Friday, December 27, 2013

Hitchcock on love

I bought the brother Hitchcock Truffaut for Christmas, a book-long series of conversations between the two directors. At one point they discuss Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), and the two-and-a-half minute snog where Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman don't let go of one another even as they move round the room.
A.H. I was on a train going from Boulogne to Paris and we were moving slowly through the small town of Etaples. It was on a Sunday afternoon. As we were passing a large, red brick factory, I saw a young couple against the wall. The boy was urinating against the wall and the girl never let go of his arm. She'd look down at what he was doing, then look at the scenery around them, then back again at the boy. I felt this was true love at work.

F.T. Ideally, two lovers should never separate.

A.H. Exactly. It was the memory of that incident that gave me an exact idea of the effect I was after with the kissing scene in Notorious.
Hitchcock Truffaut (1984), p. 262.

You can listen to the conversations between Hitchcock and Truffaut (hours and hours of them!) here.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Doctor Who: 2013

Episode 799: The Day of the Doctor
First broadcast at 7.50 pm, Saturday 23 November 2013
<< back to 2012
Happy birthday, Doctor Who
 And so, at last, I reach the end of this daft project to find one image from each calendar year of Doctor Who and use it an excuse to waffle on in praise of some aspect of the show. It was my attempt to mark the 50th anniversary and for this last installment I want to talk about the 50th anniversary itself.

Wasn't it brilliant?

Andrew Ellard's wise tweetnotes on the episode, which I largely agree with, concluded:
In short: A vastly entertaining barnstormer that put the title character front and centre.
I'd worried that nothing could surpass The Five Doctors (1983), and there'd been rumours and grumblings about what might be happening behind the scenes. And yet, and yet...

I loved The Day of the Doctor, with its fast and funny and redemptive plot. But I especially loved how it encompassed all of Doctor Who - right back to the title sequence, theme music and even the school from the very first episode. Then, after a single shot taking us into the TARDIS (this time in 3D!), we're in Trafalgar Square - where Rose and Mickey had lunch in some of the very first moments of the show when it returned in 2005.

How bold and ridiculous to explain the Doctor's connection to Elizabeth I - first glimpsed in The Shakespeare Code (2007) and The End of Time part one (2009). How magnificent to see UNIT make peace with an alien species rather than blasting them from the Earth. How brilliant to resolve the Time War with a happy ending, yet without revoking any part of the past eight years of the show.

There's nods to all the eras and Doctors - and the suggestion of all sorts of tales we've never even dreamed of, with a brief glimpse of Sara Kingdom stood with Mike Yates. How extraordinary to get Tom Baker into it, how amazing that it remained a surprise, and how perfect was that scene? I found it so moving that it wasn't until my third time of watching that I picked up on the inference that this is a far-future Doctor. Gosh! and sssh! and aaaah!

What really struck me about the episode, though, was the sense of extraordinary joy. And that was matched in the other special programming round the episode - The Night of the Doctor, An Adventure in Space and Time, the Five-ish Doctors, my chum Matthew's documentary, and everything else. All in all, it seemed perfectly to provide something for fans of every era and style of this sprawling, madcap show.

It's not just been on TV. There's been the return of the missing nine episodes - which I assume was carefully stage-managed to happen just ahead of the anniversary. And this year has seen some of the best and boldest spin-off Doctor Who. (At least, I gather it is: I'm hoping for The Light at the End, the 11 Doctors, 11 Stories book and The Vault for Christmas - but that rather depends on whether I've been good.) Plus there's been events all over the country and abroad, and 94 countries got to watch the special episode together.

Perhaps, amid all these treats, some fans may have missed what Doctor Who Adventures did the week of the anniversary. But I think, more than anything else, it might be the one thing to really bring home the scale of Doctor Who's achievement in lasting half a century.

The comic strip of Doctor Who Adventures issue # 333 (6-26 November) broke its own solemn rules and featured a past Doctor. "Time Trick" - written by Craig Donaghy, with art by John Ross and colour by Alan Craddock - didn't just feature any past Doctor, but the original as played by William Hartnell.

Doctor Who Adventures is aimed at 8-12 year-olds - children who've now grown up in an age where the longest gap between new episodes of Doctor Who has been a mere nine months. Hartnell died in 1975 - before the parents of some of those readers had been born. He played the Doctor between 1963 and 1966 - when the grandparents of those readers were children.

"Time Trick" from Doctor Who Adventures #333 (6-26 Nov 13)
written by Craig Donaghy, art by John Ross
and colour by Alan Craddock.
The end.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Out of the Hitler Time by Judith Kerr


Judith Kerr wrote her extraordinary, semi-autobiographical novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) in response to The Sound of Music. She was horrified that her son thought the film showed how her own childhood had been. So she wrote the story of nine year-old Anna, who's family fled Berlin in 1933, just as Hitler came to power.

I'd read it before as kid - it's still used in classrooms in the UK and Germany - and remembered the haunting simplicity of it, the way she doesn't quite spell out the dangers the family are facing. We understand the Nazi policy towards Jews from fleeting examples, such as two children who aren't allowed to play with Anna and her brother, and a growing sense of dread because of how Anna's parents behave.

At one point, the family heads from Switzerland to Paris, and a guard directs them to their train. Except, just as the train is about to depart, Anna realises it's a train for Stuttgart. They just escape in time, and the implication is that if they had gone back to Germany, they would not have survived. But worse is the hanging question of whether the guard directed them to the wrong train on purpose.

What's brilliant is how the events are filtered through Anna's perspective, so that we - the readers - often know more than she does about what's going on and what is to come. The family's great friend Onkel Julius insists on staying in Berlin, and that things will work out soon enough... As the situation worsens, we learn he takes solace in going to the zoo. So the true horror of the Nazis is brought home at the end of the book by a letter from Julius. It's a suicide note.
"And then, just before Christmas, the blow had fallen. Onkel Julius had received an official letter revoking his pass to the Zoo. No reason was given. The fact that he had a Jewish grandmother was enough."
Judith Kerr, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, p. 230.
In the recent Imagine documentary, Hitler, the Tiger and Me, Kerr confirmed to Alan Yentob that this was a true a story, and Julius a real friend of her father's. Kerr's response is extraordinary:
"Apparently, in 1938 they made a law that Jewish families couldn't keep pets and they had to be collected. You weren't allowed to kill your pet, you had to hand it over and didn't know what was going to happen to it. And then in 1942, when they must have had other things on their mind, somebody decided that mixed families - you know, if there was a marriage between a Jew and an Aryan and they'd stayed together - that they couldn't keep pets either. Who thinks of things like that? I mean, why?"
Judith Kerr speaking on Hitler, The Tiger and Me, BBC One, 26 November 2013.
It's this response to the Nazis - not one of horror but of bafflement at the petty needlessness of the cruelty - that really lingers after the end of the book, when Anna and her family reach London in 1936.

The story is then continued in Bombs on Aunt Daisy (originally The Other Way Round (1975)), with Anna in her teens during the war. Again, it's told in sparing, simple prose where she doesn't tell us everything and gets us to puzzle out the meaning.

Perhaps most horrific is the sequence on pages 89-90, where Anna's father asks a doctor friend to supply him with something secret. Anna, overhearing, doesn't quite know what's been asked for, and all we get is her parent's stricken response when she asks them. It's clear to us, though it's never said, that it's suicide pills.

Kerr's good, too, at the mounting dread among the community of refugees in London, listening to the news as Nazi forces trample yet more of Europe. And then, when we can hardly believe that there's any cause for hope, there's this transcendent moment:
"A familiar voice said, 'This is the BBC Home Service. Here is the news, and this is Bruce Belfrage reading it.'

