the teaser for Doctor Who's Aliens of London

TV For all the criticism it has received and it has received a lot of criticism in the years since it was broadcast, what’s often overlooked is how innovative the teaser for Doctor Who's Aliens of London is. This is a story about an alien invasion, and the natural assumption would be for an opening shot of a space ship crashing into the Westminster Clock, the rest of the adventure spilling on from there. Instead, writer Russell T Davies begins as he always does with character and the effect the Doctor has on his human friend, in this case shifting her world on twelve months while she’s just been away for a few hours.

Even if the main story is a tonal mess, jokes about farting mixed with the Harriet Jones horrified reaction, the very human fall out of the TARDIS landing just a single chronometer digit higher than expected keeps us interested and it’s perfectly paced too, the aftershocks threaded throughout the episode from Jackie bopping the Doctor to the revelation that Mickey was accused of his girlfriend’s murder. In previous years it was left to spin-off fiction to discuss the effects the Doctor subsequently had on his companions, but Davies works it into his series.

But it goes further than that still, because this teaser shocker would go on to effect the whole of the rest of his tenure and all three of the series he would run set in the Whoniverse. Putting together the chronology, it’s surprising how, with the exception of a single special (damn you, Planet of the Dead), everything fits together despite the discrepancy barely rating another mention on screen bar on-screen displays and spoken dates, even when in his final year Davies decided to pull it back again, The End of Time very definitely happening at the close of 2010.

At what point is it too late for the Doctor to do anything about it? When the TARDIS lands? When Rose meets her Mum? When he sees the missing poster? My assumption is that as soon as the time ship lands it becomes part of the events. But then if the TARDIS has landed at the correct time, would the Doctor have been changing events back again, creating a new timeline in which Rose returns quickly rather than the one we saw which would be deleted? Certainly we know the Doctor has the power to change history (cf, PM Jones).

With Aliens of London, the effects of time travel were confirmed as being relevant again in the televised Doctor Who, the TARDIS no longer just a space taxi (despite the logo), the first hint perhaps of what was to happen later in the Moffat stories and now the Moffat era in which wibbly-wobbly has become everything, the point of the story, a Saturday night audience subliminally having to deal with simplified versions of massively complicated elements of quantum physics, pre-destination paradoxes and the like. At least much of it is explainable I suppose, certainly more so than Bad Wolf.

Perhaps the Moffat version of Aliens of London would have discussed all of these implications in greater detail, but bar the conversation on the very fake looking roof (the more things change etc.), Davies is all about the human reaction. Rose doesn’t ask why the Doctor can’t simply take her back a year to save her mother the heartache of twelve months not knowing. Instead, the A-plot gets into full swing, as those of us looking forward to a massive invasion of Earth type story find ourselves eye to eye with a space pig.

the reason it’s The End of the World

TV Who would have thought that six years ago Russell T Davies produced for Doctor Who the ultimate metaphor for the swinging cuts which will gradually sap the joy out the country over the coming three years. Something often overlooked (well alright I’ve previously overlooked) is that the reason it’s The End of the World, is because the future version of the National Trust lost it’s funding. As the Doctor explains it, before their visit the reason the planet retains its shape and environment despite Sol having already gone critical are a series of gravity satellites ringing the planets keeping it in place. But they’re being turned off because the National Trust can’t afford to maintain them anymore. In this case, a loss of funding literally is the end of the world.

Of course you could argue that if he really cared, the Doctor could jump back into his space and time ship and have them win the lottery which is his usual approach to giving someone a windfall should the need requires it. But this is early in the new series and his emotional compass is spinning like a Wow Stuff Doctor Who Timelord Spinning Tardis, naked brutal grief and anger just resting below the surface. Even with knowledge of the ensuing mythology, the appearance of that tear, the first tear, I think, the Doctor’s shed on television (we can’t quite see his face in The Green Death), is devastating and is the tragic flip side to “Lots of planets have a north.” This new show also isn’t afraid to properly show us how the Doctor feels.

But the reason for that tear is yet to come and before it overwhelms yet another discussion of the episode, let’s talk about the rest of the episode because this is a great episode not least because apparently features the first appearance of Captain Jack, his big Boe face no doubt wondering if this is the right moment to tell the Doctor that he isn’t alone saving the timelord from another couple of seasons worth of heartache (“That’s not Martha Jones, that’s Rose, I’m too early, damnit, hmm, Cassandra’s looking flexible today…”). Russell offers up a story which on the one hand introduces new viewers to the concept of a base under siege and on the other that it’s a show that isn’t happy to be just about that any more.

