Thursday, April 20, 2006


Watch Newsnight, Get Blue

Two Tory propaganda coups yesterday: their ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’ broadcast was their best in about a decade – probably their only positive one in that time, too (like a Lib Dem one with added cartoons). Of course the pitiful Tory green record and proposals made it a con, yet still less deceitful than the longer Tory propaganda slot calling itself ‘Newsnight’. We’re all used to the constant bias of Nick ‘Mate of Dave Cameron’ Robinson on BBC ‘News’, but Mr Luntz’s shockingly rigged Newsnight polling has been exposed by MillenniumComplete with a witness from his focus group.

Being ill and knackered, I was unconscious and missed it, but after the reports, I have a question. As so many people have spotted how partisan US Republican pollster (surprise, uncredited by the BBC) Mr Luntz produces his miraculous results - as could anyone who’s ever seen Jonathan Creek or, indeed, who has a smidgeon of common sense - are Newsnight really, really dumb to be hoodwinked by this con-artist, or actively complicit in promoting the Tories? If you’re willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, keep a look out for when Mr Luntz gives a third ‘astonishing’ finding about the popularity of Mr Balloon. As the famously naïve and trusting Mr Goldfinger pointed out, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but three times is enemy action.

Friday, April 14, 2006



The last episode of Hustle’s just half an hour away, and it’s now only 22 hours and 50 minutes until Doctor Who begins. Woo hoo! However, I won’t be blogging about either until well into next week, as things are busy, not least because I’ve taken time out to blog in the last couple of days when there’s rather a lot of housework to be done (and tomorrow I’m out at Tenth Planet to get a DVD signed). Ironically, much of that involves finding a way to manage the humungous piles of books that have taken over the spare room. Well, pretty much every room, really. I should probably try to put them into some sort of order and find proper spaces for them this time, as the strategy of ‘stack them somewhere and they might go away’ doesn’t seem to be entirely successful. Anyway, that’s all going to take some time, so I’m going to get my head down for a few days.

Plus there’s the return of the most fantastic show in the world tomorrow night, which might be distracting, and all that chocolate to eat on Sunday (despite the amusing detail of my temporary filling choosing this week to disintegrate, making my mouth resemble a scale model of that scene at the end of Carry On Up the Khyber where the plaster caves in).

Happy Easter, and see you all next week, books permitting!



Mr Neil Fawcett has shared with me that he learned to read on Doctor Who books. So did I. I may have grown up the child of two librarians, in a house with seventeen bookshelves, but it was of course Doctor Who that did it. I still read a lot now, though I’m not sure either this blog or various Lib Dem policy papers count as writing books (though if any reader happens to have a spare / saleable copy of It’s About Freedom, could you drop me a line? It’s out of print, but there are a couple of people I’d like to give it to).

Even before I went to school, my Dad would sometimes take me around libraries he was working in, and I’ve always felt deeply at home in places with lots of books. The trouble is, on getting to school the books I was ‘encouraged’ to learn to read with were hugely uninspiring, so I made no progress at all. I can still remember with a shudder of horror one called Wet Wednesday, in which a little boy was walking to school with his mum, in the rain. That was it. I spent weeks on that sodding book, driving my teacher and my parents to distraction. I just couldn’t see any reason why anyone would want to read such a monumentally tedious story – I could tell what was happening from the pictures, and nothing about them made me want to read the words. So, aged five, I was jammed into a solid lack of progress.

Fortunately, I fell seriously ill and was hospitalised. No, that’s not quite as crazy as it sounds. I’d just bought my first book – Doctor Who and the Cybermen, by Gerry Davis – at the school bookshop, and my Mum brought it into the hospital. She’d been trying to help me to read with the ‘aid’ of another lifeless schoolbook, this time featuring ‘Simon and Elizabeth’ (Mum claims ‘Simon and Sarah’, but with no greater enthusiasm; I think that was a different series, perhaps equally banal), who were enthrallingly, yes, making their way to school, only this time by bus, and possibly with a dog. In any case, they didn’t get me to make any more progress, so Mum read Doctor Who to me instead. She doesn’t like the programme. Never has, never will. And, with an adult’s critical ‘reading head’ on, these days even I’ll concede that that particular novel isn’t one of those where the prose really flies by. So she did what any mother might have done when she was bored beyond the call of duty, and about half-way through the book she told me to read it myself.

I did.

When I eventually got back to school, I was told – probably as a joke, I’m never quite sure – that if I could somehow learn to read entirely from ‘proper’ books, I’d never have to go back to all the early and intermediate stages of unremitting tedium. So while at the age of five I had a reading age probably too low to be measured, by five and a half I had a reading age of twelve, and am forever grateful to all the different teachers at St Simon’s Primary School, Hazel Grove, none of whom ever made me read through all those ghastly excuses for books that I was ‘supposed’ to wade through before I was allowed something interesting.

As well as taking a trip down memory lane at Neil’s prompting, there are policy issues I take from this, too, and not just the way I was always the one who stuck up for public libraries most passionately in Federal Policy Committee meetings when we were deciding how little money we could get away with committing to ‘the arts’. Nor is it to do with recently reading Roy Jenkins’ biography of Gladstone (and Millennium has beaten me to blogging what I thought of Huw Edwards’ hagiographic Monday programme about David Lloyd George, who may have been a brilliant Chancellor but who managed to win third place as both best and worst Liberal Leader in a vote at a Lib Dem History Group meeting. I didn’t vote for him as the best).

