Wednesday, 24 December 2008

"Danish Kiddie-Fiddler Ring Infiltrates Toy Packaging Shock"

Twenty-four hours until Christmas Day. Thirty-two hours until I find out how badly my relatives have misjudged my personality while attempting to think of a suitable gift, thirty-six hours until I have to ask myself whether I really am going to bother roasting something for lunch rather than settling for a tube of Pringles with a picture of holly on the wrapper, forty hours until I find myself joining in with every single word of The Two Ronnies. Just under forty-three hours until "Voyage of the Damned", the BBC's new vehicle for Bernard Cribbins.

Oh, all right. Since we're on the subject… at 6:50 on Christmas Day, Film Four will be showing Time Bandits, which may literally be the worst piece of scheduling in television history. Time Bandits is a wonderful thing, but is there anybody that might want to watch an eccentric timetravel- based comedy-adventure who won't be otherwise engaged at 6:50 on Christmas Day? Even if a few Film Four viewers have somehow lost track of the time and forgotten to switch over to BBC1, surely they're going to find themselves thinking "hang on, I'm sure there was something I meant to do" during the sequence set on board the Titanic?

My great-grandfather was booked to travel on the Titanic, as part of a transatlantic business trip. He pulled out at the last minute. Our family history doesn't record why he pulled out, but if you're familiar with "Rose", then you'll understand why I find this amusing. Perhaps he was talked out of it by a big-eared Mancunian. And I see that in the weekend papers, one of the few still-living Titanic survivors has objected to the BBC's lack of Christmas Day tact, although she doesn't really seem to have captured the mood of the nation.

Given that the Christmas Doctor Who is the BBC's highest-yield warhead, it's interesting to note how the other channels have decided to deal with it. ITV has elected to show The African Queen, a film which could happily be screened on any Sunday afternoon without causing a fuss (thus wisely avoiding any attempt at a ratings war… it's like 1977 all over again). It works both ways, though: BBC3's Doctor Who Confidential, which is usually scheduled to immediately follow its parent-programme, begins half an hour after Doctor Who ends. And it's not as if BBC3 has anything better to do at eight o'clock, because it's showing a repeat of Football Gaffes Galore. But then you realise… at eight o'clock, ITV is presenting us with Harry Hill's Christmas TV Burp. Has the BBC noticed this, and delayed Confidential by half an hour, knowing that Doctor Who and Harry Hill share an awfully large chunk of the audience? This is, after all, a man who opened his very first show on Channel 4 by wrestling a giant maggot.

Like any good warhead, Doctor Who makes a big bang while covering the surrounding area with fallout, and this Christmas it's hard to look at any page of the (haaaa-lle-lu-jah) Radio Times without seeing traces of its influence. We note that the BBC's other "big" programmes this season include The Catherine Tate Show and The Shadow in the North with Billie Piper, neither of which is technically supposed to be Doctor Who-related, but the RT has thoughtfully put the interviews on the same page anyway. We'll gloss over David Tennant's appearance in Extras - a programme which, in all other respects, has a cast list that could only be worse if it had more than one copy of Ricky Gervais in it (in much the same way that ITV is marking New Year's Eve with a comedy-drama starring James Dreyfus in two different roles, i.e. a programme that's twice as bad as you might possibly imagine) - and instead turn our attention to New Year's Day, when we get BBC1's new adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, written by leading-dramatist-turned-soft-core-hack Andrew Davies. We might expect plenty of period stripping-off, with no actual genitalia but lots of male buttocks thrusting in and out of multi-layered underwear. I mention this only because Mark Gatiss is in it. Surely, he isn't going to be doing any deflowering? His chat-up technique in "The Lazarus Experiment" was bad enough, but now I'm trying to imagine him seducing a nineteenth-century virgin, and all I can think of is Briss the Butcher. Licking his lips. In close-up.

And since I'm not newsgroup-formatted, it was only this week that I learned of the existence of the on-line Doctor Who advent calendar, which provides a daily ration of photos, interviews, exclusive clips, downloadable chocolates and special coupons promising you a place at God's right hand if you watch the programme on Christmas Day. If I'd known about this sooner, then I might not have bothered writing 15,000+ words in the last three weeks: compared to footage of Kylie Minogue larking about in a maid's outfit, I can see how a JPEG of a box of Lego or a group shot of Android, Cyborg and Muton might seem insufficiently festive. (Oh, perhaps I should explain today's picture. Yes, this is a real Lego set. It celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the Lego Brick, and is a modernised version of the "classic" Lego Town from 1958, so the leering old man represents a grown-up / grown-old version of someone who might have bought the original '50s models as a ten-year-old. Out of context, though, he just looks like a paedophile laying bait.)

So as the Doctor Who Christmas Special approaches, we simply have to acknowledge that Russell T. Davies not only has the best job in the world, but the best job that's ever existed in the whole of human history. Some people have criticised my occasional bitterness towards the series by claiming that I'm just jealous, to which I respond: well, duh. We should consider that Big Russell not only has executive control over Doctor Who as a concept, but access to a multi-squillion-pound budget with which to depict anything in the entire span of space and time, almost on a whim. Even Hollywood executives don't have this sort of reckless power. The only person in / on television who's in a similarly enviable position is Gok Wan, easily-anagrammed presenter of Channel 4's How to Look Good Naked, whose job description involves touching up the wobbly parts of overfed women while they nod seriously and listen to his sage council on what bras to wear. But since Wan is (presumably) gay, it's safe to assume that he has no conception of how lucky he is.

With great power comes great responsibility: this is what I was getting at during the "Unquiet Dead" farrago, and if it was true of Gatiss, then it's twentyfold-true of Big Russell. This man has more influence over the minds of the nation's youth than anybody else in contemporary British culture - go on, prove me wrong - and according to the interviews, he even has the ability to make Kylie wee herself. ITV fears him. Ant and Dec have known his wrath. He may not be as famous as David Beckham, but then, nobody actually listens to what David Beckham says. Fortunately he tends to use this power for good, or at least, to say things like "I know, let's put rhinos on the moon!". But this doesn't mean we should take our eyes off the bugger, because…

…because even if power doesn't always corrupt, then showbiz invariably does. I know I'm not alone in feeling that "The Sound of Drums" marks a very specific jumping of the shark, yet apart from the relative dullness of it, two things seem especially worrying. One is that although it continues the twenty-first-century Doctor Who obsession with stores set in something like "the real world", the programme's idea of what constitutes "the real world" is becoming increasingly slanted towards the point-of-view of people who work in television. In much the same way that Jennifer Saunders is no longer capable of doing anything other than making jokes about meeting minor celebrities at BBC TV centre, Doctor Who's two default methods of establishing a contemporary British setting are (a) guest appearances by famous people playing themselves, and (b) set-pieces involving any event where TV cameras might be present (note that apart from the regulars and semi-regulars we already know, there are no modern-day characters in "The Sound of Drums" other than media figures and Saxon's co-conspirators). In other words, the Doctor's natural environment these days is a BAFTA awards ceremony. No other Doctor would seriously have considered putting on a dinner jacket for "Rise of the Cybermen" or "The Lazarus Experiment", because no other Doctor belongs on the Red Carpet. Tom Baker in
formalwear would have been unconscionable; David Tennant in formalwear seems perfectly normal.

Once you realise this, Tennant's appearance in Extras is rather unsettling, because you begin to see that the two programmes are converging on the same territory. "Real world" stories are supposed to draw in the viewers by giving the adventures-in-space-and-time concept some grounding in the world we recognise, but the Britain we see in "The Sound of Drums" just alienates us. Even if there are TV studios, press interviews and high-society get-togethers, there are very few actual people, so it's no more familiar to us than Mangooska Six in the ninetyeighth century. Using actual BBC presenters and perfect mock-ups of News 24 bulletins (starting with "Rose", but most notably in "Aliens of London") was clever, yet we've now reached the point where modern-day Britain doesn't seem to contain anything else, a version of the country in which TV is the only reality. We know that the Doctor, Martha and Captain Jack are in trouble, because their faces are on the television news; we know that the death of the President of the USA is a turning-point, because it's broadcast to the whole world; even the Master has started taunting the Doctor via the BBC, and just to rub it in, there's a bomb in the TV set.

If this were a story about television, a la "The Long Game", then this might make sense. But it isn't: the Master controls the population with a spurious hypno-satellite, not by manipulating the media, which blows a hole in the idea that this might be a satire. It's just how the programmemakers see the world these days. Similarly, even those who actually like Catherine Tate would have difficulty arguing that she can provide the voice of One of Us, which is theoretically what the companion is there for. She's been hired specifically because she's a Television Celebrity, so there's automatically a gulf between herself and the audience.

And if we're talking about a series that's rapidly becoming lost in showbiz, then this leads us on to the second problem with "The Sound of Drums": Ann Widdecombe is an evil Tory bigot, while Sharon Osbourne is a vicious parasitic brood-harpy who drinks the spinal fluid of little children. If only metaphorically. The point is, I'm having problems with the irony threshold here. These people are clearly - as it were - servants of the Jagrafess, people who might reasonably have been depicted as The Enemy during the Eccleston season. When did they become Friends
of Doctor Who?

That's enough cynicism. On a lighter note, this is also the time of year when we play the two key Doctor Who guessing-games, the "Who's Going to Be Next Year's Big Historical Guest-Star?" game and the "Name a Contemporary Character Actor Who's Likely to Turn Up in a Minor Role" game. However, we already know that 2008's Historical Guest Star duties are going to be shared by Agatha Christie and a great big volcano. (I'm hoping the Pompeii story will be a historical farce a la "The Romans", in which the Doctor and a young Captain Jack run around the streets of the city on Volcano Day but somehow never meet. Please, God, any excuse for a historical that doesn't have sodding aliens in it. Surely, CGI lava is as big an audience-grabber as CGI monsters?) As for the Character Actor game… this takes some skill, and requires us to think about the kind of television-friendly performer who's likely to move in the same circles as the production team. After the 2005 season, my guess for 2006 was Louise Delamere; I was close, but she eventually ended up in Torchwood instead. Last year, my guess for 2007 was Lucy Montgomery; again, I was on the right lines, since Debbie Chazen (the other one from Tittybangbang) is in "Voyage of the Damned". For 2008… how about absolutely anybody who was in Oliver Twist? Although personally, I'm still amazed that Celia Imrie has managed to avoid the series for so long.

I will, of course, continue to act like the frustrated conscience of Doctor Who fandom throughout the coming year. Because some f***er's got to do it.

And a Merry Cribbins to all of you at home.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Lawrence Miles is On Holiday

The Wilderness Years: Part One

I’m in Wales. What am I doing in Wales?

Not even one of the cosmopolitan parts, not even the kind of generic, terraformed urban landscape that might double for London in the event of a Cyberman invasion. It’s... quieter here. I’m in a big house in the middle of a duck-green space that my child-self likes to call “the country”, which is like the “outside” we get in cities, but without the adverts. The nearest settlement is a village, so removed from consumer society as I recognise it that the (only) shop doesn’t sell Pringles. I wouldn’t be able to buy them even if it did, since there’s nothing as technologically gauche as a cashtill here. To get to the shop, I have to walk through a field of cows: at least, I believed them to be cows, having admired their work in episode one of “Image of the Fendahl”. But now I’m told that they’re bullocks, this being the name given to docile, castrated bulls. It seems cruel to turn a creature into a eunuch, and then give it a name that sounds so much like the most popular term for testicles. But the atmosphere of menace around them makes it hard for me to feel any sympathy. When I walked past them today – flanked by them on either side of the pathway, close enough to hear the flies in search of the next ready-meal – they stopped their grazing and stared at me, turning their heads as I passed, never looking away and never blinking. Then they started following me. Not following me the way nice animals do, the way a cat would, if it thought it might get food or attention. Following me the way a gang of adolescents would, if its members wanted to mark out their territory but didn’t have the nerve for a proper stabbing.

Stabbings...! There was another stabbing the day before I left London, not much more than a hundred yards from my house, outside a notoriously violent pub which someone with no foresight (or, just as likely, someone with both foresight and irony) decided to call The Flowers. To escape all that, and then be stampeded by sexually-mutilated cattle, would be the stupidest possible way to die.

In the daytime, I work on the laptop I’ve been given. Sometimes I go for walks in the forest, where I’ve learned to detect the presence of wildlife by the smell of badger-shit. I don’t feel close to the forest. I feel closer to the old yellow diggers that sit rotting outside the farms, some of them not used in decades, now overgrown with vines and gradually being dragged into the earth. Nothing, not even the broken statue of Ozymandias in the poem, is as poignant as the corpse of a JCB being ingested by the dirt and the high grass. At night, I try to study The Iliad and try not to giggle at the homoeroticism (not all of it deliberate, although finding "accidental" references to sodomy in Greek classical literature seems as unlikely as finding "accidental" camp in anything that involves John Barrowman). There’s obvious, inevitable humour in reading that Achilles was promised “seven Lesbians” by the Greek army – seven being an odd number, reminding me of the joke that an orgy is so-called because if there’s an odd number of participants, then the one who doesn’t end up with a partner gets to say 'aw, gee' – but it’s fairly clear in this context that “Lesbians” means “women from Lesbos”, apparently noted for their skills in housewifery. More striking, though, is the couplet from Book Fourteen:

Mean space flew Somnus to the ships, found Neptune out, and said:
‘Now cheerfully assist the Greeks, and give them glorious head...’

I assume this doesn’t happen on-screen in “The Myth Makers”, although it’s hard to judge from the telesnaps.

