Sunday, August 31, 2008


Tons More Fun: The Best of the Blogs, As Picked By Their Bloggers

Tonight’s the deadline for nominations to the 2008 Liberal Democrat Blogger of the Year Awards, and if you’re still looking for a favourite posting to propose – or, more importantly, just want to read some of the finest Lib Dem writing of the last twelve months – then I’ve collected a set of links for your surprise, familiarity and delight. Since I appealed to any and all Lib Dem bloggers to pick their own favourite pieces from the last year, nearly twenty have done so, and if you missed any, I’ve collected them all here (thankfully, none have deleted themselves).

I came up with the immodest but practical idea of people picking their own best a few weeks ago in the hope of making the notoriously tetchy and partisan awards season more fun and more interesting for everyone. It’s partly in response to Lib Dem Voice’s very useful, very interesting but not necessarily reflecting the ‘best posts’ rather than the ‘most provocative headlines’ of the year Golden Ton, a chart of the top click-throughs from Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated.

My attempt at a meme was very simple. What did the people who’d written each blog think was the best they’d done since last August? It wasn’t prescriptive, with people able to show off as many or as few posts as they liked, doing it on their own blogs rather than demanding they come to me as a central hub, and not a single imposed ‘category’; simple bottom-up decision-making. And if you liked something else they’d written, you could always propose something completely different, anyway.

So, my thanks to all the people and pachyderms who’ve posted their own lists, and to the friend who got in touch to say exactly why they wouldn’t be posting one of their own. I’ve been fascinated by all the posts that have been picked out, some remembered, some rediscovered, some new to me, and many of them absolutely brilliant (so much so that I’m still struggling to whittle them down by tonight). If you missed any, then, here’s what I profoundly hope is the complete list, in no particularly order except at the top and the bottom. I hope you enjoy them, whether you view them through the prism of the awards or simply to learn, be amused by or argue with them:

If none of those tickle your fancy, while looking at the nominations for the Very Prestigious Snabies I came across this cartoon from not a Liberal Democrat but probably a liberal Democrat, and it made me laugh.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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Monday, August 18, 2008


Tons More Fun: The Best of Love and Liberty?

Inspired by Lib Dem Voice’s Golden Ton, last week I recklessly started a meme – wouldn’t it be great if Lib Dem bloggers picked out their own favourite posts they’ve written, so we could all marvel at just how good these blogs are (and have researching awards nominations made that much easier)? Amazingly, over ten people have already posted their own lists, which I’ll round up later. Though I’m usually rubbish at responding to memes, as it’s my own I really can’t get away with missing it, so here’s my own selection of my best ten from the last year. Thanks particularly to those hardy pioneers who’ve already contributed, so I’m not embarrassing myself as the lone egomaniac.

Now That’s What I Call, Um, Quite Long

My picks aren’t necessarily ones that made it to the Goldens Dozen or Ton – they’re simply the ones I liked best. Should you be kind enough to nominate a post (or two) of mine, you’re not compelled to stick to these, either; I won’t complain if you like something else better. And if you’re coming up with a list of your own personal favourites from your blog (please do), you don’t need to restrict yourself to ten, or pick as many as ten, or put them into categories, or any other restriction. I’d just like to read them, and posts over the last few days suggest other people would, too. The lovely Alix liked my suggestion because I specified
“No categories, no restraints, no compulsory number of posts to nominate, and best of all, I don’t even have to leave the People’s Republic.”
I’m glad she did (and that she picked out seven such intriguing posts for herself, as well as being very nice to me), because that pretty much sums up my intention: pick what you want to for your own blog. It doesn’t even have to be to do with the awards – I’m looking at you, judges – just contributing to the general gaiety of the nation by letting people know about little nuggets of brilliance they may have missed. If you could do it sometime in the next week, though, that’d be handy. Anyway, here’s my list, ordered by vague subject heading rather than my opinion of their quality…

The Liberal Democrats

Trying to cut through the negativity surrounding last year’s Leadership contest and work out exactly what a Leader’s for – with an hilariously wrong call on Vince (and in case you’re wondering, I get on very well with Linda Jackyll, whatever I wrote about Blogger Hyde):
1: Leaders – What’s the Point?
This was followed by companion pieces on Nick and Chris, if you’re interested.

The Labour Government

If you want an historical perspective on just why the Labour Government is so eye-poppingly wrong, and an excoriation of a truly shocking corruption of the law that hardly anyone noticed:
2: Happy Birthday, Magna Carta (now lock it away)!

The Labour Government’s responsible for the worst data disaster in the world. Drawing conclusions about their competence in general, ID cards in particular and the moment when they lost the next General Election:
3: Lost in the Post: Why Postal Services May Prove Fatal For Gordon Brown

Just to show I can be even-handed, here’s my sympathy with a Labour Minister who’s clearly trying to do something good. It’s just a shame he was so utterly clueless about how to do it:
4: A Government of High-Quality Fantasists?

The Tories (Don’t Help Him)

A much more personal post than usual as the Conservatives return to being the Nasty Party by giving the poor and the sick a good kicking:
5: Nasty ‘Nice’ Tories’ Latest: Back to the Workhouse

The repeat of an aspirational ’80s supersoap crystallises the difference between Tory and Labour narratives of the time:
6: Did the Tories Win Because of Howards’ Way?

The Rest

If you like reading my blog for in-depth analysis, this is probably the most thorough argument I mounted in the last year (besides, I couldn’t disappoint Tom):
7: Rowan Williams In Detail: Deceitful, Demented or Naïve to the Point of Idiocy?

Just what went wrong with Aaron Sorkin’s follow-up to The West Wing, and how a supposedly ‘liberal’ US show deals with ‘issues’:
8: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Something different – a paean to history and the Cutty Sark (and a bit of a fisking), with a Liberal ‘moral’:
9: Missing the Boat

And finally for my personal top ten, if you’d rather read about Doctor Who than politics… Well, this selection isn’t the ideal post for you, but probably the best of my rather thin-on-the-ground Who pieces in the last year is another historical ramble that mixes old Who, new Who and Indiana Jones:
10: Doctor Who and the ‘Celebrity Historical’

Strange pop fact: I’ve been looking back through the last year’s Golden Dozen for inspiration (largely about other people’s posts and which ones I nominated), and rather oddly, it appears that when I made it there on popular click-through I usually hit number 4 in the chart, while when people nominated me instead I usually appeared at number 11.

Not very pop fact: I’ve noticed in compiling all this that I use way too many colons in my blog titles.

Oh, and don’t forget to vote in the Snabies!

Though I won’t be voting for me in that category – aside from wanting to vote for one of the other nominees instead, if that’s still an unfulfilled ambition for you past the age of about 14 you need taking in hand. Please vote for Millennium in the Best Political Blog By A Single Mammal category, though.

Despite telling myself (and you) that I’d keep strictly to ten in my list, I quite like this tongue-in-cheek one:
Tory Party Unveils Its Soul: Children and Small Animals Flee
…But you shouldn’t nominate it, as it’s not a patch on Millennium’s interview with David Cameron.

