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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. John Toon
    March 2, 2012 @ 12:33 am

    Richard Mace actually predates The Visitation in a string of radio dramas (present day rather than historical) that Saward wrote. So if he comes across as the focal/only supporting character (and I'd agree that he does), it's presumably because he was a comfortable pre-fabricated character for Saward to fall back on in his first TV script.


  2. SK
    March 2, 2012 @ 12:39 am

    Ah no, now, you're totally wrong about the sonic screwdriver. It is a bad thing and it is a bad thing because it makes the Doctor too powerful and here's why:

    As you point out, the tension is never, 'Will the Doctor survive and beat the baddy?' Of course he will.

    The tension instead is always, 'How will the Doctor survive and beat the baddy?'

    And the problem with the sonic screwdriver is that it means the answer is almost always, 'By finding the right thing to point the sonic screwdriver at, and pointing the sonic screwdriver at it.'

    It's a problem all through the Russell T. Davies years: for every story where the Doctor does something clever and character-based to defeat the baddy (like letting the space vampire drink his blood in Smith and Jones so she reads as an alien on the scanners) there are two more where the dénouement is a blue light and a ululating whine.

    The other problem is that it does not, in fact, stop the generation of tension by locked doors. I Davies's very second story, there's a whole set piece that revolves around a locked door. The sonic screwdriver doesn't mean the Doctor can get through any door: it means he can get through any door except when the writer couldn't come up with a better idea, in whihc case the word 'deadlock' is thrown around with gay abandon. And this simply draws attention to the arbitrariness of it, the contrived nature of the set pieces. the sonic screwdriver works to solve any problem, except when it doesn't, and which it is is so blatantly authorial contrivance.

    (That's before we even start on the way in the Tennant era the sonic screwdriver basically becomes a gun.)

    Ther's sort of a deal the author makes with the audience, when it comes to giving characters special powers (and the sonic screwdriver counts as a special power). It's, 'you can have your special powers that allow you to overcome certain kinds of obstacles predictably and without effort, provided you then come up with more interesting obstacles instead.'

    Every time the word 'deadlock' is used, that pact is broken. The author has not managed to come up with a more interesting obstacle than a locked door. And so they have lost the right to give their character a special power that opens locked doors.

    Though nowadays, of course, the sonic screwdriver mainly exists not for any storytelling function but in order that toys of it might be sold, so this is all irrelevant.


  3. William Whyte
    March 2, 2012 @ 1:39 am

    One small point: "centrist" isn't a good word to describe Fianna Fail; all the Irish parties are centrist. Better would be "populist" or "broad-based" or "largely ideology-free and corrupt".


  4. Alex Wilcock
    March 2, 2012 @ 1:49 am

    That’s something I’d not thought of before – that Saward was trying to write like Bob Holmes so early. Yet you mount a convincing case for it. I’ve said for a long time that he becomes the Bob Holmes Tribute Band in Season 22 (and, in its final story, finally hits a script as good as the real thing), but I’d always followed the narrative of the programme’s history that says his interest in Bob followed from working with him.

    I’d disagree with you on the villain, though. There’s a case to be made that he’s not that well-rounded in the script – on the one side, he has a love of beauty and a personal backstory; on the other, as you hint, there’s no reason that one of a motley bunch of escapees should be called “Leader” as if he’s a Cyberman, other than it being an early sign of Saward’s Cyber-obsession – but Michael Melia’s performance is superb, alternately softly spoken, sardonic and savage. He comes across as rather more of a character than many human villains. Great mask, too, even moving about a bit (shame he looks like a kipper from the back).

    I’m not certain about your point on the pseudo-historical; though I’d add in The War Games as well, surely it’s all a part of JNT’s attempt to get back to basics, and one that shows greater understanding of what ‘basics’ were than most of his ideas? Though he does commission one small story that’s termed a ‘pure historical’ (improbably, in many ways), anyone looking back through the programme’s history would surely pick up ‘History… Hmm… With monsters’ as an idea.

    I’m very fond of The Visitation, though perhaps more for the setting and other details than the script – for example, it has one of the series’ most gorgeous musical scores, though the direction is very flat: who can fail to make plague and murder and Death personified scary? Peter Moffatt can. Though the banal cliffhangers are Saward’s own. I half-agree with you on Saward not yet meeting his own standards, and yet at the same time, I’d say he only does once in his five scripts, and this has the great relief of being his least self-important one. Already, though, he has his wince-inducing signature moments: he has no idea what to do with the Doctor (whose contribution to the climax could be summarised as ‘Butterfingers!’), except to make him hold a gun at some point.

    I’d be fascinated to read the script and see how much flavour comes simply from the music, the location and the actors, and how much really was in the writing; I can’t judge by the book, having always disliked it (literally judging it by its cover – the first of the dreary photo-covers – even before I reacted against Saward’s florid prose).

    Oh, and I’m with SK on the sonic screwdriver…


  5. Alex Wilcock
    March 2, 2012 @ 1:50 am

    When the Doctor muses slowly, “I wonder how many Terileptils…” it’s almost impossible not to complete it as ‘…it takes to change a vintaric crystal.’


  6. Wm Keith
    March 2, 2012 @ 1:50 am

    On the plus side, Irish politics has given us "The Tribunal of Inquiry into certain Payments to Politicians and Related Matters", which sounds as though it should be the title of a lost pamphlet by Swift.


  7. Dr. Tom
    March 2, 2012 @ 2:37 am

    I would add that "The Eleventh Hour" brings home your point. It was so much more interesting to see the Doctor save the day without TARDIS or sonic screwdriver. Until I saw the end of the episode, I–perhaps foolishly–thought they got rid of it when the RTD sonic screwdriver blew up.


