Outside the Government 13 (Totally Doctor Who)

(38 comments)


The consensus, for reasons thoroughly intelligible to basically everybody, is to pretend this doesn’t exist. Every other Doctor Who spinoff is celebrated. This… was difficult to even find a copy of. I have hunted down some freakishly obscure things in the course of my blogging career, and while this was in no way the hardest, it was still a lot harder than an entire television series based on Doctor Who that came out in the last decade seems like it should be. Similarly, what was the last time anyone mentioned this series? Clayton Hickman’s actually kind of marvelous turn as one of the judges on the “Companion Academy” feature comes up occasionally, and it’s the answer to the trivia question “why in the name of God does The Infinite Quest exist” (but more on that next season), but other than that the phrase “Totally Doctor Who” goes blissfully unmentioned.

So much so that I should probably discuss what it is. Totally Doctor Who was a CBBC… Christ, I actually probably have to describe that too. OK, so, launched in 2005, CBBC is a digital channel where the BBC now dumps most of their children’s programming. It is for the most part accurately described as a dumping ground, and ironically just spun its previous biggest hit Tracy Beaker Returns off into a show actually called The Dumping Ground, but in 2006 it became the destination for Doctor Who’s first spinoff, Totally Doctor Who. Totally Doctor Who was, in essence, a half-hour Blue Peter-style children’s magazine program about Doctor Who. Combining some regular features like “Companion Academy” (a reality competition to find the best would-be companion among a bunch of kids) and the absolutely mind-wrenchingly badly named “Who-Ru” trivia game with interviews and behind the scenes features, it’s…

Really, really bad. There are moments of entertainment to be had here - watching Noel Clarke attempt to be remotely convincing as he claims that the Doctor Who t-shirt he’s giving someone is his prized possession and not something he was handed just before he walked on stage. The dead-eyed stares with which former Blue Peter presenter Liz Barker and future one Barney Harwood present their appallingly badly scripted hosting. The entertaining conceit that the “bigger on the inside” filing cabinet that is recessed into a half-height wall such that it appears far shorter than any filing cabinet actually is might actually fool someone.

There are occasional moments of actual quality, in which you can see how well a children’s program about the making of Doctor Who could have worked, although to be honest it’s fairly rare that Doctor Who Confidential doesn’t seem like it could do the job better. David Tennant actually does quite well with his appearance. He has the decency to show up on Totally Doctor Who for an interview and treat it like a perfectly ordinary chat show, answering questions sent in by kids as perfectly ordinary interview questions worthy of thought and attention. In other words, he makes the completely accurate judgment that the best way to handle talking about Doctor Who for kids is to handle it the same as talking about Doctor Who for anyone else. Similarly charming is Tennant’s handling of the “Who-Ru” game, where he actually engages the kids playing and comes at it with genuine excitement. (It helps, presumably, that Tennant is a lifetime fan who is capable of thinking about how cool playing a trivia game hosted by the Doctor himself would actually be.)

The problem here, in essence, is that Totally Doctor Who gives every appearance of thinking its audience members are stupid. It's cynical and believes that they won't notice the complete lack of any effort or thought that has been done here. It's not just details like the fact that the judges in Companion Academy are obviously recorded separately from the actual competition, which is something that at least not every kid watching would notice. It's things like the fact that some of the answers to Doctor Who trivia questions they ask are actively wrong. In all seriousness - they ask what song Cassandra plays on the jukebox in The End of the World, and then declare that "Toxic" is the wrong answer because it's actually "Tainted Love." Or that they go for "Raxacoricofallapatorius" as their joke for who their most wanted guest was, ignoring the tiny little detail that Raxacoricofallapatorious is a planet, and that the joke they were looking for was "The Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe."

Because, apparently, who cares about getting tiny little things like the details about Doctor Who in a show aimed at Doctor Who fans. Nobody's going to notice, are they? (Spoken like someone who has never talked to a young Doctor Who fan in their life.)

The key moment is where Russell T Davies appears to answer kids’ questions about writing Doctor Who. Two things are interesting here. First, the kids are actually intelligent and are asking questions that show a meaningful engagement with the material practice of writing - things like how long it takes to write a script, and what the editing process is. For moments that give you a real sense that maybe, just maybe we’re not all going to kill ourselves in some appallingly preventable way, it’s tough to beat a young boy asking Davies if he’d ever have the Doctor regenerate into being a woman. Second, Davies is very good at answering their questions - he answers honestly but approachably. (Incidentally, Davies is all for a female Doctor. I also feel like I should make some comment about the eight-year-old who asks if the Yeti are coming back, but honestly, I’ve got nothing but a kind of stupid grin on my face.) He aggressively demystifies the process of writing, actively refusing to suggest that there’s anything different in how he gets his ideas and how a kid making up Doctor Who stories gets his.

