Friday, November 15, 2013

Doctor W... Woah!

This isn’t going to make any sense to anyone who doesn’t follow my favourite TV show, Doctor Who, so if that’s you, you should probably stop reading now. It is, as I said, my favourite show, but I try not to obsess about it. I don’t have a TV (and in any case I’m in Germany, and by the way, the actor they got to dub Matt Smith’s voice sounds nothing like Matt Smith), but rather than move heaven and earth to see episodes as they go out or search for illegally-uploaded full episodes (which are usually not full episodes, but a screen grab and a description with a link that promises to let me watch it if I let a stranger have my credit card number), I wait until they come out on DVD. That does mean I spend half my time online trying (often unsuccessfully) to avoid spoilers, but this is one of those rare times when I’m fully caught up, so I’m in a self-indulgent mood.

There’s a lot of buzz and speculation about the upcoming 50th anniversary special, which we now know will feature Matt Smith, David Tenant... and a previously unknown incarnation played by — oh my gosh! — John Hurt.

Now it seems that, a week before the big day (and the episode cleverly called The Day of the Doctor — see what they did there?), Steven Moffat has either just let the cat out of the bag in a big way, or has given us one almighty red herring. But let’s just back up a bit, back to the RTD era and the 2005 revival.

One of the important things about the 2005 revival was that it was a revival and not a reboot; it was a continuation of the series, but didn’t pick up where it left off. The last time we saw the Doctor on screen (aside from the occasional parody and the little-known but quite wonderful animated adventure Scream of the Shalka, featuring an alternate 9th Doctor) was in the 1996 made-for-TV movie that failed to start a new series, in which he was played by Paul McGann. In 2005 we met an apparently newly-regenerated 9th Doctor played by Christopher Eccleston (in Rose, he sees himself in a mirror and complains about his ears). We never saw the regeneration, though.

But the Doctor was very different from the last time we saw him. The 8th Doctor was a romantic hero: the 9th was battle-weary, and suffering from survival guilt. We learned that he had been in a war, the Time War, which had destroyed both the Daleks and the Time Lords, and that he was one of the very few survivors. And we learned that somehow he was responsible for the double genocide.

Davies probably didn’t have a long-term plan in mind. The reason we never saw the regeneration was because it was one of the mistakes of the 1996 movie: new audiences we left cold when the character they had just got to know inexplicably changed partway through. The reason for the destruction of Gallifrey was to bring back some of the loneliness to the Doctor’s character, which had been lost as the classic series had gone all soap-opera-y. The reason for his mental battle scars was to re-introduce some danger to the character, make him more ambiguous and unpredictable, as he was way back in 1963 when he kidnapped Ian and Barbara and spent much of the next few months trying to engineer their deaths.

My theory is that Davies unwittingly gave Moffat a nice, big hole to explore in what we know of the Doctor: a regeneration and a war we didn’t see. But more than that: a lot of other unexplained things as well. In Doomsday, for example, the Doctor tells the Cult of Skaro that he survived the Time War by fighting on the front line, before taunting the Cult for having run away; later, in Journey’s End, the Doctor talks about being unable to save Davros.

These stories were penned, remember, by Davies. Moffat didn’t come up with the idea of the Doctor as a mighty warrior: he expanded on it. In A Good Man Goes to War, the Doctor’s warrior instincts resurface, but it takes a severe dressing-down by River Song for him to see it. If, like me, you were slightly uncomfortable with the way the Doctor casually blows up a load of ships just to get the Cybermen’s attention, the explanation for his actions is clearly in his as-yet-untold past.

The thing is, this grates a little. The image of the Doctor, any incarnation of the Doctor, fighting in a war and single-handedly wiping out two civilizations, is preposterous. This, remember, is the same man who, in Genesis of the Daleks, refuses, when he has the chance, to prevent the creation of the Daleks from ever happening, agonising over whether he has the right. What brought about this change?

So there was a vast, untold story, and a space within which to tell that story, and the 50th anniversary special coming up. How could Moffat have resisted?

So in The Name of the Doctor, now clearly the first installment of a trilogy (more on that later), we get a shocking reveal. There is an aspect of the Doctor we have never seen before. To refresh your memory: Clara has thrown herself into the Doctor’s timestream to undo the damage done by the Great Intelligence. Here’s the scene:

More recently, Moffat has said — in one of his infuriatingly cryptic statements — that we have been “lied to” all this time. As River Song says, rule number one is that the Doctor lies. There’s something lurking in the Doctor’s past that we haven’t been told about.

Speculation, obviously, went wild, and theories as to what part John Hurt is actually playing were rife. The 11th Doctor explains that this strange, shadowy figure looking out over the graves at Trenzalore is him, but not “the Doctor”. Yet on screen, Hurt is credited as the Doctor. Intriguing; but since the actual name of the Doctor is still shrouded in secrecy, perhaps there was no other way to describe the character to us. It turns out that the episode was called The Name of the Doctor not because we find out what his name is (although we were led to believe that’s what would happen, leaving us worried that it would turn out to be Keith), but because we find out the significance, to a Time Lord, of choosing his own moniker.

