Friday, October 05, 2018


Doctor Who: So Who is The Doctor Anyway? All You Need To Know About Doctor Who

This Sunday evening, a new Doctor lands on BBC1. If you’re coming to the Doctor and Doctor Who for the first time, this is the perfect jumping-in point. It should give you everything you need, and the easiest way to find out what the series is about is to watch it. But if you’re thinking, ‘It’s been going more than fifty years. How do I cope with all of that?’ then don’t worry. It’s only as complicated as you want to make it. There’s really very little you need to know about the Doctor – and here’s a simple start…

What Do You Need To Know About Doctor Who?

The Doctor is a traveller in time and space. She goes anywhere she likes, from Earth’s past, present and future to alien worlds and stranger places still. She respects life rather than authority, and obeys no-one else’s rules. She lives by her own joy in exploring new places and times, and by her own moral sense to fight oppression. She prefers to use her intelligence rather than violence, and she takes friends with her to explore the wonders of the Universe.

That’s it.

OK, so that’s the important bit, but if you want answers to a few more questions, take a look at the headlines below and read the bits that you want to know about. Or you could just get on and watch an episode.

The Doctor – Who Is She? Why Does She Travel?

She’s an alien, from a world whose rigidly authoritarian rulers watched over all of time and space – but without interfering. She found that just watching and keeping everything the same bored her, when she wanted to get out to meet people and experience things for herself. So she took a TARDIS and the name “the Doctor” and left.

The TARDIS – the Doctor’s Time-ship

A TARDIS is a machine (or a place, or an event) for travelling through time and space, the name standing for Time And Relative Dimension In Space. It moves seemingly by vanishing from one place, then just appearing in the next, travelling not through ordinary space but a whirling space-time vortex. The Doctor’s TARDIS was a bit old and unreliable back when she borrowed it from her people, and she’s patched it up and customised it many times in the perhaps a couple of thousand years that they’ve been travelling together. Just to make it even less likely it’ll go where she wants it to (but more likely to go where she needs it to), it’s quite literally got a mind of its own, too.

The other big thing about the TARDIS is that its outside gives no sign of what’s inside. It used to disguise itself on landing so it wouldn’t be spotted, but when the Doctor arrived in the 1960s it got stuck on taking the form of a police box, a sort of dedicated phone booth before handy mobile communications. Inside, though, unfolds into many other dimensions and many different rooms. You will notice that it’s bigger inside than outside, then. So do most people who go in (unsurprisingly). And while the old blue exterior is pretty much a constant, from time to time the interior changes its style, colour, shape and tone, while keeping its essential character. Which makes the exterior and interior of the Ship rather like the interior and exterior of its pilot.

The Daleks – and Why the Doctor Fights Them

Once she started travelling, the Doctor found that that the more experience she had of other people and places, the more she wanted to get involved, because the more she saw the urge to dominate others the more she wanted to stand up to it. She’s opposed bullies, tyrants and monsters from many alien races – and from her own, and from ours – but one enemy always comes back.

Those she’s fought most often in their endless campaign to dominate and exterminate without question are the Daleks, alien conquerors in armoured mini-tanks with a hatred for all other races. They’re the ultimate dictators, the opposite of the Doctor’s own desire for freedom.

The Daleks too developed time travel, leading to a cataclysmic Time War with the Doctor’s own people – which is a history so complicated that no-one has a full answer. But by the end of it, the Doctor seemed the only one left, so she just carries on travelling, making the most of life, seeing the sights, toppling empires, that sort of thing. And if that sounds like a dangerous lifestyle, it’s often been fatal…

How the Doctor Changes

The Doctor’s people – the Time Lords – were each remarkably long-lived, but it’s not just that their bodies live for many hundreds of years. When they get too old, or are fatally injured, they’ve got a way of cheating death. At what would be the final moment, their body is reborn into a completely new one, giving them a new lease of life, shaking up their personality while remaining essentially the same person underneath. The Doctor’s had quite an eventful life, and the most recent body she’s been ‘born’ into is – well, it’s easiest to say it’s her thirteenth, and people will generally regard her as the Thirteenth Doctor.

How Old? How Many Bodies?

Some people might tell you that the Doctor is now in her fourteenth, sixteenth or twenty-fourth body, and they’ll all be right, but just as with the Time War, no-one has a precise answer and it makes no difference to the story. Similarly, while the Doctor is as a rule honest, what she says about her precise age tends to be very variable. Perhaps on occasion she’s dropped a few hundred years or so for vanity’s sake (my money’s on the one in the leather jacket having a mid-lives crisis). But like her precise number of bodies, the Doctor’s exact age isn’t something we need to know – just as well, really, as we’re never going to. Just nod sagely and say, ‘Ah, well, things got complicated in the Time War,’ because if time was getting messed up to that extent by rival peoples each with the power to control it, things were bound to, weren’t they?

These disconcerting rebirths also help Doctor Who the series carry on when the actor playing the Doctor decides to leave, making it almost the only TV show that can recast its lead without hoping the audience are watching TV with the picture turned off or pretending it’s something to do with plastic surgery or showers.

The latest actor to play the Doctor is Jodie Whittaker.

She’s the first woman to play the lead, and it brings joy to my weary old heart to see so many women I know and so many more I don’t so excited and enthused and inspired. But the really surprising thing to me is that, after watching Doctor Who almost all my life, how freshly excited and enthused and inspired I am, too. I had no idea it would be like this until she turned out to be what a part of me had been waiting for. And she’s not even fallen to Earth yet.

What’s Special About Doctor Who?

The TV series Doctor Who began broadcast in 1963, starring William Hartnell as the Doctor (the first three stories are available in the DVD box set Doctor Who – The Beginning). It ran continuously for more than a quarter of a century, making it the longest-running science fiction series in the world and inspiring an awful lot of people. Kept alive in books, audio plays and millions of imaginations, the TV version was reborn in 2005 and has again been a popular and critical success thanks to its sheer joy, its unique flexibility and, of course, to monsters like the Daleks. A bonus to the series always reinventing itself is that you don’t need to know any intricate details, ongoing plots or characters to follow it. Even the most involved elements change and get left behind (or even undone); happily, many of the best writers assume that every episode is someone’s first, and even if some are tempted to make no concessions to the viewer, the very variety of the series stops it ever becoming too impenetrable.

There is one bold central idea that runs through now more than half a century of adventures. With Doctor Who, you can go pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything, and always see that people everywhere are worthwhile, whether they’re people like us or green scaly rubber people. The Doctor believes in freedom, and hates ignorance, conformity and insularity. She doesn’t work for anyone, wear a uniform or carry a gun, making the series both very British (an immigrant, like many of the best of British) and very anti-establishment.

Doctor Who encourages people to think, to have fun, and to take a moral stand, but it’s wary of solving problems by shooting them. You don’t have to believe what you’re told, still less do what you’re told. And it’s spent several decades scaring children with nasty monsters, eerie places and even the music, which when you put it all together is what family entertainment is about – a show with enough in it to satisfy all ages, from action to excite the adults to sharp questions to keep the children intrigued. That’s how down the years it’s inspired spin-offs from novels to comics, from Torchwood to The Sarah Jane Adventures and many more.

The best of Doctor Who would include adventures in history and travels in space, a dash of horror, wit to make you smile, diversity of ideas and people and strangeness to make you think, and enough action to get you excited. That’s probably too much to fit into just one piece of television, which takes you right back to the idea that you can go anywhere and do anything, because it’s not about just one piece of television, but different travels. Like the TARDIS, Doctor Who is bigger on the inside. It’s the only show where, if you don’t like where it’s ended up one week, if you want it to be scarier, or funnier, or more thoughtful, or more action-packed, the next week will be in a completely different place and time and probably in a completely different style or even genre, but still recognisably the same programme.

That’s probably why I fell in love with it, anyway.

What Doctor Who People Say About Doctor Who

This is the fourth edition of an article I originally wrote in 2006 to introduce that year’s new series. Version one and version two are pretty much the same as each other; last time and this time it’s been more of a regeneration. And for a change from me, here’s what some of the most important creative talents behind the series in past and present have to say about Doctor Who:

This week, the official Doctor Who Twitter asked the new Doctor and her new companions – Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole and Mandip Gill – to describe the new series in thirteen words:

Russell T Davies, Doctor Who lead writer for the 2005 relaunch and through the 2000s:
Doctor Who is the best idea ever invented in the history of the world.”

Jodie Whittaker, the new Doctor:
“To me, the Doctor is a pillar of hope – and striving for brightness and inclusion.”

Chris Chibnall, the new Doctor Who lead writer:
“It’s very important the Doctor has a sense of humour. It’s very important the Doctor solves things through brains, not through punching or bullets. The Doctor’s still very much the Doctor. Pillar of hope – we need a pillar of hope in these times, and that pillar of hope is Jodie Whittaker. The Doctor.”

Verity Lambert, Doctor Who founding producer from 1963 to the mid-1960s:
“He embodied the utmost complexity – he was sometimes dangerous or unpleasant, sometimes kind, sometimes foolish, but most importantly he was never a member of the establishment. He was always an outsider.”

Peter Capaldi, the previous Doctor:
“You should watch it if you want to nourish your heart and your soul – and if you want to be scared.”

Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who lead writer during the early 1970s and author of more Doctor Who books than anyone else:
“Much has changed about the Doctor over the years but much has remained the same. Despite the superficial differences in appearance, at heart, or rather at hearts (the Doctor has two) her character is remarkably consistent.
“She is still impulsive, idealistic, ready to risk her life for a worthy cause. She still hates tyranny and oppression and anything that is anti-life. She never gives in and she never gives up, however overwhelming the odds against her.
“The Doctor believes in good and fights evil. Though often caught up in violent situations, she is someone of peace. She is never cruel or cowardly.
“In fact, to put it simply, the Doctor is a hero. These days there aren’t so many of them around.”

Robert Holmes, Doctor Who lead writer during the mid-1970s – which makes him the man who got me hooked on the series that changed my life, got me into politics and got me the man I love – gave other writers the crucial idea that explains what hooked me in the first place:
“Let’s frighten the little buggers to death!”

How Can You Find Out More?

There are hundreds of books and thousands of websites and millions of people who’d give you their opinion or the facts (some even true) if you asked them. I used to write a variety of terrifyingly in-depth Doctor Who articles, and though I don’t find it easy to write anything any more, the old ones are still here. I link to just two below. But I wouldn’t just read, if I were you. Doctor Who is probably the best TV programme ever made, so the best way to find about it is just to watch it.

The new series starts on BBC1 and on many other TV channels around the world this Sunday. Tune in every Sunday evening for the next couple of months (or at times of your own choosing on BBC iPlayer) to see more of it unfolding, brand new, that you know as much about as I do, with Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor and whatever friends and foes there are to come.

Or you can choose older stories in a multitude of formats. You can find pretty much every single episode of the TV series on DVD or Blu-ray or broadcasts, downloads and online (some of the latter even free and legal). Right now, every story first broadcast from 2005 onwards is available to UK viewers on BBC iPlayer.

If you do want more than the forthcoming new stories to warm your darkening Autumn nights but the incredible range of choice is bewildering, here are some suggestions that might help in your selection. Ready?

The Many Faces of Doctor Who

One of the most exciting TV events of my childhood was The Five Faces of Doctor Who – repeats of unimaginably ancient (that is, before I was born or started watching) stories that I never thought I’d get to see, shown in Autumn 1981 in the run-up to a new Doctor, just as I turned ten. It’s unimaginably easier to watch them now. Yet a bit of me still wants a special selection with every Doctor and every flavour of Doctor Who – which is, of course, impossible. The series has so many different ways about it that one, or a dozen, or fifty stories couldn’t reflect all of them. But that’s not going to stop me. So I’ve picked one story for each Doctor, and tried to offer some of the diversity Doctor Who has expanded through over the years by making them all different sorts of story. And then suggested more if those don’t take your fancy – I can’t help myself. I hope some of these sound appealing: pick one, press play, and find out.

William Hartnell is the Doctor in The Rescue
“We can travel anywhere and everywhere in that old box, as you call it. Regardless of space and time. And if you like adventure, my dear, I can promise you an abundance of it.”
Short and delightful, introducing ‘new companion’ Vicki and facing off against one of the series’ real monsters. It’s an especially great story for the First Doctor, sparkling with many facets: kindly, stern, vulnerable, intelligent, embarrassed, and often very funny. I love the oldest-youngest Doctor to bits, and I love this story enough that a couple of years ago, I wrote Ten Reasons To Watch The Rescue – but if you’ve never seen it, stop at about number 7, as there are spoilers lower down the list.

Alternatively… An Unearthly Child (the very first story, utterly brilliant but very spiky – and, incidentally, starring two men and two women, produced by a young Jewish woman who was then the BBC’s only woman producer, and directed by a gay Asian man); The Daleks (the very first monsters and an eerie dead planet that remains a design triumph); The Aztecs (history, moral dilemmas and a terrific story for Barbara, possibly still the strongest of all the Doctor’s companions); The Dalek Invasion of Earth (first of all the alien invasion stories, and who else would it be in grim deserted London?); The Time Meddler (the first story about a villainous alien colliding with history – everything’s fun until suddenly it turns serious…).

Patrick Troughton is the Doctor (and…) in The Enemy of the World
“Sad, really, isn’t it? People spend all their time making nice things, and other people come along and break them.”
A political thriller that opens with startling action and then reveals the would-be world dictator as the Doctor’s double. Spanning different continents and with two of the women characters particularly impressive (one black, one white), this story from fifty years ago is set in the exciting future Earth of 2018.

Alternatively… The Tomb of the Cybermen (Troughton’s most spellbinding performance, superb design and atmosphere); The Mind Robber (one of the weirdest, most brilliant Who stories, quite unlike anything else); The War Games (a huge epic that plays around with history and introduces the Time Lords); The Web of Fear (Yeti in the London Underground) and The Invasion (fabulously urbane Bond villain and Cybermen), which together introduce Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and set up UNIT (the very Doctor Who military defined by internationalism instead of jingoism), but which will test your tolerance for recreating a missing bit each.

Jon Pertwee is the Doctor in Carnival of Monsters
“Well, I can assure you that the last time I was here, the air was – like wine!”
The TARDIS lands on a cargo ship crossing the Indian Ocean in 1926… Or does it? A very funny channel-hopping satire of television, with great screaming dragons but nothing serious, nothing political. Just some xenophobic authoritarians creating fear so they can take control, because the bigger the disaster, the better for them.

Alternatively… Spearhead from Space (brilliant companions Dr Liz Shaw and the Brigadier in an action-horror-comedy that looks terrific all on film); Doctor Who and the Silurians (a brilliant concept, strife, tragedy – reading the novelisation as a boy convinced me that green scaly rubber people are people too, and helped made me a Liberal); The Curse of Peladon (lots of aliens, but xenophobia, religion and greed are the enemy – reading this one’s book inspired my internationalism and is a massive kick to Brexit today. Plus Jo puts the Doctor in his place, and the series’ first non-binary alien); The Time Warrior (Sarah Jane Smith grabs her first story and runs with it while the first Sontaran stirs up medieval brigands); Planet of the Spiders (terrific female monsters for once, and this Doctor’s finest moment facing the final enemy).

Tom Baker is the Doctor in The Robots of Death
“You know, you’re a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain.”
A psychological thriller murder mystery where robots are the weapon (but who’s the real murderer?), diversely cast, gorgeously designed and featuring a particularly memorable explanation of the TARDIS which strong and sceptical companion Leela doesn’t believe for a moment.

Or you could just start where Doctor Who grabbed me, aged three, and never let go: the beginning of Tom. Season Twelve was released on Blu-ray this year and sold so surprisingly well it’ll have to be re-released. Robot, The Ark in Space, The Sontaran Experiment, Genesis of the Daleks and Revenge of the Cybermen share themes of humanity, cold science, survival and rebirth, and star the Doctor in the scarf, intelligent, capable Sarah Jane Smith and adorable, pretty Harry Sullivan. With Daleks, Sontarans and Cybermen, Davros, space horror and, topically, a fascist leader who threatens to blow everything up if she doesn’t get her own way.

Alternatively… The Deadly Assassin (the Doctor and the Master come home to the Time Lords – film noir political satire, gritty surrealism and Gothic horror. My favourite story); Pyramids of Mars (horror a century ago, with stiff upper lips pitted against walking mummies and a dark god who’s probably the series’ most chilling villain); The Hand of Fear (a creepy cliffhanger, a quarry, Sarah Jane on the rampage and something Doctor Who demonstrated about gender before my fifth birthday. It’s not new); The Stones of Blood (horror, comedy, two fabulous women lead guest stars with very different characters and a lesbian subtext); The Androids of Tara and City of Death (both have a gorgeous holiday feel, both star companion Romana, the Doctor’s equal, each has in its own evil Count one of the series’ most marvellous villains, but one has bonus princesses and swordplay while the other has bonus Paris and Douglas Adams); Warriors’ Gate (brilliantly weird visuals, fragmented time and slavery). Tom Baker was the Doctor far longer than anyone else, I love all his changing eras, and I could have picked out many more.

Peter Davison is the Doctor in Enlightenment
“You had no right to do it. They’re real! Living, breathing flesh and blood.”
The first story to be both written and directed by women, with a pirate queen, a disturbingly askew take on a love story and extraordinary visuals. The Doctor intervenes in a race that no-one must win, and the threats to him and his friends are far more complex and dangerous than the barrel of a gun.

Alternatively… Castrovalva (the Master, existential crises, gorgeous music, a city that’s a work of art and two women companions taking the lead); Kinda and Earthshock are the opposing poles of this Doctor so I can’t just pick one (‘arthouse’ vs ‘macho’ despite both having many women, one psychologically complex with a snake demon, the other an action-packed future war story with Cybermen); Snakedance (the snake-demon returns for a festival that some claim has forgotten its true meaning, but no-one’s happy when they find out what it is); The Caves of Androzani (dazzlingly directed, this finally fuses the arthouse and macho in noirishly twisted love and war).

Colin Baker is the Doctor in Revelation of the Daleks
“No, the TARDIS is bound to attract attention. I want to slip in unnoticed.”
A stunning black comedy, with a gurglingly delighted Davros plotting away in its dark heart, great guest stars, tainted love, really rather a lot of death and one nearly-Dalek that you will never forget. The director’s so good he’s the only one to direct Doctor Who in both centuries, too.

