Tuesday, June 30, 2009


DVD Detail: Doctor Who – Delta and the Bannermen

Like yesterday’s Planet of the Dead, last week’s Doctor Who DVD release is a holiday episode in which a bus comes to grief travelling between planets, and which sets a precedent by shooting in a glamorous new country – Wales! Strange scheduling, really; a six-week gap between the May and June DVDs, then three in three weeks. One of Sylvester McCoy’s first stories as the Doctor, this is one that divides opinion, featuring 1950s music, holiday camps and slapstick genocide…

That Golden Moment
“But the brochure shows a space cruiser – not an old bus.”
Old bus? This is a very expensive conversion!”
The Doctor and Mel win tickets for a trip to Disneyland in the 1950s with a gaggle of purple blobby alien rock and roll fans, in itself a marvellous Doctor Who idea – not least because you know something’s going to go wrong long before they reach the land of the Big Frozen Head. There are lovely exchanges about notorious travel firm Nostalgia Trips, with Tollmaster Ken Dodd giving his best ‘oh, I’ve never been so’ looks every time someone disses the sponsor, but the most fabulous moment in the script is when it’s revealed that the tour bus has been converted at great expense from the latest star cruiser in order to look so cheap. That’s got an irresistibly Who-ish ring to it, not least when they open the back up and reveal huge great Star Destroyer engines. And with the bus fitting in, so do the passengers – the aliens all go through a “transformation arch” to put them in human drag. I like to think that the same was true of the tourists in Voyage of the Damned, another doomed time-tour, so that if Kylie had lived, the Doctor’s latest blonde would suddenly have turned back into a blobby purple thing*. Serve him right for being so shallow!

Something Else To Look Out For

There are several entertaining moments and endearing characters in this – I love Sylv’s Doctor operating the console with both hands, a brolly and a foot, clearly inspiring that modern Mr Tennant, just as I suspect the road on which Sarah Jane Smith has her adventures is named not after a Liberal Prime Minister but this story’s red-tongued villains – but what do I think of the whole thing? Well, I love all Doctor Who, obviously, and there’s none of it I don’t enjoy watching. And out of the round-about two hundred Doctor Who stories broadcast to date, this would almost certainly make the top… Two hundred.

If you’ve read other reviews of Delta and the Bannermen, both its defenders and its critics tend to cite its ‘lightweight’ and ‘silly’ nature. My trouble with it, on the other hand, is that while I’m rather fond of lightweight, silly stories, this simply isn’t lightweight or silly enough – particularly with the comedy genocide at the heart of the story, it’s often ickily inappropriate, and much of the dialogue is far too forced to be witty. Its over-emphatic style fails to hit whimsy or archness and instead talks down to the audience, both too earnest and too lightweight about genocide. It would have been much better as a whimsical two-parter of ‘the Doctor’s holiday’, with the murderous Bannermen replaced by, if a villain’s needed at all, someone appropriately camp and unambitious (like the Hooded Claw). Paradise Towers, on the other hand, the story that immediately preceded it and which similarly splits critical opinion, is brilliant, both scarier and much funnier. Let’s hope that one’s out soon. On the bright side, there are two bumbling CIA agents who may contribute little to the plot, but calling the White House from “Wales, in England” was funny at the time and funnier these days (shame there’s no second commentary by the current production team sending it up), despite the improbability of 60-odd-year-old G-Men in 1959 complaining there’s no rock and roll on the radio rather than investigating anyone who listens to it as a sex-crazed commie prevert.

Other elements that may or may not strike a chord include all the ’50s nostalgia – trading in on the music, skating over the unpleasant social attitudes – Don Henderson hamming it up (actually salmoning it up, fact fans), fun with motorbikes and a unique conception of the show that suggests the author hadn’t seen it since Patrick Troughton left two decades earlier in The War Games (out next week, and with a terrific trailer on this disc). There’s a big sky bully / galactic government who the Doctor can report the baddies to for a ticking-off; space and time travel has someone checking your tickets; there’s a contrivedly enigmatic old man who feels like a half-remembered version of a retired Time Lord – it doesn’t refer explicitly to the series’ past, but instead pastiches it to the level of cliché, with all the same clutter in the plot but none of the detail that made it distinctive.

Extra features include commentaries, text notes and surprisingly lengthy scenes plastered onto the menus, but also an edition of But First This which I remember very fondly – not for Andy Crane, as some might, but for Sylvester McCoy writing a fan letter to a rock that appeared in Star Trek every week – a jolly feature on his Doctor’s comic-strip adventures and, intriguingly, a longer edit of Part One. On the down side, though the music score here is probably the most listenable from Keff McCulloch, not Doctor Who’s most celebrated composer, and includes such old favourites as the Devil’s Galop, this is another of those DVDs for which the isolated score exists, but hasn’t been included. Almost all of the ’80s music tracks are still held, but almost none from before then (the Beneath the Surface DVD box set is unique in featuring the full scores from stories shown in 1970, 1972 and 1984), yet there are now half a dozen where the music isn’t there as a separate track on the DVD. Grr.

*When I told young Millennium my theory, I’m afraid he debunked it, but a chap can dream.

Update: This was originally called a “DVD Taster”, as I started off trying to write these short – by my standards – and just to pick out a few things to interest you. But they got longer, and longer, and by late 2011 I gave in and renamed them all “DVD Details”. Even though, compared to the ones I wrote later, this isn’t that detailed.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, June 29, 2009


DVD Taster: Doctor Who – The War Games

With Planet of the Dead released today on DVD and – the first Doctor Who made for High-Definition TV – shiny blu-ray, naturally I’m celebrating it with a preview of next week’s DVD… A three-disc special release of the final Doctor Who story made in black and white. I’m looking forward to the multitude of extras, and to a great story looking better than ever before. And in an epic spanning humanity’s most terrible wars, Pop-Art aliens and the sinister Time Lords’ first appearance, its most captivating scene has the villain chatting up the Doctor.

That Golden Moment
“We were both Time Lords…”
Running for ten episodes of rolling revelations, The War Games opens with the TARDIS’ striking materialisation in First World War mud, opening out across other wars and into a dastardly alien scheme: not to start the wars – we can do all that for ourselves – but to recruit an army from them, because they believe “Man is the most vicious species of all.” The aliens themselves are a race of Napoleonic bureaucrats; short in stature, set on galactic conquest, squabbling amongst themselves, paranoid and insecure. Standing out like a tall, dark light bulb (were this in colour, he’d be purple as his dialogue) is their scientific and military advisor, the War Chief, a tall, charismatic aristocrat grabbing the attention amid their pettiness. Proclaiming himself “superior,” he has the arrogance of a Time Lord and, what do you know, he’s a defector – so while his allies need his expertise for their plan, they don’t entirely trust him. Well, that’s underselling it a little; their Security Chief, inevitably the most insecure of the lot, is looking for any excuse to shop him to their boss, the War Lord.

With such a fraught home life, it’s no surprise that when the Doctor turns up – at last someone who’s his social equal, and equally flighty by Time Lord standards – the War Chief blossoms; he wants to win the Doctor over (and another TARDIS would be handy, too). Offering our hero a share in ruling the galaxy as joint leader is something new… We’ve not had a villain try to seduce the Doctor before, and the Doctor even seems to be wavering as he protests. Do you think he’d have fallen for it if there’d been champagne and a rose? When the Master enters a couple of years later, he has several similar moments (most of all in a story written by one of The War Games’ co-authors and script-edited by the other), but rarely with quite such yearning. The War Chief even puts his life on the line to save the Doctor, and it seems less his fellow Time Lord that our hero objects to – though he might cavil a little at ambitions “to bring a New Order to the galaxy” – than his unsuitable friends:
“And help people like that conquer the galaxy?”
“Not people like that – people like us.”
Though earlier weeks had more shocking scenes of war’s brutality, and most fans remember the story’s conclusion when the Time Lords demonstrate their power, for me Episode Eight’s dance between the Doctor and the War Chief is both a golden moment in itself and the pivotal moment of the story. We see the Doctor pulled between his people and power on one hand, and his friends and freedom on the other, with the War Chief letting his guard down because he wants something more – a moment that will bring him down (allied to his pride: just as the aliens pose as officers who dominate the humans, he thinks of himself as the officer who dominates them).

