The Rings Of Akhaten

Credits

It is never a comfortable moment in Star Trek when Uhura starts vigorously strumming her space harp and crooning about the green, glowing skies or Spock’s pointy anatomical idiosyncrasies.

Neither are the noblest bits of Survivors the episodes when Greg Preston, otherwise an exemplar of post-catastrophe competence, picks up his guitar in the manner of a party-twat and actually brings the mood of a shattered planet down even further. God knows, I love Greg as played by Ian McCulloch. He is a man so manly that he is able to wrestle even male pattern baldness into submission by sheer force of will, but this guitar stuff is unacceptable.

Uhura's space harp

Spock and Uhura

There is a musical episode of Buffy, I gather: Once More, With Feeling. People also tell me that Xena and Fringe have done them. I’m not going to dignify this with too much research because, basically, when characters are making a musical noise in a drama with the intention of amusing me I deeply and desperately want them to stop.

These musical films: West Side Story, Singin’ In the Rain, My Fair Lady, Calamity Jane, The Sound Of Music, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I love them. They are brilliant. They are proper musicals. But see if Blake and Avon started a duet, There Is Nothing Like An Auron or something like that, in an episode of Blake’s Seven I would not consider myself to be chuffed.

It’s context dependent, I think.

And yet there is still a rumbling insistence from some quarters that Doctor Who should totally do a musical episode.

No need, say I. Because we already have an abundance of them. There’s the uneasy Abide With Me climax of Gridlock. The Christmas Carol one with the nice opera lady singer. That was one too. Then there was a spell when the musical Oods had a level of ubiquity not seen since the 1977-era Bee Gees. And now finally we have The Rings Of Akhaten in which there is a purgatorial amount of singsong to get through between the opening and closing credits.

The orchestral assault of Murray Gold was a wondrous thing in 2005. A great deal of his subsequent work has been thrilling too. I am particularly a fan of his piece I Am The Doctor which is the de facto theme for Matt Smith’s incumbency. It’s a really insistent, galvanising composition.

Enough is plenty, though. It’s been eight years, and that’s quite a high proportion of the show’s fifty-year span. Nearly a fifth of the time the show has actually been on air.

There already exists a splendid documentary about the evolution of Doctor Who soundtracks called Dance Of The Daleks. It was originally transmitted on BBC Radio 3 in 2010 and was recently reissued as part of the bonus material in the third Lost TV Episodes collection. Narrated by Matthew Sweet it takes us swiftly and educationally through the avant-garde early years, Dudley Simpson’s tenure, the unsurpassable work of the Radiophonic Workshop under Paddy Kingsland and the Art Of Noise-inflected bombast of Keff McCulloch’s incidental music. It’s fascinating.

My point is that the music of Doctor Who has always previously evolved and that doesn’t feel as if it’s happening any more. And the more keening contralto hymns I hear with the composer nudging me heavily and saying “This is the bit where you have some feels” the more arsey and non-compliant I get with the whole business.

Sentimental, manipulative music cues aside I thought there was a lot to take out The Rings Of Akhaten.

The 1981 prelude is, I think, significant. What a great year that was. One of its cultural highlights was the sui generis single Ghost Town by The Specials, though I remember it as the aggrieved instigator of, and soundtrack to, some astonishing summer rioting, rather than the melancholy Autumn scene-setter it is sequestered as here. Another 1981 milestone was the UK cinema release of Raiders Of The Lost Ark or, as the grim re-writers of history would have it Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

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Here is the touchstone. This is manifestly what show runner Steven Moffat and writer Neil Cross are aiming at. It is clear in the BBC poster art. It is clear in Clara’s mother’s maiden name of Ravenwood, in Clara’s marketplace fruit pilfering (“It’s a date. You eat ’em.”) and in the shooty-light, God-bothering climax. Ultimately, whilst hitting the character beats really well, The Rings Of Akhaten lacks Raiders’ kinetic energy and openness of place. This is nothing to do with lack of ambition and everything to do with failures of execution. In a few places the spatial aspects of the story are quite confusing. After two viewings I am still fundamentally puzzled as to how far away from things other things are, and I am surprised at the low level of cinematic literacy on display in some of the transitions. It is hard to believe director Farren Blackburn is to blame for any of this. His work on The Fades was tremendous. It looks more like borked editing.

Ravenwood

It's a date - you eat em

The pre-credits montage provides a startling callback to the 2005 episode Father’s Day in which Pete Tyler is variously run over and not run over causing a diverging of different realities. I actually though it was the same car used again but, from memory, Pete Tyler was menaced by a Vauxhall Chevette whereas Dave Oswald’s vehicular nemesis appears to be a Morris Marina. Is it? Over to you, car nerds.

Speaking as someone who got his driving licence in the eighties I feel it necessary to point out that in fact we drove carefully in those days and very rarely ran over fictional characters’ dads.

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There follows a series of vignettes from young Clara’s life, each featuring the Doctor observing cautiously in the background, and once in the foreground as he is clobbered on the head by a ball kicked by infant Oswald. As funny as it was to see Matt’s Kato-esque response (the Venusian Aikido skills never leave you it seems) the incident asked a question that was left unanswered: In the course of his snooping did the eleventh Doctor cross his own timeline from the Bells Of Saint John Prequel?

