Friday, 25 December 2009

Journey's End

I always said I'd stick with Doctor Who until the end of time.

My associate Tat Wood - who, if you're wondering about our relationship, swings erratically between "my wise and trusted friend" and "that git I'd like to punch in the face, very hard and quite often" - is delighted by the prospect of 2010. He's delighted because he wants to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of "Meglos". Not because he actually likes it, you understand: he finds it appealing because he sees it as the ultimate rite of passage, the event you have to sit through if you want to call yourself a Doctor Who fan and prove that you're capable of chewing the gristle as well as swallowing the steak. It's not the worst Doctor Who story ever made, as even Tat would agree. It's just the epitome of wig-wearing, badly-conceived-planet-bearing, late-'70s-but-in-the-early-'80s stupidity. Survive it while treating it as proper television, not making jokes about Space: 1999 or UFO (or Star Maidens, as Tat recently pointed out to me), and you'll be a man, my son. Or a woman, my daughter. No, probably a man, no woman would bother.

Many different geeks of many different hues will be reading this, quite possibly including Tat himself. So I'll divide the comments into discreet paragraphs. And, indeed, discrete paragraphs.

DON'T READ THIS IF YOU THINK THE MULTIPLE SUNS OF "PLANET OF THE DEAD" SHINE OUT OF RUSSELL T. DAVIES. I'm writing these words one day before "The End of Time" (i.e. it's Christmas Eve where I am), but I think we've all seen the pictures of the cactus-faced people from the Christmas / New Year story, even in the Radio Times. Which makes me wonder… if "The End of Time" is reaching its conclusion on the first day of 2010, then is Big Russell also celebrating thirty years of "Meglos"? Does he recognise his own failure, and want to express it in xerophyte form? Is he subconsciously saying "Praise Be to Ti"? Or what?

DON'T READ THIS IF YOU'RE TAT. I REPEAT, DON'T READ THIS IF YOU'RE TAT. Yeah, right, "Meglos" is the stupid-looking one. You know what Tat's idea of greatness is? "The Stones of Blood". In my book, that isn't even broadcastable. Not that I actually like "Meglos". I'm just saying.

Yet, as per usual, Tat makes a good point which we can only see clearly after we've finished swearing at him. Like an aristocrat (in the proper Ted-and-Ralph way, not the being-a-prince-and-dressing-as-a-Nazi way… oh, all right, in the Lady Michelle Ryan's Big Gold Cup way rather than the Slug King from "The Twin Dilemma" on His Evil Throne way), Tat thinks about generations rather than moments. So we should follow his lead and consider the future. Specifically, how the people to come will see this programme.



Look, I'm sorry to say this, but it's probably time. Russell T. Davies made Doctor Who unkillable by bringing it back in the 2005 style, for which we should thank him. It went against all the rules of TV in the middle of what we're now supposed to call the Noughties, and it won. It bloody won. Of course, in the process, it spawned a number of imitators. All of whom kept the format, but abandoned the risks. Robin Hood? Doctor Who with macho. Merlin? Doctor Who with spells (watch it back-to-back with "The Shakespeare Code", and see what strikes you). Spooks…? Well, Spooks was "conceptualised" even before Chris Ecc, but it's now feeding off David Tennant's prajna in a big way. However, human entropy insists on turning all good ideas into cack, and we can see it here. People copy Doctor Who; Doctor Who-makers go to BAFTA ceremonies, where they rub various body-parts with the folk who do the copying; the Doctor Who-makers start to believe that the flattery must be true, and ergo start making a version of Doctor Who which copies the copies. The result is a levelling-out of energy that makes Our Programme look more banal with every episode.

