Saturday, 30 August 2014

Bits and Bobs ('Deep Breath' 4)

It ends with another mysterious woman, another predatory dominatrix older female.  She represents another story arc which we, the viewers, have no possibility of guessing or understanding until the inevitable 'twist' becomes self-evident just before being served up to you on a plate several episodes later than it could've been.

She speaks as if she is one of the audience and saw what we saw.  Like us, she couldn't see if the Doctor persuaded Half-Face to commit suicide or if he pushed him to his death.  Again, a metatextual trick is used as a signifier of the enemy.

Another physical endurance test or test of skill becomes part of the nature of the monster-of-the-week.  The Weeping Angels were based on how long you could go without blinking.  The Sredni Vashtar (or whatever they were called) were based on how long you could go without touching a shadow with your own shadow.  The droids in 'Deep Breath' were based on how long you can hold your breath (a slightly dodgy thing to encourage in the playground possibly).

How much you like all this probably depends on how much you like repetition.

I said:  how much you like all this probably depends on how much you like repetition.

(To be fair, RTD was hardly unrepetitious - how many eleventh episodes ended with robotic things swarming in the sky and swooping down to shoot milling people?  Quite a few, as I recall.)

The business with the droids stealing bodies hooks into the corpse economy of Victorian London, but strips it of class significance.  Rich and poor alike get predated upon.  It's not like in 'Bad Wolf' in which the Daleks harvest the tramps and the sick and the outcasts... and then start feeding on the TV audience which tunes in to watch bodies punished.

The episode has lots to say about faces, and how we acquire them.  The Doctor chooses (unconsciously, presumably) his new face as a way of being honest with Clara and trusting her.  He initially finds it hard to recognise as himself.  Vastra's face is also the key to understanding and accepting her.  You perceive a veil if you are unprepared to see and accept who she is.  The droid has half a face (why couldn't he have become a Springheel Jack-style urban legend called Jack Half-a-Face? - that would've been awesome) because he unconsciously recognises that it is not his own.  He is contrasted with the Doctor and Vastra in that his face is a lie that he essentially rejects despite his attempts to accept it, whereas they performatively reject their own faces as a way of making others accept their honesty.

Vastra's larder mirrors the larder of the droids, their store cupboard of human bits and bobs.  It also mirrors the remark the Doctor makes to Clara about all restaurants being slaughterhouses, and his not remembering her becoming a vegetarian.  (As a longstanding veggie myself, I liked that bit - though his attitude was condescending... but then, let's face it, the Doctor is often morally condescending, and so are vegetarians.)  Vastra's larder is full of human bits and bobs too (its implied) and may even double as her slaughterhouse for killing murderers and harvesting their haunches and sirloin, so to speak.  In this she is quite well assimilated into Victorian society, which totally recognised the supposed propriety of slaughtering those found guilty of crimes and then re-using their bodies.

All this business of dismembered bodies, harvesting, cannibalism, absorbtion and the salvaging of human detritus yet again raises the issue of the rendering of humans as mere meat - a perenniel obsession of Doctor Who.  And also, the intrusion of the machine into the human body, of the product into the producer, of the fetishized commodity back into the human food chain as both child and dominator.

People really don't understand this show at all.  It's like when Shakespeare gets called a 'national poet' or 'sweet swan of Avon' of 'honey-tongued Shakespeare' etc.  He's supposedy a poet of love, romance, patriotism, etc... if you read him, he's actually a poet obsessed with hate, cruelty, evil, cynicism, hypocrisy, bombast, bullshit, selfishness, malignant narcissism, internalised self-loathing and failure.  Doctor Who is supposed by some to be the 'triumph of romance and intellect over brute force and cynicism'.  Wrong.  Firstly, much of Doctor Who doesn't even recognise a contradiction between romance and intellect on the one hand, and brute force and cynicism on the other.  Secondly, the show is absolutely obsessed with entropy, commodification, fetishism, cannibalism, humans as meat, etc... and that's without getting into even more overt obsessions like class, sadism and tyranny.

