TypeDNA – never make a font blunder again

TypeDNA – never make a font blunder again

English: Helvetica Light Type

English: Helvetica Light Type (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Years ago someone ran a series of advertisements on the front page of the Guardian which began ‘Are you ashamed of your mistakes in grammar?’ Those days are long past. But many people are ashamed of their choice of fonts, and, arguably, vastly more ought to be.

If you are familiar with the campaign against Comic Sans, or the plugin that makes every website only in Helvetica, or perhaps have even seen the film about Helvetica, you may resonate with this. On the other hand, if you think that Comic Sans is a perfectly reasonable choice, and like to use ten or eleven fonts to make your point in a business letter, then you may be wondering what all the fuss is about.

Well, just as you wouldn’t wear a T-shirt with a tie, or Simpsons socks to an important job interview, fonts have their own rules of formality, fashion, function, and, above all, combination.

You can’t mix Avant Garde Gothic with Helvetica and expect it to look right. You can’t mix Futura and Univers, or Cooper Black with Trajan, or Garamond with Bookman.

The trouble is, unlike advice about whether to wear a spotted bow-tie with a stripy shirt, for which there are hundreds of books available, there are very few books or websites which go beyond fairly basic and hard to follow advice to actually telling you what you can put with what. You can learn what the rules are very quickly: fonts that are too similar clash, use fonts with similar proportions, don’t ever use more than four fonts — in fact, there’s quite a good article on it here, but for most people, these just don’t give enough to go on. The linked article also includes the famous and often reproduced page from U&lc September 1992, which shows a table of 22 typefaces and how well they combine in text and display. If you want to play it safe, you might want to stick with those (except, please do realise that Souvenir, even though it matches with all the others, looks dated and clown like in almost any usage).

There are a few websites which offer combination guidance, however, these won’t actually tell you how to combine the fonts which you have on your computer. All fonts are copyright of their owners, of course, so you should be careful about installing things you haven’t paid for or got from a reputable source. There was a time when free fonts were almost always bad fonts, but with the advent of Museo, and others, there are now a good number of free weights on sites such as which can spice up your fontlife without guilt or bad typography.

The problem still is, how do you know what goes with what? If you’re a designer, you’ve probably been collecting fonts for years, scratting round every free offer, all the fonts that came with Photoshop or QuarkXpres, and maybe conserving the fonts that came with CorelDraw or Deneba Canvas (which was a lot of fonts).

There is an answer, and it’s lovely. I discovered it yesterday. It’s called TypeDNA, and it’s a low-priced (£28, with a 60 day free trial period) font scanner that can also act as a basic font management tool. It’s actually nowhere near as Linotype’s Font Explorer when it comes to management, but it does one thing brilliantly: it scans all the fonts  you have, and then tells you what goes with what, as well as what your alternatives are.

For example, if you are suicidally dedicated to using Comic Sans, then TypeDNA will work out that you can use Jenson Pro or Bodoni Bold Condensed as a headline. It will still be obvious that you have Comic Sans as body text, but at least it will look harmonious. A more sensible use, in this context, would be to discover that you could use AdPro, Chalkboard, Dom Casual or Noteworthy Bold, or, even better, Lexia, Tekton or, escaping the handwritten look altogether, Futura Medium.

If you want to upgrade your business presentation in one go, get a better job and be the envy of your friends, then going from Comic Sans to Futura Medium would be the equivalent of abandoning a brightly painted clown car and turning up to work in an exquisitely restored 1930s BMW, except without the cost, time, and effort.

Once you’ve upgraded your life from the Simpsons Socks and Rupert Bear Bow Tie to understated suit and expensive shoes, you may be wondering what goes with Futura Medium. The answer is, Century Old Style, Lucida Bright, Goudy Catalogue, Warnock Pro, Sabon or Egyptienne. Or whatever it is that you have on your computer, because TypeDNA works out its suggestions from the shape of the letters, not from a database stored elsewhere.

