Sunday, 23 September 2012

Playing with Dolls

UPDATE, 25/09/12:  If you read this post, please read on through the comments too.  Some astute readers used the comments section to set me straight on some issues both of fact and interpretation.  As a result, my attitude towards 'Night Terrors' is now considerably more negative than my initial reaction (which you can read in the main review below).  In fairness to myself, I do spend most of the piece saying what I don't like about 'Night Terrors', including identifying some of what I call the "latent hostility" towards working-class people... but I failed to notice the wider context of the episode and so also the scale of the problem.  I don't mind admitting when I'm wrong (of course, I do really) but I hate that I blogged before giving myself sufficient time to think.  

Okay, my foolhardy project of catching up with all the Doctor Who I've not seen in order to re-synch with the new stuff (and hopefully provide myself with blogging material) continues.

Last night I finally watched 'Night Terrors'. Much to my astonishment, I didn't absolutely hate it. I mean, it wasn't particularly good... but it wasn't actively offensive most of the time either. Which is fairly good going for Moffat-era Who written by Gatiss.

I was horrified by the idea that the Doctor now hears and answers prayers like God, with the pleas of a little boy travelling up to him through the heavens, but that was somewhat neutralised later by some technobabble explanation that made it sound very much like a special case.  In the end, I liked that the Doctor actually seemed comparatively less full of himself, and more like a guy making it up and thinking it out as he went along.  Matt Smith should be encouraged to slow down a bit more often.  He had some nice, quiet moments (inbetween all the usual frenetic gibbering) that were very likeable.  He does 'kindly' rather well.

There were cliches galore, of course.  An old lady complains about her knees.  A yobbo guy with a pitbull.  Hoodies, etc.

Where would any mainstream BBC drama be nowadays if it had to try and depict a housing estate without the employment of hostile cliches?  I think the latter stages of RTD's depiction of Rose's estate are the last example of such places being sketched without such latent hostility.

But... there was an interesting visual stress on the uniformity and blandness of the housing estate, bathed in that sickly yellow night-time street-light aura.

And this made the opulent but fake interior of the 'mansion house' into a fairly interesting visual counterpoint.

Of course, it was entirely predictable that the mansion would turn out to be a dolls house.  But even that was kind of covered when the Doctor immediately realises it when he ends up there, treating the conclusion as though it's self-evident.  It looks like evidence of two tracks of thought at work in the story.  We're more on the Doctor's wavelength than the other characters... which is not self-evidently the wrong way to do it.  It does, however, hammer home the idea of the Doctor's intellectual superiority... which is questionable.  Is it really superiority to think in such a ludicrously illogical way?  Within the confines of cult TV, I suppose... which only emphasizes the way in which Moffat-era Who consciously operates in a universe run along the lines of cult TV.  To be clued-up about how reality works in this show is to think like a cult TV writer.

Parenthetically, I wonder what sex the Croatian traffic warden was.  Why wasn't the story about him or her?  Unsympathetic, I guess.  At least, that would be the assumption.  The story can only engage us because Alex and Claire are 'typical' Brits, i.e. native born, white, heterosexual, etc.  Still, the neutral mention of an Eastern European worker (albeit in a job that is typically stigmatised) is relatively good going these days.

On the subject of gender politics... this is the second time in the same season that a father/son reconciliation/understanding is treated as monumentally significant, leaving the mother absent or near-absent in the background.  Also, Claire's infertility is simply a plot point (this issue © Richard Pilbeam).  We never get to hear how she feels about it.  She's not involved in the resolution of the problems.  In fact, she seems never to be told that her son is actually an alien cuckoo and she's got a barren womb (O, poor woman... robbed of her ability to be a true mother, a female's only true role and goal in life!).  This is typical Gatiss.  Remember the abused Mum in 'The Idiot's Lantern'.  Nobody bothers to wonder how she'll feel about her son reconciling with the man who's been terrorizing her for years.  The Doctor and Rose simply remind the young man that he should be nice to his Dad, whatever he may have done.  In 'Night Terrors', we get an insight into how Alex feels about Claire's infertility, but Claire's feelings seem irrelevant to the story, even non-existent.  In the end, it's implicitly better that she be kept in the dark about the workings of her own body.

