...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Day 4465: DOCTOR WHO: It's That Time Again...


There's a week to go until the new series of Doctor Who is on the tellybox, and you're THRILLED with anticipation. Will it be another "Rose"? Or another "Time and the Rani"?

Well, to spare you the agonies... we're reviewing "Time and the Rani".
I just don't get why this story is so reviled.

Yes, sure, at times it's almost literally batshit crazy; it's by Pip'n'Jane Baker so the dialogue's practically unsayable; the Rani's plot is off-the-scale berserk; there's another tedious collection of (all human) geniuses; and it's set in a quarry.

But it is quite a nice quarry.

Seriously, it's visually interesting to look at, full of unusual shapes and colours, caves and pools of water. And the Rani's deathtraps are exciting and make sense (yes, they bounce you around and make a lot of unnecessary-seeming sound and fury – she's keeping the local population intimidated and these are a terror weapon). The special effects used to create the Rani's laboratory/fortress (never mind what it looks like) are pretty convincing, and okay maybe it does look like she's subcontracted Hammer for the architecture, but at least the Castle Dracula look is in keeping with her batty assistants.

Seriously, though, "Time and the Rani" is fast, colourful, never short of plot developments. The Rani clearly likes to "drezzz for the occasion", and can apparently do so in next to no time. It keeps moving, even when it's moving in circles to pad out the third episode. Above all it's hilarious.

From the immensely quotable opening line – oh you know which one – to the fact that Sylv is clearly having a whale of a time from scrambling his proverbs to jangling his spoons but head and shoulderpads above it all, Kate O'Mara as the Rani in disguise as Bonnie Langford.

Fresh from the glamour of playing Joan Colins' super-bitch sister Caress Colby on "Dynasty", dressed in white leg-warmers and an enormous orange wig, and doing a bouncy, perky walk to match the bouncy perky accent, she is an absolute hoot. Yes, it may be very low humour – slapstick, boss-humiliation and puns ("Not frilled?") – but I happen to like low humour and I'll forgive a show a lot if it makes me laugh as much as this does.

Most of the first two episodes see the Doctor in the Rani's power, under the influence of her amnesia drug, believing her to be his companion (and the innocent Melanie to be the amoral Time Lady).

Or does he? (Clue: he really does.)

However, especially with hindsight, given what we know about the arch-manipulator the chess-player on a thousand boards, it's terribly tempting to suppose that the Doctor sees through the Rani's simplistic substitution... damn, this alliteration must be catching! I'm so sorry ...sees through her plan at once and spends the rest of his time winding her up until he can work out what she's up to. Or possibly just because he thinks it's funny Perhaps his subconscious mind is thinking for him – or even his autonomic brain – while is consciousness is a bit frazzled?.

Certainly, the humour of "mop my brow" and him playing slapstick with the spoons over her pastel-bloused chest depends largely on the humiliation of the evil genius having put herself in this position. Mind you, "outsmarted by her own disguise" is straight out of "Carry On... Don't Lose Your Head". Come to think of it, so are the various iterations of "trussed-up by her own sidekick".

I mean, the alternative is that he behaves like a moron for two episodes because that's the way that Pip'n'Jane think he should be characterised...


...but alas, Alex points out that he treats Mel with suspicion and (clumsily inept) hostility. Why would he do that if he'd cottoned on to the truth? Actually, he carries it way beyond what's reasonable. Once she starts claiming to be Mel, Melanie! he could at least consider giving her the benefit of the doubt rather than continuing to insist she must be the Rani. He's clearly already got doubts about the false Mel ("Why was she dressed like you?"). But although he's the one to suggest putting it to the test, it's by way of proving his point not settling the argument, and he's visibly surprised that Mel has only a single, human pulse.

Clearly, the joke is on him.

So this is "Carry On Doctor Who?", a bowdlerised, humorous version of the popular television show from the BBC, a bit like that "Curse of the Fatal Death" (whatever happened to the writer of that?), taking the clich├ęs of the series and repeating them because it's funny to see the same things over and over again, isn't it? Isn't it?

