Saturday 28 December 2013


Audio, Brighton, 9th Dec

Themselves San Francisco-based, Wooden Shjips are presumably named after the classic Jefferson Airplane track. (Though how they came by that strange extra letter I've njo idjea.) And naming a band after a track already used by another band most commonly signifies music that's merely going to regurgitate. But, shortly after seeing the Black Angels, it seems I'm going to have to make another exception to my rule.

For they're not much like the Airplane at all, subjecting songs to their psychedelic curdling. Their sound's more metronomic, open and expansive. 'Space rock' is a term often used interchangeably with psychedelic but in this case would be more fitting. Their website describes their mission statement as “transforming heady psychedelic rock into minimalist masterpieces”, and as the organ swirls they sound like something closer to the Velvet's 'What Goes On'. Except with Hawkwind's guitar sound. And something of Question Mark and the Mysterious thrown in too.

They came with the perfect backdrop film, a Pollock come to life meets Bridget Riley combined with the old TV closedown signal. A shorthand way of saying this isn't going to be that pretty kind of psychedelia, with all those coloured lights and childhood whimsey.

They have such a good rhythm section - tight, driving and spacious simultaneously – that you start to wonder if they didn't spent years honing their skills marshalled into someone's backing band, and tonight is their first chance to break free. The vocals would even by the most charitable source be described as weak, but then they clearly aren't intended to be dominant. (They barely speak to the audience between tracks, as if words don't interest them.) It's the organ that takes to the fore, its surges at times almost breaking into drones. At times the player (who in police parlance I now know to be called Nash Whalan) would only marginally move his hands, like some expert driver, like Irwin Schmidt in those classic old Can clips.

I suspect, however, that everything that makes the band so great live would start to work against them on CD. Truth to tell, they don't have a great range, they're one of those bands who have their sound and would rather stick to it. And what makes for the hypnotic force of repetition would, once recorded, most likely soon become mere repetition.

But definitely a band to take in live, should they sajl your way.

From Paris...

...and a live session on American radio...

The Hope, Brighton, Sun 17th Nov

You could describe Califone as having parked their easy chair at the point where the venn diagrams of blues, folk and country converge. The slow and steady pace of their songs makes them feel like boxcars traversing the landscape, allowing listeners to hitch a ride. Though Tim Rutili is the singer and chief songwriter you could hardly call so unassuming a fellow a frontman. Looking like Columbo's more crumpled slacker brother, he keeps mischievously suggesting he should introduce each number in a declammatory Gene Simmonds style. Then almost murmurs the words to their track 'Funeral Singers', “The book is aching for the tree/ Return, return, return to me...”

...and they must be the only band matching that description to have written a fiddle-led ode to Surrealist film-maker Luis Bunel. For there's also a persistently left-field edge to what they do, it just takes you a while to notice its there. It's like they've stepped straight from the back porch to the sound lab, skipping all the intervening stages. (They are, after all, not from some rustic backwater but Chicago, virtual home of experimental rock.)

Let's compare them momentarily to Tunng, who twist folk tunes until you're haunted by their strangeness. But Tunng's music is almost the definition of uncanny - strangely familiar. While Califone, strangely, are merely familiar. Every sound they turn their hand to comes out sounding entirely natural. In the old days, people picked up guitars and fiddles when they wanted to make music. These days there are more things to pick up. But with Califone it still feels the same deal.

After I first heard them on the late, lamented radio show 'Mixing It', one of the presenters commented their music sounded like it had simply been lying there waiting to be played - perfectly summing up their apparent artlessness. Or, to quote from another song, the afore-mentioned 'Luis Bunel', “Every camera loves you better/When you quit trying to play”. “Quit trying to play” could indeed be their axiom, a Yoda-like refusal to strain for effort.

As the set progresses, the unaffected-effects songs slowly stretch into something more wig-out, one number pulsing like something from Steve Reich. But it's less that they expand their musical ground, more that they pull more things into their orbit.

As if gone native to their unassuming style, they seemed to imagine no-one would want an encore and instead traipsed off to their merch stall. Having one then insisted on them, they found themselves unprepared and had to rely on suggestions called out by the crowd. It couldn't have ended in a more appropriate way.

The afore-mentioned 'Funeral Singers'...

...and some honest-to-God genuine shaky footage from Brighton...

Concorde 2, Brighton, Wed 6th Nov

Here at Lucid Frenzy HQ, we have an attitude to the Young People's Music of Today akin to Saxon Kings' feelings about baths. We like to dip our toe in it every few months, whether we need to or not.