Edward Brayshaw gives a glorious performance as the War Chief, melodramatic and the centre of every scene – contrasting with the meaner aliens he’s joined, whose leader is the only one with any real presence (and Philip Madoc’s War Lord is another contrast again, sardonic, underplayed and deeply sinister). He’s there to shine, and he goes for it. Patrick Troughton, on the other hand, gives one of his best performances as the Doctor, but steals the scenes with quiet authority rather than flamboyance. For me, he’s the most mercurial of Doctors; such a terribly good actor that at his best, he’s unbeatable, but you can tell more than with any of the others when he’s a bit bored and isn’t really trying. This story, his finale, clearly gets his attention. Look at the body language in his scenes with the War Chief, alone together or gooseberried by the suspicious aliens: much of the acting’s very theatrical, with everyone in this episode turning their backs on each other. But while the War Lord’s turning to smile a secret smile and the War Chief’s declaiming to the end of the stalls, Pat’s doing natural TV acting, his back to Mr Brayshaw apparently because he’s wandering about, tinkering with the big control table, as if simply oblivious to the man chatting him up.

I’ve mentioned the Master, and many people argue that the War Chief’s the same man. Well, perhaps functionally he fills that role for this story, but there’ll be plenty of other Time Lord conquerors to come. He doesn’t have the Master’s faintly unhinged sense of humour, and he’s far more direct; he also doesn’t look ready for a sequel by the end of the story, nor – unlike the Master – does he know the Doctor well of old (though they do recognise each other, in an electric moment). On the other hand, he is indeed a Time Lord with an ambition for conquest, overweening self-confidence, a Nehru jacket, facial hair and an unwise alliance with double-double-crossing aliens. You can certainly see the seeds of the Master in him, but not only the Master. The War Chief is also the prototype for another forthcoming character: tall, flamboyant, glamorous, constantly proclaiming himself above the less advanced military to whom he not only acts as scientific advisor but frequently directs. If the War Chief is the Master, he is also clearly Jon Pertwee’s Doctor.

Something Else To Look Out For
This story’s one of the series’ longest, and probably the most successful of its ‘epics’ – definitely one of the reasons why Doctor Who is brilliant. Despite being written in a crisis pretty much as it went along – with even its co-author regarding it as too long – for me the structure is a miracle, with constantly unfolding and increasing levels of revelation and threat, superb cliffhangers that usually advance the plot and the only flabby points in Episodes Five and Six, between the tension and mystery of the first half and the looming shadow of the Time Lords in the second. It races along at a far better pace than quite a few stories half its length. It doesn’t flinch from the horrors of war, and as part of that subtle message portrays the upper officer classes as a parasitic alien species all in it together to send the working fighting man to his death – highlighted by the resemblance the moustached officer and shabby little corporal we meet in the trenches bear to Captain Blackadder and Baldrick.

The script has striking concepts, shifting though time zones, bookended by grossly unfair trials that ignore the Doctor’s defence and sentence him to death, one by 1917 officers and the other by the Time Lords; the design is equally striking, with grimly realistic war settings for the humans and full-on ’60s op-art craziness in concentric rings for The Interrogation Room That Jack Built. Despite my love of geometric monochrome patterns, though, I’d love to see the uncropped photos of the giant arrows in the aliens’ War Room in colour – I’ve seen a cut-down shot, and they look terrific… And, of course, having made you think the aliens and the War Chief were the ‘big bad’ throughout, it ends by establishing the Time Lords as the most effective villains the series has had so far, ruthless self-styled gods who exercise absolute power but answer to no-one.

I’ve not yet seen the DVDs, but the three-disc set boasts far more special features than usual. Every episode has a full commentary – expect Terrance to be very bitchy – and production notes, but there are also documentaries on making this story, on making the series in black and white, comparing the story’s locations now and then (a visit to Brighton’s glamorous tip), features on the composer, the make-up designer, the political and military history, the Doctor’s regenerations… I’m particularly keen to see what they make of the Second Doctor’s comic-strip adventures (Quarks!) and, in the first of a new series of pieces on the Target Doctor Who books, of the novelisations written by The War Games’ co-author Malcolm Hulke, probably the most consistently impressive and inventive of Target authors.

If all that hasn’t convinced you, there’s a particularly fine ‘Coming Soon’ trailer on last week’s DVD release, Delta and the Bannermen; if you don’t have that, it’s only up on YouTube so far in a rather distracting aspect ratio. Worth a look, though, for compressing ten episodes into a minute and a half with a clear narrative, fast editing, and a great ‘thoom’ to end with.

The War Games is released on DVD on Monday the 6th of July.

Incidentally, you might also like to look out for a similarly-named drama made at a similar time, Peter Watkins’ The War Game, an evocation of nuclear war so harrowing the BBC held it back for twenty years, and his earlier drama-documentary, Culloden, which takes one of the same periods The War Games touches on. The BFI brought it out on DVD a few years back, and it’s superb – telling the story of a battle in a reportage style that gives it freshness, immediacy and brutality, a style that Doctor Who’s never yet borrowed on TV; I wonder if the new production team might consider it?

Labels: , , , , , ,

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Cure

Did you hear the return last week of the legendary I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (Radio 4 again)? Broadcast for the first time without the legendary Chairman Humph, the fabulous Mr Stephen Fry is now in the chair. He seemed surprisingly ill-at-ease in last week’s edition, clearly wishing neither to adopt his benevolently rude brain-the-size-of-a-planet persona QI persona, nor impersonate the late Mr Lyttelton. By last night, however, he’d found his voice. After the topical rude joke about Mr Gladstone but before CSI Macclesfield and Victoria Wood with a Kalashnikov, Stephen made me laugh with a swipe at homeopathy:
“Famous institutions here in Westminster include the old Royal London Hospital, which was recently the subject of restoration work. However, disaster struck when the Homeopathic Wing collapsed – because they used scaffold poles which were just one-millionth the strength of proper scaffolding that actually worked.”
You can hear the second show again at noon on Sunday, or of course on the iPlayer’s Listen Again service, but entertaining as the rest of it was, there was something particularly satisfying when Mr Fry urbanely stilettoed those hope-cheating, money-grabbing, health-endangering quacks to whom too many others give a free ride. Looking at previous posts where I’ve touched on them – though I’d recommend Bad Science if you want to read a rigorous, regular and scientifically applied series of repeatable kickings – it seems that Radio 4 is a recurring theme across each of them, too, though I’m usually provoked by the Today Programme (a surprise, I know, dear reader) rather than cheering on such a serious and well-thought-out programme as I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. I have in the past conflated them with David Cameron by suggesting that a “Liberal Conservative” was of a piece with being a Christian Satanist, a carnivorous vegetarian or a scientific alternative medical practitioner, but my favourite piece was after the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency gobsmackingly decided to let homeopathic “remedies” label themselves like proper medicines, but without any of the actual tested evidence that any functional medicine requires:
“I think I have the solution. I’m perfectly happy for homeopathic ‘remedies’ to carry writing in which they boast of their effect. The text should just be strictly set at one-millionth the size of that on proper medicines. If the theory of homeopathy is true, that should make the advertising far more effective, and everyone will be happy.”

Labels: , , , ,


Speakers, BBC Hacks, Ming and Doctor Who on Radio 4

Radio 4’s flagship is the Today Programme – the pips, the self-satisfied presenters, the ludicrous tangents, everything that makes anyone seriously interested in politics wake up shouting at the radio and want to throttle their wireless in the shower. But while today’s Today is being a prime example over the Speaker, there’s more to the station than that. Between 11 and 12 this morning, I’ll be listening to two quite different programmes: The Age of Ming, on the discrimination against Ming Campbell; and On the Outside, It Looked Like An Old-Fashioned Police Box, celebrating Target’s glorious Doctor Who book range.

