Saturday, 30 July 2011

Beasts of England

In 'The Beast Below', you - as a subject of Liz 10 and a citizen of Starship UK - get to vote.  You get a choice of buttons.  You can 'Protest' or 'Forget'.

This is evidently an attempt to express something about electoral democracy.

Every time we are exposed to some unpleasant and uncomfortable fact about our society or our world, or even to a suspicion of some such thing, we are presented with an implicit option to protest or forget. Beyond voting booths, we have a set of these buttons inside our heads. When you hear, for instance, that thousands of dirt poor South Africans were forcibly evicted from their shanty towns and moved to settlements of corrugated iron shacks to get them away from the new $450 million World Cup football stadium, you have the option to kick up a stink or to sigh, mumble some platitude like "tsch, how awful" and then put it out of your head so you can comfortably sit back and enjoy watching teams of overpaid jocks play amidst the McDonalds adverts.

By the way, don't think I'm being holier-than-thou. I'm just as guilty of this kind of thing as anybody. God knows how many times I've found myself scrunching up a Kit-Kat wrapper and only at that point remembering that Nestlé are evil. This is normal human frailty at work, the understandable instinct to flee from guilt, as 'The Beast Below' indicates by showing Amy's reflexive, horrified pressing of the 'Forget' button and her subsequent remorse.

So, we are clearly banked upon the sharp and shaley shores of satire.

'The Beast Below' presents a picture of Britain as an island in space, a star-traversing city (after James Blish's fascinating 'Okie' novels, collected as Cities in Flight), with tower blocks representing counties... ah, we're already in trouble. So, everyone from Essex lives in the same tower block? Rich and poor side by side? Maybe there are luxury apartments up at the top, opulent penthouses above floor after floor of pokey little prole cupboards... but we don't see anything like that, unless we count the private apartments of Liz 10, but she's a problematic figure anyway (which I'll get to). You might argue that, in a lifeboat, rich and poor would have to budge in together... but a look at the stats for Titanic survivors might be salutary at this point:

Number of 1st class passengers: 325. Of whom survived: 202.
Number of 2nd class passengers: 285. Of whom survived: 118.
Number of 3rd class (steerage) passengers: 706. Of whom survived: 178.

Much as I hate to give Ben Elton any credit, I tend to suspect that, if the world were threatened with imminent destruction, something along the lines of the scenario described in his novel Stark would be nearer to what happened than what we see in 'The Beast Below', i.e. the rich would set up their own escape into space and fuck the rest of us nobodies. Mind you, that would be very shortsighted of them, not simply as they'd be left with only each other to talk to (a grim fate, as Elton's novel implies) but also because they need us: they live off our labour. Their new world would be a world without a viable economy, incapable of progressing and supporting future generations. They would just have to live on the support systems and luxuries they'd provided for themselves, until those support systems ran down and the luxuries ran out. As soon as they needed anything fixed or produced, they'd need grease monkeys, all of whom they'd have left to die.

This is not the version of things that we see in 'The Beast Below'. Indeed, it seems essential (if Moffat is going to achieve what appears to be his goal, i.e. a political satire of Britain as a notional totality) that Starship UK should have taken everyone along.  The enclosed social spaces that we see appear very communal, a bit like the deck of a cruise liner.  Social normality seems exemplified by shopping and cafe society.  We don't see any homeless people slumped in corners.  Nobody is poor.  Nobody appears to be producing anything.  This is Britain as a matrix of complacent consumers.  This is the social optimum that the space whale is tortured to preserve.

Now.  In order for this to be a satire or a polemic or anything like that, the episode needs to be (so to speak) conscious of the fact that it has depicted Britain as a nostalgiac, consumerist blandnessdrome that only limps along because it is parasitic upon suffering.

Does it notice this?  Really, does it?

Does it bollocks.

The retro production design amounts to nothing more than decoration; it connects to nothing in the story that might suggest an indictment of the reality of Britain's 'good old days'.  The shopping is explicitly celebrated by the Doctor and, beyond suggesting that the pleasures of the mall might be an escape for us from our collective guilt, there is no critique of economic relationships.  The visual quotes from the past suggest only a strained attempt to hammer home a kind of quintessential Britishness.  The indoor high street is just there to represent the 'normality' beneath which there lurk dark secrets... when, in fact, the modern high street is a physical compendium of dark but open secrets about capitalism.

The episode fails to sort out exactly what kind of society Starship UK really is.  There's a great ballyhoo made of the fact that it's a "police state"... and yet, it seems to be one on the basis of the consent of the voters (but we'll get back to that).  Also, it isn't really clear why it needs to be a police state at all.  Why do the Smilers and half-human-half-Smilers bother to send children to be slowly digested for minor offences?  Particularly when they know full well that such naughty children will be rejected by the whale anyway.  Why would it be necessary for the police to terrify the population into fearing to display curiosity about sobbing children?  Why do the supposedly quelled and repressed populace look so entirely sanguine as they hang around in cafes?

The business with the buttons could have been used to express the way that electoral democracy limits our influence over the Powers That Be to a regular opportunity to push one of a few pre-set levers. Our choices are decided upon, circumscribed and laid out for us by others, by a state that - in practice - is largely impermeable to change stemming from ballot boxes.  You may be able to change the governmental management team so that it passes back and forth between the wings of a political class, all of whom are more-or-less open about the fact that they represent Property. Meanwhile, you don't get to elect the police, the army, the diplomats, the civil service, the intelligence officers, the judges, the royalty, the lords...  You get a say in one sphere, once every few years; the rest of the time, butt out. We all know the kind of contempt that the media reserve for ordinary people who try to influence their society outside the approved avenues of an occasional vote, support for a mainstream political party or charity. They get called pressure groups (as opposed to the more neutral term 'lobbyists', reserved for rich and powerful people when they try to influence politicians), eccentrics, extremists, zealots, conspiracy theorists, politically correct wackos, bleeding hearts, rent-a-mobs, tree huggers, feminazis, etc.

The nearest 'The Beast Below' comes to noticing the existence and efforts of dissidents and activists is in the person of Liz 10... and she's the fucking Queen.  So, royalty has usurped the role of the dissident and the activist.  Dissidence and activism has become the lone purview of courageous individuals.  And Liz 10 is eventually shown to be implicated in the abuse of the space whale, further emphasizing the liberal "we're all to blame" bleat at the heart of the story's half-hearted anger.

The story takes for granted such ideological chimeras as the national community, with communal interests, communal guilts and a state that exists to protect these communalities. Everyone budges in together.  The population is subdivided by county not class.  Beyond the existence of a mockney Queen and a caste of monk/dummy guards, there is no class in evidence at all.  Power seems to exist everywhere and nowhere.  It is at once localised in the form of the Smilers and diffused throughout the entire population of voters.  Even the Queen gets to forget and become a powerless citizen.  In the end, the regrettable excesses of this willow-the-wisp power structure are depicted as misguided attempts to safeguard the common good, with all the people (via their contemptible moral cowardice) equally implicated.  The police caste must shoulder the unpleasant but necessary tasks for the plebs so that they may go about their little lives untroubled by the dirty work that makes those lives possible.  The most conscious, snide and cynical ruling class mouthpiece could hardly have expressed this bourgeois ideology better than Moffat, who appears to have done so entirely unconsciously.

The crux of the problem is back in the voting booths.  The voter gets full disclosure.  The state explains its crime to the voter.

Yeah.  Right.  Because the state is constantly confessing to us that we live in a society that is based on ruthless and cruel exploitation, asking us whether we consent and then abiding by our decision.

The way the episode presents the issue of the relationship of the citizenry to the crimes of the state (and/or the exploitative base of society, depending on how you read the metaphor) distorts the way it really works, in my opinion, to the point of blaming the populace and excusing the state.

I've made this criticism before and been upbraided for taking the episode too literally.  Trouble is, it's the episode itself which is too literal.

The issue at stake is a contingent, complex one: i.e. how structures of power are able to secure widespread public consent - tacit or explicit - for brutal and/or undemocratic policies and actions, while also presenting themselves to that public as democratic, peaceful, diplomatic, communitarian, an 'honest broker', etc.

By representing what goes on as a literal choice made by a fully informed electorate, the story actively distorts the truth of society, which is subject to massive systems of state secrecy, ideological conditioning, doctrinal systems in the media, reproduction of ideology in schools, systemic buffers in the structure of 'democracy' to keep the electorate out of most zones of policy decision-making.

Representing the state in the story as labouring for the common good, and as abiding by the morally culpable decisions of the majority who make their decisions in full awareness of all the facts and ramifications, only adds huge insult to grievous injury.

The episode confusedly shows the state as tyrannical but also seeks to spuriously dissolve the divide between state and populace by showing the state as honestly seeking the best ends for the population, offering voters access to the darkest secrets, etc.

To put it in inflammatory language, the episode tries to implicate the ruled in the crimes of the rulers... which, in some ways, is valid... but not without enormous qualification and contextualisation, if any form of honesty is to be preserved.  Yes, 'we' need to take responsibility for what 'our' state does... but the state as it exists (and as it is poorly reflected in 'Beast') is not, in my view, 'ours' in any meaningful sense. Moreover, it exists precisely to protect those it really does represent (the miniscule minority of those who own the vast majority of the wealth and property) from 'us'.  It is this very elision of a whole range of antagonistic relationships within the spuriously inclusive 'us', 'we' and 'our' of 'Britain' that makes it impossible to take 'Beast' seriously as offering anything like an accurate appraisal of what's wrong with our society.

