Ten Things About Who: Nightmare in Silver

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 we rapidly approach the end of this series, I’ve created an index page for all my Ten Things About… posts. And here are this week’s rambling musings about Neil Gaiman’s episode – which, far from being a nightmare, felt more like a bad dream brought on by a surfeit of cheese.

1. The Mechanical Turk

Did the concept of a ‘magical’ chess-playing automaton sound familiar to you? The Mechanical Turk, a life-size dummy built to impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. Just like the equivalent on Hedgewick’s World, the Turk was controlled by a human inside, whose presence was hidden away:

…if the back doors of the cabinet were open at the same time one could see through the machine. The other side of the cabinet did not house machinery; instead it contained a red cushion and some removable parts, as well as brass structures. This area was also designed to provide a clear line of vision through the machine.

For a more recent parallel, Big Finish’s 2011 audio drama The Silver Turk by Marc Platt features a similar machine which the Doctor identifies as a Cyberman. Continue reading “Ten Things About Who: Nightmare in Silver”

Ten Things About Who: The Crimson Horror

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. “Only the crumbliest, flakiest humans…”

The naming of Mrs Gillyflower’s match factory as ‘Sweetville’ invites comparison with Bournville, the community created by George and Richard Cadbury to house the workers and families of their chocolate factory when production moved out of Birmingham to a new greenfield site.

As it is, it is more a pastiche of the whole ‘model village’ movement, in which industrialists whose new, heavily industrialised factories constructed whole townships for the required large workforce and their families, on philanthropic lines infused by the owners’ Christian values. Bournville is, of course, one such community, formed by the Quaker Cadbury brothers. Sweetville’s Yorkshire location more closely invites comparison with Saltaire, founded by Sir Titus Salt and now a World Heritage site.

Mind you, I did for one moment wonder whether the fuchsia-coloured liquid that Sweetville’s inhabitants were being doused in was fondant, and that Mr Sweet would turn out to be The Kandyman from 1988’s The Happiness Patrol

2. Special stuff

Maybe it’s just the camp sendup of the gothic, maybe it’s the Yorkshire accents – but this week’s episode felt like it was a (family friendly) sibling to The League of Gentlemen. The mortuary attendant, with his leering tone and wandering tongue, could easily have been a Steve Pemberton creation.

Continue reading “Ten Things About Who: The Crimson Horror”

Ten Things About Who: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

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. The Van Baalen Brothers

If Tricky really thought he was an android, how did he explain a need for nutrition (and the resultant excretion)? But if the conceit about having been tricked into believing he’s robotic doesn’t really stand up from that angle, the clues are there: right from the beginning, his attitude to the plight of the Doctor and Clara – and of the TARDIS herself – is the most human of the three brothers’.

2. That’s some heavy polystyrene you’ve got there

Poor Jenna-Louise Coleman. It can’t be easy to have to wake up from a completely unconscious state, free yourself from under what is doubtless supposed to be extremely cumbersome masonry, leap to your feet and then brush yourself down in the space of about three seconds.

You can, apparently, just about manage it in the time allotted if you ensure that not a single step of that process looks genuine.

Continue reading “Ten Things About Who: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”

Ten Things About Who: Hide

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. The Baker Street Irregulars

Major Palmer is described by the Doctor as one of the “Baker Street Irregulars”, in this case indicating he was part of Churchill’s Special Operations Executive, which conducted espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance against Britain’s enemies. For more information, see the BBC’s history website.

Given his age in 1974, he must have been very young to send other operatives to their deaths during the war, as he states here.

2. You say Metebelis, I say Metebelis

The planet Metebelis Three, and the mind-focussing powers of its crystalline substances, formed vital plot points in 1973’s The Green Death and 1974’s Planet of the Spiders, making its first appearance in Doctor Who contemporaneous with the setting of this episode.

Of course, back then the Doctor pronounced it differently – MeteBEElis rather than, as here, MeTEBBelis. It does seem odd that the production team would include a deliberate back-reference to Classic Who and yet not pick up on the apparent discrepancy.

But then again, maybe it was the Third Doctor who got it wrong in the first place. Also in The Green Death, he mispronounced the word “chitin” as “CHITTIN”, rather than the correct “KITE-IN”. Which precipitated a famous letter to the production team of the day:

The reason I’m writin’
Is how to say “chitin”

Perhaps Matt Smith took elocution lessons from Siri? This is how Apple’s UK voice (based on Jon Briggs, voiceover artist for The Weakest Link and other shows) pronounces it.

Continue reading “Ten Things About Who: Hide”

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…

Continue reading “Ten Things About Who: Cold War”

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…

Continue reading “Ten Things About Who: The Bells of Saint John”

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.

Continue reading “Revisiting Doctor Who: Partners in Crime”

Here’s a Blue Peter presenter we made earlier

News has come in that CBBC series Blue Peter, which has made do with two presenters (Barney Harwood and Helen Skelton) since relocating to the department’s new Salford headquarters, is to go back to a trio of presenters.

In times gone by, recruiting would be done by means of a discreet casting notice in The Stage, or via other industry contacts. But now, as is the way of these things, it is to be cast by way of a reality show. So You Think You Can Be A Blue Peter Presenter (working title) will see competitors battle through a number of heats, before a final in which the winner will be chosen by the CBBC audience. According to the press release:

Double BAFTA-winning presenting team Dick and Dom will bring their much-loved mix of humour, energy and insights to the series, where they will be joined by a panel of judges. The judges will choose which Blue Peter hopefuls make it through each elimination stage, but they can’t influence the ultimate winner – that’s in the hands of the CBBC audience.

The CBBC team is involving the audience from the very start as well, offering them an opportunity, before filming starts, to go online and vote for one of the challenges that the Blue Peter hopefuls will have to rise to.

To be honest, I gave an inward groan when I heard this news – but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. It even makes me wonder why Blue Peter hasn’t gone down this route before.

BP has always been at the pioneering end of audience interactivity, long before ‘interactivity’ was even used in television circles. From the word go, children were encouraged to write in, whether it was appreciation for a feature that they had seen, pictures of their own ‘makes’, or even ideas for features that the production team would then put into practice.

In that context, it makes perfect sense for the children who have always been part of the show’s ethos to be let in on the audition process. If the shortlist has been selected well, unsuccessful candidates could well get some good exposure, and could expand the scope of CBBC presenter casting – so many shows seem to go to Dick and Dom, or Sam and Mark, when cultivating new talent should surely be one of the BBC’s goals.

And the person who wins will ensure that the new Blue Peter presenter is popular with the audience who will be watching them every week. And looking back at the list of presenters, there are several in each generation who a conventional casting process failed to notice weren’t quite right.

If you are interested in being considered as a Blue Peter presenter, you will need to email bppresentersearch@bbc.co.uk for details.

Why CBBC is my desert island channel