRECTLY AND UNAMBIGUOUSLY to the first three Doctors – and it is during the reign of the Third Doctor, the highlighted map, that the Master first appears. Moreover the shape of the maps is significant on a number of levels, pertaining as it does to the Eye of Harmony, the portable black hole that powered the TARDIS, first seen in full in ‘The Deadly Assassin’, which featured the Master, and then later in Doctor Who: The Movie, which featured the Seventh Doctor and also…well, you can see where this is going.

But if you watch ‘Spyfall’ properly you’ll find there are clues to the Master’s return hidden right at the beginning, notably in the secret message that the unnamed agent reads in the toilet in the pre-titles teaser. I had to tinker with this to get the clearest image, but it was worth it, because there is a wealth of information embedded in those numbers.

You see? It was right there in plain sight, and you all missed it. Look carefully next time. I can’t do all this on my own.

Next: a map. I love maps. [Affects Yorkshire accent, does slightly leery grin]

So far, so so-so. Alas there is no way of actually ascertaining the precise coordinates to which this map refers: you will be reassured, constant reader, that I spent many fruitless hours perusing the internet, the London and Sheffield street atlases and the Ordnance Survey archive at my local library in order to glean this information, but to no avail. I got through six bottles of Ribena last night trying to figure this out and I really need a wee.

Hang on.

Right, back. No, listen: there’s a good chance that the location is important, and I’m still waiting for my network of Dark Web contacts (who go under the pseudonyms of Lamster, Hedgehog and Glumpy) to dig up the goods. But in the absence of that, I did a little drawing of my own, and look what happens if you connect the occurrences of the word ‘DIE’.

Bad…WF? WF? What does that refer to? Bad Wolf is an obvious answer, if we were to find an O and an L from somewhere (probably down the back of the sofa; that’s the last time I saw the TV remote). But here’s a thing. You may be interested to know that Ian Lavender, star of Dad’s Army (and once seen by this reporter in pantomime in Canterbury, the winter of 1994) celebrates his birthday on 16 February – a Sunday, and the same day that the as-yet untitled episode 8 of series 12 is due to air. And if we insert the initials IL into WF, we get…Wilf.

What could could this mean? Is an ageing Bernard Cribbins set to return to Doctor Who taking the role of a darkened, decaying version of Donna’s grandfather, perhaps someone who’s had his body stolen? Is there some sort of crossover coming involving the heart of the TARDIS and Billie Piper’s teeth? Do we take any significance from the fact that this is episode 8, and that the Eighth Doctor made his debut in 1996 – fifty years to the year, incidentally, after Ian Lavender was born – facing off against Eric Roberts? Do we further take any significance from the fact that the aforementioned Lavender starred in Eastenders alongside the aforementioned Bonnie Langford?  I don’t know, and neither do you. But lest we forget, Wilf made his final appearance at the beginning of 2010 – that’s ten years ago, folks, TEN – in which he urged the Doctor to take up arms and kill the Master. But you’ll have to draw your own conclusions, I’m afraid. I know I have.

We’re almost done but there are two more things to show you. The first is this.

 

Two things to note: the fact that ’89’ is clearly visible on the readout, referring UNAMBIGUOUSLY AND EXPLICITLY to the year that Doctor Who was cancelled, right after ‘Survival’ (which featured, as we have previously noted, both the Seventh Doctor and the Master), and also the two pale orange lights near the top of the dial. Because here’s how it works: taking these as season numbers, and where the very first blue light at the top of the dial refers to 1963’s season 1, these two amber lights refer respectively to seasons 38 and 39 – in other words, taking into account a continuous numbering from Hartnell through to Whittaker, this year’s series and next. In other words, constant reader, this is a long game, and one that won’t be over until Whittaker’s third and likely final run of episodes, and episode 10 (which may be denoted by the percentage sign, if you examine it at just the right angle) is going to end on a massive cliffhanger.

And it’s worth remembering, of course, precisely where Ryan and Graham’s roulette ball chose to land.

