River wasn’t expecting this.
“I’m sorry sir, but I’m afraid I will have to ask you to move on.”
And in a back garden somewhere in Oxfordshire…
Hello! Welcome to Good Burger, home of the good burger; may I take your order?
As you’ll have seen the other week, I spent large parts of August assembling a plethora of Doctors with the help of Flipline Studio’s Papa Louie Pals, which enables you to create your own characters in the vein of the developer’s cutesy, animated consumers and baristas. In other words, you too – in the comfort of your own home – can make the sort of people who wander in to Papa’s Tacoreria and order…well, tacos. Or burritos, or whatever else they sell; I’m sure I don’t know. I haven’t played them, remember?
But give me an app that lets me be a bit creative and it’s like a red rag to a bull, and – having done all the Doctors – I elected to spend a little time creating the companions as well. We start, today, with the New Who brigade: most of the big players are in there, although I’m kicking myself for not including Wilf. Just for good measure, I stuck a couple of villains in as well (all right, one villain in multiple forms, which does rather narrow it down). Oh, and I couldn’t bring myself to do Adam, largely because he’s a twat.
Still. Everyone else is here, just about. And yes, there is a Classic Who companions gallery in the works, at some point when I get round to it. I may even take requests, as long as they’re more imaginative than “Please stop doing this”.
Let’s get cooking…
We’ll get these two out of the way first. There are lots of ways to do Rose; I have gone with her series one look, which is a little more chavvy and a little less refined than the slicker haircut and more revealing outfits she wore in series 2. Donna looks like a slightly younger version of herself, but that’s not a bad thing.
Nardole is…well, he’s a little taller than I’d like, or a little slimmer; pick one. But he looks vageuly Nardole-ish. And I’m quite pleased with Bill; I even remembered to put the bow in her hair.
The Masters, next (yes, there are multiple versions). Simm’s 2007 look is basically a man in a black suit; take away the evil eyes and he could be auditioning for Reservoir Dogs. He’s accompanied here by River Song, sporting her classic vest-and-skirt combination, as worn in ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ and probably other episodes I can’t be bothered to Google.
Two more Masters: the hooded monstrosity from ‘The End of Time’ and the restrained, bearded 2017 Master I always hoped we’d get to see. That’s my favourite contemporary take on the character, and it’s irritating that he really doesn’t work here: the hair is too shaggy, the beard (while being the closest I could manage) is wrong, and the tunic is more chef than rogue Time Lord. he looks like an evil sensei from a Japanese martial arts movie.
Missy, on the other hand, came out a treat, even if she does vaguely resemble a sinister version of Lucy from Peanuts. That’s presumably what Mickey Smith is thinking, unless it’s “Did I leave the iron on?”.
Series 11 now. Graham and Ryan first. Note that Graham’s smile is slightly smaller than the rest: this is deliberate.
And here’s Yas – along with Captain Jack, who is probably staring at her bottom.
The Ponds! They’re wearing matching shirts, which happened because I was feeling a bit lazy that morning, but it’s rather cute.
Lastly, Martha – whose jacket is just about perfect – and Clara. Specifically Oswin, although that dress isn’t quite as figure-hugging as I’d like. Still, she looks pleased with it.
To kick off today, we honour the late, great Peter Mayhew, as he interrupts the Doctor’s naptime.
Mayhew was a legend, a seven foot icon who managed seven Star Wars films and who was listed, somewhat bizarrely as ‘Chewbacca Consultant’ for The Last Jedi; my children didn’t notice he’d been replaced and in any case it’s the sort of thing very few people get to put on their CV, so I suppose he could retire happy. It’s difficult to tell just how much of the growling Wookiee’s endless appeal was down to the fact that he was a badass in a fire fight or the fact that he had a surprisingly tender side to him, as witness any scene where he gets to hug someone, or wail because Harrison Ford’s just fallen off a bridge. Star Wars has changed a lot over the years, but Chewbacca has been a constant – even though his cameo in Revenge of the Sith amounts to three or four seconds, the guy’s two hundred years old and you nonetheless know that whatever else is going on he’s kicking around somewhere in the galaxy, raising havoc (and a family) while Jake Lloyd rides off to do his Ben Hur thing. It’s like Mace Windu’s lightsaber: when asked, during Phantom Menace promotional interviews, why he didn’t have one, he replied “I did. I was wearing it.”