I’m lonely. Isolation is one of the reasons I was brought here, but there’s a sting to it: I wasn’t expecting to have access to the internet. This means that I didn’t bring any e-mail addresses with me, which means in turn that I can watch the rest of the world on a flattened, luminous screen, but not communicate with anybody I know who happens to live there. I also miss the presence of people – real-life, wrapped-in-skin, all-around-you people - which surprises me, given how little I seem to like them in my native environment. But, oh, yes... women especially. I miss the overfed Chav-girls of the suburbs, slouching nonchalantly outside Asda with their chip-fat breasts bulging out of their ill-advised T-shirts, waiting for someone over the age of twenty-one to buy them vodka. I wonder what my local high-street must look like now, in this weather, in this heat. I imagine boiling flesh straining out of every opening, like a side of ham being forced through a fishnet stocking. Outside this house, the only women I’ve seen here have been the two girls who work in the shop that knows no Pringle. One is plump, Welsh, pierced and smiling, the other pallid, red-haired, Birmingham-accented and almost as out-of-place as myself. They’re both adorable. I don’t like getting near them, of course. In the country, you’re always noticed: I hate being noticed. Perhaps that’s the prime reason I don’t belong here. Standing in a field, there’s no hope of camouflage, let alone any chance of letching.

Nobody else who’s staying in this house has any interest in Doctor Who, which is merciful. If nothing else, then I won’t have to sit through “Silence in the Library” in the television room tomorrow. I’d only complain about the lazy script-editing, and nobody else would understand a word I was saying. Television: when I came here, I didn’t think I’d see any television. Instead, I see it, but don’t have much control over it. I’ve watched every episode of Big Brother this week, although my interest in it ended yesterday, for reasons I don’t think I need to explain. The only thing I’ve insisted on watching (alone) was a topical comedy show on BBC2, purely because somebody I know was on the panel. She spoke four sentences in the entire half-hour, and her presence – all 5’2” of it – seemed to get lost amongst her aggressively tall, aggressively masculine co-comedians. I got the sense that she felt rather intimidated, but I could just be projecting, given that this is exactly how she makes me feel. The poor, short-arsed little genius.

There’s a copy of one of my books on the shelf in my room, as well as a Lego minifigure of Darth Maul, and I didn’t bring either of them with me. I’m guessing that the former was put there because they knew I was coming, but that the latter is just a coincidence. Because in this country, you’re never more than ten feet from a Lego minifigure of Darth Maul.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Week Thirteen-And-Then-Some: Mission Debrief

If you thought what happened to Donna was sad...

As a 36-year-old obsessive who's now classified as being at the less intense end of the "Autism Spectrum" (a recent invention, which replaces the now-obsolete Spastic ZX-81), I've increasingly found myself able to look back at the cultural history of the '70s, '80s and '90s, and see just how badly the last three decades have been mis-remembered. I now appear to be living in a curious and unfamiliar world where everybody always said that Han Solo was the cool one out of Star Wars, and sci-fi fans immediately acknowledged Yoda as a modern icon instead of shouting "he's meant to be a Jedi Master, but he's just a shrieky Muppet!" for the first three years; where the whole of mid-1980s society revolved around The Breakfast Club, and viewers were shocked and appalled by The Word instead of saying "Christ, this is shit" but watching it anyway because they were too stoned to change the channel; where Kurt Cobain was a legendary figure even before he proved that he really, really did have a gun, and Oasis were the epitome of BritPop instead of the slug-bodied MOR behemoth that rolled over BritPop and flattened it forever; where Davros was always a ratings-winner, and we watched Doctor Who from behind the sofa instead of pressing our faces up against the screen.

This isn't just the result of all the clips shows and nostalgia exercises, in which minor celebrities who half-remember something from a conversation they had in a pub in 1986 are allowed to re-write the last thirty years in fast-setting soundbite-crete. Nor is it just the result of all the re-brandings and re-packagings, in which the stars of high-profile remakes try to tell us what the original film or TV series was "about", according to what the new version wants to be about (even Doctor Who Confidential is prone to this). No, it's the sheer speed of the modern media that really does it. These days, cultural events can be mis-remembered mere days after taking place: the first simple, one-paragraph description will be repeated and quoted until it becomes absolute. We might refer to this as Peter Haining Syndrome, and I mention it now just because of the media reaction to "Journey's End". According to the Entertainment News section of BBCi, the bank-breaking, logic-defying Season Finale received a "mixed" reaction from fans - which I'm assuming is accurate, in much the same way that the statement "sprouts receive a mixed reaction at Christmas" is accurate - but crucially, it used the words "anti-climax" immediately after pointing out that some viewers expected a New Doctor Who. I'm convinced that this is how pop-history will remember things, and that posterity will claim we felt disappointed because David Tennant didn't regenerate properly. Whereas in fact, we felt disappointed because the entire episode was one of the stupidest things ever broadcast on BBC Television.

Mind you, I can think of worse lapses in history. On the letters page of the latest Radio Times, one viewer writes (with some bitterness, but posing as sarcasm) that he was "surprised" to see professional Jesus-baiter Richard Dawkins appear in "The Stolen Earth", since Doctor Who involves a Cosmic Lord who's prepared to sacrifice himself for the good of humanity every week. Once again demonstrating that Christians not only believe themselves to have invented and copyrighted the basic tenets of human civilisation, but all the stuff they nicked from the world's other cultures, as well. Oh, yes... the Radio Times. Following last week's account of its descent from "Friendly Face of BBC Broadcasting" to "Heat magazine with more pictures of Daleks", you might perhaps find it surprising that I still read the sodding thing. I admit that until recently, my sentimental attachment to the publication which gave us Clive Doig's Trackword and Frank Bellamy's Skarasen allowed me to overlook the work / noxious bile / general existence of Alison Graham. But now, it seems time for a change. And not simply a change of listings magazine, either. Because in the last few weeks, an acquaintance of mine has done something which those of my generation and background once considered impossible: she's decided not to have a TV set any more.

Her logic seems sound. There's nothing she wants to watch, or at least, nothing that justifies paying £139.50 every year. If there ever is a Major TV Event, then she can always go and watch it round a friend's house, or possibly in a pub. And this has forced me to consider my own viewing habits. Last week, there were only three new programmes on UK television that I actually wanted to see, only three names I bothered to circle in the Radio Times (yes, I'm one of those people). Two of them had "Doctor Who" in the title, the latter being a 45-minute exercise in self-congratulation, the former being... well, a 65-minute exercise in self-congratulation, padded out with rotten old computer graphics. If I wanted to stare dumbly at spaceships blowing up and cartoon characters firing bazookas at robot-people, then I'd buy a PlayStation, not a TV Licence. (Admittedly, this all stopped after 45 minutes, and we then got twenty minutes of actors looking pleased with themselves. Did you know that the viewing-figures rose by 400,000 in the last quarter of an hour, as people started to drift over from the tennis on the court next door? Just try watching the episode from the towing-the-Earth scene onwards, while pretending that you don't know anything about the plot, aren't a natural Doctor Who fan, and aren't likely to make quasi-erotic squealing noises at the sight of Billie Piper kissing what looks like the Doctor. Not pretty, is it?)

Last week I suggested that although I'm perfectly-tuned to television as a medium and an institution, I'm also thirty years out of synch with its content. I belong in the world of I, Claudius, Dennis Potter and "Genesis of the Daleks", yet I've somehow become trapped in the world of Rome, Ashley Pharaoh and "Journey's End". It's like Life on Mars, only backwards and even more predictable. However, the wider issue is that for those who couldn't care less about "slick", the BBC has failed in almost all its duties as a public service provider. True, BBC1, BBC2 and BBC4 are palpably ahead of the commercial channels, but this is saying nothing. It's still an insult to expect anyone to pay £139.50 for the privilege of Bonekickers. Although if we're talking about insults, then let's not forget: it's only been a week since the revelation that Jeremy Clarkson has an annual contract worth £2 million. The knowledge that this vicious, bigoted thug is receiving such obscene quantities of Licence-Fee money, as a reward for making programmes which go against every principle the BBC has ever stood for, almost makes Jonathan Ross seem like a good investment. He can't even keep his bloated face out of QI, supposedly the Corporation's last-ditch attempt at in-te-leck-chew-ul TV.

(Oh, on a sort-of-related matter... this week, I've learned that Big Finish has hired David Quantick to write one of its audios. Is it now a kind of tradition, then, that only the worst people on Earth are allowed to write for Doctor Who? First the Neil Gaiman thing, now this. For those who aren't familiar with his work, Quantick is a comedy-hack-for-hire whose idea of "satire" is making the same cock-obvious jokes about celebrities that have already appeared in all the showbiz wank-mags, but in a grumpier voice. More tellingly, though: in the days when nobody seriously expected it to make a comeback, he described Doctor Who as "shite" and its fans as near-subhuman. He's obviously changed his mind now that it's both fashionable and profitable. Next month, BBC Books will be launching Jeremy Clarkson's younger-readers novel Doctor Who Gives It Some Grunt, in which the Doctor lands on the planet of the fox-people and slaughters its population with a twenty-mile-high combine harvester. Just for a laugh.)

Getting rid of the television seems counter-instinctual, and the fact that I can comfortably use a phrase like "viewing habits" should tell you something. Watching telly is part of our anthropological makeup, like hunting, mating, or marking our territory with urine. But for people like us, there's always going to be that extra question, isn't there? If I get rid of the TV, then... I mean, for God's sake... how am I going to watch any future Doctor Who? The obvious answer is "make lots of friends and always visit them at tea-time on Saturdays", but for me, the real answer is rather sad. The truth is that I now find it hard to imagine Doctor Who doing anything I might want to watch, at least in the forseeable future. Russell T. Davies has said everything he wants to say, and doesn't seem to have any back-up strategy apart from hitting the "bigger" button, over and over again: it's a bit like watching a teenage boy trying to blow up the dirtiest bits of a nudie JPEG, only to find himself staring at a screen full of meaningless pixels. And I think it's fairly clear by now that Moffat isn't likely to come up with anything I haven't already thought of. Bear in mind, though, that this isn't really about intellectual "depth". Great pop-art can surprise you by being bold, dynamic and inventive, even if it isn't particularly clever. The Eccleston season startled us all by telling contemporary fantasy stories in ways that had never been tried on TV before, and to an extent, great Doctor Who has always followed this pattern. But the last thing the series wants right now is to surprise anybody, least of all somebody like me.

I'm disaffected more than dissatisfied. Well, look at it from my point of view: geeks may not get loyalty-points, but I still feel as if I've spent a lifetime in the service of the Motherland. The fact that I've written around 85,000 words here in the last fourteen weeks - Dear God, that's longer than any book ever written by Terrance Dicks - should demonstrate that I still think of this as my native territory, however badly the 2008 series may have suffered from the global competence-crunch. And it's not as if I haven't fought for Queen and Country. When BBC Books re-launched / stole the Doctor Who range in the late 1990s, I did everything in my power to make it interesting enough for the twenty-first century, a duty which often involved sitting in the foyer of the BBC Worldwide building and waving my arms at Stephen Cole for hours on end. Whatever the results may have been, I genuinely tried to push the series forward, and - if only by chance - pre-empted a few things that ended up in the TV version when it finally reappeared. This is why it feels so painfully, heartbreakingly wrong that I should now find myself exiled from the books, while writers whom nobody likes are allowed to treat the show as a merchandising cash-cow. Just as it feels wrong that Big Finish still refuses to touch me (well, apart from giving me hovel-space in the Bernice Ghetto), while hiring people who've never demonstrated anything but contempt for Doctor Who. Now, however, the programme doesn't even seem to want me as a viewer. I'm simply not part of the target demographic.

Next week I'm going to Wales, in a Make-Yates-trying-to-get-the-dinosaurs-out-of-his-head sort of way. I'm not going to have easy access to a TV set while I'm there, although I will have my own radio (because I'm quite blatantly Homo BBC7, and besides, you don't need a licence for that). If the lack of pictures doesn't kill me, then... oh, damn it to Hell, this isn't fair. The BBC is our last remaining bulwark against the shrieking void of commercial anti-culture, but if it won't do its job properly, then I just can't keep paying for it. It's richer than I am, and it wants me to give it money for Graham Norton. Is it insane?

And now, a series of repeats to fill the schedule over the summer holidays: my three favourite angsticles from this year's Doctor Who Thing. A couple of them have even had the mistakes taken out.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Week Thirteen: "25 Ways to Make Doctor Who More Interesting"

Oi, Moffat! We're looking at you here.

Now, I could dissect this week's extra-length technobabble-spasm with another minute-by-minute breakdown, asking why the line about the Doctor becoming one of the 'playthings of Davros' makes it sound as if he's going to be used as a Rampant Rabbit for all his remaining lives, or pointing out that Phil Collinson is still turning up on Confidential with a big grin on his face and shouting "this is the biggest thing ever!" as if he's the child who's just done the loudest blow-off in the school, or querying how on Earth Russell has managed to make the outrageously over-budgeted End Of All Possible Universes seem quite so teeny and incidental. But on the other hand, there's a very real risk that it'd end up as a list of sixty-five items which all read "what a bloody cop-out". So all I'll say is that I now know exactly how people who don't like "Love & Monsters" must feel: the Abzorbaloff is acceptable (if only in a one-off comedy), but this is silly. On the plus side, if Donna ever tries to come back, then she explodes.

So instead… let's take refuge in the future, one last time.

By this point, it's fairly obvious that the series does have a future, and that even "Journey's End" isn't likely to make Doctor Who asphyxiate under its own bloated mass. Just a few months ago, this was by no means certain. Note that I say "series", not "programme": there was never any chance of the BBC leaving its flagship to rot, but the decision to make "specials" in 2009 might feasibly have been interpreted as an attempt to put it on an Only Fools and Horses footing. We should remember that we live in an age which prefers the one-off Big Event to the series, and that this is a far more credible reason for the audience drop-off between "Rose" and "The End of the World" than either the content of the show or the imminent loss of the leading man (and given that he was the first truly Northern Doctor, I still can't think of his departure without thinking of the words "Bye Ecc"). After the first forty-five minutes, a lot of people simply felt that they'd seen Doctor Who now, and that they could move on to the next thing. The BBC must realise that occasional specials are a much cheaper way of keeping the golden goose alive, as well as a much more efficient way of pulling in the ratings.