If you’re a real type buff, then you’ve probably at some point scanned your handwriting and converted it into a font, perhaps, using Open Type, even with contextually changing letters so that it really looks handwritten.

TypeDNA is fine with that. As well as telling me that my handwriting is similar in spirit to American Uncial and Carlin Script, it also tells me that I can match it with Bernhard Modern, Brioso Pro and URW Typewriter Light Narrow, or headline it with Cooper Black, American Typewriter Bold, or Goudy Heavyface.

TypeDNA is available from TypeDNA at, which is at least attractively consistent. The application isn’t entirely stable, and has crashed a few times, though never with damage to anything else. It comes with on-the-fly plugins for Photoshop and Illustrator, and works with your existing font management tool, or standalone if you don’t have one. It’s £28, and comes with a generous 60 day trial period, Mac and Windows.

TypeDNA also allows you to browse free webfonts from Google, and buy fonts online. This may be a bit dangerous: at an average of £45 per font weight, you may find fonts an expensive addiction.

Mac Grammar checker shoot-out

Remember the early days of Microsoft Word? It astounded the world by having the temerity not only to correct spellings (mainly to American, until users figured out how to install the ‘International’ English dictionary), but also to comment on grammar. If your grammar was much more advanced than junior school, then Word would generally miss genuine errors, but point out things that it thought were wrong, but weren’t.

Word, of course, like all things, has improved over time. However, if you’re not writing in Word — for example because you are using Scrivener, or doing final editing in QuarkXpress or InDesign — there are now a number of options on the market for giving your text a once over before you submit it to your boss, client, tutor, supervisor, or Amazon for direct publishing on Kindle.

As I’m currently involved both with issuing a novel and reworking a major business document, I decided to put four of them to the test: Grammatica, Grammarly, Grammarian, and the innovatively named 1Checker. White Smoke, an alternative competitor, didn’t make the test because it does not offer a demo version.

1Checker is free, though you have to sign up for an account, and the work is done by internet servers.

Grammatica and Grammarian are software you pay for once and runs from your computer.

Grammarly is internet-only, and charges a substantial monthly or annual fee.

I’m going to ignore cost, because if any of these actually work the way they are supposed to, then they’re worth far more than any of them charge. On the other hand, if they don’t, they aren’t worth having at all.

The interface

Grammarly and 1Checker both have slick, on-line interfaces, though 1Checker runs in its own app. Grammatica and Grammarian are apps which live on your computer, with downloadable dictionaries, and use their own windows. Both of them are a bit ugly by today’s standards. Grammatica can work directly in the text in QuarkXpress and other applications, via the F2 key. Grammarian is supposed to do this, but, having logged in and out and restarted as per the instructions, the promised top menu never appeared. Grammatica’s direct involvement, though, is a mixed blessing: it stores all the corrections until you are finished, and then appears to paste them back into the document, thus terminally wrecking the formatting. To be fair, pasting back in is the most that any of these checkers do, and in all cases this destroys your format.

On the other hand, Grammatica is the only one of the three which makes you click through the errors one by one, rather than being able to scan them across a range of text. Although this may be helpful in forcing you to look at each one, it is less useful if you want to simply identify early on which sections of text — for example from different authors — require the most work.

Winner: Grammatica, by a smidgen. Although Grammarly and 1Checker are nicer, it takes a lot more work to get to the point of being able to do anything with them. Grammatica’s F2 at least takes you straight there, even if you ought to be very circumspect about allowing it to paste the results back in.

The errors

Grammarian is by far the strictest in searching for agreements and in challenging anything it doesn’t like. Unfortunately, only American (or, as they call it, ‘English’) is available on the demo, not standard or ‘International’ English (or, as they call it, ‘British’). Even giving it the benefit of the doubt, many of Grammarian’s suggestions were plain wrong, both on the 76,000 word novel and on the 24 page business document. I should say before going on that both of these had already been proof-read a couple of times, so I was using the software to find the last few errors.

