Doctor Um?

TV Here we are then at the close of another year of Doctor Who. If you've been following my reviews over the past few months, you'll know that having enjoyed this past series, I've sometimes sounded a bit forced. Partly its because after having been writing these amateur texts for the past thirteen years it's becoming increasingly difficult to find a new way of expressing myself and sometimes having to force myself to have an opinion even if it's a shrug emoji.

But there's also been something niggling at the back of my nod about why this hasn't quite gelled sometimes in a way that was obvious even in the odd episode of the otherwise horrendous series eight.  During series eight, I grokked pretty quickly what I didn't like about its portrayal of the Doctor, but with series eleven, because I've been genuinely positive overall about the thing, it isn't until now I've been able to articulate what isn't quite working.

Some caveats.  The following is not a blame game or anger for the sake of it directed at anyone in the cast or indeed the writers.  There's obviously a particular approach which has been taken with the series, so some of this probably due to personal taste.  Everything which follows comes from a place of love.  It's a bit like those moments when The Daily Show with Jon Stewart would do a piece about Obama when they thought something had gone amiss.

The nub of the problem is this.  Much of what we understand about the Thirteenth Doctor is from Jodie's portrayal.  If you try to dispassionately listen the text she's been given and the character she's playing it's largely in the realm of the so-called generic Doctor who often turns up in spin-off fiction when a writer, usually someone who isn't a fan, tells the story of a kind of quirky magician who really doesn't have a relationship to the incarnation which is supposed to striding across the pages.

The most obvious examples of this can be found in Eighth Doctor material either from the period in the novels when his character was only just in the process of formation amongst writers who only had the TV Movie as their source material, or in later years when those who don't seem to be steeped his deep multi-media history have been commissioned to write a story for him.  Alex Scarrow's Spore is a decent example of this.

Now I appreciate that to some extent as Terrance Dicks has said, the Doctor doesn't change and its about what the actors bring to it, and Jodie brings a tremendous amount.  But every version of the Doctor, even in the writing, has a specific interior life or set of behaviors which the audience can relish or not and this shifts over time depending on the writers (the Tom of season twelve is a very different figure to Tom in season eighteen).

But there are numerous choices which are working against her, which stop her burning as brightly as she should, which take the edge off her individuality, which stop us from becoming entirely involved with her story.  Essentially this boils down to the companions and lack of returning elements outside of the core premise related stuff which can't not be part of the adventures.  There's a reason why the Third Doctor was given his TARDIS back so soon.

Initially I enjoyed having multiple companions in the TARDIS, the fam, because it allows for multiple points of view on a story from varying experiences.  They're all compelling characters well played, even taking into account how underwritten Yaz so often is.  Even in the two episodes which are notionally supposed to be about her and her family, the story material shifts pretty sharply to other concerns.

On the one hand can you can compare this to the original TARDIS team and gang who accompanied the Fifth Doctor.  Except stories were told across a far longer duration which meant that there was plenty of time to service all the characters for the most part (poor Nyssa) and give the Doctor a fair shake of the action.  Plus having more companions increased the storyline's direct connection to the Doctor and increased the stakes.

The problem with having this many characters in a much smaller episode duration is that its rare that every character has something meaningful to do and also that the number of supporting characters decreases which potentially lessens the sense of place.  Again this isn't true of all stories - the historical pieces in particular are very well drawn.  But watch how many subplots are between companions rather than a companion and a day player.

The knock on effect of this is to give the Doctor less to do.  Notice how often the story elements which are usually the Doctor's responsibility are handed off to the other characters reducing her "moments of charm".  Graham is utilised as the voice of experience even though she's at least a couple of millennia older than him.  On numerous occasions Yaz or Ryan are off investigating whilst the Doctor is stuck in a room somewhere doing science or investigation.

It's only when Jodie is alone and interacting with a stranger, usually an antagonist, that she really glows because she's finally allowed to be the focus of the scene, its not about the other characters reacting to her behaviour.  The Dalek in Resolution.  The Frog in It Takes You Away.  Finding and entering the TARDIS for the first time in The Ghost Monument.  Finally she's granted a close up of more than a couple of seconds that isn't about her pulling a face.

