Category: Doctor Who

Explaining Custard Creams

At the end of Episode 2 of Season 11 of Doctor Who, the TARDIS rewards the Doctor with a cookie or rather a BISCUIT. Yes, this is somewhat condescending of the TARDIS but all things considered there are few beings who have more right to be condescending to the Doctor.

Viewing on my phone on a bumpy commuter train, I couldn’t quite make out what she ate but on a proper telly it was clearly a custard cream. For non-British viewers this may require a little elaboration. Firstly I didn’t want to write this without first aces retaining whether Custard Creams are a thing in Australia. Australia is sort of a parallel universe of English things due to patterns of colonialism and immigration and not everything carries across (e.g. you can’t get Shredded Wheat here and Weetabix is Weet-Bix).

So firstly here is an Australian Custard Cream:

Now, I haven’t eaten one in awhile but I think the canonical British version are more oblong. However, the other features are correct, including the swirly embossed pattern and a rhombus (again I think less square in the UK).

In construction (but not flavour) not unlike an Oreo. The biscuit has three parts, two quite firm biscuits which form a sandwich with a sweet icing in the centre. For a custard cream that centre is yellow and vanilla flavoured.

Here you can see the Custard Cream in-situ:

(Arnotts are the big biscuit company in Australia – almost monopolistic. They do a lot of classic ‘British’ biscuits but I can’t recommend their Ginger Nuts which are way too brittle rather than crunchy. Luckily you can get McVities chocolate digestives in Australia. )

As a food item they fit a pattern with occasional other Doctor Who food stuffs, specifically:

  • Jelly Babies (Tom Baker)
  • Fish Fingers and Custard (Matt Smith)

The common feature is mass produced, child friendly, nostalgic post-war foods that are sort of a treat but also a bit mundane. The fish fingers for the Matt Smith era also playing on the association of Doctor Who with ‘tea-time’ in the sense of an early-evening meal and al,so the original Saturday evening time slot for Doctor Who. The show was (and to some extent still is) intended to be a transitional program between parts of the BBC’s programming

So several things going on:

  • A call back to Matt Smith and custard,
  • British junk food nostalgia,
  • Tea-time reference,
  • The Doctor has a secret biscuit stash,
  • The TARDIS is the Doctor’s adopted mum.

Also, now I have a secret stash of Custard Creams at work!


Review: Doctor Who – The Ghost Monument (no spoilers)

Episode 2 brings another story that makes no great effort to push story boundaries but makes good use of most of the cast to create a very likeable episode. I won’t recount the plot as it hasn’t aired on broadcast TV in Australia yet (ABC streams the episodes on Monday morning here, so I can watch Doctor Who on the morning train!)

The main problem with the episode is two under used actors. Yas (Mandip Gill) doesn’t get to do very much other than point out relevant plot events (e.g. locations of killer robots) and guest star Art Malik does very little other than slot into vaguely middle-eastern stereotype rich bad guy in a tent in a desert. That’s a shame because everybody else (including the other two guest stars) get some snappy dialogue and as much depth as can be managed in 40 minutes.

Ryan and Graham make for an interesting pair. It’s an unusual set up for a SF show – a relationship between two men that isn’t friendship, romantic, professional and not exactly family. Grace’s death last episode can reasonably be called a ‘fridging’ in that it is used as a plot device to hang the emotions of men on. However, there’s more going on here than just stereotyped man-pain.

Graham is still a bit annoying but much less so than the last episode and Ryan gets to have some fun moments. His dyspraxia is being represented mainly by him having a thing about ladders (bad news for Ryan as Doctor Who episodes tend to have a lot of ladders).

The science is pleasantly non-sensical as always and purists will be delighted by the amount of running down corridors there is this week.

Whittaker brings another great performance. There’s a few glimpses of the Doctor’s callousness early on but this primarily a more empathetic Doctor than Capaldi. There are similarities with Peter Davidson’s Doctor (another Doctor with a crowded TARDIS) as well as Matt Smith’s more manic energy. There are a few shout outs to past Doctor’s as well as some forward continuity which I won’t discuss yet.

