Saturday, December 29, 2012

Memories of Who

Catching up on books from the year, and two which are very different, but which are strangely similar, are Behind the Sofa edited by Steve Berry (Troubador), and Turn Left by Andy X Cable (Miwk).

Berry's book was published to raise money for Alzheimers research, and is a very nicely put together hardback tome of memories from a wide selection of people - authors, editors, actors, musicians, politicians ... just about anyone and everyone who has a fondness for Doctor Who can be found within the pages. I have to confess a slight bias as there is a piece from me in there too, alongside writings from Neil Gaiman, Al Murray, Chris Tarrant, Richard Herring, Mark Millar, Konnie Huq, Murray Gold, Roland Rat and Michael Grade!  It's a very comprehensive collection of thoughts and memories of Doctor Who and really establishes that just about everyone has been touched by the programme in some way or another in their lives.

Some of the stories are so familiar, that if you are a fan, then you find fannish comadarie in the tales of Target Books, and being forbidden to watch, of meeting Tom Baker or collecting action figures ... everyone has a shared childhood whether born in the sixties, eighties or even noughties it seems.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Ben Morris, and the whole package is a joy to hold.  If you're at all interested in the memories and love that everyone collectively has for Doctor Who, then please consider buying the title from the publishers' website here: rather than from anywhere else as 100% of the money will then go to the charity rather than some of it ending up in the rather deep pockets of Amazon or wherever.

The other title I have been reviewing is similar in a strange way. Turn Left is subtitled 'An Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who Road Signs' and is penned and illustrated - in biro - by the (probably) pseudonymous Andy X Cable (though he does have his own Facebook page here: It's a strange beast indeed, being the journal of a self-confessed Doctor Who fan, who has the habit of connecting every thing he sees to a reference to something in Doctor Who. Thus this book documents all the road signs he has seen, in the order he saw them, and what memories or themes they cause him to consider as a result. We get stories about Doctor Who where the story titles are incorrectly spelt or muddled, characters and actors are confused with real people, and monologues about how he got to the road, or something about his life which relates to the sign, or to Doctor Who or all three.

'Andy X Cable' is portrayed as a disfunctional young man, short of friends and devoted to his mother who looks after him as best she can. Many attendees of Doctor Who conventions may recognise elements of 'Andy' in some of their fellow fans, and the stereotype of a fan/nerd popularised (in my mind at least) by the 'Milky Milky' man, Mr Strange, played by Hugh Dennis in The Mary Whitehouse Experience, is the classic depiction of this sort of insular people-challenged individual.

But below the stereotype is a keen satire, and reading through the book, and sniggering at Andy's poor grammar and torturous descriptions, we find revealed to us a man who is often misunderstood, who has no real friends, and who uses Doctor Who as a crutch to help him through real life. As the text progresses, so the entries start to explore more of his world, and then, with crushing impact, Andy's Mum dies, and there is nothing for two months. The entries following this are full of sadness and lashing out at the world, until a friend finally comes into his life in the form of Celia. The book ends with a somewhat upbeat outlook for Andy ... he finally has someone in his life that he can share his passion with ...

It's a difficult read, admittedly, mainly because of the stream of consciousness style of writing, but also because 'Andy' is someone we have all met at some point in our lives. Were we nice to him? Or did we laugh at him? On a personal level, I have always tried to be kind. I remember one mother, who always accompanied her son to Doctor Who events, explaining to me that he looked forward to the events so much that they envigorated him and gave him something to reach for, that they made him feel included in a community, and that he never would go out otherwise. That, for me, is the magic of Doctor Who - in bringing together people of all ages, races, colours, creeds and abilities. To make a person feel included, where their circumstances of life has dealt them cards of exclusion and prejudice. It's what the Doctor teaches - to look beyond the superficial and to embrace the dreams and aspirations of everyone.

