Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Christmas Doctor Who Thing

Twenty-four hours until Christmas Day. Thirty-two hours until I find out how badly my relatives have misjudged my personality while attempting to think of a suitable gift, thirty-six hours until I have to ask myself whether I really am going to bother roasting something for lunch rather than settling for a tube of Pringles with a picture of holly on the wrapper, forty hours until I find myself joining in with every single word of The Two Ronnies. Just under forty-three hours until "Voyage of the Damned", the BBC's new vehicle for Bernard Cribbins.

Oh, all right. Since we're on the subject… at 6:50 on Christmas Day, Film Four will be showing Time Bandits, which may literally be the worst piece of scheduling in television history. Time Bandits is a wonderful thing, but is there anybody that might want to watch an eccentric time-travel-based comedy-adventure who won't be otherwise engaged at 6:50 on Christmas Day? Even if a few Film Four viewers have somehow lost track of the time and forgotten to switch over to BBC1, surely they're going to find themselves thinking "hang on, I'm sure there was something I meant to do" during the sequence set on board the Titanic?

My great-grandfather was booked to travel on the Titanic, as part of a transatlantic business trip. He pulled out at the last minute. Our family history doesn't record why he pulled out, but if you're familiar with "Rose", then you'll understand why I find this amusing. Perhaps he was talked out of it by a big-eared Mancunian. And I see that in the weekend papers, one of the few still-living Titanic survivors has objected to the BBC's lack of Christmas Day tact, although she doesn't really seem to have captured the mood of the nation.

Given that the Christmas Doctor Who is the BBC's highest-yield warhead, it's interesting to note how the other channels have decided to deal with it. ITV has elected to show The African Queen, a film which could happily be screened on any Sunday afternoon without causing a fuss (thus wisely avoiding any attempt at a ratings war… it's like 1977 all over again). It works both ways, though: BBC3's Doctor Who Confidential, which is usually scheduled to immediately follow its parent-programme, begins half an hour after Doctor Who ends. And it's not as if BBC3 has anything better to do at eight o'clock, because it's showing a repeat of Football Gaffes Galore. But then you realise… at eight o'clock, ITV is presenting us with Harry Hill's Christmas TV Burp. Has the BBC noticed this, and delayed Confidential by half an hour, knowing that Doctor Who and Harry Hill share an awfully large chunk of the audience? This is, after all, a man who opened his very first show on Channel 4 by wrestling a giant maggot.

Like any good warhead, Doctor Who makes a big bang while covering the surrounding area with fallout, and this Christmas it's hard to look at any page of the (Haaaa-lle-lu-jah) Radio Times without seeing traces of its influence. We note that the BBC's other "big" programmes this season include The Catherine Tate Show and The Shadow in the North with Billie Piper, neither of which is technically supposed to be Doctor Who-related, but the RT has thoughtfully put the interviews on the same page anyway. We'll gloss over David Tennant's appearance in Extras - a programme which, in all other respects, has a cast list that could only be worse if it had more than one copy of Ricky Gervais in it (in much the same way that ITV is marking New Year's Eve with a comedy-drama starring James Dreyfus in two different roles, i.e. a programme that's twice as bad as you might possibly imagine) - and instead turn our attention to New Year's Day, when we get BBC1's new adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, written by leading-dramatist-turned-soft-core-hack Andrew Davies. We might expect plenty of period stripping-off, with no actual genitalia but lots of male buttocks thrusting in and out of multi-layered underwear. I mention this only because Mark Gatiss is in it. Surely, he isn't going to be doing any deflowering? His chat-up technique in "The Lazarus Experiment" was bad enough, but now I'm trying to imagine him seducing a nineteenth-century virgin, and all I can think of is Briss the Butcher. Licking his lips. In close-up.

And as the Doctor Who Christmas Special approaches, we simply have to acknowledge that Russell T. Davies not only has the best job in the world, but the best job that's ever existed in the whole of human history. Some people have criticised my occasional bitterness towards the series by claiming that I'm just jealous, to which I respond: well, duh. We should consider that Big Russell not only has executive control over Doctor Who as a concept, but access to a multi-squillion-pound budget with which to depict anything in the entire span of space and time, almost on a whim. Even Hollywood executives don't have this sort of reckless power. The only person in / on television who's in a similarly enviable position is Gok Wan, easily-anagrammed presenter of Channel 4's How to Look Good Naked, whose job description involves touching up the wobbly parts of overfed women while they nod seriously and listen to his sage council on what bras to wear. But since Wan is (presumably) gay, it's safe to assume that he has no conception of how lucky he is.

With great power comes great responsibility: this is what I was getting at during the "Unquiet Dead" farrago, and if it was true of Gatiss, then it's twentyfold-true of Big Russell. This man has more influence over the minds of the nation's youth than anybody else in contemporary British culture - go on, prove me wrong - and according to the interviews, he even has the ability to make Kylie wee herself. ITV fears him. Ant and Dec have known his wrath. He may not be as famous as David Beckham, but then, nobody actually listens to what David Beckham says. Fortunately he tends to use this power for good, or at least, to say things like "I know, let's put rhinos on the moon!". But this doesn't mean we should take our eyes off the bugger, because…

…because even if power doesn't always corrupt, then showbiz invariably does. I know I'm not alone in feeling that "The Sound of Drums" marks a very specific jumping of the shark, yet apart from the relative dullness of it, two things seem especially worrying. One is that although it continues the twenty-first-century Doctor Who obsession with stores set in something like "the real world", the programme's idea of what constitutes "the real world" is becoming increasingly slanted towards the point-of-view of people who work in television. In much the same way that Jennifer Saunders is no longer capable of doing anything other than making jokes about meeting minor celebrities at BBC TV centre, Doctor Who's two default methods of establishing a contemporary British setting are (a) guest appearances by famous people playing themselves, and (b) set-pieces involving any event where TV cameras might be present (note that apart from the regulars and semi-regulars we already know, there are no modern-day characters in "The Sound of Drums" other than media figures and Saxon's co-conspirators). In other words, the Doctor's natural environment these days is a BAFTA awards ceremony. No other Doctor would seriously have considered putting on a dinner jacket for "Rise of the Cybermen" or "The Lazarus Experiment", because no other Doctor belongs on the Red Carpet. Tom Baker in formalwear would have been unconscionable; David Tennant in formalwear seems perfectly normal.

Once you realise this, Tennant's appearance in Extras is rather unsettling, because you begin to see that the two programmes are converging on the same territory. "Real world" stories are supposed to draw in the viewers by giving the adventures-in-space-and-time concept some grounding in the world we recognise, but the Britain we see in "The Sound of Drums" just alienates us. Even if there are TV studios, press interviews and high-society get-togethers, there are very few actual people, so it's no more familiar to us than Mangooska Six in the ninety-eighth century. Using actual BBC presenters and perfect mock-ups of News 24 bulletins (starting with "Rose", but most notably in "Aliens of London") was clever, yet we've now reached the point where modern-day Britain doesn't seem to contain anything else, a version of the country in which TV is the only reality. We know that the Doctor, Martha and Captain Jack are in trouble, because their faces are on the television news; we know that the death of the President of the USA is a turning-point, because it's broadcast to the whole world; even the Master has started taunting the Doctor via the BBC, and just to rub it in, there's a bomb in the TV set.

If this were a story about television, a la "The Long Game", then this might make sense. But it isn't: the Master controls the population with a spurious hypno-satellite, not by manipulating the media, which blows a hole in the idea that this might be a satire. It's just how the programme-makers see the world these days. Similarly, even those who actually like Catherine Tate would have difficulty arguing that she can provide the voice of One of Us, which is theoretically what the companion is there for. She's been hired specifically because she's a Television Celebrity, so there's automatically a gulf between herself and the audience.

And if we're talking about a series that's rapidly becoming lost in showbiz, then this leads us on to the second problem with "The Sound of Drums": Ann Widdecombe is an evil Tory bigot, while Sharon Osbourne is a vicious parasitic brood-harpy who drinks the spinal fluid of little children. If only metaphorically. The point is, I'm having problems with the irony threshold here. These people are clearly - as it were - servants of the Jagrafess, people who might reasonably have been depicted as The Enemy during the Eccleston season. When did they become Friends of Doctor Who?