Quite often the direction of the scenes leads to plenty of reverse of shots of the companion's reacting to whatever the Doctor is doing which is seen in glimpses rather than staying on her work.  On one hand this means that when the camera does stop and really looks at her she's captivating, but it also leads to becoming almost an afterthought within the blocking of some scenes when she should be the star attraction.

Unlike Star Trek, Doctor Who is not an ensemble show.  For the most part.  Although at times the companion has offered the audience's viewpoint into the adventure, the Doctor should always be the centre of attention and the stories should always be within his orbit, because otherwise what's the point?  The least successful stories are always those in which a ton of action occurs across multiple scenes and then the Doctor arrives and fixes things.  The Time Lord should be in the thick of it.

If I had a preference, it would be for the series to continue with Yaz as the main companion - Graham and Ryan feel like their story's been told.  Their story arc is ultimately disconnected from the Doctor and often feels like Chibbers returning to a place of safety because he's otherwise overwhelmed by the business of writing Doctor Who.  It should be the Doctor who steps up and offers the healing wisdom, be the fixed voice of calm not just tossing out insults.

The grand gesture in series eleven was that none of the episodes would feature a returning monster in order to give a new audience a jumping in point and they don't feel like they have to have a Doctor Who fan site on hand to understand any of it.  For the most part, giving Thirteenth her own adversaries works well even if, again because of the sheer amount of regular cast members, these antagonists only really exist in relation to the TARDIS team's reaction to them.

Except its usually returning elements which help to define a new incarnation and one of the more exciting results of having a different actor in the role is in seeing how they embrace these kisses to the past.  This also includes how a new production team absorbs them into the new way of doing this things and how they'll bring their own version of what has already been established.  The Cybermen are in a constant state of flux.

Sometimes a companion is carried over.  Third and Fourth both had very different relationships with Sarah Jane, just as Eleventh and Twelfth both approach Clara in a completely different manner.  As well as reformatting the series, having UNIT in the Third Doctor's first story offered a glimpse into the dandy's opinion of the military in comparison to the clown.  Chibbers apparently doesn't want us to see how Thirteenth, Kate and the Osgoods would react to one another.

But monsters are equally important.  Again with the Cybermen, but notice how it allows Second in Tomb to enunciate just how different his approach to intervention is to his predecessor.  When RTD reintroduced the Daleks in 2005, he did it half way through the series because it offered the chance for another wave of publicity and arguably the Ninth Doctor didn't really come into his own until he was staring down the lens of his mortal enemy.

Imagine if Resolution had been broadcast mid-series with a heavy publicity campaign telling us the Daleks were back but not quite as we remember them.  People would tune in out of curiosity to see if the relaunch was better than the iDaleks and also to see how Jodie's Doctor dealt with their return.  Much as happened back then, they would have seen her in a stand off against her foe in some of her strongest moments so far.

Like I said, all of this comes from a position of love and it has to be said I do love the Thirteenth Doctor.  I just wish she was given more to do, narratively treated better.  She should be the centre of attention but as I also said Chibbers seems more comfortable writing other things almost as though he's so afraid of cocking up this awesome responsibility.  So he's presenting story arcs which could be an element of any series which just happen to be playing across the TARDIS's travels.

Making the show now seems like its become a real ordeal between having to deal with potentially international buyers, licensees and tons of scrutiny from all sides, fans to media.  Plus, in cutting the duration of the series down by two more episodes, there's even less chance to catch lightening in a bottle or articulating what it is that you're trying to achieve.  Let's see if lessons have been learnt when series twelve is broadcast.  Whenever that might be.

Buying Audible audiobooks on the cheap.

Books Or rather, cheaper.

I noticed this over Christmas when buying some of the 99p offers. They'd include the ability to add narration so that the reader and swap between text on screen and having the book read to them - which turns out to be the actual, complete audio book.

Here's an example.