The voice did not quiet sound as usual and Anna thought, what's the matter with him? It had a breathlessness, a barely discernible wish to hurry, which had never been there before. She was listening so hard to the intonation of each word that she hardly took in the sense. Air battles over most of England... Heavy concentrations of bombers... An official communique from the Air Ministry... And then it came. The voice developed something like a tiny crack which completely robbed it of its detachment, stopped for a fraction of a second and then said slowly and clearly, 'One hundred and eighty-two enemy aircraft shot down.'

There was a gasp from the people in the lounge, followed by murmured questions and answers as those who did not understand much English asked what the newsreader had said, and the others checked with each other that they had heard aright. And then the elderly Pole was leaping up from his chair and shaking Mr Chetwin by the hand.

'It is success!' he cried. 'You English show Hitler he not can win all the time! Your aeroplanes show him!' and the other Poles and Czechs crowded round, patting Mr Chetwin on the back, pumping his hand and congratulating him.

His grey hair became untidier than ever and he looked bemused but glad. 'Very kind of you,' he kept saying, 'though it wasn't me, you know.'"
Judith Kerr, Bombs on Aunt Daisy, pp. 98-9.
For all the excitement and danger of the war - including a couple of moments when Anna is nearly killed - the story is really about how life carried on regardless: Anna going to the cinema, studying shorthand, eating a knickerbocker glory, buying her first pair of trousers and falling in love for the first time. She's especially good on telling details about how war intruded into life, such as the early days of the air raids.
"It was curious, thought Anna, how quickly one could get used to sleeping on the floor. It was really quite snug. There were plenty of blankets, and the heavy wooden shutters over the lounge windows not only muffled the noise but gave her a feeling of security. She never got enough sleep, but nor did anyone else, and this was another thing one got used to. Everywhere you went during the day there were people having little catnaps to catch up - in the parks, on the buses and tubes, in the corners of tea-shops. One girl even fell asleep over her shorthand machine at the secretarial school. When they talked to each other they would yawn hugely in the middle of a sentence and go straight on with what they were saying without even bothering to apologise."
Ibid., p. 114.
At the same time, there's plenty on the horror of war - the sudden deaths of young men, the effect on Anna's parents and the awful state of one old refugee who was roundly beaten by the Nazis.

The final book in the trilogy, A Small Person Far Away (1978) is set over a week in 1956, when Anna - now married to a famous TV writer and with a new job as a writer herself - must rush to Berlin because her mum has attempted suicide.

In part, it explores the awful shadow cast by the war. Anna's mother is now involved with a man who's job is to help Jewish citizens seek compensation for all those they have lost - though, as one client Anna meets hauntingly demonstrates, how can anyone be compensate for the loss of all their loved ones? Anna's mother has been working as a translator in the war crimes hearings. But it's not this daily reminder of all the horrors committed by the Nazis that finally gets to her but something much more mundane: her lover has had an affair.

This awful ordinariness, this anticlimax, makes for a very different feel of story. Gone is the childlike sense of adventure and optimism, and instead there's a quiet despair.

It's assumed that, as the daughter, Anna will stay to look after her mother - whatever her commitments to her work and husband. And when her mother wakes, she only has eyes for her son. Whereas the previous books had Anna escaping the best efforts of Nazis to kill her, here the greatest moment of tension is when she's at a party, waiting for her husband to ring.

It's not that the book is such a great leap from the two before. It allows Anna to revisit the Berlin home she fled all those years before, and to tell us what happened to some of the characters we've met in the first two novels. And it ends with Anna flying back to London, let off from her duties to her mother because of the threat of war. The focus is still, during a crisis, to cling tight to those who matter, but that's no longer her mother and brother but her husband.

All the books deal with struggles of the artist - the effects of the exile on her father's writing, Anna's own education as an artist and the sensibility to find even the worst events "interesting", and then her struggles to balance her work with the needs of her family. Each book is written to the level of Anna's age - the first one for children, the second for teens and the third for grown-ups.

But this last book is the least dramatic, most personal and the most unsettling of the three. For all the horrors of the war, Anna's perspective on events and the simple style make the first two books enchanting, whereas the conclusion is hard work. But, perhaps because of that, it's the one I find myself picking over most, days after I finished it.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Doctor Who: 2012

Episode 790: The Snowmen
First broadcast at 5.15 pm, Tuesday 25 December 2012
<< back to 2011

Clara snogs the Doctor
The Snowmen (2012)
On 3 September 2012, Caitlin Moran asked Twitter:
"I know I'm going to regret this, but: what is the OFFICIAL number of companions the Doctor has had?"
It's a question that doesn't have an answer, for reasons I'm about to explain. But I did try to puzzle it out once for a work thing - and, at least for the series post-1989, I've a modest proposal...

Generally, it's quite easy to define a companion. There's three of them in the first episode: Susan, Barbara and Ian. When they leave, a new companion takes their place. Susan, leaves in Flashpoint (the final episode of The Dalek Invasion of Earth), and a week later the Doctor meets Vicki. Ian and Barbara leave the TARDIS in The Planet of Decision (the final episode of The Chase), not knowing that Steven is already on board.

That's generally the rule: a companion leaves and a new one is introduced, usually in the same story or one story apart. Most companions last about a year in the series.

But there are plenty of exceptions to this general rule. In The Horse of Destruction (the final episode of The Myth Makers), Vicki leaves and is replaced by Katarina – who is then killed off four weeks later in The Traitors. That episode introduces Sara Kingdom, who travels with the Doctor and Steven for the next eight weeks before also being killed.

Do Katarina and Sara count as companions? Neither are listed in the Characters from Season 3 page on the BBC's own Doctor Who website - if that means anything. But other lists say one or both of them do.

I once asked the actress Jean Marsh if she considered Sara to be a companion. She told me, firmly, no: it was made clear to her at the time that companions got a better rate of pay than she was on. But does what the production team decide have any bearing?

There's also an argument that Katarina counts because, although she's in just five episodes, they're spread across two separate stories – The Myth Makers and The Daleks' Master Plan. Sara's nine episodes are all part of that latter story, so she doesn't count.

(Jean Marsh has since appeared in lots more episodes as Sara for Big Finish - most of them written by me. I think if she wasn't a bona fide companion before, she is now because of those adventures. You are welcome.)

But if companions need to be in more than story, that would rule out Grace Holloway, who only appears in the TV movie (1996). And if she counts as a companion, does Chang Lee? He appears in the same story, travels in the TARDIS and is on good terms with the Doctor at the end.

Does a companion need to travel in the TARDIS? Liz Shaw never did. The Brigadier travelled by TARDIS in The Three Doctors (1972-3), and appeared in numerous stories - but does he count as a companion? If he does, what about other regulars from UNIT - Benton and Yates in the old days, or Kate Lethbridge-Stewart today?

Doctor Who Magazine
#367 (March 2006)
Mickey wasn't a companion when we first met him in Rose (2005), but became one when he joined the TARDIS in School Reunion (2006), though he left again after three episodes. Publicity referred to him as the TV show's first black companion - but that's also what was said about Martha Jones when she joined the TARDIS a year later.

In fact, since the series came back in 2005, it's been tricky working out who counts as a companion. There are the main ones: Rose, Captain Jack, Donna, Martha, Amy and Rory, and Clara. But what about everyone else?

Does Adam count as a companion? He travelled in the TARDIS in two separate stories - Dalek and The Long Game (2005), but the point in the second story is that he's not a suitable candidate, so the Doctor drops hims home.

