...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, December 31, 2012

Day 4383: DOCTOR WHO: Ghost Light

New Year's Eve:

To describe "Ghost Light" as Marc Platt's finest hour (all right, ninety minutes) seems very unfair.

He's a brilliant writer who has gone on to provide us with such highlights as, in novels, the bookends of the mythic arc of the New Adventures – "Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible" and "Lungbarrow" (from which "Ghost Light" was first derived) – and, on audio, the poignant definitive origin of the Cybermen story in "Spare Parts" and the extraordinary alternative first Doctor of Geoffrey Bayldon in "Auld Mortality" and "A Storm of Angels", and, as they say, many more.

And yet it is.

Serendipity lends a hand, of course.

It would have been a great disservice to "Lungbarrow" to attempt it when it was unfilmable on 1989's Doctor Who budget. Maybe even on 2012's budget, unless you want to see the House of Lung as Cardiff's Temple of Peace. Instead we benefit from the sort of Victorian costume drama that the BBC had always done well, right at the end of the era of the studio-based three-camera drama, with John Birt closing in – and closing down – all the bits of the BBC that let them do this sort of thing at the drop of a hat.

The translation to Ace's past rather than the Doctor's serves it better as a part of the Season Twenty-Six arc. Filmed as the last Doctor Who television serial produced in the Twentieth Century, juggling of broadcast order meant that dealing with a haunted house in Ace's past in "Ghost Light" became a prelude to dealing with the evil god that haunts her present in "The Curse of Fenric" rather than a follow-up, thus immensely strengthening her story and darkening the Doctor's motivation.

And you get a cast to die for: Ian Hogg relishing it to his whiskers as Josiah Samuel Smith; Sylvia Simms as hard-as-nails Mrs Pritchard, endlessly watchable and seemingly everyone's enemy; John Hallam as Light in an era of fey angels – see also Peter Capaldi's Angel Islington in "Neverwhere" – shading his otherworldly camp from harmless confusion to apocalyptic sneer; Michael Cochrane deliciously demented as Redvers Fenn-Cooper, the finest explorer in the Empire, lost in his own mind; John Nettleton taking the character of Reverend Matthews, who could so easily have been a cypher, a caricature creationist, and making him seem first the villain and then the victim of the piece; Carl Forgione as Nimrod, the one character allowed much dignity; Sharon Duce who is both funny and touching as Control struggles up the social and evolutionary ladders on her quest to be a "ladylike".

Even a minor character, such as Mrs Grose (Brenda Kempner, to whom I always do the disservice of expecting her to be Pam Ferris) is vividly alive: the way she inhabits exactly the role we expect of her could easily be a cliché, except... the clichéd bits – all the "my dear"s and the "no one in their right minds would stay in this house after dark"s – are surrounded by genuine warmth towards Ace and the day maids and perplexity when Matthews unexpectedly arrives before the "dark" house has awoken. And who's to say that – in this madhouse of mesmerism – she hasn't been programmed by Josiah with the stock Victorian clichés to keep her from thinking too much about her employer's goings on. It would certainly explain why she hangs around keeping a house that appears empty during her working hours. And it's not like he hasn't hypnotised everyone else!

So "Ghost Light" is exactly the kind of thing that the BBC was in the right place to make, at the right time and with all the right people.

But even watched "cold" today, out of context and twenty years later, it is still brilliant television. The severe editing of the Cartmel Era left several stories with key scenes on the cutting room floor – see the extended editions of "Silver Nemesis", "Battlefield" and "...Fenric" if you want to know what's going on – but alchemically turns "Ghost Light" into a puzzle-box of delights.

Possibly the most text-dense production ever – snatching the title from "Dragonfire" at the last minute – you can just spend the whole running time spotting which line comes from CS Lewis, which reference is to Conan Doyle, which character belongs to Henry James, and arguably it spawned a whole sub-genre of Doctor Who fiction: the "can you spot all the references" novel (pick up a copy of "Iceberg", "War of the Daleks" or "Christmas on a Rational Planet" if you want to play along. But only "Christmas on a Rational Planet" if you want to read a novel).

But this is far more than just a game for Time Lords. Those references – even, perhaps especially, the Douglas Adams nod (he's the answer to "Who was it who said Earthmen never invite their ancestors around to dinner?" of course) – are all calculated to place you at the heart of the great Victorian debate that began with Darwin.

Ace may describe Light as "It's an angel, stupid," but there's really no question of to whom "Let there be Light" refers.

Evolution and God have always been at the heart of Doctor Who.

Evolution from before Regeneration, ever since "An Unearthly Child" which showed us the step change from "cave people" to "modern" humans and asks us to compare the same step change from Ian and Barbara to Susan (and it's surely no accident that "Ghost Light" uses the same metaphor in the person of Nimrod). The series has survived because it changes, leaving behind once-contemporary stable-mates and finding something new. From Sir Lancelot and Flash Gordon-style Saturday serial, to ITC spy-fi adventures, to Hammer Horror, to the quintessential Monty Python of science-fiction, to 'Eighties video-nasty, to graphic novel on the telly – and then into books and then into audio and then back to the television – into Russell Davies writing classic Northern soap mothers into a story about survivor guilt dressed up with some running around with colourful aliens, and then to Moffat using sit-com stylings to offer up puzzle-box plots about pride and paradox. And sometime soon, maybe 2014 after the eighth series, Moffat will move on and it will evolve again.

And God too has been in it from the very beginning, in the person of the Tribe of Gum's "Orb". Long before Moffat and Davies deified the Doctor – the lonely god – or before Cartmel asked if the Doctor could be God (and was told "no") but had him take down gods anyway, before Tom defeated Sutekh, before Pertwee took on the Devil, the series has over and again addressed questions of divinity, power and truth in religion ever since Barbara became a god in "The Aztecs".

(See also: "Who Died and Made the Dalek Emperor God?")

But don't think that it is as simple as saying "science is right / religion is wrong". I mean, it's fairly obvious which side Marc would be on in a fight, but this is far more thoughtful and subtle. What does for Light in the end is slithy toves and bandersnatches, Crowned Saxe-Coburgs and little Jackie Piper. Creativity – the power of creation – defeats Light. Light's catalogue is cold and dead, as lacking as his imagination. This is about the senselessness of making up a script and sticking to it in the face of all evidence and good sense.

Josiah's powers appear as so many tricks and misdirection: his night maids (Alex quite likes calling them ‘The Night Maid’, like ‘The Night Watch’ or indeed ‘The Nightmare’) emerge from hidden panels, he flourishes a pistol like a stage prop (see also "The Talons of Weng-Chiang"), and his hypnotism is of course a classic act. It's all a magic-show – another hint is Ace and Gwendolyn's transformation into David Devant eveningwear – but don't let that distract you from the fact that there are real powers at work here.

Sylv's style of acting is often (and unfairly) criticised – it's a very physical, a very theatrical style – but here his grizzling and physicality are transformative. There is a scene where he confronts Light and holds out a hand forming a fist in a warding gesture while hunching his shoulders and screwing up his face and voice. It conveys a sense that Light's very presence is – in the Lovecraftian way – slightly too much for our reality to bear, and that the Doctor is doing… something… to stop reality from being ripped away just by Light being here.

Even the ending, Light's firestorm redeployed to carry the stone spaceship on a new mission of discovery, is symptomatic of this ambiguity. Light's power in and of itself is neither good nor evil; it is the choice about how it is used in the hands of mortal, fallible creatures.

There is no one "truth" in this story. People who think that way – Light, Josiah – tend to end up broken when the blistering chaos of reality rolls uncaring over them. In contrast, Control, by the end of the story, is already surpassing Josiah and his "Victorian Values" in recognising that she has a responsibility to care for him, a hint of Dickensian social conscience there (and the answer to Dr Simeon's question "What's wrong with Victorian values" in "The Snowmen"). Nimrod – almost a hint of Asimov's Zeroth Law of Robotics here (see also “Robot”, before Asimov) – has recognised that loyalty to the planet supersedes his loyalty to "the burning one". And Redvers, who is insane by pretty much any measure, has constructed a view of the world that is not just consistent, but powerful and, in his own way, true.

And I'll say again that this is presented as a challenge for Ace, a quest, even, a quest in the Arthurian sense, where the physical deeds are secondary to the moral lesson. This is about her finding her truth, not about the Doctor just handing over the answers, imposing a "truth" on her.

All of which, of course, means I can no more tell you the "truth" of "Ghost Light" than explain why a butterfly is beautiful. You have to experience it.

(And be aware that when we tried this story to show a guest as an example of how much more than just a TV show Doctor Who could be… it unfortunately blew his mind!)

Roll up roll up for the End of the Series Show. Every viewing is different. Which is as it should be.


Next Time… going backwardsDoctor Who's most Thatcher-baiting, most Basset's Sweets-displeasing, and frankly gayest serial. I'm glad you're happy and I'm happy you're glad that it's "The Happiness Patrol".

And a very Happy MILLENNIUM BIRTHDAY New Year to everybody!

PS: this has been my 1400th diary!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Day 4377: DOCTOR WHO: The Snowmen

Christmas Day:

Hark the jolly Christmas Choir,
Jingle Bells roasting on an open fire,
Christmas comes but once ’tis true,
Along with Daddy’s Doctor Who review…


Steven Moffat’s “dark fairy tale” Doctor Who is best at Christmas, so it’s glad tidings that, after last year’s misstep, he’s back on sparkling Winterval form.

Call me a fanboy sucker if you will, but give me one juicy returning enemy and I’ll forgive you a “nobody dies (really)” and a “victory by the power of schmaltz” any day.

But let’s be honest, I was in love with this from the new and vastly improved opening title sequence.