It's unkillable, but it's wrong. Thrice-wrong now that the series has taken the coward's route, and replaced Tennant with a poxy, gormless, quasi-sexy young Doctor who might possibly turn out to be Tennant II in the public imagination. It is, if you will, like the undying corpse in eternal agony who turns up in Tales from the Crypt. Future generations will remember this series as "One of Those CGI Programmes", and it's apt that Russell T. has compared the indestructible central character with Sherlock Holmes, given that Sherlock Holmes is now the title of an FX-driven film which also has very little to do with the original. It's tempting to go for the easy shot, and point out that Big Him is now living in Los Angeles, yet the truth is that we should've known something was wrong as soon as "The Sound of Drums" showed us a version of modern-day Britain in which nobody exists unless they’re on TV.

All right, I'll say it. I hate this programme now. I hate the way that David Tennant - a brilliant, scintillating young actor, half a decade ago - has been turned into the laziest hack in the country thanks to even-lazier writers who earn their keep by scripting "things David Tennant always does as the Doctor". I hate the self-indulgent, ultra-masturbatory drivel that comes from treating the male lead as an object of fetishism ("Forest of the Dead" was bad enough, but the final minutes of "The Waters of Mars" were an insult to all human intelligence). I hate the fact that Doctor Who no longer means "going to strange places and seeing what happens", but "casting celebrities and seeing how much publicity we can get by putting them next to shite CGI monsters". I hate the thought that the mythology with which I grew up is now being re-routed for idiots who like superhero movies. "Talky bit, suggested menace, special effects set-piece, talky bit with sad orchestral music, set-piece number two, increase in menace, effects climax, hugs."

Hey, but it's Christmas! So look on the bright side. Next year, we get a whole series run by Moffat. The man whom Russell T. Davies cited as having solid gold brain-cells (even though his ideas ran out even before he became producer and chief writer, unless "Silence in the Library" really was a demo script he wrote in 1992, as many of us have suspected); the man who went on record as saying that he doesn't want to be remembered as the one who "broke Doctor Who" (bit late to worry now… he broke it with "The Girl in the Fireplace", a story which was quite good in itself - at least, when there were killer clockwork robots on the screen and the author didn't have to pretend to care about credible female characters - but which damned the series to an eternity of inane pretend-sexiness). And look what he's giving us! Churchill and the Daleks. A two-part Silurian story written by Chris Chibnall. Richard f***ing Curtis. Some of these are still in the "unconfirmed" file, but the fact that they even exist as rumours should tell you everything you need to know. Anyone would think the new boss is deliberately hiring the worst people imaginable, just to make himself look good. Except that he's also (supposedly) doing a two-parter which involves both Professor River Song and the Weeping Angels. Riiight. Big new ideas.

I've said, over and over, that the Doctor Who spin-offs might have been world-exploding if they'd been controlled by vaguely competent people. Instead, BBC Wales hired Chibnall for one, and then managed to sink even deeper into the offal-pit of ineptitude by finding Phil Ford for the other. Now Doctor Who itself is about to be run by the worst possible person, not because Moffat is a bad writer in himself - he isn't, and if those of you who still resent me would like to re-examine that "Pissing Blink" comment, then I think you'll find I was praising him for a certain sort of script - but because he's always going to take the easy option. This is, and always was, a programme about experiment and experience. It's the highest point of licence-fee telly. Nowadays, though, its creators always play safe.

What I want for Christmas, geek-wise? A Doctor Who writer with balls. Or ovaries, they'll do. Glands of any description would be good. But given the line-up for 2010… may I skip out now? I really, really, really, really don't want to see what happens next. I'm sure that the older nerdlings among us have felt the desire to give up at some point, the way I did during the cold, stark horror of Season 24, or in the most insipid period of the BBC Books run, or after "The Impossible Planet". But they were all cases of Doctor Who being Not Very Good. Now it's different. Now it's a case of Doctor Who being… well, nasty. Cynical. Smug.

Of course, I'll take it all back if "The End of Time" turns out to be half-decent.

DON'T READ THIS UNLESS YOU'RE ACTUALLY MOFFAT. "Mangling the English language"…? Is that really the strongest comeback you can manage? You're becoming complacent, y'old twat. You can do better than clich├ęs. And please do so, or everyone else will want to give you a good slap as well.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Day Four... Ooh, I'm Getting Into This Now

Yeah, I still like this week's Torchwood. Sorry about that.