Except that… they don't really seem to care about the ratings. True enough, everyone involved must feel a certain smugness at being able to snare eight-million-ish viewers, at least unless ITV's broadcasting something more audience-friendly like fat people falling over. But the appreciation index appears to be more important to rabid fans than to the BBC's commissioning editors. We know for a fact that media people like to please other media people, far more than they like to please the masses. I said at the beginning of this season that the target audience for modern Doctor Who is Jonathan Ross, and this is worth keeping in mind. Even if the ratings permanently fell to the ITV-dented level of "Silence in the Library", or the appreciation index permanently fell to the "Jesus Christ, are these people philistines?" level of "Love & Monsters", the programme would almost certainly be recommissioned anyway. Media people love it. Many of them want to be in it. Russell T. Davies (OBE), Kylie Minogue (OBE) and Paul O'Grady (CBE) are the new TV aristocracy, and perversely, the back-slappiness of this series could be the very thing that ensures its survival. Media people aren't like us, remember. They think Catherine Tate can represent an "ordinary" woman-in-the-street. They think Alex Kingston is in some way a major coup.

Nor is the new producer likely to see things any differently. Nearly two years before Jekyll was broadcast, Moffat told me that the project was going to be delayed, because they were still waiting for its Mystery Big Star to be available for shooting. I felt rather let down, to say the least, when it just turned out to be that bloke from the Yellow Pages adverts. Nobody in the "real" world would consider James Nesbitt to be a serious actor - especially after Moffat's series, in which he doesn't so much chew the furniture as swallow an entire branch of Ikea - but the "real" world isn't the crucible in which TV is forged.

In the last three weeks, Doctor Who has been on the cover of the Radio Times twice. This would have been inconceivable even in the days when there were only eight programmes on television. And let's make no mistake about it, the RT is a much better indicator of the strength of the series than any mere statistics. Its reviews get far more attention, certainly from the programme-makers themselves, than any opinion we punters might have. This is rather disturbing, when you consider what the magazine actually says. We know that this year's season has been a suffocating disappointment, not because it offends the sensibilities of fandom (again, "Silence in the Library" has to be interpreted as an all-out effort to appeal to fans more than floating viewers), but because it's so often been lazy, banal, half-arsed, sluggish, obsessed with its own reputation, and - in places - chronically misjudged. Whereas according to RT hack-in-general Alison Graham, "Journey's End" is "the finale of one of the best-ever series of Doctor Who". This makes more sense when you remember that Graham considers anything more complex, imaginative or inspirational than Desperate Housewives to be beyond human comprehension. She can't follow the plots of Waking the Dead, and she didn't understand what either "The Girl in the Fireplace" or "Forest of the Dead" were all about.

Twenty years ago, it would've beggared belief to think that the future television editor of the Radio Times wouldn't even be able to make sense of populist, mainstream BBC programmes, but this is indicative of what's gone heartbreakingly wrong with British television. TV drama is virtually a redundant art-form, while documentary doesn't get much more challenging than The Woman Whose Vulva Fell Off, so it makes sense that the RT should cease to be an inquisitive-yet-humorous look at BBC programming and become a celebrity-obsessed "lifestyle" magazine instead. Graham, certainly, sees Doctor Who as nothing more than a stage for big-name guest stars and tepid soap-opera. "The Sontaran Stratagem" seems to have been her favourite of this year's stories, partly because it involved so many turgid "relationship" scenes, but mainly - we suspect - because it was on her intellectual level. The idea that any television programme might exist to broaden the minds of the viewers, let alone do anything inventive, is alien to her. She admits to recoiling in horror at the thought of The Ascent of Man. And if she doesn't "get it", then she gives the review to her pet sci-fi nerd, Mark Braxton… but he only understands over-inflated story-arcs of the Battlestar Galactica oeuvre. The result is that while "The Sontaran Stratagem" is hailed as "barnstorming", "Gridlock" is "slow" and "Utopia" is "a clunker". Is it any surprise that much of the 2008 season has been such a gutless mess? These are the people whose opinions really affect the thinking of BBC Wales.

(While I'm on the subject of idiocy and the Radio Times… I note that on this week's letters page, the Letter of the Week award has been given to a complaint about Panorama's investigation into Primark which has clearly been written by Primark's public relations department, posing as an outraged viewer. Nobody outside PR would use the phrase "hatchet job" in this context, and nor would a regular audience-member say something like "employment of children and exploitation of the poor in India are complex social issues" before immediately falling back on Primark's standard if-we-didn't-exploit-them-then-they'd-be-unemployed argument. The prize for Letter of the Week is a digital radio, and I'm amused by the thought that the Primark board might hold a special meeting to decide who goes home with it. Hmm… maybe they were the ones who inserted that "cheap shots" cop-out line into "Planet of the Ood"?)

Enough of the blather, let's get down to business. The following 25-point programme may not be a way of guaranteeing that Doctor Who is great - only a competent scriptwriting team could ensure that, and in the Age of Chibnall, even competence is a precious commodity - but it would at least give the series a chance to escape its current rut of showbiz fan-fic and computer-generated slurry. Tick the ones you agree with, and if you tick all 25, then I'm available for a September wedding.

Here are our demands. If they're not met, then we'll kill another hostage every two hours…

1. A companion who isn't from the early twenty-first century. The Davies-era production-team has, for the last four years, insisted that an audience "needs" a connection with the modern world in order for SF to function. It believes this because it comes from a bizarre parallel universe where Star Wars isn't the most popular movie ever made. Naturally, pretend-historians like us know that when the series was at its most iconic in the late '60s, the (supposedly) less media-savvy audience was quite happy for the "point of view" characters to be an eighteenth-century Jacobite and an idiot savant who used to live on a space-station. We also know that when it was at its ratings peak in the late '70s, it ran for four whole years without anybody Earth-born on the TARDIS at all. Yet despite all reason and audience research, the belief remains that our identification figure has to be an ordinary-but-somehow-great individual who's got a worried mum in 2008. This is a blind alley, for reasons we've already covered in this journal, although there are two noticeable ironies here. One is that Billie Piper went straight from Doctor Who to The Ruby in the Smoke (repeated on BBC1 straight after "The Stolen Earth", and neatly scheduled to clash with Confidential on BBC3), in which she plays a character no more and no less sympathetic than Rose, but this time in period costume. The other is that Catherine Tate alienated enough of the audience to force the Doctor to become the identification figure for most of this year's stories, burying the "everyday boy or girl" theory once and for all. Which obviously leads us on to…

2. A companion who's played by a proper actress. There's no point savaging Catherine Tate again, although it is worth recalling that her most notable "serious" roles before "The Runaway Bride" were in Bleak House (she gets a single scene, and warps it out of all shape by mugging while everyone else is acting) and an ITV series so awful that nobody can even remember what it was called. The more important point is that even if they'd cast a good celebrity, her status as a Star Name would inevitably have opened up a gulf between the audience and the character. Even Hollywood knows better than to cast Will Smith as an Ordinary Joe rather than a superhero or a cyborg policeman in the future. They got lucky with Billie Piper, since nobody expected such a compelling performance from the girl who sang "Because We Want To" (you know the one, there's a Judoon in the video). I was told about her casting on the 1st of April, 2004, and seriously thought it was an April Fool's joke. The producers seemed to acknowledge the one-off nature of this success by hiring a complete unknown as her replacement, something that paid off, at least in those episodes where the writers gave her something to do: it's no coincidence that the tabloid criticism of Martha eased off after "Human Nature", one of the scripts that doesn't treat her as a cartoon teenager who says things like 'no way!' every thirty seconds. I'm lookin' at you now, Gareth. But if the New Girl has to be a known quantity, then she should at least have a track-record of being likeable, which is why I keep telling people that my ideal model for a new companion is Elaine Cassidy as an Oirish peasant-girl from the Potato Famine. I say "New Girl", but…

3. We don't necessarily need a single companion. In fact, it'd be a positive boon if we expanded the crew-compliment of the TARDIS. This sets alarm-bells ringing for many off us, because it reminds us of the overstocked console room of the early '80s, and therefore of Adric. But we should bear in mind that the original plan was to keep Tegan while ditching Nyssa, something that was only scuppered when Peter Davison insisted on Sarah Sutton staying around, for diabolical reasons of his own. Now, I'll freely admit it… up until this time last year, I was convinced that the 45-minute format couldn't support a regular cast of more than two, but recent events have changed this. Consider: the current set-up of the series demands an "emotional" Doctor who has "emotional" crises, often involving love affairs, implied or otherwise. These "Doctor Weepies" have now become an almost ludicrous sub-genre, as well as twisting the character beyond recognition, as we saw in Week Ten's angsticle. But if we must have Relationship Issues, then wouldn't it be preferable to let the companions do the job? A lurking relationship between Boy Companion and Girl Companion - possibly even Girl Companion and Girl Companion, if another man on the TARDIS would look a bit Captain Jack these days, or if Moffat wants to surround himself with totty a la Coupling - would not only spare the Doctor from soap-opera, but be sustainable across the series, since the UST could be gently suggested within the stories rather than requiring specific, mawkish-looking "romance" episodes. Oh, let's just come out and say it now…

4. No more affairs for the Doctor. I mean, really, this is just getting daft. "The Girl in the Fireplace" was acceptable, even if was so desperately contrived that it necessitated Moffat's worst-ever scene (y'know, where he has to introduce a Vulcan mind-meld in order to justify the relationship). But "Human Nature" / "The Family of Blood" did this sort of thing as well as it's ever, ever, ever going to be done. As we saw in Week Nine, the implication of "Forest of the Dead" hovers somewhere between "bewildering" and "irritating", depending on (a) how you interpret River Song's Doctor-naming capability and (b) whether or not you just want to slap her. I'm harping on about Moffat here, not only because he's the one most likely to attempt this sort of thing as a Fangirl Trap, but also because he's the one whom other writers are most likely to try to emulate. The fan-reaction to "Fireplace", in itself, raises the possibility that future writers will see this as a model of what "proper" Doctor Who should be like. And with its author now in Big Russell's Big Shoes, it's not hard to imagine the scriptwrights trying to flatter his vanity. It's always been easy to picture Russell T. Davies ensconced in his debauchery-riddled palace, forcing script editors to dance for his perverted entertainment and dropping them through a trapdoor when they cease to amuse him: only Helen Raynor has managed to survive, since he finds her sadism entertaining, which is why she's been made his major-domo-cum-slavemistress. On the other hand, we might imagine Moffat as a Ming the Merciless figure, demanding constant tribute and adoration from his vassal-princes. Actually, let's cut through this whole tangled issue by saying that what we really need is…

5. A less sexy, less athletic Doctor. The question is whether the public is even capable of accepting a non-sexy Doctor in the wake of the Boy Tennant. Tellingly, the thing which most surprised younger viewers about BBC4's repeat of "The Daleks" wasn't that the Daleks themselves were so rubbish, but that the Doctor was an incontinent old ratbag who had to get other people to do all his running for him. This is, however, just another reason to consider tag-team companions instead of a single girl assistant. A Boy Companion might reasonably allow BBC Wales to bring in a leading man who isn't quite so pretty, just as a Boy-Companion-meets-Girl-Companion relationship might allow the Doctor himself to avoid the romantic interludes. The other issue is that we've reached the point where the Doctor has to do bloody everything, the technobabble and the diplomacy and the stunts and the snogging, while the companion hovers nearby and makes occasional out-of-character comments about the Dewey system. Anyone who's seen '80s straight-to-video curiosity The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, about a two-fisted science-adventurer who's also a brain surgeon, engineer, racing-car driver, expert marksman, rock star and comic-book writer, may find this awfully familiar. And I do mean "awfully". The really interesting thing would be for the Tennant-Doctor's regeneration to half-fail, leaving him crippled and confined to a wheelchair, and forcing the New Ian Chesterton to do all the fighting. Seeing the nation's favourite hero as a crip would do wonders for the disabled. All right, that's probably too much to ask, but at the very least…

6. No spurious super-powers. It makes sense that there are certain things the Doctor should definitely, instinctively be able to do. While the '60s series didn't even see him as biologically different to the rest of us (no second heart, and the Daleks refer to him as "human" even after his rejuvenation), the '70s series drew the not-unreasonable conclusion that since he's a Time Lord, he should be immune to / aware of niggling little issues like time running backwards or Jagaroth messing around with the internal workings of history. Even his nanite-juggling skills at the end of "The Doctor Dances" are acceptable, if you re-insert the cut dialogue between the Doctor and Rose in Captain Jack's spaceship, which establishes that he has this ability before it's used to save the day (page 373 of the script-book, if you're taking notes). The trouble is that as we've already seen, Moffat's version of the character is both God and Father Christmas. The logic is that since we know how hugely iconic the Doctor is, the universe he inhabits should perceive him as all-powerful. But history teaches us that this is a bad idea, not least because we remember Tom Baker's ability to acquire any super-power of his choice at any given moment: we might especially recall the final episode of "The Invasion of Time", in which he puts Rodan into an instant trance just by saying 'you're hypnotised'. The worst of all portents is "Forest of the Dead", since it hints at a future Doctor who's even more powerful than the massively over-fetishised one we've already got, even though many of us would prefer him to be rather less powerful. The sister-issue of this is…

