Monday, September 08, 2014

What Has Gone Before

Many people think that "political correctness" means "politeness" or "inclusive language" or "avoiding words that hurt people's feelings". It follows that "political correctness gone mad" means "taking that to a crazy extreme, objecting to language that no one has ever objected to"; but that people who complain about "political correctness gone mad" are often rude people who think they should be able to say bad words if they fucking well want to. If Mrs Whitehouse came back to earth and tried to stop the television saying bum and bloody and ding-a-a-ling, the news people would almost certainly accuse her of being politically correct. And also mad, which she very probably was.

However, "political correctness" is also in use to describe a conspiracy theory in which the world is secretly run by a Marxist cabal based in Frankfurt. "Political Correctness" -- and 20th century literary theory, and human rights legislation, and health and safety at work rules, and, very especially and, the idea of man made climate change -- were created by this Marxist clique in order to destroy civilization. What they have in common is that they rationalize unreasonable behavior, and make people do obviously bad things in the name of the greater good. It is obvious that Christian civilization is based upon citizens having cars, refrigerators, and central heating, and air conditioning, so the Marxists have invented the fiction of "global warming" -- which no reasonable person could believe in, and for which there is not a shred of scientific evidence -- in order to make people feel bad about owning these things. PC is an overarching term for the whole plot: believers very often say that it is Political Correctness that says that children have to wear crash helmets to play conkers, or that there is a modern Politically Correct notion that we should reduce carbon emissions. (*)

Obviously, not everyone who has ever used the word "Political Correctness" believes in the conspiracy theory. (I myself have occasionally said things like "some of the older children's books are not very PC"). But believers in the conspiracy theory talk a lot about Political Correctness. And lots of people do believe in the conspiracy. The Daily Mail went so far as to run a headline "How the BBC fell victim to a Marxist plot to destroy civilization". I took this as rather strong evidence that the Daily Mail believed that there was a Marxist plot to destroy western civilization and that the BBC had fallen victim to it, although some people thought that I was reading a bit too much into it.

So. It is possible that when people say that something called "Political Correctness" ("the evil doctrine of Political Correctness" according to Norman Tebbit) was to blame for the Rotheram child abuse scandal, they are talking about "Political Correctness" in the sense of "not saying stuff that hurts other people's feelings, being careful about what words you use". I suppose that what they have in mind is that "you have to be so careful about what language you use about race that it's really hard to talk about race at all; so when there actually is a racial component in some specific crime; it's easier not to talk about it at all and if you can't talk about it, well, obviously, you don't see it."

It is also very possible that Flying Rodent (**) is correct and that after a shocking cock up where serious child abuse was taking place under the police's noses, someone, by way of a damage limitation exercise, said "I know! If we pretend that we can't do anything about dark skinned people molesting little kids because Political Correctness Gone Mad, the papers will swallow it because they love that kind of thing." I can just about believe that PC Copper honestly thought that dark skinned people were free to molest kids if they really wanted to because it was part of their culture and Political Correctness meant that the law couldn't touch them. I don't believe that the entire police hierarchy believed that. (It's also hard to believe that any officer would independently come up with the idea  think that "you have to let them rape kids" followed naturally from "you aren't allowed to call them Pakis" unless he had already been told that "Political Correctness" and "Human Rights" were basically the same thing.)

But I think that it is also very likely that when people say that the child abuse scandal was the result of "Political Correctness" they mean that a shadowy group of Marxists was secretly controlling the police, and forcing them to act against "Common Sense" as part of an active plot to bring down Civilization and replace it with a communist superstate. Tebbit definitely thinks that there was a plot to establish an enclave in England that functioned under Pakistani law, as if that followed on naturally from "please use inclusive language".

It seems to me that a lot of these claims -- that Isis or Rotheram or the Girl Guide Oath are "caused" by Political Correctness -- read like nonsense if "Political Correctness" means "the belief that it is nicer to say 'black person' rather than 'n----r'". But they make a kind of sense if you believe that Political Correctness and Common Sense are two dueling ideologies, the one committed to destroying "civilization" and the the other committed to preserving it.

But maybe they are simply nonsense.



(*) I grant that Political Correctness could in those contexts mean simply "Prevailing Orthodoxy."

(**) http://flyingrodent.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/chicken.html Note that the New York Times essay that Mr Rodent links to is rather more nuanced than he give it credit for

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Fluffy Bunnies

The Rabbits of Watership Down are rabbits. They are as rabbitty as Richard Adams can make them. Everything they do is based on real rabbit behavior. However, Mr Adams asks us to imagine -- well, not imagine, but take for granted as a scholarly fact -- that these rabbits have human intelligence, culture, language, even religion. Well no, not these rabbits -- rabbits in general, and foxes, and sea gulls. How this works we can’t question for a moment. (Could a leoporine mouth even form the syllables El-ahrairah? Is a rabbit brain big enough to develop that kind of consciousness?) It’s funny, actually, how easily our mind accepts this kind of thing. It gets you into philosophical hot water if you aren’t incredibly careful. If a rabbit or a hamster had human consciousness, then obviously vivesection would be wrong. But they don't, so it's not a good argument. I think Richard Adams develops this fallacy at some length in his later books.

