Posts Tagged ‘TV’

It has occurred to me that my choice of which episodes to look at in detail, in the course of this revisitation of Babylon 5, has been perhaps a little self-consciously quirky.  Across the first five discs I’ve plumped for By Any Means Necessary, Grail, and Babylon Squared (I’m suddenly aware I didn’t really properly review anything from episodes 1-8, which I’m suddenly regretting: difficult to say which of the first four episodes would be most rewarding, but it’d be hard to choose between Parliament of Dreams and Mind War, given they’re both interesting G’Kar stories). And here I’m going to do the same by talking about The Quality of Mercy rather than Chrysalis.

Is there a reason for this? Hmmm. Partly, I suppose, I’m hoping this series of reviews may possibly just tip someone over into trying the show who otherwise wouldn’t, and so I’m trying to avoid in-depth spoilers (quite difficult to do, even so), but also I think that it’s very tempting just to think of B5 in terms of its major episodes – and to do so means overlooking many of the most interesting stories it produced.

The Quality of Mercy is not quite in the top flight of B5‘s first season, but I always enjoy it. Initially it looks like we’re in for an A, B, and C story structure: Dr Franklin discovers a disgraced physician using dubious alien technology to treat the station’s homeless population (this still doesn’t quite hang together for me – are all these people on some sort of welfare? If not, what do they eat? How expensive is interstellar travel, anyway? Do none of them have families who could spring for a ticket somewhere else? Hey ho). Franklin being who he is, he is righteously outraged by what he sees as a con trick – until he realises that the machine works, but not in what you’d call a conventional way…

Elsewhere, someone else has been trying to solve the homelessness problem, but by killing the homeless people. For this he has been put on trial and found guilty, and now he is going to have his mind erased and a new personality implanted. It’s down to poor old Talia to go into his head to ensure the erasure is carried out successfully…

These two stories are competently told – although JMS is apparently only 90% happy with his script – and fill in some background on the legal footing of telepathy in the 23rd century. The two strands bang together at the end of the story when it becomes clear – sort of – that this has been a story about capital punishment (despite one character getting capital and corporal punishment mixed up in her dialogue – then again she’s supposed to be very ill). It presents various ideas on this topic but doesn’t really go on to do anything with them or dwell on them in any depth. One later episode does just that with a similar theme, and the results are outstanding, a breathtakingly good and unusual piece of TV – Quality of Mercy isn’t close to that standard, which is a shame.

The episode is perhaps most memorable for its unrelated C-story, in which Londo Mollari takes Lennier out on the lash, with uproarious results. This concludes with a hilarious, jaw-dropping scene in which Londo demonstrates a method of cheating at cards which would be anatomically impossible for a human being. Quite how they got it past the TV censor I have no idea. This is really as broad as broad can be but it’s a lot of fun.

The Ambassador lets it all hang out. So to speak.

It also presents a nice contrast with the tone of Chrysalis, which is serious and significant throughout. I don’t know, I think the thing with Chrysalis is that it really doesn’t give you a moment to sit back and contemplate the magnitude of the game-changing events which occur almost without pause throughout it. Someone is spectacularly murdered, one character turns out to be a traitor and very nearly kills another regular, someone else gets engaged, yet another character initiates what is clearly a radical and painful physical transformation… and all this is before someone previously only depicted as a little bit dubious ends up with ten thousand deaths on his conscience.

It’s full-throttle stuff, perhaps lighter on CGI than you might expect: the only major sequence gives us our first proper look at Shadow vessels in action (apparently the proper name for them is ‘battlecrabs’. This is a stupid and wholly misleading name. I shall not be using or referring to it again. That is all) and they really are supremely well-designed ships, in terms of appearing sinister and powerful yet also oddly beautiful.

Overall the episode hits like a brick, and feels much more like the rest of B5, somehow. But watching the first season as a whole, again, I have been pleasantly surprised by just how good it is overall. I don’t think I’ll ever find a huge amount to enjoy in episodes like Eyes, but on the other hand Born to the Purple – something I execrated the last time I watched it – really didn’t seem too bad this time around. The wobbly start to the first season is pretty much part and parcel of starting any new series; I’m looking forward to revisiting this one really hitting its stride in the season to come.