For the fiftieth anniversary, they’ve created an homage to all the earlier titles, reminiscent of the McCoy flight through whirling CGI galaxies, but with exploding shapes that resemble the old howl-round patterns of the Hartnell and Troughton eras, finishing up in a whizzy time tunnel like the Tom Baker diamond-era one but done in Pertwee era colours. Even some hints of the pastel vortices of the Cushing movie titles. Toss in a nod to the DVD releases. And, of course, the Doctor’s face back in the titles at long last. Hooray, as Russell T Davies would put it, hooray.

(And as an added bonus… you would hope that they might have secured the sensational Mr Smith’s services for, say, another couple of years before forking out to fit his phizog to the starfield.)

Still not got the theme tune quite right, though.

The acting is pitch-perfect throughout and the look is beautiful too; steampunk era Victoriana can always be made to look good, but the Doctor’s magical cloud contrasting with his machine is very clever. The TARDIS hasn’t looked this mechanical since the return in 2005. Arguably since before McGann’s wood and brass affair, too. The new look, very reminiscent of the design that was being considered for Sylv’s fourth series (had it happened), is cold and steely to fit the Time Lord’s mood. I like the theory that I read that the TARDIS has been regenerating herself since the Time War – first we saw the bones, then the structure of the console room, and now the mechanism itself is growing back.

And on its own terms the story works.

To give Moffat his due, while he clearly has a fundamental failure to understand what Doctor Who is actually about – and we’ll come to that – he does appear willing to try and address his deficiencies as a writer.

Last year, I said he was on a mission to write drama without conflict. No danger of that here, with meaty confrontations to draw the Doctor back into defending the Universe.

The titular Snowmen themselves may have been more Muppet than menace, with a tendency to loom rather than threaten, and, perhaps wisely they opted not to show their instantaneous forming, perhaps lest it resemble something from the Chorlton and the Wheelies Christmas Special (on ice!). But an icy performance from Richard E Grant as baleful Dr Simeon, the child with the frozen heart, paired with the mellifluous tones of Sir Ian McKellen as the world’s most sinister snow globe meant there was no lack of threat.

And if “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” was Moffat trying to respect his female characters “as a woman”, this year appears to be an exercise in proving he is willing to kill people.

Of course, I mean the yard-full of workers devoured by the Snowmen at the start, under the disdainful eye of Dr Simeon (when weall knew where the “I promised to feed them” line was going.)

Because if they’re “important” people, Moffat brings them back to life again, which may be sign of missing the point somewhat.

When even a Sontaran clone – surely the least irreplaceable lifeform in the galaxy – gets a touch of the resurrection, then you’re left with a distinct feeling of “what’s the point?”.

(Not that Dan Starkey’s Strax isn’t a terrific addition to the ensemble; at the very least he makes a terrific straight-man. Bit troubled by the Doctor repeatedly mocking his height, intelligence and body-shape, though, as I don’t think the Time Lord should be encouraging bullying.)

There’s something a bit, well, class-ist here, when the obvious workers are disposable drones while the Sontaran (and “Commander” Strax is officer class after all) gets resurrected. And there’s also the question of whether Clara is posh-Clara pretending to be working class or Cockney-Clara pretending to be gentlefolk class. In fact this is the same with Strax: mockable as a manservant, he’s actually a displaced Commander, so “important” and gets to live.

Is this going somewhere though? The Doctor says that Strax gave his life for a friend… and then another friend brought him back. Who? And why? Will we find out?

There’s a sense that this is a point that ought to be followed up, but Moffat’s got form on this sort of dangling thread. Does anyone really understand why or how the Silence – and we must assume it was they – blew up the TARDIS in “The Pandorica Opens” or what made them feel that blowing up the Universe would further their alleged aim of, er, saving the universe? One suspects that this unsatisfying plot got lost with the Ponds’ leaving (it would be a little odd to refer back to it for an explanation now); on the other hand, the plot was unsatisfying precisely because it kept deferring its explanations. But then – to drag this back to relevance – here we see Moffat providing an “explanation” forty-five years after the original story. We can but hope he’s not leaving the “Silence arc” to be explained in the hundredth anniversary series.

But instead he’s found a shiny new plot arc to go chasing after, the mystery of new companion – or potential companion – Clara, who has already died twice. Appearing in multiple time zones, yet able to quote the words of her other selves… clearly she’s part- Jagaroth on her mother’s side.

More seriously, Alex was immediately struck by the patterns of speech and behaviour shared by Clara and the Doctor. It might just be Moffat’s inability to write in more than one “voice” (note: all other Moffat women are basically Sue Virtue with escalating levels of weaponry) but the ingenious theory is that these “Clara”s are constructs made out of the Doctor. Running with this idea, I suggest that all the ladies around the Doctor – Madam Vastra and Jennie Flint… and the TARDIS – all disapprove of his self-imposed hermitage, and want to encourage him back into the world. And the TARDIS is the one able to make a “perfect companion” out of his memories and his (tawdry) quirks. The Doctor himself says he doesn’t know why but he knows who.

The opening scene could in fact be very clever. It features a snowman, naturally, that appears out of nowhere. Just at the right moment, the Doctor happens to be walking past – as though he is the one who has appeared from nowhere. But there’s a third person in the scene, Clara, who’s just emerged from the Rose and Crown (the “Rose and Pond” would have been more on the money). Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that she’s there at just the perfect moment to bump into the lonely Doctor. And perhaps she’s the one to have appeared from nowhere.

“Oswin” means “god’s friend” and “Osgood” means “god’s gift” which are clearly pointing in the right direction (although “Clara” means “clear”, “bright” or “famous” or possibly “I can’t go having the Doctor shout “come on Oswin”). If you want more evidence, then a look at her gravestone tells us she was born on 23rd November and died aged 26. And is still alive. A metatextual in-joke, or a heavy hint that she’s made of the story of Doctor Who? Even her introduction “Clara Who? Doctor Who?” points this way.

The notion of a “perfect companion” made from the Doctor’s own biodata (“time DNA”) was first seen in the Faction Paradox stories of the early Eighth Doctor Adventures (notably “Alien Bodies” and “Unnatural Selection”). But who said Moffat had to be original? And why change the habit of a lifetime? Fortunately Jenna-Louise Coleman has more personality in one cheeky grin than Sam ever had in her entire time in the novels.

Moffat has – flattering himself – suggested that the Doctor “in retirement” is a plot that has been waiting to be done since Douglas Adams was told to write “Shada” instead. But Moffat’s self-absorbed, sulking Doctor – “the Universe doesn’t care” – couldn’t be further away from Adams’ conception of a Time Lord that the Universe just won’t let go. (Which is even more odd when remembering that Moffat himself was so much more on the money in his spoof Doctor Who “Curse of the Fatal Death”.)

The Doctor has suffered losses before. He lost his entire species. He lost his love when Rose fell into a parallel world. He lost his faith in himself when he destroyed Martha’s life. He lost his best friend when he wiped Donna’s memories. He lost his entire species again. But it’s the loss of his mother-in-law that drives him into seclusion?

Partly, this is Moffat flattering himself again – it’s his companions who are the “most important evah” ones. But partly it’s another example of the way that for all his cleverness in story and story arc writing, Moffat is very short-termist in his thinking, grasping an idea and using it as soon as he has it, rather than moulding the series to prepare for it. Recall the way that the Ponds were suddenly getting divorced and then it was totally forgotten all within one episode. Of course you remember that episode; it’s the one he kept asking you to remember during this one.

The least we needed was a scene – perhaps one with Madam Vastra – to say, “You’ve suffered losses before.” For him to reply: “Yes, and this is one too many. This camel’s back is broken”. What we really wanted was a crisis that was bigger, where victory cost him more than “The End of Time”. But Moffat’s not good at that, as “A Good Man Goes to War” showed. “You have never risen higher.” Er, he has, you know.

(Ironically, losing River would be crisis enough to justify this fugue, which from his point of view would have meant arriving at the start of her story… which happened in “A Good Man Goes to War”; had that and “The Wedding of River Song” been swapped round, and then followed by this, it might have worked. But to do that you’d need to be following the emotional logic of the tragedy, not trying to pull off flashy card tricks with the plot.)

This same sense that Moffat doesn’t understand the importance of scale, or emotional weight, if I can use such a term, shows itself in his treatment of the Great Intelligence.

The whole premise of this story is – spoilers – as a prequel to two classics of the Troughton era: “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear” where the second Doctor encounters a disembodied power that calls itself “the Great Intelligence”, a force from the astral plane that seeks physical domination of the Earth, the plots of which Moffat refers to disparagingly at the end (okay, it is using robot Yeti, but it was a less complicated age).

What those stories have, which means they do not deserve the Mister Moffster’s mockery, is heart. “The Abominable Snowmen” is one of several Buddhist parables in Doctor Who, where the Intelligence represents everything that Buddhism is about getting rid of: it is the ultimate sense of self, all ego and ambition. The “Web” in “The Web of Fear” is as much the tangle of greed, hubris, jealousy and paranoia that keep us bound to the wheel of life (or the Circle Line of destiny) as it is the sticky mess on the Underground.

On the one hand, Moffat has the Intelligence as an idea that – like the Angels – has escaped from the person that is thinking it, which is great. A child’s imaginary friend that has made itself real… no wait that was the Doctor. (Nice moment when the Doctor modulates the Intelligence’s voice back to child Walter’s – borrowed from “The Face of Evil” of course, but nice nonetheless.) But on the other hand, he expresses this as basically, a computer virus (operating on an operating system of programmable snow) with ideas above its station. As an idea it is expressly described as “a child’s fear crossed with Victorian Values”, something essentially “Earthly” in origin.

The Great Intelligence of Season Five is “Lovecraftian” not in the mundane sense that it is literally Yog-Sothoth trading under a pseudonym, as the New Adventures (specifically “The Adventure of the All-Consuming Fire”) might have it, but because it is something totally alien even to our sense of reality, an intrusion into our existence that causes the Universe to fray at the edges (or bubble up with the BBC foam machine, subject to budget).