7. The Doctor shouldn't know everything. Another thing which surprised the junior geeks about "The Daleks" was that the Doctor seemed so bleeding clueless. He'd never even heard of the Daleks, for God's sake. The original vision of the series, with its suck-it-and-see approach to TARDIS navigation, forced the regulars to work out where they'd landed and deduce how any new world might function: all they had was A-Level history and a grasp of basic scientific principles, yet this sense of being thrown in at the deep end was a big part of the programme's appeal. This changed almost overnight in "Spearhead from Space", in which the Doctor suddenly became an all-purpose know-it-all who insists on regaling his sidekicks with stories about Lamerdines and Medusoids, simply because a programme about an alien stuck on Earth has to work differently to a programme about the exploration of other cultures. Sadly, his smart-arsedness never went away when he got his dematerialisation circuit back - especially not during the Douglas Adams script-editorship, in which he became a poster-child for smug, university-educated bores across the galaxy - and the new series has taken this to extremes. With the honourable exception of "Midnight", the Doctor now routinely knows the details of any species, planet or piece of technology he comes across. "World War Three" at least has him struggle to find the right information, as if his memory works like Google, but even this idea has now been put aside. We're no longer being invited to learn about the universe along with the characters, we're being asked to swallow rapidly-recited info-dumps, even though the information doesn't always make sense. Perhaps we can simplify all of this just by saying…

8. The Doctor shouldn't be perfect. A tale from personal experience here. When BBC Books re-booted the Doctor Who novels at the turn of the century, the editors decided on a universe in which the Doctor would be the only remaining Time Lord, and in which the structure of time itself would be in doubt. My contribution to this was a recurring character called Sabbath, the idea being - and this was made quite explicit in the character-notes - that he was the Doctor's "replacement" in this new continuum, which meant that the Doctor himself could be a fish-out-of-water again. After years of knowing all the universe's cheat-codes, he'd suddenly find himself exploring an environment where he didn't really belong, and which he couldn't automatically predict. The sort-of-villain, not the hero, would be the one who knew how the universe worked. It sounds good in theory, but did it come off…? Did it arse. Within months, the other writers were churning out books in which the nasty, evil Sabbath was making horrible mistakes that threatened space-time, while the all-wise, all-knowing Doctor patiently explained what his arch-nemesis was doing wrong before rushing off to stop it. We might consider Lloyd Rose's comment that Sabbath was indistinguishable from the Master, which makes me wonder if she's even literate, in any meaningful sense. Mind you, the complete wrongness of the bad guy is only the ninety-eighth worst thing about Camera Obscura. Wait a minute, I'm getting bitter, let's start this again.

8. The Doctor shouldn't be perfect. The reason for the Sabbath debacle - and, indeed, for the relative shiteness of many of the later novels - was simply that the fan-audience, including the part made up of semi-professional writers, just doesn't like the idea of its time-travelling love-poppet failing in any way. The neo-TV version of the Doctor has, once again, taken this tendency to absurd extremes. The highs are when he jumps through mirrors on horseback, but the lows are… look, do I really have to use the phrase "make the foundation of this society a man who never would" again? The writers have the freedom to assume that the Doctor is innately inspirational, and that everything he does must be right, which means they can have him spout utter cackpole and claim it's a meaningful moral argument. It may have been a long, long time since the Doctor was flawed enough to mess up the mercury supply of the TARDIS, just out of spite, but the modern version can't even make elementary mistakes like locking everybody in a lighthouse with a Rutan shape-changer. The only time he ever misjudges anyone is in his personal relationships with human beings, which means that he's thoroughly good, decent, noble and true, but still capable of looking "haunted" and "tragic" every few weeks. God, what a f***ing bore. Danger should always be a skulking presence in the Doctor's persona, and I don't just mean the satsuma-of-death kind, either ("The Christmas Invasion"). Even cuddly Troughton was envisaged as a Pied Piper figure, capable of bringing down a whole society if you treated him badly. And to complete this line of thought…

9. The Doctor's presence should never, ever be the solution. It should be fairly obvious by now that if you dropped the Moffat version of the Doctor into any story made in the 1960s, then he'd sort everything out in under five minutes and still have time to flirt with the Embodiment Gris. Increasingly, there's the sense that it doesn't really matter what he does, just as long as he's around to do something. The character himself is gradually becoming a deus ex machina. "The Christmas Invasion" just about gets away with it, because it is meant to be about "swearing in" the New Doctor as the Doctor, so we're not disappointed when the story ends ten minutes after he wakes up. But even the best of scripts, like the otherwise remarkable "Gridlock", can suffer from this sort of thing: the whole plot is geared towards getting the Doctor into the Face of Boe's sanctum, at which point he saves the world by… erm… I dunno… messing around with some wires, or something. And we've already covered the "do you know who I am?" scene in "Forest of the Dead", a Bad-Wolf-sized cop-out disguised as an iconic moment, which sees the Doctor win out just because he's the Doctor. This problem reaches critical mass in "The Stolen Earth", which is all about summoning the leading man to the intergalactic crime-scene. Alison Graham may love this sort of thing - the idolisation of the Doctor is, after all, a form of celebrity culture - but it can lead to some truly pointless stories. Is the Doctor present? Is there unlikely-sounding technology in the vicinity? Then it's game over. Which points the way to…

10. No technobabble. Discussing the script for "Rose", Russell T. Davies pointed out how important it was to avoid a technobabble-heavy solution, which is why the Doctor's defence against the Nestene Consciousness is only referred to as "anti-plastic". This was, of course, quite right: if the hero has a weapon that's designed to do a specific job, then it should seem iconic, not shrouded in a pseudo-explanation. Looking back at the old series, we realise that a little technobabble is tolerable if it makes an aesthetically-pleasing idea seem credible (the concept of a crushed planet releasing energy on psychic wavelengths seems sound in "The Pirate Planet", so we're not greatly offended by lines like 'a peak power level of 5347.2 on the vantalla scale', even when Tom Baker keeps fluffing them), but not if it supports the entire plot ("Arc of Infinity" makes no sense whatsoever, and every new development is driven by a spurious piece of hardware that does something we don't understand for reasons we're never told). Yet now he's older, more careless, and swaddled in royal patronage, Russell seems to have forgotten this. Even on a good day, technobabble can clog up an otherwise workable scene. We can accept that alien bees might leave a trail across the universe, we don't need to hear pretend-science about the Tandoka Scale. We might pause to reflect that despite David Whitaker's weird, alchemical ideas about mercury and static electricity, the early series only ever depended on science that had some relation to actual physical laws. This is wise, not for "educational" reasons, but because it makes manic alien technology seem almost instinctual. If a device uses transmodrahangelistic energy, then we couldn't care less about it. If it uses gravity, then we immediately know what it's likely to do. But more importantly still…

11. Absolutely no "magic wand" technology. Those of you who witnessed the interview with Russell on Friday's This Morning may recall him saying that although the Doctor technically should die after thirteen lives, the series can always 'wave the magic wand', and give him another thirteen by having him find the Crystal of Mangooska Six or some such. (He didn't actually say "Mangooska Six", but I wasn't taking notes.) Though this is a fair point, it's still alarming to hear the words 'magic wand' from the man who's been responsible for more heartbreaking cop-outs than any other writer in television history. We might list any number of examples, but perhaps the most typical is the Dalek Hoover in "Doomsday", which doesn't even make a shred of sense: there's nothing in the void, yet anybody who goes there soaks up background radiation you can see with 3D glasses, and this causes things to get sucked back into the abyss if you open it up. Riiiiight. "The Last of the Time Lords" is even worse, despite being comparatively (I said comparatively) feasible. In my review of "The Sound of Drums" - the proper one, not the one that just repeated the word "boring" twenty-eight times - I said that I couldn't see any point in spending a whole episode droning on about the boring Archangel satellite system, except for the horrible suspicion that it was going to be This Year's Reset Gadget in the second half of the story. See, I know what I'm talking about. Even so, I don't think any of us were expecting the whole of "Journey's End" to be an Argos catalogue of improbable hardware and meaningless adjectives. While we're in that neighbourhood…

12. Please, in the name of God, less stories set on modern-day Earth. I'm reminded of the ads for the American Doctor Who novelisations that used to appear in Famous Monsters magazine, which didn't seem to believe that anyone would care about adventures in space and time unless the human race was in peril, and which even claimed that Davros in "Genesis of the Daleks" wanted to conquer the universe "…including Earth!". It doesn't seem as funny after these last two weeks. This brings us back to point 1, although the problem here isn't so much that the producers think we "need" constant, near-identical Earthbound stories, it's their belief that pitched battles involving UNIT troops are a crucial part of what the series does. Yet even leaving aside the fact that the original series went three whole years without bothering to land in contemporary London, we should remember that when we did start to see Yeti-on-the-loo stories - most notably "The Invasion" - it was part of Derrick Sherwin's escape-plan to get out of BBC Drama and make flashy, film-based adventure programmes for companies like ITC. "Spearhead from Space" comes from the same loam as Department S, so to believe that this is "typical" Doctor Who rather misses the point. Besides, isn't it the job of Torchwood and Sarah-Jane to do this sort of business…? The usual argument is that episodes set in the "real" world help to balance the budget, but although that's fair enough in the case of "Blink", it doesn't ring true in the case of "The Poison Sky". Which may not be the absolute worst that the modern-day series has to offer, but which is rapidly becoming the model for How To Make A Programme That Can Go Anywhere In Space And Time Yet Somehow Isn't Interesting. Actually, let's go further…

13. No more alien invasions. As you may have gathered from the SF Iconoclasty 101 article, one of the most galling things about the work of Mark Gatiss is that he honestly believes Doctor Who and Quatermass to be the same sort of thing, even though they come from radically different traditions. Indeed, many of the elements that fans now consider "trad" are clichés from other forms of SF rather than from the series itself. As a result, it's taken as read that alien invasions are a "standard", even though the only prior period when this was true (the early '70s, natch) was actually something of an aberration. Many of those who were there at the time remember thinking that stories like "The Ark in Space" saw the programme getting back on track after the Department S years. Again, we note that in the ratings-winning Late Baker epoch, there isn't a single "conventional" alien invasion story. The simple fact is that alien invasions aren't interesting, and lead to plodding, gargling, personality-free monsters. But the killing irony is that even in the UNIT years, the writers did their best to avoid invasions wherever possible, just because the idea seemed so trite: they preferred Silurian politics and interplanetary diplomacy to UFO warfare, and even "The Claws of Axos" gave us a kind of threat we hadn't seen before. You may note that "The Christmas Invasion" doesn't actually feature an invasion - the Sycorax just want a hold full of slaves, and as far as we know, they've got no interest in the territory - but the i-word is invoked to suggest a specific sub-genre of story. The final insult is that with "The Stolen Earth", even the end of the universe becomes a pretext for yet another boring takeover, and Russell seriously believes we'll treat it as a big event just because the flying saucers have got Daleks on board this time. On the subject of scale…

14. Stop wasting money on "big". Hey, kids! Wouldn't it be nice if the TARDIS went somewhere completely new every week / two weeks, not just visiting historical set-pieces and colony planets, but messed-up interdimensional spaces as well? The answer is "yes", I'm sure you'll agree. However, we're led to believe that part of the reason for the programme's obsession with the London Borough of Cardiff is the relative cheapness of Earth-based stories. We believe this because the series' relocation to UNIT HQ in 1970 was also meant to be a cost-cutting exercise, yet this often backfired, and "The Mind of Evil" ended up being the most expensive story ever made (well, arguably… working out the rates of inflation is a bugger). But we have to face the fact that the modern series could be vastly more ambitious if it stopped throwing away money on large-scale crowd-pleasers which don't really please crowds. As we saw in Week Seven-and-a-Half, the most engaging parts of "The Fires of Pompeii" were the "human" moments, not the immense eruption effects: in a society as image-saturated as ours, the audience really does prefer drama to explosions. Why bother pouring precious Licence-Fee cash into epic shots of Dalek saucers tearing down skyscrapers, when anyone who likes that sort of thing would be much happier going to see schlock like Cloverfield or The War of the Worlds? The full scale of this problem will only be obvious to you if you've seen the episode of ChuckleVision set in ancient Rome, which - with nothing more than a few stock sets, props and costumes - looks exactly as convincing as the good bits out of "Pompeii". But of course, the biggest single issue here is…

15. Less CGI monsters. Or "Christ God It's Monsters", to give them their full title. We've had a complete article examining this, so let's just go through the basics again. Nobody's impressed by them; they're in every ad-break on ITV; they cause writers to write lazier scripts, and actors to put in less convincing performances; they'll inevitably be perceived as gosh-wow special effects rather than credible parts of the story-world, which is why the audience finds it so much easier to engage with "solid" monsters; and apart from anything else, the living mannequins, gasmask-zombies and weeping angels have proved to be a damn sight more popular than the Reapers, Krillitanes and Carrionites. CGI can be a wonderful thing, when it's trying to be genuinely beautiful (as in the latter stages of "Gridlock") or just setting a scene (the use of computer technology to fill the Globe Theatre with wenches and peasants), but only the neurotic billionaire perfectionist George Lucas has ever been responsible for organic CGI forms that don't distract the viewer's attention from whatever the story's supposed to be about (meaning the computerised Ewan McGregor in Attack of the Clones, not Jar Jar Binks). And writers tend to be guided by a consensus view of what's technological practical, so in the CGI era, no SF programme is complete without a ripply space-time portal or a tedious energy-burst sequence. The hackneyed "evil" energy seen in "42" is bad enough, but worse is the deus-ex-machina energy that leaks out of Georgia Moffat in "The Doctor's Daughter". I know what I'd like to see leaking out of Georgia Moffat, although that's another issue. However…

