Monthly Archives: May 2015

#PhonePhill – Conversation #4: Dominic Carver

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This, right here, is what #PhonePhill is all about.

I’ve ‘known’ Dom for over a decade. Maybe eleven or twelve years … and yet in all that time I’ve never met him, never seen him in the flesh nor even heard his voice.

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Right back at the beginning of my career I joined TriggerStreet.com (which I’ve spoken about elsewhere) – a peer review website (now defunct) where writers could give and receive feedback on each others’ scripts.

If you’ve never done this kind of peer review, it’s priceless. First off you get to read and think about scripts. And I mean really think about them:

Did you like it? Why? Why not? What needs improving? What’s missing? Take it apart, learn how it works … and apply that to your own script.

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I read a hundred-plus scripts on that site. I received forty or fifty in return. Sometimes the feedback was useless, more often than not it was invaluable. I don’t know what the current peer-review websites are, but if you’re new, find them and participate the fuck out of them.

While I was active on TriggerStreet I had the good fortune to read and review one of Dom’s scripts. By an odd quirk of the random assignment system, he read one of my scripts in the same week.

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Brits were in a minority on TriggerStreet, so we messaged, we emailed … and have kept in semi-regular contact ever since. During the blog-boom a few years later, I read his, he read mine … we’re even still going when most of the rest have given up.

So I know Dom. He’s Dom. Yeah, I know Dom.

Except, I don’t. No really. In fact, I know him so little that when we phoned each other last week there was an awkward pause immediately after the first sentence each because neither of us sounds like we do in each other’s heads.

I guess this is the reverse of that weird moment when you see a radio personality for the first time … they’re not supposed to look like that!*

Well … Dom’s not supposed to sound like that. I can’t honestly say what he’s supposed to sound like … but he has the wrong voice.

Apparently, so do I.

But once we got over that hurdle, we had a good old natter.

As usual, the second thing which came up (after the normal conversation about someone I used to work with and is he really as bad to work with as everyone says?) was the Secret Writing Island (for I was there at the time), how it works and just … what the fuck?+

After that we just chatted about our careers, writing and life in general.

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Dom’s doing really well at the moment. It’s an exciting time for him and he’s making his mark. He’s always had talent. Ever since that first script I read of his, I could tell he knew what he was doing … but there was a time, not that long ago when it seemed like he would never get anywhere.

I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this, because it ends on a complimentary note.

For a while his blog was pretty much the go-to example of how not to represent yourself on the internet. It was negative, it was depressing, it was honest. Too honest.

Never be honest, kids.

And then, a couple of years back, it changed. Suddenly, pretty much overnight, it became an interesting, positive, useful insight into the life of a writer.

At around the same time, Dom’s career took off. People wanted to work with him. He won the Prequel to Cannes scriptwriting competition, that helped … but that’s not the full story. The full story, in Dom’s own words, is networking.

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He learnt how to do it and hasn’t looked back since.

Contrary to popular belief, there’s no old boys’ network keeping new writers out. There’s no secret handshakes or clubhouse or trouser-rolling-up going on. There’s just a bunch of human beings who like working with people they know.

Everyone likes working with people they know because people they don’t know might turn out to be weirdos.

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But conversely, everyone desperately wants to discover the next big thing. Everyone wants to be the person who discovered the greatest writing genius of our age.

No one’s trying to keep anyone out. Everyone wants your work … except there’s that first thing again – there are a lot of weirdos. How do you only work with people you know (and like^) whilst at the same time being the person who discovers the next big thing?

Tricky.

The answer is networking.

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Be a good writer. Learn that. Now be a good person. Be gregarious, be outgoing, chat to people when you have no agenda. Keep in touch with people, ask them about their kids (assuming they’ve told you they have kids – don’t ask if they’ve never mentioned it. Certainly don’t make unsolicited comments about the layout of their kids’ bedrooms).

Just be nice.