The droids in 'Deep Breath' are reverse Cybermen.  They are robots harvesting human meat to make themselves human rather than humans creating bionic bits to make themselves robots.  This suggests a echoing universal lack of any Aristotelian perfect mean, a correct middle ground.  There are only equally horrific extremes which converge from opposite directions... at least when you factor in the conflict between the meat that produces (humans) and the metal they produce.  Also implied is a sort of universally unsatisfiable yearning for transfiguration and transcendence.  Everyone everywhere wants to be something else, something better.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  This is standard liberal hand-wringing, especially when you factor in the soft-Dawkinsian stuff about there being no promised land.  This is partly a new-Atheist-style rejection of religion (with Missy the evil woman claiming to represent paradise) but also a regulation liberal rejection of the utopian as a form of dangerous extremism.  Of course, the utopianism of Jack Half-a-Face is situated within the semiotic scheme of Victoriana and doggerel-Steampunk, so it could be seen as a rejection of the Victorian high-industrial dream of a perfect society acheieved through industry, empire and officially-overseen progress, with morality instilled in thrifty workers and natives via the go-getting top hat brigade.

But he gets impaled on Big Ben... hoist with his own petard?  Confronted by his own values?  Or skewered by the triumphant expression of human (i.e. British and imperial) superiority?

Friday, 29 August 2014

Random Thing #3

And one more.  Please bear in mind, this is a fragment.

Marx saw creativity as essential to human nature.  He famously once said that “Milton produced Paradise Lost in the way that a silkworm produces silk, as the expression of his own nature”.  The difference is that Marx saw such creativity as a potential in all people, and believed that class society stunted such potentials in the majority by forcing them to do work that was alien to their natures. 

Yet there is some truth to the idea of progress in the history of class society.  Marx is quite comfortable – sometimes a little too comfortable – with the idea that the accumulation of capital can also be the accumulation of progress, that even the imperialistic development of class society can push people ‘forwards’.  It’s just that he also sees horror in the process, eventually calling the ‘progress’ that British imperialism and capitalism brought to India as resembling a “hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.”  This is far from an unproblematic way of putting it, but the point stands. 

It is a point later taken up by Walter Benjamin in On the Concept of History, in which he describes history as both a triumphal procession and a great piling up of wreckage and horror. 

Moral progress is only found when the increase of power and knowledge is used to make life fairer or better for common people (i.e. the majority), and this is the exception rather than the rule.  And when it does happen, it isn’t a trickle-down effect.  It is the result of struggle from below.  And even the accumulation of power and knowledge in the hands of the rulers can only come from the unrequited labour of the masses.  Even when a genius makes an individual discovery, he usually sits on top of a great pyramid of unacknowledged workers.  Charles Darwin was only able to spend years in his study working and thinking and writing because he had servants, inherited wealth, and a wife who was related to the Wedgewoods.  And that’s the history of class society at its prettiest.  At other times it looks like Alexander, invading and slaughtering.  Alexander was one of those potentates who poured the fruits of human labour into makewaste vanity projects like wars and great opulent buildings for the top people.  Contrary to the assertions of classicists (who tend to assume that they would be reincarnated in the past as fellow aristocrats) Alexander achieved little to better mankind, even if he was taught by Aristotle, one of the undoubted ‘great men’ of history.  But then Aristotle himself defended slavery in his Politics, as he had to, given that his leisure to sit around all day thinking depended on it.

Terry Eagleton has frequently pointed out that the Marxist view of history as simultaneously progressive and barbaric is a Tragic one, as Tragic (with a capital T) as Othello.  He asks (rhetorically) if even communism (as Marx envisaged it) would justify the necessary slog through class society.  Would it all have been worth it, to get us there?

Random Thing #2

Another snippet looking for a home...

