Posts Tagged With: science fiction

God is in the detail (11-05)

It’s a complicated business, having a baby. There you are, flat out on the hospital bed, squeezing an object the size of a melon out through a hole the size of….yes, well, let’s leave out the specifics, shall we? I’m sure many of you know are familar with the process, and I know I am; I’ve watched it four times, although my wife was doing most of the pushing.

Anyway, if you’re on a hospital bed – as poor Yoss was, in last week’s ‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’, you won’t have much time for pattern spotting. And thus it’s possible that the likes of Yoss allowed the whole of episode 5 to pass without being made aware of a single VERY IMPORTANT DETAIL. Which is a shame, because there were tons of them this week – so many I’ve had to skimp on the text a bit, and allow the pictures to speak for themselves. All those gleaming white corridors are full of secrets; a number of them concern screens. We like screens. Screens only look like gibberish – the sort of thing that’s roughed in the BBC’s graphics department during post-production – and to the uninitiated reader that’s exactly what they are. It’s a good thing you and I can read between the lines, isn’t it?

We begin with a star chart. Let’s cut to the chase: there is, along the zip-like curve stretching from left to right, a singular point which serves as the start and end for a clearly mapped trajectory. Using a particularly select (and far too complicated to explain) set of criteria I have thus determined that the asteroid field is in fact a set of waypoints that produces the following:

In other words, LTA is (gestures) that way.

But what is LTA? Local Traffic Authority? Licensed Travel Agency? The Lawn Tennis Association? It’s none of the above, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. No, LTA in fact stands for Lost Time Accident. Superficially this refers to any accident that prevents an employee from returning to work the next day. Of course, in Doctor Who it means something completely different: it is any episode in which the characters find themselves displaced in time, or finding that time has passed without them. The arrow is pointing to the right, suggesting that this concept will feature in a future installment: could we be set for a fiery, Moffat-inspired series finale? Perhaps one that features, I don’t know, monsters that displace people in time? Monsters made…from STONE? (And yes, I know what Chibnall said. Rule one: Chibnall lies.)

Next we’ll take a look at the conveniently small bomb stored in the anti-matter drive.

It looks like a simple rejig from the designs department, mildly steampunk in appearance. Doesn’t it? But there was a reason they made it look this way – and once annotated, we uncover a wealth of information.

And you thought it was just a prop.

Let’s move on to the set itself now. For the most part the scenery was relatively minimalist – a lot of gleaming white corridors and hospital waiting rooms – but there were some intriguing moments in some of the labs. Take this shot, for example, of Eve and Ronan.

(It’s telling that Suzanne Packer’s character was so bland I couldn’t remember her name. I had to Google it. Is there any chance of having interesting supporting characters who aren’t there for comic relief?)

Anyway: the scenery here is loaded with symbolism and foreshadowing – throwbacks, imagery and clues about what is to come. Observe:

I mean, the Guardians really are due a revival, and they can be anyone they want, as long as they get the outfits right. Can we have Liam Neeson?

Screens again. There is a crucial wall panel displayed about a third of the way in, when Durkas (had to look that one up as well) is searching for information on his sister.

There are two things we need to be looking at. In the first instance, you’ll notice the three circular patterns in the centre of the image, each of which contains four dots, followed by a further dot at the bottom: a reference to twelve of the thirteen canonical Doctors, plus the War Doctor at the bottom. Which twelve, I hear you ask? That would be Hartnell, Troughton, Pertwee, Baker, Davison, Baker, McCoy, McGann, Eccleston, Smith, Capaldi and Whittaker. And no, I didn’t deliberately type out their names to help with search rankings. Honest guv.

Those of you who recite these names in your prayers before bedtime will have noticed immediately that one of them is missing. To answer the question of exactly where David Tennant is, it is necessary first to look at the top of the image, and then superimpose something on top of it.

So now you know.

Last but not least, another screen.

This is a deceptively confusing image, because despite having many apparent layers, we’re only looking at one thing – and that’s the grid on the right. Starting from the very top and then moving to the right and then down, in rows, I’ve made a note of the highlighted squares and their correlating numbers, assuming that the first, unoccupied square in the grid corresponds to one. The sequence runs like this:

At first glance it looks like a lottery draw that got hideously out of control, but this is, in point of fact, a very deliberate and cleverly coded message. In order to unscramble it we have to glance back through story lists, whereupon we can ascribe each number as follows:

2 – The Daleks
3 – The Edge of Destruction
15 – The Space Museum
25 – The Gunfighters
31 – The Highlanders
34 – The Macra Terror
37 – The Tomb of the Cybermen
40 – The Enemy of the World
44 – The Dominators
52 – The Silurians
54 – Inferno
61 – The Curse of Peladon
62 – The Sea Devils
67 – Frontier in Space
69 – The Green Death
70 – The Time Warrior
79 – Revenge of the Cybermen
83 – The Android Invasion

Finally, if you take the fifth line of dialogue from each script, and arrange them in (just about) chronological order, this is what happens.