The Kindle version of Doctor Who: The Day She Saved the Doctor: Four Stories from the TARDIS is currently £3.49.

You can currently add Audible narration to your purchase for just £2.99 which is £6.48.

The audiobook alone is £12.24 outside of an Audible subscription. So that's a saving of £5.76.

Obviously the savings vary. The current no 1 in the Kindle chart is The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson at £9.99. Extra audible narration read by the likes of Dennis Quaid (who played Clinton himself in The Special Relationship) is £7.99, so £17.98. The audiobook is
£19.24 so about £2.50 cheaper.

These audio books all appear in the Audible app and downloadable.

Obviously, whether you want to spend that much money on something you don't physically own is up to you but that's true of all legal digital media.

Regeneration of the Author.

Books Lindsay Ellis's latest video essay is about Barthe's Death of the Author and the relevance it has to some modern texts, especially John Green's The Fault In Our Stars. Barthe posited that one should only approach a text on the basis of what's in the text rather than the author's intent or any paratext, that such things are irrelevant.  As Lindsay points out that would be fine if we lived in a perfect world were every writer had the same opportunities and could reach the same public and be accepted writing about any subject matter, but that simply isn't the case.

She notably doesn't mention how this works in shared, multi-author universes in which no single voice controls the entire output.  You would think that spin-off fiction for the great franchises would demonstrate the death of the author in that it features a group of authors working towards a much larger grand narrative - except that isn't the case.  Back when I was reading Star Trek novels, I knew that something by Diane Duane or Peter David or The Reeves-Stevens would be different experiences, in terms of wordage, subject matter and view on the franchise.

It's also particularly true of Doctor Who, which is essentially an anthology series with a single protagonist (for the most part) and regular supporting characters.  Setting the RTD v Moffat v Chibbers comparisons to one side, even regular spin-off writers have a particular style.  Paul Magrs, Johnny Morris, Lawrence Miles, Steve Lyons, Jac Raynor and Eddie Robson among many others others all have different interests and I'd say that there are some writers whose work I always go out of my way to read or listen to no matter which era they're working on.

What was especially interesting was when authors who'd become synonymous with a particular era went on to write for the revival tie-ins.  Would a casual reader appreciate what Paul Magrs is doing in Sick Building or Lance Parkin in The Eyeless and how that compares to some of the more down the line, less experimental works?  I don't know.  But as Ellis shows in the video, its impossible to view a text in and of itself.  There will always be patterns, expectations and assumption on the part of the reader generated by their perception of the creator.


TV Happy New Year! Right, let's get the UNIT dating controversy over with first, the controversy being that there isn't one. According the TARDIS Datacore, the version which exists in the 2040s on Earth-5556 is a shadow of its former self and Alice O'Donnell is a UNIT fan girl in Under The Lake which also suggests that UNIT is still in operation.  Apart from that everything we know about the organisation across media happens before the 1st January 2019 so Chibbers has a pretty free hand in what he wants to do with it, which in this case is to have it on ice presumably as an explanation for why Kate Stewart and the two Osgoods don't appear in this story.

There are a few knotty implications to this.  Who monitors the fifty odd thousand Zygons still living on Earth?  Are there still two Osgoods?  What about the Black Archive?  How does Torchwood factor into this, or C19?  It's shared universe syndrome, add a bit of continuity here watch a morass of mythology seep out at the other end.  The Doctors haven't always phoned UNIT when they've been in the vicinity of some alien threat (especially when the Brig's in Geneva) so Chibbers must be making a point about something here - or setting up a story line for the next series whenever that's being broadcast or indeed a future Big Finish boxed set.

Next of all, how about no one recognising a Dalek despite multiple invasions over the past decade or so?  The implication has been that either because of the cracks or rebooting the universe or some other Moffat fueled merriment (or the Faction Paradox) that Earth is once again a bit surprised about the existence of aliens, thereby sorting out the Van Stattan continuity error amongst other things.  Time has been rewritten and so forth.  It is interesting that throughout this series, humans have in general been less phased about the existence of alien life in general.  Perhaps its a mutable thing, oscillating depending upon the needs of the story.