“But you didn’t actually use it.”
“Yeah,” replies Jackson, licking his lips. “But I was wearin’ it.” Intended meaning, it appears, counts for a lot.
Here’s a pet hate. Can we please have an embargo on ‘Rule one’? Rule one only applies for series 6, and even then it’s inconsistent, given that its most famous use comes courtesy of the world’s most unreliable narrator since Tyler Durden. Certainly it’s not something we should be using to cover up things we can’t be bothered to explain, which is what I see an awful lot. There is enough confusion in the real world without us having to deal with the reliability of TV characters. Can’t we just accept that they’re basically trustworthy and that sometimes we’re just mind-numbingly thick? There’s no other plausible explanation, surely, for the staggering levels of stupidity I see among the general populace, or the fact that a huge number of the votes cast in last week’s local elections were apparently protest votes. “You can’t deliver what you promised,” says Mr Finch of Tunbridge Wells, “so I’m voting for the independent candidate, despite the fact that I know bugger all about his policies and his leaflet was a copy editor’s nightmare”. Call me picky but that seems like a ludicrous way to decide who gets to sort out the local pot holes. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Of course, we talk about being in the dark about Brexit, but darkness is something we should all be accustomed to, at least lately.
Did I tell you I’ve never watched Game of Thrones? I’ll do so, perhaps, years down the line, having heard all the spoilers about the Night King and Ned Stark and poor old Hodor. I was chatting recently with a friend who told me about a prominent young Christian in his college church who had once told him that watching Game of Thrones was the path to ruin, and that as Church we must be in the world but not of the world, and that it leads to desensitisation and all sorts of other stuff you normally find in a Jack Chick tract. Call me a heretic but this sort of reaction has long since baffled me – not so much the wish to avoid such things (which is entirely a personal choice) but the fervent desire to preach it as gospel. If your faith is sufficiently wobbly – or dogmatic – that you do not feel you can engage with popular media, or if it’s some kind of principle that leads you to believe that fake people engaging in questionable activities is somehow unacceptable as entertainment, that’s entirely your business. But to teach it as some kind of worldview, and to tout your own approach not only as a feasible alternative but as the moral high ground, it’s…well, let’s just say it’s precisely the sort of thing I was talking about last week.
Still. It’s just never been particularly interesting, this tale of dragons and feuds and general silliness. I’m sure it’s lovely if you’re a fan, in the same way that Doctor Who is lovely if you’re a fan (unless you’re watching series 11, which apparently everybody hated except me). A lot of it is down to time. I barely get time to watch the stuff that actually interests me – most of which is Scandinavian – without having to wade into seventy-odd hours of Cornish scenery. You have to pick and choose, which is one reason I never watched Breaking Bad or The West Wing.
Sometimes you just have to prioritise, even if you’re a Time Lord.
It’s weird, though; I’ve watched ‘The Woman Who Lived’ at least a dozen times over the years and I’ve only just noticed this.
(You would not believe the social media reaction I got when I uploaded this one. Amidst the giggling, there were a number of people saying “Oh, wow, I can’t believe I didn’t see that before now! I feel stupid”. Sarcasm is difficult to detect on the internet but at least a few of them, it turned out, were absolutely sincere, which makes me weep for the future of humanity. At the other end of the spectrum was the woman who grumbled “Obvious Photoshop”, thereby completely missing the point. Middle ground: it’s nothing but a fable.)
It’s a different world, these days. Time was you’d get away with something like that. The wobbly sets on ‘The Aztecs’, for example, show up rather nastily on DVD but on a twelve-inch screen in 1963 no one bats an eyelid. These days it’s far easier to rewind and scrub and freeze frame and zoom with minimal pixellation, to the extent that repeated viewings to spot the hidden details are something that certain writers and directors actively encourage. Witness Steven Moffat, for example, who in his Sherlock interviews rambled about “a clue that everyone’s missed”, prompting eagle-eyed fans with too much time on their hands to go back and look again.
Still, at least he’s never done that sort of thing in Doctor Who.
And….we’re back from commercial. Right, did everybody enjoy Thanksgiving? ‘Cos the Doctor’s got the turkey on.
