Monday, 30 May 2011

Three Act Tragedy

And so it came to pass that Series 3 ended with a trilogy.  And Jack looked upon the trilogy.  And Jack saw that it was... umm... er...


Good stuff; the Master's return at the end is the least of it.  We have to put up with some of the obligatory "gee, aren't humans just neat?!" stuff from the Doctor, but it passes soon enough. Yana is a touching, melancholic figure. Chantho is one of my favourite characters in all Who. The scene where the Doctor and Jack finally discuss Jack's immortality is beautifully scripted and acted. The desolated conglomeration is beautiful.

The whole set up is pregnant with intricate, sombre, uncomfortable implications. At the end of everything, with even the galaxies disappearing... amidst a wasteland, haunted by a dead city and one lone survivor (who still clings to her obsolete cultural norms)... amidst all these things, there are two groups of humans... the unreasoningly fierce and cruel "futurekind", with their gnashing sharp teeth, their flaming torches and their mindless desire to destroy... and the refugees who huddle together for warmth; who value family and friendship; who have created structure and purpose out of bits of scrap, food and dreams of impossible deliverance... and the Futurekind want to smash these aspirations for no real reason, while the refugees keep building even as they near the point of maximum entropy.

This is 'Gridlock' part II... but it's less comfortable than 'Gridlock'.  More bleak.  More gloomy.  More fully liberal.  Hence, more reactionary.

The faith of the refugees is in a better world, like the faith of the gridlockers... but they refugees have given it a name that has political rather than religious associations. 'Utopia' is usually thought of now as representing some age-old impossible dream of social perfection and total human equality.  In the mainstream discourse, to be Utopian is to share the putative mistakes and delusions of the founders of the 20th century totalitarians. Lenin wanted to make a paradise; that's why he ended up making Hell on Earth. (This isn't my view, by the way. It is as simplistic and ahistorical as it is popular.)

'Utopia' is one of those stories that I love despite the fact that it's highly open to a reactionary reading (like 'Frontios' for example, with which it shares some ideas).

In 'Utopia', the supposed dual nature of humanity is externalised in the form of two seperate tribes (who fight for no reason, as tribes always do in this view of the world), one of which is 'civilised' and one of which is 'barbarous' for no real reason. There is no reconciling this 'clash of civilisations'. The nice people, who are associated in the text with science, technology, modernity, family life, democracy (via the concept of Utopia itself), must fight and/or escape the barbarians (with their medieval ways)... or be destroyed.

In the end, they simply have to leave the Futurekind behind (to die) as they blast off in search of Utopia. At least this story holds out some hope that Utopia (i.e. some form of social/political optimum) might be reachable... an avenue of hope that 'The Last of the Time Lords' closes decisively and brutally.

It isn't hard to see what all this points to. RTD is far too influenced by the Dawkins/Hitchens/Hari axis-of-liberal-culturalism for my liking.

But ambiguity isn't a bad thing per se. This story is very interesting and rich, so (as with 'Midnight' next season) the fact that it carries connotations that I find open to a reactionary political interpretation doesn't spoil my enjoyment.

In the end, the greatness of the story lies in the perfection of its construction. Every time I watch it I find myself wondering how it's possible to create a script that functions with such clockwork perfection without also creating something that ever feels mechanical. It has a organic feel to it. Every event grows from the events before. Every character moment similarly. Casual lines of dialogue kickstart psychological chain reactions that result in major plot eruptions.

It's a thing of beauty. It's very apt (on several levels) that the major emblem of the story should be a watch. A watch symbolises time. And structure. And technology. And the human desire to control the universe into which we're born. And it also stands as a pretty good metaphor (precise yet graceful) for the workings of the plot itself.

'The Sound of Drums' / 'Last of the Time Lords'

I still feel very ambivalent about these episodes. I've never really been able to resolve my feelings about them. This is a deeply mythological story which also expresses a great many political ideas. The Master in ‘Sound of Drums’ / ‘Last of the Time Lords’ is not just the Anti-Christ, bringing the tribulation and controlling mankind through their own follies, he is also a Blairesque opportunist who flashes his fake smile at the TV while using the state apparatus to arrest innocent people and scheme for war.

Trouble is, it's also highly steeped in both genre/cult mediocrity and self-referential/reverential Whoness. And the political notions are incoherent and self-contradictory.

The episodes hint at issues to do with propaganda, media manipulation etc. (even down to the Master commenting approvingly on the Teletubbies having TVs in their bellies). Are we to interpret the Archangel network as an expression of how modern technological media functions as a tool of power? How our media has now burrowed deep into us and become part of our being... this is psychologically true, and is on the brink of becoming physically/biologically true. A meshing of man and media/machine is a future dream/nightmare that many Who monsters express, not least the Toclafane.

Okay... but it essentially boils down to brainwashing, or rather hypnotism... which makes it hard to read the story as being an attack on the system itself, or even a reactionary whinge about stupid, ignorant voters giving their assent to dodgy characters (which would at least link up thematically with the Utopia thing).