The regeneration, thanks to Colin Baker's dignified refusal to play patsy (and/or his justifiably stroppy suggestion that Michael Grade could go try one of the more challenging tantric positions), is almost a deconstruction of the process. We all know that what the lead actor is replaced, the Doctor "dies" and comes back so BANG there he is gone. With, charmingly, that wretched exercise bike lying in pieces on the floor behind him (suggesting that (a) this is immediately following on from "Carrot Juice Carrot Juice Carrot Juice" no matter what Big Finish tell you and (b) it was the exercise wot killed him. Think on!).

The way that the "new costume scene" is played like an old gag that we'll be pleased to see again, it's almost like it's commenting on the way that the show has been trading on its own form and legend. It's funny because of how badly unfunny it is(!).

"It looked like you were losing control!"

In fact, I think it's only Tom who does the whole dressing up in silly outfits game; the first three never bothered, while Peter took it much more seriously, Paul and Matt follow Twerpee in stealing from a hospital, and Davy T has just the most fabulous wardrobe imaginable short of Narnia. Nevertheless, it's rolled out with the inevitability of that double-taking bloke with the wine bottle in the Roger Moore Bond movies.

If it was deliberate it would be genius worthy of sticking in one of the Rani's damn collections.

What is it with Pip'n'Jane and walk-on parts for extras dolled up as "geniuses"? If they were actually meeting the Doctor and bouncing off him, showing that he's even smarter than they are... yes, like, er, "The Shakespeare Code"... then there might be a point, but they never even have lines. And it's not like Einstein is short of an understanding of time... or if he is then what he needs to unlearn makes even Bristol from "Shada" look smart and would surely screw up the Rani's big red rubber time brain more than the Doctor does.

Oh yes, the big red rubber time brain. Job lot going spare on the Ood Sphere was there?

And speaking of the Tetraps – who at least don't speak backwards as they do in the novelisation – they are interestingly conceived, a race of oleaginous but ambitious Uriah Heeps (as referenced by lead Tetrap Urak's name). Okay so most of them spend their time just literally hanging about or shuffling menacingly, or eat pink, frothy "plasma". Okay, the man-in-furry-suit execution leaves a little to be desired. But the quadri-ocular vision is a neat idea well realised.

In fact, both "alien" races (okay, non-human-looking, in a story where the only human character is Melanie Bush. If you can call her human. Or a character.) have something interesting to say about them. There's a hint that the Lakertyans are indolent, basking reptiles, like upright iguanas if their crests were furry. A more competent script could have developed that, possibly connecting it to Beyus' (Donald Pickering) dignified if vaguely inexplicable policy of doing nothing. Or strengthened the satire: why does ultimate Eighties Girl Mel never end up in the Lakertyan Leisure Centre – sorry, Centre of Leisure? Surely the place is crying out for a collision between their masterly inactivity and her aerobicize mania?

But if we're talking taking the biscuit for missing the bleedin' obvious: the story starts with the Rani shooting down the TARDIS using her enormous great Chekov's Navigational Distortion Gun. She then attaches it to her console table, literally slap in the middle of every scene set in the laboratory, which is most of the rest of episodes one, two and three, and then when it comes to the climax and it's vital that the Doctor prevents the Rani's missile from striking the Strange Matter asteroid... for some reason he leaves it stuck to the tables and dickers about with a random circuit-board and crosses his fingers.

And these people were seriously in charge of the British writers' guild?

And yet, for all this, it's very clearly a Seventh Doctor story. The politics isn't subtle – the Rani as big Randian archetype, a huge monomaniac exploiter who's buggered up the local culture through her self-serving self-sufficient ego trip (the clue is the big red rubber time brain) – but it wears its heart on its sleeve with pride. All that goofing around may just be goofing around, but you can see in it the origins of the Seventh Doctor's misdirection and gamesmanship. And at the end, he doesn't just blow up his enemy... he talks to her.

"Time and the Rani" is not the worst Doctor Who ever got. It is the point where the series looked at the worst it could be and said "NO!"

The worst excess of the Saward era was not the violence or the grinding machismo or the bleak nihilism or the undermining of the Doctor's character at every opportunity and against every best effort of two fine actors. No, the worst of it was that it was so boring. Po-faced, slow-paced, crushingly banal amorality plays with – yes, I realise the irony for old Sixy – no colour.

