Saturday 30 November 2013


First transmitted 23rd Nov 1963
Re-shown on it's fiftieth birthday

It's legendary, of course. The place where it all started. In one episode we're introduced to the Doctor, the Tardis and Ian and Barbara as the first companions. But the strange thing is, when you actually sit down and watch this first episode, the most memorable thing about it is actually none of the above. It's actually something unique, something which didn't stay at all.

There's Something About Susan

For while the series may be about the eponymous Doctor, things start out with ’An Unearthly Child’. That might initially sound like the blimpish BBC discovering the concept of the teenager almost a decade late. And while that's wrong, it's weird how close it came to being true. For Susan was only made the Doctor’s grand-daughter (and thereby an alien) late in the day. She was initially planned as a ‘normal’ girl called Biddy, described in the planning notes as “eager for life, lower-than-middle class.” But things turned out differently. And it's that unearthliness which becomes the theme of this introductory episode.

Susan is so iconic a character here that much of that episode can be summarised in one image. Since seeing the ’Radio Times Anniversary Special’ at the age of seven, I was naturally entranced by all the gaudy colour pictures of monsters and robots. But somehow the picture above always stuck with me – a picture of a girl, even! Ian and Barbara stand behind, looking to her. But she gazes out of the frame as if it’s a world which doesn’t contain her, hand raised childishly to mouth, yet her expression inscrutable.

Mark Fisher has commented how the “Doctor had a naturally alien quality…. more even than any of the monsters, it was the Doctor himself, the familiar stranger, who was uncanny.” Here much of that quality is devolved to Susan, but that’s not the main point.

His ‘natural alienness’ is constituted in almost the opposite way to hers. His already-archaic Edwardian clothing is so significantly English as to be bizarre; like Magritte’s bowler hats, it takes something so familiar that it becomes surreal. But with her faraway look and modernist haircut, Susan points in quite a different direction...

The focus however is less on her than the fascination she exerts over her teachers Ian and Barbara, for as the still puts in microcosm the Unearthly Child is seen through quite earthly eyes. They’re intrigued by both her abundant knowledge and her strange personality. “Nothing about this girl makes any sense”, complains Ian.

We first follow them as they discuss her, then finally see her with a transistor radio stuck to her ear. She’s transfixed, as if in a reverie, her hand almost stroking the set. Rather than some screaming Beatle scruff, an over-excited pop-fodder addict, her movements are sensuous and elegant. Later scenes reinforce this by imposing their disembodied voices over scenes containing her. (By a fortuitous necessity; they were filmed that way simply to allow the teachers’ actors to be in place for the next scene in the “as live” running order, but nonetheless the dramatic effect is the same.) The sequence where she complains to Ian the exercise is using only three dimensions is key – she's not just more knowledgeable, she sees other dimensions which they can only glimpse through her.

True, much of the effect of the character comes from the perfect casting of Carole Anne Ford. Her accent is so clipped she might as well be from a posher planet than ours. (Which, as later episodes revealed, turned out to be the case.) Formerly a glamour model, she’s not just good- but suitably strange -looking.

Only Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock (above) rivals her for 'natural alien-ness' portrayed so effectively simply by the cut of their face. (While Ford doesn’t even have the prop of his pointy ears!) Certainly the picture above relies on her look and expression for much of its effect. However, that effect does not simply come from Ford – it also says something about an era.

Speculation about the future was once the preserve of geeks who yearned to escape the present; normally into a glorious (if imaginary) other-world, one where wars and pollution were banished and girls wore silver bikinis in all weathers. But by the Sixties the future seemed already here, crashing in ahead of schedule. It and youth thereby became equally inexplicable and equally alien to their elders – even to the point of their seeming to know more than their ostensible teachers. This was the era where Dylan sang “your children are beyond your command.” It's become a commonplace to say you can only cope with modern technology by asking a teenager. Then, I'd guess, is when that rule came into force. (Ian comments “she lets her knowledge out a bit at a time so as not to embarrass me.”)

In the untransmitted ‘pilot’ episode (actually more of a dummy run), Susan literally is from the future. (Her line was switched from “I was born in the 49th Century” to “another time, another world” when the episode was re-shot.)

You could draw a line between Susan and other ‘alien youth’ characters in popular SF, such as ’The Tomorrow People’ or ’The X-Men’ (which debuted a mere month earlier.) But I’m more interested in comparing the still above - the cover of David Bowie’s 1972 album ’The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars’ (below). (Bowie even inspired the Seventies SF show ’The Tomorrow People’ with his lyric “gotta make way for the homo superior.”)

Ian and Barbara perform the same function as the streetlamp and phone box on the Ziggy cover – as a kind of framing device to enhance the lead character’s strangeness. As Philip Norman was to argue in his Beatles biography ’Shout!’ the basis of swinging London was non-swinging London - one relied upon the other as a drab backdrop against which to parade its futuristic sheen, a jewel against a cloth.

But most crucially of all, Susan and Ziggy are no malcontents, juvenile delinquents or intentional threats. Their paradox is that, despite their deep strangeness they share our sensitivities and even our need to belong. Perhaps they even exceed them. In this way the alien is not merely projected over the teenager, for a part of them remains genuinely youthful. The characters are quite different to the menacing aliens masquerading as schoolkids in the 1960 film 'Village of the Damned'  or the amoral delinquents of the 1962 novel 'A Clockwork Orange.'

However there’s also significant differences between the two. While Ziggy arrives as a kind of youth messiah, for the benefit of “the kids”, Susan is mostly seen through the eyes of adults with whom she only wants to blend in. We learn she’s insisted on attending the school, against her Grandfather’s advice, and that her time there has been “the happiest in my life”. Yet there’s not a single second of her successfully interacting with another pupil - this happiness is presumably all down to a combination of teachers and textbooks. The main time we see her with the other kids they're laughing at her class answers. Unlike her Beatles-esque collarless dress, they're dressed in more conventional clothes of the era. (David Whitaker’s novelisation cuts out the school entirely and makes Barbara her private tutor.) Through our stand-in characters, the teachers, Susan tries to connect to us the same time as we try to unravel her mystery.

