Albums You Should Own – Xmas Present Edition

As we are now at the start of Advent I thought I’d supply a set of Christmas music that’s a little out of the ordinary. This is partly in memory of my friend Pete Fenelon, who died a month or so ago and did this last year – some of the tracks here were on his compilation.

I’m not a very Christmassey person, generally, but nor do I ever want to be a killjoy, and so there’s a tension in these songs between the traditional “Isn’t Christmas great?” and the non-traditional “Bah, humbug” – sometimes even in the individual song. I’ve tried where possible to choose songs that people won’t be familiar with – the whole point of this list is that much as I love Wizzard and Slade and the Ronettes and Bing Crosby, I expect to wish to massacre everyone in sight if I hear them from about a week from now. However, some of the songs will undoubtedly be familiar to some of you, if only because there’s a difference between what was a hit in the US and what in the UK.

Our Prayer by Dave Gregory, the former XTC guitarist, is a cover of (part of) a wordless a capella track by the Beach Boys, from Remoulds, an album he made of note-for-note cover versions of 60s pop songs. I’ve included it even though it’s not strictly a Christmas song because it’s got the right kind of feel for this, and also because it leads beautifully into…

It’s Cliched To Be Cynical At Christmas by Half Man Half Biscuit. While, as I said before, I’m not the most festive of people, I find this song a valuable reminder not to inflict my curmudgeonly misanthropy on everyone else, and at least try to get into ‘the festive spirit’. I also have it on good authority (from my friend Tilt, who interviewed him for his radio show) that this is in fact Father Christmas’ favourite Christmas record of all time.

Fairytale Of New York by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl is a Christmas perennial over here, but I’ve been told it’s barely heard in the US, hence its inclusion here. This is a shame, as nothing is quite as cheery as the cognitive dissonance of walking round Tesco or Woolworths (RIP) and hearing “You’re a bum, you’re a punk, you’re an old slut on junk, lying there almost dead on that drip in that bed/You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, happy Christmas me arse I pray God it’s our last” over the tannoy. There is a certain breed of tedious poseur who refers to this as ‘the only good Christmas song ever’ – while this is absolute nonsense, the song itself is quite beautiful, and far more romantic and life-affirming than the lyric I quoted suggests. Just a beautiful, gorgeous song.

Sugar Wassail is by Waterson:Carthy. The Waterson/Carthy clan have for nearly 50 years been at the forefront of traditional English folk music – pushing the music forward and incorporating new influences while stlll ensuring that the music they play is an honest representation of the traditions that inspire them, and also while being genuinely enjoyable music. This is from their album Holy Heathens and the Green Man, a collection of mostly winter/Christmas themed traditional music which can be downloaded from eMusic.

Joy To The World by Brian Wilson is a recording from his ‘second comeback’ ten years ago that was made available as a free download from his website, and more recently was included as a bonus track on his 2005 album What I Really Want For Christmas. You can tell that he hadn’t sung much for a few years – he’s neither got the purity of his youthful voice nor the assured but limited range of today – but this still sends shivers down my spine.

Remember Bethlehem by Jake Thackray is one of the first songs Thackray ever wrote – he actually wrote it as a carol for the school where he was teaching, and the finished studio version included a school choir. One of the things I love about Thackray’s music is his Yorkshire bluntness – even his religious music (and Thackray was a deeply religious man) has the same real world love of humanity with all its smells and warts as Chaucer or the York mystery plays. This is a demo version, from disc four of the wonderful Jake In A Box box set, which I reviewed here (still one of my favourite pieces of my own writing) if you want to know more about Jake…

I Want A Girl For Christmas by The Knickerbockers is just a fun bit of pop music from the band who did Lies, possibly the best Beatles soundalike record ever. Here, the lead singer is clearly still trying to be John Lennon, but the rest of the band can’t decide if they’re the Beach Boys or the Four Seasons. There’s a couple of wonderful little a capella breaks here. It’s not a great lost classic or anything, but it’s a nice song (it’s available on eMusic).

Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis by Tom Waits is one of the most depressing songs to feature Christmas as a subject, and very far from festive. On the other hand, it’s a great song, and also I include it because I’ll be spending at least part of the Christmas period in Minneapolis, en route to the tiny Minnesota town where my in-laws live… This is from Blue Valentines, one of the best of Waits’ early beatnik period, just before he went into his Beefheart-by-way-of-Kurt-Weill mode.

What Child Is This by Mahalia Jackson is just a stunning performance. I’m sure you’ve all heard it, but it’s wonderful anyway…

The Happiest Time Of The Year by Candypants is a Christmas single produced by Darian Sahanaja of the Wondermints, which has been available for download most years from Candypants’ MySpace page. Candypants are one of my very favourite bands of the moment, and I can’t wait for the new material Lisa is apparently working on.