I’ll also add that this post is not by any stretch my best, but you might like to keep it to hand for reference now Michael Brown’s on the run from justice, the crooked git:
Dodgy Donors: Your Cut-Out-And-Keep Guide to Spotting the Difference

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Saturday, August 16, 2008


Robots, War Machines and Why BoxClever Isn’t So Clever

If you’ve ever considered renting some appliance, a word of advice: unless you intend to keep it for ever, don’t hire it from Boxclever. I mentioned the other day that we’d bought a big new telly (working fine, and very happy with it) to replace the TV we’d been hiring, so the next step was to return the old one. Well, I rang Boxclever and said that, though it’s still working fine, we’d like them to take the telly back as we’d got ourselves a new one. They asked a few questions, they tried to persuade me… Then the stunner. The contract will be taken as a month’s notice. Fine, I said, thinking ‘Well, they’ve had enough money out of us over the last decade, a redundant £45 isn’t too bad a sting.’ A month’s notice from next charging date, so the end of September. Uh huh, I said. And that that’s when they’d pick up the TV. What?! So, I queried, they couldn’t take it any earlier than September 29th? No. Keep the money, I suggested, just take it off our hands? Not possible. Now, this isn’t a small TV set – it’s less wide than our new one, but very much deeper and heavier – and we do have a small flat, which is getting smaller all the time as it fills with stuff. And we could use an extra 490,000 cubic centimetres that aren’t being taken up by a large, heavy object that you can’t stack anything on top of.

I’m really not impressed by this customer service. But don’t worry, this entry gets onto more fun things as it goes on.

Doctor Who and the Miniature Robots

If you’re familiar with Character Options, who make all the rather impressive Doctor Who toys in every supermarket, you may know that they’ve just issued a tentative first set of “Classic” series figures (preceded by the Dalek Collector’s Set #1), and they look terrific. They’re also apparently taking the company by surprise and outselling the new set based on this year’s Doctor Who series by four to one. So, I suspect a second set of Classic figures may be confirmed – personally, I’m very much hoping that their ‘collect and build’ figure is the Morbius Monster, which would be both appropriate and funny. Oh, yes, that collect and build idea… The first set of eight individual Classic figures – or nine, as one pack boasts two figures – has a strong incentive to buy the lot, as each contains one part of the giant K1 Robot, so you need to buy every figure in order to assemble it. I’ve seen a fully assembled one, and it’s superb (even taking into account that it appeared in my first story and I have an instinctive bias).

However, my set had a problem. I was going to post a picture of the lot on here, but that’ll have to wait – because, when I came to assemble my K1 Robot, the first four sections locked together fine… But the right arm had nothing to lock into. The small plastic socket that should have been fixed inside the shoulder was missing, and unfortunately once you’ve snapped one of the components into place, they don’t separate. So if you collect the set and want to build your Robot, be careful. Look inside each of the holes around the torso to make sure they all have that little grey gripping socket before you start, and don’t fool around with putting things in the wrong sockets for a crazy weird robot before you settle down to build the proper look: the wind’ll change, and it’ll stick like that. As a result, I’ve had to ring Character Options’ Returns line and send the whole head and torso packaged up back to them for a replacement of all four components. Let’s hope they have better customer service than Boxclever. Belated update: they do!

In the meantime, I have eight rather cool figures; I’m particularly happy with the Zygon, as they’ve long been one of my favourite monster designs (even my Dad thought Broton looked impressive), and with a couple of others I’ll come to in another post [update: click on the link at the end of the last paragraph]. If you treat yourself, incidentally, don’t think you’re missing a bit with your SV7 Supervoc figure, another classy robot – though he’s pictured with a separate hand in the publicity, they abandoned that idea at a late stage, so they haven’t left it out by accident and you probably shouldn’t try pulling his hand off to see if it’ll fit back on again. The matching Dum robot figure should, however, come with a smashed robot’s head on a stick (a makeshift robot deactivator, if you’re familiar with the story The Robots of Death), the ‘dead’ robot’s brain parts painted inappropriately red to make it especially unsuitable for children (yay!), and a tiny little sliver of stickers should be somewhere in the pack in order for you to choose to label it “D84” or one of three other id tags.

Finally, if you can’t find these in the shops yet, after the sad demise of Tenth Planet I have three mail-order suggestions. There are those nice Voga people in Edinburgh, who are a little more expensive than recommended price but fast, reliable and with reasonable postage; there are Forbidden Planet, who are a bit cheaper than recommended price but post slowly and in dribs and drabs, as well as having a deeply eccentric website that tends to go down in the middle of orders; and there are Character Options themselves, who are dead in the middle of both elements of the other two, charging RRP as you might expect and delivering within about a week. If you order from them directly, you’ll find that they apply a £4.99 postage charge unless you spend over £50 (so if you order the whole set, postage is free)… So you may like to take note of two discount codes. If you’re spending under £50, entering “shipping2008AW” at the checkout will get you free p&p anyway, while if you’re spending over £50 in one go, you’ll have free postage anyway but you can enter “5discount2008OT” to give you a 5% discount. Happy shopping!

For Your Viewing Pleasure…

Should you fancy watching a few things on your computer rather than a big telly, here are a few recommendations from blogs I’ve been reading this week:
Richard and I have also been listening to the second series of Bleak Expectations on Radio 4 (back-to-back with watching the slightly less hilarious Bleak House), which is well worth catching if you like very silly Victoriana. The new series is on Radio 4 on Thursday evenings, by the way, while the first series is to be repeated on BBC7 from Sunday night. It stars the evil Anthony Head as Mr Gently Benevolent, the ferocious Geoffrey Whitehead as various members of the Sternbeater (formerly Hardthrasher) family, and of course the fabulous Richard Johnson recalling the story as Sir Pip Bin (inventor of the bin) in later life. One day, it is my fervent hope that BBC7 will repeat his mid-’80s leading role in Brogue Male: The Further Adventures of Sir Digby Spode, but as yet even the Internet has forgotten it.

And finally… A couple of weeks ago we watched the latest in ITV’s Marple series, Towards Zero. Richard points out that we’d not normally have done so, as Towards Zero isn’t a Miss Marple story and ITV doesn’t make stories with Miss Marple (Marple is a place a couple of miles from where I was born; Miss Marple would under no circumstances abandon her spinsterdom to sound like a public schoolboy). However, we winced and bore it, mainly for the guest cast. You may have spotted the magnificent Tom Baker sprawling around telling rolling anecdotes, a bit like a much-cleaned-up version of himself. What you may not have noticed is that the character he was playing was called Frederick Treves. I was in my local library yesterday, and noted that in Agatha Christie’s play Towards Zero, the character is named Mathew Treves. By an uncanny coincidence, however, there’s a grand old actor by the name of Frederick Treves, who readers of this blog might remember from political thrillers The Politician’s Wife and To Play the King or, of course, from the Doctor Who story Meglos, in which he hammed it up opposite one Thomas Stewart Baker as a character called “Brotadac”. Which, as I’m sure none of the production team on Marple are aware, is an anagram of “bad actor”.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Tons More Fun In the Awards – An Appeal To Every Lib Dem Blogger!

You’ve probably noticed that in August there are few elections taking place, so the political blogosphere gets excited over competing not for votes but for gongs. Awards are always fun, either to revel in or to bitch about, as you pretend not to be thrilled if you’ve been nominated or loudly proclaim you’re not remotely bothered if you haven’t, but I have a suggestion this time to make the Liberal Democrat Blog of the Year Awards more interesting for everyone. And who can make them more fun? You, fellow Lib Dem Bloggers, all of you, I’m appealing for your help.