  8. Exploding Eye
    March 2, 2012 @ 2:39 am

    I'm with SK on the sonic screwdriver as well. Drama is a series of processes, a series of challenges, and (particularly in the new series) when you have a device that can achieve pretty much anything, the show becomes about that device – the Doctor is just the one holding it. The obstacles are not overcome by the Doctor, but by his wonder gadget. The tension in the action-adventure genre (the one in which the new series has overtly positioned itself) is not whether the central character will survive or win the day – duh, it's Sylvester Stallone, of course he'll win – but putting him into a series of perilous and inescapable situations, and seeing how he beats the odds and overcomes adversity. Most importantly, it's about causing a dissonance between the audience's conscious interpretation of the piece (that the hero will survive and win) and their instinctual interpretation (that the hero is in genuine peril and might not survive).

    Many of the new series adventures are dramatically flat – and the most recent, The Doctor The Widow And The Wardrobe is an excellent example of this – because it becomes about telling a story as efficiently as possible, stringing all the component parts together in the correct order, but without the sense of tension or peril key to the action-adventure genre.

    As an example, imagine the movie Cliffhanger, the Stallone rock-climbing adventure, but a version in which the hero has a fully-functioning jet pack throughout. He still hits all the story beats but without all that tedious hanging around on the end of ropes, which we know he's going to survive anyway because he's Stallone. So it's a better story, because we can get through it efficiently and the writer can no longer lazily pad it out with lots of rock-climbing sequences, right?

    Of course not. Without the tension, without the sense of danger – no matter how easily our cine-literate higher selves can dismiss it – the story serves no purpose. The inter-personal drama means nothing, the adventure means nothing, because Sly can fly about on a jet pack. As an action-adventure it no longer has any meaning.

    This is more a criticism of the new series, in which the sonic screwdriver can do anything. Boiling episodes down to their basic story beats might seem like a good thing, but it misses the crux of why we enjoy adventure drama in the first place, to see the hero go on a journey and – and this is very important – overcome obstacles along the way. If he has a magical "overcoming obstacles" machine, what's the point?


  9. SK
    March 2, 2012 @ 3:08 am

    Hm, I don't think you've quite got my point. I agree that your jet pack-enhanced version of Cliffhanger would be boring, but I disagree that it would be because of any lack of tension. As Dr Sandifer points out, there isn't really any tension, and I dispute that there is even this frisson you describe between two levels of interpretation.

    Rather, the problem with Cliffhanger with a jet pack is boring that the answer to every obstacle becomes the same. There's a steep overhang? Use the jet pack. There's a crevasse? Use the jet pack. The girl (I assume there's a girl) is falling past Sly? Use the jet pack.

    I haven't seen Cliffhanger, but I assume that — for it to not be boring — the climbing sequences involve putting Sly in various tricky situation for which he seems completely unprepared, only for him to cleverly improvise a way out of it with the materials at hand, and that the improvised solution is different every time (if he gets out of every situation just by being So Damn Hard Because He's Rocky, that would be just as boring and one-note as the jet pack).

    So yeah. The problem with the sonic screwdriver isn't that it makes the problems easy to solve, it's that it makes the solution to every problem the same, and that's boring.


  10. SK
    March 2, 2012 @ 3:20 am

    As you've brought up The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, it might be interesting to compare the uses of the sonic screwdriver in the Moffat years to the Davies ones. Under Moffat, in stories not written by Chris Chibnall, the sonic screwdriver is still ever-present (so they can sell the damn toys) but is rarely used to do anything. Instead it's mostly used as an exposition device: the Doctor will wave it at something, look at it, and announce some bit of information vital to the plot.

    (Though the reason The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe is so flat not to do with hitting story beats mechanically, it's that there's only two scenes in which there's any actual conflict. Who on Earth thought it would be a good idea dramatically to have the Doctor simply walk through a forest and then climb some stairs for twenty minutes?)


  11. SK
    March 2, 2012 @ 3:22 am

    The Eleventh Hour uses much the same device as Smith and Jones, of course (trick the baddy into revealing its alien nature to its pursuers), but it sets it up better with Amy seeing the baddy in her hidden spare room.


  12. C.
    March 2, 2012 @ 3:34 am

    One minor note, showing Saward's not-quite-firm grasp on scriptwriting, is the utter dramatic failure of the scenes of Nyssa standing around in the TARDIS. It really kills the momentum whenever we cut back to her. A friend made a compilation of those scenes, which total about 10 minutes in all, and called it "The Visitation (Sutton Remix)." Seen as a stand-alone "work," it's pretty amazing—almost Warholian in its complete blankness and inertia.


  13. 5tephe
    March 2, 2012 @ 3:44 am

    Eh… I'm going to weigh in on the side of the old sonic here.

    I think what we have is two different versions of lazy writing being described.

    Lazy version 1 (Phil's version) is writers not knowing what to do in a story, so filling it with Things Happening (TM) rather than Characters wrestling with character issues.

    Lazy version 2 (SK's version, obviously) is writers setting up a lot of things happening to illustrate what they want to, then just waving away all the inconvenient perils with the super powerful magical device (wand, super powers, sonic screwdriver, etc…)

    Of course, both versions are bad writing. Which you think is worse depends on what you want to see the writers trying to achieve. If you want to see a writer putting together a good action adventure, with lots of peril and a hero who seems to really be in a tight place and thus gets to prove their worth and resourcefulness, then you want a story without the Sonic.

    If you want a story where characters interact (possibly in the emotional pressure cooker of an action adventure story) and thereby reveal more about themselves, then you absolutely want some story device in there which allows the writer to just hand wave away all the difficulties. Because then you can get on with the Talking About Things.

    Personally, I like the old sonic screwdriver. I think I have seen it mis-used and used brilliantly, for the opposing purposes listed above, in both the old series and the new one. Rarely both in the same episode, though. It really comes down to what kind of writer is handling it, and what type of drama they are going for.

    I agree that in the modern series, its ability to DO ANYTHING tends to lend itself to the kind of mis-use that SK is complaining about more readily. However, I would also point out that Pertwee was one of the biggest offenders in this way. He was the first Doctor to use it like a gun (igniting marsh gas at range, in Carival of Monsters) and his type of story was more apt to be about Things Happening, and thus to suffer from its over-use.

