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Let’s do the Time Lord again: Laurie Penny and Nicholas Lezard debate Doctor Who

With Peter Capaldi about to step into the Doctor’s shoes, two passionate Whovians talk to Helen Lewis about favourite companions, gender politics and missing theremins. 

Unleash the psychic paper: our own Doctor Lezard and his companion Captain Penny. Photograph: Charlie Forgham-Bailey

“Doctor Who” returns to our TV screens on 23 August with a brand new Doctor, Peter Capaldi. That Nicholas Lezard bears a passing resemblance to Capaldi seemed like a good excuse to get our columnist together with our contributing editor, Laurie Penny, to talk about the long-running series.

Helen Lewis First, easy question: who’s your favourite Doctor?

Laurie Penny They say you never forget your first Doctor and mine was Christopher Eccleston. He was cool, and tortured, and moody and sexy.

Nicholas Lezard Patrick Troughton was my first Doctor, so I liked the way Matt Smith channelled him. When Eccleston came along, I had to readjust – it was very well done, because it wasn’t trying to self-consciously go back to the old Doctor Who. And I had children by that stage and they were watching it for the first time. They got interested very quickly – they got shivers down the back of their necks and they didn’t even know why. It’s as if there’s something ingrained in the British psyche which responds to Doctor Who.

LP And then Billie Piper was the first companion of the reboot; I had to explain to some Americans the other day that, for us, seeing Billie Piper on the screen –

HL You thought she’d walk round singing: “Because we want to!” That’s something that gets overlooked now: how much Russell T Davies was known as the guy who wrote Queer As Folk – this hardcore, groundbreaking Channel 4 series. Added to which you’ve got a companion best known as being . . . I wouldn’t say a female Chesney Hawkes; that would be overly harsh.

LP The fact that Russell T Davies came from Queer As Folk was really important. For a lot of the people who I knew were watching Doctor Who for the first time, that series was really important because of the queer content and the diversity of the characters. Davies’s agenda is incredibly obvious in his run of the show – which all the right-wing commentators thought was terrible – but that’s exactly why I loved it: the idea that there could be a future where everybody was bi and gay and that was fine.

HL There are two great moments on that score. The first is obviously John Barrowman [Captain Jack Harkness] – when he kisses Rose and the Doctor goodbye and gives them exactly the same kiss – but also the bit with Lesley Sharp’s character in Midnight, which is one of these claustrophobic episodes set inside a cargo container. There was a reference to a partner of hers, and it was just “she”, and that was fine.

Did all of that gender politics leave you cold, Nick, or did you appreciate it?

NL It didn’t leave me cold; I like it. Russell T Davies deserves some kind of official recognition for what he’s done, not only bringing traditional families back together – you’ve got people from different generations saying, “Quick, Doctor Who is on” – but also inserting into that the notion that there are other kinds of relationship as well.

He did it deftly, charmingly, and with just the right amount of bravery and humour. He is exactly my age, so I suppose what I feel about Doctor Who is pretty much what he feels about Doctor Who. He was always going to be mindful of my generation’s sympathies and ideas of the show.

HL There were some cracking episodes. School Reunion, the one where Sarah Jane comes back . . .

NL Oh, I cried.

LP Heartbreaking.

HL That’s going to be blubtastic for anyone over a certain age, isn’t it?

The other great ones are The Family of Blood, written by Paul Cornell, which is based on a book, and the Steven Moffat episodes . . . But can you get over the absolute stinkers? I mean, Love and Monsters, which ends with a guy saying that his girlfriend’s turned into a paving slab and they still have a sex life . . .

NL Was that the one with the fans?

HL Yes, with Peter Kay as a fat monster . . .

LP Children’s drawings and monsters made of human fat are generally things to avoid. But if you look back on the old ones, even the deftly scripted episodes have terrible special effects. What is it, The Ark in Space? Where everyone’s terrified of the maggots that have infested the space station and it’s a man in a green sleeping bag, wiggling down the BBC corridor?

HL The regeneration of Colin Baker has to take top honours, with that wibbly-wobbly music in the background. Nick, do you have a favourite from the old series?

NL One thing that they’ve lost is the excitement in the theme music. The original theme, where you’d see these psychedelic patterns that gradually merged into Patrick Troughton’s face, was terrifying. To watch that as a three-year-old is why I can remember my childhood so well; that image was seared into my mind. And also the strange simplicity of Delia Derbyshire’s electronic arrangement has been a little lost with the over-orchestration of the theme tune.

