Learning and having scones

Think of a weekend away to celebrate and examine the works of Joss Whedon, the genius who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and who wrote & directed Marvel’s Avengers (Assemble) and Age of Ultron, and you’d be forgiven for thinking about a convention. That was the reaction I had from several people when telling them I would be attending EuroSlayage, but it instead was something rather different (and I would argue a whole lot more) than this.

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Poster courtesy of the WSA, and designed by Michael Starr. T-shirts were also available.

Organised by the Whedon Studies Association, the seventh biennial Slayage was an academic conference; an oppurtunity for teachers, scholars, and researchers to come together to present and discuss ideas from across a wide range of the Whedonverses, or to utilise ideas and characters present in them as an example of wider arguments.

Although primarily a gathering of those active within academia itself, there were also a number of passionate fans of Whedon’s work who had attended essentially for their own enjoyment. Having studied for both a Bachelor and Master of Arts in the realm of Film and Television Studies, although having finished the latter four years ago, I was somewhere between the two.

Regardless of background however, it seems as though talking with friends, family, and colleagues, was met with the same kind of misunderstanding. “You’re studying Buffy?” is a question often posed to academics by those from other disciplines, whereas “you’re studying Buffy?” is one posed by those outside of academia. Thus EuroSlayage was made up of fans and academics (although I argue that both labels would apply to all at the conference, regardless) who not only recognise the value of studying such topics, but who were also delighted to be in the company of those who understand the struggle of dealing with others who consider it ‘just’ a TV show. There was even one presentation which dealt specifically with this issue.

As this was my first Slayage (primarily as it was the first to be held outside of North America, and as such much attention was paid to Whedon’s use of Englishisms), and my first academic conference at all, I was told on several occasions that it was not to be taken as an example of academic conferences in general. My first thought upon hearing this was to feel sorry for the rest of academia…

Having booked my train to the wrong station (I was so excited about securing my place at the event in Kingston that I failed to notice I was actually staying in the neighbouring London borough of Surbiton), my Slayage began by turning up to register at the Knight’s Park Campus, followed by taking my travelling backpack to the Seething Wells halls on what can only be described as an urban hike (it is a rather big backpack), and then the journey back again.

I arrived at the wine reception shindig to see a room full of people all chatting away as if they had known each other for years, and at this point realised that many of them indeed had, and that I had no idea as to how I would join in. Luckily I arrived just before the welcome by WSA President Stacey Abbot, and Associate Professor at Kingston University Simon Brown. As much as I enjoyed their introduction, I have to say nothing was as welcome as the whole sea of hands raised at the question of “who here is attending their first Slayage”. I was far from alone.

And far less alone that I originally thought, as people soon came up to me to introduce themselves, thankfully negating the fact doing this for myself is not one of my strong points. Although I didn’t recognise any faces, I have to admit that there was a great thrill at having Rhonda Wilcox, the author of Why Buffy Matters, a seminal Buffy textbook, say hello and that she recognised my name. Admittedly just from the list of those registered to attend, but still.

This was matched by having a short but sweet conversation with a lovely lady taking photos, about whether she wanted us to pose or if she would prefer us to act natural. She then introduced herself as Mary Alice Money, someone who Wilcox often quotes and defers to in her book, essentially becoming analogous to a grand sire of mine in terms of Buffy studies. Whoever came up with the idea of never meeting your idols because you’ll only be disappointed obviously never attended a Slayage.

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I’m not saying Kingston is far from the centre of London, but this is the Thames..

This was also another situation in which geeky T-shirts should never be underestimated, as they made a great ice breaker for many more than just myself. After the formal event ended, this lead to going to dinner with two women I had never met before, from entirely different countries to my own, but who I was chatting with as though I had known for years.

The next morning the conference began in earnest, with three full days (9am – 7pm) of talks, presentations, and four flights of stairs to get to them. I personally couldn’t have asked for a better start, with a keynote speech about fan reactions to the endings of TV series, and the ways in which those series continue, something which I find particularly interesting. After this came something completely different, but which I was equally looking forward to.

Although Joss Whedon is undoubtedly the current writer/producer/director whose work has the most analytical scholarship about his works, the first talk of the day (or at least my first, the nature of parallel sessions meaning I couldn’t attend them all) was entitled “Images of Tea in the Whedonverse“, something I had never begun to consider before, and was curious as to what I would learn.

In fact it turns out that tea is a perfect example of how even something that a first seems like the most inconsequential element will have many layers of meaning that you only realise after they have been explained to you, but which you can’t unsee afterwards. As well as conforming to English stereotypes, tea – of the British/European variety – was used to highlight the idea of the friendship group; both Wesley’s tea set and Fred’s mug being the first and most obvious possessions seen to be packed away after their respective leavings of the core group in Angel.

Chinese tea meanwhile, and the rituals surrounding it, is also often used as a representation of invitations, particularly those of an intimate or sexual nature. Upon watching Firefly when I returned home I noticed that the introduction of companion (read: courtesan) Inara saw her entertaining a client – both in the physical and ‘smile and nod’ sense – only to be insulted by an insinuation of cheating him of both time and money. With the mood obviously ruined, her reaction is to discard the tea set she had been carrying for seemingly no other reason that to discard it. As I said, cannot be unseen.

Other talks throughout the conference ranged from such a wide variety of approaches and disciplines that it is impossible to list them all here, although the full schedule can be found on the conference’s website. Whilst some may be fairly obvious in terms of tracing the links to classical literature (comparing Serenity‘s Operative to Les Misérables‘ Javert), or looking at the influences and contrasts of ancient mythology (the reversal of the Greek Orpheus myth, with heroine rescuing the male from hell), others took more outside the box approaches to Whedon’s work. There were also those which looked at Whedon himself, with one such talk examining at how fans (and indeed anti-fans) react to his own politics and charity work.