Alternatively… Vengeance on Varos (sharp, funny and violent, with an irresistibly horrible villain, presciently swipes at reality TV and a referendum that kills you); The Mark of the Rani (introducing the first female Time Lord villain in a gorgeous Nineteenth Century setting); The Two Doctors (the Sixth Doctor is delightfully interested in everything while the Second becomes disturbing in a black comedy that restrains none of its appetites); The Trial of a Time Lord (the longest story of them all, combining four mini-stories into one, opening with striking visuals and this Doctor at his most charming before he becomes his own worst enemy…).

Sylvester McCoy is the Doctor in Remembrance of the Daleks
“Every great decision creates ripples – like a huge boulder dropped in a lake. The ripples merge, rebound off the banks in unforeseeable ways. The heavier the decision, the larger the waves, the more uncertain the consequences.”
This exploded onto our screens thirty years ago today (if you think Part One has explosions, wait for Part Four). Revisiting London 1963 with a baseball bat to fascism, both metaphorically and literally as the Doctor’s companion Ace defies everything in her way. And watch out for the stairs…

Alternatively… Paradise Towers (thirty-one years ago tonight, still fresh in bringing traditional fascists, robots and ancient evil not to a picture-postcard village but a Richard Briers horror sit-com in a tower block full of women where the old eat the young even more blatantly than Brexit); The Happiness Patrol (high politics, high camp and sweet villain – not the one who’s based on Margaret Thatcher); Ghost Light (Doctor Who takes on Victorian Values in a gloriously macabre horror with a heart, a brain and a bowl of soup); The Curse of Fenric (fantastic Evil From the Dawn of Time and vampires from the future, World War Two and Norse mythology, sex and mothers); Survival (the very last Doctor Who story until all the others, with the Master, urban life, an alien world and a lesbian subtext before a poignant ending).

Paul McGann is the Doctor in Doctor Who – The TV Movie
“This planet is going to be destroyed and I’m stuck in a traffic jam. Excuse me!”
The Doctor regenerates in modern America and faces off against the Master. Difficult to pick an alternative Eighth Doctor story, as this was his only full-length adventure on TV: his much later bookend is the miniature The Night of the Doctor, in which I think uniquely all the characters bar the Doctor are women. He has some rather intriguing adventures on the page or in audio form, but I’ll not go into those right now should you run away screaming.

Christopher Eccleston is the Doctor in Rose
“Nice to meet you Rose. Run for your life!”
Fast, funny and fantastic, Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston burst onto our screens and deadly dummies burst through shop windows in the perfect Doctor Who relaunch, choosing strangeness over ‘normality’, running towards adventure and reinventing British television. And it all looks glorious, not least the never-bettered reveal of the TARDIS. I love this story beyond reason, so a couple of years ago I wrote Ten Reasons To Watch Rose, too (one of my best).

Alternatively… The End of the World (fantastic visuals and dizzying culture shock in the far future, and that’s before your planet explodes); The Unquiet Dead (a Victorian ghost story for Christmas with Charles Dickens), Father’s Day (putting Rose and her past at the centre of the story, with outstanding monsters); Boom Town (rolling from comedy to psychological drama in Cardiff with a villain who knows her way into the Doctor’s conscience and joyously omnisexual companion Captain Jack); Bad Wolf / The Parting of the Ways (savage TV satire, a brutal Dalek invasion with – at last – a fleet of saucers, as well as another companion becoming a goddess, a goddess and an explosive regeneration).

David Tennant is not the Doctor in Human Nature / The Family of Blood
Or is he?
“Because if there’s one thing you shouldn’t have done, you shouldn’t have let me press all those buttons.”
The Doctor turns human, and his adventures turn into dreams. But the aliens chasing the inner him turn them into nightmares… A gorgeous, moving story in the looming shadow of World War I. John Smith is torn between love and war, his beloved Joan wants to hang onto him but sees the Doctor in a book, his friend Martha has to deal with that, racism and the Doctor being useless as a human, while wild-eyed young Son-of-Mine has super, super fun.

Alternatively… Army of Ghosts / Doomsday (Torchwood rises under a fabulous villain, then falls to the Cybermen before an electrifying cliffhanger unleashes the Daleks. Then a haunting goodbye); Gridlock (a parable of the big city, beautiful diversity, big claws and the Doctor’s loss); Utopia / The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords (the most gripping quarter-hour cliffhanger build-up as the Master awakes, then goes on to win as the Doctor suffers brilliantly and Martha becomes the hero); The Fires of Pompeii (an exploding volcano and flaming great monsters look awesome, but duelling soothsayers grab me – and don’t forget modern art); Midnight (claustrophobic, terrifying inventiveness where human fear and blame is the bitterest thing).

Matt Smith is the Doctor, and so are David Tennant, all the others and in especially large letters at the end Sir John Hurt in The Day of the Doctor
“I’ve had many faces, many lives. I don’t admit to all of them.”
The Fiftieth Anniversary special. Daleks, Zygons, Elizabeth I, Time Lords, Time War, the Tower, science-led, women-led UNIT and all the Doctors having a very bad day (or do they?). Fifty years jumping out of the picture.

Alternatively… The Vampires of Venice (fabulous frocks, big teeth and a delighted Doctor back in history); Amy’s Choice (a superb little sci-fi twister that’s almost the Matt Smith years in miniature, with an extra face); Vincent and the Doctor (art history with a moving life and swirling beauty); The Doctor’s Wife (dark, strange and moving, bringing the TARDIS to life balanced by disturbing horror); The Crimson Horror (enormous fun with fabulous Victorian – or Jurassic – women all round, and lesbians no longer just subtext).

Peter Capaldi is the Doctor in Thin Ice
“Human progress isn’t measured by industry – it’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege. The boy who died on the river? That boy’s value is your value. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species.”
It starts off thoroughly entertaining with an elephant, a Regency frost fair and a fabulous hat. But Bill’s outstanding for more than her millinery: she finds – after more than half a century – fresh ways to ask questions and to cope with the answers. Then goes on to confront greed, slavery and racism. Like Bob Holmes’ writing, but kinder, this is so joyously Doctor Who.

Alternatively… Time Heist (doing the Hustle in hugely entertaining style, and when guilt lets the bank kill you, its filthy-rich customers are safe); Kill the Moon (the Doctor's big speech at the end has so much heart to it that it was the latest bit of Who read at our wedding [the earliest being from 1963]. Also bloody great spiders); The Zygon Inversion (gripping, shaking up what the series can do, like Malcolm Hulke with live bullets, and pretty much all the lead parts women); The Husbands of River Song (a screwball comedy in which River Song is playing Cary Grant and the Doctor Katherine Hepburn – this month Richard and I will celebrate our twenty-four-year anniversary, so how about a night on Darillium?); World Enough and Time (horror, tragedy, extraordinary juxtapositions of other selves for our leads – and I recommend watching this then cutting directly to the regeneration, as that’s how it was planned).

And now… It’s about time.

Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor in The Woman Who Fell To Earth
“I’m the Doctor. When people need help, I never refuse.”
I want to watch all the ones I’ve chosen above all over again. All of them.
But I want to watch this one most of all.
Tune in.
“All of this is new to me. New faces. New worlds. New times.”
Sunday 7th October 2018, 6.45pm, BBC1. Simulcast throughout time and space.

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Saturday, September 15, 2018


Time For Hard-Headed Realism On Immigration

Liberal Democrat members have attacked the proposed Migration paper A Fair Deal for Everyone for reasons ranging from fairness, to morality, to family, to economics. But for a political party, it has another fatal flaw. Its well-meaning, wishful-thinking naivety is just terrible politics. It’s time to get politically streetwise with a bit of hard-headed realism. Let’s ask the tough questions, get back to evidence-based policy and demand better.

Meaning Well and Wishing Are Not Enough

I’m sure the people who wrote the proposed paper for debate at Lib Dem Conference and its defenders mean well. I know and respect quite a few of them. And I can see how they got themselves into this mess. Two of the deepest Lib Dem instincts might be put simply as ‘Stand up to bullies’ and ‘Why can’t everyone get along?’ And most of the time those go hand in hand. But at times like these, when the country’s split, hate’s on the rise and things seem to be going horribly wrong, cracks can appear between the two. The proposed Migration paper feels upset at how nasty things have got – and I feel the hurt of that too – and wishes, really hard, that everyone would be nice to each other again. ‘Why can’t everyone get along?’ And so it compromises: a bit for immigrants; a bit for people who hate them and want them all gone. But in the real world, wishing doesn’t cut it, and there comes a time when you have to choose standing up to bullies instead of hoping they’ll turn nice if you only half-encourage them.

In thirty years of the Liberal Democrats, there can’t have been many more wince-inducing juxtapositions than one month ago. On August 14th, Lib Dem Leader Vince Cable said unequivocally that, hard as it might be, there was no room for racism in the Lib Dems. On August 15th, Lord William Wallace – a peer I have a lot of time for and usually agree with – gave an apologetic defence of the proposed Migration paper by saying that we have to pander a bit to racists otherwise they won’t vote for us (I paraphrase, but not unfairly).

