Doctor Who: Thirteen’s a charm

Jodie Whittaker – the Thirteenth Doctor

Well, it was inevitable, and not that surprising – we have our first female Doctor Who: Jodie Whittaker is the Thirteenth Doctor. She’s best known for her role as Beth Latimer in new Who showrunner Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch. And of course, the fuss it’s created is also unsurprising, unfortunately. For a TV series that thrives and built on change, there’s always resistance to change from some hardcore fans; casting a female in the part seems to be a step too far for many, prompting some to announce they’ll stop watching once Whittaker is on board.

Strangely enough, I have no opinion about the announcement. After being a passionate Doctor Who fan since 1980, all the way through the Wilderness years and a lover of 21st century Who, I find my enthusiasm over the last couple of years tempered slightly. I still follow it rabidly, but it hasn’t pushed my buttons as much recently. Is that outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat’s doing, I hear you ask?

Outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat

Not entirely. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Moffat’s Who, but I fear he has fallen victim to the same condition that Russell T Davies suffered from in his last year – a combination of fatigue, self-indulgence and an extended departure.

Of course, Davies did an amazing thing when he rebooted Doctor Who for the 21st century. It was fresh, exciting, captivating and became huge. During his time, he delivered some cracking episodes and story arcs that kept people watching. Moffat played a big part in that too, with stories like The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, which is why it made sense for him to take over later on.

Davies really hit his stride in his fourth season in 2008; David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor and Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble were a fantastic TARDIS team, helped with some strong scripts and stories (we’ll just gloss over The Doctor’s Daughter, shall we?), and it made sense that Davies, executive producer Julie Gardner, producer Phil Collinson and Tennant should leave while still on top.

First 21st century showrunner Russell T Davies

It’s a shame then that Davies’ departure stretched out for almost 18 months, with five specials as something of a swansong. These specials, starting with the 2008 Christmas Special, The Next Doctor, and finishing with the two-parter, The End of Time, across Christmas 2009 and New Year’s Day 2010, weren’t particularly strong (The Waters of Mars was the best by far), and it felt like Davies was limping to the finish line. Then he gave us an indulgent wrap-up of his era as Tennant’s Doctor revisited all his friends and companions before he regenerated.

‘I don’t want to go!’

This extended coda to the story just didn’t have the emotional impact of previous season finales and felt cloying.

So Moffat, Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor and Karen Gillan as Amy offered a fresh start, and despite misgivings about Smith’s age, the Eleventh Doctor proved to be inspired casting. He continued, and indeed increased the energy and sense of fun that had made Tennant so popular, and for his first two seasons, was served with some strong episodes and complex story arcs, along with a few requisite weaker episodes and an unnecessary and, in hindsight, unsuccessful Dalek makeover. With the addition of Arthur Darvill as Rory, and the timey-wimey intrigue of River Song, this TARDIS team was formidable. Even broadcasting the sixth season in 2011 in two halves worked.

A formidable line-up for 2011

Splitting the seventh season over two years (2012 & 2013), however, didn’t do Doctor Who any favours, and this was the start, in some ways, of Moffat’s prolonged farewell, and a sign that he was overstaying his welcome.

Really? The Statue of Liberty was a Weeping Angel?

While the five 2012 episodes, the final ones to feature Amy and Rory, were relatively strong (we’ll excuse the Statue of Liberty as a Weeping Angel as a fun conceit), 2013’s stories, introducing Jenna Coleman’s Clara as the Impossible Girl companion, included some under-par stories: The Rings of Akhaten, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS and Nightmare in Silver – please, Moffat, haven’t you realised yet that children in stories rarely work.

And all of this was a lead-up to the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor, which was a huge success, featuring the return of Tennant and Billie Piper (but not as Rose), the Zygons, and introducing John Hurt as the War Doctor. Oh, and there was the wonderful prequel which saw Paul McGann return as the Eighth Doctor and regenerate into the War Doctor. All great stuff.

Now that regeneration took hundreds of years!

The same can’t be said of Smith’s final episode, the 2013 Christmas Special, The Time of the Doctor. Seeing the Doctor spending hundreds of years on the planet Trenzalore defending a town called Christmas was a disappointment and not a worthy way for the Eleventh Doctor to end his time in the TARDIS. Clara, for the most part, was rendered impotent, especially now her Impossible Girl arc had been completed.

Still, there was now Peter Capaldi to look forward to as the Twelfth Doctor in 2014. His casting too provoked some negative responses – having had two young ‘sexy’ Doctors, some people thought casting an older man was a bad idea. But this was also another opportunity to demonstrate the show’s flexibility – as it has many times in the past.

Taking the Twelfth Doctor into a darker, more alien version of the character made sense with Capaldi’s seemingly dour disposition, and while keeping Clara around aimed to help the audience with the transition, it worked out the same way Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor clashed swords with his companion Peri (Nicola Bryant) in 1985 – neither made a particularly enjoyable TARDIS team.

Am I a good man? Well yes, just a bit spikey…

Along with a companion that had limited potential, despite Clara’s story arc with boyfriend Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), Capaldi wasn’t blessed with strong stories in his first year. That’s not to say they were all bad – there were some strong stories like Mummy on the Orient Express, Flatline and Dark Water/Death in Heaven – but most of the eighth season stories were unmemorable or nonsensical. Robot of Sherwood, while a fun romp, was considered too ‘cartoony’, Kill the Moon’s reveal that the Moon was an egg waiting to hatch an alien being stretched credibility, even in Doctor Who, and In the Forest of the Night was let down by including children – again.

Ah, Missy, we love you!

Thank goodness then for Missy (Michelle Gomez) and the season’s two-part finale – although we could have done without the Cyber-Brigadier.

Capaldi’s second season in 2015 started strongly with the two-parter The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, and a more relaxed Twelfth Doctor, the return of Missy, Davros and the Daleks. This year, most of the stories were two-parters, and included some of Capaldi’s best work (The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion and Heaven Sent) and the season’s climax was ostensibly the death of Clara. But the confusing and disappointing final episode, Hell Bent, saw Clara saved just before her death, and sent flying through Space and Time in an old-school TARDIS with Ashildr/Me (Maisie Williams), but wiped from the Doctor’s memory. It lacked the emotional impact of previous companions’ departures.

