Review: Now We Are Six Hundred by James Goss and Russell T Davies

This article first appeared on DoWntime on 14 September 2017.

It’s a fair question why this book exists. With Doctor Who off the air until Christmas and Jodie Whittaker on the horizon, the decision to release a poetry collection, of all things, is  inscrutable. Its author, James Goss, has been writing Doctor Who spinoff material for more than a decade, and its illustrator is Russell T Davies, who famously revived the series in 2005. The result is a book that feels stuck in the past, and its overall tone is wildly confused. It’s hard not to be disappointed, as a fan of both Doctor Who and poetry in general. Now We Are Six Hundred is a wasted opportunity, a funny little footnote on the way to better things.

Of course, it’s the illustrator who is the real draw here. The reasons for this are obvious, but Davies does demonstrate some real artistic talent. His style is somewhere between Martin Brown and Pete McKee, with a scratchy line and exaggerated facial features, which help create a sense of playfulness. As on television, he has a solid line in visual gags, with highlights including K9 sitting on Snoopy’s kennel, and Four using his scarf as a lasso. But he also manages to inject some real pathos. His illustrations of a lonely and abandoned Sarah Jane, or a nostalgic yet forgetful Donna Noble are genuinely moving, and demonstrate real emotional range. Judged solely as a vehicle for Davies’s illustrations, Now We Are Six Hundred is a fabulous success.

Unfortunately, the accompanying poems are uniformly dreadful. Goss bases many of them on the work of A.A. Milne (the title refers to Milne’s Now We Are Six) placing the book firmly in the realm of children’s literature. But there’s very little sense that Goss has engaged with children’s poetry, or indeed poetry in general, beyond 1927. His attention to metre is sloppy at best, and he has a knack for ear-scraping forced rhymes.

Take the poem ‘Absences’, about schoolteacher Clara Oswald disappearing for an adventure, and then reappearing to the consternation of her class. This is prime subject matter for children’s poetry – one can imagine Michael Rosen or Andy Tooze writing something very witty in exactly this vein – but Goss squanders the premise with this final stanza:

“Miss Clara

Slipped back in the

Middle of a lesson. “Now, where were we?”

Where were you?!?” “What’s the hurry?

I’ve been in space, met Ghandhi for curry,

Saved the human race, s’okay don’t worry

And no, don’t thank me.”

Oh Miss Clara

Miss, this time

You’ve gone too far-er.”

Setting aside the appalling last line, the misspelling of Gandhi’s name, and indeed the crassness of ‘meeting him for curry’, what’s most annoying about this poem is the disservice it does to Clara as a character. Throughout the series Clara is framed in terms of both literature and childhood; she’s an English teacher, she refers to ‘basic storytelling’ in explaining things to the Doctor, and her second story involves her literally taking a leaf out of a children’s book. This makes her perfect for a poem like this. But she’s also defined as “a bossy control freak” with a pathological need to keep things in order. So when Goss has her casually disappear for weeks in the first stanza (“Miss Clara?/ Where are yer?”) it simply doesn’t wash. The tension between Clara’s desire for adventure and her need to maintain responsibility is what drives her relationship with the Doctor, and indeed Doctor Who. To have her carelessly swanning off is not just out of character, it misunderstands what makes her character interesting.

This tendency to ignore thematic depth in favour of shallow blandishments is best exemplified in the climactic poem ‘Friend Ship’. It attempts to pay tribute to the Doctor’s companions over the last fifty years, and it does this by simply listing their first names:

“Rose, Jack and Jackie

Martha, (horse) and Mickey.

 

Donna, Donna, Donnaaaa!

(Never forgetting her)

 

Amy, Winston, Rory

River (that’s another story).”

The problem with this list is twofold. First, it relies entirely on the reader knowing who all these characters are, and in quite a lot of detail. We need, for instance, to remember that Donna’s final story involved having her memory wiped, that Winston Churchill appeared in two episodes nearly seven years ago, and that a horse appeared in a single episode more than eleven years ago. No problem for the dedicated adult fan, but surely baffling for the children this book is ostensibly aimed at. But this list also fails by the standards of the continuity-minded adult fan, who will instantly point out that Winston wasn’t ‘really’ a companion, and that the horse’s name was Arthur. Goss has failed to think through his readers’ experience here, and so the book ends up feeling vapid and cynical to an older fan, and likely confusing to a younger one.

But even worse is the poem’s final couplet:

“Then Nardole, Bill and River too

And,

MOST IMPORTANTLY

There’s

YOU.”