I'm beginning, as I write this, to wonder if I was too hasty when I said that the episode wasn't actively offensive.  Maybe it just looks better because it's sandwiched between loads of Moffat-written 'strong women'.  Claire, at least, seems able to think about things other than Her Man.  She's depicted as being something more than just a wife and quasi-mother.  With Alex sacked, she's the family breadwinner.  Of course, she's a nurse... which is a responsible job outside the domestic environment (good) but is still one of those female jobs that is 'sympathetic' in the terms of patriarchal fiction.  A 'caring', 'nurturing' job.  A kind of displaced motherhood.  The classic example of this kind of thing is probably Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which there was only one regular female character who wasn't a 'carer' of some kind... and she got killed almost immediately.  Too scary.

(Well... there was Ro Laren, who was the hardbitten non-conformist who gradually melted to Riker's charms, however she might refuse to admit it.  Sigh.)

I mention TNG because they also had an episode called 'Night Terrors' which was scarier than this because it dared to be quiet.  I think quietness is the key to real scariness.  This episode of Doctor Who rather fumbles its own self-imposed mission to be horror-film-style-scary by doing the usual thing of never letting the jabbering dialogue stop, let alone the music.  Look at the opening.  We have a squeaky child's swing.  Why do we need Murray Gold's bland gloop gurgling on underneath.

In the end, the dolls weren't particularly scary because:

a) we'd already seen them in trailers (a persistent problem for nu-Who, even without the 'help' of the Radio Times),

b) it was entirely predictable that they'd twitch into life, and

c) they didn't really seem to have any reason to be there or to do what they did.  Saying "We just want to play" and converting people into more dolls... what did that have to do with anything?  It was all very formulaic, standard and obvious.  Cue the inevitable nursery ryhme music.  (Yes, the exact same thing irritates me about 'Remembrance of the Daleks', before anyone cries hypocrisy.)

There was a rather good moment which looked like an implicit critique of the Doctor and the show, when the Doctor is in the bedroom with the kid playing with toys while the father/adult faces up to the frightening/painful/grubby reality of money worries in the next room.  The story touched upon austerity and unemployment.  However, it cast it in rather silly terms - villainous (working class) landlord/super vs virtuous, sacked family man.  The landlord (well, supervisor, as I say) is a chav stereotype.

Big screen telly, tasteless carpet, etc.  The depictions of working people were, at least, less insufferably cutesy than those in the similar episode 'Fear Her', even if they were more cynical and hostile.

Of course, the end let it down.  Into a pit of syrup.  The monsters were eradicated by the boy 'believing in himself' and 'facing his fears' (puke) and, natch, by the re-establishment of the nuclear family unit and heteronormative contentment.  Earlier in the episode, I found myself responding to Alex's fear and frustration, but his mechanical switcheroo between "But he's an alien!" back to "But he's my son!" just felt like the gyrations of a wind-up dummy.  Ironically enough, it all looked (to me) a bit like the writer was moving his dolls around inside his little house.  Daddy doll hugs Little Boy doll and then Mummy doll turns up and they all live happily ever after.  It seems unfair to be too hard on Gatiss about this because it really is standard procedure nowadays.  If they remade 'Snakedance' they rewrite it so the Mara was defeated by Lon realising how much he loved his Mum... well, his Dad probably (see above).

At least we didn't get something I feared: the nasty supervisor guy turning over a new leaf.  That would've been truly vomworthy.

On the whole, not all that bad.  Probably the least irritating episode since 'Vincent and the Doctor'.  Surely, the best Gatiss TV script... though that's not saying much.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Homage to the Future

I'm currently re-reading George Orwell's best book Homage to Catalonia.  It's one of those books I re-read every few years.

I came across this lovely, compact, resonant passage:

I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy 'proving' that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the 'mystique' of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all.