Clara and Me, off into a moment in Time

I can’t also help but wonder if the inconsistent broadcast scheduling of recent years has also had an impact on both ratings and Doctor Who’s following. For its first four years under Davies, each season would begin its 13-week run on Easter Saturday and finish in early/mid-July, just as summer kicks off in the UK. Since 2009 though, that consistency hasn’t been kept. Capaldi’s first two seasons both began in late summer/early autumn in the UK (not always a great time for prime time TV), and then, apart from the Christmas Special, there was no new Doctor Who in 2016. This can’t have helped by further interrupting the show’s momentum. It also meant the ‘ghost’ of Clara hung around longer than previous companions after their departure, even if we did get an introduction to new companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) mid-2016.

Welcome to the TARDIS, Bill!

To be honest, the show needed Bill much earlier than 2017. She was the breath of fresh air that would have invigorated Moffat earlier and given Capaldi a different dynamic in the TARDIS to work with.

It’s Bill, but not as we knew her

Bill’s first few episodes earlier this year were strong and offered a different perspective on the Twelfth Doctor, but the blindness storyline and Monk trilogy didn’t quite deliver, and the season became less compelling. And then we got the two-part finale, World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls, which was jam-packed with big moments and returns: Bill being shot and converted into a Mondasian Cyberman, John Simm’s Master revealed and collaborating with his future self, Missy, Bill’s transformation into whatever Heather from The Pilot was, and a cliffhanger appearance of the First Doctor, leading into the upcoming Christmas Special, Twice Upon a Time.

The First Doctor features in the Twelfth Doctor’s final story

While all this is great, it feels a bit too ‘fanboy’ and indulgent – in the same way Davies’ finale did. It’s also too focused on the densely-packed continuity that Moffat has built up over the last seven years. Bill avoiding her fate was disappointing and reduced the impact of her Cyber-conversion – and is too similar to Clara’s departure. We’ve also seen that Bill will be returning in the Christmas Special, but she won’t be appearing alongside the Thirteenth Doctor.

 

Incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall

 

So, in 2018, Chris Chibnall will come in as the new showrunner for Doctor Who with a new broom and a new – female – Doctor. What else Chibnall will bring to the show remains to be revealed, but after his work on Torchwood and Broadchurch, it’ll be interesting to see.

 

Do I have an opinion about Whittaker yet? No, I’m going to wait and see. After all, change, for better or worse, is what has kept Doctor Who going all these years.

21st Century Doctor Who – revisited: 2005

Series 1 hero image

Being a Doctor Who fan now for 34 years, it is one of my consuming passions – for good or ill, or sometimes both. As a teenager, like many others, I made copious lists and notes about the stories, the Doctors, the monsters, the novelisations… you get the idea.

This year, with a new Doctor due to hit our TV screens later in August, I’ve taken it upon myself to watch – in transmission order – all episodes of 21st century Doctor Who and its spin-offs, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, and review them in retrospect. Already it’s provided a few surprises – some pleasant, some disappointing.

Don’t expect any long dissertations into the merits of the episodes; just pithy and (hopefully) pertinent remarks on each episode. I’ve set myself quite a task – 172 episodes before mid-August. I’ve already made a start, but I’ll be watching at the rate of 12 episodes a week.

So anyway, here we go. From the very beginning in 2005, when Christopher Eccleston was the Doctor and Billie Piper played his new companion, Rose.

2005

RoseEpisode 1: Rose

The one where Rose is threatened by Autons, meets the Doctor and embarks on a new life of adventure.

Energetic, cheeky – and fast! Russell T Davies is having a ball reinventing Doctor Who for the 21st Century, Eccleston and Piper get it right immediately, although Rose’s swing on the chain looks clumsy. Not sure about the burping wheelie bin either, but still, a promising start.

End of the World CassandraEpisode 2: The End of the World

The one where the Doctor takes Rose to witness the destruction of Earth, only to miss it, thanks to the bitchy trampoline Cassandra.

Davies brings on the aliens in another fun and audacious story showcasing how far aliens have come since 1989. Cassandra is camp, the cooling fan sequence is a bit dodgy, but Piper portrays Rose’s awe perfectly.

Unquiet DeadEpisode 3: The Unquiet Dead

The one where the Doctor and Rose meet Charles Dickens and dead bodies are possessed by disembodied gas creatures.

Of course it makes sense: a trip to the future, a trip to the past – that was the format back in 1963 too. Victorian Cardiff works well, there’s a lovely dark, macabre tone here, and a good use of a pre-credit sequence cliffhanger.

Aliens in LondonEpisodes 4 & 5: Aliens of London/World War Three

The one where the Slitheen try to invade Earth by wearing the skins of dead humans with an easy exit forehead zipper.

The Doctor returns Rose to London and her family, and the template for most contemporary Earth-based stories over the next four years is established. Great use of TV news, a return for UNIT, Jackie and Mickey’s characters are developed and become more loveable, and daring new monsters – even if the difference between the CGI running Slitheen and the cumbersome prosthetic costumes is very marked. The spaceship slicing through Big Ben is memorable for so many reasons. Oh, and Harriet Jones is a wonderful creation. The farting jokes have not dated well though.

DalekEpisode 6: Dalek

The one where the Doctor and Rose come face to face with a lone Dalek.

The Daleks are given a 21st century reworking, and regain their threat and menace – and that’s just with one, imprisoned Dalek! After the fun of the previous story, this is dark, gritty Doctor Who, and really cements this new series’ success.

Long Game 2Episode 7: The Long Game

The one where the TARDIS lands on Satellite Five and discovers the news is being tampered with.

Not a particularly memorable story, but one that begins setting up the season finale. Simon Pegg as the Editor is a little wasted, but Tamsin Greig explaining the info spike Adam (Bruno Langley) has fitted is beautifully deadpan. The Mighty Jagrafess is disappointing.

Fathers DayEpisode 8: Father’s Day

The one where Rose saves her dad’s life back in 1986.

