Saturday, 29 June 2013

I'm so old ... I remember Bleep and Booster

I was sorting through my bookcase yesterday and came across this:

It's a Bleep and Booster annual from Christmas 1967. I can identify the year precisely, as this was a prize I won in Sunday School that year (the plate attesting to this fact is still there, along with the curious and very Cornish message 'Roland Woods is a tuss').

Yes, my real name is Stephen - Stevyn is a writerly affectation that helps me to maintain a pretty unique internet identity. And Stevyn is the Cornish spelling of Stephen. As for 'tuss' ... let me explain:

Now, let's get back to Bleep and Booster.

Are you old enough to remember it? Bleep and Booster was once a regular segment on the long-running BBC children's magazine programme Blue Peter. Created by writer Dorothy Smith and cartoonist William Timym (known as 'Tim') these gentle tales followed the fortunes of the eponymous alien and his human chum. Together they zipped around the galaxy in Space Freighter 9, enjoying a range of five minute long episodic adventures. These were animated for television by liberal used of pans and zooms over static images. Peter Hawkins, then best known as the voice of Captain Pugwash, narrated the stories with enthusiasm. He would later gain greater science fiction immortality as one of the voices of the Daleks throughout the 1960s.

Aside from its TV incarnation, Bleep and Booster also became a regular feature of the yearly Blue Peter Books and had several annuals of their own. Bleep and Booster was discontinued in 1977, I suspect because of Star Wars. Now we had Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, who needed the adventures of a rather twee Harry Potter lookalike and his three-eyed alien chum?

William Timyn, who died in 1990 aged 87, was a fine artist by trade; his wildlife drawings are beautiful and he also sculpted. He created the bronze bust of the first Blue Peter dog - Petra - for the Blue Peter garden and sculpted the statue of Guy the Gorilla for London Zoo.

Although almost forgotten now, Bleep and Booster did generate some early merchandise; apart from the annuals and books, there were jigsaws (see above) and Pelham Puppets made a range of marionettes including the spherical Rotundans and the mischievous Trugs who only behaved if they wore their hats.

I loved Bleep and Booster as a child. Curiously, in my head, I remember it being in shown in vivid colour on TV ... but that's my faulty memory at work, influenced by the annuals. When I was watching the show, it was definitely broadcast in black and white (we didn't get out first colour TV until 1974). I'm delighted to find that some fan has posted part of an episode on Youtube:

The show had a big impact on me (and on comedian Richard Herring if this story is anything to go by) and also inspired a band to adopt the name as theirs - one member of Bleep and Booster used to be in ABC.

It was science fiction from a more innocent age and, for British kids in the 1960s and 70s, essential TV viewing.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Read Herring

Lovely words from Richard Herring on his blog today about yesterday's Museum of Curiosity recording:

Photo: Stevyn Colgan

'Tonight I recorded an episode of John Lloyd's Museum of Curiosity. What a delightful and fascinating programme this is (and one that I think might benefit from an extended podcast release - two hours of material is recorded for the 27 minute show and it's pretty much all gold!). At times I was so enjoying listening to the others talking that I almost forgot that I was meant to be taking part. It was a wide-ranging discussion taking in ants on stilts, pianists with crippling, mechanical little fingers, the changing meridian and okapi sex (can you guess what I contributed?). The show has a dedicated team of nerds behind it who have dug out amazing facts and I love the way it has a panel comprising of comedians, scientists and experts and attempts to link each contribution to similar areas of the different disciplines. While most TV panel shows (including to some extent even QI) gravitate to putting in the same well-known comedy faces, you get a lot more interesting stuff by mixing it up a bit. The zoologist, Dr Christofer Clemente, came up with the funniest lines of the show. But would they book him on Mock The Week?

It's intelligent and stimulating programming that is increasingly being edged out of TV and even radio, leaving a gaping open goal for independent internet productions to score in. I discussed this with one of the razor-minded team after the show. The TV companies insist on getting big names into all shows, which takes up all the budget and seems to ignore the fact that the pool of possible contributors gets smaller and more boring. But glad that a few shows designed to expand the mind rather than crush the spirit still exist.'

Richard appeared on the show last night with reptiles and animal locomotion expert Dr Christofer Clemente and art historian and ex-director of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, Dr Kristen Lippincott.

