This world is divided many different ways on any given day, but one of the axes around which it splits turns forty this year.
That axis is The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and it divides people as much today as it did four decades ago on its initial release. It divides them into – if you’ll pardon the parlance of audience partici…pation – Virgins and Sluts. The Sluts are easy to spot – they’re the ones who go to every screening they can, who cosplay characters from the movie, jump up at appointed times and dance in the aisles or on stages, and who come equipped to the movie with a whole range of props, to interact with the on-screen action in real time.
The Virgins…well, the Virgins are those who either haven’t seen the movie yet, or have seen it, and insist, as a friend of mine did this week, that ‘it’s just a bad movie. I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.’
Let’s see what the fuss is about, shall we?
Firstly, a note of honesty – yes, if you just sit home alone and watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show on your TV, it’s probably a bit of a lame experience. Yes, it’s still got some great actors in it – Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Charles Gray, Tim Curry, Patricia Quinn…erm…Christopher Biggins… and yes it’s a love letter to the great sci-fi B-movies from the 30s-70s, but the plot is mayhem, the narratorial intrusion is probably the antithesis of good storyteling, the pace is slack, the conclusion insane, and if you’re not particularly broad-minded, there’s every chance that what was intended as a tribute-cum-parody of those great movies might insult your sensibilities with its gender-ambiguity, its transvestitism, and its camp-as-Christmas shenanigans. Seen alone, there’s every chance you’ll miss the point of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and remain a Virgin for the rest of your life.
There’s a cure for that.
Shared Memories Like most cures for virginity, the clue is in the company you keep.
First of all, don’t see Rocky Horror on your own. See it with friends. Will that make the movie better? Doesn’t it make most things better?
Apart from anything else, see it in company and whatever your reaction to it is, it’ll be a reaction shared, and that’s the beginning of a memory. And if you want to know what the fuss is about when it comes to Rocky Horror, that’s the essence of the answer – shared memories of the experience, whether those memories are of running round collecting all your props and sequinning your Columbia cosplay or trying to find a basque at short notice, or whether they’re just of watching all the people do their thing, and trying to catch up with the audience participation. Even if you watch it at home with someone else, you can swap questioning eye-rolls about what the point of that line was, and suddenly you’re building a memory of that moment.
Vive La Revolution Secondly, part of the point of what’s already in the script of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is revolution. It slams the cultural clichés of all those marvelous B-movies right into the culture of permissiveness and what were in the 70s thought of as ‘alternative sexualities’ – yes, really, still. There was something shocking about a sweet, white-bread all-American couple running into a proud alien transvestite omnisexual and seeing them succumb to his way of life by expanding their own. But by making up your own interactions – whether they’re the time-honoured audience participations or not – you can engage with a meta-film experience (yes, really, I just said that), stepping outside the boundaries of dialogue. Everyone likes a good shout at the TV now and again, but you’re rarely allowed to do it in a movie theatre. Both the structure and the history of Rocky Horror allows you to do that – you get to heckle a movie screen, in an atmosphere where it’s perfectly acceptable and where – it’s unlikely after forty years, but you never know – your interjection might even make people laugh if they’ve never heard it before, might even begin to be a part of a local ‘accepted’ call-back, and from there, make it into the worldwide anti-script that is the Rocky Horror audience participation ritual.
Permission To Be Silly, Freedom To Be Yourself More than anything else though, Rocky Horror gives a whole group of grown-ups who should know better, but frankly don’t, permission to be incredibly silly in a supportive group environment. Given that the movie first came out in 1975, these are the people, more than any other, who invented live cosplay at screenings, so before you sneer, kindly straighten your bow-tie and doff your fez in their direction. Rocky Horror is a movie, yes, but as Roger Ebert said of it when he initially reviewed it, it’s actually more of an ongoing cultural tradition. It fed into spirits like Mardi Gras and Pride; the Sluts who dressed as Rocky Horror characters were likely to support people’s sexualities and lifestyles in the real world once they’d grown to love Tim Curry’s strutting self-proclaiming Sweet Transvestite, who was as keen to make himself a man for frankly anal funfests as he was to deflower the sweetest American virgin in Sarandon’s Janet. While the message of the movie may well be that self-indulgent hedonism can go too far – after all, there’s murder and cannibalism later on, and the eventual twist is that Frankie’s gone too far and must be punished – from the 70s right through to the modern day, Rocky Horror has been providing geeks and Sluts with not only shared experiences, but a shared environment to be incredibly silly in public, and to be themselves, with whatever kind of strut they choose, empowered by the characters acting out the script on screen, and loved unconditionally by the audience subverting the bejesus out of it in movie theatres.
Don’t Dream It, Be It Ultimately, no-one’s going to convince you to ‘stop worrying and love Rocky Horror.’ Certainly, you shouldn’t do it just cos all the cool kids do. But don’t watch it alone and expect to get the best out of it. That’s like watching Doctor Who with the sound off and no subtitles – sure, you’ll still see what’s on the screen and be able to get the gist (Rocky Horror could never be accused of any crime so monstrous as subtlety when it comes to its core themes), but don’t just watch it – be a part of it if you ever want to experience what the fuss is all about. Go along to a screening. Do some research first if you want, though that’s not necessary – most Rocky Horror fans are beautifully gentle with Virgins. Give yourself over to absolute pleasure, absolute silliness, absolute freedom, and see if there’s not an extra sweetness in your strut on the way back home.
Tony continues his journey through the I, Davros series…
The original idea of I, Davros was taken from a blend of two ideas – showing the life and career of one of Doctor Who’s greatest and most psychologically fascinating villains up to the point at which we first met him in Genesis of the Daleks, and giving the context of his rise to power in a style similar to the Robert Graves epic (or rather, its BBC adaptation), I, Claudius.
