Monday, December 31, 2012


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 48: The Greatest Show In the Galaxy

Counting down towards the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who with Fifty great scenes… It’s not a Saturday this time, but after a washout of a weekend, why not end the year with a blow-out? This is possibly Sylvester McCoy’s coolest moment as the Doctor – while at the same time almost certainly his hottest. And, as there’s not a lot of dialogue in it, I’m breaking my usual rule (it’s what rules are for) and illustrating this very dynamic scene with not one but three photos. Here comes Sylv’s hot arse to make the year go out with a…

Doctor Who 50 – The Greatest Show In the Galaxy: Flame

With my Fifty restricted to TV Doctor Who, there are sadly no New Adventures – but there is Sylv. And he doesn’t get much more televisual than this moment. At the climax of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) has faced down gods, and as things start blowing up and falling apart he walks out of their little world, through the main doorway of a circus marquee. And then a rather small-looking climax becomes something much bigger.

As Sylvester turns and strolls away, a picture of calm and cool, there’s a sheet of flame from the circus entrance that becomes a vast explosion of smoke, sand and debris in a firestorm just behind him. It’s something they could only do in one take, and to his credit, he gives just the tiniest of blinks but not the slightest wobble in his saunter as all hell breaks loose in the background. Despite, as he’s said later, not knowing if there were any clothes left on his back or, indeed, if he still had a bum once he felt the blast hit him.

Doctor Who 50 – The Greatest Show In the Galaxy: Blast

For a story that’s been all about Doctor Who, how more perfect an ending could there be than this? Sylvester McCoy’s time as the Doctor is when the BBC’s pyromaniacs explosives experts reached their peak, achieving the firepower and enthusiasm to make explosions very, very much bigger than they were supposed to, but just before the BBC’s health and safety people started really meaning it. The seventh Doctor’s on-screen adventures had spaceships blowing up excitingly in space or still more excitingly on the ground, and out on the streets even Daleks blasting the hell out of each other (as I featured a few weeks ago). But it’s this that’s the biggest, most absurdly dangerous bang of them all, showing just how much they could get away with by shooting on location – and even followed by stallholder Peggy Mount postmodernly complaining to her horse that they’ve got “no consideration for those of us that live ’ere!”

This is the Doctor’s attitude to cleaning up the mess after each adventure summarised in one perfect shot of him sauntering off without a backward glance as everything goes to blazes behind him.

Doctor Who 50 – The Greatest Show In the Galaxy: Cool

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – Vengeance On Varos

Another brilliant example of what happens after the Doctor (Colin Baker) wins – funny, hopeful and downbeat all at the same time. The planet of Varos will no longer be exploited, probably, and no longer placate its citizens and export markets with murderous reality TV, probably. At least, that’s what the planet’s Governor says, and it’s a good job he’s sounding kindly and vowing “justice and peace and tolerance” to the viewers at home now, because it looks like he’ll no longer have to face deadly vote-ins now, so there’s no way to get rid of him now, probably. Throughout the story, two of those viewers at home have been passively following events, and now Arak (Stephen Yardley) – grim – and Etta (Sheila Reid) – wondering – have to work out, for the first time in their lives, what they’ll do when they have a choice.
“No more executions… Torture… Nothing.”
“It’s all changed. We’re free.”
“Are we?”
“What shall we do?”
Because for the first time in their lives, there’s nothing on the empty screen to tell them. It’s a great coda to a story about television, beautifully played, and a satire on the old ‘moral to camera’ as epilogue. As well as anticipating by twenty years Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who in not just his love of reality TV, but ending where he started by asking, “Why Don’t You…?” No comfy New Year’s Resolutions here – just the chilly freedom of the future.

Next Time… One day he’ll come back… But what happened next?

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Friday, December 28, 2012


Doctor Who and the Gays (and an interview with me)

My friend Nick Campbell recently interviewed me for his book blog, A Pile of Leaves. The whole chat’s in his imaginary garden, including what I think of eBooks, librarian’s perks, and how I was always a Fattypuff even when technically a Thinifer. But, being me, my answers went on a bit, so Nick edited down several of them, and there’s one that I’ve decided to publish in full here. Nick asked me:

Do you think Doctor Who is the gay man’s delight it once was? And do you have your own theory on why it was in the first place?
I’m not sure I have anything profoundly different to say about why Doctor Who was the gay man’s delight; I think it was because it was the gay boy’s delight, with its consistent appeal to the outsider and its being all about standing up to bullies of every kind. I’m sure ‘How Doctor Who appealed to me even before I knew I was gay’ has a lot in common with How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal: the series hates prejudice and oppression, celebrates free will and non-conformity. It’s also frequently incredibly camp.

But I have a suspicion that beyond the individualist theme and intermittently camp veneer, it may just be that the Doctor has friends who are women and men, but ostentatiously doesn’t notice them sexually, let alone doesn’t shag them – not reading as ‘gay’ but being almost unique as a main character in hardly ever reading as ‘straight’. Both in being an individual rather than a ‘uniform’ and in being, seemingly, the only hero who doesn’t have a girl in every port, he was the opposite of Captain Kirk. Not that I didn’t enjoy Kirk sometimes growing up, but I never identified with him. The Doctor was someone you could identify with whoever you were, but most of all if you didn’t fit in, because he didn’t have any of the characteristics every other hero did that pushed you away if you weren’t like everyone else.

As for if it still is, you’d probably have to ask gay boys much younger than me now. I hope it still is, but both gay culture and the way the series approaches relationships has changed so much that I don’t know: it must still be as hard coming out for many, but much more mainstream for many others; there’s a lot more gayery, and positively, than there ever was; and under Russell Doctor Who suddenly was suddenly open to gay and bi characters on screen… But at the same time the Doctor was suddenly very heterosexual. Since Mr Moffat took over, we’ve become almost completely invisible again and the Ponds, while lovely, inevitably made the TARDIS crew its most thoroughly heterosexual ever. Though at the same time, the Doctor became strange and ‘other’ again, and not interested in that sort of thing (except when the lovely TARDIS came along, inevitably). So it’s a maelstrom. You need to do a survey of the under-20s!

Obviously, the contentious last paragraph – which the lovely Nick omitted – may seem a little unfair now after the return of Mr Moffat’s most popular characters, the kick-ass married lesbians (even if in the same story where the Doctor’s been described as going back to fancying a “hot chick”). But then I remember another dear friend of mine on top of Nick, Mikey Russell (you can get his very different books here and here), grappling with a Russell T Davies-era Steven Moffat story he found otherwise superb and in which Mr Moffat thought it an incredible step forward in screenwriting to come up with the groundbreaking idea of, as he himself put it, “Doctor Who Discovers Girls”:
“One of the reasons Doctor Who meant so much to me as a scared gayboy growing up in fundamentalist-choked Arkansas was that he could be a hero without showing the slightest interest in girls; in all other shows I saw back then, the male lead had to prove his worthiness to be a hero by chasing women around. So I’m glad they didn’t do this in the old series because that would have been one more slap in the face, one more statement from the world that I shouldn’t exist.”
This is something that, really, I should write a long and properly referenced article about, with qualifiers and fairness all round and studiously seeing the other point of view… But I thought instead I’d publish my instinctive answer when suddenly put on the spot, as otherwise I’d probably never get back to it. Because ever since I can remember, the Doctor’s not been like all the other men, and ever since the New Adventures, which Richard, Nick, Simon and I all separately remembered drinking in like a first snog, it had seemed that we might be starting to put flesh on our selves at last. Yet ever since The Eleventh Hour, it’s seemed increasingly that Doctor Who has the viewpoint of one straight man, and that’s that.

How is it for you?

