Chris McGowan (.net)

I am a huge fan of the TV show “Doctor Who.” I avoided the show for a better part of my life - I felt “Doctor Who” was like another nerdhole such as “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” and knowing how I am, once I descended into it, I wouldn’t be able to get myself out. Sometime in 2007, I was on Netflix and saw the 2005 season on the streaming service. I hesitated, but I eventually clicked on that first episode.

Nerdhole engaged.

Once I got through Eccleston’s first season and started into Tennant, I also began a concurrent Classic Who rewatch - in order. I still have a few 1980’s stories to get through, but by the end of this calendar year, I’ll have ingested all of Who, including nearly every piece of VAM on both the Classic and New Who DVDs & the IDW comics releases. I’ve been ingesting the 8th Doctor Big Finish audios (again, in order), have bought others that I’ve yet to listen to, and I’ve also downloaded a few of the audio versions of the “lost” TV episodes with linking narration by the likes of Peter Purves and Anneke Wills. I even subscribe to Doctor Who Magazine (thanks for bringing it to the iPad, btw) and listen to a ton of Doctor Who fan podcasts AND have begun producing one on my own.

That’s a lot of Doctor Who.

I don’t say all this to show off (because, well, no) or think that the show owes me anything. It doesn’t and never has / never will. In fact, I prefer a show to ignore “fan” reaction, both positive and negative, so they can tell the story they want to tell.

I list that out to show how invested I am and how much I trust “Doctor Who.” It is nerdy, yes, but I think what it does better than any other show is that it can break out of its genre at any moment. It can be a horror show, a sitcom, a western, a mystery - it can dabble in all genres very easily. It’s the most versatile format in television.

I should add that I’ve been fairly pleased with Steven Moffat’s current run as showrunner, which I know isn’t always a popular opinion. I know he constantly gets a lot of criticism, which I guess is to be expected when you’re in the hot seat of a super nerdy show and we don’t really have a new Star Trek TV show or some other huge sci-fi event* to distract us (*that’s a topic for another post). Doctor Who has also gone truly global under his run (although probably in part due to BBC Worldwide efforts, but he’s still the person who does and should get credit), so there’s an even larger microscope on his work.

I started a Doctor Who podcast with some other Whovians at the beginning of this season. It’s called The Chatternoster Gang (chatternostergang), so if you happen to listen to that, I may repeat a few points from there. Once we recorded last week’s episode where we talked about the 4th episode this season, called “Listen,” I felt I didn’t properly express myself. I also am continually seeing reviews of the episode that praise this as some of the best work the show has done, at least this season, if not since 2005. Some claim of the entire 51 years. The Verge, io9 (although they were a little more even-handed), Philip Sandifer, Paul Cornell and even some of my co-hosts agreed.

Which is absolute insanity. Actually no - after watching last week’s “Listen,” I felt insane. Because I thought it was absolutely terrible. The opposite of “best ever.” But I should qualify - subsequent viewings have evened out my opinion, but it still doesn’t even qualify for Top 30 in my opinion. So this entire 7,000 words is to put an alternate, yet reasonable and non-ranty, opinion and critique out into the internet world.

Before I go any further, I realize this is a ridiculous thing to write in this day and age. Real-world events, like the protests in Ferguson and the awful events in the Middle East, or even the vote in Scotland, amongst so many other things, should really be what I spend a few hours writing about, instead of a British science-fiction TV show.

But someone did point out how this episode of television “Listen” may have some parallels to these real-world issues. So I’ll delve into that at the end. For now - let’s get into a counter-point to the rave reviews “Listen” is getting.

Let me detail my issues.

What Kind of Story Is This?
I was trying to find the literary term that encapsulated this episode. I first thought it might be the term “Schmuck bait,” which I first heard on the Breaking Bad podcast, as a term they use in the writer’s room. But the term itself has been around for a lot longer, at least since this: http://www.janeespenson.com/archives/00000230.php

"Schmuck bait" is typically used to describe something where there is NO way what we see on-screen is what really happened. I think a lot of Classic Who cliffhangers fall into this. One great example is in "The Pirate Planet," I believe it’s Episode 3’s cliffhanger where Tom Baker is pushed off a pirate plank! Oh my gosh! The 4th Doctor died!! That’s "schmuck bait" - only a "schmuck" would really fall for such a trick. Clearly they would never "kill" the Doctor. You could look in your TV guide or a British newspaper to see that, sure enough, next week there’s an episode 4. And next week we quickly find out that the Doctor had some random hologram thingie, so he was never on that plank to begin with.

Ms. Espenson adds that “schmuck bait” has taken on other definitions in other writer’s rooms. To that end, I was pretty certain that on the Breaking Bad podcast, they also used that term to mean when a story or TV show intentionally misleads you. Almost to a point where it’s unfair to the audience. Kind of like a murder mystery TV show that provides all these clues and camera angles to make you think Person A did the crime, but then at the last second they reveal it to be Person Z, who was barely even mentioned up until now. One may say that this story, “Listen”, may have had a point to doing this, or that it’s not about the mystery at all. However, I contend that if you, as the writer or director or showrunner, ask the audience to invest in something, you should pay that off. Otherwise, it’s “schmuck bait,” and I feel like a schmuck for caring about trying to follow along.

Either way, I don’t think “Listen” is Schmuck Bait.

There’s also the “Shaggy Dog” story, which is also a relatively new term for me. Apparently this can also have multiple definitions. One such definition of a “Shaggy Dog” story in which a long tale ends up in a lame joke or pun. A Google search will bring it up, but it’s something along the lines of someone wanting to adopt a literal shaggy dog. Someone else does so, brings it home, and the punchline is that person A says about the dog, “Oh, that’s too shaggy.”

A friend of mine, with whom I collaborated with on a KCRW “Radio Race” a few months back, explained the term to me in a slightly different way - it’s a story that sets up a problem, or a narrative, or some type of event, but when we reach the end, there is no ending. Sometimes that’s part of the punchline is that there is no punchline. An example might be: “So I woke up this morning and there was loud banging in my apartment. So I slowly crept into my bathroom. There was nothing there and so I got ready for work.” It’s a story where there is no real resolution or reveal - it just ends. Someone else online called “Listen” Moffat’s “shaggy dog” story and I think it’s apt.

I should be balanced, here, and point to what others who praise this as “Best Episode Ever” are calling it a “character study.” Or, maybe it’s more of an “exploration on a theme.” While I think these things are true, and I promise to give credit where credit is due, I think those descriptions are best when incorporated into a larger story. If something is the “Best Episode Ever,” it should tick all the boxes that make-up a television script, as well as a Doctor Who script, and these things alone would miss some very important elements that I find lacking.

What Actually Happened in “Listen”

Regardless of the term used to describe “Listen,” it’s not a story or a television episode in a traditional sense. What really happens in this episode?

1) Clara and Danny Pink’s first date. I do quite enjoy the idea that time travel can be used to correct something. It’s a trope I personally find rewarding in time travel stories, as I feel that’s the first inclination many people would have if they could go to the past or future.

The date itself seems to go poorly and Clara leaves the restaurant abruptly. But after a trip in the TARDIS and a weird adventure in the late ’90s, Clara goes back into the restaurant just after she leaves the first time. They resume the date and it goes south AGAIN, and Clara travels again with the Doctor. She then comes back a third time, goes to Danny’s house and they get it on.

Is there a thematic or emotional arc here in this story? I can’t really pinpoint how their multiple attempts at romantic connection would tie-in to what else this episode is about. I think it’s more about how these 2 characters interact with each other and end up smooching (and more?) at the end. I also realize that Clara and Danny’s relationship will come into play at the end of this season.

2) The Doctor. He starts and ends in the same place, plot-wise. I could even argue character-wise, but I won’t. At the start, The Doctor is alone in his TARDIS and randomly decides he wants to investigate a theoretical creature that hides in plain sight (that I guess is what we think we dream when someone grabs our ankle or steals our chalk / coffee cup or who we talk to when we’re alone). There’s no real inciting incident to inspire this quest, other than he’s going stir crazy. So after all that he experiences in this episode, he ends up disproving the theorem that there’s something really there.