What are my resolutions?  As I suggested yesternight, lose some more weight and be disciplined about it.  Otherwise, try to catch up on my Who backlog, across audios and novels and blu-ray releases.  I'm trying to have a daily dose of Doctor Who of which tonight's episode will probably be the only example broadcast on television.  Soonish I'll hopefully have something near a complete run of TARGETs and I'm planning a blogging project around that, my other resolution being to stop neglecting this place so much, to post at least something every day.  Yes, I know, I've said that before.

All of which skimming around the surface suggests I'm stalling in my opinion of Revolution, I'm really not.  With a couple of reservations that was a barnstorming hour of Doctor Who with Jodie's Time Lord bursting with such energy her hair seemed to grow and shorten depending on whether she was in the TARDIS or not.  Finally we got to hear her say the big mythology words like Dalek and Skaro and sound like she exists within a wider continuity or context.  As has always been the case with each incarnation, you finally get a feel for the characterisation when the Doctors face their biggest foe and here's Thirteenth fighting against a desperate situation with brio and optimism.

Pitting her against a single Dalek is a good move because it allows for a more focused stand off as per Ninth in Dalek or Twelfth when he entered Into The Dalek.  Unlike those occasions, this was not about the squid fighting their programming, this recon organism, wants nothing other than conquest and is unable to even comprehend benevolence.  However impressive it is to see thousands of CGI pepperpots flying through space, sheer numbers can't make up for watching the calculated a single example lean in to its sadistic nature and embrace its internal superiority.  Under Nick Briggs's vocal control, there are few things scarier than hearing one of these things laugh.

In a nice bookend to the start of the season, we also see the Dalek utilising local materials to fashion its casing.  This hybrid between captured parts and refashioned materials is somehow even scarier than the revived Who's metallic design and also more in keeping with the antagonists orgins than the iDaleks from 2010 (yes, the new paradigm was nearly eight years ago folks and we're still getting over it).  The fact that this sucker is home made will hopefully inspire kids to hash their own together using bits knowing that it doesn't have to look perfect to be canonical.  Meanwhile, collectors of the Doctor Who Figurine Collection have another variation for the shelf.

The episode began well with the three sections of a thing being separated so as not for another terrible thing to happen.  Arguably this is exactly the sort of mcguffin RTD was taking the piss out of in The Last of the Time Lords (something he enjoyed so much he repeated it a year later in Journey's End), making it part of this cross continental, multi-generational effort gave it enough heft that it provided the epic introduction a seasonal episode probably requires especially since it then focuses the rest of the episode back in Sheffield.  You could imagine a prose version of this turning up as a prologue in a wilderness years novel.

Much less successful is the emotional B-plot between Ryan and his Dad.  This isn't a criticism of the performers - Tosin's the strongest he's been all season here and Daniel Adegboyega (who previously played a guard on Torchwood's Miracle Day) gives Aaron a real sense of regret.  It's just that the catastrophic Dad figure has become something of a trope in the Who revival era, with Rose, Martha and Clyde and innumerable supporting characters in between having had to deal with paternal toxicity.  The comparison with Clyde from SJA is especially galling -- the character beats are incredibly similar right down to having the father being possessed by the alien of the week.

All of this also drew away from the A-story and I'd guess that most viewers would have preferred some more of the Doctor doing stuff than one of these too long scenes between Ryan, Aaron and Graham however well performed.  The idea's presumably to tie-in with the episode title, but this stuff simply didn't feel connected enough to the main plot and in my acronym for having humble opinion, Doctor Who's at its strongest with the various plot elements are motivated by the overall story.  The US production model tends be a bit more relaxed in this regard because of the amount of durational real estate which has to be filled.  Doctor Who (ironically) has less time for it.

