Sunday, 20 December 2015

Our Christmas Invasion

Doctor Who is about to get its 11th Christmas Special in a row, which I understand is a record. The first, in 2005, seemed like an astonishing achievement, whereas now it's almost taken for granted.

Why, then, is the Doctor so apparently suited to Christmas, even though the connection was only made once in the show's first 26 years? 

Maybe it's because Christmas is a time for "Peace on Earth" - except that the Doctor brings precious little of that! He may have made powerful statements against war (eg in The Zygon Inversion), but it's hard to equate John Lennon's "War is over if you want it" or Jesus' various teachings with Xmas quotes like "no second chances, I'm that kind of person".

No, the Doctor's not Jesus, Unless you're watching Last of the Time Lords, which wasn't even a Christmas special. Is he, then, Santa? It's certainly been suggested over the years – the red bicycle comment – but really, they're not that similar. The Doctor doesn't turn up, leave presents, eat food and then go. It's just not even remotely like his MO.

I think the key might be in comments made by various Doctors over the years but particularly the third and fourth. There is no point in being grown up, we are told, unless you can be childish sometimes. The Doctor is serious about what he does, but not necessarily about the way in which he does it.

This is the time of year when we decorate our houses with tinsel and flashy lights and baubles. We encourage our children to sing songs about reindeers with red noses and tell them to anticipate a fat man climbing down the chimney with presents. It is, surely, the most childish, or maybe child-like, time of year. As Andy Williams nearly sang. The time of Band Aid, sure, but also Lily the Pink. Carols from King's, but also Mr Blobby.

The doctor may spend Christmas sending off the likes of the Sycorax and the Master and the Great Intelligence, but he also does it in a fun way. These 10 episodes have seen him battle Christmas trees and flying sharks; team up with Kylie Minogue and Nick Frost; despatch baddies with a satsuma and gain acces to their lair by impersonating Sherlock Holmes. Where else would we find Jessica Martin voicing the Queen waving at a flying Titanic or June Whitfield pinching the Doctor's bum?

Russell T Davies was adamant that Who's Christmas Specials should be Christmassy, so served up deadly Santas, trees, baubles, stars abd angels  before visiting the heartland of Victorian England. Remove the setting, though, and The Next Doctor is light on Christmas stuff. The End of Time  really has to crowbar it in  - and arguably not very well. A new approach was needed, but it was perhaps surprising that Steven Moffat chose to amp up the Christmas content by about 400%. Homicidal snowman? Check. More Victoriana? Check. People singing Christmas carols and dancing to Christmas number ones? Check.

For his first one, Moffat outrageously stole not only the plot but the title of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Could he get any Christmassier? The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe may not present a traditional Christmas story, but it might be the most Christmassy Christmas special of all. What about that extended sequence when Matt Smith shows the children around the house he's created? Then they go to a world where Christmas trees grow complete with baubles. This all led up to the 2013 Christmas special, in which he consigns the Doctor's final official incarnation to his grave… In a town called Christmas. Then, the next year – Santa.

The children's own programme which adults adore has implicitly and explicitly sold itself as an advocate for childishness and childlikeness since Troughton first clowned around. No wonder it suits this time of year so well.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

#thebigannouncement

This week, there was a big announcement in the world of Doctor Who. We know it was a big announcement because we were warned about it for several hours in advance and everyone immediately started using the hashtag #bigannouncement. What could it be? The BBC claimed it was big news, bigger than anyone was guessing. What on earth could it be?

It was never going to be missing episodes. I don't believe that that is how that particular piece of news would be handled. In 2013, when nine episodes were returned to us, we all knew about it for most of 10th October. We'd known for some time that something was coming back – and the titles themselves were revealed many hours in advance of the midnight iTunes release. Ah, what a time that was to be alive.

So no, I never thought that the big announcement had anything to do with missing episodes. However, it seems that many other people did.

In fact, the announcement was that the BBC are making a new spinoff series set at Coal Hill School, called Class. 

REALLY? OMG!

Because I thought that was really terribly exciting. I've missed Torchwood (which could be very good) and the Sarah Jane Adventures (which was fantastic). It's bound to be at least good, but with talented novelist Patrick Ness at the helm, it will probably be outstanding. 

This, however, was not the main reaction I saw clogging up social media. Fans (nearly used quote marks there) were outraged. Largely, it seems, because the announcement wasn't the one they wanted. Apparently, finding The Space Pirates would be great but making whole new stories is less so.