Perhaps how the production team viewed Adam and Mickey's status can be gauged from the fact that, when they joined the TARDIS, the actors playing them weren't credited in the opening titles. When Mickey returned in Journey's End (2008), actor Noel Clarke was credited after the opening titles. We might use those titles as an indicator of who counts:

  • Credited in the titles of Journey's End, therefore a companion:
    • Catherine Tate (Donna), Freema Agyeman (Martha), John Barrowman (Captain Jack), with Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah) and Billie Piper (Rose).
  • Credited after the titles of Journey's End, so not a companion:
    • Noel Clarke (Mickey), Camille Coduri (Jackie), Adjoa Andoh (Francine), Eve Myles (Gwen), Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto).

That feels sort of right, but then the opening titles for the episodes following Journey's End credit people we might not think of as companions: David Morrisey (Jackson) in The Next Doctor (2008), Michelle Ryan (Christina) in Planet of the Dead (2009), Lindsay Duncan (Adelaide) in The Waters of Mars (2009) and Bernard Cribbins (Wilf) in The End of Time (2009-10).

Except for Wilf, these characters only appear in one episode and I don't think really count as companions - but then who am I to decide?

Well, entirely ignoring what I've said before about none of us getting to say what counts and what doesn't, I've a modest proposal. It goes like this:

Snog = companion

Yes, if we see the Doctor kiss someone, then they're a companion. It only counts for companions post-1989 but then, when companions have returned to the series - so far, only Jo and Sarah Jane - they've got a big hug from the Doctor.

Anyway, the list excludes Adam, Mickey and Wilf, but I think it works pretty well. And I'm delighted by the last one:
  • Grace (the TV movie, 1996)
  • Captain Jack (The Parting of the Ways, 2005)
  • Rose (The Parting of the Ways)
  • Madame de Pompadour (The Girl in the Fireplace, 2006)
  • Jackie (in Army of Ghosts (2006) when she also travels in the TARDIS)
  • Martha (Smith and Jones, 2007)
  • Joan (Human Nature, 2007)
  • Astrid (Voyage of the Damned, 2007)
  • Donna (The Unicorn and the Wasp, 2008)
  • Christina (Planet of the Dead, 2009)
  • Amy (The Time of Angels, 2010)
  • River (The Day of the Moon, 2011)
  • The TARDIS (The Doctor's Wife, 2011)
  • Rory (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (2012)
  • Kate Lethrbridge-Stewart (The Power of Three, 2012 - though it's only a peck on the cheek)
  • Clara (The Snowmen, 2012)
  • Elizabeth I (The Day of the Doctor, 2013)
Next episode: 2013

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Blake's 7: President

Those splendid fellows at Big Finish have announced details of a new Blake's 7 story what I've written. It's one I'm especially pleased with.
Blake's 7: President
Alone together, two Federation officials at last share the truth. Supreme Commander Servalan agrees to explain to Secretary Rontane how she set up the President.

And when she is done, Servalan’s executioners will be waiting…

(Starring Jacqueline Pearce as Servalan and Peter Miles as Rontane. Directed by Lisa Bowerman.)
It's in a box-set with stories by the immensely good Marc Platt and James Goss, too. Blake's 7: The Liberator Chronicles volume 8 is out in May 2014.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Doctor Who: 2011

Episode 781: The God Complex
First broadcast: 7.10 pm on Saturday 17 September 2011
<< back to 2010

"Who else?"
Doctor Who: The God Complex (2011)
In The God Complex, the Doctor and his friends are trapped in a sinister hotel that isn’t what it seems. As well as the Minotaur stalking them, there’s the weird matter of the rooms. It seems (at first) that the hotel feeds on people’s fears. Somewhere, there’s a door for everyone, and beyond it the thing you’re most afraid of…

When the Doctor finds a door of his own he can’t resist taking a peek. But his response is quite unexpected. “Who else?” he says with a smile.

What did the Doctor see?

I’ve known a few people try to puzzle this out, assuming it would be the embodiment of his greatest fear. They suggest Daleks or Weeping Angels - or the Taran Wood Beast. There are some other options.

In The War Games (1969) the Doctor admits to his friends why he fled from his own people:
Well, I was bored.
Later, he’s horrified at the prospect of his travels being curtailed: he fears the loss of his freedom, of being forced to conform.

In The Mind of Evil (1971), he battles a machine that uses people’s fears to kill them. It torments him with visions of the Earth on fire and his failure to stop the calamity (events he witnessed in Inferno (1970), written by the same writer.)

In Planet of the Spiders (1974), he must face his greatest fear and return to the arachnid queen, even though it will kill him. But in doing so, he conquers that terror, doesn’t he?

At the end of Amy’s Choice (2010) it’s suggested that his greatest tormentor is actually the voice inside his own head. Perhaps he most fears his own capacity for evil: see his horror of the War Doctor and the Valeyard.

I also like the implied joke from the 2005 series, that Doctor Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf. Why would the Doctor fear Bad Wolf? Rose with golden eyes doesn’t just wield extraordinary powers, those powers threaten to destroy her – and him. But I think the thing the Doctor would find scary is that Bad Wolf suggests that events are pre-destined, that the Doctor is merely fulfilling a role someone else has contrived. His free will is an illusion.

(The trick, in both The Parting of the Ways (2005) and The Day of the Doctor (2013) is that he takes the initiative; but perhaps we could argue he’s been placed in just that position by the all-powerful being. How much is he free to choose?)

I’m not sure that, in The God Complex, the Doctor does confront his greatest fear. Soon after he’s seen what waits in his own room, he works out what the hotel wants from its victims:
It's not fear. It's faith. Not just religious faith, faith in something … Every time someone was confronted with their most primal fear, they fell back on their most fundamental faith.
What does Doctor believe in?

In The Day of the Doctor he explains that when he adopted his name, he also promised to adhere to a code of conduct.
TENNANT DOCTOR:
Never cruel or cowardly.

HURT DOCTOR:
Never give up, never give in.
The words are taken from Terrance Dicks’ description of the Doctor in The Making of Doctor Who (1972) - which I think would make a great title for an episode - and first cited in fiction as the Doctor’s personal code in Timewyrm: Revelation by Paul Cornell (1991).

But even if that's what he believes in, it doesn’t tell us what he sees in his own hotel room. Instead, I think the key words in The God Complex are how the Doctor defines the notion of faith:
Not just religious faith, faith in something …
That chimes with his explanation to Ace in The Curse of Fenric (1989):
ACE:
I thought vampires were scared of crucifixes.

DOCTOR:
No, no, it's not the crucifix that frightens them, it's the faith of the person carrying it. It creates a psychic barrier, just like I did.
"Susan, Barbara,
Ian, Vicki, Steven..."
That’s just after he scares off the vampires [or Haemovores] by reciting something under his breath. We can't hear what he says but its clear from reading his lips: the Doctor’s unshakeable, monster-beating faith is a list of his former companions.

(Go see for yourself: the Doctor's act of faith on YouTube.)

In recent years, River Song and others have said it’s a bad idea for the Doctor to travel alone: he’s a better man with his companions. But that's not a new idea - it goes right back to the beginnings of the series. I argued in my 2002 piece that original companions Ian and Barbara,
“serve the purpose of ‘educating the Doctor to maturity and responsibility’”.
When we first meet him, the Doctor can be cruel and cowardly - ready to kill a wounded caveman just to save his own skin. It's Ian and Barbara who change him. The first time the Doctor battles the Daleks it's because that's his only chance of recovering the missing piece of the TARDIS. A year later, because of Ian and Barbara's influence, he dares to battle the Daleks not out of personal gain but because it's the right thing to do.

In that first year of the show, Ian and Barbara make him realise his moral responsibilities in travelling through time and space: he has to get involved in events, to battle tyranny, to fight evil, yet to remain a man of peace… They’re the ones who make him change his behaviour, who hold him to a higher standard.

