Christmas Adverts 2020

Ah, you know this is going to be… something. Don’t you? Christmas adverts now occupy the “showstopper” spot in the eternal advertising Bake Off, and this year *adopts grave and sober voice* more than ever, we need a show.

Lads, we’ve all lived through 2020. Absolute shitshow of a year, and the adverts honestly didn’t help. Fucking Halifax HR managers telling us we mattered to them, Persil co-opting “children playing”, endless echoing faked Zoom calls telling us that yeah times were hard but, I dunno, Werther’s Originals would always be there for us. Awful. Like the real world of actual Zoom calls and genuine restrictions on children’s play and, oh, just, a virus stalking the streets dishing out death and misery like a Netflix executive spotting a beloved show moving into its third season.

When it came to Christmas, I had but one wish. Do something different. Do something fun and exciting, something that pulls us out of this slough of despond. Or, if you must acknowledge the state of the world, do it cleverly. Do it without recourse to videoconferencing or home videos. I know it’s tricky, I know times are hard, but think harder. Shall we see how this panned out?

John Lewis

Right, let’s start with the big one. It’s not Christmas Advert Season before John Lewis drops theirs, although increasingly this seems more like cargo cult behaviour than any serious marker of quality.

Well, they’ve walked the line well enough. The message is clear – we all need each other right now, we should be friendly and open and spread love through kindness wherever we can. TELL THAT TO BORIS AND THE TORIES – RIGHT, KIDS? Haha, just a little humour there. It’s not using the 2020 cliches, good, fine, but it’s also not really acknowledging the state of reality. People sit next to each other on buses. Hairdressers don’t wear PPE. Strangers stand within 2m. It’s aiming for timeless, and I think it just about succeeds without being kind of insultingly otherworldly.

It’s also obviously technically very smart, too, mixing animation techniques and film-making styles, possibly hinting that production was spread across small, diverse teams. In a year where adverts have either looked like they were beamed in from space (like, perfume ads, have you even noticed??) or like they were made by your mates on a £50 laptop, even if it’s not portraying our world, it’s obviously built within it.

ASDA

This fella’s been on Asda adverts for months now, I’m unmoved by him and his ordinary man of the people bullshit. Usually my favourite genre of Christmas advert is “Bit grey, filmed on an estate of some sort, loads of tinsel in the house to make it look cheerful”, but honestly this did nothing for me. Zero. Whatever mate, you need to up your game. It’s Christmas, make a fucking effort. This is just your regular campaign with a paper crown on. Is this your king??

Walkers Crisps Apparently

I don’t know. Why are Walkers doing a Christmas advert?

I mainly felt a bit bewildered through this. Am I meant to know who everyone is? I feel I am. But I don’t, because I’m some fucking advert Grinch who lives in a cave and hates the Hoo dickheads down in Hoo dickhead town, so it was mostly lost on me. I recognised Carol Smillie, because she literally said she was Carol, and Aled Jones and maybe that old man was Tony Mortimer but beyond that? Well, whatever, oh yeah, Gary Lineker obviously, sorry, anyway, whatever this was basically the whole of Children In Need compressed into 2 minutes, wasn’t it? Celebrity larking about, but with a serious charity message. Trussell Trust are worthy benefactors, no shade there. BUT.

No, you don’t spoof the Coca Cola trucks. Sorry. Not on my watch.

Coca-Cola

Speaking of which. Holidaysarecomingholidaysarecomingholi-

Guyyyyys, come on.

Ok, fine, you can’t do literally the same ad every year simply because I love it, I guess. I can just watch old ones on YouTube I guess. I’ll judge this on its own merits I GUESS.

Directed by Taika Waititi, don’t you know? Yes, bit of class in our adverts this year thankyouverymuch. And to give him credit, it looks great and the story is cleanly, clearly told – without dialogue, so it’s universal. I’m pretty sure the writing is edited round in such a way that localisation would be a cinch. It tells a solid story of longing, homesickness and of wanting to be near one’s family at Christmas, which is again letting the real world provide the subtext without actually being about the real world. I found it fairly moving, especially the bits involving the truck, and I just generally enjoyed spending the time with it. Can’t argue with that, can you?

Tesco

Here we go. Fronting up to it, looking 2020 square in the eye and saying “This was bullshit, wasn’t it?”. Bogrolls and handwashing, haircuts and Captain Tom, they’re going for it. Tesco may not be my favourite supermarket, but they’ve won me over a bit here. Making your message “Fucking chill, have some cake” is a nifty move right now. Again, I think the visuals walk a good line, too. They’re just professional enough to not look like they’re passing the responsibility on to amateur videographers but just slightly rough round the edges to suggest “Actually, it was a pain in the arse to make this with social distancing and bubbles and shit”.

Sainsbury’s

Hear that? That’s the sound of a ball being dropped.

Clonk. I’ve really enjoyed Sainsbury’s adverts in the recent past. The Mog one? Beautiful, art. The WWI one? Not my thing, but a high-quality bit of film making. The batshit Artful Dodger Steampunk one from last year? Yeah, fun in its own way. This? Crap. Let me break it down.

So they’re leaning in to the home video thing. Calls to family. Fine, everyone’s fucking sick of it but knock yourself out. However – if you are doing that I want it to feel authentic. This simply does not. When the dialogue on the phone matches the dialogue in the video, either the call is staged, or the video. Or, most likely, both. A cute idea undermines the whole conceit. I spend the rest of the time looking for tells. Modern tech imitating old glitches. Haircuts out of time. Too many shots of food prep. Nahh. Like, we know none of it’s real but don’t show us. This is clumsy shit. You could have done something with this concept, but this is no good.

I’ve waited for the third part, just to make sure it’s not going to do something amazing (like, I dunno, it’s an alien civilisation reconstructing humanity in 2020 via video and voice files, or the two narrators are watching it back on their death beds in a future that has been saved by discount hams) but it seems unlikely and if I wait any longer before hitting publish I’ll look hilariously out of date instead of simply slow as I do now.

McDonald’s

This hit me like a truck. Sorry, this felt personal. By the end of this I was crying, great hitching sobs. I needed a few minutes to compose myself. You maybe won’t feel that way if you DON’T have a child at exactly this stage of their life but I do and fuck, an advert for MACCY Ds burned itself into my soul. I’m not watching it again just to write this. Sorry.

