Journey into Prime Time

Doctor Who & The X Factor

Being neither a lover of science fiction, excepting the work of the late Ray Bradbury, or ‘family entertainment’, I still find myself being inexorably ensnared by Doctor Who (BBC One) year after year. A plausible excuse could be to say that it’s really an intelligent drama with adult concerns and that if children enjoy it, that’s just a happy coincidence. But of course it’s not really that intelligent – you can sound as clever as you like when you can make anything up and give it the veneer of plausibility; perhaps it’s clever in the same way that the nonsense verse of Edward Lear is. The Doctor vs. the Quangle Wangle Quee. Write that one up, Moffat.

Anyway, there is no excuse. Who isn’t simply a sucker for a Dalek? These most heinous of villains helped kick start this new ‘blockbuster’ series of Doctor Who – which, we’re told, will see the end of Amy Pond (Karen ‘Too Cool for Who’ Gillan) – but instead of even attempting an extermination of the Doctor (Matt Smith) the Daleks needed saving. Apparently, there was an anomaly that needed to be removed from the Dalek version of the Island of Misfit Toys – the Asylum of the Daleks (we also met the Prime Minister of the Daleks in the Parliament of the Daleks). The anomaly proved to be a rather annoying bird who suffered from a recurring delusion that her soufflés wouldn’t rise. Go tell it on the mountain, sister. In the end her fate was much worse but through her tragedy we witnessed the very boundaries of kitsch being pushed to a delightful critical mass: thousands of Daleks chanting ‘Doctor, who?’.

However, there are a few other pressing anomalies in the somewhat closer asylum of your current author’s mind. The Daleks were of course inspired by the Nazis to be a race of relentless, brutalised fascistic aliens – so why would they need a parliament? What is there to discuss? They at least all appear to be very well briefed and focused on their aims. And the chain of command: why a Prime Minister and a Supreme Dalek? These questions could presumably be discussed in great length at a sci-fi convention – lots of men gathered around shaking their heads, muttering ‘this never would’ve happened under Davros’ – but one might be harder pressed to find people willing to discuss the philosophy of the Daleks’ conception of hate as beautiful. Though, for our purposes, there’s never been a better way to switch to the subject of The X Factor (ITV1)…

Yes: singing, mediocre singing, bad singing, embarrassment, Mel B. We needn’t dwell on the details. Suffice to say that Simon Cowell’s dream found it’s embodiment a few weeks ago in a loathsome chap from Essex: he saw himself as a male equivalent of Lady Gaga, he had his own stylist, he was tanned of skin, bleached of hair, make-up, the works. He could not sing, but his view was that if he got his ‘look’ right then that was all that mattered. He was proven right with three yeses from the judges. And Gary Barlow was thus proven to be the last remaining sane person in show business.

If you have a penchant for staying in on Friday nights rather than Saturdays, BBC Two is currently the only channel worth watching: for Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End is a remarkable achievement. The glimmer of HBO’s involvement shines brightly through to give an edge over the Beeb’s usual period fodder and Benedict Cumberbatch (essentially Matt Smith with a diametrically opposed name) is mesmerisingly tight-lipped as the protagonist Christopher Tietjens. A cap must also surely be doffed to Stephen Graham (This is England, Boardwalk Empire) as Tietjens’s friend, Macmaster; is there an accent this man cannot produce and is anyone sure where indeed he’s actually from? One could mention all of the ensemble but you’ll hardly be surprised to know that the BBC does have a few competent casting directors.

Despite the immortal first sentence of Ford’s The Good Solider, the saddest story I’ve ever heard may well be Parade’s End. Tietjens who knows all things about everything and at first seems like a prisoner of duty, is actually the patron saint of those who are weary from carrying the weight of the world around and those who are utterly self-destructive when it comes to their own happiness. I am – obscurely – reminded of a scene from The West Wing where one of the characters, Toby, is rejected by his ex-wife because he is ‘just too sad’. This might seem unduly harsh, but not to those who know about such things – or know too much.

In a Culture Show special Alan Yentob was doing his best Alan Yentob – which is pretty good – in pursuit of the question Who on Earth Was Ford Madox Ford? The answer is simple. He was a brilliant writer whose books do not permit those who pick them up to remain the same person after they put them down. It probably came as a surprise to those of us who know and love not just his work but the man and his spirit to discover that he is forgotten, but if we can’t remember who won The X Factor last year then what chance has a man called Ford got?

(Originally written for SKRBBLR.com, September 2012.)