For all that, the story does place Britain as a parasitic growth upon pain and suffering.  But in order for this to mean anything, we need to have some idea whose suffering is being lamented.  For that, we need to know what the 'beast' of the title represents (remember that I'm not just imposing this necessity; the episode touts itself as a satire).

Alexander Hamilton (whose vision of America as a militarily-strong quasi-aristocracy run for the benefit of the propertied classes has turned out to be the operative one) once told Jefferson that 'the people' was "a great beast".  Burke called them "the swinish multitude".  Shakespeare's Coriolanus uses lots of animal epithets for the Roman plebs he holds in such contempt.  Walter Lippman called the public "the bewildered herd".  Animal metaphors for the common people have been very prevalent from reactionary and even liberal thinkers down the centuries.  It's tempting to read the whale as representing 'the people'.  But, in 'The Beast Below', the people (assuming we accept that classless category in the first place) are sitting at outdoor cafes and shopping happily, forgetting the tough choices they've had to make to preserve their way of life because they have a functionalist state that bravely shoulders the blame for them.

Could the whale be the conquered and colonised peoples whose suffering underwrites the profits of imperialism?  If so, the text of the episode is being very coy about it.

I'm not sure that the whale represents anything.  I think it just sits there, looking a lot like a symbol or a metaphor without actually managing to be one.

Moreover, if it does represent any particular set of victimised and oppressed people then it hardly does them any favours.  The putative referents to which the whale refers would thus be represented as noble victims, upon whom rests the duty to save their oppressor via a superhuman excess of generosity towards them.  And, when it comes down to it, there is no doubt, even in the mind of the Doctor, that the lives of the parasitic shoppers trump those of the tortured oppressed.

Mind you, I'd hate anybody to think I'm singling out this story as something unusual. Doctor Who, like most media culture in hierarchical societies, is inherently prone to reproducing the... well, what would be a good phrase... how about "the manufacture of consent"?

Who just has a better rep than most shows when it comes to bucking such tendencies.

At least, it used to.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Going Native

Avatar is progressive in many ways.  It represents racism towards native people as stemming from imperialism.  It notices that imperialism is about capital accumulation, indicting a corporation along the way.  It shows an 'economy' in which spines can be repaired, but only if you have the dosh.  It metaphorically revisits the violent imperialist foundations of America - and any such settler colonial state - in a forthrightly disapproving way.  It supports the right of native people to violently resist conquest, even when Americans are doing the conquering.

Fair enough.

However, it is also deeply patronising towards native people.  To quote David Brooks' article in the New York Times:

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

And, even better, here's Annalee Newitz at, on the subject of Avatar and movies like it:

These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color - their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the "alien" cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become "race traitors," and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

Think of it this way. Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege.

All true, if old news.

My interest here is in the fact that 'The Power of Kroll', a Doctor Who serial from 1978-9 that could only have dreamt of having a hundredth of the budget of Avatar (and that not even many Doctor Who fans like) did much, much better.

It covers much of the same ground as Avatar politically.  It represents racism towards native people as stemming from imperialism.  It notices that imperialism is about capital accumulation, indicting a corporation along the way.  It metaphorically revisits the violent imperialist foundations of America - and any such settler colonial state - in a forthrightly disapproving way.  It supports the right of native people to violently resist conquest, even when Brits are doing the conquering.

However, it is much better than Avatar - and many such stories - on the matter of native people.

The Swampies - the alien natives in 'Kroll' - are not innocent.  Their existence in a 'state of nature' does not translate into either moral or intellectual purity.  Some of them exhibit dishonesty, self-deception, political bluffing, cowardice, cruelty, callousness, paranoia, etc.  Some are merciful, shrewd, etc.  In other words, they are not cyphers, mere noble victims or symbols of lost innocence.  They are people.  It is their similarity to the humans that is stressed by the characterisation.  The Swampie leader and his second-in-command in many ways mirror their opposite numbers amongst the human colonists.

The Swampies are not wise or mystically enlightened.  They have no access to higher spiritual truths than Whitey.  They are not mysteriously connected to their environment in a sentimentalised, Gaia-hypothesis-sorta-way.  Their conceptions of the numinous are explicitly shown to be wrong; something that some of them realise through observation and reasoning.  Their beliefs are just that: beliefs.  Moreover, those beliefs have a historical context that both predates their oppression and is then effected by it.  In short, they have a history and a culture that stems from their social existence rather than purely from nature via some mystical link.

The Swampies are not untouched.  They have bound books, windows, etc.  Some of them are servants for the humans.  They deal with a gun-runner for human weapons.  There are no glamourous Swampie women (there are no women at all - a serious flaw) for a white hero to shag... but the Swampies have had social intercourse with Whitey.  This might not seem like much, but it bucks the trend of portraying natives as unreachable or undefiled by contact with white civilisation, which is just an expression of cultural condescension of the kind that sees natives as prelapsarian children, while Whitey (for all his faults) is the bringer of adult knowledge.

The Swampies don't acquire a human (i.e. white) leader.  In countless stories about native people, whether they're encoded as aliens or not, the white hero becomes one of them and, very often, becomes their leader, or at least a trusted member of the tribe.  This is all about Whitey's desire to recast himself as a friend of the natives, to assuage the liberal guilt of being from a civilisation that has decimated native peoples again and again.  It is the desire for the victim to smile and say "that's okay, we forgive you".  It is still, however, an expression of the colonizing mission and attitude.  Whitey infiltrates, assimilates some lessons and then succeeds within the tribe, often then going on to lead and save it.  Avatar is possibly the most extreme example of this kind of thing ever made, more so even than Dune.  The Swampies are saved by the Doctor's defusing of the final orbit shot, sure (as is one of the humans)... but neither he nor any other human becomes part of the tribe and leads it to victory.  The Swampies reject the false friend Rohm-Dutt and lead their own attack, killing Thawn all on their little old ownsomes.

The Swampies do not 'win' in a way that relieves the white guilt trip by way of a pleasing fantasy.  Sure, the Refinery will close down because Kroll vanishes, so the Swampies'll probably be able to stay where they are... but they don't particularly want to stay on their 'reservation'.  They're only there at all because they've already been displaced from their home.  Staying there unmolested is their minimum requirement.  What they really want is to return home, but it plainly ain't gonna happen.  The Na'vi get their native world back, in full.  The Swampies never will, anymore than will the Nez Perce.

Sadly, both stories put the onus of responsibility - at least for events within the narrative - onto one villain, who is shown to act conspiratorially rather than as an agent of an imperialist state.

For sure, 'Power of Kroll' is not perfect... but it manages to be at least as angry as Avatar, without also sentimentalising or patronising native peoples, or coming off like a white guilt-relief fantasy.  In Avatar, the sole remaining human on the colonized world ends up physically becoming one of the natives and being welcomed permanently into the tribe as a hero.  In 'Kroll', the sole remaining human on the colonized world ends up encircled by hostile natives who hate his guts, while the Doctor saunters off, leaving the natives to decide for themselves what to do with their unwelcome final guest.  He offers them no advice, no sermon.  He evidently thinks its their business, not his.

That is why Avatar feels like a liberal complaint but 'Kroll' feels more like a radical snarl.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011


I can scarcely believe I'm doing this...

Saw the Potterocalypse.  Well crafted.  I've had worse afternoons in the cinema.

One of the most interesting things about the films is how much better they are than the books.  That goes for all of them.  This last is no exception.

Rowling is a poor novelist but Kloves is an excellent adaptor.  It's quite amazing how he streamlines the windy, pompous, digression-ridden plots so that audiences can follow them without flowcharts. 

Also, the films have always made Harry easier to like than the books, partly because Radcliffe is naturally likeable and partly because cinema can't give us what Rowling insists on foisting upon readers: unfettered access to Harry's every self-obsessed, uncharitable, weak-willed, petulant thought.  Again, in this latest film, Kloves helps mightily by snipping out acres of Potterian sulking and obsessing over irrelevancies, like the ancient and brief moral failures of mentors, etc.. 

Harry's wobbles over loyalty to his dead headmaster go on for faaaaaar toooooo loooooong in the book... and yet, in the film, even after all the set-up from the last film, we get only the briefest hint of Aberforth's resentments before Harry states that he trusted Dumbledore And That's All There Is To It.  Harry doesn't even ask the spectral Dumbledore about it in the dream/afterlife bit (which is filmed in a pleasingly 2001: A Space Odyssey-ish way).  I'm not complaining about this, but it's odd how breezy is the treatment of the whole Dark Dumbledore Backstory in Deathly Hallows Part 2, given how much attention the set-up stuff (i.e. conversations at the wedding, Rita Skeeter's book) gets in Deathly Hallows Part 1.  This is an odd but ultimately minor stumble, largely because this subplot is fundamentally uninteresting and they are quite right to sideline it. 

One of the worst of Rowling's many, many, many flaws as a novelist is that she doesn't understand her own characters.  She knows who she wants them to be... no, hang on... a better way of putting it would be that she knows how she wants her readers to view them, but this often fails to jive with how they actually behave.  For example, she damn-nigh instructs the reader to love Harry because he's kind and brave and heroic and full of love, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum, but actually depicts him (especially in the final book) as a thoughtless, selfish, grumpy, maudlin, indecisive, clueless little irritant.

Now, there's nothing wrong with having a flawed hero - especially if that hero is a teenage boy, since they're usually pretty damn flawed - but it becomes a problem when the authorial voice fails to percieve the flaws, and has the embodiment of moral authority in the books (Dumbledore) treat Harry as though he's a ruthlessly efficient intellectual humanitarian.

