Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 2 – The Witch’s Familiar

“Imagine. To hold in your hand, the heartbeat of every Dalek on Skaro. They send me life. Is it beyond the wit of a Time Lord to send them death?”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

I’ll admit, last week I was a trifle surprised to find that Steven Moffat had the chutzpah to open the new series of Doctor Who by writing, effectively, a sequel to Genesis of the Daleks – a story regularly voted the best the show ever did. Yet for me, he pulled it off surprisingly well, building cleverly on the themes, characterisation and philosophy espoused by both the Doctor and Davros in that first meeting. Continue reading “Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 2 – The Witch’s Familiar”

Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 1 – The Magician’s Apprentice

“Davros made the Daleks. But who made Davros?”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

After a divisive first season for Peter Capaldi’s abrasive, sometimes hard to like Twelfth Doctor, Doctor Who was back this week with a busy episode that was an obvious fan pleaser. Continuity references abounded, even outside a main plot that featured Davros, the Daleks, Missy and UNIT. Being a fan, I enjoyed it hugely. Trouble is, will the casual viewer even understand what all this is about? Continue reading “Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 1 – The Magician’s Apprentice”

Doctor Who–The Day of the Doctor

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be – be one.” – Marcus Aurelius

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Tricky things, anniversary shows. Although this was celebrating 50 years, technically there’s only been two previous attempts – The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors (no, I’m not counting Dimensions in Time). They have to be crowd-pleasers, they have to encompass the show’s ever-growing mythology, and yet they also have to be accessible to viewers who don’t necessarily have the extensive knowledge of the show’s past that us fanboys have. The Three Doctors works rather well in that regard, while The Five Doctors doesn’t. But what about Day of the Doctor?

Continue reading “Doctor Who–The Day of the Doctor”

Gallifrey One: the 2013 experience

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Regular readers of this blog (all three or four of you) may have noticed a distinct absence of posts on the usual topics recently. There’s a reason for this, as there is this time every year – I’ve been off in sunny Los Angeles with 3600 other people celebrating my favourite TV show at the world’s biggest and longest-running Doctor Who convention – Gallifrey One.

The history bit

Gallifrey One has now been running annually for 24 years. Back in 1990, it had a whopping attendance of 660 people. The first time I went, in 2005, there were 737. Then the show came back on the air, and it got a little bit popular – hence the fact that this year, in the much bigger Los Angeles Airport Marriott, there were about 3600 there, including con staff and guests.

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Shaun Lyon – a man of infinite patience.

Co-ordinating this madness, as he has done since the beginning, is the ever-gracious Shaun Lyon, a man who must have the patience of a saint to put up with the growing sense of entitlement from some of the show’s less… socially skilled fans.

Working with Shaun is the legendary Robbie Bourget, a woman whose organisational skills are no lesser, but who leaves the fronting primarily to Shaun – much to his joy. And with both of them are a loyal team of volunteers who take on the thankless task of stewarding for 3000 unruly costumed lunatics. Unpaid. Given my years of experience in customer service and the impression it left me of the general public, I believe these people deserve some kind of medal.

Are they ‘costumed lunatics’?

Well, that’s maybe a bit unfair. Most of the cosplayers (for so they are now known) are wonderful people, and some of them are very good friends. Besides – it’s a sci-fi convention, you expect to see costumes. And you’ll see some of the best here. At any given time of day, roughly half the people there are costumed in some way.

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Most of the costumes are Doctors, of course, with a preponderance of Tom Baker – the most familiar Doctor in the US, as his shows were broadcast ad nauseam by PBS in the 80s and 90s. However, the show’s newfound popularity means a veritable plethora of David Tennants and Matt Smiths too, probably outnumbering the Toms. Here’s Tristan Eisenberg doing Matt and Tom, while still resembling Richard Ayoade from The IT Crowd:

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Sylvester McCoy has his fans too (handily, as he happened to be there). Dominic Francis does a terrific Sylvester, but my favourites are Miranda and Sam as a female Seventh Doctor and a male Ace:

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If you want to be really obscure though, TV writer, creator of The Middleman and all-round ball of unstoppable energy Javier Grillo-Marxuach came as the Rowan Atkinson Doctor from The Curse of Fatal Death. Does this photo make him canon?