Turn Left is an interesting book. Partly a funny and often tangental look at Doctor Who, and partly a social commentary. Well worth a look. It's published by Miwk, a relatively new publisher of all things Cult, so please check out this book, and the others on their catalogue. (

Friday, December 28, 2012

Doctor Who: The Snowmen

It's Christmas, and these days it means a special Christmas episode of Doctor Who ... something for the family to sit and watch on Christmas Day, and hopefully which entertains and thrills the audience.  This year's event was called 'The Snowmen', and I guess like others I inwardly groaned: why does every Christmas episode have to take place at Christmas ... and have snow ... and Victorians ... it's all so cliched and tired. But maybe this year a rabbit can be pulled from the hat ... maybe ...

Apart from needing to present a Christmas romp, Steven Moffat this year had the added problem of needing to introduce a new companion ... a young lady by the name of Clara. But things are never quite so simple in the world of current Doctor Who, and even having a companion who can travel with the Doctor and just have adventures is beyond them. The characters have to have backstories, and be insanely cute and quirky, and even, as seems to be the current theme, to be the whole focus and mainspring of the show ...

We kick off with some snowflakes with snarling mouths in them (quite what the point of this was is not explained ... what do individual snowflakes actually eat?) and a boy, Walter, in a garden with a Snowman who talks to him ... creepy and good to kick off. It's 1842 ... and 50 years later (1892) the boy - now a man - is collecting snow and adding it to a large ball-like globe in his living room. This is Dr Simeon (Richard E Grant) and he is still talking to the thing in the globe, who now has the voice of Sir Ian McKellen.

We now meet Clara, waitress at the Rose and Crown pub (with noted emphasis on 'Rose' in the opening shot of the pub sign). A Snowman appears from nowhere and she meets the Doctor who seems sullen and disinterested. But for a Victorian, Clara is a thoroughly modern miss, and very forward too ... she chats up the Doctor and follows him, jumping on his carriage and cheekily asking 'Doctor who?'

Crash to the titles, and these are a new set which I liked very much. I wish the music could have been more reflective of the past - it was a little simplistic for me - but the visuals were lovely, reflecting space and time and alien and human and all sorts ... a really good update.

But things are now starting to get somewhat confusing. As well as the Doctor, Clara and Dr Simeon, we have Latimer and his two children ... a governess drowned in a frozen pond and left there for weeks ... and now we have Madame Vastra and her wife Jenny, as well as Strax, a Sontaran ... it's all getting crowded, and to be honest I have no idea why Vastra, Jenny and Strax were there. Or why the Doctor was there in that time period. There's a nice comedy piece between the Doctor and Strax and a memory worm (a mcguffin if ever I saw one) which is all very twee and plot-convenient for later, but why is the worm hidden under the carriage?

Clara continues her cute stalking of the Doctor and we find that the TARDIS is hidden on top a cloud up a vast spiral staircase. This is all very 'Narnia' and magical, but again, I ask why? Why not just make the TARDIS invisible? And having followed him all the way up, and knocking on the door, she runs away! This didn't ring true - she has been shown as a forward and direct lady, and this was out of character.

Clara now decides to stop being a barmaid and instead to return to Latimer as a Governess - Miss Montague ... the poor kids have been having nightmares and only she can help as Latimer is too distant. Oh, and it's Christmas eve (sigh).

Having found out about the bad dreams, Clara goes to try and find the Doctor again, only to bump into Jenny and end up playing a stupid word game with Vastra ... as infuriating as it is pointless. One word responses ... do me a favour. And of course Clara passes with flying colours with the word 'Pond'. Oh dear. It really is Rose all over again isn't it. The Doctor all moody and sulking ... *backstory* and angst. Oh for simple adventures.

But with this one word, the Doctor decides to start investigating by visiting Dr Simeon and pretending to be Sherlock Holmes (a fictional character). The thing in the ball says 'We are the Intelligence', and we have already seen flashes of the business card with 'Great Intelligence' on (and GI on the cab door and gates of Simeon's manor house) so there's no real surprise to learn that what is unfolding is the backstory for the Great Intelligence, a malignant entity which the Doctor encountered twice in his second incarnation - 'The Abominable Snowmen' and 'The Web of Fear' (and which some fans theorise might also be the Animus from the first Doctor story 'The Web Planet'). The Doctor surmises that this thing is a mimic which mirrors what it finds. That it needs to become more human and so needs a duplicate of human DNA in ice form ... and then the Doctor vanishes in a puff of exposition.

