It's a Doctor Who blog.

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

The Second Coming

 I wrote an article for Den of Geek about Christopher Eccleston's return to the role of Doctor Who.

tl:dr - I hope it's as radical as the 2005 series was, but I'm expecting comfortable nostalgia.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

We don’t need to talk about canon

So obviously that was a lot.

But also: barely anything happened.

A big change in continuity got dropped into that episode - with all the skill I deployed single-handedly destroying the P7 Trip to Arran display in the gym hall during “The Netball Incident” – and it’s pulling focus somewhat. The Doctor’s past is a mystery to both us and her now, and we learned that the Time Lord ability to regenerate was harvested from her.

The Time Lords didn’t want it to be known that the ability they graft onto people when they graduate wasn’t innate to them, so this was hidden deep in the Matrix (like, eight subfolders down and marked ‘Locked Data Do Not open’) and had a Ballykissangel filter applied rather than be redacted or deleted. I think that’s what happened. Anyway it’s a big secret, and then the Time Lords invented Time Travel (which, to be fair, they also lied about how that came about in the official records so they do have form for this – oh, if only they could have squeezed in more exposition).

That’s a brief summary of that, and avoids any real commentary on how this affects the series and whether or not it’s a good thing. I think it’s quite possible to write about The Timeless Children in a critical way and not thoroughly address the changes to the Doctor’s character, because something more important than this happens:

The Master has killed everyone on Gallifrey.

2.47 billion children.

He killed them because the Time Lord ability to regenerate comes from the Doctor and makes her special. This makes her a significant part of the Master’s lineage, moreso than their millennia-long intense friend/enemy relationship.

Irrespective of whether you like the retcon that there are Doctors pre-Hartnell who got their mind-wiped (and Chibnall loves a non-consensual mindwipe), irrespective of whether you like the retcon that the Doctor is a key figure in Time Lord history, you need to justify genocide on such a scale – that the show has already addressed – with one hell of a reason.

This idea that the Doctor is a special figure in Time Lord history is used to justify the Master killing everyone on Gallifrey and putting their bodies into cold storage to create a race of Cyber-Masters. Let’s just skip over the fact that the Master has morgue facilities for the entire Time Lord race, and that dead Time Lords contain the ability to regenerate perpetually (which begs the question ‘What are you doing being dead?’) and furthermore will insist on another change to the Cybermen design (to be fair, that’s quite an accurate portrayal of the Master’s predilection for overly complicated nonsense). Let’s skip over a few things, basically, and then come back to the Master killing billions because of this news. Compare and contrast it to the War Doctor destroying the Daleks and corrupted Time Lords to save the universe.

My reaction upon hearing the Master’s reasoning was ‘Wait, that’s it?’. And the Master, while obviously a long-established villain, has never deliberately committed genocide before. Mainly they’re much smaller stakes than this. I cannot connect my knowledge of the character to this action on either a gut feeling level or an intellectual one. Killing the High Council, maybe, but the entire planet? While the planet is trapped towards the end of time? I can’t buy the Master being that angry about this, but then this is a Chibnall story. The nasty edges burst through.

This action impacts previous stories. At the end of The Day of the Doctor, once the Doctors have saved all the children on Gallifrey, we now know that this isn’t true. Their slaughter is just deferred.

If this Master is pre-Missy then perhaps it makes slightly more sense for his character, but if he’s meant to come after Missy then her end too is diminished; if we know she just becomes this much nastier, brutal character without any of her development (and working with the Cybermen twice) being addressed. This is what I’m used to over the past two series: characters doing things in service of the story, rather than stories being driven by character.

I like Sacha Dhawan’s interpretation of the scripts, trying his best with the material, but Chibnall keeps giving him long laboured punchlines to wrestle with (‘It’s red because it’s drenched in the blood of our people’ rather than ‘There was a lot of blood’ for example) and also the bulk of the dialogue in this episode. There’s a good observation about that here:

Exposition is difficult, but this storyline didn’t help itself by having to cram so much in. The structure of the series was such that we were teased for revelations at the start and middle, then had them explained at the end. These are big ones too, and need room to breathe, especially in the wake of the criticism of the previous series that only two of the four regulars had any character development (as well as the series’ structure this criticism can be levelled at individual episodes too). Indeed, we are told by Graham that he thinks Yaz is great based on no specific examples – the show simply hasn’t devoted time to its characters for this scene to work. All Ryan gets to do is throw a bomb and that achieves nothing. There isn’t any tension over their survival, conversion, or departure.  