Those that praise this episode say that there’s an emotional journey the Doctor goes on. Or a character study on the character of the Doctor. Let’s take those one at a time:

An emotional journey for the Doctor. I guess when we reach the end, the young person in the barn, crying, is supposed to be the Doctor, although I am going to throw my “Vagueness” flag for the first time here - it’s intentionally not defined (although the latest “Doctor Who Magazine” confirms this is supposed to be Young Doctor on Gallifrey). But, for the sake of the examination here, and since we do see the War Doctor insert, let’s say it IS the Doctor and Clara IS the one that not only:

  • a) Grabs his leg
  • b) Tells the Doctor to go back to sleep
  • c) Recites the “fear” speech, similar to the one a 2,000+ older version of the Doctor will say back to Rupert Pink in that closed time-loop kind of way.
  • d) Potentially inspires the “Doctor” to become “The Doctor”, as she leaves the solider with no gun at his bed side.

So the Doctor has, ostensibly, had this fear his entire life. Or, to play it Moffat-style, he did and didn’t, since Clara didn’t grab his ankle until we saw it happen, and theoretically that rippled through his timestream (or not, I guess it doesn’t really matter). So this “fear” that he had, this dream he theorized everyone had throughout history (as shown by 3 people in the beginning montage), was really him remembering what Clara did. And instead of Clara showing him the truth behind the dream, when they were in the barn, she told him to leave. We do get the speech about how fear makes you stronger, which is scientifically true, although I want to talk about this, “fear” in general and how it relates to the Doctor more later on, so we’ll come back to that.

I have to be honest - I’m not sure how this resolves the Doctor’s fear. Or if he actually is at peace at the end of the episode. So while he goes on a journey, I can’t say the character advances or retreats - emotionally he seems to be in the same place, because an answer would’ve offered resolution either way. Instead, he - and the viewer - are stuck with a lot of “maybes.” I don’t know about you, but lack of resolution would cause even more emotional stress.

The other part of this, if Clara just admits to all this, the fear goes away, along with the negative effects of fear. Yet she chooses not to, which seems cruel, even to a 2,000 year-old Time Lord.

So does the Doctor go on an emotional journey? I guess so, but that journey is far from over. Is an emotional journey for a character enough to sustain 45 minutes of television and be crowned “best episode ever?” I think we need a little more. And we have some candidates…

A character study for the Doctor. Since this is only the 4th episode with this new Doctor, we are supposedly getting not only more insight to this specific incarnation, but also the 51-year-old (in TV time) / 2000+ year-old (in character time) character. There’s a lot shown here, but I do want to point out things that are noticeably different than previous incarnations. So, let’s look at each of these:

  • a) His need to know and not to know. I detail this in other places, but the fact that this Doctor does not turn around to look at the thing in Rupert’s bedroom is a massive switch from many other Doctors. Previous versions of himself would’ve loved to have spoken to it, learned about it, asked what it was doing there. Instead, 12 didn’t turn around. Odd, but I’m embracing it.
  • b) Clueless or mean. Other Doctors have said similar snarky things, and I genuinely laugh at them, but the Doctor is quite rude to Clara. I can’t tell why yet - it sometimes feels like 9’s passive-aggressive jealousy, at other times like 4’s reverse-psychology insults, or even 3’s utter indifference. Or maybe it has to do with Clara specifically, as she is someone he used to care about in a romantic way. But they’re now “just friends” and she’s going on a date with a new guy. For people with just 1 heart, that would hurt.
  • c) Crying Doctor? So Doctor Who Magazine does confirm we are with the Doctor on Gallifrey (more about THAT shortly) when he’s a boy, crying. Why is he crying? What’s causing this trauma? Then Clara adds to the trauma by scaring him. So I guess we’re led to believe, along with leaving the symbolic solider toy, this all creates our Doctor, powered by fear (?).
  • d) Possibly uber-mad? Has the Doctor had, or is currently having, a nervous breakdown? Many fans, both lovers and haters, reject this theory. But it’s worth noting that this could be true. 12 might be crazy. Losing all sense of reality kind of crazy. That would actually explain a lot of his behavior so far.

So we see a lot more of the Doctor, and really more of Clara and Danny as well. So, great, a “character study.” What else happens?

3) The closed time loop, which could have major implications. Doc and Clara go to Danny Pink’s past and the Doctor tells Danny an inspiring speech about fear and Clara gives young Danny a toy soldier. This inspires Clara to try ‘Date with Danny’ for the second time in the “present,” then we go to the far future to find a descendent of Danny’s carrying the SAME TOY SOLDIER… well, it looks the same. But it is implied she and Danny made babies that eventually leads to this great-grandson, Orson. Then we hop to the Doctor’s past, when he’s a kid, and Clara gives young Doctor the same fear speech and gives the Doctor the same toy soldier. Boom. Oh and somehow we got around the time-lock / Gallifrey-in-a-painting thing. But hey, who cares about that!

4) Clara. Continuing with this season’s trend, we get a lot of Clara. A ton of Clara. She is the Doctor’s sane center and potentially the source of great strife (including the Clara-is-Missy theory). She goes on a date with Danny and they get all smoochy at the end (because she assumes she’s the great-grandma of Orson?). She is potentially being credited with inspiring the Doctor to be who he is. Her character grows and whether you agree with it or not, she is becoming the most important person ever in this history of the television show. Possibly even more important than the Doctor himself. I still think she acts extremely strange in the orphanage, going up to a little boy’s room and getting under the bed, and then upon realizing it’s a young Danny, eventually smooching with him at the end. Weird, but that I can forgive. It’s also odd that her own fear or lack of courage in not telling the Doctor what happened with the telepathic circuits led to the majority of this time loop. I was a little disappointed in Clara’s actions, but at the same time glad she’s really had time to develop so I can be disappointed with her.

5) The Pink(s). We see a little more Danny Pink, and although the whole “well” thing about his time as a soldier was a bit odd, we continue to get the sense that Danny killed someone during his service, and it’s either a lady, a young person, or possibly both. He’s awkward, he wears shirts to match his last name, but in the end, he’s just a regular ol’ dude. We also see someone named “Orson Pink”, as well as an apparently younger version of Danny in Rupert Pink. They pass around this toy soldier, first owned by young Danny / Rupert, then it shows up with Orson who hands it to Clara as a “family heirloom” then it ends up in the Barn at the end with the Doctor.

6) The ending. At the very end, we are intentionally left with a lot of “most likely.” That was just another kid under the red blanket at the orphanage (even though it looked like Dobby). That was probably Danny Pink as a boy. There probably was no alien at the end of the universe trying to get in through the air lock. That was probably the Doctor crying in the barn (now confirmed by DWM). And the Doctor was probably wrong about his conjecture. ‘Probablys’ are fun when I feel the author or writer is making a point about approximations. Or that certain things are better left vague for the viewer to interpret. Doctor Who has a lot of ‘probablys’ in its DNA. But this felt… uninspired. Or lazy. It felt like the writer didn’t want to make that decision, so instead of making a choice, this idea of vagueness came together. As I maintain, all previous incarnations would run TOWARDS the answers, and multiple times this Doctor decided against getting that answer. So maybe that’s a new characteristic of 12 - he chose not to get an answer, so we didn’t get one either.

Also, once the episode ended, I looked around my empty apartment like the stir-crazy Doctor. “Is that it?” I said aloud, to a monster that may or not be there. We end up back where we started, since all this was a bunch of nonsense. 

I guess this episode was about none of these things above, really. I guess this was a (1) philosophical meditation about the concept of “fear.” And (2) the Doctor’s need to know answers but sometimes not getting them. And (3) the strength in being afraid.

Heavy sigh.

So About This Fear Stuff….

I am not a writer on Doctor Who, so I am not telling this story. But I’m not sure what is the value in exploring “fear” in the context of the season, or these characters, assuming this story will stand-alone and won’t be part of a larger arc? Someone pointed out that this was a father telling a story to his kids, and Steven Moffat readily admits that he consults his children quite often for story ideas. Doctor Who, and Steven Moffat in particular, has a long history of ‘being scary’ and that now-cliche ‘hiding behind the sofa’ aspect of the show. So I guess, having said that, the impetus of this might be to try to get to the root of fear? To deconstruct fear?

For me, to be philosophical, being afraid has never been productive. What’s been productive and moved me forward as a person is FACING my fear and finding out that I’ve built up in my head something much larger than the real thing. I am introvert and still struggle with being an introvert, in particular when meeting new people. I had a fear of strangers and avoided them. So, to fight that fear, I decided to face it. I took an improv class and I think I can say that I can handle myself in an extroverted situation in a way that I could never have if I never faced that fear.

