The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Starry Eyed

To commemorative tonight's 'Lockdown Doctor Who' communal viewing of Vincent and the Doctor, here's an appreciation of the story I wrote for Doctor Who Magazine back in 2017, as part of an article listing 20 Amazing Things About Steven Moffat's Doctor Who. The issue is still available digitally, very cheaply, from Pocket Mags and I blogged about it previously here.


VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR

A very simple idea lies at the heart of Vincent and the Doctor. Anyone who has ever lost someone in tragic circumstances, particularly where they have taken their own life, or gone suddenly and too soon, will find themselves feeling that a terrible injustice has been perpetrated. It just seems so monstrously unfair that they should die without knowing how much they were loved. And in that situation, you can’t helping thinking that if only they had known then maybe things would have been different.

That’s why Vincent and the Doctor is so powerful and moving. It’s about that desire to put things right. It’s a blatant piece of wish-fulfilment from its writer Richard Curtis, who has made a whole career based on wish-fulfilment of one kind or another. With Vincent Van Gogh he chose the perfect subject, because of the immense gulf between how lowly he was regarded when he lived, how much he suffered, and how highly he is now regarded. It’s all beautifully expressed the scene where Vincent hears that he is regarded not only as the greatest artist who ever lived but also as one of the greatest men.


Yet it doesn’t change anything. He still kills himself. The story gives us the wish-fulfilment of ‘If only they had known’ and shows us that it wouldn’t have solved Vincent’s mental illness, that it is, sadly, not so easily overcome. But it’s a story anyone can relate to; just as Amy wants to see all the paintings Vincent would have gone on to paint, fans of John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, for example, want to hear all the songs they would have written. And anyone who has lost someone will regret that that person will now miss out on so much; they will never get to meet new-born nephews or grandchildren, they will never share another Christmas, they will never get to watch new episodes of Doctor Who that they would have loved. They will never know how much they were loved.

But this article is supposed to be about Steven Moffat. Because he didn’t write it, because parts of it are so Richard Curtis-y that you can imagine somebody going on to say “...because love actually is all around”, you could perhaps be forgiven for underestimating Steven’s contribution. But even when his name isn’t in the title sequence of an episode, Steven’s ideas and sensibilities will have shaped that episode every step of the way; from deciding which writer to hire, maybe giving them an idea for a story or deciding which of their ideas to take forward; giving notes on every outline and draft; sometimes even writing the final draft. Vincent and the Doctor is pretty much all Richard Curtis, but even then, there are odd moments – the scenes addressing the ongoing ‘arc’ of Amy forgetting Rory – that sound like Steven Moffat. Maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, maybe we will never know. And even once the script is finished, Steven’s influence doesn’t end there, in fact his influence is greater, as he gives notes on every edit of the story. In collaboration with the writer, the director, the producers and executive producers, yes, but as show-runner he has the ultimate responsibility.

And Vincent and the Doctor is a case in point, because there was so much material shot for it and the first assembly of the episode was so over-length, that the story was effectively given an extra rewrite (or at least heavily script-edited) in the edit suite. Somebody took the decision to excise a subplot about the Krafayis being a monster from the Doctor’s childhood and a subplot about the dead girl’s mother and instead to focus on Vincent’s mental illness, and that somebody would have been Steven Moffat.

In short; great stories don’t just happen by accident. They happen because the guy in charge knows a great story when he sees one.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Angry

One of my ‘You Are Not Alone’ columns from back in 2007, published in DWM 393 under the headline 'Losing my Religion?':

Worst episode ever!!!

Normally, I enjoy watching Doctor Who. If anything, I enjoy it slightly more than is healthy. I’ve said before how inordinately excited I get in anticipation of watching an episode, and usually that anticipation is rewarded by the following 45 minutes of thrills, corridors, and hopefully something exploding at the end.

I make a big emotional investment in Doctor Who. I can’t help it; it has given me so much pleasure over the years that I find I care. It can mean the difference between ecstasy and despair, between skipping around the room with uncontainable delight and wanting to locate and dismember the nearest small furry animal.

