More podcast stuff

I’ve mentioned before that my pal Jesse and I have been working on a podcast about classic Doctor Who. We’re currently five episodes in to our first season and if you like the classic era I think you will enjoy our show. You can find all the previous episodes here.

One of the things that’s been really interesting about this process is the way in which Doctor Who is a little showcase of the traditions of historical fiction.

Kind of relevant? 

And one of those traditions, of course, is being cleverly self-referential. If you look at a lot of early Who episodes, you’ll see that they’re not even so much about going into different historical periods as they are about exploring different genres of historical fiction. So for instance The Gunfighters isn’t about going back to 19th-century Arizona, it’s about being in a Western. The Romans has elements of farce — really weird, murdery farce. Most of the rest of the historical episodes are more or less straight old-fashioned historical adventure fiction.

Fair enough, right? But in our most recent episode, The King’s Demons, the reveal hinges on the fact that the Doctor and his companions turn up in 1215 and find King John acting like … well, like Bad King John. In some episodes, this would just be his characterisation, but in this one it’s a clue that all is not as it seems, since the Doctor “knows” that the historical King John wasn’t like that at all. As it happens, I don’t agree with his assessment of what the historical John was like, but that’s another story.

So which is it? Is this an anthology show of adventure fiction or a witty deconstruction of it? With Doctor Who it’s sometimes both.

More podcast stuff

The fox knows many tricks

As I mentioned earlier, pal Jesse Merlin and I recently started a podcast in which we talk about classic Doctor Who. It’s called Pledge Break and I can’t figure out how to embed the Libsyn player for some reason* but you can find it here.

This charming guy is our Twitter icon. 

We are both big fans of old-timey Who, of course, but we tend to have “specialties” on the show — that is, Jesse knows about acting and TV-making, and I know about history, so we each talk about our special areas. The thing is that of course the historical and historical-influenced episodes bounce around all over the place. So far on the show I have had to talk about:

  • Saladin, his family and the origins of the Ayyubid Dynasty.
  • Medieval castles and warfare.
  • The Renaissance, broadly, including its dating.
  • Bodiam castle!
  • King John and Magna Carta.
  • Iron Age houses and farms.
  • Arthurian myth and legend.
  • Historical weapons and armour.
  • The 1066 campaign.
  • The dynastic politics of 11th-century northern Europe.
  • The Jacobite rising of 1745 and Jacobites in general.

And that’s for the first season-and-a-bit, i.e. the bit where we have still have many episodes to choose from and don’t have to talk about some stuff I really don’t know anything about, like the French wars of religion or something.

It’s actually pretty good for the brain — one of the nice things about having done as much of this stuff as I’ve done is that I’m usually able to grasp new information pretty quickly. I’m sure I will know a fair amount about religious conflict in France by the time we’re done.

To summarise: listen to my podcast, it’s good. Although the intro’s a bit fuzzy; sorry about that.


*The reason is I am a dumbass.

The fox knows many tricks

New podcast: Pledge Break!

I know things have been quiet around here over the last few days, but it’s because I’ve been working away on a new project. Old friend Jesse Merlin and I have a shared love of classic Doctor Who, and our new podcast, “Pledge Break,” is all about that.

But it’s not just two guys reminiscing about old Who — a lot of it is me talking about history and historical fiction, while Jesse, who you may remember from such films as Helen Keller vs Nightwolves, is an actor as well as a hardcore Whovian. Our first episode is the partly-reconstructed The Crusades, and you can check it out in a number of ways:


New podcast: Pledge Break!

TV Tuesday: “The Girl Who Died”

I have made no secret of my ambivalence about the new version of Doctor Who — I recognise that it isn’t for me, and clearly people do like it, and yet I still can’t quite get over its combination of fun, creative episodes, strong performances, cringe-inducing schmaltz and absolute disregard for the basics of plot construction.

But this one has Vikings in, so let’s have a look.

The opening is a fun little bit of business, but I confess to being unreasonably annoyed by the horned helmets. Goofy-looking ornate helmets were OK when you did them in 1964 (or ’65, whatever), but in 2015 it is literally the one thing that everyone knows about Vikings.

The houses of the Viking village are OK, which makes me wonder if they filmed it at some kind of open-air museum and then added a bunch of dipshits in studded-leather jerkins. Also, the Vikings thump themselves on the chest like primitive warriors do in every TV show ever.

Aliens show up in actual wobbly, goofy power armour and do a Valkyrie bit. I am legit astounded that they did not make them sexy lady valkyries. There is a mid-episode cliffhanger — does this show have ad breaks? It doesn’t, right? Anyway, Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones is in it and she doesn’t have a lot to do initially.

Guys in early medieval outfits necking vials of glowing stuff makes me think of Terminus.


Anyway, the baddies are apparently “one of the deadliest warrior races in the galaxy,” a field which, as a colleague points out, is getting pretty crowded.

It seems petty to quibble about these characters identifying themselves as “Vikings,” which is of course a much more complicated term. But then we all use it generically even when we say we shouldn’t.