De-teening and Bringing Back Biddy

Alas, almost as soon as it was created it was quite casually thrown away. The Unearthly Child got Earthly pretty quickly. After this one introductory episode, in all but name Susan is turned back into regular schoolgirl Biddy. (Possibly excepting the “eager for life” part.) She has her first girly screaming fit part-way into the next episode. There was no shortage of them after that.

(The one partial exception to this rule is over continuity. In this pre-DVD era, characters have a tendency to reminisce over past storylines, as if keeping them alive in the mind of viewers. But at several points Susan recalls pseudo-continuity, adventures undergone by her and the Doctor before the series even began. In this way her special relationship with the Doctor is reasserted and some shred of her alien-ness is kept alive.)

Worse, it’s not just the alien teenager who disappears. The teenager herself soon follows, and scenes of her listening to her transistor radio abate. As she screams and twists her ankle at every turn you realise that after that taste of unearthliness all we are left with is the child. The Doctor even tells her at one point: "What you need is a jolly good smacked bottom!" In ’The Dalek Invasion of Earth.’ She even marries her first boyfriend – and that only at the Doctor’s instigation! (Though admittedly effective in its own right, his “you are a woman now” speech minimises the concept of a teenage interchange between child and adult. The scene is mostly significant for the Doctor’s character.) Notably, literally the very first thing the movie adaptation does is to reduce Susan to the age of about eight.

At one points Susan laments to her new suitor of there being no ”time or place I belonged to. I've never had any real identity”. Carole Ann Ford seems to have felt similarly, being the first regular actor to leave the series. (And subsequently claiming to have only stayed as long as she did for contractual reasons.) She later told the afore-mentioned ’Radio Times Anniversary Special’ “Susan was originally going to be quite a tough little girl – a bit like ’The Avengers’ lady, using judo and karate – but having telepathic communication with the Doctor. They then decided they wanted me to be a normal teenage girl so that other teenage girls could identify with me.” (Surely a straight reversal of the truth!)

This “tough girl” reference is actually a little odd. The point about Susan is that she’s simultaneously alien and a normal teenager, hence the paradox of the Unearthly Child. Nevertheless it makes an interesting comparison. Susan’s degeneration was to set the tone for all subsequent ‘assistants’ aboard the Tardis. Throughout the original show’s run, the writers would forever strive to conjure up a female sidekick with a little more gumption (a girl but a scientist, a girl but wearing trousers, a warrior savage, another Time Lord etc), only for her to collapse into another sad screamer before the season was out. But why should the show stay bound inside such constrains when, as Ford comments, ’The Avengers’ was not? Especially when its considered that not only was ’The Avengers’ already airing before ’Doctor Who’, it was even another Sidney Newman creation!

Perhaps ITV were simply further ahead of a popular curve than the stuffy Beeb. (Though that alone would not explain why the original series never got out of this rut in it’s quarter-century history.) Perhaps, aimed at an adult audience, ’The Avengers’ was freer to audaciously present its leads as equals. Or indeed as adults, for perhaps Cathy Gale should more appropriately be considered against the sturdier Barbara than Susan. As it was, the ’Doctor Who audience always had a Daddy (or even a Grandaddy) and consequently the female lead tended to fall into the role of submissive daughter. (A tendency compounded when Barbara’s ‘mature woman’ role was not replaced.)

No doubt no small amount of this was due to plain lazy writing, which might have been considered more permissible on a family show. Though Ford suggests a conscious policy to change Susan back into Biddy, it may have been mere reverting to type. It’s easier to reassert clich├ęs than upend them. It doesn’t take too long to type “Man in rubber suit lumbers into room. Girl screams. Fade to credits.”

Perhaps the only character who came close didn’t appear until the very end of the original ’Who’, Ace (above). True, her ‘yoof’ speak was a world away from Susan’s RP annunciations, and her personality that of a street fighter not a sensitive loner, making her more a cross between latter-day Avenger and ’Grange Hill’ escapee than Unearthly Child. True, the production team's attempts to appeal to those young people of today was in many ways crass and excruciating. But with her the crucial element reappears - the theme of youth as something half-alien.

Perhaps it could be argued that even ’New Who’ has never really produced another Susan. Though effort is put into giving companions stronger and more rounded characters, they couldn’t have been more Earthly - clearly coded as representing ordinariness (or “the average TV viewer”). This is truest for Donna, who we're almost explicitly informed wouldn't have even watched 'Doctor Who' had it been on in her world. But it applies to all of them. They're sometimes promoted to be as smart as the Doctor or more powerful than him. But just like Biddy becoming Susan, all that lasts precisely one episode. Fisher's quote at the head of this piece is ultimately double-edged. Nobody is allowed to out-alien the Doctor on his own show. Some icons last down the years. Others, no less deserving, are left to fall into ruin…

Don't Trust Him, He's The Doctor

Its ironic that, in the middle of the Sixties, the teenager is made the opposite of a delinquent. While the title character of the show, an elder in years, is presented not as a better but as decidedly anti-heroic.

At this early point it's Ian and Barbara, London schoolteachers, who are the central figures. The Doctor's like the Wizard of Oz and tornado rolled into one, the mysterious stranger who whisks them away from the Kansas of Coal Hill school in his Tardis. He's mischievous and elusive, either deflecting their questions or disregarding them altogether – as if he'd rather just talk to himself. It's almost like an Alice in Wonderland encounter, straight talking winning only riddles in response. He clearly makes no secret of regarding them as inferior beings. Rather than the adventurer and moral crusader we are used to, he's a self-styled “wanderer”, lost or exiled in some unspecified way. Barbara snaps at him “you treat anybody and everything as less important than yourself!” While he is soon complaining to Ian “you seem to have elected yourself leader of this party!'