That's enough cynicism. On a lighter note, this is also the time of year when we play the two key Doctor Who guessing-games, the "Who's Going to Be Next Year's Big Historical Guest-Star?" game and the "Name a Contemporary Character Actor Who's Likely to Turn Up in a Minor Role" game. However, we already know that 2008's Historical Guest Star duties are going to be shared by Agatha Christie and a great big volcano. (I'm hoping the Pompeii story will be a historical farce a la "The Romans", in which the Doctor and a young Captain Jack run around the streets of the city on Volcano Day but somehow never meet. Please, God, any excuse for a historical that doesn't have sodding aliens in it. Surely, CGI lava is as big an audience-grabber as CGI monsters?) As for the Character Actor game… this takes some skill, and requires us to think about the kind of television-friendly performer who's likely to move in the same circles as the production team. After the 2005 season, my guess for 2006 was Louise Delamere; I was close, but she eventually ended up in Torchwood instead. Last year, my guess for 2007 was Lucy Montgomery; again, I was on the right lines, since Debbie Chazen (the other one from Tittybangbang) is in "Voyage of the Damned". For 2008… how about absolutely anybody who was in Oliver Twist? Although personally, I'm still amazed that Celia Imrie has managed to avoid the series for so long.

I will, of course, continue to act like the frustrated conscience of Doctor Who fandom throughout the coming year. Because some f***er's got to do it.

And a Merry Cribbins to all of you at home.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Secs Sell

A question I've already asked in my "proper" journal (there's a link on the left): what's the most excessive piece of merchandising in history? Anyone schooled in the important points of British cultural development will be familiar with artefacts like the Doctor Who underpants of the 1970s, designed in such a way that you could make Tom Baker's face look really, really Jewish by having impure thoughts. But this sort of thing seems almost reasonable, compared to the deluge of merchandising that followed the BBC radio show Bandwagon in the 1930s. Bandwagon was largely a vehicle for the young(ish) Arthur Askey, and the idea that shops began selling Arthur Askey "action-figures" seems remarkable in itself, especially if you grew up in the '80s and can only remember the aged, cancer-riddled version of Arthur Askey who had to have both his legs amputated. At the height of its success, however, Bandwagon even had its own brand of oven-cleaner. Star Wars just isn't in the same league.

Of course, to us, the mad glut of Doctor Who merchandising available for Christmas 2007 is definitive proof that We Win. Let's be quite clear on this point: here in the latter '00s, Doctor Who is more popular than at any time in its prior history. Naturally, the viewing figures were higher in the late '70s. This is partly because there was nothing else to do in those days, when the TV set was the only leisure accessory that ran on electricity, and when "getting boozed up on a Saturday night" wasn't seen as a fit pastime for all ages, classes and genders. But it's also because viewers in the 1970s saw themselves as belonging to a wilfully captive audience. Saturday-night viewing was part of a complete entertainment experience, the stay-at-home descendant of the Music Hall, and you sat through the entire BBC schedule - or the entire ITV schedule, if you were a bit common - whether you liked all the programmes or not. You wouldn't have switched channels, even if you'd had one of those newfangled remote controls. In those days, before geek-scum tried to claim that Doctor Who should be just like Babylon-5, the series was part of the World of Showbiz. And yet…

…and yet it wasn't what the BBC now likes to call its "jewel in the crown" show. Doctor Who was halfway down the bill of the entertainment line-up, it was never the star attraction. The ratings may have been higher in the supposedly golden year of 1979, but even then - even at a time when you could rely on one-third of the population to have seen Julian Glover rip his face off and become a one-eyed seaweed-man - the importance that's attached to the series now would have been unthinkable. In 1979, it was taken for granted that it'd always be there. In 2007 (if slightly less so than in 2006), it matters. It's a lodestone of British pop-culture rather than a reassuringly ever-present quantity, the Beatles rather than One Man and His Dog. "Popularity" is measured by impact rather than ratings, and for the people of the 1970s, it'd beggar belief that "Sontarans Return" would qualify as a news headline. In a world where Showbiz was a rare and precious commodity, it was always going to be overshadowed by The Generation Game. In a world where celebrity culture seems somehow more banal than fly-on-the-wall footage, something as strange and as (potentially) unpredictable as Doctor Who is bound to thrive. For a while, anyway.

So when Asda presents us with a national TV advertisement specifically to tell us how cheap its Dalek Sec masks are, we have to see it as our crowning moment. Consider what this means. At a point in time when consumerism is just about the only surviving philosophy, one of the largest retailers in the country has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds to focus on a toy based on a character from one single episode of Doctor Who (plus one cliffhanger). It wasn't even a very popular episode, at least not amongst "serious" fans [see footnote], but that's hardly relevant. At the very least, you can't help feeling that the ubiquity of the Sec mask would raise severe feelings of bitterness in Scaroth of the Jagaroth. This, not 1979, is the age of the one-eyed tentacle-faced monstrosity.

So just as Doctor Who has gone from "a thing that everyone watches because it's there" to "a thing that lots of people watch because they feel compelled to", Doctor Who merchandising has gone from "stuff you buy for children at Christmas because it might shut them up for a bit" to "stuff that has a cultural identity of its own". With the possible exception of the '60s Dalek playsuit - an item which achieved a certain cache just because it seemed so expensively exotic, and which became notorious in the 1990s when Toyah Wilcox appeared on Thirty Years in the TARDIS to describe it as if it were an item of rubber fetishwear - no piece of Doctor Who fodder has ever been this iconic, or this high-profile. And if anything, then the odd cultural side-effects of the new series are even more disquieting than the obvious cash-ins. When Kylie Minogue leads up to her Doctor Who appearance with a single called "Two Hearts", it's hard to tell whether it's a joke or a coincidence. It apparently comes from her new album X, which also includes the hits "Lungs of a Birastrop" and "Aspirin Might Kill Me".

But in the high street, not since Bandwagon have manufacturers believed they could get away with so much. Personally, I have a theory that someone at Character Options is seeing how far they can push the concept of "action-figure". Children are actually supposed to play with these things, remember, they're not just Dapolesque collectors' items. The "action-figure" of Lady Cassandra was hardly G. I. Joe (even Arthur Askey had two working limbs), but at least you could roll her around a bit, and at a pinch she could get into a Hot Wheels race with the Moxx of Balhoon. Recently, however, Character has become obsessed with releasing "action-figures" of geriatrics. I can accept the Carrionite witch, but now we've got poseable toys of Victor Meldrew, a dead grandmother, and an old woman with no face. "Gee, dad, an old woman with no face! Can I have one for Christmas? Can I?"

Now… I'm aware that children (boys especially) like toys which represent the grotesque and the misshapen, yet this usually means rotting zombie-creatures and monsters made of bogeys, not 5" representations of people who dribble when they eat and suffer periods of incontinence. This is why there's no such product as My Little Rest Home. A septuagenarian whose only "action" ability is to lose her visible features seems less than dynamic, the sort of fan-fodder collectible you expect to see in the "unsold stock" section of Forbidden Planet, not in a display at Tesco's. And as for the Weeping Angel… kids, you too can have a moulded plastic representation of the top of a war memorial. Yet nobody finds any of these things puzzling, as if Doctor Who has not only broken the rules of modern TV (by being a light entertainment show that isn't disposable, by being a drama that gets noticed by the rest of the media without recourse to nipples, by being an SF series that doesn't involve Americans whining on about their f***ing "issues"…) but the rules of consumerism as well.

Which would be fine, if we could be sure that the iconic status of the merchandising won't start to warp the series itself. The curious decision to bring the Sontarans out of retirement in 2008 - even though they're visually less impressive than (say) the Judoon, and conceptually no more interesting than any other bunch of stomping alien warmongers - might, at first, be taken as a sign that we can expect Sontaran egg-cups for Easter 2009. Then the publicity photo turns up in the papers, and we discover that the "controversial" new Sontaran outfit makes it look like a five-foot-tall action-figure. Can we believe that it's been deliberately designed with an eye to the merchandising? No, not really. But can we believe that because of the merchandising, a brightly-clad, fully-jointed, clearly-moulded monster is what the designers think a "typical" Doctor Who baddie should look like these days…?

Actually, that seems a lot more feasible. Those Character Options figures are now an important part of what Doctor Who "does", and it's inevitably going to have an effect on the way everyone perceives the programme, including its creators. If nothing else, then it's hard to hear a title like "Planet of the Ood" without imagining how an army of collectible Ood are going to look in the Argos catalogue. It may well be the first thing you think of, even before you get the image of Charlton Heston shouting "get your damn hands off me, you lousy, stinking Ood". (Mind you, take another glance at that publicity photo: the Kinder-surprise Sontaran still looks less plastic than Catherine Tate.)

There was a time, as many of you will remember, when the only items of Doctor Who merchandising that really mattered were the books. Many, many people have expressed the opinion that without Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters or Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion, they never would have bothered to read, to the point where even describing them as "merchandising" seems rather unfair: before video, the internet and BBC3, these were the only way that juvenile viewers of Doctor Who could keep in touch with the series when it wasn't on the air. They were a form of history, not filler material. The Plastic Age has made Doctor Who books rather redundant, and turned things upside-down. Thirty years ago, the books meant something, and the toys - which very few children actually wanted, and not just because the 12" Cyberman had a nose - seemed rather pointless. Today, the action-figures and the voice-changer masks are like badges of honour, while the books… well, they sell, but they seem somehow irrelevant. And this is hardly surprising, because I didn't write any of them, even though I was obviously qualified for God's sake.

