Doctor Who: Tennant outcome

In December 2022 I wrote about the surprising return of David Tennant to Doctor Who, and made a prediction about the theme RTD wanted to explore:

It is my expectation that this return to the role of Doctor is explicitly intended as a continuation of this thread: RTD will frame this as the Doctor’s own psyche giving himself a chance to resolve his resentment and frustration, come to terms with the end of his time as Doctor, and to accept his final regeneration with positivity (just as the 13th Doctor managed to do).
So I think we will see the marvellous Bernard Cribbins (RIP) again, as it was his life Tennant’s Doctor died to save beforehand. And I think his Doctor’s final line will be a satisfying rejoinder to the words that ended his previous incumbency:
“I’m ready to go.”

What we got in November 2023 was:

Never mind that. Just mend
yourself and come back fighting
fit. Cos the whole world needs
you, more than ever.
It’s time. Here we go again.
(final words)

Close enough!

(Source: the amazing Whoniverse section of the BBC script repository)

The Cul De Sac (television; NZ, 2016)

I am not really keeping up with the pop culture right now but I was surprised to discover on Sunday that I’d just missed the first episode of a new youth-oriented TV series called “The Cul de Sac”. Further surprised that I couldn’t see anyone talking about it – especially since it features KJ Apa in a lead role. The dude is playing Archie Andrews in the new Riverdale series in the US, and this show doesn’t even show up on his IMDB yet!

So, I’m gonna talk about it.

The article I read – a little promo piece in the Sunday Star Times – said the series “follows two major sci-fi tropes and mixes them together with some Kiwi flavouring: a world with no adults meets what sounds like an alien invasion.” (No adults – like another piece of NZ-produced yoof telly, dear old bonkers cheesefest The Tribe!)

This sounded worth a look, especially after namedropping those classic kidult sci-fi shows of the 80s, Under the Mountain and Children of the Dog Star, although it’s obviously scratching that Hunger Games/Divergent sort of itch. I watched the first episode over lunch – if you’re in NZ you can do the same right here. (Probably blocked for other regions, I guess?)

And – it was a good time! It goes like a bloody rocket, as the protagonists find out that all the adults are gone and sinister weather turns into a destructive event that vaporises a whole bunch of teens, while the high school has gone all dystopian authority. It gets points for planting a young woman in the lead role and giving her heaps to do – the opening scene with an unhappy dog is a brilliant piece of understated action – and I was delighted to find rising star Apa playing (with effortless charisma) what would typically be the girlfriend role – taking orders from the main hero, running to report bad news, and even twisting his ankle while running away from stuff.

You do have to give the show a lot of leeway as it races through its setup, though. We see a lot of teens and kids who seem completely happy to just stand around murmuring after this crisis and submit meekly as a few tough kids establish an authoritarian regime when, well, there is a whole adult-free world elsewhere they could go to instead, not to mention whole supermarkets sitting there unlooted. But I’ll run with it because this show obviously wants to get to its main storyline as quickly as possible.

I’ll definitely be coming back for more. Worth a look.


Cast of "Dawson's Creek"
If this was from the 2010s they would all be vampires

This house has been unwell for ages. Wee Beastie’s been sick 6 weeks, and Cal & I have been coughing too. It’s nothing major but it wears you down. It’s exactly the kind of state where it seems like I good idea to pull out the old Dawson’s Creek DVDs. We just watched the 13 episodes of season one.

I’ve always maintained that season one was good TV, to the bemusement of my nearest and dearest. After this rewatch, I stand by that call. It’s great! But that ain’t the rep the show has. When Dawson is talked about – well, the dialogue is a thing. A lot of people mock Dawson for the way the characters talk. But it’s meant to be like that! Sure they don’t talk anything like real teenagers, but neither do teenagers on any other TV show ever. (You might allow exceptions for Freaks & Geeks and the little-remembered Canadian gem Straight Up.) The thing is, Dawson’s teens used a style that called attention to itself in a way other TV dialogue didn’t: wordy, reflexive, informed by therapy and philosophy and experiences beyond the ken of teenagers. The characters all made teenage choices, but they talked about those choices like obsessive overly-analytical and highly verbose adults. You can dislike the style, sure, but don’t think it ain’t deliberate.

This stylistic choice is, in fact, the key to Dawson’s Creek. (And you didn’t even know it was locked! Just put up with me, shh.) It ‘s all about something I’m gonna call the supertext (no doubt there is an actual name for this but this is my blog post and it is about Dawson of all things so I make the rules). By supertext, what I mean is the stuff that’s going on at the high-end, structural level. Like: “This scene is where Jen tries to make friends with Joey and Joey resists,” that’s supertext.

On a normal show, the scene would be like, Jen: “Hey Joey! You’re wearing great clothes! Lets read some coffee table books about the Mayans!” Joey: “Um” *sideeyes*. That’s text. And the subtext would be: Jen: “I wanna be friends with Joey because I want to prove to myself that I can have normal relationships and maybe that I’m not a horrible person” and Joey: “I am totally intimidated by this hot chick from NYC who knows how to smile with both sides of her mouth”.

Well in Dawson season one, what they do is grab the supertext and drag it down into the text. So the above example ends up with the text being, Jen: “Hey Joey! Nice clothes! You know when someone new comes to town they usually try to make friends with someone else who seems sane!” Joey: “Ummm, but sometimes people just resist the idea of being friends with each other because of personal reasons” *sideeyes* Jen: “Well I intend to keep trying to be friends with you anyway!”

This is the whole structure of the show. The text deliberately draws attention to the supertext, it gets talked about by the characters who squeeze it dry of meaning. The subtext, meanwhile, gets left alone and remains active to inform and create drama. But – and here’s the magic trick – the supertext is just the subtext in universal form. The characters talk about their inner motivations and problems, but they do it at a remove by talking about story structures, expectations, universal narrative rules that just happen to be relevant to their situation. The show gets to have its cake and eat it too, deconstructing itself without breaking its fiction into pieces. It’s a nice trick, albeit far too clever-clever to sustain for more than a short time (and indeed this gets scaled massively down in subsequent seasons).

So this is the technique, and its used to explore a simple story: a love triangle comprising the innocent guy, the new girl with a history, and the oldest best friend who secretly loves him. (Yeah, the virgin/whore thing is there, but the show is partly an interrogation of that idea so it ain’t so bad.) And what it’s really about is uncertainty – how feelings are not easily discerned, attraction is vexatious, and love doesn’t come bundled up as a single coherent thing. That uncertainty angle is good stuff, but to tell the story you have to accept one dramatic conceit: that there can be a love triangle in existence with none other than Dawson Leery at its apex. And that, not the dialogue, is the real challenge for the viewer.

Because, look at that Dawson s1 core cast in order of choiceness: Joshua Jackson: full-on charm offensive, effortless charisma. Michelle Williams: a genuine star now. Back then, her developing chops were only sometimes on show. Her character was sometimes annoying but she was good value. Katie Holmes: limited range, and unable to hold the camera like the show wants her to, but when she’s within her zone she’s fantastic, off-kilter and unashamed and so, so angry. James van der Beek: ok this one is problematic. He’s not terrible exactly, but the supertext-text shenanigans force this character to be a certain kind of hopelessly self-obsessed. Making the role fun to watch would be a challenge for any actor and he just. Can’t. Get. There. He’s obviously in trouble in the final episodes when everyone around him is miserable and all he can do is squeak “It’ll be okay” while he furrows his brow at them.

Oh and the order of choiceness above? Unfortunately for the show, that is the exact reverse order of screen time given to these respective folks. Joshua Jackson gets crap all to do all season. Michelle Williams is part of the big love triangle so she’s around a bunch, but almost everything she does turns around Dawson, sucking the air out of her performance. Katie Holmes gets a bit more to happen for her, and the Beek, poor devil, has to anchor every episode and every big emotional turn. That’s the nature of the problem, isn’t it? It was a show with a lot of assets in precisely the wrong places.

But that doesn’t stop it from being good. Hell no.

Perhaps informative: while writing this I’ve been half-watching the first eps of s2, and man, it plummets downhill. The narrative/structural tricks that made season one work just make season two collapse in on itself. Dawson is no longer a stylized doofus constructed as a way to explore relationship anxiety; he just ends up being a gigantic tool. And the creators are too good not to know this (e.g. the producer, super-talented Mike White, whose very next gig was Freaks & Geeks). Witness: second episode, Dawson is alone for first time in new girlfriend Joey’s room, and he promptly reads her diary. No but wait, that’s not the bad part. The bad part is he proceeds to get very upset because Joey says in her diary that she didn’t like the cheap monster movie he made, and is petty and mean to her until she works out that’s why he’s being petty and mean, and then he aggressively tries to make her feel bad about it. I mean, it’s just inexcusably oafish and horrid behaviour and it’s the very first thing Dawson does this season. They know. But it doesn’t save the show that they know it.

(There’s a reason why Television Without Pity exists, after all. The gigantic home of TV snark – its importance much reduced in the age of YouTube and NetFlix – originated as a place for people to bond over just how awful Dawson Leery is. And he is, he really really is, just that awful. There is a measurable amount of joy to be had from shouting “shut up Dawson!” at the TV.)

