Monday, November 4, 2013

Doctor Who Retrospective: The Doctor Who Cookbook

Allons-y! Into the world of cooking with Doctor Who. That's right, cooking.

When I graduated from high school in the early 90s, I asked for one thing as my graduation present: plane tickets to Great Britain. That summer I toured much of England, including a day trip to the Longleat Estate, which at the time housed a well-loved Doctor Who exhibit. After passing through the rooms of models, costumes, and monsters, we arrived at a modest gift shop window, and I considered what to add to my collection that would not break the bank, and asked the matronly shop clerk for advice. "Well, it may seem a bit unusual, but this is really my favorite," she said, holding up a paperback featuring a Cyber-maitre d', Dalek waiter, and Yeti chef on the cover. Its title? The Doctor Who Cookbook. Sold. As both a longtime Whovian and collector of recipes, to date it is one of my favorite possessions, let alone Doctor Who collectibles

I know, after promising a look over Classic and New Who in its evolution talking about a cookbook seems strange. But given my erratic and distant updates, let's have some fun. (I had another update discussing the evolution of the Cybermen, but that seems to have been lost in Cyberspace. You and your retrospectives belong to us. They shall be deleted. I blame Mercury retrograde.) To the meat of the matter:

The Doctor Who Cookbook was published in 1985 by Gary Downie, at the time the production manager for the show. He apparently wrote to every person that he knew somehow was connected to Doctor Who since the beginning and asked them for recipes. What resulted was a phenomenal collection of recipes submitted by actors, producers, directors, and crew members who all at some point in the last 22 years had worked on Doctor Who. Every contributor has their own bio, making it valuable to any Whovian, even a non-foodie, for the nice blurbs on the lives of those connected to the show, and nearly every page is adorned with glorious hand-drawn cartoons by a woman named Gail Bennett of the Doctor, his companions, and his foes. Marvel at Leela swinging down on a vine to throw some veggies into the stew simmering below, Lexa serving Meglos's head on a platter, or Tegan seething at Adric for eating all of the tasty hors d'oeuvres she'd just made. They really are very charming. There's an insert of full color photos of the some of the current cast of Doctor Who testing recipes. By "current" I mean of course "current" in 1985: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, and special guest Fraser Hines, who had reprised his role of Jamie in "The Two Doctors" serial that had aired relatively recently. Director Fiona Cumming oversaw taste-testing of cake.

A lot of the recipes were granted some Whovian flare where possible. Many recipes were named punnishly, incorporating in character and creature names, such as Maureen O'Brien's "Vickissoise," Nerys Hughes "Todd in the Hole," and Patrick Troughton's "Vegetable Soup with Dalek Krotons." (The latter might be a bit obscure to suss out: garlic croutons.) Others played on titles in other ways--the first Romana submitted "Time Lady Tzatziki" and the second "Extra-Terrestrial Terrine." Some played no games--Janet Fielding wanted full personal credit for "Fielding's Favorite Souffle" (but I have to wonder how Oswald's compares?). Others went full tilt, suggesting alien ingredients, like longtime Doctor Who writer Terrance Dicks informing the reader to only substitute in prime rib of beef if a proper Gallifreyan banjixx cannot be procured and butchered. The best recipe of course is producer Barry Letts' recipe, titled only "?"

I hope the Downie estate will forgive me if I reproduce part of ? here. This recipe follows a description from Barry Letts, who claims to have learned the recipe from an obliging Venusian caterer (adding that sulphuric acid rain was terrible on the location crew's equipment):


from Barry Letts, published in the Doctor Who Cookbook, copyright 1985 Gary Downie

3 oz/85 g per head of blim tree worms
4 oz/113 g per head of runcle grease
1 oz/28 g per head of nossy bulbs
Grated snadge, to taste.

Boil the worms al dente (15-20 minutes). Crush the nossy bulbs and fry lightly in the melted runcle grease. Stir in the worms, season to taste, and serve with a sprinkling of grated snadge.

The book suggests substitution with more easily available terran ingredients but I'll let you figure out for yourself what they might be. I will note however that at least when I have boiled blim tree worms or their equivalent, they seldom take as long as 15-20 minutes to get to the point of being al dente. I would follow the instructions on the packaging. The cookbook also contains a recipe called Mena's Tachyonic Sauce which would be excellent with this fine example of Venusian cuisine.

