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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. Yossarian, Duck!
    June 14, 2018 @ 10:58 am

    Been waiting for a while, if only because I never get tired of dunks on Whithouse’s writing, which somehow manages to get worse with each successive Who script.

    It’s honestly hard to square things like this, Lake/Flood and The Lie of the Land with the nostalgic joy of School Reunion or the regency camp of Vampires in Venice. I keep looking for clues in those early eps but a major cultural shift happening under his feet seems accurate, and feels like a cautionary tale for other writers.

    “I used to be with it, then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me.”


    • Sean Dillon
      June 14, 2018 @ 3:27 pm

      I’m not sure about Vampires of Venice, but I’m pretty sure School Reunion was just a rewrite by Davies.


      • Anthony Strand
        June 15, 2018 @ 5:29 pm

        To knock Whithouse just a little bit, both of those first two scripts have exactly the same problem – an alien race on its last legs (stranded on Earth disguised in human form) is running a school and secretly using the students as fodder to keep itself a life. The alien leader – posing as the headmaster/headmistress – has a dramatic one-on-one argument with the Doctor about how he would do the same thing in that situation.

        The trappings are different (and I’m sure you’re right that RTD wrote all of the Sarah Jane material) but hired to write a second Doctor Who script three years after his first one, he couldn’t think of a second story to tell.


        • Przemek
          June 18, 2018 @ 7:56 am

          Weeeell, to be fair, the trappings are at least very different. In School Reunion the school is the main setting and it’s arguably crucial to the villains’ plan (children generally trust their teachers and can easily be ordered around). In Vampires of Venice the teacher/student dynamic is barely there, the pupils are adults and the school itself is played more like a haunted mansion/castle.


    • Lucky Patcher Apk
      March 17, 2020 @ 7:49 am

      Nice post, thank you so much.


  2. Aylwin
    June 14, 2018 @ 11:50 am

    Regarding protagonists, I take it that you mean that Smiley etc were ahead of their time in terms of their unresolved moral unease about what they do and for what, that being the aspect that most obviously ties in with Whithouse’s fixations. From that point of view, and coming off the back of season 8, there must be more to say about how that tradition, and Whithouse’s attachment to it, relates to the angst on the Doctor’s part which forms such a central part of this season, though not one you have particularly put in the foreground. I suppose what I’m pondering is, if such brooding was behind the times in 2014, how was Doctor Who in 2014 brilliantly cutting-edge despite being steeped in it?

    [In terms of other qualities, I’m not sure the era of the aging, physically inactive and delicate, upper-middle-class cuckold as a ubiquitous type of screen protagonist has dawned even yet, has it? Or to look at those sort of tendencies from another angle, in a lot of ways Smiley’s in a much older tradition from detective fiction, typified by Poirot and Miss Marple and continuing with the likes of Morse. (Significantly, the second of the not-very-good first two Smiley books was a weird detour into the traditional murder mystery.)]


    • Aylwin
      June 14, 2018 @ 11:56 am

      I suppose “by resolving it and concluding ‘Nah, I’m fine'” would be one answer to that question, though I’m not sure it’s quite that neat and tidy, especially when talking about where Whithouse was a year or two earlier, rather than later.


      • Przemek
        June 14, 2018 @ 12:51 pm

        The Doctor not being a typical white male brooding protagonist might be one of the reasons. If not anything else then his age alone makes him distinct from those sorts of characters. His brooding mostly comes from being very, very old and very, very tired – so tired that he’s not even sure who he is (or wants to be) anymore. But I’m sure there are other reasons as well.


        • Jonixw
          June 14, 2018 @ 1:32 pm

          The focus on Clara as co-main character is probably the second half of the answer to that question.


          • Aylwin
            June 14, 2018 @ 5:11 pm

            But the unusual status of Clara consists in her being like the Doctor, and her representation of what the Doctor is like during this season is one inclined to heighten his grimness about who he is and what he does (or which, supposing it actually has the contrary effect, can only do so through his rejecting her reading of him, thus undercutting the sense that she “gets” the Doctor, and hence the scope for replication of him on her part).