LP You can’t hear the theremin?!

NL You can just about hear it. I liked it very much when they did the 50th-anniversary episode, when they suddenly went back to the William Hartnell theme music and graphics. I jumped up at that point.

My children told me to shut up; they were watching the show –

LP I loved watching Doctor Who with your kids. Me and Nick used to live together, for people who don’t know –

HL For people who missed all those columns that you both wrote.

LP Yes. So we would always watch Doctor Who, and it was an interesting experience, watching these little boys watch it for the first time.

HL It’s great watching it like that. All they really want is a good, scary baddy, preferably dripping ooze. It’s nice to be reminded that you might be sitting there thinking, “Well, this isn’t really enough like The Usual Suspects for my taste,” but that’s not what they had in mind while they were writing it.

Something I miss from the series before the break is that they would do a plotline over six episodes, say. They’ve ended up relying on two-parters more and more, because trying to squeeze a set-up, a decent story and a resolution into 45 minutes is hard, particularly if they have to sell a new race or something complicated.

NL You can do it, I think, with things like the Weeping Angels; that wasn’t a two-parter and that worked very well. And those “Doctor-light” episodes.

LP Back in the day, Steven Moffat taking over the writing of Doctor Who was going to be the best thing ever (rather than the disaster for its gender politics that it has become), because he wrote The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, and the Silence in the Library double-parter, and Blink, and The Girl in the Fireplace, all of which were among the best episodes of the reboot. But under him as showrunner it became, as it always does, a different show.

HL Russell T Davies’s book talks about how he had to do all the polishes of everyone else’s script, and write the season finales and openers himself. There was a criticism by a Seventies Doctor Who writer that Davies became a “first-draft writer”. He would have these amazing ideas and throw them all down, but he never did the work you had to do to make it come across as very tight.

The opposite happened with Steven Moffat: he was such a tight writer, everything like clockwork, that he came to rely on it too much, and ended up reusing the same characters and tropes. Which is why you get these extraneous appendage women who turn up and constantly need saving.

LP I think this is where Nick and I disagree. I am not a fan of the way the companions have been used after Donna, who was the best thing that’s happened to Doctor Who companions in many, many years –

NL She really grew on me. I was worried at first; I think everyone was.

LP But the latest companions – the “Impossible Girl”, the “Girl Who Waited” – they’re not real people; they’re stories that happened to the Doctor. They’re not characters in their own right. And the other thing Moffat has done is get rid of having the companion’s family, unlike Russell T Davies. Both Clara [played by Jenna Coleman] and Karen Gillan’s character [Amy] have no family whatsoever, functionally, whereas the Tylers were brilliant. Martha’s family were great, and Donna’s strange, difficult relationship with her mum . . .

HL Mickey. I love Mickey. When he turns up and gets stuck in a wheelie-bin . . .

LP The hapless boyfriend was fantastic.

HL Doesn’t it come down to the different ways they see Doctor Who? Russell T Dav­ies saw himself as the companion. I sense Steven Moffat sees himself as the Doctor, rescuing ladies . . .

LP Well, he has written a grumpy, middle-aged Scottish man as the new Doctor. But the reason you can talk about Doctor Who for ages is that it functions now in the way that sagas and myths used to function. You have to start talking about Doctor Who, and a few other cultural artefacts, like Star Trek, in the same way. The story has been told by so many people; the canon and the history are so long that they are bigger than any one writer, than any one fan.

NL There’s something Homeric about it. It’s been transmitted from generation to generation for 50 years. People think about themselves as Doctor Who or as the assistant.

HL If you could be a companion, which one would you be?

LP Captain Jack. Sorry, I didn’t have to think about that.

HL Are you on board with being Captain Jack in Torchwood as well, where you have to be sealed in a box and then die every two seconds for 2,000 years?

LP I would get to snog Spike from Buffy, which would make it all better.

NL I think . . . who was the one who was the savage girl, who wore the leather bikini, who said, “Shall I kill him now, Doctor” and he said, “Well, maybe not actually.”

HL A companion from the famous “one for the dads” era of the Seventies, I think.

NL No, I liked the boldness of her character!

LP Oh, that’s why you can’t remember her name . . . Her name was Leela. 

The new series of “Doctor Who” starts on BBC1, Saturday 23 August (7.50pm)

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism