A truth that's told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.
As you'll both no doubt remember, last year I wrote a brief, almost-weekly, opinion column for the sprightly new Doctor Who themed website entitled Doctor Who Archive. I put a lot of effort into each of the essays and - despite a few typos - was really pleased with the results.
The Doctor Who Archive renamed itself as Doctor Who Worldwide at some point and shifted all its old content, including my articles, across to the new platform in the early cracked and glistening moments of 2014.
About an hour ago I discovered, totally by accident, that Doctor Who Worldwide has been offline for a fortnight. Technically speaking, this means that my articles are now out of print. As a consequence, all the copyrights to the writing I produced for Doctor Who Archive have now returned to the original author: that is to say, me.
I'm publishing, in chronological order, the five essays I wrote for Doctor Who Worldwide in order to assert my ownership of the work and hereby confirm that I'm reclaiming my copyright of them.
They're quite lively. Tuck in.
Easter Eggs and Trap Doors
You aren’t seeing what you think you’re seeing.
On Saturday, a game disguised as a trailer arrived and small sections of the internet melted. Again. You have to wonder whether or not it’s really a great idea for the BBC to be scheduling these Pavlovian promotionals before Atlantis, after all they’re supposed to be floating, rather than flooding it. Doctor Who and Atlantis have had a tricky relationship since The Underwater Menace, so sinking it once again shouldn’t be unexpected. What are we on now? Is it four or five times? Do hashtags even count? Kronos only knows.
The trailer that isn’t really a trailer triggered cyber-explosions running the emotional gamut from euphoria to caps-lock, making Twitter and the various forums look like the opening napalm blasts from Apocalypse Now performed in text. Within minutes the whole thing was being vivisected by pro-am soothsayers, certain that The Day of the Doctor's DNA would be salvageable from images frozen like mosquitoes in amber. It’s how we brought back the dinosaurs after all.
3D works by tricking the brain into thinking it’s seeing something that it isn’t. An awful lot of Season Five, and Steven (“Don’t even blink!”) Moffat’s work in general, relies on a similar prestidigitation. Occasionally these moments appear as written versions of optical illusions, the type of thing that looks like an old lady one way up, Batman kissing a candle the other. Moffat often only shows the audience one interpretation, keeping the alternate slightly out of sight for the time being, before revealing it with a flourish of Murray Golden glitter, but not always. Season Five examples include what happens in the corner of your eye when it isn’t leaking dust, perception filters, Amy’s Choice, missing doors, the Pandorica and so on.
This carried on into Season Six with Amy herself, the Flesh in general and the Silence in particular. Things weren’t what they appeared to be. Sometimes these moments of bait and switch are planned – like the wrong jacket in Flesh and Stone - and sometimes they’re trap-doors written into the architecture of the arc structure; escape hatches to be employed at a later date if required. Eventually, we’ll find out who said that silence will fall, but what about the scorch marks on Amy’s lawn? The Silent at the picnic? The future Ponds in Wales? The Matt-Smith-in-the-kitchen scare chord?
The Eleventh Doctor era got a special 3D cinema trailer that dropped us down the rabbit hole – it ran before Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland but don’t read too much into that – and was very similar in its own way to the latest one, at least in its purpose. Both look very lovely, have things floating around and feature flashes that are given more emphasis than they eventually warrant, the Silurian face that isn’t a Silurian’s face bursting through the turf, for example. It’s a distraction that pushes our focus, or perception, in the wrong direction, giving the performers time to climb into a gorilla costume. The new 2D trailer features elements that would look lovely in 3D; Doctors who aren’t; loving recreations of scenes that never happened, but look like they did; glimpses and tiny moments that act like the fizzy chunks hidden in the stretchy pink bits of Wham bars. The two trailers make for interesting bookends to the last few years, even if just to show how very portentous everything’s become since the TARDIS trashed that garden shed.
Recently, fan-baiting threats to change everything were thrown amongst the conspiracy theories about missing episodes and Jon Pertwee’s eyebrows. Rest assured that no single writer’s bigger than the show. These soundbites are only as scary as the kitling in Survival, and should be taken just as seriously. Likewise, the terror that Moffat’s going to use The Day of the Doctor to fix the regeneration limit issue is pointless. He’s been wanting the job since before he was born; of course he’s going to do it. Someone’s got to. There’s no way a showrunner with the cojones to retcon the entire series, undermining the last story to win a Hugo Award whilst doing so, is going to miss out on an opportunity like this. Unlike some of the trap doors that seem to have been left open by accident – and should probably be fenced off now, or someone’s going to get hurt – this illusion has surely been planned since the young Moffat first encountered The Deadly Assassin, rather than after he finished writing The Snowmen.