But then the embodiment of moral authority is deeply flawed too.  His actions make him - to any disinterested observer - a cynical, calculating manipulator with a revolting streak of sentimentality and an outrageously brazen habit of indulgent and permissive favouritism towards certain of his pupils.  Again, the author fails to notice this... to the point where, when she suddenly wants to introduce some fatuous 'darkness' into the character for the last book, she doesn't just ask us to ponder the manipulativeness that the character already gives off in waves, but instead invents a baroquely overcomplicated backstory, of tenuous necessity to the main plot, in which she implies that Dumbledore was once briefly tempted by world domination because of a (to add insult to injury) youthful gay crush.

Kloves and Yates (and their actors) are more perceptive about Rowling's characters than Rowling. 

We see this in the movie of Half Blood Prince, which allows us to occasionally see Dumbledore as a manipulator, makes the Slughorn subplot work by subtly shifting him so that he becomes a fundamentally decent but lonely old man instead of a crass and venal twerp, and borderline-miraculously makes the Harry/Ginny romance seem credible by making Ginny resemble a human being with an independent moral identity which guides Harry back from the brink.

In Deathly Hallows Part 2, Kloves and Yates try to do something similar with Snape... however, for me, it doesn't quite work.  Or rather, it works... but it's not particularly interesting.

In the final novel, Rowling pulls her usual trick of depicting the character one way through his actions but then implying ('commanding' might be more accurate) that the reader should judge him in a way that is inconsistent with them.  We already know - from Half Blood Prince (the novel) that Snape informed Voldemort about Sybil Trelawney's prophecy... which led Old Voldy (in a rare moment of proactivity) to hunt the Potters, believing that their infant son was a possible future nemesis.  In Deathly Hallows (the novel), we learn that Snape is distraught by this because he loves Lily Potter.  (In Rowlingworld, you meet the love of your life when you are both pre-pubescents and never waver from this.  According to her, I should still be in love with a girl called Angharad who lived across from me when I was 7.)

But the thing is... Snape is bothered only by the danger to his beloved Lily.  He doesn't care about her husband or infant son getting killed.  It's clear that he wouldn't care at all if Voldemort had interpreted the prophecy differently and gone after, say, the Longbottoms and baby Neville.  In other words, he's a selfish and callous shit.  Rowling, however, seems to believe that a doglike devotion to one particular person redeems you, even if that person is dead and you care nothing for anyone living.

Now, Deathly Hallows Part 2 does not refer to the fact that it was Snape who told Voldemort about the prophecy.  This strikes me as very important.  The film goes all out to make the Snape story into a heartrending tragedy, so it has to whitewash him.  It is impossible to go for the same intended effect of the book (i.e. poor Snape, he was a sad case really, he saw the light and bravely became... etc., etc.) while retaining one of the most crucial aspects of the book's story.  Snape's culpability is actually first revealed in Half Blood Prince (novel), but the film version of HBP doesn't mention it either.  It has to be suppressed so that the films can carry off their avowed intent of making Snape a tragic hero. 

The trouble is that whitewashing Snape's worst crime and the selfish character of his subsequent regret, thus allowing audiences to percieve him as a tragic hero, actually squanders an opportunity to yank something genuinely interesting, possibly even challenging, from the rubble of Rowling's mediocrity.  Well-crafted as this final Potter movie undoubtedly is, most especially in the affecting and nuanced performance given by Rickman, it contents itself with being a mere tearjerker. 

What if Kloves and Yates had shown us Snape's full culpability, and refused to flinch from depicting the purely selfish nature of his regret?  What if they had also refrained from mustering all the rhetoric of cinema to instruct the audience to feel sad for him?  They could have avoided Rowling's confused take on the character, offered a gargantuan audience something other than cliche and said something very unRowlingy on the subject of love. 

You see, to Rowling, love - in the most simplistic form imaginable - conquers and excuses all.  But for Snape - although Rowling seemingly never realised it - love was a selfish ravening monster and a form of moral myopia that paradoxically lead him to betray the leader who, in all other respects, was his perfect master.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Welcome Matt

Timelash II.  Series 5.  You know the drill.  Thank goodness this tiresome, needless, self-imposed task is now almost over.

The Eleventh Hour

How interesting that, whereas RTD usually got public figures to play themselves in contexts that took the piss out of them (even if they didn't realise it), Moffat drafts Patrick Moore and casts him as a prestigious and influential expert with a naughty twinkle in his eye, rather than as a sexist, right-wing old pratt.

I'll post seperately on The Beast Below.  I've looked at the heavily biased and ideological representation of Churchill in Victory of the Daleks here.  The only other thing to note about that wretched story is the cynicism with which the Daleks have been redesigned in order to launch a new range of toys. 

The Angels Two-Parter

I like the bit with the angel on the screen.  Nice bit of appropriation from J-horror.

Otherwise... well, I'll once again quote my friend vgrattidge-1, who captures it concisely:

Just what 'Who' needed - another straight-to-video style 'Aliens' rip-off that undermines a brilliant (one-off!) monster and makes them behave in illogical ways for plot expediency, plus the smug and annoying River Song (I just can't bring myself to care what relationship she has with the Doctor) and well, not much else. It's hollow stuff with the Doc making another tough-guy speech before firing a gun...Yawn

One interesting thing about this story is the matter of the Church Soldiers (related to the Church Police perhaps... will they be investigating dead Bishops on the landing and rat tart?). I remember Paul Cornell saying he was grateful to Moffat for his generosity in portraying relgious people in a positive light. So... Paul sees it as positive when monks are shown going around in fatigues, obeying orders within a military hierarchy and carrying machine guns? How telling.

Vampires of Venice was too boring to write about.  Here is my (positive) look at Amy's Choice.

The Hungry Earth / Whatever the Other One was Called

The Silurians become dull, generic reptile aliens... and, as I recall, such reptile aliens featured in one of the very few half-decent episodes of ST: Voyager, which actually tried to intelligently investigate some of the cultural ramifications of 'common descent', etc. It comes to something when Who can't even do reptile aliens better than Voyager.

The less likeable side of Star Trek actually provides the inspiration for story. It resembles the worst excesses of Trek when it's in liberal-moralising-allegory mode. There is the fatuous treatment of racial suspicion, the vapid semi-allusions to Israel/Palestine (lets get round the table and sort out a deal... all we need is a reasonable negotiating partner!), etc.

Worse, it wants to have its cake an eat it. On the one hand there is the morally myopic liberal fingerwagging at nasty old inherently-xenophobic humans... but this contradicts the half-assed (bordering on offensive) subtext about Guantanamo Bay / Abu Ghraib, where the mother who tortures a recalcitrant and inherently hostile Arab terrorist... sorry, I mean a Silurian... for information is shown to be acting from understandable necessity. It's the televisual equivalent of Sam Harris and Alan Dershowitz advocating torture.

The Doctor's moral compass is symptomatically skewiff too. He declares his love for a Silurian liberal scientist... who was until just then conducting scientific experiments on living human subjects.

Also, as Charles Daniels has pointed out, the story suggests that the way to tackle problems like racial prejudice is to do nothing, sit back and wait for the human race to 'progress' all by itself.

Vincent and the Doctor

I'd been very disappointed with most of the celeb historicals up to this point. I think there's something inherently flawed in the notion of gawping at historical figures like modern celebrities. And I'm not - to put this mildly - a fan of Richard Curtis. So I approached 'Vincent and the Doctor' with a high degree of wariness.

I ended up gushing about it. I might be a bit less ardent now that I've calmed down, gotten over the sheer relief of seeing something watchable after the Chibnall/Silurians atrocity and rewatched 'Vincent' a couple of times in a more balanced frame of mind... but I still like this a lot.

Mind you, I have some whinges (you'll all be stunned to learn). Even as the episode tries to stress the artistic value of his work, it skirts close to 'Unicorn and Wasp' territory by repeatedly contrasting the billions that the paintings are worth today with their original neglect. It's hard not to detect an obsession with the posthumous monetary value of the paintings in all the scenes where people refuse to trade a glass of wine for a self-portrait, or in the bits where the Doctor flinches as Vincent leaves mug rings on a canvas.

Gallibase forum regular Affirmation almost immediately reminded me of some Curtisian tweeisms in the script... but he agreed with me that the story was absolutely beautiful to look at. The recreations of Vincent's pictures were done with just the right degree of similarity to the famous images that we knew what we were looking at, but were not so slavishly similar as to detract from the great leaps of visual imagination that Vincent put into his representations of these scenes. After all, if the real scenes had looked exactly like the paintings, wherein lies the interpretive genius of the artist?

The skeletal plotette about the monster was just substantial enough to provide a framework. The idea of making the monster visible only to Vincent was a simple and direct way of expressing both his talent and his isolation. The nature of the beast - as a blind, lonely figure abandoned by a "brutal race" that leaves the weak behind - chimed with Vincent's isolation in terms that skirted pretty close to being sledgehammer obvious... but just got away with it. All in all, I appreciate the willingness of the story to allow in some poetic metaphors... particularly in the discussion of the simultaneous beauty and morbidity of sunflowers. Sadly, there is also a tendency for the characters to explain the metaphors to us...

For once we get a depiction of the historical celeb as a weak individual. He is also shown being obsessive, sullen, violent in his passions, irritable, sentimental, lustful... perhaps more of his dark sides should and could have been looked at, but it isn't the same as giving Churchill a free ride. Van Gogh, after all, never bombed anyone. He was not powerful... except as an artist. This may be the single biggest plus point in the episode's favour... for once, the celeb in the historical isn't an icon of the establishment, isn't powerful or rich, isn't a success or a star in his own lifetime, isn't a swanky well-to-do type... And, although the Doctor is horrified by the idea of getting Vincent prematurely killed, the episode also remembers that non-artistic-heroes have valuable lives that deserve respect, hence the scene with the village girl's funeral procession.