Filmed in South Africa, the visuals are excellent. The mysterious alien planet has hints of a classic planet-that’s-actually-a-quarry-in-Kent but with panoramic views. Nobody says “I guess we’re not in Yorkshire anymore.”

I really enjoyed this. It felt fresh but also reminiscent of the Ecclestone Doctor, in that it feels unencumbered by the success that followed and episodes were less loaded with significance.

Oh, and we get to see the new opening titles which are nicely symmetrically swishy abstract. The revised version of the theme music has already been accepted by my brain as how the theme music usually sounds and by next episode I’ll have forgotten that its changed.

Next week Doctor Who gets embroiled in the US Civil Rights movement and meets Rosa Parks. I can imagine far too many ways in which that episode might go horribly wrong so lets hope for the best…

Bicycles, disability and Doctor Who

The recent Pixel Scroll at File 770 included a link to this piece on the BBC website about one of the new characters in Doctor Who:

I mentioned briefly on Twitter that the opening scene of the first episode of the new season of Doctor Who was surprisingly upsetting. To recap, the character Ryan is on moorland outside of Sheffield being given bike riding lessons by his grandmum and his step-grandad (who also feature as key characters in the episode). Ryan tries and fails to stay upright on the bike and eventually chucks the bike off the hillside in frustration. The lost bike precipitates the rest of the events in the episode in normal Doctor Who fashion.

It’s an interesting scene. Ryan is an adult but the structure of the scene is intended to look familiar but only in a context where the person learning to ride is a child. The audience is not given an explanation until further into the scene: Ryan has “dyspraxia”, a condition better described as developmental coordination disorder. I can attest to at least some aspects of that scene being accurate – I also tried (eventually with some marginal success) to learn to ride a bike as an adult and felt both humiliation and frustration with my inability to master something that is treated culturally as a right of passage for children. Bike riding just being one of a litany of things that you are supposed to learn as a child that proved to be frustratingly difficult.

I mentioned one aspect of that here and I said in that post that I’d talk some more about it. What I didn’t know (and yet oddly should have guessed) that I’d be provoked into writing about failing to ride a bike or why I still tie shoe-laces badly by Doctor Who. I’m also still processing the way I was quite discombobulated by that scene — to the extent that I didn’t properly engage with the rest of the episode until I watched it the second time.

I’ve obviously engaged with and discussed questions about representation and also about content warnings and how television (and other media) impact different audiences in complex ways. I’ve also tried to be clear the extent to which I’m clearly seeing things from a position of entrenched privilege — I’m a middle-class cis-het white guy from England living in an English speaking country with all the economic and social advantages that they entail. One scene in a show briefly flipped the script on me. That’s not a criticism, I think the scene was well thought out and done with some sensitivity but I wasn’t expecting it and I really wouldn’t have guessed it would have affected me quite the way it did. But it did.

The secondary piece of discombobulation was reading reviews which quite correctly described Ryan as being a disabled character. That’s clearly true, yet I can’t say I’ve ever really thought of myself as being disabled despite having exactly the same condition. Yet I’m in an odd position of feeling like I have to say that when before I said that representation really does matter I now have to say that, yes, representation really does matter. I can’t imagine how big a deal Ryan’s character would have been for me as a kid, on any show that I watched then and then even more so on Doctor Who.