Given the strong focus Rose’s family is given, it’s no surprise that a visit to the past so she can meet her dead father was going to happen. That doesn’t make it less powerful though. In fact, Father’s Day is understated and a little sombre, but not afraid to address the logistical and emotional complications. The whole cast are in top form. Except for the priest as he struggles with the CGI Reaper.

Empty Child 2Episodes 9 & 10: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances

The one with the gas mask child terrorising wartime London – and Captain Jack, of course.

The cheeky and at times immature tone of the first half of the season gradually morphs into something more adult from Dalek onwards, and while there are still wonderfully silly and funny moments, things start getting more serious and sophisticated, and as a result, what used to be an effects-driven sci-fi series in the 20th century is now remarkably complex, emotional and daring. And it works. Take Nancy’s confrontation with Mr Lloyd, as she calls him on his affair with the butcher – a wonderful moment. Or her role as an unmarried mother in 1941 passing off her son as her younger brother. Or Captain Jack, of course; the flirtatious, fluid 51st century conman. It’s all so masterfully done, no one batted an eyelid. As they shouldn’t. The plaintive calls of ‘Are you my mummy?’ are just as chilling and unnerving as they were on first broadcast.

Boom TownEpisode 11: Boom Town

The one where Margaret Slitheen turns up as the Mayor of Cardiff.

Boom Town is often overlooked as an inconsequential story; a low-budget filler, but I think it’s a lovely, quiet gem of a story. Annette Badlands is fantastic and gives depth to an otherwise cartoonish villain. Her banter with Eccleston over dinner is lots of fun, but dark as well, as she calls the Doctor to account for the consequences of his actions. The whole TARDIS Team – including Mickey – are on top form together.

Parting of the WaysEpisode 12 & 13: Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways

The one where the TARDIS crew find themselves playing reality TV games for their lives… or are they?

What a confident, brash and audacious finales to Davies’ first season this is. From futuristic send-ups of contemporary TV game shows (although The Weakest Link dates it a bit now) to John Barrowman’s nakedness, the awesome Emperor Dalek and thousands of insane Daleks – so much bigger in scale than anything Classic Doctor Who could ever do. And just as Bad Wolf is explained and various other elements peppered throughout the previous episodes finally pay off, the Doctor regenerates – explosively, like never before, and suddenly there’s David Tennant marvelling at his new teeth and Barcelona. What an emotional roller coaster – and a great end to a wonderful return to our screens.

Christmas InvasionChristmas Special 2005: The Christmas Invasion

The one where the Sycorax invade Earth on Christmas Eve while the Doctor recovers from his regeneration.

It could have been really twee; a Doctor Who Christmas Special. But this first of what would become an integral part of the show’s new life get it exactly right. The fusion of fun and fear is great to watch: deadly Santa robots, killer Christmas trees – and Harriet Jones , now Prime Minister. Yes, David Tennant’s first episode as the Doctor sees him out of action for the most part, but when he’s revived – by a thermos of tea, no less – we really see him at his best, all high-speed gabbling, action man without mercy, and a steely fury, most frightening as he takes down Harriet Jones with six words.

Meeting my Teenage Hero – Peter Davison!

This week, the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular is back in town – and I got to meet and interview the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison! The interviews been published on the Doctor Who News website, but I thought I’d add it here as well, with added photos!

Even though Tom Baker was in the lead role when I became a teenage Doctor Who fan in 1980, Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor was MY Doctor. There was something about his portrayal that I identified with: his youth made him a more accessible ‘hero’ figure than Baker did; his preppy cricketing look influenced my own fashion sense; and his vulnerability was something I could relate to.

Time-flight book

The much-maligned Time-flight in novelisation form – all the way from 1983!

Davison visited Melbourne, Australia in 1983 to attend the Logies, Australia’s TV awards. As a giddy 16-year-old, I took the day off school and went into the city where he was doing a promotional book signing appearance in the department store Myer. In front of quite a crowd of excited fans, he tried hard to look enthusiastic as the matronly Myer book department manager, while chatting with him, gushed about the special effects in ‘Time-flight’, which was having a repeat screening on the ABC at the time, and everyone knew she was talking through her hat – even then, ‘Time-flight’ was considered naff. I did feel a little embarrassed that the book he signed for me was the ‘Time-flight’ paperback, just released, but I was too excited. I was there, on the platform, with THE DOCTOR!

Here's Peter Davison's autograph from 1983...

Here’s Peter Davison’s autograph from 1983…

Fast-forward 31 years, and I receive a media release email from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra publicity department announcing interview opportunities with Davison to promote his role as host of the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular’s Australian and New Zealand tour. Over the years as a freelance writer, I have interviewed many other Doctor Who stars, including Katy Manning, Elisabeth Sladen, Russell T Davies, David Tenant, Matt Smith and Steven Moffat, but this was different. You can imagine my excitement at the prospect of a one-on-one interview with my teenage hero. So I emailed the publicist, explained my position, and was kindly granted an interview with Peter Davison. And here it is.

Tim Hunter: It has been 30 years since your time as the Doctor on TV, but you’ve never really left the role, what with conventions, anniversary specials, audio plays, and now hosting this Symphonic Spectacular. Did you think, back in 1981, that’d you’d still be involved today?

Peter Davison: No. Well, because I really didn’t think that far into the future; you’d realise how old you’d be. I realised when I left it and Colin (Baker) and Sylvester (McCoy) took over that I was still carrying on making appearances as the Doctor, so it was obvious it was going to carry on at least as long as the show did. And I suppose when the show went off the air, I thought it would fade discreetly away, but it didn’t do that, and it’s kept me quite busy. So here we are, the longest-running job in show business.

TH: Do you enjoy it?

PD: I don’t mind it at all now. The good thing about when I left, I managed to move on very quickly to other things, like A Very Peculiar Practice, which meant I was then free to continue my association with Doctor Who; it wasn’t affecting my career, so I felt very happy about doing various things.

TH: Now with the show’s very successful return to TV, and the 50th anniversary last years, there’s obviously been a lot of exposure to the classic series and the new series, including your Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, which was a lot of fun – there are some people say it was more fun than the actual 50th anniversary special –

PD: Yeah!

