Sherlock – Caitlin Moran: BFI Q+A (SPOILER FREE)

I was one of the very lucky few to attend the BFI screening of the Sherlock series three opener ‘The Empty Hearse’ this weekend. This blog is not about the episode, and will contain absolutely no information, clues, spoilers or anything else relating to it.

It started for me on the train home to Manchester from London. I checked my phone, refreshed Twitter, and searched for posts relating to ‘bfi sherlock’. I wanted to get an idea of other attendees’ views on the episode and their experience of the day. What I found was surprising. Or maybe it wasn’t.

If I had not attended the screening that afternoon I might have come to the conclusion that two very highly regarded Hollywood actors had been coerced – nay, forced – into ridiculing a shocked and distraught audience with a reading of hardcore pornography. These terrible events had been orchestrated by the host, who had set out to humiliate the actors and belittle the author of said work, before picking off random members of the outraged audience with a handgun, in a final, bloody, coup de grace.

As it happens, I did attend the screening, and I did attend the Q+A – and I would like to share with you what actually happened, in front of my eyes.

Following the screening, the cast and crew of Sherlock were introduced onto the BFI stage alongside our host for the afternoon, journalist Caitlin Moran. Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman were there, with co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, producer Sue Vertue and director Jeremy Lovering. Caitlin began proceedings with an invitation to the gathered masses to get one enormous admiring scream out of the way right off the bat, and the audience duly obliged.

The questioning began with a long conversation about the episode we had just watched. Again, no spoilers here. Everyone on stage was having a good time, with plenty of good natured banter between them. All involved had a chance to speak for a while, and plenty of topics were covered, none of which I can describe, simply because it was entirely spoilerific for a good half an hour.

Eventually, the conversation (note: conversation, not simply questions and answers) turned to the subject of Sherlock fan-fiction. To great amusement from the audience, specifically the throngs of fangirls, Caitlin briefly suggested future plot ideas to the crew taken from three ‘fanfics’ she had found online. As the title of each fanfic was read out, the fangirls around me gasped excitedly and leaned forward in their seats, suggesting to me that the majority of them knew these stories very well, and very clearly wanted their heroes to know about them too.

Finally, Caitlin revealed the title of the story that has caused so much fuss in SherlockFandomLand over the last 24 hours. It was entitled “Tea”, which was, as it turns out, a sequel to “Coffee”. Yes, this got a laugh. Not just from Caitlin, as many would have you believe, but from the entire audience (including all the fangirls sat in my line of sight), cast, and crew. It got a laugh, because it’s a fact that Tea (a sequel to Coffee) is a cute, funny title in any universe. Not mockingly funny, just funny. Caitlin did state that the story “doesn’t contain anything bad”. I have read the story. It does contain a lot of bad. But not the section we were about to hear. Unless you think a gay kiss is ‘bad’, and I certainly don’t.

Then the moment of truth. Did Caitlin Moran really FORCE Benedict and Martin to read an extract from this fanfic? Were Benedict and Martin MADE to perform like monkeys in front of a baying crowd?

No. No she didn’t, and no they weren’t.

Printouts of the fanfic were passed to the pair. That’s ‘passed’. Handed over. Let’s just make it perfectly clear that nothing was thrust into either actor’s face. At this point I would recommend you watch the three-minute video which has circulated online. It’s happily spoiler-free, so everyone can see what transpires. Obviously I was there, so I saw it all happen in context with the rest of the show, but this is the next best thing. My own observations are highlighted in bold.

It begins with Caitlin asking the actors to play their roles in the fanfic while also reading their respective narratives. She then light-heartedly (watch the video) jokes that Jeremy Lovering is directing, to which Martin responds, with great comedy timing, “Get them in”, gesturing to the audience. This is a reference to something joked about earlier in the session, wherein it was acknowledged how difficult it was to film an episode without onlookers getting into shot. Again, the audience are all laughing. It was a funny moment.

Martin begins to read his part. As he reads, I am watching the audience. Being sat towards the rear of the not-very-large theatre, I can see everything. What you cannot see on the leaked video is all the fans/fangirls leaning forward, huge smiles on their face, giggling away. They are not laughing at the fanfic. They are laughing excitedly at their heroes reading an actual fanfic in front of their eyes.