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Rack my brain as I might, I can’t remember the moment at which the penny finally dropped and I figured out that Babylon 5 was a TV show with an over-arcing, pre-planned, detailed storyline. This fact wasn’t much mentioned in the initial publicity surrounding its launch in the UK, even in the specialist press. (For the first year or so, as I recall, there was a distinct sense of bemusement, possibly due to it being viewed through Trek-tinted spectacles – I myself couldn’t figure out why the Security Chief was one of the second-lead characters, given how relatively minor a job it was on TNG.)

I suspect I only really figured it out at the beginning of the second year, when the updated title sequence made it clear that this was not a programme with a fixed status quo. But I’m sure I must have been picking up on the clues dropped through the first season – by the time of Eyes the prospect of missing an episode incensed me enormously. The episodes on disc  5 of the first season are a mixed bag in this department.

Opening the quartet is D.C. Fontana’s Legacies. Now, I respect Fontana’s contribution to the original Star Trek, no question, and I completely understand why JMS brought her onto the team for B5. That said, I don’t think she ever got the B5 style down perfectly. Legacies is an okay episode, although it is a bit focussed around Minbari politics and society. This time around I’m finding the Minbari the least engaging of the major alien races on the show and their episodes correspondingly fail to completely grip. The A plot reveals Delenn’s penchant for grave-robbing and, en passant, the interesting fact that it’s possibly to surreptitiously cremate a corpse on B5 without anyone noticing. Hmmm. The B-plot, concerning the fate of a young telepath, is mostly of interest in the way it colours in aspects of the wider universe (and, for people interested in this most-overscrutinised aspect of B5, the Ivanova-Winters ‘relationship’).

Next up is A Voice in the Wilderness, a two-parter which initially looks quite substantial, involving trips to the planet Babylon 5 orbits, vast alien machinery, space battles, turmoil in the colonies, etc. However, the first episode basically boils down to Sinclair retrieving a mysterious alien from the planet below, and the second to Delenn and Londo taking him straight back again. The lack of real substance is obscured by a lot of incidental colour, including a couple of hostile ships arriving and some stuff about the Mars colony, but overall there’s a bit less than meets the eye here.

Which leaves us with Babylon Squared, one of the most arc-intensive episodes of the first couple of seasons. Strange tachyon emissions three hours away in deep space prompt B5 to send a fighter to investigate – and when it returns, it is on automatic, the pilot having died of old age on the way back. Ooh! Creepy!

It is revealed that, prior to passing away, the pilot was able to ‘scratch’ a message into his belt buckle. I say ‘scratch’ rather than scratch as the actual prop looks like it’s had a power tool of some kind used on it, but no matter. The message is ‘B4’, and the tachyon emissions are coming from the location where Babylon 4 mysteriously vanished, years earlier.

Sure enough, Babylon 4 has reappeared, and its CO is requesting the crew be evacuated. So off Sinclair and Garibaldi scoot to do the necessaries (Ivanova is left behind – whether this was just really prescient plotting on the part of JMS, I don’t know, but I sort of doubt it). On arriving at Babylon 4 they discover the station has become unstuck in time – mysterious forces are intent on dragging it away, so it can play a role in a terrible conflict at some other point in time. But are the forces really as alien as they appear to be…?

Sinclair finds he is [spoiler redacted by order of the Interstellar Alliance].

Well, JMS really likes this one, but I’m a bit indifferent to it – there’s an awful lot of set-up but no real closure, and the visuals aren’t that fantastic (though the Babylon 4 design is a nice one). It’s fairly obvious that the interior of Babylon 4 is basically Babylon 5 with the signs changed, but this isn’t a major problem. More of an issue for me is the fact that the B-plot concerns yet more Minbari philosophising and making cryptic pronouncements to each other, in the service of a question to which the answer is never in much doubt (will Delenn leave Babylon 5 and become the leader of her race? Er, no).

However, what makes Babylon Squared really interesting, with the benefit of hindsight, is the fact that this is really the only episode where just the faintest glimmers of JMS’s original plan for the series can be discerned. This is something which has only really come to light in the last few years with the publication of JMS’s scripts and original outline for the programme.

Now, watching this for the first time, I was convinced that Babylon 4 was being taken into the future – when the truth emerged a couple of years later, I commended JMS on his clever misdirection. Except, apparently the original plan was just that. Also, the shots of Babylon  5 ‘doing the big firework’ (as an acquaintance put it) from this episode and Signs and Portents were not intended as flashes of a possible future but genuine predictions of what was to come (Lord knows what they’d have done about Jerry Doyle’s hair, but that’s by the by).