The policy issue I think of when I remember learning to read is that when this government sneers at all education for the sake of learning, based on people studying what really interests and enthuses them, and only wants money to go into things that will make money and be fitted for ‘work’, they’re not just wrong in principle. Give kids only things that are lifelessly practical and carefully calculated to make exactly the right sort of progress – and what child with a scraping of imagination is going to bother learning anyway?

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Thursday, April 13, 2006


Doctor Who Preview RIGHT NOW

Oh, I've sinned - all these weeks avoiding spoilers, and right now we're watching a fantastic three-minute preview montage. If you have Freeview, go to BBC1 right now and press the red button - it's fab (and on constant rotation for the time being...)!

Particularly what - avoiding humungous spoilers - Sarah and Rose say. We high-fived.

I'm really very excited indeed.

Now I have to pretend to forget it all until the episodes come round.


Lone Martyr or Tip of the Iceberg?

Flt Lt Dr Malcolm Kendall-Smith has been found guilty of disobeying orders after refusing to go to Iraq last June. This raises several questions, though unfortunately none of them are about his guilt – I don’t see how someone in the armed forces refusing to serve there last year could possibly be found innocent, with British troops now operating in Iraq under a clear UN mandate and by invitation of the Iraqi government. They weren’t legal when they invaded, of course, but that wasn’t the issue in this prosecution. But why is he the one we’ve heard about? Were soldiers who refused to go to Iraq so rare that all their courts martial make headline news? Or has he been singled out for some reason? I simply don’t know enough to tell.

It’s like this. We invaded Iraq illegally, and occupied Iraq illegally. Since then, our presence has been made legal, but it can’t be made legal retrospectively. The problem now is not our illegality but that we’re not helping; waving a wand can stop British forces continuing to break international law, but it can’t stop people in Iraq remembering how our troops got there. We’re part of the problem in Iraq, not helping to solve it, because we invaded illegally and we get the blame for it. That’s because we’re to blame. But the 2003 problem was one of international law, and the current one is one of practical politics. Of course soldiers should be able to refuse an illegal order, but an impractical one? Well, no. When I first heard of this case, like many others I wanted Dr Kendall-Smith to be my hero, but while he may be brave, his case doesn’t stand up.

So I have to wonder why Dr Kendall-Smith has been the only one I’ve heard being found so publicly guilty. Is he the only member of the armed forces to object, and happened to do it at the wrong time? Or have those who objected during the illegal invasion been let go quietly so that the issue of international law can’t be examined in embarrassing hearings?

I note that the Judge Advocate-General refused to hear any testimony on the legality of the war. It’s much more difficult to object to that when it’s plain that it didn’t apply when Dr Kendall-Smith refused to serve. But a full-on refusal to hear the case for a soldier to whom it clearly applied, with the British command structure attempting to force the Nuremberg Defence on him or her rather than permitting soldiers to decide on their legal standing – good grief, we should be saying they have a moral duty to make sure they’re not war criminals, not saying it’s none of their business! – now, that would have been far more threatening to the armed forces and to the Government. Is it cynical to wonder why the only court martial I’ve heard of is one that the Government can point to and say, ‘Look, it’s been tested in court, and it was legal’?

Because, you see, this Government has form on Iraq-related enquiries that find them entirely innocent by virtue of not asking any questions on the things they’re actually guilty of. But in the meantime, thousands of people are still dead, because of an illegal invasion, because of something that wasn’t true. And this feels like another diversion from that.


The Political Objectives Test

I’ve been sent another of those questionnaires today, The Political Objectives Test, which scores over ‘Political Compass’ by, well, having fewer questions. It purports to balance your attraction to particular values: Liberty, Equality and Stability. Yes, it’s a political philosophy test, so how could I not be suckered into it?

That said, I’m not certain how the results stack up. I’ve been labelled Social-Liberal, which sounds fine, though I raise an eyebrow at being put “in the hazy area that exists between the Liberal and the Socialist” – particularly as my ‘Liberty’ score was far higher than the ‘Equality’ one. Join in, and test my hypothesis that it puts you into a ‘joint’ category if you gain a positive score for more than one attribute, whatever the gap between the actual scores is. I wonder if it’s possible to get a positive score on all through? Or if it’s possible to be a Liberal-Conservative at all? That sounds like a disturbed sort of bunny.

Still, the actual definition of Social-Liberal isn’t too objectionable, if slightly more tilted left than I’d choose:
Your commitment to both liberty and equality puts you in the hazy area that exists between the Liberal and the Socialist. You value liberty particularly in cultural and personal life. You also value government intervention to promote equity in economic life while still supporting private enterprise. For you liberty and equality are two parts of the same condition. Everyone has to be free to pursue their own way-of-life but in order for that it happen everyone must start with a similar basic standard of living.
I tried it twice, once filling out all the questions, and once omitting those where I didn’t feel a particular affinity for any of the options. I stayed consistent at 85 ‘Liberty’ and 21 ‘Stability’ for both, though my ‘Equality’ score varied between 57 and 64 (I suspect that, as usual, I’m less ideological on the economy).


Abolition of Parliament Abolished?

At the risk of sounding sceptical about our honest, forthright Government, I’m waiting to see the details of exactly what the redrafted Bill will say before I cheer that the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is no longer a danger. It’s reported that the junior minister in charge of this most stealthily authoritarian piece of legislation is climbing down. Well, sounds good, but as the recent Tory-fooling ‘compromise’ over ID cards proved, it’s what the Bill does that matters, not the warm gushy noises.

