Steven Moffat was seated at his computer one summer’s day, seeking ideas for the next Dr Who Christmas special. Suddenly an angel appeared to him and told him this tale:
Once upon a time, in a world (beyond worlds), on a planet not so very unlike our own – yet unlike our own - there was a time travelling hero called Dr Woe, a fellow who turned up wherever there was danger and saved the day. Unlike you or me he could live forever and proceeded to do so.
But there was one menace he never managed to defeat, the Dahl-Hicks mechanism, a sort of exterminating engine for killing rats, said to be created by two misguided Victorian inventors Ray Dahl and Terry Hicks. Somehow it mutated beyond its original programming to spread out across the universe treating everyone as vermin and destroying whole peoples and planets.
‘Why, Doctor Woe, why can’t you destroy the Dahl-Hicks?’ he was often asked. (I can’t remember who by).
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he chirped back, on the way to the fez shop.
Then one day, the Dahl-Hicks (mechanism) decided to attack the very planet of Dr Woe himself and annihilate the Timid Lords themselves, a quiet folk who never interfered with time (itself), or space, or each other’s cheese.
As the great plastic and pretend towers of the Timid Lord planet melted and crumbled at the attack of the Dahl-Hicks, their High Council begged him.
‘Please Doctor, only you can save us!’
But the Doctor could not, and to explain why, he said many things very fast that barely seemed to make sense.
So the Timid Lords used a time straw to suck up the Doctor from his own childhood, (before he became so super-clever no-one could understand him), and sent Doctor Zero back to the Genesis of the Dahl Hicks, a dangerous six-parter, to see if there was any point in the action where new footage could be inserted in order to change history and prevent their creation.
But young Dr Zero found a very strange thing. Travelling back through the lost pages of time he found no trace of any Victorian inventors called Ray Dahl and Terry Hicks.
When he did finally track down the inventor of the evil robots he was shocked to see their creator looked like a grown up version of… himself. Because it was a grown up version of… himself!
The young Doctor fast-forwarded through time, to his own planet, where the Time’s Up War was raging. In the Null-field of the Dubious Metaphor he saw a burning Dahl-Hicks mechanism screeching at the older Doctor (himselves!)
“Please Doctor, I beg you – let us stop this horrible slaughter! It is making the Dahl-Hicks the most hated name in time and space!”
“Sozzer,” quipped the Doctor, in a cold, cruel tone. “I invented you centuries ago to blast the life energy out of entire races, so that I could follow in your wake, feed on their death energy, regenerate and live forever. Without you angry pots peppering the universe with death, I would be a goner. All hail me!”
“But Doctor – your OWN PEOPLE!” the Dahl Hicks sobbed. “Have you no mercy?”
“I cannot have mercy,” explained the pin-striped charmer, “For it is predicted in the scrolls of the Scrells that one of my own kind will learn my secret and destroy me. Therefore to preserve my secret, and provide me with enough energy to truly live forever, all the Dahl Hicks and Timid Lords must die in the Great Time’s Up War. A war so big-budget the truth of it will never be known!”
The Dahl Hicks mechanism suddenly saw a small figure lurking in the shadows, a sad-eyed child.
“There!” It barked. “The one who discovers your secret! It must be that kid – for he just overheard your whole confession!”
The Doctor whirled round, wild-eyed – to gaze upon his younger self. The last of the Dahl Hicks, unable to go against its programming shouted, “Exter –“
“This is completely unbelievable!” protested Steven Moffat. “I’ll take it!”
and he gave the angels a couple of passing carol singers to eat and – oh dear – it was supposed to be summer wasn’t it? Time itself collapses.
Merry Christmas anyway!
I’ve been meaning to post this picture for a while, I came across it in a collected edition of Kirby’s Fourth World. Drawn back in the 1970s it seems to predict the tablet computer and also the return of the stylus as a means of writing. Someone is also holding what could be an ipod. Well we all know Kirbs was a visionary but its easy to believe this picture was drawn with a clear view into the developments of gadgets of today.