We face our fears all the time. We have those difficult conversations with those we’re in a relationship with. We confront someone who’s disrespectful. We try to be brave when every fiber in our being tells us to cower.

It has always been information that has eradicated fear.

In “Listen,” the Doctor, Clara and young Danny (who’s real first name is Rupert) are in a room with something. Something is under the blanket on young Danny’s bed. We, the audience, never know. I actually took a photo of it - it’s a blurry figure that kinda looks like Dobby from Harry Potter.

"But, Chris," you say, "the point isn’t whether it’s a monster or not. The point is they stand with their backs to it, completely vulnerable to an attack." No, wait. The point is that they don’t let the fear affect them? But I thought fear empowered you? No, wait. The point is to not let the pranking boy and/or Dobby the satisfaction that you are scared of it. As it stands behind you.

The Doctor’s Need For Answers…. and Not Getting Them

The Doctor has always been a character who knows things. He’s hyper-intelligent and well-travelled. A trope of the show is for the Doctor to land somewhere and skipping the whole “where are we” part, since he likely knows the aliens, but instead we get “when are we?” Then, for all the times he doesn’t know a species or a villain or a planet, he has a thirst to know, which usually inspires him to exit the TARDIS for a “quick look around.” Hijinks ensue! He wants to add it to his knowledge base. He’s the quintessential nerd!

So this episode might be intended to challenge that. What happens when the person that wants to know the most can’t know something?

I find that question interesting and something worth playing with, but there are 2 problems with that:

  • a) The Doctor hasn’t known things before, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. He still doesn’t know Jenny is alive and flying around space, for instance. So while an interesting question, the Doctor is just like any other living being - it’s impossible for him to know everything. So while intriguing, it’s not really a fresh angle on the Doctor. Plus I think a random dream about someone grabbing your ankle would be far down his list - I have to imagine there are bigger questions he doesn’t have answers to yet.
  • b) If he can know, he does. Different incarnations act in different ways, but when this info-hound has easy access to the answer he’s searching for - and chooses not to - it’s a hugely significant break and a sign of something else going on. Which we don’t see in this episode.
Strength in Fear

An artist or writer should be able to examine something through the lens of their own experience. They should feel empowered to shine a different light on anything, to show a viewer or reader something we haven’t seen or read before.

But I feel the message in “Listen” about fear is confusing at best, dangerous at worst.

- Fear as a superpower:

In short, fear does have an effect on the human body. But it’s possible the Doctor over-stated it a bit.

A few years back, Scientific American published an excerpt from Jeff Wise’s book “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger” in which they do address fear’s ability to increase our physical abilities. From the article:

"But there’s a limit to how fast and how strong fear can make us…. A woman who can lift 100 pounds at the gym might, according to Zatsiorsky, be able to lift 135 pounds in a frenzy of maternal fear. But she’s not going to suddenly be able to lift a 3,000-pound car. Tom Boyle was an experienced weight lifter. The adrenaline of that June night gave him an edge, but it didn’t turn him into the Incredible Hulk."

So not to be an asshole, but while the fear phenomenon is real, there’s a limit. The article goes on to say:

"The mechanisms by which the brain is able to summon greater reserves of power have not been well explored, but it may be related to another of fear’s superpowers: analgesia, or the inability to feel pain. When I’m at the gym, straining to complete the last rep of a dumbbell exercise, it’s pretty hard to imagine that my muscles have the capacity to work half again harder than they already are. What I feel is screaming agony."

I personally feel the power of fiction is to actually be free of science and logic. Particularly science fiction - the art should push beyond those boundaries to expand the minds of otherwise very logically-based scientists. The documentary about CERN and the Higgs Boson “Particle Fever” had a scene where 2 scientists were looking at an artist’s sculpture installation. I found it hilarious for a different reason than maybe others. Watching scientists or mathematicians try to ingest art is entertaining, as they’re looking at it from practical and reason-based point-of-views. They were almost laughing at it. The joke, of course, is that while art can really do anything, it should be hitting you in an emotional and more reflexive sort of way, and in some cases in direct objections to logic. The superpower of art is to be free of those logical shackles and show you something you didn’t think possible. Then the real scientists can dream of teleporters and transmats and artificial intelligence and interstellar travel.

So I guess I’m saying Moffat is allowed to explore fear in whatever way he wants. But I don’t know if his “fear as superpower” really worked for me, in the end. Not only did it not really ring true in terms of what “fear” can do for someone, but I felt the lesson taught about “fear” was damaging. Maybe I have a limit on my own logic shackles?

But, to reference the quote above, there is a counter-weight with this “superpower of fear” - the inability to feel pain. I wonder if that may find its way into this season?

- How we handle fear:

Typically when we think of fear responses, we think of fight or flight. But there are actually some additional responses to consider.

From Psychology Today (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/extreme-fear/200912/superhuman-no-just-very-scared), some researchers have suggested we add “freeze” and “fright” to the list of responses, meaning a deer-in-headlights approach in the case of “freeze” and simply yell or scream in the case of “fright”, like one might do when trying to scare off a large animal. Even others want to add “tend-and-befriend” as well, where the response is to reduce the tension or danger in a peaceful way.

I guess where I got stuck, as I referenced in the comments section of Philip Sandifer’s blog (link below) and hinted at earlier in this piece, is in Rupert’s room. A potentially dangerous “thing” is beneath that red blanket. It sure looked dangerous, even in the blurry image we got. So the Doctor asks everyone to turn around and look away. This read to me like “avoidance” or an ostrich burying its head in the sand. Of all the responses to a threat, especially to be shown for a little kid who’s the stand-in for the young audience, that would be the last option on fear responses. #1 I think would be to run to an adult or guardian. Maybe #2 would be fright. I don’t think “look at the window and pretend it isn’t there” would get any such recommendations.

But let’s give the script the benefit of the doubt - let’s say that fear response was innate to Rupert. We can evolve out of our fear responses! Discover Magazine (http://discovermagazine.com/2003/mar/cover) explores some dimensions of fear, but it also details how researchers tried to take a rat and have him/her unlearn their fear response:

”The contrast,” LeDoux says, sitting in his university office above Washington Square Park, with Ground Zero lurking not far to the south, ”is between taking action and being stuck, frozen in fear, headed toward despondency, unable to control your life. There’s an interesting experiment along these lines: You have a rat that goes into a chamber. A tone goes off, and he gets a shock, and he freezes with the fear response. The next day he goes into chamber B, the tone goes off, and he freezes. But if he takes a step, the tone stops. Eventually he learns that he has to crawl across the chamber to eliminate the tone completely. So by taking that action, he’s able to prevent fear from existing in his life.

In this example, taking action changes the fear response. If the Doctor is truly afraid of something, I would think he’d be intelligent enough to know that taking an action, instead of being afraid for 2,000+ years and not looking, would solve this problem. Or, I think Clara would have a tiny guess that the same could be effectual. I also had forgiven that end bit where Clara doesn’t want the Doctor to see himself in the barn, but Galifrey Time-Lock aside, the Doctor frequently interacts with his previous incarnations and conveniently forgets it. We can’t pull out some timey-wimeyness here? For what? To serve up a vague ending to creep us out? Unless it’s for a larger season narrative arc, it doesn’t hold together, sorry. In fact, I think I’d be on the “Best Episode Ever” bandwagon if he HAD come out of that TARDIS and looked down at his blanket-covered self. That would’ve felt like massive resolution. But, nope, we don’t get that.

Fear and PTSD

There also was the intentional inclusion of a couple shots of the War Doctor.

I found another article on war and PTSD, which the connection to our War Doctor was clear. “Psychological Effects of Combat” (http://www.killology.com/print/print_psychological.htm) is a good read, and I would direct you to check it out yourself. There’s interesting timelines of dealing with the after-effects of war, both physical and psychological. But worth noting in regards to “Listen” is this quote:

"When snakes, heights, or darkness cause an intense fear reaction in an individual it is considered a phobia, a dysfunction, an abnormality. But it is very natural and normal to respond to an attacking, aggressive fellow human being with a phobic-scale response. This is a universal human phobia. More than anything else in life, it is intentional, overt human hostility and aggression that assaults the self-image, sense of control and ultimately, the mental and physical health of human beings."

And so seeing the War Doctor is apt. The only part where we go astray is that we’ve never seen anything the War Doctor went through. Mind you, this is a “family” show, so it’s not like we’re going to see “Band of Brothers” level of brutality. However, all we know is text and a few brief space battles from the 50th Anniversary Special. This is not a critique, by all means, but I think I’d embrace this episode much more if the connective tissue to the Doctor’s experiences in war were more closely tied. I think it’d validate this exploration of fear as an attempt to resolve some PTSD angst.