The monster, in this case the metal spiders bugging their way into the vital systems quietly murdering the staff. Simon Day’s Steward, the put upon service industry managerial drone attempting to keep a professional atmosphere amongst the clients even as everything is falling apart around him. The passengers, a proper carnival of monsters is magical particularly since with a couple of notable exceptions, and taking into account the need to fill the pages of Battles in Time, none of these aliens have returned, no episode set amongst the Forest of Cheem, so they retain that element of mystery. The quintessential corridor scene as the Doctor and Jabe race to look at a vdu screen, hunch forward into the lens as acres of exposition spill out of then.

Jabe, of course, is the first of a number of characters in which Davies breaks his own rule that viewers aren’t interested in stories about aliens from the planet zog, his way of explaining why the Doctor won’t often or ever land in situations featuring no human characters. True, she is basically a human character, albeit having involved from vegetable rather than animal, but it's these differences that ultimately put her in jeopardy and lead her to sacrifice herself to save the people on the platform. There’s something of the River Song in her relationship with the Doctor, the way she’s able to say things to him that his companion would never, a regality that Yasmin Bannerman beautifully captures wearing one of the series most beautiful prosthetics.

The early ambition on the show in their willingness to experiment with an all digital character, albeit in the mostly static form of Cassandra. Apparently one of the most expensive CGI effects the show ever produced, it's a credit to the script and Zoe Wannamaker's voice work that she's also one of the new show's most loathsome villains. Previously I'd assumed that later second season opener New Earth spoiled the horror of her death, drying to a husk as the Doctor watches on. But on reflection the tenth Doctor's later kindness is used to demonstrate how the man changed with his regeneration. Despite him saying that he's the kind of man who doesn't agree with second chances, this is an occasion when he needs to make an exception.

But Rose’s scenes are arguably the most memorable, just as they should be since they’re designed to make the viewer love her, make us understand why the Doctor would want her as a passenger. In later episodes, the script was bold enough to have the Doctor or his companion just tell us (“You need someone to stop you”). But in The End of the World, we watch her almost accept the differently shaped, differently coloured people, facing up to the Doctor when he implies her racism. Watch her deal with the homesickness inherent in being ripped from everything she knows and seeing everything she knows boil away into space. Watch her develop the Doctorish quality of treating everyone as an equal even the plumbers on the station.

The moment when I fell for Rose as a character is in that final revelatory dialogue which has since threatened to overwhelm everyone’s memory of the episode. There are plot reasons why the Doctor doesn’t answer her when she asks who the enemy was in the time war, but I love the little pause she makes, the flicker of understanding that flashes across Rose’s face that shows she understands that the Doctor isn’t ready to give her all the answers so she simply offers a different enquiry. Like every other companion before and since, she’s a function of the story, a intermediary between the audience; but unlike most she’s complex enough to know when to simply leave it alone. Even if it’s a decision that would have tragic consequences come episode six.

"Lots of planets have norths..."

TV The new series of Doctor Who begins on the 23rd April, Easter Saturday, and after some thought I've decided that despite the parking of Behind The Sofa, I will carry on writing reviews here instead, because after six years, reviewing every newly broadcast television episode has become as much of a project as the Hamlet thing, and the museums thing and all the other things, as much a part of the process of watching Doctor Who as watching Doctor Who and I frankly wouldn't know what to do with myself for the rest of the night.

That being the case, there's a rather big itch to scratch, a niggle.  When I began writing for Behind The Sofa, it wasn't with any great intention to write about everything.  That would come later with the start of the second series.  Which means there are some episodes in that first year which were missed and I've always promised myself I would return to, fill in the gaps.  So here we are, or rather I am, being a completist, reposting the reviews from that first year and filling in the gaps.

It says a lot about how excited I was with the first episode that I managed to misquote perhaps its most iconic lines of dialogue when deciding on a title for that first post which I've replicated above.  "Lots of planets have a north..." would go on to define the Ninth Doctor and that short era, of breaking with the past with its (perceived) Edwardian frock coats and posh accents yet prepared to make fun of itself.  Besides, Sylverster McCoy was Scottish. 