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Saturday, December 22, 2012


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 49: The End of Time

Counting down on every Saturday towards the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who with Fifty great scenes… For this week, what else could it be but Christmas? Though some swear by Dickens – Doctor Who having four Victorian Christmases in seven years, which might just be considered festive overindulgence – what could be more Christmassy than Bernard Cribbins, stained glass, a choir, nightmares, James Bond grimly predicting the end of the world and Bad Santa* with his beard laughing and laughing and laughing? So, as we wait for snow…
“Who knows? Perhaps he’s coming back.”
“Oh, that would make my Christmas.”

Doctor Who 50 – The End of Time

Russell T Davies’ ministry to us ended as it began: zooming in to Earth from space to London streets and the Doctor’s companion. But now, instead of young, excitable Billie Piper, it’s old, troubled Bernard Cribbins; not bright morning, but dark night; not Murray Gold’s upbeat music as the camera races around town, but a mournful old brass band playing Klokleda Partha Mennin Klatch as people slowly wander, alone. And across it all, the ominous voice of he-only-thinks-he’s-God telling us of a pagan rite to banish the cold and the dark, of nightmares of fire and war and insanity, and of the final days of planet Earth…

Stepping back one story from last week’s Number 50, Number 49 in the chart is from a story that made an appearance in one of my not-quite-in-the-Fifty posts three weeks ago, for its cliffhanger. Compiling the Fifty, I realised that I had many cliffhangers but was rather lacking in their modern little brothers, the pre-titles sequence, so I chose this one as particularly special to me. Bernard Cribbins’ Wilfred Mott is an utterly loveable character, both for his joy and sadness, his bravery and dread, and for simply being Bernard Cribbins. Not a churchgoer, the old man is drawn by singing and light to an old church one cold Winter’s night. He takes off his hat, framed against the war memorial at the back of the church, and looks in wonder down the nave towards the stained glass window, and something strangely familiar depicted in the corner of it.

It might be the woman in white, framed with her own halo, who appears behind Wilf; it might be the stained glass TARDIS, tonight on the brink of Doctor Who’s Fiftieth Anniversary recalling the finest story of the Fortieth, Rob Shearman’s Jubilee, which in turn influenced Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who; it might be The Legend of the Blue Box, in which long ago the Sainted Physician followed a demon down from the sky to this site, smote it and vanished, later immortalised in glass. It might even be the Master’s laughter echoing through poor Wilf’s head as the end tumbles closer, the Doctor (David Tennant)’s old friend seeing flashes of the Doctor’s much older friend as he throws back his head and cackles, the camera zooming into his eye as the titles cut in. But I think it’s just that yearning as Wilf looks toward the TARDIS and wishes with all his heart that it was there. We all have that.

I offered my choice of Seasonal songs a few weeks ago; for some strange reason, I didn’t include any of Bernard Cribbins’ hits. But you can. Or, if you want another friend of the Doctor’s singing, here are some brand new Songtaran Carols to tide you over ’til Tuesday.

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe
“Lily and Cyril’s room. I’m going to be honest: masterpiece! The ultimate bedroom. A science-wiencey workbench – a jungle – a maze – a window disguised as a mirror – a mirror disguised as a window! Selection of torches, for midnight feasts and secret reading. Zen garden – mysterious cupboard – zone of tranquillity – rubber wall – dream tank – exact model of the rest of the house, not quite to scale, apologies – dolls with comical expressions – the Magna Carta – a foot spa – Cluedo – a yellow fort!”
“Where are the beds?”
“Well, I couldn’t fit everything in. There had to be sacrifices.”
Early in last year’s Christmas special, the Caretaker (the Doctor [Matt Smith]) introduces a war-torn, forlorn family to Uncle Digby’s house big old house, with its faulty door, less boring than it used to be smaller sitting room, triple-tippled-tapped kitchen, faulty stairs, possible panthers, boring Mum’s bedroom and, most importantly, the children’s room. It makes me laugh. Matt’s Doctor is just so infectiously Doctorish that I love this even with the words science-wiencey. And it’s good to know that, after having such fun decorating himself – fezzes are cool – he can apply himself to decorate something smaller, too.

Bonus Extra-Christmassy Great Doctor Who Quotation – The Daleks’ Master Plan: The Feast of Steven

How could I let Christmas pass by without the Doctor (William Hartnell) in the first of all his Christmas specials? In the middle of a massive Dalek epic, he takes the time out for – well, for all sorts of fun, but at the end of this episode, a drink. Come to think of it, last night I was listening to the series’ other great Dalek epic, The Evil of the Daleks, in which the Doctor takes a quiet moment for a not even festive drink (probably more wine, though it might be a brandy balloon) and tries to force it on someone who’s suspiciously more than teetotal. Then, infamously, he has more wine in the next Dalek story and his next body. Perhaps they drive him to drink? Back here, for once, it’s his own bottle, probably, with which he joyously toasts his companions before turning to the rest of us:
“And incidentally, a happy Christmas to all of you at home!”
And a very happy birthday to Sir Bernard of Cribbins next Saturday, too. But Wilf’s not in that one – so who is?

Next Time… The year ends with a bang.

*Santa? But that’s an anagram of—! Oh, all right, it isn’t, but if you look at the “n” after a few glasses and there’s an “r” in the month…

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Friday, December 21, 2012


The Hobbit Fantasy Casting

This time last week, Richard and I were watching and enormously enjoying The Hobbit – An Unexpectedly Small Proportion of It. Neither of us have been able to write reviews yet, sadly (though we might see it again), but I cheered at Sylvester McCoy appearing in big movie-star letters, and thrilled at his having not just a character cameo but major scenes: the gathering dark; the extended comedy action piece; the full-on action scene where he bests the most dangerous character in the entire film… So it got me thinking. Who else might Doctor Who fan Peter Jackson have cast?

The Hobbit


SYLVESTER McCOY as Radagast The Brown

MATT SMITH as Bilbo Baggins

COLIN BAKER as Thorin Oakenshield

TOM BAKER as Gandalf The Grey (look, I held out for him last time)

CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON as The Blue Wizard (may not appear in actual film)

PAUL MCGANN as Galadriel (because he always loves wigs, and he’s not quite fey enough for Elrond)

And in especially large letters at the end

MICHAEL JAYSTON as Saruman The (spoilers) Turns Out Not As White As He’s Painted

With PETER DAVIDSTONE as The Pale Orc (harbouring a deadly vendetta against Thorin Oakenshield)

And DAVID TENNANT as Sebastian the Hedgehog (because he suffers so well)

Proper blogging may reappear soon. I’m having a crappy day and humming That Dwarf Song to keep warm.

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Saturday, December 15, 2012


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 50: The Eleventh Hour

It’s about time. Forty-nine weeks from today will be the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who, the greatest TV series ever made. Starting today, every Saturday I’m counting down fifty great scenes – and where else to start but the Doctor? Plus something else you might think of when you mention him… So I’ve chosen one word that may just sum each of them up. Tonight, eleven Doctors (though one in particular) and a great many monsters (though one in particular). And if you know nothing about Doctor Who (why? How?), where to start.
“Hello. I’m the Doctor. Basically – run.”

Doctor Who 50 – The Eleventh Hour

Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor started, appropriately, in 2010’s The Eleventh Hour. The alien Atraxi have come to Earth to find a criminal, then threatened to blow it up (with all its non-criminals). The Doctor thinks this is a bit rude, and – so they don’t come back – gives them a dressing-down. First, he does some dressing down and up of his own: he pleases some fans by taking all his clothes off; he pleases many more by putting a bow tie on. And then he’s ready to face the threat to Earth, getting them to realise through the medium of clips show that they’re not the first, and to see what happened to the rest. Giant holograms of the Doctor (William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant) flicker in front of the Atraxi, the Doctor (Matt Smith) stepping through at the last, in person, to introduce himself and warn them off Earth. They get the message.