Anyway, the tea’s getting cold. See you next time.

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Have I Got Whos For You (seasonal cheer edition)

I’m on a bit of a clock today, so this is going to be light on the text front. We’ll just get on with the pictures, shall we?

This week in world news: while posing for that Time Magazine cover, Greta Thunberg inadvertently blunders into a scene from series 7.

There are disturbing developments at a pub in Suffolk.

And in a deleted scene from Game of Thrones, Bryn Terfel is coming.

Also coming soon: the Eleventh Doctor stars in The Collect Call of Cthulhu.

And Tom Hanks, fresh from promoting Mr Rogers or whatever he’s doing now, begins work on the upcoming Forrest of the Dead.

Speaking of the Eleventh Doctor, news emerges of an abandoned exchange from his regeneration story in which Clara voices what we’ve all been thinking for years.

And Chris Chibnall capitalises on Boris Johnson’s Love Actually parody to bring us this.

Last but not least: filming for the new Ghostbusters trailer is interrupted by an unexpected visitor.

“Seriously, Amy? Again?”

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Have I Got Whos For You (Not Exactly Trailer Edition)

God. The sequel to ‘Army of Ghosts’ looks rubbish.

Content warning: if you really want me to talk about the trailer, you’re best heading off to The Doctor Who Companion, where you’ll find a brief missive I tapped out Saturday afternoon in between doing the taxi run and preparing for Edward’s birthday party. Suffice it to say that “The name’s Doctor – the Doctor” is an absolutely dreadful way to begin anything, let alone one of the most hotly-anticipated trailers since…well, since the last one, but apart from that clunker of an opening I really rather enjoyed it. Certainly it felt like Doctor Who. Things exploded and there were monsters. Oh, and we got our first proper glimpse of Stephen Fry, whose presence in the upcoming series has been foretold since the ancient times.

“So you’re the Master, then?”
“Of Lake-town, yes.”
“But you are the Master.”
“Yes. Of Lake-town.”

Having said all that, I really can’t see how some vloggers managed to stretch out the conversation to an hour. An hour? To discuss a fifty-second montage of shots? Did they talk about the location of the vineyard or Jodie Whittaker’s goggles? Oh, no, wait. It was the tuxedo, wasn’t it? I mean, I’m only guessing (I refuse to listen to the thing), but I assume there was a lengthy discourse as to whether or not it ought to be her permanent costume this time round, along with whether she borrowed the coat from Jack (she didn’t; Jack’s coat is completely different). Either way they all scrub up nicely. And ooh look, scenery.

“I could have sworn it said White Tie.”

One of the big talking points is about exactly how the series opener (from which this shot is purportedly taken) will be the ‘game changer’ it’s reported to be. Speculation is rife, with everything from Tennant’s supposed return – leading to a scene in which Whittaker castigates every single male Doctor that’s preceded her – to the revelation that Hartnell was actually the first of a brand new set of regenerations, with the previous thirteen being female. Which is so ridiculous I don’t really know where to start, although as it turns out I started here.

When one particular fan chose to speculate about whether or not this would happen, I told him it was unlikely because it was a stupid idea – leading someone else to interject with the words “It’s plausible, though”, and then follow it up with a long explanation of Gallifreyan history I didn’t need to read. I replied that it was plausible, but still stupid.

“Hang on,” he said. “How could something plausible also be stupid?”

“In the world of Doctor Who,” I explained, “just about anything is plausible. That doesn’t mean it’s sensible. The next Doctor could be a young girl with pigtails, a pink TARDIS and a pony fetish. That would be plausible, within the confines of established scientific laws. But it’s a stupid idea and it would kill the show outright. You can see where I’m going with this.”

I mean, I’m fine with tinkering with the history, but fan-baiting is always going to land you in hot water. That’s what Moffat did, and people didn’t enjoy it then either. I am at the stage where I genuinely don’t care any more – Doctor Who is a silly show and I don’t have any particular concerns about them making it even more silly, as long as it’s dramatically satisfying (in a way that the frog wasn’t), but doing a retcon of Captain-America-is-actually-from-Hydra proportions for no other reason than to grab a headline is frankly a little bit insulting.