Others objected to the way in which it was announced. Apparently, this is too much hype for something as minor as an entirely new TV show.

I really feel like people are looking for things to be negative about. If the rumours about Who being largely off air in 2016 are true, then ok, be cross about that. But bashing the new spinoff before the damn thing's even been made? Not cool.

Some tweets I saw:

"Maybe moffatt will include the defunct members of one direction to guest appear... i despair."

I assume this means that the tweeter feels that aiming the show at a young audience is beneath Who's dignity. EXCUSE ME? It may be screened across the watershed this week, but Doctor Who was conceived as a children's programme. Remember?

"only one thing will really attract me to this and that's if a certain school governor makes an appearance"

Yes, of course. Never mind the quality of the scripts - just make sure the nonagenarian William Russell totters down the lane for a cameo. That's what Doctor Who is all about. A guaranteed ratings winner.

"#TheBigAnnouncement would have been much cooler if it had been, "Phillip Hinchcliffe has agreed to become the new #DoctorWho producer.""

Facepalm. Yes of course - even better to hand over the whole show to a septuagenarian who hasn't worked in 15 years.

"Class, ripoff of Buffy/Dark Season/Sarah Jane Adventures. So much for #DoctorWho #thebigannouncement Moffat, please bugger off now."

It hasn't been made yet! How do you know what it will rip off? Did you dismiss SJA because it would rip Buffy off?

Ready for the best one?

"I think I'm excited about this. #thebigannouncement  "
"I'm sad for you. #thebigannouncement 
#thehugedisappointment"

Slow hand clap. You can't even let other people enjoy the moment.

Poor Patrick Ness. He doesn't know what's going to hit him.

Monday, 20 October 2014

My first 100 Doctor Who audio plays

I've now listened to one hundred Big Finish audios (well, 101 if we include Treasure Island) and wanted to summarise here.

TOP 3 PAUL McGANN
3. The Natural History of Fear by Jim Mortimore

I didn't know this one was so good until the end of episode 4. Structurally, not thematically, Doctor Who's The Sixth Sense.

2. The Chimes of Midnight by Robert Shearman

This one feels more like the aforementioned movie but it's even cleverer. The repetition is insidious. Another structurally outstanding one. (NB can't believe Shearman's Scherzo was beaten into fourth place!)

1. Seasons of Fear by Paul Cornell and Caroline Symcox

I came to this one ignorant and thoroughly enjoyed it. Like The Chase done well, but without Daleks. (Actually, no Daleks anywhere on this list!)

TOP 3 SYLVESTER McCOY
3. Dust Breeding by Mike Tucker

I mainly enjoyed this one for a certain guest star, plus realising how much I enjoy listening to Sylvester McCoy.

2. Bang-Bang-a-Boom by Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman 

I enjoyed The One Doctor very much, then this trumped it with its knowing parodies, false ending and spoon playing.

1. Master by Joseph Lidster

Nothing you're expecting, but all the better for it. Also, Philip Madoc.

TOP 3 COLIN BAKER
3. The First Sontarans by Andrew Smith

You expect an origin story, but Andrew takes a totally different angle on that idea. Much better than The Two Doctors.

2. Davros by Lance Parkin

The wonderful Terry Molloy carries this play with no need for Daleks.

1. The Holy Terror by Robert Shearman

Still probably my favourite play overall - funny, irreverent, shocking, very clever, daring and bonkers.

TOP 3 PETER DAVISON
3. The Game by Darin Henry

Something of a surprise as it looked thoroughly unengaging. But one of several Fifth Doctor plays to get a boost from a terrific Peter Davison performance.

2. The Kingmaker by Nev Fountain

This might become a favourite after another listen. Irreverent medieval humour with Arthur Smith, Richard III and a special guest. The bravura final episode deserves applause.

1. Omega by Nev Fountain

Entertaining and interesting throughout ... And then a cliffhanger turns everything upside down in a spectacular manner. Nev Fountain is now a name that makes me anticipate a play keenly.

TOP 1 TOM BAKER
1. Destination: Nerva by Nicholas Briggs

I've only listened to one of these. I liked it, but perhaps more for a spot- on Tom and Louise than its script. Why is it on Nerva anyway?

TOP 3 OTHERS
3. The Coup by Simon Guerrier (UNIT)

I know it's only short, but it served as a great curtain raiser for what would be an underwhelming franchise. I like the twist and Nick Courtney is better used here than in its sequel.