TH: The thing I liked about it was that everyone was so keen on having fun with it and taking the mickey out of themselves, from yourself and Colin and Sylvester right up to Russell (T Davies), David (Tennant) and Steven (Moffat), which was great. Have you enjoyed that resurgence of interest? Has there been more phone calls and knocks at the door?

PD: Well, I realised that last year was going to be a year of Doctor Who, what with various conventions – we came here with The Four Doctors thing, and I was also filming The Five(ish) Doctors, if not writing and planning it, then getting everything together. Once everyone had agreed to do it, just the nightmare of trying to find a day when we were all in the same country proved to be quite difficult. But everyone was quite keen on doing it and sorting it out, and it all worked out very well. So last year was everything Doctor Who, although I did do two other series last year as well, which quite annoyed Janet Fielding (who played Tegan opposite Davison). But I did spend a lot of time on Doctor Who – which is fine and which I love doing.

TH: Apart from the difference in special effects and budget, do you think the new version of Doctor Who is essentially the same show as it was when you were in the role?

PD: I do think it is the same show. Obviously things have changed; not only the budget, but the fact that there’s so much more you can do with that budget, such as digital effects. The role of the companion has changed somewhat too; we were struggling to come up with a good companion character during my time. The difference is really is that where we had the occasional Doctor Who or science-fiction fan writing for the series, now you have exclusively Doctor Who fans and science fiction writers. The producer now writes an awful lot of the series; Russell wrote a lot and now Steven writes a lot; Mark Gatiss writes a lot, and they are all people who grew up watching the classic series. They haven’t come to it wanting to change it completely; obviously they have to update it, but they want to keep it the same – you couldn’t have a bigger fan of the classic series than Steven Moffat. He is the world’s biggest geek. So while he’s changed the way things are done and added various things, essentially, as far as he’s concerned, he’s making the same series.

TH: So what is it for you that indefinable quality of Doctor Who that remains the same?

PD: It started during my time; I tried bringing an area of uncertainty in the Doctor’s mind about whether what he was doing was the right thing to do. He certainly did everything with the best of intentions, but sometimes those intentions didn’t work out quite as they should have. I think that’s something that’s been built on in the new series; that area of doubt the Doctor has. Things go wrong, and it’s not all the Doctor coming in and going ‘Right, I’m doing this and this’. He’s operating on the skin of his teeth a lot of the time, and I like that. He has to pull himself out of the soup.

TH: And now you’re hosting this Symphonic Spectacular. How did you become involved in it?

Symphonic Spectacular 2014

PD: I was asked to take part in the Doctor Who BBC Proms in the summer, I introduced one segment. It was a great occasion, I loved it, because you go out there, and there’s such a vibrant atmosphere, and hopefully we’ll have the same here. And I was asked then if I would be interested in doing it, and I said yes, certainly. I’m very fond of the idea of what we call classical music, which encompasses a whole lot of orchestral music; it’s not strictly classical, but that’s a finer point. When I was growing up, I did music, and went to a lot of concerts, and early on I was aware of the power of a live symphonic orchestra. It’s something we take for granted; we often hear orchestral music as ‘muzak’, and for young people who don’t go to an orchestral concert, it’s a very good way of letting them hear what it’s like to experience it as a wall of sound.

TH: I attended the Symphonic Spectacular here two years ago, and it is a very vibrant atmosphere. We attended the afternoon session, so there were lots of family and kids, and not only were they thrilled with the live Daleks and Cybermen, but to see them enjoying the music, and the euphoria and emotion the music elicits from you. I was there with my partner and two other friends, and during one of the themes, we were all moved to tears.

PD: Yes, it’s powerful stuff!

TH: And now the orchestrated score is an integral part of the show now; it can be haunting, it can be stirring, it can be frightening, and it can be very moving. How do you respond to it?

PD: Music, in one form or another, has always been very important in Doctor Who. Early on it was the Radiophonic Workshop, which was similarly iconic, although you are limited with what you can do with that. So it’s wonderful that Murray Gold is writing amazing music for the show. Still I think sometimes the irony of music like this is the fact that when you’re watching the programme, it adds to things, but you don’t notice it particularly. What I noticed during rehearsals yesterday that you’re watching the clip, and you have the orchestra just below the screen playing the music, it really brings home to you what it does add to the scene.

TH: Actually last time when I saw it, there was a software glitch, and they were going to play the music live during the clip, and for some reason the clip started but the orchestra weren’t able to join in, so it was interesting watching the clip without any music at all – and the funny thing was that everyone in the audience pulled out their sonic screwdrivers and pointed them at the screen – but when the music finally did start with the clip, it was a really inadvertent but good demonstration of what the music adds to a scene and how the music tells the story, and you don’t realise how important it is. So, you’re hosting, Tom Baker’s doing a clip – is Matt Smith doing one too?

PD: I don’t think he is. He’s obviously on the screen, but he’s not doing something to camera, as far as I know.

TH: Well, he’s done with now anyway.

PD: Exactly. He’s old news. Matt who?

TH: So, any thoughts of what to expect from Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor?

PD: He’s a brilliant actor, and I think he’ll bring a lot, and I’m looking forward to it.

TH: In some ways, he’s in the same boat as you were.

PD: In that he’s different.

TH: Yes, but with All Creatures Great and Small, you were already an established actor, and Capaldi is as well. So like they did with you, and called you Doctor Vet, ha ha ha, they’re doing that with Capaldi and his role in The Thick of It, and saying he’ll be a loud shouty swearing Doctor.

PD: Hahaha, that’d be interesting. Yes, you’re right, and he’s also a complete contrast to the previous Doctor, as I was. But I don’t think there’ll be a problem. My son was very worried because he’s enjoyed dressing up as Matt Smith, but I’m sure it’ll take but a moment and he’ll be won over.

Here's Peter and I - he's looking a bit bemused; which seems appropriate.

Here’s Peter and I – he’s looking a bit bemused; which seems appropriate.

