Saturday, November 28, 2015


Doctor Who 52: 02 – Ten Reasons to Watch An Unearthly Child

Introducing Doctor Who – An Unearthly Child

The first ever Doctor Who story begins with ordinary people who follow someone extraordinary to a blue box that’s bigger on the inside than the outside and travels in time and space.

The best idea in the world, and a stunning start: William Hartnell’s fantastic Doctor; a mysterious girl who’s both genius and hopeless, living in a junkyard; mind-expanding maelstroms of light and noise; prehistoric power struggles; throwing people into another time, throwing violence, dirt, role-reversals and every emotional and physical trial at them. Their world, and ours, will never be the same again.

I started last Saturday with the first Doctor Who I ever saw, so to finish off anniversary week it’s back to the very beginning. I’m celebrating Doctor Who’s fifty-second anniversary with one story every week for a year – and my husband Richard is joining in with his own eclectic choices if you’d different recommendations. You can read more of what this Doctor Who 52 is all about here. But if I were you I’d just read on, then watch the story.

This is the point where I’d usually say to press “Play All” on the DVD. Just this once it’s more complicated than that. If you’ve bought An Unearthly Child as a DVD on its own or as a download, that probably works. If you have it – as I do, and probably the best value, as the other discs are excellent too – in the DVD box set The Beginning, then it’ll make things much simpler and much more watchable, although it seems weird, if you press “Play All” and then skip forward seven chapters. I’ll explain later.

Ten Reasons To Watch An Unearthly Child (warning: spoilers lower down the list)

1 – The Beginning. From the first second, everything says ‘This is a television programme like no other.’ On Saturday 23rd November 1963 Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire’s incredible music and those swirling howlround titles first grabbed people like nothing on Earth. The direction’s terrific, the lines memorable and the actors superb, and just by the end of the first episode you’ve been plunged from an ordinary school into the astonishing futurism of the TARDIS and then an eerie prehistoric wasteland. It’s inspired, but it delivers on all of that inspiration. This may just be the most brilliant piece of television ever… And there are still three episodes to go of this story alone.

2 – The Doctor.
“If you could touch the alien sand and hear the cries of strange birds – and watch them wheel, in another sky – would that satisfy you?”
I first saw An Unearthly Child when it was repeated in 1981. Tom Baker had just stopped being the Doctor; I knew there were others, but I’d not seen any of them. This wasn’t just spellbinding, but startling. The Doctor here is so different from the Fourth Doctor even at his most alien – he’s so different, I know now, even from how William Hartnell’s character will become as he shows different facets from the brilliantly sparkling git in his introduction. This story introduces the central mystery and the TARDIS perfectly, but is it the right place to start with the Doctor? Well, of course. What other story can be more exciting to discover for the first time? And where else can you see the Doctor discovering humans are people for the first time and starting to become the character we know? He’s as ruthless and hostile-seeming here as you’ll ever see him, but by the second episode, he’s already saving the companions he’s previously chewed out and kidnapped, then starting to cheer them up, then before the story’s out making his first of many moral judgements. Though his instinct is first to explore then, when that lands him in tricky situations, to escape, he’s already starting to flex his brain to achieve more than that.

For me, William Hartnell’s performance here is one of the greatest of any Doctor. He’s at first calculating and almost sinister – because he’s under threat. He becomes a lot more fun once the worst has happened and humans have forced their way into his TARDIS, seeing them much as he’ll call them “stupid apes” many years later. He might start off making life difficult for two nice teachers, but then he’s unexpectedly kind, then spoils it by hardly being able to keep his face straight (there’s an absolutely gorgeous touch at one point where he keeps having to turn away from Ian, smiling as if looking directly at him would crack him up). His unpredictability feels like a person, and a fascinating, charismatic one, even as you think ‘He can’t say that!’ He’s fiercely intelligent and utterly irreverent. He shows off outrageously. He has enormous authority but is anti-establishment to his core, and childishly sulks or shouts when he doesn’t get his own way. And he gets your heart in your mouth when he suddenly shows the ache of tragedy. Too many ‘wise old men’ characters are dull or paternal, but this one starts as an explorer who asks all the difficult questions, and it seems a natural progression from that to discovering the sheer fun of toppling empires – helped enormously by William Hartnell, who’d done the authoritarian roles and wanted something different. The Doctor is as different as you get.

3 – Susan.
“Of course, the decimal system hasn’t started yet.”
The Doctor’s granddaughter is the start of it all: wanting to live like human people, she’s the brightest, strangest teenager at school. She’s an utter genius but makes incredible mistakes – in a brilliant gamble by the writers, she thinks Britain’s using decimal currency nearly a decade before the actual switch, and there’s a great evocation of an alien way of thinking when she can’t solve a problem without adding other dimensions. Carole Ann Ford is convincingly alien even after being told to tone it down, treating teachers absently like just slightly dim people to patronise and then utterly confident when at home in a space-time Ship. In her very first scene, a teacher shows off with his pop knowledge, but only to highlight that Susan’s in a world of her own, grooving along to an aristocrat who’s masquerading as an ordinary person…

4 – Ian and Barbara. Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright are the most utterly reassuring people in this: 1960s schoolteachers who clearly know what they’re doing and are just the people to find out what’s strange about their pupil Susan. But, marvellously, though they always remain reassuring and endearing, they’re at the centre of everything about the way this show turns things upside-down. Ian is a handsome authority figure and so obviously going to be the lead in any programme made in 1963, with actor William Russell a star who’d had his own series as Sir Lancelot, and who’s engaging from the word go. So it’s a treat that it’s Barbara who’s done all the investigating and only wants him to back her up – and that, after Ian’s sure there’s a perfectly normal explanation, he’s the first one to nearly have a nervous breakdown when the explanation’s nothing of the kind. Jaqueline Hill is fabulous, and Barbara starts by confronting point-blank the stereotyped ‘hysterical fantasist woman’ dismissal which Ian and the 1963 audience might be tempted to put on what she says, and is proved right. Then they take it in turns throughout to be the sensible one who’s coping or the one who’s losing it, just as they take it in turns to be helpfully the science teacher and the history teacher who can help us make some sense of the science-fictional or historical settings in which they’re going to find themselves. They make a wonderful couple.

5 – The making of Doctor Who. Doctor Who was created by a remarkable group of people for the BBC in 1963 – the BBC’s iconoclastic Canadian drama supremo Sydney Newman didn’t just want a programme that would be unlike anything else in the establishment Corporation, but people that would shake it up. He made Verity Lambert the BBC’s youngest and only female drama Producer. The first director she chose was a young gay Anglo-Indian, Waris Hussein. To the rest of the BBC, they were in the wrong place, at the wrong time – naturally, they became television legends. For some reason much of the BBC establishment fought them tooth and nail, but even given the smallest, oldest and grottiest of studios they still made Doctor Who incredible.

6 – Into the TARDIS.
“Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension? Have you? To be exiles…?”
The first mystery the show ever presents us with is a mysteriously humming police box in a junkyard, and it’s the mystery to which Susan’s mystery leads the two schoolteachers. From the moment Barbara and Ian plunge into the TARDIS, everything is astonishing. The scene that forms the second half of the first episode is just about the best the series ever has. All the mysteries we’ve encountered so far erupt into this one impossible place, abruptly, the biggest idea ever, in the smallest box, the world changing and the Doctor and Susan suddenly in their natural element. The TARDIS control room still looks extraordinary, but it’s the dialogue that’s really compelling. William Hartnell is absolutely commanding here, taking the script and flying with it from irritated to endearingly distracted, kindly to mischievously entertained, vulnerable to ruthlessly determined. And in a brilliant piece of mutual reinforcement, exactly at the point that the Doctor explains the TARDIS with reference to television, the television camera is telling us that he’s the lead character by pointing directly at him, the others backgrounded. Ian the handsome young lead character the viewers expected is left floundering – it’s not his show after all. And the Doctor’s judgement that humans would only fight over himself and his ideas if given the chance is proved right over the following episodes…

7 – Inspired games with role-reversals. Doctor Who was designed as a drama aimed at children watching with their families, not just to talk down to them as a ‘kids’ show’. So in the very first episode we get the perfect deployment of the show’s anti-establishment ethos to get the kids on its side: show up the teachers. Susan goes from verbally patting “Mr Chesterton” for knowing something unexpected to exasperation with him being much stupider than she’d expected. It’s far more effective than making the teachers cartoon idiots or having child leads, especially when the Doctor joins in – an authoritative old man who acts like a mischievous child, but also talks down to authority figures who don’t like their own medicine at all, while children across the land must have enjoyed it immensely.

