Dennis Potter/Doctor Who

So the story goes, as was revealed some years ago now, that Dennis Potter, a television script-writer with a staggering reputation, once submitted a script, storyline, or at least an idea to Doctor Who during the early years of the show.

It makes sense. Potter had flirted with writing for TV in the years immediately before Doctor Who began, but it wasn’t until the series became established, around 1965, that Potter settled on writing television drama as a viable career. Potter did not in the event contribute to the series, instead making a name writing inventive and emotive single dramas for adults, such as Where the Buffalo Roam, and Son of Man, before going on to make several towering contributions to television drama in the seventies and eighties.

So what is the the great lost Dennis Potter Doctor Who story about? Legend has it it’s about a schizophrenic, a delusional who hallucinates or believes himself to be a time-traveller. How modern, how very Potter to take something fundamental to the series format and twist it in such an interesting way. What would happen if such a person met ‘real’ time travellers? What would happen to such a person if they ‘really’ get to travel in time? What kind of dramatic journey does that entail? What does that do to a character? What does that do to the audience? Thinking about it it undermines, in interesting ways, the very core of the programme. In Doctor Who, how can we be sure an hallucination of time travel remains just an hallucination; how can mental time travel be just a delusion in Doctor Who?

Time travel has always been possible in dreams.
Madame Vastra, The Name of the Doctor

And if that is true, how can we be sure of anything? Perhaps the Doctor himself is just a very advanced type of schizophrenic whose delusions and hallucinations have somehow become his physical milieu?

Potter’s ghost remains an influence on the series. Certainly Russell T Davies was influenced as a writer by Potter. And when considering some of Steven Moffat’s ground-breaking work on the series, I think of the brilliant conceit in his 2008 episode Forest of the Dead, in which a character begins to realise she’s trapped in a virtual reality because she notices the edits in the television drama programme she’s in. I almost can imagine Potter thinking: I wish I’d thought of that.

Prequel Smequel.

It may not be that unusual in a Doctor Who drama for the audience to be shown reveals before the Doctor.  What does strike me as unusual in some of Moffat’s Who is that the audience finds out things that the characters will never know. The final shot of ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ reveals a crucial piece of information that makes sense of the events of the story for the audience, after the Doctor has left the story admitting he still has no idea just why Madame de Pompadour was fixated upon by the droids of a ship from the future. That the ship bears her name is revealed only to us.

Of course normally the Doctor knows more about what’s going on than anyone in the room, and in the unfolding of ‘arc’ mysteries that span seasons, we tend to experience key reveals along the way with him: in The Sound of Drums, as the Doctor, Jack and crucially Martha realise the Master is Harold Saxon, the pieces of the season-long puzzle fall into place for us at the same time. Likewise the Doctor discovers River Song’s identity as Melody Pond at pretty much the same time we do, leaving her hapless parents to represent those members of the audience who really need it spelling out.

In the Current Epoch of the show, known as Nu-Who, single episode stories strung in a loose arc has been the norm, with RTD stating his Bad Wolf scenario was only ever meant to be a bonus thread not affecting the comprehensibility of the individual episodes, not expecting it to be picked up by the Guardian and the mass audience (used, as has now become a cliche, to watching TV with an eye to ongoing arcs). Bad Wolf became a brief natIonal talking point. But again, it’s all fairly straightforward narrative exposition. We find out the solution to the Bad Wolf mystery with Rose, and subsequently, with the flabbergasted Doctor as Rose tells him ‘I am the Bad Wolf’ and promptly saves his ass which he was confidently expecting to experience extermination very shortly.

With the ongoing saga of Clara Oswin Oswald, the knowledge available to the audience comes in different ways.

In this new scene acting as a teaser for the new series, and focusing on the search for Clara, picking up from the  end of the Xmas special, again we are left knowing more than the Doctor. I won’t say too much, but suffice to say there’s a charming use of one of Moffat ‘s box of tropes – just playing with the audience, teasing them as to whether the obvious and almost inevitable pay-off. In this case, the pay off implies to me that the Doctor will never know what we find out in the second to last shot. Because he doesn’t need to. It’s not a detail he ever needs to know. The meaning of this particular unfolding of the Oswin story is left to us to decide. I suspect it always will be.