There’s a runestone in the background of one shot that’s painted in bright primary colours, which is a nice touch — but then there are wooden dummies with Roman helmets on them. So it’s got these little touches that are quite clever, but most of it is just panto.

The plot hinges on the Vikings having a load of electric eels in some buckets, which is impressive considering that electric eels only live in South America. Again, it seems churlish to complain, but this is the kind of kiddy science and kiddy history that used to be the only thing Doctor Who could kinda-sorta get right. I guess they do do some schoolkid science with an electromagnet.

I wonder if you could make a list of all the Doctor Who villains who have snarled “what trickery is this?!” at the Doctor.

Everyone is very happy at the end considering all their dads and husbands and brothers and neighbours were rendered into a testosterone-laden slurry yesterday. But I guess not dying is important.

There is a completely uncalled-for Giant Emotional Moment, of course, and a last-minute twist that is not set up at any point earlier in the story. It’s like they write them as they film them. Look, guys, I am not an award-winning screenwriter, but here’s a thought — when you have an idea for a shocking revelation, that’s cool. Now go back and put in some words in the script earlier that make it seem like you didn’t just pull it out of your asses. It’s easy and it’s fun! Like, if you are going to use a device that has miraculous powers, maybe mention its existence before your main character suddenly and inexplicably remembers it right at the end. For instance, he could refer to that technology when describing the alien race who created it. See how easy and fun that was? Now you try it!

Doctor Who historicals have always been about blending science fiction with historical adventure stories, more or less, and this is no exception. It would have been nice to be able to say that the modern show, with its huge budget and prestige, was doing a better job of the history than the show in the Hartnell era, but no such luck.

TV Tuesday: “The Girl Who Died”

Monstrous Antiquities: 1

So, as I mentioned, I was away from the computer this past weekend because I was attending the Monstrous Antiquities conference at UCL. It was the business. Over the next few days I’ll be posting about the talks that happened there. You can see the Storified version of the tweets that people (including me) put out during the conference here.

So the first night, Friday, saw two papers: the first was on  Druids, Deities and Daemons: Archaeological Horrors in Doctor Who, and it was by conference organiser John J.  Johnston.

There’s quite a lot of archaeology in Doctor Who, from Tomb of the Cybermen to The Daemons and so on. I think my personal favourite is the archaeologist from the Daemons, who plays the skeptic part with such obvious contempt that you can’t help but like him. There’s a great part where the news presenter asks him “professor, can you explain (such-and-such)” and he just goes “no.”

That's not tea.
That’s not tea.

As an aside, since occultism was going to be coming up all weekend, I think it’s interesting to note that the Master’s chant in The Daemons sounds to me like a variant on an honest-to-goodness Wiccan chant: Eko Eko Azarak.

As a pretty die-hard Doctor Who guy, I was familiar with most of the stories and themes covered in the talk, which was more of an overview of the subject. It introduced a couple of key things that were going to come up. For starters, it hit the whole alien-astronauts thing, which was a huge thing in Doctor Who from the 70s on. Secondly, I think it anticipated a key question that would come up on Saturday: why are archaeologists usually portrayed in an unfavourable light in Doctor Who? If they’re not just releasing evil on the world and getting killed, they’re actual bad guys. This, Johnston suggests, is probably because Doctor Who messes with the usual structure of heroes in an archaeological horror story. You usually have the dumb and/or bad archaeologist who releases the horror, and then a good one who saves the day. But of course, in a Doctor Who story, it’s the Doctor and his companions who fill the role of the heroic archaeologist, leaving only the bad one. We’re going to see this come up again.

You can say what you want, this scene is chilling as fuck.
You can say what you want, this scene is chilling as fuck.

Fringe archaeology and popular culture go hand in hand — Von Daniken is a big influence on Doctor Who. I guess it makes sense for a show which combines history and sci-fi.

Next up was a talk by Jean-Marcel Humbert: it was about the portrayal of mummies in childrens’ books, and it was very, very comprehensive. I don’t actually feel like I have that much to say about this one — it was very visual, with examples from dozens or probably even hundreds of books about mummies. On a purely professional level, I think what I admire most was that he wasn’t either extemporising from his slides nor clicking through them to go with his paper. He just had his presentation timed so exactly that the slide show and the reading went together.

After that, hey for the reception at the Petrie Museum. Wine cups were crushed as though they were the skulls of our enemies. I had been feeling a little unsure of myself, socially, since I’m not very good at meeting people, but with a buzz on and some presentations to talk about it was all good.


On a personal note, I was off to the leaving party of a friend, but I decided to stop in on the way at, you guessed it, Treadwell’s Books. A little more wine, some good chats, books, maybe a little occultism. Then finally to Chiswick for the remaining party.

By the end of Friday I knew I was in for an exceptional weekend: my brain was humming and my feet hurt like hell. Saturday would be more of the same.

Monstrous Antiquities: 1