Benedict then responds with his first line, which is “Sherlock licked his bottom lip”, to which Steven Moffat responds with “Whose bottom lip?” This of course gets a laugh from the audience. This is not mocking laughter, aimed at the piece or the author. This is laughter at a quick-witted response from Moffat. All on stage know what’s coming, clearly, because they are all very aware of Sherlock fan-fiction. The subsequent laughter comes from anticipation. “How far are they going to go?”

As a result of Moffat’s interruption, Benedict points out a slight narrative error in the script, nothing serious at all, which is swiftly brushed over as it is unimportant. Again, at this stage the audience are hooked to this. It is fascinating. Is Benedict Cumberbatch really going to read aloud from a fan’s work? It certainly seems so. Even better, Benedict’s next line is read in his Sherlock voice. For me personally, being in the same room as the actor who plays Sherlock actually playing Sherlock is phenomenal.

Martin responds with what I actually consider a very well written line of narrative – “John turned to the left, his body at attention” – before tilting his head in a knowing way towards the audience. The double entendre here causes plenty of merriment. Soon after this, another line read by Martin, “John swallowed” gives us the biggest laugh, and curiously, a round of applause. A ROUND OF APPLAUSE.

This is not awkward. This is not an unpleasant atmosphere. This is joyful – these two A-list actors are on stage sharing in something fanmade, to an adoring audience, who are loving every second. And I feel I should reiterate, the majority of the attendees are most certainly fangirls (and fanboys, if you include me).

After Martin read a further line, Benedict paused briefly. This was the main incident, which needs to be clarified. Benedict did pause. Martin turned to him, expecting him to continue with the story, but Benedict had turned to Caitlin to suggest ‘let’s stop it here’. Caitlin immediately obliged and announced “yes, shall we stop it here – this sounded a lot better in my head”. NOTE – VERY IMPORTANT– both Benedict and Martin laughed at that statement, asking “did you write it?”. They did not feel put upon, they were not forced into a corner, they were obviously having a good time. So much so, that Benedict actually asked Caitlin whether they were ruining anything by stopping early.

Caitlin, as can be seen on the video, was almost over-apologetic, thinking that the previous minute or two hadn’t been entertaining, but it had. There was nothing unpleasant, nothing derisive towards the author, except for one statement – that the last line was “clumsily written” – but we’re not exactly talking about a damning critique on the author’s work. It’s all there to see on the video.

Benedict then made a statement. And it is this statement which I feel has caused all the uproar against Caitlin Moran. If Benedict hadn’t said this, the backlash towards Caitlin would not have happened, I am sure.

Benedict’s statement was this: “It’s just a point, I mean the fans can do what they like, but there’s a point, we do what we do with it, and that’s the fun we have with our fiction of it, is to point out that that [a kiss between John and Sherlock] is ludicrous in our universe of this storytelling. So, sorry to be all ‘mmmmm’ about it…*adopts cockney accent* His nibs ain’t doing that”.

Caitlin at this point apologised, explained that she was very sorry, and throws it open to the audience. All is rosy again. This was lighthearted.

Benedict’s statement caused the problem. The issue we have is that Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of the show and the hero to the fangirls, has just stated openly and publicly that he doesn’t like fan-fiction. This causes a problem, because the fans are not going to turn on him, are they? No chance. They’re not going to turn on the rest of the cast and crew either. No, they’re going to turn on the one easy target – Caitlin Moran.

And so, this is what happened. Even though everyone in that room thoroughly enjoyed the whole event, through countless generations of Chinese whispers and misheard/misunderstood comments, the whole Sherlock fandom formed an army against Caitlin Moran, bombarding her Twitter with all sorts of unpleasantness. She’s been accused of going into that Q+A with an agenda from the outset, to use Benedict and Martin as pawns in her carefully planned attack on the fandom. And then there’s the other angle, that the whole thing was a direct attack on fanfics and through that, a direct attack on feminism. To paraphrase Benedict, THAT’S ludicrous. It’s nonsense. Utter, utter nonsense.

I will state at this point that I am aware of the other issues people have raised in relation to the event, such as ‘was it morally/legally right for this author’s work to be performed without permission?’ or ‘what about the breaking of the fourth wall (mixing up fan-fiction with the actual original canon actors)?’ but these are questions for other people to discuss and debate. I just want to put the actual unbiased facts out there, as it’s obvious that a great deal of misinformation has been fed to people through blogs and Twitter.