Of course there's more to it than faddishness and generation gaps. There's not much point making more music if you're not going to move music on. Which inevitably leaves some old timers behind. But there has of late been a more fundamental shift. Those Young People of Today, they listen to music through iPlayers or on-line. (They do, I've seen them.) And the different delivery system makes the music different. You can't simply separate form and content.

Us Old 'Uns tend to focus on the downside of this. Music has been made a commodity, to be consumed like the rest of us use water or electricity. But there's an inevitable upside that goes with it. Music always was a commodity fetish, perhaps the most classic example of the term, and sometimes what's really changed is a decline in the fetishism rather than a rise in the commodification. Music was once encumbered with cultural baggage and pressed into signifying your identity. People would often stick rigidly to certain genres, never straying. But if music's simply what comes up next on your shuffle player, your relationship to it becomes more utilitarian. It either works for you or it doesn't.

...which means, I contend, that live becomes a good way to take in modern music. A gig is a shuffle player made out of real people. By the time you've got to the venue, it's too late to take the LP off the turntable. You might as well try going with it, seeing if it takes you somewhere. (In an irony, in our internet age bands now make their living from playing live more than releasing music. Of course people try to capture them on fuzzy footage for YouTube. But everyone knows the experience isn't the same.)

...and as it happens Mount Kimbie are an excellent live band. Dispelling the notion that dance music doesn't work in a gig format, they mix live and electronic instruments with alacrity. They even spent a fair amount on time playing actual honest-guv guitars. (I expect some of those Young People of Today had to Google what the funny stringed objects were.)

One of the axioms of Lucid Frenzy is that great art can straddle apparent contradictions. And, as was alluded to over Fuck Buttons, Mount Kimbie can marshall the power of repetitive beats without becoming their slave, without succumbing to simple rigid repetition. There is always a twist or turn in the track. There's never the sense that the clever stuff is merely smeared on the basic beats, like the frozen veg on the dull dough of a bargain basement pizza. Mount Kimbie live in the beats. Perhaps notably, they're signed to maverick electronica label Warp, known for releasing (among others) Aphex Twin, Autechre and Squarepusher.

According to that great authority Wikipedia, they're “arguably responsible for the term post-dubstep”. While I find I take to dubstep on the rare occasions its path crosses mine, I confess I don't have much of a clue what it is. So post-dubstep lies several levels beyond my comprehension. (Less dancefloor-fixated is about all I've gathered.)

So here's an observation that is almost certainly borne of ignorance - Mount Kimbie's post-dubstep is actually putting the dub influence back in. (An influence which never seemed that pronounced to me to being with.) On rare occasions this takes the form of literal lifts, the most obvious being echo effects. But in a wider sense it borrows dub's sense of sonic depth. Dub didn't try to draw a picture, in which a singer stood in front of a backing band. Dub was to music what a Pollock abstract is to painting, it doesn't approximate perspective but still conveys pictoral depth – seeming to stretch deeper and deeper the longer you look into it. Notably, the image for their tour and most recent release is a graphic of abstract, overlapping shapes. With Mount Kimbie, sounds sit on top of one another, overlap, recede. The way they interact is what makes the magic happen.

Mount Kimbie are really very good indeed, and to try out some of their music might be a very good use of your time. Or, in the parlance of the day, they is bleedin' blindin'. Well wicked, mate. 'avin' it, an' that. (Note to self: check this is the way Those Young People actually talk before posting.)

Not from Brighton, but same tour...

Coming soon! More belated gig reviews which compare music to Pollock abstracts...

Wednesday 25 December 2013


…and what better way to celebrate Yuletide than by posting some photos taken in the Mediterranean during a warm Autumn? After the photos posted of climbing the vulcano of the Aeolian island of Vulcano, here's some of the boat trip we then took around it. 

More to follow and, as ever, full set on Flickr.

Sunday 22 December 2013


Cheek By Jowl, Barbican Theatre
Should you not be familiar with this infamous play, an absurdist assault on the senses, know first that it's first Parisian staging in 1896 led to instant audience uproar. (Author Alfred Jarry later claimed he'd hired goons to stir by countering the rest of the audience, cheering when they booed and vice versa.) At the inaugural Dadaist club, the Cabaret Voltaire, extracts from the play were read. It's plot and, more important, tone were actually best described by another audience member I overheard - “imagine 'Macbeth' if it had been written by Cartman from 'South Park'.” (And I really wish I'd said that.)