Though often packed with textual references, Doctor Who has largely been wary of displaying actual clips of itself throughout its long TV history (and, as I explained last week, I’m forced only to select from the TV series for my Fifty). Even with the vast majority of adventures now available on DVD, I still get a little thrill when such kisses to the past unexpectedly appear – first this century in, according to taste, the stories Last of the Time Lords or The Next Doctor, and the past most lovingly snogged in The Sarah Jane Adventures – Death of the Doctor. There’s something special about this one, though, joyously and powerfully reminding us of all the Doctors before the latest steps out on his own, each of the others backing him, to the triumphant strains of Murray’s Gold’s hummable if bombastic theme for the eleventh Doctor, I Am the Doctor (Every Star, Every Planet).

There’s something strange about this scene for Doctor Who, though. It’s the reverse of what you normally get – because, usually, it’s the Doctor who tells the goodies to run from the monsters until he can work out a way of stopping them. When the series magnificently returned in 2005, the first thing the dangerous new Doctor said to Rose after introducing himself was “Run for your life”; the most famous line of the first ‘new’ Doctor is “When I say run, run”; the very first time we meet the Doctor, he’s on the run from his own people (that’s how it all started). And when what looked like a monster momentarily entered the TARDIS, why did the Doctor’s apprentice Romana instinctively trust him? “Because he was running.” Doctor Who is on the side of those in flight from something nasty.

I’m not a huge fan of the ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ style of plot resolution, then, but if ever the Doctor’s earned a moment to trade on his reputation it’s in celebration as a new one is showing both us and the monsters that he’s the same man – and it helps, too, that doing this again at the end of that season comes back to bite him on the bum (after a splendid if hubristic speech at Stonehenge which Matt Smith delivers almost as thrillingly as the Sylvester McCoy original). And if you want another reason to cheer Great Scene Number 50, in these days when every new monster is an actor with make-up so intricate, mobile and marvellous to act through that they simply look human unless you look hard, the Atraxi suffer from no such condition. Hurrah for a giant flying crystal fried-egg eyeball jellyfish!

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – Genesis of the Daleks (and on, across all time and space)
Every week I’ll also have a bonus quotation from across the fifty years of Doctor Who, which’ll mainly speak for itself. The first one’s different to all the others: it’s the shortest ‘line of dialogue’ I’ll feature, but surely the most often delivered and the most evocative; and, appropriately for just one word, this will be by far the longest entry for a bonus quote!

The Doctor – and the Daleks. It’s the first thing you think of when you think of the other. And the sound of the Daleks is inextricably bound up with what they look like and what they do, metallic, grating, but not robotic – full of hate. One word, so many associations, from the silence of space to shrieking cacophony… Whenever I hear it, I can see them. Perhaps it conjures up the same sort of visions for you, the most visual Dalek adventures mixing with the most memorable uses of the word: And there’s still more than one memorable variant of that same word coming up over the Fifty…

Next Time… It’s Christmas!

If you’re not familiar with Doctor Who… Well, watch one of them, and any of the stories I mention in my Fifty would be a good start. Or you can read So Who is This Doctor Bloke Anyway? – my short and simple and did I mention surprisingly short? guide to the basics of what you need to know. Which, it turns out, isn’t very much, and I reckon I’ve picked the important bit (and answered a handful of follow-up questions you might have). Alternatively, long ago writer Terrance Dicks wrote a description of the Doctor which many think still holds good today.

Today is, auspiciously, the thirty-ninth anniversary of the first appearance of the wonderful Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who; tomorrow would have been the birthday of the lovely Nick Courtney, most famous for playing the Brigadier; each has a good claim to being, quite simply, the Doctor’s best friend. As the Fifty unfold across the next year, there’ll be something for each of them…

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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A Taste of Christmas – Battle of the Pies 2012

With only ten days ’til Christmas, thoughts turn inevitably towards two of the most important elements of the season – food, and panic, the two of which will become inextricable in next weekend’s shopping. Today, though, I’m looking at one of the great Christmas shopping comforts, the Christmas dinner-themed pie (with champagne and burger cameos). Like the seasonal sandwich, a pie is rarely more marvellous than on a wet, cold day when you’ve been trampled in the crowds. And while many shops have their Christmas sarnies, today it’s Pieminister versus Square Pie, and there’s only one way to decide: BITE!

Was it really three years ago that I last wrote reviewed the selections of Christmas pies, sandwiches and chocolate boxes? Well, I don’t get out much. This year I won’t be doing the chocolates, in part because I’ve been concentrating my limited time and money on the savouries, and in part because I just prefer the all-year-round chocolate flavours. I have, however, eaten an enormous number of sandwiches (no, I didn’t get back on that diet, why do you ask?), which I hope to find time to write about next week. But, for me, nothing beats a hot pie. This year, Eat no longer seems to be doing them, but to contrast with my old favourite Square Pie this year I’ve bought some of Pieminister’s offering. Square Pie’s shops sell hot pies and mash, and while you can buy uncooked pies to take home, generally they’re for eating on the spot. At least in my experience, Pieminister is the other way round – you can buy them hot in some places, but I’ve only bought them in stores and taken them home to cook.

Square Pie: Christmas in a Pie
“Roast Turkey, Mini Roast Potatoes, Carrots and Stuffing in a lovely gravy.”
Billed on the Square Pie website as “Our Legendary Christmas Pie returns!” I don’t think this is quite true. Because after eating one, I bought an uncooked one, took it home, and then took out of the freezer one last, precious Christmas Pie from last year. The memory didn’t cheat: cooking them side by side, this year’s is a completely different recipe to previous years’…

This is a hearty pie in the Square Pie style – the same moist, firm pastry, and something different to try for each “monthly special”. This one even has a cute heart on top. The best thing about it is the chunks of white and dark turkey meat, which are sizeable and full of flavour. The potato is a decent size, too, though less tasty and more prone to disintegration. There are a few little bits of carrot to give it extra flavour, but I have to admit the gravy wasn’t very exciting, and I couldn’t discern any stuffing in either pie I tried. It’s a good effort, and very warming – exactly what you need when you’re wet and cold – but compared to the old recipe, nowhere near as interesting: a much fuller flavour of stuffing, sausage, dark shreds of cranberry and sprouts all made the pie from the freezer the clear winner of the two (and last year’s sausage, even after a year frozen, worked rather better than the one I reviewed in 2009).

So I’m in a quandary: one of the things I most like about Square Pie is their inventiveness, so I always try the monthly specials as well as popping in for my personal favourite, the Lamb and Rosemary Pie. But there are some of their specials that, once they’ve hit on a really good one, I wish they’d bring back more often – the Lamb Tagine, for example, and of course the Christmas Pie. So while I appreciate the desire to experiment… If you’re reading, Square Pie, how about next year bringing back the old Christmas Pie? It beats this year’s hands down.

Pieminister: Three Kings Pie
“British Turkey, Smoked Bacon & Cranberry Stuffing.”
I’ve tried many of the pie brands you find in big supermarkets to take home and cook; most of them I find disappointing. Pieminister’s are easily the best of them, with a thin, crisp pastry (very different to the Square Pie style, but neither of them thick and stodgy, tasteless or flaky) and great flavours. This year they’ve gone for three different Christmas pies, which some might call overkill but I call a starter, and the obvious challenge to the Christmas in a Pie is their Three Kings Pie. So how did it get on?

It’s a good pie, warming, perhaps slightly more tasty than the Square Pie but slightly less hearty. The turkey’s pretty good, though all I got was white meat in mine (I prefer a mix); there wasn’t a lot of parsnip, but it helped, as did the sausage, which was a nice surprise and much more noticeable than the bacon. It was all in a creamy Béchamel sauce, a nice flavour which didn’t for me quite suit the Christmassy ingredients – I’d have gone for something a bit more deep (though it was crisp and even). Perhaps they wanted a white sauce to suggest snow. Despite being a very different pie to the Christmas in a Pie, I felt that the Three Kings Pie, similarly, was a good pie that could have been a better one if they’d been a bit more adventurous with the taste.