"Time and the Rani" is at least determined to be fun, exploding with energy from the first instant with Technicolor CGI which looks cartoonish today, and even at the time looked technically inferior to the opening space station of the previous year, but the difference is it was experimentally cutting edge, risk-taking and out there again. Then the stunning CG title sequence ("Don't wink!") and a version of the theme (oh dear god Keff, I haven't even touched on what this story sounds like, and yet somehow, somehow... it's so crazy it somehow works) that tells us to forget any trialroom longeurs, this is going to be all pace and energy.

Yes, it's anarchic. Sometimes it's so chaotic it descends into gibberish. And god knows the writers are certifiably gaga. But there is so much creativity sparking here, from the sharpness of the script editor, to the ambition of the direction to the enthusiasm of the special effects team to the designer to the insane bombast of the musician to through it all and weaving it all together the performance of the lead actor who is visibly pulling this show up out of the dirt as we watch him do it.

And everything, everything that has happened since comes out of what they start to make in this story. New series via New Adventures, it all begins here. Reviled? This story should be revered.

Getting the finest modern writer in Britain and a budget of a million pounds, the enormous talents of Christopher Eccleston and pulling a stunning surprise Billie Piper out of the bag to make "Rose" turn out okay... yeah, fair enough mate.

But making "Time and the Rani" even work at all... if you can do that you can do anything. If you can do that, then you can do everything. Sylvester Percy James Patrick Kent-Smith McCoy, I salute you.

Next Time: That face rings a bell. Jenna-Louise Coleman finally jumps aboard as Clara the Third as the Golden Anniversary half-season opens with "The Bells of St John"


I recently listened to the start of the latest Big Finish trilogy, staring the ever-wonderful Colin alongside Bonnie in "The Wrong Doctors", a tale of tangled timelines and how time changes Doctor number six.

It occurred to me that – though you'd never want to do such a thing – if they were to even write the really final end of the Sixth Doctor then the final Sixth Doctor story should be called – not "Spiral Scratch" with all due respect to Gary Russell, nor even "Time's Champion" pace Craig Hinton – "Time and the Doctor".

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Day 4462: Gideon Adopts Plan P for Placebo


The mission: cure the patient without spending any money at all. Time to roll out the sugar pills!

Yes it's Budget time again and Master Gideon's set himself the very high bar of not repeating last year's omnishambles.

So it was a very Gordon Brown Budget, I'm afraid.

Lots of hand-waving to "prove" the government's hitting its borrowing targets (by massaging the timing of a few payments and - quite rightly actually - clamping down on the end of year "we've got to spend the budget" splurge); a bit of rearranging the deckchairs; and a rabbit-from-the-hat ending.

It's possible that the Budget might be more interesting in the detail (or even unravel the way last year's did) but so far the story is that it's a non-story. People are more enervated by the fact that it got "leaked" to the Standard. Or rather the Standard broke the embargo - comparisons with the "leak to an evening paper" as the BBC coyly puts it are silly: this came out minutes before the Chancellor stood up rather than 24 hours ahead, and was hardly going to trip the markets or cause a rush on beer!

Unlike Mr Frown, of course, Master Gideon doesn't have the benefit of a universally benevolent economic climate (haha) and so had to take it on the chin a couple of times for yet again reducing the expected growth for 2013 (halved to a mere 0.6%) and yet another year's deferral in the time when the debt mountain hits its peak.

The main measures for growth were:
(a) unifying the Corporation Tax rates at the 20% level. Does very little for home-grown start-ups but is designed to lure bigger corporations to move or stay here;

(b) a bit of Enron-style off-balance-sheet accounting, where the government guarantees the deposits for buyers of new build houses (quite clever that - costs almost no money, apart from a few cases where they default in negative equity, but presses the banks to lend for new construction, rather than merely driving more money into existing houses); and

(c) an extra three billion for capital investment programmes (although that's rather more Brownian smoke and mirrors, because in order to not spoil the progress on the borrowing front - and in order not to give the tedious Bully Balls another stick to beat him with - that money doesn't start until 2016, which is a bit late in the cycle if the economy is supposed to be in full recovery by 2017!).

The additional help for childcare (announced before the Budget) is welcome and might help get parents who want to work back into the economy. And (couple of smaller wins for the Lib Dems) no further cuts in the welfare budget and we will keep to the international aid target.

