Easter Whoathon

So we spent Easter Monday watching some Doctor Who. This is what we found…

(You’ll notice we couldn’t fit in all of the Doctors, so this event – sorry, exercise – is likely to be repeated, to continue the Earth chronology. Something to look forward to.)

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If you join this group absolutely nothing of value will happen

More than any previous election – much more – the General Election last week was defined by strong, vocal public opinion. There are lots of reasons – the TV debates, the economic crisis, and most of all the internet. Social networking sites were awash with sweeping statements and twitter was atweet with downright irrational feeling on all sides (or does it just seem irrational in 140 characters?). For once, the negativity displayed by the public actually outweighed the negative advertising of the actual parties.

Which, on the whole, is no bad thing. If it got people interested, if it got people passionate, if it actually got people down to their polling station (and the turnout suggests that it did), then hurrah for the internet. If it meant people were better informed (a bigger if, certainly) then also hurrah. People exercising their democratic right to have a point of view and encouraging others to engage with politics is most definitely a Good Thing.

Only… some people haven’t realised that the time for that has now passed. That the election is over and, however thrillingly ambiguous the result, the role of the public has now ended.

So there are vociferous groups popping up on Facebook declaring that ‘if 100,000 people join this group then it proves David Cameron should never be Prime Minister!’ and hashtags across twitter presuming to tell Nick Clegg what decision he should make about a coalition – and Lord knows what’s going down on the BBC’s ‘Have Your Say’ pages, I haven’t dared to look. Invariably, the people who are being most militant in their anger are those who voted with the expectation of something completely different happening. They wanted an unexpected Labour win. They wanted an unlikely Lib Dem majority. And, ad nauseum, they are determined that the Conservatives can’t possibly have any say in the running of the country. Because it looks like the Conservatives might now have that chance, people are beating the walls and screaming ‘my vote has been ignored!’

Well, actually your vote was not ignored. (Unless you’re one of the people who got turned away at 10pm. But on the telly they all looked a bit mad and wet so maybe that’s okay.) Every vote was counted and, whilst the Conservatives didn’t get a majority government, they got the majority vote by quite some margin, which would be true even under proportional representation – so if anyone can make a coalition work, it’s them. You might not like it, but that’s democracy for you.

So 40,000 people on Facebook are against a Lib Dem coalition with the Conservatives. Why do they think that means they should be given special attention? They should try fighting all the people who voted for the BNP. The BNP lot would win – partly because they’d fight dirty, but mainly because there’d be over ten times as many of them. Getting together a-lot-of-people-what-reckon-the-same-as-me does not demonstrate that you should get your own way, and for the sake of keeping the BNP under control we must be extremely grateful for that.

By all means write to your MP about the unfair voting system. Sign petitions and go on a protest if you really care. There’ll probably be another election later this year so you can vote out your MP if they ignore you. We are privileged to live in a country where we are allowed and encouraged to make our voice heard in these ways. But the system requires a government with decision-making power to enact any such changes, and the people who are in the best position to form one are doing their best to make it work – and indeed, the grown-up way in which they’re going about it is the first positive sign that those of us who hoped for a hung Parliament were right about its possible advantages for our political system: it has forced parties to work together, to stop bickering and look for common ground in the hope of finding mutually satisfying solutions to problems. That’s democracy.

So we may end up with a Liberal/Conservative coalition – and if we do, it will be because a lot of very clever people have found a way to make it work. You might not like it, but using the internet to build up an artificial sense of majority feeling is not only undemocratic, it’s actually not your place. As John Finnemore pointed out in his excellent From Fact to Fiction play None of the Above, the reason we elect other people to do the governing is that they know a lot more about it than we do. Even with a hung Parliament, the decisions about what happens next lie with People Who Know More About It Than You. Do you think Nick Clegg’s going to see the #dontdoitnick hashtag on twitter and suddenly think ‘oh my GOD, there are people out there who think I shouldn’t do it – I’d better NOT do it!!!!’?

He’s not.

So sit back and enjoy the drama and complexity of what’s unfolding while the people whose job it is to sort out the mess get on with it. Unless you’re one of them, you’ve had your say – now go back to tweeting about more important things like Doctor Who.

