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I’ve spent the last fourteen or fifteen months watching Doctor Who in order as research for a writing project.  I just finished The Five Doctors.  After a somewhat stressful couple of days, it was fortunate that it came up on the schedule, as it’s a good story to relax to.  It is, of course, tacky, silly and nonsensical.  It’s also ingenious, enjoyable and fun and therefore the perfect anniversary celebration for Doctor Who, which is ingenious, enjoyable and fun, but also tacky, silly and nonsensical.

As fans, we tend to have problems acknowledging this.  This doubly true for those of us who lived through The Great Hiatus when Doctor Who was off our screens and was a laughingstock that laid us open to mockery when peers at school or work found out about our love for it.  So we justify our love of what is essentially, if not a children’s programme, then a family programme that is in large measure for children, by telling ourselves that it’s Serious Drama, full of political subtexts and intertextual references to horror films and classic literature.  Which it is, but also at the same time, it isn’t.  This has resulted in some fans writing off huge chunks of the series they ostensibly love by dismissing them as childish and conducting a campaign against anything 'funny' or 'silly' on the grounds that the programme should be 'serious drama.'

Don’t get me wrong, my list of favourite stories includes the like of The Caves of Androzani and Heaven Sent and the rather adult season seven (the 1970 one, not the 2012-13 one... typical of Doctor Who that we can’t even number it consistently) is probably my second favourite season and I rate season thirty-five, perhaps the darkest season of all in many ways, extremely highly too.  But my absolute favourite season is season sixteen, which is light and fun, but with darkness ever present below the surface.  Because the dichotomy, the balance between the light and the darkness, the silliness and the seriousness, the comedy and the tragedy is everything.  It’s that balance that makes this “The children’s own programme which adults adore”, still the best one-line description of Doctor Who, even more so than “An adventure in time and space”, because this is the programme that allows children to discover in things usually kept for adults, from horror films to Shakespearean tragedy, while letting the adults indulge in silly jokes, monsters and mad scientists.  As Russell T Davies realised (at a time when family entertainment no longer existed on British TV), this is crucial to the success of the programme: it’s the ‘safe space’ where children can be grown up safe in the company of adults and adults can be childlike with their children.

I admit that I’m slightly apprehensive about the next season of Doctor Who.  Not because of the new Doctor, but because of the new showrunner.  I don’t really have any solid grounds for this, but on the basis of (what I saw of) Torchwood and (what I heard of) Broadchurch, not to mention a rather severe photo of him in the latest Doctor Who Magazine[1], but I worry that Chris Chibnall may have been brought in to make the show more serious, even after the Capaldi era took us into darker waters than ever before.  Maybe I’m over-reacting.  Certainly Chibnall’s work on the show up to now, while generally not a batch of episodes I’m over-fond of, shows a pleasing variety of styles and tones.  I just hope that Chibnall recognises that dichotomy and recognises that, as the saying goes, the opposite of ‘funny’ is not ‘serious’; the opposite of ‘funny’ is ‘not funny’.

[1] Seriously, just look at the photo of Chibnall on page 4.  It’s less “writer gets dream job on favourite TV show” and more “detective appeals to public in search for serial killer”.  It’s like he’s about to tell us, “The suspect is known to have adopted a number of identities in the past and may now be living as a woman.”
30 December 2017 @ 09:19 pm
I'm still upset at the presentation of the first Doctor in Twice Upon a Time and thinking of writing a grumpy letter to DWM, even though it will mean the gushing letter I sent praising the new Shada DVD will never get printed.  I'm also slightly disturbed by how much Mark Gatiss looked like Hitler in some scenes.  I'm tempted to send that in to Private Eye.  Are they by any chance related?

Also, if we take everything said in the series at face value, then the Doctor's real name is something like Doctorwhothetasigmabasiljohnsmithdiscofunkenstein von Wer.  No wonder he promises never to tell it to people; it would take half an episode just to say it!
26 December 2017 @ 12:52 am
It's a long time since I've written a proper review (except in private emails to friends), but I feel like venting.  I didn't like Twice Upon a Time very much.  I found the presentation of the first Doctor extremely irritating.  Whatever we know of William Hartnell's personal opinions (and these days he seems to come across as complicated as much as anything), the first Doctor simply wasn't a raging sexist and homophobe.  Barbara, Vicki and Polly would have given him short shrift if he had asked them to dust the TARDIS!  It's either the influence of too many DWM interviews and convention panels that the general audience would not know about or else an attempt to create a false dichotomy between the first and twelfth Doctors to make the latter seem better.  As someone who felt that the twelfth Doctor took a long time to find his feet and only really consistently impressed me in his last season (although in terms of stories, his second season is probably my favourite new Who season and perhaps one of the best of all time), this attempt at privileging the twelfth Doctor over the first was upsetting.  Why bring a character back if you clearly don't like him very much?  We didn't really learn anything meaningful about how the first Doctor developed into the twelfth here.  Oh, and the editing of the new footage-to-old makes it look like Ben and Polly got left behind at the South Pole.