          • Przemek
            June 19, 2018 @ 7:37 am

            She “gets” the Doctor, but not this spiky, grumpy “am I a good man?” proto-Twelfth Doctor. She gets the Doctor’s essence and that’s who she’s trying to become.

          • Aylwin
            June 19, 2018 @ 2:43 pm

            I think it’s hard to make general statements about Clara’s understanding of the Doctor, because it changes over time and I think there are inconsistencies in it – in particular, the way that the insight she displays in The Day of the Doctor seems to have evaporated by the time we get to Deep Breath.

            But in the latter part of season 8, I think if anything it’s something like the reverse of what you describe. I mused on all this at length in the review comments here, and I won’t try to replicate it all, but in Mummy and Flatline in particular, her view of the Doctor seems to be focused on a clinical, even cynical analysis of techniques and the achievement of effects, to the detriment of his underlying warmth. Having at first been perturbed by the brusque, practical, unsentimental and rather disdainful approach of this Doctor, she has come to embrace it. The Doctor finds her resulting representation of him disturbing and hurtful. If that’s who he is, then he doesn’t like himself much.

            The alternative is that her representation of him is unfair, either because she has simply failed to understand or because she has actually been misled by the way he has represented himself since regeneration. I think the experience of those two episodes may help lead the Doctor towards a realisation that what he thought of as a brutally honest, warts-and-all baring of his “unveiled” self, ascetically shorn of all pretence and pandering to human sensibilities, as per Vastra in Deep Breath, is actually a distortion, that he is in fact being too hard on himself, and doing so in ways that set a bad example.

          • Aylwin
            June 19, 2018 @ 2:48 pm

            “on himself and others“, I should probably add.

          • Przemek
            June 20, 2018 @ 8:57 am

            I think you might be right. That does fit both Clara’s and the Doctor’s characters arcs this season.

            “I think it’s hard to make general statements about Clara’s understanding of the Doctor, because it changes over time and I think there are inconsistencies in it – in particular, the way that the insight she displays in The Day of the Doctor seems to have evaporated by the time we get to Deep Breath.”

            I don’t see it that way. I think it was the Doctor himself who – from her perspective – evaporated sometime during his last stand on Trenzalore. Her insight still applies but the Twelfth Doctor is (initially) doing a very good job of convincing her that the man this insight applies to is no longer there.

        • Aylwin
          June 14, 2018 @ 4:54 pm

          Doesn’t age, or at least mileage, and certainly weariness, play a big part in that sort of angst though? As I see the concept (and maybe we have different models in mind here), it requires a pretty extensive track record, a lot of “the terrible things I’ve seen” and “the terrible losses I’ve suffered” and “the terrible things I’ve done” and “the terrible thing that I have had to become” weighing upon a character. It’s not an aesthetic of youthful zest.

          Taking the excuse of it being an example of the moment to digress a little, an awful lot of the Smiley stuff, especially in the televised works, is very much to do with age. It’s explicitly prominent in Smiley’s People, while in Tinker, Tailor it’s less directly conspicuous, but perhaps even more important. The stories are suffused with weariness, disappointment, disillusionment, decline and loss, with a late-middle-aged sadness and desperation drenching the characters and the culture they inhabit. I have an Opinion that the Tinker, Tailor adaptation is better than the book, in large part because it deepens this elegiac charge, even through something like the closing credits, intensifying the poignancy of the story and making it more universally human. (Also the book doesn’t have Alec Guinness in it.)

