Thursday, February 28, 2013


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 42: Day of the Daleks

Counting down towards the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who with Fifty great scenes… Today’s is Doctor Who’s first major use of the “timey-wimey” – back in 1972, as a one-off key dramatic turning point with consequences. It’s also the first scene in my Fifty to be a really massive spoiler, so I’m warning you before this gripping revelation. In a dystopian future Earth controlled by the Daleks, human freedom-fighters are desperate to change time with an assassination… And, in addition to all the avenues that sends me down, I have a small tribute to Ray Cusick, creator of the Daleks.
“You went back to change history – but you didn’t change anything. You became a part of it.
“…You’re trapped in a temporal paradox! Styles didn’t cause that explosion and start the wars. You did it yourselves.”

Doctor Who 50 – Day of the Daleks

Mysterious figures have been appearing out of nowhere to try and kill top diplomat Sir Reginald Styles before a crucial peace conference. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee), still exiled to Twentieth Century Earth and working with UNIT, is called in to investigate – who are the real villains? The combat-clothed would-be assassins? The brutal Ogrons pursuing them? Or, perhaps, in a story called “…of the Daleks”, could there be some other force behind it all…? Well, no, the involvement of the Daleks isn’t the big spoiler. The Doctor and his companion Jo are both drawn forward in time to a ruined 22nd Century Earth that’s little more than a giant Dalek slave-camp. The human resistance have utterly failed in taking the fight to the Daleks on an already shattered Earth… But their history tells them that Sir Reginald was a murderer who destroyed his own peace conference and triggered the world wars that left Earth easy pickings for the Dalek invasion. Using stolen Dalek time-travel technology, they’ve been travelling back to kill him first. Before you ask, this was a decade before The Terminator (and Harlan Ellison wrote an introduction to the US edition of the Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks novel rather than an instruction to his lawyers, so clearly it was differently creative to the way The Terminator arrived at its plot). Though I do wonder if its starting point might not have been 1984 – that to control the past is to control the future, and not just by altering the textbooks?

It’s a story of contrasts: exciting and flat; intelligent and flawed. The final episode deploys the most of both, its first half largely made up of brilliantly escalating, compelling dialogue scenes that bring out the best in the actors, its second half the big action finish that director and budget fail to deliver perhaps most conspicuously out of all Who stories (something which the Special Edition tries hard to overcome, with limited success). I was first gripped by the novelisation Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks some years later, which avoids some of the flaws of the television version and carefully walks the line between the human assassins being ‘terrorists’ or ‘freedom-fighters’ by generally terming them “guerrillas”. And while it’s easy to think of them as ‘freedom-fighters’ once their initial ambiguity is resolved into the knowledge that they’re fighting against the Daleks, at the story’s finest moment – a scene running from about seven minutes into Episode Four to a climax about five minutes later (or at the end of Chapter 12), in effect a perfect mid-episode cliffhanger – we come to question their fight all over again. They’re careless of human life and have little objection to killing or abandoning the Doctor – until learning that the Daleks fear him makes him in their eyes a weapon to be utilised. It’s the Controller of this sector of Earth, a Dalek-appointed bureaucrat, who shows the most humanity in his haunted tale of the wars that ruined Earth, and the brutalised fighters who’ve only ever known a Dalek Earth who show mercy only at the Doctor’s urging when they burst in to rescue our hero from Dalek suckers. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor and the Controller (Aubrey Woods (the Controller)) are both grandstanding performances at their best when suddenly focused down into quiet, intense dialogue scenes, and it’s the Controller’s despair more than the guerrillas’ determination that moves the Doctor, setting him on a vital train of thought once taken to the guerrillas’ base.

Once held by the human suckers, the Doctor’s given a simple proposition: they’ll send him back to the Twentieth Century, and he can kill Sir Reginald for them. But a lot of this makes the Doctor uneasy, and it’s not just the implicit feeling that murdering people in cold blood is the sort of thing the Daleks do and not him. Impatiently, the guerrilla leader tells him that, improbably, people still wrote history books through the wars, pinning all the blame on a power-hungry Sir Reginald, and that, improbably, they’d managed to find out that the Daleks had time travel and steal some of their devices, both a portable time machine and a large bomb. How convenient. Having met Sir Reginald and formed the impression that, while a dick, he’s no dictator, Jo and the Doctor each put their fingers on potential problems with this. He breaks it gently:
“But your history [No good for me – na, na, na na] could be wrong, you know?”
She’s more blunt:
“But if this is true, Sir Reginald Styles must be completely round the bend!”
It is notable that no-one seemed ever to have found any cells of fanatical Stylesists around the world ready to seize power as the bombs fell – in fact, the only cells of fanatics who might in some way be being manipulated by fascist dictators are the ones the Doctor is sitting in, and he’s already observed that
“Changing history is a very fanatical idea”.
So, which fascistic fanatics who want to rule the world and have the power to change history do we know of, readers? Fortunately the dialogue is better-written than that and builds the drama to a peak rather than dropping quite such explicit hints, but Doctor Who’s deep-grained suspicion of ‘The ends justify the means’ (paraphrased in this scene by the Doctor) gives a very satisfying philosophical steer to the direction of the dramatic revelations. As the Doctor slowly brings out the truth with his questions, we’re reminded that one of the assassination cell was wounded and left for dead in the last attempt on Sir Reginald – both in dialogue, and in cross-cut images of him slipping into the cellar of the government mansion where the peace conference is due to take place… Complete with the bomb, taken along as a last resort.

If there’s no reason to think that Sir Reginald got his hands on some terrible new explosive and used it to blow up the peace conference – incompetently killing himself in the process – then somebody else must have done it. And, though it’s never made explicit, isn’t history always written by the winning side? While some of the story disappoints in the TV version, for me both on the page and on screen it’s one of Jon Pertwee’s finest moments as he pushes the logic of the guerrillas’ plans to its remorseless conclusion – a last suicidal attempt to carry out orders that doesn’t defeat the Daleks, but creates their future for them.

Always a favourite scene of mine, it’s relatively recently that it’s come to redeem what was one of those slight disappointments for me about the story: that it sets up what could be an intriguing mystery of motives as well as of time travel, but blows it too early. Presented with two apparently violent, villainous groups, camouflaged assassins taking orders from the moustached leader of their terror cell vs brutal ape-like aliens taking orders from an icy Controller (known only as the Controller), it not only offers a visual pun – guerrillas vs gorillas – but, in their mutual antagonism, a puzzle of which are the real ‘baddies’. Almost immediately, though, it’s revealed which side is working for the Daleks, and with that the mystery collapses into obviously evil Ogrons and quisling Controller vs misunderstood or misguided freedom fighters, making Jo seem dumb for clinging throughout to the opposite interpretation. And yet, the last time we watched the story, Richard wisely observed that this climactic scene and the ones following (which you’ll have to watch yourself) not only reverse everything the guerrillas know, but everything the audience knows about who’s really doing the Daleks’ evil work:
“All through this, Jo thinks that the Controller is the goodie, and the guerrillas are the baddies. And it turns out she was right all along.”
It’s not without some controversy. This whole scene’s a major point of disagreement in the principal DVD documentary (of several). Lead writer of the time Terrance Dicks is quite right to say that the story needed it – arguing that if strange things happen, the viewers are unsatisfied if they don’t get an explanation. Barry Letts, often spot-on with his instincts as producer, here gets it entirely wrong, claiming that it shouldn’t happen in the last episode – the last episode should be action. So Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy should start by saying who the mole is, then just make time until an extended shootout? Particularly when the ‘action’ climax of this story is so infamously thin, it’s great to have such a memorable a mid-episode climax that depends on concept and actors rather than budget. As Ben Aaronovitch says, otherwise there’d be nothing of substance in Episode Four, though even he seems to wish there was somewhere else to put it. Not at all. I didn’t come to the story as a middle-aged, thoughtful Liberal, but a boy who drew ray-blasts all over my books because there were never enough in the illustrations (and it was one of Doctor Who and the Day of the Daleks’ pictures that taught me how to draw explosions). And even then, I was gripped by the big twist even more than by the fabulous Dalek battle in my head.

Day of the Daleks – Alister Pearson (after Achilleos, Skilleter and Pearson)

Day of the Daleks and the Time Paradox

This was really the first time that Doctor Who had brought together the philosophical and practical sides of time travel into what would now be called a “timey-wimey” story – previously, the Doctor had talked about the impossibility or undesirability of changing time, rather than us being shown its effects, while stories featuring more time travel than just ‘TARDIS arrives at beginning, TARDIS leaves at end’ had effectively made time a different form of space to chase about in. This moment of this story was the first time that time was really used as intelligent drama – as well as providing in itself a warning that getting stuck in timey-wiminess is bad, and that trying to resolve it by getting deeper into timey-wiminess is worse, and that you’ll have a miserable life in which everything becomes meaningless. I always took this as proof that, while if you came up with a really good one-off story in which it had consequences that would work as drama, you couldn’t possibly do it every week. Some might argue that Doctor Who later doing it every week disproves that rule – but probably not if they’ve watched it. Notably, the next time that the Doctor is pitched against the Daleks in a story about changing history, the Time Lords position him on the wrong side, leading to deeper philosophical argument, the Doctor no longer having a get out of jail free card for a moral dilemma, and arguably the start of the Time War which consumes both Time Lords and Daleks. Again, drama means consequences.