We at last learn why present-day Clara was first glimpsed in a graveyard, though no explanation yet as to who her friend was. The cemetery is the resting place of Clara’s mother Ellie who died, aged 44, exactly three weeks before the incidents in Rose, the first episode of the new Doctor Who era. Interesting, but not very interesting.

Date

Jenna-Louise Coleman turns in some beautiful character acting swinging from an angsty wait on her staircase (will the Doctor show up, or not?) to full on over-excitement in the TARDIS. I loved the writing and the playing of the scene where her mind goes blank presented with the whole of time and space, and she can’t decide where she wants to go. Her subsequent querulous indignation at the Doctor’s mention of his grand-daughter (presumably, but by no means certainly, Susan) was a delight to behold too.

The Doctor, at her eventual request, takes her to see something awesome. And whilst I very much enjoyed the ambition of the Disneyland Mos Eisley souk sequence it ultimately felt quite stilted and constricted in the manner of the crowd scenes in The Long Game and several other RTD episodes. This wasn’t helped by the context-jarring appropriation of Douglas Adams’ Hooloovoo (hyper intelligent shades of the colour blue in the Hitch Hiker books), and the TARDIS’s apparent inability to be uniquely unable to translate the speech of Hawkman Rocket Cycle vendor Dor’een.

Once past the minuscule quibbles though this was a fun re-run of The Beast below. New companion averts massive tragedy by displaying a capacity for compassion and self-sacrifice. It’s hard to criticise that in these days of self-will run riot.

For the third episode running the Doctor was not marginalised in his own programme, a tendency that I was beginning to weary of. It was nice to see him get stuck in to actually trying to save the day, though his over-reliance on his sonic screwdriver was a bit pestilential. It’s like Gandalf’s staff or Harry Potter’s wand these days. The unbeatable Top Trumps weapon of mass convenience.

There was a reason the sonic screwdriver got written out of the lore in The Visitation thirty-one years ago, trodden on by a Terileptil I seem to recall. It’s too lazy a plot contrivance. There is a lovely scene in the recent audio release Babblesphere (part of the Destiny Of the Doctor series, warmly recommended) in which neither the fourth Doctor nor Romana have theirs with them, each having left them recharging in the TARDIS on the assumption that the other would have theirs with them.

The only upside to the sonic screwdriver’s inclusion in The Rings Of Akhaten is that it facilitated a bit more Indiana Jones action as the Doctor retrieved it from under a rapidly descending door.

I appreciated the story’s denouement which, despite superficial resemblances to the end of every Christmas episode of recent years, nevertheless had its own character. There is something quite powerful in the notion that the infinity of possibilities ahead of us will trump the finite reservoir of collapsed wave functions behind us. I applaud the quick resolution of the leaf’s significance too.

The relationship between Clara and the Doctor is a warmer, more adult, mutually appreciative one than we have come to expect latterly. This is a good thing. Jenna-Louise has astonishing levels of self-possession, and I continue to be in awe of Matt Smith’s interpretation of the Doctor: half Merlin, half Stan Laurel.I was especially affected by his “Cross my hearts” moment which had Pertwee levels of reassuring conviction.

The Rings Of Akhaten has some extremely vocal and articulate detractors already (The bloody Radio Times, for heaven’s sake) and I can understand why. I am not totally blind to the deficiencies of the episode but I think that the good in it far outweighs the bad. It is easy to mythologise what has gone before, but to the critics I would say this. Go and have another look at Partners In Crime, Planet Of The Ood, Midnight or Curse Of The Black Spot then have another honest look at this. Is it really that much of an affront?

I was surprised that Clara was dropped off back at home at the episode’s conclusion. “Home again, home again, jiggity jig,” says the Doctor, invoking the fairytale/Mother Goose atmosphere once more. Clara feels that something has changed, but this may just be that she has evolved. The Doctor still looks stern, concerned and confused.

I like this.

Next: Ice Warriorssssss.

Venusian Aikido

Venusian Aikido

Disapproving TARDIS

Disapproving TARDIS

It doesn't like me!

It doesn’t like me!

Rings

Alarm clock

The Vigil

Tough crowd

Clara and Ollie

Clara and Ollie 2

It really hurts

Cross my hearts

Angry Birds

Ghost Rider in the sky

Leaf

The Snowmen

Christmas 2012 logo

Face

Titles

For a little woman she casts a long shadow.

In his magisterial comic book sequence The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Alan Moore writes a bold narrative of authentic Darwinian winnowing, allowing his advancing plot and characters to dwindle through wastage over time rather than to proliferate explosively.

At its culmination in Century: 2009 the story has very few of the original Victorian league left. Effectively only Orlando and the immortal Mina Harker remain to combat the twenty-first century antichrist, and they are forced to rely upon a literal deus ex machina in order to prevail. As things look hopelessly, lethally bleak a single new character sails down from the sky to scold the monstrous antagonist.

Deus ex machina

“I’m well famous, actually,” declaims the antichrist in the manner of a dim, self-centred, Jeremy Kyle-inflected youth. “I’m in a book of the BIBLE!”

“Tsk,” says the recently arrived stranger. “Just the one book? I’m on every page. Who did you think you were talking to?”

It’s the God-Poppins basically.

Splish splash

All of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is brilliant, and really it works best if read from the beginning right through, but for any near-horizoned Doctor Who fans with little time to invest Century: 2009 is the one to concentrate on. Look. It has a Hartnell/Smith cameo in a couple of frames and propounds the spiffing notion that Emma Peel (now going by her maiden name) has charge of UNIT and Torchwood.

Doctor Who?

Night, Miss Emma Night

Potterheads and Bond fans will find things to delight them too.

There was a lot of Mary Poppins stuff in this year’s Doctor Who Christmas episode, The Snowmen, though wasn’t there?

Mary Poppins has always had something of Gallifrey about her. In the original P.L. Travers stories written between 1934 and 1988 she is a character of enigmatic origin who blows in without warning and leaves when the wind changes, who carries an umbrella, whose bag is smaller outside than in, and who has fantastical adventures that she then rarely discusses afterwards. If Chancellor Flavia had unbuttoned a bit and absconded in a Type 40 all those centuries ago, isn’t that what she would be like?

The two previous Steven Moffat Doctor Who seasonal episodes have merrily abstracted elements of A Christmas Carol and The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe, and I had previously pondered what he might have planned for 2012. That the Doctor recently appeared to have removed himself from the Universe in a self-erasing huff did lead me to wonder if we were heading towards It’s A Wonderful Life territory, but no. We got a jolly holiday with Mary instead.

Poppins isn’t intrinsically Christmassy but she has, thanks to the easily-scheduled, endearing 1964 Disney film adaptation, assumed a place in the festive hierarchy.

It is clever and funny and wise of Moffat to appropriate Poppins for Whodom. It is a good fit, and gives him an opportunity once more to explore his philosophy that Doctor Who is a programme about the companions rather than about the Time Lord himself. Having said that though, the Doctor is not as drastically sidelined in The Snowmen as he was in some of the Pond episodes thank God. And, whilst there are elements of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert about his portrayal in this episode, Matt Smith’s Doctor never wanders too far from the dramatic centre of gravity.

The biggest big thing though, and there are many big things about The Snowmen, is not the Doctor, it is not the notional villain, and neither is it the ultimately revealed monster (more, joyous self-perpetuating causally-wausally stuff from King Moff). It isn’t even the hootingly funny comedy ensemble of supporting characters.

Nope. It is the loudly proclaimed inauguration of the new companion Clara that is the biggest big thing. For the second time now Clara Oswald Oswin has been introduced to us, has seduced us entirely and has then been unexpectedly killed before our eyes.

What are we to make of this?

Let It Snow

The Snowmen

Clara concerned

Those were the days

Here are my handles… There's my spout

First time round (in Asylum Of The Daleks) we didn’t find out too much about Oswin other than that, for a ship’s entertainment officer, she has a damn fine line in killing a besieging Dalek horde. If that had been the Christmas episode it would doubtless have been seen as Steven Moffat’s tribute to Home Alone. By me anyway.

Second time around, in The Snowmen, there is a clearer depiction of her ambiguous personal duality. As “Clara Oswald” she consorts chirpily with mutton-chop whiskered Cockney types (no chimney sweeps or one-man bands in evidence sadly), whereas as the more demure “Miss Montague” she is the spit-spot governess of two well-to-do kids.

The children are aware of her double life. They get her to use her “secret voice”, and beseech her to tell them more of her stories. Given that we know the one about the man who lives on a cloud is true should we make the same inference about her Big Ben story? Or the one about inventing fish? You wouldn’t put it past her now would you?

What the actual heck is going on with Clara?

Taking steps

Cloudboxing

Knock knock

Who's there

The internet is not short of speculations, ideas and frothy-minded thinks, and many of them are, in fairness, quite persuasive. This galloping, ravening urge to know things in advance though is just the fannish equivalent of shaking and squeezing your presents whilst they are still under the tree. When you reach a certain age you lose that impatience I have found, and it is easier to just enjoy what is in front of you.

I don’t think the Mary Poppins stuff is actually that significant. Steven Moffat is the emperor magpie and takes what he needs from wherever it is. There is the taller-on-the-inside clever staircase, the umbrella, the flying, the kids and so on to give us a handle on Clara, but that is all it is. An efficient contextualising device.

And there are plenty of homages in The Snowmen that have nothing to do with Poppins: There are cheery plunderings from Citizen Kane (a lonely, old snowglobe-owning, rich man never frees himself from the influence of childhood); Les Diaboliques (there’s a body in the pool, or is there?); and even Chandler once again (as Vastra’s interview with Clara echoes Philip Marlowe’s introduction to General Sternwood at the beginning of The Big Sleep).

None of it, I think, signifies anything other than Moffat’s ingenious ability to suggest an atmosphere from a few quick semiotic flourishes. It’s not deep but it is clever.