Peter Rabbit is also a rabbit, possibly with a fly upon his nose. And the anthropomorphicisation has gone a lot further than it has in Watership Down. He wears clothes. His daddy smokes a pipe, forsooth. But he also lives in a hole, and steals cabbages from a farmer's garden, and if I remember correctly there is an implication that the farmer has sometimes made his relatives into pies. If Watership Down asks us to imagine a world in which rabbits have human minds, the Peter Rabbit books asks us to imagine a world in which, instead of Rabbits, there are tiny, Rabbit shaped people.

Again, we don’t have any trouble getting our heads around this weird-ass parallel universe. We don’t say for goodness sake they have culture and language and you are going to put them in a pie what kind of weirdo are you? We just take it for granted that that's a normal way of writing about rabbits.

The Hare in Aesops Fable is even less animal like than either Hazel and Fiver or Peter Rabbit.  It's not really even an animal at all. I mean, we take it for granted that tortoises and hares can communicate, and place bets, and that owls can adjudicate races, and all the birds and beasts can come and cheer them on their way. But I suppose he's not really a hare because the Hare and the Tortoise isn't really a story. It's just a thought experiment or a proverb, with the Hare meaning “fast thing” and the tortoise meaning “slow thing.”. You could do it just as well with a motorbike and a Virgin train.  

Now, the only rabbity thing about Bugs Bunny is his carrot, and that carrot is pretty much only there to be a place holder for a cigar so Bugs can be a sort of cartoon version of  Groucho Marx. He isn’t even really rabbit shaped, any more than one of those child's drawings of a cat looks anything like a cat. But we still sort of accept that he's a bunny because that's what rabbits look like in cartoons. In the days when Walt Disney still made cartoons, kids used to ask “What Kind of An Animal Is Goofy?” The answer is, well, he isn’t really any kind of animal, and it wouldn’t make any difference if he was. (I suppose he's a country bumpkin?) I think there used to be a rabbit in the Disney Mythos, but it was retconned out during the Crisis. There is a famous example of false memory syndrome in which subjects are persuaded to believe that they met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, even though Bugs Bunny isn’t owned by Disney, or wasn’t then. But cartoons are probably a different kind of thing to prose narratives and fables and anyway, I have run out of rabbits.

Bears. Paddington Bear. Except that again, he really isn't. He wears clothes, talks English and although he causes chaos wherever he goes, its the sort of chaos that a very naughty child would cause, not the sort of chaos that would occur if a large South American carnivore got loose on and English Railway station. The only bear like thing about him is that he likes marmalade, which comes in jars, and is spread on toast, like honey, which is proverbially likes by bears, at least since Pooh.

Does anyone but me remember Mary Plain? She was a sort of proto-Paddington, a two legged bear who could talk English living in a suburban home. She did mostly did human things -- entered fancy dress competitions, joined the boy scouts, and, after the series had jumped the entirely non anthropomorphic shark, solved a mystery and get shipwrecked on a desert island populated by natives that would, if it were reprinted today, cause the PC Brigade to cancel all leave.

Now Yogi Bear, he's more like Peter Rabbit. I can see in what way he's a bear. He wears clothes and talks and can interact with the human world but he lives on a nature reserve, and steals goodies from visitors picnics. He's a human being -- Yogi Naughty Petty Thief Man -- who stands in the same relationship to the Park Ranger on the one paw and the tourists on the other (in one specific respect) as an actual bear would. (On my one visit to an American national park I was warned to hang any food out of reach of the bears or put it in a metal crate, so evidently it's a thing.) The same goes for Tom and Jerry. They are really only a cat and a mouse in so far as one does the chasing and the other does the running away. 

The least bear like of all is Rupert the Bear (everyone sing his name). He is, basically, not a bear. He isn’t even a teddy bear. He is twelve year old boy with a bear’s head; whose friends are twelve year old children with elephants heads and badgers heads. I don’t recall that he even particularly likes honey. Cartoonist Alfred Bestall said that you couldn't ever send Rupert to the seaside, because putting him in a bathing costume would force you to decide to he was furry all over. 

I never quite understood why clever men like C.S Lewis and A.A Milne and Pink Floyd were quite so keen on WInd in the Willows. I’m not sure I ever got to the end of it. I think Lewis was right about why Mr Toad had to be a toad rather than and English country gentleman, even though he’s obviously an English country gentleman and not a toad. If he was a human, he would have to have servants and employees and we’d have to at least have a hint about where his money came from. As long as he’s an animal, we can sort of skate over that. (Lewis thinks he’s both a child and an adult: a child in that food sort of just turns up and no-one asks where it came from; and adult in that he gets to choose what he wants to do and there’s no-one to tell him off.) And the shape of a toad’s face is a sort of fixed caricature of a certain kind of human. 

I don’t think that there is any reason to suppose that Owls are wise, particularly; I don’t even know if they are cleverer than other birds of prey. But they are always wise in stories because the big eyes look like we imagine a wise human ought to look. So stories about animal-shaped humans lend themselves to a kind of fable where everyone has a more or less fixed personality and it can’t really develop. (A.A Milne said that you only had to look at the toy pig and the toy donkey and the toy tiger to see their personalities -- timid and gloomy and bouncy.)

