Posted on 07/12/2016 at 12:16
There was quite a lot about the late Lord Briggs, historian and former Provost of my college, in the latest Worcester College Record, including this bit:
Another off-duty memory is of one Saturday afternoon, when I was working overtime on a 'rush job' and as instructed took the typescript up to the family sitting-room, to find this particular peer of the realm lying flat on the floor in front of the television, totally immersed in Dr Who.
From Working in the Lodgings: a Personal Memoir of Lord Briggs by Frances Henderson in Worcester College Record 2016:
Posted on 03/08/2016 at 22:57
There are two types of Doctor Who fan: those who divide the programme by Doctor and those who divide it by production team. These sometimes coincide, but that is not the case here. Steven Moffat seems to think the programme needs a new, raw style for the new Doctor, but also chooses to follow the old tactic of using old friends or foes in the first story of a new Doctor to provide continuity. This leads to a darker, more dangerous Doctor and a grey/blue colour palate for the new era, but also the return of the Paternoster Street Gang and a plot that is openly acknowledged to riff on The Girl in the Fireplace and the occasional line borrowed from classic Who, as well as a surprise guest appearance from Matt Smith.
Like the Half-Face Man, then, this is a Ship of Theseus story that swaps its parts around while trying to convince the audience that it is the same programme, only regenerated and fresh. The real problem, which will dog this whole season, is that the new Doctor, like the sixth Doctor, is too unsympathetic. He is dangerous, which is novel after Matt Smith, but also rude and unpleasant. It is not always fun to be with him, especially when he seems to be on the point of mugging a tramp for his coat.
Still, as curtain-raisers go, it works, holding the attention reasonably well and setting the stage for future adventures.
Posted on 18/05/2016 at 19:00
In my early teens, Doctor Who
original novels formed a staple part of my reading diet (mainly The New Adventures
and The Missing Adventures
; I didn’t get very far into the BBC Books before giving up, although I later picked up a few in remaindered bookshops when I was in my twenties). To be honest, I didn’t like them much: I liked the mystery around the seventh Doctor (was he the mysterious Other from Time Lord myth?), but I hated his ruthlessness and the callousness of Hardened Space Mercenary Ace. I was also a bit of a prude, in the way that only a shy teenage geek with no girlfriend can be, and objected to the least hint of sex, particularly from the regulars. I read the books anyway, because I’d read most of the Doctor Who
novelizations, couldn’t afford the videos and in the Who
desert of the early nineties, with no TV series, Big Finish or DWM
graphic novels there was no other game in town. As I recall, I picked up lots of the books cheap when Virgin lost their licence.
Fast forward a couple of decades and I’m older and (possibly) wiser. I’ve watched all my DVDs countless times and, in the midst of a massive Deep Space Nine
rewatch, am unlikely to need them in the near future. I found a copy of the recent reissue of Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters
in a charity shop and its loose and literary take on Doctor Who and the Silurians
made me nostalgic for original Doctor Who
fiction. I’m also struggling with my mental health and my “to read” list, although enormous, is mostly filled up with serious non-fiction and weighty classics like Homer and Shakespeare; not what I want to read for escapism. So my eyes were dawn to the pile of books that have been relegated to sitting on top of my bookcase since we moved house last year, ostensibly to make room on the shelves for ‘real’ books. Did I misjudge the Doctor Who
(and Star Wars
and The Prisoner
) spin-offs? Are they ‘real’ books after all? Only a re-read can determine the matter. Just let me find a step-ladder to bring a few down...( Cut for space and spoilersCollapse )
Posted on 27/08/2015 at 20:41
I'm not sure if this is really of interest to anyone around here, but I just discovered that I have a poem up
in the latest issue of Altar Journal
, an online Jewish literary journal. I'm not quite sure why I've only just found out about it, but better late than never.
Posted on 26/08/2015 at 00:46
(Am I returning to more regular Doctor Who blogging? I honestly don’t know. I do know I have started work on the next Changing Style of Doctor Who post, covering the whole of the Russell T Davies era, a mammoth undertaking that warrants a mammoth rewatch. I’m currently nearing the end of season twenty-nine/new series three/the year of Martha and the Master. Anyway, to business.)