As it stands, this is more dangerous than any other bill in my lifetime – not because it does terrible things on its own, but because it empowers ministers to do any terrible thing they like (and not just ministers, but any ‘person’ they nominate). Though it’s said to be about ‘relieving regulatory burdens’, rather than allowing ministers to change minor regulations, it allows ministers to change any law at all without any reference to Parliament – for a bill about ‘regulation’ rather than ‘legislation’, one could be forgiven for being suspicious when the former word appears just once in the existing Bill, but the latter, er, nineteen times. Until today, it had just two restraints – that it would not be used for ‘controversial’ issues (worthless, as the only person empowered to decide that safeguard is the minister exercising its power), and that it can’t be used to impose new taxes or to create new criminal offences with a sentence of more than two years (so, banging people up for 700 days for standing against the Labour Party is fine, then). The trouble is, the power to amend any legislation doesn’t exempt the Bill itself – so in theory, five minutes after it receives royal assent, the responsible minister could decide to change ‘two years’ to ‘two hundred years’. See why people are worried?

One thing that would make what's become known as the Abolition of Parliament Bill slightly less scary is if it contained a list of the only categories of legislation it could amend, but I doubt the government will want to give up toys that good. A less powerful but still useful option would be to explicitly exclude both the Bill itself and some of the most vital legislation (let’s say on holding elections and on powers of other branches of government, for a start). The trouble is, the government has already rejected amendments to exclude such uncontroversial legislation as (hat-tip to Liberty Central):

Act of Settlement 1700
Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001
Bail Act 1976
Bill of Rights 1688
Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919
Church of Scotland Act 1921
Civil Contingencies Act 2004
Claim of Right 1689
Constitutional Reform Act 2005
Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
European Communities Act 1972
Freedom of Information Act 2000
Government of Ireland Act 1920
Government of Wales Act 2006
Government of Wales Act 1998
Habeas Corpus Acts 1679 to 1862
House of Lords Act 1999
Human Rights Act 1998
Identity Cards Act 2006
Immigration Act 1971
Local Government Act 1972
Magna Carta 1215
Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975
Ministers of the Crown Act 1975
Northern Ireland Act 1947
Northern Ireland Act 1998
Official Secrets Acts 1911 to 1989
Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949
Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986
Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984
Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005
Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Act 1706
Public Order Acts 1936 to 1986
Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000
Representation of the People Acts 1981 to 2002
Scotland Act 1998
Security Service Act 1989
Statute of Westminster 1931
Succession to the Crown Act 1707
Terrorism Act 2000
Terrorism Act 2006
Union with England Act 1707
Union with Scotland Act 1706
Welsh Church Disestablishment Act 1914.

So I’m taking their conversion to limiting the power of the bill with a pinch of salt until a U-turn on all that for starters.

Reports suggest they want to give a select committee the power of veto, which does sound like a major step forward, though I’d be happier if, say, one-third of any select committee could refer it to the whole House (never mind that – how about one member?). And will this be a new select committee charged purely with overseeing orders under this legislation, because I suspect that’ll be more than enough to keep it busy? Still, at least it gives Parliament something to do if the rest of the Bill survives, as Parliamentary debates and votes wouldn’t be worth much any more.

I’m hoping they mean what they say. It’s a hope that this Government often disappoints, but it happens occasionally. But until there’s concrete evidence that the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill can only be used to alter uncontroversial regulations, remember not just that this Government has a record of abusing power disgracefully – which it does – but that, even if we had nothing to fear from them, they have a habit of putting legislation on the statute books that they may never misuse, but that their successors could do anything they like with. Liberalism in practice is about the control of arbitrary power more than any other single objective. This bill has power you wouldn’t trust to a saint, and no guarantee that the people who inherit it won’t be devils. Is the danger receding? Don’t trust that it is.


Oh, No, Not Daytime TV!

So it's come to this... I'm at home, not very well, trying to get the housework done, trying to keep an eye out for Doctor Who trailers on BBC1 (ooh, look, a new one yesterday)... And now I've been pulled into the horror that is daytime soap as a result. There's no hope for me. I'm watching Doctors, a soap I've never even seen before, but still getting snuffly at today's gay wedding (though I probably won't take many notes for our own far-distant day). Hurrah! Civil partnership on the Beeb!

At least I turned the sound off during Neighbours.

My habitual slight scowl at the words 'civil partnership' has also receded, as no-one mentioned them at any time. So maybe I'm wrong and the law will eventually be steamrollered by the word 'marriage' anyway.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


Crisp Unt Light Brown

Disaster! Walkers have changed all their Sensations Crisps flavours (you know, the ones in the gigantic bags about which you always tell yourself, ‘Just because I’ve opened it doesn’t mean I have to eat them all at once’). Gone are favourites like Roast Lamb and Mint or Four Cheeses, and just because the new Lamb and Moroccan Spices are particularly nice obviously won’t stop me fulminating about the missing ones ;-)

Right now, News 24 is also talking about resistance to change in the reaction to Camilla replacing Diana. The Labour Party face a similar problem. They too will say that the (formerly) popular, glamorous one was just a marriage of convenience and that now they’re going to get the one they really love. I don’t think Mr Windsor has done anything to merit just assuming the top job in the country, but good luck to him in finding happiness with someone he loves. I’ll reserve wishing luck to Mr Frown, who I don’t think has done anything to merit assuming the top job in the country either, and he may find that lack of ‘crossover appeal’ is going to be more of a problem for him than for Mrs Windsor.

In the interests of balance, though, don't you think Tony looks tired?