Grammatica had, I felt, the largest number of helpful suggestions, though it got extremely confused by dialogue, and kept on suggesting that there was a hanging quotation mark. It was much politer than Grammarian in its suggestions. Indeed, Grammarian is quite rude, persistently telling you that you are wrong, even when it is, whereas Grammatica asks you to consider whether or not something is right.

Grammarly and 1Check seem to take a similar approach to the checking itself. Both try to offer you less rather than more, and to make it as helpful as possible, clearly showing what you have and what they think you should have. They are both wrong as often as Grammatica and Grammarian are, picking up few false positives, but also fewer errors. Neither is as troubled by dialogue as Grammarian and Grammatica, so if you are writing fiction you may decide that the interruptions of Grammarian’s inability to put the comma in the right place, and Grammatica’s failure to see when a quotation begins and ends, are too much to be bothered with. In that case, 1Check may be your best choice.

As far as I can make out, grammar checkers are good for the following kinds of errors:

  • subordinate clauses and punctuation — provided that you use old fashioned, closed punctuation, Grammatica and Grammarian will help you a lot. If you prefer modern punctuation, Grammarly and 1Check will annoy you less
  • agreement of verbs and nouns — all four are over-zealous in trying to make parts of sentences agree with each other in the wrong way, but they do identify a large amount of bad agreement. This is probably the most useful feature, because word-processing is notorious for sentences which started as one thing, are edited to be something else, and as a result have badly matched verbs and nouns
  • Consistent inconsistency — English is full of official inconsistencies. If you write consistently, but don’t happen to know whether it’s ‘no-one’ or ‘no one’ or ‘noone’ (it isn’t), then all the grammar checkers will give you the correct, albeit inconsistent, English usage
  • Vocabulary — if you use the wrong word, they may spot it. Also, all of them give you help with woolly phrases and clumsy cliché, though 1Check suggested changing ‘use’ to ‘utilise’ (face palm). Likewise, if you keep using a word, Grammarly and 1Check may identify this, though their suggestions are often of little help.

Winner: undecided. Grammatica would be, if only it didn’t come up with so many false positives on quotations. If you follow Grammarian, then you will insert Oxford commas everywhere — in other words, you are forced to use Grammarian’s house-style, not your client’s. All four picked up different errors, and all four had false positives.

Added features

Grammarly checks for plagiarism, by comparing your text to online sources. It doesn’t understand when you’ve cited something which is also cited by an online source, but it can still be a great help if you are working on a document which it turns out has been culled from a variety of others — not uncommon in business documents — and you suddenly find a striking fact which is either highly significant or simply wrong. Being able to track down where it came from can tell you which it is.

And the winner is…

A proper human proof-reader. Grammatica and Grammarian, with their endless suggestions of stuff that might be wrong, are the most comprehensive, but wading through the false positives is enough to put off anyone. The system is not much use if it’s too much trouble. On the other hand, 1Check and Grammarly don’t pick up all the errors, so you will still need a human proof reader.


1Check, from the App Store, for free, is probably worth the money you pay for it and a bit more. If you don’t really need grammar checking, but quite fancy a go, then it’s easy to acquire and cost-free.

Grammarly may be worth the steep fees if plagiarism checking is important to you, but, otherwise, it simply doesn’t pick up enough of the critical errors to dispense with a human proof-reader, at £15 an hour.

I really don’t get on with Grammarian. The fact that the demo comes with an American dictionary, and Grammarian thinks that English = American, whereas International or Standard English = British, doesn’t help. The style of correction, though, is needlessly brusque and schoolmarmish, and is reminiscent of Dan Quayle incorrectly criticising a child’s spelling of potato: if Grammarian was right a bit more often, it would be better.