I was bullied by people like him…

Naturally, when I watched this year’s annual Christmas disappointment – i.e. Doctor Who – the things that bothered me were variations of the usual questions, like: does anybody find these topical references to the economic downturn anything other than utterly embarrassing? Did nobody edit this script before the actors started learning these long, long scenes of dull exposition? Did Russell T. Davies really think that multiple John Simms wearing dresses was the doom-laden cliffhanger image befitting the penultimate episode of David Tennant’s Doctor? Doesn’t Bernard Cribbins deserve better? Doesn’t Timothy Dalton deserve better? And, generally, why oh why oh why oh why…?

But I was already resigned to the whole two-parter being the uncomfortable enema that the series so badly needs, and everything this year has led me to prepare myself for such questions. The question that I wasn’t expecting almost slipped me by at the time of broadcast but is now possibly the most concerning thing about the whole episode, and it is this:

He said what about Good Queen Bess?

So unlikely it seemed, I thought I must have imagined it – so I went and checked it out. And I hadn’t imagined it.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYRK1X3qJ_c&hl=en_GB&fs=1&%5D

What David Tennant’s Doctor says is this (in his most irritating mockney): “Got married! That was a mistake. Good Queen Bess. And let me tell you, her nickname is no longer…” (does his most irritating mockney oops-missus-I’ve-been-naughty face).

Unless I’m totally misinterpreting Russell T. Davies here, what he wrote for the Doctor to say was the pre-watershed equivalent of “then I shagged Queen Elizabeth”. And whilst I think I am accurately imagining Russell T. Davies chuckling to himself as he knocked the line out, a little chunk of my childhood died when its meaning really dawned on me.

The Doctor has never been interested in sex. When Paul McGann kissed his companion in 1996 a lot of fans kicked up a fuss, though in actual fact it all turned out to be all rather innocent. The new incarnation of the series has had various female companions boringly fall in love with the Doctor and he has formed some strong attachments to them, though this isn’t necessarily a problem as love is a noble thing.

But by making the Doctor a person who casually refers to the notches on his bedpost (whether he did it within wedlock is hardly the point), he has become something that the Doctor has never been before – someone I despise. Tennant’s Doctor was already headed in this direction: he’s vain, a show-off, effortfully trendy – the cool kid in the playground rather than the outsider the Doctor ought to be. But now he is the kid who brags about how many girls he has casually felt up behind the bike shed, which is either misogynous or simply shows a lack of respect for other people (the brush, incidentally, which tarred all gay people in T. Davies’ Queer as Folk). The most sinister thing is that Russell T. Davies, who clearly finds nothing at all objectionable about such bragging, has snuck this character up on us bit by bit, delivering the final blow as a casual one-liner that actually exacerbates the nastiness when you analyse it.

It goes further than a loss of innocence; it makes the Doctor, who has always stood for moral values, respect and equality, a terrible role model for the very people who adore him. I’ve been told by various people that they think David Tennant is the best Doctor ever; sorry folks, but I simply can’t wait to see the back of him.

The Cambridge Prom

Of all the things that have made me cross this year, this has made me the crossest. Yes, even crosser than Doctor Who. Because as a former Cambridge music undergraduate I can only describe last week’s musical “celebration” of the University’s 800th anniversary in the Royal Albert Hall as a big pile of wank.

Well, actually as a former Cambridge music undergraduate I should probably be able to find a more eloquent way of putting it, but the contents of the prom suggest that expectations of the university have dropped.

What was in it? First the presence of Prince Charles was announced by a gloriously camp Willcocks arrangement of the national anthem, in many ways the highlight of the concert. This was followed by a couple of very insignificant works by a very significant dead Cambridge composer (Vaughan Williams), a couple of insignificant works by two fairly significant living Cambridge composers (Jonathan Harvey and Judith Weir), a very slight new work by, I fear, a completely insignificant Cambridge academic (Ryan Wigglesworth), a set of liturgical canticles by a composer significant only in the tiny field of Anglican music (Stanford)… and finally, AT LAST, a significant work by a significant composer who never went to Cambridge at all, viz. Saint-Saëns. Yes, he received an honorary degree from the university, but so did Mother Teresa, it doesn’t mean we can claim them as our own.

