The Why of Funny #5: Saw-It-Coming and Balloon-Go-Bang

Posted on July 22nd, 2011 in Culture | 4 Comments »

In the trailer for the Simpsons movie, Homer is seen working on the roof of his home, with Bart in attendance. He carefully positions the next nail and holds it in place with one hand, his thumb sitting right on top of the nail head. He pulls the hammer back with his other hand, preparing to pound the nail home. He draws back the hammer once, twice, and then – this time with extra vigour – buries the claw of the hammer into his eye. A second later, that section of the roof collapses and he plunges two storeys. Our delight at the extent to which we were right and wrong about Homer’s fate makes us laugh: we thought we knew what was coming, but the detail was better than we had anticipated.

That comedy has to be surprising is no revelation. We all know that a joke is funniest the first time you hear it, and so pretty much every example we’ve seen so far has had some element of Balloon-Go-Bang in it. If you begin the Spike Milligan joke with: “Here’s a story about how a guy kills his best friend,” you ruin the effect of the punchline. However, it’s also true that surprise by itself is not enough to be funny. A surprise can also be shocking or just confusing, like a sentence that ends with a word that doesn’t seem to make grammatical floorwax.

What is also interesting is the extent to which some comedy depends on the audience knowing exactly what is coming next, why sometimes you have to set up an expectation in order to subvert it, and why sometimes an audience can see even that coming.

Cause-and-effect drives every kind of story from a simple sketch to a great epic. Removing cause-and-effect makes a story seem episodic, surreal or rambling. In the Simpsons example above, the set up makes a promise to the audience: Homer is going to hurt himself. The existence of Homer in the scene already suggests this, since we know what Homer’s character is, but by putting him in a high place and giving him a hammer, the promise is made more explicit. The audience will feel cheated if the promise is not fulfilled, unless they get something better than they had anticipated.

When Homer puts his thumb over the head of the nail, again we have that same feeling of “we know what’s going to happen”. This time, however the promise is more specific. Homer will bang his thumb. And now, we’re a bit disappointed. We’re being palmed off with a cliché we’ve seen before. Surely The Simpsons can do better than this? But as Homer lines up his first pound of the hammer, we can’t see any alternative until, suddenly, the hammer smacks into his face, delivering the general promise perfectly, while still surprising us. While we are still recovering from this, the roof gives way and Homer is even more severely hurt, to our continuing delight.

Balancing these two forces of anticipation and surprise is the art of comic timing. And part of this is sustaining an absence of comedy within a comedy form, because of the release that the audience will experience when something funny finally happens. Both the Dave Allen “Frankenstein” sketch and the Smith and Jones sketch already quoted make great use of this effect. And here’s a famous example from Peter Cook, attempting to explain to a one-legged man why he will be unsuitable for the role of Tarzan.

COOK: Now, Mr Spiggott, you, a one-legged man, are applying for the role of Tarzan.
MOORE: Yes, right.
COOK: A role traditionally associated with a two-legged artiste.
MOORE: Yes, correct, yes, yes.
COOK: And yet you, a unidexter… are applying for the role.
MOORE: Yes, right, yes.
COOK: A role for which two legs would seem to be the minimum requirement. Well, Mr Spiggott, need I point out to you with overmuch emphasis where your deficiency lies as regards landing the role?
MOORE: Yes, I think you ought to.
COOK: Perhaps I ought, yes. Need I say, without too much stress, that it is in the leg division that you are deficient.
MOORE: The leg division?
COOK: The leg division, Mr Spiggott. You are deficient in the leg division to the tune of one. Your right leg I like. It’s a lovely leg for the role. As soon as I saw it come in, I said, “Hello! What a lovely leg for the role!”
COOK: I’ve got nothing against your right leg.
COOK: The trouble is… neither have you.

The whole sketch an elaborate repetition of essentially the same exchange (neither party is affected by the encounter, and the status relationship is completely static). Once the surprise of the initial juxtaposition has worn off, all the emphasis is put on the insights generated by Peter Cook’s way with words, which luckily does not desert him here. Each time Cook speaks we know he is going to find another way of putting the same information, and towards the end of the sketch, he delays, by means of nearly half-a-dozen straight lines, his final glorious pun. A very similar engine drives both The Parrott Sketch and The Cheese Shop sketch as well as, no doubt, very many others.

It is this combination of anticipation and surprise which is at the heart of the Rule of Three. A perfectly dreadful joke from an old BBC sketch show called Three of a Kind will nonetheless exemplify the form (I may have misremembered the details).

