In which I have thoughts about Doctor Who and writing

I decided at the weekend that this week I would blow the dust off my blog and get back into it. I was going to post my traditional ‘What I learnt at the RNA Conference’ post, where I would have talked about Jill Mansell writing long-hand and the importance of not stalking reviewers or literary agents. I would have illustrated the whole thing with this picture of me with my colleague, Janet Gover, and my agent, Julia Silk.

And it would have been very lovely. But since then I have become distracted by the news the next Doctor is going to be played by a woman.

This has been met by delight, indifference and horror in difference circles, so I thought I’d take a minute to explain why I’m delighted. The first thing to say is that I didn’t expect to be delighted. I’d sort of guessed from the last episode of the most recent series that they were going to take the plunge, and I thought that would be fine. I’ve never been a particular fan of the idea of pushing for specific roles to be played by non white male actors. I tend towards the view that diversity needs to be more diverse than that. It principally matters, I would have said, that Bond is always a white bloke, because there are so few comparable roles that aren’t. If there were more other films with Asian female super-spies, for example, Bond’s whiteness would matter less. So I figured the Doctor could be any ethnicity or gender and I would be equally fine – for me, I thought, it was more about the individual they cast.

But when I watched the announcement roll past on twitter and clicked and refreshed like a crazy person on my phone to find the video clip introducing Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor I did well up a tiny bit. I’m old enough to have liked Doctor Who the first time around – by which I mean pre-1989, not the actual first time around with Doctor number 1. I’m the lone crazy person who really liked Sylvester McCoy, and I really really liked his companion. She was Ace, and indeed ace. She was chippy and reckless and liked to blow stuff up. I very much wanted to be Ace. It only strikes me now that I didn’t want to be the Doctor. I wanted to run away with the Doctor, but I didn’t think I wanted to be the Doctor. Now the eleven year old me out there somewhere feels like she’s allowed to want to be the Doctor too. And that feels good. Really good.

I’ve also seen a lot of comments that the casting is gimmicky, or tokenistic. That makes me want to be shouty. I shall try not to be. Firstly, I don’t think we can know if something is gimmicky until we’ve seen the episodes. Secondly, there has been some casting in Doctor Who that has looked seriously gimmicky and has worked out fabulously. Two of the most successful companions of the post-2005 era are Rose and Donna. Billie Piper was best known as a teen popstar and former spouse of Chris Evans when she was cast. Catherine Tate was best known as a sketch show comedian. Either of those could have been described as gimmicky – both were brilliant. And Jodie Whittaker has serious acting class – nothing gimmicky at all about that.

Ultimately though the part of me that wants to defend this change so passionately is the writer. The assumption seems to be that this is a casting that has been made for box-ticking or PR reasons. Until we’ve seen the new showrunner, Chris Chibnall’s, episodes with his version of the Doctor, I think it’s right to keep the faith that this is a creative, writerly decision. Recently the Doctor has seen his oldest friend regenerate as a woman. He’s seen his newest friend transformed into a Cyberman and choose to die rather than live as something other than herself. He’s lost his wife. He’s beyond his original regeneration cycle. He’s lived through more selves than he was ever supposed to have. And, for the Christmas special, it appears he finds himself face to face with the very first incarnation of himself – the old man who used to be a young boy who stole a blue box and ran away. We’ve also seen a Doctor who appears to have more control over the regeneration process than we’re used to. Capaldi’s Doctor was able to choose to resist and slow the regeneration process in the closing episode of the last series. David Tennant’s Doctor was able to choose to regenerate the same body.

Is it fanciful to think that a man that old, a man whose seen that much, might choose to start afresh in a wholly different new body? As a writer, that feels like a perfectly well thought out character arc to me.

Of course I could be wrong. The Christmas Special could play out quite differently to that. But I’m excited to find out what happens and what happens next.

One last thing – some of you will be thinking it’s silly to care about Doctor Who because it’s for children. Well, yes – it is silly. But caring about the Handmaid’s Tale is also silly. And caring about Lizzie and Mr Darcy is silly too. They’re all just made up people at the end of the day. Silliness is brilliant. Do try not to grow out of it if you possibly can.

In which I sing the praises of casual fandom

So Missy is The Master. For those of you who have no idea what I’m rambling on about, Missy is a character in Doctor Who. In fact she’s the latest regeneration of recurring Timelord character, The Master. You know how Peter Capaldi used to be Matt Smith, who used to be David Tennant, who used to be etc. etc. all the way back to William Hartnell. Well The Master is exactly like that, only evil and with different actors.

And the latest incarnation of The Master, is known as Missy, because this time around the character has regenerated with lady parts, and is played by, Green Wing and Bad Education star, Michelle Gomez. However, the gender switch has caused mightily mixed feelings amongst the Doctor Who fandom. This range of views and comments on the Kasterborous site is a good example, but this list is way funnier so read it first.

Now I’m definitely on the side of the pro-Missy people. I love the Master – he/she has always been my favourite Doctor Who baddy. A dalek is all very well, but their dialogue is kind of limited. And Michelle Gomez is universally awesome and entirely suited to the part.  In fact, I’m struggling to think of a TV programme that wouldn’t be improved by Michelle Gomez playing a mad woman somewhere during each episode. If I was in charge of the world (which, rather upsettingly, I am still not), I’d have Michelle Gomez, in character as Missy, presenting Question Time. I don’t think anyone can claim that wouldn’t make the world more fun.

Anyway, my liking for Missy is not the main reason I gathered you here today. The reason I gathered you here today is to point out that even if I hated the idea of a lady-Master (like a StairMaster but with boobies), that wouldn’t matter one little bit. I’m a fan of Doctor Who. I don’t own every existing episode on both VHS and DVD. I don’t quote old scripts as a leisure activity. I don’t spend large chunks (small chunks maybe) of my free time reading fan forums. I just like the TV show. I’m that sort of fan.