The show will be broadcast sometime in October on BBC Radio 4.

And while we're on the subject of TV companies, my boss (and host of The Museum of Curiosity, the splendid Mr John Lloyd had this to say in a recent article for Chortle:

'I despair for TV comedy' says QI's John Lloyd on the state of the industry.

Comedy guru John Lloyd has launched a broadside against timid, interfering and indecisive TV executives – and hinted that QI could become an online incubator for new ideas. The creator of the Stephen Fry-fronted panel show has also produced Blackadder, Not The Nine O’Clock News and Have I Got News For You over an illustrious 40-year-career. But he said he despaired about the current state of commissioning, which was top-heavy with office-bound administrators too scared to put their faith in creative talent.

‘I'm very cross about the current system,’ he told Chortle’s Comedy Conference on Friday. ‘I'm bleak about it. I despair about it actually and it's a crying shame for our culture that television's not what it was. ‘I don't want to boast, but I've been doing this for 40 years and I've been involved in some pretty good things across a huge variety of genres, but I've still got to sit and listen to someone who’s have never done five minutes of stand-up, who’s never written a funny line who's never produced a sitcom. You've got to listen to their opinions...

‘It's not about me, it's about finding people to know how to do it, and let it go. There is no point, or need, for half a dozen people or hierarchies or committees of people to sit around bothering the producer or the director or the stand-up comedian – they know best; it’s their necks on the line. ‘I actively do get very cross about it, and I know from talking to comedy writers, actors, performers that everyone feels the same way. I don’t know what people are doing in those offices or those development departments...

‘There were no development departments in television companies in the Eighties. A producer had an office and a PA and you sat in your office and every so often you had an idea – about twice a year, usually – and you'd rush into your head of department and say: “I've had this brilliant idea, or I've got this script.”’ He then described how the TV version of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was commissioned on the strength of one script from Douglas Adams, explaining that there was no pitching, nor trying to find shows that fitted into pre-defined slots in those days. ‘But the way commissioning works now is they ask, “We're looking for two pink ones and a green one, have you got any of those?”’

‘It used to be the creative people driving the bus and the administrative people enabling them, not the other way around. It's the only thing I get cross about. It's such a waste because the talent out there is fabulous.’

'I despair for TV comedy'

However he did say he was encouraged by how Netflix is commissioning shows – ‘getting good people and saying “you do it”’ with little interference – and said the first British broadcaster who finds a hit that way will have struck a winning formula. Lloyd also said that broadcasters should have more confidence in comedians and producers to get their shows right – if they are given a chance to fix any problems without meddling.

‘All the things I've done were quite honestly ragged, if not flops, in the first series,’ Lloyd confessed. ‘The pilot of Not The Nine O’Clock News was described by Mel Smith as “the single worst half-hour of television I've ever watched”. ‘But that's creativity, you get it wrong because it's ambitious and strange, but you move it about a bit and eventually you get it right. But it's not helped by people going: “Oooh dear it's not working, we should cancel it. We should move it late night! Oh no, it's not working there! Oh no, it's dead! That's the end of it!” There used to be this confidence [within broadcasters] but that’s lacking now. Everyone thinks a show is going to work and when it doesn't they panic.’

He said comedy is ‘more lively and more exciting’ than ever, but this is not always reflected in what makes it to the screen. However, he advised the aspiring comedians at the conference to take a leaf out of Mrs Brown’s Boys, and work hard to make something that becomes ‘so huge that people are begging you to do it... that's the only way to get past the commissioning system relatively unscathed’. However, Lloyd said that the internet hadn’t democratised the process and created as many comedy stars as some people would have hoped, because making the best comedy takes work, ‘and the only way to get that is for these publicly funded corporations [the BBC and Channel 4] to support those people.’ ‘The internet isn’t producing a gigantic flood of brilliant new stuff. What we all do is get pissed and noodle around on YouTube all night trying to find something that's entertaining – and you end up watching old Two Ronnies sketches.’

Lloyd, who his making his Edinburgh Fringe debut this August, was once part of an online comedy venture called Comedy Box, which he said ‘failed from lack of money’ – but added that he hadn’t ruled out returning to the idea. ‘It was set up to encourage young stand-ups to come and make stuff online,’ he said, ‘and I still think that will happen. I think that's probably what QI is going to do next, we're going to mutate online and start doing stuff where we can develop at our own speed.’