Saturday, April 08, 2006



Ooh, my first* meme! Spotted over at Will’s:

Go to Wikipedia. Type in your birth date (but not year). List three events that happened on your birthday. List two important birthdays and one interesting death. Post this in your journal.
I’ve customised this one for October 30th to suit my blog…

Three political events:
1270 - The Eighth Crusade and siege of Tunis end by an agreement between Charles I of Sicily (brother to King Louis IX of France, who had died months earlier) and the Sultan of Tunis.

1905 - Tsar Nicholas II grants Russia's first constitution, creating a legislative assembly.

1947 - The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which is the foundation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), is founded.
Three important events:
1925 - John Logie Baird creates Britain's first television transmitter.

1938 - Orson Welles broadcasts his radio play of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, causing a nationwide panic (in the USA, obviously).

2002 - British digital terrestrial television (DTT) service Freeview starts transmitting throughout parts of the United Kingdom.
Three events that aren’t in the Wikipedia list:
1965 – The third episode of the Doctor Who story The Myth Makers is transmitted. In those days (and again in the 21st Century), each episode had an individual title rather than the more prosaic ‘Part Three’. This one always entertains me as, in a story taking a largely comedic look at the Trojan Wars, the author wanted it to be called ‘Is There A Doctor In the Horse?’ Po-faced Auntie Beeb wouldn’t let him, and called it ‘Death of a Spy’ instead.

1967 – The Times announces that Linda Thorson has succeeded Diana Rigg as the female lead in The Avengers.

1976 – The third episode of the Doctor Who story The Deadly Assassin is transmitted. It’s still my favourite story, and at the time it was, of course, my favourite ‘birthday present’ (I can think of a better one since, but not on a public blog).
1735 - John Adams, American revolutionary leader and President of the United States (d. 1826)

1956 - Juliet Stevenson, English actress (otherwise known as Flora Matlock, MP)
And I must add an extra one from 1882 - Günther von Kluge, German field marshal, of whom I had never heard but who has a fantastic name.

1979 - Barnes Wallis, British aeronautical engineer (b. 1887)
Having once been a good Catholic boy, I’m further adding to the meme the Calendar of Saints (feast days of Roman Catholic Saints), and offering up thanks to my parents - should they ever read my blog, which might entail giving way to the nagging from their children and actually switching on the computer I gave them a couple of years ago - for not naming me after:
St. Zenobius & Zenobia
Esoteric meme-related factoid:
The Doctor Who story The End of the World (2005) takes place aboard a space station which forbids the use of those dangerous constructs “weapons, teleportation and religion”. The villain of the piece conspicuously makes use of weapons and teleportation but, more subtly, has monklike catspaws known as ‘the Adherents of the Repeated Meme’ – which sounds rather like a definition of religion.
Richard also points out two clues that link the adherents to the villain behind them: a villain with no arms has to use these ARMs to do the dirty work; and, given that the villain is monumentally self-obsessed, repeating ‘meme’ sounds very like “me me me me me me me me me me me me…” – which is curiously appropriate to the blogospheric use of the term.
And finally, one from Richard and my anniversary:
1881 - The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral takes place at Tombstone, Arizona.

*Technically it isn’t, of course, but it’s the first time I’ve filled out one of these viral blog questionnaires of that name.

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Introducing the Doctor…

Doctor Who’s return to our screens approaches rapidly, so I’m taking a quick look at the last year’s stories (showing over the next week at 7pm on BBC3). We don’t really know the current Doctor (David Tennant) yet; he talks a lot – so I like him – his mood changes rapidly, and he dresses in his own strange mix of ‘smart but scruffy’. But the Doctor’s had nine other bodies before him, and last year's (Christopher Eccleston) encountered ‘ghosts’ from the past and aliens from the future, and saw the day the Earth died in a ball of flame.

Intense, often angry or abrupt, the ninth Doctor was a survivor from a terrible war, struggling not to be consumed by survivor’s guilt. We saw him rediscovering his joy in life in sudden bursts of good humour with a new friend from modern London, Rose Tyler. He seemed much more hesitant to act than other Doctors, gradually encouraging other people to live their own lives to the full but seeming unsure of himself after his terrible experiences and, perhaps, actions. Perhaps that’s why he cropped his hair and dressed in a leather jacket, as if in a mid-life crisis (“I’m not over a thousand! I’m only 900!”). But his stories brought Doctor Who back to the screen with not just a far bigger budget but with a real run of quality, including scripts from the writers of Queer As Folk, Coupling and The League of Gentlemen. The more impressive stories are brilliant, the less impressive ones still stay pretty good, and with so much travel through the past, present and far future of Earth to examine the history of humanity, you hardly notice a distinct lack of alien planets so far…

On BBC3 tonight at 7pm:
Sheer verve and energy as Rose’s bored life as a London shop assistant is thrown into chaos by meeting the Doctor. I love the scene where she's introduced to the TARDIS. It has almost the punch and fun of a modern The Avengers, though Rose and a Northern Doctor ironically make it rather more down-to-Earth. There’s an alien invasion by dummies, too, but sometimes you’d hardly notice; it’s just window-dressing.
The End of the World
Rose goes five billion years in the future and says goodbye to the Earth. It’s very amusing, has astounding special effects and the immensely enjoyable villain looks fantastic, the ultimate in plastic surgery. Just don't try pitching it against Poirot as a whodunnit, that's all.