The fembot is an expression of a patriarchal and misogynistic power fantasy.  The woman who is your creation but not your daughter (and thus sexually available).  The woman who is programmable, controllable, designable to your own specifications and customisable to your wishes.  The woman who is literally a commodity (or at least a product) rather than a living being who has been reduced to one, and who it is therefore possible to own without guilt.  The woman who serves your needs unquestioningly, as her reason for existing.  The woman who never resents anything, or at least is designed not to.  The woman who is rightfully doomed to the subordinate position of servant, and who accepts it as a given and a duty, because of her innate inferiority and subhumanity.  The fembot isn’t so much a new idea as a modern reification of age-old ideological constructs of patriarchy.  The one specifically modern thing about her is her convenient inability to get pregnant – something that would have seemed a disadvantage to pre-modern patriarchs but which now, in post-sexual revolution Western capitalist culture, strikes many men as a bonus.

Random Thing #1

This got cut from something else I was writing.  I'm putting it here because I'd rather put it somewhere than just delete it.

At first sight, Flint and Rayna in the Star Trek episode 'Requiem for Methuselah' look like a fairly standard sci-fi reiteration of Propsero and Miranda.  That’s been done a fair few times, of course.  Most famously in Forbidden Planet.  (The reiteration of Shakespeare is apt enough, given that Flint owns a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio.  He never claims to have been Shakespeare, but probably would if prompted.)  Oddly though, the more ‘Requiem for Methuselah’ progresses, the more it looks like Othello rather than The Tempest.

Because ‘Requiem for Methuselah’ seems – rather astonishingly - to have a ‘double time’ scheme to it, very much like Othello.  The play is famous for having two apparently separate and irreconcilable chronologies mapped onto each other within it.  As many critics have observed, judging by the events we witness, there seems to be a space of about twenty-four hours between Othello and Desdemona’s marriage and Desdemona’s murder by Othello, and yet multiple other indications with the play – including flat statements by characters – imply that at least a week passes.   A casual reader or viewer is quite likely to imagine that the sojourn in Cyprus lasts several weeks before culminating in tragedy.  The two time schemes simply don’t match.  Apart from anything else, there simply isn’t enough time for Desdemona to have committed “the act of shame” with Cassio “a thousand times”, as Othello comes to believe.  But the play does work.  To quote A. C. Bradley:  “[Shakespeare] wanted the spectator to feel a passionate and vehement haste in the action; but he also wanted him to feel that the action was fairly probable.”

Something noticeably similar occurs in ‘Requiem for Methuselah’.  The episode has a strict time span imposed upon it, from the start, by the vicissitudes of what we might call the ‘A Plot’, the one about Kirk et al needing to get their hands on the (amusingly named) substance Ryetalyn, refine it so that it can be used to cure the Rigellian Fever and take said cure back to the Enterprise to save all the other regular characters.  The point is repeatedly made that time is of the essence.  Yet, despite the fact that they succeed in doing this, the episode feels like it takes much longer.  The episode manages to give the impression of massively compressing the events of, perhaps, several days.  First and foremost, Kirk falls for Rayna so heavily that it defies credibility that it could happen in the space of a few hours.  The episode really stresses this too, leaving Kirk devastated by Rayna’s death, so much so that Spock erases his memory of her at the end, to spare Kirk debilitating emotional pain.  In other ways too, Kirk, McCoy and Spock’s stay with Flint feels like a prolonged one.  There is time for everyone to relax and lounge around, playing the harpsichord or dancing.  Minerals and collected and refined – twice! – with Flint explicitly delaying the process.  This is what we might call the ‘B Plot’, the business with Flint trying to use Kirk to arouse Rayna’s emotions.  The requirements of Flint’s plan seem impossible to squeeze into a few hours.  He’s trying to foster a mutual attraction which will arouse latent emotions.  If Kirk really falls head over heels for Rayna, and manages to draw an emotional response from her despite her never having been capable of emotions before, all in a few hours, Flint really has been lucky in a way he could scarcely have foreseen.  This isn’t really a problem in plot terms because there is a huge sense, conveyed on screen, that we are watching the edited highlights of a very long stay.  A few days at the very least.  The episode successfully pulls off something like Othello’s ‘double time’ scheme.  It makes the viewer feel “a passionate and vehement haste in the action” while also making it seem “fairly probable.”