There have been many heated debates across the years about exactly how the ‘Dalek future’ that the Doctor averts comes about (not least round at a couple of leading fan-writers’ place one Christmas, when Richard and one of them debated it to the death while I and the other partner kept our heads down in the kitchen). I won’t go into it in metaphysical or philosophical depth, nor detailed temporal physics, but here are a few thoughts. When I was a boy, reading the story, it always made sense to me, possibly because my religious upbringing prepared me for the conceptual leap of some exterior cause with different, Creator’s rules. A lot of essays I’ve read seem to assume that the Daleks do the hard work of invading, then the guerrillas accidentally use Dalek time travel to create a paradox which spares them the trouble, after which the Daleks retrospectively doss about just protecting the new timeline; or that it’s a parallel universe, which nobody ever mentions (this is, instead, explicitly the time-travel version of the sort of story Inferno was, with Pertwee again at his best up against it); or that the Daleks just ‘found’ the wrecked Earth or that in some other way the paradox just started by itself and the Daleks found themselves a part of it.

The forty-one-year-old me has much the same reaction, albeit with longer words and paragraphs, to what I’m confident the seven-or-so-year-old me who first read the book would: that’s silly, far too complicated, and missing the point. Obviously, the Daleks are the baddies, and are almost as good at time travel as the Time Lords, and as the Doctor can’t change history then obviously this isn’t how history is supposed to go (unlike the Daleks’ first invasion, in about the same spot, but that’s another story). So the reason the Doctor can put a spoke in this particular timeline must be that the Daleks intervened to set it up in the first place.
“We have changed the pattern of history.”
The time paradox is a closed system which goes round and round perfectly, once the Daleks somehow from outside the closed system just gave it a little starting push. As a boy, I pictured (perhaps in a mixture of science fiction, perpetual motion and theology) the Daleks lifting out a section of history as a bubble, intricately joining bits of it together and then setting it back in place to spin round and round. I can’t to this day explain the mechanics of that, but the conceptual image still makes perfect sense to me: the Daleks used their extremely clever time-travel engineering to bootstrap it and can then stand back while it circles for ever. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know exactly how it works, because the logic of the story and everything we know about the Daleks is that they’re behind it all, and unlike all those other ‘explanations’ that require there to be all those extra and often contradictory elements added to the story, my instinctive understanding has an Occam’s Razor about it and credits the Daleks with being clever. As well as appropriately making them the authors of their own destruction, as it’s only when they fearfully identify the Doctor as their enemy that makes the humans pay attention to him.

Richard wrote a more detailed and carefully considered analysis of what he sees as time paradoxes when considering What Does Timey-Wimey mean? in reviewing 2011’s Doctor Who – The Girl Who Waited on Millennium’s Fluffy Diary, as well as revealing that while a timey-wimey story may have been conceptually exciting to me as a one-off, when given nothing but so that no event means anything any more and Doctor Who disappears up its own timeline, my response is… Well, I may have given a hint there. But my Fifty aims to be positive, so I’ll stick to pointing you in Richard’s direction where, fascinatingly, despite having more of a head for high-level temporal physics than I do, he sees Day of the Daleks as philosophical rather than temporal engineering, driven by a plot in which the Daleks symbolise determinism and the Doctor free will. Rather brilliantly, this makes Day of the Daleks a battle between The Dalek Factor and The Human Factor, and a thematic sequel to The Evil of the Daleks after all. So the Doctor’s paradox trumps the Daleks’ not just dramatically but allegorically, when both quisling and terrorists – each thinking the other the enemy, but each raised with a Dalek mind-set – believe the ends justify the means and are equally surprised when the Doctor has compassion for the individual instead, in different ways the salvation of each of them (and of the world). Have a read.

Radio Times – Day of the Daleks

Ray Cusick and the Daleks

Writing about any Dalek story this week is going to have a touch of melancholy, following the death of Raymond P Cusick. Doctor Who has been so extraordinarily lucky in so many of the people who’ve worked on it over the last half-century – actors, writers, designers of sound and landscape, and more – that even a shortlist of ‘If it weren’t for these people, the series wouldn’t be around today’ couldn’t be very short. But Ray Cusick would always be in the top tier: the man who designed the Daleks. There were others who were vital to them, too, including Terry Nation, Peter Hawkins and Brian Hodgson, but Mr Cusick created that iconic look and propelled the series to its first great success. He was an immensely talented designer, whether working on planets, historical periods or giant suburbia (and that’s just his Doctor Who work), yet he’ll always be remembered for creating the series’ first and still one of its most visually striking and coherently imagined alien worlds and Doctor Who’s first big monster.

There’s a touch of guilt for fans, too, in that the other thing he’s remembered for is as ‘Laughing Ray Cusick’, a way to cope with the reason that his interviews about the series were always unsmiling and with unhappy undertones, what became almost the series’ original sin – that while other people and the BBC itself made an awful lot of money out of the Daleks, the person who most deserved to didn’t. I hope he still found some pride in them. And it’s notable that in all the minor redesigns of the Daleks that have followed, to take them too far from the logic of Mr Cusick’s originals is to invite disaster. Bringing them into colour for the first time in the TV series, Day of the Daleks at least makes the right choice in making some of its Daleks gun-metal grey for a lasting suggestion of one-being tanks, yet it not only robs them of much effect by directing them very feebly but ignores the work of the original actors and sound engineers, as a result proving that messing up the vocal design can be almost as big a mistake as throwing out Mr Cusick’s shape. Notably, it’s the only DVD for which an alternative Special Edition completely redubs every Dalek line rather than just changing the special effects…

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet

I’ve always been curiously fond of the opening for the prosecution in the Doctor’s big Trial, and gave The Trial of a Time Lord: The Mysterious Planet as near to a rave review as it’s likely to get for the DVD, there choosing a Golden Moment of existential crisis. And there’s more to come in the Fifty, too. But one of the things I particularly like about it is that it lets Colin Baker really blossom as the Doctor, not just through him finding interesting things to do to distract you from the script, as in too many, but simply writing well for him – giving him good speeches and a good relationship with Peri. It was the last full script from Robert Holmes, master of the speech, the scary bit and the one-liner and probably the greatest Doctor Who writer of them all, here in the first of what will be quite a few of his lines featuring in my countdown.

It’s half-way into Part One, and the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri have discovered that the mysterious planet is, inevitably, a familiar one: ours, and two million years in the future, it’s gone down the Tubes. So, it’s another dystopian future Earth, but at least this one wasn’t created by the intervention of a bunch of Time-Warring superbeings with a magnetron. Er… Anyway, confronted with the ruins of Marble Arch Station, Peri is distraught; the Doctor, sympathetic but worldly (it’s not that long since he was faced with his own gravestone). It’s a beautifully elegiac scene for both of them, her reacting at the human level to the loss of her world, him taking the long view.
“Planets come and go. Stars perish. Matter disperses, coalesces, reforms into – other patterns. Other worlds. Nothing can be eternal.”

Extra Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – Father’s Day

The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) has wise words about putting things in perspective.
“The past is another country. 1987’s just the Isle of Wight.”

Next Time… Duelling futures (it’s more timey-wimey, I’m afraid).

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 43: Paradise Towers… And Richard Briers

Counting down towards the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who with Fifty great scenes… This time it’s a brilliantly inventive mix of comedy and horror, taken from a 1987 story that brought the Doctor not to a shiny spaceship or a stylised English village but to a run-down tower block – run by Richard Briers. Paradise Towers is a grossly underappreciated story, and this scene would have been higher still in my Fifty were it not that I wanted to skip forward in order to give my own little tribute to Mr Briers.
“It’s – it’s – aaagghh!”
“Yes, I know.”

Doctor Who 50 – Paradise Towers

I gave Paradise Towers a rave review when it came out on DVD, so I’ve already gone over it in some detail and even, for the first time in my Fifty, already celebrated this particular scene as a Golden Moment. So for added value for long-term readers, this version’s different. As with much great Doctor Who, there’s always something new to get out of it, and only a week or so ago, when already thinking about this entry, I realised there was another blatant source for the story that I’d previously not connected with it. Seeing some barking libertarian talking head on the telly, Richard’s and my mature response was to cast Carry On Up The Fountainhead (‘How d’you know she is?’ ‘What?’ ‘Randy!’). The Fountainhead word-associated to Fountain of Happiness Square, where the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Mel first step out into dilapidated architectural marvel Paradise Towers. Something suddenly clicked in my head, and I suddenly realised that this tale of a solipsistic architect arrogantly careless of the people who might get in the way of his grand designs was more than a touch Carry On Ayn Rand already, cocking a snook at the ‘superior’. It was some time after that point that I realised the Great Architect Kroagnon’s name is half-derived from the grating architect Roark. Oh well. So much for brilliantly detailed analysis.

Anyway, arriving to see the sights of the acclaimed architectural triumph Paradise Towers, the Doctor and Mel find it’s a right old sight. The Doctor finds things to delight in, but Mel’s been listening to the fans:
“Just rubbish!”
“Nothing’s just rubbish if you have an enquiring mind.”
Their reactions are similarly divided on running into a gang of girls who’ve created names, crossbows and a culture from their surroundings: “Bin Liner,” declaims one as she sashays menacingly forward to introduce herself our heroes. The Doctor’s soon reciprocated and is caught up in a joyous dance with these Kangs… Mel stands grimly at the back. At crossbow-point. I always laugh at the exuberant wordplay, but in a more disturbing set of scenes in another part of the graffiti-covered, litter-strewn Towers cross-cut with these playful ones, we can see it’s not all fun and games.