Emotional weight is also difficult, and frankly we’ve been spoiled by RTD and Moffat, but in the wake of their storylines the pathos seems especially hollow here. The Doctor – given all that has happened in the stories since 2005 – is faced with going back to the planet she saved, now destroyed by her former best friend who she thought redeemed, in order to destroy all life on it again as she did on her darkest day because she sees no real alternative…it feels like this should be a bigger deal, but the end result is a predictable self-sacrifice that also comes with its own special additional bit of exposition while the Master and the Cyber-Time-Lords stand around letting them chat.

Ah yeah, the Cybermen.

Who could possibly have predicted that Chibnall’s take on the Cybermen would be to make one really nasty and brutal?

Everyone, because that’s his main thing. He takes the potentially interesting idea of an emotional Cyberman and just has it be angry and edgy and GRRRRRRRRR. He has it be Tim Shaw. I know the Cyberman has a name but it was so dull I’ve forgotten it (this is Chibnall’s second thing). The storytelling potential of someone who wanted to be converted, who has a religious zealotry for the Cybermen, that’s decent, but all Chibnall does is have him tell the Master that he wants to be a robot. Because when you want to be converted into a Cyberman clearly it’s because your end goal is to become a robot. This is a plan so bad that the Master takes the piss out of it and then shoots him.

"oh no"

Oh, and he had a MacGuffin in him which was conveniently a really specific and correct legend. And he drilled a hole in another Cyberman for no reason other than Chibnall’s edgelord tendencies. FUCKING HELL, we’re meant to think, HE’S WELL HARD. THIS IS WELL GRIM. JESUS. WHAT WON’T HE DO NEXT?

Anything of note.

These episodes raised the notion of Cybermen being able to use dead bodies for conversion. In Death in Heaven this was seen as a new and rare idea, but now seems to be a fairly standard process. I’m intrigued as to why the Cybermen have never just stunned people and converted them, but now I know. Whether they prefer their bodies dead or alive, they just can’t fucking shoot anything. They hit two people over the course of the episode, one of whom is hit about 14 times and isn’t even killed. Yeah, the Cybermen are scary again. They’re big clanky cyborgs who kill you by shooting like a 9-year-old at Laserquest, which is definitely the scariest thing you can do with the Cybermen. This is a fitting use for the current version of the show. The Cybermen are an interesting idea, but all the show does with interesting ideas at the moment is swing a mirror by them, so you don’t really get any investment in them but have to admit they are technically there.

In the face of such monotonous grimness, do we get a Doctor who is a counterpoint to this?

No, we get another case of Thirteen being written as passive and powerless. Nigel Auchterlounie, who writes Dennis and Gnasher for The Beano, offered this as a possible alternative:

Just for fun... an alternate end to #DoctorWho
— Nigel Auchterlounie (@spleenal) March 2, 2020

There’s nothing wrong with having the Doctor on the backfoot, under pressure and having a bad day, but usually that works because it’s a contrast. Thirteen hasn’t had an ‘Everybody lives!’ moment. She’s not even had a ‘Life will out! Hah!’ moment. She has, at least, blown a kiss to a giant frog. That’s not nothing, but her victories haven’t been cathartic moments of joy. So we have a series where the series finale presents this as the good guys winning:

The heroine cannot bring herself to destroy the animated corpses of her entire species, so Joe off of Derry Girls has to do it for her. Hooray. An entire planet now a lifeless husk. Yay Doctor Who.

So no, overall I’m not that bothered about the big shifts in continuity. I’m bothered that the lead writer is sucking the joy out of Doctor Who and replacing it with one where hope and triumph and joy and characters that actually resemble real people are being gradually replaced by this cold, clanking monstrosity that makes me long for a forgotten humanity.

Doctor Who, at least, is Chris Chibnall doing the Cybermen right.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Fan Service

I wrote another batch of Fanwank/Fan Service Hotline articles for Series 11. My approach was to never be totally critical, and to always include some positives in the options.

On occasion I struggled to do this. It may come through, and if so there may be a pattern to these occasions.

