Friday, 24 December 2010

Jack's Alternative Xmas Playlist (and other stuff)

Hate Christmas movies? Unable to stomach their revolting mixture of exhausted iconography and sentimental platitudes? Tempted to suspect that most Christmas movies and/or TV specials are so staggeringly bad that they must be fiendishly disguised satires, made by people who secretly consider their viewers to be dribbling simpletons? Unable to get excited about the prospect of watching yet another adaptation of Charles Dickens’ second worst novel? Wondering if this year the makers of EastEnders will achieve what is clearly their dearest desire and start a wave of Christmas Day suicides across the nation? Dreading the prospect of all the ordure adumbrated above yet simultaneously unable to contemplate surviving the “festive” season without the merciful presence of the gogglebox? Tired of rhetorical questions?

Okay then, here’s Jack’s Alternative Christmas Playlist....

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Christmas is a time for family arguments. You know how it is, everybody stuck together, desperately trying to get on and have fun… it’s a recipe for disaster. But nobody had a Christmas quite like the Plantagenets’ in this film.

Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole are the warring married couple, King Henry II and his older Queen Eleanor, who spend Christmas 1183 tearing great lumps out of each other with a non-stop mutual barrage of staggeringly vicious barbs, taunts, insults, paradoxes and lies. Add their three ruthlessly ambitious sons to the mix – the brutal Richard (Tony Hopkins), the cold-blooded Geoffrey (John Castle) and the cretinous John (Nigel Terry) – and Christmas (which comes complete with hilariously anachronistic trees and wrapped presents) becomes an excruciating familial apocalypse of plots, schemes, murder attempts, humiliating revelations and heart-shredding passions.

Ultimately, this film is only superficially about a struggle for the crown. The crown, the lands, the money, the power… these are the playing pieces in a game that is really about a family eating itself alive over lost love, sour love, delusional love, destructive love and the lack of love. When Kate Hepburn’s Eleanor says that “we” are the cause of history, she doesn’t mean royalty, she means we humans. At the season of love, as she watches her family attack itself, and watches herself join in, she wonders aloud why they can’t just love each other. “We have so much to love each other for,” she says, “we have such possibilities.”

It may be Albee-lite (and Anouilh-liter) but it’s still amazing, moving stuff, entirely uncontaminated by sentimentality… and guaranteed to put your own family squabbles into some kind of perspective.

Shooting the Past (1999)

Stephen Poliakoff’s masterpiece (from before he turned into an utter wanker) begins with Christmas lights. Christmas is something happening in the outside world. Within the peculiar space of the Falham Photo Library, time works differently, as does value and history and emotion. The modern world (in the form of an American corporation) buys this little island and starts to invade it, planning to sell it off and turn it into some piffling corporate ballsup… their interest in the gigantic library of old photos being precisely zero. Until, that is, they start to be absorbed into the alternative world of the photographs and their off-kilter guardians.

Tim Spall delivers his greatest performance as Oswald Bates, an unhappy and heroically annoying man who has been left behind by modernity, who wants to live within his photos and his own thoughts, away from the crass commercialism and humourless dedication of the professional and the self-professedly ‘real’… none of which has as much human reality as the tragic and resounding stories to be found in the still and sepia past.

Die Hard (1988)

Holiday carnage. Bells jingle and Christmas songs tinkle as people are eviscerated by sprays of bullets and their corpses are arranged wearing Santa hats.

Whether they knew it or not, in Die Hard, Hollywood created a sort-of-anti-capitalist revenge fantasy. The Japanese corporate boss asks Rickman (who has invaded his skyscraper with a gang of armed men) if “this is all about our project in Indonesia?” before protesting that they (i.e. his corporation) want to develop not exploit that region. Rickman says, apparently sincerely, that he believes this. Thing is… this is 1988… and they’re setting up in Indonesia… which means they’re in business with General Suharto, who was responsible for arguably the worst act of genocide committed in the 20th century apart from the Holocaust. Said corporate boss later ends up with his brains splattered all over a set of glass doors, which is very satisfying; you don’t often get to see corporate imperialists get exactly what they deserve in a big-budget Hollywood actioner. What’s happening here, you see, is that the Nakatomi Corporation is being confronted by its own values; Rickman and his gang turn out to be ruthless thieves rather than ideological enemies… though, having said that, the film’s beef with capitalism seems to be that sometimes there are Japanese capitalists who come over to America and lure married American women away from their wifely duties with promises of careers, independence, executive bathrooms and Rolex watches. At the end, Mrs Bruce Willis has to symbolically sacrifice her Rolex watch and reassume her clean-cut hubby’s name in order for him to finally defeat the beardie foreign baddie.

The film is also a pioneering gay romance, depicting the mutually-supporting and fulfilling love that blossoms between two men. At the end of the film, Willis gets to consummate his over-the-radio relationship with beat cop Richard Veljohnson in a hysterically romantic clinch, accompanied by music that sounds almost like that bit of Tschaikovsky that lovestruck couples in films always hear when running towards each other on beaches. Veljohnson (who has been deskbound after accidentally shooting a kid) gets to regain his male potency and ‘climaxes’ by emptying both barrels (so to speak) into one last terrorist, thus proving that Willis’ love has made him whole again… or whole enough to kill someone… which is this film’s idea of the highest male self-expression.

Joyeux Noel (2005)

One of the problems the people running World War I (on all sides) continually had to face was the sheer reluctance of their troops to kill the ‘enemy’. They would deliberately fire above the heads of the opposing soldiers, etc., behaviour that had to be stamped on ferociously. Everyone knows about the Christmas truce of 1914… well, this moving film depicts that truce and its consequences, from the perspectives of the French, British and German soldiers themselves. We see not only the eagerness of the ordinary soldiers to stop killing each other, and their fraternisation, but also the horror at this behaviour evinced by the generals. We see a Bishop preaching the virtue of killing Germans to British troops… after the soldiers of all nationalities held mass together in Nomansland.

Brazil (1985)

First, let’s go through what it isn’t. It isn’t set in the future. It isn’t set in a totalitarian society. It’s set now (we’re still “somewhere in the 20th century”). And it’s set in our world.

Ducts and pipes and paperwork and the 1940s still dominate our world; our world abducts and interrogates and tortures people; our world is run by family men who love their children and give their workmates Christmas presents and file reports on how many dissidents they’ve interrogated this week. Our world is still a stifling miasma of filing cabinets and sociopathic bureaucrats and malfunctioning technology. Our world is still a place where the surface glitz of wealth and commercialism covers reservoirs of corruption, confusion, incompetence, cruelty, systematised madness and emotional frustration. And this is never truer than at Christmas, which is when this story is set. The shopping malls and fake snow and gift wrap are the garnish on a state gone mad. You feel that this place always pretends to be in the middle of festivities. One gets the sense that it’s always Christmas where Sam Lowry lives, which brings me to…

Death in Santaland (2007)

Jon Ronson visits North Pole, Alaska, where every day is Christmas Day. While retaining his customary air of amiable innocence, Ronson reveals this concept to be every bit as ghastly as it sounds. A place invented solely for the Christmas industry, the decorations stay up all year long. Ronson perambulates his way through this horrifying tinsel-laden dystopia, becoming increasingly incredulous.

The adults here all claim to really believe in Santa – even to the point of going into denial about their local Santa Claus (name legally changed to Kris Kringle, god help us) being killed in a car accident. Meanwhile, the local school kids are dragooned into answering the thousands of letters that arrive addressed to ‘Santa, North Pole’, like unpaid elves in a festive sweatshop. The teenagers, driven to distraction by the lunacy around them, carry guns and plot school massacres. To we Who fans, it might recall ‘The Happiness Patrol’.

In any case, if you want a window into the planned neo-liberal millennium, look no further. Schools voluntarily training dispirited children in the ideology of consumption and P.R., populations of happy drudges smiling through the crushing alienation, communities enslaved to consumer tat and mindless kitsch, people driven mad by the banality… and anybody who dares to notice the madness dubbed a freak. Watch this and save yourself the trouble of having nightmares brought on by too much accelerant-steeped pudding.

What Would Jesus Buy? (2007)

Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir tour just-before-the-recession America, hoping to cure people of their addictions to credit and consumerism, exorcise the sweatshop-running demons of Starbucks and stop the ‘Shopocalypse’ – a term of Rev. Billy’s own devising that the vacuous, tittering TV News anchors (who treat this particularly astute brand of satire/performance/comedy/activism as nothing but a jokey novelty) are unable to pronounce.

On his way through the privatised, mall-dominated USA, littered with monolithic cathedrals of consumption, the Reverend Billy gets himself arrested for declaring that Mickey Mouse is the Anti-Christ, sets up a booth on the streets for taking people’s ‘Shopping Sins Confessions’ and exhorts congregations to hold up their credit cards (“magnetic strip facing Reverend Billy”) and tear them up.

(As you can tell, this protest has religious overtones… but that’s okay with me. Reverend Billy prays to “the Fabulous Unknown”, which I believe in. And, in any case, I’m sick of being told - by supposed progressives - that the biggest problem with America is its religiosity and that the American faithful are all right-wing, which is bullshit. The left-wing Christians just don’t own megabuck media churches. Besides, religion is the spirit of a spiritless situation, etc., etc.)

Disneyland (corporate sociopathy expressed as architecture) gets invaded by the choir. Wal-Mart gets a trouncing. Roast in Hell, Penn & Teller. (Pardon me, but I can no longer say the words “Wal-Mart” without also saying “Roast in Hell, Penn & Teller”.)

