Monday, November 03, 2008

Doctor Who: A Gambler's Guide

"A pony says it's a bird."

For the modern generation, the next few months are going to be a wholly new experience: those who don't remember the Old Time have never known the gut-level angst of waiting for the focus of the entire universe to change, or the righteous fury of someone who has to inform his or her parents that Les Dennis would not make a good replacement, or the smack of fear that the New Man might be the most hideous human being on Earth. (When I was eight, a communications breakdown in the schoolroom led me to believe that the next Doctor was going to be Jim Davidson rather than Peter Davison, and the emotional scarring still hasn't healed.) In fact, even those of us who've been here for decades might have trouble recalling the sensation. We knew who Eccleston's successor was going to be within 24 hours of his resignation; McGann ambushed us while we were looking the other way; and nobody really cared who was going to take over from Colin Baker. David Tennant's departure is the uneasiest moment in Doctor Who history since 1984, and the results are likely to be just as catastrophic.

Or perhaps that's unfair. But if I'm permitted to repeat myself - and given that I wrote over 50,000 words on the last series alone, I'm bound to use up all the adjectives sooner or later - then this is the point where we find out whether the series can drag itself out of its showbiz offal-pit and become a programme about Adventures in Space and Time again. After the 2007 series, I foresaw a nightmare future-world in which Matt Lucas had become the new Doctor, yet this seemed the lesser of two evils when Catherine Tate was announced as the TARDIS's official silly-face-puller in residence. And now David Walliams is one of the bookies' favourites to fill the Tennant-shaped hole at the heart of the world. Admittedly, I'm running out of new ways to say "surrounded by media back-slappers on all sides, the production team has forgotten the difference between a drama programme and a BAFTA awards ceremony", yet the fact remains that nobody's likely to tell them if - when - they let celeb-culture cloud their judgement. For a while, it looked as if Tate might steal the Best Performance trophy from her co-star at the ITV awards: from the point of view of Big Russell and friends, sitting in the audience of superstars while guzzling drinks made from champagne and little children's tears, it must have looked like a vindication. It probably never occurred to them that it was largely a result of block-voting by geek-loyalists, or that if you gave them a straight choice, ITV viewers would choose Ant and Dec to be the new Doctor.

Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before, Number Two. I said, towards the end of this year's season, that it was time for Tennant to make his excuses. Not because there's anything wrong with him as an actor (indeed, he's the only Doctor who's managed to develop his performance with every passing year, rather than giving a knowing wink to the camera and expecting small children to be impressed by his very presence), but simply because he's become so successful that his image has distorted the nature of the programme. Writers are among the laziest people on God's Clean Earth, and even those who should know better relied on Tennant-standards during the 2008 series. The latter half of "Forest of the Dead" is very nearly a checklist of "Things David Does Well", and his performance alone is enough to stop "The Doctor's Daughter" being as awful as its script. It's apt that he's the first actor to have his Doctor-number in his surname, because he's also the first to treat the role as if it's something like a sacred trust [footnote 1]. Yet he's given us a Doctor who's clever and dynamic and popular and sexy, so his companion would've ended up standing around with her mouth hanging open even if they hadn't hired an actress who specialises in that sort of thing.

In short, we may have passed the point where Tennant has become irreplaceable, which brings us to the nub of the issue. As you've no doubt heard, the bookmakers at Paddy Power have drawn up a long, long list of actors, and are now inviting us to have a flutter on the identity of the next-in-line. I can't say for sure whether it's the first time this has happened (we can be fairly sure that it didn't happen in 1987), but it's certainly the first time it's happened since I've been of gambling age. I speak as someone who made a profit on the 2002 World Cup, then lost it all on Euro 2004, and I still haven't forgiven the referee for the England-Portugal match. So here's a rundown of the favourites, for any of you who might be tempted. Because even if the bookies research every possible angle before they announce the odds, this is the one area in which we have the advantage. Do they know how Steven Moffat or Phil Collinson think…? No they don't. But we do [footnote 2].

Patterson Joseph (4-1 favourite). Here's an experiment you can all try. If you're in the company of non-fans, and someone brings up the topic of the Next Doctor Who, tell them that the current favourite is Patterson Joseph. When they say "who?", just tell them: "He's black." I guarantee that at least 85% of them will just say "oh", as if that tells them everything they need to know. And in a sense, it does. Modern-day Doctor Who has a reputation for being a "Liberal" programme: "Liberal" is used in its modern sense here, to mean something that's politely pro-tolerance and anti-bigotry, but doesn't have the nerve to be properly left-wing. The media has latched onto this, so it's inevitable that a black actor is going to be the bookmaker's choice, regardless of what he actually does. And there is a certain appeal in the thought of hearing your slightly-racist uncle mutter "not as good as it was in the old days" under his breath whenever anyone mentions Doctor Who, but on the other hand… well, let's be frank. There's a reason that Joseph specialises in harsh, aggressive, alienating characters, and it's simply that he has no capacity for making the audience like him. Which is, after all, why he was cast as the self-obsessed Dalek-denier in "Bad Wolf". Turning him into the Doctor, especially after the audience has grown accustomed to the shining and beatific countenance of the Boy David, would result in the series collapsing after a single year of Moffathood and Joseph himself being remembered in years to come as "The One Nobody Likes to Talk About". Don Warrington, now, that's my idea of a black Doctor [footnote 3].

David Morrisey (5-1). There's a potentially interesting legal case here. Thanks to the October spoiler-glut, I've just discovered the title of this year's Christmas special, and David Morrisey's role in it. Ergo, we know for a fact that he's "The Next Doctor", even if he isn't the Next Doctor. So what happens if you put a bet on him at 5-1, then take your slip back to Paddy Power after Christmas Day, claiming that you've technically won? Bookies are used to "solid" results, even if those results involve a photo-finish or a stewards' inquiry. They're not used to taking bets on something that might involve regenerative ambiguity or non-contemporaneous timelines. It seems unlikely, though, that Morrisey's Next Doctor will turn out to be a permanent appointment… unless the whole Christmas Special is a devious test-run (see also the 50-1 shot). Ah! On closer inspection, I see that the Paddy Power People have been careful to specify "David Tennant's Replacement" rather than "The Next Doctor Who". They're smarter than I thought.

James Nesbitt (6-1). Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before, Number Three. Some years ago, Steven Moffat told me about an extra-special project he'd written for BBC1, which had been temporarily delayed because the "perfect actor" was busy with other work. This sounded terribly exciting (any series which needs a specific actor has got to be a masterpiece, surely…?), so imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be Jekyll, and the "perfect actor" turned out to be that git from the Yellow Pages adverts. And this brings us once again to the back-slappy world of showbiz. If you work in the media, where programmes of the Cold Feet oeuvre are regarded as the height of sophistication, then James Nesbitt is an A-Grade celebrity. However, for those who don't habitually watch ITV pseudo-dramas that involve successful middle-class people whining about their lack of serious problems - and that's the majority of the British population, myself included - he's just an annoyance in the ad-breaks. His furniture-chewing performance in Jekyll, complete with token attempts at "scary and maniacal" which seemed roughly as intimidating as a twelve-year-old telling you that his dad is a ninja, were so ludicrous that even the Radio Times was forced to treat it as a form of kitsch. And this is a magazine that thinks Heroes is a serious drama. But despite Nesbitt's prior association with Moffat, we can safely assume that he's out of the running, if only because his casting would result in parents across the nation having to answer awkward questions like "mummy, why is that ugly bald man pretending to be the Doctor?".

John Simm (8-1). In the right context, there's nothing wrong with Simm. His cheeky-faced integrity was one of the key reasons that viewers of Life on Mars didn't notice the piss-poor quality of the scripts, although perhaps his greatest role was as the ersatz Barney Sumner in Twenty-Four Hour Party People. (If you haven't seen it, then it's worth a look next time it's on Film Four, if only for the obvious drinking game: take a shot every time you see an actor who's been in modern-day Doctor Who. Christopher Eccleston has a cameo part as a homeless wino who quotes Roman philosophy at Tony Wilson, and that's entertaining even as a sentence.) Yet the hideous miscasting of Simm as the Master was another example of the production team jamming a well-known, well-liked media "face" into the series, whether he belongs there or not. There's no clearer sign of this than the way he's introduced at the end of "Utopia". You'd think, wouldn't you, that we'd get at least one close-up of the newly-regenerated arch-villain in order to establish his identity…? But, no. All we get are waist-up shots as he dashes around the TARDIS console, because the assumption is that this man is a Big TV Star, and therefore needs no introduction. When even Graeme Harper is so celebrity-dazzled that he can't direct properly, something's gone badly wrong.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (8-1). Middle England might just about accept a black Doctor, but they certainly won't accept one they can't pronounce. Hartnell! Troughton! Pertwee! Baker! Davison! Baker! McCoy! McGann! Eccleston! Tennant! Eji… Ejoili… Ej… oh, **** it, let's just hire Matt Smith instead.

Russell Tovey (10-1). Tovey's inclusion on this list is a direct result of Big Russell "coming out" and describing him as one of the nation's greatest rising talents (he was in The History Boys, of course, so he's probably used to being a fat-camp-man magnet). And there are numerous precedents for bit-part players becoming regulars in the Doctor Who universe, although hard-core fans might find it harder to swallow the Doctor's transformation into Alanzo the Helmsman than to accept that the Sixth Doctor was based on Commander Maxil's body-print, or that Martha was related to the girl with the Cyber-lubricant in her ear at Canary Wharf, or that the cute gap-toothed Welsh girl from Torchwood was somehow based on the cute gap-toothed Welsh girl who gave her poor little working-class life to save Victorian Cardiff [footnote 4]. As a leading man, however, Tovey has a problem: he's twelve. Or at least, he appears to have been strategically punched in the face until he looks twelve. The Doctors may be getting younger, and Davies may have insisted that the character needs youthful jumping-around abilities these days (isn't that what the companions are supposed to be for…?), but an incarnation who looks as if he might cry when you take his jelly away is pushing things a little.