Orwell saw the essential nature of Stalin's Russia better even than Trotsky.  A state-capitalist bureaucracy, with the role of private capitalists taken instead by an equally-exploitative class of managers.  He also saw that Stalin's Russia was not socialist, since the essence of socialism is the abolition of an exploiting class, not its replacement by a new set of exploiters.

However, what I love most about this quote is that Orwell is writing in 1937 about Stalinists, but it applies today to the ideological commissars of capitalism.  Fox News, Thomas Friedman, etc, etc, et-bloody-c.  All the corporate goons and mainstream ideologues (all of them far more reminiscent of old-style Stalinist hacks, apologists and party-men than they'd ever dream possible) endlessly telling us that Socialism is the religion of state ownership, state control, state regimentation of the individual, etc.

They tell us this to scare us away - not away from socialism, of which they affect to live in fear but which they secretly regard (wrongly, as history will hopefully show) as a busted flush - but away from ANY criticism, even the mildest bit of reformism, of corporate neoliberalism.

Their bogey is the authoritarianism of old Russia or China... and yet their world of corporate-rule is eerily like such tyrannies.  Corporations are utter tyrannies; pyramidal command structures with little or no internal democracy, scarce accountability, no levers by which the public may control them, the ability and willingness to use violence to defend themselves, etc.

Just as the Stalinized Soviet Union wanted its acolytes and fellow travellers and useful idiots to believe that socialism meant state control, so do today's ultra-capitalist thinkpriests... and for exactly the same reason, only in moral photo-negative.  The Stalinist argument was: if state control is socialism, then Stalinism is socialism, ergo Stalinism is good.  The neoliberal argument is: if state control is socialism, and socialism was Stalinism, then any state control over capital is Stalinism, ergo state control of any kind of evil.

These arguments are clones of each other, wearing different suits.  And both are the purest cant, invented by tyrannies for the justification of tyranny.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

It Came From Uranus

I finished reading Stephen Baxter's Doctor Who novel The Wheel of Ice today.  The novel had its moments.  There is one description of an attack upon Zoe by a group of 'blue dolls' - fabricated avatars of an ancient artificial intelligence - that is rather well done.  The blank black eyes and needle teeth are fairly routine but there is something oddly disturbing about the descriptions of their paddle-like hands.

On the whole, however, I found the book rather uninspired.  The phrase I just used - "ancient artificial intelligence" - says a lot about the book's use of somewhat familiar tropes.  There seems to have been an attempt to evoke the 'base under siege' / 'humans in the future' formula so often said to be typical of the Troughton era... but with the 'siege' coming from within the colony.  However, Baxter is perhaps a little too interested in the technical details of the solar system.  We get an awful lot of scenes where the action stops dead so the characters can explain neutrinos to each other, or describe the chemical composition of Titan's atmosphere.  There's also a lot of stuff about how a space colony would actuallly work in technical terms, but it's not terribly relevant to the story.  So, once again, the action tends to pause so that people can talk about waste recycling.

There is an attempt to adapt the characters of Zoe and Jamie to new situations that also causes a slowing-down of the action.  It would be okay if they had genuinely interesting things to do... but Zoe gets to tell bedtime stories about the Karkus to a toddler and Jamie falls in with a bunch of naff 'rebellious' young people who say excrutiating things like "Cowabunga, granddad!".  I shit you not.

There's a rather likeable Scottish robot called Mac who gets developed only so far before being sidelined and then brought back for a rather twee 'emotional' bit at the end.  It's characteristic of the novel that this cathartic final scene for Mac is bordered by lots of technical talk involving him being sent to Uranus to mine tarranium (it came from Uranus, I knew it did!).  There are lots of continuity references in the book, if that's the sort of thing that spreads your marmite.