It is perfectly true that if a child behaved like Paddington Bear, he would get punished or injured or given pills. (If an adult behaved that way, he’d be arrested or put in a home.) This is not to say that you can’t do stories about naughty or accident prone children in a realistic setting, but they either have to get some sort of comeuppance, like Dennis the Menace, or they have to be devious enough to avoid it, like Just William, which introduces an element of cynicism which isn’t funny in quite the same way. But I don’t suppose that Michael Bond said to himself that he wanted to write a story about the kind of child who floods the bathroom the first time he needs a wash, but then thought it wouldn’t be that funny if an actual child did that kind of thing and then thought I know I’ll make him a bear instead. I think he started to tell a story about a bear, and the rest followed naturally. And that's what's so odd. Once we start to tell stories about bears or rabbits it somehow becomes natural that they wear duffle coats and tam o shanters and like honey and marmalade. We can’t look at an animal without anthropomorphising it.

Doesn't the trailer for the Paddington movie look appalling? Like Winnie-the-Pooh reimagined by Peter Jackson.

Anyway, I hope this clears up all the confusion. I was as surprised as anybody to find out that Hello Kitty had a personality. I assumed it was just something you stamped on notepads and teeshirts. But I don't have a problem with the recent bombshell that she's not a cat. Of course it isn’t. Anymore than Bugs Bunny is a Rabbit or Pooh is a bear.

Friday, November 22, 2013

29 Nov 1898 - 22 Nov 1963


Dear Miss Douglas

Thanks for your kind note. Yes autumn is really the best of the seasons: and I'm not sure that old age isn't the best part of life. But of course, like Autumn, it doesn't last.

Yours Sincerely

C.S Lewis

Letter dated "31 Sep 63"







Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Today's Guardian essay about C.S Lewis contained all the usual distortions by all the usual suspects. If anyone but me is still interested in the Historical Lewis, the following may possibly be helpful:

Sam Leith (journalist)
Susan appears to be punished for entering adolescence and develping an interest in lipstick by exclusion from what in the Narnia mythos passes for heaven.

C.S Lewis
"Susan is interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations."
      The Last Battle

*

A.S Byatt
There was a terrifying moment in the Screwtape Letters where the devil is trying to tempt somebody into thinking milk is disgusting because it comes from somewhere in the cow quite close to excrement. I think that was a personal thing of Lewis's I think he didn't like milk because he didn't like females.

C.S Lewis
Then I dreamed that one day there was nothing but milk for them, and the jailer said as he put down the pipkin. "Our relations with the cow are not delicate, as you can easily see if you imagine eating any of her other secretions."

"Thank heaven! Now I know you are talking nonsense."

"What do you mean?" said the jailer, wheeling round upon him.

"You are trying to make us believe that unlike things are like. You are trying to make us think that milk is the same sort of things as sweat or dung."

"And pray, what difference is there except by custom?"

"Are you a liar, or only a fool, that you see no difference between that which nature stores up as food and that which she casts out as refuse...?"
     The Pilgrim's Regress

*

Phillips Pullman
He pours scorn on little girls with fat legs....among Lewis's readers will be some little girls with fat legs who find themselves utterly bewildered by this slur on something they cants help and are embarrassed and upset by already.

C.S Lewis
Then (Miss Pizzle) saw the lion, screamed and fled, and with her fled he class, who were mostly prim, dumpy little girls with fat legs.
     Prince Caspian

*

A.N Wilson
For 33 years he shared his life with the woman he called Minto, Jane Moore. She was the love of his life.

George Sayer
Some of those who have written about C.S Lewis regard his living with Mrs Moore and Maureen as odd, even sinister. This was not the view of those of us who visited the Kilns in the thirties...Like other pupils I thought it completely normal in those days that a woman, probably a widow, would make a home for a young bachelor. We had no difficulty in excepting her, even when we came to realise that she was not his mother.
     C.S Lewis: His Life and Times

*

A.N Wilson
C.S Lewis hated all poets because he was a failed poet. He hated TS Eliot. He hated Louis MacNiece. There's a very bad 'poem' by Lewis about reading The Love Song of J ALfred Prufrock and it just shows how stupid he was about modern poetry.

C.S Lewis
I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I've stared my level best
To see if evening - any evening - would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn't able.
     A Confession

This 1929 satire is not Lewis's last word on modernism, as Wilson very well knows: 

C.S Lewis
To read the old poetry involved learning a slightly different language; to read the new involves the unmaking of your mind, the abandonment of all the logical and narrative connections which you use in reading prose or in conversation. You must achieve a trance-like condition in which images, associations, and sounds operate without these. Thus the common ground between poetry and any other use of words is reduced almost to zero. In that way poetry is now more quintessentially poetical than ever before; 'purer' in the negative sense. It not only does (like all good poetry) what prose can't do: it deliberately refrains from doing anything that prose can do.
     An Experiment in Criticism

Modern poetry is such that the cognoscenti who explicate it can read the same piece in utterly different ways. We can no longer assume all but one of these readings, or else all, to be 'wrong'. The poem, clearly, is like a score and the readings like performances. Different renderings are admissible. The question is not which is the 'right' one but which is the best. The explicators are more like conductors of an orchestra than members of an audience.
     Ibid.