Despite that, there's not much to disagree with the below assessment; even Noel Clarke would say later his first performance was wrong.  Murray Gold was still finding his feet in terms of the sound of the show and didn't yet have the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at his disposal.  We still await the unvarnished anecdotes about exactly what happened behind the scenes (what the production team euphamistically describe as "the challenges") and exactly what happened between Eccleston and Boak.

If I was writing this review now, I'd probably include some speculation as to how Clive is able to have all those pictures of Ninth when in other places he seems to have only recently regenerated.  My theory is that all of those trips happened between the moment when Rose refuses to go with the Doctor at the end and the TARDIS dematerialises and he returns to boast that it travels in time.  After jaunting alone for a bit, visiting some of Earth's disasters, he's decided he still needs someone to share it all with.

Anyway, after all of that overwritten preamble, here's the original review ...

The downloadable screensaver on the official website which until seven o'clock tonight has been counting down until the start of the new series of Doctor Who now simply says 'The Invasion Begins...' Somehow I don't think it means the brief sound bleed of Graham Norton creeping in from BBC3 just as new companion Rose was being menaced for the first time by the Autons (who oddly weren't named this time out). It was an own goal from the BBC on what is one of the most important broadcasting nights of the year. But you know what I'm willing to forgive them.

Because he's back. He's bloody back. Bless him.

To be honest considering how much has been written about the new series off and online, all the tv and radio documentaries, the actual first episode, Rose, felt beside the point. As the busy new title sequence swished by, part of my brain wondered if I was actually watching another trailer. But as Billie Piper strolled into view, and camera overcranking in Trafalgar Square during her lunch date with her boyfriend, my attention snapped back into view as I realised that it had started, I was there and nine years of wait were over.

Actually I think the plotting would have come as something of a shock for anyone who hasn't been catching the Doctor's adventures off screen in the gap. Atypically, the timelord already knew what the problem was and how to solve it even before the episode began (it was a bit like turning up for the last episode of a six parter in the old series). The Nestene Consciousness was using a transmitter (the London Eye) to control all the plastic in London in preparation for invading the Earth, with the help of shop dummies. The Doctor had a vile of anti-plastic, which he could use to destroy the Consciousness if needed to. It's exactly the sort of thing you'd find in one of the many short story anthologies (Short Trips etc) which been published in the interim.

This was clever move number one. Because just like best of the classic series, we were seeing him through the eyes of the companion, Rose Tyler -- she became our eyes and ears during the mad adventure. We needn't understand what it all meant, because she didn't really -- for her it was about going with the flow, enjoying the spectacle and the adventure -- much as it was for us. Like a prologue or opening act, it's about introducing the concepts and ideas to a new audience and reintroducing them to the old, and show what's changed to those who've never gone away. The was absolutely nothing in here which could alienate fans, well not this fan anyway.

The next clever idea was casting Christopher Eccleston. I think it was Tom Baker who said that the series is actor proof, that anyone could play it. That may be true, but its playing it well, and in a way which carries on the tradition. Eccleston's playing was just spooky; look into his eyes and you can see the other eight incarnations looking out at you. The moment on the bridge when he explains to Rose about the TARDIS moving around and says that she 'wouldn't understand' was just like grumpy old Hartnell. At the other end of the scale, as he fought the ships control panel as it melted the fake Mickey's head, McGann was back with us briefly. He's energetic, funny, sober, philosophical yet authorative when he needs to be. Standing over the the Nestene Consciousness trying to negotiate a truce using galactic law was just amazing.

Also amazing was Billie Piper. I don't think I was quite prepared for how much charisma she has, having not seen her in any of her previous acting roles. There is a real spark to her, an instant likeability. There is an edge of vulnerability in there, that kind of Alyson Hannigan (Willow in Buffy) huggability -- you really care if she gets hurt and I imagine they'll be playing that card somewhat as the series progresses. As a character, Rose Tyler is absolutely the right choice. Everything will be new to her, and there is that sense of wonder which was missing too much from in previous companions.

The tone was also just right. Some will no doubt knock on about the humour, especially in the scene when the Auton arms comes to life and attacks the Doctor without Rose noticing, or the wheelie bin burp, but that's not much better or worse than John Pertwee's cleaning lady, or any number of Jelly Baby scenes. It's an important part of the series and in the Whedon age, vital other it would all look a bit ernest and silly.

The episode's director Keith Boak hasn't 'done' sci-fi before (depending on your opinion of NY-LON) and was no doubt chosen because this is a story very much grounded on Earth, and these elements, felt quite rightly like they were intruding on the setting.