Pieminister: Deer Santa Pie
“British Venison, Dry Cured Bacon, Red Wine & Puy Lentils.”
Have you tried their Deerstalker Pie? You’ll be unsurprised to learn that this seasonal ‘kill a reindeer for Christmas’ pie has no discernible difference. But that’s fine by me, as I rather like it. It’s less a pie for having on its own than as part of a meal with something else to lighten it, I find – a very deep, rich flavour, a very dark colour, and certainly the fullest taste of any of the four pies. You can definitely spot the bacon and, more, the red wine. Unlike the others, though, it does need something lighter to go with it so as not to be slightly overwhelming.

Pieminister: Christingle Pie
“Honey roast parsnip, cheddar cheese & chestnuts.”
I went for the vegetarian one, too, as I thought I’d do all three. And it’s more Béchamel sauce. So I didn’t expect it to do much for me… But, to my surprise, this is the clear winner of the four on sale right now (though, Square Pie, if you should revert… Just saying). Even after another pie in the same sitting, the mixture of parsnips and cheese, sweet and tart, made me salivate more than any of the others. And the sauce suited this pie far better (even the chestnuts added a welcome texture). Proof that I shouldn’t judge a pie by its meatiness, but by its terrible puns.

Gourmet Burger Kitchen: Bah Humburger

I do like a terrible pun. So I took Richard for a Gourmet Burger a couple of weeks ago, and I couldn’t resist. Now, the burger itself doesn’t make much of an effort, I’m afraid: either beef or chicken, with cheese, bacon, mustard mayo, crispy shallots and red pickle. I went for the chicken, fowl seeming more seasonal, but it tasted much like an ordinary burger with too much mustard and a lot of beetroot. Whether they were out of pickle or that the pickle is basically beetroot with a bit of vinegar I don’t really know but, blimey, there was plenty. And a very slight crunch of shallot giving up on the hope of being tasted in the background.

The sides, though, were much better. The sweet potato fries were absolutely delicious, sweet, interesting, and done just right – both soft and crunchy. I’d have those again, if they weren’t only with this burger and unhappily only half as many as with their usual fries (more unhappily, I ordered some of their usually excellent rosemary skinny fries between us, which had been overdone and so were basically toothpicks). And I even quite enjoyed the “Good Elf” Christmas Pudding flavour milkshake.

I have not tried the Burger King Christmas burgers, which this year are being heavily advertised on the basis that, as Christmas is “cheesy”, they’ve bunged a bit of cheese on two ordinary burgers and bunged up the price. I’m not impressed. I’ve been mildly tempted by the new Byron’s but not bought one of theirs this time, either, though at least calling it “Triple Cheesemas” and adding three different types of cheese and an extra burger is trying.

Waitrose: Cuvée Jean Louis Bredon Champagne – Half Price (with extra Hobbit)

I’m not much of a drinker, still less any kind of connoisseur. However, inspired by special events and, obviously, John Steed, we do occasionally get champagne. About two years ago I happened to buy a bottle of Jean Louis Bredon from Waitrose (I think their only UK stockist) and found to my surprise that I actively liked it. No, I won’t describe the taste, as not only do I not have the wine experience to express it but all my wine vocabulary comes from sketch shows that mock it and I’d feel even more of a prat. However, it happens that it’s half price (cut from £29.99 to £14.99 a bottle, and slightly more off for a box of six) until the 18th, so I recommend it.

Waitrose appear to have sold out on their website, but if you have one nearby, test your luck. They still had plenty in at Canary Wharf yesterday evening when we went in on the off-chance after going to see The Hobbit. All I’ll say about that is that it was fantastic, that the designated ‘hot dwarf’ has been let off The Nose, and that Sylvester McCoy is both utterly awesome and gets a lot more screen time and even action than I’d been expecting. Is the courage of wizards in inverse proportion to their seniority (and, indeed, grooming)? I cheered when his name appeared in really big letters at the end.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Liberal Voice of the Year? Speak Up Now!

Or, how do you solve a problem like Mark Littlewood? 2012 began with Liberal Democrat Voice criticised first because the shortlist for its “Liberal Voice of the Year” included only one woman, and then because someone many people didn’t like won. The two problems with this are that the shortlist emerged from nominations people submitted, with only one woman receiving enough from readers; and that the winner arose from votes cast on the site. So if you want a better nominations line-up, right now, this week only, is the time to tell LDV (and to then affect the winner, vote).

The other problem with the Liberal Voice of the Year award is that, of course, it’s designed to promote pluralism… And, as the rather unfortunate comment war when the last winner was announced demonstrates, nothing promotes tribalism like a call for pluralism. To be shortlisted, a person must not only receive at least a certain number of nominations from readers, showing at least some support to start with, but be a non-Lib Dem who’s advanced liberalism in the past 12 months. And if they’re not a Lib Dem (let alone if they are), by definition not everyone’s going to think they’re a Liberal. And complain. Mark’s win only provoked this in an exaggerated form, as he’s both a former Lib Dem and one associated with a particular branch of the Liberal family (some might say the mad aunt in the attic, but remember, there weren’t enough women nominations). Belated congratulations to Mark. I personally didn’t vote for him, but neither was I outraged by his victory, even if he has owed me money for more than two years now (if you’re reading, Mark, remember: you may have had a Pyrrhic victory, but a bet’s a bet).

So, What Can You Do?

If you want more women on the next shortlist, or more Liberals to your own sort of taste, or (ideally) both, nominations are only open this week (prompted via their readers’ survey, though I’m sure you can just email them). So think of some good candidates, and send them in. Then, if they’re shortlisted and you want them to win, why not spend the first two weeks of January – when the votes are a-clicking – writing promotional pieces to big up your candidate? Each year, a list appears, and plenty of people don’t know who they are until the missiles start firing when the ‘wrong’ one wins. Though, incidentally, as far as women candidates go, though this year’s shortlist didn’t promise much, in the previous four years two of the winners had been women, so the voters can share a little of the praise. Though I personally like 2012’s sole woman entrant, it looked like despite the complaints no-one was rallying round the sole woman, in theory a big advantage in a first-past-the-post election (and, LDV, that is in your gift to change, unlike the names or the result). She got just 4%.

It might even be an idea, if you have a brilliant nomination, to write a piece extolling their virtues today, and encourage everyone you know to nominate her or him, so they get to the starting gate this time.

Anyway, I didn’t join in the slanging match over Lib Dem Voice’s treatment of women this January, perhaps because this January I was too busy putting my head in my hands at Steven Moffat’s in Sherlock. Hurrah! An independent, sexually confident lesbian character! Plus, a faithfully non-villainous version of a famous character from the original stories who’s always traduced by every single ‘reimagining’ into an evil villain, because an independent, sexually confident woman who fascinates Sherlock must be evil. And, being a naturist, I wasn’t even going to complain about her being naked for extra Moffatitillation. That’s how happy I was until three-quarters of the way into A Scandal in Belgravia, when the non-villain was revealed as evil, and the lesbian fell for Sherlock, and the independent woman needed rescuing by our (male, if thankfully not butch) hero. Oh, Mr Moffat. If only all your writing was as honest and plausible as Lesbian Spank Inferno.

But I digress. I’ve already done the ‘chiding Lib Dem Voice over the Blogger of the Year Award’ thing, so this time I’m chiding you, dear reader. If you didn’t like last year’s choices, why not get your act together? Lib Dem Voice don’t rig the nominations or the vote. But you can, if you try! Be creative.

Personally, I’m good at writing an argument, but poor at choosing a hero. So I don’t have a whole series of ready-made nominations to start you off. I’ve racked my brain, and – having followed US politics obsessively for much of the year – here are, at least, two, for balance both women and both from a rather different branch of liberalism to Mark. What do you think of Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren, who was responsible for the only defeat of an incumbent Senator (rather than incumbent party) this year, and whose populist economic message in effect defined the whole Democratic campaign this time? Or Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin, the first out lesbian – or, indeed, the first out LGBT person of any description – ever elected to the US Senate? Can you do better? Get thinking.