Dom goes to the Screenwriters’ Festival every year. Not for the sessions, but for the networking. Like he says, if you come away with one job it more than pays for the ticket.

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When you work with people, be nice to them. Be good at your job. At all aspects of your job and they’ll come back for more. Better than that, they’ll pass on your details to other people. They’ll recommend you.

And don’t give up. Keep trying. If what you’re doing isn’t working, but you think it might eventually … keep going. If you think it’s leading nowhere, be brave, try something new.

Recently Dom posted the first three pages of his new script … uh-oh, I thought. That’s either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid …

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Turns out it was incredibly brave and is working for him. He’s already had a director get in touch about reading the script.

Good things happen to people who know how to exploit their own talent. Dom didn’t seem to know … but (after a few false starts) he’s worked it out.

I’m really glad I got the chance to talk with Dom. It was interesting and informative. Hopefully, one day, we’ll get to meet in person.

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So … who’s next? I’d really love to talk to a woman next time, it’s far too testosterone-y in here. Are you a woman? Do you have a telephone (or Skype) and a voice?

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If so, no matter who you are or what you do, get in touch and we’ll work out a time for a lovely chat.

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In my head, Mark Kermode looks like Gok Wan. I don’t know why, he just does.

I love my Secret Writing Island. I love that the truth behind it, the mechanism which allows me to work at an undisclosed Caribbean location, is even more brilliant than people imagine. I’m here right now. This is the view!

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This is so ridiculously important. It’s more important than talent alone. Imagine the worst bell-end you’ve ever met … and then imagine volunteering to work closely with them for two to seven years to make a film.

Now imagine the next most talented person is really, really lovely. True, they’re not a towering genius … they’re merely really, really good at their job.$

Who do you want to work with? Bearing in mind so many things will go wrong during production that the quality of the script is almost incidental to the process?

Being nice is part of the job.

Categories: #PhonePhill | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Competition

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Competition. I’m not afraid of it, are you?

That’s not to say I’m confident I can out-write any other writer, far from it. In fact, if anything, I tend to assume everyone else is better than me and I need to try harder.

Those of you who’ve seen any of the films I’ve written might well agree. Those of you who understand the filmmaking process might well decide to reserve judgement until after you’ve read one of the scripts they were loosely based on.

Either way, I rarely compare myself favourably to anyone else.

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And still I’m not afraid of a bit of competition.

Every project I’ve ever worked on has involved a degree of competition. Every co-written job has me jostling with the co-writer to get my ideas and my lines into the script instead of his.

When I was writing sketches, I was competing with dozens of other writers. Sometimes I won, sometimes I didn’t. When I didn’t, it was because I either wasn’t good enough or someone else was just better.

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Every time I submit a script to anyone I’m competing with every other script on the market. Competition is just what the job is … so I was amazed to hear this story from a fellow writer:

The gist of it is she was contacted by a produced and repped writer who had an idea he didn’t have time to write – would she be interested in writing it for him in return for a co-writing credit? There’s no money upfront, but he’ll take it to his agent and hawk it round his producer contacts.

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Now … yeah.

This is a really odd thing for one writer to ask another. It’s just not cricket … but, it’s not unheard of. It does happen. Sort of. I’ve collaborated with friends with no money involved with the intention of selling the script afterwards.

It happens.

I get contacted every couple of months by someone with a similar propostion – will you write my fantastic idea for me? I’ll split the writing credit and if we sell it …

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I’ll write it for a fee for sole writing credit and if you sell it, you can pay me the rest.

These request usually come from people who aren’t writers, producers or anything else in the industry. They come from people who have an (usually crap) idea and a whim.

They rarely consider offering to pay me for my time and effort.

Well, almost never.

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But this case was different.

This was an established writer (ostensibly) looking to enter into a mutually beneficial deal with a new writer. He even offered to let the writer take the script if they couldn’t sell it within a specified time period … so essentially it’s an unproduced writer writing a spec script with the assistance and input of a produced writer who was better placed to sell it than she was.