Then we got the first proper trailers for The Day of the Doctor:

This, the second trailer, begins with the 11th Doctor explaining that there is one life he has tried to forget. But what really set bloggers’ keyboards rattling was Hurt’s costume: he is clearly wearing the 9th Doctor’s leather jacket. And underneath it, something that looks like something the 8th Doctor would wear.

A favourite theory at this point was that Hurt was playing a sort of transitional Doctor, perhaps something like the Watcher (between his fourth and fifth incarnations) or the Valeyard (between his 12th and 13th incarnations). It was logical to assume, then, that if Hurt’s character was some sort of mixture of two Doctors, his clothes would reflect that. Moffat has since said he didn’t think the costume was supposed to be that, but while rule number one may not exactly be that Moffat always lies, it is certainly true that Moffat is very devious with the truth. He’s the writer, so may not have had any say in Hurt’s costume. That doesn’t mean the wardrobe didn’t read the script and come up with an appropriate costume for it.

Intriguingly, the BBC also released this short clip, which has a surprising detail:

Just behind the Doctor’s left shoulder, as we see his reaction to the unveiling of the painting, there is a woman wearing the fourth Doctor’s scarf — or something remarkably like it. Significant detail, red herring or just a nod to the series’ past? (I suspect the episode might just have little references to past Doctors and that there’s no more significance to it than simply that.)

But then the BBC released a 6-minute mini-episode on YouTube, entitled The Night of the Doctor, obviously the second part of a trilogy beginning with The Name... and concluding (I would imagine) with The Day... If you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to watch it before reading the rest of this article:

Woah! Not the Doctor we were expecting.

There’s a lot here to please fans. First of all, it features the 8th Doctor. This, after constant denials by writer and actor that McGann would be taking part in the anniversary special. Those denials were the truth and nothing but the truth, they just weren’t the whole truth: not the special itself, but its prequel. And then there’s the way the Doctor recites a list of names as he is about to drink the elixir: although he was only on screen for one story, he had a pretty good run in the semi-official Big Finish audio adventures, and those are the names of the companions he had in those adventures. Die-hard Who fans everywhere could be heard cheering as Moffat, in two seconds flat, brings the highly-regarded audio plays into the official canon.

But unless this is Moffat’s most devious piece of misdirection ever (a possibility that cannot be completely ruled out), we can probably forget any theories involving “the War Doctor” (as he is here credited) as some sort of not-quite-real version of the Doctor. It’s very clear: the 8th Doctor regenerates, not into the 9th Doctor as we had all assumed, but into a man who was the same Time Lord but, as his first words in the voice of John Hurt make clear, “Doctor no more”.

Unless I have got this very wrong, the man who normally calls himself “the Doctor” regenerates, and temporarily gives up that title and with it its attendant promise (to... never kill in cold blood?) in order to play his part in the Time War, fighting as a warrior to save the universe, but at a terrible cost. Later, when he regenerates again, he resumes the title and becomes the 9th Doctor, even though he is the 10th incarnation of that particular Time Lord. He retains the battered old leather jacket until his next regeneration, and the battered old jury-rigged TARDIS until the regeneration after that, which perhaps Moffat is interpreting as a metaphor for his slowly leaving this shameful incarnation behind, even though — as with A Good Man Goes to War — it inevitably never quite goes away again. And now he has to directly confront, and admit to, this past.

But we’re left with a new problem. Traditionally, a Time Lord can regenerate twelve times. And now we discover that the 11th Doctor is in fact the 12th incarnation of [insert unknown name here], which means that the 12th Doctor (who we now know is to be played by Peter Capaldi) ought to be the last, worrying fans everywhere. And yet Moffat, in another typically infuriating interview, has said that yes, the 12-regeneration limit stays, but that yes, Doctor Who will continue... and that we should all re-watch our DVD collections because there’s something we’ve missed.

Well, River Song did give the Doctor all her remaining regenerations, but that’s too obvious. The Master did manage to cheat, but only by stealing a body, in one of the more grisly ideas to come from the Tom Baker days. Fans were left wildly counting on their fingers: there isn’t a war on, but is it possible that we miscounted? It didn’t help that Peter Davison, on the same subject, cryptically said that Moffat had laid the groundwork, and then shut up.

Well, I’m looking forward to seeing how that’s going to work out, but it’s a few years down the line. One thing that intrigues me, though, is that in The Night of the Doctor, the Doctor actually dies, but is then brought back to life by the Sisterhood of Karn in what is not (initially) a regeneration, but a resurrection. Does this perhaps reset his regeneration count?

Friday, November 8, 2013

The inevitable march to middle-age decline

At the age of 43¾, little things continually remind me that youth is now but a fond memory and the relentless march of time is delivering me, unresisting, into the arms of old age. As youthful as my looks still are, bits of me are starting to creak, fail and wrinkle.