This would have been less of a problem if there was more of a plot.  Making the story an epilogue to the real regeneration story was not a bad idea in itself, keeping the high drama of the regeneration as the season finale and a low-key character study to entertain a wider audience on Christmas Day.  The problem was that the episode was dull and predictable in parts, particularly with Moffat giving one last outing for his favourite idea of villains that aren't actually villainous, although here at least was the twist was that they insisted they were not villainous and it was only the Doctor who thought otherwise.  Still, it gave us the opportunity for a proper goodbye for what was a very impressive TARDIS team.

The other problem is that regeneration + Christmas = sentimentality overload ("Now you're being sentimental and childish" as the real first Doctor said).  I don't like sentimentality much.  Some people do.  At this time of year I tolerate it, even though I don't celebrate Christmas.  Still, I don't have to like it.

The little bits of fan service annoyed me, but again, it's a personal taste issue.  I like my Whoniverse big and unknowable.  A lot of people prefer the Gary Russell/Craig Hinton version where every little bit is connected to something else.  Oh well.  I can put up with that too.  I just feel like I'm having to put up with a lot.  And Moffatt didn't make me believe that the Dalek archive is better than the Matrix, let alone that a rogue Dalek can still hack into it.

The bottom line is that I don't like Christmas episodes very much and I have mixed feelings about modern regeneration stories.  So Twice Upon a Time was always unlikely to impress me.  Still, I wish I could have liked this more, given that on the whole I think Moffat, Capaldi, Mackie and Lucas have been positive for the series, and I would have liked to see them have a curtain call I could enjoy more in the future, and one that resisted the temptation to mock other parts of the programme that some of us like for themselves, not out of nostalgia or 'so bad it's good' camp sensibilty.
I'm apprehensive about the new era of Doctor Who about to begin in a little over twenty-four hours (hey, I'm a fan, it's my duty to be apprehensive.  Plus I don't like Chibnall's previous work on the programme very much), but I'm looking forward to the clickbait pictures of Hatrnell, Pertwee and other classic series Doctors with the caption "You won't believe what the Doctor looks like now!"
23 December 2017 @ 09:15 pm
I knew that Castrovalva was based on various prints by M. C. Escher, but apparently one of them was based on a real place.  So many of his prints are so surreal that I assumed that all of them were made up.  But it turns out that Castrovalva is a real village in Italy.  I wonder whether, just as Portmeirion is full of The Prisoner fans shouting "I am not a number, I am a free man!" Castrovalva is full of Doctor Who fans running around and shouting "Recurrsive occlusion!  We're caught in a space-time trap!" to the bemusement of the locals.
26 November 2017 @ 02:29 am
I recently watched Nightmare of Eden again.  It's a story I like a lot, but like many people, I dislike Lewis Fiander's bizarre accent as Tryst.  However, this time I wondered if I was being unfair.

The story is really one of those Doctor Who whodunnits which rely on speed rather than mystery to hide the identity of the villain (see also The Deadly Assassin).  The only real suspects for the drug smugglers are Stott, Tryst and Della.  Della is too nice to be the villain and once we find out that red herring Stott is a goodie in part three, the real villain should be obvious.  But the script requires the production to maintain the suspense until a fair way into part four.  So one could argue that by turning Tryst into a comedy mad scientist like Professor Marius in The Invisible Enemy, Fiander was trying to make the audience think that Tryst is another eccentric goodie, making it more shocking when he turns out to be a drug smuggler.