In music we have pieces which demand more talent in the performer than in the composer. Why should there not come a period when the art of writing poetry stands lower than the art of reading it? Of course rival readings would then cease to be "right" or "wrong" and become more and less brilliant "performances".
     De Descriptione Temporum

I do not see in any of these the slightest parallel to the state of affairs disclosed by a recent symposium on Mr. Eliot's Cooking Egg. Here we find seven adults (two of them Cambridge men) whose lives have been specially devoted to the study of poetry discussing a very short poem which has been before the world for thirty-odd years; and there is not the slightest agreement among them as to what, in any sense of the word, it means. I am not in the least concerned to decide whether this state of affairs is a good thing, or a bad thing. I merely assert that it is a new thing.
    Ibid




if this sort of thing interests you then you could always buy my book on C.S Lewis, J.R.R Tolkien and related subjects....



Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Pink Yeti

I would not care to read that book again.
It so exactly mingled with the mood
Of those impressionable years that now
I might be disillusioned.
         John Betjeman



I remember when Tomb of the Cybermen was lost. 

I also remember when Tomb of the Cybermen was found. 

I remember being surprised — disappointed, even — that it was released on VHS almost immediately it was rediscovered. Knowing it existed was one thing. Actually watching it was a step too far. Watching it on my little TV, sitting on my threadbare sofa, drinking instant coffee from my chipped Winnie-the-Pooh mug, aware that at any moment one of my flat mates might walk in on me was almost — I don’t know — a desecration. 

Ordinary people can now watch Tomb of the Cybermen. 

People who have not been through the purgatory of thinking that they will never see the greatest Doctor Who story of all can watch Tomb of the Cybermen. People for whom Tomb of the Cybermen is just a very old black and white television programme. 

I remember seeing a batch of old Doctor Who episodes at the National Film Theater in London. Someone wrote a letter to one of the fanzines, said the compère (Jeremy Bentham or someone of that sort) saying that it was all very nice for the BBC to have recovered parts 5 and 10 of the Daleks Master Plan but that wasn’t much use if we were never going to get to see them. Aha, he said, but tonight you are going to see them. 

And see them we did, with proper awe, up there on the big screen. I remember feeling sort of elated and sort of scared and sort of surprised that characters who I had read about for almost the whole of my conscious existence — Mavic Chen and the Meddling Monk — were there. On the screen. Characters played by actors. In what could only be described as an episode of Doctor Who. 

The problem was not that these stories were lost. It was more tantalizing than that. They existed, in a box in TV Center, but we would never get to see them because the actors union (not unreasonably, according to its lights, by the standards of the time, not knowing then what we know now) thought that endless repeats of ancient TV would put real-life actors out of work, and because the BBC (not unreasonably, according to its lights) didn’t think anyone was that interested in old black and white television anyway. (Everyone agrees that television was better in the olden days, and everyone wishes they would bring back Fanny Craddock and the Dennis Potter’s Wheel but everyone hates repeats.)  So between about 1963 and about 1981, characters like “Susan” and “Jamie” and “Zoe” and monsters like the Cybermen and the Yeti existed only in the collective memory and the collective imagination of fandom. Old fans remembered. Young fans fed off the memories of old fans. That was the natural order of things.

I wasn’t a great reader of the Target novels but I was a great devourer of Doctor Who Appreciation Society literature — Story Information Files (STINFOs), typed synopses of old stories you could buy for the cost of the photocopying. (Photocopying is a constant, like the speed of light. Wherever you are in the world, and whenever you lived, it is always exactly 5p a sheet.) I can remember sitting with a calculator trying to work out what it would cost to get the whole lot. Those early reference documents did not always tell you a great deal about the tone or genre of an episode: it was important that the Doctor had visited the Trojan War and that he had been present at the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, but not that the former story was very much a spoof and the latter story was a pretty serious and rather un-Who-like drama. “Sara Kingdom” and “Brett Vyon” and "The Monk" were the intersection of several sets of bullet points; the only companion ever to be killed; the person played by the Brigadier before he became the Brigadier; the first Time Lord apart from the Doctor ever to appear in the programme. 

It’s a bit like hearing that the physical remains of Richard Plantagenet might (or might not) have been dug up in a car-park. A collection of dates and principle events, yes; a set of lines made up by Shakespeare, obviously; but a bloke? With a skeleton? Not so much. As Protestants, we are supposed to think of the veneration of holy relics as graven images and taking other gods before God, or at the very least, something over-excitable Italians do and sensible Anglicans do not. Not that Richard the Third was a saint. I feel the same way about the photos of the dead Lenin and the dead Jesse James, embalmed and frozen. You mean they used to be people? 

Alas, poor Yorick. 

I remember Longleat, and the big excitement about Longleat was that there would be Old Episodes. In fact, when Longleat was first announced, it was said that they would be showing all the extant episodes, one after the other, for the whole of the weekend. Which made some of us think — is it going to be possible to attach ourselves to a viewing tent for 72 hours and just never leave? All of Doctor Who, in one go, finally. I remember about the same time one of those art house cinemas in London announcing that it was going to start with episode 1 of Flash Gordon and then show episode 2 of Flash Gordon and carry on through the night for as long as there was at least one awake person who wanted to see Flash Gordon. I saw all three Star Wars films in one go, twice. It’s what we did before boxed sets.