This cowardly programming would seem to suggest that Cambridge composers have produced so little of significance that, besides commissioning a new work from somebody that not even a regular concert-going audience would have heard of and falling back on some banal Anglican crap, we need to rely on a composer only tenuously linked to the university for a proper work.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. From giants of the rennaissance like Gibbons, to the greatest English composer of the first half of the 20th century, Vaughan Williams, through to extremely fine living composers like Jonathan Dove, George Benjamin and Thomas Adès, there ought to be enough music to fill a whole concert series before it becomes necessary to rifle through the list of honorary degrees.

For the non-musicians reading this let me try to find a way of putting it into context: imagine the BBC ran an evening of programmes celebrating 90 years of innovation and success. The inclusion of Stanford would be like running two episodes of My Family back to back, whilst Ryan Wigglesworth’s new work would be the equivalent of the BBC asking for a special celebratory edition of BBC 7’s satirical sketch show Newsjack. The decision to make the main event of the evening a symphony by Saint-Saëns would be like the BBC rounding off with an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So the question remains, what the fuck were they thinking??? If Stanford and Wigglesworth, why not Richard Vranch and Kit Hesketh-Harvey? At least the concert wouldn’t have been so bland.

Bland and conservative, that’s what it was. Qualities which aren’t usually associated with Cambridge University, but perhaps judging by both the concert itself and its enthusiastic sell-out audience, aspects which apply to more of its alumni than it might care to admit.

Robin Holloway (a very fine living composer himself) has written far more forgivingly about the debacle here.

We are coming! Back!

Damn you, Russell T Davies. Just when I’ve concluded that you’re a hugely overrated, talentless hack who shouldn’t ever be trusted with a narrative structure again, and having long since established that Torchwood is irredeemably crap, you go and do something like Torchwood: Children of Earth.

If you haven’t watched it, here’s the revelation: it’s brilliant. Yes, it’s silly and Welsh, but what Russell T Davies has (finally) managed to do is find a tone that revels in the silliness of the concept and indeed Welsh people, whilst maintaining really high stakes, a sinister atmosphere, and (a really refreshing development, this) really stylish visuals and action sequences.

Of course, I’ve only seen the first two episodes of five parts, and perhaps the whole thing will explode as horribly and disappointingly as the T Davies-scripted finale to last year’s season of Doctor Who. But for now, I’m going on record as saying that parts one and two were both skilfully handled and excellent entertainment.

Episode one displayed some trademark T Davies flaws but written with such restraint that they suddenly became strengths; we saw enough of characters’ backgrounds, relations and feelings to really invest in them, without the mawkish tedium of the soap operas surrounding the companions in Doctor Who. There were occasional emotive soliloquies, but with an underplayed cynicism that made them infinitely more moving than the equivalent in the programme that fathered them. And a truly brilliant, multiple cliffhanger at the end of episode one.

Let’s hope for more of the same. Ideally in the next Doctor Who special as well, please.

Dr Who gripe #517

So – breaking news, unless you were listening to David Tennant and Catherine Tate’s stint on Radio 2 this morning – Tate is to return to Doctor Who in one of the specials this year.

You know I’d only be blogging this one if I was cross about it. And cross I am. Why? Is it because of the “spoiler”? Lord, no. We all know Russell T. Davies will have it splashed all over the Radio Times long before we get to be surprised by it.

And it’s not that I didn’t like Tate’s contribution to the show either. After a pretty dreadful start she really grew on me.

No, here’s my gripe: it’s that last year we had to sit through fifteen bloody minutes of her character being written out of the series forever (she can NEVER REMEMBER THE DOCTOR or she’ll DIE!!!), which felt pretty pointless at the time. But now, knowing that she’s going to come back after all, I’m wondering why oh why oh why did we have to sit through it AT ALL????

The same happened with Rose (“will I ever see you again?” *close up on Rose’s weepy teary face* “you can’t…” *another long lingering close up of Rose’s weepy teary face*) – written out FOREVER in a parallel universe. Only to pop up again after a little while.

And then there was Martha, who gets a lengthy tedious leaving scene every time she turns up only to feature yet again, on one occasion actually in the next episode.

Oh, not to mention the Daleks – killed off FORVER by being wiped from history, forcing writers to come up with increasingly tenuous reasons for their survival when they inevitably appear again because the kids would get upset if they didn’t. Ditto the Cybermen. We saw the Master’s body incinerated, but I’ll bet you he’ll be cropping up at some point in the near future.