Morning Christmas by Dennis Wilson is a typical piece of late Dennis Wilson, all bass harmonica, gruff vocals and ARP string synthesiser. Recorded for an aborted Beach Boys Christmas album in the late 70s, it was eventually released on the Beach Boys’ Ultimate Christmas CD in 1999. It’s very much of a piece with his brother’s Joy To The World, actually.

A Christmas Carol by Tom Lehrer is on because everyone needs a bit of Tom Lehrer. I was going to include I’m Spending Hanukkah In Santa Monica, but this is far better. It’s from the box set The Remains Of Tom Lehrer

Christmas Day by Squeeze is an interesting attempt at something that doesn’t quite come off, but is still worth a listen.

Tinsel and String by Neil Innes is a lovely, tongue-in-cheek take on the normal sort of Christmas music by one of the finest songwriters alive today. For those who don’t know, Innes was the principal songwriter with the Bonzo Dog Band, co-wrote several songs with the Monty Python team and appeared with them on stage and in their films, and was the songwriter for The Rutles, in which he played Ron Nasty. When he’s on form, he’s as good a songwriter as anyone, and if he’d stuck to ‘serious’ music and not indulged his tremendous comic talent he’d probably be regarded as another Paul McCartney or Ray Davies. This was downloaded from his website, which has tons of MP3s and RealAudio files of his work.

Christmas In Suburbia by Martin Newell is from the album The Greatest Living Englishman (which is available from eMusic), which was produced by Andy Partridge of XTC, who also played many of the instruments. As a result the album bears at least as much resemblance to Skylarking or the Dukes Of Stratosphear album (the instrumental figure here seems distantly related to the melody of Vanishing Girl) as it does to Newell’s work with the Cleaners From Venus – but that is, of course, no bad thing. I just wish Newell didn’t pronounce the ‘t’ in Christmas…

Jesus Christ by Big Star is one of those songs you should already own. But just in case, here it is… from the classic Sister Lovers.

Baby It’s Cold Outside by Ray Charles and Betty Carter (from the Ray Charles and Betty Carter album) is the only version of this song – don’t give me your Bing Crosbys or Dean Martins or Tom Joneses, this is the *only* version worth owning. Until recently, I never understood why this was a ‘Christmas’ song, but Brad Hicks put forward a good case in a two-part blog post that this was a ‘date rape Christmas carol’. Which it is, at least in some versions, but Betty Carter sounds far from unwilling here…

Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming by Pete Seeger (from the album Traditional Christmas Carols, another one available from eMusic) is a lovely banjo-and-vocal version of the hymn.

In The Bleak Midwinter by Bert Jansch is included mostly because it follows very well from the previous track. I’m a big fan of Jansch, but the production on here is too wet, and the song doesn’t sound bleak enough. But it’s a nice version, and a good closer to the collection proper.

However, as you can fit a *little* more onto a CD, I’ve included two more tracks…

Santa Claus Has Got The AIDS This Year by Tiny Tim may be the most offensive track ever recorded – “He won’t be singing out ‘ho ho ho ho’/But he’ll be crying out ‘no, no, no, no!'” . When Tim realised how badly everyone had taken the song, he tried to claim it was about the slimming bar Ayds, but the lyrics (and the fact that the B-side of the single was called She Left Me WIth The Herpes) tell a different story.

And there’s a final little message from Andy Partridge, wishing everyone a psychedelic Christmas…

Remember Remember The Fifth Of October

A lot of important things happened for the first time on the fifth of October. On the fifth of October 1962, the Beatles’ first single, Love Me Do, was first released. On the fifth of October 1969 the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast. On the fifth of October 1978 I was born (which was important to me, even if not so much to the rest of you reading this – almost as important as those other things). And on the fifth of October 1988, Daleks went upstairs for the first time.

Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor has a better reputation than Colin Baker’s among Who fandom, but a much worse one among the general public (those of the general public who care enough to remember the different Doctors) and in this case the general public are definitely the ones in the right. Baker was the better actor, and neither actor was blessed with the greatest scripts in the world. The reputation of McCoy’s Doctor rests more on the series of novels written about the character after the show was cancelled than it does on the episodes he was actually in.

McCoy was hired to replace Colin Baker, who was sacked under rather unpleasant circumstances (BBC management only agreeing to continue the show if they sacked their lead actor, and Baker refusing to return to film his regeneration scene) and his first series was an absolute embarassment. McCoy himself was not particularly happy with his early scripts (unsurprisingly, as they were drivel), which lumbered him with the worst companion in the history of the show (Melanie Bush, played by Bonnie Langford, a horribly miscast stunt ‘celebrity’ casting) and turned the Doctor into a buffoonish character who spoke in malapropisms and played the spoons at the slightest provocation, and the 1987 series is generally regarded as the absolute nadir of the show’s 26-year run (it was certainly bad enough that even as a nine-year-old I felt that my intelligence was being insulted).