(Incidentally, when I posted the above, I had a few people saying “Hinchcliffe? Everybody loved Hinchcliffe, surely?” To which I had to explain that no, no they didn’t. Not at first. The love came later, once people had got used to the disbanding of UNIT and Baker being a bit mad and the whole Gothic thing. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. I wonder if years later people will look back at ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ and hail it as the classic it probably isn’t?)

1975 was also the year that Jaws came out, which made me think about Bradley Walsh’s assertion that series 12 will feature some “absolutely terrifying monsters.”

Oh well, at least it’s official.

[coughs politely]

In other news this week: a photo of three small children outside a Canadian gold mine in 1898 has led to much speculation that Greta Thunberg could in fact be a time traveller. I have embedded it below so that you may judge for yourself. No idea who the fella at the back is.

Entertainment, and one of the big talking points at the moment is the BBC’s grandiose, delayed-beyond-explanation adaptation of War of the Worlds – big-budget, ‘contemporary’, and (if you read the Telegraph) unnecessarily Woke. I’ve not seen it yet, and thus couldn’t possibly comment, but I note with interest that they seem to have cast Francis Begbie as the astronomer.

“The chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to – what? What is it? What?”

War of the Worlds may be the most anticipated BBC show in years, and just about the only thing to rival it for sheer levels of excitement is Picard, the new Star Trek series that sees Admiral Jean-Luc climb back into his spaceship for one last job. Patrick Stewart’s been rather quiet about the whole thing, but I’ve had this one hanging around for a while, so in it goes.

Oh, and in a highly anticipated crossover moment, the Doctor laments to Clara his decision to allow Yoda to examine the heart of the TARDIS.

“I told him not to look inside. I bloody told him.”

 

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Have I Got Whos For You: End-of-August edition

There’s some interesting stuff currently cooling over at the Brian of Morbius foundry. We’ll have a new video dump, some debunking of myths and soon – when the time is right – I’m going to be plugging the short fiction I’ve been writing, in a lazy and half-hearted attempt to reinvent myself as a storyteller rather than a hack. Well, you have to move on.

That’ll have to wait a bit. In the meantime, here’s this week’s roundup – beginning with a blink of disbelief from the fanbase over Peter Capaldi’s current baldness.

Elsewhere, Chris Chibnall is knocked out in his flat and wakes up in a strange coastal village, surrounded by shadowy angry figures demanding to know why he didn’t resign.

Although there is, as it transpires, good reason to be worried about series 12, as this leaked promotional shot illustrates.

Onto lighter things now. On a break from his travels, the Twelfth Doctor is spotted with Ashildr and Clara at a Home Counties theme park.

And following a dangerous and potentially lethal interstellar musical publicity stunt, the Eleventh Doctor successfully manages to catch Taron Egerton, although sadly the piano was knackered.

And finally, in the unexpectedly leafy outskirts of Central London, there’s an unexpected visitor outside the TARDIS.

“Yeah, Disney don’t want me. Wanna hang?”

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Five Doctor Who episodes to help you deal with grief

I’m writing this four days after my mother died.

It was one of those sudden, unexpected things: a phone call at five in the afternoon, the rain hammering on the roof of the folding camper as we laughed and giggled about nothing, and then the sudden, life-changing moment when you’re told the news, and then the denial (“No. No, no. You’re wrong“) and then…look. To be honest it’s a blur. But somehow things got done. And there was the inevitable back-and-forth between close family members and then we cancelled our day-old holiday and came back to deal with it. She had a heart attack despite having no history of heart trouble and that means a post mortem and a certain amount of limbo while you wait for the phone to ring.