(Mr Bean did it first, of course, and to arguably better effect.)
Thanksgiving is typically more about spending time with your family than it is about exchanging gifts – but there have been scores of references to packaging all over the internet after ‘Kerblam’, and not in a good way.
Elsewhere in the Whoniverse this week there was consternation when an Amazon Prime scheduling cockup meant that American subscribers to their streaming video service got to watch episode eight before they’d seen episode seven.
As for me, I’ve been tinkering with grainy, near-unusuable shots from ‘Kerblam!’ (do I have to type out the exclamation mark every time? It’s incredibly tedious) in order to produce more obscure connections to CBeebies programmes, although feedback for this one does suggest I’m not alone.
But I did find time to get hold of this exclusive preview shot from next week’s Holby City.
This week: Doctor Who meets The League of Gentlemen, or rather doesn’t.
Elsewhere, here’s River Song, enjoying an afternoon on the beach with her grandfather.
As Hey Duggee launches a new space-themed episode, the inspiration for the titular dog’s costume is obvious.
And yes, I know the tweed-coated academic look precedes 2011. But there must have been a point in the animation studios where someone said “Hey, he looks like the Eleventh Doctor!”
Finally, Brianofmorbius duly launches its own version of Elf on the Shelf:
Well, it’s sort of Christmassy.
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.”
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.”
I’ve thought for a while now that River Song is a little like Marmite. You either want to absorb her entirely, lusciously spread on toast, or burn her alive. You love or hate her and there is comparatively little middle ground.
While taste is always subjective, it’s a thing that doesn’t happen often. Few fans would argue, for example, against general conviction that Melanie Bush is an irritating carrot-obsessed fitness freak, at least on TV (Big Finish tells a different story, of course), or that Adric was a general twerp. On the other hand most people love Ian and Barbara. Still, River’s apparently ubiquitous presence in the seven years we’ve known her – and particularly in the last five – has generated as many detractors as it has fans, which is presumably why last night’s Christmas special, ‘The Husbands of River Song’, while actually being quite good, presumably had a good number of people pulling their paper cracker hats down in front of their eyes even before the opening credits. There is no middle ground with River, just as there is no middle ground with processed yeast extract. You either eat it by the jarful or you involuntarily gag as soon as it swims into view.
But upon reflection, I don’t think it’s that simple. I think it’s possible to have your toast and eat it too. I’d had more than enough of River by the time we’d wrapped up ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, but getting her out again for ‘Husbands’ seems to have paid off. The plot – such as it is – revolves around an attempt to rob the despotic, disembodied King Hydroflax, who happens to be carrying a priceless diamond in his brain. It’s the excuse for the ridiculous sight gag of a head in a bag – almost as ridiculous as River’s sonic trowel (although it is a nice plant, if you’ll excuse the pun, for the inevitability of the Doctor’s Christmas gift). The honour of playing the head of Hydroflax goes to Greg Davies, who is almost as uptight as he was in Cuckoo, and just as much fun to watch.
Essentially ‘Husbands’ is exactly the sort of romp that you need after a heavy series; the sort of story that ‘Last Christmas’ really ought to have been, and wasn’t. Neatly compartmentalised into three locations, with differing moods in each, it calls upon Moffat’s stock trade of sinister, nondescript monsters (this particular one has a head that unzips), pathos-drenched love scenes and general wibbly wobbliness. There is a crashing starship. River and the Doctor have dinner (twice) and argue over who gets to drive. It’s like one of those middle-aged romcoms that are vehicles for Robert De Niro or Barbra Streisand. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
The central conceit is that of poor communication – something (to paraphrase Verne the turtle in Over The Hedge) that families do very well, and perhaps rendering this more appropriate for Christmas than it would be at any other time of the year. River doesn’t recognise the Doctor simply because she’s never met this version, and the Doctor’s irregular attempts at telling her the truth are met by interrupting sidekicks, sudden explosions or knocks on the door of the TARDIS. There’s a kind of arrogance to her assumption that there would be no loophole to the Doctor’s twelve-regeneration limit, but the real problem River faces in ‘Husbands’ is that she stopped buying breakfast cereal in 2013, and the free ‘collect all twelve’ fact cards that she’s been accumulating are from an older set that’s now two years out of date. Or perhaps it’s headcanon in action: there are, I’m sure, various Who fans who gave up on the show after ‘The Time of the Doctor’ (or significantly before that) because they couldn’t accept the idea of new regeneration cycles. Why can’t River be one of those?
