GUEST POST – The Wrong Doctor: Perspectives on “The Rebel Flesh” / “The Almost People”

by James Blanchard

 

The Rebel Flesh” and “The Almost People” – the two-part, 2011 story by Matthew Graham – is one of the strangest, weirdest, most infuriating episodes of Doctor Who I’ve ever watched. Part of me loves it, part of me hates; for all the nicely realised horror elements and moments, the superb visual language, the great performances and rich drawing of Amy, Rory and the Doctor, there’s a plot that’s impossible to follow, a pacing that lurches from action sequence to introspective conversation with nothing in-between, and incoherent motivations abound.

The story is open-ended, ambiguous, and not exactly clean in its execution. It is, then, precisely the kind of story to divide up us Doctor Who fans and leave us in love/hate country. But, despite it’s failings (magically appearing and disappearing sonic screwdrivers have given me a serious headache), I think this story is very much worthwhile talking about. There a few topics I want to touch on, but mostly the interest comes with the Doctor, and how, by the end, it’s hard to shake the feeling we’ve been left travelling with the wrong one.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Vienna: Retribution

Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles get to tell you about one of their absolute favourite Big Finish ranges. Read it. Failure to comply will result in level 3 punishment. Spoilers after the ‘read more’ tag.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

SCRIBBLES: This is a genuinely excellent set, let’s just get that out of the way, because we’re going to feel repetitive saying that whatever happens. This is just a very good story. It capitalizes on every aesthetic strength Vienna as a range has previously established (and if you’re not familiar with that, go check out spotify right now) while finding new levels of political and emotional depth to thrive in. Retribution mixes the wonderful, twisty mind games of the range with the crime drama that Vienna has been exploring from series 2 and a newfound moral backbone (hot off the heels of the destruction of space capitalism in “Impossibly Glamorous”; seriously, do yourself a favor and listen to all of Vienna, that one has killer corgis, it’s great). This new series hits hard in all the best ways, while never being anything less than a joy to listen to. And what’s more, I think we both agree, it’s the sort of storytelling we need in the present climate. It’s escapist fun with some fantastic, fantastic ideals, and it’s more inclusive than the range has ever been, matching wonderfully with the activism lead actress Chase Masterson has been pursuing in real life. As a series, this is quite possibly the finest Vienna yet, and I would highly recommend this to everyone.

TIBERE: Vienna is one of the best ranges in all of the Big Finish back catalogue. Straight fact for you. And another – it’s also one of their most overlooked, while it offers some superb satire and social commentary through the prism of fun, incredibly intricate and well-plotted adventures starring a cast of strong, likeable female characters. With any luck, the release of this latest installment, which for the first time adopts the format of three-part overall story penned by a single author, Guy Adams, who had already wrote the stand-out episode of series 3 (“Big Society”, or Space Donald Trump vs Living Architecture, haven’t you got it by now, SERIOUSLY, LISTEN TO ALL OF VIENNA), will change things, because holy mother of god, this is some absolutely incredible audio content. The plotting is great, but that was to be expected; the social elements are biting and corrosive, but that was to be expected – no, where this boxset really surprises is in the way it has of taking the relatively simple set-up of Vienna, with its larger-than-life, purposefully stereotypical characters, and giving them a surprising amount of poignancy, complexity and conflict. It’s quite a big shift for the range, but one Adams pulls off incredibly well and naturally. It feels like a natural extension, like lovely, organic growth that allows leads Chase Masterson and Sam Béart to let their (considerable) acting abilities soar. It’s an absolute wonder, and it needs to be recognized as such. Buy it, spread the word, we need more Vienna in the world, because it honestly makes it a better place. There’s not going to be many audio Who stories this year which will top this.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – The Churchill Years, volume II

Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle the return of Winston Churchill (and Madame Vastra!) under the Big Finish banner. Blood, sweat & spoilers after the read more tag.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts

TIBERE: As per all things involving Who’s version of Winston Churchill, I feel like a huge caveat should be place ahead of any kind of thoughts about that boxset – Churchill, as a person and historical figure, is very much questionable, to say the least, and to use him as the frontman for a series of Who adventures is an incredibly weird and misguided idea, especially in a day and age where the brand is trying to provide representation and shelter for marginalized group. It’s not okay – if you want more details, I can only refer you to Jack Graham’s Victory of the Icon essays, which tackle the topic with precision. But, if we are to accept that The Churchill Years are to be a part of our cultural landscape, well, this is as good as it gets – bar the first story, which offers some extremely negative stereotypes as far as race and gender are concern, there has been quite an effort made in order to avoid offense and to present a nuanced, and not especially positive, vision of Churchill. It’s not perfect, but the stories here show a level of care, imagination, and attention to plotting that I did not expect from the range. All in all, it’s a good surprise, and an example of the Big Finish writers successfully doing their best with a fundamentally flawed premise. I wouldn’t blame anyone choosing not to listen to it or buy it, and I’d personally quite like the company to move away from Churchill; but I think it does manage to justify its existence. And that, well, that wasn’t an easy win to score, so I guess I shall offer half-hearted kudos.

SCRIBBLES: As a rule, I listen to every story we cover twice before responding on here. And that’s a good thing. When I first listened through this set, I found myself responding quite bitterly, which, frankly, is something I don’t like to do or be. And I do still have some substantial criticisms about this set, particularly, as my cowriter noted, with the first story. But, and I’m very pleased to say this, a lot of this set works. There are two stories here that I think justify the existence of using Churchill as a focal point in Doctor Who fiction in of themselves, and the set in general lays off hero worship in favor of trying to tell new stories set in and responding to a time period defined by Churchill. As a result, while I have to say I don’t see this as a range with much sustainability, what we get here is a perfectly decent new series set and I feel less anxious about the future use of Churchill in Big Finish stories. And I can’t deny, there is still a fan thrill to be had in these. Eleven and Ten, but especially Nine, get their voices captured well here, and it’s always a joy to hear stories opening with the new series themes. I would not call this the most highly recommended of the new series of audios, but I’m pleased to say that you won’t hate spending a few hours with this for a bit more content with some wonderful Doctors.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Monthly Range: “Ghost Walk”

Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles embark on a tour of the ghostly devastations of Big Finish to tackle the latest Monthly audio, James Goss’ “Ghost Walk“. Spooky scary spoilers after the “read more” tag.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts

SCRIBBLES: Well, that was rather nice, wasn’t it? Since Time in Office,” I think it’s safe to say the main range has been something of a roll, and this is yet another very enjoyable story. James Goss does an excellent feat here of divvying up the action and structure to keep things engaging, without ever losing the audience. It’s tonally assured, it’s got a good core character to study, it’s got tidy plotting, and it’s got a new angle to put the Doctor into. For the main range to put out something like this on a monthly basis, which has been happening for half a year now, that’s an unqualified success. This is a very worthy way to spend two-hours, with enough small moments to reward revisit.

TIBERE: I feel like Big Finish has recently really been trying hard to justify the two-hours format for its monthlies more. Which was a really good call, because man, pacing is usually by far the biggest issue on these things. They’re getting a lot more experimental with tone and structure again in a way that we frankly haven’t seen in quite a while – plus, they’re doing it without necessarily teasing big arcs or anything, so that’s a nice thing, that sort of love of standalone little, intricate tales. “Ghost Walk” is not necessarily a triumph or anything, but its nonlinear, Russian nested doll structure is a really neat feat, and it uses its runtime admirably to build up ambiance and mystery. It’s a story that, I think it’s fair to say, would not work were it shorter, because it revels in disconnected elements, little teasers and scattershot puzzle pieces. That, in and on itself, makes it worth listening to. It’s not a revelation in terms of character and themes, but it’s a really good time, and a really good sign as to the current health of the Monthly Range.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Follow the River #1: The Trail of the Spore Ships (1/2)