And, because he thinks he’s so clever, Moffat never checks his facts. Although “The Abominable Snowmen” takes place in 1935, Padmasambhava has been kept live by the Intelligence for hundreds of years before hand (so not just since 1892). And “The Web of Fear” was broadcast in 1968, not ’67, and is set in the future. (Probably at least 1975, given a line of dialogue that says it is more than 40 years after the events of “The Abominable Snowmen”. Only Larry and Tat date “Web” to before it was broadcast, so good luck with that date.) In fairness, the date of a tube map is not what determines when the Intelligence chooses to attack London via the Tube (it takes its chance as soon as Professor Travers reactivates one of the Yeti control spheres – though there’s the possibility he’s acting under astral influence, who knows).

Moffat’s undeniable cleverness with plot – compared with the feel of the series under Terrance Dicks or Robert Holmes or Andrew Cartmel – reminds me of the difference between Classical and Romantic music. For all the genius shown in the twiddles of a Back or Mozart, it doesn’t move you in the way Beethoven or Tchaikovsky or even (heaven – Valhalla? – help us) Wagner can.

So this is all constructed with utter ingenuity. The Doctor is living on a cloud – water vapour – while the Intelligence is inhabiting snow – water solid, establishing them as elemental opposites. Clara’s tears are, of course, water. The sit-com business with Strax, and the memory worm, while hilariously establishing that the Doctor is really bad at the Torchwood sort of stuff is, obviously, a Chekov’s gun for the Doctor’s ultimate attack on Dr Simeon. A lot of the dialogue is enormously clever wordplay (“The snow will fall and so will mankind”), particularly the “single word responses” to Madam Vastra’s questioning (“Do you understand what I am saying to you?” “Words.”) although perhaps too much use of “Pond” as the magic word.

(And, incidentally, it is not “a first” when Clara describes the TARDIS as “smaller on the outside” as Donna did so in “The Runaway Bride” having, uniquely, seen the interior first.)

All of which makes it more ironic that "emotion" is increasingly used as the universal plot device. Yes, you can look at the conclusion as an Avengers-esque "killed by his own weapon" as the Intelligence's attack on Darkover House is what leads directly to all the mirroring snow being there and nowhere else, and hence getting reprogrammed by grief, as though only one family could be grieving on Christmas Eve. Heavens, to really give the Snowmen what for he should have had them hang around another hour for EastEnders.

But then using emotion as a plot device is still a device, another shiny cog in Moffat's machine. Instead of people reacting to events, it's just another of the events.

In many ways, the right time emotionally for this story was straight after “The End of Time”, but instead we had “The Eleventh Hour”, where the Doctor essentially forgot all the trauma and went back to saving the world as normal.

People have suggested that this has the feel of a “mini reboot” to it. In a way that may be true: a reboot not of the series, but of the Moffat era.

It’s possible that his first series, the “carry on as normal” series, came about through a lack of courage on the new team’s part, falling back into following the RTD model that worked but was… safe. Moffat’s second series struck out in much more… bold directions. But the story arc spiralled out of control and betrayed the characters along the way. What was most noticeable about the five stories we had in September was their disconnectedness from anything Silence-related. Even River Song, when she appeared, was treated as a recurring character, not part of a developing story. Like the television adaptation of John Christopher’s “The Tripods” this feels very much like a trilogy without its closing chapter.

So instead we’re trying again.

Matt is a great Doctor, and has sparkling chemistry with Jenna-Louise. They deserve to have a really good series written for them, something with joy, humour, drama and a touch of fatal death. Well, three out of four ain’t bad. A decent (re) start.

Next Time… You’re once, twice, three times exactly the same lady, apparently. Where will the Doctor find Clara next? Where will he run? And what will he remember? Fifty years on and Doctor Who returns once more in April with “The Bells of St John”. Now is that St John as in "Ambulance" (like the badge on his TARDIS) or as in "the Beheaded" (like the Library in "All-Consuming Fire")?
As we were writing this, we heard the sad news that Gerry Anderson, creator of almost all Britain’s not-Who television sci-fi, has died. Always a generous rival, he can be seen speaking about Doctor Who on the “More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS” documentary released next month as part of the “Legacy” collection.

Responsible for such classic series as “Captain Scarlet”, “Stingray”, the highly underrated “UFO” (not least for Wanda “now remembered as mum of Sherlock/Smaug” Ventham), ill-omened but fondly-remembered “Space 1999” and of course “Thunderbirds”, he also created the CGI return of Captain Scarlet that gave us Phil Ford, who has gone on to be a stalwart of “Sarah-Jane” and now “Wizards v Aliens”.

More recently and bravely Gerry was an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s society, speaking about his condition as recently as June this year. Arguably a mercy if the disease was starting to bite, nevertheless his passing is a tragic loss.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Day 4361: Mysteries of Doctor Who #24: Who Died and Made the Dalek Emperor God?


Everything about the seminal Dalek story "Dalek" tells us that THAT Dalek has to die at the end. It cannot live with itself. It has started to have FEELINGS. It has started to CHANGE. And if you CHANGE from being the supreme life-form, then you're turning into something that must be exterminated.

But, on the OTHER fluffy foot, it don't half explain away a lot of COINCIDENCES if the Emperor who fell through time to escape the Time War and the one solitary Dalek who fell through time to escape the Time War are one and the same Dalek.

For ONE Dalek to "fall through time" and escape the Time War is a mythic and poignant reflection of the Doctor's own plight: one Dalek, one Time Lord. For one MORE Dalek to fall through time seems like CARELESSNESS, as Lady Bracknell might put it. AND for one of those Daleks to be the Emperor... it's a coincidence too far.

The TRUTH of the end of "Dalek" depends on the Dalek killing itself. Given the opportunity to say “I told you you would make a good Dalek”, the Emperor does not do so, nor does he address Rose directly at any time, and you would expect the Dalek from “Dalek” to do that.

But the first ever (cough cough Russell says so) Doctor Who season finale (cough cough Barry Letts and the Dæmons doesn't count. Or Barry Letts and all the other ones. Or The Final End of the Daleks. Or The Chucking Away The Key To Time. Or The Universe Being Eaten By Entropy. Or…) "THE PARTING OF THE WAYS" just makes so much more SENSE if the last Dalek and the Emperor Dalek are the SAME Dalek that maybe that's what we should be allowed to assume.

Not least because a Dalek Emperor obsessed with early Twenty-First Century reality games would make SO much more sense if he was also the Dalek who absorbed all of the Internet while busting out of Mr van Statten's Metaltron cage.

But the idea of RELIGION ought to be as ALIEN to the Daleks as Anne Robinson, and yet the "BAD DOGGIE" Daleks have gotten that ol' time worship in a BAD way.

It seems surprising, with titles like "Genesis", "Resurrection" and "Revelation", that we haven't encountered Dalek Religion before.

It's not like Doctor Who doesn't DO "god".

You may note that the first "lost" Doctor Who story (i.e. written but NOT used) was "The Masters of Luxor" – which is all about religion. And religious confrontations were central to several of the early "historicals": "The Aztecs", "The Crusades" and "The Massacre" all look at the impact of religion on political conflicts, though thankfully Dr Who never makes any crushingly banal remarks about one or other religion being RIGHT or – worse – TRUE. (Let us just gloss over any implications from the already-dreadful "Planet of the Dead", shall we?)

The series benefits very strongly from the Buddhist input of Mr Barry Letts during his time as producer, cleverly camouflaged by Uncle Terry's rather more secular desire to tell a decent adventure story. The camouflage is actually IMPORTANT, because it stops the message becoming too preachy (something the then lead's soliloquies rarely avoid!). Interestingly, this period is "book-ended" with a couple of "When Buddhists Go BAD"-type stories: the first of the two Yeti stories with Mr Dr Mighty Trout features zen-powered robot baddies and festering corruption in the heart of a Buddhist temple, while the swansong for Mr Dr Twerpee sees Buddhist demons coming to life in a "meditation centre". And we'll come back to those spiders in a minute.

Meanwhile, religion is also very central to Mr Philip "von" Hinchcliffe's conception of the series. Along with lashings of Hammer Horror. But this is BAD religion as the series moves to place itself more overtly on the side of SCIENCE and SCEPTICISM and against SUPERSTITION.

This is where we see the start of a strong Doctor Who trope: the cult of stupid humans – The Brotherhood of Demnos, the Tribe of Tesh, or the Tong of the Black Scorpion, say, not to mention the Trogs of the Underworld or those nitwits in "The Stones of Blood" – who are fooled into believing an ALIEN or MAD COMPUTER or TIME TRAVELLER is a deity.

And the Doctor will take down "gods" from Sutekh to the Ragnarok 'n' roll band with the solid implication that (a) they are FAKES and (b) people who've fallen under their thrall are at best DUPES and at worst, actually EVIL too.
Plus there's the possibility that Mr the White Guardian, assuming we ever actually meet him, is god. Or possibly a mental derangement. (see "Mystery #12: Who sends the Doctor after the Key to Time.")

Alien-wise, though, we just don't get a lot of religious practise.

Merely to pick on the Doctor Who aliens who actually HAVE cultures: the Sontarans, Ice Warriors, and Silurians (yes, I KNOW they're not strictly ALIENS) all appear to have godless cultures. Or at least ones where their gods do not crop up in day to day use. The Draconians don't either until they get one, retrospectively, in "The Satan Pit". Nor do the Axons, Zygons, Kraals, Krynoids, Kraags, or Kinda (though they, at least, have good reason to be wary…). Neither do the Terileptils, who take the time to build gaudy androids but not a belief system. While if the Tractators worship anything, it's the Gravis. And the idea of the logical Cybermen doing anything so emotional as "faith" ought to be ridiculous (although "ridiculous" seems to be standard operating procedure for the Cybermen half the time).

On the other fluffy foot, the Eight-Legs of Metebelis III (I said we'd come back to them) DO seem to have a genuine religious devotion to their "Great One" (who at least TRIES to make herself omnipotent!) while, going right back to the Mr Dr Billy era again, the Menoptera of "The Web Planet" have their temples of light while the Zarbi have some kind of relationship with the pretty-nearly-all-powerful Animus. Maybe it's something to do with SPIDERS.