This monkeying around with time is quite appropriate in a story that concerns itself with an immortal man of colossal age who seems to have lived through every epoch in human history.  Flint himself is a temporal contradiction.  A man unimaginably older than he looks.  An immortal who stands outside of time.  Flint has lived a lifetime, but his lifetime encompasses the entirety of human history.  He is one man but has been many others.  His whole self is a ‘double time’ scheme.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Veil ('Deep Breath' 3)

The veil.  A politically loaded symbol.  It carries all sorts of old semiotic baggage, of course.  Weddings.  Widowhood.  Ladies in Conan Doyle who want to hide their identities (thus it has a trajectory into the figure of Madame Vastra via Victoriana).  In genre TV these days, a woman wearing a veil is likely to be a tragic or vengeful figure, hiding a facial scar of some kind.  (See 'Silence in the Library' / 'Forest of the Dead'.)

The veil is thus something that implies a particular set of social situations for women.  The connection appears to be the concept of separation.  The veil is a boundary between the woman and society.  It creates a space in which she can hide her unsightliness, either disfiguring grief or grievous disfigurement, from those who don't want to have to see it.  The wedding veil is lifted as the woman is taken possession of in the marriage ceremony; thus it is there to emphasize her acceptability by temporarily putting it in doubt.  It is, of course, the symbolic tearing of the hymen.  The man takes possession and breaks through the barrier.  All very nasty. Not to mention anatomically inaccurate.

Vastra's veil takes on enormous significance in 'Deep Breath'.  Indeed, the whole episode is full of talk about faces, with them being stolen, exchanged, worn, hidden, changed... with them contemplated in mirrors.

Vastra is married to Jenny (by Silurian law perhaps?), and yet this marriage hardly seems to have anything to do with Vastra's veil (unsurprising, given that it is black rather than white), since Vastra and Jenny's relationship fails to fit easily into any patriarchal schema.  There is no sense in which Jenny owns Vastra.  Indeed, the power relationship appears to go the other way (with implied consent).

There is a sense in which Vastra could be said to be mourning.  She is an isolated figure in some ways, cut off from her lost people.  But this is hardly emphasised at all.  She doesn't seem tragic, and her complete lack of vengefulness is so complete as to be worrying (to me anyway).

As mentioned, she reiterates - in some ways - the figure of the veiled lady from Victorian popular fiction, via her place in the regurgitated Victoria trope pyramid.  But she inverts this, to some degree, by being the detective.  Her veil isn't to hide her secrets from the investigator, rather it is to hide the secrets of the investigator from the client - as long as is necessary.

There is another significance to the veil in our culture at this time: the immensely freighted issue of the hijab... or perhaps I should say, the immensely freighted issue of Western ideas about the hijab.  I've likened the Silurians to the Palestinians before now, which would obviously chime... especially when you remember that Vastra has plonked herself down at the hub of the British Empire as a kind of refugee, and the British Empire was mucking around with the area that became Palestine from the 1830s onwards (though Victoriana places Vastra well before the disastrous British interventions of the early 20th century).  

Vastra's choice to wear the veil makes her a better representation of this issue than we tend to get from the culture industries.  It's a widespread prejudice in Western culture (which imagines itself to be post-sexist) that all or most Muslim women wear the hijab and other such articles of clothing because they're forced to by Muslim men.  If Vastra's veil can be tied into our wider 'debate' about this (with 'debate' here meaning the sickening display of Islamophobia dressed up as liberal concern for women's rights) then it looks quite good.

We're onto something with the issue of disfigurement too.  The figure of the disfigured woman hiding herself (and thus also her identity and vengeful agenda) is overused and overfamiliar, and laced with some quite nasty assumptions... but Vastra isn't disfigured.  Rather, as she herself says, it is Victorian society that considers her disfigured.  This is a more-or-less direct connection between race and social exclusion (with race filtered through the SF concept of the alien), and also connects with a critique of attitudes towards women who don't fit the sexist concept of acceptable female appearance.  (Slightly undermined by Vastra's fixation on Jenny's prettiness.)