The pernicious aspect of DCD is that it is by definition unobvious. “Dyspraxia” is a poor name for it as the term relates to the more apparent discordination of movement which may relate to a much wider range of conditions. DCD is, diagnostically, a condition where there isn’t some other reason why a person has difficulty coordinating their movements. It’s also most obviously a learning disorder but one of physicality — why riding a bike was a clever example. Learning to tie your shoe laces, or ride a bike or swim or write aren’t trivial for anybody new to them as activities but that initial obstacle is substantially higher if you have DCD and even after the initial difficulty progress is much slower*. These kinds of tasks are (not unreasonably) also things seen to varying degrees as developmental milestones for children, either formally (e.g. tying your own shoe laces) or socially (e.g. riding a bike, being able to swim**). I say ‘not unreasonably’ because a young child who is struggling to learn to dress themselves (another basic task, which is just that much harder) may well have many different conditions that are better diagnosed early. The thing with DCD is that it lacks any obvious deeper cause, it manifests more obviously in childhood precisely because it throws up bigger developmental red flags than the actual condition entails.

Put another way, while the condition doesn’t go away in adulthood, the extent of the disability is relative to the environment around you and that can (potentially) be much more accomodating as an adult than as a child or at school. Of course, computers are part of that. Nobody expects me to write anything out by hand and nobody at my current work knows that I can only write legibly with great effort (I mean, I tell people my handwriting is awful but I think that just sounds self-deprecating rather than indicating that if computers weren’t ubiquotous I would struggle to function in a workplace that wasn’t manual work)

Ah, there’s another one of those quasi-epiphanies about something which I already knew but which I’m only thinking about in terms of myself now. “I would struggle to function in a workplace…” because, say thirty odd years ago or fifty odd years ago finding it exhausting and difficult to write legibly would have restricted the kind and scope of paid work that I could do. What is more of an inconvenience now would have had a severe impact on my adult life. What has change is the working environment, which at least in my case has pushed a significant issue into a minor issue.

The other aspect of that scene was the dynamic between the three people. Ryan trying to make his grandmother happy, Graham trying to be a replacement dad and becoming frustrated himself with something he didn’t understand. I don’t know how intentional this was by the director. Where the grandparents meant to look a bit awful by pressurising Ryan into doing something that he was going to struggle with (and Sheffield’s not a great place to ride a bike anyway)? Or was it that they were supposed to seem supportive of Ryan’s efforts and determination? I know my reaction was not to like either of them initially and that right thing to say to Ryan is that riding a bike is overrated and while hard work & determination are virtues they might be better deployed to a more satisfying end.

And that takes us to the second bike riding scene. Towards the end of the episode Ryan is (more or less) by himself with the bike on the moors. This time he is more grimly determined to succeed and the scene is set up for a triumph of will over gravity. Thankfully the scene defies that expectation and Ryan continues to lose his balance and fall off. The repeated efforts are shown at a greater distance and this time with the Doctor looking on (but also from a distance). I’m not sure what the scene was trying to say here, something about grief perhaps or something about Ryan’s character.

The remaining question is how Ryan’s disability is presented beyond these scenes. “Not at all” makes sense in some ways – it’s not a particularly visible disability- but then would this negate the representation of the character from the first episode? The obvious bad solution would be Ryan as comically clumsy (I mean, I’d rather be comically clumsy than just plain clumsy but the pathologically clumsy person as a comic figure is the negative stereotype of the dyspraxic person). The unintentionally chaotic, the person who accidentally triggers a chain of escalating events is caught up within that stereotype of the comically clumsy (the Frank Spencer or Inspector Clouseau) but it is also seperate from it. It is a character trait caught up in the chaotic nature of the Doctor themselves*** where “chaotic” is not the Dungeons & Dragons sense of chaos but rather the cloud of disruption and change that follows in their wake regardless of their intent. Interestingly Ryan is gifted with this trait in the episode and not due to any physical clumsiness (or not directly) but out of curiosity and the irresistible impulse to press a literally shiny button. Ryan’s confession that he precipitated the crisis is met with different reactions: Graham (in his most unpleasant moment) asks sarcastically if Ryan will blame the alien invasion on his dyspraxia whereas the Doctor confesses that she too would have pressed the button just to see what would happen.