It’s like Russell T. Davies has an obsessive compulsive need to kill his characters off COMPLETELY UTTERLY DEAD, then like some hyperactive playground kid realised they’re not dead after all. He doesn’t seem to realise that dramatic exits a) only really work once and b) don’t work at all with the benefit of the hindsight of knowing that they weren’t really exits after all. And c) aren’t all that dramatic when they happen every bloody episode.

Just once in a while I’d love it if a somebody said “well, bye Doctor, see you around” and the episode ended STRAIGHT AWAY. But that would be efficient writing, something Russell T. Davies has repeatedly proved himself incapable of (except, oddly, when he was still writing for Why Don’t You?). I’m longing to be proved wrong, but in tonight’s episode, due to be broadcast in a little under an hour, my prediction is that we will meet a whole load of exciting new characters and Russell will have left a good ten minute chunk of the hour-long episode for them all to say goodbye in.

Helloooo Jacqui!

A story here about the Home Office’s plan to monitor web-browsing habits to build up a database of our very private details. Civil liberties, blah blah, more data to be lost on trains, blah blah, etc etc.

Beyond the whole worrying idea that this level of surveillance is building up detailed private information about all of us, there is an issue here which nobody seems to have mentioned yet – viz. the plain and utter wrongness of the idea that a person’s web browsing habits can build up a clear picture of who they are (or to quote Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, “who I’m associated with, perhaps what my politics is, what my religious preference is and shopping habits are”).

Okay, in many cases that’ll work, because many web users are simple people with simple needs and their browsing habits will be restricted to social networking, news stories, fundamentalist religious websites and ebay. But let’s look at those of us who aren’t so simple.

Case study #1: let’s imagine the Home Office pieced together the character of John Finnemore from his reading habits at the British Library; a cursory sweep through his blog suggests they’d be left with the baffling image of a man whose professional song lyric writing, primarily in the style of by P. G. Wodehouse though possibly influenced by Idi Amin and P. L. Travers, is shared with his enthusiasm for barbed wire (specialising in the area of early US barbed wire patents) and cowology.

Case study #2: as previously discussed, one of the searches that brings readers to this particular blog is the desire to see Harry Potter porn. This was due initially to an unwise post by Mr Aylett, but latterly is something I have become oddly proud of and try to perpetuate with semi-regular mentions of Harry Potter porn. However, I feel it gives a not entirely accurate indication of the content of this blog. Or, to turn that on its head to create a picture of our readers, whilst it might be assumed that they are all literate, intelligent, politically aware writers and Doctor Who fans, a lot of them are in fact just Harry Potter perverts.

Clearly if the Home Office were to start creating databases of the above examples it would be John Finnemore who’d be locked up and our readers who would get off scot free, which is entirely the wrong way round.

(That police box takes him everywhere!)

I’ve just finished wading my way through the shiny new DVD release of The Trial of a Time Lord and I have to say it’s been the best Christmas money spent for quite some time.

Not for the story so much, which is as patchy as ever for all its delights, but for the extra features. This is where the real behind-the-sofa stuff is hidden – as if the story of all the back-stabbing and bureaucratic blame-shifting that went on in the Doctor Who offices in the 1980s wasn’t scary enough, the monsters here are truly convincing and utterly terrifying. Clips of militant Liverpudlian Doctor Who fans menacing writers Pip and Jane Baker (who are pretty scary-looking themselves) compete unsuccessfully for terror-factor against Ian “bubbling lump of hate” Levine, a fan who really got too big for his boots (in more ways than one). It’s hard enough to see why he’s on the DVD at all, even less so how he managed to enveigle his way into the Doctor Who production office sufficiently to be able to launch a significantly damaging attack against the producer.

And let us not forget, presented on the DVD in full, the most terrifying thing Doctor Who has ever spawned, bar none!!!:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s1yW8FrrXAA&hl=en&fs=1%5D

…the words are in fact the work of the great Ian Levine, and indeed it’s hard to deny that “there was the Brigadier and the Master and a canine computer” or that “each screaming girl just hoped that a Yeti wouldn’t shoot her”. It’s all the more poetic for being accurate, the spelling of “canine” aside.