After the interview, Davison agreed to sign a DVD sleeve (‘Castrovalva’ this time, and he marvelled at the ‘Mild Violence’ classification) and have a photo taken with me. I showed him a photo on my phone of my signed copy of ‘Time-flight’ (he remembered the book signing and the crusty matron), we chatted briefly about Melbourne’s crazy hot summer (he’d arrived on a 40 degree day), how Katy Manning was as mad as a cut snake, and how gracious Elisabeth Sladen had been, and then it was over. Even though it was only 20 minutes, Peter was warm, attentive, articulate and candid – just as I expected him to be. I’m just glad I didn’t gush too much, or melt into a fan-geek mess. So thank you, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, not only for the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular, but for allowing me to me MY Doctor.

And Peter's 2014 autograph.  His handwriting hasn't changed a bit!

And Peter’s 2014 autograph. His handwriting hasn’t changed a bit!

Great Film Expectations met and missed

Every now and then, a film pops up that has a really interesting pedigree, and actually lives up to all expectations. Stoker is one of those films. Elysium isn’t.

Let’s talk about the second film first. Elysium is the follow-up to South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, a sci-fi film that was highly original and caught everyone by surprise. This is his first big budget Hollywood film, and while there’s some weight in the presence of Matt Damon and Jodie Foster in the cast, ultimately it all feels quite thin.

Come on, I had to include this gratuitous shot of Matt Damon undressed...

Come on, I had to include this gratuitous shot of Matt Damon undressed…

Elysium starts off promisingly enough. It’s the year 2154, Earth is overcrowded, and the rich and beautiful have created a lovely new life for themselves on the space station Elysium, while the poor and common struggle to live and work in overcrowded conditions with little in the way of money or benefits. As a vision of the future, it’s both fresh and not as far-fetched as many other celluloid scenarios. Blomkamp’s uncompromising gritty and grimy representation of the future does carry some credibility, and the concepts are reminiscent of quite a few Doctor Who stories. I was reminded of 1971’s Colony in Space, 1975’s The Ark in Space; there were echoes of the Cybermen, a touch of 1984’s The Caves of Androzani, and the David Tennant stories New Earth (2006) and Gridlock (2007). And Elysium was remarkably similar stylistically to the setting of The Girl Who Waited (2011).

RoboCop, Terminator, Borg or Cyberman? Take your pick as Damon gets ready for the big shoot-em-up finale.

RoboCop, Terminator, Borg or Cyberman? Take your pick as Damon gets ready for the big shoot-em-up finale.

The trouble is that the actual plot of the film doesn’t hold up to extended scrutiny. Max (Damon) and his story arc, exposed to lethal radiation and forced to don a computersied exo-skeleton to carry out a perilous trip to Elysium in the hope of ridding himself of the radiation (they have machines up there that diagnose and cure or heal humans of all injuries, diseases and conditions, naturally), are so heavily sognposted, it’s more like a Join-the-dots puzzle. And Foster, as the cold and ambitious Delacourt, is wofeully underused. But most disappointingly, the film’s climax is a full-blown CGI chase and fight sequence filled with numerous explosions, plenty of gunfire and an alarming body count, and what started out as an intelligent and intriguing premise ended up just as another Hollywood sci-fi action film. Which is disappointing.

Jodie Foster's looking good, but criminally underused.

Jodie Foster’s looking good, but criminally underused.

Not disappointing at all is Stoker, which is great news, because on paper, it sounds too good to be true. With the Ridley brothers Tony and Scott as producers, a script from newly-out Wentworth Miller and directed by Korean Chang-wook Park – his first English language film, it stars Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode, with a small part played by Jackie Weaver.

Grief-stricken Evelyn and India at the funeral. Evelyn's grief is short-lived once Charles arrives...

Grief-stricken Evelyn and India at the funeral. Evelyn’s grief is short-lived once Charles arrives…

Essentially it’s a psychological thriller, an American Gothic tale that has more than a touch of Hitchcock about it, especially Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and a shower scene reference to Psycho (1960), and a whoile lot of style. At the funeral of her much-loved father, India (Wasikowska) metts her far-too-charming uncle Charles (Goode), who she never knew existed before that day. India’s mother Evelyn (Kidman) takes a shine to Charles, but the truth behind him, and the sudden death of his brother are shrouded in mystery. Of course.

Evelyn has trouble coming to grips with her brother-in-law Charles.

Evelyn has trouble coming to grips with her brother-in-law Charles.

We may have seen variations on this theme before, but the style, the storytelling, and the performances in Stoker make a formidable combination. It’s interesting that for a standard American story, all the key players are not. A Korean director working with two Australian and one British leads are detached enough from the cultural and stylistic baggage than an American cast and director would have brought with them.

Wasikowska is mesmerising as the introverted and troubled 18-year-old, Kidman is statuesque amnd jaded, and makes good use of her own looks and icy reputation, and Goode’s smooth elegance works perfectly and makes his character a truly complex beast.

The very suave but mysterious Uncle Charles.

The very suave but mysterious Uncle Charles.

So thank goodness for films like Stoker, that demonstrate how remarkable collaborations can work, and show up films like Elysium that just miss the mark. But then, that’s the nature of filmmaking – there is no real and idiot-proof rule book. And that’s a good thing.

And… 12 months later, I’m back online!

Yes, apologies. It has been over twelve months since I last posted something here, and in that time, I’ve experienced my second trip to Bali (Seminyak, naturally) and my first trip to Europe (London, Cardiff, Paris, Berlin, Rome and Venice). Work fortunes have fluctuated and yes, I have seen plenty of theatre, comedy, exhibitions and films – most of it good, some of it questionable, but that’s the way it goes, really. I’ll be seeing some Melbourne Cabaret Festival shows this week too, so more of that later this week. But in the meantime, here are some thoughts about television, in particular new Australian drama and classic Doctor Who.

We’re being spoilt for choice with new Australian drama on TV, especially on Sunday nights. ABC1, after treating us with the two-part miniseries Paper Giants: Magazine Wars last month, is now indulging us with The Time of Our Lives at 8.30pm, a new series from the creators of The Secret Life of Us, Judi McCrossin and Amanda Higgs, all those years ago. It’s new territory, but familiar ground for them; it’s wonderfully recognisably Melbourne, mostly around the bayside suburbs, and is about an extended family of siblings in their 30s, maybe a little older, and the hurdles they face in their domestic lives. That of course includes being left at the altar, infidelity, separations, ex-wives and children, and it certainly has a ring of truth about it.