Van Gogh is a painter who is sometimes downplayed nowadays, ironically enough because of his immense popularity... but he was undoubtedly a great painter and a fitting subject for a fulsome tribute. Actually, the tribute probably is too fulsome. I think it's going too far to state, as though it's an objective fact, that Vincent was "the greatest artist who ever lived". Apart from anything else, it's not a contest.

It's also a bit of a shame that the episode feels the need to validate Vincent to us (and himself) by relying on the (admittedly sincere and nicely acted) praise of an art expert... especially since the episode captures Vincent's enormous posthumous popularity with the people, but fails to capture one of the most powerful essences of his work: the sheer, empathic democracy of it. He was a great painter of ordinary people... one of the greatest, arguably. From The Potato Eaters, through his paintings of his postman, of prisoners circling in a jailhouse yard, of sowers of seeds... Vincent was an artist who had immense respect for ordinary people and their labour, expressing their individuality and dignity. I'm far from an expert, but I suspect overstatement in the scenes where he is all but pursued by as-good-as pitchfork-wielding villagers who think he's a sort-of walking curse.

The story perhaps overstates the effect of the depression on Vincent's work. Lots of critics will say that the late, great paintings are so superbly wrought on a technical level that they can only be the work of a man in control of himself.

Still, points must go out for showing museums and art to the viewing kids without snobbery or psuedo-populist sneering. I loved that Amy should turn out to be a fan of Vincent, should view a trip to the gallery as a treat. Amy is at her sweetest in this episode. She's a character I have serious issues with, but here I can like her. Karen Gillan (who has never been the problem) excels... even, at times, stealing the show from the superb Tony Curran.

I could've lived without the bloody pop song, but the sentimentality was kept at a just-about-bearable level. Maybe it seems less aggravating in this story because the obligatory attempt to make us mist-up actually has an emotionally meaningful referent, for once. Perhaps the fact that the episode had to have an unhappy (or at least complicatedly happy) ending acted as a vital disciplining factor upon the evil rom-com writer that has taken over Curtis' brain since he co-wrote Blackadder II.

The final image of the sunflowers with "for Amy" added was gooey sentiment, sure... but it also expresses the way the Doctor and his friends seem to leave their mark on time. It was a little bit of time graffiti, left by Amy through her friend Vincent, through the brief but sweet connection she made with him. Amy showed her childlike side with her expectation that they'd saved Vincent from his demons. I dreaded seeing loads of fake "new" Van Gogh's in the gallery (in the end, we get one in the season finale... and proper ghastly it is too). But they had the basic guts to leave the ending of the episode bittersweet, to not trivialise Vincent's problems by magicking them away after one adventure with the Doctor.

The Doctor plainly never expects that his 'gift' to Vincent will change anything, precisely because he realises something that Amy hasn't quite caught: that Vincent's deepest problems remain unsolved, that he is still on course to his self-imposed quietus.

The Doctor's act is charity and is just as unsatisfactory as all charity. But the episode doesn't dodge this (oddly enough, considering who wrote it). That's the brutal truth about depression: sometimes all you can do is try your best to palliate. It's better than simply abandoning people to their lonely fate, the way those nomadic turkey aliens do.

This is a serious issue, treated fairly well... with even witty moments that mock the possibility of a more earnest approach, especially in the lovely little bit when the Doctor starts talking solemnly and awkwardly about the complexity of depression, only to be shushed by an uninterested Vincent who is trying to work.

The Lodger

An attempt to redo 'Love & Monsters' with just the cute bits... all the sharp edges sand-papered smooth, all the dark corners brightly lit and all the creepy, mordant undercurrents drowned in gallons of puréed rom-com.

Even Gareth Roberts can usually do better than just reworking the usual will-they-or-wont-they? (yes, of course they will) subplot from a thousand tedious sitcoms. It doesn't make the cliché any less clichéd if you cast people who are overweight or have slightly-less-than-model-looks in the roles: it's still those same shiny, happy, cutesy tedium-engines from Friends, just in self-consciously unglamorous Brit disguises.

Meanwhile, call centres look like quite nice places to work.

The sci-fi subplot is pure Moffat, oddly enough. Malfunctioning runaway tech, little girl, etc. And, naturally, the day can only be saved by Craig declaring his love for Sophie. Funny how these things turn out, ain't it?

Mind you, this isn't actively offensive... which is relatively good going for an episode of Series 5.

It starts quite well, with the Doctor's lovely self-description: "not a young professional... more an ancient amateur". Sadly, the Doctor's eccentricity and quirky wisdom are overplayed and overstated to the point where he becomes a totally characterless blur on the screen.

Oh, and it's nice to see James Corden (a man of no discernible talent whatever)... because, y'know, that guy really wasn't on TV enough in 2010.

I've whinged about the closing two-parter, here.

A Christmas Carol

This is beyond bad. This is borderline sinister.

If anything bit the Doctor on the bum in the last story, it failed to bring him down a peg. On the contrary, his hubris, high-handedness, offhand self-appointed puppetmastery and unaccountable meddling know no bounds here.

He actually goes back into a man's life and fiddles with it - as the man watches!

Ebeneezer Scrooge was made to think. He was asked to contemplate his past, present and future. He was persuaded.

Sardick, by contrast, is simply rewritten. His past is invaded. Essentially, his innermost self is violated.

Yes, he was a bastard... but that isn't the issue.  The issue is one of choice.  Offer a person your influence or even opposition and you open up future choices.  Meddle in a person's past (against their wishes!) and you not only ignore their free will in the present but also obviate their self-creation in their own past!

Aside from real ethical considerations, this is the exact opposite of the Doctor's often-stated creed. From 'The Mind Robber' to 'Masque of Mandragora' to 'New Earth', he has championed the freedom to choose and self-create. One cannot alter one's past but one can always choose one's future, within external limitations... and one's past is the history of one's previous acts of self-creation.

You could argue, I suppose, that young Sardick has as much freedom with the Doctor as he had without. He's free to accept or reject the influence of the time traveller. But, at the risk of sounding tautological, the issue of time travel itself (specifically: foreknowledge) is what makes the Doctor's meddling different to, say, the contemporary influence of a parent or teacher. It puts the Doctor in the god spot. He gets to know the possible objectives and results, like someone peeking at the answers page in a quiz book as they do the crossword. He has a 'desired version' of Sardick that he can aim at as he shapes the man's life. The Doctor has become the controller of Sardick's existence and identity. "Hey Kazran", he effectively says, "you are free to choose... to be who and what I design you to be!"

I realise that the story lends support to the idea that we're products of our upbringing and experiences, so there's no intimation that people can be 'born bad' in any simple way.  Which is good.  But the script substitutes its own determinism in the form of the Doctor's enforced moral hegemony.

And as for Abigail... her freedom of choice doesn't appear to occur to anybody as worth considering!  As Gallibase poster LucasS put it:

What offends me here - and I am rarely offended by Who - is the treatment of Abigail. She is given no real character of her own but is treated like a glorified sex doll, dragged out of her cupboard whenever the boys want some fun. She has no say in which of her remaining days she would like to spend. She is used, if not abused, throughout. And this is apparently a heartwarming triumph.

Sardick gets to have an angry moment where he bitterly condemns the Doctor for changing his life and thus breaking his heart.  But the interesting thing about the ending - which shows Sardick flying off into the sky next to his blondcicle plaything, gloriously happy despite the fact that she's got a day to live - completely proves the Doctor's point about "better a broken heart than no heart at all", thus explicitly undercutting Sardick's objections and criticisms, vindicating the Doctor's actions and endorsing his manipulation of the man's life.

And then there's the question of all the other frozen people. I suppose the New Improved Sardick Mk II (© The Doctor) will free them. But maybe he wont, for all the Doctor knows or appears to care.  It never even occurs to the Doctor that it might be a priority to free loads of people who are being held captive as literal collateral in the vault of a rich bastard.  Who is this man?  I don't recognise him, even with his two-faced little speech about never having met an unimportant person. It's clear that the important people are the rich or the pretty. As in 'Voyage of the Damned', there is an attempt to cover this up by making the special little buttercup at the centre of the story into someone lowly... which is undermined by casting a glamorous star.

Aside from the dubious ethics and hypocrisy, what about the level of hubris on display? And we're meant to find it cute, funny and inspiring?

Moreover, this is a demonstration of how Moffat views plot. Just rewrite it as you go along. As long as you can dress it up in a time paradox and garnish it with a vulnerable child...

Lets ignore the fact that the Doctor's actions create a paradox (because if we go down that road we'll end up arguing about how Scaroth could possibly expect his plan to work)... the problem here is that they undermine the whole notion of story itself. In 'Smith and Jones', the Doctor's tie trick ties the story in a bow, illustrates a concept, allows the episode to do something unexpected and makes a character point. In 'A Christmas Carol', the Doctor obviates narrative itself.  And not in the constructive way that narrative is interrogated and deconstructed by, say, modernist literature or surrealist film.

And the episode inherits and exacerbates a problem within its source book. Reform the nasty rich bastard and everything will be okay. Mind you, in just about every other way, this libels Dickens. In Dickens, Scrooge gets reformed partly by seeing the parties of his youth when he was an apprentice at Mr Fezziwig's. They were great social occasions, levelling occasions even. Everyone was invited and everyone had fun. In Moffat, the parties that help to reform Sardick are debauched celeb bashes where the Doctor flirts with Marilyn Monroe (who is, incidentally, talked about as though she actually was nothing but the man-crazy bimbo she sometimes played).