  1. The Woman Who Fell To Earth
  2. The Ghost Monument
  3. Rosa
  4. Arachnids in the UK
  5. The Tsuranga Conundrum
  6. Demons of the Punjab
  7. Kerblam!
  8. The Witchfinders
  9. It Takes You Away
  10. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

An important thing to remember is that Doctor Who is not always made for you. There is a Reality Bomb podcast which asks fans for their opinions on Series 11, and it becomes clear that a lot of the problems I have with it are positives for other people. I also disagree with a lot of the reasons people dislike it, just to keep things simple. For example, a negative comparison to The Sarah Jane Adventures which I think is incredibly unfair to The Sarah Jane Adventures

Ultimately it doesn't matter to anyone apart from me if I'm not enjoying Doctor Who as much as long as enough people are enjoying it. My worry is that, having made the show something that children can enjoy more, the gap between series means that the momentum will be lost and that this momentum was slowing down anyway.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Anthony Read as Script Editor

I've written articles about each Doctor Who script editor for Cultbox, but this one seems to have slipped through the net. As a result I'm publishing it here.

Anthony Read became the Script Editor of Doctor Who in the wake of Robert Holmes’ successful time on the show. After Philip Hinchcliffe was moved on from the producer role, Read inherited a situation that had the potential to unravel.

Image result for anthony read

New producer Graham Williams had been ordered to make the show more family friendly and humorous, despite his reservations, and it was his vision for the show that led the way. Williams asked Holmes to stay on as Script Editor for a few stories to help with the transition period, hoping he’d stay for longer but aware that he was unlikely to agree to a fourth full year on the show. So it proved, and Read was brought in for the final two stories of Season 15, doing some uncredited work on The Image of the Fendahl.

Williams disliked the way Doctor Who stories ‘came together quite coincidentally’, and wanted something linking them together rather than another random assortment. He originally considered bringing UNIT back, but this was vetoed by Bill Slater (the Head of Serials), and wasn’t able to organise his ‘Key to Time’ idea in time for Season 15.

Read’s first commission was from regular writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin, hoping they’d be able to put together a script that didn’t require too much work to give him an easy way in to the role. This despite Baker and Martin regularly contributing first drafts that needed reining in. Read did make a decision that was to influence his and Williams’ time on the show by asking the writers to take inspiration from Classical myth.

It was his second commission that was to have a knock-on effect, however, as he asked David Weir - who he had worked with before - to contribute a season finale involving Gallifrey and a race of cat people. Despite the edict from BBC management to save money, the submitted script was even more ambitious than expected.

Soaring inflation rates had caused problems with the set construction for Underworld, and union disputes limited studio time for the following story. The initially tricky limitations imposed on the new team had been made all the more difficult to cope with.

Image result for underworld doctor who

Read and Williams, with advice from Robert Holmes, wrote The Invasion of Time in about five days. Williams did not write a proper departure for companion Leela in the hope that Louise Jameson would choose another year of elevating material she was clearly better than. She did not, hence her abrupt and ill-fitting exit.

Exactly the same situation would develop with Mary Tamm, although Williams did at least devise the character before Jameson left as a precautionary measure.

Season 15 is turbulent, a programme in transition from an established and popular identity that has been forced into finding a different one. Where it succeeded, though, is in moving far enough towards a new approach that the next series could be a lot more tonally consistent, though also ran into budgetary problems during its final story.

The impression of this period of Doctor Who is that it was very much led by Graham Williams, with Read responding to his ideas and adding comedy to the scripts. The Key to Time concept wasn’t fully developed when they started writing, hoping that a suitable conclusion would appear along the way. Read’s task was to find writers for this season as early as possible so the outline of the story could be confirmed.

Robert Holmes wrote the first story of the season, which remains one of the most sensible ideas in Doctor Who history. Read then commissioned Douglas Adams and David Fisher, asking the latter to step in when the fourth writer for the series pulled out. He did, however, commission Bob Baker and Dave Martin to write the series finale which, as you may have guessed, was far too ambitious for Doctor Who’s budget again and lacked the quality of the earlier stories in the season.

As it wouldn’t be the Graham Williams era without something else compounding this misfortune, Baker and Martin split up as a writing duo after completing this story, leaving Read to simplify The Armageddon Factor. Douglas Adams shadowed him as script editor during this process, and indeed co-wrote the final scene with Williams.

Image result for the armageddon factor

Anthony Read was absolutely sure that he was not staying with Doctor Who beyond Season 16, having been delighted to have the opportunity to work on the show but considering it a guest contract for a year. While following Williams’ lead, what he contributed was a stark lesson:

There weren’t enough writers out there who could do Doctor Who.

This has often been true, but what’s rescued the situation is a strong Producer and Script Editor team who stay with the show for more than two series together. Rewrites can be done, contingency plans made.

However, Read was never intending to stay longer than a year, and Williams was facing an increasingly demanding Tom Baker, inflation, strike action, the BBC demanding more and then less humour, and his own mistakes.