Let's note Doctors and Scientists were regularly made the villains in what might seem their own genre. The set-up of 'Lost In Space' (1965/8) really isn't too far from the early 'Biddy' premise of 'Who', with the Doctor in Zachary Smith's role of the troublemaking foil outside the family unit. Similarly, in the first episode of 'Flash Gordon,' (1936) Flash and Dale Arden are thrown together with an initially hostile Dr. Zarkov and put on his rocket.

That's the paradox of popular SF. Gandalf is considered inherently more trustworthy with his magic staff than Dr. Zarkov with his lab. And yet even the softening is similar. Smith's originally conceived villainy soon slipped into campy farce while Zarkov and Flash quickly united when faced with people who looked foreign.

The one part of the Doctor that is already on board is his eccentricity. In fact this might be the one thing he never loses, even if at times it became an absurd parody of itself. Making him Susan's grandfather is already half-way to making him a fairy tale character. One important component of which is his inability to comprehend his own ship. (Reiterated several times, culminating in his surprise when the chameleon circuit doesn't kick in.)

According to widespread but baseless tradition, this introductory episode should be coupled with the following 'Tribe Of Gum' (aka '100,000 BC', aka 'At Least That Movie Had Raquel Welch In a Fur Bikini, What The Hell Is This Crap?'.) Seemingly for no better reason than that makes a four-parter and the show often dealt in them.

But to be frank there's little that's worth saying over any of that. As you watch the RADA-educated actors applying Stanislavski's method to their grunting, you can already imagine them on their breaks, pulling out their pipes and announcing “after this, one is going back into rep.”

The re-showing of all four episodes went out straight after Mark Gatiss' drama documentary of the show's early years, 'An Adventure in Space and Time.' Which openly demonstrated producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein's dislike of the script, something they never made much of a secret of themselves. But perhaps more significant is the different way it draws humour. Starting with a close-up of a Cyberman having a fag, most gags are juxtapositional between what happened on set and how it looked through the screen. (Most explicitly through the Daleks, who look laughable arriving on set but become “really creepy” once seen through the monitors.) But the cavemen are portrayed as inherently ridiculous. They don't need anything doing to them, they're just funny! Something like the hermit character in 'Monty Python'.

You could perhaps point out that it says far more about the era that created it than the one it was set in. That the cavemen are more an absent category than a culture in their own right, there to demonstrate their supposed lacking in the civilised virtues we so easily see in ourselves. (They “don't understand kindness, friendship.”) But fortunately Shabogan Graffiti has said all that so we don't have to. As he points out, the cavemen behave “more like people from a devastated capitalist world” than like anything we know of from prehistory or from contemporary tribal societies.

So let's not brother. Let's concern ourselves only with what 'One is Currently Employed as a Neanderthal' tells us of the Doctor, Ian or Barbara. (After all, it tells us bugger all about Susan.) Of course 'Luvvies In Furs' is infamous for the most un-Doctorish moment of the early years, when he considers dashing in the brains of an injured caveman - the better to make good his escape. This does indeed seem more the action of the crueller Doctor of the untransmitted 'pilot' than the one we've just seen in the actual first episode.

Except this is something which was transmitted. This blink-and-you-miss-it moment remains a sticking point for many fans. I've already speculated that it may well have snowballed, fifty years later, into Moffat's un-Doctor (as played by John Hurt). Like a dripping tap which, left to run, finally leads to a deluge.

But any such response is skewed by hindsight. What's more notable is that the show isn't considering this as a viable course of action, and of course conspires to thwart him. It doesn't even give him a moment alone with his victim, the only circumstance which would give his plan a chance. The point of the scene, the reason it's there, isn't to demonstrate what the Doctor would do so much as what Ian and Barbara wouldn't.

And perhaps the more significant scene is also the storyline's best – a scene so much more accomplished it seems to burst in from somewhere else. Of course it's the Doctor's “there is blood on this knife” moment. The Hartnell Doctor tends to flip between mercurial alchemist and kindly but absent-minded grandparent. But here he's someone quite different, combining Holmesian logic with arch cunning – canny as well as uncanny. You can imagine this guy actually surviving as an astral traveller, talking his way out of a thousand scrapes despite having been disarmed even of his box of matches.

We modern viewers see the early unheroic, wanderer Doctor and we wait for him to go away. Our minds construct story arcs to explain his turn to good, despite knowing full well we're just joining up the dots of happenstance. But when blood's found on the knife, that's like the brief period before Susan got de-teened, that's the time he had some life of his own. It points at some different direction that seems viable, that the show could conceivably have gone down.

Decent Sorts in Space

It's a rare paradox. Susan, who'd soon turn into the least important character, dominates the first episode. While Ian and Barbara, who would become the central characters of the first two seasons, do little but react to things. The afore-mentioned scene, when we only hear their voices over Susan's face, sums it up. They're uncomprehending of her. Then they're uncomprehending of the Doctor, of the Tardis, of the Stone Age.

Of course, as an everyman and everywoman respectively, they don't need an introduction in the same way. We see things through their eyes, we don't need to see them. They're us. Or at least the sort of solidly middle class people we'd expect to see representing us on a BBC drama of this time. But at this stage they haven't even found their plot function. They're simply passengers in the Doctor's universe. A situation best exemplified by the finale of 'Tribe of Gum.' They resolve the situation by not bothering to. To put it in layman's terms – they leg it. Okay, given the circumstances I'd have legged it too. It's just not very dignified when you see someone doing it on the telly.