Well, perhaps.  Tryst's accent probably still counts as the most irritating thing about Nightmare of Eden, ahead of the yellow decor and the "Oh, my fingers, my arms, my legs, my everything!" line.
12 November 2017 @ 08:53 pm
What a strange story Destiny of the Daleks is!  The bones of the script are pure 1960s Terry Nation, but the dialogue has clearly been rewritten by Douglas Adams in a proto-postmodern way that could only come from 1979, but arguably a more restrained Adams than the one who wrote The Pirate Planet, just as Tom Baker’s performance is more restrained than normal for this period.  (Although actually Nation (or possibly Dennis Spooner) had pre-empted some of Adams’ more notorious jokes back in The Chase, where Ian remarks that Daleks don’t like stairs; the Time-Space Visualiser scene in The Chase is essentially the same joke as the Origins of the Universe joke in Destiny, both turning on the Doctor empirically knowing the ‘real’ history that evades the historians.)  The minimal incidental music and reliance on sound effects and abstract atmospheres for, well, atmosphere is very sixties, but the disco-and-blaxsploitation-inspired Movellans are very seventies.  The direction, on the other hand, is pretty much unique, with the low-angle shots, steadycam camerawork and rapid editing being nothing like anything in Doctor Who before the late eighties, if that.  The model work is also of a high standard (contrary to popular fan opinion, the model work and video effects in season seventeen are excellent; it’s the budget-hit monster costumes that are sometimes problematic).  The overall effect is something that defies any preconceived fan notions of ‘era’.  It’s not an overlooked classic, but it is rather better than its reputation would suggest, although you can say that about most of season seventeen.
29 October 2017 @ 09:16 pm
"Doctor Who responded [to Star Wars] by playing to its strengths, poising itself between Ealing Comedies and Hammer Horrors."
- About Time: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood 
21 October 2017 @ 09:26 pm
Background note: from the summer of 1996, when I started getting Doctor Who Magazine regularly, until around the time I went to university in 2001 (if not later), I used to endlessly re-read old DWM articles.  One of my favourites issues was #290, a Tom Baker special with seven essays, one for each of his seasons.  The essays were variable in quality, particularly the one by Lance Parkin ostensibly about season fourteen, but basically in praise of 'rad' novels.  But one of my favourite essays was the one by Gareth Roberts on season fifteen.  At the time I don't think I'd actually seen a single season fifteen story, and had only vague memories of the novelisations, but having just re-read it I think it stands up as a great piece of writing in itself, full of insight on season fifteen, Doctor Who, Doctor Who fans and even a bit on life itself.  As an adolescent struggling with personal identity, peers, school, university applications, sexuality and liking a TV programme that everyone else thought was "the very definition of 'old hat'" this essay was oddly reassuring, especially the bit about The Invasion of Time (which was too long to quote here).

These are some of my favourite bits:

Doctor Who was always a children's programme - and so it should remain, a recent article in DWM said.  And probably quite right it was, too.  I was one of the people who first voiced this then unfashionable opinion in fan circles in the early 1990s.  But we tend to see children as a group, a homogenous lump, in a way that adults never would be.  And the true afficionandos of Doctor Who were strange children...

It's amusing to think of Doctor Who as high-brow - but, comparatively speaking, it was.  It was also, from the opening moments of An Unearthly Child to the closing seconds of Survival, the very definition of 'old hat'.  This explains the inordinantely high proportion in Doctor Who fandom, of old-fashioned, sexless middle-class boys called Jonathan [is this still true, post-Davies and Moffat and the identity politicisation of fandom, I wonder?  At any rate, this "old-fashioned, sexless middle-class boy" sometimes feels rather "old hat" himself]...

For many, the enduring image of Doctor Who the series is the Fourth Doctor, Leela and K9, and Season 15 - a bit camp, a bit too clever, cheap-looking, but big on ideas.

from We Are the Champions: Season Fifteen Gareth Roberts Doctor Who Magazine 209, May 2000
16 October 2017 @ 09:23 pm
Watching the flawed, but under-rated The Invasion of Time, I find myself wondering why I've never seen any online fondness for Rodan.  I'm a big fan of Romana, particularly Mary Tamm, but Rodan is pretty much everything Romana is, except that Romana's three year character arc is condensed into a couple of episodes for Rodan as she goes from bored pen-pusher and victim of Time Lord patriarchy to uncertain rebel to the person the Doctor turns to for technical advice to save Gallifrey (I think I'm smitten).  Hilary Ryan gives a good performance too, at least as good as Tamm and Ward. So why no online support?  She's miles better than the Rani.

Also, there's a shot at the end of episode five where Tom Baker's scarf flops over the lower half of his face with just his nose sticking out over it where he looks like Kilroy/Mr Chad.
Current Location: Running around the TARDIS