Probably worth a gamble.

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Hell, she thought, I may even get representation out of it since he’s going to show it to his agent. If I do a good job he’ll probably recommend me.

So she signed a contract (good start) and got to work.

After a lot of faffing and pointless, terrible notes later they had a script he liked. She didn’t, but he clearly knew more than her so she went with his opinion.

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At the end of the specified period, he reneged on the contract because he liked the script and wanted to keep it. She hated the script, so … fine. Keep it. But, um, since you liked my work so much, would you mind recommending me to your agent?

No. Or rather, yes. Yes he would mind. He wasn’t going to recommend her because she writes the same kind of stuff as him and he doesn’t want the competition.

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I believe, correct me if I’m wrong, but this is what the words “utter fucking shitbag” were invented for.

Absolutely fucking appalling behaviour from an utter coward.

I just don’t understand that kind of behaviour. I love championing new writers. I love it when I find someone better than me, because I get to watch something exceptionally well written which I can fall in love with and learn from.

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Michelle Lipton, Piers Beckley, Danny Stack, Rosie Claverton, Dominic Carver, Jason Arnopp, James Moran, Tim Clague, Paul Campbell, Julie Bower … fuck it, everyone on the blogroll to the right, all of them are better writers than me. You should hire them, all of them. You should be banging on their doors (I have their addresses) and offering them work.

But you know what? Come see me too. I may not be as good as them, but I may surprise you.

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Competition is good, it raises the bar for everyone and forces us all to continually up our game.

I’m not afraid of competition and genuinely don’t understand anyone who is.

Categories: Industry Musings, My Way, Someone Else's Way | Tags: | 1 Comment

#PhonePhill – Conversation #3: Andrew Mullins

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This installment of my quest to talk to actual real life people is a bit of a special one.

Ten years ago I got married.

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This was a lovely thing to happen and since it continues to be a lovely thing ten years later, Mandy and I felt a party was in order.

As an aside, the party was fantastic, thank you so much to everyone who attended. We had it at Eastbourne’s Tennis in the Park, Love All Cafe, catered by a friend whose hobby-cooking far outstrips most professional chefs.

Ten years ago we reformed my teenage school-band for a one-off reunion gig.

Ten years later we once again rocked the party with our lukewarm ineptness.

Mandy even joined in which made the whole thing much more apt and much more fun.

As is traditional with these things, we contacted everyone who attended the wedding and invited them along. As is also traditional, most people beyond a certain radius didn’t make it.

This happens. People are busy, travel is expensive, life gets in the way.

But apologies-for-nonattendance opens up avenues of communication which have dried up over the years. Not through any malice or falling out but just because sometimes the gentle ebb and flow of life takes us in different directions.

Enter, Andy.

Andy and I (and a third chap, Jason, who’s now a regional manager for Cineworld) entered the movie industry at the same time: October 1992

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Okay, so we were cinema ushers but it still counts. It fucking does!

Andy was studying to be a teacher. Jason was studying … um … something. Media? I had recently been thrown out of university for being tragically stupid.

The three of us became firm friends and have kept in increasingly sporadic touch ever since. Long after we left the cinema, Swansea and even Wales behind we continued to think of each other as friends.

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But then there was that gentle parting of the ways. We’re still friends, we just somehow rarely find time for each other. I’m not 100% certain I’ve actually spoken to him since the wedding … but I must have done? Surely?

This is exactly what this whole #PhonePhill thing is about – making time to talk to people, old and new.

So we had a chat.

Andy remains one of my favourite people on the planet. He’s so relentlessly positive and cheerful and … nice. That sounds awful because we tend to associate those qualities with insipid … but Andy’s far from that.

