Nostalgia Time: The Demon Headmaster

 

This entry in Nostalgia Time is a little bit different. The Demon Headmaster was a long running children’s show, based on a popular series of books by Gillian Cross. The series followed the exploits of Dinah Glass, a foster child who comes up against the sinister headmaster of her new school. She soon discovers that The Headmaster is a supernatural hypnotist, running the school perfectly and scoring the best test results by hypnotising the entire student body at once during assemblies. However, it’s not just Ofsted The Headmaster is trying to win over, as Dinah begins to suspect the school is just a testing ground for something far more ambitious. 

Terrence Hardiman terrified my generation with his terrifying portrayal of The Headmaster, and while the plots became goofier as the series wore on, the show was always well cast and performed. Child actors aren’t known for bringing out the best of the material, but the story worked and kids were believable enough in it. So effective was it that much of the show’s visuals are still burned into my brain. The hypnotised kids waiting patiently in lines to start the school day, and later the creepy testing facility hidden in the woods. The use of something familiar, a typical british school, to create fear and suspense would later be revisited in Series 2 of the rebooted Doctor Who with Toby Whithouse’s School Reunion. Both featuring brainwashed children and a dark patriarch at the top. 

The Demon Headmaster has been gone for a long time now. The last book was in 2002, the TV show finished in 1998, and Children’s TV has moved away from strong narrative drama anyway. Still, it’s nice to remember a time when Children’s TV was so imaginative and so motivated by encouraging independence, free thought and intelligence. 

Nostalgia Time: So Haunt Me

Continuing on my bloodthirsty rampage through the wastelands of 90s British TV, I arrive at the pinnacle of Jewish Ghost Sitcoms, So Haunt Me: 

This one is obscure. Chances are it’s too obscure and will only be nostalgic to me and anyone who borrowed my VHS of Robocop 2 that features an episode of this taped over the last five minutes. It wasn’t even that big a show when it was new, memorable only for being the only other thing Raquel from Only Fools and Horses ever did. Still, my Dad and I used to watch this together and I remember us both laughing out loud at jokes only he understood. 

The setup is unusual enough. A family hit by the recession downsizes to a house that’s a bit of a dump, it’s small and cheap but all the previous owners have abandoned it. The reason, of course, is because it is haunted by the ghost of a middle aged, Jewish housewife, who doesn’t so much terrify her victims as mother them to death. The gags are a bit 90s, but it doesn’t go down the “My Hero” route of abandoning reality completely. The characters are generally likeable, if a bit cookie cutter, and the self absorbed Mrs. Feldman is the definite start of the show. As things go one, the show got a bit caught up with plot arcs, and there are only so many jokes you can make about being haunted by a Jewish ghost before the show stops exploring that avenue. 

It didn’t last long, and the BBC has yet to release this on DVD, but some Internet Robin Hood has uploaded a lot of very ugly VHS copies to Youtube if you really want to check it out. It’s worth a laugh, and at it’s best, it still confirms my theory that British TV peaked in the 90s. Hit me up in the comments if you remember this. 

Nostalgia Special: Crime Traveller

My callback to Bugs last week has sent me on a real 90s TV nostalgia kick. It wasn’t long before I got to Crime Traveller. If you were outside the UK or had a phobia of awesome TV shows in the 90s, you may have missed this. I absolutely loved this show, and if you’re a fan of Sci-Fi Drama then you will probably love it too. The show explored the adventures of detective Slade and forensics expert Holly who solve crimes using the hodgepodge Time Machine hidden in a London flat. Written by the great Anthony Horowitz, Crime Traveller featured a strict version of time travel in which the travellers could never change history or control exactly how far back they would travel. The show explored paradoxes and cause and effect, while telling a pretty good crime yarn at the same time. The show was too good to be cancelled, but got lost in the mix during a staff reshuffle at the BBC, and never got recommissioned. The show will never see a second series, but the single season we do have is pure gold.

British Nostalgia Time: BUGS

If, like me, you were a square-eyed British TV addict child in the 90s then you might remember this show. BBC Drama in the 90s was pretty ambitious, and while it didn’t have the budget that it does now, I still think BUGS has aged pretty well.

My Dad used to describe it as a show about computers, written by someone who had never seen a computer, and it does have that early 90s innocence in the way it treats computer technology. The upside is that the plots were often genuinely original and it’s still nice to see a Sci-Fi / Action series set in Britain. To this day, I can’t think of many other shows that are explicitly about bugs, digital terrorism and solving crimes using computers. I still find myself humming the theme tune every now and then. I remember tuning out in later years as they changed the actor playing Ed, and messed about with the basic formula, but back in the day this was one of my favourites.