ULLMAN: I’ve just accidentally drunk some petrol. I washed the taste out of my mouth with lemonade.
HENRY: I’ve just accidentally drunk some petrol. I washed the taste out of my mouth with fruit juice.
COPPERFIELD: I’ve just had a cup of coffee in the BBC Canteen. Anyone got any petrol?

This is a lousy joke, because its moment of insight is trivial and the satire is weak, but structurally it is perfectly formed. The first two iterations establish the expectation. The third iteration is the earliest moment where one can violate the expectation (and so the most efficient). This one, two, three structure appears in numerous guises, and not just in comedy.

Sometimes, the humour lies in the mere fact of repetition. Laurel and Hardy spend 20 minutes trying to get a piano up a flight of stairs in their Oscar-winning short The Music Box. The sight of it sliding back down the seventh time is arguably funnier than the first time. Or, take Steve Coogan’s monotone swimming pool security guard from The Day Today.

COOGAN: This pool’s been open nearly forty years and, in all that time, I only slipped up once, to my mind. I was engaged in a particularly tricky word puzzle and forty people had broken in and were in the pool, playing around, ducking, bombing and doing all manner of prohibited activities, and eventually someone was killed.
INTERVIEWER: But given that your sole responsibility is to maintain the security of the pool, isn’t that an indictment against yourself?
COOGAN: Well, I would say this – I’ve been working here for eighteen years, and in 1975 no one died. In 1976, no one died. In 1977, no one died. In 1978, no one died. In 1979, no-one died. In 1980… some one died. In 1981, no one died. In 1982 there was the incident with the pigeon. In 1983, no one died. In 1984, no one died. In 1985, no one died. In 1986… I mean, I could go on.

The mere fact of repetition here is funny. Slapstick often strikes us a funny because we see a person become a mechanism, or an object (Del Boy’s famous fall through the bar is justly famous because David Jason’s body is entirely rigid, pivoting exactly at the feet). Repetition (and also rhyming) creates a similar effect, verbally.

A character trait is a deeper and more effective way of delivering the same combination of surprise and anticipation. If set up, it feels like Saw-It-Coming. If it comes as a surprise, then it feels more like an Oh-I-See reincorporation. When Larry David can’t get rid of a cocktail stick at a party, we are just waiting and waiting for it to injure someone or otherwise embarrass Larry (it ends up scratching Ben Stiller’s cornea). Conversely, during a tense battle of wits in an episode of Friends, anal-retentive Monica hides in Joey’s bathroom while Chandler attempts to seduce Phoebe (on Monica’s orders). Briefly returning to the bathroom for a pep talk, Chandler looks around him. “Did you clean in here?” he asks in disbelief.

Given a character with a famous catch-phrase, an audience is often waiting in delicious anticipation to finally hear the words they know are coming. And once a character and a catchphrase has been established, artful comedians will delay, and delay, and delay the moment when they finally come out with it, perhaps leading the audience to conclude that it will never be said, or that the character has changed fundamentally, only to reveal it again at the last moment. The Fast Show, Little Britain and Catherine Tate all use this very successfully.

Building up, sustaining and then releasing tension is a fundamental aspect of storytelling of all kinds. Particularly obvious is the way it is often combined with dramatic irony to sustain suspense, and the same mechanism is at work in constructing farces, where tension is created through a secret being sustained (sometimes unwittingly). Eventually the secret must come out and the tension can be released.

Perhaps the best combination of these two elements is the first one discussed, where the general promise is kept in a way more satisfying or original than the specific promise. Del Boy and Rodney taking down the chandelier in “A Touch of Glass” is another famous example of this. Having hubristically volunteered their services as expert chandelier-cleaners, Del finds himself and Rodney up a pair of stepladders, stretching out a blanket underneath 200lbs of cut glass. In the floor above, Grandad has undone the fastenings and is ready to release the final bolt. “Right… brace yourself,” Del tells Rodney as Grandad knocks the bolt through the ceiling. We cut back to a long shot of Del and Rodney only to see a second chandelier in the distance plunge to the ground and shatter. The specific promise (that they will struggle to support the chandelier in the blanket) is swept aside in glorious furtherance of the general promise (that they aren’t competent to take down a chandelier).

Notice as well that here the tension is released and the stakes are raised as opposed to the bathetic examples discussed under Mangos-In-Syrup where the tension was released and the stakes were lowered. The former is of much more use for sit-coms or comedy movies, whereas the latter can be used more safely with sketch comedy.