Apparently, the five years of Babylon 5 were only intended as the first half of a ten-year, two series arc. The final season of B5 would have concluded with the destruction of the station at the hands of hostiles, and selected key cast members would have rolled over into the spin-off show, apparently to have been named Babylon Prime. Babylon Prime would have opened with the mission to snatch Babylon 4 from 2254, and the rest of the show would have been set on it (it would have duly been renamed… oh, you guessed) as Sinclair and the other survivors tried to sort out the Shadows, the resumed Earth-Minbar war, and so on. Yes, Sinclair would not have turned out to be [spoilers redacted just in case] and the whole reason for the initial Minbari surrender would have been completely different.

Given the magnitude of the re-plotting involved, which apparently took place at the end of the first season, it’s miraculous that Babylon 5 as a whole hangs together even as well as it does. But this revelation doesn’t just explain why, with the benefit of hindsight, Babylon Squared appears to be actively trying to mislead the viewer – it also throws some light on to exactly why all parties concerned were happy to change the lead character of the series, which is a development never even hinted at anywhere in year one.

So for this reason alone Babylon Squared is a bit of an insight into the original vision for B5. As a standalone episode, it’s difficult to judge, quite simply because it isn’t truly designed to stand alone. In the wider context of the series, though, it’s not quite as essential as Chrysalis or Signs and Portents – but neither is it very far behind them.

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…or, possibly, Finding the Character.

So, this is going to be about the way in which the presentation of a certain class of TV character has changed over the last forty to fifty years and what this may tell us about changes in UK culture. As I’m mainly going to talk about British genre shows, particularly action-adventure and SF (the latter is almost invariably a subset of the former), there’s going to be a lot of stuff about Doctor Who and Sherlock (yeah, sorry about that, people who aren’t interested in them) but also some other shows that no-one seems to care about any more (yeah, sorry about that, people who are interested).

What got me thinking along these lines was a discussion about – yes, you guessed it – Sherlock and Doctor Who, wherein a friend of mine argued that the two lead characters were presented in a fundamentally similar way. Regular readers may recall that I have visited this topic before in the not too distant past, and I’m not planning to go over it again here in too much detail. But anyway, as I suggested to my friend, this may well be a bit of an optical illusion inasmuch as this is how all TV action-adventure heroes are presented these days, and it’s only the scarcity of this type of character that’s clouded the issue.

Certainly British action-adventure TV shows are a lot thinner on the ground than they used to be. Casting our minds back to the 1960s, surely the golden age of the genre, we encounter The Saint, The Avengers, Man in a Suitcase, the original Randall and Hopkirk, The Champions, Danger Man, The Prisoner, Adam Adamant Lives and many other less celebrated examples – to say nothing of the early years of Doctor Who (albeit a rather different show in those days) and no fewer than two BBC-produced Sherlock Holmes series (starring Douglas Wilmer and Peter Cushing respectively). Wind on to 2012 and all we really find are Doctor Who, Sherlock, and – still just about current – Primeval. (Oh, and I suppose the grisly Merlin qualifies, but I can never watch more than five minutes at a time without losing my temper and switching over, so I can’t really discuss it in any detail.)

The reasons for the decline in this genre’s presence are, I would suspect, mainly economic: most of the 60s shows I mentioned were made on film and largely shot on location, with lengthy runs – mainly because they were made by ITC with more than half a eye on selling them to the lucrative American market. American sales were what made a lot of these shows viable propositions and the major American networks are a lot less open to foreign product these days – the only British show to get a major network slot since The New Avengers in the late 1970s is Merlin, for reasons I find utterly impossible to work out.

So this may be why this kind of show is no longer such a fixture, but what’s more interesting to me is the change in the way these shows are written. Many years ago on the BBC Doctor Who message board I remember laboriously trying to explain the difference between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story. I think I settled on saying that in a plot-driven story it’s events that dictate the actions of the protagonists, while in a character-driven one it’s the personalities of the protagonists that motivate the events. This probably sounds rather circular – to simplify things still further, I would go on to say that a plot-driven story is primarily about what people do, while a character-driven one is about who they are. This is not to say that plot-driven stories can’t have an interesting cast, or that a character-driven one must be wholly bereft of incident – it’s a question of focus and emphasis.