In studying the great rulers of history, their connections to other people will either have been a strength to them or a weakness, and I, Davros follows the I, Claudius route fairly faithfully as far as that’s concerned. In I, Claudius, the wives and mothers of the emperors are notoriously painted as interfering, homicidal or lustful to the point of almost toppling the empire. In I, Davros, there are three women throughout the course of his life who either support or threaten Davros’ career. His mother, the thoroughly twisted Calcula, was his most adoring exponent. His sister Yarvell was frightened by the turn of his mind and found herself on the opposite side of the ideological fence from him, with horrifying consequences.
Meet Shan – the third woman in Davros’ life.
Corruption finds Davros an older man, his career In the Scientific Corps progressing with unparalleled clarity and focus – he has become its leader, and has devised, almost to order of necessity, devices to help make Kaled victory a certainty, to extend lives, to target Thal physiology and biology… and to experiment with the effects of radiation on the Kaled genome, to extrapolate the species to its final logical form. If Calcula was interfering and Yarvell was perversely homicidal, it would be entirely wrong to think of Shan as lustful. In fact, neither she nor Davros appear to give much thought to the needs of the body – but she is an excellent scientist, and they work closely together, so it is perhaps forgiveable that non-scientists begin to look at them as a potential couple despite their age difference. It’s a point unsentimentally made that Skaro is a planet in need of breeders and for some time the idea of a marriage between the two scientists is mooted. We can only imagine what would have happened to Dalek history had such an alliance taken place. Would Davros have been saved from his own arrogance, from the direction in which the Daleks would eventually be developed, had he become a husband and a father? Would the ruthless demands and conclusions of science been softened by the compromises that marriage demands or the glow of self-renewal of seeing his own child, made in his own image, on his knee?
Possibly, but possibly not – Shan is actually instrumental in pointing out a vital component that pushes Davros in the direction he eventually takes. But whether love would have blossomed between the two to dull the edge of his scientific urgency becomes spectacularly and horrifyingly irrelevant for two reasons. Firstly the adamantine strength of will that Davros has displayed throughout the series, from his teenage determination to decide his own destiny in Innocence to the furious need to rise above mediocrity whatever the cost in Purity, surfaces again, and he decides their respective fates for them.
And then we hear the moment every fan knows about. The moment Davros becomes Davros. The attack that renders him blind, immobile, dependent forever on his life support system, his microphones and sensors. And, kept alive by systems, most of which he devised, everyone expects Davros to take his own life.
But Davros lives. What’s more, with a perversity of fate, he becomes the Kaled most likely to die of old age, protected from the ravages of time and decay by the systems of his chair. What’s more, this is the moment that Davros psychologically becomes the creature we know – freed from the understanding of the Kaled as a physical creature, and thinking now purely in terms of the purity of their DNA, he will distinguish himself from those around him as they disappoint his understanding of the race’s potential. In terms of Corruption, it’s a theme that permeates throughout this episode – the corruption of ideologies, from winning the war through strength to achieving a peace through diplomacy, a fatal corruption as Davros sees it which dooms any connection he might have made with Shan. The corruption of politicians in the case of the Supremo and the Council, the uncovering of which which allows Davros at the end of this episode to essentially render the Supremo nothing but a figurehead for the power bloc that the Scientific Elite has become. The corruption of Davros’ body of course during the attack that puts him in his chair, a Hitler parallel of significant power – the Kaleds, so intent on the purity and superiority of their race, will be all but led by a crippled scientist very far from their ideal of Kaled perfection (just as Hitler – a small, dark-haired, dark-eyed Austrian – led a government based on the purity of the blond-haired, blue-eyed, German supermen). But mostly, the corruption here deals with that separation of ideas – Kaled purity at a genetic level, and its degeneration over the recent decades of the war, leading to Davros’ research to find the ultimate form of their species. Corruption, while it preserves the purity of the genome, has always been an idea that Davros could understand, but now, with the corruption of his own physical form and the clarity of purpose that gives him, he begins to turn his researches furiously in that direction – research with newborns, research with embryos, to essentially speed up the ‘corruption’ of the Kaled form into its ultimate version, to achieve the salvation of the species while there is still time.
Corruption – volume three of the I, Davros story arc, written by Lance Parkin, delivers two of the most pivotal moments in the development of the Kaled scientist into the monster we know from Genesis of the Daleks and subsequent stories. It is essentially the last chance of Fate, the possibility that Davros could be saved from the destiny his arrogance, his scientific determination and his ideological obsession will lead him to. And once that possibility is gone, it shows us the moment of no return, the moment when Jekyll drinks his potion or Frankenstein throws his switch – the moment when man becomes monster. In terms of the I, Davros storyline, it’s in Corruption that the balance shifts from explaining what he was like before we knew him to his emergence as the villain we know. But it will still take one more hour to get from Davros’ rebirth to his self-renewal as father of the Daleks.
Draft two – in the middle distance. Draft three, close up – with rings! The joys of working between worlds.
Well hello! It seems to have been forever since I actively blogged about writing. There’ll be more of this from now on – mostly because there’s been a lot of writing of late.
