Another morning, another row with someone on Twitter about illegal file-sharing. Yesterday was full of anger, and some of it was on that basis. (Any comments here in praise of 'pirates' will be deleted without appearing or being read. I'm fed up with arguing with you.) Some of it, mind you, was about other things. I was just generally annoyed. This isn't healthy, but happens to me quite often. I have a real phobia about fighting on the internet, I did it far too much at some of the worst times in my life, and yet I get drawn back to it like an alcoholic to the bottle, almost as a form of self-harm. I tell myself that if I don't speak up, people might think I'm in favour of things I detest, but I think that's just an excuse. The sin I'm most often guilty of is anger. Lack of sleep and tension about work play a part in it, but 'letting it out' only encourages it, we recently hear. It's the opposite of Christmas, and I have to get rid of it.
Today, I begin with a lovely big announcement. My IDW comic, The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who
, is out on Christmas Day!
That is, that's the actual release date. What this means, in practice, is that comic stores will be able to sell it from Christmas Eve. That's the situation in the US, anyway. Because of licensing issues, the title won't be available through Diamond Distributors in the UK, so your local comic shop will have to approach IDW directly, in the way they'll have been doing already if you've ever seen IDW's Doctor Who
line in your shop. (I find regionality in any media tiresome, and here it's even more so, I share your pain, but that's just the way it is.) The digital version should be available from Comixology on December 25th worldwide.The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who
is my love letter to the series, my attempt to be part of the anniversary celebrations. The Doctor lands in the real world, meets Matt Smith, goes to a convention, finds that his adventures are out on DVD. But it's not lightweight. It's about some serious stuff that's very personal to me, and there's quite a dark quality to it. The art, by Jimmy Broxton, is lovely, photo realistic and yet full of comic book life. It's $7.99 for 48 pages (at least 40 of which are the lead story), with a cover by Jimmy and a variant by no less than Mark Buckingham. It's a labour of love, do check it out.
Rather wonderfully, Tor books asked all us authors for our Best SF Christmas Decorations
and I went for a Doctor Who
theme there as well.
So today, for the central feature of this blog, I thought I'd return to Doctor Who
again, and present a definitive list of...My Favourite (televised) Doctor Who Stories.
Now, this is confined to what a now rather more unified brand hesitates to call, these days, the 'classic series', because if I started to deal with the modern show I'd be deciding, in effect, which of my friends was best, and it'd all get very difficult.
Perhaps because Doctor Who
is both my recreation and my work, I don't really go for 'I know it's bad but I love it anyway'. I go for great scripts with good shapes, good lines and good character work. I notice good direction and acting, but they don't necessarily make something a favourite for me. I don't give a hoot about the quality or otherwise of special effects. (To do so is, it seems, against the (utterly subjective) 'spirit of the show'!) I don't care whether or not a story messes with 'continuity' or is important in the show's history, and I always fight the terrifying lure of nostalgia. When I give in to that, it's game over for me. I think sometimes Who
fandom likes a particular story because of what it contains
, when often such stories have a terrible shape, being more like the live feed from the life of the Doctor. I like stories that build, that are planned, that say something, that are obviously the products of excellent craft.
There are various stories that I just think are really good, that are tremendous, even, in delivering professional thrills and character and great moments, but to be on my all time best list, I'm looking for all that and something more. Going chronologically, here are those stories that I think are utterly wonderful
I say it's got a good shape, but it's got a highly unusual shape. The expected episode by episode narrative of Doctor Who
must have rather broken down for the audience at this point, when the last three stories have run one, four and twelve episodes respectively, with a Christmas episode in the middle that doesn't contribute to the story it's in and companions coming and going inside individual stories. To those watching at home, without story titles to shape the material into discrete blocks (and even writers changed on 'The Daleks' Master Plan'), it must have seemed like chaos. So when the Doctor seems to have died, and Steven becomes the lead for two whole episodes, it might just have seemed vaguely possible this was his show now. Peter Purves, as always, does a brilliant job, and the material is just so serious, like suddenly Doctor Who
is being written for an adult audience. Losing the Doctor's authority means that, rather like the hero of a Tim Powers novel, Steven has to just muddle along, a man lost in time, not even sure what the right thing to do might be. I think this has a claim to being the best Who
story ever, but it's highly atypical.
