Ten Things About Who: Cold War

Ten discussion points about the Doctor Who 2013 episode, Cold War by Mark Gatiss

This post has been edited, tidied up and expanded to form part of my new ebook, TEN THINGS ABOUT WHO, available on Kindle. Buy it now for £1.99More details

1. A timely reminder

No amount of foresight could have anticipated that this episode of Doctor Who would be aired in the week of Margaret Thatcher’s passing. As it was, though, it meant that the schedules in the week leading up to this broadcast were full of echoes of the 1980s.

The pre-credits sequence refers to “NATO exercises”, which the Captain dismisses as “sabre-rattling”. Given that the story is set in 1983, this could be a reference to Able Archer 83, a ten-day exercise in November which led to the USSR’s own escalation, in the belief that the war games could be masking preparations for a genuine conflict.

Although if that were the case, and this episode is taking place while UK audiences were celebrating the 20th anniversary of a certain TV show by watching Elisabeth Sladen roll down the world’s gentlest incline, the North Pole would be a lot darker than it is shown to be here…

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Ten Things About Who: The Rings of Akhaten

Ten discussion points inspired by the Doctor Who episode The Rings of Akhaten

This post has been edited, tidied up and expanded to form part of my new ebook, TEN THINGS ABOUT WHO, available on Kindle. Buy it now for £1.99More details

1. Romanticism lives

For the second week in a row, the pre-credits sequence stands almost alone from the main story in presentational style, but which introduces the theme of the story. This week, it’s the value of memory. When Clara’s dad proposes to her mum, the story he tells of the leaf is of the miracle that small actions compounded to produce the one action that brought them together. And that’s mirrored in the pep talk that the Doctor gives to Merry, of how planet systems were born and died, ultimately producing the unique circumstance that created her.

2. It’s what they believe. It’s a nice story.

That story of the Doctor’s is, as he says, one Merry will not have heard, even though she has been imbued with her culture’s entire literary history – because it runs completely counter to their beliefs that all life in the universe started in Akhaten.

You could, if you concentrated very hard, find some sort of allegorical statement about the nobility, or futility, of faith in this story. If the never-ending lullaby has no effect on whether the vampire wakes or not, does it have any purpose? Or does it imbue the community with a sense of bonding that has no regard for the efficacy of their ceremonies?

Or maybe it does have purpose, after all. The ‘parasite god’ is clearly fed by the same psychometry that the rings’ residents treat as currency. As long as there is belief behind their actions, that presumably would provide sustenance for the parasite.

Ultimately, I think the world creation in Neil Cross’s script is so slight and sketchy that you could choose whatever allegory you wanted. For me, I would have preferred a stronger sense of what the writer intended.

3. A wretched hive of scum and villainy?

The initial scenes of myriad aliens draw immediate comparisons with the Mos Eisley Cantina sequence from Star Wars, with huge numbers of aliens wandering about. I’d also suggest that the comparison is based upon how several of the alien species appear to be little more than full-face masks. We’re so used to Neill Gorton’s monster designs being beautifully articulated creations, that when so many different species are introduced at once the budgetary shortcuts involved become visible.

There’s an obvious comparison to be had, I suppose, with Rose’s introduction to alien cultures in The End of the World. That story featured fewer races, but they were coupled with exotic names that added to their alienness. The Adherents of the Repeated Meme, Trees from the Forest of Cheem, Lady Cassandra O’Brien Dot Delta Seventeen – descriptors that purvey a sense of the different that builds upon the visual.

In contrast, I found the alien names that the Doctor reeled off to sound rather pedestrian. Panbabylonians? Please. And at least one, Hooloovoo, was cribbed from (or an homage to, if you prefer) Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the Hooloovoo were hyper-intelligent shades of the colour blue.

Having an alien called Dor’een was quite fun, though.

4. Translation circuits

And speaking of Dor’een, why is it that the TARDIS’ telepathic translation circuits – or Star Trek’s universal translators – ignore some languages?

5. “I don’t think it likes me”

When you get back to your car after a bit of shopping, but can’t open the door straight away, do you automatically assume it doesn’t like you? Or, like normal people, do you think that it’s simply locked?

Maybe it was intended as a clue that something is not quite right with Clara. But it did come across as a little uncharacteristically self-centred in a character which is anything but.

6. The gravity of the situation

“They wanted you to have this. Everyone you saved.”