Aldi

Palate cleanser. They’re going to give me Kevin the Carrot, this will bring me back down.

Jesus. Stop trying to make Kevin happen. Anyway, this is basically the Coke advert isn’t it? Imagine hiring a big-name director, creating epic spectacle that also knowingly nods at your company’s place in the fabric of modern ideas of Christmas and then some fucking carrot comes along and does the same story on the back of a hedgehog. Yeah, yeah, the longing want of a family for a distant parent, blah blah, here’s Santa again, but honestly I just hate that carrot.


If you’re wondering why the carrot is falling out of the sky to start with, well

WAHT.

Argos

Last year’s advert made a small star of Nandi Bushell, who now has regular drum battles with Dave bleedin’ Grohl, and quite rightly. I loved it at the time, and I stand by that I think. So are they going to try the same trick this year?

Pretty much! Are these two small girls really masters of the art of prestidigitation? They could be! Turned out that last year’s tiny drummer really was a drummer. There are a few moments of sleight of hand that could be faked, could be real. I could maybe do some research, but am I going to? We all know I’m not.

OK, I did and there’s no info, just newspapers publishing the press release. Boring. So it’s fine in that the girls are perfectly charming, the pile-up of effects to transform the show into one in a giant theatre work well, everything ticks along entertainingly enough. If you’re keeping track, this is one that does NOT acknowledge Covid-19 in any way shape or form. Fair enough.

So what’s wrong with it? RIght. Two things. One – we’ve had that magic set and it was rubbish. This VERY MUCH oversells it. Two – Gary Barlow on the soundtrack. Nope.

Lidl

Genuinely have a lot of time for Lidl’s Christmas adverts. They’ve been doing quietly funny work for the last few years and don’t get nearly enough recognition. This is no exception; a brutally gentle skewing of Christmas ads in general – plinky plonky music, breathless singing, that characterless faux-stop motion CG animation (that turns up in the John Lewis ad this year), heartwarming family stuff (“emotional gravy”.. wait, did they see the Sainsbury’s ad early?) and, of course, that fucking carrot gets four prongs in the gut first chance. Take that, Aldi.

The Inferno on the Horizon, Part Three: Vacuum

Original image ©Nasa

“You gave them the transmat!”

“Call it a shortcut,” the Doctor said, mildly. “You took away almost a century. Those people needed time, and they no longer have it. Oron, she was smart, she can figure out how the transmat operates and incorporate it into their ship design. Few hops with that and they’re in another galaxy altogether, one that isn’t unexpectedly crashing into its neighbour.”

“Do you always do that?” The Witness sat straight up in her folding chair, fingertips pressed together. “Interfere, I mean. There’s no way they could have left their planet without your intervention. So a single planet dies. It’s a big universe. Why get involved?”

“Every single person on that planet has a life to live, and if you hadn’t come along they’d all have made it to the end of that life AND would have made sure the next generation could do the same. Now you saw them. They were working themselves every second they could just to spare themselves the sight of their children dying.”

“But you’ve stopped that,” there was a slight note of pleading in the Witness’s voice now. “You gave them the transmat.”

“For them, yes,” the Doctor stood in front of the Witness, framed by Afteos at one shoulder and the bulk of the Rueatric Spiral at the other. “Can you tell me how many other planets there are out there? All of them with people as scared and confused as the ones you met today. Some of them will escape, but not many. They’ll work themselves to the bone, and for nothing.”

“This is not my-”

“Or they’ll throw the rest of their short lives away trying to appease the inferno on the horizon. They’ll kill each other, looking to find the ones to blame. And that’s not the end of it. Those who escape this won’t escape your last little surprise, will they? As your TARDIS takes the universe with it into oblivion. There’s no distance far enough that can outrun that, is there?”

“There’s nothing I-”

“Can I have a coffee?” the Doctor’s sudden change of direction was so disorientating the Witness rocked back in her chair. “Sorry, it’s just I’ve been smelling it all this time and it’s so good. Lemb, right? The best.”

In silence, the Witness poured the Doctor a small cup of the precious coffee. She took it, breathing in the bitter steam. For a moment, there was total silence on the junkyard planet.

“I love those moments,” she said, quietly. “Little bits of quiet. Sometimes it’s even quiet enough that the inside of your head stops, just for a second, and you don’t have to think of anything. Only a second, but even in thousands of years of life those seconds stand out. Do you know what I mean?”

“Not in my head.”

“Didn’t think so,” the Doctor took a sip. “What are you thinking about right now?”

“Flasks.”

“Got to admit, I wasn’t expecting that answer.”

“You said it earlier – a vacuum in a vacuum,” the WItness said, jaw tight to hold back excitement. “That’s how you could stop it. Or… slow it down. No, no, you could stop the end of the, the end of this universe.”

“With a flask?” The Doctor looked baffled.

“With a TARDIS!” The WItness stood up, holding the flask in front of her face. “You’re clearly very clever, Doctor, and yes I get it, I’m a monster. I can’t do anything to help those people, not now. But I know things you’ve never even dreamed of trying to work out, and I can save… everyone else. I can save them from me. Get into your stupid blue box, I’ll show you what it can do.”

—–

A vacuum inside a vacuum. Unlimited space inside unlimited space, a universe within a universe. The Doctor had seen other realities, once or twice, mostly accidentally, but the Witness lived them. She knew how to shift the TARDIS not just back and forth, but across, somehow. She sketched out, very briefly, a plan to push her exploding time machine into an empty plane of existence, to let the energy it was kicking out flash across the thinnest membrane of reality, harming no-one. It sounded impossibly difficult, but she looked confident and almost happy.

“No, that one,” she barked at the Doctor, who moved her hand to the lever on her right. “Ok, down on that. We need to push the Heart of the TARDIS into unphased synchronisation with the universal entropic outersphere.”

“I don’t know what that means! I always know what that sort of thing means, but I’ve got no clue and I love it!” shouted the Doctor as the TARDIS made groaning noises she had never before heard.

“We’re putting your TARDIS around mine, materialising it inside the Heart!”

The Doctor stopped what she was doing to stare across at the Witness, who was now galloping around the console with a wild look in her eye.