Looking at The Avengers or Danger Man these days one of the most striking things about them is how little attention is paid to the histories and emotions of the leading characters beyond the strict demands of the plot. The backgrounds of Steed and Drake remain almost entirely vague; we know nothing about their families or any relationships they may have had in the past. None of this matters in an Avengers or Danger Man episode – it’s all about the case or the mission in that particular episode, the leads are there to fulfil a set of plot functions. This is most striking in the case of Mrs Peel (also from The Avengers) – she’s introduced as Mrs Peel in her debut episode, but her exact marital situation is never addressed or even alluded to, until the closing minutes of her final episode in which it is revealed her husband is a test pilot who’s been lost up the Amazon for years.

Stiff upper lips were the order of the day in Ye Good Olde Days.

If The Avengers were being made today, in the modern style, I cannot imagine an episode going by in which Mrs Peel’s angst over her missing spouse is not given a little moment to itself. Whole episodes would no doubt be written wherein she helps to reunite people who have been forcibly separated from their loved ones, concluding with bittersweet moments – no doubt taking place to a piano or power-ballad soundtrack – where she sees the happiness she has brought about but is confronted yet again by her own loneliness. It would, if you ask me, be totally and utterly awful, mawkish, charmless dross – we can perhaps get a slight impression of what it would be like by looking at the New Avengers episode Obsession, a deeply atypical and rather underwhelming outing focussing on Purdey’s unhappy love affair with Martin Shaw’s character.

I can’t begin to imagine how an updated version of Steed would work – but then again, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part a tenth as well as Patrick Macnee, so it’s really an empty question – the same kind of applies to the Prisoner, but it’s interesting how much more conventional and less interesting the central character of the updated version is.

These days it isn’t enough to just be an interesting and engaging screen character who resolves fun and imaginative plots – there seems to be a distinct sense that audiences won’t care about that. Every character these days has to have some kind of emotional baggage, which not only allows us access to their psychological hinterland, but seems to insist we visit it virtually on a weekly basis.

As a case in point let us look at the male leads of Primeval, who have the advantage of being new-minted characters unlike Sherlock Holmes or the Doctor and are thus more amenable to being crafted to fit a specific role. The three guys in question are Nick Cutter, Danny Quinn, and Matt Anderson, and they are the successive male leads in a show which largely revolves around people being chased around by CGI monsters who’ve wandered out of holes in time. They are a scientist, a cop, and a soldier-turned-zookeeper, and yet despite this diversity and the nature of the show they all fit the same template: each of them isn’t just chasing CGI monsters because it’s their job. All of them have Personal Issues involved with loved ones who have got mixed up in the holes-in-time business.

Or, to put it another way, everything these days has a much stronger soap opera element than it did in years gone by. This was one of the main accusations flung at the early Rusty Davies series of Doctor Who, certainly, and while I don’t have a problem with the attention paid to extended family lives of most of the regular characters I do sense and slightly object to an ongoing attempt to load the Doctor down with baggage of various kinds.

Specifically, things which were nicely underplayed and subtextual in the 1963-89 version of the series – the loneliness of the Doctor, the grounding influence of his companions – are dragged out into the centre of episodes. The mostly-implied affection the Doctor shares with his friends is replaced by operatic and overblown excursions into sentimental navel-gazing such as conclude most of the Davies seasons. As you may have sensed, I am not a tremendous fan of this kind of thing – I’m quite capable of having an emotion off my own bat without having it wholly specified by whatever it is I’m reading or watching.

Sherlock Holmes is a character who dates back much further than any other I’ve mentioned so far, hailing from an era when angst was an unknown concept and upper lips remained entirely solid. Presenting him not just in a modern context but in a modern style thus presents a bit of an issue. In my initial discussion on this subject, the point came up that Holmes and the Doctor really do mirror each other – one is a superbeing with human emotions, the other is a normal man with superhuman faculties.

Conan Doyle pays lip service to giving Holmes a few weaknesses – most famously his occasional depressions and his ignorance of many basic facts about astronomy – but most of the time he’s an almost superhumanly accomplished individual – an accomplished musician and highly-skilled martial artist in addition to his prodigious talents as a detective. However this clearly will not do for a modern TV hero and so in Sherlock he is assigned a dreadful personal flaw with which he must contend. It’s interesting that Sherlock has received quite so many plaudits for being utterly faithful to Doyle, when the depiction of Holmes as someone quite so socially incompetent and often downright rude is really not to be found anywhere in the original canon.