On BBC3 tomorrow night:
The Unquiet Dead
Ahh, Doctor Who’s scary again. Zombies walk in Nineteenth Century Cardiff and upset Charles Dickens. Easily one of my favourites from last year, there’s a witty script and some great culture clashes but, really, you just can’t beat a well-told Victorian ‘ghost story’.
Aliens of London
Back to modern London to see the consequences of Rose’s travelling, as aliens infiltrate the government. It’s the one where the spaceship crashes into Big Ben, which is always fun, but some of the broad humour trips over the political satire.

On BBC3 this Saturday night:
World War Three
Continuing from the previous episode, the aliens are revealed and some of the characters end up as rather more serious than you thought they’d be. The humour’s down and satire’s up as - first broadcast the week before the 2005 election - it lays into the Iraq War and ID cards (hurrah), and as for what happens to Downing Street…

On BBC3 next Monday night:
The grimmest of these stories (when even the scariest of the others have a playful tone), as the Doctor encounters the last survivor of the enemy side in the war. You know what it is. He’s not quite as loveable as usual here – but then, none of the people we meet here are particularly nice, and all of them have life-changing (or life-ending) experiences…
The Long Game
Into the far future with Rose and a new friend, who’s, well, not really up to the job. It’s quite a slim plot, but don’t write it off – bits will turn up later. Besides, I enjoy a villain who enjoys himself, and this one does (then there’s the monster in the ceiling)…

On BBC3 next Tuesday night:
Father's Day
Rose is taken back to the day her father died, and discovers the dangers of mucking about with time. A fantastic episode where almost everything comes right: awesome flying monsters to appeal to the 3-year-old-me that fell in love with the show in the first place, and great emotional scenes that got the 33-year-old me watching all misty-eyed. Beautiful music, too.
The Empty Child
Back to the Blitz, and Doctor Who continues to be the only series that visits the Second World War but never does the cliché and fights the Nazis there (you can tell it’s not an American show). A witty episode that’s probably also the scariest of the year, and all the better for it; children with gasmasks asking, “Are you my mummy…?”

On BBC3 next Wednesday night:
The Doctor Dances
Continuing from the previous episode, there are more really quite disturbing transformations, and our heroes are joined by a very handsome man called Jack. There’s even a surprisingly happy ending. I have a feeling this one won an award as the single best piece of telly last year, and it’s not bad, you know.
Boom Town
After so many special-effects-laden epics, most of the drama here takes place in a restaurant in modern Cardiff. And the face-off between the Doctor and the villain is so electrifying, the mix of drama and humour so perfectly judged, that it’s probably my favourite of the year.

On BBC3 next Thursday night:
Bad Wolf
Into the far future again for a nightmarish take on reality TV; funny and shocking, and with the most impressive cliffhanger ending to any of the episodes this year. Plus, you get to see a robot Anne Robinson who fires deathrays. What’s not to like?
The Parting of the Ways
Continuing from the previous episode and concluding a lot that’s been going on in the year, if you want an action-packed space epic, this is for you. There are some fantastic scenes but it's less than the sum of its parts, with set pieces stronger than the story stringing them together. Looks impressive, though.

…And then there’s less than 48 hours to go until New Earth starts the new run. Don’t read about it in the Radio Times; they spoil things. And most of the newspapers’ll be worse. As with much of TV today, it’s such big news that the best thing to do if you want to enjoy it as it happens is to stop reading anything in a paper that says ‘Doctor Who’, and politely decline if people say “Hey! Guess what I’ve heard!”

Of course, you can get the 2005 season of Doctor Who on DVD, too. They’re well worth it, and I’d recommend getting the somewhat impractically built box set of all of them rather than buying the ‘individual’ releases – the price adds up to about the same, and you get plenty of extras (instead of, er, none). The commentaries are all enjoyable, you get a complete set of mini-documentaries, and the ‘deleted scenes’ they talk about and meant to include are, er, not there. They forget to put them in. Whoops. Maybe in the '2006' box. So there you go. The first year of ‘new’ Doctor Who, in a nutshell, and awfully good it is too, with one more from right at the end of the year…

There’s also the first story for the new Doctor:

On BBC3 this Sunday night at 8pm, just to be different:
The Christmas Invasion
You can probably guess when this one’s set, but though it starts on a modern London council estate with more than a few laughs, it’s a dark Christmas fable of aliens coming to harvest humanity and us ending up scarier than they are. The Doctor’s still recovering from the explosive effect of changing bodies, but when he finally gets going, wow, he makes an impact…

It's really not remotely necessary to know the 'old' series of Doctor Who before you see the new ones (you don't even need to see last year's ones before New Earth, though it helps a little). But they're still obviously related, and it'll hardly be a shock if you get interested in the original series, too. I’m going to be doing shorter pieces on the ‘old’ Doctors, but if you’re vaguely interested but don’t think you can wade through another article, I’ll close with the mini-version. There are so many novels, CDs, websites and the like out there that they can be very off-putting, and while many of them are good, none of them are vital. The best thing to do is pick up some DVDs – easy to get hold of (often reduced in price), and showing the stories as they were meant to be seen, including the best ‘extras’ and picture and sound restoration work on any DVDs you’ll find aside from blockbuster movies.

