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Spearhead From Space

In which FP gets worried that the PM is a potential Doctor Who villain


Since the election, I’ve felt a bit sorry for Gordon Brown, what with all the people who have rushed to gloat and put the boot in since his progressive downfall started. Last week’s Have I Got News For You featured a montage of his strained-looking toothy smile, his clunky body-language, as if the ability to smile and shake hands smoothly was indeed what really mattered in a leader. I can sympathise partly because my own smiles are often as bad as his, especially if I’m trying to pose. When I’m smiling for the camera, everyone else shuffles their feet and small children run away crying; so when people make fun of Gordon Brown for suffering the same problem, he definitely gets my sympathies.

People’s reaction to his clunkiness, though, just goes to show how much people are concerned today with style and slickness over intellect; and Gordon Brown’s defeat, which people are already treating as much less narrow than it actually was, is only going to reinforce that. When we see David Cameron and Nick Clegg standing together, I get an uneasy squirming horror-film feeling that something is not quite right: that we’re not watching real people, but some sort of shiny artificial human-mimicking lifeform whose twin bodies are slowly converging onto one set of features. By the end of this parliament, we’ll be ruled by Cameregg, one creature with two identical bodies, identical faces with features so blandly generic you could barely pick them out from a crowd. Ed Balls, and the Miliband brothers, might well be part of the same species: some sort of bizarre alien trying to put on a human face but turning into an inhuman everyman. It might just be the effect of modern spin-driven media-friendly politics – or maybe the Autons are real after all.

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This Is Not A TV Blog

In which we discuss the passing of The Doctor


Through the last year, we’d managed to avoid watching the various Doctor Who specials that popped up around each bank holiday. The reason being, the last full series, back in 2008, really hadn’t grabbed us very hard. Despite having a few sparkling gems within it, there were too many painful moments and mystical endings. So: the one-off specials passed us by, as if they had never existed.

We did think, though: better make an effort to watch the Christmas specials. Because, after all, we knew the Doctor was going to regenerate, and we assumed that it would be done with as big a splash as possible. So: a date for the diary. We watched them, on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. And, generally, they made me think: well, I’m glad we didn’t bother with the other specials then.

K pointed out that Doctor Who isn’t, and never has, been aimed at People Like Us. It’s aimed at the people it always has been: immediately-pre-teenage children and their parents, who probably loved all the dramatic running about and look-there’s-The-Master’s-skeleton special effects. But one of the problems with new Doctor Who is that it’s been caught between several camps: trying to appeal to Camp A, the family audience; Camp B, the Doctor Who fans who can quote whole segments of tangled back-story; and Camp C, the people in-between who can vaguely remember that the old 1970s and 1980s show was pretty cool when they were in Camp A.

I used to assume, back when the resurrection first started, that Russell T Davies was a Camp B type of chap. Now I’ve watched a few series, I’ve changed my mind. Some of his writers may be Camp Bs, but now I think that RTD himself is a Camp C who wishes that he was in Camp B; not just that, but also wants the rest of Camp B to look up and adore him. To do it, he pulls in bits of random back-story and continuity whenever he wants to, but without any consistancy or pattern. Timothy Dalton’s character, for example, was described in the credits as either “Narrator” or “Lord President”; but the Doctor referred to him as Rassilon, a character from Doctor Who ages past, but not one whose past appearances fitted at all into the new story.

The story as a whole seemed awfully twisted and confused. I’m not always, I have to admit, the most perceptive of people, but I really couldn’t make much sense of the plot. What happened to the secret society trying to bring Saxon back, and why were they doing it? Who was that millionaire trying to make his daughter immortal, and why was he doing it? Was he really as plastic as he looked? Those “locked/open” cubicles in the control room – just why exactly were they there in the first place?* Why was Gallifrey “hell”? For that matter, why did it just pop into existance when the Time Lords were vaguely nearby? Why didn’t it cause massive tidal waves on Earth?** Who let the Time Lords’ soothsayer near the box of black biros? Was there meant to be a connection between the Weeping Angels, the Who monster invented by Steven Moffat, and the female Time Lords who kept sneaking messages to Bernard Cribbins? If so, what the hell was it? Was it anything more than Davies trying to derail a potentially-good monster created by his successor while he still had the chance?***

Maybe that’s the key. Certainly, the episodes might have made more sense if more time had been spent on storytelling. Instead, a good 10-15 minutes at the end was spent on the Doctor popping round to visit his previous companions for a cup of tea to lurk ominously in the background in a meaningful oh-my-painful-heart way. Not something that’s happened for any of his previous regenerations, as far as I know. K said, charitably, that maybe this was because David Tennant’s Doctor character was rather more emotionally attached to his companions and other human characters than previous Doctors.***** My interpretation is: it’s not about the Doctor regenerating and Tennant leaving at all. It’s about Davies leaving, and regretting it. That was his goodbye to his creations, not the Doctor at all. It was self-indulgent, and the programme would have been better without it. Maybe he’s not very happy about the degree of change that’s coming now he’s left: the programme now has a completely new logo, a much better one at that. That’s hopefully a sign that a lot is changing, more than just a name on the credits.****

Having said all that: there were a few good points. There were a few good scenes. Not very many at all, though. Apart from John Simm’s performance, though, there was nothing that I can put my finger on and say: “ah, that made The End Of Time worthwhile”. Give me a minute, and I’ll try to think of something that wasn’t John Simm.