Holmes and the Doctor have a number of similarities, to be sure, but these are only emphasised by the fact that both have gone through the modern-genre-TV-baggage-attaching process. Heroes are not allowed to simply be heroes any more, nor are we allowed to work out for ourselves what the deeper elements of their characters might be. It’s not enough for a character to simply be likeable or interesting, we have to be able to Emotionally Invest in them, no matter how absurd that might be in the case of a soldier-turned-zookeeper whose job is to chase prehistoric monsters into holes in time.

Why has this happened? It seems to be a recent phenomenon, though the near-total absence of British action-adventure TV shows between the mid-80s and the mid-00s makes it difficult to be sure. Certainly the leads of Bugs (launched in 1994) are in the old style, as were the central characters in Crime Traveller. This takes us up to 1997, an interesting year inasmuch as the death of Princess Diana provoked scenes of wild emotion on the streets of Britain of an intensity and on a scale which was previously unthinkable.

Certainly in the 15 years since, British culture seems to have become considerably more emotionally articulate, if not in fact emotionally incontinent. Quite outside of the action-adventure TV genre, even the main TV variety shows rely on the ’emotional journey’ of the participants to provide a hook for the audience. Basically, everything has gone very soapy and sentimental at the the expense of reason and wit and restraint.

Once again I suspect my personal preferences may be apparent. I suspect my dislike for the modern Emo-style of genre TV is not solely because I object to cheap and obvious sentimentality but because this has supplanted so many of the elements I really like in the older shows – wit, inventiveness, and so on. Certainly they still exist in the modern shows, which is why Sherlock and Doctor Who remain so watchable for me, but often they seem less important than people’s character arcs and emotional foibles. Maybe the wheel will turn again and they will come back into fashion once more. I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath.

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Class distinctions seem to be very much a hot topic at the moment here in the UK. This seems to be due to a) the success of The King’s Speech, the tale of one of the toffiest people imaginable bonding with someone who’s not just a pleb, but an Australian, and b) the fact that in a few months time we’re all to be given a day off work (well, those people who actually have jobs – the rest of us won’t feel the benefit of this particular piece of largesse) to celebrate the fact that the future monarch will be marrying a ‘commoner’ – she’s never even had her own coat of arms! It’s madness! (Then again she’s never really had a proper job either, so surely the jury’s still out on her woman-of-the-people credentials.)

So class is a still live issue here in the UK, though perhaps less than it has been in the past: while the way a person speaks, behaves and dresses can still tell you something about their background, you would be unwise to draw too many assumptions from this. Television in general also seems to have abandoned its general condescension towards and suspicion of the working class.

(Yeah, I’m sorry, but this is a piece about the British class system, which really obliges me to use generalisations like ‘working class’, ‘middle class’ and ‘posh’. As ever, real life is much more complicated.)

This is hardly surprising given that for a long time TV was, on the whole, made by university-educated chaps, who may not have been that familiar with the full spectrum of society. In the TV of the sixties and seventies one can surely detect a sort of panem et circenses approach in the provision of things like soaps and game shows, and an assumption that the really worthwhile stuff was plays and authored documentaries.

Certainly, if you look more closely at TV SF and fantasy, it seems to be very much a middle-class pursuit. Survivors, in particular, presents a world where the working classes seem to have suffered disproportionately from the plague, and the few still around are mostly either shotgun-toting bandit scum or the comic relief. Blake’s 7 is nearly as bad.

And it’s the same with Doctor Who, throughout the original run. Of the attempts to create a believable working-class companion, only one is really successful, and that’s a character from the mid-Sixties (and before you object, Ace just comes across as a middle-class girl pretending to be ‘street’ most of the time). Honorable mention for Sergeant Benton, though.

The rest of the time, you’re only really likely to meet anyone working class if you go out into the countryside, and even then they’ll probably be a comedy yokel or tramp. I suppose one has to mention Drax from The Armageddon Factor at this point: Drax is a Time Lord and old mucker of the Doctor’s, who he bumps into off in deep space somewhere. Drax has spent so much time in 20th century London he’s gone native and developed a Cockney accent. The crucial thing is that Drax’s accent is irrelevant to the plot – it’s simply a character quirk, and one that to me seems deeply tied up with the fact that he’s basically a comic-relief sidekick to the Doctor.