So who else would he see gazing back at him in his room in the hotel?

Jemma Powell and Jamie Glover
as Jacqueline Hill and William Russell
as Barbara and Ian in
An Adventure in Space and Time (2013)
Next episode: 2012

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

My second Agatha Christie novel is apparently one of the best.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was first published in 1926 - six years after Christie's debut (you might wish to read my thoughts on The Mysterious Affair at Styles). Ackroyd feels quite familiar: a gruesome death in a posh house full of characters almost from Wodehouse, any one of whom might be the culprit. This time, the story is narrated not by the woosterish detective Captain Hastings, but the local doctor.

James Sheppard is keen to stay ahead of his gossipy sister in puzzling out the case. But, like Hastings, he's also caught between bafflement and awe at the antics of the professional sleuth, and is at pains to detail Poirot's methods and theories. Once again, this layering effect - where each piece of new evidence is judged from more than one perspective - encourages us to play along and make our own deductions. Again, there are several dark secrets involved, not all of them leading to murder. Again, the text includes maps of the scene of the crime to make it that much more tangible and real.

Poirot is again a striking, peculiar hero. His fussy, fastidious manner ought to grate, but Christie makes him a figure of curiosity to the other players. The more they comment on his strangeness, the more we come to accept it. Plus there's fun to be had in the way he speaks of himself (in the third person) and what we really might think:
“Hercule Poirot does not run the risk of disarranging his costume without being sure of attaining his object. To do so would be ridiculous and absurd. I am never ridiculous.”
Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, p. 95.
His first appearance is characteristically odd: he throws a marrow at Sheppard (p. 21). It's a nicely unassuming entrance. If we already know his name and reputation, that puts us one step ahead of the narrator who underestimates him.

Just as with Styles, Poirot is in the vicinity by chance, having moved into the house next door to the doctor just in time for the murder. In fact, it's surprising that Poirot is never a suspect himself.

I've noticed that Christie likes playing with the "rules" of the detective story - in other whodunnits I know of, she reveals the detective committed the murder, or that all the suspects did it together, or... But I don't wish to spoil things if you don't already know...

Once more in Ackroyd we're given insights into how the great man cracks a case. As he tells us himself, it's all down to:
“Method, order and the little grey cells ... Then there is the psychology of the crime. One must study that.”
Ibid., pp. 81-2.
Psychology is important. I was impressed by what seemed a very modern understanding of post-traumatic shock when Mrs Ackroyd speaks of reckless young Ralph:
“But, of course, one must remember that Ralph was in several air raids as a young boy. The results are apparent long after, sometimes, they say.”
Ibid., p. 122.
(Though, if this is set in 1926, I'm a bit confused by how old Ralph is meant to be if he was a "young boy" during air-raids that started in 1915.)

The Dr - who is much more versed in murder than I am - says the psychological element is what most strikes her about Christie: not merely the whodunnit, but the understanding of people, and why someone might be driven to kill.

It's interesting, then, that we never get inside Poirot's head. He contends that everyone has something to hide and it's just a question of rooting out the whole tangle of secrets to work out who is the murderer. But if that's true, I found myself thinking, then Poirot himself must have something wicked to hide. So what's Poirot's secret? Not the nephew with mental health issues that he mentions a couple of times: that's a lie concocted to get other people to speak.

In fact, we know very little about him - just that he was a famous as a detective. Note that past tense. Given Christie would publish Poirot stories for another 50 years, it's odd to find that he's just retired in this one.
“They say he's done the most wonderful things – just like detectives do in books. A year ago he retired and came to live down here. Uncle knew who he was, but he promised not to tell anyone, because M. Poirot wanted to live quietly without being bothered by people.”
Ibid., p. 65.
Note, too, the off-hand use of “like in books”, to suggest reality. Later, Poirot himself says,
“In all probability this is the last case I shall ever investigate”
Ibid., p. 124.
Last time, I compared Poirot to Sherlock Holmes - and it's interesting that Conan-Doyle also had Holmes retire decades before he stopped writing new stories for him. Why? What does retirement confer on the detective? I suppose there's an advantage to being no longer professional, and less involved in the formal inquiry. That spares the author the heavy lifting of a police procedural.

More than that, an emeritus detective can take a step back from the case and make moral judgments as a private citizen rather than as a public servant. That makes it somehow less objectionable if they then give a sympathetic culprit a chance to escape or to kill themselves before the ignominy of trial.

Whatever the case, it's not to make Poirot a reluctant hero, forced to come back for one final job. The first time we see him in the book, he's hankering after the old days:
“But you can figure to yourself, monsieur, that a man may work towards a certain object, may labour and toil to attain a certain kind of leisure and occupation, and then find that, after all, he yearns for the old busy days, and the old occupations that he thought himself so glad to leave?”
Ibid., p. 21.
A lot of the book is taken up with conversations as different characters give their evidence or share their latest theories. That could get wearing, but Christie skillfully keeps these scenes short and sets them in different locations. I especially liked a sequence set during a game of Mah-Jong, the mechanics of play breaking up all the exposition. The book is itself a game, but again the tone is jarring: at once its comic and light, and then there's a blunt description of a corpse or the ruination of someone's whole life.

If the characters are largely archetypes and ciphers - playing pieces in the game - they can seem a bit glib and inconsequential. That's most telling in the casual racism, such as when a character receives a note from a creditor with a Scottish name.
“They [creditors] are usually Scotch gentlemen, but I suspect a Semitic strain in their ancestry.”
Ibid., p. 136.
One character, Charles Kent - perhaps because he has spent time in America and picked up peculiar phrasing - even refers to Poirot as a “foreign cock duck” (p. 172).

Speaking of foreigners, we learn that Captain Hastings is not merely indisposed for this adventure but now lives in “the Argentine” (p. 22). That seems rather drastic. Like in a soap opera, it's as if a major character can't just leave the series by moving to another part of town but must go to the ends of earth. In a soap, that strategy explains why that character never appears in the soap again and is barely ever mentioned. In Ackroyd, it establishes that Hastings won't make a sudden appearance or contribute to the solution. Or am I reading too much into it?

It's difficult to say much more about the story without spoiling the ingenious mystery. Unfortunately, I already knew the ending but the reveal is still brilliantly done. Without spoiling things, the ending is bleak and haunting, and I found myself picking over it for days. But for what is set-up as a fun parlour game, this is a cold and cruel story. And, for all his eccentricities, I've not yet warmed to Poirot.

Next on my list: Miss Marple's debut in The Thirteen Problems.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Doctor Who: Christmas, Mega, Destiny and War

A whole bunch of Doctor Who goodies by me are now available in shops and online. "The Holly and the Ivy" is this year's festive comic strip in the new issue of Doctor Who Adventures. Here's a thrilling excerpt:

Doctor Who: The Holly and the Ivy
By me, art by John Ross with
colour by Alan Craddock
Also out now, The Mega is a six-part audio story featuring the third Doctor, Jo Grant and Mike Yates. I've adapted it from an original outline by Bill Strutton, with the help of magnificent script editor John Dorney.

Doctor Who: The Mega
By me and Bill Strutton, artwork by Damien May
Those splendid fellows at Big Finish have also released the complete box-set of special 50th anniversary series The Destiny of the Doctor, with one adventure for each of (what we thought when we were commissioned was) the 11 incarnations of the Doctor. I wrote the second Doctor's one: The Shadow of Death . Until 31 January, you can buy the box-set for less than half price.

The Destiny of the Doctor
And, just to whet your appetite, Big Finish have revealed the cover to my forthcoming The War To End All Wars. I'm thrilled by Tom Webster's artwork. Cor. The story - which stars Peter Purves as space pilot Steven Taylor (and the first Doctor), and Alice Haig as Sida - is out in April 2014.