Yesterday, I know everyone throughout the land was glued to the various forms of BBC news to find out who was going to be the new Speaker – well, a few dozen of us, anyway – and though the last round was in some ways less exciting than the others, an almighty sigh of relief already having gone up that ‘favourite’ Margaret Beckett had polled disastrously lower than predicted and was out of the running, I was still moderately pleased that John Bercow won. As I wrote yesterday, I’m not a big fan of the man… But, given that I was relatively pro three of the possible Speakers (the one I’d probably have voted for first, as predicted, bombed) and dead against six of the candidates, he at least was the one left in the middle that I was wary of but not implacably opposed to, so by default he’d have been my fourth choice.

For once, the aftermath of something in Parliament was more infuriating than the vote itself. Gordon Brown and Call-Me-Dave Cameron both made very House of Commons speeches: amusing in the way that after-dinner speakers who’ve never done it before are, lavishing praise and the odd barb (echoing each other in their nature, too), full of insincerity and the traditional Thing. Nick Clegg, I was relieved to hear, got a frostier reception by choosing not to be ‘a good House of Commons man’, instead focusing entirely not on appealing to MPs’ traditions or hurt feelings and instead on the need for reform – and how Speaker Bercow would have a fight on his hands, because the Commons isn’t naturally inclined that way.

But while the BBC’s online coverage included more from Nick from the other two – because it’s easier to quote something with a point than waffle – naturally the TV news had the other two… But not a word from him, because now they’re no longer bound by election laws of fair coverage, we don’t exist again. Still worse was Nick ‘Mate of Dave’ Robinson, who gave what was even for him an egregiously biased report straight from Conservative Central Office. It was all about how the poor Tories will have trouble with this ‘unknown’ Speaker and he’ll have to work hard to get them to like him. Not a word, as you may have expected, about the key difference between John Bercow and Sir George Young – about a reformer defeating a traditionalist, still less about him doing it by a reasonably large majority across all parties (a majority much bigger than anyone had predicted, suggesting quite a lot of Tories weren’t telling the truth about their votes). And if a Tory Government does come, an independent-minded Tory sounds a pretty good choice for Speaker, rather than a down-the-line well-behaved one, doesn’t it?

This morning’s Today Programme went one better. Not only was Nick ‘Mate of Dave’ Robinson giving it the same old schtick, but the programme’s prime slot just after 8.10 in the morning was given to Nadine Dorries. Nadine Dorries?! The minor Tory MP with a relentless drive for self-publicity, the one who’s always lying, cheating, being found guilty and then lying again that she’s been completely exonerated? The one colloquially known as “Mad Nad”? Yes, for some reason, the BBC thought she was the most important politician in the land this morning, spewing out the unrelenting and embittered poison of a very bad loser, and every time we heard her say “This is a factual statement,” the words ‘Honking great falsehood’ may as well have appeared in neon letters a metre high above our radio (hilariously, she called the election of an independent-minded member of her own party with a record of calling for change being elected instead of an anti-reform Etonian baronet who was deeply culpable in getting Parliament into that mess “sticking two fingers up at the British public”. Ms Dorries, l’État c’est ne pas toi). They didn’t even ask her whether her furious vitriol against Mr Bercow was anything to do with him being the main Tory speaker against her (losing) proposals to slash women’s abortion rights, which you might think would occur to a journalist doing their job. Then, for political balance, they had Alan Duncan – a Tory, half-defending a Tory, against a Tory. Good grief. Followed by Nick ‘Mate of Dave’ Robinson – a Tory, commenting from a Tory briefing on a Tory who was half-defending a Tory against a Tory.

It’s good to know the BBC represent views all across the political spectrums.

Hopefully, then, my faith in the channel will be rekindled at 11 this morning, when Robert Orchard is due to tell “the story of Sir Menzies Campbell’s battle to shake off media claims that he was too old for the job as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Robert asks how far it is acceptable for journalists to poke fun at someone on the grounds of age?” Well, better late than never, I suppose; apparently it takes about a year and a half to produce journalists’ crocodile tears (see the section “Leadership and the Media” in this piece from after the media forced Ming out, and try to ignore the rest). Actually, The Age of Ming might have me shouting at the radio as well…

Thank goodness, then, for something that should be really worth listening to. The Age of Ming is followed at 11.30am by On the Outside it Looked Like an Old Fashioned Police Box. Here’s what the Radio Times has to say:
“Back in the days before VHS, let alone DVD, the Doctor Who novelisations were the only way a fan could commit the Time Lord’s adventures to memory [mostly right, but have they not heard of nightmares?]. With a child’s big-budget imagination filling in for wobbly sets and monsters, the books became a bestselling phenomenon for publisher Target. Here, Mark Gatiss wallows in some paperback nostalgia as he pays tribute to such authors as Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke and Philip Hinchcliffe [surely Ian Marter] - writers who taught many (thanks to the Who house style) the meaning of the words “capacious”, “crotchety” and “bohemian”, and ended up shaping a whole generation of young readers.”
I learned to read on Target Books, and have written reviews both of whole bunches at a time and individual stories, so I’ll certainly be glued to the set and hoping they don’t make a mess of it. As BBC Audiobooks have now started putting out complete readings on CD – among the best releases so far are Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars, Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion, Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, Anneke Wills’ reading of my first ever book, and the rather lovely three-book boxed set Travels in Time and Space – I hope to hear clips of some of those readings coming up in the programme…

For your other viewing pleasure, you might like to try tuning in to ITV4 today at 10.50am – or 2.55 this afternoon, it’s the same episode – for The Prisoner in Dance of the Dead, arguably the best of the series. In some ways, it’s a good one for beginners; by our reckoning, despite always being broadcast eighth, in the running order that makes the most sense (key word: “most”) it’s the second one. On the other hand, it’s one of the barking mad ones, though some way from the most barking mad (key word…).

Patrick McGoohan is terrific in it, but the show’s stolen by Mary Morris, by a long way my favourite Number 2: small, elfin, but utterly dominant – one of the few who gives the impression she knows what’s actually going on rather than just being a jumped-up prisoner herself. You’ll get brain control, disillusioned spies, spooky cats, flirty maids and washed-up bodies on the beach… Then it gets stranger. The climax involves a change of identity for the body, Number 6 unwittingly adopting his own fancy dress, and a carnival that becomes a court staged as a cabaret, featuring a grotesque twist and ending in mob hysteria. It’s a surreal and high-concept episode, teetering on but not quite yet completely mad. That it’s played with such conviction by such superb actors makes it all rather threatening, and compelling fun. It’s even got music from The Tomb of the Cybermen in it, too.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, June 22, 2009


Are You Speaking To Me?

It’s difficult to get excited by today’s contest for a new Speaker. There was a brief flicker of excitement that things might change, but no, it looks – and I hope to be proved wrong – that Establishment stitch-ups are smothering the cleaning-up of Parliament all over again. We’re almost a quarter of the way into the hundred days that Nick Clegg timetabled for a reform programme to take back power, and bugger all’s been done. Worse, what’s the smart money on by the end of the day? Speaker Bloody Beckett. Give me strength. How has it come to this?

The short answer is, it appears, that neither Labour nor the Tories give a toss about reform, openness or even making the House of Commons look a bit better, and have instead seized on three priorities: find someone who’ll protect their interests against the nasty world outside that’s been mean to them; stick two fingers up at each other across the chamber; and stick two fingers up at the voters.

Even this Parliament deserves better.

The one hope, and it’s incredible that I find myself writing this, is another dose of secrecy slaps onto the process that means that no-one quite knows if the old Labour-Tory stitch-up is actually going to work this time. I’m very wary indeed of a secret ballot within Parliament; generally, MPs should be held to account for how they vote on our behalf. Let’s see how it works on this one type of vote, though. No doubt if they end up picking someone good, I’ll say it’s a vindication of a system that defeats the whips as I predicted all along, and if they end up picking Mrs Beckett some appalling establishment hack, I’ll say that it’s no surprise, as I’d always said what a disaster it would be to let MPs vote on protecting themselves without fear of scrutiny.

Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg has called for radical change and an end to the establishment domination of Parliament, telling Andrew Marr:
“I want to see a Speaker who transforms the role from the traditional role, which is as a defender of the status quo – almost a shop steward of the rights and privileges of MPs – into a people’s Speaker, into a Speaker who opens up Parliament, turns it from this Nineteenth Century institution into a modern, transparent, open, publicly accessible Twenty-First Century Parliament.”
And I agree with every word except one. “People’s” sounds like a Twentieth Century communist dictatorship or, almost as bad and slightly more sickening, Tony Blair. I wish Nick would give up the habit. Anyway, I back Nick’s call. But then, Nick called for a massive programme of reform that could take place over a hundred days, and after 22 days, Parliament’s done bugger all. So I suspect that bugger all will flow naturally into Buggins’ Turn.

I wrote a few weeks ago that the new Speaker shouldn’t be some old grandee. There is no worse time in British history for Parliamentary tradition and Buggins’ Turn to be followed. I said it should be someone with a proven track record of calling for and voting for reform before it was fashionable, if Parliament’s to crawl back to any sort of credibility at all. I suggested (much as I dislike and disagree with him) Frank Field as someone who does seem to have credibility with a lot of the media, which might help rebuild some trust in democracy. For me, the perception of a person who wasn’t part of the establishment and could command wide respect as a reformer was even more important than the action of reform itself (which will take much longer and will get far less press attention, so it’s vital to make a simple, visible statement by picking someone who embodies reform).

Well, stuff that, as no-one fitting the bill has gone for the job.

So what’s left? Ten people, five of them with knighthoods. Good grief. It’s not that I’m against knighthoods per se – well, I might be, actually, but that’s not the point – but can you think of a better way to say ‘we’re all out of touch and doing it the old way’? And there’s the fact that gongs are usually handed out for long service; where a reformer should ideally be someone who’s been an MP for no more than two or three Parliaments, Sir Anything is likely to have gone hopelessly native. No knights, please. What could be worse? Only a timeserving government minister who’s been deeply partisan for as long as I’ve been alive and wants the job as a pay-off for recently being sacked…

So What’s the Uninspiring Choice On Offer?

I’m deeply suspicious of the Speakership going to Labour for the third time in a row. It smacks too much of the Labour Government trying to control Parliament from beyond the grave. But I’m wary of a Tory, too. The most likely outcome of the next General Election at the moment seems like a Conservative government; the new Speaker should be able to spur on Parliament to hold them to account, not hold their dinner jackets. And I get downright frosty when people always suggest a Liberal Democrat for an ‘apolitical’ position, because frankly being in third place for ninety years means you have to have a lot more backbone in what you fight for than MPs who coast along with whoever happens to be winning at the time. Of course, it would be absurd to have an SNP or Plaid MP who doesn’t believe in the Westminster Parliament anyway, and as for the Northern Irish parties… Independents get my goat, too. Egomaniacs with a free ride.

Er, I guess that means I’ll just have to look at the people up for the job rather than analysing which party would be best for the place.

Margaret Beckett
Oh, please, no. Anyone but that. And I don’t think there’s room in even one of my articles for all the many reasons why. First and foremost, she is the single most partisan and tribal candidate for the job. She is a creature of the Labour Party through and through – long a spokesperson, a minister in many departments, combining bitter arrogance and thoroughly undistinguished service in all of them. Can you remember a single thing she’s done, as opposed to what she’s been? Oh, yes: as Foreign Secretary, she was Tony Blair’s liar-in-chief for the Iraq War. She was even Labour’s Deputy Leader and then interim Leader – hardly qualifying her as a referee. And after all that, she was still given the sack a few weeks ago, so it’s difficult not to see her going for Speaker as just a consolation to keep her in the highly-paid style to which she’s become accustomed, particularly now that her massive and roundly jeered-at expenses for gardening are unlikely to be upheld (some of them, for hanging baskets, tubs and planters, took the piss so much that even the Parliamentary Fees Office rejected them).

If all that wasn’t off-putting enough, she’s the only candidate for Speaker who’s refused to back several key reforms – such as letting MPs choose Select Committee Chairs, rather than the government doing it – and the Labour Whips (with help from the Conservatives) are blatantly twisting arms on her behalf as the anti-reform candidate. They’re relying on her record and manifesto of the executive controlling Parliament, as it long has. If all that doesn’t convince you that she’s by far the worst of a bad bunch, remember her performance on Question Time just after the expenses scandal started breaking? The worst reception I’ve ever seen, as the audience booed, hissed and jeered and she sneered, lectured and told them off in return. In every conceivable way, she just didn’t get it. If she’s elected Speaker, expect those clips to be all over the news, and the public’s view of the House of Commons to sink even lower than the incredible low it’s at now.

John Bercow
Well, what to say. In theory, he’s the best-placed ‘reform’ candidate; he might actually shake things up. He also seems to understand that he needs to open communication with the public again. On the down side, he appears to have most support among Labour MPs who don’t actually like him but know that his fellow Tories loathe him, as they have ever since he lost his Tory front bench position for voting for gay equality legislation. That might endear him in a small way to me, but it’s no way to build credibility across the aisle. Plus, he’s been so obviously gagging for the job for years, which makes my eyes narrow; like Michael Martin, he wouldn’t so much have to be pulled to the chair as peeled away from it. Besides, my one encounter with him was stunningly unimpressive. In 1997, I was the youngest candidate for any party standing in the region (however you count it; for short, ‘the bit above London and before the Midlands’) and was called on to do a lot of media and other debates around Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and so on. I debated against him at a youth rally in Milton Keynes when he was a hopeful Parliamentary candidate (admittedly, with a lot more reason to be hopeful than I did!), and I went along knowing his record as a near-fascist former Tory youth leader, a barking mad right-wing firebrand. Yes, I was pretty much expecting the anti-me. Instead, he was one of the most boring and out of touch speakers I’ve ever been put up against. Ever since, he’s seemed to me to have gone from firebrand to vacuum.

Sir George Young
Oh, look, a grandee. Huzzah. Apparently the other ‘favourite’, he’s the current Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee – yes, the one that’s fucked up so appallingly. Like the Conservative London Mayor and Conservative putative Prime Minister, this Conservative putative Speaker went to Eton. In isolation, that’s no reason to criticise any of them, but put together, you do wonder if the country’s top political jobs can’t find a wider talent (or indeed gene) pool. On the plus side, he’s one of only four candidates to go public about their twelve sponsors (refusing even to be open about who’s backing you doesn’t bode well for a commitment to transparency). The ‘carry on as you are’ continuity candidate. Oh dear.

Sir Alan Beith
Here’s the other candidate that I’ve met – quite often, in this case, and we’ve always got on quite well, despite my discombobulating him more than once in our years together on the Liberal Democrats’ Federal Policy Committee with my rather different worldview. He’s a genuine reformer, a fair and nice man, and one of only four candidates to go public about their twelve sponsors. The trouble with Alan is that only his mild manner prevents him from looking like the embodiment of the establishment (though, having sat on committees with him, he does have some steel to him – I don’t want all this “nice” and “mild” to add up to Sir Humphrey’s famously undermining praise, “Ah, the lay preacher!” Although Alan is, in fact, a lay preacher). He’s been in Parliament since the year after I was born, and I still remember Steve Bell’s 1992 cartoon of him as “Alan Beith – in leather!” for its hilarious absurdity. I can’t quite see Alan capturing the public imagination. He also came under fire for splitting his expenses with his wife, Diana Maddock, a peer. As far as I can make out, they didn’t claim for anything dodgy between them, but it looks dubious. And people will make up their minds on the new Speaker unfairly quickly. Were I in Parliament, I’d consider voting for him.

Ann Widdecombe
No, seriously? A partisan bruiser with a reputation for being slightly unhinged isn’t the most obvious choice for Speaker, but in her favour, she might capture the public (meaning press) imagination – or blow it to pieces. She’s also one of only four candidates to go public about their twelve sponsors. The down side, other than anyone who’s ever heard her speak on any issue – I’ve never met her, but once had a letter printed in a national newspaper ridiculing her stance on cannabis when Tory Shadow Home Secretary – is that although she poses as a fearless battler for ordinary people, her record on reform is the most shameful of any of the potential Speakers, persistently voting in Parliament to prevent any of us finding out about MPs’ expense. She’s also only standing to be Speaker until the end of this Parliament. What’s the point of that? Sounds to me like her USP is ‘vote for a media personality to get you through this mess while everyone’s glaring at you, then you can vote for the usual stitch-up in a year’s time when all the fuss has died down’.