In the event, they had a set programme of viewings — Dalek Invasion Earth, Terror of the Autons, buggered if I can remember what else, I am sure I must have watched it. I still think that the scene in which Barbara pushes Dortmun through the deserted streets of London in his wheelchair is one of the most dramatic in the canon. But perhaps you had to be in a tent, in a safari park, with John Leeson reading out parish notices on the tannoy, to get the full impact. I think that was only the second Hartnell story I saw. I saw it with an audience, and they let members of the general public into Longleat, people who didn’t know that they were in the presence of something sacred and holy that I had waited all my life to see, and some of them laughed — laughed — when the Doctor threatens to smack Susan’s bottom which is NOT FUNNY, okay? 

I even remember an exhibition at the Science Museum. Not the special effects exhibition in about 1972 which had a TARDIS console and some monsters and badge saying "TARDIS COMMANDER" which I may still have and which is probably worth silly huge money; the exhibition about the history of television, from John Loki-Beer downwards with wall charts and interactive displays about photons. There were replicas of your typical English dining room from each decade from the 1930s to the 1970s, with a television set from each period in the corner, showing clips of typical TV shows from that decade — the Coronation of Muffin the Mule or Jim'll Fixit or whatever.  For the 60s there was a tiny little clip of the first couple of minutes of Episode I of the War Games and we went specially and stood and stared at it in wonder and let it loop over and over the first time Patrick Troughton had ever been a real person unless you count the Three Doctors and that was already a very long time ago. 

And, of course, above all, I remember Unearthly Child, shown at the first Doctor Who convention I ever went to, which was, I think, the second Doctor Who convention there ever was. And — I’ve written about this before — but the moment when Ian opens the door and says “but-it-was-only-a-police-box” and the moment when the TARDIS takes off and the programme itself appears to go completely bonkers for about three minutes is the moment when I became, irrevocably, a Doctor Who fan as opposed to a Tom Baker fan or a person who liked the Wombles, the Tomorrow People, Spider-Man and Doctor Who. 

And then video recorders transitioned from being strange, strange objects, owned by fabulously rich uncles and possibly the science department and became things which nearly everybody had one of. And there was a day when we first heard that someone had bought a copy of their favourite movie (Gone With the Wind, possibly) on what was quaintly called a pre-recorded tape for a fabulous amount of money, and we all said, however much you like the film, what would be the point of owning a copy of it, and gradually, there were shops which sold tapes and shops which rented tapes and you had to remember to rewind them. The first Doctor Who story was The Five Doctors, but then, quite early, they put out the original seven part Dalek story. From a strange, half remembered artefact hidden away in vault, to something which anyone could put on their shelf. 

Did it take the aura away? Did it take the magic away? Of course it did. Of course it did. Should we slightly regret the passing of those days and wonder if it wouldn’t be better is — just picking an example off the top of my head — Web of Fear stayed lost forever? 

There is no doubt that Jeremy Bentham had built up Tomb of the Cybermen to be some sort of transcendent classic; the best thing ever to appear on TV; on a level with Citizen Kane, if not the Ring Cycle. Once you actually see it, you discover that — however good — it is only a Doctor Who story, with silly cliffhangers and baddies who spik mit da zilly accent and men dressed up as monsters who menace pretty ladies in corridors.

Would it have been better to have seen that clip of the Cybermen defrosting and left it at that? Would it have been better to have read the novel; imagined the special effects in our mind; and never found out that at least one of the doors in the cybertomb seems to have been made out of cardboard and cooking foil? (It is not true to that the sets wobble. The sets do not wobble. The sets never wobbled. But cardboard and cooking foil to say nothing of bubble wrap and lava lamps; yes, quite often.) Would it have been better to have just had the factual bullet points to store away in your personal Who Canon: Twenty Third Century, cyber tomb discovered on Telos, cyber leader has new kind of handlebars on his ears? 

The people who I have the most sympathy for are the ones who were born in 1955; who were terrified to death by the One And Only showing of Web Planet when they were twelve and are afraid that seeing it again might spoil it all.

I remember the Tomorrow People. The Tomorrow People was a rather serious, scary TV show; in which older children got into genuinely frightening adventures in a complicated science fictional universe. A few years ago I watched a DVD of the first story. Only the first story. In the intervening years, everything had got smaller. The mature young people, so much older than me, were little kids who read out their lines in a style which made Matthew Waterhouse look like Ralph Richardson; scary alien robots looked as if they came out of Christmas crackers. Everyone had absurd 70s haircuts and jeans; and occasionally earnest discussions about war and peace and English education made you want to crawl under a chair with embarrassment. The title sequence is still superb; but someone had come and coloured it in; and the garish shininess was much less spooky than the atmospheric shades of grey. Something was also lost when the Clangers went from documentary grey to sherbet fountain pink. 

“Spoil” is an interesting word. I know that I was scared and moved by the Tomorrow People when I was eight. But seeing it again may force me to change “The was this scary moving TV show called the Tomorrow People” to “When I was small, even something as ridiculous and amateurish as the Tomorrow People scared and moved me”. I suppose that’s the fear: you thought that Web of Fear had a warm, magical glow; and it will turn out that everything had a warm, magical glow because you were pointing a torch at everything. It is, I suppose, a good argument for only doing everything for the first time. 