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Claudia Karvan as Caroline ponders her parenting skills in The Time of Our Lives

There’s also some fine acting talent here: William McInness and Claudia Karvan as the central couple Matt and Caroline, struggling with a dead marriage and a son who is developmentally challenged. Karvan as the uptight, controlling mother who believes her son is ‘gifted’, and isn’t dealing with her husband’s departure, plays her with just enough detachment and obsession for us to be able to sit back and comment on her self-delusion, but adds enough vulnerability to truly elicit sympathy. McInnes has his spent and callous, if not selfish, character down pat. Justine Clarke is a delight as Bernadette, new partner to Shane Jacobson’s Luce and stepmother to his 11-year-old daughter, and Anita Hegh is perfect as his slightly bitter ex-wife. I get the feeling that Stephen Curry’s character, the unofficial adopted son to the family Herb, still has some development coming, and it seems we’ll be seeing more of Michael Dornan as the jilter of real adoptive daughter Chai Li (Michelle Vergara Moore).

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The Bligh family in a Place to Call Home has its fair share of secrets…

There’s more family drama on Seven in the same timeslot but from a different era in A Place to Call Home. Set in 1953 on a wealthy country property just outside Sydney, it’s dealing with privilege, racism and homosexuality in post-war Australia, and while it’s unashamedly in soap opera territory, terrific performances from Marta Dusseldorp, Noni Hazlehurst Brett Climo, Craig Hall and David Berry make it great Sunday night viewing. Oh, and some hot topless masculinity in the shape of the gay farmer/object of desire doesn’t go astray either.

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Not quite topless, but gay farmer Harry still gets James Bligh excited…

 

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Tim Campbell and Gyton Grantley as gay dads in House Husbands. Lucky Stella!

Just two channels away on Nine is House Husbands, a surprise hit for the network, especially since it features a gay couple very prominently in the mix. In many ways, House Husbands is very safe viewing, with its focus on more Melbourne domestic scenarios and popular names such as Gary Sweet. Julia Morris, Rhys Muldoon and Firass Dirani, and that’s why it’s both a surprise and a delight to see the gay couple Kane and Tom, played by Gyton Grantley and Tim Campbell (read my interview with Tim for Time Out Melbourne), as such an important part of the show without being tokenistic or stereotyped.

 

 

offspring - season 4

Patrick is worried that Nina’s Post-It notes are multiplying…

Wednesday nights is Offspring night again, and continues its slightly heightened treatment of its familial dramas to great effect. Witty, well-written and wonderfully performed, it’s encouraging to see Australian drama can do this sort of programme well. And I guess all of these shows have a debt to Packed to the Rafters, which is calling it a day. Maybe it should have pulled the plug about a year ago, but it’s still sad to see it finish.

I’ve also been celebrating Doctor Who‘s 50th anniversary by re-watching stories from its Classic days (1963-1989) in a random fashion. Covering all seven Doctors and all 26 seasons (The 1996 TV Movie will get its own one-off viewing soon), I’ve been selecting stories least watched and remembered, and that’s provided some very interesting viewing indeed. From the remastered Hartnell story, The Reign of Terror, now with animated missing episodes, to the unfortunately dull and earnest Colony in Space, Pertwee;s first trip in the TARDIS, the camp double-dealings of Tom Baker’s The Androids of Tara, and the slightly homoerotic Davison story, Planet of Fire.

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Turlough is exhausted after saving Peri from drowning. Well, that’s the ‘official’ story…

Homoerotic not just because Mark Strickson strips down to Speedos as Turlough rescues a drowning Peri (Nicola Bryant in a very brief bright pink bikini) off the coast of Lanzarote, and subsequently spends the rest of the story in short 80’s shorts, but because the not unattractive, for once, male natives of the planet Sarn run around in even shorter shorts and their leader Timanov, played by Peter Wyngarde, wears heavy eyeliner, and new companion Peri’s stepfather Howard’s first appearance is topless, in tight denim shorts and a fetching bandana around his neck (this is 1984, after all). Howard was played by Dallas Adams, who was 37 at the time, and is best known, it seems, for receiving the then-biggest palimony payout from his former boyfriend. He also died, apparently from AIDS, in 1991, aged 44.

dallas adams

Peri had no idea that her new stepfather was much more interested in hauling phallus-shaped artefacts out of the sea…

Eye candy aside, Planet of Fire isn’t a great story. It had a lot to do, what with introducing Peri as the new companion, writing out Turlough, while explaining his murky past, and getting rid of failed robot companion, Kamelion. Oh, it also killed off the Master – again; something of a habit in the 1980’s Master stories. But that’s no excuse for wooden acting, bad dialogue and that old ‘alien visitor worshipped as a god’ scenario.

Which, strangely enough, rears its head again in the story I’m watching now: The Trial of a Time Lord parts 1-4, also known as The Mysterious Planet. While the whole concept of an on-screen trial to mirror its off-screen troubles must have seemed like a good idea at the time, and there are some astute self-aware asides about censorship and screen violence, it does feel forced and very contrived as an umbrella for this 14-part, four-story 1986 season.

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Glitz and Dibber didn’t understand why they were taken captive. No one told them their facial hair was offensive, clearly…

It’s also sad to remember that this is Robert Holmes’ last full story for Doctor Who – he died not long after writing this and before he finished the last episode of the season (that confused mess was penned by Pip and Jane Baker, desperately trying to pull everything together), and it’s not one of his best efforts. The galactic criminal duo Glitz and Dibber give the story some much-needed relief from the clunky robots and unmemorable supporting characters (apart from a dreadfully over-acting Joan Sims), and Colin Baker, who is trying way too hard. He is, I’m afraid, still my least favourite Doctor, and while it’s good to see he and Peri aren’t bickering as they were in their previous season, his brashness still grates.

Anyway, I’ll keep you updated with other developments and reviews soon. Or I’ll try to…

Television’s blurring reality and fantasy…

The Voice is done for 2012, and Karise Eden has won Nine’s hugely successful ratings bonanza. Well done, Karise, with a voice like that, you deserved to win, and I’m sure there’ll be no escaping it for at least the next three months.

Karise proved she had the biggest and best Voice this year.