2. The Mahogany Murderers by Andy Lane  (Companion Chronicle)

I have yet to listen to any of the Jago & Litefoot adventures, but if this is anything to go by, that's a treat to come. The story is fine, but secondary to the telling.

1. Sympathy for the Devil by Jonathan Clements (Unbound)

My favourite by far of the Unbound plays, pairing an alt-exiled Doctor with an embittered Brig who once blew up London. And then there's Sam Kisgart.

Loads of great stories there...loads to come too.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The 2014 season: half-time score

Because I don't want to say much about Kill The Moon, to avoid spoilers, I decided instead to write a blog about the entire season so far. We're halfway through – in fact, more than halfway through – so, what do I think of Peter Capaldi's first season so far?

(Note: I am writing this without having re-watched any of the episodes. First impressions only.)

1. The 12th Doctor himself is growing on me over the course of the season. As he should be. He seemed very uncertain about the role to begin with, but possibly that was intentional. He remains irascible and grumpy, but in The Caretaker, despite this, he was far more likeable than in Robot of Sherwood. For me, his finest moment today… Will be something I come to later.

2. Clara is much, much better this year. As she becomes more Northern, she develops more personality. She also gets loads to do.

3. I like Danny Pink (but harbour theories about where the arc might take us) and Courtney was surprisingly good too.

4. I am intrigued about Missy.

5. Unsure why we have to spend so much time at Waterloo Road...sorry, Coal Hill. I hope the next companion actually travels with the Doctor.

6. Moffat is, I believe, trying hard to counteract accusations of misogyny. He's being more or less successful with some slips: Kill The Moon (OK, he didn't write it) aces the infamous Bechdel test and is the first episode this year to realise the Doctor doesn't have to insult Clara's appearance to prove he doesn't fancy her.

7. Proper scares: especially Listen and this week's spider things.

8. Time Heist is more fun than Who's been since, ooh, The Unicorn and the Wasp? Speaking of which, The Caretaker equals The Lodger in terms of quality.

SOME SPOILERS BELOW

9. The argument between Clara and the Doctor yesterday is one of the best moments yet and Capaldi's face when he sees he's pushed her too far is his highlight thus far. My first reference point was Resurrection of the Daleks, but really it's episode 4 of The Massacre. This is how Peri should've left.

10. Listen upends Who mythology like The Doctor's Wife before it. Nothing has actually changed since, so it gets away with it. 

11. Although I remain on the fence about the season's earliest episodes, I'm saying this year we haven't had a duffer yet. That's already more hits than series 7 managed.

So, on the whole - bravo.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Doctor Who - Science Fiction or Fantasy?

This article was originally printed in "Celestial Toyroom", the magazine of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society. You may also wish to read my blog post entitled "Should there be a female Doctor?" which also debuted in CT.