Moffat teases this out for as long as he possibly can, largely to milk its dramatic / comedic potential to saturation point. This is equivalent to a disguised Shakespearian protagonist wandering about the stage in a dodgy false beard observing the outrageous behaviour of allies or enemies: the jokes come thick and fast (even if they don’t always work) and the dramatic irony goes up to eleven. The Doctor visibly blanches as he reflects on River’s apparent bigamy, callous disregard for life and financial ruthlessness (all qualities we already knew she had, so the bigger mystery is surely why he’s so surprised?). Twenty minutes in, the Doctor has to pretend he’s seeing the inside of the TARDIS for the very first time, which gives Capaldi the opportunity to ham it up like a loon. “OH MY GOD!” he shouts. “MY ENTIRE UNDERSTANDING OF PHYSICAL SPACE HAS BEEN TRANSFORMED! THREE-DIMENSIONAL EUCLIDEAN GEOMETRY HAS BEEN TORN UP, THROWN IN THE AIR AND SNOGGED TO DEATH!”
Such big speeches work well when they’re played for laughs, but like many of River’s other episodes, ‘Husbands’ suffers when it’s trying to be too serious. The story has its share of misfires, but the monologue that precedes River’s realisation that the Doctor is standing right next to her is simply embarrassing. I’ve never really bothered to find out whether Kingston can’t do dramatic speeches, or whether she simply can’t do dramatic speeches while playing this character, but either way it’s a low point. As low points go it’s not quite up there with the one at the end of ‘Wedding’, but it’s a top three.
Things are a little less clunky – although only just – come the end of the story, and it’s here that we realise that ‘Husbands’ is essentially a fifty minute build-up to get the Doctor and River to the Singing Towers. It’s Moffat finally writing the story he alluded to in ‘Forest of the Dead’, his own procrastination, perhaps, finding its way into the script when Kingston mentions that when it comes to the Doctor taking her to dinner, “You always cancel”. Or perhaps procrastination had nothing to do with it, and perhaps Moffat had always planned it this way. We’ll probably never know. Nonetheless, chronologically this is their last encounter before the Library, although the fact that a night on Darillium is twenty-four years long does rather sweeten the deal.
Indeed, the assumption here is that River will be back, either on Dirillium (which must have a Wyrmm’s nest somewhere, or at the very least a cave system containing frozen Ice Warriors). If Moffat had a theme song, it would be ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ (or, if you like, ‘It’s My Plotting And You’ll Cry If I Want You To’). Or, as Gareth puts it, “If this ‘last night’ is 24 years long, I assume that there’s no need for it to be their final meeting or final night together. As they can go off and meet lots and get back still during the same night.”
But given the manner in which it concludes, this is a story that couldn’t have happened before ‘Hell Bent’, and the lesson the Doctor learned about going too far resonates throughout his final speech. For all Kingston’s blustering about finding a way out, it’s a touching scene, expertly lit, the romance bubbling beneath the surface while being kept at bay by some pleasant, almost understated performances – particularly from Capaldi, who is always at his best when he’s turning it down. It helps that the two leads have a chemistry that Kingston never managed with Smith – perhaps it’s an age thing, but this feels far more natural than it ever did when the Doctor wore tweed. These are two people who give the appearance of being in their twilight years (the fact that the Doctor is clearly not is, for the moment, irrelevant) and this lends their love scenes a sensibility that grounds them even in the more overwrought moments. On balance, it works. ‘The Husbands of River Song’ lacks the accessibility of ‘The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe’ and the narrative oomph of ‘Voyage of the Damned’, but it substitutes an emotional core that winds up – just for a change – being far more than the sum of its parts. Of all the available Doctors that could have taken River to the Singing Towers, I’m glad it turned out to be this one.
The #RuinARomanticMomentin4Words hashtag was trending on Twitter the other night, so here’s my contribution.
#1. The Doctor and River
#2. The Star Wars edition
#3. Amy and Rory
I think that covers all the bases, but I do take requests, even if they’re just “please stop doing this crap”.