River Song remains one of the most fascinating characters in the entire Who canon. You have to get the Big Finish writer(s) who said it was their favourite range to work on (source: Scribbles’ turn at Gally1, which I’m still very much jealous of). It’s not just that she was an essential character in the way she assumed the role of a Female Doctor – not exactly the first one to go there, but certainly the one who embodied it for the longest time and who made it stick in the general consciousness. She also created an entire universe of images, symbols and themes that are unique to her – we consider each Doctor in relation with a certain environment, after all, with a certain kind of stories, of tone, of imagery, so, for River to truly stand as the equal of the Doctor (and god knows Eleven, as far as specificity of tone and imagery goes, is hard to beat), she needs a world of her own. An ocean of stories for River. And she got one. More than Clara, her clearest analogue and successor of sorts, really – for all that she is a fantastic character, Clara is more directly connected with Doctor Who in general, with the attempts to envision the show as a global entity from which an ethos and a moral can be extracted. River is not so much trying to make the idea of the Doctor persevere and continue, but rather in offering a different and new version of it, better in some respects, worse in some others.

We previously discussed in that very column what “made” a River story, what were the essential, basic aesthetic principles that governed them; but, well, there’s still more to say about her, isn’t there? The Discourse is too tasty to be ignored, and in the wake of the absolutely amazing third Diary of River Song set, I thought it would be a good idea to launch this project: an on-and-off retrospective of River’s adventures, looking at her adventures on television and audio, in an arbitrary order and with no regularity whatsoever.

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LOOKING FOR TELOS – “Mission to the Unknown”

τέλος • (télosn (genitive τέλεος or τέλους); third declension

completion, accomplishment, fulfillment, perfection, consummation

The Whoniverse is wide, and rich, and crazy.

And sometimes, bits of it go overlooked. There’s no way around it, we, at DoWntime, are children of the New Series. Our cultural sensibilities and our tastes in Who have been shaped by it. And of course, when we’re embarking in the big task of producing Discourse, we naturally tend to tackle recent events, controversies and stories. But that doesn’t mean the twenty-six seasons of Classic Who are undeserving of some in-depth coverage – and what better way to deliver said coverage than to watch it.

ALL of it. In order. Without skipping anything.

We’re looking for our telos, and it starts now.

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ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION – Torchwood: Aliens Among Us III

Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle the conclusion to Big Finish’s fifth series of Torchwood. We know what you’ve done. And we know what you’ll do – that is, mind the spoilers after the ‘read more’ tag. And, if you’re so enclined, you find our coverage for parts one and two by following those links.

 

Spoiler-free thoughts:

TIBERE: Well, here we are, on the last page, and … I’m confused. It’s not that this boxset, or indeed the series as a whole, has been bad. It hasn’t, and really, it absolutely nailed it what it had to – proving that Torchwood could continue with different and new characters, and a new format. The concepts and the hooks are great, and enticing. But, after a first boxset that I absolutely adored, I think the series has trouble finding its way – there’s the matter of the nostalgic call-backs we already discussed, but, as this set makes it clear, there’s also some real issues in the way the arc, themes and plot development of the series have been conceived. It’s a really ambitious piece of work, but it’s also a deeply flawed one, much more than one might have initially supposed – but then again, this is Torchwood. There’s no such thing as perfectly polished Torchwood. I think the appeal of the show always has been these sorts of sudden conceptual bursts of genius, these really great stories coming almost out of the blue – and this set has that covered, so, really, there’s not too much to complain about.

SCRIBBLES: Would I recommend Aliens Among Us III? Wholeheartedly. The strength of the opening two stories here alone is far, far above the average baseline for Big Finish audio content, and easily stands up as some of the best Torchwood material ever. However, I will say, brace for niggles. They’re niggles worth experiencing, as Aliens Among Us has as a whole been a tremendous success that everyone should hear. But don’t expect a sense of closure. I loved all three sets of Aliens Among Us, and this set has my favorite piece of the lot. And yet, unfortunately, I’m also left asking what the story was about in the end. I can say, though, I immediately went back to relisten to the entire thing because I wanted to understand, and enjoyed all twelve hours even more on revisit. Aliens Among Us demands that kind of investment because it is such a complex and clever piece. I don’t entirely feel like I’ve got what it wants to be yet, but the most damning critique I can make of this set is that it’s so ambitious and daring it can’t contain itself. That’s a healthy thing to be. Torchwood is back, and as this set proves, it’s not going away in a hurry. I think we all can be happy about that.