“That’ll kill her!” the Doctor screamed. “You can’t..!”

“Trust me,” the Witness yelled back above the screams of the TARDIS. “Your box will be fine!” There was a very loud bang, and something fizzed in the distance. “Mostly fine!” 

The Doctor grabbed a monitor to check the readout “That was the casino!”

“You’re a gambler??” 

“I just like the ambience!”

“Look, It’s all about containment. We might lose a room or two but we’re trying to contain the explosion just long enough to pop it into the empty gap between universes”

“That’s impossible!”

“And you’ve never seen the impossible?” cried the Witness, bringing both hands down on the console and drawing the most distressing howl yet from the aching machine. The Doctor simply held on as the whole of reality rattled her teeth. The giant crystalline column in the console’s centre ground against itself, lit from inside with a painful intensity. There was an unnerving sensation of being inside out, and the Doctor’s memory of the very first trip through time she ever took, as a child on Gallifrey, lashed out into her seasick mind.

The TARDIS broke through the walls of everything, and into the void of nothing.

—–

Across the star systems of the Afteos Galaxy, in the far arms of the Rumetric Spiral, there was a name spoken in awe and reverence. The saviour of civilisations, the bringer of hope. One woman, travelling in a curious box, who would turn up one day and nudge the right people in the right direction. Where the future had seemed bleak, she would come and give them light in the darkness. She seemed to know exactly how to help, to turn nascent spacefaring programmes into interstellar escape routes.

Over a century, there would be refugees turning up in far galaxies, talking of her. How she worked to make them safe, tireless and cheerful to the day she disappeared, as suddenly as she arrived. No one could really say how many people she saved from the collision of the two galaxies. No one was able to keep a count. Most of them called her “the Healer”.

On a distant rock, barely noticeable in the vastness of space, there was a blue box and a chair. The Doctor picked up the lunchbox that had been left by the chair, and the flask. The sandwiches seemed fresh, so she ate one.

“You’re going to leave the coffee for me, though?” said the Witness. Her TARDIS was small, grey, unadorned, a utility vehicle. They had picked it up on an abandoned Gallifrey in some far-distant universe; the Witness had refused to be drawn on what might have happened to the Time Lords there.

“I said it wouldn’t even be cold,” the Doctor replied, handing it over.

The Inferno on the Horizon, Part Two: Samesh

Original image ©Nasa

The people of Samesh, on the planet Hyllt, were busy. While some watched the sky, others toiled over mechanical wonders, or delved into layers of physics that bordered on magic. They worked quickly, determinedly, but they had almost no time to reach their goal. They were, as a city, nation, planet, doomed.

In the central library, in a mostly-empty side room, a small disturbance blew some papers around, flipped open a carelessly dropped book, then stopped. In the silence that followed, a door swung open in the newly-arrived blue box in the stacks. Two women stepped out.

“This is a library,” said one, the taller of the two, gazing down at the other with hard, dark eyes. “I have seen many libraries.”

“Course you have,” said the other – smaller, blonde, with a wide open face and a chaotic energy bound tight inside her voice. “Not here to show you books. Although if you’d like to take a quick peek? They won’t exist in a few months, you’ll never get to read them or anything else ever again.”

“A cheap trick, I’ve read more than enough. I’m hardly likely to be swayed by additional literature. Or the loss of it.”

Tarres, assistant chief under-librarian, cleared his throat.

“Oh hello, didn’t see you there,” said the shorter woman, fixing Tarres with the most cheerful smile he’d ever encountered. Several lifetimes of cheer seemed to beam from it. “I’m The Doctor, this rather grumpy lady here is The Witness. Would you mind showing us the nearest window?”

“Uhhh,” Tarres, caught briefly between outrage and sheer bewilderment, decided it was easier simply to comply. Although he was technically the highest-ranking person in the library, following the conscription of the chief under-librarian for their four month enforced research opportunity, he suddenly felt outranked by this Doctor. He led the way to the Astrolabe Window. It wasn’t, he confessed in his mind, actually the nearest but it was the most impressive.

“What, uh, what kind of Doctor, anyway?” he asked as they walked. “Physics, chemistry, astronomy?”

“Oh yes,” The Doctor affirmed, unhelpfully.

“I expect you’ll have been conscripted already, then,” Tarres chattered. “Thank you for your service, Doctor! All our greatest minds working for the cause!”

“What cau-” the taller woman, the Witness, started to ask, but then they stepped in front of the Astrolabe Window.

It was vast, occupying the entire wall of the cathedral-like library. A wheel within a wheel, stars and planets picked out in coloured glass against an ink-blue sky. This was the work, Tarres explained, of one hand. Centuries ago, the greatest librarian of the age, Gorian Helm, used every star map and astronomical text available to create a precise visual description of the heavens. Sadly, since the trouble started it has been almost useless. “But,” he added. “Of course, it’s not that the Astrolabe Window is wrong. The sky is wrong.”

“Show me a real window,” there was a flat urgency in the Doctor’s voice now. “Show me the sky.”

—–

Two years ago, the skies ignited. The government of Samesh was quick to act – other nations dragged their feet, decided it would all be over soon, that it was important to show the sky that they would not be cowed by a mere celestial conflagration. But not Samesh. They put their best minds to it, finding it necessary to conscript them to the great state research departments. As a nation they were proud of their scientific endeavours. It was expected, before the trouble started, that they would be the first to send one of their cosmonauts out into deep space.

The Doctor listened to Tarres explaining this as she stared at the maelstrom. It was distant, much less extravagant than on The Witness’s viewing planetoid. But it transmitted an unmistakable threat. It was, and everyone in Samesh knew it, the end of everything they knew.

“It’s the end of everything anyone knows,” breathed the Doctor. The Witness looked unimpressed.

“Do you expect me to see people and have a change of heart, Doctor?” she asked. “I fear you’ve underestimated me. I know what I’m doing, what I have done.”

“These people were on the verge of interstellar flight, do you understand that?” the Doctor was angry now. “Given another hundred years, they would have been capable of intergalactic travel. They would have had the technology to escape this.”

“It honestly doesn’t matter to me. Is this really what you brought me here to see?”

“No,” said the Doctor, turning to Tarres. “Tarres, wasn’t it? Tarres, can you help me out here? Where do you keep your boffins?”

