I was pleased to see that Malorie Blackman has been chosen to be the new Children’s Laureate. I’ve never met her, but everyone who has says that she’s lovely, and she’s a very good writer. There’s a nice piece about her by Martin Chilton, here. And here’s a word from the outgoing Laureate, Julia Donaldson, in which she talks eloquently about the lack of coverage which children’s books receive in the press and media – one in four book sales, but only a fortieth of the coverage in the mainstream press. Which is a bit rubbish, isn’t it? It’s been nice to see all the coverage of Malorie Blackman’s appointment, but it would be nicer still if the media could pay a bit more attention to children’s books when there isn’t such an obvious hook to hang their stories on.
New Doctor Who…
Somewhat less important than a new Children’s Laureate is the news that the search is on for a new Doctor Who. All over the internets people are suggesting the actors they’d like to see in the role. I hadn’t planned to join in with this merriment, because, frankly, I’m not sure we really need another Dr Who. I lost interest in the new version of the show a while back. Instead of a new Doctor I’d like to see a whole new sci-fi/fantasy show commissioned – maybe one which doesn’t carry fifty years of baggage.
At least, that’s what I thought until I discussed it with my son Sam. To my surprise, when I asked him who the new Doctor should be he instantly said, ‘Tom Waits’. Which, of course, completely convinced me.
I love Tom Waits‘s music. It always makes me feel as I’m waking up with a hangover in a cheap hotel room where someone is playing polkas on a clapped-out old radiogram while a mad tramp sings along in the street outside (but in a good way). His lyrics are superb too (and he’s the author of the only bit of ‘writing advice’ I’ve ever heeded: ‘Sometimes you write a song and the only thing it’s any good for is to chop up and use as bait so you can catch other songs’). He’s also a pretty good actor in the right role. Here he is as the Devil in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus…
…and here he’s playing Renfield in the Francis Ford Coppola version of Dracula:
(Incidentally, I don’t think any Tom Waits song would make it anywhere near Sam’s personal top ten nowadays – he’s more into hip-hop and such – but Tom Waits was probably the first musician he was ever aware of. At a very young age he came across a picture of TW singing – as is his wont – through a bullhorn, and assumed that he was something to do with the emergency services. He made himself his own bullhorn out of Duplo and went stomping around the house bellowing a Tom Waits-ish song of his own invention which went, “SOME-ONE’S IN TROUBLE IN A BIG STORM OF RAIN”. To this day it remains the best pastiche Tom Waits lyric I’ve ever heard.)
So anyway, if I were in charge of Doctor Who, Matt Smith would be regenerating into Tom Waits as soon as contractually possible. Not only would Waits play the Doctor, he would record a new version of the theme tune, featuring a wheezing harmonium over a percussion section of hobos banging dustbins. The interior of the TARDIS would look like the lower decks of an ancient tramp steamer, and it would materialise and de-materialise with a sound like a broken accordion. The Doctor’s current assistant would be so appalled by his smoking, whisky consumption and greasy hat that she would flee, to be replaced by someone a bit more interesting.
After that it would be pretty much business as usual: the Doctor visiting a bunch of planets and seeing off marauding aliens with his trademark ruined growl and battered umbrella. The settings would be seedier than we are used to: abandoned farm buildings, rusty freighters and low-end spaceport bars would feature prominently. A few familiar villains would turn up so that they could say, “So, Doctor, we meet again,”, but there would be no ‘story arcs’. All the stories would end bleakly.
Viewing figures would plummet, of course, and the show would be abruptly cancelled half way through the season, never to return. But it would be WORTH IT, dammit.
Tom Waits for Doctor Who. You know it makes sense.
A few years ago, when the second Pirates of the Caribbean film came out, I realised that Hollywood producers have now discovered how to make an action movie without any actual story at all, just a series of spectacular set-pieces designed by the stunt men and the special effects team and linked together by something that looks vaguely like a narrative. Dr Who seems to have taken this approach a step further by cutting out the spectacular set-pieces as well so that all that remains are jokes (often quite good ones, admittedly), sentimental death scenes (at least one per episode as a rule), and odd little sound bites, which I suppose are designed to become catch-phrases or memes or something – the effect is of a huge room at the BBC full of underpaid writers desperately trying to come up with their own version of, ‘Hasta la vista, Baby’ or ‘Do you feel lucky, Punk?”.