The proposed Migration paper has the point of view that policy and the British polity should be kinder and gentler, wishing that people were nice, assuming everyone means well deep down and really agrees with us, and if they don’t yet then compromises in good faith will help them agree with us, and if nothing else maybe they’d vote for us after we tell them we agree with them, really, just a bit, and please, please, don’t hurt us. I can empathise. The problem is that the evidence supports none of it. I believe the Lib Dems backing these proposals mean well. But I’m realistic enough to know that not everyone else means well, and that wishing won’t make it so. The fight to make Britain better can be won. But it will take a fight, and if Liberals don’t put up a fight, who will? It won’t be won by acting as if we’re non-combatants who won’t take our own side in a quarrel, saying, ‘If you don’t want immigrants then you have a point’.

I don’t want to take this unduly personally, but when the proposed Migration paper puts forward a well-meaning compromise and I realise, ‘I’m the son of an immigrant and had this proposed Lib Dem policy been around when my parents met I’d never have been born’, it loses its appeal. That’s the trouble with compromising between haters and the people they hate; it always makes things worse for the ones who are already getting all the flak, but never goes far enough to satisfy those who want them gone. The proposed Migration paper proposes as a moderate compromise that I shouldn’t exist. What would I have left to give on the next compromise?

Stop wishing. Look at the evidence. Ask the difficult questions.

Look back ten, twenty, thirty years: the attitudes and policies and hostile environment against immigrants that are now ‘mainstream’ were confined to a few vicious hatemongers like the British National Party and then UKIP. How did we get here?

Has compromising bit by bit to defuse racists worked? Has mainstream politicians talking about ‘valid concerns’ increased harmony? Has fanning flames extinguished them? Has encouraging xenophobia quietened it? Has being too scared to confront lies made the truth more widely known?

I don’t blame people for thinking, once – maybe if we give a little we can avoid something worse. I do blame people who still stick to that hope when it has been tried over and over again and every time, the bigots have grown and strengthened as a result. Hostile immigration policy – hate crimes – Brexit – all these were unimaginable ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Compromising a little at a time has never stopped at a little. It didn’t work. That is the evidence. That is the unhappy fact. As the saying goes, one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. The ‘wishing’ approach of the proposed Migration paper has been tested to destruction.

Pandering to racists only increases racism. Saying ‘I share your valid concerns’ doesn’t win hearts and minds – it just makes people in the middle say, ‘Well, if even the Liberals say immigrants are bad…’ while hardcore racists think we’re just mealy-mouthed politicians out to con them. And saying out loud – the shocking naivety! – that we have to pander to racists not because we actually agree with them but just to make them vote for us, so we’ll campaign on a promise that although we want to make things nicer for immigrants, because we recognise their ‘valid concerns’, we wouldn’t make things as nice as all that? That’s just treating voters as idiots.

Since the Brexit Referendum there’s been more hard polling evidence than ever before in British history on how social attitudes break around votes for parties. About 90% of the Lib Dem vote comes from people who also voted Remain. Voters who hate immigrants as their top issue? That’s UKIP’s big thing. That’s Theresa May’s big thing. That’s even Jeremy Corbyn’s big thing. Why on Earth would Lib Dems propose a Migration paper in the hope of appeasing appealing to such a crowded marketplace as what will only ever be the fourth choice of authoritarian racists? Let’s make an evidence-based call here: stop asking, ‘How do we get racists to vote for us?’ Because they won’t anyway.

Look at Labour’s record. Gordon Brown in 2010 trying to recover from “I agree with Nick” in the first debate by monstering him over immigration in the second and third (the third Leaders’ Debate was the one in which an audience member said “We’re not allowed to talk about immigration,” despite it being the only issue bar the economy featured in every debate, because hardcore racists are impossible to satisfy or to shake from their lies). Yvette Cooper attacked the Coalition from the right for not being tough enough on immigrants. Ed Miliband put immigrant-bashing on a mug. Brexit-backer Jeremy Corbyn tells lies about foreign workers stealing British jobs. Do Labour get ‘credit’ for being tough on immigration? No. Racist voters still think they’re too soft. Because there are always other parties that will go harder right to compete.

When I campaign, I try for every vote. If someone disagrees with us on immigration, they might still respect us locally for getting their potholes fixed. But if the economic and moral and principled case for a powerfully Liberal migration policy doesn’t persuade you, here’s the naked political calculation. We’re on 11% in the polls (at best). We’re not chasing an immediate 500-seat landslide. So to build up our vote, does it make more sense to make policy that’s weaselly and indistinct in the vain hope that’ll attract the people who are least likely to vote for us, when they can get red meat from several other parties? Or should we put our effort into attracting people who already agree with our values into voting for us?

It’s worth reading Andrew Hickey’s The Howard Rule – in which he proposes testing Lib Dem policy against Michael Howard’s once-infamous authoritarianism as Home Secretary – not just as a statement of principle, but as a reminder of just how far right all political parties have shifted in the last quarter-century. In the 1990s, he was appalling. Present his immigration regime today and it would scare the horses with its liberal openness.

Taking A Stand

We must do better than the proposed Migration paper. We can do better by demanding better of ourselves again.

One of my defining early political experiences was Paddy Ashdown leading the newly formed Liberal Democrats alone in standing up for the rights of Hong Kong British citizens. You might think struggling on a good day to hit 11% in the polls puts our party in the doldrums now, but back in 1989 a good day was hitting half that and the sheer relief of getting beyond the margin of error of nothing in the opinion polls. Standing up for a liberal immigration policy then let us hold our heads up. Margaret Thatcher’s Government steered the familiar Tory course of nationalism tempered by greed: standing by Britain’s promises to only the richest, offering citizenship by bribery. Norman Tebbit led a Tory rebellion against Mrs Thatcher to stop anyone with the wrong colour skin entering Britain, and the Labour Party piously opposed the idea of citizenship for the rich – then voted with Mr Tebbit’s Tory far right to stop anyone being let in at all. Mr Corbyn takes the same faux-ethical stance of economic populism as cover for immigrant-bashing today.

In April 2000, during a hard-fought by-election campaign where the Liberal Democrats were striving to take ultra-Tory Romsey, Charles Kennedy took on the immigrant-bashing Conservative campaign head-on. The Lib Dem campaign could have played down our Liberalism, played it safe, stuck to ‘popular’ issues and only challenged the Tories where they were perceived as electorally ‘weak’. Instead, the Lib Dem Leader took the huge risk of facing down the Conservatives’ asylum policy, in a speech in Romsey, where conventional wisdom was that saying the right thing would lose us the seat. We didn’t cower. We won. Charles said afterwards:
“The voters of Romsey were not beguiled by William Hague’s personal brand of politics – those based on fear and division… By concentrating on the negative, and pandering to the small-minded, he insulted the electorate.”
Standing up for our principles heartens, rallies and recruits the people that none of the anti-immigrant parties can reach. And making the case instead of letting it go by default changes minds. We can persuade by telling it as it is – not by pretending and pre-compromising. How do we make racism less bad? Not by saying it’s right. Why can’t we all get along? Because some people don’t want to. Someone has to confront hate, say why it’s wrong, and don’t say they have a point when they don’t. But it’s not just about standing up to hate: it’s appealing to the better instincts of people for whom it’s complicated. Whose fears have been stoked by the Daily Hate, but who like their neighbours and were appalled by Theresa May over Windrush.

Liberal Democrats must make the case for immigration and for immigrants – because it’s right, because it’s the only way to turn back the poison, and because no-one else will. Immigration is good for the economy. But it’s not all about the money. Immigrants are the lifeblood of the NHS. But it’s not all about the work we get from them. Families should be able to be together because love is more important than money. Tabloids screaming lies about “open door” immigration, when it’s way tougher than anyone believes, has led to families being torn apart, but still most people think if you marry an immigrant they can stay. That would be a Liberal immigration policy. That’s the sort of appeal Lib Dems should make – not the proposed Migration paper keeping a price on family life.

Demand Better

Remember – these are only proposals to be debated and decided at Conference. It is not A Fair Deal. For Liberal Democrats, it is not a done deal.

Be politically streetwise. Look at the evidence. Tell the truth. Don’t pander to racism and don’t settle for wishful thinking that has been proven year after year only makes things worse. Vote to send the proposed Migration paper back so the Liberal Democrats can offer – can demand – something better.

This is a slightly longer version of my article published on Liberal Democrat Voice earlier today. I recommend going there to read Caron Lindsay’s The paper on migration, even amended, is not good enough. Her piece is brilliant, speaks from the heart on how to persuade people, and scathingly dissects the paper in detail.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018


Blake’s 7 – Cygnus Alpha

Forty years ago tonight, the third episode of dystopian BBC sci-fi Blake’s 7 was broadcast. For me, Cygnus Alpha is both where Blake’s 7 becomes Blake’s 7 and where it definitively spoke to me.

This article is a mix of review of that episode and personal perspective on Blake’s 7. A tale of religion, freedom and BRIAN BLESSED. Of how human nature has to embrace a lot of contradictions while totalitarian systems have to deny them. And of Richard and me, and Stockport and London.