Initially, I'll admit, I was suspicious of the notion of a version with live actors. I've always contended the play works best either with puppets, as was a Jarry's original intention, or as an animation. (The first public performance used actors, but masked and described by Jarry as “man-sized marionettes”.)

Both mediums lend themselves to render the title character as monstrous and diminutive, and are least likely to try and humanise the sick beast. (He was described by the Independent's Paul Taylor as “an ovoid oaf... a Humpty Dumpty monarch with a loo-brush for a sceptre and a set of a lavatorial id-like appetites ungoverned by the least suggestion of a superego.”) Crucially, his motives must be as petty-minded as his means depraved. In particular, the faintest whiff of 'proper' acting, of digging Stanislavaskian depths into his green candle, are to be avoided at all costs.

As it transpires, Cheek By Jowl have found an ingenious way around this. They give a performance that's (in the colloquial sense of the word) schizophrenic. They start out with a naturalistically played scene, a dinner party held in the gleaming white of a designer home. This then flips arbitrary into the id-world of Ubu, the gestures suddenly spasmodic and grotesque, the voices strangulated and guttural. Lighting switches and projections then change the environment almost entirely, even as we're aware we're looking at the same scene.

That last part is crucial. Throughout the props remain the same as the standard domestic paraphernalia – a lampshade becomes a crown, a food blender a weapon, silver foil booty, like children's play transforming the meaning of objects while their parents are out.

In one memorable scene the dinner guests arrive, then promptly reverse out again – as if in a backwards film. Their seemingly spontaneous gestures, their waving and hugging are reproduced exactly, suggesting they were never so naturalistic in the first place.

...all of which is of course as Freudian as my green candle. One is id to the other's ego, the sublimated struggle of each against all, buried only slightly beneath those bourgeois pleasantries. Proceedings swap jolting back and forth between the two, chalk cut with cheese, never giving you the chance to get used to either.

The resetting is perpetuated through the performance, and needs to be. Back then, you could stun an audience with the word “merde”, which is precisely how Jarry started this play. Yet literal versions of Ubu staged now, “merdes” all present, would no longer have any shock value left to trade. It would be like the Sex Pistols reforming and... oh, hang on, that actually happened. Anyway, you take the point. The closer the imitation, the more the point will be lost. It's a straight choice between preserving the form and keeping the spirit. Which is, I suspect, why director Declan Donellan reacted with umbrage when an interviewer described the play as a classic - “I don’t do [these plays] because they’re classics; I do them because they’re good.” Which is of course precisely the right attitude.

And Ubu without the accoutrements, the hood, the spiral on the pot belly, works like the vampire without the cape or the superhero without the cowl. Which is to say, it works. It short-circuits expectations, discards what once might have been emblems but are now merely heirlooms, to get closer to the heart of things. The result is a richly grotesque seam of black humour, where you're often not sure whether to respond with shock or mirth, and mostly can't help but do both.

The play is performed entirely in French, with surtitles for us linguistically challenged Brits. Much like the live actors, I wondered how this would work. Keeping to the original language is not necessary. Jarry's text could hardly be more basely anti-poetic so is hardly likely to lose in translation. But, much like the live actors, it works surprisingly well. Our received images of French may be as the language of romance, diplomacy and expensive consumption, but in actuality it lends itself to the guttural with ease.

While the performance was almost ceaselessly inventive, it should be said it was also overlong. In that sense it was actorly, as if those performances were too priceless to be shoehorned into mere purpose. Yet 'Ubu' should, above all things, be a short, sharp, shock. This was particularly noticeable in the opening. As said, the 'classic' opening cannot be kept, and swapping it for a naturalistic scene may be smart. But it risked going beyond lulling us into a false sense of security, and instead sending us to sleep. And what foreshadows and undercurrents there were seemed a rather banal literalisation of the theme, reaching their nadir with the camcorder close-ups of the stains in the toilet rug.

The film projections could also feel superfluous. The semi-abstract ones, used for scene-setting worked well. Much of the play is set in what Jarry described as “Poland, that is to say Nowhere.” He suggested getting someone to walk on and “put up signs indicating the locations of the various scenes”. By comparison,'Hamlet'
is a historical documentary about Denmark of scrupulous accuracy. Suggesting at the setting, rather than indelibly taking us there, is the perfect thing to do. But the repeated live projections of the scene we were actually watching seemed gimmicky, done simply because they could.