But as they come to assert themselves more, as they become the centre of gravity, this will soon change. They won't run from situations, they'll fix them. They'll become not travellers but adventurers. (Despite his name, the Doctor gets his interventionist bug from them and not the other way round.) In a storyline only shortly to come, Barbara will fail to sort out the scene and that will seem a significant break. (A silver sixpence to any boy or girl who can tell me to what I refer.)

Being so central, Ian and Barbara couldn't help but have a huge influence on the early show. To the point where they came to signify a type of story, and it's easy to talk of them as though they were synonyms for one another. Yet while they're both uncomprehending of events, Barbara takes to things far sooner than Ian. It's her idea to track down Susan at home, and she's the first to enter the Tardis. She asks the Doctor “won't you help us?” while the more suspicious Ian talks of policemen. Ian even challenges her on her acceptance, to which she simply replies “the point is, it's happened.”

Every 'Who' fan knows of the Doctor brandishing the rock at the injured caveman. It's Ian who stops him. But when the caveman is first injured (by an inexpensively off-screen beast), Ian is at first all for using the moment to their advantage and making their get-away. It's Barbara who insists he must be tended to. A fundamental rule of the show, perhaps the most fundamental rule, is established there and then. At one point even she has an attack of the Biddies. But at this early stage it's Barbara who's at heart of the narrative

It's still something of a stereotypical woman's role, of course. In accepting the situation she's not being smarter, she's being more intuitive than the rationalism of science teacher Ian. And in behaving like a nurse... well, that one's obvious enough. But the point is - that is a role. It gives her things to do, things more significant than asking “what's that, Doctor?” or screaming to signify the presence of monsters. While Susan is de-teened and degenerates into Biddy, Barbara becomes the one to watch…

Coming soon! Maybe one more 'Who' piece. It being the fiftieth anniversary and everything…

Coming not-so soon! I now rather regret openly making my rash promise to cover the early 'Doctor Who' storylines, when there's so much else going on in the world to distract me. I did 'The Daleks' some time ago. As for the rest of it, watch this space. Just not too eagerly...

Sunday 24 November 2013


I very nearly called this review 'Never Mind the Zygons'. For the who front story is essentially a rehash of 'The Sontaran Stratagem', despite the fact no-one liked that one much the first time round. (There's even a gag where Doctor Ten wrongly outs Elizabeth, based on us recognising its an almost exact copy of his rightly outing Martha.) Except instead of dealing with haunted satnavs, it's more of a period farce set largely in an Elizabethan forest. And except the ending is a rehash of 'Cold Blood', another story no-one liked that much either. An ending is so sudden, so spliced in, so in violation of what went before that it feels like those moment when Spike Milligan used to stand up and announce the end of the sketch. Oh, and except with Zygons. They seem decided on so arbitrarily you wonder if their copyright was coming up for renewal or something. (Though at least, their not being Slythene, we were spared more fart jokes.) Never mind them...

Yet if you feel like you're not even being asked to take this seriously, that's because you're not. We've all been waiting since May for the promised dark story about the un-Doctor. We get fed a little of his back-story to begin, then are rushed off for something far more frivolous. It's there to make the dark stuff darker when it reappears.

There's precisely one point of association – oh alright, it's the Zygons. Or more precisely, their habit of disguising themselves as humans. This leads to the climactic scene in which two sets of humans sit facing each other off, a perfect mirror image. Whereupon Doctors Ten and Eleven fly in. Humans duplicate, while Doctors differ. Ten and Eleven are a team because each brings something individual to the table. But the blessing is mixed. That capacity to differ also leads to the un-Doctor.

Notably, however, there's not much of a dynamic to Ten and Eleven rubbing shoulders. If anything it underlines how great their similarities are, certainly compared to the audacious differences between the Doctors of old. No, the verbal sparks fly only when the un-Doctor shows up. This is partly down to having someone of John Hurt's calibre aboard. As when Derek Jacobi briefly played the Master back in 'Utopia' you just wish it could be like this all the time.

But there's also one of Moffat's sleights of hand that actually works. You almost forget he's a Doctor you never followed, but come to treat him as an honorary star of Old Who returned to sound out his successors. Like a disdainful grandparent, he castigates their lack of grammar, their action poses with sonic screwdrivers and gets all harrumphy about the prevalence of kissing in the future. (Moffat has effectively confessed to channelling Hartnell for those scenes.) These moments are the high points of the front story.

Even more than usual, the episode's full of points where past and future collide in one image. Oil paintings turn out to be 3D, inside the Tower of London is a high-security secret headquarters. The Old and New, you see, have met.

But of course this is just the front story, there to lull us into the notion that the un-Doctor is a Doctor. When the Zygons disappear, which they do pretty much at the press of a button, the old problem reasserts. He can't be a Doctor. He's done something unthinkable for the Doctor to do. But had he any choice?

There was a precise moment which pulled me into actively watching the revived show, which happened in the second episode - when the death of the Time Lords was first revealed. It removed a whole lot of encumbering baggage and moved the show on, liberated it from being mired in backstory. But it also portrayed a new, more damaged Doctor than we had been used to. As I said at the time “this ‘never go home’ theme becomes the main thread of the series.”

But the thread is not the garment. Most of us assumed straight away that it was the Doctor himself who offed the Time Lords. He's never got on terribly well with the in-laws, after all. And who else does the stuff in his universe? We didn't necessarily need any of that spelt out.

At first the show had the smarts to suggest it would never show us the Time War, and went to lengths to block it off. It had simply happened while things were off air, so our chance had been missed. It became the shadow, the great unstateable, the elephant in the living room.

Except of course they never knew when to leave alone. It's like a kid sneaking his hand into the cookie jar. First his fingers go for a few inconspicuous crumbs, but before you know it he's back and has his fists full of the things.