I said I wouldn’t consider cost, but I’m going to now. Grammatica, from Semantica, comes in at $29.99. Grammarly costs about this much per month, whereas Grammarian is a bit more at £32. Grammatica was recently moved from Ultralingua to Semantica (seriously, these guys need some branding advice), and doesn’t appear to be on a good update path, though it functions perfectly well on OS X Mavericks. Taking everything together, my money will probably go on Grammatica, because it seems to me it does $29 worth of useful functioning.

Zep is re-releasing albums. But what were Britain’s greatest bands?

Zep is re-releasing albums. But what were Britain’s greatest bands?

A reunited Led Zeppelin in December 2007 at Th...

A reunited Led Zeppelin in December 2007 at The O 2 in London for the Ahmet Ertegün tribute show. From left to right: John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and Jimmy Page. On drums is Jason Bonham, the son of the deceased John Bonham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Led Zeppelin is to re-release its first three albums, with bonus tracks.


While I was growing up, the Zeppelin canon was fixed and immutable. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin III, with the rotating cut out cover, the fourth one with no name, Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti, The Song Remains The Same, Presence, In Through the Out Door. After a while, we got Coda. Then it all went quiet, until the age of CD, when live recordings, BBC sessions, and others started to emerge.


This isn’t just nostalgia. The rise of unreleased tracks and MP3s marks as definitively as anything the end of the Age of Rock.


Why do I think this? It’s a personal view, of course, but hear me out.


Unlike pop, which proceeded through the singles and top-ten charts, rock proceeded through vinyl LP releases with gorgeous album covers and legendary live performances. Many of them really were legendary: total numbers of people claiming to have attended significant gigs far exceeded the capacity of many of the halls they were played in.


Rock was reaching the end of its golden age as I was starting to gig. Progressive musicians were interested in synthesisers. Pop videos had taken over the visual space from album covers. Classic rock bands were doing their sixth final-ever world tour, or fourth reform, with none of the original members. There was a sense that, whatever rock was, it belonged to the generation just before punk exploded in the UK. When the rock sound returned to mainstream radio, it was part of a wide spectrum of the many fragmented kinds of music. There was no more just ‘rock’ or ‘pop’.


Crucially, rock’s great hallmark, the album, was gone. CD had been part of that, because there was no A and B side and you could simply select any track you wanted, and the tiny covers never did the same justice to the artwork that vinyl did. MP3 and shuffle play on the iPod ended it completely. Today’s teenagers don’t expect to listen to an album all the way through, and may never physically have hold the album cover.


This isn’t a shout out for nostalgia. Today has its own exciting music. Teenagers are creating sounds in their bedrooms which couldn’t have been created in Abbey Road twenty years ago. But it does mean that we can start to pin down what the really great bands were of the rock golden age.


So what is rock, anyway? My definition: it’s guitar-based band music that explores themes beyond the love-and-kittens of pop, outside the constrictions of the 3:20 single, and has a common creative direction from inside the band. Classic rock instrumentation is guitar + bass + drums + vocals + maybe keyboards. A rock band has to weld the virtuosity of its players into an organic whole which is more than the sum of its parts.


So, here is my list. It’s not a list of my favourite bands. Greatness has to do with influence, longevity, musicianship, originality and creating an unforgettable sound.


#10 Dire Straits


English: Mark Knopfler David Knopfler performi...

Deeply unfashionable now, Dire Straits mastered the vinyl LP with Love Over Gold which was probably the best expression of the entirely new vocabulary that Mark Knopfler brought to lead guitar. If you’re a guitarist, and you want to be a great guitarist, you need to listen to Knopfler’s playing and learn the licks, even if you never admit to anyone where you got them from.


#9 The Bee Gees


Bee Gees Monument unveiled tomorrow-1=

Not a rock band, you say? The Bee Gees may be best known for Saturday Night Fever, and they mastered funk like no other British band, but they started out as a rock band and remained one, deep down, throughout their collective career. If in doubt, watch some YouTube clips of them playing, and see the way they related to each other on stage.


#8 Status Quo


Rick Parfitt

Status Quo were the butt of most of the rock band jokes during the 70s. They were steady as a rock, tight, and delivered a sound which every guitarist of that era has tried to emulate at some point.


#7 The Police


The Police

Strangely, The Police have remained bright while Dire Straits has gone out of fashion. Some would call them pop, largely because they made it in the top ten charts, but you don’t have to listen very hard to Stuart Copeland’s rhythmic sophistication and Andy Summers’s highly experimental guitar work — he was one of the UK pioneers of Roland guitar synths — to hear that this was a true rock band, creating original music with consummate musicianship. And, crucially, the album title and cover of Ghost in the Machine was intellectually and visually absolutely in the main stream of rock.


#6 Fleetwood Mac


Fleetwood Mac (1975 album)

Yes, they were a UK band, even if they eventually found their way to California. You can’t listen to Rumours without still hearing and feeling the raw anger and musical genius. The BBC wisely returned to the Chain when they reacquired the rights to broadcast Formula 1.


#5 The Rolling Stones


English: Rolling Stones in Statesboro The Roll...

Some would put them higher, but the Stones never really did it for me. They epitomise the rock and roll lifestyle in every possible way, and continue to inspire the next generation.


#4 Queen


English: Queen performing in New Haven, CT.

Queen. Well, quite. They more or less invented pop video with Bohemian Rhapsody, combined unforgettable song writing and deep musical sophistication with lyrics which were beyond challenging in their day. And they even made it onto the O-level music syllabus.


#3 Pink Floyd


English: Pink Floyd performing in the Refector...

Pink Floyd had everything, but they couldn’t hang on to all of it at any one time, at least, not personnel-wise. Nonetheless, they continued to turn out completely conceived albums, with amazing cover art, from the beginning of the golden age of rock till well into its twilight.


#2 The Who


The Who 1308720073

If you watch CSI, you’ve heard The Who. Somehow, when everything else has gone in and out of fashion, The Who still sound raw, angry, and fit to inspire new musicians.


#1 Led Zeppelin.


English: John Bonham - Led Zeppelin

Quite probably the world’s greatest rock band, unless you consider #0 to be rock rather than pop. There is something unrepeatably raw about every Zeppelin album up to and including Physical Graffiti. Presence then took us into another world of after-midnight blues (and it had a really terrible album cover), and In Through The Outdoor was entirely its own thing, with one of the best album covers (in three parts) ever.


#0 The Beatles


English: Photograph of The Beatles as they arr...

The 0th place is the Beatles. No list of the best bands could fail to include them. Were they a rock band? Or a pop band? Or were they the beginning of the golden age of rock, before the distinction ever existed. They were never on my radar as far as rock is concerned. Some people say that Sgt. Pepper’s was the definitive rock album, but, for me, it didn’t have the musical virtuosity that Pink Floyd, the Yardbirds and Jimi Hendrix had marked on the map by 1967 when the album was released. Of course, I was only 1 years old at the time, so what do I know?




Not on the list, because…


Jimi Hendrix.


Well, because he was American. The Jimi Hendrix Experience was nominally a UK band, but everyone knows he was American. Just look at the outfits.


The Yardbirds and their offspring: Jeff Beck, Cream, Eric Clapton


The Yardbirds and Cream were tremendously influential in their time, but somehow didn’t cross over into the consciousness of the next generation. Ask a teenager today, and they are very well informed if they’ve heard of them at all.


Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Motorhead


Great bands, just not as great as the ones on the list. Black Sabbath were mainly known for their outrageousness, including Ozzy (allegedly) biting the heads off chickens and (even more allegedly) getting rabies from one of them (unlikely). Deep Purple was treading in waters already parted by Zeppelin. Uriah Heep were too organ based and lacked a distinctive lead guitar. Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Motorhead — all still treading in Zeppelin territory.



What has Doctor Who ever done for us?

What has Doctor Who ever done for us?

The Mark 2 fibreglass (Tom Yardley-Jones) Tard...

The Mark 2 fibreglass (Tom Yardley-Jones) Tardis as used in the 1980s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Tonight is the big night. The Doctor Who 50th anniversary. Various people have been commenting that there is something fundamentally wrong with a world where the Doctor Who anniversary is getting more coverage than the Kennedy assassination. You may draw your own conclusions in either direction.




What is it about Doctor Who that has turned it from a low-budget British semi-obsession into a multi-national, even global phenomenon?


I once lobbied Michael Grade about bringing Doctor Who back. At the time — he was in charge of Channel 4 then — he was dismissive about the series as a low budget waste of time. Six months later he rejoined the BBC and Doctor Who was shortly afterwards reinstated. I’m sure my input had nothing to do with it, but I occasionally bring out the story at parties.


Clearly the new Doctor Who is a much more glitzy, glamorous and high-budget affair than the Doctor Who of my youth. Nonetheless, I think there are characteristics which are true of both original and new Doctor Who — beyond just the characters — which make it stand out. Particularly, Doctor Who stands out as television, and does so in a way which I don’t think will ever properly translate to the big screen.


Fundamentally, Doctor Who is televisual. This was pointed out to me by someone’s review of the Stephen Moffat classic episode Blink. They said that Moffat was using the grammar of television, where the action of the angels was based on jump cuts. This got me thinking.


Time Travel


First of all, the essence of television is that it is a time-travel medium. To be precise, the shots are filmed in any order, and then reassembled into the final broadcast. This is recorded television, of course. Live television doesn’t have that luxury. It was the arrival of video tape recording that made Doctor Who possible, because even the limited special effects of the early series could not have been achieved live, and also made it inevitable. How long can you work on a VTR deck before you start wondering what would happen if you put the events in deliberately the wrong order. From there, time travel as a fictional device becomes inevitable.


This is somewhat different from film, because of the way that television and film evolved separately. Film has always been about shooting and editing, even back to the very early films. The surrealists used film extensively to construct strange visions of the world. Television, by contrast, began as a live studio medium, and, even today, much of television is live broadcast, though all of it is now taped as well. Doctor Who — born three years before I was, by the way — put things that couldn’t possibly be happening on your screen right after the news and before live entertainment.


Televisual effects


What happens if you point a TV camera at a screen which is hooked up as the output of the camera? With a digital camera, as almost everything is these days, the result is you get the equivalent of parallel mirrors, with an image inside an image inside an image, and so on, until it drops below the pixel threshold or becomes too dim to see. If you did the same thing with the analog cameras in the 1960s, you would get a scary black and white set of interference patterns. It was by exactly this method that the really quite terrifying original Doctor Who title sequence was created. If you go back and watch some of the early Doctor Who’s, right into the Jon Pertwee era, you see this. The look of it gradually evolved, taking us to the digitally created travel-through-the-vortex that we have today. Somehow, it doesn’t quite deliver the same thrill of some kind of ill-advised tampering with the unknown.


Again, this is a televisual effect. It can’t be accomplished at all with a film camera. The makers of Doctor Who understood their craft, their tools, and how to use and abuse them.




The other stand-out aspect of the original title sequence was the strange, eery music produced by the BBC Radiophonic workshop, using equipment which today cannot be reproduced. Nobody had ever heard anything like it before, and the subsequent theremin-based Star Trek music simply could not touch it for out-and-out science-fiction scariness. I always regretted the later attempts to tamper with it, jazz it up, add drum tracks and so on. Still, the spirit of the original score is still with us. Radiophonics were present throughout the early shows, where the BBC’s radio-based expertise in making things sound like other things gave a high measure of credibility to what were often quite dodgy graphics, certainly by modern standards. For some reason, sound has a much bigger impact on our belief when watching television than the actual picture does.