Blake’s 7 is remembered after all these years because it opened more bleakly than any other TV sci-fi and finished more bleakly still. But along the way, it’s somehow still immensely enjoyable. If you’re not familiar with the series, here’s the story so far:

The Way Back opens on a future Earth under a drably authoritarian Administration like 1984 slogging on to centuries later. Roj Blake is an apparently ordinary person who finds his life is a lie, his memory is a lie and the whole system is a lie, which then lies about him in the most horrible way to destroy his credibility as a political threat. From suddenly awakened political activist to convicted criminal, he’s transported to prison world Cygnus Alpha with, well, a bunch of criminals. In Space Fall, their prison freighter London encounters en route a mysterious abandoned spacecraft and prisoners Blake, Jenna and Avon board and take it, but this crew won’t be a clean-cut bunch in starched uniforms. No, the people in uniforms are the ruthless galactic Federation Blake’s fighting, while his allies are thieves and murderers who don’t necessarily share his revolutionary ideals. Cygnus Alpha sees him get used to his spectacular ship the Liberator – while Avon and Jenna have to decide whether it’s going to be his ship. And taking the Liberator to future-Botany Bay Cygnus Alpha itself in search of new recruits to his crusade, Blake finds from the start that even the most desperate won’t necessarily flock to his cause…

Cygnus Alpha and Omega

“Come. Follow us. God has prepared a place for you.”

There are at least a dozen episodes – as early as The Way Back, as late as Blake – that you could point to and say, ‘There. That’s it. That’s what makes Blake’s 7 really Blake’s 7’. Of all of them, while it may not be the most dazzling, the most deep or the most distinctive, the most practical single point at which Blake’s 7 comes together as a series is Cygnus Alpha.

Cygnus Alpha is where it all came together for me, too, and not just for the obvious functional reasons that by the end of the story Blake has in place a dysfunctional crew, a super-functional ship and a messianic mission statement, ready to start.

I had started watching Doctor Who aged three, at the beginning of 1975 and the beginning of Tom Baker (with 1963 and 2005, one of the three perfect moments so far to join the series). It captivated me instantly and has shaped an enormous amount of my life, from learning to read, to my politics, to introducing me to the man I love. So when three years later another BBC science fiction series came along, a little bit later in the evening, a little bit more grown-up, I was determined to see it. Wasn’t I twice as grown up now, and allowed to stay up a little bit later too?

I can still see in my mind’s eye – perhaps wholly hallucinatory, after four decades of unreliable memory – the grubby, grim Radio Times picture of Gareth Thomas and Robert Beatty on a tower block roof or car park to promote the series’ first episode, and remember wondering what it would all be about. My other most vivid memory of The Way Back was also one that involved Robert Beatty’s character, but with absolute certainty: a brutal massacre that both thrilled and shocked me, and provided at the time the most compelling answer to what Blake’s 7 would be all about. That, and the nature of the charges framing Blake, tell me in hindsight that my Dad watched the opening episode with my brother and me while my Mum was listening to the radio in the kitchen. Had she come into the living room for either detail, there would have been the inevitable cry of “The things you let them watch!” (my Mum’s superpower in my childhood being to sense the most ‘unsuitable’ moment of anything on the TV to make her entrance) and that would have been the end of it. Though, despite her disdain for all science fiction, I do remember Mum positively choosing to come through for a couple of minutes each week after that to see what frivolities Jenna was wearing.

Aside: I wrote the passage above about the Radio Times picture back in 2014. Since then, I’ve at last seen again what was almost certainly the original entry that my memory mangled over the years. It’s actually of Gareth Thomas and Michael Keating, which makes more sense, but I can understand how I’d have watched the first episode, been enthralled, and put the two most important characters in it together, even if one of them was quite unlikely to be a continuing cast member by that point.

The photo isn’t even in a particularly identifiable setting, but I was born in 1970s Stockport with plenty of concrete and car parks around and clearly read ‘vaguely urban and like the places I know’ into the shot. After many years away, since I wrote the original version of this article I’ve also been living back in Stockport again – though the way back was less hard work than Blake’s. I moved back there with my husband Richard, who (unknown to each other at the time) was also watching Blake’s 7 all those years ago, and not that far away…

One of the absurd moments in Cygnus Alpha comes when, faced with the alien technological marvel of matter transmission, Blake and Avon immediately grasp it because – by an unbelievable coincidence – they had both worked on the same failed Federation “Aquatar” teleport project. “Small world.” They didn’t meet each other then. “Large project.” Not until the start of this series, with both of them on the prison ship London. I remember scoffing at two people with such different skillsets and backstories both having worked on the same useless project, never meeting, just so that years later the concept could come in so expositionarily useful in understanding technology that no-one on any world they knew had ever mastered. Absurd! A decade and a half after we each watched Blake’s 7 as boys, Richard and I found each other through our fluency in that series, Doctor Who and other tongues while I happened to be staying for a few weeks (or so I thought) in the East End. Our ‘Aquatar moment’ came not on the Liberator but on the almost as shiny and exciting Docklands Light Railway. What an absurd coincidence it would be for us to have both grown up in the same town but only to find each other in… London.

The Radio Times picture was posted by the quite extraordinary Twitter account @MakingBlakes7, which is the most brilliant continuing documentary project I’ve ever seen on Twitter. You can see that Radio Times Tweet by clicking here.

“Prisoners? New souls for the Faith.”

For this episode, it helps that it all looks rather stylish. I’ll admit that I often find something of the ‘that’ll do’ about Vere Lorrimer’s direction in his later work for the series, but here the night filming is striking and the projected backgrounds (yellow moon, forbidding citadel) as fantastic an effect as the series ever delivers. But it’s my Mum and Dad’s influence that really primed me to love Cygnus Alpha, though they’d roll their eyes at quite why. They’re both deeply religious, and I grew up going to two churches every Sunday, Catholic and Baptist. Add two competing versions of the same faith and a bright boy who read a lot, and I became steeped in religion, but at the same time asking a lot of questions and curiously open-minded about different flavours that all claimed to be the one true faith. Perhaps that’s why I was just as happy with two ‘rival’ sci-fi shows.

Doctor Who had gone through a year of dark religion that’s still to this day my favourite just before Blake’s 7 came along, and Cygnus Alpha spoke to me in just the same way. This was my world! Religion in all its scary but fascinating glory! My strange personal mix of free-thinking and immersion in dogma meant I was always more compelled by terror in the pews than Yeti in the loos. So, as much as day-after-1984 dystopia had grabbed my attention, it was Cygnus Alpha that was speaking my language and told me this was absolutely my sort of series.

“My word is law. My followers obey without question.”

For all that the Federation, like communist regimes of the time, has banned religion, Cygnus Alpha’s theocratic society is the Federation in miniature (though distinguished by a greedily ambitious figurehead rather than a faceless bureaucracy, Vargas prefiguring über-villain-to-be Servalan). The script is full of parallels between them, from the cruder version of Blake’s show-trial in this world’s “SO PERISH UNBELIEVERS” to the subtler point that, for all his cowardice, it’s Vila who’s still by nature the most wary of going along with authority, whatever form it takes – or clever juxtapositions like “the place of rebirth” and “Berthing sequence automatic”.

Perhaps the unambiguous connection of this theocracy with that already established totalitarianism is what gives the attack on religion such force. Even by the standards of science fiction using other worlds to get away with social critiques that would provoke too many complaints in a modern-day setting, this one pulls no punches (though the institutional child abuse was the Federation rather than the Faith). It’s not a case of using religious trappings to save on money or world-building, using historical window-dressing to tell a different story. One of the reasons this so appealed to little religious me was, ironically, what I’d expect to offend other believers most. It was about the ideas, not just the imagery. Underneath all the monk-like robes, the blasphemous crucifixion, the cruel crusader bust, the Inquisition torture imagery and echoing chants familiar from Gothic horror films, the script really is making a bitter attack on the very concept of organised religion.

“So you and those before you built your power on fear and ruled them with it.”

We saw back on Earth that the Administration maintain their power by surveillance and brute force, fear and drugs, suppression of ideas and the Big Lie. That mirrored totalitarian regimes of the time; now this mirror of the Federation in turn mirrors religious power. If there’s ever a daytime on this world, we don’t see it. Cygnus Alpha is symbolically in the Dark Ages, and for generations its people have been kept in the dark of ignorance. Just like Earth under the Federation, on Cygnus Alpha under the Faith you are always watched. Literally by guards in both, but where the Administration uses cameras everywhere, the Faith uses its God, explicitly invented as a tool of social control.

My husband Richard points out that the constellation of Cygnus is also known as the Northern Cross: both a religious allusion in itself and a reflection of the Southern Cross which is the symbol of Australia, a striking setting for a theocratic space-Botany Bay.

This mini-Australian mini-Federation doesn’t just swipe at religion in general but, true to its Gothic trappings, is as specifically anti-Catholic as any fevered Gothic text. It’s not just taking the fear of an invented death for the fear of an invented hell and proclaiming that the Faith is your only salvation. The Saruman-like hand is one of the production’s few symbols that isn’t obviously Christian, perhaps deliberately to make you focus on a fictional symbol and not on the words and their meaning: “Only from this hand comes life” coupled with a priest handing you a small, round, white thing to swallow that claims to be salvation but is in fact nothing at all? Could it get any more blatant? To look at the “life” held out and see a Trebor mint is to miss the point, but perhaps the very cheapness and obvious solution helps distract and avert complaints. Later dystopia V For Vendetta offered one poisonously satirical communion wafer, but this is a gob-smacking polemic against the whole idea of transubstantiation.