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He’s no pushover, he’s a rare gem, a genuinely wonderful person who’s also interesting and fun and all-round inspiring. Andy’s a primary school teacher and loves his job. His passion and enthusiasm for his kids is a lesson all in itself. He’s the epitome of a man who’s found his niche in life and loves it.

He’s a family man with boundless energy and affection for the people he loves … an affection which spills over into all other areas of his life. I don’t know if he actually realises how special this makes him. I don’t know if he forces himself to look for the positives in any given situation, but he certainly finds them.

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Case in point: a few years before the wedding, Andy became seriously, life-threateningly ill. I’m not going to disclose his personal information online, but it was pretty grim. The treatment was even grimmer.

But he pulled through.

More amazing than that, as he completed every stage of his treatment he could be found online helping other people across the globe deal with their upcoming or ongoing treatment.

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He doesn’t see this as a big deal, just something anyone would do in his position.

Since then, after beating the odds and fathering two more children, Andy’s discovered he’s got another serious, potentially life-threatening issue; and a mobility issue which although wouldn’t end his life, threatened to put an end to the kind of sport-filled life he loves.

This year he underwent a fairly major procedure to correct the mobility issue and will have to (at some point in the near future) have to undergo another one to cure the underlying life-threatening one.

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Andy’s take on these three medical calamities? Any one of which would destroy most people?

“I’m so lucky really, because the top hospital in the country for the first problem is just down the road and the top guy for the mobility issue works in a different local hospital and I’ve been able to see the pre-eminent specialist for the other thing.”

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I’ve always said that my affection for Superman stems not from his ability to fly or see through walls or punch through solid steel but for his innate humanity. To me, Superman’s greatest power is his ability to see the best in people, to expect them to aspire to better things and to assume the world is fundamentally a good place.

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I find this an admirable, aspirational trait. One I try to copy. Every time I read a Superman comic, I head out into the world intent on believing the best of everyone … it never lasts long.

Andy has that skill. He has that outlook and it’s wonderful. He inspires me and I aspire to be more like him.

Chatting to him on Monday was wonderful, I hope it becomes a regular thing. I only wish we lived closer because I would love my daughter to have him to look up to.

So there you are #PhonePhill #3.

Who’s next? Who fancies a natter about stuff? Email me and we’ll work something out.

Categories: #PhonePhill | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

How to write the perfect cameo

Sorry, there should be a question mark on that title because the truth is I don’t know. Haven’t the Scoobiest.

What I do know is the later a cameo is chucked into the script (generally) the worse it will be.

If a client said at the outline stage “Let’s write a really meaty cameo in the hope of attracting a decent actor.” then it’s pretty easy to work it into the fabric of the story, primarily because there isn’t a story yet.

At every stage after that it becomes harder and harder until you get the worst kind of cameo, the one which is inserted after principle photography has wrapped.

“I’ve just bumped into *insert name of someone who may or may not have a cult following or moderate box office success* and we HAVE to get them into the film.”

Really? We have to? Absolutely have to?

Because we’re currently struggling to piece the film together after you fired half the cast mid-shoot, cast people you fancied as opposed to people who could act and decided to shoot all the close, personal, intimate bedroom scenes in the middle of a rock gig.

Chucking in a random scene which has no connection to the plot just so you can put this woman’s name on the DVD cover isn’t going to make the film any better.

But the problem is, it will help sell the DVD … initially. For an incredibly short period of time.

Because the absolute worst thing about late-in-the-process-cameos is distributors tend to slap their name on the cover as if they’re the star of the film. Their fans buy the DVD in dribbles and get pissed off because their favourite star isn’t actually in the film at all.

Okay, there’s a single scene in there which features the actor but since it was filmed on a different day in a different location with none of the original cast … it’s hardly IN the film, is it?

And that’s another problem with cameos – we can rarely shoot them in the same location/set as the bulk of the story. At best we get to include one of the principle cast.