But more problematic is the character of the teenage son, brooding under his sullen fringe. At times he seemed able to switch things between the 'ego' and 'id' settings, as if he was magically in charge of the play's remote control. Perhaps we were in similar territory to Haneke's film 'Hidden', with the teenager as the inside outsider, neither guest nor host at the dinner party - and so able to see it for what it is.

If so, it feels too close for comfort to the self-image of the teenager. 'Ubu' is of course not a politically sophisticated play, nor is it intended to be. Jarry wrote it as a young man, early versions while still at school in order to satirise a teacher. Running on pith and bile, it in many ways was a punk record before its time. Yet to simply flatter the teenager as a natural rebel seems too much. The child is of course living off the silver foil of the parents, even as he emanates disdain from their sofa.

There's also an odd connection between the family teenager and the avenging Prince Boggerlas, who is of course not an outsider but very much a character within the play. It's like he casts himself in the play and so gets to make himself the hero. The climactic scene, as he stalks and dispatches his adult antagonists, seemed to push things beyond 'Hidden' into Lynne Ramsey's post-Columbine 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'. (The Independent review even suggested the alternate title 'We Need to Talk About Boggerlas.')

This scene is notably not in Jarry's original play, where the monster survived to belch and grab again. And we seem encouraged to fit it with another added scene – the beginning. In one he prowls the house with a camcorder, in the other a gun, as if we should find an equivalence between them. But a post-Columbine Boggerlas is frankly boggling. Any suggestion his counter-Ubu is merely another Ubu, a monster begat by such monstrousness, does not seem to have been reflected anywhere else up to this point.

And how could it be? The teenager was more than half a century distant when 'Ubu' was first performed. His roots are more in the grasping nature of the child, of infantile fixations being grotesquely indulged by the power inherent in an adult body.

Jarry himself came to be nicknamed Ubu, and as time passed took on more and more of his gait and manners. Which suggests to me Jarry's intent was different to all that, both more potent and more incisive. Who is Ubu, chest stuffed with medals he was awarded himself for valour in furthering his own self-interest? Of course he's us. He's every self-centred thought you ever had and suppressed shame-faced, turned into a totem to assail you. He only does what we would do, given his half-a-chance.

Jarry himself said “I wanted the stage to stand before the public like one of those mirrors in fairy tales... where the vicious villain sees himself with bulls' horns and a dragons' body, like the exaggerations of his own vicious nature.”
Or, to translate into pithier and more modern parlance - “that's you, that is.” We become represented by a puppet so he can work like a fetish, drawing out the evil that it may be shut away somewhere else.

Modernism is always ridiculed for assuming it has a radical audience, while actually relying on a bourgeois one. Yet 'Ubu' is aimed straight between the eyes of that bourgeois audience. Teenagers may have not originally been in Jarry' sights. But they should not escape his distorting mirror. None should escape.

(This, incidentally, is why I've always considered it misplaced to tie Ubu too closely to Franco, Botha or any actual tinpot dictator. Ubu may in many ways resemble Brecht's Arturo Ui from the play of the same name. But while Ui was tagged as a diminutive copy of Hitler, Ubu's pot belly is broader than that.)

But perhaps the true test of an adaptation isn't whether it re-works the text into a new configuration, but whether it portrays the text in a new light. At one point Ubu, looking for fresh financiers to bag and dispatch, the better to line his pockets, stalks the audience. Breaking into English for the only time, he reminded us that where we sat bordered the City of London – one of the world's great financial institutions, whose recent Ubu-like greed and folly has brought misery to millions.

But mostly it brought to light that, if the teenager is in many ways a problem of the production, the production is still able to find a problem in the play. While the play became a darling of modernist shock, it is in many ways quite reactionary. First performed during the dawning days of Modernism, it looks back as much as it does forward. Ubu's crimes are entirely bourgeois; his insatiable greed, his lack of decorum or respect for tradition. His self-coronation scene compares him to Napoleon.

While the Tzar is referred to as “builder of mountains”, a proper toff who rules by divine right. Lacking these reserves and refinements, Ubu goes all-out to sate his senses. The tomb-robbing scene sums this up the best. Gold is buried with the ancestors out of respect for tradition. In seeking to rob it, Ubu is seduced by its cash value and fails to see its true worth.

Perhaps this is a side-effect of the play's purpose, of holding that distorting mirror up to the bourgeoisie. For they do not through choice distinguish themselves from the proletariat so much as the landowning class, grandiloquent and indulgent, too comfortable where they sit to be driven by avarice.