So, I liked this show when it aired. Season one was great times. And no, it wasn’t the hot babe factor, I never gave a second thought to any of the women of Dawson’s Creek. (For contrast: Buffy.) But I definitely responded to something going on in that show. The tone and rhythm of it, the overthinking and the staring into the water and the unsettling nature of uncertainty, that felt true to me. It reminded me of my teen years that had recently ended, and it reminded me of my early 20s that were still ongoing. Watching it now, I still get that off it, like a contact high of being young and unresolved. That’s why I will defend Dawson season one against all comers. Sure, it’s nostalgia and my personal memories kicking in, but I feel it ain’t just that. There was something real at the core of it: in its bizarre way, it expressed something irreducibly true about being young and incomplete. And not only that, but by the end of the season it built up to an answer: you can’t get out of uncertainty by thinking (no-one on Dawson ever solves anything by thinking); no, you get out of uncertainty by finding new stuff to do, and doing it.

So, Dawson. Bite me haters, it’s the business.

Oh yeah, here’s another thing everyone’s forgotten about this show, including me: season one is full of sex talk. That’s another thing that disappeared in seasons 2+. In s1, sex infuses everything. There is content in these episodes that genuinely surprised me for how upfront it is.

1990s problems:

Dawson Drinking Game: every time Dawson says “I just want to know where I stand”, drink. That’s all you need. FATAL.


Dune & Doctor Who

Two interesting projects have come to light today, both on the Bleeding Cool news website. They are both ideas I have talked about several times in the past: “someone should do this,” I have said. Now someone is.

The first is a documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted 1970s film adaptation of Dune. I learned about this film through my interest in the making of the 1979 film Alien, which was in many ways born out of the ashes of the failed Dune project. The designs I’ve seen for the film are fascinating, and the weird visionary style of Jodorowsky would have been a fascinating match for Frank Herbert’s dense science fiction epic. The sheer talent involved alone makes this one of the great untold stories of filmmaking, and one I’ve long thought demanded a telling; but now that I’ve seen this first clip, I realize Dune could have been even more of a game changer, perhaps the only real followup to Kubrick’s 2001. This one promises to far exceed my hopes. I’m very excited about this.

The second one has not been confirmed, but strongly hinted: Mark Gatiss is apparently working on a TV drama about the creation of Doctor Who in the early 60s. I am a lot more cautious about this project. While Gatiss is a huge fan of the show and a highly successful TV creative (best known at the moment for Sherlock), he is… not at his strongest working with female characters. (At least, so argues Andrew(Bartok), quite convincingly.)

This matters because the version of this story I have always wanted to see (and have wanted to write, had I the time and airfare budget to research it properly) isn’t about the origins of Doctor Who at all, but instead about the early careers of two remarkable women: Verity Lambert and Delia Derbyshire. Both of them were pioneers (in television production and electronic music, respectively, although that undersells their impact) and both of them were young women in overwhelmingly male work environments. DW was where their trajectories crossed, and they both had a huge part to play in making the show an icon of British culture. There is plenty of other fascinating incident in the origin of DW, and of course the men involved were all quite singular, but to me the Lambert/Derbyshire parallel story has a potential that the rest doesn’t match.

So I’ll watch for more news of this one with caution.

(The first scene of my version of the Lambert/Derbyshire story pretty much writes itself.)

Māori are confused

Duncan Garner on TV3’s morning news show Firstline just now: “Māori are confused. You’ve got Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples saying this is good legislation… and on the other hand you’ve got the last of the activist Māori saying we don’t want this.” (Starts at 4’41 into the clip, although he says “Māori are confused” at other times as well.)

Y’know, it’s good that Pākehā don’t get confused when John Key and Phil Goff say different things, or the country really would be in a pickle!

Outrageous Fortune (no spoilers)

NZ’s longest-running drama Outrageous Fortune ended last night, at the close of season 6, still owning the ratings and once again becoming a global trending topic on Twitter. Phenomenon.

I wonder if the West family are now iconic fictional Kiwis who will last the ages? They must come close. They’re getting their own museum exhibit, even. They definitely have a distinctively Kiwi style, and they’ve been hugely successful here. But to last, they need to do more. They need to own a chunk of this nation’s symbolic real estate. Kiwis need to see a bit of ourselves in them, something that hasn’t been well-expressed anywhere else.

Hmm, who else is there? Definitely this guy:

Even though he existed mostly in very brief sketch comedy, this guy:

Probably this guy:

Maybe these guys? Too soon to tell?

(I know, let’s consult Wikipedia’s index of fictional New Zealanders… Hmmm. A few anime characters, a couple of misbegotten superheroes, and Madge Allsop. Er… go Kiwi?)