You may remember I originally gave myself three months to finish the first draft of my novel, Wonderful. I hit that target within hours of its expiration, writing 90,000 words. Then I put it away for three months to get some editorial detachment from it. I’ve been moving through it slowly since, but with increasing rapidity and severity in recent months. As it stands, I’ve written Draft 2, to within the last 80 pages. I’ve also submitted the rest of it for professional editing with my friends at Bowler Fern, So while most of me is in Draft 2, a sizeable chunk of me is now in the middle of Draft 3, working with them. And there’s a deadline – On 1st September – less than two weeks from now – I start another three month stint of active writing, on the second novel, Fired! It rather behooves me to have finished the first one properly by the time I start the second, and besides, I’m going to the York Festival of Writing on the 5th September, to try and pitch the book to three agents. They really do tend to get cranky if you try to sell them unfinished work, and while technically the book does come to an end-point, it needs quite a lot of work in those last 80 pages to make it properly the book I wanted to write. So – a little pressure then, to get the pedal to the metal. This is me, working between worlds, working between drafts and realities to try and end up with a coherent, rich, fully-realised dimension when all is said and done.
The concept of The Four Doctors is pretty much everything Day of the Doctor could have been, and most of the things it wasn’t. Proper argumentative Doctors together, like the original Three Doctors, barely letting up for a second, and yet when they do, working together to save everyone – and probably, when all is said and done, the universe – from the Big Bad, and from themselves.
Given the freedom Titan Comics has these days to use him, and the nature of the plot developments in issue #2, one thing that strikes you immediately is that there’s no Ninth Doctor involvement in this story. There was too much going on in the first issue to notice his absence, but given the nature of the threat that dogs the Doctors through much of this second issue, his absence becomes more noticeable, especially as the threat seems to specifically target post-Time War Doctors. There’s just the faintest whiff of Tom Baker in The Five Doctors about the fact that, for no especially identifiable reason, this is actually The Four Doctors, rather than The Five Doctors…erm…II.
But it’s remarkable how quickly you get the hell over that – the pacing of this issue and this story so far would outrun a Dalek ray in a straight line. There’s a little Gabby Gonzalez artwork to get through as a soft opening (with which you’ll be familiar if you’ve been following the Tenth Doctor’s comic-book adventures. If not, just go with it, he travels with an artist now) and then bang! The verbal sparring while dealing with a terrifying threat made more terrifying by the freedom of comic-book art than they managed to be on TV – and they managed pretty well there!
There’s a lot of running and banter and bile-spitting here, with the kind of edge that ‘Sandshoes and Grandpa’ never really mustered – there’s a lovely Spice Girls moment which hopefully I haven’t just ruined for you. The barbs are sharper from writer Paul Cornell than they ever were in Moffat’s TV version of the multi-Doctor phenomenon (I can hear the cries now – Cornell for Showrunner!…Hmm, actually, not a bad plan), and the combination of his acid wit, (most frequently vented through the natural conduit that is the Twelfth Doctor, but occasionally, just for the look of the thing and the fightback, distributed Bugs Bunny and the Bow-Tie boy), and Neil Edwards’ great gift for spatial artwork allows for some superb moments, not least of which is a journey through a couple of Tardis console rooms, and possibly the best ever comeback to what is now a time-honoured gag. Edwards’ Twelfth Doctor is a little less realistic than some that have appeared in the latest incarnation’s dedicated comics, but again, the combination of the gorgeous broader visuals – from Paris to Tardises, to space, to a planet of apparently forgettable provenance – and the pace and wit of the dialogue means you can pretty much forgive him for being less than pin-point in the capturing of the Twelfth Doctor’s face.
The action of the first half of this issue is frenetic – hence the running – as the three post-Time-War Doctors try to outpace the Big, Scary Monsters trying to erase them from existence. But when Clara sentences them to some ‘Me Time’ – something akin to the Tower of London scene in Day of the Doctor – the three behave in a way that’s entirely believable for each of them at once, and ultimately, as we all knew they would, go running into trouble on the world of the great First Doctor enemies enjoying a heck of a renaissance in recent years. The cliff-hanger is surprisingly downbeat, like the pushing of a plunger that will, somewhere down the line, cause a big, big explosion, but which has yet to deliver its full impact. But the combination of these three Doctors – the War Doctor’s at least visually absent from this issue – remains satisfying in a way that Day of the Doctor, for all its brilliant moments, wasn’t. John Hurt’s War Doctor was a scarred, tired man, wanting the war to be over, with no stomach for the acid that, for instance, the inheritor of his ‘Older Doctor’ mantle is. Bringing the Twelfth Doctor into the multi-Doctor mix gives it a bite that wasn’t possible on the fiftieth anniversary, when all was celebration of the show’s history and legacy. This is a more combustible, more daring and frankly more fun mixture of the three Doctor-personalities, and again, much of that is down to Paul Cornell’s way with a witty line and his knowledge of Who old and new. The storyline promises much in the way of cataclysm and devastation, though much of the actual plot development in this issue is done as the Doctor would probably expect – on the run. The pace is still fast and furious, but here, there’s excellent, rich Doctor-chocolate in terms of character development. Two issues in, this is still a must-buy. Grab your sandshoes and Bugs Bunny your butt to your comic store now. Your future self is really going to kick you if you miss it.
The odd couple is a great recipe for geek-heaven. Arguably it’s the relationship between the Doctor and all his companions, it’s the relationship between Kirk and Spock, and while there were frequently more of them than the classic two, it was the relationship that underpinned The Avengers. It also worked in harder core cop shows like The Persuaders, The Sweeney, the Professionals, and the all-time classic, Starsky and that singer-guy.
But if you were a British teen in the mid-80s, there was only one odd couple cop show you cared about – and that was Dempsey and Makepeace.