This is going to be a harder trick than simply making the Statue of Liberty vanish, especially with the whole world watching and, in the end, The Day of the Doctor might turn out to be a fiddly, possibly slightly clumsy, sleight of hand, but it’ll work. After all, something must be laying all these eggs.
You aren’t seeing what you think you’re seeing.
23 October 2013
Nightmares With Glitter
Bafflegab! Everyone loves it. You can’t say the same for Nightmare in Silver. According to a poll that I’ve just conducted in my head, the recent remoulding of the Cybermen comes out slightly higher than The Rings of Akhaten in the category of ‘Favourite Story’. The contentious bones in Neil Cross’ second script are very similar to the ones scattered through Neil Gaiman’s, so we’ll have a look at that one and let Murray Gold breathe a sigh of relief. For now.
Neil Gaiman is probably the most important writer to be involved with Doctor Who since Douglas Adams was script editing it. The Doctor’s Wife, Gaiman’s first script, won the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation in 2011 and the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation the following year. This was despite being rewritten many, many times and having to replace the planned monster with something that wasn’t on display in an exhibition at the time; a jealous Ood turned out to be available so they went with that. The story succeeds despite being compromised and is obviously one that Gaiman had been dying to tell since he was very, very small, a condition in writers that usually produces something special.
This almost brings us to Nightmare in Silver, but not quite.
Every Doctor Who script acts as a skeleton but the producer and director decide what the beast actually looks like. Sometimes the bones join so perfectly they leave only a little room for misinterpretation: Midnight is a good example of a script that’s been structured like this. Another snag is that writing is solitary, whereas making a television programme is collaborative. There’s many a slip twixt pen and DVD rip, to coin a phrase. ‘Classic’ Doctor Who is full of these peaks and troughs; every story is an unbalanced yin-yang of success and schadenfreude. With so many individual departments involved, this can’t really be avoided. Don’t forget that no-one ever set out to make a bad Doctor Who, although The Curse of Fatal Death skates very close, and the Borad’s makeup is outstanding.
Obviously there are other matters to take into consideration; Morgus’ fourth wall-shattering asides in The Caves of Androzani came from a misunderstanding between John Normington and director Graham Harper. You take a voluntary step onto dangerous ground when suggesting a Doctor Who story has been unsuccessful; the quicksand is made of well-hidden subjectivity and, although it looks solid, has claimed many well-meaning observations during the last half-century.
The difference between dialogue disaster and triumph can often be down to line-delivery and can further be affected by whether or not the actor’s comfortable with, or even understands, what they’re saying. The word ‘truth’ gets tossed around by thespians like a Cyberhead at a Raston Warrior Robot staff outing, but if we ignore the ‘fact’ that ‘truth’ is merely a matter of perception then we might actually be onto something here. Of course, any actor is going to find extracting something approaching ‘truth’ a challenging proposal when confronted with a line like, “The backblast backlash’ll bounce back and destroy everything.” This is traditionally the point to mention Pip and Jane Baker but, in fairness, they wanted viewers to look up the difficult words and so were at least paving the way with good intentions. Let’s “prevent the catharsis of spurious morality” lest we find ourselves “involved in a web of mayhem and intrigue.”
All of which bring us to Neil Gaiman’s ‘difficult second album’, Nightmare in Silver.
Nightmare in Silver’s definitely a failure, there’s no escaping that, but it’s possible that the blame doesn’t entirely lie with the script – despite its flaws - as much as first appears. There’s some abysmal miscasting throughout for one thing. Facts are thinner than opinions, but the script definitely started life with the title ‘The Last Cyberman’ because a copy was discovered, like many other wonderful things, on the backseat of a Cardiff taxi. However, we don’t know how many rewrites it went through, or at what point in the redrafting Angie and Artie became compulsory components. Gaiman was given the brief to ‘make the Cybermen scary again’, which shouldn’t have been too much of a challenge going on previous work like Sandman. Later, in an interview with the BBC, Gaiman admitted that he became “completely side-tracked by a mad, strange romp.”
Doctor Who has a reputation for being a notoriously punishing show to work on and, on top of that, Nightmare in Silver was hugely anticipated from the outset. Stephen Woolfenden was allocated this story as his Doctor Who directorial debut. Woolfenden began his television career doing second unit work; one of his early jobs included Neverwhere. Having gained an awful lot of experience, he moved into cinema, working as assistant director on David Yates’ Harry Potter films. Despite this, Nightmare in Silver doesn’t seem to know what it is. The tone fluctuates constantly but it’s hard to pin down exactly why - and it’s too late to ask Dave McKean to stage a remount now. Matt Smith certainly gives the discordant ‘Mr Clever’ moments his all but he’s on a hiding to nothing, for reasons we should definitely bring up.
