Sunday, 31 August 2014

(Into the) Dalek

Non-British viewers may not be aware that soldiers teaching in schools has a political context. The present government went through a phase of trying to re-train military personnel as school teachers. A large part of the logic behind this was the idea that boys just need tough male rolemodels to look up to. This idea is nonsense; boys don't see male teachers as rolemodels, they hate their guts because they are invariably stricter and meaner than female teachers. There was a former army captain teaching at my school. If pupils got on his wrong side, he would take them outside and shout and scream at them. I liked him, but most of the pupils hated him. Our government even floated the idea of having entire schools run by ex-soldiers. These would be particularly aimed at naughty kids who couldn't be handled by other schools. The idea was absurd. Even if they recruited enough ex-soldiers (leaving aside the potential indirect sex discrimination in recruiting from a source that is predominantly male), it would never have worked. Right-wing people like to imagine that parade ground orders are going to straighten out unruly boys, but the reality is that a lot of kids today would just tell the ex-sergeant to fuck off, if not punch him. And what could the poor veteran do? He can't punch them back or send them to our military prison in Colchester.

But enough about soldiers for the moment.

Like the previous story, there is not much for the kids in this one. This continues the dark and adult tone. Peter Capaldi is showing himself to be a pretty ruthless and grim Dr. Who. I still find myself struggling at times to understand what he is saying. Am I really the only one having this problem?

This story is a typical attempt to do a story that feels like a classic series story, complete with a Famous Monster. It does a better job of this than Cold War or Victory of the Daleks, but on the whole it feels a bit unoriginal and uninspiring. It seems to follow Dalek rather too closely (as did Cold War), though with a strong dose of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. The idea of a good Dalek is nothing new and can be traced back to Evil of the Daleks, a story that was followed up in the 8th Docctor comics. Star Trek fans will also be reminded of a certain story about Borg.

I don't think the Daleks work any more in Doctor Who. We're continually told that they are the most evil creatures in the universe and that they are Dr. Who's worst enemy, but we never quite see this backed up. It's all show and no tell. The visual expectations of television today make it impossible to do the kinds of stories that would really show the evil of the Daleks on a feasible budget.

As Phil Sandifer has said in his review, Dr. Who's question "Am I a good man?" is a bit unearned. At the start of this episode, the viewer has not seen enough of the Capaldi Doctor to form any kind of judgement.

Danny Pink could be an interesting character, but his crying looks really false and unconvincing. Real crying generally does not look nearly that dignified, especially from people going through mental anguish.

I don't very much like the way soldiers are being talked about as a particular kind of human being. Of course, military experience can radically change a person's outlook and behaviour, nevertheless there are some countries where everyone has been a soldier as a result of compulsory military service. We still have a generation alive who went through the horrors of a world war. Warfare has been a universal constant of human existence and a large proportion of the human race has just got on with the business of war and fighting. Soldiers are people like you and me, not some kind of weird alien beings.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Deep Breath

Another season of Moffat-produced Doctor Who and we are back in boredom-land again. Well, not quite. This time we have a new Dr. Who. And what's more, the story is not too bad. Like an elderly couple describing their holiday, I would say Deep Breath is not too bad.

As with every post-regeneration story since Castrovalva, Dr. Who goes through a period of instability and erratic behaviour. This has become a cliche uniting both the classic series and the new series. It's a tiresome one, as Power of the Daleks and Robot established the character of their new Doctors by bringing them straight into the action of the story. Deep Breath is less a story introducing the new Dr. Who and more a story about how Clara comes to accept the change.

So what are we to make of the Capaldi Doctor? Time and the Rani told us little about what the Seventh Doctor would be like and likewise, Deep Breath only partially establishes the characterisation of the Capaldi Doctor. What is most notable is how unsurprising Capaldi's performance and character portrayal was. The new Doctor is everything we expected, still funny, but a little more serious, a bit grumpier and a little bit angsty. No doubt this will be refined and developed as we go through the season. I did struggle at times to hear some of Capaldi's lines clearly. I'm not sure if that was down to his Scottish accent or the typically poor BBC sound quality.

I don't think we really needed comments in the dialogue about the new Dr. Who being Scottish. Previous Doctors never had lines commenting on their Englishness; it was just taken for granted. When we finally get a black Doctor, that will be the way to play it; not to comment on his ethnicity but to just have it accepted by everyone.