Apologies if you got an emailed notification this morning only to find a non-existent post. I was so good. I set up all the templates, assigned tags and everything and was all ready to write later, before accidentally hitting ‘publish’ instead of ‘save’. That’ll teach me not to do this stuff before coffee.
Anyway, our list continues with…
Number Nine: ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ (2011)
I dithered about this one. I’ve said before that I don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures – there’s good TV and there’s bad TV, and yes, you can sometimes be objective. There’s such a thing as standards. As far as my own are concerned, ‘A Good Man’ embodies many of the things I’ve come to despise about New Who. There’s the ridiculous poetry – something Moffat seems to be particularly fond of, throwing out tawdry balladry on the backs of beer mats and napkins and then passing it off as Gallifreyan ‘standards’, the sort of thing that Time Lord nursemaids whisper to sleeping children, presumably to give them nightmares. These poems are then transcribed and turned into desktop wallpapers that saturate the internet, which is a royal pain in the arse when you’re looking for appropriate images for a blog post.
What else? Well, there’s the Eastenders-style cliffhanger about River’s parentage, the lamest of endings. There’s also River herself, who turns up early in the episode to poke fun at Stevie Wonder before disappearing until the final scenes – in order to deliver a mawkish, cloying judgement upon the Doctor’s actions, with an earnestness that becomes grating before she’s finished her first sentence. There’s the birth of the comedy Sontaran thing (and although Strax is comparatively dignified in this episode, the rot sets in early with the breastfeeding gag). There’s the ‘angry Doctor’ scene, which probably has its own tumblr page but which would have worked better had the Doctor not actually stopped mid-rant and said “Oh, I’m angry. That’s new”, which – however well-intentioned – is the metaphorical equivalent of ending a drama group sketch by turning to the rest of the class and saying “That’s it”.
And yet here it is, sitting in my hall of fame. What’s going on?
Moffat’s investment in Amy makes for a good start. This is Mrs Williams before she became tiresome and annoying – instead she’s frightened and scared, having just given birth to a baby she didn’t even know she was carrying (the stuff of women’s magazine articles and soap story lines for decades). Said baby is then promptly taken away by a sinister one-eyed despot, presumably to be trained as a killer. But fate has a far worse twist in store, with Moffat arranging a happy reunion before snatching out the rug from under us just a few minutes from the end. I still maintain that the dissolving baby would have been even more effective if it had occurred with no warning at all, but there would have been thousands of screaming children and an OFTEL investigation.
So perhaps it’s fatherhood. Perhaps that’s the reason I’m prepared to give ‘Closing Time’ far more slack than it is arguably due, given that the climax involves James Corden destroying the Cybermen with love. Perhaps for all its current failings Doctor Who does tap into the fears and joys of parenting, much as Eraserhead did many years ago. I know nothing but this: when Amy’s child is snatched, I cared about it. But it’s still a secret pregnancy, and those who complain about the speed at which Amy and Rory seemingly accept their loss, as chronicled in later episodes in which Melody is not mentioned (largely because they were resequenced) have missed the point: it almost destroys their marriage. (Said complainers would also do well to watch ‘Logopolis’, and marvel over the speed at which Tegan deals with the death of her aunt.)
What happens in ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ is this: a confusing, jumbled legion of characters new and old is dumped into a battle station and pitted against a set of dark Jedi in cassocks. The pirates from three episodes back turn up for no obvious reason. If you don’t concentrate you won’t have a clue who anyone is or what’s actually going on. It ends with melodramatic silliness. It shouldn’t work. That it does is down to Moffat’s sheer audacity – within the space of two or three minutes we’re getting in-jokes about the writing process and things have got thoroughly silly, but we don’t care because want the Doctor to rescue Amy, and this strange bunch of misfits and blue-skinned merchants is oddly compelling. Put simply – and at the risk of saturating this entry with back-handed compliments – the episode succeeds precisely because it is so utterly outrageous. It’s a gamble that wouldn’t pay off later in the series, when ‘The Wedding of River Song’ tried something similar and never made it off the ground.