It is a funny state of affairs. There is grieving without grieving. I think that, even after all this time, I am still in shock; a particularly lucid nightmare from which there is no chance to wake. You go onto autopilot: things happen because they must, and because the day needs to be traversed like some desolate, inexplicably familiar commute even though the circumstances are bizarre and frightening. It occurs to me that I have yet to cry about all this, and for once in my life the sense of overriding guilt that is my default emotional state is suddenly and notably absent, simply because I am keeping it at bay for fear that it would just about finish me off.

So I am currently fractured, and not in a good place, and when I’m not in a good place I tend to fall back on something creative. It’s that, or sit there and brood. For example, I have just rendered every single canonical Doctor in cartoon form using the Flipline Papa Louie Pals app; one of those random things you do when you’re waiting for the coffee to reach drinking temperature. I will post them here eventually, when I’ve sorted out the height variance. It seems almost frivolous, but it’s a way of getting through the day. No, it’s more than that: creativity is (and I dearly wish it weren’t) an outlet that is all too often fuelled by melancholy, where bad things lead to good things. In the (sometimes metaphorical) studio of every artist there is – or ought to be – a plaque reading “YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE MISERABLE TO WORK HERE, BUT IT HELPS”.

Or perhaps it’s just a way of shutting out the noise. And it is a noise, this confusing maelstrom of mixed moods, of memories both bad and joyful and sometimes both, of things said and unsaid and this realisation that there is no such thing as a positive or negative emotion, there is only an emotion, and that it is possible to feel both good and bad. “The sun rose steadily over Hogwarts,” writes Rowling at the end of The Deathly Hallows, “and the Great Hall blazed with life and light. Harry was an indispensible part of the mingled outpourings of jubilation and mourning, of grief and celebration.” How wondrous it might have been if we had actually seen that at the end of the film, instead of the mute and oddly soulless calm that David Yates and Warner opted to provide.

But Doctor Who can be like that. At its best (and that is a heady height that is reached all too rarely, it seems) it provides both the opportunity to celebrate life and also to mark its end, as characters die and are appropriately mourned, and death is the next stage on a journey, or a sacrifice worth making, or perhaps as simple as going to bed at the end of a very long day. This list is not exhaustive; nor is it definitive. Certain ‘obvious’ stories (Father’s Day) are missing; other choices will possibly strike you as odd. That’s fine. These are, for one reason or another, the episodes that have helped me, curiously not by revisiting them (I simply haven’t had the time) but purely in terms of remembering key themes and moments and dialogue from years of watching and dissecting and writing about them. And this week, doing that has comforted me. And if anyone is feeling what I’ve been feeling, and can in turn draw any comfort from anything I’ve written, either here or below, then my work is surely not fruitless, nor meaningless.

And I miss my mum.

 

Twice Upon A Time

What would you do, muses Steven Moffat in this Christmas special, if you had the chance to say goodbye again? If the dead were somehow stored as permanent memories, magically rendered flesh through the conduit of a glass avatar? What would you say to them – if, indeed, you could be sure it was them? And how would you know? That’s the mystery that the Doctor endeavours to solve, with the help of a long-vanquished former self, a dead woman and a melancholy army captain whose time is apparently up. There are gags about French restaurants and there is a Dalek, but it’s that idea of loss and survival that lingers long after the smoke from the death ray has dissipated into the air. The notion that we might somehow be able to talk to the deceased – or, more specifically, that they might talk to us – is one that is embossed throughout ‘Twice Upon A Time’, holding it together like the stitching on David Bradley’s hat. The avatar on the battlefield is both Bill Potts and not Bill Potts; both Clara Oswald and not Clara Oswald, both Nardole and…well, you get the idea. In the end, it is the memories of others that make us who we are, and that as long as there is breath in our bodies, they never truly leave us.