On our way with him we encounter shop assistants who’ve been spat on by old ladies because they’ve run out of X-Boxes, miniature dogs with their own Christmas wardrobes and more evidence of a culture driving itself insane with the worship of stuff. Meanwhile, the antics of the Reverend and his choir are as amusing and moving as their chosen foe (Christmas capitalism gone mad) is terrifying.

A Life in Pieces – with Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling (1990-91)

Also terrifying (to me) is the realisation that it was twenty years ago… that’s TWENTY YEARS AGO… that I was first paralysed with laughter watching these twelve short interviews with the inimitable Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling.

In each interview, the heroically straight-faced Ludovic Kennedy presents Sir Arthur with a chosen gift and then quizzes him about his life. The various gifts (the first is a partridge in a pear tree… and I’m sure you can guess the rest) start Sir Arthur off on a number of interesting reminiscences. The three French hens remind Sir Arthur of his days in Brussels, attempting to devise the “Single European Hen”. The five gold rings remind him of when he ran for Barbados in the 1936 Berlin Olympics at the special request of Hitler (whom Sir Arthur remembers as “not the practical joking type”). Nine drummers drumming gets Sir Arthur started on how he was recruited as a “deep level mole” at Cambridge. The ten pipers piping remind him of his former friend Peter Piper, who was such a cricket enthusiast that he actually took a group of crickets on tour so that paying audiences could hear them rubbing their legs together. And so on, through such topics as cannibalism, the use of goats to raise children and secret farming.

As for Christmas itself, well Sir Arthur thinks it was “great fun in the old days when it was just an orgy of commercial excess, but now I find that people are tainting the whole thing with a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo.”


But what about Christmassy Who, you ask? This is supposed to be a Who blog, isn’t it?

Oh, okay. But I’m not enthusiastic. I mean, look at the forthcoming Christmas Special. A version of A Christmas Carol. Hmm. Written by a man with all the political savvy of Jan Moir and all the genuine progressive feeling of Vince Cable. C’mon, it’s bound to be shit. Alison Graham (absolutely no relation of any kind whatsoever, I hasten to add) has already given it a rave review, which is never a good sign.

A Christmas Carol
(the book, I mean) is already a problematic text. Yes, there are wonderful bits where Dickens has his spirits inveigh against “the insect on the leaf proclaiming there is too much life amongst his hungry brothers in the dust” and revealing the huddled symbolic children Ignorance and Want… but, ultimately, it’s just a plea for capitalist bastards to be bit nicer to their staff and make charitable donations. After all, when Dickens warns that Ignorance and Want will bring downfall if ignored, this is a warning that he wants his world – the bourgeois Victorian imperial world – to heed and profit from.

That’s why I love Blackadder’s Christmas Carol, which ruthlessly inverts Dickens’ tale and, in the process, undermines his every sentimental bromide and his every hypocritical appeal to the goodness of the Victorian bourgeoisie. Ebeneezer Blackadder, at the end of the story, is the kind of successful Victorian gentleman who really made that era… it’s just that, in reality, people like him knew how to talk the charitable talk and lecture the poor on morals. (I only failed to include Blackadder’s Christmas Carol above because everyone’s seen it 48 billion times.)

Of course, Who has done a (sort of) version of this story before. Let the Ghost of Series’ Past transport you back to 2005, to the third episode of the first season of RTD’s glorious revival, ‘The Unquiet Dead’. Sadly, what Elton and Curtis did knowingly and with irony, Mark Gatiss did apparently accidentally and in all seriousness. By the end of this wretched episode, we are actually supposed to be inspired by Dickens’ transformation from a miserable old sourpuss into a newly-invigorated happy-chappy… but Dickens’ life-changing encounter with festive spirits is somewhat different to Ebeneezer Scrooge’s. Where Scrooge learns that charity is a moral obligation and empathy a human benefit, Dickens learns that empathy and kindness towards those who are desperate is dangerous folly, to be resisted on pain of self-destruction.

It’s perhaps unfair and unreasonable to be too harsh. After all, every single televised Christmassy Doctor Who story (with the exception of the largely enjoyable ‘Christmas Invasion’) has been scarcely-endurable ordure.

I don’t normally *do* Big Finish here, but I’ll make an exception because they’ve managed a bit better.

Rob Shearman’s ‘The Chimes of Midnight’ is a lovely, angry Christmas ghost story with dialogue that – in places – is so calculatedly absurd and so laced with inner savagery that it verges upon the Pinteresque. A story of servants as endlessly-usable chattels in the service of a cynical master that needs to feed on them to survive. While one might kvetch over the idea that a drudge’s life is made bearable by simply knowing that she has the respect of one member of the middle classes, this doesn’t really matter all that much because, like much of Shearman’s work, this is less political than it is a meditation on parents and children. The relationship between Charley and Edith is clearly the embodiment of a longed-for motherhood… and the presence that becomes the Doctor’s antagonist is a child that demands life at the expense of parents it feels entirely entitled to abuse.

And then we have Marc Platt’s mighty ‘Spare Parts’, which is easily the finest Cyberman story made in any medium and also manages to be an emotionally haunting Christmas story of families gathered around scraggy old fake trees, while outside the cold draws in… and in… and in… Politically, Platt’s story flirts with the Trekish mistake of making the emotionless cyborgs into an expression of collectivism (with Thomas Dodd as the dodgy but preferable embodiment of free enterprise)… but it isn’t long before the story has a crowd of ordinary people protesting outside the palace, resisting police brutality and opposing a People’s Committee that has become a tyranny. If the Committee are “the champions of the proletariat” then it’s only in the same way, and to the same extent, as Stalin.

Gareth Roberts’ and Clayton Hickman’s ‘The One Doctor’ is a thoroughly enjoyable bit of space comic-opera, as long as you don’t start sharing their impression that they’ve satirised anything… and as long as you don’t worry about the fact that so much of it seems so reminiscent of the second season of the Hitch Hiker’s radio series.

Of course, there’s always one at every Christmas party isn’t there… one that spoils things for everybody else. In this instance, it’s Jonathan Morris’ ‘Flip-Flop’, a revolting Daily Mail-ish parable about the horrific dangers posed by dishonest, power-hungry immigrants. The immigrants in question are (adding insult to injury) giant slugs with bad eyesight and a wheedling, faux-humble Uriah Heapesque manner. They complain of prejudice and discrimination, explain that no human can comprehend their “ethnic experience”, call themselves a downtrodden minority despite covering nine tenths of the humans’ planet (“being a minority is a state of mind”) and, all the while, they’re scheming to take over and make the humans their slaves… which is achieved – and the story is quite explicit about this – through “positive discrimination”. The alien boss is called the “Community Leader”, which is one of those terms that tabloids use whenever they want to preach to Muslim communities about how they should do more to combat ‘extremism’. The aliens even want to ban Christmas. I fucking ask you.

I’m not saying anything about Jonathan Morris. I don’t know the man or anything about him. He might be the cuddliest pro-immigrant liberal there is for all I know. But ‘Flip-Flop’ is an egregious piece of shit and everyone involved in making it should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Besides, the time travel paradox doesn't work because the Doctor, Mel, Stewart and Reed don't bump into alternative versions of themselves when they go back to the night of President Bailey's assassination. So there.


Actually, I’ve been a bit hard on televised Who. I forgot about one story. It’s isn’t a “special” and it wasn’t broadcast on the 25th December… but it’s certainly a bit Christmassy and is one of the best episodes of the 21st century series. I’m referring, of course, to RTD’s miraculous ‘Turn Left’. Not only is it a reworking of It’s a Wonderful Life (with Rose earning her wings by giving Donna a chance to see what the world would be like without the Doctor) but it also has an entire ‘act’ set at Christmas. Donna and family spend the holidays in a hotel room, waited on by a maid who, it is implied, is a foreign worker. From their holiday retreat, the Nobles (who are really the commoners) witness the explosion that destroys London and turns them into refugees.

As Simon Kinnear pointed out in DWM 410, although ‘Turn Left’ is “not per se a story about recession, the parallels – unemployment, homelessness, a military presence on the streets – are exactly what scaremongering media pundits are anticipating is going to happen this summer.” He was writing in early 2009. Things aren’t quite as bad here yet as they get in ‘Turn Left’, but..

Well, there you have it. Bah humbug, Changealujah, Seasons Greeblings, and a very Merry Christmas to all of you at home.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Resistance is Useful

There were violent clashes in London yesterday as protestors against the Dalek occupation attacked Daleks and Robomen on the streets.

What started as a peaceful and normal day, with Robomen performing their normal routine of rounding up prisoners to be sent to the new 'workfare' camp in Bedfordshire for lazy scroungers, quickly turned to turmoil when protestors - doubtless infiltrated by a hardcore of anarchists and outside agitators - launched an unprovoked attack on a Dalek ship innocently parked at the Chelsea Heliport.

Robomen were forced to 'kettle' the protestors when clashes erupted.  Reports are that three Robomen have sustained injuries, and one Dalek was slightly scuffed when protestors viciously and thuggishly pushed it down a gentle ramp. 

A Dalek defends himself against the unprovoked aggression of the
feral, anarchist, hoodie, chav scum, student layabout protestors

The Dalek Supreme commented today: "Of course, we support peaceful demonstrations... but any more will be met with immediately extermination."