—–

The Institute of Neo-Astrological Phenomenology was housed in a large building in the capital city of Lilden, repurposed from an old tyre factory. No one used tyres any more; maglev was the standard way to move around Samesh so the large building, with its high ceilings and tall windows, was perfect. It was where one would spends one’s four month enforced research opportunity, but some of the scientists, mechanics and engineers would stay for longer. Some had been there from the start, since the Institute opened its slightly rubber-smelling doors in response to the change in the night sky.

Oron was once a lecturer in Astrophysics at the University of Samesh (formerly Lilden Technical College). She gave up her tenured position the moment The INAP was established, and had quickly become seen as a great authority. It was she who had first realised it was an intergalactic collision, and her theory that it was going to consume the planet in less than three years was almost universally accepted. This had pushed those at work in the Institute harder than they could have imagined. It had changed the way they lived, thought, worked. The brooding menace on the edge of the world never gave them peace.

The man Tarres, whom she recognised vaguely as an adjunct to one of her researchers, apologised for disturbing her, but there were some… very odd, very knowledgeable ladies who were very keen to talk to her about the.. the trouble. “They pretty much frog-marched me here from the library,” he said, apologetically. “But I really do think they might be able to help you, in your research.”

“Oh, fine, fine, fine, good, yes, send them in,” Oron said on the outbreath of her sigh. Tarres turned but the door was already open and a woman unknown to her was halfway across the room.

“Love this! Old tyre factory? Still whiffs a bit, doesn’t it? Can’t get that smell out. Hello, I’m the Doctor, that’s The Witness,” she pointed over to a dark-haired, reserved woman dressed like an archive, who folded her arms and leaned against the doorframe. “She probably won’t say anything but that’s ok, I’ll say too much so it all balances out. I’m the Doctor, by the way, no, said that already.”

“Tarres said you may know something about…?” Oron came to the point.

“Ah. Yes, that’s true,” the Doctor looked at the walls. “I see you’ve figured out it’s an intergalactic collision. No one ever thinks about the planets involved with one of those, do they? So many lives, and here you are, working away to stop it. But you can’t stop it can you?”

“Can you?”

“Can’t stop it, no. Might be able to give you a bit of advice for how to outrun it, though.”

“You can’t outrun the collapse of every star system in a fifty-thousand light year radius,” Oron told her, tears of frustration and fury standing out in her eyes. “Are you here to talk nonsense or help with the project?”

“I never miss the opportunity to do both,” the Doctor said. She found a photo of a small boy in a frame on a near shelf. “Your son? He looks very happy.”

“He is,” Oron said, reaching for the frame. “He barely knows what’s going on, thankfully.” Before she could take the picture from her hands, the Doctor handed it casually to the Witness. Not expecting this, she fumbled the frame and managed to push a small button on the side of the glass. The image rippled, then seemed to animate. The boy peered at the unfamiliar face of the Witness.

“Mummy?” the voice from the frame sounded sleepy and confused. The Witness had a look of panic in her eyes as she thrust it towards Oron. “What’s happening?”

“Nothing sweetie,” soothed Oron, snatching the frame. “Sorry, called you by mistake. Were you asleep?”

“Just having my nap,” mumbled the boy. “Daddy says you’re coming home next week, will you bring me a present?”

“Of course. Now get back to sleep.”

“I’m going to have breakfast. We’ve got fruit! Bye, Mummy! Love you!”

“Love you too, sweetie,” said Oron, gazing fondly as the screen melted back to a still photograph. 

“A present!” The Doctor exclaimed as she sat down and put her feet on the desk. “Kids never understand when you’re working, do they? So… what’s the project, what are you going to do?”

“We’re trying to escape,” said Oron quietly. “We were so close to full space travel. We might just be able to build, I don’t know, a generation  ship. Get our children safely away from here.”

“And how far do you think they could go, these children?”

“I don’t know,” Oron said, sitting down heavily in her leather chair. “Far enough. Far enough that they could outlive us, at least. Far enough that they wouldn’t have to watch us die.” She noticed the Doctor look over to the Witness, who did not return her gaze.

“And you don’t have to watch them.”

“You’re developing that ship here?” scoffed the Witness in the silence that followed. “In less than three years from almost a standing start?”


“What else could we do? You can’t stop two galaxies in their tracks! Who knows, if we had more time, we could have done more. But we don’t.”

“No,” the Doctor stood up. “I’m sorry. I wish you did. Oh!” she suddenly brightened up, reaching into one of the inner pockets of her coat. “Tell you what, have this. Might help, might not. Anyway, I’ve just remembered that we’ve got to go, come on Witness, back to my TARDIS.”

“But that’s…” protested the Witness.

“I know, but you don’t need it any more!” the Doctor called from the corridor. And with that, they were gone, and Oron was in the quiet of her office once again. She turned the small disc the Doctor had given her over in her hands. It was brass, or something like brass, and pulsed with energy. Lights moved across it in unfamiliar patterns, heading to a spot near the rim. Tentatively, she put a finger on the spot and-

Part three here

The Inferno on the Horizon, Part One: An Uncomfortable Chair

©Nasa

The world was fresh, but the scene in the skies ancient, cosmically so. The only inhabitant of this new planet carefully flipped open a canvas chair and sat in it. It was structured to recline slightly, and she stared at the night sky. Not that night meant anything here on this world without a sun.

Above her, two galaxies were smashing in to each other. Their vast arms, each one filled with uncountable numbers of stars, were folding over themselves like mating octopuses. Even in the short time she had been here, building this nothing-planet, this globe of ash and debris, she had noticed flares as stars collided and died in gouts of boiling hydrogen. Nebulae grew from the stardust, puffed and billowed into shapes she could briefly nickname (“The Whale”, “The Ice Cream”, “The Deformed Rabbit”) before they blew themselves out in the unstoppable momentum of the galactic crash.

She had been travelling for a long time. Centuries, millennia. Across time and space, and all relative dimensions. She had seen so much, and it was only occasionally as grand and beautiful as this. Usually galactic collisions took place over millions of years, but this one – when the Afteos Galaxy smashed into the Rumetric Spiral – took just 67 months and two days. She’d been meaning to catch it for so long.