Doctor Who: The War To End All Wars
By me, artwork by Tom Webster

Saturday, December 14, 2013

James Bond, 1654

Via a tweet from my chum Farah earlier in the year, I learnt of A Firework for Oliver (1964) by John Sanders. Brother Tom tracked down a copy via the wonder that is Abe Books.

It's a thrilling spy story about a top English secret agent, Nicholas Pym, on the trail of a deadly new superweapon that's being developed by an implacable foe.

The trail leads him into the heart of Europe, and into the arms of a tough but beautiful lady with a tragic past... It's James Bond except for being set in the 1650s, Pym an agent of the Protectorate and the plot aimed at killing his boss, Oliver Cromwell.

From the off, there's an enticing line in dry wit and understatement.
"Pym gave the man in the plain dark suit [his boss, Secretary of State John Thurloe] a cold grin. 'You said something about meeting fire with fire. So be it! Let them find me alone. I am an officer on special service who might know something. They won't kill me at once, without trying to find out what that is. Make it easy for them. Let my face be seen!'

Mr Thurloe leaned back as far as his high-backed chair would allow. A bland expression wiped the anxiety from his face. In an impersonal voice he said: 'Two special envoys from the States-General are arriving in Gravesend in connection with the Anglo-Dutch peace treaty. It will be an occasion for public rejoicing. They dock tomorrow afternoon. You will attend as an additional aide to Lord Clayton, the Protector's brother-in-law, who will be there to greet them.' He picked up one of the pile of dispatches on the oak table and began to read it. Without looking up, he said: 'Don't bother to wear a hat.'"
John Sanders, A Firework For Oliver (1964 [76]), pp. 43-4.
It's a neat reversal to set a spy story under the Puritan regime: instead of Bond boring on about fine food and drink, Pym is scathing of glamorous living. That said, he's no prude - enjoying sex out of wedlock and hardly blinking an eye when the mission takes him to a posh Parisian orgy.

Like Bond, this is a thoroughly male world and perspective - woman can be clever, resourceful and beautiful, but they're still largely at the mercy of men. At one point, Pym just happens to call on a beautiful lady while she's having a bath - and fighting off a comrade who won't take no for an answer. When Pym steps in and knocks the man unconscious, she is suitably grateful...

Pym, though, is not a womaniser. It's good that he's only interested in one woman in the whole adventure; it's not quite so good when she's the only major female character in the book. There are few minor ones, too.

Like Bond, Pym is an ordinary but competent agent with lashings of common sense, an able guide through the shady political world in which he deals. If there's a lot of exposition - not all of it subtly done - the book is good at establishing the setting and politics. I love that the superweapon involved is - to us hundreds of years after the event - quite a minor advance but promises to offer an army a distinct advantage.

Like the best of Bond, the book is a series of dramatic encounters, many of them visually arresting. There are last-minute escapes and coincidences, not all of them entirely credible. But the book rattles along at a frenetic pace, and we soon learn that anyone who spends any time near Pym is unlikely to see out the day.

Where it's different from Bond, apart from the period setting, is that it's also very funny. By yet more fiendish contrivances, on several occasions Pym has to thump his baffled superiors if he's to thwart the enemy. And, having set up a Pyrrhic victory that's very like Fleming's Bond, there's then an unexpected, happy ending.

A bit clunky and contrived, this is a thrilling, fun adventure - and I'm delighted to learn just the first of a series.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Doctor Who: 2010

After episode 769: The Sarah Jane Adventures - Death of the Doctor part 2
First broadcast: 5.15 pm on Tuesday, 26 October 2010
<< back to 2009

Jo wowed by all of time and space
The Death of the Doctor, part 2
There's an interview with Katy Manning in a tick, but first some rambling preamble about thinking positive...

I've spoken before about my love for the Doctor Who books produced for grown-up readers in the years there was no TV show. Yet those books sometimes struggled with what "grown-up" might entail. There were bits of sex and drugs and violence, but also the tone of them could sometimes be no fun.

Perhaps this is most obvious in the way the books treated characters from the TV show. Some did very well - Romana got to be president of the Time Lords and UNIT's Benton and Yates lived happily ever after. But Ace fled the Doctor to join the anti-Dalek army (Love And War, 1992) and returned only more cross, Liz Shaw was horrifically killed by a biological agent (Eternity Weeps, 1997), the Brigadier accidentally killed his own wife (The Shadows of Avalon, 2000), and Jo Jones got divorced, then killed a whole alien settlement - we're left unsure whether on purpose or because she panicked (Genocide, 1997).

It's not that I don't see the dramatic potential in awful things happening to the Doctor's friends, but perhaps the books ended up suggesting that travelling in the TARDIS was bad for you. Or perhaps they reflected an aspect of the fandom of the time, as it grew increasingly older and grumpier. Sometimes in all its efforts to be serious and grown up, perhaps these adventures lost the daft, thrilling joy of the series.

I argued last time that there's no such thing as canon in Doctor Who, and that the series is at its best when it shares. I love that so many moments in the TV show - from whole plots to fleeting asides - derive from the books and comics and audio plays. Yet I'm delighted that Russell T Davies struck a line through the companions' miseries and started again, showing that - despite the hardships of travel by TARDIS - the Doctor makes people better.

That's perfectly, beautifully done in a short scene at the start of part two of Death of the Doctor, a story from spin-off show The Sarah Jane Adventures where Matt Smith's Doctor meets Sarah Jane and Jo. Jo - still happily married - dares to ask why she's not seen the Doctor since he walked out of her engagement party at the end of The Green Death (1973).
DOCTOR:
How could I ever find you? You've spent the past forty years living in huts, climbing up trees, tearing down barricades. You've done everything from flying kites on Kilimanjaro to sailing down the Yangtze in a tea chest. Not even the TARIS could pin you down.

JO:
Hold on. I did sail down the Yangtze in a tea chest. How did you know?

Russell T Davies: The Sarah Jane Adventures - The Death of the Doctor, part 2 (2010).
The Doctor and Koquillion
via KOTWG
A month before that story was broadcast, I blagged three days' work at Doctor Who Adventures, the magazine aimed at 8-12 year-olds. I've ended up working for them on and off ever since. It's a giddy, fun thing to work on, and I've delighted in smuggling in as much old and obscure Doctor Who knowledge as possible (for example, making "Koquillion" an answer in a wordsearch).

We have to be careful, though: the readership is thrilled by the strange terror of each new episode rather than Doctor Who of old. Earlier this year we had to remind them - yes, fans of Doctor Who - who David Tennant is because many of them would be too young to remember his time as the Doctor.

Since they're less weighed down by Doctor Who's sprawling history, they have fewer hang-ups about it and are less mired in furious discussion of whether a new story breaks "the rules". (Clue: Doctor Who doesn't have any rules.) That only seems to happen as they get older and want to be more "grown up".

And, of course, they're wrong. Doctor Who isn't some angsty, angry documentary to be cross about on the internet. It's a thrilling, scary, ridiculous joy.