I mentioned that the Dalek Sec mask is the ultimate sign of Doctor Who's victory, proof that the series has become even more noticeable than it was in the Showbiz Era. Of course, it can't last. Doctor Who Volume One survived for 26 years specifically because it was Just There. Like the Shipping Forecast, getting rid of it seemed counter-instinctual. Doctor Who Volume Two has thrived because it was born into an environment that had forgotten it was even possible, but the environment is already changing around it. When the Showbiz Era ended circa 1980, the series had to give up its position in the Saturday night line-up, and find its own specific audience rather than being part of the BBC's big night out. It managed this quite well, at first, by being the kind of show that appealed to kids who liked the Human League rather than by trying to draw in the whole family (wise, given that the Family Audience was simply drifting apart). But if Doctor Who Volume Two starts to wane, then it's far too big, important and expensive to "specialise" in this way. When it goes, it'll go completely.

Which means that the Christmas toy-flood isn't just a sign of glory, it's also like the thing on the side of the life-support machine that goes "beep" to tell us we're still alive. In 2007, we get the Dalek Invasion of Asda. But this time next year, if the supermarkets have difficulty shifting the action-figures of the old man in the wheelchair from the final scene of "The Family of Blood", then we'll know we have a problem.

Footnote. Well, of course fans didn't like "Daleks in Manhattan" much. Their idea of "ideal" modern-day Doctor Who is something that's as much like an American sci-fi show as possible, preferably with more story arcs than stories, so it's hardly surprising that they'd take against an adventure which owes more to old-fashioned Doctor Who than anything else in the BBC Wales era. Very old-fashioned, in this case: the Doctor's semi-educational stroll around Hooverville is as close as twenty-first-century television can get to the "Marco Polo" model of the series, while the Daleks themselves speak, act, and argue about the nature of humanity in exactly the same way they did when David Whitaker was writing them. This is a '60s Doctor Who story with added colour and explosions, which means that you could almost believe you were watching the third big-screen Dalek movie, with David Tennant replacing Peter Cushing (or possibly Bernard Cribbins). Though we've all been conditioned by nerds to believe that "traditional" Doctor Who means the aberrant aliens-take-over-contemporary-England stories of the 1970s, "Manhattan" is as traditional as the latter-day series gets. And Sec's cult status proves, if nothing else, that nobody cares what nerds think.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Doctor Who, 2007: Eyeing Up the Talent in Space and Time

We realise, now, that no heterosexual male can watch any ensemble-cast television series without trying to figure out Which One He'd Have. This is a simple fact of modern life, and programme-makers have even come to welcome it: after all, it played a big part in the success of BBC1's Bleak House (or at least, its success among a part of the audience that wouldn't normally watch Charles Dickens), while most new comedy series aimed at eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-olds seem determined to actively encourage it. Though women may prefer the more socially-complex game of Shag / Marry / Kill, men still use a first-past-the-post-system, as part of the same impulse that compels them to make lists of their favourite things ever.

Though it may be very, very gay in so very many ways, the modern-day version of Doctor Who provides rich material for games of Which One Would You Have. A series which introduces a completely new supporting cast in every story, and which obeys all the currently-accepted rules of mixed-gender, mixed-demographic casting - you know, the kind of thing Patrick Moore hates so much - is guaranteed to present the audience with at least one actress of mating-age every week. Since there are thirteen episodes in every season, this suggests the possibility of a thirteen-month pin-up calendar, although it's unlikely that such a thing would be publishable even if BBC Worldwide could pass it off as "ironic". It raises all sorts of awkward questions about polymorphous sexuality, like whether Cassandra would be a better proposition in "human" or "lasagne" form, or whether it's all right to fancy a fourteen-year-old's body if she's possessed by a thousand-year-old alien intelligence.

But story-by-story, here are the front-runners for this year's Which One Would You Have list. My front-runners. Because as we've already established, only my opinions make sense. Readers should bear in mind, however, that here we're talking about characters as much as the actresses who play them.

1. "Smith and Jones". The presence of slinky-yet-muscular CPR addict Martha Jones provides us with a handy Plan B for this season: in the event of an episode which doesn't involve any impressive "local" talent, we can always fall back on the companion. (Those who played the Which One Would You Have game in 2006 may remember how crucial this was in the case of "The Idiot's Lantern", when Billie Piper's appearance as a regular saved us from having to make a really horrible decision.) So although it's tempting to pick Martha as our poster-girl for the all-important debut episode, it's best to leave her in reserve until the mid-season girl-drought. Besides, she spends most of "Smith and Jones" in a white doctor's coat. And whatever fantasies we may have about sexually-unbalanced nurses, the truth is that real-life medical gear isn't appealing at all, often due to the presence of hospital food, vomit, and / or disinfectant (depending on how long she's been on-shift). In fact, dress sense is the key here. Because this episode also gives us the debut of Martha's sexually-confused kid sister, Tish "Show Me An Old Cathedral And I'm Yours" Jones, whose short-skirt-and-boots ensemble suits her chunky-thighed physique rather better than the eveningwear she tries on later.

'By the way, did I mention that I'm helping to
change what it means to be human tomorrow?'

2. "The Shakespeare Code". Now, according to Russell T. Davies, this episode has a "sexy villainess". Unfortunately, Lilith is so devoid of charm, personality or dirtiness of any kind that she seems to come from the same range of historical blow-up dolls as Madame de Pompadour. Or, to put it another way… only a gay man would call this "sexy". (For some reason, gay writers have a habit of creating all-devouring female villains with no actual personality traits. Although for our purposes, even I'd have to admit that Christina Cole is a step up from Maureen Lipman.) Presented with this wall of slippery-smooth non-sex, we're forced to turn to the Elizabethan barmaid instead, and luckily she's used to people doing that. Though she fails in at least one of her barmaid duties by not qualifying as "buxom", she does at least acknowledge the existence of hormones: when offering a bedroom to the Doctor and his blackamoor paramour, she not only makes the obvious assumption but looks as if she'd be quite happy for Martha to invite her in for a Game of Flats. Which is technically an eighteenth-century name for it rather than an Elizabethan one, but I've wanted to use it for ages.

Yet amazingly, there's no Cornish accent.

3. "Gridlock". Sex with a cat-nun is, in many ways, an appealing prospect. After all, it's two transgressions in one. But Novice Haim is past her prime now (presumably she's still a Novice because the rest of her order was disbanded, and there's nobody left to promote her), and besides, there's the question of whether a human male could ever satisfy a hominid feline. Let's not forget, the genitals of a male cat are covered in tiny little spikes. These cause severe pain when the penis is removed from the female, triggering a hormonal reaction which puts her cat-eggs in "ready for sperm" mode. Now, at first, it might seem that a cat-woman would appreciate the lack of nob-hooks on a sexual partner. Yet if cats have evolved to seek this sadomasochistic kick, then sex with a smooth-cocked human would probably be something of a disappointment. So with this in mind, I'm going to go for the obvious and pick the female carjacker with the big sexy mouth instead.

'My boyfriend's given me this great new
mood-patch called "Swallow"…'

4 / 5. "Daleks in Manhattan" / "Evolution of the Daleks". My first impulse is to say "can I have the writer?". But if we're doing this properly, then… well, pick a showgirl, any showgirl. If we assume that we're only allowed to choose characters with speaking parts (because otherwise, we'd have to go through every crowd scene of "The Christmas Invasion" looking for attractive roof-leapers, and even I don't possess that degree of lechery), then we're stuck with either the principal blonde or one of the backup brunettes. None of these really stretch the limits of male sexuality, especially not when we're still wondering whether Novice Haim likes her men barbed or non-barbed, or asking ourselves whether gay men who go for "bears" might also go for Ardal O'Hanlan in tabby-face. Now, if the Daleks had turned some women into pigs… ohhhhh yeah. Udders a-plenty.

That difficult first date.

6. "The Lazarus Experiment". The paucity of female characters in this episode - actually, the paucity of characters of any kind, apart from the regulars and semi-regulars - means that our options are limited to the Jones clan, the woman from Coronation Street, or the party guest who makes the pointless comment about olives and then gets eaten. (Speaking-part actors get paid more than non-speaking extras, of course. So was it really necessary to stretch the budget by giving "Olive Woman" this single, clunking line of dialogue? Is it supposed to make her subsequent death seem more meaningful? Are we meant to feel sorry for her because we've heard her speak, or feel glad that someone so stupid has been bumped off by a monster, or…what?) In fact, this is the point at which we have to play our joker and pick Martha, because the Little Black Dress really does suit her a lot better than it suits her sister. This is the episode in which we get our best opportunity to eye up her pulsing, womanly biceps, and best of all, she looks very, very sweaty by the end of the story. Much of the appeal of the "traditional" horror movie comes from the boy-thrill of seeing a woman in a state of impossible exertion, and since "The Lazarus Experiment" is such a simplistic attempt at a forty-five-minute horror movie that even Heat magazine liked it, it's apt that both of the Jones girls should end up breathless in a loft.