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Economic Miracles

This is my Timelash II stuff on the subject of Graham Williams' tenure as producer... it's a bit thin because I've either posted about several stories from this era elsewhere or because I'm planning to.  Also, to be honest, some of the stories simply don't yield much grist for my mill.  That isn't to knock the Williams era, which contains some of the most politically interesting Who stories ever made (which is partly why they needed - or need - posts all to themselves).  Notice, for instance, how the stories glanced at below seem obsessed with fuel, economics and questions of prosperity vs. austerity... s'what comes of making Doctor Who in the context of the late 70s I guess...

I've written about 'Horror of Fang Rock' here and 'Image of the Fendahl' here.

'The Sun Makers'

This is from elsewhere on this blog, but it's part of a wider article.  I thought it could tolerate repeating... especially since 'Sun Makers' is a favourite of mine, for reasons which should be obvious.  I don't think, by the way, that this story has ever been more relevant than it is now.

Some idiot once wrote that, in this story, the rebels are worse than the baddies. I dunno what story he was watching, but it ain’t the one I know as ‘The Sun Makers’. The Others might be a motley and even unsavoury lot but they’re hardly as bad as the planet-enslaving Collector and his pet Gatherer. Mandrel makes nasty threats that he doesn’t try very hard to make good on. The Doctor, ever a keen judge of character, doesn’t seen worried by Mandrel even when he’s waving a red hot poker in his face. Leela has some choice words for them that are very pertinent. She calls them cowards and that, essentially, is the trouble with them. Mind you, you can’t blame them for running away from life in Megropolis 1.

Some other idiots have occasionally argued that ‘The Sun Makers’ is a right-wing allegory because it depicts a tyrannical state and rails against taxes. Well, that’s fine if you’re dumb enough to buy the bullshit lie that conservative politics really is all about defending personal liberty from big government and punitive taxation. In fact, ‘The Sun Makers’ couldn’t be clearer about its political sympathies (even if you stick your fingers in your ears during the playful misquoting of Marx). The tyrannical state in this story is the Company. They are effectively one, or the Company exercises such control that they might as well be. This isn’t a big state stifling the liberty of free enterprise and free consumers. This is a big state as a vehicle for corporate domination. The Company is a private concern, engaged in “commercial imperialism”. The Company has, essentially, carried out a hostile takeover of the government. This is one big state that’s been privatised.

The icons of modern conservatism (i.e. Reagan, Thatcher, Bush, Bush II) are usually, for all their populist anti-government rhetoric, ultra-statists. They might reduce bureaucracy here and there (usually by cutting public services, etc.) and deregulate business, but they always strengthen the state’s machinery of enforcement, regulation, control and surveillance of its citizens, i.e. the poor schmoes who do all the work get spied on and arrested more. Meanwhile, we have de facto economic planning in the hands of radically undemocratic and monolithic organisations. We just call them corporations, but they act like states within states. And they get more and more powerful all the time.

Was the Iraq war a state affair? Well, the costs were pretty much covered by the state (i.e. by the American taxpayer) but the opportunities and profits were tendered out to the companies that swarmed in like vultures. Neoliberalism wants to turn the state into a heavily armed enforcement service that monitors and controls and taxes the population while acting as a munificent pimp for corporations, farming out every other task of the state to them, garnished with massive subsidies (i.e. corporate welfare).

The state gathers and the Company collects.

This is pretty much what Bob Holmes wrote about in ‘The Sun Makers’. His income tax bill seems to have got him thinking about the future of neoliberalism. Strange but true. Maybe he was looking at Chile and General Pinochet’s great experiment in merciless Chicago school ultra-monetarism, which he inflicted on his people via brutal repression. How else did he manage to write a Doctor Who story in 1977 that can be read as a companion text to The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein?

But the key thing is the way the workers are portrayed as changing in the course of the struggle. The Others are clearly former workers who’ve opted out. Mandrel’s grade status and former workplace even become plot points. Cordo is the lowest of the low; a timid, despairing and bankrupt drudge, the son of a lifelong corridor sweeper. But they end up uniting across the grade barriers, across their former differences. The Others go from cowardly hiding and petty criminality to leading a general strike. Cordo goes from contemplating suicide to jubilantly leading a revolution. Bisham is an executive grade whose moment of curiosity lands him in detention; initially, he lies back and accepts his doom.. but he ends up uniting with B and D Grades to topple the government. The workers with hand and brain.

Okay, they need the Doctor to get them started, but in this story the Doctor is almost like a personification of Information itself. He tells them things. He makes them curious. He makes them angry. He poses the right questions. He turns off the gas that makes them anxious and passive (surely this is thematically linked to his taking over the TV station and the news service?) and thus gets the ball rolling. It isn't long before he wanders off with Leela and leaves the united workers to pursue the revolution on their own.

The Doctor’s role as catalyst notwithstanding, this is a full scale workers’ revolution. Moreover, it’s explicitly linked to industrial action in the scene where Goudry and Veet incite the strike. It’s idealised, sure, but the portrayal is not without sceptical irony or some healthy moral ambiguity. Mandrel’s former colleagues Synge and Hackett obviously join the revolution from fear rather than immediate enthusiasm (though they seem to end up happy enough to help), and Marn simply switches sides when she sees which way the wind is blowing.

And then we have the matter of the Gatherer and his little tumble... Well, you can wring your hands about him if you like. I have to do my own tax return so, frankly, I’m not feeling merciful. 

'The Ribos Operation' is examined in scarily extensive detail, here.

'The Pirate Planet'

There is a satirical aspect to Douglas Adams' debut Who story which anticipates the satire inherent in much of Hitch Hiker's... but whereas Hitch Hiker's presents a kind of farcical search for God and/or meaning in a universe of comic incompetence and small mindedness, 'Pirate Planet' seems more directly political in its preoccupations: at times its almost like Adams is having a go at imperialism through the analogy of piracy.

In 'Pirate Planet', Zanak is a culture of indolent and complacent and unquestioning people who kick jewels around their streets whenever their leader simply announces a new golden age and the mines just fill up again... and all because their world grabs others, crushes them, sucks them dry of their wealth and then moves on. The people don't know because they don't care to know. Rome never looks where she treads, as Kipling put it. You don't get political comment quite like that in Hitch Hiker's (at least not until Infinidim Enterprises arrive in the last novel); you're far more likely to get satire at the expense of bumbling bureaucracy and plodding literal mindedness (one of the preoccupations of 'Shada' a little later, once Adams has found his voice).

In 'Pirate Planet', a young man with lots of talent is writing his early, angry stuff... and instinctively fitting in with the ethos of a series that almost reflexively critiques Power in moral terms. Trouble is, Adams is rather too flippant to quite make this story work as a polemic... though he is plainly influenced by Bob Holmes' way of creating witty and knowing stories that let political comment ride along happily with jokes (i.e. 'Carnival of Monsters' and 'The Sun Makers').

Still, it contains one of my all-time favourite one-liners from Who.  Asked if he thinks it's "wrong" for mines to just fill up with minerals all by themselves, the Doctor replies: "It's an economic miracle; of course it's wrong!"

Tom Baker (in one of his greatest late performances) both revels in the smartass comedy and latches onto the underlying seriousness of some aspects of the story. By doing so, he creates an opportunity for himself to turn his great 'angry scene' into a moment when, for all the multicoloured glitz and jokey dialogue, he portrays a man genuinely aghast at a crime almost too awful to comprehend. And it's riveting stuff.

'The Power of Kroll'

Robert Holmes might’ve been pissed off about having to write about a very big monster, but he was (apparently) even more pissed off about the treatment of Native Americans, racism and big business exploiting the environment. This could have been disastrous if it weren’t for the fact that Holmes is also intelligent about these things. Nothing is all that simple in this story.

The Swampies (or the People of the Lakes, if we’re being PC about it) are more than just victims. We are invited to sympathise with them and direct parallels are drawn with the plight of Native Americans when the Doctor calls their moon a “sort of reservation”. Now that their moon looks commercially exploitable, they’re liable to be forcibly evicted again. But, while clearly the victims of an historic injustice, they’re not portrayed as particularly virtuous or wise. Unlike the Kinda (who have the whiff of gift-shop dreamcatchers about them), the Swampies are flawed and naive. This is rather refreshingly unpatronising. Ranquin is a blinkered religious bigot who is not above using Kroll as a means of getting his own way. Nor is he above a spot of politically-expedient murder. He even has his own face-saving political myth about the Swampies leaving Delta-Magna of their own accord.

It’s interesting to see how Holmes deliberately makes the humans and the Swampies into mirror images of each other. Thawn and Ranquin are both the same kind of deceitful, callous, bullshit artists. Also, Fenner and Varlick are similar types. Both are happy to sanction killing when they disapprove of the victim, but neither is without conscience. They are both troubled by their leader’s behaviour but grumble and procrastinate while still obeying.

The treatment of racism is also intelligent. Thawn is clearly a racist but, when accused of hating the Swampies by Fenner, he denies the charge and simply restates his economic imperatives. This is right on the nail. The motivations behind all organised persecution of minorities is always fundamentally economic. The supposed ethnic and cultural difference of Africans was merely a pretext that was fashioned into a political ideology of slavery; the underlying motive was commercial. The supposed savagery and primitivism of Native Americans was simply an ideological justification for imperialistic conquest and theft. Modern racism has its roots in economics as much as in any deep-seated xenophobic impulse. Nobody in ‘The Power of Kroll’ mentions the fact that the Swampies are green (apart from the Doctor, ironically enough) but Thawn is constantly on about the fact that they’re in his way.