She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, slipped on a pair of sunglasses and picked up a flask she’d placed by the camp chair a few minutes earlier, having fished it out of the console of her ship. 67 months. She might have brought a more comfortable chair but, oh well.

There was very little sound, that was the interesting thing. You might reasonably expect a howling multi-solar wind even at this distance, but it happened mostly in silence, except for that grinding, rushing noise like a key being dragged up a piano wire. Oh no, hang on, that was here. She almost recognised it. It sounded a little like the time she’d tried to take off in the middle of a gravity well. As it faded into a blarting whoosh, she looked around, pushing her sunglasses up into her hair.

Behind her was a blue box. Deeply incongruous on this ball of snaggled rock. She recognised it as a TARDIS, of course, you don’t mistake that sort of thing. The door opened and out stumbled a woman in a long, flowing dove-grey coat that almost but didn’t quite get tangled around her legs as she placed her boots on the uncertain surface of the moon.

“Hello!” called the woman. “Is this …. “ she took in the absurd, ramshackle planetoid. “Well, clearly it isn’t. Look at this place, it’s amazing, looks like it’s made of old tin cans!” she looked at her with sudden directness “Did you make this? It’s very impressive. I’m a bit of a tinkerer myself.” She finished with a broad smile, the seriousness vanished in a breathless instant.

“Yes, I did, thank y-” she started, flattered, then recomposed herself. “How did you even know it was here? It doesn’t show up on any charts.”

The strange woman was on one knee now, patting the ground. She had produced a jeweller’s glass from nowhere and was examining a small chunk she had pulled from the surface. “Oh, you know. Time and space and… stuff. Got a bit of a talent for finding odd things in the universe. You’d know about that.”

She shrugged, a barely noticeable motion. Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. She wasn’t committing to anything.

“I’m The Doctor,” she said and paused, as if expecting a reaction. When none was forthcoming, she turned her back and pulled out a bashed up lump of metal that made the familiar wheedling trill of a sonic screwdriver. “So your TARDIS is around here somewhere, then. Good chameleon circuit! Never really went for that myself but always nice when it works. So!” The Doctor grinned as if she was about to suggest getting a takeaway. “Who are you, and how did you manage to escape from Gallifrey?”

—–

She had big plans, when she was younger. When she was a different woman. She wanted to see the world – no, bigger plans. The worlds. As many as possible. She took a TARDIS on what was ostensibly a routine patrol around the borders of Gallifrey (it was a time of peace, a time when Daleks were little more than an occasional irritant) and simply never returned.

There was an aspect of the TARDIS technology that was underexplored; the ability to traverse relative dimensions. Time Lords spent all their energy on time, which was right there in the name of course, but there was so much more out there. She spent her next lifetimes shifting between realities. Sometimes finding herself in claustrophobic pocket universes – a realm of endless fire criss-crossed by black cabs and shambling scarecrows was a low point – sometimes in parallel worlds that resembled her own so precisely it made her question why she would even bother coming. In one universe the only difference she ever found was that pigeons didn’t appear to exist, which made it ever so slightly better than her home reality.

Eventually indifferent to the trivial differences between realites, she sought out spectacle. Events that were unique or of cosmic significance. From the birth of the universe to its quiet, unassuming, frankly slightly dull death, she had seen more than any being alive. 

Her name, now, was The Witness.

—–

“Oh right,” said the Doctor. “You came, you saw, you left, got it. So you’re here to watch the Afteos-Rumetric Event. Can’t blame you – spectacular stuff up there right now.” On cue, one star drew close to another and for a brief moment the two circled each other before colliding and exploding with what, at this distance, sounded a little like a pop.

“And why are you here?”

“I didn’t have anything better to do, I suppose,” the Doctor jammed her hands into her coat pockets. “Thought I might try to stop it.”

“You can’t,” the Witness sat forward. “It’s a fixed point in time!”

“Yeah. Well. I’ve dealt with a lot of them.”

The Witness and the Doctor exchanged a very long look, ended when the Doctor spotted an object by the camp chair.

“A Thermos! Brilliant!” she picked up the small tartan flask. “You don’t get enough Thermos flasks in space, you know. Which is a real shame, in my opinion, because they’re vacuum sealed and what’s better in a vacuum than another, smaller vacuum?”

She unscrewed the lid and poured a small quantity of the contents into the lid. “Look at that! Fresh coffee! It’s like magic, isn’t it?”

The Witness jumped up from her chair and snatched the flask back from the Doctor’s hands. “My fresh coffee, thank you.” In the sky, a flare brighter than most suns put the artificial planet into the sunniest of summer days before abruptly fading into darkness. The Doctor pulled down a pair of smoked goggles and stared upwards.

“Lots of people are dying right now,” said The Doctor, quietly. “Millions. Billions. A planet, a solar system at a time. And you’re just watching that?”

“I’ve seen a lot of death,” The Witness replied. “So much. First hand, up close. I’ve seen it remotely. I once saw Gallifrey, my own home – our own home – razed to the ground by Cybermen and every single person I knew and loved converted. A different Gallifrey,” she added, holding up a hand at the Doctor’s expression. “A different universe. But those faces were the same, I knew them all. Maybe I was out there, behind a metal face. Upgraded.”

They both stood in silence for a moment, deep in their own memories, staring upwards. Fire trailed from one edge of the sky to the other, something enormous but so distant it barely lit their upturned faces.

“Never used to take 67 months,” said the Doctor. “The collision, I mean. I have records of it taking well over a hundred years. Reliable records. I even saw it happen, once. Which leads me to wonder how you consider this a fixed point in time when it is quite obviously broken?”

The Witness shrugged, lightly, and sat back down.

“You know what I’m also wondering about? How come my sonic couldn’t locate your TARDIS at all. Even a good chameleon circuit should turn up a trace, and all I’m getting is a transmat signature,” she waved the odd sonic lump around again and looked at the readout. “Dalek tech, so I’m guessing you stole it, but I’m not here to judge. Let she who is without sin, etc etc.”

“I’ve abandoned my TARDIS,” The Witness didn’t meet the Doctor’s eye as she said it. “I’ve given up travelling.”

