Friday, 27 April 2018


Chapter The 84th, where it all turns out not to have been a dream.

Clara has a disastrous first date with Danny Pink. The Doctor meanwhile has a few bats in his cloister room, obsessing with a paranoid theory that there are creatures who have evolved to be great at hiding, who are somewhere behind us whenever we think we're alone, or whenever we talk to ourselves. To investigate, he gets Clara to engage directly with the telepathic circuits of the TARDIS. They are subsequently taken to a night in Danny's and then the Doctor's childhood; in both instances, Clara clumsily imprints future events on their impressionable minds; in between, they go into the far future and meet a relative of Danny's - Orson Pink - a stranded time travel pioneer from 100 years after Clara's time, and rescue him. In all these thematic mini-adventures, the Doctor just narrowly misses out on getting any evidence either way as to whether these hiding creatures exist or not. But everyone learns that fear is nothing to be afraid of, or something like that, and Danny and Clara agree to go on a second date.

I had been trying to get some enthusiasm going for anyone in the family to watch another Doctor Who with me, but nobody was biting. The random number generator fell upon this single episode 45-minuter, so I thought I'd have a beer and watch it on my own one evening, then blog it quickly; hopefully, this would fill the gap while the family came round. While I was watching, though, I found I was distracted, and my own enthusiasm was waning. Maybe it was the beer, but somewhere around the Orson Pink section, I stopped the Blu-ray playback, watching the rest the following day.

First-time round:
This episode came from a run of stories (the first six of Capaldi's first season) which I loved at the time but which I have been consistently mildly disappointed by on rewatch. It was a broadcast period when, with our kids still all quite young, the Better Half and I would watch the episode timeshifted late on the Saturday to gauge it for suitability, then show it to the little ones on Sunday morning if appropriate. Listen was one of the many that year that didn't get a sabbath screening: too unsettling for too many stretches, by far. The youngest two (boy of 8, girl of 5) still haven't seen it to this day - but, you know, I gave 'em a chance, and they'd rather watch youtube Minecrafters or endless Netflix cartoons set in American High Schools - that's their lookout.

I was reminded when watching Listen of a moment in the Moonlighting episode "It's a Wonderful Job", a tiny gag unconnected to the main Frank Capra pastiche plotline: Maddie Hayes' guardian angel, Albert - invisible to everyone in the office they're visiting - steals a piece of paper from someone's workspace: the poor desk jockey glances around for a moment confused before the angel puts it back again in the exact same place when their back is turned. Maddie upbraids Albert for this, complaining that this sort of thing happens to her at least three times a week. There must have been a jolt of recognition when I watched this first-time round, as I remembered it forever afterwards (I watched the DVDs a few years back, but that was the first time I'd seen the episode in question since the mid-1980s and this moment had stayed with me in between). Any time you can't find something for a second, even though it's under your nose and was there just now, is the work of a mischievous angel; it's rather neat.

What such moments aren't though, what they can't be, is the work of creatures who've evolved into perfect hiders. Perfect hiders would not move your chalk for a laugh; if they did, they'd be more likely to get found and killed before siring offspring; the 'having a laugh with the chalk' mutation would die out in a generation, not threatening the gene pool of the rest of the invisible species. And they certainly wouldn't write gnomic messages on the blackboards of grumpy Time Lords; camouflaged creatures in the wild don't break cover to scrawl "Look out" or "Wooooo!" on blackboards - they'd get eaten by a lion if they did. So, the whole concept of the episode, the "is it or isn't it?" ambiguity, is just another will-'o-the wisp that isn't really there: there's only one set of explanations for the events we see unfold - it's the Doctor's handwriting, it's a kid underneath the bedspread, it's pressure changes outside the ship. The story's only exactly half as clever as it thinks it is.

The half that's left is a series of vignettes thematically linked by fear, which work for the most part as the writing and direction is very good at creeping us out; the moments of anticipation and dread are great. It's not deep, though, and it's trying so hard to be; as such, it would seem to have failed on its own terms. Fear is a very broad and diffuse theme to pull everything together satisfactorily, and it therefore ends up feeling bitty. There's supposed to be a rousing significance to the barn where the last sequence plays out being the same barn John Hurt goes at his lowest ebb in The Day of The Doctor. Though it's nice enough to see the old fellah in a spliced-in clip, the moment is pretty meaningless - it's just a barn.