Meanwhile, the exploitation of the natural resources of the lake creates an unforeseen ecological effect; the awakening of Kroll is caused by the Refinery raising the lake’s temperature and shooting off orbit shots. I’d hesitate to call Kroll a metaphor for environmental disaster, but all the same… he is a runaway by-product of the refinery.

Also, the nonsense spouted by Ranquin and Varlick’s growing realisation that Kroll is nothing but a big animal, constitutes another poke at religion… though not without putting the Swampies religious narrative within a political context of oppression and alienation, and entirely without portraying them as inherently culturally backward.  This guy was a natural radical, whether he knew it or not. To think he used to edit John Bull Magazine! (Sometimes I see strange similarities between Holmes and Orwell. Holmes was a copper, wasn't he? Just as Orwell was a colonial policeman in Burma.)

Meanwhile, we have Tom Baker giving one of his best performances. No, I’m serious. Is there any moment during his tenure more blissful than his deadpan inquiry to Thawn: “Will there be strawberry jam for tea?”. Watch the way he looks embarrassed when asked stupid (to him) questions about the refinery. Watch him glare at Thawn’s treatment of Mensch and smirk at Fenner’s unironic use of the all-purpose word “progress”. Then there’s the “aren’t you going to say ‘don’t make any sudden moves?’” scene. This Doctor is a bumbling fartaround, a dilletante, a muckabout, a sophomoric clown... but with a deep, ingrained sense of rage at injustice and cant and bigotry. He's a satirist of the powerful and callous; he allows the despicable to write him off as a looney. This is my Doctor. None of that lonely god rubbish. No burning at the centre of time like fire and ice and blah blah blah. Just a rogue radical, a wry scientist, an activist eccentric. He quite simply rocks.

Yeah, okay, the Swampies look stupid and their chant is rubbish… and yeah, the monster looks utterly fake… and yeah, Episode 3 is nothing but the stupid creeper-execution thing and loads of conversations about “viscosity levels”… but hey, it’s got Philip Madoc in it, for chrissakes!

And its heart and brain are both in the right places. It has possibly the most fair and unprejudiced portrayal of native, tribal people that I've ever seen in sci-fi. It attacks racism, capitalism, environmental destruction and religion... and from a radical challenge position rather than just a hand-wringing liberal critique. It contains none of the sentimentalised patronising attitude to be found in, say, Avatar (yeurch), while also containing ten times the anger.

I'm planning to post something seperate and self-contained on the subject of 'City of Death'.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Unfinished Business

Thing is, I love Douglas Adams. He was great. A very clever man, very nice, very funny. A superb comic writer; possibly the greatest comic prose stylist since P. G. Wodehouse. An amiable and persuasive advocate of science and atheism. Creator of novels that I've read and re-read, radio shows that I've listened to over and over again, etc. A great guy.

But I don't like 'Shada'. It's pretentious. And naff. A combination exemplified in that bit of description of Chris Parsons in the script: "likes Bach and Status Quo." Oh dear.

And all that guff from Parsons about "doors that remain permanently closed to one". What a load of Student Common Room wank. How amazing that Chris Bidmead is the guy who reguarly gets accused of pumping the series full of precious, science-fixated toss!

And Adams is clearly having a poke at sci-fi writers who write lazy plots (all that satirical jabbing at the idea of taking over the universe) while also not bothering to give Skagra any real motivation or any sensible goals. Robert Holmes had done the uber-ironic pisstaking of silly sci-fi names/plots/villains etc before this, and better, and without letting the audience think he was smirking. In 'Shada', Adams seems to be openly smirking at the audience, or looking over their heads at his Cambridge mates going "look chaps! What merkins they are - they take this rubbish seriously!" Someone who laughs at their own jokes is one thing. Someone who laughs at you for laughing at their jokes is another. Someone who laughs at you for laughing at their deliberately unfunny jokes is just, well, taking the piss.

There are some genuinely funny/clever glimpses of the real Adams (the scene where the Doctor fools Skagra's ship into thinking he's dead) and an attempt at a satire of literal mindedness... but it all seems so, well, literal.

Meanwhile, Tom and Lalla alternate between openly mocking everything around them and pretending that they're in an adaptation of an Anthony Trollope novel (which both charms and repels me simultaneously) and Christopher Neame (better known from Secret Army, which was grim and gritty and all those other things that start with "gr" that Doctor Who fans pretend to like) commits skin-crawling dignitycide by walking around in Cambridge dressed as a charity shop Ziggy Stardust. Mind you, if you've seen in in Dracula A.D.1972.....

And Claire is just another dim, girly sidekick despite supposedly being a Physics postgrad student. And there's a real snobbish condescension in the way that the College Porter is mocked at the expense of all the posh, cerebral characters.

Thank goodness it was cancelled and DNA got to cannibalise it for parts when writing his infinitely superior Dirk Gently novels. Really, I'd rather have had 'Doctor Who and the Krikkit Men'.

Binro Was Right

This is a rejigged new version of something originally posted at the old site.  I've snipped a few irrelevancies and amplified some conclusions.  Oh, and it's dedicated to Iain Cuthbertson and Timothy Bateson, both of whom died last year.

'The Ribos Operation' seems, at first glance, to present the cosmic conflict between Good and Evil, spiralling downwards from a meeting with a quasi-God in a surreal conceptual landscape, downwards into a story about the vast conquest plans of an interplanetary warlord, further downwards into a heist caper about two semi-comic con-men, and then further downwards into a short meeting between and old man and a young man in a little flea-ridden hovel... yet it's in the hovel that we find the real message of the story.  But is Binro right?

Well, he's right about the stars being suns circled by inhabited worlds (just like his somewhat-more mystical and flamboyant progenitor Giordano Bruno, who was burnt at the stake by the Church for, effectively, founding science-fiction... fair enough, some would say). But, in the wider sense, isn't the story's most moving and thematically vital scene compromised by what goes on around it? After all, it turns out that the universe is caught in the battle between light and dark "gods", and shaking bones about and chanting is a valid path to knowledge!

My feeling is that, ultimately, this story's real gist is a little more complex and contingent than it seems.  I'm not convinced that it's really about oppositions between good and bad, or even science and superstition... but we're going to have to work around this a bit.

For a story which sets up and begins a quest narrative about the conflict between two godlike entities called the White Guardian and the Black Guardian, 'The Ribos Operation' is surprisingly ambiguous in its treatment of morality. The White Guardian here is certainly no lovable Mr Nice Guy. On the contrary, he's a sinister old bourgeois bully, twisting the Doctor's arm into helping him for reasons that are (by anything he actually says) self-serving. If he's God (and the opening scene cheekily teases us into momentarily thinking he might be) then he's no kindly deity, but rather the Old Testament Yahweh in one of his quiet and scary moods.

(It's interesting to note that, on the few occasions when the classic series had the Doctor meeting gods, they were usually played by plummy thesps and did an awful lot of sitting around in chairs being coldly inscrutable. Really, the "gods" in the classic series really do an astonishing amount of sitting, i.e. Sutekh, the Gods of Ragnarok, etc.  By contrast, the only "god" to have appeared in the new series takes the form of a big, snarling Heavy Metal album cover. Now, the Beast may represent fine CGI, but, if you ask me, it possesses considerably less dramatic power than Cyril Luckham sipping creme de menthe.)

But, anyway... like the old geezer in the chair, Garron and Unstoffe are also hard to pin down morally. They're crooks who happily talk about mugging people, yet they seem to lack cruelty. Like Vorg in 'Carnival of Monsters', Garron can be seen as an entrepreneur, an embodiment of the cuddlier aspects of free trade and enterprise, bringing some colour to the lives of the poor souls who don't get to enjoy the benefits of the market... but he's also a criminal, a con-man.  There's no doubt about that.  But his saving grace is that he is not powerful himself, but preys upon the powerful.  Poor rubes like the Ribans have little to fear from him.  He's the kind of capitalist who bilks big investors in a shady shares deal and then buggers off to the Bahamas.  As such, he's likeable. The Doctor certainly likes him (but then, he should - they're very alike) and finds his anecdotes about past jobs laugh-out-loud amusing. Garron is another of Bob Holmes' quasi-Falstaffs: a charismatic and adorably transparent fake, loquacious, cowardly but not weasley, hedonistic and debauched (though, unlike Falstaff, not in the sexual sense: charmingly, Garron takes care to avoid touching Romana's boobs when he gets the chance).