This is not just trite and unimaginative, it actively talks down to its supposed audience, something Doctor Who never did under Russell T Davies (or for that matter Steven Moffat). The worst that can be said of Now We Are Six Hundred is that in its fealty to the letter of Doctor Who, it is almost antithetical to its spirit.

The sad thing is, this project could so easily have been better. There are surely dozens of published poets who would love to play with the wealth of concepts (and the wide audience) Doctor Who has to offer. Hell, there are hundreds of writers and artists online doing exactly that, mostly for free. So instead of wasting a tenner on this book, I recommend you go and follow some of them. Particularly good are unknown-companion-poems, Johannesviii, James Wylder, and Jonne Bartelds, all of whose work is far more stylish, and far more deserving of support than Goss and Davies’s efforts. At the end of the day, the value proposition of this book is far less than that of simply opening a Tumblr account.

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Steven Moffat: A talk at the Oxford Union

This article first appeared on The Cherwell website on 14 November 2016.

“I am rubbish.” This was the opening statement of Steven Moffat’s talk at the Oxford Union on Monday, and it’s an assessment most of the audience presumably disagreed with. Best known for helming Doctor Who and Sherlock, Moffat’s career stretches back to 1989, and covers such varied genres as children’s TV, sitcoms, feature films, as well as the BBC One dramas which helped make his name. In his brief address before a general Q&A, Moffat stressed the importance of self-awareness.

“I am rubbish. I first became aware of my rubbishness when I overheard my wife on the phone to some camera-people. ‘Don’t get him to take the lens back to Cardiff,’ she said. ‘Why? Because he’ll lose it. I know he’ll lose it. Because he’s rubbish.’ I heard her say that. I took the lens. I lost it.” But rubbishness is a universal trait: “everyone is in disguise as a competent human being.” Diligence is an important factor in success: “you can’t control how rubbish you are… but you can control how hard you work.”

Moffat has been called many things; showrunner, creator, executive producer. But the title he really cherishes is ‘Writer’. “It’s great to be a writer, because we make it up! It’s like you’ve done all the homework, and everyone else copies it.” Moffat was playfully resentful of directors. “They’ll say ‘my inspiration for this movie was this or that moment in my life or this or that artistic vision… and not the 120 pages of finished script my screenwriter gave me! Who else has that, in their job? Oh look, here’s exactly what I need to do.”

The talk then moved into an interview, starting with Doctor Who. Moffat has no patience with the idea of ‘overloading’ the audience. “Children nowadays, teenagers nowadays, are some of the cleverest audiences in history – they’re keeping up with television while texting and tweeting each other, and they’re all getting it. We try never to have a dull moment on Doctor Who.” Catering to adults is fairly straightforward – “it’s like when you go into a restaurant and you eye the children’s menu, and you wish you could order from that instead – it’s the same principle.” There are challenges – “you have to be ringingly clear” – but Moffat was adamant that “to write for children is to write better… everybody likes children’s stuff.”

As well as executive producing Doctor Who, Moffat is co-producer on Sherlock. They’re two very distinct shows, but Moffat finds the differences easy to manage. “I’ve spoken to Mark [Gatiss] about this; we’ve just got to pretend that we don’t work on both. They’re both part of the same landscape, so when a similarity crops up we just try and go with it rather than getting anxious.” It’s not a difference that keeps either writer up at night: “The Doctor is a sort of space Sherlock Holmes anyway.”

Sherlock and Doctor Who are both prestige BBC shows; how does Moffat view the corporation and its future? “The BBC is an unequivocal good – that doesn’t mean every decision it makes is good, or that it’s above reproach, but there’s nothing else in the world like it, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. The circumstances which produced it are never coming back.” Moffat is not totally enamoured of the beeb; “Mark says: ‘you love the BBC, but you don’t expect the BBC to love you back.’” Governments naturally go after the corporation; “no-one likes being criticised. If I had power over every TV critic in the world, I’d have them all executed!” Nevertheless, Moffat hopes that the BBC “remains the powerhouse that it is.”

Returning to Doctor Who, an audience member asked if there was anything Moffat could tell us about the next series. There was talk of a return of the Cybermen, perhaps even an origin story, but Moffat seemed reticent. “Anything is possible… but it’s not an idea that I’m aware of. It’s kind of been done, and I’d be hesitant to return to it. But then I generally speaking lie, so you never know”.

Conscious of potential spoilers, Moffat ended with a tease of series 10: “The Doctor will reliably save the day. There will be big speeches and evil monsters. There will be an epic amount of urgent standing. And you’ll all fall in love with Pearl Mackie as Bill.”