And interestingly the OGRONS – of all people! – have a "god" in the form of the rarely-seen "Giant Ogron Bollock Monster" [see "Mystery #21: Frontier in Space… What Happened Next?"]. "Interestingly" because of course this is IN a Dalek story!

(There's also something IRONIC about the ARCH-CAPITALIST Sil being a RARE theist with his appeals to the Great God Morgo.)

As for the Time Lords... the evidence is MIXED. On screen, we never get a HINT of religion, unless the Dark Tower of Rassilon counts (in the sense that they have SOME sort of ritual for burial [as do the Morestrans]). But the books have presented us with both the idea of Time Lord gods – Death, Time, etc – AND that the Time Lords may BE gods, or at least are seen as gods or godlike – see "Faction Paradox: The Book of the War" and everything connected with it.

In a way, the DOCTOR WHO FANS turned the Time Lords into gods before the series ever thought of doing it, and hence the OUTRAGE at "The Deadly Assassin" lifting the curtain on them, as it were.

Of course the idea that Dr Who himself IS god, or "a" god, is one that has only had a noticeable push in the post-2005 stories. Aside from a brief flirtation with casting the Doctor as the DEVIL in "The Face of Evil", the idea that Dr Who actually "was god" was first seeded in the Andrew Cartmel years but, of course, producer John Nathan-Turner vetoed coming out and SAYING any such thing. That didn't stop the notion worming its way through a number of "New Adventures" – there's one particularly lovely scene where one character, who believes the Doctor to be a wizard, mocks Ace for accepting him as "an alien" with "technology" as if that EXPLAINS him. All of which leads to all that "lonely god" shtick from the year five billion and then with crushing inevitability to the Mister Moffster and the anti-Doctor "religion" of the Silence (and taking for granted that he can pull random powers out of his fluffy bottom).

So we seem to have a bit of a DIVIDE between HUMANS – who DO do religion, but religion is BAD, except maybe Buddhism except when that goes bad too, but we only take a pop at made-up cults and certainly never the "big two" – and ALIENS who don't do religion at all unless it's to dupe some poor saps who are usually human.

So why would the DALEKS suddenly go all "worship him, worship him"?

To be fair, it's not IMPOSSIBLE that Dalek religion has been there all along. The CULTURAL aspects of Dalek society usually get LOST in among all the running away and getting exterminated. We have, for example, only glimpsed Dalek POETRY and Dalek OPERA in a couple of "New Adventures" books. Truly too broad and too deep for the small screen. But they DO have a sense of AESTHETICS (whatever they may say to the Cybermen in "Doomsday"), even if their spaceship design tends to be pretty straight out of the Nineteen Fifties (by way of the Big Book of Pie Dishes. Mmm, pie), and their cities are largely EXPRESSIONIST structures in METAL, rather like their casings (Tellytubby-era New Dalek Paradigm not included, obviously). There’s even a statue in their very first story. It’s by the lift. Then down it.

The nearest to a Dalek religious experience, though, comes in Big Fish spin-off series "I Davros". This is a bit of a train wreck, in spite of the always-excellent Terry Molloy's best efforts, because doing "I Claudius of the Daleks" with a cast of four was never, ever going to work even if the scripts didn't end up exterminated under the weight of clichés. And the "twist" ending is SO BAD, so CACK-HANDEDLY MISCONCEIVED that you will want a go with the Brigadier's Brain Rubbers.

But... there is ONE bit in there where Mr Davros reveals to his new BFF Nyder the "Book of Predictions", written in the extinct tongue of the Dals. The last line says "...and on that day, men (Dals) will become as gods (Dal-eks)".

I will give them some credit for that: that rather nicely explains Mr Davros' state of mind when he decides to call his Mark III travel machine a "Dalek" and where he got the name FROM – AND why he is so shocked to hear Mr Dr Tom call it a Dalek before anyone's been told.

And, of course, it DOES segue nicely into Mad Dave's MOST FAMOUSEST soliloquy:

"Yes, I WOULD do it! That power would set me up above the GODS!"

Which tells us that at least the IDEA of "gods" exists inside of Davros's microwaved noodle.

(And, incidentally, reminds me that, similarly, Chessene O' the Franzine Grig – aka Servalan au Bacofoil – also put herself up to be up among the gods so the Androgums or the Third Zone have 'em, too.)

Sure, it's a very SIDEYWAYS bit of the canon, but it does very much fit with everything we already know about the Daleks. They've ALWAYS had a bit of a GOD COMPLEX – they’re always shouting about being the SUPREME BEINGS – and of course they are actually IMMORTAL.

Seriously, there are several stories – several of them from the Big Fish audio people, it's true, but it is at least IMPLICIT in "The Power of the Daleks" and also Davros' survival in "Destiny of the Daleks", and then "Resurrection of the Daleks" before he as good as comes out and SAYS it in "Revelation of the Daleks" – that Daleks are actually IMMORTAL. That is, they can live forever, barring accidents. And by "accidents" we usually mean "Acts of Ka Faraq Gatri" or, as you can probably guess, "the one that is called the Doc-Tor".

(Of course, that means we have to cast a sideways glance at Reproduction of the Daleks. The idea of Dalek SNOGGAGE is almost literally UNTHINKABLE, but fortunately the clues seem to add up to them all being CLONED from an original genetic bank, specifically the first bunch of Daleks that Mr Davros unleashes in "Genesis...". But NOT the NEW and IMPROVED versions living in the incubation room (who get EXPLODED). "The Parting of the Ways" itself implies that Daleks are grown from single cells, as does "Journey's End", and the failed genetic experiments in "Daleks in Manhattan" show that the Cult of Skaro at least TRIED cloning themselves but something went wrong – so there are either limits to the process OR (and more likely) the Cult's SPECIAL BREEDING includes something to stop them making more of themselves. After all, more THINKING Daleks was what got the Emperor into trouble in "Evil...")

So there's a good chance that Mr Davros programmed his Daleks to think of themselves as a race of GODS. And actually, a whole SPECIES that thinks it's Sutekh would go a ways to explaining the "let's kill everything in the Universe" attitude.

But why would OTHER "gods" start worshipping one of their own, no matter HOW big his casing?

Of course, the OBVIOUS answer is that these are NOT really Daleks.

THESE "Daleks" are actually made from HUMANS (something Mr Davros first tried in "Revelation of the Daleks"). So in a way this is REALLY another "cult of gullible dumb humans who have been convinced by a MAD, ALIEN, TIME TRAVELLER that it is GOD."

Because they used to be US, and are now LITERALLY our afterlife! The Emperor even SAYS it will be his HEAVEN – and he's got his saucer all full of CHOIRS of the departed praising him. The NUTTER. Let's hope they don't SING!

And it's hardly news that the EMPEROR would think he is god.

He already thinks he comes from a RACE of gods and then on top of that to be the ONLY SURVIVOR (whether or not the Emperor is the Dalek who met Rose near Salt Lake City) of a War that annihilates every other possible candidate for godhood...

To get all META-TEXTUAL for a minute, the Daleks ALREADY exist as a representation of ONE idea, namely INTOLERANCE, or more blatantly RACISM. Bringing in RELIGION too would make them a literally MIXED METAPHOR.

Where Mr Russell gets away with this in the new series is because real-world events have MOVED ON. The ultimate icon of intolerance USED to be the fascist war machine represented by LITERAL fascist war machines. But in our post-September 11th World, the new intolerance is the religious fundamentalist. So the Daleks MOVE with the TIMES and get religion.

Add to this the twist that these Daleks are really Human, and we get the subtle satire that religion has mentally and physically deformed them into MONSTERS.

So where did the Daleks GET the idea of religion?

Well, YOU try finding yourself in Utah and plug "supreme beings of the universe" into Google and see what happens!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Day 4362: Public Service Announcement: Do NOT Hire John Brown Advertising


Please read Mr Andrew Hickey's diary: Do Not Hire John Brown Advertising.

They have COPIED pieces of his diary without permission and even worse DUMBED THEM DOWN.

To add (literal) insult to (criminal) injury, someone calling themselves John Brown has then posted comments in reply, starting with a false excuse claiming to have e-mailed (to the wrong address and then, getting no reply, used Mr Andrew's work without permission anyway), and escalating to... well, you'll have to see.

If this person is supposed to be in ADVERTISING, this is well into "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People" territory.

The LAW on COPYRIGHT in Great Britain is actually remarkably simple: if YOU create a piece of work (writing, art, music, television and so on) then YOU own the copyright. You don't need to DO anything; the right is yours AUTOMATICALLY.

If you're working as part of a COMPANY when you create the work, then the WHOLE COMPANY owns the work. e.g. episodes of Doctor Woo are the copyright of the BBC and not the individual actors or director.

BUT if you're SUBCONTRACTED or FREELANCE though – like the WRITERS of Doctor Woo – then, once again, the copyright is YOURS. This lead to a lot of trouble with the DALEKS. Notorious copyright infringers, those dustbins.

The ONLY exception is if you are COPYING someone else's work. You DO NOT get a copyright on a copy.

And that is where we came in.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Day 4360: DOCTOR WHO: The Wizard Versus the Aliens


Happy Advent!

“Doctor Who” is a series about TIME TRAVEL, so it makes sense to celebrate the series’ Fiftieth Anniversary by spending it travelling BACK IN TIME to all those futures it’s been to in the past.

Daddy Alex is doing ALL SORTS of INTERESTING things on his diary, but here I’ll be getting Daddy Richard to write reviews for stories from each of the first twenty-six seasons, two stories each, to last us through to November 23rd 2013.