'Cor blimey guv'nor. Strike a light. Would you Adam'n'Eve it?' etc. etc.

Things improve a bit as the series goes on – though not a huge amount, the ‘girl gangs’ of Paradise Towers still talk like they’ve all been to Roedean – and it does score a definite success in Survival, with its depiction of Ace’s old friends and their haunts in a London suburb of tower blocks and vandalised community centres.

It’s become a bit of a cliché to marvel at the continuity of tone and setting between Survival and Rose, as though one could watch the entire series in sequence and barely notice the transition (and it’s hardly as if either was particularly representative of the series at the time). But one way in which Rose is very much signalling a change of approach is in the social background of its characters.

In the first year of the revived show, there are probably more significant and serious working-class characters than in any five or six of the old run – most obviously there are Rose, Mickey, and Jackie, but in addition to that there’s Raffalo the space-plumber, Gwyneth the maid, all the people at the wedding the Reapers crash, Nancy and her kids, Lynda with a Y… admittedly, some of them come from different societies to ours, but the creative decisions were made to have them dress and talk in way that hits a particular set of cues.

And there’s no overlooking the fact that Russell T Davies even has a damn good try at making the Doctor seem working-class. On the face of it this seems an absurd proposition – not only is his general demeanour that of a brilliant academic, he’s a Lord, for heaven’s sake – but the strengths of the scripting and Christopher Eccleston’s performance are such that, somehow, the quintessential Doctor survives beneath the jeans and leather jacket and accent (one of the very few good gags in Adam Roberts’s Doctor Who parody E.T. Shoots And Leaves was his summarisation of Eccleston’s Doctor as being performed in the style of ‘an unemployed northern builder on E’ – funny, because it’s ultimately true).

His Lordship, slumming it with the chavs.

I’m not sure how much of this was what you’d call a conscious decision on Rusty’s part – nearly all his work outside Who-world operates in this kind of narrative space, with characters from this sort of background. His background writing for soap operas may be significant, or it may just be the way his creativity operates. Certainly it works well in terms of making the revived series accessible to a wider audience, which was doubtless a major concern at the time, although the insertion of the ‘soap opera’ element drew heavy flak from some parts of the fanbase.

It is curious, though, that ever since 2005 the series appears to have slowly creeping back towards its former position. David Tennant’s Mockney accent is just that – no-one in the show seems to read anything into it regarding his background. Post-Rose, the Doctor’s associates have generally gone back to being from the professions – Martha’s a doctor, Jackson Lake is a teacher, Adelaide is a scientist, Christina is a fellow toff – although of course Donna and her grandad don’t quite fit this pattern. (We should remember that Donna was originally only written as a one-off character, and Martha’s replacement was planned to be Penny the journalist.)           

Post-Davies, this shift has only accelerated: you couldn’t describe Matt Smith’s deranged boffin as being in any way down to Earth or recognisable as someone you might meet in everyday life, while Amy Pond hails from a picture-book country village rather than a housing estate or suburban street. The general tone is now fairy-tale rather than soap opera, though it hasn’t abandoned everyday life entirely: putting the Doctor into just such a setting is the whole point and joy of The Lodger, for instance.

And, so far as one can tell, this return to a slightly more ‘classic’ style doesn’t seem to have compromised the series’ mass appeal in any way. Does this mean Rusty was being overcautious in the way he pitched his earlier work on the show? Well, I don’t know; maintaining a big audience isn’t the same thing as attracting one in the first place, after all, and I can quite see why he wouldn’t want to take any chances. And as I said, I doubt it was entirely a considered choice on his part.

I suppose you could argue that, against the wider background of TV in general, what’s been going on in Doctor Who over the last year or two has been an ultimately retrograde step – moving against the democratisation of TV over recent decades. Possibly – if, as I’ve argued, this is simply the show’s core values reasserting themselves – this is one of the rare signs that the programme we’re talking about is, in TV terms, is a product of a different, ancient world, with its roots in a wholly different style of storytelling. Slightly archaic it may be, but this style has served it well for nearly half a decade and should continue to do so in years to come.