There was so much on offer to take in, and as much as I can only congratulate the organisers for the entire weekend, I cannot blame those who chose not to attend every session, particularly those directly before or after their own presentations. While it was impossible to attend every single panel due to them running parallel with each other, all those I did attend were fascinating, although perhaps last thing on a second full day wasn’t the best time slot for an examination of Buddhist philosophical concepts about self/no self regardless of any relation to Dollhouse? It’s fair to say that wasn’t when my mind was at its sharpest, but then I highly doubt I would have understood it all anyway. Perhaps at least this way I have a reasonable excuse?

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Dinner and a show…

Luckily the first day was followed by an evening meal which, presumably like other conferences, allowed the attendees to continue meeting new people and continue many discussions. There was also a raffle in which a number of text books were given away as prizes, of which I myself was a lucky winner, and now that my brain has been given a rest I can actually sit down and read. There was also a handing out of lyric sheets for the Buffy Sing-a-long, although I have been lead to believe this is not a standard occurrence at other conferences. As I mentioned before, the rest of academia has my sympathies.

In fact the only downside to such an evening was following a group who were walking back to what myself and one of many newly made friends originally thought was where we were staying, but who turn into the car park of a B&B and say good night. I can only thank them for not minding us tagging along in the first place, add London to the list of cities in which I’ve gotten lost, and figure that hey, part of the reason I attended Slayage was to learn, right? And what better way to learn than from your mistakes?

But whilst I wholeheartedly endorse this type of behaviour (by which I mean the merriment, although getting lost can have its merits), it is important to note that the conference wasn’t one to shy away from the more serious topics either.

Several presenters at Slayage raised many valid points which often came to the same conclusion about how Buffy, and pop-culture in general, help frame society’s values. One talk focused on how ideas of/reactions to abortion and sterility have been represented in the Whedon’s works, and the now infamous attempted rape scene in “Seeing Red” was mentioned several times in relation to notions of ‘masculinity’, as well as actual audience reactions to the very real world concepts of consent and abusive relationships. These also lead to discussions as to why other attempted rapes (as seen in “The Pack”), and telefantastical rape analogies (“Tabula Rasa”) were often overlooked. Ideas which were summed up expertly at one of the last talks of the entire conference, in which “The Wish” in particular was examined in terms of upholding and continuing the trend of victim blaming.

Likewise, two other talks as part of the same panel were the start of an audience debate in terms of attitudes towards of the deaths of women of colour. Although each talk was looking at the death of a particular slayer as examinations of the vampires who kill them rather than the slayers themselves, the point was rightly raised that at the very least in terms of how arguments are phrased, more awareness needs to be highlighted in terms of both gender (slayers are always female), and race (Kendra and Nikki are both black).

Discussions such as these raised the quality of Slayage as not only are they those which have to be had, but despite the obvious passion with which people were making their argument, they were also done so professionally and in a constructive manner. “Xander’s a dick!” is another point which was brought up with regards to a central male character who is often considered to be the heart of Buffy‘s Scooby Gang (see “Primeval”/”Restless” in particular), but whose other actions throughout the series also include slut-shaming the female lead.

That’s not to say that the entire conference was dominated by such seriousness, as analysis of the varying ways post-coital “morning after” scenes depict specific relationships elicited the giggles you can’t help but expect from such a topic. This is to say nothing of the way in which a room of fully grown academics reacted to the image of Anya eating chocolate whilst unashamedly staring at Spike’s masculine (à la Bruce Lee) body. More than this though, the friendly nature of the conference as a whole meant that presentations were given in a relaxed and even jovial atmosphere.

All of which added up to something one of the earliest professors of my BA once said; subjects like Film and TV aren’t easier than any other, we just have more fun while we’re studying them. Something I can attest to personally as I thoroughly enjoyed my own studies, and attended Slayage having still followed the work of the WSA throughout the four years since I was last within academia. Going back to study for a PhD is also something I have always considered as a possibility for the future.

Despite being hectic at times, and with far more to take in (not to mention write down by hand) than anything else I’ve experienced in such a long time, Slayage has left me with that bittersweet feeling of being sad that it is now over and I have to go on living in the real world once more (apparently it’s the hardest thing), but also glad at having experienced something which, either despite or because of current events, chose to “live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be”.

So.

What am I gonna do now?

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Gerry And-A-Son Have A Great Weekend

Rather appropriately for a weekend which celebrated new life and resurrection, with the release of not one but three new series, this Easter saw something of a comeback for Gerry Anderson. Unlike his resurgence in the early nineties which came courtesy of his classics being given repeat broadcasts (Space Precinct notwithstanding), this years is more impressive for the fact that the series being released are all original(ish) productions, and that this is all happening posthumously.

Jamie and Gerry Anderson

Gerry Anderson, with son Jamie

Having been diagnosed with dementia in the form of Alzheimer’s disease, Anderson sadly passed away on Boxing Day 2012. Never one for retirement however, he continued to create and develop new ideas for as long as he was physically and mentally able, even dictating them to others after the ability to read and write had left him.

The last project he was working on was also the first to have been released, when last Thursday saw Black Horizon become available to the general public. With plenty of notes and outlines left behind, Gerry’s younger son Jamie Anderson recruited the services of author M.G. Harris and brought Gemini Force One to the attention of crowdfunding site Kickstarter; the result of which was raising over £33,000 to bring this this new idea to life.

Black Horizon

From the co-creator of Thunderbirds….

Looking at the fantastical concept of Thunderbirds, Anderson delved deeper into the idea of how such a rescue organisation could conceivably be created and operate. These range from basic ideas that include bland uniforms specifically designed to blend in to any situation, to their secret underwater base (Gemini Force One itself) being hidden from view by revolutionary lightbending technology.