If you want to dip into the Doctor Who DVDs, these are probably the best of the old series that's available:

Doctor Who – The Beginning
Way back to 1963 for the first three stories in a box together, including the first appearance of the Daleks, and some terrific documentaries about how it all started.
Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng-Chiang
A hugely enjoyable story of Victorian murders starring Tom Baker as the Doctor, which despite the subject matter is one of the wittiest, most quotable pieces of television going. Another great documentary as an extra.
Doctor Who – Earthshock
The Cybermen attack in a futuristic macho action thriller which is good dumb fun, but among some impressive extras the one that stands out is when the actors are reunited for the bitchiest commentary going.
Doctor Who – The Curse of Fenric
Doctor Who’s always been good at horror stories, and this is a particularly intelligent one. The outstanding feature of the DVD is a wholesale new edit of the story, with new scenes, effects, music and a movie format.

And Doctor Who – The Complete First Series (2005), of course.

If you want to make a start on Doctor Who novels instead, that’s much more tricky. With so many to choose from, it’s difficult to sort out the best of them, and most of them are sadly out of print. None of them are as good a start as a DVD (many throw you in at the deep end), and while I have many of the published guides and handbooks to the series and find some of them addictive, none of them are authoritative and enthusiastic enough to recommend as gospel. None of them agree enough with me, either ;-) However, if you feel suddenly enthused by Doctor Who and, like me, you love to read, before you spend all your savings getting all the novels you can find on eBay, see if you can track down a few of these. The books come in many different ranges, but they divide mainly into the novelisations from Target Books – based on the TV stories – and original novels (from many different publishers).

For the best of the Target novelisations, try:

Doctor Who and the Daleks (David Whitaker)
Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion (Terrance Dicks)
Doctor Who and the Cave-Monsters (Malcolm Hulke)
Doctor Who and the Ark In Space (Ian Marter)
Doctor Who – Remembrance of the Daleks (Ben Aaronovitch)

And if you fancy the original novels, look for:

Doctor Who – The New Adventures: Lucifer Rising (Andy Lane and Jim Mortimore)
Doctor Who – The New Adventures: The Also People (Ben Aaronovitch)
Doctor Who – The Missing Adventures: Venusian Lullaby (Paul Leonard)
Doctor Who (BBC Books) – Alien Bodies (Lawrence Miles)
Doctor Who (BBC Books) – The Shadows of Avalon (Paul Cornell)

…But do try watching some of Doctor Who on the telly (or shiny silver disc) first.

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So Who is This Doctor Bloke Anyway?

With a new series of Doctor Who beginning on Easter Saturday, and BBC3 tonight beginning a repeat of last year’s stories, it’s a perfect time to start watching. So what do you need to know? The Doctor is a traveller in time and space. He goes anywhere he likes – alien worlds, past, present, future… He respects life rather than authority and obeys no rules but his own sense of fun and a moral sense to fight oppression. He uses his intelligence rather than violence, and he takes friends with him to explore the wonders of the Universe. That’s it.

OK, so that’s the important bit, but a few more questions.

Where’s the Doctor from, and why does he travel?

Well, he’s an alien, and the people of his world watched over all of time and space, but without interfering. He found that just watching bored him, when he wanted to get out to meet people and experience things for himself, and offended his morals, because when he saw evil he wanted to stand up to it. So he took a TARDIS and left. Those he fought most often were the Daleks, alien conquerors in armoured mini-tanks with a hatred for all other races. They too developed time travel, leading to conflict with the Doctor’s own people in which both sides wiped each other out, and now the Doctor’s the only survivor. So he just carries on travelling, making the most of life, seeing the sights, toppling empires, that sort of thing. He also claims to have a really complicated name, so he just calls himself ‘the Doctor’ (‘Doctor Who?’ That’s one of the many questions about him that’ll remain a mystery).

What’s this ‘TARDIS’ that he travels in?

It’s a machine for travelling through time and space, the name standing for Time And Relative Dimension In Space. It was a bit old and unreliable back when he took from his people, and he’s patched it up and customised it many times in around a thousand years that they’ve been travelling together. Just to make it even less likely it’ll go where he wants it to, it’s quite literally got something of a mind of its own, too. It seems to vanish from one place and just appear in the next, travelling through a strange ‘vortex’ that’s unlike ordinary space. Oh, and the outside of it 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 took the form of a police box, a sort of phone booth before the British police had personal radios and mobile phones, and got stuck like that. Inside, though, unfolds into many other dimensions and many different rooms. So you’ll have noticed that it’s bigger inside than outside. So do most people who go in, unsurprisingly.

A thousand years or so of travelling? He looks good on it.

Well, his people were pretty long-lived, so that helps more than moisturiser. But it’s not just that their bodies live for hundreds of years. When they get too old, or are fatally injured, they’ve got a way of cheating death. Their body changes 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 he’s just been ‘born’ into his tenth body. Naturally, it also helps the TV series carry on when the actor playing the Doctor decides to leave, and it’s almost the only TV show that can recast its lead without hoping the audience are blind or pretending it’s something to do with plastic surgery or showers.

You’ve mentioned actors, and admitted it’s not real at last. So what’s special about this TV programme?

It started off in 1963 and lasted three decades, before being reborn last year, and has usually been a popular success, thanks to its unique flexibility and, of course, to monsters like the Daleks. The big creative talent behind the new series, Russell T Davies, calls it “the best idea ever invented in the history of the world,” and it’s inspired an awful lot of people since, though you don’t need to know any intricate details to follow it. It’s the idea that’s important, that you can go pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything, 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. He doesn’t work for anyone, wear a uniform or carry a gun, making the series both very British and very anti-establishment. It 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 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.

The best of Doctor Who would include a dash of horror, adventures in history, enough wit to make you smile, enough ideas and strangeness and 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. 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, but still recognisably the same programme. That’s probably why I fell in love with it, anyway.