A Caretaker is moving nervously along a darkened corridor, walkie-talkie in hand, as much to seek reassurance as to make his report to his Chief (Richard Briers, at this stage only heard). I loved the dirty set design, the low lighting, the sinister silhouette against the window – in a properly crapulent ’80s tower block, it always felt like Doctor Who had finally landed somewhere close to home, both bringing the series up to date and making it that much more unsettling. And, of course, like so many blocks of flats, the Caretakers are bugger all use. Is he fixing the lights, cleaning the wall-scrawl, offering help and advice to visitors? No. He’s as scared as the rest of us. And it’s the running commentary of his fear that really makes this scene, with Joseph Young’s captivating performance of a minor authority figure out of his depth as he finds mounting evidence of murder, even as his boss’ voice keeps crackling testily back at him that nothing’s the matter. Even the sinister bass of the music adds to the atmosphere.

But if it’s not the Kangs fighting among themselves, what could have killed the young woman we saw scream her last in the episode’s opening moments? What should be on the side of the Caretakers, under their control, but have become a law to themselves and almost a mythical sight? Surely not the Mark 7 Megapodic Cleaners? And while in many Doctor Who stories the sight of them might have been saved for the cliffhanger, and in many Doctor Who stories that take themselves more seriously the sight of such an unconvincing robot might wound the story terribly, the essential absurdity that these are the cosy cleaners that have gone on the rampage prepares you for what is, basically, a very unthreatening hoover with ideas above its station. And when Mr Briers at last sounds sympathetic, his punchline – exactly on the line between horror and comedy – is pitch-perfect.

Poor Caretaker 345/12(3).

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – The Face of Evil

It’s six minutes into Part Four: there’s a mad computer in denial; two tribes of believers on the point of losing faith; and the Doctor wisecracking while his new companion the local freethinker tries to kill him. Unusually, it’s not just because of his sense of humour. But never mind all that. This time, the quote really speaks for itself…
“You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common… They don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable, if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.”

Next Time… It’s about timey-wimey (oh, just shoot me for typing that).

Richard Briers
“I have played straight drama, which I love, but I eventually miss doing comedy because we are in such miserable times. And I do feel that my purpose in life is to cheer people up.”

The Good Life

Richard Briers was a figure from as far back as I can remember. Not always a comforting figure – even Tom Good had something slightly unhinged about him. I was most fond of him for Roobarb, who was just barking (and it’s sad to read that Bob Godfrey, the brilliant animator of those vibrating lines of Roobarb and Custard and all, has died in the last week, too). Grown up, I can still cackle at his drunken flirting with Margo, and came to appreciate his Martin in Ever Decreasing Circles – who I’d never warmed to when I was younger, but now see as a searing docu-drama about a typical Lib Dem local party committee member [in the commentary on a Christmas episode, the cast are asked about their most unusual roles. Richard Briers: “Mine was Doctor Who, a long, long time ago, when I played Hitler.” Peter Egan cuts in as Paul-to-Martin: “Oh, I don’t think you’d be miscast as Hitler… In fact, I think he’s a bit left-wing for you.” Richard-as-Martin: “I wish I’d never said anything now.” They fall about… The interviewer, of course, excitedly remembers Paradise Towers. Penelope Wilton modestly adds “I’ve been the Prime Minister,” which Mr Briers watched, and both her co-stars impressively get the literary reference to Sycorax. But I digress].

Mr Briers gave many brilliant straight drama performances, too – by one of those horrible coincidences that meant we’d never have put it on the following day, the night he died we were watching him in Midsomer Murders – Death’s Shadow. But he’s rather fine, and rather sad, in that, too; it’s a murder mystery, and a good one, so I shan’t tell you what he’s reacting to, but (my) Richard and I were each gripped by one particularly well-played reaction from him (17.20 and 1.34.58 in respectively, if you have it). And then there’s Paradise Towers.

Oh well. He’s not all bad in it – he is absolutely perfect as the foil nagging at the young Caretaker over the comms, then that moment of belated, inappropriate tenderness. He’s almost forced to be great when he and Sylvester swap roles as the Chief interrogates the Doctor. And he’s suddenly touching in peril at the end of Part Three. But, for the most part, he was ever after refreshingly candid that he ignored the producer and just wanted to have fun with it, so for much of it he is blankwallandcleaneringly terrible, albeit abetted by the designers festooning him as Hitler On Ice (in the words of some infamous review that escapes me). And yet, after two decades of fans glowering at him, he was a guest at the first convention I ever attended and brought the house down within seconds of coming on stage – by apologising for underplaying. I’ve never seen such instantaneous forgiveness.

So I want to say two things about Richard Briers in person. I met him twice, each time at the end of hours’-long autograph queues where most actors inevitably get tired and testy, yet he was never anything other than charming, enthusiastic and interested. The second time was an appearance at the Stamp Centre on the Strand, with his wife Ann Davies (who’s also lovely) and Tom Baker, where Tom was an old hand at these things while Richard was not only being the straight man to Tom’s booming rudery, but constantly looking about him with a delighted smile as if he couldn’t believe he’d got to his seventies without discovering such utter joy as being in a cramped shop packed with a never-ending queue for which he wasn’t even the main attraction. Was he a genuinely lovely man who really was personally interested and delighted in every single person he met? Or was he a brilliant actor who was able to fake it and extemporise interested things to say for four hours non-stop just because that would give all the queuers a happy experience to take home with them – which would also make him a genuinely lovely man?

One of the things I asked Tom (Tom Bad, perhaps I should call him, to make a distinction from the man signing my The Good Life set) to autograph that day was a photo I rather liked of him as the Doctor, with K9, from the 1980 story Full Circle. Unusually for a Doctor Who location shoot, the sun was blazing, and Tom’s rich red coat set among suddenly vibrant green leaves looked stunning, the whole image far more exotic than it had any right to be. He took it, and sat back.
“I seem to be in some sort of jungle.”
Richard Briers leant over, fascinated, his eyes lighting up.
“You went all over the world in your show!”
Tom snorted.
“All over Buckinghamshire!”

Tom and Barbara – Daleks

Not all actors – particularly ex-famous ones – took so well to being surrounded by people to whom they weren’t the lead. Back at that very first convention I attended, one actor – let’s call him Mr G— – had been a big soap star but had played only one minor character in Doctor Who, and was volubly aggrieved that his queue was much, much shorter than those for people he’d never heard of. Visibly more and more sour with the people he was signing for, when he stomped off at the end of his session Mr G— let rip in the green room, embarrassing most of his fellow guests with a tirade against “bloody anoraks” (that is, fans who didn’t properly appreciate him as the most important person in the hall, or perhaps the world). By contrast, I also once met Mr G—’s on-screen soap wife after she’d much later taken a role in an audio Doctor Who and, like Mr Briers, she came across as delighted and delightful in a similar setting. But back in that green room with Mr G—, for a few seconds there was silence. Then Richard Briers took a sip of tea, and looked up, with a mild but firm tone, to tell him:
“Those ‘anoraks’ are paying your wages.”
So, farewell, Richard Briers. You’ll be missed. My condolences to Ann and the rest of your family and friends. And thank you for being a genuinely lovely man.

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Monday, February 25, 2013


Eastleigh Memories – Time To Go There and Make New Ones!

Liberal Democrats! Have you been to Eastleigh yet? There’s still time, for the most hotly-contested by-election of the decade. Remember their last by-election? The incumbents (Conservative) was pushed into third place, while the main challengers (Lib Dems) won – now Lib Dem and Tory starting points are reversed, will they meet those same expectations? Labour leapt up from third place to second with 28%, showing Tony Blair was headed to government – where is Ed Miliband headed from his third place? I spent weeks there when I was younger and fitter, and remember a few things that might encourage you…

The 2013 Choices

This time round, the Liberal Democrats have an excellent local councillor as candidate, from an excellent Lib Dem local council. Mike Thornton is the candidate with the best local record – as well as fighting on national issues, field-testing the new Lib Dem slogan “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” and committed to being the 401st MP to support equal marriage. Whereas the bigots are spoilt for choice, with not just mouth-foaming minor candidates but the Tory (who disagrees on every single issue with her Prime Minister, except that they both know both their political futures depend on her winning) and, obviously, the bigot UKIP candidate threatening her are both making homophobic and xenophobic bigotry their top campaign priorities.

It’s a remarkable by-election, in that the Lib Dems have a strong local candidate, strong local issues, strong national issues (we believe in fairer taxes – the Tories don’t), and a bloody awful week of national publicity. The Tories and Labour, on the other hand, are simultaneously competing for the title of ‘Worst mainstream party candidate in a by-election since 1996’ (Jeanette Davy, South-East Staffs. She was a Lib Dem, so it’s about time one of the others won the wooden ballot paper). The Tory is an appalling snob who brays that no local school can possibly be good enough for her child, then demonstrates that no local voter is good enough for her to talk to by refusing to bother showing up for the BBC hustings. The Labour candidate is a minor comedian who says Labour supporters should “Go for it” and vote tactically for Lib Dems in seats like this – except, er, if he’s standing – and embodies the Labour Party’s Two-Minute (Thirty-Year) Hate by wishing Margaret Thatcher had been killed by terrorists.