The release of Black Horizon, the first in a planned trilogy of novels, is also something that I personally have a number of connections with. Firstly, as one of the 614 backers, I can say that I helped GF1 became the reality it is today; something confirmed by the fact that my name is printed in black and white in the book itself.

Having received my kickstarter copy of the book last year, I was also able to write a review for it at WhatCulture before its general release. As I guess is often the case when you write a favourable piece about something people have spent so much time and energy on, both Jamie and M.G. shared my review on social media. Gratifying enough on its own, but the fact that this review is also being quoted on the book’s page at Amazon is something that I have to admit I’m also rather chuffed with. (The review itself, along with a more in-depth description of GF1 can be found here.)

In the week since its release, extra deleted chapters have also been made available, and can be downloaded from the official website, geminiforce1.com.

The second, and much more anticipated release, was Thunderbirds Are Go, a new TV series which combines traditional model making techniques with computer generated characters. Although obviously based on the most famous series created by Anderson (alongside his then wife Sylvia), this incarnation is a joint production between ITV Studios, Pukeko Pictures, and Weta Workshops. Officially announced by Gerry Anderson himself back in 2011, just how much he was involved in the production of the series is hard to say; presumably very little but, unlike the 2004 Hollywood effort, we can be assured that Thunderbirds Are Go at least had his blessing.

Thunderbirds are still going!

Thunderbirds are still going!

Jamie has also been involved of sorts, acting again as Anderson’s successor/figurehead when doing interviews to promote the series. These have included The One Show, but perhaps the most interesting was on Sky News where the interviewer that seemed to imply the series was created solely to make use of tax loopholes.

Rather than sing its praises indiscriminately however, he has been promoting it in terms of celebrating its classic origins, allowing the new footage to speak for itself. One way in which he did make his opinions about the new series well-known however, was by writing a piece published by the Telegraph, about how CGI can never replace strings.

Although Jamie may be siding with those of earlier generations, it has to be said that Anderson Sr. himself wasn’t dismissive of the CGI revolution’s ability to update his series’ visuals, as the last to be produced before his death, 2005’s New Captain Scarlet, was produced in full CGI “Hypermarionation”.

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How I summed up my trepidation

Eagerly scouring pictures and information that was released in the run up to the show’s broadcast, it was with great curiosity that I watched Reggie Yates’ preview documentary Thunderbirds Are Go: No Strings Attached. Despite the reassurance of not just the names of those involved (from actor David Graham returning to the role of Parker, and a script by David Baddiel), but the passion of those involved, my fears about CGI and modernisation weren’t quenched.

So it was that not having been convinced by the clips of what I had seen, but still with an open mind, I sat down and watched the pilot episode, “Ring Of Fire.” CGI aside, the main changes have come from the show’s narrative, the most obvious being the fact that dad Jeff Tracy is now missing. Several allusions are made to a mysterious crash in which he disappeared, explaining his absence but also adding a sense of mystery that will presumably be a recurring arc over the run of the series. ‘Tin Tin’ has also been given a more prominent role, as well as the new name of Kayo, presumably so as not to upset anyone associated with the latest adventures of Herge’s finest, given her now more involved and adventurous role.

And in the end, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. It is hardly perfect as the CGI and practical models don’t always mesh well, particularly during the heavy action sequences, and it is not something that will ever replace (although I highly doubt this was the intention) or surpass (you’d have to ask them) the original series. That said, it was something which appealed to me as both someone who cannot help but pick apart and analyse TV, and as a fan of Anderson’s previous work. Of all the things that they did get right, luckily the iconic Thunderbird lauch sequences, complete with bending trees, was one of them, and brought the biggest smile to my face.

TERRA0102_deadlydeparted_1417Following on from these was also the release of a new Terrahawks box set from Big Finish, a series of 8 audio episodes, one of which can be downloaded for free. Admittedly a series of which I initially knew less than Big Finish itself (a company established to continue Doctor Who after the original TV was cancelled, and which has since expanded to produce material for other sci-fi series including Stargate and Blake’s 7).

Something obviously aimed at an existing audience rather than a new one, the medium of audio adventures seems something at odds with the rest of Anderson’s back catalogue, given that his name has become synonymous with brightly coloured vehicles and giant explosions. Whilst even the written word of Gemini Force One can describe the detailed visuals, audio Terrahawks doesn’t actually seem that out-of-place, and is probably the most suited to this new (for Anderson) medium. Populated by characters with caricatured accents, these new adventures make the most of what audio has to offer; the sound of spring like motions rather than footsteps is a great way to establish the robotic nature of the series, and never has the idea of a room being so silent been so cleverly (and funnily) portrayed). The fact that Jamie was involved in terms of both writing and directing episodes also adds the desired amount of authenticity.

Despite the vastly different media, and varying degrees of publicity, all three of the latest Gerry Anderson projects may not have been met with universal praise (I guess you can’t please everybody), but at least with a favourable response that bodes well for the fact this is still just the beginning.

Black Horizon is the first in a trilogy, Thunderbirds Are Go has already been confirmed for a second season, and the current Terrahawks box set is merely volume 1. Add to this that there is even more on the way (Jamie’s latest kickstarter project, Firestorm, was funded back in November), stand by for action indeed!!!

Where’s My Minority Sports Report?

Whilst watching the wheelchair rugby final of the Invictus Games, it occurred to me that in this current media climate dominated by violent headlines of war and beheadings, it is the sport also known as “Murderball” that can be the most uplifting thing shown on TV. Allow me to explain:

Mention the 2014 World Cup, and for most it would be the men’s football championship that springs to mind. This is despite the fact that England spectacularly fulfilled everyone’s expectations of mediocrity, whereas the women’s national rugby team romped to glory in a 21-9 victory in the final. World Champions, and yet the media decided that the men who could only achieve one draw deserved more screen time. Consider that it is also the second time England have won the women’s rugby world cup, and 1966 somehow seems even more distant than it did before.