The downside of Jarry's anti-naturalism emerges here, for one of the things unnecessary to show on stage becomes the armies pressed into fighting one another. The final line of Jarry's original was “there'll always be a Poland. Otherwise there wouldn't be any Poles.” Yet this Poland is Nowhere. And no Poland means no Poles. A play that makes the bourgeoisie monsters, but monsters according to their own compass, may be congenitally unable to come out any other colour than Ubu green. Perhaps a play devised in a boarding school, however irreverent, was always going to be circumscribed by it's walls. In this way the anti-bourgeois is like the teenager. He is still defined by being bourgeois, unless or until he finds some other centre of gravity.

So, in inventing a fresh perspective from which to see this play, the production exposed a political weakness endemic to it. It may seem strange to feel grateful for having been shown one of your favourite plays in a lesser light. But yet I am!

Coming soon! 2014 would seem most likely. For we seem to be at the end of the year again. However did that happen? So the next few weeks (or, more likely, couple of months) will be dedicated to some quite unseemly catching up. Be it gigs, exhibitions or (as here) plays. If Ubu's sin is avarice, mine is surely tardiness...

Sunday 15 December 2013


And on the subject of classic title sequences for SF TV (like we were) here's a kind of annotated mixtape. For those who got here late, the original hypothesis was that they tend to chip from two quite distinct blocks - 'Doctor Who' and 'Star Trek'. Like all such hypotheses, this is likely to be less an eternal truth and more a way of framing things which might take us somewhere.

But let's start at the beginning. Which of course means the legendary, pioneering ’Outer Limits’ intro. And it's classic line I've so shamelessly co-opted for the header. Though based on the conceit that alien forces have somehow taken over your TV, of course it's based on the early Sixties idea that TV is itself something strange and alien.

’The Twilight Zone’ is perhaps a little less classic, but it's Magritte-like floating door unlocked by “the key of imagination” is even more surreal. With the unlocking door reference, it should be remembered in those days people often stored their box-like TVs in cabinets, closing the doors on them when not in use.

'The Quatermass Experiment' is perhaps the other great pioneer. The idea that the show was merely a prototype for 'Who' is an absurd simplification. However, with it's smoke and dissolving titles, it has some of the chaotic dissolving forms of 'Who.' It heralds a world in a permanent incohate state, one which makes the above two clips suddenly look ordered. Here you can be pretty sure no-one is controlling the horizontal or the vertical. But it's the martial classical theme tune which is the main difference, vaguely celestial but more cultured. The theme tune for a self-styled “thriller” for the viewing pleasure of proper grown-ups, not some sci-fi show!

...then by way of a contrast, 'Wagon Train In Space.'

I kid! Even if you're Oxford, you can still admit it when Cambridge have a good team. It is a classic in it's on right. Even if it took things in a direction I was less interested in. Partly it's the font they use, modernist and slanty yet elegantly solid, and so easily recognisable. (Those who think I may be a bit damning with faint praise over 'Star Trek' may be interested in an exchange between myself and Prankster in the comments section of Andrew Hickey's blog.)

'Time Tunnel' might initially seem the most 'Who'-like of all. Don't be fooled! It's tunnel is more disco lighting than shamanic experience, it's theme tune and graphics more spy movie than SF. (Surrealist spy shows, such as 'The Avengers' or 'The Prisoner' are probably another genre, if inevitably an overlapping one.) While both 'Who' and 'Star Trek' used bold, classic fonts to identify themselves, this screams “Sixties!” at you. It's fun, I wouldn't deny, and it was probably effective enough to plant bums on sofas. But it's not classic...

...or adventures closer to home. Whatever else you could say about him, Gerry Anderson knew how to put together a dramatic credit sequence. With it's pumping jazzy score and classic line “anything can happen in the next half hour”'Stingray' could grab any child's attention. Growing up in a black-and-white household, I never knew about the clever 'Oz'-like shift into colour until many years later.

Meanwhile in Australia... As John Lydon once said “is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? It ain't!” I even knew as a child 'Phoenix 5' was terrible, but felt compelled to watch it anyway. (Though I was then too young to know the term 'kitsch value', I could still apply it.) It seems keen to mash 'Star Trek' up with 'Lost In Space', with the crew doubling as an honorary family unit.