(no, a bit longer than that)

Nope, nothing springs to mind. Doctor Who in general is a Good Thing, but in its specifics it’s lacking something. I have a nagging feeling, though, that back, back into the mists of time, that was always the case.

* I mean, I know why they ended up being there in plotting terms, but I didn’t at all get what their justification was. And while I’m on the topic: I was rather suspicious that the protective glass the cubicles were made from could apparently block all that dangerous radiation, but said radiation couldn’t make it through the gap around the edge of the door. It’s semi-plausible – microwaves can’t make it though the wire mesh in your oven door, for example – but really not that convincing.

** true “tidal waves”, in fact, not tsunamis.

*** If so it didn’t work, because the Blink-style Weeping Angels popped up in the trailer for the next series. I feel like adding “why did the Time Lords’ sublimation mean that the universe had to end?” to that list of questions but the key there is in the word “sublimation” for what the Time Lords wanted to do – I first came across the concept in Iain M Banks’s novels, where many races have done it, but there’s nothing to say that it has to work the same way in the Who universe.

**** I am very much hoping that the incidental music is one of the things that changes. I’m hoping that it’s possible to have an entire series of Doctor Who without the involvement of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and, in particular, without the involvement of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales Choral Section.

***** K also said: “why are you getting worked up about such insignificant stuff?”

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Signs I’m Getting Older

In which FP has lost interest in something


Signs I’m Getting Older, number 3267. Not only do I not remember that there’s a Doctor Who special on, I’m not particularly bothered when we realise we’re missing it.* And not only do I forget it’s on, I forget when it’s repeated. And don’t bother to watch it online, either.

OK, I did at least look up the repeat times. But in a mildly disinterested way. And I don’t have any particular urge to watch it, especially not after seeing the trailers many times. I’ll probably be able to raise a bit more interest next year when the next proper series starts; but for now, I’m not too bothered. Maybe I am starting to get older.

* because K phoned someone only to get: “why are you phoning me right now? Doctor Who‘s on!

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Lawyers

In which we wonder about fancraft


The BBC has a history of having heavy-handed lawyers on the payroll, so it wasn’t surprising when they threatened to sue a website featuring Doctor Who knitting patterns. I’m old enough to remember the Teletubbies,* and the way the BBC responded to websites that poked fun at them: send in the lawyers. What’s the most important thing about Doctor Who, after all? Inspiring kids to be amazed at things, and look at the world in a different way? Hiding behind the sofa? No, silly, the important thing is to generate lots and lots of merchandising money for BBC Commercial. Where would we be if everyone started knitting things for their children instead of going down the shops? If you start spending time and care on things like that, when are you going to find the time to watch more TV? What’s going to happen to all those traditional Chinese peasant plastic-mould farms? And never mind that, what on earth do you think you’re doing to the economy, going out and making things instead of buying them? Where do you think you are, Cuba?

Seriously: I’m sometimes in two minds about fan-created stuff, largely because of the effect fan fiction has on me. It makes me want to run away and scream, partly because of the smug little disclaimers that fanfic writers always seem to put at the top of their stories. “These characters aren’t mine, I’m only borrowing them.” Did you ask, first?

Fan art, though – which includes fan crafting, in this case – is a different matter. It does, to my mind, at least, imply a lot more creativity than most fanfic. But I can’t draw a rational line between the two, or explain why one seems acceptable to me when the other doesn’t. Maybe that in most cases fan art seems to add something to a world, where fan fiction seems to take it away. That, though, isn’t something you can exactly quantify. And it’s not an excuse that would go down well with a lawyer, either.

* I was just the right age to appreciate them when they appeared – about 19 or so.

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Cute Fat

In which Doctor Who is getting silly


We turned to each other and said: “it was never this silly in the Old Days,” was it? And I don’t think it was.

In Doctor Who of Olden Times, you might well have got little creatures made from body fat. The difference, though, is that they wouldn’t have been so damn cute. They wouldn’t have had happy smiling faces and stubby hands to wave with. It’s always been a children’s show, but the old series was never so consciously one.

There are hints of something darker, I’ll admit. A minor character dying purely because of the doctor’s assistant fiddling with something she doesn’t understand, for example. Not fiddling with it because she wants to know what it does, but fidgeting and giving her hands something to do, and killing someone directly because of it. Maybe that will come back up later in the series. There are rumours, after all, that things are going to get much darker later on; but I’ll have to see it to believe it.

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Godlike powers

In which we’re not impressed


Christmas came, and brought the flu. I was in bed most of yesterday, aching, coughing and sleeping.

We really weren’t impressed by the ending of Doctor Who on Christmas Day. Russell T Davies doesn’t know how to write a good ending – as demonstrated both by the end to the last series, and the Christmas special. I’m dreading the new series, and I really hope he’ll have written as few episodes as possible. Give the writing jobs to Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat in future, please.