Anyway. On 7 October 2010, Doctor Who Adventures editor Moray Laing got me to interview Katy Manning about her imminent return as Jo. Thanks to Moray and Katy for kind permission to post it here.
How was Friday night [and the screening of Death of the Doctor at the BFI]?
It was a long day, because I’d been doing photoshoots and everything. And then we went and they put us in the very front row with all these wonderful children and the people who are producing all this fabulous stuff on CBBC. So I saw the new up-and-coming children’s stuff and it was all very exciting. And then suddenly - in high definition on an enormous screen that I could actually see - it happened! It’s really well done. The production values are fantastic. I’m very impressed with the quality of the actual show. The Sarah Jane Adventures is right up there. It’s almost beyond a children’s show in quality… No, that’s not the right thing to say because everything should be quality. But it is an extremely well put-together, well written, beautifully shot piece of television. The only problem for me was that I’m not a watcher of myself or a listener to myself, because I do something and I move on. If I don’t, there’s nothing I can do to change anything and you waste an awful lot of your life dwelling in the wrong place. I always give it 190 per cent but you’re always looking to what you can do to better yourself. So after I’d got over the shock of myself, everything was fine. I think I look like a massive Muppet! (She laughs.)

A lot of kids watching will be meeting Jo for the first time. So what can you tell us about her?
Something that has got lost in the mists of time is that Jo was 18 when she joined the Doctor, so she was straight out of school and she’d done just under a year with UNIT which trained her in all these different things. In actual fact she finally admitted that she’d not passed the exams in science and so forth. She did escapology, cryptology, all sorts of things. I was asked about what she did yesterday. I know escapology was one, one was like Sanskrit or something weird like that.

Wasn’t she trained in spying?
No, I don’t think she ever said that. That’s something that’s come from the back of Cornflakes packets about a year later. You have to keep correcting these things because everything goes up on the internet as gospel. But I know she never said she did spying. She said she did science when the Doctor asked her a question about science. He said, ‘I thought you took A-level science?’ And she says, ‘I never said I passed.’ So I think science and spying got confused. Jo wasn’t fully trained. She got into UNIT because she had an uncle who worked very high up in UNIT. So she was forced upon the Doctor and he took one look at this little tiny creature and thought, ‘Oh, my Lord!’ But it worked very well because Jo turned out to be bright, courageous and in virtually every story at some point she offered her life for the Doctor’s. She was fiercely loyal to the Doctor and felt truly that his life was more important than hers.

She was very protective of him.
Very protective.

At the end of The Daemons, she offers her life for his – and that’s what stops the monster.
And in a couple of other episodes of other stories she did the same thing. So she really was fiercely loyal and very brave. She was 18 and grew up in front of your very eyes. By the time she left she’s met a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was trying to change our planet. She felt very strongly about doing the same thing and married to him! You actually watched her grow up from a schoolgirl, having just left school, to getting married - which I think’s rather lovely. What got lost in the mists of time was that Jo was also terribly trendy. People remember her as being slightly ditzy and there were moments where she kind of lost the plot. But she was never stupid: she did stupid things for the right reasons. Don’t we all! I thought she was a lovely character. Also, for the children to know: when I was cast as Jo, they were going to change an awful lot of Doctor Who. They had some more money to work with special effects. They wanted the audience to grow from children but to never forget the children. I was there to say, ‘What does that mean? What are you doing?’ And to get into trouble so the Doctor had someone to save, apart from a planet and various other things that were going on. That was rather sweet, too. She was there to make sure that the children never got left out but we also went into a teenage and an adult audience during the Jon Pertwee era. So because she was trendy and of the moment you got a lot of teenagers looking in, saying ‘Wow!’ She was quite groovy and cool, too.

She’s still quite cool. According to these new episodes, she’s off round the world…
Absolutely. How perfect that she continued to do that – stayed with Cliff, had all those children and still continued her work, which says something about what she learned and gained from working with the Doctor.

How much has she changed? Is she still the same character to play?
It was a character I played 40 years ago. I’m the kind of actor who went on to do so many different things. I had a very assorted career, so it wasn’t like I’d stayed with her. But when I looked at Russell’s script it made an awful lot of sense to me, from what we saw on screen for those three years. I then had to put myself into having lived that life and make it absolutely as if this was a continuation of her life 40 years later. Somebody like Jo, who was brave, courageous and adventurous, what would she have done? Well, she did it. Including seven children and 12 grandchildren – 13th on its way. And what a handsome one she brought with her! Named after somewhere where I think they just had the baby at the bottom of the mountain! It was a tremendous script from Russell and followed perfectly. Not that I’d ever thought about where Jo’s life would have gone because, in all honesty, she was a character that I played – not a real person. People used to say, ‘What do you think happened to her?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know – she wasn’t real!’ But if you look at somebody’s life, say I look at my own, where I was at that age and where I am now, my life has gone in the direction that it was obviously going to go. So it was an absolute joy to continue, to bring back this character but with all the differences that would have come with it. How life affects you and what you do makes you become who you are. Having worked with the Doctor and gone to all these other planets and seen all the problems, not only in the universe but on this planet, Jo felt very strongly about these things. And is still doing it - fighting for things to be better.

So when you were making this new story, how much has Doctor Who changed? There’s UNIT, the ventilation shafts, monsters and explosions…
And planets that are very cold and with lots of little bits of broken spaceship on them! Those feelings of being in a quarry and things like that, that brought back huge memories. The only difference was that I was a lot warmer because I wasn’t wearing a mini-skirt.

Did you compare notes with Lis Sladen?
Oh yes. Lis and I, obviously having both worked so close together and also being among the first girls to see regeneration as such and to go through what we went through, as actresses, yes. A lot of memories of people and places.

You mentioned regeneration. How does Matt’s Doctor compare to Jon's Doctor? Can you believe he’s the same person?
Yes. The concept to me is so clear that anybody who is purportedly 2,000 years old can look any age. Although for Jo it is a bit of a shock because the only Doctors she’s ever seen have all been rather elderly – certainly to somebody of the age she was then. When we’re 18, we look at anybody over 35 as being terribly old. That changes when you get older! There’s a line she says, when he says he can he regenerate: ‘Yes, but into a baby?’ Jo is now 40 years on with children and had only ever met three Doctors who were all of a certain age. I think it’s wonderful that you can do that with a character. Matt is one of the most sensational Doctors ever. He is the most fabulous actor and the most delightful young man. I rate him as an actor hugely.

People have said you can believe Matt is much older than he really is.
He is an old soul, absolutely. I believed totally that he had lived this long life and been this many people. He’s got that wonderful ethereal, other-worldly quality. He’s done an amazing job. Apart from anything else, even as an old lady, I can stand back and say, ‘Isn’t he gorgeous?’ I’ve loved the whole of the new series - right from Chris Eccleston. I think Matt’s just wonderful. People were saying, ‘How are we going to top Tennant?’ You don’t top someone, you try and bring something to the part that is completely different and that is exactly what Matt has done. I’ve never been a Doctor comparer – is that Doctor better than that Doctor? They are all part of one person to me and have all done a superb job. Matt has just come in and blown me away. And he’s so sweet to work with.

What did he do that won you over?
First of all, just watching this boy, this young actor, and how his mind is working, how totally he has immersed himself in this character. And all the very clever little eccentricities that he’s brought, all his physicality. He’s still a very caring Doctor, which is something I loved about Jon Pertwee – he was very caring about everybody and certainly about Jo. Matt has all of that and this extraordinary physicality. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s stunning to watch. You know, when we first meet him and he was all a bit wobbly? It started there and I watched from that point. He’s thinking, thinking, thinking all the time. When you look into his eyes, he’s right with you – absolutely lovely.

So will we see more of Jo after this?
I think we might have had enough of her, don’t you? Are we over her yet? She is a lovely creature. You know what I like about Jo? It was always in the old series as well as in bringing her back. She has no sides to her. She’s very loving and caring, which is nice to see.