True, a similar thing did happen in Old Who. Gallifrey should never have been named, let alone visited. I knew that even as a child. But where would you break the crumb trail? At 'The Deadly Assassin'? Perhaps even 'The Time Meddler'? With each little slice taken out of the mystery, we seemed to be gaining as much as we were losing.

Not such a problem this time. This is more like showing the War with the Machines in the Terminator films, first having the sense to keep the thing off-screen but culminating with risible inevitability in 'Terminator Salvation'. And in many ways we now have 'Doctor Who's 'Terminator Salvation.'

All of which, ironically, could easily have been avoided if audiences could simply be credited with a little imagination. The crux of the episode is no more the war scenes on Gallifrey than it was the silly Zygons. It's set in one room, empty except for the un-Doctor himself, the ultimate weapon and it's conscience. (Actually an externalisation of his, of course.) At no great surprise to anybody, it's this which leads to the most memorable scenes. (Perhaps owing a little to Baltar and Angel Six in 'Battlestar Galactica', but no matter.)

Admittedly it doesn't make much sense for it to manifest as Rose, a companion he's yet to meet so will have little psychological impact on him. (Though Moffat admittedly covers this with a very 'Who' line - “past and future, I always get those two mixed up.”) Of course it's really an excuse to get Billie Piper on board. But there is a way it's fitting. The old Doctor was the conscience of his show. In the fabled sabotage scene in 'Genesis of the Daleks' (an essentially similar moment), he pontificates “do I have that right?” while Sarah Jane urges him to just join the bloody wires. But with the new Doctor, the one who's been through all this, things are turned upside down. Now it's the companion who's the conscience, effectively his human side. (So gormlessly literalised in the TV movie.) As he confesses to Donna “sometimes I need someone.” The Moment Interface (as it's called) isn't Rose. But it's doing a Rose-like thing. Clara, notably, is also against pressing the button.

We pride ourselves on being able to take grittier and more mature storylines these days, where our heroes are put in the bleakest and most inescapable situations. But of course it's like a teenager demanding their independence. We don't want what we say we want, we want it all to end nice and cosily and to be tucked safely up in bed. The result is storylines which set up parameters like bonds of steel, then in the last instance simply ignore them. (A classic example would be 'Source Code'.)

You have probably already guessed why I am mentioning all of this now.

The un-Doctor shows up in the Elizabethan farce and livens things up. But the Two Doctors then show up in his bare, existential room – and their presence takes something away. The big, fat button. It's such a nuclear analogy it feels like events weren't enabled by time portal Elizabethan paintings after all but by some old anti-nuclear leaflet that fell in from the Eighties. And oddly, for someone who went on all the ban-the-bomb marches in those times, I just wanted them to press the button. Reincarnation isn't so bad a metaphor for repressing a memory, the way we humans might get a new flat or haircut. Supposing they'd actually acknowledged what they'd done, accepted their previously repressed dark side? But of course they don't. Instead the necessity to do so just magically evaporates.

The Time War was once the ultimate in time locked. Nothing gets in or out. Bonds of steel. That gets explained away with a knowing look. Logistically, is saving Gallifrey by displacing it in time a narrative cheat or a Houdini escape? The internet will be abuzz with debate on that until I get bored. (Actually for a long time after that. But then I will get bored very quickly.) It simply doesn't matter. Something else is more important.

It's been established and re-established that the Time War made the Time Lords as terrible as the Daleks. As late as the 'Night of the Doctor' minisode, which went out barely a week before the episode itself, this was still the case. The pilot reacts to the classic “bigger on the inside” line not as a promise but a threat, and unhesitatingly chooses death over rescue. (A moment which is, quite honestly, stronger than anything which happens in the actual episode.)

All of which is swept away in a puff of feelgood. Their mutual animosity is no longer threatening the universe. The Time Lords, now chiefly represented by children, are instead under unprovoked Dalek attack – in some Pearl Harbour moment. Their High Command regard the Doctor as a bit of an unpredictable maverick, but that's about the worst thing you can say of them. (And that's something he'd probably say of himself.)

There feels something distinctly fannish at the heart of all of this. Let's go back to the Elizabethan forest, and the idea Hurt in is actually playing Hartnell. An anniversary cannot help but make you recall beginnings. And the Doctor started out as someone distinctly unheroic. The most infamous example of which was his contemplating bashing someone's brains out with a rock, to aid his getaway. For some fans that has rankled for years, and they've invented ever-more-elaborate means to explain it away.

Moffat is a fan-turned-pro. I can't help wondering if that moment festered in his brain, until the rock became a doomsday device and the single man expanded into a planetful of children. It was a misdeed, a poison in the show's system, a wound which needed to be cauterised. It had to un-happen. And that needed an un-Doctor. If Hurt is in fact Hartnell that would explain the peculiar absence of references to the Doctor's past selves, his long history of opposing war and saving lives, and the peculiar emphasis of the effects of his actions upon his future selves.

Plus the news that from now on the Doctor will be tracking down Gallifrey... Post-Hartnell, the Doctor's name cropped up no more than twice in story titles - 'The Three Doctors' and then 'The Two Doctors'. Since then, and starting with 'The Doctor Dances' (itself a Moffat episode) it's mushroomed. In the last few episodes alone we've had 'The Name...', 'The Night...' and now 'The Day of the Doctor.' Even if I felt the Doctor needed rescuing from being a killer with a rock (which I don't), this seems to do him a greater disservice.

'Doctor Who' was never about the Doctor. The Doctor just performed a narrative function. He's a classic example of the emblematic hero, his actions the cosmic equivalent of riding into town to right wrongs, then riding out again. In his universe he represents something universal. To impose all that 'hero's journey' stuff on him diminishes him. He wasn't originally made a wanderer because no-one had thought of anywhere for him to go. He was made a wanderer because, fundamentally, that's who he is.

