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The Curse of Fatal Death at 20 – Setting up the Moffat era in 20 moves

Doctor Who The Curse of Fatal Death at 20

Doctor Who The Curse of Fatal Death at 20

Can it really be 10 Comic Reliefs since Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death? The sketch showpiece of the 1999 fundraiser that amused, reminded and affected 10 years after the classic series ended. A further 20 years on, it’s proved to be more than a novelty.

It told us pretty much all we needed to know about writer Steven Moffat’s time in charge of Doctor Who

“Die Doctor, Die!”

WHEN STEVEN MOFFAT TOOK ON SCRIBING A 20 MINUTE SKIT FOR CHARITY IN THE LATE ‘90S, HE NO DOUBT HAD ONE THOUGHT ON HIS MIND: THIS IS THE ONLY SHOT I’LL EVER GET AT WRITING DOCTOR WHO. Who cared if it was a short, standalone, or defiantly comedic… It was Doctor Who! A decade before he was asked it had limped to a ignobly-funded, underwatched end on BBC One. Three years before, it had failed to spark on an American network.

It wasn’t coming back anytime soon, right?

Of course, Who would return six years to the month after The Curse of Fatal Death’s broadcast. Triumphantly so, and with Moffat among its writers. Twenty years on from broadcast, Moffat stands as the most prolific writer of on-screen Doctor Who, contributing to 12 years of the rebooted show and steering seven of those, arguably providing the greatest single influence in its history – new villains, monsters, ideas, humour and… Head scratching. Perhaps then, it’s not surprising that a microcosm of those 12 years is found in the third of an hour broadcast on a  Friday night in March 1999.

“936 years in a sewer”

If you wrote a concise summary of the show under his guidance, you’d struggle to beat The Curse of Fatal Death, the last action Doctor Who realised in the twentieth century. In that unmissable chance, Moffat packs in not just great and knowing witticisms, but everything he loved about the show. He’d achieve a similar – although more serious feat – in 2010 with The Eleventh Hour – the regeneration story that had been running around his mind for decades. But with the astutely named Fatal Death, it was a punchy jab at respecting the past and predicting the future, telling us far more about what Moffat would do with the series proper than seems possible. Here we count an absurd 20 of them…

“Say hello to the spikes of doom”

1. A sense of humour

Fatal Death is a parody of Doctor Who, yes, but it’s a knowing one, written by someone who knew the show inside out. All those ‘knows’ mean someone who, er, knows the show is above parody. There was no continuing television franchise to scupper, no threat to be undermined or seriousness to break. There was just nostalgia for a show that had inherent comedy and was supported by huge goodwill. That’s what three or so decades will do for you.

Still, it runs a fine line, wringing comedy out of the thin plot at speed, rather than stapling plot onto comedy. The beats are all there, even the middle cliffhanger that stars a wonderfully obvious set of flashing toy Daleks.

The 50-odd episodes Moffat has penned for the show since its return retained that fine line of comedy and drama, as well as a willful mischievous with continuity. Moffat stories were happy to contradict each other and canon if it made for a better story (remind us, is regeneration more like death or a cold?), sometimes for a joke, sometimes in smart scripting that undermined a scene or character. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but overall Moffat balanced comedic and scary highs during his time. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that he had got lines like, “It will be the deadly vengeance… Of deadly revenge!” out of his system.

The name itself is a preposterous, hifalutin parody that played on people’s memory. But it’s also a tribute to the show’s high point and a bona fide franchise legend. 1976’s The Deadly Assassin got there earlier, from the pen of legendary Who writer Robert Holmes. Moffat’s script was always witty, something played on by his actors. Comedy an essential part of the show – Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith is among one of the greatest comedic actors to have taken the role and Capaldi wasn’t bad bad either!