Unfortunately, the destruction of the star at the heart of the Akhaten system is more likely to have condemned the rings’ residents to their deaths. Orbits – whether of planets, moons, satellites, asteroids, rings of rock and ice – are dependent upon the gravitational force between the object and the body around which it is orbiting. Take that centre of gravity away, remove the Jack’O Lantern at the heart of the system, and the Rings of Akhaten would surely slowly disperse.

7. Something precious

The Doctor claimed a couple of times that the only thing he carried that was of sentimental value was his sonic screwdriver. And yet, throughout the episode – more often than previously – he was wearing Amy’s reading glasses. They appeared so often that I thought there must be a point to them – but no, instead Clara was called upon to give up her mother’s ring. While that underlined the bond between mother and daughter, the pre-credits sequence – and Clara’s speech when offering up the leaf – did that just as well.

I do like the idea that emotion has notional – even, in the case of the parasite, nutritional – value, though. In my 2006 Doctor Who short story for Big Finish, Tell Me You Love Me, the emotional nutrition was more direct, but it’s a similar concept.

8. The Vigil

Our first glimpse of the masked, whispering trio of figures, cocking their heads to one side in unison, is wonderfully creepy. Unfortunately, it seems that there is little more to them than that initially arresting image.

9. So, this Festival of Offerings

There’s obviously something weird about Akhaten that allows the whole system to have breathable air. I mean, the singing between asteroids could have been something heard psychically, as in practicality the distance between Merry and the Chorister would be too far fro them to practically hear each other. But multiple moped trips between asteroids suggests that there is atmosphere between the two for the Doctor, Clara and Merry to be able to breathe.

Quite how Clara, Merry and the others watch the Doctor’s ‘conversation’ with the parasite in the star, though, is a mystery. He must have his back to them in order to face the sun – but that would mean that high wall behind him would obscure him from view from the other asteroid. I suspect that’s more of a practical consideration, minimising the amount of green screen work required. I would have thought that originally written, the Doctor would have been in much plainer sight, but that would require CGI backdrops in every shot, which would be phenomenally expensive.

Also, at the start of the episode the Doctor tells Clara that the Festival of Offerings takes place “every thousand years or so”. And yet both the rituals around the festival, and the apparent tourist trade, suggest that it’s more frequent than that. A little thing, maybe, but it just adds to the impression that the whole setup of the episode doesn’t seem particularly well thought through.

10. We don’t walk away

No, we don’t walk away. But when we’re holding on to something precious, we run. We run and run as fast as we can and we don’t stop running until we’re out from under the shadow.

The more you think about that, it doesn’t make much sense. And that’s the problem with this whole episode for me, I think. It wants to be about how sentiment and memory have power over us, but of how promise of the future is infinitely more effective. But for all its talk of heart and sentiment, it has precious little itself.

Still, next week: Nuclear submarines! Dive, dive, dive! And an Ice Warrior!

Ten Things About Who: The Bells of Saint John

This post has been edited, tidied up and expanded to form part of my new ebook, TEN THINGS ABOUT WHO, available on Kindle. Buy it now for £1.99More details

For new visitors: rather than episode reviews of Doctor Who, I pick ten points for discussion based on the episode. Enjoy – and if you agree or disagree, leave a comment!

1. The Bells of Saint John are…

…A device to keep the Doctor at arm’s length for a while – and as an episode title, to be engimatic by mentioning something which has nothing to do with the main plot of the episode.

Or does it? The “bells” bring the Doctor and Clara back in contact with each other again, and that is the whole point of the episode, after all.

2. The woman in the shop

Dangling thread alert. Just who was it that gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number? Has Martha dumped Mickey and started working at PC World?

And who gets an internet support number from a shop anyway?

These questions (well, maybe just the first one) may turn out to be important. At least we’re not being belted over the head with these sort of clues this time. It may come to naught, of course, but I think that both this and Strax’s mysterious rescusitator may have further roles to play…

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Some thoughts on the (lack of) women writers in Doctor Who

In response to a Guardian article on the lack of women writers in the current roster of Doctor Who authors, Jonathan Morris – who has written a number of novels, comics and audio dramas for the series – responded on his blog.

When tweeting a link to it, I called his piece “excellent” – which I do think it is, even though I have my disagreements with it. This is a discussion I feel needs to be happening in the open air, and I’m thankful that it is happening: but as in any discussion, you don’t invariably agree with everything that’s being said.

I tried commenting under Jonathan’s article, but Blogger was having none of it. So I thought I ought to reply here instead.

