The A To Z Of SFF: C IS For Class


After the Doctor saves the day and vworps off in the TARDIS, very little thought is given as to what happens next. Until now, that is.
YA spinoff Class pits a ragtag group of mismatched youths left in charge of a rift in space-time against alien threats. Nothing like a DW retread of the Buffyverse, then…
To be fair, Class is smarter and much more watchable than the setup suggests. Join Rob, Clive and Curiosity as they check out the pilot episode!

 

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The A To Z Of SFF: K Is For Kinda


Kinda, unfairly, has a reputation as one of the worst episodes of Davidson-era Doctor Who, largely based on the slightly duff effects at its climax. OK, sure, the ‘terrifying embodiment’ of the villainous Mara is pretty poor by today’s standard…or any time, frankly.
But, as Rob and Clive make clear, there’s a hell of a lot more to Kinda then one ten-foot-tall rubber snake. Cycles of life and death, good and evil, peace and war. A satirical take on colonialism. And some eerily effective dream sequences, that still have the power to un-nerve us even now. A deeply atypical episode of Fifth Doctor goodness. Join our gestalt mind and discover more…

Who Rules? Who Rules!

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Ah, Saturday night telly. Safe, secure home of talent show, hospital drama, old film. And of course, also the place to go for head-mangling, multi-level, wildly self-referential and furiously uncompromising science fiction.

That would be Doctor Who, which always stuck out of the Saturday night schedules like a Sontaran at the dinner table. Gleefully absurd, cheap and cheerful, dark at heart yet always somehow comforting. Effects straight out of the Blue Peter school of sticky-back plastic. Acting straight out of regional theatre.

Yeah. Not any more. Not for a long time. Under Russell T. Davis and more recently Stephen Moffat, Doctor Who is now the best-looking, best acted show on the box, and one of the most contradictory. Ostensibly still a kid’s programme, at least when you look at the extensive BBC website and all the associated mercy, Doctor Who is at the same time deeply complex and terrifyingly adult. It not only refuses to talk down to it’s audience, but launches off in all directions at once and dares the viewer to keep up.

This season, Moffat’s second as show-runner, has been made with money from BBC America, and was supposed to be the moment when the show would break in the States. You would expect, then, a couple of episodes in which a new audience could be eased gently into the story. Something entry-level, with a decent dose of explanation about who the guy in the blue box that’s bigger on the outside than the inside is.

Nope. Sorry. Within ten minutes of the opening titles, the Doctor had been killed, and then reappeared as a version from an earlier timeline. There was something about Scream-faced monsters that you forgot about as soon as you looked away from them. And where the hell did the red-headed broad from E.R. come from? Also, when the heck did the show with the monsters made out of bubble wrap get so goddamn scary?

Since the reboot, Doctor Who has been in the hands of writers who not only get the Doctor and all his dichotomies, but were responsible for keeping the flame lit during the wilderness years. The Paul McGann TV movie aside, the period between the end of Sylvester McCoy’s time in the Tardis and Christopher Eccleston shrugging on the leather jacket was one of furious invention and true high concept adventure. In books, audio and comics, writers like Davis, Moffat and Paul Cornell could carve out stories that didn’t have to be concerned with budget or kid-friendly attitude. They could bring a Doctor to life that had rarely been seen in the shows, a Doctor filled with moral ambiguity, a Machiavellian manipulator. More importantly, a Doctor that instils fear. The Doctor that can turn armies around at the very mention of his name came out of this free and fertile period.

Today’s Doctor Who is a very different programme to the one I grew up with, the one that scared me behind the sofa for two seasons running. The pace, of course, has sharpened, as stories are fitted into forty-five minute slots instead of the two-hour four parter format. Although it’s good to see more two-part cliffhangers, giving the characters a little more room to breathe. It’s also more overtly scary, as Moffat creates adversaries designed to exploit our all too human weaknesses, the flaws in our perception of the world. Creatures that attack in a blink, or hide in the shadows.

And all of a sudden, more adult fears are also being exploited. Constant, unexplained surveillance. The doppelganger, the enemy with your face. Or the terror of a mother losing her child. All tied into a narrative that has no problems with skipping hundreds of years and light years in a single jump cut. It’s epic, demanding and yes, exhausting work. To be honest, I tend to watch the show on catchup, when I feel ready for it. That also gives me the rewind option for those reel “huh?” moments.

But Moffat’s refusal to compromise hasn’t lost him viewers. Considering what else is on around the same time, it’s not a surprise that anyone with the taste for big, brash but thoughtful action would be all over this show. I have niggles with the way the show has so tightly interwoven with it’s backstory, but these are only niggles. Doctor Who is far and away the best thing on British telly at the moment. It’s fearless, tough and when it hits the big notes, a sheer and utter joy. It lures high end names and the best writers in the business. When I realised it was going on break until the autumn, I yelled in disbelief. Although the big reveal wasn’t that huge a surprise, it’s wonderful to finally have River Song’s place set in stone. And with these six episodes, the set up for something extraordinary to come rolling out of the gates in September is well and truly in place.

Now all I need is one of those damned time machines so I can see those episodes now!