I’ve never been a small person. I’ve always been tall for my age and did I mention my eye-sight isn’t the best either? Long-sighted, which is easily the most positive name for poor vision anybody ever had, and dyspraxic and like Murderbot says, never entirely sure what humans are supposed to do with their arms to look natural. The world has always seemed a bit more chaotic and fragile than its supposed to. The Doctor’s character trait of trailing chaos around them has always been something I loved about the character. It’s relatable and positive and interesting and not a physical trait or a lack or a disadvantage or a problem but part of a character. I’m glad Ryan had that as part of his character (a person who things happen to) that is seperate from his DCD but which is relatable to in those terms.

And I’m back to the beginning. A bicycle and Doctor Who and how that would have impacted me when I was 10 or 16 or how it did now.

*[I did eventually learn to ride a bike as an adult (‘ride a bike’ as in stay upright and moving the bike by pedalling for several metres) but I am not sufficiently confident to ride on a road where there are other vehicles.]

**[Luckily I didn’t grow up in Australia]

***[and the singular “they” has surely been the most appropriate of pronouns for the Doctor since Patrick Troughton]

Review: Doctor Who – The Woman Who Fell To Earth

Doctor Who has to live in a cleverly ambiguous spot between anarchic children’s television and serious drama. Often co-opting aspects of horror while deliberately undermining that drama with a central character who is essentially immune to the monstrous, the latest season/reboot places itself in this crossroads. Tentacles, a face full of teeth, dark things on a train make up the furniture for a story centred on a silly person that’s fallen out of their ride home.

The sci-fi plot is essentially a Torchwood episode transported from Cardiff to Sheffield and that’s fine. I like Sheffield, it’s one of my favourite cities and certainly deserves defending from alien invasion by the Doctor. Rising up above the science-fiction elements is the four human characters who become embroiled in the alien plot. Bringing in a broader range of companions is a promising move for the new series.

Jodie Whittaker is placed in that unenviable position of having to play the Doctor more as an impression of previous Doctors but she does it with a comic flair that is convincing and charming in equal measure. It’ always a mistake to judge what a given Doctor will be like from their first story but Whittaker grabs the role with a lot of confidence. She’s aided here with this new season being a stronger reboot of the veteran TV show than the last regeneration. She’s clearly enjoying the role

There’s other stuff that I’m still unpacking but overall it was an entertaining hour of television. Not a particularly remarkable Doctor Who story when separated from its role introducing a new cast of characters but easily as strong as Ecclestone’s, Smith’s and Capaldi’s first stories. Now I’m off to read other reviews that I’d been avoiding!

Review: Doctor Who Christmas Special – Twice Upon a Time

The urge to indulge in long goodbyes proved too hard for Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi and so we all got a Christmas special heavy on farewells. I wish they wouldn’t do this, it didn’t work for David Tennant and as much as I like Peter Capaldi, he’s had a shorter tenure and less impact on shaping the new version of the Doctor as a character. Aside from anything else, it has been a long-established character trait of the Doctor that he does his utmost to avoid long goodbyes.

Still, this was an episode that wasn’t short of ideas, jokes, references to old episodes and cameos but very short of a plot. David Bradley reprised his impersonation of the First Doctor that he’d deployed as William Hartnell in An Adventure in Time and Space to great effect. Pearl Mackie got another send-off as Bill Potts but no hint that she might reappear in the next series (no hint that she wouldn’t either).

I’d still would have preferred less obvious sentimentality and more story though.

The Name’s Who, James Who

As we are on the topic, let’s talk about James Bond* and Doctor Who. Along with Sherlock Holmes, these characters are the superheroes of British pop-culture: they exist independent of their stories, they are re-inventable and yet recognisable, and effectively have super powers.


With a woman cast to play Doctor Who people have cast around for suitable analogies for an equally significant change. As a new James Bond has not been cast and as Daniel Craig is moving on, comparisons with James Bond being cast as a woman have been made. I don’t think the comparison is apt.