And yet the segment ends with Russell T Davies looking as though he’s ready to punch Barney Harwood in the face for a typically lame joke about pronouncing “Raxacoricofallapatorious.” To be fair, the same segment offers the barest hint that maybe the presenters aren’t the problem here, as one of them also inserts a quite good question about whether Davies does any drawings of the monsters he designs, suggesting that the problem is on a larger level than the presenters (who presumably are at least decent at their jobs, that in theory being a requirement for being a Blue Peter presenter). To be honest, it seems like the program is fundamentally misconceived and mishandled, and like Davies knows it.

Davies actually ends up spending most of the episode demonstrating how he thinks the program should actually be. Davies replaces Barney Harwood for the “show off things people made out of the badly done massive filing cabinet” segment, and is actually quite charming and good at it, cheerily comparing the hand-drawn Doctor Who comics he’s looking at to what he did as a kid, and sheepishly admitting to accidentally decapitating the David Tennant biscuit someone sent in. (Davies then eats Tennant’s head and proclaims it quite good.) It’s clear Davies doesn’t object to the idea of the program (he could have presumably stopped it from existing if he did), but it’s also clear that he’s spectacularly unimpressed with how it’s being done and realizing that he can do much better.

Which isn’t surprising, because Russell T Davies is not an idiot, and, more to the point, is someone who cares tremendously about children’s television. This show must have absolutely enraged Davies. It’s everything he’d never want a show associated with Doctor Who to be. If nothing else, given Doctor Who’s status as a family program, creating a spin-off that is so witless as to be barely watchable to adults seems to miss the point. Surely the point of a children’s Doctor Who program ought to be in part to be another thing parents can watch with their kids, as opposed to something that kids might vaguely tolerate having on television if they’re really bored one afternoon. It’s everything that Davies, as someone who passionately advocates for the importance of intelligent children’s programming, must deplore.

For Davies’s part, he goes right off and creates his own children’s spin-off of Doctor Who, and we’ll cover it thoroughly when the time comes. But let’s pause for a moment and acknowledge the unseemly implications of Totally Doctor Who. Thus far we’ve not really gotten ornery about the glut of Doctor Who-related content that exists. On the other side of Series Two, in fact, we gave Attack of the Graske a pass on the grounds that it is a bit of fun for Christmas. But this is a thirteen-episode series meant to further engage kids with Doctor Who, and it seems to think that unfunny banter written by someone who it’s not entirely clear has ever watched the program is the way to accomplish this.

And it’s not, obviously. It’s the opposite of the way to accomplish this. Part of what’s so effective about the new series is that every episode has had a ton of thought put into it. Even when it fails miserably it doesn’t feel like something casually dashed off while drunk. Even Fear Her, for all that its plotting talked down to its audience, has moments of intelligence and charm. Totally Doctor Who seems actively opposed to either. It treats Doctor Who as a source of disposable crap - as a franchise or a property that needs to be milked for all that it’s worth, and is worthwhile only based on how much it can be milked.

It’s not necessarily the worst offender - I could get two thousand words trivially out of staring in horror at a variety of truly stupid bits of merchandise. But it might be the most cynical, in that there’s absolutely no reason for it to be bad. Clayton Hickman, who’s absolutely charming as one of the judges of “Companion Academy,” could no doubt have dashed out a better version of “children’s magazine program about Doctor Who” in his sleep. Any number of people could. It just would require someone with actual enthusiasm for the program (which explains why Tennant and Davies both sparkle in this setting). Instead we have something that’s made ostensibly made for people who are enthusiastic about the program, but is unfortunately made by people with no interests beyond “expanding the brand.” That it’s painful can hardly be called surprising, but what’s key is that it’s so unnecessarily painful - that it could have so easily been good if only anyone had wanted it to be.

Its failings expose deep issues within and without the BBC. On the one hand they’re a public service broadcaster that has a low-rated digital arm like CBBC for the sole reason that making programming for children is a good thing to do. On the other, they’re sufficiently underfunded that they have little choice but to strip-mine something like Doctor Who for every last dollar it can make. When you decide that part of the BBC’s mission is to do high production value adaptations of obscure 19th century literature with world class actors then unsurprisingly you end up with an organization that has a perverse incentive in how to handle the handful of things that actually do make money. And so you get a weird spectacle like Totally Doctor Who - a show that’s made out of good intentions and public service, but made in the most cynical way imaginable.

