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…
In many ways it feels like yesterday. That sense of envy, the homage to stressed-out Village life (capital intentional) where people are happy and unhappy at the same time, where humdrum jobs and complicated (or non-existent) love lives are made bearable by the people you hang out with. I was almost seventeen and it seemed such a carefree way to live: these twenty-somethings who existed in a hubbub of late films and spontaneous baking sessions and endless cups of coffee. I had just found, in the real world, an uneasy point of entry into a peer group in which I never really belonged and in which I was, for the most part, an outsider: a Gunther to everybody else’s Ross and Rachel, surrounded by ostensibly lovely people who would never actually call me.
But when you’re that age recognition of any sort is important, and you start to draw parallels. During more reflective moments, in evening conversations conducted over cider or Grolsch in our local pub, I would compare myself to Ross – heartfelt, sincere and slightly pathetic Ross. The analogy worked: Ross really was a bit of a dickhead. I didn’t see it at the time, seeing as I only recognised what how awful I was years down the line. Still, Phoebe was always my favourite – good old Phoebe, who was unable to think a sentence through in her head before saying it out loud (“There isn’t always time!”) and whose songs alone made the show worth watching, if only to detract from the tedium that was the Ross and Rachel love story. They wound up having a baby (by accident) and settling down, presumably in Scarsdale where the schools are good. We don’t know. I still don’t think I’ve seen that last series; the novelty had long worn off and my life had moved on.
It’s become fashionable to sneer at Friends, to dump the word ‘problematic’ into discussion as if that covered the multitude of readings: as if it is as simple as calling it homophobic (it isn’t), fat-shaming (guilty) and disproportionately white (so were the social lives of most people watching it). As ever, things are more complicated and as ever, the internet isn’t interested in grey, not least when black and white looks so much prettier. As far as I’m concerned Friends lost some of its sheen once it became markedly less Jewish, at least in terms of the humour it was producing, and when the characters disappeared up their own backsides in order to become stereotypical parodies of themselves, instead of rounded people: in other words, taking what the audience found funny and building the entire show around it, rather than writing something that could actually be called interesting. But I had this conversation a couple of years back, if you can call ‘conversation’ an eight-hundred word pot-stirrer I did for Metro that actually did reasonable traffic, not least because there were a number of people willing to haul me over the coals for it – or, as a particularly cynical American wrote on Twitter, ‘The one where the straight white man gets to have his say’.
What’s left? A series of eight stills from Doctor Who, accompanied by (hideously in)appropriate Friends episode titles. I have eschewed the obvious ones – hence, The One With The Flashback isn’t there, simply because it wouldn’t be funny. The rest of it sort of works. I don’t watch Friends anymore, for the same reason I don’t re-watch Doctor Who: there is too much TV out there I haven’t seen yet. But it was a big part of my life for years, and it would be churlish to deny it that sense of cultural importance, at least on a deeply personal level: programmes like this are a comfort blanket, a sense of reassurance, a Friday spent in familiar company even if the conversation is only ever one way. It would be nice if we could just view it as that, instead of having all this other baggage. It would be nice, but I don’t think it’s going to happen, which is why I tend to keep out of it these days.
Anyway, those images.
How you doin’…?
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.
“Oh. You’ve redecorated.”
The snowman is about the best part of it. The rest of it looks deliberately pasted on, which I suppose is the point. I can never quite get the hang of lighting in things like this, but I suppose if we’re talking about a fictional alien spacecraft in an entirely made-up TV series, it doesn’t matter if things look a bit plastic.
Anyway, having done up the TARDIS, it’s off for a spot of carol singing.
It’s been a funny few days, really; the fans are angry about the absence of a Christmas episode, never mind the fact that the constant repetition of the ‘Resolution’ trailer meant we had more Doctor Who on our screens yesterday than we have for years. It was helpful, at least, that the BBC finally confirmed what most of us had already figured out even before it was leaked. (And for the record, they never denied the existence of Daleks, nor did they say they were gone for good. So no one lied to you and you can stop complaining about it.)
Meanwhile, in the real world, people are arguing over exactly what may or may not have been said about the Prime Minister, presumably in an attempt to avoid discussing the stuff that actually counts.
Those of you still crying out for a Christmas episode could always head over to The Doctor Who Companion, where I’ve written a festive short story featuring the Thirteenth Doctor and her companions. It features time travel, bad Photoshopping and jokes at the expense of the fandom, and there may be a couple of Father Ted references.
Meanwhile, over here at BoM, the Twelfth Doctor is unable to understand the appeal of stag parties.
“Is there something on my head?”
Anyway, people always talked about wanting a musical episode, and I saw a couple of musicals recently and then one thing sort of led to another…
Incidentally, a very Happy Christmas to all of you at home.
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.
This? Well, I just think it’s a better title.
It’s late December, which means the usual selection of Doctored Christmas images. I did a little Photoshopping yesterday and came up with this.
I don’t know, there are only so many times you can stick a Santa hat on top of Michelle Gomez, aren’t there? It sort of works, except that the three ‘ghosts’ are all from the Doctor’s past. And while I like the juxtaposition of the Twelfth Doctor with Sarah Jane, the Pirate Captain and the deformed Master, it doesn’t fit the Doctor’s timeline – they were just the most appropriate choices I could think of. So I did this instead, which works a little better.
But I really like that Twelfth Doctor photo. So imagine, if you will, that it’s Christmas 2014, whereupon this makes sense. Pick your favourite.
Coming next time: hybrids…