Tag: Doctor Who

New Doctor on Sunday? Dude Doctor on Sunday.

It’s just been announced that on Sunday the BBC is going to announce the actor who will take over from Matt Smith as the next (twelfth) Doctor, so I thought I’d better get my thoughts in beforehand. In short: I’ll welcome anyone as the Doctor as long as they’re good. My main preferences are an accent from somewhere in the UK, and that after two younger Doctors in a row we get someone a bit older. (Despite what you may think, I’m not that fussed about the ginger thing.)

So if you’re wondering, yes, I think it’d be great to have a woman play the Doctor, or someone who’s not white. Very few people seem to have an issue with the latter change, but there’s a vocal group among fans who think the Doctor ought to remain a man. There’s nothing wrong with having this as a preference, but I’ve noticed that some people seem to express or feel it very…strongly, but can’t quite articulate why. I just listened to the Verity podcast episode about this very subject, where Erika was very “that’s just how I feel”. Now for many, this might be because it is just a gut feeling that they like the Doctor being a man for any number of reasons, and perhaps it does feel like defending that position sounds sexist which makes it difficult. But I think, for some people at least, there might be another reason.

Changing the Doctor’s gender and/or sex is different to just changing a male lead for a female one; this isn’t like casting a woman as Jane Bond, or making a TV series with a woman playing Sherlock Holmes (or, to fuel the fantasies, a lizard woman… 😉 In those scenarios it’s a new version of the character, one who has always been a woman; just like Joan Watson in Elementary (who, by the way, I think is great, since based on the few episodes I’ve seen it’s now another show on TV where a male and female protagonist don’t have a will they/won’t they relationship).

No; a big difference is, if the Twelfth Doctor were to be a woman, then the Doctor becomes a transgender character.

Now, I’m all for that. I’ll readily accept anyone as the Doctor, assuming they cast an actor who works in the role and that the current writing and production team stop putting sexist dickery into the show (I still can’t get over the “tight skirt” line at the end of Nightmare in Silver). But I think that, perhaps, this is a subconscious reason some people find this much more confronting than those other examples.

We’re socialised to believe that men and women are different, that only men should be “masculine” and women “feminine”, that sex and gender are linked, and that sex is biological and genetic and fixed. (Mike Krahulik’s recent Twitter controversy is a big example of someone not getting how this is false.) It can be argued that the Doctor doesn’t often display qualities associated with either gender role – indeed, he often used to be more like a child too young to be concerned with gender, though in new Who, he’s more like a little boy who’s absorbed some ideas about girls. But that doesn’t change the fact that for a mainstream audience, a person who changes gender is a much bigger deal than a new character who’s a woman. And, indeed, a bigger challenge for the production team to get right: should they play it as though it makes no difference to the character? (My instinct says yes, but then the Doctor in the new series is presented pretty firmly as a hetero dude, so that might be difficult.) If they should acknowledge the change, then how?

I hope that changes, and I see signs that it is, but I think that’s possibly a reason why some who oppose the idea feel so strongly about it, yet unable to articulate why. The young women (and young men – older fans like me, I think, still prefer to think of the Doctor as avuncular or fatherly) who think of the Doctor as a sex symbol might love having a female Doctor-like character, but may find it much more confronting (and I mean that, rather than confusing) to have their existing sex symbol transformed into a woman.

I should say I can also see other reasons why the Doctor maybe shouldn’t be turned into a woman. What does it say about women as leads in genre shows if they only time a character can be played by a woman, but not written as explicitly “female”, is when they take over a character traditionally played by a man? We’re not off the hook as a creative culture for making great and varied female characters in any case. Why isn’t someone making a show like Doctor Who (assuming you can do such a thing) with a female lead? (Hell, why isn’t someone making a show like Doctor Who period? There’s room for more non-traditional telefantasy, but all we get are serious sci-fi shows and variations on demon and ghost hunting.) Surely we should be doing that as well? And there’s some merit in the idea discussed in Verity that the Doctor is a great example of a male hero who doesn’t always act in a traditionally masculine way, shooting things and so on – though he does have the very traditional male role of escalating his response or hardening his personality because the bad guys do something to “his girl” Rose being the worst example in the new series. (Worth noting that they flip this with Amy; she hardens up or kicks things off to the next level because of things done to Rory, at least as often as bad things are done to her, which is what usually happens exclusively to female heroes.)

Anyway, food for thought. In a couple of days we’ll know which dude has the role – and I’m sure it’ll be a dude, which perhaps is for the best, given the current gender politics in the production team.