Saturday’s episode – A Good Man Goes To War – began with Rory, one of the Doctor’s duo of companions, striding into a Cyberman spaceship in the middle of a huge Cyberman space fleet and insisting, since they apparently monitor all communications in the region, that they tell him where his missing missus is. The Cybermen – who were legendary bad-asses in the old Dr Who but seem a bit pants in the new version – are reluctant to tell him, and draw a variety of big space guns. The rest of the fleet then explodes behind Rory in an expensive (but not quite expensive enough) effects shot, and he says, “Shall I Repeat The Question?” – the first of the episode’s sound-bites.
Just shoot him!
So how did he get there? Well, apparently we don’t need to know. Fair enough. But how does he blow up an entire space fleet? How does he get away again afterwards? Why don’t the Cybermen just blast him to bits, winning themselves the undying gratitude of viewers everywhere?
Who knows. That’s just the pre-title sequence and the whole thing has been forgotten by the time the credits have finished, although presumably the Cyber-numpties did furnish him with the information he needed because the Doctor is now busily assembling an army of Trusted Old Friends We’ve Never Even Heard Of Before to spring Mrs Rory from some kind of secret space base full of fascist clerics. Among the Doctor’s allies, though not revealed until the attack is under way, is a small squadron of Spitfires from one of last year’s episodes, who swoop by to knock out a communications array.
So where had they come from? How did they get from Earth in 1940 to a distant corner of space in the year 9 Zillion? Had the doctor carried them there in his TARDIS? How do you get a Spitfire into the TARDIS? What happened to them after the battle? Did they survive? Will he take them home again? All these questions could be easily covered by a line or two of dialogue, but the scriptwriters completely ignored them*. And I could go on – there were dozens of similar moments in this series.
Of course it isn’t always necessary to explain everything in a story: often we don’t need to know how the murderer got in or how the hero travelled from A to B. Of course it’s allowable to include the odd scene or pre-credit hook that doesn’t strictly make sense, so long as it’s funny or cool. And of course it’s possible to pick holes in any plot if you can be bothered, though it’s a fairly pointless pastime. My problem with Dr Who is that more often than not it seems to be made of plot-holes. I don’t think this is because the writers or producers are incompetent: I think it’s because they have an utter contempt for the audience. Who watches this stuff after all? Children and fanboys. So them soundbites and Spitfires, they won’t notice that it doesn’t make sense.
And the sad thing is that all this money, all this stuff, all these fine actors and pretty costumes could have been used to make a good programme instead. Buried in all this nonsense there are some lovely bits of dialogue and some great ideas. Who wouldn’t want to watch the story about the sword-wielding Victorian lizard lady detective and her cross-dressing cockney girlfriend? But Dr Who doesn’t really do stories any more, so she’s just marginalia, her character compressed into a few lines which you have to strain to catch behind the thundering incidental music.
Speak up a bit, love…
When Terry Pratchett wrote about Dr Who last year he suggested that it should move to Sunday nights since the Doctor was increasingly being portrayed as a sort of replacement Jesus in a bow tie. Actually, having seen the play Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks recently, I think the show belongs on Saturday afternoons after all. In episode after episode we get the same thing: a Baddy appears and does something Bad, or captures one of the Doctor’s companions. The Baddy explains that this time the Doctor is going to meet his doom; he may have won all those other times but this time will be different; this time he’s going down. The companion then gets a speech that goes, “Ooh, just you wait, he’s a good man, and he’s coming to get you and you can’t hide and he’ll sort you out all right!” Then the Doctor arrives. There is a brief and dissapointing confrontation, during which it looks at one point as if our hero will be defeated. But then he wins.
Dr Who isn’t drama at all. It’s the 21st century version of wrestling.
*EDIT: Oops – I’m told that actually there was some reference to the Spitfires, so perhaps I just failed to catch it. (I made it through five seasons of The Wire without turning the subtitles on, but I often find it nearly impossible to hear what people are saying in Dr Who.) I’m quite sure the opening scene was never explained, though, and there were plenty of other examples.
If campy British sci-fi with good jokes is your thing, you could do worse than check out Toby Frost’s Space Captain Smith books: the first one is reviewed here on The Solitary Bee: the second is even better.