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Another Great Week

Another busy week and another seven days of meeting splendid human beings. Work continues apace on finalising the scripts for the new series of The Museum of Curiosity, which starts recording this evening, Sunday 23rd June. This year we have the rather splendid Humphrey Ker on board as our curator; he joins the stellar cast of previous curators we've enjoyed during the last five series, namely Bill Bailey, Sean Lock, John Richardson, Dave Gorman and Jimmy Carr. If you don't know who Humphrey is ... trust us, you will soon.

He's absolutely brilliant and he's going to be HUGE. Mind you, at 6'7" tall, he's already most of the way there. Click here to see a great little sketch for Funny or Die.

In other news, Tuesday saw the release of my book Constable Colgan's Connectoscope in e-book format. So, if you pledged on the book, you can now download it in pdf, e-pub or mobi formats at the Unbound site here.

On Thursday I ran a charity quiz night at the Frontline Club in London. It's the members club for journalists and foreign correspondents and all the money raised goes to the families of the brave souls who risked their lives - and lost - to expose injustice and report on war crimes and other atrocities in the most dangerous parts of the world.

Friday was a busy day with two events to attend. First up was Creat-ED, an 'un-conference' for educators and learning technologists, held at the Barbican Arts Centre in the City of London. The Barbican is quite a place, if you've not seen it. While it's a classic example of 1970's Brutalist concrete architecture, it sports fountains, ponds and waterfalls and an enclosed conservatory full of jungle greenery and tropical birds.

It's a great place to stage an event in although it is very large and takes a bit of time to navigate around. The event itself was all about getting creativity into education; moving from thought to deed. I was one of the guest speakers along with former Cocteau Twins musician Simon Raymonde, who now runs the excellent new music label Bella Union (which gave the world Fleet Foxes, Flaming Lips and others), and smart product designer Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino of Design Swarm; creator of the ingenious internet-based Good Night Lamp. An amazing day spent with the sorts of people I wish my kids had had as teachers at their schools; committed, clever, joyous, innovative.

I then went on to The Nave in Islington, a deconsecrated church, to speak at an event to mark World Humanist Day. Organised by the British Humanist Association, the One Life event featured performances from me, Andrew Copson, Professor Chris French, Iszi Lawrence and Alom Shaha and wonderful music by the BHA choir; an eclectic mix of secular songs including Lou Reed's Perfect Day, Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Elbow's One Day Like This and Monty Python's Universe Song and Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

Wonderfully optimistic and uplifting without the hint of a need for God. A great end to a great week.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

That Was The Week, That Was

Another busy week that started with the very sad news of Iain Banks' death, a lovely and talented man. I first read The Wasp Factory shortly after it came out and was so blown away by it that I travelled 50 miles from where I lived at the time just so that I could get him to sign my copy. He was doing a book signing and short talk in Cambridge. I treasured that book then and even more so now. Another fantastic writer taken from us far too soon.

Most of the rest of the week was spent in a studio recording the audiobook of Constable Colgan's Connectoscope.


I was at the House Of Strange studios in the shadow of Canary Wharf in London's docklands. It's a very cool place, owned and run by my good mate Ash Gardner, producer of such bands as Three Trapped Tigers and Emperor Yes.

After three days and 12 hours of reading out loud, I've developed a whole new respect for people like Stephen Fry and Martin Jarvis who make a great many audiobooks. It's surprisingly tiring work. Yes, all right, it's not digging roads or nursing but it is quite wearing, especially as you have to keep up an enthusiastic, evenly-modulated tone throughout.

I've also discovered that the written word and the spoken word are quite different things. When you read out loud, you suddenly have to know how to pronounce people's names correctly and, even more challengingly, foreign names and words. This issue became particularly acute when I got to chapter 11 and suddenly found myself facing words like sippuakivikauppias and kuulilennuteetunneliluuk - two of the world's longest palindromes; one Finnish, one Estonian. Eek.

How did I fare? You'll soon be able to hear.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Sharpe to the end

This week we say goodbye to Tom Sharpe, one of my heroes.