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Today

In which FP is ill


Today, I’ve drunk several cups of tea. I’ve sat reading for a while; I’ve sat online for a while, and later I’m going to be zooming about the English motorway system.* In other words, just like any other non-working day. The only alcohol in my system is: two spoonfuls of Benylin.

Somehow, though, I have this sudden urge to gorge myself on poultry and roast vegetables, before lying back in an armchair, burping, eating Ferrero Rocher** and watching Doctor Who on the telly. It must be genetic, or something.*** At least Doctor Who can wait until evening. If you’re reading this, today: go and look at one final Christmas card, then switch off the computer, and either go down the pub, or lie on the sofa and belch like a normal person.

* insert Sarah Nixey impression here.

** yes, I did get given a box. And socks. And underwear. And the new Terry Pratchett, as per usual.

*** It’s been scientifically-proved – by the FP Militant Invective Laboratories, of course – that British people have a genetic susceptibility towards a love of apparently-immortal and godlike aliens who can build time-travelling phone boxes.

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The labyrinthine depths

In which we think about secret tunnels and the literature surrounding them


There are plenty of stories in literature about the nameless horrors that lurk deep within the bowels of the London Underground. It’s popped up in TV, too – on both Quatermass and Doctor Who in the 1960s – and in film. In books, the first example that comes to the top of my head is a short story by Jeremy Dyson, but there are certainly many more. There are stories of secret tunnels and secret trains, lines disappearing into disused stations and abandoned passages.

Indeed, there are plenty of abandoned stations underneath London. There’s Down Street, for example, which was used as a set in Neverwhere.* There’s an entire disused railway, the Post Office Railway, running from Paddington to Whitechapel.** Not much is visible, though. The Post Office Railway was never open to the public, and disused parts of the Underground are generally very hard to see from passing trains. The occasional void, or brick wall, but that’s all.***

Paris, though. Paris is different. The Paris metro is full of secret passages. Every few hundred metres, there will be a mysterious junction. Lines will branch off into side tunnels, or delve between the other tracks, or disappear behind mysterious roller shutters in the tunnel walls. There are walkways and passageways, tracks that your train will never use, sidings deep under the city centre. In London the only place you’ll see trains parked underground is Triangle Sidings, between Earls Court and Gloucester Road; and that started out as an above-ground depot which disappeared under buildings in the 1960s. In Paris, there are trains parked all over the network, in single sidings, between stations. There’s so much to see if you look out of the window.

But does the Paris Metro have similar literature to the London Underground? Are there stories of monsters hiding in the Metro’s depths, or ghost trains rattling off down secret tracks, or secret government laboratories behind the roller-shuttered sidings? London has the literature, but Paris has the labyrinth visible from the train window.

* The “Down Street” in Neverwhere isn’t the real Down Street – but the real Down Street was also used for filming. If you’ve seen it: the dinner with Serpentine was shot on the remains of its station platforms, during normal service, with trains passing in the background.

** Which was also used as a filming location for Neverwhere, and also crops up in the dire Bruce Willis comedy Hudson Hawk.

*** During the war most of the disused stations were converted into government offices – including the platforms, several of which had the platforms removed and brick walls built to partition the usable space off from the running lines. So if you’re deep under London and suddenly see a brick wall by your carriage window for a few seconds, it’s probably a disused station.

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Insert catchphrase here for easy headline

In which we get wary of the talent


As for Doctor Who: as you’ve probably heard, catchphrase-based comedian Catherine Tate is going to be back in the show for a whole series. It’s been in all the papers, after all, and lots and lots of people, who shudder in terror at the mere mention of the name Bonnie Langford, think it will all go horribly wrong. It might be interesting to see if Tate can act, rather than just mug through with a comic voice and lots of makeup until she gets to the catchphrase.

Russell T Davies has been widely quoted, in connection with this story, as saying:

We are delighted that one of Britain’s greatest talents has agreed to join us.

Strangely, though, his thoughts on Catherine Tate herself have not been mentioned.

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Running down a corridor, chased by a big scary monster

In which we wonder what career choices someone had


Two thoughts about last Saturday’s Doctor Who.* Firstly: if your name’s Lazarus, and you become a scientist, you must feel completely stereotyped. “I’m going to have to invent some cunning way to cheat death,” you’d say to yourself, “otherwise everyone’s going to take the piss.”

Secondly: why is it that all shape-shifting multi-limbed reptilian monsters, on shifting back into human form, can never quite get the neck right? Every time they shift, there’s always something in the neck, or around the collar bone, or somewhere, that doesn’t quite snap back into place; they have to wiggle their neck like a chiropracter to get it all to fit together properly. You’d think they’d have learned by now.**

H says that when Doctor Who does this, it’s a “homage to the genre”. I say it’s a dodgy cliche.

* Yes, I think slowly.

** Incidentally, has anyone heard The Queen making that sort of neck-clicking noise? Tony Blair? George W Bush? Because if noone ever has, David Icke must definitely be talking rubbish!

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