Photographer Ernest Vincze, comes from a film background and that showed. At no point did the visuals fall flat; the moment when the London Eye created a halo around The Doctor, as well as feeling like a sneaky Second Coming reference (in that Russell T Davies series Eccleston played the new Christ) offered a perspective you don't often see on tv.

And yet. It wasn't perfect. Murray Gold's music was annoying. Considering how good his work has been in Casanova, here it just feels misjudged. Some sections felt desperately late Eighties. Every now and them there would an excellent spot effect, then a drum beat would clatter in and ruin it for everyone. We can't all be Alistair Locke or Dudley Simpson (both great incidental musicians from different eras of the show), but it just felt out of place somehow. That said, his mix of the theme is very good, but Delia Derbyshire's version was perfectly fine no matter what he and Russell might say about it seeming 'a bit sad'.

Also, and I hate to single out any actor like this, but what did Noel Clarke think he was doing with that performance as Mickey. Yes, the character's a sap, he needs to be, otherwise Rose would shack up with The Doctor in the TARDIS, but why did he feel the need to play every scene as though he was auditioning to replace Craig Charles aboard Red Dwarf? Perhaps he settle down as the series progresses -- we'll be seeing more of him in later weeks as there are more re-occurring characters this time around ... oh yes ...

But if that's all I can think of then something must be very right. This isn't another Phantom Menace. I keeping asking myself why I'm so excited about a new television series when there is still lots of other really good Doctor Who going around. It's about hope. It's about the fact that if enough of the right people care about something, and enough of those people are in the right position to doing something about it, wonderful things can happen. If that doesn't make you choke up, you must be an Auton.

Does Hamlet blow a rasberry?

In Act II, scene ii, lines 388–391 are the following lines:

POLONIUS: The actors are come hither, my lord.
HAMLET: Buzz, buzz.
POLONIUS: Upon mine honour—
HAMLET: Then came each actor on his ass.

As far as I can remember (but there have been so many), every actor I've seen or heard says the words "buzz, buzz", the noise a child makes when they're copying the sound of bees, often with a pause between each buzz. But the Shakesyear blog proposes another option: he's making fart noises:
"Partridge flatly said so in Shakespeare’s Bawdy: the editors I’ve consulted venture that it’s “a sound expressing contempt,” which could well be periphrastic for “raspberry,” but they’re not saying in so many words. It would be extremely effective to play the line that way, as a perfect expression of Hamlet’s contempt for Polonius; that Hamlet’s next line is blatantly anal can only support this reading. But this cinches my point."
I'm convinced too. Though my attempt at making the requisite sound leads to the noise a child makes when they're copying the sound of failure on Family Fortunes [via].

new desktop PC

Life I have (another) new desktop PC. This time it's this Compaq SG3-350UK Desktop PC, AMD Athlon II, 2.9GHz, 4GB RAM with 750GB HD and frankly it's frightening the life out of me. Windows 7 is an imposing, oppressive operating system, it's in a large black monolithic box whose hard disk light is at eye level and blinking on and off whenever I do anything.

I feel watched. Every now and then I'll glance over and I think it's judging me. Judging the software I'm installing, judging the fact I've kept the Dell keyboard because I'm used to it, judging the right time to fail because it knows that every new peace of technology I've ever purchased has developed a fault sooner rather than later. 

At least it has a substantial on button at the top.  Even if it glows angry green when pressed.

Kevin Kline says: "I would do Hamlet again."

Not be too ungracious about an actor's age, but Kevin Kline is sixty-three. Where did those years go too? This probably isn't entirely serious, but he's looking in Elsinore's direction again:
“The French film was a challenge,” he says. “Certainly doing Lear a few years back. Cyrano, that was a challenge. Not a man of few words, and we decided to do that play only a few months before we opened. I would do Hamlet again, you know. Maximilian Schell called me a while back, he said, ‘Ve should do Hamlet, both of us!’ I said, ‘No, I’m too old,’ but he said, ‘You can do dat part at any age!’ You used to be able to, too. I was actually trying to talk Meryl into doing ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ a couple of years ago. She thought I was crazy. Maybe, but in the old days, you could play those roles into your 60s. Of course, in the really old days, doing ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ I would have played the nurse!”

"Are you listening?"


Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?

-- From The Graduate.  Seemed apt.