But in this story, the system is usurped by a man who murders the real politicians... and he hasn't secured the consent of the electorate, just hypnotised them! Seems to me, everyone is let off the hook... despite some potential which we glimpse in the Cabinet session scene (a scene that seems all the more pointed in these days of the ConDem Coalition). It's all very well for Martha's dad to shout accusations at people on the streets... but even this scene, which potentially could've been extremely powerful and edgey, is rendered essentially meaningless. People voted for the bad guys that take away innocent people in unmarked vans... because they were brainwashed. So... what? This story seems to determined to assert that we're all guilty while also absolving us.

There is a determination in this story to acknowledge that people get deeply hurt by violence, tyranny, etc... there is an attempt at showing emotional trauma... there is an attempt to show people profoundly changed by long, hard struggles... there is a depiction of emotional/physical domination (especially with Lucy)... and an attempt to depict such emotional/physical cruelty as having sources beyond pure evil. However, people also behave in ways that are as convenient in plot terms as they are inexplicable and unbelievable. And there is a great big cheaty Reset button which sets everything right... except that it doesn't because, for some reason, some people don't get time reversed and have to live with their pain. Which seems a bit confused.

The Master is shown as a sort of wounded, vicious, sniggering, narcissistic baby... his triumph is the triumph of madness and delusion superimposed on reality by power. Yet John Simm plays him, at least for large sections of the time, as just an irritating pratt. And much of his immaturity is expressed in pointless villain posturing and/or equally pointless continuity references.

The cliffhanger to 'Sound of Drums' is a summation of the Master's malicious madness, a vision of the apocalypse reiterated in terms of technological alienation, a savage swipe at the dark inner sociopathy of necon messianism, etc... but its also a tired, wheezing genre cliche... not to mention the exact same mechanical-monsters-swoop-down-from-the-skies-and-kill-people-for-no-apparent-reason scenario as we got at the same point in Season 2 (still, at least this is only the second time we get it... I'm looking at you, 'The Stolen Earth').

And the dark heart of the story is the business of the Toclafane being the humans of the future. This continues the pessimistic, arguably reactionary message of 'Utopia'. Attempt to reach Utopia (the word carries unavoidable political connotations, even without the concentration of the rest of the story on politics) and you end up with tyranny, totalitarianism and mass murder under the auspices of a mad, opportunistic demagogue. Humans, in this view, are inherently savage creatures that will become sadistic monsters if just given the right push by the right kind of lunatic... and don't such ruthless loonies always tempt "us" with the promise of Utopia? This is political philosophy as practiced by Andrew Marr or Jeremy Vine. It's a perfect expression of 'original sin' as a political concept, of the idea that "we" are in some way collectively responsible as a species for tyranny and destructiveness.  It's as mainstream as it is cretinous.  As orthodox as it is ahistorical.  As thoroughly a foundation of liberalism as it is of elitism, authoritarianism, neoconism and even fascism.

This is why the sniping at the politicians and the Americans is so unsatisfying... because it's hypocritical.  We're obviously supposed to despise the sharp-suited politicos and the hubristic US Prez for their arrogance and untrustworthiness... and yet the story that lampoons and slaughters them backs a view of people and society (the classical liberal view of individualism = freedom / collectivism = destined to end in tears) that has just as much contempt for ordinary people.  Beneath all the superficial rhapsodising of humanity, the best they can do it find a saviour to pray for. 

Yes, the people of Earth find their 'better' side and express it... through the very technology that enslaved them and turned the future humans into the Toclafane. So, is technology our salvation or our damnation? I suppose it depends what we do with it. But we can't choose what to do with it if we're brainwashed, can we? Is this story about political opportunism and public gullibility (hence Utopia leading to Toclafane evil and the Master's dictatorship)? Then why is the brainwashing needed in the first place? The Archangel network business really does balls things up.  It even ballses up the reactionary interpretation!

Also, the Christianity of the thing becomes smothering. The Master must be defeated, and we get there via prayer, resurrection and forgiveness. It's recast in technobabble... but it's still evidently prayer, resurrection and forgiveness. The Doctor's hubristic and morally meaningless decision to forgive on behalf of others is exactly the same as Christ's. So, pray to the saviour and he will rise to save you from your misery, misery that stems from your own sheeplike haplessness in the face of power... and/or your guilt in bringing that misery upon yourself (we haven't quite worked out if you're guilty or innocent yet - see above)... and he will then make everything better and forgive your oppressor on your behalf, despite himself being deeply culpable in your suffering.

So, we're all guilty... and we're all innocent... collectivism (i.e. Utopia) leads to Hell... but collectivism (i.e. prayer) also leads to salvation... and we're all forgiven, whoever we are and whatever we did...

In the end, this trilogy is cast as a 'three act tragedy'.  The greatest tragedy, however, is that it could've been so good if the writer had only worked out what he was trying to say.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Village People

A (positive) review of 'Amy's Choice'.  Because not even I can complain all the time.