But the War Doctor’s appearance is more to tie the barn to Gallifrey (as confirmed by DWM) as opposed to an examination of post-war stress.

As I researched this this week, I found this all very fascinating and interesting to think about for the character of “The Doctor.” But once again, I got a little stuck - didn’t we close this chapter of the Doctor’s character? Wasn’t the point of the 50th to start to heal from that trauma? I feel like this kind of story, and all its lovely touches, would be more fitting for the 9th Doctor, fresh from the war. I feel like 10 had his arc of trying to reconnect and yet feeling alone. Then 11’s quite literal running away from it and bringing history into myth and legend. Shouldn’t 12 be moving past some of these issues? It just feels like a retread. As I’ve stated, there could be a larger narrative arc at work here and that I simply don’t have all the pieces yet, but it just feels out of place at this stage of the character’s place in life.

Of course, this is all really pointless, in the end, as the Doctor is not a human and doesn’t have the same physiology. I guess Time Lords dream (at least the Doctor does), but other than that, I’m not how much their DNA matches our own. So ultimately this is all a moot point.

I Did Like SOME Stuff….

While in the end I feel this story doesn’t reach its lofty aims, I do commend the attempt. Plus, as I again mention in the podcast, I went through and wrote things I liked, didn’t like, and then had conflicting reactions to. Things I thought worked great?

  1. I did enjoy Capaldi solidifying his pseudo-catchphrase of “Question.” I dig it, and it’s expansion into “Conjecture,” etc… It really solidified the scientific-nature of this incarnation.
  2. I know not everyone thinks this is true nor a good thing, but I believe 12 is losing his mind. Break-from-reality crazy. He’s always been the “Madman in a box,” but I think he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I’m not quite sure why yet, to be honest (it can’t be Clara-angst), but I, once again, will wait to see how this entire season unfolds to make a final call on this. But I like it, even if I’m wrong about it.
  3. I thought the set-up was great. Even though the ending was disappointing, I thought the first 9 minutes set-up a real interesting premise and approach.
  4. I like both the new title sequence AND the new theme. I think you got to let the new version of theme wash over and absorb it. You’ll grow to love it.
  5. As I said on that chatternostergang podcast, all the dinner / date stuff worked for me. With the use of time travel, I bought it all and really enjoyed it. Some have complained about the lack of chemistry between either or both Jenna and Sam or Clara and Danny, but I felt it was just awkward people trying to connect.
  6. I know people have also commented on the Doctor’s insults to Clara, or his use of “negging,” (http://dating.about.com/od/glossarywordsn/g/What-Is-A-Neg.htm) which I think I want to do a larger post about. Yes, he is a little mean, but I take it as 12 either being truly genuine in his comments, or just trying to joke around in his alien way. Kind of like you might do to a brother or sister.
  7. I thought the episode’s director, Douglas MacKinnon, did a fantastic job. I thought it all looked beautiful and scary throughout. He’s fantastic!
  8. I dig 12’s shirt - I want it.
  9. I also liked the TARDIS telepathic interface. It’s a neat idea. Not sure why we haven’t seen this used until now, but that’s fine to me. It’s super cool!
  10. And on that note, the Doctor does say that the TARDIS now knows the full birth through death of Clara. That’s interesting in a season starting to dance around this idea of death and (potentially) the after-life.
  11. When Clara’s phone rings and the Doctor just abruptly grabs it and tosses it!
  12. I can’t recall right now if we had seen 12 use the psychic paper (did he use it during “Into the Dalek”?), but I noticed it much more here and really liked seeing it again. The psychic paper might be the only thing left that’s virtually unchanged since “Rose” and feels like a true through-line.
  13. I’ll admit - I dug the red blanket moment. Very well-done tension.
  14. And even though I dug into the theme of “Fear,” the Doctor’s speech to Rupert / Danny was well written and performed by 12.
  15. The Doctor’s line which was really for fans: “Human race; you’re never happy.”
  16. The “Dad Skills” bit. Kind of felt similar to when Vastra put 12 to sleep in “Deep Breath.”
  17. Any complaints about Clara or Jenna Coleman’s performance should (hopefully) be put to rest. Ironically, the criticism that is now the “Clara Who” show is kind of silly, since last year we were all yelling “We know nothing about Clara.” Now there’s too much? Malarkey. At least since 2005, this show has been about the companion and I’m glad we’re getting a lot more of Clara (since I am convinced Jenna’s leaving at Christmas). And Jenna Coleman’s putting in some great performances!
  18. I also liked the brief mention of “ghosts” when we met Orson at the end of the universe. I suspect that is going to tie into the season finale and even possibly the Christmas episode.
OK, I Get It, Chris, You Have Issues With a Television Episode of Doctor Who, Sheesh… So Why Write This Super Long Essay?

As I said waaaay up above, I felt crazy. Numerous people and websites that I usually turn to for insightful commentary, praised this as “best episode ever.” It was truly confusing for me, as I feel like these same people would’ve seen all these issues and have written this for me already. I will also admit and re-iterate - there is a lot I DO like about “Listen.” But to call it “best episode ever” or even best of this current series is baffling to me.

I got further annoyed at people bestowing gifts to this script that are simply not there. I guess it’s nice for readers / viewers to add their own meaning to a piece of artistic work, but I feel it forgives sloppy or lazy writing! Someone began gifting each moment and character with literary-symbolism, which was lovely to read, but ZERO evidence in the text that this was an intention. Someone else said that the “constant companion” is us, the viewers, which while technically true, is more of a meta-observation than anything the script should be given credit for.

But all that aside, the purpose of this long essay is that I feel there are many other stories that do similar things and yet take care of the plot as well, including other Steven Moffat scripts. “Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” “Midnight,” “Turn Left,” “Human Nature / Family of Blood,” “City of Death,” “Spearhead from Space,” “Caves of Androzanni” etc… There are so many Doctor Who stories that are far far superior and embody what makes this show so amazing. I think “Listen” falls very short of that.

And on a grander scale, which I hinted at above, is the divergent point-of-view on reactions to this. How people viewing the same thing have almost completely different reactions.

In the U.S., there is no clearer example than our own politics. We’ve reached a place where someone with a set point-of-view will see a situation, and with their POV already established, react to that situation based on their POV, not on the situation itself. Climate Change is a fantastic example! The scientific majority has agreed it’s happening and it’s man-made. But those on the right of the political scale are unable to shake their POV that it’s either “them damn liberals” trying to push some sort of political agenda. Or they find the one scientist that disagrees to reaffirm their initial point-of-view. There are also some who have financial stakes in certain pollution-causing industries fight back. But a Climate Change denier will not be swayed - no matter the science and facts thrown their way, they have their point-of-view and nothing can break it.

Even a more extreme example is Creationists versus… er… scientists? Bill Nye recently debated a creationist and Bill’s scientific evidence was overwhelming! Undeniable! Just the age of the planet Earth was up for debate and Bill has very simple, grade-school-level evidence to show. And yet, the creationist and his supporters felt the creationists won that debate. The pretense of a “debate” was nonsense, since the Creationists going in had no intention of even entertaining something that would challenge their POV.

I can’t really explain why this happens. Ego? Power? Belief systems / religion? Anger? I don’t know. Is there no so such thing as an absolute truth?

To move away from political issues or scientific data, we get into murkier waters when it comes to art or fiction, an inherently subjective experience. Even murkier than that is a nerdy show with a fandom community around it, with each fan having their own Twitter account and Tumblr (me included). Not everyone is going to like something.

Someone in a comment thread put it like food, at least when it comes to art. Some people like a type of food. Others don’t. It doesn’t impart a value judgment on the food itself, but simply a matter of taste - literally and figuratively.

So is it OK that I think this story is terrible (well, the ending is terrible, which sours the whole story for me), where others praise it to the high heavens? I guess so. Deep down, I do want to be “right,” which feels human. I want to explain to those that love this why they’re wrong and say “don’t you SEE!”

But I will agree to this - no other episode of Doctor Who has yet to inspire me to write a blog post this long over these many days. So in that sense, “Listen” succeeds.

As I have said a lot over these past few days (and crediting the Verity! podcast), the great thing about this TV show is that it’s always evolving. It’s always changing, becoming new and different things. So if you don’t like something one week, just wait a bit, and something else will come along that will like.