But it’s not just getting the audience on side. The role-reversals are crucial to the story and the developing relationships between our four main characters. The Doctor chooses a simile about television to explain the Ship’s dimensions, kindly thinking of a way within the teacher’s limited grasp to explain something incredibly simple that’s quite beyond his tiny mind, as Ian might to a child – made all the more delicious when Ian still can’t see and the Doctor can’t help but laugh. It’s a satirical pre-echo of the ‘primitives’ part of the story: the Doctor’s among primitives already. On moving from modern London to prehistoric cavepeople, the Doctor first regarding Ian and Barbara as savages prevents the audience from feeling too smug about the Tribe, but it also means he’s rapidly shoved together with the teachers so he can start thinking of them as semi-civilised. If they’d landed among the Daleks and Thals first, he’d probably have dumped the teachers, or at least spo-ken ve-ry slow-ly and clear-ly to them and apologised for bringing a pair of savages to meet futuristic peoples: ‘I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse them, they’re from the Twentieth Century.’ Just as Ian becomes less narrow-minded and insular with the Doctor’s influence, the teachers’ presence gives the Doctor the opportunity to start learning from them more subtly, starting here – but even in Twenty-first Century stories, he still has a ruthless streak without human friends to talk him out of it.

8 – Old Mother. This is a grim tale, with its sweaty, dirty, horror brought home to us perhaps more than any other Doctor Who story by the raw emotion of our heroes. There’s not much humour after the hilarious put-downs of the teachers. But if you’re in the right mood for it, there’s an undercurrent in the horrible life of the Tribe that makes me laugh. On the surface, the story is a battle for supremacy between two alpha males, Za versus interloper Kal. But it isn’t just Kal who jeers at Za for not being the man his father was. The Tribe’s older generation are still around to threaten him with several varieties of conservative prejudice, and the worst of the lot is the Tribe’s Queen Mum, known as Old Mother or just “the old woman” (played superbly by Eileen Way). She hates fire and thinks it a waste of time, but still laughs at his impotent attempts to light up. It’s very hard not to see some sort of metaphor in Za rubbing his bone while his Old Mother gives a spiteful commentary on how unimpressive his manhood is. Za’s partner Hur – no, it’s not an especially feminist Tribe in naming its women – has problems with her father too, at one point shouting “You should lie on the old stone ’til your blood runs into the earth!” when he grumbles too much. It’s all deadly serious, but also very funny intergenerational conflict.

9 – The Doctor invents courtroom drama and Columbo.
“This knife has no blood on it.”
By the start of part four, Za’s cleverer but nastier rival Kal has murdered Old Mother and pinned the blame on Za and our heroes. Things look bleak. Kal’s great strength has been as a demagogue, yet as he waves Za’s stone knife before the Tribe, weaving his story before them, the apparently frail old Doctor shows he can not only defeat a physically much stronger opponent with superior brainpower, but beat him at his own simple declamatory style and even muster the physical force to drive him out. It starts with the Doctor’s simple observation that Za’s knife has no blood on it, and from that point Kal unravels: he calls it a bad knife for not showing what it has done; the Doctor needles his vanity, saying it’s much better than his; Kal falls for it, proudly pulling out his bloody weapon; and the Doctor parades it around the Tribe like a prize lawyer. Rousing the whole Tribe against the strong fighter, he throws a stone at him and gets everyone else to do the same, forcing the murderer to retreat under a barrage of rocks.

It’s a terrific scene. William Hartnell is outstanding, slipping effortlessly between quiet, naturalistic instructions and a theatrical display of Stone Age rabble-rousing, but it’s a brilliant idea, too: years before Columbo ever aired, Doctor Who invents the format. The TV audience has already seen the murderer, and the Doctor exposes him through a combination of psychology and forensic evidence. And while he’s settling the rivalry between Kal and Za, at the same time he’s settling with argumentative teacher Ian just exactly who is the leader of the TARDIS crew, and the star of the show (he still is). Just as with the Twentieth-Century humans, the Doctor can speak their language and then get into their mindset and manipulate it, which makes you wonder just how much he’s talking down to our level, too.

10 – An optimistic and wonderful show that’s “steeped in death,” as Russell T Davies put it many years later.
“Well, fear makes companions of all of us, Miss Wright.”
Mass death prompts the Doctor to make his first moral judgment; being forced together in the same setting starts our heroes bonding. The Tribe’s struggle for power is fed by the fear they all have of death, from the cold, from the tiger, from each other. And Waris Hussein’s brilliant direction uses images of death as a motif throughout. Skulls keep recurring in close-up, from the smashed dummy in the junkyard, through the Cave of Skulls and several dead animals, to the climax when it all comes to a head. Are we meant to associate them with palaeontological discoveries of early human skulls and therefore the deep past, or the Tribe’s animalistic nature, or simply the visceral closeness to death in a constantly dangerous environment? Though Doctor Who doesn’t have its first really full-fledged ‘undead’ story until William Hartnell’s final adventure, most of his first season has some hint of it, and how is the very first story resolved? By using a combination of the idea of the undead and special effects to frighten the people watching, which is what the series will be doing for ever after (and, with the Tribe obsessed throughout with fire and using skulls to terrify our heroes, it’s the perfect con to employ at the climax).

What Else Should I Tell You About An Unearthly Child?

Seriously, on just this one DVD – at least the one in The Beginning – press “Play All” and then immediately skip the first seven chapters.
“It’s true! Every word of it’s true!”
Here’s why. The BBC had more than one go at making the very first Doctor Who episode. Sydney Newman, the BBC Head of Drama who more than anyone else had driven through the initial idea of the show, didn’t like the first version they shot – mainly because of technical problems and the Doctor being too harsh. For the second go a few weeks later, there were minor changes to the script, significant changes to the way the Doctor’s played and Susan became much less ‘unearthly’. That was the version that was transmitted, led into the following three episodes and the following fifty-two years, and it’s the version I’ve given reasons to watch above. The first attempt was retrospectively called the “Pilot” episode, and miraculously still exists, in multiple pieces (they had another go on the spot to fix some of the technical faults, which means there are actually three versions of some of the first ever episode). It’s fascinating, and I love it. But I love the final version more, despite preferring Susan weirder, some brilliant alternative lines and getting to see what the Doctor’s like when he’s really alienating and without a sense of humour. It’s great, but the ‘proper’ version is better – not least because it doesn’t seem like our four leads are going to kill each other within a fortnight.

The trouble is, if you just press “Play All” you get a version of the Pilot episode, An Unearthly Child. Then the first episode, An Unearthly Child, which is a different version of the same thing. Then the next three episodes, which finally get on with more of the story. So while I often go back and watch the Pilot version as interesting in its own right, it’s a confusing place to start. If you skip the first seven chapters on the DVD you’ll start where the producers intended you to, it’ll make a lot more sense, and you’ll get the best version first. As you play on through the rest of the story, I suppose I should point out that some people think the second, third and fourth episodes are a different story, or not as good, or even disposable. They’re wrong. See above.
“Footsteps in a time in which they should not have walked.”
Sometimes this whole story is given a different title – usually 100,000BC or The Tribe of Gum. Back in 1963, just as with Doctor Who today, multi-part stories weren’t given overall titles, just titles for each of their individual episodes. This year’s been an exception to a post-2005 run of mostly one-episode stories, but when the series started almost every story had several episodes. It’s one thing to list a story as, say, “The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar”, but calling the very first one “An Unearthly Child / The Cave of Skulls / The Forest of Fear / The Firemaker” is cumbersome and, by the time you reach 1965 and start on a story that’s twelve episodes long, all gets a bit silly. After 1966 until 1989 they just gave every story one title, no matter how many parts it was in, but for those early stories people like to disagree. Some adventures had what might have been an internal BBC title or maybe just a description to file all the episodes together, but though those are occasionally used by pedants, the only titles the public saw on TV or in the Radio Times were for the episodes. So call this one 100,000BC if you like, although there’s no evidence that’s when it’s set, or The Tribe of Gum, although none of the Tribe call themselves that. This first story is titled An Unearthly Child on the DVD. The novelisation’s called An Unearthly Child too. And it starts by getting us curious about an unearthly child. It’s “An Unearthly Child” for me.

Eternal thanks to many people at the very beginning, particularly BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman, Script Department head Donald Wilson, script editor David Whitaker, scriptwriters Anthony Coburn and before him C. E. Webber, director Waris Hussein, soundscapers Delia Derbyshire, Dick Mills and Brian Hodgson, legendary producer Verity Lambert, and, of course, William Hartnell. The Doctor.

And, if you need one, my score:
Time for a decision! I’d give 10/10 to the proper transmitted version of An Unearthly Child, the first and possibly even best episode of Doctor Who – or of television itself. And I’d give 9/10 to the next three episodes. So I considered giving the whole story 9 ½. But I’ve decided half-marks are weaselly, so I won’t be awarding any. That means this and a handful of other stories coming up in the 52 that might be 9 ½ in my head will be rounded up to:

If You Like An Unearthly Child, Why Not Try…

The Pilot version of An Unearthly Child, obviously, which is weird and jarring but also brilliant. Every other Doctor Who story featuring William Hartnell makes him kindlier and funnier – which was what the actor wanted anyway. So you might instead pick a story from Doctor Who’s second season, where the Doctor’s personality is more fully formed.

I’m going to recommend a very different adventure, too. Deep Breath is the most recent of all the many new beginnings for Doctor Who, 2014’s introduction to the current Doctor. Like William Hartnell, Peter Capaldi plays a Doctor in a much older body, one who’s abrasive and alienating at times, or funny, or brilliant, and I love them both. I could also point out that it’s in London but has characters from prehistoric times, and that the Doctor’s companion is a teacher at the same Coal Hill School where Ian and Barbara taught and Susan mystified, but despite that Deep Breath really isn’t very like An Unearthly Child at all. Still marvellous, though.