While I’m on Kirby, the Fourth World books make a stunning, flabbergasting read. Don’t expect any of the many storylines to get picked up again and resolved later – there are barely even any recurring characters, as his wild imagination pops one idea after another. Every page seethes not just with new heroes, but with new worlds to go along with them, new words and new dialogue. Believe me, pal, in the Fourth World people speak in a way no-one ever has, or will – it’s enough to give ya the whim-whams – whatever they are (Kirby knows).
Weirdly, the main heroes of the book, The Forever People are some of the worst characters Kirby ever came up with, a bunch of well-meaning hippies – Beautiful Dreamer, Serifan, Big Bear, Moonrider etc, they sound and look a bit like a lost Saturday morning cartoon from the early seventies, where their ill-fated show would have been sandwiched in between re-runs of Space Ghost and the Hair Bear Bunch.
But not to carp among such wonders. There are so many good ideas here it dazzles. Kirby gave us the Boom Tube for travelling, the anti-life equation – for controlling all thought – and he even gave us the Mother Box, an all-round life saving little gadget that pretty much does everything for us… come to think of it we’re back at the smartphone. Guess Kirby really did see everything!
A friend of mine, Mr Ian Tolley, said to me recently that time moved in slower circles up in Scotland than it does down south. I was inclined to agree with him, until I made a journey this week. After many years’ absence I made my way to Carpenders Park, a lost suburb of Greater London, somewhere between Watford and Wembley. I was there to see my uncle, who is recovering from an operation.
In this place, so familiar to me from my childhood when I used to regularly visit my grandad, time seems to have slowed to a stop. We are in the backwater of a slow river, where the gleam of movement has been replaced by the slow thickening of sunlight and the basking of water-lilies.
How weird it was, and yet totally appropriate, to find the station just as I remembered it, with the long, easy slope down to the exit, seeming to prepare you for the long, easy amble of life on the outside.
Near the station, quiet strands of little-used shops sat exactly where I had left them years before, a small florists, the taxi service, post-office, and the little betting shop my grandad used to sit me outside while he placed his money.
Carpenders Park has the air of a small Devon village, yet it is just on the edge of the seething capital. Life seems to pass unremarked. On this Friday lunchtime, in the sunny lanes people wash their cars as if living in a perpetual Sunday.
The shopping parade has no name, no roof, no highlights. Shops have no jokey names and no pretensions. There is no Starbucks, no Prêt a Manger, just shops that call themselves what they are. How weird is that? And they sell cuts of lamb and cream buns that look and are exactly the same as they would have been in the seventies.
I would have said this is a place without imagination except I spotted a wooden rhinoceros in the middle of the precinct – part of a curious gesture at a playground.
Posters for gigs never make it out here. There is just a half-hearted smidge of graffiti. Old men and shaven-headed youths stroll around walking dogs, buying sports papers and chatting easily. They seem outside the rat race, a different type of person uninfected by the stresses of modern ideas.
For a moment I am wooed into the easy consensual world of my teenage years. It is hard, walking these pavements, to imagine we live in a world of quantum physics, push-notifications, terror-cells and bank bail-outs. It’s hard not to believe that every man sits down to the same pint and pie, supporting the same team and wanting pretty much what his neighbour wants.
My uncle has lived there since the early 60s, and when I asked him recently what the area was like these days, he said indignantly ‘Carpenders Park? I never go there.’ It struck me as funny that as far as he was concerned he never went where he actually was.
When I returned to the station, I suddenly noticed that according to the signs there, Carpenders Park is to your right when you leave the station, not to the left where I have always gone.
So I guess the place I’ve been going to doesn’t actually exist – or if it does… it certainly isn’t Carpenders Park.
I often used to wonder what authors did before they turned up at signings, how strange and wonderful their lives were, and I suppose now, to a certain extent, I know.
I travelled to Kew Gardens yesterday, to talk at the Queen’s School (not at the plants), and on the way, my mind seemed to unravel a series of curious thoughts.
As I cycled to the station, it was barely dawn, all mystery and foxy as my wife would say. The trees gathered in darkness, with low lying mist wrapped around their roots, made me imagine Cambridge as it was hundreds of years ago, before the houses were built: a tangled woodland ringing with nightingale song, perhaps.