Vastra

Snowglobe

Matt the master detective

I think I used to go out with her

That's the way to do it

Very naughty

Clara ascending

Cloudboxing 2

Clara confused

New interior

Falling

Grave

Clara contemporary

I like Steven Moffat a lot. In his tenure on Doctor Who he has done very little to pander to the demands of fans (new and old) and, though this seems to have brought him a large amount of personal derision, it has been of immeasurable benefit to the programme.

When he has overseen the return of old enemies (the Autons, the Silurians, the sort of Nimon) he has done it respectfully but imaginatively. Same with the Great Intelligence here in The Snowmen. He does, however, seem to understand quite sensibly that for a programme to thrive for fifty years it is not enough to dwell on past favourites, it has to be constantly innovating. So in Moff’s time alone we have had the introduction of the Dream Lord, Liz Ten, Van Gogh, Churchill, Nixon, Canton Everett Delaware III, the Silence, Prisoner Zero, the Flesh, the Pandorica Alliance and loads more, all of which can be revisited at will any time in the future.

One of the more insistently shrill, fannish exhortations is for there to be some sort of New Who/New Sherlock crossover. Now, ignoring the fact that there has already been the ne plus ultra of Wholock convergence in Robert Holmes’s sublime The Talons Of Weng-Chiang (1977), this is still the stupidest of ideas. You know how good the Alien Versus Predator films aren’t? Well this would be that, but worse.

Wholock

Four and Leela

Impudently Moff has acknowledged the unfeasibility of the idea in The Snowmen whilst, at the same time, executing it. After a pleasing implication that Vastra and Jenny are the progenitors of Conan Doyle’s stories in The Strand magazine Moffat then dresses the Doctor up in the dimmest popular conception of a Sherlock Holmes outfit and has him do a crass deductive pantomime: “Do you have a goldfish called Colin?” “No.” “I thought not!”

I have found it funny each time I’ve seen it, and am delighted that now, at each subsequent Wholock demand, we are allowed to say, “You’ve already had it. There it is in The Snowmen.”

In fact for what could have been a thoroughly grief-drenched affair The Snowmen is pleasingly rich in laughs, and mostly these come from the Blackadder/Baldrick dynamic of The Doctor and Strax. “I’m the clever one. You’re the potato one.” Smith’s comic abilities have never been in doubt, but Dan Starkey’s performance as Strax is a magnificent revelation. Still, I think that sometimes less is more and I am emphatically not one of those clamouring for a thirteen-episode Vastra/Jenny/Strax spin-off. I deeply enjoyed what we got though.

A grenade!

Did I miss the explanation of which of the Doctor’s friends brought Strax back to life, or has that been left intentionally vague? Also I am not quite clear on which not-red-wine drink Vastra was enjoying. Vimto, hopefully.

The rest of the humour derives from Jenna-Louise Coleman’s boisterous, glittering performance as Clara. I haven’t dwelt too much on J-LC because there’s a limit to how much thigh-rubbing, Cosmo Smallpiece mimicking you need from me. Presumably.

Still, though. What a little teapot, eh?

You also don’t need me to tell you how superbly lugubrious Richard E. Grant is as Simeon, or how wonderful Tom Ward is as the lovelorn, Von Trapp-esque Captain Latimer. As chaos unfolds about the latter gentleman, still the only question he can think of to ask is the poignantly rhetorical “You have a gentleman friend?” to Clara. So sweet.

The whole thing looks lush too in the way-more-than-safe pair of hands that is Saul Metzstein. This is some of the most sumptuous TV drama around.

It is a relief to me that ratings and audience satisfaction have been high. I had slight concerns that the subject matter might be a bit savage or a bit opaque for kids, and that the continuity-dependence might have been alienating for the non-nerdish adults.

Once again we seem to have got away with it though. This year we had Christmas Day teatime telly that contained carnivorous telepathic snow, a Silurian detective, a Sontaran valet and a baffling governess who seems to exist across time and space. What did EastEnders have, by contrast? I don’t know. I didn’t watch it. But I am going to guess at adultery and fistfights.

We won.

Coming Soon...

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A Town Called Mercy

 

 

 

In an interesting example of parallel evolution, at about the time Western movies were taking off in America there was a similar genre burgeoning in Germany: bergfilme or mountain films. They were not afforded the time to flourish or to develop any formal complexity or tradition of romanticism because, in the thirties, they fell foul of the Nazi regime’s predilection for censorship.

Ironically enough Hitler did eventually come to admire mountain films and their mythologising of self-reliance but this late conversion merely accelerated the extinction of the genre. The post-war taint of Nazi affiliation was too much to overcome.

One of the finest examples of a bergfilm is Dr. Arnold Fanck’s The Holy Mountain (1926). This tale of two mountaineers both in love with the same woman could be trite enough but, as with Westerns, the desolate nature of the landscape in which the story takes place makes any systematised morality redundant. A new morality emerges which is personal rather than imposed by social conventions, and is all the more interesting for it. If you haven’t seen The Holy Mountain please give it some consideration. It is an amazing film.