“Abandoned it?” The Doctor looked genuinely shocked. “It’s not… a junk automobile! A TARDIS isn’t a piece of equipment to drop on some planet, it’s a… wait, you’ve given up travelling to live here? On this? With a camp chair, a Thermos of coffee and a box of sandwiches? No. That’s not it, is it? You’re here-”

“-to die, yes.”

“Last regeneration?” The Witness nodded. “Sick?” She shook her head, no. “Just too old? Seen too much? Oh, tell me about it. I’ve been there. I got to the end, ran out of road and somehow I just kept going. More road appeared, don’t ask me how. The great benevolence of the Time Lord Council!”

“You’re trying to tell me you were gifted further regenerations?” The Doctor nodded, eyes bright. The Witness  thought about it, then turned away. “I don’t care. I’ve seen enough to last twelve more lives. I just want it over.”

“So here we are. I suppose you might want a bit of company?” Silence. “No, suppose not. Fair enough. And I did say I was going to stop the collision, didn’t I? Tell you what, it’d be really useful to have a second TARDIS, is there any chance I … could…”

The Doctor followed her gaze to the brightest star in the sky, right in the centre of the colliding galaxies. Finally, The Witness realised, The Doctor had figured it out. Horror and panic met on the other Time Lord’s face, crashing together in a mirror of the spectacle above them.

“You can’t be serious! You’re forcing it to tear itself apart to pull those two galaxies together!”

“We’re both going out together,” said The Witness with some satisfaction. “We agreed. Me, and my oldest, my only friend.”

“No, no, no,” the Doctor stammered. “You don’t understand. You don’t get it. No. This isn’t just a big explosion! Trust me, I know. A TARDIS being destroyed is too much for the fabric of the universe, you’re going to tear reality apart – you’re going to extinguish everything!”

The Witness smiled, and sipped some coffee. “I’ve seen so much.”

“Well. I can tell you one thing you haven’t seen before. In all these universes, in all this time. I can tell. In the way you’ve spoken, by the events you’ve stood by and watched happen. One thing you’ve never witnessed, Witness.”

“And what is that?”


“Me.”

—–

Back in her TARDIS, The Doctor ran in a loop around the console, flipping switched, pulling levers, winding gears. Her hands flat on the vibrating machinery, she stared at a screen. A crack was spreading across it – a strange new shape, but the way it spilled light was horribly familiar. Small now. Maybe she could stop it. How did it go last time?

“Oh yeah, I had to reboot the universe. Not really keen on doing that again. Who knows what happens if you keep doing it? Probably void the warranty.”

She spun on her heel and went to open the door. Beyond was a slow-motion explosion in space. A TARDIS dying. Well.

“Been there, done that. Now, if this were my TARDIS, I wouldn’t have let it happen in the first place,” she paused and listened to her own words. “Not helping.” She spun a dial. The great pulsing crystals in the centre of the console made a grinding noise, like two planes of existence rubbing together. Or, more prosaically, two giant balloons. “Right, can’t go back to before it started, didn’t think so, worth a try, eh?”

—–

The Witness settled down in her chair again. Poured out a cup of coffee. The Doctor was right, it was nothing short of miraculous, the way it retained its heat. It tasted sensational still, but then she’d used the very best beans, the ones from the high plains of Lemb, where the sun shines only for three months every three hundred years and creates the most perfect crop of coffee beans. Enough for one flask. This would be the last one anyone would taste.

“Why though?” said The Doctor from just behind her. The Witness was so startled she jumped slightly, spilling the coffee. “Why here, why now? Why choose this universe?”

“Does it matter?” she shrugged, dabbing at her jacket with a handkerchief. “ I was here. I don’t have a connection to this reality. I just let my TARDIS take me to the nearest one.” 

“You know, I’ve known evil people,” said the Doctor, walking beneath the flaming sky. “I’ve known real monsters. I’ve seen the Dalek civilisation, all of it, bread rolls to coffee. Watched mad dictators declare death to whole worlds, doomsday devices and everything. But here you are, with your neatly packed lunch and your hot coffee – which smells delicious by the way – and your folding chair and your sensible trousers and you’re the most evil of the lot. You’re condemning an entire universe to oblivion because you’re bored. Because you’re tired. Because you want to see what happens. Well, let me tell you about tired. I may only have one universe, but I’ve seen more than you’ll ever know. I’ve seen what’s really important, I’ve seen the best in this universe and the worst. The spectacular and the depraved, I’ve seen what you cannot from your viewpoint.”

“I’ve seen everything, Doctor,” The Witness sighed. “You can’t appeal to my sense of adventure here, it’s exhausted.”

“You’re wrong,” The Doctor started smiling, a wild look gaining her eyes. “You are so wrong – you’ve seen a grain of sand and thought it was the beach. You’ve looked all your life through the wrong end of the telescope.”

The Witness sat impassive. Pushed her sunglasses higher up her nose. Looked back to the sky.

“Right.” The Doctor walked away, back to her distant TARDIS.

“Are you sure I can’t show you something, while I’m here?” she said, lightness returning to her tone as she reappeared by the folding chair. The Witness sighed.

“Will you leave me alone if I say yes?” she asked. The Doctor nodded. “And you’ll bring me back here when you’ve shown me this… marvel?”

“Oh, the very spot, to the very second. Your coffee won’t even be cold. You know I can.”

“One last trip couldn’t hurt.”

“Exactly! Couldn’t hurt. Come on, then.”

Part two here

Christmas Adverts 2019

Ahh, the season of goodwill is upon us again, and that very specifically means CHRISTMAS ADVERTS are back. I used to enjoy writing about them over on MostlyFilm (god rest it) and, well. I guess I missed the gig.

Me, rolling into town

John Lewis

The big boys of the Christmas Ad game are back, every year trying to outdo themselves while keeping the basic formula present and correct (elaborately high production values, heartwarming twist involving the giving of a gift available at John Lewis, old song covered in a drippy way by contemporary artist). You already know that this year it’s about a dragon so let’s examine those elements.

Clearly it looks a treat. Like Game of Thrones rebooted by the production team behind Wooly and Tig rather than those two goofuses who did the actual show. It’s beautifully filmed, the performances are good-for-an-advert, the production design is top-notch (special mention to costumes, which I assume are only partially available in-store). Great, well played. But that’s everyone now. This looks as good as the Sainsbury’s advert, or the ASDA or the M&S one, you know? They’re all expensive looking now because Christmas adverts are a fucking huge deal.