The other alternative that springs to mind is, of course, one that on two counts is probably ineligible: a sister party of the Liberal Democrats, within the UK, with many members in common, and a group rather than an individual. But when, today, Liberals are under potentially deadly repeated physical attack from fascist thugs on the streets of the UK, they are Liberal heroes.

You can support them at the Alliance Party website.

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Saturday, December 08, 2012


Doctor Who 50 – Eleven More Great Scenes. And More

Fifty weeks from today will be Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary. Next week I’ll be starting my countdown of fifty great scenes spanning the TV series so far to illustrate why it’s the most marvellous show ever made. But I know what you’re thinking – how can I have chosen fifty scenes… How can I possibly cram so many times and places into such a minuscule number? That is, indeed, impossible. So today I’ll introduce what I’ll be doing every Saturday until November 23rd, 2013, and offer tantalising glimpses of still more wonder in some of the ones that got away…

My idea is to pick a brilliant scene each week and set out just why it’s so brilliant – with a bonus quotation from the series each time that’ll mostly speak for itself. Many of the scenes will be from crucial moments in their stories, so watch out for spoilers (and today’s selection is particularly spoiler-heavy). All the Doctors will be there – just not necessarily in the right order. I’ll be counting down these marvellous moments roughly in order of preference, though not entirely: some might be there to tie in to a particular date, or spread out a bit so that similar scenes don’t all turn up in a row. Some scenes or sequences lasted mere seconds on TV… The longest up to a quarter of an hour. Most tend to be a couple of minutes long if you watch them, though who knows how long my write-ups are going to be.

The Fifty spread over this year will include my few absolute favourites – though not necessarily a ‘top fifty’. Looking at my instinctive choices, certain Doctors, certain stories, certain styles (not least speeches – and scary bits) came up much more than others. So, because I love the whole of Doctor Who, I’ve striven for more balance. The Fifty will include at least one scene from every year in which the series has first aired, and at least one from each of its TV seasons. There will be no more than one scene from each story featured (with one exception) – though the quotes will be more random and less calculated, some reflecting that week’s scene, others ones that just popped into my head, even if I’ve striven not to make them all from The Talons of Weng-Chiang. And I’m afraid this Fifty will be drawn only from the TV series, though I showcased a wider range at the last big anniversary with forty-five stories illustrating Why Is Doctor Who Brilliant? It was hard enough trying to weigh every scene in over two hundred television adventures, and I simply couldn’t have done it with what must now be thousands of different stories in all the many formats. Hopefully, these choices will be variety enough.

Most of all, I’ve picked scenes that I enjoy, and I hope you will, too.

I thought of hundreds of scenes before whittling them down to the Fifty. I could have done the Five Hundred… Except I’d never have managed to get them into any sort of order, still less found time to write about them all. Last week, I whetted your appetite for the forthcoming Fifty with Eleven Great Cliffhangers – though not quite the greatest, which you’ll see across the year – and, this week, Eleven Runners-up of various other descriptions, some to cast a different light, others which so nearly made the Fifty but for other choices already from their year, or their story. Inevitably, there are speeches and scary bits – but also special effects, some things that make me laugh, sentiment, excitement and more. Read on…

The Deadly Assassin
“Through the millennia, the Time Lords of Gallifrey led a life of peace and ordered calm, protected from all threats from lesser civilisations by their great power.
“But this was to change. Suddenly and terribly, the Time Lords faced the most dangerous crisis in their long history…”

Doctor Who – Time Tunnel

First off: my favourite story of them all, beginning with the opening titles and a sombre introduction. This is less a scene than setting the scene, so it seems the perfect way to start. This arrangement of the fabulous Doctor Who Theme is still the best, ending in that marvellous stuttering echo as the titles fade, and the titles themselves the greatest titles ever made, a time tunnel swirling in different shapes and directions, carrying the TARDIS, the Doctor, the logo and credits through time and space and visibly inspiring the title sequence still used today. Then, for the first time, the story is introduced with a scrolling text read in the moody tones of the Doctor (Tom Baker). It promises something special. And it is.

The Doctor will crash into a premonition of death – and then, alone now, become a hunted fugitive in a city that was once his home… A film noir nightmare, political satire, dizzying virtual reality, reimagining the Master and the Time Lords, this will be the series’ most radical and creative story, both conceptually and visually (and upset Mary Whitehouse like no other). But it all starts with that unbeatable time tunnel. That’s Doctor Who.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth – Flashpoint
“One day, I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs – and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.
“Goodbye, Susan. Goodbye, my dear…”

The Dalek Invasion of Earth – One Day, I Shall Come Back

The first time the Doctor (William Hartnell) ever said goodbye to a travelling companion was to his granddaughter, Susan. And it’s been painful for him ever since. She’s fallen in love but feels she can’t leave him – so he makes the decision for her at the close of this story. It’s the beginning of so many times that writers have had to find a reason for someone to want to stop travelling in space and time, and one of the more plausible but sexist ones, being married off (an idea intermittently challenged by the Ponds); here it’s done with a little more conviction and a little more sexism than most, though the Doctor does show his love and pride in her and give her credit for looking after him as much as he’d looked after her. It’s William Hartnell’s beautifully played address to his grandchild that makes this so special, her shut out of the TARDIS, him standing at the console, both still smudged with ash from exploding Dalek mines. His stirring benediction falters slightly at the end, and he has to leave before he changes his mind. Susan walks slowly away from the vanished TARDIS, leaving her key in the ruins. The selection of part of this scene to open The Five Doctors cemented fans’ love for it, and when – after a decade of making speeches – I at last used a Doctor Who quotation in a speech of my own, I closed with this one. My voice broke at the end, too.

The Brain of Morbius
“How far, Doctor? How long have you lived?”

The Brain of Morbius – The Fourth Doctor

The brain of Time Lord war criminal Morbius has been restored to physicality in a hideous body of bits (and in an inspired twist not just on Frankenstein but on one of the ’60s and ’70s most often-used great TV threats). As the Nuns of Doom march to his castle in the final episode, bearing the traditional torches, the Doctor (Tom Baker) challenges him to a mind-bending duel: pitting their mental powers against each other to see which can force the other back through their lives to nothingness. Tom Baker and Michael Spice (plus Stuart Fell within the body) are both outstanding in their electric confrontation, Morbius arrogantly proclaiming himself “a Time Lord of the first rank,” the Doctor scorning him as a failed dictator, all set to one of composer Dudley Simpson’s finest moments, deep, stately chords offset with a spine-tingling counter-melody.

Two more things stand out. One is that the Doctor is fighting a desperate rear-guard action against of the titans of his race – what’s special about our hero is his choices, not his intrinsic power, and he’s overwhelmed by Morbius’ mental power: all he does is hold out long enough for the energies to be too much for Morbius’ new brain-case to bear, not the brain itself, and even that nearly kills him. We see Morbius thrust the Doctor’s psyche back through Pertwee, Pat, Billy… And through many previous incarnations as he hurtles back to his beginning. Contradicted or supported elsewhere as these may be (and some fans jump through such hoops to deny their intention), for me they’re a sign that Doctor Who can always surprise us, an enthralling sight and concept, and all that could make them more so is if the pre-Doctors were not members of the production team but old actors’ faces. Just imagine, say, Alastair Sim appearing, firing your imagination to see his black and white Doctor Who movies from the ’40s.