Best of all, though, the DVD contains the following moment from Saturday Superstore:

Let’s just analyse what’s going on here: Colin Baker is cutting a cake in the shape of a TARDIS, watched by presenters Sarah Greene, Mike Reid and John Craven, four Time Lords, a creature which is possibly a Mandrel crossbred with a Mentor, Ludo from seminal but non-Doctor Who-related film Labyrinth, two kids wearing party hats and, holding one of them on his lap, a man who may or may not be Bono.

That was the 1980s, that was.

The man who comes out of the DVD with the most dignity, by the way, is Colin Baker, clearly shown here to be both a nice man and a super Doctor who just happened to be doing his job at the worst possible time. Whatever Ian “bubbling lump of rhyming 80s fanwank shite” Levine manages to imply, the material on the DVD makes it more than clear that there was more than one fine Baker to take on the Doctor’s mantle. How ironic that one of the contributors suggests that his performance is too big for television – has he seen David Tennant???

Spoiler aler… oops, too late

After the embarrassing farrago which was the BBC’s adaptation of Oliver Twist last year, it is a relief and a delight to see that the Beeb can still do Dickens properly. Though not quite as perfectly crafted as Christine Edzard’s Little Dorrit, the BBC’s current offering is a masterclass in TV adaptation, and has the Dickensian balance between comedy and tragedy just right. Plus some really good performances, not just from reliable stalwarts like Tom Courtenay (who is mesmirising), but also from surprising areas – who knew Russell Tovey could act? That absurd Welsh one off Torchwood is really rather good! As is token ethnic Doctor Who girl Freema Catalogue!

But a gripe (and you knew I’d have one): what is it with TV serials having so little confidence in the actual content of the episode that they have to show you what’s going to happen in the next one to entice you back? The now-obligatory “coming soon” segment, which used to be more the kind of thing you got on Richard and Judy, now sits as a huge great spoiler at the end of every episode of everything.

Okay, I understand that series using the 45-minute single episode format can no longer rely on a juicy cliffhanger to woo viewers back for the next instalment, which is why the likes of Merlin and Doctor Who give you a taster as a matter of course. The downside to this is that they tend to show you the best bits to make the next week’s episode look much better than it really is, so every episode is invariably a big disappointment (invariably a great big mammoth disappointment in the case of Merlin).

But that’s not what I’m complaining about. I’m complaining about being shown the content of the next episode when you have been given a juicy cliffhanger, when you are sitting on the edge of your seat waiting to see what happens next. It’s a bit rubbish when a little teaser gives it all to you before you’ve had a chance to enjoy the anticipation.

When the revived Doctor Who first gave us a two-parter it fell right into this trap: Aliens of London gave us a suitably thrilling climax in which we saw the Doctor being killed – yes, killed! – then on rolled the caption “coming up” and we saw the Doctor running around chasing aliens in the next episode. So, oh, he wasn’t dead after all.

Since then the production team have got wise to that problem and started showing what’s coming up after the credits – and I believe in the last series they removed that bit altogether from some two-parters, which at least shows some confidence in the strength of their cliffhangers (even if, typically, the resolution was often a great big mammoth disappointment).

So why on earth can’t Little Dorrit do the same? It’s a grand adaptation which sets up huge Dickensian cliffhangers and there have been no disappointments so far – so I wish they’d stop telling me what’s coming up and let me watch the credits. As it is I feel the need to hastily switch off to avoid spoilers, which means that I don’t know what the theme music sounds like. These things bother me.

Coming up in the next blog entry: a rant about something and the word “mansuetude”!

Not all TV is olid!

Thank God for The Sarah Jane Adventures; in spite of Russell T. Davies’ lazy style-over-substance Doctor Who stories and dismal spin-off series Torchwood, he has created something genuinely wonderful.

Leave aside the trademark Russell T. need to remind the viewer how amazing space is at the start of every other episode. Leave aside the slightly embarrassing merchandise. What you are left with is a well-constructed, well-written series, with more adult stories than most of its “adult” counterparts, and Elizabeth Sladen looking damn sexy and wearing fabulous costumes.

I loved the first series and am delighted by its return, which is immediately on form. After the disastrous finale to Doctor Who this year and indeed its disastrous handling of the Sontarans, it’s great to see them handled properly – and given a proper cliffhanger! And a dodgy model of a satelite dish – just like real Doctor Who! And even a Hitchhikers’ in joke! And some of those kids could teach Catherine Tate a thing or two about subtlety…