David Walliams (10-1). Currently being mistaken for a serious actor by retarded television executives across the UK, plus Stephen Poliakoff. In fact, the lower reaches of the Paddy Power list are riddled with comedians who believe they can Do Drama (including both Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, the latter appearing semi-feasible after House, although I still can't watch it without expecting him to shout "dammit, John!" at any moment). One of these represents the ultimate nightmare scenario: Ricky Gervais at 80-1. This may sound like a long shot, but scarily, Greece were given odds of exactly 80-1 to win Euro 2004. And what happened there? I lost everything, that's what. Now we're all in that position.

Anthony Head (10-1). The major objection to Head being the Doctor is that it's just too obvious, but then, there are an awful lot of people at BBC Wales who've got even less imagination than the bookmakers: those who see Doctor Who as a "cult sci-fi" show seem convinced that the best way to keep the fans happy is to cast lots of people from other "cult sci-fi" shows, hence the hilarious attempt to parachute James Marsters into Torchwood. Nonetheless, it's true that the casting of Head would be welcomed by the kind of degenerate nerd-scum who described the embarrassing swimming-pool scene in "School Reunion" as "iconic". As with John Simm, there's absolutely nothing wrong with Head in himself, but casting him as the Doctor would be final, crippling proof that the series has given up any chance of having its own identity. Did I mention that I saw him in The Rocky Horror Show, in the days when he was only known for the Gold Blend adverts…? He had great legs.

Richard Coyle (14-1). If I had to look down the list of candidates and choose one based on nothing more than his name, then this would be the winner. The polar opposite of Chiwetel Ejiofor, it just looks right on the page: Eccleston… Tennant… Coyle. Sadly, he's the drippy one out of Coupling (read: "the geeky side of Moffat that he tries to keep hidden, or at least tries to be ironic about"), who then became some sort of Celtic warrior in a film about King Arthur that even fantasy buffs have managed to forget. Again, the association with Moffat guarantees him a place in this list, and puts Coyle in the "chillingly possible" category. But no matter how much they try to re-style him, he still comes across as a bad perm looking for somewhere to happen.

Sean Pertwee (14-1). Let's be honest, he wouldn't be here at all if he weren't called Pertwee. And if we're talking about the ability to engage a family audience, then he isn't even the most qualified of the Doctor-spawn. (I don't mean David Troughton, either. Think eyelashes and a functional womb.) Pertwee Jr's vulturine, granite-cast features suggest that his father mated with Darkseid from The New Gods, and even if you could somehow chisel a smile across it with a diamond-tipped drill, he'd still give you the impression that he'd rather be stamping on baby rabbits than fighting cosmic evil. This makes him ideal for television's "criminal psychopath" and "ruthless drug-lord" parts, which is why it seems so bizarre that he's the country's most sought-after voice-over artist. His numerous TV ads sound like the kind of thing you'd expect to hear in a near-future fascist dystopia, promising unlimited power for the masses with a creeping undercurrent of "…once all the defectives have been eradicated". Not perfect for this role.

Robert Carlyse (14-1). Oh, God, yes. Please, yes. Apart from anything else, Carlyse's casting would force the programme to climb out from under the mountain of rotting celeb-flesh and become something like a drama series again (albeit a drama with nods toward light entertainment, which is how it seems to work best). Donna Noble would be as unthinkable under Carlyse as she would've been under Eccleston, and his presence might even compel could-be-good-if-they-tried writers like Gareth Roberts to come up with proper scripts instead of collections of in-jokes. Carlyse's name has been mooted in connection with Doctor Who since the Eccleston mini-epoch, partly because both actors came from the same batch of Rising British Talent in the early '90s, and partly because they've been locked together in our mass-consciousness ever since Carlyse stabbed Eccleston to death in Cracker: this is why some of us half-expected the Doctor to regenerate into Ricky Tomlinson at the end of "The Parting of the Ways", and why Carlyse seemed the obvious choice to be the new Master. But nooooo, they had to go for This Year's Mr Popular, didn't they? Hearteningly, a recent Radio Times interview suggested that he'd be willing to consider a major part in Doctor Who, but that he simply hadn't been asked [footnote 5]. The question is, though… would the general public be able to accept anyone this intense, after four years of Tennant's "Mickeeeey!!!" approach? We can only hope.

Richard E. Grant (14-1). What, again?

Jack Davenport (16-1). Another actor well-versed in playing a manifestation of Moffat's psyche, having spent several years as "Steve", the hero of Coupling who walks a neurotic line between geekdom and self-confidence while treating his barely-concealed misogyny as a form of post-modernism. Davenport's case is strengthened by his Hollywood credentials, if you can ignore the fact that the makers of Pirates of the Caribbean cast him because of his lack of charm and charisma (I forget the name of his character, but Lead Snotty Englishman just about covers it). We should also remember that he's already had a shot at being the star of a "cult sci-fi" series, and that he utterly botched it. Ultraviolet was meant to do for fantasy what Cracker did for the detective series, but whereas the anti-hero of Cracker was a pathologically unpredictable spit-ball of rage and obsession, the lead character of Ultraviolet was a mumbling bore who instantly alienated the audience. Mind you, Simon Pegg killed the otherwise-promising Hippies in exactly the same way, and he somehow got a second chance.

Alan Davies (16-1). I'm not even going to dignify this with a response.

Adrian Lester (18-1). What's amusing is that just in this rundown of Twenty People Who Might Be the Next Doctor Who, there are more black actors than there were in the entire Hartnell era. But whereas Patterson Joseph is far, far too vicious for the role, Adrian Lester is merely bland. Much more interesting is what his appearance on this list says about the way Doctor Who is perceived by the Not-We. Lester is best known for the BBC's Hustle, literally the most predictable television series ever made, usually described by the Radio Times with the obvious euphemism "glossy". But these days, this is how both the bookies and the media-in-general see the Doctor's world: the series is no longer an ever-growing experiment in High Strangeness and relative moral values, it's quite distinctly a "format", related to the Tony Jordan school of License-Fee-draining, guest-star-heavy pseudo-drama. When you remember that the same people responsible for the vacuity of Hustle also devised Life on Mars (which is just as vacuous, but better-camouflaged), the last two years of Doctor Who make a lot more sense.

Adien Gillen (18-1). Aiden Gillen…? Oh, of course: the press still believes in the "Gay Mafia" theory of television, so Gillen is a potential candidate simply because he was seen committing various acts of fleshy man-lust in Queer as Folk. But in itself, this proves that he's not in the running. If Big Russell [footnote 6] were still Best Gay Friends with him, then Gillen would've had a major guest-star part in Doctor Who three years ago. For Davies to insist on casting an old acquaintance now, just as he's about to leave the series, would be bizarre behaviour even for the man who thought "Journey's End" made sense.

Alexander Armstrong (18-1). Back in 2003-2004, when we were still obsessing over the question of who the first twenty-first-century Doctor might be, one reader of the RT suggested that they should cast a new Doctor every week and call it Have I Got Whos for You. At around the same time, Russell T. Davies was expressing his disgust at the tabloid speculation that Jamie Oliver could get the part instead of a "serious" actor. And, hooray! He cast Christopher Eccleston. Yet after five years of separation from the world of mortal men, Davies has brought the programme to a point where the papers are once again more likely to suggest "celebs" than "thesps", which is why the list of candidates to be the Doctor looks frighteningly like a list of candidates to be the nation's leading game-show host: Alexander Armstrong is not only a regular chairman on Have I Got News, but has also been mooted as Des O'Connor's replacement on Countdown. To be fair to Armstrong, he's by far the least offensive of the comedians on this list, and nobody could take issue with his performance as the Modern K-9 in The Sarah-Jane Adventures. But this tells you almost as much about the state of the programme as the Adrian Lester option.

Jason Statham (18-1). Do me a ***ing favour.

Harry Lloyd (18-1). Honestly, it's hard not to like the man. If, indeed, "man" is the word: he looks as if he's still being used as a human toast-rack by the older boys at Eton. After his appearance as Son of Mine in "Human Nature", his interviews for Confidential proved him to be in the well-adjusted middle-ground between relaxed professionalism and boyish enthusiasm, although that's perhaps not surprising for someone who looks as if he should be in the Doctor Who version of Muppet Babies alongside Russell Tovey. I just about managed to accept a Doctor who's roughly my age, but a public-school Doctor born in the 1980s? It's hard to imagine him commanding the authority to save the universe, unless he's going to challenge Davros to a round of the Biscuit Game. (Which Davros would lose, obviously. Because... well, y'know... he doesn't have a spare hand to hold the biscuit.)

And, way down the list of contenders…

Alex Kingston (50-1). Every time it looks as if a new Doctor's going to be required, some idiot suggests that it might be a woman. This year, that idiot was me, although there was a logic behind it. If Tennant has become so popular that he's virtually irreplaceable - far more so than Tom Baker ever was, since people in those days only expected an actor, not a major celebrity and national sex-symbol as well [footnote 7] - then the only option is to introduce a Doctor so shockingly different that the question of "better" or "worse" ceases to be an issue. If there's ever going to be a full-time female Doctor, then it's going to be now, especially when we consider the new producer's preference for hanging around with sexy actresses [footnote 8]. So there's a terrible credibility in Alex Kingston, the only woman on the Paddy Power list, being a candidate. If the programme-makers earmarked her as a potential She-Doctor some time ago, then the banality of the contrived-love-interest scenes in "Silence in the Library" makes a lot more sense: it's the set-up rather than the punchline, the twist being that she's not the Doctor's future wife at all, but someone who's destined to carry his "essence" around after the death of his current body. There are any number of precedents for this in SF television, and besides, the casting of an actress from ER would be seen as a coup by those bottom-feeding telly-whores who believe American TV to be the paragon of all human culture. In other words, exactly the kind of people whom the members of the Doctor Who production team are likely to meet every day.