It would be possible simply to point at documentary evidence to show that Doctor Who has always been labelled “science fiction”. Take a look at the opening sentence in the show’s Wikipedia entry. Look at quotes from acetic acid aficionado Sydney Newman, a confirmed sci-fi fan who wanted to create a sci-fi series. How about the TV announcement in Remembrance of the Daleks: “Saturday viewing continues with an adventure in the new science fiction series…”
But we can do better than that. Never mind what the creators thought they were making – did they succeed? Various writers have tried to dispute its claims to the genre: no less a writer than Sir Terry Pratchett (quite my favourite novelist, incidentally) used his guest editing of SFX Magazine in 2010 to declare that “people who don’t know what science fiction is, say that Doctor Who is science fiction” which is patronising in the extreme. The same article berates Russell T Davies for his cop-out writing, while lazily never bothering to provide support for its points (the sonic screwdriver is sniffily dismissed with a brief “I don’t think so”). Sir Pterry also says Star Trek only “approaches science fiction”, leaving one to wonder why he accepted guest editorship of a science fiction magazine in the first place!
Let’s get this clear then: what is science fiction? Back to Wikipedia: apparently, it is a genre dealing with “imaginative content such as futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life…it is similar to, but differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated physical laws”. That’s quite good, and we can all reel off examples of each of the above from Doctor Who. Meanwhile, fantasy “commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena” in its stories.
It is mandatory at this point to refer to The Daemons, specifically the Doctor’s assertion that “all the magical traditions are just remnants of … advanced science”. The script doggedly keeps coming back to this well-worn notion, as famously stated by noted science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke in his third law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The 20th century episodes, by and large, follow this maxim so that everything from ghosts to the abominable snowmen gets a scientific explanation – or, at least, something that sounds like one!
(From time to time, the show slips “sideways in time” and gives us a story that can’t be easily explained away. Morgaine seems to use magic, Omega can control the universe beyond the black hole with his will and the White Guardian seems to have godlike powers. Nonetheless, to dub the whole of Doctor Who “fantasy” on the basis of The Celestial Toymaker and The Mind Robber seems an odd decision as these stories are very much in the minority. Whenever a fantasy story is attempted, we’re usually told that we’re in “another dimension” where anything might be possible. A fig leaf, perhaps, but the fact that it seems necessary is indicative.)
Let’s get back to how it all started. Ian and Barbara meet a strange old man in a junkyard, but he’s no wizard with a magic cabinet: he’s instantly established as an alien from “another time, another world”. His TARDIS is a technological marvel, firmly scientific. He operates controls and they go back in time, spending the next three episodes trying to survive in a past era. Essentially, this takes a premise from Mark Twain (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) and gets there via H.G.Wells (The Time Machine). The shift in emphasis is important. Twain’s time traveller goes back about 13 centuries by accident, without much in the way of explanation, whereas in the Wells novel an actual machine has to be built first. Both novels would have an influence on Doctor Who – given its ongoing motif of technological artefacts being taken for magic, The Time Warrior is almost a free adaptation of Twain’s plot – but there can be no doubt that it was Wells who was taken as the show’s spiritual father. Otherwise, Mark Twain might have taken a trip to Karfel.
Having left 100,000BC behind, the Doctor and his companions next fetch up on the planet Skaro, where very understandable circumstances (nuclear war) have led to very understandable mutations. There’s nothing supernatural or fantastical about the Daleks – or, for that matter, the Cybermen, Sontarans, Silurians or Zygons. Even creatures as obviously ridiculous as the Nimon or the Kandy Man are given a scientific basis. By and large, this trend continues into the twenty first century, with technological upsets at the heart of everything from The Empty Child to A Town Called Mercy. Even the Weeping Angels, as originally conceived, have a sci-fi basis.
As I began to research this article, by coincidence, DWM writer Cavan Scott began a discussion on this very subject on Twitter. The resulting comments were very revealing, with a near-majority preferring to avoid the question entirely: “it’s drama”; “Doctor Who is its own genre” and the like. Others liked to differentiate between “hard” and “soft” science fiction, which I’ve always found to be an odd distinction. Presumably, because the show is populist and showbizzy, it can’t be in the same league as Alfred Bester and William Gibson – although given that the genre’s fathers were responsible for War of the Worlds and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I’m not sure where the pretension to high art comes from.
A third, significant debate can be summed up by the tweeter who opined: “It’s just fantasy now. The TARDIS is regarded as a magic box. The sonic screwdriver is used as a wand.” Is there any substance to the idea that modern Doctor Who is more akin to fantasy than its 20th century antecedent was? Perhaps – without doing tedious number-crunching to check, it does seem that the proportion of fantasy-tinged stories (from Turn Left to Night Terrors) has gone up. The sonic screwdriver can indeed do virtually anything these days, from blowing up Daleks to re-attaching barbed wire. The Time Lords – once a bunch of old men on a planet who have council meetings – are now a legendary race hidden in a scar in time/space who can send magic energy to the Doctor. The Doctor even adopted “Fantastic!” as a catchphrase. The influences of popular fantasy writers such as Philip Pullman and C.S.Lewis have been seen clearly.
Mention of Lewis reminds me of The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe, surely the most conspicuously fantastic episode of all. Trees grow baubles, a Christmas present contains a portal to a Narnia-esque world, wooden statues guard the souls of trees and a woman steers a vessel using emotion and willpower. Nonetheless, Steven Moffat puts all this in the context of miners from Androzani Major, weather control (a staple of some of the most SF-heavy stories of the sixties) and, in the pre-titles sequence, an exploding spaceship. I’m not saying it’s good science fiction, but the effort is made to ground it.
The thing is, they really don’t need to make all that effort. If they want to do fantasy, we’re happy to go along with it. The whole of Amy’s Choice centres around a piece of psychic pollen, which is unrelated to any kind of science I know. Kinda and Snakedance only make sense if we ignore science altogether and take our cues from philosophy. Yet we don’t go around decrying these stories as “oddballs” or “not proper Doctor Who”. In fact, those stories which try hardest to look and feel like “proper sci-fi” – such as, for example, last year’s The Rings of Akhaten and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS – seem to do badly in the court of public opinion. So the showrunners (across the years) have clearly ensured Doctor Who remains science fiction out of personal choice – not just to mollify some fictional fantasy-phobic demographic.
If Who is closer to fantasy now than once it was, perhaps it’s because science fiction, popularly speaking, is also closer to fantasy now. I picked up an edition of SciFiNow magazine recently, whose title is fairly unambiguous in signalling its intentions. I was struck by quite how much of it was full of superheroes. You really have to look very closely at superhero films to decide that they are examples of science fiction. Furthermore, much of the rest of the magazine is filled with articles on shows like True Blood, and if vampires are sci-fi now then all bets are off.
One final piece of evidence, which will surely be the clincher. I was a pre-school Star Wars nut until the winter of 1980, when two things happened. One, I went to school. Two, Metal Mickey started. But it was because of that second event that I watched Tom, Lalla and Matthew blunder around E-Space. I was interested in Doctor Who because it was science fiction. Later, I became interested in other science fiction – John Wyndham, Blake’s Seven, Douglas Adams, Star Trek – because it shared a genre with Doctor Who. Exactly as Sydney Newman intended.