The book also has a go at being political... and that's kind of what I wanted to talk about.  There is a nasty corporation called, rather amusingly, Bootstrap... as thought it was set up by Norman Tebbit or someone like that.  The representative of the corporation is a nasty woman who is nasty because she's nasty, and a woman because she's a woman.  She does nasty things in a brusque, rude manner, because she's nasty and brusque and rude.  Everybody else in the story seems to be well-meaning, if equally characterless.  Some are delineated by being Spanish or Welsh.  The rest blur into one indistinct melange even as you read.  (So quite like a mid-Troughton space base story in fact!)  The point is that there is one nasty corporate person who causes problems for a whole bunch of people who seem less real than her because she at least has a distinguishing feature, i.e her nastiness.  She's obsessed with efficiency and profit, which is presented as surprising, as though that isn't what corporations hire people to do.  In the end, the Doctor defeats her (while she rants in an overwrought style so stereotypically villainous that it frequently feels like the writer is taking the piss) and the people of the colony suddenly decide to declare independence from Earth (and from Bootstrap).  The 'Planetary Ethics Committee' looks set to help them, because they're an ethics committe and, as such, are ethical... like the Spanish character mentioned above who is also nice because he works for them.

To be honest, it's no surprise to me that Steven Baxter's story is simplistic and sketchy in its representation of politics.  The Time Ships, his sequel to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, chose to eschew anything resembling Wells' approach, which was to use the device of time travel as a way of satirircally examining the class struggle through the prism of Darwinism.  Instead, Baxter mistakes the literary device, the time machine itself, for the crux of the matter... and delves into lots of stuff inspired by 20th century theoretical physics.  Alternate universes, etc. 

The stuff I want to mention comes later in the book.  The Doctor makes a series of political pronouncements.  In response to the evil ravings of the nasty corporate utilitarian (who is so evil she sends kids off to work early in the morning!), he announces that "there are ways of achieving economic progress without exploiting people!"  Later, when helping the human colonists begin to set up their new, independent republic, he tells them they don't need to invent a new political system because they can just adapt the best systems yet devised by humanity, namely the British parliamentary system and the Constitution of the USA.

Now, I'm not going to launch into a great diatribe about whether you can have non-exploitative capitalism (if you've ever read this blog before you can probably guess my position).  Nor am I going to be boring on the subject of what's wrong with the British parliamentary system and the Constitution of the USA.  Nor am I going to dwell on better ways of organising society that have, occasionally and briefly, appeared before being crushed by... well, often by people like British parliamentarians and American statesmen.  Nor am I going to do anything more than glancingly refer to what I see as the stuntedness and narrow-mindedness of this manifestation of 'capitalist realism' and liberal contentedness.  'What is, is right', etc.  Apart from anything else, this is far from unprecedented in Doctor Who novels.  Terrance Dicks had Benny suggest the two Houses of the British state as a model of workable democracy in his New Adventure Blood Harvest.  Nor am I going to do anything more than mention the fact that this inspiring revolution of the colonists in Baxter's novel, this declaration of independence clearly modelled on the American revolt against British rule (even down to them having a 'constitutional convention'), happens without any mass revolt, mass involvement, mass discontent... without any apparent movement of the people themselves whatever.  The nasty corporate lady is frozen in a block of ice and, hey presto, everyone decides to be an independent republic.  The resulting political ferment is organized, terribly politely and calmly, by the Mayor.  The Doctor then tells them that they are "free to sell their labour to Bootstrap, or not"... he doesn't say how they'll survive if they chose not to.  I guess the labour market is so self-evidently fair (once the one corporate tyrant who spoils it for everone is disposed of) that nothing more need be said.

What I am going to make a fuss about is the sheer cheek involved in inserting sweeping political statements into the mouth of the Doctor, especially when he is being used as Baxter uses him: as the barometer of wisdom in the story.  Somehow it seems especially egregious to put such things into the mouth of the second Doctor.  I don't recall him ever making any such politically particular statements during his tenure.  General statements of principle, sure... but explicit political judgements?  That's more the province of his successor.