Why the first twenty-six seasons? Well, because we have ALREADY done reviews of all the Twenty-First Century Stories. Or ALMOST…

In 2010, in the run-up to the new Coalition of Matt Smith and Steven Moffat, we tried to review all of Mr Dr Christopher Eccythump’s brilliant 2005 season. We tried… and failed, missing out on the first ever season finale… “The Evil of the Daleks”… no, hang on, that’s not what it says on this card from Mr Russell T Davies…

Previously… Russell is very much one for making each part of his two-parters very much its own story, never more so than here. So, as I said under "Bad Wolf", this is really a half hour story satirising television followed by an hour-long epic battle with Daleks that just happens to have the first fifteen minutes in the previous episode.

“The Parting of the Ways” is the first of three (so far) Dalek Invasions of Earth in the revived series. All of them have strengths and weaknesses: “The Parting of the Ways” cannot, for example compete with the huge staging of “The Stolen Earth” where we get to see from the ground up what a Dalek War would mean – compared with the announcement of Earth’s continents being bombed, presented on a screen as outlines being distorted, is far more visceral, more satisfying and of course more expensive. Nor does it have the fan-pleasing smackdown to finally settle who is better “Daleks or Cybermen” (like the side that came a close second in the Time War was ever going to be threatened by the hot-dog people). What it does have is a point.

Terrance Dicks – it’s always Terrance Dicks – wrote that the Doctor is never cruel or cowardly, a quote that has had people like Paul Cornell and Steven Moffat posting purple prose ever since to try and better it, so far without success. But what do you do if you are faced with a choice of cruel or cowardly?

“The Parting of the Ways” is full of variations on this moral dilemma: whether it’s Rose faced with a life of chips or trying to return to a future she knows is doomed; or the refugees of the Game Station – including Paterson Joseph’s deliciously narked Roderick (“It’s not fair! I won the game!”) – who have to decide whether to fight or hide; or, in a very Russell moment, Davitch Pavale who has to decide whether to ask the woman he fancies (Nisha Niyar’s “female programmer” – thanks, Russ) out on a date (while in the middle of a doomed fight for their lives against the invading pepperpots).

Only two characters do not face a moral dilemma, and both of them are, in their own ways, extremists. One is the Dalek Emperor. Who is insane. The other, though, is Captain Jack, who never doubts the Doctor, never doubts the need to fight the Daleks. Alex, reasonably, points out that this is because Jack has already had his own moment of enlightenment, faced his choice and moved on. No regrets, just a kiss goodbye.

Not that it helps you to make the “right” choice. Everyone’s going to get dead, whether they’ve been naughty or nice. But of course if you only have an inch to live – as Richard puts it in “The Lion in Winter” – then what matters is how you live that inch.

Nor is the Doctor’s dilemma an easy or obvious one to resolve.

To stop the Daleks, he would have to kill an awful lot of people: everyone on the station, regardless of whether they chose to stand and fight or to run and hide; everyone on Earth, whether they had too much or too little or just sat watching the cruel games that flooded out from the Gamestation; and even everyone on the Dalek fleet. Because, yes: Daleks are people too.

But if he lets the Daleks survive, it will inflict pain and suffering on countless billions of lifeforms, not least the benighted Daleks themselves (who he already knows are being driven insane by their own blasphemous, half-human genetics).

It’s not even clear which choice is “Cruel” and which is “Cowardly”. The Doctor clearly believes “Cowardly” is to surrender to the Daleks rather than launch an attack that will kill them and everyone else.

But I might make a case that it’s using the Delta Wave that’s being “cowardly” because killing everyone means taking the choice onto himself and away from every other thinking being within range, means not trusting that some of the humans might survive, or escape or defeat the Daleks. To let the Daleks live takes hope and hope requires courage.

The importance of the decision that the Doctor faces makes itself felt as the centre of one of the major set-pieces of the episode: the Doctor's second confrontation with the Dalek Emperor, and the way that their dialogue is juxtaposed with Rose's equally important debate with Jackie about leading a life that matters.

Alex raises the concern that so big is this clash that it renders all other characters unimportant: see, for example, the way that Rose is not going to be given a year to spend in post-traumatic stress because of her genocide of the Daleks. (Although, I suggest that "Rose" ceases to exist from the moment she looks into the heart of the TARDIS until the moment she recovers just before the Doctor's regeneration.) Does this add evidence to the theory that – as representatives of the two sides in the Time War – only the Doctor and the Emperor have "free will" in this Universe?

When people give their lives for the Doctor so that he will have time to build a device he ultimately choose not to use, is that a betrayal of their choices? Although, in so many ways, the ninth Doctor is the one who does most to "make people better" in the way he steps back and lets them get on with doing the right thing, sometimes that makes him more of a master manipulator even than Sylv's seventh Doctor. And yet this is where I think Russell has actually plotted this very carefully, to make sure that all of those people are dead before the Doctor completes the Delta Wave. The populations of Earth are being massacred. In almost every way the Daleks have made it easy for him.

The Emperor Dalek, the god of all Daleks, wants to see the Doctor become “the great exterminator”.

The Dalek from “Dalek” told the Doctor: “You would make a good Dalek”.

(In fact, the strongest evidence for them not being the same individual is that the Emperor doesn’t take the opportunity to say “I told you so”.)

But they’re wrong. To be a good Dalek is to be without remorse, to kill and not to think about it afterwards. The Doctor has done nothing but think about it afterwards.

The Doctor, in his ninth life, has been trying, and largely failing, to find a way of living with one terrible wrong choice. Yes, he ended the Time War, but at what cost? Not to the Universe – though the price of a Universe without Daleks was a Universe without Time Lords, one where, as he says in “Rise of the Cybermen” everything is just a bit less kind – but the price to himself.

Killing cuts your soul, as J K Rowling might have it. Genocide even more so.

And now I have to talk about “Wizards vs Aliens”.

For the uninitiated, this is a series made by the people who would have been out of work because the untimely death of Elisabeth Sladen meant the untimely end of “The Sarah Jane Adventures”, and as such it is the (massively dumbed down) inheritor of the true spirit of Doctor Who. Certainly it has its problems (many direct from the Russell era of the, what, grandparent series): the same inadvertent leaning to “alien = bad” xenophobia stemming from Russell’s conviction that the audience-identification must be with humans/Earth and by extension the antagonists will always be the alien; an occasionally alarming looking-down-on attitude to science, at the same time perversely worshiping a “geek ethic” that it doesn’t entirely understand; “hilarious” gunking of the hero characters when alien critters explode (I blame the movie “Men in Black” for that, actually). The fact that the series format – Tom the hero is a “jock with a secret” who forms a close friendship with Benny a “despised outsider” – lends itself to gay subtext (or indeed text) ought not to be a bad thing but it’s a bit… well… “Merlin”. Especially since the only female characters are Annette Badland, best thing in it as batty gran Ursula, and Lexi, who’s alien. And evil. Ish. But at its heart are two very important concepts: a love of wonder and the idea that you should not kill people, even if they’re yellow scaly people.

The (first) series is bookended by slightly faltering episodes from Phil Ford (who is usually better), strong on sci-fi ideas, weak on character. But in between there were good stories from Joe Lidster (touching on peer pressure, bullying and substance abuse without getting too unsubtle); Clayton Hickman (Tom and Lexi bond when placed in shared jeopardy, unintentionally setting-up the possibility of a love triangle between Tom, Benny and Lexi – yay for bisexual visibility. Er.); and Gareth Roberts, showing again the paradox of why he ought to write brilliant TV Doctor Who (but seemingly can’t) with a story about Benny trying to make the aliens leave by infecting their ship with a computer virus and accidentally very nearly killing them all.

The extraordinary thing is that in the current series of Doctor Who, this would be passed off by the Doctor as “Well, you had your chance but you were stupid enough to ignore my warning”. (Or – worse – doesn’t River look cool as she shoots them all!) Ursula even gets to make the very powerful point that the aliens came here and have been destroying wizards (they eat magic, effectively aging the wizard to death – we’re shown a scene where this is done to a young Japanese wizard, to remind us what the aliens do and to imply that they’ve been carrying on doing it all season while we’ve been enjoying Tom and the exploding muppet larks he’s been up to); death, it makes clear, is no more than the aliens deserve.

And the episode makes it flat out clear that this is wrong.

As Alex very wisely put it: this shows the harm that killing does to the killer better than any nonsense about Horcruxes.

The idea that he might have killed the aliens nearly destroys Benny, so much that Tom is willing to sacrifice his life so that his (boy) friend can have the chance to save their enemies, to set things right.

Somewhere between “The Christmas Invasion” and “Day of the Moon”, “Doctor Who” has lost that, lost its way. Perhaps it was the number of people who took Harriet Jones’ side when she committed her war crime; perhaps it was too many people thinking it’s okay to just kill Solomon in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”; perhaps it’s something missing in the hearts of the production team; perhaps it’s something we’ve all lost since the War on Terror made “killing the bad guy” justification enough. And between Season 2005 and Season 2010 the scripts very much swapped sides in the “War on Terror”.

Some of what comes later can be laid at the feet of “The Parting of the Ways”. The impact made by the visual spectacle of this finale is certainly a driver towards the “bigger, bolder, brighter” ethos of each year that follows (and presumable the application of appropriately escalating budgets too).

It’s certainly true that Doctor Who had never looked this good before.

The CGI Daleks in space are astounding, and unforgettable, so good that they kept doing the same trick for “Doomsday” and “The Stolen Earth” and “The Pandorica Opens” and the rest. Whether they need it or not.

Likewise, the Dalek Emperor, in all his madness, is a superb creation. Kudos to Mike Tucker and his model-builders for the physical construction and of course to Nick Briggs for bringing the Emperor to life as a sadistic, twisted, dribblingly bonkers, boiling blob of hate character.

All the little details are just right: from the look of the saucers, to the black domes on the Imperial Guards (yes, just like “The Evil of the Daleks”), to the pyroflame adaptation on one Dalek’s utility arm, to Lynda Moss getting officially Best. Extermination. Eveh!