But in Fatal Death, he had some comedy greats to delivery lines with exquisite timing. There’s barely a zinger that goes wasted in a skit with a higher joke scatter fire than many other Comic Relief sketches, astonishing considering how broad many are. Crucial to its success is the way Rowan Atkinson and Julia Swahala play everything wonderfully straight.

2. The timey-wimey

It’s a show about time travel  – that’s a phrase Moffat batted back to interviewers a lot during his early days as showrunner. Sure, the classic series had hardly let up on that, but seldom over-played the concept within serials (City of Death, The Time Monster, Day of the Daleks were key serials that did). Moffat’s era would play fast and loose between stories, in stories, and use it as a central plot propellent that created headaches the size of Professor River Song’s temporal footprint along the way. Fatal Death is probably only matched in its time-trickery-per-minute ratio by Moffat’s stunning contribution to Series 2, Blink.

3. Temporal paradox

It’s a big point, so we’ll take it a step further. It’s what some may call the meat and bones of the Moffat era. With the line, “You forgot I too have a TARDIS” we have the schematic for cheating all manner of mysteries around death and imprisonment during the Moffat years.

4. The Master Distortion

Series 3, Russell T Davies had freshened up the Master, returning Doctor and his foe to the Sherlock and Moriarty dynamic last seen at his arrival in the early-1970s. Moffat developed that further, finally bringing a redemptive female version to see off the Twelfth Doctor.

The friend and foe dynamic emerged as familiarity breeding contempt in 1999. The Master is a humiliated figure, always outfoxed, destined to fail, often insecure. Fatal Death’s version, is ramped up in wonderfully desperate fashion by Jonathan Pryce. While Fatal Death brought back the eternal loser, it also reminded us of how closely the character’s tied to his Time Lord foe. See how upset he is with the idea of the Doctor retiring – surely on many levels. The villain was ready to take a more prominent role than the 1980s or 1990s had allowed him, even if Moffat’s era could never agree on who the Doctor’s greatest foe is, or achieve quite the happy ending Fatal Death did.

That ending is a tiny bit The Doctor Falls though, isn’t it? Only with less death and deception.

5. Dalek cameo

Those were the days: When Daleks were a given in any Doctor Who. This time, brought in by the Master in a rather neat flip of the fingers to the events of 1996’s TV movie. They tick boxes (an overpowering cliffhanger and dramatic entrance) but struggle to ratchet up the threat level. They would continue to be similarly untroubling during Moffat’s tenure – a bit of a failing after Russell T Davies brought them back to planet-stomping glory.

The Moff would develop Dalek Technology with a fervour of the 1960s creators. “Augmented by superior Dalek technology” in Fatal Death emerges as a wonderful hand plunger and comedy bumps.

The Pepperpots do provide the cliffhanger as a lovely fleet of toy Daleks. While Moffat’s been known to question the repeat of the last few minutes of the previous episode during the classic era, the two-part version of Fatal Death is Doctor Who’s first summary – such a ‘90s conceit, and brilliantly reduced to the Master continually falling into the sewer system

6. A female Doctor

It was in Fatal Death – notably pre-social media – that we saw the first female Doctor. Up until that point, the idea had been restricted to sensational tabloid rumours (and possibly the odd mischievous office leak). As such, it was more a glorious in-joke than anything else. The Doctor’s rapid regenerations cycled through a tabloid’s dream list before the Lumley-Lord gave us the punch-line.

The Davies’ era may have played around with gender, but it was under Moffat that the true seeds of a female Doctor were set. That’s when we saw Time Lords change gender during regeneration, although he missed his shot to make the show’s definitive change himself.

7. The female companion

Oh, you’d be hard pushed to forget female companions in the TARDIS console room during the Classic Series’ 26 years. But memories of the Doctor and single female companion always exceed the reality of a busier Type 40  – thanks to icons like Leela, Sarah-Jane and the final companion of the era, Ace.

Moffat always professed to be a fan of the fuller TARDIS and certain stories depended on it during his era (River Song would have struggled to come into existence), but both his Doctors were defined by singular female companions  – Amy for the Eleventh and Clara for the Twelfth. They were so important, each appeared at their respective Doctor’s death.