Waterman and the IRB women's World Cup © West Somerset Free Press

Nolli Waterman and the WRWC trophy.    © West Somerset Free Press

In fact I have to admit that this is something that I myself would have remained largely unaware of, were it not for the fact that we both grew up in the same town and shared several classes at school with England international Danielle “Nolli” Waterman.

Considering she and her team-mates were representing the entire nation, it is nothing but a shame that their accomplishments received more space on the front page of our local broadsheet, The West Somerset Free Press, than from a large portion, if not all, of the national newspapers.

Print media aside, coverage of the women’s rugby team fared much better on television. Not only has Nolli featured on the Clare Balding Show, but earlier today she also appeared with team-mates Maggie Alphonsi and Heather Fisher on Sky Sports’ Game Changers, a sporty Saturday morning kids show.

Great coverage they no doubt deserved, but that which again, I was only made aware of through Nolli’s own advertising on twitter. In addition these were also both on dedicated pay to view sports channels, of which BT Sport is still up and coming, and seems to advertise to non-subscribers predominantly through their coverage of, you guessed it, men’s football.

To be fair, it has to be said that sport isn’t my main passion, and not something I would normally seek out in terms of media coverage. Obviously there are those who do, and will no doubt have been made aware of the Rugby world cup long before myself and those others who rely only on more general media coverage. Whilst it can certainly be argued that the media is only a reflection of what the mainstream audience want to see, I would instead argue that it is in fact a vicious cycle: the mainstream audience often cannot want to see what it has not been made aware of by the media.

Just as London 2012 and the Women’s Rugby world cup has shown, there is nothing like getting behind athletes representing your nation at international events to get the adrenaline pumping, and interest growing.

Something which can also be said of disability sport. The BBC’s coverage of the 2008 Paralympics was limited to the red button, and four years later it was outbid by another broadcaster. Whilst it cannot be said that Channel 4’s coverage of the games at both London and Sochi were severely lacking in any way, it also cannot be said that their legacy goes much further than The Last Leg.

A Glasgow 2014 opening ceremony tent getting more air time than disability sport.

A Glasgow 2014 opening ceremony tent getting more air time than the games themselves.

A satirical news programme which, despite originating from the 2012 Paralympic Games, still concerns itself more with whether its twitter followers considered the 2014 Commonwealth Games to be either #notshit or #abitshit, than the fact that it is the only major competition in which able-bodied and disabled sports are competed side by side.

Whilst this fact was mentioned, even a show in which three presenters have only four legs between them still seems to cater to, rather than educate, a largely unaware audience. Meanwhile disability sport has continued to be played throughout the past two years as it always has done, even if it is still doing so in the background.

Not to say that male footballers aren’t skilled athletes, but the amount of coverage they receive also gives them an unfair advantage off, as well as on the pitch. Whilst players for the England women’s rugby team are only just now becoming paid professional athletes, sportsmen who have been receiving large paycheques for their entire careers somehow still feel the need to supplement these with advertising deals. Not to begrudge them these opportunities, but it makes you wonder if their World Cup experience would have turned out differently had the England goalkeeper, Joe Hart, not spent his run up to the competition appearing in no less than three separate television commercials.

The broadcasting of women’s and disability sport is far from adequate, and I would say that it is Wheelchair Rugby that can help bridge the gap that needs to be crossed.

GB's Kylie Grimes in action

GB’s Kylie Grimes in action.

Wheelchair Rugby is perhaps the only sport that has something for everyone. It is a full contact sport in terms of wheelchairs crashing into each other, and the fact that these chairs/battering rams act as a barrier between player contact means that the contact can often be more aggressive than its grass pitch counterpart.

Not only are there rules and classifications ensuring that those on the pitch are of mixed (dis)abilities, but while predominantly played by men, it is also a mixed sport in which both male and female players compete with and against each other, side by side.

In addition, like any disability sport, the athletes have already achieved so much before even entering the pitch. To me, sport is all about personal achievement; I enjoy archery because it is one of those sports where it doesn’t matter how many others are on the shooting line with me, I am always competing against myself. By overcoming obstacles many of us would have trouble imagining, pushing themselves to higher and higher standards is nothing new to those who participate in Murderball.

More than any this though, wheelchair rugby is generally just as thrilling as team sports get. Take a look for yourself, and see what even €100million can’t buy:

It’s now the 21st Century, and surely it’s time for decent coverage of sports that don’t deserve their description of “minority”. The advent of Sky Sports’ Sportswomen show last year was a great step forward, as is Game Changers introducing the younger generation to sports in all it forms, but one in which other broadcasters and newspapers need to not only follow, but also expand upon.

Thankfully things are also changing for the better in terms of disabled athletes. Last year at the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year awards, Hannah Cockroft became the first wheelchair athlete to be nominated outside of the Paralympics, a far cry from 2000 when Tanni Grey-Thompson was unable to accept her trophy due to the stage not having the most basic of disable access.

Surely it’s only deserving that the women’s England Rugby team be given the Team Of The Year award at this years ceremony in December, something which could, and indeed should, be the latest chapter of greater coverage of even greater sports.

Into The Dark?

"Into The Dalek"

“Into The Dalek”

Of all the recent Doctor Who episodes, “Into The Dalek” is one that I personally want to see the most, perhaps even more than 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” itself. Rather than the anticipation that has been built up around current episodes, the War Doctor, regeneration, etc, “Into The Dalek” instead has me curious.

Last week was the broadcast of “Deep Breath”, the first full episode to feature Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor. Like many (make that all) fans I had been looking forward to this as I was eager to see exactly how Capaldi would portray the Doctor. Even though we have all now seen this portrayal however, there is still the fact that we don’t know who Capaldi’s Doctor is.