Parmjit Dhanda
Another former minister, and possibly one looking to save his seat, his track record’s distinctly unimpressive. However, he’s the youngest candidate and the only one of Asian extraction, and has made some decent noises (nothing definite, you understand) about standing on a reform platform, so he has the capability to make an instant stamp as someone different, and that’s needed. Were I in Parliament, I might consider voting for him.

Richard Shepherd
Despite having been an MP for thirty years, he’s the most credible member of the Tory awkward squad, with a solid commitment to civil liberties and reform, and was one of the first to break ranks and criticise the former Speaker. Independent-minded, clean, an impeccable record on freedom of information… It’s no surprise that he’s thought to have no chance of getting it, nor that, were I in Parliament, he’s probably the candidate I’d be most likely to vote for.

Sir Michael Lord
It’s not a felicitous name if you want to avoid being seen as part of the establishment, is it? He might just be the most establishment candidate standing. This does not endear him to me.

Sir Patrick Cormack
And if Sir Michael isn’t the most establishment candidate standing, Sir Patrick probably is. He’s been in Parliament since 1352 and positions himself as a traditionalist. Save us.

Sir Alan Haselhurst
This knight of the Shires isn’t some anonymous grandee – no sir. He’s a grandee that everyone remembers for pocketing a scandalous £142,119 second homes allowances… Without a mortgage to pay. Plus, he’s been Deputy Speaker for the last 382 years, and thus utterly complicit in the whole rotten system that this election is meant to sweep away. Even though he’s been one of only four candidates to go public about their twelve sponsors, that’s too little change, too late. By far the most gobsmackingly unbelievable candidate. What does he think he’s doing?

The answer to my question, then, is that none of them are really speaking to me, though three would probably be all right, several others look pretty bad and the one the bookies have most likely to win would be an utter disaster. Business as usual, then.

In Other News…

I noticed just before I started writing this that Stephen is also horrified at the thought of Margaret Beckett’s election. A chap of excellent instincts.

If you’re tired of reading about Speaker nonsense, my old friend “Costigan Quist”, a far more radical Liberal than his ‘real-life’ persona suggests, has a typically brilliant piece about the only people who are more pathetically incapable of doing anything in politics than politicians, who at least get off their arses and try – yes, the public are to blame. But will Sir Alan still be able to blog if he’s elected Speaker (damn, I’ve outed him!)?

And finally, have you heard the interview where the newly elected populist bigot Mayor of Doncaster is revealed to be an utter and total fuckwit without the faintest clue what he’s doing? Just a shame that interview didn’t go out before the election, eh…

Update: It appears that opposition to Margaret Beckett is not an unusual phenomenon amongst Liberal Democrats. Except for Mark Littlewood on Liberal Vision, who’d rather have a socialist than a Tory – is he feeling all right? And thanks, Anders!

Today, I have been consoling myself by listening to George Harrison’s greatest hits, Let It Roll. Ahhhhh. Particularly Cheer Down, which is fab and which I was the sole person in the UK to buy as a single when it was released escaped twenty years ago.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Friday, June 19, 2009


Labour Conspiracy Waves Its Manhood At A Fluffy Elephant

The overwhelmingly pro-Labour site styling itself “Liberal Conspiracy” has long seemed to me yet another attempt to co-opt Liberals under the Labour Party’s ‘leadership’, but I’m still slightly sad that they’ve driven away those fighting a Liberal corner such as Alix Mortimer and, this week, Jennie Rigg, after a whingeing, self-pitying Green loser writing there that the Liberal Democrats smell. Millennium posted an article in reply, and the whingeing, self-pitying deputy editor of Labour Conspiracy has today been laying into a fluffy elephant, alternately making hyper-macho attacks on and pleading for mercy from a soft toy when his arguments detumesce.

Aaron Murin-Heath is the deputy editor of Labour Conspiracy, one of the biggest blogs in the land, but is clearly very threatened by an eight-year-old stuffed toy with a relatively low profile, despite constantly using terms that show us what a “man” he is and how “bitching” and effeminate people who complain are. Before complaining, bitching, making a mealy-mouthed half-apology, carrying on doing what he’d ‘apologised’ for, then announcing on comprehensively losing the argument that this was his last post, so he could have the last word and none of the others count, ner-ner-ner-ner-ner.

From all this you can tell that, unlike Millennium (who is only eight), Mr Murin-Heath is a grown-up.

Although Mr Murin-Heath is one of those on Labour Conspiracy who isn’t tribally Labour, and who claims to have Liberal views – I’ve not read any from him, but I have asked in reply if he might perhaps point us towards some – my view of the site has been made much more negative by his arguments (which are, essentially, that Liberal Democrats are both too meek and too aggressive, that complaining about his site is bad but countering his complaints to a little blog is mean, and that because he doesn’t support the Labour Party we should ignore the massive Labour bias of the site he runs). Still, it proves that it’s not just the more well-meaning of the tribally Labour people who genuinely don’t understand why Liberals are sceptical of this project that appropriates our name to make us another party’s foot-soldiers. While I’m sure many people involved in Labour Conspiracy see it as a way to neutralise and take over political opponents, I’m also sure that less cynical but more deluded Labour people think saying ‘hey, let’s all get together and fight the Tories, so mostly back Labour’ is pluralism.

I recommend that you read Millennium’s account of a Labour Conspiracy event a year ago, with which I generally agree and which includes a couple of remarks from me (I was sitting next to him).

I recommend you then read Millennium’s latest article, the one which has caused all the fuss. And perhaps recommend it to Lib Dem Voice’s Golden Dozen, as I shall.

In addition, though, I’d like you to read one of my replies to Mr Murin-Heath, which sums up what I think of his site. I’ve replied several times on a thread that’s really got quite long now and may well keep growing, so you can be forgiven for not trawling through the whole thing. This, however, is one I prepared earlier:
I’m feeling awkward in posting now, given that you’ve just put up a half-apology, Aaron (or ‘Human’, given your address to Millennium)… But as your apology appears to criticise Millennium for not taking into account your private correspondence [NB Not to Millennium, but within the Labour Conspiracy intimate circle!] and, after repeatedly laying into him, you ask for mercy, making it not the most ‘manful’ (as you might put it) apology in the world, I’ll go ahead anyway. Feel free to shoot back, if you can look up from your foot.

I think Millennium hit it on the nail when he talked about your site’s “rude children”. I’m happy to engage with people on the issues, or even over campaigning – where, as the Liberal Democrats always work harder than other parties, complaints usually boil down to ‘It’s not fair! We should be able to sit down and have votes fall into our laps!’ – but when faced with an irrational stream of abuse that says, ‘Waaahhh! I lost so you smell!’ I tend to walk away. In real life, that’s what I’d do unless I was a candidate and had to argue with even abusive idiots (and I have been a candidate, and I have done). Online, I just think, ‘site’s full of trolls. Avoid’.

I, too, went along to the “Liberal Conspiracy” event that involved us proles being addressed from the leaders at the front. Being in an upside-down-pyramid-shaped theatre didn’t mean it wasn’t top-down. I gave it a chance, and the nibbles were good, but it felt almost completely like a ‘you, the masses, will be told how to save the Labour Party’ rally. I had my fill of student socialists a decade or two ago, thanks.

You appear to be attacking Liberal Democrats on the grounds that ‘you should be authoritarian entryists and take over our site’. Sounds like every student socialist I ever knew. Fits right in with the Labour Party – just isn’t a Liberal way of thinking. Though I can think of a good reason why we might feel we had the right to a takeover…

Right from the start, “Liberal Conspiracy” has had an overwhelming – not, I accept, universal, but by a massive majority – sense that the Labour Party must be saved, that it’s basically nice, that it’s the leader of all the parties except the Tories, and that the Tories are the worst things ever (and therefore that the Labour Party is very much better). I disagree, absolutely, with those underlying assumptions. You want to know why Liberals call your site “Labour Conspiracy”? Because it’s an overwhelmingly pro-Labour project that’s deliberately nicked our name, to co-opt us with lip service rather than deeds or ideas.