Look, let's just consider a counter case.  Let's just imagine a writer trying to make the second Doctor say anything more radical than this kind of contented liberalism and pro-market democracy.  What if this hypothetical writer wanted the Doctor to suggest... oooh, I dunno... basing the organisation of the new colony on the Paris Commune, or the Soviet workers' democracy of 1917, or the workers' councils of Germany in 1918?  Let's imagine a writer who tried to make a text version of Patrick Troughton declare the advantages of the dictatorship of the proletariat.  I'm not necessarily saying the Doctor should be given such lines, or advocate such ideas.  I'm just asking what would happen if anybody tried to make him.  I don't expect it'd make it into print, and I daresay it would be the cause of astonishment if it did.

On one level, this is nothing but the observation that minority views are less frequently treated as acceptable by the mainstream.  And to an extent this is fair enough.  But my point - such as it is - is wider than that.  I'm not complaining that certain views are 'under-represented'.  I'm offering an illustration of how prevailing ideology insinuates itself, even into the most seemingly innocuous contexts, via its very usualness and apparent neutrality.

I'm not a regular reader of the spin-off novels, but I'd be fairly confident in betting that, by and large, they feature a Doctor whose moral and political ideas never stray too far from the magnetic pole of contented liberal 'capitalist realism'.  I think it's potentially instructive to ponder just how much the franchise remains a product of a prevailing ideological system, almost certainly closed - as a matter of course, to the point where any alternative seems inherently laughable to most people - to seriously dissenting perspectives.

As I say, this isn't a complaint... as such.  I don't long for a Doctor who speaks like an anti-capitalist or a socialist.  I don't know that such a thing would be helpful, let alone interesting.  The reinforcement of prevailing ideology is useful to an ideological system because it forms one more note in a symphony of cultural reinforcement, a symphony that drowns out any other music.  The proffering of a dissenting view in a cultural product like Doctor Who would merely be an oddity, of little persuasive power.  The point is that it doesn't happen... and, by and large, we don't notice that it doesn't happen.  Nor do we notice, by and large, that established and prevailing ideology does make itself felt everywhere.  It's in the nature of a prevailing ideology to seem invisible, precisely because it is prevailing.

That's why I always laugh when I hear that popular cant about how dangerous 'Isms' are.  The people who say stuff like that never seem to imagine, even for a moment, that they themselves might be thinking within an ideology, an ideology that we might even want to call 'anti-Ismism'.

It's merely an observation.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Double Coded

There's a scene that is evidently supposed to justify the way Moffat's version of the show has been talking the Doctor up as a powerful, scary, dangerous bad-ass.  It supposedly justifies the Doctor's own increasing tendency to appear decidedly impressed with himself, to see himself - and talk about himself - as Mr Scarypants.  It justifies the decision to show him (especially in Moffat scripts) as being hubristic, bombastic, aware of his ability to strike terror into the monsters.  Look me up, Vashta Nerada, and then run away.  Look me up, Atraxi, and then run away.  "There's one thing you never put in a trap..." and "Don't ever think you're capable of playing games with me..." and all that pompous, I'm-so-hard, showoffish bum-gravy.

The scene in question is said, by some, to throw all this into relief, to undermine it, to pull the rug from under the Doctor's feet, to be the reversal towards which all this was leading, a treacherous terminus that forces us to reassess our hero's morality, and to make him reassess it too.

The scene is near the end of 'A Good Man Goes to War'.  It's the scene where River rebukes the Doctor.  He says "None of this is my fault!", referring to the war waged by the anonymous military people and their anonymous Headless Monk friends, the war in which Amy and her baby have become unwilling pawns, in which other friends and allies of the Doctor have been killed.  River snaps back at him that it's all his fault.  He brought it all upon them by allowing himself to become a figure of terror to the bad guys, a warrior... to the point where even his name - "Doctor" - has come to mean "mighty warrior" in the language of the anonymous military people.

You see, Doctor, what a pass this has come to?  Ooooh, you have become what you were fighting.

Except that it doesn't do or say or achieve anything of the kind.  If that is the intended import of the scene, it fails miserably.

Firstly, how many times are we supposed to have seen the Doctor bitten-on-the arse by his own hubris now?  And when has it ever changed his behaviour?  He's supposed to have been humbled at the end of Series 5... only to come back at Christmas, so arrogant, such a self-appointed puppet-master, such an unrepentant and moralising neoconservative of other people's souls, that he inserts himself into a man's past, his memories, his innermost self, and rewrites his life - as he watches.