Right now, it’s my eyes that are giving me grief. In recent months I’ve had the increasing tendency to take my glasses off to read, and over the last week or two I’ve been straining my eyes just working at the computer. Which means that I am about to join the legions of the Varifocal Brigade, that breed of humanity that has to tip their heads back to read posters.

Still, this morning’s bus driver did his best to cheer me up by addressing me as “young man”, which didn’t cheer me up as much as he’d probably hoped because I was left with the nagging feeling that the fact he called me “young” at all was because he thought I would appreciate it: in other words, that I looked old.

Hoping for a sudden miracle which never came, I trudged my gloomy way into the optician’s, which just happens to have a special offer on varifocals at the moment. “That’s quite fortunate,” I explained to the optician. “I think I’m going to need varifocals.”

“Oh, good,” replied the optician. Not really the answer I was looking for, but at least he wasn’t rubbing his hands as he said it.

This optician was nothing if not thorough. Normally, if, when asked to read the bottom line, I start with, “Well... H, I think... A, or maybe R... Squiggle...” the optician will stop me and adjust something. This man was probably as sadistic as it’s possible for an optician to get, as he made me read to the end of the line. “Good!” he said, as I finally slumped back in a cold sweat. I felt like a schoolchild who was making small but significant breakthroughs in learning to read.

Later, with me wearing those sci-fi superspecs they use to find the right prescription, he gave me a card with texts printed at different sizes, pointed to one paragraph (“This is the standard size for the fine print on contracts...”) and asked me to read it out. Well, he’d got the prescription right, so I rattled through the first couple of sentences and thought he’d stop me. Surely it was obvious I was seeing it pin-sharp?

Nope. This is a man who loves the sound of people reading out loud, apparently. It was a long paragraph, and I actually got bored reading it.

He also gave the Dagger of Potential Mid-Life Crisis an extra gratuitous twist when, having asked me if was taking any medication for diabetes, announced: “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you a very personal question. How old are you?”

Here’s a tip for anyone whose job entails asking adults how old they are: the correct way is to ask normally and then, when the answer comes, to look surprised and say, “Gosh, you’re looking good on it, I would never have guessed!”

I was handed over to a nice lady from the sales team who helped me choose a frame and who, at one point, went all apologetic and said, “I’m terribly sorry, but I’m afraid I have to ask how old you are.”

She asked me if I didn’t want a really “chic” frame, which is German for “something that can be seen a mile off”. It’s not just me: one of the things foreigners often tell me they notice first about Germans is their unshakable belief that spectacles are the perfect showcase for avant-garde fashion. I politely explained that, being British, I have a slightly different idea of the aesthetics of eyeware and preferred something more discreet.

Now, as I said, this optician’s is currently having a special offer on varifocals; but I was perfectly well aware that what you get for the price written in huge digits on the posters (preceeded by the tiny word “from”) is a pair of glasses that looks ugly, fits only one person in the entire world (and it isn’t you) and is only of any use if you promise never to work at a computer. A pair that will actually help you see is going to cost so much, they have to make you sit down before telling you. And so it proved.

We did the business of me promising to come back in two weeks to take away a pair of glasses and them promising to suck vast amounts of money from my bank account, during which she needed my address and phone number. Being the clever, practical sort, I just handed over my business card.

“You teach English!” she exclaimed. “Why, that’s the perfect job for you!”

“How so?”

“Well, you being English and all.”

I am very rarely rendered speechless. But really, what was I supposed to say to that?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Video killed the radio star (sort of)

For a few months, until recently, I was on an English-language radio show broadcast on a small community station in the Oldenburg area. I didn’t get to travel up to Oldenburg: I “phoned in” my pieces live via Skype, and it all worked pretty well.

But the imaginately-named English Show came to an end, only to rise again as a TV show. Still on the same community station, but now on TV instead of radio. The downside is that there will only be one show every two months (at least at first), but that’s okay because it means a lot of extra work for me. I’ll now be filming and editing my reports, and sending them in.

The show is going to be called L!ve from the Schlaues Haus, the “Schlaues Haus” being the name of the building where the studios are. It won’t actually be live, but it will be recorded “as live”, which is just as scary.

You don’t have to be in Oldenburg to see it, as it will also be broadcast on the internet. The dates and times of the first show are as follows:
  • Friday, 15th November, 5 pm
  • Saturday, 16th November, 5 pm
  • Sunday, 17th November, 10 pm
  • Wednesday, 20th November, 7 pm and 11 pm
  • Thursday, 21st November, 7pm and 11 pm.
All times are Central European Time.

A good idea would be to follow me on Twitter, and I’ll try to remind you of the broadcasts nearer the time, assuming I remember myself. But after all the broadcasts are over, I’ll be uploading my pieces to YouTube, but in high definition (so you can see all the mistakes in much better quality).