You see, most of the categories in this year’s Lib Dem Blog of the Year Awards are fairly easy to decide on – at least for all of us sending in nominations, though the judges might have a harder time of it – and most of them aren’t likely to expand anyone’s horizons. Yes, it’s possible that you might see a blog nominated you’ve not previously read, but it’s more likely that when it comes to “Blog of the Year”, “Best New Blog”, “Best Blog From A Liberal Democrat Holding Public Office” or “Best Non-Liberal Democrat Politics Blog”, you’ll already be familiar with each of the shortlisted nominations and have a good idea of which you like. These categories will rightly reward consistently outstanding bloggers and publicise them to people who don’t read blogs that often, but if you read a lot of political blogs, those awards won’t do anything to change your mind. In short, each of those could tend to be a bit partisan rather than opening you up to something you didn’t know.

“Best Use Of Blogging Or Social Networking By A Liberal Democrat” is a bit more challenging to think about, though it sounds a bit technical. But it might well fit into the same sort of category of award as the last heading, that of “Best Posting On A Liberal Democrat Blog”. For me, this is by far the most interesting category. And before you suggest it, yes, it is the only award I’d shortlist myself for, but as – if anything – this post aims to massively increase the competition, I’m not blogging here out of self-interest. I just think this category has the potential to offer all sorts of interesting postings and ideas that have either been forgotten over the last year, or were overlooked at the time, and I simply like to read really good posts. So…

Q. How Do You Find the “Best Posting On A Lib Dem Blog”?

There are a lot of terribly good Lib Dem blogs out there. Some are prolific, some post rarely but in depth, but one thing’s for certain; even if I stuck just to some of my favourites (say, the ones in my sidebar), there’s no way I’d be able to read every post in the last year by each of them. Now, obviously if you can remember a particular post that was brilliant, send it in. But if you need reminders, or want to nominate several (I know I will), how do you come up with a list without having to read everything everyone’s ever written?

Lib Dem Voice, which each week publishes a list of the “Golden Dozen” ‘Best of the blogs’, has this week been putting up a countdown of the most popular hundred posts of the last year. That’s very useful, and I’ve rediscovered quite a few and read others for the first time, but I don’t think it’s ideal for composing a list of the ‘best’.

You see, what the “Golden Ton” does is list the hundred blog posts which received the most click-throughs from Lib Dem Blogs Aggregated in the last year. So, even more than the weekly Golden Dozen – which is a mix of factual click-through measurement and picks of other interesting posts which didn’t ‘chart’ – this isn’t necessarily a measurement of quality. It might also be a list of the blog posts with the most provocative headlines of the year, for example, or the most tantalising first hundred words, with no way of telling whether people were disappointed that the piece itself might not live up to the excitement of the title or the ‘trailer’ (and how many movies would you rate differently if that’s all you had to go on?). It has no way of recording blogs that get readers from different sources, or ones that people are so keen on that they’ve bookmarked them for daily reading while they might only read occasional posts on another blog that therefore gets more hits through the Aggregator (and no, I don’t have a stat-counter, so I have absolutely no idea how many people read mine, nor their route).

The Golden Ton isn’t even through being published yet, and already one person’s attacked it for being too factual, while another’s asked whether we couldn’t see an alternative list that wasn’t dominated by posts about last year’s Leadership Election. I know that, as with my posting that was shortlisted last year, the pieces I’ve written that have so far appeared in the Golden Ton aren’t ones I’d have particularly chosen. I’ve had several entries in the Golden Dozen over the last year, and the two that hit the ‘number one’ spot really, really aren’t ones I’d choose as my best. But that’s the trouble – a factual ‘chart’ ought to be entirely factual. Once people start saying ‘leave that out, it wasn’t my best’ or ‘put this one in instead’, it’s down to individual preferences, and there’d be far bigger rows than there are when people are just complaining that cold statistics don’t make them happy. The Golden Ton, then, is a fascinating piece of work and well worth reading, but it’s a list of clicks based on all sorts of preferences at the time, and couldn’t possibly be a definitive measurement of ‘worth’.

A. Get the Bloggers to Pick Out Their Own Favourites.

OK, fellow Lib Dem blogger, if you’ve got this far, then this is what I’d like you to do.

Please, over the next couple of weeks – no later than, say, the 25th of August, so people have time to make up their minds before the Awards nomination deadline – can you read back through the last year on your own blog and pick out your favourite pieces you’ve written?

I’d love to be able to just go to every blog and have a look at the cream of them. I know it’s blowing your own trumpet; I know it’s hard work; but isn’t it the best way to make sure people notice what you’ve been really good at, and to show off to everyone just how brilliant Liberal Democrat Bloggers are in general? Of course, people will still nominate plenty of pieces you don’t think are your best because everyone’s tastes are different, but come on, isn’t it worth you looking at the lot and offering some hints? No-one else will.

I’ll have a go at a list of my own in the next week, and run the risk of people pointing and laughing at the solo egomaniac. I don’t know what I’ll pick out yet, but hopefully there’ll be something interesting. But really, I’m much more interested in yours. If you’ve been featured in the Golden Ton or the Golden Dozen, will you pick the ones that were popular clicks at the time, or the perfectly formed piece that you suspect no-one actually read? Rather than relying on the charts, think of this as your very own compilation, with no-one there to tell you you have to pick the ‘hit singles’ rather than the ‘album tracks’ you love.

It’ll be embarrassing if no-one does it but me, but I can take embarrassment; more, it’ll be disappointing not to look at blogs I like but perhaps haven’t got round to reading all of and be able to say, ‘Blimey, they’re right, I missed that one in November but it’s smashing’.

If you write a Liberal Democrat Blog, then go on – treat yourself, and the rest of us, and pick out a bumper selection of the entries you think are your best. It’ll make the awards much more fun for all of us, and you might just learn something, don’t you think?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

And in at number 12 on The Golden Ton for 2008-9.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008


TV Delivery Good; Cyclists Bad

Not, perhaps, my greenest headline, but a reflection of my day. I’m sitting here watching the television. Well, not the television, technically, but the box it’s lurking in. Or rather looming in, as it’s quite a large TV set, with even the box for its stand pretty humungous. Having rented a big telly for years, we finally decided it’s much cheaper to buy and so I recently accompanied Richard to John Lewis for ninety minutes of merriment with a man from Grace Brothers as we decided on a set and he pretended to know how to operate their order system. Having gone in firmly determined on one size, naturally we ended up getting one slightly bigger, and since then Richard has been worrying that he’s gone mad (don’t worry, he’s as sane as ever). It’s that perennial problem; in the shop, they’re all enormous, so you think you’ve chosen one that’s quite reasonable, but get it home and suddenly you wonder how you’re ever going to manage it. Anyway, in preparation last night, we unplugged all the many attachments to our big old set and it’s now stuck behind a chair, blocking off all access to Richard’s computer. This means I have two televisions in front of me, but neither presently able to display moving pictures, and I feel strangely bereft.