Both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat started their respective runs triumphantly. Davies had planned his first album very carefully, releasing it gradually over three years, like a treble-vinyl prog-monster covered in Hipgnosis. This meant he was able to suggest the Toclafane as a replacement monster for Rob Shearman’s Dalek when the rights to everyone’s favourite Mark III travel machines seemed to be an issue. Toward the end of Davies’ run, the destruction of everything ever had become too small and a type of armageddon fatigue set in, so he dialled everything right back for the seemingly never-ending end of The End of Time: Part Deux, turning the lights off one by one before leaving the stage. In contrast, Steven Moffat was already producing legendary prophecies nobody’d ever heard of by his second series. This was the point when plot-hole-filling prologues popped up and characters began telling the audience stuff, rather than showing them, in a form of bafflegab that, no matter how hastily composed, certainly looks good when it's drying on freshly-printed, individually-named, script sheets. That isn’t to say that the showrunner doesn’t know where he’s going – the whole Moffat era is almost certainly laid out somewhere, with all of the important landmarks highlighted in blue. After all, Nightmare in Silver reintroduced the Cybermen in a way that would have alarmed some of the people watching, and that’s what it was intended to do all along.
Neil Gaiman can’t help writing poetic dialogue, Ray Bradbury was the same. Almost everything that ‘Mr Clever’ says would sound utterly chilling in the privacy of a reader’s head and it’s up to the director to make sure that the actor’s delivering difficult dialogue like this in a suitable fashion. Some actors read against the lines or underplay them, which can create a unique frisson; not all dialogue needs to be naturalistic to be ‘truthful’. Unfortunately, this is the same half-season that brought us Metebelisgate. Perhaps there’s something distracting glittering in the darkness, who knows?
Recently, Gaiman has made it clear that he really, really wants another chance. He’s publicly stated he’s not worried about money and just wants to be able to spend more time getting the bones of the script in a correct alignment. Seeing as he’s probably the most important writer to be involved in Doctor Who since Douglas Adams was script editor, this definitely sounds more like a winning situation than another nightmare. So, we have to ask ourselves, who wouldn’t want that?
29 October 2013
History Can Be Rewritten
Have you met Heisenberg? He was probably a lovely fellow, I’m not sure. Came up with the idea that by observing something you change it. Basically, the observation of a thing is altered by the observer observing it, so you end up learning more about the observer than the observed. Now that’s cleared up, let’s have a look at The Curse of Fatal Death. Are you strapped in comfortably? Then we’ll begin. Bwah ha ha ha.
It’s 1999 and Doctor Who’s been dead for three years. We thought he was done for back in 1989, but he sat up unexpectedly one evening in 1996 which scared the hell out of his friends. The whole thing was an experiment based on notes left by Professor Solon and didn’t really pan out. Since then’s all been quiet. No twitching to speak of.
The thing to remember about 1999 was that it was a party year. The world was ending and everyone knew it – especially the people who denied it. On the stroke of midnight microwaves would fall out of the sky, airplanes would run backwards, video recorders would work properly and the humble computer would elope with your pets. All of this madness would occur as a side-effect of the Millennium Bug bursting from its cocoon and chomping down on humanity one face at a time (dependent on time-zones/professional commitment, please take a number and wait your turn). The Doctor wasn’t going to save us. He was dead.
1999 was also the first year that the Baker Street Boys made their officially-sanctioned Doctor Who debuts. The BBC begrudgingly set up a couple of memorial events for the Time Lord, both were televisual equivalents of the ‘Penny for the Guy’ tradition: bright-faced young things wheel-barrowing around a facsimile of a Famous Figure from History in an effort to raise money for charity. Well, the analogy doesn’t totally work. For a start, although the Doctor Who Night was more a bid to raise ratings than cash and took place in November (missing the Doctor’s actual birthday by ten days, but you can’t have everything), the charity one was actually in March. Mark Gatiss penned a fictionalised recreation of How Doctor Who Came to Be (The Pitch of Fear), starring himself. Despite falling foul of censorship, it’s managed to generate a sequel that should be on the telly any day now. Steven Moffat, on the other hand, wrote The Curse of Fatal Death which is very interesting indeed, although possibly not for the reasons that you might think.