Remembrance of the Daleks

Remembrance of the Daleks – The Special Weapons Dalek

Doctor Who always beat its budget to create memorable images that no-one else could show you, from the first sight of the TARDIS’ impossible interior and the first alien world, with its petrified forest and gleaming city, to monsters like suckered embryos with a ship that seems grown rather than made and a howlingly alive alien jungle, to eerily beautiful robots in an Art Deco vessel, or multiple Mona Lisas, or an Escher painting that encloses you, to crossing the striations of the timelines wearing a splash of red upon strangely monochrome stately gardens, right up to a would-be tyrant’s face disintegrating horribly or a dying world with a stormily alien sky. All that without yet breaking into the series’ Twenty-first Century stories – until my next choice down. Out of all of them, to champion Doctor Who’s most visually exciting moments I’ve picked two where the series makes an impact on London: one in 1963, when Doctor Who started; the next in the Twenty-first Century, when it continues. This is the one with streetfighting Daleks blasting the hell out of each other and the fuck-off bazooka Dalek.

The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) is juggling two warring Dalek factions: the wily old gun-metal veterans; the glorious white and gold new Imperial stormtroopers. In Part Four, the veterans have captured a superweapon – but the Imperials don’t intend to let them get away and land an attack squad to take it. The first engagement sees an Imperial force retreat under a hail of fire from the more experienced warriors, one blown satisfyingly apart… Only for the Emperor to order the Special Weapons Dalek into position. Daleks have always been one-being tanks: this one, with its heavier, grimier armour and one huge gun, takes that to extremes. Simply obliterating every rival in its path, when it reaches the enemy base it blasts the gate apart in an enormous fireball, a blizzard of energy bolts slashing through the blaze before it settles. Some of the explosions staged here were so outrageous they caused an anti-terror alert (I love the BBC) – yet the battle’s still more exciting in the novel. Thrill to the Abomination!

Aliens of London

Aliens of London – Big Ben

I said before Doctor Who returned to our screens in 2005 that it would have to deliver not just impressive special effects – which everyone can do these days – but also memorable images with ideas behind them, and that year alone it delivered in spades, from looking at the Lady Cassandra’s beautiful flatness, to Daleks that were everything you ever darkly dreamed, to flying, shrieking time-eaters clawing at a church, to heads choking and splitting into gas masks, and since then keeping up the pace with a werewolf running amok in a stately home, the TARDIS bouncing along a motorway, a hospital on the Moon and right up to, yes, dinosaurs on a spaceship. But the most cheekily memorable image of that first new year? This is the one with the spaceship crashing into Big Ben.

The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) has accidentally brought Rose back home not a day but a year after taking her on a trip through time and space, which has not gone down well. Both are at their most unlikeable as they bicker on a rooftop, and no-one else on Earth is going to believe Rose if she tries to talk about aliens and spacecraft… Only for a spaceship to fly straight overhead, trailing smoke, weaving across London and eventually crash-diving along Whitehall, smack into the clock topping St Stephen’s Tower, before belly-flopping into the Thames. Thank goodness it came along to snap them out of it, though their initial reactions are mixed… It’s the first and still best moment of its kind, as Russell T Davies enters his vocation to destroy ever major landmark in London. When Doctor Who does a story called ‘Aliens’, it looks like a bumbling comedy where they can’t even fly their ship… But the ominous truth is that they’re as greedy as a Ridley Scott corporation, and can destroy a whole planet much more quickly than something with sinisterly sexual gnashers.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang
“It’s good.”
“Oh. I’m so glad.”

The Talons of Weng-Chiang – Polite Horror

With something to delight and something to offend everyone, The Talons of Weng-Chiang might just be the most enjoyable and quotable and thoroughly unsuitable for children Doctor Who story of them all. Obviously, I’ve loved it since I was five, and remember many years ago standing in a video shop with the latest VHS release and being unable not to overhear another small boy arguing with his mum about which Doctor Who video to buy. He wanted several; she would only pay for one. He was oscillating between two that I didn’t think were much cop, so I felt the urge to intervene, but made the most appalling error in being grown up: I asked her what sort of thing he liked. Of course, she didn’t know. So I knelt and asked which stories he had already and were his favourites. Having listened to the right person, I recommended Talons to him because it was scary and funny – and to her, on the basis that it was six episodes for the same price as four. I’ve often wondered if she left him alone with it, or came in, saw any of it and disapproved of the young man who’d suggested such appalling viewing.

One especially entertaining sequence comes half-way through Part Two. We’re on the dark streets of late Victorian London. The Doctor (Tom Baker) has been auditioning for (he can play the Trumpet Voluntary in a bowl of live goldfish) and sleuthing with theatrical impresario Henry Gordon Jago, not quite the bravest man in the Empire; his warrior tribe companion Leela has remained with premier pathologist Professor Litefoot, a crustily congenial old cove. Someone should pair these two guest artistes. And the villains have been crawling the kerbs in their carriage in search of the plot (spot the Porsche!). That plot revolves around monstrous appetites, so even the comedy scenes that pepper it have disturbing overtones – and this one enriches the main themes even as Litefoot finds the usual late-night cold collation laid out by his housekeeper and innocently offers Leela dinner.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang – Quiet Despair

You think writing about special effects is doomed? What about describing comedy? I’d urge you to buy this on DVD and watch it, because the comedy of manners between Leela – raised in an alien jungle – and a perfect Victorian gentleman never fails to crack me up. Expecting a lady, Litefoot’s face as she picks up a joint and just tears into it is priceless. He quails (there’s one of those on the table too). But politeness demands he can’t criticise or embarrass a guest, still less a lady, and when Leela’s own understanding of hospitality makes her express her satisfaction with the food, all he can do is weakly pretend pleasure. Faintly proffering a knife or fork, he sees her seize a carving knife, the better to hack the beef apart, and is left with no option as a good host but to put down the plate he would usually stack with a dainty selection of slices and, instead, grab a whole leg of lamb in both hands and bite. The culture clash in their next scene, when Leela drinks from the trifle bowl while Litefoot looks on queasily, has been known to make me cry with laughter. His last gasp of Victorian propriety comes in trying to save the tablecloth from Leela so as not to mortify the housekeeper come the morning – but before the night is out, it’s doomed to the Doctor. And by the end of Part Three, Leela’s enthusiasm for chomping on a leg has its own darker payoff…

Revelation of the Daleks
“It is our duty to eradicate all those who wish to pollute the purity of the Dalek race… If you ever loved me, Natasha, kill me! Kill me! …It is vital that the Daleks are supreme in all things!”

Revelation of the Daleks – Stengos Revealed

The Doctor (Colin Baker) isn’t the only one who wants to know what’s happened to his old friend Arthur Stengos; by half-way into Part One, Stengos’ daughter Natasha has broken into the galaxy’s biggest funeral home to find his ‘sleeping’ body missing and Daleks on guard. Overseeing all is Davros, remaking himself as the galaxy’s greatest doctor and promising eternal life – but of the kind that’s red-lit, tortured and underground. And the greatest horror for her is finding what’s left of her father growing into a Dalek, caught between his own self and one of Davros’ new breed of fascists. In a story of black comedy and dreamlike horror, this is the most nightmarish moment, a dramatic and visual triumph as Stengos is revealed in close-ups of eye and mouth, as if dismembered, and struggles to remember his love for his daughter when in his ranting New Order instead “The seed of the Daleks must be supreme.”

Stengos’ fate draws from perhaps the most memorable scenes in two of the greatest Doctor Who novelisations – a glass Dalek, a human slowly transforming into something ‘other’ and begging for death – each of which were too challenging (perhaps too expensive, certainly then too horrific) to portray in the original TV versions of The Daleks and The Ark In Space. And if you’re going to write as the David Whitaker or Bob Holmes tribute band, you’ve certainly got great tunes to play. As, if you didn’t think Natasha’s terrible choice was weird enough, does the resident DJ…

The Curse of Fenric
“Objects can’t harm us – it’s human belief. And you stopped believing when the bombs started falling.”
“I’m not frightened of German bombs.”
“Not German bombs… British.”
“On German cities. British bombs killing German children.”