The 12th Doctor: Predictions

Capaldi With Beard
I’d love to know if Capaldi was cast before or after Moffat saw this photo.

The waiting is over at last. A week ago, the BBC took time out if its busy schedule to announce the the identity of the next Doctor. It was that middle-aged white bloke whose name we all heard days before. This isn’t bad news, but it does throw my predictions out. Of course, it wasn’t a total waste of time. We were also treated to half an hour of very minor celebrities making vague remarks about the show as if they’d never seen it before and were desperately trying to up their profile. And Peter Davison was there briefly. If you want to see how this very special programme was made, the BBC have kindly written up a “Making of…” piece here.  The magic of Television is alive and well!

A new Doctor is an exciting time. The show’s ability to replace its main star has kept it fresh over the last fifty years, and always draws in an audience. Peter Capaldi seems like a good choice for the role. He is older than ten of the eleven previous actors cast in the role, but still has a sense of kinetic energy about him that suits the role. Some have baulked at the thought of an older Doctor, but Matt Smith is only 30 and all his Doctor seems to do these days is mope, sulk and grumble like an old man anyway. How much worse can it get?

It won’t be a complete regeneration for the show though, because showrunner Steven Moffat is still very much on board. I’ve discussed the unique stamp he’s leaving on the show before, but now the next Doctor has been cast, I’m here to give you my very special 12th Doctor predictions.

The 12th Doctor’s Costume:

The Sixth Doctor and TARDIS
“Patchwork quilts are cool.”

The Doctor’s outfit is a pretty important part of the show. Christopher Eccleston might have been one of the best Doctors ever to grace the series, but his understated, practical outfit is not the direction we should be going in. The Doctor’s costume needs to be eye catching, anachronistic and commented upon frequently. Hey, it worked for Colin Baker.

As such an integral part of the show, the Doctor should pick his new clothes in a way that fits Moffat’s storytelling methods. In Series 8, the Doctor will spend a good part of each episode trying to track down an item of clothing belonging to a love interest he hasn’t met yet. Each item of clothing has the name of its owner written in the label, but the handwriting is terrible and the Doctor needs each piece to identify the owner.

The 12th Doctor’s Catchphrase:

TARDIS saying GeronimoCatchphrases are fun. They shot Little Britain to success and who couldn’t use a little more of that fame. They’re also good for knowing which fan letters contain good advice. If the writer signs of with an Allons-y, they’re probably not looking to the future. Geronimo goes straight to the top of the pile. Again, the Doctor should be slightly anachronistic but not so much that it alienates the fans. This probably rules out Simples! and Should’ve gone to Specsavers, but leaves Moffat with a more pacifistic option like Leave ‘im Davros, he’s not worth it.

If Moffat is feeling really original, we might get something like Popped Collars are Nifty!

Challenging Love Interests:

Who didn’t love River Song, eh? Her convoluted time travel plot arc that culminated in a shotgun wedding was just the sort of romance we’ve come to expect from a progressive show like this. That story is pretty much wrapped up now, but there are so many more Time Travel love stories to tell. In Series 8, the Doctor discovers he’s using the TARDIS to secretly date two women at once, neither of which he’s actually met. In a shocking twist, they turn out to be the same person but they’ve forgotten for some reason that isn’t very important.

Finding the Balance between Alien and Human:

Clara and the Doctor
“You can travel with me, but you have to cook and clean too.”

Sure, the Doctor looks human, sounds human and spends a lot of time living with humans, but let’s not forget that he’s actually an ancient aliens with ways different to our own. The best way to do this is to periodically write it into the script, but there are subtler ways. Everyone knows that aliens don’t have manners, every so often giving the Doctor something unnecessarily insensitive should do the trick. Still, if the Doctor was totally unsympathetic, there’d be no reason to watch the show. Bring him down to earth by writing in a few of 21st Century Earth’s social prejudices. Every so often the 12th Doctor will sigh and mutter “Women!” under his breath. That’s a feeling we can all get behind, no matter what planet you’re from!

Murder and Genocide, each more casual than the last:

Genocide Machine cover.
Maybe the Dalek isn’t the villain?