These Holmes reimaginings of Shakespeare's fat knight can go either way (c.f. Jago and Shockeye) but Garron is also one of Holmes' quasi-Doctors, those characters of his that reflect the Doctor. In Garron, we see aspects of Our Hero.  In his way, the Doctor can be seen as an expression of bourgeois libertarian individualism... though he's too scrupulous for that role really.  But he and Garron are both opt-outs, independants and chancers, in it for the thrills and the laughs. The Doctor coolly admits to being "terrified" even as he's clearly enjoying himself. Garron is less into actual danger but evidently finds the con game, with all the attendant risk, highly amusing. Why pick on someone like Vynda-K if not from a desire to live dangerously? Garron could sell the jethryk and retire so why doesn't he think it's "worth all that much"? Because it's not really money he wants. The jethryk is a means to an end. It allows him to work his big, audacious cons; it allows him to make fools of people he holds in contempt (like the Graff). If he sold it he'd get the money, but then what? Make Garron rich and you'd bore him to death. Similarly, the Doctor couldn't cope with the easy life. He had it and he rejected it, much to Romana's bemusement. The Doctor likes to be where the action is, or even to make the action. The White Guardian knows exactly how to threaten him: "Nothing at all. Ever." is as good as a death sentence to the Doctor. Like the Doctor, Garron ran away from a home to which he can't go back. Like the Doctor, in his way, he's on a moral mission. And he has an inbuilt sense of justice - maybe not right and wrong, but justice. "All I do is take a bit from those who have too much and then I spread it around a bit. I help to keep the economy in balance!" Well, the story started with a warning about how concentrations of "forces" can lead to chaos. Garron, despite his criminality, is an agent of the balance that the Key supposedly represents. He just balances out the money. He really is the "innocent crook" of the Doctor's description. In a way, the Doctor's an innocent crook in this story too - trying to steal the jethryk not for its monetary value, but only because it's the key to his further adventures. Just like Garron. In fact, even the Graff only wants the jethryk because it's the key to his future adventures! I suppose it all comes down to what kind of adventures you have in mind.

And maybe Romana isn't far wrong when she pronounces that Garron is labouring under a "deep seated sense of rejection" - the remark might be useless, but it isn't necessarily wrong. Is Garron taking a kind of humourous revenge on a world he finds ridiculous and mean? Is he a poor boy who likes seeing the rich with egg on their faces? He wouldn't be the first. He might not have Unstoffe's righteous rage at the murder of Binro, but he certainly enjoys making the Graff squirm with his last-minute flim-flam about security agents. That's the real Garron, I think: grinning as he mocks the Graff with what he thinks are going to be his last words, ridiculing the tyrant's pretentions and pointing out that he's just a crook like the rest of them.

The Graff himself is a less ambiguous character... though he's not quite just the "big bad soldier" that he at first appears. He's tough enough to wander around in caves for a year if he gets to kill with the lads, yet he whinges feebly about the cold. He genuinely loves his thuggish old general Sholahk, though his real distress at Sholahk's death immediately transmutes into vengeful rage - a hallmark trait of the desperately immature. In fact, Sholahk appears to be the nearest thing the Graff has to family.  Sholahk clearly loves and indulges his boy, too much probably. With Vynda-K you get the sense of a big kid in an adult's body. He sulks, he throws tantrums, he has to be soothed and appeased like a baby. He's a spoilt child, deprived of affection but overindulged. You get the sense of a fractured family from the mentions of his usurping "half-brother". He's none too canny either. He was silly enough to let his half-brother steal his throne while he was off killing people. And he's completely fooled by Garron and Unstoffe (scringestone and all) until he accidentally finds Garron's bug.

Even Binro has his shadowy ambiguities. He's still alive, albeit with ruined hands. Why wasn't he burned (or whatever)? Well, maybe - like Galileo - he did the pragmatic thing and recanted... not that I'd blame him.

What makes these people interesting is the fact that they're all trapped between two different worlds and/or ways of living. The Graff doesn't know if he's a Prince anymore or not. Romana is fully qualified and well educated but next to useless in a world she's never experienced before. Her scholarly diagnoses of everything she encounters are no good when she's up against something with blood-splattered fangs. Meanwhile, Garron doesn't know if he's Ronnie Biggs or Robin Hood.

(Robin Hood seems to have been on Holmes' mind when he wrote this. Apart from Garron's idealised self-portrait of himself as a rebel wealth-redistributor, there's also the fact that "Binro" is an anagram and that the Graff is displaced by a treacherous brother while away on crusade, which is very reminiscent of King John's antics while Richard the Lionheart - or Richard the Warmongering Bastard as he probably should be known - was off splashing around in the entrails of Arabs. The Robin Hood myth is itself a product of a time of transition, a fable for people caught between forest and town, between increasingly centralised Norman power and the old Saxon ways, between the rock of law and the hard place of poverty.)

As usual in a Robert Holmes script, the story is powered by misunderstandings and, on the deeper level, by failures to understand oneself. This isn't Garron's last job, nor is Unstoffe leaving him. The Graff's plans for conquering back his throne are as illusory as Garron's business proposal, or Romana's idea that she's on a mission for her Supreme Council and can re-educate the Doctor by humouring him.

One hopes that Binro's newfound hope of vindication isn't illusory, but it may be; progress isn't a concept that this story leaves unchallenged. Binro is certainly caught between two worlds, just like all the people of Ribos. Ribos is an entire world stuck between two phases. It's not just at the mercy of extremely dualistic weather; it has arrived at the historical crossroads that divides the medieval from the modern. Ribos, one senses, is just a few Binros short of a Renaissance. It's still superstitious, but inching towards enlightenment.

In this story, we see the mingling of the sacred and the profane. This is something that the people of the Renaissance felt deeply, as they struggled through the Reformation, as the rise of Humanism began to reflect the progressive ideas of newly forming economic classes. The Riban relicary ("a holy place" says the Captain) is actually a treasure vault, full of jewelled trinkets, guarded against obviously less-then-pious locals by coppers and their pet monster, available as a temporary safe deposit box to travelling merchants (once a gratuity has gone to the head Shrieve). In one of the story's most telling details, the Graff pauses in the middle of haggling over money with Garron to notice that, outside the room, monks have started chanting matins. Even the Seeker goes all businesslike once her first Unstoffe-finding session comes to an end; you get a sense that this is one police psychic who charges overtime.

There are two worlds on Ribos, existing at once: the feudal world of shrines and devotion versus the new world of opeks and merchants and proto-banks and cannons (i.e. conglomerates and weapons tech... the Graff's world). The Greater Cyrhennic Alliance from which the offworlders hail seems to be just Ribos a few centuries on. The strangers use the same currency and wear the same kinds of clothes as the locals. You get the sense of one culture at different points: before technology and afterwards. Ribos is at the cusp of history and the Graff Vynda-K is its future, if they're not careful... because what's the Graff but the sort of person who crushes a dissident's hands, only armed with lasers and spaceships?

'The Ribos Operation', even as it champions the idea of progress through science and knowledge, interrogates the idea by showing primitive Ribos offset against a high-tech future that seems, socially and morally, to have progressed not a jot. If the Ribans embrace empirical thinking, and it simply leads them into their own version of the Graff's culture, what chance has Binro of being reverently remembered? The Levithians call the Ribans "primitive", but are they any better? Or just better equipped? Is that the only difference between "Grade 1" and "Grade 2 status"? Say the Ribans one day figure out how to get the energy out of the jethryk... maybe they'll just fuel ships of conquest, like the Graff plans to do.  The Levithians, for all their advancement, are still ridden by class and hierarchy.  Their world has planet-sellers and galaxy-spanning capitalist industries.  This is the world that the Ribans are just starting to develop, writ large and entrenched.  The Levithians still have princes and thrones, but then so do we.  Societies don't develop in linear and simultaneous ways; indeed, it is the contradictions within and between them that drives history.  The key to understanding why all that progress and science and reason (embodied by Binro) doesn't automatically translate into an enlightened society for the Levithians is to be found in the concentration of power and wealth and technology into private hands, that have harnessed minds like Binro's to developing fuel and weapons and industries.

Where does this all come from? Well, I think it has less to do with historical materialism or Trotsky's theory of 'uneven and combined development' than Bob Holmes' knowledge of Shakespeare.  This story seems obsessed with people caught between different worlds... and that's probably because a lot of it (at least in terms of story and motif rather than language) is ransacked from Shakespeare. Shakespeare provided Holmes with the literary DNA for this story, just as 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' gets its genes from Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Sax Rohmer, etc. Of course, that doesn't make it necessary for Holmes to craft 'Ribos' as highbrow art (if it had, he wouldn't have done it). On the contrary, much of Shakespeare's output was, like Doctor Who, not at all "caviar to the general". Shakespeare was a man who liked money and crafted most of his plays in the hope that they would do good box office. The occasional play may have been specifically created to impress elite audiences with his cleverness and erudition (like Love's Labours Lost, which would almost certainly not have played at the Globe to thunderous applause from huge crowds of groundlings, as depicted in 'The Shakespeare Code') but, for the most part, Shakespeare was as concerned with bums on seats as any producer of Doctor Who. Falstaff - who, as I've said, bequeathed a little something of himself to Garron - was a big audience draw. The need to put on exciting adventures in thrilling historical periods and exotic foreign lands (adventures in Time and Space, you could say) explains why so many of Shakespeare's plays (particularly the earlier Histories) concern things like excitingly devious warlords who usurp or get usurped, who challenge each other to duels by chucking gloves about, who bellow insults and taunts at their enemies, who go on killing rampages for political power. Sound familiar?

Yep, the Graff not only resembles such early-Shakespearean villains as the Duke of York and his son Richard (of the Henry VI plays and Richard III) but he also resembles the war-hungry Hotspur from Henry IV Part 1 and Prospero, the former Duke of Milan from The Tempest who is displaced and banished by his scheming brother (and who plots his revenge using the resources he finds on a remote island populated by a man he treats cruelly and calls a savage). In fact, he also resembles Macbeth in taking the prophecy of a witch and then making it come true by following it as though it's his inescapable destiny. Most of all, perhaps, he reminds me of Coriolanus, who is a bloodthirsty Roman warmonger and a scornful snob, rejected by Rome for his overweening pride only to join forces with Rome's enemies and return planning to destroy his home city. Coriolanus is a child-man, just like the Graff. A spoiled brat with homicidal tendencies. He likes nothing more than wading in blood but loses his rag if you call him "boy".