Although well read audiences are used to the idea of regeneration and several actors all playing the same character, a new Doctor is still something that takes getting used to. Many fans, particularly those new to the series, will also need convincing that this new character is the same one they know and love. As such “Deep Breath” follows a similar template to “The Christmas Invasion” and “The Eleventh Hour”, the first appearances of the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors respectively.

Whilst fending off an alien invasion these are episodes which see a companion trying to figure out who this new/same man is. Throughout the run of the series it has always been the companion who is the point of view character, through whose eyes the audience discovers time and space. In this situation they are more important than ever, and amnesia or not, the failure of the 1996 TV-movie is often blamed on introducing two incarnations of the Doctor before his companion.

For those post-regeneration episodes of the revived series however, we first get to see the comical but crude side of the Doctor. Capaldi comparing Strax to the seven dwarves is no different from Matt Smith telling Amelia Pond to fry something because she’s Scottish. It may be harsh, but it’s that funny element of being alien and not quite understanding that is the initial reassurance that there is nothing to worry about. So far, so very Doctor.

"Basically, run!"

“Basically, run!”

Throughout the episode the companion is puzzled by the Doctor saving the Earth by asking seemingly ridiculous questions, but come the end of his investigation he will save the day through his ‘I am the Doctor’ moment. David Tennant called the Sycorax’s blood control bluff and pressed their big red button for them, and Smith stared down the Atraxi with his history of saving the Earth. Capaldi on the other hand …. didn’t.

The confirmation phone call from Number 11 wasn’t for Clara’s benefit, it was for ours.

In interviews and previews leading up to Capaldi’s episodes, one word which was often used was “dark”, and here we are given a Doctor who may, or may not, have pushed a (half) man to his death. Regardless of whether it was push or jump, it is hardly the first time the Doctor has had to oversee the death of the antagonist, but here he does so with a look of almost indifference.

Dark indeed, and something which harks back to the days of Sylvester McCoy (apparently) destroying Skaro and committing Dalek genocide. It came at the point in the show’s history that script editor Andrew Cartmel wanted to add some more mystery to the character after years of accumulated drip-fed information. Twenty-plus series after the question had first been asked by Ian and Barbara, “Doctor Who?” had essentially become “the Doctor’s life story”.

The question...

The question…

And after the broadcast of “The Time of the Doctor”, this was exactly where we found ourselves again. Not only have we had revelations regarding the Time War, an element that Russell T. Davies used to renew the character and wanted to leave untouched, but along with Smith’s tenure, “The Time of the Doctor” also saw the end of the question.

This time it was quite literal in fact, as it was even used diegetically within the show itself; “on the Fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked — a question that must never ever be answered”. To be fair it wasn’t exactly answered properly, but it did at least give a substantial conclusion to an arc that had run throughout Smith’s entire portrayal, if not the series as a whole.

And so now we find ourselves ready to continue/renew the adventures of a character we have known for 50 years. After the climax of “Deep Breath”, we are eagerly awaiting the next appearance of a Doctor who has every indication of being as dark as it gets, and it doesn’t get much darker than when facing the Daleks.

Throughout years of mystery, answers, and revelations, we are once again asking ourselves that central question which brings us back to our television sets Saturday night, after Saturday night: Doctor Who?

Review: The Name of The Doctor (spoilers and theories not optional)

The season 7 finale contained revelations that audiences were not expecting.

The season 7 finale contained revelations that audiences were (probably) not expecting.

So begins what is perhaps the longest wait for television fans across the globe. Forget Locutus of Borg’s cliffhanger, that was so twenty years ago (twenty-three to be exact, scary how long ago The Next Generation was, but hey, it’s held up remarkably well).

But let’s take a step back for a minute, and first take a look back at how we got to this point. Series 7 started back last autumn, with the final five outings for the Amy and Rory. With casting often hard to keep secret in this day and age, there was no surprise that they would be leaving, and the announcement that Jenna-Louise Coleman would be replacing them was made before episode one was broadcast. Episode one, better known as Asylum of the Daleks to you and me, didn’t disappoint, as it featured Daleks new and old aplenty (even the special weapons Dalek if you squinted hard enough), a nice reference to the shows history where Daleks who had survived his defeats were kept in intensive care, and Jenna-Louise Coleman popped up as well.

Clara boards the TARDIS earlier than expected?, they’ve kept that hidden from us, well done BBC. Nope, wait. She’s a Dalek. And now she’s dead. Touche Steven Moffat, touche!

This rather unexpected turn of events was kept on the back burner while we enjoyed Amy and Rory’s three penultimate outings before their eventual leaving the TARDIS in The Angels Take Manhattan. A teary affair for many in which, for her final act of onscreen heroism, Amy finally redeems herself by choosing Rory over the Doctor, no going backsies.

Well, narratively anyway, considering whatever was stopping the Doctor from returning was localised only to New York, and both Ponds got rather experienced at travelling across the States in Day of the Moon, but as fun as they were, I can’t argue with the fact their particular stories had been told.

Next came the mid-season Christmas special, and another appearance from Jenna-Lousie Coleman. With the Ponds well and truly departed, it seemed we weren’t going to get any classic series style juxtaposition of companions from different parts of time and space (well, 21st century Britain at least). But we did get Clara back, at least for a while, before she too left us with the mystery of what exactly is going on here?

It has to be said however, Clara’s second death left us with a better beginning for the part two opener The Bells of Saint John. As much as I would have loved a companion that wasn’t from the 21st century (even if she was still from London), the (re)introduction of modern Clara added more mystery to the character that would keep us guessing through the rest of the series, than continuing from where The Snowmen would have left off, would have done.