On top of the succession of brilliant solo companions who’d travelled with Davies’ Ninth and Tenth Doctors, Moffat’s decision to go that extra mile and put them in a relationship in Fatal Death was a bit of a tawdry joke has only gained credence over the last two decades. Still, Julia Sawalha, inheriting the mantle in less enlightened times, shines in her naive ‘60s stylings.

8. Being reverential

Parody can’t work without reference, and as much as Moffat stove to create new monsters, mythology and time loops, his was the most reverential of all. Davies had eased into the show’s rich mythology, taking the subtle but satisfying route of the odd Macra or introducing the Doctor’s main foes in their original chronological order. But the Moffat era was happy to head back to the very beginning, and change our perception of the Doctor on Gallifrey.

9. The casting

Yes, that succession of dream Doctors is both a joke and curse.

Casting would be never more scrutinised than during the Moffat era, as names like Hugh Grant became strangely more possible as the gap between small and big screen lessened. Richard E.Grant, two decades on an Oscar nominee, would play the alternative Ninth Doctor in the anniversary webcast Scream of the Shalka (2003). The television revival would sadly wipe that from canon, although many elements (the TARDIS-bound Master particularly) would be echoed – quite rightly, as they were great ideas. Incidentally Shalka was written by Paul Cornell, who brought Moffat closest to Virgin’s New Adventures range, including him as a character in his original Human Nature.

10. The Planet Terserus

It’s an ominous planet, signalling destiny for the Doctor. It may be condensed parody, but it sure has a feel of Trenzalore, the planet that promised the end of the Doctor’s Eleventh incarnation in Series Seven, and delivered it in Time of the Doctor.

The inverted pyramid left by the doomed Tersurons population couldn’t help but remind us of the  pyramids that would help morph the Twelfth Doctor into an odd and unnecessary hybrid of Dracula and Sherlock during his final series (The Lie of the Land), but that’s more personal disgust.

In fact, Tersurus has a long and distinguished history in the wider Doctor Who universe of books, comics and audio, tying back to the plight of the worse for wear Master in none other than The Deadly Assassin. Even that incarnation, bug-eyed but menacing in 1976, didn’t fall in the sewer.

Moffat Davies New Doctor Who

11. TARDIS tampering

The Master’s TARDIS, cosy, and a lovely shade of green, is strobed by lightning when its owner cackles. He needs to get those lights fixed – much like the Eleventh Doctor who really should have looked into the “Silence will Fall” presence that cracked his TARDIS console screen at the conclusion of Series Five. Perhaps he never knew…

12. An alien twist

The Terserons unusual communication is pivotal to Fatal Death’s plot, but it would be Davies who brought bodily functions into canon for some light relief six years later (Aliens of London). The way Moffat took the effort to tie this into the resolution (Chekov’s – oh, never mind), and his predilection to search out imaginative hooks for his alien species does stick out.

13. Ageing fast

Again, this is nothing new in Doctor Who. Alister Pearson’s spectacular rendition of an aged Fourth Doctor on the paperback of The Leisure Hive sticks in the mind. But seldom has the lengthened time span and enduring patience of a Time Lord been been clearer than in Fatal Death. This would be taken to the extreme near the close of both the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor eras.

14. Legend of the Doctor

“I recently calculated that I have saved every planet in the known universe a minimum of 27 times” says the Doctor in Fatal Death, a prologue to announcing his retirement.

During his Eleventh Doctor run, Moffat would blow up this legend, before removing it entirely as that incarnation wiped himself from universal history. In Nightmare in Silver (2013), Neil Gaiman would gleefully rip that concept for pieces (You’d just have to look for the gaps). Coincidentally, he never wrote for the show again.