 

Monday, 14 April 2014

Should there be a female Doctor?



This article was originally printed in "Celestial Toyroom", the magazine of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society.

“Should there be a female Doctor?” If your answer is “yes”, then ask yourself this – now? How would a female lead suit the programme as it stands now? Would she be awesome? Or would she suffer from the show’s ingrained sexism?
Throughout its history, Doctor Who cannot be said to have an unblemished attitude as far as its treatment of women is concerned. Retrospectives of the show such as Thirty Years in the TARDIS acknowledged its sexism quite baldly and Resistance Is Useless even showed a compilation of clips entitled “Leave It To Me, Dear”. The show would reference this within its own dialogue: sensible (if mini-skirted) scientist Liz Shaw stomps off between seasons because the role of the Doctor’s assistant equals “someone to pass you your test tubes and to tell you how brilliant you are”. Companions like Leela were often quoted as being there “for the dads”.
But we’ve moved on now, haven’t we? Shouldn’t 21st century Doctor Who have left such tendencies behind? The 1996 TV Movie made steps towards gender equality by presenting a companion who may wear a ball gown but keeps her body covered up and presents the Doctor with a counter-offer when he invites her to join him. I would argue that the Davies era was also generally positive in this regard, but the ball has been dropped on several occasions since Steven Moffat took over in 2010.
The Eleventh Doctor’s first female companion was Amy Pond, played by Karen Gillan. Now, it’s hardly a new thing for an attractive young female actress to be cast, but there was a clear distinction between Amy and her immediate predecessors. However attractive Billie Piper might actually be, Rose Tyler was never fetishised in the way that Amy is. Try and find Rose or Martha in a miniskirt. Publicity photos of these young, attractive women tended to look “cool” rather than “sexy”. Karen, meanwhile, begins in a kissogram outfit. It takes her until the end of the season before she gets to put on trousers.
It’s not all about fashion, of course – it’s also about the way in which Amy is written and how people react to her. Infamously, she pounces on the Doctor at the end of Flesh and Stone. She spends the entirety of A Christmas Carol in a sex outfit. The special episodes Space and Time (Comic Relief fun for all the family) relied on the idea of Amy having sex with herself and Rory looking up her skirt. Upon leaving the TARDIS, she instantly becomes a supermodel with very little apparent effort. And if she’s not being sexy, she’s being pregnant (twice) or crying because she can’t get pregnant. This girl just can’t stop Being Female. Rose, Martha and Donna were content simply being female.
I used the word “girl” just now, quite deliberately. Both Amy and her successor (in more ways than one) Clara are given this infantilising epithet: “The Girl Who Waited”; “The Impossible Girl”. For the record, they are women. But then, I’m not sure Clara even qualifies as that. She’s a cypher, a plot device, fulfilling a function. Her purpose in Doctor Who is to act as the Doctor’s motivation, his obsession – by appearing in three different guises then being split across the Doctor’s timeline (in The Name of the Doctor), she appears more as an archetype than a living, breathing character.
Amy and Clara suffer from a malaise called “male gaze”. This occurs when a female character or situation involving her has been created or written for a heterosexual man’s viewing pleasure. So, for example, Oswin (aka Clara) discussing her “bisexual phase” just to excite Rory. Or Madame Vastra and Jenny, whose relationship exists for jokes far more often than for any actual evidence of love or tenderness. In her 2013 New Statesman article “I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl”, feminist writer Laurie Penny criticises recent Doctor Who in exactly these terms:
“Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else’s.”
The 2005 series began with Rose and the focus was on Rose, entering the mysterious world of the Doctor and having an adventure. Story titles now tend to refer to the Doctor, either blatantly (The Day of the Doctor) or obliquely (The Eleventh Hour) and it is the girls who are the enigmas. Clara isn’t even aware of her own arc plot until the circumstances arrive for her to kill herself. “I was born to save the Doctor” – so much for autonomy. But even worse is the Doctor’s attitude towards her: did anyone fail to flinch when Nightmare in Silver ended with our favourite time-travelling grandfather commenting on “a skirt that’s just a little bit too…tight”?