A chat with Oxford WhoSoc

Photo: Hannah Taylor

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 6 May 2016. Hannah and Beth are friends of mine, so this was a really fun interview as well, and I’m happy to say they’ve converted me to their cause – I started going to WhoSoc after writing this article, so I can attest it is exactly as fun as they say it is.

So, there’s this show called Doctor Who. You might have heard of it. It’s good fun. Similarly fun are the show’s fans, a number of whom attend Oxford University. The Doctor Who Society (WhoSoc for short) organise weekly meetings involving TV-watching, geek quizzes, and speaker events. Taking over the club this term are Corpuscles Hannah Taylor and Beth Graham, who met with me to discuss Peter Capaldi, Dalek-related accidents and the joys of green bubble wrap.

 

Could you start by telling us your roles within WhoSoc?

Hannah: I’m the current president. I look after the society, and I uphold the constitution. Which involves fabulous clauses such as “Every meeting should end by zooming in on Colin Baker’s face”.

Beth: I’m treasurer. I basically make sure we don’t go into financial ruin, and occasionally pester people to give us money, as we’re not the richest society.

Hannah: It involves sending me emails going “we can’t afford this, because otherwise we’ll have no money.” Our main expense is that when we have speakers, we pay for their travel expenses and so on, which is only fair really as we’ve asked them to speak.

 

The BBC have recently announced a new companion, any thoughts on that? What do you think of the show at the moment?

Hannah: I really liked what we saw of the new companion [Pearl Mackie] – there’s not much to go on yet, but there’s a bit of humour in there, which works quite well. This is the blessing of the show, that it’s constantly regenerating, you’ve always got new faces, so it always has a different feel whenever you watch it. Given the nature of Peter Capaldi as an actor, it’s been more serious lately, which I think is a nice change from what we’ve had previously.

Beth: Yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing how Peter Capaldi interacts with Pearl Mackie, it’s nice to have a more comedic companion. It’ll be nice to have someone who’s up for a bit of a laugh.

Hannah: Yes, and this is part of the nature of Peter Capaldi, as much as I love the odd bit of romance now and then, it’s nice to have a change from companions falling in love with the Doctor. The way he plays it, it’s much more obvious he’s not a human.

 

How did you both get involved in Oxford WhoSoc?

Hannah: When I first got the Oxford prospectus, on the Clubs and Societies page the one photo was of the Doctor Who Society stall at freshers’ fair. I remember looking at that prospectus and thinking “that’s the dream, isn’t it? Going to Oxford and joining the Doctor Who Society!” I knew it existed, so it was the one thing I was looking for at freshers’ fair. I knew I wanted to join, straight off.

Beth: Part of what drew me in is that they had new episodes showing at the time, and it was a way to go and see them.

Hannah: That’s quite a good way of doing things, actually, draw them in with new episodes on the Saturday and then convince them to stay for the classic stuff.

 

What sort of crowd does WhoSoc draw?

Hannah: It’s quite a mix. The stereotype is you expect lots of scientists, and very geeky sorts.

Beth: I’d say there were more humanities than scientists.

Hannah: Yeah, strangely enough, there are a lot of humanities. It does depend on the day you come, really. It’s quite a good society because everyone’s just very nice to each other, so it’s good to turn up and speak to people who love the show as much as you do.

Beth: The people are lovely, and it’s quite nice meeting with older people, who have been through the university system, but are still around for the meetings.

 

What are your favourite aspects of the job?

Hannah: Being able to say that you’re the President of the Doctor Who Society is really quite cool. It’s like, yeah, I’ve reached Ultimate Fan Level. Plus you do get experience running an organisation, which is always useful.

Beth: The history of the society is almost as rich as the history of the show itself, it’s been running since the eighties, so it’s great to be a part of that history.

 

What are your plans for the society?

Hannah: Freshers’ fair, we’re looking forward to, I think.

Beth: We’ve got Doctor Who cookies, a remote control Dalek going around – which I nearly sent down the stairs – that was a scary time, Hannah told me off.

Hannah: Daleks and stairs do not mix. But yeah, the plan is to get more people in, so we don’t collapse as a society. I think the geeky societies can be quite insular.

Beth: Yes, we want to make it a bit more open, so the casual fan can go too. As someone who was very much a casual fan joining the society, it can seem intimidating to be sat in a room with people who know far more than you do. But really, you’re there to watch and enjoy the show, so that’s personally what I would want to project.

 

How would you persuade someone to come to WhoSoc?