So I’ll not call you “Liberal Conspiracy,” thanks. Because the vast majority of you are nothing like Liberals, and only get Liberals backs up by what looks like the latest in a very, very long run of Labour co-options of other parties to the Labour cause. It reads like yet another Labour Conspiracy to take over the Liberals, and while that might be right up your cul-de-sac, it’s not where I want to go.

PS The Lady Mark also has an excellent post regarding Labour Conspiracy this week, and – even before Mr Murin-Heath’s willy-waving at Millennium this afternoon – Orangejan captures their sexual politics brilliantly in one of the comments.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 08, 2009


Doctor Who Magazine’s Golden Treasure

If you’re like me, you’ll probably need cheering up after the European Elections (though the locals were pretty good). If you’re even more like me, one way is to dip into Doctor Who Magazine’s latest special, 200 Golden Moments, featuring absolutely wonderful scenes from every single Doctor Who story. It is, quite simply, a joy. It answers the question I wish fans would ask more often – ‘Why is this brilliant?’ – across the whole TV series from 1963 to this Easter, and rivals the Radio Times’ legendary Tenth Anniversary Special as the most marvellous Doctor Who magazine ever printed.

Strike a pose!
Posted by Picasa

Back in 1973, years before Doctor Who Magazine began, before any of the mass of guidebooks (still less websites) naming every Doctor Who story were published, the Radio Times celebrated ten years of the series with a special glossy full-colour magazine, back when the Radio Times itself was printed on loo-roll. It boasted a mini-guide to every story (sometimes accurate), plans to build your own Dalek (with the measurements wrong), a Dalek story by Terry Nation (who decided it didn’t count, so used the same idea for a Blake’s 7 episode) and, above all, it was packed with thrilling photos, both from the stories themselves and specially staged ones with many of the actors who’d played the Doctor’s companions. I probably wasn’t walking yet by then, still less watching Doctor Who or arguing with other fans, but a few years later a family friend gave me the slightly battered copy he’d bought at the time, and it instantly became (and has remained) one of my most treasured possessions. For many years, it was a window into the series’ prehistory – anything from before I started watching was, of course, ancient, and anything from before I was born practically mythological – that you simply couldn’t get in any other way. It still looks terrific today, and is so iconic that drawing a variation of the cover (starring the two of us) was the natural choice for Richard and my tenth anniversary.

So in terms of affection and excitement, and with well over 400 Doctor Who Magazines since then, the bar is set pretty high. Well, 200 Golden Moments pretty much clears it. It’s the ideal celebration, and if I were you I’d go out and buy a copy before they all sell out. Though I’m half-American I’m incapable of a convincing American accent, so it’s a good job I’m only writing a booming advertiser’s voice: ‘If you only buy one Doctor Who magazine, make it this one’.

My scanner doesn’t like the gold foil, but it’s prettier in real life
Posted by Picasa

I love reading – and writing – in-depth articles on Doctor Who, something thought-provoking and with a bit of punch. I love laughing at the bits that don’t work (though – as with any tribe – only with another Who-lover, defending the series against all comers from ‘outside’). And I love watching some stories an awful lot more than I love watching certain others. But, above all, I love Doctor Who, and sometimes it’s a little wearing when all a particular fan or book or site seems to do is be negative. Four or five years ago, Richard and I were reading a particularly in-depth, insightful and comprehensive book on the series and greatly enjoying its ideas, its turns of phrase, and ganging up on it together when we thought it had got something hilariously wrong. But although it and its companions are probably the best set of books ever written on the series, we often felt that at times they lost sight of why they were into Doctor Who in the first place. So from then on, when Richard and I watch Who together, even a story we really don’t think much of, we’ve always tried to ask that question that was missing from these books – why is this story brilliant? Whether it’s a chorus of praise or just a saving grace, the idea of the series is so magnificent that every part of it has something worth treasuring. And that’s why I love this new special: at last, someone’s produced the very thing I want to read to cheer myself up about any of Doctor Who you care to name.

Why Is This Brilliant?

It’s immensely readable. It’s made up of a couple of hundred little nuggets, all beautifully illustrated, by dozens of different authors in dozens of different styles and finding something memorable for many dozens of different reasons. It focuses on great drama, funny one-liners, special effects wonders, scary cliffhangers, gorgeous music, fantastic acting, long, short, sad, happy, old, new… Like the series itself, each piece is something new. If you know every story, you can look at it through someone else’s eyes; if you’re a more casual watcher, it’s like 200 trailers or bite-sized insights, something that might make you think, ‘Ooh, I’d like to try that one’. You can read it from cover to cover, or back to front, or pop in and out at your leisure – it’s ideal to dip into, and like a particularly good chocolate selection box, you can just take one at a time, or you can swallow 200 at a sitting.

Now, obviously I’m a Doctor Who fan, so naturally I could pick at this. I could point out that, as some stories get more than one “golden moment,” there are actually not 200 but 222 of them here. But what sort of pedant would you have to be not to see that as a bonus? I could complain that when I picked out 46 stories to illustrate Why Doctor Who Is Brilliant last year I roamed across the whole glorious panoply of Doctor Who, from TV to novels to comics to radio plays, and this sets its sights too narrowly to do the whole marvellous concept. But then, I only picked one story from each year, and they’re doing the lot – just how many pages would it take to cover “A Few Thousand Golden Moments”? So, you know, they’ve got it as near to just right as it could ever be. And, like that fabled Tenth Anniversary Special, open it up and it looks gorgeous.

A Peek Inside…

I’m not going to offer a critique of every single piece in there, because – well, obviously, because I don’t want to take up 146 pages (and probably 146 days to write). But I’d like to pull out a little of the best of it, and raise the odd eyebrow. The first thing, of course, is that they haven’t – they can’t have – chosen all the same moments that I would. So with some stories you turn the page to find exactly the famous scene that’s always praised, while with others there’s an iconoclastic focus on something you wouldn’t expect at all, with the one everyone raves about suddenly missing. I set myself to scribble down the half a dozen scenes from the entire series that I thought were the most indispensable, and when I flipped through to check, they had three of them. But, you know, most of the time it’s just as joyous to find yourself looking at a little-thought-of scene in a new light as it is to bask in the comforting glow of something you’ve always ‘known’ was magnificent. And if you’re too upset about your favourite being ignored, Philip MacDonald’s evocative introductions for each Doctor pick out a brace of brilliant moments each sketched in a few words, just a selection of some of the bits they didn’t choose, and chances are you might find it mentioned there anyway.

I’ll take you on a trip through my favourite Doctor, then skip more swiftly through the others. The magazine starts perfectly – the first choice, for the first story, is exactly the one I’d have made, as Ian, Barbara and all of us first enter the TARDIS. I look at my scrawled six and, yes, that’s just about the most indispensable of the lot. And when I wrote the other week about why The Edge of Destruction was brilliant, the moment quoted here is one of the scenes that gripped me, too. We come to the earliest-broadcast story I don’t think too much of and, hurrah, Jonny Morris has gone for exactly the nightmarish moment I always think of as its finest. Matt Michael picks a scene that I wouldn’t for The Sensorites, but captures it beautifully, and links the marvellous William Hartnell all the way to Christopher Eccleston in a flick of a phrase – then his next choice includes the lines I used when, ten years into making political speeches, I first flourished a quotation from Doctor Who to a packed room. Andrew Pixley, known for his learned, detailed archive work, is a revelation, making me smile throughout with sheer, infectious joy, then Gareth Roberts – known for his fine comic writing – leaps in with one of the most searingly dramatic arguments the series has ever known, even if he falls for the Earl of Leicester’s spin-doctoring. Jonny Morris reveals Billy’s lolcats; Nev Fountain thanks the stars that Doctor Who always managed to avoid (sometimes by a whisker) such ghastly sci-fi clichés as the Planet of Women. Paul Cornell shares the “sheer magic” of Billy’s most moving soliloquy; Mark Wright picks out what, if Bill Hartnell was the star of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – what a marvellous, marvellous idea – would be his ‘hero moment’ for the titles. And Patrick Mulkern picks out some eye candy, then later on plays what I’m certain is a Hampstead euphemism. I know where he’s coming from.