The Why of Funny #3: Just-A-Flesh-Wound

Posted on July 12th, 2011 in Culture | 4 Comments »

King Arthur faces the fearsome Black Knight in mortal combat, and through superior swordsmanship, manages to slice his opponent’s arm clean off. Assuming that the fight is his, Arthur prepares to continue his journey, only to be told by the Knight that “It’s just a scratch” and “he’s had worse”. The fight continues until all four of the Black Knight’s limbs are removed at which point, he reluctantly agrees to call it a draw. The pain and dismemberment is presented unrealistically and we feel able to laugh at it, and not withdraw in horror. (Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

This theory presents two opposite strategies for dealing with emotion in comedy. The first, and most common, is to minimise emotion – particularly negative emotion – for the simple reason that we won’t laugh if we sense real pain.

Consider again the oldest joke in the world, the king falling over. One additional reason why the old lady falling over is not funny is that there is a much higher chance of genuine injury in the case of the old lady. We are amused by the king’s humiliation much more than his hospitalisation. If the King staggers to his feet and then collapses, his legs bending impossibly under him, and blood spewing from his lips, then all comedy is gone: we are horrified or disgusted. Clowns appear to suffer appalling injuries, but bounce back to their feet again (although they may be very disoriented, to heighten the effect of having their status lowered). Cartoon characters are the apotheosis of this technique, being essentially impossible to kill or even injure severely.

A promotional film made to publicise the James Bond film Thunderball and called “A Child’s Guide To Blowing Up A Motor Car”, showed Dennis Norden taking his young nephew to see a stunt being filmed. At the climax of film, Norden returns the boy to his home and drives away, only to discover that the boy has learned his lesson too well and has rigged the car to explode. After the flames start to subside, we cut to Norden in a hospital bed, covered in cartoony bandages, and a look of mild irritation on his face. Without that final shot, this is a horrific story of an innocence destroyed, a horrible death, a senseless loss of life. With the final shot we establish “only joking”, due to Norden simply having to be bandaged up in order to recover, and in particular due to his emotional suffering being very minor. The comedy sound effects added to shows like You’ve Been Framed, which depict possibly life-threatening accidents, serve a very similar purpose.

John Cleese realised the importance of this, working on Fawlty Towers. Basil can say anything he likes to Sybil provided that the insults never seem to strike home. If Sybil were genuinely to be wounded by Basil’s bitter sarcasm, we would lose all sympathy for him as a character and the engine of the plot would be destroyed – we would no longer want Basil to succeed.

However, as has been noted, characters reacting to events is a major plank of good storytelling, and so the over-use of Just-A-Flesh-Wound, particularly in the form of bathos, can wreck good comic stories. If characters drift through plots where major events take place, and are only minimally affected, the overall effect is brittle, remote and superficial. It lacks the universality of great international comedy, and is very reliant on constant invention. Just-A-Flesh-Wound is generally better suited to sketch comedy than sit-com, when used in this way.

Here’s how Dave Allen brilliantly uses a combination of Just-A-Flesh-Wound and Saw-It-Coming to play with the audience’s expectations and create a classic piece of sketch comedy.

A little girl, playing with her toys in a clearing, is juxtaposed with a Frankenstein-style monster, lumbering through the forest. As we sense him getting closer and closer, we introduce a third character in yet another part of the wood: a mother, calling out for her 7-year-old child. “My baby! My baby! Where is my baby?” Finally, the monster approaches the little girl, who looks up at him with innocent wonderment. He reaches out a hand, and just as he is about to grab her, the mother also bursts into the clearing, rushes over and scoops up… the little girl into her arms. She turns to go and then turns back to the camera and, pointing at the monster, demands to know “Okay, how many of you thought I was going to take him home?” Very slowly, with a crestfallen expression, the monster raises his hand.

Notice that by the end, the whole world of the sketch has been dismantled. In order to dilute and make the threat acceptable (and comic), everything we were being asked to believe in has been removed, including the fact that the “fourth wall” has been broken. This is dangerous stuff for a sitcom, which depends for its success on the audience buying into the story and the characters – although some sit-coms can get away with it (The Young Ones) or even make a virtue of it (It’s Gary Shandling’s Show). What I particularly like about this sketch though, is the flash of genuine emotion at the end and I think that’s why it stuck in my mind.