And the Curse of Cygnus (a near-homophone for ‘sickness’) catechised as divine punishment on every wretched inhabitant of Cygnus Alpha – all deserving it as either criminals in their previous life or descended from offenders by birth – from which they can only be saved through the Faith? That’s Original.

After this story’s impact, there’s no real follow-up to the theme; Blake’s 7 is never this savagely critical of religion again. It’s background colour in a few more stories, but they don’t have anything that feels so real. Cygnus Alpha does act as a prototype for more generic Blake’s 7 stories, such as generally the Liberator turning up at a planet of the week and bringing down the regime (or, in this case, leaving it in chaos and having to run away) or more particularly the primitive planet with a primitive people and a twist about something more advanced, usually involving a quarry and a more interesting B-plot in which the crew bitch at each other. Modern BBC sci-fi watchers might call that the ‘Utopia style’, though Russell T Davies’ Blake’s 7 homage brought an altogether rougher beast for its second coming. Perhaps the real thematic legacy of this episode isn’t equating the fierce religion of Cygnus Alpha with the totalitarianism of the Federation, though. Fittingly for my own complicated view of religion as both good and bad, there’s a parable here that’s closer to home.

“The architectural style is early maniac.”

These days I wonder if the whole thing’s not a great big warning about Blake.

If aged six, getting into the series, Cygnus Alpha confirmed that it was my sort of show, I was delighted by how it grew when watching the whole TV series right through again in 2014, aged forty-two. It wasn’t an episode I often chose to watch when I felt like a bit of Blake’s 7 (though I always loved it more than I expected when I did), but I’d thought it was one of the ones I had the clearest picture of in my head: the end of the beginning, fabulous Pamela Salem and Brian Blessed, evil religion plot with a different tone to the rest of the show, entertaining but a bit cheesy. It may well be all those things, but with a more critical brain and knowing the show well enough to put the whole thing in context, I suddenly felt there was a lot more to it.

Blake’s the hero and Vargas is the villain, so they must be opposites, right? Except that it doesn’t play that way at all. If the society of Cygnus Alpha is a mirror of the Federation, the extent to which its leader was not a contrast to but an explicit counterpart to Blake seems so striking that it’s hard not to see it as deliberate (with all the implicit consequences should Blake ever get into power that that entails). Blake getting a messiah complex in Series Two? This story more than any other reads like he’s been off on one since the beginning. Vargas and Blake face off, Brian Blessed and Gareth Thomas with similar intensity, their demands incompatible because the two of them both want the same thing: souls as currency to spread their belief, the power of their word, across the galaxy. Blake takes up his special handgun for the first time; the first to use it? Vargas. Avon’s warning to Jenna about Blake? “He’s a crusader.” Vargas rules by the Big Lie and forced ‘conversion’; Blake tells his followers they have a free choice, but keeps the truth from his first, sceptical disciples (“Did you see anything while you were down there?” “Not much”) and like Vargas gives the next batch of converts the choice of his way or death:
“Only from this hand comes life.”
Three different characters this week all state that the prisoners have no choice, and in the end they don’t – whoever they follow, they’re still going to be followers.

Back on the London, Blake was willing to sacrifice himself so that his followers might live. Now we see the flip-side of that: if you’re not with him, you’re against him. He’s come to find new converts, but when they deny him in fear of the rival Faith, he rages at them instead: “You’re pathetic! …slaves! …I’m better off without you.” For all his rhetoric of freedom, Blake demands a positive choice to follow him – a leap of faith. Offering salvation to his own followers is one thing, but rather than sacrifice his messianic ideals he’ll let everyone else die. Vargas and Kara had watched the Liberator in the sky – a light in the darkness. They called it a sign, and it’s a guiding star heralding the new messiah, but we all know who that is, and it’s not the Blessed One whose hard certainty will be driving death after death in this series.

“A little more practice, we should be able to put you down with precision.”

In the context of the whole series, Avon’s appeal to Jenna that Blake would only use all the ship’s treasures to fight the Federation – though it turns out that Blake is never bright enough to realise how effective wealth would be as a weapon, and Avon is bright enough never to tell him – seems like foreshadowing.
“And he can’t win. You know he can’t win. What do you want to be – rich, or dead?”
From almost the very beginning, you can see in hindsight warnings, prefigurings, fetches of much later events in the series, and perhaps it’s appropriate that this religious episode seems the most prophetic. Avon even aims his gun at Blake first chance he gets (though it’s only once he’s become a believer that he’ll fire). But Avon needn’t have been foresighted enough to see Blake coming down the road. I realise this time that he could just have watched where Blake’s been, already fighting to the last drop of their blood. Consider…
And did I say there was no more religion as theme rather than window-dressing? The week after next it’s The Web, which combines killing God of a sort with at last a ‘successful revolution’ that suggests long before Star One that Blake may not have thought the consequences through.

“It didn’t answer any of your questions. More than that – it deliberately ignored them.”

There may be a certain irony in my having gradually given up belief in religion but gained a passion for politics in my teens, but I remain a free-thinker and just as ready to question my leaders as I was scriptures, and unlike Blake I’m more than wary of imposing my beliefs on others. For me, there was nothing like seeing how two competing church hierarchies that theoretically professed the same beliefs were both much more obsessed with control of individuals than individual belief to tip my own beliefs towards Liberal individualism, if not a hint of anarchism in observing that the best way to kill a belief is to set up a rigid structure to enforce it.

Though I wrestled with the theology for years afterwards, it was perhaps inevitably a confrontation with church authority which precipitated my eventual teenage crisis with religion. The surprise might be that it turned out to be with the smaller ‘free’ church rather than the more top-down hierarchy; the ‘Cygnus Alpha’ Baptists rather than the ‘Federation’ of Catholicism. Aged eighteen, I was teaching Sunday School for the kids; one Sunday I came in with a noticeable bruise and, asked what had happened by one boy, replied with the truth: I’d been walking down the road with my boyfriend and someone had hit us. The next week I found I wasn’t teaching Sunday School any more and that a tight-lipped “You know why” was the only explanation. My own moment of liberation came in realising not my fear, but theirs in their own repression; that they couldn’t bring themselves to talk to me, nor even do what a decent human being would do and ask if I was all right after I’d been attacked. The truth shall set you free, indeed, but not in the way they or I had expected it. That was the moment I lost all respect for that particular church because, after all, what was there to respect? And, fortunately, it wasn’t such a long walk back.

“That would have been very disarming if I didn’t know that you meant it.”

Zen and Jenna offer an intriguing alternative here, both a different angle on (explicitly non-Christian) religion and on what the series might have been had each of them kept such significant roles. How much does each affect the other when enigmatic ship’s computer Zen gets into its new pilot’s head? Jenna’s “to be completely known. It’s like – innocence” is more like a revealed religious experience than anything else in the episode, and without it, would she have hesitated to head off with Avon? Zen is characterised as a superior and evasive oracle with less obvious reactions – except one – but, taking its name and the ship’s from Jenna’s thoughts, does it make itself in her image?
“Wisdom must be gathered; it cannot be given.”
Zen is a very different religious text to the certainties of Vargas and Blake, but how much of Zen’s resistance to direct is inspired by its pilot’s resistance to being dominated, as “the Liberator” it plucks from her desires suggests?

The best piece of bitching among the crew is an understated one from Zen, as it says in turn to the three of them:
“Welcome, Jenna Stannis.”
“Welcome, Roj Blake.”
That is all.
It’s a masterclass in how to be an oracle while making it absolutely bleedin’ obvious what you think; Avon only gets a neutral reply when he prompts it. Clearly, it’s read his mind last week and Jenna’s here and decided it’s not going to like him well before he starts saying it’s “just a machine”. It’s a shame that Zen’s telepathy is lost to another crewmember long before it loses prime spot as ‘bitchy super-computer’. The series also swiftly drops this week’s attempts to pretend they know what they’re talking about on scientific ideas – Aquatar, negative hyperspace, the anti-matter interface – which is no great loss. It feels much more Blake’s 7 when the crew don’t know what they’re talking about, like Blake stumbling on using the teleport because he’s not used to it.

I do feel a little wistful about some of the other interpersonal dynamics that the story appears to set up: judging by Cygnus Alpha, there are now going to be three charismatic leads setting the direction, Jenna being the swing vote, with willingly violent killer Gan and his little friend Vila as wild cards, but it doesn’t work out that way… You can see here that Jenna has so much potential. Blake’s 7 began broadcast just as Star Wars first opened in Britain, so it’ll take a while for the film to start having any impact on the series, but compare and contrast even from the first the clean versus the dirty-handed rebels. One of this series’ great lost opportunities is still that its ‘Han Solo’ is a woman – which may be why she gets elbowed out of the way. But, still to come, Blake’s 7’s ‘Tarkin’ figure will be a woman too – and once she appears, their ‘Darth Vader’-equivalent won’t stand a chance.

“You’re a free man.”