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It would, of course, be missing the point on a fundamental level to criticise a kids’ TV show for being like a kids’ TV show. It doesn’t really make sense. And yet it’s a sign of just how solid and impressive SJA so frequently is, that when it does go a little off-form it’s inevitably a particular disappointment.
 Off-form is in the eye of the beholder, obviously, and no doubt there are plenty of younglings out there who lapped up this week’s slightly silly and disjointed story of reptilian body-hoppers, slightly camp androids and comedy UFO-spotters. There was something there for junior continuity-spotters too, as the tale stitched together the bad guy from last years’ SJA season opener and the alien-covering-up androids from the Dreamland cartoon (what with one thing and another, these guys must be the most ineffectual bunch of mechanicals in Who-world – and that’s up against some pretty stiff opposition). There was even a throwaway moment of pure magic for the elderly viewer, with a tantalising glimpse of the Osiran ruins on Mars.

Doing such a classy reference to what’s possibly my favourite story of them all put me in a very good and forgiving temper where The Vault of Secrets was concerned, which was probably just as well. For the most part it hung together fairly well, but parts of the story were just too absurd to be credible – the comedy characters were no more nor less than simple cut-outs (who would actually name their organisation BURPSS, for heaven’s sake?). The reset-button ending revolving around one of the main characters having her memory erased left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth, as well. Even Torchwood in an off week got this kind of thing right – how could you do something like that to someone you really cared about?

It wasn’t all bad, and I may just be letting my dislike of Phil Ford’s style of storytelling cloud my judgement (Mona Lisa’s Revenge remains possibly the worst thing to have emerged from Upper Boat, though). Nice prosthetics and effects work, and it rattled along well enough – and, with no disrespect intended to Tommy Knight, losing a regular character seems to have loosened the show up a bit now that it’s no longer struggling to accommodate the full quartet every story. Shame they had to get rid of the dog as well, though, but I suspect that decision was down to the lawyers.

Anyway, not what I would call a classic outing, but then I prefer this show when it isn’t being played for laughs. Fingers crossed the programme makers and I will see eye-to-eye again soon.

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Kids these days don’t know how lucky they are. Even ten years ago my daily walk home after a hard day’s squabbling with a Welshman and a dipstick was fraught with tension, simply because it seemed like every bloody shop was blasting Walking in the Air, Last Christmas, or (worst of all) Merry Christmas Everyone out through doors in the apparent belief it would entice shoppers in or create a positive mood. Hmmm. Nowadays much has changed regarding Christmas music, of course. Having been preoccupied with other stuff for the past three or four festive seasons I had not in fact noticed that the single perpetrated  released by the X Factor winner has topped the charts every year since 2005.

Now, the British people will clearly only take so much! Forget all the various ongoing horrors and atrocities of the modern world, or the serious and ongoing problems resulting from our economic and social system’s inability to incorporate any kind of meaningful ethical or environmental agenda, or even the thorny issue of the Strictly Come Dancing voting system. If there’s one thing that will get the masses agitated and organised then it’s manufactured pop hogging the Xmas number one slot.

I’m not sure whether to feel more depressed about the immense popularity of X Factor – I can only assume 19.1 million people don’t actually mind being openly manipulated – or the crack-brainedness of the popular reaction against it. Members of this tendency state their problems pretty much thus: ‘We’re sick of being told what to buy and so we will demonstrate our non-conformism by doing something different. Yes, the same thing. Yes, all of us. Yes, it’s somebody else’s idea.‘ 

Are they aware that a lot of people might be buying the X-single because, hmm, they quite like it? You can say what you like about Simon Cowell but he knows how to put together a mainstream pop single. I suppose you can make the case that the 17-week saturation bombardment of Saturday night TV by Cowell and co. could be construed as giving Android McWinner the kind of publicity money simply can’t buy, but even so – what exactly are these people hoping to achieve? A return to the good old days when the Xmas no. 1 slot was usually taken by classic, credible artists like East 17 (Stay Another Day, 1994), the Spice Girls (three years in a row, though I quite like their ’96 release), and, of course, Cliff Richard (1988-90, 1999)? Wow, don’t set your sights too high, guys.

Cowell himself seems to be on the money (just for a change) when he interpreted the ‘let’s get Rage Against The Machine to no.1’ campaign as a personal attack, and a rather stupid one as he’s not going to make any less money off Android McWinner as a result – and Sony are going to make even more as they published both the singles in question.

