Sunday, 14 September 2014

Listen



Listen draws heavily on all the Moffat tropes that we have become very used to; frightened children, characters meeting other characters as children, sitcom dating and monsters that exist beyond the boundaries of human perception. Nevertheless, despite the familiarity of these tropes, the finished product is something that comes across as quite surprising. Arguably it's not bad television, but I do not very much like it at all myself.

The episode begins with the Doctor speculating about whether unseen beings might be listening to him. He engages in some very illogical, if intuitive, thinking. His thoughts that there might be things listening to him when he speaks alone come across to me as rather childish. I'd like to think that Dr. Who had something more intelligent to say.

Everybody has the same nightmare? I can't remember ever having a nightmare about something scary being under my bed. My nightmares have involved things happening to me within the dream, rather than things located in my bedroom. Perhaps when I was younger I might have been afraid of unknown terrors being in my room or in the house, but being aware that I was in bed, these were not nightmares as such. Maybe this is just semantics and the Doctor is not talking about nightmares, but about nightime fears in general. It seems a bit clumsy though.

Once again, Moffat follows the odd reasoning that because Doctor Who is a program for children, it should feature children and deal directly with chidhood fears. I think this probably puts off a lot of young viewers. Children are not generally interested in watching other children, unless it is a child they want to indentify with. Children will enjoy watching a child going off and having adventures, doing the things they would like to do themselves. They are less likely to enjoy watching a child who is afraid of the dark, which will either remind them of their own fears or else be considered a bit wet. I rather think the show has lost something with the current policy of only having adult companions in their twenties. Why can't we have a teenage companion like we had in the Sixties?

We get a glimpse of the Doctor's childhood. It's an odd sequence. It doesen't really fit with anything we have previously been told about the Doctor's childhood. The couple talking about him don't seem much like Lance Parkin's Ulysses and Penelope. But I'm not going to wrestle with the continuity questions, as I don't consider the New Series to be canon.

It is nice to get a reference to the Hartnell era in this story with the line 'fear makes companions of us all,' but I can't help feeling that line is reduced here to mawkish sentimentality. The point of that line was that in that story, the Doctor and Ian and Barbara were effectively enemies. Dr. Who was a dangerous figure who kidnapped people, yet circumstances meant he had to form an alliance with the people he had kidnapped.

This kind of story rests on the assumption that Doctor Who is all about terrors entering the domestic space. Moffat takes the whole idea of 'Yeti in the loo' to the next level. A lot of people see Doctor Who that way, but I don't. It's an idea about Doctor Who that is a far cry from the show in the Sixties, in which the Doctor and his companions went to places and had adventures. Stories of this kind, which focus on domestic terrors usually at least offer some kind of monster. This does not offer one at all. It is not even certain that the thing in Rupert's bedroom really is an entity at all and not just some psychological manifestation. This is simply a story about fear itself. That might be an interesting idea, but as a Doctor Who story feels rather unrewarding and falls a little flat. This feels far too introspective a story.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Shakedown, by Terrance Dicks (Virgin New Adventure)



Shakedown, originally a Virgin New Adventure, was republished by BBC Books as part of a series of novels called 'The Monster Collection.' These all featured images of New Series monsters on the cover art. Having a New Series Sontaran on the cover is fine with me, though the New Series Eocene on the cover of the newly repuglished Scales of Injustice seemed a bit weird. Nevertheless, I was glad to see Virgin novels being republished by BBC books. I was disappointed that the Remembrance of the Daleks novelisation rather than a New Adventure was re-released as the represenative Seventh Doctor novel. That said, the New Adventures were not really about reviving famous monsters, they were about doing new and exciting things with Doctor Who.

Shakedown began life as a fan made video production, featuring the Sontarans, but not the Doctor. It was scripted by Terrance Dicks, apparently for a very minimal fee. Terrance Dicks was later approached by Virgin, who wanted him to adapt it as a novel featuring the Doctor. Instead of changing the story of Shakedown to include the Doctor, Dicks did something rather more interesting. He wrote a basic novelisation of Shakedown, then included this as the middle section of a longer novel. This novel created a literary backstory for the fan movie. This involved the Doctor and his companions pursuing a Rutan spy.

Shakedown is written in that minimalistic, unfancy prose which characterised Terrance Dicks' novelisations. The middle section, based on the fan movie, is very reminiscent of his Target novels. However, it also draws on his Virgin novels too, with the playfulness and the endless references to other Doctor Who storie, especially Uncel Terry's own scripts. And with it being a Terrance Dicks, a female character inevitably gets threatened with rape.

As with some of his other novels, Dicks tends to make the Seventh Doctor seem more like Pertwee than McCoy, though he gets Bernice, Chris and Roz spot on. The Sontarans were portrayed more sympathetically here than in the Classic Series, one can see the emergence of the friendly Sontarans of the New Series. I was rather glad to see the Rutans getting a bit more attention here. I think they are a great monster.

There is some great world-buiding here, especially the planet of insectoid Oxford dons. Likewise, Dick's portrayal of the corrupt and anarchic Megacity has a cynicism to match the late Robert Holmes. The most striking character we are introdued to is the Ogron police chief, a polite and educated Ogron, who sips tea and eats cakes. Before we can applaud Dicks for breaking stereoypes, it turns out that this Ogron has been surgically altered. This is rather disappointing. Dicks just assumes Ogrons are all dumb because they conform to racially suspect stereotypes. Wouldn't it have been nice if Dicks had given us an Ogron who really did fail to conform to the cliche (without having been 'civilized' by surgery)? But we can hardly expect Uncle Terry to be progressive.

This is a fun novel with plenty of action. Readers who have grown up with Terrance Dicks' Target novels will very much enjoy this.



Sunday, 7 September 2014

Robot of Sherwood



I generally find Mark Gatiss' stories unbearably awful, so I was not looking forward to this. It turned out to be rather better than I expected. Much of the strength of the story lies in Tom Riley's delightful performance as Robin Hood, effectively managing to rival Capaldi's Dr. Who as the leading man.

A colleague of mine offered his opinions to me about the new Doctor. He said he thought there was too much of a tension between the attempt to make the Doctor more serious and a continuing tendency to make the Doctor very quirky and funny. I think he is largely correct. Robot of Sherwood seems to attempt to address this, by putting the Capaldi's grim and dour Doctor next to a character who is flippant and jokey.

Mark Gatiss' preferred genre is the celebrity theme park historical. He seems to place with this here by having the Doctor suspicious of just how much this Robin Hood conforms to genre. I ended up feeling slightly disappointed when Robin turned out to be the real thing. The story had set up the idea of a false Robin and then given us a real one. I think this was trying too hard to be clever. If you want to put Dr. Who in an Eroll Flyn type Robin Hood adventure, just do it. You don't need to lampshade it. Of course, I'm not sure how familiar this old fashioned picture of Robin Hood will be to younger viewers. For them Prince of Thieves seems as ancient as Casablanca.

On the whole this is a rather dull story. Like any New Series pseudo-historical, there is some alien mucking about who gets sorted out very easily by Dr. Who. The alien robots here are developed enough to be interesting, though it is implied they might be connected to the robots in Deep Breath.

I was not quite convinced by Clara's scene with the Sheriff. The way she was pumping him for information seemed just a bit too obvious. His line about "First Nottingham.." was good though.

Having a short Little John is not funny. The whole point about the character is the irony of him being big.

Robot of Sherwood manages to be fun, but that is more down to the strength of the performances than the quality of the writing.



Thursday, 4 September 2014

Galaxy Four (revisited)



I reviewed Galaxy Four quite a long time ago, but having watched the rediscovered episode three and the new reconstrution on the Aztecs DVD, I thought I ought to write something about it.

The reconstruction on the DVD is very impressive, despite the scarcity of material. It's better than the Loose Canon recon and better than many other recons with far more available photographic material.

I am struck how much this is a story aimed at the kids. Not in the way that today's show aims stuff at children, with dumb laughs and non-stop action, but with a simple plot and simple morals. As I said in my previous review, there is an element of fairytale (not the Disney or Moffat style) in these Hartnell stories.

The recovered episode demonstrates that Stephanie Bidmead's performance as Maaga is less than impressive. As Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood say, she comes across as a "slightly irked school dinner lady," rather than a villain with true menace.

I think the Drahvins are a future offshoot of humanity. Maaga strongly imples that she (unlike her soldiers) is human. That means that this story, like a number of other Hartnell stories is set far into the future. For some reason, the First Doctor seems to end up in the far, far future far more often than his later incarnations.

I think this story would have worked well as a Graham Williams era story. Romana would have been able to fight Maaga, K9 could make Computer Love to the Chumblies and Tom Baker's Doctor would have been completely dismissive of the whole story. Quite a few Graham Williams stories feel like send-ups of the Hartnell era.

I still feel very sorry for the Drahvins who are left to perish with the dying planet. I wish Dr. Who could have found a way to save them.





Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Romana I Demotivator



Mary Tamm, we miss you.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

(Into the) Dalek




Non-British viewers may not be aware that soldiers teaching in schools has a political context. The present government went through a phase of trying to re-train military personnel as school teachers. A large part of the logic behind this was the idea that boys just need tough male rolemodels to look up to. This idea is nonsense; boys don't see male teachers as rolemodels, they hate their guts because they are invariably stricter and meaner than female teachers. There was a former army captain teaching at my school. If pupils got on his wrong side, he would take them outside and shout and scream at them. I liked him, but most of the pupils hated him. Our government even floated the idea of having entire schools run by ex-soldiers. These would be particularly aimed at naughty kids who couldn't be handled by other schools. The idea was absurd. Even if they recruited enough ex-soldiers (leaving aside the potential indirect sex discrimination in recruiting from a source that is predominantly male), it would never have worked. Right-wing people like to imagine that parade ground orders are going to straighten out unruly boys, but the reality is that a lot of kids today would just tell the ex-sergeant to fuck off, if not punch him. And what could the poor veteran do? He can't punch them back or send them to our military prison in Colchester.

But enough about soldiers for the moment.

Like the previous story, there is not much for the kids in this one. This continues the dark and adult tone. Peter Capaldi is showing himself to be a pretty ruthless and grim Dr. Who. I still find myself struggling at times to understand what he is saying. Am I really the only one having this problem?

This story is a typical attempt to do a story that feels like a classic series story, complete with a Famous Monster. It does a better job of this than Cold War or Victory of the Daleks, but on the whole it feels a bit unoriginal and uninspiring. It seems to follow Dalek rather too closely (as did Cold War), though with a strong dose of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. The idea of a good Dalek is nothing new and can be traced back to Evil of the Daleks, a story that was followed up in the 8th Docctor comics. Star Trek fans will also be reminded of a certain story about Borg.

I don't think the Daleks work any more in Doctor Who. We're continually told that they are the most evil creatures in the universe and that they are Dr. Who's worst enemy, but we never quite see this backed up. It's all show and no tell. The visual expectations of television today make it impossible to do the kinds of stories that would really show the evil of the Daleks on a feasible budget.

As Phil Sandifer has said in his review, Dr. Who's question "Am I a good man?" is a bit unearned. At the start of this episode, the viewer has not seen enough of the Capaldi Doctor to form any kind of judgement.

Danny Pink could be an interesting character, but his crying looks really false and unconvincing. Real crying generally does not look nearly that dignified, especially from people going through mental anguish.

I don't very much like the way soldiers are being talked about as a particular kind of human being. Of course, military experience can radically change a person's outlook and behaviour, nevertheless there are some countries where everyone has been a soldier as a result of compulsory military service. We still have a generation alive who went through the horrors of a world war. Warfare has been a universal constant of human existence and a large proportion of the human race has just got on with the business of war and fighting. Soldiers are people like you and me, not some kind of weird alien beings.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Deep Breath



Another season of Moffat-produced Doctor Who and we are back in boredom-land again. Well, not quite. This time we have a new Dr. Who. And what's more, the story is not too bad. Like an elderly couple describing their holiday, I would say Deep Breath is not too bad.

As with every post-regeneration story since Castrovalva, Dr. Who goes through a period of instability and erratic behaviour. This has become a cliche uniting both the classic series and the new series. It's a tiresome one, as Power of the Daleks and Robot established the character of their new Doctors by bringing them straight into the action of the story. Deep Breath is less a story introducing the new Dr. Who and more a story about how Clara comes to accept the change.

So what are we to make of the Capaldi Doctor? Time and the Rani told us little about what the Seventh Doctor would be like and likewise, Deep Breath only partially establishes the characterisation of the Capaldi Doctor. What is most notable is how unsurprising Capaldi's performance and character portrayal was. The new Doctor is everything we expected, still funny, but a little more serious, a bit grumpier and a little bit angsty. No doubt this will be refined and developed as we go through the season. I did struggle at times to hear some of Capaldi's lines clearly. I'm not sure if that was down to his Scottish accent or the typically poor BBC sound quality.

I don't think we really needed comments in the dialogue about the new Dr. Who being Scottish. Previous Doctors never had lines commenting on their Englishness; it was just taken for granted. When we finally get a black Doctor, that will be the way to play it; not to comment on his ethnicity but to just have it accepted by everyone.


One of the things Moffat had promised in interviews was no more flirting between Doctor and companion. There is an attempt to make good on this promise with Dr. Who declaring "I'm not your boyfriend." Yet oddly enough, despite a bit of flirting, there was never all that much sexual tension between the Smith Doctor and Clara. Now that Capaldi has replaced Smith, the sexual tension has actually gone up by 100% and this may makes things rather uncomfortable. Despite being an older man, Capaldi is an actor who is inevitably going to come across as a lot more red-blooded than the rather awkward Matt Smith. He is never going to be a cosy middle-aged eunuch like the Seventh Doctor or a fey and unworldly young man like the Davison Doctor. He has the potential to be as sexy as Tennant. With his being older, suddenly we have a very big problem with Susan, to borrow Phil Sandifer's expression.


I groaned when I heard we would get another story set in the Victorian era. Given the frequency of this setting, it seems there were aliens on every street corner in the late 1800s. This setting brings with it all the tiresome old Cool Victoriana tropes that have been done to death; steampunk, useless cockney coppers, private detectives, gawking passers by, grisly murders as a beggars as a colourful backdrop. Jack Graham on Shabogan Graffiti has some insightful comments on the politics of these tropes. They inevitably serve up a particular ideological reading of history. You might expect a Tory like me to admire the Victorian era, but I doubt that writers like Moffat who deliver all these Cool Victoriana tropes are deliberately setting out to write right-ing propoganda. Yet the presentation of the Victorian era in fiction has clear implications about class, race and sexual politics.

Was there any point to the Dinosaur in this story? It only served to provide a self-congratulatory note of "We did a better job than Invasion of the Dinosaurs." The Dinosaur was horribly sentimentalised by Dr. Who and the other characters. One should not be cruel to animals, but talking about it as though it was a sentient being panders is rather mawkish.


There is a definite darkness of tone to this story. It all feels very adult, with very little, other than the Dinosaur, thrown in for the kids. That can sometimes work, but I'm not sure that Doctor Who as a show can maintain that kind of darkness for long.


No doubt the appearance of Missy at the end will fuel a course of "Is it the Rani/ Romana/ a female Master?" but she will no doubt turn out to be a throwaway character like Kovarian. This is a sure sign that Moffat is up to his old tricks and about to foist on us a season arc that promises mystery but turns out to be hollow.



Shabogan Graffiti: Pyramids of London ('Deep Breath' 1)

Shabogan Graffiti: Pyramids of London ('Deep Breath' 1):

Strax, you see, is essentially a funny foreigner.  You know, with his allegedly hilarious misunderstandings and all that stuff.  Moffat evidently imagines that Strax's misunderstandings are a rich and continuing source of humour, since he stops the plot of 'Deep Breath' for a few minutes so that he can (once again) run through all the same Strax jokes he's already done several hundred times in other episodes.  (This, by the way, is another way in which Strax resembles a character from 'Allo 'Allo - he is the same joke, repeated endlessly, over and over again, with the laugh demanded - upon recitation of a well-known catchphrase - from an audience supposedly trained via pavlovian technique.  If you object to my singling out 'Allo 'Allo here then, really, I agree with you.  How about we use Little Britain as our example instead?) 
.....................................................................................................................................................................

 But here we run into yet another twist in the story... because this alignment of the other with 'us' is worrying in itself.  This recurring team - Vastra, Jenny and Strax - worries me.  It represents the reconciliation of the antagonist with 'us'.  They don't just live with humans, they live in Victorian London, and this seems to me to be the most blatant possible way of integrating them into a kind of aggressively middle-class, twee, cutesy, ostensibly lovable, yet aggressive and insular and ressentimental Britishness, a Britishness at its most iconically imperialistic and hierarchical.  Victoriana is the heavy drapes and elaborate dresses and cravats and top hats of the middle-classes.  Victoriana is the coughing, shivering, gin-swilling street poor as an essential background decoration, a set of tropes to locate us.  Victoriana is brown derby-wearing police inspectors (probably called Lestrade) who consult toff private detectives because, being working class, they're too thick to do their jobs themselves (the implicit goodness and necessity of the police is never questioned in Victoriana - something that wasn't true amongst common people in actual Victorian London, who often saw the bobbies as incompetents at best, violent spies at worst).  Victoriana is empire as backdrop.  Queen and country.  Big Ben.  Smog, gaslight, cobbles, hansom cabs, etc etc etc.  This is the milieu that Vastra, Jenny and Strax have assimilated themselves into.  Vastra even challenges the bad guys "in the name of the British Empire!"

Jack Graham's politics is pretty far from mine, but I just love the way he puts things. I admire the Victorian era in some ways, but on the whole the Cool Victoriana trope really annoys me.

Gallifrey Exile: Parody Review: The Nerdist on "Deep Breath"

Gallifrey Exile: Parody Review: The Nerdist on "Deep Breath": The Following is a Parody of The Nerdist's review for Deep Breath , the new Doctor Who episode premiering on August 23 on BBC Americ...