The young(er than he is now) Mr Moffat was carving out a career as a TV Professional (apart from Press Gang he was mostly known for writing sit-coms like Joking Apart and Chalk at this point, Coupling was still in the future) and had been noticed by Comic Relief’s co-founder (and Blackadder co-creator) Richard Curtis. Curtis asked Moffat to write a spoof version of Doctor Who for the 1999 telethon.
Bear in mind warnings about the Millennium Bug were everywhere and that the Doctor wasn’t coming back and you’ll have an idea why Steven Moffat wrote The Curse of Fatal Death the way he did. Back in 1999 Doctor Who wasn’t cool, not like now. The BBC regarded it as a bit of an embarrassment to be fair: Confessions of an Anorak, anyone? Trailers that ran for repeat seasons quite explicitly mocked the show – even the one for the Doctor Who Night itself is an exercise in nostalgia, concluding with a balding, middle-aged fan hiding behind a sofa. Moffat had contributed to articles and fanzines about the show, but always careful to be highly critical of it. He’s apologised since but you can’t blame him for appearing in the role of Celebrity Enthusiast rather than fan. Moffat was (and is) a winner and Doctor Who was largely perceived as being something for weird cagoule-wearing losers with poor social skills and scary bedrooms. Had the delightful picture of a young Moff engrossed in An Exciting Adventure with the Daleks gone public, it would have been like a silver bullet to the werewolf… of his career…
Nope, that sentence got away from me.
Nope, that sentence got away from me.
The Curse of Fatal Death was designed to be a vehicle for Rowan Atkinson, a sort of Blackadder Who. Atkinson could cherry-pick projects and there’s very definitely the sense that he didn’t take this role on just as a favour for a mate. Atkinson put a lot of thought into how he’d handle the Doctor and that shows in his performance. The other performances are a bit haphazard to be fair, but the script doesn’t help. Julia Sawalha is playing herself because Emma is a mostly just a cipher – a still-formulating splodge of ideas through which Moffat can flirt with his wife and alarm fanboys. Jonathan Pryce really tries as the Master, but Moffat has no respect for the character and mostly writes him as a villain far more suited to pantomime than he’d ever been before. Someone’s memory was cheating.
The thing is, despite all the self-deprecating bluster and protestations of cool, there’s no way that Moffat didn’t do a little dance when he got this job. Atkinson might’ve put some thought into how he’d play the Doctor, but that was nothing compared to the months of solid, imaginative problem-solving that the boy from Paisley invested in the formative years lying like a rickety rope-bridge between discovering Target books and discovering girls.
So, what happens when we observe The Curse of Fatal Death? What do we see? Lots of jokes? Yes, and good ones for the most part. An almost post-modern referencing of the inherent elements and tropes that don’t work when referenced? Yes, that’s there, but it’s just Monty Python via Douglas Adams so don’t feel too smug. Eh? I’ll explain later. Sexuality? Buckets of the stuff. The problem is this is all just distracting surface polish.
The really important stuff is how it ends. Moffat might have handed in a script that fulfills its brief as a skit (it’s not a sitcom, sorry DWM, that’s a retcon too far) but it’s actually a lot cleverer than that. The Curse of Fatal Death contains everything Steven Moffat wanted to say about Doctor Who. Everything. As far as he was concerned the show was dead and the world was going to end in a confusing flash of mandibles in a few short months. And so, for the first time, he wrote the final Doctor Who story.
Ignoring the time paradox business because it’s just Moffat showing off, let’s look at the three main characters: the Daleks, the Master and the Doctor. Moffat’s great at writing dialogue, although not always at writing dialogue that can be read out loud. His style is very much l’esprit de l’escalier: all the idealised witty stuff that you’d have come out with if reality had the decency to be more like movies. This is part of the reason why Moffat can’t write Daleks and avoids doing so at every opportunity, he finds them boring. You’ll notice that every time they’re contractually obliged to crop up during the Matt Smith tenure Moffat’s tried desperately to make them more interesting: bigger, colourful, stone, zombies, Jenna Louise Coleman. Conversely, Moffat thinks the Master’s an idiot and treats him accordingly. It’s what he does with the Doctor that’s worth looking at.
Moffat deliberately works through the final regenerations: Atkinson is the Ninth Doctor, Richard E. Grant is the Tenth, Jim Broadbent is the Eleventh and Hugh Grant is the twelfth and final – making the Joanna Lumley Doctor the start of a new cycle and an end to the old one. It’s more sleight-of-hand and it should be apparent to anyone whose being paying attention that this is the blueprint to Moffat’s run le grande fromage of Doctor Who.