One of the things Moffat had promised in interviews was no more flirting between Doctor and companion. There is an attempt to make good on this promise with Dr. Who declaring "I'm not your boyfriend." Yet oddly enough, despite a bit of flirting, there was never all that much sexual tension between the Smith Doctor and Clara. Now that Capaldi has replaced Smith, the sexual tension has actually gone up by 100% and this may makes things rather uncomfortable. Despite being an older man, Capaldi is an actor who is inevitably going to come across as a lot more red-blooded than the rather awkward Matt Smith. He is never going to be a cosy middle-aged eunuch like the Seventh Doctor or a fey and unworldly young man like the Davison Doctor. He has the potential to be as sexy as Tennant. With his being older, suddenly we have a very big problem with Susan, to borrow Phil Sandifer's expression.

I groaned when I heard we would get another story set in the Victorian era. Given the frequency of this setting, it seems there were aliens on every street corner in the late 1800s. This setting brings with it all the tiresome old Cool Victoriana tropes that have been done to death; steampunk, useless cockney coppers, private detectives, gawking passers by, grisly murders as a beggars as a colourful backdrop. Jack Graham on Shabogan Graffiti has some insightful comments on the politics of these tropes. They inevitably serve up a particular ideological reading of history. You might expect a Tory like me to admire the Victorian era, but I doubt that writers like Moffat who deliver all these Cool Victoriana tropes are deliberately setting out to write right-ing propoganda. Yet the presentation of the Victorian era in fiction has clear implications about class, race and sexual politics.

Was there any point to the Dinosaur in this story? It only served to provide a self-congratulatory note of "We did a better job than Invasion of the Dinosaurs." The Dinosaur was horribly sentimentalised by Dr. Who and the other characters. One should not be cruel to animals, but talking about it as though it was a sentient being panders is rather mawkish.

There is a definite darkness of tone to this story. It all feels very adult, with very little, other than the Dinosaur, thrown in for the kids. That can sometimes work, but I'm not sure that Doctor Who as a show can maintain that kind of darkness for long.

No doubt the appearance of Missy at the end will fuel a course of "Is it the Rani/ Romana/ a female Master?" but she will no doubt turn out to be a throwaway character like Kovarian. This is a sure sign that Moffat is up to his old tricks and about to foist on us a season arc that promises mystery but turns out to be hollow.

Shabogan Graffiti: Pyramids of London ('Deep Breath' 1)

Shabogan Graffiti: Pyramids of London ('Deep Breath' 1):

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?) 

 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!"

Jack Graham's politics is pretty far from mine, but I just love the way he puts things. I admire the Victorian era in some ways, but on the whole the Cool Victoriana trope really annoys me.

Gallifrey Exile: Parody Review: The Nerdist on "Deep Breath"

Gallifrey Exile: Parody Review: The Nerdist on "Deep Breath": The Following is a Parody of The Nerdist's review for Deep Breath , the new Doctor Who episode premiering on August 23 on BBC Americ...

Monday, 18 August 2014

The Web of Fear

As it is a Troughton base under siege, featuring a classic monster in England, with Lethbridge-Stewart making an appearance, The Web of Fear represents for some fans the very ideal of what a Doctor Who story should be. For those fans, the rediscovery of this story (with just one episode still missing) must have seemed like a dream come true. I remain unconvinced that this story is in any way a classic or a particularly great story, but it was good to be able to finally view it.

There is always an element of paranoia in base-under siege stories, but The Web of Fear seems to take it to another level. Nobody trusts anybody in this story, apart from the TARDIS crew who trust each other, Professor Travers who trusts the TARDIS crew and Travers and his daughter trust each other. Anybody else could be an agent of the Great Intelligence. For much of the story, it creates a sense of claustrophobia, particularly combined with the underground setting, but at some point, the tension starts to get tedious. This is not helped by the six-part length of the story. It is uncomfortably padded out.

This story is famous, of course, for having the first appearance of the Brigadier, then just a Colonel. It has been pointed out by many that he seems a quite different character to the one we meet in the UNIT stories; though there is a pretty big difference between the portrayal of the Brigadier in Season 7 and the rest of the Pertwee era. For me what was most striking and surprising about the Colonel was his readiness to believe that the Doctor really had a machine that could get his men out of the Underground. This contrasts remarkably with the absurdity of his scepticism in the UNIT stories, most especially in The Three Doctors.

The return of Professor Travers brings with it pseudo-companion Anne Travers. Anne is a likeable and intelligent female character, who is arguably in some ways perhaps a prototype of Liz Shaw. Her relationship with her ageing father is nicely portrayed. According to the novel, Millennial Rites, Anne Travers goes on to succeed Rache Jensen as scientific adviser to the Cabinet and helps to establish UNIT. With the presence in the serial of a pseudo-companion, Jamie and Victoria are left a little bit redundant at times, but in the case of Victoria, that is probably not a bad thing.

