Saturday, August 23, 2014

Deep Breath


If you're new to this blog then I should explain that what follows isn't a review in the traditional sense. That would involve critical faculties. What this is is a collection of immediate reactions, thoughts, ideas and bees in bonnets that pop up following the episode I've watched. This blog will contain spoilers so if you've not seen the episode then go and watch it and then come back. You. Have. Been. Warned.

So Deep Breath launches the Capaldi era of Doctor Who and it seems that the story was designed to do a few things. To introduce us to an older Doctor and deal with the New Doctor Who audiences fears of the that older Doctor. Hence a lot of the conversations Clara gets involved in with either the Doctor or Vastra are aimed at us, which makes her decision to leave the TARDIS before being reassured by the Eleventh Doctor's phone call an plea to the audience: "Don't leave. It's still Doctor Who." In that sense it is quite different to a lot of new Doctor's first stories, which just assume we'll pick up with the new Doctor and run with it. We don't normally need this much reassurance. And in a way it's insulting to both us and Capaldi but perhaps I'm being harsh.

There's also a dig at us the audience. The whole 'I'm not your boyfriend/You might as well flirt with a mountain/He wanted you to like him' stuff is a criticism of our apparent need for a younger actor. Even though it was Steven Moffat that chose Matt Smith.

Then there's re-booting Clara. Now she's no longer 'The Impossible Girl' she needs to actually have a character and this story is designed to give her one. I'm not sure I've seen enough 'control freak' in Clara so far to justify the Doctor's accusations that she is one. Jenna Coleman's clearly a good actress so it would be nice to see her given more scenes like the one when she's confronted with the Big Bad. She gets to do the whole Sarah Jane Smith brave and scared at the same time trick rather well. It's a step forward.

It also seems to me that the Big Bad guy's 're-building' of himself is a shadow of regeneration. It shows how weird regeneration actually is. I mean this is a man with a new face for heaven's sake. The Big Bad guy is regenerating the slow way round. Piece by piece. Could you apply the Doctor's broom analogy to the Doctor himself?

There's also seed sowing for other things to come. First off, where does the Doctor get his faces from? Or any Time Lord for that matter. Is there a database of faces. A Facebook perhaps. (Sorry, I'll get my coat). The Doctor's face thing - like the Doctor's name - seems to be Steven Moffat's latest bee in the bonnet as a result of casting Capaldi but I did think some of the best lines came as a result of this. I especially liked "Who frowned this face" and "It's like I'm trying to tell myself something." The face is going to be a thing. Let's see where that goes.

Secondly, who is Missy and what's she up to. This being being New Doctor Who we need an big season long arc don't we. Sigh. Do we though. Do we? Perhaps we do. Or perhaps we could just have a run of adventures that are just fun. Without the need for us to see how clever Steven Moffat is. In the end though we should judge the arc on its quality. If it turns out to be good then...good. If it turns out to be bad then can we stop and do something else instead.

Quick diversion: title sequence and theme tune. Loved the new title sequence. Hate the theme tune, which sounds like it was played on a weird combination of elastic bands, bells and kazoo. The new series has never cracked the theme tune in my opinion but perhaps one day they will.

What of Capaldi himself? I think he's great. He has an edge that Tenant and Smith didn't have. It's not darkness I don't think. It's just a sharpness. A lack of botherdness about how people see him, which I like. He's able to do both the comedy and the darker stuff. I like the fact that we're left to decide for ourselves whether the Doctor threw the Big Bad to his doom or whether it was self-destruction but this isn't the Sixth Doctor. The last scenes give us a vulnerability to this new Doctor underneath his crusty exterior. So yes, I'm happy with Capaldi.

Oh and do we really need all the hilarious Scottish stuff. The Doctor's been Scottish before and didn't seem to think it was a big deal. But then the showrunner then wasn't Scottish. RTDs gay agenda* has been replaced with a Scottish agenda.** Damn that McMoffat chap.

I'm less happy with what's happening with Vastra/Jenny and Strax. All three are brilliantly performed but Strax has become only comic relief. I'd like him to have a bit more edge. I really wish Steven Moffat would have had the courage to give Vastra and Jenny a proper kiss without having to give them a 'breath' excuse. It's just a loss of bottle. The Paternoster Gang are great when used properly but not when they're just there to provide some exotic sexual background and dumb comedy. Use them better Mr. Moffat. Use them better.