For the next series, script editor Andrew Cartmel, in collaboration with various scriptwriters, came up with what later became known as ‘the Cartmel masterplan’ – a plan to make the Doctor darker and more mysterious over several years (a plan which was later transferred to the novels once the TV show was cancelled). For some reason Cartmel seemed to think that ‘darker’ meant ‘turn the Doctor into a manipulative sociopath’ and ‘more mysterious’ was ‘tell people every single detail of the Doctor’s past life, and every tedious detail of the internal politics and history of his home planet’, but as the ‘masterplan’ was meant to take several years, the early signs of these changes were mostly positive.

The twenty-fifth series of Doctor Who began with Remembrance Of The Daleks by Ben Aaronovitch (brother of the liar and hypocrite David Aaronovitch, who I actually once played on TV), which was by far the strongest thing that had been done in the show for many, many years. The story (about two warring factions of the Daleks searching for the MacGuffin of Omega, which had been planted by the Doctor, who was secretly doing a ‘don’t throw me into the briar patch’ trick to make the Daleks blow themselves and their home planet up) was a tight one, the humour, while still present, was much more subdued, and the story was genuinely scary at times.

Remembrance was also the first story to feature Sophie Aldred’s Ace (who had been introduced in the previous story) as the main character. Aldred is not a particularly good actor, and Ace sometimes gets some well dodgy lines (as she would no doubt put it), but the central idea of the character (a streetwise tomboy who likes playing with explosives and weaponry) was a refreshing change from the normal screamers – in this story, she gets to beat the shit out of a Dalek with a baseball bat, for example, which one can’t really imagine Jo Grant doing.

The effects were some of the best ever seen in the show (one or two very minor bits of dodgy CSO with the floating coffin, but the Dalek spaceship is done wonderfully, and the Daleks look sleeker and more menacing than ever before), although having the Daleks’ communication device being a plasma lamp ( £9.99 from Maplins – you too can have an interstellar communicator for Christmas! ) was frankly risible. It’s also structured well, especially the first episode, where what would normally be the big reveal (the fact of the Daleks being the villains) is thrown out casually, with the *real* big reveal (that the Daleks can float and are coming up the stairs after the Doctor) being the cliffhanger.

The story also tries to do something rather interesting with the central Nazi imagery of the Daleks, having the war between two Dalek factions essentially be a racial war, and having one faction ally themselves with a white supremacist group on Earth. These points are made too heavy-handedly (Ace looking disgustedly at a ‘no coloureds’ sign in the window of the B&B where she’s staying) and the production team seem far too proud of what were essentially just a couple of platitudes thrown in to the story, but I’m willing to give a lot more slack to people who are trying for something more interesting and falling short of their ambitions than I am to people who aren’t trying to push things at all. And, of course, even platitudinous anti-racist statements still need making, unfortunately.

This rather adolescent political point-making (“bad things are bad!”) is however symptomatic of the failures of the story – and it has some, despite being a well-above-average Doctor Who story. The new script editor and writer were both very young, rather nerdy men, and they were writing the kind of story that is liked by young, nerdy men. This involved an obsession with continuity minutiae.

The story involves a return to the junkyard where the TARDIS was first seen, and is set in 1963. This is OK (even though the junkyard had only been seen three years earlier in Attack Of The Cybermen, another overly-continuity-obsessed story) because the story involves the Doctor following up on a plan that had been put in motion by his first incarnation. But the Daleks’ base is the school where Ian and Barbara taught, for no real reason, and the story also references “the yeti in the underground, the zygon gambit, the loch ness monster”, the Dalek Invasion Of Earth, shows a TV set introducing an episode of “the new science fiction series, doc-” and references the Quatermass stories. While these references individually are fun little things, there is a feeling after a while of deliberately trying to keep out those who aren’t as familiar with the show’s history.

The next story, The Happiness Patrol, contained some heavy-handed allegory about Margaret Thatcher and had the Doctor fighting a robot Bertie Basset. The rest of this series veered between the poor and the average, which made it an improvement over the previous series, but this was the only *really good* story in the 25th series.

The next series was an improvement, but it came too late, both for me (my mum got sick of me wanting to watch Doctor Who when she wanted to watch Coronation Street, and I couldn’t in all honesty argue that the show was good enough to stop her turning over) and for the show, which was cancelled in 1989.