At times, 'Ribos' lapses into what is almost Shakespeare pastiche... I'm thinking particularly of the "Freytus labyrinth" scene, in which the Graff and Sholahk start inverting clauses at each other and Sholahk comes close to launching into a soliloquy about their former campaign. Paul Seed catches what the script is up to and delivers a deliberately hammy, bombastic, full-throttle RSC performance to go with the quasi-Shakespearean character he's been given. Watching him, at times, you almost think you've tuned into the BBC Shakespeare by mistake. In the early 80s, the BBC did Shakespeare's first tetralogy for TV, starring Cully, Irongron, Cassandra, Major Daley from 'Carnival of Monsters', Bor from 'Terminus', Mr Magpie from 'The Idiot's Lantern', Zaphod from The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Victor Meldrew's wife (amongst others). The result was the jewel of the BBC Shakespeare series, a high-octane blast of fustian bombast, arcane politics, unrestrained violence and epic squabbling in a tiny, abstract studio set. Paul Seed's performance in 'Ribos' (minus a little of the more deliberate mucking about) would have fit right in between Julia Foster's venomous Queen Margaret and Bernard Hill's seething York.

But I digress outrageously.

The thing that 'Ribos' most owes to Shakespeare is its depiction of a society caught between two overlapping and conflicting historical moments, and of how people get caught in the middle and are thus, sometimes, ground up like mincemeat. Shakespearean tragedy has less to do with "tragic flaws" of character (whatever our teachers said) and more to do with people caught inside social contradictions. In all his great tragedies, the story is the same. Hamlet is a modern, educated youth who is caught between a Humanistic version of the future and the old feudal order, built on blood vengeance and rigid hierarchies. His tragedy is that he can't be true to himself and obey his father's ghost, no matter how much he might want to. Similarly, Macbeth is caught between a different version of the same contradictions - loyalty to the old order that keeps him in his place, or advancement by the ruthless pursuit of self-interest. Lear dismantles his kingdom and sets up a new order based on competition, yet he can't compete! Othello owes his promotion to the forward-looking commercial city of Venice, yet he cannot shake off his awareness of himself as an outsider or the resentments of the bigots... nor can his romantic nature fully handle the Venetian conception of marriage as a property relationship.  Coriolanus cannot be both the imperious aristocratic bullyboy and the tactful politician, yet Rome demands both of him. Shakespeare reflected the anxieties of his age, a time when feudalism was in the process of being replaced by what would become capitalism. People, at that time, were caught between the old order (the rigid feudal class system, agrarianism, the power of the Church, etc.) and the rising new order (trade, industry, technology, social and economic mobility, innovations in religion). Well, as we've seen, exactly the same sort of thing is happening in 'The Ribos Operation'.

Ribos is caught between an old pattern of authoritarian religiosity and the new possibilities (good and bad) opened up by empirical thinking, weapons, trade and money. Binro is caught in the teeth of this trap; neither free to think nor able to content himself with stories of battling gods. Strangely, the Graff is caught in the same kind of trap. He's a tyrant without people to rule. He's trying to regain his glory days, unable to understand that the world has changed forever and left him behind. The Alliance doesn't need him anymore; presumably their period of feudal squabbling has ended and they're becoming a mercantile culture, complete with mining conglomerates. His own people don't want him back. The Graff and Binro are shadowy reflections of each other, walking onto the same flypaper but from different directions: Binro was trying to go forward, the Graff was trying to go backwards. And so, inevitably, they bump into each other. The Doctor's not even there, but this is still one of the key moments of the story. Even at this moment, when trying to lie his way out of trouble, Binro instinctively comes up with a cover story that betrays his empirical habits of thought: he says he's "looking for fossils". Well, he's found one... it's called the Graff Vynda-K.

Binro then says that he sells the fossils, showing the way the rise of the new world of markets and money and commodities is inextricably linked to his empiricism.

But what about the apparent contradiction between Binro's empirical insights and the story's presentation of the apparently supernatural?  Well, supernatural elements occur in many of Shakespeare's greatest plays. Even Julius Caesar - sometimes described as a spare and austere tragedy - is full of ghosts, prophets, portentous dreams and weird visions. You have to understand these things as symptoms of the conflict between the old world and the new. The ghost of Hamlet's father is less an actual ghost than he is a personification of the dying age. Hamlet (deceased) speaks of the tormenting fires he was sent to because he was murdered while unconfessed (as in Catholicism, which was the "old" faith in Elizabeth's Protestant England) and commands his son to instantly exact bloody revenge in accordance with the old honour code. The Seeker and the Guardians in 'Ribos' can be understood in a similar way.

The Seeker seems to embody the old order on Ribos. She rattles bones while chanting about ancestors, she leads the story down into the Catacombs, the "home of the long dead and of the Ice Gods". Her persona unites the past generations, the old religion and the forces of Riban authority. She brings the brutal officers of both the Shrievalty and the Graff down after Binro and Unstoffe. And this is key: she unites the forces of Ribos and Levithia in a search for two hunted men.  When Vynda-K and Sholahk begin to despair of finding their prey in the catacombs, they decide to employ the Seeker as a hunting dog for them.  They're the ones from the world of technology, allying themselves with the world of witchery... and the link is in the brutality of oppression.

The Graff might be every inch the modern imperialist, sneering at the Ribans as "primitives" and "natives", but he fits right in with their witch hunt. As already noted, he's just them a few thousand years hence. He might loathe the Ribans and plan to slaughter them, but in so doing he just makes himself look more at home in their medieval world, strewn with bones and patrolled by monsters. At this level of the story, the Graff seems to fuse with the bones and the ghosts and the Seeker and the monsters and the forces that persecuted Binro. The morbidity of supernaturalism, the squalor of ignorance and the crazed imperialism of the Graff melt into each other. How fitting that he should die because - like some Islamist terrorist - he has tried to send one of his followers out to be a suicide bomber. Of course, he also resembles the neo-con warmongers whose cynicism and irrational faiths (in extremist free market economics, for instance) mirror and trump their Islamist enemies/counterparts in their levels of destructiveness.

This is why we can't just say that Binro's materialist and empiricist conclusions are an end in themselves.  Dawkins and Hitchens and so on might see science as a potential guaranteur of humane, tolerant, liberal, modernity which ranges itself against the backward, regressive, medieval violence of religion... and there's a grain of truth in that... but not when it is allied to the kind of culturalist 'clash of civilisations' hogwash beloved of Hitchens and Sam Harris.  The thing that produces both Islamist terrorism and Western imperialism is the system of class, hierarchy and unaccountable power that also produced the Enlightenment and the scientific and technological revolution.  We need more than just science and reason, however Baconian they may be.

Binro is no political philosopher, but he understands the need to protect a hunted man from guards.  His insights are superb, but so is his humanity and his resistance to power... even the power that comes stomping in from the scientific, technological future.  That's what makes him right.

A Critique of the Gothic Seasons

Yes, I know I've already done that joke... but it's too good not to overuse.  Here's my stuff from Timelash II for the first three years of Tom's tenure, generally regarded as the "golden age" (or something) of the old show.  Not much extra stuff.  Sorry.  Oh, one warning: at several points in the essay below I will be going into gush mode.  You have been warned.


Dafter than the Rt. Hon. Lady Daftetta Daftington-Dafton of Daftwood Hall, Daftfordshire. A robot that grows to the size of King Kong (and starts acting like him)... a disintegrator gun kept in pieces and scattered in different locations... a government think tank that turns out to be a cover for fanatical right-wing scientific 'progressives' who think a good way to take over the world would be to destroy it first... umm, well actually the last ten years or so have made that last one seem quite plausible.

This is set in a world in which 'bad' scientists are spottable by their evil suits and ties, their evil black armbands and their evil black leather gloves; meanwhile 'good' scientists all work on renewable fuels, have bottle-end spectacles (as distinct from the evil little Himmler spectacles worn by 'bad' scientists) and cardigans and wildly unkempt hair.

But all that is nothing compared to the idea that, as Wikipedia puts it: "to ensure peace, the governments of Russia, China and America decided to give the locations and launch codes of their nuclear weapons to a neutral country — Britain — for safekeeping".

Words fail me.

As in 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs', people who have an ideological desire to make a better world are portrayed as deluded, ruthless, callous fanatics.

Of course, you can simply decide not to worry about any of this (just as you can decide not to worry about the fact that the giganticized robot spends a lot of time carrying a wobbly doll and attacking tonka trucks) and enjoy this for the utter hokum that it is.

This is the last gasp of the detumescent Letts/Dicks comfy-cosy-nicey-wicey-matey-watey style (complete with the usual bit of largely-fatuous liberal/moralistic political comment). There's something melancholy about watching a story with the Brigadier, Benton, UNIT HQ, Bessie, etc... but no Pertwee. I understand why they did it that way: if this new guy drives Bessie and the Brig calls him "Doctor" then he must be the same guy. But it just feels wrong somehow. And the style is past its prime. It's done good service for a few years but now is clearly the time for it to be retired... which, fortunately, is precisely what happened. There are some eras that feel truncated wheras others end right on time, and 'Robot' is evidence that the Pertwee/Letts era was one of the latter.