Hannah: I’d pitch the society the same way I’d pitch the show, really. It’s got something for everyone: there’s action, there’s humour, there’s drama, there’s romance, there’s everything you could want, at any point in time. It makes it very fun to watch as a group, and to get new friends out of it, and we have a lot of fun together.

Beth: There’s a good sense of humour about it as well – if the episode we’re showing has got ridiculous special effects, like one story we watched with a monster made of green bubble wrap, we’re going to laugh and heckle. It’s good-natured fun, and a chance to discuss it with people.

Hannah: And trips to the pub.

Beth: Oh yeah. No meeting is complete without a trip to the pub.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Blue Box; or, why The Abominable Bride Failed

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 24 January 2016. It’s a bit geeky, but I’m still proud of it, and of my genre television articles in general.

Steven Moffat once said of his notoriously convoluted plot-writing for Doctor Who: “It all makes perfect sense if you watch it in the wrong order.” The comment seems particularly relevant in the wake of the latest Sherlock episode, ‘The Abominable Bride’. Judged in isolation, it’s a messy, self-indulgent affair that feels like a step backwards for both Moffat and cowriter Mark Gatiss. But many of its flaws begin to make sense when the context of its production is taken into account. It is best understood as a missing link in its writers’ creative evolution; while this does not excuse its many problems, it does cast them in a different light.

The episode opens with a recreation of the opening of series one, transposed to the Victorian Britain of Conan Doyle’s original stories. We proceed to a plot involving an apparently resurrected and vengeful bride, an upper-class couple with a sordid secret, and a mysterious, all-pervading conspiracy. It’s a straightforward Gothic mystery of the kind that formed the bulk of Conan Doyle’s output, and it’s also typical of Gatiss, who gets top screenwriting billing here. A writer famous for his Victorian obsession, he helps to make the first hour of ‘The Abominable Bride’ an energetic period piece, even if it does start to lose momentum after those sixty minutes.

Here, the episode reveals the main trick that it has been hiding up its sleeve. The drug-addled Sherlock wakes up in the present day, revealing that the entire episode has been taking place inside his ‘mind-palace’. This is the moment at which the episode starts to go into decline, but it’s worth pausing to consider the nature of this reveal. This moment is typical of Moffat’s approach to Doctor Who, his other major BBC show, specifically his use of cliffhangers. In this model, tension is generated not by placing the characters in immediate danger – waking up is not a moment of peril for Sherlock – but on radically shifting the nature of the story being told.

The Inception-esque conceit of characters emerging from dreams within dreams is recycled from the Doctor Who episode ‘Last Christmas’, the script of which Moffat wrote immediately before ‘The Abominable Bride’, and the bevy of in-jokes prefigures the continuity-happy antics of his next Doctor Who script, ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’. Similarly, the idea of Sherlock escaping his own mind palace feels like a first draft of 2015 episode ‘Heaven Sent’, in which the Doctor had to escape from a similar psychological trap, and which also featured an extended grave-digging scene. ‘The Abominable Bride’ sees Moffat transitioning between two different modes of storytelling. In one model, the plot is something to which the characters respond; in the other, the plot is fundamentally an outgrowth of the characters. The thing is, it doesn’t quite work. This goes for Gatiss too: the about-face of ‘The Abominable Bride’ from romping genre pastiche to greater structural complexity is mirrored in his scripts for series eight and nine of Doctor Who, but the latter mode never sits comfortably.

HEAVEN SENT (By Steven Moffat)

The main problem of ‘The Abominable Bride’s script is that it doesn’t make a clean break between the two stories that it wants to juxtapose. Having wrenched us out of one story and into another, the writers realise that there is still a plot to resolve in the Victorian setting, and, more importantly, a cliffhanger that they pointedly don’t want to resolve in the present. So instead, the action flips noncommittally between past and present, climaxing in an ill-judged recreation of the Reichenbach Falls that leans too heavily on a few wry metafictional comments. Including a sudden shift in a story’s premise is a way of persuading an audience to tune in again next week, but the technique is less effective when the establishing of a new premise is followed by a switch back to the old one. Doing this two-thirds of the way through an episode leaves even less time to resolve a newly complicated plot.

These problems are exacerbated by unimaginative direction. Douglas Mackinnon lacks the stylistic panache that Nick Hurran or Toby Haynes brought to the programme. The scene transitions oscillate between bland and clunky, and the division between reality and fantasy is never made visually interesting. The cast is generally strong: Martin Freeman is a delight as a snootier, more uptight version of Watson; and Mark Gatiss excels as Mycroft Holmes, his calm despair in dealing with his brother’s addiction striking a chilling moment in an otherwise lightweight story. But Benedict Cumberbatch is surprisingly weak here; he is visibly lost in many of the Victorian scenes, and he struggles with the more over-the-top comedy.

