Thursday, 26 March 2015

Yet More Audio (Mind Robber Commentaries)

Strange, isn't it?  Years go by without you hearing my voice... and now I won't shut up!  But yes, there's some more audio for you to enjoy with your ears.  This time it's another Eruditorum/Shabgraff co-venture, with Phil Sandifer and I talking over the top of one of the greatest Doctor Who stories ever made.  Very much for people who think Doctor Who is best when you can't hear the dialogue... but can hear two bloggers talking about it.  Hmm.

I'm only kidding.  These commentaries are actually all brilliant.  Especially my bits.  (Phil's are quite good, but he does insist upon letting actual knowledge and erudition interfere with the flow of manic blithering... which is not a problem I have, let me tell you.) 

This time you can download all the episodes at once, which is a better way of doing it (I think).  Just click here, my poor innocent trusting fools.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Reviewing Doctor Who Episodes Without Having Watched Them: 'Robots of Sherwood'

I saw 'Deep Breath' and 'Into the Dalek'.  Then I stopped watching Series 8.  Welcome to the first in a new series of posts in which I will be revewing the rest of Series 8 without having watched it.

Mark Gatiss, that arch-trickster of modern Doctor Who, has done it again.  In 'Robots of Sherwood' he has managed to dupe everyone into thinking he is doing nothing more than simply paying homage to the classic series, while actually flying something far more profound under the fan radar.  Yes, he has armies of robotic Merry Men stalking around Sherwood Forest, their eyes glowing red, holding out their hands and saying "Kill the humans" in calm voices, but that's where the similarities to 'Robots of Death' end.  For a start, these robotic outlaws are the good guys, cleansing the greenwood of the forces of law and order.

The triumvirate of villains in this episode - the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir Guy de Gisbourne and King John - represent the power of the Norman state, and Robin Hood is a symbol of Saxon resistance.  It's fitting that they should use a CGI Patrick Troughton to play Robin, since the Second Doctor was always the most anarchic and rebellious, and there's always been something of Robin in the character of the Doctor.  The CGI is a bit wobbly here and there, but generally it more than adequately captures the nuances of Troughton's acting style.

The extended use of quotations from Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov, Labriola, Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Radek, Victor Serge, Rosa Luxemburg, Gramsci, Lukacs, Herbert Marcuse, Christopher Caudwell, Bakunin, Proudhon, Kropotkin, Maxim Gorky, Adorno, Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin and Brecht liven up the episode no end.  It's quite remarkable that the BBC should choose to devote such a long stretch of an episode of their flagship family entertainment show to a scene in which various characters learnedly debate revolutionary theory.  But the brave decision pays dividends.  I particularly enjoyed Jenna Coleman's readings from Minima Moralia.

Jenna is the star of the show here, especially in the scene where she verbally disembowls the Sheriff when he quotes from various sociobiologists, most notably E. O. Wilson.

However, at the end of the day, Gatiss is playing yet another trick on us - albeit a fascinating one - when he launches his extended mediatations on the hermeneutics of revolutionary theory and the radical Enlightenment.  What he's really up to is a critique of the whole concept of metafiction.  By having his characters display a lumpenly obvious and clunky self-awareness of their own historico-mythic quasi-fictionality, he tackles head on the banality of the pop-postmodern obsession with texts which are reflexively self-referential.  (There's also, I believe, an encoded critique of Steven Moffat here... I know he and Gatiss don't get on.)  This ties in with the way in which the functional adequacy of the CGI Troughton implicitly lays bare the limitations of the original actor.

Gatiss' ultimate project for Doctor Who becomes clear in the powerful mix that he creates for 'Robots of Sherwood': a subversive political radicalism joined to a total rejection of the strategy of the self-involved and the self-referential. 

In this respect, the golden arrow thudding into the chest of the gigantic steampunk Friar Tuck (Colin Baker) is a stroke of brilliance.  We know what we're meant to take from this.  Cybermen, 'The Time Warrior' and the Sixth Doctor are invoked, only to be shot down.  Doctor Who's legacy is raided from the rich and given to the poor.  Bravo.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

No Question

I wrote this for somebody as a favour, to fill some space.  I thought I might as well post it here.  It isn't really a Shabgraff piece, but it exists.

William Shakespeare wrote the plays of William Shakespeare.  It wasn’t the Earl of Oxford, or Francis Bacon, or Christopher Marlowe, or any of the other candidates sometimes suggested.  But how can we be so sure?