So are the best cameos the ones where you didn’t know the actor was going to appear? Is it more fun to suddenly go “Hey! It’s whats-her-face! I didn’t know she was in this!” or to spend the whole film waiting to see her, only to find out she has a three-minute comedy turn in a newsagent selling a pack of Toffos to a minor character who, for no reason whatsoever, has paused in the middle of a car chase, mysteriously changing his hair do and his trousers+ in order to purchase some teeth-gumming sweeties?

I think the former is better.

Every single distributor in the whole world would disagree.

In the absolute worst case scenario, they’ll rebrand the whole movie as a different genre (the one the cameo star is famous for) and sell the DVD as something it’s not to people who would never have bought it in the first place. Those people will (rightly) hate the movie for it not being what they were told it was and slag it off to anyone who’ll listen and plenty who won’t.

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Self-defeating, I think. But then I don’t have access to the sales figures nor the brain to interpret them properly, so I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about.

I do know I’ve just been asked to include a cameo for someone in a feature script which is currently casting. Getting that actor involved would be absolutely fucking amazingly awesome, literally the high-watermark of my career.

But I don’t want it to derail the story. I don’t want the story to screech to a complete standstill, shift to a different location for a pointless scene and then struggle to pick up momentum afterwards.

Luckily, neither does the client.

Luckily he’s easily one of my favourite clients when it comes to lavishing care and attention on the script. He really, really cares about making it the best it can possibly be and is absolutely adamant that whereas getting this actor involved would be amazing, it must not interfere with what we already have.

How nice is that?

Even more luckily, there does seem to be a way to do exactly that. The cameo feels like it’s meant to be there. It feels relevant. It feels as if it was always there and is one of the key scenes which helps explain the actions of one of the main characters.

It even manages to solve the knotty problem of why someone who’s clearly American would coincidentally be in England three times over a ten year period at exactly the times we’re telling the story without actually living here.

It’s also funny and moving and tragic all at the same time.

Unusually I’m rather proud of it. This is a new emotion for me since I mostly feel I could probably do better.

Pride, an emotional cameo in my life.

Hopefully it won’t come before a fall.

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I hate using the word actor as a non-gender word. I understand the logic behind it, as was explained to me by the great Piers Beckley “You don’t call a female pilot a pilotess or doctor a doctress, so why use it for actors you big old sexist?”. Yeah, that makes sense … except (rightly or wrongly. Mostly wrongly) the default mental image for an actor, pilot or doctor is a man.^ Test this for yourself, tell a story about a trip to the doctor and end with an unanswered question. I bet you almost everyone will ask you “Well, what did HE say?” – even other female doctors.

Mind you, that might be because some people still peddle the myth that ‘he’ should always be used when the gender is unknown. That is of course proper bollocks.

Maybe there should be female words for all professions to reinforce the idea that women also do those roles? Maybe the term ‘actress’ is LESS sexist because it gives women their own name as opposed to having to adopt the male name for it?

Or maybe not.

It does make casting a teensy bit more awkward when you have to explain you’re looking for a female actor as opposed to just using one word ‘actress’.

I like to alternate pronouns in my blogs he/she hers/his, etc … when I just use the word ‘actor’ over and over again I worry people think I’m only talking about men.

I probably worry too much.

+ The trousers change because this scene has been shot three months later and the original trousers have been eaten by ninjas. Nobody knows why ninjas eat trousers, but they do. It’s a fact.

^As evidenced in the pilot-psych question:

“What would you do if you were on a night-stop and the Captain came down to the bar in a dress?”

The correct answer of course being “Offer to buy her a drink.” Or more likely, get her to buy you a drink because Captains are fucking minted.

Categories: Industry Musings, My Way | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

#PhonePhill – Conversation #2: Robin Bell

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Strangely enough, more than one person fancies a natter and so we’ve actually made it to Conversation #2.

This time it’s Robin Bell, a guy I have actually met and really enjoyed chatting to.