The Eleventh Doctor was a complex figure. On the day he was born, he reminded us that Earth would always be protected. A couple of years later, and he’d retired from protecting the Earth because he’d got another companion stuck somewhere even the TARDIS can’t reach. Sure, he’s been through that a few times before, but after a while it starts to get to you. When he was on the case, The Eleventh Doctor liked to finish things in a big way. The Doctor lives in a dangerous universe, sometimes you need to blow up the entire Cyberman fleet just to get directions, or use subliminal messages to wipe out an entire invasion force, or pilot a homing missile into a spaceship just to kill one sick old man in circumstances that weren’t that urgent.

The 12th Doctor will take this even further, recognising the Doctor’s mistakes of the past and fixing them. Highlights include a return to the events during  Genesis of the Daleks. While Tom Baker ponders over the ethics of obliterating the entire Dalek race, the 12th Doctor yanks the wires from his and and blows them to bits. The big series finale sees a crossover with David Tennant and finally corrects events during The Doctor’s Daughter. While Tennant holds a gun to the head of his Daughter’s killer and says “I never would,” Capaldi arrives finishes the job.

That’s all for now, some of these predictions might seem like a stretch, but like Moffat says. Doctor Who is about surprises!

Why Twist Endings Don’t Work For Me.

Let's see what's behind... The Scary Door!
Let’s see what’s behind… The Scary Door!

Beth and I just finished the Nolan Batman Trilogy again. I have spoken about The Dark Knight Rises here before, but I’d barely walked out of the cinema when I wrote that. Back then I was more concerned with the film’s narrative weakness when compared to The Dark Knight. I’ve seen Rises twice since then, and I like it. It’s a fun film that borrows from some of my favourite Batman stories. But it’s easily the weakest of the Trilogy, hamstrung by Nolan’s desire to go out with a bang. The film has some great moments, but its weakened by contorting to fit a few feeble twists in the final act. I’m not here to talk about Batman, so I won’t go into spoilers here, but I think I can say that none of these twists knocked my socks off.

The cinema loves a good plot twist. Some are so iconic, their surprise is long forgotten. I’m sad to say I knew the ending to The Empire Strikes Back well before I saw the film. It’s a consequence of being the youngest in a large family, you’ve heard the all the best bits of all the best films long before you get to experience them for yourself. Sometimes you’re lucky. When I was eleven, I was lucky enough to see Hitchcock’s Psycho without any foreknowledge, and I was young enough to still find it scary. It was a great experience and the film is still one of my favourites, but otherwise I’m not a big fan of the plot twist.

People knock M. Night Shyamalan, but I’d say he’s one of the few film makers that gets the plot twist right. I don’t always care for his films, but the appeal of The Sixth Sense is not just that it ends with a surprise, but that the surprise is actually fundamental to a proper understanding of the film. My all time favourite twist is still Planet of the Apes, a blow that still catches a new viewer unawares since the dated B-Movie feel lulls you into a false sense of security.  Here the twist is not only integral to the plot, but in retrospect, the only logical conclusion to the story. Planet of the Apes also gets bonus points for offering a twist ending that is so much better than the novel it was based upon. 

But there are those other cinema twists, the kind that seem to be coming more and more common. Take Star Trek Into Darkness, an enjoyable film that crams the second half with twists that are neither surprising nor alter the course of the film. Where The Empire Strikes Back offered us a twist that changed the way we looked at The Hero and The Villain, Return of the Jedi offers us another familial twist that just seems confusing and without merit. One of the few things I liked about Man of Steel is that it tried to tell a clear, controlled story, but even that falls prey to the last minute attempt to jolt the audience’s expectations. In literature, Philip K Dick is still the master of the twist ending. Each of his short stories seems to terminate in an equally alarming conclusion. Funnily enough, though his work has been adapted to the big screen repeatedly, his twist endings don’t seem to survive the process quite so often.

I find the plot twist grating. I know that stories are there to entertain us, storytellers have a lot of tools at their disposal and surprise is one of them, but it is not my favourite. I read books, watch TV and go to the cinema to be entertained. For the money I pay, I usually expect to be entertained for the duration of the story. This means the narrative needs to be tight, flowing and with a sense of purpose. Take The Dark Knight as an example. The film is an enormous success because its plot construction is almost perfect. Every scene, every word of dialogue is place in the film with a clear intention. It leads to a climax that seems inevitable. Furthermore, it features only one real plot twist, about halfway through the film that naturally begins the events of the second half. Another of my favourite films recently was Dredd. This long overdue adaptation was a flop at the box office, and I still can’t believe it. It presents a small, tight story that takes place within a single building. Not a minute of screentime is wasted. It also features very little you could call a plot twist.