Giving a fan creative control... it's like giving a toddler a puppy. They love what they've got, but they don't understand it. So, somewhere along the way, they're going to end up killing it.

Coming soon! Something about Old Who. (Well it has been fifty years…)

Saturday 16 November 2013


As a warm-up to the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary of the classic show, let's look at one of it's most iconic elements – the credit sequence. Because let's face it, we do judge books by their covers and we do watch TV shows according to their title sequences. We just do...

At one point during the early story ’The Edge of Destruction’ we’re taken to the beginning of the universe. There being no money then to actually show this sort of thing on the screen, the Doctor instead demonstrates it through the medium of overacting. Spotlit, he gushes on about how little particles are slowly drawn to other little particles until finally things break out into recognisable shapes.

Watching the early Hartnell era is a bit like that really. While the fans construct elaborate timelines between stories and convoluted explanations for apparent incongruities, never was a thing more clearly stuck together on the hoof. It was never devised. It simply congealed.

What’s customary is to peer through this cloud of particles and see what furniture was there from the beginning (Earthly companions yes, Tardis, yes, Time Lords not, etc). But we’re not doing that here. Instead we’re letting ourselves be drawn to what strikes the modern viewer as iconic. After all, while fans might latch onto plot-points or particulars, a general audience is likely to respond more imagistically. And anyway, if we’re talking about the evolution of the show, we all know its fundamental to Darwinism that each evolutionary step has to have an immediate reason for occurring – not just a long-term goal.

The great toy spin-offs the Tardis and the Daleks are there from the beginning, of course. Though the pepperpots perfectly exemplify the themes in Terry Nation’s script, and though they’re certainly iconic in the sense of enduring… I can’t consider them part of what I’m on about here. Steven Moffatt was right to call them “a bit of ridiculous Sixties pop art.” (‘Radio Times’, 20-26/3/10) They look iconic of the Sixties, endearingly archaic, like Mini cars or Beatle haircuts.

Perhaps they’ve since suffered the death of a thousand skits, or perhaps their very crossover appeal lies in the facts that they never did look that scary, lending themselves easily to teatime viewing and marketing campaigns. ’The Guardian’s list of Alternative Design Classics (14/1/09) puts the Daleks at number three – “somehow they have become as loveable as they are monstrous.” And I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Even the re-launch implicitly acknowledged this, announcing the Daleks’ return with a ’Radio Times’ cover but starting with a caged, broken Dalek - something only the Doctor knows to be scared of. Okay these things may not look like much, the post-CGI generation was being told, but wait to see what they can do.

What’s iconic in the sense of being both classic and immediate, in the sense that it can still grab you even today, is the credit sequence. Grainer and Derbyshire’s theme tune of course chimes with genius, and sounds just as otherworldly today despite its familiarity. But I’m talking here of the total credit sequence, as a gestalt integration of sound and vision.

It’s hard to recount the effect this sequence would have upon me as a young feller. ’Stingray’ opened with the classic line “anything can happen in the next half hour”, words to set infant hearts a-racing. But ’Doctor Who’ upped the ante by demonstrating anything could happen, in what felt like a total disruption of the normal rules of time, space and Seventies TV.

The psychedelic tunnel was a vital emblem of this to me, a portal between worlds, like the typhoon that took Dorothy to Oz. It opened up a hole in consensus reality right in the middle of our suburban living room - and pushed me through it. Half an hour later, it would reappear to take you back again and Bruce Forsyth would come on to announce ’The Generation Game’.

Part of its appeal was that it seemed unlike even other science fiction shows, and the credit sequence telegraphed that. They almost always started with star fields and quasi-military music. For maximum contrast compare ’Doctor Who’ with the other ‘classic’ SF TV show, ’Star Trek’, which appeared a mere three years later. It was ’Trek’ which more commonly set the template, and (though my juvenile brain would have been unable to articulate it at the time) create the distinction between two types of SF show.

Post ’Star Trek’ shows would be military stories with teleporting instead of parachuting, or Western stories with ray guns for pistols, the stuff ’Pigs in Space’ took the piss out of. (The original brief for ’Star Trek’ was “Wagon Train in space”.) The rarer post-’Who’ shows were uncanny and otherworldly. They weren’t even necessarily science fiction shows, they overlapped with horror but mostly they were strange. (Though in my youthful innocence I then thought ’Who’ unique, it bears some familial resemblance to ’The Outer Limits’ or ’The Twilight Zone’.)

One could be exciting, but with the other you weren’t even sure how to respond. In my juvenile pedantry I even came to dislike scenes which showed the Tardis floating among stars like some common-or-garden silver rocket. The Tardis, I firmly held, should dematerialise from the world as we knew it and then reappear to us only when it chose to materialise again. (Instinctively recognising, years before I actually knew, that this mirrored the astral flight of the shaman.)

Watching the various credit sequences through, what‘s striking is how their development (and otherwise) can be used as a rough and ready barometer of the quality of the series as a whole. First we have not the psychedelic tunnel of my youth but a kind of ripple effect, conveying distortion in the fabric of space and time. (Quite awesomely, done through a feedback loop, like Hendrix’s guitar only done visually.)

This gets refined in the Troughton era, and the Doctors’ face added. (The documentary bundled with the ’In The Beginning’ DVD claims this has been originally pitched but nixed by producer Verity Lambert as too frightening!) It reaches both psychedelic-tunnelhood and a sustained peak through the Pertwee and early Baker years. (Though the ideal sequence, the one of my dreams, would be the tunnel combined with the pre-diamond slab serif logo.)

Then it all goes wrong in that great historical cusp year of 1980, inventively substituting (wait for it!) a star field! Tom Baker was still at the helm, but the series was already in decline. The Sylvester McCoy logo is a classic example of how a ’63 look can be classic but an ’87 one merely dated. The modern relaunch comes with more updates, but the closest referring back to both title sequence and original theme tune in over thirty years.