Dempsey and Makepeace had everything – kicking 80s theme tune, London backdrop in the mid-80s, when the city was where every kid who wasn’t there wanted to be, cool New York guy Dempsey, played by easy on the damned eye Michael Brandon, ice hot posh girl Harriet Makepeace, known gloriously as Harry and played by Glynis Barber (then riding high on the back of her role as Soolin in Blake’s 7 and eponymous hero Jane in a show that dabbled with combining live action and early CGI), preposterous plots with just enough taking it seriously from the two leads to convince you they were realistic, and a love story that gave no quarter and didn’t stop either of the central characters from being able to kick your ass if you got out of line. It was like smashing Starsky and Hutch’s equality of partnership together with the coolness of the Avengers’ women like Kathy Gale or Emma Peel, and for the first time, being in a decade where that equality of lead status was acceptable without being played for cute.
While set in contemporary London, and somewhat fetishizing the city as the place where all things were possible, it still, in its day, carried a note of fantasy, showing British police carrying guns, which elevated it from standard British police fare to special unit status, immediately putting it in the category of shows like The Persuaders and The Avengers. But there was far less whimsicality in Dempsey and Makepeace’s special unit, SI 10, than was allowed in those other shows – they carried guns and got involved in demented situations, but they were always, by the standards of their predecessors, comparatively believable and played for real, more likely to deal with drug smugglers and financial swindles than megalomaniacs intent on taking over the world.
The dialogue too was a cut above some of those other Brit fantasy shows, the writers basing their work more in character than cheesy lines and plot developments – that was what made Dempsey and Makepeace quite so hard to quantify: it sat between the hard-as-nails British cop shows The Sweeney and The Professionals and those more fantastical shows, The Avengers and The Persuaders. But always, if given a choice, it fell on the hard-as-nails side of the coin.
What Dempsey and Makepeace had above all the shows of its ilk that came before (and arguably after it) though was chemistry. That was because there had never been an odd couple cop show where the cops were destined to fall in love – the very same year in the US, Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd were beginning the same journey in Moonlighting, but with more comedy and a heaping helping of cheese which was denied the comparatively gritty British offering. The chemistry factor was brand new in the arena, almost by necessity – there was never any special chemistry in The Avengers, and it would have been unthinkable for broadcast in the 70s had the Starsky and Hutch bromance become anything more, but this was the 80s, and Harry Makepeace could more than hold her own with the boys (in fact, in the very first episode, she entirely flummoxes Dempsey), so it was suddenly the right time for an odd couple cop show that could become an odd couple romance, while still delivering all the villain-kicking and villain-shooting action a nation of crime-geeks demanded and giving 80s girls a role model, albeit one with a silver spoon in her mouth.
Unlike the Moonlighting vibe, Dempsey and Makepeace’s romance was played in a typically British fashion – understated, quite frustrated and never entirely resolved, though the final season saw them getting closer and closer to some resolution of their feelings. But in many ways, the show delivered an archetype for crime shows and crime novels for the next thirty years and counting, where police business and personal emotions are mixed and twisted, duty and passion fighting for control in a situation made impossible by convention and rules, but impossible to ignore by the dictates of the heart. The chemistry at the heart of the show eventually developed into a real-life romance between Brandon and Johns, and on into a marriage which continues to this day.
The legacy of Dempsey and Makepeace is a peculiar one – from the dawn of the 80s, British drama had begun to show working policewomen as heroes – in 1980, the BBC launched Juliet Bravo with Stephanie Turner as Inspector Jean Darblay, who was followed in the same show by Anna Carteret as Inspector Kate Longton, both fighting a combination of crime and the residue of 70s male chauvinism. The show ran until 1985, and while important in its own right, there was a degree of rural charm to the whole thing, set as it was in Lancashire in the north of England. During the same period, ITV, the UK’s commercial channel, was running The Gentle Touch, a much edgier, London-set show, with Jill Gascoine making UK TV history as the first woman to headline a British police drama, as Detective Inspector Maggie Forbes. Both shows had ended the first wave of female cop shows in the UK by 1985 (while in the US, Cagney and Lacey was hitting its stride as a more straightforward ‘female Starsky and Hutch’ take on the situation). Dempsey and Makepeace picked up one half of the baton, with Jill Gascoine continuing to run with the other half in a follow-up show called C.A.T.S Eyes, launched the same year. C.A.T.S Eyes took the idea of female empowerment forward in a mostly female environment (the show was set in a secret unit, fronted by an all-female detective agency, and actually had more in common with Charlie’s Angels than The Gentle Touch). Dempsey and Makepeace took the mantle of ‘woman kicking ass in a world that men still think is their own’ and turned it into something intensely watchable, establishing Makepeace as being able to more than handle herself, without in any real way diminishing Dempsey’s skills or his ability to likewise look after himself. If the first half of the decade had been about policewomen fighting to be taken seriously in British society and culture, Dempsey and Makepeace was an olive branch that said ‘We’ll still kick your ass if we need to. But if we don’t need to, we can work with you.’ It set the seal on more equal partnerships between men and women in police procedurals for at least three decades to come, and rewrote a formula which is still paying writers dividends today.
The Eleventh Doctor comic-book has so far been a ridiculous, barmy, complicated back-and-forth [HORRBLE PHRASE ALERT] timey-wimey touching madcap masterpiece.
And now it’s ending.
This particular arc, at least, is ending. The Eleventh Doctor with Alice Obiefume, Library Assistant Extraordinaire, John Jones, would-be one-day rock god and Bowie in all but lawsuit, and ARC, the Autonomous Reasoning Centre, or ‘chameleonoid robo-blob’ for the non-techies, which is the brain of the entity formerly known as…erm…The Entity. The Eleventh Doctor in full on ‘full Tardis’ mode.