To the BBC’s credit, and particularly to Russell T Davies’s credit, this is a nadir. The decision to change course on how Doctor Who interacted with children was a good one, and in line with Davies’s general and laudable commitment to public service within Doctor Who. Most of the time things like Totally Doctor Who didn’t happen, and by any standard they happened less than one would expect or fear. That doesn’t excuse Totally Doctor Who, but it at least blunts the impact of its crappiness.

Comments

Ewa Woowa 3 years, 10 months ago

Still watched it at the time... It was rubbish, but it was DrWho related...

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Chicanery 3 years, 10 months ago

I would say this is the second most cynical Doctor Who spin off, Top Trumps Doctor Who for the PlayStation 2 may edge it out in laziness.

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Mike 3 years, 10 months ago

I remember watching this as a 12 year old mainly because I liked Barney Harwood and was getting increasingly obsessed with Doctor Who. And I quite liked it at the time, but as soon as it went off air...well, I didn't actually notice or particularly miss it.

I daren't go back and watch it to see if it's naff or not, and happy to just fondly remember the Russell T Davies episode (it was only reading this that sparked the memory of how thrilled even I was when the Yeti question was asked.

In all honesty, I probably wouldn't have watched all of it if it wasn't for The Infinite Quest. It was a new story, and that's probably why I was so desperate to see how it ended. And so, I'm sure I was dissapointed with it when it was finished. I definitely remember seeing the omnibus version and realised how badly it hung together as one story rather than a serial, where it was as variable in its locations as TV Who hadn't really done.

I'm really loving these recent posts purely through the nostalgia of watching them the first time as exciting new Doctor Who things. I wonder if you'll do the Monsters and Aliens book which was, for me and probably most kids my age, the first real History of Who (of sorts) I had and first contact with classic stories, even if some of the finer details flew over my head (the Cassandra bio demonstrates how brilliant Davies was at getting away with adult jokes in essentially a kids format).

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Iain Coleman 3 years, 10 months ago

To be fair to CBBC, they are responsible for "Horrible Histories", which is genuinely one of the best shows on TV. There's clips all over youtube, for anyone who wants to check it out.

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Nick Smale 3 years, 10 months ago

Totally Doctor Who played on BBC 1, not just CBBC. I watched every episode with my then-seven year old, Doctor Who obsessed small person; she wasn't that engaged by it. I remember thinking that it felt like a 70s Doctor Who annual on TV; distant, disengaged, only vaguely related to its supposed subject matter.

I enjoyed The Infinite Quest, though; there should be more animated Doctor Who in the world.

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Ross 3 years, 10 months ago

The problem here, in essence, is that Totally Doctor Who gives every appearance of thinking its audience members are stupid. It's cynical and believes that they won't notice the complete lack of any effort or thought that has been done here.

Oh. Oh no. Just no.

My shameful dirty little secret that i spent the first decade of my adulthood learning to accept is that I love children's television. Good children's television is a thing of beauty, and even not-especially-good children's television tends to hold something magical that happens just as a side-effect of being made by actual human beings and being relatively free from the constraints of having to target the all-important Men Aged 18-24 demographic.

And then you have the ones that just clearly do not give a crap. The ones that exist so that people who argue about television can smugly try to one-hit-kill any sort of discussion about a TV show by declaring "Oh, it's just a kids show, they didn't think the kids would notice that the plot made no sense."

The idea that children are stupid and undiscerning as consumers of television is just about the most pernicious institutional lie used to justify making terrible TV.


---

As an aside, my wife got my son an old alphabet-themed picture book of animals yesterday. On the D page, the central feature is a dinosaur or a dragon or something. But off in the background is a vaguely Tom Bakerish Doctor being chased by a Dalek.

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John Voorhees 3 years, 10 months ago

All together now ... "This is not a review blog!"

Seriously, I'm almost glad to be reminded this exists. Never watched it, and now I'm glad of that.

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Froborr 3 years, 10 months ago

To quote Lindsay Ellis, "Television and movies are the only things about which people say, 'Who cares if it's crap? It's just for my kids.'" Completely with you on being enraged by that attitude.

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Bennett 3 years, 10 months ago

An excellent essay covering one of those rare parts of Doctor Who that I have absolutely no interest in experiencing (though I'll happily sit down and watch black and white footage of Valerie Singleton making a Dalek cake).

For further reading on this subject, Clayton Hickman gave a candid and humorous interview about his involvement with Totally Doctor Who on a Tachyon TV podcast (available at http://www.tachyon-tv.co.uk/podcasts/pod1/index.html).