When I was just starting out as a writer, three authors dominated my bookcase: Douglas Adams, P G Wodehouse and Tom Sharpe. Douglas was the man with the glorious leftfield ideas. 'Plum' was the chap with the brilliantly imagined characters and delicious similes. And Tom provided the biting satire and the explosive slapstick. But what they all had in common was the language; the brilliant metaphors, the incisive wit, the staggering put-downs. It's probably why none of them have ever really seen a properly good TV or film adaptation; you lose so much by no longer hearing the author's voice. How do you translate Wodehouse gems like 'The puzzled frown that had begun to gather on Lord Emsworth’s forehead vanished like breath off a razor blade' to a TV screen? You can't. How do turn an Adams line like 'He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it' into scripted dialogue? Well, you can but it loses some of its impact by being vocalised. And it's the same with Tom Sharpe. His characters have such perfect inner monologues; they capture the essence of the character and tell us so much more about them than we could glean from their physical appearance and what they do and say (there's a great little Telegraph feature here with 10 great Sharpe quotes). His greatest creation, hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is a case in point. So much of the humour comes from hearing Wilt's thoughts. You can't easily do that on film (watch David Lynch's Dune as a case in point). Which is why you end up with a film like Wilt (1989) that, frankly, time has forgotten and probably for the best. The BBC did a better job by bringing Blott on the Landscape to life in 1985. But best of the bunch was Channel 4's 1987 adaptation of Porterhouse Blue. Both it and Blott enjoyed excellent screenplays by Malcolm Bradbury but they still couldn't match the original prose. Some things simply don't translate between media.

Tom Sharpe lifted my spirits when I was a young police officer. Between outbreaks of violence, I read his books as I sat on a 'Green Goddess' riot coach waiting for the call to grab a shield and deploy. My first introduction was his South African books Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure. But it was The Throwback that really hooked me and reeled me in. The book tells the tale of Lockhart Flawse; raised by his grandfather in a crumbling, remote, Northumberland manor house, and unleashed on a world he doesn't understand on a quest to find his father and 'whip him to within an inch of his life' for abandoning his mother. It's a search that involves, among other things, faking an IRA bombing, a bull terrier going mad after a dose of LSD, and a man being stuffed by a taxidermist. It's hilarious and brilliantly written.

I never got to meet him but I did have the same agent and, as the result, I'm privileged to own a couple of signed first editions. I've read and re-read and re-re-read everything Tom Sharpe every wrote and I'm sad to think that there will be no more.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

O Noble Opera

I spent some time in Royal Tunbridge Wells today. I was speaking at the TW Skeptics in the Pub meeting in the evening but I got there a few hours early to scope the place out. Which usually means finding beer. And what a find I made!

The Opera House is a Wetherspoon's pub ... and an opera house. Or it was. It's quite the most extraordinary pub interior I've seen in some time.

Extraordinary isn't it? Apparently, all of the backstage machinery is still in lace, as are the lights, and it still stages operas from time to time.

Anyway, they also had Sharp's Doom Bar on tap (and kept well) and did a very nice line in brioche French toast topped with bacon and a maple syrup flavoured drizzling sauce. Yum. And it was while I was enjoying these treats that I saw on Twitter that Ross Noble was just around the corner recording a segment for his new TV show. So I tweeted him and popped around to see him. He was making custard with Bob Mortimer and then the two of them were seeking volunteers to be shot at with super soakers. Don't ask. Suffice to say, I didn't volunteer. After all, I had a gig to do.

To round off my day, the skeptics were a lovely audience and fun appeared to be had by all. So, all in all, a grand day out.

Now We Are Two

Here's a nice article, reproduced word-for-word from Book Brunch about my publishers, Unbound, on the occasion of their second birthday.

Unbound: now we are two

John Mitchinson reflects on how an idea dreamed up over a few pints in a pub is starting - after two years, 30,000 registered users, 70 projects launched, and 20 books published - to look and feel like a business.

Looking backwards is always dangerous. As Thoreau said, don't do it unless you're planning to go that way. But it's impossible, sitting here in the cold, driving rain of Hay-on-Wye in May, not to do some reminiscing. It was here two years ago, in a rather fancy purpose-built shed, that we launched Unbound, then (as now) the only crowd-funding site purely for books. The weather was variable, but the excitement of finally turning an idea born around a pub table into three-dimensional reality, burned with a steady flame that kept up us warm, when the sun gave way to rain. Which it did roughly every 10 minutes.