    However, the way Baker generally used it was pretty much always as a tool – locked doors, soldering circuit boards together, and un-doing screws. When it is just a handy little device that lets the Doctor quietly and efficiently get on with accomplishing whatever clever thing it is that he needs to to advance the story, or whatever banter he needs to engage the week's bad-guy with, it is just fine.

    Nowadays, yes: it is a sensor, shield, weapon, remote control for EVERYTHING, and data hacking jack. Oh, as well as a handy little tool. And that is leading to it being almost too powerful, in that it is becoming difficult for the writers to AVOID using it to overcome obstacles. Then it starts to get in the way of all sorts of storytelling.


  14. Gavin
    March 2, 2012 @ 3:50 am

    Even that wouldn't be quite right for Fianna Fail in the beginning of the '80s, since they were anything but "ideology-free" at that time. (Your description is pretty much correct for today's FF.)

    "Catholic populism" would maybe be best – left-wing (in a paternalist way) on economic issues, but very, very conservative on social issues. (Massively so: much more socially conservative than the equivalent right positions in the UK or US.)


  15. Dr. Happypants
    March 2, 2012 @ 4:14 am

    Yes, the sonic is immensely capable, but…the Doctor is supposed to be a representative of the most technologically-sophisticated culture the cosmos has ever seen, with a time machine allowing him to loot the scientific marvels of every planet in history if he wants, and he routinely gets into situations of mortal peril. Surely it's just common sense for him to carry something like the screwdriver?

    And that's just in-universe, leaving aside its insane totemic significance to the Doctor's whole cosmic time wizard image. Certainly beats slapping question marks all over his outfit.

    In storytelling terms, given how ridiculously exciting much of series 6 was, I don't think it's gotten problematic.


  16. SK
    March 2, 2012 @ 4:16 am

    Diegetic considerations are hardly relevant to the impact of the device on the drama.

    given how ridiculously exciting much of series 6 was

    Ahem. Well. Huh.


  17. Elizabeth Sandifer
    March 2, 2012 @ 4:27 am

    Except, of course, that no adventure in the new series has ever resolved itself with the Doctor lazily sonicing away his troubles. This is largely because the new sonic screwdriver is not, as some people claim, a do-anything device. It's a device that can do anything so long as it wouldn't be more dramatically interesting to do it another way.

    The only point where it gets remotely wibbly is the "deadlocked" issue, which is just a short hand for "even the sonic screwdriver can't open this door" for cases where the door can't be made of wood. But no pact is broken by the phrase "deadlocked" because the pact made isn't a diegetic one about the precise power limits of the sonic screwdriver. It's a pact about dramatic tension – that the sonic screwdriver is never going to be used to cheat the viewer out of something fun. Which is the real reason the sonic can't open the door when the Angel is attacking Amy – because that's our first Weeping Angel scene of the story and we, as the audience, don't want it to open that door.


  18. SK
    March 2, 2012 @ 4:31 am

    If you want a story where characters interact (possibly in the emotional pressure cooker of an action adventure story) and thereby reveal more about themselves, then you absolutely want some story device in there which allows the writer to just hand wave away all the difficulties. Because then you can get on with the Talking About Things.

    Well, no, you don't, because if you can just hand wave away the difficulties there's no drama.

    If you want to make character-driven drama, then the climax has to proceed from character. Clue's in the question. If you say you're going to make character-driven drama, and you have lots of Talking About Things, but then at the end you solve the plot by waving a magic wand (just like you solved the plots of four of the last six episodes), you have failed.


  19. Dr. Happypants
    March 2, 2012 @ 4:39 am

    "Ahem. Well. Huh."

    I guess we've hit an impasse then: I thought series 6 was on the whole an absolute thrill-ride, and I can't think of an occasion offhand where the sonic screwdriver took away from that. At least once it's actively added to the story: in "The Girl Who Waited", when constructing her own "sonic probe" gives Old Amy an immediate on-screen way to demonstrate her equality with the Doctor.


  20. Elizabeth Sandifer
    March 2, 2012 @ 4:40 am

    Except that tons of stories, both Doctor Who and otherwise, end with waving a magic wand. To use a massively popular one, as opposed to one I particularly adore, Luke switching off his targeting computers and using the Force is flagrantly a magic wand. The difference between it and the sonic screwdriver is that it's a magic wand he's earned over the course of the story, whereas the sonic screwdriver is a magic wand that the Doctor comes in with.

    But again, I can't think of an instance in the new series where the sonic screwdriver is used to resolve the plot in a way that could have been done at any point. Even if the sonic screwdriver is involved in a climactic scene it's not involved in a way that doesn't also require something earned over the rest of the story. In point of fact the resolutions of the stories in Season 6 are, in order: the Doctor outsmarts the Silence, the Doctor correctly solves the mystery of the siren, the TARDIS sacrifices her life, the Doctor gets everybody to accept the humanity of everybody else, the Doctor actually loses, the Doctor gets River to accept who she is going to be, the Doctor gets the father to love his child, the Doctor betrays old Amy, the Doctor breaks Amy's faith in him, the Doctor gets the father to love his child again, and the Doctor persuades River to stop being thick.

    Not a sonic in the set.


  21. Exploding Eye
    March 2, 2012 @ 4:45 am

    "Hm, I don't think you've quite got my point"

    Well, I was expanding on it as well in my own direction.

    "I agree that your jet pack-enhanced version of Cliffhanger would be boring, but I disagree that it would be because of any lack of tension. As Dr Sandifer points out, there isn't really any tension, and I dispute that there is even this frisson you describe between two levels of interpretation."

    No, there definitely is, it's part of the basic toolbox of creating this kind of action adventure. Call it tension-synthesis, if you like – it's akin to being at a rock concert, where a song is subtly accelerating, and you feel more and more excited, and you end up almost euphoric by the end… you don't necessarily have anything to feel genuinely euphoric about, it's just a physiological reaction to that mechanical trigger.