‘The Abominable Bride’ is unlikely to be remembered as an enduring classic. Caught between two competing aesthetics, its writers not yet capable of achieving their goals, it idly entertains for sixty minutes, then flounders and frustrates for thirty. Had it been broadcast a year earlier, before Moffat began experimenting with such plot shifts, it might have been seen as an intriguing step forward. Instead, it’s an odd throwback by writers who have done much better.

Review: Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons by Philip Sandifer

2015 has been an interesting year for science fiction. Between the Sad Puppies, Star Wars and Sansa Stark, this has been a year with no shortage of controversy along with all the landmark pieces of speculative fiction. One of 2015’s most insightful and entertaining commentators has been Philip Sandifer, of the reliably excellent Eruditorum Press. His new collection, Guided by the Beauty of their Weapons, provides an overview of this contentious year in sci-fi fandom, as well as serving as an introduction to Sandifer’s writing more generally. The essays within are as sharply written and thoroughly argued as ever, and the book crackles with the same sense of mad ambition that fuels Sandifer’s work at its best.

The first essay, from which the book takes its title, is an overview of this year’s Hugo Awards, centred on the man behind the disruptive Rabid Puppies campaign, Theodore Beale. Like most of the essays in the book, this is a revised version of one of Sandifer’s blog posts, from back in April when the controversy was fresh. Sandifer recaps the (at this point) four-year history of what he cheekily calls the Angry Dogs, from Larry Correia attempting to get himself a Hugo Award in 2011 to extreme right-wing author Theodore Beale stuffing the ballot almost completely for the 2014 Awards. This version of the essay is considerably more restrained (and, it has to be said, better-argued) than its predecessor, as Sandifer is able to view the controversy in hindsight. He offers a far more detailed and nuanced argument for the fascist nature of Theodore Beale and his supporters, and his analysis of the texts themselves benefits from the inclusion of Ursula Vernon’s ‘Jackalope Wives’, a story the Puppies kept off the ballot. It’s a lengthy and well-reasoned piece, comprehensive without ever getting bogged down, which stands as one of the best accounts of this unpleasant moment in fandom history, even if it lacks some of the polemical fire of the original.

The book then goes on to a series of articles about science fiction in 2015 more generally. Highlights include an essay on Mr. Robot as anti-capitalist agitprop and a piece about True Detective and Hannibal which explores the etiquette surrounding mass human extinction. Sandifer takes an obvious glee in radical and counter-intuitive readings, which make for subversive and thought-provoking essays. After that we transition into a highlight reel of Sandifer’s blogging from 2015, including excerpts from his video game and comics blogs. This section culminates in a pair of interviews with television writer Peter Harness, whom Sandifer identifies as one of 2015’s breakout talents following his scripts for both Doctor Who and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. They present an engaging insight into Harness’ work, particularly the stuff that never makes it to the screen, although they occasionally betray a lack of polish reflective of an independent effort. Harness has an annoying habit of forgetting potentially interesting production details, and Sandifer can occasionally let his fan theories run away with him.

The collection ends with ‘Recursive Occlusion’, a self-styled “Occultism of Doctor Who” presented as a choose-your-own-adventure book. It’s one hell of a premise, and what’s most impressive is that Sandifer turns what could easily have been a shallow gimmick into a genuinely appropriate, engaging structure, making his guide to the Occult tradition far more accessible by mapping it onto a cultural touchstone weird enough to match his subject matter. The result is a type of writing you simply won’t see anywhere else; a landmark of sci-fi criticism which single-handedly justifies the cover price.

As a collection, Guided by the Beauty has its problems. There are a few references which clearly haven’t been fact-checked, and some slightly dodgy formatting in the ebook copy I received which led to weird stretches of single-spaced text in an otherwise double-spaced book. On top of that, a few of the articles seem to have been thrown in simply because Sandifer liked them, rather than because they support any over-arching point, which undermines the book’s already hazy structure. The transitions from contemporary sci-fi to decades-old video games and comics, and then back again, are a little bit clunky, and the collection overall feels overstuffed. But these quibbles aside, Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons remains a highly enjoyable and hugely relevant piece of work. Its flaws are mainly down to the fact that this is less a book about 2015 than about one critic’s experience of it, and it’s one that provides plenty of evidence why Sandifer is a voice worth listening to into 2016 and beyond.

Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons is available from Amazon and Smashwords, in ebook and paperback formats, RRP £5.49/$6.99, published by Eruditorum Press.