And then we have Amy and Rory indulging in oddly clashing cosplay, for no reason but to titilate the audience.

And flying sharks? How lazy and dull is that? We're supposed to thrill to the imagination on display, yet its meagreness would be demonstrated by just about any of the kids watching as soon as they get given a piece of paper, some felt tips and the freedom to draw anything that comes into their heads.

Worthless, verging on nasty.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Little People

The inevitable round-up of my Timelash II stuff on Series 4 and the 'specials'.  It's a bumpy ride.

Voyage of the Damned

In this story, fat people or little people are there to sacrifice themselves when the plot needs them to, having shown some fatuous mechanical bravery and/or expressed some mawkish emotion-by-numbers. Sexy, pretty people are inherently of more value, whatever their intellectual vapidity and hollowness as characters, as evidenced by the Doctor's laughably protracted and exaggerated heartbreak over the death of anonymous, mechanised dummy Astrid (seriously, I was waiting for her to be revealed as an Auton). The episode itself mourns her too, with its frankly revolting music and hilarious over-emphasis on her passing (one last kiss with the radiant ghost, a shooting star, etc...)

We're supposed to gasp with awe at the way RTD Subverts Expectations by letting Unpleasant Posh Bloke survive while 'good' people die (oooh, have a little pat on the head you good little people - you have done your master's bidding and died on cue like the plot fodder you always were)... but so what? Bad people don't always get their comeuppance? Wow, thanks for that.

And, in any case, this 'message' is undercut by the way we're obviously supposed to consider the death of Astrid more important than all the other deaths in the episode. Why is this? Well, RTD makes the Minogue character into a lowly waitress... but this only suggests that he's desperately trying to deny the patently obvious: she's more important in the story because she's played by a star.

Remember that bit in 'The Stolen Earth' when Davros taunts the Doctor about how he turns ordinary people into killers and the Doctor then has a maudlin (and irrelevant) series of flashbacks of all the people he's known who've died? We get a flash of Astrid. Do we get flashes of Morvin, Foon and Banakafalatta? In a pig's arse. Little people. Not important. That's why it's so unintentionally revealing when, in 'Waters of Mars', we're supposed to be shocked by the Doctor using the actual phrase "little people". Thing is, the show itself has been thinking like that for ages. Even in 'Waters of Mars', the death of the Lindsy Duncan character is more earthshattering because she's played by Lindsy Duncan.

As Lawrence Miles said, RTD is now so thoroughly trapped in the self-celebrating Meedja echo chamber that he now has the Doctor being chased by BAFTAs.

Yes, the villain turns out to be a ruthless capitalist (who - as in Bond films - is bad because he's a criminal, not because he's a capitalist) but this hardly says anything at all... not in an episode in which we're also supposed to think that Wilf's patriotic bibble is cute and lovable, in which the Doctor is implied to be a friend of the Queen, in which his big achievement is to save Buckingham Palace. The implications are thoroughly and mindlessly reactionary. Right-wing, Little Englander, flag-waving, royalty-saluters are Lovable British Eccentrics. The British state and aristocracy are Lovable British Eccentrics. Nasty capitalists are quite a seperate, outside menace that actually threatens these Lovable British Institutions.

We're a long, long way away from Prime Ministers with rapacious, sniggering, profiteer-warmongers inside them, plotting to destroy the world for money while Andrew Marr looks on and witters about process.

What's this all about? I think it may come from the previous season, in which RTD seems to have slipped from his greatest height ('Gridlock', in which he saw human society ... especially a post-hierarchy one... as essentially constructive and redemptive) by gradually convincing himself that humans are actually pretty vile creatures (c.f. the Toclafane). So, what's left? Praise individual heroism, weep over the passing of special little (pretty and famous) buttercups like Astrid, melt into the media, fetishize the Doctor (at times in this episode he looks like Christ as depicted in a Calvin Klein advert), worship the status quo.

Of course, the other thing is that the show now clearly thinks of itself (so to speak) as another of these Lovable Eccentric British Institutions. That's why the Doctor and the Queen are mates: because they're both the same kind of creature. They're both amusing, lovable aspects of life in Great Britain, circa 2007.

Only Britain's great?

Piss. Right. Off. 

Partners in Crime

Witty, unexpected, comparatively reserved and quiet. Almost like a rebound reaction to the excesses of the previous story.

The farce style is just on the verge of getting dull when it stops. I especially like the absence of any outright malice in the 'villain', the absence of any tedious I'm-cute-but-change-into-a-monster shtick from the Adipose and the way the stock Plucky Female Investigative Journo proves to be incompetant and pathetic.

A miraculous return to form... bordering on a minor triumph.

The Fires of Pompeii

Funny one, this. Probably the most visually spectacular episode made up to that point, even upstaging 'Shakespeare Code', and for the same reasons: the use of a huge, pre-existing 'set'. Sadly, it also suffers from some negative 'Shakespeare Code' syndromes, though in milder forms.

The past is frequently presented as just like now but in funny clothes. This isn't as bad as in 'Shakespeare Code', but the family do just seem like the Joneses down the road getting ready for a toga party. Does it need to be this way? Is it really true that modern mainstream audiences would be unable to empathise with characters who weren't easily recognisable present-day stock characters?

Also, like 'Shakespeare Code', this has an all-female organisation as a nest of evil... though 'Fires' manages not to utilise crone stereotypes.

There's something satisfyingly nightmarish and apt about the business of people turning to stone. A little obvious perhaps, but still very good as a foreshadowing of the fate of the Pompeiians.

The episode has some interesting things to say about language and literacy. I can do no better than to quote Simon Kinnear on this issue:

...for such an extraordinary visual experience, The Fires of Pompeii was really about language, and how it shapes and changes cultures. So the soothsayers’ visions of the future are couched in deliberately opaque, evasive imagery (even if, ironically, here they’re hiding the fact that they really can see the future), and new words, like volcano, can only come into existence when circumstances provide the necessary context to demand them.

More importantly we see how, once created, those words live on: the running gag about ‘modern’ Latin being understood as Celtic is actually a neat way of showing the debt we owe Roman society. Despite the obligatory monsters, this was a genuine historical, arguably the first true one of the new series in that, unlike the much publicised celebrity historicals, it genuinely illuminated both the era it is set in and what those dusty figures mean to us. The emphasis on Rome’s rituals and superstitions demonstrate how even the most advanced societies, with their strong cultural identities and sophistication, are as in the dark as the rest of us about what’s going to come.

Sadly, we get a pedestrian aliens-want-to-take-over-the-world plot which we really don't need in order to make the episode work. It could have been used to chime with Rome's nature as an empire... except that this is only really mentioned once, in passing. Even the fact that many of the people living in Pompeii would've been slaves is left out... which is pretty inexcusable. Even Big Finish did better than that.

We don't really get much of a look at the wider society at all. It was a bit hard to care about the Pompeiian extras when they started dying, despite the cynically placed screaming child, because we hadn't really met them.

There was a lot to appreciate in the way that Donna didn't do what other writers make companions do when they want to make wheezy moral dilemmas happen in their scripts: she didn't fail to understand the issues at stake or the nature of the Doctor's decision. She didn't end up throwing a childish strop when the Doctor didn't cave in and save the day. She begged for some lives, knowing that this was all she could ask for. Given that the "oh Doctor why can't we save them?" stuff was inevitable, it was much better than I dared to hope.

Trouble is... there wasn't really a dilemma, was there? Not about stopping the explosion anyway. What was the choice? Condemn the Earth to conquest by the Pyrovillians (stoopid, Terry Nationy name) or permit a catastrophe that was already part of history. Unpleasant? Certainly. A dilemma? Nope.

Mind you, for once, I can forgive the deifying of the Doctor... because it was a question of social/cultural perception. And because Donna was made a god too. You can understand the attitude of the people who were saved thinking of him them that way.

I like 'Planet of the Ood' (predictably enough).  Here, I explain why. 

The Sontaran Poison Sky Stratagem Thing

Very pedestrian. A gallumphing eco-message that fails to connect with anything politically real. The rich kid genius is an utter stereotype who gets to 'redeem' himself via suicide, the way utter stereotypes tend to do. Meanwhile, Donna is self-consciously given 'clever moments' (the story seems to think we should find it surprising and inspirational that she should be capable of cleverness!) and the Doctor indulges in revoltingly self-righteous and hypocritical sniping at that General bloke.

By the big fight scenes at the end of 'Poison Sky', the Sontarans have reverted to dull crypto-Klingons.

Silence in the Library a story about information, consciousness, knowledge, technology, etc. Words as information, information as books, books as symbols of our lives. The Doctor's future written down in a book that he mustn't open.

The Library is a symbol of human knowledge, literacy, thought... yet it has been penetrated by darkness and silence. Smothered by predatory ignorance. Shadows that strip us of our information, that strip all the flesh from our bones.

Information Technology. What is a book, after all, but information technology? But technology has moved on, presenting us with new dangers. The technology around us can sometimes catch us within it. We are turned into information... "saved" like computer files. That way can lead to data children, runaway processes. Sophisticated and morally neutral but immature and incompetent... like all technology in Moffat scripts, from the nanogenes to the self-repair mechanisms on the SS Madame de Pompadour.

Humans mesh with technology and turn themselves into information. Corrupted files. Data ghosts. Feedback loops. Walking skeletons repeating the same phrases into meaninglessness. A gigantic storehouse of information, stalked by the living dead.

My only real criticisms of the first episode? Well, it's Moffat reshuffling his usual tropes again. And the name of the shadow creatures sounds too much like Sredni Vashtar. I've never been able to hear the name of these aliens without thinking of Conradin's polecat.