    So it is with well-crafted tension. One of the most nail-biting movies I know is the German film Das Experiment. I've seen it probably four times, but by the final reel I'm always still on the edge of my seat, even though I know exactly what happens and to whom. I know that it's not going to turn out differently, but I still have the physiological responses to the skilful ratcheting up and subsequent release of tension. And take Hitchcock, the master of piling on the tension – we know Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart isn't going to die, certainly not before the end, but we still respond to it.

    We watch a horror film and feel afraid or tense, even though we know neither we nor the actors on screen are in any real danger. We watch a sad film and feel moved, even though we know it isn't actually real. So I think it's a mistake to dismiss the idea of a foregone conclusion lacking any tension, as all fiction is a foregone conclusion – it's not real. We know the Doctor survives, but that doesn't lessen the joy of really well-wrought peril and the physiological effects it has on an audience.

    If Cliffhanger were simply a series of set-pieces in which we see how Sly escapes various different scrapes, then it'd be an interesting intellectual exercise at most. I'm not saying it's a good film, or a film I especially like, but it is what it is, and its raison d'etre is to be exciting. It's not exciting to wonder, "Hm, how will he get out of this one?", there has to be an ever-present sense that he might not, even 30 minutes into the film when we know full well there's another hour or so to go. Every slip has to make us jump, every time he loses his footing has to make our stomachs lurch.

    Even if the Doctor were to simply wave away danger and obstacles in a different way each time, it'd still be flat and dull. You need the sense that it might not work in order for it to be an emotionally rewarding experience.


  22. Exploding Eye
    March 2, 2012 @ 4:50 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  23. Exploding Eye
    March 2, 2012 @ 4:55 am

    "Though the reason The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe is so flat not to do with hitting story beats mechanically, it's that there's only two scenes in which there's any actual conflict."

    It's both. I don't remember the thing is too much detail, but certainly the scene in which the wife pilots the platform to the rescue of the Doctor and her children – the scene which, traditionally in the sort of action-adventure movie the episode is aligning itself with, would be the perilous climax in which the character uses their newfound skills, nearly fails, but pulls through in the end – is ridiculously straightforward. Only at the end of the sequence, after the danger has dissipated, does the thing actually fall over, but by that time it's too late to have any meaning, and she's fine anyway.


  24. SK
    March 2, 2012 @ 4:56 am

    Not quite. It's a device that can do anything so long as the writer didn't think of a more dramatically interesting way to do it. Whether that's because they couldn't or didn't bother to…

    At least a few stories have ended with the lazy use of the sonic screwdriver: the Fires of Vulcan, for example, or Partners in Crime.

    Yes, it's a non-diegetic pact, and it is — as I said — that the writers promise to come up with more interesting and fun puzzles for the Doctor to have to solve than locked doors. The trailer scene in Flesh and Stone exactly illustrates the problems of not sticking to the pact. If the sonic screwdriver had been able to open every door up until that point, its sudden impotence would have added to the scene immeasurably – how powerful must the Angel be, that it can defeat the screwdriver?!

    But because they don't stick to the pact, and simply arbitrarily designate that a door is 'deadlocked' when they can't come up with a more interesting idea (and this goes right from the locked door scene in The End of the World through the bizarre episode where, and I'm not making this up, the sonic screwdriver is deemed to stop working in order to force the characters to play a pub quiz machine(!?!)), the audience has got used to the idea that every so often, with no rhyme or reason, the sonic screwdriver will come up against a door which, for no apparent reason, it can't open.

    So the Angel being able to 'deadlock' the door, rather than being a forceful dramatic moment as the audience wonders, 'How will they get out of this?' instead becomes just time it has been arbitrarily decreed that the screwdriver can't open the door.


  25. Exploding Eye
    March 2, 2012 @ 4:58 am

    "Except, of course, that no adventure in the new series has ever resolved itself with the Doctor lazily sonicing away his troubles."

    No one's claiming any have, though. It's about the process of going on the adventure, the obstacles he encounters along the way. If the writers don't want the Doctor to have to deal with certain obstacles, they shouldn't write them in the first place – writing them in, and then having them stupidly easy to bypass is just dull and time-wasting. The joy of an adventure is not just in the climax, but in seeing the characters overcome the various obstacles along the way. It's not enough to simply have obstacles, they have to mean something dramatically too. Otherwise, why bother?

    "It's a device that can do anything so long as it wouldn't be more dramatically interesting to do it another way."

    I would debate that. I think the psychic paper does often fulfil that role; the sonic screwdriver I've found is often (quite literally) a get out of jail free card. As I said above, if you don't want to make it hard for them to escape from jail, don't put them in jail in the first place.


  26. Exploding Eye
    March 2, 2012 @ 4:59 am

    "No one's claiming any have, though."

    All right, SK is claiming they have. 😉 And he's probably right, I've only seen these things once each on transmission.


  27. Exploding Eye
    March 2, 2012 @ 5:03 am

    "If you want to make character-driven drama, then the climax has to proceed from character."

    And also, don't structure it like an action-adventure movie, and overtly say, "We're making little action-adventure movies".


  28. SK
    March 2, 2012 @ 5:06 am

    The Moffat series have, as I think I noted, reimagined the sonic screwdriver in more ways than one: obviously it looks different (whole new lot of toys to sell!); but also more subtly, but so consistently (in everything other than episode written by Chris Cibnall) that I don't believe it's not a deliberate plan, it is used differently too. Hardly ever does it actually do anything; it's now primarily an exposition device. a tricorder rather than a phaser.

    (Smith even holds it differently to Tennant, less like a gun and more like a PKE meter. This is definitely deliberate: watch the making-of to Cold Blood, where the old style of sonic screwdriver use (because it's a Cibnall script) collides uncomfortably with the new, and Smith describes how he had to try to hold the screwdriver as if it was a tool and not a weapon even when he was blasting the enemies' guns out of their hands with it in true Tennant fashion.)

    I fail to understand a world in which Curse of the Black Spot can be described as an absolute thrill-ride.