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LOOKING FOR TELOS – “Galaxy 4”

τέλος • (télosn (genitive τέλεος or τέλους); third declension

completion, accomplishment, fulfillment, perfection, consummation

The Whoniverse is wide, and rich, and crazy.

And sometimes, bits of it go overlooked. There’s no way around it, we, at DoWntime, are children of the New Series. Our cultural sensibilities and our tastes in Who have been shaped by it. And of course, when we’re embarking in the big task of producing Discourse, we naturally tend to tackle recent events, controversies and stories. But that doesn’t mean the twenty-six seasons of Classic Who are undeserving of some in-depth coverage – and what better way to deliver said coverage than to watch it.

ALL of it. In order. Without skipping anything.

We’re looking for our telos, and it starts now.

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TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Doctor Who and Stanger Things: creating nostalgia, creative nostalgia

People sure as hell are feeling nostalgic these days.

Not that it isn’t a normal process in our cultural landscape – storytelling patterns and sociologically-charged imagery are very much cyclical, and know periods of resurgence after some years away from the spotlight. There’s a “nostalgia pendulum”, or “thirty years cycle” at work in here somewhere, to borrow terms frequently used in the film-criticy recesses of the Internet (1) (2). But there’s this ever-present song and tune about living in the age of the remake, of the homage – of nostalgia. Maybe it’s all due to the fact, that, well, times are hard, and when orange demagogues bring the delicate whiff of capitalist fascism to your inconvenienced nostrils, it’s tempting to barricade yourself beyond a prelapsarian fantasy of a time before we were all fucked. Or maybe it’s a consequence of the evolving trends of the TV market – in an age where event television, outside of Game of Thrones, is pretty much dead and buried, there’s quite a bit of room for targeted niche demographics, people that have money in their wallets and Netflix on their computers, and a desire to be pandered to.

It’s not like Who was escaping the trend either. If we take the beginning of the Capaldi era as a starting point – we saw in three series and four years the return of the Master, of Davros, of the Shadow Proclamation, of the planet Karn, of Gallifrey and Rassillon, of basically every Dalek variant ever, of River Song, of the Movellans, of the Ice Warriors, of the Mondasian Cybermen, of the First Doctor, of Ben and Polly. People are feeling nostalgic, I tell you!

But there’s nostalgia and nostalgia. All visions of the past are not equal, or equally worthwhile. Hence – Stranger Things.

 

[CONTENT WARNING: passing mentions of suicide and abuse]

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GUEST POST – Doctor Who and the Soft Reboot

by Z.P. Moo

 

It’s an exciting time to be a Doctor Who fan at the moment. We sit on the brink of a new era for the first time since the 2005 relaunch. So I thought it might be good to take the time to look at three such occasions where a similar transition took place – with varying results. Specifically the three attempts to relaunch the series from its 1989 cancellation, those of Paul McGann, Richard E Grant, and Christopher Eccleston.

I’m excluding the beginning of the Steven Moffat years here, you’ll notice. The reason for that is simple: continuity. Moffat had been a regular and (deservingly) popular writer for the show during the time before he took charge, he kept largely the same format, and he kept many of his contemporaries on board. Chris Chibnall, having not written for the series since 2012, seems to be doing no such thing. Not even the music composer is safe this time, the show’s format is getting a shake-up, and there’s the small issue of the Doctor being a woman now (and not a moment too soon to quote one of her underrated predecessors). As much as Steven Moffat’s phenomenal tenure in charge was seen as a clean break from what came before, that wasn’t really the case when you scratch the surface.

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