Okay, that's better.  The best episode for quite some time.  The first really good one since 'Turn Left'.  Nothing major... but genuinely clever and verbally playful, with nice imagery and a texture of ideas, hints and suggestions.

Simon Kinnear called this, with his customary acuity, a "Freudian farce".  The Dream Lord is the truth of the Doctor as an older man, lusting after a young redhead... or at least, lusting after her attention and loyalty and esteem.  He and Rory compete over her as though she's territory.  The Doctor wants Amy's bump to disappear so that the bumpless reality will prove to be real.  Meanwhile, the ancient beings inside the elderly Ledworth residents annihilate the village's children.  The aliens are even 'oral'.  "They're not going to be peeping out of anywhere else are they?" asks Rory pertinently.

This is all played for laughs and, refreshingly, it's actually funny.  (Thinking back, I remember quite liking How Do You Want Me? whereas Chalk just made me want to kick things.)

The unreal tweeness of Ledworth, which was such a bore in 'The Eleventh Hour', here becomes the perfect figurative backdrop to a story about people who are negotiating and renegotiating (with themselves as much as with each other) their emotional priorities and allegiances, their desires, etc.  In this story, Ledworth manages to be less the unironic cutesy St. Mary Mead / Avengers setting and becomes a bit more... well, it's funny but here they manage to make it both more real (with the snobbery of "Upper Ledworth" for example) and more genuinely dreamlike.  All the more dreamlike for being sparing with the wanton surrealism.

There's a witty aesthetic connectedness about it, even down to the way the shifts in reality (which seem like multiple awakenings from dazed unconsciousness) are heralded by the sound of birds tweeting, which recalls the cartoon way of signifying concussion as much it reminds us of Ledworth's rural pleasures.  The first instance of this sort of thing even has a neat verbal pun.  The Doctor slips into and then wakes from oblivion as he tries to say the phrase "good old days"... or should that be "daze"?

There's something smart about the way the three characters compare their different interpretations of the same dream.  The differences in emphasis are telling.  Amy's "little village" becomes Rory's "sweet little village".  The Doctor's "nightmare" becomes, for reasons of tact, "a really good... mare".  These are gags, but also failures to communicate.  For once, the constant quipping seems to actually be playful with language rather than just showoffish... and actually serves plot, concept and characterisation (at least some of the time).  And then, just as the puns are about to get tiresome, the episode realises this and starts playing them self-consciously, with the Dream Lord complaining that they're lost on the Doctor (and us).

Toby Jones is excellent... and his character is effective, not least because he seems more like the old Doctor (I mean the old, prehistoric, C20th Doctor) than any of the new fellas, least of all the latest incumbent (who is good, by the way, given something interesting and not-entirely-glib to do).  In some ways, the Dream Lord isn't just an aspect of the Doctor as he is now, he's also like a ghost from the cheaper, pre-HD, pre-Cardiff past come back to haunt the present.

Mind you, he also takes on the aspects of bourgeois village life, masquerading as the posh pin-striped consultant, the tweedy squire, the whingeing petit bourgeois butcher...

This is a bit of a blast from the past in other ways.  Entropy, such a longstanding preoccupation of the 'classic' series, comes centre stage again here.  Ledworth has a ruined castle, an aging population, people instantly dessicated and turned to piles of dust... meanwhile the TARDIS has stopped working and is losing all its heat as it drifts towards a cold star.  Even Amy's bump becomes significant... because life is the only thing that can fight a temporarily successful battle against entropy by creating and re-creating its own structure.  And via the pensioners-as-zombies imagery that it borrows from Father Ted's 'Night of the Nearly Dead', the episode makes time into a predator that relentlessly stalks you and threatens you with dissolution.  Life is a dream that passes in an instant, before you've had a chance to figure out what you really want... and the zimmer frames are chasing you.

There are all sorts of these half-glimpsed resonances, along with lots of gorgeous or amusingly callous imagery - the ice-smothered TARDIS, the lonely box drifting towards the cold star, the gleeful violence by and towards frail old people - but, in the end, this is a character piece.  Rory's gesture by cutting off his pony tail, Amy's shocked reaction, the Doctor's hurt look of bruised subjectivity when Amy asks "Then what is the point of you?", the Doctor's squirming as his other self taunts him with uncomfortable half truths, the moment when he and Amy clasp hands to seal a pact on the newly settled nature of their relationship...

One serious gripe though... why did the nature of the Dream Lord need to be spelled out so crassly and literally?  Couldn't we have been trusted to construe him in our own way?

Saturday, 28 May 2011

The Big Squib

Acres of irrelevant grumbling about the Series 5 finale.

Oh great.  River's back.  Again.  Un-yippee and un-hurrah.  Still, Moffat must have his opportunity to present female characters as self-involved, smug enigmas who lead men around by their noses, put them through hell for the sake of hapless devotion, boss them about and remain pretty little puzzleboxes that men have to try and solve.  In these episodes, he does this with no less than two man/woman couples.