Meanwhile, On the Other Side…

Richard is watching… Find out on Monday!

Next Time…

The beginning… What, another one? Fantastic!

Labels: , , ,

Monday, November 23, 2015


Doctor Who 52 Extra: A – Five Reasons to Read Doctor Who and the Cybermen

Introducing Doctor Who and the Cybermen

Today is Doctor Who’s fifty-second anniversary! So here’s an extra in my Doctor Who 52 – not the DVD but Gerry Davis’ novelisation of Patrick Troughton’s fight with Cybermen on the Moon. Or, as the back cover puts it with charmingly oblivious self-deprecation,
“Can the Doctor defeat an enemy whose threat is almost as great as that of the mighty Daleks?”
Will I find five reasons you should read ‘Invasion of the Also-Rans’? Of course I will! It’s time to sit down, mix yourself a celebratory Cocktail Polly, and curl up with a book.

Five Reasons To Read – or Listen To – Doctor Who and the Cybermen (warning: spoilers lower down the list)

1 – Prologue: The Creation of the Cybermen
“Centuries ago by our Earth time, a race of men on the far-distant planet of Telos sought immortality. They perfected the art of cybernetics—the reproduction of machine functions in human beings. As bodies became old and diseased, they were replaced limb by limb, with plastic and steel.
“Finally, even the human circulation and nervous system were recreated, and brains replaced by computers. The first Cybermen were born.”
When this story was shown on TV in 1967, it was called The Moonbase. When Target Books published it as one of their first Doctor Who novelisations in 1975, they gave it a more sales-friendly title but picked a 1967 hand to write the rest of it in his functional but endearing prose. Author Gerry Davis had been Doctor Who script editor for the TV version of this story, and though it’s credited to Kit Pedler, Gerry Davis worked with him as co-author and as co-creator of the Cybermen. So before the Cybermen enter the text as stealthy presences, then unleashing terrible Cyber-chops or gruesomely electrocuting Cyber-weapons, Mr Davis makes an appropriate start here with a two-page Cyber-mission statement. It’s later borrowed to introduce two more Cybermen novelisations, adding to its legendary quality. For all its hyperbole and even inaccuracy, there’s still something terribly thrilling about it, and you imagine Mr Davis was only disappointed that it wasn’t read in portentous tones as it scrolled down a screen full of flaming space battles and legions of Cybermen marching across the stars with the strength of ten men! The Doctor sniffing that nobody adds the prefix “Space” on TV a week ago? Gerry Davis is your man. He gives you Earth-things. He gives you Space-things. And most of all, he gives you TERRIBLE CYBER-THINGS.

Many of the more marvellous Target Books add much more to the stories than were seen on TV. Gerry Davis doesn’t add much, but he adds this. It’s enough.

2 – Anneke Wills and the Audiobook. Anneke Wills was marvellous as the Doctor’s companion Polly in 1967, and she’s just as marvellous reading the 2009 audiobook. She has a great storyteller’s voice: slightly deep, intimate and reassuring, with a compelling array of characters (though her accents are variable). Her Polly is of course perfect, but interestingly she uses higher registers for the Doctor’s other companions Ben and Jamie, and her rather breathy Doctor is especially compelling in his determination towards the climax. She breathes new life into the book with one of the best of the readings. There’s just one slightly flubbed line which tickles me, when she invents a rather unusual colour as a side-effect of a word being split across two lines in the original printing as Moonbase ‘night’ falls and we hear about “red-
dish-coloured lights”.

Half-way through the audiobook Ms Wills is joined by Nick Briggs as the voices of the Cybermen. He’s known for a great many Doctor Who monster voices and recreates those of the TV version. The two big Cyber-reveals are also my favourite pieces of the score, where the music climbs into an electronic rasp not unlike the Space Adventure theme that accompanied the Cybermen in 1967’s TV stories (and gets a bit of bagpipes mixed in when Jamie defies them!). They also get a tensely scored ‘stalking’ sequence towards the end of the first CD, and in a later chase sequence there’s a very effective echoing boom, which stands for both the terrible Cyber-tread and their desperately running victim’s heart.

3 – The Doctor. Patrick Troughton was a very visual actor, constantly fascinating to watch, which makes it even more frustrating that the BBC junked so many of his performances. This book was my first experience of his Doctor, and it does a remarkable job of evoking him. The text introduces his famous “terrible things” speech with Polly seeing a “far-horizons” look in his blue-green eyes, making us pay extra attention, but it’s the first half of this Doctor’s famous mixture of ‘Free-thinking fun’ and ‘Destroy all monsters’ is surprisingly more vivid here. Losing control of the TARDIS like a ship in a stormy sea; miscalculating the date, provoking applause and laughter from a tense Moonbase crew, and still being pleased with himself for being just twenty years out, then being suddenly brought down when asked to do some work; his “relieved, almost silly grin”; all these stuck in my head as characteristics of the Second Doctor. But what most appealed to me were the passages in which the Doctor is trying to trace a mysterious Space Plague that’s struck the Moonbase personnel.
“It was into this scene of concentrated activity that the Doctor, armed with a bottle of swabs, specimen tubes and a large pair of scissors entered and immediately began to disrupt. He was doing what he enjoyed best; research for a scientific, or in this case, a medical truth. With a mad gleam in his eye, he moved quickly round the room snipping off pieces of the men’s overalls and putting them into bottles. Scraping their shoes and boots and taking swabs from their hands. He seemed not at all put out by the irritated gestures of his victims.”
I think the author tells us an explicit moral for the Doctor’s favourite thing so parents wouldn’t cop that investigation isn’t what the Doctor loves most at all. It’s being disruptive. It’s the “mad gleam”, the winding people up, and the nodding happily a few pages later when accused of turning the base upside-down. That’s what appealed to kids reading this, and the way we remember him (and it’s not unlike how Tom Baker’s Doctor had just been in Robot when this was first published, either). It’s anyone’s guess why Gerry Davis talks about his “long legs”, though…

4 – The Food. Even when I was thin and tiny I loved references to food almost as much as I liked food. So what could be better than food as a major plot point? Gerry Davis’ vision of the future was full of ‘food concentrates’ that were always off-putting to the Doctor’s companions from the Twentieth, Nineteenth and Eighteenth Centuries and a sign of dehumanising Cybermen on your plate. It didn’t work. They fascinated me decades before I ever touched a microwave. So I’m still fascinated by the story’s use of – sugar. Not sugar spray, or reconstituted sugar pellets, but actual bags of it. It sounds reassuring and familiar amid all the suspicious Space Food. But how are the Cybermen spreading their not-really-a-plague to weaken the base whose controller, to fans’ delight, actually says “from our point of view, we’re under siege”? Spoilers and spillages: it’s the good, old-fashioned, comforting sugar that’s betraying them. Though personally I’m always more suspicious of the cream, when they have to wait a month for a rocket even for medical samples.

5 – Polly.
“‘Here’s our holy water,’ said Polly, holding up the small bottle of nail varnish remover. ‘I’m going to do an experiment… Voilà cocktail Polly!’”
Context makes such a difference. When I read this book as a boy, I noticed and was influenced by the multi-national Moonbase crew and lack of jingoism. Four decades later, the progressive message is obscured by interloper Polly being the only woman (other than a bureaucrat on the radio) and the black guy dying first. And people always cite Polly being told to make the coffee. But then there’s the context. Feminism, like science, is not a language Gerry Davis writes fluently, but there’s no doubt who’s the lead companion here. Fellow sexy modern (both he and Polly updated from 1960s to 1970s in the book) youth Ben is sent off to help the ‘shopping’ and fetch drinks first (he calls himself “the official Moonbase coffee-boy”); Jacobite Highlander Jamie’s injured and in bed; the main action each of them take is following Polly’s plan, which is the only successful attack on the Cybermen until the climax. This isn’t to put down Ben or Jamie. For me Polly, Ben and Jamie were the business, but Polly is obviously first among equals.

The Cybermen are both deeply weird and nearly robots in this book, as befits dead bodies walking around in circuitry. Jamie sees them as Phantoms, Lawrence Miles famously mused on their eldritch elements in Christmas On A Rational Planet, and I once sketched an appropriately B-Movie Cyberman poster with the tagline “Mummy-wrapped zombies from the vampire planet!” Using techno-holy water to dissolve their plastic hearts (or unlife-support units) is the most explicit of all of these. But on a base full of male scientists, none of them come up with the solution. It’s a very female-gendered idea from the only woman. Polly is the companion that the Doctor keeps by his side here to have the intelligent conversations with. In one of my favourite scenes, she basically asks him whether he’s up to it, hilariously spotting potential gaps in his qualifications. And in the book, marvellously, she does it as an aside while examining her nails. Then the Cybermen have a container like a giant powder compact. It’s the only Doctor Who book with Chekhov’s make-up kit.