16. Stop making straight-to-video horror movies with all the horror taken out. …for the most egregious abuse of CGI, we have to look to "The Lazarus Experiment". You may recall that a walloping great photo of the Gatiss-faced abomination appeared in the Radio Times under the headline "Is This The Scariest Monster Yet?", and you may also recall thinking "is it f***", but the crassness of the Lazarus Horror is nowhere near as annoying as the nature of the story. The word "story" has to be used cautiously here, since this - more than any Doctor Who of yore - really is just about being chased up and down corridors. Even Heat magazine noticed that it was a big-screen monster movie condensed to 45 minutes, although since Heat is Britain's foremost celebration of ugliness in all its forms, the reviewer was under the impression that this was a good thing. We should know better. Chris Chibnall, as a long-term fanboy, certainly should. Yet just two weeks after Greenhorn's attempt, he gave us "42", and I've already pointed out the tragic irony of this episode being broadcast on the same night that Jason X got its UK television premiere. Now, it is true that horror tropes can work quite well, in this continuity… if they're the right tropes. It makes sense for "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" to be staged as a Hammer Horror, because after all, Hammer shared so many of its influences / traditions / actors with pre-1980s BBC drama. But modern TV's obsession with making everything look as Hollywood as possible has led us to believe that it's perfectly all right for the series to remake chaff like Event Horizon without the eye-gouging sequences. You know the story I mean. Let's push the point, though…

17. We need writers who can write, not just directors who can direct. The Grumpy Fandom University lecture which appeared in Week Three of this blog ("The Complete History of Doctor Who: Director's Cut") didn't provoke much response from the Student Body, possibly because it was less scurrilous than most. But it said something which strikes me as key, not just to this series but to British TV as a whole: that the shift of emphasis in TV drama, from theatre-for-television to big-screen-movies-for-television, has had a devastating impact on the content of the programmes. As a result of this, there are almost no great TV dramatists left. The fact that a lowest-common-denominator hack like Paul Abbot is considered a "serious" writer is bad enough, but a more telling sign is that even those who write good scripts tend to write good cinematic scripts. At his best, Russell T. Davies is one of these, and perhaps the greatest challenge for future-era Doctor Who will be finding others. Here it may be worth noting that the reason "The Chimes of Midnight" gained a reputation as the strongest of the early Big Finish audios wasn't its content - amusingly, it has the same plot as an episode of The Real Ghostbusters, with exactly the same surprise twist - but that Rob Shearman is a properly-trained writer rather than an author of fan-fic or a professional storyboarder, and it's significant that his background is in theatre. It's also significant that Moffat has apparently welcomed him back into the fold, because can you really see someone as dialogue-obsessed as Moffat wanting to hire Stephen Greenhorn again? Oh, all right, I'll say it…

18. I should obviously be hired as a writer. You know it makes sense. Especially in the light of Russell's This Morning interview - broadcast on ITV, a sure sign that commercial television knows it's not worth putting up a fight - in which he revealed that it takes him a month to write a script. A month? It took me four days to write "The Book of the World", and it was oodles better than "Voyage of the Damned". And let's not beat about the bush, if I'd written something like "The Stolen Earth" / "Journey's End" as a piece of fan-fiction, then everyone would have laughed. Instead, I came up with something completely different for Doctor Who to do, in under a week. Since I've repeatedly pre-empted this series, but always been slightly more interesting, surely my complete lack of television experience and habit of insulting everybody / telling the truth all the time shouldn't stand in the way? Dennis Potter used to offend almost everyone he met, and it never stopped him. (This is a serious point, by the way. I'm the ideal television writer. Sadly, I'm the ideal television writer circa 1976. Apart from the fact that I'm on the wrong side of the theatre / cinema divide, the modern media is New Labour rather than Old Commie, and anyone involved in it has to be "on message" all the time. This doesn't suit my liver.) I can understand why Russell never decided to draw on my wisdom, since he only seems to be familiar with my early work, and I'm not sure I'd hire me on the strength of Christmas on a Rational Planet. But Moffat knows better. No? Fine, then let's try a different writer recommendation…

19. Make sure you hire the right "cult" comic-book author. Grant Morrison, yes. Alan Moore, certainly, if you can convince him that television isn't a medium of pure and unapologetic evil. But Neil Gaiman? F*** off. Actually, let's think about this in more detail. We might remember that although Alan Moore may have a hatred of all moving pictures now, he's admitted to being a former Doctor Who purist who felt personally offended when Hartnell left, and I do keep saying that the programme needs to remember its original principles rather than revelling in Hollywood set-pieces. Also, Moore wrote early, seminal DWM comic-strips like "4-D War", the soil in which modern-day fan-writers fed their hungry, thirsty roots. So why anyone would conclude that a self-important spinal parasite like Gaiman is the ideal man to work on the series, I have no idea. No, that's not true… I know exactly why, but explaining it would libel two people at once. Let's abandon this whole tectonically-unsafe area now, and turn the clock back to…

20. We need one - just one - proper historical story. We used to call them "straight" historicals, although as we learned in Week Two, even the most upstanding of them can go bendy in the middle. But once, just once before Jonathan Ross' kids get sick of this programme and the BBC cancels it, it'd be nice to see a story set in the past which doesn't involve an alien spaceship crash-landing there or a disembodied intelligence trying to take over the body of Jane Austen. The argument against this seems to be that the twenty-first-century series needs to fulfil its monster quota in order to keep the family audience watching, but this is demonstrably bunk: nobody had a problem with the pan-dimensional psycho-drama of "Turn Left", and it's fair to say that the novelty-shop time-beetle wasn't what held everyone's attention. Moreover, it should be clear by now that if you must have a CGI showpiece, then the public is more likely to respond to something historically "epic" than to a flying saucer or a shape-changing robot. After all, you're less likely to see an army of crusaders sacking Constantinople in the ad-breaks of Ant and Dec, so it has an obvious novelty value (and even children tend to find the men-versus-tigers scenes in Gladiator more exciting than modern space opera). If CGI is better at grandiose architecture than slippery monsters - and, oh, it is - then recreating the past should be this programme's stock-in trade. At least, it should if it can remember how to tell a proper historical story, which brings us to…

21. Historical stories which are actually about the era in question. This list is fast turning into a "Best Of" compilation of things I've already said in previous episodes, but if Moffat can get away with it, then so can I. Over the past few years, the programme has been quite shameless in using history as a form of background scenery, without feeling any need to remind the audience that it's part of how we got here. We can almost (I said almost) forgive "The Unicorn and the Wasp", since it's aping another form of drama rather than trying to show us the '30s, which is why it comes across as a shoddy episode of Poirot with an even shoddier giant insect pasted into the middle of it. More worrying is Gareth's prototype, "The Shakespeare Code", which isn't even set in the Elizabethan era: it's set in a tourist-trap built for Americans and / or Alison Graham, where the only realities are the Globe Theatre and in-jokes. Once again, "Human Nature" scores points for actually reflecting the concerns of 1913 in its themes, although it loses a few for the scene in which the Doctor's squeeze states that women of Martha's colour can't be doctors (a contrived way of saying "hey, boys and girls, people used to be really racist!", even though someone in Joan's position would be far more likely to assume that Martha studied for a slightly dodgy doctorate in one of the colonies). Even the head writer is prone to using other centuries as wallpaper, because I'm still not entirely clear why the decision to feature Queen Victoria immediately suggests the idea of bringing her face-to-face with a werewolf. Or karate monks. But perhaps there's a larger issue here…

22. Monsters that fit the story. All right, back to "The Unicorn and the Wasp". Let's be generous, and accept that they chose a wasp as the villain because of the "Death in the Clouds" connection, rather than because it was an easy special effect to do. (You know why it's not as good as the one in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, don't you? The Harryhausen wasp makes horrible, twitchy little movements with its legs that make you go "wuuuh". The CGI one just floats around like an end-of-level monster from Sonic the Hedgehog.) But it kills people by… stabbing them, poisoning them, and pushing masonry onto their heads. What?!? The killer is a giant alien insect, yet it doesn't even sting anybody, and - from the point of view of the murder mystery, such as it is - might as well be an ordinary human being. This is pure madness, although sadly, it's not a unique case. It was just as berserk to use the Sontarans to tell a story about atmospheric pollution, and even the Doctor has to point out that they don't usually operate this way. It makes sense for an episode like "Rose" to introduce the series to a new audience by using ever-present contemporary menaces like shop-window dummies and… er… wheelie-bins, just as it makes sense for the monsters in a Pompeii-based episode to be made of volcanic rock. But in a story like "School Reunion", the choice of bats as this week's God-awful effect is wholly arbitrary. Bats? In a story about school…? Although I'll excuse "Smith and Jones", because a tale about a hospital being teleported to the moon is so pleasingly mental that the aliens might as well be rhinos as anything else. And on the subject of ill-fitting monsters…

23. Enough of the Daleks. No, really, enough. The horrible truth is that Daleks aren't interesting in themselves, which is why Terry Nation could never get his US Dalek series off the ground. They were superb in the context of '60s British television, because they were so perfectly suited to the harsh monochrome environment and its radiophonic techno-spookery. They started to look obsolete in the early '70s, until Robert Holmes forced Nation to rethink his "Genesis" story (the original outline was barely distinguishable from "Planet of the Daleks") and turn them into an ethical fable. As we've seen, Davros himself only really works in this setting, and in "Journey's End" he could bore for Skaro. With Holmes gone, the Daleks reverted to rubbishness for "Destiny of the", then became Eric Saward's bitches until Ben Aaronovitch reinvented them as a nostalgia exercise. The same issues affect the new series. "Dalek" works because it's iconic; "The Parting of the Ways" works because we've never seen a true Dalek epic before; "Doomsday" works because there's so much else going on; but "Daleks in Manhattan" stumbles by taking them for granted, and so they become second-rate monsters again. And perhaps the greatest flaw of "The Stolen Earth" is its belief that we really, really care what the buggers get up to. But we don't, and neither does the general audience. "Dalek" didn't do much for the ratings, because Doctor Who and the Daleks are so closely-connected in the national psyche that nobody who doesn't already watch the former will tune in to see the latter. "Rise of the Cybermen" saw a much bigger spike in the figures, because people of a certain age associate Cybermen with a specific Golden Age, and wanted to see how the new versions compared. Which means that these days, the Yeti would be a bigger draw than yet another Dalek Invasion of Earth. Right, what else? Oh yeah…

24. Say no to story arcs. Again, my own personal experience tells me what a bad idea these are. Hardcore fans love a nice bit of foreshadowing, but the fact remains that the more importance you place on the arc, the less important the individual stories become. More worryingly in our case, an arc-driven programme can only surprise the viewers by giving them "shock revelations", rather than by using television in an unexpected way… which is what Doctor Who has always excelled at. Fans of arc-heavy sci-fi shows believe everything to be slaved to the end-of-season finale, but this is a dangerous tendency, and one which perhaps led us to expect more from "The Stolen Earth" than it was ever likely to deliver (especially since, for my £139.50 per annum, it was less unexpected than "Midnight"). I'm sure I can't be the only one who feels cheated that "the walls between realities are collapsing" actually turns out to mean "Rose, Mickey and Jackie are coming back for a couple of weeks". The other side-effect of the story-arc culture is that the final instalment ceases to be a narrative, and instead becomes a checklist of Who Lives and Who Dies. In this case, "Journey's End" looks a lot like a universe-hopping edition of I'll Do Anything, in which the companions are lined up in front of the audience and told that one of them will be permanently removed from the continuity. Following the show with Last Choir Standing would have been rather unnecessary, if one of them had actually died. Okay, just one more thing and we're done…

25. Less Confidential, more Totally. Let's come out and say it, Doctor Who Confidential has done everything it usefully can do. Every important aspect of the show's production has been covered (with the obvious exception of writers bitching about each other in restaurants), and increasingly, it's a platform for Russell to explain how "vital" it is for the companions to have dreary, meandering conversations about their relationships with the Doctor. And do you honestly want to see Moffat's leering, snarling face on BBC3 every week in 2010, as he pretends to be humble about having the best job on Earth? No you do not. If we're going to have a "fanzine" show, then surely something along the lines of Big Brother's Big Mouth would be preferable? Then we could all tune in to watch Ian Levine wrestling the Abzorbaloff in a fit of righteous pique. Totally Doctor Who may frequently have made us squirm, but to be honest, it was exactly what we would've liked to see on children's telly when we were kids. Now that the "official" magazine is so repellently dumbed-down (I'm referring to Doctor Who Adventures, which would have been an insult to the intelligence of the seven-year-olds who read the original Doctor Who Weekly in 1979, and which honestly seems to be modelled on the Teletubbies magazine), Totally has more reason to exist than ever. Although I can understand why it'd have to take a year off while the companion is a thirty-seven-year-old temp who looks as if she hates children.

Besides, I'm suffering Kirsten O'Brien withdrawal. I've had a thing about her ever since I saw her as part of a double-act on the London comedy circuit, where she finished the set by rubbing whipped cream into her crotch. You don't forget a thing like that.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Week Twelve: "The Stolen Earth", Minute by Minute

What I was thinking at the time, even if I didn't add the long words and complicated angst until later.

Minute -3. Right. Drink: check. Sausage pasta: check. Empty cola bottle, in case of emergency: check. DVD recorder in full working order, and not likely to blow a sparky thirty seconds before the start of the programme, like it did with "The Unicorn and the Wasp": check. Vague feeling of guilt at the thought that one of the girl contestants on The Kids Are Alright is going to be really, really fit when she grows up: oh, it's not on this week, and they've cancelled The Weakest Link as well. Well, let's hope it's an omen. We're all set for the big Dalek bonanza. Hmm… Bonanza. Dang daga-dang daga-daga-daga-dang daga-daaah-daaaaah, dang daga-dang daga-daga-daga-dang daga-dang daga-dang-dang-daaaaah. Why was a Western series called Bonanza, anyway? "Bonanza" is, in all other respects, a word you associate with supermarket giveaways. Is there time to get the dictionary? Yeah, there's time.