These are the kinds of stories I enjoy, careful and controlled. The plot twist weakens this control. The problem is that a twist relies on establishing certain expectations in the audience, and then defying them. Performed well, it can be the highlight of a story, but defying expectations is not easy. If, for example, you would like to present a character as an ally, only to reveal in the final moments that they are actually the villain, you are forced to present a very limited picture of the the character. Worse still, the temptation is to build the character up even higher to enhance the twist when it finally comes. Inevitably, plot holes develop. (e.g Why didn’t he just shoot him when they were alone together? He’s been around for months, why didn’t he just steal the Jewel etc. etc.) Even Doctor Who, my absolute favourite, has succumb to the plot twist. Swapping intelligent, well paced drama for an elaborate series of 45 minute chapters in an ever more convoluted story arc. 

Plot twists leave me feel cheated. The lengths that creators travel to conceal them leave their stories bent out of shape around them. They are almost always spotted, and do nothing but dilute their stories in favour of a bit of cheap sparkle that will be forgotten as soon as the next sparkly thing comes along. It’s time to leave this narrative device behind, and explore pacing, plotting and characterisation instead.

“The Name of the Doctor” Plot Predictions.

The Doctor is surprised to learn that the Meddling Monk has gone back and changed his name to Duane Dibley.
The Doctor is surprised to learn that the Meddling Monk has gone back and changed his name to Duane Dibley.

As suspense for Doctor Who Season Seven’s big finale builds, I thought I’d share a few of my hot plot predictions for Saturday’s episode.

Lots of people will talk about how great The Doctor is.

Seriously now, we all love the Doctor, but how will we know how much we love him if the script doesn’t tell us every five minutes?

All that praise would get annoying, so before he saves the day, the Doctor will bollocks everything up a bit. 

Nobody wants the Doctor to be too perfect. It would be hilarious if he made lots of rudimentary mistakes just to keep us on our toes. Hey, it worked in Curse of the Black Spot. 

River Song will show up, flirt and totally kill something. 

Because we all know that the two things the Doctor loves are one-dimensional flirt boxes and murderers.

We will find out the Doctor’s name. 

Not THE Doctor’s name, of course, but the name of another famous TV doctor. Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman.

There will be lots of nostalgic references to the past.

Hey, it’s the fiftieth anniversary soon. Who needs a plot that stands on its own when you have all that history to draw from?

The big mystery surrounding Clara will be something that is either instigated by the Doctor, or the result of her being slightly less than human. 

Because girls are dumb and smelly and we should leave the decisions and important stuff to the boys.

The Plot will make no sense if you haven’t been watching the last three years of Doctor Who, and might not see the Fiftieth Anniversary Special. 

Because hey, like Moffat says, this isn’t a show you can watch while you’re doing the ironing. The more plot threads dangling, the more plot there must be, right? Who cares if there’s no longer any time for quiet character moments of pacing, people watch Doctor Who for SURPRISE!

The Doctor will either cry or get very angry for the billionth time in the last eight years, and then tell us unusual that is.

Sure, we see it all the time, but it could be centuries between Doctor outbursts. How will we know just how angry the Doctor is if he doesn’t give a wink to the audience to tell us how rare it is?

If anything significant occurs, by the end of the episode all the characters will have forgotten it.

Because nothing tops off a season of post-Russel T. Davies Who like a big dollop of narrative cowardice.

A Few Thoughts Before The Name of the Doctor. (Or, why I don’t like Stephen Moffat’s Doctor Who.)

Christopher Eccleston posing as the Ninth Doctor
He isn’t returning for the 50th Anniversary so I’m putting him here to remind everyone that he’s still the finest Doctor since 2005.

Doctor Who Season 7 comes to a close on Saturday with an episode titled The Name of the Doctor.

This really bugs me. Firstly, we all know it’s going to be a cop out. People seem to have forgotten the beginning of Season 6 (I don’t blame you, I’ve spent a long time trying to forget Season 6 too, but it just won’t go.) Remember Moffat telling us all that the Doctor’s death absolutely wasn’t a cop-out or a cheat? We even had old Canton at the scene to tell us that it was definitely the Doctor and he was definitely dead?

And he wasn’t.

It was a cop-out.

Which is exactly what The Name of the Doctor will be.