'You name it, and I'll do mouth-to-mouth on it.'

7. "42". Well, clearly, I'm not going to pick Michelle Collins. I may be curious about the genitals of cat-people, but I'm not insane, for God's sake. This leaves us with two other doomed, sacrificial female crewmembers (and the author explicitly said that he was inspired by "The Impossible Planet" when writing the thing-that-passes-for-a-script, so obviously the female crewmembers are bound to be doomed and sacrificial). The woman in the medical section lacks appeal, but then, that's probably just because she's got the bad luck to be in an episode directed by Graeme Harper: no other director on Doctor Who takes the phrase "warts and all" so seriously, or spends so much time making sure that characters look as if their faces are turning septic, as fans of "Doomsday" will recall. This leaves us with the tomboy mechanic, who - like the Elizabethan barmaid - at least looks as if she knows that sex exists in this universe. The "appealingly sweaty" thing also comes into play again, though any character who works this close to the sun may cross the line between "appealingly" and "unhygienically". Still, Martha spends much of the episode trapped in a tiny escape pod with a man who doesn't look as if he changes his pants even when he's not in a crisis situation, and she never complains. Alternatively, we could give the forty-second century a miss and stay on Earth, with the svelte agent of Mr Saxon who'll forevermore be known to us as "Sinister Woman". This might seem promising if you go for the stern type, but she's also the kind of woman who'd be thinking about the Foreign Secretary all the way through the conjugal act. Comparing the end credits of "The Lazarus Experiment" and "42" also raises the question of whether Sinister Woman is related to Olive.

The Space Corps: supplying k. d. lang
fans to the galaxy since 2803.

8 / 9. "Human Nature" / "The Family of Blood". Y'see, here's my problem. If I even suggest that Mother of Mine is worth considering as a sex-symbol - and dear God, just using the words "Mother of Mine" in this context brings on a tidal-wave of Oedipal horror and memories of Little Jimmy Osmond - then many readers will be likely to react with a degree of nausea. Leaving aside the question of whether or not you go for women with big curves, the important thing to remember here is that Rebekah Staton is deliberately made up to look as dowdy and pallid as possible, first as a slavey with bad skin and then as a walking corpse. She doesn't actually look like that. She usually does "slightly glamorous fat birds" rather than "maternal zombie fat birds", and indeed, if she appeared here as she does in BBC3's Pulling - quite possibly the worst sitcom ever made in Britain, in which she provides the only high points - then she'd probably be my choice for the entire series. If you're going on a date with Mother of Mine (feasible, because Father of Mine looks like a bit of a swinger), then you might realistically expect her to put on some lippy rather than looking as if she's just been exhumed. And even if she goes mental with the dessert trolley, you know she's got several lifetimes' worth of experience in her glowing green boudoir. No? Well, bloody sod you then. You can have Jessica Hynes, like everybody else. Telling, though, that it's easier for me to justify "fancying a cat-nun" than "fancying a woman with a big arse"… you people are just sick.

For all you know, that's a look of unbridled
alien lust.

10. "Blink". It's going to be Sally Sparrow, obviously. In "The Lazarus Experiment" or "42", you could have made a case for someone like Kathy Nightingale (good God, they're even named after birds), but not here. Because this is exactly what Shakespeare had in mind when he coined the phrase "foregone conclusion".

'…and I came top of the Bleak House list,
as well.'

11. "Utopia". Ah, now we've got a decision to make. If we can only pick speaking-part characters, and we've already used our joker, then we have to choose a non-human. The question is, will it be the blue insect woman or the '80s-hair cannibal girl? As with the cat-people, there might at least be some scientific interest in mating with a female who's equipped with visible pheromone glands, assuming that you are supposed to mate with her rather than fertilising her eggs while she's out shopping. But as with Martha in "Smith and Jones", Chantho's white coat and laboratory environment make her seem rather antiseptic, and she probably smells like formic acid in the heat of passion. By contrast, cannibal girl really is the dirtiest woman we've seen in the series so far, and the only surprise is that she's not already Big With Futurechild. You just wouldn't ask her for oral, that's all.

'80s-hair cannibal girl: makes you think
of that magic trick where somebody puts
their finger in a guillotine.

12 / 13. "The Sound of Drums" / "The Last of the Time Lords". Notable for being the one story in which we have a reason to be jealous of the Master, and it's clearly not because we want to be as bland as John Simm. The figure of the wife-accomplice, not so much a Lady Macbeth as a woman who just gets mildly aroused by criminal activity, is common in cinema but rare in Doctor Who. Countess Scarlioni in "City of Death" may get a kick out of planning art-gallery raids with her husband (whom she clearly believes to be gay, rather than an alien monster with no understanding of breasts), but at least she doesn't look as if she might have an orgasm while watching the execution of six-hundred-million people. Lucy Saxon's streak of hormonal evil is leaps and bounds ahead of anything in "The Shakespeare Code", and yet her most adorable quality isn't her sadism. It is, as I've already argued, the way she tries to dance when the Paradox Machine kicks in. She also scores points as "Woman Most Likely to Wear Jodhpurs During Role-Play".

Vote Saxon… because there's nothing like
watching posh white girls trying to get funky.

As ever, thanks to time-and-space.co.uk for the screencaps, although they probably didn't know I was going to letch over them.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Immortality Nerve

[First posted in the week of "Utopia".]

This week: anthropology.

In his book Total Man, slightly-hippy psychologist Stan Gooch examined the genetic roots of some of our best-loved clichés and archetypes, and spent much of his time dwelling on the science-fiction stories of the day. The day in question was sometime in the early 1970s, but very little has changed, even if it's got noticeably worse. In Gooch's view, a great deal of (perhaps even the majority of) published SF was about the schism between mind and body, presumably - and to be honest, this is my interpretation more than his - because SF gives the writer free reign to separate human thought from human weakness and imagine that we really are bundles of intelligence weighed down by ugly, clunking bodies. Of course, Gooch was writing in the shadow of 2001, when transcending your biology and becoming a Starchild was all the rage. But if he'd been writing just a decade later later, in the wake of Star Wars and Yoda's 'luminous beings are we' speech, then the book might have been twice the length. We can also safely assume that in "trash" sci-fi, the kind that used to be summed up by the term "B-movie" in the days before it was replaced by the phrase "straight to video", the same rules apply. All alien takeovers, and all alien parasites, exist in the make-believe gap between our consciousness and our flesh-suits. Possession is nine-tenths of science fiction, as I pointed out in the mid-1990s, before some divot made exactly the same joke in The Science of Star Trek.

The usual approach to "possession and infestation" SF is to blame it on trendy social phobias, but this misses the big picture. Modern-day anxieties are used to justify these stories, they're not the root inspiration. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is supposedly "about" the late-'50s fear of Commie infiltration, while Alien is "about" the late-'70s fear of cancer, venereal disease, and other things that eat you from the inside out, but the same unseen hand is guiding both. (We forget, now, that people refused to even mention cancer until about thirty years ago. One of my aunts died of it, and as a child, I didn't have a clue what was going on: I knew she was dying, yet the name of the killer was never spoken. The 1970s changed this, not least because feminists were determined to talk about a blight that often attacked parts of their bodies unknown to men, parts which were as taboo as the cancer itself. It's not always easy to think of Alien as a product of feminism, especially when Sigourney Weaver's running around in her pants.) By the early 1980s, alien bodysnatching had largely become an exercise in effects one-upmanship, hence John Carpenter's version of The Thing and the rather mendacious advertising claim that it "makes Alien look like Peter Rabbit". By the time we get to CGI-driven cackpole like The Faculty, the idea of something with tentacles living inside your gut has become more mundane than anything in any soap opera, so its usefulness as a political allegory is in some doubt.

Not that it stops people trying. Circa 2007, the most obvious manifestation of this pretend-satirical form of sci-fi is the fetid husk of Battlestar Galactica, in which aliens disguised as humans are supposedly a reflection of contemporary concerns about lurking terrorists. This falls apart, however, when you remember that followers of al-Qaeda - and the word is "followers", not "members", since it's a cultural movement rather than an organisation and you can't have a "war on al-Qaeda" any more than you can have a "war on goths" - really don't look, sound or act like anybody else. The "goths" comparison is a good one, because just as no goth would be able to exist without the need for make-up and the obsession with cod-romanticism slowly making themselves felt, Islamic extremists would be unlikely to infiltrate a high-security installation without giving their co-workers some clue as to their true nature. They certainly wouldn't be able to compromise a whole fleet of spaceships. The Cylons aren't the manifestation of the twenty-first-century Enemy Within, they're the result of something much bigger and much less specific.