On the other hand, both the guys who delivered the new TV were very friendly, and both were very admiring of our slightly extravagant DVD collection. Much as people who enter the TARDIS invariably exclaim, ‘It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside!’ our visitors tend to marvel at how such a small flat can have so many DVDs and videos crammed into it. These guys were not only friendly, helpful and quite good-looking, but picked out four TV shows in particular to enthuse over – as it happens, two of my favourites and two of Richard’s, so if we’d met them socially, we’d have got on very well. Unfortunately, when their van drew up outside and I bounded down the stairs to direct them up to our flat, one of them asked if I could manage the stand (it taking two of them to carry the TV). It’s rare that I succumb to the temptation to act macho, but I’m afraid I did earlier. I’m not exactly Mr Muscle, but I said I could carry it, and when each time I put the box down I was asked “Are you sure you’re OK with that?” I naturally said “Oh, yes, fine.” So both my wrists and my back are now rather painful and I’m thinking it’ll be a while before I pretend to be He-Man again.

In the absence of a working TV, and with Millennium lying on top of the crate and dreaming of Casino Royale, I’ve been looking at a few alternative sources of entertainment on the computer (no, no, missus). Good find: thanks to Mr Whyte for pointing me to a bittersweet Torchwood / Narnia crossover story, which amazingly makes me feel more positive towards both franchises. Bad find: my favourite home-made Doctor Who trailer has been removed from YouTube. Bah! So, dear reader, if at any stage you happen to have nefariously downloaded, recorded or otherwise ripped off a trailer for The Deadly Assassin cut in the style of The Matrix trailer, could you let me have a copy, please?

In more significant Doctor Who news, the series’ two nominations for this year’s Hugo Awards have come first and second respectively. Hooray! Steven Moffat’s Blink won the award, with Paul Cornell’s Human Nature the runner-up. I have to admit, I’d have far rather had them the other way round, and not just for Buggins’ Turn (Steven now having swept the awards for three years running) – for me, Human Nature was truly outstanding, even better than the book, and one of the best stories in forty-five years of Doctor Who, let alone last year. Blink was good enough and much better than the Annual story it was based on but, though I know very many people rave about it, for me it wasn’t a patch on Steven’s previous winners The Empty Child and The Fire In the Girlyplace, let alone Human Nature.

Getting out of the flat for a break after the delivery arrived, I walked under to Greenwich to get my hair cut – long overdue, and tomorrow we’re seeing my Mum and Dad for dinner, which means family photos. Tragically, while waiting I saw a picture in a paper of the most fantastic sarnie, after which tomorrow’s dinner will struggle to compete (a trip to Staffordshire seems very tempting). Now, I like walking through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, but I have to admit to one pet hate. There’s not a lot of space there, there’s a curve to it that doesn’t aid visibility, and there are great big signs everywhere forbidding cycling. So what do cyclists do? They glide at great speed, a menace to all around and in front of them, either clinging to one side of their bike with one foot perched on a pedal or sitting astride but with their feet dangling away from the pedals. I think this is what’s called honouring the letter rather than the spirit of the law, but as far as I’m concerned, some maniac speeding towards me on a machine over which they have less control than usual doesn’t make me feel indulgent. I don’t usually carry a brolly, but I always feel the need for a particularly indestructible one on these occasions, just right for jamming into spokes. That, or carrying a supply of small, adhesive explosive devices. Grr. Oh yes, and then they cart their bikes into the lifts at the far ends and take up all the space. Gits.

Richard has now got in and is looking for a screwdriver. Wish us (mainly him, as I’m unlikely to do blokey stuff twice in one day) luck.

Special points on the coincidentatron for the friend who rang this morning to tell me that he’d just had a TV delivered from John Lewis…

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After Outrage, Sexism and Greed, an Outbreak of Sense in the Ministry of Justice

If you’ve ever thought complaining was no use, read the inspiring outcome to the case of a rape victim who was treated shockingly by the Ministry of Justice’s minions and refused to put up with it. Incredibly, she was told by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority that her £11,000 compensation would be slashed to £8,250… Because she’d been drinking before the attack took place. She mounted a legal challenge, and the authorities have now apologised, awarded her the full amount – and admitted the same disgusting approach in fourteen other cases. But why did it happen in the first place?

It doesn’t take a lot of sense to realise why this was an appalling practice by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. They were stating that alcohol was a contributory factor in rape – heavily reinforcing the still too-pervasive attitudes that women (or male rape victims) are somehow to blame for sexual violence, that a short skirt or a late night mean that ‘she was asking for it’. It’s quite possible that the people who drew up the regulations agreed with that ancient, sexist, blame-the-victim culture, and they certainly helped it along through either deliberate choice or shocking insensitivity. That the CICA and the Ministry of Justice shared those attitudes and have been exposed for it isn’t the only explanation for how they got into this situation, however.

It would be instructive to find out just how long this had been going on. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority has admitted that they cut the compensation awarded to fourteen other rape victims, but that’s only in the last year. Were these very old regulations, left over from more openly institutionally sexist times? Or were they part of the same Labour Government initiative that’s seen – for example – victims of miscarriages of justice having their compensation slashed because the kindly authorities gave them bed and board (and who wouldn’t want to pay through the nose for a five-star five-to-a-cell and luxury slopping-out bucket)? Or, perhaps, did some ‘over-zealous’ civil servant take the opportunity to follow the Labour Government’s bossy, puritan lead in punishing people if they don’t behave exactly as the Labour Government considers ‘healthily’ and ‘morally’?

Questions need to be asked about how this happened, but not just for the fourteen people they’ve admitted to ripping off in the last twelve months. What about all the people before then – how many of them were there? And how many other people, the victims of how many other crimes, under how many other spurious justifications, are the Labour Government cynically, greedily clawing back money from and kicking when they’re down?

The Ministry of Justice has stated this morning that it was not its policy to reduce the level of award to a victim of rape due to alcohol consumption. Not its policy – merely its practice. But how does that square, exactly, with a spokesperson for the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority saying they’ll “ensure greater consistency in decision making”? Because it’s quite possible the reason that rape victims were heartlessly ripped off while being told they were to blame is entirely because that’s consistent with how CICA treats everyone else: using any excuse to get back every single penny. Clearly, they hate to give out money without making people jump through their own bossy behavioural hoops, and they hate to admit they’re ever to blame. Just like the rest of the Labour Government, in fact.

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President Bush: Two Impossible Things Before Breakfast

It’s always disconcerting to find myself agreeing with George W Bush, and agreeing with him twice in one week is surely impossible; I feel a little queasy, and can’t rule out the possibility that I’m still asleep. But there it is – Chinese human rights, where he was more forthright than Mr Brown (almost impossible not to be), and now telling Russia their actions over South Ossetia are unacceptable. Good for President Bush. Of course, it’s impossible for anyone to take him seriously over ignoring human rights or illegally toppling other countries, and probably impossible for him to understand why.

I suspect that means it’s also impossible for him to do anything meaningful about either but shoot his mouth off like the world’s most-syndicated columnist, but in some ways that’s a relief… It’s almost impossible to believe even George Bush would start a war with both Russia and China as his leaving-office goodbye present. I bet he’s tempted, though – so it’s a good job he wasn’t President during the Cold War (and if he does, I’d like to say ‘I’d like to see even John McCain defend him on that one,’ but I fear I’d be more likely to be running for the hills).