Having said that I very much NOT saying it couldn’t be done or that it would be a mistake. Certainly, we’ve already had women cast successfully in similar super-spy roles of one kind or another. There is no reason why a ‘Bond Film’ (i.e. a film with the core elements of the movies and the same dramatic beats and set-pieces) couldn’t have a woman as the lead character. However, I think successfully creating a version of James Bond who was both a continuation of the character AND a woman would be a substantial challenge for both the actor and the writers in a way Doctor Who simply isn’t. Nor is that a reason NOT to do it – if anything it is a reason TO do it. Avoiding doing something because it would be difficult and challenging is not what James Bond would do, now is it?

So what’s the difference? Aside from one era, Doctor Who as a character has never been about ‘maleness’. Now by ‘maleness’, I mean a fiction – a fiction that comes out of a bigger fiction about society having two distinct gender roles. This isn’t to say both the show and the character hasn’t reflected social views of its day, including hefty heaps of casual sexism but they have not been central to the character.

The exception was (I believe) the Matt Smith/Stephen Moffat combination. I’m not rehashing all the various arguments about Moffat’s sexism or lack there of but rather a core element of his writing. Moffat’s comedy gold mine has been his particular view of the ‘battle of the sexes’ which in turn arises out of British TV comedy. Repeatedly (and it has to be said amusingly) Moffat has relied on a number of tropes/stereotypes around heterosexual romantic relationships:

  • Moffat men are emotionally illiterate
  • Moffat men are essentially big kids
  • Moffat men are infuriating to their partners
  • Moffat women are confusing to their partners
  • Moffat women are great and lovely etc but also hard to fathom
  • Moffat women are mercurial

Note I’m not saying this is Moffat’s actual view of human society but rather this is a formula he works into his comedy writing that has worked for him and with he applied to Doctor Who as well. He returns to it because it allows for a comedy of errors that feels modern and fresh but which rests on a very simple view of society. That doesn’t mean he never writes gay characters nor does anything in those trope force women into specific kinds of professions or wider social roles but it does shape how characters interact. So, in this sense, the Matt Smith Doctor had existing elements of the character emphasised so that the Doctor became a Moffat male comedy lead.** Ironically this kind of self-deprecating maleness is something that the assorted forces of misogyny currently howling about Jodie Whittaker becoming the Doctor, should be glad to see gone – while it emphasised a Mars v Venus dichotomy it was less then complimentary about maleness (yet still steeped in privilege i.e. men-are-a-bit-crap-but-you-should-love-them-and-find-their-faults-endearing).

Back to James Bond – unlike the Doctor, Bond has always been tied not just to attitudes of the day but also to a specific view of masculinity both as supposed ideal but also a wish-fulfilment. Bond is physically fit, strong and virile. He is rarely prone to self doubt, he is hyper-competent, he has excellent taste but is not pretentious, he is knowledgable but not intellectual, he understands women better than they understand themselves and so on. He is also a sexist pig.

More broadly he is also a kind of walking avatar of privilege. Even his iconic double-O code is a privilege: a license to kill. He does things and gets away with doing things. While he, himself is not rich nor politically powerful, he moves easily among the rich and powerful. Now, arguably the Doctor does all that as well but there is a dramatic difference. Bond is comfortable in the surroundings of wealth, power and authority and belongs to what is best described as the British military officer class (not necessarily rich or from an aristocratic family but familiar with that world). Both Bond and the Doctor might, in the course of their adventures, walk into a room full of military officers and boss them around, Bond is doing so in a way that doesn’t subvert of disrupt the existing order, whereas the Doctor does so subversively and in a way that requires suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer. Of course of the two it is the Doctor who is actually from a kind of aristocracy (i.e. a lord of sorts…) whereas Bond isn’t and arguably the Doctor’s tendency to disrupt and subvert the existing order of things (including everything from the chain of command to what genre the story is in) is also a kind of privilege.