At first sight, this reading also seems undermined somewhat by the way in which Vastra can walk around on the banks of the Thames, surrounded by people, without wearing her veil, attracting no attention.  On the other hand, maybe those people do see the veil even if we, the viewers, don't.  Because - and this is the really interesting thing - Steven Moffat now seems to be implying that the veil is only visible to people who feel some need to see it because they are unprepared to look the facts about Vastra in the face, as it were... and, by implication, to see past their own prejudices.  This, I suppose, is how to read Vastra's comment that she wears the veil as a judgement on others.

Read this way, the veil is a way for the viewer to judge themselves.  That's actually quite good, and more pleasant than my initial thought, which was that the "judgement" comment was a rather weasily way of making the need to escape the consequences of social marginalisation into an empowered choice made by the victim.

If the veil is a property of the viewer's perception, that would fit into Moffat's established habit of treating the camera as a diegetic eye (see Phil Sandifer on the Weeping Angels and the Silence for some interesting thoughts on this).  It is also, I suppose, the reason why Clara suddenly starts seeing Vastra's veil when she is having problems accepting the new Doctor, and confronting Vastra's support of him.  By that logic, it is also why the veil vanishes when she gets her talking to from Vastra.  The thing that makes this work is the way Clara's acceptance of the Doctor and Vastra comes via her giving Vastra a severe and confrontational talking-to, which concedes Vastra's basic point while also objecting to her arrogant way of making it.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Das Kapaldi ('Deep Breath' 2)

Okay, so, Capaldi.  Well, he's great, of course.  He's one of the best actors around - I've loved him ever since I saw him as Uncle Rory in The Crow Road.  (Yes, I know, most of you don't even know what I'm talking about.  I may as well mention, at this point, that I've never seen an episode of Skins or Children of Earth.  I've never even seen In The Thick of It, which surprises even me, given that its written by another of my favourite Scotsmen with an Italian surname.  I do, however, have Capaldi reading an audiobook of A Song of Stone.)  So he's a predictably good Doctor... though it is possible that I'm just perceiving him to be so good because...


...of course, Capaldi gets plenty of typically groanworthy and arrogant stuff to say and do.  His Doctor calls Clara "the asking questions one" and an "egomaniac needy gameplayer", plays that horrific trick on her where he pretends to abandon her (the much-trumpeted 'darkness' of the new Doctor seems to consist of his bouts of callous selfishness being even more egregious, if shorter in length), etc.

But he also gets some good dialogue to play with, and he pounces on it.  Some of the mad stuff at the start is well written.  It has a genuine edge of mania.  The stuff about misunderstanding the concept of the bedroom, and the business with the mirror being furious... this has a really dangerous edge to it, as anyone who has heard genuine delirium will recognise.  It isn't 'realistic', but it feels like an indication of real disorientation.  It has that funny, disorganised, slightly menacing sound that someone's words have when they're halfway out of a nightmare.  And I liked the bit where he interprets the words - or perhaps we should say the feelings - of the lonely dinosaur. 

(I liked the dinosaur generally, by the way.  I liked that it was played as a victim, a tragic figure, misused and betrayed.  Of course, the juxtaposition of the dinosaur with Victorian London has something of that same "I'm mad me!" self-conscious faux-zaniness that creeps into so many Moffat scripts... but it turned out better than that in the end.  We didn't even get much in the way of the Doctor being compared to it - the lonely, last survivor, etc - except as a comparatively quiet implication.  Based on past excesses, that could've turned far more maudlin and sentimental.)

The best bit is probably the bit with the broom.  That felt like something the Doctor would say.  I struggle to think of anything Matt Smith was ever given to say that faintly resembles it... so I suppose I should give Moffat credit for changing his style (eventually) to suit a different actor... though I also have to admit the possibility that Smith did get some dialogue that good and I simply don't remember it, or didn't notice it at the time.