To misquote Hugh "Take Me Up the Arse, America" Laurie, who did the voice-over for a US breakfast cereal ad that's since become better-known as a gag about Michael Jackson on Family Guy (God, that's too many references even for me, but please bear with me because it'll get even more obscure by the end of this entry):

The left-wing kid in me hates the fact that the 456 are automatically evil for trying to take children away. I mean, they gave us a Hello-style tour of their charming tank, didn't they? And we don't know that Animatronic Boy is suffering. He may be having a great time in there, acting as a Macra's conscience and swanning around the universe like the navigators in movie-Dune. What the vomiting 456-beast says to Captain Jack is technically correct, after all: we really don't give a toss about the children, unless they're our own.

But the left-wing adult in me likes the fact that politicians are being this awful in something approaching the Doctor Who universe. Indeed, I think we can describe Children of Earth at a stroke with the words '"The Sound of Drums" done properly'. Or possibly '"The Ambassadors of Death" with balls'.

Also, I bet that someone involved in this series (probably Big Russell himself, but you never know) has seen Cosmic Slop. A 1994 TV movie so little-known that it doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry, but which features a similar pseudo-dilemma on behalf of the political class, i.e. the US government has to consider whether to give a sizeable proportion of its black population to aliens in return for massive and immediate wealth. The "we could save billions by giving them Chavs" scene is almost identical.

Beat that, Tat.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

One of Us is Real... Is It Me?

Apparently, they do work.

I've been on prescription anti-depressants for about a year now. I've mentioned this before, but I've never mentioned the most important (and obvious) effect: the dreams.

We dream about things we know. When we dream about things which seem unfamiliar, they're made out of things we've seen and heard, half-seen and half-heard: a strange room is a room we might have known from infancy, sexed-up with images we've picked up from TV in the intervening years. At least, that's what I've always expected, and that's what I've always argued. But over the last twelve months, ever since I started taking the pills, every single night has been an away-match. There's not much percentage in trying to explain the details, because the sheer amount of sensual information in even one of these dreams - experiencing every twist of the landscape, every niche of the architecture, every sound and smell and peculiarity of a completely unknown environment - would need pages and pages and pages. And quite possibly pages. I'm there, in a way that I'd previously assumed you can only be "there" in real, physical, three-dimensional space.

I'm in no way superstitious, in no way New Agey. Quite the reverse: I'm a hardcore rationalist, no spirits or extra-sensory avatars allowed. Yet I can't find any explanation for what I've been witnessing over the last three-hundred-odd nights, and saying "the drugs are giving me delusions" just isn't a good enough answer. Yes, they probably are giving me delusions, but... where are those delusions getting their information from? How can I be so aware of the precise details of hillsides, libraries, streets, museums, oceans, offices, wastelands that I've never visited / seen on television / read about in books / even imagined? Why do I know what the tiling looks like in this house? Why do I know where all the best picnic-sites are, on a patch of ground where I can find myself tripping over every last knoll? Why do I meet complete strangers and know them in so much detail, right down to the jawbone-structures of faces I've never seen...? Psychic phenomena can kiss my arse, yet I simply can't account for this glut of data in any way except - oh, atheist gods forgive me - by assuming that I'm tapping into some peculiar Sheldrakian mass-consciousness. I like to think I'm an imaginitive human being. But my imagination isn't up to this level of creativity, and it's certainly not up to inventing a new territory every single bloody night without ever repeating itself. It is, quite simply, as if the drugs have blown something open in my head. And now I'm assimilating other people's sensory information into my own delusions.

And no, I don't believe in telepathy either.