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Chadwick 3 years, 10 months ago

No good comes from putting the word "totally" in a title. (See: Miley Cyrus).

CBBC is a dumping ground, whereas CBeebies has charm. I find Horrible Histories to be post-modern, revisionist pap btw.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 10 months ago

Sounds like it's a review, but really it's an exploration of the ancillary material around Doctor Who, and its implications for the production of the show itself, and for mapping out the entire cultural phenomenon. I contrast this with some of the conclusions Phil reached about Pip & Jane Baker in the Colin Baker era. They were writers who thought that you didn't really have to try to be innovative or put effort into producing television that had children as part of its audience. They have the same attitude that Jane from Coupling had about entertainment for children: all you have to do is bounce your head a lot and act really excited all the time.

One of the most wise things Phil has put on the Eruditorum is that kids can tell when you're phoning it in, when you've designed your show around the principle that they're stupid. Like children watch television for scary spectacle, but don't actually remember any of the details of what they've seen because when the credits hit, they're running after a puppy or an ice cream. Like they seriously believe that there is no Tom Baker, but only the Doctor, and that he will have his head held underwater for a whole week when the action starts again. That they can't tell the difference between a character and the actor who plays him, or they can't understand that television shows aren't real events, and are broadcast plays produced by teams of highly trained professionals.

Pip & Jane Baker and Totally Doctor Who are the good hearted side of the same attitude that got us Mary Whitehouse.

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Multiple Ducks 3 years, 10 months ago

Totally agree. I distinctly remember a previous animated series supposedly based on Horrible Histories which, while not without merit, was rather Americanised and seemed to just be in it for the branding. The CBBC version on the other hand, feel like I've come home to my old well-worn Terry Deary Books, and I can hardly stop smiling whenever it comes on.

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Corpus Christi Music Scene 3 years, 10 months ago

Agreed . Im surprised that there isnt a bigger market for Animated DW. Its awesome that they are animating a few of the missing episodes for the DVDs but it would be cool to see an original animated series.

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Multiple Ducks 3 years, 10 months ago

Is it perhaps this page?

http://k8librarian.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/ynjbh.jpg

Because if so, your wife has excellent taste. Pretty much every picture book by Graham Base is simply beautiful, and 'Animalia' is no exception.

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Ross 3 years, 10 months ago

That's it. I've only had time to look at just the one page so far, (Since the small one immediately shouts "Mine", and then we have to move it out of range because he can't really be trusted with books that aren't made of board just yet)but it looks really cool.

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Pen Name Pending 3 years, 10 months ago

When I was in kindergarten we has that book and each week or so someone would be assigned to list as many things as they could find for a certain letter. I was unlucky and got Q, but I wonder if the kid who got D knew what was up...it's just funny finding Who references in media I consumed when I had no idea what Doctor Who was.

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Pen Name Pending 3 years, 10 months ago

Apparently this almost happened

http://www.bleedingcool.com/2013/04/03/the-doctor-who-animated-series-that-never-was/

Not sure how introducing two new companions would "fill in some gaps", but it looks awesome anyway.

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Clay Hickman 3 years, 10 months ago

Hahaha! You really are too kind, Phil. To me, if not poor old TDW as a whole. But I feel I must point out that our judging bits for 'Companion Academy' were recorded at the same time as the kids did their, uh, challenges. We were basically locked in a dark cupboard for three days watching a bank of little monitors and commenting 'live' on the shenanigans happening in the main studio next door. Then between each task we had to vote one poor little mite out. So it was as 'real' as it could be. But you'll notice how the segment gets shorter and shorter each week as if people realised it was all a bit rubbish and wanted it out of the way as fast as possible. I remember being edited down to about half a nod one week! Still, it meant one kid got to visit the DW set, so it was probably worth it.

Clay
X

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Daibhid C 3 years, 10 months ago

I don't remember *hating* it (because it takes a lot more than "not good" before I'll hate something), but it was the only Doctor Who related show where I would not only forget it was on, but couldn't be bothered firing up the iPlayer for. I've never felt such *apathy* for Doctor Who programming before.

Well, not until Miracle Day, anyway. Still have the last couple of episodes of that recorded, may even get round to watching them some day.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 10 months ago

I'm not sure using "post-modern" as a perjorative is going to get a *lot* of agreement in this blog...

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Ununnilium 3 years, 10 months ago

Yeah, I had literally never heard of this. Even though I've seen Infinite Quest!