At worst, the introduction of the fanfic to proceedings was an error of judgement on Caitlin’s part. Simply that, a mistake. And I do have sympathy for the writer of said fanfic, who has stated that she never wanted the cast to read her work. But it certainly wasn’t torn apart like it’s being suggested it was.

For those who launched their tirades against Caitlin for ‘breaking the fourth wall’ and sharing fan-created material with the stars of the show, I’m reminded of a talk some time ago, where Martin Freeman was asked by a young fangirl whether he would wear ‘red pants’ for the show, to which the whole room full of fangirls shrieked with excitement, while Martin called them ‘dirty minded f**kers’. This was a direct reference to fan-made material involving artwork featuring John Watson in red underwear, and a direct request for the actor to wear said underwear in the show. Interesting then how this fourth wall opinion has now changed, simply because Caitlin Moran is someone in the public eye.

I am not defending Caitlin Moran because of any political, or feministic, or any other reason. I don’t read The Times and I have not yet read her books. I’m defending her because I’m sick of seeing the pack mentality on Twitter, especially when it comes to fandoms, ganging up on someone for reasons they have only heard second, third or fourth-hand. Or from watching a three-minute video of an event which lasted three hours.

Thank you for reading this, if you did. If you share my opinion, great. If not, then equally great, it’s up to you. I’m just stating the facts.

Latersville.

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Annus Who-rribilis (sorry)

Non-Whovians read on at your peril. You’ve had enough of the holiday for a while. I’ve decided to have a bit of a quick break from blogging about my honeymoon in a kind of “What I Did This Summer” style to return to writing about the subject this blog was created for: Doctor Bloody Who.

Some people may have noticed that this is the 50th Anniversary year of Doctor Who. For the pedants, these ’50 years’ do include a pretty large 16-year hiatus, but in reality I couldn’t give a toss. The show first aired in 1963, so 2013 for the anniversary it is. As a result of this milestone we Whovians are getting a shedload of little (and big) treats to enjoy as the year passes, and I’m trying to enjoy as many of them as I can, money allowing.

We’ve had the daft little collectors’ things thus far, such as the stamps – which are lovely – and everything from gold-plated TARDISes to playsets and mugs and such like. These are nice little reminders that the show is getting a little bit of publicity, albeit at times it’s a little grating to see the Doctor’s face on a packet of biscuits for no reason whatsoever. I’m not going to complain about all that too much though; at least it’s not absolutely everywhere (yet), and even if it was, it’s something that I kinda have a bit of an interest in, so sod it.

Obviously we’ve already had the seventh series of the ‘new’ Doctor Who, and, while I felt parts of it were a little weak in places, it was equally strong in others – and while I could probably say for sure there are maybe one or two episodes this year I won’t be rushing to watch again, there are at least eight or nine I could happily watch over and over. Later in the year we’ll be treated to the multi-Doctor Anniversary special, and then the Matt Smith era comes to a conclusion with the Christmas special, in which we’ll be treated to a regeneration. Also to come is Mark Gatiss’ An Adventure in Space and Time, a feature length drama about the making of the original series, which looks really intriguing.

While I’m waiting for my television to explode with Doctor Who-related goodness, I’m having to find other Who things to do to pass the time. And find these things I have. As previous readers of my blog will already know, I’ve met Billie Piper and Jenna-Louise Coleman (who I understand has now changed her name to just Jenna Coleman – probably to save time when signing hundreds of autographs at a time). That was a fun weekend, but the year needs something else. Something a bit more substantial.

First up, something that only transpired in the last few days, and something for which I absolutely cannot wait. I’d noticed over the last few days that my Twitter (@djdarrenjones) timeline had gradually been filling up with photographs and tweets about people I’m following visiting the set of the TARDIS at Roath Lock Studios – a revelation which both shocked and appalled me, in equal measure. How were people getting onto the TARDIS? How, if I’d signed up for every single Who-related mailing list in the ruddy universe over the last few years, was I not hearing about this? A quick call to the Doctor Who Experience later, and I was advised that this was a special deal being offered by the Experience over summer – to visit the current set (located next door to the Experience in Cardiff) for the princely sum of ten pounds (on top of the usual £13 entrance fee to the Experience itself). Naturally I begged, stole and borrowed (from myself) and due to some superb help from a certain gentleman at the DWE – who I won’t name, just in case he went far above and beyond the call of duty – I’m now heading to the bloody TARDIS set in a couple of weeks. The current TARDIS. So current, that it’s possible it may even be closed on the day we turn up due to filming. Flaming well hope not though.