It’s a shame, because the show was quite clearly getting better after the horrible 25th series – writers like Aaronovitch and Marc Platt were doing work which, while having too much of the moody adolescent about it for my personal taste, was clearly a cut above the drivel churned out by people like Pip & Jane Baker. The show was essentially trying to go from Batman & Robin to the Tim Burton Batman and while my tastes are more toward Christopher Nolan or Adam West, I’ll take Tim Burton over Joel Schumaker any day.

While everyone has a favourite and least favourite Doctor or Doctors, I think a dispassionate examination of the series shows that it fluctuated in quality every few years, more or less irrespective of who was in charge. Every one of the first seven Doctors had an opportunity to shine, and every one of them had stories that were tasteless, forgettable or just plain nasty. But throughout the 26 years the original show ran (and the TV Movie and the audios – I’m less than convinced by nuWho, which seems to know the words but have forgotten the tune), the character of the Doctor – five parts Sherlock Holmes to one part each John Steed, Groucho Marx, Bugs Bunny and Mr Spock – shines through, one of the truly great fictional creations of all time.

I Don’t Know Who He Is Behind That Mask, But We Need Him, And We Need Him Now…

I *was* going to write today’s comics post on Dave Sim and Gerhard’s graphic novel Guys, but I’ve been frankly amazed by the interest the general public appears to be showing Batman’s death in the Batman: RIP storyline. I was planning on writing some stuff about that story anyway, but given the fun I’ve had with my week-long Doctor Who post series (the final post of which will be some time around midnight tonight) I thought I’d start today on another week-long series, this time about Batman RIP and Grant Morrison’s Batman work in general.

(This one will have the advantage that I can reread comics on the ‘bus to and from work, rather than rewatch DVDs for two hours every night, thus essentially not seeing my wife for a week).

However, the readership of this blog appears to fall into four categories – comics fans, especially fans of the work of Grant Morrison, Liberal Democrats (both capitalised and otherwise), fans of Doctor Who and fans of melodic, 60s-style pop music (the latter don’t comment as much as the other three groups, but they’re there). Actually, most readers fall into at least two of those groups, but I can’t think of anyone reading this who falls into all four categories.

So for those who *don’t* fall into the comic-reader category, or who do but haven’t been keeping up with Batman, a brief explanation as to what’s been going on, whether Batman is ‘dead’, and what’s happening next. I’ll assume you know what a comic is, what a Batman is and so on, but very little else.

If you weren’t already aware, superhero comics – and periodical comics generally – aren’t very popular any more. The very *best* selling titles tend to sell, at most, 100,000 copies or so a month, and even very well-known characters like Batman and Superman sell considerably less than that. Those comics which make a significant amount of money, selling to anyone other than the hardcore obsessive fans, are generally those which sell in ‘trade paperbacks’ – collections containing several issues, usually telling a single story, which are often sold in normal bookshops rather than specialist comics shops.

The problem, though, is that the things that appeal to the 100,000 or so obsessives are not the things that appeal to the general reading public – reading a superhero comic normally requires a great deal of knowledge about previous issues, and often the interest in a particular issue is not in what happens in that story itself, but in how it relates to other issues. The storytelling in superhero comics bears a closer relation to soap opera than to anything else, and unsurprisingly this means that the market for collections of, say, Aquaman comics in trade paperback form is about the same as the market for DVDs of a week or two’s worth of Coronation Street or EastEnders. So just like TV shows, what sells well in serial form is not the same as what sells well in permanent form, and what is critically successful differs from both.

Now, roughly two years ago, DC Comics made one of its increasingly rare clever editorial decisions, and put a writer called Grant Morrison on the main Batman comic (there are several comics every month featuring Batman, as he is a popular character). Grant Morrison is very unusual in that he is relatively popular among superhero comics fans (he is not as popular as some writers, because he’s regarded as ‘weird’ and ‘incomprehensible’ by a section of the readership who are accustomed to having stories spoon-fed to them rather than having to actually pay attention and read between the lines a little), he is also popular among the more sophisticated (as a rule, all exceptions duly noted) readers who buy the collections, he is *also* relatively popular among critics (as he is an actual good writer), and his comics – even his superhero ones – sell very well in collected form for a very long time, while also being popular as serials (his Batman ‘original graphic novel’ (a comic that has only been published in book form rather than as individual issues) Arkham Asylum has remained a consistent best-selling comic for twenty years, selling in the millions over its print history).

Grant Morrison is particularly known as a writer who comes up with very long, intricate plans for his comics, so that even when the individual stories seem like they stand up well on their own, there is often an issue, usually close to the end of his time on a comic, which suddenly throws everything into a new and more interesting light.

There is also a tradition in superhero comics of a superhero apparently ‘dying’, only to come back to life, usually within a year or so. In many cases the ‘death’ is a rather perfunctory story, intended merely to set the scene for the longer story afterwards dealing with the ramifications of the death – see for example the ‘deaths’ of Superman or Captain America.