I'll post something about 'The Ark in Space' seperately, and I've done 'Genesis of the Daleks' here.

'Terror of the Zygons'

Brilliantly done hokum. The direction is some of the best in the series: stylish, pacey, scary, beautifully cinematic (especially the location sequences which are amazing - they could be from a movie). Superb, eerie music. Great creature design: the suckered-foetus look of the Zygons is effective and memorable. Great Harryhausen-style monster, only actually embarassing when filmed as a puppet rather than animated.

Sarah gets to be a journalist again; 'Harry' gets to be evil; the Doctor gets to wear tartan; the Brigadier gets a lovely comedy moment that Courtney absolutely aces.

The Zygon shape-shifting stuff is well done, neither neglected nor overused. Nowdays, you'd have to have a scene where one of the Zygons impersonates the Doctor and/or Brigadier... but you don't need it. The point is made and is used to advance the plot when they impersonate Harry, the Nurse, etc. No overkill.

Downsides? Bit too much infodumping, especially from Broton when talking to Harry. And Scottish stereotypes galore. Och aye, pass the haggis Morag, etc.

Lovely touches abound, however. The psychic landlord stops playing his bagpipes the moment the Doctor walks into his inn.  And I love the whole queasy baby vibe going on with the Zygons. Zygons sounds like "zygotes". And they have big, domed foreheads. And live in a womblike ship. And live on the Skarasan's "lactic fluid", i.e. milk.

‘Pyramids of Mars’

Without the extended confrontation scenes in Part Four, this would be a solid bit of Hammeresque gothic fun (albeit tainted with the orientalism inherent in all these stories about ancient evil Egyptian curses and fanatical Egyptian acolytes).

With the extended confrontation scenes in Part Four, this is something extra-special. The awesome mask, Gabriel Woolf's terrifyingly quiet and cultured psycho voice, Tom's amazingly committed performance... it all does great service to the scripted exchanges, which are potent and thrilling.

There's something about the things the Doctor says here. "I renounced the society of Time Lords. Now I'm simply a traveller." No grandiose boasting, no messianic showing off, no fetishised superman posturing, no trembly-lipped emoting. Just a simple statement. It's one of the best Doctor-characterisation moments in the whole series.

‘The Android Invasion’

The plot of this story depends upon the main guest character failing to notice one of his own eyeballs.

'Nuff said?

‘The Brain of Morbius’

Superlative. Dark, grisly, funny, legendary. A schlock-gothic, politico-mythic, literary/movie-pastiche/parody with terrific verbal texture, hilarious but disturbing jokes and some deceptively big themes. This is raw, pure, quintessential, uber-Who, performed with a perfect combination of knowing wit and grim seriousness by a uniformly excellent cast. Special laurels must go to Lis Sladen for her astonishing performance during the 'blind scenes'.

Time Lords are not just a race of cardboard spacemen but an unseen Power, devious and dangerous, manipulative and unpredictable; when they go rogue they don't just turn into whimsical adventurers, sometimes they lead campaigns of conquest so devastating that they might as well be Daleks. They have war criminals and secret pacts with covens of witches. In short, they are the Greek Gods: phenomenally powerful but subject to human frailties and peccadilloes (but on a cosmic scale).

This is, essentially, a story about the need for decay and death. The Sisterhood have fallen into the trap of immortality. They've juddered to a perpetual halt and, without change and decay, they've become "quaint", weak, ineffectual, backward. They huddle together in ritual and eternal stasis, achieving nothing, blind to deadly danger under their noses. Morbius has fallen into the same trap. He's stuck in his absurd, megalomaniacal dream of continuance; but he's nothing but a remnant. His bid for unnatural survival has left him a powerless, helpless, impotent, raging relic in a jar, at the mercy of a mad servant.

Morbius at the mercy of Solon's whims, yet nominally Solon's Master; Solon needing his crazy mission as a justification for his own fanaticism and failure in life. The relationship of Solon and Condo echoes it in miniature: Condo is Solon's whipping boy for his frustrations (Solon and Morbius) and Condo is at Solon's mercy while he waits for the restoration of his body (Morbius and Solon). The ultimate in co-dependence.

All these sad and silly people, stuck together in a cul-de-sac because they've cheated or denied death and, as a result, lost the possibility of change and progress. How telling that the final battle in the story involves the two antagonists trying to regress each other backwards through their long lives. This scene works beautifully, regardless of whose faces they are on the screen.

As a reworking of Frankenstein (the movies more than the book) this is also an expression of what you could call the ‘industrial turn’ in teratoculture. This shift, which starts with Mary Shelley’s novel and becomes even more pronounced in the 20th century (especially via sci-fi), sees our monsters becoming man-made, or even mass produced; they start to become mechanical or cybernetic or semi-artificial; the monsters change to reflect the rise of industrial and technological capitalism, with all its alienation and destructive by-products, with all its mass production of machinery that seems to live beyond us and escape our control and even to turn upon us. (I’ve looked at Frankenstein a bit and suggested some notions of the monster as product, here). The other way that ‘Morbius’ reflects the modern era is its emphasis on the monster as “war criminal”. Solon doesn’t play god so much as resurrect the ghost of a defeated totalitarian dictator.

How can it be this good when it's the product of a falling out between two writers leading to a ground-up rewrite? Easy, when the two writers are Terrence Dicks and Robert Holmes. All hail Robin Bland - the ultimate Doctor Who writer!

‘The Seeds of Doom’

Never quite seen what all the fuss was about with this one.

Best scene? Scorby picks up a bit of beautiful scientific equipment and, prompted by Keeler’s whine of bourgeois distress (“careful, that’s valuable!”) smashes it to the floor, just for the pure fun of destroying something that someone values.

Meanwhile, the disenchanted Dunbar (lack of promotion is such a realistic motivation for corrupt behaviour) sells his information to Chase, a man so wrapped up in his own id and absurd fetishes that he seems detached from reality.  Chase is a bit gay (so is Scorby actually... well, and Keeler) but that's not why he's evil.  In Who, being rich (and emotionally closed off) is a much more reliable sign of evil than mere campness.

Oh, and I love the way Sarah gets as close as teatime scheduling will permit to accusing Scorby of having a tiny cock.

‘The Masque of Mandragora’

Well, it looks gorgeous. It looks like one of the early BBC Shakespeares, but with nice location footage too! Portmeirion really adds an authentic feel, oddly enough... but then it would because it's nothing but a huge, witty, eccentric, eclectic, pastiched folly, a bit like Doctor Who itself. It looks right at home with Tom Baker striding around in it.

And the acting is largely excellent, especially from Tim Piggot Smith and Jon Laurimore. There's some superb dialogue for the cast to get their thespianic teeth into. "They say there are places where the bat droppings are twice the height of a man!" is a particular favourite of mine.

The mixing of the Hamlet pastiche with the Borgia/Medici/Machiavelli vibe and all the gothic business of masked acolytes sacrificing maidens in caves is rather satisfying.

As for the themes?

Mandragora as the embodiment of superstition. It makes its home in caves, in a ruined pagan temple (which it promises/threatens to resurrect), in ritual and mumbo-jumbo, in blades flashing with moonlight before being used in the blood rituals of old Roman sects. It demands mindless obedience, chanting, fearful submission, etc. It is intellectually what Frederico is politically. Hierarchy, despotism, cruelty, mindlessness.

On the other hand, the Renaissance brought new ways of thinking, new intellectual freedoms and pioneering ideas... reason began to make headway against superstition... men like Leonardo embodied the spirit of the age... more enlightened rulers began to champion such things while old-fashioned despots started to lose traction...

The Doctor stands with the future, with the 'enlightened' ruler who's interested in optics and astronomy and new ideas, who invites scientists to his big party, who doesn't use the torture chamber in the cellar of his palace, who sympathises with the peasants, etc.

Well, Guiliano is very idealised. But there were people a bit like him, who wanted to rule in a more enlightened fashion. Of course, they still wanted to rule.

He's drawn from Hamlet (the young heir who mourns a murdered father, displaced by the uncle who murdered him) and that's apt because Hamlet is an expression of the new Renaissance generation... educated at (Protestant) Wittenburg, ironic, witty, sceptical, bookish, etc., but also torn by his lingering attachment to the old ways.

Guiliano wants to "rule over a land where there is no tyranny", which is an oxymoron if you ask me, but we know what he means. He wants to be one of the new, liberal, tolerant rulers who doesn't slaughter peasants for fun and who encourages the development of science. Of course, in practice, such people wanted scientists to devise new weapons (which Leonardo did) and wanted artists to paint gigantic frescos which would symbolise the power of their own regime (which Michaelangelo did). And people who questioned the status quo would still end up in torture chambers or execution blocks, this time harangued with ingratitude to their new, modern, liberal, tolerant ruler.

Of course, things are soooooo different today, aren't they?

Also, the opposition between science and magical thinking is far too unambiguously drawn. For ages, the people who thought of themselves as modern, enlightened, rational and progressive would still engage in the rituals of the freemasons, or the gibberish of alchemy, or the religious heresies of the Arians or Rosicrucians. In fact, much of the scientific and cultural advances in the Renaissance wouldn't have been possible without magic thinking, without the traditions of alchemy, without the economic and social power of the Church and/or the despots (enlightened or otherwise).