And whilst I enjoyed the rest of the series, I have to say not as much as I was expecting. Considering it has been eighteen months since the end of season six, you’d think there would have been more time to polish it up a bit. Yes I know they’ve been busy planning for the show 50th in November, but surely the extra effort could have been spread throughout the whole year of the anniversary, not just the day itself. What with writing the BBC’s celebratory drama An Adventure in Space and Time, you’d think that Gatiss could have settled for just the one Doctor Who episode, but instead wrote both Cold War, and The Crimson Horror. Likewise new to Who writer Neil Cross who penned both The Rings of Akhaten and Hide. Protests as to the lack of female writers aside, it has to be said that one benefit the 13 episode seasons have over twentysomething American shows is the extra time they have to get the details right, something negated by having twice as many scripts to complete. The big let downs that got to us though, were the fact that the episodes were given a sense of epic proportions that they just didn’t have.

With such a great title, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS seemed like it could have been so much more than just running through lots of corridors, and for a Neil Gaiman episode, Nightmare in Silver didn’t seem that nightmarish, but was perhaps aimed more at children scared of being abducted by newer and sleeker cybermen in the middle of the night.

Not that the second half was all bad, there were some interesting stories and great actors, not least in the aformentioned Hide. A genre twisting ghost story which, in true Doctor Who colours, was actually about something else all along, and featured a remarkable performance from Dougray Scott as a charming yet shy ghost hunter. Richard E. Grant, as always, is another great addition to the cast.

Where the series shined though, was in Saturday’s final episode, The Name of the Doctor. With a titillating title that had fans everywhere speculating, it was one that didn’t let down on the hype, and was the best Moffat season finale since he took responsibility for them (perhaps in part due to the fact that it hasn’t been an alternate timeline that gets wiped afterwards anyway). Minor quibbles would be left aside (we haven’t quite known Clara long enough for what seems like such a major part throughout the Doctor’s history) right from the beginning of the episode, and indeed the series, starting as we did on “Gallifrey a very long time ago”. Clara telling William Hartnell himself that he’s making a mistake by stealing the TARDIS was one of the two boldest moves made by the show since it’s return, the second coming right at the end with that introduction.

Perhaps the biggest troll to fans everywhere, but also the biggest relief for many who were dreading the loss of mystery, the Doctor told both Clara and the audience at home that “my name, my real name, that is not the point”. More than just the revelation however, there were also some nice little details, what could have easily been reminiscent of Malkovich Malkovich, the Doctor being inside his own timestream which contained shadowy graves in the background was a nice touch.

doctor

Introducing the omninous figure who apparently both is, and isn’t quite the Doctor, show runner Steven Moffat has here made a brave move that unlike his previous “alliance” storyline of every alien race ever joining forces, has to evoke the same sense of awe and anticipation from Doctor Who fans of all ages, new and old fans alike.

Even if you didn’t recognise that deep rich voice declaring that “what I did, I did without choice”, let alone know of his upcoming appearance in the 50th anniversary special, whether your jaw dropped due to the arrival of John Hurt as either actor or character (or both), it was nothing less than spectacular, and will ensure that the internet chat rooms and forums will be bursting with theories and ideas for the next six months.

And so we await the 50th anniversary with perhaps more questions than answers. Although we discovered the answer to Clara’s being impossible, her story can be far from over (I’m still waiting to find out who the woman in the shop was). More than this however, just who is John Hurt??

Adding to his list of iconic science fiction moments that go do in history, he is credited by the BBC as playing the Doctor, despite Matt Smiths insistence that he is isn’t, even though they are both in a place where “there’s only me here, that’s the point”. Only the Doctor, “the one who broke the promise”, and Clara as well actually, but that could be looking too much into it.

So who exactly is he? Fans have already been keen to point several things seen (or not) throughout the episode that may or may not be important. Firsty, despite being referenced previously in the series, Paul McGann’s eighth Doctor was missing from the clips of his past incarnations, although his only on-screen appearance is still stuck in a sticky web of joint ownership with FOX. The fact that Hurt’s costume bears a resemblance to McGann’s newer image for his latest audio releases has also been mentioned.

Was the naming of the Valeyard just something to put an extra smile on the face of classic fans, or was it introducing an older concept that newer fans will need to be aware of in the future? Or is he something new altogether, a missing incarnation made possible by the fact we’ve never actually seen a McGann/Eccleston regeneration??

Over the past several years modern television has come to embrace longer and longer and longer story arcs, something which has made Doctor Who perhaps the last bastion of what is an icon of science fiction and fantastical television, “To Be Continued…”

Taking it to whole new levels however, with no-planets or galaxies in need of rescue, no one on the brink of death, but with the history of a character loved by generations about to be re-written on the eve of his 50th birthday, “To Be Continued … November 23rd” is perhaps the cruelest trick ever to be played on TV audiences, past, present, and probably even future…

john hurt as

Doctor Who’s 50th is severed of Nine.

Following on somewhat from my last post (don’t worry if you haven’t read it, but you can find it here if you want to), allow me to discuss the latest announcement for Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary, and why it’s not actually that much of a big deal. Since my last post, the BBC have announced that:

“Chris [Eccleston] met with Steven Moffat a couple of times to talk about Steven’s plans for the Doctor Who 50th anniversary episode. After careful thought, Chris decided not to be in the episode. He wishes the team all the best.”

Christopher Eccleston won't be returning to portray the Ninth Doctor again.

Christopher Eccleston won’t be returning to portray the Ninth Doctor again.

The main reason this isn’t a big deal, it has to be said, is that it’s hardly surprising. Since his departure Christopher Eccleston hasn’t always had the best of things to say about those he worked with (even though most have now also moved on), and like any actor taking any role, to him Doctor Who was just a job. The most high profile and prolific perhaps, but even enthusiastic fandom can’t compete with his statement that “it’s more important to be your own man than be successful”. 

More than this however, Eccleston didn’t quite achieve the popularity of his immediate successor David Tennant, who will be returning, therefore placating the majority who provide the over-enthusiasm in the first place.