The magician's rabbit this year came in the form of a £2000 off Employer's National Insurance (paid for in a robbing Peter to pay Paul way by increased National Insurance payments arising from the abolishing of "opting out" of the state second pension that comes with the new flat rate universal pension). In a reverse of the main beneficiary, this time he is giving more to small business, since two grand from a company the size of Starbucks or Amazon or Royal Bank that We Own of Scotland is peanuts off their NI bill, but could be quite significant to someone employing just one or two people.

And he bought some - literally - cheap popularity by taking a penny off a pint. (Actually it costs more like 7p off because he cancelled the +6p escalator.) That's surely a nod of apology for last year's "pasty tax" fiasco. 'Cos Gideon's deffo got the "common touch" back now. Sigh.

Likewise, he cancelled the 3p rise in duty on fuel. (Though bear in mind that increasing fuel prices pay a windfall in VAT so he's most likely getting the extra revenue anyway – after all, why screw the public yourself when you can let the energy companies do it for you.)

The tragedy is that even after all the austerity (or at least the whining about austerity - where "cuts" mostly mean below inflation rises, so "less" really is "more"!) there is still a gap - a deficit - of £108 billion. For an idea of the scale of the problem, that's about as much money as the government raises in VAT. Or in National Insurance. So, a VAT rate of 40% or +10% on the NI should cover it(!)

Mr Milipede responded with just another tiresome rant about economic failure. And a childish five minutes where he stood there saying "hands up if you don't benefit from the millionaire's tax cut" (and "no, it's not about me" when challenged on his own earnings by hecklers). I think I'm right in saying that the Cabinet DON'T benefit from the 50% to 45% tax cut because the first thing the Coalition did on coming to power was to cut ministers' salaries so now none of them earn more than £150 grand plus they're all banned from moonlighting while they're in the Cabinet.

Labour really are gambling on their recession continuing indefinitely now. The time for them to develop any other rational critique or alternative plan is fast running out. If the economy does start to upturn before the election then Labour will have not left themselves time to introduce or explain what their plans in response to the economy getting better would be. Mr Balls had a piece in the Standard last week which he introduced with that old saw about "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome" and then went on without irony to suggest once again the same "plan for jobs and growth" that he's been pushing since 2008 (i.e. "cut VAT, borrow more, go on a spending spree").

Within the bounds of what is possible given the state of the economy and amount of debt and deficit that we inherited, the Coalition actually HAVE been trying to vary the response to the ongoing lack of recovery, trying to shift spending around to invest where we can. It's millions rather than billions, of course, because unlike Labour we don't have the money to splash.

The idea, I'm sure you remember, is to try to find that ELUSIVE SPARK that will relight the economic fire, to hit that MAGIC FORMULA where confidence starts to return, and once confidence returns then we get the growth and recovery.

In that way the house guarantee scheme "Help to Buy" is more than just a clear echo of the "Right to Buy" slogan; it's an attempt to repeat the accidental success of the Eighties policy that started the yuppie revolution. Get more people buying new houses, meaning more people BUILDING new houses, maybe that will get the money circulation pumping again.

Oh, and there was something about achieving a key Liberal Democrat promise a year early.

Next stop: raising the personal allowance so that no one on minimum wage pays any income tax at all.

(Mind you, and I'll just float this out there, I might prefer to start pushing people back into paying tax by RAISING the minimum wage to the level of the LIVING WAGE. There's certainly evidence that the minimum wage is so low that raising it won't hit jobs, and an increase in minimum wage is of more benefit to the very lowest paid than raising a tax allowance that they don't earn enough to reach. Plus sharing the proceeds of that increase 80:20 with the government might improve tax receipts and so help close that deficit a bit too.)

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Day 4446: The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge


Daddy Alex has challenged Daddy Richard to come up with a brief statement of Liberal Democrat belief in fewer than a hundred and fifty words.

But stuff that, it's MY diary, so I'M having a go...

At a pinch, I THINK I can trim our core message down to:

“The Liberal Democrats stand for the freedom to live your life enjoying the rewards for your own endeavour*, governed by your own choices – with equality before the law; without harming others.”

(*and before anyone else has a go, that's "fruits of your labours" translated into language a Conservatory might understand!)

But I would wrote MORE than that (slightly) because... well. that's what I DO.

Okay, but here are reasons too:

(a) when Daddy Alex wrote “freedom for every individual”, I immediately thought of the way he always says that Liberalism works in EVER-EXPANDING CIRCLES, starting with the individual, but linking to family and community and wider and wider to the whole world. So I wanted to add that in.