However, if we're talking about the possibility of a bluestocking Doctor, then… I'd like to propose a rank outsider of my own.

Billie Piper. At the moment, she's happily squirming in her own afterbirth (she's named her newborn "Winston", which shows that she's lost none of her taste or good judgement since she declared "The Satan Pit" to be her favourite episode of 2006). But she wouldn't have to start shooting the 2010 series for another few months, and by then, the glow of celebrity motherhood would almost certainly have been replaced by a professional nanny. A few months after that, the papers would be full of speculation about her husband knocking off the nanny while Ms Piper's in Cardiff, but that's none of our concern. The thing to remember here is that the bigger Doctor Who gets, the more terrified its creators become, and the more they rely on past successes to win audience approval. Reuniting all the recent companions in "The Stolen Earth" might be regarded as a "celebration" of the programme so far, but it could equally be seen as a work of cowardice, especially since the story ends with a thoroughly pointless reprise of "Doomsday". Billie Piper is a proven ratings-winner, and associated with a Golden Age of Doctor Who that's scheduled to end with the departure of Tennant, at least unless they can keep it going by replacing him with someone just as recognisable. For the Doctor to take on Rose's form is no more ridiculous than any other regeneration (old-school geeks may quibble with this, but you can shut them up just by mentioning "Destiny of the Daleks", without even having to resort to "Journey's End"). Two years ago, it would've seemed silly, but then… two years ago, so would this entire list. With one exception, anyway.

Of course, since newfangled Doctor Who was designed to revolve around the companion until Catherine Tate made it impossible, we know that the nature of the new sidekick will be almost as crucial as the casting of the lead. For obvious reasons, Paddy Power isn't running a book on that, but we can make guesses based on Steven Moffat's known tendencies. Assuming that the Doctor's still male, the New Executive won't break with tradition, so it'll be another girl. She's unlikely to come from 2008 again - that'd be too obvious - but at the same time, Moffat won't want to risk alienating the audience by making her too far removed from home. He also wants to push the public's "nostalgia" button, as well as keeping the fans on his side, so the clever money says she'll come from 1963. In which case, she'll probably be an orphan, to avoid the necessity of return-trips to her own period. And since Moffat will want to curry favour with everyone else in Cardiff (q.v. "The Doctor Dances", in which he attempts to flatter to his Big Gay Boss by inventing a version of 1940s England in which none of the men are heterosexual), she'll obviously be inclined towards Welshness.

And, as pop-fate would have it, there's a model for this character. The last twelve months have already given the UK a vulnerable-yet-spunky Welsh girl who's got all the retro-glamour and heart-rending angst of Dusty Springfield, which is why I'm predicting that the 2010 series will be - in a nutshell - Duffy the Vampire Slayer.

Footnote 1. Eccleston came close, by treating the cultural well-being of younger viewers as a sacred trust. It's hard to imagine Tom Baker putting his ego aside in quite the same way, just as it's hard to imagine Eccleston making an arse of himself on a BBC1 panel-game show in twenty years' time.

Footnote 2. One of them wants to impress girls, and the other wants to smash giant spaceships into volcanoes.

Footnote 3. But even Warrington, like anyone over the age of forty-five, would be unacceptable after Tennant. Actually, I suggested him as a possible Doctor in a "Round Table" interview for I, Who 2, circa 2001. Gary Russell was also part of that Round Table, and shortly thereafter, Big Finish cast Warrington as Rassilon. Coincidence…? Yeah, probably. (The same interview saw Gary Russell describing Alien Bodies as one of the best Doctor Who books ever written, shortly before he blacklisted me from Big Finish for being mildly impolite about one of his own efforts. How do these people sleep?)

Footnote 4. There's also the issue of Morton Dill being one of Steven Taylor's ancestors. But let's not be too anal, there might be civilians reading this.

Footnote 5. Unlike, say, such luminaries as Roger Lloyd Pack or Michelle Collins. That's a bit like asking Chris Chibnall to write an episode, but not asking me.

Footnote 6. By now, you're probably sick of my insistence on calling him "Big Russell". But anyone who saw him on-stage at the ITV awards, dwarfing his minions in all three dimensions, will realise how apt it is.

Footnote 7. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: even if they were all still around and all still in their prime, none of the actors who've played the Doctor so far would possibly stand a chance of being Tennant's replacement. Not even Eccleston, whose leering, ogre-like demeanour would make far too many teenagers shout "eww, minger!" after the Boy David.

Footnote 8. Yeah, like I'm any different. Oh, that reminds me: why haven't I been commissioned to write another Bernice audio this year? I want another chance to flirt with Lisa Bowerman.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Week Eight: "My Life with the New God-King"

Steven Moffat: The Unauthorised Biography. The power! The passion…!

I can't remember, now, why I might have been staying home from sixth-form college that day. Nor can I remember why I might have been watching Children's ITV at half past four in the afternoon, and I certainly can't remember why I didn't even bother reaching for the remote control when the voice-over announced a programme called Press Gang. A series about a whoop of schoolchildren running a junior newspaper is not, under normal circumstances, the sort of thing that a seventeen-year-old geek-boy in 1990 would have found acceptable: for anyone who went through puberty in the 1980s, it has that horrible smack of Jossie's Giants about it. In fact, I'm not even sure why I sat through the whole twenty-five minutes, since the opening scenes didn't do anything so far-removed from the usual run of adolescent programming that it gave me a specific reason to keep watching. No Egyptian gods, no horses on space-stations. Still, by the time the end credits arrived, I'd found myself genuinely concerned over the question of whether the Male Lead and the Female Lead (who were entirely new to me then, but whom I later discovered had been suffering UST for all twelve episodes of the previous season) would end up getting it on. I made a note to watch this programme again, if ever I should be at home on a Thursday.

Three weeks later, I was, just in time to catch the episode which ended with the all-important "Spike and Lynda agree to go on their first date" cliffhanger. At this point, the programme crossed the line from "watch this if you're available" to "set the video", and the following episode - "At Last a Dragon", considered in Press Gang circles to be the centre-point around which the rest of the series revolves - convinced me that it was probably the best thing on television. However, this was something I had difficulty explaining to my peer group, especially the "better than Doctor Who" part of the argument. They assumed I was being ironic in some way. Bear in mind that 1990 was the start of the Irony Age, when near-adults would watch Byker Grove in the belief that they were being post-modern (even now, Ant and Dec's career seems to be built on the principle of the audience pretending they're good) and spliff-addled teenagers would tune into repeats of Dogtanian and the Three Muskahounds just to sing along with the theme tune. The notion that Press Gang was actually good good, rather than kitsch good, wasn't easy to get across.

So when Steve Lyons gave a nod to the series in the dedication to Conundrum, and the paperback, celebrity-free version of Human Nature went one better by giving a credit to the programme's sole scriptwriter, it was nice to know that I wasn't just imagining it. His ascension to emperor-elect seems almost inevitable now, but what's notable is that people were saying "if Doctor Who comes back, then they should get that Steven Moffat to write for it" as early as 1991. We might also note that Press Gang began in the same year that original-flavour Doctor Who ended, raising the question of what might have happened if John Nathan-Turner had managed to hold on for just a few more years, and Moffat had ended up writing for the pre-CGI, pre-mini-movie version. "Blink" on old-fashioned video-stock would, after all, look like the natural follow-up to "Survival".

"Moffat"! Somehow, I find it impossible to think of him as "Steven". I can comfortably refer to the man who dropped my manuscript down the back of a shelving-unit as "Gareth", or the man who gave us Donna Noble as "Big Russell", and yet… perhaps it's his snarling, predatory Scottishness, but Moffat's name is one that has to be snapped. I can't hear it without feeling as if someone should be waving their fist in the air at the same time, like a headmaster shouting at one of the Bash Street Kids… or, perhaps more appropriately, like a headmaster shouting at a wayward teacher in a '70s sitcom. I say "snarling", although if you watch it again now, then one of the key things to notice about Press Gang is that it's basically a work of idealism. It's not just that Moffat seems to have been on a mission to make children's TV that worked properly, but that the programme's entire philosophy comes across as an idealistic one. Bear this in mind, because it's going to be important later. The Press Gang universe is full of twisted, neurotic personalities, yet cynicism rarely wins out, and the fight usually turns out to be worth fighting.

(Well… up to a point. In the final series, something terrible happens to the makeup of this universe, and female characters who've previously been depicted as intelligent, principled and self-reliant suddenly become parasitic harpies with absolutely no taste in men. It's worth mentioning that Moffat's next project, Joking Apart, was a sitcom about a comedy writer who's going through a hideous divorce. I never asked him about this, but the conclusion seems obvious, in much the same way that you just knew Warlock had to be written by a man who'd recently been dumped by his girlfriend.)

I finally met Moffat on the 1st of April, 1998, the same day that I played an elaborate April Fool's joke on Stephen Cole by dumping 450 pages of Interference on his desk and saying "look, I just wrote a Doctor Who book!". The first time I saw him, he was in the middle of a loud and marginally drunken conversation with a female acquaintance. He was complaining about a kitten. Had his wife bought a kitten, or did one of his friends have a kitten that had annoyed him in some way, or…? It wasn't quite clear, even at the time. What I remember is that his acquaintance responded to this by protesting, 'but it's so cute!'. To which Moffat shouted: 'It'd look cute stuffed!'

I think I must have realised, right then and there, that I'd misread the situation entirely. I'd assumed that he'd be like one of the idealistic personalities from Press Gang. In fact, he was like one of the twisted, neurotic ones. With hindsight, it seems so obvious.