Sadly, Forest of the Dead fails to live up to these suggested potentialities.

The sequences with Donna and her dream-family in the Matrix... sorry, I meant the Library computer, are very well done. Tate is good, the manipulation of time into fragmented and fleeting dream/story scene jumps is very clever. Miss Evangelista's transfigured new self adds pathos, a visual shock moment and a touch of gothic creepiness.

But the system of images and references and connections in the first episode is not mined for any of the promised polyvalence. The iconography just sits there being ostentatiously freighted with meanings that are never expressed. If the first episode is a series of gnomic utterances, the second is the hopefully pregnant pause that follows when the speaker realises he hasn't actually got anything very much to say.

It's noticeable that, for all the concentration on books, nobody reads any. Or learns anything from them. Even the little girl, who was supposedly put into the library so she could live out her eternal afterlife amidst her beloved books, prefers to watch telly.

On a cruder level, 'Forest' doesn't come up with any plot revelations that weren't thunderingly obvious. It's the Nanogenes all over again.

And the whole River thing is just stupid. She's an inherently dull character, a wisecracking know-it-all and it seems risible that the Doctor would see anything so special in her that he would bond with her on such an implicatedly deep level.... unless he enjoys being worshipped and fetishised... which is interesting, given that such worship and fetishisation is the course implied with the whole finger-clicking incipient-godhood thing that this episode hints at. (It's worth noting that Moffat had previously written another episode in which the Doctor is loved... no, revered by a woman with whom, on the surface, he should find no rapport.)  Meanwhile, the Doctor's bemusement over the temporal anomaly of his and River's relationship is also absurd. Why would he be puzzled by a concept that has been self-evident to the audience since his first private conversation with the woman?

Oh, and all the people that were stored on the hard drive died. What reappears is a copy created from computer information. People are more than just iterations of information. The whole thing with Miss Evangelista's misplaced IQ point reveals a deepy embedded set of reductionist assumptions.

Moffat has said that your view of this issue is connected to your religious belief... or lack of it. If you're an atheist and materialist... so the implication goes... then you don't believe in the soul and so, to you, the person reconstituted from information is no different to the original. But an understanding of humans as material creatures without a supernatural element doesn't necessarily mean that brains are just fleshy hard drives and minds are software that may be copied without losing any essence. That is vulgar materialism, without any notion that humans are self-creating beings whose physical nature puts them into an intensely complex dialectical relationship with the external world and society.

Mind you, Who as a whole has always been dualist. Maybe, in this script, Moffat is just finally defining how the 'ghost in the machine' works in the Who universe.

I'll post seperately on 'Midnight'.  I've already posted seperately on 'Turn Left' and the finale.

The Next Doctor

The Dervla Kirwan character (sorry, can't remember the name) has some good lines which suggest abuse at the hands of the 'respectable' 'charitable' 'gentlemen'... which links up with the steampunk CyberKing as a kind of expression of the industrial revolution (i.e. the machine, capitalism, empire, wealthy society) as a great big system that uses people (including child-labourers) like slaves or fuel or fodder... but it doesn't really amount to much, truth be told.

Ends up looking more like a cod pseudo-Dickensian musical without any songs.

Major point deductions for the depiction of the Kirwan character as a stereotypical manhater and the obligatory schmaltzy ending, with applause for the underappreciated Doctor (awww, bless).

The Waters of Mars

This really is a very pedestrian and obvious monsters-chase-anonymous-people-around-futuristic-base script, though directed with touches of genius by Graeme Harper.

Even the 'Time Lord Victorious' stuff is less impressive when you consider the hypocrisy of it. We're supposed to be shocked by the Doctor's hubris and his words about 'little people'... and yet, watch, say, 'Voyage of the Damned' and its pretty clear that this is the very attitude taken by the modern show, at its worst. And, in any case, isn't it just another kind of fetishisation to make the Doctor into a dangerous and godlike temporal puppetmaster?

Asylum, UK

A rejigg of something I wrote for the old site on the subject of 'Turn Left', the best episode of series 4.

The alternate world that Davies conjures up in ‘Turn Left’ is not so far removed from our own. We might not (yet) see British soldiers patrolling our streets and pointing automatic weapons at unarmed women (though the recent behaviour of the police towards student protestors has been pretty savage)... but that sight would not be so unfamiliar to the people of Baghdad. Or Belfast, for that matter.

The nightmarish, decaying, dystopian Britain in this episode reflects aspects of our current social predicament… indeed, as Simon Kinnear pointed out in DWM, the episode seems prescient of the years ahead of it, of (to put it my way) recession/cuts torn Britain.

While it doesn’t get specific, or touch economics much, ‘Turn Left’ seems like the closest thing to a direct political attack on crisis-wracked British society that any mainstream TV show could possibly get away with. Let’s just recap: in an episode of that highly commercial kid’s romp known as Doctor Who, Russell T. Davies suggested that, in a time of crisis, the British state might institute a program of racist slavery, if not extermination. At the very least, we see people herded and treated like animals while patrolled by armed guardians of the state. Moreover, the people being treated that way are the poor, the dispossessed, the helpless. Brits get the kind of treatment meted out to refugees once they too become scapegoatable dependents.

I’m not sure that Davies intended the title as direct political advice (though it wouldn’t be bad advice) but it surely can’t be entirely an accident that Donna’s apocalyptic turn is a turn to the right, a turn that results in “England for the English”.

The Donna in the car at the start of ‘Turn Left’ might vote that way. She’s the same thoughtless, selfish Donna we met at the start of ‘The Runaway Bride’. She’s exactly the kind of self-involved, complacent brat who hardly notices as society crashes around her… until she is touched by it. Davies pulls no punches. We see her obsessing over stationary and offices grudges as the rest of Chowdry’s staff watch the TV, horrified, for news of the hospital. We see her asking “What’s for tea?” as news of Sarah Jane Smith’s death flashes on the screen.

I know people like that. Indeed, speaking as someone who lives in southern England – surely the global epicentre of reactionary complacency - it is very hard indeed not to derive a massive and delicious jolt of schadenfreude from the way Davies manages to turn the (surviving) population of the Sun and Daily Mail reading world into despised, harangued, jobless refugees. “Who’s going to listen to us?” asks Donna’s Mum, “Refugees. We haven’t even got a vote. We’re just no-one Donna. We don’t exist.” To put it another way: seek asylum and you’ll be locked up in one.

It’s ironic that as Donna’s society disintegrates, she suddenly discovers other people. With a little help from Wilf, Donna’s experience of privation brings her closer to society, to her fellow humans. She barges in to tell Rocco to shut up, calling him Mussolini (ironic, given that it’s now her country turning fascist), but ends up singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ with him. When he and his family are taken away, she needs Wilf to tell her what it really means (is Bernard Cribbins incredible in that scene or what?), but when she realises, she chases the truck and demands to know what’s happening. She has woken up from her isolation and self-involvement.

Also, there is a highly encoded but still discernible protest against Islamophobia in that scene. Rocco and his family are not Muslims or from the Middle East, but it was simply impossible (for me anyway) to watch the rounding-up scene in 2008 without thinking of Guantanamo Bay, Jean Charles de Menezes and Jack Straw’s seeming addiction to demonising Muslims. People might object that this is an arbitrary and subjective reading… but plenty of reviewers were happy to interpret this scene as referencing the holocaust, despite the fact that Rocco and his family are not identified as Jews anymore than they are as Muslims. Given that the episode as a whole seems so determinedly current, I think my reading is more apt.

As for the bug? Well, it looks (when we eventually see it) very much like a rucksack designed by David Cronenberg. But what does it mean?

I think it’s a self-doubt monster. It doesn’t really feed on the changes it causes in history, it really feeds on Donna’s lack of self-worth, on her willingness to believe that her Mother is right about her, that she’s useless and helpless, a disappointment, a failure. The right turn it convinces her to make is a capitulation to her Mum. Donna’s own goals, at this point, might still be selfish, but they are based on confidence. The right turn, the turn to the safe option, is the turn towards her Mum’s view of her, towards the easy assumption that she’s nobody and nothing, that life is an uninspiring chore. “A life never loved,” as Rose puts it. And am I reading too much into the fact that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ contains the lyrics “Nobody loves me” and “Mamma Mia, let me go”?

When first reviewing ‘Turn Left’ I made some connections between Donna’s self-doubt and the state of the society depicted. Those connections now seem rather tenuous to me. I don’t nowadays feel comfortable asserting that societies round up minorities because they suffer from free-floating neurosis. However, Donna’s fateful moment of self-doubt can be read as a capitulation to power, to the judgements of another who has power over her, as well as to a feeling that her horizons are bound by her background… even, with a little extrapolation, her class.

All in all, I adore this episode. If ‘Midnight’ is the anti-‘Gridlock’, this is ‘Midnight’s redeeming coda. Perhaps just as bleak in its way, but with hope lying in social solidarity and resistance to power.

The sci-fi elements might power the story, but the story is about human choices, personal and political. The kind of enjoyable sledgehammer metaphor underwriting, say, ‘Aliens of London’ can work as critique and/or satire but also, if taken literally, can create a distancing effect. The aliens or the mad computer get the blame for our social failures. This is undermined in ‘Turn Left’. The “Emergency Government” might exist because a Titanic-shaped spaceship fell on London, but there’s no hint that their policy of “England for the English” (and labour camps for the rest) is actually being fed to them by the evil, mind-controlling Zargoids. Moreover, they’re the sort of policies that might yet take hold on British soil in years to come, especially if the current government is allowed to push through its radical programme of neoliberal class-war shock therapy, which is amounting to a wanton and wholesale demolition of much-needed social safety nets.