Secondly, it’s a totally contrived mystery. Moffat did this  with River Song too. When the character is introduced in Silence in the Library, it’s actually perfectly clear who she is. She is a significant love interest of the Doctor’s that he has yet to meet. I don’t remember anyone ever asking who she was until Moffat started the question in interviews. It’s exactly the same with the Doctor’s name. Yes, we don’t know what it is. Yes, this was supposed to be mysterious back in the sixties, but this whole “Oooh, what could the Doctor’s name be?” is totally irrelevant because, just as with River Song, we might not know the details, but we know who the character is. Or not, since Moffat thinks the sole purpose of the show is to provide surprise. Unfortunately I’m tired of plot arcs and contrived suspense over minor details that have no bearing on the plot or characters.

Thirdly, it’s yet another of Moffat’s ridiculous story twists that attempts to make the Doctor iconic and important. I wouldn’t mind, but Moffat’s arcs have completely overtaken the show now. Standalone episodes are meaningless, every scene is The Doctor’s Final Hour and every cliffhanger is supposed to further illustrate just how significant The Doctor is. Without any good, well written episodes, I feel like I’m constantly hearing just how great the Doctor is but never getting to see it for myself.  To make matters worse, Moffat thinks this whole “The Doctor’s all big headed and fallible” thing is hilarious, so the character is just rude, incompetent and unbelievably selfish now.

The longer Moffat holds the reins of this series, the more obvious it becomes that he just doesn’t understand why it is so loved. He’s taken a show that three years ago had an unbelievably wide audience and made it cheap, sleazy and niche.

(Personally, I’m betting the Doctor’s name is Thedoc Tor.)

Quantum Leap and Agency.

Sam and Al Posing So, I’m rewatching Quantum Leap, and it’s aged pretty well, but I’ve noticed something I never really noticed before. The format makes for a great, varied series, but it depends on the people Sam leaps into being incapable of fixing their own problems. This doesn’t seem so bad at first, but a lot of the fan favourite episodes have Sam leaping into minorities or members of marginalised groups in times of crisis.

The episode everyone remembers is The Color of Truth, in which Sam becomes a Jessie Tyler, a black man in a 1950s Southern town. It’s a great episode that takes a lot of inspiration from Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy. (A predates the film by a good few months.) Sam’s presence turns Jessie Tyler into the activist he never was before. Similarly, any episode in which Sam leaps into a woman usually features a good deal of Sam bringing Feminism into their lives for the first time.

I don’t think it’s intentional, but the result is a show in which a straight, white, male, genius travels through time, freeing marginalised people of the late 20th century from oppression they were too passive to tackle on their own. I don’t really blame the writers. It is an inevitable consequence of the  format (quite a good format, usually, I should add) that they only have two options: Have a white man take over for woman and minorities and fix their problems for them, or never feature ethnic minorities and women in the show. Its a pity this issue crops up so often in a show that was very social conscious for its time.

Red Dwarf X: The Beginning – Mini Review

Red Dwarf X: The Beginning ReviewAnd so we come to the final episode of Red Dwarf X. This is just going to be a mini-review. Partly because I’m going to be writing a longer post this week about the series as a whole, but mostly because I really didn’t have much to say about this episode. I could push out a few more thoughts, but they’d really be more about the overall set design, direction, themes etc. so I’d rather wait.

The Beginning is a curious episode; I thought it did interesting things but I rarely found it very interesting. It starts with a Rimmer flashback that really brought back memories of episodes like Dimension Jump and the young actor cast is absolutely excellent. (His name doesn’t seem to be on imdb yet though, weird. Sorry unnamed actor.) Once the main part of the plot gets going, however, it’s a little bit forced. Essentially the crew are ambushed by rogue simulants (them again, tut!) and are forced to hide in an asteroid while Rimmer comes up with a plan. Meanwhile, there’s a plot involving Rimmer’s father leaving a secret message and a disturbed droid who wants a duel across the universe. One of the nice features of the show this year has been the layered plots which seems to be a little ignored this time around. It feels like the writers were going for a big finale, but the results just feel a little inconsequential. There really isn’t much to say about The Beginning. It opens well, there are some good laughs scattered throughout, then there are some utterly inconsequential villains, a nice Rimmer moment at the end and then it sort of fizzles out. When it works it really works. When it doesn’t, it’s not bad, just empty. I liked the characters again and I really think the performances have hit top form, the writing is generally much less awkward that it has been too. I just didn’t get swept up with the drama this time around. It felt much more like a reject from Series VII, competent but lacking in spirit.

I’ll be back with my thoughts on the whole of Series X soon.