It's similar with the Doctor's 'lesson' at the end of 'A Good Man Goes to War'.  Once River has finished lightly scolding him, and he's finished looking faintly sheepish, he instantly snaps back into normal mode.  River - the quintessential Moffat 'strong female'... i.e. slavishly obsessed with her man - goes all gooey-eyed as she reveals her (entirely predictable) identity and the Doctor, grinning, announces to Amy and Rory that all is well.  He knows that they've just lost their chance to raise their daughter, irrevocably, forever.  But he doesn't tell them that.  He says he can fix it all and promptly buggers off, apparently believing that they'll be okay to learn that their daughter is now a quip-engine stalker in the body of a woman older than they are.

Two of those warriors we're not supposed to admire.
Secondly, why exactly should it shock or worry us viewers, or the Doctor, or anyone else, that the Doctor is now seen by some as a warrior?  After all, hasn't the entire episode, up to that point, been extolling the virtues of warriors?  Rory, apparently at the Doctor's arbitrary insistence, dresses as a Roman soldier.  And we are reminded how wonderful he was in his Centurion guise by Amy's silly narration at the start.  The Doctor goes and picks up his (never before seen) friends.  The Silurian female and her maid/girlfriend turn out to be sword-wielding ninjas (or something) and we're evidently supposed to love them.  Skrax is nominally a nurse but he's also a Sontaran, complete with a Sontaran warrior ethic.  The Sontarans in classic Who represented militarism as bluff, crude, vicious, arrogant, sadistic, bigoted... in Moffat Who they've become potentially likeable creatures, possessed of a noble soldier's code. (Though we must be fair to Moffat and mention that they'd already started becoming TNG Klingon-esque under RTD's regime.)  Skrax dies in battle, and we're evidently supposed to be moved by his noble warrior's death.  And then there's the female soldier who only joined up to meet the Doctor again (once again, Moffat creates a female character who is slavishly obsessed with the Doctor... and we still haven't met Mels yet).  She dies a noble death, fighting, and we're evidently supposed to be as moved as fuck by her anonymous passing as she sinks back into the bland mush from which she was just molded like a jelly.  Wherefore, with all these noble warriors about the place, dying heroic and moving warrior's deaths in the cause of friendship and justice, should our distaste for the idea of the Doctor as a warrior spring?

What we're seeing here is the quintessential Moffat move.  Show the audience one thing.  Then inform them that they're supposed to feel or think something about it that is entirely inconsistent and contradictory.

We are shown how wonderful warriors are.  We are supposed to weep for the warriors.  The good men and women who went to war.  And then Moffat/River informs us that being a warrior is somehow shameful.  That the Doctor should be ashamed of how much like a warrior he has become, by how many people now see him as a warrior.

Moreover, the bad faith inherent in this maneuver stretches even further.  It stretches all the way back across the Moffat era up to this point.  Because all those times when the Doctor talked tough, looked mean, made people scared, made people run away, got spoken of in hushed tones as a frightening enemy, turned up and acted like a ego-maniacal dick... we were so supposed to dig them.  We were so supposed to wet our pants with fanboy glee as the bad-ass Doctor talks like a hard-nut and then pastes the baddies.  We were so supposed to swell with pride and awe as people run away from him, talk about him like he's a dark god and generally genuflect before his power, might and ruthlessness.  Moffat is evidently in love with depicting the Doctor this way... just as he's in love with making every 'strong female character' into a Doctor-stalker who follows him around like a devoted puppy, endlessly talking about how wonderful he is.

Show the audience one thing.  Then inform them that they're supposed to feel or think something about it that is entirely inconsistent and contradictory.  'See the Doctor being a powerful bad-ass.  Exciting isn't it?  But it's also bad.  Because I suddenly say so.'