And what about Doctor Who? The type of people who write this series are not, by any means, the type of people who might have right-wing anxieties about foreign infiltration. I'll gloss over the old argument about "The Unquiet Dead", because even if you take a view as zealous as mine, Mark Gatiss was only being careless rather than genuinely paranoid. The programme's contempt for the reds-under-the-bed / Mullahs-in-the-mall idea is fairly clear, at least in its modern incarnation. If you can ignore "The Web Planet" and "The Dominators", then even '60s Doctor Who tends to avoid the xenophobia angle: in the midst of the Cold War, the mind-control storylines on Patrick Troughton's watch owe more to tales of World War Two fifth-columnists than Russian spies, and brainwashing is more often an issue of social control than a tactic of devious foreign agents. Returning to the present, though, the fact remains that the series is still obsessed with mind-tampering and still doesn't seem to be doing it because of "current concerns". There are few terrorists in the Doctor Who universe, in the Blairite sense of the word "terrorist". Indeed, the Slitheen are quite the opposite, alien parasites who take on the form of John Prescott rather than Abu Hamza. To Hell with it, the very first episode of the modern-day series involves the Doctor going on a bombing spree in London. Contrary to what various lazy commentators tried to claim at the time, this doesn't make him a terrorist ("terrorist" means "someone who uses terror as a weapon of political control", not "someone who uses explosives"… otherwise, Fred Dibnah would have spent most of his life in an H-block), but it does mean that he's more closely associated with the iconography of terrorism than the baddies are.

Remember what Gooch said: it's all about mind / body dualism, which means that anything involving an Inner Monster comes from the same complex of ideas, whether it's something nasty hiding in your DNA or an extra-terrestrial gas getting up your nose and controlling your actions. When you realise this, you realise that in Season X3 of Doctor Who - yes, that's what it's called, shut up - virtually every story has used exactly the same trick. Only "Gridlock" and "Blink", that well-known firm of solicitors, are exempt. The Plasmavore in "Smith and Jones" is acceptable, since it's just a single sci-fi detail in a story which also involves Vogon-rhino crossbreeds and a hospital on the moon (and which is mainly focused on the humanoid characters anyway). But then we get alien witches who can shape-change into pretty serving-wenches, zombie workers somehow "infected" with Dalek DNA, Professor Lazarus unleashing his Inner Scorpion, an intelligent sun that even goes as far as using the old "possessed people have glowing eyes" gimmick, and the bodysnatching antics of the Family of Blood. All of these are expressions of the same basic idea, and even "Blink" has to be removed from the list of honourable exceptions when you realise that inanimate-objects-with-a-life-of-their-own can be seen as part of the same complex.

You don't believe that…? Well, until the 1960s, you might have been right. But once the Cold War went into techno-fetishist mode, and our culture got hooked on the idea of harmless-looking consumer goods being weapons in disguise, the line between "enemy agents" and "enemy devices" was erased forever. Wasn't it Frank Herbert who said that the most important thing to notice about computers is the way they condition people to treat other people like machines? It's no coincidence that the same era which gave us cheap, pocket-sized electronics also gave us the notion of cybernetic spacemen, or that we've been obsessed with technological polymorphism ever since. This is what Salman Rushdie was getting at, in the chapter of The Satanic Verses that mentions "The Mutants", since Rushdie wasn't paying attention to the plot and thought the Mutts were supposed to be human-machine hybrids (not noticing that this was the Doctor Who story inspired by the end of the British Empire in India, ironic for the author of Midnight's Children). Even Tranformers can be seen as a knock-on effect of this. All human devices are in some way extensions of the human body, yet the link between man and machine seems so much more direct if the device is a spy-camera or a hidden microphone, and we can imagine it being an extendable eye or ear.

Take another look at "Spearhead from Space", in which it's taken for granted that any power capable of making killer mannequins is obviously going to make duplicate politicians as well. Just ten years earlier, no story of that kind would have been made: either the aliens would have been able to take people over, or some unseen force would have been able to make inanimate objects come to life, but not both. In 1960, nobody would have connected the two (c.f. the Twilight Zone episode "A Thing About Machines", in which we see an electric razor slithering up the stairs to kill its owner, but it's animated by his own sense of fear rather than an evil corporation with extra-terrestrial connections). The Weeping Angels in "Blink" are apparently much more low-tech, yet they're still designed to hit exactly the same nerve as the Autons. The final montage makes this clear, sending out a message of "hey kids, never look at statues the same way again!" in much the same way that "Spearhead" sends out a message of "they're just shop-window dummies… or are they?".

(One more question about possession here, since I've already mentioned "42". Why does it make people's eyes glow? If there's some kind of sun-energy inside the victim, then why does it shine through the eyeballs, and not through any of the other soft tissues? Do their genitals glow as well? Why are skimpy little bits of skin like the eyelids enough to stop the light? If you tug on one of your eyelids and point a torch at it, then you can clearly see the illumination on the other side, at least until you go blind. So how do eyelids manage to break the flow of energy? Is it a quantum thing? And if eyeball-flesh is so sensitive to the presence of an alien, then why don't the eyes burn out completely when somebody's possessed, instead of returning to normal afterwards? Blah blah blah windows of the soul blah blah blah iconic imagery blah blah blah cheap special effect.)

So what is it we're supposed to be so scared of? If, indeed, we're supposed to be scared at all? As I've already suggested, I'm not convinced that this is really about fear. "Blink" may be a self-conscious attempt to freak out the six-year-olds, but despite claims to the contrary in the Radio Times, the Lazarus Horror isn't remotely scary: it's so far-removed from actual human experience, and so obviously belongs in the kind of world we see in both modern SF movies and modern TV advertising, that it becomes an abstract quantity. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing in theory, even if it's clearly a bad thing in "The Lazarus Experiment". As Tat Wood pointed out in his article "Was Yeti-in-a-Loo the Worst Idea Ever?" - it's in About Time Volume II, you don't have a copy? - the idea that Doctor Who always works better when something scary happens in a down-to-earth setting is deeply flawed, and has led to some terrible errors of judgement by the programme's various production teams. This essay carries a great deal of weight, even if it isn't exactly what Tat wrote, since I had to re-draft it in order to make it readable. (You may note that the published version actually bothers to mention the twenty-first-century version of the series, and isn't too unkind, especially when it comes to the early Eccleston phase. Tat could never bring himself to write good things about Eccleston, possibly because he hates northerners and people with working-class accents, and believes the Doctor to be the exclusive property of university-educated types who spend their time arseing around on punts. I know I'm digressing, but I'm still very bitter.)

Tat's point remains a strong one, even if I want to hit him. Numerous interviews on Doctor Who Confidential have suggested that many of those involved in the programme, Big Russell and the Boy Tennant included, see the essence of the programme as being - in effect - "the incongruous inside the mundane". This is the all-purpose reasoning that's been used to justify everything from parping Raxicoricofallapatorians to monsters who can't even move when they're on-camera (yes, I know, if only they'd thought of it when they were filming the Myrka). And in principle, the programme-makers aren't wrong on this point. The very first shot of the very first episode of Doctor Who told us that something was a-humming inside an ordinary-looking police box, and a space-time machine inside a then-everyday object is as close to the central nervous system of the series as it's possible to get.

Would you see that as an extension of the same core idea, like alien possession or Optimus Prime? Robert Anton Wilson would have done. In The Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy, he argued that the notion of the "Trick Top Hat" is an ever-present archetype, and a metaphor for nothing less grand than the human imagination itself. On the outside we're fleshy and finite, but we're also capable of seemingly limitless diversity, a concept reflected in hundreds of folkloric stories about bags of food that never run out and cartoons about characters who can produce endless props from out of nowhere. Wilson would have mentioned Felix the Cat at this point, although I'd suggest Bender in Futurama, whose torso not only contains an infinite supply of loot but is also said to be 40% iron, 40% zinc, 40% titanium, and 40% various other things. The connection between the TARDIS and the human imagination / human unconscious seems even more obvious when you remember that it's descended from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. So I'll leave it up to you to decide how closely-related this idea is to the "alien possession" concept, but bear in mind that I'm biased here. I'm the one who wrote Alien Bodies, in which the TARDISes of the future have the exterior appearance of people rather than boxes, thus becoming the missing link between possessed humanoids and magic cupboards. And a survey of fan-fiction from the 1990s reveals that I wasn't even the first one to think of it, although I didn't know this at the time. Another result for technological polymorphism.