Rob Shearman, ah, the lovely Rob Shearman, superb writer, incisive critic, swoops in on just how utterly brave and brilliant was the way they changed the Doctor for the first time. Stuart Manning takes a minor scene from one of my favourite little-known stories to illustrate in a couple of hundred words exactly the ideological point I made in several thousand. Philip MacDonald, in The Tomb of the Cybermen, hits on another of those magic six I’d scribbled down, and makes a lovely case for The Abominable Snowmen – and he’s right, you know. Between them, on one of those stories that get two golden moments, Keith Topping and Jonathan Morris capture exactly the most horribly memorable scenes… Though I’d have been torn in making it three, and added the terrible, fearful, hideous glee that comes in torturing a Cyberman.

Probably the biggest shock in the entire magazine is that a scene so memorable it’s been remade three times in Doctor Who TV, for pop videos and even for Pringles, killer shop window dummies smashing through the high street in Spearhead From Space, is ostentatiously missing as a scene I’d never have thought of takes what everyone would assume was its place. Which is why it’s so perfect that the pull-out quote for the scene which every fan will frown at for being the wrong one is, “Is this someone’s idea of a joke?” Priceless! Then, for the sequel, Scott Handcock makes me see the brilliance in a cliffhanger that, I’ll confess, I’d always thought a bit rubbish. And Dave Owen nails the relationship at the heart of The Three Doctors, while Philip MacDonald treasures a tiny, exquisite moment from the next story along.

After an ad for Big Finish’s Short Trips books, now at the end of the line and flying off at half-price – you know you want to – there’s Tom Baker. Gosh. What a lot of Tom. And every little bit marvellous. There’s a lovely little moment by Paul Vyse from The Sontaran Experiment, then Gary Russell and David A McIntee between them zero in on the central drama of Genesis of the Daleks (even without the scenes I’d have picked – the Doctor and Davros’ philosophical debate for sheer electricity, and Ronson’s screaming death for memories of boyhood bloodlust). But while Gary’s piece nails Davros’ fatal flaw, I have a problem with David’s. Even though (thanks, Jennie) he did vote Lib Dem in the Euros. You see, he’s both absolutely right and dead wrong on the Doctor’s moral quandary over whether to destroy the Daleks. Where David goes wrong is in his shortcut to answering the Doctor’s question, where he rephrases Sarah’s comparison of the Daleks to a virus into “a genetically modified mould in a dodgem car” and that, because of the dehumanising words “genetically modified,” it’s fine to kill them… Which, rather than listening to the Doctor’s argument that this is an intelligent species, ironically takes the Daleks’ side that you can say another form of life isn’t like us, and so destroy it. Where he’s right, and impeccably liberal, is in seeing what’s so important about a hero that asks questions:
“This is a hero, a role model, who, when faced with a difficult decision and unpleasant options thinks about them… The nature of the question, or the answer, doesn’t matter; it’s the concept of asking that’s so fabulous.”
Nev Fountain then earns incredible brownie points for pointing out just what an incredible cliffhanger Part One of The Deadly Assassin has – yep, it’s my favourite cliffhanger, and my favourite story. So I’ll ignore the choice he makes for one later story of one of the few scenes in the special I still think’s rotten… Love to Philip MacDonald again, too, for finding a moment in The Face of Evil that says exactly how vitally important Tom Baker could be. Readers who know The Robots of Death well will understand just why it’s disturbing that “David Bailey” writes about it, and hooray for Marcus Hearn, who spots one of the most marvellous things about Robert Holmes’ writing, as well as Kate Orman, who knows exactly why the last Doctor Who story to really, really scare me was so scary.

You can tell I love this period, can’t you? Because I’ll never finish at this rate. I’d better skip most of Tom and tell you just to get the magazine itself, which is much more fun to read, after all. Look out, along the way, for top Gary Russellness on The Invasion of Time, Peter Anghelides hitting one of the tiniest, most perfectly crafted things about The Androids of Tara (albeit making the mistake that everyone makes about the story, and not picking the line I borrowed for a certain blog), Gareth Roberts filling me with enthusiasm for The Power of Kroll, which is no mean feat, and Dave Owen, hurrah, knowing that the music is the most gorgeous thing in City of Death. Plus lots and lots of Jonny Morris (and more for free), who always comes up with something new – even if I don’t think he gives enough credit to the brilliantly talented David Fisher.

Rob Shearman doesn’t write many of the pieces here, but they’re some of the best. He’s spot-on – and, unexpectedly, very funny – for Full Circle, and supplies two brilliant moments for the early Peter Davison era. Also unexpectedly, that period gets perhaps the most impressive run of nuggets in the magazine; if you want quality writing, the middle’s a good place to start. Scott Handcock again sees right into the Master in Castrovalva, Gareth Roberts finds a premonition of death, and Rob, again, takes an opening scene I’d always thought of as perfunctory and shows the unsettling effect it’s there to create. It’s probably the most memorable moment in the magazine for making me see a scene from an entirely new angle. Jonathan Morris gets it right again and again on Snakedance and Frontios, Ian Farrington summons up Sgt Pepper, and Matt Michael has a marvellous moment of childhood terror – a piece of personal memory that even beats Gareth Roberts and Bonnie Langford.

I know David Darlington, but I can assure you he’s not bribed me to say that I loved his celebration of Colin Baker in The Twin Dilemma. Oh, it made me smile. And at the other end of Colin, Cavan Scott picks something way cool. New Grand Mekon of All Doctor Who Steven Moffat writes about Dragonfire; you know, I don’t really agree with him, but he writes it jolly well. And Mark Wright’s dead right on Paradise Towers. I know Joe Lidster a bit, too, and when I saw him on Saturday I really should have told him how perfectly he conjures a moment of The Curse of Fenric. I don’t know James Moran, but I also met him on Saturday and he seemed terribly nice; I should have told him, too, that he was lovely on Survival. Because I knew, of course, it had to be that scene, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone evoke it so well. Bless Kate Orman, next, for what she says about kissing, and Dave Owen on just how funny the Master is. He is, you know.

Gosh, only nine paragraphs into the three I meant to write about the magazine itself, and I’m into this century. Yay for Matt Michael on The End of the World; I love it too. There’s Jonathan Blum on Doctor Who making you cry – the story he writes about did for me, as well – and Scott Handcock, on it scaring you all over again. Then David Tennant thunders into Doctorness with a fabulous scene brought to us by Peter Anghelides, and it’s that Jonathan Morris again, not making the choice I’d have made but drawing me into his view of New Earth. And what scene’s a Dalek’s favourite? I’ll let you read it and find out, but it’s brilliant, too. And thank you, Gary, for hitting what might just be my favourite David Tennant moment in one of his finest little stories, while Jason Arnopp picks probably the mesmerising “moment” I’ve watched more than any other from this century’s Who. Though he lifts out seven minutes, and I just can’t stop before I’ve watched the episode’s whole last sixteen. And what could be a better end – to the beginning – than Andrew Pixley making me utterly thrilled when reading about Planet of the Dead?

Go on, go on. Buy it. Their snippets are much better than my snippets about their snippets.

Other Marvellous Moments

The lovely Tom Spilsbury’s Editorial opening the magazine mentions the inspiration for it all, DWM’s 1996 article 20 Moments When You Know You’re Watching the Greatest Television Series Ever Made. That evocation of Doctor Who’s That Certain Something stirred a lot of imaginations at the time, followed by ten more suggested by readers, another ten of the best cliffhangers – bizarrely excluded from the ‘main’ set – and one ‘best moment’ each for the Master and the Cybermen. That’ll be 42, then. Strangely, given that those were DWM’s indispensable moments for the series thirteen years ago, only 19 of them made it into the 222 (the ‘extras’ suggested by readers turn out to be the most successful). Then the flurry of favourite snippets died down until DWM published its list of the series’ greatest deaths last year, and even the top one of those doesn’t make it here. Inspired like many people back in 1996, though, and by my childhood marvelling at clips and comment documentary Whose Doctor Who, I edited together my own 50 favourite scenes – don’t worry, I won’t list them all – of which 20 appear in 200 Golden Moments.