From a personal point of view, it's not difficult to understand why Moffat and I have never precisely seen eye-to-eye. Let's start with the Krays-style argument that men never really grow up, or at least, that they never manage to break out of the rules they set for themselves during adolescence. We'll take it as read, just for the time being, that every adult male has in some way become "stuck" during that long hormonal death-crawl from puberty to home-ownership. If true, then the difference between myself and Moffat is simple: I never quite stopped being seventeen (the age at which I first saw Press Gang, although I'm assuming there's no connection), whereas Moffat never quite stopped being nineteen. There's a whacking great gulf between the two. A seventeen-year-old, especially a bright seventeen-year-old, is fundamentally driven by angst. His mind will be open to whole new empires of experience, but he'll have no way of contextualising this in terms of the people around him. This will make him frustrated, and often socially clumsy, likely to be an idealist but with no clear idea of how to put his idealism into effect. He's inclined to be a poet, if only a bad one.

But this sort of thing doesn't trouble the nineteen-year-old, who will have worked out exactly how to deal with other people, even if it means doing everything possible to cover up any sign of emotional weakness. He'll have no time for angst, since he'll be too busy hanging around the university bar, trying to impress the girls. And, to be fair, often succeeding. If he has any neurosis, then it's the neurosis of a manchild who knows he can't ever be seen to lose any of his credibility. Idealism is fine, but only if you don't look too enthusiastic about it, and only if there's a chance to take the piss out of anyone who's less arch and impassive than yourself. (In Moffat's case, I've seen him deliberately sabotage geeky-sounding conversations that he obviously finds quite interesting, just because he can't allow himself to feel like a geek… q.v. what I said about his appearance on the Confidential accompanying "The Doctor Dances", pretending not to know what nanites are.) As a great writer once said, however: the most important thing to notice about someone who uses his sense of humour as a weapon isn't that he has a sense of humour, but that he needs a weapon.

I'll give you the short version, if you want. I like Star Wars because of its dynamism, its scope, its technique, its sheer artistry. Moffat likes Star Wars because Han Solo's dead cool and there's lots of sexy hardware. In that light, those who've read "The Book of the World" might want to take a moment to consider the difference between my idea of a great big cosmic library and the one we see in "Silence…". The "Book" version is designed to suggest the Big Picture, the sense of something huge and majestic waiting beyond the walls, ready to break open the story-universe. It's basically a world-building exercise, which is why the descriptions are so bloody long (it's not like "Blink" or "The Sontaran Stratagem", y'know… if you're creating a whole ecosystem from scratch, then you can't just say "right, now we're in a warehouse" and leave it at that). Whereas the "Silence in the Library" version is about the individual elements, not the environment. There's a conceptual monster that children can turn into a playground game at will, at least when it's sunny; there's an ensemble cast that covers all bases, with enough snappy one-liners for everyone; there's a framing sequence about a reality-shift between the normal world and the nightmare, one of Moffat's specialities ever since Press Gang; there's a chief supporting actress who's capable of slick backchat with the Doctor; there's this year's big character-gimmick, i.e. an apparent future companion; there's techno-chic for the hard SF fans, and an implied Horror from the Dawn of Time for the gothicists. In short, this episode's got everything it needs to be… well… cool.

So obviously I prefer "The Book of the World". Not purely because I wrote it, but because I'll go for "world-building" above "cool" any day. Moffat is built the other way around. Both of these approaches can be thought of as adolescent (and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that), although they're very different stages of adolescence.

Moffat didn't pay much attention to me, the first few times we met. This seemed reasonable, since I didn't have XX chromosomes and big honkers, although things changed when - for whatever reason - he read Alien Bodies. The next time we found ourselves in the same pub-space, he bounded up to me and started telling me how good it was, while I stood there trying not to look alarmed. Ten years on, this sounds as if it should have been a meeting of two gargantuan talents (yes it should, shut up), and yet in a way, it guaranteed that we were never going to be close. When I say that we didn't see eye-to-eye, I mean it in a sense that's almost literal. Remember, you've got to think of this as a confrontation between an awkward seventeen-year-old (actually 26) and a socially-ambitious nineteen-year-old (actually 37). Anyone who's ever met me will know that I'm not very prepossessing at the best of times, and having decided that I was competent as a writer, Moffat immediately seemed to take it upon himself to… how can I put this? To treat me as if I were a promising young acolyte. He was always aware of his status as the high-ranking, award-winning member of the Doctor Who Gang, and used terms like "alpha male" rather a lot in conversation: again, this is going to be important later on, when we try to work out what he's likely to do now that he's the King of the World. I realise, looking back on it, that I was deferring to him all the time. I didn't realise it then, because I wasn't fluent in body language.

There's a thing called the "power-pat", and it's a way for the alpha male to demonstrate his dominance over the other males in such a way that it looks perfectly friendly. It's so primal that gorillas have been known to do it, and so powerful in its social impact that world leaders are now trained in its use by body-language specialists (George W. Bush did it to Tony Blair during every public meeting they ever had, as if we hadn't already worked out which of them was taking it like a bitch). I only found out about this circa 2000, which is why I didn't initially understand why Moffat kept putting his arm around me every time he saw me. When I did work it out, I felt rather annoyed, and told everyone I met at the Tavern that he had a gay crush on me. Sure enough, he'd invariably walk up to me, touch up my shoulders for a while, then walk off again, at which point everyone would start giggling. And, on one occasion, writing "SM4LM" graffiti on one of the tables. Eventually, after reading up on bonehead non-verbal communication, I decided to try putting the boot on the other foot. The next time Moffat approached me, I turned around, reared up to my full height, advanced on him like a wall of hairy man-flesh, and - for the first and only time - took the "offensive" role in the conversation, questioning his own life and career as if such things were obviously my business. He started to shrink back, and after a couple of minutes, I realised that he was actually deferring to me. And I remember thinking: dear God, is it really this simple?

You see what I mean about all men being conditioned by their adolescence. But if all this monkey-posturing sounds absurd, then let's put in the context of the late '90s / early 2000s. You may remember a time, in the days before "Doctor Who fans" meant thirteen-year-olds, when the Virgin / BBC novels actually seemed important. The authors certainly thought they were important, and pride was their most valued possession. After all, the reason I gained a reputation as an unhealthy influence was that I broke what Keith Topping called "the unspoken code", the Omerta-like law which held that New Adventures writers should all stick together in the face of fandom and not publicly criticise each others' work. I say "Omerta", but in practice, they behaved more like Medieval overlords than mafiosa: the elite have to form a united front, because otherwise, they'll be revealed as weak, flabby individuals and the peasants will get ideas above their station. Oh, and you're the peasants, by the way. When the new series began, those authors who were promoted to scriptwriter-level went from "overlords" to "royalty", which is why my heartless attack on Mark Gatiss was received with the same shock as if a small-time landowner in the Middle Ages had just referred to the Prince of the Realm as a big spaz.

You think I'm exaggerating…? Then consider this. When Paul Cornell took me to task for the social faux-pas of having opinions, he seemed appalled that I was incapable of respecting the natural hierarchy, and asked whether there was anybody I 'bent the knee' to. Bent the knee…? What is this, geek feudalism? When I told him that I had no interest in serving or reigning, he asked me: 'Do your followers know that?' I found it horrifying that anyone could even think that way, and I still do.

I digress, but only slightly. The upshot is that I have no interest in power, either my own or other people's. The adage that "power corrupts" misses the real issue, which is that the very definition of power is "the capacity for abuse". I managed to make Steven Moffat my bitch, just the once, by making the same moves that a gorilla might make while attempting to take control of the flange. I couldn't keep it up, of course. Being a pack-alpha is far too much like hard work. I'm an anarchist, for f***'s sake, seventeen-year-olds are allowed to be.

So, this is what we should bear in mind about the boss-to-be. He's a man who's painfully aware of his own status, to the point where he used to be known in certain circles as Steven "Did I Mention I've Got a BAFTA?" Moffat. But more ominously, he's a man who's spent an awful lot of time in the company of people who are even more status-obsessed than he is, and who've traditionally had difficulty telling the difference between "fandom" and "serfdom". It'd be unfair and inaccurate to say that he desperately wants to be liked at any cost, but it is reasonable to say that unlike Russell T. Davies, he's not naturally inclined to write anything which might risk alienating a large chunk of the audience. Those of you who don't like "Gridlock" or (the big one) "Love & Monsters" will no doubt be delighted to hear this, but some would argue that Doctor Who is in a better position to take interesting risks than anything else on television. Fortunately, Moffat is one of the few writers working in modern-day TV who's actually capable of writing rather than just storyboarding, so his episodes tend to be worth watching even when they're playing it safe. "Silence in the Library" is a good indicator: the scenes set on what-looks-like-Earth aren't really going out on a limb, since they just employ the author's favourite technique of setting one branch of the story in a "side-space" away from the main adventure (this started with Press Gang's "Going Back to Jasper Street", which Cornell unquestionably had in mind when he wrote the framing sequences of "Father's Day"), yet they're different enough from the "normal" run of this year's Doctor Who to be attractive to the viewer. If we're talking about his tendency to avoid big risks, though, then the real test-case is…

…oh, Christ, here we go again…

…then the real test-case is "Blink", which still seems unforgivably lazy to me. This is an episode that wants us to believe it's character-driven, but one of the problems with today's pretend-it's-just-like-the-movies approach to TV is that characterisation has very nearly become a lost art, and people who talk about "good characters" usually just mean "lots of snappy one-liners". Sure enough, "Blink" has lots of snappy one-liners. It's also got a standard-issue Spunky Young Female as a protagonist, a standard-issue female sidekick who makes post-modernish comments about the story being just like a TV show, and a standard-issue pet geek who becomes a foil for standard-issue comments about fanboys only having friends on the internet (again, Moffat appears terrified by the suggestion of nerdliness… I'll brush over the fact that the nerd in question is called "Lawrence" on this occasion). Add to that all the "timey-wimey" material - not exactly standard-issue, although it's been second-nature to Moffat ever since "Continuity Errors" - and the result may be the best-ever episode of Torchwood, but it still seems unduly cynical for a programme like Doctor Who. Any competent writer should be able to auto-produce this kind of thing without even thinking about it, even if he can't literally micturate it while semi-conscious. Beyond the central concept of monsters that can't move while you're looking at them, you don't have to invent anything. The fact that it won a British Academy award speaks volumes about the way our expectations of TV drama have changed over the last couple of decades. Just think: in 1986, The Singing Detective wasn't even nominated.