There is, as ever, a perilously fine line between "archetype" and "cliché". I'd argue that the difference lies in the execution, not in the idea. As an example, here I'll return to something I said seven days ago, although this time in a less scurrilous context. Geeks who don't fit in with the social norm, and who have difficulty communicating with non-geeks, are a universal constant and will always be with us… assuming they aren't us. But if you're a dramatist, and you write a geek character who says exactly the same things as every other geek character on television, and who relies on exactly the same "standard nerd" jokes found in every other geek-related series - as in "Blink", or "Random Shoes", or Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or any of the other sci-fi programmes which have somehow reached the conclusion that sending up the typical sci-fi viewer is post-modern and ironic instead of dull by definition - then it's a cliché. Perhaps surprisingly, exactly the same rule applies to monsters, brain-parasites, and sundry exotic space-time phenomena. In context, the Plasmavore is interesting, because it's part of something that isn't precisely like anything else. In context, the sun-bringer in "42" isn't. As if to underline this point: on the same night that BBC1 broadcast "42", Channel 4 broadcast Jason X, accidentally creating the most repetitive double-bill in TV history.

And as me-rewriting-Tat pointed out in the About Time article, it's cute and clever when the London Eye turns out to be an alien transmitter in "Rose" - even if you haven’t already seen it described as a Sontaran weapon of mass destruction in Dead Ringers - because it's not only unexpected, but a way of establishing that this programme is genuinely modern rather than just set in the present-day. When exactly the same thing happens to Alexandria Palace in "The Idiot's Lantern", it's wholly worthless. Turning the everyday into the otherworldly is a specific skill. It requires the writer to have some sense of contemporary values, rather than (say) just relying on an overweening obsession with Quatermass, but it also requires him to avoid obvious, desperate attempts at up-to-the-minute issues like "anyone you know could be a suicide bomber" or "the uncertainty of modern urban life is here represented by shape-changing robots from outer space".

It's not about "current concerns", it's not about Yeti-in-a-loo, and it's not even about scaring the kids. "The incongruous inside the mundane" is the essence of Doctor Who because Doctor Who relies on the most primal, mythic imagery in order to function, and for human beings, there's nothing more primal than that mind / body divide: it's the thing that's been with us ever since we started to use tools, ever since our ancestors began to realise that a big sharp rock could become an extension of the human body, and thus reached the conclusion that the body itself is just a tool of an invisible, untouchable Inner Self which somehow pulls all the levers. The divide is human culture, in a way. It's the notion that's shaped all our ideas about identity and society, even though it doesn't really exist. From the Trick Top Hat of the TARDIS to the vulnerable, techno-dependent squid-horror of the Daleks, this programme has spent more than forty years working on the same primal impulse, and dear God it sounds as if I'm writing the closing speech of a BBC4 documentary now. But even the Doctor himself, a man who gets a new body at irregular intervals while somehow keeping the same indefinable core of Doctoryness, can't survive without that imagery. If you are familiar with BBC4 documentaries, then you may have seen the channel's recent history of children's television, in which one modern-day four-year-old excitedly explained that 'the old Doctor turns into the new Doctor!'… and said it with exactly the same conviction as a Christian claiming that 'on the third day, he rose again'. Well, naturally. Both events seem equally irrational, but both have the same aesthetic logic. They appeal to the same human impulse. The Inner Self. The immortality nerve.

Obviously I haven't mentioned "Utopia" here, because I'm writing this before it's actually been broadcast. But it's by Russell T. Davies and it's got Derek Jacobi in it, so it's bound to be good. And nobody cares about my "good" reviews, only my supposedly "insulting" ones. For instance, the above article is probably the most lucid thing I've ever said about Doctor Who, yet it's guaranteed to get less attention than calling Chris Chibnall a big spaz.


- I'd just like to point out that to this day, I still haven't seen a single episode of Transformers. But I remember watching the adverts at the age of thirteen, and being puzzled that even though both sides in the Transformer dispute had the same ability to flip between war machine and everyday object, the evil Transformers were called "Decepticons" (to suggest that they were doing something terribly treacherous by pretending to be Walkmans) while their opponents were "heroic Autobots". Clearly, some consumer goods have a greater degree of moral rectitude than others.

- Having now consulted the internet, I've learned that Fred Dibnah's speciality was his ability to demolish gigantic chimneys without using explosives. We apologise for any distress this inaccuracy may have caused.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Scariest Thing About "Blink" is...

...the ghostly face in the far-right window of the police station.

Here's the close-up:

Name That Beast

[First posted after "The Family of Blood".]

This week I'd like to ignore the complex issues of mortality and social responsibility raised by "The Family of Blood", and talk about monsters. Old monsters. Dirty old stinking monsters.

Once, many years ago - or at least, more than ten, which qualifies as "many" because I'm attempting to sound wise while still retaining a facade of youthful enthusiasm - I read a Doctor Who book in which the villain was a malignant bodiless intelligence who could control the minds of human beings. On the whole, this was no more interesting than any of the other malignant bodiless intelligences we've seen over the years, yet I still found myself wondering about the similarities between this spurious new aether-monster and the Great Intelligence from "The Abominable Snowmen" (1967, although you probably knew that). And, weirdly assuming that this was "continuity" rather than a desperate lack of imagination, I heard myself think: 'Wow, the Great Intelligence! This might be its first appearance in the series for nearly thirty years!'

Looking back on it, this was clearly a moment of epiphany. The moment when I was hit by the sudden, shocking realisation that… if it did turn out to be the Great Intelligence, then it wouldn't actually make the story any more interesting.

This revelation was less obvious than it might now seem. Bear in mind that I entered fandom (of a kind) via Doctor Who Weekly, and learned most of what I knew about the history of the series from chunky "anniversary" volumes like Peter Haining's Doctor Who: A Celebration, now clogging up the shelves of Oxfam shops nationwide. Most of these books were hugely inaccurate, but that's beside the point. In the years before cheap video, the fans were obsessed with the series' past - a past we never thought we'd actually see, not even the bits that hadn't been taped over by the BBC - leading to intense debates about whether the Daleks or the Master were the Doctor's greatest enemy, depending on whether you counted their appearances in terms of stories or individual episodes. I was part of the generation which thought about Doctor Who in much the same way that American sports fans think about baseball, with scorecards and statistics for every occasion: part of me still "knows" that there are nine-and-a-half Cybermen adventures, even though this information is clearly out-of-date as well as completely useless. In the 1980s, the return of any "old" monster was greeted with a great whooping and cheering, because (in effect) it improved that monster's batting average. Even the producer came to think this way after a while, which is why he kept bringing back the Master even when everyone was sick of the bastard. So, a brand-new story featuring an arch-enemy not seen since 1967…? Even if it only happened in print rather than on TV, it still scored points. As if attaching the name of something from the before-I-was-born era of Doctor Who was in some way an excuse for the wretched banality of it all.

I've been thinking about this a lot, in the wake of "Human Nature". For all its highs, there are parts of the episode which just seem slow, but… not in the ways we might expect. The slow bits aren't the "talky" bits: in fact, the three-and-a-half-sided love-triangle between the Doctor, the New Girl, the Semi-Doctor and This Year's Love Interest are a pleasant reminder of what things were like in the days of "proper" telly, when characters were allowed to have quiet conversations and not everything had to be rapid-cut or filmed with a shaky hand-camera. No, the slow bits are the "monstery" bits. Aliens disguised as human beings are never interesting, and in the case of "Human Nature", they spend the whole episode establishing themselves as generic body-snatchers. In a series that treats spaceships and bodily possessions as an everyday occurrence, it really shouldn't take four minutes of screen-time for Baines to find a UFO and then demonstrate that he's been taken over. We've seen all of this before, many, many times, so it's not as if we need to be told every little detail. Nor do we need all those scenes of possessed people acting out-of-character and plotting amongst themselves, when we know they're going to say exactly the same things that alien plotters always say in these situations. Because while the Family of Blood is indulging in all this routine villainy, the regulars are doing something much more involving, and even the thirteen-year-old boy on the games field is going all Twelve Monkeys on us.

But: a-hah, I thought. A-hah. The Doctor describes these aliens as hunters. They track their prey by smell. They have a strong sense of family. They insert themselves into human bodies, they've got a thing for strange gases, and they clearly prefer fat victims. Even Rebekah Staton looks like a younger, cuter Annette Badland. Is the message not clear, I asked myself? After all, the villains in the original novel of Human Nature were far less generic, and why would any writer make his own creations less interesting unless he were planning to turn them into some other form of monster? In short: are these not the Slitheen, or at least some other Raxicoricofallapatorian family? Is this not likely to be the big twist in the second half of the story? True, they seem more reliant on other people's flesh than the Slitheen we used to know, and their mother is so degenerate that she's become a vapour who lives inside a novelty paperweight (unless, of course, she's a Slitheen guff who's somehow acquired the power of speech). But they have so much else in common, even more so than the Bane from the Sarah-Jane pilot, who might be considered Slitheen wannabes anyway. Then there's the curious fact that although we don't see any Slitheen when Smith flips through his Journal of Impossible Things, there's a later scene in which Nurse Redfern specifically points to a portrait of one, just so we get a close-up of its smug Raxicoricofallapatorian face. As if we're being gently prodded to remember something. Oh, yes: ah-hah is very much the word.