Does this happen in other fandoms? Are there people who think that if you were overwhelmed by the Choral Symphony when you were fourteen, you should never listen to the Choral Symphony again? There are certainly people who think that you should only listen to Sgt Pepper on a scratchy, dusty, mono vinyl.

Time changes texts. Wallpaper that you didn’t even notice in 1970 becomes literally the only thing you can see in 2013 — “oh my god did even little old ladies decorate their houses like hippies back then”. Hamlet didn’t sound evocatively grand and olde worlde when Shakespeare wrote it — it sounded daringly contemporary. The meaning of Web of Fear will forever be bound up with its having been shown once and then not seen for nearly fifty years; just as the meaning of Amock Time is bound up with our sense that in the 1970s and 80s, television consisted of nothing but endless bloody Star Trek reruns. 

If you are a little boy, hunched over the STINFO files, regarding the Cybermark Services loose-leaf part-work as holy writ, then there is perhaps no question. Doctor Who episodes, like Doctor Who annuals and TARGET novels, are basically a source of information about the Doctor Who universe. I remember seeing Dead Planet for the first time (also at the N.F.T, I think) in a state of heightened awareness, trying to take in every detail, because I had previously read about Skaro and now I was observing it first hand. The point about seeing the tentacle at the end of episode two or possibly three was not that was a fantastically dramatic cliffhanger — it was that I was getting a hint, maybe my only hint, about what the Daleks creature actually looked like. 

I remember seeing Tomb of the Cybermen for the first time, and the experience was only slightly disappointing, and part of that disappointment was “I will never be able to see it for the first time again.” (This is why some fans want to have parties and conventions and bottle of champagne for Day of the Doctor, so the moment of the 50th Anniversary will always be important in their head; while others are almost inclined to go to a concert on Saturday night and slink back and watch it quietly by myself, not because we don’t think the 50th Anniversary is important but because we do.) I was surprised that the opening scene of the explorers and the space ship and the quarry seemed quite gritty and serious, like proper TV drama, more like Blake's 7 than Doctor Who, and I admit that if Blake's 7 was my touchstone for proper TV drama there was probably not much hope for me. And the big scenes in the Cybertomb did and do pack a punch: there seems to have been a point in Season 6 where the Doctor Who crew had nailed the Great Big Set Piece, whether it was Dalek factories or a million cyberboots tramping over the moon. The defrosting of the cyberpeople felt big in a way that Doctor Who hadn’t felt before and rarely felt again. On the other hand, I sat through episode 1 and 2, the slow exploration of the Tomb, the slow exposition of not very interesting puzzles, and thinking was THIS the context in which all those great clips happened? And I still don’t see what’s so great about Michael Kilgariff as the Cybercontroller, apart from his being tall. In the end, it’s the atmosphere which carries the story: the skull like face of the Cyberleader with the frost still on him; the Cyber-Symbol on the doors. The Old Fans told us that the Cyber-rats were the most terrifying thing ever; but they weren’t. 

One thinks of Mr C.S Lewis’s idea of “plot” being only ever a net in which you try to catch an idea or an atmosphere. There were and have been other stories about scary silver robots with handlebars on their heads; this is the one that seemed to catch the idea of the cybermen.

But what I took away from the story was the scene I didn’t even know was in it: the Doctor comforting Victoria, whose father died in the previous story (killed by “those horrible Dalek creatures), and opening up to her about his own family, in a way that he rarely had to any other companion. So much of it is a character piece — the Doctor being kind to Victoria; the Doctor taking the mickey out of Jamie; and indeed the Doctor’s big scene with Eric Clegg ("Oh, so you are completely mad, I just wanted to make sure”). The Troughton Era, by which we really mean the Troughton/Hines era is about the chemistry between those two actors, on that stage, at that time, recorded for us, to watch us often as we like. In particular, it’s about Patrick Troughton, over a period of three years, figuring out who the Doctor is and setting down the template which his nine successors have pretty much stuck to. And I didn't even know that was there. It isn't the sort of thing which shows up in summaries and bullet points and fan histories of the Cybermen, jolly though they can sometimes be. But it is very nearly the whole of what Old Who (Real Who) was – indeed of what Television was, for half a century. 

Your memory of being scared by the yeti was never real; and even if it was you can’t get it back; the actors acting was and you can. 

So, in short. I’m waiting for the DVD and a remake of the Clangers is the worst idea I’ve ever heard. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

On the Watching of Old Episodes


Thought lost since 2006, this review of a VHS tape of old Hartnell episodes, was discovered in a folder on my hard-drive, along with a letter to the insuance company about my flat in Bollington and some stats for a Pendragon character. It has been painstakingly restored and is republished for free because I am evil and selfish and hate you all.

Fraisier:      Noel, surely you realize that Star Trek is just a TV show.
Noel:          Well, Brideshead Revisited is just a TV show.
Frasier:        You're angry, so I'm going to ignore that.