Oh the fun we’ve had – back and forth through the timelines, Jones annoying the bejesus out of us like an Adric with pretensions of superstardom, ARC surprisingly saving the day any number of times, weird Chinese Dragon-Dog emotional-feeders, funfair worlds with something nasty in the basement, a regenerated Bessie, space wars won by misery in the face of awe, Robert Johnson, zombie towns, three Eleventh Doctors, including one Chief Executive, zombie planets, Roman Christian emperors and lights in the sky, Cybermen who wake you up on Sunday morning to ask if you’ve considered letting Upgrading into your life…
It’s been a truly wild ride, absolutely dripping with the character of Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor in all his moods. In fact, as we welcome the second season of the next Doctor in line, it’s been refreshing to remember quite how many moods Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor had, and oddly, the comic-book version works better to remind you of them all than any episode-marathon or box-set binge would do.
And yet here it is. Ending.
The ending begins with the Doctor lost, alone, rejected even and especially by the Tardis, which appears to have run off with his mother. Yes, you read that right, his mother. With the Eleventh Doctor doing one of his infamously good sulks – you remember the cloud in the sky, right? – it takes Alice, ARC and Jones together to get the Doctor back on fighting form, because if there’s one thing this and all our Doctors are good at, it’s thinking on their feet, while they’re running away from giant chickenny-looking things.
Alright fine, that’s an Eleventh Doctor speciality, but it still works here to beat one last twist in the seemingly endless story of the Entity, and by the end of the issue, the Tardis is nearly empty again – just the Doctor and one of his companions, the other two left behind as memories.
That’s essentially the arc of this issue – it’s less madly frenetic than many of its predecessors, but it needs to be, to capture the emotional tones of the journey here – which is done through Simon Fraser’s artwork as much as Al Ewing and Rob Morrison’s script. In many ways, it takes us properly full circle to the original story of Alice Obiefume, grieving for her mother, walking through her days in pencilwork of greys and drabness, until the first burst of colour to penetrate the bubble of grief – the Doctor chasing a Chinese dragon-style belief-dog – allowed a little spark back into the panels of her life. That’s almost exactly replayed here, with the Doctor mourning the Tardis, his home, his life – the script talks of him being dead, and the artwork shows that through its ghostlike greyness, till a hand grabs him and there are multi-coloured chickenny dragonny things to chase and a Tardis to talk to, and fun to offer, and redemption for everyone on the skinny bloke in the bow tie.
And then there’s an ending. Each in their own way, the three companions have come back to their beginnings – Alice saves the Doctor as the Doctor saved Alice, and ends this issue acknowledging how much she misses her mum, but that it’s time to move on. John Jones, would-be megastar, has been transformed by his travels with the Doctor, has gone through plenty of changes of image and sound, but it he now ready to fulfil the destiny he was born to have, as a rock and roll legend? Or is there another destiny calling him now?
And ARC – well, ARC’s an odd one. On some levels it’s been difficult to warm to ARC, looking as he does like a lump of sculpted putty. On other levels, ARC’s simplicity of goodness has made it the heart of this Tardis team from time to time, and its ending here, while right, still leaves the tiniest lump in the throat.
As this great big fifteen-issue arc comes to a close, it allows us to wallow briefly in that sense you get, about two-thirds of the way through any season finale worth the name – that feeling that Doctor Who was always like this, and that there’s no way it can be different and still as good. But after all the ups and downs, it ends with the Doctor and one companion in the Tardis, going forward, looking for their next adventure, and whatever Titan has in store for the Eleventh Doctor next, it will soon enough feel like how Doctor Who has always been. That’s the irresistible will of this special programme, and it’s why it’s lasted as long as it has. Constantly renewing, constantly showing something fresh to the audience. The first Eleventh Doctor arc has shown that perfectly.
Has your life turned out the way you thought it would?
Do you still believe it will?
If it hadn’t, or didn’t, what would you be willing to do to change your stars?
We join I, Davros 2: Purity with Davros approaching his thirtieth birthday (in itself something of an achievement on the war-ravaged Skaro), but he is bored. Bored, and frustrated that his attempts to join the Scientific Corps are repeatedly blocked, despite his doing all the right things to justify his ascension to its ranks. We find Davros in a dull day-to-day job as a Tech Op, testing survival gear with his friend Reston. But while, yes, Davros has a friend, his sense of his own brilliance, nascent in Rory Jennings’ portrayal of the character in the first instalment, burns through his day-to-day frustrations here as we hear Davros played in his ‘humanoid’ years by Terry Molloy, who has given him augmented life since the 80s on TV and in Big Finish audio. The arrogance, however justified, feels like the frustration of the armchair manager as Purity begins, or the armchair show-runner for that matter – he knows how things should be run, how things could be improved, and how the war could be won, but he’s never been given the chance to shine. Davros, so potentially brilliant as a child, is heading for a life of unremarkable grumbling, his potential eclipsed by that of his mother, who is now a powerful councilor, while his sister Yarvell has exchanged her initial militarism for an increasing interest in the least tenable position on Skaro – that of the Peace Party.
The thing that comes shining through in Molloy’s portrayal of the ‘middle-aged’ Davros is what makes sense of the story’s subtitle – while as a child, Davros was interested in the history of all the races on Skaro, by the time he’s nearly 30, a fervent belief in the superiority of the Kaled people has gripped him, a need to keep the species ‘pure’ and to make it the only winner in a war not only for resources, but for what he feels passionately is its rightful place on the planet.