Minute -2. I can't believe I managed to make it this far without seeing any of the trailers. I averted my gaze during the teaser at the end of "Turn Left" (a title that still makes me want to sing '…life is peaceful there'), in an attempt to avoid any "Parting of the Ways"-sized spoilers, so all I picked up from the soundtrack was that "The Stolen Earth" involves a giggling Dalek. And a Red Dalek, 'cos I saw it on today's page of the Radio Times. Oh, and Davros, obviously. And probably Bernard Cribbins. On Thursday, daytime BBC1 showed a trailer, then a short news bulletin, then another trailer, as if testing my diving-to-the-floor-and-putting-my-hands-over-my-ears reflexes. Ahhh, a Red Dalek and Bernard Cribbins, all in one package… it's like Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD all over again. I wonder if Wilfred Mott is going to sit on a pudding in an amusing way?

Minute -1. Bonanza, sense two: a mine or rich vein of ore, according to the dictionary. From the Spanish "calm sea", hence, good luck. That's ironic, for a series that was set in the middle of a bleeding desert. Why am I thinking about Bonanza, when Doctor Who's about to come on…? Oh, I know: it reminds me of Sunday afternoons spent at my cousin's house in the 1970s, during which period he bequeathed unto me his red plastic Hartnell-era Dalek (minus all three of its stalks) and his hideously defaced copy of The Dalek Book. I'm guessing, or maybe just hoping, that this episode is going to be closer to The Dalek Book than any televised Doctor Who we've seen so far. The Radio Times said something about a "Dalek Freakshow" on the front cover… Daleks on stilt-legs, wading through alien swamps, like in that comic-strip with the two-headed dinosaur on page 73? No, that's too much to hope for. Anyway, they don't even need hover-boats these days, they can levitate. Bastards. I remember the days when a Dalek invasion could be halted by a single mole tunnelling under their landing-strip in Kent. It says so on page 66. Wouldn't it be great if some of the Daleks in this episode couldn't see the colour red, though? Or claimed that "J" is the forbidden letter of their language?

Minute 0. Oh, Girl Made of Neon. I was cruel to you, I know: at first, I wanted the BBC to change the channel ident every week, so that our off-air recordings might become a time-capsule of the modern age. But now, I've come to enjoy the way you flirt and tease. After all, you bring me Doctor Who every week, even if it's usually rubbish. No wonder those other neon creatures follow you so eagerly along the embankment, and I'm sure that the knight in armour who rides on the back of the giant hot-dog is pointing his sausage your way. And every week, you lead us to the London Eye, perhaps acknowledging that this is where it all started. Neon may be an inert gas rather than a plastic derivative, but is some form of Nestene Consciousness still buried there, bringing you to life and coaxing you down from your bill-hoarding every Saturday? How I've wished that you might turn out to be the surprise end-of-series villain, although admittedly, that wouldn't make much sense to overseas markets. Invariably, you end up waving your legs out of one of the carriages of the Ferris wheel, like a teenage slapper after too many Cider and Blacks. As if we might look under the hem of your dress at any moment, and see a flashing red sign that says ENTER HERE. Next week, we part, my luminous coquette. Until then… show me the Daleks, whore.

Minute 1. Even the announcer is officially referring to this as "the biggest adventure yet", as if Russell T. Davies has turned into P. T. Barnum (OBE). Oh, here comes the TARDIS. I see the Bad Wolf Effect - which is a bit like the Lynx Effect, except that it makes sexy words follow you around instead of women - has already worn off, although it's nice to see that after so many years of being asked improbable questions by time-travellers, the bystanders of Doctor Who Earth have started responding to queries like "what day is it?" with a direct answer instead of wasting time with "what, you mean you don't know what day it is?". Also nice to see that in England, the first sign of the universe collapsing is bottles rattling on a milk-float, as if creation itself is under attack from the Humphries.

Minute 2. Oh, Lord, now Donna's trying to make the Doctor emote about Rose. Luckily, we have the theft of the Earth to distract us, and - for pedants - the question of why the TARDIS doesn't get transported along with the rest of the planet. Maybe the people who've nicked the world have got some kind of spam-filter that stops alien time-machines being picked up as well. Which is a wise precaution, if you're stealing planets in the same universe as the Doctor. [With hindsight, however… this one improbable feature stops us going directly from Minute 2 to Minute 42. If the TARDIS had been taken along for the ride, then this whole episode wouldn't need to exist.]

Minute 3. Ohhhhhhh dear. This story isn't going to be set completely on Earth, is it? As we all know, the series has developed an almost morbid fascination with the Here and Now over the last few years, to the point where the end-of-season epic has almost become an exercise in seeing how much havoc Russell can cause in the present-day before the reset switch gets pulled. Nobody seemed to feel that the stakes were any lower in "The Parting of the Ways", just because it was set 200,000 years after the Chav Age. Here, the pretext seems to be that we're watching a "Five Doctors"-style reunion for all the regulars, only… sixteen years too early. Because there comes a point in the life of every "cult" series when the programme-makers lose sight of what viewers actually need as part of their weekly fix, and begin to massively overrate the impact of bringing back old characters. Just as Star Trek: The Next Generation could never quite grasp that nobody wanted to see "funny" episodes involving Gene Rodenberry's wife, and just as John Nathan-Turner refused to listen when Robert Holmes said that he had no interest in writing a script involving the Autons, the Master and the Rani, modern-day Doctor Who hasn't considered the possibility that only people who write Torchwood slash-fic ("tenderly, yet with manful strength, he fisted the pterodactyl to the very core of its being…") will wee themselves with joy at the reappearance of Captain Jack.

Minute 4. Wait, that sounds much too unkind. I rather liked Captain Jack in the Eccleston days, and I enjoyed his comeback in "Utopia" a great deal, despite the mediocre pay-off. But apart from appearing in so many light-entertainment shows that it looks as if he's found a way of defying Blinovitch, John Barrowman is now decidedly That Man From Torchwood rather than That Man Who Used To Be In Doctor Who. Once you've seen "Exit Wounds", in which Chris Chibnell's incompetence finally reaches a point of density beyond the event horizon and swallows all light and reason, Jack is simply… tainted. He doesn't belong around here any more, he belongs in a gloomy cellar in Cardiff, pretending to have "issues" with people we don't care about. Either that, or he should be appearing as Prince Charming at the Bournemouth Pavillion. In the wake of Jonathan Miller dismissing David Tennant as "that man from Doctor Who" (we should respond in kind by referring to him as "the one who wasn't funny from Beyond the Fringe" whenever possible), we have to remember that an awful lot of people treat the stars of this show as if they should be doing Panto instead of serious drama, and Big John the Tripod is the showbusiest of the showbiz.

Minute 5. Yes, someone's moved the Earth. We get the idea. No wonder the announcer wanted to Big Up the scale of this episode: it'd be perfectly reasonable to do a story about the Earth getting shunted across the universe as a low-budget one-parter (nobody ever made a big hoo-hah about "The Mysterious Planet", thankfully), but the programme needs us to believe that this is something huge. Ergo, we get (1) a massively over-inflated pre-credits sequence, and (2) lots of anxious close-ups of people who regularly witness the impossible as they look at the sky and say "but that's impossible". Oh, and see how they choose this moment to develop the irritating American habit of putting the names of special guest-stars right after the opening credits, just to make sure that we can't be surprised by the return of Harriet Jones or Martha's mum.

Minute 6. No, look, it's no good. Despite the whole of last week's episode being a last-ditch effort to make us like her, I still don't know anything about Donna Noble. After the first year of Rose and a year of Martha, they were so familiar to us that we instinctively knew which way they were likely to jump in any given situation: when they didn't do what we expected, it was a deliberate surprise rather than an ugly hole in the characterisation. But Donna remains an excuse for Catherine Tate's schtick rather than a character, an empty celeb-shaped space where the heart of the series should be, which is yet another reason that the Doctor has ended up doing most of the hardcore emoting this year. I have no idea how clever she is, how stupid she is, how strong she is, how vulnerable she is, how acute she is, how gullible she is. I have no idea what she wants from life, what kind of childhood she had, what she might be like on a first date (her approach to men varies drastically from episode to episode, according to the comedy needs of the individual situation), how she might vote in an election, or even why she's so determined to stick with the TARDIS. Yet I do know everything I need to know about her granddad, partly because he's a lot more consistent, and partly because Bernard Cribbins is a much better actor. Donna is an individual whose only defining feature is to be "modern", performed by an actress who's been cast purely because of her showbiz appeal. In other words, she's the nightmare companion… Dodo Chaplet played by Bonnie Langford.

Minute 7. I like the way David Tennant says 'I'm taking you to the Shadow Proclamation' as if it's a dodgy nightclub in Aberdeen, and as if he's half-apologising for not being able to take her anywhere classier. Of course, it wouldn't be a proper alien invasion story without fake news footage and Lachele Carl, but I was sort of hoping that this wouldn't be an alien invasion story at all. And while the Richard Dawkins thing is clever, Paul O'Grady always makes me think of the smell of old women. When you remember that he was (inconceivably) given a royal honour on the same day as the executive producer, this programme starts to look like a remarkably camp gentleman's club. "Oh, you must come to my estate in Cardiff next summer, I'm getting two-dozen nubile young catamites to prance around in Ood masks while we shoot apples off their heads."

Minute 8. Good God, UNIT is run by that man from Dempsey and Makepeace. Ah! Incoming spacecraft, now we'll get some action. Obviously, it can't be the Daleks who actually stole the Earth, because that would turn this entire affair into just another routine Dalek-based two-parter: we were promised "bigger", so clearly, something vastly more powerful and interesting is throwing the universe out of whack behind the scenes. Since the walls between dimensions are a-tumbling down, I'm guessing that Daleks from parallel universes are swarming in to take advantage of the crisis. So the Daleks will turn out to be secondary villains for once, thus preventing this whole outing from looking no more apocalyptic than "Daleks in Manhattan". Yeah, that must be it.

Minute 9. So, faced with 26 new planets in the sky, the people of London… run up and down, screaming. No, really. They actually run up and down, screaming. Since the TV stations have had time to analyse the astronomical data, since they've managed to drag Dawkins away from his Romana-shagging activities for long enough to sit him in front of a camera, and since Paul O'Grady's script has been rewritten to include topical material about the end of the world, it must've been… what… at least a few hours since the planet was abducted? Yet the inhabitants of the capital have apparently spent that whole time shrieking, waving their arms around, and dashing through the streets with no particular sense of direction. Aren't their throats sore by now? Why don't they just go home? What are they screaming at, exactly? Why do all the people in the exterior scenes believe it's time to riot, when the audience of a Channel 4 talk-show are happy to sit in a cosy studio and laugh at jokes about drinking furniture-polish? And why do so many people seem to believe it's Judgement Day, when this is significantly less alarming that what happened in "The Poison Sky"? Has the BBC announcer told them it's the biggest catastrophe so far, as well? Oh, and that's all we need: Rose Tyler threatening people with a gun to make them behave. Remember, kids… guns don't kill people, they just make it vastly easier to kill people.

Minute 10. Donna Angst #2. Not only am I still mystified as to the nature of her personality, I don't even know who's supposed to like her. With one exception, none of the Doctor Who fans with whom I regularly chew the Adipose-fat can stand her; my family doesn't seem to want anything to do with her; the kindest things I've heard said about her have been along the lines of 'well, she was all right in "The Runaway Bride", but a whole year…?'; and my extended peer-group finds her ridiculous, which is telling, when you consider how many professional comedians I know. As I've said before, we could have had anybody as This Year's Girl. We could have had Elaine Cassidy, the most companiony actress in the history of time. We could have had Carey Mulligan out of "Blink", at a pinch. Instead, they gave us the female Harry Enfield, with whom almost nobody can empathise. I can't even find it in myself to hate her, I just find it bewildering that someone whose only skills are mugging to the camera and doing silly voices should be somehow mistaken for an actress. And now we have the worst of all possible combinations, Donna Noble in the middle of an overblown sci-fi story-arc. We're supposed to be thinking "ooh, what's the secret of Donna's destiny?", but in fact, we're thinking "please just die". A-hah! The spaceships are sending a message. Is it the people who moved the Earth? Are they going to explain all of this? Oh, wait, there's a thought: maybe they're actually nice, and they've moved the planet in order to save it from the oncoming darkness. Right, the message is…

Minute 11. …oh, Christ, no. It can't just be the Daleks who are responsible for all of this, can it? That'd be the ultimate insult in a season full of insults, as if we're supposed to feel a sense of profound doom-stroke-excitement over the return of a monster that comes back every sodding year and never seems to learn anything. I was, after all, only getting worked up about this episode because I thought we'd have freaky psychedelic Daleks from another dimension. And, more crucially, I was expecting them to be just one element in a trans-universal free-for-all. No, wait… no need to panic just yet. Maybe the Daleks are just taking advantage of this situation, like I thought. Maybe they're only menacing the Earth because it happens to be there. Sod it, maybe one of the other 26 planets is their homeworld from a parallel universe, and they're as confused as the humans are. There's a Red Dalek in the Radio Times, so they must be parallel Daleks of some description, they can't be the boring old ordinary kind. Why is Sarah-Jane so convinced that she and her Bane-spawn are going to die, anyway? She's only ever met really rubbish Daleks before now: the ones she saw on Exxilon were so pathetic that they carried cardboard cut-out TARDISes around for target practice, and the ones she saw on Skaro were 'primitive', apparently. Why does she think that a spaceship full of them is such a catastrophe, when she hasn't seen "Bad Wolf" like we have?