  29. Elizabeth Sandifer
    March 2, 2012 @ 5:08 am

    I don't think Doctor Who is at all unique in using the action-adventure format to do character drama. It's pretty much the norm in action-adventure these days and has been for well over a decade. The importance of following that transition is a big part of why I've structured the blog from the start so as to cover the books between 1989 and 2005 – because that lets me do the numerous Pop Between Realities entries needed to cover that transition.


  30. Exploding Eye
    March 2, 2012 @ 5:20 am

    Maybe not; but my point is, if you're going to use the action-adventure format, don't use it superficially. Either use it properly, wring tension and suspense from a series of obstacles, or don't use it at all.

    Luke's use of the Force at the end of Star Wars is satisfying, to a degree, because it is part of his character arc. Like you say, it's earned, it's part of his story. Having a thing in your pocket that does all that stuff may superficially be similar, but really it isn't at all. It's a cheat, it's not part of an arc, it's not earned.

    It's the difference between something paying off dramatically on every level – on a character level, and on an action level – and simply dressing the character stuff up with pretty pictures.


  31. Elizabeth Sandifer
    March 2, 2012 @ 5:21 am

    Be fair, SK – the claim was that "much" of Season 6 was exciting. Picking out a lone counterexample doesn't refute the claim.

    Also, The Fires of Pompeii, which is what I assume you meant by The Fires of Vulcan, is an instance of the sonic being used alongside an earned piece of drama. By that point the question isn't "how do we stop the monsters" but "do we preserve history as we know it or not." The resolution there isn't "the Doctor sonics it," it's "the Doctor wipes out Pompeii."


  32. William Whyte
    March 2, 2012 @ 5:32 am

    Yeah, Catholic populist is a good term. Although I'd say that with the exception of their nationalism (in the Irish sense) they were pretty ideology-free — their social positions weren't at the intellectual level of ideology, they were more like raw instinct.


  33. Elizabeth Sandifer
    March 2, 2012 @ 5:32 am

    But now you're arguing against reality, Exploding Eye – the claim that the new series does not wring tension and suspense from a series of obstacles is preposterous. As I noted in the entry, what the sonic requires is that the nature of obstacles be bigger than "and then someone locks the Doctor in a room" or "and then there's a computer terminal to hack."

    Instead you have to do things like have the Doctor be confronted by a person and have to persuade them to see things his way, or have the Doctor be physically separated from the people he's trying to save and only able to talk to them, or having an actual action sequence involving running from things. And, of course, the sonic doesn't endanger the bread and butter of suspense in Doctor Who, do terrible and nasty things to the companions.

    What including the sonic does is it means you have to pick a structure like that of, to pick the highlight of Season 6, The Doctor's Wife, where the Doctor's problem is that he's in the wrong universe and Amy and Rory's problem is that their at the mercy of an insane TARDIS that they can't operate. As opposed to what happens in Snakedance (where I am in my watching) – one of the better Davison stories, but one that still just shoves the Doctor in a jail cell for an entire episode so it doesn't have to accidentally advance the plot any. Now that's lazy.


  34. Exploding Eye
    March 2, 2012 @ 5:44 am

    I'm not saying that there's no tension or real obstacles in the new series – what I'm saying is that they still choose to put some obstacles in front of the Doctor which he can easily overcome with the aid of his magical device… and you end up thinking, "What was the point of that?"

    Not that I'm saying he should be stuck in a cell for episodes at a time – just don't stick him in the cell in the first place.

    It's not just a symptom of the sonic screwdriver. Like my example with the platform in TDTWATW above, many stories end up so rushed by the end that the plot points become a check-list rather than events exploited to their full. Drama isn't about putting the characters through a certain series of moves, it's about making sure those individual moves count dramatically.


  35. Elizabeth Sandifer
    March 2, 2012 @ 5:48 am

    Fair enough, but I think it's tough to blame the sonic for the problems that arise when petty obstacles are put in front of the Doctor. Petty obstacles look petty when the Doctor fiddles with wires to get past them too. The sonic isn't a panacea and the new series has some dramatically flawed stories, but I'm hard pressed to think of any story in the new series where the sonic is why the drama falters. (Whereas there are several that simply could not work without the sonic.)


  36. Lewis Christian
    March 2, 2012 @ 6:36 am

    RTD even went so far as "triple deadlock" in Torchwood! I mean, come on. Plus, the amount of deadlocks thrown around, you'd think the Doctor would've tried to develop his Sonic so as not to be affected by the extra 'dead' lock, surely?

    In the Eccleston era, it mends barbed wire. In the Tennant era, it becomes a magic wand. In Smith's era, it heals flesh wounds (?!?) and pretty much acts as a weapon (against Silurians when he wants them to back off) and a gun when he's against the Silence. And much more.

    Bizarrely, Moffat wrote into his Series 4 script that the Sonic would scan the entire planet. And Tennant told him to please change it as that was "too far". Really? It does everything else!


  37. Sean Daugherty
    March 2, 2012 @ 7:34 am

    Agreed. I think JNT was absolutely right about the sonic screwdriver being a crutch to good storytelling. That said, while he diagnosed the problem, he never really offered an alternative approach. So, in that sense, Phil is right: we replaced the magic gizmo that allowed the Doctor to do anything with padding involving fiddling with locks.

    This is, IMO, the biggest problem with JNT's tenure. He's very good at identifying what doesn't work, but considerably less good at coming up with workable ideas of his own. Which isn't actually that big a problem in itself: the role of producer during the classic series didn't require that JNT be an expert storyteller in his own right. And he had undeniable skill in visual presentation and promotion that the series desperately needed: the production office constantly struggled with this throughout the late 1970s. Tom Baker's star power and charisma kept the show in the public mind, but Hinchcliffe was constantly fighting with the negative attention of people like Mary Whitehouse and Williams never seemed able to hit upon an alternative that the show could reliably pull off.