The love story between the two archaeologists felt stronger because of this, so compelling in fact that I didn't notice the episode didn't have a title sequence until ten minutes in.  Having such a long opening introductory scene is a very classic Who approach and a very welcome change from the latter end of the Moffat era when secondary characters tended to be an after thought.  It's a real credit to Chibbers that he manages to keep their story relevant throughout the hour even after the number of companion like characters who need servicing has doubled.  I'll admit that part of me wishes they'd left in the TARDIS instead.

This was by far the strongest Sheffield set episode of the series and just behind It Takes You Away in terms of quality.  As with most episodes, it'll be worth rewatching just for the dialogue some of which is positively iconic and if not that education.  Clock Jodie's glee in explaining how the microwave parts roast the Dalek and making the scientific jargon sound convincing.  With some of the pressure off being the flagship broadcast on Christmas Day, it seemed happier to simply be the proper season finale which The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos could never be and clearly wasn't supposed to.

Predictions 2018.

That Day We reach the time when I assess how well I predicted the ups and downs of the year and look forward to the next. Here we go again:

Trump doesn't complete the year as President.

Zero points.

Brexit cancelled.

Zero points.

MCU based Fantastic Four film announced.

Zero points.

The Doctor Who omnirumour is true.

Zero points.

A new Shakespeare play discovered.

Zero points.

No marks, which sums up 2018 perfectly. It's been 2016 without a sense of humour. Oh well. Um. For next year.

Trump doesn't complete the year as President.

Brexit cancelled.

The BBC launches a pay monthly archival streaming service in the UK.

Arriva Click expands.

I'll lose a couple of stone in weight.

A couple of repeats, an unlikely, a possible and a pledge.  See you next year.

Review 2018:
Bad Films.

Film Yesterday I ran down my top ten films of the year. In short order, here's my bottom ten:

The Snowman
The Image Book
Fifty Shades Freed
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House
Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Hold the Dark
Status Update

If that list looks a bit thin, it's because for a portion of the year I adhered to the rule of only watching films with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of over 70% and otherwise being pretty generous to anything which looks like it has a thought in its head, which is why I'm already feeling guilty about including Entebbe which at least tries to do something different with those dance sequences.  The Image Book has had some great review which is why I risked another Godardian shovel over the head, but I'm still convinced JLG hasn't made a good film since the 1970s.

Some of these are just boring.  Hold The DarkFifty Shades Freed (yes, really), Winchester and Mark Felt which somehow made a biopic about Deep Throat preachy and boring and looked especially poor when compared to this year's other All The President's Men homage, The Post.  A potentially expansive epic is turned into men talking grimly in brown rooms.  At a certain point it looked like it would smartly keep Woodstein off screen until it can't help itself and produces its own inferior version of the parking lot scene crucifying actor Julian Morris in the process for not being Redford.

But of all these, The Snowman was the worst.  As the director's admitted about 10-15% of the screenplay went unfilmed which meant they had to find ways of plugging the gaps in editing.  In some ways this is a fascinating watch, as we see Thelma Schoonmaker presses establishing shots into action via ADR to provide at least some connecting tissue between otherwise disjointed scene chronology.  But other oddities linger, like whether Val Kilmer actually had some dialogue originally or what the business was with the sausage in the pivotal breakfast scene.  A prime example of how even a great director, decent source material and impressive cast sometimes doesn't mean anything.

Review 2018:

Film This past year, because of my working patterns, my time has been relatively limited, certainly more limited than it usually is. So at a certain point choices had to be made about what to prioritize, how to spend my leisure time. Reading has become a rare pleasure. Music's drifted into the background and my ability to concentrate increases without it in any case. Television consumption has been reduced to a few regular shows. But the one constant, the one activity which has remained because it gives me so much pleasure, is that I continue to watch a film every night after tea (US translation: dinner).

Which explains why, when you glance at my Letterboxd diary you'll see the total of three hundred and eighty (380) films so far this year, well over one per day.  Of those, thirty-seven (37) were rewatched which means three hundred and forty-three were entire new to me.  Which is less than the average film critic but far more than is probably usual.  Was it worth it?  Yes.  But it's also meant that for the most part I won't have seen the shiny television series you're all talking about.  Sharp Objects? Yes.  The Haunting of Hill House? No.  Others have been posting their entire lists to their blogs, but its all there on Letterboxd if you want to have a look along with often overly generous star ratings.