He returns to the house where Clara asks him to come up while she comforts the kids ... but instead the ice-governess attacks, having emerged from the frozen pond. Not sure what was 'powering' the ice-governess. It seemed to be the same thing as the Snowmen, which Simeon could control ... so why couldn't he control the governess? Why didn't she simply go with him rather than attacking the kids? Or was it the girl who was controlling it ... not sure.

The Doctor destroys the ice-Governess with his handy sonic screwdriver, but Simeon blows snow into the grounds and she reforms. Vastra, Jenny and Strax arrive and Jenny throws up a convenient force field to stop the icy lady while they all chat. The Doctor and Clara head for the roof to lure the CGI ice-person away from Simeon, and once there, the TARDIS is conveniently located, again up the spiral staircase ...

And then there is the only true 'wow' moment of the episode. Where Clara sees inside the TARDIS, and realises that it's 'smaller on the outside'. The redesign is awesome. Much, much better than the organic look, the blue and white, clean lines, alien stylings are brilliant and really hark back to what the TARDIS actually is. I loved it. And Clara's reactions were also perfect. Spoiled only by the ice-Governess grabbing her and the two of them falling back to Earth. Clara is dead!

But the Doctor won't let her go, and he uses something uncertain to bring her back to life for a time - the purpose of this I'm not sure on though. In Doctor Who, dead usually means dead, and this is the case for Daleks and Zygons as well as Katarina and Adric ... so this is something of a departure for the show.

The Doctor fetches a tin box from the TARDIS and heads off to Simeon's manse to confront him again. The box has a London Underground map on it, circa 1967 - quite why is something of a mystery (except that this is when 'The Web of Fear' was transmitted). It's like Moffat is using something of a sledgehammer approach to point something out about the enemy.

The box, purported to contain pieces of the icy Governess, actually has the memory worm in it (remember that mcguffin?) and it bites Simeon, erasing all his memory. But the Intelligence then takes over Simeon's body - it didn't need the icy DNA at all!

And now comes the worst part of all ... the dying Clara tells Latimer to hug his children and they all cry ... which causes the snow to turn into salt water, and for it to rain salt water all over London ... erm ... okay. And urgh. Sappish and stupid I'm afraid.

Having defeated the Intelligence by it turning to rain, the Doctor races back to Clara's side before she dies, and she echoes words which Oswin (played by the same actress) uttered in the 'Asylum of the Daleks' story ... and then she dies.

Later, at her graveside, the Doctor claims not to remember the Great Intelligence ... but he sees Clara's name on her gravestone 'Clara Oswin Oswold' - she is the same girl ... and he has to find out what is going on. He has to find Clara again ... And as we flash forward, the same girl is in the same graveyard at some point in the future ...

And thus, I expect, the scene is set for the next few episodes. Maybe Clara dies in every one - like Kenny in South Park - which would be a shame as we'd lose any character development. But frankly, after the whole 'Who is River Song' arc which turned out to be a damp squib, I'm bored already with 'Who is Clara'. I actually don't care. I just want adventures in time and space ... and all this arc stuff gets on my wick somewhat. It overcomplicates the stories - which are too short anyway to present anything of any worth - and makes for a headache-inducing watch.

But moreover, what Steven Moffat seems to be doing is cherry picking his continuity. Which is fine ... but don't set something up to be a prequel to other - much better - stories, and then ignore all the continuity points along the way. 'The Abominable Snowmen' adventure was set in 1935 in Tibet, and the Intelligence had control of Padmasambhava and was using him to create robot Yeti to terrorise the populace and drive them away so that a bridgehead could be opened to allow the Intelligence full access to the Earth. But Padmasambhava had been controlled for 200 years - so since around 1735! It's as though Moffat was unaware of this story at all. Then 'Web of Fear' was a lovely sequel, said to be set around 40 years after 'The Abominable Snowmen' - so 1975 - but which other available evidence places in 1967 (see the Telos published book: 'Timelink' for details of dating) - in which the Intelligence was again trying to gain control of the Earth, via the London Underground system. All this seems to sit nicely with this tale, but there's so much that could have been done here. It would have been lovely to have brought back Jamie McCrimmon rather than Vastra, Jenny and Strax (who in our house at least were all unknown and unremembered and left us confused), as a nod to the past - a grown-up Jamie, at odds with his own past, who needs redemption from the Doctor, while remembering the battles with the Intelligence (which the Doctor has forgotten) and thus being able to assist. Why weren't the Snowmen more like the Yeti - with silver control spheres? So many possibilities, and yet what we got seemed to be the poorest option of them all. Maybe it's to do with the time available, that it's just not long enough to tell a proper story.