It is quite remarkable how similar this story is to Fury of the Deep. Both stories about a mysterious intelligence that takes control of humans and which manifests itself as foam. I very much prefer Fury from the Deep, as parisitic seaweed is more interesting than robotic Yeti.

The monsters in the London Underground are Yeti, they might as well be Cybermen or Ice Warriors. Shooting people with web guns is not a particularly Yeti-ish thing to do. Rather than strange mysterious monsters of the mountains, they are standard sci-fi robot monsters. What we get in this story is the arrival of the worst idea in Doctor Who, the 'Yeti in the loo' theory. This notion holds that a monster is inherently more interesting for being placed in a mundane setting. This is an idea that tends to lead to ludicrous plotting, as well as a lack of atmosphere. A Yeti on a misty mountain is scary; a Yeti in a loo is at risk of seeming rather comical. Unfortunately, the writers of the present series of Doctor Who have been rather too attached to this kind of story. For all it's good points, Web of Fear has to take the blame for this.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Doctor Who and The X-Files

Recently I have been watching The X-Files a lot. Often I tell myself I will watch a Doctor Who DVD, then I end up putting on The X-Files. I actually feel I have a stronger sense of nostalgia for The X-Files. Apart from the 1993 repeats, I never had the experience of watching Doctor Who on television. My experience of that show was mediated through novelisations and video releases. On the other hand, I started wathing The X-Files in its second season in 1995 when I was fourteen, a key period in my life.

A while ago, Phil Sandifer wrote a post on The X-Files in the context of Doctor Who. I'm going to look at this from a slightly different angle.

It is often commented that Doctor Who is about the juxtaposition of the mundane and the fantastic. A junkyard contains a time traveller, a police box is a spaceship, a quarry is an alien planet and monsters are made of bubble wrap and sink plungers.

In a similar way, The X-Files also deals with the fantastic enmeshed with the mundane. This is seen in the genre; the two protagonists are FBI agents who investigate crime, following generally normal police procedure. They follow up leads, interrogate suspects and analyse forensic evidence. The X-Files is as much a crime drama as it is a science fiction show.

The fantastic entering the mundane is obvious in the 'Monster of the week' episodes; the child that is posessed by a demon, the separated identical twins who murder their parents and the perfet neighbour hood in which residents are killed when they put out tastless garden furniture. Domestic horror is nothing new. Yet the same principle of the mundane-fantastic finds its way into the conspiracy-orientated 'Myth Arc' episodes in a much more creative and striking manner.

I find it fascinating how so much of the big conpiracy episodes take place in mundane settings. Terrible government secrets are hidden in drab, functional buildings. Alien autopsies are carried out on trains and alien technology is transported on lorries. The alien and exotic in The X-Files is mediated through bureaucracy.

The X-Files might have better special effects than Doctor Who, but it had similar budget constraints. Hence, while Doctor Who had its quarries, The X-Files had endless scenes in car parks. There is the sense of a childrens' game of make-believe where you have to use your imagination to see the magnificence of the alien myth arc. Like Doctor Who, The X-Files seems to harvest the power of the imagination in glimpsing the fantastic. Just as children can see a quarry and imagine an alien world, the young viewer of The X-Files can imagine nefarious deeds taking place in a car park.

When I was fifteen and a fanatical viewr of The X-Files, I would imagine that every train might be carrying an alien corpse, that every warehouse might conceal a crashed flying saucer and that every government building might contain records of terrible experiments.

Friday, 8 August 2014

The New Doctor

Does anybody else think that hand gesture looks a bit daft? For what conceivable reason would somebody make such a gesture, other than to say "I'm the new Doctor and I'm a bit scary"?

Friday, 11 July 2014

The Blue Angel, by Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad

I have been dreading writing a review of this novel. It's a really sprawling mess of a book.

The Blue Angel gives us a number of sub-plots, without bringing them altogether in a way that actually makes sense. We get a starship crew that are essentially a Star Trek parody, a group of old ladies who get whisked away to another world and are attacked by giant owls and a complex space opera about the various races living in a pocket universe. We also get a strange, dream-like sub-plot about the Doctor living in a Georgina house with Fitz and Conpassion and going for tea with a friend called Sally. It's never explained how this subplot relates to the rest of the book. In the centre of it all, we get Paul Magrs best known creation, Iris Wildthyme. Furthermore, the novel has no resolution. At the book's climax, Iris whisks the Doctor away before he can bring the story to the sort of conclusion that we would expect in a Doctor Who novel. This is a really clever idea, but it does leave one feeling a bit unbsatisfied. However much we might admire literary experimentation, one does tend to like some kind of resolution at the end of a novel as a reward for reading, even if it is a Virgin novel ending, with nearly everybody dead and Ace and Bennie absolutely furious with the Doctor.