They say the first two years are the hardest for a start-up. A third of new businesses don't even last that long. And although I would be lying if I said the past two years had been entirely lacking in stress, it's also true that they have been the most exciting of my whole career. I was fortunate in my choice of partners. Dan Kieran and Justin Pollard, my co-founders, are both damn fine writers, but they have demonstrated an amazing ability to turn themselves into entrepreneurs when the conditions demanded it (which they have, pretty much every day). We have managed to run a business together and to remain friends, which may be our most important achievement. Of course, business plans and P&Ls and investor presentations and tax returns are all essential, but the core of a business is its culture. And Unbound culture is based on two simple principles: that stories and ideas have value, and that putting writers and readers in direct touch is the best way of realising that value.

So has the experiment worked? Well, we've raised almost a million pounds in pledges, built a list of 30,000 registered users (two-thirds of whom spend money regularly); we've funded 33 books, published 20, and have another 28 on the site. Only eight projects have failed out of 70 launched. The rate of launches is now running at five a month; by the end of next year we should have a backlist of 75 titles. The average pledge, amazingly, has remained steady at £32. We've had an incredibly lively programme of launch parties, meet-the-author lunches, Unbound Lives, day trips, pub crawls, quiz nights, even a séance, all of them funded directly by readers. And where there was once only three, now there are 10. We, finally, have an office in Soho. Yes, it's beginning to look and feel suspiciously like a business. That's the only explanation I can find for our unprecedented shortlisting as Independent Publisher of the Year at the recent Bookseller Awards. And though we didn't win, we celebrated as though we had.

The downsides? The same as any start-up. There isn't ever enough time. There isn't ever enough money. You have to inure yourself to crises, to keep calm and cheerful and to trust in the clarity and simplicity of the vision. The upsides? Making books still gets me out of bed (and keeps me out). This week I've written the pitch for the launch of a brilliantly ambitious one-volume history of the music industry by the legendary Simon Napier-Bell, manager of the Yardbirds, T Rex and Wham; I've watched our newest novelist, Hugh Cornwell, play a mighty acoustic gig at the Hay Festival; I've pored over the proofs of our big autumn title, Letters of Note, and helped Jonathan Meades select his extraordinary photographs for his forthcoming postcard box, Pidgin Snaps.

If this sounds rather like a "traditional" publisher at work, that's because it is. Making books is still about finding great ideas and working with authors to realise them, to sharpen and focus their trajectory into the world. But what makes working at Unbound very different is that we have contact with the other side of that equation. The constant stream of tweets and messages from readers, enthusing about books, sharing their recommendations, offering us advice, submitting ideas and - crucially - sending us money. We all feel plugged into the tastes and passions of readers, and that is both motivating and commercially invaluable. Not everything we do works, but we are able to change and adapt rapidly. It reminds me of working in a bookshop - anyone who spends a day interacting with readers soon loses their cultural pessimism.

And on that optimistic note, I'll leave it. We've had a blast. Thank you for your support. Try it yourselves: Lord knows, there's plenty of room for innovation. And as for advice, how about this: "There are two rules for success: 1) Never tell everything you know."

John Mitchinson is Publisher and Co-founder of Unbound

Photo: Making Hay - John Mitchinson (fourth from left) with (from left) authors Stevyn Colgan, Adrian Teal, Justin Pollard (co-founder), David Bramwell and Katy Brand                