Minute 12. The man from Dempsey and Makepeace has just said 'ladies and gentlemen…' in a dramatic way. Please don't say 'we are at war'. Please don't say 'we are at war'. Please don't say… bastard. Yeah, go on, bomb his building. That'll show him.

Minute 13. No no no no no. Nooooo no no. You're telling me that the Red Dalek - who now gives a "Masters of Earth" speech in front of the obligatory floating-Dalek CGI shot, as if Earth would be of any significance to a species which now has the power to threaten everything that's ever existed - isn't a parallel-universe Dalek, but just their leader? Why would they take orders from a Dalek that camp? It looks as if his subordinates have painted him a funny colour while he was asleep. Gayest. Dalek. Ever. Oh, that's better, we're heading for the Shadow Proclamation Things should kick off now. Judoon, that's what I pay my Licence Fee for.

Minute 14. Donna Angst #3. Now she's defiantly putting herself forward as a representative of humanity in front of the Shadow Proclamation, and she's seriously presented as if we're supposed to be shouting "go girl!" like the audience on Ricki Lake, whereas in truth… well, in truth, we're shouting "put a sock in it, you mouthy slag" like the audience on Jeremy Kyle. Only Catherine Tate can be quite so annoying while attempting to be inspirational. They should get her to perform the "make the foundation of this society a man who never would!" speech, just to see whether the universe ruptures itself out of shame and embarrassment.

Minute 15. Hold on. To recap… whoever took the missing planets (and I'm still guessing, hoping, praying it's not the Daleks themselves) took twenty-four of them at exactly the same moment, i.e. more-or-less our present. But they took Pyrovilia, Adipose Three and the Lost Moon of Poosh up to 2,000 years ago. Erm… why? If they've got the power to steal planets from anywhere in time as well as space, then why draw attention to themselves by taking two-dozen at once? Or, if they don't care who knows about it, then why waste time-travel energy stealing three of them from the past? I mean, apart from giving the writers a chance to insert pointless teasers into the scripts of "Partners in Crime", "Fires of Pompeii" and "Midnight"? See, I said story-arcs were a bad idea. And how can the entire universe be up in arms about the piddling loss of 24 planets, many of them not even inhabited? It's like the United Nations being concerned about the death of a couple of old tramps in Luton. Top marks for the Judoon's use of the phrase "cold case", though. This obviously presents us with the potential for a Judoon spin-off in the style of Waking the Dead, starring Trevor Eve as a tough, uncompromising space-rhino with relationship issues.

Minute 16. Now even the Doctor thinks the Daleks may have been responsible for all this planet-wrangling, assuming that his 'someone tried to move the Earth before…' is a reference to "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" and not "The Trial of a Time Lord". Or that time when the Fendahl got boozed up and tried to knock the planet out of orbit for a laugh, but missed and got Mondas instead. I have an increasingly bad taste in my mouth, which is unfortunate, because I've finished the sausage pasta and it was rather good. On the plus side, the Daleks are twatting the Valiant. But they're also twatting huge swathes of the Earth, which is ominous. There can't be another reset switch at the end of all this, can there? Not so soon after last year's "reversing time" atrocity? Wouldn't it be nice if, just this once, the world saw aliens and didn't immediately forget about them? After all, that's the kind of world we were promised in "The Christmas Invasion", two-and-a-half years ago. Everyone on Earth should be like Wilfred Mott by now. If Torchwood hadn't bottled out with its inane first-episode "my boyfriend says that people only saw spaceships because there was something in the water" blather, then the series might actually have been good: a TV programme set in a version of Britain where aliens are a known quantity would have been a lot stranger, and a lot stronger, than the Men in Black pastiche we ended up with. Since Russell isn't shy about nicking things from comic-books, I might point to what Grant Morrison did on The New X-Men as an example of how you might integrate modern life and non-human pop-culture. But then…

Minute 17. …but then, mention of comic-books just underlines the problem I'm having here. I assumed that this story was going to be like Crisis on Infinite Earths, with the dimensions collapsing, parallel universes overlapping, tripodal Daleks from Earth-17 meeting the Evil Nazi Doctor from Earth-76, Victorian Cybermen fighting with Neanderthals from the future, and history itself going to Hell. Instead, it's another f***ing invasion, like "The Last of the Time Lords" with brand-name monsters. Yeah, and with another pitched battle involving UNIT troops, thanks a bunch. And now Martha's been given a top-secret piece of hardware with a scary-sounding name. You know it's going to do something hopelessly trite in the next episode, because Russell isn't even trying to disguise the way he contrives his stories any more. Just as long as the announcer's there to say "this is the biggest thing ever, ever, ever!", he can get away with it. The sad part is that on this evidence, he's not actually very good at "big": he hasn't had a new idea for an epic spectacular since 2006, but he is still capable of turning in solid, well-characterised "little" scripts. The nature of the series, however, demands an endless stream of gunfights and disaster-movie parodies. Or so he believes.

Minute 18. This is starting to look less like a narrative, and more like Character Options' 2008 action-figure catalogue. At least there'll be more exciting toys than "Old Woman With No Face" in the shops this Christmas. If they do the job properly, then the Red Dalek will be friction-drive instead of battery-operated, for that full-blown retro feel. Oh, that reminds me… according to the Radio Times, loyal viewer-consumers can now obtain Doctor Who Pest Control from the BBC's mail order division. Sadly, this turns out to be a book, and not a brand of rat-poison with a picture of Daleks killing Cybermen on the box.

Minute 19. Dalek mutants - I don't suppose we can call them Kaleds any more, it's political correctness gone mad - are at their best when they look as if they've been thrown up along with someone's stomach-lining. I've vomited Quorn ready-meals that looked an awful lot like the remains of Dalek Caan. It's interesting to note that now Davros has been dragged back into the spotlight (or, more properly, into the shadows on the edge of the spotlight), the control-centre of the Dalek Empire looks more like a decadent court than a passionless military operation: the Divine Fool is traditionally the only one who can speak the absolute truth in the presence of the monarch, as in King Lear, so it makes sense for Davros to accept advice from a gabbling pile of sick with visionary powers. Whose laugh is somewhere between Peter Sellers and Peter Griffin. Nick Briggs is enjoying this far too much.

Minute 20. Donna's growing a second heart, isn't she? God, I wish I didn't have to care about the outcome of this whole stupid… wait a minute! What's that ring she's wearing? Has she always had that ring? I'm sorry, I get edgy about people turning into Time Lords when there are big rings around. I'm still dwelling on that cackling harpy who nicked the Master's finger-bling at the end of "Last of the Time Lords". Has she been soaking up Gallifreyan genes all year, or what…? Oh, f***ing story-arcs.

Minute 21. The real kiss of death for Donna, though, comes in "The Doctor's Daughter" (ironically, the only script that gives her a credible personality, dire as the rest of the dialogue might be). This is a story in which Freema Agyeman - by no means a great actress, but a woman with so much energy and enthusiasm that she's never less than watchable - makes us love her just with the look on her face when she's petted by fish-people, something that Tate simply wouldn't be able to do without dropping her jaw and doing her God-awful cartoon "shocked" expression. Apart from Stuart Fell and his ilk, Agyeman is the most physical performer who's ever had a regular role in this series, a slinky, athletic blur across the screen who did for the 2007 season what Franka Potente did for Run Lola Run. They could use Martha in a Sure for Women commercial: she already looks like the heroine of a modern-day, sci-fi-tinged deodorant ad, who remains eminently snoggable even after running three miles to escape neo-fascist policemen in a futuristic city. Surely this is the "proper" way of things, and the companion should do all the running while the Doctor thinks his way out of trouble? Russell has explicitly said that any modern Doctor has to be young and nimble, but Catherine Tate couldn't run properly even before her air-bags unexpectedly ballooned in this week's episode, and you know the series is in trouble when David Tennant has to do more acrobatics than his sidekick. As we see in "The Stolen Earth", Martha is good for just about anything, whereas even our Creator-God is still struggling to find uses for Donna. All we know is that the Doctor finds her 'brilliant', although we've yet to be told why.

Minute 22. Given that we've already had a reference to Callufrax Minor, the line about bees evacuating the planet before the catastrophe just makes me wonder whether they did a little dance that means "so long, and thanks for all the pollen". The sad part is that although bees really are vanishing across Britain, bee-scientists (I'm going to make a guess at "apiologists", but even I can't be bothered looking it up) have now positively concluded that this is due to a virus rather than stellar migration. I know, 'cos I saw it on Newsround.

Minute 23. Brilliant! Right, so that's the USP of this story: the Shadow Proclamation is going to force the Doctor to lead them into war against the Daleks, which means that for the first time - and against his will - we're going to see him becoming a commander at the vanguard of an immense intergalactic… oh. The bugger's run off. No, don't go! The albinos were just trying to make the story more interesting! If you run away now, then you know you're just going to end up on Earth, jury-rigging another tedious, improbable piece of equipment to end the invasion with the flip of a switch. Go on, get involved in a proper war for once. See what happens.

Minute 24. Meanwhile, on Earth, a typical suburban family is incinerated by the Daleks as a way of establishing that this is serious and tragic. I was right, Russell really isn't trying any more. This episode's got almost as many pre-fab scenes as a Moffat script. Murderous they may be, but at least Daleks are civil enough to point out that their vision isn't impaired when they get paint-balled, just so long-term fans can giggle at the subverted catchphrase. Maybe one of the human heroes is going to sarcastically impersonate a Dalek at some point, just so Davros can say 'no, don't… don't do that'.

Minute 25. In which Sylvia Noble finally gets her Joyce Summers moment. Ah, so that's the Medusa Cascade: clearly, we're being shown all the things that Russell has mentioned in passing over the last four years, although Woman Wept was presumably removed from the universe ahead of time in case the ice-oceans broke the CGI budget. I can't express how bored I am with "rifts" in space-time, although if you want to look on the bright side, then you can see this as a useful demonstration of how the technology of TV affects the content of SF. In the '60s, telepathy and mind control were the "in" things: in an age when BBC drama was all about stagecraft, a creepy internal monologue seemed more instinctive than a laser-gun battle, as well as cheaper. In "The Abominable Snowmen", the climactic struggle between the Doctor and the Great Intelligence is - or was, before it got wiped - entirely done with close-ups of Patrick Troughton's face (and "Midnight" is perhaps unique in being a modern-day story from the same tradition). But now that any idiot with a computer can make wobbly CGI holes in the universe, everything's about "rifts". Why is it called a "Cascade", when it looks like a great big splodge?

Minute 26. Now, y'see, this is exactly what I was talking about in Week Ten. The consequence of using an "emotive" Doctor, whether there's any actual emotion involved or not, is that he has to stare into space and look haunted at regular intervals. This time, the problem is a little more serious than losing the TARDIS down a hole in the ground, and yet… once again, the techniques being used here are all too obvious. The writer needs us to accept that the Doctor is suddenly and unexpectedly on the verge of giving up, so the script has him talk about visiting the Medusa Splodge when he was 'just a kid', as if this prior relationship explains why he looks so morose. "Silence in the Library" had him act out-of-character by suggesting that his future time-crumpet had somehow hit a raw nerve, whereas this has him act out-of-character by suggesting that a hole in the universe brings back the same kind of painful memories as an ex-girlfriend who was killed in a hideous tractor accident.

Minute 27. I've only just realised how good the (surviving) cast of Torchwood are. Until now, this has been rather eclipsed by the fact that they're in Torchwood, and gap-toothed geek-totem Eve Myles had the misfortune to be in "The Unquiet Dead" as well. Removed from that context, even a script as not-awful-but-faintly-disappointing as this one makes them seem rather cuddly. If [consults the Radio Times, because I've actually forgotten her character's name] Gwen Cooper had been the one looking scared on board the TARDIS instead of Donna, then we might actually have been able to feel something. Can we do swapsies?

Minute 28. Bernard Cribbins is really stealing this. Mind you, he's been doing that all year. You do realise, I hope, that this sextagenarian with no combat skills or running-up-and-down potential has been in half the episodes this season (admittedly, I'm counting "Voyage of the Damned")? That's more than Mickey Smith got in 2005. And there's a certain humour in the thought that the failed eco-parable of "The Sontaran Stratagem" involves, as its cliffhanger, the imminent death of the man who used to be Great Uncle Bulgaria.

Minute 29. Oh, it's the Doctor Who Brady Bunch. It turns out that salvaged Sontaran teleporters work like magic ruby slippers, and take people back to their mums in a crisis. Actually, this makes a certain sense: all Sontarans (presumably) come out of a great big vat on their homeworld, so there's no difference between going back to your mother and making a strategic withdrawal to headquarters. That's the second time they've done the 'yes, I know who you are' gag in a single scene. Now I'm the one who feels like saying 'no, don't… don't do that'.

Minute 30. Captain Jack, flirting with Sarah-Jane… this is the most expensive piece of fan-fic since the last season of Buffy. We're really fisting the pterodactyl now. Moments later, we get another all-too-obvious Russell T. Davies technique: the casual mention of something that's likely to be important next year, in this case the Mr Copper Foundation. It sticks out a mile, just like the mention of Mr Saxon in "The Runaway Bride". I'd ask who Mr Copper is, but I'm past caring.

Minute 31. Is it just me, or does Harriet's 'I stand by my actions…' routine sound disturbingly like one of Tony Blair's bleating speeches about wanting history to judge him fairly? Odd, given that "World War Three" specifically set her up as Blair's Good Positive-Matter Twin (the opposite of an Evil Anti-Matter Twin, natch). It should be fairly clear, by this point, that Rose can't get through because only people called "Smith" or "Jones" are allowed in this club. Come to think of it, they could've just called this episode "Smith, Smith, Smith, Smith and Jones, Jones, Jones, Jones".