15. Cliffhanger

With three cliffhangers, Fatal Death almost rivals the whole of the Moffat run. We’re being facetious, but that may be true in terms of satisfyingly resolved ‘hangers. All-too-often, the Moffat era jumped them – even during the excellent opener of Series Six. That said, there was gold enough to wilt a Cyberman. The breaks that that met the end of The Empty Child and The Time of Angels are about as good as Doctor Who ever served up.  In Fatal Death, the first is a narrative follow-through, the second a leap to capture, the third the first ever regeneration cliffhanger. Not groundbreaking – but as the central one sets up a change of scene and tone for the special’s second half, there’s the hint that he saw differently to many other writers.

16. Starting the Mill

Founded in 1990, Post prod and visual effects company The Mill followed up work on 2000’s Gladiator with a huge contribution to the BBC’s fantasy output in the early 21st century. From the RTD-era title sequence to Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Merlin. They parted ways with Who in 2013 – mid-Moffat. Quite the shame when their first involvement with the show was providing special effects for Fatal Death.

17. Richard Curtis

Steven Moffat’s wife Sue Vertue produced Fatal Death, but he was invited to script it by Red Nose Day honcho Richard Curtis. 11 years later, Moffat would return the favour, with Curtis contributing the rather brilliant Vincent and the Doctor to 2010’s Series 5.

18. “I’ll explain later”

Less a judgement on exposition than explaining away some of the stranger parts of Who lore. It’s a joke that almost creates itself, Bad Wolf-style. That said, explanation would never be so relevant, or lacking, depending on your perspective, than during his time running the show.

19. “He was never cruel and never cowardly”

Well, goes without saying. Astonishingly it took until the 50th anniversary for this to become the shortened CV of the Doctor. Sod canon, you heard it here first people of the universe!

20. Retirement of the Doctor

Fed up with his tremendous success rate, this Doctor plans to “settle down and get married”.

Moffat’s Doctor slunk off more than once, in spite of companions’ best efforts to keep him in the game (most irritatingly in the middle of Series 7 when he didn’t pay any attention to what Amelia Pond told him). The impossible idea of the Doctor’s retirement was there at the start.

“Your mother’s going to get a surprise at the wedding”-  almost as though 2019’s Red Nose Day Four Weddings and a Funeral update was a 20th anniversary tribute to Fatal Death.

“Say Hello to the sofa of reasonable comfort”

Read more about Moffat’s time driving the TARDIS – starting with Five ways he set about remaking the Fifth Doctor era.

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Personas: Running from Valentine – David Bowie’s Other Egos

2C Valentine

As Lazarus prepares to open in Amsterdam, a glimpse at one of David Bowie’s most fascinating, incendiary and final creations. The enigmatic Valentine swooped in an unassuming fashion before seizing a supernatural life of his own and linking the reality with fiction…. (contains some spoilers for the musical Lazarus)

Valentine’s Day is Perennial…

DAVID BOWIE’S LAZARUS RETREATED FROM LONDON IN JANUARY 2017, CLOSING THE CURTAIN ON THE SECOND MAJOR LEG OF HIS FINAL WORK. Following popular runs on both sides of the Atlantic, the musical is shortly heading to Amsterdam, proving unlikely to disappear as the anniversary of Bowie’s death reaches its fourth year. It could never really disappear. For one, its interwoven into the final months of its enigmatic creator, whose final public appearance was at its Off-Broadway premiere in December 2015. That Bowie died just two days after the release of his 25th album, Blackstar, was only matched in horrific coincidence by the Lazarus cast recording being scheduled for the day the news broke.

Recording Days

Of course it’s much more complicated than that.

When the cast recording surfaced in October 2016, it laid a further – you can never say final – strand of Bowie’s final interwoven works. Attached to it were three final Bowie songs, themselves first heard and duly replicated in the cast recording. There was some closure to hearing those definitive Bowie versions. They added to the leitmotif of both album and musical and, despite sessions for Blackstar and rehearsals for Lazarus taking place in close proximity, give credence to the idea that Lazarus is his final work. Seen as such, it’s a fine monument to the young Bowie who once thought he might write musicals for a living, or the rising star of the early 1970s who thought he’d try his hands at adapting George Orwell’s 1984 for the stage.