When you start to dwell on all of this - no, don't bother, I've done enough dwelling for all of us - certain elements in Moffat's scripts take on a new significance. To an extent, he's the Doctor Who version of Neil Gaiman, a writer who's prepared to contrive his storylines with near-clinical precision to make sure that (a) the right demographic groups are interested and (b) he gets to look like a rock star. This is probably the harshest thing I've said so far, since [I really, really, really don't like Neil Gaiman, but I've been informed that my original way of expressing this verges on libel], and even Moffat isn't that desperate. But unquestionably, there are things in his scripts which exist solely to get specific parts of the audience on his side. As I said at about this time last year, Mme de Pompadour doesn't even have a personality, and she's presented to us as a form of historical blow-up doll: "One of the most accomplished women who ever lived, now with three realistic holes!" Her purpose is simply to give the Doctor something to fall in love with, even though the two of them have nothing in common, and even though Moffat has to resort to a Vulcan mind-meld in order to get them together. What he really wants to write about are clockwork robots, spaceships that punch holes through time, and his trademark "temporal architectures", but a romance is needed in order to make the fangirls feel a bit moist, so therefore… a romance appears out of nowhere.

Something similar happens in "Blink". When the snappy one-liners and the scary statues have done their work, there still needs to be something more emotive at the heart of the story. Ta-daah! The time-shifted policeman gets to die in hospital. If you watch the clock, then you'll find that his death-scene is longer than all his previous scenes put together, which says it all: his purpose isn't to be a fully-functional character, it's to kick the bucket and make us feel sad. In the fifty-first century, Miss Evangelista has obviously inherited this "doomed and tragic" gene, and her death-scene is even more tortuous while managing to be even less moving. The lesson being that if you kill off a character who's flatter than the Nodes, then it's just not going to make us cry, no matter how long you try to draw it out for. And along the same lines, I bet there's an excuse for Professor River Song to break down sobbing and / or die tearfully in the second act.

Not only that, but "Silence in the Library" is quite ruthless in marketing itself to children, firstly by having the Doctor address them directly (whether it's by talking to the camera or actually communicating through a TV set) and then by presenting the little girl as the creator-messiah of this world. Even the McDonald's Corporation isn't this adept at manipulating the responses of the under-twelves. Yay, kids! This is your programme! Exactly why there's a subplot about a child talking to the Doctor via a TV, when this supposed to be a story about books and libraries, I'm not sure. Actually, I'm not even sure why it's set in a library at all, rather than a generic alien ruin. Shouldn't it be about reading in some way, instead of just making smug comments about Geoffrey Archer and Bridget Jones…? Still, we're only halfway through. Let's give it a chance.

Come to think of it, if we're contemplating Moffat as someone who's hyper-sensitive to his social environment, then even "The Empty Child" is worthy of close inspection. I'm sure I'm not alone in noticing that there's an awful lot of gayness in this story: Captain Jack having an affair with the army officer is fair enough, but when the man whose house is invaded by Nancy (Nancy…!) turns out to be slipping it to the local butcher, you start to wonder whether anyone heterosexual lives in 1941 at all. Now, on being recruited to write for the series, Moffat would obviously have deferred to Big Russell and - so to speak - been on the receiving end for once. Trying to please a gay producer during the making of the gayest-ever version of Doctor Who, he… fills the world with people who have unconventional and mildly anachronistic lifestyles, despite being unremittingly straight in himself. It's like Zelig.

This is, of course, massively unkind. In fact, Moffat's need to give the punters what they want - or something like what they want, with enough twists to make it seem worthwhile - cuts both ways, especially if we're trying to imagine him in his Big Cheese role. Supplying a little bit of what everyone fancies is a perfectly valid way of running the show, provided it's a strategy for the series as a whole rather than a formula for every individual episode. And some things which seem contrived in the short-term can pay off in the long-term. On paper, Sally Sparrow doesn't have much of a personality to speak of, and most of her human appeal comes from the performance (and, if we're going to be honest, the pouting) of the cute one out of Bleak House. But then, you can say exactly the same thing about Rose in the script for "Rose": it works because it gives Billie Piper the ideal platform to do what Billie Piper does best, not because it gives her any real depth. It's easy to believe that when he reboots the series in 2010, Moffat might give us a companion designed according to the Sally Sparrow principle. Indeed, since C*th*r*n* T*t* has set a precedent for one-shot supporting characters making a long-term comeback, it might as well be Sally Sparrow. It's not as if Carey Mulligan's got anything better to do. However straightforward she may have been in a single forty-five-minute instalment, it's not hard to imagine her being developed into something more complex over the course of a series. The best companions are launchpads for the actor, and that's not necessarily true of the supporting cast.

More importantly, though, the need to stay Leader of the Gang is a very different urge from any that's driven the series so far. Where Russell T. Davies has failed, he's failed because he's been drawn into the soft, velvety guts of showbiz, eventually reaching the point where he's come to think of other showbiz types as being his target audience. We know he's always had a camp streak as wide as his buttocks, and there have been times during his Confidential interviews when he's looked as if he wants to launch into a chorus of "That's Entertainment", so perhaps it's no surprise that he might now consider the presence of Kylie Minogue to be more important than the presence of a plot. Yet despite being surrounded by sexy actresses for the last two decades, and despite Coupling being rendered to the USA to be horrifically tortured by experts, Moffat remains surprisingly untouched by showbiz. True, he may recently have become a member of the sinister voodoo police-force known as the Tintin Macoute, but it doesn't seem to have spoiled him.

In fact, if anything's distorted his agenda, then it's been his reputation amongst Doctor Who-kind rather than the call of Hollywood. "The Empty Child" established him as The Scary One, and Big Russell has repeated this time and time again, which means that he's had to live up to it every year. Gasmasks… done that. Thing lurking under the bed… done that. Statues… done that. What else? Er… oh yeah, shadows. That'll work. Ah, of course, that explains it. Why a library? Because libraries are creepy, that's all. He can't keep this up, but nor should he have to: once he's in charge, we might assume that he'll have better things to do than keep ticking off items from his list of Stuff That Freaks Out Five-Year-Olds. In this week's Confidential, even David Tennant has pointed out that there's a "checklist" method in effect here. But the fact is that if Moffat wants to remain Top Gorilla while he's in charge of the entire programme, then he's not going to do it by dedicating himself to a "King of Terror" role that was never really his calling in the first place. He never seemed to have any aspirations to make children wet themselves before 2005, which is why his first attempt at a library-based story ("Continuity Errors") doesn't even suggest that libraries might be scary places.

And with hindsight, the gasmask-zombies look like a side-effect of "The Empty Child" rather than being the things he's most interested in. What are the things he's most interested in…? Sexy hardware and snappy one-liners, natch. Captain Jack is like Han Solo without the God-awful dialogue. Yet as things stand, the writer's spent three years believing the producer's hype. The cliffhanger-monster in "Silence", lumbering after the Doctor while repeating the same phrase over and over again, comes across as a last-ditch effort to repeat a winning formula. Sadly, 'who turned out the lights?' isn't really as catchy as 'are you my mummy?'.

Here's one more point about the Future According to Moffat, though. He hates sci-fi, probably even more than I do. Which is to say, the "toys" of science-fiction have an obvious appeal for him, but he couldn't even take Babylon-5 seriously the first time round. As we all know, his default setting is sitcom, not Star Trek. Ergo, we can assume that he has little or no interest in story-arcs, especially when we remember that most of his scripts are about intricate, self-contained structures rather than vast swathes of galactic history (this is what I meant about "temporal architectures", his insistence on getting characters to run up and down their own histories instead of corridors, hence "Continuity Errors", "The Curse of the Fatal Death", "The Girl in the Fireplace", "Blink", "Time Crash"…). Now, this raises questions about the shape of the 2010 series. You can just about imagine what he might come up with as a first-episode story, even though his strong suit is landing the TARDIS in the middle of a conceptual labyrinth rather than setting up a completely new vision for the series… and, potentially, introducing a new Doctor as well as a new companion. But the end-of-year two-parter?

No, "Doomsday" isn't what he does. A long run-up to an immense universe-threatening horror goes against his nature, because to Steven, the big finish isn't as important as the fiddly bits in the middle. It's hard to imagine him even caring what the nature of the catastrophe is. Then again, we don't know for a fact that he'll elect to write the season finale himself. We don't even know whether Russell T. Davies has left the series for good, or whether he might pop back from time to time, perhaps to write something suitably epic while the new boss is working on something more convoluted.

I just called him "Steven". Clearly, I'm starting to warm to the subject-matter. It's a bit like Stockholm Syndrome.

I haven't heard from Moffat in nearly a year now. The last time he e-mailed me, apart from his junk-mail message telling everyone in his address book to watch Jekyll, was on the day after I wrote my response to "Blink". One correspondent described this as an "evisceration", although I like to think that it was at least a nice evisceration. But he seemed to lose patience with me long before that, perhaps because I kept refusing to act according to my station, perhaps just because I got on his nerves. Though he'd occasionally compliment me on the quality of my comedic writing, I can only remember making him laugh once, and that was with an obscene comment about Julia Sawalha. So there was a definite point at which he stopped putting his arm around me and beginning every sentence with the word 'listen…' as if to give me fatherly advice, and instead started getting agitated at everything I tried to say and shouting 'WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?'. Of course, by that time, I'd been through the "Unquiet Dead" fiasco and become persona non grata as far as "official" Doctor Who was concerned. Was this what made him give up on me, then? My utter lack of Omerta?