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What about the monsters?

Oh yes, there are monsters. Gallifrey One is one of the only places where you can find things like this lurking round hotel corridors:

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And, inevitably, there are Daleks. One of them even found its way onto a hotel balcony overlooking the swimming pool:

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So who are the kings of cosplay? Every year, on the Saturday evening, a masquerade is held to find out. Those who enter parade their costumes on the main stage in variously successful comedy skits, one of the most popular events of the weekend.

For many years, the winners were my good friends Mette Hedin and Bryan Little; these days they tend not to enter, graciously giving other people a chance to win. Nevertheless, their costumes are usually the highly-anticipated highlight of the weekend. Here’s a few from this year, also including their friend Radar as Bill S Preston, and a disco-lighted Stone of Blood:

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But there are panels featuring people from the show, right?

Indeed there are. That’s technically the main point of the con, and Shaun has always excelled in getting a marvellous selection of guests, with at least one Doctor every year. This year, it was the effervescent Sylvester McCoy, who took total ownership of the con’s main room by wandering off the stage into the audience with a microphone to take questions, leaving his hapless interviewers Nick Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery to trail behind in bemusement.

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Legendary costume designer June Hudson was there too, with one of the most fascinating panels of the weekend as she talked us through her history, techniques and philosophy of designing costumes for the show in the 70s and 80s:

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Biggest draw of the weekend was probably Freema Agyeman, making her first American convention appearance and causing the autograph line to stretch way, way out of the door:

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And so many others – 1970s producer Philip Hinchcliffe, Rose Tyler’s dad Shaun Dingwall, legendary character actor and Winston Churchill impersonator Ian McNeice, Mark Strickson, Fraser Hines with his collection of classic anecdotes (some of which could be heard several times this very weekend). We even got a non-convention appearance from the star of Community’s affectionate Who parody Inspector Spacetime, Travis Richey:

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Some keep themselves to themselves when off the clock, but others (especially Fraser) can be found mingling with the fans (especially when there’s alcohol nearby). Warning – do not go up and bow to them gasping “I’m not worthy!” They are mostly fairly normal (even Fraser), and will happily have a normal chat.

I got to chat to Inspector Spacetime over a beer about his new costume, and after the con was over, had the pleasure of Philip Hinchcliffe sitting down with me and my other half Barry for a quiet chat in the lobby. Even on Wednesday, three days after the con was technically over, Sylvester McCoy was still there, and was nice enough to join me and a group of friends for lunch at LA airport’s rather freaky Encounter restaurant:

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The Seventh Doctor encounters his deadliest enemy – the Shrimp Cocktail.

What to expect from Gallifrey One – a brief guide.

1. Enormous quantities of alcohol.

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Each night (but especially on the last night, Sunday), an unofficial gathering of the more alcoholically minded takes place outside hotel bar Champions in the hotel lobby. This has become known as Lobbycon. Much alcohol will be consumed there, while discussing such lofty topics as whether Steven Moffat is a better writer than Russell T Davies, or whether next year’s returning monster really ought to be the Nimon.

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Terror of the DVD Content Producer: When Steve Roberts Attacks

Also, there are room parties, at which people bring their own (vastly cheaper) booze. One of the best is the Friday night bash in room 110, run by the splendid Shawn Sulma, Andrew Trembley and Kevin Roche. This year, Kevin brought a small robot which dispensed cocktails of prodigious strength at the press of a keypad. I may have had too many of them.

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2. A certain amount of debauchery.

Contrary to popular opinion, not only do Doctor Who fans have sex drives, they sometimes even get to exercise them. Stick hundreds of them in a hotel with many rooms, lots of alcohol, and a hot tub, and occasionally adult-themed things happen. These are, of course, totally unofficial.

Also contrary to popular opinion, many Doctor Who fans actually are rather attractive, which helps grease the wheels (so to speak). Me being me, it was the men who took my eye, and I took some pictures (with their permission) to prove that nerds can be sexy too. And no, nothing happened with me and any of them – I’m a good boy.

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3. Enormously long autograph queues.