When the Doctor patronises Polly, the text tells us he’s being patronising; when she’s finally asked to make the coffee, it’s when the Doctor’s run out of any other strategy to get the base commander off his back and several chapters after he sent Ben to do it; and when Ben and Jamie are sexist to her, she just ignores them and does what she was going to do anyway. Which is to use a mixture of solvents, inspired by nail varnish remover, to melt the Cybermen’s plastic vital systems into gruesome goo. A story with only one woman does at least have her save everyone’s life by weaponising Clarins, while to cap the deb striking back – and, appropriately, to celebrate today’s fifty-second anniversary – Anneke Wills puts a lot of joy into her exclamation, “A cocktail!”

What Else Should I Tell You About Doctor Who and the Cybermen?

If you’ve read this week’s main entry, you’ll probably guess why I picked this book. My primary school had a little bookshop in a corridor. You saved up 5p Wise Owl Stamps to buy them. This was eight stamps, and the first book I ever bought. It was Doctor Who! There was a Cyberman on the cover! And I couldn’t read. But buying my first book wasn’t the only thing that happened when I was five. I also fell seriously ill and was hospitalised… Which turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. The various primary school books I’d been meant to be learning to read on had been having precisely zero impact on me through their banal ‘narratives’ of going to school, sometimes by bus, sometimes in the rain; I did that. Why would I want to read about it? But when my Mum, who’s never loved Doctor Who, eventually gave in and brought along my copy of Doctor Who and the Cybermen. The ‘If you go to the sickbay you’ll be carried off and possessed’ plot didn’t put me off at all, but it didn’t appeal as much to her. Half-way through reading this book to her little invalid, she could stand no more and did something that changed my life (and, within a couple of months, changed my measurable reading age from ‘off the bottom of the scale’ to more than double my actual age). Thanks, Mum; thanks, Gerry Davis. She told me to read it myself.

I did.

The TV story The Moonbase is one of many that suffered through BBC short-sightedness, so the DVD has two fully existing episodes and two recreated using animation and the soundtrack. The book was published in February 1975, two months before a new Cyberman story on TV. Revenge of the Cybermen was credited to Gerry Davis, but though readers of Doctor Who and the Cybermen will spot several similarities, it had been heavily rewritten. I wonder if that’s why he left in the lines where Cybermen sneer about how silly “revenge” is. He does give us a preview here of Cyberleaders with black helmets, though, and Chris Achilleos’ cover boasts a threatening closer-to-1975-than-1967-look Cyberman, as well as a thrilling fizz around the Moon and a great Patrick Troughton. Alan Willow’s internal illustrations can be found right through to the 2011 BBC Books edition, though sadly for the audiobook they’re printed the size of postage stamps in its apologetic little insert. Gerry Davis always struggled slightly with the science – trying valiantly, but despite, say, using vacuum as a major threat, occasionally forgetting that the Moon doesn’t have air, or that a laser beam isn’t the same as a flaming torch. Modern Doctor Who TV writer Gareth Roberts pays tribute to Gerry Davis’ ability to tell a cracking yarn in his introduction to the BBC Books edition; the book’s 2011 editors pay tribute to his trying really hard but sometimes making a howler by seriously informing us that the Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis-inspired Doctor Who story The War Machines was then scripted by Ian Kennedy Martin…

This is not the best Doctor Who book ever, but it’s still a load of fun, and I love it. My Mum hates it. Take your pick.

And, if you need one, my score:
7/10, or 9/10 when Anneke Wills is reading it.

If You Like Doctor Who and the Cybermen, Why Not Try…

Two other novelisations of stories pitting Patrick Troughton’s Doctor against more of his iconic monsters: Terrance Dicks’ Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen and Brian Hayles’ Doctor Who and the Ice Warriors. Each of them is also available in modern BBC Books editions, and as audiobooks – both David Troughton and Frazer Hines give quite uncanny readings of their Doctor.

Or, if you want more Ben and Polly, there’s their first and shockingly just one complete story available on DVD – The War Machines. The Moonbase is available on DVD with the existing episodes plus animation and soundtracks filling in the ones the BBC destroyed, as is original Cyberman story The Tenth Planet; the newly released and possibly final Twentieth Century Doctor Who DVD, The Underwater Menace, isn’t quite so lucky and has the missing bits filled in by still pictures. But my favourite story for Ben, Polly and Jamie is one you can only get as a soundtrack, as there’s almost nothing left of the TV images. It’s The Macra Terror, and it’s eerily glorious and super-liberal fun. That’s the story that originally followed this one on TV, and if there’s one thing this book’s missing, it’s ending with a giant claw…

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Saturday, November 21, 2015


Doctor Who 52: 01 – Ten Reasons to Watch Robot

Introducing Doctor Who – Robot

The first story in my idiosyncratic fifty-two-week Doctor Who selection… And what a mighty first this story brings! Launching the 1975* season, this stars Tom Baker as the Doctor (and he’s not the only first).

There’s a trail of mysterious break-ins and deaths and only the footprints of a giant robot left behind – what could it be? Well, obviously, yes, but there are more secret weapons and a fascist coup to deal with too. Can the Doctor, Sarah Jane Smith, Harry and the Brigadier stop them? And how much fun will we have watching?

This Monday, November 23rd, will be Doctor Who’s fifty-second anniversary. My celebration is a story every week. You can read what this Doctor Who 52 is all about here. But I’d just read on, then press Play on the DVD.

Ten Reasons To Watch Robot (warning: spoilers lower down the list)

1 – Tom Baker is the Doctor.
“You may be a doctor, but I am the Doctor. The definite article, you might say.”
He grabs the role with astonishing energy, bewildering his friends and simply sweeping his foes before him, not just physically but with a firecracker intelligence, both mind and body in constant motion. No-one has any idea how to deal with him – except Sarah Jane – but he gets away with it all with simply blazing charisma. And he’s already wearing that scarf and that grin. Nothing will ever be the same again.

2 – The Time Tunnel. The most iconic of all Doctors gets the most iconic of all title sequences, perfected by Bernard Lodge into the TARDIS rushing through a fabulous swirl that’s been the inspiration for most of the post-2005 titles. It’s paired with, for me, still the best version of the Doctor Who Theme, now with looping echoes into the episode and cliffhanger scream out of it.

3 –
“There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”
The coda is gorgeous, the Doctor and Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) making up with each other after the climax, Harry (Ian Marter) endearingly trying to make sense of it all, and finally Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) accepting the inevitable. It’s hard to think of two of the Doctor’s friends more iconic than journalist Sarah Jane Smith, who came back so many years later and starred in her own show, or the Brigadier, who the now liberated Doctor had worked with advising UNIT throughout his time exiled to Earth and whose daughter Kate is a mainstay of the series today. And it’s hard to think of a team that makes me smile so delightedly as the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry. Here those three come together as a proper TARDIS crew, with new recruit (though not militarily; a Surgeon-Lieutenant from UNIT and the Navy) Harry Sullivan taken for a ride, the fourth Doctor offering his first jelly baby, and Sarah Jane standing up to the Doctor when he’s gone too far but then, the grown-up of the three, making a deliberate choice to be child-like and fly off into time and space to have what you know are going to be the scariest, and most fun, and most marvellous adventures anyone could ever imagine. I’ve previously written about it as one of my favourite ever scenes in more detail. It’s adorable.

4 –
“The trouble with computers, of course, is that they’re very sophisticated idiots. They do exactly what you tell them at amazing speed, even if you order them to kill you. So if you do happen to change your mind, it’s very difficult to stop them obeying the original order! But… not impossible.”
Before my failing health stopped me working, I spent some years as an IT tutor. Hardly a day went by without my at some stage reassuring a student with a version of that line. Usually alluding more to saving before you close than impending Armageddon, though.

5 – Surprising thematic consistency. No, no, wake up at the back! Season Twelve of Doctor Who introduced not just Tom Baker, the time tunnel and Harry Sullivan, but awesome new Script Editor (a similar role to today’s lead writer) Robert Holmes and Producer Philip Hinchcliffe. So some people write this story off as the last produced by Barry Letts, and authored by just-going Script Editor Terrance Dicks. But Holmes clearly had a hand in it too, as Robot introduces the fascinating themes that will dominate the season: scientific survival and rebirth by fascistic elites; alien / machine logic and intelligence against human instinct, free will and compassion… Which isn’t necessarily found among the humans-by-birth. And spot-your-own 1930s horror film motifs.

6 – The Robot. It looks fantastic (at least until Part Four). Probably still my favourite robot design in all of Doctor Who, a towering, powerful but still stylish creation accompanied by a low, grating ‘machine’ sound that makes you think the robot’s like a fork-lift truck. But its character is compelling, too – not just Michael Kilgarriff’s acting, but a creature that is often more human than its masters (the novelisation emphasises its tenderness in unexpected moments). I took that to heart at a very young age; it may even have started me off on empathising with the ‘other’, and is probably at the root of my always flinching at the Doctor being beastly in other stories to patently sentient AIs, especially when they’re having existential crises.