It’s also worth remembering that Moffat’s a winner, maybe we’ll come back to that in more depth another day (along with Murray Gold); he’s yet to pull off his greatest victory. You see, Moffat’s going to attempt something spectacular pretty soon, especially if The Curse of Fatal Death is anything to go by. You may have noticed that the show’s bigger than it has been in a very long time. Blimey, it’s almost fulfilled the dream of every starry-eyed British pop culture export since the Beatles and made it big in America.
Moffat’s gone back in time to the very beginning, brought the architect a nice meal, and made one of his own characters responsible for the Doctor’s TARDIS selection (so, that’s another of the Doctor’s wives we aren’t allowed to talk about). With the introduction of John Hurt’s Doctor, whoever he is – it’s still a long way until the Big Birthday Beano at the time of typing - we’re solidly back with Moffat’s long game. Peter Capaldi is the Final Doctor. Moffat is about to wrap all the preceding years since 1963 as a retconned backstory to the tale he’s been spinning since he took over, because, for the second time, he’s writing the final Doctor Who story.
Or, he was the last time we looked anyway…
4 November 2013
Gold Reign Falls
(the Like Silence dub mix)
Humanity was first warned about sprouts a little over (or under – I hate maths) five hundred earth years ago. The plague seems to have been initially triggered in the Netherlands by some type of Ergonomic interference although sources are unreliable, and probably written in code. The terror arc’d out across the rest of Europe over the centuries, eventually reaching Britain where they made their terrible way onto my plate every Christmas. There they would squat, reeking gently of swamp gas. As I understood it, if these hideous grotesqueries weren’t ingested then a black planet would fill the sky, crops would fail, humanity would tumble into the gutters like autumn leaves and there wouldn’t be any ice-cream ever again. Over time, I managed to negotiate the ritual vegetable consumption down to a single green, eldritch unmentionable. Once the foetid cabbage god had been appeased, I was allowed to leave the table and spend a melodramatic forty-five minutes dry-heaving in the corner.
I recently conducted a poll in my head in which Nightmare in Silver came out slightly above The Rings of Akhaten in popularity. Consequently, I approached rewatching the episode with as much trepidation as anyone with an itchy eye but no gloves should approach a ghost pepper - a foodstuff that has an entire Wikipedia subsection devoted to its ‘Use as a Weapon’. These bottom-of-the-chart stories contain an interesting similarity other than both being written by Neils.
Neil Gaiman and Neil Cross have both made a success of themselves outside of television and although Cross hasn’t made quite the same impact that Gaiman has, they’re both seen as novelists, are very obviously fans of Doctor Who as a series, the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and the comics of Alan Moore. However, at the time of typing, Cross has had more hits in television than Gaiman, acting as lead writer on Spooks and showrunner for Luther amongst others. Cross stated in Doctor Who Magazine’s preview of The Rings of Akhaten that he had made sure the BBC were in no doubt that he was enthusiastic about writing for Doctor Who and eventually managed to land the scripting duties on Hide, which was filmed earlier and shown later. According to Cross, Steven Moffat asked if he’d be interested in writing another script, a really big one this time. At this point I’m going to mention The Power of Kroll, just to make sure that someone has.
The Power of Kroll shares some unexpected commonalities with The Rings of Akhaten, including a production team pushing a writer for the biggest monster ever – an eighth wonder of the world, if you will – and both scripts containing bait-and-switch versions of the Big Bad. (‘Big Bad’ as a euphemism for ‘Monster of the Week/Season’ was first coined, of course, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a series that not only influenced the new Doctor Who but also contained an all-musical episode, Once More, with Feeling, which had been a huge critical success.) The monsters in both stories are let down by the effects but there’s nothing wrong with thinking large. Well, I say that, but we haven’t got to the music yet.
The first version of Hide that Cross handed in was apparently more of a small-scale ghost story and turned out to be a lot cheaper than required. It seems that budgets are allocated on a story by story basis now rather than stretched over a whole series like last century. This is speculation because I hate maths. The temptation’s always going to be to fatten up the first stories and let the later ones fend for themselves in prehistoric Heathrow where they fight over the remaining scraps of cash like feral dogs. Because Cross had turned in a script that was seen as too frugal, I guess he’d entered bean-counter territory, where if you can make an episode for fifty magic beans then you only need fifty magic beans to make an episode. Conversely, if you’re trying to make a really big story then it’s probably not a good idea to spend more magic beans on minstrels than usual just because there seem to be a lot of unused costumes in the dressing-up box.