Absurd, isn’t it? What a ridiculous lack of perspective! It’s only a television programme, after all. There are more important things in the world to worry about, like, wars and famines and remembering to cross the road correctly and money and relationships. Doctor Who, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t matter one jot.

Except that it matters to me, because I expect a return on my emotional investment. My reaction to an episode of Doctor Who will predicate whether I spend the rest of the evening getting drunk, beginning sentences with ‘Wasn’t it incredibly cool when...’ or whether I spend it getting drunk, beginning sentences with ‘And another bloody thing that annoyed me…’

I don’t want to be the ‘annoyed’ person. Never mind that fact that it means I’m awful, niggly company, it’s really tiresome and unpleasant to be in the epicentre of a zone of pedantry.


You might get the impression that it’s a polar response, that it’s either ‘Fantastic!’ or ‘Romana-was-appalled’ (or, to use the internet terminology, it’s either ‘cringe’ or ‘squee’ with additional letter ‘e’s where appropriate). And it’s not – I have the capacity for ambivalence – but with Doctor Who my responses do tend to be more extreme, where every reaction is an… over-reaction.

‘When I was a child, I thought as a child,' said Nicholas Parsons in The Curse Of Fenric. He was right, and could easily have gone on to say, ‘When I was a child, I thought all Doctor Who was great.’ Because, when I was a kid, I didn’t conceive of the possibility that there might be such a thing as a bad Doctor Who story – after all, it was Doctor Who, ergo, it would be automatically really amazing. I enjoyed everything because it never occurred to me not to.

But I can still recall my first ‘bad’ Doctor Who story. It’s a formative moment in every fan’s life. I won’t say which specific story it was – suffice it to say that it featured Sylvester McCoy, some Daleks, and had production code 7H – and I can’t remember what it was about it that left me so vexed – it was, and remains, a marvellous story – but nevertheless, suddenly, and massively, it really me pissed off.

Which is an odd response, if only because Dragonfire had been on the previous year and I’d found that perfectly congenial. I suspect the difference was not with Doctor Who but with me; I had reached a ‘certain age’, where things grow – in particular beard hairs, genitals and the capacity to take everything a bit too personally.

I had turned fourteen and was a prickly, insecure adolescent. And my problem with Doctor Who was that, overnight, it didn’t take itself as seriously as I took it. I wanted this show to continue to mean to me what it had meant when I was six years old, when it was realistic, gritty drama like The Creature From The Pit… but now the powers-that-be-at-the-BBC had decided to turn it into a cheap, silly, children’s programme. An embarrassment. Suddenly Doctor Who stopped being something that everyone liked, and became something that only I liked, and something that stopped girls from wanting to have sex with me (amongst other reasons).


This sort of over-reaction isn’t unique to Doctor Who, though. It’s the same sort of feeling you get when you buy the latest album from your favourite pop group, only to discover they are experimenting with ‘suddenly being shit’. Or when your football team gets relegated. Or when your political party comes second.

On all of these occasions, you have a valid reason to be miserable. And the same applies if you don’t enjoy an episode of Doctor Who. Over-reacting badly is all part of being a fan. There’s nothing wrong with it, as long as you are still over-reacting positively most of the time. As long as you’re dancing with glee more frequently than you are dismembering woodland creatures.

But there are two important things to remember. Firstly, although you have a very personal, very emotional response to Doctor Who, if you don’t like something, it isn’t because the programme makers have decided to annoy you. Just as pop groups don’t sit down and decide to release a bad album, with even the most lacklustre Doctor Who stories, everyone involved was working with the best of intentions. Every story was written, directed, acted and produced by people who genuinely thought it would be fantastic.

Even, hard as it may be to believe, Underworld.

And when things do go wrong, the programme makers are as acutely aware of the shortcomings as the viewers, if not more so. They are just not in a position to announce this publicly, and wouldn’t even if they could, because they know that every bad show started out as a good idea, and how, in a collaborative medium, things go wrong without it being any one person’s ‘fault’.