Grant Morrison has built up to the death of Batman for the best part of two years, but this death issue is still rather in that mode – Morrison has talked about how he has plans for at least another couple of years’ worth of Batman stories to tell, which would presumably include the tale of Batman coming back and so forth. Before that, though, there is a planned break – Morrison is doing two more issues following up the death story, then Denny O’Neill (a writer who wrote many popular Batman stories in the 1970s and edited the title in the 1990s – he created the character of Ra’s Al-Ghul who was the villain in the film Batman Begins, among other things) is doing two issues. Then Neil Gaiman (an extremely popular comic writer who also has written a string of best-selling novels and the film Beowulf) is going to write two more. There will then be a special storyline called “The Battle For The Cowl”, about people trying to take over the job of Batman, and after that we don’t know what will happen.

It was originally planned that Grant Morrison would return after that storyline, but recently there have been rumours that he has fallen out with various people in the DC Comics editorial department over changes to his stories (and other writers are getting annoyed that his stories affect the ones they want to write), so it may well be that the next two issues are the last ones he will do with the character of Batman. If so, that would be a shame, as he has clearly not yet wrapped up his various stories in the way he normally likes to.

One way or another, Batman will be back – next year is his 70th anniversary year, and if Grant Morrison doesn’t come back to the title to finish off his story, someone else will bring him back. Next year, for example, DC Comics have a big storyline involving all their characters in which the villains are Black Lanterns – zombie superheroes given special powers – which will involve a lot of ‘recently dead’ characters. If Batman isn’t back before then, that will almost certainly be used as the excuse to bring him back.

In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the next few issues, and keep my fingers crossed for Morrison’s return. And now that I’ve explained that, I can start tomorrow with some discussion of the whole huge story Morrison’s been telling…

In Which Your Problems Are Solved…

One good thing about using wordpress is that you get to see what people are searching for when they land on your page. It’s quite instructive to see what things you’re writing are actually drawing in readers (a quite staggering number of people get here looking for information about Glenn Tilbrook, who I’ve only written one post about, for example).

However, there are some people who appear to be looking for things which I won’t have helped them with, and some where I honestly can’t imagine how they got here. However, wishing to always be helpful, I will try to answer as many of the queries of these poor lost wanderers as possible:

It’s a made up word. Honestly. No matter how many times you search for it (and some of you are searching a lot) you won’t find anything that isn’t related to the Brian Wilson album. It’s not any kind of secret sanskrit chant or anything – just mouth noises.

“grant morrison music”
Never heard any myself, but try doing a search for “The Fauves”.

“wall street village day- four seasons ly”
They’re not out there on the internet (I’ve looked), but if you’re not naughty and actually buy the album rather than downloading the MP3s (unlike, er, myself – but I do have the excuse that it was out of print at the time) they’re printed on the cover.

“dvd recorder picture wobbles only on itv”
Try unplugging the SCART lead then plugging it back in.

“woody allen final crisis grant morrison”
That’s not actually Woody Allen, it’s a character called Merryman from an old parody superhero team called The Inferior Five. Morrison also used him in Animal Man.

“porno very old nanoman”
I don’t even want to think about whatever it is you’re looking for, I’m afraid.

“mental health comics”
Depends what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for comics *about* mental health issues, then I highly recommend Chester Brown’s autobiographical “My Mother Was A Schizophrenic” (reprinted in The Little Man: Short Strips 1980 – 1995 ) – there’s definitely a version floating around on the net too, but I can’t find it. However, I’d warn you not to just accept the stuff he says about R.D. Laing uncritically – Brown’s both quite a dogmatic libertarian and someone who’s had to come to terms with his mother’s mental illness, and his support of Laing’s ideas seems more based around those two things than the merits of Laing’s views.
If you’re looking for comics created by someone with mental health issues, then get hold of Cerebus by Dave Sim, who is both the greatest comic creator ever and quite seriously mentally ill.

“torrent wondermints”
I would not advocate downloading bittorrents of any of the Wondermints’ official releases – they’re not exactly multi-millionaires, and they probably need the money from legitimate sales. However, the wonderful Power Pop Criminals blog did upload a compilation of their early demo cassettes, which should still be downloadable here (clicking the title on that page will take you to a rapidshare site with a .rar file of the CDs).

“”now people” century love affair”
If you want a copy of The Last Great Twentieth Century Love Affair by the Now People, I suggest you try Amazon. If you just want to read a review of it, it’s on my to-do list. It’s a very good album, though.

“christian music”
I suggest Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring by Bach, Brian Wilson’s version of Joy To The World, any of Al Green’s gospel albums, Handel’s Messiah, anything by the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and anything by the Staples Singers.