We have the accounts of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.  His rivals, detractors, friends and colleagues had no doubt.  Ben Jonson wrote in his published diaries about his criticisms of the plays - right alongside his love and admiration for his friend Shakespeare, their author.  Nobody questioned Shakespeare’s authorship of his own work for centuries.  It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that a brilliant but eccentric woman called Delia Bacon wrote a book in which she heavily hinted that the true author was Sir Francis Bacon.  She convinced a few people – including Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud (who never believed anything silly, of course).  The early-to-mid 19th century was an age still influenced by the Romantics, who had invented the idea of the Artist as a lone creator, driven by the spirit, scribbling away in a garret, listening to the Muse whispering in his ear and writing for the sake of Art itself.  William Shakespeare – a professional actor, jobbing hack, and sharer in the going concern that was the Globe Theatre – didn’t fit this Romantic ideal.  Delia Bacon preferred her more upper-class, better-educated, self-consciously intellectual namesake.  Trouble is, aside from the total lack of any evidence at all connecting Bacon to any of the plays or poems, we also know Sir Francis Bacon’s writing style, his range, his concerns, and his opinions.  They don’t fit the plays.  At all.  The same is true of the current most-favoured candidate, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, the shy bard depicted in the recent (and very silly) movie Anonymous.  We have extant examples of de Vere’s poetry.  It’s not terrible, but it doesn’t compare to the style and quality of even Shakespeare’s earliest and worst sonnets.  The Earl also wrote a few comedy plays.  None of them survive, but they are mentioned by a contemporary critic, Francis Meres.  Meres also mentions Shakespeare.  The context makes it perfectly clear that Meres thinks of them as different people.  (This also rubbishes the notion that deVere would be precluded from writing plays by his social position – the excuse often used to explain the Earl’s theorised decision to use an actor as a front man.)

It’s often said by ‘Anti-Statfordians’ that Shakespeare lacked the education he would have needed to write the plays.  But Shakespeare, as the son of a local alderman, would have been entitled to attend Stratford’s King Edward VI grammar school.  Shakespeare’s plays are recognisably the work of someone with an Elizabethan grammar school education – a grounding that would look more like a Classics degree from Oxbridge today.  Anti-Stratfordians often point out that, unlike other playwrights (Christopher Marlow, for instance) Shakespeare didn’t attend University.  But neither did Ben Jonson, the most ostentatiously learned playwright of Shakespeare’s time.  Anti-Stratfordians are fond of saying Shakespeare owned no books.  What they mean is that we have no record of his library.  But we have no record of the contents of his wardrobe either.  Does that mean he owned no shoes?

Shakespeare’s plays are stuffed with idiomatic Warrickshire words, spellings, local names and local knowledge.  Shakespeare puts in jokes which refer to his father’s profession and status – glove-maker and alderman – and conducts elaborate wordplay on his own name: ‘Will’.  It’s difficult to imagine how or why Francis Bacon or Edward deVere, Earl of Oxford, would do any of that… unless they were covering themselves with pathological consistency.  Meanwhile, the wackier fringes of Anti-Stratfordianism have ransacked Shakespeare looking for secret codes that reveal the names of the true authors, and never found anything that can’t be explained better as coincidence and/or wishful thinking.

Quite apart from anything else, about twelve of the plays Shakespeare authored or co-authored were definitely written after Oxford was in his grave.  Amazingly, Anti-Stratfordians don’t let this stop them.  They ignore the scholarship which dates the plays, or they claim byzantine conspiracies in which accomplices secretly added topical references to plays which Oxford left for posthumous performance.  For some reason.  And all without a shred of evidence.  Even more extreme are the manoeuvres gone through to prove Marlowe wrote the plays.  Marlowe was killed in 1593, before thirty-four of Shakespeare’s plays were written.  The death of Marlowe is certainly mysterious, and may have been an assassination linked to his near-certain role as a part-time spy, but there’s no evidence that he faked his own death.  And again, we can analyze the differences between Marlowe’s work and Shakespeare’s.  Marlowe is the only candidate talented enough to be remotely plausible, but his style is still quite distinct.  Shakespeare was influenced by Marlowe, and borrowed from him.  That’s sufficient explanation of their occasional similarities – which we notice all the more because of their many differences.

Anti-Stratfordians say that mainstream academics and scholars don’t want to admit the truth because it would spoil their lucrative Shakespeare industry… but Anti-Stratfordianism itself is a lucrative industry!  However, the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare seems to owe more to snobbery than profit.  The son of a glover is not good enough to satisfy some people.  (By the way: Jonson was the son of a bricklayer, yet, as far as I know, nobody claims he didn’t write his own plays.)  Some people simply find it hard to believe that some of the greatest works in the English language were written by a lower middle-class nobody from the rural midlands whose father was a tradesman, who never went to university, and who also seems to have liked money and been something of a social climber.  People want Shakespeare to be a tortured visionary, or a suffering artist, or a glamorous aristocrat, or a questing intellectual, or some combination of all these.  But the bankruptcy of this becomes apparent when you consider that Bacon was involved in witch trials which included torture, and Oxford was a murderer who got away with it because his victim was a mere servant.  It’s odd that such men should be considered preferable to a man who, at worst, lacked a diploma, had a bit of a brummie accent, avoided taxes where possible, and could have been nicer to his wife.  But that’s who wrote the plays.  The factual record admits of no other reasonable conclusion.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the evidence for Shakespeare, or the inanities of the Anti-Stratfordians.  For further reading: The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate, Contested Will by James Shapiro, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, and The Shakespeare Authorship Page.