If so, then there may be a final irony here. Moffat was present when I started drinking, and believe me when I say that there was a definite, specific occasion on which I can be said to have "started". Indeed, he plied me with alco-pops at every opportunity, and has suggested on more than one occasion that he feels vaguely responsible for my subsequent near-alcoholism. I have my own opinions about who's responsible for what, but what if he's right? What if it's true? Apart from anything else, it's got to be said that if I hadn't been boozed up on the night of "The Unquiet Dead", then I probably would've responded with a finely-honed 3,000-word essay rather than the angst-burst that eventually ended up on the internet. The same could be said for numerous other turning-points in my recent life, not all of them so public. And if you go back further, then Press Gang must surely have been a key influence on me as a writer, if not on my seventeen-year-old self as a human being. This would make Steven Moffat more responsible for my existence, or at least the existence of the Lawrence Miles that everybody in fandom knows about, than anyone else still living. Dear God, what kind of monster has this man created? I'll say what I like about "Blink", he's got nobody to blame but himself. I'm home, dad!

According to the Word on the Streets (which is to say, those theoretical streets which seem to be inhabited solely by Doctor Who fans dressed like Huggy Bear), Moffat's promotion to the executive level means that Rob Shearman is likely to be invited back in from the cold, after falling out with the production team in 2005. Rob - one of the few Doctor Who writers I've met who seems to find the power-game of pro-level fandom as ridiculous as I do, and therefore one of the few I genuinely like as a person - is an interesting case, because after the "Unquiet Dead" review, he positively demanded that I disembowel "Dalek" in the same way. I never did, but inviting criticism is probably the healthiest thing that someone in his position can do: any decent writer should know, instinctively, that he can't expect to inflict his work on hundreds / thousands / millions of people and keep his ego intact. Now Steven's about to become the most significant screenwriter in the UK, and not only that, but a highly-visible public figure who's going to be held accountable for an awfully large portion of our licence-fee money. I wonder whether he's prepared for the full horror of that, and whether he'll be able to acknowledge his mistakes. Assuming he's going to make any.

The trouble is, the ability to admit your own weaknesses isn't a typically nineteen-year-old trait. Especially not if the nineteen-year-old in question is trying to impress eight-million people at once.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Week Seven-and-a-Half: Commercial Break

Smirnoff 1, Sontarans 0.

Perhaps the most striking thing about This Week's Big Doctor Who News - apart from making me wonder whether Steven Moffat actually read that thing I wrote about Mme de Pompadour and the blow-up doll [but see For One Week Only, below] - is that now the Emperor has named his successor, our focus has suddenly been shifted onto the future rather than the past. Which is to say…

One of the problems with Doctor Who having a single, visible God-King is that whenever the programme falters, it looks as if it's the result of an insane indulgence by a mad despotic ruler (here we might recall that Caligula wasn't assassinated because he was really a horse-shagging psychopath, but because he was making the Empire feel silly about itself). Of course, the actual reason that the 2008-season-so-far has been such a wash-out is that for the last five episodes, none of the writers have done any proper writing. "Planet of the Ood" barely even registers as a story; "The Sontaran Stratagem" no more qualifies as a script than that record by the Ting Tings qualifies as a "song"; the script of "The Doctor's Daughter" is abysmal, and the finished production only ends up being watchable through a combination of (a) the enthusiasm of all those involved and (b) Georgia Moffett's eyelashes; while "The Unicorn and the Wasp" is a collection of pork-scratchings from the corpse of Poirot, so much so that one of its main jokes / plot-twists is cut-and-pasted straight from "The Veiled Lady", although that's another issue.

Yet we have to believe that Big Russell is in some way singularly responsible, not least because he really, really wants us to. Which means that this may be the very last week in which any criticism we might make about the series will be rooted in what's gone before ("Jesus, this has jumped the shark") rather than what's likely to happen next ("still, at least it's bound to be completely different in 2010"). We can dwell on Moffat's potential impact next week, when he'll be presenting us with this year's BAFTA nominee. For now, this is our final chance to take stock of the story so far. And since this is the mid-season break, in an age when Doctor Who seriously believes itself to be a commercial concern, I'd like to do this by… talking about adverts.

Trust me, it's relevant.

What we've learned is that these days, TV ads aren't just the greatest competition that Doctor Who has, but the greatest competition that anything vaguely peculiar, fantastical, or outré can have. One of the reasons that avant-garde culture has had such a rough time over the last thirty years, even beyond the fact that various governments and Rupert Murdoch have done everything possible to bludgeon it to death, is that all the things we used to find remarkable - surrealism, shock tactics, and odd juxtapositions of all kinds - have now been co-opted by the corporate, commercial media. We live in an age of what a great man once called "the casually miraculous", and CGI has just compounded the problem. Consider, as a recent example, the case of Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding from The Mighty Boosh. After they'd finished shooting their second series, they seriously believed that they'd made a programme more bizarre than anything else on television. Yet as Fielding has pointed out, it was only when the series was broadcast that the truth became apparent: a thirty-minute show about a pink octopus on a flying carpet or a Mexican bandit made of videotape is all very well, but all you have to do is switch channels from BBC3 to ITV, and you can see half a dozen (much higher-budget) thirty-second ad-spots in which cars change into giant robot scorpions and people turn into walking jigsaw puzzles. In fact, the most successful episode of The Mighty Boosh that year was the cheap-rate one about two men going berserk on a desert island, in which the "monsters" were coconuts with faces painted on them.

As we all know, special effects are now so commonplace that we don't even notice them. I say "as we all know", but… does Doctor Who know it? Time and time and time and time and time and time again, we've seen this series make the same mistake of believing that big show-pieces are more interesting than the narrative. This goes all the way back to the Eccleston season, the mythical era when the lost wisdom of the ancients guaranteed that the programme was at least interesting. Look again at the Confidential that accompanied "The End of the World" (you probably videotaped it, because you didn't know how sick you'd get of Confidential in those days), and you'll see Russell T. Davies boasting about the amount of cash that was spent on the spaceship effects, before announcing that if people don't remember this in years to come then the production team might as well give up and go home. Even at the time, it was hard to understand how someone who'd done so much good could make such an obvious error. Three years on, nobody outside fandom remembers the spaceship effects from "The End of the World", because they're virtually indistinguishable from the spaceship effects in every other SF series, SF movie, and SF television ad for Carling Black Label. The viewers of 2005 certainly don't recall Platform One as well as they recall a bunch of men dressing up as killer shop-window dummies, a week earlier.

And as we've already established, the most memorable thing in that whole season - for the general public, at least - was the frighteningly low-budget spectacle of a little boy in a gasmask saying 'are you my mummy?'. The reason is obvious, of course: in the context of the narrative, it's vastly scarier than standard-issue CGI monstrosities like the Reapers or (Christ help us) the Krillitanes. On top of which, we have the problem that any CGI monster is by definition going to be regarded as a Special Effect rather than a natural part of the story. The advantage of a "real" monster, whether it's a Dalek, a gasmask-zombie, or even a Muppet, is that it stops being bizarre after the first couple of minutes. The audience begins to treat it as a normal element of the story-world, and accepts it as a given fact, which means that we find the programme much more engaging. Whereas the point of a computer sprite will always be to make the viewer say "gosh, wow, look!", and the result of this is usually a series of set-pieces in which the episode shows off the CGI as much as possible whether we care about it or not. The plot of "The Unicorn of the Wasp" is specifically engineered to show us some footage of a giant wasp every few minutes, but since it doesn't do anything except hover menacingly, none of these scenes are remotely interesting. Just to add insult to over-budgeted misery, the computer-generated insect isn't even as scary as the stop-motion one in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.

And it's barely even worth dwelling on "The Lazarus Experiment", which draws this insanity out to a whole episode, except to say that… in the 2007 season, our new God-King once again threw a spanner in the works by giving us a low-budget monster that everyone preferred to the flashy CGI one. But a less obvious example is "The Fires of Pompeii". As I mentioned in Week Two, at heart this is a little story, in which the citizens of Pompeii are given far more emphasis than the James Bond secret-volcano-base where the Pyroviles are massing their forces. It won critical acclaim for its '60s-ish subplot about the Doctor's impotence in the face of oncoming history. Yet BBC Wales is under the illusion that people won't watch "little" (you could argue that the existence of the soap opera is evidence against this), and according to Phil Collinson, the point of the whole episode is the enormous CGI eruption at the end. The trouble is that these days, every single TV documentary about natural disasters has effects that look exactly like that, even on Channel 5. This isn't something huge and remarkable, it's just TV-normal.

Bearing that in mind, let me ask this question. Was the eruption footage actually necessary? Imagine a version of "Pompeii" staged on a much smaller scale, with the catastrophe implied rather than on-screen, as in its better-groomed ancestor "The Massacre". Conventional wisdom is that the modern audience wouldn't "accept" an episode without a visible big bang, yet the actual audience reaction suggests that this is bunk. A more compact, character-driven "Pompeii" wouldn't just have been more satisfying, but would have seen the budget slashed by… well, I don't have all the relevant figures, but shall we say about a third? Remember, this is a BBC production, so we're allowed to get self-righteous about them squandering our licence-fee money. This goes double for "Voyage of the Damned", which is nothing but a series of effects set-pieces.

The obvious conclusion here is that narrative context is what makes Doctor Who work, not the scale of the show-pieces, but the wider point is that this is true of all TV drama in the modern world. Any given TV commercial will have effects at least as good as those provided by The Mill, probably better, since the CGI budget will be peanuts compared to the amount of cash the advertisers will spend in order to get the ads on television. But we barely even notice these thirty-second spectaculars, let alone remember them. Why? Because the narrative context is missing, and only drama can - should - provide that. It's not that CGI is intrinsically a bad thing, especially not if it's used for world-building purposes, or if it's executed with a genuine sense of beauty (q.v. the last few scenes of "Gridlock", or the catacombs in "The Impossible Planet", by far the most appealing thing in the episode). The problem is simply the misguided belief that CGI will, in itself, make us go "woo!".