As a fan of all food everywhere, I just love the cookbook for its variety. While it contains fairly simple recipes like ? and what is apparently an "exotic" American specialty, corned beef hash, there are also some fairly elaborate or exotic dishes, like the above mentioned E.T. Terrine and Fielding's Ocker Balls, which involve pastry and a filling involving oysters, roe, and other rich things. It's also nice as a British cookbook, as while we sometimes like to make fun of British food, it includes useful, easy versions of British dishes that really are quite tasty and worth trying, like Toad in the Hole (well, Todd) and Sticky Toffee Pudding. Of course there's also Russian, Polish, Greek and other largely European cuisines, a few Indian-inspired dishes as well, and some homebrewed concoctions. One of my favorites is Louise Jameson's "Leela's Savage Savoury," which is sauteed red cabbage, zucchini, and bell peppers, seasoned with ginger and chili, and doused with cream--yum.

So why discuss this, beyond sharing with you the contents of a likely very hard to find Doctor Who collectible? Besides the fact that my second favorite topic of discussion is food.

First, this book came out at an interesting time in Doctor Who's history. I don't think Downie knew it when he first solicited recipes, but it ended up getting published around the time the show went on its first hiatus. I have no idea how well it sold, but its publication and presence showed that people were interested in Doctor Who at a time when the BBC was seriously considering letting it go (this first hiatus ended, fortunately, not too long after. The second in 1989, however, kept the show off the air for 16 years). It is as I say a treasure trove of many of the personalities who contributed to the show over the years, and in its own unique way helped celebrate the show's history at a time when some very much undervalued it.

Secondly, recipes are often rather personal, even if they do not reveal what is necessarily private (and thank goodness!). Recipes frequently come with stories attached (some of which are included in the book), and the recipe a person chooses to submit helps reflect their personality, their lives. The food we love is often attached to memories of family and friends. And not only does the book feature a vast array of Doctor Who cast and crew, it features submissions from many people who now have passed away. (Sadly, Richard Hurndall, who played One in "The Five Doctors" died only four days after he had sent his recipe to Gary Downie.) How lovely to have a record of what is a little piece of them, even if it's just a nice dessert recipe someone served to their kids on Saturday nights.Or at least amusing to learn things like the apparent fact that Mark Strickson at that point in his life needed recipes gentle enough to prepare when hung over.

Finally, it is the utter bizarreness of this book--a cookbook--that is what makes it awesome as a collectible. We can have buckets of action figures and series encyclopedias, but this really is something a bit different.

I admit, my friends, there is a part of me that unfortunately has a bit of a old-fogey-meets-hipster attitude about Doctor Who fandom. I liked Doctor Who before it was cool, and you young nuWhovians can get off my lawn. I walked into Barnes and Noble yesterday and front and center there was a great big Doctor Who display, featuring encyclopedias, novels, DVDs, plushies, toy sonic screwdrivers, and so on. Truly, part of me was excited--how cool to see something I loved be displayed front and center! But another part of me felt disappointed. It largely looked like a pile of cookie cutter merchandise, identical except in branding to the Twilight or Marvel's Avengers or Harry Potter stuff before. When I was a young Whovian in the 80s and 90s, I would scour store shelves for anything Doctor Who I could find. It really took a lot of looking and work, but finding this Peter Haining retrospective or that Target novel felt really special because of how much time it took. There was enough of a Doctor Who fandom in my area, thanks to my local PBS station at the time, that you could find stuff, but it did take some dedication and whatever you found really felt like a treasure. To have it in mass abundance is at one hand, a well-deserved acknowledgement of just how great this show is, how long it has lasted. But it also kind of means that's been massively commercialized, and there's not a lot of room for individuality, for the really weird niche doodads like the Doctor Who Cookbook.

Or... maybe I'm wrong. Honestly, I think an idea like this is long overdue for revisitation. How does Oswald's souffle compare to Fielding's? Is it high time we got an official recipe for fish fingers and custard in print? Anyway, folks, let's get creative.

And if you want some fun recipe ideas for a 50th Anniversary Party.... drop me a line.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Doctor Who Retrospective: The First Doctor, Fear, and the Nature of the Companion

“Fear makes companions of us all, Miss Wright.” — the First Doctor, “100,000 B.C.”

The new (2005­–present) series emphasizes the Doctor’s choice to travel with companions because he enjoys seeing the universe through his companions’ eyes. The Doctor takes great glee in showing them how beautiful and diverse the cosmos is, and we may mistake the Doctor's search for a sense of wonder as his only motivation. We forget that the Doctor’s journey began in fear—fear of going home, fear of never going home, fear of being discovered by the wrong people, fear of the endless dangers of traveling through time and space. Even so, this fear led him to taking on companions, and benefiting from companionship. And indeed, to this day, his companions often reflect some aspect or another of the original TARDIS crew, their presence as much a security blanket as it is a source of joy.