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Lion Smiles Tonight

The World's Most Awkward Taxidermy
Okay ... the story goes that, in 1731, the King Frederick I of Sweden received a lion as a gift from the Bey of Algiers. Unfortunately, when the animal died, he gave the pelt and the bones to a taxidermist who had never seen a living lion. And this was the result, still on display today at Gripsholm Castle, Mariefred, Södermanland, Sweden.
The World's Most Awkward Taxidermy
It's a lovely story. However, like most stories that seem too brilliantly funny to be true, it isn't exactly pukka. Research by Darek Wędrychowski at History Stack Exchange reveals that (a) there's no valuable source for the story - even the website for Gripsholm Castle doesn't mention it - and (b) there were several Beys of Algiers. In 1731, Algeria was known as the Regency of Algiers, a territory of the Ottoman Empire, and the official title of its ruler was Dey. So 'Bey' may be a spelling mistake. However, there were also three Beys - governors of provinces (Beyliks) - nominated by the Dey. So it could have been any of them.
Then there's the fact that the lion was alive when it first arrived in Sweden. So who reduced the dead animal to pelt and bones if not a taxidermist? If so they'd have seen the full animal - so why didn't they do the taxidermy work? Why give it to a different stuffer who'd never seen one? And what happened to the skull? It's been suggested that he worked from heraldic images of lions - hence the projecting tongue. Certainly, it looks like a heraldic pose from the side:
Nothing explains those teeth though - had they never even seen a cat??
Fascinating and hilarious. I'd love to know more.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Mrs Who?

And so, Matt Smith has announced that he's leaving the role of The Doctor at Christmas and the usual barrage of speculation has begun. Who will be the new Doctor? Will it be someone established? Will it be someone we've never heard of? Will he be black? Will he/she be female?

That last option is what I want to talk about here. Should the Doctor regenerate into a woman?

I can see why people ask for a female Doctor, or a Doctor with an obviously non-Western ethnic background. It would show that the BBC is committed to fairness and equality. Casting a woman or a person from a visible minority in such a major, iconic role would definitely send out a strong message; just as the inclusion of openly gay and 'omnisexual' characters has. However, much as I heartily support positive moves like that, I can't help feel that there are better ways to do it. My issue is not with the sexual politics of such a change. It's with the logic of doing it (and, by logic, I mean the show's internal logic).

I've been a fan of Doctor Who from the outset and I'm old enough to have seen all 10 regenerations to date. My family rented its first colour TV (everyone rented back then) because I went on and on and on about new Doctor Jon Pertwee being in colour. In the mid-1980s, I actually had a script I'd written selected by then-producer John Nathan-Turner and went to a number of production meetings at the BBC before, sadly, my script was bumped in favour of Frontios. Dagnabbit. I am pretty much everything you'd expect from a life-time long fan. But I'm also someone who worked tirelessly for fairness when I was a police officer. When I was a trainer at Hendon Police College, it was me who forced the decision that women could wear track suits or shorts instead of gym skirts during physical training. After the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, I was one of the team selected to totally overhaul the Met Police's diversity training programme. I now work as a writer for TV and radio shows like QI and The Museum of Curiosity and no one shouts louder than me for more women to appear on the shows (although, to be fair, everyone on those shows shouts equally loudly). I'm not some sexist, misogynist nob who spends his days fuming over the number of female news anchors or the loss of the word 'gay' even though I never once used it to mean 'happy and abandoned'. But I still think that it makes no sense to have a female Doctor. Here's why.

Firstly, there's no real precedence for it. Time Lords can have 12 regenerations - 13 bodies - and the Doctor is on body 11. He's never changed sex before, so why would he now? His arch-enemy, the Master, has also had a number of bodies and they've all been male (although I'll concede that we haven't seen most of his regenerations). Time Lord President Borusa has appeared in several incarnations, all male. And when the Doctor and Morbius had their mind fight in The Brain of Morbius, we saw all of their previous incarnations on a screen. All male. Meanwhile, we have met a number of female Time Lords (Time Ladies?) over the years, such as the Rani, the Inquisitor, and Chancellors Thalia and Flavia, but we've only seen one regeneration - Romana, who changed from a woman into a woman. In 50 years there has never been a mention of Time Lords changing sex ... except just once, where Neil Gaiman muddied the waters in his 2012 script, The Doctor's Wife, in which he mentions a Time Lord called the Corsair who's been male and female (though the name suggests a somewhat campier Time Lord than we're used to - I imagine him/her cross-dressing or using technology to change sex on a whim). The only time a Time LOrd gender swap has ever been seen was in the 1999 Red Nose Day spoof Curse of Fatal Death where the Doctor morphs from Rowan Atkinson to Richard E 'lick the mirror handsome' Grant to Jim Broadbent to Hugh Grant to Joanna Lumley (incidentally, Jonathan Pryce would make a great Doctor and was, in this, a great Master).