Doctor Who began in 1963: between, as the fellow said, the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP. When I started watching the programme in the middle-seventies the fans regarded Tom Baker very much as an impostor, and William Hartnell as the real thing. Since, for about twenty years after their first transmission, no Bill Hartnell episodes had been seen by anyone outside of the BBC archives, these old stories took on the aura of the most lost and golden of lost golden ages. When, in 1981, the BBC re-showed the first ever story as part of a retrospective, I took the older fans at their word. 'Unearthly Child' is a superb piece of television; so I naturally assumed that every other black-and-white story must have been just as good.

I suspect that the first-generation fans had convinced themselves of this as well. There are, in fact, two different programmes called Doctor Who: 'Doctor Who One' was a rather serious, magical programme about Time Travel and the wonders of the universe which existed in the collective memory of fans who had grown up with it. 'Doctor Who Two' was the sometimes fun but often silly kids TV show that the BBC had actually transmitted. It consisted, from a very early stage, of quarreling alien races, hopeless companions, and chases along corridors. ('The Space Museum' involves chases along corridors and practically nothing else.) Naturally, our faith in Doctor Who One can't survive the widespread availability of videos of the original TV episodes.

Unfortunately, the BBC has undertaken to make every surviving Doctor Who story available on VHS, prior to deleting the whole line and replacing it with DVD. The three-tape "First Doctor Boxed Set" represents the final batch of black-and-white episodes: 'The Gunfighters', 'The Sensorites' and 'The Time Meddler'. The words "barrel", "bottom" and "scraping" come to mind.

It isn't really fair to watch these stories straight through, in a darkened room, on a large TV screen, and judge them as if they were works of 'art' intended for posterity--any more than it is fair to judge The Beatles Live at the BBC alongside the polished studio albums. They were designed to be watched once and then discarded, after all. This isn't TV drama; it's just the fossilized echo of a Saturday tea-time nearly forty years ago.

The restoration team has done such a good job of cleaning the footage that it took me several minutes to stop gawking at the unnatural sharpness of the video and actually pay attention to the story. Old TV means rough and blurry; this genuinely looked as if it had been filmed yesterday. And this, in the long-run, makes it look much older than it is. One looks at the flairs in the Tomorrow People or the mini-skirts in Star Trek and says 'It's the 60s' or 'It’s the 70s'. As I watched 'The Sensorites', the main thought which intruded into my head was, 'This is set on a strange alien planet where women and teenaged girls wear one-piece knee-length dresses and men keep their jackets on!'

I think that the reputation of these old stories depends on the extent to which they can be made consistent with the 'Doctor Who One' mythology. 'The Sensorites' was reasonably well regarded among fans, because, on paper, it fitted in with the wondrous magical series which they thought they remembered. It has elements of 'gothic horror' (humans trapped by telepathic aliens on a space ship) and elements of 'serious sci-fi' (the aliens have a reasonably well drawn culture, and individual personalities.) The Sensorites themselves looked good in the still photographs, and crop up in the first Doctor Who annual, allowing the story to grow into a lost classic in the collective memory of fandom.

The real thing turns out to be all but un-watch-able. It has a few moments of 'historical' interest, such as when the Doctor and Susan briefly reminisce about their mysterious home planet and the reasons for their wandering--but this is perfunctory. (Not nearly as good as the genuinely tear-jerking moment in 'Tomb of the Cybermen' when Doctor Patrick confides to Victoria about his dead family.) The aliens are tolerably well done. Provided you aren't surprised by the fact that they are not really aliens but actually actors wearing masks then you have to admit that they are rather nice, well made masks, and that the actors try quite hard to put the characterization across. It is quite brave in 1964 to have a substantial supporting cast made up of non-human characters. Star Trek never really tried it.

I was looking forward to the appearance of Peter Glaze, the fat comedian who made a catch phrase of 'Doh!' half a century before Homer Simpson did, but under the masks, I couldn't tell which one he was.

The trouble with the story is that it is boring, boring, boring and boring, with a small dose of patronizing for good measure. It turns on the Doctor losing the key to the TARDIS, and having to become involved in a minor intrigue on an alien planet to get it back. Yeah, so the Sensorites are feuding about whether trade with the human is going to interfere with their traditional way of life or not. Hard to care a great deal. There is a small moment of interest in the final episode when the writer, who has clearly run out of things to happen, in desperation comes up with some insane human castaways. But most of the story is an unbearable exercise in exposition in which plot twists which were not very interesting to begin with are spelled out to the kids in words of one syllable.

There is a plague, which is only affecting the lower caste Sensorites. Our heroes are at tea with one of the nobles. The noble insists they try some of the water from the special spring which only the noble caste uses. Ian makes a big thing out of being thirsty, and takes a swig of the lower-caste water. He comes down with the plague. The Doctor spends half an episode wondering why the only crew-member affected by the plague is Ian. I'm sure even eight-year olds in 1965 were yelling 'It's the bleeding water, you dopey old git' at him.

'The Gunfighters', on the other hand, turns out to be an awful lot of fun. It has been universally reviled by Doctor Who fans because there is no way that it can possibly be made consistent with the idea of Doctor Who One. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, silly. It has jokey titles ('A Holiday for the Doctor') and a non-existent story-line ('The TARDIS arrives at the OK Coral just before the Gunfight. Er…that's it, really.') It is not historical drama. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a time-travel story showing what would happen if some modern people were landed in nineteenth-century America. It's not one of those mythical 'stories-to-get-kids-interested-in-history' that some people persist in believing in. It's not even really a Western. It's nothing more or less that an excuse for a bunch of grown ups to play cowboys and Indians for 98 minutes.