Variations on a theme

I love soundtracks. I think it comes from when I was young, when I used to put my tape recorder next to the television and record the audio of my favourite Doctor Who stories so I could listen to them on my Walkman later. Sure, there was lots of dialogue, but I also heard those music cues a thousand times. When I started buying CDs, some of my earliest purchases were a box set of the Star Wars soundtracks (I don’t even like Star Wars that much!) and the Silva Screen Doctor Who soundtracks. Listening to the medley of music from The Caves of Androzani I am always transported to the first time I saw it, and I picture every moment in perfect detail. I’ve listened to it hundreds of times. I’m also a bit obsessed with Hans Zimmer’s amazing soundtrack for the Sherlock Holmes movie, Alan Silvestri’s score for Back to the Future, Joby Talbot’s work on The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (especially the desctruction of Earth, one of the funniest pieces of music ever if you’ve seen its context), even Vinc DiCola’s ultimate 80s electronic rock for Transformers: The Movie, but I also love the best game work, including Yu Miyake’s Katamari soundtracks, the Final Fantasy titles scored by Nobuo Uematsu, and the incredible work of Michael Z Land.

I also love cover songs, and nothing brings the two together like a good theme. I was part of a sadly abortive cover band called Rough Draft, and our gimmick was that we would play only acoustic covers of cartoon theme songs. We started with the theme to Sealab 2021, and managed to learn at least a dozen songs or so – I particularly enjoyed performing The Trapdoor, Dangermouse and Count Duckula. We never got past rehearsal stage though – probably because, even if we played our entire repertoire, we hardly managed a 6 minute set!

But there are three themes which have occupied my brain like a fever over the years, one quite recent.

Doctor Who

The Doctor Who theme is one of the most important pieces in the history of electronic music. Composed by Ron Grainer, it was “realised” by Delia Derbyshire, for many years an unsung heroine of the Radiophonic Workshop (who were never credited individually). In the days before computers, Derbyshire used tone generators and manually spliced together tape to create the most iconic television theme tune of all time. Grainer himself was rightly so impressed by the final product that he supposedly didn’t recognise it as his own composition. There were several revisions in the show’s first couple of decades, then the Peter Howell 80s update changed the pace and spawned a couple more revisions (I have a soft spot for the Trial of a Time Lord version, with its extra little layers) until Dominic Glynn’s slower version for Sylvester McCoy. The television movie in 1996 (which I prefer to call by its nickname, Grace: 1999) had a pretty lame orchestral version which lost a lot of what made the originals great, and while I have enjoyed the new series versions, they too started out too generic themey; when more of Delia crept back in, and they lost the trumpety bits added in by Murray Gold, they won me back.

But it’s not just the show that’s produced new versions; there have been loads. The most famous is probably Doctorin’ the Tardis [sic], the KLF’s cynically manufactured number one single, a glorious mash up of the theme with Gary Glitter’s “Rock n Roll” (parts one and/or two) and “Blockbuster” by The Sweet. I do love that track; it brings a mix of memories, of car trips, my first album (Smash Hits ’88 or the equivalent), and of being chased around the school yard by bullies chanting the chorus.

But for my money, it’s the fan versions I love. Some are slavish recreations of this version or that; some horrible misfires; some new interpretations that blow you away with power, or humour, or experimentation. The web site whomix collects them and even has a handy feed you can subscribe to as a podcast; I have nearly 250 of them sitting in my iTunes library, and despite having a few CDs worth of profressional remixes and new versions, it’s one of these I sometimes use as a ringtone (it’s the Vortex Mix by Hardwire, a chap who’s made many of my faves on whomix).

Monkey Island

I’m relatively old school when it comes to gaming. Sure, I like Dragon Age: Origins and Portal and my XBox 360 gets a decent workout with the cream of the crop of new titles and downloads, but my heart belongs to the long dead graphic adventure genre. While I played plenty of games before it, it was LucasArts’ The Secret of Monkey Island which really made me love computer games – and no small part of that lies in the musical genius of Michael Z Land. He put together a magnificent score, and at its centre lies the theme from Monkey Island, a brilliant piece which combines a Caribbean feel and a real sense of humour to perfectly encapsulate the mood and tone of the series.

Like the Doctor Who theme, it’s an iconic piece that many, many fans have sought to cover. While The International House of Mojo has been the main community hub for LucasArts fans, your best bets for finding covers of the theme – and other parts of Land’s very memorable score – are World of Monkey Island, which has a whole section for fan music, or The Scumm Bar, which also has a fan music section. My favourites would have to be Monkey Island Rocks, a heavy guitar version by Eduardo Gouveia, and the enigmatic MJ, TW, and PH’s atmospheric Monkey Island Medley, which reinterprets various refrains and introduces new music which fits in seamlessly with Land’s stuff.

Game of Thrones

I have rarely found a new obsession and thrown myself into so wholeheartedly as I have Game of Thrones, the HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s beloved series of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire. The theme – and the score – for the series are works of art by Ramin Djawadi, and indeed my newest heavy rotation playlist has been my top nine tracks from the soundtrack album – including the title theme of course – and a couple of fan covers for good measure.