7 – Sarah Jane Smith is magnificent. With a new Doctor, a new companion and so much else to compete with, this is still one of her strongest stories. She’s the intrepid reporter who tracks down the mystery; she’s brave and saves the world facing down the villain when even the Brigadier can’t; then her empathy and compassion even for the unforgivable shines through. And Elisabeth Sladen’s wonderful performance ties all of her character together. She’s a big influence on companions after 2005 in being the Doctor’s heart – but also in doing what has to be done, not ruthlessly, but showing determination when no-one else will.

8 – There’s a brilliant way round the Three Laws of Robotics. Brilliant, but fatal. Reminiscent of all so-called utopian societies, in which the individual is disposable for the greater good (even if that comes to mean most individuals in the world). Terrance Dicks wrote this ten years before Isaac Asimov introduced his ‘Zeroth Law’, and that’s not the end of the cleverness in his writing: watch carefully, and you’ll find that the Robot, Russian doll-like, is only the first of three nested ‘ultimate weapons’… Yes, this is ‘Doctor Who – Age of Ultron’.

9 –
“The thought of Miss Winters in handcuffs gave Sarah considerable pleasure.”
Fascist leader Hilda Winters (Patricia Maynard) is a great villain, calculating in private, demagogue in public, but this infamous sentence from Terrance Dicks’ novelisation underlines how easy it is to be authoritarian just so long as it’s what you’re sure is for everyone’s good… The Brigadier’s retort there to Sarah Jane’s wish to bang up all the baddies because we know they’re baddies is that Britain’s not a military dictatorship. Which on balance, the story suggests, is a good thing.

10 –
“I would wear what you thought was good for me. I see. And think what you thought was good for me, too?”
“It’d be for your own good.”
It’s difficult to work out how much I was instinctively a Liberal and liked Doctor Who because it was the ‘odd one out’ show, and how much I liked Doctor Who and so took its lessons to heart. But though I think of certain other stories as more obvious influences on my politics, there are definite seeds here. Free will versus dictatorship; empathy with the different; Sarah Jane’s first reaction to power being that it might be misused, her second to ask questions, her third compassion; green energy being a really good thing but enforcing it by authoritarianism and viewing people as disposable is a really bad thing. A green Liberal in the making, aged three, thanks to that most Doctor Who of simple homilies, that “the end never justifies the means.” Aged three? Well, yes. The moral here wasn’t the only influence this story had on me…

What Else Should I Tell You About Robot?

“Alexander the Great?”

This isn’t just where Tom started. It’s where I started.

It changed my life and I love it with all my heart. Because it led to me loving Richard with all my heart.

Of course I can have two hearts.

Many more stories than you’d expect are someone’s favourite, but every story is someone’s first. This was designed to be a new start (and so was the next one), and when three-year-old me starting watching half-way through Robot, I was hooked.

Thinking critically, it’s a good story, but it’s not the very best. Its liberal heart is in the right place (opposing the far-right place) but its grasp of international politics is a bit shaky. And though as Robot comes into the final episode it builds several climaxes on top of each other, it’s also where a few things fall down a bit, not least the special effects. Gigantically. Even Sarah Jane has her ups and downs there.

So where many fans, if you asked them where to start on Doctor Who, would pick an action-packed, fun, familiar-but-different story set in more or less our modern world, one that gives a central role to the woman companion while introducing a new Doctor and a hugely successful era, and has the single-word title “Ro—”… It’s probably true that it wouldn’t be this one unless the fan is me (I love that other one too, by the way, but more on that story later).

But none of that matters to me. Because it was my first. And forty years later, I’m still watching Doctor Who because of it. What better recommendation could there be?

*Technically this started in the last week of 1974, but as it was launching a new season for the New Year and the first Saturday after Christmas was when they did that – and as I didn’t start watching until the second week of January – I always say it’s 1975. Because it belongs there. And, anyway, it’s from 1980.

And, if you need one, my score:

Usually this will be a simple mark out of ten, the crudest possible metric of how good I think a story is. Some weeks there will be exceptions.

8/10 says my head…

But 10/10 is not enough for Robot in my heart.

If You Like Robot, Why Not Try…

Everything! I did. But perhaps saying ‘now watch all two-hundred-and-fifty-odd stories before next week’ would be overdoing things.

Then try the whole of Tom Baker as the Doctor? I did. But it did take me the next six years, as they went out on BBC1.

So if you liked Robot, why not try The Ark In Space? Because it was Tom’s second story as the Doctor, and because, though most weeks I’ll probably choose a story that’s quite like the one I’ve just watched, The Ark In Space takes the new but already perfect team of the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry away from the comfort of Earth and throws them into stark outer space horror. It’s a brilliant story, it has another of Tom’s best performances and one of his most iconic speeches, it’s a bold statement of where new producer Philip Hinchcliffe and lead writer Robert Holmes were to take the series, and it became a huge influence – probably on the film Alien, certainly on Doctor Who’s return to TV forty years later, with both Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat claiming it as favourites.

But most of all, try The Ark In Space because one of the things I most love about Doctor Who is that, whatever you think of the story you’ve just watched, the next one will probably be completely different.

Meanwhile, On the Other Side…

My beloved husband Richard is watching… Why, look! The Ark In Space.

Next Time…

Always start at the beginning. I have. But Doctor Who has more beginnings than the Doctor has lives…

Labels: , , , , , ,

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Introducing Doctor Who 52 – Ten Reasons to Read Ten Reasons To Watch…

Do you want to watch some Doctor Who?

Aliens from the past; wonders from the future; all of time and all of space. It’s the trip of a lifetime…

But how to choose? There are so many stories! Where to start? Which Doctors? What style? Monsters, villains, scary horror? Wit, weirdness, wild ideas? Adventures in history, alien worlds, impossibilities in famous landmarks? Fun? Don’t scream!

Here’s my idea. One story at a time, ten reasons at a time to give you a taste of if you might like it.

November 23rd will be Doctor Who’s fifty-second anniversary, and it’s an important and popular fact that there are fifty-two weeks in a year. That gave me an idea. To celebrate fifty-two years of Doctor Who, the most brilliant television programme and the greatest idea in the history of the world, I’m going to pick one story I love, starting next week, each week for a year. Then every Saturday – because it has to be Saturdays – give you ten reasons why you should give it a go and put on the latest DVD I’ve chosen along with me. They may not be ten good reasons. They may be silly ones, strange ones or ones quite unsuitable for children. But they’ll be my reasons and, I hope, some will tickle your fancy too and make you want to watch some of the stories I’ll be recommending. And my husband will be doing the same! But different.

Oh, and if you’ve never watched an episode, don’t know the show, and want to find out anything about Doctor Who at all…? The best way is just to pick one and watch it. Which I’ll start with next week (or, for UK viewers, tune in to the next adventure on BBC1 tonight, or the Horror Channel on weekdays). But if you want to read something about why first, here’s one I prepared earlier: So Who is The Doctor Anyway? All You Need To Know About Doctor Who. I said there – though obviously I added more that you might want to know – that all you need to know is this:
The Doctor is a traveller in time and space. He goes anywhere he likes, from Earth’s past, present and future to alien worlds and stranger places still. He respects life rather than authority, and obeys no-one else’s rules. He lives by his own joy in exploring new places and times, and by his own moral sense to fight oppression. He prefers to use his intelligence rather than violence, and he takes friends with him to explore the wonders of the Universe.

That’s it.

Here, As I’ve Promised Ten Things, Are Ten Rules I’ve Set Myself For What I’ll Do Each Week

(There’s a more interesting list further down.)

1 – Rules are for breaking.

2 – I’m only picking stories which were on TV, so you can easily pick them up on DVD (and most can be bought in other formats).

3 – These are all stories I love in one way or another, but not quite my ‘Top 52’. I’ll be trying to give more of a mix. So, for example, every Doctor’s going to have about four or five stories. Except when they don’t (see Rule 1).

4 – One of the things I most love about Doctor Who is that if you don’t like one of them, next week’s might be entirely different. So I’m amplifying that effect by not putting these stories in chronological order. I’m not writing a history of Doctor Who, but trying to tempt and divert you with an assortment from all over the place.

5 – Except that sometimes I’ll put several stories with similar themes in a row, to illustrate how different the styles can be. Or just because I like that sort of thing. And also except that most of the stories will have some sort of link to the next one in line. Sometimes it’ll be tenuous, sometimes it’ll be obvious, sometimes it’ll be a link of sorts to the next couple along. And I’ll let you guess each week. I’ve already decided the whole set of stories, and in order, too (see Rule 1).

6 – I’m doing this for fun, so don’t expect all of it to make sense.

7 – Spoiler warning: there won’t be spoilers every time, but where the thing I love best about a story is a giant spoiler, that’ll be towards the bottom of the list so you can read at least some of the ten.

8 – There might be some extras, some weeks. Rule 2 excludes a lot of brilliant books, comics, audio plays and other forms of Doctor Who which may be less accessible, but if I have the energy to post weekly, which on past performance is quite a gamble, I might even find the energy to post some shorter mid-week reasons to read, look at or listen to some of those. Possibly including some 1960s Doctor Who TV stories which, although brilliant, only exist as soundtracks because the BBC burnt a lot of the originals, thinking nobody was interested. I’m likely to choose extras that are in some way in tune with that week’s DVD choice, so you can have a guess at those links too, if you like.