Simon Cowell doesn’t decide, mould, or otherwise shape popular taste – more than any other senior person in the media, anyway – all he does is judge what the majority of the public will like better than most people. To complain about his success is to basically get upset that other people have different tastes to you (I think there’s a degree of jealousy involved too).

A lot of money has already been raised for a worthwhile charity, but the only thing that stopping Android McWinner from having the Xmas no. 1 will really prove is the internet’s power to let people organise and work together to achieve something (really pointless) in a manner impossible back when Noddy Holder ruled the December airwaves. And, to be honest, I think the current campaign is fuelled by the same motive responsible for vandalism and other kinds of pointless disruption of people’s lives. The fact the anti-Cowell mob have chosen as their favoured song not something appropriately seasonal, but a fashionably subversive piece of almost unlistenable rap metal where someone gargles ‘fuck’ 17 times while a concrete mixer turns over in the background, is to me significant. Here we are dealing with a juvenile instinct for mischief-making coupled to a nearly irrational dislike for one man and his trousers. Should they achieve their aim, no doubt some of those responsible will feel very good about themselves, but as the late Bill Hicks said about something entirely different – ‘If you really need to feel better about yourself – can I suggest  sit-ups?’

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I remember, from way back in 1981, my vague sense of bemusement when it was announced that Peter Davison would be taking over from Tom Baker as Doctor Who. How was that going to work, then? They didn’t even look vaguely similar.

Anyone who knows me now will find this scarcely credible but in late 1980 I had stopped watching Doctor Who entirely, lured away by the cheap thrills of Buck Rogers on the other channel (and – shame upon shame – Meglos was just too scary for my six-year-old brain). But the sheer novelty value of the impending regime change pricked my curiosity – not to mention that news of the departure of K9 was the cause of tears (am I really putting all this stuff out in public? Masochism reaches new heights) – and I started watching again.

This will once again seem insane to modern readers, and maybe it was just the result of me being six, but I genuinely didn’t know when the regeneration was actually going to take place. Excitement started to build as early as the last episode of Warrior’s Gate (when the Doctor goes off to sabotage Rorvik’s ship I thought he might meet a sticky end and the new man would just wander into the now-ownerless TARDIS and adopt his title out of… well, I didn’t figure out all the angles). But – no regeneration that week, although K9 went (waaah!).

So I felt obliged to stick around for The Keeper of Traken – which was a pretty good tale to stick around for, not least because my Who-consciousness was massively expanded by the presence of the Master (there were old enemies other than the Daleks? other people had TARDISes? Cool!). Once again the final episode came around with our hero in pretty dire straits (I should’ve realised he spends every final episode  in pretty dire straits), but… you guessed it. Same old Doctor leaving at the end. Though there was that odd business with the clock and the guy with the beard right in the closing seconds.

Well, anyway. I finally got my dose of Time Lord snuff with Logopolis – along with a truckload of tantalising flashbacks – but the damage had already been done. The hooks had been inserted, the pattern had been set, and I would never willingly miss another episode again (unless you count going abroad and watching the show via YouTube or TV links some time after its UK transmission). Why? I don’t know. Sometimes you don’t choose, you get chosen. But I’m quite certain of a couple of things. Firstly, while early-80s Who gets a lot of stick for overdoing the flashbacks and other continuity references, the sense of that vast and rich history just waiting to be explored was, I’m sure, fundamental in tipping me over the edge into fandom.

And the second is that, had the specifics of Tom Baker’s departure been as widely known as those of David Tennant are today (he’s going to croak round about 8pm on New Year’s Day 2010), I would have been able to just tune in to the last episode of Logopolis, not got into the Who-habit, and today be… well, I shudder to think. Am I complaining that the show is now too famous and popular and spoken-of? Is this just another rather convoluted manifestation of ‘I hate the fact my favourite band is now everybody’s favourite band’? I would certainly hope not. Instead I would say… I don’t really know what I would say. Time moves on.

In other news: Michael Moorcock to write Doctor Who novel shocker. Finally BBC Books have hit upon a strategy that actually makes me want to buy one! (Other than employing Gareth Roberts or Terrance Dicks.) Be interesting to see if the Doctor is revealed as yet another facet of the Eternal Champion (like they don’t have enough incarnations between them already).

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