Read may have lacked foresight in asking for Kroll, the series biggest ever monster, and getting Baker and Martin to write key stories at a time when financial restraint was paramount, but he brought David Fisher into the fold and fought for Douglas Adams’ script when it was deemed too comedic. He was refreshing, in the same way an oasis is refreshing when there is still a significant amount of desert to cross.

All the show needed, though, was a talented and hardworking team who were on the same page and were willing to stick with the show.

How difficult could that be to find?

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Yes, This Again

I wrote an article for Cultbox about the reaction to The Talons of Weng-Chiang during Doctor Who on Twitch and the Doctor Who Magazine Time Team article.

Now, to my mind this is a pretty mild article (it was written before someone said 'I won't read the magazine if the editor is kept on', which apparently is all it takes to send DWM journalists feral) written by a middle aged, middle class white guy, who isn't very well known in fandom. This means that no one is likely to track me down to insult or abuse me, but it does still provoke ire in fans who resent being told their favourite thing is racist.

Guys, your favourite thing is racist from time to time. Deal with it.

At no point, though, do I say that this makes fans of it racist (although other things do - possibly referencing Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race instead of Avenue Q was a mistake). Instead I'm suggesting that being aware of the racism in Doctor Who is necessary but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy the rest of it.

I've yet to see any of us PC killjoys saying you can't watch and enjoy Doctor Who, even Talons of Weng-Chiang (which, let us not forget, screwed over Graeme Williams by costing so much, is two episodes too long because someone forgets a bag, and ends with our quick-witted hero the Doctor aggressively throwing the villain into a cabinet, killing him - but does have high production values and some incredibly good dialogue).

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Targeting the Day of the Doctor

I loved it on first viewing.

Context is important, obviously. It had been built up to so much, I was staying with a group of friends and having a great weekend anyway. First viewings are more about gut feelings for me than critical analysis.

I recently listened to the audiobook of The Day of the Doctor.


Image result for day of the doctor book

Nick Briggs is an excellent narrator. Steve Moffat is still an expert at deflating you with one joke too far, one joke too many, or just simply using the phrase ‘Down boy’ again.

There’s an ambition to the novelisation of The Day of the Doctor, using the change in medium to flesh out characters through accessing what’s been internalised. This is occasionally incredibly effective.

What it also does is provide proof of something I’ve suspected for a while: all of Steve Moffat’s characters are horny. Even the Curator. Have you read the interview with Tom Baker in Doctor Who Magazine where he mentions asking a dying Nicholas Courtney whether he was a breast or leg man? I feel like Moffat just transposed that moment into official continuity.

Possibly, after six years of Doctor Who that seemed targeted very much at me and people like me, I have had enough Moffat (It’s how the first half of Series 4 made me feel about the RTD era). This book started off exciting and moving but by the end I’d lost that feeling for a particularly fannish reason.

The Seventh Doctor and the Eighth Doctor.

Doctors are usually reactions against their predecessor. Eight’s enthusiasm, lack of cynicism and romantic air are in stark contrast to the sad clown whose spinning plates keep smashing. The Seventh Doctor tries to make the end justify the means, the Eighth Doctor rejects this notion.

However, the Eighth Doctor’s characterisation in this book is very much post-2005 Doctor. In the extra scenes we get with him he feels more like Tennant or Smith. This feels odd, not merely because of what’s gone before, but because the rest of the book is very clear that the War Doctor initially doesn’t recognise himself in his older-yet-more-childish incarnations.

So when we have a story built around the War Doctor killing everyone on Gallifrey, including the billions of children, it’s based around this idea of the character never indulging in consequentialism, that this is a significant departure.

Moffat addresses the character’s aspirations to an absolute morality by contrasting examples from the post-2005 series with the idea that the Doctor had previously committed double genocide. ‘I never would’ rings with a bitter regret because the character knows he has, and is trying to run as far away from being that person as possible. However, you could slot the Seventh Doctor into the Time War easily. He could just as easily be the figure the later Doctors are thinking of when they proclaim their heroism.

The War Doctor functions as this cut off point between old and new series in this story, echoing the BBC English of the original run and providing a reason for his future selves to act in a noticeably more flippant manner. This isn’t subjective interpretation, it’s in the text. The reason that Nine through Twelve have taken Troughton’s foolish front and made that a permanent feature is because being serious reminds them of the Time War.

As a result it jars when the first thing we see the Eighth Doctor do is whooping and cheering as he goes to rescue Cass. It feels like the act of a post-War Doctor, muddying the cut off point the book later establishes.

As the book progresses, the weight on the idea of the War Doctor being atypical increases. The Seventh Doctor’s head is cocked to one side, and he’s gently questioning. Soon his consonants will harden, and the cracks will start to appear.

See the source image

You can argue that this point of continuity isn’t something that needs to be answered in a novel that barely features the Seventh Doctor, but it also goes out of its way to fit the Cushing Doctor into continuity and address the notion of the Doctor’s heroism as an ideal versus the reality of it (and, being a Moffat story and an anniversary celebration, you can guess which one wins and why it’s okay for this to happen).

The Seventh Doctor’s behaviour approaching the War Doctor’s can’t be mentioned for this to work.

Day of the Doctor needs to iron out this blip in his character to make sense, because the War Doctor can’t be this aberration when he was actively trying to destroy oppressive races two incarnations ago. It just makes it seem like the Doctor has mood whiplash. Maybe he does (Ohilia’s revelation regarding the ingredients of the potion is Moffat at his best). The Eighth reacts against the Seventh’s ways and means, only to find himself in a situation where he needs to be None More Seventh. That works as a headcanon.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Realising the Time War

In the latest Doctor Who Magazine comic strip, Scott Gray writes the Twelfth Doctor describing an incident in the Time War.

I've previously mentioned that I've found Big Finish's and BBC Books attempts at portraying the time war to be dissatisfying based on their lack of imagination, that they all tell the same story and at no point does it feel distinctive from non-Time-War Doctor Who.

Gray, on the other hand, writes Doctor Who like he owns it. Also, luckily for him, his medium is comics, which are vastly more suited to the temporal chaos implied by Russell T. Davies' brief descriptions of the war on television. You can simply show an image which tells and implies the story, rather than have to write a paragraph of exposition. You don't have the budgetary limitations of television, and so outlandish visuals are more easily achievable. Thus, Part Four of The Clockwise War is, for me, the most satisfying depiction of the Time War partly for these reasons.

Another - arguably more important - factor is the characterisation and context. Having the events narrated by a future Doctor, using a younger version of the War Doctor than Big Finish were ever able to do, and placing a long established comics character in the companion role allow Gray to bypass the standard 'Old War Doctor meets young female who dies and is sad about war' plot that appeared to have been mandatory previously.

Firstly, the young War Doctor is uncharted territory for licensed fan-fiction. Gray has free reign to characterise him as he wants, and uses this to present a Doctor who is gleeful in the face of war. It isn't til the end we see Gray write something more typical in terms of War Doctor angst, but prior to this we see a Doctor not dissimilar to the one we see in Tooth and Claw - still recognisably the Doctor, but emotionally distant and glib in the face of death.

Secondly, and possibly more importantly: there are absolutely no Daleks in this comic.

Whether that's because of licensing or simply because Terry Nation's estate prohibited it, it makes the story more interesting by virtue of forcing upon us something new. Gray also resists the temptation to realise one of the names RTD came up with for the screen, something that had previously always been tepidly done, and devises entirely new creatures.

The Time Lords are also notable by their absence beyond a group of soldiers - there are no dirty tricks or amoral gambits here, just fighting on a front line. True, Gray brings in the Sisterhood of Karn to tick off a fan-pleasing box, but they were there at the beginning of this incarnation, so it's not such a contortion to fit them in.

Overall it's a take on the Time War that drives home the War Doctor's differences, manages to hint at the chaos of temporal combat without actually involving any time travel, and doesn't outstay its welcome. I was very impressed by it, but the main thing this comic has confirmed for me is this:

I really never want to see another Time War story.

Part of this is simply that it's a story that's impossible to realise in a way that does justice to the idea; a brief interlude in the Time War is about as far as you can dip your toe in. Conceptually, it's not actually meant to be a story we visit on an ongoing basis, and so a spin-off series has to tweak the Time War into something that resembles a story, despite its very essence fighting against this method of depiction.

Mainly, though, it's that I don't watch Doctor Who for the horrors of war. The Time War necessitates a version of the Doctor who not only allows these and is culpable, but can revel in them. Seeing this done reasonably well for the first time is enough to demonstrate to me that it's definitely not what I want from Doctor Who.

The Caves of Androzani is brilliant. Genesis of the Daleks is brilliant. However, if you tried to make Doctor Who like those stories every week, it wouldn't be Doctor Who anymore. Things that aren't Doctor Who aren't intrinsically bad, of course, but this is why delving into New Earth is a much better idea than delving into the Time War will ever be.