I broadly agree with Jonathan that the selection of writers should be solely about ability and quality and nothing else. Insisting that a lack of women writers in one field be immediately addressed – and bringing women writers in for no reason other than that they’re women – would be wrong for that reason.

But there’s always a difference between the ideal, and the actual.

If writers are solely chosen on the merits of the quality of their writing, and one of the BBC’s flagship brands – which makes a selling point of being an anthology show, with episodes by  individual writers who are given that credit in big letters in the opening titles – has had just one female writing credit in the last seven years, doesn’t it at least indicate that there may be some form of barrier, or barriers, at place(s) in the process of getting writers up to that standard?

I’m not suggesting those barriers are intentional, or even (necessarily) institutional. That other series have writing rosters that include more women than Doctor Who’s does show that genre telly isn’t solely the preserve of men.

But while saying “it’s the Doctor Who production team’s fault!” may be wrong, taking it to the other extreme of saying “a writer is a writer is a writer, so who cares that this or that series has only male writers” would equally be wrong. Not that I’m suggesting Jonathan’s stance is saying that, but hopefully you can see what I mean.

He’s absolutely right that any one show should be concentrating on getting the best possible writers for its show out of the pool of available talent. But heavy skews in one direction are worth noting, because it could – and, I think, does – indicate issues with the talent that is managing to get into that pool in the first place.

Revisiting Doctor Who: Partners in Crime

Imposing arbitrary limits on your own writing can be fun. Here’s an example, from a 2008 review of Doctor Who

Writing a review for Merrily We Roll Along in reverse (to match the narrative technique of the musical) earlier today was fun, even if I don’t think it really came off as well as it did in my head on the way home last night.

It was fun to try, though. Every so often, it’s useful to impose a strange limit on yourself as a way of shaking up how you write.

As an example, back in 2008 I reviewed the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who, Partners in Crime. The episode saw Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble, previously seen in Christmas special The Runaway Bride, rejoin the Doctor. A seemingly throwaway line about bees disappearing (a sci-fi spin on a real world problem) would turn out to have a greater significance nearer the end of the series. At the time, though, it spurred me to write the review using only 25 letters of the alphabet. And yes, that did mean that mention of Bernard Cribbins by name was out…

Originally published on The Stage’s website, it’s reproduced here in full.

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Ten Things About Who: The Snowmen

10 thoughts pertaining to the Christmas 2012 episode of Doctor Who, The Snowmen

This post has been edited, tidied up and expanded to form part of my new ebook, TEN THINGS ABOUT WHO, available on Kindle. Buy it now for £1.99More details

As I did with the last batch of episodes, I’m marking Doctor Who’s Christmas episode, The Snowmen, not with a review, but with ten thoughts. As usual, there are spoilers if you haven’t seen the episode.

1. “Clara Who?”

Having the Doctor ask this question is, on the face of it, a nice inversion of the “oldest question” – which Clara herself asks at the end of her glorious pre-credits introduction. But of course, by the end of the episode we are told her full name – and that’s where the mystery just begins to deepen.

Both Oswin and Clara are dead – is the glimpse of the woman we see at the very end of the episode our first sight of the genuine new companion? Or is she going to end up dying more often than Rory and South Park’s Kenny combined?

In Douglas Adams’ City of Death (penned under the pseudonym of David Agnew), the Doctor faces Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth. Splintered through time, the Doctor meets versions of his foe in Renaissance Italy and modern-day Paris, and finds documentary evidence of many others scattered throughout history. Is something similar happening here?

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Ten Things About Who: The Angels Take Manhattan

This post has been edited, tidied up and expanded to form part of my new ebook, TEN THINGS ABOUT WHO, available on Kindle. Buy it now for £1.99More details

And so it’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for. Oh, no, wait, that was another Doctor Who moment. Anyway, here are my weekly ten points about the last of this current batch of Doctor Who episodes.

1. Blink twice

Conceptually, this episode felt far more of a sequel to Blink than The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone did. It’s the third in a trilogy that, in essence, returns to the roots of the first: scary statues that send their victims back in time, rather than snapping their necks and speaking through them (cf. “Bob” in Time of Angels).

Which reminded me of this speech from Scream 3:

Because true trilogies are all about going back to the beginning and discovering something that wasn’t true from the get go. Godfather, Jedi, all revealed something that we thought was true that wasn’t true.