But Davros is stuck in equipment testing, going nowhere fast – until The Supremo, the leader of the Kaled Council, offers him and Reston the chance to make heroes of themselves. The story takes a significant risk, borrowing a little from Genesis of the Daleks at this point, taking us back and forth across the Skarosian wasteland, from the Kaled dome to the Thal citadel, but James Parsons and Andrew Stirling-Brown’s script does this better than the Genesis original, because it keeps the point of the journey firmly in front of our eyes at all times: this is Davros at personal war, sent into the field to get information on a new Thal mega-weapon and destroy it if possible. At least, that’s ostensibly the reason for the mission. On a planet like Skaro, of course, you can never be sure who’s playing what hand until the cards are seen. But more than just Davros at personal war on the orders of the Supremo, this is Davros at war with Destiny, with a fate that sees him relegated to a backwater job. It’s Davros’ true nature at war with the comfortable carapace he’s grown – friends, work, family, and the nature of his ‘greatness’ will take no more. When the opportunity arrives on this mission, Davros shows himself capable of strong strategic thinking, deceit, effective military command, scientific analysis and, in a thread picked up from the first instalment, an utterly driven, potentially psychopathic scientific absorption, detached from all the inconvenient emotional bonds of a ‘normal’ life. As the episode unfurls, he also finds himself in a position to play politics for the first time in his life, to outwit those who would seek to destroy or contain him as plots are revealed that give Davros, and his mother Calcula, more power than they’d imagined to make their dreams of his ascension into a reality. The price of that power would be terrible to ordinary people, would be unpayable. But these are not ordinary people. Not even close. They pay the price willingly, even gladly, revealing the truth of the title. It’s not just a notion of racial purity that infects Davros. It’s the purity of his own ego, his own ambition, and his own arrogance to overcome all obstacles, even when those obstacles are the people closest to him.
If you’ve ever had a dream of what you could be, what you could give to your society, but found yourself bogged down in the ‘Real World’ of getting from A-B, of college or work or thinking about things tomorrow, Purity has a kind of object lesson to teach. None of us on the right side of sanity will be asked to pay the kind of price that Davros and Calcula pay here, but the transformative power of a journey to ‘find yourself’ – which is what Davros’ trip across the wastelands really is – to strip away the flotsam and jetsam and make you focus on what’s really important to you, is a message applicable to everyone with a dream of any kind of greatness. Davros emerges from Purity as a focused flame, ready to do whatever is necessary to achieve his goal of Kaled supremacy, and also, for his mind has begun to turn this way, Kaled survival through the grimness of the war. It’s his experiences on this mission that turn him from an armchair manager into a force with which the Kaled government and the Scientific Corps will genuinely have to reckon for the rest of his life.
Even the name stuns with its scope, doesn’t it? Someone dared to write the backstory of Davros? Someone who wasn’t Terry Nation?
Yes, someone dared – Big Finish, years ago, and as a kind of adjunct to its main Doctor Who range, decided to take what we know about the creator of the Daleks and dare to extend him backward, back beyond Genesis of the Daleks, to explain the life and path of everyone’s favourite psychopathic genius. It’s a story partly inspired by the line in Genesis – if someone pointed out a child to you and told you that he would grow up to be a ruthless dictator, could you then kill that child? It’s a line and an idea that persistent rumours suggest we’ll see realized on screen in Series 9, but long before that ever was dreamed of, Big Finish was there.
The tone of the four hour-long episodes of I, Davros is exactly what you might expect it to be, given that title – it’s a saga of family, and of one man’s journey to the seat of ultimate power: it’s Robert Graves’ I, Claudius smashed together with Terry Nation’s Skaro as we see it in Genesis. The Roman Empire, locked in a dirty war of racial purity.
The set-up is simple – the Daleks have Davros, the Davros we know, voiced by the always-impeccable Terry Molloy, ‘on trial,’ but not in the way you might expect. They need guidance, they need direction because battles are being lost. He strives to help his fallen creation by looking to the lessons of the past. His own past. These moments of Davros and Dalek interrogation are mostly framing devices, but they still allow for a healthy dose of shivers down the spine at the beginning and end of each episode.
Episode 1, Innocence by Gary Hopkins, gives us that most unimaginable of gifts – Davros as a boy. It also gives us his place in the society: for those of you who know your I, Claudius, or indeed your Roman history, he is Caligula – a boy of brightness and promise born to a family of power and wealth. His father, Nasgard (played with serious acting chops by Richard Franklin) is an officer at the front, his mother, Calcula, a political player at home. His sister, Yarvell – oh yes, Davros has a sister – regards him, as all sisters do to all brothers at a certain age, as an idiot, a pain. But there is something solitary about Davros. Something self-possessed and extraordinary. He has a fascination both with science, particularly biological science, and with the history of Skaro, the different races that have existed on it. Yes, we see, albeit vaguely through a glass of history, a Skaro on which there were other sentient races besides the Kaleds and the Thals, the other races wiped out by the constant battle for supremacy, till only the two warring nations remain.
Davros is almost obscenely idolized by Calcula (a touch of Nero dripped into the Caligulan template), while Yarvel supports her father more often. Calcula and Nasgard themselves never seem a happy couple, and ultimately, only one of them will survive to the end of the first episode. Nasgard’s interfering sister Tashek is on hand to stir the pot, provoking some critical action in the first instalment, and beginning the slow collapse of the dysfunctional house of cards that is the family of Nasgard, the environment in which Davros grows up – surrounded by plots, counter-plots, secrets and lies.
Not that Davros himself is any shrinking violet – far from it. He remembers spites and slights, has a succinct adolescent contempt for adults he regards as inferior to himself, including his sister, and in particular, he has a cold, furious dislike of a man who dares to give him lessons in science – Magrantine. As the Nero parallel begins to grow in power, Calcula is moved to extraordinary measures to protect the future she sees for her son, and Davros himself takes his first blood as a teenager. The power of their mutual protection is cloying, obscene, and sickening, and there feels like another influence at play beyond the I,Claudius parallel. There’s something almost akin to Damien Thorn in the young Davros, played with a clipped precision by Rory Jennings, as people who threaten him or his future are moved or removed from the equation of his life, either by his own malign influence or by those who seek to protect him. It’s a thoroughly creepy piece of audio, and it’s compelling from start to finish.