Which brings us onto the other use of emotional juxtaposition. Whereas over-use of bathos to make dark material palatable can render a sit-com dry and low-stakes, a great many sit-coms rely on exactly the opposite approach to create stories and comedy: picking a low-stakes situation and having the characters over-react. Thus, when Joey Tribbiani reads “Little Women” for the first time in Friends, he doesn’t scoff at it – it reduces him to tears. When George Costanza loses at Trivial Pursuit to a boy in a protective sterile bubble in Seinfeld, he isn’t annoyed, he is enraged (to the point where the bubble bursts!). Taken to extremes, this procedure again can result in a “dry” feeling as the plot disconnects with reality but it has the advantage that the characters are genuinely affected which tends to open up storytelling possibilities, which a lack of reaction shuts down. The hardest version of Just-A-Flesh-Wound to get right is Black Comedy. In Black Comedies, people really do get hurt and die, and the challenge is to make that funny. In classic Black Comedies like Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove (wherein the world is brought to nuclear armageddon due to the sexual inadequacies of American generals) the forces are exactly balanced, so the viewer is appalled one moment and laughing the next. Modern American “gross-out” comedy movies exploit this plus Sounds-A-Bit-Rude for most of their effects.

The Why of Funny #1: King-Fall-Over

Posted on June 30th, 2011 in Culture | 2 Comments »

If a meek old lady falls over, we rush to her aid, but if a boorish and arrogant king falls over, we laugh uproariously. The old lady has no status to lose, but the sight of the king suddenly stripped of his status is the oldest joke in the world (probably).

Although status is related to wealth, class, beauty etc it is independent of all of these. There exists high and low status behaviour and people who are naturally high or low status, but these things are not fixed. Although status may be illuminated by dialogue, it is principally something that people do, so it is easy to see even in a foreign language. Great stories, whether their tone is dramatic or comic, will almost always involve status transactions and – if well-acted – these will be apparent whether one can hear the dialogue or not.

Nervously preparing for a boxing match, Charlie Chaplin helps himself to the previous boxer’s lucky charms and visibly grows in confidence. When the previous boxer is brought back into the dressing room on a stretcher, Charlie’s confidence evaporates instantly, and he furiously tries to rid himself of the trinkets he has stolen (City Lights).

The opposite is also (sometimes) true. When, in Steamboat Bill Jr, the side of a house falls on Buster Keaton, a perfectly-placed window saving him from extinction, his failure to lose status as expected is also funny (adding both Saw-It-Coming and Oh-I-See to the mix).

As a rough rule of thumb, sudden changes of status will be funny (especially drops in status), whereas sustained changes of status will be dramatic (Macbeth’s gradual descent from noble warrior to suicidal lunatic). Big status gaps will be funny (Blackadder and Baldrick) whereas small status gaps will be dramatic (Josh and Toby on The West Wing).

Having characters shift status in reaction to events is a part of the general principle of storytelling that characters are affected by the events of the story. Balancing this principle of storytelling with comedy needs of Just-A-Flesh-Wound is one of the hardest things to get right. Too much emphasis on Just-A-Flesh-Wound generates superficial comedy that will likely not travel well. Too much emphasis on King-Fall-Over and the general principle of characters being affected can tip a comedy into drama or leave an audience unduly disturbed at the implications of what is being depicted. The romance between Tim and Dawn in The Office has a character depth that the superficial zingers of (especially early episodes of) Will and Grace can’t match; but some later episodes of Friends were criticised for being amusing soap opera rather than laugh-out-loud sit com.

Status can be employed for comic effect in (at least) the following ways…

  • Sudden drops in status.
  • Attempts to raise status.
  • Playing the wrong status.
  • Established gaps in status.

The status gap that exists between Blackadder and Baldrick (Blackadder), Mr Burns and Smithers (The Simpsons) and Bob Kelso and Ted Buckland (Scrubs) drives a lot of the comedy therein, and is almost never challenged. Ted and Baldrick are the archetypal low-status characters. Often cheerful (Ted is less cheerful than Baldrick, but takes enormous pleasure in tiny victories) they have little or no interest in raising their status. Smithers adds the extra dimension of unrequited love – which is never articulated, only hinted at (touching on Mangoes-In-Syrup, Just-A-Flesh-Wound and Oh-I-See).