Forget Russell T Davies’s alleged “gay agenda” – it’s Steven Moffat’s “straight agenda” that has really had an effect on the show. From 2005-2009, the Doctor was kissed by one man. From 2010 onwards, he can’t keep his mind off women. And they can’t keep their hands off him. He begins the 2011 season hiding under a 17th century woman’s skirts naked. Incredibly, he seems to get married to Marilyn Monroe. And as for Queen Nefertiti – this extraordinarily famous and powerful historical figure begins her episode fondling the Doctor and ends it shacking up with a chauvinist hunter who wants to spank her. In between, she is treated as a commodity to be traded. I am not making this up.
Oh, I know, I’m going on a bit about this. I probably come across as though I don’t like this show. I do, really. Why else would I bother thinking about it in such detail that I get all cross and write something like this? Because I would love to enjoy an episode about dinosaurs rattling around a Silurian spaceship without having to think about patriarchy. And it’s not just me. I sent out a tweet asking if anyone had opinions about this. Boy, did they. (Thanks, incidentally, to those whose ideas I have borrowed.) Troublingly, if you type “Steven Moffat” into Google, its third suggestion is “Steven Moffat sexist”.
I’ll allow there are some strong women in recent Doctor Who. One might name Liz Ten, Madge Arwell or Kate Stewart. (Although, if being picky: silenced and duped figurehead; self-sacrificing mother; nepotistic chip off the old block.) And of course there are the evil women: Madame Kovarian, Miss Kizlet, Alaya and Restac, Miss Gillyflower. They’re certainly strong characters. But then, is being “strong” enough? Here’s Sophia MacDougall, again from New Statesman this year:
“No one ever asks if a male character is “strong”. Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that. The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be “strong” by default. Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous.”
The most important female character of the Moffat era is River Song. Although Alex Kingston’s name is yet to grace the opening titles, of the 18 episodes since 2010 written to date by Steve Moffat himself, a whopping 11 of them have featured Mrs Who. When assessing her as a character – and as a central part of the Doctor Who mythos – it’s instructive to go back and watch Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead, written by Steven Moffat under the aegis of Russell T Davies. River, here, is a mildly enigmatic character in a spacesuit. She’s an archaeologist who happens to probably be the Doctor’s future wife. The only gun she fires is Captain Jack’s old square-gun and she fires it at walls.
Since then, she has evolved (backwards) into a self-proclaimed “psychopath”, flirting with anyone she meets then drugging them with her lipstick. If they filmed her debut story now, she’d have at least three costume changes. Back then, she appeared to be a self-possessed, intelligent, resourceful, adventurous, professional woman and I could believe that someone like David Tennant’s Doctor could fall for her one day. Now, any idea that she is the Doctor’s equal has gone out the window. From the womb, her destiny, personality and everything were controlled by a religious cult. She was raised to kill the Doctor; adopted the name “River Song” because of the Doctor; became an archaeologist just to find the Doctor; spent years in prison for killing the Doctor, even though she didn’t; dies to save the Doctor (just like Clara) and gets uploaded to a hard drive for all eternity because “he doesn’t like endings”.
And she just accepts all this. Not one scene where she wigs out about the mess that has been made of her life. River is the closest thing we’ve yet had to a female Doctor (this side of Warriors’ Gate, anyway) and possibly indicates what such a character would be like at this time. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming Peter Capaldi era, but really, what I want from it most of all is the phasing out of the male gaze.
“Should there be a female Doctor?” This is, I believe, the wrong question. Much more importantly – isn’t it about time there was a female showrunner?