9 – And I’m not going to stick to just ten reasons to watch each story, either. There’ll be a few extra details each time. Including (shh) in the small print, probably, any reasons you might, well, not not want to watch it exactly, but have a tiny warning about something that might make you want to watch it a bit less.

10 – It might seem a bit odd in the day of the box set binge and streaming complete seasons to pick just one story at a time. That’s because the BBC have only released about a third of Doctor Who’s Thirty-four / midway through Thirty-five seasons as DVD box sets (though more might soon be downloadable like that in packages from BBC Store). Most of those are from the series’ return to TV in 2005, where for marketing purposes they started counting again at “Series One,” partly as a relaunch and partly because it would otherwise be embarrassing to admit when people asked, ‘If this is number Twenty-seven, can I get The Complete Season One Box Set?’ that they’d burnt some of those stories so they’re difficult to put on DVD. Though Season One is still one of my favourites, even the bits I can’t see of it. However, let’s say every complete year’s-worth of Doctor Who was collected in its own box, or I just fancied bingeing on seasons rather than individual stories. Counting down in roughly reverse order, here’s another list of ten to gorge on:

Ten Doctor Who Box Sets To Binge On (if they were all in box sets, and if I felt like bingeing)

10 – Season Thirty-four / Series Eight (2014, Peter Capaldi)
A Good Man…? Because Peter Capaldi is brilliant, because so much else about the series feels suddenly refreshed, because it’s by far my favourite season since Steven Moffat took the helm, because I’m always hopeful that Doctor Who will be better. So when’s the next one on? Ah! Tonight! Wonder if that’ll make the 52…?
Stories: Deep Breath, Into the Dalek, Robot of Sherwood, Listen, Time Heist, The Caretaker, Kill the Moon, Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline, In the Forest of the Night, Dark Water / Death In Heaven

9 – Season Thirteen (1975-1976, Tom Baker)
Body Horror – because the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) are such a wonderful team, and because its visceral, colourful horror makes it probably the least suitable thing for children ever, which is why it absolutely thrilled me aged four and I’d heartily recommend it to any child who enjoys nightmares.
Stories: Terror of the Zygons, Planet of Evil, Pyramids of Mars, The Android Invasion, The Brain of Morbius, The Seeds of Doom

8 – Season Seven (1970, Jon Pertwee)
Exiled To Earth – because every single story is rather brilliant, and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) and Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Caroline John) are very brilliant, even though there’s not a lot of TARDIS or playfulness.
Stories: Spearhead from Space, Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Ambassadors of Death, Inferno

7 – Season Sixteen (1978-1979, Tom Baker)
The Key to Time – because it’s enormously enjoyable. This is Doctor Who at its most fairy-tale, fluffy and fun, it’s the best place to watch K-9, and the show’s first serious ‘story arc’. Which is rarely serious at all, thanks particularly to some of the best writers ever to work on the show – such as Robert Holmes, David Fisher and Douglas Adams.
Stories: The Ribos Operation, The Pirate Planet, The Stones of Blood, The Androids of Tara, The Power of Kroll, The Armageddon Factor

6 – Season Twenty-Nine / Series Three (2007, David Tennant)
You Are Not Alone – because the individual stories are mostly very strong, the through-theme of human (or Time Lord) nature is stronger, and David Tennant finds his feet as the Doctor in suffering (and possibly through Freema Agyeman’s fantastic Martha Jones giving him a kick in the arse).
Stories: Smith and Jones, The Shakespeare Code, Gridlock, Daleks In Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks, The Lazarus Experiment, 42, Human Nature / The Family of Blood, Blink, Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords

5 – Season Eighteen (1980-1981, Tom Baker)
Decay and Change – because it’s the ultimate in Who ‘concept albums’ from lead writer Christopher H Bidmead, best watched all the way through, a marvellous mixture of ideas and images for Tom Baker’s long finale. Everything ends, everything changes, but with an irresistible sense of hope.
Stories: The Leisure Hive, Meglos, Full Circle, State of Decay, Warriors’ Gate, The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis

4 – Season Twenty-Six (1989, Sylvester McCoy)
New Games – because Doctor Who went out, for a while, on a high, inspiring New Adventures to come in one of the most intelligent, innovative and impressive years in the history of the series, and where Ace (Sophie Aldred) comes to the fore in a very female-focused set of stories.
Stories: Battlefield, Ghost Light, The Curse of Fenric, Survival

3 – Season Twelve (1975, Tom Baker)
New Birth and Cold Science – because this was the first Doctor Who season I ever saw, and I’ve always loved it. Lead writer Robert Holmes and producer Philip Hinchcliffe come in with an amazing set of stories, still more amazing in their thematic unity, cold, stark visuals reflecting stories of fascistic elites placing survival at all costs over what makes us human, a mixture of sterility and rebirth, but all with the warmth of the Doctor, Harry and Sarah Jane.
Stories: Robot, The Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment, Genesis of the Daleks, Revenge of the Cybermen

2 – Season Twenty-seven / Series One (2005, Christopher Eccleston)
The Trip of a Lifetime – because Doctor Who was back on television, and more fantastic than I’d dared to hope. Christopher Eccleston’s war survivor and Billie Piper’s shop assistant journey together and bring out the best in each other in a bright and optimistic series that’s – as lead writer Russell T Davies put it – steeped in death. Still gorgeous to look at, too.
Stories: Rose, The End of the World, The Unquiet Dead, Aliens of London / World War Three, Dalek, The Long Game, Father’s Day, The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, Boom Town, Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways

1 – Season Fourteen (1976-1977, Tom Baker)
Dark Religion – because Tom Baker, Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes – and Doctor Who – reach their height. Tales of Gothic horror, intelligent science, imagination, black humour, and so much more. Watch them all and find out.
Stories: The Masque of Mandragora, The Hand of Fear, The Deadly Assassin, The Face of Evil, The Robots of Death, The Talons of Weng-Chiang

You see? Extras. But don’t assume you can work out what’s coming from these imaginary box sets – or even who are my favourite Doctors. For a start, I’m always changing my mind, and on top of that, the Doctor I currently love the most isn’t even in any of those seasons, but he will have several stories in the weekly 52.

Where will I start? Where will it all end (will it end at all)? Tune in next Saturday, and every Saturday for the next year, to find out which Doctor Who story I love that I’m going to give you ten reasons to watch. If you can believe I’ll do it, I might.

Look – look. I think it’s started…

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, August 24, 2015


Douglas Adams Vs Corbynomics

The story so far.

In the beginning, the Labour leadership election was created.

This has made a lot of people very angry, and been widely regarded as a bad move.

Since the Labour B-Ark crashed completely, its principal survivors have emerged as the very talented and useful Blair-Tone Sanitiser (Third Class) Kendall, Security Guard Number 2 Cooper, Make-up Assistant (Trainee) Burnham and Hairdressers’ Fire Development Sub-committee Chair Corbyn.

There are many important and unpopular questions which must be asked about the crash of the Labour B-Ark and the new landscape in which they now find themselves. The four very talented and useful candidates even hope that there might even be one ultimate question that will unravel the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. They can all be relied upon not to ask it.

They have instead started work on several typically Labour B-Ark projects: arguing about what colour it should be; having a quick bath; declaring war on the next continent. Most importantly of all, after 573 meetings, the Chair of the Hairdressers’ Fire Development Sub-committee has discovered a brilliant new fiscal policy…

“How can you have money if none of you actually produces anything? It doesn’t grow on trees, you know!”

“Ah! But since we decided a few weeks ago to adopt the leaf as legal tender, we have all of course become immensely rich. But we have run into a small inflation problem, owing to the high level of, ah, leaf availability. Which means that I gather the current going rate is something like: three major deciduous forests buy one ship’s peanut.
“So in order to obviate this problem and effectively revalue the leaf, we’ve decided on an extensive campaign of defoliation and, er, burn down all the forests.
“I think that’s a sensible move, don’t you?”

This quotation summarising ‘People’s QE Corbynomics’ is taken directly from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, Television Phase, Episode Six, by Douglas Adams. As it’s one of the most remarkable TV series ever made, I recommend watching all six episodes*. But if you merely want to see the economic analysis, it’s about 27 minutes into the final episode (above), immediately after Ed Miliband contributes to the debate with the typically incisive observation, “One’s never alone with a rubber duck. Whee!”

*Six episodes may seem like a lot, but that’s just peanuts to the Labour B-Ark leadership election. For though it has many omissions, and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy Television Phase scores over the more pedestrian audience experience in two important respects. First, it is very much shorter (taking only three hours, not three months, and after watching it you are far less likely to say ‘Well, that’s a part of my life I’ll never get back’), and secondly, it has the words: “DON’T PANIC” inscribed in large, friendly letters on the cover. Which by this stage in the Labour B-Ark leadership election pretty much everyone concerned agrees they could have done with, too.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


My Embarrassing Charles Kennedy Fan Story

There’s one sort-of political anecdote that I’ve never written about until now. It involves a total cringe from my point of view, but it’s about someone who was an excited fan of Charles Kennedy, so this seems like the right time to tell it (if I ever should). I gave some of my own memories of Charles yesterday, and concluded by mentioning that he was a huge David Bowie fan… So I don’t know whether Charles would have appreciated this one. But here goes.