The photography is entrancing. The movie was filmed for real in the Alps over a whole year. And the woman at the apex of the love triangle is enchanting too: eerily beautiful, and not emotionally straightforward. She was played by the twenty-four year old Leni Riefenstahl. At the time Riefenstahl was an actress and interpretative dancer but she went on to become a filmmaker of considerable technical virtuosity.

She directed and starred in the peculiarly slanted fairy tale The Blue Light in 1932, but she is principally remembered for her documentaries made for the Third Reich: Triumph Of The Will and Olympia. The repugnant nature of these films’ subject matter inevitably left more of an impression than her directorial skill and in the aftermath of the war she found her reputation permanently tarnished.

Through her life Riefenstahl actively sued for libel anyone who accused her outright of Nazi collaboration. The creative urge behind her most infamous works was, it became widely accepted, aesthetic rather than political. During the seventies there was a partial rehabilitation for her as she photographed the 1972 Olympics in Munich and was feted as a guest of honour at the 1976 Montreal games. And although she lived to the age of 101 (dying in 2002) indefatigably unapologetic and apparently having lived a full and happy life, her name still carries deeply unpleasant associations to anyone of any sensitivity.

If you fly with the crows, you get shot with the crows. And the same happens, I’m afraid, if you step with the geese.

It is hard not to burden her youthful beauty with the emotional freight of everything that came afterwards. It can all make for a very difficult and ethically provocative wank.

But as the tradition of mountain films fizzled out before establishing itself, westerns continued to flourish.

It is possible to see now in the Westerns of the thirties through to the sixties abiding themes of emergent personal moralities. Stagecoach, High Noon, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Naked Spur, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance all show in one way or another and to greater or lesser degrees, what it is like to be an individual with a dilemma, but without societal constraints or the mitigating effect of a civilised environment.

These frontier narratives are about the development of a coherent and tolerable sense of self, and up to this point it makes sense to regard cowboy films or Westerns as a consistent genre.

This ceases to be the case in the sixties I think when the influence of spaghetti westerns, particularly the sordidly beautiful ones of Sergio Leone turn the Western from a philosophically enquiring form into ostentatious theatrics.

This isn’t to say the Leone films and their orbiting satellites are bad or unworthy in any way. They aren’t. They are fucking magnificent. But they are less rooted in personal responsibility and growth, and more excited by the trappings of Grand Guignol, the stating of moral certitude and a rudimentary narrative balancing of accounts.

The choices of emphasis in something like Once Upon A Time In The West for example have more in common with Mario Bava’s Bay Of Blood or Dario Argento’s Deep Red than they do with Shane. In fact Argento even shares a story credit for Once Upon A Time In The West.

There were far fewer Westerns made during the seventies than in previous decades, and many of those that were released seemed less bothered about frontier morality and more concerned with how an individual fits into the wider world whose encompassment has become inescapable. As perhaps you might expect from an anxious superpower still stinging from its disastrous involvement in a land war in Asia.

“Sometimes trouble just follows a man,” says Clint Eastwood during The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), in which he is playing a man who seems fundamentally to want to be left alone but who cannot escape the company of others.

There were still Western stories being told, but more often they were in what seemed to be other genres. Dirty Harry, Chinatown, The Long Goodbye, Alien, The Thing all have the traditional Western ethic at their hearts.

Films of the eighties onwards that looked like Westerns (Silverado, Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven, 3:10 To Yuma) may be terrific films, but they are made by people concerned with the craft of making a cowboy film rather than people with a new thing to say in a Western framework.

This is all a terribly long-winded way of saying that not every Western has people with cowboy hats in it. And not everything with cowboy-hatted people is a Western.

One can see this quite clearly in any Western/fantasy genre mash-up.

At their worst they can be pretty ignoble spectacles, the sci-fi Westerns. The Valley Of Gwangi, Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, Jonah Hex, The Burrowers, Cowboys and Aliens. These all make quite steep demands of the casual viewer. And even the good ones like The Seven Faces of Doctor Lao or Billy the Kid vs. Dracula are principally genre pieces with cowboy clothes on rather than Western movies per se.

Back to the Future Part III for example is a glorious piece of work just quivering with glee, but it would be a brave and heterodox critic indeed who stuck it on a list of the greatest Westerns ever made.

And where does Doctor Who stand in all this? Preserver of the western tradition, sci-fi nonsense in a ten-gallon hat or something else?

Prior to A Town Called Mercy the programme’s only notable dalliance with the genre was the 1966 William Hartnell story The Gunfighters. This is the story in which The Doctor, Dodo and Steven become embroiled in the events leading up to the historic gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

The Gunfighters has had quite a shabby reputation in the cardboard corridors of Doctor Who fandom for as long as I have been watching the show. It does now seem to be going through some process of rehabilitation into society thank goodness, and (partly at least because of the attentive DVD release it got in 2011) it is finally accreting a number of proselytes. Of whom I am one.

It is easy with any telly programme dating back forty-six years to have a bit of a snark at the production values, but this is horribly misguided in the case of The Gunfighters I think. It is a plucky little series. There is just something majestic in the idea that it would be advisable, or even possible to create a four-episode cowboy story entirely within a British studio.