          Anyway, that’s a digression. Whatever the commonalities, George Smiley is surely not really typical of the sort of protagonist under discussion, or a product of the period most at issue. But while few such characters are as old as the Doctor, and outside of the more fantastical genres have no chance to come close, in so far as possible, age surely plays its part. Who broods more blatantly than Angel-out-off-of-Buffy or the ensuing wave of sad romantic vampire hotties, who may look young but can have centuries on the clock? Going even further outside the range of things I have a clue about, in order to bring in a key foundational text of the Dark Brooding Male Protagonist trend, isn’t one of the defining qualities of the Batman of The Dark Knight Returns the fact that he is significantly older than the character is usually represented as being? And no matter how old the Doctor may actually be, that’s nothing compared with how old Kurt Wallander feels!

          And while extreme old age is certainly fundamental to the Doctor’s mood as of season 10, and perhaps with hindsight to that of the Twelfth Doctor overall, the angst particular to season 8 is basically moral. It’s there in the explicit “am I good man?” reflections, the hard-to-refute challenge of Danny’s denunciations, the cutting implications of the detached, pragmatic calculation reflected back to him by Clara’s analysis and imitation of his modus operandi. The crisis the season plot builds to is an invitation to throw his lot in with his most briskly ruthless do-what-must-be-done tendencies. I still have trouble seeing all that as a clear case of incompatibility with Toby Whithouse, except in so far as it the resolution seeks to draw a line under it.


          • Aylwin
            June 14, 2018 @ 5:20 pm

            By “hard-to-refute” I just mean that the Doctor finds them so at the time.

          • Przemek
            June 15, 2018 @ 7:44 am

            Perhaps you’re right about age. In my understanding the brooding white male is not neccesarily young but he certainly feels much older than he actually is. A guy in his 30s or 40s all convinced that his life is basically over and that he has learned everything there was to learn about the world. Which I perceive as basically a teenage mindset. Angel, despite literally being hundreds of years old, always felt like a grumpy teenager to me.

            I think what also separates the Doctor is his neverending curiosity and excitement. Even at his most brooding he can’t resist a fun adventure – and so he constantly pulls himself away from those darker moods. He’s his own Manic Pixie Dream Girl, if you will. Which, I think, connects to the moral angst you mentioned. The resolution of the “am I a good man?” arc reads to me like the Doctor’s sudden realization that pondering that question was actually a pretty big waste of time. Like Clara said at the beginning of the 50th anniversary: “”Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one”. As soon as he lets go of this idea that he needs to be cold and detached and ruthlessly effective like some kind of world-saving machine, he finds himself again. He starts following his heart more and focusing on individual compassion and kindness instead of effectiveness.

            Also, mx_mond below is probably right, as they usually are.

          • Aylwin
            June 15, 2018 @ 9:05 am

            I agree it’s a matter of feeling old rather than actually being old, I just don’t think it’s incompatible or incongruous with actually being old, or with actually being scarred by experience. The same sort of outward manifestations can overlay a range of realities from self-dramatising adolescent melancholia to genuine traumatised devastation. So, allowing for case-by-case variations, I think I’m inclined to be more sympathetic to such characters than you are, though I think that may be partly a matter of us drawing the line in different places in terms of which characters fall within the description. I’m certainly generally inclined to be more sympathetic to the characters than their writers or fans, at least in the decades since this became a fashionable trend. The latter, after all, do not generally have the kind of experience that makes such a state of mind reasonable, but rather fetishise the idea of it, meaning that they cluster very much at the adolescent-poser end of the spectrum, quite apart from the White Man’s Burden-esque political subtext of that fetishism.

            Very good points about the Doctor!

          • Aylwin
            June 15, 2018 @ 10:56 am

            For clarification, I mean “than to their writers or fans”. Also, that point too is pretty case-specific – obviously such characters are often complete gits, I’m just less systematically inclined to be dismissive of them as “people” than as expressions of a trend in cultural production and consumption.