That’s no a bad thing, necessarily; previous winners of TV talent shows have gone on to forge successful careers, but I have to say I am glad The Voice is finished. I watched a couple of the early episodes, in the heady chair-spinning audition days, but even the strong voices weren’t enough for me to commit to watch it religiously – I’m not even watching MasterChef as avidly as previous years. But for me, regardless of how The Voice was dressed up, and who the judges and mentors were, it was still another reality/talent show, pulling out the usual manipulative tricks and following the talent show formula.

There’s no shortage of these shows. Australia’s Got Talent is in semi-final stage and The X Factor‘s next season is being promoted already. No sign of a return for Australian Idol, of course. But stranger things are happening…

Johnny Ruffo shows he has more than the X Factor now…

It’s not just these talent reality shows that are saturating our TV screens: Seven’s Dancing With The Stars finished on the weekend, with Johnny Ruffo, himself a product of last year’s X Factor, taking the trophy home; The Block is still banging away, and MasterChef is also bubbling away. The Amazing Race Australia is also mid-stride, and (heaven forbid), the reinvented Big Brother, now on Nine and hosted by Sonia Kruger, is not far away.

MasterChef contestants wait patiently for ‘The Voice’ to finish, so they can start rating again…

These shows have dominated the television landscape for over ten years now, and reality TV has developed its own culture, formulas and screen language and grammar. That’s not always helpful; MasterChef is struggling to maintain its ratings this year, but the trouble is, everyone’s wised up to their tricks – the drawn-out announcements, the contestant backstories, the ‘cliffhanger’ ball of flame before an ad break, and the excessive recaps. Now that The Voice has finished, it may pick up some viewers, hungry to feed their reality TV appetites.

‘Offspring’s heightened reality is proving successful – much to Nina’s relief!

But, more interestingly – for me, at least – is what reality TV has done to TV drama. Take a look at the popular dramas du jour: Revenge, Downton Abbey, Offspring, Game of Thrones, True Blood, Doctor Who, even Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries; they’re either melodramas, sci-fi/fantasy, or ‘heightened’ dramas. And by ‘heightened’ drama, i mean shows like Offspring and Winners & Losers, which are set in a recognisable world with familiar character types and scenarios, but it’s an exaggerated version of reality seen through a different set of eyes.

It’s also interesting that a show like Revenge, which is so far removed from reality that it’s high camp and hugely entertaining, is one of the most popular dramas on TV right now. Likewise with Downton Abbey. Yes, it’s set in a familiar historical period, but again it’s so over-the-top, I can’t help but love it. No wonder then that Dallas is making a return to TV as well.

This ‘Revenge’ isn’t served cold – it’s steaming hot!

Then you have all the fantasy and sci-fi shows that are so popular, and it’s a new take on fantasy. Game of Thrones, popular on Pay TV, is a soapy political melodrama set in Lord of the Rings territory, and True Blood is also an edgy and adult drama populated with vampires and other supernatural beings. Similar are the UK shows, Being Human (and its US version) and Misfits, that create soap opera dramas for their mythical characters. Doctor Who, since its reboot in 2005, has a much more emotional connection with its audience, with recognisable characters thrust into alien cultures and other worlds, but still maintaining personal relationships.

Fangs for the ratings! ‘True Blood’ pulls them in.

The demand for these shows is as high as reality TV’s – just one look at my Facebook feed shows it’s dominated by people’s thoughts on who will win the reality show of the moment, or updates on freshly-downloaded episodes of True Blood or Doctor Who. And of course, Facebook and Twitter have changed the way we watch TV; it’s all interactive and immediate now.

So it appears we like our reality trimmed and edited and packaged into palatable chunks, and we like our fantasy infused with real people and identifiable scenarios, but we don’t want our drama ‘gritty’ or ‘real-life’ anymore. Maybe it’s because our day-to-day lives are gritty and real enough; now when we watch TV, we want to be entertained and transported into fantasy worlds, or we want to see other people’s dreams either dashed or become reality, because really, we all still to like dream, and escape…

Catching up on comedy, nudity, big-budget superheroes and no-budget Classic Who

Yes, yes, I know; it’s been well over a month since I last posted, but unfortunately, other things have been getting in the way: work commitments, a sick husband, family functions… you know how it is. It doesn’t mean I’ve been idle, though.

It’s been a mixed bag of cultural experiences, from three very funny but very different Melbourne Comedy Festival shows to a blockbuster movie, a naked stage show, and a dodgy DVD. Let’s go on a quick cultural tour of my last month.

April in Melbourne of course means the Comedy Festival, and while I didn’t bust a gut to get to too much, I did see three shows: Dixie’s Tupperware Party, Nath Valvo’s Walk of Shame and Joel Creasey’s Naked. All gay shows, but all very different. Dixie Longate – essentially a drag show from a Deep South trailer trash mother and her newfound love of Tupperware. Yes, it was fun, and Dixie was quick-witted and well-rehearsed, but while there was plenty of laughs and sharp off-the-cuff material, there was no real payoff at the end, and it felt like a camp, dressed-up Tupperware party – which is all it was, really. Great fun, but not groundbreaking.

Nath Valvo contemplates how far he can push the envelope in 'Walk of Shame'.

Nath Valvo was pushing more boundaries though. In his show about being on the dole and his achievement of passing two kidney stones – with very clever and funny stops along the way – he doesn’t apologise for being gay, or for a fairly confronting (well, for the straight audience members anyway) tale about a foursome. And while he may seem scattered and random, you can tell he knows exactly what direction he’s going – even if it almost derails when he involves the audience at the end.

Joel Creasey's promotional material exposed more flesh than he showed on stage...

Joel Creasey, surprisingly with a show called Naked, was a little more ‘family-friendly’, but just as funny as he spoke about his fear of being naked in front of other people – and his country gig where he was chased by anti-gay protesters. It wasn’t his flesh he was exposing – but there was some of that as well. As there should have been.

Both Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans had their work cut out for them when faced with their gay admirers.