That whole bit is problematical, anyway: we're expected to believe Clara creates the dream the Doctor's obsessing about in the present by grabbing his leg from under his bed in his past, in paradox-tastic stylee. But the kid wasn't asleep, he was awake and crying. There is no way that a child that's awake getting his leg grabbed by a stranger under his bed just lies back down and thinks it's all a dream; plus, this is not just any kid but a clever Time Tweenager, lest we forget. A weird woman is thereafter stroking his head and quoting William Hartnell lines - he'd scream the bloody barn down. None of this explains either why lots of other people though history have had this particular dream (I never have though, nor have I heard of it before or since this episode - is it really a thing?). Add to this the Orson Pink part being structured around Clara and Danny getting together (how else can he have a time-traveller for a great great grandmother when he's a pioneer time-traveller in an experimental vessel?) only for this to be rudely contradicted in a few episodes time in the same season; one gets the impression that this story is - as possibly are all Moffat's stories in this year - speed-written last minute material being thrown together on the fly. At least there was a significant effort to do something original this time out, though; that's got to be a good thing. 

Neither The Enemy of the World nor Listen feature a monster (probably), and they both contain globe-trotting scale being provided by judicious deployment of stock footage (the more modern episode in the sequence where Doctor Who visits various nature documentaries, the older with its various shots of volcanoes from different distances being visible to one pair of binoculars). Additionally, both contain a lookalike character (Orson is the dead spit of his great-great-relative Danny).

Deeper Thoughts:
I was going to resist a punning title like Loose Canon or Spiking the Canon or somesuch, but how about "Don't Apocrypha Me, Argentina". Any good? The story Listen containing a scene showing the Doctor as a child made some people online very unhappy, but it was broadcast on BBC television with the Doctor Who title sequence on a Saturday, so they couldn't pretend it didn't happen. For that is the ultimate definition of canon, ain't it? It's the stuff you can't wish away, even if you'd like to try. For the uninitiated, Doctor Who "canon" and discussions on the topic are an attempt to bring a literary or theological approach to bear on the many different and sometimes contradictory stories told using the Doctor Who characters and concepts in multiple media, to work out which link up to form the unassailable true text, and which are apocrypha; also, it's a way to continue online arguments at the point where people have got tired of bitching about Sylvester McCoy or Colin Baker, or whether Sara Kingdom counts as a companion or not.

So, what is the Doctor Who canon? Though some people include official tie-in books (both novelisations and original works), or audio adventures, or comic strips, the absolute base position for canonical Time Lord adventures - which very few would disagree with - is the broadcast shows which went out titled Doctor Who on the telly box, starting with An Unearthly Child, all the way up to The Ruined Christmas (working title for Twice Upon a Time... or I may be fibbing). Yes, there are a few crazies who ignore anything from 2005 onwards, and a few more who don't even consider Paul McGann as 'counting', but for most fans that's at the very least the starting point.

This still leaves a few head-scratchers, though. What about Shada? It was never broadcast, and some of the material was subsequently re-purposed in another story, which makes it difficult (but not impossible) to consider as a piece in its own right. So, we don't count that. What about K9 and Company, the pedigree spin-off pilot that never went to series for some reason? A BBC broadcast, but not under the Doctor Who title. If we don't count it, how do we reconcile that Sarah-Jane now has K9 as her pal in the Five Doctors a couple of years later? But if we open the floodgates to one spin-off, then suddenly there's Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures and Class to consider. So, forget them - think of them as backstory, we don't need to have it all spelt out in the main piece. Alternatively, just imagine that Sarah-Jane and K9 being together was the result of a bit of wife-swapping with Harry and Romana.

Do we have to include Dimensions in Time, the two-part Eastenders crossover skit from 1993? It was broadcast on the BBC under the Doctor Who title with its beginning credits sequence. Yes, it was scheduled as part of a telethon rather than in its own right, but then so was The Five Doctors. Most people will jump through sufficient mental hoops to include The Five Doctors but not include Dimensions in Time, because Dimensions in Time is so shit. But does that make it right? What about The Night of the Doctor, continuity bridge between Paul McGann and John Hurt's Doctor with a regeneration and everything? It has a nice Doctor Who beginning sequence, but was an online-only thing; online and broadcast are barely different any more, mind, so should that make any difference?

The Night of the Doctor led to Karn - the planet where it was set, first visited by Tom Baker's Doctor - returning to Doctor Who (in multiple episodes of the 9th season in 2015). When it first arrived on our screens in the 1970s, Karn was a few lumps of polystyrene in a studio, since then it's become a rather grand rocky location. If we can successfully keep both versions of this world in our head and happily accept that they're the same place, then I guess we can imagine canon to be whatever we want it to be. Now, I know this doesn't actually provide any concrete answers to the dramatic question posed, but then neither did Listen, so I don't see why I should feel guilty about it. Till next time...

In Summary:
The Moonlighting episode is much better.

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