It’s actually in the mask and its occasional, almost casual removal, that I, Davros 1 is at its most shocking – the mask that belies what we know what this boy will become. We know we shouldn’t trust him, know it from long experience of the adult, horrifying Davros. But here, he’s just a boy…surely? That’s the point, isn’t it? He’s just a boy, molded by the world he lives in, the influences he’s exposed to? And to some extent, yes, he is. But Davros is never just a boy. Like the poster of the young Anakin Skywalker casting Darth Vader’s Shadow to advertise The Phantom Menace, or the poster of a young Damien Thorn surrounded by crosses of the dead to advertise the original Omen movie, we see the teenage Davros casting shadows rippled with Dalek bumps, consuming a dead planet. But whereas Thorn’s destiny was a matter of prophecy, and Skywalker’s a matter of the Force, what really succeeds in shocking us in this episode is the moments when that mask of ‘just a boy’ drops and the sheer driven power of self-will and mission glints in his voice, in his actions, Jennings managing to create something truly unnerving from the overused archetype of the creepy child.
Be warned – if you listen to I, Davros 1, you’ll be in it for the whole set – four hours of origin story that drag you along like the best of page-turners. But then rejoice – each episode is just £5 from the Big Finish website, so for just £20 you get the whole Davros journey, from his teenage years to just before Genesis. You also get some of the genuinely best audio storytelling the company has delivered in fifteen years, played by a cast that reads like a Who’s Who of Big Finish alumni – Lisa Bowerman, Lizzie Hopley, Richard Franklin, Scott Handcock, Carolyn Jones, Nicholas Briggs (in an unmodulated role, no less) and more. In case history’s about to be rewritten by the TV show, listen to I, Davros now, and remind yourself what any on-screen history of the young Davros is up against.
There’s a trick to good plotting. You should, if you do it just right, give just enough clues to the tuned-in audience, to allow them to get jussssst a little ahead of your reveal. One of the greatest things about Earthshock, Episode 1, was that it did that – you worked out who the Big Bads were just moments before they were first shown on screen, and then you went a bit nuts for the next week running around going “Oh my god, they’re back! AND I worked it out before they appeared. Yes, yes, yes, yes, I am SuperFan!”
Ahem – just me, then?
The same was true to some extent in Utopia – the clues were there, and if you picked up on them, then right before it became obvious to even the moderately clued-in fan, you knew they’d gone and done it.
It happened again with Dark Water – all the speculation over who Missy was added up just before she spilled her bananas beans.
That’s the territory we’re in here, with Spiral Staircase, Part 2. And yes, it’s that big a Big Bad.
It’s on Page 6 that everybody finally gets what’s going on. Panel 3. But there’s a declaration in Panel 2, and if you haven’t got it already, Superfans (it was cooler than you think – there were capes and everything) will get it there.
From there on in, you know what you’re dealing with. Not, by any stretch who you’re dealing with – that’s the reveal saved for the final panel cliff-hanger – but what you’re dealing with, absolutely.
But before we get there, we have to give credit to Rachael Stott and Leonardo Romero on artwork duties this time out. For those just tuning in, there’s a big black flat triangular obelisk in the skies above New York, like the darkest chunk of Toblerone in history. As it begins to bark out its orders to the ‘primates of Earth,’ Stott and Romero borrow a trick from the TV show, and give us reactions from various viewpoints, all looking at the same thing. Page 4 is one great page full of reaction shots, with a background of what it is they’re reacting to – cops, newscasters, and several key people in the story, all looking up at the speaking slab of darkness in the sky. If you tried to do this on TV, it would look confused, and you’d miss things. Sometimes on screen, even the linear progression of reaction shots looks rushed and overplayed. But Stott and Romero take advantage of the whole-page format of comic-books to really deliver a reaction shot that really gives the sense of scale we’re dealing with here.
Once we know what we’re doing, is the excitement blown?
No more than it was in Power of the Daleks, Day of the Daleks, Death To The Daleks and so on. Knowing what you’re up against, if you’re up against something cool and deadly – as we are here – just allows the writer to ramp up the tension, throw us curve-balls, develop character and take us to unusual, unexpected places, both geographically and dramatically, en route to the inevitable, tingling cliff-hanger. Nick Abadzis is good at this sort of thing, and here he takes the time to really develop the characters of both regular Tardis-traveller Gabby Gonzalez, and more especially her bestie, Cindy Wu, who here comes into her own, tackling the Doctor to the ground when necessary, and providing the hip, flip likeably sarcastic guide to what’s going on, while also revealing what she thinks about her friend, and what she’ll do to anyone who hurts her – it’s enough to almost make us want her to go traveling with the Tenth Doctor herself. Gabby, meanwhile, is handholding the person everyone wants a piece of – faded, but now markedly reinvigorated movie star Dorothy Bell, who’s bonded with a piece of alien kit that the Giant Toblerone In The Sky is looking for. It’s a solid representation of the other side of the companion coin, the caring side that tries to make sure as few people are hurt or frightened as possible, and it’s enough to make us remember what it is the Doctor sees in this daughter of New York that makes her worthy of all of time and space.
There’s conflict and drama, space phenomena to put the Medusa Cascade to shame, the Janitor of the Gods, some great colourful art that shows us a key piece of historical information, and the Doctor, mouth as ever set to 90 words per minute, being massively disrespectful to just about all and sundry before the denouement of this issue, and even though you know what it’ll be, there’s enough entertaining hoop-jumping on the way to make the reveal when it comes something of an ‘Oooooh!’ moment.