And that’s ok. There is, in fandoms off all kinds, a tendency to look down on the casual fan – the ‘I watched the whole series, but I ain’t paying that for the special edition boxed set’ fan, the ‘I’d love to go more often but it’s quite a long way and a season ticket’s nearly a grand’ fan, the ‘No, I didn’t buy the special platinum re-release of the album; I already own the special gold release from six months earlier’ fan. There’s a tendency for fans to try to prove their fannishness (totally a word) by showing their greater knowledge of the trivia of the object of their fandom, and there’s a tendency for fans to think they own the thing they’re fanning over. Well, you don’t. And us casual fans know that. We know that it’s fantastic to find a thing you really really like. It’s even fantastic to find other people that like that thing too. And that’s enough.

Casual fandom is ace. You get all the joy of really liking something, and none of the angst that more serious fans have to deal with when that thing develops in a way that they don’t like. You’re enjoyment isn’t ruined by scripts getting leaked on the internet, because you’re just not quite interested enough to go and read them. If someone tries to chat to you during an episode of one of your programmes you don’t have to kill them (well I say you don’t have to kill them – if they’re a repeat offender and it’s like a series finale or something, then maybe.) Casual fandom- it’s awesome. You should try it.

And here endeth the lesson. Tatty-byes.

In which I consider Jesus and the Doctor (in a wholly TV/theatre non-blasphemous reviewing sense)

This weekend I experienced two exciting things. Two whole exciting things. The exciting things, one could say, were twofold. Exciting things transpired in an even number of occurrences greater than one but no more than three. The aforementioned two things were as follows:

1. Jesus Christ Superstar at the Manchester Arena

2. Doctor Who

By now all readers should either be mentally singing “Jesus Christ! Superstar! Do you think you’re what they say you are?” or “Dum-de-dum, dum-de-dum, dum-de-dum, durrrrrr,” or some sort of weird mash-up of the two. I hope this is bringing you pleasure. So here are some little reviews of these two exciting things. (If you’ve not seen Doctor Who – The Angels Take Manhattan, be warned – there may be spoilers).

1. Jesus Christ Superstar

So this is one of those big Andrew Lloyd Webber musical productions where they cast the main character by the medium of a tv picking programme. It wsan’t a vintage picking programme. Previous ALW franchises have been super-low budget and high camp BBC productions presented by Graham Norton and replete with timeslot inappropriate smuttiness and extensive taking of the piss out of The Lord (that’s Lord Lloyd Webber, not The actual Lord). The Jesus picking was done on ITV, presented by Amanda Holden, with all the lack of irony and shiny shiny stage sets that that implies.

Anyway, it doesn’t really matter, because the part they were picking a performer for was Jesus, and, despite the title, Jesus ain’t the main character in this show. Judas is. Jesus, in the first half particularly, is a tad whiny and self-involved, and you can kind of see why Judas would want to hand him over to the authorities. Apart from hitting a couple of truly excruciatingly high notes, Jesus mainly just has to wander around looking alternately pretty and then tortured.

Which brings me onto the high points of this production. First up, Tim Minchin as Judas Iscariot. Now I slightly love Tim Minchin – he made it onto my desert island last Christmas, and his was definitely that stand out performance of the show. Yay, yay, and thrice yay to Mr Minchin.

The other, slightly surprising, high point was Chris Moyles as King Herod. Herod only really has one scene and one song, and it’s a funny song, so it’s kind of a tricky role to mess up, but Moyles excelled. The staging of Herod’s court as a TV talk show worked, and Moyles nailed the Jeremy Kyle with a hint of Saturday night vibe perfectly.

My main quibble with the show wasn’t the performances, it was the staging. This show is being presented as an arena tour, which Lloyd Webber insists is consistent with his original artistic intention in writing a rock piece. But actually this show felt like a theatre show transplanted to an arena. The staging was super-traditional proscenium arch style, with hardly any use made of the space available. Because the production adopted a straight stage at the front format, some of the sight lines for the audience at the sides of the venue were terrible. I like the idea of doing a rock musical in a rock venue, but if you do, why waste all that lovely space and flexibility by staging it like a theatre production? Sadly, the staging did let the production down, as it felt slightly like it was neither an intimate theatre show or a big arena extravaganza.

Overall, good idea, some great performances, but a bit more focus needed on the staging and the production really produce Wow moments in a large arena.

 

2. Doctor Who – “The Angels Take Manhattan” (FINAL WARNING – risk of spoilers if you’ve not seen the episode).

Ooooh! Doctor Who! The Weeping Angels (by far the best baddie of the New Who era) are back! River Song (who I want to be when I grow up) is back! Amy and Rory are going! This may all be too much to cope with.

And it was. It was all too much to cope with. I think I started crying when Old Rory died and pretty much didn’t stop until after the picture of Clara/Oswin/Whoever-in-space-and-time-she-turns-out-to-be in the Christmas special preview. This was my favourite sort of Doctor Who episode – small in scale, focussed on the details of the scariness. Rory desperately lighting matches in the cellar, the Doctor running across New York to find the last page, River snapping her own wrist in preference to letting the Doctor down.

And Amy and Rory are gone forever. Or are they? Nothing is really forever in sci-fi, but I hope (although I’m a fan of both characters, especially lovely gentle surprised-by-his-own-heroism Rory) that they don’t make the, apparently increasingly obligatory, end of season reappearances. It’s darker, more interesting, if the Doctor (or indeed any hero character) has some situations, some problems, that they can’t just wave a sonic screwdriver at and resolve before the credits roll.

 

So those were the weekend’s two exciting things. How about you? What exciting things do you have to tell us about?