At least George Galloway isn’t standing, having already won one by-election this Parliament and so not due to flip over to his 56th different constituency until 2015. That vile, bullying racist apologist for rapists and dictators is living proof that you can fool a lot of the people some of the time… But, after they get to know him, never more than once. UKIP with a beard and a red carpetbag.

So if you can get to Eastleigh and help (or make phone calls from your area), or donate if you can’t do either, do it today. I’m twice the age and weight I was in 1994, and have been particularly ill in the last week – but if I’m up to going out the door tomorrow or Wednesday, I aim to make it. You can read Lib Dem Voice’s or Mark Pack’s continuing reports from the campaign, and I personally recommend Liberal Youth’s “Today I Made A Difference” EastLY campaign to inspire you!

Eastleigh Memories of 1994

The 1992-97 Parliament was the period when I was young and healthy enough to spend more time helping out at Parliamentary by-elections than in the rest of my life put together – sixteen out of the eighteen that were held, in the days before parties took to tapping their older MPs to retire out of fear of lost seats. It was also the time when the largest number of policy motions I’d written got through Conference, for those foolish Lib Dems who believe campaigners and policy wonks can never mix (and are one Focus short of a delivery route). For some of the crucial ones, I spent weeks sleeping on people’s floors, or freezing to death hitch-hiking, or not being highly regarded by university tutors whose courses I was unaccountably absent from. Eastleigh was one of the friendliest, happiest, and didn’t have much rain. For all those reasons, I recommend going there yourself. And there was one more big attraction…

The bakery in town is my most indelible memory, which is odd, because though the smell of a bakery is one of the most wonderful in the world, I like pies and cream cakes, but have never cared for doughnuts. And yet, one morning I strode in and uttered the unusual but satisfying line, “Could I have two hundred doughnuts, please?” They offered ridiculous discounts for multiple buys, so that, say, one doughnut might be 85p, but you’d get three for £2, or ten for £5, with escalating discounts the more you bought. These were for the cheery campaign HQ and all the hundreds of volunteers rather than personal consumption, but the huge stack of boxes had the advantage of obscuring the rosette that might have put off an opinion pollster on the street. “Oh no,” I remember saying, “I wouldn’t like that Tony Blair as Labour Leader. Margaret Beckett’s the one you want, she’ll be very popular, and John Prescott, he’s a sensible man.” Since then, I’ve always taken opinion polls with just a pinch of icing sugar. Can any 2013 volunteers enlighten me as to if that baker is still there?

Eastleigh was also an excellent town for outspoken residents – much more exciting for a canvasser than shrinking violets. Last week, Boris Johnson failed to find a single Tory voter when knocking up the most Tory street in the constituency. I did rather better with Lib Dems last time I was there, but here are three canvassing experiences that stayed with me:
Though it was in nearby Christchurch that the candidate commented on similar voters, and in neighbouring Winchester that I had perhaps my most unrepeatable by-election experience… So I’d better repeat those another day.

Chris Huhne

And finally, one word of memorial to Chris Huhne. He’s probably not a good man, and may not be a nice one. But I’m grateful to him for two things that he was good at. He was a bloody good minister – as I’ve written before, even his Tory enemies found him (far too) effective, and we should all be grateful for the hard work he did for the country and the planet as Secretary of State For Energy and Climate Change. And before then, within the Liberal Democrats, he did more than any other individual to make raising allowances and taking the lowest-paid out of tax altogether into what became our biggest priority in the last election, our biggest priority in government, and now our biggest priority in the by-election. It was briefly a Lib Dem policy in the 1990s, swiftly dropped because it cost too much. For much of the early 2000s, I was literally the lone voice on the Federal Committee calling for it – as the bit in italics in this piece forlornly demonstrates. It took a far more powerful policy wonk than me to get it on the Lib Dem agenda, and as the bits not in italics demonstrates, that was Chris. Lib Dems with gritted teeth and freezing delivery rounds will feel they have little to thank Chris for this by-election. Millions of the lowest-paid who now pay no income tax won’t know it, but they have quite a bit to thank Chris for, actually.

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Saturday, February 23, 2013


Coming Soon: Three Things I’ve Written For Other People

Doctor Who! More Doctor Who! And the Liberal Democrats! Given how little I’m writing on here at the moment, it may come as a surprise that you’ll shortly be able to read three pieces of writing I’ve done for other people. It may be less of a surprise that they were all asked for last year (though all now completed, as far as I know). I’m not certain when each of them will be released, though soon, so it’s about time I give them each a plug and tell you where you’ll be able to read them. I’m quite excited.

How To Write Something: It Turns Out, Only By Getting Writing (nagging helps)

I love writing. Except when I don’t. In that, it’s rather like a lot of things in my life for which my health or my fears get in the way. And it’s a rather lovely ego-boost to be asked to contribute to something. But also sometimes terrifying. I write for many reasons: for pleasure (it’s certainly many years since any of it was for money); to make a point that needs saying; because I’m not able to get out much and want to feel like I’m connecting with the world… But I also tend to put things off, because I’m too ill much of the time and there are other things I want to do when I’m not. This means that anyone who is kind enough to ask me to write something does so at their peril, even if I do often really want to write for them. At the least, they’ll probably have to nag a bit. At worst, I may have to steel myself to get past the gnawing terror that sometimes irrationally substitutes itself for the ‘Whee!’ feeling that someone being nice about my writing ought to evoke. It’s embarrassing to admit (as some of the people involved may read this) that there’ve been times when, on receipt of an invitation to do some writing for something that sounds impressive from someone I respect, my immediate reaction was not to beam at the compliment but have a complete crash of self-esteem, worry that anything I wrote would never be as good as the other contributors, and pretend not to have seen the mail or any follow-ups (the online equivalent of keeping the door shut, the curtains closed, and never going out, as it happens pretty much my life offline). Which I suppose is just my life-long tendency towards seeking perfection as procrastination turned pathological.

I’m still putting off writing a lot of things I want to do for me, but happily somehow in the last year I managed to say yes to four interesting things for other people and have actually delivered three. Woo hoo! It may be significant that I warned three of them that I’m terrible with deadlines and would need nagging, while the other, for which I had several exciting ideas, took a while to reply, then I took longer to reply to them, then… Well, I’ve not heard any news of that particular book coming out, and I hope I’m wrong in suspecting it may not get round to. So, here are the three for which people gently prodded me, available soon…

Doctor Who Special Ad

The Doctor Who 8th Anniversary Special

Interviewing Martha Jones for Paul Smith at Wonderful Books

With the vacuity of the official modern Doctor Who Annual creating a gap in the market, in Summer 2010 the Doctor Who Magazine team (responsible for previous much more readable Doctor Who Annuals and similar books) joined with BBC Books to produce the far more interesting, text-intensive and generally creative The Brilliant Book of Doctor Who 2011, first in a series which ran… Only two years, unfortunately. But it did inspire something even more creative, entertaining and beautiful – and not just because it was based in a Who period considerably more to my taste and the only Doctor definitely more to my taste than the present one.

The Wonderful Book of Dr Who 1965 was created by Paul Smith as an homage to The Brilliant Book, but packed with facts, interviews and images based not on Matt Smith’s first season in 2010 but on William Hartnell’s (and the series’) first in 1963-4. And not only did it look gorgeous and was immensely readable, but it was very funny. Because not all of the facts (and none of the interviews) were exactly factual, both deeply loving and taking the piss outrageously. And all available as a free pdf, the cheaper, prettier, faster version of the old fanzine (though he did a few print copies, too).

All this meant that I was especially delighted when Paul Smith contacted me out of the blue to see if I’d like to write something for his next project. I didn’t know him, but I’d thought his work was (obviously) wonderful. And that this was to be an homage to the legendary Radio Times 1973 Special for the fiftieth anniversary was the reason I had to go for it, if I could. I’ve previously enthused about the Radio Times 1973 Doctor Who 10th Anniversary Special as probably the most marvellous single Doctor Who magazine ever published. It wasn’t until more than a year after that that Doctor Who first captivated me, aged three, so when a family friend who’d kept his slightly battered copy gave it to me, it instantly became one of my most treasured possessions. Before websites or guidebooks, this was the unique source of thrilling photos and details of stories from before I started watching (that is, prehistory).

Paul’s concept was to recreate the Special as if celebrating not the fiftieth but the eighth anniversary of a Doctor Who series that started for the first time in 2005, with other fans providing some of the artwork and comment pieces. In the original, double-page spreads about past stories alternated with newly shot double-page photo spreads and interview columns for past companions with pull-out quote headlines like “THE NUTCASE PROFESSOR SWEPT ME OFF MY FEET”. For a column like that, I was only given 350 words to play with – imagine – and a couple of other rules which I contrived to bend subtly, and may explain when the publication appears. I was asked which companion I’d like to write about, and though several tempted me – Rose and Jack were terrific in 2005, and I loved Jackie and Wilf – I instantly thought of Martha Jones (or Martha Smith-Jones, as she is now).