And don't try to tell me this is intentional.  This isn't double coding.  This is double standards.  This isn't irony.  This is the opposite of irony.  This is a writer who is deaf to the ironies of his own bad faith.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Murder is Murder

The terrible killings of Americans in Libya have provoked an entirely foreesable reaction.  Loads of smug conservatives and equally smug liberals have found common cause in singling out Islam as violent and intolerant. 

That cartoon in The Onion is a good example.  'Nobody Murdered Because of This Image' reads the headline, above a cartoon of several non-Muslim religious figures engaged in an explicit gang bang.  Because only Muslims kill people for bigoted reasons, you see.

It's interesting to witness the implicit hierarchy of human value.  The (entirely deplorable) murder of Americans by Libyans elicits howls of outrages.  The (equally deplorable and far more common) murder of Arabs and Muslims in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Palestine etc by the American and British militaries - and/or NATO, and/or the Israelis - doesn't provoke any such widespread and sustained spluttering horror.  It's for 'them' to die at our hands.  That's just routine.  And 'they' mustn't draw any conclusions from this (i.e. the West despises them and values their culture at nothing) because if they do then that's the medieval intolerance of Islam talking.

Of course, nobody who died at the Embassy deserved to die, nor would they have deserved to even if they had been involved in creating the disgusting, hateful, maliciously provocative film that everyone is talking about.  Most Muslims would agree, I'm sure... even those who were insulted and shocked by hearing about the film. 

Meanwhile, our Western response (the response of those who are supposedly living in the civilised, liberal, modern, progressive, democratic world... as opposed to the lands of the backward, whom we take it upon ourselves to slaughter in the name of freedom) will probably be to massacre yet more Arabs and Muslims.

And all those people who chortle over the religious touchiness of Muslims will immediately go blind and deaf.

Friday, 14 September 2012

How to Write a Steven Moffat Script


AMY: Ah, hello oldest and best friend who I've never mentioned before for some reason.

FRIEND: Hello Amy.

DOCTOR: Hello, I'm quirky.

FRIEND: And sexy.

DOCTOR: Yes, and now I will make a double entendre that could just about be interpreted non-sexually by a forum casuist who is trying to win a debate with someone who says Steven Moffat is obsessed with proving that the Doctor is an active heterosexual. Because, however much he wants us to know that he's a sexy shagging randy lad who likes girls and sex, Moffat also has an inner core of nerd.

ENEMY: Hello, here are some evil monks with no heads. They can't be reasoned with or persuaded. Because they don't 'reason' like the evil old Doctor. And they have no heads. They've cut their own heads off. Geddit? So, no brains on these monks. By choice. DO YOU SEE?

RORY: Euuurrgghh...

AMY: Oh my God, they killed my wonderful impossible man who is centuries old and had a box (the Pandorica I mean), etc. I mean Rory even though I seem, for some reason, to be framing my remarks to sound like I mean the Doctor.

FEMALE OBSESSED WITH DOCTOR #2: Hello Doctor, I hate you. I mean I love you.

FEMALE OBSESSED WITH DOCTOR #3: Oh, I know. He's a wonderful, impossible man who once took me to the wedding of Princess Diana (he was best mates with her and may have shagged her) and got some other celebrity historical figures to do something hilarious at the party afterwards, where it is implied he got drunk.

FEMALE OBSESSED WITH DOCTOR #2: Oooh, double entendre.



DOCTOR: Mmmm, I liked the way you shot that guy. That made me stand to attention. By the way, I am also a hypocrite so I will warn you against immoral behaviour that I just approved and also committed. So, don't do it again. Or I'll come after you. And I'm scary.  Even scarier than my best buddy ever, Henry Kissinger.

HEADLESS MONK: Yes, the Doctor is scary. And powerful and dangerous.


FEMALE OBSESSED WITH DOCTOR #4:  And I should know, because I met him when I was a kid and became obsessed with him before I even hit puberty.



AMY:  Me too.

FRIEND:  Yep.  And me.  In fact, I was genetically designed to be obsessed with him.  I have no other purpose in life.