It's hard to hear that Brit narrator and not imagine it read out by Paul Hogan. Their adversary would seem to be Bela Lugosi, only cheaper. I suppose it gets dark in space a lot, handy if you're a vampire. And I love the line about “their computeroid, Carl”! No relation to Robbie the Robot, nothing for lawyers here...

Could you even parody that stuff? Some were brave enough to try...

’Blake’s 7’ is a rare attempt at a composite, with the patented iconic faces and objects which fill the screen then recede, with some post ’1984’ dystopianism. (Yep, masked cops and CCTV cameras, the future’s going to be that horrific!). All topped off with a borrowed Death Star. But the military music ultimately makes it more a successor to ’Star Trek.’

'Tomorrow People' came faster-paced and with a funkier theme to signify you were tuned into ITV, but the comparisons stand. One of the great credit sequences of the era, for a show which had everything going for apart from (alas) it's actual content. Perhaps the main difference is that ’Who’ feels quite music-led, as if the sometimes abstract images are visualising the sound. It seems to signify a universe in primal chaos.

This is not only more visually oriented but quite self-consciously references Dadaist collage, especially the John Heartfield hand. The music is more musical, which isn't really a compliment. You could play it at a disco, whereas to hear the 'Who' theme you'd need to leave behind life as we know it. It's like one came from alchemic electronics boffs, and the other from Art School grads eager to stick something modernist on the screen.

With it’s gravitas-exuding omnipotent narrator and geometric shapes, ’Sapphire and Steel’ perhaps stems more directly from 'Outer Limits' and ’Twilight Zone’ rather than first going through ’Doctor Who’. (Recall the way that both started with a simple geometric line in space.)

Unlike the Doctor, the very definition of the gentleman amateur, they were kind of cosmic police agents. But they were mysterious and non-human... in Steel's case, significantly non-human. So, as with 'Blake's 7', we get a sort of hybrid. Weird floating faces cohabit with star fields, against a theme tune that goes from eerie to martial. I always used to try and spy out that hooded head in the background on our family's cheap black-and-white TV, without significant success. Presumably some kind of cosmic Fat Controller, sending them out on their missions...

'Sky' is clearly 'Who' derived but uses some clever effects to unsettle, some quite simple such as jumping between musical progression and stasis. It simply never occurred to me before watching this, but we're so used to credit sequences with on-screen actor/character introductions (“starring... as...”) that with-holding that information creates a great sense of mystery in itself. The last shot, a psychedelically filtered image of trees against the sky, probably sums up the show's visual identity the best.

The next batch weren't even science fiction shows, but they are about the uncanny so I like to think they expand my point rather than undermine it. 'Raven' had a mystic Arthurian storyline, with one of the spaciest theme tunes of them all (could you even call it a tune?), a credit sequence that's more like being in a trance - and it still manages a futuristic font.

'Escape Into Night' has a double credit. (You have to watch a bit of intro before the second one.) The first, with it's dramatic classical theme (from Vaughn Williams) is quite post-'Quatermass' while the second is almost the exact opposite – much more simple, much more sinister. (Never actually seen this show, it looks like an influence on the 'New Who' episode 'Fear Her', but much better. Though perhaps that isn't hard...)

It's so nostalgic to see the ATV ident again. Announcing colour but being in black and white – just the way I remember it!

'Into the Labyrinth' uses a fairly crummy 'horror comics' font, but it's neat the way it uses the uneven-ness of a cave to convey it's own version of the cosmic tunnel. Note how the theme music opens with a fanfare to pull the audience in, then moves onto the spooky voices.

Not that every entrant was a medallist. If 'Star Trek' was the anti-'Who'<, 'Ace of Wands' is the anti Sky. Faces- check! Hands – check! But what happened to that all-important uncanniness? A risibly limp pop-folk theme is no real replacement for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. And as for the faux jollity of that font, the Comic Sans of the Seventies...

The Fool/Knave/Trickster figure was prevalent in this era. (Think for example of the Beatles' 'Fool on the Hill'.) With 'Who', at least the Second and Fourth Doctors were examples. But this looks like the scrag-end of it all. Reminds me of crusties juggling in Brighton's North Laines. Move on...

But with ’Box of Delights’ the sinister, uncanny title sequence is back – and counter-intuitively but quite fabulously set to a Christmas carol...

What were we saying about hands? 'Who' even managed to cast a shadow over adult TV. 'Survivors' was admittedly linked to 'Who' by writer Terry Nation. But t's the same faces and objects veering in and out of focus. But what chiefly strikes home is the spilled beaker and the spreading stain. It both carries forward and inverts the cosmic tunnel. Both are as if random to us, beyond our control or comprehension. But here the stain spreads the plague. It's not a call to adventure but a warning, a reminder to us of how limited we are.