From her first appearance in Smith and Jones, Martha was a breath of fresh air for me – not just Freema Agyeman’s performance and giving as good as she got to the Doctor (and him not being interested), not just that she was the Doctor’s first full-time TV companion who was black (after Sharon, Roz and others elsewhere), but that she wasn’t going off with the Doctor only because her life was a bit rubbish. Martha is the only companion since Sarah Jane Smith with a decent, fulfilling, even exciting career – and for all of us who are so utterly gripped by the Doctor and his adventures, that’s a more inspiring example than the implicit suggestion that travelling in the TARDIS is only slightly better than being in a dead-end job you’re bored by or hate, or than having your parents killed in front of you. If you’re an achiever with a lot to give up, but the TARDIS is still so exciting you’d go off in it without a second thought – well, you would, wouldn’t you? And, for me, she has by far the most satisfying (and self-chosen) exit from the new TARDIS, too, again after impressive achievements in her own right.

I understand that other contributors might have written critical assessments or celebrations of their picks, but with the Radio Times Special so deeply ingrained in me, I knew immediately that I wanted to write an ‘After the Doctor’ interview in that style, for the character rather than the actor, and that though I was going to be tongue-in-cheek in several ways (her earnestness, the Doctor) as well, I was going to set out first to say ‘She’s a strong, brilliant character’. And while it may have taken some time to think of all the other words, then edit them all back down again, my starting point leapt into my head fully-formed on reading Paul’s initial email:
You can already see a tiny preview of the Martha Jones pages on the Wonderful Books site, and I believe the new Specials are now at the printer’s.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth 2164

The Worldcon Guide To Doctor Who In London

Bigging up That London for Nicholas Whyte and the 2014 World Science Fiction Convention
“Of all the places the Doctor ever visits, which is the one he comes back to more than any other? Not ostensibly exotic locations such as Skaro, Peladon or New New Earth – even Cardiff – but London. And, paradoxically, since Doctor Who began recording in Cardiff, the Doctor has been drawn to London more than ever before. But then, when the Fifth Doctor exclaimed that he was being pulled towards the middle of the Universe, there was no way this was going to mean a thrilling return to Terminus. Inevitably in Doctor Who, the centre of the Universe is London.”
Diplomat and prolific science fiction (and Northern Irish and European politics) blogger Nicholas Whyte rang me last year to ask me if I’d like to write a guide to London locations in Doctor Who. He’s one of the organisers of Worldcon 2014, taking place in London next August, and thought this would make a great advertising hook to encourage people to come to London from all over the world.

That seems, you might think, quite a long lead-up time, and it did to me, so pity poor Nicholas a few weeks ago when I’d not yet turned my notes into a proper guide and, it turned out, not this year’s Worldcon in San Antonio but the biggest US Doctor Who convention – Gallifrey One, in Los Angeles, which took place last weekend – was looming upon him and he needed leaflets to hand out. Which led to me finally getting down to the drafting over the course of about four days solid, and discovering that I had oodles of notes for some Doctors and rather fewer than others. My intention had always been to select one location for each Doctor, all across Greater London, to give a range of time and space. So imagine my hilarity when, thinking all I had to do was whittle down several possibilities for each, I found that for two of the less Londoner Doctors I’d pencilled in the same location and didn’t have a back-up. I won’t tell you what, or how I ended up finding an alternative for one of them – though I did for a wild moment consider making a point of it and choosing that same location for four different Doctors, if that’s a clue…

I’d been told to write for a word count in the low thousands and, being me, ended up at what might be considered the upper end of that – about 3,400 words. Nicholas was very complimentary about it all, and is going to put the lot up on the convention website – but it was never going to fit on a leaflet. So the last of my four days was spent cutting it down by more than half, to 1,600 words, at the same time substantially rewriting it to make it still work at that length and trying to keep in at least some of the jokes, on the grounds that while I found such other guides as Richard Bignell’s book Doctor Who On Location and the website Doctor Who – The Locations Guide invaluable research aids and recommend each, they’re best to dip into and not easy to read through as enticements. And, in an attempt to forestall Nicholas and the Worldcon London team from making it less readable, at about two in the morning I stuck the text into some text boxes, inserted a few photos and clicked “Save as pdf” to prove that it would all fit on a leaflet as was. I expected they’d find someone with any graphic design ability to turn the text into leaflets…

So my apologies to people who picked up the leaflets in Los Angeles last weekend and saw something scruffy from Word without any links on it, but at least I reckon the text was pretty good. If you’d like a copy of the pdf, email me (look at the sidebar), and at some point the extended version, which is a more entertaining read, will be up on the Worldcon 2014 website. In the meantime, here’s one of Nicholas’ reports from Gallifrey One, complete with the huge maps they hung up to make sense of my references. I won’t tell you all of my choices here, but the first is obvious:
“Daleks looming before the Palace of Westminster and St Stephen’s Tower – the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben – are the very image of democracy overthrown by fascism. Before crossing the Westminster Bridge toward the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, look left along the Albert Embankment; if you see zeppelins and signs for Newport, you’re in the wrong London. Best get that settled before you set out. Pass Big Ben into Parliament Square, turn right into Parliament Street / Whitehall to follow in Barbara’s fast footsteps, and like her you’ll reach Trafalgar Square at the end. That in itself is a much-used Doctor Who landmark: Ian and Barbara return there for an exuberant homecoming in The Chase; a New Year rings in in The Daleks’ Master Plan; Nelson gets a redesign in No Future and has long since toppled by The Sontaran Experiment; Rose has lunch there with Mickey before meeting the Doctor; it’s conquered by the Daleks again in the game City of the Daleks; but Londoners can feel secure that in a thousand years’ time, Trafflegarr Square will still be there in Spaceport Five Undertown.”

The Dalek Invasion of Earth 2013

What Do the Lib Dems Believe?

Liberal Philosophy for a Mark Pack Infographic

While I don’t know if I’ve ever met Paul, and I know Nicholas a bit, Mark has known me more than twenty years. That means he knows my relationship with whooshing deadlines, so he’s the one who wisely met up with me for a couple of hours and prodded my brain for ideas rather than necessarily waiting for me to do the actual writing. Last year, Mark produced an Infographic on “Liberal Democrat Achievements In Government” free for any Lib Dem or reader to get across at a glance some of the influence we’ve had through the Coalition. His next Infographic is to get across what we stand for.

Mark and I have worked on and off together on a simple crystallisation of what the Liberal Democrats believe for decades, first inspired by the ’90s “core message” under Paddy Ashdown and Matthew Taylor (for which I was back in a senior enough position to get hold of much of the briefings). In recent months, there’s been work on a new one under Nick Clegg and Ryan Coetzee, and while Mark will no doubt be including that as part of his Infographic, we both wanted to come up with something a bit deeper: a mixture of history, philosophy, controversy and current priorities, the story of the Party and its soul, if you like, hopefully showing how they all fit together and giving something that all Lib Dems can nod at, whether for information or for inspiration. My intention, at least, is something that Lib Dem members can look at and think, ‘Yes, that’s some of why we bother’.

Though Liberalism provides a far more coherent and consistent philosophy for the Lib Dems than whatever shifting melanges animate the Labour and Tory Parties, it’s not without its problems in summing it up in brief – nor do I envy Mark in having to find images to illustrate concepts for his Infographic. I’m also grateful for him for pulling it together, not least because my series of ‘What the Liberal Democrats Stand For’ posts on this blog has mostly gone unwritten or in fits and starts, and I’ve not even finished republishing my original 1999 Love and Liberty pamphlet on here. So, Mark’s project is less ambitious, but it’s happening (hooray).

My best guess is that Mark is likely to publish the Infographic for Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in a fortnight, and I’m intrigued to see how it turns out. He did send me his rough notes last month, which I didn’t get round to helping with; he’s since sent me the first draft of the Infographic itself, to which I helpfully replied (having failed to do it at the more amorphous stage) with a close-to-complete redraft. Being me, and more a words than a graphics sort of person, that also raised the suggested word count from about 600 words to about 800, which I expect Mark to slash even if he wishes to take all my points on board. I know he’s circulated it to several other people, too, so I have excitingly no idea what the final version will look like – but I hope I’ll agree with it, and so will many of you.

At the risk of picking out elements that don’t make it through, here are a few teasers:

I’ve suggested the Infographic start with What the Liberal Democrats Believe in six words. But which six?

Mark is, amongst many other things, an historian, and one of the key staging posts for him in the Party’s history was the mid-Twentieth Century development of both Community Politics and Europeanism as important to our predecessor Liberals and Social Democrats. People often think these are contradictory, but they’re not – so here’s one of the lines I suggested to get across as briefly as possible why they’re part of the same thing:
“both challenged centralised power, saying decisions should be at the lowest practical level, from your local community for local issues to international co-operation on issues like trade and climate change.”
And when many are trying very hard to say the Party’s split today between Economic and Social Liberals, for me this is greatly overstated. The extremes make a lot of noise, but most Lib Dems see themselves comfortably as both, or simply as Liberals. So here was my suggestion on how briefly to sum up the consensus, not just the differences, between members of the Liberal family:
“All Liberals believe in liberty, and that any sort of power (government, business, other people) can both protect and threaten liberty.
“Economic and Social Liberals put different emphasis on which sources of power are the best defences or the biggest bullies, and on whether freedom or fairness is the biggest priority.”
Some may recognise my paraphrasing of my old friend and mentor Conrad Russell. And before long, you can see if any of this made it into the final draft!