So admittedly, the headline is a little click-baity. Even “schmuck bait.” Much like the 4th Doctor leaping from that plank, I am still a fan of this show. But honestly… it was a cliffhanger there for a short while. I also have to admit that my undying faith in this show has been challenged - it’s no longer this beautifully flawed creature capable of practically anything.

No one will probably change my mind. If I really think about it and am honest with myself, the only way to change my mind will probably be myself. So if you loved “Listen,” I probably won’t have swayed you at all. But I actually feel good that this is posted and in the world. Just so I don’t feel crazy.

I do shudder when people just rip something apart that I love. So that’s not my intention. I hope this comes off as I wanted it to be - a fairly level-headed critique “Listen” and to respectfully challenge a claim that this is the “best episode ever.”

But I wish to retain the right to roll my eyes when I hear others rave about it.

- magoogs

PS: I tried to get some help from the very intelligent community at Philip Sandifer’s blog. Some things I ended up putting here I did write there as well. And I got some intelligent and thoughtful responses. http://www.philipsandifer.com/2014/09/listen-review.html?showComment=1410981919336#c4368670280647856062

PPS: The formatting of this theme sucks. I’m going to find a new one. Apologies.



Lady Adrasta: “I thought you were dead! Why haven’t you died?!”

Organon: “I… I… I’m sorry, m’lady, it was an oversight”

- Doctor Who, “Creature from the Pit”


Beyond the Neverending Valley of Ellsworth and Umbrage Part 13 of 13

THE FINAL CHAPTER

by Chris McGowan


I

It was the next morning, officially.

The sun was fully in the sky. People had risen to start their normal day’s routine in all the kingdoms. And word had spread far and wide.

Fair Princess Linda did not return home last night. She was feared lost. Captured. Possibly something worse.

The Sniffing Hounds had also been released. None had yet to return. Some older folks were talking war with the mysterious Neverending Valley, remembering terrible wars from years ago. Others suspected the Princess eloped with some ne’er-do-well slacker prince who wore tight pants or no crown from a nearby kingdom just to stir things up. Others thought she joined a coven of witches to hex the kingdoms and turn everyone ugly or stupid.

But King Tomas and Queen Guinevere, who had been up all night (except for a few impromptu naps), had initiated the final plan.

Scorch.

Very methodically, the entire army of the kingdom had formed a solid line, all along the beginning of the Valley’s forest. Torches lit.

A large ominous cloud of black smoke rose up as the first few rows of trees were set ablaze.

Why didn’t these trees uproot themselves? Move away, much like Gus had?!?

For one, the trees really did prefer that humans didn’t know they could talk and move. Saved a lot of trouble.

But these trees on the border were much older trees, as the Neverending Valley expanded inward, and they were much much too slow to react to the soldiers.

The “Scorch” plan was simple - if the enemy (or in this case, lost or captured daughter) can’t be found within the trees, then remove the trees.

The Queen watched from the balcony, seeing the wall of fire begin and spread.

"We should be there," she said, almost to herself since it was spoken so softly.

"Dear, we have our best men and women… and Sir Cravatte… down there. We’d just get in the way," the King said, fumbling with his bejeweled crown.

"We should be down there. I want to go." She turned and looked at him.

There was a long minute of silence.

"GUARDS! Get our chariot ready! We are going to the front line," King Tomas commanded.

A soldier hesitantly began to protest.

"We command it, sir," Queen Guinevere said to the soldier. The soldier nodded and trotted off. "Linda’s OK, right?"

The King didn’t respond, but slowly stood up and began to get dressed for forest traversing.

II

"How can you be sitting there!" Fair Princess Linda shouted.

Smileyface looked up, shocked and almost embarrased.

"Hang on, Fair Princess!" Smileyface replied, stuttering. Mary grinned. "We came back here and then we were talking -"

SHE KIDNAPPED YOU,” Fair Princess Linda shouted in a very New Zealand-like accent.

"I took a nice nap, then she woke me up with some breakfast," Smileyface said, getting up on all fours, "so if that’s kidnapping, then sign me up for more!" He then cocked his head to the side. "Wait. Why are you mad? Mary’s really just misunderstood. She told me this would happen. You told me this would happen, Mary."

Mary nodded, “I told you this would happen, Smileyface.”

"Misunderstood? Really? Did you ask her what she plans on doing?"

"Well, Mary and I were talking about how funny it is when people slip on things. I feel terribly guilty about it when I’m laughing, but as long as they’re all right, it’s really quite funny," Smileyface said.

"OH!" Mary said, hopping up and dashing to her kitchen. She ran to her stove where something was cooking. "Eggs, my dear?"

"Sure," Smileyface called back.

"They’ll probably be poisoned!" Linda shouted.

"If you call hot sauce a poison, then sign me -" the average horse began. But Linda wasn’t laughing and lunged at him, to start to pull him out of the hut while Mary was far away from them.

"Really, Fair Princess, I think if you got to talk to Mary…" he said, sort of fighting with Linda.

"Fine," Linda said, ceasing her pulling. She threw her mud-covered arms in the air. "This is ludicrous. Mary, tell him what’s going on."

Mary taste-tested her eggs. They were just right. She put a few servings on plates and came back into the living room. “Oh all right,” Mary said, placing the plates on her coffee table. She took a seat on her large couch. “Basically, Smileyface, I have an unusual way to stay alive. It’s nothing personal, really.”

"Tell him," demanded the Fair Princess.

"I absorb people," Mary said, absently reaching into a pocket and clutching something. Linda tried to remember something, something from the coffee hut. What was it? Mary continued. "I absorb living things. I guess you could say I eat them, but that’s rather coarse. There’s no chewing or anything - I’m not a monster! But I do need to do that in order to live. You understand of course."

Smileyface shrugged. “Yeah, I eat meat. Heck, even plants are alive. It’s totally normal.”

"Exactly. And I have chosen one of you," Mary said, pretty matter-of-factly and a little creepy.

"One of you?" Smileyface asked.

"Well, I told the Princess that I would eat you. OR, if she came here herself, I’d eat her instead and let you live. Either / or,” Mary said, getting back up and walking back to the kitchen. “Get at them eggs before they get cold.”

"Well that’s not a good option at all," Smileyface said, shocked.

"What did you think happened in the coffee hut?" Linda said. "Did you blackout or something?"

"No… she just said… she was hungry."

Mary came back, clutching a few glasses of orange juice and added them to the coffee table. “I’m really sorry, Smileyface. I really am. The Princess here is of royal blood. She’s young, beautiful, smart, has a real wit about her. She’s brave, bold - so many things that are really delicious.”

"How about you eat neither of us and we both leave!" the Fair Princess offered.

"I don’t see how that’s possible, Fair Princess. All the exits are blocked by my bird friends," Mary replied.

Both Linda and Smileyface slowly turned in various directions. Large and small birds covered all the windows and door, like a feather-powered force field.

"Why do the birds help you?" Linda asked.

"I’m nice to them," Mary replied.

"Oh," Smileyface and Linda said in unison.

"And I don’t eat them."

"Oh," they said in unison again.

"So I’ll give you two a few minutes to decide who leaves my hut and whom I absorb. I’m not an uncivil, evil person - I know it’s a tough choice. If it helps, I’d prefer to eat the Princess. But whatever you two decide, I’ll go with," Mary said. "I’ll be back in a bit then we’ll just go ahead and wrap this up. Sorry about the drama - this would’ve been much easier if we took care of this last night, but you know how things go in these forests."

Mary turned to go into her room for a bit, but paused briefly. She looked right at Fair Princess Linda.

"If you two hadn’t strayed off course and come into a part of these woods that you barely know, I would never had gotten you. Funny how that works out, huh?" Mary said with a chilling grin, "not as funny as people slipping on things, but still funny." She puttered off to write in her journal, leaving Smileyface and Linda standing in her living room.

- -

III

Ignatius awoke. He was laying beside a random tree, somewhere. He had ran all night, calling Gus’s name, but heard no replies or colorful language. He thought he just took a nap, but it was a little longer than that. He wiped the drool off his face and stood up.

Sniff.

"Burning?" he said to himself. He then heard a low rumble headed toward him. A tree was slushing along, heading deeper into the forest.

"Fire!" the tree shouted. It wasn’t Gus’s voice, but the word "Fire" in the woods is the worst thing to hear. The other plant and animal life began to come alive and react frantically.