There's a danger with the kind of linear and stagist thinking (backwardness vs. progress; religion vs. science) that this story seems to be based on. It can lead to the kind of ahistorical, culturalist nonsense you hear from people like the Sams Huntington and Harris.

Also, the story fails to even gesture towards the fact that the Renaissance didn't just happen, that it grew from changes in the economy of Europe, from advances in trade and credit and the rise of a new mercantile middle class, about pressure from below, from ordinary people demanding political change so that the could enjoy new freedoms and social mobilities, etc...

But this is all nitpicking. The story gets the gist pretty much right and presents it in a lovely package of semiotics and narrative quotes. It's hard not to love something so sumptuous, especially if its heart is in the right place.

I've posted about 'The Deadly Assassin', here.

‘The Face of Evil’

This is easily one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made. Its method is the classic Doctor Who method: shamelessly raid gothic fiction (of both the literary and B-movie variety) for images and ideas, then combine them with its own peculiar perspective, creating a unique fusion. Its style is the classic Doctor Who style: a kind of halfway house between realism or naturalism on the one hand and discursive theatricality on the other. But the subject matter is unusual, possibly a first in the show: the Doctor himself. About the consequences of his actions, about the effect he has on the places and people he 'helps' and about his own understanding of himself, his own grasp upon his own identity.

The face in the title is the Doctor's own face, and every cliffhanger depends upon an encounter with that face.

The first cliffhanger is an existential one, in which the Doctor sees himself outside himself, as an evil idol, a sick Mount Rushmore (not that the original isn't pretty sick in my book), a trace of his forgotten past, evidence of his own effect upon an entire culture, an explanation of why the Sevateem think he's "the evil one" and an almost Lacanian moment of self-cognition, in which he begins the journey that will occupy him for the rest of the story; a journey into his own reflection.

The second cliffhanger sees rampaging monsters of the id, attacking people, snarling at them... and all of them with the Doctor's face (though Tom Baker's amazing technique is to make these monsters look more afraid than savage). Andor is killed by one of these Doctor/id monsters, little knowing that he is being killed by splinters of the Xoanon he prays to for salvation. And it's interesting to see monsters directly lifted from a gothic, Shakespeare-inspired, sci-fi B-movie as expressions of the id of Xoanon/Doctor... precisely because Doctor Who as a text is built on a foundation of lifted elements from just such other texts!

The third cliffhanger sees the Doctor's sanity under direct assault by his own screaming face, fractured in several parts. An evil, mad, terrified reflection that demands of him "WHO AM I?" (which, rearranged, is "I AM WHO!") in the voice of a child. Looked at one way, that's what childhood is: the period during which we wander around constantly asking everyone who we are. That's where Xoanon is, but he's trying to disentangle himself from his parent in order to find his own identity... but then we all have to do that too, don't we?

Beyond all this psychology (none of which has to actually be true in an objective sense for this story to be subjectively fascinating) we have an amazing, Feuerbachian analysis of relgion. Man builds the totem pole, falls down before it, imagines it to be an expression of something outside of himself and greater than himself... and forgets that he is grovelling before a material expression of his own powers, and a idealised image of his own capabilities. Religion as alienation. Xoanon is an expression of our alienation from both our own technical skills and production capacities (he's an artefact, after all) and our own image, both physical and psychological.

Plus Leela is a great character, a companion who is also an image of the Doctor. A dissident, a free-thinker, a sceptic, someone who has left her static society (by being expelled/willfully opting out) and struck out on her own. Louise Jameson puts across Leela's strength (both physical and intellectual) effortlessly, subverting the sexism inherent in the idea of a companion in skimpy skins, making Leela probably the greatest ever companion.

If sci-fi is about "the relationship between man and his tools", this story shows that relationship very deliberately and consciously. I think sci-fi is more the reiteration of myth and legend in the technological age... and this story shows that happening deliberately and consciously too. And both are shown from the point of view of the machine, the tool, the technology. In this story, the machine itself has lost the difference between itself and its creator, and is deliberately re-enacting mythology in order to express itself. That's where the themes meet, and that's why the story is ultimately so satisfying.

‘The Robots of Death’

Absolutely thrilling. A script that, for once, really is about well-drawn and psychologically complex characters interacting with each other in human, funny, scary ways.

Uvanov's obvious sexual desire for Zilda takes the form of hostility, probably because it is based on class envy and a deep inferiority complex. Poul spends the story circling the others like the thoughtful, reserved, removed, brittle voyeur that he is... and, underneath, he seethes with existential terror... and his existential terror throws a revelatory light upon the neuroses of Capel, who is trying to merge with the robots and control them, thereby neutralising his oedipal terror of the benign, obedient, emotionally blank things that raised him and accidentally screwed him up beyond redemption (just as they seem to have screwed up this entire society).

The unexpected costume and production design suggests an indolent, decadent, aristocratic culture. But these people are workers, in their own way... they need to be there for the minerals to get back to the Company... so... in this culture, where almost everything is done by the robots, to be allowed to work (even a tiny bit) is to be privileged, is to be the aristocrat. The products of human labour have now alienated humans entirely, even from their ability to produce things.

But, of course, the robots are slaves... and the masters are always terrified of their slaves. They're also repositories of human neuroses. Dummies onto which the people project their inner demons. And dolls, toys in the hand of a psychopathic child in an adult's body.

Meanwhile, we have Tom on worldbeating form, playing THE Doctor (this really is, for me, THE Doctor, in a very fundamental way) as a sceptical, sardonic, razor-sharp intellectual whose one-liners slice through ignorance and thuggishness... while showing immense respect for Leela and D84 (surely one of the most lovable guest characters ever). D84 shows the difference between Capel's false revolution (in which the robots just lose one master and gain another) and a real revolution, in which the lowest of the low (a Dum, for goodness sake!) saves the day with an act of self-sacrifice born of friendship.

Louise Jameson is marvellous, playing Leela as a true force, as a character who shapes the story herself. In fact, you really should watch 'Face' and 'Robots' together, as two halves of one story. Not only for Leela's journey but because they cover much the same ground but from different angles.

The guest cast (with one exception) are all excellent. The music, the model work, etc... all superb. The script is full of amazing lines. "Please do not throw hands at me" is the most simple, D84s little poem to the power of the Laserson Probe is the most beautiful... and ironic. A machine, a tool, rhapsodizes the capabilities (for science and violence) of another machine, another tool.

It just doesn't get much better than this.

‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’

Blissful, pulpy Victorian gothic. Literary pastiche that synthesizes something new and unique out of its borrowed parts. Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, Jekyll and Hyde, Fu Manchu, Dracula... it's all in there. A sort of voyage into our collective consciousness of pea-souper-ridden Victorian London.  The story and the society in which it is set keep on unfolding in new directions. We keep getting some new angle. The town, the characters, the interactions, the relationships keep shifting and realigning. We have carefully-executed forays into very adult territory. We even have a prostitute and a scene set in an opium den.  Of course, it's a "tissue of quotations", but isn't everything?

Against the psuedo-historical backdrop (and this story really might as well be set in the Land of Fiction), Holmes summons up a vast, complex, convincing and richly-textured backstory of future history in just a few lines of stunning dialogue. In fact, the whole story has a wonderfully extravagant verbal texture. The villain doesn't say "Why am I surrounded by fools?", he says "Your opium-sodden scum are all bunglers!" and "You stupid, incompetent lice! You crawling, mindless dogs!"

Tom Baker is at the height of his powers. The Doctor comes over as a man playing a game that he loves, but also as a deadly-serious tactician. Tom and the superb Louise Jameson (despite their supposed coolness towards each other) have tremendous chemistry. Their characters seem to have mutual respect for each other's powers, and the inherent imbalance in every Doctor/Companion relationship is here transmuted into a Guru/Trainee thing.

Great guest characters. Chang, despite his crimes, is no simple villain; he's devotee of a cause he believes in, a peasant's son seeking status, a man of personal dignity who exaggerates his accent and demeanour on stage to play up to the preconceptions of his Causcasian audiences. Jago is almost Falstaffian; a deeply flawed but utterly lovable old fake whirling around in a verbal tornado of fustian and flim-flam.

I think 'Talons' is clearly a bit racist (no more than many things) but it's a very complex business. I think it represents Chinese culture (or rather a second hand, pastiched and confabulated version of Chinese culture) according to Western assumptions and cultural tropes, i.e. exoticism (which is inherently a viewpoint that is imposed on Eastern culture by the Westerner), decadence, sensuality, enigmatic inscrutability, etc., as well as clearly making it a source of the uncanny, the menacing, and so on. It's a complex text because it imports these sorts of representations from its source texts... Sax Rohmer, etc... as part of its pastiche method, not as part of a political objective. And it problematises its own representations by making the ultimate source of the corruption in the story a Caucasian who has exploited Asians in an imperialistic way and has engaged in the kind of crimes of 20th century modernity that were common to both European and Asian forms of fascism. Moreover, he was overthrown by Philippinos... historically, the victims of a particularly ferocious campaign of Western imperialist aggression that the world has now all but forgotten.

More broadly, it's a shame that all the Chinese characters are either baddies or coolies or nunchucka-weilding thugs. But at least we are shown the racism of the Londoners, from the piggishness of the coppers to the condescending nonsense from Lightfoot about the Chinese being "enigmatic". The Doctor doesn't immediately notice that Chang is ethnically different from the Londoners and the story deliberately has Leela and the Doctor talking about the "tribe" in London known as "Cockneys".