In 2014 I watched Blake’s 7 right through with my beloved Richard. But much as we enjoyed the series all over again, we’ll always remember 2014 for something much more significant to our lives together. We went back, not to the Dome – there’s one just across the river from our flat in London – but to Stockport. On our twentieth anniversary together, we got married at Stockport Town Hall.

I’d say that this was my personal triumph of freedom over dark religion, but freedom won for me so long ago that religion was barely a footnote. Though I still find stories powerful when they make strong use of religion, for good or ill, it’s only as I write this that I realise Stockport Baptist Church is a couple of minutes’ walk from the Town Hall. It’s not something that crossed my mind on the day (though I probably quoted Blake’s 7 at some point). When we made the most important decision of our lives, we were surrounded by believers in several kinds of politics and faiths and in none, including my very proud and happy Mum and Dad, but we chose each other and we chose all the people we invited for love and belief in ourselves.

The Apocrypha: Trevor Hoyle’s Blake’s 7

“Hands reached up and pushed back the cowl to reveal Kara’s evil, haunting beauty – a face that was disfigured by a kind of lustful greed… a smile that was rapturous and yet somehow obscene…”

There’s another alternative world of Blake’s 7, and of Cygnus Alpha. I was already a voracious reader when Blake’s 7 turned up, but though my memories of Cygnus Alpha are thoroughly entangled in Trevor Hoyle’s first Blake’s 7 novelisation (like the first VHS release, compressing the first four episodes), I didn’t return to it as nearly often as Target’s Doctor Who range. Wondering why, I accompanied my 2014 rewatch by buying the audiobook versions, with this part now read by Paul Darrow… And, yes, I can understand why; Hoyle’s writing style tries to be hard-boiled and usually just about hits pedestrian. The CD readers liven him up, but the main interest is the differences from the TV versions – it seems that the first book is from early drafts of the scripts, and without having seen most of the actors, while the Liberator is described backwards. My guess is that these are unadulterated script writer Terry Nation, before script editor Chris Boucher came along; there are notably fewer sharp one-liners and a much smaller part for Avon. The biggest point of interest, unexpectedly, may be his take on Time Squad, for a very different backstory to both Gan and the assassins (though Zen is far less intriguing); the biggest wasted opportunity that Hoyle seems to stick too rigidly to the scripts rather than, say, establishing Arco and Selman with roles in the London rebellion now the actors don’t need paying for an extra episode.

The very ’70s stylistic tic that most sticks out today, though, is that suddenly we’re plunged into an alternate version of Blake’s 7 where (speaking of adultery) every woman is there to be leered at. Men get sexually neutral or ugly descriptions – let’s hope he’d not seen poor Michael Keating when Vila’s a “gargoyle” – but every woman is objectified at length and, if they’re baaad girls, all the more titillating! I suspect this may have put me off when I was a boy, but hearing Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow having to read all this first made me wince, then laugh. Though I’ll give Hoyle the benefit of the doubt that there’s an earlier Gareth Thomas series in-joke in there, I did actually laugh aloud as Paul Darrow purred:
“Avon casually looked round and then sat up straight, his eyes popping out of his head. His first thought was to wonder how a beautiful and sexy star maiden had managed to get aboard the Liberator and it took all of ten seconds to realise that it was Jenna, attired in the most magnificent – and rather revealing – space-age costume.”
Or, ‘Why, Miss Jenna, you’re beautiful!’

Avon follows this by swallowing in “goggling admiration” and “real appreciation”, her with “impish seductiveness” as she’s “coyly” “posing for him”. Later, Cally will be a “young”, “stunning-attractive girl”, “incredibly beautiful”, “athletically supple”, and Blake will be unable to fathom why a “beautiful girl” should be wearing combat gear. Dear [ Blessed ]GOD![ /Blessed ] She will also have amazing eyes the like of which Blake has never seen but which the author won’t describe, so they might boggle out on springs for all we know. At least Blake won’t actually ask her what she’s doing in a place like this.

But where Hoyle really gets excited is the female villains, who are beautiful – but evil, but sexy – but evil! What a mix. And a minx.
“His companion turned towards him… and in the flickering firelight it was a face of evil, the lips twisted in a rapacious snarl, yet even so with a fascinating, hypnotic beauty.
“‘New souls for the Faith,’ said Kara in a throaty whisper, her eyes alight with sly rapture.”
Oh, put it away. The strangest thing is that the Terry Nation draft of the script forgets about her at – forgive me – the climax, and so bizarrely does Mr Hoyle. You’d think he’d have been faster to write her an unconvincing last moment than the one Chris Boucher seems to have stuck in. ‘Only the love of a good violent criminal she’s kissed once could free her from being the Sexy Nun of Evil…’

Paul Darrow clearly enjoys all this schlock too, as well as capturing Gareth Thomas’ intensity rather well for Blake and compensating for half Avon’s part not having been written yet with a compelling emphasis on his own character’s lines that makes his every. Word. Twice. As. Avonnn. The whole thing is hammy as hell but very entertaining, and far more so than the prose deserves.

So it’s a good job that the TV version was so absolutely perfect – not perhaps entirely perfect as a piece of television, but perfect to broadcast directly into my six-year-old world and open up a new one.

“Let’s all go! Er… No, on the other hand, let’s all stay.”

Last year I found that I couldn’t bear blogging any more. I wish I could say that, with the pressure off, I’ve been able to write plenty of articles for my own pleasure and that this is the herald of more to come. I’m sorry. I haven’t. It isn’t. So this is perhaps a coda – something I’ve not previously published, but which isn’t technically new.

Cygnus Alpha and Omega was first published in 2015 in the book Blake’s Heaven, a collection of personal perspectives on every episode of Blake’s 7. I was delighted to be a part of it and surprised I managed to write something, though that delight has since been marred by the horrible circumstances in which the book has been withdrawn and which I don’t want to think about. But with the fortieth anniversary of the series this year, I re-read my contribution and decided it was worthwhile enough not to go to waste. It’s more personal than most of my writing, and I found as I was putting it together the first time that how resonant the themes – and some of the coincidences – were to my life. Well, bits of it.

I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time re-reading, re-watching and re-writing in tiny perfectionist polishes preparing for tonight, some of it no doubt procrastinating to avoid having to make the decision whether or not to put something else on my blog. I have. I hope you enjoy it.

I am, at least, enjoying Blake’s 7 all over again. For what it’s worth, though Cygnus Alpha has its own special place for me, my particular highlights of the series are: And a happy-go-lucky bunch they are, too.

I’m sorry this isn’t my way back to blogging. For something cheerier, you might look up another great piece of BBC sci-fi; first broadcast on TV thirty-seven years ago this week – though, like this article, it had already done the rounds in other media – I find myself thinking of The HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Episode 3. Magrathea doesn’t properly revive from its long slumber, merely turning in its sleep to put a new spin on a previous work, but that too is about religion and, for all that I know how badly everything turned out, that it’s a cosmic joke and that the new beginning isn’t going anywhere, there is a moment at the end of that episode that still moves me more than almost any other piece of television. This piece of writing is nothing like that. But I am quite fond of the crinkly bits round the edges.

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Thursday, September 14, 2017


Is That It?

Or, my mind robber.

On this day in 1968, The Mind Robber was first broadcast – one of Doctor Who’s most gorgeous, weird, brilliant adventures. Once upon a time, that’s how I might have opened a review of a favourite story. It’s been a long while since I’ve been able to write reviews; now it’s hard even to watch the stories.

This is the story of why I’ve turned my blog back on, but won’t be posting anything else to it. Because my mind robber isn’t fun and, to borrow from another great Troughton, this is the final end (…?).

I’ve loved writing for almost as long as I can remember, though for exactly as long, I’ve never written anything like as much as I wish to. Whether through laziness or distraction or the ever-present gnawing fear that what I write isn’t any good backed up by the procrastination of infinite note-making, I’ve always been a painstakingly slow writer and never got on with deadlines. From blogging series that I never completed, back through a failed academic career than zig-zagged between high marks for the essays I completed and zeroes for the ones I never quite started, all the way back to remembering ‘the first sentence I ever wrote’, at primary school – and that I didn’t finish it.

That’s the tension my writing had always lived with. But it was still a joy and always something to look forward to – even as ‘forward’ for any one piece of writing might always be moving ahead into a hypothetical future I could never bring myself to catch up with. My blogging’s never been prolific, but I did write some pieces along the way that out of that tension finished up pretty well.

It’s now four or five years since I last managed to complete and publish the sort of in-depth review I really want to, while even the blogging I’m not really satisfied with has trickled away to nothing, and that’s not just down to procrastination.

My physical health has been poor and getting worse since my mid-twenties. That is, I was often sickly when I was younger, too, but then I’d get better. For the last twenty years or so, nothing ever goes away once I’ve got it, and ‘better’ is at best a relative term. I carry impairments like cabbages on Crackerjack; I carry photos of four pages of regular prescriptions on my phone and can reel off the bits of me that don’t work literally from head to toe (usually worst in the middle) in what’s almost a ritual chant whenever a specialist asks if I have any other medical history they should know about.

My mental health has been on a similar downward trajectory for many years. Clinical depression and chronic physical ill health are not good for each other. Or, rather, they’re great for feeding each other but no good for me. Both mean in different ways that on many days I can’t get out, or wish that I hadn’t if I try. Both are humiliating. And both make me so bloody tired all the time, but so unable to rest (and of all my many pills, it’s always a choice whether to take the antidepressants, because one of the side effects is that they knock me out so heavily I’m going to sleep about twelve hours a day, let alone the muzziness when I’m ‘awake’).