"Where?" Ignatius shouted up at the oncoming tree. "Where’s the fire!"

"The tree line," the tree shouted. "The humans are looking for a girl and they’re burning the forest down to find her! Leave if you can!"

Ignatius ran towards the smell. He ran and ran, in opposite direction of all the other creatures. He then started to see the black-gray cloud of smoke. He bumped into a pod of tree frogs, accidentally colliding into one.

"HEY!" the tree frog shouted.

"Sorry, I’m trying to find my tree! Have you heard or seen of Gus?"

"I have!" one of the tree frogs piped up in a deep voice.

"Where! Where is he? Is he near the fire?"

"He’s um… he’s just a few clicks north."

Ignatius ran off before the tree frog could tell him the rest.

IV

Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn and Hippo were lost. Quite understandably. They, too, had napped for a bit, but had been up for awhile, walking slowly and aimlessly. They were deep in the Neverending Valley but did not have a clue where they were or even if they were close to Linda, Gus, Ignatius or Smileyface.

"We should take another break," Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn said, plopping down in some grass.

"Yeah," Hippo agreed, defeated. He walked around in a small circle a few times before laying down fully. He breathed heavily, exasperately.

Then, a rustle.

Hippo’s ears popped up, but he barely moved. Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn, however, got back to her feet.

"Hippo!" she said, in a hushed-yet-trying-to-shout voice.

"Mmm," Hippo said, starting to doze off again.

More rustle. This time, Hippo stumbled to his feet, eyes opening. He barked once.

Nothing.

Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn squinted towards a few bushes. She then pointed towards it, then looked at Hippo. Hippo began slowly stalking the bush, getting closer. Closer. Closer.

Then he leapt! And another beast met him in mid-air, ferocious barking and rolling around ensued. Barking?

"BIFF!" Hippo shouted, landing on top of his friend.

"Hippo! I can’t believe I found you," his fellow Sniffing Hound said. Biff then got to his feet and aimed his gaze at Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn.

"A witch!"

"No, Biff, it’s fine!" Hippo pleaded.

Out of nowhere, the rest of the Sniffing Hounds appeared from all directions and surrounded Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn. The witch took a defensive stance.

"Fellow hounds, relax!" Hippo shouted.

"She’s a wiiiiitch," Nancy Drew and the Hardy Bodys snarled, as the Hounds began to slowly move counter-clockwise in a circle around Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn.

"These your friends, Hippo?" Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn asked.

"She’s not a bad witch!" Hippo called out.

"I ain’t never met a nice witch," Sweet-suite added.

"We could take her right now," Yolo teased.

"Even if she hurt a few of us," Xanadu reasoned, "we’d still kill her."

"Uaaaauuuuaaioioioioioeeeeeeea!" Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn shouted.

Suddenly, all the Sniffing Hounds had Christmas dog sweaters on. In fact, all the life around them had holiday sweaters on.

"Would a bad witch do that?" Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn asked.

"You’re a terrible witch!" Pewter replied. The sweaters disappeared in a poof (time-limit spell).

"Hounds, she’s with me. We’ve been trying to find the Princess all night. I lost the scent, although I don’t know how," Hippo said, exhausted.

"Maybe something or someone covered her scent?" Viral wondered.

"Either way, if I’m right, she is with a legit bad witch," Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn said. "She’s going to absorb the Princess."

"That don’t sound good at all," Sweet-suite said.

"We better act fast, either way - the King and Queen said they were going to start burning down this forest to find her." Kelly added.

"Burn?" Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn asked the large chihuahua.

"Yeah, it’s a last resort," Hippo said, walking up to Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn. "They’ll burn the whole forest down, getting rid of an enemy’s cover. But also to find a lost Princess. Has it begun already?

"Probably by now," Richter said, looking up at the sun.

"We have to find the Princess then take her back to the Palace as soon as possible!" Hippo said.

"Where have you been looking?" Viral asked.

"I can’t even retrace our steps. I don’t… I don’t know." As Hippo said this, he looked tired and defeated.

Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys spoke up, “They always want to split us up. This time, we’ll do this together. Sound good, Sniffing Hounds?”

The Hounds barked in that high, chihuahua-like tone, including Hippo, who felt a bit re-energized.

"And me!" Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn said, creating an awkward moment. "I actually may be able to help."

V

Mary shut the door to her bedroom.

"Let’s go!" Smileyface shout-whispered, dashing to the front door. He lowered his head and rammed it, trying to bust it open. But all that was heard was a large eagle booming a "GAWK."

From in her room, Mary faintly called out, “I said the doors were barricaded. Don’t hurt the birds!”

Linda walked over to the same door and opened it up a bit. Sure enough, a wall of feathers and beaks was on the other side.

"No good," Linda said, resigned.

Smileyface took off at a gallop to the back door and lowered his head again. He busted open the door. Success! (?)

"HEY! I’m…" Smileyface began, only to see a solid wall of crows coming in towards him, like an avian net. Smileyface ran back in and the crows swallowed the doorframe, their mere size and scope forcing the door closed again.

Smileyface and Fair Princess Linda were stuck.

"With only a few minutes to spare," Mary called out again, as if listening to the narrator.

"Well, I think the choice is simple," Smileyface said.

"I don’t want to hear it," Linda said, in an Irish brogue.

"You are not letting this evil magic lady absorb you!" the talking horse shouted.

"And you think I’m letting her absorb you? No way, no how!"

"Listen, Fair Princess. You’re super nice. You’re actually the only person who’s ever been nice to me. I’m weird. I’m average, at best. I’m a little annoying. But you’re a Princess. When it’s your time to rule this kingdom, it’s going to be really awesome! You’re young. You have the Scroll of Destiny!"

Fair Princess Linda shouted a noise of frustration and flopped onto Mary’s couch. She took a bite of the eggs.

"I thought you said it might be poisoned," the average horse said.

"Who cares at this point!" Linda said. "Scroll of Destiny? You know I have no say in that, right? Ma and dad wrote that up. A little plan for their daughter. Marry a doofus and rule a kingdom. That’s it."

"That’s it?"

"That’s it. That’s what on the scroll."

"That’s… boring," Smileyface said, looking around at the surrounding windows (they were all covered with birds too).

"I’m not going to do it, Smileyface. I was never going to do it. There’s too much to see. Too much to learn. Geez, when have I seen the sunrise?"

"Never?"

"That’s right, never!" Linda said, taking another bite. "Granted, I was stuck in a mud pit all night last night. But I want to live, Smileyface. And we’re both going to live. Do what we want. Heck, you can even do what you want and totally ditch me. But let’s keep on living."

Mary’s bedroom door flew open.

"Cute," Mary said, coming back out. "Who’s it going to be?"

"Neither of us," Linda said, standing up, tall and proud.

"Fine, then you!"

Mary held up her hand-mirror and the colorful blasts shot out! Linda cried out as the absorbing process began.

"No!" Smileyface shouted and charged at Mary.

"Burgafliggle!" Mary shouted, creating a rubbery wall that hit Smileyface and pushed him out of the hut’s front door, past the Eagle. Smileyface hit the dirt as the wall faded away. The large eagle just looked at him, a bit shocked Mary’s magic created something that would get past him. Smileyface got to his feet and charged at the eagle, but he merely bumped into the large winged beast.

"Let me in!" he shouted.

"Brrrraaaaawwwwwwwwghh!" the eagle bellowed.

Inside, Linda stood strong. She took one small step forward, as the blast continued hitting her and a stream began to flow into the hand mirror.

"Little girl, little girl, please, stop resisting," Mary said. "This goes much easier if you just let yourself fall in."

"I will fight… until the end," Linda said, her face now starting to stretch. She eyed the hand mirror, as she held on with all her strength.

VI

The smoke and flames were near Ignatius now.

"Gus! Gus! Where are you buddy? Have you seen a tree named Gus?" he said shouting to anything that would listen, scurrying parallel to the wall of flames and advancing royal soldiers.

"Uh?" a familiar voice said.

Ignatius ran to the voice, Gus the Oak Tree Who Always Needs Coffee. Gus was on his side, the flames getting closer.

"Keep moving men!" a soldier’s voice cried out.

"Gus, buddy! It’s me! Ignatius!" he said, scurrying near the top of the trunk where Gus’s "face" was. Trees don’t have faces, per se, but sound and light go out and in (respectively) in little nooks and crannies near where the branches start to jut out.