    The thing is, someone needs to be able to tell a story, even if JNT can't. Initially, I would argue, JNT had this in Chris Bidmead. And eventually it would find Andrew Cartmel. But Eric Saward, frankly, shared the same strengths and weaknesses as JNT himself. The result, for much of the decade, was a dangerously uneven show that was high on spectacle and low on narrative quality. It corrected the excesses of previous eras while making at least as many mistakes and missteps of its own.


  38. Dr. Happypants
    March 2, 2012 @ 7:49 am

    I'm really curious: what could you possibly want out of an action/adventure Doctor Who story that you didn't get out of (for example) "The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon"?


  39. inkdestroyedmybrush
    March 2, 2012 @ 9:33 am

    OK, I absolutely love the arguement on the storytelling aspects of the sonic. Great stuff.

    Today Philip nails the visitation, which i've always described as "almost working". Saward sees the form but doesn't grasp it totally and therein lies the problem. He simply needed a script editor like Holmes to mentor him iinto making these "almost working" scripts much much better. And it didn't happen. Sadly.

    As storytelling devices I like the psychic paper, since it allows us to get more quickly to meat of the story. And while no one else seems to bring it up, i keep do: we only blocks of 45 minutes or 90 to set up, create peril and complications, and resolve those complications in the current series, as opposed to the then standard 100 minutes (for a 4 parter) or 150 minutes (for a 6 parter). I, personally, would like to get past the whole "who are you? how did you get here? lock them up!" that we've sat through a million times.

    The sonic is a different story. It has become a crutch, and simply because they haven't put into the series bible, "here is what it does, now use it when appropriate" instead of allowing the writers to simply make up stuff to get them out of trouble along the way. I don't have a problem with writers locking doors that the sonic can't open sometimes, because that is the way the world works occasionally. my cell phone doesn't always work, so neither does the sonic. fine.

    But since I know the Doctor isn't going to die on the cliffhanger, what i want are complications, and complications that are going to be difficult to figure out. A classic cliffhanger this last season was the doppleganger Doctor showign up and making the second episode more convoluted and interesting, somehitng that they really didn't do, much to my chagrin. They had the set up, a really great set up, and turned it into a run-around sadly.

    Create a set of uses for the sonic and then stick to it. let him use it as a tool to outwit the enemies.

    And, by the way, i did think that him brandishing it like a weapon was a bluff, much as Tom using a Jelly Baby to hold off Leela's tribesmen. The sonic can look like a weapon even if it isn't to those "not in the know".


  40. Anton B
    March 2, 2012 @ 10:49 am

    In a vain attempt to steer the discussion back to the esoteric and reinforce my theory of the Doctor as Magician. take a look at a classic Tarot deck, pick out the Magician card and tell me that's not a sonic he's holding.


  41. James V
    March 2, 2012 @ 11:10 am

    "As storytelling devices I like the psychic paper, since it allows us to get more quickly to meat of the story."


    I was pretty hard on the psychic paper until I went on my first major Classic series binge. By about season 16 or 17 the whole 'Doctor gets found in suspicious place and the locals don't know who he is so they lock him up' plot point had gotten MADDENINGLY tiresome.


  42. Dr. Happypants
    March 2, 2012 @ 11:10 am

    So is the loss of the sonic in "The Visitation" a symbolic reinforcement of the Fifth Doctor's recasting as The Fool, done most explicitly in "Kinda"?

    Seven, who also lacks a sonic, is later identified with The Hanged Man in "Greatest Show"…and if you'd like, kinda sorta even as early as "Dragonfire" (to reinterpret the most rubbishy cliffhanger of all time in more esoteric terms).

    In "The Twin Dilemma", does Six try to cast himself as The Hermit?


  43. Exploding Eye
    March 2, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

    I don't know, I only ever watch the new series ones once so don't have much recollection of individual stories, but I seem to remember that one working pretty well. My knowledge of the new series is less than enclopaedic, Day Of The Moon barely rings a bell as an episode title! I have real trouble marrying up episode titles with the adventures.

    I don't want to make it sound like I'm down on all the new series stuff, there's a lot I enjoy, but there are also a lot of them I find pretty desperate… especially the single-episode stories that try to fit a feature film's worth of storytelling into 45 minutes.


  44. Exploding Eye
    March 2, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

    "Create a set of uses for the sonic and then stick to it. let him use it as a tool to outwit the enemies."

    Totally agree with this point. The sonic screwdriver in and of itself isn't a bad idea, it's another technological wonder like the TARDIS – it's when it becomes a cheat that it's unwelcome. If from the outset you know what Doctor and his gadgets are capable of, then you have a fair idea what sort of challenges he faces when presented with obstacles.

    It's like the moment in Tennant's last story when he survived a fall from an enormous height onto a marble floor, and you think, "How come that's suddenly possible?" You've got to stick to the basic rules set up by the world, otherwise there's no way to invest in the peril.


  45. David Anderson
    March 2, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  46. David Anderson
    March 2, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    As well as the War Games, I think Carnival of Monsters (another Holmes) is structurally a pseudo-historical, if you work from the Doctor and Jo's point of view.


  47. David Anderson
    March 2, 2012 @ 2:06 pm

    One of the most fun moments of the War Games is when Troughton's Doctor bluffs a British General into thinking he, torn trousers and all, is, or at least might be, a civil servant and not the escaped prisoner that he's been warned about. The Doctor bluffs his way past by sheer bare-faced cheek and fast talking is mostly going to be more fun to watch than the Doctor waves the psychic paper at them. So I'm not terribly fond of the psychic paper. (Also, the psychic paper tends to attract weak jokes in the Matt Smith era, at least when it works.)

    The sonic screwdriver makes difficult the sort of narrative interest that Philip's identified as the Bidmead model: if it doesn't have implicit rules for how it works it can't interact plausibly with anything else that has implicit rules.