The first episode is just loads of portentous narrative procrastination, albeit to a less egregious extent than 'End of Time' Part 1.  There is some pleasure to be taken in the cobwebby, Indiana Jones-film look of the underground chamber, and River's pleasantly spooky trip to Amy's empty house... but, really, how generic is all this?  A secret chamber under Stonehenge?  An ancient artefact that has something scary inside it? 

Mind you, they could've turned it around if the contents/purpose of the Pandorica hadn't been so obvious right from the start.  I can honestly say that I knew, ages before we were told, that the Pandorica would either have the Doctor inside it, or would be empty and waiting for him (especially since this story seems to owe so much to Alien Bodies).  The only thing worse than what we got would've been a gateway into another universe (a universe of evil, natch), which lets loose unspeakable 'Old Ones' or some other 'horror from before time' when opened.  So it could've been worse.  But could also have been much better.

Sadly, we are soon confronted with a huge alliance of returning monsters who, in line with Moffat's usual disinterest in evil, are trying to save the universe... by locking the Doctor up in a box rather than just killing him.  For some reason.

The Doctor indulges in his now customary bit of ludicrous, embarassing and deeply inappropriate macho posturing.  What a bad-ass I am, he essentially shouts to a sky full of heavily armed battle cruisers.  Laughably, they bottle it rather than just zapping him.  This is so dumb it defies description.  I mean, I know the Doctor always wins... but surely they don't need to be scared of him when he's standing in plain view under their laser beams, waggling his weaponless hands?  Just zap the silly sod!  You don't even have to go anywhere near him!

On the subject of that speech... really, when did the character turn into this kind of person?  When did this become the point of him?  I hate this depiction of the Doctor as a bumptious, boastful, mouthy, showoff incredibly aware of himself as a Hero. I realise the scene in question is meant to show him bluffing, but still...

The Doctor always used to occasionally be a bit big headed (i.e. "he's almost as clever as I am" etc) but it always seemed like self-mockery or good humour. These days the Doctor seems to seek out opportunities to talk like a lame-ass 'tough cop' cypher (i.e. "there's something you never put in a trap if you want to live - ME!").

For a start, is it really supposed to be a good thing that loads of people are scared of him, or think of him as a destroyer. Should he really revel in it?

It's all part of the abandonment of the amateur virtues for the professional vices. The Doctor should be a dilletante, a fartaround, a bimbler... who stands and fights (with his intellect first and foremost) against injustice... not a semi-professional capeless superhero who, when he's not ostentatiously displaying his jumble of contrived synth-eccentricities, is delivering long sermons about how dangerous he is.

Oh, and why don't the assembled monsters listen when the Doctor explains that the TARDIS will cause the cracks - and so, since he's not in it, trapping him will achieve nothing?  I mean, that seems like a very, VERY important and plausible remark.  At least worth investigating, no?  But the Dalek says that only the Doctor can pilot the TARDIS (which they just MUST know isn't even close to being true), so... so what?  Even if it were true, why does it mean that the TARDIS couldn't cause the cracks by itself?  Still, just go ahead and trust to luck... I mean, it's only the possible universal armageddon we're risking... and it's not like we've invested much time and effort in this massive conspiracy, is it? 

Head, meet desk.  Desk, this is head.  Oh.  You've met before.

Weirdly, the alien hoardes seem less scared of him when they are personally right up close to him; when, in other words, he's in a better position to do them serious, personal damage.  But they manage to get him into the box, which makes you wonder... oh never mind.  Said terrible, portentous, powerful, inescapable box turns out to be easily escapable almost immediately, natch.  How many times is it possible for a show to relentlessly undercut its own openly daft logic before viewers start feeling insulted?  Quite a few times, it seems.

The second episode is an improvement on the first.  Actually, the recap of 'Pandorica Opens' at the start of 'Big Bang' is better than the actual episode it recaps - all the essential plot points and none of the procrasto-padding.

I theoretically admire the idea of having a final episode which largely consists of people fighting the slow death of time and history in an echoey, empty museum... but, really, we are just watching corridor athletics, aren't we?... just set amidst exhibits of old tombs and stalked by stone Daleks... which, again, sounds great until you realise that none of these potentially potent signs and symbols add up to anything.

It kind of reminded me of 'The Creature from the Pit'. I'm not flinging cheap insults. 'Creature' is another story rich with signs and symbols and themes... none of which really connect with each other. They're just sort of there.

The first episode, for all that it was was garbled and naff and empty, did hint at possible developments. The business with the Roman soldiers emerging from a book in Amy's room, etc., hinted that we might be in for some voyage into metafiction... but, of course, nothing of the kind arrived.  It's just that the Autons raided Amy's memories.  Er, when?  And how?  And... umm... why?  As a trap, it's overcomplicated, random, and works only by sheer chance!

I suppose, if you peer at 'The Big Bang' intently, you can discern some themes about memory and loss... but was anything really done with them beyond playfully batting them around the place and then using them as the basis for a cutesy resolution?  A resolution which, ironically enough, was more like Four Weddings than anything in the Richard Curtis episode.

What does it actually say?  That remembering things can bring them back from oblivion?  Well, I hate to point this out, but... it doesn't.  It really doesn't.