Jeeves and Wooster play the wrong status. The formal relationship is that of master and servant (presented here as gentleman and valet), but Jeeves, the servant, plays high status to Bertie Wooster, the master. Blackadder the Third has a particularly pleasing version of this. In the kitchen, Blackadder plays unbridled high status to Baldrick (correct status), whereas in the Prince Regent’s rooms, Blackadder has to play a more restrained high status to the Hugh Laurie’s happy-low-status Regent (incorrect status). This structure allows us to see the false face and the true face of our lead character as well as presenting both kinds of status relationship simultaneously.

Many characters strive for status which they are unable to achieve. In some cases, this is a permanent uphill struggle, as for Martin Bryce in Ever Decreasing Circles or Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers. In other cases, it is a back-and-forth tussle as between Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister or Sam Malone and Diane Chambers in Cheers.

Note finally that although British sit-coms are famously more class-obsessed than American sitcoms, that doesn’t make American sit-coms any less status-oriented. In Only Fools and Horses, both Del and Rodney aspire to wealth and class, but the status mechanism is that Del’s high status is unwittingly undercut by Rodney. Likewise, in M*A*S*H, Radar – playing low-status – is nonetheless constantly undermining Colonel Blake’s authority despite the fact that class and aspiration has little to do with this relationship or this sit-com.

Whole books could be written about status. Much of this thinking is due to British improvisation guru Keith Johnstone whose book “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre” would be an excellent place to start for more on this topic.

So… what did I think of Day of the Moon?

Posted on May 7th, 2011 in Culture | 3 Comments »

Last week I wrote that it’s hard to judge a two parter on the basis of the first episode, and so I declined to give it a score. This week, I’m feeling as if it’s hard to judge a whole series on the basis of the first story, such is Steven Moffat’s new-found commitment to serialised TV.

But before we get on to that, let’s look at the story itself. I find myself pulled in two different directions almost throughout. The nitpicky adult in me sees flaw after flaw, but the wide-eyed child is so enraptured by the dash and wit and spectacle of it all that the adult feels curmudgeonly even existing. Declining at first to properly resolve its main cliffhanger (we finally get an answer in a throw-away line deep into the episode), the story springs giddily months into the future and through a series of improbable events reunites the TARDIS crew for some important exposition.

The adult me is rather suspicious of these elaborate charades during which characters decline to share information with other characters who might benefit from knowing it simply in order to surprise the audience. I adore Star Trek II but not all of the plotting stands up to repeated viewings. In particular, when Kirk et al are apparently trapped forever in the Genesis Cave, how does it help anyone for Kirk to continue to let them imagine that they are going to slowly and horribly starve to death when he has already arranged secretly with Spock for them to be rescued?

Likewise, why does Canton produce a bodybag to shit Amy up when his only goal is to reunite her with The Doctor? As lovely a reveal as it is when the even-more-than-usually-raggedy Doctor slouches against the cloaked TARDIS, it’s all for our benefit as viewers. In a story which begins with the supposed death of your main character, this is a dangerous, dangerous game to play.

And so it continues with the resolution of the main threat. The recording of the Silent signing its own death-warrant is a mite convenient, but inserting the footage into the Apollo moon landing footage is a brilliant device and along the way we get some marvellous set-pieces, notably the superbly-handled haunted house with veteran character actor Kerry Shale giving it everything he’s got as twitchy Dr Renfrew. Amy’s kidnap provides a nice moment of tension between Rory and the Doctor too, and the final showdown is spectacular without being gratuitous.

So far so good. But, on reflection, some niggles start to appear. Okay, in gun-toting America despatching a Silent is fairly easy (and most of the Silents are in America), but just what will happen when residents of Calcutta or Nairobi or Copenhagen hear these instructions and see a Silent? Will they get Joy-splattered? How many human death warrants has the Doctor just signed? And even if the Silents are pretty easy to kill, what happens to all the bodies? Surely some people are going to get as Silent-aware as the Doctor and his friends? And just how did they manage that anyway? Are we sure that the Silents deserve this kind of treatment? Apart from killing Joy in that bathroom, we’ve never seen them doing anything malevolent. And if they’ve been guiding human technological development since the invention of the wheel (side-by-side with the Jagaroth I assume) then isn’t humanity better off with them than without them? In fact, if they’ve made this planet and this species what it is then doesn’t that give them any kind of rights?

But the episode is basically far too enjoyable to spend too much time on these kind of musings. The counter to all these whines is basically – the Doctor says this will work and the Doctor says they’re bad and we should take the Doctor’s word for it, because he’s the Doctor (only a fool argues with his Doctor). Apart from anything else if they were really so fucking benevolent, why go to all that trouble to make sure nobody knows they’re there? And besides, they have weird shaped faces and wear dark suits so that proves they’re up to no good and therefore can be slaughtered on sight without the least hint of moral twinge.