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Big Finish episode 2: the hiatus

Time for another roundup of my Big Finish listening habits. I said I'd do the next one when I'd listened to 50 plays, but in fact I've heard 38. However, with the school term ending - and given that it's the journeys to and from work when I listen - I'm on hiatus and will listen to play no.39 in September.

What should that play be? Advice welcome. The next batch I'm listening to run from November 2003 (immediately after "Zagreus", which was story 50) up until December 2004 (with the end of Paul McGann's Divergent Universe saga - The Next Life is story 64). I'm also including all the Excelis and Unbound audios.

To see my Top 10 of the first 25 I listened to, go here: http://chapwithwings.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/beginning-big-finish.html

*some spoilers below*
The most recent 13 have included a fair few that...well, were a little disappointing or unmemorable. Too many of them don't really seem to be about anything and end up resolving themselves too neatly,. which doesn't matter because nothing that happened made sense anyway. "The Time of the Daleks" is a particular culprit in this regard, but the other Dalek plays - "The Apocalypse Element" and "The Mutant Phase" - were also noisy but empty. Two of these plays are peculiarly well-suited to audio, but "Embrace the Darkness" was more interesting in the end than "Whispers of Terror". "Project Twilight" and "Project Lazarus" promise much, but deliver less: and the Forge just reminds me of the Initiative from Buffy.

Then there are a whole batch of plays that see "Doctor Who" disappear up its own arsehole. "The Sirens of Time" could be forgiven if it were only written a little better. "Auld Mortality" operates by different rules anyway, as the first in the Unbound series with a whole new actor playing the Doctor and it does have a talking elephant in it.  Most interesting are the two plays which bring the Eighth Doctor's second run to a close, resolve the Charley Paradox and celebrate the show's 40th birthday.

In the run-up to the 50th on TV, it's interesting to see how Gary Russell, Alan Barnes and everyone behind the scenes chose to celebrate ten years ago. The Eighth Doctor audios had proved they were best with one-off atmospheric stories with the arc in the background - "Seasons of Fear", "Chimes of Midnight" and "Minuet in Hell" are the best examples. So to "Neverland", which is, essentially, a series of very long conversations in almost unimaginable locations (the Matrix, the Time Station, the Planetoid-cum-TARDIS, the void-like place where the antagonists hang out). Charley transmogrifies into a CVE (or something), Rassilon is reimagined, the web of time becomes almost incomprehensible and the ending is good.

"Zagreus" doesn't really follow through on that cliffhanger, which promises an evil Doctor but instead gives us a confused one. We hear a lot about how powerful Zagreus is, but he never really does anything. There's a lot more guff about Rassilon and anti-time and stuff. Crucially, for the largest part of the story, nothing is really happening. The Brigadier (but not really) and Charley pop in and out of other people's stories while the Doctor talks to a cat.

Of course, I loved it. It's there to push fannish buttons. The gimmick is that almost every part is played by an actor better knows for other roles, from Elisabeth Sladen and Sarah Sutton to Maggie Stables and Conrad Westmaas. Infamously, old clips of Jon Pertwee play the Third Doctor, although with so much production that I couldn't understand half of it. These pieces of stunt casting successfully mask the fact that some of these will become important later in the story, and also made me wish Steven Moffat had adopted something similar for the most recent season. Just imagine - Colin Baker instead of David Warner, Sylvester McCoy instead of Jason Watkins, Peter Davison instead of Dougray Scott.

There's also a great bit where several of the characters realise they're in a location familiar to us through 1980s Who. The moment they say so, I'm begging for a familiar incidental music sting. Then - after a few seconds' tease - it arrives. Cue end of episode. Punch the air, big smiles.

Anyway. I listened to two which enter my top rank. Of these, "Bang-Bang-a-Boom" was constantly entertaining and plays a great trick with the end of episode 4. It is now at No.8 in my chart, between "The Marian Conspiracy" and "Minuet in Hell". Better yet is "Omega" - those three "Classic Villains" audios really were top notch. Not quite as good as "Davros" or "Master", nonetheless it's very clever and contains a genuinely surprising twist. Now at no.6, between "Chimes of Midnight" and "Marian".

OK, see you in September. Please suggest plays for me to buy!