The only other contemporary British Western I can bring to mind is Carry On Cowboy (1965), and even that allowed itself the freedom of some location shooting to alleviate the studio claustrophobia.

Furthermore The Gunfighters is admirable in sticking pretty closely to what, if they aren’t actually the facts, are the accepted movie-truth version of events. It is still part of Doctor Who’s, by then waning, commitment to pure historical stories with no science fiction overtones at all.

Finally, I find its jamming together of broad comedy (Peter Purves in particular absolutely nails it) and brutal, fatal reality to be in every way laudable. Tonal consistency is an ambition for lesser minds. Bring on the creative dissonance, I say.

Toby Whithouse and Saul Metzstein, the writer and director of A Town Called Mercy respectively, both seem aware of The Gunfighters and reference it deliberately several times I think: the use of narration, the confusion between our Doctor and another Doctor (Doc Holliday and Kahler Jex), the Doctor’s becoming a deputised lawman, and the shiftless locals in need of moral authority.

Saul Metzstein’s direction of A Town Called Mercy is simply magnificent. The Almería location may do some of the work for him, but the Leone-esque frame filling is his entirely. Murray Gold’s music helps a great deal too, channelling both Bernstein and Morricone at times whilst maintaining his own musical idiom. Murraycone.

As always though Who stands or falls on its actors and we are in safe hands here. Matt Smith’s comic abilities are beautiful. I could have done without some of the script’s seeming heavy-handedness (leave the bag in, a horse called Susan and so forth) but Smith can pull just about anything off. Getting up after being thrown to the ground. The business with the tooth pick. The alien car alarm. It’s all in Smith’s performance. And he’s becoming great at doing Hartnell-hands as well.

I love his spindliness and his big flat, pink face like a chatty shovel with a hat on. But I love how quickly he can take it down to sinister, solitary menace too.

Toby Whithouse’s script is clever. It is nice to see a conflict in which it is not really clear who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist. And it is rare for so convincing a moral equivalence to be drawn between the Doctor and the, for want of a better word, baddie.

The resolution is smart too, and morally sophisticated. The notion that one inevitably pays for one’s trespasses in some form or another is a mature one. The hope that the people one needs to make amends to will be kind is a beautiful one. More of this on a Saturday night, please.

The companions seem to be very much in the background in A Town Called Mercy. Rory’s input is confined to some funny business acknowledging the tertiary nature of his role in proceedings, and Amy is only really called on towards the end of things when she is required to talk the Doctor down. This is thrilling to watch and is a major step forward in the depiction of Amy and in Karen Gillan’s interpretation of the role.

There is foreboding at the start of the episode when Amy seems to point out that the Doctor suffers when he travels alone. We have been here before. Donna Noble noticed it in Ten’s era and look how that ended up.

The companions also take one more tentative step down the road to ultimate divorce from the Doctor at the end of the episode when they decline to come with him on another adventure. And whilst part of me does sort of want to know what happened to the dogs and chimps that got blasted into space, most of me accepts that this is like Holmes’s giant rat of Sumatra. A thing more exciting to wonder about than to see made specific.

Amy’s reason for not going with the Doctor is that their friends are going to start noticing that they are getting older faster than them. This is a particularly exquisite Toby Whithouse grace note, and he has touched on it before in his 2006 story School Reunion . That was the story in which the actual alien invasion plot was entirely subordinate to the notional subplot: that of Sarah Jane meeting her Doctor for the first time in thirty years. That packed a massive emotional wallop. I am beginning to suspect that the Ponds’ leave-taking may actually be as gruelling as Steven Moffat has been suggesting for some time.

Who does she look like then? And there’s bullet holes in his hat… Visual echoes abound

Moral equivalence

High Something Or Other

A couple of things to mention that don’t really relate to anything else: Firstly, that’s two weeks running that the Doctor has mentioned his Christmas list; secondly, the Henry VIII en suite phone-charger incident, is that before or after the parson’s nose affair?

Before leaving A Town Called Mercy altogether, there is one final parallel to draw between this episode and The Gunfighters: that being the use of narration.

In the latter the narrative voice is Lynda Baron singing Tristram Cary’s Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon. This is slightly overpowering when the programme is watched through in one go but as a weekly contextualiser, which is what the song originally was, it is a witty and effective solution to a tedious problem.

The narrator of A Town Called Mercy is slightly more enigmatic than Lynda Baron. Not appearing as a character, she is finally revealed to be the great-granddaughter of a young girl who is at best ancillary to events. This is puzzling.

Does it make the narrator a contemporary of ours? If so will she become a character, or is this just part of the season’s theme so far of removing the Doctor from the centre of events and making the story about someone else, like Oswin or Brian? We may find out later.

Her early references to “…a man who lived forever but whose eyes were heavy with the weight all he’d seen, a man who fell from the stars…” are cheekily misleading. But the references to America being a land of second chances are peculiarly specific and seem to have their origins in George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address in 2004.

Can this be right? Casting Richard Nixon in a half-light of approbation was one thing, but Dubya? That would be amazing.

Get Josh Brolin’s agent on the phone. Now.

Next week, God help us, it is this. I wear pants now. Pants are cool.

Whither the Blinovitch limitation effect?