  48. Aaron
    March 2, 2012 @ 7:12 pm

    The Magician is a good card for the Doctor. Infinite abilities, incredibly talented, can do anything at all? Sounds good. But the Fool is also a really good card for the Doctor: the idea of a person on a journey, who grows and transforms as they continue on the journey, a journey with infinite possibilities that can take the Fool absolutely anywhere, but often into hazards. That sounds like the Doctor to me too. And, of course, remember that Greatest Show in the Galaxy and the NAs identified the 7th Doctor as the Hanged Man.

    PS-Apparently I should read the post directly above mine before posting, as Happypants has covered a lot of the same ground as me. Oh well.


  49. Alan
    March 2, 2012 @ 9:50 pm

    Sorry, but I find the hostility to the sonic screwdriver (and its corollary, the deadlock seal) to be quite baffling. Surely, saying that the sonic screwdriver can occasionally be defeated by a bit of technobabble called "a deadlock seal" is superior to just destroying it and then suggesting the Doctor was too dense to recreate such an amazingly useful piece of technology. I mean honestly, what happens as soon as we get to the Colin Baker era? Whenever the Doctor needs some gadget to get out of a jam, he happens to have one (see Attack of the Cybermen). It just isn't called the sonic screwdriver anymore. And think back on all those screwdriver scenes in the new series and try to imagine them without the screwdriver. What happens? The Doctor pulls out some wires or pushes some buttons or reverses the polarity of the neutron flow! Personally, having lived through twelve hellish years of Star Trek spin-offs, I'd much rather the Doctor wave a magic wand to deal with minor difficulties than wade through pages of technobabble to achieve the same ends.

    Speaking of wands, the real issue with the screwdriver that no one wants to talk about is the extent to which it was influenced by Harry Potter, since the Doctor obviously treats it like a magic wand. That said, it's a magic wand with three major limitations: (1) it generally won't affect wood, (2) it generally won't do anything to harm someone else, and (3) it can be defeated by the talismanic invocation of the deadlock seal. That's enough of a writer-viewer bargain to satisfy me.

    Finally, I would submit that the problem with the scene in "The End Of The World" in which the Doctor couldn't unlock the door to free Rose wasn't an issue of forced tension. Rather it was the fact that the writer wanted Rose out of the way for a while so that the Doctor would have a few dramatic scenes with Jabe before her demise.


  50. Alan
    March 2, 2012 @ 10:11 pm

    Moving aside from the relative merits of the sonic screwdriver to the wisdom of its destruction, in addition to the reasons Phil mentioned, it also bothered me because it was another symptom of the, for lack of a better word, fecklessness of the Fifth Doctor. Most of the plot of Kinda, IIRC, was driven by the fact that he childishly started up the magic wind chimes and then just left Tegan behind even though it was obvious she was being affected. In The Visitation, he loses the screwdriver and resigns himself to getting locked up every other week instead of just making a new one. And we're two stories away from the Doctor losing his first companion since Sara Kingdom because … well, I'll save my complaints about Earthshock until we get there.


  51. David Bateman
    March 3, 2012 @ 4:09 am

    'I fail to understand a world in which Curse of the Black Spot can be described as an absolute thrill-ride.'

    I watch with my six-year old son, it really opens my eyes to other ways of experiencing the series. The Curse of the Black Spot has pirates, a ghost, and it's Doctor Who. The Doctor's Wife, for an example, has nothing very much exciting in it except an old Rory.


  52. SK
    March 3, 2012 @ 5:06 am

    This is a good point, of course. Dr Sandifer has the purpose of the new sonic screwdriver exactly the wrong way around. It's not there to avoid the Doctor being locked up. As people have pointed out, you can do that by just… not writing the Doctor being locked up.

    It's there, and Davies said this as the time, because with only forty-five minutes, there isn't time to do endless 'the Doctor bluffs his way into where the plot is happening scenes'.

    The fact is that quite often, the nature of Doctor Who plots means that the Doctor is going to be on the outside of a locked door with something interesting happening on the inside. And while it is indubitably more fun to watch the Doctor bluff his way past a guard using clever dialogue, the fact of the mater is that that's a two-page scene and 'the Doctor sonics the door' is a one-line one.

    So the new series gave the Doctor two devices: the psychic paper (for use to get past human obstacles) and the sonic screwdriver (for use to get past inanimate obstacles).

    Neither is supposed to be a device for getting the Doctor out of trouble: they are both for getting the Doctor into trouble. Neither is supposed to resolve a complication: they are both supposed to be there to set up interesting complications.

    Take the psychic paper. It is meant to be used as follows: The Doctor is outside some secret facility. He walks past the guard on the door, flashing his psychic paper. He wanders around a bit, then bumps into a suspicious guard. He holds up the psychic paper. The guard looks at it, looks at him, and asks, 'What's your name?'

    The Doctor says, 'Doesn't it say on there?'

    'Yes,' replies the guard. 'It does. What does it say?'

    'Em,' says the Doctor, trying to twist his arm around to look at the psychic paper. The guard catches his wrist. 'John Smith?' he tries. 'It's often John Smith…'

    'There's no John Smith working here,' says the guard, and calls for backup to take him to the head of the facility.

    This is because it's more dramatic for the Doctor to be caught already inside a top-secret facility, than it is for the Doctor to be arrested trying to gain entry to a top secret facility. So the psychic paper serves to get him into trouble, but to get out of it he must do something interesting.

    Now, the psychic paper usually works well, because it's reasonably limited in its scope. The problem with the sonic screwdriver is that because its powers are so wide-ranging and ill-defined, it is often (mis-)used to get the Doctor out of trouble instead of getting him into it. How the sonic screwdriver should be used: while wandering around the secret base, the Doctor finds a locked door. He zaps it with the sonic screwdriver and goes through. Inside there is a lab containing monster,which attacks him; he has to do something clever with the chemicals in the lab (something that is preferably character-based, and was set up previously by hints about the monster's nature).

    All too often, however, we get a demonstration of how the sonic screwdriver shouldn't be used: the Doctor goes through a door into a lap, where there is a monster. He zaps a chemical tank with the sonic screwdriver and it explodes, distracting the monster long enough for him to use the sonic screwdriver to open the door and then use the sonic screwdriver to lock it again, as the monster starts to batter against it.