Update: Cicero makes some suggestions for meaningful action.


Monday, August 04, 2008


Shouldn’t Reviewers Watch the Programmes They’re Paid To Review?

It’s no secret that I like watching TV. And, rather than be a passive viewer, I like to engage my critical faculties – sometimes to find buried treasures in a programme, sometimes to pull it apart. I do this for pleasure, but some do it for a living. One of these had appeared to be Mr AA Gill, who writes about television for The Sunday Times; after yesterday, I can’t honestly use the word “reviews”. If you’ve been watching The Tudors… Well, you’ve got one up on Mr Gill, as you might just spot if you read his latest “review”.

I grew up with a pronounced dislike of those followers of Mrs Mary Whitehouse
(“I think she was the worst thing – one of the worst things, after [Mrs] Thatcher, to happen to this country,” according to the author of Image of the Fendahl)
for many reasons, but one of those I felt most keenly was when they’d attack a programme without watching it. They’d just assume their beliefs about something to be true on the basis of, er, what they believed, rather than any evidence. Worse, they’d then use their unfounded opinions as the basis on which to order everyone else not to watch the programme, when (even when they bothered watching what they were complaining about) their own personal preferences were no reason to ban anything.

AA Gill is not Mary Whitehouse. I’ve not read anything from him advocating censorship – though, as my own special Mrs Whitehouse memorial, tender-vocabularied readers should be aware that I will later quote a satirical observation involving words and concepts that the old TV-hater would have had more than usual reason for objecting to – but it does look very like Mr Gill has followed in her footsteps by speaking from a position of self-styled authority about a television programme without watching it.

I will confess up-front that I’ve not read most of Mr Gill’s reviews. I’ve not particularly liked those I have read, but it’s quite possible that I’ve only read what he has to say on an off day, or when he’s been constructing a character for satirical effect. So I’m not making any unfounded generalisations about him; my mind is open to the possibility that Mr Gill is witty, well-informed, completely secure in his sexuality and not remotely a raging snob. On the basis of his article in yesterday’s Sunday Times, however, the one which purports to review the new series of The Tudors, I have a well-founded scepticism that he actually watched the opening episode of the second series. Or the final episode of the first series. It’s probable that he’s watched some episode of it, sometime, but I can’t rule out the possibility that he’s extrapolated all his opinions from having merely seen a trailer for the series at some point and taking a dislike to Jonathan Rhys Meyers looking a bit flouncy.

What’s the dead giveaway? That, set amongst the fear that Friday’s Sixteenth Century soap opera features men who make such effort to have sex with large numbers of women that they must be a bit gay, the series is spoilt by having Sam Neill in it. So, in a three-paragraph review that breaks down roughly half about the frocks and half about his catty dislike of a particular actor, there’s no evidence that he’s watched the programme. To clarify; going on about the outfits could have been picked up from the trailers and the glossy magazines. But making the key part of a review going into one about Mr Neill poses a much bigger evidentiary problem.

Now, as it happens, I have a fairly similar view of Mr Neill’s screen talent to that of Mr Gill. He was surprisingly bland in The Omen III, and he hasn’t matched that peak in anything I’ve seen him in since. I have a vague half-memory of Tom Baker being very rude about him, though not as strongly as that of his magisterial put-down of Jeremy Irons (that he looks wonderful and would have made a marvellous silent movie actor, but that then he opens his mouth and you fall asleep). So I’m not disagreeing with Mr Gill out of some knee-jerk fan-worshipping loyalty to Mr Neill. My problem here is much more simple.

Sam Neill isn’t in it.

This wasn’t obvious to Mr Gill. If he’s watched the series, I can’t imagine how. The absence of Sam Neill is obvious to anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the opening episode of The Tudors’ second series, which doesn’t star Sam Neill, or with the final episode of the first series, in which Sam Neill’s then character Cardinal Wolsey died, or with the history by which the series was nominally inspired, in which Cardinal Wolsey was dead (though probably not in the way depicted in The Tudors) by this point in the reign of Henry VIII. So, though I’m not violently opposed to some lazy git scamming Mr Murdoch, wouldn’t Mr Gill have been more polite to his readers and more protective of his reputation to write about The Tudors by, you know, watching it?

The Tudors – Filth, Fun or History?

I watch The Tudors, though I think it’s nonsense, probably because I just have something of a predilection for history even when it’s as garbled as this. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is a bit weaselly for me (he was better as more of a weasel in Gormenghast), but quite impressive at times as the young Henry, and Peter O’Toole’s Pope Paul III is fabulous – already far more entertaining in one episode than Sam Neill was in ten – and it’s entertaining, but schlocky.

It has its problems. For something that so desperately wants to follow the expensive ’80s American soaps – The Tudor Die-Nasty – it can move incredibly slowly. That’s the problem with stripping out all the fiddly details from history, but still keeping to the rough outline across the multiple ten-hour series you’re milking: the first enables you to tell a fast, dumb story, but the second slows it right down again. Someone who watched the first few hour-long episodes of the first series, missed the rest, and comes back on Friday will be going, ‘What? He’s not managed to divorce his first wife yet?’ There was more sex, plotting, history and – incredibly – narrative speed in I, Claudius, made entirely in the studio three decades ago for a fraction the budget, because it let the characters and the story lead it.

What replaces the historical details, character development and story in The Tudors is, of course, the sex: pretty young men with silly stick-on beards and handsome young women with silly stick-on bodices. Lawrence Miles has suggested that the programme can be boiled down to Anne Boleyn gasping, “Cum on my tits and abolish the monasteries!” and though that line may have been considered too vulgar even for the comedy sketch show he submitted it to, and will doubtless both appal my readers and get my blog blocked by my local library’s ‘stern peering over glasses’ software, I’m afraid it’s true.

The other problem I have with the series is its particular line of bias. Pretty much all of reported history has its own slant, but this is going a bit far. Richard suggests that the programme may as well have a sign on it saying ‘Sponsored by the Estate of Katherine of Aragon,’ so holy, virtuous and badly treated does she appear. I have an even more basic historical objection: as it’s supposedly “The Tudors”, rather than ‘Henry the Shagger’, I’d have liked them to start with the founder of the Tudors as a ruling dynasty, young Henry’s father, Henry VII. Why didn’t they? Well, he’s not as famous; he doesn’t have all the wives*; and he’s far more difficult to make look like a nice guy. You don’t have to be a Richard III revisionist (though I am, rather) to regard Henry Tudor as a murderous usurping git. He executed and otherwise persecuted loads of people who’d fought for Richard – the legal king – through the intriguing legal trickery of declaring after the fact that he, Henry, was King before the fact of the Battle of Bosworth, so the people fighting him were traitors and rebels. And he was far more ruthless than even Richard’s sternest detractors say Richard III was in removing rival claimants to the throne: most of the others with a claim were alive and free under Richard, but sentenced and executed under Henry. Not that it was difficult to find rivals with better entitlement to the crown than Henry’s laughably distant and complicated one. Technically, Henry Tudor was barely closer to the throne than you or I, dear reader, so it’s no wonder he had to slaughter so many people in the way. So, in all, I’d have loved to see how they made him a soap leading man. He could have been a J.R. for the Noughties. After all, Ian McKellen’s Richard III is one of my favourite films – it’s fiction.