You can't extrapolate every detail of this into a coherent political thesis (thank goodness) and so it can be subjected to multiple interpretations (much more interesting). The jist is pretty clear though.

Shame about the orientalism on display in the ‘bookend’ sequences, which use ethnic diversity and Eastern ethnicity as semiotic vehicles for the uncanny, the threatening and the predatory. On the whole, though, with its depiction of racial inequality (not least in the sequence where Donna and family are served by a hotel maid who is clearly implied to be a migrant worker) this episode is clearly on the side of the angels, without also indulging in too much liberal sanctimony.

This is Doctor Who's version of The Children of Men (the film).  It's atonement for 'The Unquiet Dead'.  Borderline miraculous.

The Commodity Strikes Back

Thoughts on 'Planet of the Ood'

A very beautiful episode to look at. A stark pallet of whites and blues and greys, the exterior scenes harshly bathed in cold light... counterpointed by the dark warehouses and the red haze of the Ood rage.

Series 4 continues its apparent intent of readdressing moral lapses on the part of the Doctor/show. The inexcusable laxity of the treatment of slavery in 'The Satan Pit' (and the invisibility of the issue in the preceding episode) gets repudiated here. Big time.

Some would rather have had a story about a race that actually did crave servitude... but J. K. Rowling has already given the nation that sort of thing with her innately and happily subservient House Elves. And I don't believe a sentient life form could evolve that wanted to be a commodity.  Indeed, to even suggest such a thing may be to fundamentally misunderstand what consciousness is.

This may be a straightforward polemical tale, but there's nothing wrong with that. This is about ruthless, corporate capitalism exploiting people that it sees as nothing but a resource to be used. Sentient beings cut and sliced and spliced into shape as customisable toys and then packaged, branded, priced-up and shipped out in boxes. People in pacakaging. The gimmicks with their voices say it all: it's like changeable novelty mobile-phone covers only with people.

This is a parable about commodification. About people turned into products and merchandise. About how relationships between living people become like relationships between things through the logic of the market. Halpen is, in his way, as much a victim of the commodification syndrome as the Ood. We see glimmers of decency in him, not least when he sends Ood Sigma back to his people. But he's trapped within the logic of the impersonal system. Like the PR girl who - oh joy, oh bliss - does NOT have a yawnsome "crisis of conscience" but does her job, stays within the psychological confines of the system and stays true to her corporate loyalties. The PR/marketing slime in the hospitality lounge are as lobotomised as the Ood. Sharp suits and empty heads and crippled consciences.

Mr Halpen's ultimate comeuppance is to become the thing he owned and traded in. That amazing gore moment that also, through the context, manages to be poetic, beautiful and moving. And satisfying. It's a fantasy, but a pleasing one. Let's put together a chain-gang starring Warren Buffet, Phil Nike, Rupert Murdoch, etc. See how those bastards like being at the bottom of the pile. Maybe sometimes, empathy must be imposed.

The episode does not flinch from showing the brutality or the necessity or the moral justifiability of violent revolt. No patronising sermons to the oppressed about non-violence.

The Doctor's remark to Donna - "who do you think made your clothes?" - was quite startling at the time.  Under most circumstances, such little eruptions in mainstream drama can be accounted for as mere twinges of liberal guilt... but in a story like this one, which explicitly endorses violent revolution... well, it seems to have a bit more integrity than that. Lawrence Miles has frequently criticised this scene for allowing Donna to snap back at the Doctor for being self-righteous... but she's right to. Firstly, on a character level, it would make no sense for Donna to immediately simper with middle class liberal guilt. Secondly, where does the Doctor get off saying that so self-righteously? Who made his clothes?  Who made mine, for that matter?  And is agonising about this issue really the answer to anything?  The Doctor's remark is smug and superior.  It's left to others to go beyond that sort of thing and actually, physically smash the system.

Again, this isn't a question of villainy, but nor is it about collective guilt. In this story, even the human workers are parasitic upon the bondage of the Ood. They can be brutalised by their situation - below some, above others - into becoming whip-weilding fascist bullies.

But the Ood are not just the impoverished people of the third world, corralled in EPZs. They are also the product itself, the commodity system itself, coming back for revenge, biting the hands that produce it.

There are many Doctor Who aliens that are 'product monsters'.  Machines, toys, statues, scarecrows, dolls, computers, shop window dummies.  Manufactured things that become alive and autonomous and hostile.  The Ood are the same thing in reverse.  The Autons are the products that come alive.  The Ood are the living things made into products.

They reflect what the commodity system does. The company cuts away the part of the Ood that makes them free individuals.... In their state of nature they have evolved to be communal, social, mutually aiding (not because they're angels but because their fragility makes them rely upon each other... as it was with humans in pre-class societies). The Company treats them as raw material, as a resource to be exploited. It slices into them and turns them into market fodder. But isn't that what "The Company" (in all it's forms) ALWAYS does, to both the wage-slaves and the consumers? The logic of the Company makes Mr Halpen into an anxious, scared, guilty self-interested utility-maximiser. In a system of generalised commodification, everyone has to have their brain cut into. There's a bit of us missing if we're prepared to tolerate other people being bought and sold.

Another thing I love about this episode is that the Doctor is not the hero. He doesn't free the Ood. They free themselves... with a bit of help from a brave anarchist infiltrator. That this aspect should come in for such stick is rather telling.  People would be more comfortable with the Doctor as a saviour/messiah, even if he must lead a revolution.  Seeing him simply watch as the oppressed free themselves makes people worry. 

Here, the Doctor isn't a tiresome champion, just a sympathetic onlooker. The Ood's gratitude at the end seems like a non sequitur... but perhaps they're just grateful for his and Donna's friendship, for their willingness to treat them as people.  That is, after all, their goal: to be treated as people again, rather than as things, toys, tools or commodities.

Notes from the Bibbledrome

AOL News ran a story this morning about a T-Mobile survey, asking "the public" (probably about seven people) which "personalities" they thought should be on the new UK money.  Apparently, the top choices were Pippa Middleton and Alan Sugar, with Keira Knightly and Simon Cowell as runners-up.

I think these are great ideas.  What could better express where our society is at?

Alan Sugar - an embarassing, thuggish, philistine, self-aggrandizing old shitsack, promoted as an idol by the media, a vaudeville capitalist mascot of a TV show that (along with many, many others) touts the virtues of the heroically self-interested utility-maximiser of neoliberal dogma - is a very good emblem of our society.  That's the fiver sorted.

Pippa Middleton, by association, represents the vacuous and monotonous contentless bibble that passes for public discourse, and the sexism of a media class of drooling middle aged letches slavering over young women.  There's the tenner for you.

Why not, instead of putting her face on the notes, put her arse on them.  That'd be honest.

Let's have Tony Blair on the notes, standing on top of a pile of dead Iraqis, his hands dripping blood, a wolfish smile on his face.  That'd do the twenty nicely.

Then the fifty could be David Cameron bum-banging a public sector worker who has been tied up with lots of twisted-together copies of the Daily Mail.

And Simon Cowell could grace the pound coin instead of the Queen.  He's omnipresent anyway, so why not have his greasy visage jangling in every pocket?  He - the incarnation of the smarmy, calculating, utterly insincere, ruthless, predatory, shit-flinging cultural vandal - is a much better representative of modern Britain than Elizabeth Windsor.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Veto Axons

This is a round-up of my Timelash II stuff on Series 3... well, those bits of it that I haven't already posted elsewhere.  The 'Smith and Jones' bit is a tweaked version of something from the old site.  There's nothing about Axons in here, I just found myself amused by the anagram.

The Runaway Bride

The Doctor cold-bloodedly kills the Racnoss children... and the episode tries to have its cake and eat it by both giving the Doctor 'no choice' and implying that he 'went too far'. The probably unintentional implication is that neocon logic is unpalatable but inescapable, that we need people who will ruthlessly kill on a massive scale in order to protect us from the forces of unreasoning hostility.

We're a long way from "massive weapons of destruction" being a lie from a politician with an evil, greedy alien baby inside him. 

Smith and Jones

Russell reuses many of the ideas and techniques that made ‘Rose’ work as an introductory tale. There is a frenetic opening scene which introduces Martha, her family situation and her workplace. As in ‘Rose’, the new companion meets the Doctor at work and, as in ‘Rose’ he is already in the middle of an adventure. As in ‘Rose’, the Doctor and his new friend form an instant connection which takes the form of banter, intelligent co-operation in the midst of a crisis, lots of running and lots of holding hands. As in ‘Rose’, the new companion saves the Doctor’s life. As in ‘Rose’ we see her enter the TARDIS at night, in a London backstreet and immediately run out again in surprise (the only naturalistic way to portray a reaction to the TARDIS). Bits of the first Torchwood episode are reused too.

But there's also a lot that's different. Instead of beginning with the Doctor and showing us Martha from his P.O.V. or holding the Doctor in reserve and letting Martha encounter him at a moment of high drama (as in ‘Rose’), the episode instead allows him to pop up both after and before any of us were expecting to see him! Some of us might have thought he’d be in Scene One. Some of us, gulled by the opening scene’s echo of the structure of ‘Rose’, might have expected him to appear only when Martha needs rescuing from the Judoon. But instead he pops up when none of us were expecting him, does something entirely inexplicable, and then walks off.