My instinct is that the Wests will last. What d’you reckon?

Our TV gives horoscopes

Our TV, a cheery pre-digital TEA CT-M6812, gives horoscopes on demand. This isn’t an interpretation or a gag. It really does this.

Y’see, the other day one of the lights was flashing for no apparent reason, so I dug out the manual and looked over it to see if I could find out why. No luck for the light, but I did discover this whole section of the manual: SUPER FUNCTIONS.

Our TV has a CALENDAR (“lookup days and years very conveniently”) and a NOTEBOOK (“store information such as phone numbers”) and even a GAME FUNCTION (“this TV has a built in game for your enjoyment during leisure time”). Best of all though is the BIOLOGICAL CLOCK.

This function can make you know about the low tide, high tide and critical stage of your intellect, emotion and force at a certain day so as to live harmony with the rhythms of environment.

So I tried it of course. You put in your birthday, and then your target day (e.g. today), and it shows bar graphs for Intellect, Emotion and Force. If it’s a good day, these are riding high! If it’s a bad day, they’re down low. Sometimes one is much higher or lower than the others. You can page through the days, and watch the ups and downs of the week ahead.

I just wanted to share that. How unusual, a TV that tells you how to live your life!*


Reservoir Hill (NZ, 2009)

Locally-made digital Emmy-winning web series Reservoir Hill had an old media screening in omnibus form over the weekend, and I ended up watching much of the broadcast.

It’s about a girl named Beth who arrives in a new subdivision and finds everyone reacts to her in an unusual way. Very soon she finds out why, and that stakes out territory for the show somewhere between Twin Peaks and Shutter Island. The rest of the show follows her investigations into the mystery, shot through with moments of teen drama.

It’s a fascinating production, very well-made, making much of its anonymous suburban setting (it was shot out Porirua way). The colour palette is very Twilight, all washed-out colours and muted tones, stylistic and moody but not as over-the-top as Twilight seemed to be from the few minutes of that I watched.

Most fascinating was the interactive elements. After each episode, with Beth facing a decision, online viewers were encouraged to text her advice. These text messages were referenced by Beth in video blogs she made, and also seemed to affect the direction of the show: the character’s phone would beep, we’d see a close-up of her phone displaying a text message giving her advice, and then she’d follow the advice.

I’d love to know more about the logistics of this. Co-Director David Stubbs was interviewed by the Herald at the start of the project and said that they would actually let the text messages drive the production:

Each week scriptwriters will be responding to Beth’s texts and Bebo messages and deciding which suggestions, if any, will form the rest of the plot.

They will film episodes two days before screening. “It’s an amazing and quite frightening logistical effort,” Stubbs says.

A Good Morning interview elaborates – the episode goes live Monday evening, and they accept input until Weds evening, write script for the next instalment Thurs morning, prep Friday, shoot over the weekend, and cut it for release on Monday day.

This sounds crazy, but they’re all sticking to the story. They must have a pretty tight structure in place already, with locations and cast members lined up, so the script isn’t written from nothing and production can be developed based on that. It’s an incredible logistical mission even with the most minimal interactive elements.

And it clearly worked – the Bebo page and the message boards testify to the fact that they had viewers enthusiastically giving advice to Beth, and winning the Emmy is huge. There’s some elements I can quibble with, like the interactive audience not quite making sense within the fiction, but that’s small stuff. Overall the show is a great achievement, and it’s nice to see some pitch-black local drama for a teen audience.

It’s worth a look, I reckon. First episode is here – it’s six minutes long. Check it out.

What a weekend

Pic by Eric, from his blog post about Armageddon

This weekend had so much packed into it, but it all came out pretty well.

Went to Armageddon Pop Culture Expo with Eric. Every year I say I won’t go back next year, but they keep bringing over people who played the Doctor, and occasionally cool comics guests. This year, 1996 Doctor Paul McGann (Eric describes that) and comics team Mike & Laura Allred. I was wearing my only comic-book t-shirt, which features the meditative and romantic Concrete character by Paul Chadwick, and Mike & Laura complimented the shirt and we talked about what Paul was up to these days (answer: commercial work, mostly, though I see from his blog he’s started on a new Concrete piece). They signed my Wolverine of Fame, and I walked Mike over to the NZ comics table where Dylan Horrocks was lurking so they could meet.

Saw more of Dylan at my real highlight of the weekend, the NZ Comics Weekend, which was absolutely buzzing with creative energy. I think I’ll talk about that in a different post, even.

Apart from that, caught up with a bunch of people who all chose this weekend to come back to Wellington for a visit, got stuck into some packing, lined up some more work, watched the new Doctor Who, and did a few quiet things for my birthday. Really nice, overall.