‘”inform 7″ errors’
These should be reported to Graham Nelson using the form at

“timmy mallet descendant of the queen”
Either someone has been keeping a *very* juicy scandal from me, or you’re not going to get very far looking for this.

“nicola bryant cleavage”
Try the DVD of The Two Doctors, although personally I’m more interested in Ms Bryant’s acting than in her cleavage. I can’t be of any help for the person who searched for “nicola bryant spandex” though…

And some I can’t be of any help with at all:
“guignol prostitute omega”
“circle jerk stories”
“best blog post ever”


Apologies if this one is less coherent than some of the other posts – I’ve got a terrible migraine and can barely focus on the screen. I’ve been half-considering leaving this one til tomorrow, but I’ve got quite a busy weekend ahead of me…

I always feel terribly sorry for Colin Baker. There is a certain section of Who fandom that considers him the worst Doctor, by a long way, and considers it acceptable to insult him at every turn (calling him “Fat Colin” and similar but much less complimentary names because, shockingly, he’s not the same weight at 65 that he was at 41). It’s a shame, because Baker was actually one of the best actors to play the part, and certainly the most enthusiastic – he’s described it as the role he was born to play.

However, Baker ended up having the shortest time in the role of any of the actors in the original series, only getting to do two full series (one of which was shorter than any before it), mostly because of events that had nothing to do with him. Many of his scripts were sub-par, the show was actually cancelled for 18 months while he was the Doctor, and the producer and script editor were barely talking to each other by that point.

Part of the reason for Baker’s unpopularity is actually because he thought through his performance more than many of the other actors to play the part. His Doctor was intended to start out colder and crueller than earlier Doctors, after his regeneration, and only slowly become more empathetic. He was also intended to be a more alien figure than his immediate predecessor. However, the scriptwriters seemed to be unable to cope with this – some carried on writing him just the same way they would have written any other Doctor, while others wrote him as practically a sociopath, delighting in unnecessary cruelty to Peri. It’s a tribute to the strength of Baker’s performance that he manages to rise above the widely variable scripts and actually deliver a mostly-consistent character who is recognisably the Doctor (Baker really studied the other Doctors’ performances, and incorporated tiny elements of them into his own but in subtly changed ways – even though I’ve often noted Willam Hartnell’s hand gestures and lapel-fiddling, and everyone who’s watched a Colin Baker episode has seen him puff himself up in self-importance while holding his lapels, it hadn’t occurred to me that the latter was a direct, conscious reference to the former til I heard Baker talk about it on the commentary to Timelash – the gesture is used in a very different way, but it implies a continuity of character).One of the things I love most about the Big Finish audios is that Colin Baker is *finally* given the opportunity to play the Doctor in the way he always wanted to, and I would argue that the best Sixth Doctor audio adventures (Jubilee, Davros, Doctor Who & The Pirates and a few others) are possibly the best things ever to come out of the show.

What makes it worse for me is that Baker was ‘my Doctor’. While I watched Peter Davison as a child, the memories I have of the show are almost all of Baker’s era – seeing two Doctors working together in The Two Doctors, the return of the Sontarans, the reveal that the Valeyard is in fact a future regeneration of the Doctor, Terry Molloy as Davros, the half-converted human Daleks, Sil, the return to Totter’s Lane and the chameleon circuit working again, trying to kill Peri, the giant marble statue of the Doctor collapsing onto him (I was *furious* as a six-year-old kid when my mum taped over my Betamax recorded-off-the-TV copy of Revelation of the Daleks). That’s the Doctor Who I grew up on. And there’s some very, very good stuff in there – and a lot more trying to get out from the production problems.

But there were two Colin Baker stories I didn’t remember from my childhood – Mark Of The Rani, which I knew would be rubbish because of its central villain and writing team, so I’ve still not rewatched it, and Timelash. I picked up Timelash on DVD relatively recently with no idea if it was any good – I don’t pay attention to fan ratings, because I’ve noticed that what I like about the show and what the most vocal members of the ‘fan community’ like are two very different things.

However, I wasn’t expecting even the DVD itself to proclaim so loudly that Timelash is, as the fan anagram apparently ‘wittily’ has it, Lame Shit.The blurb on the little insert in the DVD – the *promotional material* – contains phrases like “Timelash, by necessity, fell into the cheaper category. Unfortunately, this tends to show in the finished production with dull, uninspiring sets and costumes.” and “Timelash has been much criticised for its production standards, unimaginative direction, padded scenes and over-the-top acting”. This is the stuff that’s meant to make you want to buy it!