Companion Piece

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I loves me a bit of old school Doctor Who on a weekend morning, especially when Tom Baker lurches on screen and gives me that classic wide, wild-eyed grin. I watched a few stories back to back recently, cherry-picked from different points in the run, and something struck me (TLC, persuading me to do the hoovering, but that’s another story). In each, the companions served a specific and carefully maintained position. Sarah Jane, Harry, Leela, Adric, Tegan and Nyssa were on the show to ask questions and get themselves into trouble. Maybe hold up a hatch while the Doctor went at whatever was inside with the old sonic screwdriver. That was pretty much it.

Compare and contrast this with the companions in the new shiny version. Frequently the show will be about these characters. We will find out about their home life and their love life. We’ll meet their family. If you’re Martha Jones, you’ll get your own theme tune.

More importantly, they are on an equal footing with the Doctor. They will become part of the solution to the problem of the week. They can no longer be seen as bumblers or screamers. Sometimes, they will save the day after the Doctor has given up. Rose Tyler, I’m looking at you and your bonding with the Tardis here.

And then there’s the sex. The days when the Doctor would have entirely chaste relationships with the ever-changing panoply of pultrichude that swanned through the Tardis control room are long gone. He either falls for his companion, or the companion falls for him, hard. Martha’s unrequited pash for the Doctor became a defining part of her time on the show.

Image the offspring of a union between Karen and Conan O'Brien.
Oh, you lanky ginger sexpot.

So let’s look at Amy Pond. A girl who grew up with an image of the man in the box that gradually twisted and mutated, developing a crush which turned into – something else. I have no idea exactly what it is Amy feels for the Doctor, but it sure as hell ain’t healthy. In the new series, Bow-Tie Doctor (I’m sorry, but the easiest way to refer to them is by costume. Long Scarf Doctor. Dandy Doctor. Cricketing Doctor. Which makes Christopher Eccleston Leather Doctor, and there’s an image that’ll be with me for days) has to struggle with a companion that has developed some very strange ideas about the nature of love. Dropping everything to run away the day before your wedding with a figure you built childhood shrines to is not normal behaviour.

The love triangle that’s emerged as Amy’s fiancee Rory has joined the crew brings Doctor Who closer to soap opera than it’s ever been. The most recent episode, Amy’s Choice, in which she’s forced to choose between which of “her boys” survives is genuinely new territory for telly Who, and it’s telling that no punches are pulled in the acting or writing. The villainous Dream Lord is played by Toby Jones, one of the finest actors of our generation. It’s written by Simon Nye, a new name to Who but an enormously respected name in the industry, and a man who can track the path of the dysfunctional heart with more sytle and aplomb than most. This is hardly the Doctor Who of memory and archive.

You can track this change in direction to Doctor Who’s most interesting period – that 15 year chunk when there was no televised Who at all. The franchise lived on in audio dramas and books, and explored new and strange directions, unencumbered by budgetary constraints or duff special effects. The lives of the supporting cast could be explored at whim. The main players in TV Who nowadays, Russell T, current show-runner Steven Moffat and writers like Paul Cornell all come out of this explosion in creativity, and their influence is clear. It was a time of tacitly endorsed fanfic, with all the strangeness and charm that comes out of that arena. These were new stories told by writers that had no agenda other than a love of the show, and a wish to see it done right. And of course, the sexual tension that’s now a part of the show is a big feature of the fanfic scene.

While I’m on the subject of sex and Who, I found the whole furore about Amy Pond being a “sexed-up companion” to be Daily Fail over-reaction. Not only was Moffat veeery careful with the definition of Amy’s day job – kissagram, not strippergram – but there was an almost deliberate blindness to the fact that feamle companions have always been eye candy in the show.  Consider Louise Jameson in her torn chamois leather. Peri Brown in her bikini. Wendy Padbury in the skin-tight sparkly catsuit. THAT picture of Katy Manning. Something for the dads, although that ignores the fact that boys of a certain age would also discover that funny feeling in their tummy while watching supposedly innoculous Saturday afternoon telly. I know I did.

The companions are key to the success of the new Doctor, not just because they are avatars for the watching audience. Their role has changed, and they are now interesting and involving characters with their own motivations and needs. You would never see Sarah Jane Smith throwing herself at the Doctor the way that Amy does, largely because she was never written to be anything more than the standard bit of fluff. I never really thought the episode where she and Rose bumped up against each other rang true, because I never really saw her having those kind of feelings for the Doctor. Or indeed any real feelings whatsoever. The focus of the show was simply not on her. She screamed, asked questions, and got loomed at by a tall bloke in spray-painted bubblewrap. That was it. Curiously, it’s only in her starring role in kid’s show The Sarah Jane Adventures that she comes across as a grown-up with feelings and responsibilities. Once again, the show-runners of Who always understood that you could sneak adult stuff into kids shows as long as you were ever so slightly subtle. Look at Moffat’s Press Gang – to my mind still one of the best TV shows out there. No-one could ever accuse that show of lazy writing or characterisation.

Doctor Who has expanded it’s remit. It’s a central part of the BBC schedules, which is exceedingly sweet to fans like me who could always see the charm in the wonky sets and air of slight silliness, and could enjoy the stories and writing. The fact that Who is now so very writer-driven, despite the Mill’s endearingly cheap special effects, is the reason it’s doing so well. It’s never been a cold show, and wears it’s faith in humanity boldly and without irony. By turning the focus a little away from the ancient alien in the blue box, and towards the boys and girls who share his life however briefly, that faith and warmth have only become more obvious.

But you do have to wonder about what’s going on with The Doctor and Captain Jack…