Is there a heartwarming twist? YOU KNOW THERE IS, BABEY, though this would involve explaining the full plot of the advert which is basically – dragon just keeps burning shit cause it loves Christmas so much. Small child who is the dragon’s friend tries to help. Eventually, heartwarmingly, the dragon learns control and burns only… the brandy-soaked Christmas pudding he has brought for the feast! It’s like the Grinch carving the Roast Beast, if the Grinch had actually loved Christmas all along. It’s so prosaic it almost dares you to try doing A Bit about it. Lol, imagine if the dragon burned the city down. Yeah, I mean, that was built in. That’s literally the joke. Lol, the dragon has been created to sell toys. Yes. Again. It’s an advert.

I don’t know. It’s just not got the batshit energy of Sainsbury’s. It’s not even fun to poke holes in. The song is Bastille covering REO Speedwagon. Sorry, I’m out.

Aldi

I juuuuust still don’t give a fuck about Colin the Carrot or whatever. I double don’t care about whatever Peaky Blinders rubbish you’re trying with the concept this year. It was mildly amusing the first year, when it was a parody of John Lewis. Now you’re taking it seriously it’s just sad. I don’t tune in every year for the continuing adventures of your moderately well-animated root vegetable

Lidl

This is much more like it. I have to say, I’m somewhat of a sucker for Christmas adverts that look like Christmas really does. OK, this is even pointing that out “A Christmas you can believe in”, indeed, but that doesn’t matter. Much. It’s a little cynical I suppose. I just dig grey skies, and patches of slush. Cheap looking wrapping paper and tired decorations. It’s a sweet spot.

The “Real British Christmas” bit was, ehhh, off the mark. Maybe they put it together in anticipation of Brexit happening in October so we all might have needed a bit of solidarity in the cold and dark winter months. Or maybe they’re just emphasising that actually, despite being very clearly European they are part of the fabric of the nation now. Which, I guess, yeah?

Sainsbury’s

This is, oh boy, this is a lot. First of all, it answers the eternal question – how come Santa has such affinity with chimneys? Turns out he was a child labourer in… somewhere? This is a whole big question the advert doesn’t give a satisfactory answer to. In fact, it raises more questions during its running time.

So. It begins with a caption saying the year is 1869. And there’s Sainsbury’s, so you might reasonably think “Ah, I see, this is about the very first Sainsbury’s store, which opened in 1869 in Holborn. That, there, must be that exact shop.” Reasonable. Why give so specific a date if you don’t want to make that association? Along, then, comes a gang of child chimney sweeps, bustled along by a Fagin character who is most definitely not actually, you know, Jewish.

I had a quick look, did you know the use of children as chimney sweeps was actually outlawed as long ago as the late 1700s, and the Factory Act of 1833 prohibited the employment of children under nine, and limited the extent to which children under 13 could be put to work. So this fella is dodgy, never mind that he’s not running a gang of pickpockets like what you might have expected. And he steals… I can’t tell. They look like big tomatoes, but everyone’s munching them like apples. Persimmon, maybe? But oh no, our young protagonist is caught trying to put back one that fell! The kindly shopkeeper (not clear if she is owner or employee) is about to tell him it’s fine but oh no! Some weird steampunk cop then drags him through the street while comedy bystanders boo and yell. And then they banish him! Into the snowy mountains with him!

Now I know London now and London 1869 are very different places, but they share a few common factors. For a start, lack of mountains. Banishment a rarity. Both quite large places, lacking a door to the wilderness within dragging distance of Holborn. I mean, I’m starting to think this is NOT set in Victorian London, in which case why the 1869 caption? Just so we can say “Heh. Nice”?

Anyway. The kindly shopkeeper turns up with a persimmon for him to munch. Then he goes and gives his sweep pals ALL the persimmon, and the ABSOLUTELY 100% GENTILE gangleader gets a lump of coal and general public humiliation – it’s not clear how this ends his reign of terror, but it’s implied that it does – and there’s festive cheer all round. Then it gets super weird, because the kindly shopkeeper stands outside the town walls and… looks at contemporary London in the distance? How long did this advert take? 150 years?? WHY DID YOU PUT THAT CAPTION UP??? And then the small boy puts on a Santa hat and walks off to his reindeer. So… was he Father Christmas all along? Is this his origin story? If it is, where did the reindeer come from? If it isn’t, why did he have to go through all the business with being a sweep and then getting banished?

Honestly, what the fuck, Sainsbury’s?

Amazon

First time I ever wrote about Christmas adverts I started with an elegy to the Mars Celebrations advert. Maybe you know the one, it ran for about 60 years and was a bunch of people dancing about in an indefinably odd, definitely not British, city centre. People at the hairdressers, people mopping the floor, all very blue collar. The song they were dancing to was Everybody Needs Somebody To Love, you know, off of Blues Brothers. And look! Look what’s the soundtrack to this advert with everyone singing along, in an indefinably odd, definitely not British city. Following a blue collar worker. Ahhhh, some traditions never go away.

Find this quite unrelatable, mainly because Amazon delivery workers just turn up at your door dressed normally. They have a uniform in the States? Ok, well, that’s probably coming soon here. Can’t… quite shake the feeling that this delivery driver is working a hugely long day for below minimum wage, but hey that’s capitalism, folks! The very meaning of Christmas, indeed. But come on, Jeff. Let her get home to see her kid with the tiny Charlie Brown piano (I forget the name of the little boy who played the piano in Peanuts but you know what I mean). That’s a very American thing, too, isn’t it? We don’t have those tiny grand pianos for children. They get a shit Casio keyboard that plays public domain tunes that the child pretends to play along with. Forgotten by new year. Sad.

ASDA

Speaking of capitalism, it’s current hate-figures ASDA. Why do we hate ASDA right now? Because they forced their workers, on threat of losing their jobs, to sign new, shittier contracts. Just before Christmas!

So how dare they come out with an oddly moving advert that I still hate? Because wow, this is HORRIFYING. That magic aurora borealis jizz is power beyond imagining and it’s fucking evil. It turns humans into snowman-headed chimeras, or living gingerbread. What happens to those people? Do they live like that forever, or what? What if someone BITES A LEG OFF? When the magic wears off do they just have to live with the ragged stump?