But Doctor Who was never about the way that it looked, at least not entirely. Spectacle could never before be guaranteed to live up to hype. Which is why story always mattered more.

That is so true here, as we reach the concluding chapter, the climax and dénouement, of the “Trip of a lifetime”, the ninth Doctor’s lifetime.

It’s been called a deus ex machina, and of course that’s what TARDISes are: a goddess wrapped in a bottle, kept in a box that is bigger on the inside; a machine able to go anywhere in time and space, see the turning of the worlds, and capable of love…

And of course it’s love. Rose and the TARDIS both clearly love the Doctor. Love is the affinity that lets the TARDIS in, lets her soul meet Rose’s, but unquestionably it is the TARDIS speaking when she destroys the Daleks, to save “my Doctor”.

And she does save him. Not from Daleks, any old deus ex machina could do that; she saves him from doing the right thing, from the outcome of defeating his dilemma, from facing the consequences of refusing double-genocide a second time.

What does “deus ex machina” really mean? The cliché of Ancient Greek drama was that, when the hero had exhausted all possible actions, a “god” would be lowered into the scene by a crane “machine” and resolve the plot with a divine wave. The modern interpretation is that this is a “cheat”, introducing an element at the last minute that saves the day, pulling an answer out of the metaphorical arse.

But that’s not what the Greek dramatists were doing. For them, the conclusion of the play was the philosophical punch-line, not the cleaning-up afterwards. The god would not emerge until the hero had reached the proper moral conclusion.

Is it really a cheat when “god” has been all through the episode like a stick of Blackpool Rock (to be eaten at the Doctor Who exhibition, of course)? “The Parting of the Ways” opens with the reveal of “the god of all Daleks”, and the Doctor spends most of his time in the story debating with the demented deity.

“God” after all is only a word meaning “an idea too big to fit into our heads”, something that the Emperor Dalek is reminded of when a real goddess turns up. “You are tiny!”

And the TARDIS/Bad Wolf/Goddess/deus ex machina does not appear until after the Doctor has made his choice, made the right choice, this time. Better to die than to kill, better coward than cruel, better every time.

The climax of the story is nothing to do with golden fairy dust and exploding Dalek saucers. It’s the moment when the Doctor can destroy them all... and chooses not to.

And so he is redeemed.

The ninth Doctor has been haunted, hounded, plagued, destroyed by the knowledge that he killed them all, Daleks and Time Lords alike. He’s not lonely when he meets Rose: he’s annihilated; he’s looking to die. Rose gave him a reason to go on living, to live long enough that, over the course of this year, he could come back to the point where he’s ready to try to face that choice again. And this time get it right.

He takes the fire of the Time Vortex from Rose knowing that it will kill him because he’s at peace at last.

The extraordinary serenity that Christopher Eccleston brings to the part as the Doctor steps up to save Rose and the TARDIS from each other, even though – or perhaps because – being a conduit for the time energy will kill him, lifts the lid on his portrayal of the Doctor, reveals the layers of artifice that the Time Lord has been sheltering beneath. It’s reminiscent of Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor who concealed his huge heart under all that bluster and bombast, only letting it break through when it was breaking, when – “you killed Peri...” – he was most utterly betrayed by his own people. The reason that “The Parting of the Ways” is a triumph and “Trial”, er, isn’t, is not because one of them is the “better” actor, whatever that might mean. It’s because Eccleston is given the chance to do his extraordinary work completely supported by the script, direction, lighting, editing, even the music butts out of his way rather than everything tearing itself apart.

And “The Parting of the Ways” is a triumph.

If Doctor Who’s return had only lasted this one series in 2005, still it would be remembered and talked about as a bright and shining thing, one glorious year of television made out of farting aliens and lost dads and gas masks and Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston and Russell Television Davies.

But it went stratospheric instead.

Next Time... (going forwards) “New Labour... That’s weird!” Harriet Jones shoots herself in the foot (and the Sycorax in the back); Captain Jack gets a winning hand; and listeners to the Audio Visuals rediscover the power of A Nice Cup of Tea. Set the oestrogen to Warp Factor Ten as the Doctor falls in love... with himself! It’s David Tennant in “The Christmas Invasion”.


Next Time... (going backwards) “It’s a laboratory. Or a nursery. But the kids would have to be pretty advanced.” Ace solves the Doctor’s initiative test in her first line, but can she evolve into a ladylike or does his surprise have a sting in the tail? There’s a god in the cellar and bats in the belfry and the Reverend Ernest Matthews wants a word about this blasphemous theory of evolution. Welcome to Gabriel Chase and the “Ghost Light”. Don’t have the soup!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Day 4290: DOCTOR WHO: The Angels Take the St Michael

Saturday (flashback bonus):

In their own way, the Angels are like history: they look fixed, but that's only our perception.

The opening of "The Angels Take Manhattan" is narrated, in character, in film noir style, by "private dick" Sam Garner. But the fingers we see typing his voiceover are manicured with scarlet nail varnish, which Mr Garner is not otherwise seen to wear. This is a first allusion to the writer's power.

In the Moffat-verse, it seems, history is contingent, memory unreliable, time itself as he keeps endlessly saying can be rewritten. But once it's written down it is sacred.

In an odd way, it's like the flip-side of "Logopolis": there, the ability of "living minds" to perform Block Transfer computation – to make TARDISes work, to Time Travel even – depends on a certain flexibility. A computer would be altered by the process as it made the calculation; the implication is that it would suffer a critical paradox. And thus the link from Russell's Paradox to Existential Mathematics is made via the Turing Test.

Does Moffat see the structure of time, that big ball of timey-wimey stuff, in similar fashion? Is it that same flexibility of perception that allows you to alter the past that you think you know, while the written record, like the "computer mind" with "absolute knowledge", is fixed and invariant? Is this, essentially, the central paradox of writing: the ability to know something is fiction and still true?

When they were first introduced in "Blink" the Angels were specific, living creatures that turned to stone when you looked at them. In "The Time of Angels" we heard that they were actually living ideas, idea-shaped holes in the continuum that we just perceived as statues – and in return, anything that we perceived as an Angel could become one. Now, they seem to have evolved again, into, it would seem, ideas that choose to occupy statues, any statue (and not just stone ones, as the enormous metal lady from Liberty Island attests). River certainly seems to say that the Angels have "occupied" every statue in 1938 New York.

And possibly the more powerful the idea – or the more "time energy" it has fed on – the larger the statue it is able to occupy, hence the "baby Angels" using smaller cherub bodies… and you need a really big Angel, who's had all the energy of the Winter Quay battery farm to feed on, to occupy Lady Liberty.

We're left with the same puzzles: do the statues actually move – as we saw them start to in "Flesh and Stone", and as the thunderous "Statue of Liberty sized Grandmother's footsteps" imply – or is it just the idea that moves, incredibly quickly, so that when we look again we perceive the statue in a different place. That is, not that the atoms and molecules of the statues actually translate from place to place, but that the way we perceive the arrangement of those atoms changes, the original statue ceasing to have any meaningful pattern, and a whole new statue being created from different atoms just by how we perceive their (usually much closer to us) arrangement.

This might also explain how they displace you in time: it's not the physical atoms of your body that get sent back, only your conscious mind. Your perception of yourself includes your body around you, so naturally you perceive the atoms at your arrival point as a you-shaped body. The "you-shaped arrangement of atoms" at this end ceases to have any perceptual meaning as a person, and that – if you like – is where the Angels get their conceptual dinner from.

Alternatively, adding information – i.e. you – to an earlier time zone is the same as adding entropy to the Universe: almost whatever you do will interact chaotically with your foreknowledge of events, making the Universe more random, which is the definition of entropy. The trade-off, so that the Universe remains consistent, is a sharp decrease in entropy of the Angel at the same time as an increase in entropy of everything else.

Or possibly it's all a load of nonsense.

The thing about entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as explored extensively in "Logopolis" and summarised as "things fall apart", is that most people react to it with denial or horror. The Master himself reacts this way – "Horrible! Horrible!" – on seeing the leader of the Logopolitans, the Monitor, reduced to a drifting ember by the entropy wave, and this from a man who shrinks people to death for a living. Underlying "The Angels Take Manhattan" is a clear horror of ageing.

Of course, there's always been something of that about the Angels, the fear of your life being snatched away by time: literally "Blink" and you miss it. From that point of view, they're the world's fastest ever zombies. But this time it's really hammered home, from Mr Grayle with his collection of old things to River's philosophy of her relationship:

"Never let him see the damage," she says, and she refers to the Doctor as an "ageless god who insists on wearing the face of a twelve-year-old".

It's not really strong enough to be a proper satire on our youth-obsessed culture, but it certainly looks like it's playing on Mr Moffat's personal demons.

But it's the institutionalisation of old age that is particularly Moffat's fear, as we see all the Angels' victims trapped into living out their days in an old folks' home from Hell.

A better writer than Steven Moffat – yes, I know about all the awards – is Charles Dickens, and we recently watched a modern-day take on his third novel, "Nicholas Nickleby". As Alex pointed out at the time, it's one of the best adaptations of Dickens we've seen because it got past the "look at the gorgeous frocks"-ness that so overwhelms such rightly-acclaimed recent Dickens as "Bleak House" and "Great Expectations" and gets down to the brass tacks of what Dickens was writing about: a sharply direct critique of the society he was living in.

Adapted by Joy Wilkinson, she recognises, like Moffat's own take on Conan Doyle, that Dickens was writing a contemporary drama, not a period piece.

So, "Nick Nickleby" based on "The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby" is set in 2012 and addresses itself to a contemporary concern: old age care. "Dotheboys Hall" becomes "Dotheolds Care Home"; Nick's companion, the simple Smike, becomes traumatised old lady Mrs Smike; wicked uncle Ralph and the infamous Wackford Squeers profiteer from the mistreatment of the abandoned elderly rather than unwanted offspring; and so on. All very broad brush, I'm sure you'll agree, but actually the kind of sharp social satire that Doctor Who ought to do from time to time (whether in "The Green Death" or "Bad Wolf").