Without knowing the story of the forthcoming anniversary, it has to be said that despite Tom Baker’s decision to not take part in the 20th anniversary special, “The Five Doctors” suffered mainly from the producers’ use of old unbroadcast footage. Explained elsewhere as being caught in the Time Vortex, the lack of the Doctor and Romana appearing throughout the main narrative actually helped the four remaining Doctors and their companions to get a more even share of the congested screentime. Unlike Tom Baker however, Eccleston’s relationship with Doctor Who is somewhat unique.

Whilst I’m young enough to have to rely on the judgement of history to assess all the previous Doctors’ careers, it would seem as though many have since been typecast, their names synonymous with the Doctor. While David Tennant and Matt Smith haven’t had enough time to carve out careers of their own, Worzel Gummidge and All Creatures Great and Small may still be recognisable names to a certain degree, but even without the revival would hardly be fighting for the spotlight. I’m also sure that many of the younger generation who saw Sylvester McCoy’s appearance in The Hobbit films will now be wanting to see his portrayal of the Doctor (and this is nothing but a good thing).

At least to those of us who didn’t grow up with Doctor Who the first time round, Eccleston, and to a certain degree Eighth Doctor Paul McGann, has a somewhat unique relationship to Doctor Who, in that typecasting doesn’t necessarily apply, and not just because of limited screen time.

Eccleston has appeared in a variety of films, and has gone from being directed by the likes of David Cronenberg in eXistenZ, and Danny Boyle in 28 Days Later, to starring in Gone in 60 Seconds alongside Nicolas Cage, and even this summer’s Marvel offering of Thor: The Dark World. And this is not to mention his TV work, from the regional Our Friends in the North to the international Heroes, with even an episode of The League of Gentlemen somewhere in between.

Although perhaps not as recognisable abroad (not even as the Doctor) McGann has supplemented his roles in films like Withnail and I and Alien3 by consistently making guest appearances in TV shows such as HornblowerJonathan Creek, and more recently, Ripper Street.

Although it’s fair to say that Eccleston’s single series as the Doctor also played a part in his not being typecast, it’s more to do with its content, rather than short length. Despite achieving the great leap forward of bringing Doctor Who back to our screens, it also took a few steps back in terms of creativity. Pilot episode ‘Rose’ made the right choice of not confusing an uninitiated audience with concepts such as regeneration, which was one mistake made by the US co-produced one-off special starring McGann, but season 1 as a whole began its new slate by simultaneously changing, ignoring, and following on from what made Classic-Who a classic.

After being ignored by, and leaving the white Rose, Mickey (Noel Clarke) later married the also black Martha (Freema Agyeman)

After being ignored by, and leaving Rose, Mickey (Noel Clarke) later married Martha (Freema Agyeman)

Although it did tread new ground with the development of Rose and the Doctor/Companion relationship, this was still just extending the footprints already started by the Doctor and Ace back in the 80’s.

Like Ace, Rose was a London teenager with little direction in life, but with the courage to stand by and protect those she cared about (apart from her boyfriend Mickey at least, but TV’s view of miscegenation is best saved for another post).

Also unlike other companions who left their previous lives to have countless adventures, the Doctor formed a closer bond with both Ace and Rose, and often took them to times and places which left little separation between their former, and current adventurous lives. Just as Rose kept flitting between some of time and space, and contemporary Britain, Ace held her baby mother in her arms, and was taken to a stately home back in the days before she had burned it down.

This is not to say the concept of a new Doctor having just committed genocide in order to end the last great time war wasn’t new, but again carried on from McCoy’s darker portrayal of the Doctor. Indeed, it fit so well, that many seemed to believe the BBC had selectively forgotten about McGann’s incarnation, and that it could just as easily have been McCoy’s seventh Doctor who had (supposedly) destroyed both the Time Lords and the Daleks, considering he showed no hesitation in destroying the Dalek home planet of Skaro in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’.

Perhaps the biggest change brought about however, was its structure. At least partly to appeal more to international markets (by following US conventions), Doctor Who left the four 25 minute episode serials behind, and adopted the series structure of thirteen 45 minute episodes. Despite a greater number of individual stories, Bad Wolf and the “Adherents of the Repeated meme” notwithstanding, Eccleston’s season 1 offered surprisingly little variety.

Meeting Charles Dickens was the furthest we saw the Ninth doctor go back in time.

Meeting Charles Dickens was the furthest we saw the Ninth doctor go back in time.

All of the 13 episodes took place either on or in orbit of the Earth, and all but one of those set in the past or present took place in British Capitals. Episodes such as ‘Dalek’ and ‘Father’s Day’ proved that the show still had what it takes to be top quality drama, but the series overall suffered for being too cautious with what makes Doctor WhoDoctor Who: “adventures in time and space”. 

Had Ecclestone given Doctor Who more continuity by not departing at the end of season 1, surely it would be remembered as less of an individual step of the show’s constant evolution. Although every new show has to find it’s place, you only have to compare most pilots with the rest of their series to figure this one out, it seems a shame that New-Who did so with more of a safe crawl, leaving it to season 2 to properly find it’s rightful footsteps amongst the universe. 

As exciting as it would have been to see the Ninth Doctor gracing Television screens again, it seems that with a level head Eccleston has chosen to leave his individual chapter of Doctor Who‘s 50 year history as it is, and at least won’t be returning just for the sake of it. 

Steven Moffat has already stated that the anniversary “has got some serious fanboy-pleasing going on in it“, which to my mind sounds reminiscent of the ‘so too good to be true I’m afraid it’s actually ridiculous’ alliance of “The Pandorica Opens”, which was one of those ideas that sounds great on paper, but doesn’t necessarily work on screen.