The second thing to remember is, whatever you do, don’t get drunk and go on the internet. The internet and five pints of lager do not mix. You will read things that will make you tetchy and you will post things you will regret.

Instead, my advice is, pick up the Radio Times and read the listing for next week’s episode… and start looking forward to that instead.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Space Adventure Part 2


I’ve updated my list of every SF film I’ve seen. Changes in bold.

1926
Metropolis
1933
King Kong
1936
Things to Come
1951
The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Man in the White Suit, The Thing, When Worlds Collide
1953
Invaders from Mars, It Came from Outer Space, War of the Worlds
1954
20,000 Leagues under the Sea, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Them!
1955
The Quatermass Xperiment, This Island Earth
1956
1984, Earth versus the Flying Saucers, Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Plan 9 from Outer Space, X The Unknown
1957
The Abominable Snowman, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Quatermass 2
1959
Journey to the Centre of the Earth
1960
The Little Shop of Horrors, The Time Machine, Village of the Damned
1961
The Day the Earth Caught Fire
1962
Doctor No
1963
The Damned, The Birds, The Day of the Triffids, La Jetee
1964
Children of the Damned, Doctor Strangelove, The First Men in the Moon, Goldfinger, The Last Man on Earth
1965
Alphaville, Dr Who and the Daleks, Thunderball, The War Game
1966
Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD, Fahrenheit 451, Fantastic Voyage
1967
Barbarella, Casino Royale, Privilege, Quatermass and the Pit, The Terrornauts, You Only Live Twice
1968
2001-A Space Odyssey, Charly, Planet of the Apes
1969
The Bed Sitting Room, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Zeta One
1970
The Andromeda Strain, No Blade of Grass
1971
A Clockwork Orange, Diamonds are Forever, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, Percy, Silent Running, Solaris, THX 1138
1972
Doomwatch, Slaughterhouse Five
1973
The Final Programme, Phase IV, Sleeper, Soylent Green, Westworld, Zardoz
1974
The Cars That Ate Paris, Dark Star, The Little Prince, The Man with the Golden Gun, The Stepford Wives, The Terminal Man, Young Frankenstein
1975
The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Rollerball
1976
At the Earth’s Core, The Big Bus, Futureworld, The Killer Bees, Logan’s Run, The Man Who Fell to Earth
1977
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Demon Seed, Empire of the Ants, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Glitterball, The Spy Who Loved Me, Star Wars
1978
The Boys from Brazil, Coma, A Hitch in Time, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Pirahna, Superman, The Swarm, Warlords of Atlantis
1979
Alien, The Black Hole, Mad Max, Meteor, Moonraker, Star Trek, Starcrash, Time After Time
1980
Altered States, The Apple, Battle Beyond the stars, The Empire Strikes Back, Flash Gordon, Saturn 3, Scanners, Superman II
1981
Escape from New York, Galaxy of Terror, Mad Max 2, Outland, Piranha II, Time Bandits
1982
Airplane II, Blade Runner, ET, The Wrath of Khan, The Thing, Tron, Videodrome
1983
Krull, The Man With Two Brains, Never Say Never Again, Return of the Jedi, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Superman III, War Games
1984
1984, 2010, The Brother from Another Planet, Dune, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Night of the Comet, The Philadelphia Experiment, Repo Man, Search for Spock, Starman, Terminator
1985
Back to the Future, Brazil, Cocoon, Creature, Lifeforce, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Morons from Outer Space, Weird Science
1986
Aliens, Biggles: Adventures in Time, Critters, The Fly, Howard the Duck, Invaders from Mars, Short Circuit, Star Trek IV
1987
Batteries Not Included, Innerspace, Predator, RoboCop, The Running Man, Spaceballs
1988
Akira, Earth Girls Are Easy, Moonwalker, They Live
1989