Writers love words: words build reality. Producers also love words: words use up fewer magic beans per hour than recording studios. Douglas Adams said a very sensible thing about comedy in Doctor Who, along the lines of just because the script’s funny that doesn’t mean anyone should play it less than straight, which also applies to pop-culture references. In a recent interview Cross mentioned his love of anti-heroes, specifically Han Solo, though he obviously also likes Harrison Ford’s other work. The Rings of Akhaten sneaks in two references to Blade Runner and, cleverly, one reference covering two Indiana Jones films. The magic beans swapped for the speeder bike reference might have been better put toward bigger green curtains for Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman to shout at.
Neil Cross and Matt Smith both come out of The Rings of Akhaten with their dignity nearly intact. Let’s look at the good things in the episode next; we’ll come back to the music when the rest of the plate’s clear. The whole pre-title sequence moves at a thunderous pace. Although the guest acting felt a bit clunky on first viewing it’s really emotional shorthand, relentlessly propelling the story forward. (Also, being-attacked-by-inanimate-object acting must be a challenge in the wake of Leslie Nielson’s Lieutenant-Frank-Drebbin-versus-Towel masterclass.) I can remember reading Doctor Manhattan’s beautiful speech at the end of Watchmen’s ninth issue back in 1987. It’s not impossible that I might even have bought my copy in the same Bristol comic shop that Neil Cross got his from. Smith and Coleman are really good throughout, the aliens do what they need to do, the Vigil (cousins of the Cenobites, perhaps?) are genuinely creepy when they first appear and young Emilia Jones carries off a difficult role nicely. Nobody mention The Snowman.
Production-wise that about wraps up the good things but before we get to the music let’s look at the script. Cross really tries some gutsy stuff here. It takes a certain amount of bravery to bring elements of The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer’s seminal history of mythology and religion, to a mainstream BBC1 Saturday audience. Alright, it’s via The Wicker Man, but Cross is mining the same sources for a slightly different result. This isn’t how the original religion survived; this is how it’s become absorbed and changed; the Queen of Years isn’t called ‘Merry’ by accident. In a lovely moment, Cross has the Doctor acknowledge that whatever your stance, it’s still a nice story. On top of this, Cross admitted he was very purposefully referencing the works of Lovecraft and basically wanted the Doctor to be arguing with Grandfather Cthulhu at the climax.
On my reluctant rewatch, I was surprised to find that things actually move along quite nicely up until Clara encourages Merry to forget her performance anxieties and sing, sing, sing. As Merry skips off to rejoin her scarlet-robed minders the soundtrack suddenly seems to break out into a version of Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head. Up until that moment the music’s fine. The episode starts with the Specials’ Ghost Town, which is a marvellous song and nicely symptomatic of what’s going wrong here.
When it began, Doctor Who sounded like nothing on Earth: Delia Derbyshire’s groundbreaking reimagining of Ron Grainer’s theme was as unsettling and otherworldly as anything Erich Zann strangled out of his violin. The first decades of the show used experimental pieces and composers: Tristram Cary was a pioneer of musique concrete and provided some immensely effective and alternative music for the show, saloon ballads notwithstanding; Carey Blyton made startling use of crumhorns; Malcolm Clarke made valves scream while Geoffrey Burgon scored the Douglas Camfield stories that the otherwise ubiquitous Dudley Simpson… didn’t… work on. Doctor Who’s early musical pioneers deserve a decent examination, if just to see why their work has dated more favourably – perhaps - than the composers who filled in after the final season of Simpsons ceased broadcasting.
Murray Gold was invited aboard Doctor Who by Russell T. Davies. The two had crewed together on both series of Queer as Folk, The Second Coming and later Casanova, so this was to be expected. Gold’s early work on Doctor Who really shows him grow in confidence and range as a composer very fast, though, having said that, he should really have disembarked with the rest of the Tenth Doctor’s team and made room for someone fresh. Since Steven Moffat took the helm, the music has become closer to a series of stock phrases than specifically commissioned new works. The afore-mentioned Ghost Town by the Specials, is actually a piece of social commentary that just happens to also sound a bit spooky.
It’s hard to see how any composer could maintain a consistent level of high creativity over an eight-year period and, perhaps, we’ve entered the age where the music is largely being written with a focus more on the CD or eventual Prom. There really should be a better reason for playing the Dream Lord’s theme throughout The Name of the Doctor’s prologue, Clarence and the Whispermen other than just because it’s creepy. It feels sometimes that the music acts as an audio description of the action rather than adding any complimentary timbre to it.