The Curse of Fenric – Bad Day For The Parson

In World War II, the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) contests an ancient force of evil on the North-East coast. By the end of Part Two / half-way through the Special Edition of this most complex and layered story, the lively two young women Eastenders are made vampires, draining their self-righteous landlady then stalking through the graveyard mist to the local vicar. He tries to understand them… But they understand him much better. Reverend Wainwright flourishes his Bible, but they know it’s only faith that keeps them at bay – something with a stunning payoff later in the story – and that his is crumbling not under the horrors of the undead, but the horrors of war. Only the Doctor’s ferocity as he hurls himself in front of Wainwright makes them recoil, but they’ll return for him… Will he be able to find it in himself to triumph then? The Doctor and the bloodsuckers are almost forces of nature in this spellbinding scene that turns the traditional vampire story inside-out.

Love & Monsters
“You should take your jacket off.”
“No, I’m fine, I’ll just –”
“No, look, you must be boiling. Oh, look at your shirt. Sorry.”
“I – I – I’m fine. It’s all right.”
“I’ve ruined it.”
“No, honestly, i-i-i-it’s – it’s fine.”
“Take it off. I’ll put it in the wash.”
“Oh, come on! It’s only a little drop.”
“Oop! There now. Ruined.”

Love and Monsters – Jackie and Elton

Elton Pope’s been fascinated with the Doctor ever since he was a boy, and never been happier than with a little group of friends with the same interests. By half-way into the story, though, someone’s rather taken over, organised them, given them ways to track the Doctor (David Tennant) and his friends, but things are less fun. And some of Elton’s group have vanished. Be careful what you wish for… And Elton wishes he could find Rose, so he tracks down her mum Jackie. Turns out he’s not quite as in control of his infiltration plan as he thinks he is. She keeps inviting him round to fix all the things that keep going wrong about the flat, and it’s got nothing to do with the way Elton’s shirt keeps accidentally riding up to show his stomach as he changes a bulb or his jeans showing off his arse as he looks at the washing machine. It’s a complete coincidence that her tops are getting tighter and skirts shorter, too. But just as she flings herself – or at least her wine, twice – at him, a call from Rose spoils the mood. She feels ashamed of her ulterior motives, and shows it; so does he, but doesn’t. He goes off for pizza to make it up to her, but it’s too late – she discovers what he’s after and she’ll protect them until the day she dies…

Camille Coduri’s Jackie has long been a brilliant comedy creation by now, shot through with tragedy; this is her finest moment, never funnier and never more moving as the cracks show of how much she misses her daughter and even Mickey. “Put the telly on if you want – can’t bear it silent.” The way Elton’s unreliable narration within his unreliable narration collides with her at her most turbo-charged is hilarious, then she and the script turn in an instant and break your heart. It’s inspired how ELO’s Turn To Stone gives way to Jackie’s choice of romantic music as she takes control of the scene from the man who’s been narrating it; her joyous sexuality is brilliant; then she lets her defences down only to find herself betrayed, anger punching through her loneliness to show how selfless and ferocious her heart is. Rose never sees it.

Genesis of the Daleks
“Today, the Kaled race is ended, consumed in a fire of war – but from its ashes will rise a new race: the supreme creature; the ultimate conqueror of the Universe; the Dalek!”

Genesis of the Daleks – The First Extermination

The climax to Part Three of this story, one of Doctor Who’s best, is an odd beast. On screen, the cliffhanger is a slightly underwhelming threat to the Doctor (Tom Baker). On the truncated LP (and now CD) release, the half-way cliffhanger comes a couple of minutes later, with the annihilation in fire of the Daleks’ parent species, the Kaleds, by their ancient enemies, the Thals (a model city with a sense of scale as, for once, the explosions take an age to die away). But it’s Davros, the half-Dalek creator of and would-be Führer of the new race, who actually betrayed the secret of their defences – to stop their leaders bringing the Dalek project to a halt. And in the originally scripted climax to the overrunning Part Three, moved back to begin Part Four, Davros uses the moment of shock for his scientific Elite (now the only survivors save for their mutated, battle-tanked progeny) to destroy his only outspoken internal critic. Ronson has asked awkward questions about the future of the Daleks and aided the Doctor’s escape; biding his time to respond, Davros now denounces Ronson as traitor and spy, ordering in his new Daleks to carry out their first ever extermination and promising vengeance on the Thals, too, then the absolute power and glory to which he aspires.

Genesis of the Daleks is packed with great moments, and another will make my Fifty. It’s the finest example in Doctor Who of actors and writers coming together to forge proper speeches, rather than just assuming ‘speaking at length’ makes great rhetoric. Others might choose the Doctor’s key moral dilemma – asking “Do I have the right?” – but this scene captivated me growing up and listening to it again and again on scratchy vinyl. The sheer power of Michael Wisher’s performance as Davros; the sheer ruthless chutzpah of the character; the sheer horror of Ronson screaming in denial. On screen, it’s the negative blaze around him and the sight of his colleagues backing quickly away, shielding their eyes, that stays with you; on LP and CD, the raw immediacy of the sound design, Davros’ harshly escalating triumph, the crashing march as the Daleks enter and their gun-sticks seethe. Gripping.

An Unearthly Child: The Firemaker
“This knife has no blood on it.”

An Unearthly Child – The Doctor Holds Court

Of all the Doctor Who stories criminally underrated by fans, for me this is the most unfairly overlooked – or, at least, 75% of it is. The first ever Doctor Who story, nearly everyone (rightly) looks on the first episode as one of the greatest pieces of television ever made, but nearly everyone else then goes on to do down the following three episodes, in which the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his as-yet unwilling companions plunge into prehistory and are caught up in the power struggles of a Stone Age tribe. Yet I’ve argued that these episodes are not only brilliant, but crucial to the show’s story. One outstanding scene comes at the beginning of the fourth episode, by which time the TARDIS crew have escaped the tribe with the aid of an old woman, only to be pursued by Za, one of the two rivals to be chief. Meanwhile, the cleverer but nastier rival, Kal, murders the old woman on finding them gone – and pins the blame on Za. With Za and our heroes captured together, things look bleak. But the Doctor brilliantly invents a genre tens of thousands of years early to beat Kal…

Kal’s great strength has been as a demagogue – Za learns how to adapt over the course of the story, but he’s comparatively slow. Yet as Kal waves Za’s stone knife before the tribe, weaving his story before them, the apparently frail old Doctor shows he can not only defeat a physically much stronger opponent with superior brainpower, but beat him at his own simple declamatory style and even muster the physical force to drive him out. It starts with the Doctor’s simple observation that Za’s knife has no blood on it, and from that point Kal unravels: he calls it a bad knife for not showing what it has done; the Doctor needles his vanity, saying it’s much better than his; Kal falls for it, proudly pulling out his bloody weapon; and the Doctor parades it around the tribe like a prize lawyer. Rousing the whole tribe against the strong fighter, he throws a stone at him and gets everyone else to do the same, making him retreat under a barrage of rocks.

This is simply a terrific scene. William Hartnell is outstanding, slipping effortlessly between quiet, naturalistic instructions and a theatrical display of Stone Age rabble-rousing, but it’s a brilliant idea, too: years before Columbo ever aired, Doctor Who invents the format. We’ve already seen the murderer, and the Doctor exposes him through a combination of psychology and forensic evidence. And while he’s settling the rivalry between Kal and Za, at the same time he’s settling with argumentative teacher Ian Chesterton just exactly who is the leader of the TARDIS crew, and the star of the show (he still is). Just as with the Twentieth-Century humans, the Doctor can speak their language and then get into their mindset and manipulate it, which makes you wonder just how much he’s talking down to our level, too. And I still love the idea of taking a standard of crime drama and reinventing it in an utterly different setting: within a few stories after this, the Doctor will triumph in another courtroom drama, this time on an alien world, and go on in another story to solve both a locked room mystery and a whodunit…

The TARDIS Can Go Anywhere – Super, Super Fun!