Overall I liked the adventure. 'The Snowmen' had much to commend it. But it was also lacking in so many ways. Overcomplicated in some areas, and painfully simplistic and 'mcguffin' driven in others. The cast were excellent, and I really like Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara - she is very easy on the eye and has a nice sparky approach to the character. Though I wish they'd dropped the kissing scene. Richard E Grant didn't do much more than glower, and having Sir Ian McKellen as the voice of the Intelligence was a nice touch. The interplay between the Doctor and Strax was amusing, but I found Vastra and Jenny just tiresome.

Let's hope that the forthcoming episodes present more adventures in time and space and less angst.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Presents

I must have been very good this year as Santa brought me a fine selection of Doctor Who goodies for Christmas this year ... here's a little round-up.


From Danilo comes this little pocket diary which has a TARDIS design on the front. This is simple, yet effective.  Inside it's a page per week, with little space to pen in those vital appointments and aide memoires. As always with Diaries and Calendars, I've never understood why they don't include notable Doctor Who dates ... here, even November 23 is not marked as the 50th anniversary. It's nicely designed though with little Daleks and Cybermen ... a shame that the TARDIS interior on the front and back endpapers is the now out of date one ... 6/10


Another generic Danilo production and probably the most disappointing item. Nothing special about it at all. Generic photographs of monsters and companions (Amy has now left, Cybermen are changing etc) and no imagination or thought put into it at all. 1/10


Two graphic novel collections from Panini.  The Crimson Hand is the third collection of tenth Doctor strips from Doctor Who Magazine, and features new companion Majenta Pryce. What's nice about these books is the factual matter around the creation of the strips, with comments from writers and artists as to their development. Leaving aside that it steals its title from the last of Telos' Time Hunter Novellas (Child of Time), the second volume is the first collection of eleventh Doctor strips from the Magazine. For me, the comic strips have never held that much fascination, and so I'm not intimately familiar with the content. Some of the art is patchy, and some of the storylines go off into realms of fantasy ... but I understand that this element of the Magazine has its fans ... 7/10


What a strange book. It's penned by Justin Richards as though written by the Doctor, and is a narrative explaining a number of terms in 'Doctory' speak. There's lots of photographs, and lots of material here, but it all feels tired and a little desperate - what book can we do this year to use lots of photographs? I'm sure they sell well, but I can't see the point. I've always believed that you should not talk down to your audience, and yet this is what the Penguin/BBC Children's Books do all the time (there's a clue in the publishers I guess). 4/10


This is more like it. Another Penguin/BBC Children's Book, but this time we have some imagination and fun, as in proper Where's Wally style (or Where's Waldo for my American chums) we have a number of double-page spreads of detailed artwork, and the challenge to spot the Doctor, Amy, Rory and the TARDIS as well as all manner of other items. It's brilliantly done, and one can spend some time working through the drawings to appreciate the thought that has gone into it. It's a companion book to Where's The Doctor which came out last year, and it works very well indeed. 8/10


I can't remember the last time I actually got a Doctor Who Annual for Christmas!  Usually I buy it in the January Sales ... this time the book is published by the ubiquitous Penguin/BBC Children's Books and is edited and written by Jason Loborik who previously had a hand in the Battles in Time magazine, and who is also credited as editor on The Official Doctionary... this is all part of the problem ... it's the same people, over and over writing and editing these books ... so the dearth of ideas and approach, and the whole generic 'safeness' of it all saddens me. The Annual is very bland. There's lots of generic pictures, stuff about last year's season - which now seems very old ... nothing about the 2012 adventures or what we are currently seeing ... and nothing reflecting that 2013 is the 50th anniversary. Such a shame and something of a wasted opportunity. 4/10

The Merchandise Treadmill

Not had the luxury of time to blog much of late ... but Christmas Hols are now here, and so I have the luxury of some time to catch up and post stuff!