Growing up as a child reading the ‘standard’ reference works available in the early nineties (Peter Haining, Jean-Marc Lofficier, DWM when I could get hold of it), I picked up certain ‘facts’ about the programme. Not real facts, like names of writers and script editors, but opinions passed off as facts. And one of these was that the Master was one of the cornerstones of Doctor Who, the greatest individual villain, up there with the Daleks and the Cybermen. John Nathan-Turner, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat all seem to agree, given the number of return gigs for the Master as opposed to, say, the Borad or Professor Zaroff (who has suffered the indignity of being the only villain apparently deemed too embarrassing to be allowed on to DVD for today’s sophisticated audience, but I digress).
Like all myths, it was due for a puncturing sooner or later. Or rather, two puncturings in fairly rapid succession, from an essay by Philip MacDonald in DWM and another by Daniel O’Mahony in the Licence Denied collection. Both argued broadly the same thing: that the Master was a bit rubbish, an artificial creation intended to give the Doctor a regular adversary, something the programme’s “limitless format” (another myth for another time) has no need of. Moreover, he is silly and gimmicky and always loses, driving a series of clichéd plots that have no place in a series as innovative and clever as Doctor Who. As Graham Williams said in an interview posthumously printed in DWM around this time, as soon as he turns up, the audience is wondering how he will lose this time. And so my impressionable adolescent mind found a new myth: the myth of the Master being pointless, not a premiership player at all.
And yet the Master is still here. He’s plastered all over the latest DWM, for instance. And yes, some of that coverage is mocking. The over-complicated, hole-ridden plans. The insistence on involving the Doctor even though he always wins. The evil laugh. The general air of camp silliness. All come in for a sound mocking. But there is affection beneath all the mockery. Why? If the Master is so rubbish, why do we, and successive production teams (who we can assume are not deliberately trying to alienate the audience) love him so much?
Some of it involves slaying another myth my adolescent self held dear, namely that Doctor Who is somehow “realistic,” a sort of kitchen-sink drama in time and space about a time-traveler and the real and the politically-relevant dilemmas he deals with. Once we can accept that, while the programme does have deeper meanings, on some level this is a bit of escapist fun, we can be more accepting of the Master, who embodies that fun. (Arguably it’s precisely the clash between the realistic and escapist elements in the programme that can lead to the kind of kitsch and camp which the Master embodies.)
And he is fun! For one thing, every single actor who played him, from the legendary Roger Delgado to the wonderful Michelle Gomez is clearly having a ball, letting their ids run loose and do stuff that would not normally be acceptable in society (genocide, assassination, answering authority figures back, laughing inappropriately, that sort of thing).
Even the clichéd, B-movie villain aspects have a place. After all, cliché becomes a cliché because it is overused and it is only overused because it has a certain power. The complicated death-traps and manic laughter function almost like a musical leitmotif, reminding us just who this character is and why we like him.
There is a more serious point to be made, which is that the character does function as a mirror to the Doctor. They are broadly similar and as one changes so does the other. For example, the Simm Master adopts a more demotic form of speech than previous incarnations, fitting with the twenty-first century Doctors. Even if the Master’s plans are deeply stupid, the conceptual parallels between the two characters, which the writers continually emphasize, make the Master feel like a serious threat, at least in his better stories, and even some of his worst ones (I think Logopolis is pretentious piffle, and yet it exerts a strong fascination over me, albeit not just because of the Master). The Delgado Master in particular gets to send up some of the more pompous aspects of the early seventies format, allowing the programme to have its cake and eat it, acknowledging the flaws, but getting its own jokes in before the audience’s. Whose side are you on in The Time Monster when the Master complains that the third Doctor always has to have the last word and feeds those very words back to him backwards? The real answer is that you are on the side of the Doctor and the Master – the former is obviously right, but you have to concede that the latter has a point regarding the third Doctor’s need to win an argument. The Simm Master arguably does something similar for the Davies era format, making fun of the demographic box-ticking TARDIS team and horribly aging the youngest and most conventionally attractive Doctor to date. This may help explain why the Master only makes three appearances in Tom Baker’s seven year long stint as the Doctor: the fourth Doctor was too good at sending himself up to really need the Master; when the latter did appear it was mostly as a hate-fuelled walking corpse who did not mirror the Doctor in the usual way.