Doctor Who – The TARDIS

Even with these Runners-up I could easily have chosen many more – or even many more fifties. Do you remember the Doctor looking entirely at home in a steaming Victorian laboratory until the devils the owners made a pact with appear in the mirrors? Or the Doctor explaining the TARDIS at its most Victorian with the aid of boxes and points of view, and getting it absolutely right (nine times out of ten)? The Doctor and Amy lying in a field with Vincent van Gogh and seeing the swirling stars he sees; the Doctor echoing, “Do we have a deal?” on a diamond planet; the Doctor dining with a monster, consumed with comedy and tragedy; the Doctor’s shoes and mind clicking into place at exactly the same moment; the Doctor roaring defiance at a murderous, self-perpetuating oligarchy only for them meekly to admit they, too, can’t make the decisions? The Doctor fading but determined as he goes to find his other selves; another self the Doctor would rather not find deriding his tawdry quirks; a man who isn’t the Doctor dreaming of a life with the woman he loves; the Doctor’s people dispassionately putting him on trial for caring too much and ripping away his own self and those who care about him…?

What about Daleks rolling off the production line and shrieking their crusade to conquer and destroy – or as masters of a ruined London – or whimsically playing trains, suddenly made childlike; the Master wielding the devilish charisma of a revivalist preacher to demand his enemies be burned – or telling his allies what fun it is to watch the Clangers, or the Teletubbies; Cybermen bursting free from their tombs to plunging, echoing music and owning those who’ve come to free them – or being mass-manufactured from other victims whose screams are drowned by tacky pop? A masked sordid sex murderer’s monstrous disfigurement revealed; a treacherous monk’s inner fire revealed; a police officer’s two-facedness revealed; a monstrous violation of the dead revealed as the lost leader himself undermining his people? Rose’s father sacrificing himself in the hope that grace may yet save the world; King Richard’s sister defying him with the Pope; an ancient monk unleashing a terrible substance from another dimension to overwhelm the Earth; a carefree couple woken by sacred stones out for blood…?

Think of a suave businessman in a beautiful suit jeering at a tortured Cyberman driven mad, or sneering at a mild-mannered scientist to shoot him – then only laughing as holes appear in his shirt front; a deranged schoolboy taunting his headmaster with deadly science projects; a woman’s mind and then body destroyed by a greedy alien and a bombastic warlord; an interplanetary agent with a licence to kill finding, like each of those others, exactly what happens when the Doctor isn’t there? A deposed princeling surrounded by his dead warriors hearing nothing but the clamour of old battles as he charges to his own death; plague-ridden commuters collapsing at a busy London station while a Cabinet Minister staggers through the streets, spreading the infection; the US President’s appeal to our shared humanity echoing to the stars as a huge spacecraft looms over Earth; the Master becoming Prime Minister of Great Britain and smiling a public smile at a secret joke; the head of a secret UN space defence force curtly telling an impromptu press conference he knows nothing about a man from space…?

I could go on. I will go on! But while I didn’t have room to more than hint at some of those marvellous moments above, the Fifty that do make it are on their way… Every one, you may be relieved to read, much shorter than this week’s post. And each week, you can try and guess which one’s coming next! I even have a special prize ready for the person who guesses the most of them over the next year, should more than one of you try in the comments each week.


Next Time… Two words. The basics.

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Thursday, December 06, 2012


Doctor Who – Survival: The Short Review

Before Doctor Who became the biggest non-soap opera TV drama and demanded a Radio Times front cover even a fortnight before it’s next on, it was once in a struggle to survive. Before Sylvester McCoy became a big movie star – will next week’s opening beat James Bond to the year’s biggest? – he was the Doctor. And exactly twenty-three years ago (checks watch) now, he walked off into the sunset at the end of a gorgeous adventure that was positively not the last of Doctor Who. It felt like a new start. And, in several ways, so it was…

Having picked a short and relatively classy trailer for Doctor Who’s no longer final year in my Eleven Great Trailers opening a celebration of the series’ fiftieth year, brace yourself. Survival has a superb guitar score that, like the story itself, is both part of and a critique of the ’80s. This trailer counts down to Doctor Who’s ‘final’ year without that critique, an overlong, overblown piece of – there’s no hope for me – irresistible cheese to get you in the mood.

With Richard and I re-reading Sylvester’s New Adventures twenty years on, I’ve also been watching his TV stories over again. Richard’s already reviewed Survival for Millennium’s blog; I hope to start a series of reviews to complete them all. But as tonight’s the anniversary of not the end, the end seems as good a place as any to start – so before I return to Survival on DVD in detail, I just happen to have a much shorter review to hand written by a much younger me in April 1996 (I suspect I’ve since evolved both more love for Survival than I had then and a greater resistance to fan clichés in my reviews). It was published in Liberator Magazine, looking at the VHS release and hoping desperately that the Doctor Who TV Movie starring Paul McGann and Sylvester McCoy would be a huge success…
“If we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals!”
For too long, we all thought this was to be the last TV Doctor Who story ever made and mourned it, even as we rejoice in Virgin’s superb series of original New Adventures novels. Transmitted back in 1989, a BBC production with a BBC budget, Survival has the same protagonists as the new TV Movie, but played by (mostly) different actors and almost certainly with a very different tone, with perhaps the last use of cliffhanger episode endings – all of which are refreshingly effective.

Survival is good, solid, average Who: story-driven, with something familiar, a few surprises, mostly rather well done drama and the odd let-down. Something is appearing in North-West London and carrying people away, aided by the Doctor’s arch-enemy. They turn out to be giant cat-people on horseback, a strikingly effective sight (although their animatronic cat ‘hunting dogs’ betray the budget). Their home world is falling apart as they fight – not just a quarry, but with a pink sky, the odd volcano and a satisfyingly stormy look. And while the inhabitants affect the planet, it casts its strange spell over them in turn…

There is a slightly dreamy air to this allegorical tale, which shows no love for machismo and ’80s values. A retired sergeant teaches ‘survival of the fittest’, but is killed in turn by a sharp-suited yuppie, and the Doctor in the end chooses not to fight. Both the Doctor’s companion, the self-reliant Ace, and his opposite, the Master, are possessed by the Cheetah Planet in superb performances (although some of the minor actors are a bit ropey). Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor was by this stage far darker, less goofy and with a far greater presence than when he started; while Anthony Ainley’s Master had sometimes descended almost into panto, here he is underplayed and sinister, fighting to survive with the gadgets and the veneer stripped away. He positively smoulders as he and the Doctor circle each other in a fine send-off for the old leads.
“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning. Where the sea is asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger. Somewhere there’s injustice. And somewhere else, the tea is getting cold.
“Come on, Ace – we’ve got work to do.”
And next month…
Well, the next month saw that TV Movie, and it wasn’t quite the huge success for which I’d hoped. Yet though that starred Sylvester and no previous Doctor appeared in Rose nine years later, Russell T Davies’ new series felt far more like Survival than the Movie ever did. Following this story with the glorious, inventive, emotional, allegorical New Adventures makes perfect sense; jumping straight to Rose, which takes the same real-world roots and family ties and does them so much more deftly feels equally right. I always wonder if the business with something nasty through the council estate cat-flap is a deliberate homage to this story, but I suspect Russell had better reasons for casting Noel Clarke than that his birthday is today. Though I can’t completely rule it out (it’s my Mum’s birthday too, though I don’t think she’d have been quite as right as Mickey). “I felt like I could run forever,” said Ace. And Russell made sure that it did.

I hope this has whetted your appetite for much more of the Sylvester McCoy years, a time when both on screen and on the page Doctor Who was determined to be strange and interesting – and under the surface of Survival more than most there’s a challenge to the viewer, to the times and to the series itself. When I return to it, I’ll look at how as well as reshaping the Master it looks right back across Doctor Who with an implicit critique of ‘standards’ like the Daleks, the Cybermen and UNIT era, while looking forward into the New Adventures, Professor Bernice Summerfield and of course Doctor Who’s triumphant return to TV.

But first, coming soon

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