So after all that rambling I should say that I enjoyed it a lot but there's a lot of quibbles. It's lifted by the brilliance of Capaldi and it's excellent design. Doctor Who looks great these days, although Strax's disappearing bucket seemed to skip someone's attention in the edit.***

More Capaldi please.

* There was no gay agenda.
**There isn't a Scottish agenda either
***Or it'll turn out to be a key thing in the forthcoming story arc. The Bucket of Rassilon. Or something. [It won't.]

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Purely Personal Top Ten Doctor Who Stories (Classic)

I thought, whilst this blog is at a loose end, the time had come for a Patient Centurion Top Ten Doctor Who stories. This is, of course, a temporary Top Ten. Ask me again in a month and it will probably change but nevertheless here goes...

Oh and there in no particular order of Top Ten-ness. I've chosen them on the basis of...well...I'll explain...



The Web Planet: I know. I can hear all your whinging now. It's so slow. It's direction is so slipshod. But you know I don't bloody care. I love it's vaulting ambition. It's attempt to show an utterly alien world on a budget that can barely cover the cost of a single moth costume. I love this period in the Hartnell era when the Doctor Who production team kept trying everything. Some things work. Some things don't. And I still maintain that there's a couple of moments in it that are among the most horrible and heart-breaking in the series history. Honestly it's a magnificent effort. It doesn't all work but I love it anyway.

The Gunfighters: Once head of the cavalcade of the unloved in Doctor Who terms this is actually rather wonderful. Hartnell's wonderful in it. There's some comedy accents. It's tone shifts rather dramatically when Johnny Ringo arrives. It's historically inaccurate and it has a song. A chorus rising above the action. That's I suspect because the writer had recently seen Cat Ballou. It's a fine parody of television and film westerns. But really it is worth watching for Hartnell's comic timing. Just don't take it too seriously.

The War Games: Ten episodes long. Ten. It shouldn't keep us glued to our seats but it does. Yes, there's lots of escaping, getting captured and escaping again but it is done with such panache that how can you not love it. Really. It's majestic. Troughton ends his time as The Doctor on a high note. Jamie and Zoe get possibly the saddest departure of any companions ever. We finally meet the Time Lords. And the scene where the Doctor and The War Chief set eyes on each other for the first time - and in an instant recognise each other - is rather brilliant. The Troughton era suffers from a lot of missing stories, which is a shame for a lot of reasons but mostly because it deprives us of Troughton himself.

Invasion of the Dinosaurs: If you can ignore the rather dodgy T-Rex - which is the worst of the dinosaurs by miles - this is all rather brilliant, even if the whole thing seems to be a massive grandfather paradox waiting to happen. It's got a deserted London, it's got UNIT, it's got Sarah Jane, it's got Pertwee at his most majestic and it's got Captain Yates, whose story is perhaps the most complicated of any 'companion' in the series history. It's a story arc before Doctor Who was supposed to do story arcs. It manages to feel epic despite the short-comings of budgets and effects.

Horror of Fang Rock: I could pick lots of Tom Baker but this is the first one I remember with absolute clarity as a child. It's the first one that I can remember being genuinely frightened of and it is still rather wonderful now. It's claustrophobic, relentless and dark. Everyone - almost - dies. It's got Louise Jameson as Leela in a rather fetching wooly jumper*. Tom is brilliant. It has some fine lines in it and it is still rather creepy. Age has not - quite - withered it. Definitely a story for winter's evenings.



The Horns of Nimon: This is where I will lose a lot of people. I can hear the tutting from here. But I don't care a jot. This is my comfort Doctor Who. The story I reach for to cheer me up on those horrible days when nothing seems to go right. I'll admit now that I have a soft spot for all of Season Seventeen. That might be nostalgia but I love the Fourth Doctor - Romana combination, even if they are dangerous close to be too smart-arsey for their own good. I like K9. I like Graham Crowden's mad, mad Soldeed. I find it utterly joyful to watch from the first 'weakling scum' to the very end. How any Nimon have you seen today?

Kinda: Utterly unlike most other Doctor Who stories this is all a little weird. Too weird for some people but I love it. I love the fact that it has layers. I like the fact that Janet Fielding gets to be more than just a walking Aussie whinge - at least for a bit. I like Simon Rouse's performance. I love Nerys Hughes understated Todd. I love Richard Todd's appearance as a sort of representative of a England lost in the mist and is the perfect actor for the bumbling colonial chap. It's a story you can watch over and over again. A story to get lost inside. Just be careful you don't find the Mara inside.