Spending rather too much of every day either asleep or aiming at sleep and missing, I tend to dwell on things in a swamp of fear and loathing. Whether it’s all my many failures or that life is ticking by without anything in it. The worst of the past haunts me, even thinking about some of it can paralyse me into wreckage for a day, and I can’t remember the last time I was able to look into the future. I’ve mostly lost the ability to make small talk; how do you answer ‘How are you?’ when you’re like this, or ‘What have you been up to?’ when you’ve not worked and can’t think of anything you’ve achieved for more than a decade? And that makes it harder – though I do sometimes try, and it even sometimes works – to talk to people I actually care about. They’re so much worse. Because I can’t just wing it with them and I’m just ashamed. It’s difficult to explain how although in theory I have endless stretches of time, my functional time each day is vanishingly small. And the days when I do make the effort and put on a front and get through some sort of sociability and even maybe enjoy spending time with someone – the total collapse for days afterwards. Or the days when something else loads on that I have to cope with and I go from just ‘not coping’ into gibbering catastrophe. Last couple of weeks every other day it’s end-to-end panic attacks.

I hit perhaps my worst crisis about two months ago. That was when I simply turned off this blog because I couldn’t bear it any more.

How do you find joy in writing when you’ve lost the knack of finding joy in anything?

And so it all came tumbling down.

For years I’ve made long lists of things to do and pieces to write to give myself the impression of having some control over my life or some illusion that one day I will write the things I wish to write. Even as some of those lists have had dates for the most appropriate publication that have simply had the year changed over and over rather than being written. Something finally just turned over in my head in early July. I was updating the lists at the start of the month, as I’d done for so long, and suddenly it no longer made any kind of sense. There was just so much that I’d been turning over for so long, and it was all gibberish. Like a flicked switch, they all became accusations rather than comfort blankets. Just as seeing my threadbare blog staring back at me became an oppressive record of failure and I couldn’t face anyone being able to look at it.

I hoped that by switching it off for a while it would take some of the pressure off and give me respite to recover some mojo. It hasn’t. But a couple of people have asked me to make what I’ve previously written available again. Tonight I’ve returned the settings to public, but I can only cope with this by facing up to and sealing it as an historical document. If I put an end to it then it’s no longer a burden.

At least, that’s the hope. It’s unlikely to work, but I have to try and cut off this particular gnawing despair somehow.

I can recognise that I’ve written some really good stuff in the past. There are articles I’ve written on all manner of things where I’d be happy with the turn of phrase, the insight or the argument. I would be happy – but that I can’t do it any more makes it that much worse. I can get briefly animated by something and type in reams of notes, but try to assemble it into something someone else can read? I don’t know how to make any of it make sense any more. I don’t know how to construct an article. And most of all, I just don’t know how to enjoy it.

A few people had asked me in the last couple of years to write for them. With some I foolishly said yes, because I’d love to, it’s what I’ve dreamed of. But could I? Two struck lucky: with their final deadlines looming they pressed me that either I write or they had to ask someone else, and somehow that galvanised me and I delivered. It’s a mark of how unable I am to focus that you can buy something I’ve written in a book, but I’ve been completely unable even to write an introductory paragraph to publish it on this blog. Others I’ve failed completely by telling myself and them that yes, just give me a little longer, it’ll pass, I can do it, just another month, or year, but it’s only postponing the inevitable letting people down. One article that should be the easiest thing in the world for me: I made the pitch and knew exactly what it should be; I’d known and loved what it was about for decades; the file I was working in for a two-thousand-word article had over eighty thousand words of notes in it. Easy. But impossible. A year and a half after the first deadline I admitted to the editor that, absurd as it seemed, I just would never be able to write it.

It’s not just lists of things to write. It’s lists of things to watch, or read. I can’t even do that. I end up with deliberate distractions: half-watching and skim-reading things that I wouldn’t choose to but actually because I don’t enjoy them much. Because there are few things more depressing than experiencing something that you should enjoy and it no longer giving you any pleasure, or can’t concentrate on it or even look at it. So Twitter, rubbish telly, comfort eating, any way of trying to find a micro-stimulus that I can get through the day with rather than risk something good that’s turned to ash. It’s not that there are never flaring sparks of fun – but the downer of disappointment is worse than the unexpected joy. I can remember trying to write one of my ‘Ten Reasons to Watch’ lists early in the year on one of my very favourite Doctor Who stories, the one I’ve long thought of as the most entertaining piece of TV ever made. I had to stop even watching it because the deadness was spoiling everything about it. I tried again a few months later and found it was the first thing I’d really enjoyed watching in ages. I didn’t write about it; I burst into tears.

While not being able to take pleasure in things depresses me, politics just tends to send me into angry despair. Brexit, Trump, my countries spiralling into fascism and my party into irrelevance. Some articles I’ve started to write and broken off because they fall into the category of ‘not helpful’ (goodbye Tim, hello Vince); others I’ve written practically all the way through but are just too splenetic to put out there. And when I’ve tried to look on the bright side – well, those articles make me look fondly on tooth extractions, which at least were briefer experiences and had an end to them.

Hundreds – thousands? – of articles I’ve caught in my head in a plan and a line or two. Certainly hundreds that exist in part in a jigsaw of impossibly long notes. Even dozens that I’ve written and could publish with just half an hour’s polish that will never come. I’ve even got sets of photos that only need stringing onto Tumblr, yet utterly paralysed. That speech I literally typed out in full for last year’s Lib Dem Conference and declaimed to the hall – eve of a year later and can I bring myself to publish it or even put it on YouTube? No I can’t.

I’ve tried so many strategies to write almost by sidling up to it so I won’t notice I’m doing it. Blog side projects! Which just make for extra emptier blogs. Because I know I put off and overcomplicate and will write so much that I will never finish, several times I’ve set myself goals made up of easily defined short steps, only to sabotage them by bloating the idea into something overambitious enough that failure will be inevitable. That series of great Doctor Who scenes that I never finished? Just one scene at a time, how could I possibly stretch those to breaking? I found a way. Then Ten Reasons To Watch one story at a time – I planned the lot, and I could tell you the bullet points for any one of them at any given 3am while trying to sleep. Could I write them? Of course not. I even published the ones I’d written at the end of 2015 all over again in late 2016, to give myself a run-up (I can still remember the last thing I ever wrote that was any good. It was Ten Reasons To Watch Rose, and it was even better but far angrier and just, just managing not to tip over into despair in the repeat). I even struggled on with them through hospitalisation last December because I didn’t want that to beat me. Then in January there were the results that some of the damage was permanent, and whole new physical problems that I had to fight, and I just couldn’t even pretend to do it any more.

I teetered on the edge of pieces on half a dozen stories that so very nearly but so very far from getting back into writing. I watched one Who story early in the year that wasn’t on the list – The Curse of Peladon – and was so apoplectic at the Brexitty shittery of its villain that I resolved on the spot to write it as a bonus (and that before Alpha Centauri turned up again on the telly). It was almost all done! But never more than almost. I read Doctor Who: The New Adventures – Damaged Goods, I wrote reams, I annotated the entire text, I tweezered apart the Post-Its that Richard stuck on it in 1996 and transcribed those, I listened to the audio adaptation, I wrote a complete article coming at that from an oblique angle, I did so very, very much and all before the perfect day to publish. July 27th, fiftieth anniversary to the day of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England; thirtieth anniversary to the day of the main events of the novel; twenty-third anniversary to the day of the first time I saw Richard, was completely wowed by Richard, utterly bottled introducing myself to Richard. At the far end of all that effort, no actual proper writing came to party, and the Twenty-seventh of July passed. And all the while trying to deny to myself that all trying to write – or even hoping to write – was doing was making me more wretchedly miserable.

Over the last couple of months I’ve bizarrely managed two long Twitter threads that of course, of course should have been blog posts, but they absolutely never could: one was even written on the train and posted as I went along, which may have made it incomprehensible to the reader but just published before I could stop myself. You can if you like read what, on the spur of the moment, I made of Wagner’s complete Der Ring des Nibelungen having never watched an opera before (scroll up), or why you can’t fight crime by making certain groups of people ‘illegal’ (scroll down). So it’s possible there will be such random times when writing will spew out too quickly for the terror to pull it back.

I am so fucking tired and even being so tired is such hard bloody work.

I feel more alienated, useless, powerless, more of a bobbing spare part than ever now that I’ve accepted the end of writing. I have no direction over my life. But the hope was just torment. I can’t do it any more, and wanting to made it worse, and when it came to a crisis I just couldn’t keep doing that. This is defeat. So this is trying to cut off fantasies of the future and hope that’s less unbearable.

I realise this is not a jolly read. There are things that get me through the days. Well, one thing, mainly, and that is Richard, who somehow copes with me while doing a gazillion things and more of those than ever before, and supporting me in every way, and to whom I’m pathetically grateful and very much love. I have no idea how he does it and he still completely wows me. But I wish – not least for his sake, because it’s a bit of a weight on him – that I could find my way back to more. It can’t be this.



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