My most recent spell of post-romanticism has been characterised by my lying on my couch and staring at the ceiling. Now it’s a nice couch, and it’s a nice ceiling but torpor is just torpor and doesn’t make for much fun writing or reading about.

Also I have lost any ability to write that I might once have had. I mean check out that first paragraph, gangsta. Check it out. Two uses of the word “nice” and a preposition hanging off the end of it. That’s blooming crud that is.

I once read a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs – one of his Pellucidar novels, set in a mythical underground realm – which, even though it was quite short, had an apologetic note from the author as a preface. He was sorry to the reader, in essence, for the amount of scenery and weather he had put in the book.

Any scenery and weather in a book set principally under the Earth’s mantle is probably too much, but I didn’t feel the apology was necessary. Burroughs is Burroughs, and narrative chutzpah carries you through even his lesser work. This is why Edgar Rice Burroughs is a better writer than William S. Burroughs I think. You can read his books.

Sorry about all the weather and scenery here.

So, what am I talking about? The condition of heart-brokenness? Nah. Wouldn’t have a clue. It’s a bit embarrassing. It’s a bit painful. But worse things happen at sea, and anyway that’s suddenly a whole lot more PS3/Blu-ray time on my daily planner, surely.

Well it will be as soon as I’m done with the ceiling-staring.

A long time ago I would have gone off on a prodigious spell of drinking, backed up with a sheaf of self-serving justifications of byzantine complexity. But I don’t do that these days. I’m sure alcohol is still a perfectly charming molecule, and those who like it are right to feel free to enjoy it. It just does not, I concluded some time ago, agree with me.

The last time we had anything to do with each other, me and the booze, it was 2006 and I was absolutely clobbered powerless by it. It’s a funny old thing (in the hideously sad and painful sense of the word funny) is alcohol dependency. Alcoholism – let’s call it what it is. It can reduce you to a decaying, friendless, desiccated wreck, but it still seems like a roaringly good idea when you’re in the midst of it.

Hmm, you (or more pertinently, I) might think. I feel physically wretched, like I am actually going to die. That pain is in my liver. My eyes have the yellow look of very old ivory. I think that thing in the toilet bowl might be my stomach lining. You know what I need? A cheeky breakfast vodka.

Who wouldn’t regard that as something of a wake-up call? Sugar Puffs, milk, orange juice, vodka.

Well, me for one. Millions of other people for two. I had to get help from people who had done the same sort of thing in the past but didn’t do it anymore. I had to learn how to talk about myself (yuck, yuck, yuck) and listen to other people talk about themselves (boooooring). I had to set about clearing the wreckage of my past and minimising the rate at which I gathered new wreckage.

Luckily for me there were good people to help me with that. They weren’t difficult to find either. They are, as Craig Ferguson once put it, quite near the beginning of the Phone Book.

Thanks, those guys.

So no booze then. No sudden domestic or geographical lurches. Except I bought a trumpet. Anyway that is perfectly normal behaviour. Trumpet-buying. Turns out that when the mood came upon me there was only one trumpet for sale in all the shops of Inverness despite what my friend Kay might try to tell you about such clearly fictional enterprises as Trumpetland, World Of Trumpets and Brass Zone!

One trumpet for sale, but luckily it matched all of my expectations which is to say that it looked like every trumpet I had ever seen in my life, and it was priced within my trumpet budget for the month.

Hurrah for valve oil! Hurrah for embouchure (which is basically making a rude noise with your mouth)! But especially hurrah for the educational DVD I got! There is a furious urge within me to reach the point where my incontinent parpings are finally better than the pure, sweet notes the kid on the DVD produces.

I hate kids. They ruin everything. The film industry. Days out to interesting places. Trumpet tuition. You name it and I guarantee that a short, stupid kid with no idea about how the world really works has already spoilt it. Idiots.

The on-going trumpet adventure was a sign that I was probably going to be OK, but the sudden accretion in the last week or so of mind-bogglingly inane DVDs and comics has sealed the deal.

I have almost fully morphed back into the un-marriageable half-man half-compost heap that is my default setting.

Two of the movies I have just seen on DVD, Luigi Cozzi’s fabulously mad Starcrash and Thom Eberhardt’s low budget miracle Night Of The Comet, have reminded me how fond I am of the 70s and 80s. I hope to write a bit about them later.

But there is contemporary stuff to cover too. A thing that children have not yet managed to spoil in complete contradiction of my earlier assertion.

Since I last blogged – gulp – a whole season of Doctor Who has come and gone.

Can I talk a bit about Doctor Who now?

***

There, those three asterisks indicate where half my readers got on and the other half got off.

Doctor Who Season 5, or Season 31 as I prefer to call it. Any good then?

Yup. It was good.

Or at greater length:

Matt Smith is a tremendous surprise as the Doctor. Such was David Tenant’s authority that a few of the things he established as character traits looked as though they might become sine qua non attributes of subsequent incarnations of the character. The youth, the vigour, the sexiness, the gob, the insolence, the mania. These are things Tenant imported to the role but he did it so unquestionably that it is easy to forget that they aren’t typical of previous incarnations.