And then on to November 23rd, the day of the Anniversary itself. I’m heading down to London to attend the Doctor Who Official 50th Celebration – a huge official BBC convention being held at the enormous ExCel Centre. All we know so far is that there will be guests (Matt Smith, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Tom Baker have been announced at the time of writing), panels, an SFX Show and “other” stuff, details of which are yet to be released. It’s been suggested that there will be some sort of event in the evening directly related to the transmission that night of the Anniversary Special, which could be anything from a large cinema showing with a ‘Q and A’ with the stars, to a small TV placed in the corner of the room which only Steven Moffat and his SDCC chums are allowed to watch. Ahem.

Either way, this convention is being billed as something a little bit special, and I do hope it lives up to the hype. The tickets sold out in a matter of an hour or so, and every single attendee will be hoping for something memorable. I’m sure as the event draws near and more guests are announced, this will be a knockout weekend for those of us lucky enough to have tickets.

So, that’s it thus far. I think a trip to the TARDIS and a chance to meet virtually every companion and Doctor in one day could really make my year this year.

Who’s left me feeling Cold….

This post contains spoilers for the recent Doctor Who episode “Cold War”. If you haven’t seen the episode yet, don’t read on.

I may be jumping the gun slightly here, as last week’s episode of Doctor Who took a repeat watch before I realised just how much I enjoyed it, despite the niggling little issues I had with it. Tonight’s episode, Cold War, was one I was looking forward to, due to the high regard in which it’s been held by previewers, however I must admit I wasn’t as satisfied with the finished product as I’d been hoping.

Firstly though, I’ll concentrate on the positives. This episode was the first one in a while which genuinely felt like a ‘classic’ episode of Doctor Who. Aside from the return of an old enemy, the Ice Warriors, the close-quarters nature of the submarine in which the action was set meant that we could enjoy a largely CGI-free 45 minutes. Such is the epic and grand scale of much of current Doctor Who that CGI is used frequently (albeit to wonderful effect). Cold War, conversely, gave us scale models and real sets, showing that hi-tech wizardry isn’t always required to provide the audience with a visual feast. The direction of the episode was outstanding, giving us a real tangible feeling of suspense, especially once the Ice Warrior himself discarded his protective suit and started to hunt the crew, in a style similar to James Cameron’s Alien.

It seems we have seen the Doctor’s first sonic screwdriver with a ‘red’ setting, first hinted at when we saw River Song’s screwdriver in Silence in the Library a few years ago. It seems therefore that we’re heading toward the moment the Doctor gives River that screwdriver, which I’m willing to bet happens in the final episode of this series, or perhaps the 50th Anniversary special. More importantly though, I was chuffed to see Mark Gatiss writing in a situation where the Doctor was separated from his sonic as well as the TARDIS, something I’d been hoping for in a previous blog entry. On this subject, I note that the TARDIS now has a restored Hostile Action Displacement System (H.A.D.S.), which in the classic series was created to remove the TARDIS from dangerous or violent situations. I will return to this shortly.

I enjoyed some of the performances in Cold War, not least David Warner as Professor Grisenko, the resident scientist on the submarine, and Tobias Menzies as Lieutenant Stepashin harked back to the classic days of Who – the turncoat who tries to partner up with the key antagonist of the episode a la Tekker in Timelash. And of course the return of the Ice Warriors provided the costuming department with the unenviable task of creating a new, credible look for the Martians which had the feel of the classic monster without looking hackneyed or out of date. Grand Marshall Skaldak (for that is his name) was realised very well indeed, and casting a 6’7″ actor in Spencer Wilding was an excellent move.