Pyramids of London ('Deep Breath' 1)

I've realised who Strax reminds me of: the policeman from 'Allo 'Allo.  But not as good.  That's a cheap shot, but I do have a serious point to make.

Strax, you see, is essentially a funny foreigner.  You know, with his allegedly hilarious misunderstandings and all that stuff.  Moffat evidently imagines that Strax's misunderstandings are a rich and continuing source of humour, since he stops the plot of 'Deep Breath' for a few minutes so that he can (once again) run through all the same Strax jokes he's already done several hundred times in other episodes.  (This, by the way, is another way in which Strax resembles a character from 'Allo 'Allo - he is the same joke, repeated endlessly, over and over again, with the laugh demanded - upon recitation of a well-known catchphrase - from an audience supposedly trained via pavlovian technique.  If you object to my singling out 'Allo 'Allo here then, really, I agree with you.  How about we use Little Britain as our example instead?)

Of course, the funny foreigner - with all the imperial contempt and jingoistic chauvinism that is built in to it - is a very old, traditional, endlessly recurring character in British comedy.  Shakespeare, for instance, relied upon it heavily, with his nebbishy Welshmen Fluellen and Dr Evans, his amusingly touchy Irishman MacMorris, and his randy preening French vanitycase Dr Caius, etc etc etc.  So we can't be too hard on Moffat here.  He is, after all, simply doing (yet again) something very old, venerable and respected, despite it being unfunny and based in national chauvinism.  Can't really blame him, can you?

As I say, however, Strax isn't as good as the policeman in 'Allo 'Allo... because the policeman in 'Allo 'Allo (you remember, he used to come in and mispronounce his words - it was terribly amusing) is actually a jab at the English, at the English habit of imagining that, rather than bother to learn foreign languages, all you have to do is speak English at foreigners, but with an attempt at their accent, and in a loud voice, and they'll get it... because English is the only proper language, and people who don't speak it are thus functionally the same as the mentally disabled, and everyone knows that people with mental illness just need to try harder.

I don't mean to attribute attitudes like that to Moffat.  But its a shame that he falls back on a comedy trope that is so incredibly dodgy.  Though, in fairness, the employment of dodgy foreigner stereotypes (comic or otherwise) is not exactly unknown to pre-Moffat Doctor Who.  And Strax isn't overtly supposed to represent any particular non-British nationality.  He's supposed to be an alien.  And here we stumble across another complicating factor: the alien in Doctor Who has always been based on a kind of racial essentialism, a fear of the other, etc etc etc.  Strax could arguably be said to be considerably less dodgy than, say, Linx, because he represents a condition of mutual acceptance.  He is the other, sure, but the other muddling along amongst us and basically on our side.