But of all the characters who stroll across the screen during the battle of Demon’s Run, it’s perhaps Rory who provides the unexpected high point. Forced back into a two-thousand-year-old outfit by the Doctor (we can only pray it’s been through the laundry) he stomps into a Cyber war ship, stern and impassive even as the starry sky behind him is filled with a multitude of explosions. It’s one of the few occasions Doctor Who has been genuinely exciting. I still maintain, four years later, that it would have worked better as the finale to the previous episode, but ruminations about structure probably won’t get us anywhere. For this scene alone, I’m willing to forgive ‘Good Man’ just about everything that follows. Even the breastfeeding gags.
Cameron’s Episode: ‘Dalek‘
The most popular arguments I’ve heard against the casting of Peter Capaldi:
1. Too old.
2. Too white.
3. Too male.
4. Too ugly.
5. Never heard of him.
6. He’s already been in it.
To which I believe we may appropriately respond with this –
I was going to leave it there, but that would be silly.
Being out of the loop has its benefits. It was only thanks to a chance encounter in a Pembrokeshire swimming pool that I found out about the half-hour special. And I’m glad I was away, partly because I had next to no time to work myself into a frenzy of excitement that would have inevitably led to a colossal letdown even if they’d cast, say, Rik Mayall (who I’ve always felt deserved a shot), and partly because if I’d been here I’d have watched it, and been bored stiff by the interviews and soundbites and Zoe Ball’s second-rate master of ceremonies skills. Instead I followed a real-time newspaper feed, and then panicked when it looked like it really might be Aneurin Barnard (no offence, Aneurin, I just don’t think you’re ripe enough), and then breathed a huge sigh of relief.
As far as I am aware there is no comprehensive poll as to whether the casting of Capaldi (who emerged as a late favourite) was ‘approved’ or not. As such any press ramblings you read will tip the balance either in his favour (the Mirror) or against him (the Mail). Certainly I’ve read as many anti-Capaldi comments as I have pro-ones, typically from those who are appalled at the transition from dashing thirty-something to dashing twenty-something to middle aged voice of experience. A friend of mine commented on her Facebook timeline that she hoped he didn’t last too long, as “he ain’t too easy on the eyes”. Others remark that he’s too old – at fifty-five, the oldest casting since Hartnell. Other commentators, such as the Guardian’s Jenny Colgan, have damned the show’s creators with faint praise, begrudgingly accepting that “if we must have a white male, I’m glad it’s him”, in an article that gets so many other things wrong I don’t know where to start deconstructing it.
It would be very easy to sneer at the younger fans, but to single them out is to apply the same standard of generalisation that some of them apply to Doctor Who. It’s probably fair to say that most of the age remarks come from younger fans of the show, and most of the aesthetic critique from women, or gay men. But just because those who complain about the new Doctor’s appearance are young fans, it does not follow that all young fans behave in this way, and we should be wary of tarring them all with the same brush. There are people in their twenties who know more about the show and its history than I could ever hope to, and there are people in their sixties who experienced it for the first time in 2005. Age does not automatically beget experience; it merely allows for its potential accumulation.
Those who complain about Capaldi’s previous role in the show, of course, entirely miss the point. (Gareth mentioned that in ‘The Fires of Pompeii’ he tried to buy the TARDIS, which was a nifty piece of presumably unintentional foreshadowing.) The act of bringing back previous actors to play different (sometimes related) roles is hardly new to New Who; Karen Gillan (in this very same episode), Bernard Cribbins and Freema Agyeman have all landed regular spots on the show after earlier, smaller parts. Bringing back a previously appearing actor to play the titular role is unusual but not unheard of: Colin Baker did it back in the 1980s, and in a less obvious example, a 2003 Big Finish drama stars David Warner as an alternative incarnation of the Third Doctor, encountering the Master in 1997 Hong Kong and crossing swords with an antagonistic UNIT colonel who sounds an awful lot like David Tennant.
As for me? I’m thrilled. I have already written about why I felt the Doctor should remain a white male, so we won’t go into that. The casting of Capaldi was a masterstroke, but then I never expected the production team to let me down. I have ranted about Moffat in here more times than I’d care to admit, but if there’s one thing I’ll say for the man it’s that he knows how to cast a lead. Coleman, Smith, Gillan and Darvill have all impressed me – at least before two of them descended into bland caricatures of their previous selves, and even then that’s hardly the fault of the actors – and I’ve been burned before when it comes to making predictions about who’s going to work in the title role. Suffice to say that there have been eleven official Doctors, and every one of them has their merits. You may enjoy the stories of one more than others, but the Doctor who is not to your taste will be the firm favourite of someone else (with the possible exception of Colin Baker, but again that’s hardly his fault, as the audio dramas – in which he excels – later proved).
If ‘Pompeii’ saw Capaldi provide a competent rendering of a generally rather dull character, it was his role in Torchwood the following year that saw his finest brush with the Whoniverse. I’ve written about that elsewhere, but if nothing else it cements his role as a versatile performer – John Frobisher is a world away from the sneering, foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker, the role for which he will arguably be most remembered besides the Doctor. I’ve not seen The Thick of It (and yes, I know I’m missing out), but I gather it foreshadowed the Levinson report with uncanny precision. And I did see him in The Nativity, and he was quite good in that. Still, he’s not acting here:
It’s lovely, really. The look on his face is tentative and hesitant, as if he’s really not sure whether the audience will approve. You can almost see the relief seeping in.
When I mentioned Malcolm Tucker to Gareth, I added that he “swears a lot”. “This is all I ever hear about that role,” came the response. “That he’s foul-mouthed, swears a lot, etc, etc. Nothing else – nothing about whether he’s any good at acting, or what that character is apart from that.” This is a fair comment – Tucker’s use of language is the talking point in every article that mentions him, with jokes about making the TARDIS ‘bluer than ever’ providing convenient headlines, and providing the source material for several YouTube videos and a Guardian article. On the other hand, you don’t amass a CV like Capaldi’s – over thirty years of work, including an Academy Award – without it being taken as read that you have some kind of thespian talent. It’s far easier to question the acting abilities of, say, Harry Styles, who is young and pretty. Wrinkly older people, it seems, can act just fine, unless they’re Marlon Brando (who could act, but frequently chose to simply mumble).
There’s also the question of the Doctor’s relationship with River, whom it seems we must have back in some capacity, because she’s Moffat’s creation and he loves her even if I do not. (And if you thought we’d seen the last of Professor Song in the series finale, I fear you may have a lot to learn about the Whoniverse’s tendency to bring people back from the dead.) But if nothing else, the casting of Capaldi has the potential to throw a whole new dynamic on the Doctor’s are-they / aren’t-they / do-we-really-want-to-be-talking-about-this-anyway implied romance with the curly-haired man-eater. Part (although only a small part) of the problem with River is that the Kingston / Smith pairing has never worked – they simply don’t gel. He looks (and I’ve probably said this) like he’s trying to chat up his best mate’s mum. I know it sounds horribly ageist, but there it is.
Bad timing was part of it: Kingston was originally hired to work with Tennant, and then Moffat took over and wanted to bring her back, and then they cast Smith (presumably without doing a screen test), and they were stuck with that dynamic. A recurring Kingston / Tennant pairing would have been interesting to watch, insofar as I have ever found River interesting, and it certainly would have seemed less awkward. Similarly, pairing her against an actor who’s closer to her physical age might improve the onscreen chemistry (any chemistry at all would be a step up). It doesn’t solve the other problems like River being generally irritating and her stories mind-numbingly tedious, but it would be a marginal improvement, and I’ll take what I can get.
‘Take what you can get’ seems to be a recurring theme when it comes to Who these days. There is still the question of Capaldi’s accent, which will probably be English with an Oxford lilt, as opposed to Tennant’s estuary English. (I imagine him sounding like a deputy headmaster, insofar as it’s possible to ever really imagine what a deputy headmaster sounds like.) Then there’s the question of what he actually does with the role – or more specifically, what he’s allowed to do. As a Facebook friend of mine put it, “I think they really need to embrace a change of tone here. Moffat wasn’t a very sure hand on the head writing last time around and poor Matt’s character seemed to change from episode to episode and even scene to scene. A more dashing and driven Prof Quatermass / Pertwee kind of Doctor against a somewhat less wacky world(s) could become the kind of action adventure show that might refresh the falling audiences and still make the kids happy. But if PC ends up clowning and talking in non-sequiteurs…”
I share his concerns, but it’s early days; we’ve not even had the regeneration scene yet. Nonetheless, good news all round, especially for Capaldi. I couldn’t be happier. Well, except if they’d cast Rik Mayall. But you can’t have everything.