The Doctor and his granddaughter Susan ran away from Gallifrey. The exact reasons why are still amongst the core mysteries of Doctor Who; we know that they refer to themselves as “exiles.” We learn much later that the Doctor not only stole his TARDIS in their flight from Gallifrey but also an astral engineering device known as the Hand of Omega. The Doctor possibly objected to something the Time Lords were going to do--or perhaps to their refusal to do something. Whatever the reason, the Doctor and Susan cannot go home; they are afraid of going home. The Doctor is also afraid of being discovered—revealing Time Lord technology to less advanced societies could expose people to things they are not ready for, and could expose him to the people he and Susan are running away from. The Doctor is afraid of harm coming to Susan, likely the only living family he has (the Second Doctor in “Tomb of the Cybermen” suggests his family is “sleeping in his mind”—in other words, they exist only in memories he dares call on only occasionally). And thus, the Doctor is in fact afraid of Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright when they turn up looking for Susan in the Totter’s Lane junkyard.

Some fans, especially newer fans, are critical of how nasty the Doctor is to Ian and Barbara in Doctor Who’s first story, “An Unearthly Child.” Used to an outwardly friendly Doctor who loves humanity, these fans are perplexed by a Doctor who does not trust and is even verbally abusive to human beings. One must absolutely bear in mind two things: first, the Doctor you see in later stories had to get that way somehow; the beginning of the story shows the start of that process, and trust is not only usually earned, but also learned. Second, the story clearly sets up Ian and Barbara as the heroes—after the pan shot of the junkyard to establish its mystery, Ian and Barbara are introduced, and their personalities, interests, and concern for Susan are what drives them and the story; it is their quest to help Susan that is the plot. The Doctor is not the protagonist; he is in fact, technically, the show’s first antagonist, because he is the obstacle Ian and Barbara must overcome. Ian and Barbara's eventual triumph is that he joins the protagonists’ side. The show is called “Doctor Who” because it is the mystery of this “Doctor” which causes the heroes Ian and Barbara to get into the adventures they get; he is a driving force, a focus. Not till later does the Doctor also become the primary hero (in my opinion, however, that the best Doctor Who stories are those where TARDIS team, as an ensemble, are the protagonists, not where the Doctor alone is set up as the sole hero and the companions are the plot devices).

Most importantly, though, you have to accept and realize that the reason the Doctor is being a jerk is because he’s scared out of his mind. Look at it from his point of view: two adults have followed his teen granddaughter home. This alone is a little creepy, and he does not truly know why they have followed Susan (he does not know they are her teachers until later in the scene). He is trying to keep them from entering his ship, the knowledge of which he is afraid will cause them to contact Earth's authorities. For all he knows, they may be scientists or government officials tracking down his device (such as the proto-UNIT-like organization seen in “Remembrance of the Daleks,” which takes place in Earth chronology a few days after “An Unearthly Child”). He doesn’t know Earth or humanity very well yet. Susan is still the new girl in school; she has been at best there a few weeks, maybe months, and she has done most of the interacting with other human beings. Not to mentions, we humans have often proven to ourselves, let alone the universe, that we have a very ugly dark side. His goal isn’t to be mean to Ian and Barbara for no reason; his goal is to protect Susan and the TARDIS and from those who would fail to understand them and might hurt them or misuse knowledge of the TARDIS’s existence for their own gain. He takes off so Ian and Barbara won’t tell anyone about him, Susan, or the TARDIS. He is too frightened to take the chance that they would just leave it alone.

Soon enough they find themselves 100,000 years or so in the past, and at the mercies of the tribe of Gum. He realizes that first, Ian and Barbara are capable, and second, that Ian and Barbara have a vested interest in keeping each other and Susan safe. They are not selfish, and they are allied with his family. He comes to the right conclusion: he needs to stop bickering with them, and start using his incredible knowledge to help them. Barbara questions him—he had been irritatingly irascible until then, and he explains his helpful actions honestly with the quote above. He will work with them, because he is afraid not to. Fondness, respect come later, but soon. His fear forces him to work with them—and then he sees what they can do. Earlier he fights with Ian about who is “leader” of their group; later, the Doctor elects Ian to the position—and while the Doctor probably sees himself as head of their team in truth, he realizes Ian better serves as their spokesperson under the circumstances.