Back in the late ’80s, I was an awkward teenager coming out with the help of Gay Youth Manchester (as was), and some of the friends I made there are still close today. One of them had got in touch with me again in the early 2000s, and after he’d come round to our place to watch Doctor Who with a few mates, he invited us to a party at his and his partner’s place.

I don’t really do socialising, still less glamorous London night-life. But it seemed my friend had done quite well for himself, as his rather nice Brick Lane flat was buzzing with rather a lot of rather glamorous and fashionable people. And me.

So I did what I usually do if I awkwardly find myself pressed into a party: hover by the buffet inhaling all the food, and hold even more firmly to Richard than to the sausage rolls.

Eventually, though, someone else came up to the buffet, said “Excuse me” to the nervous man hogging it, and politely struck up a bit more of a conversation, and he was reassuringly dowdy, so I came out of my shell a bit. And as we chatted, the inevitable “And what do you do?” sort of question came up.

At the time – as usual – my health was a bit dodgy, in the early part of its long slide ever since, so I wasn’t working. But back then, I was still up to being more active in the Lib Dems, so I tentatively started off on some of my political involvement, and that I was on a party’s policy committee. With encouraging noises from the other guest, I expanded on that to say which party, and that I was then Vice-Chair of the Federal Policy Committee, where Charles was the Chair and I’d sometimes take over when he was at other meetings.

And this guy was impressed. Really impressed. It turned out he was a huge admirer of Charles Kennedy, and thrilled that I knew him, as he went on and on. Oh, just a bit, I said, self-deprecating in the way that only someone terribly flattered by reflected glory and unable to see the mortifying fall looming in front of him could be.
“And what do you do?”
I asked, from my unexpected height of social superiority.
“Oh – I play bass in a band called Radiohead.”

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, June 02, 2015


Charles Kennedy

I heard at 7am the news that Charles Kennedy had died. It feels so terribly unfair. He had so many gifts and should have had so much more to give with them. And just as Liberal Democrats are starting to recover from the grief of the election, and find something to celebrate in such unlooked-for growth in our numbers (from 45,000 members to 60,000 since polling day), our family is plunged into the most appalling shared grief of all. My heart goes out to Charles’ immediate family too. I knew Charles as Leader, much less since, but I’ll miss him.

Like many Lib Dems, I started the day by pouring out some of my grief on Twitter and a comment on Lib Dem Voice – then a short piece on my Tumblr, which is where, essentially, I write and publish things quickly, before there’s time for insecurity to stop me writing. But I’ve decided that Charles deserves a proper thank you and memorial from me, too, which in my typical way means much the same I said earlier, but at significantly greater length.

A Great Communicator (but not in every way)

You’ll have read a great many tributes and obituaries. Like all Leaders, he had his good and his bad points – perhaps more of both than most. Charles’ greatest strength was that he came across as genuine, and decent, and more like an ordinary bloke than other politicians: today British politics has to make do with Nigel Farage, his anti-matter duplicate. Getting to know Charles over half a dozen years or so, as I’ll come to, he always struck me as the same in private as he was in public, and in private, too, he rarely let people see his bad days.

The one thing I’ll say that contradicts most of the pieces I’ve seen about Charles today is that I don’t think he was a great orator. He was a great communicator – probably the best the Liberal Democrats have had, though I reckon we’ve been blessed with three. But his greatest gift was in speaking directly, conversationally, not reading lines from a platform. I don’t mean he couldn’t deliver a speech – he could, and I saw many of them. Some stuck in my head for his principles as a call to action; some inspired me by turning those principles into a brave challenge. But platform oratory wasn’t his best platform, and if you want to read a review of one of his speeches with a favourable view of the content and a not entirely complimentary look at some of his vocal tics, I wrote one quite some years ago and still think I was right. That doesn’t matter.

I think it may well have been on introducing Charles for the first of the three speeches I mentioned above that a Lib Dem MP said something rather indiscreet that stuck in my head as much as the speech itself. Charles was relatively new in the job of Leader, and there was a wide assumption (not necessarily a fact) that he’d been more the choice of the armchair members than the activists – but also, by this stage, a widespread feeling of pleasant surprise that he’d made himself both a more explicitly Liberal leader and more distanced from the Labour Party than anyone had expected before his election (I remember one of his initial backers telling me sourly that I was probably more pleased with his victorious candidate than he was, and happily agreeing). So when Charles was introduced for his own Leader’s Speech with “I didn’t vote for him – but I’m ever so glad he won!” there was both a huge laugh and a sense from many, myself included, that we would have said the same if we’d been daring enough.

My Memories of Charles (and the Reverse Aesop)

I got to know Charles mainly on the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee. I was an elected member throughout his Leadership, and for four years I was a Vice-Chair to Charles as Chair. He was the same in private party meetings as he was on the telly: a big change from Paddy Ashdown’s fight to the death on every issue – bringing people together, but passionate on the issues he really cared about. The converse was also true; the chance of my taking over the Chair for an hour when Charles suddenly discovered he had another urgent Commons appointment rose in direct proportion to the time FPC members spent droning on multiplied by the lack of interest he had in the subject. His slipping out rarely helped meetings to finish on time, as he was far more skilled in finding kindly ways to shut people up when they were blathering on than I ever was.

I used to joke at the time that in choosing Charles to succeed Paddy the party had done a reverse Aesop – calling for King Log after King Stork. That was a little unfair (to Charles, at least). He may not have wanted pitched battles on every line of policy, but I remember him usually making two different sorts of crucial contribution across the board. One was in spotting when policy was getting either too impenetrable or too up itself (not that he’d use those terms). In particular, he had a keen eye for the Lib Dem habit of setting up National Institutes for Well-Meaning Interference. Nobody else on the FPC was ever so good at puncturing pompous proposals, rolling his eyes at yet another new bureaucracy: “No more capital letters, please!” Part of that was what you might call Charles ‘remembering common sense’. But there was another element in there. Whether it was being a Highlander, an outsider, his temperament or his chosen ideology, he quietly disliked people pushing other people around.

Growing Into a Liberal Leader

I didn’t know Charles well enough to be able to say whether it was out of that instinct, or his political judgement as Leader, or it simply seeming the obvious thing to do, but his other ‘big picture’ contribution was more blatantly ideological – under Charles, the Liberal Democrats started using the words “Liberal” and “Liberalism” in the headlines, not just in the small print. The Liberal Democrats never lost our Liberalism; when during the election I was searching for inspiring Liberal quotes, short and long, for my Liberal Democrats Believe Tumblr (which, like so many things, I must get back to), one of the most inspiring speeches and probably the one I quoted at greatest length was one of Paddy’s Leader’s speeches, which is as brilliant an exploration of philosophical Liberalism as you could hope to find. But you’d rarely find the word on its own on a policy paper front page or in a shorthand description of the party.

I suspect that a lot of this comes down to simple history: Paddy had been a Liberal MP, and as the Liberal Democrats’ Leader for our first decade, he was careful not to ‘unpick the merger’. And so was everyone else who’d gone through that shambles of a time. Under Charles, the party was more at ease with itself, with the passage of time and the passage of members. Quietly, we had a Leader who would say of us, “We’re a Liberal party,” without anyone being under the impression he was expelling former Social Democrats; policy papers on what we stood for started proclaiming “It’s About Freedom” or “Freedom in a Liberal Society”, rather than the party’s early years of “Our Different Vision”, which I remember reading cover to cover and still being unable to say quite what it was.

I joined the new party immediately after the merger in 1988, because I’d been a teenage supporter but didn’t see why there were two separate parties and waited until it was official to sign up. For me and my generation of Lib Dem Youth and Students, it was natural to be Liberal Democrats, happy with a party born out of a merger, not wanting to go back to the structures and strifes of a party we’d never been members of, but of course we were ideologically Liberals too. Older members found it more difficult to separate the history and the philosophy, so it was something a lot of Lib Dems were very quiet about during the ’90s. It was obvious to me that Bob Maclennan – a former Leader of the SDP – was by far our most Liberal Home Affairs Spokesperson of the time, and similarly, when Bob was Party President in the mid-’90s he was the most senior figure to speak of our Liberalism, unabashed, one of many reasons I became an unlikely fan and friend. No-one could accuse him of digging up old rivalries or a Liberal Party takeover, and the same was true when Charles, another former Social Democrat, was elected Leader. He was able to talk about what we all stood for without it being divisive. Under Charles’ Leadership, the Lib Dems started to grow our own distinct philosophical rivalries, today spoken of more along Social Liberal and Economic Liberal lines, though neither (with a few exceptions!) as sharp as between our two predecessor parties. Most Lib Dems are both Social and Economic Liberals, and those who come down much more heavily on one side than the other are just as likely to have come from the old SDP as the old Liberal Party – but, like the vast majority of Liberal Democrat members, are most likely not to have been a member of either party that voted to merge into the Lib Dems nearly three decades ago.