With all of this in mind, it's time to present…

Five Recent TV Ads More Impressive Than Doctor Who

1. Car Tax. A young couple walk back to their car after closing-time, only to see the vehicle crush itself into a cube in front of their confused and gormless faces, while the sinister voice-over informs us that if you don't pay your car tax then "we" (ominous, that "we") have the power to clamp, tow away, or even crush your car. If something like that happened in the real world, then you'd never get into a four-wheeled vehicle ever again, yet this underlines something significant. Imagine a Doctor Who story in which some alien force tampers with the world's cars in such a way that on transmission of a certain signal, those cars will auto-compact themselves. It'd be one of the scariest things ever, and children across the country would insist on walking to school on Monday morning, in an echo of the "Terror of the Autons" incident. Not only would this do more to alleviate global warming and childhood obesity than anything the government's ever done, it'd make the Cribbins-in-peril cliffhanger of "The Sontaran Stratagem" seem genuinely terrifying. Instead, what the series gives us is a story in which the "evil" cars either drive into rivers or turn into smoke-machines. "Lame" isn't a word I enjoy using, but occasions like this seem to demand it.

2. Smirnoff Vodka. Out at sea, a swarthy-looking fisherman is understandably startled when various items from the ocean bed - anchors, gold dubloons, rotting Spitfires - haul themselves out of the deep and fling themselves into the sky. They're followed by other, larger, pieces of marine detritus: colossal Greek statues rise from the depths, wrecked ocean-liners are vomited onto the land, while a Viking longboat crash-lands next to a petrol station. All of this is supposed to be a metaphor for Smirnoff's "purity", but the remarkable thing is that this is a kind of catastrophe we've simply never seen on television before. As with the Car Tax ad, all it needs to be genuinely astonishing is a narrative, and yet most of the Earthbound catastrophes we've seen in Doctor Who have involved deathly-dull alien spaceships hovering over urban landmarks. More interesting than Viking longboats landing on petrol stations? I think not. What's most galling, though, is that this wins out over Doctor Who for reasons which have got nothing at all to do with the budget. Flying colossi are no more expensive to do in CGI than (ooh, let's say) a Sontaran warship, but they do require rather more thought.

3. Lynx 3. In this case, the advert is utterly hideous, and sees the "ironic" girls-are-gagging-for-it theme of previous Lynx ads develop into something that looks like all-out misogyny. As we all know by now, Lynx aftershave / deodorant / shower-gel makes any man irresistible to women. In this case, it can drive a woman to such a level of desire that she'll hurl herself at any human female who's standing closer to the man than she is. The result of this suicide-dive - and the thing which must, surely, get Lynx 3 classified as a biohazard - is that both women will instantly explode in a cloud of what looks like toxic dust, and standing in their place will be a single super-beautiful gestalt woman with the best features of both. This process continues throughout the ad, with the uber-girls becoming more and more alluring as more and more women give up their individual identities. All horrifying enough, but once again, a narrative would make this scary in a good way. Traditionally in telefantasy, monsters which absorb / clone / drain the life-essences of their victims are unutterably banal (the Abzorbaloff, like it or not, is a rare break from the norm). The current run of Doctor Who is slightly less hung up on parasites and body-thieves than the 2007 season [see the article The Immortality Nerve, at the bottom of this page, for more on this], but whenever the series decides to give us an alien changeling, we still end up with an Evil Twin in a bath full of gunge or a man slow-dissolving into a CGI monster. The Lynx Effect is shocking by comparison. There's another joke about Sontarans here somewhere, but let's skip it.

4. Sony: Colour… Like No Other. Worth mentioning here just because it doesn't overtly use CGI, and appears to involve nothing more sophisticated than old-fashioned stop-motion, like the few bits of Skarasen footage in "Terror of the Zygons" that aren't embarrassing. This is the ad in which the centre of a busy urban metropolis is invaded by a wave of shape-changing plasticine, which forms itself into psychedelic goo-fountains and multicoloured rabbits while the Rolling Stones perform the alarmingly-entitled "She Comes in Colours". This advert has turned heads and won plaudits across the world, although for our purposes, the most notable thing isn't just the lack of computer graphics (assuming that it really is all stop-motion, rather than CGI that's been rigged to look like stop-motion, which would frankly be an easier way of doing it) but the fact that the modern audience is more entranced by a giant-sized version of The Amazing Adventures of Morph than by an army of cybernetic death-machines. We recall that part of the original appeal of newfangled Doctor Who was the way it eschewed cyberpunk in favour of a slightly girly pink-and-blue universe, yet this My-Little-Time-Lord approach seems to have been lost along the way. However, we can now scientifically prove that people prefer balls of sentient Play-Doh to the Lazarus Horror. Now I come to think of it, even the gorilla from the Cadbury's ad is more of an attention-grabber than anything in "The Sound of Drums", which is ironic in a way. ("Cadbury's Gorillas… made from a glass and a half of monkeyspunk.")

5. Any Car Advert. No commercial interest is as eager to show off its big-budget potential as the motor industry, and the aforementioned car-that-turns-into-a-giant-robot-scorpion ad - I forget what the exact make of car is, but it hardly matters - is only one of many which make Doctor Who look rather… shall we say "sluggish"? In this case, it's because the Transformer-vehicle in question turns into a scorpion and a snake and some other macho-looking mechno-hybrid in the course of a single thirty-second clip. And you just know that if Doctor Who featured that kind of slinky morph-machine, then we'd get long, drawn-out close-ups of every aspect of the transformation, purely so the programme-makers could justify the immense effects budget: again, look at the way "The Unicorn and the Wasp" insists on showing us the monster from every angle. (Although we should perhaps be thankful that it wasn't a robot wasp. Then the car-chase at the end would be indistinguishable from the one in the Avengers movie.) But we've become so desensitised to unlikely CGI in car ads that if we're shown - say - a world where the roads are inhabited by giant floating fish instead of traffic, then we don't even remember it a week later… which is why you think I made that example up, whereas in fact, it was a genuine ad which ran on TV a couple of years ago and which you've now forgotten.

However, some of the most successful car campaigns of recent years have been those which deliberately try to prod at the consumer's childhood memories, especially the increasing number of commercials which depict the car speeding through a landscape of gigantic Lego bricks, overgrown puzzle-pieces, or scaled-up toy fire-engines. Since Doctor Who has a history of relying on childhood impressions of the world, albeit in the form of nightmares rather than nostalgia, this may be another sign that the series has rather fallen behind. In the same way that the giant Ferengi-spider of "The Runaway Bride" is nowhere near as endearing as the dinosaurs-at-the-Earth's-core scenario that's mentioned by Donna as a joke, it's hard to escape the feeling that a story about the Doctor visiting Toyland would actually be more interesting than meeting Agatha Christie. Imagine the modern-day equivalent of a tale like "The Celestial Toymaker" (only with a plot) or "The Mind Robber", and the possibilities of CGI in a world full of grotesque doll-people and murderous toy soldiers… if you've read Alan Moore's Black Dossier, then you'll know how well this sort of thing can work when a decent writer gets behind the wheel. Anything rather than another sodding alien invasion.

Oi, Moffat! You like freaking out kids. Giant Evil Toy Dimension, what d'you reckon?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Week Seven: Bad Charisma

In which Doctor Who destroys history.

This week's question... who gets to be a genius?

The irony, from my point of view, is that this subject is raised by a script with Gareth Roberts' name at the top: as you'll know if you've ever seen the "What Some People Have Said" column on the right of this page, Gareth has publicly described me as "probably a genius". Or at least, this is what I've been told. He ostensibly says it in Big Finish's forthcoming Bernice Summerfield - The Inside Story, although this may well be his way of apologising for dropping my first submission to Virgin Publishing down the back of some shelves (where it stayed until he thought to fish it out, a year later). Nevertheless, I like the use of the word "probably" in this context. You're only definitely a genius if you create something of obvious, undeniable importance. Since I've never been able to do better than a couple of TV spin-off novels and a comic-book that folded after two issues, I'll have to remain "probably" a genius until I can prove myself one way or the other.

This takes on a new significance for me, however, when we discover that in the Doctor Who world - at least, the Doctor Who world according to Gareth - Agatha Christie is also a genius. We know this for a fact, because the Doctor and Donna spend much of the episode telling her / us how great she is, and there's even a gushing tag-scene in which we're told that she's going to be remembered five-billion years in the future. I should, presumably, be flattered. Except…

was Christie a genius? We've touched on her corpse in this column once before [see …Of Death, below], but we should remind ourselves that her greatness is by no means accepted as a universal truth. Many critics have pointed out that she turned detective fiction into what one writer called "a series of arid crossword puzzles", and anyone who tries to read her prose in the twenty-first century might be forgiven for feeling that… well… that the Fenella Woolgar version knows what she's talking about when she describes her work as 'not great literature'. "Beauty of language" isn't a term that ever seems to have crossed her mind, and nor is she a close friend of Mr Characterisation: her books tend to supply characters with introductions along the lines of "he was the type of gentleman who could only have been a retired army colonel", which is effectively a writer's way of saying "this is an easy stereotype, but I know I can get away with it, so f*** you". You could argue that the characters in "The Unicorn and the Wasp" are deliberate pastiches of the kind of people you find in Christie's work, but you could just as well argue that this is exactly what Christie did all the sodding time.

Ah, but. Her real success was in the way she stripped down the murder-mystery until it was almost a form of engineering, and in the process, provided us with all the most basic Big Twists as if they were standardised machine-parts. Look away now if you don't want to know the results, but it was Christie who gave us the story in which the detective turns out to be the killer (The Mousetrap), the story in which all the suspects turn out to be the killer (Murder on the Orient Express), the story in which the only character who couldn't possibly have been the killer turns out to be the killer (Death on the Nile), the story in which the narrator turns out to be the killer (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), the story in which the intended victim turns out to be the killer (Peril at End House… geek-trivia fans will note that like Murder in the Clouds, which the Doctor waves around in the final scene, this also features a wasp as a plot-point), and numerous variations thereof.