The Doctor turns to Ian and Barbara as allies because they help protect him. They do things he cannot—he may be brilliant, but he does not have Ian and Barbara’s empathy or at least their willingness to rely upon it as a benefit rather than a curse. In their third adventure, “Edge of Destruction,” Barbara accuses him of lacking both gratitude and common sense. The tirade takes him aback—he only then realizes how much they have contributed to their survival over the course of their adventures. Barbara is the one who shows him the TARDIS’s telepathic capabilities—he wasn’t aware of their extent until she deciphers the “message” the TARDIS was trying to tell them. So learning to see things through others’ eyes is a good thing, yes—suddenly, a dormant sympathy awakens in him.

BARBARA: "What do you care what I think or feel?"
DOCTOR: "As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves."

The Doctor apologizes for his behavior. From “An Unearthly Child” through “Edge of Destruction,” we actually see one of the best emotional journeys the Doctor ever goes on, in any of his adventures—one where he learns to stop being afraid of companionship. The Doctor’s journey to trust is one that is relatively slow, but is appropriate, and all the more valuable for its subtle but profound effect on the stories that follow.

At the same time, the journey had to begin with fear. He never would have opened up to them were it not his own fear of them—leading to their capture—and fear of being without them—fear of death at the hands of mutual enemies. And he realizes, traveling with the people who become his friends makes thoughts of exile less cold and dark and frightening. His brief encounter with the “Meddling Monk” notwithstanding, the Doctor learns to forget about Gallifrey for a very long time, not until they capture him much later in the final Second Doctor story, “The War Games.” By then, he is less afraid and more outraged of "home" asserting its existence—the only fear there ultimately, is of Zoe and Jamie forgetting him.

The Doctor is still afraid. Now in a later part of his journey, he is afraid of losing people as much as he is afraid of facing the universe without them. Such is the "curse" of learning to benefit from friendship. The Eleventh Doctor’s dance between traveling with Amy and Rory but trying to leave them home between adventures reflects this strange attempt at balancing this fear. But he travels with people not just because he enjoys their company, or even because he enjoys seeing their adventures through his friends’ eyes, but also because they protect him. Their insights and bravery have saved him as often as his amazing abilities allows him to protect and rescue them when they need it. And he does so, because he knows a universe without companions scarcely bears considering. 

Unsurprisingly, nearly all the companions have traits originally found in Ian, Barbara, or Susan (many of the individual traits listed cross over between each other).

Ian: Bravery, strength, willingness to fight, rationality, scientific curiosity.

Barbara: Emotional bravery, emotional/social curiosity, kindness, and willingness to speak up against wrongs—especially when the Doctor is wrong.

Susan: Brilliance coupled with innocence, youthful stubbornness, an openness to learning about new people (the Doctor learned this from his own granddaughter before it became his own trait), has a youthfulness or vulnerability that sparks a protective instinct in the Doctor.

The Doctor needs all of these traits in his companions in some combination to balance out his own brilliance, arrogance, curiosity, and powerful sense of justice. So he has someone to bounce ideas off of, someone to teach, someone to protect, and someone to, in the words of one of Barbara’s successors, “stop him.”

But most of all, he needs them so he doesn’t have to be afraid.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Doctor Who: The beginnings of a retrospective

When I was about 4 years old, during a family vacation, a teen friend of the family insisted flipping on PBS on a certain day and hour, to watch something with weird swirly credits and a dapper man in an old fashioned outfit, who was very intent on stopping an infestation of giant maggots (ew). This vague memory of Doctor Who's "The Green Death" imprinted itself on my mind, with both its horrific and fantastical aspects. A few years later, my sister and I rebelliously stayed up late Saturday nights to watch Doctor Who on PBS, which at the time was showing Tom Baker and then Peter Davison's episodes. It seemed like fantasy one moment, such as with the castles and vampires of "State of Decay," and amazing science fiction the next, such as with the alien ark on "Four to Doomsday." And though I am not always a fan of horror, the horrific elements were what really drew me in--specifically, watching Tegan be slowly seduced and possessed by the Mara in "Kinda" reeled me in and transformed me from casual watcher to complete obsessive. Tegan was eventually freed from possession; I was not at the age of 11 and still to this day at 37, am not. I have relished my "Whovian" status throughout.

Doctor Who is, as you very likely know, on its way to celebrating its 50th anniversary in November; we also have about 36 seasons plus a series of specials and one TV movie, which is ground- and record- breaking for a science-fiction series. There is much to be celebrated and admired, and all because someone had the brilliant idea for the series: "grumpy but amazing madman in box can travel anywhere." Absolute emphasis on "anywhere." I love the line very early in the series that mentions the Doctor's TARDIS being able to travel "forwards, backwards, and sideways" in time and space. The very idea of "sideways in time and space" is brilliant, and frankly the potential of that last bit still has been barely untapped.