I thought.

The Slitheen turned out to be like all other gas-men, though: I waited for them all day, and they never turned up. Now I feel a sense of disappointment that's wholly of my own making. But the question remains… even if the School Bully and the Scary Little Girl had unzipped their heads and revealed themselves to have big green baby-faces, would that have made any difference? Because whatever their true nature had turned out to be (and it's got to be said, their status as vaguely-defined near-immortals seems to have served the plot rather well in the end), it wouldn't have changed the fact that the first half of the story is still a bit slow when the bad guys are on the screen, or that the Family is still made up of generic body-snatchers. The Slitheen in "Aliens of London" work because they avoid the usual gamut of "possession" clichés: putting big flabby monsters inside politicians isn't an attempt to generate hokey sci-fi suspense, it's a way of turning them into Hogarth-style grotesques. They don't waste time creeping about the place with mad staring eyes, the way the Family of Blood does. Whatever you call the villains in "Human Nature", hokey sci-fi suspense is their stock-in trade, and it's the one whacking great flaw in the story. Although admittedly, they automatically become more interesting once they're dumped in collapsing galaxies or trapped in mirrors.

I've never believed that a single line of dialogue, or even a single name, is enough to change the basis of an entire script. Generations of fanboys have (for example) tried to claim that "Image of the Fendahl" raises the stakes of the whole series, because it pits the Doctor against an enemy which "is" death, and yet… we only know it's supposed to "be" death because the Doctor says so, once, in a single line of a single scene. Watch the rest of the story, and the Fendahl just looks like any other poxy life-sucking monster we've seen over the years. And clearly, a generic disembodied intelligence doesn't become any more worthwhile if it's a generic disembodied intelligence from 1967, although it took me a distressingly long time to break the '80s fan-conditioning and notice this. Likewise, only Mark Braxton would be a big enough arse to believe that if the Doctor refers to some giant CGI crabs as "Macra" - rather than as "Crabulons", or "Clawrentulas", or "Sniptrodines", or any other spurious sci-fi name - then it changes the nature of an episode to such a degree that it's even worthy of a mention in the Radio Times. Yet somehow, I find myself disappointed that a bunch of family-obsessed hunting-monsters in 2007 don't have the same name as a bunch of near-identical family-obsessed hunting-monsters from 2005. Even by my standards, this is irrational.

Mind you… given that the Family wants to be the Doctor, it's tempting to imagine that each member of the group is a distorted aspect of the Doctor himself, especially since this is the only twenty-first century story in which we see the (hurriedly-sketched) faces of his previous selves. We might suppose that the Fat Bloke is Colin Baker, or that the One Who Looks Much Too Young is Peter Davison, and they've even got an army of Jon Pertwees circa Worzel Gummidge.

Five More Attempts at Making Something Scary by Giving It the Face of Mark Gatiss

Number One: Otters.

Bring Me Sunshine-Monsters

[First posted after "42".]

Did I mention how much I hate sci-fi…? I'm fairly sure I did, but what bothers me is how often I have to say it. For the most part, this is because it's much easier to be irritated by sci-fi fans than it used to be. There was a time when these people would (quite rightly) be routinely dismissed as the petty, insular, self-obsessed tedium-engines they really are, but now they've somehow managed to acquire a media-voice of their own. Just five years ago, it would have been unthinkable for anyone who believed that Babylon 5 was the height of dramatic sophistication - or, in modern-day terms, anyone who actually thinks that Heroes is a serious television programme - to have made themselves heard beyond the pages of SFX, yet now these people are somehow managing to get their point across as if… well, as if they had intelligent opinions of some description. Perhaps what I find most objectionable about this is that they keep trying to drag Doctor Who into things, although on the plus side, at least nerd-scum only like the really rubbish episodes of Doctor Who which are "dark" and "cult" instead of the interesting funny ones. The most obvious living symptom of this trend is Mark Braxton, geek-in-residence at the Radio Times, who doesn't seem to acknowledge anything as watchable unless it involves a bloated story-arc about galactic space-wars (his review of "Gridlock", which completely ignored the story and seemed to believe that the cock-obvious "revelations" about the Time Lords were the whole point of the episode, would have been hilarious if it hadn't been so depressing).

In terms of modern-day Doctor Who, the obvious acid test is "Love & Monsters". We could have predicted that geek-bores of all descriptions would hate it, partly because of its complete lack of po-faced angst and partly because it's actually a competent piece of television. No, "competent" does it a disservice: "Love & Monsters" is driven by such a well-timed, well-executed dynamic that you can see the structure of the story even if you turn the sound off [here we pause, briefly, to allow any nerd-scum reading this article to say "well, that would certainly improve the episode, hahahahahahahah… oh, God, I'm so lonely"], and the editing alone should be enough to win awards in a sane world. But even though it's clearly not going to be a hit with sci-fi fans, what I find most striking is the fact that the division is so binary. As far as I'm aware, every single sci-fi fan in the country hates it. And, connected with this but just as odd, everyone I'd consider "interesting" seems to like it. This puzzled me, at first, simply because nothing else I know of has ever caused such a clean division. I've even met interesting Tories in my time, but "Love & Monsters"? Nope, it's straight down the middle. Bores hate it, non-bores don't.

(N.B. Here I'm only talking about grown-ups, naturally. Like "Kinda" before it, "Love & Monsters" fails in at least one of its Doctor Who duties, as it'd obviously be dull and bewildering for children. Even I wouldn't have liked it, as a ten-year-old. C'est la vie.)

It only started to make sense when a former acquaintance of mine - a man who bears a closer resemblance to the Comic-Book Guy from The Simpsons than any other human being I've ever met, and who has complete video collections of every iteration of Star Trek - expressed his own personal disgust at "Love & Monsters" by saying that in order to demonstrate his contempt, he was thinking of sending a Hawaiian shirt to Russell T. Davies. What he meant, of course, was that he saw a similarity between "Love & Monsters" and the most ludicrous excesses of the John Nathan-Turner producership. As the early JN-T years were "dark" and "gothic" and "serious", and all the other things that sci-fans like - although to be fair, this was the early '80s, when Blade Runner was new and those things still seemed interesting - he was specifically referring to the latter part of the Nathan-Turner epoch, the age which gave us the still-unspeakable horror of Season 24.

Now, at first, this comparison shocked and appalled me. Granted, I can see how a creation like the Abzorbaloff might not go down well with someone who thinks that Star Trek: Enterprise is "bad television" because it contradicts the continuity of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I can see how such a man might consider both the Abzorbaloff and (say) the Kandyman to be much of a muchness. I can even see how he might consider both to be "silly" while considering shape-changing robots whose spines glow when they have sex to be "serious", and indeed, I might even expect him to feel that way. But the grotesque, cack-handed ineptitude of "Time and the Rani", compared to a script so super-aware of the conventions of Doctor Who (and, most importantly, of the way we perceive those conventions) that the red bucket / blue bucket sequence seems to make sense even though there's no earthly rational explanation for it...? I'm sorry, I have to object.

Wait, though. Wait, because here we're on the verge of understanding something critical about Doctor Who, both then and now. Before we try to see things through the drab, let's-pretend-that-liking-spaceships-and-aliens-make-us-"imaginative" viewpoint of the average sci-fi fan, let's ask ourselves one question. What, fundamentally, did John Nathan-Turner think he was doing? Because in 1987, the year of "Time and the Rani", "Delta and the Bannermen", and two others which are almost as bad but not quite, the producer simply didn't see himself as making a sci-fi show in any sense. Lost in showbiz and obsessed with TV as an entity in itself, Nathan-Turner saw Doctor Who as - to sum it up in a single phrase - The Morecambe and Wise Show with monsters. The idea of it being a "cult" programme, in the '90s sense of the word, was of no interest to him at all. He saw it as part of a long tradition of BBC variety, with laughs, frolics, guest stars, big impressive sets, and even the odd musical number if possible. Let's keep that thought in our minds for a while: The Morecambe and Wise Show with monsters. If you're a sci-fi fan, then such a thing is an abomination. Even if you like Doctor Who but feel ambivalent-at-best towards programmes about office-like starships and people with prosthetic foreheads, then it sounds like a kind of heresy. But…

…but just for a moment, try taking it out of context. Forget that we're talking about Doctor Who, a programme which means something slightly different to every single one of us, a programme so varied in its format and its history that it sparks more arguments about what it "should be" than any other series ever made. Just suppose that the Radio Times advertised a brand new programme which described itself as "The Morecambe and Wise Show with monsters". Would you watch it? Because I bloody well would. In fact, I'd positively go out of my way to see it, whereas - for example - I've never felt remotely compelled to find someone with Sky and get them to show me a recording of Firefly. Yes, I'd probably watch Firefly if it were on terrestrial, but "sort of like Star Trek, although everyone says it's better" just isn't going to enthuse me. The Morecambe and Wise Show with monsters? Now, that sounds like proper television.