"Hey, it’s you!" Gus said to his squirrel friend.

"Yeah, it’s me! Hey, bad news - crazy humans are setting the world on fire. Let’s get you outta here, come on dude," Ignatius said, tugging on Gus’s bark.

"It’s OK, Ignatius, you go on ahead."

"Gus, no, you’re right in their way, let’s go," Ignatius said, pulling some more on one of Gus’s branches.

"It’s OK, Ignatius. No one picks a tree up after it falls," Gus said, his voice quiet and peaceful.

"Don’t be an idiot. Up you go. Up!"

"Ignatius. I’m already drying up," Gus said, as soldiers were now nearby and setting grass and small shrubbery aflame.

"Hey, there’s a squirrel here, ma’am," one soldier shouted.

"Make some noise to scare it off, otherwise set it on fire too," the other soldier replied.

"Gus, we gotta go now. Get up, you stupid oak tree!" Ignatius said, impassioned, filled with guilt, determined!

"Save the princess, Ignatius. She was nice to me. Help her."

"Gus."

"Go!"

The soldier advanced and stomped his feet.

"I’m not leaving you, Gus."

"Go now!"

"You got 3 seconds little fella," the solder said, getting close.

"You are not dying." the squirrel said to his friend.

"Everything dies, Ignatius. I lived a good life, met some nice people. Yesterday was so nice. You just need to live and live well. And help that nice lady."

"No!"

"Clear that log!"

The torch came close. Ignatius leapt off. He ran. He couldn’t stop. He wanted to gnaw the face off that soldier, but he couldn’t. He ran.

He then bumped into a big bush.

"Hey! Stop!" the bush called out. Ignatius fell to the ground, not used to this emotion he was experiencing.

"I’m a friend of Gus’s. I’m Hanky the Cherry Bush. Let’s do as he wished." Ignatius looked up, seeing a talking bush covered in cherries. It was then he realized he was surrounded by various forms of shrubbery.

“Have not we affections and desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?” the bush said.

"Is that… Shakespeare?"

VII

The Hounds surrounded Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn, moreso to listen as opposed to threaten. Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn was still nervous.

"So, when I was young girl, I was given the Valley magic of matter. Meaning, most of the vowels are removed from my name, giving me vibrational transmutation abilities."

13 huge chihuahas just looked at her.

"I can make anything appear if I hit the right sound. So we don’t know where the Princess is - using sight - and we can’t smell her - using scent - so what else can we use?

"Our ears?" Sweet-suite asked.

"Yeah, but even better. I may be able to make waves visible. Sound waves, light waves - even the air itself - visibile. Like… dying them a color."

"Ah," Hippo realized. "Like sonar?"

"Sure! And if it’s who I think it is, then she’s in a hut. Surrounded by birds. OK, give me a second."

Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn closed her eyes as the dogs took cautious steps backwards.

"Eeeeeeeeeeeee," Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn began to hum in the most perfect tone any of the dogs had ever heard. Not ear-piercing, but almost soothing. Relaxing. They began to look around and see rippling colors in the air. The winds had swirls of blues and purples and reds. When a stream reached one of them, it ran right over, creating a perfect outline of their doggie bodies. Kelly barked quietly and from her mouth they all could see the sound, colored pink-ish orange, ripple off into the sky. The air was filled with these lines of flowing color. Hippo began to look, trying to spot unusual patterns in every direction, as Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn continued humming her tone.

"Let’s try this way. Biff, Viral - pick her up, put her on your back."

"Whaaa?" Viral said.

"Just do it - we have a duty to fulfill!" Hippo said, knowingly. "Rather, I have a duty to fulfill. Will you help me, this one last time?" There was quiet assent.

Viral and Biff got Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn onto their backs and the group moved forward, following the waves of color to something promising.

VIII

Linda felt it start to slip. Mary was powerful. Well, her little magic mirror was powerful. But Mary too. Maybe in another world or another life, Linda would’ve liked to have known Mary. Learned about so many things. What’s “beyond” this Neverending Valley? What’s beyond infinity? Is that really infinity or just a cool name someone made up one day? What other things or people live in these woods? Wait, she already found a life-absorbing witch, so maybe this is the worst of it.

She felt it start to slip away. Herself. It didn’t feel bad. It felt like when you start to fall asleep. It’s a little dizzying. A little confusing. That voice in your head gets muffled.

She made sure her hand was outstretched. As the beam stretched her into the mirror, her hand was nearly touching it, even though she was across the room from Mary.

How could Mary think this was OK? Mary had an awful look on her face. A real grimace. Anger. Maybe she felt bad.

Linda felt the mirror slip as she touched it. But Mary was too focused on getting this to work. No one had ever really struggled with her before. She was more annoyed than anything. Mary stood there and had to concentrate on this.

Mary’s face started rolling through the faces she had absorbed. Like a slideshow, flipping quickly, molding in and out. Was Mary even Mary at this point?

Linda felt it slip again. The mirror that is. That was the key. Just one. Finger. Waggle.

The beam suddenly stopped.

Mary looked down on the ground at the hand mirror. “How the F$&* did you knock that out of my hand!”

Linda was back, whole. Together.

"I pay attention!" Linda said. She turned and ran full speed out the front door.

She bumped into the back of a large eagle, who began to turn around. At which point, Smileyface made a move to bump the eagle again, giving Linda enough space to slide beneath it.

"PRINCESS!"

"Just call me Linda, Smileyface, OK?"

"Yeah," Smileyface, wearing the largest smile she’d ever seen on his stupid horse face. She gave him a hug.

"SWARM!" Mary shouted, now in her doorway!

Every single bird in the world (it seemed) swooped down and encircled both Linda and Smileyface. The high noon sun beat down in the circle of birds as Mary walked right up to Linda and Smileyface. Mary was not very happy.

"I don’t know why you two have made this so difficult. But that’s it. Enough. I’m absorbing you both. Now!"

"You may want to rethink that, lady!" Ignatius said, high up in the tree tops and looking down at them.

"IGNATIUS!" Smileyface and Linda shouted.

"One dumb squirrel?" Mary said, nearly laughing.

A swarm of squirrels filled the trees. Then a group of bushes rolled in behind some of the birds. They even had one possum, Bud, who walked right up to the edge of the circle and laid down, looking dead.

"Hey, Bud, psst, not now" Ignatius shouted. Bud looked up, gave a quick thumbs up, then laid back down, back to pretending.

"Squirrels and bushes? What the hell is this, a Disney movie?" Mary said, laughing.

"What’s Disney?" Linda asked.

"Oh, you don’t even wanna know, dear. But if you think some leaves and rodents will get you out of this, you are mistaken."

"Gus… he didn’t make it," Ignatius said. "Your parents have sent the troops in looking for you. They’re setting fire to the forest in the valley."

"What?!" Linda shouted, bowing her head at the somber news.

"All the more reason to get this over with, Linda. I’ll absorb you, look like you for a bit and walk back to the castle and live your life for you. How about that?" Mary offered.

Just then, a musical tone was heard. All eyes and ears turned as it got closer, quickly. It suddenly stopped as the Sniffing Hounds came to a rest and Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn hopped onto her feet, her eyes open.

"Mary," Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn said.

"You made it back, sister," Mary replied.

"You’ve gone too far this time. These dogs are ferocious and are sworn to protect her," Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn said.

"Did she say ‘sister’?" Smileyface asked.

The birds were now scattering a bit, allowing Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn to walk towards them.

"Yeah, we’re sisters."

"Only by birth," Mary added. "But your little matter-magic can’t stop me. Why does everyone think they can stop me? I’m more powerful than all of you put together. A few non-curse words and you’re all bloody pulps on the ground! These idiot birds just float around, hoping for some food or protection. But I don’t need them. I am powerful. And I’m gonna friggin’ absorb every last single one of you!"

The squirrels readied to pounce.

The birds took offensive positions in various places.

The bushes clumped together to form a bigger attack… thing.

The large eagle floated above the Hounds.

The dogs began to spread out, getting low and growling menancingly.

Mary raised her absorby hand mirror once again, aimed at Fair Princess Linda.

Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn made a Pterodactyl materialize. The Pterodactyl let out a curdling cry.

"Everyone just hold on a second," Linda said, oddly calm.

"Linda," Smileyface pleaded. She gestured to him "it’s OK."

"I’m going to come close to you, Mary, and I won’t even touch the mirror. If you let me do this, you can absorb me," Linda said.

"Stop, Princess!" Hippo shouted.