 

The Woman Who Fell To Earth

Series 11 opens with the news of a death, only we don’t know that. Jodie Whittaker’s inauguration begins and more or less ends with a YouTube video, uploaded by a tearful young man mourning the loss of his grandmother. It is a grief that will eventually unite him with her second husband – a man who himself carries the weight of loss in his cancer-stricken body: a man with a broken heart living on borrowed time. And yet this is not in itself a bad thing. “I carry them with me,” says the Doctor, when asked how she copes with those she herself has lost. “What they would have thought and said and done. I make them a part of who I am.” It is a sentiment that will eventually save Graham, when faced (much later on) with the ghost of the woman he knew, and who is able to tell her apart from the real thing by remembering how she would have reacted. Still, it is always the Doctor who survives, and sometimes that hurts. And as good as it was, there was a sting to this particular tale when we re-examined its title: this notion that there were two women, both of whom had fallen to Earth, and that only one of them managed to get back on her feet.

 

Heaven Sent

Shaken and broken from the apparent death of his companion, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is marooned inside a watch that looks like a castle, chased by a ghost that wouldn’t look out of place on Scooby Doo, and spends four billion years punching through a wall. On paper it sounds almost ridiculous. In practice it is a stunning, almost groundbreaking entry in the Who logbook, a Groundhog Day of endless grief. But it is the mood of this one that strikes you: a sombre, semi-lit world of browns and greys and dark reds, where corridors shift and paintings decay and one is both always alone and never alone. Clara is both the Doctor’s muse and the object of his grief, manifest in a cacophony of half-glimpses, viewed from behind as she scratches with chalk before vanishing once more into the shadows – the decision to eventually show her one of the few narrative missteps in an otherwise impeccable production. “It’s funny,” muses the Doctor, halfway through this story, drumming his fingers on the arm of a chair. “The day you lose someone isn’t the worst. At least you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.” The following week (and presumably requiring something else to do) he would bust Clara from the trap street and she would run off with Maisie Williams in a stolen TARDIS, but we’re not going to discuss that one.

 

The Rings of Akhaten

Poor Neil Cross went through the wringer with this, and it really isn’t fair. Yes, it is overly sentimental and frequently ridiculous. Yes, the the final conceit (in which, during what is a bizarre twist on The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Clara destroys the monster by feeding it a leaf) really doesn’t work. Yes, the singing is a bit much. On the other hand you would be hard-pressed to find an episode of Doctor Who that matches this one in terms of ambition, grandeur and sheer unbridled joy: a rejuvenated Doctor, fresh off his leash, a companion dazzled by the wonders of the universe, a beautifully rendered interstellar market and a dozen good ideas that never quite bear fruit. The Doctor’s graveside stalking of Clara is uncomfortable to watch – it’s rather like reading your girlfriend’s diary – but the whole pre-title sequence is a beautiful and ultimately heart-rending vignette that shows us how someone might be defined by the people close to them. ‘Akhaten’ is about letting go of the things we love, but it treads this path with that sense of bittersweet sadness and joy I was talking about; the one that pervades the closing moments of Harry Potter. And this in the episode where Matt Smith has a wand duel.

 

Blink

Viewed from one perspective, ‘Blink’ is a story about bootstraps and puzzles and the frightening things that lurk in old houses. That’s usually how I approach it, and I wouldn’t blame you for doing the same. But it’s so much more than that: it is, at its core, a story about loss, as Sally Sparrow – the undisputed queen of Companions That Never Were – has her heart broken twice, once by an old acquaintance and once by a new one. This would count for nothing if the script were mawkish and sentimental, but it is neither: ‘Blink’ is one of those stories that works just as well when it is being sad as when it is being frightening, and the death of Billy Shipton (announcing, with a poetic abstractness that would eventually outstay its welcome, that he would live “until the rain stops”) is among the most poignant scenes that Moffat has ever committed to paper. And it’s here, in these moments of downtime when the statues are off camera and the score is quiet and understated, that the paradox of the Weeping Angels is revealed: that the tragedy that trails in their wake is visited not upon those who are taken but on those that are left behind. The Doctor calls this potential energy; at the risk of sounding tremendously cloying, we might just as easily call it love.

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