Sure, remembering things can keep them alive in some form, i.e. myths and legends... but this story actually undercuts and undermines myths and legends by making them literal.  The ancient guardian stops being so potent an idea the moment you find out there actually is an ancient guardian... who is guarding the impregnable box which is keeping his girlfriend alive... for no reason at all.  Once you do that, it just becomes plot... and silly plot to boot.  As for the characterisation?  Rory appears unchanged after his millenia long vigil, even down to resuming conversations he had before it began.  Is this satisfactory?  Not to me.  But it does provide 'romance' of a kind so ridiculously over the top that it actually makes the Amy/Rory relationship less believable, hence less touching.

Oh, and how can Rory wait for thousands of years of history... if history's been erased?  Oh yeah, eye of the storm.  Like all the other things that need to be saved for the plot to work.  I mean, they really are just making this shit up as they go along, aren't they?  The stone Daleks are "afterimages" of erased timelines (umm... why weren't they preserved in the "eye of the storm"?  ...I mean, they were standing right next to the bleedin' Pandorica, much closer than AutonRory and Amy's corpse!) until they need to come to life, whereupon some Pandorica light can resuscitate them... which kind of works... until you ask why the Pandorica needs to be a life-support system at all!

I can't help but sigh with relief that we're no longer getting the kind of embarassingly hammy, OTT, semi-crazed, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink emo-porn that RTD used to serve up at the end of a season... but, for all that, RTD's better season finales had some semi-coherent Stuff To Say.

'Bad Wolf'/'Parting' (clearly the best) has the Daleks as religious (market) fundies, lurking behind a twisted, but scarily believable, depiction of Western media culture as a giant machine for the grinding up of people into raw material. 'Sound of Drums'/'Last of the Time Lords' has a real New Testament vibe going on and, much as it might personally revolt me to see the Doctor behaving like the resurrected Christ, it packs a genuine emotional punch underneath all the histrionics... and manages to be heavily political in a decidedly unstraightforward way.

Sadly, 'The Big Bang', for all the convoluted mytho-fairytale stuff and self-consciously clever plot dynamics, says zilch to me.  Which is quite an achievement.  I can hardly believe that somebody made a Who story about the erasure of time closing in on an empty museum, about stone Daleks, about ancient myths coming to life and convergences between story, myth and memory... and I don't like it.  How did they manage that? 

'Big Bang' is a Rubik's Cube.  You work at it, solve it, look at it and think... is that it?  Why did I bother?
There's a theme in there about the power of storytelling; about myths and fairytales and the dreams of children, and how they can represent deeper truths...but it doesn't amount to anything more than banalities and stylistic borrowings. And showoffish tricksy plot gymnastics.  And, after all that, it still basically relied on a great big cheaty Reset Button, didn't it? As bloody usual.

And how does Amy remember the Doctor back into existence/reality anyway?  She hasn't done that with anything before!  She says she brought Rory back but she didn't - AutonRory was created by the monster alliance and newlywed Rory is part of the cosmic reboot!

And why does Moffat always try to make wonderful places like museums and libraries sinister and scary? 

And I really don't know why Moffat insists on making the Doctor so matey with authority figures (i.e. "your majesty" on the phone). I just hate that.  I shall be accused of being ideological again... as though having the children's hero on friendly terms with loads of powerful establishment figures is somehow neutral, apolitical and non-ideological!

Monday, 23 May 2011

Rolling the Boulder

It's JN-T Day!  In honour of the late and much-maligned Mr Nathan-Turner - who rescued Who from the stylistic doldrums, produced a slew of stone classics and stuck around longer than he wanted to because he knew his departure would mean the end of the show - here is my Timelash II stuff on the stories usually called the 'Black Guardian Trilogy'.  Much undervalued, all three of them.

For John Nathan-Turner.

'Mawdryn Undead'

Once you get past the Billy Bunter bibble of the opening (and even that is pleasingly unexpected) this develops into a highly satisfactory bit of concept-driven sci-fi, cleverly using time travel (never a major concern of the old-style show) as part of a complex but admirably clear plot, aware of itself as myth-reiteration (immortality as curse, the Flying Dutchman, etc.) and with a submerged political sense in its depiction of crime, power, unscrupulousness and luxury.

It engages with the Who mythos without being enslaved to it, using concepts from the show's backstory to create a genuinely dramatic conflict situation in the characters' here and now.

You can see everyone's point of view here, even if you don't like the way they're behaving. There are no clear goodies or baddies except for the jarringly satanic Black Guardian, but even he works as a figure on the sidelines trying to manipulate and influence events through his conflicted avatar Turlough, who constitutes a bravura bit of experimentation: the companion who is unsure whether he's bad or not!

The production design is superlative... with the mutants' ship, the obelisk, the transmat capsule, the crystal, the stolen gallifreyan machine, the hall of portraits, etc., all impressing and lingering in the memory.