My concern, prior to seeing any of Matt Smith’s episodes, was that we were going to get more of the same. A string-thin young wannabe poncing round the multiverse shouting.

That’s not what we got though and I have to applaud Smith for running with the more spiky, almost autistic aspects of his character. Tenant played the Time Lord as a geek, but a knowing kind of geek. One who is aware of his own brainy allure.

With Smith, certainly after the regeneration trauma but before the series settled down, it was as though we were sharing the Tardis with Maurice Moss from the I.T. Crowd.

He, the actor, is playing down the looks (and he’s a pretty boy underneath it all isn’t he?). He’s happy enough with the improbable hair and the face like an unexpected ocean liner looming out of a fog bank. It’s subtle what Smith is doing. It’s long-game characterisation. He knows that if we stick with him we will learn to love him despite the alien angularity and the awkwardness. It can be a bit like watching Patrick Troughton, or Colin Baker if Colin Baker had been done right.

There has been some tabloid tutting, doubtless welcome by the writers, at how sexy the show is. Is that an issue? I was more surprised at hearing the Doctor use mild swear words like Bloody and Hell. That felt new and slightly transgressive to me. I mean I’m not going to dispute that there’s a sexual element to the programme, but what’s new?

The first time we met the Doctor in 1963 he was living with his grand-daughter. Over time we speculated that maybe that was just a turn of phrase or a kind euphemism to explain Susan’s presence. But no, the tenth Doctor talked briefly of having had a family in the past. So from Day 1 this is a programme which has at least acknowledged its title character’s sex life. The tenth Doctor spread it about quite a bit actually, certainly compared to the ninth’s slightly hesitant fumblings with Rose and Jack.

But in the classic era sex was never far away. Ian and Barbara? Ben and Polly? Jamie and Zoe? Harry and Sarah? Leela and K-9? (Though I might have imagined that one). And that’s just the companions.

Look at some of the Doctor’s relationships. The third Doctor and Jo, for instance. It was always that drip Captain Yates from UNIT who was asking Jo out, but she always ended up with the Doctor in the Tardis. And how upset was the Doctor when she left him to sail down the Amazon with that hippie from Wales? He was crying for God’s sake.

The Fourth Doctor and Romana. The Fifth Doctor and Tegan. The Sixth Doctor and Peri. The Seventh Doctor and Ace. Don’t tell me you never noticed.

The sexual undercurrents are not new then but I am pleased at the way Karen Gillan has asserted herself. For a while I thought she was overdoing the pouting, stropping and sulking. It looked, particularly when River Song was also in the picture, as though the Doctor was getting a bit hen-pecked.

The inclusion of Rory as the dithery, useless fiancé didn’t help at first, but stone me, as the series progressed and the characters settled down a bit it all started to work.

Once Rory had been written out of the Universe, re-incarnated as an Auton Roman soldier, redeemed and then reintroduced to the Universe as a human in the grand re-boot he started to become appealing.

The current Tardis line-up of the barely socially functional Doctor and the married couple one of whom is a voracious, lunatic, nymphomaniacal, redheaded Scotswoman is quite an exciting one.

Russell T. Davies always did a fabulous job celebrating pan-sexuality in his Tardis line-ups. This current one as constructed by Stephen Moffat could not be more heterosexual. It’s practically George and Mildred in Space.

That isn’t a bad thing.

There were a few things about the series that didn’t quite work I think. The whole story arc doesn’t make much sense once you start following it through. Time paradoxes can be great fun if you’re rigorous about causes and effects. Doing stuff because it’s flashy and then covering over the holes by saying something like “Timey-wimey stuff can be a bit difficult to get your head around” is unfair.

You could see it work well in microcosm with the gag about the Doctor accumulating the Tommy Cooper hat and Norman Wisdom mop we knew he had to be holding when he met Rory. It all fell apart on the macroscopic scale though. I’ve watched The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang through three times now and I’m embarrassed to report that I still can’t understand them.

And whilst we’re here, whatever happened to the Blinovitch limitation effect? I’m sure there was a good reason why you couldn’t keep crossing your own time stream and that was it!

A secondary fault was that there was a slightly solipsistic, constrained feeling to some of the episodes. The empty village in the Silurian two-parter for instance, together with the massive drilling operation manned by precisely three people!

Scale was a problem with the Big Bang too. What a tease Stephen Moffat is mentioning the Draconians, the Zygons, the Drahvin and then not showing them. What did we get? Three Daleks, a sack of Sontarans and some Cybermen. And what is it with these Cybermen anyway? Aren’t they from a parallel universe? Our home-grown Mondas/Telos Cybermen were much better.

Perhaps these underwhelming crowds and this absence of convincing background activity were scripting infelicities, but I’d be more inclined to believe that they were budget constraints. If that is the case then I will just quietly accept that the best job possible was done under the circumstances. Particularly in The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood. I’m glad that they spent the cash on tons of lady Silurian soldiers rather than human extras.

The Silurianettes brought about in me that same cross-species dilemma I had when I saw Helena Bonham Carter made up as a chimp in Planet of the Apes. I know it’s not right, but…

Yes, you would.