"Don’t do it!" Ignatius shouted.

Bud took a peek quickly, then laid back down, back to pretending to be dead.

Mary watched Linda as Linda got closer. Closer. And closer.

Everyone was quiet. This was about to get really awful, really quickly.

Then Linda… hugged Mary.

Mary stood there awkwardly.

At first it was a polite hug you do to a stranger or someone you met that, when they were leaving, they were hugging everyone else so they felt they had to hug you now, too. That kind of hug. At first.

But Mary just stood there, unsure of what to do. She looked at the mirror in her hand. It could be over right now. She could end this right now and absorb Linda.

“What are you - “ Mary began to say.

“Just shush. I’m just hugging.” Linda said. Then Linda hugged a little tighter, like you might for an old friend you hadn’t seen in a long time. She just hugged Mary.

It washed over Mary’s face. Like a tidal wave. Her arms slowly began to fall to her sides. The mirror fell out of her hand and into the dirt. Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn was shocked, and began to see her sister - actually see her - for the first time. Mary’s face began to fade and change, her body began to shrink a bit. Her hair began turning grayish and more scraggly. Her face got some more wrinkles. She was turning back into herself. She was turning into Mary.

"You did absorb lots of people, including the man that ran that coffee hut," Linda said to Mary, still hugging. Mary’s eyes welled up. She briefly turned into the visage of Lutarch, the coffee hut owner, then back to herself.

"I… I want to live forever. And I knew how. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to be everything forever," Mary said, tears coming down her elderly cheeks.

"It’s OK… it’s over now," Linda said. Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn now came close and put her arms around them both.

The large eagle landed on the ground. Some of the birds quietly flew away. Everyone relaxed.

"Linda?" Smileyface said, shocked.

"You told me she was misunderstood," Linda said back. Smileyface nodded.

"So… no big fight?" Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys asked. B-8 gave her a kick.

IX

The entire group finally came out of the forest of the Neverending Valley. The troops were able to cease the burning of the trees and began attempts to put out the fires they had started. It would take some work, and more damage would be done to the Valley, but they did their best.

As soon as Linda emerged, her parents ran up and embraced her. She introduced them to all her new friends. And began to tell them who Mary was. What she tried to do.

X

A guard walked down a long stairwell, clutching a wooden bowl. Down and down he went.

"Oi, Tommy!" he shouted at a metal gate.

“‘S’all right,” a voice behind the gate shouted.

The guard continued descending until he reached another gate.

"Susie the Destroyer? Oi!" he shouted.

"Ey! What about my lamp, ya bastard!" a voice cried out from the other side of the gate.

"Workin’ on it," the guard shouted back.

He went down and down and down some more until he reached the bottom of the steps. He held the bowl up to the small bars of the gate.

"Oi! Mary!"

Inside, sat an old woman. Quietly sitting in a chair.

"Oi! Imma leave this ‘ere! Ya betta eat - the Princess convinced the King to give ya food, ya know!" Mary looked up. "But the King wants you down ‘ere forever."

The guard left, the bowl teetering on the edge of the little barred window on Mary’s cell door.

XI

"Um, and I just want to say, thanks to all the other trees for being here today," Ignatius said, standing on fresh dirt, in the middle of the forest, post-fire. "Gus was a great friend and a great tree. So here’s to a new generation of friends!"

Ignatius shoved a little tree seedling into the ground. While trees can’t clap, they did rustle their leaves to create applause.

"And join us later tonight as the Bushes of Shakespeare, where they will be doing a special performance of ‘Othello’ to benefit the ‘Gus the Oak Tree That Always Needed Coffee Squirrel Sanctuary’."

More clapping and applause as Ignatius looked around, a grin on his face that was both proud and somber.

XII

"And so, by the court of the Most Taken Umbrage… and the Most High Ellsworth," the herald shouted, "we hereby grant absolution to the charges to the Sniffing Hounds: Kelly, Hippo, Richter, Yolo, Pewter, Sweet-suite, Viral, Xanadu, B-8, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and Biff."

All 11 Sniffing Hounds were standing beside their respective 11 in Blue handlers, feeling most proud at this moment. Hippo, though, was more stoic. His handler gave him a pat on the side.

"I think you’ve served your penance, Hippo," she said.

"I hope so," Hippo replied.

"You are now free members of the kingdom, with all rights and privileges as any man, woman, child, equine, rodent and other human-speech capable residents of the kingdom," the herald shouted. "You may go free."

At that, 10 of the Hounds took off at full speed, in various directions. Who knows where?

Hippo was slower to walk away. He turned back to look at the palace. Then trotted off slowly, fading into the forest.

XIII

"So the key to creating any living thing is the ‘a’ sound and the ‘u’ sound," Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn said, standing in front of a class of young students.

The whole class said in unison, “aaaaaaa.”

BUZZ! The students frantically packed up their things to leave the class.

"OK, class, be sure leave your homework at the palace gate and I’ll see you on Monday!"

They left in a hurry. Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn smiled and exited her new classroom, her magic being added to the Ellsworth and Umbrage curriculum now. She walked through the palace halls, past her new room and reached the jail door.

"Yeah?" the guard said harshly.

"I’d like to visit my sister," Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn said plainly.

The guard looked at her oddly, shrugged, then opened the door. Ywvgnrlyvgyxwmn smiled and began descending the staircase.

????

In the evening, Linda was seated with her parents in the Royal Chamber of Dining as they ate dinner.

"And so Sir Cravatte and his parents will be here on the morrow," Guinevere said.

"Yes mother," Linda said, sipping her soup.

"We have a whole dinner planned. Dancing too," Tomas added, looking at her daughter for reaction.

"Yes father," Linda said, taking another sip.

Tomas and Guinevere shared a look.

"Look, we’re not upset that you went off in the Neverending Valley," Guinevere began.

"But you’re our daughter and very important to us and this kingdom," Tomas continued.

"And it’s simply not in the Scroll for you to do such… unplanned things," Guinevere added.

More silence. Except for sipping soup noises.

"We’re of course glad you’re safe," Tomas said.

Linda dropped her spoon with a crash and looked up at her parents.

"May I be excused?"

"Of course, dear," Guinevere said, sweetly.

- - - -

In the middle of the night, down the castle wall, climbed down Fair Princess Linda.

"This is sooooo dumb," Smileyface whisper-shouted up to the descending Linda. "Like, sooooo dumb!"

Linda landed on the ground next to her average horse.

"You can go back inside. I’ll go by myself!" she said.

"No, it’s just… we barely made it back. Where do you even want to go?" Smileyface asked, as Linda affixed some supplies on his back.

"Anywhere," she said with a smile.

"Fine," Smileyface replied.

They began to walk off…

Linda wasn’t heartless - she left a note in her room that one of the maids found the next morning.

It said,

Dear ma and dad,

I know, you’re freaking out. But I’m fine. I’m with Smileyface and we have tons of friends to help us. And I know I can come to you for help if I need it. But I want to see the world. I don’t want to be afraid. I want to explore. I may get married, sure, but maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll learn what is above us, up beyond the sky and sun. Maybe I’ll go really teeny-tiny and get down into the ground. Maybe I’ll go beyond the Neverending Valley of Ellsworth and Umbrage. There are so many possiblities. I want to try a few of them.

I’ll write soon. Please don’t worry.

PS: At some point, please give Mary the same chance you gave Hippo and the Hounds. Mercy.

PPS: Tell Sir Cravatte… actually, don’t tell him anything.

Your daughter, with love,

Fair Princess Linda

PPPS: Smileyface wanted me to add that this is all my idea and please don’t put him in jail.

Fin


Start again with Part 1: http://chrismcgowan.net/post/88011958669/beyond-the-neverending-valley-of-ellsworth-and


The Chatternoster Gang Episode 004 →

chatternostergang:

Episode 4 of our Doctor Who podcast, “The Chatternoster Gang”, is up (a tad late)! Here’s a link to listen RIGHT NOW: http://chatternostergang.libsyn.com/the-chatternoster-gang-episode-004

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londongypsy:

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett join forces with Radio 4 to make first ever dramatisation of Good Omens

The Radio 4 audience loved Neverwhere and Good Omens will be a splendid Christmas treat.Gwyneth Williams, Controller, BBC Radio 4

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My name is Chris McGowan, LA-based and Chicago-born writer and actor.

I say things, write things and make things.

I pretend to be other people and create other worlds.

It's going to be all here.

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