Vengeance on Varos: The Colin Baker era gets a constant kicking. It's usually the butt of jokes. And yes, it has its problems. The Sixth Doctor's costume is ridiculous, he stays dark and unsympathetic for too long - something that must surely weigh upon Moffat as he plots a darker, less sympathetic Capaldi incarnation - and there's just not enough joy to out-weigh the death and bleakness in some of the stories. This story has moments where the Doctor isn't behaving as the Doctor should - or the version of the Doctor in our heads - but it is still rather well-written and directed. Writer Philip Martin wrote the marvellous Gangsters, which I recommend to your perusal - and plays with the fourth wall here a little too. Add Nabil Shaban's memorable Sil and you've got a winner.

Remembrance of the Daleks: Anyone who thinks Sylvester McCoy isn't a good Doctor should be strapped to a seat and made to watch this. Over and over again. This is a real tour-de-force and I remember this as the story that restored my shaken faith in Doctor Who after Season Twenty-Four (which in retrospect has more positive moments than I felt it did at the time.) It's well-acted, well-directed and well-written. This is the moment Ace and the Seventh Doctor establish themselves up there with Leela and the Fourth Doctor and Romana II and the Fourth Doctor as my favourite Doctor/Companion pairings** It really is better than it probably had any right to be at this point. If you've not seen it you really should stop reading this immediately and go and watch it. Go on.



The Happiness Patrol: I love this story. For similar reasons to why I love The Web Planet. Only Doctor Who could - or would - do this kind of thing. Only Doctor Who would make such a wonderful parable on the wonders of melancholy and what it means to be a minority in a tiny studio with pink wigs and a villain that looks not unlike a certain Bertie Bassett. People get rather sniffy about this story. It's too obviously sets. Of course it is. Terra Alpha is a Potemkin Village writ large. It looks artificial because it is artificial. Terra Alpha is an illusion. It's the creation of a woman who tried to do the right thing but couldn't understand why her people weren't happy with this right thing. It's pink and fluffy and all rather lovely.

There you go. That's my ten.

I'm sure you'll viciously disagree with some - or all - of my choices. You'd be wrong of course. My life in Doctor Who fandom has taught me that however bad a story is seen to be by fan consensus it is always someone's favourite. And however brilliant a story is there's always someone out there that hates it. Sometimes to a baffling degree of rage.

That's another of the fun bits of being a Doctor Who fan.

Be seeing you.


*I may have become obsessed with Louise Jameson in knitware since watching The Omega Factor
**Companion-Doctor favourites is a blog for another day.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Fun Stuff

Picture From Dorkly's 12 Types of Doctor Who Fan

I've been a Doctor Who fan for a long time and there has never been a better time to be a Doctor Who fan. The show is popular, possibly more popular than it has ever been, and it has a genuine global reach. There's enough merchandise out there to sink a battleship. You can watch it any time you like in a myriad of formats. There are websites and podcasts. You can interact with fellow fans on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and even in the real world. Being a Doctor Who fan is acceptable. We're fans of one of the most popular shows on British television. The Doctor is one of the few genuinely mythological characters created by television whose existence passes beyond just television.

It's great.

And I have to remind myself of this periodically because I remember being a Doctor Who fan in the dark days. When watching Doctor Who was like raging against the dying of the light. When 'it's not as good as it used to be' was regularly repeated like a mantra by Doctor Who fans and non-Doctor Who fans alike. When being a Doctor Who fan made you an acceptable target not just for ridicule but actual bullying at school. [As an example of how this worked watch the conversation between Paul Cornell and Dr Matthew Sweet in the latter's excellent Culture Show Doctor Who Special. If you can find it. That, my friends, is what it could be like at its worst]. 

Mostly, of course, it was mockery or bafflement that you were on the receiving end of, which are still quite common even today. If I had a pound for every time someone said "Yeah, but it's a kids show", I'd have £3,966. 

I was lucky. I never cared about how people felt about my Doctor Who obsessions to the point of being belligerently upfront about it. But I can understand why some Classic Doctor Who fans can come across as overly defensive and angry at new fans. The atmosphere in the tale end of Classic Doctor Who within fandom could be poisonousness. We learnt our debating styles when things were ugly (and very, very male). That doesn't excuse shitty behaviour but it does explain it a little.

Me, I always hung on to the joy that Doctor Who bought (and brings) me. It is still one of the few things that can make me deliriously and childishly happy. I watch every episode as two versions of me. The one is the now me. The bitter, cynical 43 year old git who is archly critical and capable of spotting a continuity error at a thousand yards. The other is the 11 year old me. Fresh-faced, excited and just in it for the FUN. He's the one that doesn't care about dodgy special effects, gaping plot holes, UNIT dating controversies or any of that kind of stuff. He just wants to escape. Sometimes the 43 year old me wins but mostly the 11 year old me does. 