So every time a ‘political correspondent’ talks about the ‘fault lines in the Lib Dems’ being based on the Liberal Party vs the SDP, they are almost without exception talking bollocks – just as it would have been absurd to characterise every internal debate of the pre-1988 Liberal Party in terms of Whigs, Radicals and Peelites who merged to create the Liberals in their turn. We are not our parents, and neither are parties. Charles, in his calm and consensual but crucial way, helped the Liberal Democrats to grow up.

Charles’ Principles and Passions

The much less quiet decision that Charles took, after much internal debate and soul-searching, and which came to define his Leadership, was to oppose the Iraq War. It’s often falsely remembered as a populist move. It was nothing of the kind. It was a terrifying plunge into doing the right thing when nobody else would, and we were vilified for it. In the run-up to the War, there were mass marches in opposition, but not largely by natural Lib Dems, and the massed fire of the media was all against us. When the invasion began, our opinion poll support took a dive. It was only much later, when it became clear to people not that the principle of invading another country against international law was wrong – people knew that, and were gung-ho anyway – but that the Labour Party and the Republican Party had created such an appalling, bloody mess, that support swung back our way. Remember that the Labour Party and their Tory and press cheerleaders called Charles and the Lib Dems “Traitors” and much worse for not going along with their illegal war of aggression.

If Iraq was Charles Kennedy’s defining issue by circumstance and brave decision in a hard place, perhaps his greatest passion was Europe. A committed and persuasive European, internationalist, democrat and reformer, while Liberal Democrats and many others who simply liked and agreed with him will miss Charles for too many reasons to count, over the next couple of years our loss will be a huge loss in the coming referendum. As well as the personal loss for his family and our wider Lib Dem family, both bereaved, it’s tragic to lose his voice when he’s so needed.
“I am a Highlander, a Scot, proudly British, and European. I’m proud of all four of these things, and I don’t see why I should have to choose between them or delete any of them.”
You may well have seen today a letter from Charles replying to a voter with his judgement that, even though he’s blue, Gonzo’s a nice guy and his favourite Muppet. I can reveal that he rather liked Doctor Who, too, and that his favourite Doctor was always Patrick Troughton, so I’ve had the Mighty Trout’s most Liberal story on this afternoon. If you really want to celebrate one of Charles’ passions, though, put on some David Bowie to remember him by. There, he was a real fan.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, May 14, 2015


Post-Election: Thanks, Tears, and What Year Are the Lib Dems In Now (A Clue: 2015)?

Only the Liberal Democrats, hardened by a hundred years of losing and buoyed by an inextinguishable hope in Liberalism, could follow an ‘extinction event’ election by gaining more than eleven thousand new members in less than a week. Welcome, all of you! You might like to look at Liberal Democrat Voice’s New Members Day (new voices, recommended reading and party essentials). You help remind us all that for all the talk of historical precedents, the year we’re in is 2015. But tonight I’m still looking back with a sense of history and with thanks to so many Lib Dem MPs.

I’ve been writing my post-election thoughts throughout this week. Regular readers will be unsurprised to know that the article’s been getting longer and longer – and may well split into a series of about half a dozen. But in case I don’t have the energy to write them all, there’s something I want to make sure I say.

I’ve read a ton of historical comparisons over the last few days – some glib, some persuasive. But while there’s much to learn from history, we do need to remember that this is 2015, not any other year, and that the way back to wilderness or revival is not predestined. On the face of it, this seems most like 1970 in our share of seats and votes – 7.5%, down to 6 MPs, a surprise Tory victory – which would ‘put us back’ to before I was born. Those losses were followed by new ideas and something of a comeback at the next general election; I hope for new ideas, too, and though ‘Let’s dig out our answers from 1970!’ doubtless has some merit, I hope most of our answers this time are going to be a bit fresher.

Right now, I’ve been distracted from writing about what we might learn simply by how terrible it feels. I know and admire quite a few Lib Dems who’ve suddenly lost their seats. I can’t help wondering if, whatever year is the more precise statistical match, this feels more like the 1920s – when a much larger group of Liberal MPs with great records in government were suddenly hewn down. I remember when the Coalition was formed five years ago, one of our Peers telling me that at his first Liberal Assembly, in Llandudno in about 1956, he’d been introduced to an elderly man with an ear trumpet who had been a Liberal Minister in our government of what is now a century ago – and that he still couldn’t quite believe that now, though it had only come when he’d got that old himself, he was walking around Liberal Democrat Conference seeing new Liberal Democrat Ministers again… Even if it had to be another coalition with the Tories, which hadn’t ended so well in the 1920s. On the bright side, we come out of this one battered but surprisingly united, rather than with two rival Leaders waging war on each other. And those were the two pretty good rival Leaders. I joined the Liberal Democrats when we were founded in 1988, just after we’d had two pretty bad rival Leaders waging war on each other, and in elections the following year we crashed to 4% and won no seats at all.

If you want two hopeful signs for the future, signs that we are now in neither the 1920s nor the 1980s, not only is our membership rocketing rather than falling through the floor after this year’s defeat, but we are also not split down the middle, which helps. The Conservatives’ mean authoritarianism will not have an easy ride.

Around 80% of the new members in the last week are people who’ve never been Liberal Democrats before, according to the party’s membership department. On a more anecdotal level, a great many of our new Liberal Democrats I’ve seen online have been inspired more than anything else by Nick Clegg’s resignation speech last Friday. I’ve been a Liberal Democrat for a long time, and it inspired and moved me, too. I’d watched through the night in a sort of grim blankness, and wondered what it would take to break that numb feeling. Within a few seconds of Nick starting to speak, I was in floods of tears. Here are some of the words that meant the most to me:

“It’s been a privilege, a huge privilege, an unlimited honour, to lead a party of the most resilient, courageous, and remarkable people. The Liberal Democrats are a family and I will always be extremely proud of the warmth, good grace, and good humour which our political family has shown through the ups and downs of recent years. I want to thank every member, ever campaigner, every councillor, and every parliamentarian for the commitment you have shown to our country and to our party.

“It is simply heartbreaking to see so many friends and colleagues who have served their constituents so diligently over so many years abruptly lose their seats because of forces entirely beyond their control.

“In 2007 after a night of disappointing election results for our party in Edinburgh, Alex Cole Hamilton said this: if his defeat was part-payment for the ending of child detention, then he accepted it with all his heart.

“Those words revealed a selfless dignity which is very rare in politics but common amongst Liberal Democrats. If our losses today are part payment for every family that is more secure because of a job we helped to create, every person with depression who is treated with a compassion they deserve, every child who does a little better in school, every apprentice with a long and rewarding career to look forward to, every gay couple who know that their love is worth no less than anyone else’s and every pensioner with a little more freedom and dignity in retirement then I hope at least our losses can be endured with a little selfless dignity too.

“We will never know how many lives we changed for the better because we had the courage to step up at a time of crisis. But we have done something that cannot be undone because there can be no doubt that we leave government with Britain a far stronger, fairer, greener, and more liberal country than it was five years ago.

“Fear and grievance have won, Liberalism has lost. But it is more precious than ever and we must keep fighting for it. That is both the great challenge and the great cause that my successor will have to face. I will always give my unstinting support for all those who continue to keep the flame of British Liberalism alive.

“Our party will come back, our party will win again, it will take patience, resilience and grit. That is what has built our party before and will rebuild it again. Thank you.”

Thank you, Nick. And never-ending gratitude to Lynne, too, in particular. Many people in our party and beyond made a difference, but the unstinting efforts of Nick and Lynne above all made it possible for Richard and me to marry, after twenty years of waiting through Tory and Labour Governments that made us second-class citizens. We will never forget and never regret that. And I will miss other former MPs I admire for their Liberalism, for their achievements, and in several cases for their friendship. I will keenly miss Stephen, and Stephen, and Danny, and Simon, and Julian, and too many others.

I believe both Norman and Tim have much to recommend them as potential Leaders, but I hope it’s not too discourteous to say that one of the results that left me most distraught would have been my first choice for Leader, Jo Swinson. She so terribly nearly held on (with the lowest fall in her vote of any Lib Dem in the country, an example of the difference between someone who’s always worked hard and the bewildered ‘ultra-safe’ Labour MPs all around her who’d never had to do a day’s work for their seats and were buried under sudden avalanches). I hope she’ll be back, and that open-hearted Liberalism will rise over narrow-minded nationalism.

Among the most damaging mass results of last Thursday – along with our extermination across the South-West – is that all our surviving MPs are now white, cis, straight men. Do not blame any of them for this. They’ll have enough to cope with. And there’s no simple answer. We had women MPs; we selected women in most of our seats where the sitting MP was standing down. We didn’t hold any of them. The Labour Party in particular will be as ruthless in attacking us for the voters’ choices as they were in pouring in resources to defeat Lynne Featherstone – choosing to let marginal Tory MPs off the hook to make sure that they cynically brought down Lib Dem women.

I will offer ideas of what might help for the future. But for today, I simply ask you to be kind to Lib Dem MPs (and staff) who’ve lost their seats if you meet them, and to be even more kind to the eight Liberal Democrats who won. Because all of them suddenly have so much more work to do.

Labels: , , , , , ,


This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?