In general however, Cold War didn’t quite hit me like some previous episodes have. It didn’t feel like an episode which was part of a “series” – in that it could have been put in anywhere and didn’t link to anything we’d seen earlier – and the Doctor and Clara being there in the first place just didn’t seem to make any sense. According to the Doctor, they were heading for Las Vegas and clearly totally got the time and destination absolutely wrong, despite the previous episode suggesting that the Doctor had just got the hang of his aim and skill at piloting the TARDIS. What happened to the days of the Doctor checking where they were after he landed before opening the police box doors? I appreciate that Neil Gaiman established in The Doctor’s Wife that the TARDIS regularly goes where the Doctor NEEDS to go rather than where he WANTS to go, but I still feel that their presence on a Russian submarine in 1983 was a little contrived.

The opening sequence too puzzled me. The Ice Warrior was sealed in thick ice from the outset. We hear from one of the crew guarding the creature that Professor Grisenko wanted to wait to return to his laboratory before releasing the beast from its icy prison, however that same crew member decides (for no apparent reason except for mere curiosity) to blatantly disobey orders and takes a blowtorch to the frozen block, allowing Skaldak his escape.

Shortly after the Doctor and Clara arrive, and are captured by the Russians (and for some reason not immediately shot) the H.A.D.S. kicks in and removes the TARDIS from trouble. I very much hope that the Doctor disables this device as soon as he returns to his craft, as this is a far too simple way for future writers to remove the TARDIS from the Doctor’s reach. We have seen a good example of how this can be done effectively in The Almost People/The Rebel Flesh, where we see the ship sucked into the ground early in the first episode, only to be rediscovered at the end of the second. Simple, but effective, and an excellent way to make things more difficult for the Doctor and his companions.

Something about Clara bugged me throughout Cold War. Assuming this episode is set after The Rings of Akhaten, we know that Clara has already been uploaded into a Wi-fi cloud and directly battled a sun-sized parasitic creature in space. I would have thought then that she would now be on the way to fully-fledged ‘companion’, especially given that they were supposed to be on their way to a jolly in Las Vegas. I sensed much more doubt in her this week, which surprised me, as she certainly didn’t seem full of self-doubt last week as she flung herself across space on a moped to save the universe from a planet-scoffing alien sun, armed with just a leaf.

I found the majority of this episode mostly forgettable, sadly. I never really believed that we were on a Russian submarine – surely an accent of some sort from the cast might have helped there – but for me Cold War was a little….dare I say it….dull. The middle 30 minutes tended to just trudge along, with a few stops for conversation, in which we learned precious little about the characters, culminating in the final showdown in which the Doctor threatens to destroy the sub rather than allow Skaldak to fire the nuclear missiles on board. The trouble with this scene was that I just didn’t believe that the Doctor would have carried out his threat, and as such it seemed far too obvious that in the end, Skaldak wouldn’t press the button. For the second week in a row, Clara stepped in to defeat the enemy where the Doctor failed, with a callback to an earlier throwaway conversation with the Martian about his daughter. It was during this scene we were shown Skaldak’s face without his helmet, which, compared to some of the special effects we’ve seen in recent years, was terribly unconvincing.

I felt that we’d seen the basic premise of this episode before. The lonely monster, the last of its kind, captured on Earth – all factors explored in the Eccleston episode “Dalek”. It’s a clever way to reintroduce a species we haven’t seen in the Whoniverse for around 40 years, granted, but it was all a little bit of a rehash. It worked in “Dalek”, as there was an obvious comparison between said Dalek and that incarnation of the Doctor, who was also the last of his kind due to his recent actions in the unseen Time War. It didn’t have the same impact here.

The ending of the episode was all a little ‘E.T. Phone Home’, featuring the inevitable return of the rest of Skaldak’s species who came to pick him up in their pretty cheaply rendered CGI spaceship. At this point we learn that the TARDIS has relocated itself at the South Pole, and not the North Pole, where the episode is set. Most amusing indeed, but it all felt a little sitcom-y. I can only guess that the Doctor has an override system built into his sonic screwdriver, because I’m not sure that he or Clara would get very far travelling on foot, given that Clara is only wearing a wet evening dress and the Doctor’s jacket doesn’t look like it will keep much of the cold out.

I have a feeling that Cold War will be one of those episodes which will be popular with a great many people, as the things it does well, it does very well. And I’m sure we’ll see Skaldak and the rest of the Ice Warriors in the future, and I must state that I’m not against this generally. It is refreshing to encounter a Doctor Who monster who actually can be reasoned with, unlike the Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels et al. But the episode itself, I feel is somewhat of a let down after the building up of the return of the Ice Warriors.