          • Przemek
            June 15, 2018 @ 12:56 pm

            You’re completely right, I didn’t think about characters who actually do have a reason to be devastated, jaded and brooding. I certainly don’t feel unsympathetic towards those – Gregory House is one of my favourite characters of all time . It’s just the overdramatic adolescents that sometimes annoy me. Probably because I’m getting old…

            And yeah, the fetishism is the main problem with the whole stereotype. I love stories about people learning how to deal with their traumas, stories about growing and healing. And so when the ever-brooding characters who never outgrow this state of mind are presented as cool (or, even worse, as being right), it just feels like a wasted opportunity for a much better story. As for real-life people with such attitudes… meh, it’s their life. But I don’t find their company enjoyable.

          • Aylwin
            June 15, 2018 @ 10:36 am

            Also you’re right about Angel. At any rate, there’s nothing more adolescent than the kind of pseudo-sophisticated, cynical-miserabilist, dark-and-edgy strop that he throws somewhere around season 2 or 3 of the spin-off – whenever it is that he does his prima-donna-frontman-quitting-the-band-to-pursue-a-solo-career thing. I imagine the same often applies to the denizens of that bookshop-hogging algal bloom of undead YA publishing, though I know it only by reputation. I was casting about in genre fiction for brooding types with extended longevity to compare with the Doctor, and consequently ended up with a less than ideal example (though a relevant one in that Whithouse made his own venture into that line of country with Mitchell in Being Human). But I think the wider point about age as a factor stands, if we don’t demand superhuman life-spans, especially allowing for the fact that fictional protagonists past working age are pretty rare overall.

    • mx_mond
      June 14, 2018 @ 9:19 pm

      Personally, I think the Doctor himself in series 8 is an obsolete figure – it’s just that everything around him becomes radical and new (his best friend decides to become him; his other best friend becomes a woman; the moon becomes an egg). His “I am an idiot” monologue could be read as a rejection of the obsolete type of character (and masculinity) he previously felt tied to and basically going: “yeah, okay, I’m actually gonna go with the flow and become someone interesting and fresh as well”.


      • Kat
        June 15, 2018 @ 6:09 pm

        That’s lovely, and gives plausible diagetic reasons for the character’s evolution, apart from changes in the approach to the character from an acting & writing point of view.


  3. Aylwin
    June 14, 2018 @ 12:08 pm

    Extremely minor random musing/quibble: did you single Michael Jayston out because of his Doctor Who role? In terms of Tinker, Tailor (his part was recast for Smiley’s People) he seems a less obvious star turn than Beryl Reid, Ian Richardson or Bernard Hepton, to name only the most conspicuous. (Honestly, it’s a flabbergasting cast. Even the more obscure actors are perfect for their roles, to the extent that you could pretty well count on the fingers of an unlucky yakuza’s hand the number of cast members who aren’t basically unimprovable-upon, and they’re still very good. If they gave awards to casting directors…)


    • Aylwin
      June 14, 2018 @ 12:15 pm

      Also Beryl Reid was in Doctor Who anyway of course. Tut tut, you can tell I’m not a true fan.


    • Elizabeth Sandifer
      June 14, 2018 @ 3:23 pm

      Probably? This is one of those posts that I revised from 2014, and that bit is from then, so I’m low on memory of what I was thinking.


      • Aylwin
        June 14, 2018 @ 5:23 pm

        Fair enough – this one just seemed to have so much new content that I rather unreflectively treated it like a new composition and didn’t compare the two. Actually thinking about it, of course that would be one of the old bits.


        • Jayston
          June 15, 2018 @ 3:44 am

          But Michael Jayston had also been Quiller in the 1970s BBC series and that was very angsty.


  4. jonixw
    June 14, 2018 @ 1:34 pm

    I had actually never heard of this show prior to reading this post so I had no expectations reading this and was surprised by how interesting this ended up being.

    I have been on the edge in regards to whether Chibnall was the right choice for new showrunner. Obviously Whithouse was never brilliant but he had some episodes I enjoyed (School Reunion, Vampires of Venice mainly). I also reasonably like the episodes of Being Human I have seen so I thought, yeah this might be the guy to do it.