But here we run into yet another twist in the story... because this alignment of the other with 'us' is worrying in itself.  This recurring team - Vastra, Jenny and Strax - worries me.  It represents the reconciliation of the antagonist with 'us'.  They don't just live with humans, they live in Victorian London, and this seems to me to be the most blatant possible way of integrating them into a kind of aggressively middle-class, twee, cutesy, ostensibly lovable, yet aggressive and insular and ressentimental Britishness, a Britishness at its most iconically imperialistic and hierarchical.  Victoriana is the heavy drapes and elaborate dresses and cravats and top hats of the middle-classes.  Victoriana is the coughing, shivering, gin-swilling street poor as an essential background decoration, a set of tropes to locate us.  Victoriana is brown derby-wearing police inspectors (probably called Lestrade) who consult toff private detectives because, being working class, they're too thick to do their jobs themselves (the implicit goodness and necessity of the police is never questioned in Victoriana - something that wasn't true amongst common people in actual Victorian London, who often saw the bobbies as incompetents at best, violent spies at worst).  Victoriana is empire as backdrop.  Queen and country.  Big Ben.  Smog, gaslight, cobbles, hansom cabs, etc etc etc.  This is the milieu that Vastra, Jenny and Strax have assimilated themselves into.  Vastra even challenges the bad guys "in the name of the British Empire!"  This sort of thing no doubt seems desperately cute to Moffat, and all those people who write those rubbishy Jago & Litefoot audios for Big Finish, but its only our historical amnesia to what the British Empire was that allows this kind of desperate cutesiness to subsist.  The subsistence of it, in turn, allows the amnesia.  And boy, do we love our symptoms... hence our desire to inflict them on everyone and pull everyone, and everything, into them.  The Silurian and the Sontaran, for instance, have joined us in our adorable, pop-Conan-Doyle-inflected national fantasy of a penny dreadful past of wonders and horrors.  The horrors are all safely in the past (things we've cured now) and the wonders remain as a kind of nostalgic longing for the lost times when, right or wrong, he had confidence and lush gothic cliches galore on our side.  Vastra - the representative of a displaced people who are perpetually denied redress and justice (umm... imperialism? colonialism?) - has isolated herself from her people and integrated herself into imperial Britain.  She has ceased to be any kind of rebuke to 'our' world, or 'us'.  And 'we' have become the national gestalt that once lived in the United Kingdom of Sherlock.  Strax - the representative of a culture of militarism and conquest - has similarly integrated himself.  His imperialist attitudes are turned into cute, amusing misprisions which allow him to sink with ease into the warm slippers of imperial Victoriana.  The militarism of the Sontarans is no longer a rebuke to 'our' militarism.  The Sontaran may not be a threatening other anymore, but he is now no longer, in any sense, a mirror reflecting our own nastier values back at us.  He's not a reflection that attacks.  He's a stooge who safely reminds us of our foibles by being sillier than us, and then puts on the uniform of a servant and takes his place in the pyramid.  The good pyramid.  'Our' pyramid.  The pyramid we all fit into somewhere, nicely and neatly.  The pyramid that even the comedy tramps fit into.  The pyramid in which the chirpy cockney maid voluntarily calls people "ma'am" and serves them their tea, as an empowered life choice.  The pyramid of contextless, gutted, sanitised tropes.  This is partly why our representations of the Victorian era are so tropetastic... because tropes slot neatly into each other (hence all the Victoriana crossovers, i.e. Holmes vs Jack the Ripper, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc), arrange themselves into pyramids of perceived cultural weight, and start to resemble a vertiginous but orderly class structure, a sort of naturally-occuring periodic table of the social roles, which is the ideology of Victoriana that we are sold by every bit of culture the tropes come from.  This is why 'actually existing steampunk' (which 'Deep Breath' appropriates in predictable fashion, Moffat having been pulling at this particular thread for some time) is so pernicious.  Because the iconography of the high era of industrialisation, imperialism and colonialism is reduced to contextless fetishized commodities, sumptuous archaic kit, and safely de-conflicted social classes.  And even the identification of the cogwheel and the top hat with villainy nevertheless makes no apology for the joy we're supposed to take in the sheen of the 19th century machine. 

Of course, once again, we shouldn't be too hard on Moffat.  He's just doing what lots of people do.  He's just going along.  And he's not doing anything worse than Robert Holmes did in 'Talons of Weng Chiang'.  In fact, he's better than that.  His obligatory Victorian chinese person looks right, according to the big book of stereotypes... but at least he was played by an actual Chinese person.  And at least he wasn't being singled out.  At least he was just another brick in the pyramid, another character on the picturesque Quality Street tin that Victorian London has been turned into by our culture industries.  That's what we do now.  We don't do stories about Victorian London in which Chinese people are The Enemy.  The sneer at the foreigner has been displaced elsewhere, translated into code.  Now, we do stories in which all races and classes, all costumes and styles, all tropes, are brought together, all present and correct, all slotted into place.

Is that so bad?  I honestly don't know.  I'm not necessarily arguing that we're looking at a regress.  But I'm pretty sure we're not looking at progress.  And I'm not talking about the paucity of round things on the wall.