Consider this possibility, then: the people we remember as the all-time greats aren't the innovators, but the ones who boil things down to their simplest possible ingredients for mass consumption. You could make exactly the same argument about the Beatles. Nothing they did in their entire gestalt existence was genuinely new, certainly not the supposed "revolution" of Sergeant Pepper, yet they displayed an astonishing ability to take other people's music and make it so straightforward - you might even say banal - that everybody on Earth could understand it. No wonder they ended up bigger than Jesus. Ergo, we're happy to accept Christie's status as "the best-selling novelist in history" as proof that she was intrinsically great, even though we'd never dream of using the same logic to prove that Ronald McDonald is the world's most talented chef. The most obvious modern example of this phenomenon would be Harry Potter, and I was about to say "and you wouldn't seriously call J. K. Rowling a genius, would you?", but then I remembered "The Shakespeare Code".

Oh yes, "The Shakespeare Code". You may recall that in Week Two of this correspondent's course, we discussed the relationship between Doctor Who and big-H History. We reached the conclusion - well, I did, but you were watching - that the modern Doctor Who historical is a form of time-tourism, in which the past is nothing more than scenery for CGI aliens and dead celebrities. "Gee, honey, look! Doctor Who and William Shakespeare are fighting some monsters with a spell from Harry Potter. Have you got the camera?" And the most important thing to remember about tourism is that it never, ever shows you the actual territory, just your own preconceptions about what's supposed to be there. In modern Doctor Who, the Elizabethan era is "about" the Globe Theatre, so 1926 is obviously… "about" a murder mystery. We won't dwell on the thought that the series tried exactly the same schtick in 1982, because there's a more important issue here, and it's this: if history is now just tourism, then we're never going to be asked to question it. Agatha Christie is a genius. Why? Because we say so, that's why.

This seems a curious development, when you put it in the context of the (small-h) history of Doctor Who. Think about "The Crusade" for a moment. Generations of children were brought up to believe that Richard the Lionheart - a mass-murdering war criminal of the worst order, whose actions were repellent even by the standards of the twelfth century - was England's greatest and most majestic hero, however much he may have detested this country. Yet "The Crusade" doesn't quite play ball with this idea, and presents him as an intolerant, self-obsessed opportunist. In About Time, my former albatross Tat Wood reached the conclusion that although an audience raised on tales of the Great Man would never have accepted a TV version of Richard who was as thoroughly awful as the real Richard, it was "a bold move" to show a less pleasant side of his character in 1965. All true enough, but the interesting thing is that twenty years later, Robin of Sherwood (being the first ITV show which thoroughly, resoundingly defeated Doctor Who on a Saturday night, and which remains so superior to the BBC's twenty-first-century disembowling of Robin Hood that it's almost enough to make you demand a license-fee rebate) did exactly what David Whitaker couldn't. The Robin of Sherwood version of Richard is an out-and-out villain. By the '80s, we were allowed to poke at these sacred cows as much as we wanted, even on children's telly.

Can you see what's gone wrong here…? Mid-1960s: historical adventures can question things, a little. Mid-1980s: historical adventures can question anything. Mid-2000s: DO NOT ASK QUESTIONS NO MATTER WHAT. Charles Dickens was a genius: everybody knows it, don't argue. Shakespeare was a genius, and therefore in the same bracket as J. K. Rowling: this is common knowledge, don't argue. Agatha Christie was a genius, and therefore the Doctor will need her help to solve an alien murder mystery: this is obvious, don't argue. And, perhaps the worst offender of all… Mme de Pompadour was one of the most accomplished women who ever lived, but the episode isn't even going to tell you why: she just was, don't argue. Still, at least "The Girl in the Fireplace" gives us a cross-section of the subject's century, which is more than most neo-historicals have got to offer. And "neo-historical" seems the most appropriate term, since these stories demand the same ignorance of actual history as every other daft idea that begins with "neo" (neo-conservatism, neo-liberalism… neo-Nazism, obviously, although that's a rather harsh comparison to make if we're talking about BBC Wales). The Confidential accompanying "The Unicorn and the Wasp" goes out of its way to celebrate this kind of non-history, and proudly shows us archive footage of "The Crusade" back-to-back with clips from "The Shakespeare Code", without noticing any contradiction there at all. It's like putting I, Claudius next to Carry On Columbus, and thinking they're examples of the same thing.

This isn't Gareth's fault, of course. Consumerism, and the cult of now that's promoted by most of our society's media interests, has guaranteed that the younger generation is incapable of grasping any form of history unless it involves celebrities on some level. We recall that the winner of last year's Big Brother had never even heard of Shakespeare when he entered the house, and this is by no means a freak occurrence (whereas if he'd been watching BBC1 on Saturday nights, then he'd know that Shakespeare was a seventeenth-century rock star). The question is whether Doctor Who should be pandering to this world-view quite so much. It's not an issue of the series being "educational", because even in the early '60s, it never really ended up working that way. It's doubtful that any of the children who watched "Marco Polo" made notes en route to Peking, or took heed of Ian's TV-for-schools speech about the Hashishin, which is historically dubious anyway. But what the programme did do was prime its audience to think about the way other societies might work, and the way other people might think, rather than playing up to the viewers' expectations or claiming that the past is just like the present with different hats. The time-tourism model of the series can only reinforce and / or parody, never change our minds. Also in this week's Confidential, the sales-figures of Christie's books are presented as evidence that she's one of history's great figures, which is about as consumer-obsessive as this programme can get.

Is it too much to hope that Doctor Who might, if only in the broadest possible sense, still have a duty to make its audience ask questions? Or are we now so mired in the filth and ringtones of consumer non-culture that the very idea of television having a "duty" is alien to us, even when we're talking about a supposedly public-service institution like the BBC? Certainly, I seem to be one of an increasingly small number of people who think this way. And what do I know? My idealism is all too obvious. I'm peculiar enough to think that if an SF series is broadcast shortly before a general election in which race-baiting has become a key issue, and at a time when violence against immigrant communities is on the rise, then doing a story about evil alien asylum-seekers is a really bad idea. Clearly, I'm hopelessly naïve. (Oh, actually, on the subject of politics… despite writing her best-known works in the socially-charged climate of 1920s / 1930s Europe, Agatha Christie's novels are so dismissive of people with political opinions that she doesn't seem to be able to tell the difference between left-wing radicals and Nazis. I'm mentioning this not to start another fight, but because it demonstrates just how weak a grasp she had on anything beyond the purely abstract constructions of her own plots. Yet according to the Doctor, only her mind can unravel this mystery, as she 'understands' people. Because she's a genius. Riiight.)

And if you consult the copy of About Time Volume One that you should own by now if you want to pass this exam, then you'll see that Tat has also reminded us of the origin of the word "charisma". It dates from the seventeenth century, and it didn't mean what it means now. Its Greek root suggests "grace" or "divine favour", and in the beginning, that's exactly what charisma was: a God-given blessing which marked certain people as special, and which allowed these chosen individuals to alter fate or re-shape history. During the Enlightenment, this seemed like a decent enough idea. In modern times, it sounds like the kind of adolescent bunk that leads monomaniacs to commit acts of genocide. Good history should teach us that there's no such thing as grace, and that individuals become important through social circumstance rather than some Inner Light (unless you want to believe that John Lennon was created by divine intervention). Even David Whitaker, who took the "Web of Time" approach to Doctor Who, never claimed that the big figures of the past had some innate magical quality which made them greater than ordinary mortals. The historical stories made on his watch show us the world, not the individual. Marco Polo isn't the be-all and end-all of "Marco Polo".

By contrast, one of the side-effects of the Cult of Celebrity is that it leads the population to take the "charisma" idea literally. If you're brought up to believe that such-and-such a historical figure simply is a genius / hero / god amongst men, without any context and without any understanding of the world he or she inhabited, then history becomes a collection of star names who exist solely because God has decreed that they had to exist. There's no meaning, no comprehension, no sense of consequences. There's just a collection of familiar faces who all float around in a nebulous grey void called The Olden Days. Effectively, then, the modern generation's view of history sets our culture back by about three-hundred years. That isn't Gareth's fault either, but he doesn't have to encourage it, does he? If nothing else, then it'd be nice to see a Doctor Who historical that's actually about the era in which it's set. Oddly, "Human Nature" is the latter-day story which comes closest to this, "oddly" because it's ostensibly about the Doctor rather than his environment. But the fact that it's set in 1913 is actually important to the themes of the story, whereas the fact that "The Unicorn and the Wasp" is set in 1926 is irrelevant, apart from providing us with the ideal opportunity to meet someone famous.

The counter-argument here is that this isn't a "historical" at all, but a parody of a different form of television (and let's be under no illusions, this is modelled on the TV adaptations of Christie's work, not on the original texts). The trouble is that if you take this view, then "Wasp" slits its own throat even faster, because the net result of stuffing Doctor Who full of stereotypes from Poirot - a series which is now showing every weekday afternoon on ITV, as all-purpose filler - is an episode of Poirot with a dodgy CGI monster pasted into the middle of it. But as you'll know if you've bothered watching ITV's effort, only the two-part Poirot stories really work. Fifty minutes simply isn't long enough for a competent murder mystery, since our introduction to the characters will inevitably be so brief that we don't give a Belgian's goolies who did it. So it is here, and the rest is mainly in-jokes, leaving us with the impression that the whole thing is a massively expensive piece of fan-fic in which British Legend "A" meets British Legend "B". Sad to say, an awful lot of Poirot episodes are actually better than this. If anything, it's more like Midsomer Murders with special effects… although in all honesty, you could say that about most of Doctor Who in 2008.

Of course, the really big irony here is that although I'm probably a genius, I have absolutely no charisma.