Choosing ten films from that lot has been a trial.  Having those star ratings to work from is useful, but honestly I've seen so many great movies this year that even as I glance downwards at this list, I'm still not convinced about the choices.  Why not Black Panther or Avengers: Infinity War?  Why not Tully or Thoroughbreds or Game Night?  Dark River?  Or Leave No Trace?  I honestly can't say.  Four of these films are Netflix releases and another one is from Amazon Studios.  What does that mean?  Plus there are all the films I haven't seen, especially released theatrically later in the year which I probably won't see until Cinema Paradiso or a streaming service adds it to their collection in 2019.

In other words, take these choices with a pinch of salt in terms of them being my actual favourite films of the year.  Lady Bird should probably be here.  So should The Cloverfield Paradox (which is brilliantly daft), A Ghost Story, Wind River and Mother!  I Am Not A Witch.  Whitney.  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.  Cam.  Lucky.  Permission.  The Happy Prince!  When I saw The Happy Prince I was convinced it would be in this end of year list and then Roma popped up and smacked me around the eyeballs.  Does The Other Side of the Wind count as a 2018 release?  In the end I decided not to hold the extended post-production process against it.  So in no particular order:

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse
Anchor and Hope
The Other Side of the Wind
Molly’s Game
A Quiet Place
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
The Square

The completely ignored Anchor and Hope is a funny, poignant romance featuring Oona Chaplin and Natalia Tena as a couple living on a narrow boat trundling around London, who ask their friend (David Verdaguer) to offer up some sperm so they can gave a baby together.  But they're drawn apart by the effort and their insecurities.  Despite the city setting, director Carlos Marques-Marcet develops a bucolic atmosphere during the extended shots of the boat passing through office areas and high rise housing estates.  It's notable for featuring Chaplin's own mother Geraldine (daughter of Charlie) as her character's mum.

What'll actually end up becoming part of the canon and on film school syllabuses can't really be predicted, but Roma. The Other Side of the Wind and Annihilation all seem like probables.  Anything by Welles is a sure thing and even if this is just a best guess about his intentions, and so has a similar veracity in analytical terms as some of the apparently posthumous reconstructions in the Shakespeare Folios.  But Annihilation in particular feels like a decedent of Kubrick, Tarkovsky and Resnais in allowing the audience's imagination to infer part of the narrative as well as offering an extraordinary visual feast.

The Square is my favourite film of the year.  Over the past few years my appreciation of contemporary art has waned and Ruben Östlund's satirical fuck you has enunciated exactly why.  You will have noticed that I didn't review the Liverpool Biennial this year due to the Thumper rule and it's largely because so much of what was on display had a mediocrity which was indistinguishable from the material created for The Square in which the audience is either provided with a meaningless explanation for amateurish objects or no explanation at all, which is even worse.  The material surround the titular street furniture of the film is especially cutting.

But it's also the portrayal of the art world in general.  The lack of thought about how installation art will be interacted with by the public or as is hilariously the case, the gallery maintenance staff.  The insular nature of curatorial choice putting audience perception low on the priories list under selecting exhibition subjects because of their prestigious name over the work they've more recently produced.  The shocking realistic performance art section in which the sponsors and grandees of the gallery are confronted with something genuinely interesting but are embarrassed or take dislike to it because its so far outside their expectations.  Oh and pretentiousness.  Oh the pretentiousness.

The performances are extraordinary, especially from Claes Bang, the gallery curator with a far too high opinion of himself and A demonstration of white men failing upwards.  He's the sort of chap I've been either tried to be or fight with all my heart not to be across the years depending on the social circles I was trying to join (eventually giving in to Groucho's maxim).  Some reviews have suggested the wallet related subplot is the weakest element, but it offers a glimpse of how some people, despite what's being professed through the artworks are unable to appreciate the mechanics of the world outside their particular circle.