  53. SK
    March 3, 2012 @ 5:07 am

    And the problem with the sonic screwdriver is that once it has been established that it can do these kinds of things, the Doctor looks stupid if he doesn't use it in that way. And so precious time has to be wasted explaining why the sonic screwdriver doesn't work now, and it's never for a good plot-based reason,it's always something arbitrary like… well, like every 'deadlock' line ever. It's like the spurion particles in the atmosphere that stop the Enterprise crew from just using the transporter to solve this week's plot.

    And so what began as a time-saving device to quickly set up interesting dramatic situations by getting the Doctor past locked doors, actually becomes a time sink as lines have to be inserted into the set-up to explain why the sonic screwdriver can't just get him out of it like,given its displayed range of functions, it so blatantly should be able to. And what's worse those lines are meaningless technobabble.

    And as an advocate fo character-based drama (as I am), Dr Sandifer should definitely not approve of anything which increases the requirement for lines of meaningless technobabble.

    I suppose the question is, what's the alternative? Given the Doctor does often have to get through locked doors, how to do that and get to the interesting situations with the speed required in modern episodes?

    Well, on Chuck they managed fine for year by simply ignoring the issue of locked door: they would normally cut to the team already inside whatever heavily-defended installation they were infiltrating this week, and all the interior doors would be locked (unless there was a convenient passing employee who could be mugged for his key-card). But Doctor Who has a slightly different milieu, and I don't think 'just ignore the problem' would work for very long.

    No, the alternative — and of course it's far too late for this now — but the alternative would have been to have the sonic screwdriver but keep a tight lid on its functions. Just like the psychic paper has never suddenly been able to read the minds of enemies who won't talk, or to hypnotise people, so if the temptation had been resisted at the start to make the sonic screwdriver a magic wand, and instead it had been restricted to opening doors, a lot of this could have been avoided.


  54. Anton B
    March 3, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

    The Fool still has his wand, he's just tied his spotted hankie to it so he can carry his belongings. He's also got a little dog (K9?) biting his ankle and heading toward a cliff edge. Sounds like a generic Tom Baker cliffhanger to me. I notice the Empress also has a wand so my money's on her as River Song. The Chariot is a good image for the Tardis – pulled by the black and white horses depicting Space and Time. Hmmm.


  55. Spacewarp
    March 3, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

    @David Bateman.

    Hooray for your six-year old son! That's the way to watch Doctor Who. Scary monsters menacing the Doctor just because they're monsters is all the reason you need. It was fine for me when I was 6 and the Cybermen were trying to get Patrick Troughton, and it should be fine for any 6 year old today watching Matt Smith being chased by the Silents.

    Fans? Pah! What do they know! It's not our programme. Our kids just allow us to watch it with them.


  56. David Bateman
    March 4, 2012 @ 1:45 am

    @Spacewarp 'It's not our programme. Our kids just allow us to watch it with them.'


    Thanks to them that they do, else, we'd be forced to watch it by ourselves after they've gone to bed.


  57. Henry R. Kujawa
    May 11, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

    Philip Sandifer:
    "Doctor Who is spending more time figuring out how to get more captures and escapes into its format than it is on character-based storytelling. This while simultaneously trying to act more like a soap and have character conflict…..Nathan-Turner is actively offering a type of series where there should be plot arcs and character development. And then he's failing not just miserably but bizarrely at delivering them."

    One of the most spot-on observations I've read all month.

    Personally, I prefer stories that are "complete" and stand alone and aprt from those around them. You can still have character development with that!

    Sean Daughterty:
    "This is, IMO, the biggest problem with JNT's tenure. He's very good at identifying what doesn't work, but considerably less good at coming up with workable ideas of his own"

    He ditched Romana, K-9 and the Sonic Screwdriver, and replaced them with Nyssa, Adric & Tegan. The mind boggles.

    Exploding Eye:
    "Without the tension, without the sense of danger – no matter how easily our cine-literate higher selves can dismiss it – the story serves no purpose."

    Saw CLIFFHANGER in a theatre. I remember thinking, it was probably the only movie I ever saw where I found it very hard to believe that NOBODY got killed while making it. (It was also another in a series of "ultra-macho/ultra-violent" flicks where the villain was more "EEEEE-VIL!!" than any bad guy could ever possibly be in real life. Man, John Lithgow was scary.)

    "The girl (I assume there's a girl) is falling past Sly? Use the jet pack."

    They did that in STAR TREK 5. (had to say it)

    "the utter dramatic failure of the scenes of Nyssa standing around in the TARDIS. It really kills the momentum whenever we cut back to her."

    If not for those tight pants, it would be a waste. (And yet all thru his tenure, JNT kept insisting he wasn't involved in any "sexual exploitation". YEAH RIGHT.) How 'bout that? Sarah Sutton & Bonnie Langford do have something in common (and I never noticed it before).

    "Baker generally used it was pretty much always as a tool"

    I loved the line he had in one story, "New technology dates so quickly these days."

    This story would have been SO much better to watch if Adric & Tegan weren't in it.


  58. SpaceSquid
    August 17, 2012 @ 12:49 pm

    I'd say the use of the sonic screwdriver at the conclusion to "When Mark Gatiss Attacks" definitely qualifies. Which nicely brings me to my own feelings about the device: it's a fantastic thing to use in the first half of a story, and very frustrating when it's employed after that point.


  59. Andrew Bowman
    May 9, 2014 @ 4:22 am

    Frankly, the idea of the psychic paper being able to read minds is a good one: it wouldn't be too difficult to justify. Also, the idea that the sonic screwdriver has been used wrong despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary (in terms of "that's what it does") is deeply flawed. It does seem, and I don't wish to antagonise anyone, that what people such as SK want Doctor Who to be is something it never was nor ever will be: I know it's about the potential of the stories rather than (some of) the stories themselves that appeals, but the fact remains that the sonic screwdriver can now to things that it couldn't do before: it's had an upgrade.


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