How can I find out more?

You can read more of this blog, or tens of thousands of other web pages. But I wouldn’t, if I were you, not to start with. It’s probably the best TV programme ever made, so the best way to find about it is to watch it.

The new series starts on BBC1 on April 15th (look out for the trailer) – or, if you’re in tonight, watch BBC3. Between tonight and next Thursday, they’re repeating the whole of the ‘comeback’ series from last year, and the first episode, Rose, starts at 7 tonight, where the Doctor (in his ninth body, played by Christopher Eccleston) meets a young woman from a council estate called Rose and they foil an alien invasion. Alternatively, at 7.15pm on Easter Saturday there’s a brand new story called New Earth, starring David Tennant as the Doctor, and I don’t know anything else about that yet. But watching either will be a better introduction to this fantastic series than anything you could possibly read. So watch one!

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And in Other News...

Having been variously away, busy and unwell, I've got rather behind in my blogging (barring last minute incitements to watch the telly), but I've kept up with odd snippets on which others have blogged faster and better:

Most disturbing Most surprising Sadly only the most recent story of British freedom and justice
Most uplifting news
Most eye-watering example of Lib Dem self-immolation

And not forgetting...
Best recipe
Best expensive CGI effects

The blog that didn't bark: unaccountably, I've yet to see an enthusiastic welcome for the new Lib Dem Deputy Leader on Reflecting Britain ;-) Had Simon Hughes, say, been elected Leader, I might have seen the case for electing a safe, talented, incisive, elderly man from the Lib Dem right, but as we've already got one of those (and in the absence of a talented female candidate for variety) I'd have voted like a shot for Matthew Taylor, who is one of the few Lib Dem MPs I've seen come out clearly ahead under a full Paxman barrage and has a superb grip on the big picture of policy and philosophy, as well as hailing from a sufficiently different strand of Liberalism and, indeed, age group to our new ruling grandees to have given a bit of balance to the ticket.


The News of the World Defends Privacy…

…but the only person in the land they think is entitled to it is one of their scummy provocateurs. Not that they’re in any way hypocritical. They’ve taken out an injunction – a ‘Mary Bell’ Order, no less, unprecedented outside of murder cases – against George Galloway, who spotted that their ‘Fake Sheikh’ attempted to entrap him, to prevent him from publishing photos of the man. I know, I know, the News of the Screws vs George Galloway; given the question, surely most people would answer “Can’t I just pretend I didn’t see either of them in the burning building?” It seems bizarre that this injunction to protect a ‘journalist’ from having his photo published was ever granted, but it appears to have expired (hurrah). Guido and Bloggerheads have published photos of the Fake, in an astounding array of accoutrements to baffle and bewilder, while Mr Galloway has sent pictures of him to every MP and members of the Windsor Family. I can’t stand the MP for next to where I live, but that made even me laugh.

With this and various recent political stories, I return to musing that British society would be so much happier and more liberal if some dubious billionaire became a media tycoon and mounted ruthless exposés on the sex and drug habits of every single employee of News International. Obviously I'd be shocked by such a thing, but if you happen to know any dubious billionaires, do give them a call...

Monday, April 03, 2006


The Green Death

No, this post’s not about squeezing the Green vote – stick a ‘Green Action’ flash on every leaflet you ever put out for that – but BBC4 again for their ‘1973 Week’. Life On Mars was such a success that they're repeating it with an entire week’s schedule fashioned around it, with many goodies on show from that year. At 7 tonight, tomorrow and Wednesday they’re showing The Green Death, a Doctor Who story that’s famous as ‘the one with the maggots’, that’s got very 1973 flashes of brilliance and moments of rubbish, and that made me a green Liberal. Ironic, then, that it was broadcast in a year before I could watch it and I picked up a large chunk of my Liberal political philosophy from the book, which was written by fluffy old communist Malcolm Hulke. It may or may not be a coincidence that on novelising the story he took out the most ostentatiously Liberal scene (and my favourite in the whole thing), as the villains try to persuade the Doctor that
“In the end, we all want the same thing; an ordered society, with everyone happy, well-fed… What’s best for Global Chemicals is best for the world, is best for you!”
While evidently happy with the subtle underlying message of the story – hey, kids, big business makes pollution, and both of those are BAD – I wonder if Mr Hulke was slightly more uneasy with the Doctor objecting to a faux-utopian society claiming freedom from material want at the price of “Freedom from freedom”. Still, I loved the book anyway, and perhaps it was just a cut for space, because the story doesn’t exactly move at a gallop on TV (BBC4 are wise to show the episodes two at a time)…
“No, no, no!”

“But, Doctor, it’s exactly your cup of tea. This fellow’s bright green, apparently, and dead.”
Most people who saw this at the time remember it for the giant maggots, and they look fantastically horrid (if you get the DVD, there’s even a feature on how to make them and, yes, condoms are involved). You can see why they were memorable, and of course it’s the rapacious fruits of industry that mutate them, in the form of oil waste by-products. So, pretty much the model of a successful Doctor Who monster; they look convincing, scare the kiddies and have a moral behind them (though it’s a little strange that, like your standard alien menace, they’re immune to bullets in much the way that maggots, er, aren’t). So, if you want an example to prove to people that special effects in the old Doctor Who series were better than everyone makes out, you should watch this one, right? Um… Up to a point. Unfortunately the maggots share the screen with lots of people filmed on location in Wales. Which is fine. And lots of people shot in the studio while it purports to pretend to be Wales. Which you’ll be able to spot even if you’ve never seen a television before. The show’s depiction of Wales brings its own problems, too; so for Welsh viewers like Peter Black AM, if you've been impressed by the new series’ three-dimensional modern portrayal of the country, the best thing, boyo, to say about what the BBC did in 1973, Blodwen, is that it’s been much improved since, isn’t it.