And then at the end it turns on a sixpence and, for reasons I can’t understand, brings tears to my eyes. A moment of genuine sweetness right at the finish. Damn.

Argos

Oh no I like this one a lot. I don’t know about you, but I’ve only seen the very short version on telly so please take a couple of minutes to watch the whole thing.

Simple, focused, bursting with heart. The father and daughter chemistry is adorable, the use of a generational anthem is a smart move, the build is nicely sustained, it just makes me happy. It doesn’t have to construct an elaborate narrative, it doesn’t transport you to a fantasy world, it just leans heavily on joy, on loving relationships, on banging drum fills. I’ll regret writing this in a year’s time. I don’t right now.

Marks & Spencer

Two distinct campaigns here, the M&S Food is this year’s Celebrities Trapped In Winter Market staple (Emma Willis and Paddy McGuinness, who both feel a bit B-team, you know?) and a bizarre series of ads based around demonic sweaters forcing their wearers to dance to early-90s hip hop. They’re not quite brave enough to rip off the legendary “Jumper hound” tweet, but it’s clear that they’re intending to, and the final shot of a dog in a jumper is an obvious allusion [edit: They actually have ripped it off on Twitter, but not in the TV advert]. The choreography is quite clever, I grudgingly allow, moving as it does from the arms and giving the dancers an unwilling, dragged-along jerky motion. But that’s also kind of sinister?

 

It’s very one-note, and I’m hard pressed to say much about it. I just wanted it to stop after about twenty seconds, but it didn’t.

Well. There we are. There are others – many others – that I simply don’t have the energy to cover, especially after Marks went ahead with two. Turns out this is a huge industry! There’s just too many of them now! McDonald’s are trailing their Christmas advert, as if we care! And we probably do! After all, as we see year after year, usually someone gets it right. Some corporation hires the right agency, spends HBO levels of money, and it hits home. I don’t mind. It’s Christmas. 

Time Alone

Imitation snow on the window, light blazed, bath filled with thick bubbled. Almost time. Later, water clouded and slick with scented oils, the cold invades once more. Time passed, the time is past. The steam misting the cold window now water again, soaking into the snow-foam.

Cold tiles. Feet bare, tread high and find the bath cold, water stale and still. She steps in, lies back. The water moves slows, closes clammily over her skin. Imitation snow on the window spreads milky patches across the sill. The lights are dim, the blue night grey in the white bathroom.

It is a ritual, performed for no one and no purpose. The oil on the surface is flammable and its blue flame dances will o’the wisp in the room. Corpse-lights. Here, Dracula’s coachman sets a rock to dig in the morning. She extends a leg, and allows all to slip greasily back into the water. She speaks, addressing the room. She incants.

The light will soon be on the other side of the window. True snow is promised in the mellow bulge of the clouds, banking over the distant hills. She takes the water in a small bottle, caps it. Curses, blessings, simple comforts for superstitious minds. She trusts its power. Walks, feet flat to the frigid floor, back out the way she came. Time over.

May Queen in July

This hole is in your head. You have not imagined it, it is in your head. The line of gold bleeds light into your clear, clouded, pearlescent, missing, hidden, shaded, augmented eyes. Your head is the path. This is not in your mind, it is in your head. Look behind you and see how you ripple through our spaces.

Every time you breathe, you choose also not to and the ripples swim and darken, become deeper and more profound. More of you is gone, till the last of you winks out behind a broken wave. The golden thread dims. Please breathe. Your hesitation causes uncertainty. The wrong choice. You are not prepared for this, even as you have been shaped by the walk to reach this point.

The path you walk to each lighted spot is garlanded; honeysuckle and elderflower, juniper and pine, scents the you of now can follow to the next you. May Queen in July, Spring in November. Your path is scented with change and opportunity, follow to the previous you, along the golden line, through the darkening ripples, through the hole in your head.

Sweetness Follows

The end is always the same. Inevitable. Everything broken. How do we begin to explain how it happens, every time? Sweetness cracked like eggshells, hope dimming on her face. Light palled by drawn curtains, summer alive and prowling at the edges of our experience. Birdsong filters through an open window and the realisation that it is late afternoon comes with it.

Continue reading Sweetness Follows

Places of Silence

05.07.2019-promptHard, sometimes, to untangle experience from memory. She raised the phone, tapping the screen to bring the unruly focus under control. The screen presented a world much smaller than her sightline, a compacted miniature of reality in a vivid block of light. Colours burst from every passing pedestrian; yellows and reds the summer side of a bloom of flowers, deep rich purples, slow baby blues the colour of a thought as it escaped knowledge.

There. Good. She tapped again and the image froze, briefly, shearing the moment off from the onward march of reality and into a pocket world of memory – the phone’s memory, the memory of the cloud, incorporeal and endless. Her own memory, whenever she needed it.

This fragment was hers, an image of a crowd breaking around her like the sea. No matter how far she came from this world of damp heat and the close tumult of human contact, she could pick this photograph from a digital file and see. How it was. Who she was when she was here, that was contained behind the image but memory is a two-way process. The memory remembers you also.

She lowered the phone, slipped it like a sea-smoothed pebble into her pocket, moved as if she had never been still into the crowd. Off, now, to places of silence.

 

Headcanon

21.06.2019-promptLight pressed in; the absence of darkness. Heat. A swollen menagerie of floating grotesques bloomed in his eyes as each arc and flare traced its lines on his retina.

He watched through the barrier. It would hold, it would do its job as he did his. He felt at that moment as if he was out there in person, defending the outpost like a knight. His shield held aloft, the bursts of arcing phosphor spears and arrows of a brutish army. He could smell the farmyard rank of the cavalry horses, the sharp fear-stink of the infantry trapped in their metal suits as surely as he was. At the end of the battle they would be prised out as heroes or as meat.

He was in an air-conditioned bunker, far below the surface. The monitors ahead of him blazed with the light of the attack but he felt nothing. No heat. Not even his heart beating faster. A trackball moved under his cool palm, recalibrating the aerial defence system. Eventually even this would be unnecessary. He was Atlas, supporting the sky, becoming stone. Raindrops could, given time, reduce him to dust. He just had to wait.

The lights pressed in. He dimmed the screens.

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