My part of Cambridge is near to Cherry Hinton and I wondered if the straggly old cherry trees, some now cornered in suburban gardens, remembered the old days of the Great Wood that legend says stretched from one end of these isles to the next, so that a squirrel could spring from Land’s End to John O’Groats without touching the ground.
On the train I looked out of the window and saw a jet trail, but imagined it as a vast, crystalline, sky-ranging, serpentine, sea-horse-like creature – possibly because I had been listening to Peter Serafinowicz’s Radio 6 podcast in which he describes alternate life on earth (in the voice of David Attenborough).
“This creature’s name would take a human being hundreds of years to pronounce, but for our purposes we’ll call it an alternate elephant - although its closest relative in our dimension is probably a robin. Truly one of alternate nature’s giants – so big it has its own sun and moon orbiting in a triple nine formation. But it’s also so small it’s in constant danger of being crushed… by atoms. It’s favorite meal is Time, and indeed in one sitting this elephant can devour 20,000 years in just under a second.’
Magical stuff. Check out his Radio 6 podcast on Joy of Six. http://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/th
After this my mind turned to my talk – partly about monsters. Should I mention Grendel, one of the first literary monsters, from Beowulf? The strange thing about this story, is that after the hero kills the creature he has to face… Grendel’s mother! This is a formula that not many subsequent stories have followed. Imagine the hero putting a stake through Dracula’s heart, only to hear the vampire gasp out, with his final dusty breath ‘you fools, you have not won! Now you must face… my mum!’
Arriving at Queen’s School, Kew, the sense of unreality was heightened by the fact that everyone – staff and pupils alike – were dressed as children’s book characters. Strange remarks could be heard from the corridors, like: ‘Oh no, I’ve broken my tail!’
Photos of previous school visitors in the reception included a NASA astronaut and Colin Firth. Helium balloons surrounded the stage where I was due to give my talks, with Pooh and Tigger already waiting patiently.
I talked about Candle Man in the morning (Not mentioning Grendel’s mum), then in the afternoon showed one of my epsiodes of Shaun the Sheep to the infants.
Me: “Shaun stories are about 7 minutes long – how long do you think it takes a team of grown men and women to make them?”
Child: (after some thought) “EIGHT minutes!”
In the heady atmosphere of nostalgia and anything seeming possible, even the school dinner smelt delicious, but as my wife texted to warn me – it probably smelt better than it tasted. During my book-signing in the library, I had to make do with four bakewell tarts instead – or is that just fantasy too..?
Happy World Book Day, and thanks to the Queen’s School for a great day.
For my son’s birthday we took a bunch of terrified kids on a ghost tour of Cambridge – on a Saturday evening, perfectly timed as dusk turned into night and the old lamps came on in the chilly backstreets of the historic town centre.
Leading the tour was Nancy, who cut quite a ‘Woman in Black’ figure herself. Come to think of it, she did rather vanish into the night at the end.
What I loved about the tour, as well as the spooky tales, was the way Nancy picked out tiny details in the buildings around us that revealed history, stories and secrets. A never-before-noticed stone carving of a dog baying from the roof of a house, commemorated a tragedy that once occurred within. A tiny, goblin-like charm incongruously placed in a photography shop window, hints at the presence of a hideous half-torso phantom that visits from time to time…
(The bottom half – if you really needed to know!)
I was particularly pleased to hear that Jamie Oliver’s restaurant was once haunted by a ghostly librarian, who delighted in tidying up books. Quite a handy ghost to have, in fact.
Eerily of all, a seemingly charming piece of ironwork, apparently just showing a house’s number but in fact revealing – from certain images in its decorative detail – for instance a gallows tree – that this was once the house of the Cambridge hangman! Ghostly customers may return to his doorstep, one imagines, to grumble a bit.
It was intriguing to hear about Cambridge’s famous new (ish) Relativity clock. My son had asked me a while back why it had a monster on top, and I jokingly told him that it was there to eat the seconds as they passed. This flippant explanation turned out to be true – apparently the weird beast is intended to be a chronophage – a time-eater.
This clock was slightly shoe-horned into the ghostly theme, by Nancy pointing out that clocks, as they tick out the seconds, remind us all that we are all being hurried along to our graves! One of the mums did stifle a snort of disgust at this macabre remark.