The Rings of Akhaten script deals with huge themes including responsibility, religion, society and individuality. An entire culture is attempting to placate a destructive force so massive that if unleashed it could destroy them utterly before heading off into eternity to feast on billions and billions of worlds. Unfortunately, the ‘lullaby’ that never ends turns out to be the hymn from Gridlock fed through a West Ended Lloyd-Webbernator. Although it understands the theory, this doesn’t carry any real emotional depth. I hate maths almost as much as I hate sprouts.
And that’s the nub of the issue: the accursed sprout. The fact that I don’t like them doesn’t mean that you won’t, and nor should it. You might like nothing more than a starter of sprout, followed by a main course of sprout curry, finishing with a dessert of sprout sorbet. Someone must. If I offer any suggestions here as to how the music could be done better then all they’ll do is expose my own, unique, preferences. Just because they work for me, doesn’t mean they will for you. I’m giving ground here, but only on the understanding that every element within a programme should be working toward telling the story.
In The Rings of Akhaten, the story is pushed apart in the middle to bunch up at either end. This is to allow the music to take centre stage. Judging by the special effects, a lot of magic beans went into making this music sound… expensive. Matt Smith is forced to deliver a speech that still required furious pruning to a wall, crying on cue to give the music a push it doesn’t earn. That was never going to work. It’s the wrong way round for a start. As the old adages states, if you notice it, then it’s not working. Doctor Who fans will often forgive these moments in stories aired in a year begin with 19. To try and find something positive to conclude with, I’ll mention here that at least the Doctor’s speech doesn’t end with the words ‘big’ or ‘boy’.
Maybe Murray Gold will pull something superlative out of the sky from now on. Perhaps all the real creative energy has been building toward The Day of the Doctor. I really do hope that’s the case. It’s always hard to walk away from something you love doing. But, even so…
Don’t you think he sounds tired?
14 November 2013
The Time Cave
The Time Cave’s a place to come and study signs from the past. It’s made up of hastily scratched ancient images dating back to a time before most of us were exploring. The elders tell stories of the speleologists who began carving out this glorious wound. Occasionally a pioneer will uncover a section that was previously blocked; revealing things we thought were lost forever and only knew from the covers of childhood books. Sometimes people get lost in here, missing in unexpected flash-foods, swept off in a cold rush to dark, distant depths of the system, the places that no-one sensible ventures into. The Time Cave’s full of skulls after all. Still, we’ve signed the waiver form. Things like that never happen to us.
For one of the most important pieces of television ever, The Chase gets a pretty rough deal. Unloved for failing to bloom into a full-colour fleapit filler (and then not even having the decency to vanish, like its larger, much-missed, younger brother) it’s regarded as a disappointment by friends and family. The Chase is still one of the most important pieces of television ever and we’ll get back to exactly why that is.
Over the years, the Time Cave has grown to a nearly unimaginable scale. The entrance, once basic and wide is guarded now and restricted. On special days during the year, to celebrate a new discovery, the huge barriers are lifted open and everyone who wants to can have a look for free. It’s not quite the event that it used to be - a lot of potential visitors now prefer to watch other people’s memories on their phones - but then again, it’s not quite the cave that it used to be either.
The Chase contains a lot of debuts: Peter Purves; Aridians; Steven Taylor; Mechanoids; Shakespeare; someone else playing the Doctor as played by William Hartnell; the Beatles; it’s the first time we see a Dalek at the top of some stairs as well as marking the first appearance of a film Dalek, but let’s not go there. None of these are the most important thing about The Chase. Some of them did influence moments that’ll be important to your life in the next couple of days (although Doctor Who’s never managed to repeat its one successful prediction of musical longevity, so maybe not that one). Leaving aside the most important thing again, I should probably point out that The Chase also marks America’s first appearances: the superpower/world’s policeman gets its own historical minisode and a brief present-day outing, triggering a nervous dance and lots of clumsy foot stamping.
Years ago you could find almost everyone in here. Children would be running wild, excited yelps bouncing off the rough walls while their parents watched, sometimes with a grin but not always. Many of the children took to making their own pictures on the walls, crude sketchings initially. As the decades slid past only the most dedicated kept at it, whilst their peers drifted in other directions, and today these individuals unofficially guard the Time Cave’s entrance. Youngsters can still make their own stories and drawings – there’s a special gallery section in the shop – but only the Guards are allowed to add to the walls now, restoring old pictures and slowly filling the empty walls of the unimaginable space. The shop gets bigger ever day. New stalls are being added outside, groaning under the weight of merchandise. In preparation for the biggest open day ever, a lot of people have been very busy. Crowd control’s already a nightmare.
The Chase is also notable for being the final episode of the original run of Doctor Who, Ian and Barbara return to London for some furious photo-bombing, taking it with them as a souvenir. It’s the end of alternating history and science field-trips, both the Doctor’s new chums are now from times that see Hawkwind as Classical Music and there’s no going back from that.
In the main section of the Time Cave, the current mural’s nearly finished. The suspicion is that it’ll link all the main images together in one huge frieze. The Head of the Guards has made it his life’s work. He won’t say so in public but inside he knows he’ll never top this. Possibly no-one will. There’re a lot of sections of wall still covered by curtains. Some observers have complained about ancient originals being painted over in order to make the new vision fit, but that’s the Head Guard’s right. The big revelation is on the way. You can get in for free but a lot of us have paid for a decent view.
The Doctor and the Daleks have been locked in a symbiotic embrace - tearing chunks out of each other for our applause, amusement and donations - since just after Christmas 1963. The cinema was always going to be the arena this war in time ended up in. The Daleks won the first bout convincingly; the Doctor sending Van Helsing in to fight on his behalf was never going to work. The second cinematic death-match didn’t even mention the old wizard in its run-up publicity. Meanwhile, on smaller screens, writers and alchemists have lost years hopelessly trying to recreate Terry Nation’s lightning strike - Voord! Mechans! Cybermen! War Machines! Quarks! Krotons! Weeping Angels! – totally without success. Scientifically speaking, as it can’t be reproduced, it didn’t happen. But that won’t buy you an island.
Despite introducing motifs that are now taken as standard, this part of the Time Cave’s one of the least popular; it’s not easy to get into either. You enter through a dip (mind your head) which opens out to an enclosed natural grotto with smaller caverns leading off. It’s lonely now, lonelier than usual anyway. All the lights have been shifted to illuminate the flashier, iconic images near the entrance where the main celebration’s taking place. This is an isolated section and very old. Broken stelae litter the floor. It’s quiet in here and you can think. Lose hours. Fail to notice the rising tide has cut you off.
The Day of the Doctor is nearly on us. Once again it isn’t quite what it appears to be. Recently, there’s been a lot of talk online about the Doctor’s role as a policeman or soldier. Although he’s never been a pacifist – just ask the French overseer brained with a shovel in The Reign of Terror – the Doctor’s relationship to authority is complex. It would be far too sweeping to say that in order to move the dance with America up to competition level, a certain amount of militarisation needs to be involved but there’s definitely an element of that creeping in. Steven Moffat’s been cunning though: the War Doctor doesn’t count as a Doctor. He’s a pivotal plot-device lifted from The Myth Makers. Yes, there is a Doctor in the horse. This War Doctor has been built in order to sneak the real Doctor through cultural barriers.
The steady susurration of fan chatter has been rising steadily during the week, like the water level in this part of the Time Cave. There’s no point shouting for help because no-one’s really listening. The ceiling is lowering itself down to meet you. The lights begin going out.
The Day of the Doctor is the third cinema battle between the Doctor and the Daleks. The title alone should tell you who’s going to win this time. However, as with The Myth Makers, it won’t spoil the story – that’s why there haven’t been any preview copies. The Time War is being fought worldwide now. The dance wasn’t with America at all – that was just distractingly fancy footwork. Moffat’s aimed much bigger than anyone realised. If Saturday goes according to plan, humanity’ll have a new hero. Now, that’s audacious.
Keep treading water. The noise is almost deafening. Breathing’s becoming desperately urgent. Ragged bursts that feel red break out into the growing darkness. Starting to feel light-headed, but that’s because the remaining oxygen in this shrinking space is almost gone. The ceiling’s so close now that all the tiny individual imperfections in the restoration are clear – you can actually see through them, to the sweeping errors of the original strokes. Only two lights left.
It’s not likely that the Doctor will ever have this opportunity to reach such a massive global audience again. Of course, neither will Steven Moffat. If either of them makes a mistake it’ll all collapse. They both seem pretty confident though. What about after the battle’s over? How do you retain that audience? How do you bring them back for more? Easy. You end on a cliffhanger.
One light now and it’s flickering bravely. The sound is endless and everywhere but through it the unmistakable concatenated drum-roll of heartbeats – lashing like a trapped badger. The tide ripples, black on blacker circles flip in time. It’s like being hugged. The final light goes out.
Speaking of cliffhangers, I still haven’t told you the real reason why The Chase is one of the most important pieces of television ever.
Deep breath. Close your eyes. Here goes-
And then something grabs your foot.
21 November 2013