I’m going to finish by writing about just one scene I’d like to pick as a magic moment. In the spirit of the special magazine, it’s finding something absolutely glorious nestling in a story that’s perhaps not one of the best. 40 years ago yesterday, a BBC press conference presented Jon Pertwee as the new Doctor. My feelings about his Doctor have been complicated over the years, and I’d say now that, while I love him, he’s the Doctor I find it most difficult to like. [Slight update: I was getting rather sleepy by this point in the article (having had just two hours’ sleep amidst grumbling at the election results the night before) and entirely forgot that this was the point at which I meant to unmask the identity of the outstanding but aggravating book series about Doctor Who alluded to above, one volume of which inspired my whole ‘Why is this brilliant?’ concept through being detailed, thought-provoking but persistently sour. It is, of course, Lawrence Miles’ and Tat Wood’s About Time collection. By a stroke of serendipity, Tat’s vastly expanded second edition of Volume 3 (covering the Third Doctor, though that’s less of a given than you might think) has just been published, and I started reading it yesterday. I had no idea until I read in that very book, 40 years to the day later, of the date on which Mr Pertwee’s casting had been announced. Then, irresistibly, another anniversary presents itself today, this time serendipitously chiming in with the blue giant spider on the cover of About Time 3…]

Skip forward, and 35 years ago today his Doctor suffered fatal radiation poisoning and regenerated into Tom Baker, at the end of a story that was something of a Pertwee megamix, flourishing many of the era’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. Planet of the Spiders is even one of those few Doctor Who stories which I have major ideological arguments with. With all that, you wouldn’t think I love it, but I do – and a large part of my love for that story, and the love I have for Pertwee’s Doctor too, comes with the climactic scene from 35 years ago today.

Back when I was five years old, I wasn’t allowed to stay up for Melvyn Bragg’s Arena arts special Whose Doctor Who, so my Dad recorded the sound from it on open-reel tape. Though now the whole thing’s easily available on the marvellous The Talons of Weng-Chiang DVD, for several decades I pored over the soundtrack, taking years to identify where some of the clips came from. Among them, though, there were three scenes that I could always identify and which I absolutely adored and always held me spellbound. The one which I hadn’t seen on TV on first transmission (and didn’t until the story was released on VHS in the early ’90s, with a fantastic cover based on this very scene) was taken from the final episode of Planet of the Spiders, a story where the action centres on – as you might guess – giant spiders seeking a blue crystal with the power to expand your mind to an incredible degree. Yes, it was made in 1974, since you ask.
“Now listen to me. Listen. I haven’t got much time left. What you’re trying to do is impossible – if you complete that circuit, the energy will build up and up until it cannot be contained. You will destroy yourself.”
At the story’s climax, the Doctor walks into the heart of the Spiders’ domain, facing his fear and the Great One, the huge, demented god-empress of the Spiders. Knowing that even to walk into her crystal-powered cave will kill him, he still goes in and offers her the final crystal in the hope that she’ll leave the humans alone. Maureen Morris voices the Great One in a tour de force of power and madness, confronted by Pertwee’s bravery and desperation. The blazing blue of it all, and the giant spider, socks you in the eyes, but the most striking ‘effect’ aiding this extraordinary face-off is the huge, eerie music. It might just be composer Dudley Simpson’s finest moment, and probably Jon Pertwee’s, too.

What’s so magnificent about this scene isn’t just the performances, or the music underscoring them. It’s that the Doctor sacrifices himself to bring the ultimate villain the crystal – but still begs her not to take it. His desperation isn’t for himself, and his pleading isn’t for himself; it’s initially for the people he’s dying to save, but during this scene it changes to a desperate pleading to save the villain. He holds off actually giving her the crystal out of fear for her – and she uses her mind to snatch it out of her hand, thirsting and aching to impose her will on the entire Universe, believing that the last crystal will give her limitless power. He’s aghast not for the Universe, but because he knows she won’t be able to contain it. He pleads, he protests, and is quite frantic to save her even as she’s crying her triumph. The Doctor with the biggest ego confronts the very personification of ego and, dying, tries desperately to save even an evil megalomaniac. He fails. The Great One’s terrific gloating power becomes agonized screams, and they’re the most chilling sound ever heard in the series.

The giant spider thrills the boy in me, the awesome music makes my spine tingle and the dying screams make the hairs on my neck rise, but what really makes this a golden moment for me is the sheer Doctorishness of Pertwee risking his last minutes of life to save his enemy. He’s heartbreaking.

Cross-posted to Next Time, I Shall Not Be So Lenient, my Doctor Who reviews blog.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Thursday, June 04, 2009


Vote Liberal Democrat – Tonight

Have you voted? There’s still time, you know. The polls don’t close until ten. Do you complain? I bet you do. About the council, the government, the EU… Then get off your arse and do something about it! If you’re undecided, the Liberal Democrats might even push Labour into third place. I don’t know about your local council, though the Lib Dems probably work harder, but in the Euro-elections we’re the only ones who want to make it work better. If you want to tackle crime, climate change and the economy, there’s us. Vote positively, and hurt Labour too. Bargain.

Posted by Picasa

I’ve made a few more suggestions about why to vote Lib Dem here. And here. And there are some other good ones here. And even an endorsement from today’s Independent here. In short, we’re stronger together, weaker apart. But get your skates on.

Labels: ,

Monday, June 01, 2009


Reading To Be Cheerful (Part Lots)

One of the disadvantages of the Summer months is that the light makes me more likely than ever to wake up at half-four (though the temperature’s more conducive to being in my nuddy, a reason to be cheerful, obviously). And when very short of sleep, I tend to be slower and grumpier. How to raise my spirits, as putting on a DVD might wake my beloved? So, this morning’s thanks go to Mat Bowles and Nyder’s Dyner for particularly cheering stories about books they found on the Internet. And to Ian Dury, for putting a great song in my head. In other aged pop news, it was forty-two* years ago today…

Mat’s fabulous and inspiring story is of a teenager in a strict Catholic school in the USA who was frustrated by the school’s long list of banned books. When a friend asked to borrow one of them from her, she started up a secret lending library from her locker, including books such as His Dark Materials trilogy, The Canterbury Tales (which I studied at my not very strict Catholic school), The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, The Godfather, Mort, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Animal Farm (which I also studied at my not very strict Catholic school) and The Evolution of Man (which I was taught about at my not very strict Catholic school). What a fantastic idea.

When I was a teenager in my not very strict Catholic school, I only stood in the playground and read aloud from Spycatcher, then told anyone in earshot that they were breaking the Official Secrets Act. The book was rubbish, though, and put me off my brief interest in spy non-fiction. Though typing that makes me think not of a book but of Earshot, one of the finest episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and another highly entertaining, intelligent and thought-provoking response to school which was banned for a time.

Now, some comments have suggested that this story of a secret library isn’t true. Who knows? Only the person who first posted it. I assume it happened in the absence of actual facts, but does it really matter if it didn’t? That would make it an inspiring fiction that’s spread across the world to tell people reading’s cool… And that’s a story worth telling, anyway.

The other – and much sillier – book-related piece that I belatedly came across this morning is of something from the 1980s that vies with my Magnus Greel and Mr Sin toys as the most blissfully unsuitable products ever aimed at children. Back in 1983, David Lynch released a famously impenetrable film of a book where all the important conversations take place in italics inside people’s heads (“For he is the Quicksand Hatrack!”). I saw Dune when I was thirteen, and loved its strangeness, but I wouldn’t say I was exactly a mass-market demographic. I wouldn’t have looked at colouring books by then, but I missed out – this Dune Colouring Book is fantastic, and it I'd have enjoyed it enormously at thirteen. Mainly in the same way the article does. Weird creatures uttering arcane threats, glistening pustules and dead bodies… I think the writer and illustrator here knew exactly what they were doing.

Why don’t I get back into bed? Hmm… Maybe when Richard (who’s up now) has gone off to work, and the light’s a bit less bright. In the meantime, I’m knackered but having quite a cheery morning.

* Actually sixty-two years ago today, if you think about it…

Labels: , , , , ,

Newer›  ‹Older

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