The joy about that is that while it’s not exactly a returning villain, it is the product of a very rich backstory that’s been touched on recently in other areas of the Who universe, and which clearly still has much to give. And while the cliff-hanger here is not as gasp-worthy as some of those seen earlier in the Tenth Doctor’s comic-book run, it’s one to make you run around for a bit, pondering all the potential it holds for story development going forward.
Get issue #14 and you can be assured of artistic richness, sumptuous character development, a fun, quirky take on the ride with Cindy, and a new iteration of an old, highly exciting villain. What’s not to love?
You know what separates really great geek entertainment from all other entertainment?
It’s the thrill, and it’s the ache.
The thrill when a new episode or issue comes out – the brightness and brilliance of that day, because your new episode’s on, or your new issue’s in stock, available for pickup or download, and there to be relished and pored over, enjoyed however you like – whether you’re a guzzler, eyeballs glued to everything and gorging through every page, or sipping so it lasts longer, page by page or minute by minute, reveling in all the details, the in-gags, the art or the philosophical stance of the people you trust to give you what you need.
And then the ache, because it’s over for another however-long – another week, another month, another x-amount-of-time before the thrill begins again. Geeks were the creators of concepts like box-set binging. Geeks understand the thrill and the ache.
Geeks love Death Sentence.
Death Sentence is that kind of entertainment – just as your favourite show is never ‘just on’ but you wait for it all week, think about it, talk about it, share ideas about what might be in it, then enjoy it, then talk about it endlessly until the thrill for the following episode begins, so Death Sentence never just releases an issue. It’s the kind of comic-book that you wait for with nothing even remotely approaching patience, that you revel in when it arrives, and that you want to go door-to-door with afterwards, asking your neighbours if they’ve considered letting MontyNero into their lives, because it might just make them better people.
Death Sentence London, three issues in, is taking the time to behave like the real world. Whereas the first Death Sentence series was pre- and right-freakin’-now- Apocalyptic, dealing with the idea of G+ – the sexual plague that hides inside you till you have six months to live, then turns your system all the way up to 11 – and in particular the idea of Super-Gs, who are granted remarkable powers by the virus, Death Sentence London is distinctly post-Apocalyptic – people have died in their millions, and the world, and London in particular, needs to find out how it gets back on its feet after that, and how it goes on to deal with the G+ and Super-G threats. In the middle of that, while plot-strands are certainly developing – Jeb Mulgrew, FBI agent, is preparing to go on a mission to infiltrate the island where the UK Government has a G+ research and containment facility, while getting so divorced by his wife he may be known as Jeb The Eunuch on future missions; London Mayor Tony Bronson is clamping down on organized and disorganized gatherings, and wants to stop sex between unmarried people (partly as a way to stop the spread of G+ and partly because some people are just born to be religious assholes who want to outlaw fun); there’s a rather more organized resistance movement on the streets, using a famous comic-book character as an avatar of dissent, and so on – while all that is going on and advancing issue by issue, Issues 2 and 3 have consciously turned down the pace of mayhem, to deal with characters. Last time, we spent the majority of the issue with Weasel, one of our two Super-G ‘heroes,’ who lost his son during the cataclysm of the first Death Sentence, and has spent the time since those events mourning in every which way he knows how. Here in Issue #3, we’re with Verity Fette for the majority of the time. Verity Fette, ‘Art Girl,’ who can now create pictures with the power of her mind and who also has an on-again, off-again relationship with visibility.
Neither of these are your typical comic-book heroes. Weasel’s a dick, almost guaranteed to fuck up everything good in his life, and Verity…
Verity’s a wounded heart and a brain that’s thinking clearer every day, but about which she can do nothing. In this issue, we go back with her, through the cyclic pattern of her relationships, examining why none of them ‘worked’ in any kind of long-term way. People are quite welcome to tell her why they dumped her, ranging from her flirting with everyone, to her scoping the room over their shoulder, to her potentially self-indulgent, self-revolving artistic nature, to the wilder sexual side she displayed, which men ‘don’t settle down and bake souffles with,’ because to be fair, many, many men are hypocritical cockwombles.
Did I mention – Verity calls a cockwomble a cockwomble. We love her for that here at WarpedFactor. But of the two of our Super-Gs, Verity is naturally drawn to appeal to us more – apart from her ready way with a cockwomble, she’s the especially articulate one, able to bring art and life and death and viruses and humanity and, as she puts it in this issue, ‘the whole sick joke,’ while still being able to put a smile on our lips with lines like ‘What is this constant need for approval? Am I fundamentally weak? Or am I just missing Twitter?’
The point is that Verity is the character that carries the intellectual oomph of Death Sentence with her, while acknowledging that her emotional past has been a minefield of disasters for one reason or another (and that possibly, just possibly, she’s selected specific ways of exploding every single connection she’s had), and also admitting that while her brain is increasingly clear, there’s precisely nothing she can do about her continuing base desires – which leads her back to her old haunts to sit, as she puts it, ‘with smouldering knickers in Southwark,’ while waxing philosophical about all the things that matter, and why, unless we’re very emotionally smart and switched on, there’s every chance we’ll miss them. As comic-book characters go, Verity’s something a bit special.
Verity, as it turns out, is also extremely special in one other crucial respect which draws the threads of the issue screaming together and ends on a cliff-hanger that’ll make you draw in a sharp breath and shout the word ‘Cockwomble!’ rather more than you’ve ever felt the need to do before.
Annnnnnd so the ache begins again.
Go get yourself some thrill right now, in the handy form of Death Sentence London #3.