Okay, it's not a precise fit. The McCoy era was more characterised by good ideas which worked only fitfully, while that logo is simply baaaaad. And while the relaunched show has hit two peaks, when Davies first kicked it off and when Moffat first replaced him, then sagged between, it's credit sequence has slowly but consistently drifted away from the original. But it's a surprisingly good barometer.

Examples:The vidclip below allows you to see the sequences as a segue. If you want to see each sequence separately, as broadcast and with descriptions, use this link.

Saturday 9 November 2013


It’s starting to get embarrassing, this agreeing with Russell Brand business.
(Viewers in the colonies, catch up via the vidclip below of his 'Newsnight' interview and something he wrote in the Guardian afterwards.)

His comments are so blindingly obvious that any idiot could have come up with them. Which is in fact precisely what has happened, and he has said so himself in pretty much those words. It was cringeworthy, the way his debate with Paxman so closely mirrored those earnest political debates I’d have with my mates when I was nineteen. Yet simultaneously hilarious for being conducted by two grown adults on a current affairs programme, and getting the commentators aflutter like this was all bold new stuff which had never been said before.

Of course it’s concerning the way we’re so entrenched in celebrity culture that it takes a celebrity to say these things before anyone notices. Perhaps next we’ll have a weatherman commenting that freedom of choice can only come through the market system, then a Zoo model countering that capitalism inherently relies on the extraction of labour power from the productive classes.

But I’m almost tempted to argue “if that’s what it takes…” It exposes the game where, if Brand says it, he’s dismissed as a “champagne anarchist” who is inherently out of touch with the everyday world he’s describing. Whereas when some ordinary working person looked up from their red bills to say the same thing, they simply wouldn’t show up on ‘Newsnight’ in the first place. Your face is wrong or non-existent. Okay, given the choice, let’s pick ‘wrong’.

It veers, like it always seems to, onto the vote. What’s notable is that voting is so much like that other great totem, the free market, in both the way it’s supposed to work and the way it really does.

Look at the current furore over rising energy bills. Opening up the energy market to competition was supposed to ‘liberalise’ it, to create all these lean, client-hungry companies who’d compete against one another until the consumer got the best possible deal. But of course in reality it quickly fell to six large suppliers, who formed a de facto cartel to push up prices as much as they could - and rack up their profits to levels previously unimagined. Which has pushed an ever-increasing number of people into fuel poverty. While they have money to burn, their embezzling has caused levels of hardship up to and including death. Not surprisingly, people are not entirely happy.

In which case, a political party is supposed to reflect that strength of opinion. The demand is out there, so of course a provider will come along to fill it. Except of course none of that has happened. It’s the same stacked choice between the same small cartel of providers. While polls show most people want energy re-nationalised, the choice we actually get is between Labour’s “Marxist” option of a temporary price freeze (after which they can presumably just rack prices up again). Or the Tories’ master plan of making it easier for people to switch. (Between the same six suppliers who have the whole thing already sewn up and raise their prices in virtual unison. Like, duh!)

This doesn’t happen because politicians are inherently grasping little grubbers (even though many of them are), but because the power actually lies with… and I expect you can see the pun coming… the power companies. Power lies in ownership of money and property. It belongs to a class. It does not lie in any particular building, however charming a view of the Thames it might offer.

Yet, all of that said, I simply don’t get this fixation over voting. Ultimately, it seems a distraction. I don’t vote as a means to achieve social change, for the same reason I don’t dress up as a pirate when my bathroom needs cleaning. It’s got nothing to do with ‘pirate apathy’, I just don’t see any meaningful way where the one thing will lead to the other.

Which means it’s flat-out mistaken to replace a fixation for voting with a fixation for not voting. I don’t vote. There’s people I know, who I feel politically affiliated to, who do. But they don’t have any of those illusions about the process genuinely representing their interests. They just figure out they might as well, in case it somehow does some good. Or, perhaps more likely, mitigates some evil. The difference between me and them seems minor, and not particularly worth going into.

And not voting, in and of itself, is merely passive. It’s not an act of defiance, because it’s not an act of any kind. When voting levels fall (as they have done, pretty much consistently in recent decades), it may put the wind up politicians a little. But anyone who thinks it disrupts the embezzling antics of the power companies really needs to get out more. We don’t prop the system up by voting for it, nor even by buying its products, but by working for it. I am, to put it mildly, less convinced than Brand that “the revolution” is imminent, “totally going to happen” or whatever else he said. But the whole racket is over as soon as we recognise that, underneath the Orwellian rhetoric of “wealth creators”, these are people who need us while we don’t need them.

Then we won’t need popular entertainers to speak up for us any more.

Saturday 2 November 2013


The Old Market, Hove, Mon 22nd Oct

We're just a folk band, really,” deadpanned frontman Mike Lindsay at one point.

Discuss”, he could have added. The vast majority of their songs feature the great folk staple of monophonic choral singing. It makes for a refreshingly direct, unperformative style, the very opposite of all that over-emotive 'X Factor' warbling that so often passes for singing nowadays. But, much like Lindsay's comment, its a style you could also call deadpan. Like reciting a story straight, it does little to clue the listener in on how to take things and leaves more open to interpretation.

Dispassionate in tone, it tempts you to take the singers as reliable narrators rather than characters within the songs. And yet there's simultaneously something disquieting about it. Notably, anachronisms abound; magic spells coexist with bedroom TVs, horses clattering over stones only to run into police cars, rivers and fields morph into branches of Little Chef.

Musically it's like the old Steve Reich device of a musician playing along to recordings of them-self. However close together the singing comes, it never quite hits the exact same notes at exactly the same time. The ear hears the harmony but also senses the subtle discords going on around it – edges are always blurred.