The acting is very good, with David Collings giving it the full RSC and Nick Courtney very carefully and skillfully delineating the differences between the alternate versions of the Brig. Davison is never better than when called upon to play the Doctor as thinking through events and figuring out his situation... and this story plays to that strength... also allowing him to bring an almost suave air of intelligence, particularly when he tosses the crystal back to Turlough with a look of sardonic calculation.

And you have to admire the sheer off-the-wall combinations. A public school comedy that develops into a story about time travelling mutants on a luxury cruise liner, featuring an alien teenager (though obviously played by a grown man) and one of his teachers being split into two personas... well, we've come a long way from stomping monsters invading Southern England every week.

It may not be as spectacular as some of the other stories from this era, but if this is the 80s show chugging along as normal then they're obviously doing something very right.

I make no apologies; I love ‘Terminus’.

It’s almost relentlessly cold, austere, alienating, unsympathetic, brutal and nihilistic, set in an explicitly godless universe which is depicted as teeming with sickness, decay, cowardice, failure, pettiness, selfishness and great crashing waves of existential boredom.

There’s hardly anyone or anything to cheer for. This is no morality tale. There is no clear Good or Bad anywhere (even the Doctor is being a survivor rather than a moral force). There are just loads of people trying to make do and survive in a hostile world not of their own making; people subject to all the frailties of the flesh and of the intellect and of the spirit.

In this way, it's a very realistic story.

Like so much Who it’s obsessed with entropy, everything is decaying, from Terminus’ engines to Kari’s power pack to Nyssa’s body. Like so much of this season, it’s obsessed with the crushing tedium of immortality, with how eternity becomes nullity.

If ‘Warrior’s Gate’ was about bursting out of the nightmarish continuum of history, Steve Gallagher’s second story is about how sometimes history just seems to judder to a halt, leaving people stranded in a seemingly eternal Now.

The Garm is stranded by the control box, unable to leave or stay and do what he wants to do. The Vanir are stranded by their ignorance and their sickly addiction (hydromel is clearly a drug rather than a medicine), unable to leave or stay and be humane. The raiders are stranded, unable to raid or escape. Moreover, these people are stranded by their own ideas and assigned roles… that’s why the story makes such a fuss over people (from Olvir to Valguard to the Garm) renegotiating their roles and changing their ideas. The lazars are stranded, apparently dependant upon a crudest form of make-or-break treatment before they get shipped who-knows-where by the company. Even Terminus Inc. is stranded in its crazy vicious circle of shipping slaves and lepers about the universe. It isn’t just an ‘evil corporation’ like the Usurians; it’s an expression of the futility of moving in circles without getting anywhere.

Terminus itself is stranded at the centre of the universe (which must be a metaphysical position since it obviously can’t mean anything spatially) and at a nonsensical everywhen. It must be eternal (even its construction can’t really be said to be its beginning, if you think about it) and that’s why it seems so still and silent; it is bereft of history, of the passing of time. Everybody there gets stuck in the stillness and the silence… and the boredom of eternally rolling the boulder up the hill.

This is why the reworking of the Norse myth works so well, because those myths are obsessed with people guarding things forever… and endings are always just smotherings and silencings rather than real conclusions.

It’s quite wrong of the writers of About Time vol. 5 to say that this should’ve been done as Wagnerian opera… it’s not about heroism or villainy or anything grand. It’s about the alienation of working for a cause that you don't control, for masters you don't see, in ways you don't choose. It's about the drabness and tedium and smothering silence of stopped time, of neverending routine and mindless circularity… which is mirrored by the mindless circularity of the paradox at the heart of the story. The universe itself is the endlessly circulating trap in which people get stuck.

Of course, you can break out of loops, as the raiders do, as Valguard does, as the Garm does… but, in this story, it’s hard. What Biroc does heroically and comparatively easily in ‘Warrior’s Gate’, the people in ‘Terminus’ have to do slowly and painfully and reluctantly. It’s a gruelling learning process for them, and for Nyssa, who volunteers to be stranded at the end… but only so she can break out of her own loop and help others break out of theirs.

Does it make for friendly, accessible, thrilling, inclusive family viewing? Nope, I couldn’t claim that it does. Did it alienate viewers? Dunno; maybe.

Do I care? In a pig’s arse.


Gorgeous, unexpected, sophisticated, ambiguous, textured, flowing, poetic, witty....

Easily one of my all-time favourites. It's a quality production, with some great guest actors (who really *get* it), lovely music, lovely production design, lovely model work, lovely costumes, lovely dialogue... it's almost too lovely, actually. The tone is opulent, louche and semi-comic... at times, almost farcical. It’s a panto [oh no it isn’t], but a very rich and strange one...

‘Enlightenment’ is an entirely fitting finale to the ‘Black Guardian Trilogy’ because it brings the running themes of existential tedium, immortality-as-curse and stopped-time to a head with its depiction of the Eternals as semi-tragic, atemporal, bored sociopaths… but it also seems like another of those occasional, thematically-linked stories about the nightmare of history as we know it… the history in question being the history of hierarchy and exploitation.