I don’t really do autographs. But a lot of my friends do. And so do a lot of other people, especially now the con’s getting so big. If you want that precious signature or photo with the show’s stars, have patience – it could be a long wait.

4. Gary Russell.

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Former actor turned Who scribe turned all-purpose Who superstar Gary is there every year, usually functioning as interviewer on the panels. As an interviewer, Gary is brilliant – sharp, bitchy, clever, and with a perfect rapport with the guests, many of whom he’s known for years. He has the great interviewers’ gift of making the whole thing seem effortless – knowing when to be quiet and give the guests their head, when to prompt them, and how to put them at their ease. Any panel with Gary hosting it is usually worth seeing for him as much as the guest he’s interviewing.

5. Meeting lots of new friends.

Gallifrey One is, more than any other convention I’ve been to, a friendly event built as much on social interaction as showmanship. Every year, I come away with a crop of new Facebook friends, many of whom I then see the next year, when I meet more. It can end up being quite difficult spending more than a couple of minutes with some of them every year when you know so many people – to those I barely saw this year, I can only apologise and say that next year, I’ll try harder! And don’t worry if you (drunkenly, perhaps) don’t remember their names when you see them next year – that’s what name badges are for.

6. Ribbons.

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A recent phenomenon (over the last few years), the ribbon-collecting craze has reached epic proportions. These are small ribbons with a sticky edge that you attach to the bottom of your name badge, and then to each other, until you have a Tom Baker scarf-style length of them. They usually have funny, or cryptic, or downright dirty quotes and allusions to the show, the con itself, or people you might actually know. Above are the ones I collected over the last two years; a puny amount compared to this lady, who made a skirt out of them:

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The etiquette of ribbon trading is technically that you’re meant to have your own made to trade with those of others. Here’s a useful guide to having them made. In practice, I’m never organised enough to do this, but people tend to be generous enough with them for that not to be a problem. But I try not to be pushy about asking when I’ve none of my own to give out. Next year, perhaps (though I say that every year).

So that was Gallifrey One 2013 – bigger than ever, but still just as much fun and just as sociable. Thanks as always are due to Shaun and Robbie, and their army of patient volunteers, along with the guests and all my friends who I only see once a year, too numerous to namecheck here. I’ll be back reviewing the shows I usually review soon – though given the number of episodes I’ve missed, it may be posts featuring several episodes in one go. For now, check out this fantastic video of Gallifrey highlights from the BBC’s own Ed Stradling, which provided one or two of the screencaps used here, and sums up the fun with the aid of the Traveling Wilburys:

Fun fun fun till the hotel take the Daleks away.

Series 5, Episode 12: The Pandorica Opens

Everything that’s ever hated you is coming here tonight.”

Wow. That was simultaneously riveting, exciting, and really intricately plotted. In fact, we can now finally see all the intricate plotting throughout the whole season beginning to pay off.  It also fulfilled the now obligatory requirement for a season ending to be massively spectacular, but unlike some of the season finales of the past, it didn’t provide spectacle at the expense of plot or intelligence. And that has to be the best cliffhanger the show has ever done!

A massive pre-credits sequence – possibly the longest ever – tied the season together in a way that’s never been done before, by bringing back most of the really memorable characters we’ve met as the year has progressed. Van Gogh’s still mad, Churchill’s still huge, and River Song’s still… well, still River Song. I wasn’t entirely surprised that so much of the season finale revolved around her (even without the spoilery revelation from Doctor Who Magazine that she was in it). Steve Moffat (her creator, after all) obviously sees her as his version of Captain Jack Harkness; she’s the larger than life occasional companion who pops up at crucial points, with a flamboyant personality and dress sense to match. Alex Kingston was great as ever, though I suspect some fans will find the character’s over-the-top personality and ‘Hello sweetie’ catchphrase a bit much to take.