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 10 months ago

I don't think I've ever suggested that the blog will never discuss the question of quality in a piece of Doctor Who. It's merely that its primary purpose is not to provide a guide to the good and bad bits of Doctor Who. The significant thing about Totally Doctor Who in terms of the history of the series is, frankly, that it sucked and that Davies made sure the next attempt at a children's version of Doctor Who didn't. The interesting thing isn't that it sucks, but why it sucks, and how its low quality fits into the larger narrative of Doctor Who's development.

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encyclops 3 years, 10 months ago

The best way to engage kids with Doctor Who is, duh, to show them Doctor Who.

I'm not the biggest fan of the Tenth Doctor, but it makes me so happy to think about a lifelong fan getting to play him, and the way you describe Tennant in this is a perfect example of why. I love what you say about Davies, too.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 10 months ago

So you missed the ending of Miracle Day where Romana, Ace, and the 5th Doctor show up to save Jack Harkness from the Yeti?

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Nyq Only 3 years, 10 months ago

It isn't even a very good use of the term for a history program that spends a lot of time focused on Kings and Queens and similar "Great people" of history.
I can think of multiple criticisms of the BBC Horrible Histories but it is clearly not a TV program that underestimates the value of kid's TV.

Other good output from CBBC included The Legend of Dick and Dom - which was pitched at kids but had some genuinely funny moments. I still get a chuckle from Alan the Vampire Baby.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 10 months ago

If anything it's a mark in it's favour...

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Froborr 3 years, 10 months ago

Vampire babies are no laughing matter!

(No, seriously, while anesthetized for surgery more than a decade ago I had *horrible* nightmares about vampire babies. They recurred semi-regularly for the next five years, until a friend pointed out babies don't have teeth. I never had the nightmare again.)

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Froborr 3 years, 10 months ago

Yeah, my little four-year-old niece is a complete addict, and I don't think she's ever seen anything but core Doctor Who. She got into it entirely on the basis of (carefully parentally filtered) episodes of the reboot series, and is now watching the Doctor-a-month classic Who airings on BBC America. (As a result of which, her favorite is now "flute Doctor," by which she means Troughton. Tennant is "cool Doctor," Smith is "bowtie Doctor," and I don't know her names for any of the others.)

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Alan 3 years, 10 months ago

Until today, I had no idea Totally Doctor Who existed. And I feel fine. I DO know of Infinite Quest, but have never seen it. That said, I am disappointed to hear that it is rubbish as well, as I think there's a place for animated Doctor Who. In particular, I had held out hope that the BBC would do some kind of animated 50th anniversary event featuring all Eleven Doctors, since it doesn't matter how old Tom Baker looks when he's voicing a cartoon (plus you could get David Troughton and Sean Pertwee to voice their dads and, I dunno, Argus Filch to voice the First Doctor). Sadly, twas not to be. Still, if I take care of myself, maybe I'll be around for the 75th.

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encyclops 3 years, 10 months ago

If it happens again, let me know. I speak Vampire Baby.

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Corpus Christi Music Scene 3 years, 10 months ago

I wouldnt say it was rubbish. Its an amusing diversion that is definitely aimed at younger viewers but can be enjoyed by adults as well. I think it best fits in between Gridlock and Daleks Take Manhattan . In fact I find it more enjoyable than that particular Dalek 2-parter.

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William Silvia 3 years, 10 months ago

I hope this isn't in place of a separate review of Infinite Quest!

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jonathan inge 3 years, 10 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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jonathan inge 3 years, 10 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Corpus Christi Music Scene 3 years, 10 months ago

Excellent points. Having just rewatched it , I agree it does probably fit better after Blink.

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William Silvia 3 years, 10 months ago

It's things like the fact that some of the answers to Doctor Who trivia questions they ask are actively wrong. In all seriousness - they ask what song Cassandra plays on the jukebox in The End of the World, and then declare that "Toxic" is the wrong answer because it's actually "Tainted Love."
I'm not sure what you're at here. I thought that "Toxic" was the song that played here, and it may play later in the episode, but I'm watching the episode now, and the song Cassandra put on was "Tainted Love", so I'm not sure what you mean about this being wrong.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 10 months ago

The problem is that there are two accurate answers - Tainted Love and Toxic both play. The kid gave one, and was told they were wrong because the question-writer wanted the other one. Which is terrible trivia writing.

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William Silvia 3 years, 10 months ago

Okay, now I understand you better. It was the case of a poorly worded question thereby making multiple choices seem palatable. That's the sort of thing that even the most modest test-screening will find and fix; the sort that probably didn't happen here.

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