But this episode also makes it very plain that Steven Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who is more serialised than ever before. This is not a new trend in TV. Back in the eighties, mainstream American shows like LA Law would frequently include season-long arcs which ran alongside various one-off case-of-the week storylines. In the nineties, shows like Murder One and Babylon 5 put most of their emphasis on season-long stories, or in the case of Babylon 5 series-long stories. For its first two years, Babylon 5 included a mere handful of “arc-episodes” per year which drove the series-long story, while most episodes were self-contained narratives. In its third and fourth years, the need to accelerate the storytelling lead to every episode simply driving the main plot. Creator J. Michael Straczynski described it as a television novel.

This approach was picked up by some sit-coms, notably Friends, which for a while became almost a soap opera with a laugh track as many episodes included almost no new story elements, simply picking up threads from the previous instalment and leaving them still dangling waiting for the next one. Now it’s a mark of prestige. Shows like The SopranosLost and The Wire get the critical acclaim that they do precisely because they tell complex stories over tens of hours, rather than simple yarns in forty minutes. The advantage of this approach is that regular viewers can’t wait for the next new show. The drawback is that it’s hard to join the party late, so new viewers may be left stranded.

But it’s almost impossible now to imagine a long-running series which doesn’t do this to some extent, and so when retooling Doctor Who for the twenty-first century, Russell T Davies, while still basically thinking of ten discrete stories told over 13 episodes, nevertheless included a little device which could crop up in more than one story early in the run and which would pay off only in the season finale. Bad Wolf in 2005 was followed by Torchwood in 2006 and then by Mister Saxon in 2007. But in all these cases, the emphasis was still on stand-alone stories. Remove or ignore the “arc” material and you lose nothing.

But that’s not the game that Moffat is playing. A lot of the material we’ve seen so far is almost meaningless except in the context of a storyline that has yet to fully reveal itself, which leads to a slightly “bumpy” viewing experience. In this one episode, all the material about the Silents harks back to the beginning of last year, and we still don’t know the meaning of “Silence will fall” (or is it “Silents will fall”?). The plotline about the Doctor’s death in 200 years is still unresolved at the end of this episode and we are still no wiser about who the little girl is and why she’s in that space suit. What we do know is that she has the ability to regenerate and all this presumably has something to do with Amy’s Shroedinger’s foetus, but it’s impossible to say what at this stage. Then there’s the startling appearance of Frances Barber with what looks like a cyber eyepatch popping up from a later episode and all this is without mentioning River Song, the mystery of whose identity was first posed in 2008’s Silence (Silents?) in the Library. It’s a bit much for the casual viewer, isn’t it? And even for the devoted fan, is it asking too much to include material only when it’s actually relevant, instead of making much of the episode feel like those “next week on Doctor Who” throw-forwards?

So, finally let’s talk about River Song. As anyone will know who’s read or seen any of his work before, Steven Moffat loves language and loves exploiting ambiguity in language. The utter absurdity of the rebooting-the-universe plotline (“just turn it off and on again”) from the end of last year was redeemed for me in its entirety by the sheer breathtaking brilliance and heartstopping power of the TARDIS being described as “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”. He’s been teasing us for four years with who River Song might be. Let’s look at some of the evidence.

  • She whispers the Doctor’s real name to him, and he says that there’s only one person to whom he ever could or would reveal that.
  • She calls him “sweetie”
  • She refers to him (or at least to someone) as her “old fella” who she says wouldn’t like her gunplay
  • She has a deep affection and regard for him
  • She can fly the TARDIS (better than him)
  • A little girl is walking around planet Earth in the late 1960s who has the Time Lord power to regenerate
  • A forthcoming episode is called The Doctor’s Wife (a title once used by producer John Nathan-Turner as a ruse to discover if there was a mole in the Doctor Who office)

So, it seems almost inevitable that she is just that – The Doctor’s Wife. But after four years of waiting and teasing, the answer has to be less obvious than that doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?

Anyway, it seems as if tonight – to try and lure back the casual viewer – the Doctor will uncharacteristically disregard his usually insatiable curiosity and simply go on a random adventure instead. Good. I think…

Four stars for the two-parter, but I reserve the right to reassess at the end of the series in July. Or November.

PS: Welcome friend of the blog Henry Dyer, whose own blog is here.