Casting a woman as Doctor Who has been a long time coming but part of that, aside from the general lack of leading roles for women actors, is that it was never a truly radical change for Doctor Who in terms of its own structure and in terms of the character. The Doctor’s capacity to walk into any situation, any social structure or civilisation or organisational hierarchy and reshape things has never been based on him being a manly-man who people obey because he is so manly but rather has been on the basis of an implied super-power or psychic ability (in reality plot convenience that has become a character trait). Overtly sexist characters being discombobulated by the Doctor upending everything will be fun to watch but also quite in keeping with the various ways a ‘dandy and a clown’ have bossed around brigadiers and space monarchs.

Bond is a bigger challenge to recast as a woman precisely because privilege has been a core part of the character operating within environs in which racism and sexism is entrenched. However, that doesn’t imply it shouldn’t be done. The two Lovecraft themed Hugo 2017 finalist novellas demonstrate that there are rich creative possibilities in looking at existing fiction within which racism and sexism are deeply baked and looking at them with new perspectives. The challenges in recasting Bond as a woman are revealing in themselves, as indeed they would be if the character was cast as non-white. The issue is not his physical strength but the assumption that only a person with the right appearance and accent and gender is entitled to act that way in the circles he moves in. Of course, attempts have been made to update that setting – Timothy Dalton’s Bond was less promiscuous, Pierce Brosnan’s Bond retained the casual sexism but was cast with a formidable Judi Dench as his boss. More interestingly in terms of re-examining the character, Daniel Craig in Casino Royale played an agent called James Bond through most of the film but one who doesn’t adopt the sociopathic demeanour of James Bond until the end (with the classic them, and gun barrel animation only playing at the end of the film).

My point being, a woman Doctor is never going to be as interesting or as challenging to our view of the world as a woman James Bond would be – or indeed any James Bond that departs from white-male-British-military-caste. Casting a woman as James Bond forces people to think about how Bond has functioned as a character and how that relates to maleness not in terms of, say, physical strength but in terms of a character who can act with impunity because he acts on behalf of a monarchy, a military caste and British interests. These are all reasons for casting a woman as James Bond, simply because it would be a more interesting world if that happened.


*[throughout I’m referring primarily to the movie character rather than Ian Fleming’s character or later written versions]
**[I think the Clara/Danny Pink relationship may have been an intentional attempt by Moffat to reverse and subvert his own tropes, with Danny often taking the emotionally more sophisticated and long term perspective of the relationship. Moffat has many faults but he does change.]

A woman being cast as Doctor Who is so traumatic that it causes a science-fiction author to forget when he was born

How powerful is a work of art? Can it inspire awe or merely amusement? Does its presence cause a lasting cultural impact or is it some minor fad, soon forgotten amid the new season’s schedules?

With Doctor Who we can see the sudden and immediate impact. Take this experimental subject – a 55-year-old male from the United States who works as a professional science fiction writer:

“I read that the 13th Doctor is slated to be female. Well, I have had enough. In the last few years, Thor is a girl, Wolverine is a girl, Hawkeye is a girl, Vision is a girl, Hulk is a girl,Iron Man is a girl, The Question is a girl. These are not merely female sidekicks or variations, as when Batgirl or Supergirl don a costume to help out. These are replacements for the male meant to erase the masculinity from the name brand.

I have been a fan of Dr Who since age seven, when Tom Baker was the Doctor. I have tolerated years of public service announcements in favor of sexual deviance that pepper the show. But this is too much to tolerate.

The BBC has finally done what The Master, the Daleks and the Cybermen have failed to do. They killed off the Doctor. Dr. Who is dead to me.”

The sudden shift in perspective has apparently caused a subjective loss of ten years of memories and/or a radical shift in the space-time vortex and/or the author jumping to the often confused continuity of UNIT.

Or…maybe it was a typo and John C Wright meant “seventeen”, as 1978 fits with both Tom Baker and the show airing on PBS in the US. I prefer the other explanation though.