The point is that it's actually making a point; it's not just taking something that scares the Mister Moffster – being the child left out in the cold, the monsters under the bed, and now, getting old – and using it to add a frisson of feeling to the clever mechanics of the plot.

Well, to a certain value of "clever".

Over the many deaths of Rory Pond, I've been increasingly reminded of, ironically, his first time, during the encounter with the Dream Lord in "Amy's Choice" (a lot of that referenced in "The Angels take Manhattan" as well – Amy twice more not willing to live in a world where Rory is dead). Most pertinent is this particular exchange:

The Dream Lord: You die in the dream, you wake up in reality. Ask me what happens if you die in reality.

Rory Williams: What happens?

The Dream Lord: You die, stupid. That's why it's called "reality".

Tossing in post-modern references to the Rory's many returns from the dead ("When don't I?") doesn't actually excuse the fact that each time you do it you're basically writing "It's a dream, it's a dream, it was all a dream" all over your script like you're a five-year-old who's never been told what a crushingly banal cliché that is.

Why do they so-conveniently wake up back in 2012?

The Doctor says it would take "incredible power" to create a paradox enough to destroy this timeline and set them all free. Or, apparently, jumping off a building five minutes later.

(And it's not like the Angels couldn't save the Ponds from falling. They've got wings haven't they? Or that big Lady with the Torch could just catch them.)

Why not wake up Captain Jack-like on the sidewalk in front of Winter Quay. Still in 1938 (i.e. you can't get killed because it would be a paradox, but you don't escape from the Angels that easily. An outcome that could save Rory but leave Amy dead, actually, and then he surrenders to the Angels and lives out his life in Winter Quay as ordained.)

Ultimately we're left with Moffat as the boy who cried (Bad) Wolf, protesting "no, this time I really, really mean it!" after an episode full of even his own characters saying "yeah, I always come back from the dead". Why should we invest in this instance? What have you done to convince us that this time it's different?

We're supposed to believe that once it's "written in stone" it is impossible to save Rory. And yet the very next thing that Amy does is change what is literally written in stone.

How exactly is the Doctor prevented from ever seeing his friends again?

Yes, I get that something about 1938 makes it difficult to land the TARDIS in that time and place, and that the paradox used to defeat the Angels increases that to "impossible" but... what's to stop him landing in 1932 and just living the difference? Or in Boston in 1938 and just taking the train? He could, quite literally, get there before them and be waiting to rescue the Ponds with no time wasted (from their point of view).

But that isn't really the problem.

Actually, there is a question of whether they're in 1938 at all.

The evidence for just how far back you are sent is, obviously, just as contradictory, with both "Blink" and "Angels take Manhattan" supplying examples that they send you back by the exact amount of life you have left to live (Billy Shipton and P.I. Sam Garner are both seen to expire within minutes of the moment when their younger self is touched) or that a given Angel sends you back to a given point in time (Billy arrives in 1969, the same year as the Doctor and Martha were displaced to; everything points to Amy arriving in the same year as Rory).

So could Rory and Amy get sent back fifty years (based on Rory's age: 82 on his gravestone and 31 in "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship") not to 1938 but probably the early sixties? Well, in fact no, not if we take into account "P.S." which reveals that they adopted a son, Anthony, in 1946.

But let's be fair: the Doctor doesn't say that he can't get to when Amy and Rory are (whenever that is). What he says is that one more paradox will tear a whole in the fabric of time and drop New York right through it. It's not that he cannot get there, but that he must not.

Except, except, except... even this is just a different spin on "The Impossible Astronaut", a "fixed point" in time that depends on what we think we've seen, but like the conjuror's art, could be a case of misdirection, something the Doctor himself could do just by "popping back in time" and commissioning that headstone himself – a variation on his Tesselector "you only thought you saw me die" gambit.

It would not establish a paradox for the Doctor to find and collect Amy and Rory from the relative past. It would not change anything that he personally knew.

(Ironically, if the Doctor had met Anthony then there would be a paradox in rescuing Amy and Rory because it would contradict the implied history of bringing up their adopted son.)

Basically, you do not get points for cleverness for beating the rules of time travel if you made the rules up in the first place, you're changing them all the time and you won't tell us what they are anyway.

That's why "The Impossible Astronaut" feels like a cheat and this feels like a cop-out.

I have to confess, the prospect of reviewing "The Angels Take Manhattan" did not fill me with overwhelming joy.

It's beautifully filmed, contrasting the sunlit Central Park with the noir-toned nights in 1938 and the overcast graveyard in Queens where the Ponds final resting place catches up with them.

The film noir theme works very nicely. Alex, who loves a film noir, was particularly pleased to see an effective evocation of the era and the appearance of Forties films. He also praised the decision to use River as the hard-boiled gumshoe and not as the more obvious femme fatale. With the Angels present, the story had quite enough femmes fatale anyway.

And Mike McShane's Mr Grayle (film noir reference "Farewell My Lovely") is an interesting stooge, his relationship with the Angels slightly ambivalent – the opening sequence could be read as him feeding private detectives to the Angels' battery farm; and he knows enough about their M.O. to place River literally within one's grasp.

Matt Smith and Alex Kingston are as top-notch as ever. He gets to wear the "brainy specs" by stealing Amy's reading glasses. She gets to spell out what we've mostly already guessed this year: that he's erased himself from every database in creation (annulling her prison sentence into the bargain). In spite of this being "Professor" River Song, she's not as smug and unlikeable as she appeared back in "Silence in the Library", perhaps because she can now be more honest with us about who and what she is but I suspect largely because Alex Kingston has more control of the role now, and her relationship with Rory is rather sweet in the brief scene they get together when we first discover who Melody Malone really is.

Murray Gold does everything he can to yank on your heart-strings. It's too much really; I don't need the music to be forcing me to feel the emotion. I remember back in 2005, Christopher Eccleston could break your heart with a single glance and it was all the more moving because he did it in absolute silence. But some of the references to Amy's theme – and there are many – are quite poignant, for example the long moment as the Ponds fall, Amy's hair streams up around her and I wonder if it's not a visual and musical reference to the first scene of "The Beast Below" where she floats in space with her hair floating about her.

But it's so... predictable.

Apart from the whimsical introduction of the "cherub" Angels, and the monstrous error of the Statue of Liberty (I mean seriously? ) what does this actually add that "Blink" didn't already do? Grandmother's Footsteps with live (if Timey-Wimey) ammo, defeated by a paradox (this time a Grandfather Paradox rather than an Ontological Paradox, but they're both classics!). All it needed was the addition of a scene where the lost Ponds' offspring deliver a letter to the as-yet-unaware Brian... oh, wait... Here comes Mr Chibnall to prove he can run the photocopier over a Moffat script with as much aplomb as he can ape an RTD episode.

Why would the "Lonely Assassins" even want an army? Given that their Achilles Heel in "Blink" was what happened if they were caught looking at each other, is it entirely wise to have filled the statues of an entire city with Angels? In particular one really, really big one? Surely she paralyses half the Angels in the Big Apple whenever she decides to saunter over to Winter Quay. And with her staring at that roof, with her big snarly face, no other Angel can sneak up behind you, making that surely the safest place in New York!

It was a good send-off to give the Ponds, but it was way past time for them to have gone. One of them long-suffering and exasperated with all things Who, the other Scottish, spikey, smart and very occasionally incredibly selfish... but enough about Sue Virtue and Steven Moffat, Amy and Rory have been the longest-serving companions of the recent Who era, and yet it's still incredibly hard to say we really know them, what with their secrets and altered histories and all. And such a shame that, at the end, Moffat undoes all the good he did by keeping Mrs Pond a Pond, finally subsuming her to the identity of her "man".

Time for something fresh and, in the form of Jenna Louise Coleman, engaging and cheeky. And let the Ponds go to their Big Sleep at last.

Next Time... It's Christmas and what could be more Christmassy than Moffat the Grinch pinching another Christmas favourite. Never mind Aled Jones, the Doctor is walking in the air and Kim Newman's wintery "Time and Relative" is the next book to look suspiciously familiar when we face a not-so lick-the-mirror-gorgeous Richard E Grant and "The Snowmen".

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Day 4283: DOCTOR WHO: The Power of Twee

Saturday (flashback):

It's possible that I may have been unkind to Mr Chris Chibnall, back at the start of season two of "Torchwood", when I suggested in my review that Russell Davies had written "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" for him.

It becomes clear from "The Power of Three" that he can at least write a very good pastiche of RTD. All the tropes are here: the emphasis on character; the way they stand around and emote heavily at each other to tell us how very special they are; the kisses to the fans; the adoration of the Third Doctor/UNIT era; the failure to do the research; the hand-wavy non-resolution; the implicit xenophobia...

Let's start with the basics: if you want to call your story "the power of three" and especially if you want to finish with that as the valedictory line, then you really, really need a resolution that depends on a contribution from all three leads. Ideally, something unique to each of them, that proves how vital is the contribution each one makes, but failing that at least have each of them do something.

It is surely not beyond the wit of man to think of something. How about an invasion from the second dimension – moving shadows! – but which can be trapped when approached from three directions at once.

You would be better off calling this something like "Real Life (Interrupted)" or "How the Doctor Couldn't Sit Still" which at least would draw attention away from the largely-irrelevant invasion plot.

Because what we have here is just a bog standard invasion plot (and, judging by starship design and alien make-up, it's an invasion from the "Babylon 5" universe); it's the Master's "plastic daffodil stratagem" without the plastic daffodils. Or the Master.

Certainly, the cubes start off as intriguing. They spend a year carefully waiting, infiltrating human society, scanning us to identify our key vulnerability (which disappointingly does not turn out to be a weakness for the Apple company's product design), and then take advantage of that to suddenly wipe out a third of the human race.