All in all, season 1 of New-Who, the only time Eccleston is seen on-screen as the ninth Doctor, is something of an anomaly; hardly something to be embarrassed about, but at the same time something that is perhaps not indispensable either, and I doubt the 50th anniversary will suffer too much from Eccleston’s absence. 

Who had a busy weekend(?)

As much as I’ve been busy over the bank holiday weekend, my diary seems nothing compared to that of the Doctor’s. Not content with spreading his schedule throughout time and space, this weekend just gone has been something of a bumper celebration for Doctor Who, past, present and future.

Let’s go through this in a wibbly wobbly timey wimey fashion, and start with what fans had been waiting for; the long awaited beginning/continuation of the new season, and the (re)introduction of Clara/Oswin/Oswald, in an episode that did not disappoint.

'The Bells of Saint John' properly introduced Jenna-Louise Coleman's third (?) character.

‘The Bells of Saint John’ properly introduced Jenna-Louise Coleman’s third (?) character.

Although perhaps a bit too similar to season 4’s opener Partners In Crime (evil business woman leads evil corporation as a front to alien manipulation of contemporary London)The Bells of Saint John was all that you could want in a contemporary-set Who episode; an exciting episode full of danger, one liners, surprise twists, and gave fans more questions than answers (does the Doctor himself not wonder who the “woman in the shop” is?). the end result was only the start of what promises to be a great rest of the season.

Rather than simply review the episode however, (I’d only be quoting the best bits and spoil it for you, so I’ll just say head over to iplayer and watch it here), I’m instead going to talk about how I watched it.

For the first time in too long, I watched this particular episode of Doctor Who amongst a group of friends, all of whom were as equally  as I was. This hasn’t happened since my first stint at uni, and even then possibly not in as big a group as this. Not only do you get to share in the suspense and the laughter with others, but Moffat seems to write new-Who in a way that just can’t be watched on its own. Each of us picked up on a variety of the myriad of details, and were desperate to share our thoughts, theories and questions once it had finished.

This is how I now want to watch all of Doctor Who.

Going back earlier that day however, before people arrived and I had only the internet to share my thoughts with, there was a cast announcement for November’s forthcoming 50th anniversary special. David Tennant fans everywhere delighted at the news he would be back, but speculated as to who he would be playing; regular, or meta Doctor. Billie Piper fans were also delighted at her return, although it’s fair to say a number of Who fans in general weren’t. A group in which I have to say that I am included.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought Piper was fine in her portrayal of Rose, who was also a fantastic character. Admittedly I still haven’t decided whether her stringing Mickey along was worse than Amy’s trying to sleep with the Doctor the night before her wedding (actually, Amy’s decision was worse, Rose was just naive), but my problem is with her return, not Piper or Rose.

Doomsday, the finale of season 2 was a landmark episode. Catherine Tate aside, it not only introduced modern Torchwood, but featured the Daleks and Cybermen in a Monster vs Monster battle that Aliens and Predators could only dream of, and also a companion’s leaving that beats all others hands down in terms of emotional farewells.

Modern companions often  have more in common with Ace than is generally acknowledged

Modern companions often have more in common with Ace than is generally realised.

Following on from Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred’s Ace, those who travel with the Doctor in New-Who have generally been more than just companions, each having a specific relationship with the Doctor, and experiencing a personal journey as much as an intergalactic one. It is because of this relationship that, worse than Adric dying without ever knowing if he was right, Rose was abandoned, forced to live without the Doctor, and knowing how he felt about her. He was never even able to finish his sentence. As I said, an emotional farewell.

A farewell that was ruined two years later in season 4, by the only possible thing that could ruin the emotional moment of knowing they’ll never see each other again: them seeing each other again. Needless to say, I’m hoping Billie Piper’s 50th return is more The End Of Time than Journey’s End.

One piece of casting that cheered me up immensely after this news however, was that the 50th anniversary would also star British acting legend himself, John Hurt. Like Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, and David Warner who will appear later on in this current season, Hurt is the latest in a line of veteran (no, I don’t just mean old) actors to grace the show with not just their presence and reputation, but also immense talent. No stranger to sci-fi, having previously appeared in the scene in Alien, V for Vendetta, and everything in between, the association of Hurt’s name with Doctor Who is even more exciting than that of Peter Jackson’s, and most fans seem to be in agreement that no one more fitting could have been cast in the shows 50th anniversary.

Cut again to some time later, and the internet was ablast with snippets of a photographic nature. First came two pics of Tennant and Matt Smith (and the tip of a Dalek Gunstick?) together at the scripts read through, and once those had gone viral, the BBC also tweeted an image of a 21st century Zygon, complete with #DoctoWho50th hashtag.

But while fans are eagerly awaiting for November’s celebrations to grace their screens, showrunner Steven Moffat is no doubt waiting for September, and the announcement of who has won the prestigious Hugo Awards. Celebrating the best in last years sci-fi & fantasy, and with a shortlist of just five TV episodes in the running for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category, three of last years episodes, Asylum of the Daleks, The Angels take Manhattan, and The Snowmen, have been nominated.

Jeff Murdock was a constant source of comedic theories and phrases in 'Coupling'

Richard Coyle’s Jeff constantly had the best lines in Moffat’s earlier ‘Coupling’

Yes, not only is he celebrating as Doctor Who showrunner, but those three episodes were written by Steven ‘Juggernaut’ Moffat himself as a writer. The writer who ten years ago was entertaining TV viewers with Jeffrey Murdock and the Visual Access Angle, is this year celebrating the fact that his stories alone have earned a total of eleven nominations in only eight years, and is no doubt hoping for his fifth win.

Between writing and helming the 50th anniversary episode, working with John Hurt, and adding “buy bigger display cabinet?” to his to-do list, it would seem that 2013 is already a fantastic year for Doctor Who, and Moffat truly has the key to the gates of paradise, regardless of having too many legs.