And I try to hang on to that feeling because it is easily lost in all the criticism and cynicism and shear bloody smart-arsery of the modern 24/7 online culture.  We sometimes forget amongst all the words and noise to just have fun.

Doctor Who has never been more popular. It's never been more accessible in either Classic or New Who form (and I'm not going to rant on here about how much I hate the artificial seperation of Classic and New Who, even though I've fallen into the trap of using them myself all the bloody time).

It's fun being a Doctor Who fan now more than ever. Let's not lose that.

  

Friday, August 8, 2014

Telling Different Stories


So, I've been thinking about the 'Great White Saviour' that is the Doctor, although I usually don't think of him quite like that. There's a couple of reasons for that. Firstly Doctor Who is just a television programme so why would I think that deeply about the central character. [Yes, I know but imagine I am writing this as someone else who doesn't actually do that kind of thing.] Secondly it is embarrassing to admit that as a white, middle-class, straight man of a certain age I try to avoid thinking about the more 'old-school' aspects of the Doctor. Thirdly - and I apologise for coming over all Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition here - the Doctor's alienness seems to provide an excuse for excluding him from tedious Earth-bound questions about gender and race. He's from Gallifrey after all.

I blame the Verity Podcast for getting me thinking about this again. Having a voice outside my own head with experiences unlike my own and therefore perceptions of a different kind makes you think. And I hate questioning my own ways of privileges. 

Anyway...let's put a line of thought together. Let's assume Gallifreyans have a flexible approach to skin colour and sex. Let's assume that a Time Lord can be male in one incarnation and female in the next. Let's not get too hung up for the moment on how that affects sexual relationships.* And let us assume that your first incarnation is pretty much a lottery, although with a tendency towards the Caucasian - if stories set on Gallifrey are anything to go by.**

Tilda Swinton - Perfect for The Doctor?


So The Doctor's first incarnation is - by fluke - a white male. He ends up spending a lot of time on Earth. He likes it and it so happens that being a white man seems to be a pretty safe thing to be in most periods of Earth's history. So when he regenerates he sticks with the white male outfit. After all being white and male avoids a lot of tricky questions most of the time. (Lewis CK, the American comedian has an amusing routine along a similar line). Therefore the Doctor is a white male most of the time out of convenience.

There. I have provided a semi-logical reason for the Doctor's perpetual white maleness.

Now, let's step back into the real world - or what passes for the real world. What if we were to cast a black actor as the Doctor or a woman? I have no strong opinions on this any more. I did once. I think I might have got over it. But let's assume they do. 

We immediately have a potentially very different television series. Not just because we've got a different Doctor but because we now have a political issue to deal with. Does the production team ignore the change - except to make one or two jokes about it - or do we confront a genuine issues: power and who has it. In any Earth based story set in either the present or past does the production team behave as people are colour or gender blind to the Doctor's appearance (as they kind of did with Martha in the Shakespeare Code) or do we confront this head on?

What if a Black Doctor found himself in the US during the Civil War? How would the powerful of - most - eras of Earth history react to female Doctor? Would the silencing of the non-white and the non-male be reflected in the stories? The Doctor's opinions dismissed because of his colour or her sex? Does every story require the new Doctor to do something impressive to emphasise his or her credentials in order to get over this problem or does it become a running issue? Does Doctor Who confront these things or gloss over them?

It's a big question. 

The 13th Doctor?

Personally I'd love Doctor Who to get its teeth into these issues if we still have time for tea-time adventure. These issues can be tackled without being tediously politically correct or dull. The key is always the power of the story. And I'd prefer that to ignoring it all together.

I don't know whether these things will ever happen. It does seem more likely we'll get a black or asian Doctor before we get a female Doctor. But even that step - as I hope I've outlined - brings with it political decisions. It's wouldn't - couldn't? - be business as usual. The world doesn't give an equal hearing to people of colour or women (without a fight) and to pretend otherwise might be a grievous fault.  

It would though be an interesting choice. And a chance perhaps to tell some different stories. 



*For theories on the sex lives of Gallifreyans I think another blog would be required. Well, not required as such. 

**Although perhaps this all white male thing is a phase Gallifreyans are going through at the time, like a fashion. Even it does appear to have lasted a bloody long time.