...and again with the... well pretty much all of it. 'Day of the Triffids' focuses almost entirely on human faces, but the unearthly light and the unsettling music transform them into something spooky. Like the stain, it's kind of inverted in effect. Rather than their appearing mysterious, we wonder what they can be looking at to get them so afeared. Notably, the Triffids appear only fleetingly and as shapeless heaving blobs, cousins to the stain above. (Alas they weren't so fleeting in the actual show, but that's another story.)

'The Omega Factor', another adult show, combined espionage and horror elements more than SF. But it still contains’Who’ elements aplenty, such as heads and titles filling the screen only to break up. Perhaps the most signifying thing is the initial electronic pulses giving way to a more standard spy theme.

...which is more than enough to be going on with. The terminally deranged may want to try out myYouTube playlist of TV credit sequences. Not merely confined to 'Who' derived or even SF.

Coming soon! Okay, next time moving on from this stuff...

Saturday 7 December 2013


Regular readers [insert regular gag here about non-regularity of readers] will have grown used to this sort of thing. Being not a proper review at all of Mark Gatiss' dawn-of-'Who' docu-drama 'An Adventure in Space and Time', this piece will fail to mention that it was in many ways quite good. It was neither too dry nor too jazzed up, too reverential or too derisory, and balanced the requirements of casual viewers against fans. It evoked the era reasonably well, an era which now feels about as foreign as Skaro, even filming at the old BBC Television Centre shortly before it was summarily closed down. I for one probably enjoyed it more than most of Gatiss' actual contributions to the show.

It does occur to me that there's an inherent problem with docu-dramas - you're always wondering what's docu and what's drama – what's true and what's simple license. Here for example, after the ill-fated 'pilot' episode, William Hartnell complains the Doctor has been made too abrasive. Did Hartnell really spot that? Or did Sidney Newman really threaten to axe the title sequence? All the time you wonder things like that you're being pushed out of the drama, not concentrating on what's happening on screen.

Docu-dramas normally work if there's an urgency to the topic which a straight documentary wouldn't convey, such as Paul Greengrass' 'United 93'. (A compelling film, for all that its barmily right wing.) Or they exploit those contradictions, so you become absorbed in the question of what's truth and what's artifice. Or, perhaps best of all, by combining the two – such as Haskell Wexler's simply awesome 'Medium Cool'.

Neither rule applies to the genesis of 'Doctor Who.'

But that's not what I'm getting at here. What I'm getting at here is that you can't win with this sort of thing. You end up getting shot by both sides. And I will illustrate my point by doing precisely that.

Take the emphasis on producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein. Now Hussein's direction was undoubtedly good, particularly given the technological constraints he worked under. Yet he's never made it a secret that he felt he was slumming it on a silly teatime sci-fi show. (In this recent interview he comments "I was educated at Cambridge, I'd directed Shakespeare and Arthur Miller and now I was doing 'ug and og'. Was this to be my destiny? negativity was rampant.”) Notably, he left as soon as he could.

Whereas if David Whitaker got any kind of a cameo, I'm afraid I missed it. Yet as the script editor of the first season and author of several important scripts after that, he was surely more important to the development of the show than Hussein. Perhaps they simply found script editors less photogenic, hunched over typewriters instead of shouting action. Yet Terry Nation did get a name check. (Inventor of the Daleks, okay, but less important than Whitaker.) And as a writer himself, Gatiss should surely know their worth.

Instead, the focus is on how Lambert and Hussein (who is of Indian descent) disrupted the white boys' club of the BBC. Which, fair play to them, as then youngest producer and youngest director - they did. (In the same interview Hussein describes the BBC as “ double-breasted blazers, old school ties. Men were men and women were secretaries.") But they are presented as a little (to use Shaboogan Graffiti's splendidly useful phrase) 'nice-but-then.' They're “in the story to represent us in the past. To be nice - like we are - but back then.”

The underlying suggestion seems to be one of outsiders producing a show for outsiders, despite being in the belly of a great British institution. But the focus in the early show isn't on the outsiders, the Doctor and Susan, but on Ian and Barbara – regular Brits if ever there were.

But that's not what I'm getting at here. I'm more interested in shooting at this from the other side. As I said over the original Superman cartoons, fans tend to be creative creationists. They seem to want to believe that concepts appear fully formed from a single brow, in a magic lightbulb-above-the-head moment. When that doesn't happen they simply behave as though it did.