...which pretty much sums Tunng up all round. Their songs are beguiling, placid surfaces barely concealing murky depths. Their tunefulness often draws the listener into quite sinister lyrics before they've even noticed. Something terrible always seems to have happened which is only alluded to, or to be happening but on the periphery of our vision. 'Tale From Black', we're told, is about an old lady who commits murders in order to use the bodies' blood for typewriter ink. “Actually”, Lindsay concedes, “we've quite a lot of songs on that subject.”

'Jenny Again' comes on like a break-up number and only some way in do you realise it's a victim's ode to their murderer. Yep, it's not just the panning that's dead here – murder's a definite theme. That great folk staple of the murder ballad is given a twist – building on the model rather than merely duplicating it. And it is simply more effective to hear Tunng gently cooing on the subject than it is to hear Cannibal Corpse screaming and gurning and getting themselves in an awful bother. It's the same relationship as 'The Innocents' does to 'Saw'.

But like those choral vocals the music also slips off-kilter. It's often hard to work out just what its doing, to sound so harmonious and so disconcerting at one and the same time. Songs aren't broken or dispensed with, just given half a twist until nothing sounds quite in the right place any more. As much as anything from folk, it's reminiscent of John Cale's bleakly beautiful ballads, such as 'Antarctica Starts Here.'

..which is of course what's at the root of Lindsay's gag. Made of such slippery stuff, they're hard to pin to any genre. The venue dubbed them nu-folk, but that alone merely suggests the performers being pre-pensionable. Psych-folk comes closer, but practitioners tend to the more brazenly psychedelic and in-your-face. I thought of both twisted folk and folk noir, only (just as whentrying to coin terms for the Physics House Band) to find both to be already in use.

However, while I can confidently say they didn't play a song I didn't take to, I suspect after a decade of deadpanning time may have washed out some of their lo-fi weirdness. It's the familiar story, as a band become more accomplished they get correspondingly less interesting. Certainly my stand-out favourite track of the night was the early (and afore-mentioned) 'Tale From Black.' Perhaps partly because it was the first track of theirs I ever heard, on the much missed Festive Fifty, from 2004.

But it's not just that. Sampling and sound effects seem less employed in their more recent fare, yet they seem to add much - lending proceedings the feeling of a ghost story. Those so minded might even trace an overlap between Tunng's songs and the more ambient Ghost Box scene. While hauntology has become something of a buzzword, both can create music which feels in itself like the haunting – leaving the listener trying to reconstruct some original event from a series of spectral happenings. (“The ghost of an image/It's just fleeting glimpses.”)

Tunng are just a folk band, really. Not really.

Not from Brighton but London, the now-twice-mentioned 'Tale From Black'...

Brighton Concorde, Fri 18th Oct

The same night Half Man Half Biscuit played, a friend told me she was off to see Culture Shock. A chance event which duplicated with uncanny accuracy the divide which hit music in the early Eighties. (Though the bands weren’t formed until ’84 and ’86 respectively.) Anarcho-punkers Culture Shock had songs about not liking governments and nuclear war and animal experiments. While, in the post-punk corner, HMHB had songs about not liking people who put peaches on their cornflakes.

There was no contest as far as I was concerned.

They also wrote songs about converting their loft back into a loft, seeing the Bootleg Beatles dressed as the bootleg Mark Chapman, and replacement rail services which turn out on close inspection to consist of buses. And they split up because being in the band was causing them to miss too much daytime TV. Never did smalltown England seem smaller, which is about the greatest complement you could give them.

But they since reformed and here they are…

(They actually reformed in the Nineties and I've even seen them since then. But then that makes the story less newsworthy.)

As such tales might suggest, they were not a band to court success. In fact, the responded to the limelight as a vampire might to sunlight. With their rinky-dink sound, flat-pack riffs and default setting of jaded, they worked best sniping at things from the sidelines.

But it's a bit like what (of all people) Noel Gallagher said recently. In the old days, politicians helpfully looked like nutters and you knew where you were. Nowadays they're slick, smart/casual and, in his words, “they walk among us.”

Similarly, the limelight has come to prove equally slippery. Seriously, how do you avoid it by not playing 'Top of the Pops' when the show isn't even on? The old gag about being “differently successful” now seems all too credible a fate.

Some now regard them as an honorary sort of folk band, and most likley rightly. But what is true for good can also be true for ill. Their first album was called 'Back in the DHSS' and their second 'Back Again in the DHSS'. Frontman and songwriter Nige Blackwell had been unemployed for years before forming the band, and his writing wasn't based in the doley lifestyle so much as steeped in it. An over-active imagination, fed only on a diet of celeb trivia, music biz lore and childhood TV memories, spun them into fantasies of obsessive contempt. With little to actually rebel against, instead you cultivated sneery diffidence. It was like you were on strike against the very idea of engagement. But songs about signing on now feel much like songs about weaving, an exercise in preserving what was once a way of life.

In short, playing a sizeable venue, packed with fans who know all the words, is that really the way it's supposed to be? Of course their tracks ceaselessly aped and echoed football chants, TV themes and nursery rhymes – they're based on a singalong source. But how singalong can a gig get before it's just like 'The Rocky Horror Show'? At times it feels like an acid gob grenade aimed at the trivial and irritating. But, even with the ever-reliably sardonic air eminating from Nige, all too often it feels like that - a show.

Perhaps it's pointless to compare gigs two decades apart. But a creaking community centre in Southwick followed by a long bus ride home, wasn't that the way it was supposed to be?

Something else which happened the same day... Morrissey's autobiography was unleashed, leading to the Guardian quoting his famous line - “in the days when you were hopelessly poor/ I just liked you more.”

Just saying, is all.

As I'm sure you're used to by now, not from Brighton...