The Eternals almost seem to embody the various ruling classes that have plagued humanity. All through the history of class society, the priests and administrators and warlords and kings have controlled the means and technology of production, and have hoarded the surplus wealth that people produced through those means… a bit like the captain of a ship who keeps the prize when the ship was powered by the labour of the crew!

Such rulers have always felt more real than the little people (when the exact opposite was usually the case) and more entitled to be amused and pampered and served. They’ve always built temples to themselves, greedily hoarded knowledge (enlightenment) and always convinced themselves that they were immortal, little gods on Earth… and sometimes their immense power made that effectively true, but it also left them contemptible (though our own equally class-ridden culture tends to fawn over their memory).

All through the history of class society, Power has always used and abused the little people. The Eternals masquerade as a selection of ruling class and/or criminal bullies, employers and slavedrivers from Earth history. The very bosses who used the people as commodities to be owned and used. The party, with its congregation of the various overlords from every era (“the masters of sail”) always reminds me of the opening of Chapter One of The Communist Manifesto, with its litany of struggling classes. I suppose it's questionable how Wrack's pirate vibe fits in with this picture... but what were pirates (indeed, what is all organised crime) but the mirror image of all 'legitimate' mercantile capitalist enterprise? The pirates that Wrack copies were the outlawed cousins-under-the-skin of the imperialist navies that hunted them... though they were ultimately responsible for much less violence and theft than the official fleets of empire, or the seagoing mercantile thugs of international trade.

The Eternals quite clearly depend upon us, on the little people... though they get unusually animated when fiercely denying this. Their exploitation of the ephemerals for their imaginative abilities is analogous to the way ruling classes have exploited the labour (physical and mental) of ordinary people for the surplus it creates… always brandishing their stolen power as proof of their putative superiority, always angrily claiming that they are the ‘wealth creators’, not the helots or serfs or working classes who actually make and do everything real.

None of this is a moral question about villains and their dastardly deeds. It’s about history and the forces of production… well, I’d love to get deeper into historical materialism, but we’d be here all day. Suffice it to say that it works beautifully that the Eternals are just cogs in an impersonal machinery of usage rather than villains, with even Wrack being best described as a cat toying with mice. Even the Guardians seem more like the balancing counterweights in a system, despite Dyall’s “nyah ha ha!” moments.

This story presents itself as a straightforward morality tale, of a fairytale of Good vs. Evil. The chess board at the start points the way... but chess is also about something else. It's about social classes. Kings, priests, knights (i.e. titled thugs and enforcers) and pawns.  And its about usage. It's about the powerful gameplayers who use the pawns as... well, as pawns in their game. Just like the Guardians. Just like the Eternals. This isn't really a fable about Good and Evil so much as a meditation on history and class and exploitation and usage... about how there is a system that runs on these things, almost impersonally, and which can lead to great Enlightenment if the game is played out... but what’s Enlightenment? It’s the end of the game... and the opt-out clause from the system. It’s the choice to not buy power with someone else’s life, to not be a king sacrificing a pawn, to not buy "whatever you wish" by trading in another's life, to not treat another living person as a commodity.

The style is postmodern (which is simply to say pop-modernist), concealing some very sophisticated thematic machinery under an outer shell of pastiche, eclecticism and pseudo-cod moral philosophy. Even the inner cogs and wheels don’t really add up to any kind of complete or conscious Marxist parable (which would have to involve the ephemerals shaking off their chains and collectively freeing themselves). But all the same….

Sadly, it marks the end of another of those great little runs of consistently excellent/interesting stories. 'Snakedance' to 'Enlightenment' is a kind of mini-return to the great form of 'Full Circle' to 'Kinda'. It's over now though. But what a way to close!

All in all, it's astonishing how well these three stories form a thematically consistent whole, each of them meditating on immortality as a curse, on time as a trap, on the boredom of alienated existence, on stranded people, on the nightmares of history and on people used as commodities... themes that resound through all the better stories of this era, and even some of the worse ones.  Stuff this thoughtful doesn't come along too often.  If we (i.e. fans) had more sense, we'd be prouder of it.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Spot the Difference (Hint: There Isn't One)

Practically indistinguishable, aren't they?

Two utterly generic, handsome-in-a-slightly-unusual-but-not-too-unusual-way blokes, both with hairdos that were carefully shaped to look messy, both in geek chic costumes, both playing dreary 'modern' versions of fictional protagonists who have now become brands and nothing more, both as bland as fuck.

How telling that the RT can deliberately put them both on the same cover... without realising that, in so doing, they're demonstrating the paralysing homogeneity to which two great characters have now been brought by a cavalcade of cynical, philistine, cultural vandals.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Give Us This Day

One of the first materialisations of the commodity was prayer.

Monasteries were the producers and vendors.  The monks were poor and humble, hence godly, hence their prayers were valuable, hence they became rich... and yet the prayers retained their exchange value after being emptied of their supposed theological use value, which was composed in the specious poverty of their producers.

The commodity has always been a fetish, its exchange value always immaterial, its use value always dependent partly on our subjectivities.  The idea of damnation made prayer a commodity, just as the reality of cold made wood a commodity.