She’s got lots of empathy.
For everybody and everything. She always did, even in the old days. She was always concerned, even about the bad guys. That’s a nice part of her nature. Hopefully the children will understand that although she’s now a grandmother she’s a groovy granny! It’s not bad to have a granny that says, ‘No, you don’t have to go to school, we’ll educate you along the way. We’ll go off and save the world.’ When you think of the things she’s done, that’s exactly what she has been doing. She’s never, never stopped. That’s quite a groovy granny. It was so lovely working with Lis, too, who is such a generous and such a good actress. Anjli and Daniel are sensational, I just wanted to eat them up they were so fabulous. That was lovely for me. I just felt tremendous warmth towards them.
Next episode: 2011

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Doctor Who: 2009

Episode 754: The Waters of Mars
First broadcast 7 pm on Sunday, 15 November 2009
<< back to 2008

"What do I know?"
The Doctor and Adelaide, The Waters of Mars
First, a little etymological history.

The word cane - as in sugar cane - gets its name from the Greek kanon, a reed. These reeds grew straight, and one theory is that, in ancient times, they were used to measure stuff. As a result, they were associated with standards or ways of doing things properly. A 'canon' meant a kind of rule.

Nowadays, generally, 'canon' refers to the rules of a religion, and specifically Christian religion. It's used to define the books of the Bible that make up the official scripture, as opposed to the Apocrypha which - according to those that make the rules - don't carry the same weight. In the early Christian Church, there seems to have been a distinction made between canons - the rules of the Church - and legislation enacted by the state. Today, canon law is decided on and enforced by church authorities (here's a handy link to Wikipedia: Canon law (Catholic Church) if you'd like to know more).

How is this relevant to Doctor Who, you ask. Well, it isn't really.

But in 1911, as the Doctor battled Sutekh, the Catholic priest Monsignor Knox gave a paper called "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes", which attempted to devise biographies of Holmes and Watson as if they were real people. In doing so, it sought to explain the inconsistencies in the various Holmes stories written by Arthur Conan-Doyle. Wikipedia says Knox used the word "canon" to differentiate the Holmes stories by Doyle from those written by anyone else, though I can't see that in the text of his paper. But the "canon" came to mean those stories Doyle himself wrote.

This distinction didn't help with the inconsistencies: in the 40 years that Doyle wrote his four novels and 56 stories about Holmes, he forgot Watson's first name, what part of his body was wounded and even the details of who he was married to. There are also a number of Holmes stories by Doyle that are not considered part of the canon - largely, it seems, because they don't take Holmes very seriously.

So the distinction of canon is not about quality so much as agreeing the boundaries for the game of treating the stories as real and dealing with the inconsistencies. But the effect is to suggest that Doyle's stories matter more than anyone else's. It gives him, as creator, authority.

The same value judgement exists in efforts to compile a canon of Western culture - which has often proved controversial because of that question of authority. Who determines which books and artworks matter more than others? It's useful having a reading list for students, but a canon is likely to show the prejudice and preference of whoever compiles it.

Where there is a clear authority to rule on the matter, things ought to be easier. The official Star Trek website explained in 2003:
"As a rule of thumb, the events that take place within the live-action episodes and movies are canon, or official Star Trek facts. Story lines, characters, events, stardates, etc. that take place within the fictional novels, video games, the Animated Series, and the various comic lines have traditionally not been considered part of the canon. But canon is not something set in stone; even events in some of the movies have been called into question as to whether they should be considered canon! Ultimately, the fans, the writers and the producers may all differ on what is considered canon and the very idea of what is canon has become more fluid, especially as there isn't a single voice or arbiter to decide. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was accustomed to making statements about canon, but even he was known to change his mind."
That's still a lot of wiggle room, but the website has also changed its mind: that answer has been removed, and those in charge of Star Trek seem less keen to dictate what does and doesn't count. That may be something to do with the recent Star Trek movies, which have seemingly rewritten history so that all the previous films and TV shows (except one) never happened. I can understand why fans, devoted to those films and TV shows, might not like that.

Instead, the trend seems to be more and more for what's called, not very elegantly, "head canon" - that everyone's free to decide on their own canon of what does and doesn't count in a franchise. Hmm.

Which brings me to Doctor Who. I have a vested interest here because I write Doctor Who books, comics and audio plays but have not written for the TV show. As a result, I'm haunted by the words that someone's spent an awful lot of time applying throughout Wikipedia:
"As with all spin-off media, the canonical status is debatable".
The thing is, there's never been a canon of Doctor Who. No one in authority has made a definitive statement on what does and doesn't count. It would be hard to work out who would be in authority over Doctor Who anyway - does a current head writer or producer get to dictate the terms of use over previous eras of the show? Does the BBC today get to make a rule that Peter Cushing doesn't count as the Doctor when, in the mid-1960s, it was happy to license those films?

In fact, those in charge of making the show seem keen not to make any rules about what does and doesn't count. As I observed about Rose, the interior doors of the TARDIS since 2005 seem to steal from the Cushing films, just as the TV show has mined the books, audio plays and comics - and vice versa.

There are those who claim this is the TV show superseding the spin-off media, but there are times when what's done in the spin-offs is carried through to the TV show. (I gave the erstwhile Brigadier a knighthood in spin-off story The Coup; he was still Sir Alistair when he returned to TV.)

I particularly like a moment from the brilliant The Waters of Mars, where outgoing head writer Russell T Davies is careful not to bind the hands of his successor. The story hinges on the Doctor not being able to change the events of a key moment in history - what he calls a "fixed point in time". We're quickly and inexpensively shown history being rewritten as if it were a page on Wikipedia.

But look how, a few scenes before that, the Doctor undercuts his own authority:
"This moment, this precise moment in time, it's like. I mean, it's only a theory, what do I know, but I think certain moments in time are fixed. Tiny, precious moments. Everything else is in flux, anything can happen, but those certain moments, they have to stand. This base on Mars with you, Adelaide Brooke, this is one vital moment. What happens here must always happen."
The Doctor, in The Waters of Mars by Russell T Davies and Phil Ford (2009).
It's what he believes, it's what matters for this story but it isn't necessarily a rule.

I think the same is true of The Day of the Doctor. Steven Moffat reveals that the Doctor never destroyed Gallifrey but, as far as the Ninth and Tenth Doctors are concerned, they did. All the effect on the character, all that emotional punch, remains and yet history is changed.

I'd argue that that is the opposite of what the new Star Trek films have done, and is all the better for it. That ending feels especially clever because it retains the past it rewrites. It's both having the cake and eating it.

If those in charge don't dictate a canon, then there isn't a canon at all. You might want a canon of your own, but you lack the authority to impose it on anyone else - and if that's the case, is there any point in having it in the first place?

Besides, Doctor Who is better when none of us own it - even the people making it do so on trust - and we have to share.

Next episode: 2010

Friday, December 06, 2013

Doctor Who: 2008

Episode 750: The Stolen Earth
First broadcast 7.10 pm on Saturday 28 June 2008
<< back to 2007

"I'm regenerating..."
Doctor Who: The Stolen Earth (2008)
These days, most episodes of Doctor Who tell a new story, in a new setting and with new supporting characters. But until 1989, stories took weeks to unfold - a season was made up of a handful of stories, each one made up of episodes.

Some stories went on for many months: The Daleks' Master Plan (1965-6) was a single story that ran for 12 weeks; The War Games (1969) ran for 10 and The Trial of a Time Lord (1986) for 14 - longer than any run of episodes since the series came back in 2005.

Of course, most stories were a lot shorter. The number of episodes varied but for the first 11 years of the series, six episodes was the most common, and then four-episode stories predominated. I think that's important: even back then, stories were getting shorter.

That's partly down to developments in production and some clever organisation: in the 1980s, producer John Nathan-Turner would split a six-episode production block into two stories - a four and a two, or two threes. But why would he want to?