Few of the supporting cast can actually manage American accents, so we have sheriffs and gunslingers who sound cockney and Australian, sometimes simultaneously. Although the sets are good, there aren't enough extras to make the town look populated. It’s a bit of a drawback when trying to make a western to find out that you can only afford one very brief shot with horses in it.

And then there is the matter of That Bloody Song. Someone decided that, if Doctor Who was going to arrive in the Wild West, then there would jolly well be a ballad. There is wonderful bathos when a song at the level of--

So pick him up gentle
And carry him slow
He's gone kind of mental
Under Earp's heavy blow.

--fades into the familiar Ron Grainger theme and the swirly lines, reminding you that, yes, despite all evidence to the contrary, this actually has been Doctor Who you've been watching.

But that said, the story rolls along at an entertaining pace. It may not make much sense, but it is full of stuff. Stephen gets captured by a lynch mob. The Doctor is (inevitably) mistaken for Doc Holiday. He acts as mediator between the Earps and the Clantons. Stephen and Vicki are forced at gunpoint to do a musical act in the Last Chance Saloon. (Cue: 'Next Episode -- Don't Shoot the Pianist.') The Doctor is surprised that Doc Holiday is going to pull his teeth without anesthetic Stephen wanders around a 'real' Wild West town in a cowboy suit such as you could buy in any Fancy Dress hire shop. The Doctor consistently refers to the sheriff as Mr Werp. At the end of the story, the Doctor accuses Vicki of having fallen prey to every wild west movie cliché in the book. He understood what was going on, if no-one else did.

When I first saw a second season Hartnell story, I found it disconcerting that Peter Purves had taken over Ian's role as Grown Up Male TARDIS passenger. Watching stories like 'The Gunfighters', it seems the most natural thing in the world. "This week, I'll be telling you what happened when I visited the last remnants of the human race on board a generation star-ship. But first, here's Val to show you how to make a fluid link out of an old thermometer and some sticky-backed plastic."

Doctor Who never was about Time Travel. With the whole universe of Time and Space to explore, the TARDIS keeps dumping us in English school-book historical settings, where we can meet Famous Historical Characters. Within the first three seasons, we'd seen the Doctor and his companions playing at being Cavemen, Knights, Romans, Greeks, Cowboys, Pirates and travelers with Marco Polo. The heroes spend long enough in these settings to become naturalized: Ian wears a suit of armour and gets knighted by Richard the Lion-heart; Barbara and Vicki dress up in togas. In this respect, the Doctor has a great deal in common with that other archetypal British swashbuckling hero, MrBen. (Mr Ben never witnesses the Bartholomew Day's massacre or an Aztec human sacrifice; and come to that the Doctor never becomes a clown or a cook; but in other respects, the overlap is striking. )

This is why 'The Time Meddler' though it lacks the seriousness of the early stories, might stand for the archetypal Hartnell yarn. The BBC actors look desperately awkward in their Viking costumes; and the fight scenes are an embarrassment; but Peter Butterworth's naughty, interfering but basically harmless Time Traveler is a wonderful opposite number for the pompous First Doctor. He should surely have become a regular fixture in the series. It was always hard to believe that the godlike Time Lords of later mythos had anything whatsoever to do with the Doctors; but the Doctor and the Monk have a schoolboy-ish rapport which makes us instantly believe they are part of the same world. Surely there was a whole universe of Time Traveling tricksters for us to discover? The climax to episode 3, when Stephen and Vicki stumble into the Monk's very own TARDIS, stands as my second favourite of all Doctor Whocliffhangers. (*)

Where 'Gunfighters' at least allows the cast to play at cowboys, the historical setting for 'Time Meddler' has become a complete irrelevance; simply a backdrop in which the Monk can carry out his mischief and the Doctor can stop him. But the historical setting which is being ignored is, of course, the one which more than any other signifies 'History' to generations of British Schoolchildren. The TARDIS seems to choose landing spots, not because they are important, but because they are Memorable. It was inevitable that the TARDIS should eventually take us to 1066; it had arguably never taken us anywhere except 1066 and All That.

The first time we see Susan in 'Unearthly Child', she is reading a book about the French Revolution. The last story of the first season ends with her, her grandfather and her two favourite teachers wandering around a knock-off Scarlet Pimpernel thriller set during, yes, the French Revolution. If the series had ended there (and maybe it should have done) we might have been tempted to think that the whole 'adventure in space and time' was nothing more than a day-dream created by an over-imaginative school girl.

'Susan, listen to me. Can't you see that all this is an illusion? It's a game that you and your grandfather are playing, if you like. But you can't expect us to believe it.'

But very sadly, we started to.

(*) 1: The Dying Dalek's tentacle emerging from the Thal cloak. =3 "I am the servant of Sutek, he needs no other" =3 "So, we play the contest again, Time Lord" 5: "I've made a terrible mistake. I thought I'd locked the enemy out. Instead, I've locked him in."