    Lie of the Land shoved me in the direction that Chris might actually have been the wiser choice while I still struggle to remember an episode of his I thought was good all the way through. This convinced me that Moffat made the right decision when picking his successor. Even if all else fail, Chibnall will always have a place in Who-history for casting Jodie in the lead role.


    • James V
      June 14, 2018 @ 2:09 pm

      I just think for once, Chibnall’s past Who work is not actually the best place to look for clues as to what his Doctor Who will be like. His most recent Who script was 6 years ago, whereas in the meantime he’s done Broadchurch and The Great Train Robbery. His old Doctor Who and Torchwood scripts are very much “young writer finding his feet” and not “exemplars of a coherent aesthetic vision.” It’s more like trying to predict Moffat’s Who based on the first season of Press Gang and ignoring The Girl in the Fireplace.

      Call me cautiously optimistic.


    • mx_mond
      June 14, 2018 @ 9:33 pm

      I agree with James V, I think we should look to Broadchurch to try to divine what his Doctor Who might be like rather than his previous work in the DW universe.

      Based on that, I think he is in quite a good position to win back some of the people who were dissatisfied with Moffat’s run and how challenging it was at times. I expect Chibnall Who to be simpler, to be more explicit in communicating to the viewers what is happening/what the characters are feeling, and to contain lots of charming moments and good ideas that are executed in a reliably solid if not particularly brilliant or innovative way. A mixed bag, but maybe good for the show right now and with plenty to like anyway.


  5. Lambda
    June 14, 2018 @ 2:53 pm

    I almost detected this right from the beginning! The precise moment which put me off School Reunion was when the Doctor, (regarding all the endless partings,) goes “it’s hard!” and the narrative just seemed so strangely proud of the “revelation”. (From 40 years ago.)

    Funnily enough, “make new shows with new female characters” is one of the first things I think of too when the “female Doctor” question comes up, but (presumably) for almost exactly the opposite reason, I feel like Western sci-fi is crippled by its obsession with decades-old things, (of which the while male protagonist hegemony is only one of many symptoms,) and the only real way forward is to rediscover the ability to invent new things, tinkering with old things isn’t something to hang your hopes on.

    (Which, FAOD, means I’m not opposed to it, just not excited by it either.)


    • Przemek
      June 15, 2018 @ 8:45 am

      That’s not neccesarily the genre’s obsession with decades-old things, it’s the money-making logic of the Hollywood nostalgia machine. And since they’re so entrenched in their old ways, perhaps (radical) tinkering with old things can be the first step towards changing that logic a bit.

      There’s also the problem of complexity, as described by SF writer Jacek Dukaj. Movie/TV sci-fi is always decades behind sci-fi books in terms of new ideas and radicalness because complex new ideas are way harder to convey in an audiovisual medium than in the text. By the time moviegoers grasp the idea of, say, time travel the readers can intuitively understand time travel paradoxes. “The Arrival” is considered innovative and ambitious because it focuses on the difficulties of communicating with aliens… but Stanisław Lem wrote a book about it in 1986. There’s not much Hollywood can do about that delay.


  6. Froborr
    June 14, 2018 @ 4:21 pm

    “The Game isn’t so much blatantly mediocre as it is a show that constantly threatens to resolve into something brilliant before turning out to be perfectly content with being derivative.”

    So… it’s by Toby Whithouse. (“Adjacent to the Water” being the example that stands out most strongly to me, but that may be because it’s the one I’ve seen [bits of] most recently.)


  7. Kyle Strand
    June 19, 2018 @ 1:46 am

    Since you’ve generally tried to cover showrunners’ previous major work, will you be doing a writeup on Broadchurch at some point?


    • mx_mond
      June 19, 2018 @ 4:43 pm

      It’s present on the entry list for Capaldi Eruditorum (just before series 10, if I remember correctly).


      • Kyle Strand
        June 19, 2018 @ 7:21 pm

        Oh, I didn’t realize there was such a list; where’s that?


      • Kyle Strand
        June 19, 2018 @ 7:23 pm

        Never mind, found it! Thanks!


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