The Abyss, Back to the Future II, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Ghostbusters II, Slipstream, Star Trek V
1990
Back to the Future III, Gremlins 2, The Handmaid’s Tale, Hardware, Total Recall
1991
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, The Rocketeer, Star Trek 6, Terminator 2, Wedlock
1992
Alien 3, The Lawnmower Man
1993
Jurassic Park
1994
Stargate, Star Trek Generations
1995
12 Monkeys, The City of Lost Children, Congo, GoldenEye, Judge Dredd, Screamers, Tank Girl
1996
Barb Wire, Crash, Independence Day, Mars Attacks!, Star Trek: First Contact
1997
Contact, Cube, Event Horizon, The Fifth Element, Gattaca, The Lost World, Men in Black, Starship Troopers
1998
Dark City, Pi, Sphere, Star Trek: Insurrection
1999
eXistenZ, Galaxy Quest, The Matrix, Muppets from Space, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace
2000
Pitch Black, Unbreakable
2001
AI, Donnie Darko, Jurassic Park III
2002
28 Days Later, Equilibrium, Impostor, Minority Report, Solaris, Spider-Man, Star Trek: Nemesis, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Signs, The Time Machine
2003
Paycheck, Terminator 3, Timeline
2004
The Butterfly Effect, The Day After Tomorrow, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I, Robot
2005
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Robots, Serenity, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, War of the Worlds, Zarutha
2006
A Scanner Darkly, Children of Men, The Fountain, The Host, Southland Tales, Superman Returns, V for Vendetta
2007
28 Weeks Later, I Am Legend, The Mist, Next, Sunshine
2008
Cloverfield, Iron Man, The Clone Wars, WALL-E
2009
2012, Avatar, District 9, Frequently Asked Question About Time Travel, Moon, The Road, Star Trek, The Time Traveler’s Wife
2010
Despicable Me, Hot Tub Time Machine, Monsters, Never Let Me Go, Tron Legacy
2011
The Adjustment Bureau, Attack the Block, ConIn Time, Limitless, Paul, Source Code, Super 8, Thor
2012
Cloud Atlas, Dredd, The Hunger Games, John Carter, Looper, Prometheus, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Total Recall
2013
About Time, Continuum, Elysium, Ender’s Game Gravity, Her, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Oblivion, Pacific Rim, Snowpiercer, Star Trek Into Darkness, The World’s End, Under the Skin, The Zero Theorem
2014
Coherence, Divergent, Edge of Tomorrow, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Giver, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 1, Interstellar, Left Behind, Lucy, The Maze Runner, Noah, Mr Peabody & Sherman, Predestination, Space Station 76, Transcendence
2015
Advantageous, Insurgent, EX Machina, High Rise, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay 2, Jupiter Ascending, Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Tomorrowland
2016
10 Cloverfield Lane, Allegiant, ARQ, Arrival, Ghostbusters, Independence Day: Resurgence, Star Wars: Rogue One, Star Trek Beyond
2017
Blade Runner 2049, The Humanity Bureau, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
2018
Annihilation, The Cloverfield Paradox, Mortal Engines, Mute, Star Wars: Solo
2019:
Farmageddon, Io, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, The Wandering Earth

Still left to see:

1958
The Fly
1959
On The Beach
1964
Fail Safe
1966
Seconds
1968
Je T’aime Je T’aime
1969
Marooned
1970
The Forbin Project
1971
Quest for Love
1974
It’s Alive
1975
A Boy and His Dog, Death Race 2000
1977
Capricorn One, The People That Time Forgot
1979
The China Syndrome
1980
The Final Countdown,
1982
Halloween III
1984
Dreamscape, The Last Starfighter, Runaway
1988
Alien Nation
1989
Millennium
1991
Naked Lunch
1994
Timecop
1995
Waterworld
2004
Primer
2005
Sky High
2008
Death Race
2009
9, Outlander, Splice
2011
The Collapsed
2012
Lockout
2013
The Congress
2014
The Anomaly, Time Lapse
2015
Chappie, Predestination
2016
Capsule, The Darkest Dawn, Spectral
2017
The Endless, iBoy, Revolt, Stasis, Upside Down
2018
Anon, Kin, Level 16, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, Occupation, Replicas, The Shape of Water, Tau, White Chamber
2019
Ad Astra, I Am Mother