Minute 32. Jesus, hasn't this scene finished yet? How do you think the viewers who don't watch Torchwood, who don't watch The Sarah-Jane Adventures, and who don't remember "Aliens of London" are going to feel? If my mum's watching this, then I bet she's gone out to make the tea by now. The convention-style get-together of Friends of the Doctor has been going on for nearly five minutes, and all they've done is wire up an interdimensional mobile 'phone mast. I assume this shindig is meant to be some kind of iconic moment, but if I hadn't unexpectedly developed a thing for Eve Myles during this episode, then I'd be bored cockless. Just to rub it in, the dramatic conclusion shows us four different sets of people typing things into computers. If I wanted to watch that, then I'd go and sit in an internet café.

Minute 33. So that's it, is it? All this mammoth co-ordination comes down to is that it lets the Doctor land his TARDIS, even though his inability to get past the Medusa Splodge only became an issue six minutes ago, and the script could've saved us the bother by having him say "we can't go beyond this point… oh, all right, let's try something else". Ah, Davros is back. Thank God, I thought the rest of this episode was going to involve ex-companions reminiscing in bars. But since I've already mentioned action-figures, another thought springs to mind here. When I was a kid, everyone I knew who collected Star Wars figures always had the wrong goody-to-baddy ratio: inevitably, you'd end up with half a dozen different versions of Luke Skywalker, but only one "classic" Stormtrooper. Which is hardly a fair fight. Similarly, this story presents us with twelve familiar Champions of Earth / friends and family, but… only one kind of monster. Bloody Daleks, and standard-issue Daleks, to boot. If they'd done it the Crisis on Infinite Earths way, then we could've had the Doctor facing Davros in the Medusa Cascade, Captain Jack taking out the Sontaran homeworld, Martha fighting a guerrilla war in the universe where Laszlo's pig-faced offspring are America's ethnic underclass, Sarah-Jane defeating the cyborg Benjamin Disraeli, Rose squaring up against the Reaper Brood-Mother at the end of time… that's the sort of thing I was expecting from this episode, anyway. Was it really too much to ask?

Minute 34. That was very nearly a whole minute of people holding up mobile 'phones and trying to look urgent in front of VDUs.

Minute 35. Now… you do realise that when I said I was expecting Davros to say 'no, don't… don't do that' as part of the Daleks' new running-gag programme, I was only joking? I'm still a little puzzled that we're supposed to feel moved by the death of a character whom we never particularly liked and never expected to see again, at least not until the post-credits credits told us she was on her way.

Minute 36. Whoahhh there. So the Doctor couldn't find the missing planets, because the Medusa Splodge was one second out of synch with the rest of the universe? Let's leave aside the thought that this is the same technique he used to conceal the TARDIS in Damaged Goods, by the same author. Let's even leave aside the thought that for a Time Lord, this should be the most obvious hiding-place imaginable. Let's instead ask… could he really not deduce this from the bee-trail? When the signal reached its sudden end, didn't he consider the possibility that it might - feasibly - have been shifted backwards or forwards in time? Especially since the people who've been filching planets have the power to steal them from the ancient past, for some reason? And yet, this relative no-brainer is the thing that makes him stare blankly into space for ten dismal minutes. Remember, Harriet Jones died because he's such a spaz.

Minute 37. Yeah, and you know what else this series really needs? The Doctor banging equipment and shouting 'no no no', while Donna stands next to him with her jaw hanging open.

Minute 38. And so, after all the teaser shots of the figure half-concealed in darkness… after all the speculation about the nature of the New Beast, and all the fuss about the lack of a publicity photo in the TV guides… after all my personal fantasies that he'd be played by Christopher Eccleston, as a version of the Doctor from a parallel universe where he created the Daleks… Davros reveals himself. And turns out to be exactly the same as he was in 1986. Not even the same as he was in 1988, when he seemed to be turning into something more promising. And having spent this episode showing us things we've previously only been told about, Russell now gives us a whole stream of spurious new Time War events, which should inspire Big Finish audios for decades to come. But the real problem here is the writer's crazed belief - almost as mad as the delusion that Daleks are intrinsically scary, even after "Evolution of the Daleks" turned them into such bland, second-rate monsters - that Davros is in some way a great character. The usual claim is that he's a "Hitler figure", but this is bunk: Hitler was a bipolar neurotic who could swing between joviality, sentimentality, political acumen and murderous rage from moment to moment, and if we had a villain like that, then he'd be far more engaging than this one-dimensional monomaniac who sits in his chair and makes hackneyed speeches about mastery of the universe. The truth is that if you strip away the last thirty years of fan-mythology, then Davros is just a stock villain with a bad complexion, and that everything interesting about him in "Genesis" lay in the ethical arguments rather than the character himself. Or aren't we supposed to notice that?

Minute 39. Russell has always been prone to cop-outs, but what's most alarming is the way he can hamstring a script by building whole subplots around them. In "The Sound of Drums", it would've been perfectly reasonable (and far more entertaining) to claim that the Master had spent the last twenty years on Earth, slowly assembling his forces and building himself a political career. Instead, there's some waffle about the Doctor limiting his travel to eighteen months before the "present", just so Our Heroes can spend the whole episode droning on about the boring, poxy satellite system that's brainwashed the population into believing in Harold Saxon. Now look what we've got here. The walls between realities are collapsing, yes? Therefore, you can bring Davros back just by saying that he's the Davros from another universe where he didn't die in the Time War, yes? No. What we get is a painful, drivelling explanation about Dalek Caan making a temporal shift into the past and somehow rescuing his creator. I wouldn't expect anything that weak from Stephen Greenhorn. We know this doesn't make sense, and having the Doctor say 'but that's impossible!' doesn't excuse it. (A bit like one of those dreadful episodes of The Simpsons where the writers can't think of an ending, and have the characters make jokes about the fact that the episode doesn't have an ending. In publishing circles, this is known as "you can't fire me, I quit", and I don't think I can describe how much I loathe it. You might just as well say: "Look, this is shit, isn't it great?")

Minute 40. I see the bad guys are still taunting the Doctor for not having children. Anyone would think that as Russell gets older, he's starting to sense a hole in his life that venom grubs just can't fill. On the subject of biomass, is it really necessary for Davros to scrape off bits of his body and replace them with cyborg parts? If he's got the power to force-grow Dalek mutants, then he must have the power to force-grow new flesh on his stinky old bones. Actually, can't he just cultivate the new Dalek tissue in test-tubes, since even a modern-day lab technician would have no problem replicating his DNA? And why doesn't he give himself his other hand back, either by growing a new limb in a jar (he could challenge the Doctor's spare hand to an arm-wrestling match) or by giving himself a cybernetic one? I appreciate that he likes being in a wheelchair, since it's an important part of his identity, but surely there's no benefit in only having one working index finger with which to punch he controls? Ah, now… Caan has made a prophecy about the future, and wants us to guess which of the Who Gang is 'the most faithful companion'. Well, he can go whistle.

Minute 41. I see Jack's got his teleporter back. That's what tends to happen, when Russell needs to get all the characters into position for the big pay-off (q.v. the pre-credits sequence of "The Sound of Drums", which must surely be in the Top Five of his most monstrous cop-outs). I can't for the life of me work out how Project Indigo might help him with this, but then, logic isn't a criterion here: this is Russell in one of his "it's weird technology, just accept it" moods. I also note that Jack leaves his two sidekicks in Cardiff to fight off the oncoming Daleks, even though they're facing near-certain death, and even though he knows the teleporter can shift three people at once. What a c***. Woo, Daleks in the Torchwood Hub! That must be really, really exciting, if you've got any reason at all to care about Torchwood.

Minute 42. I was just thinking… when we saw "Bad Wolf" for the first time, we weren't taken in by Rose's apparent death in the Weakest Link studio, because we already knew that Billie Piper had signed on for a second series. But the script does at least try to make it look believable, by presenting Lynda Moss as if she's about to become Rose's replacement: when it was written, nobody knew how big Doctor Who was going to be, so it can't have occurred to Russell that people would be thinking "well, if she were going to join the series, then we would've read about it in the papers". What if you did want to kill Rose, though? How would you go about it? Personally, I'd do it by… cutting her off from the rest of the Doctor's gang, portraying her as desperate to get back in touch with him, and then butchering her just as it seems they're about to be reuinted. Hmmmm…

Minute 43. Long run-up. Too long. No cinematic reunion should start with the "lovers" this far apart. Something's going to go wrong, isn't it? Something's going to come between them. Something's… yes! Lone Dalek sniper in the side-street. It's seen them… we're going into slow motion… oh, she doesn't stand a chance. This is it, isn't it? This is really it. Rose is going to -

Minute 44. - ah.

Minute 45. I have the worst feeling in the world. This could, feasibly, be for real: after the debacle surrounding Eccleston's departure, if they were going to (permanently) regenerate the Doctor, then they might well try to cover it up until the very moment it happens. No… no, it couldn't be, could it? It isn't even that I want the Boy Tennant to stay, it's just… at this point in time, with the production-team's judgement impaired by so many different factors, I simply don't believe that anyone competent could be his successor. Ever since "Turn Left" established that something's been tinkering with Donna's destiny, I've had the terrible nightmare-sense that she might be some future shadow of the Doctor himself, and that he might actually regenerate into Catherine Tate. Or worse. I told myself I was being silly, but now, time appears to slow down as I try to deal with the feeling that… that… that there might be a flash of light and CGI in the console room, and that when it clears, Ricky Gervais might be standing there. My stomach feels like it's rupturing, and my pulse is quicker than I ever remember it being, but not in a fun "rollercoaster" way. It's the all-devouring fear that in the next few moments, this series may f*** up even worse than it's been f***ing up for the last twelve months. Even the announcement about Donna being the new companion - the most heartbreaking cultural event that's happened in my entire life - wasn't as bad as this. For the very first time, I actually want to hide behind the sofa, if only to escape the possible horror of the future. No. No. It couldn't be. Surely?

Minute 46. No. It couldn't. It's not just that David Tennant is, supposedly, guaranteed to be in the Christmas Special (because I'm sure there's something funny about that Cyberman-in-a-graveyard shoot, and I wouldn't put it past BBC Wales to stage the whole thing as an elaborate bluff at the licence-payers' expense). It's not even that I'm sure… sure… they wouldn't have been able to keep his departure secret. It's that the regeneration is exactly like Eccleston's last scene. Traditionally, no regeneration should look like any other, unless you're forced to put Sylvester McCoy in a dodgy blonde wig as a last resort. Russell, especially, would be unwilling to stage the same kind of death-scene twice. And I refuse to believe that he'd allow 'I'm regenerating!' to be the Tennant-Doctor's final words. No, you'd only set things up this way if you were faking it.

Minute 47. Wouldn't you?

Minute 48. Wouldn't you?

Minute 49. Right, I've got it. The Doctor is going to regenerate into someone completely different, either a well-known celebrity (if they want to make it look legit) or someone we already know from the series (if they want to go for comedy value, so Mickey Smith is a very real possibility). Then he's going to die. However, his DNA / Time Lord essence / biodata will somehow be transferred to a human host, and it'll turn out that Donna has been a carrier of Doctorness all the time. She's called "Noble" because she's a Time Lord, hence the second heart we can almost hear beating in her chest, and all that jism about her "sacrifice". In other words, she's going to regenerate back into the Doctor we know, thus qualifying her as his most faithful companion. And then, and then, and then the Dark-Matter Cybermen are going to arrive with the Zombie Adric and wake up all the Silurians, and… oh, Auntie Em, it was such a strange dream.

Minute 50. Mind you, I'm only contemplating the "Donna as donor" idea because it's already so familiar to me. This is exactly what Sabbath in the EDAs was supposed to be, after he stole the Doctor's second heart in The Adventuress of Henrietta Street. (You know, the one about the Doctor getting married? Where Moffat only flirts, I go all the way.) My logic - and I use the word loosely, if not actually sarcastically - was that when they needed to change Paul McGann into the next-in-line, the Doctor could literally, definitively die… at which point, his biodata would overwhelm Sabbath's flesh from the inside out, turning his body into the New Doctor as a symbolic "fresh start". It didn't happen that way, of course, not least because the bastards insisted on ripping the heart out of Sabbath's chest after a couple of months. Yet now I'm imagining exactly the same thing happening to Donna, whether she's been Doctorised since birth or just altered through contact with some unlikely Time Lord artefact. Perhaps it's not surprising that I should try to superimpose my own obsessions onto Catherine Tate's gormless, slack-jawed face. Still, I have been known to pre-empt the series in the past, most recently by trying to steal the Earth five weeks before Russell did. Although at least I had the elan to hide it in a book, rather than putting it behind a big splodge in space and covering it up with technobabble. Plus, my Time War was better.

Minute 51. But if nothing else, then this is the only truly meaningful cliffhanger in the programme's five-decade history. It's also the only thing in the last fifty minutes that's managed to surprise me (except in a "I'm surprised how unsurprising this is" sort of way), but then, that seems to have been the point. Now Confidential is talking about the return of Davros. Davros?!? I don't want to know about Davros! Davros is rubbish! The Doctor just got shot, for God's sake!

Minute 96. And now Freema Agyeman is appearing as a guest on BBC3's Glastonbury coverage. The presenters are asking her how she's enjoying the festival experience, how she's coping with the weather, which bands she's seen, which bands she's hoping to see tomorrow. They don't ask her anything about Doctor Who. What's the matter with them, are they not well? The bugger's regenerating, and this woman's read the script of the next episode. G'wan, pin her down and make her talk, like any normal person would.

Now I look back on what I've written, I realise that "my cousin's house in the 1970s" makes it sound as if he permanently lives there.

Is it "Cider and Blacks", or "Ciders and Black"?