I've been trying to keep up with all the Doctor Who merchandise which is being released, but strangely it seems that while there's a lot of items coming out, you just can't buy them anywhere. In the good old days, Woolworths could be relied on to have the new stocks of toys, and just about every branch of every high street clothing chain from John Lewis to Tesco and Peacocks had Doctor Who clothing of all persuasions, but now there's nothing to be found in any of them - not even solitary pair of underpants!  And the toys ... even our local Toys R Us and Smythes don't seem to stock any of the new items. It seems that the only way to get anything is to order it online, which is great I suppose for the specialist shops who offer mail order, but I wonder whether this is enough to achieve the sales needed to make some of these ranges viable at all ... and when the big chains like Tesco or Asda or Sainsbury's don't stock any of the new toys, you have to wonder if the appeal is slipping somewhat.

A few years back, you could buy just about any item you can name with David Tennant's face on, but with Matt Smith there's next to nothing.

The reasons for this have been widely discussed and theorised on, and I have no special insights to offer. But it does seem that Doctor Who has slipped in the public perception once more. Add to this some strange decisions by the BBC/BBC Worldwide which mean that toys can never be available in shops at the same time that the episodes actually air. Then there's the security paranoia at anyone finding out what the new monsters and so on look like. All this leads to a marketing approach which shoots the whole range in the foot. Releasing items beforehand or while a film is on release doesn't seem to worry film franchises which have the toys, games and books on sale before the film is even released (see, for example, The Hobbit, where the toys and everything have been in the shops a good month before the release of the film). The BBC/BBC Worldwide don't seem to understand that getting the toys in the shops before transmission is a good way of raising interest and enthusiasm for the show itself, and that rather than 'spoiling' it, to be able to see and own a figure of some cool new monster you have yet to see on-screen helps to increase enthusiasm.

There's also the issue that what the show is currently presenting doesn't easily lend itself to promotion and marketing as figures and so on. The show's 50th Anniversary Calendar is a supremely disappointing affair, featuring PR shots of Matt Smith and companions, but all from the 2011 series, presumably as the BBC were unwilling or unable to release anything from the show which might be relevant for 2013, or, horror of horrors, to actually celebrate 50 years of the show.

So we end up with endless Doctor, Amy, River Song and Spaceman images and toy figures as that's all there is ... Nothing interesting or original ... such a shame ...

And then there's new items like Cleric Guns and the like which were never even seen in the series ... shouldn't be an issue, but these are high-end items designed to operate with the iPhone owning generation ... but you don't see them for sale anywhere and they cost a fortune to buy, and the company won't provide any review samples for people to look at ... it's all a recipe for disaster I think.  Even going back to the annual Toy Fairs, where prospective buyers are asked to place advance orders for ranges of Doctor Who toys which they're not actually allowed to see or know anything about ... madness.

We've just seen the new Christmas episode 'The Snowmen' and I'm wondering what merchandise opportunities might exist there ... figures: Doctor (again), Clara, Mme Vastra, Jenny and Strax the Sontaran (with gauntlet and memory worm accessories). Then there's snowmen (which were pretty rubbish), a see-through Governess, and Richard E Grant ... not very much really, and nothing which excites me as a fan and collector. I want to wax lyrical about this episode in another post though ... so I'll leave it there.

Someone else made the point that all the great 'classic' merchandise had brilliant artwork and imagination about it ... wheras all the stuff these days is supremely generic and 'branded' into the ground, leeching any originality from it. This is such a shame, and certainly for my part, I'd rather see original artwork covers by talented artists, than any number of generic photoshopped images of the same stock photos (no matter how talented the digital manipulation artists are - and some of them are geniuses!)