Magrs and Hoad decentralize the Doctor from the narrative. He runs around trying to solver every problem that arises, but ends up looking useless and incompetent. Phil Sandifer suggested a while ago that in this, Magrs and Hoad were reacting to the Virgin books and the 'Time's Champion' idea. However, the Virgin books occasionally pulled off this trick, with the Doctor's plans frequently falling apart. The Blue Angel is basically an Iris Wildthyme novel with the Doctor making an appearance. This incarnation of Iris, resembling Jane Fonda's Barbarella, is undoubtedly the strongest version of the character. This Iris is not a dithering old lady, but a powerful and dangerous figure.

The Blue Angel is of course the second appearance of Copassion, after her debut in Interference. I like Compassion, but I don't think Magrs and Hoad handle her all that well. She is harsh and cold, which sets her apart from other companions, but in this novel her coldness ends up coming across as annoying. Fans have often compared Compassion to Seven-of-Nine in Star Trek: Voyager, yet that program utilised the ex-Borg very well. For all Seven's coldness, the viewer was able to like her and warm to her. Magrs and Hoad do nothing to make us warm to Compassion and everything to make us resent her presence. That the novel fails to follow the lead of Voyager is ironic, given the Star Trek parody going on here.

There is plenty of humour here, but it is not the kind of laugh-out-loud humour that Magrs achieves in Mad Dogs and Englishmen. I didn't find the Star Trek parody all that funny; Bang-Bang-a-Boom does a better job of that. I did like the attept at world-building, with all the various distinctive alien races. It is just unforunate that with all the various sub-plots and ideas in this book, nothing really gets enough attention. I'm afraid to say that on the whole, I found this novel rather disappointing.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

In Answer to Moffat's Question

In the most recent issue of Doctor Who magazine, Steven Moffat asked:

“Here’s a question I tried on some Doctor Who fans recently, and we were all a bit startled by the answer, when it finally emerged – if we got it right. Okay; keeping in mind that everything you know for sure is probably wrong, answer me this: in which story is it confirmed, definitively, that the Doctor is not human?

“Now before you jump up and yell An Unearthly Child – sorry, but wrong. He makes it clear he’s not from this time, and seems to indicate that he was born on another world, but he never says he’s an alien. He could, just as easily, be a human being from the far future, born on some colonised world. Indeed, most of his conversation in the early days would seem to confirm that he thinks of himself as human, and he even explicitly states that he is, at least once.

“So come on then. To your DVD collection. In what story do the wise men and women of the BBC stop fudging the issue, and make our hero Not One Of Us. I’m not talking about him having remarkable abilities or attributes – we’ve always known he’s not ordinary, that s fair enough. Spider-Man’s not ordinary, but he s not an alien. And I’m not talking about series bibles, or internal memos or retconned continuity – when did the Doctor Who production team stop hedging their bets and make him alien?"

We might well wonder or speculate about his motivation for asking such a question, nevertheless, I shall offer a straight answer.

The first time the Doctor is definitely identified as non-human is in The Dalek's Master Plan. Mavic Chen discusses the Daleks' opponent:

CELATION: Having had your contribution to this great weapon stolen, it must be a relief to you now that the Daleks have managed to recover it.
CHEN: Without my help, it is unlikely that they'd have got it back.
TRANTIS: At least that absurd story that it was my people from Trantis who stole the taranium has been discredited.
CELATION: Yes. They were from Earth, I believe.
CHEN: Only two of them and they are under the influence of some creature from another galaxy.
TRANTIS: He looked like an Earth creature.
CHEN: That's only a disguise. The Daleks know of him. He is some kind of time and space traveller.
CELATION: Then he is nothing to do with me. We have not yet conquered the dimension of time.
CHEN: I hear your experiments in that field are progressing, Trantis.
TRANTIS: We have not yet succeeded. Only the Daleks know how to break the time barrier.
CELATION: And this other creature, from wherever he comes.

Here the Doctor is described as a 'creature from another galaxy' who only appears to be human. The notion that the Doctor's human appearance is only a disguise is a fascinating one. What does he really look like? A walking jellyfish? A purple spider? It's rather unfortunate that later stories have not followed this idea. The only exception would be the novel Sky Pirates!, in which the Doctor transforms into his 'Other other self,' a sort of cosmic god-being.