A hat-tip is due, by the way, to a friend of mine who read Mr Gill’s review yesterday and pointed it out to me in an e-mail headed “oh what a howler!” He has, however, asked me not to mention him. In case this starts a witch-hunt, he doesn’t work for The Times.

*Two, according to Stephen Fry. That QI’s got a lot to answer for.

Update: Lawrence asks me to point out that the line was in fact
“Come on my tits and dissolve the monasteries.”
I was, of course, unbelievably dim not to have remembered that, but readers anxious to know why this is funnier (which it is) can e-mail me for an explanation.

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Saturday, August 02, 2008


If Sitemeter Is Destroying Your Viewing Pleasure, There Are Always Daleks

I wrote earlier on the unhappy phenomenon of many favourite websites crashing as soon as I looked at them. As I don’t possess the Hereditary Gaze of the Bishop of Zilbor, I mistakenly thought it to be a calamitous cock-up from Microsoft (I know – imagine!), but many helpful comments and Googling have revealed the culprit as Sitemeter. They changed their code yesterday, which for Internet Explorer users has torpedoed every Sitemeter-equipped blog (on any platform). So if you want to read a page, try hitting Stop as it visibly loads; and if you employ Sitemeter, please consider removing it. Apparently Sitemeter have yet to admit any error, but as of course I can’t read their own site either… How fortunate that I’ve always been too lazy er, cough, lacked the vanity to add a hit-counter of my own ;-)

So, to cheer up anyone experiencing problems with their Internet viewing pleasure, might I recommend tonight’s intermittent assortment of Dad’s Army on BBC2 this evening, somewhat overenthusiastically described as a “Dad’s Army Weekend” (half a dozen programmes tonight, broken up by the Proms, and one tomorrow). Still, the movie on at the moment’s mildly amusing, if lacking the intimacy of the series, and later on we’re promised the favourite episode of each of the writers. I’m hoping for Philip Von Madoc.

If you’re looking for cheer on the Internet, though, who doesn’t love Daleks (irony of putting them alongside Dad’s Army understood)? Well, thanks to the magic of online shopping, I received these in the post yesterday. Aren’t they brilliant?

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The people at Character Options – who mass-produce the Doctor Who toys found in every supermarket – have just launched a new range of ‘Classic’ Doctor Who figures, which are likely to have a more limited release. First is the ominously-titled Dalek Collector’s Set #1, with three Daleks modelled respectively on the stylish silver originals with banded mid-sections from The Daleks / The Dead Planet / Whatever You Call The First One, the tank-like, gun-metal heavy soldiers of Genesis of the Daleks and the flashy Pimp My Supreme Dalek from Planet of the Daleks. I have to admit, I’ve wanted toys like these all my life, and unlike the crudely formed Dapol figures of the 1980s these are not just superbly detailed but each produced with slightly different moulds, from their dome lights to their lower bumpers.

The winner for me is the original design, which I’ve always thought looked very cool since seeing pictures in The Doctor Who Monster Book and is captured perfectly. The Genesis Dalek is very mildly disappointing; in theory a tank-like monster is the ideal Dalek for me, but rather than having a metallic finish it looks too matt and, well, plasticky (a bit like the grey Daleks in Remembrance). I’m surprisingly taken with the Dalek Supreme, though, which on screen is for me a rather tacky addition to a rather feeble story but in five-inch plastic looks rather fab.

Even better, the first wave of eight other ‘Classic’ figures includes such highlights as a K1 Robot to be assembled from eight parts (guess where you get them), the great Doctor I never thought I’d see as a figure looking absolutely smashing, a favourite monster that I’ve been pining to play with since I was about four, and – best of all – a double-pack of the most unsuitable-for-children Doctor Who toys ever yet produced (in the absence of anatomically correct Torchwood dolls with sixty-nine points of articulation). Hurrah! I’ll reveal which when I get them.

Ee, when I were a lad, the only Dalek you could get were a bright red one with a silly extra bit sticking out of the top of its head. There’s none of that nonsense these days, is there?

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Has Internet Explorer fritzed today, or is it just me?

Trying to read some of my regular blog fixes last night and this morning, I’m wondering if Internet Explorer has downloaded one of its brilliant new updates that’s trashed its functionality (which is usually fine for me, to be fair). Clicking on – for example – my links at the side of this blog to Simon Guerrier, James Graham or Unity, the page visibly loads, then suddenly aborts, and I have no way to get it back. It looks like they use different blogging software, so it’s not a Blogger problem. Anyone else in the same boat, or any suggestions?

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Friday, August 01, 2008


Image of the Fendahl: the Doctor at Death’s Door

A happy Lammas to all of you at home, and what better time to look at a Doctor Who story set over Lammas Eve? It’s dark, scary and full of bitchy workplace arguments, so it must be a British Summer. Tom Baker stars in a very fine sci-fi ghost story with a clever script packed with Hammer horror, subverted expectations and character names that pop up all over the new series. So why is it that most discussions about Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl centre on how the Doctor gets through a door? Spoilers and arcane detective work follow…
“The Fendahl is death. How do you kill death itself?”
That was perhaps the single most memorable line on the back of any Doctor Who novelisation, and for me it summed up the terrifying appeal of this story. I’ve loved Image of the Fendahl since it was first broadcast back at Halloween 1977, and Halloween seemed a more appropriate time for it – most of the story takes place across two cold, dark nights after ‘long’ Summer days that pass with uncanny speed (except for the Doctor, who may spend one of them locked up in a storeroom). And this is the most perfect Halloween ghost story the show ever did. It even manages to make up an authentic Time Lord fairy tale about death, not just an Earthly one. I was just turning six back then, and this was effectively the last adventure in ‘Doctor Who – The Scary Years’, after three years that had had me watching, petrified but compelled, through the crack of the door (I’ve never understood people who go behind the sofa; how do you run away?). It may just be the scariest of the lot, and was the last that really frightened me.

An ancient alien god is waking to swallow the world, done in a distinctively Doctor Who way that’s somewhere between Quatermass, HP Lovecraft and Dennis Wheatley, a mix of science and superstition set firmly in contemporary Britain. The first episode is unmatched for building terror towards its cliffhanger, aided by unsettling cross-fades between a skull and Wanda Ventham, mysterious deaths with a nasty slobbering sound and an eerie mechanical throb that perfectly marries technology and ancient horror. Unusually for the series, there’s the very Hammer movie device of focusing the horror on a glamorous woman, leading to both the most visually dodgy and visually striking effects, with unconvincing painted eyes but also the stunning moment where a crucified woman is transformed to an angel of death that rises like Nosferatu. All the night filming adds to that uncommonly Hammer feel; if you’re interested in such things, it’s filmed at one of Mick Jagger’s mansions, and you can even spot Eastenders and Coronation Street regulars-to-be, too. It stars that most iconic old Doctor Who team of Tom Baker – ranging from laid-back to haunted, chatting to cows or whispering of terrors from his childhood, all while wearing the hugest possible scarf like a toga – with Louise Jameson’s leather-clad huntress Leela and, er, a malfunctioning K9 who doesn’t really fit in with the Gothic horror, so blink and you’ll miss him.