Yes, before the series was even finished, lots of people were covering the theme. In keeping with its newer pedigree, most of the covers are found on YouTube, though thankfully both of my favourites also provide mp3 downloads. Unsurprisingly, given the popularity of the books among metal bands – there are at least three songs titled “Take the Black”, which is what it’s called when you join the ancient order of the Night’s Watch in the series – one of the best ones gives the theme a harder edge.  The Heavy Version version is by Whitenoise Lab, and since it was the only version I had prior to the release of the soundtrack, iTunes tells me I’ve listened to it 159 times. (It’ll be 161 by the time I finish this article.) The layers of guitar, bass and drums really kick things up a notch! My other favourite is no less amazing, though accomplished with just two instruments – both of them violins. Jason Yang’s violin cover is a thing of beauty from a great musician, laying down around a dozen tracks on acoustic and electric violin to give a rich, full sound. This one is climbing up the charts!

Journey of the Sorcerer

This is a bonus track, of sorts. It’s not technically a theme, but rather an instrumental track from The Eagles’ album “One of These Nights”. You probably know it, though, as the theme from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The original radio series used the song without any modification to great effect; the ethereal banjo and strings arrangement really does fit perfectly with hitchhiking between the stars, and was used at Adams’ insistence. The television series used a new version which has charm, but the soul of the original wasn’t recaptured until a short sequence in the film version which paid homage to this extraordinary piece of music. It’s been my default ringtone for years, and back when I had a phone which could use custom text message tones (are you listening, Apple?), my phone would emit one of those iconic banjo chords to let me know I’d received a message.

There are quite a few covers and alternate versions on YouTube, though to be honest I can’t really fault the original, and play it constantly. Of the others, this one is perhaps most interesting: played at the end of the last episode of the expanded radio series (produced by Dirk Maggs and covering the books after the first two, bringing them into the radio continuity), it uses parts of the original song not often heard in the radio series, and brings a little orchestration in.

Wow. Look how productive I am when waiting for my iPhone to restore from backup!

The Time Lord at 45

November 23, 1963: a television programme like no other premiered in the United Kingdom. So today, Doctor Who is 45, and it’s an exciting time to be a fan, as David Tennant finishes up his run in the title role over the next year, ushering in both a new Doctor (who at the moment would seem to be all but confirmed as Paterson Joseph) and a new show runner, perennial best-episode-of-the-season author Stephen Moffat.

This is a science-themed blog, though, so it’s worth me taking a moment to reflect on the sometimes rocky history between two of my great loves: science and Doctor Who. Things started out well: the first episode, An Unearthlty Child – justly lauded as one of the series’ greatest – includes a couple of brief classroom scenes in which the Doctor’s granddaughter shows her vastly superior science knowledge. Over the years the Doctor has generally championed science; during John Pertwee’s tenure in the seventies, and despite the fairly blatant Buddhist overtones of that era and various seemingly supernatural foes, he always insisted that magic was merely advanced science not understood by humans. This stretched a bit, including such unobserved phenomena as psychic abilities and so on, but by and large it was clear that the Doctor is a scientist.

Mind you, it was also John Pertwee who famously called on a suffering UNIT technician to “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” and perpetuated the myth that “classical aerondynamics” suggests bumblebees can’t fly… And these were signs of the trend to follow. In the late seventies, scientific concepts and terms were tossed into scripts where they bore no resemblance to their re-world counterparts; during the eighties a tendency to mix real world science with nonsense escalated to the insane psuedo-science of Time and the Rani.

These days, science and the good Doctor might seem estranged. The show has become a member of that quite specific genre of science fantasy: fantasy with the trappings of science (a niche occupied also by Star Wars). Since Russell T. Davies took over, the only real-world grounding for Doctor Who has been a social one: the famliy and context of the current companion, which during his series has always been contemporary (though, as sharp readers will know, set one year in the future).

It’s easy to get caught up in arguments about this sort of thing; time “paradoxes” (they usually aren’t, and if they are…well, they’re paradoxes, and by definition cannot exist) and black holes are particular bugbears, with the former almost unknown in the series until recently (surprisingly, for a show about a Time Lord!) and the latter ascribed any and all peculiar abilities. But really it’s the Doctor’s attitude that makes the show still one of science’s greatest allies.

He’s not a two-fisted adventurer or a soldier or even a policeman; the sonic screwdriver might be a magic wand and is occasionally wielded as if it were a gun, but even so the Doctor’s main weapon continues to be his mind. He’s a thinking hero, a man of action whose first action is always to analyse his foe, to outwit rather than outgun. It’s true these days this sometimes gets lost in the emotional drama, which Davies rightly put first when reestablishing the show, and sometimes the Doctor’s solution relies almost entirely on information never established in advance (the void matter being attracted to the void in Doomsday, for example), but the Doctor is still the thinking man’s hero. Science is about asking questions, examining the observed facts, establishing patterns…

There are few finer examples of a science hero than Eccleston’s Doctor, trapped in 10 Downing Street, marshalling the facts about the Slitheen in order to discover their identity and weaknesses.