Television has a problem which film does not: what do you do when the main actor of a popular series dies, or when they don’t want to play the part any more? Aside from Plan Nine from Outer Space, where the director decided to replace Bela Lugosi with an entirely different actor when he died during shooting, film has generally solved this problem by either cancelling the project or reshooting the entire thing. TV can’t do that, as a number of episodes will already have been broadcast, and may even be repeated. In Bewitched, the lead male actor was famously replaced after a few episodes, and the captain of the Enterprise in Star Trek was not the same captain as in the pilot episode.


Doctor Who’s solution, like so much else it did, was to make a virtue of the necessity. The regeneration of the Doctor was an entirely new thing not only to television but to science-fiction in general, and it is so distinctive that it has not been adopted as a feature in any other series.


Bigger on the inside


Continuity is an enormous problem for television where budgets are so much smaller than film, and where production timescales are so much shorter. Just like the unintentional time travel problems that the TV editing process can produce, it’s all too easy to have someone walk into a place and end up in an entirely different place. The genius of Doctor Who was to take what is normally a continuity error and make it into the series’s defining special effect.


It’s hard to find any other special effect in science-fiction film or television which is so disorienting, so distinctive, and yet so easy to create.




The BBC exists to inform, educate and entertain. Doctor Who was constructed in order to achieve all these purposes in one go. One of the primary motivations for making it about time travel as well as space travel was so that the Doctor could educate his companions on history as well as science. The presence of the companions, too, was an opportunity for the Doctor to explain how things worked.


This has gone off the boil a bit in the new Doctor Who. Science seems to be a little lacking. In the original series, though, it wasn’t just scientific facts, but the scientific method which was showcased. Tom Baker complains about Professor Kettlewell’s failure to write up his experiments properly in Robot, Jon Pertwee is always conducting experiments in his UNIT laboratory. Doctor Who expected a lot of its audiences in those days: the climax to Full Circle is when Tom Baker’s Doctor understands that the DNA of the swamp monsters is identical to the DNA of the settlers, thereby demonstrating that they are not the original colonists, but the descendants of the monsters who supplanted them. How many American broadcast networks would take the chance that their audiences would understand that level of scientific abstraction, or even be interested by it?




Possibly less strong in today’s Doctor Who, the storytelling and plotting of the early series was absolutely superb. Like Scheherazade always finishing one story in time to start another, which she would break off at a moment of tension, Doctor Who always managed to deliver a climax at the end of every episode, as often as not characterised by a scream which would still be penetrating even on the dodgy audio technology of 1970s television sets. Although it worked within the four or six episode format, Doctor Who never became formulaic in the way that Star Trek did.


As an example, a typical Star Trek episode (original series) involves an attack on the ship while a landing party is simultaneously facing danger on a planet’s surface. This was a convenient way to stop the might of the Enterprise being deployed against an otherwise innocuous population, but it also meant that the shape of almost every episode was the same. Doctor Who, by contrast, managed to deliver intellectually different plot structures. The Face of Evil, for example, has the epiphanic climax when it turns out that the Face of Evil itself is the Doctor’s own face. The series that followed it, the Robots of Death, is an Agatha Christie style murder mystery in a confined space. No attempt to put plots into categories can ever cope with Blink, my second favourite Doctor Who episode of all time. By contrast, my all time favourite, Genesis of the Daleks, begins by telling the viewer exactly what is going to happen, and finishes with the Doctor unable to complete his mission because of conscience, which we knew would happen right from the beginning anyway. It is, nonetheless, a master example of that kind of plot.


The Real World


Traditionally, Doctor Who was on after the news. Unlike almost all the other science fiction which ever made it onto television, the BBC constantly made Doctor Who topical. The Green Death came at a time of pit closures and rising fear of pollution. The Ark in Space appeared at the very height of the Cold War, when many people were convinced that nuclear weapons would make the Earth uninhabitable. To rewatch old Doctor Who series is to be reminded of the times in which they were made.


Like the very greatest science-fiction, Doctor Who was ostensibly about a fantasy world out there, on the limits of our imagination, but really about this world, right here, right now.


Long may it continue.


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