So, the problem with the later Nathan-Turner epoch isn't that there was anything wrong with his mission statement. Nor is it that Doctor Who "shouldn't be like that", since it's been so many things in its time that a few more mutations couldn't have hurt. The problem is that he wasn't competent enough to get away with it. If we refine the Morecambe-and-Wise-Show-with-monsters idea, and interpret it as a hybrid of light entertainment and gonzo adventure, then… in order to be successful, the resultant programme would need to involve a genuinely contemporary sense of what "light entertainment" means and a genuinely contemporary sense of what "adventure" means. Yet "Delta and the Bannermen" is so far from either of those things that it's an obvious embarrassment to anyone who comes within ten yards of the final broadcast. Nobody in 1987 would have found it lightly entertaining or remotely adventurous: even at the time, it just looked old, crap and inane. Imagine if someone did it right, though. Imagine they made a version of Doctor Who in which the jokes, the guest stars, the showbiz spectacle and the whacking great set-pieces were more important that the gloomy sci-fi posturing. Imagine they made a version of Doctor Who which was fast, funny, family-friendly, and perfectly in tune with the tastes of the age, a version which could get away with songs, sketches and blatant parodies of other TV programmes without the audience finding it weird.

Do I even need to say it…? We don't have to imagine, because that's what we've got. My geek-acquaintance was right all the time, though what he saw as an insult is a compliment in most normal people's eyes: modern-day Doctor Who is like The Morecambe and Wise Show with monsters. The difference between the Nathan-Turner version of the programme and the Russell T. Davies version is simply that Davies is competent. "Love & Monsters" may be the most blatant example of this, not least because of the Abzorbaloff - the thing which sci-fi bores hate most of all, since they positively demand that all monsters should be "serious" (these are, remember, the kind of people who believe that "intelligent conversation" means talking about how good the CGI is on Gollum) - but really, it works to the same pattern as all of Davies' other episodes. If you take it as read that this is a hybrid of fantasy drama and laugh-a-minute-Christmas special (and let's face it, David Tennant meeting Queen Victoria has more in common with Eric Morecambe meeting Cleopatra than with Commander Seriousface meeting the Ambassador from Mangooska Six), then you start to realise that we're living in John Nathan-Turner's dream… whereas John Nathan-Turner himself just forced us to live in his nightmare. So far we've had aliens who give away their alienness by breaking wind rather than by having glowing eyes or stiff little fingers, we've had robots with the voices of twenty-first-century TV presenters, and we've had two Christmas editions full of murderous festive decorations. All of these things have worked perfectly, and only a "serious" sci-fi fan would be insipid enough to think that Peter Kay in a giant green potato outfit is in some way an aberration. Yes, if you actually believe that "Aliens of London" is meant to be serious speculative drama rather than just great television, then you're not going to enjoy it very much. But Davies' own description of it as "like Spitting Image" is telling. Babylon 5 it ain't, thank Christ.

(A side-issue here: as far as sci-fi fans go, Doctor Who is hamstrung in a way that no other programme has ever been. As I've said, we all have our own ideas of what the programme "should be" like, and we all have our own expectations of what any given episode is supposed to show us. This means that as far as geeks are concerned, Doctor Who is actually allowed to do less than most sci-fi / fantasy series, even though it's got a mandate to do an awful lot more. If a "serious" sci-fi series did an off-the-wall comedy episode in which someone investigates the central characters from an outsider's point of view, then it'd be considered witty and cutting-edge. In fact, The X-Files did exactly that, yet somehow "Jose Chung's From Outer Space" is considered a masterpiece while "Love & Monsters" is considered an abomination. And if a "serious" sci-fi series took a week out from epic story-arcs about interdimensional warfare to tell a small, low-key story about an emotionally-damaged family in suburbia being haunted by a small, low-key monster, then it'd be seen as a breakthrough, yet old-school Doctor Who fans refuse to embrace "Fear Her" because it's nothing like "The Talons of Weng-Chiang". Note that even "Rose" and "The End of the World" were slated by dull people on first broadcast, for being "too fast" and "too comical"… the nay-sayers weren't happy until "The Unquiet Dead" gave them a self-consciously "cult" episode, effectively an instalment of Star Trek: The Next Generation with Charles Dickens instead of Mark Twain, with lots of dark spaces and no scary bright colours that might attract teenage girls.)

From my point of view, the trouble with current Doctor Who is that not everybody shares Davies' vision. Here I don't just mean Mark Braxton, Comic-Boy Guy, or any other "cult" dullard, but the other writers. Because the truth is that if you start out with the notion that Doctor Who is a sci-fi series, then you'll become trapped in a universe where only sci-fi things can happen. People have seriously tried to claim that both "The Impossible Planet" and "The Lazarus Experiment" are "traditional" Doctor Who stories, presumably because they both involve lots of pointless running-away-from-things, but this is clearly bunk: no Doctor Who story of the twentieth century was remotely like either of them. In fact, both are effectively straight-to-video sci-fi-horror movies, with all the horror taken out. Yet once again, the perception of Doctor Who as sci-fi leads people to connect it with that kind of sci-fi, as if "traditional" takes in everything from William Hartnell shouting at Aztecs to Vin Diesel hitting an alien in the face with a flamethrower. If you start with (ooh, let's say) a routine story about predictable space-explorers facing predictable enemies in a predictable environment, then it's not going to get any more interesting just because you put David Tennant in the middle of the story and get him to talk faster than everyone else. The current belief seems to be that if you've got a po-faced action-adventure about spaceships, then forcing the characters to do something "quirky" every five minutes somehow changes its nature. But it didn't work in "The Impossible Planet" (in which the Doctor hugs the captain before becoming just as drab as all the other crew-fodder), and it doesn't work in "42" (in which questions about Elvis vs. the Beatles are apparently supposed to distract us from the overall twaddle-quotient).

If you seriously believe that this series is meant to be sci-fi, then you can probably put up with the banality of it. If you're the kind of person who enjoys droning on about how great the effects in the new Spider-Man movie are, then you might even enjoy it. If you see this as The Morecambe and Wise Show with monsters, on the other hand, then… you can't help remembering that this is the series which, on a good day, considers an Irish cat-person played by Ardal O'Hanlan in a Biggles hat to be the baseline of normality. Michelle Collins in a sweaty t-shirt, and the weird belief that adding a 24-style ticking-clock somehow stops the whole thing looking like a third-rate Aliens knock-off, is very nearly an insult.

Yes, we all have our own ideas about what this programme "should be" and "shouldn't be". Frankly, my only strong opinion is that it shouldn't be the kind of programme that sci-fi fans like, because they're the scum of the Earth and they're always wrong about everything. Aside from that, I don't really care what it's like, as long as it's not precisely like anything else. And now the series has successfully set the tone - now we've established that it's comfortable doing everything from sitcom to Broadway musical numbers - its chief problem is that it simply isn't mental enough. As I've said before, in a world where there are giant dinosaurs and shape-changing robots in every ad-break, a huge mutated scorpion-beast a la "The Lazarus Experiment" is simply ordinary… whereas, for example, armies of gasmask-people saying 'are you my mummy?' simply isn't. People "possessed" by killer sun-energy isn't merely ordinary, it's positively useless. This is never going to be a "serious" sci-fi programme, so isn't it time to go even further the other way? Because once you've turned Trinny and Suzanna into Playmobil androids with chainsaws, there really isn't any turning back.

But if we're specifically talking about "42", then let's bear this in mind. The real-time clock may mark this out as an obvious parody of 24 (even if it cheats and skips several minutes halfway through), and yet… three-quarters of the people who saw this episode on first broadcast will never have watched 24. "Love & Monsters" and "Kinda" may have left the children behind, but this is the first episode of Doctor Who which doesn't make any sense at all unless you're a smug, media-aware adult who's seen the specific source material. If you're unfamiliar with the canon of Jack Bauer, then it just looks like a bunch of mediocre actors running up and down corridors. And that's exactly what it is. A 42-minute in-joke, not a proper television programme at all.

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