Secondly, how would family relationships work if the parents kept shifting genders? And how would that affect reproduction? We know that Time Lords have kids - the Doctor certainly had children and at least one grandchild - Susan. I'm afraid that I don't buy into the whole 'but Time Lords are aliens and don't have to follow the same rules as humans'. From what I've seen, they're not that alien. They have all of the same emotional responses as us; love, grief, anger, surprise, fear, longing, anguish. They are upright, bipedal warm-blooded mammals (we've seen the Doctor's nipples many times and female Time Lords definitely have breasts). Yes, they have two hearts. Yes, they have some organs we don't. But, otherwise, they're still more like us than koalas, blue whales or fruit bats are, and they share our DNA. And how would long-term relationships work if your partner kept changing sex? Or are all Time Lords 'omnisexual' like Captain Jack? I've never seen the Doctor come on to a male companion, have you? But I have seen him fall in love with Rose Tyler (a woman) and marry River Song (a woman) though. Then there's the Doctor's relationship with the TARDIS itself. Or herself. How would that be affected?

I'm not suggesting for a moment that the show would be harmed by having a female Doctor. I think it's popular enough to survive (Mind you, I said that back in the classic era). And I'd carry on watching and enjoying. But unless it's done for a good, logical reason, it'll just come across as box-ticking tokenism by the BBC and that does the equality cause no good whatsoever. What I'd much rather see is the introduction of a strong female Time Lord character. Or, even better, why not a spin-off series starring her? We've seen just how popular a show The Sarah Jane Adventures was with barely an appearance from the Doctor. So why not create a whole new character and give her equal billing? There is quite definitely a Time Lady-shaped hole in the schedules and it could be a wonderful counterpart to Doctor Who. And how about more female writers on the show, eh?

The Doctor has such a weight of history and character development behind him that it seems highly unlikely that he would not have become female before if it were possible. Or at least mentioned the fact that he can. We know that gender roles can be successfully swapped out - just look at Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica, or Watson in Elementary. But they immediately become wholly new characters by doing so. A female Sherlock Holmes would not be Sherlock Holmes; she would be something equally interesting but she wouldn't be Holmes. It's very hard to imagine what a female James Bond or Bertie Wooster or Darth Vader would be like. The fact that Doctor Who is science fiction and has a lead character that can change bodies and personalities doesn't alter the fact that the character would be completely different if they were female. Gender is an enormous part of a person's identity and affects all of their actions and decisions. All 11 actors who have played the Doctor have had their own personal quirks and eccentricities but beneath the scarves and the cricket whites and the leather jackets, the same Doctor has always been there. James Bond is a good analogy; the actors may change and they bring their individual flavour to the role but he's still undeniably Bond. I'm not sure he would be the same character if he were a woman.

So, there you go. Only my opinion of course and it carries no more weight than yours or anyone else's. I just feel that it would change the essential character of the show to make such a major change. To be honest, I think it's all academic anyway as it's way too big a change for the risk-averse BBC to take. And, even if they did, I reckon they'd cast someone based on gorgeousness rather than acting brilliance to keep the fan boys happy and the ratings high. Not to say you can't be both (Helen Mirren et al) but it does rather defeat the point of such a change in the first place.

But what do you think?

P.S. Michael Legge has done a great blog on the same subject here.

P.P.S. Oh and my theory for the 50th anniversary goes like this ... McGann regenerated into John Hurt who, because the Time War was raging, became the Valeyard, rather than the Doctor. We've met the Valeyard before - he's the Time Lords' equivalent of a war lord and chief of police. As Time Lords choose the name they believe defines them, Hurt might choose the Valeyard. I reckon we'll see what happened to the Doctor's family - particularly Susan (interesting that Matt Smith mentioned her 'I used to come shopping here with my granddaughter' - in the recent Rings of Akhaten). And, when the war is over, the Valeyard will regenerate into Ecclestone, maybe with some kind of memory suppression of what has happened - maybe to ease the pain of loss. There is some evidence for this.

Unless it's a very clever decoy by Moffat, this paparazzi photo (below) seems to show Hurt wearing parts of McGann's outfit under Ecclestone's coat.

Of course, that would mean that Matt Smith is actually Doctor 12 ... which means that whoever replaces him could be the last. Unless, of course, he/she finds a way to extend their lives, like the Master did.
Can't wait!