FEMALE OBSESSED WITH DOCTOR #2: Oh, by the way, I'm the headless monk's daughter or something, because of a time paradox or something.

DOCTOR: I knew that all along because I am now so powerful and all knowing that no mere drama ever threatens me.

FANS: Give this man a vault full of Hugo awards, this is genius.

RORY: I'm alive again.

DOCTOR: Well go and kiss your property... I mean wife.


DOCTOR:  Yay, another alien menace ended by the establishment of heteronormative gender relations!


Wednesday, 12 September 2012

My Irresistible Rise Continues...

Yes folks, my empire continues to expand.  My influence spreads.  Soon, very soon, I shall be published for the second time.  Tomorrow, the world.

Robert Smith?'s latest project - Outside In - arrives on 23rd November. 

Astonishingly, my name isn't on the cover.  Must've been an oversight.

Full details here, but basically it's a compendium of reviews.  Every Doctor Who story reviewed... and here's the thing... by a different writer.  The promise is that these reviews are going to be a bit different, offering a new take. 

I'm in there, reviewing 'Snakedance'.  It's a slightly tweaked version of a piece I originally wrote for the (sadly resting) fanzine Panic Moon, so the editor - the estimable Oliver Wake - must share credit for dragging the essay out of me in the first place.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

We are the Borgias. You will be Excommunicated. Renaissance is Futile.

It's good that TV dramas have become more complex and ambiguous, particularly with regards to morality.  But there is a tendency for them to lose any moral compass in their eagerness to show us the dark sides of the characters with whom they want us to empathize and to care about.

The Borgias wants us to follow Cesare's career with sympathy, but also shows him having people tortured into madness.  What is the show's position on this?  Oddly, it tries to whitewash him even as it revels in his dark side.  It makes his victims into rapists and murderers.  It depicts him as personally involved in tormenting Savonarola, but makes Savonarola a fanatic (of course) and a vicious homophobe.  Now, it's true that Savonarola instituted strictly puritanical laws in Florence, including against sodomy... but that was applicable to hetero sex as well as homo.  Of course, I wouldn't want to defend Savonarola's views in their entirety.  He was not a modern democrat.  But he and people akin to him - Munzer, Cromwell, the Levellers, the Diggers... the p/Protestant revolutionaries of the era of transition from feudalism to capitalism - were more than just foaming fanatics.  They meant more than that.  Of course, revolutionary ideals are always depicted as fanatical and dangerous in mainstream culture, more horrible by definition than any status quo they may challenge.  c.f. anybody in Gotham City who doesn't like draconian laws and huge imbalances of wealth.

On the subject of Savonarola, we of course get a depiction of the revolution he led in Florence against the Medicis as an irrational explosion of fanaticism and lunacy.  We get no hint of the scale of corruption and oppression committed by the Medicis, no real hint of the horror of poverty in Florence alongside the amazing cultural flowering and explosion of wealth.  We get nothing about the popular support for Savonarola, the support of artists like Michaelangelo and Botticelli (we even get Machiavelli and Cesare tutting over the burning of a Botticelli on one of the Bonfires of the Vanities).  The Florentine republic created after the people kicked out the Medici was astonishing for its time.  The franchise was extended, public office was opened to lower ranks, the use of capital punishment was limited, etc.  None of that.  Natch.

And, to loop back to what I was saying earlier, we get no sense of the scale of corruption in the Catholic Church that Savonarola and people like him were rebelling against.  Pope Alexander VI, played (ludicrously, with stuck out chin and silly gruff voice) by Jeremy Irons, is shown to be a libertine, a spendthrift, a buyer and seller of offices, etc... but we're evidently meant to relish him as a morally ambiguous figure whose passions are enjoyable to witness.  He is also shown giving a shit about the poor of Rome, going out at night in secret to investigate why the orphans don't got no clean water.  He even gets to deliver John Ball's line "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" in response to aristocratic bigotry.

So, moral ambiguity at all costs... even at the cost of any moral compass in the drama, or any semblance of historical truth.  There are, I think, worse sins in drama than areas of moral clarity.