Something Mark’s prodding brought me back to look at again was my own shortish ‘What the Liberal Democrats Stand For’ statement, which I first drafted in the ’90s and had slightly updated several times since to incorporate a flavour of whatever the Party’s key priorities happened to be at the time. As each version was limited to between 140-150 words, in the years that I was Vice-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee and would deliver its report to Party Conference, I even used to read it out as part of my speeches, on the basis that if any Party body should be concerned with what we stand for and communicate it to people, it should be the one that’s responsible for the Manifesto.

It’s some years since I last wrote a new draft of this, and I had a go, incorporating some of the new Ryan Coetzee messaging. It was the largest change (still kept below 150 words) I’d made since I first came up with it, and I’m not printing it here today because, after an appropriate pause for thought (and after Richard shaking his head), it seems too much of an ugly mash-up. Should I manage to get it to flow soon, I might publish it when the Infographic appears. In the meantime, if you’d like to chip in or just to see what the Lib Dems stand for for me, email me (again, link in the sidebar) and I’ll send you both the previous 2000s version and my latest attempt-in-progress.

And that’s it, at last. I hope you enjoyed the trailers, and that you’ll soon be able to see the main features. And just a couple of days ago, I was asked if I’d like to write something for another fan magazine I adore… But as I volunteered to do what’s probably the most popular bit, they may not say yes!

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 44: Enlightenment

Counting down towards the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who with Fifty great scenes… Tonight’s is an especially fine cliffhanger moment, so if you’ve never experienced Enlightenment, meditate. Or, to remain unspoilered, pop in the third DVD from Doctor Who – The Black Guardian Trilogy and play Part One. Now you can safely look at the screenshot and the snippet of script below, and read just what captivates me aboard a mysterious Edwardian clipper. It’s from an eerie 1983 tale, Doctor Who’s first to be both written and directed by women, visually and emotionally unsettling, and the most striking revelation is…
“Electronics – on an Edwardian racing yacht?”
“Look at the screen. We’re not on a yacht – we’re on a ship. A spaceship.”

Doctor Who 50 – Enlightenment

There’s no way to conceal that reveal in any meaningful picture or quote, but I hope you’ll still enjoy with me how the puzzle builds up. It’s an old-fashioned Part One were the mystery slowly develops as our heroes explore, though introduced by a more unusual raising of the stakes.

The TARDIS has been caught in mid-flight by mixed signals from god and the devil – more or less, but certainly among the more blatant authorial voices to introduce a story – and the Doctor (Peter Davison) charged with intervening in a race that no-one must win. They materialise unexpectedly on an Edwardian racing clipper where what seems a perfectly ordinary crew are kept below, matey enough but strangely ignorant of the object of the race – while reading newspaper reports of the first British submarine launch to keep themselves occupied. Can this be the right place? They’re hardly a threat to the peace and harmony of the Universe. And surely neither are the officers, even if they seem to be taking the Edwardian upper class to extremes, stiff-faced, clipped-voiced and not the mingling type. The Captain (Keith Barron) seems to take a cold interest in the Doctor; the First Mate, Mr Marriner, an unnerving one in Tegan; and bluff old hand Jackson (Tony Caunter, Eastenders’ Roy) a protective one in Turlough.

The men are whistled aloft, and Turlough ducks out of following them on deck and up the rigging – you can’t blame him, as a crewman’s scream of terror echoes from above. Perhaps it’s just his first time. As Tegan’s taken to the wheelhouse, she sees what seem to be wetsuits hanging in the companionway. And why is it so dark outside? While the Captain and Mate attend to the race, the Doctor recognises the race marker buoys on the chart as something rather more significant… As Malcolm Clarke’s music plays a deceptively innocent watery dance, Marriner opens a lacquered wooden panel. Beneath, a decorously concealed set of controls and, with a touch and a proud fanfare, wooden shutters open to reveal a line of ‘sailing ships’ in the styles of different Earth historical periods all floating effortlessly in space, ready to sail round the planets of our solar system in a race to win… What?

Back when I reviewed this on the DVD’s release, I chose another, less spoilery golden moment to protect anyone who’d not seen it, but I still had to allude to this one – all three of Enlightenment’s cliffhangers are crackers, but the first is one of the most memorable cliffhangers of the ’80s. It’s a distinctive Doctor Who ‘What the hell’s going on?’ twist: not just a strange juxtaposition or something going wrong with time, but the revelation that what’s really going on in what looks like history is so weird that it’s beyond even time travel. Even Doctor Who offers just a handful of such stories, but they tend to be among its best. Enlightenment is, for me, certainly one of most interesting stories in Peter Davison’s time as the Doctor, and similar claims can be made for its two most notable predecessors.

The War Games apparently begins with the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) arriving in one of the most terrible times in Earth’s history, the trenches of the First World War – but, while mud, artillery barrages and an Adjutant shocked that soldiers fighting for their lives should fail to fill out forms keeping track of shovels are all present and correct, the General is not merely brutal but sinisterly hypnotic, and what’s that video screen, or strangely TARDIS-like machine? At the cliffhanger to Episode Two, our heroes team flee in an ambulance with an officer and a nurse who’ve sensed that something’s wrong – only to go literally off the edge of the map and find themselves, disorientatingly, attacked by a chariot and legionaries.
“Doctor, who were those people who attacked us just now?”
“Oh, they were Romans.”
“But that’s impossible!”
“Oh, lots of impossible things happen when you pass through time.”
Arguably stranger still is Carnival of Monsters, in which the Doctor (Jon Pertwee)… Well, the best way to introduce it is still with the book’s brilliant tagline:
“The Doctor and Jo land on a cargo ship crossing the Indian Ocean in the year 1926.
“Or so they think.”
And yet, for me, brilliant as both of those stories and their own bizarre cliffhangers are, for its perfectly building mystery and visual style, Enlightenment still beats both of them.

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – The Curse of Fenric

A story that’s not just one of the best for its Doctor, but for any Doctor; a ship that’s not flying, but drowned; and a chilling build-up to a stunning cliffhanger moment. So why haven’t I picked this as one of the Fifty in its own right? Well… It has a stunning cliffhanger moment – but it’s not the cliffhanger. The Curse of Fenric is outstanding in so many ways – a complex drama, a horror story, a World War II and pre-emptively Cold War action thriller – but just about the only element it fumbles is the first cliffhanger, choosing instead the banal cliché of ‘Doctor and companion surrounded by men with guns who will predictably not kill them next week’. As a result, to reveal these lines as the Golden Moment they deserve to be would require excavation and careful archaeological reconstruction, sunken as they are around the end of Part One and the beginning of Part Two or deep in the murky structure of the Special Edition. One day, I’ll get hold of some DVD-editing software and hold up that marvellous cliffhanger (its climax some two and a half minutes into Part Two, or twenty-nine into the feature-length version) to the light. Until then, there’s the skein of a marvellously atmospheric narration running through it.

Strange happenings surround the secret base on the East Coast where Dr Judson toils over a thinking machine devised to unearth enemy cyphers. A crack force of Russian soldiers aims to steal the device, but too many of them are going missing in the sea mist, or found drained of blood. Obscenely warped metal-coral artefacts found on the shore are seized by obscenely warped claws from under the waves. And the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) seems fascinated by the carvings made by doomed Viking pirates a thousand years ago. Judson, too, has his codebreaker’s curiosity stirred by the Ninth-Century runes in the old vaults beneath the parish church. Then the frightened vicar – a superbly underplayed Nicholas Parsons, already featured in my Eleven More Great Scenes – brings the Doctor his grandfather’s translation of the Viking inscriptions…

In a story bursting with memorable words and images, one of the most atmospheric sequences has – very rarely for Doctor Who – a voice-over, written by the long-dead, passed between different characters and all absolutely mesmerising. The Doctor begins the narration, sober but leaping into excitement; he passes the Victorian vicar’s work to Judson, who takes it up greedily, unable to resist the answer to the puzzle; the base commander speaks a few lines in sick dread; and Judson reads to the end as, all the while, cross-cutting images suggest that to excavate the words and speak them aloud is to resurrect the demonic enemy buried with them. Swimmers watched from under the water… The great old stone slabs carved with runes… The barnacled dragonship long sunken beneath the waves of Maidens’ Point, the fresh corpse of a Russian soldier ensnared by the weeds round the long dragon neck… The final stone slab left suggestively smooth… The bloated claw caressing the head of the dragon…

We hope to return to the North Way,
carrying home the Oriental treasures
from the Silk Lands in the East,
but the dark curse follows our dragonship.

Black fog turned day into night,
and the fingers of death
reached out from the waters
to reclaim the treasures we have stolen.

I carve these stones in memory of
Asmund, Grimvald, Torkal, Halfdan.
Brave Viking warriors slain by the curse.

We sought haven in Northumbria,
and took refuge at a place called Maidens’ Bay,
but the curse of the treasure
has followed us to this place.

Night is the time of the evil curse,
and no man is safe alone.
The waters are most dangerous.

The dark evil lies waiting in the sea.
It has followed the treasure we stole.
We cannot see it, but we know it is there,
beneath the surface,
beyond seeing,
but it is there.

And one by one,
our crew is being killed.