But of course, it’s also much more complicated than that.

Blackstar’s title track bid a farewell, and set a possible fate, for David Bowie’s earliest meaningful creation when it emerged before the musical’s premiere. That was the doomed Major Tom, who in turn inspired and haunted Bowie’s work for four decades, whether suffering a mysterious mishap in space, inspiring a rhyming mantra or inspiring an alien cult. By the time of Blackstar’s release, Tom’s fate was overshadowed by that of his creator. The eerie video of Lazarus, also the opening song of the eponymous musical, saw Bowie retreat into a wardrobe decked in diagonal stripes that recalled a promo shot of Station to Station that had his Thin White Duke drawing the Tree of Life of Kabbalah in a white box room.

While the work of both studio, musical and associated sessions worked towards a crowning work for the artist, the white box room of Lazarus was stolen by one of his far more recent creations. One that was neither Thin White Duke nor Major Tom.

Continue reading “Personas: Running from Valentine – David Bowie’s Other Egos”

Personas: Chasing Major Tom – David Bowie’s Other Egos

Bowie Major Tom Persona

His fate remains shrouded in jewel-encrusted mystery, but David Bowie’s first significant creation had staying power. The enigmatic Major Tom remained his constant if infrequent companion through accidents, addiction, life…

“There’s Old Wave. There’s New Wave. And there’s David Bowie.”

SO RAN THE CATCHY RCA ADVERT FOR HEROES IN 1977. FOR THE TIME IT WAS A STRANGELY ASTUTE SENTIMENT, NOT JUST FOR BOWIE’S SKILFUL DODGING OF PUNK, BUT FOR THE LEGEND THAT WOULD GROW OVER THE FOLLOWING THREE DECADES. As January 2016 proved, record-label sanctioned as that slogan was, it remains one of the best descriptions for the unique space that Bowie carved for himself in rock, pop, and popular culture.

It wasn’t surprising that the news of David Bowie’s death early in 2016 overwhelmed fans. An outpouring of shock and grief surged quickly as if to stem the news and force it back to a dusty, neglected channel where it could be quietly ignored. But the truth was out, and the collective response gained a life of its own. From the shock of friends, admirers and those who were just lucky enough to coincide with him on Planet Earth, sentiments of grief and respect emerged and merged as people sought to explain the unexpected, if not inexplicable.

Whispered through the streets of Brixton where Bowie was born. Under the ladder rungs of the letterists and signwriters, clipping their messages of solidarity to the front of bars, venues and cinemas. Carried across the Atlantic to the sidewalks of New York where Bowie spent his final years. Past the doorways of Lower Manhattan and the Magic Shop studio that had done so well in keeping Bowie’s secrets during his final years.

How could David Bowie, the chameleon, the popular king of reinvention, have gone? It was a ruse, a natural, supernatural, extension of his transformative personas, an exploration of identity… Bowie was always more than the music. Any glimpse of mortality while he was alive led to a quick collective pinch, reaffirmed in a fandom that stretched across patchwork decades. Yes, even the 1980s. As Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne once put it: “That’s why it’s never occurred to me, ‘oh he’s just a man’ – and that’s cool.”  But the news that hit Bowie’s birth town around 7am on 11 January wasn’t cool. Coming just two days after the release of his 25th album, there was a bundled mystery to unravel as the cold news settled in. A final gift, even if it wasn’t.

If it was true…. If Bowie really was just a man who could succumb to something as banal as death, then surely this was just part of an immaculately laid act of exquisite art? Almost 20 years ago Bowie played an artist straining to transform death into the ultimate artistic statement in the Scott brothers’ anthology series The Hunger. A concept derived, but not following Tony Scott’s film of the same name, where Bowie had taken one of his more prominent roles as a doomed, used and abused vampire. Life wasn’t imitating art in 2016 even though death was a recurring element of Bowie’s music and performance.