And Rory was back too! There are plenty of Rory-haters out there, but I was over the moon to see Arthur Darvill, if not entirely surprised. OK, so he turned out to be an Auton replica like all the Romans, but any Rory is better than no Rory. And he got that cracking scene with Matt Smith as the Doctor failed to notice that his return was anything unusual; a funny scene comically timed to perfection by both actors. Not to mention the heartbreaking moment when Amy remembered him just as he unwillingly shot her, the first shock in an exponentially increasing series of them that led to THAT cliff-hanger…

But it was still a classic Who story, and like every classic Who story, it had monsters. Lots of them, in fact. When the Daleks faced off against the Cybermen at the end of season two, it was great fun but seemed like, in the words of the lamented Craig Hinton, fanwank. But here, Steve Moffat managed to pull off bringing back virtually every opponent the Doctor has faced since the series returned, and not only did it seem credible and entertaining, but it was also only a part of a massively complex plot. I’d had forebodings since the Daleks’ makeover that the finale would yet again revolve around them; but while they were back, so was everyone else, and the Daleks were just one element of a massive alien alliance that was itself not the main villain of the piece.

Having the monsters involved more peripherally meant they could have some fun doing unusual things with them, too. That whole sequence with the dismembered Cyberman managed to be both memorably gruesome and blackly funny. The writhing metal tentacles of the dismembered Cyber-head as it crawled towards Amy managed to be reminiscent of Tetsuo the Iron Man and John Carpenter’s The Thing, and as it then popped the head back onto its damaged body, I was reminded of nothing so much as the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact. That struck me as a pretty fair steal, given that the Borg have always seemed like ripoffs of the Cybermen in the first place!

In keeping with a new style of production team, the finale also has, initially, a very unusual setting. Since the show returned, each increasingly epic finale has taken place either on contemporary Earth or the far future. Here we had our heroes roaming around Roman Britain, itself a key piece of the puzzle that’s been building all season. And the Pandorica itself was under Stonehenge – a nice use of a British location rather more interesting than, say, Canary Wharf. As the Doctor stalked around what seemed to be a very large version of the puzzle box from Hellraiser, muttering about the massively destructive individual contained therein, I began to guess that the only messianic/destructive creature to live up to that description was the Doctor himself. Mind you, I’d thought that, in keeping with the theme of disjointed time throughout the season, it would be a future version of the Doctor already imprisoned. It was a good bit of misdirection in the script to give you the hint that the Doctor was inside and then reveal at the end that he would be – just not yet.

A similar bit of misdirection was the rousing scene in which the Doctor, armed only  with a transmitter, seemingly sees off a massive fleet of spaceships belonging to all his greatest enemies. Matt Smith played it well, going in an instant from his ‘young fogey’ persona to a believably godlike, ancient alien. It was a scene that almost felt like it was written for David Tennant, so reminiscent was it of Russell T Davies’ style, and yet it turned out to be more sleight of hand from Mr Moffat. The aliens weren’t leaving because of their terror of the Doctor, as they would have done in previous seasons – the Doctor, it turned out, was exactly where they wanted him.

Meanwhile, River was taken by an increasingly shaky TARDIS to the fateful date of 26 June 2010, and all the pieces of the puzzle started to slot into place. As the script juxtaposed the increasing peril of River in the about-to-explode TARDIS with the Doctor being clamped into the Pandorica and Rory cradling Amy’s (apparently) lifeless body, some excellent direction skilfully ramped up the tension. The pacing of this episode was superb, with revelation after revelation building to a massive climax. The alien alliance think the Doctor is responsible for the cracks, and the impending erasure of the universe from history. But it looks like they’re wrong, and they’ve just caged up the only being who can stop it. As the familiar crack appears yet again, this time in the screen of the TARDIS, is the malevolent voice croaking “silence must fall” the real villain? Then just who is it?

Steven Moffat has always been excellent at writing very complex, deceptive scripts that misdirect the viewer with the skill of an excellent magician. Even when he was writing Press Gang, his very first TV show, that was evident. But given the whole of space and time to play with, he’s taken intricate, puzzle-piece plotting to a new level. This episode showed the stakes he’d been hinting at throughout the season – not just the destruction of the entire universe, but its, and all other universes’, erasure from time entirely. The stakes have never been so high in Doctor Who, and we still don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle. But with this episode climaxing with the apparent death of two of the main characters, the perpetual imprisonment of the other and the apparent destruction of all universes and time itself, you have to admit that’s one hell of a “how’s he going to write his way out of that?” ending. With Steven Moffat writing, I can’t wait for next week to find out.