Yet the creative process normally works the same way as any other – through evolution. Not evolution as it is popularly imagined to work, in those neat uni-linear diagrams with a chimp on one end and a yuppie with a smartphone on the other. But evolution as it actually works - struggling blindly, falling down many blind alleys. Through endlessly throwing up varieties and deviations, evolution does tumblingly advance. The Superman mythos wasn't built in a day. Elements we now take as its basis took time to evolve. (Staples like Lex Luthor and kryptonite don't appear at all in those cartoons.) Other elements appeared along the way. But the ones that didn't work were simply forgotten about.

And that's even more true for 'Doctor Who'. Superman at least had two authors whose names you can cite. Doctor Who was devised by committee. Bunny Webber's original draft of the concept was some strange mixture of the uninspired with the (to use Sidney Newman's response) “nuts”. He had almost no influence on the show that subsequently appeared. Anthony Coburn wrote the stone age story Hussein rolled his eyes at, and a sequel ('The Masters of Luxor') which was possibly even worse. But he also wrote the classic 'Unearthly Child' - and invented the Tardis. What do we do with this information? Easy! We forget about the stone age and we focus on the Tardis. We stick with what works.

This lack of a strong original template actually helped the show over time, allowing it to change and mutate as it chose. Stories are not bound to one specific time or place, or to a certain type of narrative. The Doctor could be marooned on Earth, then free to roam the stars again. Even the lead actor could change, even the title character's personality.

After he'd taken over 'Who' Moffat also started showrunning 'Sherlock'. Note the subtle name shift. Because it wasn't really Sherlock Holmes, was it? Because Sherlock Holmes is a character written by Conan Doyle, wholly by Conan Doyle and by nothing other than Conan Doyle. Everything else is after the event – adaptation, imitation or commentary. Moffat's decision to update the setting, and to tell new stories which obliquely refer back to Conan Doyle's, that's throwing himself in with commentary in order to stay away from imitation.

Whereas when he was showrunning 'Doctor Who'... well actually the reverse isn't quite true. As mentioned before, when he does things like make the Doctor the centrepiece of his own stories, it feels like a wrench. But the borders are broader and more elastic. After the long break, when 'Who' came back it was still 'Who.'

Plus, and largely for that reason, he's one of those characters who inherently feel like fan property. His lack of fixed, defined parameters make him a kind of promissory note for the imagination. In the Whoniverse it's not even that fans turn pro, though they do. It's like the distinction doesn't apply in the same way. Heroman from the planet Crippling is a spoiler product for Superman, to fool small children out of their pocket money. But the Doctor is almost a code name anyway. He most likely made it up one day when challenged by some dunderheaded Security Guard. So the fan who signs his name to Dentist What is writing about the Doctor, he's just swapping one code name for another. (I've even had a stab at Who fanfic myself, the only such effort I've attempted in the past three decades.)

Without that promissory note, would the Doctor have survived the off-air years? Try it the other way. With it, he could never be deprived of oxygen. Conan Doyle tired of Holmes and tried to kill him off. And okay, he failed. But the Doctor has no creator. Consequently he has no potential destroyer either. If anyone tried, the rest of us would simply re-route around him. The BBC tried it themselves and that's precisely what we did.

In short, talking of the show in terms of its inception isn't really talking of the show at all. It's like calling an album of baby photos a biography. Gatiss' drama was probably better than anybody was expecting, but was working from the wrong plan. 'Who' did not fly so long because it was thrown from so lofty a height that it could ride the air currents ever since. 'Who' has flown so long because of endless peddling. The secret of its longevity is that people (fans and pros) have kept it going. It really is that simple.

In which case, you may ask, how should they have celebrated the big five-oh? Well, rescreening 'Unearthly Child' was a better start. While a four-year span wasn't enough of an adventure through time, fifty would have been.They could have show an adventure each for every Doctor, similarly to Andrew Hickey's Fifty Years posts. Or, should that have screwed too much with the endless repeats of 'Great Railway Journeys', shown the combined Doctor stories, 'The Three Doctors' and 'The Two Doctors.' Of, if it absolutely had to be be a docu-drama, perhaps one that accelerated through the years – like a fast train, stopping only at the most pivotal points.

Fifty years... it's about the fifty years. The span counts for something.

Coming soon! Now I promise to shut up about 'Who' for a bit...