(Handy, incidentally, that it's a third. So you can have the Doctor – who can survive it – get zapped and let his two companions be the "other two thirds". Though no one else who gets actual screen-time is among the casualties either. Brian, of course, has been conveniently kidnapped otherwise he'd have certainly been watching his cube and been killed by it. But we don't even get the horror of seeing someone we've "met" – the married lesbians, say, or Rory's friend from the hospital – collapse. Even without the absurd "nobody dies" miracle ending, this is shying away from the truth of the plot.)

Almost it would be better if there was no explanation. They do their thing and just as mysteriously vanish.

Sometimes, awful things just happen.

Thematically, that would go quite nicely with Brian's conversation with the Doctor about what happens to former companions, and would neatly foreshadow the events of next week, while at the same time being an almost literal "you could be hit by a bus tiny black cube tomorrow; you might as well get out there adventuring".

And, hey, after the events of "Miracle Day" maybe the cubes were just reversing Earth's massive overpopulation problem. Whadda ya mean 'how could Chris Chibnall be expected to follow plot developments in "Torchwood"?'. Oh...

Instead, we veer off sharply into a string of the most dreadful Who clichés: the ancient and terrible foe, known in the legends and bedtime stories of Gallifrey, who we hear of for the first and probably last time when the Doctor pulls an "oh, I know all about you" out of his fez; and their motive to unravel human history, to prevent humanity colonising space… we make the universe messy.

And they would have been unstoppable too so long as no one from Earth could make it onto the command ship and have the entire plot explained to them and then be left alone with the "off" switch... oh. These aliens are so dumb they don't even deserve to have nearly gotten away with it except for those meddling kids.

(Actually, I'm now regretting making that throw-away remark about "correcting" the events of "Torchwood", because the next biggest Dr Who cliché is of course the ancient and terrible thing from Gallifrey left behind by the Time Lords, because the Shakri are just begging to be renamed the Mother's Little Helpers of Rassilon.)

Given the brief "life with the Doctor from the Ponds' point of view"; given that this is the last adventure before their last adventure, couldn't we have had something more about what makes the Ponds so special to him, rather all the dialogue just saying they're "oh so special to him!"

Rory in particular is back to being badly served (a shame as one of the few good aspects of the dire Silurian two-parter from 2010 was that Chibnall handled Rory quite well).

Rory is exactly the guy you want to be stood next to when your heart gets stopped, because he can fix you... but he's been sent off to another part of the plot. (One which, for all its intriguing cube-mouthed orderlies, will just peter out and vanish).

But still – by an unbelievably massive coincidence – he's also the guy in exactly the right place to tell the Doctor where the portal to the alien ship can be found and... instead gets removed from that plot too and the Doctor just finds the portal anyway (and indeed rescues the now-unconscious Rory with a wave of his illicit smelling salts).

Amy doesn't fare much better, being all doe-eyed and "you're so wonderful, Doctor" a lot of the time – yes, yes, "I'm running towards you before you fade from me" is a lovely scene, and Matt acts it beautifully, but still – and of course she kills the Doctor stone dead with a defibrillator. Oh no wait, it's a magic defibrillator that doesn't work like any other defibrillator on Earth and can restart a heart that's stopped while not stopping one that's working properly. How clever is that!

(Seriously, folks: the clue is in the name – a de-fibrillator is used to normalise the pulse of a heart that is in fibrillation i.e. firing irregularly. If your heart has stopped you need CPR and pretty damn quickly too. It's quite bad that Amy doesn't know this, but when Nurse Rory suggest "mass defibrillation" as a response to all those people who've been cardiac arrested by the cubes... well, you wonder just how much professional training he's skipped while having larks in time and space.)

The fan-pleasing moments (Zygons under the Savoy aside) are, of course, the return of Mark Williams as Rory's dad Brian and the (re-)introduction of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart in the appropriate setting of UNIT's secret base under the Tower of London.

Or possibly an impressively-badly-done green screen of the Tower of London.

Kate is a lovely character. Not quite consistent with her single-mum appearance in the BBV story "Downtime" (aka the The Worldwide Web of Fear), but as a scientist leading the military, certainly a step on the way from the Brig's "action by havoc" UNIT to the "zen military" that the New Adventures repeatedly imply they evolve into. Played perfectly by Jemma Redgrave with a dry sense of humour that really did seem like she might have inherited it from the late, much-loved Nick Courtney, it would be nice if she was intended as a recurring character. If there's any truth in the rumour that Chibbers is being groomed as the next show runner (or at least is one of the possible candidates, along with Toby Whithouse and Mark Gatiss), then Kate may be "his River Snog".

But even if it's not Mr Chibnall setting out to create a recurring character (or Mr Moffat, for that matter – he too has form) I would like to see more of Kate Stewart and her UNIT bloodhounds. And her Ravens of Death.

It's sad that we're almost certainly not going to see Mr Brian "Pond" Williams again, as in just two appearances he's made himself the Wilf de nos jours. Grounded and dependable, occasionally the butt of the joke, but clear-sighted enough to cut through the Doctor's blether and speak it how it is.

I also rather like that he seemed to be able to stay awake for forty-eight hours solid watching the cubes while in the TARDIS. A property of the timelessness inside the time ship, or just "dad power"?

Brian, of course, is the one who first puts his finger on what's going on when he asks the Doctor about how companions leave.

That's the underlying sadness to this episode (which again is totally opposed to the "everybody lives" cop out of the conclusion). This is clearly playing out as a tragedy.

There's a wistfulness on the part of the Doctor: you can see that somehow he knows that this is his last time with the Ponds. He's already confessed to Amy in front of that green screen that he can tell they'll soon be going their separate ways. And from the moment of his conversation with Brian which is immediately followed by asking if he can stay with Amy and Rory, he does not want to leave them alone because – it seems – he is certain that the next time they part it will be forever. That's why he tries to wish them a hearty farewell at the end and, ironically, it's Brian himself who then urges them into the TARDIS for the fateful trip to New York that is coming.

Some people have taken this apparent foreknowledge to suggest that these first five episodes of season thirty-three are in the "wrong" chronological order, that, for example, the Doctor in "Asylum of the Daleks" is actually from after the events of "The Angels Take Manhattan".

I think that there is a possible case for the suggestion that "A Town Called Mercy" takes place within the seven weeks away during Amy and Rory's wedding anniversary party. (One episode inside another – how very "The Time Monster"!) A throwaway reference to King Henry VIII – Rory leaving his phone charger in the Tudor monarch's bed-chamber – takes on a different resonance when we see our heroes hiding in said chamber. Sloppy script editing or a sly tie-in? I prefer to give the benefit of the doubt in this case and accept that these are the same incident seen from two angles.

The case for "Asylum" being out of order is weaker. That the Daleks might kidnap Amy and Rory from earlier in their time stream is not impossible, collecting the 21st Century versions rather than the strictly contemporaneous back-to-the-20th Century Ponds, and thus "filling in" a gap in their lives that the Doctor had skipped over, namely Amy and Rory's temporary divorce – though I still cannot see how that fits with their characterisation in any other episode.

But otherwise... no, I think that these stories have to take place pretty much in broadcast order. Brian meets the Doctor for the first time in "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" and the Doctor meets Brian for the first time in "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship"; it's not a tricky timey-wimey thing. They know each other in "The Power of Three" so those episodes must be in the right order. And, although it's not explicit, it would diminish the tragedy of Amy and Rory leaving on their final trip after Brian give them his blessing for them to pop back several more times. There's not really any coming back from "The Angels Take Manhattan".

So I think that the Doctor's behaviour is more a matter of being old enough and wise enough to see the cards on the table, perhaps with a dash of Eighth-Doctor prescience thrown in.

On the subject of relative time though, there is Amy's unexpected reference to having spent ten years of her (and Rory's) life with the Doctor on and off. Which seems like an awful lot of unseen adventures. Certainly the Moffat-era creators are far more willing to embrace the idea of lots of life being lived off-screen than almost any earlier era. The Troughton stories, for example, on occasion seem to take place all on the same afternoon, such is the tightness of continuity between episodes; while the UNIT era definitely appears to take place in "real time", despite disagreements about how far into the future said time is taking place.

It's possible that this explains Rory's "I'm thirty-one" remark in "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship", although not Brian's lack of incredulity, if Amy and Rory have been "doubling up" their time by having the Doctor return them to Earth "later that same day".

(And isn't that at least bending the Laws of Time? Oh well, there's no one left to spank him now. Except his wife!)

So what we have here is a mash-up between a series of character vignettes without a plot and a crude cartoon of old-style Doctor Who each getting in the way of the other.

(Was it just me, by the way, who thought that "Pond Life" was made from off-cuts from this episode? The fact that the first four "minisodes" are a minute each and that this under-runs by about four minutes? But it's not like "The Power of Three" needed more Ood-on-the-loo related fun, so why was Chibnall writing this instead of a much-needed explanation of what happed to the cube-faced porters or why they were kidnapping patients from Rory's hospital? And, whatever the reason for kidnapping them, the victims are definitely left behind to get exploded along with the Centauri cruiser Shakri spaceship. Which is a bit harsh.)

The character scenes are trying to tell us about death or separation being forever and that's directly contradicted by the Moffat-lite "everybody lives" invasion story. And lovely as Kate Stewart is – and she is lovely – she's still a bit of sleight of hand by a writer tossing some continuity red meat to the wolves of fandom to cover his lack of coherence.

Finally, if this was the power of three, why make such a fuss about the significance of seven? Seven minute countdown, seven portals, seven Shakri ships (which we never see). And why, like so much in this episode, does it not go anywhere?

It's not awful, but it is a mess. A sign of a writer, and a series perhaps, in transition, not yet either one thing or another.

Next Time... Angels 3... Doctor nil. Yes, it's time to "Blink" one last time, as River narrates her own flashbacks and the Ponds finally get permanently killed by living happily ever after to death. Prepare to be clubbed over the head with the meta-textuality of "The Angels Take Manhattan". Also, the Statue of Liberty... give me strength!