Robin’s a writer/director/producer and co-creator of Twisted Showcase, an online anthology series beloved by The Guardian.

Robin and I met at the BBC’s TV Drama Writing Festival in Leeds and instantly became best mates.

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For the day.

Or two days, possibly.

Actually, maybe I’m overstating that a little. I like the bloke anyway.

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He’s a nice guy with interesting stuff to say. He’s carving out his career and, by co-creating Twisted Showcase, has taken his career into his own hands.

Why don’t more of us do things like this? It’s really not that hard in the 21st Century to shoot stuff which looks half-decent, so why do so many of us wait for other people to do it for us?

I don’t know. If I did, maybe I’d be making my own stuff too?

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Chat roamed across what we’d done since last we met, what we want to do next, TV gems like episode 2 of series 2 of Inside No. 9

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… and TV-not-so-gems like the last season of Doctor Who.*

As usual, Robin proved himself personable and easy-going. He’s a nice. I like Robin.

So there you have it, #PhonePhill the sequel.

Anyone else fancy a random chat? You can be someone I know or someone I don’t. You can be a fellow writer or not. Someone connected to the industry or someone with a proper, less frustrating job. We can chat about anything you like, whatever takes your fancy.

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Drop me a line and we’ll see what we can work out.

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Stuff.

More stuff.

*I struggled with this much more than Robin did. He warmed to it halfway through, I cooled continuously until it went from a show I was prepared to pay to see in the cinema … to one I had on in the background a couple of days later whilst I was doing something else.

If you’ll indulge me:

The problem I had was threefold:

1) They seemed to think the best route to take here was to make the Doctor fundamentally unlikeable. I’m not convinced this is a good idea, it certainly didn’t seem to work very well for Colin Baker and I’m not convinced repeating that unglorious period of Who-History is the way forward.

It worked though. It was brilliantly written and did exactly what it was meant to do … made me not like the Doctor.

2) They seemed to feel the need to apologise profusely and continuously for casting an older, non-sexy Doctor. This highlighted over and over again how little confidence they had in their own decision. Why mention it at all? Why not just bang on with the story and drag people along for the ride?

“This is who the Doctor is now, he’s still awesome, come with us and enjoy the fun!”

As opposed to:

“I’m really sorry. Really sorry. It won’t be that bad. Honest. Look how old and wrinkly he is. Had you noticed how old and wrinkly he is? I bet you’re really upset about how old and wrinkly he is, but just give us a chance. Please give us a chance, it might not be that bad. Look, here’s the young sexy Doctor giving you permission to like the wrinkly old one. Except … we don’t want you to like him because he’s a bit of a nob. Just tolerate him for a bit. He’ll probably die soon anyway given how old and wrinkly he is.”

And so on. For what felt like weeks and weeks and weeks …

3) New-Who clearly establishes that companions are chosen to travel with the Doctor and only the brightest and best are allowed onboard. Even in this series, a potential companion who has all the attributes needed, is refused travel because she has one tiny flaw – she’s a soldier.

Being a companion is an honour reserved for the precious few.

Clara is the precious few. She’s the chosen one. Only she, out of the whole universe, has the right qualities to earn her place on the TARDIS … and she isn’t really sure if she wants to.

“I would come and explore the furthest frontiers of space and time, bearing sole witness to the most amazing sights the universe has to offer … but Eastenders is on and I’ve got some homework to mark and … maybe next week?”

Companions do tend to leave the Doctor because they crave a normal life. That usually happens over the course of one story.

Clara took an entire season to think about it.

If you haven’t worked it out, I don’t really like Clara.

This left me watching a show about a guy I wasn’t supposed to like hanging around the flat of a woman who wasn’t sure if she liked him either. There are two characters – one is deliberately unlikeable. The other is (presumably) accidentally unlikeable. Enjoy!

But never mind, the good thing about Doctor Who is next year will be something completely different.

Categories: #PhonePhill, Someone Else's Way | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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