If you’re looking for something offbeat to do with your kids you could do a lot worse than creep around the backstreets of Cambridge on a myth-haunted night. Perhaps the scariness was all the more pleasurable knowing that the cold outing would end up with us being crammed into Gourmet Burger Kitchen at the end.
The pleasure children have at anticipating their birthdays and all the attendant hulabaloo, is only matched by the delight of the parents – sigh – when the whole thing is over for another year.
This week I went to Westbourne Sports College in Suffolk to talk about Candle Man and monsters. They have an enormous split level library there, which has that wonderful feast for the senses of nostalgia and aspiration, the piles of tempting books and the spider plants trailing their tentacles down the wooden shelves. I swear time stopped still, as they left me alone in the middle of the day to rest between two 100-minute sessions, and I sat on one of the small tables, my legs swinging gently back and forth, the Autumn sunlight slanting through the tall windows; stopping to taste the moment.
The library surprised me. Walking around it was like being in Waterstones, all the books on view were current big sellers – I saw Skullduggery Pleasant grinning out of a poster, Charlie Higson’s shining new tome, also Vampirates, Dr Who cash-ins and the latest mutant variations on the Horrible Histories formula. All new, all now.
‘We have to grasp the nettle’ the librarian said, ‘If we don’t get the latest books the children won’t read.’
In my session with the class I found only one child that could name the author of Lord of the Rings. Everyone liked Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants. Even a great book from the recent past, Mortal Engines, was unknown.
It was strangely touching to walk among the reference shelves and see the edge of modernity… because as soon as you visited the section devoted to science, facts, discovery – all the books looked old, faded, left behind. Of course, everyone goes to the internet for their facts now. Maybe those books will sit there forever, washed up on the beach of time, their facts fossilised at the high tide-mark for printed information.
Imagine living in a time where only Now is important. We are evolving fast as a species, taking on new ideas and fears at an accelerated rate – never before have our past worries flashed so swiftly into the past – to be replaced by shiny new ones. We update our monsters regularly, renew our heroes almost every other year.
Mankind always used to dig into its past for marvels – but to my son’s generation, nothing is more exciting than what is happening now in the world. He glances into the Apple Store window with the awe and reverence I used to keep for the window of the comic shop and the record store.
Ancient philosophers have often said that the art to life is living in the now. But is this what they meant? Now can be a delightful instant of magical time – a moment of waking up from the sleepwalk of life and actually seeing the dust motes dance in the November light. It can also be an updated website, a bulletin from the machinery of the world bringing our new worries and hopes.
Have we entered the realm of the 2-Speed Now?
Now I’ve got to the point I was trying to make I find I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about…
I have just been down to Duvale Priory in Devon for a couple of days where I stumbled across this weird monument – the Devonian Sphinx.
We are so used to seeing the ol’ Sphinx in a state of ancient ruin, that it comes as a shock to see this new one, lying there with no word of explanation or attribution. From the side it appears to have a horn on its head, but this becomes a crown as you move to view it from the front. The Devonian sphinx appears like a Queen, or an Empress, in ornamental gear. Is this how the Egyptian sphinx originally looked?
Half cat, half woman, the sphinx has always been the ultimate evocation of mysterious ancient gods, and also a symbol of their decline and defeat at the hands of time. How weird to be reminded that the sphinx was once a sign of all that is powerful, beautiful and dangerous.
Another startling cat-related image also exists nearby (see below).
No doubt this beast is still terrorising the countryside.
Ah, the fall of great things to the march of time! The implacable forces of change! I was shocked to see my second favourite coffee bar in Cambridge has closed. The Cambridge Coffee Company – I always love the cheek of these small businesses that assume large names – has shut up shop. I had my camera on me, and took a few shots…
Particlarly poignant is the broom. I can imagine the owner, his once smiling face now offstage and thoughtul, as he leant his broom for the final time against the counter, not even bothering to put it away or take it with him after his final, diligent sweep-round.
Also eloquent are the envelopes piled up at the door – sad to think that each and every one of those pieces of junk mail lying there was probably intended to try and squeeze some money out of the Cambridge Coffee Company.