So if it is a trilogy you are dealing with, here are some super trilogy rules: 1. You got a killer who’s going to be super human. Stabbing him won’t work. Shooting him won’t work. Basically in the third one you gotta cryogenically freeze his head, decapitate him, or blow him up. 2. Anyone including the main character can die. This means you Syd. I’m sorry. It’s the final chapter. It could be fucking ‘Reservoir Dogs’ by the time this thing is through. Number 3. The past will come back to bite you in the ass. Whatever you think you know about the past, forget it.

2. Again, with the opening narration

Of the five episodes in this run, four have featured a voiceover either before or just after the opening credits (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship being an exception). It’s almost like it was planned. I suspect it’s more because it’s a convenient way to get some exposition out of the way – something that these “epic” stories just don’t have time for when crammed into a 45-minute running time.

I don’t mind it too much here, as it’s both a pastiche of the detective movie genre, and also a sign that the Doctor is reading aloud.

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Ten Things about Who: The Power of Three

Ten points of discussion raised by watching the Doctor Who episode The Power of Three by Chris Chibnall.

This post has been edited, tidied up and expanded to form part of my new ebook, TEN THINGS ABOUT WHO, available on Kindle. Buy it now for £1.99More details

I really liked this week’s episode of Doctor Who. The conclusion to the main threat was ever more perfunctory than usual, mind, but that didn’t overly detract from the beauty of the character studies involved. But on with this week’s Ten Things…

If you’ve missed previous ones, read my Ten Things About… Asylum of the Daleks, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and A Town Called Mercy.

1. Kate Stewart

When I saw the new head of UNIT’s full name listed in the latest Doctor Who Magazine, I knew that there would be a link to the organisation’s most famous member, Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart.

And here she is: the daughter of the man himself. And, in a fan-pleasing touch, it’s a character that has already previously appeared in Doctor Who, having appeared in Gary Russell’s novel The Scales of Injustice, which featured the Third Doctor, the Brigadier and Liz Shaw.

Jemma Redgrave is a worthy addition to the Doctor Who roll call, I think. I hope we see her again.

2. “Twitter!”

Of course the mysterious cubes would have several Twitter accounts set up within minutes. Even the “Essex Lion” had at least two. But I do long for the day when the positives about social media can be referenced, rather than being the butt of cheap jibes.

Still, at least Doctor Who is referencing social media correctly. It’s light years on from when, in Utopia, Jack and Martha’s sharing of anecdotes about the Doctor is wrongly chastised as “blogging”.

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Ten Things about Who: A Town Called Mercy

Ten observations about the Doctor Who episode, A Town Called Mercy

This post has been edited, tidied up and expanded to form part of my new ebook, TEN THINGS ABOUT WHO, available on Kindle. Buy it now for £1.99More details

Hard to believe we’re now more than halfway through the current run of Doctor Who. While the Christmas Special and a whole new batch of episodes in 2013 are part of the same series from the point of view of the production process, in viewer terms there will be an ending in just two weeks’ time.

1. Yes, Virginia, there were black people in the Old West

There were several people on Twitter suggesting that the presence of a black character in Mercy was unbelievable.

Tweets with replies by Kevin Wilson (@kevinWilson94) | Twitter

Tweets with replies by global village (@conor_cymex) | Twitter

https://twitter.com/JugadorSenna/statuses/247048242653716480

Unlikely, possibly, not not impossible. There were African American cowboys and soldiers throughout the period. While a black priest would certainly have been unusual, given the Marshal’s attitude to accepting people and giving them a second chance I’d say that Mercy may be more accepting than elsewhere.

2. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, but obviously not that many women

Apart from Amy, only one woman gets any on-screen lines. And even then, it’s just the one two (I thought her line in the bar was the only one, but rewatching it she pipes up in the night-time scene too).

3. And we’re not going to credit the one who did the narration

I’m not keen on narration generally. I think that if, as in A Town Called Mercy, a story is introduced by a a narrator, the story that unfolds needs to feel like it’s being told from the point of view of the same narrator throughout. Here, it’s just a framing device that adds little.

For all that, though, it’s criminal that the actress who delivered the narration – the wonderful Lorelei King – received no recognition in the closing credits.

4. A cyborg’s gotta do what a… oh, you get the idea

Quite how and why the cyborg couldn’t/wouldn’t enter Mercy in order to extract his target isn’t exactly clear. The circle around the town has great visual and storytelling potential, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of internal logic at play here. However, the final image of him standing guard on the mountaintop is a beautiful one.

5. A lonely god is something to fear

“Sometimes, I think you need someone to stop you.”

— Donna Noble, The Runaway Bride

The concept that the Doctor loses his humanity when he’s on his own for too long is a concept that dates back to Rose. When we first meet him, the Ninth Doctor is companionless, still traumatised from the Time War and makes suggestions throughout the series that hint at a non-human morality (willing to allow the Gelth to use human corpses in The Unquiet Dead, prepared to obliterate the last Dalek in Dalek).

The Christmas Invasion and The Waters of Mars – and, indeed, his judgement of Solomon in last week’s Dinosaurs on a Spaceship – also highlighted that, left to his own devices, the Doctor’s tendency to take on the role of judge, jury and (either directly or through deliberate inaction) executioner can get out of hand.

6. Me and you, and a horse named Sue

“Wah wah wah gay agenda wah wah wah” is pretty much how every complaint about the increased presence of non-straight people (and now, horses) in Doctor Who goes.

I expect someone will complain about Susan’s life choices being unsuitable material for a TV show with large numbers of children watching. If they do complain, they’ll be dicks, because:

  1. Children respect life choices far more easily than uptight grown-ups do anyway – unless and until they’re taught otherwise
  2. While us adults recognise the deeper issues of gender identity being touched upon, all the dialogue works at the level suitable for any audience. It’s called a “joke”.
  3. It’s. A. Bloody. Horse.

7. Again with the voice

Last week, I suggested that Mitchell and Webb’s bitchy robots didn’t quite work because their voices weren’t processed enough to sound like they emanated from the metal cases that were in the room.

I think the Cyborg in this week’s episode had the opposite problem: his voice was so processed that it never felt like anything other than post-production ADR.

8. Marshal Exposition

As the Marshal and Rory approached the cyborg bounty hunter, the Marshal told Rory the plan. Which, as Rory pointed out, he already knew.

Getting across information for the audience’s sake, when the characters onscreen already know the facts, is tricky. Toby Whithouse manages here by making a joke of the unnecessary exposition.

9. “Ma’am. And… Fella”

Speaking of Rory, poor Arthur Darvill. His character was more or less redundant this week. A Town Called Mercy had the feel of a Doctor-plus-one adventure. Still, next week’s trailer suggests that we’ll get to see a lot more of Rory. In more ways than one.

10. Dining with monsters

Finally, the ethical dilemma at the heart of this week’s episode – should a despicable war criminal be turned over to authorities that would, in all probability, execute them? – is a reminder of 2005’s Boom Town. Blon Felfotch Passameer Day Slitheen, aka “Margaret”, would be killed if the Doctor hands her over to the authorities on Raxacoricofallapatorius. In the end, the decision is taken out of his hands, as it is here.

While that, as here, leaves me feeling with a slight sense of anticlimax, at the same time it helps to not answer the question at the heart of the dilemma. What would we do in similar circumstances? What should we expect our government to do on our behalf? We may all have different opinions on that. At its best, drama asks difficult questions of us, and the worst thing it can do is provide pat answers.

Ten things about Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

This post has been edited, tidied up and expanded to form part of my new ebook, TEN THINGS ABOUT WHO, available on Kindle. Buy it now for £1.99More details

As with last week’s Asylum of the Daleks, rather than doing a straightforward review I’m listing ten points of note about this week’s Doctor Who episode, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.

1. “Run‽”

One of the reasons the eleventh Doctor is so unpredictable is that, even in the scenes where you know what he’s going to say, Matt Smith often chooses a line reading that throws a conventional line – like the oft-heard “Run!”, such at the end of this episode’s pre-credits sequence – into new areas.

Part question, part panic, part “off you go, while I stay here and find out what’s going on, even though I almost certainly know whatever it is could well kill me”, Smith’s delivery is one that needs not so much an interrobang at the end of it, as a whole panoply of punctuation marks.

2. Big game hunter

At first glance, Riddell doesn’t seem like the sort of man the Doctor would hang out with – dalliances with dancers and liquorice notwithstanding. The sort of man who lives on the plains of Africa killing wild animals, though – why would the Doctor befriend him?

The best answer is that he is another of the Doctor’s little projects, and is not necessarily a cold-blooded killer (any more). During the episode, his initial instinct to kill the encroaching dinosaurs comes from a sense of self-defence, and when fending off the raptors at the control room he goes for stun guns rather than applying lethal force.

I’d say that, while Riddell might present himself as a big game hunter, if anything it’s a bit of a front: he’s more likely to end up in Alan Quatermain-style scrapes, occasionally with a bow tie-clad lunatic at his side.

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