I have the grand intention of writing a retrospective series; having ADD of the type that helps me be an expert and dedicated procrastinator, what I actually accomplish related to this is questionable, to be frank. But we shall at least have this introductory piece, yes? Perhaps I will manage later to fold time sideways and get all my other intended actions in eventually.

Anyway, what I wish to do is explore Doctor Who from the beginning, exploring a few key chosen episodes of each Doctor, and as the muse speaks, perhaps some of the companions, foes, and other major elements of the series as well. Because I am a longtime oldschool Whovian, I will get tetchy and critical of seemingly unimportant minutia, as that is a requirement for the job. But I will also endeavor to express my deep love for the series whenever possible, and at length--and moreover, to point out the silver linings in clouds sometimes mocked, if not for their darkness, then for their shoddy craftmanship and purported shallowness.

A critical thing to accept when enjoying Doctor Who through its half a century of existence is that it, like the Doctor himself, is ever changing and evolving and looking and acting just a little bit different. At the beginning, it was a children's show with the intent to educate about science and history folded within its imaginative premises. In the 70s, it went from near military-action-drama to horror series, to a light hearted-sci fi with satiric elements. When I became a fan in the 80s, in the United States at least it was seen as a cult show for largely nerdy teens and adults (even if the BBC increasingly outdatedly classified it as children's entertainment, even when it wasn't really majority children who were watching it worldwide). Perhaps we can agree (although that's unlikely, given Whovians seldom agree on anything) that it is now a science-fiction dramedy, written with the intent to appeal to littles and bigs alike. I think it's rather a great fallacy to point at one era and say "Now that's Doctor Who! But that, that bit, that isn't at all"--to do so would be like pointing at Matt Smith and saying he is the Doctor, but that Tom Baker never was. Doctor Who is a huge and changing and sometimes a confusing timey-wimey ball of stuff, but it needs to be accepted for all that it is to be appreciated fully. This doesn't mean we can't dislike or disagree with it at times, but all of its times and relative dimensions must be taken in and accepted as part of the greater whole. What is truly amazing about the series is that for as old as it is and as much of it has changed, how much we can still recognize its commonalities, its unique and otherwise indescribable "Doctorness" that makes it the magical series that it is.

This last bit I point out in particular because of course Matt Smith has announced that he will be passing on the Doctor's mantle. This of course has already led to the wailing and gnashing of teeth and clutching of pearls that NO ONE will ever play the Doctor as well as Matt Smith, forgetting that exactly the same thing was said about David Tennant and Christopher Eccleston and Paul McGann (check out his Big Finish audios if you can) and Sylvester McCoy and... well, you get the idea. And inevitably, just as they've done probably since 1966, or at least 1969, speculated that the Doctor will be a woman, or a person of color, or an actual alien, or be played by a felt puppet worn on Stephen Moffat's hand. When it most likely turns out to be a white British (most likely English with a passing chance of Scottish) male somewhere between the age of 25 and 50, I will not be able to find it in myself to be outraged, let alone surprised. But here's the thing, whether the Doctor is the white British male or, say, a 78 year old Lakota woman, for example, I trust that the showrunners will have evaluated the actor first and foremost for "Doctorness." And that the one with the most "Doctorness" will win the part. And I don't really care what he or she looks or sounds like as long as that is the primary criterion.

As I may inevitably be asked, who is my favorite Doctor? For the record, Joanna Lumley.

(And if you do not get that, PLEASE do yourself a favor and Google the "Curse of Fatal Death.")

My favorite companion is any and all of them who tell the Doctor off when he needs to be.

My favorite enemy is the Rani, and I frequently pray for her return. My favorite alien race... a harder item to pick, but I think I'll go with Alpha Centauri's race from the "Peladon" episodes back in the Third Doctor era. I used to like the Weeping Angels, but I got a little tired of them.

And for the record, Daleks, with few exceptions, have and I expect always shall utterly bore me to the point of narcolepsy. If you consider this a blasphemy, I may outrage you in future installments. If you can forgive me, and I do get around to talking about Doctor Who more, read on next time.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Playing around

I am hoping (we will see) to update this more, and am playing around with the theme and such, so on the offhand anyone happens to be looking here, mind the dust. Also hoping to post fewer walls of text when I do post, but knowing me, that's unlikely.