I warn of the day when the Earth shall fall asunder
and all of Heaven too.
The Wolves of Fenric shall return for their treasure
and then shall the dark evil rule eternally.

I am the only one left alive now.
I raise these stones to my wife Astrid.
May she forgive my sin.
The day grows dark and I sense
the evil curse rising from the sea.

I know now what the Curse of Fenric seeks.
The treasures from the Silk Lands in the East.

I have heard the treasures
whisper in my dreams.
I have heard the magic words
that will release great powers.
I shall bury the treasures for ever.

Tonight, I shall die.
And the words die with me.

Fire bursts from the last of the old stones beneath the church, carving out the last of the runes…

And, beneath the waters of Maiden’s Point, the eyes of the drowned Russian commando suddenly spring open.

When I drew up the full Fifty, this entry was going to begin three weeks where, out of sheer perversity, I picked something strange happening with time. Well, I didn’t expect to get quite so far behind, so it won’t be three time in a row: the other two will come shortly, but for the next one I’m skipping straight to the scene I had planned for last weekend and Number 41…

Next Time… An unhelpful boss (but a genuinely lovely man).

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Saturday, February 09, 2013


What Is the Point of the Church of England?

What an unfortunate week for former oil baron and newly unelected baron Justin Welby to become the last Archbishop of Canterbury. The week he screamed ‘Gays! Know your place!’ and ‘Ex-kings! Know your place!’ The week that the Church of England looked more like a useless and vindictive relic than any week since, oh, the last one (‘Women! Know your place!’). With the established church wielding vast power and money but refusing to do its few jobs as a minor nationalised industry – births, marriages, deaths – how long before the country says ‘We know your place – the scrapheap’?

I don’t imagine that unelected Lord Welby will be any worse than his predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury, that hypocritical, canting bigot-fancier Rowan Williams, but he faces a church in an even worse state of decay. Church attendance continues to decline, while the only issues on which the Church of England speaks with passion – or shrill desperation – and consistency are as the BNP’s vicars on Earth.

The Church of England – Moral Evil Moderated Only By Love of Money and Power

The Church of England is on the wrong side of history, but still screams with privilege – not to mention power and the love of money. The only thing the establishment of the established screams louder about than upholding vicious evil bigotry is upholding its holdings. The less influence it has on society and the less interest anyone has in it, the more they hold onto their unearned goodies.

No-one votes for their bishops, who must on pain of death never be women or gays, but they get to sit in their palaces and in our Lords to literally lord it over the rest of us.

Major church decisions are made not on theology or faith, but on what will get through Parliament and retain their cash and comfy red leather benches.

While other churches without all the state money and power can choose who they perform services for, the established church is meant to be the nationalised industry that has to do the cheap and cheerful ceremonies for anyone who asks. But though their talk is cheap, can anyone call them cheerful? Not when they put up snobby block after snobby block to prevent people they disapprove of from calling on their increasingly narrow ‘love’.

This isn’t just a lazy bunch of pampered bigots trying to get out of doing any work for their power, wealth and prestige. It’s shrivelling the pitiful excuse for a moral sense that the established church still pretends to, their very establishment nature gnawing away daily at Christianity in this country while they blame everyone else for it.

Does anyone – does even any bishop saying it – not cringe as they bear false witness about their vicious campaigns of hate?
When thirty seconds’ online search on Hansard proves the bigot bishops liars who screamed against and voted against every liberal move on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights that they now mendaciously claim they always supported, just no further? That they now ‘support’ the civil partnerships that they warned were the end of the world?

No wonder they screamed so much about civil registrars not having to perform civil partnerships – the ones they loathe and fear but feel compelled to lie about now approving, and which they made sure had nothing to do with religion? They protect evil bigots who want to take all the money but not do the job. Can anyone be surprised, when that’s exactly what the Church of England itself does, writ large? Has anyone on Earth previously had a special law passed in order to ‘protect’ themselves from doing the only job they’re meant to do?

And does anyone think for a moment that anything will get easier for them?

Two Predictions For Within the Next Ten Years – More Marriage, Fewer Lords

More ‘redefining’ marriage:
An elected ‘House of Lords’:
The Monarchy – An Embarrassment to the Church of England (or vice versa)

Many of the bigot bishops will surely be praying for a swift end to the monarchy. Not only is it a constant reminder to everyone in the country to point and laugh at the church founded on the one holy aim of Henry VIII having a divorce (and more) explicitly forbidden by the same Jesus who never mentioned gays pretending that their never, ever redefining marriage is the pretext for their bigotry, but it’s only a matter of time before we have a gay or bi heir to the throne who wants to marry their same-sex partner.

With the monarchy falling in public esteem at a far slower rate than the crash-diving established church, there would be no faffing about with abdication next time. Imagine the public outrage if the Church of England tried to insist that the princess or prince could not marry and could not become monarch because of the bishops’ bigotry. No; once again, the reality of money and power would collide with the Church of England and it would suddenly find that it could accommodate a change in the law when the alternative is having to take a vow of poverty and political impotence.

The bigot bishops might, with straight faces, say that all is needed is a special exceptional law, so that the Queen or King can marry someone of the same sex but no-one else can. Oh, sorry, I apologise. I’m being too cynical. That would be like the Church of England having a woman Supreme Governor but saying that, at the next rung down, women bishops were icky and silly flibbertigibbets that no right-thinking man could tolerate. No, wait – bad example.

This week, of course, Richard III’s body was dug up in Leicester. He was a Catholic King, whose power base was at York and who wanted to be buried in York Minster. Obviously, the only question should be whether to honour his spiritual or his temporal wishes, and bury him either in a currently Catholic cathedral or in York Minster, with a possible outside bet of Westminster Abbey to honour a monarch. Equally obviously, the Church of England insist that he’s theirs to do with as they wish, that they refuse to have him at York, and that he’s to be kept in Leicester. Where he was dragged by the Tudor usurper with a slim claim to the throne whose son founded their usurper church with a slim claim to Christian tradition. No wonder the Church of England want to keep him as close to under the car park as they can.

Jesus is an embarrassment to them, too. He called the Church his Bride and he the Bridegroom; Justin Welby in his private prayers must no doubt scourge himself for those many more than thrice public denials before the cock, every time he insists that he’s only the deity’s civil partner.

Not Today, Not Tomorrow, But, Inevitably, Disestablishment

The only job the Church of England has that most people see in their everyday lives – and even then only at infrequent points in them – is officiating at births, marriages and deaths. And they’re so determined to avoid doing even that tiny thing for the people of England to justify their money and power that they’ve had a special law passed exempting them from their only point.

There’s no point to the Church of England for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people.

There’s no point to the Church of England for women generally.

There’s no point to the Church of England for honest believers.

There’s not even any point to the Church of England for the monarchy.

Beyond the point of no return, it’s time to disestablish the Church of England. Obviously.

This is the only point at which I regret that the Liberal Democrats are in coalition with the unstable Tory coalition of half rudderless Cameroons, half ungovernable loonies, and not with the 1980s Conservative Party of Mrs Thatcher. If she were the Prime Minister we were dealing with, then we’d be able to break up the last and most failed of the nationalised industries. The Coalition could disestablish the whole wreck, sell off the vast wealth and use the money to help the people left in the cold by the church’s gold-plated empty words, and let every local believer-franchise decide on its own genuine theology rather than have to present one-lie-fits-all compromises for Parliamentary approval.

Win-win, surely? But, as obviously as it’s time for them to go, the Church of England will no doubt carry on as a zombie establishment on the wrong side of history for another century. How much more harm will it do before it’s put out of our misery?

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Friday, February 01, 2013


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 45: Robot

Counting down towards the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who with Fifty great scenes… Tonight’s celebrates the late, wonderful Elisabeth Sladen’s birthday by going back to a particularly fine moment for Sarah Jane Smith, joined by the Doctor and Harry to set out in their first trip in the TARDIS together. And mine. Beware spoilers for Robot, the story that first captivated three-year-old me and led to all this, as the coda still charms me every time…
“Doctor, you – you’re being childish.”
“Well, of course I am. There’s no point in being grown up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”

Doctor Who 50 – Robot: The Doctor, Jelly Babies, Sarah Jane and Harry

This story changed my life – and not just by giving the best advice to any child (or worst for them, if you’re a parent). Can I imagine any of it without Doctor Who? Without reading, politics, Richard? I wouldn’t want to. So it’s hard to think of an adventure closer to my heart, nor a team that makes me smile so delightedly as the Doctor, Sarah and Harry. This is the scene where they come together as a proper TARDIS crew, with Harry taken for a ride, the fourth Doctor offering his first jelly baby, and Sarah Jane – ah, Sarah Jane. With Sarah Jane grounding the Doctor and standing up to him when he’s gone too far – but then, the grown-up of the three, making a deliberate choice to be child-like and, in doing so, giving the Doctor consent to fly again. With my Fifty restricted to the Doctor Who TV series, there are sadly no selections from The Sarah Jane Adventures – but there is, there has to be, Sarah Jane Smith.