The documentary in the special features is much the same thing. Everyone from the writer to the actors to the script editor seems to be operating from the assumption that the show has no redeeming qualities and that its faults need to be explained. Producer John Nathan-Turner seems to have been chosen by everyone as the whipping boy for this – and one must admit that their reasons do have a ring of truth about them – but it must also be admitted that given that Nathan-Turner is dead it is easy to blame him without him being able to answer back. By the end of the documentary, one is reminded of Jake Blues – “No I didn’t. Honest… I ran out of gas. I, I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts. IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD!”

So it’s quite surprising to watch the actual episode and find it’s not all that bad. It’s far from good – there’s a reason I didn’t remember anything of it from childhood viewing – but it’s by no means the worst piece of TV ever or anything along those lines. The script is bad, of course – the pacing is hopeless and the plot makes little sense – but it’s not *uniquely* bad. In fact its faults are those of the late Tom Baker era (essentially writing science-fantasy panto) and nuWho ( ‘celebrity historical’ guest star writers who get all their ideas from their adventures with the Doctor are something of a staple in the new series, to the point where one could convincingly make a case that Timelash was the template for at least three stories from nuWho). Despite what everyone seems to think, having H.G. Wells adventure with the Doctor and see things that would be turned into pretty much every famous novel Wells wrote – which most people seem to think the saving grace of the story – is not a great idea, it’s a bad fanfic idea, and would be so even had they not portrayed the atheistic socialist humanist Wells as a Catholic spiritualist who used Ouija boards.

But like I say, those flaws aren’t unique, and there are actually some fine performances in the story (Robert Ashby is absolutely superb as the Borad). In fact the pedestrian nature of the original script was in some ways an advantage – Ashby and Baker rewrote a lot of their own lines (Ashby changed “That’s a lie!” into “Another expedition into the realms of duplicity”) giving some of their parts a baroque charm. The real problem is that Paul Darrow, as the central villainous character Tekker, has an absolute contempt for the material. His performance shows signs of having been worked on, but at some point during rehearsals he obviously decided to give up any pretence of taking things seriously, and just do a bad impression of Laurence Olivier as Richard III (I kept expecting him to say “It has been a HARD day’s night… and I… have been workinglikeadog!”).

If he’d been able to hide his distaste for the story, as Ashby and Baker do, rather than walking around with a giant neon sign over his head saying “I’m better than this, I used to be a real star, you know”, then the other flaws in the story (of which there are still many) would be forgivable – everything else is just the result of lack of time, lack of money, or plain incompetence, all of which sometimes happen to the best-intentioned people. Darrow’s performance, though, is plain sabotage.

Despite this, Timelash really *isn’t* as bad as its reputation – on an objective level it’s not that much worse than Destiny Of The Daleks or The Five Doctors. It’s just a shame that Colin Baker’s time as the Doctor was cut so short that this is one of a tiny number of televisual records of his performance. Baker *was* given good scripts on occasion – Vengeance On Varos, Revelation Of The Daleks and The Two Doctors are all strong scripts (though The Two Doctors has its own problems) – but what I wouldn’t give for a TV version of …Ish or Jubilee or even a fun bit of fluff like The One Doctor…


This year has been a shit one in a couple of ways, but one of the worst has been people dying too young. So far this year a close friend of my family died in his early 40s, and an internet friend who I’ve known for several years (though not hugely closely) died suddenly aged just 40. Now today I’ve learned that Councillor Neil Trafford, who I didn’t know all that well, but who always struck me as a lovely bloke, and who I’ve campaigned for and with in local elections over the last couple of years, died in a car crash on Saturday – he was only 33. While I didn’t know him well, plenty of people I know were very close to him. I only saw him on Thursday as well…
If people could just stop dying now, that would be OK by me.

Childe Peter To The Dark Tower Came – The Five Doctors

John Nathan-Turner, the producer of Doctor Who for most of its last decade, gets a bad rap from much of the fanbase. Sometimes this is deserved – some of the worst episodes of the show ever produced were done on his watch, and often at his instigation.

It is possibly going to appear over the next few days that I am joining in this chorus of disapproval, mostly due to my choices of episodes, so before I do that, I just want to say firstly that for every bad decision Nathan-Turner made he also made a good one; and secondly that Nathan-Turner’s Doctor Who is the version of the show I grew up on.