And the putative virtue of the monastery foreshadows the self-asserted ethics of the corporation.

This is not idealism.  This is real materialism.

Just saying.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011


In response to 'Day of the Moon'

So... the Doctor is now turned on by talking about shooting people and is happy to shake hands with a genocidal mass murderer.  Meanwhile, he hypnotises the entire human race into becoming unthinking, automatic killers in order to wipe out a race who stand around in corners doing nothing.

Of course, we know they're evil (and thus deserve it) because they're ugly.  And say generic evil things.  And killed a lady in a toilet once for no reason at all.

I can handle the Doctor having a different morality.  Shaking hands with Nixon (who was, by the way, as fascinating and complex as he was despicable... not that you'd know it from watching this) and utilising him as an ally.... yeah, okay.  The Doc's an alien.  He's not Noam Chomsky (not that one should need to be). 

The trouble is that Moffat evidently has no awareness of any kind of the queasiness (to put it mildly) inherent in a largely neutral portrayal (some digs about tapes and being "tricky" aside) of a man who conspired to sabotage peace talks in order to get elected and dropped tonnes of bombs (not to mention flaming glue) on a nation of poor peasants.

I mean, Moffat gets that Nixon was a bit right-wing... but this is expressed in a scene where his eyes boggle at the idea of an FBI officer having a boyfriend.  In other words, it's a cultural problem.  The mass murder is not on the radar.

"There are no monsters in the Oval office" said Nixon in that prologue thing.  Even I thought that just HAD to be intended as ironic or double edged in some way.  That it just HAD to be leading to some kind of criticism of the man.  What a fool I was.

I'm not going to launch a rant about US Imperialism... but America is, and was then, an empire. 

Moffat fails to notice this.  Okay, maybe that's not what the story is about... except that the story isn't just about 'America' as a culture or a nation of people.  (In fact, the American people barely figure at all.)  It's focused on the American President.  The American Government.  The American military-industrial complex.  The American federal law-enforcement service.  And so on.  They all feature.  Much more than ANY other aspect of America.

Moffat even mentions Rome.  An empire.  Is a parallel drawn?  Even obliquely?  Nope.  It ain't even on the radar.  In a story in which the Doctor explicitly (and fatuously) talks about "leading a revolution" against "the Romans", the Doctor ends up shaking hands with Nixon.

Do I want Doctor Who to be left-wing propaganda for kids?  No, of course not.  That isn't what I'm saying.  But pardon me if I can't resist remarking on the sheer mindless complacency of what I just saw.  The writer's sheer unawareness of even the vaguest of issues raised by the semiotics that he's playing with.

To move beyond the more predictable (for me) political whinges...

It's quite an achievement... to fill 45 minutes with the breezy, showoffish, tricksy manipulation of plot images and motifs, and to:

a) create not one of them... that's NOT ONE... that was vaguely original, that hadn't been seen or done somewhere else before,


b) to include not one... that's NOT ONE... actual, distinct, discernible IDEA.

Remember how The X Files was only any bloody good when it was a "monster of the week" episode?  When it was telling self-contained little gothic tales (which, if you were very lucky, were based on one-off notions and concepts)?  When it wasn't serving up yet another dose of tedious, drawn-out, obviously-made-up-on-the-fly, cryptic, overcomplicated story-arc, designed to raise unresolved plot points that would dribble on for ages and drag the audience all the way through the season because they wanted to find out about Scully's baby/cancer/memory/whatever?

Well, 'Day of the Moon' isn't just very, very, VERY much like The X Files because it is composed almost entirely of old hat, deeply 90s, reheated alien abduction/government conspiracy kitsch (garnished with tiresome quips).  It's also like The X Files in conspiracy-arc mode (and Babylon 5 and all that pompous, overblown, cult shite that RTD snubbed so deliciously and tragically briefly in 2005) because it contains no ideas... and yet still has the audacity to announce that you must watch the rest of the series in order to understand it.  It isn't just that there are dangling threads or curious lingering questions.  It's not that there's another segment of the Key to Time still to find, or that you're beginning to wonder what all this "Bad Wolf" stuff means.  In 'Day of the Moon', you're actually not given anything like a self-contained story.  You MUST watch more episodes before you will be allowed any kind of explanation for major plot elements of the two-parter you've just completed!

Of course, we're still going to get "monster of the week" weeks.  We may even get some decent ones.  But they will be diversions from the big, continuing, bloated, constantly self-deferring, idealess story-arc.

The really bleak irony here is that Moffat so obviously imagines that his stories are packed with ideas.  He's that blind.  To the point where he's actually prepared to insert a reference to "dwarf star alloy".

He inserts this reference - to one of the most idea-packed, conceptually adventurous, pointed, thoughtful and visually arresting stories of the classic series... a story that was actually part of a mini story-arc comprised of three self-contained and individually satisfying narratives! - into a scene in which the Doctor is being held captive by the American government at Area 51.

I mean... Area 51?  Area 51???

I fucking ask you.