So, although the Master is essentially an artificial and unnecessary character, it is these elements that make him so compelling. Freed of a clear narrative function, he can send up the programme and its lead, while providing a compelling threat. And this is without even touching on his unique and complex relationship with the Doctor as his oldest friends, something the likes of Davros can not hope to achieve. So, perhaps inevitably, the Master is destined to return, sooner or later, as he always does. Bwa-ha-ha!
Posted on 01/07/2015 at 22:53
Mention Quatermass to most people and, if they have heard of it at all, they will most likely think of the groundbreaking BBC serials of the 1950s or the Hammer films of the fifties and sixties. Less remembered is Quatermass, the bleak sequel broadcast in 1979 on ITV, with a limited cinema release as The Quatermass Conclusion.
Aside from obvious production changes (e.g. colour, longer episodes, more location filming), Quatermass differs from its predecessors in its presentation of the near future. While all the earlier Quatermass stories had been set vaguely in the near future, aside from a few surface details, it was primarily the advanced British space programme and the resultant contact with alien life that made the near future different to the audience's present. Quatermass presents a more detailed near future scenario, extrapolated from the dissent of the sixties and seventies.
While it is clear that society has broken down in this near future, the exact details are not always clear and are sometimes contradictory. Law and order has broken down in the cities, yet the government still has an army at its disposal, which makes one wonder why it does not enforce martial law to try to get the situation under control. Society has collapsed and the elderly are living in hiding, but there is a sort of pornographic version of Top of the Pops being broadcast by the British Television corporation (which has a logo suspiciously similar to that of the BBC in 1979!) as family entertainment, alongside more serious science programmes. There are frequent power cuts (not unlike the real Britain in the seventies), but Kapp's radio telescope still gets enough electricity to work (there is a bit of unconvincing 'lantern hanging' here, with Kapp stating that he fears he will lose the power soon). Above all, Quatermass seems not to know at all what has been happening in the cities, allowing numerous info-dumping conversations, yet this does not seem credible given the almost total collapse of civilization implied at times, even if he is living by a remote Scottish loch. Similarly, the USA and the USSR are said to have similar problems (perhaps not quite so severe), yet both have the resources for space programmes not unlike their real-life equivalents and the Soviet youth seem to be happy as part of the Youth Pioneers, rather than forming into the feral gangs seen in Britain.
However, this occasional incoherence does not detract from a sense of nightmarish dislocation in which the details of the story matter less than the fact that death could strike at any moment. Virtually every major character dies and while Quatermass makes a meaningful sacrifice, most characters die quite pointlessly and horribly. This reinforces the nightmare feelings, but makes it hard to actually enjoy the story.
The story suffers from a style of dialogue that seems to belong to the era of the original serials, not to mention writer Nigel Kneale's inability to write working class characters. Kneale establishes a series of polarities: old/young, science/cult, reason/superstition. This is fairly uninspired and familiar, although the emphasis on geriatrics saving the world is unusual. The story feels like the work of a bitter old man, so it is a surprise to realise that Kneale was in his fifties when he wrote it.
Despite all this, I did enjoy Quatermass. Kneale was always more of a horror writer than a science fiction one and there is a real sense here of living in an urban nightmare. The story benefits from a series of mostly strong performances, although John Mills' Quatermass lacks a certain charisma and presence, although he is acceptable enough. The usual Kneale traits are present here: eerie rhymes, incompetent government, ancient evil hidden in human history, mankind being used by vastly more powerful beings - yet they are as potent as ever, despite their familiarity. The atmospheric location filming helps greatly, although there is some cheap studio work, notably the American shuttle set.
is ultimately a triumph of atmosphere over logic and is best taken in small doses, but it will repay the attention of any Quatermass
fan. It is easy to sound negative, but like reviewing a nightmare it is easier to point out the irrationality of the experience than to convey its nihilistic power.
on Quatermass II
in its historical context may also be of interest. I'm very proud of it.)
Posted on 22/01/2015 at 23:10
I don't think anyone is still reading this, but just in case anyone is, I posted this post
on season eighteen of Doctor Who
earlier in the week, but accidentally posted it private. Enjoy! And please comment to let me know you're reading!
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