And that means a lot to me. I was a Doctor Who fan of the most obsessive kind before I was in primary school (the obsession dropped down between the ages of 12 and 25 or so, but much of my love for the programme dates from a very young age). I knew Nathan-Turner’s name written down before I knew how to pronounce it (I still half-consciously read it as Natthan (with a short a) in my head). Peter Davison and Colin Baker were ‘my’ Doctors in a way that Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker were to earlier generations. And my love as a child for that show – flawed as some of it undoubtedly was – inspired my passion for reading (give a Target novelisation to a five-year-old who doesn’t know he’s not meant to be able to read it and you’ll be surprised how quickly his vocabulary expands…), fantastic fiction, eccentric characters in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, non-violent solutions to problems, physics, evolutionary biology, linguistics (specifically a bit in the novelisation of State Of Decay where the Doctor explains to Romana about consonantal shift), logic… while I am actually nothing like the Doctor (in real life I am more like the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, but without the social graces and physical attractiveness) , the idealised self-image I have comes from wishing to emulate the Doctor as a child.

So whatever Nathan-Turner’s faults as a producer (and how much he can be blamed for the problems the show had during his tenure is definitely open to question) his years on the show did make at least one small child extraordinarily happy, and that’s something to keep in mind…

The Five Doctors, the show’s twentieth-anniversary special, is the first episode I have a conscious memory of watching when it was broadcast, a little over a month after my fifth birthday (though I’d definitely seen earlier episodes – it’s just no others remain in my memory). I remember being absolutely thrilled – Daleks! Cybermen! K-9! The Master! All the old Doctors who I’d only heard about! – and for years later I could remember the black triangle getting the Doctors, and Peter Davison collapsing, and a couple of other moments, even though I didn’t have a clue what the plot had been.

That is, of course, because there wasn’t one – or at least not one to speak of. While the tenth anniversary show, The Three Doctors, had had a simple brief – do a story with all three Doctors in it – The Five Doctors had to do more – it had to ‘celebrate’ the show by featuring as many old villains and companions as possible, as well as all five Doctors to date. The need to do this made one scriptwriter, Robert Holmes, quit early in the process – Holmes simply couldn’t come up with a coherent story featuring everything that the production team decided was necessary for the show. So Terrance Dicks – another former Who script editor, and at the time a freelance writer who made his living from novelising the TV show (mostly just adding the words ‘he said’ to the scripts if my memory of his books is correct – he was not someone who was known for labouring over his prose in an effort to turn out an exquisitely memorable phrase if instead he could just type “The Dalek shot the prisoner, who screamed and died”) took on the job.

Dicks was actually even more insistent that the production feature *everything* than the production staff themselves were – he had to do a story with Time Lords, the Master and Cybermen because that’s what Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward (the script editor) wanted, but he also insisted that it had to feature at least one Dalek (who gets killed in a most perfunctory manner after about ninety seconds of screen time), K-9 (who gets about two lines) and the Yeti (who most people don’t even notice).

Dicks was entirely right about this, incidentally, from the point of view of absolutely captivating small children, but it gives the story the same flavour as much of nuWho – a bunch of exciting moments strung together by something pretending to be a plot but without any real coherence.

Of course, it can’t have helped that Dicks had to do a story about Five Doctors when he only had three available. The absence of William Hartnell, who had died years earlier, was expected, and they got round it by casting Richard Hurndall to play his part (Hurndall did a passable impersonation of Hartnell, who hadn’t been seen on TV for many years, though the effectiveness of it was hampered by a little pre-credit snippet of Hartnell reminding people what he actually looked and sounded like). What hadn’t been expected, though, was for Tom Baker to turn the story down (mostly because he’d left the show less than two years earlier, but also because he didn’t get on very well at the time with Nathan-Turner). This absence was eventually also covered – by using some footage from the unaired Douglas Adams story Shada (with much better dialogue than the rest of the show) and saying that Baker’s Doctor was caught in a time distortion – but it meant that the script needed extensive rewriting.

Parts of the show work extremely well – especially the interplay between Troughton’s Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (with Troughton ad-libbing furiously most of the time, coming out with stuff about the Terrible Zodin and beasts that used to hop like kangaroos), and the show comes alive in the last few minutes, when all the Doctors are brought together at last (Nathan-Turner thought there’d be ego problems, and so made sure they only had one day of filming together) – the performers get over a mediocre script and spark wonderfully off each other, in a way that makes you wish just for an hour and a half of Davison, Troughton and Pertwee trapped in the TARDIS rather than this disjointed mess.

Most of the classic Doctors could rise above a bad script with a great performance, and Terrance DIcks was familiar enough with the characters to provide them with opportunities to do that, and the script contains several pretty good lines (“A man is the sum of his memories, you know… a Time Lord even more so”) – although several of the best were inserted by the actors. It was great fun for kids at the time, and it has a lot of nostalgia value – I’ve probably watched it more than any other episode, because if you don’t concentrate and just look up for the good bits it can deliver a great rush of childhood affection for the various characters – but it’s just a disposable children’s romp, not something that should be given a ‘twenty-fifth anniversary special edition’ DVD release on two discs with two different edits of the show and three different commentaries.