I first saw this as an adult – somewhat surreally, I missed an episode of the early ’90s repeat because I was chairing a Lib Dem policy meeting where one of the actors from it was giving evidence, and a very strange man he was too – so, rather than the maggots making the biggest impression on me, it was the megalomaniac computer. Usually one of the biggest clichés in sci-fi, the BOSS computer here adds masses to this story through a very different characterisation to conventional ranting and a fantastic acting performance that gives the impression of constant ad-libbing. BOSS is irrational through being linked to a human brain, and the actor gives by far the most human and endearing mad computer I’ve ever come across, through voice alone. Florid and testy, he almost always wanders from the point, and spends most of one episode humming to himself. His symbiotic relationship with Stevens, his human ‘contact’, is fascinating; it’s difficult to escape the feeling it was sneaking a gay relationship into the 1973 schedules (with BOSS quoting Oscar Wilde, and in the book even humming the wedding march for the two of them). If it was done today, it'd be an allegory for sex over the Internet, but BOSS is much more interesting than any of that modern cliché I’ve seen on TV, too. When he meets his inevitable end, his painful ravings are very disturbing, and actually make me feel sorry for him despite his plan to enforce permanent happiness and equality on the human race through mind-controlled slavery.

Perhaps most people don’t spot the relationship between Stevens and BOSS because of a rather more high-profile relationship between the Doctor’s companion Jo Grant and new love interest Professor Jones, blatantly introduced as a ‘younger Doctor’ for her to leave with (amid surprising amounts of sexual innuendo all round). It’s a mixture of the most patronising way in which Doctor Who women left the series – give them another man to look after their pretty little heads – and consciously emulating the way Mrs Peel left The Avengers on the return of her lost husband, a glimpse of whom makes him obviously identical to Steed, just as here Jo leaves but is, of course, marrying the Doctor. Our hero displays an amusing level of jealousy at this throughout the story, right through to the touching ending as he leaves, alone. With Jon Pertwee’s Doctor probably the most haughtily paternal of the lot, I have to admit I wonder what Jo sees in Jones – he’s an arrogant git who patronises her so badly that he rather overdoes the ‘he’s really the Doctor’ characterisation.

Pertwee’s stories tended to have rather more in common with each other than most, and this has a lot of the familiar trappings of the period, with the Brigadier and his United Nations army chaps being frightfully serious or dim when the script requires the Doctor to put them down, the Doctor flouncing around in a big cloak and indulging in a space-filling ‘Venusian Aikido’ fight which would be much improved through the addition of Batman-style “Kerpow!”, “Boooof!” and “Splatt!” caption cards, and, of course, the moral.

Early ’70s Doctor Who did racism, colonialism, the EEC and so forth at one time or another, all on the Liberal side but with the Doctor’s homily given in a very patrician way (there’s an egregious example here where he describes bombing a mine as “the worst day’s work the world has seen for many, many years,” which rather overlooks not just his period’s alien invasions but some pretty grim wars we all know about), but never quite so blatantly as this story’s unsubtle ‘big business will drain your brain and poison you’. If I weren’t inclined to agree with the message, I’d probably have to complain about it. The probably unintended additional moral that ‘vegetarian food can KILL!’ slightly goes against the general tone of a story that’s Doctor Who at its most hippie, several years after everyone else was (there are even crystals with, like, groovy powers, man), and I hope it’s unintended that good people are in heterosexual relationships and villains are gay – though going by other work by the uncredited co-author, I wouldn’t put money on it. There’s also an unfortunate undercurrent that the Doctor’s travels in space and time are a silly, irresponsible waste of time rather than the point of the series, and that also comes across in the same writing team’s later Planet of the Spiders (guess which creepy-crawlies they did in that one). Just for fun, spot the scene where the Prime Minister is referred to as ‘Jeremy’; a programme showing Jeremy Thorpe as Prime Minister proves both that they were setting their stories a few years in the future, and that they were really bad at predicting it.

Still, it’s a fun story that I’ve always liked for all its failings, such a hugely endearing mad computer villain counts for a lot, and I might not have grown up a Lib Dem if I’d not read it as a boy. Tune in and enjoy it for ‘1973 Week’, along with the run of Life On Mars – it might just be the best Doctor Who story of that year, though rather strangely its rivals for that position, The Three Doctors and Carnival of Monsters, each have a lot more in common with this year’s time-swap cop show. Look them out on DVD and marvel at the way characters wonder if they’re dead, or what’s real, or if people ‘outside’ are watching them, or if it’s all a creation of their own mind, ticking off pretty much all the options of what’s happened to Sam Tyler…

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Saturday, April 01, 2006


I'm Officially Very Excited

(Sound of TARDIS materialising)

Think you’ve seen it all?

Think again.

Outside those doors, we might see anything.
We could find new worlds –
Terrifying monsters –
Impossible things.
And if you come with me…
Nothing'll ever be the same again.

“Come on. Let’s go!”

Doctor Who
Coming soon to BBC1.

It looks great, too. Richard: “Is that the first time in history that a trailer has had a sequel?”

Thirteen days, twenty-three hours, thirty-five minutes to go. Not that I'm counting...

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