As well as scaring me out of my wits, one of the reasons this has stayed a favourite of mine through the years is that the script isn’t full of dumb shocks; it’s intelligent enough that there’s always something more to find in it, and more of your expectations to be subverted. Ma Tyler is introduced as a colourful comedy character, appropriately for a soon-to-be star of To the Manor Born, but her later performance is positively haunted. The barking mad scientist with the dubious name, accent and whiskers that say ‘look at me, I’m the villain’ turns out to be quite sane and grasps (rather too late) what’s really going on. The villain performs occult rituals in a white lab coat with the aid of the latest technological breakthrough, and then finds out to his horror that he’s not really the central villain after all. The Doctor has a whole series of reversals: Tom Baker here becomes more flippant than he’s ever been before, but is faced by about the only monster who never says a word and wants only to consume him, so his glib tongue’s no use at all for talking his way out of it; the Time Lord with the fabulous mental powers is taken over in a double-heartbeat by something that’s been dead twelve million years; and the brave, bright Doctor gets afraid and runs off on a wild goose chase while events continue to run out of control in his absence. Perhaps most impressively, that most Doctor Who of all forms of death – when someone dies only to come back, hideously transformed – reaches its apotheosis here, with Death personified turning out not to be just a slug or a skull but a beautiful woman, and the ‘helpless, abused female victim’ being much more aware of what’s happening than her tormentors then rising in hideous omnipotence to take revenge on all the pleading, screaming men around her. My friend James even suggests a clever explanation for the counterintuitive midsummer setting; Lammas is a harvest feast, and the story revolves around the idea that the Fendahl has nurtured its strain in humanity and now returns to consume us.

There’s a lot of it that’s very funny, too, with scientists working on high-tech archaeology bitching, wise-cracking and eventually threatening each other with pistols and ritual sacrifice – just like any other workplace – as well as a priceless scene where Leela threatens to cut a local’s throat and the Doctor pumps him for all the local gossip (while slyly prefiguring the story’s suggestions of predestination):
“You must have been sent by Providence.”
“No, I were sent by the Council to cut the verges.”
Meanly, I always laugh at a mistake in another online article about this story, too. I really ought to e-mail a correction – the Doctor Who Guide is an invaluable if excessively serious source of story information, and much faster than flicking through the book or popping in a DVD or video to find what you’re looking for – but somehow the sum total of human happiness would be reduced if their entry reported that Mrs Tyler asks, as she does, for “fresh cake” rather than their strangely unappetising “fishcake”.

Fotocopy of the Fendahl?

If you’ve come to Doctor Who through the new series and happen to watch this story, you may find elements of it uncannily familiar. A time fissure that causes outpourings of energy and psychic powers, bringing a team of investigators connected to someone called Hartman to site their base on top of it? No, it’s not the one in Cardiff but in spooky old Fetch Wood, though Torchwood: Dead Man Walking is pretty much a photocopy of this story with its brain taken out. It even does the Gorgon myth far more scarily, intriguingly and originally than in The Sarah Jane Adventures, though admittedly Eye of the Gorgon was rather fun. And if you’re wondering where names for the Doctor’s friends such as Jack, Martha, Adam, Mitchell and the Tyler family came from… I suspect that the mention of heads unzipping may be a coincidence, though. The debate over the locked and unlocked door may even make this story one of those Russell T Davies was thinking of when he decided that in the new series, the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver would be so powerful that the Doctor would never, ever get locked up again. Except when every villain in the Universe has licensed a patent magic door-fixing charm ‘Deadlock Seal’, but that’s an entirely different argument about improbable locks than the one I’m coming to.

Like the new series, too, we don’t see Time Lords other than the Doctor here, but instead they’re used to add a mythic scale to the events of the story. Here we’re given the brilliant idea of a creature from Time Lord mythology, the monster that the Doctor had nightmares about, but that also inspired human mythology and so makes old horrors seem that much bigger. Comedy has ‘laughter tracks’ to tell you when to laugh; horror has reaction shots as ‘scream tracks’ – we know something’s scary if characters are scared by it – and this uses the Time Lords as the biggest reaction of the lot by giving us the monster that frightens them. And for Richard and I, the strange connection between the thirteen deaths in the Fendahl and thirteen lives of the Time Lords has always been the most intriguing mystery of the story. But I’ll leave that to Millennium one day to include it in his famously intellectual series of Mysteries of Doctor Who. For some utterly bizarre reason, though, the famous ‘mystery’ that’s long obsessed fans about this story is far more mundane…
“There are four thousand million people here on your planet. And if I’m right, within a year, there’ll be just one left alive. Just one.”
If some boggle-eyed trespasser in a scarf strode into your workplace spouting that sort of warning, just as you’ve found a mysteriously horrible corpse and one of your colleagues has had some sort of breakdown and collapsed, how would you react? Unsurprisingly, one of the people here thinks he’s an overdramatic loony, but is rather spooked by things the wandering Cassandra appears to know, while the guy in charge suspects him of murder or, worse, being someone who might link the corpse to his own mysterious experiments and, worst of all, being someone who might tell the police about it. Still less surprisingly, then, the boss has the Doctor locked up in the storeroom (this workplace being one of those frivolous ones without a block of cells round the back).

So far, so usual.

What then happens is that the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to try and get out of his stockroom, not fancying a conversation with the dreary piles of boxes. The attempt is unsuccessful. The camera cuts away to various other people, and when it cuts back (immediately after Leela tells of the Doctor’s “great knowledge, and – gentleness”), the Doctor is angrily kicking a box and slamming down his screwdriver. Then there’s a rattle and click from the lock – which sounds very much like a key – and the door swings open. Who or what exactly did this has been a peculiarly prolific source of argument, usually under the puntastic heading of:

(Oh, all right) ‘Who Let the Doc Out?’

The most obvious explanation is that it’s a delayed reaction from the Doctor’s sonic manipulations. There’s no-one outside the door when the Doctor leaves, so it could be possible, and Tom’s performance gives hints both ways; he looks from side to side as if puzzled, but then he picks up the sonic screwdriver and, seen from behind and in long shot as he leaves, brings it up to his head – either to check it’s all right, or possibly to kiss it (which would suggest he’s thanking it for the door, or perhaps apologising for knocking it about). Despite that, the direction does nothing to emphasise the screwdriver, so even if Tom does give it a peck, it could just be another of his ad-libs. When asked years later, scriptwriter Chris Boucher has said it’s a delayed reaction from the Doctor’s attempt with the sonic screwdriver, while novelist Terrance Dicks says it’s a delayed reaction from his kicking the door (which we don’t see on TV). Both of these work for the book, but on screen, there’s that awkward sound of a key in the lock. So most people agree it’s a person. Who, then?

Inspired by John Sutherland’s rather interesting collections of literary puzzles, Doctor Who Magazine 303 boasted a collection of Who mysteries by Tat Wood, Is Benton a Murderer? This concludes that it’s palaeontologist Adam Colby, who ordered one of the security guards to do it. A couple of years later, Tat co-wrote the extensive, argumentative About Time 4, in which he recants and meanders all over the place before saying as a probably comic aside that Ma Tyler’s got psychokinetic powers.

Now, I have to admit, I don’t think this ‘mystery’ is really interesting enough to justify all the column inches and repeated Internet discussions devoted to it, so I’m aware of the irony of my adding so many more. But I have a vain hope of getting this whole argument put to bed.