(b) I wanted to make those circles go through TIME as well as SPACE, because that means including protection for the next generation, which is where the need for GREEN ACTION and FIXING the DEFICIT both come from.

and (c) I definitely wanted to include that bit from the Preamble about "poverty, ignorance, and conformity", because that in turn is a kind of a reference to Mr Beverage's evil “Five Giants”: Squalor, Ignorance, Want and Dec, Idleness, and Disease.

Though I suspect that NOWADAYS we combine into "Poverty" the giants of "Squalor" and "Want" and "Idleness" (by which of course Mr B meant "Joblessness" not "Laziness", little clue for Conservatories like Master Gideon "workers v shirkers" Osborne and Hard Labourites like Mr Liam "strivers v skivers" Byrne there); that "Sickness" means supporting the NHS which all Parties did at its creation and which all Parties still do (no matter what Hard Labour hubristically think about it being "theirs"); and I'm rather glad that we've added the evil of "Conformity" to the list.

So, I end up with:

“The Liberal Democrats stand for freedom.

Freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity.

Freedom for every individual, family, group, community, society or nation.

Freedom from inheriting the financial and environmental mistakes of earlier generations.

Freedom to live your life enjoying the rewards for your own endeavour, governed by your own choices – with equality before the law; without harming others.

To make that freedom real needs both fairness and practicality; opportunity and compassion: an economy that works, but where everyone also pays their fair share.

The Liberal Democrats believe in a better future. That’s why Liberal Democrats are working to build a fairer, greener society and a stronger economy, enabling every person to live the life they want.”

I’d also add the following riders as “derived” beliefs that follow logically from the above:

On government:
Liberal Democrats believe that government should act to protect these freedoms, but cannot be a blanket solution to solve all problems. We also accept that government itself can be a threat to freedom, that no government always knows best, so everyone must have a better say in decisions.

On taxes:
We accept that governments need to raise taxes – in order to relieve poverty, to supply education, to provide a safe and supportive society, to nurture and sustain the environment, and to encourage personal growth and freedom of expression – so we say these should be raised as fairly and as simply as possible, with a tax system that is progressive, understandable and works to release locked up wealth to work for the nation.

On Welfare:
We believe that everyone should be treated with dignity, protected when circumstances mean that they are unemployed, supported when they are unable to work, through age or disability, healed when they are sick. The Welfare State should free people to live lives free from the tyranny of dependence on their employer, making the labour market work for the individual while protecting from any failures of the free market, and enabling society to flourish by not wasting the potential of any individual.

So, the shortest form is 30 words, but the full thing has cut down Daddy's 158 words to, er, 323.

That WAS what he wanted, wasn't it?

Right, now I TAGSIE...

Auntie Jennie (Chaotic Good) for passion and heart;

Mr Mark Reckons (Lawful Neutral – for his saintly forbearance on House of Comments) for rock solid pragmatism and unshaking principle;

and I WAS going to tag Auntie Caron (Lawful Lovely) for the biggest smile and the soul of the Lib Dems... but Daddy got there first, so I will pick Uncle Andrew Hickey (Chaotic Sensible) for wisdom and sticking with the least worst Party instead!

Monday, March 04, 2013

Day 4444: Let's Do the Conservatory Time Warp. Again.


Mr Balloon: It's NOT just a lurch to the right!

Ms Theresa "Hands on her hips?" Nuts-in-May: Let's ban IMMIGRANTS!

Minister of Justice Chris "Penal? Thrust" Grayling: Let's abolish HUMAN RIGHTS!

Mr "I've been driven Insane" Balloon: Conservatories will stick to our guns. And speaking of guns... how about shooting some burglars?

In related news, Mr William Vague says: "We, ahh-ahh, cannot rule out ahh-ahh-arming rebels in the future..."

"...particularly," he might have added, "if they've, ahh-ahh, travelled back in time from, ahh-ahh, the future war with the Internet."

Mr Nigel Farrago said: "I vill take the Conservatory's clothes, their money and their motocycle..." after appearing NAKED... to anyone looking at his policies.

I'm sorry, that should read "after appearing by timey-wimey effect", obviously. NO ONE wants to see Mr Farrago Naked! Naked racism. Naked homophobia. Naked msogny. NO ONE wants to see THAT!