ADDITIONAL 14/04/15: See also Shakespeare, In Fact by the late Irvin Leigh Matus.  This book takes the trouble to engage with actual Anti-Strat arguments and check their facts... and shows, in the process, that they're not just factually wrong but actively distort their sources.  Indispensible if you care about this issue and enjoy (as I do) the guilty pleasure of reading Anti-Strats being debunked.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Shabcast 2

Yes, Shabcast 2 is here.  This month, you get the first part of my immensely long (and ongoing) discussion with the wonderful Josh Marsfelder, writer of the Star Trek blog that makes all other Star Trek blogs look like nothing more than Star Trek blogs, Vaka Rangi.

There will be more of the discussion up next month in Shabcast 3.

Meanwhile, Shabcast 1 - with me and Phil Sandifer - is still available here.

And, once again, thanks to the lovely lads at the Pex Lives Podcast for providing me with the bandwidth to make this project possible.  Pex Lives' latest edition is just out, and is about 'The Trial of a Time Lord', and is very funny and opinionated (I think they're a bit hard on Colin Baker to be honest, and far too kind to The Verve).  Download or listen here.

Monday, 9 March 2015

The Goodies

Ah, thank heavens for NATO, those white guardians of light and order.  And boo hiss to those nasty old Russians.  It's a good job 'we' don't behave like 'them'.  NATO is proof of 'our' sanity (in both senses: rationality and cleanliness), isn't it?

Human Rights Watch has conducted a thorough investigation of civilian deaths as a result of NATO action. On the basis of this investigation, Human Rights Watch has found that there were ninety separate incidents involving civilian deaths during the seventy-eight day bombing campaign. Some 500 Yugoslav civilians are known to have died in these incidents.
We determined the intended target in sixty-two of the ninety incidents. Military installations account for the greatest number, but nine incidents were a result of attacks on non-military targets that Human Rights Watch believes were illegitimate. (Human Rights Watch is currently preparing a separate report with a full analysis of our legal objections to the choice of certain targets.) These include the headquarters of Serb Radio and Television in Belgrade, the New Belgrade heating plant, and seven bridges that were neither on major transportation routes nor had other military functions.
Thirty-three incidents occurred as a result of attacks on targets in densely populated urban areas (including six in Belgrade). Despite the exclusive use of precision-guided weapons in attacks on the capital, Belgrade experienced as many incidents involving civilian deaths as any other city. In Nis, the use of cluster bombs was a decisive factor in civilian deaths in at least three incidents. Overall, cluster bomb use by the United States and Britain can be confirmed in seven incidents throughout Yugoslavia (another five are possible but unconfirmed); some ninety to 150 civilians died from the use of these weapons.
Thirty-two of the ninety incidents occurred in Kosovo, the majority on mobile targets or military forces in the field. Attacks in Kosovo overall were more deadly-a third of the incidents account for more than half of the deaths. Seven troubling incidents were as a result of attacks on convoys or transportation links. Because pilots' ability to properly identify these mobile targets was so important to avoid civilian casualties, these civilian deaths raise the question whether the fact that pilots were flying at high altitudes may have contributed to these civilian deaths by precluding proper target identification. But insufficient evidence exists to answer that question conclusively at this point.

From the Human Rights Watch report 'Civilian Deaths in the NATO Air Campaign', 2000.

“I just need an answer from NATO: Why did you destroy my home and kill my family?”

That quote, attributed to Faiz Fathi Jfara from the town of Bani Walid, appears in a Human Rights Watch report released this week titled “Unacknowledged Deaths.” The report details eight specific incidents where at least 72 Libyan civilians died as the result of NATO’s bombing campaign. A third of the victims were children under the age of 18. HRW researchers found the remnants of a laser-guided missile in the ruins of the Jfara family compound, where five members of the family, including a nine-year-old girl, were killed when bombs fell on Aug. 30. NATO claims it struck a “major command and control node” used by Gaddafi’s forces.

From 'How Many Innocent Civilians Did NATO Kill in Libya' by Ishaan Tharoor in Time, May 16th 2012.

And that's without talking about Afghanistan.