My view is that it’s probably a cock-up. In the writer’s head, it was probably that sonic screwdriver, but the script wasn’t clear enough and the direction didn’t know what to do with it. That means the probably-intended explanation is neither satisfying nor probable from what we actually see and hear on screen. I suspect it’s because Chris Boucher’s so highly regarded that this rather trivial ‘mystery’ gets far more attention than it would in a sloppier story by a sloppier writer. In one of those many Internet debates a few years ago, a different famous Doctor Who author told me that “you're right, seems like a cock-up. It seems like the kind of thing that happens when you move scenes round in an edit. Chris Boucher's normally such a careful writer I don't want to believe it's his fault.” I don’t, either, as I’m a great admirer of Mr Boucher too, but to save him – and perhaps to save fandom from calling this very minor puzzle ‘one of Doctor Who’s greatest mysteries,’ though any hope of that needs a pinch of salt – I’m going to twirl my non-existent moustache, exercise my increasingly little grey cells and call all the suspects together to form my own theory.

The Doctor


The highest. He’s locked up and is actively trying to get out.


None. He’s inside the storeroom, and his attempts with sonic screwdriver (and possible unseen kick) have failed; it’s someone outside who does it. So unless it’s his future self, it can’t be him.



She’s the Doctor’s companion. After him, she’d be the person most likely to want to get him out.


None. She’s over at the Tylers’ cottage with Jack; she’s never been to the converted Priory where the Doctor’s being held; she doesn’t know the Doctor’s in there anyway; she doesn’t have the key; and even if by some Doctor-scrying, teleporting, key-sensing miracle she got there, she’d hang around to see him. It can’t be her.

Jack Tyler


Nice enough guy, and probably not in favour of locking people up on a whim. But he’s not even met the Doctor yet, and doesn’t know he’s in there.


He’s with Leela. So he can’t do it.

Martha Tyler


The local wise woman’s not even met the Doctor yet, either, though she might let him out to cock a snook at the security guards who’ve just made her storm out of the house in protest. But she doesn’t know he’s in there.


She’s just walked out. So she’s not there. And if she’s got psychokinetic powers and the ability to use them in favour of people she doesn’t know locked up in a room she doesn’t know, she hasn’t shown it.

Adam Colby


He might want to cock a snook at the security guards, too, but on the other hand he’s gone along with everything Fendelman’s done so far, despite complaining about it. While he’s plainly disturbed to think the Doctor may have a point, he was earlier complicit with Fendelman over concealing a mysterious death in the grounds, and Fendelman is now blackmailing him with his part in that deception to prevent him mentioning a second death to the authorities, so he wouldn’t want the Doctor alerting them and getting him into trouble. Oh, and he thinks the Doctor’s a loony, so not the best motive to let him out, is it?


He’s arguing with Thea, including complaining of being “beset by wandering lunatics,” when the wandering lunatic he’s taken a dislike to escapes. It’s possible there’s a clumsy edit / directorial cheat that means the scenes are out of sequence, but as there’s no evidence for it, why not make up that any apparently concurrent scene is in fact at a completely different time? Plus, where would he get the key? Or if, as has been argued, he orders the security guards to free the Doctor for no fathomable reason, why would they obey him? Everything else on the story makes it plain the guards wouldn’t listen to Adam if his quiff was on fire.

Thea Ransome


Ooh, quite strong, despite the fact that she’s been so passive about her worries – observing and talking rather than acting on them. But she pretends to feel ill and goes off to seek the Doctor’s advice, as he’s the only person who seems to understand what’s happening to her.


Unfortunately, the very evidence for her motive proves it wasn’t her. Not only was she arguing with Adam when the Doctor was set free, but she does of course then go to see him, only to discover he’s gone. Which she wouldn’t need to, if she’d already let him out. If the Fendahl had done it through her by some form of telekinesis, she’d still have known – consumed by guilt, she’s blaming herself to Adam for all the things ‘she’s’ done, so she’s aware of it and now believes her ‘dreams’ to be real. Which they are.

The Fendahl


It’s a god, so it’s not impossible that it exercises some telekinesis we don’t know about through Thea, but the evidence is that by this stage, at least, she’d then be aware (and guilt-stricken) about it. And she’s not.


The skull’s clearly partial to a bit of Doctor later on, so it’s got an interest, and it’s a god, so its motives are at least in part inscrutable (it never speaks, for a start). But if it wants to mutate the Doctor into part of itself, letting him wander about on the off-chance he finds it rather than having him safely locked up for afters is a bit risky. Besides, would the Fendahl just let a Time Lord out to wander around? As its planet was destroyed by his people, it would have much more of a sense of him as a danger than anyone else.

Dr Fendelman


The best. He’s in charge; he can get the key; he can order the security guards to let the Doctor out any time he likes. After all, he had him locked up in the first place.


None whatsoever. Quite the reverse. After all, he had him locked up in the first place, says in public that he suspects the Doctor of murder and is privately paranoid about the Doctor spying on him – so he’s the only person who absolutely definitively wants the Doctor imprisoned. And if for some reason he changed his mind… He’s the only person who has no reason to conceal it, because he’s the one in charge.

Max Stael


Pretty good. He’s Fendelman’s (unwisely) trusted right-hand man, who’d be able to get at the key and is in direct authority over the security guards.


On the face of it, improbable, as he’s usually the sort who sneers at the Doctor as a meddling fool and has him thrown in chokey. However, the more you look at it the more the motives stack up. There are some reasons that he might want the Doctor just out of the way; everything’s starting to go exactly the way Stael wants it to – he thinks – so he may be hoping this random element will just clear off, or possibly get shot trying to escape. More importantly, as in this story the Doctor’s not been locked up on the orders of local loony villain Stael but those of Fendelman, Stael might be worried that Fendelman plans to question the Doctor and that this unplanned-for intruder might somehow then tip him off about something that might upset Stael’s plans (Stael’s even just cut the phones to make sure no inconvenient chats take place, so he’s a man who likes to be in control). With the Doctor legging it, that risk disappears. More importantly still, he might be worried that the Doctor – who seems much better-informed about what’s happening to Thea than anyone else – could advise Thea to get out of there, just as he plans her apotheosis (well, he thinks it’s to be his, but he needs her for it). In order to get Thea in place, Stael is of course just about to drug her and drag her away – so releasing the Doctor has the added bonus that there’s a scapegoat wandering about on whom her disappearance can be blamed.

Finally, of course, Stael is the only one who knows the Doctor’s escaped – we don’t see him or anyone but Thea discover that the cell’s empty, yet despite that, Stael tells her that our hero’s escaped. Only her. He knows, but he hasn’t told anyone else and he doesn’t sound the alarm, which for a control freak like him quite heavily suggests that he’s covering it up.

The most likely explanation for all of this, then, is that Max is responsible.
Now is it too much to hope that everyone could get on with the much more interesting bits of the story? Until someone with a better theory comes along…

Richard usually adds that, when it comes out on DVD (soon, please!) the sharper picture may enable us to spot one of the Seventh Doctor’s post-it notes fluttering in the background, as that incarnation frequently mucked about with cause and effect. But that’s mainly Richard’s theory because he a) loves Sylv and b) is always looking for an excuse to do a very bad Scottish accent.

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