The Bells of St John: A PREQUEL

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p016r6pw

By the way, I must observe this usage of the term ‘prequel’ in more detail.

The term prequel was surely invented to capture the ambiguity of a follow-up movie (normally called a sequel) which relates prior events. The first notable example I can remember in popcorn land is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which I believe is meant to be set before Raiders of the Lost Arc. Lucas really exploited the form with his Star Wars prequels depicting the first, descending half (?) of the story of Anakin Skywalker. And of course the most obvious current ‘prequel’ would the Hobbit movies.

But in book form, The Hobbit was written and published before the Lord of the Rings’s three volumes. To call it a ‘prequel’ would be to apply a new word to something it doesn’t even describe. Nor can the Dr Who episodes ‘Utopia’ or even ‘Mission to the Unknown’ adequately be called prequels to what they introduce.

This latest addition to Doctor Who shouldn’t be called a prequel’. In my view it is both wrong, draining  the meaning of the word of any of its delicious irony, and for that reason, looks silly. A marketing term used to market something it was originally not intended to market. Namely, a Prologue.

Oh well. Thank the goddess they didn’t call it a Minisode this time.

The Bells of St John: A Prologue

>http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p016r6pw

Gay Marriage – a child’s perspective

Many years ago, like most kids of my generation, I was sent to school. I still remember the primary school – the vaulted, slightly dusty corridor with a dark shiny floor, and the dim secluded annex for coats and scarves next to the first classroom door.

Each child was instructed to use a particular peg to hang their coat. This was probably the first game we played at the school, a game we went along with. I never recall anyone questioning why we had to use the same peg each time, not me. I suppose in hindsight it was an early lesson in bureaucratic efficiency and obedience.

Anyway, each peg was identified by a unique picture above it. Colourful and bold, the images were of easily recognisable cartoon-style scenes and characters. A giraffe perhaps, or a church? Possibly there was a policeman (friendly but big), a nurse (female), a doctor (male), or a roaring open fire. I don’t really recall. All I recall is my peg’s picture, the icon signifying my place in the array of coats. It showed two chaps, two business men perhaps, outfitted in identical pinstripe suits, bowler hats and bristly moustaches, apparently stepping out together on a nice walk.

Now, bearing in mind I was five, and that this was in 1976, I look back and wonder that I just assumed without  any conversation or self-questioning, that the icon above my peg depicted a male married couple, having  a stroll and being reasonably happy and settled in their relationship. I seem to remember mentioning this to someone – whether pupil or staff I don’t know – and remember being corrected into believing the two gentlemen of the coathook icon were, in all probability, friends, and not married as I had quite innocently assumed.

In retrospect, I feel I was ahead of the curve, and that same-sex marriage clearly did not seem unnatural or peculiar to me. So the idea that it would undermine heterosexual marriage seems utterly wrong.

God Complexities

Do you believe in God?

Augustine
Augustine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
God's Vaginal Liquid Omnipresence baptized us ...
God’s Vaginal Liquid Omnipresence baptized us with Her Eternal Divinity tonight (Photo credit: nayrb7)

I have never really understood this question, though it gets asked fairly frequently. There seem to be at least two questions wrapped up inside it, two interpretations. Do you have faith in God? And, do you affirm the existence of God?

I don’t propose to spend much time on the first interpretation. The second question, however, I find impossible to answer.

Here’s why.  Limitations of any kind are not supposed to pertain to the God. A story I once heard told in the House of Lords a few years ago has stuck with me. The story goes that during the English colonial intervention in India, the chiefs of the Anglican Church met with representatives of the Hindu religion at an equivalent level and said, basically, we don’t want any trouble right?  But we just can’t get our heads round one point about your religion, so need you to answer one simple question before we can guarantee that. Do you believe in one god or many?

The Hindus could not answer, because they said, we cannot limit god to singularity or multiplicity. The separation between them is part of illusion. To say god is one limits god, who can never be many. Similarly, to say god is many means he can never be one. Who are we to limit god to one side or the other of the one/many divide?

Similarly, it seems to me equally ridiculous to limit any god to just one side of the dichotomy between existence and oblivion, presence and lack, matter and void. Like Schrodinger’s cat, gods exist beyond such rationalist dichotomies.

I  cannot affirm the existence of god, for to do so would limit god to a kind of prison.