“There’s been a forest fire. Everything’s sort of white and ashen.”
“Well, let me look at it.”
“Well, upon my soul, yes. Yes. Now isn’t that extraordinary? Yes, we were wearing those cloaks and things, weren’t we? Well, I must say, it’s going to save us a lot of bother changing. Yes. Now, lets see where we are, shall we?”
“Where do we all meet up with Seth?”
“Oh, it’s cold and damp.”
“That’s right.”
“What, these?”
“Oh, stop fussing, you two. Come on. ”
“I decided otherwise, Probationer Toba.”
“Come on, Bessie, be more co-operative. All mimsy were the borogroves, And the mome raths – ”
“Excuse me, Sir Keith?”
“Hepesh, you have already had your say in the Grand Council. The question has been discussed and decided.”
“We’re abandoning ship! We’re abandoning ship! Our position is – ”
“You can keep it. Spit and polish, cocktail parties and all those passengers?”
“It were a shame, that was.”
“Sour wine! Stinking meat! Sour wine. Is this how I am served?”
“Can’t stand the stuff, thanks all the same. So we could be anytime, anywhere?”
“Doctor?”

 

And I think we all know what that means, don’t we?

That’s all we have time for this week. Join me next time, when we’ll be looking at cranberries, and why they’re purple. Santé!

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Review: The Tsuranga Conundrum

Back in the dim and distant past, in the days when I actually had time to re-read things instead of going through them once and then consigning them to the charity shop pile, there was a well-thumbed volume on our study bookshelf called Action Movies. By an author whose name now escapes me, it took it upon itself to list, assess and score as many adrenaline-pumping gung ho films as it possibly could within a couple of hundred pages, giving them brief, irreverent write-ups. The best got five-gun ratings. The worst received the author’s withering contempt, which I’m sure had the likes of Michael Bay weeping into their satin-lined pillowcases.

Not that I suspect this author would have had it in for Bay; he prized quality of chase sequences over quality of writing and it is for this reason, perhaps, that his assessment of The Last Crusade sticks with me long after the book has found a new home. He’s not interested in the Ford / Connery dynamic, the fact that the narrative comes full circle, the religious themes or the fact that the film literally concludes with everyone riding off into the sunset – he’s more put out that it’s simply not quite as exciting as the first two. Ranking it three (Raiders and Temple both got five, of course) he notes that “This must be what an average Indiana Jones movie must feel like”. I still wonder, sometimes, what he’d have made of Crystal Skull.

We’re five episodes into the new Doctor Who series and it seems that fatigue is beginning to set in. Oh, I’m not talking about the show. I’m talking about the audience. There is a genuine sense of discomfort on social media at the moment, a sea of discontented viewers who are unimpressed when the story is average and formulaic rather than important and worthy – and that’s just the Radio Times, who were uncharacteristically scathing in yesterday’s write-up. Elsewhere, I’m seeing remarks from online acquaintances (and a few people I go out of my way to avoid speaking to) who are in a state of distress about a story that didn’t really do an awful lot, said far less, and yet somehow emerged relatively unscathed.

‘The Tsuranga Conundrum’ begins in an interstellar junkyard, jumps almost immediately to a hospital ship and then promptly stays there, allocating forty-seven minutes of its fifty-minute running time to a set of pristine white corridors and a couple of bedrooms. Nor, too, do the Doctor and companions have any real time to recover from the accident that put them there: no sooner have they regained consciousness than an unexplained object is tearing its way through space, eating through the ship’s hull and then the mechanical systems with the appetite (not to mention diet) of Ted Hughes’ Iron Man and the ferocity of Gnasher from the Beano. Before we know it, the ship is drifting helplessly through space, bereft of its clinical lead and left in the hands of two women with apparent confidence issues, hurtling towards a planet that’s quite anxious to blast it into smithereens because there’s a monster lurking in the vents.

The moment the Pting attacks is unfortunate for the cast but thankfully kicks things up a gear, because in its first fifteen minutes ‘Tsuranga’ is a godawful mess. The leads totter and stumble around the gleaming interior trying to make sense of things, meeting characters with no apparent pizzazz and learning snippets of information about a war that nobody cares about. Meanwhile Whittaker is lurching along the ship’s many corridors (specifically, the same corridor shot six times from different angles) hacking the systems and generally behaving like the know-it-all brats you often see in Holby City in an attempt to get them to reverse thrusters so she can get back to the junkyard. It’s not a bad thing to have a Doctor who – suddenly deprived of her TARDIS and still recovering from a life-threatening injury – is driven, maniacal and not a little selfish, but that doesn’t necessarily make it fun to watch.