 

 

 

 

No naked flesh however in The Avengers, Marvel’s blockbuster movie featuring six – count them – superheroes. And that’s despite Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth reprising their roles as Captain America and Thor respectively. At least we got some great views of Evans’ arse and Hemsworth’s arms, some fun banter between the Avengers (yes, Robert Downey Jr came out on top there), and the decimation of Manhattan by Loki and his alen allies that makes Independence Day look like a senior citizens’ sightseeing tour. While not as earth-shattering as the CGI would suggest, The Avengers was an enjoyable, overblown piece of superhero cinema.

Thor wonders how many bicep curls he'll end up doing tonight...

Captain America finds sprints achieve the perfect bubble butt...

 

 

 

 

 

 

One show that needed some extra fluffing – at least, the night I attended – was Naked Boys Singing, and it wasn’t their tackle that needed tending to. Unfortunately, two of the cast were unable to perform, which left five naked boys, and the dance captain stepping up to help out.

Two of these Naked Boys were missing - can you pick which ones?

The problem was, while the boys did an admirable job singing and dancing in the buff, it was obvious that they were covering the missing boys’ arses, and some numbers seemed lacklustre and the performances uncertain. Which was a great shame, because some of the other numbers were very good. But good-looking naked boys and in-your-face tackle wasn’t enough to carry the show.

Check out the flares on those Mandrels!

Not all my cultural pursuits have been in theatres and cinemas. There’s been plenty to keep me entertained at home. Released recently on DVD was the 1979 Doctor Who story, Nightmare of Eden. Starring Tom Baker as the Doctor and Lalla Ward as Romana, from the oft-ridiculed Season 17, Nightmare of Eden is one of the most reviled, and that’s essentially because of the very cheap studio-bound sets (a staircase shifts as Baker races down it), equally cheap, but camp costumes (the designers had clearly just discovered Spandex and sparkly fabric), and the flare-legged Muppet monsters, the Mandrels, who managed not to be menacing at all, and whose flares were already out of fashion.

Even the Doctor has trouble coming to grips with these - erm - monsters...

I first saw this story in 1980, when it first screened on Australian TV, at the very start of my love affair with Doctor Who. I was 13, so still able and willing to be impressed, and there is much to admire in this story: the drug addiction backstory, the hyperspace collision, and of course Baker and Ward relishing their witty asides and double act. Watching it now, it alternates between being inspired, dreadful, camp, boring, sobering, and a lot of fun. Even when Doctor Who is really bad, there’s always something worth watching it for.

So that’s me caught up, in time for the end of autumn. Now I’m immersing myself in trashy television of many kinds – but more of that later…

 

A Spectacular week for Sci-fi

It was a big week for sci-fi geeks – well, Doctor Who fans anyway. And yes, that includes me. Last Saturday, Melbourne was privileged to host the MSO’s Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular, and last Wednesday saw a new local comedy about a gay sci-fi group, Outland, make its debut.

But first, the Symphonic Spectacular. This was based on the very successful Doctor Who at the Proms concerts that have been performed at Albert Hall in London, and it’s the first time such a production has been seen outside the UK. And judging from its success, it won’t be the last.

Ben Foster conducts the MSO with his usual flair...

Conducted by Ben Foster, who also conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales when recording music for Doctor Who, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Concordis Chamber Choir perform music from the last two seasons of Doctor Who – which, of course, covers Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor. There’s something quite thrilling about hearing composer Murray Gold’s music live, and seeing video montages on a screen above the orchestra as they perform makes you realise how important and integral the score is to the programme. Whether it’s the stirring ‘Madman with a Box’ theme for the Eleventh Doctor, or the beautiful and moving theme for Amy Pond, the music is evocative, and had me getting a little damp around the eyes more than once.

"You will be silent or you will be ex-term-inated!"

Add to that the apperance of monsters and aliens live on stage and through the auditorium, including Daleks, Cybermen, the Silence, Silurians, the Ood, Vampire Girls and the Judoon, and you’ve got an Australian fan’s ultimate dream come true. Hosted by Mark Sheppard, who played Canton Delaware III in last year’s season opener (original choices of hosts included Matt Smith, Arthur Darvill, Alex Kingston and even Kylie Minogue), this was a true celebration of the music and the programme itself.

Silurian Warrior - surely someone's sexual fantasy...

And the audience absolutely loved it – of course! To have the monsters roaming the Plenary Hall at the Melbourne Convention Centre, and see the delighted responses of children and scary adult geeks alike was a treat in itself.

You can just imagine the foyer afterwards, as zealous enthusiasts queued in lines to buy all sorts of merchandise as Cybermen and Silurians and a Dalek roamed the foyer. it was a frenzy of photos and excited chatter, and I just had to join in, naturally!

I got real close to a Cyberman! Lucky I was dressed appropriately, otherwise I may have been deleted...

It’s the sort of event that the characters from ABC1’s new comedy Outland, which premiered this week, would have squealed about. It’s a gleeful and cheeky look at a gay science-fiction group that includes average guy Max (Toby Truslove), over-the-top Fab (Adam Richard), leather lover Andy (Paul Ireland), fashion twink Toby (Ben Gerrard) and wheelchair-bound Rae (Christina Anu).

Adam Richard as Fab bursts out of the closet!

As Max brings hot date Dylan home, the rest of the group turn up for an impromptu meeting, which throws Max into a spin as he tries to keep his geek self in the closet.

What’s great about this series is that it makes no concessions for those not familiar with sci-fi, and doesn’t tiptoe around the sexualities of the group. Both are on display in their unashamed glory, and rather than being niche or exclusive, I think this gives the show a universality that makes the characters and their lives immediately recognisable and easy to relate to.

Max prays that his date doesn't notice Fab's Dalek dress, but Andy doesn't think it'll work...

With lots of in-your-face jokes and sly asides (Rae is referred to as Davros, creator of the Daleks, and appears at the door of Max’s first floor apartment with no explanation of how she got up the stairs), Outland is an incredibly confident and good-looking show – and great fun to watch. I recommend repeat viewings; some one-liners will be missed first time around.

Creators John Richards and Adam Richard have a lot to be proud of here – and if it ‘normalises’ both being gay and a lover of sci-fi for a wider audience, then they’ll have done their job admirably.

It makes me want to go and join our own queer sci-fi group, Spaced Out… almost.