First, ratings tended to dip in the midst of a story. Viewers were more likely to tune in to the first or final episodes. But also, I think we've got more literate as an audience. We're quicker to absorb and process information from the screen.

Watching old TV now, it's surprising how slow and careful it can seem. Even action-packed dramas hold our hand through the plot, spelling out all the details. There are fewer scenes and more exposition. That's not just true of old Doctor Who: other dramas, soaps and even documentaries from the past are all much more sedate.

As a result, modern telly can pack much more into a shorter time. I don't think there's any less plot in a modern, 42-minute episode of Doctor Who than there was in 6x 25-minute episodes in the past. In fact, five of those episodes would have to remind the viewer of the plot and supporting characters. There's a lot of repetition.

But one big element of old Doctor Who that's been lost is the cliffhanger. In a story that unfolded over several weeks, each episode would end on our heroes in deadly peril or some incredible, shocking reveal. The idea of a cliffhanger was to ensure we'd tune in again the following week but, as I argued in my 2002 piece, it also made us active participants in the story. We'd guess what would happen next.

More than that, because a cliffhanger was meant to be thrilling and strange, leaving us with an indelible image for the next seven days as a hook to return for the next installment, some of Doctor Who's most effective and memorable moments are cliffhangers. A helpful fellow on YouTube has even selected his favourites:


Note that, as the video shows, there are cliffhangers in modern Doctor Who - and very good ones. It's just there are fewer of them now.

The new show does offer some compensations for the loss of cliffhangers. Each episode starts with a pre-titles sequences, usually something strange and scary to get us hooked. There are also ongoing 'arc' plots and mysteries to keep us watching the series and get us involved in guessing what might happen next.

But I miss cliffhangers. And the moment I've chosen from 2008 is one of the finest ever done. It's not just down to the emotional rollercoaster set up in the episode, the Doctor finally reunited with Rose only to be shot by a Dalek. It's not just all the things the story itself is doing to enthrall us. It's also how perfectly the secret was kept by the production team.

I had friends working on the series who'd previously dropped hints or accidentally spoilt things. All was silent from them. There was no one on Twitter or Facebook crowing about what they knew. And I spent the week being phoned or emailed by people I'd not spoken to in years - people I'd never even known were into Doctor Who - all desperate to know if I knew anything.

Surely, they all asked, there couldn't be a regeneration we didn't already know about.

(A few weeks before the episode was broadcast, there'd been sneaky pictures from the filming of the Doctor Who Christmas special, showing David Tennant and David Morrissey. Morrissey was dressed in Doctorish clothes. I wondered if in fact the production team had tricked us - and here was Tennant visiting or playing a ghost in his successor's next episode.)

Something similar happened in the last few weeks with The Day of the Doctor, but without there being a cliffhanger. Again, the secrets were kept and the story was much more effective. Paul McGann (in the mini-episode), Tom Baker and Peter Capaldi, and that line-up of the Doctors at the end... Each worked because we didn't expect it. And I love the idea of the episode being shown at the same time in 94 countries, too: a shared experience, where we reach the surprises together.

So it's not the pre-title sequences and arc plots that most compensate for the lost cliffhanger of old. Rather, in a world where filming is followed closely by fan paparazzi and the papers delight in ruining what's to come, there's a delicious thrill in not knowing what's coming next.

"No press previews or Bafta screenings!"
A manifesto from Gary Gillatt, 24 Nov 13

Next episode: 2009

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

On the appeal of the Escapist

Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) is an extraordinary joy of book, one I shall buy for friends and relations for some time to come.

It's the tale of two teenage boys in the late 1930s, one a fey dreamer who's grown up in New York, the other his cousin who's just escaped the Nazis in Prague. Together, they create a new superhero comic, imbued (though they're not quite aware of it) with their own hopes and fears. "The Escapist" is a huge success, at least in terms of sales, but the boy still have battles to fight - Clay with his whole identity, Kavalier in trying to rescue his family from Europe...

We follow their efforts to produce good work and not be ripped off by the management, and see them fall in love, suffer the most terrible calamities and live through momentous history. It's a huge book - 636 pages, spanning more than a decade, epic in scale and geography but also great on the tiny detail. We're peppered with all sorts of data on the comics scene and New York and culture and world of the time. Stan Lee has a cameo role, as does Orson Welles.

It's funny and moving and utterly absorbing - one of those rare, perfect books that you want to race through and yet don't ever want to reach the end.

Then, in the last section, it pulls an extraordinary trick of making you aware of the themes underlying all that's befallen our heroes. It's the coming-of-age for these two geeky kids but there's something more profound. This is the story not only of the Escapist but the escapist artform.
"Having lost [things he's lost], the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf."
Michael Chabon, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), p. 575.
The defence of the escapist could have brought the whole thing crashing down, but its expertly done. I thought, as I started it, that it was ironic that a book about trash culture form had won such a serious accolade as the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2001. That validation of the form is not only well deserved, it's also the whole point.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Doctor Who: 2007

Episode 733: Blink
First broadcast: 7.10 pm on Saturday 9 June 2007
<< back to 2006

The Doctor explains in Blink
Blink is something special in Doctor Who. For some it's the best ever episode, for others it's the one to show someone who's never seen the show before and ensure they're hooked.

I don't think the latter is quite right. A bit like City of Death (1979), part of the brilliance of Blink is how it plays with expectations and clich├ęs, and the usual form of Doctor Who. If we know Doctor Who, it's more rewarding. That's why it helps that it's some way into the run - it wouldn't work earlier on in Season 3; it wouldn't work in Season 1.

(Much better, I think, for a novice to begin with season opener Smith and Jones, but surely a novice ought to start from Rose.)

The wheeze is to show what happens when the Doctor isn't around to stop the monsters - an idea used again to great effect in the following year's Turn Left. Instead, here it's up to two ordinary people - Sally and Larry - to work their way through the clues.

Since they're not familiar with the format of Doctor Who like we are, we're often a few steps ahead of them. We know to be worried as they walk into danger. We know to shout at the screen. Our own knowledge of the series makes the episode more scary.

But, on first viewing, even we are lost in the intricacies of the plot. A story like this depends on a sort of contract between writer and viewer. We agree to accept the strange, confusing world we've been landed in on the promise that it will be explained. In fact, we're given all the clues we need to solve the mystery - we just don't realise it yet.

The best example of that is right at the end, when it seems the Doctor has abandoned Sally and Larry, the TARDIS dematerialising round them, leaving them to the mercy of the Angels. It's heart-stopping stuff, the Doctor seemingly callous, Sally and Larry with no chance of escape...

But, once the solution is presented, it seems to desperately, wretchedly simple. We realise it's clearly been signposted all the way through the episode. Of course that's how to get out it.

My chum James Goss once described the six episodes (including Blink) that Steven Moffat wrote for Russell T Davies as,
"perfect puzzle boxes, full of heart and drama but also where every single bit of the mystery is in place like clockwork."
That "heart and drama" is exactly right. The Doctor and Martha appear in just three scenes of Blink but we get a great sense of their relationship. I can readily imagine a whole episode - or series - of them stranded in the 1960s, an exasperated Martha forced to take a day-job to support his building contraptions that might help them get home.

Best of all is how concisely the complex plot is spelled out in simple terms. So much of Doctor Who is exposition, building worlds and politics and problems from little more than words. There are tricks to getting through it - the Doctor says it at great speed, or peppers it with odd asides full of jokes and weird mental images, or the companion shares some of the burden.

Blink does a trick with exposition that still utterly thrills me. It's so simple, so quick, so what a real person would say. The Doctor holds up an all-important gadget, vital to him solving the problem at the heart of the episode. And explains:
"It goes ding when there's stuff."
Next episode: 2008