But stranger than the otherness-of-place is the effect on time. We all know that time in dreams doesn't mirror time in reality, yet the hours spent asleep seem to be stretching in ways I've never experienced before. I've occasionally woken up sobbing, because my dream-self believes that it's been trapped in Bad Place A or Bad Situation B for months, and doesn't believe it'll ever escape. On the plus side, I've also experienced whole chunks of lifetime that simply shouldn't be possible over the course of seven hours. Example:

Last night, I was a member of a (wholly imaginary) film club that met every Thursday night to watch (also imaginary) kitsch films of the 1950s and 1960s. I remember those non-existent films in detail. Also the building in which we met, the grounds outside, the other members of the club, the terrible snacks we used to make in the tiny (pretend) kitchen... oh, and a (similarly imaginary) member of my (make-believe) family used to pick me up in her car at the end of every film-evening, usually with a (spurious, but consistent) passenger in the front seat. I believe the family-member was my cousin, and the passenger was a female friend of hers whom I found rather snidy and annoying. I say "usually", because I went to at least five weekly screenings in the course of the dream. On one occasion - when the film was some dreadful Irwin Allen-type schlock about cities under the sea, much like Stingray with real people instead of puppets - I had to go outside and tell my cousin that the film had a few minutes left to run, and yes, it was shite but I had to stay anyway. Why this sense of completism...? I felt duty-bound, since I worked for a magazine which dealt in all things pop-cultural and quasi-ironic. I remember the exact floorplan of the offices, not comparable to any real building I've ever visited. But I still knew where all the facilities were, not to mention the complete cast of employees, one of whom was an absolute bastard with whom I had a running feud. Fortunately, I also knew who to talk to in order to piss him off, and there was a... no, it's too complex to explain here, but the ramifications lasted for weeks. I particularly remember the time when I had to review a complete DVD boxed set of The New Avengers, and although I recall writing a detailed precis for younger readers which explained the need for Gareth Hunt to do "action" sequences beyond the capabilities of the ageing Steed, it was nonetheless a boxed set of The New Avengers from a parallel universe in which half of the stories were set in space. This may sound random, but my subconscious had thought about it to such a degree that the episode with the giant rats in the sewers (you know, the one that was shamelessly ripped off by "The Talons of Weng-Chiang") took place on a space-station in upper-Earth orbit which for some reason had an archaic sewage system. I still remember the plot, once again in disturbing detail. I could storyboard most of the chase scenes even now.

Eighteen months, I worked at that place. Eighteen months, with occasional film-club nights, of which - I admit - I remember only five. Eighteen bloody months, learning every crook of the building, every idiot twitch of my co-workers, every quirk of that game they played where... actually, that's probably too much detail as well, although I'm thinking of remaking it in the real world. But I had to suffer eighteen months of it. Twatting geeks. Eventually I even had to meet their friends outside of work, and they were hideous.

And then I woke up.

(Wait. Was there an episode of The New Avengers with giant rats in the sewers? I'm convinced that there was, even when awake, but it also sounds like the kind of thing I might have contrived while sleeping. I'll look it up later.)

The point is that I'm honestly not sure what's solid any more, because if one day is separated from the last by eighteen months of make-believe which feel at least as intense as everything else, then you're bound to lose continuity. Most peculiarly, I believe I'm living in a world where I just saw two episodes of Torchwood that were actually good. This is improbable, yet the detail was such that I'm inclined to think they were real. Then again, everything seems that detailed now, and further doubt is cast by the fact that the episodes in question featured Katy Wix. Katy Wix...! The name probably means nothing to you, but it has a full-on resonance for me (and those of you who used to read the Randomness Times may remember a photo in which she appeared as an octopus in a top hat). Ever since I went all stand-up in 2006, I've made a point of seeing her Edinburgh shows in preview, and not for any mentalist stalker-like reasons. She's quite simply quite good. A few months ago, however, I finally came face-to-face with her and tried to say hello. I felt I could reasonably do this, since she'd performed in some of the sketches I wrote for Recorded for Training Purposes on BBC7. So of course, my absolute social ineptness caused me to come across as a mentalist stalker, after which I ran away and resolved never to try talking to talented people ever again. Katy appears in many of my dreams these days, for the fairly obvious Freudian reason that she represents the whacking great gulf between my absolute competence as a writer and my absolute incompetence as a human being. Her appearance in the mythical good Torchwood story is, therefore, both clearly symbolic and just taking the piss. Although I note that whereas she's an alert, intelligent, sparkly-eyed young woman in the real world, here she's playing a fat Welsh chav with the complexion of BBQ-flavour Pringles. And with terrible teeth. I'm sure her teeth aren't that bad in the real world, I would've noticed.