Doctor Who 50 – Robot: Sarah Jane Smith

My apologies at this point to regular readers for having been an irregular writer. I had intended to write this for Saturday 19th January, which would have been ideally placed between the 18th – on which Robot Part Four was originally transmitted in 1975 – and the 20th – which was Tom Baker’s 79th birthday. That would also have followed on naturally from my posts about My Doctor Who Thirty-Eighth Anniversary and my Favourite Season Countdown, going straight to Number Two on the list (and to Number Three, below). Happily, tonight would not only have been Elisabeth Sladen’s birthday, but is the anniversary of Part Two of The Ark In Space, her first full story that I saw, and which gave me the finest nightmares in all the world. So that’s almost worth the wait. As to what caused the wait… Not only have I been more ill than usual (as usual), but my mouse karked it, and I found myself completely unable to get to grips with the swish new RSI-beating joystick replacement I bought. So thank you, my lovely Richard, for so many things but on this particular occasion for buying for me (though it was your birthday and not mine) a less radical vertical mouse that I can more or less use, and that more or less diffuses the pain. I won’t make any rash commitments to catch up this time, but merely offer a few extra photos by way of making up for lost weeks, and a special preview of one of the few things I’ve been doing in the blizzardy weeks between (re-enacting not The Ark In Space, but a thematic successor to that story, first broadcast thirty-seven years ago yesterday evening).

The new Doctor (Tom Baker) has been amazingly physical and inventive in his first story, body and mind in constant motion as he seizes the series. And arrayed against him, fascists, nuclear Armageddon, and an impressive, intelligent Robot, to whom only Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) ever shows kindness and whose mind is eventually broken by manipulation, loss and despair. Sarah Jane has been almost as much the star of this show as the new Doctor – the first to discover what’s going on, on her own initiative; brave; clever; inquisitive; ruthless with a gun in facing down the villain; but also compassionate. When the Robot takes on the whole world, the Doctor is worried for the world… But Sarah Jane is, very Doctorishly, also concerned for the Robot, an immensely powerful, suffering child. Her sympathy for the Robot was my first lesson in moral sense from Doctor Who: empathy for the ‘other’, and ever since wondering if every artificial intelligence has an existential crisis of its own (and knowing instinctively what an ‘existential crisis’ was long before I had the words for it).

The Doctor saves the world, and he’s newly alive, and loving it, and he’s very, very clever, and for all those reasons, he deserves to look pleased with himself. But in doing all of that, he’s killed someone – someone that Sarah Jane cared about – and that makes his triumph feel almost as wrong as it’s right. That’s why it’s so right that the story doesn’t let him off with it. I’ve often pointed out the plot elements that Russell T Davies’ stories take from this season of Doctor Who: perhaps he took some of its heart, too, because just as he showed that sometimes the Doctor needs a strong woman friend to tell him he’s gone too far, the camera cuts from the Robot crumbling to dust to the effect that it – and the Doctor – has had on the Doctor’s best friend…

In the aftermath, Sarah Jane sits forlornly in the old Doctor’s lair, the UNIT laboratory. The new Doctor enters, this regeneration not haughty but naughty, and before leaving that lab for the last time at the end of the scene, at the start of the scene there’s what turns out to be an iconic moment when Tom takes his first bag of jelly babies from his pocket and, desperate to make her happy again, says, for the very first time:
“Would you like a jelly baby?”
Doctor Who 50 – Robot: The Doctor

She doesn’t respond; so he moves from being the little boy offering a present so he doesn’t have to apologise to trying to engage her in argument. He had to do it… And she knows, it did terrible things, “but at first, it was so human.” And he admits that it was: “capable of great good, and great evil,” and in doing so, that he too has the knowledge of good and evil that she demands of him. Then, having given a little to his friend, the only worry that was keeping him there, he’s off. Even though – especially though – the Brigadier wants him to address the Cabinet, the PM and the Queen and write a mass of reports. And that’s exactly the point at which Sarah Jane, already established as the grown-up in this relationship, puts her finger on what his tantrum’s all about.

And in the most important moment in the whole scene, where she could tell him to face up to his responsibilities, or refuse to forgive him and stay, unhappy… She stands, firmly shoots out her arm, and naughtily snatches a jelly baby. She’s not given in to him, but made her own choice, and she wants to be a child, too.

Which is when poor Harry enters. A marvellous portrayal of an upper-class not-quite-twit, Ian Marter makes the character work by being so utterly endearing and eager to please. He’s mostly been the comic relief this time; in the next story, he provides more comedy to leaven the horror, then gets serious for the next two stories before briefly slipping back into comic relief and then, startlingly, becoming part of the horror… But first, he has to step into the TARDIS. He’s new to UNIT; he’s new to the series; and he doesn’t know what’s coming. I didn’t, then, either, and I was just as wide-eyed as Harry. But you know, don’t you, reader? So when the Doctor tells Harry he’s going on a little trip and, a similarly generous offer, gives him a jelly baby, Harry’s the only one who doesn’t understand the subtext.
“What, in that old police box?”

Doctor Who 50 – Robot: Harry Sullivan

Sarah Jane giggles. The Doctor, hurt, takes back the jelly baby. And Harry, who’s the most boyish of them all, tries to be adult and tells the Doctor that they’re both reasonable men. Which is his third mistake just since walking through the door. And that they both know that police boxes don't go careering around all over the place. Which is his fourth. And then he listens to the Doctor, who’s acting innocent. And that’s his biggest mistake of the lot.
“You wouldn’t like to step inside a moment? Just to demonstrate that it is all an illusion?”
“Well, if you think it’ll do any good.”
“Oh, yes, it’ll make me feel a lot better.”
Sarah Jane, ever kindly, sounds a warning note not to be mean to the new boy, but she can’t help pissing herself adorably when Harry goes into the TARDIS. And out again. And then they all pile back in, and off into time and space to have what you know is going to be the scariest, and most fun, and most marvellous adventures anyone could ever imagine.

There’s even a lovely little coda to that coda. Just as the TARDIS fades away, the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) comes into the lab and clocks it. It’s not really the TARDIS that’s fading away before that unbeatable time tunnel titles whoosh in here, but UNIT from Doctor Who – we go with the TARDIS, not stay behind on Earth. But I still love the Brigadier with all my heart, as much as I still love the Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry. So though we didn’t know at the time that the first journey of one era meant it had to be the last words of another, it’s lovely that he has the beautifully underplayed last words:
“Doctor, about that dinner at the Palace: Her Majesty—
“Yes. Well, I’ll tell them you’ll be a little late.”

Only Number 45? I love this scene so much that it feels like it should be higher. But there are so many more great scenes to come!

The Seeds of Doom – The Doctor and Sarah Jane at the Antarctic Wastes of East London

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – Aliens of London

It’s part of another great start, and another one close to my heart for all sorts of reasons. Another new Doctor who gives the series a fantastic lift-off; another ordinary, extraordinary woman companion who’ll stand up the Doctor; another man companion who’s a bit of a fifth wheel. The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) has taken Rose (Billie Piper) off into space and time for excitement, and adventure, and really wild things. Sounds awful, her mum Jackie (Camille Coduri) thinks, and that’s even after she gets over the shock of Rose going missing for a year and assuming her dead. So the Doctor’s not having a great time – he gets a slap. And neither is Rose – she gets an earful. And she doesn’t even have the pleasure of knowing she’s the only person on Earth to have seen alien spaceships: as already featured in my Eleven More Great Scenes, it’s at that precise moment that one crashes into Big Ben and the headlines.

Everyone gathers at Jackie’s flat to welcome Rose back and watch spaceships on the telly; Matt Baker’s even making one out of cake – with more jelly babies – on Blue Peter. [EXCLUSIVE SCANDAL: I met him once, and he admitted he didn’t make it. What an outrage!] But in a closed-off city hospital, there’s an ‘alien’ somebody made earlier out of bits they had at home. Oh, and with my Fifty restricted to TV Doctor Who, there’s no Torchwood – but there is Tosh. It’s a third of the episode in and it looks like only a few people having a jolly time in Downing Street know what’s going on, so as they laugh, the Doctor gets itchy feet and leaves the flat for the “BAD WOLF”-scrawled TARDIS. But as he steps onto the balcony…
“And where d’you think you’re going?”
Just as Tom’s Doctor offered Sarah Jane the trip of a lifetime in a jelly baby and she chose to accept it on her own terms, this Doctor asked “D’you wanna come with me?” in that trailer – and though Rose, too, chose to go with him, this question fired back at him is the natural sequel to his more famous line. I just love the cocky confidence of Rose, knowing exactly what the Doctor’ll be doing. He talks about history happening, and insults humans, and thinks maybe it’s first contact, and is excited for humans, and tells her to stay. And she does stay – on target, asking exactly the right questions to cut through all his bluster. So that before he heads off, she wins not just his respect, and his crabby face, when he turns to go, but – for the first time – her own TARDIS key.

But I love that line for another reason, too. It doesn’t just sum up the freshness of Rose back in 2005, but the sheer exhilaration of 30th July, 2004, looking up in wonder at a block of flats alive with massive lights in the dark night, watching Christopher Eccleston act a lot with his hands and one cool, clear line from Billie Piper to command our attention. As if she needed to. Because that had been the day that a friend of ours a few streets away had gone to see – no, really – the doctor, on the Brandon Estate. And found the local surgery mocked-up as a Chinese take-away, and a TARDIS round the corner. And knew he’d be coming back to see the Doctor, and gave us a call. That night of marvels, Richard and I saw Doctor Who being made, and held that line in our hearts for nine months until it was reborn.

Next Time… Where do you expect to find a ship? Not here.

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