'The Mind Robber.'
The first thing one should say is: it's not just about the first episode. Certainly, the nightmarish, fantastical quality of that episode sets a very high bar, but I think the rest of the story, while different in tone, follows through. You could say that the start of the story feels like the eyelid fluttering of a descent into dreams, while the rest is the dream itself. The dream logic of the first episode, where people scream for absurd, dream logic reasons, and we're told we should be afraid of the pure unknown, without knowing what we're being shown, and see things we'd never thought we'd see in Doctor Who
, is a triumph on the part of stand-in scripter Derrick Sherwin. This is the only time we see anything like this from him, as if working at high speed he dashes off something from the depths of his unconscious. But then the dream itself is equally wonderful. This doesn't leave the viewer deflated like one of those awful Gerry Anderson 'it was all a dream' episodes. This is Doctor Who
leaving the universe of Doctor Who
behind and yet still making it part of Doctor Who
, an impossible knot as we've seen done with continuity again this year. 'It was all a dream, but it's still dramatic and heartfelt and means something to our characters.' Moments of television maker magic like changing the actor playing Jamie fit so perfectly with the tone it's like they gave Frazer Hines chicken pox deliberately. Okay, so the effect dwindles a little when we get into the business of computers and invasions towards the end, but they're still SF tropes seen from a fantasy distance, like they're toys on the shelf. It's not in black and white, it's in shadow and silver. It's actually a disappointment when we get back to the real world of Doctor Who
, we're sad that this was all a dream.
'Day of the Daleks.'
Sometimes a shape is so perfect that competence becomes high art. I love the placing of the Daleks as the fear from the future, as the shadow of a Doctor Who
monster, kept at a distance from the real world, and all the more scary as a result. I love how they burst into reality at the end and are undone by a perfect knot of plotting. If only, if only, the time paradox of the Doctor and Jo meeting themselves had been completed at the end. But then this story would be literally perfect and the universe would end, or something. (I wish the Special Edition re-edit had added that and got rid of the Doctor shooting an Ogron, rather than snipping out a beloved line and making the Dalek voices better.)
'Horror of Fang Rock.'
Again, it's about that point where doing things very well is taken to another level. There have been loads of stories in the gap between these two picks that did lots of things very well (I so very nearly went for 'The Face of Evil'), but their qualities aren't about story shape. Here, everything is about story shape. It's a perfect story, created, as with 'The Mind Robber', out of lack of time and resources. A great writer has to dig deep, and his instincts make something that chimes. Sure, you can sometimes see Tom Baker isn't enjoying himself, but I think that adds to the alien quality of his performance. I'm not sure why Louise Jameson thinks this wasn't written for Leela, because it's her best script away from Chris Boucher. Does she really think Sarah would have sat on the steps celebrating the death of her fallen foe? Watching this is like seeing an equation being solved. In his final draft, Dicks decided nobody was to be saved, because of that ballad at the start. It's another perfect decision.
'The Androids of Tara.'
Not so much about shape with this one, because it's just a joyous parody of The Prisoner of Zenda
(something else I adore). The addition of androids and electric swords to Ruritanian romance gives the story a different feeling to any previous Who
. We're definitely out of the gothic; this isn't anyone's unconscious on display. It's more like an excellent setting for a role-playing game. What would otherwise be standard capture and escape moves gain a certain swagger as a result. When else would the Doctor share a toast without mocking the moment? The world is a little deeper than the usual planets too, because what it's drawing from isn't SF (and so doesn't rely on generic rhetoric about colonies and rebellions) and because the emotional relationships are more complicated. As adults we realise that Grendel and Lamia had a sexual encounter that he saw as a noble taking his droit du seigneur
and she saw as something more meaningful. That abusive relationship makes her death even more tragic. So while Grendel may be charming, and great fun, we're given the smallest of nods that brings into focus how tawdry his plans actually are. Somehow, though, we don't want to see such local arrogance completely brought down. He has to be defeated in a local way. So a blissful sword fight that ends with him diving from the battlements having claimed, wonderfully, that next time he will not be so lenient, feels right. He'll be off to charm his way into some rich widow's purse. And this is a world, for once, where such details exist.
'City of Death.'