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kIngs:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
While away with my family at Old Hunstanton, we spotted this unnecessarily spooky painting at the delightful Caley Hall hotel.
A ghostly figure, motionless, stares out at you from a dark wasteland. Sara noticed the appearance of an apparently headless dog by its side. Fortunately,a full moon rides in the sky, so perhaps this apparation is limited to only 12 appearances a year…
Exploring the environs, it turned out (spookily) that much of the area was once owned by the Le Strange family (all a bit Scooby-Doo-ish), which led us to us discovering this local inn…!
On a whimsical note I also noticed evidence of a society of tiny beings having once lived on the beach. One evening I found the remains of what appears to be one of their ceremonial sites, possibly a fort, or magical meeting place, now sadly eroded by wind and weather…
Have you ever wanted to wander off of the map into that bit at the edge that says ‘Here Be Dragons’? Well I did that by mistake on my holiday. Setting off into Norfolk with the idea of forgetting about Candle Man, monsters and stories for a while, I immediately stumbled across a rain-spattered information board in the hitherto unheard of (by me) village of Ludham.
What surprised me was that Ludham had a real bona fide DRAGON LEGEND. You might think this unsurprising, but there aren’t that many actual dragon legends around that tie a sighting to a real place. I mean WHERE did St George actually kill HIS dragon? I don’t remember ever being told.
The Ludham legend says that a dragon used to come out of his hole – between the church yard and the high street – and annoy the locals with his monstrous antics. They attempted to prevent this by blocking up his hole with any old rubbish while he was asleep. It never worked! After a while they gave up – possibly the dragon put up a sign saying: ‘Entrance in constant use – do not obstruct.’
But then one day, while the dragon was out flying around, one brave, powerful man found a big stone and rolled it over the dragon’s hole. Old fiery-breath came back, and was unable to remove the stone. He left in a flap, smashing his mighty tail into the local abbey on the way – leaving it in ruin!
The evidence for this myth is very convincing.
1. There IS a ruined abbey nearby.
2. The dragon has definitely left Ludham.
The thing I like about this legend is its (dare I say it) typical East Anglian humility, no great hero here who slew a dragon with a sword and married a princess. Rather the more modest, almost comical aim of blocking up the dragon’s doorway while he’s out, in the hope that this will annoy the fire-breathing, supernatural menace enough to make him go away.
And it worked!
Even at the start of the story, the idea of killing the dragon is never suggested, as if such a thing was unthinkable to the villagers. I like that. Man knowing his place in the great scheme. No courtly glitter has been added to this piece of folklore, which makes it all the more enjoyable.
I think I was about a thousand years late to spot the dragon, so instead I took this picture of the ruins he created (with some bloke standing right in front of them).
This is a sight I see every time I pass through Earl’s Court station, a vision that haunts me – of a clock without any hands. Lifeless, it seems to flatten out and become part of the wall, a mysterious motif instead of a machine.
Devoid of meaning it seems a relic of a bygone age already. What would Future People think, unearthing this artifact? Is it a decoration? A picture of the sun?A warning about some kind of explosion?
I wonder if their imaginations would even connect it with time at all. Why is it circular? Isn’t time a straight line?
What could the twelve points on it possibly mean? The number seems so artificial since the number twelve is a human invention – unless they connected it with the twelve full moons of the year and deduced some kind of loosely connected order in it.
Seeing this empty face without the domineering decree of its hands and the august authority of its timekeeping, takes my mind out into a place that is both unnerving and refreshing to visit. We humans have invented time, given little bits of it names, like the second (if it is second, then what came first?) And yet, in a sense, there is no such thing as an hour, or a minute – we invented them and now they pull our consciousness to bits, make us late or early – we are progress-addicts, desperate to look up at that clock on the wall and realise with joy that we have nearly made it into another hour – an achievement that has no real existence. We can only really claim such graceful behemoths as years and their twelve moon-children the months.
Insects don’t have seconds, even though some of them only live for a day. No tortoise ever stopped to look at a watch or boasted about his age. Yew trees can live for thousands of years yet have no idea what a thousand is, or means, and are probably better off for it.
Are there clocks in heaven?