Thankfully once we get our first glimpse of the carnivorous Stitch tribute the crisis is in place and things start moving along. The Pting is small but deadly, with an insatiable appetite and no apparent motive for its path of destruction, so the Doctor sets about finding one while a conveniently situated war hero is tasked with flying the ship, even though it will probably kill her (and ultimately does). Eve Cicero – named for the Roman statesman, although that’s where it ends – is played by a suitably dry Suzanne Packer, and is ably assisted by her brother Durkas (Ben Bailey-Smith, whom Daniel recognised from The Four O’Clock Club) and android Ronan (a sadly underused David Shields). Ronan is by far the most interesting character this week, and it’s a shame that we don’t get time to plumb his hidden depths – because if you’re doing a cute version of Alien, surely the robot’s going to turn out to be dodgy?

One potential pitfall behind a larger TARDIS crew in this day and age is the problem of how you keep them all busy, so while the Doctor’s orgasming over perfunctory anti-matter drives (this from a woman who keeps a black hole on her ship’s engine deck) and lying to planetary defence systems, Ryan and Graham are off delivering a baby. Said baby is the unwanted child of Yoss (Jack Shalloo), who is granted far more screen time than his character deserves and is there largely to up the threat level and help flesh out Ryan’s family relations, or lack thereof. That 67th century male pregnancies only last a week and end in involuntary caesarean (I was going to ask how else you’d get it out, but let’s not go there) is quickly cast aside as Yoss lies in the birthing chamber while Ryan is suitably reassuring and Graham conveniently plugs Call The Midwife. The concept of medical professionals who learn something from their patients is a narrative depth that both Holby and Casualty plumb on an almost weekly basis, but this idea of putting Graham and Ryan into difficult situations to get them to bond is swiftly getting old, and is inevitably going to conclude with Graham’s death just as Ryan calls him ‘Grandad’ for the first time. I was going to ask why we couldn’t just skip to that chapter now, but Bradley Walsh is still the best thing in the show right now and it would be nice to make the most of his screen time – but sometimes the road up the Green Mile is oh, so long.

Four years ago, in ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’, we had the Doctor stuck on a spaceship with a monster that was over-exposed. The single biggest problem with ‘Tsuranga’ – besides the narrative favouring of Ed Sheeran over David the Android – is the fact that an expensive and interesting creature is granted not nearly enough time in front of the camera, with its appearances largely confined to the reveal and the moment it’s flushed, Alien-like, from the ship’s airlock with exactly the level of clinical detachment that the Doctor ought to have observed when she was facing off against the mutated spiders last week. I know I tend to applaud whenever the Doctor Who team learn the value of restraint, but it does seem a shame to create something that’s given less screen time than baby Avocado. Still, that’s five for five adversaries the Doctor has singularly failed to kill. Perhaps they’re halfway through a series arc, or perhaps this is Chibnall’s brave new world – but God help us if it is, because these damp squib finales are starting to get a little tedious, even if they do manage to throw in a pop at the hipsters.

All that said, there’s nothing really wrong with any of it. What happens in ‘Tsuranga’ (a word I’ve had to self-correct five times this morning; why can’t they come up with titles I can spell?!?) is nothing earth-shattering or groundbreaking – but failing to set hearts alight is hardly a capital offence, and if we’re in a place where Doctor Who is only worth watching when it says something then we have officially moved into interesting times and I might have to find myself another show for my Sunday evenings. Ultimately this is innocuous, harmless fun, exactly the way Doctor Who should be. It is like the Pting itself: short and reasonably interesting and ultimately discarded until the next time it rolls around. This week was filler material: a pleasant way to pass an hour, nothing more, nothing less. It seems almost churlish to complain about that.

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Review: Arachnids in the UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Have I Got Whos For You (series 11 edition)

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

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

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

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

Not to mention this.

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

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God is in the detail (11-02)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You will observe:

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

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

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

which converts to decimal as

1051310

Or, in other words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yep. Thought so.

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Review: The Ghost Monument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Review: The Woman Who Fell To Earth

“We don’t get aliens in Sheffield!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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The Smallerpictures video dump (part two)

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

Right, where were we?

 

5. The Badger Song

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

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

 

6. Day of the Doctor, Bonus Edition

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

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

 

7. Ceiling Drop

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

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

 

8. There’s No Noddy

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

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The smallerpictures video dump (part one)

If you’re a regular reader here at the not-so-hallowed halls of Brian of Morbius, you will notice that one particular category has been somewhat neglected of late. The videos tab hasn’t seen any action in months. I used to do a separate blog entry for every video I created. Extensive notes on the genesis, making-of process and public reaction. Some of them ran to over a thousand words.

I don’t get time anymore. Part of it is actually having the time but having more worthwhile things to fill it with. I used to chip away at paragraphs when I was supposed to be working, during the quiet moments or the hours I simply couldn’t face doing that report. It was irresponsible and dishonest and it’s a miracle I didn’t get caught. These days I’ll vacuum the lounge. Well, when you have four kids and you had rice the previous evening, it’s the only way to stop things growing on the carpet.

The long and the short of it is that we’ve had a bunch of stuff appearing on YouTube over the last few months and most of it hasn’t even got a mention. If I were of a mind to do so, I’d give each video its own separate entry, the way I used to. But I have another book to start and in any case we’re about to get crazy with series 11. So a two-part digest – with a couple of paragraphs’ commentary for each video – is all you get, and will probably make for a better piece as a result.

If you subscribe to the smallerpictures YouTube channel you’ll have seen these already – the same applies if you’re following me on Facebook. If you’re not doing either, may I take this opportunity to politely extend an invitation? We could chat and everything.

In the meantime:

1. March: The Doctor’s Wife, Revisited

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy turned forty this year. We’re the same age, although we don’t share a birthday. Everyone has their own favourite iteration of Douglas Adams’ magnum opus, although no one likes the film very much; even two famous Bills (Nighy and Bailey) and the great Alan Rickman weren’t enough to save it from desperate mediocrity. But the TV series is still quite wonderful, as I found out when I watched it again recently with the kids. Joshua has this year finished the quintet and has even attempted to read And Another Thing, the Eoin Colfer-penned follow-up that nobody asked for and comparatively few people enjoyed.

Somewhere along the line I thought it would be fun to drop Eddie, the ship’s computer, into ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ as a replacement for House. I know I didn’t come up with the idea for this all by myself. It may or may not have been one of those group posts where I asked people for help, which is what happens when I get stuck. I genuinely can’t remember. Sadly the end result is a disaster. It’s clunky and disjointed and Eddie’s dialogue really doesn’t work; it feels enjambed, like the worst bits of Moffat’s dialogue. The bit where Amy is kneeling over Rory’s corpse and the computer is singing? Yeuch. Horrible. What the hell was I thinking? It’s worse than the Star Wars Holiday Special; I ought to pulp it from existence.

The one saving grace is Talkie Toaster. That kind of works. The rest is crap. It’s here for curation purposes only. You’ve been warned. Don’t watch it. Move on. Scroll. C’mon, scroll, dammit.

 

2. April: Love and Monsters, reversed

For the most part, backwards videos are a quick fix: they come about when I have a pressing need to do something but comparatively little time. You just run the score free dialogue track through semi-decent audio editing software and then sync it with the muted video, and then cut and paste as you see fit. You don’t even have to worry about copyright infringement, providing you’re using rights-free background music, and there’s plenty of that hanging around.

Every time I do a backwards video someone brings up the bloody Twin Peaks thing, and so on this occasion I set out to do something that was as David Lynch as…well all right, it’s not really David Lynch, but it’s a good deal more David Lynch than some of my other stuff. This isn’t an isolated scene, more a carefully arranged sequence (yes, sometimes there is actually some thought involved in these things) that spans the entire episode, from the opening Scooby Doo reference to Elton’s closing monologue. The end result is, I hope, a little bit spooky – or at least weird; weird is acceptable middle ground. I adore ‘Love And Monsters’, which gets trashed for all the wrong reasons, but various people who didn’t like it have cited this as an improvement, so I guess that’s a win.

 

3. May: Peppa Pig Still Can’t Whistle

We don’t watch Peppa Pig in our house. It’s not a protest or anything. We just can’t get Channel 5. In any case, iPlayer keeps everyone busy and I can do without accidentally running into the ridiculous travesty that is Thomas The Tank Engine. But even I couldn’t avoid this, which went all over BuzzFeed (no, I’m not linking; they don’t need the traffic) – the Peppa episode that has Peppa grousing that she can’t whistle, before hanging up on Suzie (who can) in spectacular style. The clip went viral, and the animated GIFs were used as a reaction for just about everything. My initial thoughts were to have Peppa call the Eleventh Doctor, but as it turns out this conversation with Donna (actually two, if you look carefully) from the 2008 Sontaran episodes fitted perfectly. Oink.

 

4. June: Fraggle Rock

This is exactly what it says on the tin. I hadn’t done an intro sequence for what felt like ages, and when someone posted the opening credits to Jim Henson’s 1980s classic on Facebook I noticed that an awful lot of it consisted of Gobo running down up and down corridors. Something clicked, and the rest was easy. Not to blow my own air horn too much, but I have to say I’m quite proud of this one.

 

Part two is available here.

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Are you the gatekeeper?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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