Of course, it would have made sense to bring the Doctor in as soon as possible because the audience knows him whereas they don’t know Martha. But a pre-title sequence featuring the Doctor would destroy that Year Zero vibe that RTD is going for. For the moment, he wants us to feel like we’re beginning again. This is essential because he’s trying to make Martha - a brand new character in another character’s show - the central audience identification figure. Let’s pause for a moment to consider how incredibly difficult that is.

His strategy is still to ground the series in everyday life before zooming off into space opera. He makes Martha’s life instantly recognisable, introducing a different family member per phone call and allowing each to offer their own perspective on the same event, the brother’s birthday party. The device of the multiple phone calls is zesty, if slightly contrived (though can we really complain about contrivance in a show like Doctor Who?) and the sequence more competently fulfils the same function as the opening montage in ‘Rose’. The opening salvo of ‘Smith and Jones’ is far more confident and it introduces more characters.

By the time the Doctor appears, we already know Martha. She has a fractured family full of inwardly pointed tensions; she seems to be their nexus, their relay and their peacemaker. In the debate about whether Martha’s family is too soapy, its easy to miss just how much information Russell feeds us about these people in such a short space of time. We are told many things about Martha’s family in the space of two minutes, through a combination of snappy dialogue and detailed visual storytelling. We learn that Martha’s parents are acrimoniously separated, that her mother is an intelligent and acerbic professional woman, that her brother is an easygoing guy with a female partner and a baby, that she is very close to her less diplomatic sister, that her father is well-off and undergoing a midlife crisis and that his girlfriend is primarily attracted to him because of his credit card. Soaps are not generally skilful or ambitious enough to pull off such rapid feats of narrative athletics. On the contrary, it is part of the remit of soaps that they should be slow and plodding. This sedate pace is part of the hypnotic effect of soap operas. Even old-fashioned glam soaps like Dynasty unfolded at a pace that is glacial by the standards of modern drama programmes. Moreover, there is little need for soaps to blast their viewers with information because their viewers will already know the backstories of the characters from interminable previous episodes. Soap operas don’t use characterisation as a means to propel or contextualise a wider plot. In soap, the personal problems and domestic conflicts of the characters are the plot (at least until ratings start to fall and, as a result, jumbo jets start doing likewise onto pubs). If they fired information at us as quickly as ‘Smith and Jones’ does soaps would exhaust themselves before getting started. Soaps need to develop their characters slowly because in soap that is the whole show. In Doctor Who you need the characters established quickly so that you can get on with the stuff about space rhinos. Even when a spaceship did show up in Dynasty, it was there to remove a character, not to give a character something to do.

There's a confidence of judgement all through this episode. Russ makes the Plasmavore an internal shape changer and so resists the temptation to let her transform into a Big Impressive CGI Vampire for the hell of it, which would have both deprived the sublimely sinister Anne Reid of screentime and left the audience scratching their heads and wondering why she/it didn’t just morph into a pseudo-Judoon.

The Judoon are great because they're not trying to do anything so tedious and Krillitane-like as take over our planet or suck out our minds… they've been hired to do a job, enforce a law and apprehend a criminal. They had jurisdiction. While it lasted, they did everything they felt was necessary (in their own brutal, unsubtle yet fundamentally non-malicious way) to complete their task. That makes them more than monsters. That gives them a psychology, a mindset. A familiar one too. They are recognisable, like the personality types we meet in Martha’s family. They make aesthetic sense, something best illustrated by the contrast between their paramilitary demeanour and the black markers they use to catalogue you.

I also truly loved the “Ro bo sklo fro mo!” scene and the way in which they then assimilated the English language. I remember being fascinated by just such linguistic playfulness in Doctor Who when I was a kid, revelling in making up my own versions of the Androgum clan names and the bureaucratic serial-number nomenclature of the Caretakers.

Justice isn’t a political ideology for them. They’ve been hired to do justice and woe betide you if you get in the way… and yet they don’t abuse their power. Justice isn’t simply what they say it is. They are clearly following a rule book. Phsyical assault is punishable by death. They didn’t kill that guy because they wanted to. They did it because the rule book stipulated it as the appropriate response. The Judoon are more like a SWAT team with a few rules and regulations. The best bit of the episode was when Lead Judoon (or Big Chief Rhino Boy as the Doctor called him) gave Martha her compensation. They'll execute you on the spot for hitting them with a vase but if they push you up against a wall and it turns out you’re "innocent" they'll give you some vouchers to say sorry!

I’ll finish off by looping back to the central facet of ‘Smith and Jones’, the Doctor’s time travel demonstration for Martha. The Doctor’s “cheap trick” is, in many ways, the cleverest thing in the episode… which is rather clever in itself: pulling off a narrative stunt like that (something that only Doctor Who could do and which, nowadays, it does far too often and to little import) and having your main character, the one who pulls it off, refer to it as a “cheap trick”. But think about it for a moment… in the programme we’re talking about, the main character, at the end of the plot, travels back to the start!

Now, we can look at that in purely literal terms (the Doctor travels in time, big deal) or we can look at it as a vertiginous feat of pure narrative, narrative unbound and free to loop back upon itself, to eat its own tale (if you’ll pardon the shameless pun). In the old days, the revelation of a temporal paradox would be the Big Sinister Episode Three Cliffhanger. In modern Who, it’s a “cheap trick” harnessed to the service of character development. That sounds like a criticism… it even feels like it ought to be a criticism as I write it, but if you’ve seen The Terminator or Twelve Monkeys or even ‘Day of the Daleks’ then you’ve already seen the Big Sinister Time Paradox story! You surely don’t need to see it again! What you haven’t seen before is a moment when a character makes a completely believable decision to accept time travel as a reality before they step out onto Platform One or meet the Tribe of Gum. Well, you’ve seen it now!

Its a significant advance on ‘Rose’ in which our heroine believes the TARDIS can travel in time simply because the Doctor says it can and, by that point, she’s ready to believe anything. But who would believe such a thing until it was proved? Until you saw it work? Someone who just believes in time travel because they are told about it? In my book that’s far more unlikely than the MRI Scanner of Doom. In ‘Smith and Jones’, the proof of time travel is offered to Martha before the assertion is made, before she even knows that the assertion will be made and it’s the proof that starts her on the journey towards the moment when she will ask for proof... which is really the ultimate way to prove time travel, isn’t it! In other scripts, the characters travel in time. In ‘Smith and Jones’, the script itself travels in time, overtaking itself before it starts running. This, in its own quiet and flippant way, is remarkable and mind-bending stuff.

Oh, one last thing... am I only person amused by the idea that if Doctor Who is resurrected for 3D HeadPlug Interactive Cybervision in 2047 and a whole generation of kids, entranced by the new stuff, go back to the scratchy old episodes from 2007, they'll all be wondering what the hell Martha means by "Planet Zovirax"?

I've covered 'The Shakespeare Code' and 'Gridlock' in other posts.  Lets just say that 'Gridlock' is one of the greatest TV shows ever made and 'The Shakespeare Code'... umm... isn't.

Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks

I so want to like this. It's got the right Who vibe within it, unlike so much of, say, Season 2. It's got a sense of politics and myth. It's got characters who vaguely resemble human beings. It attempts to have a sense of history.

There's lots of good stuff. There's a representation of poverty and inequality and injustice. There's an exuberance to the production. There's an attempt to have the Daleks merge with and emerge from the art deco decor of the building, as though they mesh perfectly with the aesthetics of the monstrous, imperial, vainglorious demonstration of wealth and power amidst misery. The musical number is cute. The idea of Daleks meshing with humans has potential.

Sadly, it doesn't really work at all. Tallulah isn't in it for any reason. Racism is glossed over. There is some terrible dialogue (though there is also some great dialogue). There is no interest in the actual mechanics of evolution or mutation or genes... which wouldn't be so bad except that the episode doesn't even attempt to make its own inaccurate version of evolution (which appears to be about mutations of the soul caused by lightning or something) work consistently... Also, the episode once again peddles the idea that personality (Good or Evil) is directly encoded in the genes, which is very reactionary and very simplistic. It would be easy enough to avoid all these nasty subtexts and an incoherent, flailing plot by simply dropping the scientific terminology and using some bit of sci-fi nonsense... which is what David Whitaker did when he did the same story better in the 60s.

And the direction is clumsy in the extreme. Good direction might have been able to make the script work, even when it calls for the Daleks to fail to notice the Doctor though he's standing directly in front of them in plain view... good direction might have been able to make it look less ridiculous when the Daleks crowd around the Doctor screaming "EXTERMINATE!" for the umpteenth time but then don't exterminate him. But, no.

The Lazarus Experiment and 42 were too boring to sit through, let alone write about.

And I shall be addressing Human Nature / The Family of Blood seperately at some point.


The story that won Timelash II.  The best, apparently.

Well, look... obviously this is overrated... but that's understandable given the immediate effect of its bravura construction and wonderfully gothic monsters.

It's actually not that overrated.

Moffat certainly does take sitcom situations (comedy nakedness) and sitcom characters, some of whom border on social/gender stereotypes... with geeky Lawrence entirely crossing the border.  But he subjects them to narrative contortions and grotesque experiences that characters actually in sitcoms never have to cope with.

In so doing, he manages to turn the episode into a surprisingly careful, sympathetic, compact and poignant study of the passing of time and the achievement of emotional maturity.

Shame about the business whereby a woman ends up marrying a man who just decides to follow her, thus seemingly endorsing stalking as a romantic wooing strategy.

And it's also a shame that the Angels are explained as much as they are.  It overcomplicates them and dullifies them... though nowhere near as much as their follow-up appearance.

Also, why don't the characters just close one eye at a time?

The one thing that no aspect of this should ever have been was any kind of template for the show as a whole.


My confused thoughts on the closing trilogy may be trudged through here.