The thing is, though... if we assume that what I think I'm watching is real, then Torchwood is suddenly working because it's abandoning all the '90s-style "Cult TV" trappings that led Chr*s Ch*bn*ll to try to make it as much like Angel as possible, and trying to be a proper BBC drama serial instead. What I think I saw was like Quatermass without the smug intolerance of Nigel Kneale or the drivelly nostalgia of Mark sodding Gatiss. No, wait, it was like a modern version of A for Andromeda (hence the plot device of aliens-send-instructions-for-receiver). And it was clearly better than either of the other modern versions of A for Andromeda, i.e. the God-awful BBC4 remake and the Hollywood one with the sexy-older-woman out of CSI, whatever it was called.

Did I really see that? I actually care what's going to happen in episode three. That's not natural for Torchwood, is it?

It's past nine o'clock in the morning. I've been awake for over 24 hours now. I want to go to sleep, but if I do, then it might be years before I can think about this again.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Thumbnail Review: "Planet of the Dead"

Hahahahahah. Hahahah.

No, but seriously. Where's the real Easter Special?

God, how do you describe the awfulness of that last hour...? Let's start with basic scriptwriting principles. The whole point of transporting a London bus to the middle of the desert is that it puts the everyday inside the impossible. Yet we begin this story with an aristocratic cat-burglar doing the full Pink Panther schtick, as if to demonstrate that nothing about this story exists in the real world. Within ten minutes, everything here has been established as a fantasy-telly standard with no grounding in anything we might recognise, so we're basically watching Spice World II: The Scorpion Nebula. Worse, the people on the bus who aren't shameless works of self-indulgent pap-fiction turn out to be the same jokey working-class fodder we saw in "Father's Day", which means that their only function is to (a) die or (b) cry until the Good, Wonderful, All-Powerful Doctor reassures them with thoughts of chops. Except for the one who is, bizarrely and uselessly, psychic. This is followed by ten minutes of arseing-around in the desert which seem to exist only to prove how great David Tennant is, and to prove that nothing matters in storytelling terms except the need to invent new forms of faux-science to push the plot along. After that, there's twenty minutes of the Doctor explaining alien things to Michelle Ryan, whose complete lack of charisma beats the programme to death like a Medieval child who's been born with the wrong number of heads.

And then, Lee Evans.

After half an hour, nothing interesting has happened. Then there's some sub-Star Trek bollocks about wormhole-making things destroying Earth, which makes the same mistake as the very worst pulp SF of the '50s: saying that Earth is going to be destroyed doesn't make things seem dramatic, unless you can make it palpable. We're told that this is important because we see some CGI skeleton-fish on a hologram, and we're told it's a major crisis. We don't care. We've got no stake in it. It's not a major crisis, it's just Tennant running around and twiddling with improbable technology, while his sidekick makes some smug comments which are supposed to establish her as a strong, independent woman but actually make her seem like an over-talkative action figure. Finally, the manta-ray monsters turn up, and they're as trite and as tedious as everything else. Oh, what a surprise! They're defeated by a spurious piece of machinery. We've been brought on this journey just so we can look at a flying bus. Yeah, thanks. If we wanted that, then we'd watch Harry Potter, like everyone else.

Never have I felt more justified in my decision to f*** off and be somewhere else when this series - the series I've followed since I was two years old - finally dies. This isn't Doctor Who. It isn't even sophisticated enough to qualify as fan-fic.

(For the version that was written before broadcast, see this week's Randomness Times. Which is probably funnier, because I was less annoyed.)