Just for once, it's as good as everyone says it is. Again, it's created by desperation. The sheer number of witty lines means that some of them are wasted. ('You know what I don't understand?' 'I expect so.') The shape is awesome, which is frankly unusual for Douglas Adams. This is the one to show to non-fans. Then tell them it's all like this, and that they don't have to bother to see any more.
Christopher Bailey writes this story as if it's television drama. Which results in millions of fanzine articles trying to decipher, through analyses of Buddhist imagery, mainly, what it could possibly mean
. It means only what's on the screen, because most fiction makes use of subtext and metaphor, things which, often with positive results, Doctor Who
tends to ruthlessly do without. (Think about it: where in classic Doctor Who
do you find a metaphor? The Mandragora Helix is the superstition that holds back science, that's the only one I can think of off the top of my head. Oh, and the Daleks, I guess, but they verge on actually being
Nazis rather than just representing them.) 'Kinda' uses all the tools in the box, and is shocking as a result. Where else do you get such conceptual cliffhangers? (Well, in 'The Massacre', actually.) It does the pure fear moment of 'The Mind Robber' too, and tells us, a moment of narrative time later, than fear is silly. It gives great parts to Adric and Tegan, and gives an excellent guest cast everything they'd expect to find in Play for Today
, so they know exactly where they are and give it their all. That's my touchstone for 'Kinda': it's not great because it's odd, it's great because it's normal
'Delta and the Bannermen.'
Out of nowhere, this feels like Doctor Who
from another universe, where it's all
been like this. The utter confidence of this script is astonishing. It's like Malcolm Kohll decides the series should be sunny and warm and ethical and sweet and melancholy and all the values that had gone missing in the past few years, and so suddenly has the power to just make it that way, and everything falls into place behind him. I'm amazed he never worked for the show again. It's got that theatrical agitprop thing going for it, that I really like about some of the Cartmel stories, the sense that Doctor Who
could be performed as a protest in a little theatre above a pub. It presents us with scenes of domesticity, with a concern for ordinary people that create many scenes that we'd never seen in the series before. (What previous Doctor would dance?) It actually points the way to the future. It only falters when it's forced to engage with the tropes of traditional Who
. We don't want the bus to be blown up (so it's done halfheartedly) and we want Don Henderson, who was a great actor, capable of anything, to find a way to play his villain that's not taken from the heart of the old series. A sighing Blackadder
figure would have suited. Nobody, in this, should have had to die to placate the gods of the past. That's a lesson that persists in the show to this day.
And that's it. I wish there was ten, but there's only eight. To complete our Who
theme, I'd like to welcome today's guest, Jenny Colgan. Jenny is a bestselling rom com novelist who also writes excellent DW
novels (as J.T. Colgan). I first met her at Sci-Fi London, when she was on a panel with myself and Terrance Dicks. Since then, we've shared much food and gossip. She brings a certain vastly successful fearlessness to the world of Doctor Who
, and I'm always delighted at how she can march into social situations that make me pause on the threshold. Her Who
work is daring, serious and always seeks the meaning inside the tropes of the series. Here she is talking about what her own characters are up to this Christmas...
'It is very useful writing Christmas books as I always know what my characters are doing on Christmas Day (I write a book for Spring and a book for Christmas every year- the Christmas book is a sequel to the Christmas book). However, in common with soap operas, this usually means on the day itself they're caught up in something quite dramatic, which might be delivering a baby (Christmas at Rosie Hopkins' Sweetshop
), or flying all the way to New York to visit her ex, only to find out he's flown to London to visit her (Issy and Austin in Christmas at the Cupcake Cafe
), which means poor Iz spends a really miserable and expensive day sitting about by herself. Also, because I write a lot of recipes in my books, there's normally a ton of food flying about. This is not always useful; one year, thanks to a glitch in the system, if you bought Christmas at the Cupcake Cafe
on e-reader it translated 4 oz of raisins to 402 raisins. I did have a few emails from people saying they only had 330 raisins and would that be alright... So, let me wish you a much calmer and more peaceful Christmas than any of my characters, but with just as much of the happy ending they all seem to manage by Boxing Day.'
Thanks very much and a Merry Christmas to you too, Jenny. You can find her online, well, everywhere really, but especially here
That's it until tomorrow. I've calmed down a bit already. Let's hope that process continues. Until then, Cheerio!