When the recently re-monikered David Jones broke the charts amid the zeitgeist of the 1969 moon landing, an ambiguous death was at the heart of it.

Continue reading “Personas: Chasing Major Tom – David Bowie’s Other Egos”

Chopping Down A Dolls House: What if The White Album was a single album?

White Album at 50

The Beatles, more commonly known as the White Album, turns 50 today. A difficult, brilliant hulk of an album, it’s spent five decades defying the many questions it throws up. Is it the band’s best album? Is it the start of their break up? What is Honey Pie all about?

But no question comes larger than the one that emerged after a chance remark from producer George Martin in the 1970s: Should the Fab Four’s only double-LP have just been one disc? Is there an undisputed best-in-class single album in there? This Jokerside aims to find out…

“It doesn’t sound like any other Beatles album”

If you want a revolution, please take a sec to vote Jokerside at #UKBA19 (click and *heart* us)

FOR A WHILE THE BEATLES’ NINTH STUDIO ALBUM WAS TITLED A DOLL’S HOUSE; AT FIRST THOUGHT, THAT SEEMS THE PERFECT NAME. The double-LP White Album is a brilliantly difficult and perverse collection of songs that defy analysis as much as they demand it. The album has thrown up myriad questions over the past five decades, often encouraging contradictory answers. It’s an album packed with so-called ‘fillers’ that earn more attention than many bands’ lead singles. It’s the record of a band breaking up… Before they made another two, rather superb, albums (three if you count Yellow Submarine, which you shouldn’t).

One thing is certain, it’s a Fab Four album unlike any other. It may reference the Magical Mystery Tour that emerged a year before, but it’s nothing like it, even at its most whimsical; it lacks the experimental concept of Sgt Pepper, perhaps even reacting against it. The contents could be the jumbled interior of a doll’s house, with all the nostalgia in oddly assembled and matched tidbits it implies. But that’s not quite the whole story.

The White Album features some of the Beatles’ greatest optimistic highs, but there’s also an undeniable and persistent air of menace running through it. Many songs referencing death and violence. Not unusual in the Beatles canon, but never so intense, and treated so disconcertingly. Behind it sits a unique discordance; an otherworldly sound that is carried in every song, often with an bubbling and winding melody or percussion line, but remains remarkably elusive. It doesn’t sound like any other Beatles album. Take Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band before it, or the thinned out back to basics approach of Let It Be (Spector production notwithstanding) that would hammer real splinters into the cracks of the band shortly afterwards. Both those albums have echoes or foreshadowing. But they both hold together in a wholly different way; the White Album endures as a puzzle unlike anything else.  

Long, Long, Long time together?

Could the White Album be the record that broke the Beatles apart?  John Lennon would explicitly state that sometime later, and there were undoubtedly fraught times during the sessions. Ringo left the band at one point (at least), perennial recording engineer Geoff Emerick refused to work on the album as the tension boiled over, and of its 30 songs, only 16 feature every Beatle; a fair few only have two. That’s a bold step away from the cohesive Fab Four that had quickly risen to the peak of western culture just over half a decade before.

The emergence of four separate artists had never been more evident, and that’s clear in the Esher demos – the acoustic demoing of many album tracks at George Harrison’s house prior to entering into the studio. Some however, would have to wait until Abbey Road in 1969 (Lennon’s Polythene Pam, Mean Mr Mustard…). There are Harrison efforts that would find an audience on his later solo albums. Most notably, the song that would become Lennon’s Jealous Guy failed to pass the cut in 1968. As Lennon appears to have suffered the most cast-offs, a fair few of the notable standalone songs are Paul McCartney’s.   Continue reading “Chopping Down A Dolls House: What if The White Album was a single album?”

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